Malaysia is a country, quite literally, of two halves – Peninsula Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo – and last year I was lucky enough to spend two weeks touring these two, very different, parts of the south-east Asian country.
Featuring orangutans, sun bears and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, this is my mini-travel guide to Malaysia…
The Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, along with the oil-rich kingdom of Brunei, make up the northern part of the island of Borneo (the rest is Indonesian).
I loved Borneo, so much so I didn’t want to leave. There was so much to see and do, I could have happily spent the entire two weeks of my journey just exploring the island.
Wildlife lovers will be in their element in Borneo, as a bountiful array of species call the island home.
Orangutans, crocodiles, clouded leopards, proboscis monkeys (above) and hornbills are just a few of the incredible creatures you’ll find roaming the jungles, rivers and skies.
It must be one of the few places on earth where you’ll hear the immortal words: “If your jungle hut starts shaking in the middle of the night, don’t worry, it’s just a pygmy elephant rubbing up against it”.
Don’t miss the Gomantong caves in Sabah, a huge guano-filled limestone complex home to bats, cockroaches and swiftlets.
Inside the main cave, there’s a small hut in the middle of the cockroach-infested guano, where guards keep watch over the cave to deter poachers looking to steal the valuable swiftlets’ nests, which are used to make birds’ nest soup.
Hikers, meanwhile, should head to Kinabalu National Park, where you’ll find the imposing Gunung Kinabalu – a mighty mountain standing 4,101m tall.
The poignant war memorial in Sandakan on the site of a former Japanese prisoner-of-war camp is well worth visiting, too.
Its museum tells the tragic story of the Allied soldiers held captive there by the Japanese during the Second World War who were forced to march to Ranau, 161km away, through thick jungle and in unbearable heat.
Of the almost 2,500 men who set out on the death march, only six survived.
The Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, or KL as it’s known for short, is one of the great cities of south-east Asia.
From the colonial buildings in Merdeka Square to the enormous Perdana Botanical Garden, the cafés, street food stalls and temples in Chinatown to Masjid Negara, the national mosque of Malaysia (below), there’s lots to see and do in the city.
The viewing platform on the 86th floor of the world-famous twin Petronas towers (book your tickets ahead) provides superb views over the city, while the fountains in KLCC Public Park beside the towers play host to a spectacular light show after dark.
The Islamic Arts Museum (above) is superb and offers a fascinating glimpse into the architecture, arts, crafts and textiles from all corners of the Islamic world.
While just outside the city, you’ll find Batu Caves (below), a series of caverns set high in the limestone mountains housing a revered Hindu shrine.
The only downside to KL? Don’t expect to walk anywhere… or if you do, be prepared to walk along pavement-free dual carriageways and for short distances to take more than an hour. KL is by far and away the least pedestrian-friendly city I’ve visited.
The old trading port of Melaka (or Malacca as it’s also known) is a colourful, sensory explosion.
Many of the city’s sights are centred around the Malacca River, which cuts a swathe through the city centre, and the streets around Jalan Hang Jebat (also known as Jonker Street).
As far as sightseeing goes, you can see what little remains of the old Portuguese defences at Porta de Santiago, while the bizarre Museum of History and Ethnography provides a bit of an insight into the region’s history (be warned, if you don’t like dioramas this may not be the museum for you).
By far my favourite place in Melaka though was the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum. Set in the 19th century mansion of a well-to-do Baba-Nyonya family, the museum explores the Baba-Nyonya culture, which arose when Chinese traders married local Malay women.
The museum, which is home to some beautiful pieces of porcelain, furniture and textiles, offers a fascinating glimpse into this unique way of life.
I was very excited ahead of my visit to the tropical island paradise of Langkawi, a series of limestone rocks covered in lush, thick green rainforest surrounded by white sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters.
I’d been seriously impressed by the islands when I saw them in Crazy Rich Asians (it’s where Araminta’s hen-do scenes were filmed).
Unfortunately, the reality didn’t quite live up to the sun-drenched, picture-perfect scenes I was expecting. Langkawi is less island-paradise, more run-down touristy beach resort… at least the parts I visited.
And while I was looking forward to swimming in the sea, the stretch of coast near our hotel was filled with jellyfish and we were warned by the locals to avoid going in the water. Still, I ventured in for a quick dip and avoided getting stung…
Penang is an island off the north-west coast of Malaysia, connected to the mainland via two long road bridges.
The most popular place on the island to visit is Georgetown, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its colonial architecture, having been founded by the British in the 18th century.
