Malaysia

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Malaysia.

Discover A 130 Million–Years-Old Rainforest, Taman Negara

A bloodcurdling scream pierces the soupy humidity of the Malaysian night. Emanating from the depths of the impenetrable forest, it rumbles around the darkness, reverberating off colossal trunks and interrupting the tireless croaking of rowdy bullfrogs. “Someone in other group. See big spider,” whispers Angah, our guide, in colourful staccato Manglish. My concerns are more snake-related, given that I’ve forgotten my torch and arrived in plastic sandals, a potentially lethal oversight since my surroundings sparkle like fairy dust with the shining eyes of a thousand tiny insects. Angah’s flashlight reveals nests of splenetic black scorpions skulking in a hollowed trunk and spindle-legged spiders astride glistening golden threads. “Natives [sic] say only spider without web will attack. Web spider friendly,” she says.

This is my introduction to Taman Negara, literally meaning ‘national park’. It’s a sprawling natural heartland, extending some 4,343 sq km over three different states, and evolving fora mind-boggling 130 million years, to make it one of the world’s most ancient rainforests. Dense tropical lowlands overlooked by mountainous peaks accommodate a veritable cornucopia of strange and spectacular inhabitants. There are crab-eating macaques and roaring deer, insect-devouring pitcher plants and wheel-sized rafflesia (corpse flower), the world’s largest and possibly worst-smelling bloom.

Making it to the National Park has been a considerable test of stamina in itself. My partner and I left crowded Kuala Lumpurearly in the morning to travel 200km on a rickety old bus bound for northern Penang and the muddy banks of the Tembeling River. We transferred from bus to motorised longboat and phut-phutted along turbid backwaters for three hours to reach the shabby little township of Kuala Tahan, gateway to the National Park. Here, we clambered onto a clapboard boardwalk to join other travel-weary tourists gently stewing in the steamy jungle heat while seeking food and shelter under the tin-roofs of floating restaurants.

Eventually, a water taxi ferried us to the opposite hillside and Mutiara Resort, our stay for the next three days and the only lodgings located within the reserve. Its bungalow chalets fashioned in dark wood nestle neatly into the margin of the rainforest. At dusk we turned the key in our cabin door just in time to gaze through opened shutters at the river snaking into a resplendent sunset and a sky bruised chilli red and saffron yellow. Daybreak in the jungle is a momentous occasion, celebrated with a hallelujah chorus of chirping crickets and the ‘yoo-hoo, ha ha’ wake-up call of cheery hornbills.

Mutiara Resort

Mutiara Resort

Having survived the night walk unscathed, we emerge bleary-eyed to be greeted by a t hick mist curled along the riverbank, obscuring the forest beyond. A hearty breakfast sustains us through the morning as we trail the tentacular paths that radiate out wards from the hotel into the reserve. Neat wooden signposts point us along the eastern bank of the Tahan River toward the natural pools of Lubok Simpon.

At first sight the forest appears a uniform leafy green and tree-trunk brown. But lustrous colours soon appear in the detail. Miniature turquoise butterflies flash their iridescent wings around pom-pom bunches of crimson berries and flowering tree-vine lianas clustered in orange blossoms. We find pink jelly-like fungi flourishing on mossy wood and metallic-silver millipedes concertinaing across the spongy leaf litter at our feet. We take it in at a snail’s pace, over tangled roots and under taut vines that clutch and bend the trees like grasping fingers. The forest choir serenades our march: buzz, tweet, chirrup, buzz, tweet, chirrup.

The forest has a way of drawing you in and sharpening the senses. Every rustling leaf promises a sudden encounter with elusive animal life. My heart leaps into my mouth when a wild boar darts recklessly across our path, startling a fire back pheasant that careers across the canopy in a squawking tussle of black and blue feathers. We freeze at the sight of the bulky frame of a tapir appearing in the half-light between the trees, before it plunges back into the safety of the undergrowth.

