Discover Malaysia’s ancient rainforests and orangutans, crumbling colonial towns, exotic beaches and sample its world-famous street food. Here are the top things to do in Malaysia.
Malaysia is a fascinating blend of cultures, landscapes and exotic wildlife. The country is home to over 30 million people and boasts a diverse mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous tribal cultures melded together by a stable economy and solid parliamentary democracy. Malaysia also has some deep European colonial roots, which are still evident today in its UNESCO towns full of British, Dutch and Portuguese architecture. One of the most popular things to do in Malaysia is taste its famous fusion cuisine, derived from its multi-ethnic culture. Discover the country’s vast range of landscapes, from Kuala Lumpur’s contemporary Petronas Towers to cool highlands, soft-sand beaches and some of the world’s oldest rainforests. This is all spread across two regions, Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo.
Top things to do in Malaysia… the country’s crowning jewels are its national parks that encompass rainforests, hulking mountains and unique wildlife. Don’t miss Malaysia’s food which is a mouth-watering mix of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences.
Malaysia is a deeply religious country and visitors should remember to dress respectfully and remove their shoes when entering buildings. Over 60 percent of Malaysia’s population is Muslim, so the country is dotted with ornate mosques. The largest and perhaps most spectacular is the Blue Mosque, which is known for its silver-and-blue domes and stained glass. Due to the country’s varied cultural mix, you’ll also find many sparkling Buddhist temples, Hindu shrines and Christian churches. Climb the steps lined with cheeky macaques to the Batu Caves, one of Malaysia’s most holy Hindu Shrines just outside Kuala Lumpur.
Uncover Malaysia’s European colonial past by visiting its UNESCO sites, Penang and Melaka. Stroll through alleys lined with quirky street art and grand British architecture and watch the sunset from a traditional Chinese Clan jetty in Penang’s capital Georgetown. Don’t forget to try the town’s delicious street food as the smell of incense from Chinese temples mingles with the sound of the evening call-to-prayer. Find more crumbling Portuguese and Dutch architecture in Melaka set alongside authentic Peranakan ancestral homes
Visit these Malaysian cultural sites:
Georgetown – full of street art, Chinese temples, delicious street food and colonial houses.
Kuala Lumpur - the shiny capital with its mega malls, China Town and Petronas Towers.
Melaka – a UNESCO site that showcases Malaysia’s Portuguese, Dutch and British past.
Malaysian crafts – including batik, song ket, rattan baskets and ceramic jugs called Labu.
Ethnic tribes – such as the Iban people who live in Longhouses in Borneo.
Batu Caves – limestone caverns that house some of Malaysia’s holiest Hindu shrines.
Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque (Blue Mosque) – the largest mosque in the country.
Lenggong Valley – a UNESCO site, one of the country’s most important archaeological areas.
Kelabit Highlands – hike through the rainforest to stay at a traditional Kelabit family longhouse.
Partying isn’t generally one of the main things to do in Malaysia because for religious reasons, drinking is often banned outside of bars and clubs and forbidden in rural areas. You can find some exciting nightlife in Malaysia’s biggest cities and a few of its beach destinations but it’s slightly more expensive than in other Southeast Asian countries. You should head to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu for chic clubs, bars with live music and roof-top drinking spots. Penang has a growing nightlife scene popular with backpackers, including English pubs in Georgetown and discos, dancefloors and karaoke lounges elsewhere on the island. Laid-back beach bars can be found on many of the islands, especially the dreamy Perhentians and Langkawi.
Laid-back nightlife at the Perhintians
Here are the prime nightlife destinations in Malaysia:
Kuala Lumpur – fancy nightclubs, posh bars and cocktails with aerial views.
Kota Kinabalu – backpacker-friendly bars and clubs with a live music scene.
Langkawi – no all-night clubs but plenty of relaxed pubs with sea views.
The Perhentian Islands – beach bars for chilled out beers after a day on the beach.
Penang – up-and-coming nightlife scene with pubs, discos, clubs and karaoke.
