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A Guide To The Best Cities in Malaysia

Author: David Pettitt

Known for its incredible biodiversity and natural beauty, Malaysia is also home to some of Asia’s most compelling, cutting edge and sophisticated cities. Kuala Lumpur, capital of the country, is a fascinating blend of old and new whilst Georgetown, Malacca and Ipoh have charming historic centres with beautifully preserved colonial architecture. The little-visited cities of Kuala Terengganu, Kota Bharu and Alor Setar are bastions of Malay culture known throughout the region as centres for traditional arts and crafts whilst the remote cities of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo are entry points to spectacular national parks and isolated indigenous village communities. Here is our guide to Malaysia’s best cities.

1. Kuala Lumpur

Capital of Malaysia and its largest city, Kuala Lumpur has in the space of a century developed from a small trading outpost to become one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan urban centres. The modern skyline is dominated by the twin towers of the Petronas building which, when completed in 1998, were the tallest buildings in the world. However, part of Kuala Lumpur’s charm is the fusion of old and new with traditional Malay and Chinese neighbourhoods alongside grand Victorian, Mughal and Art Deco buildings. Highlights include Merdeka Square which is home to the largest flagpole in the world and some of the city’s finest colonial architecture including the Royal Selangor Club and St Mary’s Church, the serene Masjid Jamek mosque, National Monument, Chinatown and KL Tower from which there are panoramic views of the city.

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Kuala Lumpur skyline

2. Georgetown, Penang

The largest town on the island of Penang, Georgetown is a gem – a beguiling warren of busy streets, colourful markets and historic buildings. Contrary to other Malaysian cities, Georgetown has managed to preserve much of its heritage and this is most immediately seen in the diversity of its architecture. Chinese temples and wooden homes stand beside pre-war British buildings and those constructed by the Indian, Thai and Burmese communities. Different neighbourhoods each have their own distinct feel and part of the joy in exploring Georgetown is in its discovery, exploring side streets, enjoying cafes and curio shops and stumbling across roadside shrines. Georgetown is also Malaysia’s oldest British settlement and Fort Cornwallis, the Jubilee Clock Tower and Eastern & Oriental Hotel encapsulate this period of the city’s history.

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Heritage house in Georgetown

3. Kuching

‘Land of the Hornbill’, charming Kuching is the capital of isolated Sarawak. Lining the banks of the Sarawak River, Kuching has a charming waterfront and some beautifully preserved colonial-era architecture. Mirroring much of Malaysian society, Kuching has a diverse population, predominately Malay and Chinese but also with notable Indian and indigenous Dayak communities. Highlights include the renowned Sarawak Museum which opened in 1891 and is built in the style of a French town hall, Fort Margarita that was constructed by Charles Brooke, Rajah of Sarawak, in the 1870s, the Astana palace and 19th century Chinatown. From Kuching, nearby places of interest include three major national parks, including Gunung Gading National Park, and the Semenggoh Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

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Hornbill in Kuching

4. Malacca

First settled at the beginning of the 15th century Malacca is a cosmopolitan port city that for centuries was one of the most prosperous and influential settlements on the Malay Peninsula. Strategically located at the narrowest point of the Straits of Malacca, the town quickly established itself as the region’s main port, securing commercial links with Ming China, the Indian Subcontinent and Arabia through the trade of textiles, spices, silk, sandalwood and tin. This brought great wealth to the town which in turn attracted the European colonial powers and over the subsequent centuries Malacca exchanged hands between the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Today Malacca still has a striking Dutch colonial core, clearly evident British and Portuguese heritage and a colourful Chinatown that continues the country’s five hundred year association with the city.

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Malacca / Image credit: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

5. Ipoh

Located to the north of Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh is much more than just a gateway to the Cameron Highlands. Home to some of the finest colonial architecture in Malaysia, beautiful Buddhist temples, a fabulous setting and renowned food scene, there is plenty to see and do in Ipoh. The atmospheric Old Town is arguably the best preserved in the country – the tangle of charming lanes and wooden shopfronts of Chinatown sit alongside grand British buildings, restaurants, cafes, bars and boutiques whilst outside of the city the impressive Perak Tong cave complex is one of Malaysia’s largest Chinese temples and well worth visiting. Built during the 1920s by a Buddhist priest from China, Perak Tong is a major pilgrimage site where a series of opulent temples have been built into the hidden recesses and grottoes of a limestone hill.

