Populated by a blend of Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups, Malaysia boasts a rich cultural heritage, from a huge variety of annual festivals and wonderful cuisines, to traditional architecture and rural crafts. There’s astonishing natural beauty to take in too, including gorgeous beaches and some of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest, much of which is surprisingly accessible. Malaysia’s national parks are superb for trekking and wildlife-watching, and sometimes for cave exploration and river rafting.
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As part of the Malay archipelago, which stretches from Indonesia to the Philippines, Malaysia became an important port of call on the trade route between India and China, the two great markets of the early world, and later became important entrepôts for the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires. Malaysia has only existed in its present form since 1963, when the federation of the eleven Peninsula states was joined by Singapore and the two Bornean territories of Sarawak and Sabah. Singapore left the union to become an independent country in 1965.
Today, the dominant cultural force in the country is undoubtedly Islam, adopted by the Malays in the fourteenth century. But it’s the religious plurality – there are also sizeable Christian and Hindu minorities – that is so attractive, often providing surprising juxtapositions of mosques, temples and churches. Add the colour and verve of Chinese temples and street fairs, Indian festival days and everyday life in Malay kampungs (villages), and the indigenous traditions of Borneo, and it’s easy to see why visitors are drawn into this celebration of ethnic diversity; indeed, despite some issues, Malaysia has something to teach the rest of the world when it comes to building successful multicultural societies.
Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (usually referred to as KL), is the social and economic driving force of a nation eager to better itself, a fact reflected in the relentless proliferation of air-conditioned shopping malls, designer bars and restaurants in the city, and in the continuing sprawl of suburbia and industry around it. But KL is also firmly rooted in tradition, where the same Malay executives who wear suits to work dress in traditional clothes at festival times, and markets and food stalls are crowded in among high-rise hotels and bank towers, especially in older areas such as Chinatown and Little India.
Just a couple of hours’ drive south of the capital lies the birthplace of Malay civilization, Melaka, its historical architecture and mellow atmosphere making it a must on anybody’s itinerary. Much further up the west coast, the island of Penang was the site of the first British settlement in Malaysia. Its capital, Georgetown, still features beautifully restored colonial buildings and a vibrant Chinatown district, and is, together with Melaka, recognized for its cultural and architectural diversity as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a taste of Old England, head for the hill stations of Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands, where cooler temperatures and lush countryside provide ample opportunities for walks, birdwatching, rounds of golf and cream teas. North of Penang, Malay, rather than Chinese, traditions hold sway at Alor Star, the last major town before the Thai border. This far north, the premier tourist destination is Pulau Langkawi, an island with international-style resorts and picture-postcard beaches.
The Peninsula’s east coast is much more rural and relaxing, peppered with rustic villages and stunning islands such as Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Tioman, busy with backpackers and package tourists alike. The state capitals of Kota Bharu, near the northeastern Thai border, and Kuala Terengganu, further south, showcase the best of Malay traditions, craft production and performing arts.
Crossing the Peninsula’s mountainous interior by road or rail allows you to venture into the majestic tropical rainforests of Taman Negara. The national park’s four thousand square kilometres hold enough to keep you occupied for days: trails, salt-lick hides for animal-watching, aerial forest-canopy walkways, limestone caves and waterfalls. Here you may well also come across the Orang Asli, the Peninsula’s indigenous peoples, a few of whom cling to a semi-nomadic lifestyle within the park.
Across the sea from the Peninsula lie the east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. For most travellers, their first taste of Sarawak comes at Kuching, the old colonial capital, and then the Iban longhouses of the Batang Ai river system. Sibu, much further north on the Rajang River, is the starting point for trips to less touristed Iban, Kayan and Kenyah longhouses. In the north, Gunung Mulu National Park is the principal destination; many come here to climb up to view its extraordinary razor-sharp limestone Pinnacles, though spectacular caves also burrow into the park’s mountains. More remote still are the Kelabit Highlands, further east, where the mountain air is refreshingly cool and there are ample opportunities for extended treks.
The main reason for a trip to Sabah is to conquer the 4095m granite peak of Mount Kinabalu, set in its own national park, though the lively modern capital Kota Kinabalu and its idyllic offshore islands, Gaya and Manukan, have their appeal, too. Beyond this, Sabah is worth a visit for its wildlife: turtles, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and hornbills are just a few of the exotic residents of the jungle and plentiful islands. Marine attractions feature in the far east at Pulau Sipadan, pointing out towards the southern Philippines, which has a host of sharks, other fish and turtles, while neighbouring Pulau Mabul contains hip, but often pricey, diving resorts.
