Instead of Bangkok?
May 19, 2010 9:48 PM   Subscribe

Help me and my mom to decide where to go instead of Bangkok.

I've been away from my family (in the US) for a year. I'm returning from Bhutan this summer and planned to meet my mother in Bangkok so that we could spend a little time travelling together. We were looking forward to eating excellent street food (we're both foodies), hanging out in the mall, and riding some elephants. Maybe some beach relaxation. (We don't mind the heat.) We're travelling in early August for 9 days.

It's looking more and more like the violence in Bangkok is not just going to dissipate, and we might not want to be hanging around the city. Assuming that you could re-route your flight, where would you go?

My mom is a middle-aged woman who has spent most of her travels in Europe, however, she's very excited about her first trip to Asia. I'm happy to answer lots more questions, but I don't know what would be useful.

Here's what I'm asking. There are a lot of choices: China, Taiwan, Singapore/Malaysia, Vietnam, etc, etc. The only choices that are out are Japan (travelling there next year) and India (not different enough from Bhutan). When I sold my mom on visiting me in Bangkok, I gave her a small pitch emphasizing the delicious food, the healthy conversion rate, the malls, the beaches, and the elephants. Can you make a pitch for your ideal Asian vacation this August?

I'm not asking for the location most like Bangkok. I'm just asking for good ideas. The more specific you are (city, favorite dish, etc), the better.
posted by Suciu to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Vietnam has delicious, similar food, good beaches, and elephants. Not so sure about malls and exchange rates.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:54 PM on May 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What about staying in Thailand but going to Chiang Mai? That's a wonderful city, and it's a very quick flight from the Bangkok airport, which I'm assuming is safe enough even if the city is having trouble. You can try the khao soi. And take a cooking class, that's super fun too.

Singapore is a veritable foodie paradise...the hawker markets are everywhere, and it's a mix of cuisines including Indian, Malay, Chinese, etc...wonderful food there (love me some Hainanese Chicken rice and Nasi Lemak). Otherwise I'm not a huge fan of Singapore but I love the food there.
posted by dubitable at 9:56 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: Bali has delicious food, (mie goreng, gulung babi and bubur ketan hitam dengan kelapa are a few favorites) beaches, great opportunities to relax and interesting shopping opportunities. No elephants, though. But it does have monkeys.
posted by ambrosia at 10:22 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: Malaysia. I love Penang. Great food - it has it's own fusion cuisine Nonya - some good beaches, very interesting, and not too expensive. Kuching in Sarawak is also delighful, and Saba has some great beaches. You can reach both places with a quick flight from Kuala Lumpur.

Thailand. I would avoid Chang Mai as it is also having problems, but if you head down south to the islands (maybe a quick connecting flight) you should be fine.

Laos. Again, transit through Bangkok airport (connecting flight) to Vientienne then head upriver to the world heritage city of Luang Prabang. The best coffee in the world is to be had there.

Cambodia. Transit through Bangkok or Vietnam for flights to Siem Riep and the amazing Angkor temple complex. Then fly down south for some beach time.

Vietnam. Haven't been there but it should fit your needs nicely.
posted by Kerasia at 10:26 PM on May 19, 2010

Best answer: What about staying in Thailand but going to Chiang Mai?

Don't go to Chiang Mai. Demonstrations and sporadic violence are happening there too. Also, you would be stuck inside under curfew from 8pm to 6am.

How about Singapore, then Kuala Lumpur?

If your Mum hasn't travelled in Asia before, Singapore is a great place to start. It's an interesting city and the food is fantastic, but it's also clean, English-speaking and relatively free from scams and hassles. You could spend three or four days there, eating your way through the various Asian cuisines, trawling the many shopping malls and doing touristy things like the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo, Battle Box at Fort Canning Park or the island of Sentosa. I gave more suggestions for things to do in Singapore in this thread.

Then you could get a sleeper cabin on the overnight train and be eating street food in Kuala Lumpur by morning.
posted by embrangled at 11:00 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would second embrangled's recommendation of Singapore and KL. Singapore because of the food and its excellent air connections to Asia and the rest of the world; KL for the culture and the comparatively laid-back atmosphere. Conceivably you could spend all 9 days in Singapore, but I think you'd enjoy it more if you split up your trip.
posted by armage at 11:30 PM on May 19, 2010

If you can get flights into Cambodia (rather than transiting through BKK, which I don't think is a great idea even for a short layover) then I wholeheartedly recommend it. I believe Phnom Penh has an international airport.

