Updated January 2019
You don’t need a backpack and an anklet to journey around Malaysia. Less travelled than Thailand, this beautiful country is full of close encounters with the extraordinary. Visit historical cities and sparkling new ones, dine in the streets and dive with whale sharks.
Old cities, new cities and the beach
Best for: The old, modern and the marvellous
Kuala Lumpur – Penang – Langkawi
Fly direct to Kuala Lumpur, before driving up to Penang, and then go on to Langkawi by flight, or even a direct ferry.
Start your adventure in Kuala Lumpur. High rises and high humidity characterise this aspirational city, where the jungle is never far away. Most travellers will pass through en-route to wilder places, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stop for a few days and enjoy the cocktail of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures. Walk through KL Forest Eco Park and enjoy the emblem of the city, the Petronas towers, from the revolving restaurant at the Atmosphere 360. Shop at Pavilion for international and east Asian brands, then crash out on the floor of a cinema at Beanie, which uses beanbags instead of seats.
Where to stay: Take a boat transfer to Pangkor Laut Resort, just outside the city. It’s on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and has a fantastic spa.
The island of Penang is famous for its UNESCO-listed capital of Georgetown. Here, colonial bell towers and fortresses rise above the palm trees and religious buildings from various cultures remain the brightest focal points. Visit the Khoo Kongsi clan house on Cannon Square in the oldest part of town – even the outside is resplendent with beautiful carvings. Pop into the quirky camera museum during your wanderings and dare to sample a durian fruit on your travels. You can buy this curious delicacy in the markets on Transfer Road or Penang Road, but you’ll need to eat it fast: while its flesh is delicious, most hotels ban it because of its antisocial smell.
Take a break from the heat by taking to the hills. The funicular train crawls up to Penang Hill, where you can look down over the island. On the way, visit Kek Lok Si, a massive Buddhist temple with a beautiful white and yellow pagoda rising above the city.
Where to stay: Be part of the architecture. Eastern & Oriental Hotel, or E&O, as it’s known, has a white colonial facade and a pretty terracotta roof.
Make a break for it: Langkawi is Malaysia’s dedicated holiday spot. Comprised of 99 islands, the main island is widely known as a duty-free haven. It’s great if you like cheap prices on all your vices, a spot of shopping and a dash of rum. Sit on a beautiful beach with the jungle so close behind you that you can practically hear it growing. In the evenings, enjoy this holiday spot for what it is: a big blend of people out for a good time.
Where to stay: As expected, Langkawi is prime real estate for the poshest resorts. If you want all-out pampering, this is your island. Stay at the Datai Langkawi, with its wooden verandas and buildings on stilts. The jungle isn’t just on your doorstep – it’s growing over the balconies. The hotel is loyally loved by its repeat visitors. It has its own perfect, massive crescent of sand and a remote location in the north.
The beaches here are astounding, but it’s what’s below the water that gets most reaching for their swim shorts