Five places to visit in Malaysia: hidden travel gems for those willing to persevere
With its tranquil islands, thick rainforest and pristine waters perfect for diving, Malaysia has an abundance of little visited treasures waiting for those prepared to get off the beaten track
Tourists in Malaysia spent more on shopping than they did on accommodation for the first time in 2015, thanks partly to a proliferation of high-quality shopping malls that have turned the country into a key Southeast Asian shopping destination.
But while more people are flocking to Malaysia’s popular retail palaces, the country is full of hidden delights that await those tenacious enough to find them. Some are nestled deep within the jungles; others are found in the sapphire-blue waters that surround the country’s shores.
So leave the heaving city streets behind and set out to discover trails, diving spots and hidden architecture. Here are five spots we recommend.
1. Discover second world war wreckage on Gunung Telapak Buruk
In the state of Negeri Sembilan, southeast of Kuala Lumpur, sits the secluded Berembun Forest Reserve that contains the wreckage of a B-24 Liberator bomber, which crashed in 1945 during the second world war. The reserve is located on Gunung Telapak Buruk, a mountain that reaches 1,193 metres above sea level and is relatively unknown among tourists due to its distance from Kuala Lumpur.
The plane wreckage was discovered in 1961 by members of an aboriginal tribe. It is located around four hours from the starting point of the main walking trail, and although the plane was largely destroyed in the crash, the remains are surprisingly well-preserved, despite years in the tropics.
“You could spend the whole day there just looking for birds, taking photos and examining interesting flora,” says Darrin Wu, a Malaysian nature enthusiast and founder of jungle trekking blog the Rainforest Journal.
Wu recommends getting there early or, if you want to spend a weekend exploring the area, booking a night or two at the homestays in the nearby village of Pantai.
“The area is a rare green oasis near Kuala Lumpur and there is lots to discover,” he says. “But if your only goal is to see the plane wreck, it’s best to go up the road in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the mountain’s summit, and then hike to the plane wreck from there.”
Getting there: Gunung Telapak Buruk is around three hours’ drive from Kuala Lumpur city centre.
2. Dive in the pristine waters off Tenggol Island
Malaysia’s east coast is home to a number of popular diving hotspots, particularly Redang Island and the Perhentian Islands to the north and Tioman Island to the south. In between them is Tenggol Island, a little-known gem located off the coastal town of Kuala Dungun.
The tiny, quiet haven is only 3km long and 2km wide, with three small resorts that offer an escape from the droves of tourists at the more popular locations.
Diving packages and courses can be arranged through the Tenggol Coral Beach Resort. From Tenggol Island, divers can visit up to 20 different diving spots with an abundance of marine wildlife and healthy coral beds teeming with creatures. Slow-moving turtles, blue-spotted stingrays, bright-coloured nudibranchs and huge, passive whale sharks are all part of the sightseeing here. There are also a number of wreckage dives to do.
Getting there: Catch a domestic flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu, then take a public bus or taxi for an hour to Kuala Dungun. From there, you can arrange for a boat to take you to Tenggol Island.
3. Go farming in Janda Baik
In the state of Pahang sits the emerald gem that is Janda Baik – a small village dedicated to eco-tourism.
Janda Baik sits around 400 to 600 metres above sea level and is surrounded by thick rainforest. Temperatures range between 21 degrees Celsius at night and 28 degrees Celsius during the daytime. In the early mornings, you can often see a layer of mist settling on the surroundings.
You can stay at a number of homesteads or eco-resorts surrounding the village, and then sit back and bask in the cool highland air or go exploring. The village is a more tranquil alternative to Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, which is popular for its tea plantations and strawberry farms.
Nature enthusiasts can take a short hike to the seven-tier Lata Tampit waterfall, or visit the Benus River to go fishing for catfish or mahseer. Book ahead for a meal at A Little Farm on the Hill, a small, independently owned restaurant dedicated to organic farming and sustainable practices.
Lisa Ngan and Pete Teo, owners of the restaurant, have been in Janda Baik for nearly five years now, and are expecting to have farm-stay facilities by the start of 2019.
“For small farms like ours, eco-tourism and the rise of consumer interest in organic artisan food allow us to diversify our earnings stream, a very important development that allows small farms to survive the onslaught of big agriculture on the distribution and pricing of farm produce,” Ngan says. “Our business is built on the direct connection between the health of the land we work on, the produce we grow on it, and the food we serve.”
Getting there: Janda Baik is about an hour’s drive north of Kuala Lumpur, so you can either rent a car or hire a taxi.
4. See colonial architecture at Maxwell Hill
Maxwell Hill, more recently known as Bukit Larut, is the oldest hill resort in Malaysia, located 1,250 metres above sea level in the state of Perak. It is one of the few destinations in Malaysia that has preserved its colonial heritage, and contains century-old bungalows, cottages and English gardens.
Established in 1884 and named after William Edward Maxwell, the British assistant resident of Perak at the time, Maxwell Hill was gazetted as a permanent forest reserve in 1910 and is one of the least-developed hill resorts in Malaysia, drawing fewer tourists than larger attractions like Genting Highlands.
The gardens attract numerous species of bird and are home to a wide variety of Malaysian flowers, from the largest sunflowers in the country to the rare giant fishtail palm trees. Wake up early to catch the sunrise and enjoy the panoramic view over the dense forests of the Malaysian west coast, surrounded by glittering blue sea.
Getting there: Maxwell Hill is a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur city centre, or a four-hour bus ride to the foot of the hill. From there, it’s best to take a four-wheel-drive vehicle up, which you can book at the Bukit Larut Recreational Area Office. The roads up the hill are steep and full of sharp bends, so keep some motion sickness pills on hand if you think you will need them.
5. Unwind on Rawa Island
Visitors to the small but idyllic Rawa Island, located off the coast of Mersing in the state of Johor, are in for a treat. There you can stay in one of the many quaint chalets dotting the island and go diving, snorkelling, kayaking or island hopping.
An abundance of marine life awaits in the open sea, including docile sharks that don’t mind being watched as long as you don’t try to touch them. In calm weather, you can rent a canoe to paddle around the island and take in the view of its craggy cliffs and caves on the eastern side. There is also a public three-storey water slide located on one of the piers that is very popular with children.
Rawa Island is small enough that you can walk the length of its western beachfront within 15 minutes. You can also walk a steep path to get to the island’s peak, which takes about the same amount of time.
Janice Tan, 34, an avid diver and local island-hopper based in Kuala Lumpur, is a frequent visitor to Rawa Island. She goes there when she wants to avoid crowds, but warns that there are only two restaurants on the island.
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“If you’re there for a couple of nights, it’s worth bringing a camp stove, utensils, and some non-perishable food to cook if you want to save some money,” she says.
Getting there: It takes over five hours to get to Mersing from Kuala Lumpur, by car or bus. From there, you can catch a 30-minute boat to Rawa Island.