Perhaps one of the most popular things to do in Malaysia is try its incredible foodie delights. Malaysia’s multi-ethnic culture makes for a complex cuisine which is renowned for its excellence around the world. Sample a fragrant mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay flavours in various noodle, rice and curry dishes as you journey through the country. Grab a steaming pot of tea and Roti Canai, an Indian flatbread served with curry and dhal, for breakfast. As you explore snack on satays, skewers of marinated grilled meat, which are a street food staple.
Street food vendor grilling the famous Malaysian Satay
Classic Malay meals include Nasi Kandar from Penang, which is a selection of curries served with rice, and Rendang, a curry of slow-cooked meat that comes in many local variations. Bak Kut Teh, which literally means Meat Bone Tea, is a typical Chinese-Malay meal of fatty meat simmered for days in herbs and spices. Try the Banana Leaf Curry, an Indian speciality of rice served on a leaf with a number of curries. Succulent seafood and tropical fruit can be found throughout Malaysia and if you’re in the mood for something sweet, taste a Pandan cake or pancake.
Here are some must-try Malaysian foods:
Roti Canai – an Indian flatbread served for breakfast, usually with curry and dhal.
Satay – chunks of meat marinated in local spices grilled on skewers.
Bak Kut Teh – means Meat Bone Tea in Chinese. Fatty meat slow cooked in herbs and spices.
Nasi Kandar – a variety of curries and side dishes with rice which originated in Penang.
Banana leaf curry – curry, vegetables, rice and popadoms eaten by hand from a banana leaf.
Rendang – a Malay speciality of curried meat slow cooked in spices.
Pandan pancakes – a common dessert made with Pandan, known as Asian vanilla.
If you’re looking for sun-kissed beaches and world-class marine life, then Malaysia has it all. For pure relaxation head to the sandy, palm-fringed paradise of the Perhentian Islands, which are set in a marine park. Wade into the crystal waters to snorkel amongst colourful coral reefs bursting with life. Nearby Redang Island has more upmarket resorts with white-sand beaches and constant tropical weather. For more lavish luxury, Langkawi Island near Thailand is known for its pristine beaches, mangroves, five-star resorts and oddly, duty-free shopping.
The beautiful Perhintian Islands with pearl white beaches
Diving is one of the most sought-after things to do in Malaysia. Sipadan off the coast of Sabah in Borneo is regularly named as one of the world’s premiere diving destinations. Here you can traverse an underwater world blooming with coral reefs and rich marine life including leopard, reef and hammerhead sharks as well as exquisite sea turtles. Since it’s a protected marine site, only 120 divers are allowed onto Sipadan each day and you’re not able to sleep on the island, so most people stay on nearby Mabul. Tioman off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia is another hot diving spot. The island is set in the Mersing Marine Park and was once named by Time as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, filled with dense forest laced with golden sands.
If you’re looking for city beach escapes in Malaysia, Pangkor Island lies just three hours away from Kuala Lumpur and is a favourite with Malaysians for its serene beaches and water sports. From Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo, you can hop to the idyllic islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park. The largest in the archipelago is Gaya, which is covered in lush jungle and is known for its peaceful beaches and vibrant marine life, particularly its resident turtle population.
Here’s a selection of the ultimate beaches in Malaysia:
Perhentian Islands – set in a marine park surrounded by coral reefs perfect for snorkelling.
Langkawi Island – luxury beach resorts and pristine sands off the coast of Kedah.
Sipadan Island – one of the world’s top dive sites where you can spot turtles and sharks.
Semporna Islands – this island chain offers undisturbed beaches and breathtaking snorkel and dive sites, including on Mabul, Kapalai, Sibuanand Mantubuan as well as Sipadan.
Gaya Island – known for its jungle eco-resorts and turtle population, near Kota Kinabalu.
Redang Island – tropical upmarket resort island with white-sand beaches and clear water.
Tioman Island – scuba diving hub in the Mersing Marine Park with stunning beaches.
Pangkor Island – lies just three hours from Kuala Lumpur for a relaxing beach break.
