Malaysia may not be your first choice in Southeast Asia, existing still in the shadow of neighboring Thailand. There are only a few books available. People tend to think that it shares the chaotic, messy lifestyle and appearance of other countries in the region. But Malaysia is different.
To make it clear from the beginning, Malaysia does not have hundreds of years old historical sites. A 100-year-old temple is considered ancient. Instead, Malaysia impresses with its modern architecture, perfect cleanness, lush green jungle forests, and unique cultural diversity that you cannot find anywhere else.
Malaysia has some of the most stunning islands with crescent white sand beaches and coconut trees, plus the most rewarding scuba diving places.
Malaysia has a land border in the north with Thailand, and a bridge connects it with Singapore. It means that you can combine your visit to Malaysia with both countries. Let’s have a look at the best places to visit in Malaysia.
Important Things to Know about Malaysia
- Geographically Malaysia has two distinct parts: the Malaysian Peninsula and a fragment of Borneo Island. Divided by the South China Sea, they are 640 km from each other. The perfect location in the Malacca Straits, the center of world trade, makes the peninsula much more developed.
- Malaysia has a unique Constitutional Monarchy. Out of its 13 states, 9 have a king or sultan. These nine kings rotate each other every five years as the king of Malaysia, called Yang-di Pertuan Agong. When the five-year term is over, then the king returns to his state as a Sultan.
- Malaysia is a majority Muslim country. Malays who make up around 50 percent of the population must be Muslims. Although Malaysia is quite liberal, there are particular rules that you have to keep in mind. Local women dress up modestly, and often wear a „tudung”, headscarf and regardless of the scorching heat, no Malay man walks around in shorts. Foreigners are free to dress as they feel like, nobody will bother them. Malay restaurants do not sell alcohol at all. But no worries, there are plenty of Chinese restaurants where there is no such restriction. However, the heavy taxes on alcohol will not make it cheap for you.
- Malaysia is the melting pot of three ethnic groups: Malays, Chinese, and Indians. 22.6% are Chinese, 11.8% are indigenous Bumiputra groups other than the Malays, 6.7% are Indians. Most of the population on Malaysian Borneo are the aboriginals (Orang Asli). This is the most fascinating about the country. The culture, cuisine, and religions of all the three ethnicities are present all over Malaysia, but mainly in the peninsula. Malaysians are followers of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Malaysia likes boosting the peaceful cohabitation of various ethnic groups, but Malays enjoy privilege in many respects.
- The official language is Malay, but almost everyone speaks a surprisingly good level of English.
So, here is a summary of the best places to visit in Malaysia.
1. Visit the hyper-modern capital, Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur, or just „KL” as all the locals call it, quickly becomes a favorite of travelers and shouldn’t be left out from any Malaysia itinerary. The lush green parks, cleanness, modern architecture, and fantastic nightlife make it a liveable city. Since the 1990s, Malaysia has experienced an incomparable economic boom in the region that changed the capital’s landscape. Star architects created stunning skyscrapers but respecting the Islamic tradition at the same time.
The Petronas Towers is the absolute landmark of KL and the number one attraction to inspire travelers to come to Malaysia. The 452-meter-high twin towers house the offices of the Petronas Oil Company and that of other multinational companies.
The structure of 88 floors is an engineering masterpiece built with one of the deepest foundations (120m) in the world. For security reasons, a two-story steel sky bridge connects the two towers at an altitude of 172 meters. They were constructed to manifest the economic power of the country.
You can book your ticket online or on the same day at the counter. (Be aware that they sell only a limited number of daily tickets, and in the high season, people start to queue up early morning). Locals say evening is the best time to go up to watch the city before and after sunset. They take the visitors to the sky bridge and then to the 86th floor, from where you can see the Petronas and KL tower together.
