Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A KYOTO Past Revisited

While backing up files from an old computer, I chanced upon an old article I wrote for a news magazine in 2001 - the year of my first visit to Kyoto. Having just come back from a trip to Kyoto last May, it's funny how so little has changed in nine years. Even as I prepare to update my previous post on Kyoto on this blog with new information on ryokans and a few other temples, I thought of sharing this old article with everyone in the meantime. Photos have also been updated - digital files this time compared to the earlier scans from film in the older post.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
A Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
            - William Blake

With these lines began a boyhood obsession with Eastern mysticism and a grown man’s journey through the sacred cities of the Orient. It is a search for an enlightened mind and a pilgrimage that inevitably leads the spiritual traveler to the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto.

Visiting Kyoto was as much a journey to view the beautiful autumn foliage in this city of gardens as it was a chance to seek satori – the Zen Buddhist experience of the universal unity of reality. But, I suspect, that like me, first-time visitors expecting to find the Kyoto of their imagination will be disappointed with the glass and steel modernity of the central train station and the concrete monstrosity of downtown luxury hotels and shopping malls. Kyoto is, after all, a modern metropolis, and as one of Japan’s most popular travel destinations, dodging tourists that spill in and out of the station can be as exasperating as a Zen koan – those hopelessly unfathomable riddles ( “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) that either lead to a state of bliss or severe brain damage.

Depending on your state of mind, choice of location and sense of timing, the city can seem either like a tourist trap bursting at the seams or a peaceful backwater town forgotten by time. Nowhere is this contradiction more evident than in the city’s most famous landmark – the Kiyumizu-dera. Thousands of tourists every day visit the vast grounds for a postcard view of the temple and pagoda framed by the mountains and high-rise buildings in the distance. It is the most popular view of Kyoto and also the saddest. Each year the skyline is giving way to another office building or communications tower, and traditional tea houses and homes around the temple are being leveled to make way for pachinko parlors, Starbucks coffee shops and karaoke clubs.

But there is still a Kyoto for those who prefer to wander off the beaten track. This is the Kyoto best experienced in its winding back roads and always just after sunrise and before sunset – those times of day tour operators avoid most.  In the back alleys that are often overlooked by the invading Lonely Planet tribe, you will find the Kyoto of Zen monks  and wobbling rickshaws, of  the wooden machiya houses of craftsmen and cobblestone lanes - a whole part of the city that feels frozen in medieval times.  But, above all, it is the sight of a passing geisha that adds the final touch of authenticity to the scene.  From a high of thousands in their heyday, the geisha population of Kyoto today has dropped to just around a hundred.

Modern values and the sinking economy have deflated the once lively geisha tradition and turned it into a luxury that only an inner circle of wealthy patrons can afford and an oddity for a new generation of Japanese youth. Foreigners interested in catching a glimpse of the geisha will have to be satisfied with the rare public appearance she makes.  After all, hers is a world that is off limits to the gaijin – a world that is a metaphor for Kyoto - a city and people that opens its arms to the traveler, but never its soul.  Which is precisely what makes this city so enchanting and my search for its soul more exciting. 

There are over two-thousand temples and gardens all over Kyoto and I chose to begin my search in Ryoan-ji. The temple is home to the Rinzai school of Zen and within it is perhaps one of the most photographed dry stone landscape gardens of Japan. But its location on the western hills of Kyoto makes it one of the most difficult to reach on foot. On off-peak season and weekdays, Ryoan-ji is transformed into sanctuary of solitude. Alone for hours, I sit in meditation - zazen-style - on the verandah overlooking fifteen rocks adrift in a sea of nothingness: intricately shaped gravel that resemble waves under the shadows of the early sun.  They say that if you stare at the garden long enough with an empty mind the wisdom of the universe will be revealed.  I think of Blake and how the words of his poem come alive in the raked simplicity of Ryoan-ji.

After more than a dozen temples my spiritual journey ends at the Daitoku-ji. This complex of 24 sub-temples is a maze of pathways and courtyards that lead from one temple to the next.  Here, I find my private garden and personal courtyard in Koto-in where for an hour under the dying autumn light I watch the star-shaped momiji, those intensely red maple leaves, fall from their branches like tiny kites into the moss-covered garden. Sitting silently, lost in thought, I hear in my mind the words of Ryokan - that most loved of Zen poets: “Abandoning worldliness…I often come to this tranquil place – the spirit here is Zen.”  And indeed, for at least this one fleeting moment in the shadow of a weeping willow, I catch a glimpse of Kyoto’s elusive soul.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Top Picks

I grew up surrounding myself with the travel brochures of European capitals that my parents would take home from their vacations overseas. For a young boy of 10, it was the closest thing to being in those great cities of Europe. This was a time before Google and the Lonely Planet guidebooks and these free brochures advertising package tours were one of the few ways to imagine what it was like to travel to these foreign lands.

I still remember the thrill of staring at the photograph of the Acropolis. The Acropolis, it seemed back then, represented everything about Athens and Greece: ancient and mythical.

The childhood dream of traveling to Athens faded away as cities like Paris, Rome and London appealed to my growing adult taste for cool capitals where the food, fashion and urban lifestyles were much more exciting.

