Malaysia gained independence from the motherland back in 1957 and has fast grown into an economic powerhouse of Southeast Asia. A country in the process of levelling up from its status as a developing nation to join the modern world, the country’s diverse culture, history, and landscape attracts more and more tourists from around the world each year (apart from last year, obvs).
Most travellers with time restrictions will be forced to pick a coast and stick to it. Although those with more time on their hands, like the Japanese during WWII, will want to flank both east and west extensively, with the aim of pushing on to Singapore. For the sake of keeping the article into a two- or three-week trip itinerary, we’ll focus on the west. Either way, in a lot of cases, you’re going to be starting from the country’s main international airport, located in none other than the capital city – Kuala Lumpur (KL).
Like many Asian megacities, KL is known mainly for its shopping and eating; two activities which are conveniently combined into sections among the many malls you’ll undoubtedly end up wandering around. These malls serve a pleasant tertiary function besides consumerism and keeping your body topped up: The powerful air conditioning will provide welcome relief from the humidity should you somehow manage to find yourself out in the open air of the city for more than ninety seconds.
Those who do not wish to leave with a heavy midriff and light wallet might want to explore the architectural delights, with a host of skyscrapers ranging from the mundane to the magnificent. The Petronas Towers are undoubtedly the most famous structures in the country and (if you’re quick – Merdeka 118 incoming) also the tallest. When in a new city, it is standard procedure to get to the top of a tall building and look out at the world below, and here is no different, although you can stop about halfway and walk along the skybridge connecting the twin towers. Terrifyingly (though perfectly safely, I’m assured), the skybridge isn’t actually connected to the main structures, instead being designed with the ability to slide about as the towers sway back and forth in high winds. Doesn’t sound like fun? There’s a nice square with a decent view of the towers nearby where you can buy yourself an overpriced meal and look up from the safety of ground-level concrete. There’s even a fountain with a pretty impressive light show.
It’ll drain three precious hours from your finite existence.
Top tip: KL Tower, from the outside looks like many other towers around the world, but at the top you’ll be greeted by a nicer view than that of the Petronas towers. It’s cheaper too.
Depending on the time of year (and your hotel budget) your romantic dreams of gazing across the cityscape at night from your rooftop pool may be somewhat hampered by a controversial seasonal event. The burning of lands to prepare them for agriculture on Sumatra, the Indonesian island to the west, can often leave the KL in a haze of problematic pollution. Unfortunately, not much is being done to address the issue, so this hazardous haze is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
A few hours north of the capital you’ll find the Cameron Highlands, a vast mountainous area dotted with small towns to gain some breathing space from the speed of the city. There are a number of vantage points, gardens, and waterfalls for you to enjoy at your leisure and plenty of misty morning hikes to indulge in amongst eclectic vegetation. This area is home to the largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia Flower and the Mossy Forest, which is exactly as it sounds. You don’t have to worry about trudging through the moss at ground level though, as a wooden boardwalk allows you to view the tropic lands from above. There are also a couple of tea plantations which make for a scenic day out, complete with an afternoon tea tasting session. Our guide confidently boasted that the tea in his plantation was, well, not as good as some other teas, but it wasn’t terrible, he assured us. He was right.
Top Tip: Visit during the week, as weekends attract crowds of local tourists.
Another 3 hours north and a short boat ride will get you to your first island: Penang. The capital, Georgetown is the usual eclectic fusion of cultures that you’ll have come to expect from Malaysia, but this buzzing city has the bragging right of being a UNESCO World Heritage site. The place is awash with markets and vendors spilling out into the streets from the colonial houses and shopfronts. A plethora of religious buildings, a number of museums, and a smattering of mansions make for an enviable walking tour itinerary by any city’s standards – and in 2012 the city commissioned a street artist to jazz the place up even further.
It’s just as well the place is so nice to walk around, because with Georgetown’s national reputation as a food paradise, particularly for its Chinese and Indian influence, you’ll need those morning/afternoon walks to burn off those snacks in between elevenses and brunch.
