The Land Below the Wind, as it is known, offers an intriguing mix of rare animals and natural beauty.

Sabah has the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. Its coastline is littered with beautiful islands and amazing beaches. It sits roughly six degrees above theequator on Borneo, the world’s third largest island.

Its most famous inhabitant is the orangutan, and a stay at the opulent Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort and Spa, set in tropical forest, allows you to get right up close to some of the more inquisitive youngsters.

My friend Millie seems to have a certain power over the orang-utans. She is standing on a viewing platform a few minutes’ stroll from the hotel foyer, blowing kisses towards one of the orangehaired primates high in the trees. It obviously sparks his interest and within moments he has swung from tree to tree, working his way to within a metre of Millie for a better look.

The ginger-haired orang-utans are highly intelligent and considered to be close relatives to humans. Adults weigh between 33 and 83 kilograms and have a lifespan of 30 to 40 years. The Malay word for orang-utan means ‘person of the jungle’, and that’s such an apt description.

The hotel’s general manager, Jean-Marc Michel, says that bringing the orang-utans into the resort has been a success. “We are counting and developing the wildlife conservation and preserving the orang-utan who were slowly disappearing,” he says. “We host the babies here which are very appealing to our guests. They can watch them playing around and being fed.”

Sabah works hard to protect its orangutans, and not just for their appeal to tourists. From the resort, these babies move on to sanctuaries where everything possible is done to release them into the wild.

The resort is about 30 minutes outside Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu. The city was rebuilt in the 1950s after being flattened during World War II.

The main street, with its shophouses (flats above shops) is busy and the main market – selling everything from fresh fruit to chickens – is crowded and noisy. For me the best part of my three-hour city tour is the drive up Signal Hill where you get a glimpse of the old and the new Kota Kinabalu laid out with grid-like precision. The city is expanding rapidly and only from on high do you properly see the coming together of old and modern.

Along the tour – and to illustrate how tolerant Sabah is of all religions – we also make a stop at the Buddhist temple and drive past the state mosque. From the city, I jump on a high-speed boat for the 20-minute ride to Gaya Island. Justin Juhun, Gaya Island Resort’s resident naturalist, escorts daily jungle walks. It is hot and wet as a jungle should be and I guarantee you will break into a sweat on some of the climbs in search of wildlife such as flying squirrels and bearded pigs.

The island has a few harems of endangered proboscis monkeys. Found only in Borneo, they have extremely large noses that can grow to more than 21 centimetres in adults.

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Taste sensations

Penang is all about the food. Fast food. Street food. Gourmet food. You can’t walk the streets without being enveloped in the smells of some hawker stall cooking Penang laksa, mee goreng or char kway teow.

In 2004, Time magazine voted Penang as having the best street food in the world. In 2012, CNNGo included Penang on its list of Asia’s ‘10 Greatest Street Food cities’.

“The rest of the country thinks that Penang is the food capital because basically we have lots of varieties of cuisine,” our guide Joann Khaw says. “We have the influences coming in fromthe north [Thailand] and from the south we have Indonesia [Sumatra] and also Chinese.

This makes the food very special here. “Lots of people go out and eat. A bowl of noodles or fried rice costs between four ringgit [about $1.50] and six ringgit [$2.10]. So it’s cheap and people can go out a lot to eat and the food is fast and delicious.”

We are staying on the waterfront in Georgetown at the super-plush colonial styled Eastern & Oriental Hotel, which in 1927 was advertised as ‘the premier hotel east of the Suez’ and the guest list was littered with names like Noel Coward, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Hermann Hesse.

In 2008, UNESCO named Georgetown a World Heritage site. Interesting history aside, this area is famous as the place shoe guru Jimmy Choo started his apprenticeship, and for its eclectic street art, clan jetties and laksa. “The dish is known here as curry mee or curry noodles,” our guide tells us. To taste one of the best examples of local-style laksa, visit the Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul.

Penang is not just about laksa, though. The other place to try is the Tai Tong dim sum restaurant. It’s crowded, the chairs are plastic, not a lot of English is spoken, but the food is incredibly fresh and tasty. You can’t help but order another dish. And in my case, another.

If you don’t want to go 100 per cent local, try China House. It is a new breed of restaurant in Penang and wouldn’t be out of place in Fremantle or the leafy suburbs of Melbourne. “Yes, it is a cafe but you can also get fine dining, too. Most of the locals come here for the cakes,” our guide explains.

As you walk the streets you can’t miss the captivating street art. There are at least 51 major pieces worth seeing and Georgetown seems to have a fascination with ‘cat art’.

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History, shopping and markets

I arrive in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, late morning. The sun is already bouncing off the city’s modern steel skyscrapers. The air is hot and humid. KL is a mish-mash of cultures. If you were asked to sum up this city of about two million people in three words, those words would be food, shopping and history.

Malaysia’s independence was declared at Merdeka Square in 1957. The square is surrounded by colonial-style buildings and, with a cricket pitch in its centre, is obviously a throwback to the country’s British past. I love the Tudor-styled Royal Selangor Club. You can hire a bike and ride around the square, or simply find a quiet spot under a banyan tree and do a bit of people watching.

You can’t visit KL without spending some time at the iconic Petronas Towers, either to do some shopping or to gaze in awe at the stunning architecture of the steel-clad headquarters of the Petronas oil and gas company. These towers are the modern symbol of the city. Opened in 1999 and designed by Argentinian Cesar Pelli, the towers rise to 452 metres above street level. It’s wise to pre-book tickets if you want to ride the lift to visit the sky bridge or observation deck. They sell out quickly.

One of KL’s main tourist attractions is the pink Putra Mosque on Putrajaya Lake. Be sure to look inside at the intricately decorated main dome and the smaller domes, made from granite.

For shopping, the best place to start is Pavilion KL in the Golden Triangle shopping district. You will find the world’s most expensive brands here, but with seven levels of retail therapy you’re sure to find something to suit your budget. The good news about Malaysia is that there always seems to be a shopping sale on, so pack an extra bag or buy one there.

KL has many fine dining options (Nobu, SkyBar and Celestial Court at the Sheraton Imperial), but if you love curry, and are a tad adventurous, head to Brickfields, in the Little India part of the city near KL Central. I catch the cheap and easy-to-use monorail there and feel as though I have been transported to Bollywood.

This type of dining is not for everyone. It’s rugged. Authentic. After walking up and down the street a few times to check out the dining options we find a gem, the Husen Cafe. We order garlic naan and a basic chicken curry, which is so tasty we order another serve and some tandoori. The meal for three, including drinks, is about $20. Just a tip, though – when eating here, only use your right hand. It’s polite.

KL shines at night and there’s no better place to capture the colour and movement of the city than at the Jalan Alor street food and hawker markets. The roadside dining options are varied with almost every Malay, Chinese and Thai dish available. The market heaves with people. The food is incredibly cheap, but oh so delicious.

The best way to experience the market, I think, is to eat your way down the street. A small plate of frog’s legs here, a small plate of noodles there. And eventually youwill find someone selling coconut icecream. The perfect end to a busy day.

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Words by Brian Crisp