Kamis, 21 Juni 2012

TRAVEL DIARIES: Destinations around South Asia

(For my Travel Diary in NOW JAKARTA magazine July 2012)

In the front line against global warming: fighting a diabetic spike in the upper deck lounge on an Emirates A380

To celebrate this column’s fifth anniversary I’d like to write about my best and worst travel experiences in the South Asian region over the past five years.
Travelling is an obsession for me and I am fortunate that my muse is the wondrous Singapore Airlines. Singapore Airlines regional network has grown over the past five years to include some pretty snazzy destinations in China, the Philippines, Cambodia, and India.
The new transit and relaxation lounges at Changi and the new remarkable WOHA-designed Crown Plaza Airport Hotel have raised the bar on transit luxury.
Air Asia is my first choice for routes not served by Singapore Airlines or Silk Air.
It’s new terminal, Terminal 3 at Cengkareng Airport Jakarta (shared with Mandala Airlines), has provided a well-designed and secure alternative to the rigours of Soekarno-Hatta’s other terminals, where kerb-side thuggery is often a worry.
Air Asia’s cabin crew are attractive, friendly and efficient; the in-flight Nasi Lemak is as good as any you’ll find in Malaysia.
•                •                  •

A villa at the heavenly D’Omah Hotel, Tembi, Djogjakarta, Central Java.
On the ground I generally prefer old world comfort.
For new hotels providing that old feeling I like Warwick Purser’s Javanese village style D’Omah in Tembi, south of Jogjakarta, Central Java, and Christine Ong’s much-lauded Uma Paro in Bhutan, a perfect blend of dragon lady and dragon kingdom. The Olde Bangalore all-tent hotel at Bengaluru Airport is my favourite  new ‘pitstop’ hotel.

A garden villa at the Uma Paro, Paro, Bhutan.
Foodwise I discovered the joys of Gujarati vegetarian cuisine in all its myriad crisp and crunchy and layered flavours. Best of all at the Indian restaurant in the Taj Gateway airport hotel, Ahmedabad, where a father and son team of classical Indian musicians sooth away intra-course tensions with superb tabla and sitar playing.
In the Lake Toba area of North Sumatra I discovered Mie Gomak breakfast noodles and most nourishing pork stews. Indonesian food will always be my favourite.
In Jakarta three dining experiences stand out:  the Sunday Brunch at the luxurious Four Seasons, the Nasi Kambing (goat) roadside at Jalan Kebon Sirih, and the Shabu-Shabu noodles at the Wisma Nusantara Japanese Restaurant on Jalan Thamrin.
For seafood delights: Samarinda (Lembur Kuring; the patin fish is to die for); Tanjung Pinang, Bintan (Mr. Alim’s next to the ferry terminal) and the Riviera opposite the Mondavi Hotel inn are my favourites.
Best new products for frequent travellers:
  1. Automatic Check-in machines at the airports.
  2. Air Asia
  3. Prepaid porters at Indian Airports.
  4. In-flight toilet perfumes with the tops still on (Thai and Emirates).
  5. The sleeperette sofas in the business class lounge at Terminal 3, Changi Airport Singapore (pillows, blankets and eye shades are available on demand).
  6. Occitane soap in most up-scale hotel rooms.
  7. Foot massage therapists at airports (Chiang Mai, Danang, and Cengkareng the best).
Best new easy access destinations: Central Vietnam, Bhutan and Lombok — all now directly accessible from Changi, the only true Airopolis.

Emperor’s tomb outside Hue, Central Vietnam.
My list of most improved old destinations:
  1. Kupang: no more drive-by knife throwers. Great new roads, thanks to Korean enterprise. Visit the ancient villages in the interior of Timor.
  2. Phuket: well connected. (Direct flights from Bali even); excellent infrastructure planning in the 1980s is paying off, while other similar holiday destinations (Bali, Koh Samui) clog up.
  3. Pondicherry: a new ring road from Chennai Airport makes travelling into this culturally unique outpost fairly easy.
  4. Taiwan: the new airport is stunning and it’s so refreshing to find ancient cultures (the classical Chinese and Austronesian) celebrated in such brilliant museums.

