1. Try fresh mantis prawns on Aman Island in Penang
A mystery even to most locals, Aman Island (”Island of Peace”) is so close to the hustle of Georgetown, yet so different. Just a 5-minute boat ride off the southern coast of Seberang Perai – Penang State’s part of Malaysia's mainland – this little blue-ringed jewel was once a pirates’ cove. Today, Aman Island hides no bounties, but it's still a treasure, with no cars, no paved roads and an ancient well that’s said to breed gold.
Besides chilling and climbing to the the top of the highest hill to enjoy the views, the place is dear to local foodies. They come here for the delicious endemic mantis prawns – a mean crustacean – cooked to perfection in simple restaurants on stilts lining the shore.
2. Marvel at Kampung Pulai's limestone crags and temples
Chinese Hakka traders came to the jungles of Southern Kelantan half a century ago, lured by the prospect of finding gold. They settled next to a quiet river surrounded by lush thicket and jagged limestone peaks – a setting that seems to belong to famous Yangshuo, in China’s Guanxi province – and called the village Kampung Pulai.
The first tarred road to nearby Gua Musang arrived only in the 1980s; seclusion kept the migrants’ traditions intact for four centuries. Today, the Water and Moon temple, the oldest in Peninsular Malaysia, still stands at the centre of the village, overlooking the river.
On the other side, a large limestone outcrop named Princess Hill hides ancient meditation caves and a huge statue of Goddess of Mercy Kuan Yin carved out of a stalagmite. The best part is, very few travellers know that this place even exists.
3. Meet the last Kelabit elders in Bario Asal longhouse, Sarawak
A few kilometres from the Sarawak-Kalimantan border is Bario, a cluster of villages on the Kelabit Highlands, now easily accessible from coastal city Miri by 18-seater twin otter planes – an adventure in itself.
Bario is home to the Kelabit, once fierce headhunters and now proud Christians. Don't miss Bario Asal, the area’s very first longhouse, still inhabited by new and older generations, some of which still sport the traditional elongated earlobes the Kelabit were famous for.
Victor Paul Borg/Alamy
4. Get in a car and chase Perak's ghosts
Perak’s capital Ipoh is rising and gentrifying, but the state’s incredible history still haunts some of its undiscovered backwoods. Rent a car and head south to Menglembu, driving off to the mostly abandoned village of Papan. This is where Eurasian nurse Sybil Kathigasu supported the anti-Japanese resistance and was tortured for her bravery.
More spirits are thought to float south of Tronoh in Tanjung Tualan which, besides its nationwide famous giant river prawns, has the last tin dredge left in Malaysia. Not far away is Kellie's Castle, a manor built by William Kellie Smith, who was Scottish. In stereotypical Scot flavour, the manor is believed to teem with ghosts.
5. Explore the Kelantanese-Thai border on a bicycle
Rent a bicycle in Kota Bharu and spend a day cycling north to Tumpat, the last township before the Thai border, to demystify all the stereotypes you may still have about Muslim Kelantan. This is a land of brightly coloured temples that mix Thai and Chinese-Buddhist cultures.
The country's biggest sleeping Buddha is en route. Be sure to visit the temple he lays on, Wat Photivihan, which is filled with gruesome three-dimensional paintings of Buddhist hell. End up your quest by kneeling before life-sized stone tigers and dragons, right next to a dragon boat-shaped shrine, floating over its own pool.
6. Hike Gunung Tahan, Peninsular Malaysia's highest peak
Soaring from the ancient jungle of Taman Negara is 2187m-tall Gunung Tahan, a tough hike that’s sadly overshadowed by the tourist glamour of Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu. It’s a tough slog, without tourist facilities besides your own camping gear, but it's manageable with a guide in 5 to 8 days from either Kuala Tahan or Merapoh.
Regardless of the path you take, look out for elephant tracks and elusive yet friendly tapirs, who may come out of the jungle to suck the salt off your sweaty skin. Yikes.
7. Hike the Telupid Forest Reserve with the villagers of Kampung Bestaria
When expert nature guide Eddie Chia (whose mother managed pioneering Sabah operator Api Tours) married his Dusun wife a few years ago, they decided to move back to her home town. Kampung Bestaria is a village on the fringes of Telupid forest reserve, a swat of untamed jungle between Mount Kinabalu and Sandakan. None of the villagers believed the place could become more than a free-for-all natural supermarket, but Chia’s intervention changed that.
Kampung Bestaria now has a cooperative, KOBEST, that organises jaunts into the newly opened forest reserve. The still partly unexplored reserve has at least two waterfalls and hundreds of rare species of Borneo plants and fungi, including giant pitcher plants and the rare micro Rafflesia tengku-adinii.
The villagers participate directly in the hospitality and guiding operations. Whether you decide to hang a hammock in the forest or share communal meals with jovial Dusun villagers, seated on the floor of their family homes, Telupid Forest Reserve will be a diversion you will most certainly remember.
Explore more of Malaysia with The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image: Pixabay/CC0.