Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (usually referred to as KL), is the social and economic driving force of a nation eager to better itself, a fact reflected in the relentless proliferation of air-conditioned shopping malls, designer bars and restaurants in the city, and in the continuing sprawl of suburbia and industry around it. But KL is also firmly rooted in tradition, where the same Malay executives who wear suits to work dress in traditional clothes at festival times, and markets and food stalls are crowded in among high-rise hotels and bank towers, especially in older areas such as Chinatown and Little India.
Just a couple of hours’ drive south of the capital lies the birthplace of Malay civilization, Melaka, its historical architecture and mellow atmosphere making it a must on anybody’s itinerary. Much further up the west coast, the island of Penang was the site of the first British settlement in Malaysia. Its capital, Georgetown, still features beautifully restored colonial buildings and a vibrant Chinatown district, and is, together with Melaka, recognized for its cultural and architectural diversity as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a taste of Old England, head for the hill stations of Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands, where cooler temperatures and lush countryside provide ample opportunities for walks, birdwatching, rounds of golf and cream teas. North of Penang, Malay, rather than Chinese, traditions hold sway at Alor Star, the last major town before the Thai border. This far north, the premier tourist destination is Pulau Langkawi, an island with international-style resorts and picture-postcard beaches.
The Peninsula’s east coast is much more rural and relaxing, peppered with rustic villages and stunning islands such as Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Tioman, busy with backpackers and package tourists alike. The state capitals of Kota Bharu, near the northeastern Thai border, and Kuala Terengganu, further south, showcase the best of Malay traditions, craft production and performing arts.
Crossing the Peninsula’s mountainous interior by road or rail allows you to venture into the majestic tropical rainforests of Taman Negara. The national park’s four thousand square kilometres hold enough to keep you occupied for days: trails, salt-lick hides for animal-watching, aerial forest-canopy walkways, limestone caves and waterfalls. Here you may well also come across the Orang Asli, the Peninsula’s indigenous peoples, a few of whom cling to a semi-nomadic lifestyle within the park.
Across the sea from the Peninsula lie the east Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah. For most travellers, their first taste of Sarawak comes at Kuching, the old colonial capital, and then the Iban longhouses of the Batang Ai river system. Sibu, much further north on the Rajang River, is the starting point for trips to less touristed Iban, Kayan and Kenyah longhouses. In the north, Gunung Mulu National Park is the principal destination; many come here to climb up to view its extraordinary razor-sharp limestone Pinnacles, though spectacular caves also burrow into the park’s mountains. More remote still are the Kelabit Highlands, further east, where the mountain air is refreshingly cool and there are ample opportunities for extended treks.
The main reason for a trip to Sabah is to conquer the 4095m granite peak of Mount Kinabalu, set in its own national park, though the lively modern capital Kota Kinabalu and its idyllic offshore islands, Gaya and Manukan, have their appeal, too. Beyond this, Sabah is worth a visit for its wildlife: turtles, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and hornbills are just a few of the exotic residents of the jungle and plentiful islands. Marine attractions feature in the far east at Pulau Sipadan, pointing out towards the southern Philippines, which has a host of sharks, other fish and turtles, while neighbouring Pulau Mabul contains hip, but often pricey, diving resorts.