Over the past 200 years, while the cities on the western coast of peninsular Malaysia preoccupied themselves with waves of foreign domination, those on the eastern coast developed in relative seclusion. Today this part of the country remains true to its Malay heritage, from small fishing kampungs (villages) in the south to the Islamic strongholds of the north. More recently, it has developed as the nation's petroleum center.

The best attractions of the east coast are its islands. Tioman, Redang, and Perhentian attract snorkelers and divers with clear waters, diverse marine life, and comfortable accommodations. In addition, short daily flights from Kuala Lumpur (KL) make Tioman and Redang more accessible than the more renowned (and remote) dive sites of Borneo. The shoreline along the east coast of the peninsula is fringed with long stretches of sandy beaches, home to dozens of resorts. Most accommodations are budget chalets, but a few deluxe resorts stand out from the rest, notably Cherating's Club Med, Terengganu's Tanjong Aru Resort, and the Aryani.

With these few exceptions, tourism is quite laid back. For many, the lack of tourism infrastructure can sound exciting -- "authentic" even -- but really, although the potential for nature, adventure, and cultural tourism is here, there's just not enough creativity and investment for this area to compete with other destinations in the country. In short, if you come here, come to relax. I have, however, found some satisfying shopping, as many of Malaysia's surviving cottage industries are located in this area.

Some notes before you plan your trip: If you're looking for beach fun, the monsoon season from mid-October through late February can make the waters choppy, so avoid the island resorts and take care by the seaside. Also try not to book during Singapore's holiday seasons, particularly during school holidays from mid-May through June and again in November and December, when resorts become crowded with fun-loving families intent on a good time.

In the north, where the locals are very conservative, it is recommended that visitors dress modestly at public beaches, although a few beach resorts and islands are relaxed about swimwear.