Current Country Count: 29
Going to Indonesia in September got me to 27 countries and though I had hoped to hit 30 by year’s end, I was really excited to get countries 28 and 29 on my life travel bucket list.
Trip Background: Earlier in 2015, my fiancée and I imagined an Asian vacation but didn’t know how or where we would do it. Then a fantastic deal on Dallas-Singapore tickets popped up and eventually we added a beach vacation in Malaysia to a couple days in the Asian business capital. But in retrospect, if I could do it over again, I would have spent more time in Singapore. People might tell you that Singapore can be done in 2-3 days and I completely disagree. From the Botanic Gardens to the original home of the Singapore Sling to the hawker food centres, you should aim to spend at least 3-4 days exploring this vibrant city-state.
Malaysia was a real mystery to me and since we weren’t going to Kuala Lumpur, I knew next to nothing about where we would eventually go.
Singapore, on the other hand, was a place I’d heard a lot about. The city has one of those unique reputations that transcends culture. A place that is distinctly Asian but in a different way than the other homogenous Asian capitals like Tokyo or Beijing. As a kid I remembering hearing about the caning of an American kid but more recently my perceptions of the city had changes as friends conjured up images of spotless streets and a business hub has gradually stolen the title of “Asian business capital” from Hong Kong. But what Singapore will always be in my mind is a cleaner New York with hawker food stands, a lot more Asian people, and a delightful culture that embodies diversity.
Days 0-2: Transit
Our journey to Asia took one step back before taking two steps forward. While at San Francisco International Airport, we got a mild panic attack when the American rep told us our flight was being bumped and that we would have to fly through LA or Phoenix. Thankfully the crisis was averted and the flight went off without a hitch. We began by flying to Dallas and spent the night at the Sheraton DFW and it was probably one of the classiest airport hotels I’ve ever seen.
The next morning, we boarded our flight to Hong Kong where were informed the flight would take 15 hours and 54 minutes. This definitely qualifies for the longest flight I have EVER taken. Thankfully we got two posh business class seats and had a plethora of movies to keep us entertained and a surprisingly good wine menu which kept us napping or numbed.
Our arrival in HK meant losing a day by crossing the international date line, but that set us up for one fun night in HK.
Day 2: Stopover in Hong Kong
We landed at Hong Kong International Airport at 6:15 PM on Monday, November 16 and our flight to Singapore was due to take off at 8 AM the following morning. So we decided to store our bags in at the airport since clearly people must often have connecting international flights. The HK Baggage Storage facility is located on level 3 of Terminal 2 and is really easy to access once you clear customs. Each bag (up to certain weight and size limits) is HK$12 (~USD$1.50) per hour to store up to a daily limit of HK$140 (~USD$17.50) and you’ll get a receipt to claim your item when you return.
Once we were unencumbered by gear, we bought two round trip tickets into Hong Kong station (the end of the Airport Express line that takes you past Kowloon and Tsing Yi stations to Central, where all of the daunting skyscrapers and the International Financial Centre sit in the shadow of Victoria Peak.
Hong Kong is a vertical metropolis. Everything that can go upward seems to do so and brings with it a vibrant energy that you’d expect from one of the world’s busiest cities.
We met my friend Diane who I haven’t seen in over four years since our days in New York, and together we started our night at Brickhouse, a Mexican style open-air bar located at the end of a particularly dark and seedy alley. Thankfully the crowd seemed just as yuppy and well-to-do as most of the white collar professionals in HK so we didn’t give it a second thought.
After pre-dinner drinks we proceeded to Yung Kee on Wellington St. where we took in a wildly overpriced dinner. Let me provide you all with a moment of caution – be careful to set your expectations properly. I offered to pick up the tab for my friends expecting a USD$100 dinner…and instead got hit with a USD$400 dinner. Ouch. So caveat: check the prices BEFORE you order!
With my belly full and my wallet noticeably lighter, we proceeded to a bar in Lan Kwai Fong where we reminisced of undergrad bars with cheap shots and sweet cocktails. After our friends started dropping off, we proceeded back to the airport so we could get a few hours of rest before our morning flight.
