Kota Kinabalu (KK) won’t immediately overwhelm you with its beauty, but you’ll soon notice its friendly locals, breathtaking fiery sunsets, blossoming arts and music scene, and rich culinary spectrum spanning Malay to Japanese, Western to Cantonese, street food to high end.
Melaka is the peacock of Malaysian cities. It's bright, loud, and almost preens with its wealth of homegrown galleries, crimson colonial buildings and showy trishaws. The city’s historic centre was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2008, and since then Melaka’s tourism industry has developed at break-neck pace.
Langkawi is synonymous with ‘tropical paradise’. Since 2008 the archipelago’s official title has been Langkawi Permata Kedah (Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah), no doubt inspired by the island’s clear waters, relatively pristine beaches and intact jungle. The district has been duty free since 1987 and pulling in tourists well before that.
Miri, Sarawak's second city, is a thriving oil town that is busy and modern. There’s plenty of money sloshing around, so the eating is good, the broad avenues are brightly lit, there’s plenty to do when it’s raining and the city’s friendly guesthouses are a great place to meet other travellers. The population is about 40% Dayak (mainly Iban), 30% Chinese and 18% Malay.
Ipoh is undergoing a quiet renaissance. Until now, domestic tourists seldom lingered beyond a weekend sampling ayam tauge (chicken and beansprouts) and Ipoh's famous white coffee. Backpackers considered this pleasant, mid-sized city an overnight stop between Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
With so many amazing islands to chose from, Terengganu’s coast is seen by many travellers as a mere pass-through to paradise. Travellers who take the time to explore between paradise-hops will fine the region rich in culture, cuisine and scenery that is simply unavailable on the islands.
Travellers often rush through Malaysia’s northeasternmost state, seeing it as a waypoint between Thailand and Pulau Perhentian. Those who don’t linger miss out experiencing a stronghold of Malay culture and one of Southeast Asia’s great buffer zones, combining a distinctive blend of Chinese, Indian, Thai and Malay cultures.
Kota Bharu has the energy of a mid-sized city, the compact feel and friendly vibe of a small town, superb food and a good spread of accommodation. A logical overnight stop between Thailand and the Perhentians, KB is a good base for exploring Kelantan. The state’s villages are within day-tripping distance, and its crafts, cuisine and culture are present in the city itself.