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On a self-drive tour of this Southeast Asian Peninsula, Audley specialist Angela Jordan discovers an exciting land of raw beauty, historic towns and culinary marvels.

Belum Rainforest, Malaysia
Belum Rainforest, Malaysia

Driving in Asia normally goes hand in hand with utter chaos, so when I was asked to explore Malaysia on a self-driving tour I was initially a little apprehensive! Armed with a sat nav and the reassurance of driving on the left (a remnant of Malaysia’s colonial past), I eased onto a beautiful highway out of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and felt instantly relaxed. My first stop was the hill station of Fraser’s Hill — another relic of the British — which was chintzy but with much colonial charm.

Canopy Walkway, Taman Negara National Park, MalaysiaBirding is the main attraction here and Mr Dorrit, the pre-eminent guide in the area, took me out to explore the myriad of peaceful trails in the hope of spotting some of the 300 species that are said to inhabit the area. I was quite proud of myself once I had established the difference between a Fire-tufted Barbet and a Gold-whiskered one. My base was Ye Olde Smokehouse, a guesthouse with a Cotswold feel, where I enjoyed afternoon tea before retiring to my four-poster bed for the evening.

From here I drove to Kuala Tahan, just across a river from Taman Negara National Park. En route, I updated our driving directions, pulling over every few miles to write instructions for use in our itineraries — also to enjoy a snack! That evening I met my guide Lee and headed into the rainforest for a night walk. The plant life was fascinating, but being more interested in animal life, I was delighted to see a 5 ft-long snake (of undetermined species) resting high on a branch over our heads. We headed back to the chalets, and after a busy day’s travel I fell instantly asleep to the sounds of the jungle. Dawn broke, and I was awoken by macaques playing on my chalet roof, meaning ample time for breakfast before meeting Lee. We trekked through the forest to the canopy walkway, which at 45 m high and 510 m long offered a superb panorama of the park and far reaching canopies, though I did feel a little queasy looking down!

Taman Negara National ParkIn the afternoon we went down to the jetty to take a boat through the river systems of the rainforest, keeping an eye out for wildlife. Being such a vast park most of the larger animals keep out of sight (no tigers or sun bears were seen) but I did see a wild boar. After 30 minutes or so we came to an area of rapids, perfect for swimming. With just one other family at the pools it felt very isolated and peaceful. Returning by boat to the jetty, the heavens opened in true rainforest style and, despite using seat cushions and lifejackets to shield ourselves, we were both drenched in seconds.

The next day I had an early start to ensure I made good time and avoided heavy traffic, as I had been warned that the highlands can get busy. The roads leading to the Cameron Highlands cling to the edges of the hills, and driving later in the day can be a little precarious. I stopped en route for lunch at a tiny roadside shack, chatting with the talkative owner who rustled up a delicious bowl of mee goreng (spicy fried noodles) while pointing out the spectacular scenery that surrounded us.

Malaysia facts

  • Time zone: GMT+7
  • Flight time from UK: 11 hours
  • When to go: Malaysia is a great year round destination, though November to February is the best time to head to the central and western areas. In brief: Malaysia is well known for its great beaches and cultural heritage, but it has a lot more to offer. Excellent walking, beautiful flora and fauna, historical towns, superb food and the chance to explore independently by car make it an enticing destination. Read our full guide about the best time to visit Malaysia.

On arrival at The Lakehouse outside Tanah Rata, I had a pot of tea accompanied by scones and clotted cream in front of a cosy fire. After the steamy lowlands, I suddenly felt very civilised, if a little scruffy and chilly in my shorts and flip-flops. Whilst busy, the highlands were still lovely — elements that were quintessentially English merged with forest walks, the famous Boh Tea Plantation and lush strawberry farms.

Belum Rainforest,MalaysiaThe next leg of my adventure took me to a destination new to Audley, the Belum-Temengor Rainforest. This proved to be a fascinating area, with my time spent enjoying a variety of trails, visiting the Orang Asli Tribe at Chuweh Village, and kayaking around Banding Island. I was also lucky enough to see a magnificent Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, in bloom. An impressive sight. Birdlife is also abundant, and while I did not spot the rare plain-pouched hornbill there was still plenty to spot.

The final stage of my journey led me to Georgetown, Penang. That evening I thought I’d experience one of the town’s main draws: the food. The Red Garden has hawker stands serving everything from nasi goreng (fried rice) to pizza and curried fish head. Being a Saturday night, the atmosphere was fantastic. Strolling around the city was a pleasure in itself — protected with UNESCO World Heritage Status, Georgetown is a mix of beautiful Chinese mansions, colonial façades and Malay architecture.

Belum Rainforest,MalaysiaOn my last day my guide Allan met me and together we travelled to Penang National Park. We met Beatrice who, together with her husband, leads tours to this area so is extremely knowledgeable. We took a local fishing boat to Pantai Kerachut where we visited a small turtle hatchery and the meromictic lake that contains both fresh and sea water which does not mix, but rather sits in layers. We then went out through the mangrove forest, where we were lucky enough to see sea eagles, mud skippers and even a pair of river otters. This was an amazing end to a superb trip — as a nature lover Malaysia was a revelation, and when combined with its fascinating history and beautiful beaches it is no doubt one the best places to visit in Southeast Asia.

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