Day 3: Singapore/Langkawi
Thankfully we were able to enter the Plaza Lounge and napped for a few hours before everything opened in the morning. We then made our way through security to the Wing Lounge, Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge at Hong Kong Airport. This was the kind of place you had to see to believe.
Dedicated wood lined stations for tea and coffee, Omega clocks on the jet-black walls, and a champagne station with seemingly no one partaking in its heavenly spirits. Oh and delicious grilled sandwiches and quiches and a block of brie the size of my head that had not yet been carved up – one that was virtually begging for us to consume it.
In addition to the first rate lounge experience, Changi Airport was also running a big Star Wars promotion in advance of The Force Awakens being released. It’s always fun seeing stormtroopers in an airport, let me tell you…
Once aboard our flight, it was a quick 45 minutes from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and a rather long 3-hour layover at the Golden Lounge in KL before we could make our final connection to Langkawi.
Here is where the trip got a bit surreal. Our hotel had sent a driver and once we emerged from security, he scooped us up and we were on our way to the Westin Langkawi. As we arrived, they swarmed the vehicle and took our two carryon bags. The gentleman at the reception knew who we were and escorted us to our room. We figured we might get an upgrade but nothing could have prepared us for this!
The Westin Langkawi is a gem of a hotel – with some of the finest service I’ve ever received anywhere. They escorted us to the room to check in and upon seeing the “Royal Suite” sign above our room number, we knew something ridiculous was about to happen.
If you plan to come to Malaysia, take some time to go to Langkawi and stay at this hotel. The service was top notch and I guarantee you won’t regret it.
Day 4: Langkawi
Our first day in paradise began with a healthy brunch and pool time – and both experiences put us in a really good mood.
Within walking distance of the hotel, there’s not a whole lot to do. We did find a local shopping center which had this delicious looking gem that, I am sorry to report, we did not get a chance to eat. (note that I am totally serious)
There is a nice walking park nearby where you can learn about some of the legendary stories about Langkawi and there are a number of nice walking trails, but watch out for some of the broken roads.
Upon returning to the hotel, our night ended as it should: with a cocktail on the terrace.
Day 5: Langkawi
You may be convinced that vacations in paradise should not involve waking up early. But I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t tell you that sunrises in Malaysia should not be missed.
After breakfast and some swimming, we decided to venture out by foot in search of a good massage place. Sadly this was one time where the Internet let us down. We found the name and address of a place that apparently had closed down and wound up settling on a crappy salon, which offered the worst massage I’ve ever had. Undaunted, we continued walking in the stifling heat and found the other massage place we’d read about online and proceeded to have two of the best massages of our lifetimes.
Bellis Spa was warm and inviting from the moment we stepped inside their storefront. We decided on 90-minute packages which included 30 minutes on the feet and 60 on the back – and it was pure bliss. All for the price of about $35 per person, including tip!
With our feet and backs successfully relaxed, we then discovered that a monsoon was deluging the area with a brutal rainstorm so we petitioned the Bellis owners to let us borrow and umbrella and found a street stand across the street where we dined on fish curry, noodles and tofu soup – a perfect conclusion to the day.
Day 6: Langkawi
Remember that whole sunrise thing we discussed a little while ago?
For our last full day in Langkawi, we took to the water and in adventurous style – on a jet ski powered exploration of the islands. You can find a tour company in many places and we decided to go through the hotel to book our adventure. This included transportation to and from the launch site, a good 4-6 hours out on the water and exploring some of the outlying islands, and plenty of water.
After coming home sunburned and exhausted, we were treated to one cool moment involving Toucan Sam:
No, we did not follow our nose, but the presence of so much animal, bird and plant life was a really relaxing sight.
Day 7: Langkawi/Singapore
Our last day in Malaysia was a bit bittersweet but I was really excited to get to Singapore and try some of this legendary food. Our flight took us back through Kuala Lumpur and after a few hours, we landed in Singapore and took a taxi to the Sheraton Towers Singapore. Although we had a nice stay here, this hotel felt old and outdated. The lounge was super crowded, tiny and felt as if it was a holdover from the early 90’s.