But KL is not only the Petronas towers. Other touristic attractions of Kuala Lumpur:
- The National Museum: a perfect overview of Malaysian history until today
- The National Monument: the bronze structure that honors the 11,000 heroes who lost their lives during the first and second world war
- Take a photo at the new Royal Residence (Istana Negara)
- Have a stop at the Independence Square
- Take a visit int the famous Petaling Street of Chinatown.
- The Bird Park in KL is the largest public aviary.
- Taste some of the tasty street food in Kampung Bahru
- Enjoy the nightlife in Bukit Bintang.
2. Putrajaya, the brand-new administrative capital
Halfway between Kuala Lumpur and the airport, there is a stunning brand-new city called Putrajaya. It was built as the administrative capital of Malaysia to host all the ministries and government offices in one place. However, the Parliament remained in Kuala Lumpur. It was part of the modernization program of Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia (1981-2003, 2018-2020).
The monumental Prime Minister’s Department Complex (Perdana Putra) with its green domes and the majestic Putra mosque is the iconic place in this sample city. You can take a boat ride on the lake and visit the Mosque.
The Convention Center, the Supreme Court, the terrace below the Mosque are ideal photo spots. Together with the neighboring Cyberjaya, the „Silicon Valley of Malaysia”, they are both parts of the Multimedia Supercorridor intended to make Malaysia a high-tech center to attract multinational companies with the most advanced technologies.
3. Batu Caves
The Batu Caves, the Hindu pilgrimage site, is carved into the limestone mountain 13 km north of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The central cave houses a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Muruga Hindu God since the late 19th century. You can reach the temple by climbing the iconic colorful 272 stairs. Next to the stairs, Murugan’s 42-meter golden painted statue is visible from far away. To appreciate the visit, you need to more about the Thaipusam festival that takes place every year somewhere between mid-January and mid-February. The exact date differs every year.
Devotees march long hours in the scorching heat from Kuala Lumpur to give their offerings to Murugan Hindu God on this day. There are different ways to honor him.
Some people carry 1-2 liters of milk on their heads in an aluminum pot. But some take extraordinary sacrifice that is only possible in a trance. Some pull a “kavadi”, a 100-kg-wooden structure attached to hooks driven in their skin. Others transpierce their face and tongue. Those in ecstasy are in a different world and walk up the stairs laughing and dancing.
Thaipusam is a shocking and spectacular experience that you should not miss if you are during this time in Malaysia.
4. Cameron Highlands – the hills covered with tea plantations
Sharp curves and winding roads are leading to one of Malaysia’s most extensive mountains. Besides being famous for its tea plantations, the climate is ideal for growing vegetables and flowers. It is the country’s largest agricultural area.
During school holidays, Malays are desperate to leave behind the high tropical humidity and get some refreshment in the Cameron Highlands, where countless programs such as the Butterfly Park, strawberry farm, cactus valley, and tea plantations are the popular choices of visitors.
Cameron Highlands got its name after a British governor William Cameron, who inspected the Highlands in 1885 on behalf of the British Government. For some reason, the Highland has no Malay name.
The British started to build bungalows and sanatoriums for medical purposes in the 1920s and used them as retreats from the tropical heat.
5. Kuala Kangsar – the marvelous royal seat
Ipoh is the official capital of Perak state. But Kuala Kangsar is the royal seat. A tiny but architecturally impressive city lies at the confluence of the Kangsar and Perak rivers. Kuala Kangsar is not the place to spend long hours, but a recommended stop on your way to Penang Island.
The picturesque Ubudiah mosque with its golden painted domes and the nearby royal cemetery are the main attractions. Drive by the expansive white royal palace, the home of the Sultan of Perak since 1933.
Malaysia is an exceptional country with nine kings, who will choose every five years among each other the king of Malaysia. The sultans or kings are mainly responsible for preserving the Muslim and Malay traditions. Like anywhere else, the royal families are also involved in scandals, but it is not allowed to criticize them.
The British built a prestigious Malaysian College in Kuala Kangsar, which became the model English language school of the East. Typically the children of the Malaysian elite and the royal families pursue their studies here, who later became politicians, statesmen, chief judges, and even sultans.
