Malaysia offers travellers tropical islands, a 130-million-year-old rainforest and (almost) secret diving havens. The country’s many features make it challenging to know where to visit. Culture Trip uncovers everything soon-to-be visitors need to know about Malaysia’s 13 states and the states’ three federal territories.
Almost 26 million tourists visit Malaysia annually, mostly traveling to Kuala Lumpur (‘KL’) and Penang. But this country has much more to offer on both the Malay Peninsula and Borneo. Culture Trip explores the 16 regions and states in Malaysia, explaining where to go and what to see.
Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s beating heart. This skyscraper-laden city houses the world-famous Petronas Twin Towers, while Little India and Chinatown offer a taste of its thriving multiculturalism. Malls are stocked with the latest fashion, technology and souvenirs, alluring bargain-hunters inland and overseas. But it isn’t all about the high life: KL is also one of the world’s food capitals, filled with street-side restaurants, vendors and food courts. Away from the skyscrapers, KL Forest Eco Park provides a slice of the rainforest in the city centre.
Pro tip: KL is Malaysia’s central transport hub. Take advantage of the ultra-affordable domestic flights to other states in Malaysia.
The administrative capital of Malaysia lies 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur and showcases the country’s most elegant architecture. People often confuse Putrajaya as an extension of Kuala Lumpur since the two territories seamlessly blend into one another, but there are many differences between each spot. Stately government offices cluster around Central Core District. The pink-domed Putra Mosque dominates the skyline with a soaring minaret that is 116 metres (381 feet) tall. Colossal Seri Perdana (the prime minister’s official residence) blends both Malay and Islamic styles with European neoclassical columns. Putrajaya also hosts a sprawling botanical garden and the futuristic Seri Wawasan cable bridge.
Pro tip: Putrajaya advocates formality. Cover your legs and shoulders.
Negeri Sembilan (or Nine State in Bahasa) refers to the nine counties sandwiched between Selangor and Pahang that form the small state. Few international travellers visit this state in Malaysia and those who do head to Port Dickson. Port Dickson, a small seaside town that’s an hour’s drive from KL, attracts mostly Malaysian tourists. While it lacks Langkawi-style beaches, the resort town gives easy access to the coast. The state capital Seremban provides a smattering of culture—unravel Negeri Sembilan’s history at the State Museum and visit the local art complex.
Pro tip: History-lovers with their own transport can visit a handful of forgotten forts and a 16th-century Portuguese lighthouse.
Selangor holds the title as both the wealthiest and most populated state in Malaysia (a whopping four million residents live here). Sprawling through the Klang Valley, Selangor houses a handful of fascinating attractions, such as capital Shah Alam’s gigantic blue-dome Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque. The Kampong-style town of Kuala Selangor offers river cruises to watch the fireflies dance above the murky river. Foodies can taste Kajang’s famous satay, or try Chinese-Malaysian speciality bak kut teh (pork rib soup) in Klang.
Pro tip: Take the short bus ride from KL to Cheras for easy-to-reach jungle trails.
Malacca oozes with history and culture, with a celebrated title as one of the most historically important states in Malaysia. Malacca’s 15th-century Sultanate led to the modern Malay identity, accepting three eras of colonial influence (Portuguese, Dutch and British influence) that spanned almost five centuries. Today, UNESCO-listed Malacca City bursts with centuries-old structures, including St Paul’s—Malaysia’s oldest church. It also has a thriving food scene: Many people come here solely to eat their way through Jonker Street and stuff their faces with mountains of Peranakan cuisine.
Pro tip: Malacca is known for its Baba-Nyonya cuisine. This is a blend of Malay and Chinese cooking styles (Culture Trip recommends Nancy’s Kitchen or mid-range Restaurant Nyonya Makko).
Johor is the southernmost state in Malaysia, located on the Malay Peninsula’s tip. Capital Johor Bahru (or ‘JB’) acts as the gateway into Singapore. Despite lacking the touristic nature of its Malaccan neighbour, it’s worth staying here for a night on a stopover. The state’s most fascinating highlight is the somewhat unusual Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque. Rather than the traditional domes, this mosque looks almost Victorian. From a distance, the four minarets resemble British Malayan clock towers. Step away from JB and find celebrity-standard resorts on Rawa Island and an (almost) secret diving oasis on Sibu Island.
