shaxi: yunnan’s last surviving ancient market town

The Bai minorities live in the surrounding mountainous areas, and hike about three hours to get to Shaxi.JPG

the women walk in silence, briskly, with their heads slightly bowed from the weight on their backs. the rattan baskets strapped to their waists and heads are filled to the brim with forest harvests, vegetables from their home gardens, chinese medicinal herbs and homemade specialty items. these ladies are from the bai ethnic group, the second largest minority in yunnan. in shaxi, they inhabit the mountainous areas and maintain a matriarchal way of life in which children take on their mothers’ family names. they make their way towards the valley town of sideng every friday where a street market bustles from the crack of dawn. there, they lay their offerings on tarpaulin sheets on the ground and join local vendors in plying their goods.

from the familiar and expected (breakfast on fluffy mantou steamed freshly on the spot, the ubiquitous soup noodles topped with dollops of chilli and coriander) to the exotic (dried rattlesnakes and tortoise carapace at the herb medicine stall) and downright absurd (coils of human hair for wig-making and cushion stuffing, apparently), nothing is off limits here.

the best spot to hang around is the poultry section, where young chicks and ducklings chirp and quack noisily inside wire or rattan containers while sellers cradle fat hens under their arms, parading their prized produce to lure customers. the buying and selling of chickens is a truly lively affair as fierce haggling ensues between vendor and customer while the bird in question is closely scrutinised before a decision is made. the chook is then weighed and then the final price is named.

Chicken buying is a lively, noisy event at the weekly market.JPG
Vintage-style Chinese crockery are among the goods on sale at the market.JPG
Exotic surprises await at the herbs and medicine stall.JPG
Vendors at the market handmaking jute ropes.JPG

by late afternoon, the market comes to a close and the bai ladies retrace their steps home. their rattan baskets, emptied of the produce they had brought to sell, are full once again with raw ingredients and household items they pick up at the market. it’s a routine they carry out dutifully, chatting cheerfully along even though it’s a journey of at least several hours each way. they hike past verdant fields of rice and wheat, and 16 sleepy villages that spread out across the himalayan foothills in north-west yunnan. it’s worth renting a bicycle from the shops in sideng to explore this scenic countryside on two wheels.

the market is not only a weekly highlight for the villagers, but is also significant of shaxi’s place in history: it was an important stop on the ancient tea and horse caravan trail that stretched from tibet to myanmar, and predates the silk road by 300 years. in those days, horses and animal furs were valuable currencies that merchants traded with for tea, salt and medicine.

the friday bazaar is held along the main street of sideng, whereas the original shaxi market site is now known as sideng square and remains the focal point of the town. the square is encircled by a complex of buildings that served the needs of those ancient merchants, and included guest houses, horse stables, a temple and a theatre stage where performances were held for their entertainment.

Sideng Square, the main gathering point in Shaxi.JPG
Quiet and bucolic, Shaxi is still much of a hidden travel gem.JPG

the shaxi market is considered the most complete surviving example of a trading town along the trail and for that reason, in 2002, the world monuments fund placed it on their watch list of 100 most endangered sites. the acknowledgement saved shaxi market from crumbling into oblivion, and the funding that came with it (usd1.3 million) has been put to good use. led by swiss conservationist jacques feiner, the shaxi rehabilitation project set about restoring the buildings as well as the defence gates that protected the village.

feiner’s approach focuses on fortifying the existing structures, returning them to their former glory while retaining their original forms. the revived sideng square thus has all the authenticity of a centuries-old market town, complete with ancient architecture, cobblestone walkways and a towering tree that’s believed to be three centuries old.

the idyllic old world vibe permeates across town, seen not only in the buildings and willow tree-lined roads but also in the people. it is also not uncommon to see a man walking his goat or horse around town, or bai ladies out and about clad in their elaborate traditional ensembles. surrounding and within the vicinity of the square, what used to be shelters and resting posts now house a mix of eateries, specialty shops and artisans’ studios where goods are still painstakingly made by hand the old-fashioned way.

the revived sideng square thus has all the authenticity of a centuries-old market town, complete with ancient architecture, cobblestone walkways and a towering tree that’s believed to be three centuries old

at the old town shoe shop, an elderly mr lee sits patiently in front of a vintage sewing machine facing the open window that looks out to the square. he has since passed the business on to his daughter, he says, but steps in to help out when she’s away. inside the tiny shop, racks display traditional embroidered shoes embellished with chinoiserie. the shoes come in several combinations of bold colours and styles that include sandals, mary janes, wedges and boots, and you can customise a pair to your liking.

next door, a family of young silversmiths are hard at work, melting, welding and knocking late into the night as they rush to build up a stockpile of designs. the approaching golden week holidays promise to bring a deluge of travellers to shaxi, and they want to ensure they have enough goods to cash in on the rush.