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Perak Cave Temple / Image credit: Dennis Sylvester Hurd
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6. Lahad Datu and the Danum Valley

The unassuming town of Lahad Datu is an eco-tourism centre and the gateway to the virgin rainforests of the Danum Valley Conservation Area. A vast undisturbed area of primary lowland rainforest, the ecological and environmental importance of the Danum Valley is immeasurable. Supporting some of rarest species on the planet, endangered animals that call this region home include the Sumatran rhinoceros, clouded leopard, orangutan, sun bear, langur, long-tailed macaque, proboscis monkey and Bornean pygmy elephant. The Danum Valley is also a birdwatcher’s paradise and provides sanctuary to hundreds of different tropical bird species including several endemic to Borneo such as the Bornean bristlehead, Bulwer’s pheasant, Bornean ground-cuckoo and eight different types of hornbill.

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Proboscis monkeys

7. Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah and located on the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo. Originally a small trading settlement, instigated by the British North Borneo Chartered Company that actually started life in 1881 on Gaya Island (which can be seen across the bay from the present-day city), the fledgling town was moved to the mainland a few years later and christened Jesselton after one of the company directors. In contrast to Sandakan, the town remained a quiet backwater for the next fifty years until it was taken by the Japanese during the Second World War. The post-war period saw considerable development, the city was re-named Kota Kinabalu and developed as a base from which to visit the coral reefs of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park and the jungle-clad mountains of Kinabalu National Park.

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Fish market in Kota Kinabalu / Image credit: Marufish

8. Kota Bharu

Royal capital of Kelantan and a stronghold of Malay culture, Kota Bharu is in the far north of mainland Malaysia close to the Thai border. On the South China Sea and largely cut off from the rest of the peninsula, over the centuries the city developed a maritime trading network that stretched from Siam to Funan (modern-day South East Asia). Life in Kota Bharu also has a strong Islamic flavour and, although more conservative than many regions of Malaysia, this culture is mostly experienced through the arts and crafts, from batik printing and woodcarving to traditional dance and shadow puppetry. City highlights include the fabulous Central Market, Istana Batu and Istana Jahar, both of which are former royal palaces which can now be visited, and the Kampung Kraftangan handicraft market.

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Central Market in Kota Bharu / Image credit: Marufish

9. Sandakan

Located in Sabah in the far northeastern corner of Borneo, Sandakan has always been a hub for trade and, more recently, provides visitors with a base from which to explore both the interior and coast. Sandakan’s wealth came from timber, beeswax, pearls and edible bird’s nests (exported to China and made into bird’s nest soup) and the town attracted those in search of their fortune from as far afield as Africa, Arabia, Europe and Japan. Sandakan’s strategic location resulted in the town being heavily bombed during the Second World War but the fish market, Australian war memorial, St Michael’s Church and two 130 year old Chinese temples are well worth visiting. From Sandakan travel inland to take a cruise on the Kinabatangan River, join a jungle walk or visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok.

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Orangutan at Sepilok's Rehabilitation Centre

10. Kuala Terengganu

For centuries a sleepy fishing port and textile centre, Kuala Terengganu is a traditional city little visited by foreign tourists. During the 1980s the discovery of oil and gas offshore brought great prosperity to Kuala Terengganu and since then the city has grown exponentially. However the modern day development has not been to detriment of the city’s character and charm. Glistening high-rises sit comfortably next to the quaint streets of Chinatown, the stylish harbour is close to the city’s original kampong stilt-houses and the new parks and promenades add to the laid-back atmosphere. Located in the northeastern corner of the Malay Peninsula, Kuala Terengganu is renowned for the quality of its textiles, especially silk sarongs, pine mats and batiks, and is also a good place from which to visit the islands and beaches of the east coast.

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Fishing port of Kuala Terengganu
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11. Alor Setar

Usually a stopping-off point for travellers heading to the tropical island archipelago of Langkawi, Alor Setar is well-worth a day’s exploration. Capital of Kedah, the city has a number of grand architectural buildings and a lovely setting surrounded by paddy fields and gentle jungle-clad hills. The Zahir Mosque is arguably Malaysia’s most beautiful mosque, the adjacent century-old Balai Besar is still used by the Sultan of Kedah on ceremonial occasions and there is the unique octagonal-shaped Balai Nobat tower which houses the state’s royal instruments. Alor Setar is also an excellent base from which to travel on to Langkawi, with is palm-fringed beaches, excellent beach resorts and pretty fishing villages, or north over the border into neighbouring Thailand.

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Alor Setar / Image credit: Marufish

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