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Malaysia's marvels and magic moments

THERE are few places where you can stand on the grounds of a colonial church, gaze out at Southeast Asian shores at sunset and hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque at the same time. Malaysia is one of them. Marta Cooper reports.

Malaysia's gorgeous landscape, vibrant colors, delicious cuisine and diverse cultural make-up are just a few reasons why this destination will never fail to impress.

Malaysia is geographically split in two: Peninsular Malaysia, on mainland Southeast Asia, houses 11 states and the capital, Kuala Lumpur as well as some scenic beaches.

Across the South China Sea is the Malaysian portion of Borneo, where lush rainforests occupy the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah, home to diverse wildlife and tribal traditions.

However, for all its gorgeousness, Malaysia is often overlooked by travel junkies trawling through Southeast Asia, preferring to see their money go further in the cheaper spots of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. But don't be fooled: Your Ringgit can certainly stretch a long way here, not least thanks to the cheap flights offered by Air Asia from Shanghai-Hangzhou to Kuala Lumpur (see for details).

I began my brief 10-day break in Kuala Lumpur, just over a five-hour flight from Shanghai. The city boasts a beautiful mix of Islamic, Indian and colonial architecture, hordes of air-conditioned malls to escape the tropical humidity, towering skyscrapers, lush parks and several museums displaying the diverse cultures of the land. Unmissable is a trip to the Islamic Arts Museum, near the vast Lake Gardens.

The accessible museum hosts a range of artifacts from the Muslim world, from North Africa to Southeast Asia and everywhere in between, from scrolls to ceramics, clothing to maps.

But, if you're put off by the high prices in the museum shop, the landmark Central Market is just a short walk away and could easily take up an afternoon.

Here you will find your run-of-the-mill souvenirs as well as Indian antiques, Islamic-style furniture and prints, Kashmiri carpets, Malaysian-patterned clothing, and convenient cafes to refresh yourself in.

And if Central Market feels too timid, crossing the road will land you in Chinatown, a bustling collection of souvenir and food stalls where you can barter for anything from vintage postcards to fresh durian.

Two of Peninsular Malaysia's other must-see places are Penang, five hours north of Kuala Lumpur, and Melacca, just over two hours south (each can easily be reached by the country's extensive coach network).

Both were recently declared UNESCO World Heritage sites. Strolling around Penang island's main town, the British-settled Georgetown, it's easy to feel you've headed back in time to the colonial era of whitewashed buildings jutting out in between rows of swaying palm trees. The town's vibrant Little India district is also a must-see, with its streets filled with smells of incense and fried jalebi sweets, and booming bhangra sounds.

But the other reason Penang stays on the map is food: blending Malay, Chinese and Indian flavors, it boasts some of the country's most delicious cuisine.

To try some, a trip to one of Malaysia's many hawker centers is an absolute must: Tables fill the food court, which is encircled by small stalls offering all manner of cuisines.

You simply pick your table, stroll around and choose your food, and then pay for it upon arrival (see left for a list of unmissable Malaysian dishes).

For another side of colonial history, Melacca boasts simple Dutch and Portuguese architecture and its own colorful Chinatown. A tour around this compact town is made all the more enchanting on a signature trishaw, a floral pattern-covered contraption blaring '80s and '90s tunes and a running commentary from the enthusiastic drivers.

After a spin around the colonial sites of St Paul's Church and A Famosa port, a walk around Chinatown is necessary, with its vibrant temples, antique stores and a host of restaurants boasting the fusion flavors of Nyonya cuisine (named so after the offspring of Chinese immigrants and Malay women).

Sadly, 10 days did not do justice to the vast wildlife and natural beauty Malaysia has to offer. I missed out on some stunning sights, such as the jungles of Taman Negara and Kuching, diving in the Perhentians and Pulau Tioman, the national parks of Sarawak and dizzy heights of Mount Kinabalu.

But I did get a small tropical park taster with a day trip to the Forestry Institute of Malaysia, a vast green expanse with hiking trails and a rickety walkway to satisfy my craving for nature.

There are few places where you can stand on the grounds of a colonial church, look out to the Southeast Asian shores and hear the call to prayer from a nearby mosque at the same time. That is not to say Malaysia is not without its problems.

But a trip to one of Southeast Asia's unsung heroes is highly rewarding. If you are looking for a place to blend jungle trekking, city strolling, a step back into colonial history and the chance to indulge your tastebuds, Malaysia should be your destination.

Check out or for up-to-date and detailed travel guides.

Don't leave Malaysia without trying

Popiah - Light vegetable-stuffed rolls

Yikan Pari Bakar - stingray coated in turmeric

Char Kway Teow - fried noodles and rice cake strips with mixed spices

Ais Ka Cang/Cendol - shaved ice decorated with red beans, jellies and cane sugar

Ipoh Chicken Rice - steamed chicken served with rice and bean sprouts

Candlenut Chicken - a Nyonya blend of chicken and spices

Bak Kut Teh - a Hokkien hotpot of meat bone stew served with yam rice

Hokkien Mee - thick yellow noodles fried in black sauce with crispy pork

Quick Facts

Population: 27.5 million (UN, 2009)

Capital: Kuala Lumpur

Area: 329,847 sq km

Major languages: Malay (official), English,

Chinese dialects, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam

Exchange rate: 1 ringgit = 2 yuan

International dialling code: + 60


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