It has been almost two weeks since I have returned home from Southeast Asia. That means plenty of time to get settled back into the daily routine, and to recapitulate what I had seen, heard, smelled and, in general, experienced on my trip from the Candi of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to the big fat Indian wedding in Penang, Malaysia.
Suggested song: Mission Accomplished by Dario Russo
Let’s recap the vacation in a debriefing, then. What did I like; how was transport and accommodation; what’s worth seeing; how did the equipment hold up? Well, I’m going to tell you.
What I liked (aside from the sights)
The people. Indonesians are so docile and unobtrusive that it is hard to dislike them. Sure, they are certainly not the inventors of efficiency or reliable service, but
I was on a vacation here, not trying to run a just-in-time manufacturing business specialising in high-precision watch components. Malaysians, too, were enjoyable people, also largely non-pushy but more organised than the people in Indonesia.
Riding a scooter in Southeast Asia. Flitting about on a little motorbike provides you with a considerable amount of freedom, something neither guided tours nor relying on public transportation (if existent) can give you. Riding in Malaysia is straight-forward, with other motorists being very disciplined and orderly. Even the helter-skelter of Javanese traffic was always an aggressionless, good-natured affair. So, get yourself a scooter and roam around.
My KL Airbnb experience. Mahesh, my Airbnb host in Kuala Lumpur is a marvellous man. His wife, Pramada, whom I did not get to meet, unfortunately, as she was out of town during my stay, was incredibly nice and helpful in getting myself sorted out with using Airbnb booking. I am very much tempted to visit KL again, just to see them. Yes, my stay there was that good.
Exploring with friends. Mostly, I travel by myself. It gives me freedom and a bit of ‘me, myself, and I’-time, to use a very good friend’s signature phrase. However, being able to share a vacation and its experiences with somebody that you hold dear gives travel a dimension that adds depth to experiences. Sure, sometimes your co-travellers can be a bit irksome and the stress of travel can lead to awkward moments and strange conversations. But that just adds to the experience and makes you discover things about yourself and your friends that are sometimes revelatory, sometimes exciting, and that sometimes give you new perspectives and a deeper understanding.
Qatar Airways won the Skytrax Best Airline Award in 2015 and is consistently at the top of this and similar rankings. Even in coach, cabin crew service was excellent, and if you can stomach airline food at all, Qatar has a solid oeuvre. On this trip, I flew on brand new airliners, quiet and efficient Boeing 787s and Airbus 350s. Short layovers of only two hours at Doha meant reasonably short total flight durations, made possible by Qatar’s strict adherence to schedules. Given all this, the price of roundabout 650 Euros, while not a real steal, is on the quite-inexpensive-side of right!
AirAsia is a another Skytrax-winning airline, having won the award for best budget provider a record-setting eight times in a row. and while it has the the limitations of any inexpensive airline, that is, limited leg room and everything from check-in luggage to in-flight meals being charged extra, the charges for better seats and a bite to eat are quite reasonable. So, for 50 Euros or so, you can get anywhere in Southeast Asia by jetplane! Neat, I’d say. This does enable you to see quite a variety of places in a very short time. So, go AirAsia!
Domestic transportation (Indonesia):
Yogyakarta-Jakarta executive train service
Being towed around the countryside by a diesel-powered locomotive has its particular charms: you get to see the countryside, enjoy a bit of downtime and save yourself the trouble of airport security checks. The trip form Yogyakarta to Jakarta was reasonably cheap (around 30 Euros) and comfortable. Mind you, the onboard coffee was abysmal, but you get to see a bit of Indonesia rushing by outside the windows. The coaches were modern, well-climatized and had enough comfort to spent a couple of hours in. Additionally, this being the great plus for train travel in my book, you get dropped off in the middle of town and don’t have to worry about airport transfer. You just step out of the train station and find yourself either directly where you want to be or, at least, only a short bus ride away.
