A land of exotic landscapes and wild frontiers, Malaysia's natural diversity adds up to a tantalizing medley of experiences for adventurous travellers and nature lovers to dive into. The country has magnificent range – whether you prefer sacred mountains, primordial rainforests and rare wildlife or little-explored caves, rapid rivers and tropical islands. Here's a count of the top seven wonders of the Malaysian wild and how to explore them.
Venture deep into the jungles of Malaysian Borneo to discover the largest-known underground cavern in the world. Cathedral-like Sarawak Chamber is part of the unique geomorphic landscape of UNESCO-listed Gunung Mulu National Park that includes limestone karst pinnacles and bat-haunted caves draped in thick rainforest. It's a natural playground for explorers, with guided treks, adventure caving and overnight camping all organised from the park headquarters.
You can also stay in lodgings around the park office and follow trails through the jungle to hidden waterfalls or to watch the spectacular bat exodus at sunset. Mulu's fairly isolated location means the easiest way to get there is via the regular domestic flights from Malaysian Borneo's hub cities of Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah province.
Big friendly giants
Budding naturalists are in for a treat in Malaysian Borneo, which is home to some of the world's rarest creatures including sunbears, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants and endangered orang-utans. You can meet these giant orange apes and witness conservation efforts first-hand at sanctuaries such as Semonggoh Wildlife Centre near Kuching in Sarawak and Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sabah.
An unstaged encounter with them in the wild is the precious but not-guaranteed reward for several days searching in Sabah's Danum Valley conservation area, which is said to have the highest concentration of orangutans in the wild. You can stay here in relative luxury at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, around two hours' drive from the town of Lahad Datu which has its own airport. Another great way to glimpse them is to stay in lodges at Sukau and head out by boat along the lower reaches of the Kinabatangan river where orang-utans are often spotted on its protected banks.
Legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau described the tropical waters around Sipadan Island as an "untouched piece of art" and the area has since become a carefully-managed diving mecca. The coral-rich seas encircling the little volcanic island off the coast of eastern Borneo are a world biodiversity hotspot with rainbow reef systems and thriving marine life that have earned it a reputation as one of the world's top ten dive destinations. Part of a marine reserve, it's a haven for green and hawksbill turtles who nest and feed around the island's white sandy beaches and clear waters. If you've always dreamed of diving with turtles, sightings at Turtle Cavern are pretty much a given.
The best way to get to Sipadan is via the town of Tawau, which receives domestic flights from major Malaysian cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu. From there it's a short journey to Semporna where certified divers can arrange permits and boat excursions from the PADI-accredited dive centres and shops. Snorkelling trips are also available. No-one is permitted to stay overnight on the island, but there are a handful of resorts on nearby Mabul and Kapalai islands.
Sacred Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia's highest peak and biggest challenge. Rising from the steaming rainforests of Sabah, it tempts intrepid travellers to conquer its craggy cloud-shrouded peak. The mountain is part of a UNESCO-protected heritage park where you can also hire guides to hike through the forest in search of strange plants, leopard cats and orang-utans. It's a relatively easy climb for the physically fit, ascending to the granite plateau through alpine meadows and grasslands that combine with the forests below to make this one of the most ecologically important places on the planet.
Sabah Parks grants a limited number of climbing permits per day to those staying at lodges within the park and all climbers have to be accompanied by a qualified guide. Most travellers reach the national park via Kota Kinabalu airport.
A hundred-million-year-old rainforest, said to harbour tigers – though they wisely keep well out of sight – Taman Negara is now a protected national park that has evolved into one of south-east Asia's prime centres of ecotourism. Covering thousands of square kilometres, the area encompasses waterfalls, streams, mountains, caves and ravines providing an undisturbed home to countless bird and plant species, as well as threatened animals like tapirs, sunbears, elephants, Sumatran rhinos and of course the elusive tiger.
Outdoor activities available within the national park include guided treks, caving and river rafting. There are a few decent places to stay around the village of Kuala Tahan, which is the main entry point at the southern end of the park, though many travellers choose to visit on day tours from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
The Langkawi archipelago on the north-western seaboard of Peninsula Malaysia is bewitchingly beautiful – a combination of limestone karst geology, tropic rainforests, white sands and emerald seas. Between its soaring peaks and curving beaches, development has been low-key on the main island, while the rest of the archipelago's hundred-or-so islands remain untouched. To get a birds-eye view of the jigsaw of islands scattered across the Andaman Sea, you can catch a cable car up to the precipitous skywalk built along Langkawi's mountainous backbone. To get among the islands, there are several local boat operators offering sea safaris to secret beaches and crystalline snorkelling spots such as Payar Marine Park.
Langkawi's geoforests pitted with caves, tiered waterfalls and undisturbed mangroves also make this a natural paradise for outdoorsy types. You can arrange for kayaking trips with a naturalist and jaunts through the Kilim Karst Geopark where you can see monkeys, bats and birds of prey, or head to Telaga Tujuh waterfalls for a refreshing dip before taking the hiking trail up to Mount Mat Cincang, Langkawi's second highest peak.
Enveloped in vast verdant wilds and criss-crossed with the clear tributaries of the Perak river, the Perak region in the west of the Malaysian Peninsula has become a white water rafting hub, with several top stretches of water for a rafting adventure. Float gently down the Kampar river into the jungle, wildlife-spotting and cooling off in the water along the way.
Kayak through the canyons and green corridors of the Slim river, or tackle the rapids of the untamed Singoh river. Trips with expert river guides can be organised from Ipoh or the little former tin-mining town of Gopeng, where you can also join hiking, abseiling and caving expeditions. Perak is around two hours' drive north-west from Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia's natural bounty makes it one of the world's top eco-destinations. And with UNESCO-protected areas, national parks, marine reserves and a well-developed tourism infrastructure, its natural riches are all the more accessible to visitors. If you're looking for an adventurous, unforgettable and fairly risk-free escape into the tropical wilderness, there are few places that can top it.