Header image courtesy of Esmonde Yong (via Unsplash)
Malaysia is separated into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia to the West, and East Malaysia on the other side, which can only be accessed by boat. Each region boasts its own attractions and locals will say that their state is the best.
In Peninsular Malaysia, start from the top and travel southwards to discover the charms that each place has to offer, as it is easily navigated by bus, car, or train. The natural geography of the country is such that you can choose to explore national parks as well as stunning beaches, such as the ones in the Perhentian Island in the state of Terengganu. There are also temples, churches, and mosques galore, and glorious food that will not burn a hole in your wallet.
Penang, also known as a food paradise, is famed for its cheap hawker eats, museums, buildings full of history and culture, and beaches. For local attractions, check out the Chew Jetty, a traditional village of houses built on stilts overlooking the seafront. Another must-visit is the Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, which has drawn visitors all over Southeast Asia. The massive temple is especially mesmerising during Chinese New Year when the entire ground is lit with multicoloured lights.
For a closer look at the history of the city, pay a visit to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, which was featured in the film Crazy Rich Asians, offering a glimpse into the opulent life of the Peranakans, a local-born family of mixed Malaysian and foreign ancestry.
To witness the natural beauty of the island, take a hike through the National Park, where wildlife such as the smooth-coated otter and pangolin can be observed. Pack a picnic and sit down by the beach at Pantai Kerachut and Pantai Teluk Kampi.
A unique feature about the island is that there are many kongsis—Chinese clan houses that have become tourist hotspots and major attractions. One of these is Cheah Kongsi, with ornate architectural features that fuse Malay, Chinese, and European designs into the sprawling grounds, a rare sight in the cramped city.
Many say that the “Little Children on a Bicycle” mural by Ernest Zacharevic popularised “mural culture” in Penang, which has even spread to other parts of Malaysia. You will even see a queue forming just for the chance to get a picture next to the renowned artwork. Since then, many murals have popped up in various parts of Georgetown, prompting tourists to hunt down as many as they can to snap pictures.
A former tin-mining town, Ipoh is uniquely nestled amongst limestone hills. Perfect for a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city, Ipoh retains its old-school charms and exquisite cuisine, which is the pride of local hawkers. Like Kuala Lumpur, locals in Ipoh mostly speak Cantonese.
The heart of the city lies in the Old Town, where you can find many magnificent buildings, squares, and remnants of British colonial times. Examples include the Ipoh Railway Station, the Birch Memorial Clocktower, and the Ipoh Town Hall and Law Courts.
Market Lane, also known as the Second Concubine Lane, is perfect for photos, especially on a rainy day with colourful umbrellas dangling from above. Stop by for a cup of coffee before admiring the street art along the lane. Nearby, take a walk to one of the many local coffee shops for a taste of bean sprout chicken, a steamed chicken dish served with regionally grown bean sprouts and sweet soybean pudding.
To add elements of adventure to your trip, explore the Gua Tempurung—the Tempurung Cave—which is the largest limestone cave in Peninsular Malaysia. More than three kilometres in length, take a walk on your own or go for a tour with varying levels of difficulty as there are some spectacular stalagmites and stalactites to marvel at.
The capital of the country has an abundance of shopping malls and every type of cuisine you could wish for, from hawker food to restaurants and cafés. It also boasts towering skyscrapers, colonial buildings, and natural attractions.
No one visits Kuala Lumpur without dropping by the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, which light up the sky at night from many points in the city. It also houses a shopping centre with international brands as well as Petronas, the Discovery Centre, which is a science and technology centre catered to kids. Stand at one of the best spots in the city at the Observation Deck on the eighty-sixth floor to take in the glorious cityscape.
If skyscrapers are not quite your thing, then the Batu Caves are well-worth the steep climb. Go up a set of colourful stairs to a series of caves situated inside the hill. The world’s tallest statue of the Hindu deity Murugan stands before the steps leading up to the cave, a jaw-dropping 140 feet high and painted in gold.
To bring home a souvenir or two, visit the Central Market right in the heart of town, where there are 300 shops with local textiles, handicrafts, and souvenirs for sale, alongside a variety of restaurants.
Considered to be Malaysia’s historical capital, ancient landmarks dot the city’s map including the A Famosa Fort, built in 1511 by the Portuguese, and the Melaka Sultanate Palace, a wooden replica of the palace from the 1400s belonging to Sultan Mansur Shah. Meanwhile, the Kampung Hulu Mosque is a great testament to Islamic architecture and is the oldest functioning mosque in the country.
The city comes alive at night, and one such example of this is the fleet of colourful rickshaws that can be found in front of Christ Church, mere minutes from the centre of Chinatown.
Although there are various types of cuisines to sample in the city, Peranakan dishes are the pride of the locals, a fusion of Malay and Chinese heritage. Restaurants serving these delicacies can be found alongside the Malacca River, with breathtaking views to boot.
To immerse yourself in culture with a modern twist, the theatre show at Encore Melaka offers a performance that displays the cultural diversity of the country through its six-century-long history. If you prefer natural sights, Ayer Keroh’s nature parks are only a 30-minute drive from the city. The Melaka Botanical Gardens are great for trekking, while ornithophiles will love the Melaka Bird Park.