Things to do in Malaysia: top 8 active adventures

Looking for active, adventurous things to do in Malaysia? Forest-clad mountains, giant caves, roaring rivers and deep oceans make this an attractive and challenging destination for the thrill seeker.
 Jumping off from KL Tower. Photo: Shutterstock
Jumping off from KL Tower. Photo: Shutterstock

BASE jumping from the world-famous KL Tower in the country's capital city. Photo: Shutterstock


Root-covered trails, thick vegetation and thundering waterfalls are part of the excitement of trekking or biking in the rugged interior of Malaysia’s tropical rainforests. The highland forests are also the source of swift, bubbling headwaters that run into massive river systems, offering superb rafting and kayaking. Some of these streams seep through the porous limestone massifs, forming huge cave systems waiting to be explored and mapped. Their tiny entrances are often masked by thick foliage – which is also why few cliff faces are available for rock-climbing. Those that are suitable, however, are excellent.

Don't forget, Insight Guides hosts a number of active holidays to Malaysia, including Borneo and beyond: browse suggested itineraries and adventurous activities.

Outdoor pursuits

Malaysia’s rainforests offer all manner of challenges to both body and mind; centuries before yuppies started tackling them with their high-tech gear, these challenges were, for the indigenous people, part of daily life.

Adventure sports are relatively new in Malaysia, having soared in popularity only since 2005. Interestingly, this trend was boosted by aggressive promotions by gyms and the advent of budget airlines. Younger Malaysians would have been exposed to some of these sports in universities, either locally or overseas. However, an increase in affluence and interest in travel are seeing more Malaysians donning lycra or trail hikers, particularly those over 40. Trekking, mountain-biking and scuba-diving are the activities of choice. Interest in the more technical sports such as caving and mountaineering tends to be driven by the more affluent and overseas-educated Malaysians as well as expatriates.

Other than for scuba-diving, however, the infrastructure is nascent, expertise is scarce and sites undeveloped. Because of the lack of standards and governing bodies, safety can be a concern. The remoteness of locations where adventure sports are enjoyed, and lack of good hospitals means that the onus for safety lies with the operator and the participant. The quality of equipment also varies, although a large variety is available; the exception would be cycling, as specialist bike shops tend to be run by enthusiasts. Insurance is available locally but only minimal coverage is provided; as world-over, getting good insurance coverage for these sports is a problem. Participants should, therefore, ensure they are as well informed and prepared as possible, even for something as “harmless” as a jungle trek.

There are also clubs, mostly based in Kuala Lumpur, but all the big cities have interest groups. Among the more active are mountain-biking, mountaineering, rock-climbing, as well as jungle-trekking. Multi-sport expedition racing has some following, with former international racer Chan Yuen-Li organising short adventure races under the Eco-X label.

Probably the greatest difficulty faced by rainforest-based adventure sports proponents in Malaysia is the humidity, which can reach close to 100% in the forest. Dehydration is another problem because of the heat. Luckily there is always an icy-cold river close at hand. In some areas, fortification is necessary against the threat of tropical diseases such as malaria.


Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a must on your holiday to Malaysia. Photo: Shutterstock


Jungle-trekking

Trekking is often a wet experience on muddy trails and across numerous rivers, sometimes by boulder-hopping. However, hot-footing it with a backpack is the best way to experience the amazing jungle and encounter the extremely elusive tropical wildlife. And because the Orang Asli and natives make the best jungle guides, it provides a chance to learn about remarkable and fast-disappearing ways of life.

The most challenging jungle-trekking is to be found in the country’s mountainous interiors. In the peninsula, these concentrate in the backbone of Banjaran Titiwangsa (Main Range); in Sabah, the Crocker Range; and in Sarawak, the northern Mulu area. Countless routes can be taken, whether in the Livingstonian quest for waterfalls, or to scale a mountain, or simply to experience the many ecosystems that make up the rainforest.

Hundreds of kilometres of trails wind through protected areas, mainly serving conservation objectives. Other trails have been trammelled for generations by the indigenous people who still travel on foot to their remote villages. In wilder country, it is the animal trails along the steep ridges that form some kind of pathway through the thorny rattan- and liana-strewn undergrowth.

Mountain hikes

Many of the longer trails involve ascending to mountain tops, such as the seven-day hike to Mount Tahan (2,200 metres/7,000ft) in Taman Negara, and the four-day ascent to Mount Mulu (2,400 metres/7,900ft). The popular overnight trails up the country’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu (4,100 metres/13,400ft) are relatively civilised, if stamina-sapping. Alternatively, shorter hikes and trails are available, including those featured on Day 5 of Insight Guides' Experience Nature in the Wilds of Sabah holiday

Far tougher is the adrenalin-pumping and astoundingly beautiful via ferrata route to the peak, a mountain route equipped with rungs, cables and bridges enabling access usually limited to mountaineers. Afficionados of the activity shouldn’t miss out, as this route is the world’s highest via ferrata.

