Best things to do in Malaysia

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 14.03.2023

Malaysia boasts a rich heritage — from a huge variety of festivals and wonderful cuisine, to traditional architecture and rural crafts. There’s astonishing natural beauty to take in too, including gorgeous beaches and some of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. Here are some of the best things to do in Malaysia, to give you a taste of why you should visit this destination.

The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, your essential guide for visiting Malaysia.

1. The Perhentian Islands

A popular pair of islands off the east coast, with beautiful beaches, great snorkelling and accommodation for all budgets. The name Perhentian Islands (Pulau Perhentian) actually covers two islands: Perhentian Besar and Perhentian Kecil. Both are textbook tropical paradises, which retain considerable appeal despite having been developed for tourism.

The essentials of any idyllic island holiday – fantastic sandy beaches, great snorkelling and diving – are all in place. Both islands have jungle-covered hills in their interior with paths for walking. Here you'll find opportunities to spot flying foxes, monkeys and monitor lizards. All this is capped by a refreshingly laidback atmosphere that can make it difficult to tear yourself away.

Combine the culture and traditions on this tailor-made trip to Traditional Malaysia & Wild Borneo. From lively Kuala Lumpur to desert island beaches, highlands and dense rainforest, this is a wonderful introduction to Southeast Asia.

Perhentian Kecil Island, Terengganu, Malaysia © Ruzaini Haron/Shutterstock

Visiting Perhentian Islands - one of the best things to do in Malaysia for an island holiday © Ruzaini/Shutterstock

2. Traditional crafts

Malaysia boasts a wide range of crafts, from batik and songket (brocade) to rattan baskets and labu, gourd-shaped ceramic jugs. Batik cloth is made by applying hot wax to a piece of cloth with either a pen or a copper stamp. When the cloth is dyed, the wax resists the dye and a pattern appears, a process that can be repeated many times to build up colours.

Woodcarving skills, once employed to decorate the palaces and public buildings of the early sultans, are today used to make less exotic articles such as mirror frames. However, it’s still possible to see statues and masks created by the Orang Asli. As animists, Orang Asli artists draw upon the natural world – animals, trees, fish, as well as more abstract elements like fire and water – for their imagery.


Batik painting, Malaysia © Prarinya/Shutterstock

3. Taman Negara National Park

Malaysia’s premier national park, Taman Negara, is one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Here you'll find great hides for wildlife spotting, treetop walkways and treks lasting from an hour to a whole week. The main gateway to Taman Negara, the town of Kuala Tahan, is where you’ll find the national park headquarters and the pick of its visitor facilities.

It’s also the place to get your bearings and seek out advice before crossing the Tembeling River and heading into the forest. The well-marked trails include an easy boardwalk stroll to a popular canopy walkway. Daily and weekly treks for experienced hikers are also available here.

Find accommodation options to stay in Taman Negara


Canopy bridge, Taman Negara, Malaysia © wong yu liang/Shutterstock

4. Sungai Kinabatangan

Cruise through the pristine jungle along this spectacular river, spotting proboscis monkeys and, occasionally, orangutans. Sabah’s longest waterway, the 560km Kinabatangan River, ends its journey to the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan Bay.

Whereas logging has had an impact on the river’s ecology upstream, the area covered by the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary offers some of the state’s best opportunities for seeing wildlife.

Day trips from Sandakan and Sepilok are possible with some tour operators but tend to offer just one river trip bookended by meals. It’s far better to book at least a one-night package to get an evening and a morning crack at the river or a trek.

Experience West Malaysia, with this exciting, compact tailor-made trip to the Highlands and Islands of West Malaysia makes for the perfect add-on to an existing trip to Malaysia.


Monkeys jumping through the jungle, Malaysia © MicheleB/Shutterstock

5. Shopping in Kuala Lumpur

For tourists and locals alike, strolling the Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur – the broad corridor on either side of Jalan Bukit Bintang – is one of the best things to do in Malaysia. It is absolutely teeming with people throughout the day. There’s a mall here to suit everyone: the gigantic, massively modern Psavilion KL, is packed with international chains and designer outlets.

The southwestern end of Jalan Bukit Bintang is lined with royal palms and inexpensive clothing shops. The pavement around Lot 10 has evolved into a parade of buzzing, smart cafés and shops.

When planning a trip to the Malaysian capital, also check out our guide to the best things to do in Kuala Lumpur.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Kuala Lumpur

Shopping mall

Shopping mall, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia © Elena Ermakova/Shutterstock

6. George Town

Visiting George Town in 1879, stalwart Victorian traveller Isabella Bird called it “a brilliant place under a brilliant sky”. George Town's centre is located on the island’s northeastern corner. This lovely area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is worth a visit.

