How to do Malaysia ... and get it right
Travelers passing through Southeast Asia often describe Malaysia as the perfect balance between tourist-heavy Thailand to the north and clean, orderly Singapore to the south.
It serves up enough grit and color to ward off the sort of sterility most seasoned travelers loathe, yet offers luxury comforts, as well.
Taking in the best of this 330,000-square-kilometer country in your average two-week visit is impossible.
There’s Mount Kinabalu to climb, the Cameron Highlands to sip tea in, the waters of Sipadan to dive and the ancient Taman Negara rainforest to stomp through, to name a few.
But first-timers who are short on time can experience the best of Malaysia's beaches, food, culture, wildlife and shopping by hitting up its three most popular destinations -- Penang, Langkawi, Kuala Lumpur -- which are all connected by daily flights operated by a number of airlines.
George Town, Penang
“Pace yourself or you’ll get fat.”
Blunt words of wisdom from a local watching me plow through my plate of lamb rending and squid eggs during my first meal in Penang's capital, George Town.
UNESCO-listed George Town isn't a destination to hit if you're big on dietary austerity -- eating will consume much of your thought process while you're there.
"What should I have for lunch today? Nasi Lemak? Maybe a bowl of laksa? Char kuey teow?"
A food tour is among the easier ways to get acquainted with the local eats.
For something personalized, Penang-based food and travel journalist Robin Eckhardt offers private tours, which need to be booked at least five weeks in advance.
Eckhardt's "EatingAsia Street Food Excursion" is a reflection of her belief that the best way to get to know a destination is through its cuisine.
Her most popular excursion is on foot and hits up George Town's culinary highlights, taking two to three hours.
To learn how to cook some of Penang's most popular dishes when you get back home, Nazlina Spice Station offers regular classes in a small shop house in central George Town.
Sessions include a visit to nearby markets and last three to five hours.
Owner Nazlina also does private dinners for two people or more, by reservation only. Her website has more info on days/times/menus.
Try as you may, you can't spend your entire time in George Town eating. Here are some other Penang attractions worth checking out.
George Town heritage walks
Old George Town is a walker's dream. Earning its World Heritage designation back in 2008, there are dozens of historic landmarks, from old English colonial mansions to Malay, Thai and Indonesian architecture.
Among these are the stunning Kapitan Keling mosque, Little India, Armenian Street and Fort Cornwallis.
Guided heritage walks leave from George Town's PHT Office every morning at 9 a.m. (26 Church St., opposite Pinang Peranakan Mansion).
Visit the Penang Tourism website for more info.
On a clear day, the views of George Town and beyond from atop Penang Hill are unrivaled, while the difference in climate atop the 2,750-foot mound will make you forget you're in the tropics.
The speedy ride up the hill on the funicular is an unexpected thrill.
What I didn't realize, though, is that the lines to get the funicular back down can be fairly long if you go in the late afternoon. But not long enough that for one moment I even considered walking back down via the trail, a jaunt that staff say can take as long as three hours.
Highlights include the Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas and a 30-meter-high bronze statue of goddess Kuan Yin.
Wat Chayamangkararam is a Thai temple featuring a 180-foot, gold-plated statue of the reclining Buddha.
Dhammikarama is filled with quirky shrines alongside the classic pagodas and statues one normally associates with Burmese Buddhist art.
The Baba Nyonya people, also known as Peranakan or Straits Chinese, are mainly of Chinese descent, originally from Fujian Province in southeastern China.
Penang has a long and proud Baba Nyonya heritage, which has adopted many aspects of local culture.
The place to learn more Baba Nyonya life is the Peranakan Museum on Church Street. It's set in a restored mansion built near the end of the 19th century.
The former home of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee, a leader in the Penang Chinese community, it features thousands of antiques and displays highlighting the culture of the time.
There's also the Blue Mansion, former home of Chinese merchant Cheong Fatt Tze, and built in the 1880s. The bright, indigo-blue property has been restored and is now a boutique hotel.