    Formosan Aborigine (proto-Austronesian) in a village in South Taiwan.

  5. Cebu, Philippines: great new connections (one can even fly from Serawak and Bali, via Manila), great shopping and great diving. Philipino and not packaged (like tourism product in so much of South East Asia now).
  6. Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi: still exotic and magical.

    Toraja houses in the Somba Opu architectural museum, Makasar

  7. Colombo: Peace has bought some great new boutique hotels into the cultured capitol.
  8. Central Vietnam: Hoi An, Hue,  Cham Island (see photo below)

    Giant Goddess of Mercy statue guards the coast on Cham Island, Central Vietnam.
Best new destinations: Raja Ampat in Irian Jaya for diving and nature; Bawean Island off Gresik, East Java (a three hour ferry ride) for a taste of pre-colonial era Java; North Sri Lanka (now open), for scenic splendor and ancient Tamil temples.
Best makeover of old hotel: Super Potato’s reworking of the rooms at the old Taj President (now Vivanta) in South Bombay.
Top five destinations for lovers of good traditional architecture and village life.
  1. Samosir Island, Lake Toba (still unspoiled): rent a boat and explore the remote villages on the far side of the world’s biggest crater lake.

    Traditional house front, Samosir Island, Lake Toba, North Sumatra.

    A view of Lake Toba and Samosir islan, North Sumatra.

  2. Bali — it still delivers. Wondrous villages in East Bali and ceremonies rooted in South Asia’s Hindu past island-wide.

    Glamorous grand-daughter at a Sanur cremation, Bali.

    BALI STILL DELIVERS: My driver at the Go-Go bar, Bali Joe’s, Seminyak.

  3. Mountain tribe villages one hour west of Danang, Central Vietnam.
  4. Nias Island off the West Coast of Sumatra — still some remarkable megalithic age villages.

    Village architecture in a traditional village, Nias, West Sumatra.

  5. All Bhutan — you can’t go wrong.
Top 3 destinations for lovers of 17th and 18th century colonial architecture: 
  1. Panaji, Goa, India: one of the last examples of 17th century Portuguese Coastal Colonial.

    18th century Portuguese Church near Panaji, Goa, India.

  2. Luang Prabang, Laos: French-Colonial-Indochinese. The whole town is an architectural museum.
  3. The Fort, South Bombay — some sumptuous examples of Anglo-Indian and Scottish gothic revival architecture.
•                •                •
Now, I have some advice for frequent travelers in South Asia these days. Precautions need to be taken to avoid the following:
  1. Eye fatigue from excessive billboards (Bali and Bangalore the worst offenders). Mercifully in the age of the iPhone one can be oblivious to one’s environment for hours on end.
  2. Babu Menteng Syndrome: a phobia experience by many travelers when battling past battalions of orderlies and temporarily off-duty spa therapist who occupy airport alleyways watching soaps blaring from televisions mounted on the walls.
    Bali’s Ngurah Rai and the cumbersome new Bangkok Airport are hands down worst offenders in this category: the fun-loving Balinese and the Thais have a herding-instinct when it comes to down-time in public places.
    There is no defense against this revolution — the staff have occupied the premises. One can seek refuge, up to a point, in the enforced duty free malls, or airline lounges if you’re lucky.
    These days air travel is like an obstacle course: one has to battle the traffic, the x-rays machines, the check in chaos and then the perfume counters.
  3. Cabin bag fever: a tendinitis of the wrist caused by dragging cabin luggage on thick carpet at airports. Delhi and Changi are the worst. Antidote: Fake hip bursitis and demand a buggy.

    The magnificent Majapahit-modern Alila hotel Uluwatu, Bali.