While international travel is still off the menu for the foreseeable future, there are plenty of alternatives to popular destinations on our doorstep
Now more than ever, we’re learning to discover and appreciate the bounty of places on our doorstep. While places like the Maldives, New Zealand and Sri Lanka are some of the world’s most beloved destinations, Malaysia also brims with natural beauty that may fly under-the-radar but equally worth a visit.
Beach bums can head to the turquoise waters of Semporna, often said to be the “Maldives of Sabah”. Here, you’ll find idyllic islands like Sipadan, a world-famous diving spot with great beaches to boot. For those dreaming of a cruise down the Amazon river, why not head to Perak’s Belum-Temenggor, an ancient rainforest that’s even older than the Amazon? Besides quenching your wanderlust, travelling here also happens to be far more wallet-friendly than an international flight ticket.
Read on for our top picks of destinations in Malaysia that will have you feeling like you’re on vacation abroad, even if for a while.
Where you wanted to visit: The Amazon Basin
1. Instead: Visit the world’s oldest rainforest in Perak
Estimated to thrive for over 130 million years, Perak’s ancient Belum-Temenggor rainforest is in fact even older than the Amazon or Congo. This virgin rainforest — one of the few remaining in Malaysia — dates to a time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Now, it’s home to endangered wildlife like the sun bear, Malayan tiger and tapir, as well as a nascent eco-tourism industry. Well-heeled travelers can go off-grid and spend the night at the Belum Rainforest Resort, a luxury eco-resort located on one of the islets on Lake Temenggor, which offers day trips to the UNESCO-listed Royal Belum State Park.
2. Instead: Cruise along the Kinabatangan Corridor, Sabah’s longest river
Much like the Amazon basin, the Kinabatangan river in Sandakan is known for its varied high-biodiversity habitats which run the gamut of limestone caves and freshwater swamps to saltwater mangroves and forests. The best way to soak it all up is onboard the Kinabatangan river cruise — a must-do while in Borneo. Spy an impressive array of rare wildlife like the proboscis monkey (endemic to the island and one of Kinabatangan’s star attractions), saltwater crocodiles, orangutans, kingfishers and more. While luxury eco outfits like the Sukau Rainforest Lodge (which counts famed broadcaster, Sir David Attenborough, as guests) have set up camp here, Kinabatangan remains one of the best places for responsible wildlife watching in Malaysia that respects their need for space.
Where you wanted to visit: a rail journey through Europe
3. Instead: take a diesel-hauled train ride along Malaysia’s east coast
A slow rail journey through Europe likely finds itself a spot on most people’s travel bucket lists, but while that’s still off the cards, why not hop on board a charming train journey through Malaysia’s historic East Coast cities? The East Coast Line, often nicknamed the Jungle Railway, stretches for nearly 500km, running from Gemas in Johor and concluding in Tumpat in Kelantan, connecting the scattered towns along the way. Unlike Malaysia’s other modern intercity trains, this track is still serviced by old-school diesel-hauled trains built between 1910 and 1930, offering travellers a nostalgic taste of a rail journey from a bygone era. Take an overnight train and stop for a spot of culture and history in the frontier tin-mining town of Kuala Lipis (former state capital of Pahang).
Where you wanted to visit: New Zealand
4. Instead: Enjoy a farm stay in Kundasang, Kota Kinabalu
While you won’t ever confuse Kundasang with the postcard-famous pastures of New Zealand, it’s easy to see this small Sabahan town tucked in the shadow of Malaysia’s highest mountain is sometimes referred to as “the New Zealand of Borneo”. Its most popular attraction is undoubtedly Desa Dairy Farm, a sprawling green pasture that’s home to both a farm and a homestay. Factor in the grazing black-and-white cows and the unparalleled view of the 4,000-metre Mount Kinabalu and you’ll appreciate why it has earned its moniker. Just an hour’s drive away in Ranau, take an excursion to Poring Hot Spring, which boasts shaded bath tubs and lovely pools you can dip in after a day’s sightseeing.
Where you wanted to visit: the Maldives
5. Instead: Visit Sipadan, the “Maldives of Sabah”
With a whooping 8million hashtags on Instagram, it’s safe to say that the Maldives is one of the most beloved destinations in the world. (It welcomed a record-high of 1.7 million tourists in 2019 alone). While we might not be able to dip our toes in the archipelago’s famous turquoise waters right now, Malaysia’s own stunning islands are equally matched in beauty. Islands like Sipadan are famous diving hot spots, while hidden gems like the breathtaking Bohey Dulang in the archipelago of Semporna is a choice destination for trekking, diving and wildlife watching, as well as the incredible vistas of the surrounding islands you’ll be greeted with atop the viewpoint.
Where you wanted to visit: Scotland
6. Instead: See Scottish-style architecture at Kellie’s Castle
A Scottish-style castle is the furthest thing you’d expect to see in the Perak town of Batu Gajah, but that’s exactly what you’ll find at Kellie’s Castle. This unfinished, ruined mansion was built by a young Scottish planter William Kellie-Smith for his wife, although it was never finished and eventually abandoned after he passed in 1926. Today, it’s a popular tourist attraction among locals, largely due to the spooky tales and mystery that shroud the neglected and derelict complex.
Where you wanted to visit: Korea’s Nami Island
7. Instead: Snap an Insta-worthy photo at Pantai Senok
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the row of pine trees in Pantai Senok look decidedly “unMalaysian”; after all, the 4000-something pine and eucalyptus trees that line the beach were planted by Kelantan’s Forestry Department to prevent coastal erosion and flooding. While the reasons for the tree plantings are pragmatic and ecological, it’s not stopped tourists (both local and international alike) from frequenting it for picnics, selfies and even wedding photoshoots, claiming it to be near-identical to the famous Nami Island in Korea.
Where you wanted to visit: Chile’s Atacama Desert
8. Instead: Stargaze in Kota Kinabalu
Every year, thousands of tourists flock to stargazing hot spots in Chile, New Zealand and the United States to bask under the blanket of starry skies. While an international flight to these destinations is not yet possible in the foreseeable future, stargazing enthusiasts and nature lovers alike will be delighted to know that can enjoy their favourite activity closer to home.
Sabah’s rural areas, with have lower levels of light pollution and less cloudy skies, are prime for stargazing. For a front-row seat to the stunning cosmos, venture to Tawau Hills Park, which offers picnic areas, camping sites and chalets nestled in the rugged volcanic landscape. Alternatively, those seeking an off-the-beaten-track locale can to Lasau Podi, a countryside located roughly 20 kilometres from Kota Belud. Unlike the former, this isn’t a designated campsite, but the mere sight it offers of the mighty Mount Kinabalu against a backdrop of stars will surely take your breath away.
Where you wanted to visit: Sri Lanka
9. Instead: Check out Cameron Highland’s tea plantations
With its beautiful under-the-radar beaches, incredible safari parks and sanctuaries and of course, its renowned tea plantations, it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka was named the top travel destination of 2019. Until we get to travel there in person, tea lovers can head to Pahang’s Cameron Highlands. Boasting emerald-green tea plantations that stretch on endlessly and charming Tudor-style architecture, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the hill station for a countryside setting elsewhere in the world. Roughly three and a half hours from Kuala Lumpur, it’s a popular spot for day-trippers seeking respite up in the hills.