Exploring Malaysia’s many marvels

By Eloise Barker

Photography by Puripat Lertpunyaroj / Getty Images

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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.

Kuala Lumpur

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.

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The beaches here are astounding, but it’s what’s below the water that gets most reaching for their swim shorts

  • Petronas Towers in the late afternoon, Kuala Lumpur. ©enviromantic.

    Above the canopy

    Founded on a slippery stack of oil money, the Petronas Towers is the tallest twin towers in the world, with 88 storeys.

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  • Kuan Yin Teng Temple, Penang State ©gollykim.

    Lantern lights

    If you’ve come to Malaysia to dive or swim, visit the Goddess of Mercy temple. First built by the Hokkien people in 1728, the temple is for the patron of seafarers.

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  • Langkawi Sky Bridge, Langkawi, Kedah, Malaysia. ©Nigel Killeen.

    Cross the sky

    This suspended bridge in Langkawi is built on top of the Machinchang mountain.

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South to Singapore

Best for: Free food samples and city gardens

Kuala Lumpur – Malacca – Singapore

After a direct flight to Kuala Lumpur, drive down to the port of Malacca. From here it’s a half day’s drive into the city state of Singapore, and from here you can fly directly home.

The journey: 242 miles


Head south from Kuala Lumpur to historical Malacca. Once a 15th century trading port, dusty terracotta buildings remain from the days of Dutch rule. Distracting trishaws will try and offer your rides around the sites. Festooned with lights, bunting, images of Hello Kitty and other children’s party paraphernalia, prepare to lose your dignity as a passenger – though negotiate your price first.

Visit the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, laid out according to the principles of feng shui and complete with fearsome guardian lions at its entrance. But you can’t eat good architecture. Malacca is also food heaven – it’s credited with inventing some of Malaysia’s best dishes. Head to Jonker Street for free samples and start your hunt for the best chicken rice balls on the strip: there’s some stiff competition. Seeking an impractical refreshment? Buy a whole watermelon. Street vendors plough through them with an electric beater to make a juice drink. Just add a straw.

Where to stay: The Majestic Malacca lives up to its name. It’s set in a 1920s mansion with ornate décor, teak and silk chaise lounges. A fifteen-minute drive takes you to the tourist centre.



It’s three and a half hours’ drive from Malacca to Singapore. You’ll cross into an independent city state. Sleek Singapore has command of nature as well as architecture: it’s famous for its exquisite Gardens by the Bay. There are malls with more acreage than your average farm and, despite its grand scale, the metropolis is clean, safe and navigable. This polished city has command of nature as well as architecture. It’s famous for its exquisite Gardens by the Bay, malls with more acreage than your average farm and being clean, safe and navigable. South East Asia’s cultures are corralled in distinct zones – so you can dabble into Little India before grabbing a coffee in Muslim Kampong Glam. See the city lights from a rooftop bar and then spend the evening seeking out an unoccupied bar stool on Club Street in Chinatown.

Where to stay: The Mandarin Oriental is a no-brainer if you’ve come to blow the budget on a brilliant view. Opulent with attentive service and stunning pool area – the bay view rooms have amazing vistas.

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East across the highlands

Best for: Brews and views

Kuala Lumpur – Cameron Highlands – Terengganu.

It takes three hours to drive into the Cameron Highlands from Kuala Lumpur. After experiencing its refreshing climate, a five-hour drive east gets you to the sultanate of Terengganu, where snorkelling tops the menu.

The journey: 329 miles

Cameron Highlands

Time for tea. You won’t be the first to climb into the Cameron Highlands in search of cooler climes. The British settlers made the trek in the 18th century and tourists come up here in their droves for the lavender farms, strawberry fields and the wiggly rows of tea bushes on round green hills. It’s a curious black mirror of Britishness – you can have high tea in a colonial hotel complete with cucumber sandwiches. But then you can go for a hike in the mossy forest and you’re back in Malaysia again. Take a tour of the BOH plantations and hear the story of tea – a plant that unites the east and western world.

