Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nov-Dec 2009 Holiday Chronicle – The Runaway Singapore

The 44-day school holiday which started on 20th November is nearing its end, with just a week more to go. So far, we managed to cram in a few travel activities in the year end holiday programme, including a visit to the roaring Lion City down south.

Singapore is one of the two cities in South East Asia which are featured in John Julius Norwich’s The Great Cities in History. We spent five days there recently and saw first hand how the city-state is seriously transforming itself into a dazzling megapolis. The scenic Marina Bay along the Singapore River is set to sparkle even more when new glittering skyscrapers with sweeping one-hectare SkyPark are completed in a new integrated resort (IR) being developed by casino giant, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation. A slew of new generation botanical gardens by the bay will leave many tourists and business visitors especially from the Middle East green with envy. The first Youth Olympic Games to be held in August 2010 will herald the brand new bewitching Marina Bay.

During the first three days, Papa had important business to attend to. After it was over, we all moved out from the posh hotel in Orchard Road to a delightful little hotel in Little India. And Papa spent the whole time with us exploring the city-state in the remaining days. Without a doubt, the Singapore Government leaves no stones unturned in making sure tourists are well looked after during their stay here. The guides who are tasked to make tourists feel welcome go about their jobs with enthusiastic aplomb every single second.

Papa raves about the hip hotel in Perak Road as it provides ample reading material and is adorned with simple and tasteful décor and an array of objets de art. While the rest of us were soundly asleep, he woke up early to have a quiet and solitude moment, enjoying breakfast while leafing through assorted travel magazines including CNN Traveller, Conde Nast Traveler and our own Travel3Sixty. We joined him several hours later and by then the other hotel residents had occupied most of the Peranakan-style dining tables.

To maximise the sightseeing opportunities, we bought the Singapore Pass which entitled us to an unlimited ride on the open-top double decker bus which stops at all the major city attractions and the heritage sites including Suntec City, Botanical Gardens, Raffles Hotel and the Esplanade (aka the Durians) - the theatres on the bay with its signature spikey domes, inspired by microphone top instead of the affectionate King of the fruits. The Singapore Pass also gives us free entrance to a slew of museums including the ACM, free cruise down the Singapore River on an authentic bumboat, free ride on the Singapore Flyer Ferris Wheel and the one of a kind Singapore Ducktours boat-on-wheels experience.

"Our" favourite makan and lepak area is Kampong Glam. Although Gelam is a tree, it is perfectly proper to associate Kampong Glam with a glamorous Malay Village. Any visitors who walk around the Arab Quarter in Kampong Glam are almost certain to be mesmerised by the trendy cafes, designer and assorted bric-a-brac shops teeming with ingenuity and flair along Haji Lane, Arab Street and Bussorah Street which are bookended by the alluring Masjid Sultan. My sister adores the nasi lemak at the alfresco Kampong Glam Cafe, Mama is particularly fond of the nasi ayam penyet at Hajjah Esah, Papa can spend endless hours sipping latte at Sleepy Sam’s and my brother who is not really a foodie, is perfectly happy just to keep company with his more than two-year old PSP.

In Kampong Glam, they were reacquainted with a Singapore family whom they befriended in Coventry from 1997-2001. Dr Ameen Talib and his wife Fatimah now run a successful café in Arab Street. In fact, Café Le Caire, opened in 2001, is a pioneer in Middle Eastern style café in Singapore, and is mentioned in the International Herald Tribune WEEKEND when we were there. Lonely Planet - Singapore Encounter (First edition, Sept 08, p.92) describes it as an absolute must (well almost):
Blink and you’ll miss it during the day, but at night this alcohol-free Egyptian café becomes a miniature scene, especially at weekends, colonising both sides of the street with tables and rugs, filled with lounging shisha-smokers and eager diners gorging on kebabs and superb dips. A must.

Another unmissable attraction in Kampong Glam is the Malay Heritage Centre. Old film magazines and Bangsawan Opera are among the nostalgic items displayed there. We had our nasi padang lunch at Sabar Menanti, situated along Kandahar Street in the vicinity of the palace belonging to the last Sultan of Singapore. As you can see from my Zzzz (ahem) photos, Kampong Glam seems to be the place where everyone wants to be, except me. TO BE CONTINUED ...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Portrait of a Fortnight: Rialto, San Marco and The Grand Canal




Saturday, October 10, 2009

Portrait of a Fortnight: Milan Encounter with Beckhams, Hemingway and Ole-Kristian (who?)

