Beachmeter
Malaysia or Thailand? Malaysian beach with a boat with the Malaysia's flag and a Thai beach with longtail boats and Thailand's flag

Where to Spend Your Beach Holiday – Malaysia or Thailand?

For those of us who are lucky enough to have the opportunity to go on beach holidays, the first question we ask ourselves is often which country should we go to. As promised when we presented our new Malaysia travel guide, we want to help you compare two of the big tropical beach holiday destinations, Malaysia and Thailand, to make your holiday choice easier.

Why Malaysia or Thailand?

If you wonder, why we have chosen to compare these two great beach destinations, here is why. First of all, travel agencies and travel professionals often receive this as the initial question from their customers: “Should we choose Malaysia or Thailand for our holiday?”. Secondly, these countries are very often competing for the same visitors, since they both bring some of the same great beach holiday opportunities, and being neighbouring countries, travel seasons and travel distance is similar.

The Malaysia and Thailand Showdown

Malaysia or Thailand - a comparison between Malaysia's and Thailand's beaches, hotels, prices, food, diving, and wildlife.

Before we go through each of the scores and compare Malaysia and Thailand on the chosen parameters, we want to remind readers that the evaluations represent a general evaluation of the two countries. Here we have considered Malaysia to be both Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, although the characteristics of these two areas are rather different.

You may seek a family-friendly beach or a surfing beach-bum paradise. Ultimately, which beach destination is best for your holiday, depends just as much on your personal travel preferences as the destination itself.

Beaches: Malaysia vs. Thailand

Both Malaysia and Thailand have fantastic beaches, ranging from popular tourist magnets to secluded beaches on “untamed” islands. With a great variety and number of beaches within easy geographical reach, Thailand has a small edge here.

Malaysia Beach Score     

The number of islands and beaches of Peninsular Malaysia is relatively low in comparison to Thailand, and given strong seasonal limitations on the east coast, the options can be rather limited. However, if we add Malaysian Borneo to the mix, we suddenly have a hundreds of stunning islands in different development stages and in more or less accessible areas.

Thailand Beach Score     

Southern Thailand has an abundance of islands and beaches fitted with fine sand, dramatic rock formations, swaying palm trees, clear water, and everything you could ever wish for in terms of services and conveniences. Additionally, the beaches of Thailand cover all activities and adventures you can think of and it doesn’t take much to go from one type of beach or island to another one.

Aerial view of palm-fringed beach in Thailand with boats at the shoreline, clear blue water, and small tropical islands in the background.

It’s hard to beat the islands and beaches of Thailand.

Photo credit: Tourism Authority of Thailand

Hotels: Malaysia vs. Thailand

It is not uncommon that tourists stumble upon a hotel that enchant them to such a degree that the host country is of little importance. Whether this is the case or not, one thing is certain: The hotel has a significant role in tourists’ beach choice. To receive a high hotel evaluation, the diversity, price, and value for money is taken into account. Without question, Thailand is a world leader in this category.

We used to write small warnings in our Malaysia travel catalogues that customers should not expect a 3-star Malaysian hotel to measure up to a 3-star Thai hotel. This is more due to Thailand’s superiority on this parameter than Malaysia being under international standard.

Malaysia Hotel Score     

You can find exclusive eco-retreats on small tropical islands and you can find uncharming concrete hotels with uninspiring designs. The portfolio of beach accommodation is improving, but the value for money is not on par with Thailand. Furthermore, it is harder to find budget and mid-range charm among Malaysian hotels. For a real good hotel experience, you have to move into the four and five star range.

Thailand Hotel Score     

The competition among hotels in Thailand is fierce. This coupled with a good sense of quirky design and high service standards make Thailand score maximum on hotel quality and value. A 3-star hotel in Thailand can often be compared to a 4-star hotel in Europe or America. You can easily find accommodation for all budgets, and even in the cheapest beach bungalows you can find charming architecture and design wit.

Stilted hillside bungalows overlooking the Gulf of Thailand at the rugged Koh Tao Island.

Not the worst place to spend your holiday in Thailand.

Prices: Malaysia vs. Thailand

No doubt relative prices continue to rise, as both Malaysia and Thailand continue a path of economic growth and investments both in and outside the tourism sector. Prices fluctuate a lot between city and rural areas and between touristy and non-touristy destinations. Overall, however, Thailand still offers superb value for money.

While cheaper than European countries and North America, Malaysia is generally more expensive than the other Southeast Asian countries.

An excellent resource in finding user generated price information in destinations worldwide is NUMBEO.

Malaysia Prices Score     

Traveling through Malaysia, you will find that food is quite cheap, while accommodation is more expensive and less value than other Southeast Asian countries outside of Singapore. Malaysian Borneo’s unique position in terms of experiences and natural wonders have pushed prices upwards. The good news is that it is still possible to experience Malaysia on a backpacker budget, but you will have to sacrifice some convenience and luxury along the way.

Thailand Prices Score     

With the rise of the Thai middle-class, expatriates, and tourists from near and far, both financial and tourist hubs of Thailand are now much more expensive than just five years ago. This means that Bangkok, Hua Hin, Koh Samui, and Phuket can come off as expensive.