Athens, of course, has since been trying to catch up with the leading European capitals. The staging of the centennial Olympiad in 2004 showed the world that this cradle of Civilization - the very society that invented the Olympics - was set on regaining lost glory. The Athens beamed across TV sets was a noticeably sophisticated and modern capital. The symbol of the new Athens was no longer the crumbling Acropolis but its young generation of fashionable, club-hopping and consumption-driven youth.

With ticket in hand and bags in tow, this was the Athens I set out to search for. The symbol of the new Athens I encountered was a young and energetic one indeed - but also an angry and restless one.

And so went my entire week in the city: amid burning shops, torched cars, smashed windows and the aftertaste (and smell) of teargas everywhere. (This was December 2008 when violent riots rocked Athens after the killing of a teenager by the police).

Athens was burning and I was in the middle of it. Young anarchists, university intellectuals, high school-age adventurists, bored bystanders - they all hi-jacked the city and there was very little the police could do except lob teargas canisters and watch pathetically as street after street was vandalized.

The image of fun-loving and hip kids that the Athens tourism authorities tried so hard to build up was nothing more than a slick PR campaign. The kids I saw belonged to a generation betrayed by the slumping European economy where job prospects were dim and the cost of living "cool" was way beyond reach.

With modern Athens ruining itself before my eyes, I turned to the city's ancient side instead - where at least the ruins on view were far more inspiring.

My top picks:

The Acropolis.

If you only have one day in the city, skip everything else except the Acropolis. The Acropolis is a hill where the Parthenon - the temple of Athena famously stands. It is perhaps the most beautiful sight in the city - especially at night when the temple complex is lit.

Make your way up the hill - said to be where Athens was founded - because the area is surrounded by many other archaeological sites, temples and agora. There are many ways to reach the Acropolis, but don't worry because whether its from the south or north, the neighborhoods along the way are all interesting. I took the least popular path by mistake, but this brought me through the most charming cluster of bougainvillae-lined streets and white-washed stone houses overlooking the city. So, relax.

The more popular path to the Acropolis is via Plaka - the old city. Here you'll find a colorful mix of neo-classical houses, Greek Orthodox Churches, rustic cafes and tavernas. Its best to just allow yourself to get lost as each corner springs a surprise - including some of the most astounding archaeological sites you'll encounter - including the Roman Forum.

The Ancient Agora

The agora is just below the Acropolis so a visit here shouldn't require an extra day. There's little left of what was once the most important civic and commercial center in the city as war and the elements have reduced much of the complex to rubble.

It was here that democracy (invented by the Athenians) was practiced. Athenians came here to listen to speeches, to debate and even to vote. Of course, they also came here to shop and to worship their gods - like at the magnificent temple to Hephaestus.

A short walk leads you to Monastiraki Square where a more modern version of the ancient marketplace is located. Here you'll find the city's most colorful and interesting flea market. Not everything is old and used though, most market stalls sell local crafts, food, leather goods and souvenirs.

Souvenir Shopping.

If you're in the mood to shop, Monastiraki and Plaka sell affordable and high quality leather bags and accessories. There's little room for bragaining but the merchandise is first rate so don't be greedy. Go for the leather luggage as they will cost double for the same quality elsewhere in Europe.

You'll find very few souvenirs that come across as tacky tourist fluff. What you'll find are tasteful renditions of the Greek gods and heroes in plaster and traditional Athenian crafts and instruments at realistic prices.

But its shopping for traditional food products I enjoy the most. Best buys include extra virgin olive oil varieties (I find Greek olive oil the tastiest!), stuffed olives, goat cheese and baclava.

Shopping for the Sweet Tooth.

While shopping for food, seek out the many candy and chocolate stores all over Athens. The best place to do this is in the Historic Centre in the area around Syntagma square. The number of shops dedicated to all things sweet is just mind blowing.

Many of these shops are a few meters from each other so take your time and pick out the sweets you like best. Better yet, there's a cafe (or two) in every corner so take out your newly purchased stash and nibble it in between sips of espresso. Heaven.

Greek Food.

Apart from the old cafes that dot the city, tavernas - the traditional restaurants - are also a main feature of urban life and like the cafes many of them seem to have outlasted gastronomic trends and spiraling rents.

The only rule is to follow your nose. There are very few tavernas (and cafes) that cater to foreigners so all menus are in Greek! The trick is to look what's cooking in the grill and simply point to it and ask for it in rudimentary English. Getting your order wrong should be no problem because pretty much all the food is basic and delicious.

And healthy. You simply can't go wrong with a typical Greek meal that starts with a salad of lettuce, cucumbers, olives, tomatos and diced feta cheese in extra virgin olive oil. This is followed by grilled meat (lamb, beef, pork) with pita bread - like a souvlaki.

If you love Mediterranean dishes, you'll love Greek food.


Greece was one of the last Western European countries to benefit from the economic boom in the continent (and also one of its youngest liberal democracies). While the rest of Europe began to take off in the last quarter of the 20th century, Greece was mired in political turmoil and economic stagnation. So it was only when the country began to feel the benefits of integration into the European Union in the last decade, that a mainstream consumer culture emerged. Including an upscale one.

