These are the 15 best locations and activities waiting for you in Malaysia…
Step outside into the sultry heat, and prepare yourself for the sights, sounds and smells of one of the world’s most dynamic cities.
Kuala Lumpur combines colonial buildings and markets with the iconic Petronas Towers reaching to selfie heaven. There are amazing temples, incredible street food and modern shopping malls as well as a heady mix of languages and cultures.
In fact, you could spend your entire trip dividing your time between shopping and eating, but that’d be to waste one of Asia’s great cities. Don’t worry too much about public transport, as it’s just as easy to walk everywhere, and that’ll give you the opportunity to discover some of the lesser-known part of the city, its tropical parks and traces of the jungle village it used to be.
This limestone hill is home to one of the most instantly recognisable locations in the country, due to its long, wide flight of stairs to reach the Batu Caves fronted by a 142-foot-high statue of Murugan, a Hindu deity.
Several Hindu shrines are held within the largest of the caves, known as the Cathedral, or Temple Cave. There are more caves accessible at the site, each with further examples of statues, paintings or carvings, as well as a smaller – but no less imposing, at 50 feet – statue of Hanuman. If you’re not so hot on your Hindu deities, audio guides are available.
For the more thrill-seeking, the area has been the centre of Malaysian climbing for the past few years, with more than 160 rock-climbing routes to conquer, as well as abseiling and potholing. All this can be easily reached by commuter train from Kuala Lumpur Sentral station.
Get up high
These days, no self-respecting city – and especially not one in a rapidly developing country – can afford to be without a swathe of iconic steel and glass buildings puncturing the skyline, and Kuala Lumpur is no different.
We’ve already mentioned the Petronas Towers, but even they will soon be surpassed by the new Exchange 106 tower. Designed to be 40 metres taller, it’ll be finished in the second half of 2018.
Even so, there are plenty of other ways to see the views (because, of course, you can’t see these iconic buildings from inside them). What about the sprouting bamboo of the Telekom Tower, the beautiful, shimmering Ilham Tower, or the vaguely 1960s feel of the Maxis Tower? All are stark demonstrations of KL’s bold vision of itself as a major world city.
Legoland and Hello Kitty Town
Located at the very southern end of the Malaysian peninsula, close to the border with the city-state of Singapore, lies a double-whammy of childish fun.
First up, Legoland Malaysia, and you pretty much know what you’re going to get. Beautifully recreated versions of the region’s most recognisable structures – the cityscape of Kuala Lumpur, the palaces of Brunei, the temples of Angkor Wat, all lovingly built out of Lego. On top of all that, there’s the usual array of rides designed to dislodge your dinner, games, quests and activities for kids of all ages.
For more eastern-looking delights, and just a couple of miles from Legoland, look no further than the Sanrio Hello Kitty Town, located in Puteri Harbour. Designed for younger kids than Legoland, it’s a riot of pink cutseyness that manages to seem both innocent, yet slightly like everyone involved is part of a cult.
Escape the city, Kinabalu Park, Sabah
As far as you can get from Kuala Lumpur, both geographically and figuratively, Kinabalu Park is located on the west coast of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, and was the country’s first officially designated national park.
If you fancy climbing Mount Kinabalu, you’re only allowed to head up with a guide. It’s not an easy prospect; it’s a very long walk up a very steep mountain, beginning with alpine-style meadows, then jungle, before bursting out onto the barren rock towards the top.
On a good day, you can see as far as the Philippines, but often you’ll just be surrounded by watery sunlight trying to cut through the drifting, ghostly mists.
The capital of the Penang region and Malaysia’s second city, George Town is rightly famous for one thing – its food. It was voted the best culinary destination in the world by Lonely Planet in 2014, and Time and CNN have also run extensive pieces about its street food.
Since 2012, street art has also become a symbol of the city, celebrated in formal exhibitions ever since a series of murals representing local culture, inhabitants and lifestyles was created by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic.
The wide variety of nationalities, religions and cultures that make up the population of George Town means you’re never far away from a festival. Eid al-Fitr, Chinese New Year, St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest all sit comfortably side by side on the social calendar.
Escape to the trees
Spread across 22 acres of forest, Escape is basically a huge adventure playground, including treetop walkways, ziplines, climbing walls, trampolines, giant swings and a water park.
In fact, there’s something for all ages and all skill levels, from the Monkey School (a trail for toddlers and young kids to scramble over), to burrowing through a cave maze, to hurling yourself from trees, or bouncing through the trampoline park, the whole place is designed to be explored as independently as possible by both adults and kids.
Duck into a kopitiam
A kopitiam (or kopi tiam) is a traditional, neighbourhood coffee shop selling nothing more than good, local coffee and basic snacks; charcoal grilled toast, for example, or boiled eggs.