As we penetrate deeper into the jungle, heavy floral aromas give way to the steamy odour of damp earth and rotting vegetation. Angah shows us the spikey stem of the rattan palm used locally to fashion sturdy furniture and basketry. Later, she takes water to a bristly melastoma leaf before buffing it into a soapy lather. “This is a natural antiseptic. Rub it on your arms, it will keep away mosquitoes,” she advises. Finally, the tangled thicket parts to reveal a sunlit section of riverbank. We cool our feet in its pebbled shallows under the beady eye of a white-plumed heron. The sky is wide, the heat searing, and there’s a pervading stillness that quiets the mind and lifts the spirit.

Our return journey takes a different turn, as we climb a wooden ladder, emerging high into the treetops. Starting from the summit platform, I grapple shakily at rigging either side and wobble along the wood-and-rope walkway suspended 45m above the ground straight through the leafy chaos of canopy. When I pluck up enough courage to look around, I notice dozens of conical nests dangling pendulously from the surrounding trees, home to colonies of tireless tree-climbing termites. Up amid this infinite sea of emerald green, it’s the airy sense of freedom that stays with me long after my feet touch firm ground.

DOWN THE RIVER – The next day we return to the boat and expertly weave between sandbanks and rapids to explore further downstream. As we go, nature shape shifts; the jungle becoming skyscraper tall. From their buttress roots soar majestic tualang trees — the tallest of the rainforest — furred with fluorescent lichen and lashed with strangler figs. Playful grey macaques shimmy down knotty vines while below, a herd of glossy black water buffalos wallow in the river’s muddy shallows. A breeze caresses my face and I try to resist drowsiness for fear of missing a single moment of the view.

Amid the profusion of life coexisting within the forest, there is human presence too. Along the riverbank we stop at a settlement of the nomadic Batek tribe, one of various tribal peoples still living within the National Park that are collectively referred to as Orang Asli, meaning simply ‘original people’ in the Malay tongue. Despite government efforts to settle them in permanent villages, many of these communities still abide by their hunter-gatherer traditions, relocating to more fertile ground every three to five years to allow their former forest dwellings to replenish.

For the past year, eight families have lived in this village which consists of little more than a small clearing dotted with several semi-open, leaf-thatched huts pitched with hardwood branches and bamboo walls. Almond-shaped eyes, belonging to the women and children who spend the daytime in refuge from the sweltering heat, peer out at us from the shadows. Their appearance is markedly different from the rest of the Peninsula population — they’re darker skinned, with curlier hair and are shorter in stature.

Men are mostly absent from the camp. We’re told they’re out hunting game and gathering wild fruits and edible plants. “Sometimes they leave for weeks at a time,” says Angah. But the tribal chief has remained to greet us. He’s a small but stocky man with jet-black hair and an intense gaze who proudly shows us his blowpipe fashioned from rattan palm and held together with a rubber-like tree resin. While the Batek used to subsist entirely from the land, many of them now interact with the local economy, trading sought-after forest products, such as sandalwood for rice, tarp and other basic resources. In one hut, a withered man lies motionless, struck down with an infection. “He won’t go to hospital,” Angah tells us. “The Batek have their own healer. Their medicine[s] are the plants and remedies of nature.”

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Our fleeting visit has left us hungry to return, and on our final night, over Tiger beer and steaming river-fish curry, my partner and I plot future excursions. I’d like to forgo the luxuries of the hotel to camp out in the nearby limestone caves. He’s dreaming of hiking the 53km trail to Gunung Tahan, Malaysia’s highest peak, in the northwest corner of the park. In little time we’ve come to feel at ease in the brooding presence of the forest, now hardly noticing the procession of ants streaming past our dining table or the shrill sound of ever-present cicadas. Before leaving, my partner records the sounds of the jungle on his phone — a small but resounding memory of a treasured stay to play back on the long trudge home.

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Useful Guide Before Your Trip To Malaysia

Witness the stunning natural beauty and the wonderfully diverse culture of Malaysia with these exclusive offers only available with Barrhead Travel. From the pristine beaches to the bustling metropolises you can experience this South-East Asian travel-lover’s paradise!

