The Relaxed Jogja

Jakarta has the skyscrapers and the nouveau riche, Bali has the beaches, and Bandung has its cool air and colonial elegance.

Jogja has its relaxed Javanese vibes.

Yogyakarta (formal name for Jogja) is about 2.5 hours away from KL, which makes it a perfect escape for those who want to get away from it all. The city is also the gateway to Borobudur and Prambanan – two of the most significant religious structures in Southeast Asia.

This is a city that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The Kraton

Yogyakarta Special Region is the only region that still retains its pre-colonial hereditary monarchy. Members of the royal family and the aristocracy live in the Kraton precinct, a large inner city neighbourhood that is characterised with its beautiful heritage villas and quiet, leafy streets. Some of these homes have been turned into AirBnB accommodations, and we stayed in one of them.

Our villa has a magnificent living room, complete with antique furnitures and intricate ornaments. There’s even a dais in the middle of the room! Quite extra, but I loved it. There are several rooms, and we rented two of them, for about RM200/night each. More expensive than an average AirBnB in the city, but definitely worth the experience. There’s a small swimming pool where you can cool down after a long day of exploring Borobudur too.

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Jogja’s Royal Palace is also worth a visit. The palace itself isn’t very big and ostentatious, but it’s worth checking out. Its architecture shows a mix between Javanese and European influences, with a sprawling ground where you can relax in a wooden gazebo.

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Outside the palace is Taman Sari, a royal bathing ground built in the mid-18th century. The Sultan went to Batavia, and took inspiration from the European architectural styles to design Taman Sari’s centrepiece – the pink walled bathing ground.

Taman Sari

Modern Jogja

Affandi (1907-1990), a famous Indonesian artist, called Jogja his home. His most iconic works are displayed in Museum Affandi, about 15 minutes drive from Jogja’s centre.

Affandi Museum

Jogja’s high street, Jalan Maliboro is the commercial heart of the city. It’s a popular shopping belt, with many batik shops, department stores and fast food restaurants. There are also large tents, where hawkers whip up gorengan and other popular street fares. Hamzah Batik is a huge store that sells Javanese traditional fashion and batik….lots of batik and they’re really cheap. The store is owned by Raminten, a transgender figure who also opens a restaurant (House of Raminten) in the city. There are even drag shows during dinnertime, but you have to come early as you might have to queue.

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Javanese coffee culture

The Javanese people love their coffee, and Jogja has a vibrant coffee culture to boot. Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 was shot in this city, featuring some of Jogja’s famous attractions. While the famous Dr. Kopi cafe shown in the movie is located about 30 minutes out of town, you don’t have to go that far as good cafes are aplenty in Jogja’s centre.

Ruang Seduh is one of my favourites. It’s small, bright, quiet (but not empty), and very stylish. The cafe is also located on Jalan Tirtodipuran, which is lined with nice little art shops and good restaurants. Perfect for an after-coffee stroll.

Also on the same street is Bu Ageng. Yummy local cuisines in a nice traditional setting.

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Getting around Jogja is easy. The traffic isn’t half as crazy as in Jakarta, and taxis are plentiful. But the best way to get around Jogja’s narrow streets and alleyways is Go-Jek. The motorcycle taxis are everywhere and they are really cheap too!

Selfie on my Go-Jek. Don’t try this at home!

FH

 

Hippie’s Paradise – Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem

Cambodia isn’t well known for its beaches. Thailand has its world-famous Phuket and ultra sleazy Pattaya, while Indonesia has Bali and Lombok. Cambodia is still known as the land of Indiana Jones temples. Angkor Wat is so majestic that it attracts so much attention around it, leaving other parts of the country relatively unknown to most tourists.

When AirAsia started flying to Sihanoukville, I jumped on the chance to explore Cambodia’s beach offerings. While Sihanoukville itself isn’t a remarkable place (no joke, it’s hideous and tacky), I had the best experience at Koh Rong Samloem, a small island 40 minutes off the mainland.

Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

The two islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are only accessible via speedboats from Sihanoukville. A return trip to either of the islands is priced at about USD20, which isn’t very cheap for Southeast Asian standard. Good thing is, you can get on a bus right at the Sihanoukville jetty to Battambang and Phnom Penh, which means that you don’t have to spend so much time at the port city before or after your island excursion.

My speed boat took me right to a jetty at Koh Rong Samloem – from there, the staff led a few of us on the boat to a catamaran that took us to Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem.

The boat ride!

The resort is owned by the Mad Monkey group, which operates a string of hostels in Cambodia. I’ve been to their hostels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and had a really good time, so my expectation was quite high.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Upon arrival, our group was greeted by the friendly staff who walked us to the registration area at the bar. It’s really sandy, so bring your crocs or plastic thongs! The bar is really hippie and a very social place, with music playing until late. The frontline staff are mainly locals, managed by some Australians.

