Laos + Malaysia + Thailand + Singapore: a family itinerary

This is how a 14-day backpacking trip with kids to 8 Southeast Asian cities looks like

Let’s go fly away


Planning a 14-day backpacking trip with the family can be tricky. It’s not just about deciding where to go and how much time to spend in each place. The toughest part? Timing your transportation plans and booking them ahead of time. Here’s a quick look at our two-week itinerary that covered four countries (Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore) and eight cities (Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, Malacca, Johor Bahru and Singapore):

Street food kiosks just across Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in KL

Day 1
Journey Begins

Cebu to Kuala Lumpur
3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)

KLIA2 to KL Sentral
7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m.
(Private car)

KL city tour
Check out Petronas Towers at night

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda)
110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan

Inside the beautifully curated Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Day 2
Kuala Lumpur Stop

(Story here)

Explore Kuala Lumpur
Hop on Go KL City Bus
Walk along KL’s tourism belt
Visit Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral

Wattay International Airport in Vientiane

Day 3
Start of Laos Leg
Vientiane and Vang Vieng

(Click here: Why Laos)

Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane
7:25 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)

Vientiane to Vang Vieng
12:40 p.m. to 4:20 (Private van)

Explore Vang Vieng
Walk around neighborhood
Watch Karst Mountains at Nam Song River

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse (Agoda)
Sengsavang, Viengkeo

Vang Vieng’s magnificent karst mountain range along the Nam Song River

Day 4
Vang Vieng

Explore Vang Vieng
Climb Tham Chang Cave
Caving and bathing at Tham Phu Kham Blue Lagoon

Overnight Vang Vieng
Abby Boutique Guesthouse

Monks bathing at Tham Phu Kham Blue Lagoon

Day 5
Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
(Private van)

Explore Luang Prabang
Sightseeing by bike
Night market

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang (Agoda)
Old Bridge, Nam Khan River

Scenery going to Luang Prabang

Day 6
Tour Luang Prabang

Explore Luang Prabang
Temple and museum hopping
Climbing Mount Phou Si
Mekong River cruise

Overnight Luang Prabang
Villa Ban Phanluang

Taking a dip at the lovely pools near Kuang Si Waterfalls

Day 7
Luang Prabang

Explore Luang Prabang
Witness Alms Giving Ceremony
Elephant bathing
Bathing in Kuang Si Waterfalls

Overnight Luang Prabang

Morning alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang

Day 8
Luang Prabang

Explore Luang Prabang
Walk around neighborhood

Luang Prabang to Bangkok
4:45 p.m. to 6:05 p.m.
(AirAsia)

Overnight Bangkok
(Airbnb)

The Luang Prabang International Airport has direct flights Bangkok

Day 9
Bangkok Leg

Explore Bangkok
Temple hopping
Chatuchak Market on a weekday
Ferry ride on Chao Phraya River

Overnight Bangkok
(Airbnb)

On board an old but clean bus in Bangkok

Day 10
Start of Malaysia Leg

Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur
10 a.m. to 1:10 p.m.
(AirAsia)

KLIA2 to Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal
1:20 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. (KTB Citiliner Bus)

Explore Melaka at night
St. Paul’s Church and Cemetery
Christ Church Melaka

Overnight Melaka
(Airbnb)

Must-see Malacca River

Day 11
Melaka

Explore Melaka
Malacca River Quayside Square
Jonker Walk

Melaka Sentral to JB Sentral Bus Terminal
3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Bus)

JB Sentral to Bandar Medini
7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. (Taxicab)

Overnight Johor Bahru
Afiniti Residences (Airbnb)
Bandar Medini
(Airbnb)

Melaka Sentral Bus Terminal

Day 12
Johor Bahru

Whole day in Legoland Malaysia

Overnight Johor Bahru
Afiniti Residences

Five happy kids at Legoland Malaysia in Bandar Medini Iskandar

Day 13
Singapore Leg

Mall of Medini to JB Sentral
7:20 a.m. to 8 a.m. (Causeway Link Bus)

Explore Singapore
Gardens by the Bay
Marina Bay

Overnight Singapore
Champion Hotel (Agoda)
60 Joo Chiat Road, East Coast

Late afternoon at the Marina Bay: when the 14-day trip is about to end

Day 14
Singapore

Singapore to Cebu
8:20 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. (TigerAir)

Home!

(Keep posted for more itineraries and stories of this two-week, four country backpacking journey with the family…)

Bird feeding in Bangkok: there’s quite a story here…

Side (food) trip in Kuala Lumpur

Gateway Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is our favorite gateway to neighboring Southeast Asian countries, especially those in Indochinese Peninsula. This time, we were bound for land-locked Laos.

This meant we had to stay one night in KL, something the family always looked forward to, for a number of reasons. Food and familiarity, are just two of them.

