You’ve pictured orangutans wrapped around your head (or is that just me?), you’ve dreamt of strolling on Malaysia’s palm-fringed beaches, and your mouth waters just thinking of the delicious street food you plan to stuff in your face. You’ve decided to come to Malaysia, and now you want to know the best time to visit. Well, it depends on where you want to go and what you want to experience, so let’s break it all down based on events, weather and weather-dependent activities:
Malaysia likes to party in the streets and there always seems to be something being celebrated here. Many of the festivals are truly fascinating and fun cultural experiences that will leave you mesmerized, so do your research to see which ones you may want to plan your trip around. Here’s a good place to start: 20 Incredible Festivals in Penang.
“When is it coolest in Malaysia?” you ask. Here is my response:
This is a tropical country on the equator, people, so the temperature is just about always hot and humid, except when it’s ultra-hot and incredibly humid. In most places, the daytime temperature seems to average between about 81-95 degrees (26-35 Celcius). When you factor in the ever-present humidity, it can feel much hotter.
The sea temperature is almost always a fabulously-comfortable 86 degrees (30 Celsius), so swimming here is consistently awesome.
The only change in seasons we have here are “wet” and “dry.” These seasons vary dramatically between the east and west sides of peninsular Malaysia, and also in Malaysian Borneo (which is off to the right on the map below):
For example, when it’s flooding in Kuantan, on the other side of the peninsula, it’s bone-dry and sunny in Penang. Here are the seasonal highlights for popular Malaysian destinations to help you figure out the best time to visit:
In my experience, the daytime temperature varies very little in Penang – just a few degrees either direction of about 89F (32C), and the humidity is usually around 75%. So using the heat index to calculate the apparent temperature, it often feels like it’s around 94-102F (34-39C). (There are several websites that claim Penang’s weather averages 81F. People selling sweaters must have written these blatant lies. Don’t believe them!)
There are two monsoon seasons and one dry season. Don’t let the rain scare you. In Penang, it doesn’t rain all day during the monsoons. You usually get a quick downpour and then it clears up and cools off the air a bit.
The dry season, which is also the hottest time of the year, starts around the end of December and extends through March. Then April through September is the first monsoon season, in which it’s common to get one fat thunderstorm per day, which typically last 15-30 minutes and then clears up quickly. The bigger monsoon season hits around October through November, which is when we usually get one storm every evening with a spectacular lightening display and about 30-60 minutes of dramatic tropical rain – think biblical-scale downpours. Sometimes it rains so hard that I call it “upward rain” – it hits the ground with such force that it bounces up and hits you in the face, so even with an umbrella, you’re going to get soaked. But it’s warm rain, so unless you’re made of sugar, it’s no big deal.
“When is the dry season, I think I want to visit you then,” my friends always say. My reply: “Oh, so you want to experience what it’s like for your face to melt off?”
My favorite time of the year in Penang is November, which is when it’s downright un-hot! (I can’t say it’s “cool,” because it is never cold here unless you’re in air-conditioned room. But November is quite pleasant and shockingly un-hot.)
Even at night, there’s no need for anything more than shorts, t-shirts or sundresses. The heat can feel oppressive at first, but don’t worry – you’ll get used to it pretty quickly.
“So should I expect rain or dry weather in February?” Yes! 🙂 The weather is tough to predict in KL.
March through April is often the rainiest times of the year in KL, but global warming is confusing the weather patterns here. May through September is often pretty nice, but every day or two, you’ll get a quick tropical storm that rolls through dumping rain and throwing lightning bolts around. Then October and November you’ll get some evening storms with heavy rains. The weather is a total crap-shoot from December through February, but bet on rain occasionally.
Eastern Peninsular Malaysia
There are two seasons: the dry/hot season, and the rainy season. The rainy season, which usually goes from October through March, does not mess around. December often brings up to 2 feet of rain, which triggers huge floods that shut down roads and bury villages in mud. (We recently got back from a kiteboarding trip to Kuantan where the skies were gray for days on end, which drove us a bit stir-crazy.) The dry/hot season is typically from April through September, and while the average temperature is 87F (31C), sometimes the temperatures reach up to 104F (40C).