I booked a private bungalow. There’s no air-conditioning, but at least the place is clean. The bed is alright, with some basic pillows – it’s not 5-star hotel quality but for USD25 per night, you really get what you paid for here. I wish there was a chair though, it’d be nice to lounge at the spacious balcony that faces the beach. The bungalow is a wooden structure, with many small cracks and holes on the floor and the wall, and its location right next to a tropical jungle means that there are many bugs and insects. Fortunately the mosquito net does its job well.

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There’s no wifi or mobile phone reception on the island, and there’s no restaurants, shops, not even a village nearby, so you’re basically stuck in Mad Monkey throughout your stay – which is not a bad thing, since the quiet, unspoilt beach will keep you occupied. There are beach hammocks and swings that you can use.

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The remoteness of the place gave rise to a friendly culture. While it felt a little awkward at first since I came alone, I ended up making new friends throughout the three days I was there. Everyone’s friendly, so as long as you’re open-minded, non judgmental and friendly too, you’ll have a really good time there.

The bar is where the socialising is most of the time. Drinks are quite cheap there, for Malaysian standard, and there are happy hour prices too. The restaurant, which shares its space with the bar, serves alright food. It’s a hit-or-miss. The menu is rather extensive, covering western, Thai and Khmer cuisines. Throughout my 3-day stay, the food ranged from the delicious creamy seafood tomyum and yummy fish amok to the passable breakfast of omelette and terrible Khmer-style fried noodle. The morning coffee is good though!

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Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem shares the space on the tiny island with the military, so the bar stopped playing music at midnight. However, after the music ended, everyone headed to the beach for a tipsy dip. The water was surprisingly warm, considering that it was past midnight, and it was a perfect opportunity to see luminous planktons. These planktons are only visible underwater, and there’s snorkelling equipment that you can borrow.

After three days, when it was time to leave, I felt like I wasn’t ready to. I had a massively good time, and left with no regrets – except for one. I should’ve applied insect repellent on my body more frequently than twice a day. Sandfly bites aren’t cool; my whole body felt so itchy for three days after I got back in KL!

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Some travel advice:

  1. Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem is a party hostel, so if you’re looking for a very quiet destination, this place is probably not for you
  2. Bring coconut oil – it works better than normal insect repellant in protecting you from Cambodian sandfly bites and I learnt this trick too late
  3. Bring USD – the island has no ATM or the internet connection needed for the credit card machine to function. The tab system works here, and you’re expected to settle everything before you leave
  4. Be friendly and kind to the staff – and they’ll be extra nice to you, which helps!
  5. If your budget allows for some splurging, choose the bungalows. Dorms are much cheaper, but facilities are really basic there. The whole resort is sandy, so it’s nice to have your own ensuite bathroom and a little bit of personal space in the bungalow

Speak soon!

FH

Sihanoukville – a city that’s hard to like

Hello from Sihanoukville!

The city is my base this week, from which I went to explore Koh Rong Samloem, an island known for its hippie accommodation offerings and quiet, unspoilt beaches.

Anyway, let’s talk about Sihanoukville first.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s only significant harbour city and the industrial centre of the country, which doesn’t say much, since Cambodia’s industry is still at its infancy. Angkor Beer (one of Cambodia’s most recognisable brands) is produced in the city. Sihanoukville is also one of the newest cities in Cambodia, with a relatively recent history that dates back to the 1950s. Therefore, it doesn’t have the long, French-style avenues of Phnom Penh or the rows of charming mustard yellow shophouses that make Siem Reap’s town centre look very charming.

To be honest, the city’s rather dreary. Hygiene is a real issue in Sihanoukville, and even the most touristic parts of the city are very unkempt, with piles of garbage taking over the limited space for pedestrians.

Two golden lion statues mark the centre of the town – right next to the statues are tourist traps like casinos, bars and souvenir shops.

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The roads in Sihanoukville aren’t as developed as those in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – and only main avenues are equipped with street lights, so expect the ride from your hotel to town to be quite rough, as most of the boutique-style accommodations in Sihanoukville aren’t located on the main roads.

I’m staying at Deluxx Boutique Hotel (4 star), which is an amazing oasis of calm and comfort in the middle of the chaotic and unpredictable Sihanouvkville. The hotel isn’t large – it’s a 3-storey building, with rooms orientated to face a nice pool, enveloped in a verdant little garden. I opted for the smallest room, which is actually quite large, with a really comfy queen sized bed and a sofa bed. There’s a flat screen TV, mini bar, and best of all, the bathroom works perfectly, with reliable hot shower (something that you really appreciate when you’re in Cambodia).

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There are several popular beaches in Sihanoukville – Ochheuteal, Otres and Sokha. Ochheuteal is the tackiness of Phuket’s Patpong, magnified. Also known as the Serendipity Beach, Ochheuteal is anything but serene. Rows and rows of cheap bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlours line the beach. Street children walk from a table to another, selling trinkets. Stray dogs forage for food in piles and piles of garbage that are scattered around the beach area – this happened right next to where you eat.

