Malaysia is like two countries in one, cleaved in half by the South China Sea. The multicultural peninsula flaunts Malay, Chinese and Indian influences, while Borneo hosts a wild jungle of orangutans, granite peaks and remote tribes. Throughout these two regions is an impressive variety of microcosms ranging from the spaceage high-rises of Kuala Lumpur to Sabah’s stunning underwater realms.
1. Petronas Towers
It’s impossible to resist the allure of the Petronas Towers: the 452m-high structure is beautiful to look at, as well as being the embodiment of Malaysia’s transformation into a fully developed nation. Designed by architect Cesar Pelli, this glistening, steelwrapped structure is the focal point of the Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), a 40-hectare development that includes an imaginatively designed tropical park, a fun aquarium, an excellent kids’ museum, a world-class concert hall and one of KL’s best shopping malls.
2. Street food
White tablecloth? Confounding cutlery? Snooty waiters? A roof? No thanks. In Malaysia, the best food is served in the humblest surroundings and involves no fuss. The country’s seemingly countless vendors serve delicious dishes from mobile carts, stalls and shophouses, many still employing recipes and techniques handed down from previous generations. And in addition to informality, ubiquity and quality, you’re also spoilt for choice; on a single Malaysian street you’re likely to encounter Malay, regional Chinese, southern Indian and Western cuisines.
3. Pulau Perhentian
You’ll discover picture-perfect white sand beaches and crystal blue water if you venture to the beautiful islands of Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Perhentian Kecil. These two gems are great for filling your days with a bit of wake up, swim, lie on beach, nap, snorkel, eat, wander, snooze. Kecil is the smaller of the two, and its cheap chalets and bars make it popular with younger travellers, while Besar has a more relaxed ambience and a higher standard of food and accommodation options. The undecided can cross the strait from island to island and enjoy a mix of both.
Penang, along with Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau, is arguably one of the most fascinating islands in Asia. This is the oldest of the British Straits settlements, predating both Singapore and Melaka. Look at the Straits on a map and the geographical importance of Penang is obvious: this was a prime stop on the watery road between Asia and the markets of Europe and the Middle East. These days it makes a fascinating spot to visit and gorge on the country’s best hawker food, breathe in sinus-tingling incense and explore Georgetown’s rickety alleyways.
5. Mt Kinabalu
Towering above Sabah with its haunting husk of granite and halo of cotton-puff clouds, ‘Borneo’s roof’ majestically rises over a swatch book of rainforest greens as if it were shouting ‘Climb me!’ to wandering travellers. And climb it they do. Mt Kinabalu (Gunung Kinabalu in Bahasa Malaysia) is the region’s biggest tourist attraction. Hoofing it over pitcher plants and moonscapes for the sunrise atop a looming granite spire is an unforgettable experience.