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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Malaysia

Malaysia is a country of contrasts, sliced in half by the South China Sea. On one side, colonial treasure troves, tropical islands, and modern cityscapes captivate; while in Borneo, rain forests and wild animals dominate the landscape. Malaysia is crowned by its sleek capital, Kuala Lumpur, where the Petronas Twin Towers, the Batu Caves, and enticing street food reign supreme. In historical Malacca, UNESCO World Heritage sites jostle for attention; Kota Kinabalu magnetizes travelers with fiery sunsets and a vibrant art scene; in Penang, the colonial gems of Georgetown complement the country’s best food; and on the white-sand beaches of Langkawi, revelers and relaxers soak up the island atmosphere. Opportunities for outdoor adventures abound: Hike through the emerald tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands, trek to the fiery summit of Mount Kinabalu volcano, or explore the fauna-rich rain forest of Taman Negara National Park. Nature lovers can visit rescued elephants at the Kuala Gandah Elephant Sanctuary, observe orangutans in Borneo’s dense jungle, or watch a dazzling display of fireflies at Kuala Selangor lagoon. Plus, Malaysia’s proximity to Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia not only make it an ideal launchpad for traveling Southeast Asia, but also creates an engrossing cultural tapestry guaranteed to excite and enchant.
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Jalan Masjid India Night Market
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Like in many Southeast Asia destinations, some of Kuala Lumpur’s best shopping happens at night at the city’s many pasar malam, or night markets. One of the best is the Masjid India Night Market. While most of these markets are similar in their offerings, this one happens to be one of the largest and most popular, making it a good option for people-watching, bargain-hunting or enjoying an inexpensive dinner of popular Malaysian and international street foods.

The Masjid India Night Market takes place each Saturday, and while stalls begin to open at about 5 or 6 p.m., things don’t really start to pick up until a few hours later. You’ll find a little bit of everything on offer, but most come for the inexpensive clothing and accessories, and for the excellent variety of street foods.

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Kuala Lumpur Little India (Jalan Masjid India)
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The colorful enclave of Little India is filled with the sounds and scents of India. Bright bangles and trinkets glitter from stalls and the scents of sandalwood and cumin fill the air. Fantastic Indian dishes are on offer at roadside stalls, Indian breads like chappati and prata and snacks like vadai and stringhoppers.

The sari shops are very popular with people looking to buy vibrant beautiful material and use the skilled tailors who work in this area. The Saturday night market is when this area is at its bustling best as vendors trade late into the night.

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Petronas Twin Towers (Petronas Towers)
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A highlight of a trip to Kuala Lumpur is the views from the skybridge at Petronas Twin Towers . Each morning 1,700 passes are distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis to visitors who want to visit the skybridge. It’s best to start queuing at 7am as most tickets are gone by 9am.

The views from the ground are equally incredible as you gaze up at the 88 story gleaming towers that reach 1,483 ft (452m) into the air.

The floor plan is based on the Islamic eight-pointed star and the five sections of the skyscraper reflect the five-pillars of Islam.

Beneath the Petronas Towers is KLCC Park, a large urban park with jogging tracks, a playground and wading pools. There is also the huge Suria KLCC shopping mall which has a number of good restaurants.

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Merdeka Square (Dataran Merdeka)
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Impeccable Merdaka Square - or Dataran Merdeka - was a cricket ground in colonial times. The cricket ground was overlooked by the Royal Selangor Club which housed a club for the colonial rulers. When independence for Malaysia was declared, it was here that the Union Jack flag was lowered and the Malay flag was first raised. The flag still flies on a massive flagpole on the edge of the square.

The square is surrounded by historic buildings, the most majestic of which is the Sultan Abdul Samad building which housed the British administration and now houses the Ministry for Heritage, Culture and the Arts. The Moorish style building is dominated by a tall clock tower nicknamed "Big Ben." The square is now the focus of many of the city’s celebrations and the Independence Day festival is held here on August 31st.

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King's Palace (Istana Negara)
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In Malaysian, “Istana Negara” translates to “National Palace,” and Kuala Lumpur’s Royal King’s Palace (Istana Negara) serves as the official residence of the supreme King of Malaysia. The king relocated to a newly built Istana Negara in 2011, and while you can’t enter, it’s possible to see the beautiful architecture of the palace from afar and watch the hourly changing of the guards.

