Trip to SE Asia in winter, but where and for how long! Please help!
June 19, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

The boyfriend and I are trying to plan a trip to SE Asia From Xmas Day to the first week of January. We are looking to fly to Bangkok or Singapore and then taking a train to the other, stopping at Kuala Lumpur and Penang on the way. Suggestions and tips on what to do, whether this is feasible or a good idea in that time of year would be greatly appreciated! We know there won't be enough time to do everything but aren't sure how much time to allocate to each city. We're open to any and all recommendations!
posted by picarosado to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In one sense, weather, it's a great time of year, but in another, number of tourists, it's not. I'd suggest booking everything ahead, especially hotels, which these days is quite easy. Since your time is very limited, unless you're looking to experience one big shopping centre, I'd suggest ending your trip in Kuala Lumpur and flying home from there. Yes, Singapore is beautifully lush, but anywhere on the path you're going is tropical. I'd suggest flying into Bangkok, spending a couple days there, and then heading for either Thai islands or Malaysian islands, depending on what you're looking for. From there, you can hit up Penang for a day/night to check it out and dine on some fabulous Indian food, and then Kuala Lumpur for a day before flying home. With training it, what I've listed above (leaving out time the time you'll spend on a beach) will take up about a week of your time. So, are beaches your thing? And if so, how secluded do you wanna be? How rustic? How much are you looking to spend per night? How much partying will you wanna do? By the way, where are you flying into SE Asia from?
posted by gman at 2:48 PM on June 19, 2012

I actually recommend using Singapore Changi as both point of entry and departure because it blows the other airports (KLIA, Suvarnabumi) out of the water in terms of cleanliness and efficiency. From Singapore, you can take a train or an inexpensive Air Asia flight to Bangkok, and make your way down South until you catch your flight home from Changi.

I'm from Malaysia, and I really think Penang has much more to offer than Kuala Lumpur for first time visitors. Food is cheap, there's a lot of history (there's been a tonne of revisionism going on in the country which I'm really unhappy about but that's another story...), and there's less auto-segregation of the races in Penang. Must-sees include the Tropical Spice Garden, Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, and the Pinang Peranakan Museum. I'm not sure what your budget is for this trip, but you can actually stay at the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion (also known as the Blue Mansion). I'm personally fond of the Lone Pine Hotel because it's a soothing place to return to after a day of battling small island crowds and traffic. For food, I'll just point you to Robin Eckhardt's blog Eating Asia. She's an American food writer based in Penang, and I believe she and her photographer husband conduct Penang food tours. But don't just get Indian food! You can get Indian food almost everywhere in the world, but not good Peranakan food. But whatever you do, don't even think of swimming in the sea in Penang. The waters are disgustingly polluted with pretty high levels of e. coli bacteria. Beaches in Thailand are far more pristine.

I'm not the most objective person to ask about travelling in Malaysia, but if it were up to me, I'd look to spend most of my time in Bangkok/Thailand and Penang. Kuala Lumpur is a little hard to get around without a car (the LRT stops at strange places, though you can easily get to the Petronas twin towers; cab drivers are notoriously rude and dishonest, even to locals), Singapore is small, safe and easily explored in a day or two (Haji Lane, National Orchid Garden, Jurong Bird Park, Orchard Road), depending on how motivated you are.
posted by peripathetic at 3:43 PM on June 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm also from Malaysia, and I think KL is awfully dull, unless you like malls and buildings. The only think I enjoy doing in Kuala Lumpur is eating in an air conditioned mall food court.

I'll add that the Indian food you should eat the most of while in Penang is roti canai or roti paratha. I can't find a decent version anywhere in the US(and I've searched. oh, I've searched). I also second the Peranakan/Nyonya food suggestion.
posted by sawdustbear at 4:23 PM on June 19, 2012

Nthing Penang as a place to spend time rather than KL. A wonderful island with fascinating history and food. Also, if you can ride a motorbike/scooter, you can hire one and ride around the island in half a day to visit the fishing villages on the other side.

peripathetic's comment regarding Changi is accurate and the idea of flying to Bangkok (AirAsia around US$100) then training back down is a good one.

The train trip from Johor Bahru (just outside of Singapore) to Khota Bahru - the Jungle Line - is great! A sleeper with crisp linen sheets, a buffet car, charming staff... all for $16 in 2004 (looks like it's gone up to $17 now).

posted by Kerasia at 4:54 PM on June 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! @gman, We're interested in doing anything honestly. We just like to be in a new place and fully immerse ourselves in a different culture. I'm Indian and he's Chinese so we've both been to India and China plenty of times. We like a little bit of everything. Also, we're flying from Atlanta. We're not much of the partying type. Tickets are pretty expensive so we don't want to spend too much a night... I was hoping it wouldn't be too much?
posted by picarosado at 6:07 PM on June 19, 2012

I'm from Singapore, born and bred, and I'd suggest that you skip the place, unless you require emergency medical treatment. Whatever cultural experience you might acquire in Singapore is basically a hotch-potch of influences from all over SE Asia, especially Malaysia, China and India.

Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam - these are countries that you should try to check out. Both their cities (Bangkok, Hanoi etc) and their countryside.
posted by nihraguk at 7:47 PM on June 19, 2012

K, well, the south of Thailand is pretty much good for one thing - beaches. And since you're not much into partying and don't wanna break the bank, I'm going to suggest Ko Bulon Lae, which is accessible from the Pak Bara pier, and really quite beautiful. To get to Pak Bara, you take an overnight train from Bangkok's Hualamphong Station to Trang. Make sure you book yourself second class fan (not air con) lower birth seats. These offer more room width-wise, and more importantly, a window that opens. Don't bother with the air con section; you'll freeze your ass off in the middle of the night. There are several minibuses each day from Trang to Pak Bara (about an hour and a half). I think the boat leaves Pak Bara for the islands at 12:30pm. Once you've finished up on the island, you can grab a minibus to the train station in Hat Yai and continue your journey south.

