15 October 2019

How To Spend Two Weeks in Malaysia and Singapore

I've already blogged about my time in Malaysia and Singapore, and posted many more photos on Flickr, but this is a more detailed post about my overall experience: how my itinerary worked, where I stayed, what I did, and how I travelled around.

As is usually the case when I’m researching my main annual holiday, it wasn't possible to squeeze all of the places I wanted to visit in Malaysia and Singapore into a two-week itinerary. In particular, fitting in Borneo and Singapore in addition to Peninsular Malaysia was quite challenging. But my final itinerary had a good mix of cities and culture, wildlife and beach time. I took several internal flights and I didn’t have a lot of down time, but everything worked well, and with hindsight, I would not have wanted to sacrifice any of the destinations I visited.

Skip to: KL | Perhentian Islands | Penang | Borneo | Singapore | Practicalities

Days 1–3: Kuala Lumpur
After leaving London around 9 pm on Friday night, I landed in KL at 5 pm local time on Saturday. I took the KLIA Ekspres and the metro to my hotel, the KL Journal, in Bukit Bintang. I paid £160 for three nights; the hotel was well located and it had cool rooms and a great rooftop pool. After checking in, I walked to Jalan Alor, a popular night market in Bukit Bintang, for dinner.

I spent the first of my two full days exploring Chinatown and Bukit Bintang, visiting the KL Forest Eco Park, eating a lot of street food and sampling the city's speciality coffee scene, before heading for drinks with Petronas Twin Towers views. The following day, I took the train to Batu Caves, and then visited Brickfields. During the rainy afternoon, I spent time in some more speciality coffee shops and the malls of Bukit Bintang, before heading to PS150 for world-class cocktails in the evening.

Day 4: Travel to the Perhentian Islands
To get to KL International Airport for my 8:25 am flight to Kota Bharu, I had to take a Grab
to KL Sentral, before taking the KLIA Ekspres. I paid about £25 for my Malaysia Airlines flight, which landed on time at 9:30. I took a taxi, organised through my Perhentian Islands hotel, Tuna Bay Island Resort, to Kuala Besut, and then travelled on Tuna Bay's boat to Pulau Perhentian Besar, the largest of the Perhentian Islands, arriving at 11:15.

I paid £210 for a two-night stay at Tuna Bay, which included accommodation in a 'deluxe' cabin (one row back from the beach), all meals, two snorkelling boat trips, and transport to and from the island by car and boat. The accommodation was pretty basic and the thin walls and close quarters meant it was a little noisy at times. The food was mixed too with a decent buffet breakfast, good dinner but poor lunch with no choices. The staff were very friendly, however, and the resort's location in the middle of the island's west coat was great. I paid my Tuna Bay by credit card, but as there are no ATMs on the islands, you are encouraged to bring cash. As my package was all-inclusive, I ended up needing no cash at all, though I brought some with me just in case.

There isn't much to do other than snorkelling, sunbathing and exploring the island's beaches, but this kept me entertained for two-and-a-half days. The snorkelling was wonderful, both the boat trips I took, but also my own explorations of the coral reefs that fringe the island mere steps from the shore. I saw so many species of fish, including pufferfish, triggerfish and many clownfish, as well as sharks, a stingray and two turtles. The waters were clear and warm and although some parts of the island are quite built up, you don't have to walk too far to find your own private paradise.

I took the last Tuna Bay boat of the day at 12 noon on my final day, after spending a final morning in the sea. As my flight wasn't until 6 pm, I took a taxi from Kuala Besut to Khota Bharu city instead of the airport, and after failing to find storage for my suitcase, I took it with me during my brief, hot exploration of the town. The museums were all about to close early, as it was a Thursday, but I had a good curry and got to see some street art. I then took a Grab to the airport. My Firefly flight to George Town cost about £25 and took an hour. 

