How to enjoy myself around Asia?
September 7, 2018 11:46 AM   Subscribe

For about a month starting Monday, I will be travelling to: Hong Kong (China), Bangkok (Thailand), Singapore (Singapore), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and Hanoi (Vietnam). Any recommendations on things to do and where to eat, each time experiencing something new in every country? I am a woman in her early thirties traveling alone.

So...long story short, a Big Thing in my life didn't happen, and I am left to pick up the pieces. In a spontaneous decision one morning I made up my mind to go around Asia—not to find myself, it's not an Eat, Pray, Love kind of thing—and now that trip is approaching and I don't yet have a plan other than enjoying myself.

Any recommendations on what I can do whilst exploring each country?

Hong Kong: 5 days (staying in Mongkok, Kowloon area)
Bangkok: 5 days (staying in Sukhumvit area)
Singapore: 6 days (staying along Havelock Rd)
Kuala Lumpur: 5 days (staying in KLCC area)
Hanoi: 8 days (staying in Old Quarters area)

1. Mostly I am looking forward to trying out new cuisine and snapping some good photos. A bit of shopping maybe, although mostly I'm into jewelry (danging earrings and bracelets and such), knickknacks (postcards, magnets, stationery), artwork, possibly a nice shirt or two. Nothing expensive or designer or branded. I would also like to explore some tourist spots and museums or temples.

2. However, I am really quite a slow traveller—I just want to take my time—so perhaps I am looking for something like "if you can only do a few things here, do this" kind of recommendation maybe?

3. Also, would you know which country is better at something? I don't want to do the same thing twice. For example, both Hong Kong and Singapore have ocean parks, I think, so which is better to go to? Or - each country has massages, but where best to get it? That kind of thing.

4. Really, the only thing I have reserved for is tickets to the Stacey Kent concert in Singapore and that's pretty much it.

5. If you can recommend apps that I can use to have a better time going around, that would be great, too! So far I have the Here We Go app for offline map usage, and Klook.

6. I plan to do a bit of work in between so either I stay in a hotel or a cafe with WiFi recommendation would be lovely.

7. Lastly, I am a woman travelling alone and also very introverted. I like watching people but not necessarily interacting with them. Not sure if that will be a factor in your recommendations, but might be work mentioning anyway. I don't mind going around on my own—I think my major concern is getting back to my hotel safely, especially at night.

Thank you in advance!
posted by pleasebekind to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I really enjoyed the spas where fish eat the dead skin off your feet. There was a nice one in Singapore near the giant ferris wheel when I was there several years ago.

Also you need to eat Pepper Crab in Singapore.

In Bangkok, be sure to eat a durien from a street vendor.

Thai dancing is not to be missed - the dancers do incredible things with their fingers! Amazing.

That is all from me - I was only ever in Singapore and Bangkok. Haven't been to the other cites.

Have fun! Sounds great!
posted by rw at 12:54 PM on September 7, 2018

In Bangkok the Museum of Contemporary art is fantastic, although not easily accessed by public transit. Incredibly building/grounds and awesome collection - i think because of the location (and focus on contemporary thai art) it isnt as popular or busy as many other places in bangkok.

Speaking of busy. . . if you are in BKK for a weekend you really aught to make the trip to Chatuchak (also sometimes spelled or abreviated with a J as JJ). Its massive and expansive and messy and beautiful, you can buy pretty much anything imaginable there from prepared food, spices, housewears and art to clothing and pets.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 1:18 PM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Chatuchack Market (JJ) - its incredible and I can spend an entire day there wandering around the various stalls, and eating all the things. Would also recommend Asiatique on the riverfront in Bangkok - good shopping, food, and people watching.

We did a cooking class at BaiPai cooking school, and that was super fun and a nice way to spend the day away from the crowds.

It's not everyone's jam, but I love wandering through the malls, starting at MBK, going into Siam Center, and through to Siam Discovery and then ending at Siam Paragon. Paragon also has an incredible food court. Central Embassy is also supposed to be great.

