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What is there to see and do in Malaysia?

Malaysia entices with rainforests and rare wildlife, tropical beaches and thriving offshore reefs ripe for underwater exploration, but it also packs a powerful cultural punch in its colonial heritage towns, bustling modern cities and tribal villages.

Idyllic islands

From the air like dozens of emerald droplets in the Andaman Sea, the Langkawi archipelago is a cluster of little islands skimming the north-western coast of Malaysia. The largest island, Langkawi, is a tropical paradise of countless pearlescent beaches backed by steep green inclines and skirted by sapphire seas. Though tourism arrived on the islands more than two decades ago, they have mercifully avoided overdevelopment and it's easy to find a piece of rural Malaysia a short way from the beaten track.

Beyond the beach, one of the most popular activities in the islands is to take a boat trip around the many uninhabited islets. Langkawi also encompasses UNESCO-protected geoparks perfect for hiking and exploring, inhabited by exotic wildlife and dotted with picturesque limestone karst caves. Its verdant slopes can be scaled via a cable car for stunning views from the dizzyingly-high sky bridge. For real daredevils, the island also plays host to Asia's highest tandem skydive.

On Peninsula Malaysia's north-eastern seaboard, the island of Redang is another popular beach retreat for travellers to Malaysia. Ringed by crystal-clear waters harbouring colourful coral reefs, the island is the ideal spot for an underwater adventure with dozens of dive sites frequented by reef sharks, turtles and stingrays. The waters include protected marine reserves and turtle sanctuaries ensuring the vibrancy of local aquatic life. Over on the mainland, the modern seaside city of Kuala Terengganu is a pleasant stop between Malaysia's jungles and islands, with an interesting China town, seafront promenade, and a few pockets of traditional life.

Between Peninsula Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, Tioman island has similar appeal to Redang ringed with picture-perfect palm-fringed beaches and thriving underwater coral gardens – the ideal place for lazy beach days, snorkelling and diving.

Wild wonders

Experiential holidays in Malaysia tend to be based around Borneo's untouched jungles, offering the chance to visit rustic tribal villages and spot rare exotic animals. For wildlife lovers a wonderful land of adventure awaits where you can get up close to giant primates and cute little monkeys.

In Sarawak state, close to the city of Kuching is the unmissable Semonggoh wildlife sanctuary, a lush forested reserve home to wild and orphaned orangutans rehabilitated and taught how to readapt to life in the forest. You can observe these amazing primates at feeding time before they climb back into the treetops. In the north of Sarawak, outdoor adventurers will not want to miss a visit to the world heritage-listed Mulu National Park, harbouring awe-inspiring natural wonders that include the world's largest cave.

In the northern Borneo state of Sabah intrepid types can seek out orang-utans in the wilderness of the Danum Valley, thought to have the largest concentration of orang-utans in the world. The crowning glory of Sabah state is majestic Mount Kinabalu. Popular with travellers, the giant sawtooth peak caps the moist lowland jungles of the surrounding national park crisscrossed with nature and hiking trails, and rushing with refreshing waterfalls. The eco-tourism hotspot includes a botanical mountain garden, hot springs where you can bathe in relaxing rock pools, and a walkway across the jungle canopy.

Borneo's offshore islands are a haven of the natural world offering turtle-spotting and world-class diving. Selingan island is known for its nesting turtles, while off the coast of southern Sabah, the volcanic island of Pulau Sipadan is encrusted with coral reefs populated by myriad fish, turtles and octopi.

In Peninsula Malaysia the Cameron Highlands, situated half-way between Penang and Kuala Lumpur, are another eco-tourism hotspot where you'll find tracts of cloud forest and hidden waterfalls. The area is also home to south-east Asia's largest tea plantation, with scenic green terraces covering the undulating landscape. Fruit, particularly strawberries, are also grown in the highlands, and visitors can tour both the plantations and farms, staying at heritage manors along the way. To get back to nature, hiking through the cloud forests is an absolute must – with Mossy Forest and treks to tribal villages accessible on guided tours.

For a jungle adventure in central Malaysia, look no further than the Taman Negara Kuala Tahan. The ancient jungles where tigers are rumoured to roam have visitor facilities and even an eco hotel. There are hiking trails and a treetop walkway, and thrilling activities such as rafting and caving are also available in the national park.