6. Visit Penang island
Two bridges link Penang island with the mainland. You can also take the ferry or a flight, but it is an experience to cross the unique “S-shaped” bridges.
The first bridge, opened in 1985, is 13.5 km long. The second, 24-km-long bridge is the longest in Southeast Asia. It was built to ease the immense traffic of the other bridge.
Georgetown is one of the two cities in Malaysia that became a UNESCO Heritage with a booming economy and industry.
Investors from China and Hong Kong constructed tons of modern, multi-story residences in the center.
The north part of the island, with charming beaches and several hotels, is an ideal base to discover Georgetown. For more inspiration, check this article about things to do in Georgetown.
Penang is the only state where the number of Chinese surpasses that of the Malays, which gives it a different charm. With countless restaurants and choices of food, Penang is also the unofficial food capital of Malaysia. This is where the British set foot the first time to exploit its perfect location at the entrance of the Straits of Malacca.
Kek Lok Si temple
The Kek Lok Si temple and the Khoo Kongsi Clan House are the main attractions in Georgetown.
The Kek Lok Si Temple (Temple of Heavenly Happiness) in the outskirts is the biggest in Malaysia. The several Buddhist and Taoist temples show a mix of Burmese, Thai, and Chinese architectural elements.
The colorful decorations make it impressive and especially beautiful with thousands of lampions during the Chinese New Year.
A series of steps lead up to the mountain through the bazaar, or nowadays, you can even make it easier with a golf car. Take the small funicular to the top to the immense statue of Kwan Yin, the God of Grace added to the temple only in 2002, and enjoy the panorama of the city.
With so many ethnic groups, Malaysia is a place to go on temple tours. If you are a fan of them, continue to the Thai temple in the city center with a monumental lying Buddha with a Burmese temple just opposite.
The Khoo Kongsi Clan temple
The Khoo Kongsi Clan temple may look familiar as it was featured in the movie „Anna and the King”. The wealthy merchant family (called Khoo), who built the temple, was among the first to emigrate from China. Chinese immigrants settled in clans (kongsi) that functioned as a small village with an administration, school, banking system, social institutes, and a cemetery.
The temple is so stunning that it is hard to imagine that it is already a modest version of the first one destroyed by lightning in 1894. The clan member considered it as a punishment, as it was splendid like an imperial palace. As part of the temple complex, there is a place to worship the ancestors.
Have a look also at the tilted wooden houses of the poor clans. They built their homes on the water to avoid paying taxes. Walk along with the colorful houses of Little India and do not miss the famous graffitis.
The Cornwallis Fort, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, and the City Hall are the reminders of the colonial era.
Penang has a Snake Temple built in honor of Chor Soo Kong, a Buddhist priest and healer, and home to several resident venomous Wagler’s pit vipers and green tree snakes.
7. Malacca – UNESCO World Heritage Site
It is confusing that they write the name of the city in many different ways. But Malacca, Melaka, Malaka or Melacca are all correct. Next to Georgetown, it is one of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Malaysia. (The other one is Georgetown).
Before the colonization, the Kingdom of Malacca was the center of world trade, where Arab, Indian and Chinese traders exchanged their products. It was a pivotal stop between the East and the West. Today, the excellent food, tropical climate, cheap living costs, and the mix of cultures attract many Western people to spend their retirement years in Malacca.
It was first colonized by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the British, who all left their marks on the city. The ruins of the Portugese Fort are the reminders of the Portugese era. The „Red square” or „Holland Square” with the city hall, the church, and the cock-tower was built by the Dutch and became the symbol of Malacca.
Malacca has an active nightlife. The Malacca river is winding through the city that emerges in all possible colors at night. Take a tour and admire the colorful graffitis. The Friday and Saturday night markets, when the famous Jonker street gets busy with vendors, are perfect occasions to mingle with the locals and taste some street food.