Shaxi's perfectly preserved ancient architecture makes for postcard-perfect moments.JPG
Wood Fish offers an East meets West menu.JPG
Works of art - handmade canvas shoes embellished with chinoiserie.JPG
Old Tree Cafe was the first Western-style bar to open in Shaxi.JPG

diagonally opposite, old street is a laidback bar with tatami-style seating upstairs and a picnic table outside if you prefer to people watch over ice cold beer or their homemade fruit wines. next door, you can buy a variety of mushrooms – a yunnan specialty – including the very aromatic, truffle-like song rong (pine mushrooms, or matsutake tricholoma) that’s highly prized by the japanese.

further up from old street, the tiny wood fish cafe seats only six and everything is made fresh upon order. on the small menu are easy favourites like burgers, sandwiches, fried rice and homemade breads. more substantial offerings can be had at karma cafe, where local and western dishes can be enjoyed with a selection of bai and tibetan delights, served fine dining style within a casual atmosphere. the food is of excellent quality, featuring the freshest locally sourced ingredients, as is the service. the cafe is actually part of the laomadian guesthouse, a heritage boutique accommodation in a 150-year-old courtyard building that was originally a caravanserai. rooms are tastefully dressed in a mix of modern amenities and traditional furnishings. owner a fang, a taiwanese who speaks fluent english, welcomes guests warmly and will sit down for a chat if she’s not busy running around. she splits her time between shaxi and lijiang, where she operates a second outlet of karma cafe and laomadian.

on the same row as karma towards the east gate end is hungry buddha cafe, owned by italian chef maurino anzideo and his chinese wife ai xin, and specialising in organic vegetarian fare. everything is made from scratch with ingredients from the friday market – including cheese, made using local milk. their specialty is thin crust pizza, delightfully crispy with well-balanced flavours. hungry has limited bar stool seating, so it’s best to grab your pizza and pasta to go. walk through the east gate and you will arrive at the heihui riverside promenade which, on a balmy evening and looking out towards the huazhong mountain range, makes for the perfect picnic cum vantage spot.

most of shaxi’s eateries close early, with old tree cafe among the few exceptions. the first western-style cafe to open here, in 2005, it is run by an elderly couple who relocated from shandong in search of a restful retirement. the warm and homey interiors are as inviting as the food, a mix of chinese favourites and western classics. espresso-based coffee drinks are served along with beer, juices and fresh homemade yogurt.

you can sip your choice of night cap at the outdoor seating area, which looks out to the centuries-old scholar tree that inspired the cafe’s name. it’s just the place to be to wind down while soaking in the serenity of the old market square before retiring for the night.

a few doors away is one of sideng’s most popular accommodations, the hostel-style horse pen 46, which occupies a traditional bai courtyard home built in the ‘sanfang yizhaobi’ architectural style that translates into ‘three houses, one front wall’. its name and room types – named foal, pony or mustang stalls – are a nod to shaxi’s market town era.

those days may be long gone, but on-going preservation efforts ensure that shaxi’s legacy continues, its bucolic charm further protected by the languid pace and ‘time stands still’ spirit that envelops life here. still largely hidden from the typical yunnan tourist trail – most travellers bypass shaxi for dali and lijiang – those who do find their way here could well find themselves drawn to visit again and again, not unlike the tea-trading merchants who once journeyed here by horse caravans.


 this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail












terengganu's mainland attractions

terengganu’s islands are undoubtedly the east coast state’s biggest tourist draw, but its mainland is not lacking in attractions either. here are 10 essential experiences worth staying an extra day or two for in kuala terengganu after your sun-and-sea getaway.

1. relive, and live amidst history at terrapuri

combining luxury living with cultural conservation, terrapuri heritage village is a unique resort of 29 centennial malay stilt houses that were sourced from all over terengganu over two decades. of those, 20 were refurbished with modern comforts for accommodation while others make up the sesayap courtyard (comprising a library, dining pavilion, lobby and meeting rooms) and a spa offering traditional malay urut. 

in maintaining their respective history, the 20 villas are named after their places of origin and the spaces below the houses serve as galleries displaying a variety of antiquated tools such as stone mills, grinders and even old fishing boats. owner alex lee and his team even went as far as to note down the blessing rituals that the original occupants had carried out when the structures were first built, and re-enacted them when the houses were transported here. 

terrapuri is thus steeped in history, and there is a regal link to its own story: its moniker means the land of palaces and correspondingly, the resort’s layout is modelled after a 17th-century istana.

kampung mangkuk, setiu tel +609 624 5020


2. have a beach to yourself

right in front of terrapuri is pantai penarik, a crescent-shaped beach hugged by coconut trees as far as the eyes can see. strong waves and high tides mean that swimming in the waters is out of the question, which is why you won’t find sun worshippers here. nor are there street vendors of any kind as there is simply no crowd – which makes it perfect for whiling away time doing next to nothing. quiet and idyllic, it’s a slice of paradise that invites you to lay back and sink your toes into the soft sand while the waves lull you into serenity.


