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

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:

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Speak soon,
FH

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