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Backpackers and hippies frequent some of the bars nearby Ochheuteal. Monkey Republic is my favourite – it’s fairly cheap, with really nice music. There are also some decent spas too, that are doing legitimate business and not at all dodgy. These places are staffed by professionally trained therapists. The staff at Monkey Republic recommended Ocean Spa. Following their advice was a right decision; I had an amazing 60-minute full body massage for USD12. Worth every single sen.

While Ochheuteal is where most of the tourists are eating and partying, for the best traditional Khmer dining experience, head to Sandan, about 5 minutes from the Golden Lions. The restaurant is a social enterprise, which employs young Cambodians from high-risk communities. It also acts as an on-the-job training centre for underprivileged Cambodians to prepare them for jobs in the nation’s growing tourism industry.

I ordered seafood amok and a Khmer seafood salad. Both were excellent, especially the seafood salad. The ingredients were fresh;  the prawns and squids were served juicy and succulent. To wash them down, you can also try Sandan’s inventive cocktails and juices – a tomyam mojito, anyone? I ended up paying USD18 for one salad, one main and two drinks – not cheap compared to other restaurants in Cambodia, but you’re paying for the nice ambiance, great service, fair wages and nicely presented, freshly prepared local cuisine. So it was worth it.

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Safety is a main issue in Sihanoukville. The city, with its casinos and seedy bars, has a rough reputation. Make sure you don’t leave your bags unattended at Ochheuteal Beach as petty theft is rampant there. Practise common sense and general caution, especially at night. The city’s streets are really dark at night, so it probably helps to know your route first before taking a motorbike taxi or Uber – just in case.

While Sihanoukville doesn’t have much to offer, the surrounding islands off its coasts are stunning. The city is therefore an important stopover/transit point for tourists, and since Cambodia’s islands aren’t as popular as those in Thailand, tourists who come to visit are mainly adventurous backpackers or hippies.

However, Sihanoukville won’t be so much of a niche destination anymore in the future. Massive Chinese investments have created several large construction sites across Sihanoukville. New hotels and resorts are coming up. AirAsia has also started plying the Kuala Lumpur-Sihanoukville route, putting the city on the map.

Sihanoukville’s skyline is evolving

Change is coming.

***

I’ll write about my experience staying at Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem, soon. Stay tuned!

Living it up, in Cambodia!

My case against haggling

Imagine coming to a country where the majority of the population earns less than USD150 per month. You earn 10–20 times more than them.

You start your morning at one of Phnom Penh’s only Costa Coffee branches. You gladly pay USD3 for your coffee.

Then you go to a market. A crowded, poorly lit, stuffy place. Single mothers ply their trade, taking their small kids along. Children have their lunch of rice and tiny pieces of pork and chicken next to a small radio that plays western Top 40 music from 3 years ago.

After browsing for a few minutes, you encounter an exquisite handmade local craft. A small wooden statue. You saw something that looked similar at one of the “hipster” art shops near your office before. It was sold for USD100, and while the price was quite steep, you knew that it was reasonable – especially for something that beautiful.

But at this Cambodian market, the statue, that probably took a day or two to make, costs you USD15.

85 percent cheaper. But here’s a thing. You’re a backpacker who tries to save every single cent so you get to splash out on more booze tonight, so you haggle and bargain really hard.

So you tell the trader, “7 dollars or nothing”.

Desperate for cash, the trader agrees to sell you the wooden statue for USD7.


Because you want to save USD8, which is equivalent to 2–3 cups of coffee at home, the trader takes home USD8 less today.

She has USD8 less to spend on her children’s education.

She has USD8 less to spend on providing nutritious diet of fish and meat for her family.

She has USD8 less to spend on buying medicine for her children when they fall sick.


This is the kind of unhealthy attitude that is sadly very prevalent amongst backpackers in Asia.

Respect the locals and their trade, and the locals will respect you.

***

This post was originally uploaded on Quora. Feel free to follow Faizal Hamssin on Quora if you want to subscribe directly to my answers there.

A short island hop: Bunga Raya Resort, Gaya Island

A few friends and I was in Sabah last weekend – we were there for Glenn’s farewell, plus Falah was in Malaysia for a month, so a getaway was what we needed.

It was a short trip so we didn’t have much time to spend at the beach – but since we were in Sabah it would be sacrilegious not to do so at all, so we figured out, a day trip would be nice.

And we had a good time: Here’s a short daytrip itinerary to Gaya Island that you guys could probably follow as well.

There are several islands that you can choose to go for a daytrip; Manukan, Sapi, Mamutik, Suluk, Gaya…

We decided to take up a half-day package at Bunga Raya Island Resort – a secluded 5-star property, complete with a private beach.

We headed to the Jesselton Point jetty right after a breakfast of Sarawak laksa (yeah KK has that too!). The boat left at 1030am, and payment for the trip had to be made prior to boarding.

