Look beyond the Petronas Twin Towers and you’ll be greatly rewarded. Particularly for Malaysians exploring Malaysia, you’re much more familiar with the local ways so it will be far more interesting to wander away from the tourist hot spots. Include some time to find things to do in the city that the city’s locals love and offer a deeper experience. What that means, really depends on where you go. We’ve picked 10 non-touristy things to do around Malaysia to get you started.
10 Non-Touristy Things to do in Malaysia
1. Eat Hearty Vegetarian Fare in a Temple
The busy canteen attached to a popular Buddhist temple is a hidden gem serving up some of the best vegetarian food in Kuala Lumpur. Dharma Realm Guan Yin Monastery (Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur) has been pulling in blue- and white-collar workers from the area for years, but it’s still largely undiscovered by tourists.
Trays of freshly cooked food are prepared each morning, and include nourishing dishes like stuffed tofu puffs, stir-fry beans in chilli paste, faux roast pork, and braised eggplant. Only a short walk from the Twin Towers, the spread is a cheap, cheerful option at lunchtime.
2. Put Up in a Tropical Rainforest in Negeri Sembilan
Negeri Sembilan is largely off the tourist radar, but it’s worth the short drive from Kuala Lumpur for even one night at one of the state’s many retreat homes.
The Shorea is a private collection of lofts in the midst of the Berembun Forest Reserve; The Dusun is a small village-style home with rooms that face the forest; Awanmulan is perched in a forest and the epitome of calm. In any one of these homes you can enjoy the cool morning dew paired with the glorious prospect of doing absolutely nothing.
3. Relax on the Beaches of Sabah
Malaysia is not short of beautiful islands, but the heavily commercialised ones like Langkawi, Redang and Tioman may not provide total respite from the swarms of tourists. However, you’ll find some unspoiled islands in Borneo that are great for undisturbed quiet and sun.
Lankayan Island off the northeast tip of Borneo is a marine-protected dive area blessed with a stretch of glittery turquoise waters, stunning corals, and soft white sand. Pom Pom Island is also a great place to catch a few rays.
4. Shop Local Designers in Bangsar
When in Kuala Lumpur, skip the malls and head straight for the more interesting, more complex creations from talented local designers. Bangsar is home to many local boutiques, some which include Mimpikita, Shoes Shoes Shoes, and Pestle & Mortar. Snackfood is an ideal space for a carefully curated selection of homewares, candles, eccentric kitchen items and independent magazines, and also stocks footwear by local shoemaker Nelissa Hilman.
5. Escape the Bustle at Kelabit Highlands
Situated on the Kalimantan border, the Kelabit Highlands are great for those who want to flee the city for a weekend of cool air and peace and quiet. The quaint plateau is dotted with cottage-inspired houses occupied by Kelabits, one of Sarawak’s many ethnic groups. If staying on the mountain, wake up to a misty morning view of sprawling paddy fields and Sarawak’s highest point, Gunung Murud.
Don’t expect to put up in a luxury hotel, but Jungle Blues Dream Homestay is an adequate stay in the middle of all the green.
6. Gorge on Kelantanese Food in Kampung Baru
If you haven’t the time to travel up north to Kelantan, you can still enjoy plenty of the cuisine in Kampung Baru, which is only a short drive from Kuala Lumpur city centre. Kampung Baru is the last-standing patch of village land in the city, a charming reminder of what was. Many Kelantanese and Indonesians have set up stalls and restaurants in the area, serving up favourites like laksam (Kelantan’s take on laksa), nasi kerabu, fried fish with budu (fermented fish sauce), and sira pisang (banana cooked with pandan and palm sugar).
7. Pick Up Local In-jokes at a Comedy Gig
The local stand-up comedy scene is a budding one full of promise, and nothing gives you insight into local quirks like hearing a comic mock the mundaneness of everyday Malaysian life. Most of these sets are adult-only and cover topics ranging from politics to sex. In Kuala Lumpur, Time Out Comedy Thursday delivers the punchlines every month, as does the hilarious open-mic sessions at Crackhouse Comedy Club.
8. Buy Biscuits by the Kilo at Old Bakeries
The city is peppered with flashy French bakeries, but some of us still prefer to support the city’s long-standing biscuit shops and bakeries. At Chiap Tong, biscuits of all sorts are manually weighed and sold by the gram; at Sin Hua Bee, the freshly baked tau sar piah (flaky pastry filled with mung bean paste) fly off early in the day; at Bunn Choon within Imbi Market, wobbly egg custard sits in pastry tenderised with lard. Best of all, these teatime treats won’t bust the wallet.
9. Go on a Street Art Trail in Penang
Penang is a city that embraces art. Its walls are treated like blank canvases by street artists, who paint mesmerising portraits of Penang life. Ernest Zacharevic has a heavy hand in the street-art scene, and his complex drawings have captured the hearts of many. Louis Gan, too, has shot to fame for his mural of a pair of young siblings balancing on a swing.
10. Immerse in Pre-Malaya Days Through Film
To be acquainted with Malaysian film is to be acquainted with P. Ramlee, an icon of Malay entertainment of the ’50s and beyond. At the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS), you can ask staff to put on classic black-and-white P. Ramlee films in their in-house theatre. You can also thumb through posters and film memorabilia while you’re there.
Photo credits: Getty Images