Upon our arrival in Malaysia’s capital, my fraternity brother Marlowe Aragon fetched us at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, and brought us at our hotel in Little India.

“Tito” Marlowe (a.k.a. James Bond 007) met us at the KLIA2, then gave us a cool night tour of the city
At a tandoori place with good, spicy food and warm staff in Little India
At the magnificent Petronas Towers at night. Thanks Tito Marlowe for the pic!

After a heavy dinner at a tandoori place nearby, he gave us a quick tour in the city with a mesmerizing close up view of the Petronas Towers at night.

Marlowe, a consultant who shuttles by car between Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, then dropped us at the hotel . He told us to just give him a buzz when we arrive in Bangkok a week from now as he might be there (he was).

We always look forward to having breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, and so the following day we had one at a roti and tea place just outside the hotel in Little India. We took our time on the sidewalk to relish our food.

Roti and tea breakfast at Little India

We then went around Kuala Lumpur, hopping on a Go KL City Bus that offered free rides to check out the Islamic Arts Museum, which is considered the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

We also passed by the Muzium Negara and National Space Agency compound along the way.

Free ride on board the Go KL City Bus on our way to check out Muzium Negara

The Islamic Arts Museum, though, was on a league of its own as it housed an impressive and extensive collection of artifacts from the region, such as sacred thrones and books, as well as traditional armor and weaponry including those from the Southern Philippines, and detailed scale models of mosques from around the world.

The Islamic Arts Museum hosts the largest collection of Islamic art in Southeast Asia

There was a fun activity center for children at the Islamic Arts Museum, but our kids actually enjoyed the main museum that we stayed there longer than expected. We even went back after having lunch at a hawker area just right across the museum.

We returned to the hotel on foot through the labyrinthine streets of the KL Sentral area. We had dinner at another hawker place that served Chinese-style dishes like chicken rice and roast pork rice just on the edge of Little India.

Dinner at a hawker place just outside of Little India

Getting to bed early was in order as we would be leaving for Vientiane tomorrow morning. The bus at the KL Sentral Station was slated to leave at 5 a.m. It did. On the dot.

Our Kuala Lumpur Itinerary

Day 1
Gateway: Malaysia

Cebu to Kuala Lumpur
3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)

KLIA2 to KL Sentral
7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m.
(Private car)

KL city tour
Check out Petronas Towers at night

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda)
110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan

Day 2
Kuala Lumpur Stop

Explore Kuala Lumpur
Hop on Go KL City Bus
Walk along KL’s tourism belt
Visit Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Overnight Kuala Lumpur
Easy Hotel KL Sentral

Day 3
Bye, KL, for now

Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane
7:25 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)

(Check out the full 14-day itinerary here)

Green Kuala Lumpur

Tagaktak thoughts in Kota Kinabalu

Sabah after the quake

THE delicacy that the Badjau girl prepared for guests at the cultural village in Kota Kinabalu looked familiar.

“Tagaktak!”someone from our group exclaimed.

We watched in wonder as the tuft of thin noodle-like strands made from sticky rice, sugar and coconut milk turned golden brown in the pan. Another Badjau girl readied another batch: she pours the batter through a perforated bowl contraption over the pan. There was no doubt what the deep-fried triangular fritters were.

I looked at the snack with a sense of bemusement. The tagaktak is as Mandauehanon as delicacies can get. But here it was, a thousand kilometers away from my hometown, being deep fried with a local’s expert hands then carefully placed on banana leaves for us tourists to enjoy.

So the obvious had to be asked: Is this a Badjau delicacy? The two Badjau girls nodded. And in these parts, they call it “ kuih jala.”

Want some “tapai”? This fermented rice wine is served during rites and ceremonies in Sabah, particularly among the Kadazan-Dusun.

We took a few bites – yes, just like our good old tagaktak back home – before proceeding to the other demo areas and tribal huts at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. We got samplings of rice wine, honey and a complete meal cooked in bamboo (sounds familiar?), as well as participate in local customs such as shooting blow darts, getting (henna) tattoos, and partaking in a communal sport on a makeshift trampoline inside a hut.

The half day inside Mari Mari – “mari” means “come” in Bahasa – was quite an experience, far from the hackneyed tours one might associate with “cultural villages.”

Beehive in a Rungus home
Called the longhouse, this traditional structure of the Rungus, the fourth biggest tribe in Sabah, can host up to a dozen families. The word Rungus comes from Tomborungus, the son of Aki Ragang who, according to legend, lives on top of Mount Kinabalu.

For one, the Mari Mari village serves as an interactive outdoor museum that seeks to preserve Sabah’s culture and tradition by gathering five ethnic tribes – the Murut, Rungus, Lundayeh, Kadazan-Dusun and the Badjau – in one area, a forested terrain where a river runs through.