Before 2011, the Royal King’s Palace occupied another mansion. The structure was originally built in 1928 by a wealthy Chinese immigrant on a plot overlooking the Klang River. During the Japanese Occupation during World War II, the mansion became the home of the Japanese Governor before becoming a British military office after the Japanese surrendered in 1945. In 1950, the Sultan of Selangor moved into the residence and lived there until Malaysian independence in 1957.

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Kuala Lumpur National Monument (Tugu Negara)
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Located near the famous Lake Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, the National Monument (Tugu Negara) commemorates those who lost their lives in the fight for Malaysia’s independence. Built in 1964 to replace a cenotaph originally erected by the colonial British government, the bronze monument stands 50 feet (15.5 meters) tall and depicts seven soldiers, each representing a different quality of leadership, with one carrying the Malaysian flag. The original statue now stands behind the newer piece.

American architect Felix de Weldon, the same man who designed the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington, D.C., also designed the Malaysia National Monument. Besides serving as a testament to Malaysia’s history, the National Monument itself made history by being the world’s tallest freestanding bronze sculpture grouping.

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Royal Selangor Visitor Centre
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Royal Selangor is one of the world’s largest pewter manufacturers, founded in 1885 by a young Chinese immigrant named Yong Koon. While it might not sound like a typical attraction, the Royal Selangor Pewter Factory and Visitor Centre offers fascinating insight into Malaysia’s cultural heritage through the lens of one of its most prominent crafts.

Guided tours through the facility educate visitors on tin mining, the properties of pewter and methods for transforming the resource into tools and gifts. An onsite pewter museum showcases Yong Koon’s original smithing tools and personal items, as well as some of his original pieces. The 18,000-square-foot (1,672-square-meter) retail space has thousands of Royal Selangor products for sale to take home as gifts or souvenirs. Visitors who want to better understand the process of manufacturing pewter can head to the visitor center, which offers two hands-on workshops, the 30-minute School of Hard Knocks.

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National Museum
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Malaysia’s National Museum (Muzium Negara), housed within a beautiful Minangkabau-style building in Kuala Lumpur, is one of the city’s best and an excellent place to learn about Malaysia’s long and rich multicultural heritage. Completed in 1961 and opened two years later, the museum takes visitors on a journey through time with beautifully curated displays divided into four themed galleries.

The Prehistory gallery displays stone tools and other Paleolithic artifacts dating back thousands of years, including the Perak Man, the oldest mostly intact human skeleton in Southeast Asia. The second gallery, The Malay Kingdoms, contains art and artifacts that trace the various people groups and kingdoms that once existed on the Malay Peninsula and in the Borneo Islands.

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More Things to Do in Malaysia

National Mosque of Malaysia (Masjid Negara)

National Mosque of Malaysia (Masjid Negara)

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The majestic National Mosque, or Masjid Negara, was built in 1965 as a symbol of Malaysia’s recently won independence. It is one of South East Asia’s largest and can hold up to 15,000 people.

It is situated in Kuala Lumpur’s Lake Gardens in the center of the city and surrounded by swathes of beautiful gardens near the bird and orchid parks. It was designed by a group of three architects and the eighteen-pointed star dome is said to represent the thirteen states of Malaysia and the five pillars of Islam. The main dome is covered in thousands of blue and green tiles and there are 48 smaller green domes dotting the courtyard inspired by the grand mosque in Mecca. The 240ft (74m) minaret sounds the call to prayer that can be heard across Chinatown.

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Thean Hou Temple

Thean Hou Temple

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An impressive six-tiered Chinese temple, Thean Hou Temple was opened in 1987 and is dedicated to Thean Hou, the heavenly mother.

It is the largest Chinese temple in Kuala Lumpur and sits atop Robson’s Hill 6 mi (8 km) from the city center offering excellent views back over the city. The prayer rooms are filled with bright golden statues and dedicated also to the Goddess of the Waterfront and the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Below the main prayer rooms are hawker stalls and souvenir stalls while outside there is a Chinese medicinal herbs garden and a tortoise pond. The celebrations at Chinese New Year are a riot of color and noise as revellers, wearing predominantly red (a lucky color), bang drums and clash symbols while watching the lions dance to ward off evil spirits.