The Commons in Thong Lor could be a good place to spend a day cafe hopping and working.
posted by something_witty at 1:54 PM on September 7, 2018

We spent our honeymoon in Hanoi. Every day, we spent several hours sitting in the square outside St Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoàn Kiếm district, not far from the Old Quarter. You can drink coffee with condensed milk, Vietnamese style, or other drinks like salted lemonade. Buy a bag of sunflower seeds. Perch on the tiny stools that aren’t technically allowed in the square, and participate in the slow ebb and flow of stools onto the square while the police come by and make everyone move back every 20 minutes or so. Pet a puppy. Watch the motor bikes line up to pick up their kids from school at 3pm. Enjoy life.
posted by Concordia at 2:23 PM on September 7, 2018

Oh! Also get the scoop of vanilla ice cream from Trang Tien Ice Cream Shop in Hanoi, which looks from the outside like a big concrete basement. Best vanilla ice cream I’ve ever had. Please try the taro flavour, I never got to and I always wondered if it was fantastic too.
posted by Concordia at 2:26 PM on September 7, 2018

Have visited all cities, some several times.

Step one is to cut out two and pick three: your itinerary isn't as bad as some people's but is still too rushed to get a hint of a sense of each of these places. Personally, I'd skip Singapore (surely one of the most soulless cities in the continent) and probably Bangkok (which as a tourist I almost impossible to penetrate on a meaningful level in such a shirt period of time).
posted by turkeyphant at 2:59 PM on September 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I've been to several of these cities!

If you like eating I can't recommend Seth Lui's blog enough for recs for a couple of your listed cities:

Notice no one has tackled KL. Make sure to go to the light/fountain show at night at KLCC (if you're staying at the Grand Hyatt, it's worth watching once from the hotel restaurant / club lounge and once at ground level). Take a trip out to visit the Batu Caves but don't get too close to the monkeys! The cave temple is amazing, and don't miss the little side temple around the corner. If you're going to see any of the mosques, make sure it isn't a holiday (that was an oops on my part). Have a breakfast dosa somewhere. I really liked KL but my partner was ill so I didn't see as much as I'd like.

Singapore: the Botanic Gardens are justifiably lauded. Check out the cloud forest exhibit in particular. The best food is at hawker stalls (refer to Seth Lui for advice). Love Toby's estate for breakfast and Common Man is good too. If you like Indian food there's a lot of great places in Little India. Have a drink at Atlas, which is like Jay Gatsby's greatest fantasy of what a gin bar could be. (Dress code after 5pm.) DM your email and I'll send you my bookmarks.

Bangkok: I rarely say you should spend your time in malls, The malls. Theyre like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere. As mentioned above by something_witty, the walk from MBK through the various Siam malls is amazing (and MBK feels like it's part of a totally different city than the Siams). It was part of my walk home from work every day and never failed to be intriguing. There's also a walkway above the road that will bring you from MBK through the Siams to Central World and Gaysorn Village.

A lot of street food is found in shopping mall food courts, because air conditioning is amazing. I suggest Eatthai in the basement of Central Embassy (also check out the Open House bookstore on the top floor, and I'd you want to see a movie, the Diplomat is hands down my favorite cinema). At the King Power mall near Ratchathewi, the food court has a Pad Thai stall which is an out post of the top Pad Thai street food place. Shorter line here, plus there's air cconditioning. OMG you can get a reservation (took me 2 tries!) eat at Gaggan. It is dinner as theater and may be the most amazing meal experience I've ever had. Again, I can send you my bookmarks for Bangkok if you like.
posted by rednikki at 3:31 PM on September 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Seconding the recommendation to cut out two or maybe even three of these cities! Especially if you like to travel slow. Partly because that's just too many places and different countries/cultures for that amount of time, but also because it means you won't be able to get OUT of the city for more than a rushed day-trip in any of these places. And I love Asian cities, but a month of Asian city-to-Asian city is A LOT. And so much of what is great about many of these countries is outside of the biggest cities.

For instance, Chiang Mai, Thailand is great for a lot of what you're looking for (shopping, food, massages, working remotely, temples). And a more relaxed feeling than you'll get in any of the cities you listed. And it's an easier jumping-off point for things like visiting villages, waterfalls, etc.

