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Honeymoon- February 2010- Thailand/Malaysia/Laos/???

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Hello,
We are planning on taking about a 2 week honeymoon from NYC in late February/March (flexible on dates, but January is not possible). I feel overwhelmed by the choices in SE Asia. Thailand looks beautiful, but we feel it's too built up/touristy. I definitely want to spend some time at an Elephant Camp, so I thought we would enjoy Chiang Rai but it looks like we could do this in Laos.
We like light hiking, jungles, animals, could do a few beach/pool days but we are not intersted in Phuket etc or a beach only place. We also are not intersted in Bangkok, KL etc for more than a day. We prefer nature to temples/culture or a built up resort area. We do not want to be 'roughing' it really- budget - pref no more than $400 a night USD.

Places that look intersting to us are:
-Chiang Rai
-Chiang Mai (only at the recommendation of friends who honeymooned in Thailand)
-Borneo (monkeys)
-Kota Kimbalu
-Langkawi
-Hanoi
-Luang Prabang
-Chengdu in china (only for the Pandas)
Any thoughts, suggestions, etc GREATLY appreciated!!!!

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    If jungles and animals are high on your list, your should seriously consider Malaysian Borneo. If you click on my name, under trip reports you'll find my report on Borneo. The Danum Valley is the best place to go, which means the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Kota Kinabalu is a rather gritty town, not someplace you want to spend a lot of time, but it is your entry point to Sabah. You can go to Mount Kinabalu and even climb it if you want, but if you go, do go there first before the BRL, otherwise you'll find it disappointing. You can also fly to Kuching and take in Bako as well. If you want a couple of days of beach time, you can do so either outside of Kota Kinabalu or near Kuching. Two weeks would be a nice amount of time to spend in the area.

    There are many wild animals to be seen in this area. The orangutans, of course can only be seen here, but there are wild elephants, leopards, many kinds of monkeys, etc.

    Since you quote prices in US$, I am assuming you are from the US. To get to Kota Kinabalu, you'll need to go through Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

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    There is a Le Meridien in Kota Kinabalu- that should be ok (and we have a lot of starwood points). It looks like february would be a good time to go as well. What do you think of a week in Borneo and then a stop in Chiang Mai or Langkawi? We would not climb Kinabalu. I will look for your trip reports. How many nights would you spend in the rainforest lodge- 3?

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    The Le Meridien should be just fine. It's the city itself I found a bit disappointing. Yes, I'd recommend three nights at the BRL. Then consider some of the other places to view wildlife in Sabah or Sarawak. Kuching is a charming city, very walkable. And you can go to Bako from there.

    Frankly, if it were me (and it isn't) I'd spend all of my time in Malaysia. There is lots to see and do and it's far less touristed than either Chiang Mai or Langkawi. Langkawi is really just a beach resort area, nothing else to do there. Chaing Mai? Well, I love Thailand, I have been there many times and CM is my least favorite place I've visited. Now some people love it - it's just that I don't. It's a huge, sprawling city with no public transportation (so traffic is unavoidable, unlike Bangkok, where there are a variety of public transport options) and lots of particulates in the air (they still burn their trash). I know it's billed as the gateway to the countryside, but CM is not the countryside.

    If you want to spend time with elephants, I'd suggest the Anantara at the Golden Triangle, a lovely resort which has a division of The Thai Elephant Conservation Camp on the grounds. However, getting there is an issue. You'd have to fly from Kota Kinabalu or Kuching to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, then onward to Bangkok then to Chaing Rai, then an hour transfer to the Anantara. The only places that are one stop away from Kota Kinabalu or Kuching are Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. So save the Anantar for your next trip.

    When you go to this part of the world, you have to decide just how much time you want to spend in transit. After all, you've flown at least 18 hours just to get to KL or Singapore. Choosing to stay in one general area and to limit the number of stops you make will increase your enjoyment of the trip.

    Photos: www.marlandc.com click on Borneo

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    If you don’t want “built up/touristy places” then IMO you need to remove a few places from your itin. The first would be IMO Langkawi, which is a purpose-built beach resort destination with basically nothing but big hotels. I would also say going all the way in winter to Chengdu to see the pandas would be quite a haul for probably a disappointing trip (you need to see them in nature, not at a zoo. Go the National Zoo in Washington DC if you want to see pandas in a zoo.). The Chinese visa alone will cost you US$100, and you probably won’t find any non-stops from SE Asian cities but will have to go through Beijing or Shanghai, which is going to take a chunk out of a 2-week itin. Not to mention how cold it will be in Feb and March in Chengdu. Finally, I think you may also find that any “elephant camp” is going to be quite on the touristy side. If you can do an overnight trek by elephant, this may be a better, less touristy option. I would agree that Laos may be the preferred place for this. I wish I had some suggestions, but perhaps this board or Lonely Planet may offer some.

    I would note that the Lunar New Year (i.e. “Chinese” new year and Tet in Vietnam) will be celebrated from Feb. 14 -16 in 2010. This may not make a huge difference to the places on your itin so far, other than Chengdu of course. You may find hotels and flights to be more booked up and/or expensive during this time; esp. in Luang Prabang and at resorts in Langkawi and possibly Kinablu, all of which are quite popular with expats in Asia who don’t need to stay home with family for the holiday, like the Chinese or Vietnamese. Your itin does not currently include any place other than Hanoi or Chengdu where you will see big celebrations, so if you want to see the festivities, you would need to include a place like Singapore or Hong Kong or other parts of the PRC. Or stay longer in Vietnam. In those places you may have some closures of shops, restaurants and some tourist sites during that time, so bear that in mind. But generally it is a very interesting time to be in one of those places as there are special markets, decorations, food and often fireworks.

    I would also actually say to avoid Hanoi, which is quite a built up city, and if you want to go to Vietnam, concentrate on much smaller places like Hue, Hoi An and/or then interior places around Sapa. These places would give you a good mix of nature and history (and chock a block with temples), especially a place like Hue which has river, mountains and beaches in addition to historical sights. I just spend Sunday afternoon bicycling inside the walls of the old imperial citadel in Hue and it was delightful; basically no cars only other bikes and motorbikes, and I was the only tourist I saw in more than 2 hours of riding. Tons of great street life. This is not something that is easy to do in Hanoi. (Definitely avoid Ho Chi Minh as it would not seem to match your interests).

    I generally agree that Borneo may be a good choice in terms of the ability to see nature and animals. (I think you meant to refer to orang utans there, not just “monkeys” which you can find wild virtually anywhere, including here in Hong Kong.) I find it odd that you like hiking, but would give up the chance to climb Mt Kinablu which in the low rain season in Feb would probably offer the best views of any time of year. Taman Negara rain forest may on the mainland may also be of interest to you.

    I also have to say that although you seen to want to avoid cites, that in Feb in Singapore there is a very special Hindu holiday call Thaipusam. It is only celebrated in Singapore and in the Batu Caves in Malaysia not far from KL. This holiday includes firewalkers and people carrying huge headdresses attached by skewers to their skin. It is something to see, and would seem to fit your interests. It is generally in mid-Feb to early March, but it moves depending on the moon phase, so check something like the tourism authority website in Singapore and see if they have posted it. You could fly into or out of Singapore from the US as part of the trip, and there are non-stop options available which are quite attractive. If Thaipusam coincided with the Lunar New Year, then Singapore might be quite interesting to you. You could also go to the Batu Caves in Malaysia, but I think you will find observing the festivities from this location to be difficult compared to Singapore where devotees parade between temples. Singapore has great food, lots of little ethnic neighborhoods to explore, a very good zoo (if you want to see animals in captivity it at least is a good one) as well as some smaller nature reserve areas in the north which are good for birding.

