With its tropical islands of secluded beaches, exotic marine life and cool hideaway resorts, Malaysia’s cultural mixture is best enjoyed in luxury.
There’s an odd yet wonderful sense of variety about Malaysia. From Kuala Lumpur’s giant Petronas Twin Towers fronting the capital city’s high-tech business-like nature in the west, to tribal villages pinned on wooden stilts in the east, the country’s contrasts are remarkable. But that nicely typifies Malaysia, a cultural melting plot where diversity is reflected in everything from food to architecture and heritage.
While it is now among the region’s foremost tourist destinations, Malaysia’s tourism has boomed only recently. Its leisurely tourists attractions were promoted with vigour just before the Millennium, through a significant and successful campaign. Now, across its vast range of urban and natural habitats, the opportunities to vacate in luxury are everywhere.
Geographically, Malaysia is split in two by the South China Sea. To the west is the more developed Malay Peninsula, housing around 80 per cent of the country’s near-30 million inhabitants, and 11 of the 13 states. To the east is Malaysian Borneo, located on the north-west side of Borneo Island, which it shares with Brunei and Indonesia. Here, ancient tribes have strong footholds, while Kuala Lumpur’s skyscrapers are swapped with longhouses, palms and reefs. Its two states – Sarawak (south) and Sabah (north) – are largely covered with dense, lowland forests.
Whichever island you choose, the cultural blend is present everywhere. The country is described as a melting pot of races and religions living together in harmony. Roughly half of the population is Malay; a quarter is Chinese while nearly 10 per cent is Indian. With the three countries renowned for their traditional cuisines, the gastronomy is among Malaysia’s finest assets.
In terms of resorts, the traditional five-star luxury stays are found near the coastlines; small beaches, palm trees, tropical forests and rich mangroves covered in fauna, where resorts have swimming pools, dining halls and stunning viewing areas. Some are composed in the tradition of Malay architecture; built on stilts, they allow cool breezes to ventilate the rooms from underneath, while also protecting against floods.
On the Malaysian Peninsula, a haven for such resorts is Langkawi; a cluster of 99 islands of typical tropical scenery. Among the many beaches, only a few are developed, allowing tourists to enjoy secluded areas in peace and solitude. Other popular resorts along the west coast are Penang island; the home of Georgetown, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Pangkor, an island dominated by fishing and a host of watersport opportunities like scuba diving, snorkeling and wind-surfing.
Overall, the Malaysian holiday activities are varied, and represent a mixture of relaxation and excitement for the luxurious tourist. The most soothing option is perhaps its spa treatments, reflecting a deeply ingrained cultural value of health and wellbeing. These vary from old Javanese beauty regimens to ancient Ayurveda treatments from India. Most resorts also apply methods such as reflexology, acupressure and Shiatsu practices.
There is also a rising number of golf courses; another typical five-start facility. More than 200 courses are spread across Malaysia, covering a total of 330,000 square kilometres across highlands, beaches and jungles.
Divers also revel in the country’s rich and exotic marine life and its diverse underworld geography. Certified diving sites are found along the coastlines, with species such as hammerhead sharks, barracudas and turtle species among the more famous sights. These sites offer both equipment and training. Some of the best places are the Sipadan and Mabul islands (off the east coast of Sabah), and Redan and Perhentian (both outside the east coast of the Malay Peninsula).
For the less aquatic traveller, the Malaysian forests consist of one of the world’s richest and most complex ecosystems, and cover 80 per cent of the country. National Parks include the popular Bako National Park in Sarawak, known for its steep cliffs, secluded coves and scenic waterfalls. For a tropical trekking route, the Taman Negara National Park contains excellent trails and river cruises.
In Sabah, the Kinabalu National Park is a must-visit – it includes the region’s tallest mountain, the 4,095-metre Mount Kinabalu, which is climbable for anyone. Further south, the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak is home to the longest network of caves in the world, including the giant Sarawak Chamber, which is apparently capable of rooming 40 747 Boeing airplanes. Oh, and don’t forget the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, located in the wildlife reserve of Pahang, which lets you swim with baby elephants.
Photos: Jason Ho, pistolseven, immanueltoa [all via Shutterstock.com].