The Grab ride into central George Town took about 45 minutes in the evening rush. I stayed at Ren i Tang, a beautiful restored medicine store in the heart of the UNESCO zone. Three nights including a good breakfast cost about £140; my room was gorgeous, and the staff very welcoming. After checking in, I went straight out in search of street food.

Days 7–8: George Town
I ate a lot of street food in George Town, including Chinese- and Indian-influenced cuisine, among others. I ate a lot of satay, discovered a love for char teow kway and sampled cendol, an iced dessert. The best meal of my trip was at Tek Sen, where I had to wait a long time for a table, but the double-roasted pork with chilli was worth every minute. In between speciality coffee shop hopping, I explored the historic UNESCO World Heritage Zone, taking an informative walking tour from the Penang Tourist Information Centre and visiting the Blue Mansion and Pinang Peranakan Mansion. I took a Grab to Penang Hill, but the haze was bad, there was no view to speak of, so instead I visited the canopy walkways of The Habitat.

After a final morning in George Town, I flew with Air Asia to Sandakan in Borneo, via KL (£55). I left George Town at 2 pm and arrived at the tiny Sandakan airport around 8 pm on a Sunday evening, and took a Grab to my hotel in Sandakan city. I stayed at the Four Points by Sheraton Sandakan, which cost £36 for one night. My room had a 'sunset view' over the infinity pool and the sea, although I arrived too late to enjoy it (the sunrise view rooms were more expensive). After failing to watch the Crystal Palace vs Wolves game in the hotel bar, I listened online while repacking my suitcase and an overnight bag for my Borneo tour.

Day 10: Turtle Island
I booked Borneo Eco Tours' Sandakan Wildlife Safari tour, a four-day, three-night tour that included an overnight stay on Selingan Island, also known as Turtle Island, and two nights at Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the Kinabatangan River, with visits to the orangutan and sun bear rehabilitation centres in Sepilok. With all accommodation, meals, transport, entrance fees and guide services, my tour cost about £720, which included about £100 single supplement. 

The accommodation on Selingan Island was very basic, but if the prospect of watching newly hatched baby turtles emerge from the sand and waddle down to the sea does not encourage you to visit, I'm not sure what will! After taking a boat from Sandakan in the morning, we arrived on the island just before lunch and spent the day swimming, sunbathing and turtle spotting, before returning to the beach at night to watch a female turtle laying eggs. It was a wonderful experience.

Days 11–13: Sepilok and the Kinabatangan River
; fly to Singapore
We left Selingan at 7 am, and travelled by boat back to Sandakan, picking up more group members, and then visiting the amazing Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre just in time to watch baby orangutans feeding, and spot a female orangutan walking along the boardwalk right in front of us. After sun bears and lunch, we travelled by boat two hours along the Kinabatangan River to Sukau. It was an enjoyable journey and our guide even spotted a pygmy elephant feeding by the water.

The accommodation at Sukau was lovely and the food was very good. The main draw, of course, is the wildlife-spotting river trips by small boat, which I did at dawn, in the afternoon and (for an extra charge) by night. We spotted all of the Borneo Big Five (if you include the orangutans at Sepilok) and countless birds and monkeys, as well as small crocodiles and even a Malaysian civet.

On the final day, we returned to Sandakan by boat and then, after lunch, returned to the airport. I flew on to Singapore via KL, this time with Malaysia Airlines. Together, the flights cost about £100, and after leaving Sandakan around 2 pm, I arrived in Singapore at 8:30 pm, so it was a long day of travelling. As such, I took a Grab to my hotel in Chinatown rather than the MRT. I stayed at Hotel Mono, paying about £140 for two nights in a single room. Singapore accommodation can be quite expensive, but although my room was small it was comfortable, stylish and very well appointed, and the hotel's location couldn't have been better.