    I also have to say that if you like hiking, I personally would include Hong Kong which has many excellent trails in mountainous terrain and include stunning sea and beach vistas. They are well-marked in English and you don’t need a guide, which is hard to say of hiking in other places. Also the ability to get to and from these trails by public transport is very convenient. While the city parts of Hong Kong are definately built up, the place is about 40% reserved parkland where you can be far away from the city. February would be a far better month for this than March, although February here is generally cool and a bit foggy (although last year was dry and sunny so it’s a matter of luck to some degree). It’s a very interesting place to be for Lunar New Year, we have great fireworks in the harbour and there are special markets like the Flower Market that are fun to visit.

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    In thinking about your interests, I would say that “animals” would include undersea creatures, and so if you are in Malaysia, you should take advantage of the superb diving in the area, in particular in Sipidan, but there are other good areas off of Borneo which you could consider like Layang Layang, which is well-known for Hammerhead sharks. (Sipidan is fantastic diving, but permits to access the underwater park are quite restricted, so bear this in mind.) There is good snorkeling too to a degree here and elsewhere, but I would say take diving lessons now and be certified for the trip as you really can see much more even just at 30 feet than you can snorkeling; and there are other great diving destinations in SE Asia and world-wide and this is a life-long sport which can add greatly to your holidays. IMO the best Malaysian snorkeling is on the east coast of the mainland of Malaysia, but not in Feb and March which is the rainy season there. You could also consider diving in islands south of Laos like Koh Samet or Koh Chang in Thailand. (I have not been but others have posted, do some searching.)

    Also, I just did some research, and it appears that Thaipusam will be celebrated on January 30 (I would say give or take a day on either end but close to that date.) I should mention that if you don’t see this in Singapore, you could watch part of the festivities in Kuala Lumpur, as some devotees start their pilgrimage to the caves from there. That may be easier than trying to get to the caves themselves, as several hundred thousand other people will be trying to do the same. (I have not been to the Batu Caves during Thaipusam, so can’t say for sure, but given their size and location, and the fact that I know about a million people attend, I think watching them from the caves area would be not as rewarding due to the huge crowds.)

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    Thanks so much for the wonderful responses. I should clarify a bit regarding cities. We live in Manhattan, so prefer to vacation in a more relaxing setting. However we have enjoyed visiting many european cities (most recently Moscow) and loved Tokyo. We hated Cairo. I have heard good things about Sinagpore, but have been told Bangkok and KL are somewhat loud, polluted, congested etc. I don't think they compare to Tokyo (please correct me if I am wrong).
    I did not know about hiking in Hong Kong- that sounds great. HK is an easy place for us to begin or end since there are non-stops to NYC. Chengdu doesn't seem too cold in Feb/March for us (remember it will be around 15 degrees farenheit in ny) but the visa is a pain. Maybe save China for another trip.
    Kathie, thanks for the honest opinion of Chiang Mai. I had 2 friends who enjoyed chiang mai and chiang rai most in Thailand. Maybe Borneo would be enough. When I say we like hiking, I mean light, not too strenuous hikes- nothing requiring special gear...i read climbing Mount Kimbalu is somewhat challenging.
    I will do some more research on vietnam...are there good flight connections from malaysia to smaller cities in Vietnam or must I go to KL and then to Ho Chi Min City?

    Also- our other honeymoon option (we are leaning towards southeast asia) is South Africa. I know this isn't the right board but if anyone has also been to SA and can compare and contrast....

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    I wouldn't pair the BRL with Rasa Ria - it will be a disappointment after being in the rainforest. If you want a beach, the other Shangri-La would be better. Generally, people say the beach is better and you have the option to go into KK for a meal or shopping if you what, as opposed to being isolated at the Rasa Ria.

    People like different things. People could say that Manhattan is "somewhat loud, polluted, congested" but it would still be a fabulous place with all kinds of things to see and do. Bangkok is my favorite city in the world. KL is ok for a couple of days, but IMO it doesn't have a lot. Hong Kong and Singapore are both good stopover cities; both have a lot to offer.

    If you want to go to VN, you'll have to fly through KL or Singapore from Kota Kinabalu, then through HCMC or Hanoi. The logistics will take up a lot of time.

    I'd really encourage you to restrict the number of stops you plan so that you have time to experience the places you've chosen. Remember each of the places you've named have very different cultures. If you hop from one place to another, you'll never have the chance to absorb any of it.

    In general, figure it will take you most of a day to get from one place to another from checking out of one hotel into another. So when you think of spening, say, three nights somewhere, you really only have two full days.

    Count up how many days you'll have on the ground in Asia. Two weeks often means just 12 days on teh gorund. In twelve days, I'd choose three stops. So if you opt for Borneo, the BRL, the beach and a day or two in KK would count for two stops under my system, and you could add a stopover in Hong Kong or Singapore. Which city you choose will liikely depend on airline routing. Singapore Air is perhaps the best airline in the world, and if you fly with htem, they often offer great stopover packages in Singapore with wonderful hotel deals. Opting for Singapore would reduce the amount of time you spend connecting from place to place and thereby make your logistics much easier.

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    Personally, in SE Asia, my vote would have been for Langkawi also. But you were asking about South Africa. Cape Town would be a strong contender for the most stunning city in the world, the nearby winelands are beautiful and, as in Thailand and Malaysia, you dollar will go a long way. Combining that with a safari to somewhere like Kruger National Park would be a pretty unforgettable trip. The wildlife in SE Asia is remarkable, but nothing compares with an African safari and seeing lions, elephants and, if you're lucky, leopards in their natural surroundings - it's both jaw-dropping and humbling. Some of the safari lodges can be pretty damn romantic as well!

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    I was actually going to suggest at the end of my post that you consider South Africa, as it may fit your interests better. I went there on my first trip in March and thought it was just awesome. Feb and March are going to be the rainier season, so bear that in mind, see weather websites and read guidebooks (there are guidebooks just on choosing the right type of safari and right park for you; the literature on travel in Africa generally is expansive. You can even do walking safaris or alternate jeep drives with walks). Due to the rains, the grass is higher and other vegetation is thicker than in the other months, so spotting things like cats sitting low in the grass can be quite tricky. Bigger game are of course easy to spot. I don't think there is a lot of flooding or anything, but most people consider this the low season due to rain and the harder time you may have spotting game. However, despite some concern on my part about going in the rainy season (this was the only month which worked for my sisters who were travelling with me), we had excellent weather in March, so I can’t complain, we may have been just lucky however. The plus side also is that Feb March are just about the best time of year in Cape Town and that area like the Garden Route, as fog is less and winds are lower. (High winds can shut down the ferries to Robben Island.) You should also get better deals on hotels as it is the low season. I agree that Cape Town is a great city and you can spend time in the adjacent wine country which is very beautiful and has vineyards for wine tasting, colonial Dutch architecture and some excellent restaurants. When you start reading about all that there is to see and do in SA you may be even more confused!

    It is a hard toss up between South Africa and SE Asia. They are so different. But if animals are really the focus of your trip, then you may want to consider it. You can also consider places like Uganda for chimps (but watch weather there, as rains are heavier further north of SA at that time. We ruled out Botswana, which was our first choice, due to the potential for more rain there in Feb/March).