It was about RM170 per person, for a 4-hour excursion at the Bunga Raya Resort. This is all-inclusive, which means that boat ride, lunch, pool access and facility rental is all covered.

The jetty is equipped with basic facilities, there are also stalls selling run-the-mill snacks and packed meals, in case you want to bring some nasi lemak and mihun goreng to the island. Nothing fancy, but adequate.

The washroom stank, however. As Falah described it “poops everywhere”. Quite embarrassing, considering that the facility caters to tourists – the management needs to do something about it.

The boat ride took us about 20 minutes. It’s a very scenic ride to the island – the weather was fantastic that day. The five of us shared the boat with a group of French tourists.

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We reached Bunga Raya Resort and I was pleasantly surprised at how quiet the place is. It’s perched nicely atop a gentle bay, surrounded by forested hills. We were given a short brief and access to the facilities – there are kayak and paddle boats for those who fancy something more adventurous. There’s also facility for snorkelling.

There are of course plenty of lounge seats and gazebos where you could just sit down, relax and enjoy the sea breeze.

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Bunga Raya Resort has a limited number of accommodation units available. It prides itself as an eco-friendly resort, so the chalets and villas are all designed to blend seamless with the natural setting – non-obstructive architecture.

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Given the remote location, 4G worked wonderfully here – so if your idea of travelling includes taking plenty of Instastories, you’ll be happy here.

There’s a beach bar there for those who fancy a tipple or two – drinks are unfortunately (yet understandably) not included in the half-day package tab, so be prepared to pay premium prices here. A coke costs RM19, while a cocktail, RM40.

There’s no ATM machine, so it’s probably safe to bring some cash with you.

Lunch is included in the package – it’s a 3-course meal, with soup of the day, two choices of salad and three choices of main course – between fish & chips, lamb shank and chicken wings. Be prepared to wait though – we waited for 40 minutes to get our order served. The wait was quite unfortunate as we only had 4 hours to enjoy on the island, so time is precious lol.

The lamb shank came, it’s delicious. Worth the penny and the calories of course.

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Right after lunch, we just lounged at the beach and took a dip in the infinity pool. There were some drinks involved too, so it was perfect. We had the whole pool to ourselves, with the exception of a couple of guests who came for a short dip. We also saw a gay family enjoying a vacation at the resort – nice to see an idyllic scene of fathers watching their children play at the beach.

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We stayed there until half past three – walked to the pier and felt quite sad to leave. If you do feel like treating yourself with an expensive vacation, you can choose to stay overnight at the resort. A room costs upwards of RM1,000 during off-season, so be ready to splurge.

More pictures below. Enjoy!

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12 Hours in Porto, Portugal

I had the opportunity to visit Porto in May – just as the summer began to hit Portugal. While I did not get to spend as much time there as I did in Lisbon, Porto has definitely left behind a lasting impression.

When it comes to beauty, few cities match Porto. It is so maddeningly beautiful. A feast to the eyes.

The streets are charming and not too busy. The old, historical inner quarter exudes the vibes that are very typical of any other Southern European city – weathered buildings, slightly corrugated window bars, laid-back ambiance, cobbled streets, and al fresco cafes. The main streets are not as touristy as in Lisbon, and the cafes and restaurants cater to the locals, so they are quite affordable.

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Portugal is significantly cheaper than Western European countries – you can get a cup for coffee for EUR1.5 here, and a decent no-frill meal at EUR5. Pastries are plentiful in Portugal, and in Porto, you must try the codcake. It’s EUR3.5 each. Very tasty, especially with the melted cheese filling.

Cod cake, Porto, EUR3.5
A lavish squid stew, EUR10

Bom Sucesso is a popular food market in Porto. It’s quite upmarket, so prices are slightly higher here than other smaller, less known markets in the city. However, it’s still quite affordable – EUR10 should be enough for a decent 2-course meal here. There’s a lively seafood section as well, and you should try the barnacles – locals seem to love them.

Bom Sucesso MarketPorto also has a medium-sized railway station – rail infrastructure in Portugal isn’t as developed as in France/Benelux/Italy, and the railway station caters to regional trains. There is a regular service between the city and Lisbon too.

The railway station is stylishly decorated with some really impressive artworks depicting Portuguese history.

Porto Railway Station

Porto’s subway system isn’t very complicated – it consists of several light rail lines, mainly at-grade, but with underground sections in the city centre. It’s quite cheap too, fare starts at EUR1. The light rail is very extensive and it takes you to nearly all of the popular tourist attractions in the city. The system is also very easy to navigate – much easier than the relatively poorly signaged and convoluted Lisbon Metro.

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Porto also has its share of modern architecture, and the most impressive display of this in the city’s new opera house. Designed by Dutch maestro Rem Koolhaas, Casa da Musica is an impressive performing art centre, surrounded by a very attractive urban square. Critics raved about this building -Nicolai Ouroussoff of NYT called it “one of the most important concert halls built in the last 100 years”.