The city is home to a host of temples, mosques and churches, as well as a number of old colonial buildings, including the remains of the British fortifications at Fort Cornwallis.
The World Quay Clan Piers (above and below) is a fascinating place, featuring a series of houses and businesses built on seven jetties that jut out into the sea, while the Pinang Peranakan Mansion provides an insight into the life of a wealthy 19th century Nyonya family.
These days Georgetown is renowned for its incredible street art (above and below), which can be found on side streets and street corners throughout the colonial centre, Little India and beyond. The easiest way to spot it is usually by the crowds of people lining up to take photos.
Once you’ve worn yourself out seeing all the street art, and historical and religious sights, be sure to pay a visit to the venerable Eastern & Oriental Hotel bar for a relaxing cocktail on the balcony overlooking the Malacca Strait (be warned, the service is super slow).
Food and drink
An intriguing mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese influences, the food in Malaysia is exceptional – whether you’re visiting a street food stall, motorway service station, hawker market or restaurant, you won’t be disappointed.
Expect to come across a range of delightful, flavourful curries (including the renowned rendang), satay, roti canai (a type of flatbread usually served with a curry of some description, below), laksa, all manner of tasty rice dishes and soft, pillowy steamed buns stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings (above).
For dessert, you’ll find banana fritters (below) and, my favourite, kaya, a sweet coconut jam (so much nicer than it sounds, think a coconut version of nutella, but better).
And I didn’t know I needed pineapple and banana jam in my life until I had it for breakfast in Borneo.
Top tip: if you come across tom yam martinis on a cocktail menu and feel tempted to ignore the barman’s warning that they’re somewhat spicy, take heed as they’re painful and almost impossible to imbibe, even for those accustomed to ‘hot sauce with everything’.
If seeing an array of flora and fauna in their natural habitat is your idea of holiday heaven, then a trip to Malaysia, especially Borneo, should be somewhere near the top of your wish list as it’s a fantastic place for wildlife spotting.
The jungle around the Kinabatangan River in Borneo is teeming with all sorts of species.
Think macaques (above), crocodiles, flying squirrels (as well as black and miniature squirrels), pygmy elephants, mouse deer, proboscis monkeys, civets, hornbills, clouded leopards, kingfishers (below), snakes, tarsiers and much, much more.
By far and away, the most famous of Borneo’s many residents is the orangutan and I was lucky enough to spot a good many on my trip, including two sets of mother and baby.
Sadly, the orangutans remain critically endangered due to extensive deforestation as the native jungle is being replaced by miles upon miles of palm trees, the scale of which became horrifyingly clear as I flew over the island and could see nothing but palm trees as far as the eye could see.
If you’re not able to make it out to the jungle to see the orangs in the wild, then the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabiliation Centre is an excellent place to view them.
The centre provides a home for orphaned orangutans, helping prepare them for life in the wild and has a number of viewing stations where visitors can hopefully catch a glimpse of the great apes.
Across the road, you’ll also find a rehabilitation centre for sun bears, the world’s smallest bears (below), which is well worth a visit, too.
Malaysia is hot and humid, with temperatures during the day regularly hitting 30°C+. Be prepared to be hot, sticky and sweaty much of the time.
The country is also prone to tropical downpours, the likes of which I have never experienced (they made the downpours in Costa Rica seem tame) and no amount of umbrellas or top quality waterproofs could withstand the volume of water lashing down.
All you can do is hope you don’t get caught when the heavens open and huddle indoors until the skies clear.
Have your say
Have you been to Malaysia or would you like to go? If so, please share any tips or opinions about the south-east Asian country – I’d love to hear your thoughts.
We visited Sabah in 2005 and so I recognise some of this. I have had a series of adopted orang utans ever since (the first one died, but her successors have all been successfully returned to the wild). We also spent a short time in KL before flying home. I loved it all too – EXCEPT the main purpose of our visit which was to climb Kinabalu which became one of my worst ever experiences. Some day the story will be told …
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It’s wonderful to hear almost all the orangutans you’ve adopted have been successfully returned to the wild! They’re such beautiful creatures, I found it heartbreaking that so much of their habitat is being lost and so many are being orphaned. I’m intrigued by your experience in Kinabalu…
It’s such a shame. I do my best to avoid palm oil now. I definitely bit of more than I could chew attempting to climb Kinabalu.
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I try to avoid palm oil, too. It’s so frustrating it’s in so many products.
I know, it’s hard!
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