Stunning, ethnically diverse Malaysia is Southeast Asia's unsung holiday hero, offering travellers a huge range of attractions. Mix and match a trip that includes lush jungle trekking, chilling out on white-sand beaches, amazing snorkelling and diving, gastronomic adventuring and immersing yourself in a colourful cultural heritage.

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Welcome to Malaysia

With the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur midway between the UNESCO-listed towns of Penang and Melaka, and also just a few hours by bus from the sprawling Taman Negara National Park, many of Malaysia's highlights are both affordable and easy to reach.

Our Malaysia travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each of your trips to Malaysia, beginning with the simple guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country.

Absolute highlights

Most first-time travellers to Malaysia stick to the peninsula, but if you have the time and are after a greater understanding of the country, a visit to Sabah and Sarawak is equally worthwhile. East Malaysia contains many of the country's most beautiful national parks.

Penang: Eat everything. : Stuart McDonald.
Penang: Eat everything. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Penang: Malaysia's second largest island, Penang is also its most developed, with the eastern coast dotted with high-rises and crammed with holiday resorts. Travellers who have experienced beaches elsewhere in Asia will probably be unimpressed with the most popular beach spots, but the island's real attraction lies in its culture, history and cuisine—the food really is something.

Taman Negara: The superlatives come easy when it comes to Taman Negara National Park. The old-growth forest here, mostly untouched by humans, is believed to be more than 130 million years old, making it the oldest primary forest in the world.

Perhentians: Long renowned for their coral reefs and clear waters, the Perhentian Islands are a highlight for their snorkelling, diving, attractive beaches and remote, semi-untouched feel and appearance.

Popular destinations

Langkawi: Nearly the size of Singapore, Langkawi is surrounded by beautiful beaches and towering limestone karsts. This beauty inspired their official 2012 tourism slogan, "Naturally Langkawi".

City of contrasts Kuala Lumpur. : Stuart McDonald.
City of contrasts Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Kuching: Situated in eastern Sarawak, Kuching is the most populous of all the cities in the state and, arguably, also the best place to be a tourist in the whole of Malaysia, due to its size, quality of accommodation, day trip options and museums.

Kuala Lumpur: The modern, bustling and lush-green capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is a testament to the Southeast Asian nation clawing its way in recent decades out of the developing world and into the WiFi-enabled modern one.

Kinabalu Park: Borneo is known for its abundant natural wonders, but Kinabalu Park may just be the most spectacular. The main attraction is Mount Kinabalu, a 4,095-metre monster of granite that takes the title of the tallest mountain in Malaysia by a long shot.

Melaka: Midway between the capital cities of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and at the mouth of the Strait of Melaka, a crucial shipping route connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans, Melaka has been a centre of trade and cultural exchange for more than 600 years.

Alternative destinations

Pangkor Island: The word Pangkor is said to be a derivative of the Thai “pang koh”, which means beautiful island—and yes, this gives a hint of what Pangkor Island is like, with sandy shores and surrounding emerald waters.

Oh hello Sabah... : Sally Arnold.
Oh hello Sabah... Photo: Sally Arnold

Sipadan: When you’re diving at Sipadan it’s not a question of whether you’ll see large pelagic species like manta rays, sea turtles, barracuda and sharks, but how many.

Kinabatangan River: For the most accessible wildlife adventure in Sabah, the Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest, offers easy packaged experiences. Known for its remarkable wildlife, you are almost guaranteed to see one or several of Borneo’s endemic species in the wild here.

Danum Valley: If Borneo conjures up images of pristine jungle filled with haunting sounds and hidden wildlife, the incredible Danum Valley Conservation Area is probably one of the reasons why.

Kuala Terenganu: If you have time up your sleeve, Kuala Terennganu is worth at the very least an overnight stay or, for some, far longer.

Nature lovers

Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park: A short boat ride from KK, the five islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park offer squeaky white sands, azure waters and hiking trails though areas of old growth forest and mangroves, with an abundance of wildlife both below and above the waters.

The Mantanani Islands are pretty special. : Sally Arnold.
The Mantanani Islands are pretty special. Photo: Sally Arnold

Mantanani Islands: Three little blips on the radar form the Mantanani Islands, about 40 kilometres northwest of Kota Belud. Mantanani Besar, Mantanani Kecil and Lungisan are your quintessential alabaster-fringed tropical archipelago, reef ringed and sitting in crystal-clear aquamarine waters.

