Discover Malaysia's melting pot of cultures and cuisine

Jul 10, 2023

Drawing influence from its diverse cultural heritage, Malaysia offers a unique blend of traditions, customs, landscapes and cuisines. The capital city of Kuala Lumpur directly translates to "muddy confluence"—a nod to the meeting point of two rivers that run through the city, as well as the vibrant mixture of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous groups that call Malaysia home. 

While it's a long flight to get there from the United States, savvy travelers can maximize their vacation by planning a stopover to break up the journey. Consider flying via Doha, the capital city of Qatar and, most recently, host of the 2022 World Cup. Qatar Airways flies from 12 U.S. airports and has interline connectivity via American, Alaska Airlines and jetBlue (in other words, you can book and fly on one ticket from across the U.S.) On top of that, the airline consistently earns 5-star ratings from Skytrax for everything from its in-flight service to impressive business class experience, which was awarded the World's Best Business Class for the 10th time in 2023.

In Qatar, stopover packages start at $14 (including a 4-star hotel) giving you time to explore Doha's impressive modern architecture, rolling sand dunes, ancient markets and preserved heritage sites while you acclimate to a time zone halfway across the globe. From there, catch a Qatar Airways flight to Kuala Lumpur ready to explore all that Malaysia has to offer.

From the ancient jungle of Taman Negara to world-class scuba diving in Sipadan Island to the flavorful night markets that line the streets of Penang, a feast for the senses awaits in Malaysia. 

Here’s what you can look forward to when you visit:

Go back in time to the historical heart of Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur, commonly known as KL, boasts a fascinating blend of old- and new-world charm. Towering skyscrapers dominate the city's skyline, while a large lawn at the heart of the city known as Merdeka Square serves as a historic reminder of Malaysia's journey to independence. It was here that the Union Jack was lowered for the final time in 1957, replaced by the Malaysian flag that flies proudly to this day. The soaring flagpole ranks among the tallest in the world—a symbol of the nation's pride and resilience, as well as a popular photo opportunity.

The Kuala Lumpur City Gallery and Sultan Abdul Samad Building stand as architectural marvels in the vicinity. Built during the British colonial era, these historic landmarks once served as a meeting place for the British elite. Merdeka Square is open 24 hours and regularly hosts carnivals, concerts and dance performances, providing a lively atmosphere for visitors to immerse themselves in Malaysian culture. 

Ascend the iconic Petronas Twin Towers

The gleaming silver spires of the Petronas Twin Towers are an iconic symbol of Kuala Lumpur and a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Malaysia. Rising to a height of 1,483 feet (squeaking past Chicago's Willis Tower by 33 feet), these colossal structures once held the title of the world's tallest buildings and remain the tallest twin towers on the planet. Their sleek steel and glass design reflects the modernity and ambition of Malaysia as a rapidly developing nation.

It's fitting that the pair of towers warrant two dedicated visits: one during the day and another at night. During the day, visitors can gaze up at the towers from below while strolling through KLCC Park, a lush green oasis that surrounds the base of the towers, complete with walking paths, fountains, shaded seating areas and luxury shopping malls. Ride up the elevator to the Skybridge on the 41st and 42nd floors—the highest two-story bridge in the world—before continuing all the way to the observation deck on the 86th floor. From this vantage point, enjoy panoramic views of the city skyline and beyond.

At night, the towers come alive with a dazzling display of lights that illuminate the Kuala Lumpur skyline. The spectacle can be appreciated from various vantage points in the city, but the best views can be found from the neighboring rooftop bars, restaurants and pools scattered throughout the downtown Golden Triangle area. Located on the 51st floor of The Face Suites hotel, a borderless infinity pool offers unobstructed views of the twinkling twin towers and the rest of KL's cityscape below.