But don’t despair. Instead of going to Starbucks and Domino’s, go to a local pad thai restaurant. Instead of sleeping at Hyatt, sleep at one of the many charming boutique guesthouses. Go a little off-beat to avoid the price traps. Thailand has great prices for those who look for them, and the most beautiful thing is that being a beach bum here is one of the cheapest lifestyles you can dream of. Food is cheap, transportation is cheap, accommodation is cheap, and adventures are often free. For documentation, see our previous notes on daily beach holiday costs in Thailand.

Local Thai restaurant with signs in Thai and fresh food on display.

Eat local, stay local! Thailand offers tremendous value.

Food: Malaysia vs. Thailand

How good is Malaysian food? How does it compare to Thai food? This is obviously a very subjective topic, but at least we are not alone in thinking that both countries serve some of the world’s best food. Thailand and Malaysia are both in the top 10 food destinations in the world in this CNN poll.

Malaysia Food Score     

What makes Malaysian food great? The variety of choice and fresh ingredients! Since Malaysia consists of major cultural and ethnic groups, you can find excellent Chinese, Indian, Western, and of course Malay/Indonesian dishes in abundance. For vegetarians eating is easy because of the Indian vegetarian cuisine and the fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally.

Thailand Food Score     

The popularity of Thai food is now covering the world with Thai takeaways and restaurants from Buenos Aires to Sydney. But the best Thai food is found in Thailand. Food is an integral part of Thai social life, and when a common greeting in Thailand is “Have you eaten yet?”, food has to be a top priority. What is fantastic about the Thai cuisine is the harmonious blend of spices, sweet, sour, and salty. But if you don’t like chili, lemongrass, and galanga, you will mostly be limited to the “foreignized” and international dishes.

For vegetarians, Thailand has a lot of vegan and vegetarian restaurants that particularly sprung up in response to the tastes of visiting backpackers. In standard restaurants, however, ordering a vegetarian dish often means that fish sauce, oyster sauce, and shrimp paste will be used in otherwise meatless dishes.

Wooden signs on a tropical island in Thailand saying fruit shake, vegetable food, seafood, and Thai food.

You won’t leave thirsty or hungry!

Diving: Malaysia vs. Thailand

Both Malaysia and Thailand are wonderful places to learn and practice diving. Almost every popular beach has at least one dive operator, and the quality, equipment, and safety is good.

Malaysia Diving Score     

In Peninsular Malaysia the east coast is your best bet for diving. Perhentian Islands, Redang Island, and Tioman Island all have good and very accessible diving. Diving here is seasonally limited from roughly March to September.

The Sabah region of Borneo is the real reason why Malaysia must be considered a top dive destination in the world. The bio-diversity, visibility, and beauty is of supreme quality with dive destinations such as Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Lankayan, Layang Layang, and Sibuan leading the way.

Thailand Diving Score     

Hands up if you took your PADI Open Water Diver certificate in Thailand. Keep them up, if you took it on Koh Tao! Koh Tao is a world hub for budding scuba divers. The small island in The Gulf of Thailand offers year-round courses with dive sites right off the beaches or a small boat ride away. The water is generally clear and currents are beginner friendly. Corals and marine life around Koh Tao has deteriorated a bit although a number of organizations and awareness programmes are fighting to rejuvenate the seas.

For the best dive sites in Thailand, you have to travel to The Andaman Sea. Here you will find stunning diving between small tropical islands. It is not uncommon to find leopard sharks and manta rays. Among the best diving sites are Similan Islands, Richelieu Rock, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, and the Surin Islands. November to April has the best visibility and sea conditions.

A nemo fish among green sea plants seen while diving in Malaysia.

Malaysia’s Sabah region offers formidable diving.

Photo credit: Tourism Malaysia

Wildlife: Malaysia vs. Thailand

Despite an increasing number of areas being designated as national parks in Malaysia and Thailand, the primary and secondary forests are diminishing. Farming, plantations, logging, and “development” is threatening natural treasures and wildlife in both countries. That said, Malaysia has some of the world’s oldest rainforests and extraordinary wildlife to match it. Thailand does not have the grand old rainforests, but there is still plenty of wildlife to experience under and above water.

Malaysia Wildlife Score     

Orangutans (literally men of the jungle), proboscis monkeys, tarsiers, pygmy elephants, hornbills, turtles and much more roam the natural habitats of Malaysia, particularly Borneo. Malaysia has around 500 endemic species and it’s hard to find destinations that can match the natural richness of the country. Unfortunately, there is great pressure on the natural habitats of Malaysian wildlife. Although a magical experience, it is frightening to see how the palm oil plantations are slicing through ever thinner rainforest areas.

Thailand Wildlife Score     

Thailand has impressive marine life and no less than 127 national parks with a diverse range of flora and fauna. You do not find the grand old rainforests and hallmark wild species as in Malaysian Borneo, but there is plenty of wildlife to enjoy in Thailand.

Male Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus) from Borneo.

Only in Borneo – Malaysia’s wildlife is marvelous!

Photo credit: Tourism Malaysia

More comparisons between Malaysia and Thailand?

Malaysia or Thailand? We hope you found this head to head comparison between Thailand and Malaysia useful. There is no one winner in such a battle. It all depends on what you are after. One thing is certain though: Both Malaysia and Thailand are magnificent travel countries, so we can only suggest you visit both!

If you are interested in seeing more comparisons between these two countries, we suggest you take a look at the following links.

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