The trishaw ride in the old city is the kitschy attraction of Malacca. The trishaws are decorated with Hello Kitty, Superman, and other creative patterns. They are designed for two people, but only for two Malaysians. The trishaw ride with blinking lights and music on maximum volume becomes great fun in the end.
Malacca is a great place to get a glimpse into the life of „Peranakans” (the funny name is Baba-Nyonya”). The Peranakans are the descendants of mixed Malay and Chinese marriages, who always stayed apart from the mass of Chinese immigrants who arrived later to work in the timber mines. Peranakans were usually the allies of the British and held high positions in government offices. The mixed marriages created a unique Peranakan culture, cuisine, and clothing. There is a stunning former Peranakan house that serves as a museum, where you can learn more about their customs.
8. Relax on some of the best beaches and islands in Malaysia
It would be a mistake not to mention Langkawi, the most famous island, but is it the best? Well, Langkawi has excellent marketing for a good reason. The former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, comes from Kedah, the same state. Langkawi is not one but 104 small islands, and only a few of them are inhabited. The largest island attracts plenty of tourists with the glass-bottomed sky bridge above the mountains enveloped in lush jungle.
Langkawi is a high-standard holiday destination with plenty of resorts and low-budget hotels. You can catch a ferry from Georgetown that takes 3-4 hours to get there. The island has another attraction. It is tax and customs-free, which makes the alcohol cheaper than at any other place in Malaysia.
But if you ask the locals, the best beaches are on the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula, in Kelantan and Terengganu. These are the two states with the best white sand beaches. Between mid-October and the end of March, almost all the hotels close on the east coast due to the monsoon season. The west coast has the advantage of being much less exposed to the rainy season, and resorts can stay open the whole year.
The Islamic Party governs Kelantan and Terengganu and enforces stricter rules on the residents. Alcohol is banned in these states, and you need to pay more attention to the way of dressing.
The iconic Tanjong Jara Resort, part of the YTL group of hotels, on Merang Beach is the highest-rated among the luxury resorts dotting the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia in Terengganu. Once, this area was abundant in the giant leatherback turtle that could measure two meters who came here to lay their eggs. There are still some, but the destruction of the ecosystem reduced their numbers.
The Redang island of Terengganu is probably the most beautiful holiday destination in Malaysia, while the Perhentian islands are the gems of Kelantan. Redang is a great scuba diving place with crystal-clear, transparent water. Divers find green turtles, octopuses, skates, and extensive coral reefs. The island became a favorite of travelers after it was featured in a Hongkong movie. You can get to Redang from the jetty in Kuala Terengganu or the jetty in Merang.
Perhentian consist of two islands. The bigger one is called Perhentian Besar that is calmer and has big family resorts. The smaller island, called Perhentian Kecil, is known to be the paradise of backpackers.
There are several hiking trails in the jungle with leaf monkeys and numerous crescent beaches with shimmering white sand. You can get to the Perhentian Islands from Kuala Besut by Boat.
Tioman Island and its surroundings are part of a nature reserve. It is part of Pahang state but most easily accessible from Johor. There is also a direct ferry service from Singapore. The beautiful teardrop-shaped island in the South China Sea was voted one of the most beautiful islands in the world by Time magazine in the 1970s. It has now lost some of its mystical characters, but the natural environment and wildlife are still incredible. The island also has a flight connection with KL and Singapore.
9. Kota Bharu, the traditional Malay city on the east coast
On the east coast of the Malaysian peninsula, 90% of the population are Malays. If you want to immerse in the authentic Malay life and you do not mind not having a range of fancy Western standard hotels, then it is a must-see. Observe the traditional weaving methods and check out the famous Malay dresses and fabrics. Visit the central vegetable market and see the fishing activity, the principal source of income for locals.
Kota Bharu is also a common stop for those traveling further to the north.
And now, let’s go over to the Borneo side with the states of Sabah and Sarawak. They have no connection with the peninsula at all. Political considerations played a role in attaching this region to Malaysia. Once, Sabah and Sarawak were part of the Brunei Sultanate. The British maneuvered well in the local conflicts and gained control over the two states in exchange for helping the Sultan of Brunei to oppress the rebelling tribes.
