Travel Guide Malaysia

Populated by a blend of Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous groups, Malaysia boasts a rich cultural heritage, from a huge variety of annual festivals and wonderful cuisines, 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, much of which is surprisingly accessible. Malaysia’s national parks are superb for trekking and wildlife-watching, and sometimes for cave exploration and river rafting.

As part of the Malay archipelago, which stretches from Indonesia to the Philippines, Malaysia became an important port of call on the trade route between India and China, the two great markets of the early world, and later became important entrepôts for the Portuguese, Dutch and British empires. Malaysia has only existed in its present form since 1963, when the federation of the eleven Peninsula states was joined by Singapore and the two Bornean territories of Sarawak and Sabah. Singapore left the union to become an independent country in 1965.

Today, the dominant cultural force in the country is undoubtedly Islam, adopted by the Malays in the fourteenth century. But it’s the religious plurality – there are also sizeable Christian and Hindu minorities – that is so attractive, often providing surprising juxtapositions of mosques, temples and churches. Add the colour and verve of Chinese temples and street fairs, Indian festival days and everyday life in Malay kampungs (villages), and the indigenous traditions of Borneo, and it’s easy to see why visitors are drawn into this celebration of ethnic diversity; indeed, despite some issues, Malaysia has something to teach the rest of the world when it comes to building successful multicultural societies.

    Facts about Malaysia

  • With 28 million inhabitants, Malaysia is divided into two distinct regions. Peninsular Malaysia, where the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is situated, is separated by more than 600km of the South China Sea from East Malaysia, comprising the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
  • Malaysia is a British-style parliamentary democracy, with a ceremonial head of state known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agung (the post rotates among the sultans from each state of the federation).
  • The world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, is a Malaysian rainforest plant measuring a metre across and smelling of rotten meat. It’s named after the naturalist and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles.
  • Malaysia’s economy, historically dominated by agriculture and mining, now features a healthy manufacturing sector.

Where to go in Malaysia

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.

KudatSights & Places
The markets
The marketsSights & Places
Terengganu State Museum
Terengganu State MuseumSights & Places
Sungai Petani
Sungai PetaniSights & Places
The Kelabit Highlands
The Kelabit HighlandsSights & Places
North Borneo Railway
North Borneo RailwaySights & Places
DesaruSights & Places
Alor Star (Alor Setar)
Alor Star (Alor Setar)Sights & Places
Tanah Rata
Tanah RataSights & Places
Kenong Rimba State Park
Kenong Rimba State ParkSights & Places
Tambunan Rafflesia Reserve
Tambunan Rafflesia ReserveSights & Places
Gunung Mulu National Park
Gunung Mulu National ParkSights & Places
The coast from Sibu to Bintulu
The coast from Sibu to BintuluSights & Places
Air Batang (ABC)
Air Batang (ABC)Sights & Places
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
Tunku Abdul Rahman ParkSights & Places
Kuala Koh
Kuala KohSights & Places
Padang Kemunting Turtle Sanctuary
Padang Kemunting Turtle SanctuarySights & Places
Cultural Centre
Cultural CentreSights & Places
Kuala Selangor
Kuala SelangorSights & Places
Around the seafront
Around the seafrontSights & Places
MuarSights & Places
Pulau Pangkor
Pulau PangkorSights & Places
The Klias Peninsula
The Klias PeninsulaSights & Places
Snorkelling and diving
Snorkelling and divingSights & Places
Kuala Lipis
Kuala LipisSights & Places
FRIMSights & Places
Pulau Rawa
Pulau RawaSights & Places
Monsopiad Cultural Village
Monsopiad Cultural VillageSights & Places
Masjid Negeri
Masjid NegeriSights & Places
Sabah State Museum
Sabah State MuseumSights & Places
The Tip of Borneo
The Tip of BorneoSights & Places
The colonial district
The colonial districtSights & Places
The Ulu Baram
The Ulu BaramSights & Places
Pulau Besar
Pulau BesarSights & Places
Pulau Duyong
Pulau DuyongSights & Places
Mari Mari Cultural Village
Mari Mari Cultural VillageSights & Places
The colonial centre
The colonial centreSights & Places
The Setiu wetlands
The Setiu wetlandsSights & Places
The Lake Gardens and around
The Lake Gardens and aroundSights & Places
Batu CavesSights & Places
Kangar and around
Kangar and aroundSights & Places
Buddhist temples
Buddhist templesSights & Places
ChinatownSights & Places
Temples and gardens near Georgetown
Temples and gardens near GeorgetownSights & Places
Pulau Sibu
Pulau SibuSights & Places
MiriSights & Places
MerangSights & Places
Kuala Besut
Kuala BesutSights & Places
SibuSights & Places
ButterworthSights & Places
Kuala Tahan
Kuala TahanSights & Places
KuchingSights & Places
Stong State Park (Taman Jelawang)
Stong State Park (Taman Jelawang)Sights & Places
Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve
Matang Mangrove Forest ReserveSights & Places
JerantutSights & Places
JuaraSights & Places
Fraser’s Hill (Bukit Fraser)
Fraser’s Hill (Bukit Fraser)Sights & Places
Turtle sanctuary
Turtle sanctuarySights & Places
Kampung Bavanggazo
Kampung BavanggazoSights & Places
The beach
The beachSights & Places
Lambir Hills National Park
Lambir Hills National ParkSights & Places
MersingSights & Places
The Golden Triangle
The Golden TriangleSights & Places
BrinchangSights & Places
Pulau Ketam
Pulau KetamSights & Places
Sri Menanti
Sri MenantiSights & Places
Loagan Bunut National Park
Loagan Bunut National ParkSights & Places
Batang Ai and the Iban longhouses
Batang Ai and the Iban longhousesSights & Places
Orang Asli Museum
Orang Asli MuseumSights & Places
Up the Batang Rejang
Up the Batang RejangSights & Places
Merapoh (Sungai Relau)
Merapoh (Sungai Relau)Sights & Places
Kuala Kangsar
Kuala KangsarSights & Places
KukupSights & Places
ChinatownSights & Places
Perhentian Besar
Perhentian BesarSights & Places
Salang and Monkey Beach
Salang and Monkey BeachSights & Places
Niah National Park
Niah National ParkSights & Places
TaipingSights & Places
Craft workshops
Craft workshopsSights & Places
Teluk Chempedak
Teluk ChempedakSights & Places
Pulau Mantanani
Pulau MantananiSights & Places
DowntownSights & Places
Pulau Tiga National Park
Pulau Tiga National ParkSights & Places
Pulau Besar
Pulau BesarSights & Places
Ulu Muda Eco Park
Ulu Muda Eco ParkSights & Places
Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill)
Bukit Larut (Maxwell Hill)Sights & Places
Around Kuching
Around KuchingSights & Places
North of Brinchang
North of BrinchangSights & Places
Perhentian Kecil
Perhentian KecilSights & Places
Pulau Langkawi
Pulau LangkawiSights & Places
Gua MusangSights & Places
Brickfields and KL Sentral
Brickfields and KL SentralSights & Places
BeaufortSights & Places

