Highriser: Malaysia

Whether for budget-friendly breaks or high-end holidays, Malaysia is a strong contender in the South-East Asia market, says Charlotte Flach

The sun is a hazy semicircle, kissing the horizon of the ocean as a halo of pinks, oranges and indigos blaze in its aura. All is quiet aside from the chirping cicadas and the distant lull of waves breaking lazily on the beach far, far below.

Malaysia orang
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, Kuching
Malaysia monkey
Dusky leaf monkey, Langkawi

I am on top of a steep incline, gazing across the rainforests, hills and distant townscapes of Malaysian Borneo, as sunrise breaks. Although I struggled to prise myself out of bed at 5am, to trek uphill, while braving insistent mosquitos and oppressive humidity, the view is a worthy reward.

As I sip hot coffee and tuck into a pastry, a squeal of delight signals that the couple who joined us on our trek is now engaged. Once the daylight is complete, our nature walk continues as we descend, spotting snakes, tarantulas and indigenous foliage. Our lively guide is clearly attuned to early starts, as he emphatically points them all out, keeping us from thinking about weary legs.

I’m at Rasa Ria, a Shangri-La hotel that prides itself on nature experiences, something which Malaysian Borneo is famously extraordinary for, spending a few days immersing myself in the plethora of culture and wildlife on offer.

Other standout experiences on the trip are a visit to Sepilok Orangutan sanctuary, where these wild creatures can safely raise young and take advantage of the daily feedings. Humans can watch these from viewing platforms for a close up, a suitably unobtrusive way to see these fascinating creatures, whose social behaviours bear so much resemblance to ours.

Or there’s the traditional Batik painting, where hot wax is used to draw patterns on canvas, and special watercolour paints are applied to create a vibrant and distinctive finish. The hotel offers a ‘sip and paint’ style experience where prosecco and gourmet snacks are served as you create a beautiful memento for yourself or a loved one back at home. And on a trip to Malaysia, there is so much that you’ll want to remember.

Melting pot

Malaysia kl
Petronas towers, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia market
Night Market, Sibu

Although ideal for couples wanting to cement engagements or create memories on their honeymoon, Malaysia is a great choice for pretty much any type of traveller, says Nandita Patel, Senior Product Executive at Audley Travel.

“The benefit of Malaysia is that it offers something for everyone. We offer self-drive tours for clients wanting to explore independently, and it’s great for families and multi-gen groups, as you have the mix of a cosmopolitan city like Kuala Lumpur; to local culture, arts and hawker food markets in Penang; wildlife activity in Borneo, and a variety of beaches on Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo.”

Now is a great time to sell Malaysia, with British Airways launching a new direct route to Kuala Lumpur from November 2024 onwards. Additionally agents can sell ahead as 2026 promises to be an exciting year for the destination, as it gears up for Visit Malaysia Year.

Malaysia datai
Datai Beach, Langkawi
Malaysia redang
Redang Island

“Visit Malaysia Year 2026 is a national initiative to revitalise the country’s tourism industry following the global pandemic,” says Siti Syazalena Amir Sharifuddin, Deputy Director, Tourism Malaysia London. “The campaign will promote Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage, stunning natural beauty, and unique experiences to travellers worldwide.”

The appeal for travellers is clear, with Malaysia welcoming 2.3 million international visitors in December 2023, marking a substantial 36% increase from the previous month and “positioning the country as a formidable contender in the tourism landscape, closely trailing Thailand in arrivals,” adds Sharifuddin.

The destination is positioning itself as an alternative to other countries in South-East Asia. Compared to many of its neighbours, Malaysia “is a great option for all budgets, offering charming characterful hotels to high end luxury,” says Patel.

As travel behaviours continue to evolve post-pandemic, holiday makers are becoming more interested in connecting with local people and culture, an area in which Malaysia has a lot to offer. “The rich diversity of Malaysia through culture, gastronomy, nature and landscape gives leisure travellers a rare opportunity to experience and discover local lifestyle and culture complemented by the abundance of eco-nature that Malaysia is well renowned for,” says Sharifuddin.

Malaysia china
Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia penang
Penang Taman Negara

As a melting pot of numerous cultures, including Chinese, Malay, Hindu, Singaporean, Indonesian and more, there are so many ways to connect with local flavours in Malaysia, adds Patel. “It also offers multicultural sites, street food and history, with Portuguese heritage in Malacca and British heritage in Penang, as well as wildlife and indigenous cultures in Borneo, birding in Cameron Highlands, to some of the best beaches across the East Coast, Langkawi and Pangkor Laut.”

What’s new

Park life: The Park Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, the first Park Hyatt property in Malaysia, will open in the last quarter of this year. Located on the top 17 floors of Merdeka 118, Asia Pacific’s tallest skyscraper, it will offer 252 rooms, including 27 suites. hyatt.com

Luxury living: Waldorf Astoria Kuala Lumpur is scheduled to open in 2024, featuring 279 suites. The luxury hotel will also feature five distinctive restaurants, including Peacock Alley, the iconic lounge and bar synonymous with the Waldorf Astoria brand, and a state-of-the-art wellness centre. hilton.com

Seasonal journeys: eturning after a hiatus due to COVID-19, the Eastern & Oriental Express, A Belmond Train, is running again. The operator has added two new seasonal journeys: the Essence of Malaysia (November to February) and Wild Malaysia (March to October). Departing from Singapore’s Woodlands station, it will stop at destinations such as Penang, Langkawi, and, for the first time, Taman Negara National Park. belmond.com

Sustainable solutions: Malaysia has introduced two new packages; the “Lembah Lenggong Archaeotourism & Geopark” and the “Dive Into The Unimaginable.” These new tours aim to preserve local heritage and enhance economic development through sustainable tourism. malaysia.travel

Top experiences for 2024

Immersive nature: Shangri-La Rasa Ria is inviting guests to get ‘Closer to the Nature of Sabah’ with its new three-night holiday package. The itinerary includes a buffet breakfast, serving local dishes from Sabah; Tembara Sunset River Cruise and Firefly Watching; and a day trip to Mount Kinabalu National Park. The package starts from £230 per night, based on a three-night stay. shangri-la.com/en

Chef series: The Datai Langkawi’s 2024 edition of The Chef Series will present menus curated by a selection of critically acclaimed chefs with cuisines spanning Asia and Europe. Each chef will create a bespoke menu using local Langkawi produce and organic ingredients from the resort’s zero-waste Permaculture Garden. thedatai.com

Canopy walk: See the rich ecosystem of Pahang from above on The Tree Top Walk Perhilitan Sungai Relau. The mix of platforms, bridges, and towers are a new reason to come and visit this lesser-known part of Taman Negara. Besides the observation towers, most of the lower platforms are wheelchair accessible. wildlife.gov.my

Going underground: For those keen to explore Malaysian Borneo’s fascinating caves, Sarawak features six, each with its own unique characteristics. Choose from The Magical Fairy Cave; Deer Cave, home to a million bats; Lang Cave with its jellyfish; Clear Water Cave; Wind Cave with its beautiful cavern architecture, and Niah Cave, great for birdwatchers. sarawaktourism.com

Where to book it

Audley Travel: A 14-day tailormade Malaysia trip costs from £3,050pp. The itinerary includes three nights in Kuala Lumpur, two nights in Malacca, two nights at Endau Rompin National Park and five nights at Anantara Desaru Coast. Price includes flights, accommodation, transfers and excursions. audleytravel.com