The Kolonaki district in the city centre is where you'll find this consumer culture on steroids. Most of the global high street brands can be found here along with home grown luxury boutiques, design studios and upscale dining spots.

Kolonaki is where the upwardly mobile shop, live and entertain themselves and that's what makes it such a great place to people-watch all day long. Park yourself in a corner cafe and bring out that notebook. Trendwatching in Athens starts and ends here.

Lycabettus Hill.

Kolonaki is also where the steep path to Athens' highest hill begins. The ascent to Lycabettus is strictly for those with healthy hearts and strong knees. The reward for all this climbing (through Montmarte-like steps cutting through beautiful apartments) is the most spectacular view of Athens once you make it to the top.

The stone and cement block houses of much of the city is unremarkable up close, but, when viewed atop Lycabettus, the low-rise urban labyrinthe that is Athens is simply breathtaking.

It's possible to sit and take it all in from this elevation: the domes and towers of the Greek Orthodox churches, the neo-classical government and university buildings, the noble ruins of the Parthenon atop the Acropolis - and further away in the horizon - the ancient coast and mountains of Southern Greece.

As the bells of the St. George chapel next to me start to toll, I realize that this, at last, is the Athens of my youthful imagination slowly returning to me.


Chances are, a trip out of Athens will be to any one of the famous Greek Islands on the Aegean. But if time and financial resources aren't on your side - stick to a bus trip just outside Athens to see the stunning Sanctuary of Poseidon at Cape Sounion along the Aegean coast.

The road trip alone is worth your euro. The road to Sounion takes you along the dramatic Southern coastline through small villages, boat yards and hillside farms.

At the end of the hour and a half long drive is the place called Cape Sounion where ancient Athenians built the temple of Poseidon - the God of the Sea.

Legend has it that the temple was built in order to placate a jealous Poseidon who, unlike his arch-rival Athena, had a temple built for her atop the Acropolis. Poseidon must have been pleased because the temple is every bit as magnificent - and even better preserved.

Come at the start of day or at sunset when the color of the sea and sky is most dramatic. There are few places on earth where paying homage to the sea comes so naturally.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Luxury Hotels in Singapore:
3 Top Picks

Singapore may be criticized for being (or for not being) a lot of things: a city that lacks spontaneity, for example. But the one thing the lion-city can never be accused of is a lack of luxury. Indeed, I've been following this city closely over the past 7 years and one of the most significant changes happening is in the arena of luxury.

Singapore looks poised to position itself as the Monte Carlo of the Far East. And although Hong Kong and Macau are often top of mind when it comes to cities of sophisticated pleasure, Singapore has been not so quietly building up both a physical and cultural infrastructure to establish herself as the premier financial and leisure hub of the region. (The government is encouraging debate and creative thinking).

The city is undergoing a drastic facelift with two huge entertainment developments rising along its coastline. Recently, the streets of downtown Singapore have been transformed into the first night-time capable Formula 1 race track in the world. Although the global economic slowdown is expected to put the brakes on the city's hyper-construction, Singapore is showing the world it has the financial resources and national organization to transform itself into a glitzy tourist hub overnight.

Even as new hotels are being planned to cater to the desired target market of upscale travelers, the city already boasts of having some of the finest and most expensive hotels in the region.

My top picks:

The Raffles Hotel

Nothing beats the old world elegance of the Raffles and the hotel management knows it. After all, unlike much of everything else in Singapore, the Raffles has genuine heritage and the hotel has squeezed every bit of its grand history to trump their flashier competition.

Not many hotels in Asia count the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, Rudyard Kipling and James Michener as clients. To the point of sounding trite, the hotel continues to harp on the British writer Somerset Maugham's extended stay in the hotel which is thoroughly recreated at every turn. Maugham would never have thought that his description of the Raffles as representing "all the fables of the exotic East" would turn out to be the hotel's advertising slogan for generations to come. Even more so now that Singapore has become the least exotic of all Asian countries.

Cynicism aside, the Raffles deserves its fame and fortune. The hotel has indeed come a long way since the days the Sarkies Brothers leased what was once a bungalow back in 1887. In the ensuing years, British colonials made it their second home and the hotel expanded rapidly. The hotel reached its peak in the decades before the second world war, but like a lot of things in Southeast Asia, the Japanese invasion snuffed out the glamor of these erstwhile colonial icons.

The Raffles only began to reclaim its legendary status after it was named a National Monument in 1987. Extensive construction has restored the Raffles to its original likeness circa 1915. Staying at the hotel isn't like visiting a theme park of recreated antiques and memorabilia. There's a refreshing authenticity without feeling like a stuffy museum or historical relic on exhibit. Brass knobs, hardwood floors and exotic carpets all co-exist seamlessly with wi-fi and automatic coffee machines.

The Raffles is an all suites hotel and my room had a view overlooking the old St. Andrew's Cathedral and Chijmes - a former nunnery close to City Hall. In the 1800s this was close to the shoreline of Singapore and my room must have had a lovely ocean view.

Having been given the grand tour, I'm convinced the best suites face the Palm Court. Maugham himself had a view of the courtyard - hence there's a suite named after him right where he used to stay.

