Malaysia is roughly divided into two halves separated by the South China Sea, Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. Both share an abundance of natural beauty, with diverse and friendly cultures sharing a common passion for food –be it be Chinese, Malay, Indian or indigenous specialties. Peninsular Malaysia boasts the country’s most bustling cities. Adding to its charm is the abundance of colonial heritage still evident in many pockets throughout the region. Malaysian Borneo is more well-known to those seeking adventure and off the beaten path exploration. Rich with lush tropical rainforests, deserted beaches and traditional culture, Borneo offers a unique perspective on Malaysia that most find as alluring as it is wild. Whether it’s beaches, mountains, food or culture, Malaysia has an answer to the best that any country in the region has to offer. Yet still, few consider Malaysia as their first choice when it comes to travel in the region –and that’s exactly why you should go.
Top 10 Destinations in Malaysia
Named for Sir William Cameron, who first mapped the area in 1885, the highlands first became famous during the British colonial period. Due to its high elevation, the temperature rarely exceeds 30°C, making it a perfect reprieve of the steamy lowland heat found elsewhere in Malaysia. Combined with gentle rolling hills laden with strawberry farms, an endless patchwork of tea plantations and a breeze sweetened with the scent of eucalyptus, it’s easy to see why visitors have been flocking here since the 1930’s. The highlands also offer a great deal of opportunity for eco-conscious trekkers, with little-explored forests, interesting temples and superb views.
A great place to see the verdant landscapes of the Cameron Highlands for yourself is at the Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation near Tanah Rata. While wandering around the plantation you’ll be treated to spectacular views of rolling hills filled with impossibly green tea plants that form stunning geometric patterns as they fade off into the distance. It’s the perfect backdrop for photos of the unique highland environment.
In addition to being great for photos, the highland environment is perfect for growing strawberries. There is no shortage of strawberry farms to choose from for a day of strawberry picking in the area. One of our favorite places is Koh Lin Strawberry Farm near Brinchang. It’s the largest strawberry farm in the area, and they allow you to harvest the strawberries yourself by the kilogram.
One of the more unique sights in the Cameron Highlands is Sam Poh Temple. Dedicated to a Chinese eunuch and naval officer, it’s spectacularly decorated with Chinese regalia and a vast collection of Buddha images. Nestled at the base of a karst mountain, the surrounding scenery adds to its charm.
In keeping with the pastoral nature of Cameron Highlands as an attraction, another one of the area’s highlights is Ee Feng Gu Honeybee farm. Just five kilometres from the town centre, it’s one of the main attractions in the area. Here you’ll find a working apiary with experienced bee keepers who will teach you not only about bees, but the art of bee keeping and the collection of honey. It’s one of the more informative and interesting things to do in Cameron Highlands.
How to get there:
By Bus: Cameron Highlands can be accessed by road from both the west and east coasts. Most travellers come from the west on the road from Ipoh or Tapah. From the east, most come through Gusa Musang.
The gleaming capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, is one of Southeast Asia’s most metropolitan cities. Its towering skyscrapers, colonial architecture, diverse local population, thriving food scene and unmatched connectivity make it a tantalizing destination for urban explorers in the region. Between the domes of grand mosques found throughout the city to the iconic Petronas Towers and colonial-era shop houses, Kuala Lumpur is an architectural buffet. Its expansive shopping malls and abundance of local markets makes it a shopper’s paradise. If that isn’t enough, Kuala Lumpur also boasts spectacular natural and cultural wonders. Combined, these factors contribute to Kuala Lumpur being one of the region’s hottest travel destinations.
The most iconic attraction in Kuala Lumpur is undoubtedly the Petronas Towers. Two towers standing at a stately 88 storeys high and joined by a double-decker Sky Bridge dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur. They, without a doubt, are one of the most spectacular architectural marvels in Asia. Truly, no visit to Kuala Lumpur would be complete without a visit to these towering structures. Within the grounds of the towers there’s also the KLCC Shopping Mall which hosts a wide assortment of international brands, a cinema, two food courts and an art gallery. Just a short walk away from the buildings is a pleasant park, perfect for viewing the towers from below.
The city is also home to another not-so-short construction –the Menara KL Tower. It was once one of the tallest structures in the world. Although it has since been usurped by the Petronas Towers, its viewing deck does stand 100 metres higher than the Petronas Towers’ Sky Bridge –so if it’s a lofty vantage point from which to view the city that you seek, the KL Tower is the best place to find it.
Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown may be one of the best and most authentic in Southeast Asia. Find yourself on Peatling Street, with its combination of gritty atmosphere, picturesque and distinctly oriental decorations and hustling people, and you’ll feel as though you’ve been transported to China. Those looking to do a bit of shopping will find refuge here as well –it’s one of the best places in Southeast Asia to find a good bargain.
One of Kuala Lumpur’s best attractions is a day trip out of the city to the Batu Caves. Just eleven kilometres away from the city centre you’ll find a sprawling Hindu pilgrimage site with giant statues devoted to various Hindu deities. One of the caves has been devoted to Hindu devotees and contains a 100-year old temple in its centre. The other is a 400 million-year old cave that is among the most unique in the entire world. Just a few short metres away from the bustling temple cave you can access a hidden world containing species that have been isolated here for so long that they exist nowhere else on earth. The Batu Caves are equal parts cultural wonder and natural marvel.
While there are a plethora of glorious mosques to visit in Kuala Lumpur, One of the most astounding examples of Muslim architecture in the city is at Sultan Abdul Samad Building. During the colonial period it was of great importance to the British colonial administration. Today it’s considered to be one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.
How to get there:
Widely regarded as one of the most well-connected cities in Asia, there are plenty of ways to get into the city. Here is an overview of the most common:
By Plane: Most international flights arrive in Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Just a short ride away is Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 (KLIA2), which typically services low-cost airlines. Both are about 50 km from the city centre. Transfer by taxi or shuttle bus typically takes around 45 minutes.
By Train: The main train terminal in Kuala Lupmur is KL Sentral. Trains here link Kuala Lumpur with cities throughout Malaysia, and beyond. The train system in Malaysia is modern and comfortable. As such, many travellers to Kuala Lumpur get there by train from Thailand and Singapore.
By Bus: KL Sentral is also the main hub of transport to Kuala Lumpur by bus. Most long-distance buses coming to the city will arrive here. Because it’s such a large hub of transport, heading onward into the city is quite straight forward. Either take the transit train to your destination, or a taxi.
Langkawi is a jaw-dropping archipelago in the far north of Malaysia’s west coast. Comprised of 99 islands surrounded by a turquoise sea, the archipelago is graced with dramatic karst formations, rolling hills, dense rainforests, a relaxed island atmosphere and abundant powder-fine beaches. And that’s not all. From the surprisingly vibrant nightlife to expansive opportunities for legitimate adventure- be it jungle trekking, diving, or rock climbing- Langawi has something for everyone.
Perched at the top of Mount Mat Cinchang, some 700 metres above sea level, The Langkawi Sky Bridgeis one of Langkawi’s most acclaimed attractions. Starting from Oriental Village in the northwest of the island, a scenic cable car ride brings you through verdant rainforests to a pedestrian bridge that’s spans a length of some 100 metres over hilltop jungle. From this vantage point, sprawling views of the surrounding island stretch out before you. It’s one of the most picuresque views to be had anywhere in the archipelago.
