Malaysia has it all – pristine rain forests, lively cosmopolitan cities, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, traditional wooden long houses, incredibly varied cuisine, and much much more. Start your trip in sprawling Kuala Lumpur for a blend of diverse cultures, delicious and cheap street food and stunning architecture. After that it would be criminal not to head out to some of the world’s most beautiful natural spots to see unique flora and fauna, traditional villages and incredible views.
The capital city of Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is known by locals and expats alike) is a microcosm of everything Southeast Asian. Home to the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, KL is probably one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the region. This means that you are never far from restaurants and food stalls selling rich, spicy Indian curries, vibrant Chinese noodle dishes, succulent Malaysian fish steamed in banana leaves, or good old banana pancakes. This also means that the shopping here is off the hook. From modern, air conditioned shopping malls to chaotic outdoor street markets, you can find virtually anything under the sun in KL. As the city is also a major hub in Southeast Asia, there is no shortage of cheap guesthouses, mid-range accommodation and five star luxury hotels. Safe, friendly, and easy to navigate, Kuala Lumpur is a great place to start off any trip to Malaysia.
Not only does the island of Penang have pretty beaches, the historical UNESCO World Heritage Site of Georgetown with its old colonial buildings, Chinese temples and gold domed mosques, but this is also the food capital of Malaysia. Sample the world famous Penang Laksa, a spicy and sour rice noodle soup with fresh cockles, hearty chunks of mackerel, and meaty prawns, all swimming in a tangy tamarind fish broth. Other popular dishes here include Or Chen, a savoury oyster omelet, and Hokkien Mee, delicious egg noodles with prawns and barbecue pork. After stuffing your face at the numerous outdoor food halls, be sure to walk off your lunch with a stroll through the botanical gardens, or climb up the winding staircases of the Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple for great views over the town of Air Itam. If you’re feeling brave, head to the Snake Temple where you can touch and handle de-venomed pit vipers and scaly green lizards.
This small island is an entry and exit point to south Thailand, and as such a popular border crossing point, it has developed into a duty free haven. Shopping malls, stores and boutiques here all offer tax free deals on clothes, alcohol and food. In addition, the island has some very pleasant beaches where you can while away the days on the sand with a cold beer in hand. Its strategic location on the northwest coast of Malaysia also means there is plenty of fresh seafood to be had at the many restaurants and bars that line the coast.
A good way to escape the heat of tropical Malaysia is to head to the Cameron Highlands, located 5,000 feet above sea level in wetsern Malaysia. Temperatures here are very pleasant, hovering around 25 degrees Celsius by day. Nights can be chilly here with a low of 10 degrees Celsius, and cool breezes. Besides the temperature, the landscape here is what makes the Cameron Highlands a popular vacation spot. Rolling green hills give way to tea plantations, waterfalls, gardens, and a wide range of farms including strawberry, honey and butterfly farms. Camping and hiking are also big here as the nearby mountains offer plenty of trails and clearings for adventurous outdoorsmen and women.
On the east coast of Malaysia lies Tioman Island, a mountainous, densely forested hunk of rock jutting out of the South China Sea. The entire island is fringed in golden sandy beaches, and just off the shores lie a number of white coral reefs, making this a great spot for both snorkelers and divers. The island is not heavily populated, meaning it is very easy to find deserted beaches with nary a soul on them, and pristine jungle trails. In addition, the island is home to a plethora of wildlife, including monitor lizards that roam the jungle trails and village streets freely, soft shelled sea turtles, civets, monkeys, and even a ‘walking catfish’ that is native to the island.
Sabah and Sarawak
These two Malaysian states share the island of Borneo with Brunei and Indonesia, with Sabah being in the northeast section of the island, and Sarawak in the northwest. Both states share many characteristics in that they are both mountainous, covered in thick jungle, and are home to unique wildlife and flora as well as remote villages with tribal peoples who have managed to keep and maintain their traditional cultures and customs.
Sabah is home to Malaysia’s three biggest mountains, the biggest of which is Mount Kinabulu. In fact, Mount Kinabulu is the highest mountain in all of Southeast Asia. This is a great place to go trekking, hiking, or mountain climbing. The trek up the mountain is not especially difficult, but a national park regulations state that hikers must be accompanied by a guide at all times. The rainforest surrounding the base of the mountain has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the multitude of plants, flowers, trees, insects and animals that cannot be found elsewhere in the world. This is home to the giant, stinky Rafflesia flower that only blooms once in its lifetime for a period of 2-3 days, as well as the strange looking Rhinoceros Hornbill bird. One good thing to keep in mind is that visitors to either Sabah or Sarawak will need to go through immigration, fill out the necessary forms, and receive a separate stamp in their passport for both states. This is no problem for visitors who do not require a visa in advance for Malaysia, as Sabah and Sarawak both have the same 90 day visa on arrival system. For visitors that require an advance visa to Malaysia, the same rules will apply for these two states.
Sarawak is also incredibly biologically diverse, and a great place to hike or go canoeing down the many rivers, do some spelunking in the impressive cave systems or go trekking to a tribal village where you can spend a night in a traditional wooden longhouse. Gunung Mulu National Park is a trip within itself for its network of caves nestled deep in the rainforest, and stunning limestone karst formations. Another popular draw to Sarawak is the Rainforest World Music Festival that takes place every July in the capital city of Kuching. The event features musicians from around the world, and attracts roughly 30,000 people every year.