Too bad my visit to Porto was so brief – it would be nice if I could go there again to catch a performance at this impressive venue.

Casa da Musica

And here’s the best part about Porto.

Its dramatic setting.

No trip to Porto is ever complete without a stroll across Ponte de Dom Luis I. The walk gave me vertigo – the bridge is as high as 85m. Completed in 1886, the bridge was, at one point, the world’s longest.

Just have a look at the pictures below. The view from the bridge was so brilliant I ended up coming to the same spot twice. The breathtaking view, soft wind blowing on my face, the slowly changing hues of the skies as the sun began to descend – I felt calm and very much at peace just sitting there at the bridge. So simple, yet so beautiful.

Definitely the highlight of my Portugal trip.

FH

A Walk in Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu is a gorgeous city, with laid-back vibes and modern shopping malls emerging amidst streets with rickety cars and weathered shophouses.

I was there last weekend for a short getaway with friends – we spent much of the time at the beach, so the city wasn’t really the main focus of the trip. We did, however, take a walk around KK’s downtown area, where some humble hawker gems and charming old coffeeshops could be found.

The walk was something that I looked forward to, as I had not been in KK for quite some time – my last visit was in 2005.

My observations:

First of all, most of the buildings in KK City Centre were constructed in the 1970s-1980s – this was the time when Sabah was one of the wealthiest states in Malaysia. There are some really popular kopitiams serving local fares like the piping hot laksa and wantan mee.

We went to Yee Fun on Gaya Street for laksa – it’s a RM9 bowl of rich laksa broth. It’s alright, but I prefer spicier and less creamy broth of Kuching Laksa.

Sabah Laksa

Gaya Street, one of the main thoroughfares in KK City is lined with weather shophouses, some of them are already converted into fashionable cafes and boutique hotels, while the rest is still occupied by kopitiams, family-owned hardware stores and corner shops.

The old Milimewah at Jalan Pantai, which used to be quite popular during its heyday, is still there – albeit in the rickety state.

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Much of KK’s new developments are concentrated outside the city centre, with the area surrounding KK Times Square and Imago mall attracting much of the new money in the city.

Gleaming condo blocks, KK

This has culminated into the decaying state of some of the office blocks in the city centre.

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Inner city urban decay is something that is typical in many Malaysian cities – and KK is no exception to this trend. Kuching and Penang city centres also have some underutilised commercial and office spaces.

Fortunately, there are still many active 5-star hotels operating in KK City Centre, like Grand Hyatt and Le Meridien, ensuring the somewhat continuing viability of the inner city.

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There are also some interesting cafes to explore at the area, most of them rustic (faux-rustic rather) – if you fancy some latte and cakes, that is.

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For a good bird’s eye view of the city, we took a 10-minute hike up the Signal Hill lookout point. The view is quite impressive – too bad we were there just before a heavy rain descended upon the town, so the picture below was taken sans a backdrop of a blue sky.

KK City view

KK’s waterfront is a fantastic spot to catch sunset. Upon sundown, it becomes a vibrant social hub in the city, where tourists and locals mingle and drink. The Irish pub here is also popular among the expats living in KK.

We also went to the Filipino Market located just next to the waterfront – it’s a bustling place in the evening, with hawkers frying noodles and grilling fish amidst the chaotic scene of noisy trinket peddlers and fruit sellers. While the waterfront is a neatly maintained place that taps into the tourist market, Filipino market is unkempt and messy. A different world.

No trip to KK could be perfect without a seafood feast. Kampung Air near Plaza Shell is an excellent spot for that. The place is filled with Sunday dinner patrons, many of them mainland Chinese tourists. We had a really good dinner of lobsters, tiger prawns, smallers prawns, clam soup, steamed fish and local vege – and the price was reasonable at RM140/pax. Considering the size of the feast – this is a fraction of what you’d have to fork out in KL.

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The seafood dinner was the highlight of the trip – the lobsters are to die for, easily amongst the best meals I’ve had this year so far.

With its picturesque outlying islands, great seafood and interesting inner city streets, KK is quite a place to visit. Perfect for a weekend getaway. I like it.

FH

Turkey at Crossroads: The Story of Istanbul

I had a short visit to Istanbul last month.

Having already been to the city four times, I skipped Istanbul’s major tourist attractions (which are magnificent by the way, but let’s talk about them in a future post).

Instead, I went to some neighbourhoods in the European part of Istanbul that I’m most familiar with – Nisantasi, Beyoglu and Istiklal.

Rocked by several significant terror attacks and a large-scale political upheaval, one of the common questions that the international community has about Turkey is, “What the hell happened?”.

Turkey is a rapidly-evolving society, economically, politically, and to a large extent, socially.

What is Turkey like nowadays? Have things changed?

Here are some of my observations.

