For those of us who have travelled with friends or family, we all know that travel can mean different things to different people. To some, it can mean indulgence; lying on the beach of a deserted island or hitting the shops for a bit of pampering. For others, it can mean immersion; venturing beneath the surface of a different culture and sampling the sights, sounds and street eats of a distant, far-away land. Then, of course, there are the adventure junkies; those who love nothing more than to strap on their hiking boots and hit the trails.
As a travel blogger, I know that there are very few countries in the world that can cater to these travel types simultaneously. Malaysia is, without a doubt, one of them. The country’s fascinating history as a colonial outpost – not just to the British, but also the Dutch and the Portuguese – and an early hub for Chinese, Malay and Indian settlers has also earned it a place in the hearts of historians and foodies who have marveled at the cultural mish-mash that is modern Malaysia.
Previously overlooked (and underrated) by nature-enthusiasts, the country is also becoming better known for its breathtaking natural landscapes that range from postcard-worthy tropical islands to orangutan-inhabited rainforests scattered across the mainland and the Borneo peninsular.
Needless to say, there are plenty of reasons why this fascinating country deserves a spot on your next globetrotting adventure. Here are 10 reasons why you should add Malaysia to your travel bucket list.
Few nicknames more accurately describe Malaysia than “foodie heaven”. With so many different influences, spanning from India and China to neighbouring Indonesia and southern Thailand, there is a host of delicious Malay foods to sample.
Food is so central to Malaysian culture that at any time – day or night – you can find locals lined up at local mamak hawker stall for bowls of laksa (curry noodle soup) or nasi lemak (coconut milk rice with sambal, fried anchovies and cucumber).
Whether you’re tasting hawker food on a street corner or splurging at one of the capital’s Michelin-star restaurants, the culinary offerings are great. In Kuala Lumpur, head to Jalan Alor for fresh satay or tuck into a banana leaf banquet in Little India before diving into a bowl of ice kachang (shaved ice) in Chinatown.
For the best char kway teow (stir-fried flat noodles) and wok-fried raddish cakes, head to the island of Penang.
Malaysia is one of Asia’s great multicultural melting pots; a product of early migration from other Southeast Asian nations and the arrival of Western colonial powers in the 16th Century.
Everywhere you look in Malaysia, there are fusions of influence. The country is also packed with UNESCO-listed heritage sites, including the port town of Malacca and George Town in Penang, both home to beautiful colonial architecture, churches and picturesque temples.
However, the historical trail really comes alive in Kuala Lumpur, home to Independence Square (where the flag of an independent Malaysia was first raised), Jamek Mosque, Little India, Chinatown and ornate shop houses once used by early Chinese merchants.
Scattered like beautiful pebbles across the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, Malaysia’s tropical islands possess that rare mix of white sand and turquoise shores that will have you clinging to the palm trees on your check-out date. This unabashed natural charm and seclusion has even attracted the eyes of Hollywood directors and now, more recently, beach-hungry holidaymakers looking to get a taste of simple-but-beautiful island life.
If you’re after some privacy, head to the less ‘touristy’ islands of Tioman or Perhentian, located off the east coast. Here, you’ll find it easy to find a private beach to catch up on your summer reading and, if you’re lucky, some turtles swimming nearby.
Equally beautiful but perhaps a bit more convenient to get to, are Penang (also considered the food capital of Malaysia) and Langkawi, both of which are renowned worldwide for their luxurious seaside resorts.
Whether you’re looking to explore the depths of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park in Kota Kinabalu or don a snorkel for some shallow-water coral gazing in Langkawi, Malaysia is home to some of the world’s best diving spots.
While the country’s best diving can be found just off the south-eastern tip of Sabah (located on the island of Borneo), those short on time can make the pilgrimage to sites closer to the mainland. If you’re hoping to combine relaxation with some deep-sea diving, head to Tioman Island, home to the Tioman Marine Park.
