The catchy tourism slogan ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ continues to ring true as this country really is a potpourri of Asian cultures. Muslim Malays, religiously diverse Chinese, and Hindu and Muslim Indians all muddle along with aboriginal groups (the Orang Asli) on Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo’s indigenous people, scores of tribes known collectively as Dayaks. Each ethnic group has its own language and cultural practices which you can best appreciate through a packed calendar of festivals and a delicious variety of cuisines.
For many visitors Malaysia is defined by its equatorial rainforest. Significant chunks of primary jungle – among the most ancient ecosystems on earth – remain intact, protected by national parks and conservation projects. Seemingly impenetrable foliage and muddy, snaking rivers conjure up the ‘heart of darkness’ – but join a ranger-led nature walk, for example, and you’ll be alerted to the mind-boggling biodiversity all around, from the pitcher plants, lianas and orchids of the humid lowlands, to the conifers and rhododendrons of high-altitude forests.
Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur (KL) is a place where gleaming 21st-century towers stand cheek-by-jowl with colonial shophouses and pockets of lush greenery, while shoppers shuttle from traditional wet markets to air-conditioned mega malls. Unesco World Heritage–listed, Melaka and George Town (Penang) have uniquely distinctive architectural and cultural townscapes, developed over a half a millennium of Southeast Asian cultural and trade exchange. Over in the eastern Malaysian states, both Kuching and Kota Kinabalu offer fascinating introductions to contemporary and tribal life on Borneo.
The icing on Malaysia's verdant cake is the chance to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat. The most common sightings will be a host of insects or colourful birdlife, but you could get lucky and spot a foraging tapir, a silvered leaf monkey, or an orangutan swinging through the jungle canopy. The oceans are just as bountiful: snorkel or dive among shoals of tropical fish, paint-box dipped corals, turtles, sharks and dolphins. Even if you don’t venture outside the urban centres, there are excellent opportunities for wildlife watching at places such as the KL Bird Park or Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.