Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Planning our South East Asia trip, and exploring Singapore + Malaysia

After our month in New Zealand surrounded by nature, it was time for something else. South East Asia, here we come!

It has been difficult for us to plan our two months in SEA. For South America, Mexico and Hawai'i, we knew which places we wanted to visit. Even though we hadn't booked everything, we had an idea of where to go and how to get there. For New Zealand we hadn't planned anything, but the country is not that big and we decided in advance we mainly wanted to explore the Southern Island. For SEA, we had a blank sheet. We only had a flight booked from Auckland to Singapore the 27th of February, and the next flight the 28th of April from Singapore to London. Two months in SEA... and many countries to choose from.

Our first idea was to visit the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. We had several doubts about the Philippines, because certain areas were affected by the typhoon in November 2013. We did some research and decided to go to Donsol and El Nido. Looking for flights was not that easy though, it was pretty expensive. Even with AirAsia it would cost 75 EUR per person to fly to Manila, and then with a local airline 40 EUR to fly to the island where El Nido is located. This was the cheapest we could find... But hey, YOLO right? So we booked the flights anyway. In the meantime, we started looking for accommodation but hadn't booked anything yet. El Nido was actually pretty expensive and we were having a hard time finding decent budget accommodation. Then, a couple of days later, we receive an email from AirAsia that our flight has been rescheduled - it would leave 4 hours later, and this would mean we would miss our connecting flight! After all this hassle, I saw it as a sign (I believe in stupid things like that). Nothing seemed to be working out for the Philippines, and we decided to cancel our flights and ask for a refund.

So, we had to come up with a new plan!! We basically went to a bookshop, and Claudio started looking at travel guides and pictures of beautiful places in the world. We came across some really nice pictures of the temples in Angkor, Cambodia. We went to the hostel, started googling and researching flights and decided to go for it! So the planning for Asia resulted in:
Arrive in Singapore and stay there for 4 days, fly to Kuching (Borneo, Malaysia) and stay for 6 days. From there a flight to Kuala Lumpur and stay for 4 days, then Siam Reap in Cambodia for 4 days, and from there take a bus to Bangkok to catch a flight to Indonesia, where we will spend around 35 days. Maybe we will do something else in those 35 days in Indonesia, a little detour, but we haven't decided yet. Finally, we booked a flight from Bali back to Singapore, where we will spend our last 4 days before we go home again. We loved Singapore, so we are looking forward to spend some more days there.

The planning of these last two months have actually caused so much stress. Every time you are in a beautiful place, you almost cannot enjoy it because you are thinking about what to do next: which city to go to, which temples or museums to visit, where to sleep, how to get there, how long will it take, ...? You are spending more time on google trying to look up stuff than actually enjoying where you are in that moment. Changing plans didn't help much. But I guess it's our own fault for not researching it better before ;-). 

So, to get back to the fun part of traveling, let's talk about Singapore! We took a direct flight from Auckland to Singapore. I don't know why, but I thought the flight was going to be only 5 hours or so... But it was 11 hours! New Zealand is really so isolated from the rest of the world, it's just crazy. Anyway, we landed and took the subway to our room we rented in a huge apartment complex in the West of the city. We had a good connection to the MRT (subway), so we could explore the whole city easily. With the 7 hours difference from New Zealand, we woke up early every day. It gave us a lot of time to explore the city. The first thing that we noticed going out was the heat: it was 33 degrees and very humid. The air-conditioning in our room also broke down on the first night so it was horrible in the beginning! But luckily we got used to it after a couple of days. Singapore is also packed with huge ultra modern malls, one after the other. So if it gets to hot, you just hop into a mall with ice cold air-conditioning and cool down. But really, I have never seen so many malls in my entire life combined as in Singapore! Truly shopping paradise... In every mall, you also have food courts where you can get a meal for 2 or 3 euro's! In this way, you can save lots of money. 

