There are plenty of stunning cities, islands, and national parks to visit in Malaysia - especially for people who love island life, diving, jungle adventures, wildlife, or trying new foods. Yet, tourists often overlook Malaysia on their travels in Southeast Asia.
Thanks to this guide, you won't make that same mistake! Whether you are visiting or living in Malaysia, let's take a deep dive (pun intended) and explore all it has to offer.
Things to Know Before You Go
Now that you’re gearing up for your trip and planning the specifics of where and when you’ll go, there are a few things you don’t need to overlook.
I know just how easy it is to look towards the big hike, bucket list city, or beach of my dreams and forget about all of the little things in between that’ll make your trip run as smoothly as possible. Be sure to take into consideration these few things before you go to make sure you get all the good bits of your trip without the stress.
- Make sure you have travel insurance. A good travel insurance, like SafetyWing, will ensure you’re covered in case of emergencies. While you will have to pay upfront for your doctor or hospital costs, unless it’s for a pre-existing condition, you can file a claim and should be reimbursed. For any Americans reading this, fear not, healthcare in pretty much every other country is far more affordable than ours, even if you’re paying out of pocket.
- Do your best to learn a few local phrases in their language. No, I’m not expecting you to be able to have a fluid conversation with locals at the bus stop if you’re just visiting their country for a week but knowing your numbers (for prices), how to order something (“I would like…”), and basic greetings really will take you a long way. Mondly is a great app for phrases and vocabulary.
- Book any popular tours you want to do in advance. I’m really not a great planner and I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. I plan a trip to a destination knowing that I want to do a sailboat trip or food tour and wait until the day before to book only to realize it’s not available the day I’m in town. Don’t make that mistake - if there is something you know you want to do - book your tour in advance.
- Same thing goes for rental cars. If you want to rent a car to cover more ground in a country, do it in advance. Prices will be more affordable and that way you’re guaranteed to have your wheels waiting for you.
- Last tip certainly isn’t mandatory but it is helpful. Before you start booking your flights, hotels, and tours, consider opening up a travel credit card. Thanks to our Capital One Venture card, my husband and I have gotten countless free flights just by gaining points on everyday expenses.
For City Life: Kuala Lumpur
You will most likely fly into Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city. You can explore KL in just a couple of days, during which time you'll want to pop by some of the best spots in the capital.
A few must-visit spots in KL include:
KLCC Park is great for a morning walk with views of the famous Petronas Towers - the tallest twin towers in the world. Take in the modern architecture of the city by going up the towers or having lunch at a rooftop bar.
Bukit Bintang is one of the most popular tourist spots in the city, featuring street art in alleyways, street food on Jalan Alor, shopping in and around Pavilion KL mall, and bars lining Changkat Street for social evenings out. Nearby Chinatown is a fun neighborhood to get lost in, from exploring murals to cafe hopping to trying street food or uncovering hidden cocktail bars.
For more greenery, take a walk in Perdana Botanical Garden. You could even do jungle trekking within the city in places like Bukit Gasing or Bukit Kiara. If you're more of a theme park person, check out Sunway Lost World and the adjacent mall.
For a City Escape: Cameron Highlands
When you've had enough of the city, you can take a short trip out to Cameron Highlands by scooter, car, or bus. In about three hours, you'll go from a concrete jungle to rolling green hills! The highlands are famous for green vistas, tea plantations, and strawberry farms.
You'll see the colonial heritage in the style of buildings in Cameron Highlands, including plenty of bed & breakfasts to choose from, and English food served at many of them.
If you leave early, Cameron Highlands is doable as a day trip from Kuala Lumpur.
For Food and Heritage: Penang Island
One of the best places to visit in Malaysia is George Town and the nearby attractions on Penang Island. From Kuala Lumpur, you can take the train to Butterworth on the west coast and a 10-minute ferry ride across to George Town. While you might be tempted to stay longer, you can see all the hot spots on a 2-day itinerary.
