Why it’s time to visit this overlooked South-East Asian destination
Amid the sun loungers at the idyllic Datai Langkawi Resort, positioned to face the half-moon-shaped beach, watchful macaques spy on guests from the shelter of the 10-million-year-old rainforest behind as hornbills swoop high overhead.
“I never knew we had places like this,” says a guest from Kuala Lumpur, occupying the sunbed beside me. “I feel so proud to be Malaysian.”
It says it all. Even Malaysian city slickers, such as this one, aren’t fully aware of the wonders of their physically diverse, multi-faceted and multi-cultural Asia, let alone Australians who tend to favour other parts of South-East Asia.
While we can’t get enough of Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam, Malaysia is still largely undervalued, if not ignored, by us, despite affordable direct flights from Australia, fabulous food, unique wildlife, and unrivaled value for money.
Rarely has a country’s tourism slogan — “Truly Asia” — ever been more accurate. No fuss Malaysia, while by no means perfect (think of all those destructive palm oil plantations) pretty much has it all. It surely can’t keep both its natural and man-made jewels, all remarkably affordable to reach and visit, to itself forever.
To that end, here’s Traveller’s special guide to uncovering the most hidden gems of this under-the-radar South-East Asian destination.
CITIES + TOWNS
KL is also a major hub for the tourism-friendly and unflashy islands of Penang and Langkawi as well as the Bornean Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The city’s latest crowning glory is the 678.9 meters high Merdeka 118, which when complete will eclipse the famed Petronas Towers (petronastwintowers.com.my), at a mere 452 meters the world’s tallest building from 1998 until 2004.
Merdeka, designed by the Australian architectural firm, Fender Katsalidis, will house Malaysia’s largest shopping mall but don’t overlook Bukit Bintang, in the heart of KL, whose top malls include the luxury Starhill mall and Pavilion – home of one of Malaysia’s most famous sons, shoe couturier Jimmy Choo.
Only a one-hour flight from KL, affordable Penang’s street food and the UNESCO heritage-listed city of George Town are unequaled draw cards for those in the know.
While in Penang, drop into the remarkable China House (chinahouse.com.my) a trio of connected heritage buildings, linked by an open-air courtyard and converted into shops, cafes, a restaurant, and a bakery as well as art and live music venues.
It’s owned by Narelle McMurtrie, an enterprising Australian ex-pat who also operates the affordable Bon Ton Resort (bontonresort.com) on the island of Langkawi, only a short flight from Penang.
Bon Ton’s eclectic guest villas consist of traditional and century-old Malay kampong houses carefully transported from the mainland and converted to serve as accommodation at the resort, close to the airport.
Even if you’re not staying at the resort, its relaxed Nam Restaurant is a worthy lunch or dinner detour from the more elaborate resorts elsewhere on an island noticeably more serene and undeveloped when compared to Bali.
In fact, it’s all the better for it, with Langkawi, a pinch over one hour’s flying time from KL, hosting some of the world’s finest eco-friendly luxury resorts (see below), remote and mostly deserted beaches, fabulous birdlife, and wildlife.
On Malaysian Borneo, about two and a half hours from KL, the cities of Kota Kinabalu and Kuching (home of the 19th century mysterious “White Rajahs” dynasty) are the main gateways to the myriad adventures on the world’s third largest island.
These include conquering the country’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, at 4095 meters (nearly double the height of our Mount Kosciuszko) but it’s the incredible biodiversity that lures its many fans.
Mostly overlooked by Western tourists, Johor Bahru, on the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, lies on the border with Singapore.
It’s an affordable weekend beach getaway destination for the region, rivaling such traditional weekender towns as history-rich Malacca, once the most important trading port in all of South-East Asia, best reached by luxury coach or car from KL or Singapore.
Canny Singaporeans descend daily on the historic old town section of JB, as Malaysians like to refer to it, with its streets and shophouses lacking the over-restored nature of some of their Singapore equivalents.
They come across the causeway, which separates Malaysia and Singapore by only 2.4 kilometers, particularly for the delicious and authentic food, including the more than century-old Hiap Joo Bakery where they patiently queue for the spongy banana cake.
Elsewhere, two Malaysian destinations to watch are Terengganu, on the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula, with its string of tropical islands, colonies of sea turtles and signature dish of stuffed crab, and food-crazy Ipoh, about two and a half hours by train from KL, and a rival to the street-food king Penang.
FOOD + DRINK
Ask a Malaysian the country’s best place for eating and they’ll likely say “Penang”. They’d be right, too. The island is rightly famed for its street food, eaten in markets, on busy streets, and hidden laneways, especially its char kway teo (rice noodles with Chinese sausage and prawns) – best eaten in a morning market, and Asam laksa, a tamarind-infused fish broth with noodles, pineapple, and herbs.
