Is a whirlwind tour of 4 cities in 8 days possible? I'm out to prove it is, and its not looking at airport lounge or bus/train station half the time, but real sightseeing and eating real local food. With my wife and daughter in tow, here's how.
Day1 & 2 (Kuching- Singapore)
We took off from Kuching airport at 8.45am in the morning and landed at Changi International Airport at 10.10am, after the immigration and baggage, we took the free shuttle to Terminal 3 where the MRT took us to downtown.
Had wanted to buy a Singapore Tourist Pass, at 8 SGD per person, with unlimited MRT pass for one day, but would you believe, I couldn't buy them at the airport! Was told to buy them from Bugis Station. or Orchard Road, so we bought the normal ticket ($2.00) Luckily we did not have to change station, the MRT from Changi took us to Bugis MRT station from where we walked only 5 minutes to our hotel, the South East Asia Hotel (SGD120 per night) at Waterloo Street, near Bugis Junction.. After checking in, we were ready to rumble at 12noon. First stop - Food! We walked to the Albert Food Court within 2 minutes and had a hearty lunch in sweltering atmosphere there,. Sample delights: Chee Cheong Fun ($4), Wonton Noodle ($3.50), Popiah ($1.30 per piece), Chicken rice $3.50 Our next stop was Sentosa Island, we board MRT from the nearby Bugis Station (itself having a huge food outlet, aircon and very modern) and changed station at Chinatown which took us to Vivo City, Singapore's largest shopping complex, from where we took the shuttle tram ($3.00 return) to the Island resort. We went to the part run by the Genting Group, The whole island is devoted to tourists with sightseeing, shopping, food courts, casino, beaches and hotel. Once on the island, the shuttle to the various attractions is free. Entrance to the Casino is free but flash your passport at the entrance's security personnel. If you've been to Genting's casinos, this one is not much different, flashier maybe. Practically all patrons are Asian Chinese.
By 4pm we decided to call it quits and head back to Vivo City. Again, in Singapore (as in elsewhere), you see one shopping mall, you seen them all, even if it is Singapore's biggest and newest..The food court (Food Republic) is worth a mention here, it’s the best I've been and the varieties there would make a foodie stay on and on.
We head back to Chinatown and had our dinner there at the giant food court and we were really spoilt for choice. Its time like this I wish I had the stomach of a camel. By 8pm we were back at the hotel to freshen up for our next assault: the Bugis Night Market and the Mustapha Shopping Centre (open 24 hours).Hit the sack at 12 midnight.
Next morning, we slept until 9am as it was pointless to go anywhere in Spore early in the morning, most places, except eating, are not opened till 10 or even 11am. After breakfast at the nearby Albert Food Court, (again, but different choices) and we're off trekking to downtown Clarke Quay where even more eateries awaited us. Not much of a sightseeing as there are only a few really old buildings.
We decided to take the MRT and follow our noses. Sniffing for more food court to tickle our tastebuds. By evening, we were really pigged out. Trooping into the carvernous hall of the railway station, we bunkered down for the 11.30pm train to KL.
The 1st Class Sleeper on the train costs $34 and had a bed and curtain for privacy. Snoring through the 8 hour journey was a breeze as the motion of the train lullaby you to dreamland in no time. You may have to contort your anatomy to use the microscopic toilets, so don’t drink too much before boarding the train.
Day 3 (Kuala Lumpur)
At 6.30am we pulled into the KL Sentral. We dropped our baggage at the left baggage (RM5 per piece per day) and hopped on the monorail to Bukit Bintang’s Jalan Alor, our favourtie haunt for food and shopping. The BB area can take up a day to explore as there are a dozen shopping malls all within walking distance. This is THE place to be for tourists and first time visitors. We've been to KL umpteen times and still make a beeline for its eateries whenever we're here. The Pavilion Shopping Mall here also has a Food Republic, and comparision with its S’pore counterpart is inevitable. My verdict: S’pore’s FR wins hands down for sheer variety and ambience.
