Great news, folks: jetlag from this return-trip from Asia is going quite a bit better than my previous two go-rounds! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
As mentioned in my last post, my decision to spend four weeks traveling in Southeast Asia was a bit last-minute and more a trip of opportunity than of deep forethought. Since I have the luxury/curse of all the time in the world right now as I’m in Redlands prepping for the next step, and since I had ready-made vacations to step into with great friends from the Peace Corps, I decided to capitalize on the opportunity to travel and I booked my tickets to Asia less than two weeks before I was to depart. Tonight, let’s talk about the basics of my trip.
WHERE DID I GO?
This trip was unusual for me given that most of the planning–where we would go and when–was not in my hands. Because of the last-minute nature of my trip, I found myself joining my friends in the planning process in medias res. However, I was very happy with the itinerary I ended up with, and I had a huge variety of experiences.
First up, I flew to Kuala Lumpur (leaving LAX the night of Jan. 5 and arriving the afternoon of Jan. 7. What?), meeting my friends and staying just a night before we headed to less urban climes (and recall that I spent three days in KL last year). We spent three nights in the Cameron Highlands, an area a few hours north of KL known for its jungles, tea plantations, and scones. Next was a return to Panang (another site from last year) for two nights of city, jungle, and beach, and then a night bus to KL.
On Jan. 14 we flew from KL to Padang, the capital of West Sumatra. We headed to tourist town Bukkittingi for two nights, made lots of fun Indonesia friends, and enjoyed activities like a day-long motorcycle trip to a lake. Next was the nearby Harau Valley for more jungle hiking and two nights of relaxing in our bungalow on a rice paddy. Finally we returned to Padang for an afternoon checking out the beach and an evening avoiding the touts.
On Jan. 19 I broke off from the first group of friends and spent a day traveling solo to meet another group on Gili Trawangan, one of three small islands between Bali and its neighbor, Lombok. We spent five nights in a lovely beach bungalow, then headed to Bali via the Horrifying Ferry Incident. We spent four nights in the cultural heart of the island, Ubud, and then headed to out-of-the-way Balangan beach on the southern peninsula of the island for our last two nights. Finally, one friend and I headed to Singapore for three final days of city living. On Feb 2. I flew home, Singapore – KL – Hong Kong – LA, and still managed to arrive on the same day I had left.
WHY THOSE PLACES/THAT ROUTE?
Logistics for this trip were slightly complicated by the fact that I was coordinating a four-leg trip with two different groups of travel buddies, so I ended up doing a big more moving around than might have been ideal.
But I was happy to hit all the places my friends had chosen: Since I had been to Malaysia before and had primarily stuck to the city and the beach, I was excited to get a different, more jungley perspective. My friends had chosen to visit West Sumatra based on convenience and only brief research, but it was a great, untouristy surprise. Bali was a place my friends and I had long talked of visiting, and ending the trip in urban Singapore after weeks of jungle and beach was a fun choice.
If I had to do it again and was mapping the itinerary myself, I might have skipped Malaysia in favor of spending more time in Sumatra and/or adding on a Java leg. I also might have done Bali a little differently: I’m not sure Gili T was worth going out of our way for, compared with other beaches on Bali itself or even the other Gili islands, and it might have been more convenient to hit the Bali locales in a different order. But overall, even if it wasn’t the exact trip I might have planned myself, sometimes it is nice to let others take the reigns and just go along for the ride. I gueeeesss…
HOW MUCH DID IT COST?
Southeast Asia can be a great budget destination, but once you start hitting cities or more touristy areas costs add up faster. Sumatra was one of the cheapest places I’ve traveled, on par with Laos or Cambodia (outside of Angkor Wat) or rural China. But the Bali area and Malaysia can be significantly more expensive, and it’s no surprise that Singapore prices aren’t much lower than prices in the US. Here’s an approximate rundown of average prices that we actually paid, converted into USD.
One bed in a 3-6 person budget room, per night:
- Malaysia: $8-11
- Sumatra: $4-7
- Bali (Gili T, Ubud, southern peninsula beach): $7-20
- Singapore: $20
One simple meal at a local or average restaurant, no drink:
- Malaysia: $2-3
- Sumatra: $2-3
- Bali: $2.50-5
- Singapore: $5-8
One small local beer (remembering that alcohol is taxed more heavily in Muslim countries like Malaysia and Indonesia than in other parts of Asia), bought at either a cheap local restaurant versus a nicer bar:
- Malaysia: $2.50/$4.50
- Sumatra: $2.50/$2.50
- Bali: $2.5/$3.5
- Singapore: $5/$9
An all-day group tour, per person:
- Malaysia (jungle trek and other sites with a large group): $28
- Sumatra (motorcycle trip with one driver-guide per person; strenuous jungle trek with 2 guides for 3 people): $18
- Bali (large-group guided biking trip including meals): $40
- Singapore (day-long ticket for a hop-on bus is the only example I’ve got for this one): $18
A 20-minute ride on public transportation versus a 20-minute ride in a taxi:
- Malaysia: $1/$7
- Sumatra: $1.50/$6
- Bali: n/a /$6
- Singapore: $1.50/$10
So, ups and downs. One could probably travel a little bit cheaper than we did, by staying in slightly grittier hostels and only eating street food, say, but I think these numbers are pretty average for typical budget travelers in these regions.
Best beach: Balangan, Bali (with the caveat of it being extremely pointy)
Best meal: A ridiculously fresh seafood feast on the beach in Jimbaran, Bali; a hawker center in Singapore for chili crab, stingray, and other dishes with local friend Sashen; a vegetarian Indian lunch in Singapore’s Little India; Malaysian noodles in Panang; the most amazing banana-chocolate-butter-cake dessert thing from carts in Sumatra…
Most overrated meal: Roast pig in Ubud, Bali
Most delicious weird beverage: Sugar cane juice with lemon in Singapore
Least delicious weird beverage: Celery smoothie in a new-age cafe in Ubud, Bali, served room-temperature
Flashiest place to party: Singapore
Trashiest place to party: Kuta, Bali
Worst transportation: The ferry from Gili T to Bali
Best transportation: When we started on the wrong bus from Penang and thought we were going to get to enjoy lie-flat seats and personal screens on our bus ride (unfortunately it didn’t work out)
Most-encountered nationalities of tourists, in descending order: Australian, Swedish, Canadian, Dutch, German, Russian, American
COMING UP NEXT
Run-downs of each of the four legs of the trip! Plus, answers to all the questions that have you hanging on tenterhooks, including what could be so Horrifying about a ferry ride and how a beach can be pointy. Stay tuned!