From Singapore, it’s an easy journey across the causeway into neighbouring Malaysia and, as you journey north and leave behind the well planned, pristine environment of Singapore, it becomes apparent that you’re entering a more realistic and down to earth version of Asia.
The wandering geographer will find many experiences to meet their travel dreams in Peninsula Malaysia: incredible landscapes, vibrant cities and diverse cultures, significant environmental issues – but what’s the pick of the bunch?
Here are my top 10 things to do in Peninsula Malaysia…
1. Taman Negara
At 130 million years old, this is claimed to be the oldest tropical rainforest in the world. The forest is teeming with rare plants, scarce animals and exotic birds and is a fascinating and extraordinary place to visit. The Asian elephant, tigers and rhinos all have their home in the vast 4,343 km² forest, although sightings of these rare and endangered species are few and far between.
Here, there are plenty of opportunities to explore. For starters, the world’s longest canopy walkway is suspended 40m above the ground and if you can let go of the side for long enough and dare to look down, you’ll be rewarded with magnificent views of the surrounding flora and fauna.
Guided hikes reveal massive trees, huge buttress roots, lizards, monkeys and abundant birdlife, while a night safari uncovers the nocturnal sights and sounds of the jungle – a huge contrast to the urban jungle of daily life.
2. Cameron Highlands
The more temperate climate of the Cameron Highlands is a chance to escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands, amongst the backdrop of lush scenery, sprawling tea plantations and colourful flower farms. There are one or two eyesores along the way, particularly in the towns where planning laws seem to dictate construction in a mock Tudor-style and there’s no end of souvenir stalls with stock piles of tourist tat – I mean, who doesn’t want a giant, inflatable strawberry?
Away from the overstated hubbub of the towns there is, however, a beauty and serenity to the Highlands and to top it all you can indulge in the delights of an English cream tea. Jam or cream first?
Penang may not be the most beautiful island when it comes to pristine beaches and clear blue seas, but its long and colourful history and centuries of trade have left their mark on the island. The capital, George Town, is full of old-world charm and its maze of narrow lanes and crisscrossing streets are crammed with British colonial architecture, historic temples and traditional shophouses.
To escape the chaos of the city, take the funicular train up to the 833m high peak of Penang Hill where you’ll be surrounded by lush greenery and able to enjoy panoramic views of the island.
As cities go, I have to say I really liked Ipoh (and not just because it was home to the Geological Museum!). Surrounded by karst scenery, the limestone outcrops are visible from many parts of the city and caves and waterfalls are not too far away. The city had a laid-back, uncluttered atmosphere and didn’t seem to be on the radar of tourist crowds.
Ipoh was once an important and thriving city due to the tin mining industry in the region and, whilst there’s lots of architectural evidence of its former grandeur, it has a reassuringly unkempt feel to add to its character.
The Heritage Trail leads you through the streets where you can search out a series of art murals and the Birch Memorial Clock Tower is adorned with fascinating friezes on all four sides, illustrating the growth of civilisation and depicting famous historical figures. I found Buddha, Darwin and Shakespeare, but I’m still trying to work out many of the others!
5. Delicious Cuisine
Sampling the mouth-watering cuisine of Malaysia is a must, no matter where you are, and you don’t need a big budget to enjoy the amazing flavours. Hawker stalls abound and unpretentious street food is a way of life, with so much variety. From a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian culinary traditions, it’s hard to not find something to tickle your taste buds.
For the adventurous, fried chicken feet or roasted stingray are the way to go, but for those wanting to play it safe, towers of satay skewers, Nasi Lemak (rice dish with coconut) or Laksa Penang (a spicy and sour noodle soup) are perhaps a better choice.
6. Kualah Gandah Elephant Sanctuary
I’d already decided I was going to like this place before we even arrived. I had my reservations of a centre that holds elephants in captivity and imagined a circus-like performance in front of hordes of squealing tourists. It was a relief to find that my ill-informed, preconceived ideas were way off the mark.
The centre helps to rescue seriously injured and orphaned elephants and relocates them from areas where their habitat has been destroyed. The elephants that are kept on site are those that would stand no chance of survival in the wild and are trained to be of help during the translocation of wild elephants.
Some of the elephants are introduced to the public and their backgrounds explained, and at certain times of the day you can take part in feeding them or watch them washing in the river. This a necessary evil to fulfil the aim to promote public awareness and educate the public about the need for habitat protection, as well as the importance of this critically endangered species. Lesson learnt.
Malacca or Melaka (take your pick) is one of Malaysia’s most historical cities. There is still evidence of the city’s glorious past and the periods of Portuguese, Dutch and finally British colonialization, all of which have added to the character of this city. If you don’t feel like exploring on foot, you can always hail one of the many colourful trishaws, but there’s no guarantee of a peaceful journey as many blare out loud music as you go!
8. Kuala Lumpur
I’m not much of a big cities person, but a few days in this vibrant metropolis would be a city-lover’s dream. Despite a cityscape of modern skyscrapers, with the shining glass and steel facade of the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers being the jewel in the crown, the city has managed to retain some of its old world-charm where its lush park areas offer room to breathe.
Shopaholics will be spoilt for choice with glamorous shopping complexes in areas such as Bukit Bintang, as well as bustling street markets like the colourful Chinatown where you can hunt for a bargain and buy no end of fake designer goods.
9. Gua Tempurung
The karst scenery of this region is truly spectacular. It’s not surprising that here you’ll find the longest cave in Peninsula Malaysia. In total, it’s 4.5km in length (although not all of this is accessible) and consists of 5 huge domes or chambers along its course.
The first section is easy to reach along a series of paths and staircases and whilst, at first, it might feel a bit commercialised, the mind is soon occupied by its speleological wonders and amazing rock formations.
If you stretch the imagination, you might even see images of a tiger, dolphin and Buddha in the impressive stalactites and stalagmites. If you fancy something a bit more in the style of Indiana Jones and don’t mind getting wet, there are longer and more adventurous tours available.
10. Matang Forest Reserve, Kuala Sepetang
This managed mangrove forest can be found on the northern coast of the state of Perak. It is one of the few surviving areas of mangrove forest remaining and is hailed as a shining example of ecotourism and environmental preservation.
The rich ecosystem is teeming with species of trees, birds and aquatic life. Raised boardwalks allow visitors to take a stroll through a section of forest and a boat trip along the river reveals yet more rich biodiversity: eagles, dolphins and fireflies are the big attractions.
The preserved forest provides a natural barrier against tsunamis and flooding, but its management also plays an important socio-economic role in creating employment opportunities. A tour of a nearby charcoal factory raises questions about the continued harvesting of trees from the forest, but I was assured it was all done in a sustainable way.
What’s my take on it?
With dramatic scenery and exciting destinations, Malaysia is definitely somewhere to add to your list. Sometimes though, as they say, it’s about the journey not the destination. Despite its rapid economic growth, Malaysia is still faced with significant environmental issues, which become apparent as you drive across the country.
Mile after mile of palm oil plantations, vast swathes of deforested land, scars left from recent floods and landslides and huge dam building projects can all be seen along the roadside – so don’t forget to look out of the window as you travel.