Cairo’s Garden City – a tale of decay and perseverance

Cairo, throughout the first half of the 20th century, was one of the world’s capitals of culture – the indisputable primary city in the Arab world, with strong and growing European influences adding a unique character to the Egyptian capital.

Wealthy travellers from across the world flocked to the city, not only for the Pyramids in Giza and the exotic, colourful bazaars in its Old Town, but also for its stylish Haussmann-style Downtown and its glamorous cafe culture.

It was also during this period that Cairo received its Harrods-style department store Omar Effendi and some of Africa’s best hotels like the Heliopolis.

As efforts to Europeanise Cairo at that time intensified, Garden City, a planned neighbourhood with tree-lined avenues and Italian style buildings, was founded. Located next to the famous Tahrir Square, Garden City, whilst still stylish to these days, exudes the air of rustic grandeur – a witness of Cairo’s enduring story of growth, decay and perseverance.

Over the years, some of the neighbourhood’s grand buildings fell into disrepair – many of its original inhabitants of the Greek and European heritage fled the country in the 1950s during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reign. The exodus left some of the villas in the area unoccupied. While the attractive address attracted wealthy Egyptians to move in to fill the void, some of the area’s most palatial mansions are still left in various stages of ruins to these days.

I strolled around the area in October 2015, and took some photos that I feel best encapsulate the area best. It is still a beautiful neighbourhood, and an oasis of calm in the middle of the maddening frenzy that Cairo is. It’s impressive how they managed to keep the area’s calm character intact, while the rest of Cairo became engulfed in blocks and blocks of tall apartment buildings and miles and miles of gridlocked streets.

Take a look here:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Speak soon,
FH

Train stations around the world and why they are special

It is where millions of Hellos are exchanged, plenty of Goodbyes are said, and countless promises are made.

Train stations are where palpable emotions are experienced. It represents farewells as much as it greets you Welcome.

It’s also the pulsing heart of the city it serves – always practical as much as it is evocative.

I took my first train ride when I was 18 – I grew up in Sarawak, and there is (still) no train servicing the state. I first came to KL as a child with my family for a holiday, but then again, we always cabbed around town.

My first train ride felt like a rite of passage; I was a young adult, and I remember how exciting it was for me to be on the LRT, zipping across the city over the buzzing streets of KL. It felt surreal, and I was sold, instantly – the fascination remains to this day.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of taking train trips in different place, from the pleasant journey from Warsaw to Krakow on the new high-speed railway to the slow ride on the chugging train connecting Melbourne with Sydney (well, partially, anyway, since I had to finish the trip on the bus), intercity train ride is still something that I look forward to.

As much as the ride fascinates me, so do the stations. Train stations are great places to observe people and learn more about the cities you’re in. It’s where you go to if you want to feel the real pulse of the city.

Also, some of these stations are absolutely gorgeous too!

Took these pictures during my travels, and I thought I’d share them here. Enjoy!

Weekend getaways: Why Phnom Penh?

Weekend trips to ASEAN destinations are always a possibility nowadays (thanks AirAsia for the frequent promos and the price wars) and the most common getaway ideas are to go for a beach-and-party jaunt in Bali and Phuket, shopping trip in Bandung and Jakarta, and a splashing Songkran weekend in Bangkok.

Having been to these destinations, there’s no denying that they’re all excellent weekend destinations, albeit a little crowded, especially in the case of Bali.

A little off the beaten track is Phnom Penh; that Cambodian city that’s often overlooked by travellers in favour of Siem Reap (which is also fantastic).

Phnom Penh!

Phnom Penh is one of my favourite cities in the region. It’s excellent for a 3-day weekend visit, and here’s why:

It is cheap. Very cheap.

Think that Bandung is cheap? Phnom Penh is even cheaper. While the use of USD has made Cambodia slightly more expensive for Malaysian travellers, the country is still cheap.

A meal in a good restaurant that wouldn’t seem out of place in Bangsar would cost you around RM10.

