Peninsular Malaysia’s densely populated west coast, from Kuala Lumpur north to the open border with Thailand, is rich in cultural diversions and natural attractions. Nowhere showcases Malaysia’s rural delights better than the Cameron Highlands, a former hill station offering fresh air, forest treks and British-style cream teas. Between here and the coast, Perak state (perak meaning “silver”) once boasted the world’s richest tin field, which during the nineteenth century spearheaded Malaysia’s phenomenal economic rise. Perak’s major towns – Ipoh and Taiping echo those days in extensive quarters of Chinese shophouses, with a more Malay experience available at unassuming Kuala Kangsar. Offshore, Pulau Pangkor is known for its pleasant, low-key beaches, a popular weekend break for families from KL.
North up the coast, Penang Island – or rather its capital, Georgetown – is a major destination. Centuries of trade and interaction with India, Britain, Indonesia, Thailand and China have left a melting-pot of cultures (not to mention architecture and food). Penang’s drab beaches, however, are probably best skipped in favour of exploring the island’s smaller settlements and forested corners.
After Penang, most visitors aim straight for the Thai border, though the intervening states of Kedah and Perlis hold some interest. These are Malaysia’s historical jelapang padi, or “rice bowl”, a sprawl of rippling, emerald-green paddy fields; there’s a strong Thai influence too, though the state capitals, Alor Star and Kangar, are visually very Malay, sporting prominent mosques and royal buildings. The biggest regional attraction is Pulau Langkawi, an upper-end resort island with a couple of fine beaches, clearly targeting international, rather than domestic tourists. Harder to reach and far inland on the Kedah–Thai border, Ulu Muda Eco Park offers adventurous nature trekking, though access can be tricky.