Reefs and rainforests, mountains and minarets, skycrapers and sampans; Malaysia more than lives up to its official slogan ‘truly Asia’.
One of the great cultural melting pots, Malaysia is a nation where Chinese joss-houses, Hindu temples and gold-domed Malay mosques jostle for space with bustling markets and towering skyscrapers. Away from the cities, untamed nature awaits, in the form of jungles dripping with rare and exotic species and coral reefs teeming with turtles, sharks and rainbow-coloured tropical fish.
Malaysia offers two countries for the price of one – Peninsular Malaysia, bordering Thailand at the southern end of the Malay peninsula, and East Malaysia, the northern half of the island of Borneo, which pushes up against Indonesia and Brunei. The peninsula is where people come for bustling cities and colonial history, but the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo are the gateway to a mysterious world of coral islands and lush rainforests inhabited by isolated indigenous tribes.
Things to see and do in Malaysia
The mighty Batang Rejang river is the gateway to Borneo’s tribal heartland. Visitors who come here in May and early June can visit the longhouse homes of the Iban tribe, which shelter generations of the same family, recalling traditions that date back thousands of years. The best places to arrange a local guide are the jungle outposts of Kapit and Belaga.
Forest Research Institute of Malaysia
Just a short train ride from central Kuala Lumpur, this scientific research centre (www.frim.gov.my) offers peaceful walking trails, jungle swimming holes and a 200m long rainforest boardwalk, suspended high in the canopy. It’s a fine retreat from the hubbub of the city, and the Zoo Negara and Batu Caves are close by.
Tour Malaysia's most impressive mosques including Kuala Kangsar, the Ubudiah Mosque, the State Mosque in Seremban, the Tranquerah Mosque, one of Malaysia's oldest, in Malacca, Kuching's Sarawak State Mosque, with its magnificent gilt domes and Labuan's futuristic An'nur Jamek Mosque.
Bordering Thailand on the east coast of Malaysia, Kota Bharu is alive with the culture and customs of the Malay peninsula. The town is famous for its traditional kites and shadow puppets and eating at the Kota Bharu night market is one of Malaysia’s great feasts. Festivals abound, including the Kite Festival in June and Puja Umur (the Sultan's birthday) in March/April.
The capital of Sarawak is a bustling metropolis by the standards of the tribal villages inland, but a sleepy backwater compared to the cities of Peninsular Malaysia. Highlights include temples and mosques, quirky museums, colonial relics and animated markets.
The best place to relive Malaysia's colonial past is its oldest city, Malacca (www.tourism-melaka.com), the one-time capital of Malay sultans and Portuguese, Dutch and British seafarers. A couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur on the west coast, Malacca is famous for its Portuguese and Dutch colonial architecture, and its fascinating hybrid cuisine, which fuses Indian, Chinese and Malay influences.
Take respite from Malaysia's humid cities and soak up the magnificent views from the mountain resorts of the Central and Cameron Highlands.
Pedas Hot Springs
Bathe in the restorative waters of the Pedas Hot Springs, 30km (18 miles) south of Seremban. Visitors will find bathing enclosures, dining and recreational facilities.
Relax on Penang's sun-kissed beaches (www.tourismpenang.gov.my), and explore historic colonial George Town, the island's capital. Penang is also famous for its food.
Visit the twin islands of Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil (www.pulauperhentian.com.my). The country's most beautiful islands boast pristine white beaches, crystal clear waters and are still relatively unexploited. The islands are popular for scuba-diving and snorkelling with accessible reefs.
Attend one of Malaysia's annual festivals, magnificent spectacles bursting with colour. Puja Umur (the Sultan's birthday) is celebrated with a week-long festival, beginning with a parade in Kota Bharu. The Annual Sabah International Dragon Boat Festival is also popular.
Traverse Malaysia's stunning rainforests and jungles. Templar Park, 22km (14 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur, is a well-preserved tract of primary rainforest. Jungle paths, swimming lagoons and waterfalls lie within the park boundaries.
For an unusual attraction, go to the Snake Temple in Penang, which swarms with poisonous snakes, their venomous threat countered by heavily drugging them with incense.
Tasek Perdana Lake Gardens
Southwest of Kuala Lumpur’s bustling Chinatown, the Lake Gardens are one of the capital’s top attractions. Highlights of this calm green space include the KL Bird Park, with dozens of exotic species, and lush gardens devoted to orchids, hibiscus and butterflies. In the centre is the National Monument, marking the defeat of Communist forces in 1950.
Just 13km north of Kuala Lumpur, the remarkable Batu Caves are a series of dramatic limestone caverns, dripping with stalactites, revered as a Hindu shrine. Every year in January or February, millions of devotees parade through the chambers and perform ritual acts of self-mortification for the spectacular Thaipusam festival.