With some of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and countless beaches and islands, trekking, snorkelling and scuba diving are common pursuits in Malaysia. The more established resorts on the islands of Penang, Langkawi and Tioman also offer jet skiing and paragliding, while the exposed, windy bay at Cherating, the budget travellers’ centre on the east coast, is a hot spot for windsurfers.
The crystal-clear waters and abundant tropical fish and coral of Malaysia make snorkelling and diving a must for any underwater enthusiast. This is particularly true of Sabah’s Sipidan Island Marine Reserve and the Peninsula’s east coast, with islands like the Perhentians, Redang, Kapas and Tioman.
Dive shops, for example in Sabah’s Kota Kinabalu and Sarawak’s Miri, offer all-inclusive, internationally recognized certification courses, ranging from a beginner’s open-water course (around RM1300), right through to the dive-master certificate (RM2200). If you’re already qualified, expect to pay RM180 per day for dive trips including gear rental.
Most beachside guesthouses rent snorkelling equipment for around RM20 per day. Some popular snorkelling areas mark out lanes for motorboats with buoy lines – stay on the correct side of the line to avoid a nasty accident. If you’re not sure where it’s safe to swim or snorkel, always seek local advice. Never touch or walk on coral as this will cause irreparable damage – besides which, you risk treading on the armour-piercing spines of sea urchins, or a painful encounter with fire coral.
Windsurfing has yet to take off in all but the most expensive resorts in Malaysia, with the notable exception of Cherating. Its large, open bay and shallow waters provide near-perfect conditions during the northeast monsoon season.
Whitewater rafting has become a popular activity on Sabah’s Sungai Padas, a grade 3 river which, at its northern end, runs through the spectacular Padas Gorge. Opportunities for rafting in Peninsular Malaysia tend to be in out-of-the-way spots in the interior; it’s best to go with an operator such as Nomad Adventure (wnomadadventure.com) or Khersonese Expedition (wthepaddlerz.com). Expect a day’s rafting to cost around RM250, including equipment.
The majority of treks in Malaysia require forethought and preparation. As well as the fierce sun, the tropical climate can unleash torrential rain without warning, which rapidly affects the condition of trails or the height of a river – what started out as a ten-hour trip can end up taking twice as long. That said, the time of year is not a hugely significant factor when planning a trek. Although in the rainy season (Nov–Feb) trails can be slow going (or even closed for safety reasons), conditions are less humid then, and the parks and adventure tours are not oversubscribed.
Treks in national parks almost always require that you go in a group with a guide; solo travellers can usually join a group once there. Costs and conditions vary between parks; each park account in the Guide contains details, while tour operators in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu (listed throughout) can also furnish information on conditions and options in the parks.
For inexperienced trekkers, Taman Negara is probably the best place to start, boasting the greatest range of walks, many of which can be done without a guide, while Bako National Park in southwest Sarawak offers fairly easy, day-long hikes. For the more experienced, other parks in Sarawak, especially Gunung Mulu, should offer sufficient challenges for most tastes, while Sabah’s Maliau Basin is at the very demanding end of the scale. The largely inaccessible Endau-Rompin Park in the south of Peninsular Malaysia is for serious expeditions only. Mount Kinabalu Park in Sabah is in a class of its own, the hike to the top of the mountain a demanding but highly rewarding combination of trekking and climbing.
As camping and trekking are not especially popular with Malaysians, you need to bring your own gear if possible – especially core items like tents and sleeping bags – or buy the locally made version available at markets and general product stores. These might not look good or even last long, but at least won’t cost a fortune.
Hiking boots are especially hard to find, though one-piece rubber slip-on shoes (kasut gatah)costing just RM10 are sold everywhere (up to around size 40). Many national park guides use them as they dry out instantly and give good grip on forest floors, but they’re not suitable for multi-day trekking in difficult terrain.
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There are small (and very expensive) “proper” outdoor gear stores in KL, Kota Bharu and elsewhere; you might also be able to rent some of what you’ll need on site, especially at Taman Negara, or have it supplied as part of a hiking package.
Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo are a paradise for wildlife-spotters, harbouring over 600 types of birds and 200 mammal species – including Asian elephants, sun bears, tigers, tapirs, barking deer, gibbons, hornbills and pythons. Borneo’s speciality is the proboscis monkey, so-called because of its bulbous, drooping nose. The island is also one of only two natural habitats (with Sumatra) for orang-utans – indeed, the name is Malay for “man of the forest”. Marine life is equally diverse: divers can swim with white-tip sharks, clown fish and barracuda, not to mention green and hawksbill turtles, which drag themselves ashore in season to lay their eggs by night.