Fancy a tipple? A drink at one of the bars overlooking the Tonle Sap costs you as little as RM10.

A tuk-tuk ride that takes you across the town costs you around RM8-10.

A massage? RM30 per hour.

A decent room in Phnom Penh’s legendary Mad Monkey hostel: RM100/night.

Phnom Penh is cheap, and it’s a good place to relax for the weekend. With RM200-300 per day, you get to live like a king there.

The architecture is varied

During the colonial period, Phnom Penh was considered the pearl of French Indochina, which explains the many French-inspired buildings that still dominate the urban landscape in the city’s old downtown area.

Phnom Penh’s main post office

Wide French-style boulevards used to cut across the city centre, but these thoroughfares are no longer “wide” nowadays, as hawkers and haphazardly parked vehicles take up much of the space.

Phnom Penh’s typical streetscape

The central market building, constructed in 1937, is an art deco gem. It was the largest market structure in Asia when first opened. The market is still bustling today, with a large food section selling really cheap street eats (try it out if you are adventurous) and China-made household items and souvenirs.

The food section, Phnom Penh Central Market
Phnom Penh Central Market

Like other Southeast Asian capitals, Phnom Penh also has some very interesting temples and palaces. Luckily, these structures survived the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Royal Palace

The food is amazing

Yes, Thai food is amazing, but Cambodian food also deserves some credit.

It’s underrated.

In Phnom Penh, you must try amok, which is Cambodia’s de facto national dish. It’s basically a meat dish (beef, chicken, fish or pork), cooked in very creamy light curry. It tastes different; more like a fusion between Thai green curry and our masak lemak.

Amok

Their cooking style is similar with the Malays’, but Cambodians love santan so much that their dishes are most of the times very creamy.

For those seeking halal food, there are also plenty of halal dining options in the city, as Cambodia is also home to a sizeable Muslim community. Many within this community still speak Malay and practice Malay culture and traditions.

Cambodia’s version of masakan kampung

Vietnamese food is also very ubiquitous in the city, so if you fancy some pho in the morning, you’re in for a treat.

If you’re…uhm…into that kind of thing, there’s a number of Happy Pizza joints in Phnom Penh.

There is so much history

Cambodians have this air of gentility and politeness about them. They are also known to be very cultured; it was their ancestors that built Angkor, the city which, during its peak, was the largest urban settlement in the world.

However, their recent history has been marred by tragic events.

The Khmer Rouge regime, upon its takeover of Phnom Penh, began Year Zero – a push to get Cambodians out of the cities back to the countryside.

Thousands of intelligentsias, professionals, businessmen, even teachers, were systematically murdered.

Close to downtown Phnom Penh is the Tuol Seng Memorial Museum – the building was originally a school, and during Khmer Rouge’s era it was used as a prison and torture facility.

I’ve been to Auschwitz, and the feeling I got at Tuol Seng was similar. It’s a gruesome place.

Haunting in every sense of word.

The gate of Hell
It looks peaceful today; a contrast from what it was during the darkest days of Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror

It still feels very local and authentic

Many travellers liken Phnom Penh to Bangkok before the latter became famous.

There’s truth in their claim, because Phnom Penh still feels very local and original. The tourism boom that transformed Siem Reap into a mecca for western traveller has so far eluded Phnom Penh, so expect some really interesting local sights throughout the city.

Monks walking in central Phnom Penh

There are the drags too!

Well, what’s a visit to Phnom Penh without seeing the drag queens perform traditional Cambodian dances…

So yes…

Phnom Penh is only 2 hours away from home, but everything about this place, from the old-school layout of the city to the slow, less-hectic daily pace adopted by its people, feels very different.

The resilience of the Cambodian people, even after some very tragic events in their recent history, is inspiring – and if you’re still not convinced:

A book seller at the riverside

Speak soon,
FH

My first snow experience

Tell me of that particular first time experience that you would like to go through again.

