In Malaysia, teeming cities and tropical rainforests collide to provide a veritable wonderland for travellers. Between the street food stalls of Penang and the hum of Kuala Lumpur to the otherwordly Borneo, home to Kinabalu National Park, the fascinating Gomantong Caves and the dreamy Manukan Island (oh, and Mount Kinabalu), you'll never be stuck for something to eat, do or look at.
But with so much to take in, it can be tricky to know where to start. So here's Peregrine's pick of things to do in Malaysia and Borneo.
1. Hang in Penang
Image c/o Davidlohr Bueso, Flickr
An island of contrasts, Penang is an essential stop during any Malaysian adventure. The country's rich cultural diversity is none more present than here, where ornate Indian temples sit alongside Islamic mosques and Chinese architecture. There are plenty of attractions to explore, and plenty of street food stalls around to sample the local flavours from, which we highly recommend.
2. Climb Mount Kinabalu
Image c/o Chris Wary, Flickr
Although climbing a mountain might not appeal to everyone, you should make an exception for Kinabalu. At 4095 metres it is relatively easy to climb. At the top you'll be rewarded with incredible views, a magnificent sunrise and at night - a starry sky you could almost reach out and touch. It is the tallest mountain in Malaysia and the 20th tallest in the world. Many people climb Kinabalu to see its miraculous biodiversity and unique and exotic species, especially orchids and pitcher plants.
3. Visit Kinabalu National Park
Image c/o Tim Parkinson, Flickr
The mountain is the centrepiece of the incredible Kinabalu National Park, a World Heritage Site located about an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. The park's most famous attraction is the Rafflesia plant, which grows the world’s largest flowers. These fleshy, smelly, bright red flowers sprout on the ground and only last facouple of days before wilting. And then they smell even worse than the rotting flesh scent normally attributed to them. Although they sound hard to miss, they're actually quite rare and you'll only stumble across one if you're lucky. Although we're not sure if 'lucky' is quite the right word to use, under the circumstances...
4. Visit Manukan Island
Image c/o Atiqah Rahman Wyllie, Flickr
Found just 20 minutes off the coast of Kota Kinabalu, Manukan is one of the larger islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine National Park. Here, you can relax on the 1.5km long beach or enjoy some snorkelling - there should be plenty of technicoloured tropical fish for you to spot. If you look up 'paradise' in the dictionary, you may well find a picture of Manukan Island.
5. Jungle trekking and bird spotting at Danum Valley
Image c/o Gido, Flickr
If you've always dreamed of trekking through a tropical rainforest, you can't miss the Danum Valley. The 400-year old trees grow to heights of a ridiculous 60 metres, and wildlife is readily spotted. Containing around 44,000 hectares of Primary Dipterocarp forest, the Danum Valley Conservation Area is a small part of over 1,000,000 hectares of protected forest in Borneo.
Knowledgable leaders know where to find the birds you want, such as blue-banded and blue-headed pitta, the Bornean sub-species of banded pitta, Bornean ground cuckoo and the magnificent endemic Borneo bristlehead. Night walks and drives add to the experience with potential sightings of palm civets, Sambar deer, owls and perhaps a western tarsier. 6. Kota Kinabalu
Image c/o Eric BC Lim, Flickr
The capital of Sabah, KK, as it's affectionately known, was born between the Bornean jungle and the South China Sea. A true frontier town, there's plenty to explore here. There's good food everywhere, which you mightn't expect considering how far into 'the middle of nowhere' you are, shops, museums and the Monsopiad Cultural VIllage - once home to an infamous headhunter. KK is a key part of any Malaysian travel itinerary.
7. Explore the Gomantong Caves
Image c/o Col D Ford, Flickr
Renowned for their valuable edible swiftlet nests, which are harvested for bird's nest soup (yes, bird's nest soup), the Gomantong Caves make for a fascinating visit. The collection of birds' nests is an ancient tradition, and one that's worth learning more about. Wooden walkways through the caves, which were discovered in 1930, makes exploration easy, and oft-spotted birdlife includes crested serpent eagles, kingfishers and Asian fairy bluebirds. Oh, and bats. There are bats too!
8. See orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC)
Image c/o Tim Parkinson, Flickr
SORC is the largest and oldest orangutan rehabilitation centre in the world. It offers volunteers the chance to help rehabilitate injured, sick and orphaned orangutans and release them back into the wild. Day visitors can see the animals in the day release program and visit for a meal. So if you you can't make a full-time commitment you can still meet with these intelligent, and funny creatures. SORC doesn't only educate the orangutans to survive, you're guaranteed to leave with a renewed respect for animals and the world that we live in.
The program is very popular with volunteers, with an average of 800 tourists a day passing through the gates. People come from all over the world to donate their time and energy to these amazing, rare creatures in their natural habitats in the shrinking rainforests of Borneo. It’s a careful process where at first the animals are let out for only a few hours a day. They are then allowed to roam and come back for food if they need to before they’re finally captured and moved away from the centre into the wild.
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