Destination: Thailand and Malaysia – capital cities, islands and rainforest.
Itinerary: Kuala Lumpur (3 nights) – Bangkok (2 nights) – overnight train – Koh Samui (3 nights) – Surat Thani (1 night) – Khao Sok National Park (2 nights) – Hat Yai (1 night) – Georgetown, Penang (1 night) – overnight train – Kuala Lumpur (1 night).
Duration: 16 days
Accommodation standard: Everything from budget to luxury.
Thailand and Malaysia are justifiably popular honeymoon choices – with some of the worlds greatest food, beautiful, varied landscapes, and easy to travel around, they remain undeniably exotic, but accessibly so. This itinerary is a great way to take in both countries – we did it in just over two weeks, but you could easily spend all that time focussing on one country – in Thailand, you might just want to spend a couple of days in Bangkok and then the rest of your time on an island, while in Malaysia you may want to tack on time on one of the islands like Langkawi or Tioman, or spend more time exploring the peninsula.
Budget airlines – notably Air Asia – make exploring especially cheap and easy, but don’t entirely overlook traveling overland. The overnight train journey from Bangkok to Surat Thani was one of the highlights of the trip for us.
Kuala Lumpur makes a great entry point for southeast Asia – though if you’re flying from the UK, it’s worth noting that only Malaysia Airlines fly direct, so for more options you may think about starting in Bangkok, or in Singapore. Though it’s not quite as sanitised as Singapore, KL is a relatively easy introduction to the region – the thing you’re likely to struggle with most is the heat. A huge highlight of heading to KL is the absolutely fantastic food – my favourites include the nightmarket on Jalan Alor (just up from the Bukit Bintang – KL’s major shopping street) and the fabulous banana leaf curries at Sri Nirwana in Bangsar – and though there’s not a huge amount of sights, there’s enough to divert you for a few of days (not least the famous Petronas Towers and exploring Chinatown and Little India). We stayed in the Ritz-Carlton, which was a great experience, though if I hadn’t gotten the accommodation through my work at the time I would have opted for somewhere smaller and locally-run like Anggun.
From KL, we flew up to Bangkok on Air Asia – a nice, short (and cheap) flight – to begin the Thai leg of our trip. Bangkok is absolutely sprawling – I always like to explore cities on foot, and we found that though we could do some walking here, we did have to use a lot of public transport to see much of the city. One of the most important things when visiting Bangkok is choosing carefully where to stay – we opted to stay in Banglamphu, a few streets away from the travellers’ ghetto of the infamous Khao San Road, and though it was well-placed for visiting the beautiful Grand Palace, we found it a little awkward for getting downtown (often requiring us to travel by boat – great fun – and then by Skytrain, or by cab/bus and then Skytrain), and a bit too full of other tourists. That said, our little budget hotel – New Siam II – was a fantastic bargain, and tucked-away enough to feel secluded – and was in walking distance of the beautiful Grand Palace and nearby Wat Pho (see picture, above).
On our first day in Bangkok, we headed to the main train station – Hua Lamphong – to book tickets on the sleeper service to Surat Thani, the jumping off point for the island of Koh Samui. I’d recommend doing this as early as possible so that you can get the berths you want – we were lucky enough to still get sleeper seats (which convert into beds), but we were situated across the aisle from each other. Though the nature of a night train obviously means that you miss out on seeing the scenery, it’s a fabulous experience – we loved having people get on at stations to hawk various tasty snacks, and sitting late at night in the dining car eating a ridiculously cheap dinner and drinking cold beer was a real highlight. You can, of course, also fly directly to Koh Samui and many other Thai islands, but if you’ve got the time to spare, this is a lot more fun. Once we reached Surat Thani, we bought tickets for the ferry connection, and jumped on a bus (included in the price) that took us to the ferry port, from where it was a relatively short trip to the island – one word of warning though, do make sure what port you are going to as we ended up at a different one to the one our hotel pick-up was waiting at.
Koh Samui is one of Thailand’s most developed islands, which won’t appeal to everyone, but by choosing your accommodation wisely it’s easy to find a secluded, special spot. We were very fortunate to stay at Six Senses Samui through my job at the time which was an amazing experience, with a pool villa perched on the hillside overlooking the water. It was an isolated spot, however, which was great in some respects, but it did mean we had to work harder to reach a more local side of the island – though it was worth it, and we managed to track down some fabulous local food. If you don’t want to be so isolated, I’d recommend looking at somewhere like akyra Chura Samui which is at the quieter end of Chaweng Beach, in easy reach of loads of places to eat and drink.