Domestic transportation (Malaysia):
Kuala Lumpur-Tanah Rata executive bus service, Tanah Rata-Penang executive bus service
Just like train travel in Indonesia, executive bus service on the Malay peninsula is a comfortable affair. Bus terminals are reasonably well-located, the coaches are modern and offer reclining seats, and the smooth Malaysian highways make the ride decidedly un-bumpy. So, even if your destination is not connected by any airport, you still get there in comfort. Prices are also adequate for any travel budget, at about 7 Euros for Kuala Lumpur-Tanah Rata service I used.
Getting around in Kuala Lumpur:
Well, use Uber. No haggling! All the drivers I have met were educated and polite, the cars well maintained, and you get to go wherever you want while having a pleasant chat, if you so desire.
August 8 – August 12, 2016
Stepping off the airplane after seemingly endless hours in planes and airport terminals, the small airport at Yogyakarta put me in instant vacation mode. International arrivals at Adisucipto International Airport is located in terminal two, while the ATMs, which turn you into an instant millionaire (the exchange rate in August 2016 was roughly 14,000 rupees to the euro), reside right next to domestic arrivals in terminal one. Stroll over leisurely to terminal one, don’t be deterred by busy but unobtrusive cab drivers, and peruse the teller machines. Right next to them is the cab office, where you can get a voucher for a trip downtown that will set you back 80,000 rupees, a fixed rate. A leisurely 20 minutes later, you’ll be in downtown Yogyakarta.
The 3-star Hotel Rengganis is a pretty standard affair, a bit worn, almost centrally located and reasonably priced. You get breakfast, and if you remind the reception a couple of times, they will organise a cab to the airport for you and set you up with a scooter at a reasonable 75,000 rupees per day. Just around the corner, you will also find a nice little café that has excellent coffee and ice cream.
It’s an easy walk from the hotel to the Kraton and the Taman Sari water palace. So, a day of exploring on foot, taking in Malioboro road and the former seats of power in Yogyakarta eases you into sightseeing mode quickly. Armed with a scooter, the Candi on the east side of Yogyakarta, including the imposing Candi Prambanan, lets you spend another day, as does a visit to Borobudur, thirtysome kilometres northwest.There’s quite a few more places to discover, more Candi and natural sights, however, time was short.
August 12 – August 14, 2016
Gambir Train Station is located right next to the National Monument in the center of Jakarta. When you get to the there, just walking out of the station gives you easy access to central Jakarta’s surprisingly good public transportation network. 40,000 rupees buys you a topped-up bus pass – at any bus stop – that should last you through your stay. The guest house is located a couple of steps from the Harmoni bus stop, down a side alley. The staff is polite and competent and the room well-furnished and air-conditioned. As a big plus, the location is also right in the middle of Oud Batavia, the old kernel of Jakarta, and the sights around the National Monument, that is, perfect for exploring the city on foot.
Jakarta can be explored in a day if you are short on time. I headed north to explore the old town, which is nice enough, and the marina, which is skippable. To the south you can see the splendours of Indonesian independence, the National Mosque and Museum and cap it all of with a rooftop view from the Skye Bar at the BCA tower.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
August 14 – August 18, 2016
Kuala Lumpur International Airport is a massive transport hub and is well connected to downtown. I took the KLIAekspress train to Bandar Tasik Selatan and Uber’ed my way to my Airbnb, without a hitch. Alternatively, grab a Uber or a a Grab car right at the airport, it won’t break the bank. Just remember to install the app and get a local SIM card at the airport, the shops are ubiquitous. The Airbnb experience was marvellous!
KL is a large city! Its piece de resistance are the Petronas Twin Towers. Beware, though: if your stay in KL is short, take care to reserve tickets ahead of time via their website, as admission is limited (or be there early at 8:30 to get a ticket). In case you mess that up, the KL Meara TV Tower is also quite tall, with the added bonuses of not being overrun by tourists and giving you a view of the cityscape that includes the Twin Towers. The city itself is quite sprawling, which means terrible rush hour traffic, so budget your time accordingly. There are quite a few things to see aside from the towers: the world’s largest walk-in free-flight aviary, the modernist National Mosque, Chinatown, the KLCC park, and shopping malls galore. If you are fed up with heat and humidity, you can troll the central part of KL using covered and underground walkways that are air conditioned… if that’s your thing.
Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
August 18 – August 20, 2016
Tanah Rata is a small hill station in the Malaysian mountains. That means a cooler climate and a bus ride on twisty but well-maintained roads. There is a regular bus service from KL and Penang, at around 4 hours either way. The town is small, everything is easily reachable on foot from the bus terminal, including the hotel and the scooter rental. The Century Pines resort was a bit swanky for my usual tastes, however, who am I to complain? The room was nice, after all.
To explore the highlands, you have a couple of options. You could hike – if you are so inclined… I was not. You could book a day-tour in a Land Rover, which was not my thing either. Or you could rent a scooter and browse about. Which is what I did. Go see the tea plantations, the odd waterfall, and enjoy yourself!
August 20 – August 22, 2016
Another bus ride, from Tanah Rata to Penang, that was as enjoyable as the one from KL. You get dropped off on the island, which is neat if you are in Penang to see beautiful (or so I’ve heard) Georgetown. Well, I was not. I was there to see a very good friend on his way to get married. Thus, I stayed on the mainland, which is largely the commercial rather than the touristic part of town. The Iconic corporation has erected a a brand new party-oriented area, called Iconic city, which is anchored by their hotel. Another swanky affair, air-conditioned and with an attentive staff. Uber rides are hard to get on the mainland, so prepare to haggle with cabbies when going out beyond the confines of Iconic city.
Well, I was not there for sightseeing, but for a big, fat Indian wedding. Which was great fun! But I’ve heard that Penang is a great place to see and to have local food. I will be back.
August 22, 2016
Changi Airport Terminals
A half-day layover at Singapore gives you enough time to explore that city; a bit of it anyway. The airport provides luggage lock-up so you don’t have to lug all of your stuff around, and in super-efficient Singapore, getting from the airport to the downtown areas is a quick affair using the metro.
For half a day, go see the Merlion, have food in Chinatown, chill on Sentosa and cap it off with the original Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel.
The backpack: Mil-Tec US Assault Pack Large
At 30 Euros, this 36L backpack was a very good and sturdy choice. It has the right dimensions to fit within the carry-on luggage dimensions, yet at the same time gives you enough room to fit pretty much everything you need for a trip such as the Malay Mission. I do highly recommend it.
The daypack: Crumpler Squid drawstring backpack
It’s Crumpler. That means, the construction is sturdy and holds up well. When travelling, I attach it to my backpack using two Elliot carabiners when full or just roll it up and stuff it into the backpack. Ideal for carrying your water around town.
The jacket: Old, shortened mil-spec Bundeswehr field-blouse
While entirely unneeded for most of the trip, it was compact and easy to transport by tying it to the utility loops on the backpack. It was hugely appreciated by me while riding a scooter in the highlands, providing a bit of warmth.
The pants: German mil-spec cotton twill pants
The old Bundeswehr pants, nearly indestructible. A bit on the hot side for Indonesia, they were perfect for the highlands. However, H&M in Kuala Lumpur provided me with a pair of lighter linen pants at a reasonable price to complement the twill pants.
The shorts: Generic cargo shorts
Rip-stop nylon cargo shorts… what else is there to say.
The boots: US Desert Combat Boots
Easy to lace up, sturdy and light. Oh, and with all that mil-spec equipment, reasonably cheap. The boots were great in the hot climate, however, an investment that I should have made: better insoles. The ones that came with the boots suck.
The shoes: Tom’s espadrilles and a pair of flip flops
Light and appropriate for the climate, the Tom’s provide semi-formality when paired with linen pants and a clean shirt, entirely necessary for the wedding reception. And flip flops… well, it’s a vacation, isn’t it?
Layers: Shirts and shorts
Enough shirts and underpants to last a week is plenty… however, schedule a laundry day, otherwise you’ll smell a bit iffy and your social interactions might suffer as a consequence. And that would be a bummer, wouldn’t it? The same goes for the two pairs of boot socks that I packed.
Useful: Mosquito spray, swim trunks, sun screen, travel towel, baseball hat, USB power pack
Nice to have brought: Gym shoes and clothes, Kindle
Dead weight: Pop-up mosquito net
So, that is it then. Malay Mission accomplished. New adventures are in the making. Stay tuned!