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.
Also Unesco World Heritage–listed, Melaka and George Town (Penang) have uniquely distinctive architectural and cultural townscapes, developed over a half a millennium of Southeast Asian cultural and trade exchange. Both cities embody 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.
City lovers will be dazzled by Singapore, an urban showstopper that combines elegant colonial-era buildings with stunning contemporary architecture and attractions such as its Unesco World Heritage–listed Botanical Gardens. Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur (KL) is 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. Go off-radar in Brunei’s surprisingly unostentatious capital Bandar Seri Begawan: its picturesque water village Kampong Ayer is the largest stilt settlement in the world.
The icing on this verdant cake is the chance to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat. The most common sightings will be a host of insects or colourful birdlife, but you could get lucky and spot a foraging tapir, a slivered leaf monkey, or an orangutan swinging through the jungle canopy. The oceans are just as bountiful: snorkel or dive among shoals of tropical fish, paint-box dipped corals, turtles, sharks and dolphins. Even if you don’t venture outside the urban centres, there’s excellent opportunities for wildlife watching at the world-class Singapore Zoo or the KL Bird Park.
Why I Love Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei
For Southeast Asia in a microcosm you can’t beat this trio of fascinating countries. From my first slurp of lip-smacking laksa noodles and taste of sizzling satay chicken at an outdoor food stall in Kuala Lumpur many years ago, to the continual thrill of watching the evolution of Singapore into an arts, architecture and culture heavyweight, the appeal of the region has been addictive. Whether exploring the heritage cityscape of George Town or riding longboats into the deepest recesses of Sarawak, it’s all one huge adventure in the company of some of the region’s friendliest people.
Less than RM100/S$150/B$40
- Dorm bed: RM15–50/S$20–40/B$10–25
- Hawker centres and food-court meals: RM5–7/S$3–5/B$2–6
- Metro ticket: RM1–2.50/S$1.60–2.70
- Double room at midrange hotel: RM100–400/S$100–250/B$70
- Two-course meal at midrange restaurant: RM40–60/S$50/B$10
- Cocktails at decent bar: RM30–40/S$20–30
More than RM400/S$350/B$100
- Luxury double room: RM450–1000/S$250–500/B$170
- Meal at top restaurant: RM200/S$250/B$20
- Three-day diving course: RM800–1000
If You Like
Whether you've got six days or 60, these intineraries provide a starting point for the trip of a lifetime. Want more inspiration? Head online to lonelyplanet.com/thorntree to chat with other travellers.
Month by Month
Muslims holidays follow a lunar calendar, while dates for Chinese and Hindu religious festivals are calculated using the lunisolar calendar. Muslim holidays fall around 11 days earlier each year, while Hindu and Chinese festivals change dates but fall roughly within the same months.
Regions at a Glance
Food in Singapore is both a passion and a unifier across ethnic divides, with Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and Peranakan specialities. Find legendary hawker centres and food courts, plus experimental, fine-dining hot spots.
All bases are covered, from lavish malls and in-the-know boutiques, to heirloom handicraft studios, beautiful antiques stores and local galleries peddling contemporary local art.
World-class museums offer evocative insights into the region’s history and culture. While giants like the National Museum of Singapore and the Asian Civilisations Museum are a must, make time for lesser-known NUS Museums and the haunting Changi Museum & Chapel.
Booze might be banned but there is no limit on gastronomic indulgence, a pleasure taken seriously in these parts. The sultanate is food mad and the opening of a restaurant is typically a major social event.
Between the Sultan’s glittering palace, the opulent Empire Hotel, gaudy mosques and the largest water village in the world, this nation compensates for its small size with some huge construction projects.
The sultanate has done an admirable job of preserving its tracts of primary jungle. An excellent, tightly controlled national park gives green breathing space to Borneo’s many beasties.
- Tourism Malaysia (www.tourismmalaysia.gov.my) Official national tourist information site.
- Your Singapore (www.yoursingapore.com) Official tourism board site.
- Brunei Tourism (www.bruneitourism.travel) Oodles of useful information.
- Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) Information, bookings, forums and more.
- Malaysia Asia (http://blog.malaysia-asia.my) Award-winning blog packed with local insider info.
When to Go
High Season (Dec–Feb)
- School holidays followed by Chinese New Year inflate prices and mean advance booking of transport and hotel rooms is important.
- It’s monsoon season for the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia and western Sarawak.
- From July to August, vie with visitors escaping the heat of the Gulf States as the region enjoys what it calls Arab Season.
- It’s monsoon season down the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia until September.
Low Season (Mar–Jun)
- Avoid the worst of the rains and humidity.
- The chance to enjoy places without the crush of fellow tourists.