    To answer some of your specific questions:

    1. Please do not compare any Asian city outside of Japan with any city in Japan, other than perhaps Korea. It is impossible to do so. Japan is clean and organized on a scale that can’t be match elsewhere, including most “western” nations (nor do I understand how they do it.) If you don’t like noise, traffic, disorganization bordering sometimes on chaos and a good bit of just plain dirt, then please don’t come to SE Asia. Even the small villages are going to have quite a bit of that. Go to Switzerland. My philosophy on living here is that a lotus grows in the mud.

    2. No special gear or hiking ability is necessary for Mt Kinabalu. It is mostly just tons of stairs. If you are relatively fit, these won’t really be an issue. Going down is the harder part because there are so many stairs. But it is not difficult technically, you don’t need crampons and won’t be attached to ropes or anything. Lots of people in surprisingly bad shape make this climb without any problems from what I have seen.

    3. Bangkok is crowded and can have traffic, but it is hard, IMO, to think of a more interesting city (and I live in Hong Kong which is pretty darn interesting). From a cultural, spiritual, food and wow factor aspect, this city is hard to beat. Bangkok offers so much to see and do. The pollution, compared to other SE Asian cities, is not that bad, and I would not put that down as a reason not to go (unlike Shanghai). Remember, this is not Japan.

    4. Kuala Lumpur is not really that interesting when you compare it to other Asian cities, to be frank. It has few tourist sites compared to other cities. It actually is relatively unpolluted and traffic is not that bad compared to places like Jakarta or Mumbai or even Bangkok at times. The people, however, are wonderful and the food is excellent. (I could not agree less that KL is more "western"; you need to look beyond the obvious of the modern buildings and get an understanding of how the people have adapated this to their culture.) But you can experience that outside of KL. With only 2 weeks, I would concentrate on countryside areas.

    5. I don’t think you will find that there are many flight connections between KL and Vietnam other than to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, which may be fine as you can either connect to internal flights or go via car or train from there. See Air Asia which is a local Malaysian low-cost carrier, at http://www.airasia.com/site/hk/en/home.jsp. However, there are also some good connections via Singapore to secondary cities like DaNang (on Silk Air which is Singapore Air’s “domestic” carrier), which means you could bypass cities. See http://www.silkair.com/mbe/en_UK/ . Silk Air also flies to Borneo as well as Siem Reap (if you wanted to go to Ankor Wat which we all probably should have mentioned as a destination that might fit your interests. There is a Silk Air flight which connects through Siem Reap which might be good way to include both.) There are connections to major cities from Hong Kong as well.

    On China, it’s not so much the cold in Chengdu, it’s the fact that you would need to bring completely different clothes given that all your other destinations are tropical, and you would only use them for the few days you are in Chengdu. Also, going all the way to China and only going to Chengdu would be a waste IMO. I agree to skip it; save that for an anniversary trip!! (You don’t need a visa for Hong Kong, by the way; only the PRC mainland.)

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    Cicerone, Thanks SO much for all the help. Maybe we will consider South Africa more seriously. SE Asia seems safer- though most reports I've heard say Cape Town is fairly safe. SE Asia also seems less expensive for more luxury- granted we can take a trip to S. Africa and not spend much, but for a fancier experience it seems MUCH more expensive than SE Asia. The hotels in Thailand, Bali, Malaysia are very reasonably priced (to us at least).
    I agree with everyone who says not to bother with Chengdu...i have always LOVED pandas, but it is not worth the time or hassle to get a visa.

    We are completely ok with dirt, traffic, etc and live in it every day, but my fiancee is asthmatic so was uncomfortable in Cairo due to the poor air quality. I like to spend a few days in a city at least on a vacation to wander through little neighborhoods and attempt to see the local culture- we just won't have the time to spend more than a day or two. Bangkok seems to have more in the way of sights- we are not interested in the Petronas towers at all.

    What did you think of the beaches in Cape Town? This is certainly not meant to be a beach vacation, but a day or two might be nice to relax. I know it's not the best season for safari- the weather is why I ruled it out (along with Bali) originally, but I'm sure we would still see plenty of game. It would also be a good time to visit Victoria Falls then.

    Decisions decisions...

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    I was looking into this thread because we are considering a trip to Malaysia in November. However, if you love wildlife....my favorite trip of all time was our African safari. We did Botswana, Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls, and Cape Town. I would go back in a heartbeat! We were considering Nambia this year in the hopes that we could include a few days in Cape Town on our return trip. The animals are wonderful and you can visit more than one camp to have a variety of animals and lodging. The most exciting stay was the tented camp and I would highly recommend a few days in Cape Town. It is a lovely city and is also surrounded by excellent wine country (which we visited for two days and one night). Based on my travels in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, southern China, Vietnam)....I don't think anything compares with a safari. Put Capetown at the end but I think you will find an African trip gives you excitement and relaxation combined!

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    ka...but safari is quite expensive, much more than SEA hotels, but you do have the animals...i'm going in two weeks and really looking forward to it, but i yearn more for thailand which i will visit again in november...

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    Thanks for the reply ka. How long were you there? I do not think I could afford that long of a safari- both time and $ wise. My problem with safari is that I think after 2 days, I will want to do something else. It seems that in SE Asia you can spend 3 days in Borneo, a day or two at a beach, then maybe a different environment....all with easy access to airports. But a safari is a once in a lifetime type experience. Certain African countries are off limits to me since I can not be vaccinated for yellow fever unfortunately....luckily not south africa!

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    WE stayed at Camp's Bay in Cape Town, which is a very safe, very smart beachside district 10 mins from downtown. It's got a kind of Miami Beach-type vibe, packed with really excellent bars and restaurants. Eating out is very, very inexpensive, and you'll be amazed at the quality, especially the seafood. The wine is first rate too and, if you're more of a beer kind of guy, a bottle of local Castle was less than £1. Our trip was in March and the weather was fabulous, perfect for lazing on the beach or by the pool. Incidentally, I'd be surprised if you got bored after just two days on safari. Don't get me wrong, I Love the Far East but, for a honeymoon, SA is an unforgettable destination.

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    I thought the beaches in Cape town were beautiful, but water is cold even in summer (when you would be there, Feb and March are summer going into fall) and the current can be strong. But you can kayak with the penguins in Boulder’s Beach and you also don’t necessarily have to swim at any beach, just enjoy it. There are wild empty beaches outside the city and then the more typical local/tourist beaches in places like Bantry Bay and Camp’s Bay complete with restaurants and shops. I thought the beaches around Kommetjie Lighthouse were especially lovely and unpopulated, and Llandudno Beach was just stunning, hardly a person on it, and great sand and waves amid the big rocks. The area had some lovely homes. I thought that the area in the Cape of Good Hope had some really lovely empty beaches as well,we took a picnic lunch on our day there.

    You could also go someplace like Rocktail Bay north of Durban on the coast, which we had originally included but had to rule out due to timing issues. That is supposed to have very pretty beaches and then you can do some diving/snorkeling and wildlife touring as well. There is Rocktail Bay Lodge and Rocktail Beach Camp. See http://www.rocktailbay.com/. These are more rustic from what I understand than the luxury camps, but seems to get good reviews.

