Malaysia is two exotic destinations in one: peninsular Malaysia, with its historic cities, tropical islands and rich cultural melting pot, and East Malaysia, dominating the northern half of the island of Borneo, with its dense jungles, fringing coral reefs and wild orang-utans. Little wonder they call Malaysia ‘truly Asia’.
Peninsular Malaysia has a famously efficient transport network, with flights, boats, buses and trains linking all the main centres. River boats and light-aircraft provide access to the dense jungles of Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia, but flights are the only way to travel between the two halves of Malaysia, unless you island-hop through Indonesia.
Kuala Lumpur is the gateway to Malaysia, a fascinating melting pot of Malay, Chinese and Indian culture. Downtown KL is an eclectic mix of gleaming skyscrapers and shopping malls, colonial relics and pockets of tropical jungle. Sky-bars look out over the cityscape from the tallest towers, while KL at street level is a city-sized buffet of Asian flavours.
North of KL, the landscape bucks up into lush green hills, where British-era hill stations offer a cool, calm escape from the crush of the capital. The Cameron Highlands are a verdant canvas of gardens, forests and tea plantations, and more pristine greenery can be found to the east in the vast national park of Taman Negara.
Dropping to the coast, the cities of Georgetown (Penang) and Melaka offer more of Malaysia’s mesmerising melting pot, with bustling night markets and fabulous fusion food. For the full tropical island experience, aim for the idyllic beaches of Pulau Langkawi and the exquisite coral reefs around Pulau Tioman and Pulau Redang.
Beyond the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak promise jungle adventures. From the colonial capital, Kuching, you can float past remote tribal villages in rainforest reserves that shelter orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and crocodiles, or climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu on neighbouring Sabah.
Even in fast-paced KL, it’s easy to escape the crowds. Combine a trip to the fascinating Batu Caves with a hike through the forest canopy in the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia. Penang and Langkawi are just the most famous islands – more perfect beaches and and pristine reefs can be found on the Perhentian islands and Pulau Sipadan off the coast of Sabah. Heading inland on Borneo, Gunung Mulu National Park is a stunning alternative to Mount Kinabalu, with towering mountains, plunging gorges, limestone caverns and dramatic karst landscapes.
Malaysian food is a fascinating fusion of Malay, Indian and Chinese flavours. In the cities of Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and Georgetown (Penang), seek out Nonya cuisine, created by Straits Chinese settlers in the colonial period. The Mamak community, descended from Tamil Muslims from South India, run nasi kandar (rice and curry) canteens across Malaysia, serving delicious Indian-inspired dishes. Malaysian seafood is rightly famous, and best sampled at beach resorts or the lavish restaurants of Kuala Lumpur; Bijan is a standout choice for traditional Malay cooking. One must-try anywhere in Malaysia is roti canai – flat bread with a rich curry dipping sauce.