Pro tip: If you’re in Johor, try Johor laksa. Rather than using rice noodles, the state-favourite laksa uses yellow egg noodles.
Pahang is among the more diverse states in Malaysia, offering highlands, beaches and islands. Cameron Highlands sits at approximately 1,200 metres (3,937 feet) above sea level. Temperatures hover in the low 20s (Celsius) and high 60s or low 70s (Fahrenheit), with terraced tea plantations sprawling across the forested mountains. Visitors can hike to waterfalls, pick strawberries and indulge in English-style afternoon tea. Head a little deeper into Pahang to Taman Negara (National Park). This 130-million-year-old rainforest features the world’s longest canopy walk and Mount Tahan (West Malaysia’s tallest and toughest peak). Click here to find out how to travel to Taman Negara. Beach-lovers can escape the tourists along state capital Kuantan’s east coast resorts, or travel to the palm-fringed, white-sand Tioman Island for a romantic getaway.
Pro tip: Getting around Pahang can be challenging. Double and triple check your transport options if you want to embrace the state’s gorgeous natural diversity.
Perak is one of the most criminally underrated states in Malaysia, hiding limestone cliffs and mysterious cave temples within its reach. The cities of Ipoh and Taiping both boast stunning architecture and a thriving food scene. Culture Trip recommends spending two nights in Ipoh, where you can explore the Ipoh Heritage Trail, visit cave temples and discover Neolithic cave art. The half-finished and haunting Kellie’s Castle sits in nearby Batu Gajah. Former tin-mining Taiping on the other hand is entirely off the tourist trail (for now), but the little-known city features English-style Lake Gardens, Taiping Zoo (with orangutans) and dramatic mountains. Culture Trip also recommends exploring Pangkor Island’s quiet beaches and Malaysia’s very own Leaning Tower of Teluk Intan.
Pro tip: Thanks to the Visit Perak 2017 tourist campaign, tourist numbers are soaring. Travel sooner rather than later to avoid the inevitable crowds.
Kedah State covers a section of the Malay Peninsula and the famously duty-free Langkawi Island. World-acclaimed Langkawi receives the vast majority of the state’s tourists, home to beautiful beaches, verdant hills and a colourful nightlife scene. As an alternative, the dazzling white-sand beaches of Pantai Cenang provide the perfect place for relaxation, especially with cheap cocktails in beachside bars overlooking the gentle sea. Mainland Kedah offers a completely different travel package. Alor Setar’s modern city centre blends decorative, traditional and Islamic styles of architecture, while paddy fields forming the famous ‘Rice Bowl of Malaysia’ stretch towards the horizon.
Pro tip: The gorgeous city of Alor Setar sits between Langkawi and Penang. Culture Trip recommends spending 24 hours in Alor Setar on a stopover.
The smallest and northernmost state in Malaysia hardly gets any visitors. The Malay-Thai border sits about 40 kilometres (25 miles) north of tiny state capital Kangar. But despite its size and tourists’ lack of interest, Perlis packs an intriguing punch: A raja, not a sultan, rules over Perlis. This fascinating technicality dates back to the 19th century, when Perlis became part of Siam, which instated a king. Despite the Malay royal bloodline, the king became a raja because another sultan didn’t explicitly bestow him. Spend two days in Perlis, where Culture Trip recommends visiting the Arau (royal capital) and Masjid Terapung Al-Hussain floating mosque. Limestone caves penetrate many of the surrounding hills, offering countless spelunking opportunities with guided tours.
Pro tip: If you’re in Perlis on a Sunday, check out the Wang Kelian market in Wang Kelian village. This bustling market sprawls for hundreds of metres along the Thai border, with goods from both Malaysia and Thailand touted by enterprising vendors.
Penang, once Malaysia’s colonial jewel and now proud street art and food capital, is split between Penang Island and mainland Butterworth. Capital George Town’s historical centre includes dozens of colourful restored British colonial buildings, with traditional two-storey decorated shophouses lining the narrow streets. More curious travellers can stop by Butterworth, the hub connecting Penang and KL. This little-visited city offers colourful Chinese temples and views over the Straits and Penang Bridge.
