The history of Malaya goes back some 40,000 years. One of the first mentions by any western country was by the Roman mathematician Ptolemy, during the second century. Because of its strategic location, the country has been a valuable player in global trade and diversity for centuries. Early on, Hinduism and Buddhism were the predominant religions, but it was during the 14th century that Islam took root.
This Asian country is no stranger to colonization, however, starting with the Portuguese, then the Dutch. After British rule in the late 1950s, Malaysia gained its independence. This step began the transformation from Malaya to Malaysia, with Kuala Lumpur as its official capital. It's easy to see how the country managed to maintain its multiethnic and ecological diversity, even during its struggles. Through it all, Malaysia understood its economic and cultural value, and it worked to protect and establish itself as an Asian melting pot.
Located in the state of Sabah, the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve is more than 10,000 acres and is home to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The center is for orphaned baby Orangutans that were rescued from a variety of circumstances. When they learn to survive in the wild, they begin their new life the reserve. Travelers can visit the reserve, which is mostly virgin rainforest where the young ones learn how to be outdoors.
Before Portuguese conquest in the early sixteenth century, Malacca was home to one of Malaysia’s earliest sultanates that was founded around 1400. It was a trading hub and known for its multicultural existence and harmonious ambiance. Malacca is home to several landmarks, including the remains of A’Famosa, a fort built by the Portuguese conquistador Alfonso de Albuquerque, and the oldest examples of European architecture in the region.
Famous for the giant statue dedicated to the Hindu god Murugan, Batu Caves is a series of caves formed by 400-million-year-old limestone. They were once a shelter for the Temuan, an indigenous tribe, and were excavated by 19th-century Chinese settlers who found it rich bat and seabird guano that they could use for fertilizer. The caves are also home to Hindu temples and shrines that provide visitors with great exercise as they climb the steep flight of 272 steps to visit them.
While you may not know its name, Tioman Island became famous as ‘Bali Hai,’ the setting for the 1958 musical classic South Pacific, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. In fact, Asah Waterfall, one of the island’s main attractions, was a part of a well-known scene in that movie. Going to Tioman Island means you can take advantage of its duty-free status, relax on Paya Beach, or dive its crystal clear waters to explore its colorful marine life.
On the west coast of Sabah is Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Malaysia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The mountain is famous for the biodiversity of its botanical and wildlife, which includes hundreds of birds, and mammals. The geology of the mountain goes back millions of years and only those with a permit and the help of expert guides can climb the mountain.
Located on the back of the Sarawak River, Kuching is the capital Sarawak state and has two mayors; one for Kuching North and another for Kuching South. It was founded by the Brunei sultanate in the late 1820s and was ceded to James Brooke, a British adventurer, who became the Governor of Sarawak. One of the most notable landmarks in Kuching is the Astana, a palace built by Charles Brooke, nephew of James, as a wedding gift to his bride. While it has undergone renovations since then, it’s still the official Governor’s residence.
The Perhentian Islands is an archipelago whose name comes from Bangkok and Malaysia as a stopping point between the two nations. There are seven islands, including Perhentian Besar, and Perhentian Kecil, Lesser Perhentian. Both are popular destinations for visitors who enjoy scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, or canoeing. Ferry rides are available regularly, and once on the island, you can check out the trails, some of which go through thick jungle.
Built in 1965, the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur is named Masjid Negara to honor the country’s peaceful independence from Britain in 1957. The mosque has a 240-foot minaret, and the main roof is a 16-point star with stained glass windows around the main prayer hall. There are reflecting pools and other structures around the compound in addition to traditional Islamic calligraphy and ornamentation. Getting to the mosque is easy, as Masjid Negara is a stop on the Red Line bus route.
As the capital of Kelantan state, Kota Bharu will give you plenty to explore over the course of a few days. One of the biggest attractions for visitors is the chance to ride the Jungle Railway that provides beautiful vistas. Then, there’s Wat Machimmaram, an ornate Buddhist temple with tableaus and other artwork that share a variety of Buddhist spiritual visions and stories. Finally, there’s the main market, where you can find colorful fresh produce, spices, and authentic Malaysian textiles.
Before being founded by the British East India Company in 1786, the human history of Penang began about 12,000 years ago during the Neolithic era. Since then, the region expanded geographically and culturally. It has seen its share of booms and upheavals, ultimately becoming one of the cultural hubs of Malaysia. While in Penang, you can check out the tropical spice gardens that is home to herbs that are indigenous to Southeast Asia and visit the Kek Lok Si Temple, one of the largest Buddhist temples that combines Chinese, Thai, and Burmese architectural styles.
Taman Negara National Park was established in 1925 and is home to some of the most beautiful virgin botanical sites. Kuala Tahan, the main section, has most of the hiking trails, including Bukit Teresek, which is a little over a mile of lush rainforest. If you’re up to the challenge, the longest and most difficult trail is Gunung Tahan; it takes seven days and six nights to cover 33 miles with a licensed guide. This trail allows you to experience the beauty of the park without the massive crowds.
Kuala Lumpur Chinatown in Petaling Street is one of the most active places in Malaysia’s capital. The Central Market is over a century old and home to talented artisans selling crafts, such as embroidery carvings and sculptures. There are several ornate Buddhist and Taoist temples and shrines, including Sin Sze Si Ya, the oldest Taoist temple in Kuala Lumpur. Visitors are welcome to pay their respects and pray for divine protection.