They’re similar in a way to tiny Italian coffee bars in that they’re basically classless; labourers will stop for a quick caffeine injection before starting work, office employees will catch up on work gossip there before heading to their company, and retired people will take their time to catch up with old friends over a snack.
Nowadays, almost inevitably, the idea has been appropriated by hipster culture, and you’ll get places that – despite looking authentic – are merely a throwback to that style of decor. Original kopitiams were almost never built in shopping malls…
Explore Sarawak’s Niah Caves
A system of huge – and I mean huge – caverns on Borneo, the Niah Caves were also the site of the oldest human remains ever found in Malaysia, showing human habitation of this part of the world dates back around 40,000 years.
There are also examples of cave paintings which, although not quite as old as 40,000 years, still date to around 1,200 years ago – jolly old.
The nearby town of Miri could be used as a base from which to explore the region. There are five other national parks in the vicinity, as well as a number of beaches for watching the gorgeous sunsets. Oh, and there’s a crocodile sanctuary with over 1,000 crocs, as well as monkeys, pythons and cassowaries.
The Boh Tea Plantation, Cameron Highlands
Say what you like about the Brits, but their insatiable thirst for tea – the Boh Tea Plantation was founded in 1929 by a certain J. A. Russell – has made this the largest plantation in South Asia, generating over $100 million of revenue every year, and making it Malaysia’s most popular tea brand.
Nowadays, they’re more than happy to show you around. Not only are the mountainsides stunning, covered in their lush, green harvest, but visitors can see the modern-day side of tea production – to ensure freshness, the whole thing, from picking to processing to packing, is done on-site.
And naturally, when you’re done, you can sample every variety of tea they produce before taking home as much as you can carry as a taste of your trip.
The Huskitory, Malacca
If the idea of having a cup of coffee and a snack surrounded by twenty bounding, over-excited huskies fills you with joy, then a) the Huskitory is the place for you, and b) I’m afraid you and I can’t be friends. I’m not a fan of dogs, to be honest, but for the millions who are, this could be some sort of paradise.
Since opening in 2010, it’s become one of Malacca’s most famous hangouts, meaning you’ll probably have to book in advance if you want a table. Still, the overwhelming cuteness should be worth that, right? At least, so I’m told…
The Penang Cool Ghost Museum
Okay, this one is more cheesy than weird. First off, it’s called, without any apparent irony or self-awareness, the Cool Ghost Museum, and secondly, it’s not even remotely scary.
The exhibits take folk legends and ghost stories from various regions (China, Egypt, etc.) and have mannequins dressed up as those ghouls and ghosts, with a bit of background explanation.
There are a lot of photo opportunities for you to have your picture taken with Dracula, for example, and the sets for each area are nicely dressed, but the whole thing is best done with your tongue very firmly lodged in your cheek!
Pulau Tiga Park is three islands off the west coast of Sarawak, and while the largest of the three is the place to be if you fancy relaxing in volcanic mud baths (maybe that should have been the topic of this section? Oh well), the smallest island is covered in something less relaxing, namely absolutely loads of deadly snakes.
Sea kraits, specifically. At night, they plunge into the sea to hunt for fish, but during the day they return to land to digest and recharge. They are venomous – more so than cobras, in fact – but they’re fairly reclusive and non-aggressive. Bites on humans are rare, so as long as you watch where you’re putting your feet you should be fine.
The island is also a popular breeding ground for the snakes, however in this region, there’s no specific mating season (unlike the breeds in Fiji and New Caledonia), so if you want to see the island when it gets really slinky and slithery, you’ll just have to hope you’re in luck.
Fly a Boeing 737-800
Not a real 737, obviously, but as close as you’ll probably ever get. The Pavilion Mall in Kuala Lumpur is a heaven for shoppers, but if you feel like you can’t face all that, you can fly away by having a go in one of only fifteen fully immersive commercial flight simulators open to the public.
Book online before you arrive, and you’ll be able to choose from a variety of routes and airports, before sitting in the cockpit and being guided through your flight. These can vary from between 30 minutes to an hour and a half in exactly the kind of simulator that airlines around the world use to train their pilots. Plus, it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done anything like it before, there will always be an experienced co-pilot there with you to guide you through it all!
The Enduring Beauty Museum, Malacca
Most people who go to Malacca go for its surreal beauty and Chinese influences – indeed, the whole of the city centre is a protected site for this very reason – however, if you find yourself at The People’s Museum, be sure to take a look inside.
The first two floors cover the varied delights of the Governor’s personal art collection and an exhibition of traditional Malaysian kite making, but the third floor is given over to exhibits on what constituted (and in some cases, still does constitute) beauty in cultures across the world.
Foot binding, tattooing, lip stretching, corsetry, and even the forced shaping of heads are all covered in this occasionally unnerving but oddly fascinating corner of an obscure museum.