Best times to visit Malaysia for tropical adventures

There’s no better time to visit Malaysia, not least because the country is spread across two distinct landmasses that have different local climates. It’s as far from Kuala Lumpur in Peninsular Malaysia to Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo as it is from New York to Miami.

Even over smaller distances, the climate can vary depending on the coast you are on, or even from island to island. It is only 122 km (76 miles) from Langkawi to Penang, but the weather may be different on the same day.

Basically, Malaysia has two climatic seasons: dry and hot, and humid and hot. Don’t let the term ‘dry season’ fool you: Malaysia is wet all year round and there is always a chance of rain. The only place it can get cold is in outback areas such as the Cameron Highlands, where the temperature can fluctuate between 14°C (58°F) and 24°C (76°F).

Eating in outdoor hawker yards is a year-round activity in Kuala Lumpur © Getty Images / iStockphoto

What marks the rainy season are the buckets of monsoon rain, although the bulk of the rainfall tends to arrive in the afternoon. The east side of the peninsula experiences its heaviest rainfall during the northeast monsoon from mid-October to March, while the west coast sees more rain during the southwest monsoon from May to October. Borneo is soaked from November to February.

Tourism never really stops in Malaysia, so there isn’t really a low season. The busiest times of the year tend to coincide with school holidays, which see large numbers of visitors (particularly families) from Europe, the Gulf, and neighboring Asian states.

High season from December to February is the best time to visit the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia

The northeast monsoon floods the east coast of the peninsula from October to March, with the heaviest rainfall from December to February. You will find drier weather on the west coast, which faces the Andaman Sea. It’s a good time to hit the beaches of tropical islands such as Langkawi, or stroll the narrow, shop-lined lanes of George Town in Penang. On the other hand, it is the wettest time of the year in Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo Malaysia.

The downside of good weather in the west is more people and higher hotel rates. On the other hand, several major cultural festivals – including the Chinese New Year and the Hindu festival of Thaipusam – take place in late January or early February. If you drive through Sarawak, hotel rates drop in Kuching, but in the hinterland, good roads become bad and bad roads become mud.

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High season from June to September is the best time to visit Kuala Lumpur and the east coast

The Northern Hemisphere summer months are the driest time of year in Kuala Lumpur, although ‘dry’ is a relative term in this tropical country. You should always expect humidity to be a factor, especially in Malaysian cities, where buildings can block the breeze. The weather is also relatively dry on the east coast of the peninsula and in many parts of Borneo.

This season is a popular time for Gulf States tourism, and there is an increase in visits to dive centers on the drier east coast as underwater visibility improves. In August, the rains begin to return, accumulating towards the northeast monsoon.

Girl of Kadazandusun ethnicity playing gong during Sabah Harvest Festival
Harvest Festival celebrations bring cultural color to Sabah in May © hkhtt hj / Shutterstock

The shoulder season from March to May sees the best weather in (most of) Malaysia

Large parts of Malaysia get a break from the rains (and the worst of the humidity) in the Northern Hemisphere spring from March to May. If you come here for the beaches and the warm but not sultry weather, this is as reliable a window as you will find. It’s no coincidence that it’s also a great time to spot wildlife in Malaysia’s beautiful national parks.

April is a particularly pleasant time to visit Sabah, as drier days sync well with outdoor activities such as diving and hiking to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. But Malaysia’s regional variations come into play; April is one of the wettest months to visit Kuala Lumpur.

Shoulder season from October to November is the best time to visit Melaka and the Cameron Highlands

The rains really intensify on the peninsula from October to November, although they strangely spare the historic port of Melaka. The onset of the northeast monsoon is also a good time to explore the Cameron Highlands, as the hinterland flora comes alive with all the rainfall.

In other parts of the country, it’s time to look for competitive hotel rates (and an umbrella). However, it is a good season to visit if you like malls, museums and other indoor activities; stores will offer sales and major cities will offer plenty of indoor entertainment.