The most popular activity in Langkawi is island hopping. A wide variety of cruise and tour boats offering half and full-day tours take in various islands such as Dayang Buting, Palau Payar or Pulau Tuba. For snorkelling, head to Pulau Payar Marine Park. Here you’ll find a kaleidoscopic reef filled with colourful darting fish and a vast assemblage of branching corals.
Of course, what most people come to Langkawi for are its beaches. The most popular beach is Cenang Beach, which is also Langkawi’s longest and most developed beach. While “developed” is usually a damning factor when it comes to beaches, in this case it’s not all bad. Cenang Beach happens to have some of the finest and cleanest sand of anywhere in the area. The sea surrounding the beach is also surprisingly pleasant, with calm welcoming waters perfect for swimming as well as water sports.
Adjoined with Cenang Beach is another popular and equally inviting strip of sand at, Tengah Beach. Similar in composition and scenery, this is the place to go if you want a bit of peace and quiet as you soak up some rays.
The islands and mountains of Langkawi have been shaped, over the eons, by the erosion of limestone, causing some pretty dramatic scenery. One of the effects of this process is an array of dazzling caves. One great example of this is the bat-infested cave of Gua Kelawar, which is accessed by boat through a dense forest of mangrove. Gua Cerita lives up to its name, the Cave of Legends and, due to its view overlooking a beach, has outstanding photographic potential.
Another great way to spend time in Langkawi is on a boat while exploring the winding waterways ofLangkawi Geopark Forest Reserve. Langkawi is renowned for its rich biological diversity. In particular, the mangrove swamps and the rainforests that surround them are teeming with life. Trips through the forest reserve also afford stunning views of the unique geological formations in the area.
For a more low-key activity on Langkawi, be sure the check out the Langkawi Handicrafts Complex, which showcases a wide variety of traditional art and handicrafts, many of which are for sale. And if shopping is your thing, another point to note is that the whole of Langkawi is a duty-free zone! It’s a great place to stock up on consumer goods, such as perfumes and alcoholic beverages which are significantly more expensive elsewhere.
How to get there:
By Plane: Located in Padang Matsirat on the north-western part of Langkawi Island is Langkawi International Airport. Direct flights are available from Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hat Yai and Phuket.
By Boat: Langkawi can be accessed from a number of locations by boat. From Malaysia, it can be accessed from Kuala Perlis, Kuala Kedah and Penang. From Thailand it can be accessed from Koh Lipe.
Long before Kuala Lumpur and Penang rose to their current prominence, Malacca was one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic port cities. Because of its strategic location it underwent cyclical conquests for centuries, resulting in the cultural melting pot that it is today. Compared to historically comparable cities such as Singapore and Penang, Malacca is substantially more laid back and much of its historical heritage remains beautifully intact. In 2008 its historic centre was crowned as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, it has become one of Malaysia’s most sought after tourist destinations. Renowned for its old-school vibe, delectable food, bustling night markets and quaint atmosphere, the city is slowly rising back to its former glory as one of the shining cities in Malaysia.
The Heritage Area of Malacca is where most of the city’s most fascinating cultural heritage can be found. Here you’ll find an eclectic mix of buildings from the time of European settlement, temples, mosques and Chinese-style shop houses put up by Chinese traders.
One of the common threads shared between Malacca, Singapore and Penang is the substantial influence that Peranakan culture had in shaping local cultural identity. One of the best places in Malacca to see this heritage first hand is at the Peranakan Heritage Town House on Tun Cheng Lock Street. The museum is, as the name indicates, an actual Peranakan house, and the relics and displays found there offer fascinating insight into the area’s past.
One of the oldest Chinese temples, not just in Malacca but in all of Malaysia, is the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in the Heritage Area of Malacca. Inscriptions found here date it back to the year 1685 when the Chinese first established the city as a trading port.
One of the city’s most lauded attractions is Christ Church. Build between 1741 and 1753, it’s one of the best examples in the city of the substantial Portuguese influence that helped shape Malacca. It’s the oldest Protestant church in Malaysia and, with bricks shipped in from the Netherlands, it feels as though it had been teleported straight from Europe. Surrounding the church is Dutch Square (also known as Red Square). Here you’ll find the famous Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower. Although it looks entirely Dutch, it’s actually entirely of Malaysian construction.
For a look at the charming residential streets of the Heritage Area, head to Jonker and Hareen Street. Just west of the Malacca River, you can wander the narrow winding streets with beautifully decorated and colourful houses and visit quaint shops, temples, mosques, cafes and restaurants. It’s the perfect place to go for a wander by foot to see the city’s colonial charm.
One of the things that many Malaccans pride themselves on is the diversity of their population and the harmony with which everyone lives together. There may be no better place to witness this than the aptly named Harmony Street where you’ll find prayer houses of Malaysia’s three main faiths: the Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese Temple, Sri Poyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple and Kampung Kling Mosque.Their proximity to one another is a testament to the wide acceptance of diverse faiths in Malacca.
One of the most fascinating places in the city is the Portuguese Settlement, where descendants of the Portuguese who first conquered the city in 1511 still live today. Just outside of the city centre, it consists of wooden houses leading up to Portuguese Square.
Note that much of Malacca is closed on Tuesdays. So if you only have one day to see the city, don’t do it on Tuesday.
How to get there:
By Plane: Those arriving by air will land in Malacca International Airport (MKZ). The airport is located about 10km from the city centre.
By Bus: Malacca is well-connected by bus to elsewhere in Malaysia and Singapore. A great number of buses operate direct connections with the city from Kuala Kumpur, Seremban, Johor Bahru, andSingapore. All of these buses end up at Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal, which is about 4.5 km from the city centre.
By Boat: Daily ferries to Malacca run from Bengkalis, Dumai and Pekanbaru in Sumatra, Indonesia. All of these ferries arrive in the Harbour Master’s Jetty near the Maritime Museum.
Penang is not only the foodie capital of Malaysia, but one of the world’s most infamously delicious destinations. The island has far more than just delicious food on offering, though. Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Orient”, Penang has long held a reputation for its sandy beaches, cultural riches and natural beauty. The streets of Georgetown are among the most charming in the region. Even without the endless food stalls serving up outrageously amazing food, the energy of its people, the curiously enchanting graffiti and the undeniable old-world charm of its streets are reason enough to put Penang high on your to-do list for Malaysia.
Penang’s biggest draw is undoubtedly the colonial town of Georgetown in the northeast corner of the island. More than just a UNESCO attraction, Georgetown is a collection of narrow streets lined with a crumbling mishmash of Chinese-style shop houses that look to be pulled straight out of a movie set. Within the confines of these colourful streets you’ll find quirky works of graffiti and a number of attractions such as the clan-houses at Khoo Kongsi and Chinese Clan Houses, the colonial Blue Mansion, the endless row of streetfood hawkers and peddlers at Lg Selamat Hawker Stalls, and the religious temples at Masjid Negeri, Wat Chayamangkalaram (a Thai-styled temple), and Dhammikarama Burmese Buddhist Temple.
One can easily fill the space of a few days wandering the charming back alley streets of Georgetown. There are a number of worthwhile attractions just outside of it, though. The biggest of these is Kek Lok Si, Malaysia’s largest Buddhist temple in Ayer Atam, about 8km from the centre of Georgetown.