Hanging bridge over a river at the Mari Mari Cultural Village

The Kadazan-Dusuns, we learned during the visit, is the biggest ethnic tribe in this melting pot called Sabah, followed by the Badjaus. And the latter happen to be connected with the Badjaos in the Philippines.

Sabah, with a population of 3,117,000, has 450,000 Badjaus, many of whom migrated from Sulu in Mindanao due to armed conflict. And therein lies the irony: the Badjau in Sabah seem accepted in the community, if not more prosperous, than their marginalized counterparts in the Philippines.

A colorful traditional Badjau home in Sabah

A recreation of their dwellings in Mari Mari shows an interior of colorful and intricate designs, what a home of a cultured people looks like. Among the other tribes in the cultural village, the Badjau home seemed the most vibrant. It probably is.

On our way from Kudat back to Kota Kinabalu the previous day (the quake still in the back of our heads), we passed by a cluster of houses on stilts along the coast in Kota Marudu. We stopped – and this wasn’t part of the itinerary – to take a look, to get a glimpse of a Badjau community.

A Badjau community in Kota Marudu

What was striking was that the houses, though made of light materials, looked sturdy, and were clustered in clear surrounding waters where their machine-powered wooden boats with wooden anchors were docked.

Some boats were for fishing, while others were for transport (one had cargo of LPG tanks). In the backdrop was a mangrove forest, where the Badjaus harvested wood for their needs.

And this is what we saw, in Kota Marudu and Kota Kinabalu: the conditions of the Badjau in Sabah were in stark contrast to those of the Badjaos in the Philippines, from where their ancestors came, the same line of ancestors who probably introduced to us tagaktak, that intricately prepared crispy delicacy that brings joy and pride to all and sundry.

The tagaktak will never look and taste the same.

LPG containers on a boat in Kota Marudu

Song and healing on the edge of Borneo

Sabah after the quake

AS the plane quivered one last time through the remaining turbulent air streams, a window to my left framed the ashen tip of a mountain peering through the thick, late afternoon clouds.

“Mount Kinabalu?” I thought.

The sight of that desolate, jagged piece of rock rising above a blanket of bulbous white several thousand meters above ground was both reassuring and unnerving – reassuring because we were now approaching land, and unnerving because barely 10 hours ago, the entire mountain and its surroundings shook violently when a magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck northern Sabah, rattling buildings as far as the capital Kota Kinabalu, Flight Z2 131’s destination.

A glimpse of Mount Kinabalu from above

The AirAsia plane, though, landed smoothly, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. It taxied past a modern airport then stopped in front of an old terminal that looked part supply depot, part hangar. As our group of four eased past immigration, I looked for cracks on the walls and posts, signs perhaps of damage from the tremor.

There was none, I thought, business as usual. Some 90 kilometers away, near the epicentre in Ranau, it was anything but.

Our group was slated to head to Ranau, a town of 94,000 people and home to Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, the 750-square-kilometer ecological haven of Kinabalu Park. Sabah’s tourism officials, though, had to shut down the park following an avalanche in and around Mount Kinabalu.

View of Kota Kinabalu from Signal Hill Observatory Tower

Bearer of news

The bearer of news was our soft-spoken guide John, who fetched us at the airport. He assured us, though, that Kota Kinabalu was fine – rattled but unscathed.

“Tomorrow morning, we head to the town of Kudat for the open-air music festival on the tip of Borneo. We’ll pass by the honey bee farm, gong making village, and the long houses,” he said, as the right-hand-drive van our small group of journalists would use for the next three days dropped us off at the hotel at the heart of the city where we would spend the night.

The show must go on at a floating restaurant serving sumptuous local dishes.
View of the Kota Kinabulu waterfront from the hotel room

Outside The Hyatt Regency, the locals went about calmly, as endless streams of cars cruised past wide, tree-lined sidewalks near the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront, a lively strip of reclaimed land in the former British colony of Sabah – now a Malaysian federal state – where a number of cultures, old and new, converged.

Perhaps the discussion centered on that morning’s earthquake, in hushed Kadazan, Dusun, Bajau, Murut, Suluk or Malay tones, languages that sounded familiar but foreign to our visitors’ ears, nevertheless. But there was a Filipino market there somewhere, we’d later learn.

The next morning, we headed some 180 kilometers up north, a five-hour drive that meant plenty of time for us to learn about Sabah from our guide, who has spent 25 years exploring the enormous island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, and marvel at its vastness and diversity.

A long stretch of white sand beach at Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort & Spa

Sabah’s great expanse

More than an hour after we left the hotel, John told us to look to our right and pointed slightly upwards at what looked like a tear in the sky. Between the tear and the ground was a hazy spread of pallid gray. “Do you see it?” John said. “Where?” someone asked. “There!” I chimed in. “What?”