RICH CULTURE

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The Historical City of Malacca

Malaysia offers an incredible depth of culture from the island’s most historical city of Malacca- which boasts a rich ancient and colonial past and UNESCO World Heritage status, the bustling multi-cultural hotspot of George Town, and the incredible capital city of Kuala Lumpur. You can even catch an insight into local customs and life with a local Malaysian homestay!

STUNNING SCENERY

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Cameron Highlands – Malaysia

From the pristine white-sand beaches to the beautiful country scenery of the Cameron Highlands, our Malaysia packages ensure you witness some of the most stunning scenery in South East Asia. Sip on Cameronian tea while you take in the incredible vistas on the region’s highlands, chill to the sound of the ocean and marvel at the mountain peaks within the rugged national parks.

A TASTE OF ISLAND LIVING

Malaysian cuisine reflects the melting-pot of cultures and multi-ethnic population of this amazing nation. With influences from China, Europe, India and the surrounding South-East Asian nations, food lovers will be in heaven as they experience a rich combination of flavours. Whether you’re stopping by one of the amazing and popular street food markets, sampling Kuala Lumpur’s luxury restaurants, or everything in between, you’re sure to fall in love with the diverse and delightful dishes.

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Petronas Towers: Scale The Most Beautiful Tower In The World

No trip to Kuala Lumpur would be complete without a whizz up the futuristic towers that shimmer like skyrockets over the cityscape. Measuring an eye-watering 451.9m, the post-modern peaks remain a metaphor for the soaring ambitions of the city. Notice how the hypnotic pattern of their steel frames evoke arabesque motifs and finish in masts resembling minarets, thus reflecting the country’s dominant faith.

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Ascending visitors stop off on the 41st floor, where the Skybridge links the towers, before zooming up to the 86th-storey Observation Deck. The descent goes down to Suria KLCC, one of the city’s largest shopping malls and home to the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

Penang Island: Culinary Masterpieces And Entertainment

I’ve always been fascinated by Asia, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s borne out of growing up in Australia at a time when the food on offer really didn’t match the heat of the climate. So when I first ate chilli and noodles and rice, my palate was opened to a world of wonder. After travelling to various parts of the world, I still find Asian food the most intriguing. I’ve always believed that to understand a country’s food one needs to understand the people and their culture — and one of my more recent discoveries has been the food and culture of Malaysia. Many years ago, I was dropped into Penang while filming, and found this bustling, colourful island immediately fascinating — but sadly, I only had a day to explore. Recently, however, I spent a number of weeks filming my own TV series all over Malaysia, and my childhood love of blue skies and the sea ultimately drew me back to the island of Penang.

Penang-Island

Of the country’s three dominant cultures — Malay, Chinese and Indian — it’s the Chinese influence that’s strongest in Penang — evident in both its architecture and, of course, its food. The capital, George Town, is home to some of the world’s best-kept culinary secrets and is definitely one of Malaysia’s food capitals. While wandering its streets and markets, I was introduced to a wonderful woman of advanced years, who was manning a cart with a wood-fired stove. On it, she cooked a Malaysian treat called charkoaykak — little cubes of cooked compressed rice and turnip cake, fried in pork fat with pork lard and spring onions and kicap manis (an aromatic sweet soy sauce).

This was served with an optional egg and lovingly scooped into a cornet of newspaper lined with banana leaf for extra flavour. Such a simple dish, yet so delicious and expertly cooked, it’s undoubtedly one of the best bits of street food I’ve ever been fortunate enough to eat. Food finds like this are common in George Town, especially in the markets. Try Jalan Penang (Penang Road) and the Chowrasta Bazaar or the famous Macallum Street Night Market on a Monday. And if you’re looking for the best streets stalls, simply head towards the crowded ones — the right place to be is wherever the locals are shopping and eating. In the mornings, hawkers cluster near the corner of Carnavon and Campbell Streets, in front of the Campbell Street Market. Look for the elderly gentleman selling prawn mee (spicy fried noodles) — and hopefully you’ll find my lady with the char koay kak’. At night, head to Kimberley Street to the stall with char kway teow (rice noodles with bean sprouts, chicken and soy sauce).

