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.
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, principally Muslim Malays, religiously diverse Chinese, and Hindu and Muslim Indians. And then there are the scores of tribal people on Borneo, known collectively as Dayaks, and Peninsular Malaysia's indigenous people (the Orang Asli). 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 Botanic 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 silvered 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. I've always enjoyed the diversity of cultures, the delicious cuisine, combining Malay, Chinese and Indian dishes, as well as the dynamic arts and architecture of the principal cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. One day you can be exploring the heritage cityscape of George Town, the next riding longboats into the deepest recesses of Sarawak or scuba diving off gorgeous tropical islands – it’s all one huge adventure in the company of welcoming people.
Budget: less than RM100/S$200/B$80
- Dorm bed: RM15–50/S$25–45/B$10–50
- Hawker centres and food-court meals: RM5–7/S$5-6/B$1–4
- Public transport per trip: RM1–2.50/S$1.40–2.50/B$1–2
- Double room at midrange hotel: RM100–400/S$150–300/B$60–80
- Two-course meal at midrange restaurant: RM40–60/S$80/B$5–15
- Cocktails at decent bar: RM30–40/S$20–30
Top end: more than RM400/S$400/B$160
- Luxury double room: RM450–1000/S$350–800/B$140–170
- Meal at top restaurant: RM200/S$300/B$10–20
- Three-day diving course: RM800–1000
If You Like
Month by Month
Regions at a Glance
George Town has the reputation as Malaysia's culinary capital, but the truth is that you can eat supremely well across the country with many regional specialities to be enjoyed.
Jungles & Mountains
Ancient rainforests and their inhabitants – from tiny ants to giant elephants – are protected in scores of national and state parks. There are also mountains to climb and mammoth caves to explore.
The east coast of the peninsula is home to some of Asia's most accessible islands with beautiful beaches, such as the Perhentians. More gorgeous strips of sand are found in Sarawak and Sabah.
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.
Boutiques & Malls
All bases are covered, from lavish malls and in-the-know boutiques, to heirloom handicraft studios, beautiful antiques stores and 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.tourism.gov.my) Official national tourist information site.
- Visit Singapore (www.visitsingapore.com/en) Official tourism board site.
- Brunei Tourism (www.bruneitourism.travel) Information on travel in the sultanate.
- Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com) Destination information, hotel bookings, traveller forum and more.
- Malaysia Asia (http://blog.malaysia-asia.my) Award-winning travel blog packed with local insider info.
- Leave rigorous outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon to avoid the sweltering midday heat.
- Party early: there's no shortage of bars offering good-value happy-hour deals, mostly between 5pm and 8pm or 9pm.
- Carry a packet of tissues: handy for mopping hands at hawker centres and for use in toilets which may not have toilet paper.
- Bring something warm to wear for when the air-conditioning is cranked up such as on long-distance buses and trains and in cinemas.
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 Peninsular 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 Peninsular 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.