There’s more than one Malaysia. There’s the modern, well-ordered state boasting the Petronas Towers, those twin rocket-ship behemoths in capital Kuala Lumpur. There’s bustling multicultural Malaysia, an ethnic and culinary mélange into which Malays, Chinese, Tamils and numerous indigenous groups contribute cuisines and customs. But there’s still – thankfully – wild, untamed Malaysia: jungle and reef, mountain and rainforest, river and ridge. Few countries in South-East Asia – or anywhere – match the range of opportunities for getting adventurous outdoors.
1. Dive the Semporna Archipelago, Sabah
Any spot described by scuba supremo Jacques Cousteau as ‘an untouched piece of art’ is pretty special. A submarine adventure around Sipadan – an elliptical island atop an oceanic pinnacle – takes the breath away: whale, hammerhead and reef sharks, manta rays, barracuda and turtles are regular dive buddies.
2. Surf the breaks of Cherating and Tioman Island
The swells of Indonesia to the south grab the headlines, but there’s ample action on Peninsula Malaysia’s east coast, too. Breaks around Cherating and off eastern Tioman see waves from across the South China hold five or six feet – plenty for both beginners and more-ambitious surfers.
3. Go batty in the caves of Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak
It’s a fine three-day trek through rainforest to the pinnacles, but the showpieces of the park are subterranean: the vast caverns, including the largest open to tourists – 2km-long Deer Cave. Come to discover what two million bats look (and smell) like.
4. Hike through the jungle of Endau-Rompin National Park
Tigers. Elephants. Tapirs. Leopards. Endangered Sumatran rhinos. They’re all here – though admittedly tricky to spot among the 870 sq km of lush lowland forest. A hike isn’t about ticking off species but, rather, camping in the primordial woodland, ducking under remote waterfalls, and watching for birdlife and monkeys.
5. Raft the Sungai Padas, Sabah
The Class I-II rapids of the Kiulu River are a mere nursery for the big adrenalin-pumper: Padas, with whitewater pushing III-IV over the 30km course. During breathers, grab the chance to gaze into the rainforest lining the river.
6. Wander among the tea plantations of Cameron Highlands
For a very English adventure – tea and strawberries: it could almost be Wimbledon – take to the trails around the hill station of Cameron Highlands. Amid the pleasingly geometric forms of the bushes of the tea plantations, stretch your legs in the cool high-level air for views of peaks and waterfalls.
7. Spot orang-utan from boat level on the Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah
You could spot your ginger-mopped primate cousins at the rehabilitation centres of Sepilok or Semenggoh – but there’s nothing like delving into the jungle for some real wildlife-watching. Take an early morning boat ride on the Kinabatangan River for the chance of spotting shy pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and vivid birdlife.
8. Hike to the longhouses of the Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak
The chance to meet the indigenous inhabitants of Borneo and stay in their traditional longhouses is one of the key reasons for trekking into the steamy interior. Headhunters they may no longer be, but meetings with Borneo’s tribespeople still offer unique insights into fast-eroding cultures.
9. Snorkel the reefs of the Perhentian Islands
These almost stereotypically tropical-paradise islands off the peninsula’s north-eastern coast tempt with sand and snorkelling. From the fine beaches it’s the work of a moment to don mask, snorkel and flippers and drift over colourful coral. The islands are also a great place to learn to scuba dive, with varied sites and reasonable prices.
10. Summit Mt Kinabalu, Sabah
This huge grey lump of granite, soaring to a sharp 4,095m peak, looms large over northern Borneo; the two-day climb requires steely determination to tackle hours of solid uphill – but dawn views across to the Philippines on a clear morning offset even the most burning thighs.
This article was updated in Jan 2012.
For more on the magic of this diverse nation, check out Lonely Planet's guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.