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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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 youngsters you'll be charmed by are between six and nine years old, and in either the air-conditioned or fan-cooled viewing stalls you can sit and watch them play and practise their swinging – just one of the skills they'll need to stay alive should they return to what's left of their rainforest home. Try to get here early in the morning before they are fed and become sleepy. Platform Feeding Feedings at the platforms are at 10am and 3pm, and last 30 to 50 minutes. Tickets are valid for one day, so you can see two feedings with the same ticket. Watching the trees begin to shake, the ropes vibrating, the first swatch of orange shifting through the branches, is a moment you'll never forget. Also worth noting is that only around two to four of the population will feed at any one time. During fruiting season, few will turn up, if any at all, since there's plenty to eat in the forest. The larger males almost never congregate here. In order to get a good spot for your camera or kids, get here 20 minutes before feeding time. The morning feeding is always more crowded with Homo sapiens, as this is when more tour groups visit, so if you want a quieter experience, try the afternoon. Don't bring any containers of insect repellent into the reserve, as these are highly toxic to the apes and other wildlife. Spray yourself before entering, and put on plenty of sunblock. Nature Education Centre A worthwhile 20-minute video about Sepilok's work is shown six times daily (9am, 10.30am, 11am, noon, 2.10pm and 3.30pm) in the auditorium opposite reception. Strangely the impact of palm-oil plantations, which have supplanted much of the orangutan's habitat, is not specifically mentioned.
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. Cheong Fatt Tze left China as a penniless teenager and eventually established a vast financial empire throughout East Asia, earning himself the dual sobriquets 'Rockefeller of the East' and the 'Last Mandarin'. Yet despite this, his lavish home was a faded shell within a few years of his death in 1916, rented out at penny rates to extended Chinese families. A six-year restoration returned the mansion to its original glory, an eclectic fusion of Eastern and Western architectural styles, blending Chinese porcelain tile-work with art nouveau stained glass and British encaustic floor tiles. It's the finest surviving example of the eclectic architectural style preferred by wealthy Straits Chinese. Appropriately, the mansion had a cameo in the 2018 blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. To enjoy the regal mansion after the crowds leave, consider staying overnight.
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. Sign in at the park entrance, which is a short walk from Teluk Bahang’s main bus stop. It’s an easy 1km walk to the head of the canopy walkway (now indefinitely closed), from where you have the choice of two routes: bearing west towards Muka Head (5km, up to two hours) or south to Pantai Kerachut (3km, up to 90 minutes). The easiest walk is the 15-minute stroll west to Sungai Tukun, where there are some pools to swim in. Following this trail along the coast about 10 minutes more brings you to the private University of Malaysia Marine Research Station, where there is a supply jetty, as well as Tanjung Aling, a nice beach to stop at for a rest. From here it’s another 45 minutes or so down the beach to Teluk Duyung, also called Monkey Beach (after the numerous primates who scamper about here). It's another 30 minutes to Muka Head, the isolated rocky promontory at the extreme northwestern corner of the island, where on the peak of the head is an off-limits lighthouse dating from 1883. The views of the surrounding islands from up here are worth the sweaty uphill jaunt. A longer and more difficult trail heads south from the suspension bridge towards Pantai Kerachut, a beautiful white-sand beach that is a popular spot for picnics and a green-turtle nesting ground. Count on about 1½ hours to walk to the beach on the clear and well-used trail. On your way is the unusual meromictic lake, a rare natural feature composed of two separate layers of unmixed freshwater on top and seawater below, supporting a unique mini-ecosystem. From Pantai Kerachut, you can walk about 40 minutes onward to further-flung and isolated Teluk Kampi, which is the longest beach in the park; look for trenches along the coast – they're remnants of the Japanese occupation in WWII.