Also known as the Temple of Supreme Bliss, Kek Lok Si is also one of Malaysia’s most recognisable structures. Built in 1890, it’s the cornerstone of the thriving Malay-Chinese community of Penang. The design is said to be Burmese at the top, Chinese at the bottom and Thai in the middle. Throughout you’ll find a bewildering array of monuments, gardens, ponds, archways and other interesting titbits topped by a towering 37 meter-high bronze statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy.
Nearby, in Ayer Atam, is Penang Hill. This forested area about 6km from Georgetown’s city-centre has been protected since the 1960’s and is Penang’s last surviving stretch of pristine tropical rainforest. People flock here for the cooler temperatures that are normally about five degrees cooler than the rest of the island- offering convenient respite from the heat below. The fact that it has the best views of Penang certainly doesn’t hurt either. From this lofty vantage point, you can see the mountains of Langkawi and north Kedahon a clear day. At night you can see the whole of Penang lit up in glorious urban fashion.
For those who are daring enough to witness it first hand, Penang is also home to a temple that may very well be the only of its kind in the world: Snake Temple. What makes this temple unique isn’t the fact that it’s filled with snakes (there are other temples around the world that share this claim), but that the snakes in the temple are deadly pit-vipers! It’s believed that the incense that fill the temple’s chambers somehow renders the viper’s venom ineffectual. As a precaution the snakes have supposedly been de-venomed but, paradoxically, the vipers are said to be wild. A healthy dose of scepticism for the wellbeing of these creatures certainly wouldn’t be imprudent.
Although visitors are discouraged from picking up and playing with the snakes, there isn’t actually anything preventing them from doing so. If you’re looking for a cool, strange, and potentially dangerous cultural thrill, this is the place to get it. There has supposedly never been a case of anyone being bitten at the temple.
How to get there:
By Plane: Penang’s airport, Penang Bayan Lepas International Airport (PEN) has recently been refurbished and is one of the nicest in Malaysia. It serves both domestic and international flights. Located in the southeast of the island, it takes about 30 minutes to get to the centre of Georgetown by taxi or Rapid Penang Bus (take number 401E from the terminal building to KOMTOR)
By Bus: Visitors arriving by bus arrive in Sungai Nibong Bus Terminal about 30 minutes from Georgetown.
Considered by many to be among the best islands in all of Malaysia, the Perhentian Islands epitomize “paradise” in every sense of the word. Comprised of two islands, Perhentian Kecil (small) and Perhentian Besar (big), the name means “stopping point” in Malay. With one look at these palm-fringed islands, you’ll understand why sea traders of the past decided to take respite there. The crystal-clear waters here go from opalescent white at the sandy shore, to a deep inky blue as shallows drift off into the abyssal depths of the ocean floor. Kaleidoscopic reefs surround the islands and, even just off of the major beaches, one can find a dazzling array of sea life darting around. The Perhentian Islands are the perfect place to go for pure tropical bliss.
Part of what makes the Perhentian Islands so appealing is the simplicity of what it has to offer. It’s not the type of place that typically sees visitors filling minute-by-minute daily itineraries. The “Perhentian experience” is more about just soaking up the atmosphere. To this end, there are a range of fantastic beaches that will more than satisfy the conditions that are necessary. The two main beaches in the Perhentians are Coral Bay and Long Beach. Long Beach is probably the island’s most popular place to lounge out due to it being both relatively pristine and conveniently located to hotels, hostels, cafes and restaurants. Coral Bay is much quieter and is a better place to go if you want to escape the crowds and relax in peace. Because Coral Bay faces the west, the sunsets here are truly spectacular. For an even more exclusive beach, head through the jungle trails near Coral Bay to Mira Beach or Petani Beach. Both are on the way to a charming Fishing Village.
If you’ve had your fill of hammock-lounging and coconut-sipping, there are certainly things to see and do. One of the first things that people come here to see in the Perhentians is the thriving marine life just below its waves. Whether snorkelling or diving, there are is no shortage of places to get wet and be exposed to fantastic underwater sights. Some of the more popular spots include Teluk Pauh, Shark Point andTanjung Basi.
For those who prefer exploring the islands’ attractions by foot, the Perhentians offer a wide range of trails criss-crossing through the hills and jungles of the island interior that connect one beach to another. Along the way, expect to see some rather large monitor lizards, a fair share of bugs and perhaps a monkey or two.
How to get there:
By Bus/Boat: The Perhentian Islands are accessed from the mainland by ferry from Kuala Besut, which is usually accessed from Kota Bharu, Jerteh or Kuala Terengganu. You can also reach these destinations by train by stopping at Tanah Merah Station then transferring to Kuala Besut.
Few places in the world elicit emotions of exotic wilderness and tropical beauty more than Borneo. The sprawling rainforests that carpet most of the island have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 130 million years. Sabah, in the northeast of the island, represents the pinnacle of Borneo’s natural wonders and is the best place to go if Borneo’s legendary natural riches have ever appealed to you. From the highest peak in Southeast Asia to the densest rainforest and the most pristine diving sites, Sabah is the ultimate nature-lover’s destination.
For adventurists, Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, presents the region’s greatest opportunity to test their mettle while also gaining views of some of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular scenery. The towering granite roof of Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu, lies just north of Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu. At a staggering 4095 metres high it’s not only Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, it’s tall enough for it to remain perpetually at or below freezing despite being only a few degrees latitude from the equator. On a two to three day hike to the top, there’s also an opportunity to traverse through ecologically diverse landscapes rich with wildlife which change with the elevation.
Perhaps the best and most representative example of a Bornean rainforest is found in Danum Valley. This stretch of virgin rainforest has remained mostly untouched for over 130 million years –some 60 million years longer than the Amazon. Within this valley you’ll find many of Borneo’s rarest and most precious species such as the Bornean dwarf elephant and rhino, proboscis monkeys and orangutans. While you’re there, also keep an eye out for the iconic rafflesia flower. Growing to more than a meter in diameter, it’s the largest in the world.
For those interested in aquatic exploration, the ultimate place to go is Sipadan Island. Consistently rated as one of the top three places in the world to dive, if you’ve ever dreamed of being surrounded by kaleidoscopically coloured tropical fish in a translucent sea filled with neon-coloured coral, Sipadan is one of the best locations on the planet.
As if there wasn’t already enough to see in Sabah, the area is also home to some of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating cultures. Near Sipadan Island, just off the coast of Semporna is one of the region’s last communities of Bajau Laut Sea Gypsies, a nationless people who have lived their entire lives at sea, only coming to land for goods, for millennia.
In the mountains north of Kinabalu, there’s also the mysterious and once-feared Dayak People who have inhabited the rainforests of this area for time immemorial. Unfortunately, they’re more renowned for the headhunting practices of their past than they are of their genuinely fascinating connection with nature. Fortunately, for those willing to go to them where they live, a visit to the Dayak tribes promises to reveal only the latter these days.
How to get there:
Because Sabah has semi-autonomous status in Malaysia, its immigration rules are distinct from those elsewhere in the country. Mostly, though, this is to prevent Peninsular Malaysians from flooding into the country so, for most travellers, it’s more of a formality than something that affects travel to the region. Aside from a bit of extra paperwork, it comes with a nifty extra stamp, too.
Plane: The busiest airport in Malaysian Borneo, Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) is the main gateway to Borneo and is served by flights from major hubs throughout the region and abroad. The airport is conveniently located four kilometres from the city centre.
By Bus: Many travellers choose to visit Sabah on overland routes through Borneo, starting in Sarawak in the south and making their way up through Brunei. From Brunei there are a number of buses running direct trips to Kota Kinabalu. The trip takes about eight hours.