3. take a ‘celup tepung’ afternoon tea break

you wouldn’t think you could ever tear yourself away from pantai penarik but at some point, your rumbling tummy would say otherwise. the must-try food in kampung mangkuk is what locals call ‘celup tepung’ and that’s exactly what it is: dipped in flour. specifically, a variety of seafood that’s battered and deep fried, eaten from lunch all the way to dinner.

along the main road that leads to terrapuri are several ‘celup tepung’ stalls, usually occupying wooden village houses. try the one right across from caltex, unnamed but hard to miss as its facade is painted a vibrant pink and its signage is flanked by a giant prawn and a giant squid. their ‘celup tepung’ offerings are placed in large trays under colourful plastic cloches, and you can also order stir-fried noodles to complement the fritters. order a fresh young coconut or creamy coconut milkshake to go with them, and dine al fresco under the shade of coconut trees.


4. watch kites soar

strong winds, blue skies, powdery beach – pantai batu buruk has all the makings of the perfect kite-flying spot, and it is. kite sellers brighten up the pristine sand with their goods, strung across simple wooden frames tacked to the sand. they come in a myriad vibrant designs, from the basic diamond frames to more elaborate animal shapes with long tails and every trendy cartoon character.

on weekends, a festive mood prevails in the late afternoons as the colourful panels speckle the skies while volleyball and football matches play to cheering supporters on the beach. hunt down food trucks in the vicinity to try snacks like chewy disc-shaped fish satay, and stringy squid that’s flattened through a handheld roller before  lled.

5. shop at pasar payang

shelves packed to the rafters with folded batik in every colour, bags and baskets brimming with dried seafood, trays of sweet and savoury cakes… browse and shop a smorgasbord of terengganu products at pasar besar kedai payang, a two-storey complex that houses a wet market downstairs and a bazaar of small shops upstairs. this is also a good place to get familiar with the fresh produce that feature in the local cuisine. when you’re done with your shopping, hop on board one of the many colourful trishaws that await by the main entrance and go for a sightseeing ride around town.


6. learn about the terengganu peranakans

a short walk from pasar payang will place you in pekan cina, kuala terengganu’s chinatown that was the site where the earliest chinese settlers first built their homes. like their fellow settlers in melaka and penang back in the day, they adapted and fused chinese traditions with local malay customs, forming a subculture that became known as peranakan. while their numbers are far lower than the population in the straits states, terengganu’s peranakan community is keeping their unique identity very much alive.

sample their authentic cuisine at madam bee’s kitchen, then step next door to visit the terengganu peranakan gallery. a small archive of black and white photographs documents the pekan cina of yore while the premise itself, a two-storey centennial shophouse, gives a glimpse into their traditional lifestyles.

7. visit a peranakan village

at a glance, kampung tiruk looks no different from many other bucolic enclaves found on the outskirts of kuala terengganu, its wooden houses similar to those of the malay villages. what sets it apart can often be seen on the front door of these traditional homes: bright red paper scrolls inscribed with chinese characters, known as tui lien.

these are the homes of terengganu peranakans, generations of mek and awang – the affectionate terms that refer to the ladies and men, respectively – from about 50 families. their language is that unique mixture of hokkien and malay; their food a flavourful blend of both cultures, and leans heavily on spices and fish. some of the elderly mek are still most comfortable in their baju pendek and sarong ensemble, and there’s a senior awang who is fluent in arabic.

you can visit one of the homes in this village, where the host will not only let you wander through their ancestral house but also prepare a feast of authentic terengganu peranakan dishes for lunch.

8. pay respects to admiral cheng ho

admiral cheng ho’s voyage to melaka is well documented, with many history books detailing his journey and subsequent adventures. before he and his fleet of more than 160 vessels arrived at the historical state, however, records show that they made a stop in terengganu to refuel. the year was 1414, and the admiral was said to have landed in kampung jeram, where some of his ships got stranded at the rocky coast.

a big tree that stood at that spot became a sacred emblem to the local chinese, who would journey there by boat to pay homage to the admiral who had helped improve their lives in many ways, including introducing agricultural techniques that produced better yield. in 1942, a temple was built near that site and named after him. today, the sampohkong keramat cheng ho is still an important landmark and pilgrim point, and stands out as a chinese temple in the heart of a malay village.

9. spot wildlife on a river cruise

retrace the steps of the devotees by taking a boat cruise along sungai jeram, the same waterway they travelled on to get to kampung jeram. it used to be an all-day journey to get there and back, taking four hours each way. on board, the passengers would play card games to pass the time and parents who brought their babies would let them rest in swings fashioned out of sarongs. 

these days, motorised penambang boats cut the travel time to one hour, affording various photo opportunities along the way as they cruise past mangrove swamps, rustic riverside scenes and several landmark mosques. it’s as common to see local children playing by the river and anglers on moored sampans as it is to spot wildlife such as otters, eagles and monitor lizards.

