It's not every country in the world that lets you go from juice bar to jungle in under two hours, but Malaysia is a country like no other. With a quarter of the population being ethnically Chinese, there are smatterings of familiarity for a native Shanghai ren, but on the whole it feels like a pretty big adventure. Here’s how to get started.
The city: Kuala Lumpur
This buzzing Asian metropolis is modernity steeped in history. It’s not the most walking-friendly city, but taxis are cheap and the metro is convenient. The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (Jalan Lembah Perdana) is a bright oasis of beautiful craftwork. The museum focuses on the history of Islamic arts in Asia, and there are fascinating examples of traditional Chinese ceramics decorated in Arabic script.
For food, don’t miss the city’s bustling night markets. The most popular is Jalan Alor – Meng Kee Grilled Fish serves up fresh, Malaysian-style seafood. Eat early to avoid the crowds and to leave enough time to get to Heli Lounge Bar (34th Floor, Menara KH, Jalan Sultan Ismail) for a sunset cocktail. The still-functioning helipad turns into a bar from 6pm, with panoramic views of the city.
Where to stay The Majestic
hotel holds the honour of containing the oldest lift in Kuala Lumpur. It’s also a luxurious, characterful and historic stay that’s cheaper than other high-end options. Rooms from 609RMB per night (5 Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin).
The jungle: Melaka
Just 90 minutes south of the capital by train or car, Melaka takes you straight to the jungle.
Where to stay The Dusun
is a luxurious-yet-ethical nature resort in nearby Negeri Sembilan state; the mountainous hideaway is built with an emphasis on sustainability. There is no air-conditioning but the structures are designed to keep you cool with natural airflow and insulation. From here, you can trek into the nearby jungle and reach an isolated waterfall in just a couple of hours. The surrounding area has a few other resorts, but be warned that some of these are not licensed and from signs we saw during our stay, there seems to be some conflict with local residents.
The history: Penang
Malaysia’s second smallest state is home to the beautifully quaint George Town, a Unesco heritage city that hosts a mix of Asian and European architecture. Chulia Street runs through the heart of George Town’s social scene – be sure to stop at The Mugshot Café (302 Lebuh Chulia), and there are plenty of hip bars in the area, such as Mish Mash (24 Lebuh Muntri).
Penang is packed with enticing street food stalls. For a more formal meal, try Kota, which is nestled in Fort Cornwallis (Jalan Tun Syed Barakbah), a relic from the British East India Company. The sleek restaurant serves Peranakan cuisine with a healthy dollop of Indian influence.
Penang also offers a host of outdoorsy activities. The peak of Penang Hill can be reached either by vehicle or on foot if you’re up for climbing for a few of hours, alongside plenty of monkeys for moral support. From the top there’s an outstanding view of the city, which is especially picturesque at sunset.
Where to stay The Blue Mansion
is the former residence of Cheong Fatt Tze, a Chinese businessman known as the 'the Rockerfeller of the East'. The building has been lovingly restored and is right in the heart of George Town. Rooms from 890RMB per night (14 Leith Street).