Discover the spice of South East Asia

23 April 2015

Cruising through the seas of South East Asia is one of the best ways to get a feel for this vibrant, exotic and colourful part of the world. Stops in key ports include Singapore, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Lankawi) and Thailand (Phuket). Each destination has something unique to offer, from shopping to temples, orchids and beaches. It all began in Singapore …

Mariner of the Seas Mariner of the Seas cruise liner. Photo by Roderick Eime.


“Whatever you do, don’t throw chewing gum on the ground!” This was my warning before I arrived in Singapore. No problem, because I don’t chew gum and I knew that the city-state, island country of Singapore is one of the cleanest in the world because of Draconian litter laws.

I also knew it is one of the world’s best shopping destinations, friendlier, more accessible and certainly more affordable than soulless Dubai.

I first shopped in Orchard Road (the Holy Grail of shopping) more than 25 years ago, and it’s still irresistible. You can buy designer labels, local handcrafts (silk paintings are especially beautiful), cameras and IT gear, jewellery (I still wear a gorgeous ruby ring purchased on my first visit), toys, art, antiques, spices and fabrics – or whatever your stamina or credit card can handle.

Orchard Central Orchard Street, Singapore's shopping hub. Photo by soeperbaby.

Need fresh air after all those malls?

Then visit the 74ha Botanic Gardens with its fabulous National Orchid Garden. (The minute you get home you’ll rush to your nearest Woolies or Pick n Pay to buy an orchid for your own home.)

National Orchid Garden Singapore's National Orchid Garden. Photo by Choo Yut Shing.


I’m a religious building junkie (I love cathedrals, mosques, temples, ancient Celtic burial mounds, whatever…) so in Kuala Lumpur, after the obligatory whizzing up the 88-storey twin Petronas Towers and admiring the stunning views, I took myself off to the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the city’s oldest and richest Hindu temple. I bought a garland of flowers from a street vendor outside, to add to the hundreds of other offerings to the Hindu deities inside.

Sri Mahamariamman Temple Sri Mahamariamman Temple. Photo by Sam Ross-Gower.

In Penang, I took a walking tour (you can also take a bike or a trishaw) round the streets of George Town, a World Heritage Site with a mixture of all kinds of architecture from the colonial past. Then my knowledgeable guide took me off to the tropical Butterfly Farm in Teluk Bahang where gorgeous multi-coloured butterflies fluttered round my head amid a soft whirring of wings – a really lovely experience.

Kek Lok Si Temple George Town Penang Kek Lok Si Temple in George Town, Penang. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy.

Phuket, Thailand

There are beaches in Penang, but I waited for one of Phuket’s iconic golden beaches. Yes, they are very touristy, but when you’re sipping coconut milk straight from the shell, watching gentle waves lap against a blue lagoon, or snorkelling, wind surfing, diving (or just lazing on the beach), you won’t even notice other tourists.

Laem Sing Beach - Phuket, Thailand Phuket's idyllic Laem Sing beach. Photo by ...your local connection.

But if you’re not into sand, sea and surf (or even if you are) a really cool thing to do is to pop in to the Phuket Trickeye Museum. It’s one of my greatest South East Asia highlights. Friends and I had such a great time here (it’s great whether you’re aged nine or 90) being photographed in amazing places and poses that you can post on social media or just keep on your phone or camera.

phuket-trickeye-museum The Phuket Trickeye Museum. Photo by Darren Z via TripAdvisor.

I became part of lots of 3D pictures, from being “picked up” by King Kong himself, and straddling a mighty waterfall, to appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Make sure your camera is fully charged (you’ll take hundreds of pics) and give yourself a couple of hours. For my money, this is the most fun you can have in Phuket and makes a bit of a break from beaches, temples, shopping and food.
You’ll love it! I can’t wait to go back!

海洋水手號 Mariner of the Seas The Mariner of the Seas. Photo by Jonathan Chen.

The Spice of South East Asia Cruise departs Singapore on 22 October, or 6 November 2015. For more information, or to book, click here.

Kate Turkington

Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.