5 must dos in Siem Reap

In Siem Reap, don’t get all tired and templed out. Here is my guide to the best of what this remarkable city of temples has on offer…

1. ARTY SOUVENIRS

Buy authentic Cambodian keepsakes – lacquer tableware, a wooden statue or some pearl jewellery – at Artisans d’Angkor. For silk scarves, bags and accessories, take time to visit its silk farm, a 20-minute drive from downtown Siem Reap.

Angkor art
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

If you want local ambience and street food along with your shopping, stroll around Psar Chaa (Old Market). Keep an eye out for bargains or take home a unique Khmer memento in the form of a fine art print of the Angkor temples by American photographer John McDermott, from the McDermott Gallery.

2. STAY IN STYLE

FCC Angkor comes with oodles of charm and history. This Art Deco gem also has a great location – along the banks of the Siem Reap River and close to the Angkor Wat complex.

Raffles
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

The Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is still considered the best in terms of luxury and service – despite the recent spurt of new hotels in the city. Besides enjoying the rooms, which have colonial-style furnishings and Cambodian objets d’art, you can also catch an Apsara performance (a classical Khmer dance) and have dinner at its aptly named Apsara Terrace restaurant.

3. GET PAMPERED

Soothe achy muscles at Bodia Spa with the Apsara Indulgence 4 Hands Massage. Or try its Herbal Compress Massage. They will have you fit and ready to hit the temple trail afresh the next day.

At Lemongrass Garden Spa, massages are associated with spiritual healing and treatments, and come with names like Cosmic Connection and Spiritual Journey.

If you are looking to give back to this society in some way, spend some of your cash at Seeing Hands Massage (324 Sivatha Street). The no-frills massages there are given by blind masseurs.

4. AFTER ANGKOR, WHAT?

Most visitors to Siem Reap are content with the main temples of the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom complex. Set aside an entire day just for these two marvels. Once you have had your fill of them, head to Ta Prohm temple – ideally at sunset. It is breathtaking even as it lies in the grip of ancient tree roots wrapped around it. Although this is part of the Angkor complex, it remains serenely untouched by the tourist throngs.

In the grip of nature

The face

And then it dawned on me...

Finally, make a trip to the 10th century Banteay Srei (translated as “Citadel of Women”). Smaller in scale than other temples and built of pink sandstone, it is truly exquisite.

Bantaey Srei
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

5. EAT AND MAKE MERRY

Tuck into Khmer food at Cuisine Wat Damnak, which prides itself on using fresh local produce. Ask chef Joannes Riviere for recommendations or stick to the ever-changing degustation menu for an introduction to this simple but flavourful cuisine.

Fish Amok
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

To linger over ice cream and coffee – or even Cambodia’s famous Amok Fish (steamed fish in coconut curry) – the best place is the popular The Blue Pumpkin. At the end of a hot day, chill with a Tomb Raider cocktail – named after the movie – at The Red Piano. Lead actress Angelina Jolie had hung out at this restaurant while the movie was being filmed.

This was originally published in the April issue of Silverkris (Singapore Airlines)read it online here

Read more Cambodia stories on this blog here

Friday photo: Mango

‘Tis the season for joy. Joy that comes in golden yellow and sweet as nectar packages…

The season is over...

Or, bright green and sour enough to make you pucker your lips and scrunch your eyes. Till they turn into fiery red pickles that light up your taste buds for the rest of the year…

The mango design

Take your pick. After all:

The choicest fruit of Hindustan,
For garden’s pride the mango is sought;
Ere ripe, other fruits to cut we ban,
But mango serves us ripe or not.

~ Amir Khusrau, 13th-century Sufi poet

Read my two bits on the mango mania in India

Also see: Friday photo series

A weekend at Pench

It was the summer of the tiger at Pench. True, just one tiger – the Baghin Nala Alpha Male. But then, when I go to National Parks in India, I am happy to see all kinds of fauna. Even the omnipresent chital and langur.

Deer

Family

Pench is one of the newer Tiger Reserves in India, created in 1992, the 19th to be brought under Project Tiger. According to MP Tourism, Pench Tiger Reserve spans a wide area including the Indira Priyadarshini Pench National Park, the Mowgli Pench Sanctuary and a buffer zone. It is spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, although only the former is geared towards tourists.