A fifteen minutes walk away is the Petronas Twin Towers’’ Suria KLCC, another upmarket shopping centre, where we visited again the familiar sights as we had no where to go, as we consider KL to be our transit point before boarding the 9.15pm night train to Hadyai, thus by 8pm we were back at KL Sentral to board the train, happy tired and full of anticipation of the wonders that Thailand had to offer us the next morning.
Day 4 (Hadyai)
The train pulled into the border crossing at Padang Besar at 7.30am. all passengers had to disembark and carry the luggage to the custom and immigration for clearance, after which we have to embark the train again, a process which may take one to two hours depending on your luck. After some delay, we board the train again (Padang Besar to Hadyai takes 45 minutes) and only arrived at Hadyai at 11.00 am. The sight, the sound, the smell of Thailand! Everything was new and novel to us.
Earlier on at the Padang Besar Station while waiting for the train, a “travel agent” had approached us for hotel booking, flashing colourful brochures of different hotels for us to choose. We picked the Hadyai Central Hotel (600 bahts). He actually travelled in the same train with us up to the Hadyai train station and upon disembarking, directed us (and his other clients) to his tuk tuk driver for the trip to his office where we paid the hotel coupon (to be presented upon check-in). Fare for the tuk tuk is 20 baht per person from the railway station.
Hadyai is a bustling city with the three main tourist streets (Nathat Uthit Road 1, 2 and 3) parallel to each other, and is extremely easy to negotiate. All along the sidewalk are packed with vendors selling T-shirts, dried foods, trinket, shoes etc. Surprisingly Hadyai does not have food courts ala Singapore. Most eateries are single shop lot with two or three stalls selling noodles and porridge. Of course there are many other varieties and you have just to be observant and pick the shop that sell the food you like. Bahkuteh is popular here, so is fishball soup and pig intestine, pork leg rice and porridge There are some great dim sum outlets.
Day 5 (Hadyai)
Thai time is one hour behind Malaysian time, thus by 6am it’s broad daylight already yet the town’s many shops will not open until 9.00am. But the Kimyong market is quite early, this is a fascinating wet market and where you can catch the Thais going about their daily chores of grocery shopping. The water market (Talaad-naam) is a must see though its highly commercialized for tourists. Although a watered-down version of the famous floating market of Bangkok, the fascination is still there for first timers like us (buying food from vendors in colourful canoes parked by the water edge). Nearby on land is another large open air market with stalls selling touristy stuff, as usual. Opens only from 3.00pm onward.
By night fall, a giant night market around the Lee Garden Plaza Hotel is the place to be for bargain shopping. Hordes of Malaysian tourists pack the whole place and the sidewalk food stalls. Hadyai is indeed a Malaysian playground. Food are not cheap by Malaysian standard as the horde of tourists has driven up the price. We've seen nigh markets in Malaysia, but nothing compare to the smell and atmosphere of this place, it was simply enjoyable.
What better way to end the trip with the countless massage and foot reflexology centre. At 240 bahts for two hours it was a steal. The foot massage cost only 180 bahts per hour! This is real massage with no hanky panky, and believe me it does wonder to my sore feet which had been walking for 10 hours per days for three days already. Petite Thai lasses will crack you bones and knead your muscles with such expertise you’d be bouncing and raring to go again after a session.
Day 6 (Hadyai - Penang)
We took an early breakfast at the nearby food outlet, did a little last minutes shopping. By noon our van picked us up at the hotel for the 5 hours + trip to Penang.. Fare cost only 350 bahts. Border crossing is at Danok, which is a bustling frontier town. Contrasting with the sparse travelers at Padang Besar, Danok is swarmed with thousands of Malaysians queuing at the immigration counters. The traffic jam was horrendous too and we wasted almost two hours there. We were glad to leave the mayhem by three. By 5.30pm we were staring at he longest bridge in South East Asia - the Penang Bridge.
The van driver recommended to us the Hong Ping Hotel in Jalan Chulia as it was near to their office, and within our budget (RM98.00). This is smack right in the middle of Penang’s old quarter and many building are really old and run down. Suffice to say ICI Paints and Nippon Paint would not want to open a retail outlet here.