The Turkish society has become, visibly, more Islamic

  • While it’s nowhere as ubiquitous as in other Muslim-majority nations, headscarf is making a resurgence in Turkey. Many of the hijabis in Istanbul also adopt some very fascinating designs of head covering; this is, after all, a very fashionable city. There are also some fashion billboards that feature headscarf-wearing women – something that you would never see a few years ago
  • However, you can still also see the growing disparity between the secular Turkish population (traditionally, they make up the majority of the population in the cities) and the religious ones. It’s very rare to see women wearing headscarves in wealthy neighbourhoods like Nisantasi, but a few kilometres away in the old neighbourhoods surrounding Sultanahmet the proportion is likely to be much higher
  • This being said, Istanbul, and Turkey in general, remain very secular in nature and in outlook (even with Erdogan firmly in power), especially when compared against other Muslim majority nations

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The Turkish economy is visibly booming

  • Construction cranes are everywhere in the city, especially as you leave the historical core of Istanbul. Levent, Istanbul’s new CBD looks like Dubai, with its many gleaming skyscrapers, most of them constructed over the past few years
  • The Istiklal Avenue is currently being upgraded to match some of Europe’s most prestigious shopping streets – it is currently being repaved too, so the nostalgic tram, known to be running along the street is currently not in service
  • Many huge new malls popping up – this sets Istanbul apart from other European cities
The huge Venezia Mall – one of the newest malls in Istanbul
Levent, Istanbul

Uber is still not very popular (or reliable) in Istanbul

  • Istanbul taxis are not known for their good reputation – tourists do get fleeced massively, and with no Uber as a safer and more reliable alternative to this, good luck.

Beyoglu has become even more of a hipster central – with the youth using street arts and graffitis as an effective medium for expression

  • With the rise of the opposition amongst the Turkish millennials against the current Turkish establishment, the streets of Beyoglu have become a place where the youth manifest their dissatisfaction in street arts. This area is located near the place where the famous Taksim Square uprising was held (and subsequently quelled) a few years ago.
  • Many of the street arts depict Ataturk and his ideals – portraits of Ataturk are painted over shop fronts, in different colours. Ataturk is viewed by the anti-establishment Turkish youth as a symbol of their resistance against what they perceive to be an affront to the secular, Republican ideals of the nation

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Things have become cheaper for Malaysians

  • The Turkish Lira, which used to be much stronger than Ringgit a few years ago, has experienced gradual and steady devaluation over the recent years
A delightful Turkish breakfast – the heavily spiced Turkish sausage is simply the best
  • The current conversion rate is TL1 = MYR1.2. It was TL1 = MYR2, five years ago. Shopping, eating and sightseeing in Istanbul has therefore become even more affordable for Malaysian tourists, IF, and only IF, you don’ get…

Scammed.

Turkish cabs, desperate for cash due to the dwindling number of tourists, have become even more notorious for scamming unsuspecting visitors. The most common scam involves the “swapping” of notes, where the drive would swap the TL50 note that you had given him with a TL5. I had the misfortune of experiencing this twice.

For tips to protect yourself from the rampant scamming in Istanbul, follow this link.

Apart from the vicious scamming, if you know what to do, Istanbul is safe. Pickpocketing, while a problem here, isn’t as rife as in Rome, for example. Streets are busy and fairly well-lit even in the middle of the night. Like in any other big cities around the world, precaution and common sense goes a long way.

The following photo gallery contains other images that I took during the long so-called layover trip last month. Enjoy!

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A recollection – and what I think 

For nearly a century, Turkey was looking strictly to the West as a template on which its future destiny should be moulded.

With Erdogan firmly in power, Turkey is today witnessing a transition towards social conservatism that no era after Ataturk’s installation of the republic has witnessed.

I remember my first visit in the city several years ago – it was the time when Istanbul used to host one of the largest Pride events in Europe, and the city was buzzing for the whole month (I still keep a rainbow mug and a t-shirt that I got at one of the merchandise shops in Nisantasi).

This year, the Pride parade was banned by the government. It was banned too last year. People who still insisted on marching this year were shot with rubber bullets and tear gas canisters. To put this shameful step backward in perspective, the Ottoman Empire was one of the first European powers to decriminalise homosexual activities.

***

Turkey has changed a lot over the course of several years. And it is still changing as we speak, as it seeks to find its bearing in the world today. This nation rises over the ashes of one of the world’s most powerful empires of all time. The strong dichotomy between the nation’s past glory and its underwhelming present (this is very well documented in Orhan Pamuk’s memoirs), plays a pivotal role in shaping the psyche of the Turkish people today.

Turkey demands respect, and as it seeks to be stronger in its own terms, let’s hope that the nation will not implode.

Photo Story: London, May 2017.

I was in London for a 3-day visit last month. It was a pretty much a standard jaunt, filled with lunches and catch-ups with friends, pleasant strolls along the city’s thriving streets (the weather surprisingly happened to be gorgeous for the large part of the visit), gallery visits, and the obligatory nights-out in Soho.