If you do want to stick with Bangkok in Thailand, Ayuthaya is a nice day trip for visited Khmer ruins and walking around a pleasant, sleepy town. And if you find yourself wanting a day or two at the beach while you're in BKK, Koh Samet is close and lovely.
posted by lunasol at 5:55 PM on September 7, 2018

I've been to all the cities you've mentioned, sometimes by myself, and they're all pretty safe for a solo woman even at night (except for KL which can get a bit dicey in some areas). The only thing you'd need to watch out for is people trying to scam you. I'm Asian so I don't get much attention but I'm assuming you're white so you will stick out for scammers; it's not a big deal just be firm when you brush them off.

One Dim Sum (looong lines but is my fave dim sum spot).
Wake up early and hit up a wet market, buy some crispy roast pork belly from a vendor on the cheap. Alternatively, Joy Hing Roasted Meat has good roast duck.
Kam Wah Cafe & Bakery: great egg tarts and famous pineapple buns (there's no pineapple, they're just called that because of the pattern and make sure you get one WITH butter)
Edward Youde Aviary: free! lots of birds.
Hiking. So much great hiking in HK. I actually haven't done the famed Dragon's Back hike yet but that's the one you should probably do.
Australian Dairy Company: For a real HK breakfast that might make you, a westerner, scratch your head. Yes, all this stuff is what HKers have grown up eating.
All the night markets and shopping streets have tons of photo ops.
Victoria's Peak: I've been to HK multiple times and still have not bothered to do this. Instead of taking the pricey tram thing you can take a bus but make sure you get a seat at the front so you can see all the crazy turns (not very good if you get car sick).

Bangkok is crazy. Like the most crazy out of all the cities mentioned, but like kind of in an overwhelming why is this place so mixed and sprawling and etc, not a dangerous way at least for a tourist anyway.
Dialogue in the Dark - Please, please please go do this. I know they have them in other locations but it is an amazing experience here and I know they might be closing here :( . You'll need to call in advance to see when they have an English speaker available.
Or Tor Kor - the "pricier", nicer and cleaner indoor food market. I prefer this place because of the cleanliness TBH.
JJ Market - it's insane. you should go. I actually hate this place because it's too confusing and I feel like everyone is trying to rip me off lol but it's a must-do in Bangkok. There are fascinating things sold here.
Jim Thompson House - paid tour + a little oasis in the craziness of the city. Good if you like architecture. I always recommend to first time visitors.
Boat up the river: There are boats at different price points. I've only ever taken the cheapo one (basically like a waterbus) but if you take the more expensive foreigner one and they'll announce major landmarks along the way.
Speaking of the river you should check out the various famous Wats. I can't remember their names but they're probably at the top of TripAdvisor.
Do an organized bicycle tour or motorbike tour for food. Since you're going alone you can sample stuff as a group.
I think you'd probably prefer Chiang Mai TBH since it's slower paced. It's super artsy, a lot of local Thais have moved there to create their own hipster enclaves, huge foreigner 'digital nomad' populace, elephant sanctuaries, very green, etc. It's just an hour flight from BK.

I've only been in Singapore a few times, and each time a day or two at most. I don't actually feel like there's thaaaaat much to do there other than shop and eat and look at landmarks. And I prefer eating in Malaysia TBH. Singapore is kinda too expensive for my tastes.
The Gardens by the Bay is pretty awesome though. And that light show they do at the end.
Hawker centers...I've been to several but I don't remember many names. Chomp Chomp is pretty popular. The Old Airport one is pretty delicious too.

So KL felt the most sketch to me the two times I was there. But only at night.
I personally feel like you should cut the time in Singapore, go to KL and take a night train to Georgetown Penang. Super artsy, SO many photo ops, AMAZING food...I mean it's a UNESCO site so that's all you need to know right? Also...the best chicken and rice ever is there.
But speaking of KL...Check out the Bird Park and Batu Caves if you like wildlife.
Petronas Towers are epic, especially when lit at night.
Jalan Alor for food!
Islamic Art Museum - my absolute fave
My memory of KL is a bit spotty as it's been a few years. You could even do a day trip to Malacca (mostly for food...the tandoori chicken there is amazing and everyone should know WHICH tandoori chicken place you're talking about when you ask).