Considered by many to be the “Amazon of Southeast Asia,” Borneo represents the best that Southeast Asia has to offer in terms of biological diversity. Its forests, teeming with life, have remained mostly unchanged for close to 130 million years and harbour some of the world’s most iconic species such as orangutans, elephants, rhinos and countless others. Sarawak is the main gateway to Borneo and its capital, Kuching, is Borneo’s most sophisticated and dynamic city. Within the space of a single day you can visit pristine tropical rainforests, spot rare proboscis monkeys, or take a “flying coffin” riverboat up chocolaty rivers lined with verdant forests to visit indigenous communities in traditional longhouses. Sarawak is a perfect example of the stunning contrasts Malaysia has to offer: from cultural delights to natural wonders, the full range of Malaysia’s appeal is easily within grasp.
One of the most pleasantly surprising aspects of Sarawak is undoubtedly its capital city, Kuching, which means “cat” in Malay. Affectionately called the ‘cat city‘, it won’t take you long to see how thoroughly this cutesy nickname has manifested into the tourist scene. Cat statues, souvenirs and attractions litter the entire city So if you’re a self-proclaimed feline fanatic, Kuching is a perfect little slice of heaven.
Beyond the cat hoopla, Kuching is, quite simply, an extraordinarily charming city. Even by Malaysian standards the city is extremely diverse, with the majority of the population belonging to a group of people called the Ibah who were once feared for their fearsome head-shrinking practices (don’t worry, it’s no longer practiced!).
The Kuching Waterfront promenade running along the Sarawak River is lined with charismatic cafes and restaurants where one can easily be lured into lounging the day away as you watch the sun dip behind jungles on the other side of the river.
Be sure to check out the fascinating array of temples in the city. Highlights include Tua Pek Kong Temple, Kuching City Mosque and Masjid Jamek. For a highly advisable perusing of gorgeous Bornean handicrafts, head to the Main Bazaar or the Sunday Market which takes place between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning every weekend.
No trip to Sarawak could be complete without a visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching. This living museum consists of authentic traditional buildings that each display traditional artefacts of the unique and diverse cultures found in Sarawak.
Without a doubt, the single biggest attraction in all of Sarawak is Semenggoh Nature Reserve. It’s widely regarded to be one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with endangered orangutans. The park is home to 25 semi-wild orangutans who, although totally free to roam about on their own accord, swing around the park for the promise of regular supplements of fresh fruit on a daily basis. The surrounding rainforest is lush and provides a perfect introduction to the wild natural beauty of Sarawak with two trails that pass through its primary rainforest at Masing Trail and Brooke’s Pool Trail.
For a different kind of wilderness, head to Kuching Wetlands National Park. This majestic stretch of mangrove forest is home to a bewildering array of species from estuarine crocodiles and amphibious fish to proboscis and silver-leaf monkeys. If you arrive early in the morning, you even stand a chance of seeing dolphins coming in for their morning snack of fish and prawns that inhabit the area.
For those seeking the best that Borneo has to offer in terms of natural riches, there may be no better place than Gunung Mulu National Park. In recognition of the park’s outstanding natural assets, it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. With mind-bogglingly large caves, crystal-clear spring-fed rivers, amazing geological formations such as The Pinnacles, pristine old-growth tropical rainforest, 17 different vegetation zones and the so-called Headhunter’s Trail, few parks in the world pack as many natural wonders in as small as an area as Gunung Mulu. In a part of the world that isn’t short on amazing attractions, Gunung Mulu may very well be the most impressive single destination in all of Borneo.
How to get there:
Mostly as a means of preventing mainland Malaysians from flooding into the region, Sarawak maintains autonomous control over its immigration. Consequently, visitors need to fill out a second immigration form. For most, though, this is just a formality that comes along with a nifty extra stamp in your passport.
By Plane: Most arrivals to Sarawak will arrive by air, landing in Kuching International Airport, which is only 11 km from Kuching’s city centre. The airport is well-connected and serves direct flights from Peninsular Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Malaysian Borneo (Kota Kinabalu), Singapore, Indonesia (Pintianak, Bali and Jakarta) as well as Brunei and Macau (China).
By Bus: Sarawak shares borders with Brunei and Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan). It’s possible to enter Sarawak from either place, although the roads are famously spartan.
Seribuat Archipelago (Tioman Island)
The Seribuat Archipelago is a constellation of 64 islands just off the coast of Johor in the southeast of Peninsular Malaysia. All of these islands are gifted with spectacularly clean and clear water, bleach-white sands and verdant tropical greenery. From the relatively bustling isle of Pulau Tioman to virtually unexplored sandy spits surrounded by coral reefs, the Seribut Archipelago is a vision of paradise. Popular with divers, the archipelago is also laden with sealife, from imposing schools of barracuda to giant clams and swarming reef fish, there are few places in Malaysia that offer up more underwater sights.
In spite of the fact that there are 63 other paradisiacal islands to choose from, few travellers to the Seribuat Archipelago will spend a significant amount of time on any of them other than Tioman Island. When one considers the sheer range of things to see and do, there’s little wonder why. Because the island is mostly road-less, adventure seekers will rejoice in discovering a huge network of trails and paths criss-crossing the island. Pristine jungles with remote waterfalls, a collection of eight charming villages, such as Tekek Village, and even an extinct volcano at Gunung Kajang. These can all easily be reached on foot while exploring the tropical interior of the island. Along the way, keep your eyes peeled for some of the island’s exotic critters such as spot monkeys, colugos and mouse deer.
Along the island’s perimeter you’ll find a collection of dazzling and mostly secluded beaches rimmed with translucent blue water. The most popular of these is Salang Beach. With its blond-coloured sand and relaxed bohemian vibe, this is usually the go-to spot for kicking back and enjoying the tropical environment. For a bit more seclusion, Juara Beach is the perfect place to go. For a special treat, head a bit further afield to Nipah, in the northwest corner of the island. Here you’ll find other-worldly bioluminescent seaweed that glows in the dark.
After Tioman Island, the most popular destination within the archipelago is Pulau Sibu. Actually a collection of small islands, with Sibu Besar being the primary one, Pulau Sibu is popular with travellers that want a bit of exclusivity. The island is a svelte six kilometres long and one kilometre wide, meaning that it’s almost entirely comprised of sand. The beaches are renowned for being clean and pristine.
The Seribuat Archipelago is acclaimed for its spectacular diving and snorkelling opportunities. The best places to check out some of this aquatic glory are the “Three little Islands” (Sepoi Island, Labas Island,Soyak Island) and Pulau Tulai- better known as “Coral Island”.
How to get there:
By Bus/Boat: The gateway to the Seribuat Archipelago is Mersing, which can be reached by bus from major destinations throughout Malaysia such as Kuala Lumpur or Kota Bharu. From there, boats leaving from the Mersing Jetty or Tanjung Gemok Jetty wait to ferry travellers over to the islands.
By Plane: Located next to Tekek Village is Tioman Airport. This small airport is served by Berjaya Airwith flights coming from Changi International Airport and Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Kuala Lumpur.
Taman Negara (Kuala Tahan National Park)
What it is:
Taman Negara simply means “national park” in Malay and is often used to represent what is actually calledKuala Tahan National Park. Somewhat confusingly, you’ll often hear it mentioned “Taman Negara National Park” which is an obvious misnomer. Regardless of what you call it, for anyone who has ever dreamed of exploring the shadowy interior of an exotic rainforest, Taman Negara represents one of the planet’s ultimate paradises.