Here you'll find a surprisingly harmonious maze of lanes lined with shophouses in various states of repair. The area is liberally sprinkled with religious buildings, impressive clan associations or kongsi. The obvious comparison is with Singapore, but it’s as if the same ingredients have created an altogether mellower dish, without the slickness, crowds and incessant din of its former Straits Settlements partner.

If time is short, make a point of seeing the Khoo Kongsi and Cheong Fatt Tze mansion; otherwise simply enjoy the relaxed pace and stroll at will.

Find more accommodation options to stay in George Town


Chinese temple in George Town, Malaysia © Merkurev Kirill/Shutterstock

7. Proboscis monkeys, Bako

East of the Santubong Peninsula, a second peninsula is occupied by the fabulous Bako National Park. It's named for its location at the mouth of the Bako River. Visiting Sarawak’s oldest national park is among the best things to do in Malaysia for nature lovers.

First impressions of Bako, the coastal forest and craggy outcrops you see as you head here by boat, don’t begin to do justice to its riches. As for fauna, proboscis monkeys are top of most visitors’ lists. There’s a good chance of seeing them not far from the park headquarters itself, though silver leaf monkeys tend to be harder to spot.

Tucked away on the island of Borneo is the state of Sabah, a true nature-lovers paradise. From whitewater rafting down wild rivers to scuba diving in crystal-clear waters among exotic marine life, this tailor-made trip to Nature in the Wilds of Sabah has something for anyone looking to experience nature in its purest form.


Proboscis monkey, Malaysia © Yusnizam Yusof/Shutterstock

8. Rainforest Music Festival

Since 1998, the Sarawak Cultural Village has been home to the annual Rainforest Music Festival in the Summer. It would be hard to find a more appropriate and evocative setting for a major world music event. The Village’s beautiful tribal homes are not far from the stages and Mount Santubong is the perfect backdrop.

While the event attracts performers from across the globe, it’s especially worthwhile for the opportunity to watch indigenous Bornean musicians. Some of them can seem decidedly exotic even to city-dwelling Sarawakian youth, never mind audiences from further afield.

Beds are hard to come by in Damai and Kuching over this period, so book accommodation early.


Music instrument, Gamelan, Malaysia © Amirul Syaidi/Shutterstock

9. Melaka

The city’s complex historical heritage is evident in its Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings and Peranakan ancestral homes. When Penang was known only for its oysters and Singapore was just a fishing village, the influence of Melaka (formerly spelled “Malacca”) already extended beyond the Peninsula.

Political and cultural life flourished in this trading centre under the auspices of the Melaka Sultanate. Founded early in the fifteenth century, this helped to define what it means to be Malay. The heart of Melaka’s colonial centre is Dutch Square, dominated by the Stadthuys; beyond that lie Bukit St Paul (St Paul’s Hill) and numerous museums.

The square is one of the oldest surviving parts of the city.

Find accommodation options to stay in Melaka


Melaka, Malaysia © COO7/Shutterstock

10. Cameron Highlands

Misty tea plantations, afternoon tea and jungle trails in the cool mountain air. On the western fringes of Pahang state, the Cameron Highlands takes its name from William Cameron, a colonial surveyor. Indian planters, Chinese vegetable farmers and wealthy landowners in search of a weekend retreat flocked in, establishing tea plantations.

The Camerons remain one of the most publicized attractions in Malaysia. However, don’t come expecting the pastoral idyll of the brochures. This is a major agro-industrial area, producing not only tea but also flowers, vegetables and fruit.

What’s more, it gets packed out during weekends, holidays and school breaks, when there can be long tailbacks on the main road.

Find accommodation options to stay in Cameron Highlands

Experience Malaysia's largest and most impressive hill station, the Cameron Highlands, in all its glory, with this compact tailor-made trip. Let your picturesque surroundings soak in as you visit the famous Batu Caves, the Lata Iskandar Waterfalls and a local tea plantation.


Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia © kah loong lee/Shutterstock

11. Climbing Mount Kinabalu - one of the most challenging things to do in Malaysia

Watch dawn over Borneo from the summit of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain.

Kinabalu deserves respect: conditions can be miserably cold and blowy up top, and you need to watch out for cramping and altitude sickness. Take care as you go, as you really don’t want to be stretchered down by porters – which takes hours – because you twisted your ankle high up.