Museums and Galleries

I got to visit the new London Design Museum, housed in a formerly derelict structure in Kensington for the first time. Everything in the museum smacks of brand new, it opened its doors in December 2016. There was an interesting ‘Imagine Moscow’ exhibition going on – it basically chronicled the Soviets’ use of grandiose architectural statements to propagate communist propaganda, especially during the era of Stalin. Interesting stuff.

I also spent some time at Tate. It’s a huge modern art museum, and one of the exhibitions highlighted the use of arts as means of anti-Nazi resistance during the earlier days of the Third Reich. John Heartfield defied threats of arrests by creating satirical pieces and photomontages that exposed the follies of Hitler’s propaganda. One of the pioneers in using art as a political weapon, Heartfield, facing an imminent deportation threat to Czechoslovakia, fled to the UK in 1938.

If you’re looking for a good time to visit London, now is probably the best time to do so.

Nothing much has changed in the city, except for the fact that things have become slightly more affordable (albeit still fairly expensive, it’s London after all), thanks to the post-Brexit vote GBP depreciation.

Food markets, as usual?

I also spent some time at the Portobello Market, which has grown far too crowded to my liking – there is still an interesting array of shops selling quirky collectibles and antiques, so if you’ve never been there, it’s worth checking out. The street food scene there is still as vibrant as usual, however, except for the fact that at Portobello, everything is at least 20% more expensive than in other parts of London. If you’re into food markets, Borough Market is definitely a much better option.

Danke, Syafiq!

Major shoutout to Syafiq, for lending me his room throughout my stay in London this time (last year it was at Izuan’s, also shoutout to him!). His apartment is located just next to the Bayswater tube station, so getting around is tremendously easy. Bayswater is traditionally a popular area for Malaysians, with its high concentration of halal eateries and shopping options – Malaysians love shopping after all.

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Jakarta within a day – a peek into the soul of the city

Jakarta, with its population of 20 million, is a huge, sprawling metropolis. While culturally rich, the city is also infamous for its perceived concrete jungle character and the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s worst traffic . Travellers visiting Indonesia often skip the capital for Bali, Bandung and Yogyakarta – which is unfortunate.

While I agree that macet in Jakarta is incredibly frustrating (imagine spending 2.5 hours in the car for what would have otherwise been a 30-minute ride from the airport), this is a very exciting city. It’s clogged and congested, but also very vibrant and cultured, if you know where to look.

I have made it a point to visit the city every year over the past three years, and I was there last weekend, this time around with four cousins, for our own little family bonding time. We had a massively good time exploring the city.

For those who want to check out what Jakarta has to offer, and learn a bit about Indonesia’s history that culminated into the making of its people’s modern-day psyche, here’s a short itinerary of what you can do in Jakarta within a day.

Jakarta within a day

Start with a cuppa

Indonesia is known for its quality coffee beans, with regions like Acheh and Papua having their own distinctive beans.

Some of Jakarta’s best cafes and coffeehouses are outside the main CBD area, which may take some time to get to, considering the traffic.

So, if you want to try out the coffee without leaving the city centre, head to Djournal in Grand Indonesia – there’s a good selection of drip coffee there for you to try out. The ambiance is pretty decent too, and since it’s located in Jakarta’s version of our Pavilion (vibes and location), the crowd is pretty much young-ish. Expect a lot of Snapchat and Instastory shooting taking place around you, as you take your morning coffee.

The cafe also has a decent, albeit relatively limited range of brunch menu and sandwiches to choose from.

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After the coffee, it’s tempting to walk around the lavish Grand Indonesia mall for some shopping and people watching – it’s a great place to be, with many familiar international brands and some local names as well. There are also plenty of decent places to eat, and one thing you’ll notice about Jakarta is that a lot of them do make a serious effort to look good and dress well when spending their time in the mall. Quite a contrast from what we in KL; I, for one, prefer going to the mall in the most casual attire I could find in the wardrobe.

Enough with the mall. From Grand Indonesia, take an Uber, or as locals love to do it, Gojek (motorbike taxi) to Jakarta Cathedral.

Understanding Indonesia’s religious diversity

Indonesia prides itself as a beacon of religious tolerance, and a visit to Jakarta Cathedral and Istiqlal Mosque is a good way to understand the people’s pluralistic view towards religion.

Jakarta Cathedral, constructed during the colonial period, is a large Gothic style structure that wouldn’t look out of place in Europe. It’s still bustling with worshippers every Sunday, and acts as a symbol of strong Christian presence in the city.

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Locals worship in Bahasa Indonesia, and just outside the cathedral are Muslim hawkers selling Bakso and light snacks for hungry worshippers. Truly an image of harmony in the predominantly Muslim country (Indonesia is 80% Muslim).

Just across the road from the Cathedral is Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest in the world. The location close to the cathedral was chosen by Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, to symbolise religious harmony in the then recently independent nation. Sukarno’s Pancasila assured equal rights to six major monotheistic religions. Unlike Malaysia’s constitution, Pancasila does not recognise Islam as the sole religion of the Federation, and because of this, it is often deemed to be comparatively much more secular and pluralistic in nature.