Off the streets, a brace of young, local chefs is driving the upmarket Penang scene. You’ll need to pull strings to get one of the 18 seats at chef Lee Chong Chee’s Juju Lounge, hidden among the tangle of lanes in historic George Town, for a 10-course omakase of local, sustainable seafood, while Gen restaurant (genpenang.com) is ranked on coveted Asia’s Best Restaurants 2021 list.
Set aside a few hours for its multi-course tasting menu featuring chef Johnson Wong’s reimagined Malaysian classics, or book ahead to taste the sustainably sourced, European-inspired dishes of chef Kim Hock’s Au Jardin (restaurant-aujardin.com), in the old Penang bus depot.
On Penang’s drinks front, new Christoph’s is owned and operated by Austrian ex-pat Christoph Girsch, former manager of the E&O hotel. He pitches his restaurant bar as having the best negroni in Penang, and he doesn’t disappoint. Gin and views are on the menu at the new Gin Library, on the 23rd floor of Courtyard by Marriott Penang (courtyardpenang.com).
Let’s not forget KL, where the go-to street-food strip Jalan Alor continues its sizzle-fest unabated. KL restaurateurs Alex and Kelvin Cheah’s latest venue with chef Raymond Tham is Burnt & Co, the newest opening in the Artisan Playground (artisansplayground.my) gourmet food hall on Jalan Ipoh, focused on charred and wood-smoked everything. Starting or finishing on a high note, new cocktail bars in town include the photogenic Her House, hidden away in an old mahjong cafe in Chinatown.
Rivaling Penang as a foodie destination, Ipoh is 2.5 hours by high-speed train from KL and is often used as a convenient overnighter or refueling stop on the way from KL up to Penang or the Cameron Highlands (check out Ipoh’s glamorous train station).
Ipoh’s liquid calling card is kopi Putih, a glass of creamy white coffee served in a multitude of old-school kopitiams (coffee houses), accompanied by a bowl of curry noodles or chee Cheong fun (rice noodles); in this town, a “new school” Kopitiam is one with air-con.
Want to start an argument? Ask two Malaysian locals where to get the best Hainanese chicken rice (dubbed Ipoh chicken rice here). It’s not about finding the hot new kid on the block: veteran Lou Wong is constantly in the top 10s. Cruise Ipoh’s street art, including the distinctive works on Concubine Street by Penang-based artist Ernest Zacharevic, who portrays daily life in Malaysia.
Then, grab a snow beer, and if you’re not already relaxed in laid-back Ipoh, wind down further at the geothermal springs and ice baths at Banjaran Hot Springs Retreat (banjaranhotspringsretreat.com), 20 minutes from town.
Penang’s rival as another Peranakan heartland and UNSECO-listed town, Malacca’s strengths are its Peranakan mansions, street art, and glitzy trishaws. A newcomer on the Peranakan – or Baba Nyonya – cuisine scene is Peranakan Mansion while Malacca’s unique Kristang (Malacca-Portuguese) cuisine is a less-explored drawcard: try it at Melba at The Mansion at the Majestic hotel (majesticmalacca.com).
NATURE + OUTDOORS
Fun fact: the smallest bears in the world are found in Malaysian Borneo. Much less fun fact: they’re hunted for medicine and the pet trade with the sun bears, as they’re known, also threatened by their loss of habitat.
They join orangutans, probosci’s monkeys, pangolins, lorises, and pygmy elephants in the endangered parade of exotic animals indigenous to this remarkable island, shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (bsbcc.org.my) is the only one of its kind and houses 37 rescued bears in Sabah while next door to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre (wildlife.sabah.gov.my). Both are open to visitors, or through locally run tours including long-standing Borneo Eco Tours (borneoecotours.com).
One of the best places from which to stay and observe all of the island’s incredible wildlife in Sabah is the remote riverside Sukau Rainforest Lodge (sukau.com). The legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough stayed there while filming on the island.
With Sabah well and truly on the eco-map, it’s time to give its fellow Borneo state, Sarawak, its moment in the sun. Take a bike ride through its villages, dive into its rich waters and visit Semenggoh Nature Reserve (semenggoh.my) to see semi-wild orangutans roaming free.
Back in Penang, it’s just a short, and steep, funicular ride to one of Malaysia’s great environmental triumphs, The Habitat Penang Hill (thehabitat.my). It’s home to shy dusky langurs, big-eyed flying colugos, and even rare clouded leopards.
Officially designated by UNESCO in September 2021, the biosphere reserve includes the pristine, 130-million-year-old rainforest covering the north-western section of Penang Island.
At the former British hill station, its 1.6km suspended nature walk among ferns and giant butterflies will fill your lungs with fresh air, while zip-lining and even staying the night on its starlight camping adventure is an unmissable treat.
HOTELS + RESORTS
Five-star luxury comes with an exceedingly reasonable price tag in KL for as little as $120 a night. Notable newcomers in downtown KL include the re-branded and reimagined Parkroyal Collection Kuala Lumpur (panpacific.com) in Bukit Bintang, easy to spot with its exterior walls of lush, tumbling gardens, as well as a rooftop pool and bar and a weekend Malaysian high tea offering.