Spread out across three states in Peninsular Malaysia (Pahang, Terengganu and Kalantan), it’s the largest National park in Malaysia. Aside from being so gargantuan, what makes the park so special is that it is home to the oldest contiguous stretch of rainforest in the world. For more than 130 million years, the rainforest has remained untouched by the perturbations of global climate change and, as such, is something of a living time capsule. To wander around the buttressed roots of ancient lumbering trees filled with mysterious creatures and the buzz of unseen millions is to step into an entirely different realm. The primordial ecosystem of Taman Negara is one of Malaysia’s most alluring destinations, and an absolute must for anyone remotely interested in nature or wildlife.
The biggest draw to Taman Negara is obviously its abundant wildlife. With more than 240 species of tree per hectare, it’s one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Rare species of orchids and epiphytes carpet the area. While the chances of catching a glimpse of the critically endangered Sumatran rhinos and tigers tare slim, you stand a pretty good chance of seeing some of the park’s 400+ resident elephants, a Malaysian Tapir or other charismatic critters.
The best way to tour the park is by way of local guide while hiking the park’s well-kept trails. One of the most unique ways, though, is by way of the famous Taman Negara Canopy Walkway. This 510 meter-long suspension bridge is the longest of its kind in the world and, at a staggering 95 meters high, is set right amongst the bustling canopy of Teman Negara’s rainforest, where much of the life found there resides. For those looking to do a bit of subterranean exploration, the park also boasts a nice range of caves, such asGua Telingga, Gua Kepayang, Gua Luas, Gua Landak and Gua Tumpat. For waterfalls, be sure to check out Lata Berkoh –particularly during rainy season!
Those who favour people rather than wildlife will rejoice in the fact that the park isn’t without its share of cultural intrigue. Within the park’s confines, intrepid visitors will have a chance to visit indigenous communities of aboriginal people who have called these forests home for centuries. The Orang Asli live a nomadic life; moving from one place to another within the park, following the wildlife as needed. There are two groups within the same ethnic community, the Batek and the Semokberi, which are said to have subtle physical characteristics that can be used to differentiate between them.
Ambitious outdoors people can attempt to summit Gunung Tahan, Peninsular Malaysia’s tallest mountain. This rugged 10-day round-trip will take you through a range of ecosystems along some of the most pristine and untouched stretches of jungle in the park.
How to get there:
By Bus/Boat: By far the most common way to get to Taman Negara is by way of bus and boat from Kuala Lumpur. It’s easy to book a combination package in the city, although you can save money by booking the legs separately. Buses arrive in the small town of Kuala Tembeling after a journey of about four hours. From there, you’ll take a longboat on a journey up river into the heart of the park. After about three hours, you’ll arrive at the entrance of the park at the small town of Kuala Tehan.
By Train: Another option is to get to Taman Negara by “Jungle Train” from the KTM Station in Gemas.You’ll need to get off at the Jerantut Station and then take a bus to Kuala Tembeling. From there you’ll take a longboat up river to the entrance of the park at the small town of Kuala Tehan. Most travellers using this option do so after their experience in the park on their way to Kota Bharu, as it’s considered to be an even more adventurous route.
Things to do in Malaysia
Be a culture vulture
The complex and fascinating tapestry of cultures that exist in modern-day Malaysia is a result of centuries and millennia of influences both foreign and home-grown. In addition to the substantial mark made through centuries of immigration by Chinese and South Asian labourers and traders, there is also a heavy influence of Persian, Arabic and British culture that was introduced throughout several of Malaysia’s formative epochs. Furthermore, Malaysia is still home to a number of indigenous populations who have existed in this region for time immemorial. To truly grasp what makes Malaysia such a compelling travel destination, one must dive headlong into its various cultures. Only by exploring the richness of its diversity can one possibly hope to understand Malaysian cultures in its entirety.
The best places for a look at the complex tapestry of cultural influences in modern-day Malaysia, are the urban centres of Kuala Lumpur, Malacca or Penang. In these places you’ll find a concentrated concoction of the cultural stuff that makes Malaysia such a fascinating place.
The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is the best place to go if you want to feel the racing pulse of Malaysia’s modern society. Although there are more than enough ethnic enclaves and colonial relics to allow one to feel the city’s traditional side, this is where the country’s progress in becoming one of the region’s biggest and fastest growing economies is most evident. Ultra-modern skyscrapers bump shoulders with incense-filled temples, mosques and pagodas in what is surely one of the most dichotomous environments in Southeast Asia. Despite the buzz, KL retains a firm grasp on its uniquely ethnic vibe, making it a fascinating destination for travellers. To experience a good range of cultures in Kuala Lumpur, be sure to save time for exploring the vast China Town, authentic Little India and the Batu Caves.
While Kuala Lumpur is the face of Malaysia’s burgeoning modernity, Malacca is the firmly held root that holds Malaysia’s traditional side in place. Here you’ll find that the pace of life, and even the look of it, hasn’t changed much over the decades. It’s a perfect slice of old Malaysia that offers refreshing respite for those who are looking to escape the hustle of super-cities and mega-metropolises. In spite of the slower pace, Malacca is at least as diverse as its modern counterpart due to the centuries-long influx of immigrants who were drawn to the city for its promise as a free trading port. One of the more unique aspects of Malaccan culture is its substantial Dutch influence.
Penang is also a great place to experience a slice of “old Malaysia”. Here you’ll find substantial British, Peranakan Chinese and Indian influences which is evident not only in the charming architecture but also in the fusion of its various ethnic foods. Penang has a thriving Chinatown and its own Little India. Great places to explore the unique Peranakan culture of Penang are the Chew Clan Jetties and the China Clan Houses.
Although there are various indigenous communities living in Peninsular Malaysia such as the Batek and theSemokberi living around Teman Negara, the vast majority of Malaysia’s most fascinating indigenous cultures exist on the island of Borneo. Collectively known as Dayaks, the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ululiving throughout Sabah and Sarawak were once feared for their infamous headhunting practices. These days, visitors can visit them in traditional villages and even stay in one of their long houses, which makes for a unique travel experience.
Sabah is also home to another extremely unique culture group: the Bajau Laut. Originally, these were seafaring people who only ever visited land to trade commodities. Over the past few decades, some have since moved onto land and are now known as “Bornean Cowboys”. Others retain their traditional life on the sea. Their stilted villages can be visited from Semporna.
Those wishing to experience the full brunt of Malaysia’s unique culture would be wise to time their visit to coincide with some of the various holidays that take place throughout the year.
One of the biggest and most widely anticipated cultural holidays of the year is Thaipusan, whose timing is based off of the lunar calendar (February 10, 2017 and January 31, 2018). This Hindu festival is considered to be one of the biggest religious gatherings in the world. Most of the action centres on the gorgeous Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, where more than a million people gather. There are also large celebrations at the Waterfall Hill Temple in Penang, the Sri Subramaniya Swamy Temple in Sungai Petani (Kedah), and the Sri Subramaniar Swamy Temple in Ipoh (Perak).
One of the most fascinating festivals of the year in Malaysia is the Regatta Lepa Festival of the Bajau Laut people in Sabah. Taking place in April in the town of Semporna, this colourful festival commemorates and celebrates the Bajau Laut’s unique seafaring way of life and revolves around the elaborate adornment of Lepas- the traditional Bajau boat which is central to their livelihoods.