Make every meal count while sampling Malaysia's rich culinary scene

Nowhere is Malaysia's fusion of influences more evident than in its cuisine—a melting pot of styles and flavors that reflect the country's diverse cultural heritage. Wandering through Kuala Lumpur's street food stalls or Penang's hawker centers, it is normal to eat Chinese-style char kway teow for breakfast, Indian-inspired roti canai for lunch and Malay-spiced rendang for dinner.

One of the most common ingredients in Malaysian cooking is coconut milk, which adds a rich and creamy texture to dishes like curry laksa and rendang. Malay coconut rice wrapped in a banana leaf is another local favorite. Known as nasi lemak, this ubiquitous meal is regarded by many as the national dish of Malaysia, though it's the sides that really matter. Depending on where you are in Malaysia, nasi lemak comes with a variety of flavorful accompaniments like sambal (spicy chili paste), hard-boiled eggs and fried anchovies. While traditionally eaten for breakfast, this unassuming delicacy can be ordered any time of day.

Booking a food tour is a great way to sample a variety of mouth-watering dishes and learn about the cultural significance behind them. However, adventurous eaters with a palate for bold flavors will find themselves in paradise while wandering through the bustling streets of Malaysia.

Foodies from around the world flock to George Town in Penang, one of Southeast Asia's best food cities, to feast on asam laksa (a tangy and spicy fish noodle soup), cendol (a refreshing shaved ice dessert made with coconut milk, palm sugar and green jelly noodles), char kway teow (silky rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, bean sprouts, sausage and egg) and many other delectable street food options. Kimberly Street is a good starting point to get an insight into George Town's complex cuisine. Centrally located in the UNESCO heritage zone, hawkers pop up at all hours of the day, offering an incredible variety of flavors and dishes. The evening is the best time to go for a pyrotechnic display of wok wizardry, sizzling satay skewers and plastic stools under neon lights.

Jalan Alor, an aromatic avenue located in Kuala Lumpur, presents a worthy competitor to Penang's street food scene. Locally dubbed "Wai Sek Kai," or "Glutton Road," this vibrant pedestrian street is lined with food stalls serving delicious snacks like choose-your-own skewers and fragrant noodles to exotic dishes like frog porridge and pungent, fresh durian. Jalan Alor is conveniently located next to another favorite hangout spot called Changkat Bukit Bintang—known for its lively nightlife and abundance of bars and clubs. Every night, patrons of these establishments spill out onto the street and head to Jalan Alor to cure their late-night cravings. One of the most beloved eateries, Wong Ah Wah, is famed for its mouth-watering barbecued chicken wings, which is easily identifiable thanks to an image of Mickey Mouse sitting proudly on its signboard. Chargrilled until the skin is blackened and crispy and the meat is moist and juicy, these chicken wings are not to be missed. 

Those seeking an alternative to street food should visit Akar Dining, a contemporary restaurant in Kuala Lumpur that offers a modern twist on traditional Malaysian cuisine, or Gen, located in Penang, which showcases Chinese-Malaysian fusion dishes.

Join the wave of visitors inspired by Borneo's ecotourism industry

A short two-hour flight takes you from the bustling streets of Kuala Lumpur to the lush, rustic island of Borneo, which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and the nation of Brunei. Malaysia's portion consists of two federal states, Sabah and Sarawak, which are popular among adventure travelers, eco-travelers and scuba diving enthusiasts. 

The rain forests of Borneo are particularly rich in biodiversity—we're talking 14,500 types of plants and hundreds of animal species (including 150 different kinds of frogs)—many of which are only found on the island. In fact, Malaysia has so many unique animals within its borders, like Leonard's Pipe Snake and Hose's Pygmy Flying Squirrel, that Malaysia is listed as one of just 17 Megadiverse countries in the world. 

Malaysia’s commitment to preserving its natural treasures has made Borneo a top destination for outdoor lovers and conservation enthusiasts. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah and Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak attract visitors from all over the world, who come to witness these incredible creatures up close and support their conservation efforts. The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah provides similar opportunities to spot wildlife in their natural habitat. Accessible via small boats, guides take visitors up the muddy river to spot highly endangered proboscis monkeys, orangutans, crocodiles, pythons and elephants, depending on the season.