And notice the ‘Mowgli?’ It is believed that Pench was the original setting and the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s very popular Jungle Book. And if like me, you grew up reading and watching Jungle Book multiple times and never having enough of Mowgli and Bagheera and Baloo (how adorable was that dance?), that is reason enough for you to visit. And of course, the fact that you might run into Shere Khan – at last count, there are 35 tigers inside this reserve.

Of course, it was scorching hot, but we had gone in the hopes of seeing tigers come out towards the many water bodies inside the Reserve. Our only tiger sighting was on our very first drive into Pench, on a hot hot afternoon when every single life form inside the forest seemed to have gone into hiding from the ferocity of the sun. Just thirty minutes into our safari, we heard feeble alarm cries from the spotted deer, soon joined by langur and peacocks. And before we knew it, the entire area burst into cacophony. We waited patiently for the tiger that we knew was somewhere in the area – we could not see him but the prey could smell and sense him clearly. And then he emerged from the bushes and walked across the dry land before disappearing into the thickets.

Sighting

Alpha Male

No luck with tigers during the other drives but we saw jackals and wild dogs (dhole) for the first time. Two dhole had just made a kill and were eating while the jackal hovered around them from a distance. And the minute they moved away, he closed in. True to form, the scavenger. And the remaining safaris, we saw jackals each time, once feeding its young.

Food

Day of the jackal

Dhole

Pench also has the largest number of herbivores in the country, our naturalist says that over 50,000 spotted deer alone grazed within its boundaries. And I can never tire of seeing the gorgeous Indian Roller in flight. And for the first time, I also saw a peacock dancing. I had always thought that peacocks danced during the rains, but according to the naturalist, summers are as good a time as any to catch them at it.

Indian Roller

Indian Roller1

I always love early mornings inside the forest – the silence and stillness in the beginning are like a comforting blanket. And then the jungle begins to wake up to another day and the bustle begins. Like at Panna, our resort had packed a lovely breakfast on both days and we stopped at the designated spot to tuck into it. Parathas and poha, even if cold, never taste so good as after a few hours of bumpy drive through a forest.

But for Panna, my visits to National Parks have been during the summer – a time of barren trees, fallen leaves (sometimes in flaming colours), drying water beds, stillness in the air. It is mostly a bed of brown, broken occasionally by a burst of red flowers or leaves here and there or the sudden bright hues of a bird in flight. I would love to go in peak winter to see how the vegetation changes and to see how the animals respond to the changes in season. Next stop, Bandhavgarh!

Flaming red

Dry land

Travel Information

Nagpur is the closest airport and railway station to Pench – it is just over 100 km away, a good 21/2 hours drive over good roads.

The Park is open from October 15 till June 30 – peak season is usually from December till February and during these months, safari bookings are made several weeks in advance since only a limited number of jeeps are allowed each time into the Park.

We stayed at the Pench Jungle Camp – moderately priced, friendly staff, good naturalist, option of staying in a tent or a room (we chose the tent at the far end of the property) – my only complaint was with the food.

For a luxury experience, stay at Baghvan from Taj Safaris – the service is impeccable and the naturalists are the best in the business.

Happy 125th, Eiffel Tower!

Paris’ most recognisable landmark, the structure that graces a million postcards, recently turned 125.

The Eiffel Tower. Love it or hate it. You cannot ignore it. When you walk through that part of Paris, it feels that any corner you turn, there it is. What is so charming about a tall tower of metal, that it welcomes 7 million people a year, paying a steep fee of €15 to take the lift to the top?

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That’s what I wondered before I saw it for myself. And then I found myself wanting to go there again and again, especially loving it late at night when the lights come on and twinkle in time to the merry lights of the carousel ride on the opposite side of the road.

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And then there are the views of the city from the top, the breeze that threatens to blow you right off and just that happy feeling of being on top of the world…

Here is some great reading on the man behind this engineering marvel – Gustave Eiffel.

“The tower sways around six to seven centimetres (2-3 inches) in the wind” – this and more fascinating facts about Eiffel Tower here.

And finally, some interesting photographs from the time of the construction of this icon.

Friday photo: Windows

As Bangalore reels under the vicious attack of an early summer, my thoughts are in the cool, cool hills. Sikkim, Ladakh, Himachal, anywhere at all in the Himalayas is where I would rather be right now.

So this Friday, a photo from Sikkim: a young girl looking out of the window at Pemayangtse monastery at West Sikkim.