When diving into Malaysia’s diverse culture, it helps to have a knowledgeable local guide who can not only explain some of the culture’s complexities, but can act as a bridge, allowing you to gain both valuable insight and an intimate connection that you wouldn’t likely be able to attain otherwise.
Channel your inner Jacques Cousteau
Why: Forming a significant chunk of the “Coral Triangle”, a part of the world oft-considered to be the aquatic equivalent of the Amazon, Malaysia is riddled with world-class diving and snorkelling destinations. The clear, warm equatorial waters surrounding Malaysia harbour some of the densest aggregations of colourful tropical fish and fluorescent coral reefs in the world. It isn’t at all uncommon to spot gregarious sea turtles or soaring manta rays whilst exploring the waters around Malaysia. Unlike many other areas in Southeast Asia that are known for their underwater attractions, Malaysia also tends to have quite languid currents, making it the perfect place to dive or snorkel, especially for beginners.
Sipadan Island lies just off the east coast of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. It is often credited to have the best diving on the planet, even by diving legend Jacques Cousteau himself when he visited the island in the 1960’s. The richness of the marine ecosystem that thrives here is a credit to the island’s careful regulation by the Malaysian government. In an effort to maintain its pristineness, only 120 people per day are allowed to visit. Sipadan Island isn’t easy to get to, but great rewards await travellers who put in the effort to get to remote places. For those looking for the ultimate place to experience the incredible underwater riches of our planet, Sipadan Island is the place to do it. While you’re in Malaysian Borneo, be sure to check out Layang Layang Island, one of the only places in the world where you can dive with vast schools of hammerhead sharks. Mabul Island is also a favourite, famous for its incredible “muck diving”, a favourite among underwater photographers due to the abundance of diverse colourful creatures that inhabit the “muck”.
If you’ve ever dreamt of scuba diving but never gotten around to getting certified, Tioman Island andPerhentian Islands, just off the coast of Peninsular Malaysia, are well-known for being among the cheapest places to do it in Southeast Asia. Because both of these islands are also renowned for their spectacular diving opportunities, they’re obvious choices for those wanting to finally earn their diving fins. Other notable places for diving and snorkelling in Peninsular Malaysia are Redang Island, Langkawi Island, and Mataking Island.
Due to their proximity to the equator, most diving and snorkelling sites in Malaysia can be visited year-round. Rain is frequent and periodic throughout most of the year, so a bit of luck will be needed any time you go. Most consider diving to be best between the months of February and November when rain tends to be more sporadic.
Bring or rent an underwater camera. Malaysia has some of the clearest waters in the world. Combined with the richness of its marine ecosystems, this means it’s a perfect place to hone your underwater photography skills while taking home some amazing memories.
Chill out in Malaysia’s gorgeous highlands
After exploring Malaysia’s steaming jungles and sun-kissed beaches, a respite from the equatorial heat is a welcome change of pace for most travellers in the country. Fortunately, one of Malaysia’s most gorgeous and sought after destinations offers this and much more. With a mean annual temperature of a brisk 18 °C (64 °F), the Cameron Highlands feels like eternal spring somewhere in Europe or the Americas. The fresh mountain air blowing off the mountains here is perfumed with the sweet leafy scent of fresh tea, which is cultivated in great quantities. In addition to giving the area a brilliant olfactory ambiance, the dazzling patchwork of the vibrant-green tea plantations covering much of the highlands area is truly picturesque. Particularly in the morning when fog is still pooled up in the dips of the rolling hills, the Cameron highlands is one of the most magical and photogenic places in Southeast Asia. It’s a surreal experience you’ll be more than happy to have after sweating it out in the tropical lowlands.
The Cameron Highlands are situated along the spine of the Titiwangsa Mountains, about 150km North of Kuala Lumpur and about 20km east of Ipoh. Lending to its cool climate is the relatively high elevation, which ranges from 1,100 metres to 1,600 metres.
One of main reasons people come to the Cameron Highlands, aside from the refreshing climate, is to witness the majestic rolling hills and verdant landscapes found there. One of the best places to do this is atCameron Bharat Tea Plantation, near Tanah Rata. Here you’ll find a patchwork of impossibly green tea plants forming geometric patterns that undulate as they fade into the mountainous background.
Another great way to experience the magic of Cameron Highlands is by getting involved in some of agricultural activities that the area is so well-suited for. Pick strawberries at Koh Lin Strawberry Farmnear Brinchang. Harvest fresh tea at BOH Tea Plantation, or visiting a working apiary at the Ee Feng Gu Honeybee Farm.
The weather in the Cameron Highlands is remarkably consistent throughout the year. The temperature ranges from a minimum of 14 °C on a cool evening to a maximum of 28 °C on a “hot” afternoon. Lending to the ease with which crops are grown in the area, rain is consistently common throughout the year. Technically speaking, monsoon season is from November through February and dry season is from February through April, but they are little more than guidelines in the highlands.
Because of the high humidity, it can get surprisingly chilly at night given the relatively mild temperatures involved. It’s a sort of wet chill that you’ll almost definitely need a light jacket for in order to stay totally comfortable.
Experience Malaysia’s unique colonial charm
A big part of what makes Malaysia such a charming travel destination is its rich colonial heritage. In many areas throughout the country one can still find well-preserved examples of the substantial influence that the Dutch and British had in Malaysia during the formative years leading up to present day. The experience of perusing through a wonderfully preserved Dutch cathedral or British mansion while in the midst of a distinctly tropical setting is something that no trip to Malaysia would be complete without.
A smattering of European colonial-era architecture can be found throughout Malaysia. Most of it, though, is centred on Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Malacca.
One of the most stunning examples of colonial-era architecture in Kuala Lumpur is Merdaka Square. It’s a huge open square that’s not only lined with stunning heritage buildings such as the Sultan Abdul Samad Building and St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral, but it’s also of great historical importance to Malaysian people. It’s the site where Malaysian independence was declared in 1957. The Kuala Kumpur Railway Station, built by a famous British architect Benison Hubbuck employs Mogul-style design elements with dome-capped pavilions that make it as beautiful as it is unique among the backdrop of modern skyscrapers. For a look at interesting Gothic Architecture, head to the Church of the Holy Rosary, which was built by a French missionary in 1904. Its stunning “winged” roof is a stark juxtaposition with the surrounding environment.
Probably the best example of colonial-era architecture in Malacca is the Christ Church. Built in 1753 on the centennial of Dutch occupation, it’s the oldest functioning Protestant church in Malaysia. With its rectangular layout, massive red granite walls and Dutch roof tiles, it’s a classic example of 18th century Dutch architecture and one of the city’s most visited attractions. Surrounding the church is Dutch Square(also known as Red Square). Here you’ll also find the famous Tang Beng Swee Clock Tower. In theHeritage Area along Jonker and Hareen Street, just west of the Malacca River, there’s a really charming row of beautiful Eurpoean-styled houses and shops that’s perfect for strolling around. While in Malacca, be sure to also check out the Famosa Fortress, Francis Xavier Church, and St. John’s Fort.