Daily tours start at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.; no need to book ahead.
More on CNN: Malaysia's top 40 dishes
Where to stay
A boutique hotel boom has taken place in George Town since it's UNESCO heritage designation, with local entrepreneurs going on a renovation binge.
One of the more popular Penang hotels is 23 Love Lane Penang, a luxury property in a renovated heritage building with modern musts like iPod docking stations and free WiFi.
If boutique hotels aren’t your thing and you'd prefer to have a nice, big pool to retreat to after an afternoon of gorging on some of Malaysia’s best eats -- heritage hotel Eastern and Oriental is as good as it gets.
The very first enterprise of the famed Sarkies Brothers -- the Armenian siblings behind the Raffles Hotel in Singapore -- the stark, white structure was one of the earliest major historic buildings in George Town.
Today, it's still about tropical gardens, manicured lawns and G&T sundowners on the veranda.
There are two connected buildings, the heritage wing and the new Victory Annexe, which opened in March this year.
If you want space, the 135-square-meter Writer's Suite, with a large private balcony, is a stunner.
Eastern & Oriental, 10 Lebuh Farquhar, Penang; +60 (0)4 261 8333; rooms from $240 per night
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Langkawi might be Malaysia's most popular beach destination, but the only wild things in this place are the animals found in its jungles.
There's a hint of nightlife to be found on Pantai Cenang beach, though compared to nearby Phuket up in Thailand the action is tame. Particularly during low season, from April to October.
Most travelers who visit aren't looking for a party, but a quiet escape in natural surroudings.
In 2007, UNESCO declared Langkawi and its surrounding islands a World Geopark.
Basically, that means it's a place with one or more sites of scientific importance, "not only for geological reasons but also by virtue of its archaeological, ecological or cultural value."
In Langkawi's case, there are three areas of rock formations that fit that bill.
There's the 400-million-year-old Machinchang mountain ranges; the rugged karst limestone formations of the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park; and the Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforestpark, best known for the body of water at its center, the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden.
Island hopping through the area's islets is a great way to kill a day, with some of the country's best snorkeling on offer.
Cable cars don't usually live up to the hype. Once you get over the initial thrill, you tend to start looking ahead for the exit. The SkyCab is an exception.
Opened in 2003, this 2.2-kilometer-long ride carries passengers almost to the top of Machincang mountain, some 708 meters above sea level. A 360-degree view of Langkawi and surrounding islands awaits at the top.
Perhaps even cooler than the cable car is the 125-meter-long SkyBridge, a curved suspension bridge suspended 100 meters above ground.
Panorama Langkawi, Burau Bay, +60 4 959 4225
Where to eat
La Sa, at the Casa Del Mar hotel, is regularly rated as one of the best restaurants on Pantai Cenang.
Sunset views share the stage with fine food, excellent service and fantastic cocktails. The menu has a mix of Western and Asian dishes, but the standout is the Malaysian tapas platter.
La Sa, Jalan Pantai Cenang; +60 4 955 2388
Where to stay
The Datai is isolated, a good 40 minutes from the most popular "nightlife" zone.
But it might just be the most romantic place to stay on the island.
This sprawling beach-front resort -- guests are shuttled around the property by golf carts -- was built to respect its surroundings rather than encroach on them, with jungle growing wildly throughout and landscaping kept to a minimum. You don't need expansive lawns in a place like this.
Famous for its onsite wildlife sightings, everything from monkeys to wild boars (small ones) can be spotted trotting about.
In 2013 the resort added 14 fabulous high-tech pool/beach villas, each with a private 12-meter pool, multiple showers and a separate dining/living area.
Guests are reminded to keep their pool villa doors closed, lest there be a repeat of an earlier incident when a band of monkeys allegedly attacked the M&Ms in a mini-bar, throwing things about with the hyper-abandon of a two-year old in a sugar bowl.
The Datai, Jalan Datai, Teluk Datai; +60 (0)4 959 2500; rooms from $325 per night
One of the most exciting cities in Southeast Asia, Malaysia's capital buzzes 24-7.
