A sprinkle of forest-clad tropical islands spills off the 2,989 miles of beach and mangrove-studded coasts that cut this green peninsula out of the sea. Running from the north to join the ancient forests of Pahang state in the center, the undulating peaks of the Titiwangsa mountain range split the country in the middle. Malaysia’s lesser-visited mountainous backbone is ripe with easy-going nature treks, but also hides a bounty of offbeat trails to delight the most daring hikers.
Across the South China Sea, the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah boast some of the world’s largest caves, jaw-dropping dive sites, and Mount Kinabalu – the country’s tallest peak and a sacred place to the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun people.
Confused about where to start? We’ll break down the best natural wonders Malaysia offers to help you hit the ground running.
A new treetop walkway offers access to Taman Negara at Sungai Relau near Merapoh © Kit Yeng Chan / Lonely Planet
Hike to the heart of the rainforest
Start in Taman Negara in Pahang state, only three hours from the futuristic capital Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s main entry point. Established in 1938, 1,677-square-mile Taman Negara is the peninsula’s best protected virgin rainforest, one of the oldest in the world, and the principal habitat for the last Malayan tigers. Roaming like needles in a tropical haystack, don’t expect to see any as you take to park headquarters’ easiest trails, such as the gentle climb up to Bukit Teresek, or as you glide down the Tahan River to the Lata Berkoh waterfalls.
You need a guide for the 2-day/1-night Keniam Trail, staying overnight in a cave and hopping between orang asli (Peninsular Malaysia’s 18 aboriginal groups) settlements in a longtail boat on your return route. But the park’s most challenging and soul-changing trek is the guided week-long, completely self-supported traverse from Kuala Tahan to 7,175-foot-high Gunung Tahan (aptly translated as “mount endurance”), the highest in Peninsular Malaysia. With loads of luck, you may meet wild elephants, tapirs, sun bears… or their fresh footprints.
If a week of camping in the wild is too much, head for the new treetop walkway opened in May 2023 at Sungai Relau near Merapoh, one of Taman Negara’s two other access points (and a caving paradise). It’s the easiest way to see Gunung Tahan from afar.
The Cherok Tokun Forest Reserve features Mengkundor trees, with buttressed roots taller than the average human © Kit Yeng Chan / Lonely Planet
Floating right off the northwestern coast, UNESCO-listed Penang island is well-known among foodies and culture vultures – but still much less visited for the variety of its 30-something hiking trails. Treks of all difficulties crisscross both 2,733-ft Penang Hill (a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since late 2021) and Seberang Perai, the slice of Penang state extending on Malaysia’s mainland.
Don’t miss the Cherok Tokun Forest Reserve near Bukit Mertajam, where you can hike to abandoned dams built during the colonial British era and see a century-old Mengkundor tree (Tetrameles nudiflora) whose buttressed roots are taller than the average human.
At last, for a scenic peek over the limestone karst separating Malaysia from the Southern Thai border, drive up to the village of Kaki Bukit in the often-overlooked Perlis state and try the easy hike to the 997ft Wang Kelian Viewpoint. At sunset or sunrise, this vantage point offers a bird’s eye view above rice fields, green mountains, and awanano – a dazzling sea of clouds.
The Deer Cave, in Mulu National Park, is the second-largest cave in the world © Kit Yeng Chan / Lonely Planet
Explore caves galore
Malaysia is a veritable spelunker’s paradise, and Sarawak is where to start exploring. The Deer Cave of UNESCO-listed Mulu National Park in the wilds of eastern Sarawak is the second-largest in the world, with a chamber that could fit 40 Boeing 747 airplanes. Oddly enough, peeking at one side of its southern entrance from the right angle resembles the profile of US President Abraham Lincoln.
In nearby Miri, the Niah Caves unearthed some of the oldest human remains discovered in Southeast Asia, including rupestrian art, wooden boat-shaped coffins, and a Palaeolithic human skull at least 40,000 years old. The town of Bau near the state capital Kuching has two other caves called Wind and Fairy, which are smaller but no less beguiling thanks to their intricate boxwork – unusual thin calcite fins that resemble honeycombs.
The Fairy cave has unusual thin calcite fins that resemble honeycombs © Kit Yeng Chan / Lonely Planet
Back in the Peninsula, the offbeat town of Gua Musang in southern Kelantan has an adventurous climb up to a large cave nestled inside the limestone massif that towers above the old train station. And in the south of Pahang, the less-visited Gunung Senyum limestone massif near Temerloh is pierced by 19 caves, among which Gua Terang Bulan, with its tall ceiling and large chamber, is the most impressive.
