Looking out across the teal-blue Bay of Sandakan dotted with Chinese trawlers and distant isles, it's hard to believe its population was once composed of such an exotic cast of foreign interests; German traders, Dutch and Chinese planters, Arab and Indian traders, and pearl divers.
Gateway to the Batang Rejang, Sibu has grown rich from trade with Sarawak’s interior since the time of James Brooke. These days, although the ‘swan city’ does not rival Kuching in terms of charm, it’s not a bad place to spend a day or two before or after a boat trip to the wild interior. Situated 60km upriver from the open sea, Sibu is Sarawak’s most Chinese city.
Sitting like an emerald dragon guarding the translucent waters of the South China Sea, Tioman Island offers every possible shade of paradise. There's cascading waterfalls, rigorous jungle hikes that take you past orange blossoms under an evergreen canopy, and a wide sampling of laid-back villages that present a tapestry of cultures and curiosities. And then there's the sea.
From your first lungful of fragrant highland air, sweat and stress evaporate. In Malaysia's largest hill-station area, the breeze is freshened by eucalyptus, fuzzy tea plantations roll into the distance, and strawberry farms snooze under huge awnings. From north to south, the Cameron Highlands roughly encompass Tringkap, Brinchang, Tanah Rata, Ringlet and their surrounds.
If you've ever wondered what a cross between a duty-free airport mall and a tropical island would look like, check out the federal district of Pulau Labuan. Some call this Sabah's Vegas, and in the sense that Labuan offers both duty-free sin and tacky family fun, we agree. By the way, everything here is duty free, because politically, Labuan is governed directly from KL.
From a swaying hammock on Coral Beach, it’s hard to imagine Pulau Pangkor’s turbulent past. But ‘Beautiful Island’ is a former pirate hideout and bit-player in the battle to control the Selat Melaka (Strait of Melaka). In the 17th century, the Dutch built a fort here in their bid to monopolise the Perak tin trade but they were driven out by a local ruler.
Most travellers use the capital of Kedah, also known as Alor Star, as a jumping-off point to Langkawi or southern Malaysia, but there’s enough around to keep you exploring for a day. This is a very Malay city, culturally rooted in a conservative mindset that references a fairly strict interpretation of Islam and reverence for the local monarchy.
Like KL, Seremban’s roots lay in the discovery of tin in the 19th century, which saw prospectors flock to the village originally known as Sungai Ujong. Today Negeri Sembilan’s state capital, 64km southeast of KL, is a much more low-key place. While generally overlooked by international visitors, it’s worth a stop if you’re headed to the beachside resorts of Port Dickson.
Most travellers only stop in busy Kuantan, Pahang's capital and Malaysia's second biggest port, to break up long bus trips. We think this is a shame; while the city isn’t geared towards tourism, it is definitely interesting enough to warrant a day or two’s exploration, even just to make the most of the coast’s best eating opportunities.
Mt Kinabalu & Kinabalu National Park
Gunung Kinabalu, as it is known in Malay, is more than the highest thing on the world's third largest island. And it is more than scenery. Mt Kinabalu is ubiquitous in Sabah to the point of being inextricable. It graces the state's flag and is a constant presence at the edge of your eyes, catching the clouds and shading the valleys.
With a sweeping white beach bordered by coconut palms, and a small village of guesthouses and shops with more monkeys, monitor lizards and cats walking around than humans, Cherating is a popular spot for surfing and general beachfront slacking. It has plenty of beach bars and the best nightlife on Pahang's coast.
The Perhentians boast waters simultaneously electric teal and crystal clear, jungles thick and fecund, and beaches with blindingly white sand. At night, beach bonfires and phosphorescence in the water illuminate the velvety black fabric of darkness, and myriad stars are mirrored above.