Fly south of the Andaman Sea and you’ll come to the tropical land of Malaysia. If you’re visiting the country for the first time, here are the top 15 destinations to land yourself in.
You can’t visit Kuala Lumpur without visiting Bukit Bintang. Cosmopolitan yet local, commercial yet cultural, the neighbourhood of Bukit Bintang is buzzing with activity. During the day, you’ll want to visit Pasar Seni, a popular handicrafts market, as well as Kasturi Walk, a covered walkway with vendors selling local delicacies. Once the sun sets, head over to Changkat Bukit Bintang for the real fun, where an obedient row of colonial-style shophouses have been converted into boisterous pubs, bars and cafes.
George Town is Malaysia’s secret to all things street. Street food? They’ve got food courts every half mile, with the right kind of laksa (sorry, KL and Sabah folks). Street art? They’ve got legal and illegal ones. Street festivals? It’ll be strange if you don’t come upon one when you visit. Culture Trip recommends attending the arts and cultural George Town Festival in August.
This is the ‘real’ Borneo you’ve been looking for, with luscious primary rainforests and excited local inhabitants like gibbons and flying squirrels, who may stop to look at you. Travelers also enjoy checking out the three ancient burial sites here, which are complete with ceramic spirit jars and belian coffins.
Danum Valley, Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia, +60 88 486 168
Also known as the ‘Jewel of Kedah,’ Langkawi is one of those places which even Malaysians visit (and Malaysians are a thrifty lot). Pristine white sand meets gentle ocean waves at Cenang Beach, which is long enough to mean you won’t feel crowded in with other travelers. As long as you’re prepared to pay a fee, the Langkawi Cable Car also offers a majestic and sweeping view of the island.
According to legend, Malacca was founded when Parameswara (circa 1400) was inspired by the courage of a mouse deer. This decision would foreshadow the bravery later required of the locals, because Malacca would be colonized not once or twice, but three times over the course of the next 500 years. The marks of colonization colour (quite literally) the city center, of which the Stadthuys is the most well-known.
If you want proof of Mother Nature’s blessings, this is the place to see it. Sheer limestone cliffs rise like the tower(s) of Sauron over the quiet, verdure, unsuspecting rainforest. The two caves — Deer Cave and Clearwater Cave — are massive with an array of natural limestone formations and sleeping bats. Small waterfalls offer a refreshing view while making your way through the forest. Sounds like paradise? Wait until you see it in person.
Mulu World Heritage Area, Sarawak, Malaysia, +60 85 792 300
Home to the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, nowhere can compete with Sabah when it comes to hiking. Hikers typically set aside two to three days to conquer all 13,435 ft (4,095 meters) of Mount Kinabalu, and it’s advisable to book lodgings in advance. For the less adventurous, Kota Kinabalu (fondly known as ‘KK’) also offers a variety of other attractions, including the Gaya Street Sunday Market and the Klias River Cruise.
This marine protected area encompasses four islands, three of which are known as the ‘turtle islands’. The clear waters and shallow coral reefs are ideal for expectant turtle mothers, who come ashore between July and October to nest. Giant green turtles account for 90% of turtle landings here, but if you’re lucky you’ll also spot a hawksbill turtle making her slow ascent towards her nesting spot.
It’s been said that Singaporeans love Johor Bahru — but it’s not just because the currency is a good deal in their favor. It’s because of the banana cakes at Hiap Joo Bakery, the lovely stretch of fine sand at Desaru Beach, and the laid-back culture of Johorians. Recent years have seen quaint boutique cafés mushrooming up all around town, particularly along the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Street. Night markets are also a big draw.
Wondering where your ‘Boh’ tea comes from? Here marks the place. The gentle hills and valleys of Cameron Highlands are emerald-green with tea plantations that stretch as far as your eyes can see. But if tea’s not to your taste there are other attractions too, including a cactus valley, a honey bee farm and strawberry farm.
Strawberry Farm, Brinchang, 39000 Pahang, Malaysia +60 5 491 3327
‘Kuching’ literally means cats. That’s right — Sarawak’s capital city is named after furry domestic felines, who dominate the city in the form of numerous strategic sculptures. But there’s more than just cats to look at here. You can explore history at the Fort Margherita, discover religious culture at Tua Pek Kong Temple, and say hello to the proboscis monkeys at Bako National Park.
If you want to avoid the tourist-centric Pulau Langkawi, why not travel to the other side of the peninsula for the Perhentian Islands instead? Both the ‘big’ and ‘little’ islands feature lush greenery, refreshingly clear water and fine sand on the shores. If you’ve always wanted to test your snorkeling, diving and kayaking skills, this is the place to do it.
Experienced hikers will enjoy the challenge of Lambir Hills. Selected parts of the journey offer hiking aids like handlebars and wooden steps – but even this convenience doesn’t beset the steep climb at the final part of the hike, towards the top of Bukit Lambir. Waterfalls abound, birds are aplenty and trekking trails fork several ways. Bring water, snacks and a towel if you’re likely to sweat.
Is your idea of a tropical holiday strolling along the beach, watching turtles hatch, and enjoying a spa day or two? If so, Pulau Tioman is the destination for you. As long as you avoid the monsoon season between November and February, you’ll be knocking back cold draught beers on pristine white sand and enjoying sunsets to rival Bali’s.
This shy, unassuming city in Perak offers a number of interesting, non-tourist-filled attractions. The historic Kellie’s Castle, also known as ‘Kellie’s Folly’, offers a fascinating architectural blend of Moorish, Scottish and Tamilvanan Indian elements. But if old (and possibly haunted) castles are not for you, the Tempurung Cave is another popular attraction, especially for spelunkers. Large chambers, impressive stalagmites and walking tours of various lengths make this cave a soul-humbling and feet-challenging experience.
Kellie’s Castle,31000 Batu Gajah, Perak, Malaysia, +60 5 365 3381
Tempurung Cave, 31600 Gopeng, Negeri Perak, Malaysia, +60 12 529 2426