Stunning, ethnically diverseMalaysia is Southeast Asia’s unsung holiday hero, offering tourists a huge range of attractions to choose from. Mix and match a trip that includes lush jungle trekking, chilling out on white-sand beaches, amazing snorkelling and diving, gastronomic adventuring and immersing yourself in a colourful cultural heritage.
With the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur midway between UNESCO-listed towns of Penang and Melakaand also just a few hours by bus from the sprawling Taman Negara National Park, many of Malaysia’s highlights are both affordable and easy to reach.
Whether you’re a budget-minded independent backpacker or a tourist with cash to flash, Malaysia satisfies against an exotic backdrop of wafting call-to-prayers, eye-watering spicy street foods and the chatter of a friendly, cosmopolitan people. The Malaysian calendar is packed with festivals, so do your research and try to get here when one that appeals to your interests takes place.
Malaysia tends to get unfairly shortthrifted by travellers to Southeast Asia. Backpackers imagine Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to be cheaper destinations and often leave Malaysia off their itineraries altogether – a grave mistake. While overall your cash may get you further in those countries, you can travel very well on a low budget in Malaysia and at the same time avoid the hordes of tourists you’ll find on the well-beaten paths elsewhere. Malaysia also lacks the glamour many associate with the luxury resorts of Thailand, but unfairly so as the kingdom boasts some seriously bank-balance-busting destination hotels to rival the best in the region.
Malaysia is geographically split in two, Peninsular Malaysia on mainland Southeast Asia which is home to 11 states plus Malaysia’s two “capitals”, and the Malaysian portion of nearby Borneo across South China Sea. (Malaysia shares a border with Indonesia across Borneo). It’s worth covering ground in both parts as you’ll want to see the natural wonders of the two states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo – choose from 23 national parks! — as well as the array of sights on the peninsula.
Kick off a visit to Malaysia in the capital proper, Kuala Lumpur, where towering skyscrapers, air-conditioned malls and a well-functioning road and public transport system will impress. The Singapore-like functionality is really the fruit of former leader Mahathir Mohamad’s push to transform the once mostly agrarian nation into the developed world. These days young Malaysian designers lead the ongoing evolution in KL, as it’s usually known, with funky bars and restaurants opening their doors to the style set.
Just south of KL is Melaka, the cradle of Malay civilisation. Relax to the chilled out vibe here and enjoy the gorgeous Dutch- and Portuguese-influenced architecture while getting to know Malaysian food, a delightful blend of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences.
The island of Penang off Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast was once settled by the British and today the fascinating Georgetown boasts restored colonial architecture – and we reckon some of the nation’s best food (this despite the Brits).
To many people, Langkawi is to Malaysia as Phuket is to Thailand: Flash resorts and vast beaches plied by jet skis and glittering yachts. It’s not quite that simple however as you can do Langkawi on a budget, sort of. Those keener on low-key islands should head instead to Malaysia’s east coast, where the Perhentians and Pulau Tioman beckon, offering superb snorkelling and diving — or pop north of the border to Thailand’s glorious Ko Tarutao island group.
Looking inland, Taman Negara is home to some of the world’s oldest tropical rainforests and has plenty to keep nature-lovers occupied, including Gunung Tahan, Peninsular Malaysia’s highest peak. The park, established in 1938, is an island of environmentalism in what is otherwise an ocean of palm plantations that has gobbled up much of Peninsular Malaysia.
While not in the same ballpark as Taman Negara, Cameron Highlands was once exquisite in its own way, but like many “green destinations” it has been ravaged by short-term and at times idiotic development. Still, it remains a laid back destination and offers a (relatively) chilly respite from the humidity plaguing the rest of the country, as well as more British history and influence: think high teas, golf and bird-watching.
Those looking for more untouched wilds however, should head to Malaysian Borneo — the northern slice of massive Borneo. Sabah is the smaller of the two Malay states and offers the 4,101-metre high Mount Kinabalu to conquer — Malaysia’s highest peak — as well as the picture-postcard islands of Gaya and Manukan, and the diving meccas of Pulau Sipadan and Mabul, where glimpses of frightening large sea-bound animals come thick and fast.
Larger, wilder, and less touristed still, Sarawak is in fact the largest state in all of Malaysia and boasts one of its most enthralling capitals — the old colonial relic of Kuching. Aside from being a fine destination in its own right, Kuching is also one of the best spots in Sarawak to use as a base for exploring the hinterland. The state is awash in national parks, and unlike Peninsular Malaysia, much of it remains rainforested.