Amazing food, really friendly people. We liked it much, much more than Thailand (and specifically Bangkok, which I really didn't enjoy at all). Definitely spend some time at Siem Reap, and there's a beach in the south (though I didn't go there). We spent two weeks on the move there and thought it was wonderful. Memail me if you want more info!
posted by citands at 11:41 PM on May 19, 2010

Seconding Bali. I haven't seen much of south Asia (though I hope to remedy that), but Lord, Bali is wonderful. Granted, my only trip to Thailand ended up being in Phuket, but Bali, especially Ubud, was lightyears better. The food is amazing, the people are warm and friendly, the island is beautiful.

In regards to your selling points on Thailand, Bali is cheaper, has great beaches, good shopping (in a market, not a mall sense), and stunning views every day. The cloud formations over Bali are astounding.

Among other things you can do, if you're interested, would be cooking classes. Definitely recommend them. It's very easy to get around the island, and a good number of people speak at least some English. As for destinations for middle-aged women, well, the main tourists to Bali are Australians, and a lot of them are middle-aged. Bali is only as challenging as you want it to be, really. You can just sit back and relax, or you can do more physically demanding things (surfing, kayaking, hiking, biking, snorkeling, scuba).
posted by Ghidorah at 12:06 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: I just plugged Vietnam in another thread, but hey, what the heck:

Vietnamese food is totally awesome. If you're a foodie, southern Vietnam is where it's at. Compared to the north, southern food has more spicing and more variety of flavors, plus a ridiculous abundance of amazing fresh produce and fish that come from really close by. And I sure did love the street food. I actually wrote a song about the lady who sold fried bananas...

Extra bonus: you can eat in Vietnam for mere dollars a day, and stay in a hotel for a few dollars more. The current exchange rate is about 19,000 dong (!) to the dollar. When I was there in 2007 it was about 16,000 to the dollar, and my meals tended to cost 8,000 to 40,000 dong, depending on fanciness.

Vietnam has some great beaches, too. Pro tip: seek out beach resorts that are not near the outlet of a major river. The Mekong and Red rivers are so gross, you don't even want to know. Example: Vung Tau's water is warm and wonderful, but the plastic bags that drift by in the waves are not pretty. Nor was the rash I got off the coast of Hai Phong. However, parts of the central coast and the extreme south are, as I hear, spectacular.

I think that Cambodia is also very worth visiting. I didn't like the food there as much but the Angkor temples are incredible. The legacy of the Khmer Rouge and the war are still very apparent and sobering, but there is a lot of wonderful stuff too. If you want a beach resort experience, you could look into Sihanoukville. It's not quite as cheap as Vietnam but the prices are still quite favorable. You can actually just use American dollars in Cambodia. Businesses will give you change in riel only if the change due is less than a dollar, in my brief experience.
posted by mandanza at 12:13 AM on May 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Laos. I spent last Christmas in Luang Prabang, a small, sleepy little town in the mountains with a number of cool things to see (mostly temples), amazing food (Lao food includes Laap, which is a meat salad, but you can also get quality French food due to the colonial occupation, and street food is everywhere and cheap). You can get there through Vietnam too if you don't want to go through Bangkok. There are some great day-trips from LP including a beautiful waterfall or an authentic Khmer village where you can buy handcrafts.

I flew into Luang Prabang which is a bit pricey for airfare, but the alternative is a 12 hour bus ride on some pretty primitive roads from the capital Vientiane. Vientiane is nice, reminiscent of Bangkok somewhat, and you can eat fresh seafood at a plastic table on the beach (looking across the Mekong River to Thailand, natch). But two days is enough to see what you need to see there.

Two things to note: Laos has a primitive health care infrastructure. If you break a bone or get a serious sickness you will pay through the nose to get flown to -- well, now I'm not so sure because it used to be Thailand. Also, it's really cheap (although getting more expensive every year). You can get through the country using USD if you wish. The Lao business owners prefer them, actually, but you can get better deals if you convert to Lao kip. Problem is nobody will buy your kip for USD when you leave the country, not even Lao banks.
posted by bardic at 1:17 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: Seconding the Singapore/KL two-fer. Some reasons it stands out to me:
-multicultural: two very complicated societies working in very different ways
-consequence of multicultural: lots of delicious cheap food options
-great shopping at all price levels
-relatively cheap train between the two of them, side trip to the islands (Penang etc) or the tea highlands for your sunshine
-English widely spoken, makes it easier to travel and to meet local people.
-good public transportation in both cities and between

Vietnam is another good choice, but it is not as easy/relaxing to travel in as Thailand. The tourism infrastructure is just not yet at the same level. You won't get great malls (in the North, at least), but you do have natural beauty in spades.