> the cruise leaves from shahbandar jetty, jalan sultan zainal abidin (a short walk from pekan cina)

> the river cruise plus visits to sam poh kong temple and kampung tiruk can be arranged through ping anchorage travel & tours, under their terengganu peranakan heritage trail package and are also offered as bespoke tours.


10. buy freshly made keropok lekor

terengganu’s best known snack is the kerepok lekor, widely sold at roadside stalls where fish paste – usually a mixture of ikan parang, selayang or kembong, and sago flour – is rolled into long cylinders and boiled. the rolls are then sliced diagonally, deep fried, and eaten dipped in chilli sauce.

you can also buy the boiled rolls and fry them at home. locals recommend keropok lekor bayu, located along the main road leading to merang jetty, which is run by several cheerful malay ladies who make light work of this savoury specialty.

standing around a square vat filled with boiling water, they scoop fresh fish paste onto a flour-dusted wooden board and shape them by hand into small logs. the rolls are then thrown into the water and fished out several minutes later. customers usually haul them home by the bagfuls, and you can also buy freshly fried ones here. take a bite and immediately you’ll know why bayu is so popular: the keropok tastes of pure fish, with a delightfully crumbly texture.

> lot 318, kampung baru merang, setiu (across from the entrance to aryani resort and next to petronas station)








an organic farmstay in the highlands

photos courtesy of song yan

photos courtesy of song yan

danny chan picks out a piece of ginger from a huge pile in a rattan basket. it’s knobby, with easily 20 stumps extending from it, and covered in a thin layer of soil. danny holds it in both hands. “this should be about 1kg,” he reckons as he stands on the ginger patch from where his farm workers just harvested the spice. it’s one of several agricultural plots at song yan eco-leisure village, a farmstay that danny constructed on a former durian plantation four years ago. he named it after the chinese term for boulders and pine trees, both of which are aplenty on the property – structures are built around existing rocks and danny has planted some 200 of his favourite pine trees.

at a regular market, that piece of spice would be considered a mutant. ginger just doesn’t grow to that size, one should think, unless it’s been pumped with chemicals. but at song yan, they are grown organically, feeding on the naturally fertile soil of bukit tinggi, pahang and boosted by a healthy combo of homemade compost, enzymes and mountain water. the crisp climate, with temperatures that dip to the mid-20s late afternoon, and generous rainfall complete the recipe for agricultural success.

ginger is a specialty in this area although it’s widely marketed as hailing from nearby bentong. you don’t find many farms growing it organically, which makes the ones at song yan even more valuable. it is one of many crops that they grow alongside local vegetables, herbs and fruit trees such as pisang berangan, passionfruit and mulberries. flowering shrubs dot the garden in between guest lodgings that look out towards a lap pool, and a freeform fish pond where an uncountable number of tilapia swim leisurely.

guests stay in cabins that fit four to five people, while big groups can bunk in the dormitory. there’s also a wooden kampung house and a couple of smaller cabins that can fit two. all the beddings are tatami style and rooms are basic, but comfortable and adequate for the restful getaway that song yan was conceptualised to be. none of these, however, were danny’s original plan. “i was looking to build a holiday home for my family. my property agent brought me here, and i fell in love with the view,” danny reveals, sweeping his hand toward the surrounding pockets of green and the mountain ranges in the distance.

semi-retired from the construction industry, he had previously invested in an organic shop and restaurant. one of his former business partners, jessie lee, came to visit and was drawn to the serenity. inspired by the farmstays in taiwan and a keen advocate of back-to-basics living, she suggested the idea of a health retreat, a space where people could rest and relax or indulge in activities that nourish the body and mind. most of all, jessie was keen to encourage and build awareness on the benefits of an organic diet.

“do you know that our daily diet should include 30 percent raw food?,” jessie points out. “in china, the oldest living folks start their day with porridge and sweet potatoes – that’s what we serve for breakfast here.” cooked from brown rice and mixed vegetables, the porridge is served with an aromatic homemade salted radish.

a space where people could rest and relax or indulge in activities that nourish the body and mind

all meals at song yan are served at their barn owl diner on the ground floor of their main building, a modern three-storey structure with an event space upstairs and private living quarters on the top floor. a meat-free farm-to-table restaurant, practically everything that’s served at barn owl comes straight from the vegetable patches and fruit trees that grow on premise. crops are planted on-demand basis, depending on the meals they need to cater for.

in fact, the farm exists primarily to cater to in-house needs, particularly large groups that descend upon song yan for meditation getaways, school groups, corporate team-building sessions, yoga camps and other educational or spiritual retreats. they have also hosted weddings and are popular with families.