Besides all these malls, you also have beautiful skyscrapers with amazing architecture. This is in contrast with what we are used to in Belgium or Italy where we are surrounded by ancient buildings from the past. You don't see such innovative architecture in our countries. But Singapore is full of those types of buildings. It feels you stepped into the future. It was absolutely amazing to walk around in the city and being surrounded by all these modern skyscrapers!

 view from Marina Bay
Some innovative architecture

For us, Singapore was the perfect transition from a "Western" country to an "Asian" one, because it is a mix between both worlds.  It is a rich city, with lots of facilities, everybody speaks English, and on top of that it is super safe! This is mainly due to the extreme measures of the government: for example, you get a 500 dollar fine (= 300 EUR) for drinking or eating on the MRT or not crossing the street on the crosswalks! Once I saw a documentary on TV where people referred to the city as SingaBORE, and now I understand it. There are many rules and everybody obeys them blindly. However, this also results in Singapore being a very efficient and safe city. The city functions like a well-oiled machine and you cannot complain about anything. 

To sum up, Singapore is really beautiful and it is definitely worth visiting. It is one of our top 10 favorite cities in the world for sure! Our favorite places were the Marina Bay, and the gardens by the bay. At night there is also a beautiful light show at the gardens but we missed it. Hopefully we can see it when we go back in April!

          Gardens by the bay

After 4 days, we took a bus from Singapore to Johor Bahru in Malaysia (1,5 hour) and from there we took the plane to Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo. 

The Borneo is an island where the northern part is Malaysian and partly Brunei, and the southern part is Indonesian. We only visited the Malaysian part, in the north-west of the island, in the region called Sarawak. We flew to the city Kuching, which would be our base for exploring the area. Kuching was so nice for different reasons. First of all, it was really cheap: our hostel was 11 EUR for a private room, and food in the mall cost less than 1 EUR per plate. We went seriously over-budget in New Zealand, but in this week we managed to recuperate most part of it. Secondly, people were super friendly, it was crazy. In our trip, we haven't met such friendly people as in Sarawak. Everybody smiles, people just say "hey" to you, ask you how you are, introduce themselves. One night, we were at the supermarket, and this guy just started talking to us for 15 minutes, about his life and politics and Malaysia. It was so nice, and something that would never happen in Belgium. I love it! And third, people speak English pretty well. Malaysia used to be a colony of Great Britain, so especially the older generation speaks good English. This makes it easy to communicate with the locals. 

We were happy to be in Kuching, and explore the Sarawak area. Kuching comes from the Malay word Kucing which means "cat", a perfect city for me and Claudio :-). They even had a cat museum there, which we visited off course. The rest of the city had a relaxing vibe, with not too many tourists, and with many beautiful sites.


The highlights of this week were two days: one day we went to the Semenggoh rehabilitation center, where orangutans are living freely in a large jungle area, but are fed daily because they are too weak to survive on their own during certain periods of the year. Before we went to see the feeding at 15h, we had a whole speech about the dangers of the orangutans : no talking, no sudden movements, don't go too close and no touching. We entered the jungle and the feeding started. Everybody was quiet as a mouse. Seconds later we heard noise coming from the trees.... and we spotted the first orangutans  gliding from one tree to another! Soon two others followed, including one mother holding her tiny baby wrapped around her. Sooo cute!  The orangutans went to the feeding place and ate tons of bananas and hanged on the trees, relaxing. You heard  hundreds of silent clicks from camera's, everybody trying to get the perfect picture :-). Seeing the orangutans was definitely an amazing experience, it really took my breath away.

Just chillin' and eating some banana's!
Two days later, we decided to go to Bako national park. We took a bus for 1 hour and arrived in a place where we had to take the boat to the park. The park can only be reached by boat so you have no choice. We paid for the ticket and the guy assured us that there would only be 7 people on the boat. I mean, by now I already know that it is never going to be like that. Who do you think you are trying to fool? :-) :-) So indeed, we ended up sharing our boat with at least 10 more people. The sea was also really rough, and at times to boat really flew through the air and landed back in the sea so hard that I got scared! It was a though ride, but when we finally arrived it was worth it. We arrived on the beach and walked to the park entrance, where we immediately spotted a family of proboscis monkeys, and a bearded pig. We did a hike in the jungle, arrived on a deserted stretch of beach again with some lime stones and rock formations. It was a really nice day... We booked the last boat back at 16h, which left early BTW, and we almost missed it! But we got back safely after our second boat ride of the day. We'll never forget that day!


View from the beach at Bako National Park
This is the end of our Borneo adventure. The next blog post I'll talk about Kuala Lumpur and Angkor in Cambodia. Talk to you all soon!

Ciao :-)

Marj and Claudio


  1. Fantastic!!! One day I want to visit a few of these places too. See you soon. Enjoy

  2. Maybe next time I will show you the real Indonesia that you haven't seen ;)