A spontaneous getaway to Singapore plus a visit to the nearby island of Borneo

By Marvin And Carole Feldman
This article appears on page 34 of the July 2017 issue.
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.

After a short family visit to Australia and a return trip to San Francisco in December 2016, we decided to head to Asia, taking advantage of a perk afforded to retired and active US military members: traveling free (“space available”) on US military aircraft. 

Off we went to nearby Travis Air Force Base, from where, after four flights (and incredible luck), we landed in Singapore.

Starting in Singapore

Because of the spontaneous nature of our trip to Singapore (we were not even sure we could get there), on arrival we went on an Internet site and booked a room at the Parkroyal on Beach Road (parkroyalhotels.com) for under $100 a night.

Clean, orderly and safe Singapore is our favorite destination in all of Asia. It had been more than two years since our last visit. 

We love this amazing, ever-changing destination, with its warm tropical days and nights, a diverse blend of many cultures and an exciting frenzy of activity. New skyscrapers, long highway tunnels, lush flower-lined streets, cruise ships coming and going and wonderful museums (especially the marvelous National Museum of Singapore) — it’s all quite dazzling! 

View of the Gardens by the Bay, as seen from the Singapore Flyer.

And getting around on the efficient public-transport system (buses and the MRT subway) was a breeze.

Eating is always a fantastic experience in Singapore. On one day, we began with a Malay breakfast in the Kampong Glam quarter, a jumble of tiny streets opposite our hotel, as a nearby mosque called the faithful to prayer. Midday, we enjoyed a spicy lunch at an eatery in Little India, another favorite area of ours, and we could not resist the taste of sizzling satays at the Lau Pa Sat outdoor market (18 Raffles Quay), yet another favorite spot, for dinner on another evening.

On to Malaysia

Singapore is a perfect hub for travel throughout Asia, so we decided to make a return visit to Malaysia, located across the Straits of Johor. 

By chance, our hotel was practically next door to the long-distance-bus terminal, so, for variety, we took a luxury bus trip from Singapore over the Johor-Singapore Causeway and up the Malay Peninsula to Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia’s capital, a comfortable 6-hour ride ($25 each).

While both Singapore and KL are exciting and exotic destinations, there are obvious differences between them. Singapore, being more regulated, is cleaner and more orderly, while KL is more chaotic, offering visitors the unexpected. KL is certainly more economical; hotels and food, in particular, cost much less than they do in Singapore. 

Although our hotel in KL, Easy Hotel (110 Jalan Tun, Sambanthan; easyhotel.com.my), which we booked online, was economical ($30 per night) and conveniently located, we would not recommend it. It was located just a few feet from the monorail station, making it really noisy.

We wanted to discover somewhere different to visit in Malaysia, so we set our sights on the State of Sabah, on the northern part of the island of Borneo. After a 2½-hour flight from KL on the budget carrier AirAsia, featuring a breathtaking descent over the tiny islands and azure waters of the South China Sea, we arrived at Kota Kinabalu, the state’s capital.

Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu proved to be an exotic and interesting destination, though the city, itself, lacked beauty.

Our choice of Hotel Eden54 (Jalan Gaya 54; eden54.com) was perfect. The proprietor and staff, together with our lovely room ($30 per night), were just right. 

A vendor barbecues fish at Kota Kinabalu’s night market.

In Kota Kinabalu, we had our first experience with Uber (our hotel receptionist arranged a car for us), a mode of inexpensive travel which turned out to be comfortable, reliable and a fraction of the cost of using conventional taxis.

Our first stop was the wonderful Sabah Museum (entry, $3.40 per person), which gave us a thorough background of this region’s history, culture and customs. Of particular interest were the Heritage Village, with traditional houses; the ethnographic section, with exquisite costumes, and the History Gallery, detailing the state’s history from the 12th century on, including information on British, American, Spanish and Dutch colonization and Japanese occupation. 

With Kota Kinabalu’s seaside location, a must-do activity was enjoying a delicious, fresh fish dinner (for pocket change) at one of the many stalls at the night market. Another dining find was Beyond Veggie (Suria Sabah Shopping Mall), where we had a gourmet vegetarian meal for about $10 for the two of us. In fact, everything in this city was very low cost.

A 2-hour trip back in time, via the rails of the former North Borneo Railway (now Sabah State Railway), took us south to the town of Beaufort ($8 each, round trip). The spectacular jungle scenery backed by dramatic mountains was a feast for the eyes. 

During the World War II Japanese occupation, Beaufort was the scene of numerous cruel atrocities, with thousands of residents losing their lives. During the same time period, many heroes of Malay resistance fought bravely against the enemy in the area. 

Today, Beaufort is a small, bustling commercial center, dominated by a large mosque. Although one can make the day trip from Kota Kinabalu on an organized tour, we chose to explore the town independently, and it proved to be a fascinating excursion.

