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Malaysia Travel Guide: What to Do in Malaysia

Malaysia is an amazingly diverse country, from the bustle of Kuala Lumpur to the jungles of Borneo. You can catch the view from the giant twin Petronas Towers or chill on an island beach. Malaysia’s people and history are diverse too, with influences from China, Portugal, Holland, Britain and India.

The country is part peninsular, with many surrounding small islands, but it also holds territory on the large island of Borneo, where it shares borders with Brunei and Indonesia.

You’ll find UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the historic cities of Penang and Melaka, as well as in the Lenggong Valley, where archeological finds encompass nearly two million years of human history. Gunung Mulu National Park is known for its vast caves and karst formations, while Kinabalu Park is home to the tallest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea.

In this slideshow, we’ll take you from chaotic markets to amazing dive sites. You’ll get face to face with orangutans and watch sea turtles lay their eggs. You’ll sip teas on the plantations where they’re grown, learn batik painting and dine on some of the world’s best street food.

To help you plan your adventure, check out our advice on where to stay and how to get around.

Chill Out in the Highlands

Want to escape to cooler climes? Head for the Cameron Highlands, where temperatures dip and tea plantations blanket the landscape. You’ll also encounter strawberry farms, flower nurseries and colonial Tudor architecture.

For great views, visit the Sungai Palas Teas Centre, where you can sample teas and learn about the history of the plantation and tea production during a short tour. You’ll get more gorgeous views at the Cameron Bharat Tea Plantation, where there are two teahouses, but no tours.

There’s also good hiking and trekking in the region, including trails that visit waterfalls and nature areas. If you’re in luck, you might be here when a specimen of the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia, is in bloom. If that’s a possibility, you’ll hear buzz about it from local guides, who keep an eye on patches where the plants are found.

Get Crafty in Kota Bharu

On the northeast coast near the Thai border, Kota Bharu is a center for culture and handicrafts like batik, silverware, brassware, shadow puppets, weaving and kites. You’ll find crafts on the second floor of the Central Market (but go early and first stroll through the fresh market to see vendors in traditional dress). Elsewhere in the area, Bazaar Buluh Kubu offers handicrafts from Saturday through Thursday. There are also some exhibits at the Handicraft Village and Craft Museum worth seeing, as well as demonstrations by artisans from time to time. You can hire a guide to take you to visit small cottage-industry craft workshops as well.

Want to get hands on? You can study batik painting at Zecsman Design. This art uses a wax resistance technique on fabric. Choose from classes that last four to five hours, or all day.

If you’re on Borneo, there are a variety of options at the Arawak Arts & Crafts Centre’s Sarakraf Pavilion, near Kuching, where you can take one-hour classes in batik painting, beadwork and bamboo weaving, or opt for a two-hour traditional cooking class.

Watch Sea Turtles Lay Eggs

Make sure you’ve got plenty of memory in your camera — you’ll be snapping away like mad when you witness huge sea turtles laboring their way onto shore, digging nests in the sand and laying their eggs. Four out of the world’s seven species of sea turtles nest in Malaysia: the critically endangered leatherback, the green turtle, the hawksbill and the olive ridley.

To learn about the turtles, visit the Turtle Information and Sanctuary Centre in Rantau Abang, on the peninsula’s eastern coast. While some nesting activity occurs there between April and September, you may have better luck spotting the creatures in Turtle Islands National Park. This marine park includes several islands in the Sabah group such as Gulisan, Bakungan Kecil and Pulau Selingan. Here, peak nesting season is July through September.

Keep your distance from laying females, and by all means, don’t disturb the nest. If hatchlings are present, don’t shine any light on them or use a flash, as it can disrupt their ability to find the sea. Likewise, never touch them.

Chow Down in George Town

Sample the amazing street food in George Town (on Penang Island) where Malaysian, Chinese and Indian food hawkers offer a movable feast. Some have been selling on the same spot for more than 50 years! Street food is so important to Penangites that an online poll to determine locals’ favorite dishes attracted a big response. The tourism office published a brochure of the top 12 picks, which includes descriptions of the dishes and the best places to find them. Print it out here or pick a copy up at your lodging. There’s also a Food Trail brochure with even more tempting tastes.

Some of the most iconic treats include char koay teow, rice noodles stir-fried in a soy-based sauce with prawns, cockles, bean sprouts and an optional egg; hokkien mee, a soup packed with noodles, prawns, hard-boiled egg, bean sprouts and meat, plus shallot fritters sprinkled on top; the flaky Indian flatbread roti canai, oozing with ghee; and skewers of satay sizzling on the grill.

