2016 March – Thailand/ Malaysia/ Singapore

Day 1 – Phuket: Coral Island

In the Spring of 2016, we took a flight from Houston and reached Phuket, Thailand 24+ hours and 2 flights later (Singapore Airlines, via Moscow). Worn out physically but not in spirit, we checked into the hotel and set off on our adventure(s) immediately after changing etc. The (pre-booked) tour guide picked us up from our location and drove us to the pier (1 hour drive) from where we took the boat to Coral Islands.

These are one of the closest islands to Phuket and the speedboat ride took us only about 40-45 minutes. The spectacular sight of the islands greeted us, exactly like we have seen numerous times in movies and pictures.…gorgeous turquoise waters, plenty touristy and all facilities available on the island. Luckily we had pre-booked the sea-walking tour (you can book it on the island itself as long as you are carrying cash on you), which was the absolute highlight of the trip! But unlike the US, they don’t tell you what’s going on and what’s expected of you. One minute we were on the boat, next they asked us to climb down the ladders on the side, thrust a heavy helmet on our heads and down to the bottom we went holding a cable running along. While the experience was absolutely mind-blowing, it was a bit unnerving for the first few minutes as we figured out whether to breathe or not, use our mouth or nose to breath, talk or not etc. … several feet under, on the sea bed. However, being with the several fishes up-close, touching them, feeding them, waddling amongst the corals more than made up for everything. Rest of the time was spent in snorkeling, frolicking on the beach before the ride back to the pier and then drive home!

What we couldn’t cover – Coral Island is the only one that offers Sea-walking in the Phuket area, but there are several other activities offered there too – Banana boat ride, Para-sailing etc. Due to lack of time (limited hours on the island), we skipped most of these and just enjoyed the snorkeling, swimming etc.

Day 2 – Phuket: Tiger Kingdom & Phang Nga Bay

This day was divided into two separate activities. In the morning we did the Tiger Kingdom while the afternoon/evening was devoted to the wondrous Phang Nga Bay.

AM: Our pre-booked car took us to Tiger Kingdom at 8:30 AM in morning (it opens at 9 AM and the lines can get long). Tigers are “available” in several different sizes there – very small, small, medium, large etc. The cost for taking pictures with them (you get to spend 10 minutes in the cage with them) depends on the sizes and availability. Photographers are available there that go with you in the cage and help you pose for the 50+ pictures they take. A wonderful experience indeed being that up-close to the tigers, with one question lurking on our minds – how can they NOT be drugged?
PM: Our tour guide picked us in the afternoon and drove us to jetty, a1-hour drive. The boat ride to the Phang Nga Bay was about 1.5 hours but time flew. The scenery around was beautiful; they served a sumptuous light lunch on the boat and narrated about the surroundings while we ate our fills and took pictures. This tour is run by an American outfit (John Gray Tours) and the difference showed – everything was explained in advance so we knew what was coming ahead in the day. The crew was super-nice and friendly, and helped us every bit along the way. We stopped at several different points in the bay, got into the canoes supplied by the crew along with a guide and explored the caves in the area – an absolute must-do if in that area!! The cave entrances can be so low that you have to sometimes lie down in the canoe to make it through. Insides of the caves are splendid – with oyster shells, bats along the ceilings and just a phenomenal view all across. Even when the sea got rough, the crew was unfazed and rowed us with all their mights into calmer waters inside the protected lagoons. We even got a chance to row the canoes ourselves and ended the evening with a nice swim in the Andaman Sea waters.
Dinner on the way back was even more scrumptious and super-healthy! All food is cooked on the boat and included in the price. We even got to make our own flower “Kratongs” with banana tree trunk, orchids and tons of creativity! We finished the tour after watching a spectacular sunset and then floating our creations in the last kayak trip of the night, in a spiritual and spectacular natural light show. Returned to the pier two hours after sunset and headed back to our residences.

What we couldn’t cover – There are several tours offered in the area and we could have done any of them, but this was highly recommended online and rightly so! No qualms about missing any of the other ones.