Don’t forget that the Bukit Kepala Gajah massif – a central attraction in the cluster of historical sites scattered across Perak state’s Lenggong Valley, Malaysia’s fourth UNESCO Heritage Site – has plenty of caves such as Gua Kajang, Gua Teluk Kelawar, and Gua Gunung Runtuh, where archaeologists found the remains of 10,000-year-old ‘Perak Man’, the oldest, most complete human skeleton found in Southeast Asia.
Another easy and exciting cave is the 1,213-foot-long Gua Kelam in the northern reaches of the Peninsula in Perlis. Piercing through the bottom of a hill, it’s equipped with a suspension bridge and atmospheric lights and makes for an interesting throwback to when miners scoured it for iron ore. Once in Perlis, check out the village of Kodiang and the challenging rock climbing on the pinnacles and craggy limestone rock face of Bukit Mok Cun. It sits on the border with Kedah state near the Kodiang station on the main railway line.
Scuba diving in Malaysia is among the best in the world © Magic Orb Studio / Shutterstock
Dive into Malaysia’s turquoise waters
Even the late French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau noted that the marine life of Sipadan, a small volcanic island off Semporna in the southeast of Sabah, is among the best in the world. Its surrounding islets Mabul, Kapalai, and Bohey Dulang, all have equally gin-clear water, white beaches, and flocks of tropical fish.
Snorkeling and diving are permitted at Sarawak’s first marine park, which was established in 1999 to protect four species of endangered turtle. The park consists of the coastline and waters around four islands: the two Pulau Satang, known as besar (big) and kecil (small), and the two Pulau Talang-Talang, also besar and kecil. Advanced divers can also explore four wrecks off Kuching, two of them Japanese World War II warships sunk by the Dutch in the days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The Peninsula might not be as well known for its underwater wonders as Sabah and Sarawak. However, off the East Coast, there are beautiful islands like dive-focused Pulau Tenggol, ripe with sites and a corridor for whale shark passage. Further north, the two Perhentian Islands are more touristy but also one of the least expensive places in the world to get a scuba diving license.
Back to the mainland at Mersing, ferries go to some of the other 64 lesser-known and idyllic islands, like Tioman Island, whose eastern side off Juara Beach faces the open ocean and is best for big fish encounters. Pulau Besar, which has several resorts and is a regular Expedition Robinson TV show location. With just one accommodation, tiny Pulau Rawa has one resort and a perfect, white-powder beach, while Pulau Sibu, the closest to the mainland, is a cluster of 4 islets ringed by walls of offshore coral. Further away, the gin-clear lagoons and offshore pools of secluded Pulau Aur beckon keen swimmers, while the hat-shaped Pulau Tinggi, with the archipelago’s tallest hill, offers even more hours of blissful hiking and snorkeling.
Gopeng, just south of Ipoh, features whitewater rafting on the Kampar River © MEMBERHS / Shutterstock
More fun on the water
Besides diving, Malaysia is excellent for rafting and watersports. The tiny village of Gopeng, just south of Perak’s capital Ipoh, has popular Grade-1, -2, or -3 whitewater rafting on the Kampar River, abseiling off waterfalls, and more caves to explore. Don’t miss the 2-mile-long Gua Tempurung, one of the Peninsula’s longest caverns.
Not far away in neighboring Kedah state, the Sedim River offers more sloshing fun, camping, and a treetop walk, while in Sabah, beginners can start on the Kiulu River and then take on the much more challenging Grade-3 and Grade-4 waters of the Padas River.
With so much coastline, it would be odd not to find at least one suitable spot for surfing, which Malaysians do best at Cherating Bay just north of Kuantan, on the Peninsula’s central East Coast. But there are surfable waves all along this coast from Johor to Kelantan states, and the best time to catch them is during the North-East Monsoon season from October to March.
Intrepid surfers can keep driving further north of Cherating along the largely empty coast of Terengganu state to lesser-known beach breaks like Teluk Kalong near Kijal and Batu Buruk beach in the state’s capital, Kuala Terengganu.
Pangkor Island blends soft, curvy beaches with chances to experience the local Malay and Chinese fishing village culture © Kit Yeng Chan / Lonely Planet
Exhausted? Relax on a perfect beach
Ever-popular Langkawi is not just a geopark featuring stunning, millennial rock formations but one of the country’s top beach destinations – and with more than ten different coves and a choice of accommodation ranging from some of Asia’s best resorts to backpacker hostels, Langkawi satisfies every taste and budget.
Further down the Peninsula’s West Coast, offbeat Pangkor Island blends soft, curvy beaches with chances to experience the local Malay and Chinese fishing village culture, including visits to boat-making workshops.
For a final, pure tuck-toes-in-the-sand bliss, head back to the East Coast resort islands of Lang Tengah and Redang, which feel like you stepped on some of the best atolls in the Maldives.
Beautiful islands like dive-focused Pulau Tenggol are perfect for both exertion and relaxation © Kit Yeng Chan / Lonely Planet