I love that giant park with that lake. They also shut down the roads on weekends I think around that area and it becomes just a really nice area to stroll.
There are so many great pho places. People hate on the north because they think southern pho is better but I like the northern pho just as well.
Try an egg coffee.
The most famous bun cha is at 1 Hang Manh. People say it's expensive but I think it's good.
I love Banh Mi 25.
Bún cá Sâm Cây Si - Fried Fish and Pork rolls are sooo decadent and good here
I love Vietnamese food, I think you just can't go wrong exploring the food.

Download Uber and Grab. Grab reigns supreme in Singapore and Thailand. There are often many promo codes for free rides. You'll have the option to use a motorbike option which is cheaper and faster for getting through traffic but if you've never been on the back of a motorbike you might be scared because these guys weave through traffic. Also you'll be exposed to all the pollution, but it is WAY faster.

Get a SIM card that covers multiple locations or a SIM card for each city (SIM cards are super cheap in Asia). I dunno if you'll have free international roaming but many of these cities are downright confusing and really easy to get lost in. Google Maps is your friend.

You'll walk a lot so bring comfy shoes. And even if you walk a lot you'll probably end up gaining weight from all the food lol.

Sorry this is so long. I could write a book on each location lol but I tried to pick out some places mostly from memory that stood out.
posted by bluelight at 6:11 PM on September 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't know where you grew up/live now but these are all very large cities. They are all different of course but me, I need a break from the pavement and crowds (crowds like you've never seen before). So in Hong Kong, take a ferry to one of the islands without cars like Cheung Chau or Lamma (not on the weekend) and enjoy some peace and quiet. Also be sure to take the tram to the Peak and do the circle walk at sunset so you get the benefit of the day view and the nighttime one.

Bangkok, check the weather, it will still be the rainy season. The small streets flood quickly and you really don't want to be walking in that soup. For a break, take the Chao Phraya river boat (the regular one is cheaper but standing room only if you are not quick about boarding; the express one is slightly more expensive (still v cheap) but not as crowded. Colored pennants on a little mast differentiate them). The river view is fascinating. Ride up to the last stop, have a drink, and come back. Nthing the Weekend Market (somewhat open on Thurs and Fri as well). Gets extremely crowded. The cinemas at Siam Paragon (top floor) are luxurious.

KL, it's been a while. Other than eating as much roti canai with dal or curry sauce for breakfast as you can, I don't know what to recommend. Malaysian batik (cap and tulis) is not as famous as Indonesian batik but it makes a nice, lightweight, unbreakable, unisex gift or souvenir (I've got hundreds so possibly biased here). If it's not raining, the Cameron Highlands are a wonderful cool break. It's close enough by car but too far by bus for a day trip. Tea plantations and wonderful hikes, it's where Jim Thompson--you'll know him from Bangkok--disappeared.

Singapore is going to look pristine after these cities. It's the kind of place that extensively remodels shopping malls every five years. It's lush with tall trees and parks all over and a good place to get things done as it's very organized, the public transport is a dream. There are a lot of touri$ty things to do and museums. I guess I'd check Time Out for special events. Street food will be super expensive compared to BKK.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:34 PM on September 7, 2018

Here are a series of videos from a photographer in Hong Kong. Each video is about how and what to photograph in several different neighborhoods. Gives a great idea of each one.
posted by conrad53 at 7:35 PM on September 7, 2018

Uber has closed down throughout SEA; you'll need Grab everywhere except HK.

I like the National Design Center along Waterloo Street Singapore; the products there are a bit more unique. They have a smaller selection of Kapok goods, but the original is in HK.

Banana Leaf Little India is kind of The Indian Place for visitors.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 10:10 PM on September 7, 2018

I lived in KL until a few months ago.