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.

Outdoor activities in Malaysia

With some of the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and countless beaches and islands, trekking, snorkelling and scuba diving are common pursuits in Malaysia. The more established resorts on the islands of Penang, Langkawi and Tioman also offer jet skiing and paragliding, while the exposed, windy bay at Cherating, the budget travellers’ centre on the east coast, is a hot spot for windsurfers.

Snorkelling, diving and windsurfing

The crystal-clear waters and abundant tropical fish and coral of Malaysia make snorkelling and diving a must for any underwater enthusiast. This is particularly true of Sabah’s Sipidan Island Marine Reserve and the Peninsula’s east coast, with islands like the Perhentians, Redang, Kapas and Tioman.

Dive shops, for example in Sabah’s Kota Kinabalu and Sarawak’s Miri, offer all-inclusive, internationally recognized certification courses, ranging from a beginner’s open-water course (around RM1300), right through to the dive-master certificate (RM2200). If you’re already qualified, expect to pay RM180 per day for dive trips including gear rental.

Most beachside guesthouses rent snorkelling equipment for around RM20 per day. Some popular snorkelling areas mark out lanes for motorboats with buoy lines – stay on the correct side of the line to avoid a nasty accident. If you’re not sure where it’s safe to swim or snorkel, always seek local advice. Never touch or walk on coral as this will cause irreparable damage – besides which, you risk treading on the armour-piercing spines of sea urchins, or a painful encounter with fire coral.

Windsurfing has yet to take off in all but the most expensive resorts in Malaysia, with the notable exception of Cherating. Its large, open bay and shallow waters provide near-perfect conditions during the northeast monsoon season.

Whitewater rafting

Whitewater rafting has become a popular activity on Sabah’s Sungai Padas, a grade 3 river which, at its northern end, runs through the spectacular Padas Gorge. Opportunities for rafting in Peninsular Malaysia tend to be in out-of-the-way spots in the interior; it’s best to go with an operator such as Nomad Adventure ( or Khersonese Expedition ( Expect a day’s rafting to cost around RM250, including equipment.


The majority of treks in Malaysia require forethought and preparation. As well as the fierce sun, the tropical climate can unleash torrential rain without warning, which rapidly affects the condition of trails or the height of a river – what started out as a ten-hour trip can end up taking twice as long. That said, the time of year is not a hugely significant factor when planning a trek. Although in the rainy season (Nov–Feb) trails can be slow going (or even closed for safety reasons), conditions are less humid then, and the parks and adventure tours are not oversubscribed.