There are several hawker areas in George Town (one of our evening favorites is Lorong Baru), and also a major center outside the city near the Gurney Plaza mall. But you’ll encounter food vendors nearly everywhere you go. How to choose? Ask a local (nearly everyone on Penang speaks English) or find the vendor with the longest line.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

The Island of Penang, Malaysia by BJC
“The Malay food was as delightful as we remembered it from six years ago, the mixed seafood in the shell for starters, the deep fried calamari with a Thai shredded mango salad to die for, so good we went back another night and ordered something else but had them supply a small plate of the salad as well.” Read more!

See an Entire Village Under One Roof

In the Sarawak region, as many as 500 people can be found living under one very long roof. Home to the Iban, Bidayah and many of the Orang Ulu peoples, longhouses can be found in the Skrang, Lemanak and Batang Ai areas.

You’ll often find them along rivers, and it’s possible to visit for a day or, in some cases, spend the night. Inside, there’s both private and communal living space. You might see traditional ikat weavers, basket makers, tattoo artists and maybe even the odd skull — a remnant from head-hunting days. But don’t fear, longhouse communities are typically very friendly and welcoming.

One of the best places to visit is the Bidayah longhouse at Annah Rais, where traditional architecture and crafts prevail.

Go Ape Over Orangutans

In Sabah, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre does great work, taking in orphaned or captive orangutans and transitioning them back to the jungle. It also gives you the opportunity to observe these lively apes when they come for feedings twice a day.

The center is located about a 20-minute drive from Sandakan and is open daily. Feedings are at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., lasting between 30 and 50 minutes. There tend to be more tour groups at the earlier feeding. There’s also a video you can watch about Sepilok’s work, as well as walking trails that let you explore the park’s vegetation; keep an eye out for wildlife, including macaques.

The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, located in Sarawak’s Semenggoh Nature Reserve, is another good destination for orangutan spotters. Here, about 25 apes live in their natural habitat, but come in for feedings at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The nearest town to the reserve is Kuching.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Sabah: “The Land Below the Wind” by Brian W Fisher
“A senior ranger awaits and clinging to him is ‘Ten-Ten,’ an 18-month-old female orangutan. ‘Up close and personal’ is a must if one is to savor the moment. NO touching of course, as human ailments even as minor as the common cold can be passed on. For 10 minutes or so, camera shutters click and camcorders are pointed as the little ape tries its hand at tree swinging.” Read more!

Explore the World’s Most Amazing Caves

Many areas of Malaysia are riddled with limestone caves, attracting spelunkers from around the world. If you’re not much of a caver, you can still visit the impressive Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur. The main Temple Cave requires a climb of nearly 300 steps, but you’ll be urged on by a giant golden statue of the Hindu deity Murugan and distracted by monkeys scampering around the cliffs. You can visit the Valluvan Kottam, Art Gallery and Ramayana caves too. All contain shrines, carvings and decorations. There’s also the Dark Cave, a more natural caving site, where you can take an “educational tour” or an “adventure tour”; the latter visits the wilder portions of the cave, including a section where you have to crawl.

One of the country’s top caving destinations is Gunung Mulu National Park (also known as Mulu National Park), in Sarawak. Here, the caves open to the public are dubbed “show caves,” and they’re some of the most spectacular in the world. Deer Cave has the world’s largest tourist-accessible cave chamber, home to millions of bats, while Lang’s Cave offers stunning stalagmites and stalactites. Clearwater Cave, which stretches through more than 100 miles of passages, is home to an underground river. And Wind Cave showcases yet more impressive stalagmites and stalactites.

Hop Aboard a Wacky Trishaw

Imagine a Vegas showgirl. We’re talking feathers, sequins and over-the-top bling. Now mentally transfer that whole getup to a trishaw, and you’ll get an idea of the crazy, imaginative decorations Melakan drivers use to call attention to their rides.

One trishaw might be completely covered in feathers, another in artificial flowers and blinking holiday lights. We saw one three-wheeler devoted to a Hello Kitty theme, and another with a disco ball and boombox blaring Donna Summer’s “I Will Survive.”

Drivers tend to congregate around the city’s historic area, near the fortress and museums. Be sure to negotiate the time and distance you want to travel before hopping aboard. Then take a seat and become part of the show.