    The crime in SA is really only in the cities, when you are in the camps it is not an issue at all. (And the crime also generally tends to go more toward buglaries than robberies on the street, ask local people about the precautions they take in their own homes and with their vehicles, they may surprise you; I have a friend who lived there for several years.) And in the cities you just use reasonable precautions. I never felt unsafe in Cape Town.

    I agree you may spend more per night at a camp as opposed to a SE Asian hotel, but remember that all your meals and activities are included in the camp, which is not the case with a hotel. And there are camps in the lower ranges, get guidebooks and search on the Africa board here. While the luxury camps are wonderful, I am sure that there are perfectly good options in the more middle range.

    With the asthma, I think your fiancé would be OK in Asia provided he avoided cities like Shangahi and Beijing where the smog is quite bad. I don’t think you would find an issue in Bangkok and not in KL at all (but of course that is no reason to go to KL). But perhaps others who have similar asthma issues can give specific comments on their experiences.

    I have to say that I would not rule out Bali because of the weather. Bali is one of the few places, IMO, where the weather is irrelevant to the experience. First of all, you don’t go there for the beaches, which are pretty, but average, and much lovelier ones can be found elsewhere (like the Caribbean). You go for the culture which is not affected by weather, and the geography which in some cases can be made more beautiful by the rain (this is part of the Bali magic, IMO). I normally am a person who counsels to avoid places in bad weather (read my other posts on this, it is a common theme of mine, for example March in Hong Kong is mostly crappy), but would not at all say this about Bali. Walking through the green, green rice paddies in the rain with a banana leaf for an umbrella is one of my favourite things to do in Bali. And on a honeymoon, the sound of falling rain on yur villa rooftop on a lazy afternoon may be just what the doctor ordered to finally relieve that wedding stress….You may be limited a bit in terms of animal viewing there (unless again you take up scuba diving), but the music, painting and sculpture, dance, food, religion and other aspects of the Balinese experience would more than make up for it. You could also rent a villa (with staff!) for a good price and have a different experience from a hotel. See http://www.vrbo.com/ which has numerous offerings; I have always been curious about Villa Jepun which comes with its own boat and skipper!! http://www.villajepun.com/. You could also try http://www.laksmanavillas.com/villajemma/index.html. This is a compound of several villas of varying sizes and prices. I have rented Villa Jemma with friends. You could also rent a house with a pool inland in the hill area of Ubud and enjoy some really beautiful rice paddie views.

    But I would agree that the other places on yoru list are generally in dry weather in March, so if no rain is one of yoru criteria, then Thailand, Borneo and Vietnam would be good choices.

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    Thanks for the advice. It seems like South Africa might be more "worth it" and contained. To me, Borneo is the other place that seems spectacular. I did some more research on Vietnam and Halong Bay, Hue and Hoi An seem like they would be enjoyable, but maybe on a second trip to SE Asia. In Borneo would we also be able to see (and interact with) elephants? As touristy as it may be, one of the appeals of northern Thailand was the elephant camps. I know on a safari in south africa we would be watching them only from a distance.

    I have also been using the UNESCO list as a guide. Ideally, we'd go to KK, Chaing Rai, LP, Hong Kong and Hoi An, but that won't be possible on this trip - I like to spend at least 2 nights in a place.
    It has not come up, but is Penang worth researching for our trip?

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    In Borneo, you'll see the animals in the wild, unlike the elephant camps in Thailand. It's a totally different experience. Oh, you've probably already noticed, but your room rate at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge is all-inclusive, transfer from the Lahad Datu airport, meals and a guide for all of your walks.

    Penang (really, the historic Georgetown area of Penang) is delightful. And of course, the world famous hawker food is not to be missed. The E&O Hotel is wonderful. It's an old Sarkie Brothers hotel, beautifully restored. All of the suites are lovely, but I'd recommend a premier suite with a balcony overlooking the water. It would be a real contrast with your time in Borneo. You've probably seen my trip report on Penang. If not, take a look.

    Your comment about wanting to spend at least two nights in each place... two nights is just one full day. It will take you most of a day to get from one place to the next. So I'd say you will enjoy it more if you have a minimum of three nights each place, and do choose a place or two to stay longer.

    I agree that you should save VN, Thailand, Laos for your next trip.

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    Ok....Kathie your photos are wonderful. Makes me want to go to Nepal as well!
    Would you recommend only staying in the Malaysian portion of Borneo? I think Brunei could be interesting for a few days? I previously did not know much about borneo...we could probably spend the majority of our time there, with a few days at the beginning/end in whatever large city we fly into.

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    Thanks for the compliment on the photos.

    If it were me, I'd spend my time in Malaysian Borneo with just a few days in a major city on the way in or out.

    Brunei? Well, I researched this when we were headed to Borneo. I had a great idea that we should hake a train or hire a car and driver from KK to Kuching via Brunei. It turns out that isn't possible. If you want to go to Brunei, you have to fly in and out. There isn't much to see/do there and it's quite expensive.

    You'll find that Sabah and Sarawak are quite different from each other, and it's well worth visiting both. We didn't get to Bako while we were in Kuching, but we will next time.

    You could spend a few days at the beach at the Shangri-La near Kota Kinabalu or at Damai near Kuching.

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    I was thinking about what Cicerone said about Bali. Maybe the ideal is Borneo/KK for 6 nights and maybe 5 nights in Bali? I didn't know there was much to do in Bali - to me it seems VERY built up and touristy- but I probably don't know what I am talking about :) Maybe since it is technically our honeymoon, a few nights in a fancy bali resort would be nice.
    We are getting married on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world 2 months earlier so a pretty beach isn't a requirement- just as long as it's clean and not too cold.

    Thanks again to everyone who has posted- your help is very appreciated. We need to book something relatively soon and the research can be a bit overwhelming at times.

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    Hello. This thread is very informative. I hope some of you can help me as much as you've helped the bride-to-be.

    I'm attending a friend's wedding near Penang on New Year's Eve.

    With up to 2.5 weeks of vacation time to play with
    (leaving from NYC), do you think I should spend 1 full week in Malayasia and then a few days in Cambodia, followed by a few days in Taipei before returning to the Big Apple. Is that too much? Should I just do 2 countries? I've already been to Hong Kong and Singapore, so no need to visit and I'm not keen on Thailand.

    Thanks for your help.

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    Bali is a wonderful destination. Yes, many tourists go there, but it is still uniquely Bali. Bali is a place where the culture is very accessible. You will drive though village and see temple ceremonies - you can stop and observe and you are welcomed. Most people who visit Bali spend some time at a beach resort and some time inland near Ubud, overlooking the river gorge and the rice terraces. There are some areas that of Bali are very built up and I wouldn't recommend that anyone go - Nusa Dua and Kuta in particular. Borneo is certainly less touristed than Bali. You'll have few friends who went to Borneo for their honeymoon, while you'll encounter many who went to Bali.

    But I fear you have been bitten by the Asia bug - there is so much to do and see and none of it is like anything you've done or seen before. It's hard to resist adding just one more destination. Asia lends itself best to slow travel. Go someplace and spend some time, soak up the atmosphere, experience a bit of the culture.

    Logistically, could you split your time between Borneo and Bali? Yes. But would it be the best use of your time? IMO, no. I'd highly recommend that you choose one or the other. Choose Borneo and a few day stopover in a major city - Singapore is likely easiest or
    Choose Bali with a stopover in a major city like Singapore or Hong Kong, depending on your routing.