The Presidential Class Sarkies Suite does not disappoint as far as authenticity is concerned. Only genuine antiques and Persian carpets are used and the bedrooms have wonderful antique four poster beds and dressers. The rest is standard for the price range: a dining hall, kitchen and living room. But the best feature is the long and shaded verandah with the most relaxing views of the courtyard - perfect for lazing around on a hot afternoon.

Shutters, palms, teak furniture and vintage fabric all take you back to an imaginary colonial era. That Singapoeans aren't sensitive to British Occupation is a refreshing thing in identity-conflicted Southeast Asia.

Pushing the colonial theme further is afternoon high tea at the Tiffany Room - a favorite among guests eager to relive the past. Down the hall in the Long Bar guests also treat themselves to another Raffles tradition - the Singapore Sling - a sweet juice cocktail spiked with gin and rum.

In fact, staying at the hotel is a rather playful experience if you allow yourself to recreate Somerset Maugham's version of colonial Singapore. If you're not familair with that you can visit the hotel museum or chat up the hotel's historian for tips. After, you can even drive around the city in any one of the hotel's vintage limousines.

Cultural snobs and hipsters may laugh at the prospect of trying something so "touristy" but there's a real joy to looking at this painfully modern city with a different pair of lenses. The Raffles Hotel is no tourist trap, after all, it remains one of the most awarded luxury hotels in the world for a reason.

Raffles Hotel. 1 Beach Road. Singapore.

St. Regis Hotel

The venerable St. Regis of Manhattan fame is now in Singapore and so far the hotel has managed to live up to all expectations. Already the St. Regis Singapore has made it to Travel & Leisure magazine's 'It List 2008' of the world's top 30 new hotels and the Conde Naste Traveler 'Hot List' of new hotels, restaurants and spas.

Okay, a St. Regis making to some exclusive list is no longer news, but because it's the first luxury hotel to open in Singapore in over a decade, the St. Regis is still big news in the lion-city.

The rooms at the St. Regis share the price range of the Raffles suites - which are the highest in Singapore. But the hotel makes no attempt to use the Singaporean colonial story as a thematic guide to its rooms and halls. Instead, the St. Regis uses a hip and modern mix of Asian and Western styles. Antique Chinese furniture stand alongside Frank Gehry sculptures - you get the picture. The style extends to all suites and rooms.

The level of luxury in the suites may seem a bit over-the-top and the single Presidential Suite is unbelievably fabulous. The suite has that Rock Star or Russian Oil Tycoon vibe about it. Genuine fur throws on fine leather sofas, Czech crystal curtains, a baby grand piano, a personal gym, a bath tub for 4 with picture window views of the city, a bedroom and boudoir fit for Marie Antoinette - the St. Regis was clearly aiming for a level of decadence and sexiness famously lacking in Singapore's top hotels.

Back on the ground floor I find myself playing along with the rock star storyline - this time trying out the hotel's custom-built Bentley limousine. I get off and head straight to the Astor Bar where guests come to try the St. Regis New York signature cocktail Bloody Mary. The bar is as chic as the rest of the hotel and an entire wall is dedicated to original prints by Pablo Picasso.

On the same floor is every oenophile's dream: an incredibly stocked wine bar and cellar. The Decanter displays over 1,500 wines from around the world in its transparent glass cellars - including first growth Bordeaux. A bank of wine dispensing machines make wine tasting extra enjoyable.

Food and beverage is an obvious strength at the St. Regis. A Mediterannean lunch at the La Brezza and conversation with Executive Chef Frederic Colin about the hotel's food reveals the St. Regis' attention to detail and uncompromising quality.

This winning philosophy extends to the award-winning Remede Spa where crystal and water interiors set the mood for a few hours of uninterrupted bliss. I admit to not particularly enjoying the typical Asian spa atmosphere with its darkly lit interiors and burning incense aroma. Thankfully, the Remede is patterned after a European spa and makes no attempt to spiritualize the experience. The Remede offers a more decadently selfish ritual: time alone in a steam chamber, a cedarwood sauna and a wet lounge with infrared heated marble to keep warm and cozy. And of course, there's the signature Remede treatments. At the end of the treatment guests are served champagne and artisanal chocolates. Delicious.

St. Regis Singapore. 29 Tanglin Road, Singapore.

The Ritz Carlton Millenia

After all these years as the default luxury business hotel in Singapore there's still so much to rave about the Ritz Carlton Millenia. To prove this, the hotel has a list of awards and accolades that can fit in a phone book. But if there's one thing about the Ritz that keeps me wanting to come back over and again- its the service. The legendary Ritz Carlton service. (Now the stuff of a bestselling business book).

Forget the great location facing Marina Bay, or the remarkable architecture, or even the eye-popping art collection, the real star here is the hotel staff and their impeccable service. As the employee motto goes: "We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen." From cleaners to bellhops to managers, the service is consistent, respectful and personal. This, it turns out, is the Ritz Carlton credo: a hotel where the genuine care and comfort of guests is the highest mission.

The secret behind the formula: one of the best customer care training anywhere in the world. I'm always surprised how all the staff I bump into manage to know my name. Apparently, it's a difficult practice the hotel takes pride in.