Yellow

Not quite an image of the hills, but Sikkim was as much about its lovely people and unforgettable food (not to forget the heady chang), as it was about the snow-peaked mountains.

Read about our quest for a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga

And lots more Sikkim stories here

Also see: Friday photo series

Graffiti art in Ghent

If Flanders (a region within Belgium) itself is an overlooked destination within Western Europe, then think of Ghent as the neglected step-sister. Tourists stop to gawk at the grandeur of Brussels and moon over the picture postcard prettiness of Bruges – and who can blame them – but skip this University town altogether in their rush to get to the next big thing.

Lonely Planet, in writing of Ghent as one of its top destinations of 2011 — Here’s a secret within a secret: Ghent might just be the best European city you’ve never thought of visiting, in a country that continues to be criminally overlooked.

Ghent has many delights; among my favourites is the absolutely stunning Graffiti Lane, whose original name is quite a mouthful – Werregarenstraat. Some time in the 1990s, the local government declared it legal to paint graffiti inside this lane, in a bid to keep the rest of the town free of vandalism and to promote good quality street art. And from the looks of it, they have succeeded.

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There are all kinds of themes to be found on the walls, from absolute abstract art, to messages of love and peace…

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On a gloomy day as the one I was there on, it may seem a slightly dark and edgy place, but locals use the lane all day without any hesitation. Once the sun came out, graffiti lane was just like any of the narrow lanes scattered across the town connecting two main streets.

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The character of graffiti lane changes everyday. If you stop there for a few minutes, possible to see artists at work with a spray can in hand.

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Also read about graffiti lanes elsewhere: Prague, Melbourne

5 reasons to visit Europe in spring

‘Tis the beginning of that most glorious of seasons – spring. And also that most glorious of times to travel to my favourite content – Europe. Why spring? Why not wait for another two months and go when the rest of the world goes to Europe? Ah, that’s one of the reasons actually to go now and not between June and September.

Think of this as a five for five post – my list of why you should pack your bags and head to Europe NOW, and my recommendation on which city just touches the spot on each of these:

1. Beat the crowds

Taking off from where I started, go before the thousands of tour groups, vacationing families and backpackers (ok, not so much – backpackers travel through the year – there is no getting away from them) descend upon those tiny medieval cities that are made for a few hundred people. Explore the narrow cobblestone lanes, linger over coffee at those alfresco cafes and sound hours gazing at the stained glass windows at your favourite churches without having to rub elbows (to put it mildly) with the multitude. Why, you might even get to stand close to the Mona Lisa (and feel that twinge of disappointment, but never mind) at the Louvre!

Where: Venice

Venice

And to help you get the best out of Venice, here’s The Telegraph’s list of the best that the town has to offer this spring…

2. Smell the flowers

For these three months, there are flowers everywhere in Europe, as if to mark the end of a long, gloomy winter. Hanging out of windows in tiny pots, blooming in tidy rows from the ground, sold in colourful brilliant bunches in markets. Go, if for nothing else, to see the tulips in bloom (for all too brief a spell) at the Keukenhof gardens outside Amsterdam. This year, the Keukenhof gardens are open from March 20 till May 18. If you need to be convinced further, read my story on the original party city Amsterdam and its tulip connection.

Where: Amsterdam

Amsterdam

3. Celebrate Easter

Like the Christmas markets, the Easter markets of Europe are great for days of fun, food and shopping. Look out for local wines, hand painted Easter eggs, stunning handicrafts and music performances. My pick for Easter markets is Prague – there are two, at the Old City Square and at the Wenceslas Square. The entire city wears a festive look and the town squares are buzzing late, late into the night. Read about how Prague welcomes Easter – just be sure to stop for regular trdelnik breaks in the midst of all the shopping and singing.

Where: Prague

Prague

4. Pick up bargains

Everything is cheaper – from your hotel (or B&B) rooms to the shopping you are tempted to do, and even perhaps local travel like car rentals and train tickets. Shoulder season means bargain rates on your accommodation, while end of winter means great discount sales at most major outlets. Make use of this to travel to the normally expensive destinations – while Scandinavia (which generally tops this list within Europe) may still be too cold, why not consider Britain? When you tire of shopping on Oxford Street, head to the Lake District or even further up North to Scotland (if the weather gods smile on you) for some unretail therapy.

