1. Try fresh mantis prawns on Aman Island in Penang
A mystery even to most locals, Aman Island (”Island of Peace”) is so close to the hustle of Georgetown, yet so different. Just a 5-minute boat ride off the southern coast of Seberang Perai – Penang State’s part of Malaysia's mainland – this little blue-ringed jewel was once a pirates’ cove. Today, Aman Island hides no bounties, but it's still a treasure, with no cars, no paved roads and an ancient well that’s said to breed gold.
Besides chilling and climbing to the the top of the highest hill to enjoy the views, the place is dear to local foodies. They come here for the delicious endemic mantis prawns – a mean crustacean – cooked to perfection in simple restaurants on stilts lining the shore.
© ez tokboi/Shutterstock
2. Marvel at Kampung Pulai's limestone crags and temples
Chinese Hakka traders came to the jungles of Southern Kelantan half a century ago, lured by the prospect of finding gold. They settled next to a quiet river surrounded by lush thicket and jagged limestone peaks – a setting that seems to belong to famous Yangshuo, in China’s Guanxi province – and called the village Kampung Pulai.
The first tarred road to nearby Gua Musang arrived only in the 1980s; seclusion kept the migrants’ traditions intact for four centuries. Today, the Water and Moon temple, the oldest in Peninsular Malaysia, still stands at the centre of the village, overlooking the river.
On the other side, a large limestone outcrop named Princess Hill hides ancient meditation caves and a huge statue of Goddess of Mercy Kuan Yin carved out of a stalagmite. The best part is, very few travellers know that this place even exists.
3. Meet the last Kelabit elders in Bario Asal longhouse, Sarawak
A few kilometres from the Sarawak-Kalimantan border is Bario, a cluster of villages on the Kelabit Highlands, now easily accessible from coastal city Miri by 18-seater twin otter planes – an adventure in itself.
Bario is home to the Kelabit, once fierce headhunters and now proud Christians. Don't miss Bario Asal, the area’s very first longhouse, still inhabited by new and older generations, some of which still sport the traditional elongated earlobes the Kelabit were famous for.
Kelabit longhouses are made up of row of hearths, each belonging to one family © shaifulzamri/Shutterstock
4. Get in a car and chase Perak's ghosts
Perak’s capital Ipoh is rising and gentrifying, but the state’s incredible history still haunts some of its undiscovered backwoods. Rent a car and head south to Menglembu, driving off to the mostly abandoned village of Papan. This is where Eurasian nurse Sybil Kathigasu supported the anti-Japanese resistance and was tortured for her bravery.
More spirits are thought to float south of Tronoh in Tanjung Tualan which, besides its nationwide famous giant river prawns, has the last tin dredge left in Malaysia. Not far away is Kellie's Castle, a manor built by William Kellie Smith, who was Scottish. In stereotypical Scot flavour, the manor is believed to teem with ghosts.