For a first-timer in Asia, Malaysia is a unique portal into a world of new textures, tastes, and ways of life. Nostalgic colonial architecture is intermingled with ultramodern new construction and creolized cultures, languages cuisines, and identities. Visits to Tioman Island, KL, the Cameron Highlands, Penang, and Malacca is the perfect combination for travelers looking for a mix of beach, jungle, beach, city, and history.
Spend your days sunning on the white sand beaches, chatting with your feet up at the beach bars, and snorkeling or diving in Pulau’s world-famous coral reefs. Diving is one of the island’s great strengths, and you’ll be delighted that you are even able to feed the fish in these protected reefs. Bring your hiking boots to take advantage of several short 2 to 4 hour jungle hikes that will lead you along streams and past waterfalls and secluded beaches (see the most popular, the Tekek-Juara route which brings you across the east-west axis of the island). If you are feeling uncharacteristically luxurious after your hike, relax with a spa treatment at your hotel. Finally, don’t forget to visit one of the most unique destinations on this island, the Juara Turtle Project, where you can learn about turtle conservation on the island for a small donation. Recommended accommodation: Paya Beach Spa & Dive Resort (from $86/night)
KL, the capital of Malaysia, is remarkable in its ethnic diversity and recent growth which has produced an urbanism on crack. Most people’s can’t-miss stops include the Old Town (awesome examples of Art Deco and colonial-era architecture side by side), Petronas Twin Towers, the Central Market (a souvenir market), Islamic Arts Museum, and the Batu Caves--my suggestion is to do these things if you’d like, but to build your trip in KL around food. Malaysian food is an incredible mix between Malay, ethnic Chinese, Indian, Islamic, and Thai influences. The result is delicious. Do guided or self-guided eating visits to Petaling Street, KL’s Chinatown; night markets in trendy Bangsar; more experimental cuisine in hipster Section 17; street food on Jalan Alor. Must-tries include nasi lemak, a breakfast dish, and locally roasted coffee (try Artisan Roast, Plan B, and RAW). We can also help you arrange a Malaysian cooking lesson. Try hiking off the calories at the quartz ridge of Bukit Tabur.
The Cameron Highlands is Malaysia’s most extensive hill station and for most travelers, a welcome escape from the humidity and heat of the lowland jungles of Malaysia. You will find a colorful and peaceful landscape of blue peaks, green tea plantations, and running white waterfalls. Check out the Boh Sungai Palas Tea Estate or Boh Tea Estate for stunning vistas and educational tours on tea-growing; the Mossy Forest; the Kok-Lim Strawberry Farm for some strawberry picking; and some challenging jungle hikes including Gunung (Mount) Irau, where you can also camp. Recommended accommodation: Cameron Highlands Resort, a tea plantation resort in Tanah Rata (starting at $130/night)
Penang is a diverse destination where you can get some of the cosmopolitanism (aka amazing cuisine) of Kuala Lumpur in Georgetown. Georgetown is visually stunning melting pot of aesthetic and cultural influences, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site, so take the time to take it all in (consider Metro Bike Easy Green Travel’s bike tour of the city, about RM100 for 3 hours). Visit the Penang Museum for a faschinating presentation of local history. Make your way to Armenian Street, where you will find Khoo Kongsi, a temple and clan house, as well as several tiny art galleries featuring international and local artists. Nearby China House, an artsy, atmospheric courtyard restaurant and coffee shop is a hipster favorite. If you’re looking for some off-the-beaten path wandering in this area, check out Little India and Ben’s Vintage Toy Museum. For a drink, head to the cafe/bar Behind Fifty Love Lane, where owners have been known to organize patrons into teams for games of charades.
Other unique possibilities include taking a boat ride through the Clan Jetties (as featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations), day trips to Penang National Park (which has some of the best beaches in Malaysia), or a day trip to Batu Ferringhi, a former fishing village with new ecotourism destinations and a pretty view. While in Penang, don’t forget to try the most famous local dish, asam laksa, a spicy rice noodle soup. This may be a good time to stop in a doctor fish spa, a pedicure and foot massage service that uses a special species of fish called doctor fish or nibble fish, which, you guessed it, nibble at your feet.
Malacca has the distinction of being Malaysia’s oldest city; while small, the city’s British, Dutch, and Portuguese colonial past gives it a rich and enchanting flair. Consider taking a river cruise, visiting the Christ Church and the St. Paul’s Church (perfect for any cultural Catholics in the group!), and checking out the action-packed touristy Jonker Street. While on Jonker, check out Baba Low, rumored to have the best nyonya laksa, a curry soup staple of the Baba-Nyonya (aka descendents of 15th and 16th c Chinese immigrants) culinary tradition; Geographer Cafe for live music; and antiques stalls, for which Malacca is famous. For more off-the-beaten path status, head to Sin Hiap Hin Bar, a rare vintage drinking hole, or chill out with a cup of coffee at Calanthe Art Cafe. Plan an early morning jog in Bukit China, an old Chinese cemetery. For unique Portuguese pidgin culture, head to Portuguese Square and a quiet restaurant behind the square, Restoran D’Lisbon, for baked fish.
I'm a native New Yorker who now calls San Francisco home and am crazy about building the right travel experiences for the best people. I am also a sci-fi fanatic, and one of my heroes Joss Whedon has said, "Identity is something you are constantly earning." I've ridden on the back of strangers' motorbikes in Fujian, chased down a gang of gypsy thieves in Moscow, conducted archaeological excavations at the site of a former Japanese internment camp in the United States. For me, travel is how I earn my identity. Whether you are building a solo adventure, a romantic getaway, a family vacation, or a group bonding trip, I'd love to help you on your way. Full profile ⋅ Leave a Review
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