Get outdoors-y in Langkawi
Though it’s rightly known for its pristine beaches, the Langkawi archipelago also has UNESCO World Geopark status and is a good place for getting into nature. You can take a cable car and walk the curving 125m Langkawi sky bridge, impressively suspended over the rainforest canopy above Mount Mat Chinchang, 700m above sea level; or, for more hiking and to escape the crowds, you can walk up the road through the jungle to the summit of Gunung Raya, the tallest mountain on the island at 881m. If you want a bath at the end of your walk, the Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls are pretty, if overly tourist-y – you can climb up to seven pools, where it’s possible to bathe beneath the waterfalls, or go on a 2.5km trail walk up into the hills. Air Asia flies to Langkawi from $232 return. Just a five-minute walk away from the cable car station, the Berjaya Langkawi Resort (www.berjayahotel.com/langkawi) boasts rainforest chalets and rooms on stilts over the water in Bulau Bar. Rooms from MYR450/$183.
Visit the Niah Caves near Miri, Borneo
Though the Mulu Caves are the most spectacular in Borneo, you won’t be able to get there for the weekend. The second-best option is the Niah Caves, a 90-minute drive from Miri, a coastal town surrounded by rainforest. It’s roughly a four-hour walk into the caves and back, mostly on wooden walkways through beautiful rainforest. The caves themselves are not just huge, dark and eerie, they also contain some of the oldest evidence of human habitation in South-East Asia – scrawled rock paintings and canoe-like coffins that are up to 40,000 years old. Miri itself is unremarkable, but you can go on decent dive trips to some of the 28 reefs off the coast (see www.redmonkeydivers.com). Air Asia flies to Miri from $192 return. For a safe option with a large pool, the Marriott Miri (www.marriott.co.uk) has rooms from $130 per night. Or you could try a traditional longhouse homestay just 15 minutes’ walk from the Niah National Park, with prices varying (www.rightsarawak.com/Homestay).
Learn to dive in Malaysia
While Singapore may not seem the most obvious place to learn to dive, the beauty of doing a course here is that, along with your qualifications, you get a hassle-free trip to one of Malaysia’s top dive spots thrown in. Deep Blue Scuba (www.deepbluescuba.sg) runs an open-water dive course for $599 which includes a pool class and two theory classes on Monday and Wednesday. Then you just sign up for one of the trips to the brilliant dive spots at Tioman or Dayang, which happen every weekend, with transport, food and accommodation all thrown in. It’s a slightly arduous six to seven hours by coach and ferry to Dayang, or five to six hours to Tioman, but you get to stay in a resort, and do three dives on the Saturday and two on the Sunday. Most importantly, you’ll get the PADI certification, allowing you to dive wherever you go next.
Take a cheap foodie break in Malacca
There are many reasons to visit the old Peranakan city of Malacca – listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site – but you could go just for the food, and have a cheaper weekend than you would in Singapore.
At Baba Charlie Nyonya Kueh (72 Jln Tengkera Pantai 2, +60 19 666 2907), the kuih portugal ubi (Portuguese tapioca cake), pulut tekan (glutinous rice cake served with coconut jam) and ondeh-ondeh (glutinous rice balls filled with palm sugar) are still made the way Baba Charlie’s grandmother made them. The kuihs (cakes) are displayed in plastic baskets – it’s pick-your-own, and a small bag barely exceeds MYR10/$4.10.
For more substantial street food, head to Pin Pin Hiong (786 Lorong Hang Jebat) to try the warm bowls of mee sua (thin wheat fl our noodles in soup, MYR4-5.50/$1.60-$2.30). Slurp up the delicate strands from the cloudy but light and peppery pork-based broth that holds slices of liver, kidney and intestines. The oyster omelette (MYR6-10/$2.50-$4.10) served here is also good – evenly crisp on the outside, and holding little oysters within.
Don’t leave Malacca without having the satay celup at Ban Lee Siang (45E Jln Ong Kim We, +60 6284 1935). This hotpot satay meal requires you to dip skewers of raw and semi-cooked meat, seafood and vegetables into a bubbling pot of satay sauce. Each stick costs MYR0.50/$0.20. Buses depart from four terminals in Singapore daily, costing $21-$25 one-way and taking just under five hours. See www.busonlineticket.com. Stay comfortable yet within budget at the Sayang Sayang Youth Hostel (16 Jalan Kampung Hulu, +60 12 250 5138). Check in to the fully air-conditioned double bed private room that fits in a little living room and a sofa. From $22.50 per person per night.
Kayak in Kuching
Though the capital of Sarawak, Borneo is not the charming town that Lonely Planet claims it is – truth be told, it’s a bit of a dump – it’s worth a trip for a weekend of kayaking and nature. Kuching Kayak runs an excellent wildlife and rainforest adventure (www.kuchingkayak.com; MYR218/$89), which involves a trip to see orangutans in the wild at the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centre, before a beautiful two-and-a-half-hour kayak down the river in the Borneo Highlands, including lunch – it’s relaxing despite the odd mini rapid, while a spot of waterfall swimming keeps things interesting. We didn’t manage to get to the Bako National Park, a two-hour drive away, due to tides – but it’s home to rainforests, stunning beaches with stacks out at sea, and the comical proboscis monkey. Air Asia flies to Kuching from $112 return. The Secret Sanctuary is 20 minutes from the centre, but worth it for waterfalls and jungle-kitsch. Rooms from $51. See www.thesecretsanctuary.com.