Days 14–15: Singapore
I decided to visit Singapore at the end of my trip in case I wanted to do some shopping — I did, especially clothes in Asian stores often fit my small frame better. However, two full days wasn't really enough to do everything I wanted — especially on the food and speciality coffee front. I managed to visit eight coffee shops and cafes, had great cocktails at Tippling Club and Operation Dagger, and dined well at Ding Dong and Tian Tian Haianese Chicken Rice. I also went to Gardens by the Bay by day (I recommend the Cloud Forest in particular) and for the evening light show, enjoyed the views from the Pinnacle@Duxton, visited the Singapore National Museum and zipped all over the city on the MRT with a one-day Singapore Tourist Pass.

My flight home was at 11 pm on a Saturday night, so I was able to have dinner in the city before taking the MRT to Changi, my favourite airport. Since my last visit to Changi, the Jewel complex has opened, which includes lots of shops and eateries and a huge indoor 'rain vortex', which has regular light shows. We ended up leaving Singapore over an hour late and didn't arrive at Heathrow until almost 8 am, but I got enough sleep on the overnight flight — in economy in an upper deck window seat on the A380 — to fend off the jet lag on the return.

I booked my flights to and from London in the BA sale in January, paying about £500 for an open jaw return into KL and out of Singapore. I then booked most of the rest of the trip, including my Borneo tour, hotels and internal flights, about two months in advance. Internal flights in Malaysia are often extremely cheap, although I was sad not to pick up BA tier points on my two Malaysian Airlines flights. Long-distance buses are also a cheap, comfortable and convenient way to get around Peninsular Malaysia, but I flew as I was short on time.

It was hot and humid throughout my holiday, with the temperature tending to max at 31–34C. In September, it's the rainy season on the west coast (KL and Penang), but it only rained once, during a torrential downpour in KL one afternoon. I also got rather wet on one of the boat trips I took in Borneo, although it was mostly hot and sunny while I was there. The haze was especially bad in KL, Penang, and on my second day in the Perhentian Islands. In Singapore, it had rained just before I arrived, which took the temperature down to a balmy 30C one day and the skies were slightly bluer, although it still felt hot and humid.

As usual, I travelled light, taking just my Rimowa Salsa Air carry-on suitcase and TUMI Halle backpack (featured here). Even with an Aeropress and Aergrind, snorkel, mini tripod and 2019 Lonely Planet Malaysia, I had enough room in my case to bring back several bags of coffee beans, a new travel towel and some clothes I bought in Singapore. As you can only take a total of 7kg (luggage and personal item) onto most of the domestic flights, I had to check my suitcase anyway, but I was mainly travelling through small airports and didn't have to wait long. Clothing-wise, I took two pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans, three dresses and about ten tops of various sleeve lengths and formalities. I also packed my swimsuit and gym kit, a hat, trainers, smarter sandals and flip flops. I wore everything at least once and did laundry mid-way through my trip.

For more packing tips, check out my recommendations of tried-and-tested products for travel.

  • Getting around: I downloaded the Uber-esque Grab app before my trip and used it a lot in Malaysia, particularly for getting to and from airports. The fares are generally a lot cheaper than taxis (I usually paid around £3, even on airport rides) and you don't need to worry about meter-related 'miscommunications.' As always I walked as much as was practicable, and used the metro/MRT in KL and Singapore.
  • Language: Throughout my trip almost everyone I spoke to spoke good English and I didn't have any problems making myself understood, though I learned a few words of Malay.
  • Mobile data and wifi: In Malaysia, I bought a Malaysian SIM card with 16Gb data for 40 MYR (£8); cheaper tourist sims are available at the airport. Singapore is on Three's Go Roam list, so I could use my data while I was there. Most of my hotels — except on the Perhentian Islands — had wifi that was decent enough for checking email and doing some holiday research.
  • Money: I mainly used cash for street food purchases in Malaysia and Singapore. Credit cards are widely accepted in Singapore, and to a lesser degree in Malaysia (especially KL and/or in speciality coffee shops). I always carried enough cash just in case.
  • Power outlets: It's so rare to be able to use my clunky British plugs when I travel, but both Malaysia and Singapore use 'type G' plugs.

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