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Downtown’s best kopipeng (Malaysian-style iced coffee) is served at the Toon Leong Coffee Shop (closed Sundays) at the corner of Jalan Transfer and Jalan Argyll. If you want a cooking lesson, then go see Nazlina, who taught me to make pineapple curry. Her cooking school, Nazlina Spice Station, sits opposite the Campbell Street Market, a former Victorian wet market, which is open most days. But if you feel like a sit down with some coffee and cake, then head to China House — a wonderful old building that’s now a coffee shop, restaurant and garden space serving great food and wine alongside more cakes than you can shake a stick at. Opened in 2011 by a fellow Aussie, Narelle and her team will be happy to let you in on some of the local secret food hangouts should you fancy advice on the area. I still miss the streets and markets of Penang and George Town but I’m adamant I’ll be back soon. For me, the best thing about it is once you’ve wandered the streets and feasted your eyes, ears and appetite you can retire to the beach and look up at that blue sky and out to sea.

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Thaipusam Festival – Batu Caves

LATE JANUARY OR EARLY FEBRUARY (DEPENDENT ON THE TAMIL CALENDAR).

ERM, WE MIGHT SIT THIS ONE OUT.

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Deep breaths; this gnarly festival isn’t a stickler for audience participation. THAT’S A RELIEF. NOW WHAT

ON EARTH IS GOING ON?

Thaipusam is observed around the world where there are significant Hindu Tamil populations. The celebrations centre around the remembrance of Lord Murugan, a Hindu god of war. He was apparently responsible for killing demons, thus demonstrating the triumph of good over evil.

SURE, BUT WHERE DOES THE WHOLE SKEWER THROUGH SKIN BIT COME IN?

The extreme flagellation is a way of showing atonement for sins and a commitment to overcoming temptations. The devotees carry their kavadi (burden) from Kuala Lumpur to the Batu Caves (approximately 9km) balanced on the piercings in their bodies. Once at the caves, they offer their burden to the gods and pledge their fidelity to family and divinities. It’s a custom passed down from generation to generation, and despite the somewhat gruesome nature of the event, you’ll see all members of the family getting involved, all the way from children to grandparents.

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Having Fun and Adventures in Malaysia

It’s a wonder that the sheer biodiversity and variety of landscapes that abound in Malaysia don’t have other countries crying foul. And, while you may have stuck more pins into your map of Malaysia marking what you’d like to explore than into a pincushion, it’s best to stagger your wish list over a few trips.

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Taman Negara

Taman Negara, Peninsula Malaysia: We have three words for you: “oldest primary rainforest.” If, after reading that, you aren’t already halfway to the airport to flag down the first plane headed east, maybe this will do the trick: the towering deciduous forests of Taman Negara National Park protect a mind-boggling array of wildlife like sun bears, tapirs, tigers, flying squirrels, hornbills… the list goes on. But, while a trek into this prehistoric world will be like nothing you’ve done before, you’re unfortunately not likely to see any of the larger animals.

The forest that is home to these animals is so untouched that it keeps its secrets. If you do some overnight trekking, you might have the opportunity to see some tapirs, small deer, monkeys, lizards and, most certainly leeches, though, and maybe even have the chance to sleep in a cave (four hours by road from Kuala Lumpur; Department of Wildlife and National Parks: 00-603-9075-2872; trips depart from Kuala Tehan; from ¥  4,000for a two-day, one-night trek).

You can also do a canopy walk (about 45 minutes from the visitor centre; 10am- 3pm Sat-Thur, till 4pm Fri; park entry: ¥ 20, canopy walkway: ¥ 80).