    Sit down with a couple of guidebooks and read about these destinations. It really will help you decide. They are both wonderful experiences, but very different experiences.

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    WOA, let me recommend that you start your own thread, then you'll get answers to your specific questions. Think about what you want to get our of your time in Asia, so we'll be better able to advise your about your itinerary.

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    Well tansmets, I hate to make your decision harder, but in Africa, you won’t just be seeing elephants “from a distance”. You will get up right next to them in the jeep. If you were allowed to touch them, in many cases you will be close enough to do so. These encounters may sometimes be closer than you personally may want to be, especially when you encounter a male in must, but believe me, they will be thrilling. And there is at least one camp in SA where you can do safari trips on elephants. I am in an airport lounge today and can’t get access to my Africa guidebooks, but I can do so later in the week, or post a thread on the Africa board to ask the question. But even without riding them for a safari, you will, IMO, see plenty of elephants in a very up-close and personal way in SA. (You might also consider Botswana, which has the famous huge herds in Chobe, but do watch the rain issues there in Feb and March).

    I would agree that Brunei is not worth the hassle to get to. There is quite limited sightseeing (it’s kind of a weird place, IMO, a bit too overwhelmed by their sultan).

    I agree that there are parts of Bali that are quite touristy; although “built-up” does not really apply, there are no swaths of high rises like Miami Beach or even place like Hua Hin and Pattaya in Thailand. However, there are certainly ways to avoid those areas. I would avoid staying in Nusa Dua. The Seminyak area is hugely popular and can have the feeling of just any other beach resort, but really if you stay 15-20 minutes outside of that area, you are back in quiet Bali, but can go into Seminyak for a meal or shopping. Same with Ubud, I would not stay in the town any longer, it’s too crowded esp with day-trippers, but staying outside of the main town, but walkable or bike able to it, is still a good choice. There are also areas up along the east and north coast that are quite untouristed.

    The idea of 5 nights Bali and 6 in Borneo may work; it would depend on the flight schedule between them. But you can’t fly non-stop to Borneo, and non-stops to Bali from the US are quite limited, so you may want or need a day or two in your connecting city (i.e. Singapore or KL or Hong Kong), which means you may have less time in each place. You would have to look at flight schedules to see what works.

    Perhaps our suggestions are making your choice harder, not easier. I always say to go with your gut, and if your first thought was SE Asia (or South Africa), then go with that.

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    So tough...I am going to look into South Africa as well and then make my fiance decide. He is very busy with work so I'll do some research and then have him make a decision.

    A Malaysian coworker of mine told me we would enjoy Borneo but he said it's worth maybe 3 nights at most. So now i'm thinking if we do SE Asia- fly to HK, maybe 2 nights there, then Kota Kimbalu (air malaysia or dragonair has a direct flight) - either rasa ria or borneo rainforest lodge or maybe 3 nights lodge, one relaxing at one of the shangri la resorts. So 4 nights in Borneo.
    From Borneo - this is the part I have to look more into - Bali/Denpasar (air asia connect in KL), Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai- that might be too rushed but it is easy enough to get to chiang mai and then drive...a bit time consuming for such a short trip (also air asia connect in KL) or northern Vietnam. 3-4 nights in whatever place we decide. Bali might make the most sense, but I feel like there is more "to do" in Thailand. Any recommendations for another part of northern Thailand that might ben enjoyable? Luang Prabang is out because the flight connections would take too much time.

    From there on to whatever city takes us back to the US, ideally Singapore for 2-3 nights. Maybe Bangkok or Tokyo for a night, back to HK for 1 night, depends on flights.

    Cicerone- thanks so much again. I will start a potential itinerary thread in the Africa forum. I think we would fly to Cape Town, then maybe Kruger.

    What might be useful to help us decide is to come up with 2 potential itineraries and price them out and figure out connections.

    AND we also thought about Patagonia, but I think I have my hands full for now :)

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    If you are only willing to spend 4 nights in Borneo, then skip it. Often, someone who grew up in an area will not see their home territory as being that "special." But do your own research and see what appeals to you.

    The Rasa Ria is no way approximates the experience of staying in the virgin rainforest and seeing a wide variety of animals in the wild. You will see captive orangutans, but I doubt that you are traveling half way around the world for that experience.

    Three nights at the BRL is minimum to make it worthwhile.

    One night at a resort means just that - you'll spend the night. If you want even one day at the each you have to spend two nights. So if you want some beach time in Sabah, spend three nights at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru.

    Now, consider what else you would want to do. Typically, roundtrip airfares allow one free stopover usually two or three nights. But two nights is only one day. You'd arrive in Hong Kong, for instance, in the evening, and fly out after two nights - one full day plus a couple of hours after you arrive and a couple of hours before you fly onward. Personally, I wouldn't do a stopover anywhere I hadn't been before of less than three nights (which will still only give you two full days). Both Hong Kong and SIngapore are good stop-over cities.

    I suppose you could do two three-night stopovers, one on the way in, one on the way out, and 6 nights in Borneo... but you said your priority was nature.

    If it were me (and it isn't), I'd spend as much time as possible in Borneo (since you have 2 weeks, that's likely 12 nights on the ground, so probably 9 nights in Borneo) and a three night stop-over in Hong Kong or Singapore. Do a little research on other places to see wildlife in Borneo - Sandakan, for instance.

    The idea of flying from Borneo to Chiang Mai or Northern VN for three or four nights strikes me as a waste of your precious time. While you can connect through KL on Air Asia, Air Asia does not transfer luggage from one flight to another. You would fly into KL, pick up your luggage and re-check it to fly onward. It will take you a whole day to get from your hotel in Borneo to your next hotel. And you'd have just two or three days in anew place with an entirely different culture than the place you just left. Note that if you choose to go to VN, you'll need a visa in advance.

    I can't help you with South Africa, but Cicerone has given you lots of info. One of the difference between viewing wildlife in SA vs. Borneo is that in SA you'll be viewing animals from a jeep. In Borneo, you'll be on foot. I think it's a different experience.

    You have so many wonderful options. Whatever you choose give yourselves enough time to experience these wonderful places!

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    We should have more than 12 nights on the ground - hopefully 14. If you had to choose, would you fly into Kota Kinabalu or Kuching? I guess we could do both, we do want to focus on nature but I know us- we will want to spend less than 9 days in Borneo most likely. I think 3-4 days in the BRL should be enough, and then we would fly to another part of Borneo or south east asia. Personality I guess...8 days of rainforest would be a bit much for me...we generally can not take off so much time from work, and while I do not want a tour experience of 8 cities in 11 days, we will want to see at least 3 places. Rethinking this, we would only have one true stopover for 3 nights- I think I prefer Singapore to HK, but HK is easier to do from NYC based on early flight research.

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    One note to all those who have been helpful to us in picking a destination- we can not go scuba diving (asthma) so visiting the little islands off of Borneo known for their diving isn't really appropriate for us. I enjoy snorkeling, but wouldn't go out of my way for it.

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    Borneo isn't all rainforest. My suggestion was for 3 or 4 nights at the BRL (your rainforest time) 3 nights at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru (beach time). For these two places, you'll need to fly into Kota Kinabalu. (This is all in Sabah.)

    You may want a day in Kota Kinabalu as well.

    From there, I'd fly to Kuching. Sarawak is so different from Sabah. Kuching itself is a charming town. You can go visit Bako if you want, or your can do a longhouse visit, or can enjoy a few days in Kuching and the surrounding area. You can visit the nursery of the "Orchid King"( if you read the Orchid Thief).