Mountainous landscape and misty valleys in the Cameron Highlands
The Cameron Highlands are one of the only areas in Malaysia where you might get really cold © simonlong / Getty Images

January is the time for spectacular religious celebrations

January is high season in Langkawi and Penang, two of the most popular islands off the west coast of the peninsula. Notable events include Thaipusam, a spectacular Hindu religious procession with ritual piercings and mortifications, and – depending on the year – the start of the Lunar New Year for Malaysia’s Chinese community. But it rains on the east coast and in Borneo (especially in Sarawak).
The key events: Thaipusam, Chinese New Year (may also fall in February), Ponggal

February is a busy time on the West Coast Islands

Some years, the Chinese Lunar New Year hits in February, leading to high demand for transportation and hotels. Beyond that, there isn’t much difference between January and February in Malaysia in terms of weather. Peak season crowds continue in Langkawi and Penang.
The key events: Chinese New Year (may also fall in January), Federal Territory Day

Mars sees dry skies in the east and rain in the west

March marks the start of drier weather on the east coast, although rain is starting to pick up in the west and in Kuala Lumpur. There are fewer crowds, except during the Malaysian school holidays towards the end of the month, when families head to the beach resorts.
The key events: Kuan Yin Anniversary, Raptor Watch, Langkawi Tour (March or February)

April is beach and trekking time

One of the best months to enjoy the dry season, good for beaches and all kinds of outdoor activities, including mountain hiking. The declaration of Malacca as a historic city in 1989 is celebrated every year as a kind of “Melaka Day” in this small state.
The key events: Declaration of Malacca as a Historic City (Melaka), Nuzul Al-Quran, Regatta Lepa in Semporna

Wesak Day celebration at the Maha Vihara Buddhist temple in Kuala Lumpur
Wesak Day is a major celebration for the Buddhist population of Malaysia © udeyismail / Shutterstock

May sees major religious celebrations

Drier weather makes May a good time for travellers. Wesak Day is one of the main holidays for Malaysian Buddhists, while Hari Raya Aidilfitri at the end of Ramadan (equivalent to Eid al-Fitr) is a major event for the predominantly Muslim population. Look for special feasts of local specialties.
The key events: Wesak Day, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, Harvest Festival (Sabah)

June sees more and more tourists

Tourist crowds are starting to swell now, as the dry weather makes it easier to explore Kuala Lumpur. The east coast of the peninsula experiences dry days and good weather for diving. The Gawai festival celebrates the culture of the Dayak people of Borneo.
The key events: Dragon Boat Festival (Penang), Gawai Festival (Sarawak), Pesta San Pedro (Melaka)

July is hot and crowded, but the cultural calendar is busy

August sees the return of rain and displays of civic pride

The rain – and accompanying humidity, even on dry days – resumes at the end of August, which culminates in Hari Merdeka, Malaysia’s national holiday, marked by parades and patriotic events. This is still a busy time for tourists, with good diving conditions on the east coast.
The key events: Hari Merdeka (National Day), Chinese Hungry Ghosts Festival (until September)

A rickshaw driver in Old George Town, Penang
December to February is the busiest time of the year in Penang and Langkawi © filmlandscape / Getty Images

September sees a lot of culture in KL

The rains are really starting to hit East Malaysia (Borneo) now. There is a persistent tourist presence throughout the month, but most holiday-related businesses are beginning to prepare for a quieter tourist season. A few major cultural events bring artistic energy to the capital.
The key events: Cooler Lumpur Festival (Kuala Lumpur), DiverseCity (Kuala Lumpur)

October is a great time for rain

The Hindu festival of Diwali/Deepavali hits in October or November, bringing festival color to Malaysia’s Indian enclaves, particularly Penang and Kuala Lumpur. Rainy weather is common on the east and west coast of the peninsula.
The key events: Diwali/Deepavali (may fall in November)

November is calm and cool – at least by Malaysian standards!

The “coldest” month in Malaysia usually sees lows of around 23°C (74°F) and highs of around 29°C (85°F), although it is cooler in the highlands . It’s as calm as the tourist scene gets, with plenty of rain on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia and in Borneo.
The key events: Diwali/Deepavali (may fall in October), George Town Literary Festival (Penang), Urbanscapes (Kuala Lumpur)

December sees holiday celebrations in Christian centers

Christmas is an important holiday in parts of the country with large Christian populations, including Sabah, Sarawak, Penang and Melaka. New Year’s Eve is a nationwide holiday, although it is celebrated most enthusiastically in major cities. Expect lots of rain in Borneo and on the east coast of the peninsula.
The key events: Christmas, New Year

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