Like many travelers, I only planned on skimming Malaysia. A day in Malacca. Maybe two in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps – if there’s time – a stop in Georgetown.
As I disembarked the bus in Malacca, a UNESCO World Heritage city on the south-western coast of peninsular Malaysia, I remember a less-than-thrilled impression. “This is it?”, I pessimistically thought, side eyeing the mini-mall that doubled as a terminal. “This was crowned a UNESCO World Heritage city?”
But as the classic adage states, don’t judge a book by its cover. Or rather, a world heritage city by the desolate depot on the outskirts of town.
The mundane and unremarkable dissipated as I taxied closer to the soulful citycentre. Half-baked mid-rises transformed into colourful colonial churches. The snaking river was lined with heritage housing, gardens and street art. We shared the cobblestone road with bedazzled trishaws. Chinatown’s flamboyant architecture was particularly enthralling.
Before we hit my hostel, I was in love with the land of the Malay.
“Just a day in Malacca” turned into five, and, “maybe two in KL” became a week. A side trip to the Cameron Highlands was penciled in. Internal debate raged if I had the ringgit to ferry the Perhentian Islands. In the end, I spent so much time in magical Malaysia I never did quite reach Cambodia, my preplanned pinnacle destination.
I’d discovered Southeast Asia’s unsung hero and it was going to take time to explore.
If you’re interested in sojourning Malaysia, I’ve charted out the country’s highlights below. From buzzing cities to beautiful beaches, an incredible cuisine and verdant countryside, Malaysia has even more to offer – in my opinion – than its neighbours. And the cheaper price tag sure doesn’t hurt.
Kuala Lumpur – or “KL” – is the country’s capital and largest city. It hums with activity at any hour as its diverse residents buzz from the central business district to trendy karaoke bars, dinner at hawker centres and shopping in wet markets. It’s impossible to list every must-do, -see and -taste in KL, but the undisputed highlights are Petronas Towers and Batu Caves, the latter an ancient Hindu site teeming with statues and stalactites, not to mention mischievous monkeys and the occasional bat.
For history buffs, check out the previously mentioned Malacca with its Dutch-influenced architecture.
Georgetown is the country’s culinary crown jewel. It has also become synonymous with its graffiti.
On Borneo, reserve a day in both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
Malaysia is a melting pot of cuisines and cultures. Chinese, Indian and Western are as accessible as more traditional dishes. The food is defined by its tropical ingredients and a robust selection of spices. Laksa is the country’s famed noodle soup. Each bowl is ladled with either a rich coconut-milk or sour asam broth and topped with chicken, fish or shrimp. Satays and skewers are bbqed on seemingly every street corner. Meanwhile, oyster omelettes are prized among locals.
While Thailand’s shores are littered with tourists, Malaysia’s eastern and western coastlines remain hidden oases. The country’s beach culture really shines throughout The Perhentian and Borneo Islands where snorkelling, diving and kayaking are a lifestyle.
The Perhentian Islands are particularly well-known among backpackers for their snow-white sand. At night, head back to the beach to find 20-somethings lighting bonfires and gazing up at the crystal-clear constellations.
Located on the equator, Malaysia hosts a plethora of primary rainforest. A slew of wildlife is on display in Taman Negar National Park, the largest rainforest in peninsular Malaysia. A ranger can point out endemic orchids and pitcher plants. Junglefowl, argus and other impressive birds will flit and flutter in the canopy above.
While The Cameron Highlands is well-known for acres of tea plantations, it’s also home to impressive cloud forests. Rafflesia – translation “corpse flower”, so named for its distinct rotten flesh scent – is one of the region’s largest attractions. No, literally “the largest”, with the average bloom reaching three feet in diameter.
On Borneo, rainforests such as Kinabalu National Park only get more remote. If you’re lucky you may spot the proboscis monkey with its phallic nose and ombre of white, gold and amber fur. Be sure to stop by the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.
Malaysia’s seas are as diverse and wild as its rainforests. The west coast of peninsular Malaysia sits on The Andaman. To the East is The South China. All of Malaysia’s waters are in the coral triangle which is home to 75 percent the world’s coral species.
If you prefer wrecks to reefs, head to Labuan Island where a number of famous vessels have sunk and since become vibrant ecosystems for colourful schools as well as the odd barracuda and white tipped reef shark.
Ready to visit this awe-inspiring destination? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Malaysia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel x3, Carl Hiehn, Intrepid Travel, Carl Hiehn.)