Introducing Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei
Entwined by shared history, Southeast Asia's terrific trio offer steamy jungles packed with wildlife, beautiful beaches, idyllic islands, culinary sensations and multi-ethnic culture.
For many people this region is defined by its equatorial rainforest. Significant chunks of primary jungle – among the most ancient ecosystems on earth – remain intact, protected by national parks and conservation projects. Seemingly impenetrable foliage and muddy, snaking rivers conjure up the 'heart of darkness' – but join a ranger-led nature walk, for example, and you'll be alerted to the mind-boggling biodiversity all around, from the pitcher plants, lianas and orchids of the humid lowlands, to the conifers and rhododendrons of high altitude forests.
The icing on this verdant cake is the chance to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat. The most common sightings will be of a host of insects or colourful birdlife, but you could get lucky and spot a foraging tapir, a slivered leaf monkey, or an orang-utan swinging through the jungle canopy. The oceans are just as bountiful with the chance to snorkel or dive among shoals of tropical fish, paint-box dipped corals, turtles, sharks and dolphins.
If urban exploration is more your scene, you won't be disappointed either. Singapore is the region's over-achiever, a showstopper of a city that combines a historical legacy of elegant colonial buildings with stunning contemporary architecture and world-class attractions such as its zoo, museums and amazing Botanical Gardens (two of them!). Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur (KL) is less organised but perhaps more appealing because of that – a place where Malay kampung (village) life stands cheek by jowl with the 21st century glitz of the Petronas Towers, and shoppers shuttle from traditional wet markets to air-conditioned mega malls.
The historical cores of Melaka and George Town (Penang) are inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list for their unique architectural and cultural townscapes, developed over a half a millennium of Southeast Asian cultural and trade exchange. Both should be high on your to-visit list, but if you're looking for somewhere more off-radar then try Brunei's surprisingly unostentatious capital Bandar Seri Begawan: its picturesque water village Kampung Ayer is the largest stilt settlement in the world.
Mirroring the natural environment's diversity is the region's pot pourri of cultures. Muslim Malays, religiously diverse Chinese, and Hindu and Muslim Indians muddle along with aboriginal groups (the Orang Asli) on Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo's indigenous people, scores of tribes known collectively as Dayaks. Each ethnic group has its own language and cultural practices which you can best appreciate through a packed calendar of festivals and a delicious variety of cuisines.
It's popular to dismiss Singapore as a kind of Asia Lite - blandly efficient and safe, a boringly tasteless, disciplinarian and unadventurous place where citizens are robbed of their cherished freedom to spit on the street and chew gum. Utter nonsense. Singapore is in fact one of the most enjoyable cities in Southeast Asia.