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Kuala Lumpur Tower (KL Tower)

Kuala Lumpur Tower (KL Tower)

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Along with its considerable effectiveness as an instrument of communication technology, the Kuala Lumpur Tower (KL Tower) also functions as a platform for religious observance. The observatory deck doubles as tourist destination and the point from which the beginning of the Islamic month of Ramadan is marked each August when special designees mark the rising of the crescent moon. There is an excellent restaurant that naturally offers astonishing vistas (it’s a revolving venue), and the tower plays host to a series of annual races, such as the KL Tower International Night Towerthon Challenge. It has also made an appearance in the reality television series The Amazing Race Asia.
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Central Market (Pasar Seni)

Central Market (Pasar Seni)

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Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market was established in 1888 as an open wet market for the local communities and ended up being so popular and conveniently located that it underwent several expansions and eventually moved into the Art-Deco structure it lives in today. The wet market moved out in the 1980s, but the Malaysian Heritage Society managed to save the original structure from demolition, instead renovating it into an arts center and heritage site.

Today, the beautifully restored building houses vendors selling handicrafts, souvenirs and artwork, as well as a batik emporium. The Annexe, located behind the main building, has gallery space for art exhibitions and film screenings, and a recently added covered pedestrian lane called Kasturi Walk lines the building’s exterior with even more kiosks and stalls to browse through. The Kasturi Walk is also a great place to sample some typical Malaysian street food as you shop.

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Kuala Lumpur Chinatown

Kuala Lumpur Chinatown

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Bustling Petaling Street is the main thoroughfare of Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown. The street is effectively one long market which specialises in counterfeit clothes, watches and shoes. It sets up mid-morning and is busy until almost dawn with locals and tourists haggling for cheap wares.

Look past the pirated goods stalls and you will see a heritage area of old Chinese shop houses selling spices and food stalls selling local dishes like Hainanese chicken rice and nasi lemak. The side streets leading from Petaling Street are where you will find wet markets and shops selling everything from spices to electronics to funereal wreaths. Other highlights of Chinatown besides shopping are the temples, some of the finest examples in Kuala Lumpur. There is the stunning Hindu temple Sri Mahamariamman and the two late 19th-Century Chinese temples Koon Yam and Chan See Shu Yuen.

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Mahsuri's Tomb (Makam Mahsuri)

Mahsuri's Tomb (Makam Mahsuri)

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Mahsuri’s Tomb - or Makam Mahsuri - is a shrine to one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived on Langkawi.

There are at least 14 versions of the legend of Mahsuri although we do know that she was the daughter of Thai immigrants and married the warrior Wan Darus. The legends revolve around an accusation of adultery and her death by stabbing.

The stories say that white blood flowed from her proving her innocence and that with her final breath she cursed Langkawi for seven generations. The last of those seven generations passed just as tourism came to Langkawi and it began to prosper again.

Aside from a small museum about the Mahsuri legend there is also a traditional Langkawi house to explore and a handicrafts shop at the memorial compound.

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Kuala Lumpur Railway Station

Kuala Lumpur Railway Station

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Considered among the world’s most beautiful train stations, the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station showcases the Moorish style of architecture favored by the British during Malaysia’s colonial era. Built in 1911 and designed by A.B. Hubback, the station is one of the most recognizable (and most photographed) landmarks in the city, thanks to its white arched facade and onion domes on the roof.

Kuala Lumpur Sentral Station took over as the city’s major train transport hub in 2001, but the old station still operates on a smaller scale (for commuter trains mostly) and remains a popular sightseeing stop.

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Sri Mahamariamman Temple

Sri Mahamariamman Temple

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George Town (Penang Georgetown)

George Town (Penang Georgetown)

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Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC)

Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC)

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The neighborhood known as Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) is quite literally the heart of the Malaysian capital and home to some of the country’s most recognizable landmarks, including the Petronas Twin Towers. A commercial development project that began in 1993 envisioned KLCC as “a city within a city,” one that would leave visitors to Kuala Lumpur feeling like they could quite comfortably never leave the area.

Besides housing myriad bars, restaurants and shops, Kuala Lumpur City Centre houses Suria KLCC, a massive six-floor shopping mall occupying the lower levels of the Petronas Twin Towers and filled with international retailers and an excellent supermarket. Those looking for a green escape from the bustle of Kuala Lumpur can find refuge in KLCC Park with its artificial lake, jogging paths, fountains and playgrounds. The neighborhood is also home to the beautiful and modern Assyakirin Mosque, set at the base of the world’s tallest twin towers.

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