Staff, even low level employees, are empowered to anticipate and fulfill your needs - even surprise you by waiving certain fees or providing little gifts. Want extra complimentary chocolates in your room? Done. You won't have to wait for the person on the other end of the phone to clear your request with management - or keep you on hold. In fact, enshrined in the hotel employee handbook is a reminder to all staff that they are encouraged to create such unique and personal experiences for guests.

The highest level of service I've experienced in Singapore is matched by equally high levels of quality when it comes to the rooms. Of course the rooms on the club level and the Ritz Carlton suites are the best of the lot, but even the standard rooms won't disappoint.

All rooms come with extra tall and wide picture windows that open up to views of the bay. The Millenia is an unusually narrow building which means no single room is without a view. All beds are elevated higher than usual so that guests enjoy an uninterrupted line of sight facing the windows.

In the bathroom is the biggest surprise of all - a large octagonal window that allows you to bathe in the tub while looking out onto the city. This is no small feat when you realize that even the most exclusive city hotels have no windows in their bathrooms. (Think about it).

The architects of the Ritz Carlton seem to have put the hotel guest first in their design. There's a positive chi palpable throughout the hotel and the heavy reliance on oriental geomancy or feng shui like water features and an abundance of natural light and vegetation is partly responsible for this.

I also like to think that the presence of priceless pieces of contemporary art breathes life and color to the hotel's public spaces. The contemporary art collection is considered the most impressive in all of Southeast Asia - there are 4,200 art pieces and sculptures in all worth approximately 4 to 5 million USD.

One of my favorite treats is taking a tour of the hotel's collection which includes pieces by superstars like Frank Stella, Dale Chihuly, David Hockney and Henry Moore. Representing the East are the iconic Mao figures of Chinese master Zhu Wei and paintings by Indonesian artist Li Lin Lee, among others.

The best thing about the hotel's collection is that these are displayed in the open and not secured behind any barriers like the museums do. The collection has become so popular the hotel now offers audio tours which guests can download on their i-Pods.

Something must also be said about the hotel's Sunday brunch. The Ritz Carlton is credited with starting the trend in champagne brunches in Singapore and I cannot think of any better place to have one. Aside from free-flowing vintage
Moet et Chandon champagne, the brunch includes the most extensive cheese and oyster selection this part of the region.

Despite the hotel's enduring popularity among loyal guests, the Ritz Carlton Millenia is starting to show signs of age. Given the competition from newer luxury hotels in the city, the Millenia could use some refurbishing here and there - just to keep things fresh and exciting. But when it comes to service - some things are better left unchanged.

The Ritz Carlton Millenia Singapore. 7 Raffles Avenue. Singapore.

(Photo Credits: Ritz Carlton Millenia Singapore)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Off the beaten track in the Philippines: CAMSUR Top Picks:

CamSur is shorthand for Camarines Sur. The young governor of this Southern province of Luzon in the Philippines figured the new name would be more marketable among a younger generation of travelers. Smart move. The province of Camarines Sur is in Bicol - one of the most calamity-prone and one of the poorest regions in the Southeast Asian country. Googling the old name will most likely turn up a depressing list of facts and incidents that run counter to the revitalized image the provincial government wants to project.

The CAMSUR Watersports Complex

There's a reason why young travelers and extreme sports enthusiasts are being targeted. The province has been investing and continues to spend on tourism infrastructure precisely meant to attract young and extreme water sports enthusiasts. The CamSur Watersports Complex (CWC) in Pili is already a magnet for wake-boarders this side of the Pacific ocean. (The Australian Wake Magazine even calls it the "Best Cable Park in the World").

The CWC was built around a man-made lake and features facilities for wakeboarding, water skiing, beach volleyball, skateboarding and is also a popular place for all day partying. The real attraction though is the state of the art cable skiing system where skiers and wakeboarders are pulled by an overhead cable suspended 8-12 meters above the water which runs around the lake. Instead of using a speed boat to pull skiers the CWC opted for a more environmentally friendly way of doing it. Cool.

Because the CWC is located far from most tourist facilities, the provincial government decided to build hotel accommodations and a dining hall right within the complex grounds. Considering the target market (kids!), It's a surprise to see upscale facilities. In fact, luxury travelers won't be disappointed at all by the Villa del Rey Villas. The villas are all in the trendy Modern Filipino Tropical style and they come with spacious private gardens and personal outdoor tubs. The rooms are huge and are all tastefully decorated while the toilets and baths are outfited with high quality fixtures. (T&B's are my gauge of quality when it comes to hotels).

It's hard to believe that the villas are actually run by the provincial government - although service is typically laid back and uneven, but that didn't stop me from enjoying my stay. It's a small price to pay considering that villas start at 110 USD per night. The private garden and personal gazebo alone is worth it.

There's a bit of that trickle down effect for budget conscious travelers. The nearby Villa del Rey Cabanas are scaled down versions of the Villas. Although not as luxurious, cabanas are clean and well-appointed. For 28 USD a night it's a steal especially since it's a short walk away from the cable park.

But the real budget deal is the Villa del Rey Trailer Homes. It's actually bigger and better than it sounds. Built from the shell of a container (as in, container van) they are surprisingly comfortable and seem entirely liveable over long periods of time. In fact, these were built with long-time visitors in mind so each trailer comes with a choice of one or two bedrooms, a kitchenette, bathroom and a private deck to chill under the stars. Prices per night begin at 22 USD! No wonder some guests never leave.