I want to go back to the day I saw my first snow. I was 20 at that time, it was a chilly November in Seoul. It also happened to be my first solo trip ever – I planned to go there with my friend over our summer break, but he had to bail out last minute for a completely legitimate reason (but Pau, I must say I’m still salty over this lol).

I remember running around the palace courtyard like a child. The snow wasn’t particularly thick, and it melted after a couple of hours just before noon, but the very sight of the snow-covered traditional Korean palace roofs truly warmed my heart.

I felt like a child, I felt alive.

My first snow experience!
That was me, 8 years ago. Notice the hair – if only I knew better!
Of course, the automatic toilet in my room completely caught my attention

However I must admit, my love affair with snow was short-lived; I still remember getting caught in the middle of a blizzard in NYC, and it was not pretty.

But the sight of it, still warms my heart.

The significance of Seoul

My parents have never appreciated travels as much as I do; mom wouldn’t mind going places, but dad hates long-distance flights. It’s something that he does only when he absolutely has to. So I grew up being envious of my friends and classmates who always shared with me their travel stories with their families; They would go to London and bring back some Harrods pencil cases (very much en vogue at that time!).

I didn’t go out of the country that much.

So when I did start travelling, it was a great experience. Traveling alone was an intimidating experience at first, I felt like I was thrown into a different planet where few spoke English, but I ended up having a good time.

I found out that I could be an independent person; it taught me that I could still have a blast, alone.

It taught me that I could do things alone and still have a lot of fun. It taught me to trust strangers, and the people you meet along the way.

I want to go back to that time, when things didn’t seem to be as clearly defined as it is now.

The time of discovery, the time of adventure (peppered with some misadventures sometimes), the time of not having much to lose cause I was 19 anyway.

I’m 28 n0w, and I have a mortgage to pay every month and a job that only allows me 4 weeks of vacations a year*.

Life’s not too shabby nowadays – being adult can be fun too, but of course it’d be nice to go back to 9 years ago, to relive those moments once more.

*I know I shouldn’t complain; some of my friends out there only get 2-3 weeks off a year! :p

Speak soon,

FH

Would You Still Travel If Instagram Never Existed?

If, let’s say, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter did not exist, would you still travel?

Nowadays, many are led to believe that the spike in the travelling culture and backpacking tendencies amongst the millennials is due to our appetite for sharing. We share our experiences offline and online. We have special journals and photo galleries that document our travels.

So, the question comes to mind today. Would you travel just for the sake of the experience, or for the sake of sharing the experience?

Would you still travel just to feel the excitement of navigating the labyrinthine bazaar, with the smell of grilled meat wafting the air, and the dusty gust blowing on your face?

Here’s my take.

While there is this unique feeling of satisfaction that one may derive from sharing his travelling experience online (I won’t lie, posting a selfie in front of the Brandenburg Gate made me feel…quite good), I would still travel even if Instagram never existed.

The main reason is simple. Travelling is one of the great pleasures of life. It opens my mind to the diversity of cultures that people from many different corners of the world hold dear to.

Travelling makes me appreciate people at home even more.

I remember, walking alone in the streets of New York City; one of the biggest and the most crowded place in the world, feeling alone. I was on a 10-day trip in the city- I didn’t even leave the city, as I wanted to experience what it was like living in one of the most exciting cities on the planet.

It was fun, it was a great experience, but I felt lonely. I felt that, amidst all the good things that money could buy in the city, I missed my company at home. I had dinner alone most of the evenings I spent in the city, and I missed having someone talk to me from across the table. I went to some nice galleries, and I wish I could have someone to share my joy with. I walked the Central Park alone, and I imagined how my mom would enjoy the view. I had a hipster brunch in Williamsburg and I remembered how my friends and I would laugh over a similar cup of coffee back home.

Being alone puts you in the perspective; it allows you to experience the sweetness of company. Solitude helps us find ourselves.

The famous Junior’s cheesecake, solo picnic, Central Park

Travelling opens my eyes to the power of human kindness.

