With natural tropical beauty the backdrop to historic and modern attractions, visitors will find a variety of great places to visit in Malaysia.
A visit to the whole of Malaysia involves two types of experiences: those on the main peninsula and others with the flavor of an exotic island. First time visitors will be captivated by the natural beauty of the tropics. As well, comfortable resorts, colonial towns and a host of attractions provide a variety of great places to visit in Malaysia.
With the modern cosmopolitan city of Kuala Lumpur at its helm as the capital, the country’s urban population is a mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures. By contrast, life on the island of Borneo is a mix of dense tropical forests, remote tribes and diverse wildlife.
We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our visits to Malaysia and, along with help from our friends at Traveloka Malaysia, wanted to give you a sense of how much there is on offer here for visitors willing to venture from the usual destinations of Kuala Lumpur and Penang.
Tip: There are a wide variety of hotel accommodations in Malaysia, ranging from budget-friendly to 5-star. Western visitors will be pleasantly surprised by value pricing and unmistakeable Malaysian hospitality.
Cameron Highlands – Easy to Reach from KL
The hill station – which is a term dating to colonial times referring to a highland town where people would go to escape the summer heat – of Cameron Highlands was initially developed by the British in the 1920s. The small local population is made up of Chinese, Malay, and Indians as well as a smattering of a few ethnic groups.
The Highlands have been a popular tourist attraction since the beginning of the 1930s when a multi-million dollar road construction project from Tapah to the Highlands was completed. Leisure and agri-businesses such as golf courses, nurseries, vegetable farms, horse ranches, tea plantations, a golf course, and accommodations sprang up prior to WWII and the Japanese occupation. During the Malayan Emergency years from 1948-1960, the area’s growth stagnated.
Nowadays, though, the region has reclaimed its title as one of the most popular destinations in Malaysia because of extensive hiking trails, mountain vistas and waterfalls.
Tip: Because the area is so in demand, keep in mind that choosing the best hotel in Cameron Highlands for your needs may require advanced planning.
Kuching – The Cat City
The beautiful city of Kuching is the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, and serves as a gateway to the island of Borneo. Also known as the “Cat City,” due to a legendary language mix-up, Kuching has a rich and colorful cultural history as a former part of the Bruneian Empire which was then ceded to a British adventurer, James Brooke.
Brooke, who was appointed governor by the Sultan of Brunei in exchange for a payment of an annual $2500 fee, built the Astana (known as the Government House) as a wedding present for his wife.The Brooke family dynasty of Rajahs lasted until WWII’s Japanese occupation. After the war ended, the third Rajah, Charles Vyner Brooke, granted Sarawak to the Britsh crown, which made infrastructure improvements and injected new vitality into the economy.
Kuching’s vibrant history is vividly reflected in the crafts, cuisine and a blend of the old and new. The Main Bazaar, an historic street of 19th century shophouses, offers traditional crafts and antiques in Kuching’s Old Town. Chinatown is also located near the central business district.
Because Kuching is situated on the River Sarawak, “tambang” (a type of sampan boat) is one of the main passenger modes of transportation between the two riverbanks. Kuching’s waterfront district is a 2km long promenade with shops and restaurants developed by architects from Sydney (Australia). Its centerpiece is the pagoda-like Sarawak State Legislative Assembly building.
Tip: Near Kuching, visitors can spot Irawaddy Dolphins on cruises along the Salak and Santubong rivers, visit Satang (Turtle) Island, and experience wildlife encounters at Bako and Kubah National Parks.
Kuantan – The Most Beautiful Place We’d Never Heard Of
Pahang is the largest state in Malaysia, with Kuantan as its capital. The city of Kuantan is located about 275 km away from Kuala Lumpur on the eastern side of the peninsula. We’d never even heard of Kuantan until we needed to make a visa run from Australia. Now we think you should visit.
Over the centuries, the region has been part of Chinese, Siamese and Malacca Empires. By the 1850s, it was known as a small fishing village. As the tin and rubber trades began to flourish, Kuantan grew with workers from Chinese and Indian workers and settlers. Today, Sungai Lembing (about 26km northwest of Kuantan) is a tourist attraction, featuring a tin mining museum, hanging bridges, panoramic hill views and caves. One such cave, the Charah, contains a large reclining Buddha statue.
