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Malaysia, Indonesia, and/or Singapore?

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My fiancé and I are planning our honeymoon, and we're thinking Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. We have 16 days total to get there and back and will be going over Christmas and new year's. The question is: where do we go? We feel we should cut out a country, but which? So far research has been based mostly on watching Anthony Bourdain No Reservation episodes, and I found this thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/660866. Please help!

We live in NYC and love food. I'm Chinese-American and am an adventurous eater (but no bugs). When traveling I try to cram in a good amount, with a focus on food, local culture, and breathtaking sights. He's German and has become a more adventurous eater since being with me. He also has the strongest stomach ever. He prefers a more relaxed vacation that involves beach and not too much moving around, but he also focuses on food. We want to eat as the locals do and love street food, but we also enjoy a nice sit-down restaurant with good service.

Sorry for too much background info, but hopefully you fellow chowhounds can help us make our trip perfect! Please let me know your thoughts. Malaysia, particularly Penang, sounds like a must. Bali is an obvious honeymoon choice, but how's the food there and the rest of Indonesia? And of course we've heard about lechon in the Philippines. Please help us decide where to go! Suggestions as to specific towns and even specific restaurants/markets/street corners are welcome. We'd also like to take a cooking class or two.

Thanks in advance!

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  1. Definitely Malaysia for their food, Indonesia for the history, and Philippines for the culture and friendliness of their people.

    Of the 3, I think Indonesia is more 'one-dimensional' as the food especially in Jakarta, Jogjakarta, Bandung and Solo are mainly Javanese. Bali's cuisine also does not differ much from Javanese food. The dishes tend to be quite spicy and a lot of them are deep-fried.

    Malaysia has a more varied choice because, like Singapore, it has Chinese, Malay and Indian cultures and the 3 main communities' food are pretty distinct. Malay food is somewhat similar to Indonesia's.

    You should consider coming to Singapore as the dining scene here is very well-organized and it's safe to eat outside the hotel, unlike Indonesia and Philippines.

    Philippines has gorgeous dishes which I like, and not spicy. You may find the food there a bit sweet for your taste, but okay for me as my Malaccan tastes are used to high use of sugar in cooking.

    5 Replies
    1. re: M_Gomez

      Thank you, this is helpful. We've traveled through Vietnam, eating on the streets with mostly no issues (my fiancé's stomach of steel was fine, but mine protested a bit towards the end of the trip). Is it more or less safe to eat outside the hotel in Indonesia/Philippines vs. Vietnam, do you think?

      I don't know if it really works, but we were putting grapefruit seed extract in all the sodas we drank to help our bodies fight anything they didn't like in the food. Very bitter stuff, but it seemed to have worked!

      1. re: M_Gomez

        @Gomez: OMG, Indonesia is "one-dimensional"??? Food in Jakarta is mainly Javanese??? Bali does not differ much from Javanese??? Sorry to say this but you need to do more research on Indonesia food. Varieties of Indo food greatly exceed what is offered in Singapore hawker stalls!!!
        In Jakarta, you can get Betawi food (Sop Kaki Kambing, Soto Betwai, Asinan, Nasi Udug...), Menado food (if you think Javanese food is spicy, then try Menado food, it is the most spicy of all Indo food), Madura (Satay madura...), Padang food, Jakarta Chinese food (lotong cap go mei, bakmie ayam, nasi tim, bakso, hakka food...), Medan Chinese food (Bihun bebek, Mie Kriting, Kwetiau goreng...), Batak food (Gulai Kepala ikan...), Sundanese food (kuring...), Palembang food (pempek...), Makassar food (all kind of grilled seafood...)...
        And I keep scratching my head when I read comments that Javanese food is just "deep fried". (sorry, Klyeoh, that is your comment) Tourists unfortunately have superficial understanding of Javanese food. Cental Jawa and East Jawa have different style of Jawa. Plenty of non-fried dishes that include Sop buntot, Nasi gudeg, Nasi rawon, Soto kudus, Nasi liwet, Peti, Bakar gurami/ayam, Gule Kambing, Tongseng, Lumpia, Soto Bangkong, Satay, Soto Ayam, Rujak, Gado gado, Arem arem...
        And we have not even touched on the dessert offered in Jakarta. Not much is written here in Chowhound because most outsiders are clueless but dessert is amazingly delicious.
        And Balinese food greatly differs from Javanese food. They are not similar. First of all, Balinese food includes pork which is not the case in Jawa. Then Bali dishes tend to be very heavy in herbs and spices which is less so in Jawa. Duck is also common dish in Bali, again not the case in Jawa. Big difference!!!