    If you combine those with a stopover in Hong Kong or Singapore, you'll have your three locations.

    HK is an easier stopover if you are flying Cathay Pacific. Singapore Air also has flights from the east coast (Newark, I believe) which would take you to Singapore. Or, on any airline, if you connect through Narita, there are non-stops to Singapore.

    Let me suggest you buy the Lonely Planet guide to Malaysia. It has nice sections on both Sabah and Sarawak. Both are very different from each other and very different from the rest of Malaysia. (Indeed, you get a special passport stamp for each).

    Do count exactly how many days you'll have on the ground, as you lose a day or two in transit from NYC.

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    I actually flipped through the Lonely Planet Borneo guide today (yup, a book just on Borneo). It looks like the weather would be a bit drier in March than February, so maybe we will aim to go later than earlier.
    I will also do some research into what to do in Kuching. Do you recommend 3 nights/3 days there?
    HK is definitely an easier stopover (there are non stop flights on Cathay to HK, not to singapore) but I'm more interested in Singapore somehow. Not sure why or if it makes any sense. I'd love to visit the Singapore Zoo, but won't need to if we end up in Borneo!

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    Ah, I'd forgotten that LP now has a Borneo guide! Good, that should give you lots of info.

    Three nights in Kuching is what we did, and I regretted that we didn't have more time there. We didn't get to Bako, which was on our list as well as a number of other things we wanted to do (I always have a list of things I'd like to do that is much longer than what is possible). So I'd say three nights minimum in Kuching.

    I did a bit of flight research for you. Singapore Air has daily one-stop flights from JFK to SIN (your stop is in Frankfort) or non-stop flights EWR - SIN 5 days a week. SInce Singapore interests you, take a look at those options. If you'd rather stop in Singapore than Hong Kong, it's definitely do-able.

    Do keep us posted on what you decide!

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    I thought I'd resurrect my old thread since I have some new questions and update with our decision - after all that we decided to go to Namibia and South Africa, which we really loved. Particularily Namibia. But back to Asia...

    We are looking to plan our next big trip around Thanksgiving / early December and I can get a pretty decently priced direct flight to HK- we have around 10 days and a good friend living in HK (always nice to have a local show you around). So i think I could pair HK with one, maybe 2, destinations that are a direct flight. How many days do I need in HK- 4? I was thinking of going to Kota Kinabalu and finally checking out Borneo or to Kuching....would like to go to Beijing but it will be really cold and I know I can't even scratch the surface of China in that amount of time.

    Recommendations? Since we would be spending time in HK, I would prefer not to go to another built up / modern asian city (ie no Shanghai). Thanks!

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    Please look at the weather in KK and Borneo as November tends to be quite rainy, so make sure you are OK with this. It is not the ideal time, IMO. End of November is less rainy than the beginning, but still overall this is still part of the rainy season, so bear this in mind. It will affect snorkeling and diving, which IMO are one of the main reasons to go to Borneo, as the fish and coral life is so good. (Your honeymoon in Feb would have been during the dry season there and an ideal time to go.)

    Other ideas that would meet your interests I think would be Bali (also a bit rainy, but in Bali this does not matter nearly so much, IMO, and rain is quite a bit less than on Borneo) or other parts of Indonesia like Java or Sumatra which are relatively off the beaten tourist path, but which also offer activities like Orang Utan preserves at places like Bukit Lawang (can also be on the rainy side in November). Or someplace like Laos or Cambodia, which I think you considered originally for your honeymoon and which are in quite nice weather in November. Parts of Vietnam could work, but again watch rain as some parts get very heavy rain there. November can be tricky generally for SE Asian coastal areas because of rain. (Hong Kong actually has the best weather of them all.) Bangkok and north areas of Thailand would work, as would the east coast beaches around Phuket.

    I agree Beijing would be cool to cold, but actually can be quite lovely if you are dressed for it, and won’t have the hordes of tourists it has in the warmer months, so I would not automatically take it off the list. The bare trees are really pretty against something like the red walls of the Forbidden City and if you are lucky enough to get a light dusting of snow, kind of magical. Or consider places in Yunnan Province or places like Xian, again a bit on the cool side but still quite bearable and very lovely. I would also throw out someplace along the “Silk Road” like Dunhuang as it’s so interesting and very much not visited by most Western tourists (but popular with PRC tourists). Not all of these are going to be direct flights from Hong Kong, but should be workable.

    Bhutan would be possible as well, it will be on the cool to cold side, but still good trekking season to the best of my knowledge. Hard to beat for temples and nature (although they don’t have jungles, they do have Himalya, which can compensate!)

    For beaches, if you don’t want Thailand or Bali, then consider the Philippines which is in excellent weather in November and has some gorgeous ones (much prettier than Bali and the equal of Krabi, etc). You could do a combination of something like the rice terrace areas of Baguio for hiking and nature and then beaches. Really, really off the beaten tourist path compared to places like Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. You could splash out at someplace like Amanpulo after Baguio (where you probably have to rough it a bit), or go to Palawan or Borocay where a new Shangri-La hotel has just opened (have not seen it but have heard good things.).

    Hainan Island in the PRC is a possibility for beaches as well as it is dry, but may be a bit on the cool side for you for beach sitting (temps in the low to mid 70s F). See weather websites for Sanya, that is where all the nice resort hotels are located, including a gob smacking Ritz-Carlton. It’s very much off the Western tourist path, although it is popular with Chinese tourists. It’s very lovely (it’s touted as the “Hawaii of China”, not quite, IMO but very pretty indeed). If you go inland there are old villages still there which remain quite traditional.

    As far as time in Hong Kong, if you think Hong Kong is all built up, you need to speak to your friend. If your friend thinks it is, he or she needs to speak to me. You can get outside the city (by public transport or by car) to countryside areas very quickly and easily. (There are in fact many places ON Hong Kong Island which qualify as “jungles”.) Or by boat, again public ferry or private boat (or even kayak). There are numerous walking and hiking trails and marvelous beaches. Little villages amid farmers fields with working temples (which you don’t find that often in the PRC these days). Ruins of Ming-era forts. You could arrange an itin that spends very little time in city areas (other than going to good restaurants, as it appears you don’t need a hotel, and depending on where your friend lives, you may even be closer to the countryside than you know). And November weather is just marvelous, albeit there can be some air pollution, but the temps are lovely and no rain. You can take boats out to see the pink dolphins which are native to our waters, and there is also a Panda experience at Ocean Park here which you might find enjoyable (you have to pre register so you might want to look into that, see http://www.oceanpark.com.hk/html/en/park-experience/unique/panda.html). We also offer more butterfly species than any place else on earth, and wild cattle and water buffaloes (some wandering village streets, blink and you could be in India….and always surprising when you encounter a herd on a hiking trail!)

    While you don’t really have time if you intend to spend time in Hong Kong, I should mention that India is in marvelous weather in late November and would more than meet your interests. There are numerious non-stops to several Indian cities from Hong Kong. Have to throw it out there as I don’t know what you would consider or whether you can extend time.

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    Thanks for all the advice. We would stay in a hotel in HK (a starwood since I have a lot of points to use up). I forgot that late Nov / early dec is moonsoon time. We would be interested in northern Thailand, though the lack of a direct flight is discouraging - I could only find directs from HK to bangkok and some of the islands. One factor that would make me avoid the PRC mainland is the visa issue - we are US citizens and I don't know if it's worth the hassle for us to only spend a few days.