Penang is renowned for its robust cultural heritage. The capital, Georgetown, is lined with an endless array of buildings that harken back to the time of British occupation. The Penang City Hall, constructed in 1903, is one of the highlights of these colonial-era buildings. It holds the distinction of being one of the first buildings in Penang to be outfitted with electric lights and fans. It still retains its function as a government building and forms an elegant backdrop in the city. Another great example of the colonial era architecture left behind in Penang is Saint George’s Church. Built with the help of the East India Company, it’s one of the island’s most charming looking European-styled structures.
The great thing about experiencing the colonial charm of Malaysia is that it can be done any time of the day and any time of the year.
While exploring Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage, be sure to enlist the services of a knowledgeable local guide who can explain the historical significances of what you’re looking at.
Explore the wilds of Borneo by riverboat
One of the most treasured experiences to be had in Malaysian Borneo is a cruise along the Kinabatangan River in Sabah. At more than 560km long, it’s the second longest river in Malaysia. It stretches through swaths of rainforest that are so remote they are totally inaccessible to even the most intrepid of jungle explorers on foot. A cruise along the Kinabatangan River by boat gives you a window into parts of the Bornean jungle that are utterly pristine and completely inaccessible any other way. Along the way you’ll likely spot many of Borneo’s most iconic inhabitants such as dwarf elephants, orangutans, proboscis monkeys, hornbills, and even a few villages of remote tribal people who have lived in these forests for generations. All the while, you’ll be witnessing the natural riches of the Bornean rainforest from the relative comfort of your boat. It’s the perfect way to experience the best of this wild natural environment.
The gateway to the Kinabatangan River is Sandakan, about six hours by bus from Kota Kinabalu. From there you can arrange a boat tour up the Kinabatangan River which typically start near the mouth of the river and venture landward through the forest. Alternatively, you can take a bus to Sukau, a bit deeper inland, where you can also arrange for boat tours even deeper into the forest.
The climate around Sandakan is remarkably consistent and, relatively speaking, somewhat mild. Temperatures range from 26.5°C at its coldest to about 33°C at its hottest. The month of May is considered to be the hottest month of the year, with an average temperature of just over 28.35°C while January is considered to be the coolest, with an average temperature of around 26.5°C. Rain remains consistent and common throughout the year.
Be sure to come prepared for all of the accompaniments of tropical wilderness: creepy-crawlies, mosquitos and hot sticky weather. Many of the river tours include trekking extensions, which means that it’s entirely possible you could be hiking in leech territory. They sound worse than they are, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t come prepared. Most outdoor provision companies sell purpose-made leech socks. In a pinch, though, women’s pantyhose make for perfectly effective stand-ins. The nylon threads are small and rigid enough to prevent them from wriggling through- cotton socks, unfortunately, are not. Also, be sure to bring along fast-drying clothing made of synthetic fabric and effective mosquito repellent.
Because of the predominance of limestone geology throughout Southeast Asia, the region is among the world’s finest places for cave exploration. Malaysia is no exception and, in fact, it has some of the world’s most unique caves for those looking to do a bit of subterranean exploration. From caves with significant cultural value to caves with their own ecosystem and caves so vast they could fit intercontinental passenger jets, Malaysia has more than enough cave options to lure visitors underground.
For most travellers in Malaysia, the most obvious choice for a caving experience is Batu Caves, just outside of Kuala Lumpur in Gombak, Selangor. Not only is it conveniently located, and easy to access via public transportation from the city centre, it also happens to be one of the most unique caves in Southeast Asia. Far more than just a simple series of stone chambers, Batu Cave is also a cultural and religious highlight of Malaysia. It’s the site of one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the world for devout Hindus.
A great number of traditionally dressed devotees can normally be found around the sprawling complex surrounding the caves. At the base of the hill where the main caves are, there are two small cave temples,Art Gallery Cave and Museum Cave. Both have a substantial collection of Hindu statues and paintings relating to Hindu legends. You won’t have any trouble spotting the Lord Murugan Statue in this area. At 42.7 metres high, it’s the tallest statue of its kind in the world.
The largest of the temple caves, Cathedral Cave, is accessed via a steep flight of 272 steps. True to its name, the incredibly high ceiling of this cave make you feel as though you’ve entered a gothic-era cathedral. The chamber is filled with Hindu shrines of dazzling ornateness.
Perhaps the most surprising things about a visit to Batu Caves is that you can find one of themost unique and pristine natural ecosystems in the world just metres away from all of the hubbub and religious fervour.
Just below Temple Cave is Dark Cave, which is the largest in the Batu caves system. Discovered in 1878, this 2km-long chamber is thought to have been closed off from the outside world for more than 200 million years. The fauna trapped in the cave, over the eons, evolved into a startling array of species that exist nowhere else on earth. Because of the unusually high levels of endemic species and the unique guano-driven ecosystem, Dark Cave is among the most heavily researched tropical caves in the world. In addition to the allure of its biological diversity, the cave is also home to some pretty magnificent cave formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, cave pearls and cave curtains.
As impressive and convenient as the Batu Caves are, you’ll have to head to Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo to experience Malaysia’s ultimate cave. In addition to having some of the most pristine rainforest habitat in Malaysia, the Unesco World Heritage site of Gunung Mulu National Park is also home to some of the country’s most impressive geologic formations. Here you’ll find a staggering stone forest known asThe Pinnacles as well as the largest cave in the country, the Sarawak Chamber. At 700 metres long and 400 metres wide, it’s big enough to accommodate 40 Boeing 747’s without overlapping their wings. Just nearby, Deer Cave is also considered to be one of the largest single caves in the world. It doesn’t stop there, though. There is also Clearwater Cave, the 8th longest cave in the world which is believed to be the largest cave in the world by volume, as well as Benarat Cavern and the Cave of the Winds.
One of the biggest and most widely anticipated cultural holidays of the year is Thaipusan, whose timing is based off of the lunar calendar (February 10, 2017 and January 31, 2018). This Hindu festival is considered to be one of the biggest religious gatherings in the world. Most of the action centres on the gorgeous Batu Caves near Kuala Lumpur, where more than a million people gather. It’s the perfect opportunity to check out not only the cave, but all of the cultural glory surrounding it.
Enjoying caves to their fullest involves a bit of preparation. First off, be sure to bring a proper torch. Cave tours will typically provide torches for you, but you can’t rely on the quality of them. Second, if you plan to take pictures, be sure to bring along a tripod. Taking photos in low light you’ll need long exposures, making it difficult to shoot hand-held.
Go wild on a jungle trekking experience
In a part of the world that’s well-known for its incredible biodiversity, Malaysia is a standout country for those seeking wild places. A staggering 62% of the country is covered in rainforest. Furthermore, Malaysian rainforests are among the most ancient and pristine in the world. Vast swaths of it have remained virtually untouched by the oscillation of earth’s climate for 140 million years. To explore these steaming jungles and feel their timeless energy first hand is to be transported to an era before time existed. Many of the species found in Malaysian jungles are among the rarest in the world. From endangered rhinos and tigers to lanky orangutans and goofy proboscis monkeys, the endearing inhabitants of Malaysia’s wild places and the unadulterated purity of its habitats are truly among the finest in the world.
The wild places of Malaysia are typically approached from two distinct localities, Peninsular Malaysia andMalaysian Borneo, with both offering up a myriad of options for explorers.
On Peninsular Malaysia, the ultimate destination for those looking to explore rainforests is Teman Negara.Also known as Kuala Tahan National Park, this incredibly vast stretch of rainforest is considered by many to be the oldest in the world. With more than 240 species of tree per hectare, it’s also considered to be one of the most biodiverse places in the world. Easily accessed from Kuala Lumpur, it’s considered to be one of Malaysia’s top destinations and, accordingly, offers some of its exhilarating experiences.