At the same time, don’t overthink the challenge; this is a mountain that can be climbed by anyone of reasonable fitness. The Timpohon Trail is the main route up, and the only one available following the Kinabalu earthquake. It’s possible to set off for the park from KK on the morning of your climb, but staying the previous night in the area is a lot more restful.


Kinabalu Mountain, Malaysia © Shutterstock

12. Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park, the top-notch national park in Sarawak and a UNESCO World Heritage Site takes its name from the mountain at its core, which towers at 2376 meters. Climbing up Gunung Api rewards trekkers with a stunning vista of jagged limestone peaks. In addition, the park is home to a plethora of wildlife that thrives in its underground caves.

However, the park's most well-known attractions are the colossal Deer Cave and the Pinnacles, a collection of 50-meter-high, razor-sharp limestone spikes atop Mount Api. Tourists flock to Mulu (the park's commonly known name) all year round to witness these breathtaking sights, which require a three-day round-trip trek from the park offices, as well as the park's remarkable cave system.


Limestone Gunung Mulu, Malaysia© Juhku/Shutterstock

13. Kelabit Highlands

These remote uplands offer excellent walks and hikes, plus encounters with friendly tribal communities along the way. Right up against the Kalimantan border — the long, high plateau of the Kelabit Highlands has been home to the Kelabit people for hundreds of years.

Despite logging in the Bario area, the Highlands remain generally unspoiled, with occasional wildlife sightings and a refreshing climate. Temperatures are only a few degrees lower than in Miri by day. As such the region is a great target for walkers, and it is easily accessible by air, with several villages served by MASwings.

Discover the magnificence of Malaysia with this comprehensive tailor-made trip through the Culture, Wildlife and History of Malaysia. Stroll around picturesque tea plantations, and trek through dense rainforests. Watch elephants in the wild and laze around on paradise beaches. Explore immense religious monuments and much more, all with this fantastic trip.


Kelabit highlands © Jon Duncan/Shutterstock

14. Langkawi

Luxurious resorts on sublime beaches pretty much sum up these west-coast islands, close to the border with Thailand. Situated 30km off the coast, Langkawiis is the largest of this archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands.

Once a haven for pirates, the island is now home to some of the priciest resorts in the country, taking advantage of beaches that are among the best on the west coast.

The island is also popular with international yachties for its marinas, which are relatively cheap. Many diversions are on offer beyond lazing around on the sand. We suggest taking a mangrove cruise after sea eagles, snorkelling or scuba diving at the Pulau Payar Marine Park to the south.

Find more accommodation options to stay in Langkawi


Beach on the Langkawi island, Malaysia © Shutterstock

15. The Petronas Towers

Very much the symbol of modern Malaysia, the twin columns of the Petronas Towers rise 451.9m above KL’s downtown area, towering over the enormous Suria KLCC mall at their base. The tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004, they’re now not even the tallest buildings in KL.

Despite a definite Art Deco feel, the unusual eight-pointed cross-sectional profile obviously draws on Islamic art. The profusion of squares and circles on the interior walls symbolize harmony and strength. One tower was built by a Japanese team, the other by rivals from Korea.

The views of KL’s sprawl from the Skybridge are pretty spectacular, thanks not least to the blue, glassy towers soaring either side of you – but they’re not quite as good as from the Observation Deck on the 86th floor.

This tailor-made trip to Rustic Malaysia has it all: great beaches, fascinating history, natural habitats and remarkable wildlife. Bustling KL offers the perfect city break; while further afield hiking trails, pristine jungles and fascinating ecosystems will keep the more adventurous visitors entertained.

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia © kudla/Shutterstock

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur © kudla/Shutterstock

16. Malaysian Cuisine

One of the best things to do in Malaysia is to taste the local food. Some of the cheapest and most delicious specialities available in Malaysia come from stalls, traditionally wooden pushcarts on the roadside, surrounded by a few wobbly tables with stools. These stalls serve up mouthwatering noodles, snacks and desserts.

Most serve one or a few standard noodle and rice dishes or specialize in certain delicacies, from oyster omelettes to squid curry. Many stalls are assembled into user-friendly medan selera (literally “appetite square”) or food courts.

Curry Nyonya Laksa. A Malaysian Nyonya (Peranakan) traditional food © Mohd Syis Zulkipli/Shutterstock

Malaysian curry laksa © Shutterstock

17. Scuba diving at Pulau Sipadan

Two marine parks lie off the coast of southeast Sabah. The most well-known of which is Sipadan Island. Visiting this park is one of the best things to do in Malaysia for experienced divers.

