Can’t decide between tropical dives, mountain hikes, and a swish urban escape? Deliberate no more – Malaysia has you covered with an amazing array of things to do.
This Southeast Asian nation has an astonishing variety of landscapes, cultures and cuisines. In the cities, minarets, mandirs, and Chinese temples share the skyline with space-age high-rises. Beyond the urban bustle are rainforests, mountains, and radiant beaches. From Peninsular Malaysia to the island of Borneo, traditional arts, crafts, and recipes endure – even as cities hurtle towards the latest architectural and gastronomic trends.
Speaking of which, if you’re heading to Malaysia, you’ll also need a good appetite! Sampling regional cuisines is one of the best things to do in Malaysia, and whether you’re exploring hawker stalls or high-end cafes, you can truly have your kuih and eat it too.
Hungry to plan your trip? We wandered, munched, and zip-lined across the country to give you the definitive list of the best activities in Malaysia.
Sip tea at the source in the Cameron Highlands
Once upon a time, Malaysia’s sweaty British colonialists fled to higher ground, founding hill stations where they could retreat from the heat and jump-start a tea industry. The most famous are in the Cameron Highlands, and today it’s mostly tourists (local and foreign) who come to seek respite from Malaysia’s muggy lowlands.
These 1300m to 1829m heights (4265ft to 6000ft) offer plenty of hikes, as well as strawberry plantations, and souvenir stalls where you can burn a few ringgit. But the quintessential Cameron experience is sipping a bronze-hued cuppa while looking out at the rippling carpet of tea plantations.
Boh Sungei Palas not only has emerald hillsides to gaze upon, it also has the most informative displays on tea-making. Alternatively, there’s a splendid tea house overlooking the estate at Cameron Valley Tea House, and a further-flung option at Boh Tea Garden, which offers guided tours. You’re sure to find an experience that suits you (…to a T).
Hurl yourself into the magical maelstrom of Batu Caves
Sheer limestone cliffs rise above you. Ahead stretches a staircase of 272 steps. And looking you smack in the eye is an imperious gilded statue, the Hindu god Lord Murugan.
Newcomers to Malaysia won’t soon forget their first heady ascent to Batu Caves, nor the cheeky macaques that beset them on all sides. But this popular day trip from Kuala Lumpur (just 13km/8 miles, and easily done by train) also draws repeat visitors galore. Tourists, pilgrims, and locals all clamor to experience this natural wonder and spiritual spectacle.
This complex of limestone caverns has entrancing temples, each with dioramas showing mythical scenes. The central Temple Cave has been a Hindu shrine since 1890. After touring inside its two yawning chambers, take a side-quest across a short bridge to the quieter Ramayana Cave, where dioramas illustrate the eponymous Sanskrit epic poem of duty and virtue.
If the regular crowds don’t daunt you, time your visit for the Thaipusam festival (late January or early February) when crowds of devotees descend upon the caves, some partaking in ritual piercings – it’s an immersive and unforgettable event.
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Go marine exploring in the pristine Perhentian Islands
But don’t doze off in your sun lounger just yet. Pulau Perhentian is even more magical beneath the water. Snorkelers can spy on coral reefs within reach of the beach (try Teluk Pauh and Shark Point, both on the big island). Better yet, wriggle into a wetsuit and dive among green sea turtles, barracuda, and colorful reef-dwellers like yellow boxfish.
Wishing you’d learned to dive before the trip? The Perhentians are a wonderfully calm (and comparatively cheap) place to take a PADI course before testing your skills among the local nurse sharks (they’re harmless). More experienced divers can join excursions down to the MV Union Star. This sunken freighter is known as the “Sugar Wreck” for the cargo it transported before meeting its rusty end; today the wreck swirls with stingrays and scorpionfish.
Guzzle your way around George Town, Penang
The capital of Penang island is awash in street art, festooned with British Raj–era buildings, and crammed with boutiques selling arts and crafts. But before hitting these George Town attractions, heed your grumbling stomach… The best things to do in Penang, Malaysia, revolve around eating and drinking – and state capital George Town has the biggest banquet.
In a city rife with food markets, elegant cafes, and everything in between, the only dilemma is where to begin. Our dream menu features chicken curry at venerable Indian spot Hameediyah, slurping Hokkien mee (noodles) at Lorong Baru Hawker Stalls, and following our nose to grilled satay skewers and spicy-sweet rojak salad at Anjung Gurney Night Market. Other must-try dishes are spicy, fishy Penang laksa, and char kway teow, rice noodles sizzled with huge prawns (some of the best is served at Kafe Heng Huat).