Flashback to October 2015.

I got off the bus at a wrong stop; my mind was groggy and I was beyond exhausted, so my street smart was probably not at its best. Stranded in Sharm-el-Sheikh, instead of Dahaab, which was 2 hours away, I looked like a lost tourist at the bus stations. My ticket to Dahaab was no longer valid, as the bus I was supposed to be one already left. Desperate for tourist dollars, taxi drivers came to me in groups and tried their luck to cash in on my vulnerability (if you’ve been to Egypt you’d know how persistent and aggressive Egyptian taxi drivers were).

Then an Egyptian couple approached me, offering to assist me. Long story short, they took some time out of their honeymoon to take me right to my hotel doorsteps in Dahaab. They were even kind enough to buy me lunch (which I insisted on paying for). The couple also repeatedly apologised to me for the difficult experience I had to go through as a solo traveller in Egypt – the country isn’t the best place for solo travels, I must admit.

Beautiful Dahaab, Egypt

Dahaab was at the tail end of my Egypt itinerary, and after encountering so much hassle in Cairo, I was glad that my experience in the Sinai taught me that wherever you are, there is human kindness. There will be someone who’s kind enough to assist you, and (as cliche as this may sound), protect you.

This is because, deep inside, people, most of them, are kind.

This is also something the kind of travel experience that Instragram won’t be able to document.

***

We don’t need Instagram to enjoy travelling, but if sharing pictures of your travels on social media enhances your experience, or makes you feel good, go ahead.

However, it’s important to not let our appetite to share distract us from the joy of living in-the-moment. Snap ahead, but don’t let taking photos be the main purpose of our travels.

Never let Instagram rob us of our experiences. Great memories and experience last forever. Social media validation, on the other hand, is short-lived.

Know your priorities.

 

Speak soon,

FH

Snapshots: Bersih 5 in Melbourne

The Malaysian community in Melbourne has always been in tune with what’s happening in their home country. Even when I used to live there as a student there were already Bersih rallies conducted by the Malaysian community in the city. These rallied never failed to attract at least several thousands Malaysians, but I went to none of them.

This time around, organisers estimate that around 1,500 protesters were present at the Bersih 5 rally at the Federation Square yesterday, a significant figure but still shy of the 5,000 targeted initially.

My friends and I were already in the city for brunch, so we decided to quickly pop over to the square to take a look. I was not wearing the Bersih shirt, and was ironically wearing a pair of red checkered shirt (unintentionally channeling the Red shirt group, which I obviously have no part in lol).

Overall, the Malaysian spirit permeated the atmosphere, with crowd of different racial and religious backgrounds converging for a united cause of change. Political parties mainly shied away from directly showing their visual presence and collaterals at the protest, except for a Amanah flag flown by a few protesters; a completely unnecessary stunt, in my opinion, given Bersih’s supposedly nonpartisan intention. Apart from that, speakers talked about the need for Malaysians in Australia to register to vote for the next general election to strengthen the nation’s democracy. Protesters also called for a transparent and thorough investigation into 1MDB and the weeding out of what they viewed to be a problem of endemic corruption in the country.

The rally dispersed peacefully after two hours in the typical Australian fashion, with protesters returning to their normal routine right after.

Yesterday’s weather was spectacular, the skies were blue, the air filled with gaiety and the parks and beaches, filled to the brim.

Life goes on, indeed.

It's also a social media protest.
It’s also a social media protest.
Large crowd
Large crowd
Sarawakians and their Bersih demands
Sarawakians and their Bersih demands
1,500 turned up (organiser's estimate)
1,500 turned up (organiser’s estimate)
Kelantanese at Bersih
Kelantanese at Bersih
A student giving a speech.
A student giving a speech.
Red shirt amidst the sea of yellow!
Red shirt amidst the sea of yellow!

 

Speak soon,

FH

Snapshots of Melbourne (Part 1)

Hello from Melbourne!