    Bhutan looks amazing...but it is a long (and not cheap) flight from HK. Not sure my husband wants beaches- we can go to the Caribbean for those. I would be interested in okinawa but I think he would nix that. I will look more into Hainan island- that could be a possibility, but maybe our best bet. I don't think we want 10 days in HK, but I definitely would want to spend a few nights there. Maybe our best bet is to deal with the visa hassle, bundle up and head to Xian or Beijing. Baguio sounds interesting as well. Are there direct flights to these places? We just want something that retains some personality and culture...I don't want to head halfway around the world to be at a resort in Kuta that is just like somewhere in the Caribbean with asian influenced food/decor. What about Penang? I know there is a direct flight on AirAsia.

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    I love Penang (Georgetown). The E&O is a wonderful hotel, the hawker food is famous for a reason, and the historic areas are interesting and charming. Take a look at my trip report (click on my name) and the photos www.marlandc.com/Bangkok2006/Penang/index.htm

    I wouldn't go to Penang for beaches, just for Georgetown.

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    I don’t think I would let the lack of direct flights to northern Thailand entirely deter you, as you should be able to get somewhat decent connections. For Chiang Mai, the connections don’t really look bad to me, you can get there from Hong Kong in about 5 hours with a connection in Bangkok (about an hour layover), which really is quite decent. You can get to Chiang Rai in about 6 hours. Remember that distances are vast in Asia, so even non-stops are going to take time (i.e., the non-stop to Penang is just over 5 hours, and Hong Kong to Beijing or Xian are 3 hours each way). So if that area interests you, I would not rule it out as the flight times do seem quite good for Asia. If you can change your FF return to go out of Bangkok, that may also be a better routing than returning to Hong Kong simply to get a flight back to the US (this could be true of any itin you do, including Malaysia, where departing from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur may be a better routing).

    With regard to the PRC, while the visa cost is somewhat expensive (currently US$140 per person for US citizens) I don’t think you would really find it a hassle to apply for it, as you are in the NYC area and can use the consulate office in Manhattan. Only you can really decide whether the cost and application process is “worth it” for 10 days or so in the PRC.

    There are numerous non-stops daily from Hong Kong to Beijing (it’s a lot like the NYC-DC shuttle flights). There is at least one daily nonstop to/from Hong Kong and Xian, and more than a dozen daily non-stops between Beijing and Xian, so you could do a triangle.

    You cannot fly to the Banaue rice terrace areas or most beaches in the Philippines non-stop but have to go via Manila, which is about 2 hours from Hong Kong, there are several daily non-stops. (Sorry, it is Banuae I originally intended to post about, not Baguio which is actually a city in the highlands which is a transit point for getting to Banaue. But the air entry point for both is Manila.) It will take most of a day to drive from Manila to Banaue, and the same on the return. I have not been in some years myself, but I don’t think it has changed much, and IMO you would be hard-pressed to find a less touristed place. (That can of course be good and bad, if it had more tourists, you could fly there like you can to Yunnan Province to see their rice terraces. Bali has similar, although less dramatic, rice terrace areas as well.) You can fly to Cebu non-stop from Hong Kong, which has some nice beach areas but if a beach is not at the top of your list, I think I would go elsewhere in the Philippines and then do a beach as a short add-on if it works with your schedule. Cebu is a bit developed for my taste.

    Penang has lots of interesting bits, including a good-size Chinatown and some British-era colonial buildings as well. Like all of Malaysia, the mix of food on offer is simply stunning and IMO Malaysian is the best of Asian cuisines. Bear in mind that it will be a bit rainy in November in Penang as well (see weatherbase.com and look at Georgetown or Butterworth), but of course seeing a city area in rain is somewhat easier than slogging through jungles in the mud, so weather is not as much of an issue. I would agree that the beaches in the area around Penang are not a great attraction, but for an afternoon would be fine (rain notwithstanding). But maybe you don’t care about beaches on this holiday, which is good because the weather is not on your side in November in many places (Hong Kong beaches, however will be about at their loveliest, although not perhaps for swimming, but certainly for walks, hikes, picnics or just sitting and enjoying “winter” sunshine in 75 F temps).

    You might also consider including other places in Malaysia. There are tea plantation areas like the Cameron Highlands and Genting which might interest you for hiking and outdoor pursuits, and also places like Tama Negara National Park (again watch rain issues in these places). Assuming you are OK with left-hand drive, Malaysia is one of the few places in Asia where I would actually recommend hiring your own car, so perhaps you could rent a car in Penang and go to the Cameron Highlands (takes about 3 hours, you can also go by bus and taxi). You could then drive to KL and drop the car and fly back to Hong Kong.

    As you know, you can fly non-stop to Penang from Hong Kong, so that may work well. You can also fly to Penang from Singapore in just over an hour, which makes combining trips there possible as well. You can get to Penang from Hong Kong via a connection in Kuala Lumpur as well, so perhaps a stopover there would work too. (I am not a huge fan of KL for the tourist, as I think it does not offer much of cultural or historical interest; however it has excellent food and very nice people. So for 2 days or so it is a perfectly nice place to stop on the way to or from somewhere else.)

    You can also take a train to Penang from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur (the station stop is Butterworth, then ferry to Penang), which would be quite scenic, esp. from Singapore. From Singapore this would take about 10 hours, see http://www.ktmb.com.my/MainPage.aspx for timetables and fares (although it should be quite a bit cheaper than flying, even in like first class). If you really want to splash out, you may be able to take the Orient Express just as far as Penang from Singapore, see http://www.orient-express.com/web/eoe/eastern_and_oriental_express.jsp. You could drive from Singapore to Penang as well, about 8 hours in my recollection. You could break up this trip by stopping in Malacca for an overnight on the way up, which offers some charming colonial Portuguese and Chinese areas. However if you decide to drive from Singapore, I would look into renting the car just over the border in Malaysia (in Johor Bauru), as this will be cheaper than renting in S’pore and dropping in Malaysia. Take a taxi or bus from Singapore to Johor Bauru. But I think it would be more fun to fly or take the train to Penang, and then drive from there actually.

    Now, as to Bali. Bali happens to be someplace which I still consider to be magical, in spite of the massive development which has occurred there in the 25 years I have been going to the island. And of course there are places, like Seminyak, which are quite close to being low-rise versions of South Beach Miami at this point (complete with its own W Hotel opening in October). And I agree that for you to fly 12,000 miles only to end up having a cappuccino in the lobby of the W Hotel seems sort of silly. But there are many places you can still go in Bali and have a quieter, more Balinese-influenced experience. Balinese culture, especially the arts, are still alive and well. Bali offers good opportunities for walks/hikes and things like white-water rafting, and has some limited wildlife viewing opportunities. So I would not rule out Bali by any means provided you avoid the more popular areas, primarily those on the south east coast (although Ubud is aggressively touristy as well, but much of that is day trippers, and you can stay outside the village and avoid a lot of it), and can live without say an Italian restaurant or a French bakery.

