Malaysia is a country whose cultures and attributes transcend its geographical location. Although situated in the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia today is a fusion of colonial memories, vibrant multiculturalism and indigenous ways of life.
The things that make Malaysia famous can be surprising. Four distinct but thriving cultures live side-by-side. Amongst the list below are Hindu Shrines, Chinese shophouses, tribal rituals, and Islamic architecture.
so, what is Malaysia is famous for?
Peranakan (Baba Nyonya) Culture
When Chinese settlers intermarried with local Malays back in the 19th and 20th century, a new culture was born: The Peranakans. Many Peranakans became successful business leaders and much of the architecture and history in Penang and Malacca centers around this community. Today, their cuisine is one of the most popular in Malaysia. Many Baba Nyonya dishes have come to define Malaysian cuisine. If you’re interested in Peranakan culture, a great place to visit is the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum in Malacca.
On every street corner in every town in Malaysia, you will find a Nasi Kandar. These busy cafes are basic, bustling and cheap. The counter displays an array of curries and the chefs will whip you up a roti canai or plate of curry. This is the place where locals come to meet friends, eat breakfast or just sip a teh tarik whilst they catch up with the news. For travelers, Nasi Kandars are a great and very affordable way to experience Malaysian cooking.
Popular throughout SE Asia, cendol is a sweet dessert. It is served in ice-cream dishes with small rolls of green rice flour jelly, coconut milk, and palm sugar syrup. Other ingredients can be added and many cafes like to give it a unique touch.
Taman Negara is Malaysia’s ultimate wildlife spot. This area of rainforest is believed to be over 130 million years old. Unfortunately, now that so much rainforest has been destroyed in the region Taman Negara has become one of the only places in Malaysia where tigers survive in the wild. As well as tigers, the rainforest houses a huge variety of birds, insects and larger mammals. It’s a fantastic place to visit with river trips, jungle treks, and canopy walkways.
The Rafflesia plant
If you visit Taman Negara or another rainforest area in Malaysia, you may be lucky enough to see a rafflesia plant in bloom. The flowers of the rafflesia plant are the largest in the world. Some flowers have been recorded to grow over 100cm in diameter. Unfortunately, they are very rare and many species are believed to be extinct. You may not want to get too close though as they are said to smell like rotting flesh!
Royal Selangor Pewter
Royal Selangor is the world’s most famous producer of pewterware. Founded in the 1800s by a Chinese migrant, the factory still manufactures pewter products and employs over 200 workers. Whilst you can find Royal Selangor shops in most major Malaysian malls, a visit to the Royal Selangor Visitor Centre near Kuala Lumpur is a must.
At the Visitors Centre, you can see the world’s largest pewter tankard and try your hand at making a pewter bowl. The center is free to visit.
Perhaps Malaysia’s most iconic building is the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. For a while, the towers were the tallest buildings in the world. Although they have now lost that claim, they are still dazzling to look at. Their architecture is inspired by Islamic patterns and a bridge linking the two towers is an incredible place for panoramic photos. At night, the towers are lit up and you can see them from almost everywhere in the Klang Valley.
A great selfie spot is down by the lake outside Suria Mall looking back up at the towers. There’s also a gigantic children’s playground if you’re looking for things to do in KL with kids.
If you like caves, Malaysia is a great destination for you. Just outside Kuala Lumpur are Batu Caves. These impressive limestone caves are also the site of a Tamil temple dedicated to Lord Murugan. Every year, over a million pilgrims, descend on the caves during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. They are most famous for the rainbow steps and the monkeys. There are dozens of other cave temples throughout Malaysia.
Over in Borneo, Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and boasts some of the largest caves in the world. The famous caves include Deer Cave, the biggest cave passage in the world and Clearwater Cave, the longest cave system in SE Asia.
Most foreigners don’t know this until they live in Malaysia but locals here are obsessed with ghosts. Ask any local to tell you a ghost story and you’ll hear firsthand accounts of ghostly lights at sea, mysterious floating women and even the spirits of dead babies. If you want to give yourself nightmares, just google ‘pontianak’ or ‘penanggal’. Sweet dreams.