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly 5 years I last left this city that I called home for three of the most formative years in my life.

It feels great to be back. Melbourne hasn’t changed as much as I feared that it would; Swanston St. has been fully pedestrianised, creating a very vibrant street scene in central Melbourne. New restaurants have popped up across town, and the food truck craze has arrived here too! No longer is there the little Es Teler on Cardigan St. that I used to go to often during the uni days; a shame indeed, I still remember how great their spicy kuayteow goreng was!

Here are some snapshots of Melbourne that I took over the past two days.

img_6713
Cafes of the Flinders Lane
img_6714
The tram, the CBD skyline and the solid blue skies. Quintessentially Melbourne.
img_6736
H&M has taken over the GPO building!
img_6851
Bourke Street Mall at night
img_6915
A homeless man sitting amidst the revellers at the Hosier Lane graffiti gallery.
img_6917
Yours truly at the Hosier Lane.
img_6918
Twisted elegance.
img_6919
Spring is in the air.
img_6921
Royal Arcade, soaked in the Christmas mood.
img_6928
Among the quirky skyscrapers popping up all over Melbourne over the last couple of years

Alright, that’s it for now. Looking forward to a weekend of reconnecting with some dear friends. Feels good to be back in Melbourne, albeit for a few days only.

Speak soon,

FH.

9 Things: Budapest

The capital of Hungary, oriented around the river Danube, is replete with architectural and cultural gems.

In the 19th century, Budapest vied with Vienna as two of the most important cities in Austria-Hungary; a powerful empire that stretched across much of Central Europe. World War 1 ended with the dissolution of the empire, and the newly formed Hungary entered a turbulent period of its history, from the devastating World War 2 to a long period of communist repression.

A vibrant city of two million, Budapest has become as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. I had the chance of visiting the city three months ago, and here are 9 things that I found to best encapsulate the city:

 

  1. Budapest IS small

img_0489

On the paper, Budapest, with its 2 million inhabitants, doesn’t sound like a small city. In reality, most of the city’s inhabitants live in neighbourhoods outside the beautiful city centre. While Budapest’s centre is very beautiful, with its many ornate structures and Neo-Renaissance homes, its predominantly residential suburbs are filled with dark, grey concrete communist era apartment blocks. However, while many of these neighbourhoods are safe to explore, there are not many sights that casual tourists would appreciate there anyway.

So, if you’re a tourist, Budapest is small, as a fairly compact city, with most of the attractions located within a walking distance.

 

  1. Budapest Metro is one of the oldest in the world
img_0379
Line 1, Budapest Metro

While we in KL await our first ever MRT line to commence operation end of this year (yes, I get it, we already had out first LRT line 20 years ago), Budapest received its first metro line in 1896. Built for the purpose of transporting commuters from Vörösmarty Square to the City Park, the first line of Budapest Metro, a UNESCO heritage site, is an attraction in itself. The line was constructed using the “cut-and-cover” method, so unlike other metro systems in Europe, the Line 1 track isn’t placed very deep underground. The metro stations still retain their original designs, complete with the modernist wall cladding popular during the first half of the 20th century, and the rolling stock isn’t new either, complete with its wooden benches.

 

  1. Hungarian food is very hearty, but…

…it’s also pretty bland. Yes, Hungary is very well known for its goulash and its meat stew, and while I appreciate the heartiness, the cuisines aren’t seasoned to fit Asian palates. While westerners might find Hungarian food spicy, Malaysians who are used to our sambal and cili potong may find the spiciness of Hungarian cuisine a child’s play. However, this doesn’t mean that visitors should avoid local food altogether.

I managed to find some good Hungarian restaurants, many of them at least a block or two away from main tourist areas, and they served decent food. Try out their veal stew and fish soup. Prices are also reasonable in Budapest; you may find a two-course sit-down meal in a good restaurant for RM40-50.

img_0856Levantine food in Budapest!

