Though often left out of trips through Southeast Asia, 329,000-square-km Malaysia delivers a huge range of attractions on both the Malay Peninsula and the north side of the vast island of Borneo.
Malaysia’s two separate landmasses make it geographically unique among countries. Set between Thailand and Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia lies some 500 km across the South China Sea from Malaysian Borneo, home to the states of Sarawak and Sabah which border both Indonesia and Brunei. The northeast corner of Sabah is a mere 70 km from the Philippines.
Featuring the skyscrapers and bright lights of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, Peninsular Malaysia is the more heavily populated part of the country. Palm plantations give way to mountains at, for one, the 130-million-year-old rainforest of Taman Negara. Another popular spot is Melaka, a historical centre of trade with plenty of photogenic architecture for your camera.
For its part, Malaysian Borneo is a terrific option for travellers who love wildlife and the great outdoors. Climb Malaysia’s tallest peak—4,095-metre Mt. Kinabalu—before looking for orangutans in the wild and perhaps hopping over to the Mantanani Islands for some diving.
While Peninsular Malaysia is on the verge of “developed country” status with quality roads and railways, Sarawak and Sabah remain a bit more rough and ready. Both sections of the country are well served by flights out of domestic hubs as well as Singapore and major airports of Indonesia.
Many travellers dip only into Peninsular Malaysia on a one- to two-week swing, often by starting or finishing at Singapore. Those with more time should consider visiting Malaysian Borneo to make the most of the 90-day visa-free entries that the country grants to many nationalities.
Both sections of Malaysia see rain year-round due to the southwest monsoon (May to October) and the northeast monsoon (November to March). Watch out for typhoon season (April to November) if visiting Malaysian Borneo.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.