If your itinerary isn't fixed, I would also reduce the number of cities you go to, and instead spend some time travelling outside those cities. SE Asia's cities are exciting, but the countryside and coast is unique. For instance, I would always recommend to a visitor to KL to take out a few days to visit Taman Negara, the rainforest, or to visit Penang or Ipoh, or venture over to Borneo. All of these places also have beautiful tropical or semi-tropical coastlines, not necessarily dominated by massive resorts, and often a short flight can take you to somewhere that feels really remote.

But returning to KL:

As others have said, use Grab to get around to places which aren't connected by the various subways and equivalent: the excellent MRT, the convenient LRT and the slow but useful monorail. Buy a sim with data from the airport. Don't bother fighting with the taxi drivers. An offline Google map works perfectly well even if you are saving your data.

Food: One of my favourite low key restaurants with excellent food is Sarang Cookery which specialises in Nyonya cuisine. It is next to VCR, one of the nicest cafes and a good place to work from. KL loves its food, here are some of my personal favourites, aside from Sarang: dosas from Brickfields (I love MTR, and then you can stroll through Little India as well); Chinese fish and char siew from Restaurant Siu Siu (the one near Thean Hou; better to go with a group if possible); roti canai as others have mentioned (pronounced Chennai; find a roadside stall or a mamak restaurant); breakfast curry mee (try Restaurant 168 in Pudu, or else the famous Madras Lane stalls in the Petaling Street area). If you want a cool air conditioned break if/when you visit Petaling Street (which also has lots of jewellery supply shops), try Chocha Foodstore or their beautiful upstairs bar. Nearby Ali Muthu & Ah Hock has very good nasi lemak with fried chicken, the Malaysian national dish though if you want one of the really famous ones I would go out to the near suburbs to Village Park. Kaya toast, either from here or Singapore, makes a great breakfast. Go to Yut Kee Restaurant, close to KLCC, for the authentic experience, and order steamed kaya toast with half-boiled egg and tea/coffee/cham (half tea, half coffee). Break the very runny egg into a bowl, add white pepper and soya sauce, then dip your kaya toast into it. Limapulo, another excellent Nyonya restaurant, is around the corner and is very highly recommended.

Sights: Batu caves definitely, I wish I could have seen their recent paint job. If there is something on at KLPAC (the performing arts centre), it's a lovely space, worth a visit. Definitely keep an eye out for Odissi performances especially by Ramli Ibrahim who sometimes performs in KLPAC or elsewhere in the city; he is considered one of Malaysia's national treasures. The Bird Park and Butterfly House are nice, but you are also going to Singapore which does this sort of thing better. Petaling Street is the old Chinese part of town and in recent years turned into a generic market full of knock offs and souvenirs. Recently it has started being revived and there are little patches with interesting bits, such as the restaurants and cafes noted above, plus some Taoist and Buddist temples (I liked the Sin Sze Si Ya Temple best), but you'll find many examples of these in HK and Singapore. If you find yourself in love with the rooster bowls used at many restaurants you can buy them from the crockery stores in Petaling Street; I took some as a souvenir. If you look for Raksasa Print Studio you'll find a secret enclave of cool KL in the buildings around it, including little galleries, artist studios and a feminist bookstore. Another cluster of cool KL is in the nearby Zhongshan Building. Kampung Baru is interesting to walk around, it's the only surviving Malay village, complete with houses on stilts, in KL, and has been targeted by developers. I also enjoy strolling through Bukit Nanas, a patch of rain forest in the middle of the city, with a canopy walk and short walking trails. Outside KL, on evenings when there is no rain, I liked going to see the fireflies, but make sure you go to the Kampung Kuantan one where you can rent a sampan to yourself instead of the large motorboats that leave from the (very good) fish restaurants a couple of kilometres away.

All the places I've mentioned should be on Google maps.
posted by tavegyl at 12:00 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

A few more food notes, as KL is definitely an eating rather than a sightseeing city:

Under food, I forgot to add the other dish that is practically a Malaysian national dish, char kway teow. The best is in Penang, but there are a couple of decent renditions in KL. One is in the basement of the Lot 10 mall, which has gathered together outlets of some of the best non-halal streetfood. Much of it hasn't survived the transition, but it's not a bad place if you are looking for an air conditioned spot to enjoy street food. Try the char kway teow with duck egg.