barn owl’s signature is their personal hot pot, an individual serving of a radish-based soup with mixed local vegetables and vermicelli. there are three highlights that come with the wholesome meal: homemade tofu, farm-fresh bird’s eye chillies that are more potent than the usual and have an aromatic kick to them, and a spicy ginger-garlic mince that can be added to the soup or eaten as a dip. 

staying guests can also choose from a menu of pizzas, wholemeal pastas, ginger mee sua and sundried tomato fried brown rice, aside from a selection of teas, juices and organic australian drip coffee. pasta sauces are made from scratch, breads and pizza bases are baked freshly, the juices are as fresh as sticking a straw into the fruits on the vines. the must-try teas are the ginger molasses, made from their organic ginger, and the wild chrysanthemum that’s steeped from tiny blooms that grow sporadically on their grounds.

they even make their own tofu, using soy beans from china’s heilongjiang province. the final result may be little more than simple white squares, but have taken jessie and her kitchen team countless trials and errors – and a lot of beans! – to perfect. another specialty is their ginger enzyme, a syrupy probiotic that is extremely high in nutrients as the fermentation process rids it of everything that’s not needed. it’s served at breakfast along with an organic apple as a starter to the porridge.


while song yan grows everything without pesticides or chemicals, they stop short of calling themselves an organic farm – but only because they have not applied for the official certification. jessie prefers to call what they do natural farming. that is, to grow what the land can support and rotate the crops so that the soil has time to rest in between harvests. keeping the soil healthy is key, and theirs has been tested and recorded the optimum ph level of 6.3. “when the soil is strong, the plants have good ‘immunity’ and are less prone to bug attacks,” jessie explains, adding that fertilisers are their best friends where that is concerned and at song yan, they use three different types.

there’s compost that they build from kitchen wastes, garden weeds, chicken dung and coffee grounds sourced from the nearby kopitiams. the mixture lays on the ground under plastic sheets, and must be turned over once a week in order to activate the enzymes and regulate the temperature. it takes three months for the fermentation process to be completed. they also make a liquid enzyme as well as fish compost, buying up to one tonne of fish each time and fermenting them with molasses and water in large plastic tanks. 

making and feeding the soil with these ‘vitamins’ is just one part of the work that’s needed to keep the farm in shape. everything is done manually, including weeding, so it’s very labour intensive and hence, high cost. song yan is therefore not interested in selling their vegetables even though many have asked. “there is no yield,” danny admits, “for every piece of vegetable we sell, we lose five!” they do make an exception for staying guests if they have any left after serving barn owl’s needs.

clearly song yan was not set up with profit in mind, but borne out of and led by passion. both danny and jessie have personally benefited from turning their lives around through proper nutrition, clean eating and healthy living. through song yan, the duo aim to share and spread the goodness. their philosophy extends into the smallest details: bedsheets are made of organic indian cotton; instead of detergent, they wash everything with homemade enzyme; their swimming pool is chlorine-free, fed with water that’s piped directly from the mountains. equally laudable is song yan’s commitment to educational efforts as well as local communities, supporting projects that help foster relationships among the area’s residents. last year, they sponsored a karaoke competition and are in the midst of organising a badminton tournament for students.

for visitors, song yan is a sanctuary to recharge weary souls and rejuvenate strained bodies. staying guests are given a tour of the farm, and are welcome to help out if they want to learn about farming. jessie has also designed a 2d/1n detox retreat that promises to give your system an overhaul. so it has turned out to be a good thing that danny’s initial idea did not materialise as he now has something even better. “i have the best of two worlds – a place to get away to when i need, and the chance to meet new people all the time,” he muses.

> song yan is open to families and groups, while their barn owl diner accepts reservations for hot pot lunch and dinner. to book, e-mail or call +6017 300 6280/+6017 300 8206 (9am-5pm daily)


this story first appeared in crave/sunday mail and the malay mail online






of elephant rides and river rafting in the mountains of chiang mai

chai lai river rafting
chai lai ellie ride
chai lai ellie

her back was cold, coarse and leathery as expected, with a few coarse spikes of hair at the crown. with one hand tightly in the mahout’s palm, i clambered on unsteadily, throwing one leg over the elephant’s neck while keeping my other foot firmly on the wooden platform i had climbed up on earlier. it was a safety anchor, and i would have gladly stayed in that position but this was not an elephant sitting session but a sunrise ride.

i had signed up for the amazing mountain adventure offered by chai lai orchid, an eco-resort that shares riverside jungle space with phutawan elephant camp in mae wang, a mountainous region approximately 55km from chiang mai. meaning ‘beautiful and strong’ in thai, the resort’s moniker also hints at a bigger purpose: it was set up and managed in partnership with non-profit organisation daughters rising, which supports the empowerment of women from nearby refugee communities – mostly karen hill tribes who had fled from neighbouring myanmar – who are at risk of being sold into sex slavery.

