Full travel guide to Malaysia

From its glittering capital to its forest and wildlife-filled natural spaces, there is so much to see and do in Malaysia…

Alex Robinson
07 December 2022
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How to get to Malaysia and getting around

Malaysia is easy to reach from the UK, with Malaysia Airlines offering daily flights from Heathrow direct to Kuala Lumpur. From there, its just short onward connections to the white sand beaches of Langkawi and Penang and the wilds of Sarawak and Sabah (on Borneo). Public transport is regular, cheap and reliable, with an extensive bus network, trains north to Bangkok and south to Singapore and a network of passenger boats and ferries. Cycling is popular and well catered for.

3 outdoor adventures to have in Malaysia

1: Go hiking and mountain climbing

Highlands dripping with waterfalls, craggy mountains rising to over 4,000 metres, long trails through magnificent rainforest. Malaysia has some of the best hiking in Asia and it comes in astonishing variety. There are long treks – to the summit of towering Mount Kinabalu or along the rainforest-shrouded ridges of the Cameron Highlands. There are afternoon ambles – up Penang Hill from the orchid-filled Botanic Gardens for a sunset view of the forest, city and ocean at your feet. And there are short hikes – up the steep trail to Bohey Dulang in Sabah where you have an extinct volcanic crater dotted with coral islands at your feet.

2: Enjoy snorkelling and diving

With glassy-clear, serene seas speckled with pinnacle islands, reef-fringed beaches and spectacular ocean walls, Malaysia has great snorkelling and diving at all levels. Enjoy bath-calm seas coloured with coral gardens off Langkawi and Tioman islands. Tunku Abdul Rahman Park – a short boat hop from Kota Kinabalu city, is one of the best-value places in Asia to learn how to dive with gently sloping reefs running right off the beach. Adventurous divers and snorkellers love the deep-water Borneo Banks off Layang Layang island, where schools of hammerhead sharks and giant Manta Rays congregate between March and August.

3: Kayaking

From easy going ocean island paddles to thrilling white water rides, Malaysia has superb kayaking. Head to Langkawi’s Kubang Badak River or the calm waters off Terengganu to spot sea eagles, macaque monkeys and otters in the wild mangrove forests along the shoreline. Kayak around the coast of to one of the myriad islets like Pulau Tiku – that sits right off Penang’s Georgetown. Drift along the Upper Sarawak River stopping to explore butterfly-filled jungles and limestone caves. Or brave the rushing mountain rivers in Semadang for an adrenaline-pumping ride through pristine wilderness.

3 wildlife experiences to have in Malaysia

1: Wildlife watching in Kinabalu Park, Sabah

It’s not just the spectacular sunrise over the vastness of Borneo that makes the tough two-day hike up Malaysia’s highest peak worth the muscle ache. It’s the astonishing wildlife. Forests shroud the great mountain’s flanks, providing a Unesco world heritage listed haven for more than 6,000 plant species (including the near two-metre-wide Rafflesia) and more than 1,000 orchids, 300 birds endangered primates including orang-utans, gibbons and kitten-sized tarsiers. And you don’t have to climb Kinabalu to sample the wilderness. Dozens of forest trails lead from the Kinabalu Park Headquarters, which has accommodation and is reachable by road.

2: Wildlife watching in Bako National Park, Kuching

Bako may be tiny but it couldn’t be easier to reach and it packs in an astonishing array of landscapes and wildlife. There are coral reef gardens, otter-filled mangroves and heathlands trilling with tropical birds. Limestone pinnacle islands overlook deserted turtle nesting beaches; dense jungles are one of the last strongholds for endangered long-nosed proboscis monkeys. The park headquarters are less than 40km from Kuching City so it’s an easy day trip. To have the wilds almost to yourself, stay overnight in one of the park’s comfortable chalets and wake early for one of the best wildlife walks in Malaysia, along the park centre’s short trails.

3: Spy Orang-utans in Batang Ai National Park

Want to see an Orang-utans? Then take a boat ride into this gorgeous forest-covered national park that sits in the heart of one of the most important protected areas on Borneo Island, comprising Batang, neighbouring Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and Betung Kerihun National Park across in Indonesia. More than a thousand Orang-utans live in the area, the largest number anywhere in Malaysia. Allow at least two days for a decent chance of seeing them – staying in a traditional lakeside long house at Batang Ai and riding the boat in early to walk the park trails when they are foraging for food.

3 ways to meet the locals in Malaysia

1: Eat local food in local restaurants

Whether your sampling street food in Penang or enjoying fine-dining with a skyscraper view in cool, contemporary Kuala Lumpur, food is one of Malaysia’s great delights. Asia melts together in Malaysian woks and pots. There are spicy curries like coconut-soaked Kari Ayam, meaty Gulai stews, stuffed Chinese dumplings, Peanut-soaked Satay, Chee cheong funrice noodles with tart soy sauce. Wash them down with a delicious variety of fresh juices – from tangy tamarind to calamansi lime and finish your meal with a sweet Tong Sui dessert or mangosteen ice cream that evaporates on the tongue.

2: Visit Cultural Villages

The Malaysians are a mix of Malay, Indian, Chinese and myriad different tribal groups. From the Cameron highlands on the main peninsula to the mountains of Sarawak and Sabah, rural Malaysia is rich with their mix of cultures and traditions. The Malay Cultural Village in Johor offers an introduction to mainland Malaysia’s astonishing cultural diversity, with workshops, performances and art shows. The Borneo Tribal Village in Sabah showcases local tribal culture, and in Batang Ai National Park it is possible to stay in a traditional Sarawak community – sleeping in an Iban Longhouse in a local village.

3: Spend the night at a homestay

The country’s forward thinking Malaysian Homestay Programme – operated by the Malaysian Tourist Board, offers visitors full immersion in community life. Visits range from sleeps in traditional kampung villages on the mainland to island stays in Penang near the Thai border and over-the-water rooms in riverside homes in the steamy jungles of Sabah and Sarawak. Guests shop, cook and eat with a Malaysian family, visit the local sights – from temples and mosques to forests and beaches, enjoy local theatre and arts and can even learn a little of one of the country’s many languages.

Feeling inspired?

For more information, visit the official Malaysia website.

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