It may be only 850 kilometers from the tip of Singapore to the Thai border, but Malaysia packs a lot into that small territory. While public transport links up most of the major tourist spots, one of the best ways to see more of the peninsula is to hire a car and head out on your own. Roads are safe, well maintained and easy to navigate, so the only real challenge is deciding where to go.
FRESH START: Singapore to Gunung Belumut; 170km
From Singapore, it’s about a 2.5-hour drive to the base of Gunung Lambak, a twin-peaked mountain in Johor’s Gunung Belumut Recreational Forest. The mountain is small—only 510m above sea level—but once you turn off the paved trails onto the jungle paths, the steep terrain provides more of a workout. Small waterfalls and pretty creeks line your route through the rainforest, making for a delightful morning out. After you descend, cool off in the fresh mountain pool at the base.
MATTERS OF TASTE: Gunung Belumut to Malacca; 180km
From the hills of Johor, head to the coast of Malacca, where fruit farms abound with the most sought-after durians in Asia. Melaka City is where all the action is and here you’ll find a fascinating mix of Peranakan, Portuguese, Dutch and British architectural styles. But it’s the Peranakan cuisine—Nyonya—that you must try.
The unassuming Unicorn Cafe sets the benchmark for authentic, home-cooked Peranakan favorites. The pie tee (crunchy shells overflowing with jicama, carrot and shrimp), kuah lada ikan (stingray cooked in a peppery turmeric sauce) and Nyonya laksa with clams are all highly recommended.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY: Melaka to Kuala Lumpur; 150km
Stomachs full, it’s then a two-hour drive to the bright lights of KL. For a real flavor of the city, it’s worth stepping away from the shadow of the Petronas Towers and into a vibrant neighborhood such as Brickfields. Also known as Little India, this compact area is home to colorful Indian shops, grocers and cafes.
Alternatively, a little way beyond the city lie the very popular—and worthwhile—Batu Caves (just beware the cheeky monkeys). Sixty kilometers away in Kuala Selangor is Firefly Park, where you can hop on a riverboat and witness millions of lightning bugs illuminating the sky.
THE HIGH LIFE: Kuala Lumpur to Cameron Highlands; 240km
It’s worth opting for the scenic route out of KL (an extra 35km), which wends through the Genting Highlands on its way to the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s largest colonial hill station. The Little England vibe is still omnipresent, with quaint villages, Tudor-style inns, tea plantations and honey farms dotting the landscape.
The road winds north from the biggest town Tanah Rata, with points of note off to both left and right: from butterfly farms and aboriginal villages to tea estates and mountain climbs. If you’re feeling energetic, Gunung Berembun is the peninsula’s highest point at 2,077m and affords amazing panoramas.
TEMPLE TOUR: Cameron Highlands to Ipoh; 90km
The former mining town of Ipoh may have stagnated since the days of the booming tin industry in the mid-1900s, but the Old Town is still attractive, with prewar and colonial architecture dotted around. Kellie’s Castle—an unfinished castle that fell into ruin after its owner, a Scottish planter, died suddenly in the early 1900s—is certainly worth your time.
Ipoh’s signature limestone mountains ensure there are a wealth of caves to explore, many with ornate temples set into the caverns. Perak Cave Temple is the most spectacular, with one chamber running deep into the rock, and colorful murals and calligraphy adorning the walls. On the road out of Ipoh there are upwards of 30 cave temples that you can visit at your leisure.
TOWN AND COUNTRY: Ipoh to George Town; 160km
It’s hard to avoid the crowds of backpackers on Penang’s popular island, of which George Town is a hub (it’s a rite of passage en route to Malaysia’s tropical islands), but a car offers one way to escape. If you’re looking for bit of tranquility, park at the entrance to Penang National Park and set out on foot through the jungle. The park is small but dense, with Muka Head Lighthouse and the remote Teluk Kampi beach being the highlights.
George Town is a relaxing, laid-back destination that can be explored in just a few hours—but will have you lingering over the abundance of incredible street food.
SAILING INTO THE SUNSET: George Town to Langkawi; 60 nautical miles
Park your car here for a few days—it’s time to sail off to Langkawi. There’s a fast ferry service between the two islands that takes about three hours, but the ultimate way to arrive is aboard your own private yacht. A company like Boat Lagoon Yachting can arrange private charters between George Town and Langkawi, where you can spend a few luxurious days at a beachfront resort such as The St. Regis Langkawi (including a ride from the pier in a Bentley!). After that, why not take to the seas again for a bit of island hopping?
What other road trips in Asia would you recommend? Tell us and tag #momentum.travel.
Photos: Shutterstock and Starwood Hotels