Yeah, yeah, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, everybody loves them. But what about Malaysia?

With beaches to rival even the most paradisiacal islands, rainforests as lush as the Amazon and a real mix of cultures, Malaysia is one of the most fascinating places you can go on a gap year. If your knowledge of the country stops at Kuala Lumpur, you’ll need our guide to the best spots to plan your gap year in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur

Chances are you’ll be flying in and out of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and it’s a good place to start your Malaysian adventure. From soaring skyscrapers like the Petronas Twin Towers to inner city neighbourhood villages like Kapung Baru, KL is a city of diversity.

Travel between those towers on the scary sky bridge and when your feet are back on the ground treat yourself to Kapung Baru street food, some of the country’s best. All stoves and street stalls, replenish yourself with dishes of rojak, satay and nasi campur.

Kuala Lumpur skyline at night

Selangor & Negeri Sembilan

From Kuala Lumpur, consider renting a car and heading west of the city for a day trip in the Selangor & Negeri Sembilan region. You can explore the big limestone hill with the Batu caves and temples inside before stopping by the Mah Meri cultural village. You’ll learn all about the village people and their traditions of woodcarving and mask making.

Hindu God Statue, Batu caves

Penang

Staying on the western route, take a bus four hours to Penang. Thanks to years as a crucial port, you’ll see a real fusion of European, Middle Eastern and Asian influences in the buildings: British colonial houses, mosques and Chinese chophouses. The Blue Mansion Hotel will probably be beyond your backpacker budget but a tour inside gives a glimpse of the country’s Chinese history. Most of the fun and action of Penang is in George Town’s old town, but beyond that, in the main city, you’ll also get a cosmopolitan hub with malls and markets.

Outside the city, take a bus to the Tropical Spice Garden where you can try a range of herbs and do a cooking class using ingredients from their grounds.

Penang sunset, Malaysia

Langkawai

Catching a ferry from Penang, you’ll be in Langkawai in 45 minutes and ready for some beach time. There are over 104 islands here, many uninhabited, right in the middle of the beautiful Adaman Sea.

You don’t have to do much other than relax on dreamy beaches like Pantai Cenang, Pantai Tanjung Rhu and Pantai Tengah, but if you do fancy leaving the beautiful bays take a trek to Telaga Tujuh – a magical waterfall, which locals say is home to fairies.

Perhentian Islands

From one set of tropical islands to another, catch a quick flight east to this top gapper destination. The Perhentian Islands willdraw you in with their gleaming waters and affordable accommodation – meaning a two-day stay can quickly become a week’s trip.

Besar and Kecil are the two main islands here, with all the beach houses and homestays you could ask for. The other islands are uninhabited – unless you count the monkeys and sharks – but you can still explore them by criss-crossing through the jungle pathways that connect them.

However, don’t be fooled into simply thinking it’s tanning time here. You can go kayaking, volunteer with the turtle conservation groups and dive the coral reef.

Perhentian Islands, Malaysia

Pahang

Travel back to the mainland via ferry to Kuala Besut, and enter the large state of Pahang. It’s the peninsula with all the gap year adventure. There’s the world’s oldest tropical rainforest – Taman Negara – to trek, caves and mountains to climb and places you can camp the night. Keep an eye out for the elephants though, they roam freely through this forest.

Heading four hours south, you’ll need an early morning to go hunting for treasure. Just by the village of Sungai Lembing there’sa short trek that brings you to the Rainbow Waterfall. The falls got its name for a good reason – colourful light, just like the end of a rainbow, touches its base every morning between 9am and 10am, so have your camera ready.

Cameron Highlands

Also in Pehang, but deserving of its own mention, are the Cameron Highlands. These are the country’s largest set of hills. A trip here will have you weaving through tea plantations and Rajuu’s Hill Strawberry Farm, all while smelling the eucalyptus plant. Sounds sweet to us!

If that doesn’t sound quite fairy tale enough, stop by Ee Feng Gu Honey Bee Farm and the Cameron Highlands Butterfly Farm on your way through.