Treks in national parks almost always require that you go in a group with a guide; solo travellers can usually join a group once there. Costs and conditions vary between parks; each park account in the Guide contains details, while tour operators in Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Miri and Kota Kinabalu (listed throughout) can also furnish information on conditions and options in the parks.

For inexperienced trekkers, Taman Negara is probably the best place to start, boasting the greatest range of walks, many of which can be done without a guide, while Bako National Park in southwest Sarawak offers fairly easy, day-long hikes. For the more experienced, other parks in Sarawak, especially Gunung Mulu, should offer sufficient challenges for most tastes, while Sabah’s Maliau Basin is at the very demanding end of the scale. The largely inaccessible Endau-Rompin Park in the south of Peninsular Malaysia is for serious expeditions only. Mount Kinabalu Park in Sabah is in a class of its own, the hike to the top of the mountain a demanding but highly rewarding combination of trekking and climbing.

Checklist of camping and trekking equipment

As camping and trekking are not especially popular with Malaysians, you need to bring your own gear if possible – especially core items like tents and sleeping bags – or buy the locally made version available at markets and general product stores. These might not look good or even last long, but at least won’t cost a fortune.

Hiking boots are especially hard to find, though one-piece rubber slip-on shoes (kasut gatah)costing just RM10 are sold everywhere (up to around size 40). Many national park guides use them as they dry out instantly and give good grip on forest floors, but they’re not suitable for multi-day trekking in difficult terrain.

There are small (and very expensive) “proper” outdoor gear stores in KL, Kota Bharu and elsewhere; you might also be able to rent some of what you’ll need on site, especially at Taman Negara, or have it supplied as part of a hiking package.


  • Backpack
  • Sleeping bag
  • Tent (if sleeping out)
  • Mosquito net
  • Water bottle
  • Water purification tablets
  • Toiletries and toilet paper
  • Torch (and/or head torch)
  • Sewing kit
  • Pocket knife
  • Sunglasses (UV protective)
  • Sun block and lip balm
  • Insect repellent
  • Compass
  • Breathable shirts/T-shirts
  • Lightweight, quick-drying trousers
  • Rainproof coat or poncho
  • Cotton hat with brim
  • Fleece jacket
  • Trekking boots
  • Sandals (for wading through streams)
  • Cotton and woollen socks
  • Basic first-aid kit

    Other useful items

  • Heavy-duty refuse bag (to rainproof your pack)
  • Emergency snack food
  • Spare bootlaces
  • Small towel
  • Insulation mat
  • Binoculars
  • Leech socks

Wildlife in Malaysia

Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo are a paradise for wildlife-spotters, harbouring over 600 types of birds and 200 mammal species – including Asian elephants, sun bears, tigers, tapirs, barking deer, gibbons, hornbills and pythons. Borneo’s speciality is the proboscis monkey, so-called because of its bulbous, drooping nose. The island is also one of only two natural habitats (with Sumatra) for orang-utans – indeed, the name is Malay for “man of the forest”. Marine life is equally diverse: divers can swim with white-tip sharks, clown fish and barracuda, not to mention green and hawksbill turtles, which drag themselves ashore in season to lay their eggs by night.

Top image © jaiman taip/Shutterstock

Fact file

• With 28 million inhabitants, Malaysia is divided into two distinct regions. Peninsular Malaysia, where the capital, Kuala Lumpur, is situated, is separated by more than 600km of the South China Sea from East Malaysia, comprising the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.

• Malaysia is a British-style parliamentary democracy, with a ceremonial head of state known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agung (the post rotates among the sultans from each state of the federation).

The world’s largest flower, Rafflesia, is a Malaysian rainforest plant measuring a metre across and smelling of rotten meat. It’s named after the naturalist and founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles.

• Malaysia’s economy, historically dominated by agriculture and mining, now features a healthy manufacturing sector.


A standard feature of local townscapes is rows of shophouses – two- or three-storey buildings traditionally containing a shop at street level, with residential quarters behind and above. For visitors, their most striking feature is that at ground level the front wall is usually set back from the street. This creates a so-called “five-foot way” overhung by the upper part of the house, which shelters pedestrians from the sun and pelting rain.

Shophouses were fusion architecture: facades have Western features such as shuttered windows and gables, while inside there might be an area open to the sky, in the manner of Chinese courtyard houses. Some, especially from the early part of the last century, are bedecked with columns, floral plaster motifs and beautiful tilework, while later properties feature simpler Art Deco touches. Sadly, shophouses ceased to be built after the 1960s and many have been demolished to make way for modern complexes, though some have won a new lease of life as swanky restaurants and boutiques.

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Rough Guides Editors

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

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