Dynamic cities, fabulous food, beautiful beaches, idyllic islands and national parks with wildlife-packed rainforests – all of this can be found in Malaysia.
The catchy tourism slogan ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ continues to ring true as this country really is a crossroads for so many Asian cultures. Muslim Malays, religiously diverse Chinese, and Hindu and Muslim Indians live here, along with the indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. Each culture has its own language and practices, which you can appreciate through a packed calendar of festivals and a delicious variety of cuisines.
For many visitors Malaysia is defined by its equatorial rainforest. Significant chunks of primary jungle – among the most ancient ecosystems on earth – remain intact, protected by national parks and conservation projects. Seemingly impenetrable foliage and muddy, snaking rivers may seem intimidating – but join a ranger-led nature walk, for example, and you’ll be alerted to the mind-boggling biodiversity all around, from the pitcher plants, lianas and orchids of the humid lowlands, to the conifers and rhododendrons of high-altitude forests.
Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur (KL) is a place where gleaming 21st-century towers stand cheek-by-jowl with colonial shophouses and pockets of lush greenery, while shoppers shuttle from traditional markets to air-conditioned mega malls. Unesco World Heritage–listed, Melaka and George Town (Penang) have uniquely distinctive architectural and cultural townscapes, developed over a half a millennium of Southeast Asian cultural and trade exchange. Over in the eastern Malaysian states, both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu offer fascinating introductions to life on Borneo.
The icing on Malaysia's verdant cake is the chance to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat. The most common sightings will be a host of insects or colorful birdlife, but you could get lucky and spot a foraging tapir, a silvered leaf monkey, or an orangutan swinging through the canopy. The oceans are just as bountiful: snorkel or dive among shoals of tropical fish, paint-box dipped corals, turtles, sharks and dolphins. Even if you don’t venture outside the urban centers, there are excellent opportunities for wildlife watching at places such as the KL Bird Park or Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Malaysia.
Around 25km north of Sandakan, and covering 40 sq km of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, this inspiring, world-famous centre welcomes orphaned and injured orangutans for rehabilitation before returning them to forest life. There are around 200 living in the reserve, though only a few are regular visitors to the feeding platform. At the outdoor nursery, a short walk from the feeding platform, you can watch orphaned youngsters at play.
The most photographed building in George Town, this magnificent 38-room, 220-window mansion was built in the 1880s and rescued from ruin in the 1990s. Today a lavish, antique-filled hotel, its distinctive blue-hued exterior is the result of an indigo-based limewash. Slightly theatrical hour-long guided tours (included in the admission fee) explain the building's feng shui and unique features, and relate stories about Cheong Fatt Tze, the rags-to-riches Hakka merchant-trader who commissioned the mansion for his seventh (and favourite) wife.
At 23 sq km, this is Malaysia's smallest national park, but it's beach-fringed forests are home to silvered leaf monkeys, flying lemurs, leopard cats and abundant bird, amphibian and reptile species. You can easily fill a day with activities such as jungle walks and boat trips to serene golden-sand beaches. Bus 101 runs here from central George Town. From the park entrance, a return boat trip should cost RM100 to Teluk Duyung (Monkey Beach), RM200 to Pantai Kerachut and RM220 to Teluk Kampi.
This small reserve has forested hills rising dramatically from the surrounding plain. If getting into the Maliau Basin or Danum Valley feels like too much of an effort, consider Tawau Hills a user-friendly alternative. The forest here is impressively thick, there are trails for hikers of all abilities and the park is excellent for bird-watching and night walks. On a clear day the Tawau Hills Park's peaks make a fine sight. Avoid day-tripper-heavy weekends.
One of the best places in the world to see semiwild orangutans in their natural rainforest habitat, swinging from trees and scurrying up vines, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is home to 28 orangutans who often (literally) swing by park HQ to dine on bananas and coconuts. There’s no guarantee that orangutans will show up, but even when there's plenty of fruit in the forest (November to February) the chances are excellent.
This hill, 2km north of the Batuh Putih bridge, features three caves housing the ancestors of local Orang Sungai (People of the River). Because the Kinabatangan has a habit of frequently flooding, the final resting place of the dead has traditionally been located in cave complexes. Nine-hundred-year-old ironwood coffins are interred in the Batu Tulug caves with spears, knives, gongs, bells and Chinese curios, making the hill one of the most important archaeological sites in Sabah.
Imagine a cathedral-like inner chamber shot with splinters of sunlight and a cave floor swarming with cockroaches, and you have the Gomantong Caves. The smell has a presence of its own, thanks to the ubiquity of bird and bat guano (you'll want to wear covered shoes and a hat). The only cave open to visitors, Simud Hitam, is magnificent. The turn-off to Gomantong is well signposted en route to Sukau; most tours include a stop here.
It's referred to as a hill station, but Genting is consumed by a heavily developed entertainment complex. Don't expect mountain walks and stone cottages; instead the main draw is the glitzy 24-hour First World Casino, where you can lose track of the days playing blackjack, roulette and slot machines. There's also a clutch of restaurants and bars, high-street fashion outlets spangled across various malls, amusement parks, a cinema and family-oriented activities aplenty.
This 1175-sq-km park within Belum-Temenggor Rainforest was gazetted in 2007 to protect a rich menagerie of tigers, tapirs, panthers and the Sumatran rhino – though the latter is now believed to be extinct in Malaysia. The spears of submerged trees poking above the waterline of the largely dam-flooded lake are an eerie sight. A permit and guide are needed to explore; hotels can help with both. Book a fortnight ahead to secure tours and a permit (RM20); you'll need a scan of your passport.