    For hotels in Hong Kong, with Starwood points you have 3 choices at this point. I probably would say to go with the Sheraton Hotel and Towers, and try for a harbour view room on a high floor in the Towers portion. There is a fairly large construction site across the street from this hotel on the water, where a new 70-story tower is going up. Construction only just began this year, so for a September 2010 trip, it should not affect much in terms of views of the harbour, but there may be some noise issues and lower level views may not be as great as they could be as there will be cranes. (So go for as high a floor as possible in the towers.) But otherwise the hotel has nice views and is a good location for Kowloon (which I would otherwise avoid). There is a W also in Kowloon, which tries very hard, but unfortunately is handicapped by a rather remote location and the fact that there are no views from the rooms to speak of (the building is blocked by the massive ICC tower in front of it; it has some nice western harbour views and some interesting eastern views, but neither are the classic Hong Kong harbour view which you could get from the Sheraton, for example). I would really think twice before choosing this hotel because you will spend a lot of time in transit in a taxi or on the subway; you literally cannot walk anywhere from this hotel as it is surrounded on three sides by highways and on the fourth by a huge piece of vacant land. The Meridien Cyberport is the third choice, and actually could be quite interesting. It has lovely water and mountain views, and is quite off the tourist path; however it is not in any main downtown area so I am not sure if this would interest you. It is close to Aberdeen and some good walking trails (mostly uphill, or you can go downhill from the Peak back to your hotel; you can also get small ferries from Aberdeen to places like Lamma). If your friend lives in Pok Fu Lam or on the Southside this may not be a bad location, and certainly is not full of touts and tourists (as Kowloon would be). So see what your friend would think.

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    Cicerone, Thanks so much again for all your help. We are still planning and thinking and I'm exploring options. I think due to weather that we would skip Malaysia, and either go to Chiang Rai / Chiang Mai or Southern China. I would love to go to Beijing, but it looks too cold and from the little research I've done on the Yunnan provence, it looks beautiful, particularily Lijiang, although there are not great flight connections to Lijiang. It does seem like there is a flight from Shenzhen - how close is that airport to HK? Maybe we would use Shanghai and HK as our gateway cities and then go to Guilin. Guizhou looks interesting as well. I am more interested in seeing this type of scenery / culture than KL, Singapore, or another city. Our friend in HK recommended Zhangjaijae, but it seems more of a day trip and a bit far if we were to go to the Yunnan area.
    So many places to see, so little vacation time!

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    Given the elevation of Lijiang, I am not sure you will find it any warmer than Beijing, so check weather websites and compare. Lijiang and the Yunnan Province area is quite interesting and beautiful, but if you are trying to choose a place for warmer weather in November than Beijing, I am not sure it really has any advantage over Beijing. Guilin would be a little bit warmer, like in the low 60s F. I have not been to Guizhou (I imagine it to be similar to much of Yunnan Province) or to Zhangjaijae, but if your friend reccos the latter, I would also take that into consideration. Always good to have the word of someone you know (as opposed to guidebooks or complete strangers on the web). It may be possible to take a train to or from these areas and Guangzhou, which is itself 2 hours by train from Hong Kong, so you may want to look into that rather than flying, which may not work as well for those areas.

    If you are not interested in big cities, then Shanghai may not be a good choice for you. It has 20 million people, really bad air pollution and is just a huge, huge city. There are some colonial bits left, some very avant garde skyscraper arhcitecure, and it has a certain buzz of course, but there are not really any historical sights (like in Beijing) and if the restaurants and shopping of a city are not what you want, then I don’t see the point in going to Shanghai to be honest. For a first-time visitor, I would certainly choose Beijing for its historical sights over Shanghai.

    IMO going to Shenzhen Airport from Hong Kong is a bit of a pain given the distance, and with baggage, so make sure that the flight connections really are better before you consider this. The fastest and most convenient way to go is by private car (it is also the most expensive) and will take about 1.5 hours. Buses will take 2-3 hours. This is compared to about 30 minutes to get to Hong Kong airport from anywhere in the main areas of Hong Kong. You have to go through Immigration twice on the trip, so if you are going at rush hours the trip will take a bit longer. So bear that in mind when you weigh up the “convenient” schedule of going from Shenzhen. Most people go from Shenzhen because it tends to be cheaper, not really because it is more convenient in terms of flight times.

    From what I can see, the flights to Lijiang from Hong Kong depart at Noon, and from Shenzhen at about 1:30-2 pm and they arrive into Lijiang at about the same time (5:30 - 6 pm), so I don’t see any advantage to schlepping all the way to Shenzhen to get a flight to Lijiang.

    If your return flight to the US at the end of your trip is out of Hong Kong, then one thing you might want to consider is making Kunming/Yunnan, etc your last stop on the trip, and then flying Kunming to Shenzhen and connecting directly from the Shenzhen airport to the Hong Kong Airport and flying home on the same day. If flight schedules from to Shenzhen would allow you to make a flight home out of Hong Kong airport the same day, this would be a quite attractive option, IMO. It saves you the hassle of going to Shenzhen from Hong Kong, and you only have to go through Immigration once. The website for Hong Kong Airport is http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng and also http://www.cksp.com.hk/eng/skypier/introduction/main.html they have information on transfers by ferry from Shenzhen Shekou. You can take a bus or ferry, both run frequently every day.

    The website for Shenzhen Airport is http://eng.szairport.com/, they have some info on transportation options.

    If you decide to go to Shenzhen Airport from Hong Kong, your options are below. I don’t use Shenzhen airport very often, so please check with your friend and guidebooks, hotels etc for the latest information, as what I have below may not be completely current.

    For a private car service, I would recommend Park Lane, see http://www.hongkonglimo.com/html/shuttle.html, contact them for a quote. Your hotel could provide a car for you as well, you could ask them for a quote. Your friend may know of a car service. (A taxi is not really possible, as Hong Kong taxis cannot operate in the PRC and vice versa, so you would have to take two sets of taxis to/from each border, and carry bags through Immigration. Quite a hassle, and I would not recommend this. I would take the bus option over doing any sort of combined taxi option.) If all goes well, the trip by car is about 1.5 hours, give or take some traffic and assuming there are no long lines at either Hong Kong or PRC Immigration.

    The next most convenient option are private buses which cost about HK$100, so they are a fraction of the cost of a private car, but you do have to weigh in the cost and convenience, how much luggage you will have, etc. For a private bus option, http://www.trans-island.com.hk/eng/index.html. You can also get the China Link Bus from either the Hong Kong or the Kowloon side, the one on the Kowloon side departs from the Elements Mall at the Kowloon MTR station (which is also where the Airport Express station is located on the Kowloon side). I believe this bus may be a bit faster because Immigration is done for both HK and the PRC in a more smooth manner as it uses the Shenzhen Bay crossing which is faster than the Huanggang crossing. There does not seem to be an English website for Chinalink, see the Chinese at http://www.chinalink.hk/. I believe buses run about every half hour at 15 and 45 past the hour.

    Otherwise there are cheaper options like a public bus, or the MTR/KCR train to Lo Wu at the border, at which point you would take a bus/taxi to the airport. These will all take 3 hours or so door to door and some schlepping of bags. For public buses, I believe these may require a transfer or two, you could check with the hotel which could provide specific information, or check a guidebook.

    It is also possible to go from Macau Airport to Hong Kong Airport directly via a dedicated ferry service, so flying from Kunming or other PRC airports to Macau and then flying out of Hong Kong airport home on the same day may also be an option. (Getting TO Macau Airport from downtown Hong Kong is a pain, IMO, so I don’t think I would recco flying out of Macau to the PRC, but it is possible if you are OK with committing some time and hassle to making a trip in that direction.)

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