Locals laud Taiping (City of Peace) for trailblazing Malaysia’s first museum, first railway and first newspapers in English, Malay and Tamil. But it’s Taiping’s ‘Rain City’ title that has stuck. Verdant lake gardens and a refreshing hill station to its east, Bukit Larut, are both gifts of Taiping's weather, the wettest in Peninsular Malaysia.
This busy, compact fishing town has everything that travellers passing through on their way to the islands might need: cheap internet, OK sleeping options, grocery stores, cold beer and a pharmacy. The river is clogged with colourful fishing boats, and though most people only stay long enough to hop a ferry to Tioman, this is a relaxed village with a surprisingly lyrical air.
For years, and no doubt aided by the tourism authorities, the lure of sun and sand at Batu Ferringhi was the main reason people came to Penang. In reality, the beach can’t compare to Malaysia’s best: the water isn’t as clear as you might expect, swimming often means battling jellyfish, and the beach itself can be dirty, especially on weekends when hordes of day trippers visit.
The northwest coast of Sabah is criminally underexplored. The A1 runs north from KK to Kudat and the tip of Borneo past wide headlands, rice paddies and hidden beaches. This is a good area for renting a car or motorbike – the roads are pretty level, and public transport links aren't reliable for getting off the main road.
This small town is the gateway to Taman Negara, and most travellers do little more than spend a night before heading into the jungle (perhaps stocking up on booze at one of the Chinese-owned liquor stores on Jln Diwangsa before heading to dry Kuala Tahan). The town is pleasant enough to spend an afternoon in.
You won't be using your camera's memory-card up in the town of Semporna, which but for its mosque, is not immediately captivating. There's a wet market and some pretty stilted water-hotels, but little reason to extend a stay beyond dumping your bags and going for a chat with one of the many dive companies – all conveniently located in the same street.
A visit to the world's most famous place to see orangutans in their natural habitat just became even more compelling thanks to the addition of an outdoor nursery for youngsters in the same complex, and the nearby, excellent Sun Bear Conservation Centre. On top of this, there's a stylish new restaurant and cafe that's recently opened.
Klang & Pelabuhan Klang
About 30km west of KL lies Klang, Selangor’s former royal capital. The town makes for a pleasant diversion, and if combined with a trip to nearby Pulao Carey and a sumptuous feast in the vibrant Little India, a good day out. Aficionados of mosque architecture should consider Klang a must visit for the beautiful art deco Masjid Di Raja Sultan Suleiman.