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Gunung Mulu National Park

Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, Borneo: Not only is this park home to the largest cave chamber in the world, it is also home to one of the largest cave networks in the world, meaning you can wade through underground rivers, squeeze yourself through crevices, swim in rock pools and make yourself claustrophobic

to your heart’s content. A near-magical combination of sandstone, limestone and water has created the dramatic razor-like spikes that explode out of the earth and into the ghostly subterranean caves, creating a landscape and biodiversity so unique that it has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Kinabatangan River

Kinabatangan River, Sandakan, Sabah: Slipping through the murky brown waters of the Klias Kinabatangan River in Borneo, with thick forest on either side and the eyes of unseen animals watching your every move, may seem like a scene out of Heart of Darkness. Luckily, though, the hidden creatures here are much less frightening than Colonel Kurtz, and, sadly, more in danger from us than the other way around. Here live the strange proboscis monkey with its bulbous nose, long-tailed macaques, all eight species of hornbill, and orangutans. Need we say more?

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Best for a lost world: MALIAU BASIN – Borneo Island, Asia

“There’s one thing you learn in the jungle,” says nature guide Allen Patrick, as he leads the way along a trail edged by ferns and soaring trees. “It’s never quiet.” He cocks a ear to listen to the cacophony of sounds: screeching birds, humming crickets and whooping gibbons, underpinned by the constant chainsaw buzz of insects.

A hooting call rings out, descending into a throaty cackle that sounds eerily close to a human laugh. It’s a helmeted hornbill, Allen explains, one of eight hornbill species found in the Maliau Basin. “Some people call them the joker of the jungle. It’s a good name.” Located 48km north of the Indonesian border, the Maliau Basin is known as Sabah’s ‘lost world’ for a reason. A vast river basin encircled by a nearly impenetrable ring of rock, it contains some of the largest remaining tracts of virgin jungle in Borneo. The basin was discovered by chance in 1947, when a British pilot almost crashed into its rim, but the first organised scientific expedition to the area wasn’t until 1988.

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The beauty of surroundings in the Maliau Basin

The scientists were amazed by what they found. This expanse of jungle harbours an estimated 2,40,000 species – two-fifths of all the animals, plants and insects found in Borneo. It’s one of the world’s great cradles of biodiversity, and is home to some of its rarest species: Malayan sun bears, pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and the Sumatran rhino. Giant flying squirrels and red leaf monkeys caper through the trees; rare lichens and rafflesia flowers bloom on the forest floor; hidden rivers and waterfalls flow through the jungle, past agathis and seraya trees as tall as seven-storey buildings.

Even today, only around half of the basin has been explored; fewer than 2,000 people are thought to have set foot inside the basin’s rim. And, on an island where the rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate, Maliau has become a potent symbol of the need for Borneo to preserve its natural heritage while there’s time. “It’s important that we look after Maliau,” Allen muses, as he leads the way across a bridge suspended high in the jungle canopy. Dappled light rains down and colourful birds flit through the tree tops. “I don’t know anywhere else quite like this.” Part of the reason for Maliau’s survival is its isolation. From the rim, it’s a two-hour drive to the nearest asphalt road.

The interior of the basin can only be reached via a day’s hard trekking and its handful of camps is equipped with minimal facilities. Maliau’s wildness is exactly what makes it precious; a stay on the rim more than acquaints you with this unique appeal. “There’s not much room left for wild places,” says Allen, as darkness descends on the jungle and bats flutter home to roost. “But, once they are gone, we have no way of getting them back. And, without them, Borneo will be a much poorer place.”

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Best for mountains: KINABALU NATIONAL PARK – Borneo Island, Malaysia

Known as the Roof of Borneo, 4,095m-high Mount Kinabalu in Kinabalu National Park is the island’s highest peak and a constant presence, catching the clouds and shading valleys.

A white moon hangs on the horizon like a paper lantern as climbers inch across Mount Kinabalu’s granite slopes. Ahead, a line of head-torches uncoils across the plateau. “Only an hour till dawn,” says our guide Edwin Moguring, pointing towards a rugged outcrop just visible against the inky sky. “And it looks clear at the top. We have good luck – the mountain spirits must be happy!”