Where: London

London

5. Feel the romance

It is finally time to shake off the winter chills and feel the smiles in the air, along with the balmy sunshine. And every single European city does this very well during this season. Think Paris in springtime. Also think Bruges, Salzburg, Ljubljana… Just head to the nearest park and find a bench to park yourself on. And let the magic of a European spring work itself on you.

Where: Paris

Paris

Breakfast in Bangalore – 5

Airlines
(Source)

Continuing from my other Breakfast in Bangalore posts – although there hasn’t been one in this series in a while now – here is Airlines Hotel (circa 1968). This is a particularly timely post since the fate of this iconic alfresco hangout is hanging in the balance of a court judgement.

Before you go any further, read about the history of Airlines Hotel here…

Bangalore’s version of the adda, Airlines is an open air little restaurant (for want of a better word) just off Lavelle Road close to the turn for St. Mark’s road. This place is busy at any time of the day, and especially so on weekends and weekday evenings. There is a ‘No Smoking’ notice hidden away in one corner and from what I have seen, locals insouciantly puff on its face.

Filter CoffeeLike many Bangalore institutions (think MTR, think Koshy’s), getting the attention of waiters here too is an art form. Or perhaps not. I think it is to do with your luck that day – the waiter for your table might be in a particularly good mood or just like your face a lot and in that case, you get served real quick. Quick enough for Bangalore, that is. Buat anyway, again like those other Bangalore institutions, who goes there to eat? The idea is to meet, greet and chat your way through several cups of filter coffee and the lives of friends not present there.

Menu

UpmaAs such, Airlines is known for its dosa and upma (genuine white and fluffy upma and not the tangy Bangalore kharabhat variety) but they also have a chaat corner which I have never tried. In the evenings, they pull out all stops and serve everything from chhole bhature to gobi manchurian.

There are a few more eating joints inside the premises now, including a small pizza joint and a chocolate shop. Corner House also has an outlet there with outside seating. And oh, Airlines itself is a drive-in place and I am told that eating crisp masala dosa from the comfort of your car seat used to be a favourite Bangalore pastime.

But given how lovely Bangalore weather can be through most of the year, I prefer to get out and find a chair under the sprawling banyan trees.

Perhaps, no longer?

The Holi brunch

Holi haiIt’s just a couple of days after Holi; the colour and chaos have settled, the high of the bhang is lost in the humdrum of the weekday and the three-plus hour brunch at JW Marriott seems a distant memory. When I reviewed the JW Marriott a few months ago for a travel magazine, I wrote, “Any Bangalorean will tell you that one of the city’s biggest assets is its perennially pleasant weather. And the newly opened JW Marriott Bengaluru—located on Vittal Mallya Road between the verdant Cubbon Park and the upscale shopping and entertainment hub, UB City—is all set to make the most of it.” What I had in mind, above all, was the Sunday brunch – with the alfresco seating looking out on to the open spaces of Bangalore (give or take the high walls that assure complete privacy).

Alfresco

Summer vegetables
(Summer is here)

MezzeThis Sunday, husband and I finally made our way there, after a late and lazy start to the day. To our delight, the Holi theme was on: delicate pats of colours on our cheeks and then we were on. One of the things I need from Sunday brunches is a large spread – never mind that I end up pecking at a fraction of what is on offer but I like to feel that I have options. And the JW Marriott does not disappoint – I remember that from the Juhu hotel too. So, there were, of course, all the usual suspects, each at individual islands – soups, salads and mezzo (as an aside, I can live on mezzo all my life – there, you learnt one new thing about me today. Aren’t you happy?), pasta and Asian wok dishes, meat and sushi (I have marked the vegetarian sushi on my next-time list), Indian (again with a separate area for Indian vegetarian food). And a cornucopia of desserts. Just my kind of place.

And then there were the Holi specials – outdoor counters for chaat, pav bhaji, other salty snacky thingummies like Nachos and grilled vegetables, and of course, fresh gujiyas and jalebi.

Chaat

Jalebi

Gujiya

To wash it all down, a delectable paan Martini. The Holi motif was carried on with thandai, a colouring area for children and all the waitstaff with daubs of colour on their faces. In all, a wonderful, slothful Sunday brunch – just the way it should be.

