Where to go in Malaysia
Where to go in Malaysia
Our guide on the best places to visit in Malaysia
Peninsular Malaysia is a compact destination with excellent internal travel links, and so lends itself easily to multi-stop cultural tours. With alluring tropical coastline on either side, lush rainforests and cool hills through the centre, and vibrant, multi-cultural cities littered throughout you’ll find variety and intrigue wherever you travel.
Malaysia’s western coast is exposed to the Malacca Strait – one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – and further on the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. This side of Malaysia was of most interest to the Portuguese, then Dutch, then British colonising powers and as such over time has become the more developed and populated. It’s on this side of the peninsula that you’ll find sprawling capital city Kuala Lumpur (universally known as ‘KL’), idyllic resort island Langkawi, and the characterful and historic port cities Malacca and Penang.
The east coast is more sparsely populated and also, particularly in the northeast states of Kelantan and Terengganu, more traditional. You’ll find the beaches here quieter – both in development, and in tourist numbers – and with just a handful of genuinely upmarket accommodation choices on offer. The east coast also experiences Malaysia’s heaviest rainy season: the region gets a thorough soaking from November to February, with all hotels closed and off-shore islands such as Redang or the Perhentians completely cut off.
Peninsular Malaysia’s interior is dense rainforest – largely still wild and undeveloped. Protected reserves such as Taman Negara and Belum provide access to the jungle, with simple lodges offering hikes, birdwatching, boat tours, and canopy walks. In a few pockets the hills rise up out of tropical lowlands up to cooler mountain retreats: Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands offer a throwback to colonial times with twee British hill station villages, tea plantations, and strawberry farms.
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Best places to go in Malaysia
Our guide to Malaysia’s principal destinations is below. You’ll find there’s a lot to see and a great deal of variety on offer! Please speak to our specialists if you’d like more information on any of these locations.
Malaysia’s capital and largest city, Kuala Lumpur is defined by its colourful culture and friendly locals. You’ll find a mix of towering skyscrapers, gleaming malls, colonial architecture, a strong Islamic influence in its mosques, minarets, and Mughal domes, plus a wealth of cultural attractions. Notable landmarks include the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest twin skyscrapers, and the Batu Caves which date back more than 400 million years. While there is a reverence for ancient culture, it’s balanced with a plugged-in modern world and a contemporary art scene. Visitors can mingle with the locals in their favourite pastimes – shopping and dining – in air-conditioned malls and the popular Central Market.
Malacca is situated roughly equidistant between KL and Singapore and makes a convenient and highly characterful stopping point between the two. This historic port has a broad mix of British, Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch influences and features an intriguing mix of architecture, religion and food. Along the cobbled streets you’ll find impressive Hindu and Buddhist temples as well as Christ Church, Malaysia’s oldest functioning Protestant church which dates back to 1753. Malacca also has a strong Straits Chinese influence, notably from its Peranakan (also known as Nyonya) community. The Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum, a collection of three gorgeous, restored homes is arranged to look like a typical 19th-cenutry Baba-Nyonya residence. At the summit of St. Paul’s Hill are the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, built on the site of the last Malaccan sultan’s palace.
Around three hours’ to the north of KL, Ipoh is the capital city of central Perak state. It’s known for a large ethnic Chinese population, evidenced in several colourful temples and a distinctly Chinese-influenced cuisine: noted dishes include Chicken Rice, Hor Fun noodles, and caramel egg custard tarts. Just outside Ipoh you’ll find the luxurious Banjaran Retreat – an exclusive retreat in a dramatic limestone setting which offers hot spring pools, natural cave saunas, and a lengthy spa menu. Ipoh’s central location makes for a convenient mid-tour stopping point, with easy onward travel to Penang, Pangkor island, and the Cameron Highlands.
Malaysia’s most popular highland retreat, the Cameron Highlands sit at nearly 6562 feet at their highest point, enjoying a climate that’s cooler than the rest of the country, boasting a stunning landscape carpeted in emerald green. Travelers come to walk through charming villages and forests, visit waterfalls, sprawling emerald tea plantations, strawberry, butterfly, and honeybee farms, while escaping the sweltering heat of the lowlands. Both wildflowers and vegetables thrive here, with vendors selling organic onions, carrots and cauliflower grown by local farmers along the main road in the eight loosely connected villages.
The ‘Pearl of the Orient’, Penang is a tropical city which offers it all: home to gastronomic delights, a mix of historic and modern architecture, soft white sandy beaches, and numerous excellent hotels. It has a diverse mix of cultures, with modern developments juxtaposed with mosques, temples and historic buildings, while the coast is lined with sleepy fishing villages and luxury resorts. The colonial city of George Town is its multicultural capital with historic British buildings, magnificent mosques and crumbling shophouses in its oldest section. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also one of the top spots in all of Southeast Asia for mouth-watering street food.
The ‘Jewel of Kedah’, Langkawi is an archipelago of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea, approximately 30 miles off the mainland coast of north western Malaysia. Just two are inhabited, Pulau Tuba and Pulau Langkawi, the largest and most populated, synonymous with pristine sandy beaches, wildlife-filled jungles and fantastic shopping, dining, and entertainment. Its striking rugged beauty can be found in forest parks, hot springs and magnificent waterfalls. The island is not overly developed – although there are plenty of beach bars, seafood restaurants and spas, it’s also home to villages that have managed to preserve local traditions.
Taman Negara is Peninsular Malaysia’ premier rainforest reserve. Housing patches of the world’s old primary rainforest – outdating the dinosaurs – the park has simple accommodation but a range of enticing jungle activities. You’ll arrive at the park via a long road journey into the jungle and then a dramatic longtail boat transfer up to your lodge. The most popular attraction here is the canopy walkway, the longest in the world, which spans a distance of 1,738 feet while hovering 147 feet above the forest floor. From here you can watch for the park’s famous flora and fauna, which includes tapirs, long-tailed macaques, hornbills, pygmy elephants, and – allegedly – a tiny remaining population of leopard and Malayan tiger.
Further north from Taman Negara almost on the border with Thailand, the Belum-Temengor Reserve is another patch of pristine ancient rainforest. Activity is centred around the manmade Temengor Lake from where intrepid visitors can enjoy bird-watching (hornbills are a particularly exciting sighting), forest walks, fishing, kayaking, and visits to traditional ‘orang asli’ villages. Belum is also believed to house a tiny population of Malayan tigers – but you’ll need to be deep in the forest for weeks to see one! As with Taman Negara, accommodation here is simple so you’ll need a sense of adventure to get involved.
Sitting off Malaysia’s lower east coast, around 5 hours’ transfer from Singapore and 6 from Kuala Lumpur, Tioman is a small volcanic island with barely any tourism (or other) development…and all the better for it. The challenging transfers mean you’ll need to make a little extra effort to get here but it is absolutely worth it, with the island offering totally pristine and near-deserted white sand beaches and a mountainous interior which begs for exploration. The luxurious Japamala Resort is our pick here – one of the very best boutique beach retreats in all Southeast Asia.
Perhentians, Redang, Terengganu
The eastern coast of Malaysia is quieter, more traditional, and somewhat cut-off from the busier west coast by the mountains and jungles of the interior. Handily, the east coast climate is the exact inverse of the west coast, meaning that whenever you travel to Malaysia there is a tropical paradise in season. Mainland Terengganu, and off-shore islands Redang, and the Perhentians take a little bit of getting to but are absolutely gorgeous island escapes, with several excellent accommodation options on offer.
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