To the fashionistas, Milan is in the same league as Paris and New York. To the arty-farty and culture vulture crowd, Milan is the home of music and Leonardo’s The Last Supper. To the literati set, war-torn Milan is the city that inspired an anti-war novel, famous for its deeply moving opening paragraph. The vivid depiction of the WW1 landscape and the climate, where the ravages of war left everything “layu sebelum waktunya”, is quintessentially Hemingway:

In the late autumn of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

I was here on a different mission, not in search of glitter or to ogle at Caravaggio or Mantegna, or to soak in the emotional outpourings of Verdi or Puccini. Not even to trace the footsteps of Hemingway. Rather to learn and seek knowledge from management gurus who are at the cutting edge of business research. They came from top schools in New York, Toronto, London, etc, for a meeting of minds at SDA Bocconi.

We landed at the Malpensa airport just before 3 pm on September 8th. As the KLM plane began its smooth descent, we got a bird’s eye view of the Alps. Not quite sure whether we flew above Mont Blanc, as the mountains look more brown than white.

From the airport, we made a mistake (with the benefit of hindsight) of taking the Malpensa Express, instead of the Malpensa Shuttle, to get to Mussolini’s Milan Central Station (Stazione Centrale). We decided to make Stazione Centrale our base since we were informed a few days earlier by MATRADE Milan through email that the halal restaurants are located in the vicinity of Stazione Centrale. The shuttle bus goes direct to Stazione Centrale, whereas by taking the express train, as we did, we had to change at Cadorna Stazione, and from there catch the metro to get to our intended destination. A real hassle it turned out to be. All the left luggage lockers at Cadorna Stazione were out of order, so lugging our bags from platform to platform until we found the elusive DEPOSITO/BAGAGLI was something we had to endure. A minor inconvenience to test our patience during Ramadhan.

Once we got off the metro at Stazione Centrale, we trained our eyes to look for signpost pointing the exact location of left luggage locker/office. We found none. Unlike Amsterdam, the poor signpost gives the impression that visitors are not courted here and left to their own devices. Instead, swamped before our eyes are the billboards of the insanely hot couple, Becks and Posh, stripped to almost practically nothing. They pout, they sizzle and they pose intimately to seduce scores of the innocent bystanders and onlookers to “tiru macam saya”. Everyone can be insanely hot when clad in dreamy Armani undie or lingerie, they make us believe. And not a few were misled.

After the heavy suitcases were safely tucked away in the portabagagli, we were footloose and fancy free to roam Via Vitruvio and Via Napo Torriani in search of an agreeable hotel. As we stepped out of the main railway station, the striking Pirelli Building beckons from a distance. After a few false starts, we eventually settled for Hotel Flora, which coincidentally is one of the hotels recommended by MATRADE Milan. Due to its convenient location, we stayed put here until we blew kisses Ciao Milan, four days later.

On our first day in Milan, we went to bed early, shortly after dinner at Caffe Panzera, to conserve our energy for tomorrow’s big walk, pregnant with anticipated visual delights. Caffé Panzera is almost as old as the station, with black and white photos taken during the Fascist era crowding its wall.

The next morning we ventured into the heart of the city. The early morning light poured through the stained glass of Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and illuminated its ravishing mosaic floor. Michael Palin, writer, actor, comedian and train aficionado, described it as the mother of all shopping malls. I couldn’t agree more. Prada, LV and other chicest boutiques are all here, and next to the Galleria are the intricately carved Duomo Cathederal and La Scala, the revered opera house.

Before starting the Milan stroll, we visited the Tourist Information Centre. It has copies of the monthly free guide hello milano, which is an extremely rare English publication about the local happenings. Haughty Milan, sans a TimeOut monthly, is strangely behind subzero Kuala Lumpur, in the art of pleasing the visitors. As Lonely Planet succintly puts it “Milanese don’t have time to play nice for visitors”.

