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does not have the grand, ancient ruins of neighbouring Thailand, but its rich cultural heritage is apparent, both in its traditional kampung (village) areas and in its commitment to religious plurality. The dominant cultural force has undoubtedly been Islam, but the country's diverse population of indigenous Malays, Chinese and Indians has spawned a fabulous juxtaposition of mosques, temples and churches, a panoply of festivals and a wonderful mixture of cuisines. In addition, Malaysia boasts fine beaches, as well as some of the world's oldest tropical rainforest and most spectacular cave systems.
Your first impressions of Malaysia's hi-tech, fast-growing west-coast capital,
(KL), are likely to be of a vibrant and colourful, if crowded, place. Traditionally, people have stayed just long enough to think about their next destination, but there are good reasons to stay a little longer: accommodation is plentiful and cheap, the food is excellent and its streets safe and friendly. Less than three hours' journey south lies the birthplace of Malay civilization,
, a must on anybody's itinerary, while north up the coast is the first British settlement, the island of
, and its very appealing capital, Georgetown. For a taste of Old England and lots of walks, head for the hill station of the
North of Penang, the premier tourist destination is
, a popular duty-free island. Routes down the Peninsula's east coast are more relaxing, with stops at the sleepy mainland kampung like Cherating and the stunning islands of Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Tioman. The state capitals of
, near the northeastern Thai border, and
, further south, are showcases for the best of Malay crafts and performing arts, while the unsullied tropical rainforests of
Taman Negara National Park
offer trails, animal hides, a high canopy walkway and waterfalls.
Across the sea from the Peninsula are the Bornean states of
. For most travellers, their first taste of Sarawak is Kuching, the old colonial capital, and then the Iban longhouses of the Batang Ai and Batang Lupar river systems, or the Bidayuh communities closer to the Kalimantan border. The best time to visit is in late May-early June when the Iban and the Bidayuh celebrate their harvest festivals with ribald parties to which everyone is invited. Sibu, much further to the north, is another starting point for more visits to other Iban longhouses and the idyllic Pelagus Rapids region. In the north of the state,
Gunung Mulu National Park
is the principal destination, its extraordinary razor-sharp limestone needles providing demanding climbing and its deep, cathedral-shaped caves awe-inspiring.
The main reason for a trip to Sabah is to conquer the 4101-metre granite peak of
, though the lively modern capital
and its offshore islands have their moments, too. Beyond this, Sabah is worth a visit for its wildlife, including turtles, orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and hornbills, while oceanic
has a host of sharks, fish and turtles, as well as one of the world's top coral reef dives.
in Malaysia constantly hover around 30°C (22°C in highland areas), and humidity is high all year round. The major distinction in the seasons is marked by the arrival of the monsoon, which brings heavy and prolonged downpours to the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, the northeastern part of Sabah, and the western end of Sarawak from November to February; boats to most of the islands do not run during the height of the monsoon. The Peninsula's west coast experiences fewer major thunderstorms during the months of April and May. The ideal time to visit is between April and October, avoiding the worst of the rains.
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