After Koh Samui, we headed back to Surat Thani, where we had to spend an unscheduled night after not factoring enough time into getting to our next destination. Surat doesn’t have a great deal to recommend itself, other than being a major transport hub and having a great nightmarket, and its hotels aren’t worthy of a stopover (ours was literally a fleapit), so I’d recommend planning a bit to make sure you can avoid staying there. The next day, we headed up by public bus (though minibuses are also an option) to Khao Sok National Park – a gorgeous stretch of jungle north of Surat Thani. Here, we stayed at Art’s Riverview Jungle Lodge, where we had a really atmospheric tree house (though I’d recommend being wary of the monkeys, no matter how cute they are!). One of the highlights of a visit to Khao Sok is a stay at the Cheow Lan Lake rafthouses, which unfortunately we didn’t have time for – instead, we spent a very enjoyable afternoon canoeing down the Sok River with a guide, having various insects (blue furry caterpillars and swimming spiders, anyone?) and animals pointed out to us, and the following day we went on a self-guided walk through the jungle, which was quite an adventure (rope bridges covered in red ants were a little too Indiana Jones for my liking…). After a few days at the beach, being in the middle of the jungle was a fabulous change, and a great experience.
After Khao Sok, we hopped on a public bus back to Surat Thani, where we changed to another bus to Hat Yai – after the bus was severely delayed, we ended up having to spend an unscheduled night in Hat Yai; it’s worth being aware, especially if you’re pushed for time, that traveling by public transport can be fun but unpredictable, so it’s always good to have a day or two spare just in case you get stuck somewhere. I should point out here that there is ongoing violence in the deep south of Southern Thailand, and Western governments advise not to travel through the provinces of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, which includes Hat Yai – a major transport hub (for buses and trains). The recommended way to travel is via Satun – check guidebooks for up-to-date information – but time constraints for us meant that we had no choice but to go through the town (and the region), though fortunately we encountered no problems. Hat Yai for us was another stop much like Surat Thani – notable only really for its nightmarket. We had wanted to travel into Malaysia by train, but as they were all booked up, and so we joined a rather cramped minibus, which took us over the border, and then onto the island of Penang in Malaysia.
Many people head to Penang for its beaches, but they’re not amazing compared to those elsewhere, and certainly far from the best that Malaysia has to offer. I’ve always loved Penang for Georgetown, its major city, with a fascinating mix of old colonial buildings, decrepit Chinese shophouses, and – yet again – absolutely amazing food. On previous visits to the city, I’d dreamt about staying at the Eastern & Oriental, a grand old colonial relic, and so when we arrived in the city we tried our luck to see if we could get a last-minute bargain – and, fortunately, we did (it cost us around £70 for a huge strait-view suite). This is a really beautiful hotel, and relatively cheap by Western standards, and well-worth a stay at, if only to evoke a sense of what the city was like during the time of Somerset Maugham and his contemporaries.
After just one night (and a full day) in Penang, we took the overnight train back to Kuala Lumpur – I’d recommend allowing at least another day to explore the island if possible. When we pulled into KL Sentral Station in the wee hours of the morning, we decided to stay at the adjoining Le Meridien – which wasn’t amazing, but was well placed for having to get up early the next day to get to the airport.
This was a fabulous trip – it was fairly non-stop, which won’t suit everyone, but we felt like we saw a decent amount of each country, and had some amazing experiences. To save time, you could do a few more of the journeys by plane, but traveling overland is a great way to get a better sense of a country and, of course, enables you to meet local people. Probably the biggest highlight of this trip for us was the food – both countries are culinary destinations in their own right, and whether you’re eating at fancy restaurants or basic street stalls, you won’t fail to be excited by what’s on offer.
Need to know:
When to go: Generally speaking, the best time to visit Malaysia’s west coast is between November and February, when the weather is warm and dry; December to May is generally best for Thailand’s Gulf Coast. We visited at the end of May/early June, which meant we had some blisteringly hot weather (though, to be fair, that’s pretty standard throughout the year), and a few short but heavy downpours, though that didn’t hamper our enjoyment.
Costs: Both countries are very cheap to travel around – even just £10 a night (aside from in the major cities) will usually get you a decent room.