Whether you're after great street food, a face-to-face encounter with endangered species, or a walking tour through a centuries-old city, Malaysia largely succeeds as the “most multifaceted Southeast Asia destination."
Over at Malaysian Borneo, the eastern Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah offer adventures on the very edge of nature: Diving, mountain climbing, and jungle trekking are all just a few hours' drive from the city.
We've raided both sides of Malaysia to put together this list of Malaysia experiences worth trying.
Gorge on Malaysian Street Food
For centuries, Asian trade and European colonization enriched the cultural fabric of Malaysian cities like Penang and Melaka. Today, the multiplicity of ethnic influences have made Malaysian cuisine what it is today: a delicious blend of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Thai delicacies, supplemented by a variegated fruit selection made possible by Malaysia's consistent tropical weather. The best part? The street food is sinfully good and cheap.
Go Scuba Diving off Sipadan
Much of what makes Malaysia such a great adventure destination lies under the surface, quite literally. The scuba divers who flock to the island of Sipadan off Sabah, Malaysian Borneo can attest to this. Sipadan’s oceanic currents create a diverse diving experience that combines a beautiful landscape with a rich variety of undersea life.
Divers can expect to encounter Sipadan’s 3,000 fish species, including larger specimens like hammerhead and whale sharks. Notable dive spots include Turtle Cavern (where you’ll find the namesake creatures hanging about) and Barracuda Point’s barracuda, jackfish, and parrotfish sightings.
The Malaysian authorities only allow 120 dive permits to be issued every day. Only divers with advanced open water certification are given permission between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Cross Kinabalu’s Terrifying Via Ferrata
At some 13,435 feet above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is the undisputable “roof” of Malaysia. Despite its soaring height, this granite massif near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo can be summited in two days. Start in the morning, spend the night at the Laban Rata Guesthouse at 10,000 feet above sea level, then strike out before daylight to reach the top by dawn.
To maximize the thrill of your ascent, take one of two routes that traverse Kinabalu’s terrifying Mountain Torq. The world's highest via ferrata, this iron road is a wood-and-metal pathway that crosses the Panlaban rock face from 10,500 feet to 12,400 feet above sea level.
Climbers who overcome their abject terror to make it to the summit will be rewarded with panoramic views of Borneo and the ocean at the very top.
Hike Through Cameron Highlands’ Tea Plantations
The British colonizers founded the Cameron Highlands as a throwback to England. Located in the hills of Pahang State in Peninsular Malaysia, the Cameron Highlands is a cool respite from Malaysia's notorious humidity, populated with tea plantations and Tudor-style lodgings.
Present-day Malaysians rush to the Cameron Highlands on weekends for precisely the same reason. The high-altitude cool weather, combined with the rather un-Malaysian architecture, allows visitors to feel as if they've escaped to a different world altogether.
The landscape is riven through with trails, making trekking in the Cameron Highlands a top priority for visitors who come to the settlement of Tanah Rata. While in town, you can explore the area's tea plantations, strawberry farms, and shops.
The nature factor is cranked up to eleven in Malaysia’s national parks, most of which can be found in Malaysian Borneo. If you can only visit one in your itinerary, make it Mulu National Park: a 52,800-hectare jungle (just a short drive from Miri) with multiple levels of adventure.
Above ground you’ll find a karst landscape covered in over 3,500 plant species, punctuated by soaring limestone pinnacles and the 7,800-foot high Gunung Mulu peak. Below ground there are over 180 miles of cave passages carved out from the limestone bedrock. Most notable is the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cave chamber known to modern science.
Guides for the caves and trekking trails must be arranged at least three weeks in advance of your visit; visit their official site for details.
Meet Real Live Orangutans at Sepilok
About 80 orangutans now find shelter in the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. Many are rescues, and are now experiencing a rehabilitation process that eases them back into the wild by teaching them essential survival skills.
