Photo: Temple interior, Penang.

Running from the Thai border in the north to Singapore in the south, Peninsular Malaysia boasts a diverse array of attractions.

Down to onward travel

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The eastern coastal stretch, made up of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang states, sees fewer tourists than the far busier west coast and is often referred to as the heart of Malay culture. Physically cut off from the west by a mountainous interior—the railway didn't reach Kelantan until the 1930s—the region's relative isolation saw it develop at a different pace to the rest of the country.

To the south, with the Straits of Melaka lapping at its western coast, the South China Sea lying to its east and the island city-state of Singapore linked to the south, the three southern states of Johor, Melaka and Negeri Sembilan make for a great introduction to Malaysia's natural wonders, as well as some of the country's fascinating and rich cultural history.

To the northwest, encompassing the four northernmost states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang and Perak, you'll find a mix of islands, historic town centres, national parks and traditional Malay urban centres. Compared to the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, this region is more heavily touristed and far better known, but it's still pretty quiet compared to nearby southern Thailand.

Each region has its own attractions. The east boasts a rich jungled interior and attractive beaches on the Perhentians and other islands—some would rank the beaches among the best in the entire region. The south hosts tourist favourites including Melaka and Tioman Island, along with the capital Kuala Lumpur, while the north is home to Penang and Langkawi.

While Terengganu has oil, it lacked the substantial tin deposits found elsewhere on the Peninsula's west coast, so never saw the same levels of immigration. The result is a more Malay populace and an ongoing reliance on agriculture and fishing as the primary industries. The region is also seen to be considerably more conservative than other parts of Malaysia, with the northernmost state of Kelantan being Malaysia's most conservative Muslim state by far.

For the foreign visitor this translates into a more rustic, low-key travel experience. Those with a strong interest in Malay culture will find this region to be especially interesting, with both Terengganu and Kelantan home to excellent museums—both states are considered to produce outstanding examples of Malay handicrafts, too.

If you're more interested in some down time on the beach, you're still in the right area—choose from the Perhentian, Redang, Kapas and Tioman islands, all of which are world class. Back on the mainland, don't forget the backpacker hangout of Cherating—it's been responsible for many an itinerary shake up.

This region is also home to Malaysia's crown jewel of national parks, the sprawling Taman Negara, which straddles all three states. Malaysia's oldest and largest national park, it encompasses pristine rainforest—including some of the oldest rainforest in the world—and a wealth of bird life. Visits can entail anything from a short stroll in the woods to quite demanding four- to nine-day treks into the park.

At the other end of the cultural page, and located a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur or KL, the cosmopolitan city-state of Melaka teems with historical and cultural sites. Founded in the 15th century at its strategic location, the city soon became Southeast Asia's top maritime trading centre and oversaw a period of tremendous Malay prosperity.

Johor is Malaysia's southernmost state. The relatively young and urban state capital of Johor Bahru offers little other than decent food, but plenty of natural attractions lie further afield. The state's highest peak, 1,276-metre-high Gunung Ledang, can be scaled during a serious two-day hike, and on a clear day the peak offers views of the Straits of Melaka and the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra.

The fishing village and sea port of Mersing serves as a gateway to the stunning palm-fringed islands of the Seribuat archipelago, including renowned Tioman, a well-deserved diver and snorkeller magnet that strictly speaking lies in Pahang state.

Endau-Rompin national park, which straddles both Johor and Pahang state, offers decent trekking opportunities through virgin dipterocarp forest, and is home to several endangered species such as the two-horned Sumatran rhinoceros. Also rare at the park are other tourists -– they tend to flock instead to Taman Negara to the north.

Striking north from the capital, the four northernmost states on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia: Perlis, Kedah, Penang and Perak host a mix of islands, historic town centres, national parks and traditional Malay urban centres.

Of these four states, Kedah—home to the resort island of Langkawi and food mecca of Penang—gets the bulk of foreign visitors. It's common to hear Langkawi declared Malaysia's Phuket and in many ways this is true. This large island has an international airport and a vast choice of luxurious resorts to stay at. An adequate selection of "budgetish" digs are also offered, so don't make the mistake of chucking it into your outa-my-budget box. Unlike Phuket, the sex tourism scene is understated and we reckon this makes Langkawi a winner between the two, especially if you're travelling with your family. The beaches really are lovely—really!

The best of Malaysia's north however is found on Penang. Though an island, Penang's main drawcard is its capital, Georgetown. This sprawling seaside trading town was formally inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2008, in part due to its unique architectural and cultural townscape. The island's beaches—Batu Ferringhi is the best known—are not all that much to write home about, especially compared to Langkawi and southern Thailand. Pollution is the main issue, but they've also been developed in a shortsighted, unfortunate manner. If you're heading to Penang, do it for Georgetown—not the sun and sea.


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