Malaysia is the crowning jewel that lies at the very end of Southeast Asia, jutting out with the Malaccan Straits to meet the islands of Indonesia and the Java Sea.
It’s a nation distinctly divided in two.
On the western side sits built-up Malaya; the old stronghold of British colonial power that’s now buzzing with electric Kuala Lumpur and multicultural UNESCO towns in Penang.
On the eastern side is wild and mist-topped Borneo.
Here, orangutans swing in the primeval forests, ancient volcanic domes loom overhead, beaches are trodden by turtles instead of sunbathers, and rustic fishing towns spill into the South China Sea.
Just a glance at this magical country is enough to see why so many opt to travel here, whether they come for the verdant reaches of the tea-scented Cameron Highlands, the pearly waters of Sipadan, the raucous markets of the capital, the historic relics of Malacca – the list goes on…
Lets explore the best places to visit in Malaysia:
1. Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur comes spiked at the center by the two great spires of the Petronas Towers, packed with markets and heady hawker bazaars down Petaling Street, throbbing with the energy of Bukit Bintang – the entertainment city – and awash with the scents of everything from frying Chinese chow mien to sizzling Portuguese fish barbeques.
It’s one of the world’s great multicultural metropolises, with lantern-lit Chinatown butting up to districts of Nepalese curry houses and Indian thali kitchens.
Apart from the breathtaking views of the cityscape from the countless sky bars, you can visit the mysterious Batu Caves and some acclaimed Islamic art institutions.
The red-hued churches and colonial frontispieces that fringe the tight-knit lanes of enchanting Malacca remain unquestionably one of Malaysia’s great draws.
Created over decades of colonial rule by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British, the city seen today was once a mighty trading powerhouse on the edge of the Malay Peninsula.
With control of the Malacca Strait, it saw everything from silk transports to spice convoys to military contingents pass through its ports.
Today, there are immersive maritime museums to help unravel this past, along with one pandemonius night market down Jonker Walk – one of the best in the country!
Penang is oft hailed as Southeast Asia writ small.
It’s easy to see why.
In the city of George Town, clicking rickshaws weave past smoky Cantonese kitchens, blue-hued mansions from the 19th century, and the aged remnants of a vainglorious British past – it’s no wonder the whole place comes under UNESCO World Heritage designation.
You can expect one awesome medley of food to try too, including Indian curries and Chinese pancakes.
And then there are the beaches, which glisten in deep blues and golden yellows at Batu Feringghi, and come lined with lanky coconut palms on the edge of Jerejak Island.
4. Gunung Mulu National Park
Gunung Mulu National Park
The weathered hoodoos and ancient ridges of Gunung Mulu National Park rarely fail to capture the imagination.
The park itself (another UNESCO site) represents one of those last enclaves of untrodden land, and is one of the hardest reserves to get to in all of Borneo – you have to take a heart-thumping plane ride down to the asphalt of tiny Mulu Airport, or a 12-hour riverboat between snake-infested jungles.
The prize? Mossy rainforests where helmeted hornbills issue their cries; deep and dank cave systems riddled with rare bats; trekking over swinging canopy bridges; the mighty grykes and caverns of Mount Api – the list goes on.
Straddling the border with Thailand where the Andaman Sea becomes the Malaccan Straits in the extreme north of the country, Langkawi is a laid-back, lazy place that offers a real dose of the tropics.
Riddled with iconic beaches, like the watersports haven of Pantai Cenang, or the secluded, boulder-dotted sands of Pantai Kok, it’s established itself as the place to come for sun, sea, sand, SCUBA, and some pampering.
For the last, you can head to the 5-star all-inclusive resorts that hide in the coconut groves of Datai Bay.
And for adventure, you can pull on the boots and trek to the gushing Seven Wells, or hit the panoramic SkyBridge atop the jungles.
6. Taman Negara National Park
Taman Negara National Park
Taman Negara is the sprawling green jewel that sits at the heart of the Malay Peninsula.
Covering a whopping 4,300 square kilometers, it ranges across primeval rainforest (some of the oldest established woodland in the world, some say) and winding rivers where elephants can be spotted basking on the muddy banks.
Today, Taman Negara is being raised to Malaysia’s ecotourism mecca, and travelers come from far and wide to walk the swinging rope bridges, hike the tree-shrouded trails and seek out the likes of the elusive Malayan tiger, cheeky wild macaques, Indian elephants, galumphing guars – the list goes on!
7. Cameron Highlands
Soaring at a height of over 1,000 meters above the lower reaches of the Malay Peninsula, the hill station known as the Cameron Highlands rarely fails to take the breath away.
It sweeps across the plateaus of the mighty Main Range, midway between Penang and KL, rolling out in verdant pockets of rainforest and emerald-green tea fields as it goes.
The unique microclimate and cool temperatures that dominate on the highlands make the region the perfect incubator for interesting plant and animal life, while oodles of worn hiking routes promise awesome vistas of Batu Brinchang and the ramshackle tea villages, and even cultural encounters with the local Orang Asli aborigines.