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A rock formation known as Donkey’s Ears, on Mount Kinabalu, Borneo’s highest peak

Mount Kinabalu lies roughly two hours inland from Sabah’s northern coastline and looms on the skyline resembling the teeth of a great granite saw, surrounded by tropical forest. Officially, the mountain is a part of the nearby Crocker Range, but its isolated position gives it the look of a gigantic volcano. In fact, the mountain was formed by the movement of tectonic plates around 10 million years ago, which thrust the underlying rock skywards and formed Kinabalu’s sprawling summit plateau.

In previous centuries, local Dusun tribes believed Kinabalu was the resting place for their ancestors’ spirits; its name translates as ‘the revered place of the dead’. The first recorded ascent was in 1854 by the British colonial administrator Hugh Low, after whom Kinabalu’s highest point is named. Nowadays, it’s considered one of Asia’s most accessible mountains, with around 40,000 people attempting the climb every year.

“The mountain can be fickle,” says Edwin, as he clambers over the shattered boulders beneath Low’s Peak, one of several rock towers that make up Kinabalu’s summit. “I’ve been climbing it at least twice a week for nearly 10 years, and every day is different. The weather changes so quickly.” The ascent is usually split over two days. Day one involves a six-hour trek from the park entrance at 1,866m to the resthouse at Laban Rata at 3,262m, followed by a three-hour climb to the top at 4,095m the following dawn. Along the way, the trail passes through distinct habitats, from steamy rainforest to montane meadow to rocky plateau. Some sections are steeply stepped; others wind their way through a jumble of rocky slabs and knotted roots.

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Laban Rata Guesthouse

Beyond Laban Rata, the trail disappears altogether as it ascends sharply towards Kinabalu’s apex, and climbers are forced to rely on a series of fixed ropes hammered into the granite. While the views from the summit are spectacular, it’s Kinabalu’s natural diversity that makes it memorable: pitcher plants and orchids bloom alongside the trail, including many species found nowhere else in Borneo. Little wonder the mountain has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.

“Kinabalu has many moods,” notes Edwin, clambering onto the crest of Low’s Peak as the first rays of dawn break at the summit. “Some days, it helps all the way to the top. Other days, you can feel it telling you to turn back. It’s best to listen to the mountain.” He turns to watch the rising sun, as ribbons of mist swirl around the mountainside, and Kinabalu’s towers light up like signal beacons. “Today, I think the mountain is happy we came,” he says.

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Best for Islands: TUNKU ABDUL RAHMAN NATIONAL PARK – Borneo Island, Malaysia

Turquoise water, white coral sands and five jungle-covered islands make up the protected Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, just a short boat ride from Kota Kinabalu.

The last evening ferry putters away from the jetty of Pulau Manukan, and lifeguard Royzems Lundus can finally hang up his float for another day. Shadows are falling across the beach as the sun dips towards the horizon, but a few snorkellers are still splashing around in the lagoon beside his guard-tower. “This is always the best time of the day,” he says. “We call it the magic time. And, on an evening like this, you can see why, eh?” A half-hour boat ride from the city of Kota Kinabalu, Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park is one of Sabah’s best-known island getaways.

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The white coral-sands of the main beach on Pulau Manukan, the second-largest of the five islands that make up the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park

Comprising five tropical atolls (locally known as pulau) scattered over 5,000 hectares of ocean, the park is famous for its glassy waters and abundant marine life. At weekends, city-dwellers clamber aboard one of the ferries buzzing around Jesselton Harbour and skim over the bay to bask on the islands’ manicured beaches, or dive among their coral reefs and sandbanks. Of the five islands, Pulau Manukan, Pulau Mamutik and Pulau Sapi are the most popular, with barbecues and cafés set up along the sand to cater for a stream of snorkellers and sun-worshippers. Tiny Pulau Sulug is sleepier, a wooded islet fringed by a perfect comma of white sand. Quietest of all is Pulau Gaya, the largest and craggiest of the islands, with a backbone of ridges and peaks teetering above hidden coves, most only accessible by kayak or speedboat. “There are plenty of empty beaches, but to find them you need local knowledge,” Royzems notes, as he watches grouper and parrotfish flash below the jetty. “I think I know them all by now, but there are still a few I like to keep to myself!”