        1. re: FourSeasons

          I really don't know, Four Seasons, but Indonesian curries don't really agree with me. I find their spicing not as complex or flavoursome as the ones for Indian or Nonya curries. Further, I find the excessive use of Indonesian bay leaf or daun salam quite disagreeable.

          I've visited mainly Jakarta a few times as my hubby has some business connections there besides one visit to Bandung and a few to Surabaya. So far, my food discovery there are the Jogja fried chicken, bakso noodles and the Sundanese food's crispy whole deep-fried fish which one can eat bones and all, plus their deep-fried tahu kipas or tahu isi which has a taste reminiscent of Nonya food.

          My favourite restaurant for Padang food is Natrabu in Jalan Sabang for the beef rendang.

          1. re: M_Gomez

            @Gomez:
            I guess we have different taste bud. The Indonesian curry is subtle, much more refined than those in Indian. As to Singapore curry, I don't like the Chicken Curry version, I think that is the worst of all. My friends kept raving about the chicken curry noodle at Hong Lim, which I can't appreciate at all and clueless why there is even a long queue there.

            I am not surprised by your comment. Very few foreigners, tourists or expatriates really understand Indonesian food. If you visit there, your host will likely bring you to more presentable places hence that is what your exposure is.

            Natruba is ok. It is only really good for its rendang but the rest is just average. I have not been back to Natruba for a long time though so things may have changed.

          2. re: FourSeasons

            Jakarta offers a brilliant introduction to the large variety of regional Indonesian cuisines, as FourSeasons noted, throughout the metropolis. I'd like to add that you can even find Papuan food (possibly the token location) in Kelapa Gading; the name is Yougwa. One specialty is sago-their main starch- which you "spin" with utensils to serve on one's plate. Quite viscous.

            And Indonesian desserts. Kue lapis, onde-onde, cendol, anything from Dapur Sunda...I'm sold! Indonesia, is a great place if eating is a priority, and considering your membership on this board, it very well could be...

        2. Singapore will give you a better environment to move around & explore than Malaysia (Penang's nice, but Malacca's a big joke, and KL is too disorganized), Indonesia (you'll be spending 70% of your time in traffic jams, plus it's not safe to drink from the taps or to eat from roadside stalls) or Philippines (not really safe from muggers on the streets).

          4 Replies
          1. re: makanputra

            I always thought you're supposed to drink bottled water in all of SE Asia. Is this no longer the case? Traffic jams sound horrible. Is the Philippines dangerous even if we exercise common sense and don't go too far off the beaten track? Thank you! Sounds like we need to check out Singapore.

            1. re: jen223

              I, for one, grew up drinking water from the tap in Singapore. Ditto for Malaysia in its major cities, but not sure about the countryside and villages.

              I *would*, however, recommend bottled water in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in SE-Asia.

              1. re: klyeoh

                I would echo klyeoh's advice on sticking to bottled water and soft drinks in the Philippines. To take it a step further, my in-laws never accept drinks with ice cubes in it when dining out.

                1. re: klyeoh

                  I live in the US, but visit family in Singapore and Malaysia. I've always drank tap water. No problem with ice cubes either. My kids have always been fine with the tap water and ice too. I haven't really been to any of the small villages, but have been in some smaller towns with no issues.

            2. In addition to considering the greater organization in Singapore, you might consider the balance you wish to have between street food and higher-end restaurant food, what types of food you are seeking as well as how much local exploring or local color you want and how many days you want to spend in each place - and hence how much time you would have for skipping around. There also appear to be different opinions on these boards about whether Singaporean hawker food** or Malaysian street/hawker food is more intensely flavored or made with fresher ingredients etc etc and which specific kinds are better in which place. :-)

              **There isn't much in the way of "street food" in Singapore anymore anyway - it would be "hawker food" in organized hawker centers, as I understand it.

              2 Replies
              1. re: huiray

                Before I offend anyone (as that's not my intention), I had heard from people (Americans) that Singapore is great but doesn't offer as much diversity or interest in terms of exploring the local culture and lifestyle. We loved our trip to Vietnam and appreciated how different the areas were and got a good sense for the Vietnamese way of life. I think my concern about Singapore is that with greater organization may come less of an experience, only in that I don't necessarily want to see cities that are becoming too westernized and have lost its original feel. Am I wrong? Again, don't want to offend.

                1. re: jen223

                  Yes, Singapore can be a bit too sterile to some. Depends on what you're looking for - if you like huge, eye-popping man-made structures, then Singapore's for you.

