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The Just Student Jobs Country guide for gap year travel in South East Asia - Malaysia

Where to Go - South East Asia

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Population : 25.3 million

Literacy rate : 88.7%

Life expectancy at birth : 73.03 yrs

Infant mortality rate : 16.39 deaths/1,000 live births

Population growth rate : 1.74%

GDP growth rate : 6.3%

GDP per capita : £6,785

Unemployment : 3.2%

Inflation : 2.1%

Climate : hot and humid, Oct to Feb east coast, Sep to Dec west coast,

Time : GMT + 8.

Electricity : 220 volts AC, 50Hz.

Capital : Kuala Lumpur

Currency : Malaysian Ringgit (£1/6.5 ringgits as of 06/2008)

Language : Bahasa Malaysian , English and Chinese are mainly spoken

Websites : For info on tourism, including comprehensive regional guides to the country, see

Malaysia is a hassle free middle income South East Asian destination which offers a captivating and vibrant mix of cultural pluralism against a heady tropical backdrop of rain forest, crystal clear azure beaches and rugged mountainous ranges. Spending time on your gap year here gives opportunity to bath in the splendour of one of nature's remaining strongholds in Borneo, home to the endangered orang utan and enjoy the dazzling festivals, cuisine and ritual of Malaysia's people.

The 329,750 sq km comprising Malaysia is split into 2 landmasses with islands dotted hither and thither. The country is home to diverse ethnic groups ? 50% are or Malay origin, 23% Chinese and around 7% Tamil Hindus originally from India. The Eastern island of Borneo is home to mainly indigenous tribes, almost 80% of the population of the states of Sarawak and Sabah are 'orang asal' (meaning original people). The western half is more populous and economically advanced and includes the capital city , Kuala Lumpur (KL). Borneo, a place in which tribal head hunting was widely practiced only a century previously, is almost entirely non-urbanized and although it contains the most beautiful forests and landscapes the quality of life is lower. Land rights are an issue for the indigenous people here.

The capital, KL is eclectic. An easy going and friendly place peppered with top end Western style hotels, a monorail and glitzy glass fronted shopping centres it's also home to a diverse range of beautiful mosques, temples and churches as well as a china town and a little India. Both districts throb with market stalls selling ethic as well as fake designer goods and a range of food stuffs. Getting around KL is easy; there are a range of public transport options and the taxi's are very cheap. Back in the centre of town the imposing Petronas Towers (home to the offices of the state oil and gas company) are well worth a visit. At 452 m tall the twin towers held the title of the world's tallest building until Taiwan's Taipei 101 tower surpassed them at 509 m high in 2004.

The spectacular Hindu procession of Thaipusam leaves from the Sri Mahamariamman temple in the heart of KL at full moon around January or February time. Increasingly popular the Hindu devotees are now joined by many Malaysian Chinese in their celebration of the birthday of Lord Murugan. Murugan, in Hindu faith, was the youngest son of Shiva and Pavarti who destroyed the evil demon, Soorapadman, with a lance he was given on this day. Devotees often shave their heads and carry a 'kavadi' (a burden) in gratitude to Lord Shiva. The kavadi is often mortification of the devotee's skin in the shape of a number of piercings although self flagellation and fire walking are also popular. Some devotees even attach hooks to the skin of their back to drag an altar behind them along the 15 km procession to the Batu Caves. Sounds painful however, it is claimed that true devotees enter a mesmeric trance during Thaipusam and no discomfort, scarring or bleeding takes place.

For the budding botanist the country is well endowed. Peninsular Malaysia contains the most famous rain forest regions in the country , the Taman Negara National Park. Spend a night here just to catch the cacophonous delights of the jungle. The whirring, shrieks and thumps commence after dusk as the forest becomes a hub of activity for macaques, tapir, leaf monkeys and gibbons. Sightings of sun bears and possible and expect a wealth of tropical birds and bizarre insects. The largest suspension bridge in the world this jungle canopy walk in the world offers chance to spot tropical birds, monkeys, wild hogs and drink in the lush smells of the rain forest. The climb up Gunung Tahan (2,187m) is a hot and harrowing 7 day journey but can provide a real shot at spotting tigers and elephants in the wild.

Eastern Malaysia, comprising the states of Sarawak and Sabah in the island of Borneo, contains huge swathes of uncharted rain forest as well as the country's highest peak, Gunung Kilabalu (4100 m ? compared to Snowdon at a diminutive 1,085m). Relatively easy to climb Kinabalu's summit offers some spectacular views of granite pinnacles rising through the clouds as well as the mile deep Low's Gully formed when a massive glacier carved a huge canyon into the mountain. Laban Rata mountain huts provide accommodation along the trek amid rapidly changing forest habitats. Borneo is an ecological paradise. Approximately 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 species of tree provide a habitat for 221 types of mammal and 420 species of birds. Carnivorous pitcher plants are common place and iridescent fungi can be spotted at night.

Spending time with the indigenous Iban tribe in Borneo's Sawarak province is a way of experiencing local life. The former headhunter tribe live in 'long houses' along the river with many families sharing the jungle clad platformed huts. Try and coordinate a visit with the Gawai Dayak festival in June , which marks the end of the rice harvest. Festivities can be frenetic, rice wine flows abundant and there is dancing and party games.

And then there are the beaches.....Malaysia has around 4,700 km of coast line. It is also home to a beach commonly cited as one of the most beautiful in the world, Emerald Bay, a perfect crescent shape of white sand of Western Malaysia lapped by calm emerald green waters. However, there is a fee to use the beach as it is privately owned by a hotel. The well developed luxury tourism industry on and around the Malaysian Peninsular means some of the best beaches are privately owned by hotels. Pantai Cenang, Pantai Tengah or Datai beach on Langkwai are open beaches and the best diving and snorkelling is possibly found at Palau Payer marine park here. The coast line of Borneo is less developed. The Perhentian islands in the north east and Turtle and Golden beaches (Similajau national park) in Sarawak are other slugs of beautiful coast line not claimed by hotel chains. All are blessed with jungle, white sands, turquoise oceans teaming with fish and marine life. To any beach lover, scuba diver or snorkeller the Perhentian islands are a veritable nirvana.

Malaysia is also an easy place to add another language to your bow. Bhasa Malay is one of the easiest to learn in the world. The roman script used is devoid of any tonal complication and the creator of Malay's verbs and nouns happily forgot to attach them to any article. Grammar is generally very straightforward and plurals are repetitions of the original word. For instance, the word for moped is mobil, and cars is said, mobil mobil.

Challenges facing Malaysia follow the usual pattern. Deforestation from industrialisation has meant a loss of habitat for wildlife and there are a range of gap year projects available working in breeding programmes, animal sanctuaries and marine parks. Pollution from industry and the number of cars in upwardly mobile Malaysia is also increasing and neighbouring Indonesia's prolific forest fires regularly dump tonnes of smoke on Borneo. On the humanitarian side orphanages from marginalised communities, mainly around KL, require teachers and those wishing to give the kids a better start in life. A country rich in culture and beauty on many levels Malaysia has to be an appealing destination for your gap year.

Entry requirements

UK citizen, no need for a visa if visiting less than three months.


Hepatitis A, Polio, Tetanus, Malaria and Yellow Fever.

Tax and Insurance

30% tax, but 15% if you can qualify for resident status. Health insurance is a good idea; some schools offer it.

Gap Year Programmes

Click here to find gap year programmes and placements in Malaysia


Map and statistics taken from the CIA World Fact Book.

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