Day 3 – Phuket: Phi Phi Islands

On our last day in Phuket, we did an all-day tour of the Phi Phi Islands. Just like the other days, we were picked up by the tour people and driven to the pier. (In hindsight, we should have stayed close to the pier to begin with). Unfortunately this tour was one of the most “commercialized” one. We were herded into the boat at the pier (had to leave our shoes behind at the pier) and then the speedboat journey took us about an hour to get to the first island – Monkey Beach. Phi Phi Islands is a conglomerate of several small islands, each unique in one way or another. However, they are a popular resort and tend to get crowded very quickly. We couldn’t even get off at the Monkey Island to feed the monkeys as there were several boats already parked there. We had to satisfy ourselves taking pictures from the boat before we headed off to our next stop – for snorkeling. Even though we have snorkeled in Great Barrier Reef (Australia), Molokai (Hawaii) and our very own backyard (South Padre, Texas) – every place offers a completely different experience with the variety of fishes to see when you snorkel. Lunch was offered at the next sop at Phi Phi Lay Islands. Islands were now beginning to gel into each other as we hopped from one to the other. The Maya Island (where “The Beach” was shot) was quite spectacular, even despite to the crowds there!! But the icing on the cake came in the form of the last one Koi Khai Islands which was swarming with multiple varieties of fishes on the beach itself – no need to even snorkel, just walk in the water and they are all over you! Too bad most of these trips were rushed as we would have liked to spend more time on each of the islands…

What we couldn’t cover – Thailand offers so much to do and see – the beaches, the nature, the wildlife, and the food, the shopping…we had limited time there and could just cover the tip of the iceberg. Chiang Mai was a highly recommended place (beach-less though) and will definitely be on our agenda next time.

Day 4 – Kuala Lumpur: Elephant Sanctuary

The flight from Phuket to KL is just a little over an hour, but the KL airport itself is massive and takes a while to get out of. We were picked up from the airport itself by our pre-booked taxi that drove us two hours to the Gandah area, which is where the Elephant Sanctuary is. The key was to get there before 2 PM local time because that’s when the elephant activities (minor show, feeding of elephants, giving milk to the baby elephants etc.) take place. Luckily we made it there in time and after a quick lunch (included in your price), we were able to attend the parade and all corresponding shows. While most of it was a so-so experience, the best part was bathing the baby elephants in the river. Though not very clean, the river bathing was still a good experience and a lot of fun! Handed over our camera to one of the guides there who took lots of awesome pictures for us. A unique experience indeed!

On the drive back, we stopped at Deerland Park not too far from there – nothing much to boast about. A few animals here and there – however, we did get a chance to feed the ostrich and other animals from our hands, and even got to put a HUGE Burmese python around our necks. Later at night we just checked into the hotel (Shangri-la is an experience in itself and quite reasonably priced compared to the rest of the world). Most of the evening was spent roaming around in the famous (read humongous) malls there in the Pavilion area. The food courts themselves are an item in themselves with the variety of foods they offer. Ended the day with hanging around at the Petronas Towers – second tallest buildings in the world as of 2016.

What we couldn’t cover – Would have preferred to do the Elephant ride in Thailand, as they let you ride the elephants – the government in Malaysia has banned riding.

Day 5 – Kuala Lumpur: Batu Caves / Singapore: Boat Ride

Batu Caves had been highly recommended as a must-see in that area by everyone, however, from our perspective it was meh! The 272 steps up to the temple can really tire you out; the Hindu Lord statue is magnificent though. Several monkeys run around there – mostly safe to be around (although one crazy one did bite my daughter!). There is a tour available for the pond/restaurant there but we didn’t do that – didn’t sound very appealing to us.

Thereafter, we hung around in the malls for some more time and even got a chance to go to the Fish Spa. Although it is supposed to be therapeutic for the feet, those little devils nibbling at your feet does present you with a rather weird sensation. Good one-time experience though. Later in the afternoon, we took a flight to Singapore.

After a short 50 minute flight, we landed at the Chang Airport – no wonder it is considered the most beautiful airport in the world…there is just so much to do at the airport itself with the Butterfly Garden, Lakes/fountains. free movie theaters, free massage chairs etc. We checked into the hotel after a short taxi ride and them immediately set off on our adventures. Since the hotel was right in the marina Bay area, we did not have to go too far for the water/river rides. After having a sumptuous dinner at Gluttons Bay (all kinds of food is available in a food market there ranging from Chinese to Malaysian to Indian to Taiwanese etc. at a very reasonable price), we tool the 45-minute round trip boat ride in the river. A nicely narrated tour, it shows you the key spots like Clark Quay, Boat Quay while explaining the history at the same time in a fabulous video commentary that plays in a very time-coordinated fashion along with the appearance of the various landmarks. The walk back to the hotel was a bit exhausting – jet lag was finally beginning to catch up with us!