                  Some pics I took last weekend of Singapore's Marina Bay Sands and also Gardens by the Bay which host a number of Michelin-starred chefs like France's Guy Savoy and UK's Jason Atherton.

                   
                   
                   
                   
              2. I'd like to respectfully disagree with one of the comments about Indonesian food. Over the past 10 years my wife and I have probably eaten in over 200 different restaurants on five different islands. Except for an occasional breakfast, none of those meals were in a hotel and neither of us was ever sick. I love Indonesian food. That said, the food in Malaysia and Singapore is great too. I can't comment on on Filipino food as my only experience with the cuisine is in NYC.

                1 Reply
                1. re: el jefe

                  If you had to pick 2 of the 3, which would you pick? Thanks for your thoughts! Reading all these replies is getting me excited about our trip

                2. All the SE-Asian countries you mentioned have their own attractions, culinary-wise, and also in terms of culture, history and local attractions.

                  INDONESIA
                  =========
                  Mind you, Indonesia is a pretty large country, and Bali is only a small part of it, albeit a very popular one. Are you into history or archeological ruins? If so, Borobudur and Prambanan temples near Jogjakarta could be your thing. Jogjakarta also happened to be the birthplace of one of Indonesia's best dishes: the Ayam Goreng (fried chicken) which you must *not* miss:
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/814718
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/851502

                  Javanese cuisine can be overly-heavy: deep-fried chicken, deep-fried tempe, deep-fried fish, deep-fried tofu. But done well, they are delicious - try Pondok Laguna or Sari Kuring in Jakarta.

                  Padang cuisine is spicy, and usually consists of an eye-popping spread of curries (usually served cold). I don't think you're seriouslyplanning to go to Sumatera itself, but you can find many good Padang restaurants in Jakarta. 'Sop Betawi', a local Jakartan soup, can taste extremely sweet to the uninitiated.

                  But other dishes you should try are the "sate" , "soto ayam" & "rawon". Jakarta's traffic is BAD, and you can spend a couple of hours travelling between your hotel & restaurant during peak period. Foreign visitors should take common sense safety precautions, as petty thefts (pick-pockets) can be a menace.

                  PHILIPPINES
                  ==========
                  The Philippines, likewise, is pretty spread out geographically, and where you choose to go can determine the kind of (culinary) experience you're going to have, but Manila is a perfect place to start off. I have a fairly limited experience in dining out in Manila (4 trips in the past 10 years, and the longest one was just for 1 month's stay), and hope Filipino Chowhounds can contribute on this wonderful cuisine. I spent much of my time in the Makati business district during my last trip and had some really fabulous food:
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/676891
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/676895
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/676661
                  http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/828514

                  From Manila, you can sally forth to nearby Tagaytay (Antonio's is an acclaimed dining spot there), or to the beaches of Boracay, where you can get great seafood.

                  Security in Manila is very tight. Most hotels will arrange airport pickups and also shuttle services between the hotels and major malls for you, as taxis can be somewhat dodgy if you're a foreigner. I can somewhat blend in, but some of my more "Chinese"- or ":Japanese"-looking colleagues often get some extra attention from locals here offering "services", say they "know" you then ask for money, etc. Some parts of downtown Manila can be unsafe after dark. A Filipino friend of mine was mugged near Malate (nice party-dining district otherwise) as the muggers mistook him for a foreign tourist. They bundled him into a back-alley, but he shouted in Tagalog that he's a local - and the muggers scooted. My Filipino friend had Japanese ancestry so he actually looked 100% Japanese.

                  I'd been to Manila where I asked my hotel's airport pickup driver to bring me straight to my company's Manila office instead of to the hotel to check-in. The hotel front desk actually called my Manila office to verify that I had arrived safely! That's how seriously they take security arrangement for their guests.

                  You may also want to check out Cebu island - I'd not been there myself, but heard good things about it.