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Kota Tua – understanding Indonesia’s colonial history

Jakarta was called Batavia during the colonial period, and it derived its much of its prosperity from the bustling port of Sunda Kelapa. The Kota Tua area, which orientates around the Fatahillah Square, is the most preserved remnant of colonial Jakarta. Formerly run-down, many buildings in the area have seen successful revitalisation efforts over the recent years.

Jakarta’s Kota Tua is very touristy, however, so expect the main square to be extremely crowded during the weekend. Locals love their selfies, with many taking photos of themselves using tongsis (tongkat narsis selfie sticks). If you want to join in the fun, there are plenty of stalls selling low-grade selfie sticks, along with other cheap souvenirs.

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While buildings surrounding the main Fatahillah square are fairly well-maintained and taken care of, some of the gems of old Jakarta have sadly fallen into various stages of disrepair, like this one:

So much potential, let’s hope the authorities will do something to preserve the building as a reminder of the city’s history.

For some cooling drinks and a respite from the searing heat outside, head to Cafe Batavia, conveniently facing the main square. While the food is mediocre at best, the colonial cafe has a very Instagram-worthy interior. Expect to pay premium prices here, as this place is a tourist trap.

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Monas – still a popular hive of activities

Construction of Indonesia’s national monument (Monas) began 1961, during a turbulent chapter in Indonesia’s post-Independence history. President Soekarno wanted Jakarta to be Indonesia’s showcase capital, a manifestation of the nation’s emergence as a new regional power, and he directed for Monas, with its gilded flame of Independence on the top) to be erected during the time of tough economic situation in the country – still a controversial decision for some critics today.

Monas is still a prominent landmark in today’s Jakarta – it’s no longer the tallest edifice in the city, but it remains as an enduring symbol of the city. The parklands surrounding Monas is also extensive, and functions as the much needed green lung in the city where parks are scarce.

At night, Monas park becomes a hive of activities, popular amongst many Indonesians, especially those from the working-class backgrounds. Families picnic here during sunset, and couples sit on the benches, holding hands into the night. There are also some bikers testing their rides just outside its compounds.

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Immersive cultural experience at Dapur Babah

Five minutes from Monas is Dapur Babah Elite, a place that I have fallen in love with. Set in an old shophouse building in Gambir, the restaurant is owned by a prosperous Chinese Indonesian family. The interior is very intimate as much as it is lavish, with antiques owned by the family faithfully put on display. Dining there does feel like eating in a well-curated museum gallery.

The food is also top-notch, from the perfectly marinated sweet beef satay to the rich sup rawon, the kitchen definitely does the Indonesian rich gastronomy justice. It’s also not too pricey, considering the opulent setting – expect around Rp200,000 (MYR70) per person.

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Martabak for dessert

Martabak is a new street food phenomenon in Indonesia – it works like our apam balik, but thicker, and commonly prepared with thicker fillings. There are many variations of martabak, some of them savoury (eg cheese and meat), while others, and arguably the more popular ones, are sweet (eg Nutella, cheese & banana, Toblerone).

Martabak Boss in South Jakarta is particularly popular – I got to try this one, and their chocolate martabak is sinfully good. Expect to pay about Rp60,000 (MYR20) for a good size of martabak that can feed 2-3.

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Party with the locals

Jakartans know how to party too – clubs in the city close at 4pm. There is no centralised entertainment districts and bar strips like KL’s Changkat and Singapore’s Clarke Quay here, however, so make sure you have your Uber and Grabcar application ready if you plan to do bar hopping.

Bauhaus in Kuningan is my favourite – the crowd here is predominantly made up of friendly young professionals. The place is quite small however, and the place works more like a bar than a nightclub, so if you love dancing, this might be a deal-breaker. The space, with its small mezzanine floor, sofas and lounge seats, wouldn’t look out of place in Berlin and London.

After a drink or two in Bauhaus, head to Dragonfly for the real action. This is where Jakarta’s wealthy young socialites go to for a dance, and the steep entrance fee Rp350,000 (MYR120) means that the place is out of reach for many. The music is awesome, however, and the club’s awesome 360 degree lighting setup adds on to the experience.

I felt a little too old for Dragonfly, so Bauhaus is definitely my favourite :p

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So there you have it –

Within a day you will have seen different sides of Jakarta, from Jakarta Cathedral to Dragonfly, where the trendiest youth dance their night away, and from Soekarno-era Monas to the remnant of the Dutch colonial legacy in Kota Tua.

What this one-day itinerary shows you is the great diversity that not only Jakarta, but also Indonesia, possesses. This is by no means a monochromatic society; it is plural, artistic, rich and in many ways, tolerant – the latter, I found to be very precious.

Will be back for sure.

Speak soon,
FH