Exciting country lies in the largely unvisited northern tracts of Banjaran Titiwangsa in the peninsula’s Belum area, steep hilly terrain full of hidden waterfalls, and in Sabah’s Maliau Basin, termed East Malaysia’s last frontier for its less-known landscapes. More accessible peaks include Cameron Highlands’ Mount Berembun and Mount Brinchang, which afford views of highland forests, vegetable farms and tea plantations.

In Sarawak, Mount Santubong, the magnificent backdrop for the Sarawak Cultural Village, is a popular climb. Tour groups do organise trips but interest groups probably know the terrain best, including the socially conscious Waterfall Survivors, who have bases in Selangor and Kota Kinabalu, and the Penang-based Anak Hutan and Penang Adventurer’s Club.

Rock-climbing

Rock-climbing has long been popular among tiny pockets of enthusiasts. Sport-climbing, which is more accessible than traditional climbing, has a largish following thanks to the proliferation of artificial climbing walls throughout the country.

Most of Peninsular Malaysia’s rock-climbing surfaces are limestone, characterised by steep overhanging rock and often stalactites, which make routes tough (at least 6A French grade; climbing grades range from 3 to 9A). The cliffs are also high, usually 100 metres (300ft), so paths have to be established from the ground up.

The most frequently visited rock-climbing spots around the capital are Batu Caves (170 routes) and Bukit Takun (30 routes) near Templer’s Park. Both of which can be added to an itinerary with Insight Guides; our Traditional Malaysia and Wild Borneo holiday already includes a stop at Batu. The former is easy to access and has moderately challenging routes. Takun is a more traditional rock face, which involves a bit of a clamber through thick undergrowth to reach. However, both offer several interesting routes. The highest grade of climb locally is 7C.

Other popular climbs are Bukit Keteri in Perlis, Gua Musang in Kelantan and the tough Fairy Cave in Sarawak. Pulau Tioman offers bouldering and slab wall climbing as well as the spectacular 270-metre (886ft) high Dragon’s Horns.


Exploring the caves around Merapoh is a thrilling activity. Photo: Shutterstock


Cave adventures

Superlatives abound when it comes to the caving haven of Mulu – largest, longest, most decorated. Mulu’s giant caves offer superb adventure and technical caving opportunities. Most of the area’s 360km (225 miles) of surveyed passages are wet, with large and sudden water-level fluctuations, depending on rain; dry floors are often thick with guano. There are spectacular traverses, squeezes and stretches of tough ropework and plenty of clambering around massive stalagmites and crossing narrow bridges of fretted rock. No one knows how much more of Mulu remains to be discovered, and joint Malaysian-foreign caving groups come in on surveying expeditions virtually every year.

Nearby are Mount Api, with the second-largest chamber in Malaysia; and the neighbouring Mount Benarat, some to the second-longest cave system in Mulu. North of the Gunung Mulu National Park is the Gunung Buda National Park, home to the deepest vertical drop in Southeast Asia (140 metres/460ft), accessible through challenging ropework amid thundering waterfalls.

In the peninsula, caves that are open as showcaves and for adventure caving include the Dark Cave in Selangor and Gua Tempurung in Perak. Other limestone wonders such as the Perlis Wang Kelian State Park and Perak’s Kinta Valley are best accessed through organisations such as the Kuala Lumpur-based Malaysian Nature Society’s caving group.

Talk to one of Insight Guides' local experts today to add a stop at any of the destinations mentioned above to your Malaysia holiday.

Mountain-biking

While old timber trails in the interior sometimes give hikers access to undisturbed forest, they are more popular with mountain-bikers. The sport is boosted through the efforts of professional riders organising groups, races and rides. Clubs such as the Pedalholics Cycling Club and the Kuala Lumpur Mountain Bike Hash organise short- and long-distance rides, while informal groups comprising friends spend weekends exploring oil palm and rubber plantations, as well as secondary forest near towns. These provide everything from fairly simple trails to challenging hilly terrain, and the vegetation makes for much cooler riding than on the road.

Wider and flatter jungle trails can actually also make good, if tough, riding – with their root-covered paths, numerous river crossings and breathtaking views. The Headhunters’ Trail in Mulu, Sarawak, is one such trail, while another good trail is the dirt road on the border of Taman Negara which leads from Jerantut to the Kuala Tahan kampung, opposite the park headquarters.

Aerial sports

Recreational flying is almost prohibitively expensive to take up in Malaysia, but interest in it is growing and instruction is available. “Cowboy” operators abound, so check if the outfit is licensed by the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) Malaysia, whether the instructor has certification and that a logbook is maintained.

