Bali enjoys a well-worn tourist trail; Thailand is our go to Asian destination while Japan is having its moment in the sun.
Equally appealing, yet considerably underrated, is Malaysia: Trishaw rides, Asia’s best hawker food, exotic jungles, street markets and laidback beaches make Malaysia an incredibly diverse destination.
You can mix culture and heritage in fascinating cities like Malacca and Penang, enjoy a quintessential island holiday or eat and shop till you drop in the steamy capital Kuala Lumpur. Unravel Malaysia’s secrets slowly to discover what makes it one of Asia’s best places to visit.
1. Kuala Lumpur: A capital idea
Dazzling skyscrapers, gigantic malls, hawker markets, lush parks, colonial buildings and ornate temples make up the sultry, bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur, known as KL – gateway to your Malaysian adventure. As with many Asian cities, shopping and eating are favourite pastimes: from the culinary melting pots that are China Town and Masjid India, through to smart eateries and lip smacking hawker stalls. KL is home to an enticing mix of designer (Jimmy Choo hails from here) and high-end fashion through to bargain filled flea markets and everything in between. Hardcore shoppers can get their retail fix in the main shopping hub of the ‘Golden Triangle’, home to multi level malls and the Petrona Twin Towers (petronastwintowers.com.my). Jalan Alor is KL’s largest collection of open air roadside restaurants and hawker stalls where you can try local delicacies including sticky chicken wings, marinated stingray and fried noodles.
2. Tioman Island: Island time
Surprisingly this tropical paradise remains relatively off the radar for travellers, although Singaporeans have long been clued in to its balmy charm. Head here for stunning beaches, snorkeling in the translucent waters of the South China Sea and challenging jungle hikes. Tioman once starred in the fifties blockbuster South Pacific and was touted by Time magazine as ‘one of the world’s most beautiful islands’. Today it’s relatively unchanged and has managed to escape the rampant development seen on other islands in South East Asia. Check into one of the many beach resorts, snorkel or dive the protected marine reserves, which surround the island and keep an eye out for the enormous monitor lizards which scour the kampungs (Malay villages).
3. Cameron Highlands: Little England
It’s considered a slice of England in Malaysia’s lush hill station complete with tea and fluffy scones, cooler climes and kitsch mock Tudor houses. Developed during the British colonial period, it was here homesick expatriates came seeking respite from Malaysia’s searing equatorial heat. They established gardens, built bungalows, country retreats and even a golf course. While the British have long departed, it’s as if time has stood still. Visitors come to walk among lush tea plantations and forests, pick strawberries and sip tea while soaking up the verdant vistas.
4. Malacca: Old Asia
This bustling city, dating back to the fourteenth century, possesses a long and fascinating history, attracting souks, pirates, the British, Portuguese and Dutch. Take a walk along the mangrove-lined Malacca River to see the site of a former spice market where souks would come up the waterway to trade. In the narrow streets of Malacca’s old town blacksmiths and printers still ply their trade, the latter on ancient linotype machines. Dinner at Nancy’s Kitchen (eatatnancyskit.com), a third generation restaurant serving Peranaken cuisine is a must. The bustling Jonkers Walk Night Market is also fun with hawker stalls selling local snacks, curries and noodles. Live entertainment includes a renowned kung-fu master who eats fire and throws knives. Other must dos include a Melaka river cruise and a trishaw ride, decorated garishly with flowers, flags, and often with blaring music.
5. Langkawi: Life in the tropics
It’s the quintessential tropical island – sultry, palm fringed and with a feel of Bali or Phuket before the throngs arrived. The main island located off peninsular Malaysia’s northwestern coast, Langkawi has everything you could possibly want in a South Asian fling: luxurious beach resorts, boutique villas, secluded bays, coastal mangroves and a lush interior with deep valleys and ancient rainforest.
If your idea of a good holiday is a good book and backdrop of warm seas, tropical cocktails at hand, Langkawi is your place under the sun. There’s little nightlife to speak of, and not much in the way of retail therapy to distract weary urbanites. If you want more than a flop and drop holiday, there are cooking schools, interesting mangrove tours, while the Langkawi Cable Car will zip you to the top of the imposing Gunung Machinchang (708m) for an aerial perspective of the island.
6. Sarawak: Call of the wild
Respond to the call of the wild with a visit to Sarawak, known for its long houses, dense jungle, tribal culture and rare species of animals not found anywhere else. Sarawak is one of Borneo’s two Malaysian states (the other being Sabah) and one of the most ecologically diverse regions on earth. Sarawak’s multi-cultural and quirky city of Kuching (which boasts its own cat museum) has a long history that includes sultans, tribal chiefs, Chinese and Indian traders, White Rajahs, Japanese occupation, Australian liberation and time as a British colony. From Sarawak you’re within easy reach of lush rainforests where it’s possible to see Orangutans, proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and crocodiles. Or head deep into the jungle and hike from longhouse to longhouse.
7. Taman Negara: Ancient rainforest
Asia’s most incredible rainforest, Taman Negara is millions of years old. This mass of primary, ancient jungle sprawls across a staggering 4343sq km and is home to monkeys, giant squirrels, snakes, deer and hornbills, not to mention one of the highest diversities of tree species on earth. Elephants, tigers, leopards and rhinos also live deep within the dense jungle, but sightings are extremely rare. The star of the show is the canopy walk – the longest in the world. This narrow, creaky walk is made up of 10 linked footbridges high above the forest floor. At each platform, you can stop and marvel at the phenomenal vistas while taking in the symphony of the rainforest.
8. Kota Kinabalu: Land beneath the wind
Romantically referred to as the “Land beneath the Wind” because it lies below the typhoon belt, Sabah sits like a well-polished jewel in Malaysia’s regal crown. Located at the north-easternmost tip of the island Borneo in the shadow of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain Mt Kinabalu, Sabah’s calm, protected waters bordering the China Sea has been refuge for many a sailor and maritime trader. Kota Kinabalu is Sabah’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. It’s the gateway for Sabah’s rich treasure trove, which includes Orangutans, lush rainforest, mountains ranges, pristine tropical waters, 32 ethnic communities and the world’s biggest flower, the Rafflesia.
9. Penang: Asia’s best hawker food?
Penang’s UNESCO World Heritage listed capital Georgetown, a former British colonial trading post, is a charming juxtaposition of old and new – a lively port, ancient streets, and some of Asia’s best street food. New life has been breathed into lavish mansions, Chinese clan houses, and higgledy-piggledy shop houses, which sit side by side century-old churches, ornate mosques and Indian temples. You can stay in chic hotels, drink decadent cocktails, dine at contemporary eateries and explore Penang’s vibrant arts scene, yet the charm of old Asia is, reassuringly, still found. Not far away Penang’s seaside resorts offer a languid kampung lifestyle with casuarina trees and cool sea breezes.
10. Legoland: Everything is awesome
Asia’s first Legoland (legoland.com.my) theme park is a must for those with kids in tow, or for Lego tragics (we all know one). Located in the southern Malaysian state of Johor near the Singapore border and spread across more than 30 hectares, the theme park is packed with rides, shows, attractions including a Star Wars display and a superlative water park. You can even stay in the colourful Legoland Hotel. Avoid weekends and school holidays if possible so, “everything is awesome”.
To book your ultimate Malaysia holiday, visit Flight Centre.