South East Asia is one of the hottest gap year destination hotspots in the world, with countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia permanent fixtures on the banana pancake trail, but why do so many backpackers overlook and ignore Malaysia? Here is exactly why they shouldn’t!
Every backpacker knows to head to south east Asia for their gap years, the mixture of easy going backpacker communities and infrastructure, perfect island paradises, hedonistic nights out, varied cultures and some of the best foodie destinations in the world, it is not difficult to see why.
But what about Malaysia?
Sitting smack bang in the middle of it’s arguably more popular neighbours of Thailand and Singapore, Peninsular Malaysia has everything any other destination in south east Asia has to offer and then some. Check out this guide to the top hotspots in Malaysia that prove it is worthy of any gap year itinerary.
Most travellers first introduction to Malaysia is through Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and as one of the best travel hubs in the region it is not hard to see why many just transit through, however they are missing out. Kuala Lumpur is one of the most diverse, underrated and ignored cities in the whole of south East Asia, straddling itself firmly between the glamour and gentrification of Singapore and the heaving, chaotic Maelstrom of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur is teeming with culture, diverse neighbourhoods, amazing foodie spots and some of the best street food in the region.
Tioman island offers the best of what the backpacker hideaways in Thailand use to offer, before they got overrun with package resorts and mass tourism. It is an idyllic island getaway with a thick jungle interior, wide stretches of white sand beach, beach hut and hammock operations and waters perfect for surfing, diving and snorkelling. It even has a treehouse bar overlooking the beach and playing Bob Marley tracks on repeat! There is some development, especially on the west of the island, but for whatever reason it has been kept to a minimum, and you can laze away a significant amount of time here in a genuinely unspoilt paradise.
Penang’s history as a crucial trading port has cemented it’s eclectic cultural mix into one of the most diverse and mesmerising destinations in south east Asia. Taking cultural cues from all over Asia, the Middle East and Europe, the capital of Georgetown is the heart of Penang and gives travellers one of the most unique places to explore in Malaysia. Nowhere else mixes a heady cocktail of Colonial British architecture, old Chinese shophouses, Islamic architecture and modern glass and chrome skyscrapers and shopping malls quite like Georgetown, and there is nowhere better in Malaysia to kick back and relax for a few days and soak it all in, especially as it is the jumping off point for the ferry to Langkawi.
Pulau Langkawi is one of Malaysia’s premier island destinations and is the largest of over a hundred tropical islands and inlets in the Andaman Sea that all typify a white sand paradise, many of them aren’t even habited! There is more development and tourism on this island than others in the region but there is still a lot of slow island life to be found on deserted beaches and traditional kampungs alongside the fancy spas and hotels.
Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.
Just outside of Kuala Lumpur, the Selangor and Negeri region is an easy place to explore and is a rich, rolling landscape of hills and colonial era hill stations, lush tropical forests and striking limestone cliffs. The Batu Caves, one of the largest and most popular Hindu temples outside of India, is set into the majestic limestone cliffs, Fraser’s Hill and the Forest Research Institute Of Malaysia are just three of the most popular day trips from Kuala Lumpur, and there are countless options for visiting traditional Kampung’s and wildlife spotting.
Taman Negara is the oldest and largest pristine rainforests left in the world and has a range of canopy walkways, river trips and hiking trails. The vast National Park is a spectacular and easy place for backpackers to explore, despite the sheer amount of day tours and tour groups telling you otherwise, it is easy to take a boat to the tiny village of Kuala Tahan (and cheap to stay in the village on the other side of the river from the very expensive resort) from the jumping off point of Kuala Tembeling and then explore yourself, and plenty of options for sleeping in the jungle from hides to campsites.
The cameron highlands are vast stretches of rolling hills, plantations and even strawberry and honey farms. Exploring this serene stretch of the Malaysian countryside is like stepping into a little snapshot of British colonial history. Make sure you stop for some high tea!
Endau Rompin National Park.
Almost as old as Taman Negara, this relatively young pristine rainforest still dates back 250 million years, but this much wilder younger sibling offers far more in the way of untamed adventure. There aren’t as many organised trails or walkways here, but for those who are adventurous enough there are far more opportunities for genuine wildlife spotting and trekking. Backpackers can base themselves either at Kampung Peta near Kahang, where the principle access entrance to the National Park organised by the Johor National Parks Corporation Office is, or there is a smaller village at Selai but this access point has a lot less amenities for travellers.
This once bustling port has now become one of Malaysia’s premier heritage hotspots, yet still manages to retain a small town appeal that makes it a perfect place to waste a week or so just relaxing and taking your time exploring. The colonial Dutch architecture of this UNESCO world heritage site adds to its charm, and the famous Jonker street night market, countless museums and street food will make you forget there is also a developed side to Malacca with modern malls, cinemas and a heaving nightlife for those who want it.
The Perhentian Islands are Malaysia’s premier island getaway. White sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, and inland jungles that allow visits to picturesque waterfalls and more. If you think Thailand has some amazing islands, you have not been here yet. There are two main islands, Kecil and Besar, basically little island and big island. Kecil, the smaller of the two caters more to budget backpackers, with locally owned beach hut operations, beach side bars serving banana pancakes a plenty and a thriving backpacker community, whilst Bear is more upmarket with fancier hotels and a significantly marked up price range.
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