 

  1. Budapest café scene is not to be missed

Budapest, being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Habsburg Empire after Vienna, has a well-established café scene. The city’s many cafes were the birthplace of many ideas that shaped the history of Hungary since the 19th century. Poets, writers and intellectuals converged in its cafes, turning them into places where ideas were exchanged and developed.

img_0681
Book Cafe

img_0854

To experience the life of the 19th century Habsburgian aristocrats, visit Book Café, just off the famous Andrassy Boulevard. The ornate café occupies the top floor of Paris Department Store, which was, during its heyday, one of the fanciest stores in the city. Prices are surpisingly affordable here, with an ice coffee costing around RM10 and a slice of cake RM15; not too far off from your Secret Recipe next door!

 

  1. Budapest has thermal baths and hot springs all over the city!

Budapest is traditionally known as the spa capital of Europe, and it’s not hard to see why. The city is dotted with many thermal springs, supplying thermal water to its many baths including the Szechenyi Bath, one of the most ornate bathhouses in all of Europe. The bathhouse, constructed in Neo-Renaissance style, is still a popular hang-out spot among the locals, especially during summer.

If you’re not willing to pay upwards of RM30 for the experience, head to one of the many free communal wading pools in the city.

img_0351

img_0688
Szechenyi Bath
img_0508
Folks enjoying their summer evening in Budapest

 

  1. Budapest is cheaper than other parts of Europe

Hungary isn’t as economically advanced as its neighbours Austria, Germany, even Czech Republic, so expect prices here to be lower than in these countries. A 3-course-meal in a sit-down restaurant here costs around RM50-70, around 30% lower than in other major European cities like London and Paris. A trip on Budapest metro costs around RM5, and a ride from the airport to the city centre, around RM70 – not dirt-cheap, but still pretty affordable. Uber is quite popular here, and not very expensive either.

Accommodation is relatively cheap. A private room with an ensuite bathroom in the middle of Budapest historical precinct would cost you around RM150.

Hungary still uses Forint, RM 1 = HUF 60

Alcohol is unbelievably cheap in Budapest, which explains the constant flock of stag-party visitors from all over Europe to the city.

  1. Hungary’s 20th century history is worth peeking into

The twentieth century was a turbulent period in Hungary. The country was led by the fascist Arrow Cross regime just before it was invaded by Nazi Germany. World War Two was particularly deadly for Hungary, with its once vibrant Jewish community decimated to the tune of 90 percent. There is still an ongoing debate on the extent of Hungarian nationalists’ involvement in abetting the genocide.

After World War 2, Hungary was incorporated into the Eastern bloc, and another period of terror ensued. The Museum of Terror on the Andrassy Boulevard, housed in a building that was once used for the detention and torture of Hungarian political dissidents, is one of the major attractions in Budapest today. It provides visitors with an overview of what life was like in Hungary during the communist times.

img_0616
The ornate interior of Budapest Synagogue
img_0552
Budapest Synagogue – the largest in Europe.
img_0675
House of Terror
  1. Budapest is immensely beautiful

Indeed, it is. To best get a feel of how beautiful the city is, do a stroll along its Danube river promenade at dusk. It’s spectacular. I’ll let these photos do the talking.

img_0527

img_0462
The Parliament building

img_0487

img_0550

img_0797

img_0714

  1. Budapest vs Prague, which city wins?

This is a very common question among travellers keen to explore this part of Europe. Having already been to both cities, I’d say that Budapest is different from Prague in many regards. The buildings in Budapest are grander, the old quarter beautiful, but less polished, and traces of communism can still be felt, to a larger extent here, than in Prague. Budapest also feels larger than Prague.

So, Prague is more beautiful than Budapest, but if you’re looking for a less polished, less Disney-esque urban experience in Central Europe, you may prefer Budapest.

img_0865

Goodbye, Budapest. Notice their spartan departure gate?