As mentioned above by others, the airport in Singapore is cleaner and more efficient than Bangkok's, but is this really something you care about? Singapore is boring as all fuck, and I really don't see the point of flying in there, just to catch another flight out. You'll waste both money and half a day doing this. I'd say fly into Bangkok and get a hotel away from Kao San Road. When catching a cab from the airport, go to the departures level; that way you'll save the airport surcharge. If the cabbie doesn't turn on his meter, get out. He's also gonna ask you if you wanna take the toll freeway. It's probably an extra $2, and it'll save you a lot of time, if it's trafficky. You want a hotel or guesthouse that's on the skytrain line, or if you really wanna be in Banglumpoo, but avoid all the Kao San bull shit, this place is quite nice and fairly reasonable.

Try to make sure you have a weekend day in Bangkok so you can head to the Chatuchak Market, which is the last stop on one of the skytrain lines. I'd almost suggest reversing this trip if that lands you in Bangkok on a weekend. Another important thing is that anyone can open a massage parlour in Thailand, and they do. If you want something genuine, head to Arima Onsen at the end of each day for two hours of heaven. Spend a few days in Bangkok, it's quite an amazing place away from the more touristed areas.

I agree with the others here with regard to more Penang, less KL, but since they're originally from there, I'll leave Malaysia suggestions to them. Feel free to MeMail me with any questions you may have. Enjoy, you lucky bugger!
posted by gman at 7:52 PM on June 19, 2012

Lots of good advice here. The overnight train from Singapore to KL is a nice journey. In the other direction, they wake you before dawn and make you stand around outside while the train and its passengers are searched by customs. For that reason alone, I'd suggest flying into Singapore and out of Bangkok. Also, you'll be able to fill your suitcase at Chutuchak market without having to haul it the whole way.
posted by embrangled at 9:05 PM on June 19, 2012

The KL Bird Park is lots of fun: the birds are mostly all free range - no cages - but kept in by high overhead nets. "World's Largest Walk-in Free-flight Aviary!"
posted by BinGregory at 9:45 PM on June 19, 2012

If you have a day or two in Singapore, there are a couple of off-the-beaten path things that are worth going to. Singapore is a great place for eating - is a good starting point. You could easily spend a day or two just eating different food from all over. Transport is easy with the trains and cheap taxis so you can cram a lot into a day.

Little India on a Sunday is fun - it's very crowded, there's fairly cheap shopping and lots of good food. Chinatown is a tourist trap mostly and to be avoided. There's a small neighbourhood, Tiong Bahru, which has sprouted little cafes, boutiques and bookshops and is pleasant to wander around in. You need to walk away from the mall at the Tiong Bahru station towards the 1940s-style flats.

The Zoo is well worth a visit, and the Night Safari is very good. If you'd rather go into actual wild, the mangroves in Pulau Ubin are great - you can kayak around them with We did that last year and it was a really good peaceful half-day where you could get right inside the mangroves, rather than being stuck in a boat.

The train from Singapore to Malaysia recently shifted from starting downtown in a lovely old building to starting in Woodlands, and is just not fun. Most people take inter-city buses which are more comfortable and faster for about the same price - those you can book easily enough, and given that the KL airport is outside KL city, it ends up about the same time overall. The train from KL to Penang would be a much nicer leg.

If you're going to Bangkok, the weekend market shopping is fantastic, and much better than Singapore. However Singapore does have Sim Lim Square, a seedy old building jammed full of computer shops which is nerd-heaven. There's also just the fun of window-shopping down Orchard Road which is a long stretch of endless air-conditioned malls, crammed full of people and brands and weird boutiques.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:25 PM on June 19, 2012

I respectfully disagree with gman's assessment of Singapore, but one thing to consider when choosing between Changi and Suvarnabhumi is that the political situation in Thailand is still a little bit volatile. If another round of mass protests were to take place, there could be major transportation snarls, like the time anti-government protesters occupied the airport in 2008.
posted by peripathetic at 10:56 PM on June 19, 2012

Like others, I would recommend SIN as the drop-in point for your trip over KUL/BKK. It's really one of the best airports (if not the best) in the world (great if you are an airport geek).

Don't spend more than 2 days in Singapore (focus on the local food courts) before heading off to Malaysia. I've done the train journey and the bus journey from Singapore to KL, I would chose the train if possible. You get to see nice small stations and a lot of the local scenery in much more comfortable seating than a bus. Of course, the trains are not as convenient in terms of frequency/timing so that's a drawback

Spend all your vacation in Malaysia, BKK is nothing great - is there anything more than temples and massage parlors and traffic? Have you considered the East coast of Malaysia? IMO, its one of the most beautiful journeys you can make (especially on a motorbike, stopping at little roadside eateries to have nasi lemak, sambal and kopi tarek). Tioman and Sipadan on the East Coast will blow your mind. Squeeze in a visit to Taman Negara and an actual tribal longhouse, or take a cheap Air Asia flight to Kota Kinabalu and climb Mt Kinabulu, a nice trek up. You might be lucky and stumble upon a Rafflesia on the way!
posted by epiphinite at 1:22 PM on June 21, 2012

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