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: Orange apes are Borneo’s big drawcard, and possibly why you’re in Sabah. Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre cares for “people of the forest” who have been orphaned or injured due to deforestation or previously illegally kept as pets.

What to do

Trek Taman Negara: The opportunity to go trekking for a few days in the oldest primary forest in the world is the reason you'll be heading to Taman Negara.

Breathtaking Mount Kinabalu. : Sally Arnold.
Breathtaking Mount Kinabalu. Photo: Sally Arnold

Climb Kinabalu: There’s something about Mount Kinabalu—its awesomeness, its grace, its spirit—so it’s no wonder so many people are drawn to climbing Malaysia's tallest mountain.

Dive Sipadan: The islands around Semporna hold a treasure trove of riches below their jewel-toned seas, with the biggest drawcard being Sipadan, one of the world’s best dive sites and made famous by Jacques Cousteau. Sipadan and the other islands are not only limited to divers—it’s possible to snorkel here, too.

North Borneo Railway: Confession time: we like trains. We have to admit we were a little bit excited to travel on the historical North Borneo Railway, but you don’t have to be a trainspotter kind of person to enjoy the romance of a steam train. The North Borneo Railway isn’t a regular train service, although a regular service does follow the same route, but rather a tourist attraction recreating the historical era of steam travel.

Surf Cherating: A sleepy seaside community, Cherating is known for its turtle population, surf and more recently kiteboarding. It will appeal to those seeking a no-frills, affordable beach break.

Cooking courses and food walks: When it comes to food and food walks, Malaysia is none too shabby.

When to go

Eastern Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo see their wettest period between November and February. The west coast of the Peninsula sees the wet between May and September. The climate is hot and humid year round—regardless of whether it's raining or not!

How long to go for

With as little as two weeks you can take in some of the highlights of peninsular Malaysia—say Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, Penang and an island, but the peninsula really deserves three to four weeks as with that long you could take in both coasts plus Taman Negara.

How long do you need to eat everything? : Stuart McDonald.
How long do you need to eat everything? Photo: Stuart McDonald

East Malaysia can be a bit more time consuming. We'd say Sabah certainly deserves two weeks, with neighbouring Sarawak being worth another three to four weeks.

If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Malaysia’s visa rules.

What it will cost

Your budget will depend very much on your style of travelling. If you’re comfortable in simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, you can survive on around US$20-25 per day—maybe a couple of dollars less if you’re especially frugal and travelling as a couple.

Most independent budget travellers tend to spend more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to a more comfortable US$35-45 per day.

If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Malaysia does offer good value — especially in the accommodation stakes, with resort-style and boutique hotels in the US$100-$150+ mark scattered across the country. Food and entertainment costs can rising accordingly. Likewise, you can also spend north of a thousand dollars per day for truly luxurious settings—think private pool villas and so on—flying everywhere and fine dining. We can’t speak of this personally though!

What to watch out for

Malaysia is a very safe country. While petty theft is a problem in the major tourist centres, violent crime against foreigners is rare. Use your common sense when out in the evening and stay in control. If you feel threatened, especially in a bar or club environment, leave. Credit card fraud is the most likely problem you may encounter—keep an eye on your credit cards at all times and while not always feasible, try not to let them out of your sight. Check your statements after your trips carefully.

When visiting the Semporna and Sipadan area in Sabah, you may be alarmed by the security presence. Over the last few years, terrorist incidents have occurred, and in response the Malaysian government has established military and police posts on islands and other tourist destinations. Most travellers enjoy the world-class diving here without peril. As with anywhere, check the current security situation with your government’s embassy before you plan and depart on a trip, and be sure to have comprehensive travel insurance.

Roads in Malaysia can be nerve-wracking at times. The roads are generally of a good standard, so people, even those who are not particularly talented drivers, tend to drive extremely fast. Penang in particular seems to be home to a resident population of drivers who care little (if at all) for pedestrian safety. Keep your wits about you and do not assume a driver has seen you, nor that they will necessarily slow down even if they have seen you.

Always, always, always wear a helmet when on a motorbike in Malaysia.

Having adequate travel insurance cover is essential.

Malaysia has extremely strict anti-drug laws yet it is not unusual to see locals smoking weed—especially in Kuala Lumpur. Pot along with a raft of other drugs are illegal in Malaysia and you do not want to be caught with them. Complete strangers offering to sell you drugs should be treated with the upmost suspicion. Duh!

If you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Malaysia?