There is a stunning array of microclimates throughout Borneo, so the seasons aren’t easily summed up. Very generally speaking, the rainiest time is from December through March, but there’s always a chance of thunderstorms throughout the year.
When NOT to travel to Malaysia
If you enjoy breathing, you’re not going to want to visit when the illegal Indonesian forest fires are burning rampantly, which is usually throughout August, September and October. The fires, which are set by corrupt paper pulp companies and dickish palm oil plantation corporations, typically bury Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand under a thick blanket of smoke during these months. The air is dense and gray with damaging particulate, which is so awful for your health that it shuts schools down on really bad days, and people are urged not to do any outdoor activities. Last year it was particularly brutal – the sky was downright ugly and depressing. So if you like to breathe, I don’t recommend coming when the Indo fires are burning.
Some of your adventures may be weather-dependent, like scuba diving, mountain biking, kitesurfing, or even lounging on the beach like a giant lizard. Did you know that on some Malaysian islands, the hotels and ferry service totally shut down during certain months? Or that the roads to certain locations are often closed for weeks during the wet season due to mud slides? So before you book your flight, it’s key to figure out where you want to go and what you want to do there.
Here’s a quick guide to help get you started:
Scuba diving off Borneo (eastern Malaysia):
Borneo has been named as one of the top three dive sites in the world, and for good reason. Diving at various sites in Sabah, such as Sipadan, Mabul, Lankayan and Layang Layang, divers frequently see swirling tornadoes of colorful tropical fish, giant whale sharks, untouched coral reefs, turtles, manta rays and huge schools of hammerheads. But if you go when it’s raining, you won’t see much of anything and you’ll likely toss your cookies on bumpy boat rides.
While you can dive there year-round, the best visibility is April to early December, with the peak being July and August. The wet season is usually from December to March, which can significantly decrease visibility.
In Layang Layang, the best time to swim with the massive schools of hammerhead sharks is between March to May.
Beach-lounging, snorkeling and diving at Perhentian Islands and Redang (east coast of peninsular Malaysia)
Plan to visit these gorgeous tropical paradise islands anytime between April through October when it’s the sunniest and the winds are calm. High season is July and August, so expect more tourists and higher prices during those months. The monsoon season is usually from November to March, and most resorts are totally closed during this time. There isn’t even a regular fairy service that goes to Redang during the monsoon season.
Kiteboarding in Kuantan and Cherating
The wind and waves are at their strongest from January to March in Kuantan and Cherating. Locals kite there most of the year, but you’ll need a bigger kite or a foilboard for the non-nukin months. (We’ve got a WhatsApp group for Malaysian kiters, so if you’d like to join the group, leave me a comment on this post and I’ll get you added to the group).
Animal-spotting in Sarawak, Borneo
The wildlife of Malaysia is some of the most biodiverse on earth. Orangutans, long-nose proboscis monkeys, gibbons, tigers, hornbills, crocodiles – Borneo has some incredible animals and birds! In Sarawak, many people head to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve to see animals, and you’ll see the most between March-October. Here’s why: between November-February, the forest is ripe with fruit, so the animals are all out foraging deep in the jungle. But during the non-fruit season of March-October, the Nature Reserve supplements the animals’ diets by offering fruit for them at 9am and again at 2-3pm every day, so you’ll see lots of them here taking the free snacks.
Beach lounging and snorkeling on Langkawi
The lovely island of Langkawi, just a quick 35-minute flight from Penang, is beautiful most of the year, with the exception of August through October when it gets smothered under a fleecy pile of smoke from the nasty illegal forest fires in Indonesia. The rainiest season is usually around October and November, but don’t let that scare you – that just means it’ll dump rain for about 30-60 minutes once per day and then clear up.
Mountain biking on Mont Kiara
Right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur is the beautiful little jungle gem of Mont Kiara, which has the best purpose-built single-track mountain bike trails in Malaysia. The mud and roots can be incredibly slick after rains, and riding on muddy trails ruts out the tracks. So the best time to ride here is probably between May-September when rain is less frequent.