If you are interested in Malay food other than nasi lemak, it can be harder to come across it in variety. If you are willing to make a small expedition, I can't recommend nasi kerabu enough. This is a northern Malaysian dish in which the rice is dyed blue with a local flower and mixed with hot sambal, fresh herbs and toasted coconut. Some of the best is at a stall called Nasi Kerabu Ayam Madu North Kiara. Other Malay food may be tried at the street markets that pop up at lunch time - they usually have a few buffet style stalls where you are given a plate of rice and they charge you depending on what you add to it. Finally, Sarang (mentioned in the previous comment) has good Malay dishes as well, and they make kuih (Malay or Nyonya sweet and savoury snacks to have with tea) in the afternoons.

Note that I've assumed in all my comments that no dietary restrictions are in place. Chinese non-halal food in KL is very pork or lard heavy, there is substantial use of fish sauce and fermented shrimps in many Malaysian cuisines, and peanuts can also appear in all sorts of places.
posted by tavegyl at 12:56 AM on September 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

On my flight to Thailand, someone gave me the tip if it all feels too hectic, just got get a massage and relax, which worked for me. With that in mind, there's a massage school in one of the big temples in Bangkok which is a great two hours.

KL: There's a street called Glutton St in Chinatown with a incredible set of nightly food stalls. Well worth a trip.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 2:06 AM on September 8, 2018

Palace and central temples
Massage near Wat Po (massage arts training temple)
Big market at Chatuchek on weekends

Gardens by the Bay, be sure to catch the light show at night
The zoo is very good
Check out Little India for the food, atmosphere, and small museum

Kuala Lumpur:
Wonderful Islamic Art Museum
Day trip to Batu Caves
EAT all the food, especially roti canai with curry (I miss roti canai so much)
The bird park is nice

I loved the Vietnamese Women's Museum, and the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology was also interesting.
Don't be afraid to eat lots of meals on little blue stools on the side of the street.
Seek out Cafe Giang for the egg coffee (I don't think anywhere else has it)
posted by mkuhnell at 5:19 PM on September 9, 2018

Both Singapore and Hong Kong celebrate the mid autumn festival, so you should check out the associated festivities leading up to 24 September. In Singapore, for example, there's plenty of free programming at the Esplanade's Moon Fest, and time your visits to Gardens by the Bay / Chinatown so you can enjoy the lantern displays and performances.

A walk or cycle around the Marina Bay is highly recommended - the whole bayfront is a car-free boardwalk linking the Esplanade, Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands, and the Fullerton precinct. It has stunning views of the city skyline especially as day turns to night. I fall in love with the city every single time I'm there. (Note: does not apply when the Grand Prix swings into Singapore for the F1 Night Race on 14-16 Sept, and for the days immediately before and after.) Along the way you can check out the al fresco street food centre at Gluttons, the free concerts at the Esplanade outdoor theatre, the free laser show at the Marina Bay Sands if that's your jam, and the beautifully-restored Clifford Pier and Fullerton Hotel. You can get amazing shots of the city from the Marina Bay Sands observation deck - an admission fee applies but I think you can redeem the ticket price for a drink at the rooftop bar.

Other places to go:
- the Tiong Bahru neighborhood with its charming art deco apartments, art murals, good coffees and hawker food in the day, and the best local indie bookstore.
- the Katong / Joo Chiat neighbourhood for its classical shophouses, laksa and peranakan culture, plus One Kind House a short distance away.
- the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari!

Do NOT get a massage in Singapore - they cost 3-5X more than they would in Bangkok or Hanoi.

I have a lot to say on this subject, as I'm local to Singapore and have visited (and loved) all of the other listed cities as a tourist. I'll comment more if I can, but feel free to memail for more details!
posted by hellopanda at 3:57 AM on September 10, 2018

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