Spot green sea turtles at Sipadan Island

If Jacques Cousteau is to be believed, Sipadan Island is home to some of the best diving in Malaysia, and possibly the world. The father of scuba diving famously described Sipadan as an "untouched piece of art," owing to its pristine coral reefs, unmatched biodiversity and the opportunity to spot green sea turtles in their natural habitat.

While some of the world's best dive sites have lost their appeal due to over-tourism, Sipadan has managed to maintain its allure as a premier diving destination thanks to strict regulations on the number of dive permits issued each day. The island is a volcanic pinnacle covered in coral walls that drop over 600 meters to the sea floor. Marine life includes underwater oddities like blue-ringed octopus, bobtail squid, hairy frogfish, pygmy seahorse and countless species of reef fish. Beginner diving courses are offered throughout the area to accommodate those who want to experience the magic of diving for the first time. As for experienced divers, if Sipadan was able to attain Cousteau's admiration, it's probably worth a visit. With names like "Barracuda Point," "Lobster Lair," "Hanging Gardens" and "Turtle Cave," there's plenty to explore in Sipadan's underwater paradise. 

Reach new heights at Pulau Langkawi

An archipelago of about 100 islands off the northwest coast of Malaysia, Pulau Langkawi caters to travelers of all persuasions seeking a tropical getaway. Activities range from swimming in the seven natural pools of Telaga Tujuh Waterfall, snorkeling at Pulau Payar marine park and hiring Jet Skis to rip across the crystal-clear waters surrounding the islands.

And then there's the Langkawi Sky Bridge, a stunning pedestrian bridge that offers panoramic views of the lush rain forest and turquoise waters below. Measuring 410 feet in length, this engineering marvel is the longest free-span and curved bridge in the world. Take the SkyCab Cable Car up the mountain, climbing 550 million years of old rock, and observe at close range the unique flora on the ridges and the forested valley as you approach the top. Once you reach the peak, take in the view from Langkawi's second-highest mountain, Gunung Mat Chinchang, and test your nerve while walking across the glass-bottomed bridge. The experience of standing suspended in the air surrounded by breathtaking views is one to remember. 

Explore the oldest tropical rain forest in the world

Malaysia's oldest, largest and most popular national park, Taman Negara stretches across three states and 1,677 miles of jungle, rivers and mountains. This ancient rain forest is estimated to be around 130 million years old and is home to elusive predators like tigers, leopards and sun bears, as well as elephants, Malaysian tapirs and macaques. The dense forests are also a favorite among hikers. A long canopy walkway gives visitors a chance to see vantage points up in the trees that can’t be seen from the ground. A 3.5-hour drive from KL makes Taman Negara an ideal destination for a day trip or a longer stay for those looking for a true wilderness adventure.

Taman Negara translates to "national park" in English—a fitting name for Malaysia's quintessential ecotourism destination. The park is ideal for family activities like taking a longboat along the Tembeling River or to the Lata Berkoh waterfall for a refreshing swim, while adventure enthusiasts can take on multiday hikes like the Keniam Trail and Tenor Trail or explore the caves like Gua Kepayang Besar, Gua Kepayang Kecil and Gua Telingato, navigating unique rock formations, narrow passageways and, of course, bats.

Night safari tours offer a thrilling opportunity to spot nocturnal wildlife, including leopards, flying squirrels, civets, slow loris and owls. Or you can pay a visit to the Orang Asli ("original people") village and learn about the aboriginal people who have inhabited this ancient area longer than anyone else. While the Orang Asli don't speak English, guides are available to assist with translation and facilitate cultural exchanges.

Ready to go? Book your Qatar Airways flights to Kuala Lumpur.

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