To escape the heat of the lowlands, the British colonials retreated to the hills north of Kuala Lumpur founding tea plantation and hill resorts in the cool Cameron Highlands. Today, this is Malaysia’s best known hill station, with trekking and tea-tasting as the main atttractions.
Gunung Mulu National Park
A former haunt of headhunting tribes, Gunung Mulu National Park (www.mulupark.com) is a World Heritage site, thanks to the most extensive cave system in the world. Five caves are open to the general public, and many more can be explored by caving expeditions. You can also trek along a former headhunters’ trail and climb to the razor-sharp limestone outcrop known as the Pinnacles.
In the southern state of Johor, be sure to watch the trance-inducing Kuda Kepang dances in Muar, accompanied by the euphony of ghazal music and devotional chanting.
Go jungle trekking in the Taman Negara National Park (www.tamannegara.org). There are many clearly marked trails including a canopy walkway. Expert guides should be hired from the Wildlife Department at the Taman Negara Resort at Kuala Tahan.
Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary
Don a pair of binoculars at the Kuala Gula Bird Sanctuary in Ipoh, host to over 150 species of birds. Lucky visitors may see smooth otters, long-tailed macaque and ridge-back dolphins.
A fascinating colonial history and rich cultural diversity make Kuala Lumpur one of Asia’s most invigorating capitals. Highlights include the Islamic Arts Museum, the National Mosque, the atmospheric streets of Little India and Chinatown, the historic architecture around Independence Square and shopping in the city’s space-age malls.
In the interior of Pahang, visit Malaysia's answer to Loch Ness: Lake Chini's waters are said to contain mythological monsters that guard the entrance to a legendary sunken city.
Malaysia’s premier resort island, Langkawi boasts white sand beaches, fringing coral reefs, swaying palms and superior shopping, thanks to the island’s duty free status. Ferries and flights come here daily from the mainland and you can continue by boat to Satun in southern Thailand.
Stay in a Malaysian longhouse, which are common along the rivers in Sarawak and Sabah, and are really entire villages housed under one single roof, inhabited by native communities. Visitors should be accompanied by a local guide.
Climbing Southeast Asia's highest peak is one of the highlights of a trip to East Malaysia. Located in Kinabalu National Park, the soaring granite dome of Mount Kinabulu reaches 4,094m (13,432ft), and the summit offers epic views over the island. Most people start the trek before dawn to catch sunrise at the summit. No technical skills are required, but a guide and a climbing permit (which can be bought on location) are compulsory.
Offering the rare chance to see wild orang-utans in their natural habitat, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Borneo, exists to rehabilitate orangutans rescued from hunters and loggers. In fact, it has the world's largest population of these 'wild men of Borneo', numbering some 80 individuals.
Penang Bird Park
Horticulturalists and bird lovers ashould head for Penang Bird Park (www.penangbirdpark.com.my). This landscaped park in Seberang Jaya is home to over 400 bird species and specially designed aviaries are placed among manmade islands with beautiful waterfalls and ornamental gardens.
Perak Tong temple cave
Explore subterranean Malaysia, with a visit to the cave temples at Perak Tong, Sam Poh Tong and Kek Lok Tong. The Museum Cave has a display of statues and murals from Hindu mythology.
Petronas Twin Towers
Looming over downtown Kuala Lumpur like twin rocket ships, the iconic Petronas Towers were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. Soaring to 436m (1,453ft), the towers are linked by a glass walkway with a viewing deck on the 41st floor. At the base of the towers is the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre and the swish Suria KLCC mall.
The twin islands of Pulau Perhentian (www.pulauperhentian.com.my) are a vision of paradise, and a perfect antidote to the over-development of many resort islands in South East Asia. Life here moves at a slow, tropical pace and apart from basking on the sand or swinging beneath a palm tree, diving and snorkelling are the main diversions.
Malaysia is a famous scuba diving destination, with teeming reefs and sunken islands that attract plenty of megafauna, including schooling hammerheads and rare whale sharks. There are dive sites all over the country, but the finest lie around the islands of Sipadan and Layang Layang, offshore from Sabah in East Malaysia.
Malaysia is covered in pristine jungles, but Taman Negara National Park (www.taman-negara.com) offers the chance to get deep into the rainforest without having to cut a path through the lianas. Marked trails and boardwalks snake between the trees, offering the chance to spot monkeys, snakes, deer and tapir. Expert guides can be hired from the Wildlife Department at Kuala Tahan.
Walk in the delightful parkland surrounding Tugu Negara, Malaysia's National Monument in Kuala Lumpur, which commemorates the ultimately successful struggle against the occupying Japanese during World War II and communist insurgents in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Play one of Malaysia's traditional, unusual sports, including gasing, or top spinning (called Main Gasing), which uses tops fashioned from hardwood and delicately balanced with lead, Wau-kite flying and Sepak Takraw, a game like volleyball, played with a ball made of rattan strips.