Be sure to try the Teman Negara Canopy Walkway which, at 95 metres high and 510 metres long, is the biggest of its kind in the world. From this vantage point you’ll be able to witness creatures going about their lives high in the forest canopy that would normally be obscured from view.
At the north-eastern fringes of Temang Negara is Kenong Rimba Park. Much further off the beaten path, this park is renowned in conservations circles for having some of the most pristine habitats in all of Malaysia. It’s also well known for its outstanding limestone caves and waterfalls. Because of its remoteness, a registered and qualified guide is required to explore the park.
Few people ‘in the know’ about wildlife and tropical ecology need an introduction to Malaysian Borneo. It’s widely regarded to be the “Amazon of Asia” due to the incredible diversity of its habitats and species and the sheer vastness of its wild expanses. There are two gateways to exploring these wild places: Sabahand Sarawak. Each is a separate region of the vast island of Borneo and each presents a unique range of options for those looking to get off the grid and experience raw natural environments.
In Sabah, the best places for jungle trekking are in the Danum Valley Conservation Area and Maliau Basin. The former is home to what is oft-considered to be the oldest stretch of rainforest in Borneo and is home to an untouched swath of lowland primary rainforest and a vast array of tropical species. The latter, also known as the “Lost World”, is as difficult to reach as it is awe-inspiring. Up until a few decades ago, the area was completely unexplored.
For anyone visiting Borneo, seeing an orangutan is almost certainly near the top of their to-do list. If this is indeed the goal, Sarawak is home to the surest thing you’ll find on the island. Semenggoh Nature Reserveis home to 25 semi-wild orangutans who inhabit the area as part of a wildlife re-introduction project whose goal is to restore the populations of these goofy ginger-haired cousins of ours. Although they’re entirely free to roam about as they please, few wander far from the daily supplement of fresh fruit provided for them by the park’s operators. Because they are normally solitary creatures with vast territories, the nature reserve is one of the only places on the island where you’re virtually guaranteed to see an orangutan.
Near the capital city of Kuching is a haven for coastal biodiversity at Kuching Wetlands National Park. Here you’ll find a vast, mostly untouched forest of mangroves that is crucial habitat to untold numbers of species both above and below the water. This includes the iconic proboscis monkey.
Sarawak’s ultimate jungle experience is at Gunung Mulu National Park. Because of its remarkable levels of biodiversity and the uniqueness of the habitats found there, it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008. Within the space of a relatively small area you can find some 17 different vegetation zones, one of the largest caverns in the world, and a unique forest of limestone spires known as The Pinnacles.
Peninsular Malaysia is best explored during the dry season between March and October when the rainfall is sparse and not a hindrance to exploration. In Sabah and Sarawak, it’s best to avoid hiking during the rainy season from July to October.
The key to enjoying trekking in tropical rainforests is to be properly prepared. As their name would indicate, rainforests tend to be wet places. As such, it helps to wear only synthetic materials that wick away moisture and dry quickly when wet. Although mosquitos aren’t as bad as they are on the opposite side of the world, they’re still an inevitability –be sure to bring along proper repellent.
Another valid concern, particularly during rainy season, is the likelihood of encountering leeches. Although they’re not nearly as heinous as they sound, they can still be a nuisance. There are a variety of products out there to limit their ability to latch onto you such as leech socks and salt. One of the easiest, most effective and most amusing ways to prevent leech bites is to wear women’s pantyhose over your clothes. They’re small and light enough to carry with you only as a precaution, and the synthetic weaving of them is small and rigid enough that the leeches can’t wriggle their way through them as they can with cotton fabrics.
Reach the summit of Borneo’s tallest peak
Reaching the summit of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is one of Southeast Asia’s ultimate adventure experiences, . At 4,095 metres, it’s the tallest mountain in Borneo and one of the tallest in Southeast Asia. Although that’s an impressive number, what makes Mount Kinabalu so renowned in climbing and hiking circles is the combination of its incredible scenery and varied ecosystems, which range from lowland tropical rainforest to montane alpine meadows. These, combined with the spiritual significance the mountain has for local people in the area, make it one of the top 20 most prominent peaks in the world for adventure enthusiasts and a must-do for anyone in the area.
Mount Kinabalu is easily accessed from Sabah’s capital city, Kota Kinabalu with a bus or taxi ride of about 1.5 hours. The ascent typically takes two days, and most people begin at Tiphon Gate, which is about twenty minutes away from the Kinabalu Park Headquarters. It’s important to note that climbers are not allowed to enter the trails from Tiphon Gate after 10:30 in the morning –so be sure to time your arrival carefully.
The most popular trail goes from Tiphon Gate to Laban Rata on the first day. It’s a well-marked trail of about 9km in length and generally takes between five and six hours to traverse.
Alternatively, hikers can head from Mesilau to Laban Rata on a trail of similar length but more undulation in terms of elevation –making it a slightly tougher climb.
Once in Laban Rata most stay overnight, rising dark and early in the morning to reach the summit before sunrise. The climb to the summit is just under 3km in length and takes place over a slick rock face whose route is marked by guide ropes.
Climbing weather is best in April, when the weather is drier and the chances of a clear view from the summit are best. November and December are typically the wettest months of the year and are avoided by most people for summit attempts due to the slick trails and poor visibility from the top.
The temperature ranges from a comfortable 20-25°C to at or below freezing near the summit. Be sure to bring along appropriate warm clothing and windproof gear. It’s also advisable to climb during full moon, if possible, as the full moon light will help illuminate the rope paths near the summit.
Stay with an indigenous family in a traditional longhouse
Borneo is home to 32 groups of indigenous people, some of whom have called the island home since the dawn of the human era. Human bone fragments found in both Sabah and Sarawak date back a staggering 50,000 years. What makes the indigenous cultures of Borneo so fascinating is that, in addition to being undeniably unique, they also retain many of the traditional ways they have subsisted off of for generations. Most who come to Borneo do so for the promise of spotting rare and exotic wildlife but, well and truly, one of the most memorable experiences to be had is in diving into the local indigenous cultures of the island. One of the best ways to do this is by doing a homestay in a traditional longhouse.
Unlike other indigenous groups in Borneo who roam around as they hunt game, the Iban, one of the most prominent ethnic groups on the island, have a more pastoral style of living. As such, they have a much more stationary way of life. The houses they live in, known as longhouses, are typically long wooden structures built on stilts. The Iban live communally, and the longhouses are sectioned off into rows of separate family rooms with a large shared meeting space in the middle. If a new family joins the community, the house is simply elongated to accommodate them.
The hospitality of the local people and fascinating, intimate insight into the local way of life, make it the perfect cultural experience.
Most of the Iban longhouses in Sarawak are in Batang Skrang and Batang Lemanak, which can be reached from Kuching with relative ease. There are also a good number of longhouse homestays in villages surrounding Sibu, just east of Kuching, which can be accessed along the Batang Rejang River.
Due to the burgeoning popularity in Sarawak, an entrepreneurial spirit regarding longhouse homestays has taken hold in recent years. Some of the homestay experiences you’ll find advertised in Kuching are little more than elongated guesthouses, offering precious little in terms of authentic cultural experiences. Authentic longhouse homestays are typically by invitation only, so be sure to hire a trusted local guide who can help in arranging things.