Like Penang, it's fueled by a diverse mix of locals, which is reflected in its architecture, food, arts and culture.
Most global travelers tend to look at KL as a stopover point on the way to other Malaysian holiday destinations.
That's a mistake.
This thriving cosmopolitan city is a destination in its own right.
Where to eat
I rate Penang higher in terms of the quality of food, though it's a difficult comparison given the sheer size and variety on offer in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia's capital is certainly no food slouch.
Open day and night, the Jalan Alor Hawker Center is one of the top spots in KL for street food.
The decor is little more than rows of tables and chairs set up along both sides of a traffic-clogged street. But the selection and price makes it worth that side order of exhaust you didn't ask for.
If you want to enjoy local Malay food without sweating it out at hot hawker stalls in the middle of traffic, Bijan Restaurant is one of the few high-end Malaysian restaurants not just in KL, but the whole country.
Bijan Restaurant, 3 Jalan Ceylon, Bukit Ceylon; +60 (0)3 2031 3575
Where to shop
Where KL does have the rest of the country beat is shopping, offering a nice mix of malls and markets.
Petaling Street, or Jalan Petaling, is in the middle of heaving Chinatown and famous for its night market.
A few of the leading shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur are: KLCC (Lot No. 241, +60 03 2382 2828); Starhill (Starhill Gallery 181, Jalan Bukit Bintang, +60 03 2782 38556), Berjaya Times Square (1 Jalan Imbi, +60 03 2117 3111), The Curve (Mutiara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, +60 03 7710 6868); and Pavilion (168 Jalan Bukit Bintang, +60 03 2118 8833) .
If it's tourist tack you're after, Peter Hoe Beyond (2/F, 145 Jalan Tun H S Lee; +60 03 2026 9788) in Chinatown is a nice alternative to the historic Central Market and sells home decor items, souvenirs, textiles, apparel, fashion accessories and artwork –- all from Southeast Asia.
About those towers
Few can spend any amount of time in Kuala Lumpur without succumbing to the urge to take a photo of the Petronas Twin Towers.
They're over-hyped, but you can't deny they're a pretty good-looking piece of architecture.
Once the tallest twin structures in the world, rising 88 stories (452 meters), the Petronas Twin Towers' design was inspired by the Islamic geometric shape resembling an eight-pointed star.
On Levels 41 and 42, a 28-meter-long, double-decker Skybridge links the two towers.
Better arrive early in the morning if you actually plan to go up. Only a handful of tickets for the Skybridge (RM50 per adult, RM25 per child, free for under-threes) are issued each day.
Petronas Twin Towers, Take the LRT train ride and alight at KLCC Station; exit at Kuala Lumpur City Centre, +603 2331 8080
Islamic Art Museum
One of KL's cultural highlights is the Islamic Art Museum.
It houses a collection of Islamic art from Southeast Asia, including artworks from small jewelry to a model of Mecca's Masjid al-Haram.
Surrounded by the Kuala Lumpur's Lake Garden, it's also a nice little place to escape KL's urban chaos.
Islamic Art Museum, Jalan Lembah Perdana; +60 (0)3 2274 2020
Where to stay
If you're after a hotel right in the middle of the action, the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur (12 Jalan Pinang; +60 (0)3 2182 1234; rooms from $175) is a new kid on the block -- it opened last year. A 39-story hotel adjacent to the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre, it's within walking distance of some of the city's major sites, such as the KL Tower.
If you like your rooms with a side of heritage, The Majestic is the hot KL property of the moment. Under the "Leading Hotels of the World" umbrella, The Majestic was built in the 1930s. The owners recently added a 15-story tower to the original property, which is linked by an air-conditioned walkway.
This is the place to stay if you're planning to spend the bulk of your KL trip checking out cultural attractions such as the National Museum, National Mosque and the Bird/Butterfly Parks. (5 Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin; +60 03 2785 8000; rooms from $172)
More on CNN: Insider Guide: Best of Kuala Lumpur
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