Borneo is different from the mainland. The majority of the population are indigenous people, and most parts of Sabah and Sarawak are still jungles. Although, the oil palm plantations rapidly reduce the habitat of the aboriginals and the animals.
10. Sipadan, one of the best places for scuba diving in the world
Sipadan, located in the Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sabah, is well-known for its formidable underwater life, with more than 3,000 species of fish and hundreds of coral species. Another attraction is a large number of green and hawksbill turtles that gather there to mate and nest.
It was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone.
To protect the unique ecosystem, the government limited the number of dives to 120 per day in 2004 and banned night diving. It means that in the high season, there is no guarantee to get a permit for anyone.
11. Climb Mount Kinabalu (4095m), the highest peak of Malaysia and Borneo
If you are fond of hiking, then climbing the iconic Mount Kinabalu is the top experience in Malaysia. Local legends explain why it is called the „Chinese Widow”(Kinabalu). It has a unique flora with around 1,500 species of orchids and 24 species of rhododendron. Kinabalu is a relatively easy mountain to climb in 2 or 3 days, but you need to get a permit months ahead. Plus, every climber must be accompanied by a licensed mountain guide.
12. Sleep in a „Longhouse”, a symbol of Borneo
The longhouses are the symbols of North Borneo. They are mostly found deep inside the jungle, along the rivers. The long wooden houses are like villages.
They stand on stilts, with a half-open veranda and dozens of apartments. The common areas are on one side and private rooms on the other one. It was to adapt to the jungle lifestyle. Since the house stands on stilts, the air circulated under the floor, and the animals were able to stay safe from predators between the poles. They used to construct these houses from grass and tree bark, but later, they rebuilt most of them from more modern raw materials.
Here you can meet the indigenous people, mainly called Dayaks, that contain several tribes that could avoid modernization and continue to live their lives hunting and gathering.
The more remote a longhouse is, the most authentic experience you can get. The best is to get in touch with the Sarawak Tourism Board, who can arrange a non-touristic experience.
Your other chance to meet the indigenous people is in the Teman Negara National Park of the Peninsula.
13. Visit an orangutan rehabilitation center on Borneo
Orangutans are only found in Sumatra in Borneo and are one of the most endangered species. In addition to hunting and illegal animal trafficking, their habitat is mainly threatened by deforestation. Poachers transport the wild-caught orangutan cubs upon order and usually kill their mothers. There are currently about 25,000 orangutans living on the two islands, most of them in Borneo.
There are two Orangutan Centers on Borneo, the Semenggoh Wildlife Center in Kuching, Sabah and the Sepilok Center in Sandakan, Sarawak. The Semenggoh Center is no longer a rehabilitation center, but they use it to observe and analyze their behavior. It is less famous, but some prefer visiting this as it is quieter and can get closer to the Orangutans.
The world-famous Sepilok welcomes injured and orphaned orangutans due to illegal logging for rehabilitation before returning them to forest life.
From the super-modern cities to 130 million-year-old rainforests and white sand beaches, Malaysia has a lot to offer as a holiday destination. It has two distinct parts that you can combine or choose one of them to discover. And there is no other country with such cultural diversity. Malaysia is a safe and perfect destination for backpackers too. Prices are reasonable (except alcohol).
The west coast of the peninsula has a pleasant climate all year round, while the east coast is ideal between the end of March and mid-October. Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia is a majority Muslim country that gives Malaysia a unique ambiance.
For more inspiration, check this Malaysia travel guide.
Agnes is an international tour guide who traveled through Malaysia several times. I have a strong interest in less touristic countries. In her blog, Voice of Guides, she tries to give you deeper information about countries that are misrepresented or get less attention from the media. Apart from practical tips, her purpose is to show
what is behind the scenes. Because she wants you not only to visit different places but also to understand them.
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