Malaysia’s scenery is as diverse as its cultural makeup. From the bustling metropolis of Kuala Lumpur you can find yourself in colonial towns, tiny fishing villages, tribal longhouses in Borneo, scorching beaches and sweeping tea plantations in the cool of the Cameron Highlands. Many travellers come to Malaysia to conquer its towering mountains. Mount Kinabalu, which sits in its own national park in Borneo, reaches 4,095 metres into the sky, making it the highest peak in Southeast Asia. In Gunung Mulu National Park you’ll find more limestone mountains to climb, as well as a maze of underground caves.
Gunung Mulu Gaves
One of the world’s oldest rainforests can be found in Taman Negara National Park. Trek through over 4,000squaremetres of jungle, waterfalls and limestone caves where you can spot wildlife, take treetop walkways and encounter Orang Asli, the local indigenous people. Bako National Park in Sarawak is relatively smaller but has a wide range of wildlife and plants, from mangrove swamps to forests, cliffs and a coastline dotted with secluded bays.
One of the oldest rain forests in the world: Taman Negara National Park
One of the top things to do in Malaysia is spot wildlife. Take a peaceful trip in a long tail boat at dawn down the Kinabatangan River. If you’re lucky you’ll spot all kinds of monkeys, crocodiles, wild orangutans and elephants. Bako is also one of the best places to catch a glimpse of the long-nosed proboscis monkey; there are around 275 in the park, as well as wild boar and silver leaf monkeys. In Penang National Park you can see endangered olive ridley and green turtles in the conservation centre.
Wild Orangutan can be spotted if you are lucky
Here are some of Malaysia’s most scenic spots:
Cameron Highlands – find cool mountain air and acres of tea plantations.
Taman Negara – one of the oldest rainforests in the world, with caves, trails and waterfalls.
The Kinabatangan – spot proboscis monkeys and orangutans on this river in Sabah.
Mount Kinabalu – hike up Southeast Asia’s highest peak for an aerial view.
Bako National Park - hike through forests to see mangroves and proboscis monkeys.
Gunung Mulu – explore a labyrinth of underground caves and climb limestone mountains.
Penang National Park – see rare turtles and hike through the protected jungle.
Malaysia is a captivating country full of great food, history and nature. Here are some of the best things to do in Malaysia:
Hike – tackle one of Malaysia’s mountains, the most renowned is Southeast Asia’s highest, Kinabalu in Sabah.
Scale the Petronas Towers – ride the elevator to the 86th floor for unrivalled views of Kuala Lumpur and walk across the Skybridge between the two towers.
The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur
Stay in a Longhouse – get a taste of life in a communal wooden longhouse on the river with an Iban family in Sarawak, Borneo.
Dive – experience superb diving off Malaysia’s islands, especially Sipadan and Tioman.
See orangutans – catch a glimpse of the Wise Man of the Forest at the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary in Sabah.
Try street food – try Malaysia’s tasty fusion cuisine in the foodie mecca Penang.
Langkawi Skybridge – walk across the longest free span and curved bridge in the world.
Snorkel – relax on white-sand beaches and submerge yourself in tropical waters for some spectacular snorkelling. The Perhentian Islands are a favourite snorkelling haunt.
Wildlife spotting – spot long-nose proboscis monkeys, elephants, orangutans, crocodiles and birds on a boat trip down the Kinabatangan River.
Trek - spend time trekking in one of Malaysia’s national parks, especially Taman Negara, a natural wonderland of ancient forest.
The Chinese Lunar New Year in either January or February and Ramadan are both important events in Malaysia. In July, the Rainforest Music Festival is held near Kuching which showcases indigenous performers as well as bands from all over the world.
When to go
Temperatures in Malaysia sit at a constant 30 degrees during the day and it’s hot and humid all year round. Rainy season brings heavy afternoon showers between November and February, especially on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia and the western tip of Sarawak. September and October are the wettest months on the west coast of the Peninsular and in Sabah. Roughly speaking, the most ideal time to visit Malaysia weather-wise is between March and October.