Despite having turquoise-ringed tropical islands, misty rainforests, cosmopolitan and arty cities, colourful festivals and one of the world's most interesting ethnic mixes, Malaysia remains Southeast Asia's most unsung destination.
In 2017, the country turns 60 years old. With a new hi-speed train system, comfortable buses and low-cost air connections to most of Asia and beyond, backpacking in Malaysia today is quicker and easier than ever. Here are our top tips to help you make a trip.
Most travellers visit Malaysia too quickly, making a beeline between Penang, the Cameron Highlands, Kuala Lumpur, Melaka and exiting to Singapore. But it's by getting out of the well-worn trail that you'll experience the best Malaysia has to offer.
Consider going to the east coast for island-hopping, stopping in Kota Bharu to experience a blend of Thai Buddhist and Malay Islamic culture. Or stop at Taman Negara, the world's oldest rainforest, visiting the quaint little towns that surround it. Cheap flights can get you over the South China Sea to Sarawak and Sabah, in Borneo, where you may see orangutans, meet former headhunting tribes, and experience a side of Malaysia that feels like another country.
Back in the 1970s, travellers on the Hippie Trail considered Malaysia the easiest country to hitchhike in Southeast Asia. Today, this adventurous way of travelling is less common, but it's still very rewarding. Malaysians are very fond of foreigners (Western tourists, especially), and hitchhiking can be a great way to reach off-the-grid places that are poorly served by public transport. And since English is widely spoken, you will also make interesting connections that may end up in invitations to visit local homes.
Bahasa Malaysia may be one of the easiest languages to crack in the world. But remember that in this multicultural nation, the predominantly Malay Muslim government is well known for giving preferential rights to the Malay group. As a consequence, ethnic tensions are everyday issues, and addressing non-Malays in Bahasa may trigger unpleasant reactions.
On top of that, to most Malaysian Chinese and Indians, Bahasa Malaysia is a second, or even third language. Stick to English: as a foreigner, everyone will expect you to do so. Practise your Bahasa only in Malay-dominated regions, such as the Peninsula's east coast, or in Malaysian Borneo, where it really helps befriend locals.
Georgetown's street art and café scene attract tons of backpackers. But Penang's most famous city is just a tiny corner of an island so rich in culture and nature it takes days to merely scratch its surface. Kek Lok Si temple, Balik Pulau's old town and beaches, and the national park at Teluk Bahang are just some of the highlights. If you aren't brave enough to rent a motorbike and explore, handy bus routes criss-cross the island. The bottom line is: there's no excuse for not getting out of Georgetown.
Kuala Lumpur offers a few days worth of city comforts, bar crawling and shopping galore. Fewer know that the capital city is also a good starting point to experience Malaysia's rainforest. Straight in the city centre, KL Eco Park's canopies teem with monkeys, while the nearby Lake Gardens offer attractive botanical gardens and the KL Bird Park, the city's top-notch tropical aviary.
In the northern fringes of Kuala Lumpur at Kepong, the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), established in 1929, is an accessible jungle research centre covering 600 hectares. At last, the Titiwangsa Lake Gardens are perfect for jogging, a quiet jungle stroll, and views of Kuala Lumpur's skyline.
With the way Muslims are portrayed in the media these days, knowing that Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic nation may discourage many travellers from visiting. Truth be told, Malay Muslims are just a majority among a rich ethnic mix, and even so, they are very hospitable people.
Even without venturing into Malay hinterland – Kelantan, Terengganu, Johor states and the islands along the east coast – meeting liberal Malays in the cities will change ideas built on stereotypes.
Malaysia's rich colonial past always rewards travellers with unexpected adventures. Think of Kuala Kangsar in Perak: did you know that Anthony Burgess, author of seminal A Clockwork Orange, lived and taught English here in the mid 1950s? Go find his favourite pub.
More ancient mysteries await in the Lenggong valley: a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it's home to the Perak Man – Southeast Asia's oldest most complete human skeleton – and a three-million-year-old meteorite impact site. If that's not enough, British-built bona fide manor Kellie's Castle, near Batu Gajah, is said to have secret dungeons and a resident ghost.
From participating to turtle conservation programmes on the east coast, to volunteering at Langkawi's dog shelter, getting involved with conservation work on the Kinabatangan River, or helping the endangered Sun Bears in Sepilok, Malaysia has plenty on offer for conscious, nature-loving travellers. By taking part in any of these programmes, not only will you make a difference, but you'll bring home everlasting memories.
Buses and trains are fast and convenient, but they don't reach off-the-grid areas rich in cultural and natural delights. What's more, Malaysia's well-manned roads are ideal for self-driving, there's no traffic in the countryside, and you won't need an international driving licence to rent a car. Sharing rental costs works better than riding buses when travelling as a group, and propels unending chances for adventure.