You name it, Malaysia’s probably got it – beaches to lounge on, rain forests to trek and sweat through, exotic wildlife to seek out, unbeatable cuisine, deep-seated traditions and rich cultural history. It’s also a rapidly changing nation, capitalising on the natural resources the land has provided with little consideration for the consequences. Environmentalists often point to Malaysia as a much-denounced example of deforestation and the impacts that come with it. Governmental steps have been taken to diversify the country’s economy, but most coach journeys of any significant distance will reveal acre upon acre of oil palm plantations which are there to meet a huge global demand for palm oil. It’s a country that can bedazzle and ask you to confront awkward truths about globalisation at the same time, and it that respect, Malaysia really is truly Asia. Enough of the negative vibes though, below here’s my choice for some of the most beautiful and fascinating places to visit in Malaysia….
This duty-free haven is Malaysia’s northernmost archipelago 30km off the mainland and easily accessible by ferry and air from Thailand or Malaysia. Honeymooners and backpackers alike are all catered for as swathes of magazine-perfect beaches invite lazy cocktail-sipping afternoons. For the more adventurous, you can test your vertigo at one of Langkawi’s main attractions – the 1,700 metre cable car, or SkyCab – which ascends Machincang Mountain. You have the option to go to the first station and back again or continue up to the loftier second station. From there you can take a stroll across the SkyBridge, head up to elevated viewing platforms or simply watch the clouds roll in and over the slopes at amazing speed. The SkyBridge was closed at the time of visiting (November 2013) so it’s best to check access beforehand. If you’re feeling peckish, ask the locals to find out the next location of the roaming night market.
Considered the food capital of Malaysia by many, this charming and well-developed island is part of the wider state of Penang and has become a multiracial melting pot of diverse cultures, religions and ethnicities, thanks largely to it’s prominent position within historic trading routes. The main neighbourhood of Georgetown is a delightful UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts numerous murals which make up a fascinating street art scene fronted by Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic. It won’t be long before you’re drifting lost amongst the narrow pastel streets, having your nostrils tugged and tempted by fried Nasi Kandar and your eyes popped at the colourful sight of Ais Kacang. The culinary theme continues at the Tropical Spice Garden on the island’s northern edge, a lush and refreshing retreat where you can dine in the treetops alongside Silver Leaf monkeys swinging amongst the branches. A short bus ride further down the road is the highly enjoyable Butterfly Farm with a series of masterful must-see short animated educational films.
The Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
Amongst the hustle and bustle of Malaysia’s chaotic capital, beauty presents itself in unexpected form. If you hang around the base of the Petronas Towers between sunset and moonrise, the world’s tallest twin buildings undergo a magical transformation as day turns to night and the office lights, lift shafts and aircraft warning lights illuminate the 88 stories in a halogen-fuelled twilight haze.
For hundreds of years Malacca was one of the most strategically significant towns on the Malay Peninsular, switching hands between the Portuguese, Dutch and British amongst others during that time as they fought for control of this key trading post. Fast forward to modern day Malacca and you get the impression the place hasn’t changed much. Many of the streets are one way, winding and cramped, while the rickety buildings are poky and ooze historical character. Like Penang, Malacca is one of Malaysia’s smallest states and proudly possesses UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
This is easily one of the most beautiful places to visit in Malaysia. Visitors are attracted to this enchanting region of Pehang to experience the novelty, and the respite, of a cooler tropical highland climate where temperatures are often in the low 20s. The rolling hills are populated by tea plantations and flower nurseries, making the area the leading producer of tea and flowers in Malaysia. It’s wise to check weather in the monsoon season (November – February) and call ahead or ask your transport operator before travelling as the heavy rainfall can lead to landslides which has an inconvenient tendency of blocking many of the roads.
A tiny island just off the Malay Peninsular with wide, sweeping beaches that match Langkawi is only accessible by ferry from the connecting town of Lumut. Lumut is approximately three hours north of Kuala Lumpur by road and for those wishing to stick to the tracks then Ipoh (85km away) will sate your train station needs.
A truly idyllic cluster of islands protruding from the South China Sea on Malaysia’s east coast. The fact that Redang sits within protected waters, known as the Terengganu Marine Park, preserves the crystal clear waters and the reef systems, ergo creating a flourishing scuba-tourism industry. As with some central locations such as Cameron Highlands and much of the east coast, the monsoons dictate when to go, and when not to go. Between November and February the waters are often too rough for boats to transport eager sun-seekers to the island and many resorts take a holiday for themselves, so it’s always best to phone ahead for availability or plan your travels away from the low season.
The Jungle Railway
The Jungle Railway runs for more than 500km between Gemas on the Butterworth – Singapore line and Tumpat in the northeastern part of Peninsular Malaysia which provides a gateway through to Thailand. The line passes through the three states of Pahang, Negeri Sembilan and Kelantan and majestic mountainous rainforest in the process. It’s worth scheduling your journey during the day so you get to take in the captivating scenery and give yourself a chance of spotting a monkey or two.
Malaysia seems to be a never-ending source of reverential snorkel and scuba sites, and Sabah doesn’t buck any trends. If you’re interested in latitudes, Sabah ranks as Malaysia’s northernmost state and while people do flock to Sabah to enjoy the seas, you’d do well to remember that Sabah is home to a myriad of exotic on and offshore species, including civet cats, snakes, clouded leopards and pygmy elephants which are among the 222 mammals (44 endemics), 420 birds (37 endemics), 100 amphibians and 394 fish (19 endemics) found, according to the WWF.
Gunung Mulu, Borneo
What looks like a stone’s throw away from Brunei on the map, Gunung Mulu represents yet another of Malaysia’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s a well documented, visited and filmed world, as done by the BBC’s Planet Earth team, but with eye-catching, otherworldly features such as the Pinnacles at Mount Api it’s easy to see why. Gunung Mulu National Park is the largest of Sarawak’s parks and writing all this is making me want to go back to Malaysia, tomorrow!