With many different options on offer, a holiday to the Malaysian Peninsula can be as relaxing or busy or as adventurous or simple as you want it to be, but no matter which option you take, it guarantees to provide a rich melange of cultural experiences.
Kuala Lumpur; a city which certainly deserves its reputation as a cultural melting pot. The mix of Indian, Chinese and Malay influences are evident across the city but it’s the Hindu Shrine at the Batu Caves, China Town and the Jalan Alor Night market that perfectly highlight each of these differing elements of the country to me.
The Batu Caves are impressive whenever you visit, but for three days between January and February this is where the awe-inspiring Thaipusam Festival takes places. You do have to wake up extremely early to catch the action but the colours, the noise and the level of religious devotion will undoubtedly make it a morning to remember. For devotees, Thaipusam, largely involves piercing parts of their bodies with metals skewers which triggers a trance-like state. Hindus believe this will help their prayers to be realised. The pain must be excruciating but their faith is overwhelmingly impressive. Squeamishness aside, it’s a hugely interesting festival to see, even just the once.
China town is an overload of the senses but in a totally different way. I just love the opportunity to barter and to grab some of the mouth-watering food available on the hawker stalls as you walk through the busy market. It’s a place where locals and visitors all head to for the electric atmosphere but also where you find hidden temples. The Jalan Alor Night Market has the same feel but it’s just about the food and drink. You must go with an empty stomach so you can feast on local delights such as a laksa, a spicy noodle soup or nasi lemak, coconut rice cooked in a pandan leaf. Make sure to ask for some sambal sauce if you like it spicy!
Having lived here for two years, KL, with its iconic Petronas Towers, offers a classic Asian city break but there is much more to Malaysia than just KL.
When to visit KL: Year-round. Expect short sharp showers most days, with the exception of the drier months of January and February and some magnificent thunderstorms.
Redang and the Perhentian Islands
A flight from KL takes you to Kuala Terangganu, on the north east coast of the peninsula and the access point for the turquoise waters of the islands of Redang and Perhentian. I used to travel here for two reasons; some relaxation time on the beach and to get into the water to dive. The island vibe sets you at ease instantly and with a walk along the fine sandy beach at sunset, you can breathe deeply and just take it all in knowing that you’ve just found a piece of heaven.
The following day was always an early start to gear up for a day at sea. After the obligatory dive briefing and buddy checks, we would all roll back into the water and make our descent. The light would fade somewhat as we reach the seabed below, but our eyes would soon adjust, and we would start to look past the coral and see the moray eels, turtles and the exotic nudibranch and seahorses. The calmness and colour of the waters here is something I always remember so it’s a great place to do a Discover Scuba day if you want to try your hand at something new without doing the full PADI course.
Another island on this east coast is Tioman; located further south and the setting for the 1958 film South Pacific. Japamala Resort offers a romantic and atmospheric place to stay.
When to visit the east coast of Malaysia: From April to September
If, however, you prefer to experiment with local cuisine, Penang is a must. Malaysia’s fourth largest island is 350 kilometres from KL and can be reached by train in around five hours from the capital, although the last hop onto the island must be done by ferry. For me, Penang has a little bit of everything that I like best about Malaysia; beaches, jungle and food. The UNESCO town of Georgetown is a great place to start as it’s overflowing with culture and street art plus this is where you find the buzzing Lorong Baru night market. As a coastal town, you’d be right to expect fish and seafood to be high on the menu but in Penang much is done with a Chinese twist so don’t be surprised to see curried fish, spicy fish cakes or cuttlefish served with green Chinese vegetables.
When to visit Penang: Year-round with the exception of September and October
Opportunities to get into the jungle in Malaysia are endless and it’s worth remembering that the metropolis of KL was, once upon a time, a green canvas of rainforest. Even though this jungle has been massively reduced because of population growth, the edge of the jungle still reaches the outskirts of KL and for a jungle taster the rainforest at FRIM, the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia is an easily accessible 45 minute drive from the city. However, it is Taman Negara that provides a real adventure. Despite the humidity, I love to trek in the jungle but a ride in a wooden longboat comes a close second. Although for a refreshing change, jumping onto an innertube and floating down the river brings great fun and much amusement. To hear the constant sounds of insects and birds brings a peacefulness that is sometimes hard to find and the knowledge that the surrounding canopy has endured such time is an honour to experience.
When to visit the Malaysian rainforest: Year-round but always expect some rain!
Langkawi was always the ‘go to reliable beach break’ from KL. Except for September and October, Langkawi is a year-round destination and the variety of accommodation means there is something for everyone. Not particularly renowned for diving or snorkelling, Langkawi does however have more to offer that just beautiful beaches. During one trip, I took to a kayak and paddled my way around part of the island. I underestimated how difficult it would be to kayak in open water against the current, but once we turned into the mangroves on the Kilim River, I became mesmerised by the still, glistening waters as the birds sang in the background. We paddled for a few hours, stopping to watch a few monkeys preening themselves before jumping off through the trees. Langkawi also lends itself well to hiring a car for a day. Far away from the craziness of big city driving, Langkawi is easy to navigate and within a short drive, you can be on a quiet beach then dipping your feet in a freshwater rock pool before winding your way along the jungle suspension bridge after a dramatic cable car ride up Gunung Machinchang.
The Datai in Langkawi has to be one of our favourite hotels in the world and with good reason. Nestled in ancient rainforest it is located on a beautiful beach and the service and facilities are impeccable.
When to visit Langkawi: Year-round with the exception of September and October