I liked China but wouldn't really pitch it as a great first-trip-to-Asia. You'd have a hard time getting all of the things you want in any one location, and it is just so fucking big.
posted by n y my at 4:12 AM on May 20, 2010

Don't forget Hong Kong. But yeah, if you were planning on Bangkok, then Singapore is your next best bet for shopping/eating plus it's much more walkable than anywhere else. And excellent [easily understandable] public transport for when you are tired of walking. Plus it's drop-dead gorgeous for a city. Nine days is a long time for Singapore but it's easy to get from there to KL, Penang, or Bali.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:39 AM on May 20, 2010

Singapore + KL would be most Bangkokesque. Great food and malls, no real beaches (although there are places in Malaysia that would do the job).

Hong Kong has shopping in spades, great food, but again, no real beaches.

Vietnam has lots of shopping, but no real Bangkok like malls. Lots of beaches around, although I only went to Hoi An's. I liked the north - Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, and Sapa. The Vietnamese coffee was great too.

Laos has it's merits. I liked the 4000 Islands area, but it is beachless ( unless you swim in the river ), and is not yet as tourist friendly as the rest of Southeast Asia. That may be a good thing. Transit between cities takes many hours by rickety bus, but the scenery is amazing.

If it were me, I'd spend my time in north Vietnam, and if you have time, get to Hoi An in the middle of the country.
posted by backwards guitar at 5:18 AM on May 20, 2010

Don't go to Singapore - it's dull and a very poor representation of Asia. Vietnam is also mostly far too touristy. I'd recommend Laos or Cambodia. Fascinating, beautiful, delicious and cheap/
posted by turkeyphant at 6:18 AM on May 20, 2010

I'm in Singapore. We do have lots of malls, a couple of passable beaches, a great zoo/night safari and rather delicious street/hawker food. Conversion rates still favour the US dollar, but we are one of the more expensive places to visit in Southeast Asia. Alcohol is more expensive here than in the US, even after taking currency conversion into account (if that is your kind of thing).

I would suggest Cambodia or Vietnam for a Bangkok-esque experience, for all the good reasons already stated above. Should you still decide to come to Singapore though, there are a couple of Mefites here, so give us/me a holler!
posted by nihraguk at 6:34 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: Malaysia would be my recommendation.

Spend 5 days in KL, and take 4 days at one of the islands on the East Coast, or somewhere in Borneo.

There's plenty of food in Malaysia, because each ethnicity has their own food culture. It's like visiting 3 different countries at once, from a foodie perspective, so I daresay you'll have plenty to explore, and there's decent malls and shopping (berjaya times square = 7.5 million square feet of mall space, and my personal favourites at midvalley / pyramid)

But that's not why you should go to Malaysia.

Generally I would recommend getting away from the city and visiting something on the East Coast - it's the quieter, less developed side of the country (hence relatively unspoiled nature). Something like Pulau Tioman or Pulau Redang would be a pretty safe bet. One of the highlights of my several trips there is walking on the beach at night to see the bioluminescent sand - there are creatures living in the wet sand at the tideline which glow blue when disturbed, so your footsteps are speckled with sparkling flashes of blue light. This is especially beautiful on the more remote resorts where there's little light pollution and you get gorgeous dark skies and starry nights. Of course, the snorkelling and beaches there are great as well, goes without saying... just imagine your generic tropical coral reefs... there were some stretches where the water was so clear it had better clarity than the cleanest swimming pools I've been in.

Berjaya Resort in Redang is by far the most convenient to get to (but possibly the most pricey) because there's a direct flight (1 hour) out of KL right to the island. The cheaper operations have you take an overnight bus across the mountain range in the middle of the peninsula and then a boat ride to the islands...

Alternatively, you could go visit Borneo instead and pay a visit to Kota Kinabalu and the big mountain there if mountains are more your thing than beaches... Mt. Kinabalu is really popular because it's both impressively tall yet relatively "easy" to climb compared to other mountains of similar height, and have incredible views from the top - because you're higher than cloud level (you'll be standing at over 4000m, or 13,000 feet). You've never seen stars and constellations like this in the thin air with absolutely no cloud or condensation cover between you and space... the last part of the climb is from 2am to 6am in time for the sunrise at the top. Man just looking at those pictures again gives me the shivers. There's bragging rights to be had after the climb too, as it's just beyond the reach of what humans "should" go without supplementary oxygen, but as you're only spending a few hours near the peak it is ok =) I liked it so much I've done the climb twice, and am seriously considering a third go. It's not any harder than climbing stairs, no special skills needed except for good endurance, which is trainable, you'll climb from 8am to 6pm, sleep for 4 hours, then climb from 1am to 6am and hit the top.
posted by xdvesper at 7:11 AM on May 20, 2010 [5 favorites]

I would avoid Chang Mai as it is also having problems...