A pilot’s licence is required for winged air-craft and a student licence requires 30 hours of flight training. Microlight or ultralight air-craft flying is based in Melaka. The planes are allowed to fly at a maximum height of 150 metres (500ft), with a 5km (3-mile) radius from the point of take-off. A good introduction is the 10-minute joyride, where licensed pilots fly visitors over the city of Melaka. A simpler aircraft is the powered paraglider or paramotor, basically paragliders driven by a two-stroke engine worn like a backpack. Instruction is available in Klang, Selangor, and tandem rides on trikes (three-wheeled frames) are a good way to try out the sport.

The most accessible and affordable aerial sport is paragliding, and two centres for this are Jugra Hill in Selangor, which takes in great views of the sea, and the hills of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, where tandem paragliding is also offered.

Meanwhile, interest is growing in sky-jumping, which is available in Kuala Lumpur (with actual jumps in Taiping, Perak) and Segamat, Johor. A 2.5-day static-line course includes ground training, and static jumps must be completed before free-falling is allowed. Tandem sky-jumping with an instructor is also available, while experienced jumpers can opt for fun-jumping. Minimum numbers might apply.

Only certified, experienced skydivers are allowed to participate in the extreme BASE jumping, or fixed object jumping. An informal group gathers most Saturdays at Batu Caves. However, the sport’s largest event is the annual KL Tower (Menara Kuala Lumpur) International BASE Jump, established in 1999 and today a four-day event which draws tens of participants for day and night jumps; a set minimum length of experience and number of jumps previously completed is required. A newer BASE jumping event is now being held in Sibu, Sarawak.


Malaysia is well-known for its abundant marine life and good scuba diving opportunities. Photo: Shutterstock


Whitewater action

Malaysia’s many rivers offer good whitewater experiences. One of the top sites is the spectacular Padas Gorge in Sabah. Tour operators usually offer rafting experiences on 8- to 10-seater inflatable rafts with river guides. Kiulu River, closer to Kota Kinabalu, offers a softer adventure.

Generally, whitewater tour operators are well organised, experienced and provide safety equipment, a briefing, sometimes insurance, and lunch. Nonetheless, safety is the most overlooked aspect of this sport, and it is important to check that tour companies have emergency procedures in place.

North of Kuala Lumpur, Sungai Selangor, Sungai Sungkai and Sungai Kampar are centres for nice-and-easy kayaking and rafting, with up to Grade 3 rapids. The routes are set in rustic, rural landscapes of secondary forest, lush plantations and Malay and indigenous Orang Asli villages. Experienced kayakers will find thrills on offer in other stretches of Sungai Selangor as well as the tougher multi-day Sungai Singor route in the Belum forest reserve.

Riverboarding is the newest whitewater sport to take hold in Malaysia and centres on Perak and Selangor.

Scuba-diving

Malaysia’s coral islands offer a multitude of stunning possibilities for scuba-diving, and with local tourism boards promoting sites heavily – particularly Terengganu and Sabah – tourists are flocking to them as snorkellers; most will also try their hand at diving. Add snorkelling excursions in Sabah to Insight Guides' Taking in the Splendour of Malaysia holiday itinerary.

Almost every diveable Malaysian destination has operators offering tours, full equipment rental and dive instruction in padi, naui, ssi and/or sdi. Most resort-based facilities accept walk-in trade, but scheduled dive trips are offered by operators in Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Terengganu, Mersing, Tawau, Labuan and Kota Kinabalu.

While there are internationally rated dive centres, at the other end of the scale are operators who are not registered with dive agencies, or are lax about medical and safety equipment such as buoyancy compressors. The Malaysian Scuba-Diving Association is working with government agencies to set local standards, ensure enforcement of marine park rules and promote the sport.

The most developed facilities and services are in Sabah, off whose coast is the region’s premier dive destination, Sipadan. Close to Sipadan is the muck-diving haven at Mabul, which is popular with underwater photographers for its exotic life unique to the silt, while hammerhead and manta ray enthusiasts head for Layang Layang, situated in the South China Sea.

Malaysia’s reefs and marine life are among the world’s richest and most diverse. Each dive destination, and sometimes dive spot, is characterised by endemics, from odd macro life in Kapalai to pelagics in Tenggol, coral-wreathed wrecks in Labuan, to the huge diversity of marine life in Redang.

Other sea sports, while popular, do not enjoy such enthusiastic patronage. You’ll find wind-surfing at beach resorts, while sailing has a small, mainly expatriate following among members of yacht clubs. The peninsula’s east coast, are sea sport centres, particularly in Pahang and Johor. The range of activities is quite wide, including beach and shore-break surfing during the monsoon period of November to February.


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