Iconic buildings, street markets, sandy beaches, jungle treks, orangutan sanctuaries and lashings of luxury: a holiday in Malaysia packs a colourful punch for visitors who want a bit of beach, an encounter with culture and a taste of adventure
Landing at Kuala Lumpur with a bad case of jet lag, my first impressions of Malaysia were the swiftness of security, people wearing anti-pollution face masks and being ripped off by a taxi driver.
A week later I could forgive the man, as my experience of this captivating country was easily worth twice the price.
The 150 ringgitt (£30) fee I’d agreed for my ride to the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur turned out to be twice the going rate. This put the driver in high spirits and he offered me his views of Kuala Lumpur for ‘free’.
He told me that, while its growth had not been quite as rapid as Dubai’s, most of the city’s tall buildings and infrastructure had appeared in a relatively short space of time, leaving the landscape unrecognisable from the Kuala Lumpur of his childhood.
Kuala Lumpur has very human, gritty areas – admittedly slightly tatty but still complex and interesting – intertwined with the architectural perfection and simplicity of the more modern touches – predominantly shopping malls.
Walking is an act of enforced adventure as convenient movement on foot obviously played second fiddle to cars during the city’s development. The best hotels are huddled in the grandly titled Golden Triangle, where the Mandarin Oriental vies with the Shangri-La for ‘best of the big boys’ status.
According to the Shangri-La’s general manager, Lothar Nessmann, demand for luxury experiences across Malaysia is steadily increasing, prompting the likes of Grand Hyatt to plan to open in Kuala Lumpur soon following recent launches by Four Seasons in Pulau Langkawi and the opening of G Hotel in Penang.
With two days in Kuala Lumpur, and little knowledge of the city, I needed help.
Cue Shangri-La’s concierge, Mohd Fazrul bin Amir Ilyas, with a frog-porridge solution. He directed me to Jalan Alor, the hawkers’ street, and recommended a bowl of this local delicacy. I didn’t have the stomach to admit I opted for the more familiar-sounding chicken wings instead.
Tengat Tong Shin is, as he’d promised, full of quaint restaurants and bars, while China Town and Central Market are enjoyable hustle and bustle spots.
The viewing bridge at the Petronas Twin Towers is top of the traditional to-do list. If your client chooses to visit this Malaysian mega structure, challenge them to solve the four puzzles in the lift lobby.
Just over two hours away by air is the land of the orangutan in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.
The third-largest island in the world, it is awash with adventure. Options include jungle trekking, white-water rafting, mountain climbing, cave walking, scuba diving and lots more besides.
Kota Kinabalu, the gateway to Sabah, is a major tourist destination, the highlight of which is the Sunday morning Gaya Street Fair. If you want a pink cactus, ringgit fish, fresh Borneo coffee, leather shoes, coral trinkets or a “Gucci” handbag, this is the place to go.
The Shangri-La Rasa Ria is an excellent base from which to explore the state, boasting a beautiful beach, top-notch golf course and sumptuous food.
For those travelling with youngsters but keen to get a sense of the natural side of Sabah, the hotel does nature walks and is home to five baby orangutans.
But to meet the grown-ups, head to Sepilok, one of the world’s best wildlife sanctuaries. It looks after orangutans that have been in captivity or abandoned by their mothers.
Sepilok is accessible on a day trip from the Shangri-La Rasa Ria, as is Mount Kinabalu, a two-hour drive from the hotel. You don’t have to be an experienced climber to ascend the mountain, and hikers are rewarded with inspiring views, especially at sunrise.
At the foot of the slopes are the Poring Hot Springs, which are claimed to have therapeutic powers to ease aching muscles.
A one-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur is Pulau Langkawi, the main island of the 99 that make up Langkawi.
In the northwest are two of the best hotels on the island, the Datai and the Andaman.
These have the best private beachfronts, and there are rumours that Shangri-La is considering opening up next door. In the northeast is a Four Seasons resort, and in the southeast is a Westin.
Must-see places include the main town of Kuah, which is the place to go for a bit of retail therapy and a night of partying. The jetty is the take-off point to reach some of the other islands of Langkawi and the Palau Payar Marine park.
Legends Park is a landscaped glimpse of the natural beauty of the island for those who like a more manicured adventure.And for little hard work, the rewards are great at the Seven Wells falls, a waterfall broken by seven natural pools, and the Durian Perangin Falls – both extraordinary spots for a dip and a picnic after a very short trek.
The Langkawi cable car, which takes you to the top of Gunung Mat Chinang, gives you a great sense of the size and beauty of Langkawi.
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