Plunge into an Underwater World

Malaysia offers a number of prime diving and snorkeling sites, many of them off of islands. You can dive among manta rays, starfish, whale sharks, sea turtles and WWII wrecks. Many resorts offer diving programs, and you can also take a PADI dive certification course while you’re here.

Snorkelers will love the shallow waters and accessible reefs of the two Perhentian islands, off the northeast peninsular coast, where soft coral sets the scene.

The country’s most famous dive destination is Pulau Sipadan, part of the Semporna Archipelago off the Sabah coast. The near-vertical walls of this site attract a vast variety of marine life, including large numbers of barracuda at the aptly named Barracuda Point. A limited number of divers is allowed every day, so be sure to book in advance through a local dive shop or resort for the best experience. You’ll find more information about diving in Malaysia, including a listing of dive resorts, on the PADI website.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Malaysia Wonder Trip by Malaysia Trip
“[The] Perhentian Islands are renowned as one of Malaysia’s marine paradises. Pulau Besar and Pulau Kecil, the two main islands, are heavily forested and ringed with sandy beaches typical of tropical islands. Accommodations for visitors are predominantly aimed at budget travelers and are mostly on the larger Pulau Perhentian Besar, which not only has wonderful beaches but also forest trails over the hills.” Read more!

Shop Till You Drop

You can find deals from morning to night in shopping-crazed Kuala Lumpur. If you’re an early riser, check out the morning fresh market (featuring fresh food ingredients) around Petaling Street; look for the entrance on Jalan Hang Lekir. Later that market gives way to a bazaar along Petaling Street, with vendors hawking all manner of knock-offs. Bargain your way down the street, offering about a third of the asking price — then negotiate from there.

If you’re in town on a Saturday night, don’t miss the Masjid India Pasar Malam, which runs from 3 p.m. until around midnight along Lorong Tuanku Abdul Rahman. As a bonus, there are also plenty of food stalls serving Indian, Chinese and Malay eats. Keep an eye out for other night markets too, where you’ll see everything from crafts to pirated DVDs.

Haggling isn’t your thing? KL has plenty of modern mega-malls to provide retail therapy. One of our favorites is Publika because it adds art galleries, small boutiques and better-than-average food to the mix. If your motto is “go big or go home,” the Mid Valley Megamall is your place. There are more than 500 stores, a bowling alley, a cinema and plenty of restaurants. Next door, Gardens Mall has more upscale offerings, with oodles of luxury labels.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Short Trip Report from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by gardkarlsen
“KL is a pretty nice shopping destination and there are lots of nice malls around the city. Places like Suria KLCC, Pavilion, Mid Valley Megamall and 1 Utama are all huge malls that can offer most things that you are looking for. If you want something cheap and maybe not as genuine you can head for Chinatown and Petaling street — but remember that you have to bargain to get a decent price.” Read more!

Trek to the Top

At 13,436 feet, Gunung Kinabalu mountain is one of the world’s highest peaks that can be summitted without special climbing equipment — though you should be in good physical condition to make the trek. It’s located in Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ascent takes two days if you want to have a clear view at the top, and you should be prepared for humidity, wind, wet rocks and cold temperatures — plus some hefty required tariffs, including a climbing permit, park fee, guide fee and insurance.

There are rest stops along the way with shelter, simple toilets and potable water. Camping isn’t allowed on the mountain, so you must book an overnight hut at Laban Rata well in advance. By staying here, you’ll be able to finish the climb at dawn and beat the clouds that inevitably form on the summit later in the day.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Sabah: “The Land Below the Wind” by Brian W Fisher
“Sited in Sabah, Borneo, Mt. Kinabalu draws both novice and experienced rock climbers from many countries, challenging them to tackle its formidable traverses and faces. This author was much too old to join those eager to try, those folk who’d awoken at 3 a.m., donned their gear and in the tropical temperature, began their quest to reach the summit (where numbing cold awaits) and return to base before what was left of the day’s light turned itself off.” Read more!

Best Time to Go to Malaysia

Malaysia is hot and humid all year round, but the rainy season (roughly from November through March) hits hard on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia; avoid the area during this time. In general, March through September is the driest period in most parts of the country.

Malaysia on a Budget

Aside from the airfare to get there, Malaysia is generally an affordable destination, with a low cost of living and numerous budget hotel options. Be flexible with your travel dates and start searching for fares well in advance to save on your flight. Once in country, look for guesthouses and homestays to cut down on lodging costs.

–written by Gayle Keck

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