A 365 days worth of festivals
In a land where so many cultures live side-by-side, you’d be hard pushed to find a day of the year when there isn’t a festival taking place. The major festivals every year are Eid Al Fitr, Deepavali, Chinese New Year and Christmas but there are scores of smaller ones as well.
Planning your travels so that you’re in Malaysia during a holiday season is easy and very rewarding. There are usually free events, concerts, and get-togethers. However, it does mean that there are many days each year when museums are closed and traffic is particularly heavy. On the plus side, if you’re working in Malaysia, it means that you get a LOT of public holidays!
These incredible tree-climbing mammals are only found in Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia. Their famous orange-brown fur makes them iconic around the world. Orangutans are the only great apes found in Asia. Deforestation and loss of habitat have made them critically endangered.
In Malaysia, you are very unlikely to see them in the wild. There some great sanctuaries around such as the Sepilok Rehabilitation Sanctuary in Sabah. Founded in the 1960s, this center still houses orphaned young orangutans and offers visitors a chance to see them in a natural setting.
Malaysians love tea. Whether it’s strong, local teh tarik or crisp green tea it’s a favorite drink. Since the British colonial period, Malaysians have been growing tea up in the highlands. The Cameron Highlands is a great region to visit and wander around tea plantation, and learn more about the process o producing tea.
The ultimate Malaysian dish. Nasi Lemak literally means fatty rice. Actually it’s an assortment of coconut rice, fried anchovies, hard-boiled egg, peanuts, and cucumber served on a banana leaf. There is usually a chicken curry included as well as sambal sauce. Sambal is made from dried shrimp paste and chili. Definitely an acquired taste!
Malaysians eat nasi lemak for breakfast, sometimes for lunch or even dinner. They eat it at home, on the go or in restaurants. It’s truly a national dish as you can find it anywhere and at any time of day and night.
Did you know that Malaysia has 9 kings (sultans)? Not one but nine! Only one king at a time is the official constitutional monarch and head of state of Malaysia. Every 5 years, the king changes and one of the other kings becomes the head of state. There are 13 states in Malaysia and 9 of them have Royal families so to keep things fair and everybody united they keep rotating the crown. Of course, this means that there are lots of palaces to visit!
In the heart of the city of Kuala Lumpur is Merdeka Square. It was here in 1957 that independence from the British colonial forces was declared as the new Malaysian flag was raised. Merdeka Square’s claim to fame is the very same 95-meter tall flagpole. A visit to the wide-open space of Merdeka Square is a great place to take in panoramic views of the colonial-style architecture. It’s a short walk from Chinatown.
There are two subspecies of elephants in Malaysia. On the Malaysian Peninsula, you can find Asian elephants. The best place to see them is at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary where you can feed and bathe the elephants.
Over on Malaysian Borneo, you may be lucky enough to spot Pygmy Elephants which are the smallest elephants in the world. Due to environmental pressures on wildlife, there are now estimated to be under 3000 elephants in total left in Malaysia.
Street Art in Georgetown
The colonial city of Georgetown on Penang Island reinvented itself a few years ago with now world-famous street art. Commissioned by the Penang Government and created by the Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic the street art breathed new life into a crumbling city. The street art has become a global Instagram sensation. Many of the murals are interactive allowing tourists to become part of the picture. You can buy maps, do walking tours and read books all about street art.
Langkawi is Malaysia’s version of Thailand’s southern islands. A place where predominantly-Muslim Malaysia invites the rest of the world to come and party on its beaches. The island is duty-free slashing the steep taxes on alcohol on the mainland.
The island has white sand beaches, lush rainforest and several man-made tourist attractions like the Skybridge. Exploring the mangroves by boat is a great day out if you get bored sitting on the beach sipping cocktails.
If you’re into climbing then Mount Kota Kinabalu is Malaysia’s most famous mountain. Situated in Sabah state on Borneo, the climb up to the 4095-meter high summit is very popular. One of the highlights of climbing Mount Kinabalu is that much of the flora is endemic. You will see orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants that you will see nowhere else on the planet.
Kirsty is British family travel blogger currently living in sunny Malaysia. She has traveled to over 100 countries including over 25 with her two young children. Her blog focuses on honest family travel with a twist of feminism exploring women’s history, rights, and stories around the world. Find her at World for a Girl. Follow her adventures on social media on Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest.
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