Urban centres

Malaysia's cosmopolitan capital Kuala Lumpur is the first stop for most travellers to Malaysia. Known for its high-end dining and fabulous shopping centres, the city's modernity is encapsulated by its most visible landmark: the Petronas twin towers. Although it is much younger than other Malaysian urban centres, such as Malacca, exploring its patchwork of neighbourhoods on a sightseeing tour reveals the city's rich tapestry. The old colonial heart of the city is a peculiar mix of Victorian and Mughal architecture with a green central park and two buildings now transformed into museums. The city's China Town district is the surprising home to an intricate old Hindu temple dedicated to the god of rain, testament to the melting pot of cultures and religions that converge in Malaysia.

Close to the capital, the Batu Caves are a must-see. Beyond the entrance flanked by giant golden statues, the atmospheric limestone caves are a labyrinth of tunnels, rock chimneys and yawning caverns consecrated as a Hindu temple with dozens of statues of deities, shrines and floral offerings.

Over in Malaysian Borneo the main jumping-off point is Kuching in the south, which embraces its identity as the city of cats, welcoming visitors with giant feline statues. Mostly modernized, some streets are still lined with Chinese-style shop houses, a symbol of the settlers who first came here. Key sights include Astana Palace, Fort Margherita and a handful of cultural museums. The wide waters of the Sarawak River separate the city in two, and on one bank you'll find quaint water towns still going about traditional life. Most hotels are in the airy waterfront area on the opposite bank. On the edge of the main city, the area has a riverside walkway and pier offering boat trips from simple river crossings to sightseeing tours and evening dinner cruises with local dance and music shows on board. From Kuching you can make forays to the scenic longhouse villages of the Sarawak jungle.

In north-east Borneo's Sabah province, you'll find the modern seaside city of Kota Kinabalu. Though remnants of its sultan-ruled past can be seen in some of the city's architecture, the original colonial settlement was flattened during world war two. An open-air museum of gorgeous stilted huts, gardens, lily ponds and lakes, takes visitors through the traditional roots of the island's various indigenous groups. The harbourside night market is a great place to experience local colour with a fish market, fruit and veg stalls, cooking stations selling freshly cooked food, and an area of little shops selling local goods.

Culture and heritage

Once a wealthy sea port, the old city of Malacca in the south-west of the Malaysian Peninsula is an intriguing mix of six hundred-year-old temples and mosques of ancient Sumatran design, and colonial buildings left behind by Portuguese and Jesuit settlers. The attractive tree-studded coastal city is perfect for sightseeing whether on foot, by tuk-tuk or on a slow cruise along the river.

To the north of the peninsula you can take the ferry from the town of Butterworth to the delightful enclave of Penang. A former British colony, the island was once known as the pearl of the orient. Malaysia's largest Buddhist temple – Kek Lok Si – is one of the island's most-visited sights.

Take a rickshaw tour around its atmospheric timeworn streets, preserved as they were 150 years ago. A jumble of Chinese shop houses, Hindu temples, Malaysian mosques and Victorian mansions are testament to the melting pot of cultural influences that converge in Malaysia. In Penang, this fusion has found modern expression in the excellent cuisine that makes the island a foodie favourite.

Staying on the Malaysian Peninsula, the city of Ipoh is also well worth a visit for a strong dose of local culture, food, temples and street art. The town's frothy white coffee is Malaysia's official national drink and the atmospheric colonial streets are still intact with a beautiful mosque at the centre. Just beyond the city, the Buddhist and Chinese cave temples of Sam Poh Tong are simply awe-inspiring. Temples, shrines, altars and statues have been built inside the dripstone caves and caverns, some opening onto the sky.

For encounters with Malaysia's distinct ancient tribes, head over to Malaysian Borneo for a road trip through the jungle from Kuching to the traditional tribal village of Annah Rais. Close to the border with Indonesian Borneo, the picturesque village of wooden longhouses joined by bamboo porches stretches on stilts along the riverbank. In northern Borneo you can dive into the island's legends and myths at the Monsopiad Heritage Village. Close to Kota Kinabalu, the model village is named after a local legendary warrior and preserves the beliefs and traditions of a local tribe of headhunters in a now-tranquil riverside setting in the rainforest.

For a snapshot of the island's different tribal groups, the Sarawak Cultural Village is an open-air museum in the centre of a lush wild park with a series of villages indicating each ethnic group. Set around a lake, there are live demonstrations of cultural traditions, music and hunting.

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