How Climbing Differs between Indonesia and Malaysia

Indonesia and Malaysia offer unique mountaineering experiences. Summits Expert Kent Lim explains

April 02, 2024
Climbers at dusk. Bukit Senaling (Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia) - Photo by Kent Lim for

This is the first article of our Summits Expert series, where we ask expert climbers of Southeast Asia’s mountains about their unique and seasoned perspective about mountaineering in the region.

Though being geographically close to each other and are arguably similar countries, did you know that mountaineering in Indonesia and Malaysia each offers a unique experience? Apart from the experience during the hike, the pre-hike logistics preparation of mountaineering in Indonesia and Malaysia are vastly different as well.

The Gunung Slamet Summit By Kent Lim for
The Gunung Slamet Summit By Kent Lim for

The Mountain

Discussing the difference of mountaineering in these countries, the first aspect of comparison would be the mountains that each country boasts of. 

The highest mountain in Indonesia is Carstensz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya) standing at 4884 metres, which is included in Messners’s list of the 7 Summits. The other peaks in the country includes many mountains in the above 3000 metres and above 4000 metres elevation range for the serious climbers. Smaller peaks ranging from a few hundred metres to the 2000 – 3000 metres range are also widely spread across the country, with some of them being popular hikes such as Mount Bromo.

The only Malaysian peak in the above 3000 metres elevation range is Mount Kinabalu at 4095 metres, which is also the highest and most popular mountain in Malaysia. The next highest mountain is only 2,642 metres tall. Similar to Indonesia, there are many smaller peaks which are popular hikes such as Mount Ophir.

Ranu Kumbolo (Mount Semeru) Photo by Kent Lim for
Ranu Kumbolo (Mount Semeru) Photo by Kent Lim for

Do not be fooled however, by a mountain’s elevation as an indicator of its difficulty! There are many other factors contributing to a mountain’s difficulty, one of which is the terrain(s) of a mountain.

More often than not, you will find yourself walking through dense rainforests while trekking in Malaysia which boasts rich ecosystems filled with a wide variety of flora and fauna. While trails on the more popular hikes are generally distinct and difficult to get lost, the same cannot be said for the lesser climbed mountains. On higher altitudes, the vegetation becomes thinner and you may find yourself walking through the tree lines and into barren rocky areas.

Similarly, the trails in Indonesia are covered with forests and rich biodiversity. While that may be true for most of the treks in the lower altitudes, the terrain changes as you go higher especially on volcanic treks. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, there are many volcano treks in the country, some of which are active volcanoes still spewing ash and smoke periodically. One of this is Mount Semeru, which sends clouds of volcanic sand into the air every 10 – 30 minutes. On the higher altitudes of these hikes, one can expect a steep rocky trail which requires caution from climbers.

Group Selfie on a Jeep in Tumpang enroute to Ranu Pane Photo by Kent Lim for
Group Selfie on a Jeep in Tumpang enroute to Ranu Pane Photo by Kent Lim for

Pre-Hike Logistics

Apart from understanding the mountain that you will be taking on, you also need to know how to get to the mountain and other necessary arrangements required beforehand.

In both Malaysia and Indonesia, there are some hikes can be done without permits, and some where you will need to get them. It is therefore important to do ample research prior to your hike. 

Obtaining permits in both countries may not be as easy as you may think, and the channels to obtain these permits are different too. In Indonesia, most of the permits can be obtained at the base camp or starting point of the hike. In recent times though, there are some mountains which have implemented an online application system to limit the number of hikers, such as Mount Gede-Pangrango. That being said, it means that you can obtain these permits on your own with adequate research.

Permits in Malaysia, however, are usually more challenging to secure. Most of the “permits-necessary” mountains has a window period to apply for permits, which means that you will need to successfully get a permit a few weeks prior to your hike (such as Mount Ophir). As most hikes in Malaysia require local guides, hiking permits are usually settled by the guides that you engage. Remember to ask your local guides about permits when you engage them!

Puncak Sejati (Gunung Raung) Photo by Kent Lim for
Puncak Sejati (Gunung Raung) Photo by Kent Lim for

Another pre-hike research necessary is knowing how to actually get to the mountain. Mountains are sometimes situated far away from the main cities and at a remote area. Regular public transport may not be able to get you to these mountains. As the transportation system available in the two countries are different, your way of getting to the hike also differs.

In Malaysia, buses and trains run on a fixed schedule only on paper, so you will need to build flexibility into your schedule if you choose to take public transport there. While hopping on a bus or a train will get you to the towns nearest to the mountains, you will usually require additional transport to get to the actual starting point of the hikes. One method is to hire a taxi and have the driver wait for you to complete your hike, but that is only feasible for day-hikes. Otherwise, the other option is chartering a vehicle for the entire duration of your hike, but that limits you to returning to the same trailhead.

Similar to its counterpart, the trains and buses in Indonesia run on a fixed schedule but require some leeway, and this can only get you to the town nearest to your hike. However, Indonesia has some culturally unique transportation such as “Ojeks” and “Angkots”, which are unofficial public transport provided by individuals. They can easily be found in most parts of Indonesia and are popular methods of getting to the basecamps, some of which are only accessible by bikes.

Climbers at dusk. Bukit Senaling (Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia) Photo by Kent Lim for
Climbers at dusk. Bukit Senaling (Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia) Photo by Kent Lim for

Research, research and research!

Though situated close to each other on the map, hiking in Malaysia and Indonesia requires different preparations and equipment. Researching is key to ensure that you know what to expect during any hikes. You do not want to be arriving at a hike that you have planned for a few months only to be denied hiking because you do not have the necessary permits! is making a good start to providing you with such essential information.

About the Author

Kent Lim at Puncak Sejati overlooking the caldera of Gunung Raung, Indonesia
Kent Lim at Puncak Sejati overlooking the caldera of Gunung Raung, Indonesia – Photo by Kent Lim for

Kent Lim is a mountain climber from Singapore, who has spent the last 3 years focusing on climbs in Malaysia and Indonesia. A full-time writer and a freelance trek leader, his life goal is to complete the 7 Summits of the World and the 14 Eight-Thousanders challenge. 

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