Malaysia is a country of two halves. There’s Peninsular Malaysia in the west, East Malaysia making up Northern Borneo to the east, and a host of islands in between. Set close to the equator, the climate in Malaysia is hot and humid: the average year-round temperature is a sweltering 27°C. This leads to the perfect environment for rainforests; 60% of this diverse country is blanketed in forests.
Part peninsula, part island, Malaysia’s natural scenery is naturally dictated by coastlines and beaches. These coastal lowlands rise into lush highlands and eventually into steep mountains, making for the perfect balance between tropical, sparkling sea, and adventurous jungle journeys.
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Comprising about 40% of the country’s land area, this part of Malaysia shares a border with Thailand in the north and Singapore in the south. It’s crammed with tropical islands, historic cities and some of the country’s most famous landscapes.
Kuala Lumpur & Around
A soaring metropolis – home to the Petronas Towers and a multitude of glittering, airconditioned shopping centers – Kuala Lumpur is an exciting mix of ethnicities and architectural styles. But even within the urban sprawl itself, there is some beautiful natural scenery to discover.
Batu Caves, just north of the city, is the site of a Hindu temple and shrine. Set within a series of caverns and tunnels in a limestone hill, it makes for an interesting visit (watch out for monkeys!). Closer to home is the Perdana Botanical Garden, a large public park founded in the 1880s. It’s a good spot for rubbing shoulders with locals while strolling its many paths alongside lakes and tropical plants.
Located on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital is the incredible Bukit Lagong. This nature reserve is crisscrossed with tree-top walkways and opportunities to catch sight of beautiful birdlife, with plentiful places to picnic along the river, too.
The West Coast of Malaysia stretches from Langkawi to the north all the way to the state of Malacca to the south and beyond. This is the region for culture vultures and foodies. Delve into culinary delights in creative Georgetown on Penang Island or explore the preserved shophouses and Peranakan culture of Malacca.
While it may not be as famous for its beaches as the East Coast, the West Coast of Malaysia still packs a punch when it comes to nature, and beautiful beaches still abound. There’s Langkawi Island, ringed by stunning beaches, and the twin islands of Pulau Pangkor Laut. The more remote of the two, Pangkor Laut, is known for forest trails where you can spot hornbills.
Beaches aside, it’s here where you’ll find the spectacular Cameron Highlands. This verdant inland area is a haven of tea terraces, colonial bungalows, forests, waterfalls – an abundance of what Malaysia does so well – culture and nature.
This is definitely the region for you if you’ve got even an ounce of love for a good beach getaway. The Malaysian East Coast, facing the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, is peppered with fishing villages, Muslim communities, late-night markets, and offshore islands to explore.
It’s here where you’ll find the Perhentian Islands. Perhentian Besar may be more developed, but Perhentian Kecil is home to reasonably priced dive schools and budget beach huts. Just southeast of the Perhentians is Pulau Redang, a paradise of crystalline waters and powdery beaches. But for dive fans, the best place is Pulau Tenggol; the Terengganu Marine Park is awash with shoals of fish, turtles, and even whale sharks. Then there’s Tioman Island. This little gem is known for its secluded jungle surroundings, shimmering coral reefs, and good hiking trails.
More than its tropical islands, however, the East Coast also boasts amazing areas like the vast Taman Negara – a hundreds-of-millions years old forest, complete with canopy walkways so you can really get into it. In the north is the state of Kelantan and its capital Kota Bharu. It’s known for its unique architecture, still-used royal buildings and the oldest surviving mosque in Malaysia: the 18th-century Kampung Laut Mosque.
The historic southernmost state of Peninsular Malaysia, Johor may not be a go-to destination, but there’s no reason that should be the case. This region has plenty to discover outside of its gritty, not-very-pretty capital, Johor Bahru, often compared unfavorably to its southern neighbor, Singapore.
The highland rainforest of Gunung Pulai is known for its hiking and beautiful waterfalls, all in easy reach of Johor Bahru. For more rainforested areas – and also within an hour of Johor Bahru – is Gunung Panti; go for panoramic views, dramatic scenery, and the chance to spot exotic wildlife.
Though the capital is known for its shopping, there’s more to the city than consumerism. Victorian-era architecture can be found amongst the skyscrapers, like the Sultan Abu Bakar State Mosque. There’s also some nature to discover; a cruise along the Johor River after sunset will reveal the glitter of fireflies along the banks, making for a little slice of magic.
With its dense rainforests and dozens of indigenous ethnic groups, East Malaysia comprises the northern part of Borneo and is teeming with life and adventure. Expect high-rise hills, Chinese-influenced cities, and coastal plains.
Set on the northernmost point of the island of Borneo, Sabah is where you’ll discover the highest mountain in Southeast Asia – Mount Kinabalu. Surrounded by jungle and giving its name to the region’s capital – Kota Kinabalu – it’s home to around 6,000 species of plants. Even though its summit at Low’s Peak is 4,095 meters above sea level, scaling this behemoth doesn’t require mountaineering experience.
Sabah, like much of Borneo, is famous for its orangutans. To experience catching a sight of one of these endangered creatures, head to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, though there is also the possibility to head out trekking into the jungles to spot one in a truly wild way.
Sipadan Islands, in the Celebes Sea, boasts world-class dive spots. The visibility here is terrific, and that’s a good thing – there’s a lot to see! There’s a particular famous beach here that features a 600-meter drop-off for an incredible diving experience.
South of Sabah, Sarawak is Malaysia’s rainforested hidden gem. There are national parks galore here, some of which are easily reachable from the state’s capital and travel hub, Kucing, which is known for its mix of indigenous cultures, sizeable Chinatown, and historic buildings.
Bako National Park features ample trekking opportunities in well-signposted jungle, the chance to spot rare proboscis monkeys, and even night walks spotting oversized creepie-crawlies with local guides. Kubah National Park is also an easy day trip from Kucing, where you can catch a glimpse of exotic birdlife like yellow-rumped flowerpeckers and black hornbills. There’s also Gunung Mulu National Park, complete with extensive limestone cave system.
Being Borneo, there are also many ways in Sarawak to come face to face with an orangutan. One is at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre; get there for feeding time for an interesting talk and a chance to watch semi-wild orangutans swing through trees to get to their lunch.