To be continued

Monday, September 28, 2009

Portrait of a Fortnight: The Art of Living in Milan

No, that’s not the latest creation by our Jimmy Choo, incorporating art mosaic into his shoe design. It is a bathtub on display in a SICIS showroom located along Via Fatebenefratelli. Benvenuta/o to the art of living in Milan. But it is not all hunky dory here in this city where design is a way of life. Cheap tacky impersonation of our lovely heritage is on display too. Like this one.
More text later. Meanwhile, let the pictures tell a thousand words.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Portrait of a Fortnight: I amsterdam

At the KLIA, before boarding the intercontinental flight, my parents purchased some essential items like the Euros, worldwide travel adaptor, rewriteable Sony DVD and soon-to-be elusive Malaysian food such as coconut juice and curry mee. Regrettably, they discovered much too late that the Euros and Sony DVDRW are much cheaper @ KL Sentral than @ KLIA.

Papa also made a quick call to Opah who just got back from her nightly tarawikh to seek her restu, as always. He got a taste of his own medicine, so to speak, when Opah sounded him “Din jangan tinggal sembahyang tau, dan jangan bawa balik H1N1. Kirim salam Wan kat Zura. Itu saja pesanan. Selamat jalan”. The rest of the I amsterdam story is narrated by Papa, for obvious reasons.

The 12-hour flight was pleasant, with no discernible turbulence. There was a host of in-flight entertainment to while away the time. The movies on offer were diverse, and I opted for never-seen-before romantic comedies; Tim Bevan’s Wimbledon and The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock and an unfamiliar lead actor. Wimbledon is a huge disappointment unlike Tim Bevan’s previous work such as Four Weddings, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Atonement. Without exception, it is littered with obscenities fashionably spewed by the Sloane set; wankers, bollocks et al. The Proposal is so-so. For the final movie, I went for the tried and tested formula and clicked Atonement – an Ian McEwan’s adaptation, a movie I enjoyed with relish when viewed for the first time in Hong Kong, nearly two years ago. The central character, a man fitnahed by a fanciful 13 year old budding author on the cusp of the "complications of love", was played so delicately by James McAvoy, in sharp contrast to his peripheral role in Wimbledon.

We landed at Schiphol airport in the wee hour of the morning. After freshening up, surfing the internet and loitering around, we joined the 2 1/2 hours Amsterdam tour organized by Holland Tours Schiphol B.V. to get a glimpse of the Golden Age of Holland. There were six other transfer passengers from Russia, Canada and other countries in our group, plus Paul, the local driver-cum-tour guide. I had difficulty in understanding the baffling English spoken by Paul, as he sounded "knotted and guttural" at times.

Paul reminded us that in the 17th century, Holland was one of the world’s richest countries, and the tour took us to serene suburbs dotted with tantalizing summer houses with roofs made of straw, overlooking a picturesque tree-lined river. These mansions were once occupied by the wealthy merchants during the heyday of the Dutch East India Company. Paul made a few brief stops at the Rotterman wooden shoes and cheese factory which is a perfect one stop place to buy Dutch souvenirs and gifts at attractive prices, a private windmill, the Skinny Bridge and last but not least the Museumplein. Museumplein has a vast square dotted with brightly tattoed miniature elephants in various cheeky acrobatic positions. A clutch of Amsterdam’s grand museums can be found here: Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum and of course the Rijksmuseum with its enviable collections including the 17th century paintings by the Dutch Masters such as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1658), Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) and Frans Hals’ The Wedding Portrait (1622). Alas, we didn’t have all the time in the world to ogle at these masterpieces.
At one point during the tour, Paul made a terse announcement “no photographs or video recording here please”. Immediately after he finished his sentence, the mini van veered into a magnificent district with attractive step/neck/bell/spout gabled shop houses along the canal displaying shapely ladies in luminous bikinis strutting their considerable stuff behind the large window. So savvy are the marketing gimmicks they unleashed to woo the predominantly non-Dutch customers, at barely 10 in the morning!. This is understandable as they have to cover the steep cost of renting the show rooms. From the window of the mini van, CREA CAFE in the vicinity of Amsterdam University looks inviting too as an extraordinarily perfect place to hang out and unwind.

To sum up, I amsterdam is an eccentrically beautiful city inhabited by generally tolerant and enlightened Amsterdammers with unorthodox mindsets who are always mindful to preserve their glorious past. Respect!
To be continued ...