 

Speak soon,

FH

9 Things: Berlin

Berlin is one of the most exciting European cities that I’ve been to. Being one of the cheapest cities in Germany (prices here are much lower than London), Berlin attracts young artists and start-up entrepreneurs from all over Europe, contributing to its youthful vibes. The city has a long history of being a hub of counterculture movements and alternative lifestyles, even as far back as the 1920s when Magnus Herschfeld conducted his research on human sexuality, giving birth to modern day gay rights movement.

I adore Berlin. These are 9 essential facts that I found out about the city:

Berlin is a new city

Yes, it is new, especially when compared to other European capitals. While the history of Berlin dates back to a few hundred years ago, much of the city was reduced to rubble at the end of World War 2. After the war, the city was divided into East Berlin and West Berlin. Berlin was reconstructed, and while some prominent structures were rebuilt to its pre-war design, other parts of the city were rebuilt in accordance with the mid-20th century design sensibilities. Urban landscapes in what was then East Berlin are still dominated by huge concrete apartment blocks befitting the socialist ideology of DDR.

Fernsehturm
Fernsehturm

While you don’t see any semblance of WW2 ruins anymore in Berlin, the Germans thoughtfully preserved the ruins of Gedächtniskirche to remind future generations of the extent of destruction and devastation a war could bring to a nation.

Gedächtniskirche
Gedächtniskirche

Berlin is cheaper than other major European capitals

If you’re looking for a relatively affordable experience in a world-class European city, Berlin is the place for you. Prices here are lower, to the tune of 30-40%, than London. Post-reunification construction boom in 1990s also culminated into real estate oversupply, the effects of which are still felt today. This means that the rent here is much cheaper than the rest of Germany. You may find street food for EUR2.5 here, or a sit-down meal for EUR7. A nice AirBnB accommodation in a good area of town may cost you EUR70, a fraction of what it would cost in London or Paris.

Berlin has an amazing public transportation system

Berlin’s public transportation system is impressive, and surprisingly cheap. One-day pass costs you EUR7. Tourists, however, may get confused as Berlin’s many metro lines make for a convoluted system- so it really pays to know what S-bahn and U-bahn trains are for.

U-bahn trains are akin to Metro trains, they have higher frequencies, and stations are located closer to each other. The S-bahn trains work like suburban trains, or in Malaysia, KTM Komuter trains. The frequency isn’t as high as U-bahn trains (but still much higher than our KTM Komuter), and the gap between stations isn’t as small as the U-bahn, but they make for excellent option if you wish to commute longer distance across town.

A trains station in Berlin
A trains station in Berlin

As with many other facilities in Berlin, the city’s metro system has ample capacity to serve the city of 3 million inhabitants, so chances are you won’t find yourself in a very packed train, even during rush hours.

If you don’t feel like taking the trains, Berlin taxis and uber cars are much cheaper than in London. A trip from the city to the Tegel Airport shouldn’t cost you much more than EUR20.

Berlin has an amazing ethnic food scene

Germany’s openness after World War 2 has made the country an attractive destination for migrants from all over the world. This makes it an amazing destination for culinary adventure. Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are very popular, and they are pretty cheap, with a meal costing you around EUR7. I even had one of the best pad thai I had in a restaurant in Schoneberg.

Best Pad Thai ever!
Best Pad Thai ever!

For a more local experience, head to a German gastropub. Portions are huge here, and prices are upward of EUR10. If you’re a drinker, beer is extremely cheap here, often cheaper than mineral water.

One of the must-haves when in Berlin is their traditional breakfast set. I had a hearty breakfast of gravax, poached fish, eggs with caviar on top, local cheese, and fresh fruits for EUR9.

Delicious breakfast, Berlin style
Delicious breakfast, Berlin style

If you miss spicy food and sambal, head to Mabuhay, an Indonesian restaurant next to the Mendehllson-Batholdy metro station. Their ayam balado memang cukup pedas, and they make great soto too.