Songs and Paens had been written on the food of Penang, so I'm not going to bore you to tears on this subject. Suffice to say i again wish I had a stomach of a camel, nay, two camels.
Besides food, the other fascination for Penang of course is the World Heritage historical building. though not even older than some Georgian buildings in London, the whole downtown Penang exudes an old-world charm found nowhere else in South East Asia except perhaps Melaka, the other World Heritage city of Malaysia.
I decided to skip the run-of-the-mill Penang touristy stuff, the Kek Lok Si Temple and the Penang Hill for my shopaholic wife/daughter. So it’s Prangin Mall, Komtar and Queensbay Mall (Gigantic! Twice the size of Kuching’s flagship mall, the Spring).
There’s a lot of food hawkers right outside our hotel, we had the wonderful Char Koay Tiaw, Yee Fu mee , Lor bak and wonton mee, all costing less than RM4.00 per plate.
Day 7 (Penang)
We had breakfast at a kopitiam, again CKT, wonton mee and great dim sum (all our perennial favourites), and its wandering along the old buildings and streets. I must have taken the beautiful pictures of Kapitan Kling mosque without realizing it till later. The legendary Khoo Kongsi was not open till 9.00am so we had to miss it. But we stumbled on the Cheah Kongsi and the Yap Kongsi, both nearby and are fabulously restored old building. Walking on, we reach the piers where we took the famous Penang ferry across to the mainland to take in the wonderful view of Georgetown’s skyline. We tried the Rapid Penang bus (get exact change ready if you do not want to donate the big notes to the bus company) from Komtar to Queensbay Mall (RM2.00). Evening saw us trooping into Prangin Mall again as the ladies missed out something there the previous night (don’t ask me what, I was in a daze).
Day 8 Penang - KL
Woke up really early to have dim sum breakfast at 6.30 am. Van picked us up to sent us to Komtar for the 8.00am bus to KL (RM35.00). Trip took 5 hours via the North-South Expressway, the pride of Malaysia. Passed through scenic Penang, Perak and Selangor countryside, especially the Ipoh’s limestone hills.
Our 28-seater bus (only 7 passengers) arrived at the Bukit Jalil bus terminal at 1pm and it was scorchingly hot as the “terminal” is actually a mammoth bus parking lot for the Bukit Jalil National Stadium, a temporary site while the Pudu Terminal is under re-constuction (since 2008!). The place was a tent city and hawkers, bus touts with walkies talkies, passengers, bus men, cabbies swarm the place like ants running on a frying pan. Compare to the cool efficiency of Singapore’s Metro, this is national disgrace.
We took the nearby MRT (a trek 8 minutes away under the scorching sun) to Mid Valley Mall for lunch and then off to KL Sentral again to board the KLIA-Low Cost Carrier Terminal shuttle bus (RM8.00) for the one hour trip to the airport.
The scene at the KLIA’s LCCT is another mayhem with no escalators, no walkalators, poor air conditioning, not much shopping facilities and expensive food outlets. Sample: a few pieces of papaya and pineapple in a plastic cup: RM3.20, Nasi Lemak RM7.90, Sandwich RM5.50, Muffin (the size of a baby’s fist) RM3.00. Boarding is a 5 minutes trek to the aircraft with no respite from the elements. Imagine lugging your luggage with an umbrella in a tropical storm, but hey, that’s “Low Cost” right?
Plane departed 15 minutes late at 8pm. Landed in Kuching at 10.30pm and reached Home Sweet Home at 11.15pm.
I know some of you may think I’m crazy to cram up everything in 8 days, but that’s Asian’s style of travelling. In fact the Chinese have a term for this mode of travelling, it’s called “jou mah kan hua” literally means “walk horse see flower). A typical travel ad of a Chinese daily, offer trips to China for “10 days 8 cities” or “7 days Yangtze and Xian” “Grand 14 days all-in China trip”!
We don’t stop to smell the rose, we pluck it and smell it when we’re in our hotel room.