The Kempinski Hotel Kuala Lumpur (kempinski.com) and a Conrad are also on the cards, and a Park Hyatt is set to occupy the top floors of the Merdeka 118 (merdeka118.com), which has been pushed back to 2023.
Boutique hotel aficionados should search out Kloe (kloehotel.com) with its five individually styled artist lofts providing sanctuary for growers and eaters, sketchers and listeners in the big city.
Elsewhere, by far the best bet in Penang is a stay in a renovated Chinese shophouse, preferably in the remarkably well-preserved and extensive UNESCO-listed old town.
Choose from one of the city’s many boutique hotels set in restored shophouses such as the Australian-founded Seven Terraces (georgetownheritage.com) or The Edison (theedisonhotels.com), or rent a whole house.
Penang’s most distinctive hotel, the Blue Mansion (cheongfatttzemansion.com) has renovated two shophouses in the historic section of George Town, with the venerable establishment making an appearance in the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians.
Lovers of George Town’s Edwardian architecture should note that Penang’s grand dame, the Eastern & Oriental (eohotels.com), just outside the World Heritage zone, has had a lick of white paint and freshened herself up. Find your cane chair on the terrace in the newly reopened Heritage Wing, order a large G&T and play spot-the-resemblance between the E&O, built in 1881, and her more famous little sister, Raffles Singapore.
Opened just before the pandemic, the bright, all-white Prestige Hotel (theprestige.my) was surely built for the Insta set, with its heavenly rooftop pool and rooms like gilded birdcages. The vibe is a lighthearted hipster – nothing understated here.
While Langkawi has a reputation for being a sleepy Bali (not such a bad thing), it excels in luxury properties hidden amongst its ancient rainforests. The bellwether is The Datai (thedatai.com), whose new rainforest pool villas are the hottest ticket in town, with their 7.6-metre private pools hidden in the dense and intact jungle.
Elsewhere on Langkawi, the 126-room Danna Resort & Beach Villas (thedanna.com) is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, but if you’re travelling on more of a budget, the brand-new Mercure Langkawi Pantai Cenang (all.accor.com), 10 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes to the beach, maybe the best bet.
Johor, Malaysia’s southernmost state and the one closest to Singapore is home to the sun-and-sand playground of the Desaru Coast (desarucoast.com), a kind of Malaysian Nusa Dua on the South China Sea.
Nearby is the big-ticket Legoland Malaysia (lego.com) with its own themed hotel near to the Malaysia-Singapore border in Johor Bahru.
Once a sleepy backwater for local tourists only, one new upmarket opening during the pandemic is the excellent value Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Villas (anantara.com) which now competes with the somewhat pricier One & Only Desaru Coast (oneandonlyresorts.com).
Don’t miss the beach-focused nature tours at the new Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Villas. They’re run by expert naturalists from the outstanding Jungle Walla (junglewalla.com) team from the Datai Langkawi resort which is owned by the same group as the Anantara Desaru Coast.
One of the most appealing aspects of Desaru is its new-found accessibility. While it’s about two hours by road from Singapore, the best means of transport is the new 90-minute ferry (batamfast.com) which departs Singapore near Changi Airport, for an impressive modern terminal at Desaru. So far the ferry service only operates on Thursdays through to Sundays but fingers are crossed that demand will see it extended.
Further afield, Sabah, one of Malaysia’s two states on Borneo, will see the opening of the Alila Dalit Bay next year (aliladalitbaysabah.com), with Crowne Plaza, Sheraton, Club Med, and Hyatt all jostling for space in Kota Kinabalu next year.
Belinda Jackson and Anthony Dennis have visited Malaysia on several occasions and have been guests of some of the featured properties. See malaysia.travel
FIVE MORE MUST-KNOWS ABOUT MALAYSIA
Malaysia comprises two major landmasses: Peninsula Malaysia and Eastern Malaysia consisting of a total of 13 states, 11 of which are situated on the mainland with Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
Low-cost airlines link the cities – try Malaysia’s AirAsia (airasia.com), Malindo (malindoair.com) or Firefly (fireflyz.com.my), owned by Malaysia Airlines. There’s also a reasonable and ever-improving long-distance train network (ktmb.com.my). The main ridesharing app in Malaysia is Grab (grab.com)
With two different environments in the east and west of the Malay peninsula, and another in Borneo, humidity is still the name of the game here; expect it and you won’t be disappointed. March to October are the driest months on the peninsula, while April to September is best for Sabah and Sarawak.
A common greeting in Muslim Malaysia is to simply touch your heart with your right hand (bonus points for being COVID-friendly). As this is an Islamic country, albeit it a comparatively and mostly moderate one, take care with your dress, avoiding anything too revealing.
Love to party? Turn around, dig out the Bintang singlet and head straight back to Kuta. However, while Muslim Malaysians are not permitted to consume alcohol, the remainder of the population, including tourists do so but discreetly and responsibly.