Doh. Sorry folks, wasn't paying close enough attention to the news...
posted by dubitable at 8:00 AM on May 20, 2010

2nding xdvesper ..If you fly to Singapore you could take a bus up the east side of Malaysia and cross into Thailand. I went to Tioman in 1988 and it was astounding -I had never swum in salt water I'm glad to hear it's still a nice place.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:46 AM on May 20, 2010

Best answer: If you go with the Singapore option, I recommend the overnight train from Singapore to KL, but not in the other direction. Why? Because on the way back, you will be woken around 6am at Johor Baru and made to stand around on the platform while Singapore customs staff check the train. The journey is quite scenic so if you can't fly out of KL, I recommend taking the day train. There are also several 'luxury' bus companies which drive the same route.

Re: Singapore being dull? Yes, it absolutely can be, especially once you've exhausted the obvious tourist activities. Believe me, I know. But for someone who's never been to Asia before, it is exciting and new and different, at least for the first four or five days. Since it sounds like the mom in this equation has been gently cajoled into the trip, she may be a bit more appreciative of the comforts found in a developed city than the more adventurous travellers in this thread.

I do recommend getting out of Singapore after a few days, though, and going somewhere where you buy street food from actual stalls on an actual street.
posted by embrangled at 7:22 PM on May 20, 2010

Response by poster: I'm leaning towards a Singapore/KL/Penang trip. If you had to split 9 days between those three cities, how might you do it? (Neglecting travel time.) 3/3/3? Would you drop one out? Which one?

Thanks, you all have been far more helpful than I had ever imagined. :-)
posted by Suciu at 3:18 AM on May 21, 2010

I wouldn't drop any of them out, and 3/3/3 sounds like a good balance. Make sure you do the overnight train, and indeed, going through customs at Johor is slow and annoying (there are thousands of people who do it DAILY to go to work or school. Can you imagine...?) so listen to embrangled.

When you are in Malaysia, be sure to go to the Museum of Islamic Art, which has fascinating art and models of mosques from all over the world, especially places that don't come to your mind first as being Muslim (central Asia, for example). It is near a large orchid garden, which you might want to visit if mom's into that kind of thing. But anyway that museum was my favorite part of KL.
posted by whatzit at 3:39 AM on May 21, 2010

I would split it 3/3/3, but try to fly into Singapore and out of KL to minimise travel time. You could potentially spend two days in Singapore and more elsewhere - not because Singapore isn't worthy of longer, but because transport there is so efficient that it's easy to keep a hectic schedule and pack a lot of fun into two days. Alternatively, if you think your mom might find travel in Asia a bit overwhelming, spend longer in Singapore because it's just so convenient.

You may wish to peruse the blog of Travelling Hungry Boy, a mostly Singapore-based food blogger with a penchant for street food.
posted by embrangled at 5:17 AM on May 21, 2010

Best answer: 3/3/3 is a good idea. You may find KL and Singapore a little too similar though. Another food blog you should check out for Singapore eating is ieatishootipost.
posted by nihraguk at 6:58 PM on May 22, 2010

You may find KL and Singapore a little too similar though.

what? I guess this depends what kind of visitor you are.

For the OP, things you may want to think about being different between them (maybe nihraguk would add more, but these are things I noticed):
-Infrastructure, sub transportation: In Singapore, public transit is the shit and you can go anywhere and everything is clean and shiny. In KL, it is much more of an adventure, and there are a lot more cars. On a related note, being on the sidewalks in Singapore is a much easier experience.
-Infrastructure, housing: EVERYONE in Singapore lives in public housing. It is on the old S$10 bill: PUBLIC HOUSING. Imagine if the US put Section 8 on the $10. Hooey. So everything looks pretty monotonous on the outside. KL: Lots of differences on the outside, and variations in socioeconomic level. Architecture reflects different cultural standards.
-Society, equality: In KL, the Malay are a protected class in terms of a lot of business and political things. The (primarily) Indians and Chinese who do well there are working their butts off. Singapore does not have a legislatively protected class (we can argue about linguistic and economic barriers, but there are no legally separated classes as in KL).
-Society, government: I know this isn't as much a problem in KL as in other parts of the country, but there are conservative religious groups pushing for more conservative laws in terms of dress, work, etc., based on Islamic laws.
posted by whatzit at 4:43 AM on May 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. For those curious, my decision was to split time between Singapore and Bali. This has been an extremely helpful thread. :-)
posted by Suciu at 11:58 PM on May 27, 2010

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