If you're planning anything more than a Kuala Lumpur stopover or a fast overland commute from Thailand to Singapore, Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei is an essential companion. In fact, clocking in at nearly 700 pages, it may even inspire you to spend extra time in this region, which has only been divided into the three distinct countries since WWII. Encompassing Chinese, Indians, Malays, rainforest tribes, "original people" and sea-gypsies, with their innumerable religions it has one of the most diverse cultures in Asia.
The cover is emblazoned with a turtle and the vague slogan "The adventure starts here". Neither gives you an idea of what you'll find in an area so hard to categorise. Culture ranges from the hi-tech of Kuala Lumpur's Cyberjaya zone or the 88-storey Petronas towers to the ancient longhouse communities deep in Borneo's jungle. You can shop in Singapore's Orchard Road malls or experience the abundant wildlife of Taman Negara National Park in Peninsula Malaysia. You could check out the water villages of Brunei, one of the worlds smallest but richest counties; discover bat caves and orang-utans in Sarawak; climb Mount Kinabalu in Sabah; or check out the incredible diving waters off Semporna.
Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei is rammed with reasons why the region, arguably the least-fashionable bit of Southeast Asian backpacker itineraries, should be given more thought. One Amazon.co.uk reader complains that the previous edition was disparaging, but Lonely Planet should be praised for their honesty in pre-warning travellers where other guides might gloss over the negative. Equally, this guide puts many of the preconceived notions in context. Yes, Singapore is obsessed by fines and orderliness, but it also has a surprisingly vibrant nightlife, joyous hawker centres overflowing with cheap tasty food and is a fascinating microcosm of Asia. And yes, there is alcohol scarcity and problems for women in some Moslem areas of Peninsula Malaysia, but it is also a very multi-ethnic country. However, popular notions of Brunei being expensive and boring are confirmed--not being a place for budget travellers, it gets just 26 pages. --Sarah Champion