This park was acclaimed by Jacques Cousteau as “an untouched piece of art”. Sipadan Island is mindboggling, its waters teeming with turtles, moray eels, sharks, barracuda and vast schools of colourful tropical fish. One can even see the occasional dolphin and pilot whale.

The diversity of coral found here is also comparable to that of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Only 120 visitor permits are available for Sipadan daily, so it’s likely you’ll spend a day here with your dive operator and then a few around the nearby islands.


Sipadan island, Malaysia © Marc Witte/Shutterstock

18. Longhouses in Sarawak

Large communal dwellings, home to members of indigenous tribes, are found along rivers and in remote mountain locations. The Iban longhouses of the Ai headwaters are the best excuse for anyone travelling between western and central Sarawak not to catch the fast Kuching–Sibu ferry.

Despite being on the tourist trail, the longhouses offer a glimpse of what used to be the semi-traditional lifestyle in this remote corner of the state. These areas are protected as a national park and wildlife sanctuary. Sadly, most locals now prefer to live nearer to the road, and many of the villages and longhouses you’ll be taken to are only inhabited while tourists are there.


Longhouse in Sarawak, Malaysia © gualtiero boffi/Shutterstock

19. Batu Caves

The Batu Caves sit right on the northern edge of Greater Kuala Lumpur, where forested limestone thumbs poke out of a ridge of hills in the suburb of Gombak. In 1891 local Indian dignitaries convinced the British administration that the caves were ideal places in which to worship (probably because their geography was reminiscent of the sacred Himalayas).

Arriving at the site, you can’t miss the immense staircase leading up into the limestone crags, and the gigantic golden statue of Lord Murugan, the Hindu god of war.

A number of minor temples stand at ground level. However, most visitors head straight up the 272 steps to the caves, pausing only to catch their breath or take photos of the marauding nearby macaques.


Batu Caves entrance © Shutterstock

20. Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park

Named after Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park contains five islands representing the most westerly ripples of the Crocker mountains. Their forests, beaches and coral reefs lie within 8km of Kota Kinabalu. Snorkelling, diving, watersports and more unusual activities are available.

Such is the park’s appeal that Manukan Island in particular is often overrun. This isn’t to say you can’t have an enjoyable day-trip either on one island or, as many people do, on one in the morning and another in the afternoon. However, don’t expect total calm unless you stay the night at one of the park’s pricey resorts. Manukan aside, only Sapi and Mamutik islands are served by regular boats.

Tropical Islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine reserve Kota Kinabalu © Shutterstock

Tropical Islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine reserve Kota Kinabalu © Shutterstock

21. Island Hopping

Island hopping is one of the best things to do in Malaysian Borneo, especially in Sabah, where tourists can discover the spectacular islands that surround the state. One of the must-visit islands here is Gaia Island, just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.

Although the closest island to Kota Kinabalu, Gaya doesn’t feature on standard island-hopping routes. Visitors can simply take any boat to neighbour Sapi and ask to be dropped off across the channel. If you do make it over, you’ll find idyllic stretches of sand such as Police Bay Beach, as well as jungle trails where you might see proboscis monkeys and hornbills.

Inspired? Plan your trip using our guide to the most beautiful places in Southeast Asia.

Traditional Murut longhouse in Mari Mari Cultural Village, Sabah, Malaysia shutterstock

Traditional Murut longhouse in Mari Mari Cultural Village, Sabah, Malaysia © Shutterstock

22. Langkawi cable car

Much of Langkawi’s northwest is untouched rainforest atop low peaks of mixed sandstone and shale, one of which is Mount Machinchang. At its foot, the tourist-trap theme park Oriental Village is the lower terminus of the magnificent Langkawi Cable Car up the mountain. With a 42-degree incline, the ride is not only the steepest of its kind, but also boasts the longest free span for a mono-cable car.

Return trips are sold as package combos that include entrance to the Oriental Village’s other hit-and-miss attractions. Here you'll find a 360-degree 3D cinema Skydome; dinosaur-themed, tram-simulator Skyrex; and the 3D Art Museum. You can also ride a glass-bottomed gondola for full-views of the broccoli-head rainforest underneath your feet.


Cable car Langkawi © Shutterstock

Ready for a trip to Malaysia? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Malaysia without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

When considering a Southeast Asia destination, take a look at Thailand, where you will also find plenty of exciting things to do.

We may earn commission from some of the external websites linked in this article, but this does not influence our editorial standards - we only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 14.03.2023

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