Martini
(The name’s Paan, James Paan)

Bar
(The Martini maker)

Colour

That apart, I like the small touches here – the space for children to play while parents brunch in peace (as if! but if bouncy castles, bow and arrows can’t do it, what can?), the attractive displays of spices and ingredients, the attentiveness of the staff and above all, this pickle shelf that caught my fancy the first time I visited.

Chilli

All things good

Achar

Food for thought

“Food is music to the body; music is food to the heart,” Gregory David Roberts wrote in Shantaram, his 2003 novel commended by many for its vivid portrayal of life in Mumbai, where the Australian former heroin addict and bank robber lived for 10 years as a fugitive.

But while Bollywood has long included music in its film equation, it has only discovered food in a big way in recent years. Some wonderful food-themed films have left audiences licking their fingers. The most popular is The Lunchbox (2013), which opens in Hong Kong cinemas on Thursday.

The Lunchbox1

Largely set in Mumbai, the film is filled with enticing shots of food that the lovely Ila (Nimrat Kaur) prepares for her indifferent husband each morning, believing the way to his heart is through his stomach. So she kneads the dough, grates the cottage cheese and sprinkles the spices with a dash of hope.

The cinematic repast also resonates with its depiction of how people reach for food when they are lonely.

The LunchboxRitesh Batra’s romantic drama is one of those rare films that wears its art-house cinema label lightly, while charming mainstream audiences. The Lunchbox won some international awards, including for best screenplay, best actor (for Irrfan Khan) and best supporting actor (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) at the Asia-Pacific Film Festival; it also got a special mention at the Reykjavik International Film Festival.

It’s considered a commercial hit in India, where it grossed more than 70 million rupees (HK$376,500) in its first weekend – a respectable sum, given its low production budget.

The lack – rather than the preparation – of a lunchbox is highlighted in one of the best Hindi films of 2011, Stanley Ka Dabba. A small gem of a movie centring on a boy who is bullied at school for not having a dabba (lunchbox), its offbeat theme is best summed up in the peppy number ‘Ae dabba Ae dabba’ that functions as an ode to the joys of simple Indian home cooking – rice, lentils and vegetables, and the occasional sinful but delightful fried snack.

Then there’s the quirkily named Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a 2012 Bollywood movie redolent with the flavours of rural Punjab and the eponymous “chicken khurana” dish. As film writer Jai Arjun Singh notes, “The film uses the plot device of an old, lost family recipe to comment on such things as love, togetherness and sense of community.”

Food plays an important role in Indian culture: it is sustenance, comfort, indulgence and medicine all at the same time. Parents show their love for their children by pampering them with treats, festivals involve the cooking of traditional dishes as a primary ritual, and guests at a wedding are meant to take home memories of not just the ceremonies but the lavishness of the table.

So it can seem surprising that Indian cinema has not always been so effusive in expressing the culture’s love for food – unlike, say, Chinese cinema with its tasty classics such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) or Lee Lik-chi and Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s The God of Cookery (1996). Or Hollywood that routinely pays homage to the gods of food with movies such as Like Water For Chocolate (1992), Ratatouille (2007) and most recently, Julie and Julia (2009).

BawarchiStill, in 1972 there was the beloved Bawarchi, starring Rajesh Khanna as a charlatan cook who dispenses generous amounts of advice along with his garam masala to bring together a bickering family. According to Jai Arjun Singh, “While food doesn’t play a very specific part in the film, there is the motif of the person who prepares food for the entire family also being in the best position to observe them, note their individual traits and weaknesses.”

Bollywood films also include some stock scenes involving food. For instance, the hero and heroine enjoying pani puri (spicy street food) by the beach is a standard shot to show the carefree soul of Mumbai.

MaaaaAnd, of course, there’s the archetypal Indian mother who, in movie after movie, seems to cook but never eats, in a bid to keep her son tied to her apron strings. A special weapon in her arsenal is her son’s favourite dessert, gajar ka halwa (carrot pudding), a dish now associated with being a mama’s boy.

Food has also been used by immigrant filmmakers with ancestral ties to the subcontinent for portraying nostalgia and kinship, as in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002). The British drama’s young protagonist may dream of becoming a professional soccer player, but her mother prefers that she learns how to make a perfectly round roti and lip-smacking aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry).

BILB
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A slightly different version of this piece appeared in South China Morning Post on March 02, 2014 (without most of these pithy images, of course)