Ever wanted to see a boxing match between a man and a crocodile?
After a few days of soaking up art and history, as well as inhaling dim sum, it’s time to take your portly body to the beach. Although Penang isn’t renowned for having the nicest beaches in the country, there are a few gems to be found on the north-western coast of the island. As you enter the national park Teluk Bahang, you’ll either have to charter a boat (for about ten pounds) or walk along the coastline until you reach Teluk Duyung, otherwise known as Monkey Island. This is a quieter, white-sand beach with water that you can actually see your feet in. It’s worth a visit before or after heading to some of the more touristy places on the map.
I must mention Batu Ferringhi because of how famous the place is. This used to be the go-to area for tourists in Malaysia, although years of development have attenuated the scenery somewhat. In place of an isolated paradise, you’re gifted with the plethora of activities that come as a result of heavy tourism, and the hotels remain relatively cheap through fierce competition.
While renting a jet ski, you’ll be warned of the heavy penalties incurred for driving too fast and tipping it over, but when you hand it back, the vendors will eagerly ask you your top speed. If speeding along the water doesn’t cut the mustard, you can hire a speedboat, strap yourself to it, and enlist someone else to drive it really fast while you sit back and enjoy the view from above with a parachute strapped to your back.
Parasailing leaves you parched, so as the sun sets you can enjoy a tipple at one of the many bars before heading out to explore the famed night market. Over a hundred stalls selling everything from food to tat stretches along the main road to fill all your souvenir-based desires. After a couple of nights, you’ll likely have had enough, so it’ll be time to head south to Langkawi.
You’ve got a couple of options here. The boat is slightly cheaper and comparatively more friendly to the environment, but it’ll drain three precious hours from your finite existence. For £20 or £30, you can take a short flight. As soon as the seatbelt signs flick off and you settle in for the long journey, they’ll ping back on and the captain will inform you that the descent has begun. You’ll have basically time travelled to your new island with otherwise wasted hours to kill sitting around in your hotel room trying to find a Wi-Fi signal. Priceless.
As an archipelago of 99 islands, you’ll probably want to partake in one of Asia’s many island-hopping tours. These are almost always a pleasant day out, and Langkawi is no different. Spend the day exploring more remote beaches and islands, with ample time to sunbathe on each, in between diving from the boat into the sea for a spot of snorkelling (although the waters around here are not the clearest).
The main island has seen a boom in tourism over the last thirty or so years, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Rent a motorbike each day and explore waterfalls ranging from a powerful stream of cascading glory to a pitiful trickle of moisture making its way down a rock face, swim in the pools and listen to the locals tell tales of fairies and horror stories of crocodiles…
On the subject, Crocodile Adventureland is an attraction to be avoided by those with a morsel of empathy, but a must-see for those who care more about their own entertainment. Ever wanted to see a boxing match between a man and a crocodile? Me neither.
The Oriental Village is a must stop shop for all of your batik-based clothing needs. A dotted sartorial design that’s origins are hotly disputed between Indonesians and Malaysian. This is also your chance to ditch the motorbike and substitute it for a Segway, speeding past the crowds in search of a shop that offers a better discount than the last. If you sit down for a moment, you’ll notice some charming local displays. Snake charming, to be exact, as well as Silat performances (a regional martial art), and kite flying demonstrations. All in all, a fun day out.
For a reminder of being at home, take the cable car up to the SkyBridge and enjoy the views of this beautiful island from above. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Thailand as well as Langkawi’s outlying islets.
Langkawi’s charm is the perfect way to end your stay in this enchanting country. As you travel home, you’ll reflect on how easy it has all been. There’s little in the way of a language barrier, bartering is not as fierce as in other South East Asian countries, and along with the quirks and cultural anomalies of each place you visit that add up to a unique experience, the breathtaking and eclectic scenery will leave you with a holiday you’ll never forget.