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Bajau Laut sea gypsies living on houses on stilts by the sea in Pulau Gaya

The islands are well-known for their snorkelling, but the most impressive scenery lies at greater depths. Seasonal plankton blooms coupled with powerful ocean currents attract some of the signature species of the tropics here: nurse sharks, stingrays and barracudas lurk in the deep water, while green turtles and whale sharks pass through the national park during their springtime migration.

Royzems is in no doubt about the islands’ beauty. “In most places, you’d have to travel for days to find a place as perfect as this,” he says. “But here, you can leave the city and be in paradise in 10 minutes. That’s why I love it.” He watches the lights of Kota Kinabalu twinkle across the bay as the sun dips into the sea, and the islands trace wooded silhouettes against the orange clouds.

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Kota Kinabalu

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Best for tribal culture: NANGA DELOK – Borneo Island, Malaysia

Daybreak at the Nanga Delok longhouse, and the morning’s work has already begun. Men are busily patching up their fishing nets, while their wives fry noodles for breakfast before strapping on rattan baskets, ready for another day’s work in the village rice fields. Outside, dogs stretch in the sunshine and pigs snuffle around the stilts of the house, while the cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters echo across the riverbanks.

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Traditional rattan basket-weaving

The smell of wood-fires and charcoal hangs in the air. It’s a vision of village life that seems little changed in 100 years – and that’s just how the inhabitants of Nanga Delok want it. Situated on the verdant banks of the Jelia River, a 50-minute boat ride upriver from the nearest road, the longhouse at Nanga Delok belongs to members of the Iban, the largest of the 20 or so indigenous tribes that make up the population of Sarawak. The Iban are jungle-dwellers, living a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with the land, finding food, medicine and materials in the forest. “In the past, the jungle provided everything we needed,” explains Tiyon Juna, an Iban guide who runs expeditions exploring his indigenous culture.

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A member of the Iban tribe paddles down the Jelia River in Sarawak; tattoos are significant in Iban culture and represent a person’s journey through life, with each new marking denoting an event, skill, or lesson learnt

“It provided us with food, building materials, and told us stories that helped us understand how we came to be.” He points to the tattoos covering his arms and torso; each one is inspired by an Iban legend, but also marks an important moment in his own journey through life. The most striking feature of the Iban lifestyle is their use of communal dwellings known as rumah panjai, or longhouses. Each includes private quarters for up to 50 families, as well as a shared verandah for storage and village meetings. Historically, longhouses were built from natural materials such as ironwood and pandanus, but most are now made of concrete and plaster. “All Iban people still belong to a longhouse, even when they no longer live there,” says Tiyon. “For us, the longhouse is where life’s big events happen – funerals, marriages, festivals. It’s part of who we are.” Nanga Delok is one of only a few in Sarawak built in the traditional way, using timber and thatch, supplemented by the odd patch of corrugated iron.

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Iban women set off for the rice fields

The villagers here spend their time as their forefathers would have – fishing, making crafts, tending to the rice fields – although, these days, they also have access to modern amenities such as running water, electricity and satellite TV. However, Nanga Delok feels a long way from the outside world, especially after dark when the generator shuts down and the air fills with the rasp of insects and the chatter of birds.

“Even though I spend most of my time in the town now, it’s in the forest that I feel at home,” says Tiyon, as he prepares an Iban barbecue of fish, chicken and ferns, steamed in bamboo canes. “I feel in touch with my ancestors here. It’s where I’m most alive.” He kneels and breathes life into the fire, sending spirals of smoke into the forest air.

As he works, an old boatman glides past, tripped to the waist, his wiry torso covered in tribal tattoos. He watches Tiyon for a while, then raises his oar in greeting and slips silently downriver, dissolving like a ghost into the morning mist.