It took me several seconds to figure out what it was – the tip of Mount Kinabalu, this time peeking from the clouds 4,095 meters from the ground, an hour’s drive away if the initial plan pushed through. It was the closest we would get to see this sacred mountain. As the van sped past the scene, I fixed my gaze at the peak until the blur of foliage and dreary slopes blocked my view.

Passing by Mount Kinabalu, which is hidden behind thick clouds in the distance

Again the bearer of news, John told us about climbers and fellow guides were still trapped somewhere up in Mount Kinabalu. Rescue efforts were underway, he assured, but his face betrayed a hint of anxiety.

The day’s sad news

The previous day’s big quake – 30 seconds of ground shaking – was now all over the morning papers. It was Malaysia’s strongest in the last 39 years. The tremor, though, would cause aftershocks beyond the geological kind.

Sabah’s tourism was still reeling from the kidnapping of two tourists by Sulu – Filipino? – gunmen in the remote town of Sandakan in Sabah’s east coast last May. Like the flapping of wings causing typhoons in distant lands, the incident triggered a wave of cancellations from foreign tourists. And then this, the June 5 earthquake. Tourism, one of Sabah’s top three industries, was dealt another staggering blow.

One can’t blame the tourists for the knee-jerk cancellations, John said, but he hopes the global community sees the incidents in the proper context.

“Sabah is a very big place,” he said. “And Sandakan is very far.” (He was right: imagine how normal daily life unfolds in Cebu despite trouble in the far corners of southern Mindanao.) As for the quake, the ground will calm down in time and Sabah’s top draws will reopen.

Though we skirted past Kinabalu Park, we did get to visit the families of gong makers in Sumangkap Village, a community of bee keepers running the Gombizau Honey Bee Farm in Matunggong, and the communal Rungus longhouses on stilts, precursors of modern condominium housing.

Gong makers, their craft and livestock in Sumangkap Village.
An old woman opens the door to her unit at a communal Rungus longhouse. Made of light materials, these longhouses are the precursors of modern condominium housing.

One with the earth

One of the stories in the inside pages caught my eye: the earthquake, the news article narrated, happened after a group of Western tourists desecrated Mount Kinabalu by stripping naked and urinating on top of the mountain, acts of irreverence that the foreigners documented themselves and posted on social media.

The story said many Sabahans, especially the Kadazan Dusun tribe that considers Mount Kinabalu sacred, blamed the tourists, whose acts of desecration angered the spirits that dwell in the mountain, causing the earthquake. Authorities were left with no choice but to go after the six tourists, and if caught, John said, might have to offer a bull each as sacrifice to appease the spirits.

A tribe rests before a performance in the Sunset Music Fest in Kudat.

While the West sees all this as superstition, John – who himself has a scientific mind with a keen interest in botany (so far, he can identify 600 out of Sabah’s 5,000 species of flora with their scientific names) – said many Sabahans have roots from the state’s five main tribes whose lives are entwined with the natural environment.

And tourists, especially those climbing Kinabalu, are constantly reminded to observe local customs. In the eyes of many locals, such acts of desecration caused the tremor that – I’d later learn days after leaving Sabah – claimed the lives of 18 people, including four guides.

The crowd – a happy mix of locals and tourists – enjoys the eclectic performances, as well as a fantastic view, during the ninth Sunset Music Fest in Kudat.

Music on the edge of the world

Later that afternoon, we headed to the Tip of Borneo, a tree-lined promontory with a strip of rock jutting out toward the imaginary line that divides the West Philippine Sea and the Sulu Sea, and at each day’s end offers a humbling view of the setting sun.

We passed Pantai Kalampunian or Kalampunian Beach, a pristine three-kilometer stretch of white coral sand leading to the promontory, Tanjung Sampang Mangazou, where the early Rungus went to battle to defend their land from foreign invaders; if not welcome unfamiliar drifters such as a weary battle-scarred crew from the other side of the world who sought refuge and repairs for what remained of Magellan’s fleet following a disastrous stop in an exotic land of heathens thousands of nautical kilometers away somewhere up north.

A majestic view of the three-kilometer stretch of Kalumpunian Beach
A vendor in Kudat shows how they roast chicken wings in Sabah.

Nowadays, foreigners like us who come all the way to the Tip of Borneo, with the exception of a depraved few, are a harmless, wholesome bunch; and ours, that otherwise pleasant day in June, was a musical journey for the ninth Sunset Music Fest, wherein local talents performed traditional, classical and contemporary music the Sabahan way: convivial, heartfelt, close to home.

To start the festival, though, a moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the earthquake the day before was observed. And as the sun, poignant and subdued, quietly set in the horizon – a rendition of Charice Pempengco’s Note to God rising in the cold air (“Give us the strength to make it through”), John’s burly silhouette swaying with the crowd in the amphitheater— the moment of healing for all Sabahans had begun, right there on the historic Tip of Borneo.

Sunset over the northernmost tip of Sabah