When thinking of holiday destinations around the South China Sea, it’s only natural to consider travel hotspots like Thailand, Vietnam or even Indonesia. But Malaysia, a destination that has pretty well stayed off the tourist radar, should definitely be in the running.
This lesser-explored gem is Asia in microcosm, taking all the continent’s best bits and rolling them into one blissfully wild package; from its multicultural metropolises with soaring skyscrapers, to the 3,000-mile coastline, where the ocean laps gently at your feet. If that’s not enough, it also has some of the oldest rainforests in the world, teeming with incredible wildlife like orangutans and the quirky proboscis monkey, famous for its elongated nose.
Simply put: Malaysia is a melting pot of all the things that make Asia wonderful. It’s hard not to fall head over heels for it, and here’s why:
It has two sides, and both are amazing
The country is split over two landmasses, divided by the glistening South China Sea and encircled by irresistible islands, including Banggi, Langkawi and Penang.
Peninsular Malaysia (West Malaysia) shares a border with Thailand to the north and is a stone’s throw from the frenetic island-nation of Singapore. It boasts hundreds of miles of stunning beaches, rainforests and a cultural mix of Malay, Indian, European and Chinese; making it a magical place to get lost in. On its eastern coast, naturally separated by a rugged, mountainous terrain, visitors will discover an air of laid-back tranquility, particularly in Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.
Then there’s Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia). This giant isle actually incorporates three countries – including Brunei and Indonesia too – but it’s the states of Sabah and Sarawak that make up the Malaysian part. Here you can observe baby orangutans at Sepilok, laze on secluded sands or go diving and trekking.
The noodle soup here is delicious
While you’re here, you’d be mad to not sample a tasty helping of Asam laksa, Malaysia’s beloved noodle soup. A fusion of Chinese and Malay cuisines, this tasty broth-based dish has just the right level of spice and a real pack-a-punch flavour that has to be tried to be fully appreciated.
Speaking of Malay food, the noodles are just the start. There are endless variations of laksa; including the curry laksa which is cooked with flaky white fish, noodles on the bottom, cucumber and pineapple. Or there is the national favourite, char kway teow, which literally means ‘stir-fried rice cakes strips’. To create the dish, flat rice noodles are cooked over a very high heat with light and dark soy sauce, chilli, a small quantity of belachan (shrimp paste), whole prawns, bean sprouts and chopped chives. Delicious!
You’ll never be bored
To absorb the Malaysian buzz, begin your trip in Kuala Lumpur. Here you’ll find the colonial buildings, bustling shopping districts like Bukit Bintang and skyscrapers including the iconic Petronas Twin Towers – the tallest duo of buildings in the world at 451m. The structures are a stark contrast to the neighbouring wooden houses, built on stilts, and the capital’s ever-expanding complement of flashy five-star hotels.
For visiting families there’s Legoland Malaysia, just across the causeway from Singapore, as well as Taman Negara, which claims to be the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and is home to a wealth of bird life, including the black-and-yellow broadbill.
Wilderness lovers will be amazed by the island of Borneo, where is nature is at its best. Its vast coastline includes the WWF-protected coral reefs off Kota Kinabalu, which gives way to the the hills and valleys at the region’s mountainous heart. Speaking of peaks, Mount Kinabalu is something else entirely. Located at the heart of the UNESCO-listed Kinabalu National Park, it is surrounded by an undulating mountainous landscape that stretches dramatically towards the sky. Rainforest-clad slopes, bursting with life, sweep down to the floodplains below and the highland hideaways run down towards sandy beaches and rich mangroves.
It’s incredibly wild
Wildlife is in huge supply across Malaysia. In fact, its animal offering is some of the most diverse on earth – we’re talking 210 mammal species, 620 types of avifauna, 250 reptiles and 150 frog species. Malayan tigers, Sumatran rhinos, sambar deer, sun bears and the Indochinese leopard are beloved, but undoubtedly one of the country’s most popular inhabitants is the orangutan, which can be found in Sabah’s outstanding Danum Valley Conservation Area. To optimise your chances of spotting this long-haired primate, opt for a stay at the Boreno Rainforest Lodge, which is housed on the banks of the Danum River, or head for the Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu.
After dark, keep your eyes peeled for the slow loris, western tarsier and fruit bats. For the best viewing opportunities, try the Taiping Night Safari in Peninsular Malaysia.
No matter which part you’re drawn to, there is no doubt that Malaysia has many jewels in its crown. As the Malaysians say: “To know Malaysia, is to love Malaysia.”