This is a vibrant city where you'll find pretty Chinese-style heritage buildings and scrumptious street foods. If you have the time, I recommend a street food tour to try all the best delicacies Penang has to offer.
There are charming guest houses and hotels you can stay at throughout George Town. Various small museums will take you back in time, including the beautiful Blue Mansion, where they filmed scenes for Crazy Rich Asians. From there, you can take a Grab rideshare to visit Kek Lok Si Temple - the largest Buddhist Temple in Malaysia.
Finally, go to Penang Hill and take the funicular to the top for views of the island from a lookout point or café, walk along a path to spot dusty leaf monkeys, or visit The Habitat for a beautiful jungle boardwalk and lots of macaque monkeys.
For wildlife: Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Borneo
Do you love wildlife? Then one of the best places to visit is the Kinabatangan River! To get here from KL, you'll have to fly across the South China Sea to Sabah on the island of Borneo. Here you have a chance to see some beautiful animals in their habitat, including orangutans, rhinoceros hornbills, pygmy elephants, saltwater crocodiles, and proboscis monkeys.
To get to the Kinabatangan River from Kuala Lumpur, you can fly directly into Sandakan or take a connecting flight from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. Book a jungle lodge or camp along the Kinabatangan River in advance as they'll need to arrange your transportation, accommodations, and nature guide for river cruises.
Your guide will take you for boat rides on the peaceful river, where you can learn about their efforts to protect endangered wildlife while you bask in the tropical rainforest. Some lodges have jungle trails where you can also discover nocturnal wildlife. Just make sure you have realistic expectations for your river safari on the Kinabatangan River.
Note that you cannot swim in the Kinabatangan River (...due to the crocodiles), but if you're into diving, you're in luck because you're near the best diving location in the world!
For Scuba Diving: Mabul or Sipadan Island
Did you know that Malaysia features some of the world's richest marine habitats? You'll find some of the best dive destinations in the world around Mabul and Sipadan Islands in east Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia.
Pulau Sipadan Marine Park is one of six marine parks in the state and a treasure trove of aquatic life that will delight any diver. Sipadan is an oceanic island, meaning it rises from the floor of the ocean basins. The island rises 600 meters from the seabed and is formed by "living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop" (source).
If you're not experienced in diving but want to become certified, Malaysia is also a great place to do it as the prices are quite affordable. If you're not into diving, you could also enjoy a fabulous snorkeling trip here or volunteer on a conservation program with Scuba Junkies SEAS.
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For Adrenaline Junkies: Mount Kinabalu
If you are up for a big challenge, then head to Sabah, Borneo, to climb the tallest mountain in Malaysia! While this two-day trek is not easy, Mount Kinabalu is considered one of the most accessible climbs of this height.
The peak of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is 4,095 meters and you'll feel amazing once you conquer it! If you're up for a bigger adrenaline rush, you can scale the mountain and bridges on the world's highest via ferrata, Low's Peak Circuit, after you summit. Note: A climbing permit and guide are mandatory and the number of climbers is limited, so book your climb in advance with an operator like River Junkie.
Before climbing Mount Kinabalu, you can also consider spending a night or two in Kundasang to relax, enjoy views over the clouds, and visit Kinabalu National Park. This is also an opportunity to acclimatize to the thinner mountain air.
For a Party Weekend: Langkawi
Off the coast of west Malaysia, you can find the popular tropical island of Langkawi. This is an ideal weekend getaway for budget travelers or for a party because it is a duty-free island, so alcohol is much less expensive. Spend your days chasing waterfalls, chilling at the beach, or visiting some of the tourist attractions. Join a tour group for an island-hopping adventure or take the cable car up to the Langkawi Sky Bridge for stunning views.
While there is no diving here, it's a great place for water sports like kayaking, waterskiing, or taking a jet ski tour. You'll enjoy spectacular sunsets over the Andaman Sea from the white sand beaches. Finally, when evening comes, enjoy a bucket of cold beers with friends at a bar around Cenang Beach.
