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

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

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

A City Of Contrasts

Shanghai is a city of contrasts: it’s a place where the nouveau riche flaunt their wealth in a smart neighborhood just a few blocks away from the derelict ungentrified streets of Old Xintiandi. It is a place where capitalism coexists with communism. Mao is still a much-revered figure, ironically so, considering that he was the man responsible for repressing the very lifeline of Shanghai’s economic prosperity at the height of his Cultural Revolution; the city’s entrepreneurial character. From the scammers who roam the bustling Nanjing Road to the business executives working in one of Pudong’s gleaming skyscrapers, Shanghainese really know how to make money. Ethnically the city is nowhere near homogenous. Its cosmopolitan vibes are felt through the diverse selection of food on offer in the city. The noticeably sizable Shanghai Muslim community, just like the Chinese Eurasians of the city, appears to be very well-integrated, if not assimilated, into the mainstream Chinese society.

This is a massive city; there are as many people living in Shanghai as there are in the whole of Australia. It is so crowded that it puts Seoul to shame, the roads are a total chaos, and Westerners used to waking up to clear, blue sky may find Shanghai air a little too heavy to their lungs. Shanghai is definitely not for everyone. The city gets pretty overwhelming at times, but the people are surprisingly friendly and the food good, so I still regard Shanghai pretty highly in my book. Living there I’m not keen of, but going there for a visit is very much worth it.

Explore the city beyond the skyscrapers and the Jetson-esque highways and overpasses that are the omnipresent feature of the new China, and enjoy getting lost in the maze of the older parts of Shanghai, where things are still very much alike what you expect to see in China; rundown but very charming hardware shops, art deco buildings clearly past their prime, and seedy cafes where people, especially the elderly, gather for a round of Chinese chess. That’s where the charm of the city really lies.

The shots were taken using my modest-yet-reliable digicam:

Faithfully restored old shophouses
Colors
Geometry
Jin Mao Tower and Shanghai WFC
The ungentrified part of Xintiandi