Visitors to Sepilok can watch orangutans at play from viewing platforms throughout the park. Tourists can also take a river safari cruise on the Kinabatangan River for a glimpse of the wild from the water.
Shop in Malaysia’s Duty-Free Zones
The rest of Malaysia also has a vibrant shopping scene catering to all needs. Shopping in Penang and Melaka serves the budget traveler seeking good deals on street finds. Melaka's Jonker Street and the street shopping scene in Georgetown, Penang are great places to find deals on handicrafts, clothes, and souvenirs.
The shopping malls around Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur sell high-end fashion brands and late-model electronics. Nearby Chinatown and Pasar Seni provide a raft of good bargains (which are even better if you've got the art of haggling down pat).
See Kuala Lumpur from a Skyscraper Viewdeck
Kuala Lumpur’s modern skyscrapers stand as shorthand for Kuala Lumpur’s aspirations and achievements. The two tallest allow visitors to enjoy bird's-eye views of the city from their respective view decks.
Start at the Petronas Towers, a modern twin-tower structure soaring 1,483 feet into the air, its design influenced by Islamic art. Tourists can book visits to the 41st floor bridge and the observation deck on the 86th floor.
The hill of Bukit Nanas in central Kuala Lumpur gives an extra boost to the 1,380-foot Menara Kuala Lumpur (more commonly referred to as the KL Tower), whose circular crown contains a revolving restaurant and two levels of observation decks.
Relive Peranakan Culture in Penang
British colonists founded Penang in 1786, and in short order, Indian, Chinese, and Eurasian communities joined the local Malay and Peranakan peoples.
The Peranakans particularly thrived in Penang. This community originated from intermarrying Chinese merchants and Malay women, and (generations later) created a rich hybrid culture whose buildings, craftsmanship, and food underpin the best parts of Penang.
The Peranakan legacy can still be found in Georgetown’s shophouses and restaurants, houses of worship like Kek Lok Si Temple and the Kuan Yin temple, and family-centered structures like the Khoo Kongsi clan house and the Peranakan Mansion.
The island of Langkawi is a natural playground crammed with beaches, mountains, and award-winning golf courses. While there’s a lot to see and do here, few experiences top the “SkyCab” cable car going up Gunung Machinchang to a viewing deck 2,300 feet above sea level.
The ride begins at an Asian-themed “Oriental Village” shopping complex; from here, the SkyCab covers a distance of 1.4 miles in 15 minutes, ending at the Top Station and its two viewing platforms.
You can then ride the “SkyGlide” funicular to the Langkawi Sky Bridge, a 400-foot-long cable-stayed span that offers unlimited views of Langkawi Island. Visit their official site for rates and other local attractions.
Walk Through Melaka’s “Street of Harmony”
Malaysia’s Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities live and work together in relative peace—a hard-won harmony that finds expression in older trading cities like Melaka.
On Melaka’s "Street of Harmony," also known as Jalan Tokong (Temple Street), you’ll find three temples in quick succession: the Hindu Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Temple, the Muslim Kampung Kling Mosque, and the Taoist/Buddhist Cheng Hoon Teng Temple. All three are working temples, chock-full of authentic details that accentuate the history and rich culture of this ancient UNESCO World Heritage city.
Hit the Perhentian Islands’ Beaches
Off of Peninsular Malaysia’s northeast coast, Malaysia's crown jewels are a series of islands notable for their white-sand beaches, coral-rich waters conducive to snorkeling and scuba diving, and romantic, out-of-the-way accommodations and facilities.
The Perhentian Islands’ two main islands offer two different versions of the desert-island experience. Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two, offers resorts and entertainment suitable for a more laid-back crowd.
The smaller, backpacker-friendly Perhentian Kecil is a major stop on the Banana Pancake Trail, with lively nightlife and lower-cost accommodations that cater to global nomads.
Nature reigns in the Perhentians. You’ll have more close encounters with geckos and monitor lizards than you’d like, but the lively coral reefs are great for snorkeling and scuba diving.