What we couldn’t cover – There were several other activities offered in the KL, Malaysia area that we skipped because of lack of time. There is supposed to be a wonderful Fireflies tour that takes place late at night, about an hour away from the city. On the way to the tour is a place where you can hang out with silverback monkeys, a species unique to the area.

Day 6 – Singapore: Sentosa Island & Gardens By the Bay

While Malaysia is the haven for shopping, we really didn’t get a chance to spend that kind of time in KL. So we embarked on our shopping adventure in Singapore. Orchard Road is the most famous shopping area, but the malls there are every expensive – full of high-end stores, and architecturally very interesting too. Luckily the weather cooperated otherwise it can get really hot there. Our next stop was the famous Mustafa department store in the Little India area – that mall is a marvel in itself! The two large department stores are combined under one roof and everything under the sun us available under one roof, at very reasonable prices! One can spend the whole day there but we got out after a couple of hours and went to the rooftop for a fabulous Indian meal.

Singapore’s biggest attraction is the Sentosa Islands just across the Bay. However, with Universal Studios, Dolphin Encounter, Shark Encounter etc. on that island – it is easily a full-day activity. We took the short cut and just got on a round trip cable car that took us over the city, over the bay, over the island and back to our embarkation point. Although very expensive (about $25/person for the 45-minute ride), it did give us an abbreviated tour of the major highlights from afar. That was good enough for us.

The highlight of the day was the Gardens by the Bay next to Marina Hotel. It’s best to start the tour at the hotel as there is a walkway that takes you from the hotel to the gardens. There is amazing flora and fauna as you walk along the pathways to the garden – organized in several pockets like Chinese medicinal, Indian specialties etc. However, the best part of the gardens is the two domes (each about $25/person) – the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. Full of specialty plants inside, it is fun to leisurely meander through the plants and shrubs from all parts of the world being grown in their tailored climactic conditions. The Cloud Forest offers even more exotic plants in supercilious surroundings with cascading man-made waterfalls, walkway through the clouds, rock garden and all kinds of fabulous items along the way.

The icing on the cake was the Light and Sound show at the Supertree Grove – a free show where several wonderfully lit humongous trees seem to be dancing to the music being played from all around, with the fine Marina Hotel looming large in the background. A must-do!!

Our flight was late late at night so we got to spend a couple of hours at the airport too!

What we couldn’t cover – There are several other things to do in Singapore, it’s a wonder how such a small island has packed so much in it! We had plans of taking the ferry to neighboring Indonesia (Bintan Islands) but dropped the idea and preferred to go shopping instead. Night Safari was another attraction that was touted heavily in the ads but our friends recommended against it (unless you have really little kids).

5 Favorite things about the trip:

  1. Phuket: Sea Walking, Coral Islands
  2. Phuket: Tiger Kingdom
  3. Phuket: Snorkeling in many of the splendid beaches
  4. Malaysia: Elephant Sanctuary
  5. Singapore: Gardens by the Bay

Some Don’ts or Recommendations:

  • Not all places take Credit Cards. Ensure you have enough local currency in the area. ATMs are not easily available – some don’t work, and some have a limit on the amount of cash you can withdraw.
  • While Phuket is the widely known place, Chiang Mayi is supposed to be the gorgeous one. After we got back, we saw pictures and already have plans to include it in the next trip.
  • While Phuket was absolutely gorgeous, have heard great things about staying in Krabi instead.

  • Our tours were organized by JC Tours – for the most part they are very good, very courteous, reasonably priced and very flexible in their itineraries etc.
  • Make sure that you but the extra package for the professionals taking pictures of your activities so you can concentrate on the sight-seeing e.g. for Sea Walking, Tiger Kingdom etc.
  • If you don’t have a camera that is waterproof, buy the waterproof case for your phone (easily available in all stores before you get on the boats) – it saved the day for us in the water as we were able to take the phone/camera anywhere with us.
  • Most tours in the Phuket area have become very commercialized and get very crowded. There are several tour companies that offer early early tours – while you pay a bit extra, you have the option of reaching the touristy spots before anyone else and getting out of there before throngs of people arrive.
  • Be careful how you dress in Malaysia, it is recommended for women not to wear shorts or to expose their shoulders etc. There are even signs pointing that out in places.

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