Save room for dessert? Save room for two! Gateaux are worth lingering over at China House, while glistening displays of kuih nyonya (colorful rice and coconut cakes) beg to be snapped up from the markets.
Scale the sublime summit of Mt Kinabalu
The highest mountain on Borneo, Gunung Kinabalu is Malaysia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site. Viewed from below, this cloud-spearing summit (4095m/13435ft) inspires awe: an outlying peak that rises far higher than its neighbors in the Crocker mountain range. But experienced from the summit, Mt Kinabalu is even more heavenly.
Your penance for this heavenly vantage point? A thigh-burning ascent, some 8.7km (5.4 miles) each way. But every phase of the journey (split across two days) opens up a new natural wonder. The rough steps and stony pathways propel you ever higher above the treeline, past lunar rockfaces, high-alpine grasslands, and tangled carpets of ferns, rhododendrons, and bamboo. At Panalaban (3272m/10,735ft) you’ll bed down in a hostel for the night… or at least for a few fitful hours. You’ll be out of bed early to reach the spiky granite summit at sunrise.
Tips for climbing Mt Kinabalu: Plan well ahead (March to August is dry season for climbing). Limited permits to climb are issued each day, and you have to climb with a guide.
Ride a trishaw around historic Melaka
Trishaws: bone-rattling, traffic-dodging, three-wheeled form of transport. To some, they’re a joyride; to others, a menace. But in Melaka, trishaws are out of this world.
This historic port city is home to the blingiest trishaws around, adorned with Hello Kitty neons, the Frozen logo, and lighting rigs that could almost guide lost ships to shore. Lavished in flowers, tinsel, and knock-off logos, more than 300 ostentatious trishaws ply their trade in Melaka, some offering history tours.
Aboard a trishaw, you might trundle past the Sultanate Palace and the spiky silhouette of the replica Flor de la Mar. You can spin through Dutch Square, which is lined with pinkish buildings like Christ Church. And as the sun dips below the horizon, your trishaw will begin to twinkle with fairy lights, lanterns, and neon signs – it’s hard to resist snapping a selfie.
Take a hike through Taman Negara
Reality check: for all Malaysia’s natural splendor, the country faces serious environmental challenges, like encroachment of palm plantations on forested land. These threats make pockets of unspoilt nature like Taman Negara even more precious.
Literally “National Park”, Taman Negara is 4343 sq km (1676 sq miles) of primeval, protected land crossing Pahang, Kelantan, and Terengganu states. Its 130 million-year-old rainforest is among the oldest in the world (pipped to the title by Australia’s Daintree) and along its trails, you’re enclosed by the deafening soundtrack of jungle life. Fairy-sized katydids whirr through the forest, macaques chatter in the branches, and hornbills clack their beaks from above. If you’re lucky, a gaur, an Asian bison with a distinctive bowl cut, will lumber into view. If you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll see a glimpse of a tiger, elephant, or ultra-rare Malayan peacock-pheasant.
Whatever your fortunes spotting wildlife, don’t miss walking the 45m-high (148ft-high) canopy walkway, taking a firefly boat ride, or joining an after-dark hike to see things that go bump (or squeak, or scuttle) in the night.
Witness a flight of bats at eerie Mulu Caves
The island of Borneo is an everyday Eden, where rainforests and reefs teem with wildlife. Amid this natural abundance, it’s challenging to zoom in on one particular spectacle, but Gunung Mulu still rises to the top.
At this national park, toothy limestone pinnacles add drama to a landscape of 60 million-year-old rainforests, twisting streams, and deep grottoes. The most momentous experience is seeing the skies blacken with bats pouring out of the mouth of Deer Cave.
Up to three million bats hang around in these dank chambers. Tours take you inside Deer Cave and amid the spiralling stalactites of nearby Lang Cave, before you step outside to watch the aerial spectacle from around 5pm. Bat fact: their mid-air acrobatics are to flummox hawks waiting for a mammalian mouthful.
