Singapore is blessed to be located at the very centre of South-east Asia – with its natural and cultural attractions, culinary delights and rich history.
Singaporeans are indeed spoilt for choice when it comes to planning a vacation, even a short one. No two countries are more popular for holiday-makers from this island country than Malaysia and Thailand, chosen mostly due to their proximity and familiarity. The two countries are alike in many attractive ways but at the same time, display even more distinctive and unique heritage and attributes. Thailand is in fact one of the top 10 holiday destinations in the world. Yet, to me, Malaysia with its more underrated appeal is really the better choice.
One must begin with the shared history between Singapore and Malaysia. Up until 1965, Singapore was part of Malaysia. The people of both countries before and after Separation in 1965 have common languages like Bahasa Melayu, English as well as the Chinese and Indian languages. The feeling of comfort and homeliness adds to the charm of a holiday in Malaysia where the food is also similar and yet distinctly special. With no language barrier in the way, holiday-makers are motivated to explore Malaysia with more enthusiasm and spirit of adventure.
This would not be the case with Thailand, a country where the majority of its people only speak Thai. Thai culture is also rather different from that which is practised in Singapore and Malaysia and would demand tourists to be more careful and sensitive to its local ways.
As Malaysia lies just across the Causeway from Singapore, it is obviously the more practical and easier choice logistically. Singaporeans need only hop into their land vehicles of choice and in less than 30 minutes of travel time (provided of course there is no traffic jam or a long line at the Customs and Immigrations Checkpoint), they would already be in another country for a getaway. In contrast, a direct flight from Singapore to Hat Yai, Thailand would require at least one hour and 30 minutes of travel time. Malaysia is far closer and thus costs less in terms of travel fare.
The southern state of Johore offers a great deal more than what one may see in its capital city of Johore Bahru. Its smaller towns like Mersing, Kota Tinggi, Batu Pahat, Segamat, Muar etc. are hidden jewels waiting to be discovered. Many a natural and historical attraction could be found all over these town districts like Mount Ledang in Tangkak and Desaru beach in Kota Tinggi, for example. The availability of a variety of chalets and uniquely-themed hotels that fits all budget size makes even a weekend holiday massively fun and satisfying for the entire family. This would not be possible for a trip to Thailand as one would need at least three to four days inclusive of travel time just to be able to unwind and enjoy the trip.
The traveller with more than a day to spare could venture beyond the borders of Johore into the states of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan on its east coast side. These three states are comparatively more unknown and less popular when compared to the states of Melaka, Perak and Penang on the peninsular west coast but they have their own charms.
The natural wonders found in the three states are like a treasure chest of amazing places. For those who are into nature-based activities like mountain climbing, hiking, camping, white-water rafting, Gunong Tahan and the national park in the state of Terengganu would be heaven. Or if you prefer beaches, snorkelling and scuba diving, the islands of Tioman in Pahang and Redang in Terengganu would be on top of your travel list. The great biodiversity of marine animals and plants are most mesmerising with the sheer ocean blue clarity of the waters surrounding these islands matching or even superseding that of the famous islands in Thailand.
For those with an appetite for history, Malaysia would have the upper-hand over Thailand. It is a country with a very saturated heritage and history made up by the many communities that call this country home. Colonial powers had arrived on the soil of this nation as early as the 16th century, bringing with them European influences. The clash of western and local cultures resulted in a very rich and documented history. When that is combined with the many ethnic groups that make up the Malaysian population, the result is a much more multi-faceted cultural identity and complex heritage than that of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
A wonderful example would be the state of Kelantan. The world’s third largest reclining Buddha statue is located here in the state where 95% of the population is Malay-muslims. Centuries of Thai control over the state has produced a very rich, unique culture and cuisine found nowhere else in Malaysia. Often Kelantan is sidelined by local and international tourists for Thailand itself when in fact the state itself is worth the time for exploration despite its more conservative outlook. Tourists who yearn to learn about local cultural identities would find Kelantan, known as the cradle of Malay culture, mesmerising as urban development has yet to stifle the traditional Malay cultural heritage that makes the state famous like the giant kite-flying (wau), top-spinning (gasing), silver-craft, batik-drawing as well as the all-male choral-singing called “dikir barat”. Safety-wise Kelantan would also be more preferred over southern Thailand as that region has been plagued by episodes of bombings caused by their southern insurgents since 2004 (as recorded by news over the years).
This neighbouring country of Singapore with its 14 states has so many more hidden gems for its Singaporean tourists to further discover and enjoy. All the traveller needs is time and a spirit of adventure.