Berlin museums are impressive

Berlin has some of the best museums and galleries in Europe. Pergamon Museum even features the Ishtar Gate, reconstructed using actual material excavated in Iraq. Apart from the gate, the museum also boasts a wealth of other artefacts from the Middle East, from the ancient days to the Islamic era. There’s even an exhibition that features ancient Quranic manuscripts, some of them among the oldest in the world.

The Ishtar Gate
The Ishtar Gate
IMG_1023
An old Islamic Manuscript, Pergamon

If you’re a fan of visual arts, head to the Altes Museum for its impressive collection of paintings, with a floor dedicated to artworks by German painters.

What I love about Berlin museums is that these museums are much less crowded with tourists, even during summer months, compared to those in Rome or London. You get to take your time and enjoy the exhibitions in relative peace and quiet.

If you’re a museum buff, it’s worth spending EUR24 on a museum pass, valid for three days.

Commie Berlin is worth a peek into

Prior to reunification, East Berlin was the capital of DDR, or more commonly known as East Germany. The communist East Germany was relatively isolated from the non-communist world, so life there was pretty different back then.

The DDR Museum is worth checking out. Walking into it is akin to delving into the everyday life of a DDR citizen.

The Trabant
The Trabant
The Katalog magazine, a popular fashion spread in DDR
The Katalog magazine, a popular fashion spread in DDR

It’s a fun exhibition, you may even sit inside the Trabant, a popular car model produced in the DDR, and “drive” the car. The Trabant is so flimsy that East Germans used to call it a “plastic car”. To get the most out of the experience at the museum, I suggest that you watch ‘Goodbye, Lenin!’ beforehand.

Germans are very frank about their dark past

Germany has really come to terms with their dark past. Yes, they were instrumental in starting two world wars and were responsible for the destruction that these wars brought to Europe, but today’s Germany has learnt its lessons and is a very different nation.

There’s a big monument, recently constructed in Berlin, to remember Jews who were murdered in Europe during Shoah. The Nazis, in its plan to annihilate the Jewish civilisation, murdered six million Jews. Hitler didn’t stop there; he also sought to eliminate the Gypsies, who were deemed to be racially inferior, and systematically murdered homosexuals.

The Monument of Murdered Jews of Europe
The Monument of Murdered Jews of Europe

I’ve been to Auschwitz, which was a sobering experience, and this monument in Berlin is a manifestation of Germany’s regret for the sins of her past. It’s an excellent place to reflect on not only Holocaust, but also issues facing our world today too, from the rise of fascism in the West to the problem of racism still prevalent in many places, including Malaysia. Hate empowers humans to do inhumane things, which is why hate in any form, be it racial prejudice or homophobia, is dangerous.

Germany coming to terms with its past
Germany coming to terms with its past

Berlin has a large Muslim community

Yes, and they live pretty well here, with many of them taking up productive jobs in the economy. I was in Berlin a week before Eid, and the main shopping district of Wittenbergplatz was full of shoppers, many in their hijab, doing their Eid shopping. There are also plenty of refugees in the city, and many of them take up productive jobs in the economy. I went to a falafel shop in Schoneberg, and talked to the owner, a middle-aged Arab guy, who came to Berlin to flee war and violence in Iraq. The falafel was delicious, an upon finding out that I came from Malaysia, he warmed up to me instantly. At least, amidst the multitude of issues our country is facing currently, Malaysia is still looked up in the Muslim world as a success story.

The Muslim community here is also integrated, there are even female police officers donning the hijab here; which is definitely not a common scene anywhere else in Europe.

The iftar queue at a Kebab shop, Schoneberg.
The iftar queue at a Kebab shop, Schoneberg.

Summer in Berlin is just lovely

Berliners love summer days, and the city looks its best when the sun shines bright. Put your sunnies on, bring your picnic basket and sit on the lawn facing the river Spree, and trust me, you’ll instantly fall in love in Berlin (if you haven’t).

Summer by River Spree
Summer by River Spree
IMG_1737
Yours truly, Berlin.

Speak soon,

FH