The only downside? Well, if sports isn't your thing, there isn't much else to do. And because the facilities are run entirely by the local government, there are questions about sustainability. The young governor who envisioned all this has one term left in office and who knows what could happen after he leaves?

The upside? Even non-fans of watersports won't be able to resist the carnivalesque atmosphere that young and active travelers from all over the world and the Philippines bring to the complex. And although the CWC isn't close to any major attractions, it isn't that far either. With no upscale hotels in the province, the CWC is a good base for day trips around the province for bird watching, dolphin watching and treks to the magnificent Mt. Isarog. Even the legendary perfectly conical Mayon Volcano in next door Albay province is only a few hours away.

Community Tourism

The guys at The Lonely Planet predict a surge in community tourism as younger travelers look for more meaningful experiences off the tourist trail. In the Philippines, there is no shortage of places where travelers can integrate with the local community. Provincial Filipinos are such open-minded and open-hearted people and that makes foreigners and even big-city Filipinos feel right at home so quickly. And while community tourism has been happening for many decades now, it's a largely unorganized phenomenon.

CamSur and the Gawad Kalinga Foundation are pioneering organized and marketable communtiy tourism using the villages of relocated squatters as a backdrop for curious travelers and hardcore volunteers alike to experience provincial life untouched by tourism gimmicks. What the visitor sees is both the unfortunate yet often noble face of poverty in the countryside. Surely, it isn't as raw as it all seems. Gawad Kalinga Villages are clean and crime-free havens due to a high level of organization and accountability within the community. Still, the feeling of community spirit - what locals call bayanihan - is palpable and refreshing. Often even more so than the beautiful landscape before you.

Two Gawad Kalinga villages in CamSur have launched what they call the GK Bed & Breakfast services. Basically, its for outsiders wanting to experience life from the inside. My favorite is the B&B located in Iriga. Two houses at the top-most part of the hillside and with the best views of Mt. Iriga and the CamSur countryside were set aside as B&B's. The facilities are basic but comfortable and there's clean running water all day. Designated villagers will take care of you and even provide your meals for a negotiated fee. The Iriga village has its own organic vegetable patch so fresh produce is always assured. But, the one reason why you'll enjoy your stay here is the people. they're always willing to strike up a conversation and even invite you into their homes. It's one of those really emotional experiences: when people with so little in life have so much to offer a stranger.

Caramoan Islands

It's ironic that the French public were first to know about the Caramoan Islands. Even ahead of most Filipinos. The group of Islands were chosen by the producers of the French Survivor program as the backdrop for the popular reality TV series. But if not for them, the provincial government would not have been able to fund the resort infrastructure now in place. So, all is forgiven.

It turns out that the reason behind CamSur's best kept secret is simple: an inaccesible location. Like most jaw-droppingly beautiful spots in the Philippines, the Caramoan islands are relatively inaccessible except for fishermen with pump boats or tycoons with helicopters (which were the only ones who knew about it).

The CamSur tourism office is pushing Caramoan as an alternative to the increasingly crowded and overpriced beach destinations of Cebu and Boracay in the Philippines. For now, there is only one resort in Caramoan - the Gota Village Resort (although as I write this another upscale resort is undergoing finishing touches in a cove next door).

Getting there is still for the more adventurous and patient among us. It's an hour's drive from the airport to the seaport after which you'll need to board a speed boat to the tip of the Caramoan peninsula where the resort is located. The speed boat ride could take up to two hours depending on wind conditions but unless you suffer from extreme motion sickness, the airconditioned ride is a great opportunity to view the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful Mayon Volcano in the distance. It's even possible to see dolphins racing into the open sea.

The dozens of cabanas of the Gota Village Resort were originally built to house the production crew of the French Survivor program but have since been converted into a quaint village-like resort complex. Each one is made of freshly cut pine wood and resemble Swiss log cabins more than tropical villas. Which is okay because I love the smell of pine.

The airconditioned and cable-ready cabanas are small but space is utilized wisely so much so that it doesn't feel cramped. The resort has its own restaurant with an international menu which a Manila-based chef supervises for quality control. The local seafood is always best and you can have the staff pack a picnic lunch in case you want to dine in any one of the islands surrounding Caramoan.

Gota has its own beachfront but there's lots to do along the shoreline and the interior. The area gets its name from "Gota de Leche" or milk drops - a term used by the Dutch Traders that would use the port as a stop-over. The Dutch were referring to the abundant limestone formations that resembled drops of milk to them. The Spanish colonials eventualy called it Caramoan after the sea turtles that were found in the shorelines of the peninsula.

Aside from island-hopping rock climbing in the many limestone cliffs is very popular. Scuba divers and snorklers will also enjoy exploring the various underwater caves. Trekkers have some of the most beautiful landscape to navigate as trails wind through limestone formations, forest cover, lagoons and caves. There's one hidden lagoon a hundred meters from Tayak Beach you should ask your guide to take you to. It's surrounded by limestone cliffs and a fallen tree serves as a convenient plaform for diving or just sitting on as you take in the view. In a little while tiny fish will begin to swim to you and nibble at your toes. Pure natural ecstacy.

