Credited nowhere near enough as a destination by the guidebooks, Malaysia is one of the gems of South East Asia. Malaysia is not just a place to spend a few days passing through en-route to Singapore in the south or Thailand to the north. You could easily spend a month scratching the surface, luckily generous 3 month tourism visas are granted to many citizens, making this a distinct possibility.
If you're in need of a poke in the right direction, here's a few pointers:
The truly stunning Perhentian Islands, with their coral reefs and refreshing lack of roads and other infrastructure (imagine how the more popular of the Thai islands might have looked 30 years ago, and you'll not be far off); World class diving at Sipadan, Layang Layang and many other lesser known destinations; Taman Negara National Park, a rainforest 130 million years old; the Cameron Highlands, with its tea plantations, cloud forests and breezy respite from the swelteringly moist lowlands; the old town charm of Penang island; the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, featuring mountains (Mt Kinabalu at 4095m the highest in South East Asia), rainforest and apes (big orange ones called Orangutans); and the ethnic melting pot that is Kuala Lumpur probably the most multi-cultural city in Asia.
Despite its colonial past and still strong ties to Britain, modern Malaysia's official religion is Islam, although freedom of worship is encouraged in the country's constitution and national holidays are observed for the main religious festival periods of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. Talk about reasonable.
If you're in South East Asia, make time for Malaysia - don't just write it off as the 'baby pool' that some travel guides will have you believe it to be.
Hints and Tips for Malaysia
- If it's tropical islands and pristine beaches you're after, go east between March and October, or west between November and February. Two distinct monsoon seasons hit each coast at pretty much opposite times of year, so you can always find sunny paradise on one coast when the other's getting a soaking.
- It's worth knowing that the Perhentians are completely closed during the entire duration of the east coast wet season. Don't even bother trying. It's a shame to miss them, so if you can, try and rig it so that you can get to Malaysia outside of the east coast wet season. The Perhentians are definitely more backpacker friendly than their west coast counterparts, both in terms of price and fun factor.