Malaysia is a destination of enticing contrasts. Malay Borneo exerts a powerful pull on the parts of our traveller souls that crave adventure, and creates a strong wish to help conserve what has become endangered. Just a short hop across the sea, mainland Malaysia’s highlights - the effervescent capital of KL, Penang’s historic port full of foodie culture, and pristine stretches of Langkawi beach - are hard to resist for entirely different reasons. Combine both in this versatile journey that takes you from dense jungle to golden sand via the country’s famously vibrant towns.
Malay Borneo is a rare jewel; a rainforest landscape brimming with biodiversity that calls ever more urgently to be protected. Compared with this jungle wilderness, Peninsular Malaysia feels like a different country. Combining the two into one trip provides a taste of Borneo’s unique landscape alongside a rounded glimpse of the Peninsular, and a little effortless beach time to ensure your batteries are 100% recharged. A natural route that offers a snapshot of Malaysia's finest moments.
Mention ‘Borneo wildlife’ and its the orangutans - the island's most iconic residents - that immediately spring to mind. With their russet-brown fur and irresistibly human-esque characteristics, orangutans are a major reason why the island tops so many travel bucket lists. However, many of the island’s endemic species, including the orangutans, are seriously endangered. Conscientious tourism is one way to ensure that there are financial incentives to preserve the last stretches of this unique habitat.
This journey jumps right into Borneo's conservation work with visits to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary, Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Between them, these inspiring organisations take in orphaned and ex-captive animals and rehabilitate them for life in the wild; provide safety, food and light-touch care to older animals; and educate visitors and local communities on practical and effective conservation. Watch the staff at Sepilok care for orphaned orangutans in the nursery, and follow rangers from each centre out to jungle walkways and feeding platforms to glimpse wild orangutans, sun bears and other species at closer quarters. Each visit provides vital funds that allow these organisations to continue creating safe spaces for the animals, and it’s a wonderful way to see grassroots conservation in action
Cutting a winding path through Sabah’s rich jungle, the Kinabatangan River is a hub for wildlife who congregate along its banks. Scanning the line where the water meets the land can reward the keen onlooker with sightings of kingfishers and hornbills, macaques and gibbons, and even the odd orangutan or pygmy elephant, as a diverse tapestry of life appears along the treeline. Settle down in a simple riverside lodge, designed to sit unobtrusively within the surrounding landscape, and wake each morning to the sounds of the jungle as the first rays of sunlight filter down through the dappled canopy.
Wander through the trees on small networks of wooden walkways to experience being truly immersed in your surroundings, but the ultimate way to see the waterside wildlife at close quarters is by winding your way down the river by boat. Depending on the time of day you head out, you’ll discover a different selection of wildlife. Cast off in the early morning to catch sight of larger mammals and primates enjoying the riverbank before the heat of the day sets in; cruise through the trees in the early afternoon to find an array of colourful birds taking flight; or discover a totally different side to the river after dusk.
Tucked away on a riverbend in the heart of the Danum Valley Conservation area, the Borneo Rainforest Lodge is a surprisingly high-spec pocket of luxury. Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t luxury of the swanky rooftop bars and opulent decor variety; what’s offered here is immersive, concentrated and entirely fitting to the lodge’s unparalleled surroundings. Think bright, spacious rooms which feel like private treehouse havens, uninterrupted views over the rainforest through wide walls of glass, and secluded terraces with cooling plunge pools. A stay here allows you to pause and really take in the sensation of being surrounded by one of the most extraordinary ecosystems in the world; to appreciate that you really are amongst it all, breathing it in.
The Rainforest Lodge’s high canopy walkway is an extraordinary way to get out into the jungle. Wandering high amongst the treetops gives you an unparalleled perspective on the landscape, and the chance to catch sight of different species making their way through the branches just a few metres away. The lodge’s sustainability credentials are admirable, and they have a strong commitment to orangutan conservation and research. Head out on guided walks through the rainforest, and return to the lodge to enjoy quiet moments on your balcony.
With a head full of the sights, sounds and sensory feast of Borneo’s rainforest, change the pace and hop across the sea, either by boat or plane, to Peninsular Malaysia’s mainland capital. Kuala Lumpur is a fantastic city. Its ever-changing nature gives it a freshness and energy that’s instantly endearing. You have to scratch the surface to find out what truly makes it tick, but searching that bit harder rewards you with a view of the city from a local perspective. Aside from the headline highlights - think Petronas Towers, Perdana Botanical Gardens, KL Tower’s revolving bar - this is a capital that reveals more the harder you look.
Avoid the crowds and follow your guide to discover the capital's heart and character. Watch the sunset behind Petronas from one of the city’s glittering sky bars, or ask those in the know and head underground to a chic speakeasy. Escape the infamously frequent rainy afternoons with a coffee culture wander into a handful of the best local cafes. Take a look at the city’s artistic side, from the beautiful batiks on display at the National Textiles Museum to the vibrant street art of Old KL. Whatever your interests, this is a destination that gently, and surprisingly, delivers more than you might imagine.
With the capital’s glitz behind you, Penang brings another change of pace with its individual spin on the multi-influenced melee common to many ports. The province is part-mainland, part-island, but it's the offshore half that has the greater pull. Georgetown vies with Malacca for the title of Malaysia’s foodie hub, and in our opinion, Penang’s state capital narrowly wins. The wealth of cuisines and dishes on offer from street food stalls to fine dining restaurants is dizzying, and with a couple of days to see the best of the town there are plenty of opportunities to stop and eat. Join the longest queue for traditional nyonya comfort foods like spicy laksa and creamy kuih desserts, or take your tastebuds on a wider exploration of the town's myriad international treats.
Soak up a little history with visits to colourful temples and atmospheric architectural gems, explore the vibrant shopfronts of Little India, or take a modern funicular to the top of Penang Hill for sweeping views across the bay. Stay in classic elegance on the waterfront, looking out over the sea from a rooftop infinity pool - the cherry on your Penang cake.
Complete your triptych of jungle-city-beach with a few days of island idyll bliss at a hideaway in Langkawi. Synonymous with the concept of 'tropical island escape' for decades, Langkawi’s romantic reputation goes before it. Stay by the coast in ultimate style, combining forested hill seclusion with the gently lapping waters of a sheltered bay, or in laid-back luxury slightly further back from the sand. Whichever surroundings you choose, the aim is the same: to tune out, turn off the social media beeps and enjoy some dedicated relaxation. Should you wish to spend time away from your favourite warm stretch of sand or sheltered hillside, ride the cable car up Gunung Machinchang and wander along the vertiginous sky bridge, climb to the top of Gunung Raya, or hop in a boat to take a tour of the archipelago’s smaller islands. The perfect way to end a diverse journey through the very best of Malaysia and Borneo.
The guide price of £2,790US$3,190 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Sepilok, 2 nights on the Kinabatangan River, 2 nights at Borneo Rainforest Lodge, 2 night in Kuala Lumpur, 2 nights on Panang Island and 3 nights on Langkawi Island; staying in a blend of our favourite mid-to-top range hotels & lodges.
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Explore an untamed habitat concealing endangered animals, rare birds and plants with mysterious medicinal properties; all before steeling away for a remote island retreat.