meaning ‘beautiful and strong’ in thai, the resort’s moniker also hints at a bigger purpose

daughters rising provides education and training, equipping the women with skills that enable a future in the hospitality industry. as employees at the resort, they earn decent wages and learn various aspects of its running. the women are also taught english, basic computer know-how, and are made aware of their rights and other relevant issues. by spending your tourist dollars at chai lai, whether as a staying guest or day visitor, you contribute to this humanitarian effort.

the other cause that chai lai promotes is that of responsible elephant tourism, an issue that has been widely debated, with the ill treatment of these animals at the centre of it and rides frowned upon by many. the resort points out that while all elephants should ideally be wild, asian elephants have long been domesticated, including most of those found in chiang mai today – including at puthawan – and are therefore not suited to be returned to the wild. shrinking natural habitat poses another problem.

chai lai river
chai lai villa

at phutawan, each elephant is cared for by a dedicated mahout, whose job is relentless as he has to tend to his assigned brood all day, feeding, bathing, cleaning and interacting with them. the mahouts live on site as they usually start work by 6am and only call it a night after the elephants’ last feeding at 10pm. man and beast thus develop an intimate bond that’s akin to family, the connection particularly strong between elephants that were born at the camp and have been under the care of the same guardians since birth.

lati is one of the young mahouts at phutawan and has two elephants under his care: tong wan and her baby, tang mo. the former was my ride that cool, misty morning and after i had stabilised myself on her back, lati gestured for me to lean forward and place my palms just behind tong wan’s ears. that seemed to be the signal she had been waiting off as she ambled towards a pile of sugarcane (her breakfast) with a rather nervous me on her back, praying silently and willing my body to adapt to the uneven rocking. i clenched my inner thigh muscles – thank god for regular pilates workouts! – and let my legs hang loosely. every time tong wan moved, shifting from one front leg to the other, my hips mimicked the motion.

with tang mo by her side, mother and daughter munched on the stacks of sugarcane, curling their agile trunks around the sticks and lifting them into their mouths in one swift gesture. lati then instructed tong wan to start moving towards a hilly bamboo forest at the back of chai lai where a well-trodden path winds past thickets and the resort’s rustic villas, which range from quaint thatched huts to riverside suites with spacious balconies where you can have a thai massage.

tong wan barely seemed to notice me on her back; she moved at her will, stopping occasionally to nibble at the bushes or feed tang mo, and straying off the trail at times. lati, who walked next to us, would shout out a command in thai and guide her back on course. i had a feeling tong wan is a bit of a cheeky one, and her relationship with lati is like that of a petulant child and a strict but loving father.

chai lai ellie bathing
chai lai food

sitting atop tong wan, i enjoyed an elevated view of the surroundings, taking in the stillness of the morning as the sun slowly lit up the sky. the air was crisp and fresh. we pass a reservoir where the elephants drink from and sometimes take a soak in. tong wan kept things interesting, alternating between leisurely strolls and quick trots, which meant that i had to constantly watch my balance to accommodate the changing pace. i realised that this was her time, her daily ritual, and i was a mere hitchhiker. the key was to go with her flow and not fight her rhythm so that as i rode bare feet on her bare back, she and i were one.

as my ride ended, it was time for tong wan’s and tang mo’s river bath. the water chilled me to my bones but evidently not theirs. lati filled a pail and splashed the duo while they frolicked and soaked. a second breakfast followed, with more sugarcane disappearing by the stacks and into their huge stomachs – an elephant consumes up to 190kg of food daily! – supplemented by bananas, which they grabbed from my open palm.

while the elephants munched on their rations, i went to get mine at the resort’s riverside cafe. communal tables at an alfresco deck lets you dine to the views and gushing sounds of the river. breakfast is a simple spread of fresh local fruits, yogurt pots, breads, pastries and eggs any way you like. riverside grows some of its own vegetables and herbs, and other fresh ingredients are sourced from farms that lie within several kilometres from the resort.

the lunch and dinner menu lists a mix of local flavours and western dishes, with a good number of vegetarian options thrown in. of the latter, the chinese kale leaves with chopped lemongrass and herbs, and toasted peanuts was a highlight. simple but flavoursome, it was a wholesome starter that preceded another meat-free delight: raw cabbage wraps with rice noodles, thai basil, coriander and a minced tofu salad. well-flavoured yet delicate on the palate, they both made for a refreshing departure from the typical thai repertoire that leans heavily on spices.

the second portion of my amazing mountain adventure commenced after breakfast. my guide singh is a karen of burmese origin and lives at a nearby village. taking tourists around is one of several jobs he takes on to make a living. he learned english from visiting farangs (foreigners) and while his vocabulary was limited, he spoke with a slight american accent.