                  MALAYSIA
                  ========
                  Being a Malaysia-based Singaporean, I think it's hard to know where to begin if I want to share with you the dining experiences here. But in a nutshell:
                  - Penang is a hawker's paradise. Its street foods are some of the *best* in the world! Only Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City comes close, IMO. Bangkok has more variety than the Vietnamese, but can be heavier/spicier. Penang's historic colonial district is a delight & a wonder to the senses at every corner. It is safe to eat and drink on the streets in Penang - I'd not had *any* problems in my 4 decades of Chowhounding there.
                  - Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia's capital city and home to some great street foods, mainly old-school Cantonese, but one *doesn't* come to KL to spend one's honeymoon. It's a haphazardly-planned city, gritty and rough at the edges. But it has the spontaneity which you'd not find in carefully-planned and somewhat sterile Singapore.
                  - Malacca is Malaysia's other well-known tourist spot, but it's smallish and grossly over-commercialised. Even its historic Jonkers Street looked more kitsch than SF Chinatown's Grant Street. I felt like writing a complaint letter to UNESCO on what criteria they used to grant Malacca the World Heritage City status.
                  - Kota Bharu (Kelantan), Ipoh (Perak) and Kuching (Sarawak) are 3 other Malaysian cities - all pretty disparate and entailed hours of flights between them - where the local populace are just CRAZY about theire food, and all 3 places have distinct regional cuisine with amazing local delicacies ('ayam percik' and 'nasi dagang' in Kota Bharu, 'hor fun' & curry noodles in Ipoh, 'Sarawak laksa', 'kolok mee' & 'kio-chiap koay teow' in Kuching).

                  SINGAPORE
                  ==========
                  Cosmopolitan Singapore is like a luxe 'hotel room' you can escape to, if you want a break away from your SE-Asian adventures. Its local hawker food may not measure up, in terms of taste, to those you'd find in Penang, Bangkok or Saigon, but Singapore offers probably the best international cuisine in SE-Asia: from El Bulli alumnus running Spanish spots, to the Asian outposts of Michelin-starred giants like Joel Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, plus Aussie superchefs like Tetsuya Wakuda, Luke Mangan & Tony Bilson having branches of their restaurants here. Lately, Jason Atherton (from London's 1-Michelin-star Pollen Street Social) opened Pollen in Singapore's Gardens by the Bay botanic gardens.

                  Singapore's safe & orderly - easy to navigate and you can cover an obscene amount of ground within a short time here. You can't do that in Manila or Jakarta or even Kuala Lumpur where traffic jams are a norm.

                  Singapore also has the best Cantonese fine-dining restaurants in SE-Asia - Crystal Jade Palace, Imperial Treasure and Lei Garden, just to name a few, served cuisine on par with the finest in Hong Kong. The restaurants here are mostly managed by HKers anyway, with some of the most talented HK chefs.

                  Singapore also has the best & authentic Indian cuisine in SE-Asia - Jiggs Khalra's Punjab Grill @ Marina Bay Sands served up even better food than its outlet back in Bangalore which I tried recently (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/797618) - the new Singapore being more sophisticated and sleek compared to the older, tired-looking one in Koramangala, Bangalore. Besides homegrown Indian spots like Komala Vilas, Apolo Banana Leaf, etc., Singapore also has branches of famous India-based restaurant chains like Sangeetha, Murugan's Idli Shop, Raj of Kolkata, Ponnusamy (from Royapettah, Chennai) and Copper Chimney, besides top-end Indian fine-dining like Rang Mahal and Song of India.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: klyeoh

                    THANK YOU, klyeoh! This is incredibly helpful and is getting printed out right now for reference!

                    1. re: klyeoh

                      @Klyeoh:
                      Re Indonesia: Javanese food is not just "fried". Read my reply to Gomez's post above on this issue.
                      And Padang food: don't have to worry too much about spicy as the chilli is served on different plate so you can skip that though I think the chili is an important part of the Padang meal. Pondok Laguna and Sari Kuring in Jakarta do not serve Javanese food, they are categorized as "Sundanese food".

                      1. re: FourSeasons

                        LOL! Apologies, FS, I guess I over-dosed on deep-fried food in Surabaya & Malang, and also in Jogja & Solo last year - a 2-week trip in July followed by a 5-week trip in November. Of course, i did manage to try soto and rawon, but deep-fried food got stuck in my mind due to the regularity of us encountering them :-D

                        Anyway, to give jen223 an idea of the wide range of Indonesian food items available - here are some of the threads I posted on the local cuisine when I was in Indonesia last year, to browse when you're free, as the posts included descriptions of the food items as well as photos of them :-)

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/814793
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815952
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/814335
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/818030
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/816274
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815555
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/817837
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/817634
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/819674
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/816505
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815002
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815713
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/804009
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/819715
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/819194
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802224
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/801968
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/819515
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/804523
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/804014
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802825
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/803303
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/817469
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/803120
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802429
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/817420
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/817101
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/816121
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/804141
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802908
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/818233
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/816708
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/816706
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815748
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/814337
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802981
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815800
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/818824
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802817
                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/802994

                      2. re: klyeoh

                        Would the OP necessarily be going to Jakarta for a honeymoon?