Pro tip: Take the ferry between Butterworth and George Town (even if you don’t need to). Fares cost just 1.20 Malaysian ringgit ($0.30), providing an affordable way to see the Straits.
Kelantan is among the least visited states in Malaysia. Known as both the ‘Land of Lightning’ and ‘Balcony of Mecca’, the northeastern state advocates conservative Islam, meaning all visitors need to dress appropriately and respect its religious customs. Domestic flights connect capital Kota Bahru to a handful of cities in Malaysia, but the majority of arrivals tend to speed through on their way to Perhentian Highlands. Kota Bahru is worth a night: Attractive Islamic architecture combines with fascinating museums (Culture Trip recommends both Kelantan Museum and Museum Islam). But the city’s highlight is the nightly Pasar Malam (Night Market), serving delicious Kelantanese street food. Local-style beach resorts free of international tourists line the eastern coast while Gunung Stong State Park in the Kelantanese highlands offers hiking, waterfalls and caves.
Pro tip: Cover your arms and legs in Kelantan and respect its conservative principles.
Terengganu sits between Kelantan and Pahang in northeast Malaysia. The state gets hardly any visitors, as most head to the tropical islands spread across the South China Sea. If you want empty beaches and perfect snorkelling conditions, head to Perhentian Islands. This diving oasis consists of two main islands: budget-friendly Perhentian Kecil (small) and upscale Perhentian Besar (big). Backpackers and younger travellers tend to head for Kecil, while families stay on Besar. What sets the Perhentian Islands apart from the rest of Malaysia’s beaches is its affordable diving schools. For a more luxurious getaway, spend a few nights in Redang Island’s exclusive resorts, while Kapas Island gives a welcome opportunity to get off the grid.
Pro tip: Despite the countless islands in Terengganu State, you’ll still need to respect its conservative customs (speedos and bikinis might only be permitted on certain beaches).
Borneo’s Sabah in East Malaysia showcases the best of Malaysia’s biodiversity. Pre-historic rainforest covers most of the state, where endemic proboscis monkeys and orangutans swing from the trees. Mount Kinabalu at 4,095 metres (13,435 feet) stands proudly as Malaysia’s tallest peak, with most travellers arriving at Kota Kinabalu (literally Kinabalu City) as a base for scaling this beast. Speedboats connect the city with Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park’s beach and snorkelling opportunities within minutes. Take a day trip to the northernmost ‘Tip of Borneo’ in Kudat and watch the fireflies in Kota Belud. If you want the jungle, spend a few nights in Danum Valley or the rarely explored Maliau Basin.
Pro tip: Sabah’s famous Pesta Kaamaatan (Harvest Festival) takes place on 30 and 31 May. Attending this free event provides a chance to immerse yourself in indigenous cultures and traditions.
Sarawak on Borneo Island is the largest state in Malaysia. Dense and almost impenetrable jungle covers its vast interior, interspersed with caves and national parks. Long coasts stretch across the South China Sea housing small cities, including Kuching, Sibu and Miri. Travellers usually start in Kuching, affectionately called ‘City of Cats’. Check out the Kuching Waterfront, Astana (Palace) and Carpenter Street. Culture Trip recommends all travellers visit Bako National Park, where tame proboscis monkeys, endemic to Borneo, watch curiously near Park HQ. If you have more time, head to Sarawak’s nationwide famous caves. Niah National Park near Miri is the most accessible.
Pro tip: Sarawak indigenous peoples (called Dayak) live in villages accessible only by longboat. Some tours offer the chance to visit these rural communities.
Labuan holds the nickname as ‘The Pearl of Borneo’. Consisting of one large and six smaller islands near Sabah and Brunei, it’s an almost unknown territory to travellers in Malaysia. Labuan Town is compact, pedestrian-friendly and clean, where travellers can hit the beaches and catch the vibrant Bornean sunset. Others take advantage of duty-free shopping and visit World War II attractions (Culture Trip recommends Japanese Surrender Park). But the biggest allure here caters towards divers: Labuan has some of the highest numbers of diving sites in Asia and some absolutely stunning coral formations beneath the water.
Pro tip: Labuan Island sits near Brunei’s Bandar Seri Begawan. Take the ferry from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah and stop in Labuan before entering Brunei.