Malaysia is the crowning jewel that lies at the very end of Southeast Asia, jutting out with the Malaccan Straits to meet the islands of Indonesia and the Java Sea.
1. Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur comes spiked at the center by the two great spires of the Petronas Towers, packed with markets and heady hawker bazaars down Petaling Street, throbbing with the energy of Bukit Bintang – the entertainment city – and awash with the scents of everything from frying Chinese chow mien to sizzling Portuguese fish barbeques.
The red-hued churches and colonial frontispieces that fringe the tight-knit lanes of enchanting Malacca remain unquestionably one of Malaysia’s great draws.
Created over decades of colonial rule by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British, the city seen today was once a mighty trading powerhouse on the edge of the Malay Peninsula.
With control of the Malacca Strait, it saw everything from silk transports to spice convoys to military contingents pass through its ports.
Penang is oft hailed as Southeast Asia writ small.
It’s easy to see why.
In the city of George Town, clicking rickshaws weave past smoky Cantonese kitchens, blue-hued mansions from the 19th century, and the aged remnants of a vainglorious British past – it’s no wonder the whole place comes under UNESCO World Heritage designation.
4. Gunung Mulu National Park
Gunung Mulu National Park
The weathered hoodoos and ancient ridges of Gunung Mulu National Park rarely fail to capture the imagination.
The park itself (another UNESCO site) represents one of those last enclaves of untrodden land, and is one of the hardest reserves to get to in all of Borneo – you have to take a heart-thumping plane ride down to the asphalt of tiny Mulu Airport, or a 12-hour riverboat between snake-infested jungles.
Straddling the border with Thailand where the Andaman Sea becomes the Malaccan Straits in the extreme north of the country, Langkawi is a laid-back, lazy place that offers a real dose of the tropics.
Riddled with iconic beaches, like the watersports haven of Pantai Cenang, or the secluded, boulder-dotted sands of Pantai Kok, it’s established itself as the place to come for sun, sea, sand, SCUBA, and some pampering.
6. Taman Negara National Park
Taman Negara National Park
Taman Negara is the sprawling green jewel that sits at the heart of the Malay Peninsula.
Covering a whopping 4,300 square kilometers, it ranges across primeval rainforest (some of the oldest established woodland in the world, some say) and winding rivers where elephants can be spotted basking on the muddy banks.
7. Cameron Highlands
Soaring at a height of over 1,000 meters above the lower reaches of the Malay Peninsula, the hill station known as the Cameron Highlands rarely fails to take the breath away.
It sweeps across the plateaus of the mighty Main Range, midway between Penang and KL, rolling out in verdant pockets of rainforest and emerald-green tea fields as it goes.
8. Perhentian Islands
The Perhentian Islands have all the good looks and sun-kissed beauties you’d expect of an archipelago set at the entrance to the Thai Gulf.
Encompassed by sparkling dashes of coral reef, they are usually accessed by boat from Kuala Besut.
The location on the east coast of Malaya keeps them void of the same booming crowds that descend on Penang, which is great if you’re after long and lazy days kicking-back between Turtle Beach and Coral Bay.
9. Semenggoh Nature Reserve
Semenggoh Nature Reserve
Semenggoh continues to reign as one of the fabled natural jewels of Borneo.
Located just on the fringes of Kuching city, it spills into the virgin rainforests that rise with the great inland peaks of Sarawak.
Between its borders are towering teak trees and swinging jungle vines, all peppered with blooming papayas and banana trees.
10. Bako National Park
Bako National Park
Jutting its way out into the pearly waters of the South China Sea on the other side of Kuching from Semenggoh, Bako National Park is also worth a visit – especially if you’ve come to Malaysia for the wild jungles and beautiful backcountry.
The landscapes here can change dramatically from the coast to the inland, with chiseled rock stacks and sheer-cut cliffs by the ocean, and dense forests with mossy undergrowth dominating the back country.
Walking trails cover the whole park, weaving past the woods, the mangroves and the coastal coves alike.