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.
If you intend to take up any of the pursuits here, check that they are covered by your insurance policy.
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 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 (wnomadadventure.com) or Khersonese Expedition (wthepaddlerz.com). 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.
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.
Tent (if sleeping out)
Water purification tablets
Toiletries and toilet paper
Torch (and/or head torch)
Sunglasses (UV protective)
Sun block and lip balm
Lightweight, quick-drying trousers
Rainproof coat or poncho
Cotton hat with brim
Sandals (for wading through streams)
Cotton and woollen socks
Basic first-aid kit
Heavy-duty refuse bag (to rainproof your pack)
Emergency snack food
Leeches are gruesome but pretty harmless creatures that almost all hikers will encounter. A tiny, muscular tube with teeth at one end, they lie dormant in rainforest leaf litter until, activated by your footfalls and body heat, they latch onto your boot, then climb until they find a way through socks and trousers and onto your skin. Their bites (about the size of a pinhead) are completely painless, but they bleed a lot and sometimes itch as they heal.
Keeping leeches off isn’t easy; they can get through all but the closest-mesh fabrics. Tights work (but get very hot), though some guides recommend simply wearing open shoes and shorts, so that you can see them – an approach that requires an advanced jungle mentality.
The quickest way to remove a leech is to repeatedly flick its head end with your fingernail. Otherwise salt, tiger balm or tobacco juice, rubbed onto the leech, will cause them to let go rapidly.