I created this blog because of our trip. It seems only fitting that I should bookend it with an entry on both mine and Tarryne’s thoughts. For those looking to go to the region, we hope it’ll be very helpful, since we needed someone to tell us this stuff before we left!
First, I’ll give you Tarryne’s perspective, before I launch into an essay. Perhaps I should have submitted this blog for my degree instead of some of the rubbishy ones I did send…
Places: KL and Langkawi.
Best Airbnb: KL near Putra station. Search the one with the infinity pool!
Best hotel: Le Dream boutique hotel (Penang) closely followed by Casa Blanca (Phuket)
Asian modes of transport such as songthaaw, trishaw, public buses, and tuk tuks are great to try once, but they are very expensive. As for public transport, like the Bangkok train in third class, I quite enjoyed! Admittedly it would have been nicer with less stuff with us, perhaps with only a handbag it would have been more pleasant.
Definitely recommend the hop on/off buses, I’ve never done it before, but it was a great way to introduce the city and its sights on a first day. It’s valid for 24 hours so you can go back the next day and see the things you missed/want to spend more time at.
Things to do differently
Three nights minimum in places. Two nights was not enough time, especially in Chiang Mai and Langkawi, where we needed an extra day in each. Less time in Bangkok, as you only need about 4 days there, but it was nice to relax after hopping for a week.
Don’t take books to read, you won’t have chance to read them, especially if you are doing a whistle stop tour like us! They only weigh your bag down. Travel books are essential though, I found ‘insight guides’ more useful than lonely planet.
Try more street food!! Best hawker food I had was roasted duck in Chinatown, Singapore. Try and explore as much food as you can you learn what you like and don’t, it’s trial and error. I found out I didn’t like durian and Singaporean ‘fried carrot cake’ which wasn’t even carrot cake – it was a tofu omelette thing. But I quite liked mangosteen fruit.
I wish we explored the bar scene more, especially in KL and Bangkok.
If you haven’t pre-booked excursions don’t forget to bring out cash to pay for that. I had to withdraw more out there, incurring international and exchanging fees.
Places: KL, Langkawi, Singapore, Chiang Mai
Best Airbnb: Both of our Kuala Lumpur apartments
Best Hotel: Casa Blanca, Phuket, but closely followed by Le Dream, Penang.
I mostly agree with Tarryne, to be perfectly honest. Certainly the uniquely Asian modes of transport are worth trying once, but they are expensive and not massively practical for going any meaningful distance. Would only use as an alternative to a longish walk, really, but plan where you are going to use them. Bear in mind outside capital cities, things are cheaper. I really liked the songthaaws in Chiang Mai, they were a great way to get about, super easy and relatively cheap.
I’ve done hop on/hop off buses in Europe, and they are usually good but expensive and somewhat pointless considering you probably know what you want to see already, and there are alternative ways of getting there in place already. But certainly in KL and in Penang, they were a fantastic way to introduce a newcomer to the place, and provide transport in places that lack it.
Another highlight, for me, were all the pleasant surprises I had on the trip. Before I left, I was so anxious I was going to some crime-filled, alien place, but Anaab and Mohammed reassured me by laughing to themselves that KL was nothing like “the slums of India”. I’d never left the western world before, cut me some slack! Their mockery was oddly reassuring, and they were right – I was so pleasantly surprised by many of the places we visited.
The food in Malaysia exceeded all my expectations. I assumed I’d be living on rice and vegetables, but there was a plethora of delicious vegetarian options, thanks to the real mix of cultures that Malaysia actually is. Singapore, too. I loved walking into the supermarket and finding all this amazing soy meat substitute stuff. If only we’d had a hotplate! I could have tried it then…
Advice/things to do differently
Don’t pack so many clothes! I packed one pair of shoes that I never wore, and countless t shirts etc that I never bothered with. Really rationalise what you’ll need.
Eat more food. I spent too long worrying about putting on weight, so I think I missed out on some cool stuff. Turns out I lost three pounds whilst I was away anyway. Like Tarryne says, the hawker food courts in Singapore (especially Lau Pa Sat) are a must.
Bring pounds with you, and don’t forget to tell the banks you’re going away. The good thing about pounds, even though the exchange rate has gone to the dogs, is that they can be converted to the local currency basically anywhere. Also, I had to use my card quite a bit, so make sure to tell the banks before you go away to save you the stress and roaming charges of having to call them. I made that mistake in America once, and never again.
Again, three nights minimum in each place. We found we wanted an extra day in Chiang Mai and in Langkawi, but less time in Bangkok, which could have been done in 4 nights. But you don’t know these things until you get there, and as Tarryne says, it was nice to have that little break.
Use more land transport, wherever possible. Again, not something you know until you get there, but Malaysian trains seemed quite nice. I would have got the train to Butterworth and then a bus to Penang, and from Penang to Langkawi I probably would have taken the ferry. In Thailand, though, flying is still probably the best way to get around, simply because Thai public transport seems to run on a law unto itself. Much though I detest flying…
Lastly, and this may just be forever alone Alice talking, I wish I’d “met” more people. But then, there were three issues, and I’m quite picky. Number one – I still maintain that bars are not the best places to meet people as you often can’t hear each other, but I wish I’d chatted to more people on public transport etc. There was one conversation about transgender people in Asia vs. in Europe that I passively partook in by nodding my head, but perhaps I should have said “that’s interesting” a bit more often.
Number two – I’ll be damned if I stay in hostels. I like meeting new people, but only on the condition that I can go back to my own little space at the end of the day. Maybe I should have looked into cooking classes etc. Why were there no handsome young men hanging out at the cat cafes?
Number three – most of the fellow Brits Abroad we did see were gap yah types. Hard pass from me – I came to Asia to get AWAY from the rigid class structure, not to be made to feel inferior by someone in sillier trousers than me.
The trip really opened my eyes to places I would like to visit in Asia, and where I probably wouldn’t bother with, now. I definitely want to go to Dubai properly, and continue exploring Singapore and Malaysia. I’d probably like Japan, Hong Kong, Macau and Korea as well. But I think Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia etc. may not be my cup of tea. A little too “??!?” for me.
Of course, if someone said “would you like to run away to Malaysia with me and get a job on the English language newspaper”, I’d go back in a heartbeat. But for now, I must finally wave goodbye to our wonderful trip, and hold it dearly in my heart as I go through the next phase in my life – wherever that may take me.