chai lai weaver
chai lai village
chai lai bridge
chai lai cooking

for the rest of the afternoon, singh led me on a tour of several small karen villages about half an hour from chai lai, where living conditions are sparse and almost primitive – houses are little more than thatched bamboo huts, cooking is done over open wood fire, and there is no modern plumbing. while the men work away from home, the women look after their young ones and sell shawls and clothes that they weave and sew by hand. sharing their culture with tourists on guided experiences such as the one i was on is another way these villagers earn extra income.

singh and i walked to a river behind the villages. on the opposite bank and reachable by a bamboo bridge, thatched pavilions serve as food and souvenir stalls, and open kitchens where several karen ladies prepared our lunch. they chopped, minced and stir-fried away while i soaked in the river and watched village boys snorkel for fish. these folks may own little by modern living standards but they also have some of the most precious things – pristine surrounds, lush greens, unpolluted air – that the rest of us wish for.

after a simple meal of stir-fried noodles and watermelon, we trekked past small farms and swathes of forest before arriving at mae wang waterfall, a popular spot to cool off from the dry heat. daredevils often jump off the top of the wall to the amusement of visitors below, and then head to the nearby flying fox station to gather more adrenaline.

chai lai village lunch
chai lai fields
mae wang waterfall

my adventure was to be a lot more relaxing – bamboo rafting down the mae wang river back to chai lai. the rafts are simple but sturdy contraptions, measuring about 12ft in length and spanning 10 bamboos width wise. tired from the hike, i reclined on the slightly submerged raft and let the cold water bathe my back while the handler expertly manoeuvred it along and over rocks of varying sizes. 

it was a public holiday in thailand, and the river was a hive of families and groups of friends, rafting like i was or having floating picnics on anchored rafts, with music blaring. food and beverage kiosks have also sprung up on the riverbanks, with in-river seating no less. some offered open pavilions to dine and rest at while others simply placed stools in the river, where customers sat with drinks in hand and their legs half-submerged in the water. what a wonderfully relaxing way to enjoy that mid-afternoon cuppa!

back at chai lai, the raft handler deposited me at the shallowest part of the river where tong wan and tang mo had enjoyed their morning shower, completing my amazing mountain adventure and bringing my day to a full circle. i sat at riverside cafe to wind down and rehydrate with a thai iced milk tea. my day may have come to an end but the river was not done. raft after raft floated past elephants taking turns being bathed by their mahouts and excited tourists – it’s difficult to tell who was having a better time.

3 of taipei's most popular side trips

the taiwanese capital is a whirlwind of shopping strips, street food and night markets – not that different from other major cities around the world, really. so where does one go to absorb its alternative offerings? these three popular side trips from taipei is your chance to immerse in its culture, tradition and natural wealth.

shifen floating

shifen: letters to heaven

covered with thoughtfully written wishes, prayers and hopes, the colourful domes rise as little glowing orbs, floating above shifen old street and slowly disappear towards heaven. or at least that is the belief behind the sky lantern practice, a tradition that began as a means for men working in the surrounding mountains to communicate with their loved ones back home in the villages. today, it is a thriving commercial venture for lantern vendors as scores of tourists find their way to this short stretch of old wooden shops to pen and send their messages to the gods.

the lanterns are made of layers of coloured paper wrapped around thin frames, and each shade represents a specific auspicious meaning. after you’ve paid for your chosen colour, the vendor will unfold the thin layers of paper and clip them to a steel frame so the lantern is displayed like a canvas onto which you can paint – using chinese calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink – your wishes. when you’re done, the vendor unfurls the lantern into its proper shape, lights it up and lets you hold it above your head for a souvenir snapshot before you release it.

shifen folded lanterns
shifen hannah
shifen lanterns railside
shifen lantern release

adding to the hive of chatter and camera clicks is the occasional appearance of the pingxi line train, whose track cuts right in between the two rows of shops. for the few minutes that it trundles through, it renders all lantern flying to a complete stop as everyone gets out of the way and retreats to safety. once the train is out of sight, the buzz resumes.

early evenings are shifen’s busiest hours (and the gods’ too), with tens of lanterns taking turns to speckle the atmosphere. but that’s nothing compared to the sight that delights visitors each year during the lantern festival that’s celebrated on the 15th day of chinese new year: hundreds of sky lanterns are released at the same time, obliterating the darkness of the night and turning the sky into a spectacular chandelier.

shifen lantern display
shifen mini lanterns
shifen x

other attractions while the sky lanterns are meant to be released, visitors can take home miniature lanterns to remind them of shifen and the wishes they made. handmade from printed paper, the decorative pieces are also fashioned into key chains and some are fitted with led lights for additional function.

getting there (train) from taipei railway station, take the train to ruifang station. at ruifang, switch to the pingxi line and alight at shifen railway station. (bus) from taipei, take bus number 15 at muzha mrt station.