There are many islands to discover scattered across Pitogo Bay in Caramoan and everyone of them has its own unique geological character. Some are covered in limestone formations while others are flat-out beaches. One of the most scenic and unusual is Lahos Island. It's actually two limestone formations cut in the middle by a long and uninterrupted sandbar - creating what locals call a back-to-back beach.

Matukad island
is closest to the resort and has some of the finest powdery sand I've seen. This is the best beach for swimming although locals encouarge you to scale the limestone cliffs where a lagoon awaits.

Caramoan may not be the most beautiful string of islands in the Philippines (there is still Palawan), but its definitely up there with the best. I like Caramoan because it's neither overly touristed (yet), and neither is it too underdeveloped. For now, it has the right balance of creature comforts and provincial charm. Unlike many ultra exclusive resorts that keep you isolated in the middle of nowhere, there are still local communities close by and the area isn't closed off to non-guests. This provides Gota with an authentic sense of place and history - not the claustrophobic artificiality of most luxury resorts.

CamSur faces the Pacific Ocean and this means right smack in the path of tropical typhoons - so avoid booking during the rainy season. Package prices at the Gota Village Resort begin at only 214 USD for 3 days and 2 nights. It's a steal considering this includes all land and sea transfers, meals, island-hopping tours and local guide! Of course, you can skip the package and rent your own boat to the islands and picth your own tent - or even do it ala French Survivor. But why?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Singapore to Penang on the Orient Express.
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There's something about traveling by train. And I don't mean modern bullet trains that zip through the countryside faster than most cars can. I mean old trains. The ones that blow whistles and move slowly over old railway lines.

It must be nostalgia. Though it all seems like a blur to me now, I do recall childhood train journeys to the beach and countryside. In those days, it was the only way to get to the country. Provincial highways and airstrips were still uncommon and car and plane rides were not yet the preferred way to travel.

For sure, those train rides of the past were slow, unreliable and after the second hour on board - rather uncomfortable. But it all seemed magical then. Cutting through rice paddies, sugarcane fields and rural villages always made a city kid like me giddy with excitement. Somehow, train rides take you through a place - up close and more personal than any car or plane can. And that's what gave me the idea of traveling through Southeast Asia on the Orient Express - a luxury train built to recreate the experience of train travels of the past.

The Orient Express is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of luxury travel. But I suspect most of us have come to know of the Orient Express from the Agatha Christie novel and movie adaptation "Murder on the Orient Express". The Orient Express where Hercule Poirot famously solved the murder mystery on board the train traveled across Europe. Now, the same company that runs the legendary train service, the Eastern and Oriental, have introduced the concept to Southeast Asia for those travelers looking to enjoy the same legendary experience and history.

The route I chose was the Singapore-Bangkok leg of the journey. It takes three days with full stops in the Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth stations in Malaysia. Three days on a train in this day and age is no joke, but I was looking forward to see if, indeed, train rides are still the idyllic and magical journeys I've always remembered and reimagined them to be.

It turns out that they somehow still are. The highlights:

Train Stations.

Every train ride begins at the station, obviously. We hardly notice these stations anymore, but when we allow ourselves to - they tell us so much about the country's history. At least as far as old train stations are concerned.

The Tanjong Pagar train station in Singapore is one of these. The station has seen better days and it's always empty now that travelers prefer the convenience of bus rides and air travel. Beneath the atmosphere of neglect is a long and interesting history preserved in the colonial building.

From the imposing sculptures to the striking murals that adorn the station walls, you'll discover what was once the most important railway line for the British this part of the world. The murals and sculpture all depict themes of industry and agriculture for it was here that much of British Malaya's prized commodities like tin, rubber and palm oil were taken from the hinterlands to the port of Singapore. In fact, the railway line the Orient Expresses travels on is little changed from that used to transport cargo and laborers in colonial times.

Interestingly, an existing treaty between Malaysia and Singapore states that Tanjong Pagar station is still a part of Malaysia and this is why you clear Malaysian immigration in Singapore. Right past the immigration counter is the platform where the elegant Orient Express waits for passengers to board.

The Kuala Lumpur station is even more grand than that of Tanjong Pagar. It will be just about time for dinner when the train stops at KL. Passengers have enough time to explore the station grounds and, indeed, it's worth getting off. The station is built using the colonial architectural style common in British India. Even at night, the towering white building is majestic. It is one of the main attraction in KL and passengers get a rare view of the building right from inside it.

Service the Eastern and Oriental way.

I've taken trains all over the world but none of that prepared me for the kind of service the Orient Express provides. Right from the beginning. Every passenger is assigned a compartment steward - which is more like a personal butler. They usher you on board and on to your compartment for a quick tour of the room and its amenities. Just like a hotel. Your butler is on call 24/7 and the mostly Thai staff are as gracious and gentle as the best Bangkok hotels can offer.

Your butler makes sure you have nothing else on your mind except enjoying the journey. He lets you know when and where to dine. He takes your passport, fills out travel documents for you and does much of the immigration work as well. Best of all is the sight of the butler for breakfast and afternoon tea. This is one of the highlights for me - the knock on the door at 730 in the morning - just as the sun is rising over the view of forests and plantations in your window. A European breakfast of bread, cereal, yogurt and coffee is served with elegant silverware in your compartment and you can't help but feel really special.