Malaysia can best be described as one of the Asia’s greatest cultural mash-ups. Indeed, the country is a rich amalgam of Asian ethnicities harmoniously coexisting as proud Malaysians.
The source of such vibrant diversity stems from early migration that saw the arrival of ethnic Malays (over 50% of the current population), as well as early Chinese (25%) and Indian (10%) immigrants.
Today, each Malaysian embraces and celebrates these traditions as their own and as a result the country is seemingly always in a state of celebration. This ranges from the raucous parades of Chinese New Year, to the night bazaars of Ramadan, right up to the festival of Diwali at the end of the year.
Following humble beginnings as an uninhabited muddy marshland, Kuala Lumpur has evolved into one of the world’s great metropolises. As a result, it has everything you can expect from a big, bustling city. Clubs, bars and upscale resto-lounges are certainly not in short supply and cater strongly to the growing group of expats and young, hip Malaysian scenesters.
But when you’re not eating or dancing (let’s be honest, when aren’t you?), try your hand at haggling at a local bazaar, shop at one of the city’s huge malls or head up the Petronas Twin Towers for an incredible panorama of the city.
Georgetown, Penang, also provides visitors with a fascinating glimpse of old world charm and modern development. Preserved colonial architecture stands side by side with bustling hawker food stalls and an emerging, trendy scene characterized by artisan cafes, boutique stalls and street art that will entertain even the most amateur photographer for hours.
While Malaysia (and especially Kuala Lumpur) can, at times, seem all glitz and glamour, venture out of the concrete jungle and you’ll find some pretty amazing actual jungles, too.
With tonnes of investment being ploughed into conservation efforts – particularly those located in and around Borneo – Malaysia is steadily realising the value of protecting its vast natural wonders. Wildlife is now one of the key reasons why people venture from all over the globe to visit Malaysia.
While mainland Malaysia offers lots in the way of wildlife, nowhere can replace the wild, beating heart of Borneo. Here, trek through the jungles of Gunung Leuser National Park and come face-to-face with wild deer, monitor lizards and cheeky gibbons slinging from branch-to-branch above the forest floor. For the ultimate encounter, head to Sepilok to get up close with Malaysia’s native orangutans.
Malaysia is retail heaven for shoppers. Whether you’re wandering around the malls of Bukit Bintang, hitting the high-street labels in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) or browsing a boutique in trendy Bangsar, you’ll find it nearly impossible to leave a store without buying something.
For the big labels, the ultimate retail shrines can be found in KLCC, or the KL City Centre mall located at the base of the city’s tallest landmark, the Petronas Twin Towers, as well as Mid Valley Mega Mall and Lot 10. For colourful fabrics, shoes and souvenirs, head to Chinatown or one of Malaysia’s famous pasa malams, meaning “night markets”.
Malaysia’s mosques are often overlooked and underrated by those visiting the country. However, tourists from other Islamic countries are often taken aback by Malaysia’s modern take on Islamic architecture and the diverse mix of people attending the daily call to prayer: ranging from those in modest Malay attire to those sporting the latest fashion trends.
Thanks to years of migration and economic development, the country boasts a diverse collection of stunning Mosques, ranging from the Moorish style Jamek Mosque in Kuala Lumpur, built by the British in 1909, to the more outlandish Malacca Straits Mosque built south of the capital in 2006.
Tourists are typically welcomed with open arms and can access the proper Islamic attire to explore the grounds and spectacular prayer rooms inside. Visiting during the holy month of Ramadan also offers visitors the chance to experience the smorgasbord of culinary delights offered at lively sunset markets held after each day of fasting.
Malaysia’s greatest asset is its people: welcoming, open-minded, friendly, hospitable and almost always with a good sense of humour. Locals, particularly in regional and rural Malaysia, will often greet visitors with a smile, a wave and competent English, often as good as their city-dwelling compatriots. Combine this with a love of food and Malaysians are some of the most hospitable people in Asia.
One important tip though: if you visit a local’s house for a meal, be prepared to eat, eat, eat!
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