For a Tropical Escape: Perhentian Islands
Malaysia's east coast has something special to offer with its tropical islands, like the Perhentian Islands of Besar and Kecil, or Tioman Island. Since there are no flights here, they are more difficult to get to than Langkawi, but with clearer waters where you can swim, snorkel or dive with turtles and other marine life.
You don't need to go scuba diving to enjoy the east coast islands though. Enjoy the sounds of waves crashing on the beach, read a book under an umbrella on white sandy beaches, wade in the warm salt waters, and marvel at birds, monkeys, and giant (harmless) monitor lizards! Coral Bay is a relatively quiet area for relaxing, and if you're looking for a more social atmosphere you can visit Long Beach. If you're feeling active but want to stay on land, there is also some nice jungle trekking here with rewarding views.
Near Perhentian Islands, you may also enjoy Tioman Island's quiet ABC Beach for clear waters, snorkeling, and diving.
For Hitting the Slots: Genting Highlands
If you enjoy a night at the casino, then a trip to Genting Highlands may be for you. The major draw here is the casinos: Genting Casino in Genting Grand Complex and SkyCasino in SkyAvenue Mall.
It's also a popular shopping destination for its malls and outlet stores. If you're looking for more of a family fun vibe, check out Skytropolis Indoor Theme Park.
If you're staying the night, see if you can find an Airbnb or hotel with a mountain view - watching the fog roll through the hills is really beautiful! You can also enjoy some views from an Awana Skyway cable car on your way up to the mall.
Lastly, don't miss Chin Swee Caves Temple, a scenic Chinese temple situated less than 10 minutes down the hill on your way back to the city.
For Indigenous Culture: Batang Ai National Park, Sarawak, Borneo
Adventurous travelers will love going deep into the rainforest in Batang Ai National Park, Sarawak, on Borneo Island. It is a 250-kilometer journey to get to the park from Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state, but it's well worth it for nature lovers and adventurers.
You'll start on an artificial lake, created by the Batang Ai hydro reservoir, and venture into many offshoots of rivers and streams, on a small traditional longboat. From there, enjoy the natural beauty of dense forests as you weave through the jungle.
If you book a longhouse tour, your guides will then take you to a guesthouse by a longhouse - the traditional homes of local Iban people. There, you may get to swim in a stream or waterfall, hike through the rainforest, enjoy delicious food, and visit the longhouse to learn about indigenous folklore and lifestyle. If you're lucky, you may spot some beautiful birds or even orangutans!
Other parks that are also highly rated in Sarawak include Bako National Park and Gunung Mulu National Park.
For History: Melaka
Back in peninsular Malaysia, a short distance from Kuala Lumpur, you can visit the quaint city of Melaka (also spelled Malacca). It's easily reachable by bus from KL and doable as a day trip if you are short on time.
Melaka is well-loved for its picturesque river, ornate tuk-tuks, and the popular Jonker Street Night Market. The city also features Malaysia's oldest Chinese temple: Cheng Hoon Temple, which is a very popular attraction. For local history, you can find many remnants of Portuguese settlements throughout the city.
You'll find the famous tuk-tuks near A Famosa ruins, where you can also climb St. Paul's Hill. It's worth the walk up the hill to see the city from the ruins of the old church.
One of the best activities to do in Melaka is simply to hang out by the river and enjoy the atmosphere, especially in the evening. River cruises are also offered during the day and evening at a reasonable price.
There are more places to visit in Malaysia than you might have imagined. Mainland Malaysia has nice cities to offer, but don't skip out on the paradise that awaits on the islands, or the beautiful jungle and wildlife in Borneo.
Whether you climb Mount Kinabalu, eat your way through George Town, dive in Mabul, or visit a national park, a great adventure awaits you in this gem of Southeast Asia!
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