malaysia: the best kept secret in asia

malaysia: the best kept secret in asia

I used to have a love affair with Thailand – the sparkling jade beaches, mouth-watering food and smiling, genuine people were all pretty hard to beat in my mind. But I have a new country in my life. Like many other travellers, on my first few trips exploring South-East Asia I skipped Malaysia, not sure that I would find much to enjoy there. Singapore is not my favourite place to visit, so in my mind I had Malaysia pegged as some sort of less-fun, less-beautiful version of Thailand. It probably didn’t help that my first experience of Kuala Lumpur involved wandering the streets solo looking for my accomodation for an hour with a 20 kilogram backpack, sweating profusely!

Well, I am so glad that I tried again. Malaysia has become my new favourite place. Read on to learn about some of the stunning destinations that explain why my favourite experiences in South East Asia so far have been in Malaysia.

Perhentian Islands, East Coast Malaysia

I was honestly very conscious of keeping my expectations in check before arriving here. Having heard the old ‘paradise lost’ adage cried by others, I’m happy to say that it was for no reason, as I was immediately blown away. Think of the most beautiful island that you have seen and triple that beauty. The crystal aqua water, abundance of marine life and the general chilled vibe of this place (there are no roads on the island!) was incredible.

Abdul’s Beach, Perhentian Besar

I stayed on Perhentian Besar, which is considered ‘the family island’ but that was perfect for me.  Everything was closing up by my preferred bedtime (cough….9pm) which was great. There are multiple stunning beaches scattered around the island, my favourite being the Perhentian Island Resort beach. It is possible to snorkel with turtles here, directly off the beach, which was an absolutely amazing experience. Try staying at one of the cheaper guesthouses near Perhentian Island Resort Beach if you are on a budget, such as Mama’s Chalet or Watercolours which have basic bungalows. This place seems to be somewhat of a hidden paradise – it seemed Besar was half full when we were there in peak season, although this could be due to the limited amount of accommodation on the islands. Make sure you pre-book just to be safe.

Perhentian Island Resort Beach in the distance, Perhentian Besar

Getting to the Perhentian Islands took a few steps but was quite simple. Fly into Kota Bharu airport (try Air Asia for super cheap fares) in the morning and it is possible to get a direct transfer to Kuala Besut – the jetty where the boats to the islands depart from, and make the trip in a day. Alternatively you can stop off in Kota Bharu for the evening and continue to Kuala Besut jetty in the morning.

Best Bit: Perhentian Island Resort Beach

Turtle Beach, Perhentian Besar
Taman Negara National Park

Think stunning primordial rainforest, a deafening cacophony of mysterious sounds from hidden creatures and thrilling wildlife glimpses – that’s Taman Negara. One of the largest (over 4000 square kilometres!) and oldest tracts of rainforest in peninsular Malaysia it is a perfect place to explore the beauty of the jungle in South East Asia. Taman Negara is a spectacular place to do multi-day treks, however as we had limited time, it was more convenient to stay in Kuala Tahan, the town that is the starting point for the national park, rather than do one of these.

View from Bukit Teresek, Taman Negara

While we were here we ‘splurged’ on staying in the Mutiara Resort which is actually on the edge of the national park, rather than across the river in Kuala Tahan town. This meant we were able to avoid the river crossing each morning. If you have the budget to stay here (they have a range of accommodation including dorms) I highly recommend it – being able to stroll directly into the jungle was magical and the surrounds are much more beautiful than Kuala Tahan town. There are a number of day walks possible in Taman Negara – I highly recommend the Lubok Simpon walk for a swimming spot, the Rainforest Canopy Walk and the more challenging Bukit Teresek walk, which has an amazing view. There is also a wildlife hide (a small raised hut) to view residents of the jungle located just behind accommodation – watching here at dawn and dusk we saw native Malay deer, wild pigs and some other mysterious animals.

Lubok Simpon, Taman Negara

Getting to Kuala Tahan is possible by transfer usually through Jerantut from most locations in Malaysia. There is also the option of doing a leg of the trip by river either in or out of the park, we did this on the way out and it was a beautiful (albeit quite long and bum-numbing) departure from the park.

Best Bit: Lubok Simpon Swimming Hole

Sungai Tahan, Taman Negara

Kuala  Lumpur

My first encounter with this steamy city wasn’t pretty but I’m so glad I gave it another try. KL buzzes with new sights, sounds and smells around every corner. If one of your primary concerns when you are travelling is where your next meal is coming from (and you spend hours researching the best place to track down said meal) then KL will surely satisfy. Malaysian food will have your tastebuds dancing and the sheer variety of foods that come from its melting-pot of cultures has something for everyone. Jalan Alor and other night food markets are an excellent way to sample the best of  these local cuisines. KL is also a shopaholic’s dream destination. I think I spent a full 12-hour day just indulging all my capitalist fantasies. From malls to markets, you will find everything you want and much more. Accomodation is plentiful and cheap, try Airbnb for comfortable apartments, many located in buildings with a pool and gym.

Cheesy smile. Amazing noodles. Jalan Alor Night Market, Bukit Bintang.

Getting to KL is simple, as it is the hub of Air Asia which flies many routes covering most of Asia. From Australia it is an easy and cheap 8 hour flight, which is serviced by many budget airlines.

Best Bit: Jalan Alor food night market for gourmet delights.

Have you got any more Malaysian gems to share that you know about? Tell me your secrets below! 

I’m Stephanie and this year I’m taking a break from life in Australia. I’m traveling South, Central and North America, learning Spanish, eating tacos and seeking out amazing swimming spots. When I’m taking time out from that hectic schedule I like to write, read and relax – and pat cute street animals that I really shouldn’t. I probably wrote most of what you’re reading from my hammock and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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