Go off the grid on a private jungle island in Royal Belum State Park
What does solitude even mean, in the era of smartphones? Find out by going cold turkey on a private island in Royal Belum State Park, way up north in Peninsular Malaysia’s Belum-Temenggor Rainforest. Taking the longboat to the resort, your vibrating phone will fall into a slumber. To replace the constant overstimulus, dive off the island jetty for a swim, sleep in an A-frame tent, and awake to watch for all 10 species of hornbills swooping overhead. You can take guided hikes through the jungle in search of whopping great rafflesia blooms, and watch out for tell-tale elephant footprints in the mud.
Join a cooking class in Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia is a confluence of cuisines. There are thriving scenes for Malay, Peranakan, Indian and Chinese food, always with distinctly local and regional twists; try Penang laksa, Ipoh chicken beansprouts, and every variety of cendol (an icy, coconut milk refresher) you can find. Fading colonial influences, like Dutch, British, and Portuguese, also lend their recipes to this steaming smorgasbord.
Some flavors will forever be a twinkle in the chef’s eye, but you can take a few recipes home by joining a cooking class. Kuala Lumpur is an excellent place to go, offering myriad options where skilled chefs will guide you through recipes like prawn fritters, nasi lemak (coconut rice with all the trimmings) and famous beef rendang. LaZat Malaysian Home Cooking has been around since 2007, and offers a changing menu that spans classic rice noodle dish char kway teow, fragrant kapitan chicken, and sago pudding.
Commune with turtles at Sipadan Island
Malaysia boasts a few marine paradises, but Sipadan is uncommonly remote and wild. The island is an extinct volcanic cone where coral reefs flourish and palm trees provide scant shade on bone-white beaches.
The journey to Sipadan takes effort: after landing on Malaysian Borneo, you’ll either connect to Tawau or bus onwards to Semporna, from where you can day trip to the island (or stay elsewhere on the archipelago: Sipadan itself doesn’t allow overnight stays). The exertion is quickly rewarded on your first dive: these waters are a catwalk of superstars: big-eye trevallies, hammerhead sharks, and two species of turtle, green and hawksbill. They’re so abundant that it’s not unusual to see a dozen turtles on a single dive!
Look for bearded pigs in Bako National Park
Sarawak’s teeming Bako National Park checks off much of the Bornean wildlife ticklist: dense jungle, mischievous monkeys, slinky water monitors, and orchids peeping from the ground. More than 190 bird species flit, soar, and chatter through Bako, the oldest national park in Sarawak. What makes it distinctive? Firstly, the sea stacks that lend it a dramatic silhouette, sculpted by the action of water (admire them from Pandan Kecil beach). And secondly, the prospect of spotting bearded pigs, whose fuzzy bodies and shaggy snouts, make for a gruff and adorable encounter.
Staying overnight is the best way to maximize chances of a sighting. Take a night walk with an experienced guide who will point the way.
Meet magnificent apes in Sepilok, Borneo
We share approximately 97% of our DNA with orangutans, so why not pay these long-lost relatives a visit? Make Sepilok your base: at the 43 sq km (17 sq mile) Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre you can watch shaggy apes swing into view. The center pairs young primates with older partners to school them in the ways of the jungle before release. Next, head to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, less than half an hour’s drive away. Listen for the thundering sound as they race across the wooden boardwalk at feeding time. Their squishy noses and pot bellies have a strange dignity… so like us humans!
Add a third mammalian encounter by visiting Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which rescues members of Southeast Asia’s smallest bear family. There are 45 of these honey-guzzling cuties on site.
Get a bird’s eye view on Langkawi Island
Langkawi is a true holiday island, with blonde beaches and rugged jungles. The best way to experience its splendor? Get up high.
Ride the SkyCab up to Gunung Machinchang (713m/2339ft) where engineering marvel Langkawi Sky Bridge stands; or drive up to admire views from 881m (2890ft) Gunung Raya. Alternatively, zip-lining helps you feel the wind in your hair and gives you a shot of adrenaline as you fly above the geopark’s canopy, startling a few hornbills along the way.
Marvel at a spectacular mosque in Kuala Kangsar
Malaysia is studded with magnificent mosques, from Mogul–era marvels to functional modern constructions, but one masjid steals the show for its sheer grandeur: Masjid Ubudiah in the rocky region of Perak. Designed by famed architect AB Hubback, the mosque’s whopping gold domes and Italian marble are a visual feast. It’s not the only showpiece in town, either: take a spin around Muzium Diraja Kuala Kangsar and the Galeri Sultan Azlan Shah for an extra dose of architectural opulence.