Among U.S. travelers, many countries in Southeast Asia have reputations for difficult travel, customs and wildly foreign food — how do half-gestated chicken embryos appeal? Malaysia is an exception. This multi-ethnic, multicultural country, split into west and east regions by the South China Sea, boasts excellent roads, a brand new airport and country-crossing trains. It offers three-star hotels with $40 rooms, and visas are not required for most passport holders. For people who are intrigued by Southeast Asia, but find the idea of traveling there daunting, go to Malaysia. For solo travelers with a backpack who want to avoid the crowds of rowdy teenagers in Thailand, go to Malaysia.
In Malaysia, you get the same Andaman Sea environment—blue water, endless sand, excellent diving—but without the crowds. A British colony until 1966, Malaysia is also the only place in Southeast Asia other than Singapore where you’ll find English spoken natively. The country has the cultural diversity of London, the food of India and China, the Borneo rainforest and the world’s tallest skyscraper in its cosmopolitan capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Located halfway between Singapore and Bangkok — both geographically and socially, Kuala Lumpur boasts of its glass towers, air-conditioned monorail and streets teeming with young professionals. It is less gritty than Bangkok, the Thai capital but Kuala Lumpur also avoids the bland orderliness of Singapore, the city-state just south. Kuala Lumpur’s neighborhoods have both the mayhem and the modernity of many large Asian capitals. Two neighborhoods that capture this juxtaposition of the new with the more tattered are the Bukit Bintang area, for shopping and nightlife, and the Petaling Street corridor.
Overlooking Bukit Bintang are the world’s tallest skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers. Influenced by mosques and by spaceships from 1950s pulp movies, the towers are worth a look. Don’t miss the views from the observation bridge two-thirds of the way up. A few blocks away from the towers’ base, Bukit Bintang’s nightclub district glows, and mid-range and upper-range hotels are nearby. Business travelers and Kuala Lumpur’s yuppies come by the thousands to the neighborhood for the usual reasons—to dance and sing off-key karaoke.
A few monorail stops away, Petaling Street offers a completely different experience. Here you’ll find $20 hotel rooms, knock-off Rolexes and food stands offering roasted chestnuts and red, spiny fruits called rambutans. You’ll also encounter truly extraordinary meals of chicken and rice, and perhaps a few strangers with dubious investment opportunities. The heart of Chinatown and the tourist district, Petaling Street is an authentic working neighborhood. Oddly, this largely Buddhist neighborhood also features an excellent example of local Hindu architecture in two large temples. This mix is typical of many places in Malaysia.
If Malaysia’s heat suppresses you, head to the Cameron Highlands, a green region of tea plantations north of Kuala Lumpur. At a slight altitude, the highlands are cooler than the rest of Malaysia and good for a day’s rest from the humidity. Views of tea fields are restful, and colonial-era hill stations have been retrofitted into charming hotels.