Where to stay: A spa retreat is just the ticket. Set among mock-Tudor cottages, the Cameron Highlands Resort has a Spa Village that will clear your head of all colonial accoutrements. Don your sarong and slippers and choose from a menu of tasty treatments, from a rose petal face mask to an avocado oil massage.


Snorkelling time in Terengganu. The east coast of Malaysia is worth visiting when the west is in monsoon - the two sides of the island can have completely different weather. The beaches here are astounding, but it’s what’s below the water that gets most reaching for their swimshorts. Head to the out-of-the-way Perhentian islands, and you’ll be rewarded with priceless turtle encounters.

Where to stay: The Tanjong Jara Resort is on the mainland, bang on the beach. You can enjoy menu-free dining and sacrifice your dinner to the whim of their excellent chefs. Between March and October the hotel takes you on excursions to Pulua Tenggol, its petite island neighbour, where there are twenty dive sites and snorkelling areas. Mysterious whale sharks, some up to twelve metres long, pass by between March and April and September and October, and they’re surprisingly used to curious divers.

  • Market stall in Little India, Singapore. ©Tomatoskin.

    Trailing garlands

    Little India sells flower garlands that can be used as temple offerings, alongside henna, jewellery, and textiles.

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  • Perhentian Islands, Terengganu, Malaysia. ©John Seaton Callahan.

    Land ahoy!

    The Perhentian Islands are fantastic for snorkelling, sea kayaking and scuba diving.

  • Proboscis monkeys, Sandakan, Borneo island in Malaysia. ©shalamov.

    Wonderful wildlife

    Since 2007, 123 new species have been discovered in the heart of Borneo. This is one of the richest ecosystems on earth, with 3,000 species of orchid alone and, of course, the proboscis monkey.

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To the wild island

Best for: Experiencing Malaysian Borneo

Kuala LumpurKota Kinabalu – Sadankan

Is there anywhere more exciting for explorers than the wilds of Malaysian Borneo? You can fly to and from Kota Kinabalu and Sandankan from mainland Malaysia.

The journey: 1231 miles

Kota Kinabalu

Time to dive into the wild. East Malaysia, or Malaysian Borneo, is less developed than mainland Malaysia and holds a special place in most traveller’s imaginations. It is here that the wild things are. Just outside the city of Kota Kinabalu is Mount Kinabalu, a huge bald-topped rock rising out of the jungle. Book in advance if you want to scale it – you’ll need a guide. You can make inroads into the rainforest by boat or by trail. Take a trip to Pulau Tiga, famous for being the main star of the television series Survivor – remote, beautiful, and much nicer since you won’t be competing with a rival team to eat insect grubs.

Where to stay: Compromise between your adventurous self and your lazy self by staying at the Tanjung Aru. There are fantastic beaches and you can snorkel at the beautiful coral islands found just off the coast.


You can fly into the city of Sandakan from Kuala Lumpur. Sandankan is stepping stone of civilisation in the forest, but it’s surrounded by amazing nature. If you’re lucky, you may come across a clouded leopard, a pygmy elephant, a probiscus monkey or a Sumatran rhino. But don’t rely on luck if you want to see the island’s most famous resident. Semi-wild orangutan can be seen in Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, a half an hour drive from the city. Our near-relatives are arresting to encounter. Even further east, the tiny island of Sipidan is one of the best places to dive in the entire world. Stilted huts right on the beach make for dramatic, rickety landmarks when you resurface.

Where to stay: Four Points By Sheraton Sandakan is the city’s tallest building. Right in the heart of the hustle and bustle, you can enjoy the nearby night markets or buy lovely local craft.

  • Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo, East Malaysia. ©rmnunes.

    King of the jungle

    Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s highest peak. It is considered a sacred place and believed to be the resting ground for the spirits of the ancestors of the local Kadazan-Dusun people.

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