The Train Compartments.

There are three compartments to choose from. The Presidential Suite, naturally, is at the top. It's huge by train standards with generous space for two adults and a couple of visitors. A large and comfortable banquette can be folded out into a wide bed at night. The suite also comes with a full-sized desk and separate dressing room, en-suite toilet and bath for privacy and convenience.

At the bottom end is the Pullman compartment. It's elegant enough but quite tight for two when the beds are folded out at night. During the day there's just enough space to enjoy staying inside and watching the view passing through the window. This may be entry-level but it comes with its own toilet and bath.

I stayed in what is called a State compartment and it's only slightly smaller than the Presidential Suite and has pretty much eveyrthing the suite has although with a tad less space. What I enjoyed the most was the generous amount of glass. Wide and clear picture windows are the most important thing for me in a train compartment. Not only does this bring the landscape indoors; it also keeps you from feeling claustrophobic. I found myself mesmerized by the scenery passing outside. Trains bring you closer to the kampongs or villages, plantations and tropical jungle like no other type of commercial transport can. Exhilirating.

Much must be mentioned about the interiors of all compartments. You've seen the movies and the Orient Express compartments all feel production designed by Holywood pros: cherry wood panelling, brass fixtures, oriental carperts, hand-embroidered upholstery and teak wood period furniture all help to conjure images of the golden days of train travel.


Three days on tracks may be much too long for most travelers. Not for me. Slowness is a virtue in my book. These days traveling has become much like a sport: fastest is best. We take the quickest route to everything and we try to pack each day with as many things to do as possible. The unintended result is fatigue. So much so that the minute we arrive home we start longing for yet another vacation. Its crazy. On the train I found myself with time for reading, writing and yes, dozing - half-awake while taking in the slowness of Southeast Asian provincial life visible from the window.

Travel always makes me introspective and the slowness on board magnifies that. This unintended self-discovery unleashes profound thoughts and a part of your personality not often seen in your routine day to day encounters. This injects depth and eloquence into your conversations with others on the train (and vice versa). When the slowness of solitude ends, the slowness of conversations begin. And with it the sincerity and open-mindedness that comes from travelers from all over the world sharing the same train ride with you.

There are many opportunities to strike up conversations with other passengers. There's a reading room for those who prefer to read in the company of others. Also a saloon and bar where cocktails and snacks are served throughout the day.


Those looking forward to such conversations or new transcontinental friendships will likewise enjoy the idea of sharing a table with other passengers. Since much of the journey is spent in the compartment, meal time is an opportunity to meet other passengers on board.

But the real highlight of meal time is the food. Frenc-style but with touches of spices and ingredients found in the Southeast Asian region. It's hard to imagine how such good food can come out of such a small and narrow kitchen on board. Unlike even first class on a plane, the food is cooked on board and always fresh. Not a single meal was bad or even mediocre. The meals were all fine-dining quality and so was the crystal and silverware.

The Eastern and Orient emphasize the dining experience and purposely attempt to recreate an old-fashioned feel. Fine wine and champagne are served and the strictly formal dress code for dinnertime adds to this old world elegance and refinement. The combination of formal dress and the dimly lit elm and cherry wood dining carriage with its crystal chandeliers makes everyone feel fabulous and romantic. No wonder the Orient Express is famous among lovers looking to escape the world for a couple of enchanted evenings.

The Southeast Asian Countryside.

It's a fleeting way to exerience this side of Southeast Asia and surely nothing beats trekking the backroads and jungles of the region, but for those who want to travel through the region and not necessarily in it, the Orient Express provides a wonderful backdrop for such a journey.

Whether in the privacy and comfort of your airconditioned compartment or in the open observation deck at the end of the train, there's no denying the thrill of watching the region passing by with the wind in your hair.

Because the railway line was originally meant to transport goods and laborers to and from the region's plantations and forests, the train journey continues to pass through these very same parts of Malaysia and Thailand. Of course, vast hectares of jungle have since given way to plantations and there are modern road networks and electricity lines visible along the way. But for most of the journey you are right up close to rural villages and jungles that seem little changed from the sepia toned photographs taken over a century ago. In some areas you can literally reach out and touch villagers and the overgrown branches of old forest cover along the raliroad tracks.

One such highlight is crossing Bukit Merah in Northern Malaysia just before sunrise. The train stops right in the middle of the raised tracks above the lake and if you get up early enough you can head for the observation deck to catch the first slivers of sunrise over the lake and the cool early moring air.


Passengers not continuing to Bangkok have the option of getting off at Butterworth station across Penang Island. Butterworth was an important gateway to Georgetown in Penang where the British first settled and where a large Chinese community was established. The Orient Express makes an extended stop and all passengers are taken on a ferry ride across the Straits of Malacca and on to Penang Island where Georgetown is located.

I've written about Penang in an earlier post and it's a terrific opportunity for those interested in observing one of the most culturally interesting destinations in Southeast Asia. After a long train ride, Georgetown provides a wonderful break for when you begin to miss the vibrant atmosphere and rush of city life.