8. Perhentian Islands
The Perhentian Islands have all the good looks and sun-kissed beauties you’d expect of an archipelago set at the entrance to the Thai Gulf.
Encompassed by sparkling dashes of coral reef, they are usually accessed by boat from Kuala Besut.
The location on the east coast of Malaya keeps them void of the same booming crowds that descend on Penang, which is great if you’re after long and lazy days kicking-back between Turtle Beach and Coral Bay.
But that’s not it.
There’s SCUBA diving aplenty, with famous sites like Pinnacle and Sugar Wreck offering great visibility.
There’s jungle hiking paths, where you’ll keep the company of oversized lizards and snakes.
And there are some great fish fries in the evening to boot!
9. Semenggoh Nature Reserve
Semenggoh Nature Reserve
Semenggoh continues to reign as one of the fabled natural jewels of Borneo.
Located just on the fringes of Kuching city, it spills into the virgin rainforests that rise with the great inland peaks of Sarawak.
Between its borders are towering teak trees and swinging jungle vines, all peppered with blooming papayas and banana trees.
Those are munched on by the resident pack of 25 orangutans, which are the main reason so many thousands of people flock this way each year! (There’s a famous reserve on the grounds of Semenggoh that allows some of the most up-close-and-personal encounters with these fascinating simians.)
10. Bako National Park
Bako National Park
Jutting its way out into the pearly waters of the South China Sea on the other side of Kuching from Semenggoh, Bako National Park is also worth a visit – especially if you’ve come to Malaysia for the wild jungles and beautiful backcountry.
The landscapes here can change dramatically from the coast to the inland, with chiseled rock stacks and sheer-cut cliffs by the ocean, and dense forests with mossy undergrowth dominating the backcountry.
That makes for one awesome array of fauna, including formidable monitor lizards and elusive proboscis monkeys.
Walking trails cover the whole park, weaving past the woods, the mangroves and the coastal coves alike.
For many travelers, Kuching will be that first taste of eastern Malaysia and Borneo.
And where better to start? This 200-year-old city is the capital of Sarawak state, and comes with a backstory of British colonialism and sultanate rule.
You can see that in buildings like the whitewashed Astana, and in the bustling worshipping halls of the Jamek Mosque.
Kuching is also known for its diversity – Chinese markets throb with five spice here; Indian kitchens churn out paneer fries and bhajis there.
Oh, and that’s not even mentioning the town’s enticing proximity to wonders like Bako National Park and the Semenggoh orangutan reserve!
You’ll have to venture far into the east to discover the legendary tropical treasures of Sipadan: Malaysia’s sole oceanic island, and a veritable picture-perfect diving destination that’s just waiting for the travel brochure photographers to pass through.
Cotton-white sands greet the few boaters that make the trip from Borneo’s mainland, while craggy hills of jungle-dressed rock top the isle itself.
However, the real treats here lie under the water.
There, with oxygen tanks strapped on, you’ll be able to find hammerhead sharks and endangered hawksbill turtles, shimmering coral gardens and kaleidoscopic parrotfish!
13. Lambir Hills National Park
Lambir Hills National Park
Sat just a stone’s throw from the border with Brunei, the Lambir Hills National Park is one of the smallest in Malaysia.
However, size doesn’t seem to matter here, because visitors still flock to wonder at the gushing waterfalls and old-growth rainforest that are packed into the nooks and crevices of the valleys.
Wooden bridges, winding staircases cut into the rock, and maintained boardwalks, all make it a great place to pull on the walking boots.
Deep inside the reserve are families of rare primates and the paradisiacal cataracts of the Lambir Hills Waterfall – just wait until that one reveals itself!
14. Johor Bahru
Johor Bahru sits on the very edge of Singapore, right at the tip of the Malay Peninsula.
Over the decades, it’s garnered a rep as just an administrative visa town, which is far too simple a moniker for a city that’s riddled with cultural attractions and great shopping.
Check out the Old Chinese Temple that stands, Zen-like, in the midst of the downtown, and don’t miss the elegant colonial-style towers of the Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque.
For shoppers, there are huge malls and marketplaces to get through, like Tebrau City and KSL. However, it’s the rides and arcades of Legoland Malaysia that draw the biggest crowds of locals – not to mention oodles from across the border in Singapore too.
Super-wet Taiping sits in the rain shadow of the Perak hills, not far from the sunny beaches and multicultural streets of George Town and Penang.
Like Penang, this city has been influenced greatly by settlers from China over the centuries, and the spot was once the focus of a mass exodus of Cantonese and San folk, who came in the tin rush to mine the nearby ridges.
Today, it’s got some pretty urban gardens and parklands to explore – don’t miss relaxing Maxwell Hill, the mirror-like waters of Taiping Lake Gardens, or the sobering Taiping War Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the town center displays a medley of colonial-era facades and timber Asian builds, all of which hide local cookhouses and emporiums.