Tip: Visitors will want to see the Pahang State Mosque, Panchang Caves, Sungai Pandan waterfall and the Cherating Turtle sanctuary.
Kuantan is also known for its scenic beaches, particularly Teluk Chempedak, Balok, Cherating beach and Batu Hitam.
Tip: Beach resorts and hotels in Kuantan province are family-friendly. Our resort stay in Balok was shared with multi-generational family groups enjoying an extended weekend.
Children will love the Butik Gambang water park resort situated about 35 km away from Kuantan. We enjoyed the Wednesday night market in Balok town, which showcased regional foods served by enthusiastic locals.
Johor Bahru – the Southern Tip of the Peninsula
Johor Bahru is the second biggest and fastest growing city of Malaysia, as well as the financial hub of the country. JB, as it is referred to by locals, is connected by two bridges with neighboring Singapore, thus making it a convenient and less expensive alternative in which to live (or visit in our case). Malaysian commuters clog the bridges on a daily basis, traveling to high paying jobs in Singapore and back again at day’s end.
A former Malay fishing village, Johor Bahru was ruled in the 19th century by a sultanate and then the British, during which the area was developed for agriculture – gambier, black pepper, and coconuts. During the colonial period, the Malay Peninsula railway was completed, linking transporation via a road causeway to Singapore. After WWII, JB was the center of the Malay nationalist movement, with the formation of the United Malays National Organisation in 1946.
In the city, don’t miss the Victorian-style Grand Palace, the Sultan Ibrahim Building, the historical Railway Station, the Chinese and Hindu temples, and the Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque.
Tip: Choose a hotel with walking distances in mind. One of the things we enjoyed was the JB Heritage Trail. While most of the buildings are clustered in the same vicinity, there are a couple of outliers. And, while it’s easy to catch a cab in JB, traffic can be heavy. You’ll want to walk to absorb the local flavor, and temperatures can get steamy.
During our visit to Johor Bahru, we found the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage District to be of special interest. Named for a prominent Chinese leader who organized a previous secret “brotherhood” into a viable economic unit, the Heritage District has new restaurants and coffee houses along with old-style shops in its vintage buildings.
As well, the “Indian Enclave” along Jalan Ungku Puan has storefronts next to the heritage Raja Maha Mariamman Temple.
The abundance of places to visit in the vicinity of Johor Bahru includes Tioman Island, Endau Rompin National Park and the Kota Tinggi waterfalls.
Batu Caves – A Religious and Geological Combination
Visitors to the four million year old limestone Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur will be rewarded with a combination of natural beauty and imposing Hindu art. This is one of the most sacred Hindu sites outside of India and is the local centerpiece of the Thaipusam Festival, which attracts thousands of worshippers every year. The area comprises of three main caves, the largest of which is referred to as Cathedral Cove.
A massive 140ft high statue of Murugan, the Hindu philosopher-warrior God, is located outside the 272 step stairway entrance to Cathedral Cave. Art Gallery and Museum Caves have numerous Hindu art pieces. The Ramayama Cave is devoted to the Sanscrit epic story of the important Hindu God Rama, whose legendary exploits symbolically define good and evil, as well as other moral and ethical values.
Tip: There are many hotel options in the vicinity of Batu Caves. Watch for festival schedule conflicts when availability becomes limited.
Semengghoh Nature Reserve for Wildlife Encounters
This reserve is the site of the welfare program undertaken by the Malaysian Government for the orientation of rescued orangutans. Many of these endangered animals, which have been either orphaned or injured, are brought to this reserve and restored to the wild.
Tip: Daily morning and afternoon feeding sessions will be the high point of your visit to Semenghoh, where you will observe the orangutans close up.
The reserve also has a thriving bird population, which include such rarities as Bornean black magpie and Brown Hawk owl.
Malaysia is a beautiful country with an extremely rich cultural heritage influenced by the Asian and European presence. We hope we’ve whetted your appetite to plan a variety of experiences in this diverse and fascinating country.
Tips for Trip Success
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Alan Rogers says
Section on Sarawak Please correct Sarawak was ceded by the Sultan of Brunei to Sir JAMES Brooke not Charles as stated! Please correct. The rest of this section on Malaysia is fascinating with excellent photos. Thank you.