But let’s get to the important stuff here: the food. After settling into our hotel, our first stop was the legendary Newton Food Centre, one of the famous hawker centres in which dozens of food vendors offer tasty flavors of Asia. My classmate Lan, whom I hadn’t seen since 2013, walked us through the protocol.
- For this particular location, if you’re traveling in a group, ask one person to guard the table and take down the number.
- When you go to each stand and order, you’ll need to tell them where to deliver your food.
- Place your order
- Then head back and wait for your deliciousness to be delivered (often without a smile).
My advice is to follow your heart with what you eat but try to eat at least a few of the following dishes:
- BBQ Chicken Wings
- Chicken Satay
- Oyster Omelette
Day 8: Singapore
For our first full day in Singapore, our first destination was the Singapore Botanical Gardens. If you’re a fan of flowers, you’ll love this place. If you’re not, you’ll still love this place. It’s relaxing, full of wonderful scents, and will help you unwind from the urban stress of Singapore.
Our afternoon was a stark contract to the gardens. We chose to walk (in stifling heat, I might add) to Orchard Road, which is one of the best shopping streets in the world. Major brands sit next to small boutiques in modern shopping malls both elegant and shabby.
After finishing snacks and some gift buying activities, we checked into the Marina Bay Sands. Now please take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt. This hotel is horribly overpriced. We got one night here for the price of four nights in Langkawi, and our one night here did not include any meals or services – Langkawi gave us full buffet breakfasts every day, complimentary cocktails, and a suite upgrade too. But that said, I believe everyone should stay here at least once because it’s opulent and beautiful…and the views can’t be beat.
For dinner, we explored Lau Pa Sat (also known as Telok Ayer Market), which is another food centre. Two items we ate are must try dishes in Singapore: Chicken Rice and Carrot Cake.
Despite its name, carrot cake (on the right in the image below) is more like a savory noodle than the western dessert you’d imagine – and it is delicious.
Day 9: Singapore
Our last full day saw another garden adventure. The Gardens by the Bay sits directly next to the Marina Bay Sands and is another prime example of the garden city nature of Singapore. If you don’t like fresh flowers, thriving plants and startling natural beauty, I don’t think Singapore is for you. But if you do enjoy such things, you’re going to love this town.
There’s a walkway suspended high above the ground that you can pay to acess, and your reward will be a gorgeous view of both the hotel and the entire park.
After we checked out of our hotel, we decided to walk to the Raffles Hotel and indulge our true tourist role with a Singapore Sling. Let me give you some advice: skip this. One drink will set you back nearly $25 USD – and it isn’t even that good! You can stop in, look at the classy bar and enjoy the sight without paying.
Along the way, we stopped for a quick snack that’s worth mentioning.
This might look wildly unimpressive, but hold on a minute. Kaya toast is a Singapore staple consisting of toast and a jam made from coconut, sugar and eggs. It’s not particularly fancy, but when coupled with a coffee, it makes for an absolutely perfect breakfast. It’s cheap, easy to find and so worth getting. Trust me.
I’m a professional.
For our last meal, we wandered over to the Boat Quay area and discovered a gem in Ramen Bar Suzuki. As the hot, sticky weather persisted, we decided to indulge our noodle fix with gyoza and tasty tasty noodles in broth.
From there, we took a cab to the airport and after a horrifying routing (Singapore-Hong Kong-Dallas-San Francisco, lasting over 30 hours), we finally made it home. And I’m a whiner since we flew business from Hong Kong to Dallas, but I’ve learned my lesson – find more direct flights.
And with that, our adventure was done. This was a blissful adventure in relaxation followed by a gluttonous food epic. As I mentioned before, if you choose to include Singapore in one of your future trips, set aside at least 3-4 days. You’ll enjoy having the freedom to explore the city, try all of the various cuisines, and see the beautiful parks and nature sights.