After two years of living in Malaysia, I am consistently surprised how few tourists visit this beautiful country. Lying between the famous beaches of Thailand and the cosmopolitan splendor of Singapore, Malaysia falls into the “overlooked” and “maybe next time” categories for most travelers.
And that’s OK. The fact that travelers tend to skip Malaysia makes the country that much more special.
One of Malaysia’s truly unique features is its cultural heritage. Malaysia is home to three diverse ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Indian. And traveling in Malaysia is like visiting three countries in one. Visit a Hindu shrine, score a bargain in Chinatown, and experience a traditional Malay meal, all in one afternoon. This cultural blend makes it an ideal starting point for traveling in Southeast Asia.
West Malaysia (also known as Peninsular Malaysia) is home to the capital, Kuala Lumpur (universally abbreviated as ‘KL’). West Malaysia is a treasure trove of activities ranging from the more cosmopolitan life of KL, to the wild jungle of Malaysia’s oldest rain-forest at Taman Negara, to the laid-back atmosphere of Melacca, to the gorgeous east coast beaches. East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo (which is shared with Indonesia and Brunei) offers some of the top dive sites in the world, plenty of natural parks, and the chance to see the world’s largest flower while stopping off to visit the orangutans on the way.
Your first stop should be Kuala Lumpur, the economic, political and transit hub of Malaysia. It has a little of everything Malaysia offers but on a much grander scale. It also caters to foreigners with luxury shopping malls and fabulous restaurants. English is widely spoken and transportation is a breeze thanks to the local taxis (cheap and reliable). You can get your bearings on a Kuala Lumpur day tour, which covers KL’s main attractions.
Most travelers end up staying in the neighborhood of Bukit Bintang, home to five-star hotels as well as the budget hotels and hostels. Fancy some shopping? You’re in luck. The Berjaya Times Square mall, just behind Bukit Bintang, actually has both a roller coaster and an IMAX theater inside!
If shopping isn’t your thing, soak up Malaysia’s cultural diversity at the many roadside food stalls on Jalan Alor. Along with traditional favorites like Hokkien mee (stir-fried noodles), chicken satay and roti chennai (a flat-bread concoction), you can find unusual treats such as chicken fish, stingray and water snake.
Eating at one of these casual, family-run shops is a treat. And eating like the locals is a cheap and easy to get a peek into the lifestyles of modern Malaysians.
From Bukit Bintang, you can easily make your way to the world-famous Petronas Twin Towers, which were once tallest in the world, and continue to be Malaysia’s claim to fame. The short elevator ride up to the Sky Bridge of the Twin Towers is free, but only a limited number of tourists may visit each day. You must obtain a pass from the counter on the ground floor. As they usually run out around 8am, get there early for your chance to see KL from a bird’s eye view. You can also book dinner in the Twin Towers at the Seri Angkasa Revolving Restaurant, on top of the tallest tower in Asia.
In addition to providing a 360-degree view of the city, the Petronas Towers house the Malaysian Philharmonic and a luxury shopping mall. The concert hall is intimate, reasonably priced, and hosts a wide range of musicians. Tickets rarely sell out, so it’s worth a quick look to see if something interesting is showing.
Looking to learn a little more about Malaysian heritage? You may want to visit the National Museum (Museum Negara) or the Islamic Art Museum downtown. Both provide insights into Malaysian history and culture. The Islamic Art Museum is directly across the street from the National Mosque.
If you are more interested in spending time outside than in, you will enjoy the butterfly, deer or bird parks, all located within the sprawling Lake Gardens. A wonderful place to enjoy one of KL’s cooler days, the Lake Gardens have beautiful, paved walkways, jungle gyms to amuse the kids, and the aforementioned animal parks.
For a little taste of KL nightlife, head over to Bangsar, an expat neighborhood filled with trendy clubs, bars, and restaurants.
Day Trips from Kuala Lumpur
Just outside of KL, an easy half-day trip away, is the Batu Caves, the holiest Hindu shrine in Malaysia. The Caves are the destination site of the annual Hindu festival of Thaipussam, which features ritual body piercing as part of the pilgrimage to the Caves. Walking up the 287 stairs to the shrine also gives you a beautiful view of the city.
Another favorite half-day trip from KL is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM), where a short hike will take you to a stunning canopy walk at the top of rain forest. As it can be extremely hot and humid in KL, visitors are recommended to begin the hike no later than 9am. There is a small office offering basic information about the Malaysian rain forest for those that are interested in further information.
Last but not least, consider a visit to Kuala Selangor and its famous fireflies. Millions of them. It’s absolutely beautiful.