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. The park was gazetted in 1979 to protect the water catchment for settlements in the area, but not before most of the accessible rainforest had been logged. Much of the remaining forest clings to steep-sided ridges that rise to 1310m Gunung Magdalena. One trail leads along the Sungai Tawau for 2.5km to Bukit Gelas Falls, which, when not swarmed with school groups and tourists, are perfectly picturesque and fine for a dip. Another track leads 3.2km to a tepid sulphur spring – locals believe the ubat kulit (skin medication) water has medicinal properties. Alternatively you can always take a quick 30-minute walk to Bombalai Hill (530m) to the south – the views from here are quite rewarding. Another reason for coming here is to see what was formerly the world's tallest tropical tree (88m); a new 9km trail to a newly found 96m tree is due to open in 2019. Longer trails lead to the three main hills; only Mt Lucia is accessible without a guide and there's a hostel on its slopes. Accommodation at Tawau Hills Park consists of a chalet (RM290) for up to six people and spartan, spotless four-bed dorms (RM30). It's well worth staying here overnight to go birding at sunset and dawn, and frog and snake spotting by the creek at night. Book ahead with Adventure Alternative Borneo to combine a stay at Tawau Hills with elephant spotting at the nearby Softwoods Plantation. Tawau Hills is 28km northwest of Tawau. A taxi will cost around RM40; a Grab ride is around RM20.
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. Steep wooden staircases snake up the 40m hill to the caves. Of the three caves, two are open to the public. Agop Lintanga, the larger cave, has the largest coffin collection, though they are unadorned, suggesting they were used for interring the bodies of common people. Smaller Agop Sawat, accessible from the lookout on top of the hill, has five carved log coffins, decorated with ox heads – more elaborate coffins reserved for chieftains. From the viewpoint you'll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of palm-oil plantations encroaching on the secondary forest and the Kinabatangan River. Halfway to the top, a small museum details the history of cave burials in the Kinbatangan area and showcases some funereal objects found in the caves, as well as a splendid example of an ornate ironwood coffin. The easiest way to get here is to include the caves in your package tour of the Kinabatangan. If you've got your own vehicle, look for signs indicating the turn-off to the Batu Caves, 18km south of the Sukau junction.
Although the Petronas Towers are taller, the 421m Menara KL, rising from the crest of Bukit Nanas, offers the best city views. The bulb at the top contains a revolving restaurant, an interior observation deck at 276m and, most thrilling of all, an open-air sky deck at 300m, access to which is weather dependent. Risk vertigo to take your photo in the sky box, which puts nothing but glass between you and the ground below. Surrounded by a pocket of primary rainforest, this lofty spire is the world's fourth-highest telecommunications tower. A free shuttle bus runs from the gate on Jln Punchak, or you can walk up through the KL Forest Eco Park. If you only wish to visit the observation deck the cost is adult/child RM49/29. Last tickets are sold at 9.30pm.
This former town hall and governor's residence dates to the 1650s and is believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the East. It functioned as State Government offices until 1979. Erected after the Dutch captured Melaka in 1641, it's a reproduction of the former Stadhuis (town hall) of the Frisian town of Hoorn in the Netherlands. Today it's the main building in a sprawling museum complex and houses the History & Ethnography Museum. Admission covers all the museums within the complex. There is no fee for guided tours, which take place at 10.30am and 2.30pm on Saturday and Sunday. To immerse yourself in Melaka past and present, peruse the Governor's House, Democratic Government Museum, a Literature Museum focusing on Malaysian writers, Cheng Ho Gallery and the Education Museum.
This graceful, onion-domed mosque, designed by British architect AB Hubback, borrows Mogul and Moorish styles with its brick-and-plaster banded minarets and three shapely domes. Located where the Gombak and Klang rivers meet, Masjid Jamek was the first brick mosque in Malaysia when completed in 1909. It remained the city's centre of Islamic worship until the opening of the National Mosque in 1965. You can visit the inside of the mosque and relax in its surrounding grounds and gardens outside prayer times. Dress modestly – cover shoulders and below the knee; robes are available to borrow. In 2017 the mosque was renamed in honour of Sultan Abdul Samad, the fourth Sultan of Selangor, who reigned from 1857 to 1898.
Sitting atop leafy Robson Heights, this vividly decorated multistorey Chinese temple, dedicated to Thean Hou, the heavenly queen, affords wonderful views over Kuala Lumpur. Opened in 1989 by the Selangor and Federal Territory Hainan Association, it serves as both a house of worship and a functional space for events such as weddings. In recent years it's also become a tourist attraction in its own right, especially during Chinese festival times and the birthdays of the various temple gods. Climb to the temple's upper decks, where you can also get close-up views of the mosaic dragons and phoenixes adorning the eaves. To get here, take a taxi from Tun Sambanthan monorail station or KL Sentral.