Boating to Brunei

Since it was so close, we decided our next destination would be Brunei, a country we had not previously visited. We passed up a quick flight to Brunei, instead taking two high-speed ferries from Kota Kinabalu’s Jesselton Point Ferry Terminal to Muara, one of Brunei’s northern ports. What a delight it was to spend four hours skimming over the South China Sea. 

Our first sight of this country, also located on the island of Borneo, was of the many oil-drilling platforms and enormous oil tankers in the water, announcing the source of Brunei’s wealth. 

A vendor barbecues fish at Kota Kinabalu’s night market.Marvin Feldman on a swinging bridge at the Sabah Museum in Kota

Upon arrival, we took a local bus, traveling some 30 kilometers through beautiful lush countryside and past palatial estates and modern high-rise buildings and shopping malls to the small capital of Bandar Seri Begawan. Unlike neighboring Malaysia, Brunei was spotlessly clean and exuded luxury. (Local traffic consisted of Lamborghinis, Lotuses and BMWs on the modern roads and highways.)

Indeed, its national leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is one of the world’s richest men. As sultan for almost 50 years, he has brought this small country into a “clean and green” Singapore-like state. 

We checked into our lovely Bandar accommodation, the Palm Garden Hotel (Simpang 88, Kampong Kiulap; palmgarden-hotel.com), which we booked for $45 a night, including a lavish healthy breakfast. The hotel was located in an upscale suburban neighborhood and, while it seemed to be a bit out of town, getting there by public bus was easy. 

Nearby, within walking distance, were several nice restaurants, including Dapur Penyet (in Delima Square mall), an Indonesian chain with great food. (Dinner cost less than $10 for two.) 

There is a lot to do in Bandar, and we picked four attractions, all must-see recommendations from friends who had been there. Our hotel provided free transportation to several attractions and, at the end of our stay, to Brunei International Airport as well.

In Bandar, two magnificent and opulent mosques, full of marble, 24-karat gold leaf and Austrian crystal chandeliers, were at the top of our list. We removed our shoes and Carole donned a black robe before we entered the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah and Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin mosques, which were both quite stunning. (It is important to note the hours that each are open to the general public before visiting.) 

The Royal Regalia Museum (free entry), detailing the life of the present sultan and displaying an endless collection of official uniforms, gifts and clothes, was “over the top.” 

One of Singapore’s ornately decorated shophouses.

Finally, we negotiated a private tour by water taxi (under $10 for two) around Kampong Ayer (Water Village), where more than 30,000 people live in buildings on stilts over the water. There were schools, a police station, a mosque and even a fire station there.

We are glad to have had the chance to visit surprising Brunei and to meet its delightful, warm and welcoming people. It was a most unexpectedly fascinating experience.

Returning to Singapore

We flew back to Singapore via AirAsia in anticipation of our onward US military flight back to the US. When our flight home was delayed a day, we were thrilled to have bonus time in our “home away from home” in Asia. 

This time we stayed at Hotel 81 Tristar (1 Onan Road; hotel81.com.sg) in the area of Paya Lebar. We have stayed there before and like its convenience to many places but also enjoy that it is out of the tourist area. Our room, booked online, cost $75 a night.

We headed to Sim Lim Square, Marvin’s favorite electronics center, for some browsing, then went for a ride on the Singapore Flyer (30 Raffles Ave.), a huge Ferris wheel with enormous, glass-enclosed air-conditioned cars. We chose the regular 30-minute ride ($46 for two), giving us fantastic panoramic views over this incredible city. (There are even special cars where one can enjoy lunch, dinner, champagne and hors d’oeuvres or afternoon tea!) The ride was very smooth.

Nearby, we discovered yet another fabulous shopping mall (there are so many in Singapore), where we enjoyed a delicious casual lunch at a Turkish eatery. We had a most interesting conversation with one of the owners, from Azerbaijan, about life there compared with his new life in Singapore, which is certainly one of the most diverse places in the world.

And there were even more adventures to come.

Heading home

After being away for almost six weeks of travel, it was time to head home. Often, these return trips are adventures in themselves, and this time was no different. Our “Plan A” was to catch military flights across the Pacific to the US, but the whole military air system was shut down for the Christmas holiday. 

No worries, as brilliant Carole (a former travel agent) came up with an interesting “Plan B,” finding a great airfare (about $950 each) on Qatar Airways from Singapore (via Doha, Qatar) to Atlanta. This gave us the added perk of visiting family there before returning home to Jacksonville. 

So we did not head back over the Pacific but, instead, completed a ’round-the-world trip on our way back to the US. 

Our odyssey had begun as a journey with a purpose: to see family and friends in Sydney and San Francisco. Both were fulfilling and memorable.

Then random, spontaneous travel — our favorite way to go — had us hopscotching from California to Singapore, opening the door to unexpected experiences. Sabah, in East Malaysia, was fascinating, and we found the people of East Malaysia and Brunei to be very friendly.

The low cost and ease of travel in Southeast Asia made for an economical and thoroughly enjoyable holiday in the region.