beitou thermal valley
beitou valley entrance
beitou thermal val

beitou: hope springs eternal

you’d think that a lake that reeks of sulphur would keep people away but not at the beitou geothermal valley in beitou, a district of taipei situated about half an hour from the city centre. here, the unmistakable smell wafts from jade-emerald waters that fill a volcanic crater and yet the crowds keep coming. with temperatures averaging 80c and reaching 100c at its most scalding, the spring liquid is also highly acidic with a concentrated amount of sulphate minerals, rendering it completely unsuitable – and hazardous – for human contact. one used to be able to dip eggs in to cook but unfortunate mishaps led to the local council fencing up the crater’s perimeters with wooden railings.

from behind those safety markers, visitors can take in the sight of thick steam rising and curling from the translucent waters that earned the valley a ranking on the list of taiwan’s eight great natural beauties during the japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. at times, the misty effect is so thick that it engulfs the whole area, leading to it being nicknamed hell’s valley.

to soak in the heavenly bliss of a hot springs bath, seek out the many public baths in town where for a nominal fee, you can soak in the healing qualities for several hours. one of the most popular is beitou outdoor public hot springs, which you will pass as you walk from xinbeitou mrt station towards thermal valley. there are joint men and women pools set around the beitou stream that runs through it, or if you simply want to immerse your feet, you can also find a comfortable spot by the open sections of the stream. better facilities and privacy are afforded at the countless hotels around town, where rooftop hot springs bath are part and parcel of the experience and many are open to non-staying guests as well.

beitou onsen
xin beitou station
beitou river
beitou train

nearby attractions located along the same walkway that leads to thermal valley are three other spots worth making time for: beitou library, a handsome architectural gem built of recyclable materials that’s not only taiwan’s first green library but also one of east asia’s most energy efficient and environmentally-friendly buildings. browse through a comprehensive collection of books or simply take in the view of surrounding beitou park from the balconies.

just a hop and a skip away is beitou hot spring museum, converted from a red brick mansion that was once, appropriately, a japanese-style bath house while across the road, the ketagalan culture centre beckons with its colourful facade and invites you in for a look at the lives of the local indigenous people. the name beitou was derived from the ketagalan word for ‘witch’, as the people believed that the sulphuric waters in abundance here were a sign of witchcraft.

beitou thermal valley is open from 9am-5pm, tuesday-sunday; closed on mondays admission free getting there (mrt) from taipei, take the danshui line to xinbeitou station. the town’s main attractions are within walking distance from the station. (bus) from taipei, take any of these buses to xinbeitou mrt station: 216, 217, 217, 223, 266 and 269.

yehliu coast

yehliu: as wild as your imagination

turkey’s cappadocia region is one of the most extraordinary places on earth, where vast tracts of dusty land are punctuated with geological formations of myriad whimsical, eye-catching shapes. like mother nature’s showroom, it’s where she shows her might and artistic inclinations, whipping volcanic tufa rocks into stone animals, mushrooms and meringues.

taiwan’s counterpart (albeit on a much smaller scale) is the yehliu geopark in wanli district of new taipei city, a special municipality that surrounds taipei city. sitting on a cape measuring just 1.7km that is said to resemble a turtle when seen from above, the geopark is a buffet of sandstone-limestone formations, sea caves and potholes that display different effects of erosion by the sea and other environmental elements: honeycomb textures, lattice patterns, weathering rings and shallow basins are among the photo-worthy motifs.

the shapes of the rocks are another conversation point, and each is named as they appear. there’s the pineapple bun that resembles the famous hong kong pastry; gorilla rock looks like a large crouching primate; dragon’s head rock is where people pray for blessings; drumstick rock could have come from a gigantic kfc fryer; camel’s rock sports an unmistakable hump while fairy’s shoe is not unlike a single toe-strap slip-on supposedly left behind by an ethereal creature sent to earth to teach a cheeky turtle elf a lesson.

yehliu guard
yehliu crowd

the most famous and photographed among the rocks is the nefertiti or queen’s head, which bears a striking similarity to the profile of the legendary egyptian queen. there’s always a long line of visitors waiting to take their souvenir snapshot with this royal icon and to keep the crowd in order, a security guard is always stationed here – and often ends up playing photographer.

nearby attraction just outside of the geopark is yehliu ocean world, taiwan’s first marine centre where you can walk through an undersea tunnel while some 200 species of sea creatures swim above. at the 3,500-seat stadium, sit back and be entertained by well-trained whales, dolphins and seals.

yehliu geopark is open from 7.30am-5pm daily, with extended hours from may to mid-september getting there from taipei, buses are available from the national taiwan university in da’an district every 15 minutes from 7.30am-10.10pm. you can also take kuo kuang bus no. 1815 from the taipei west bus station, which runs every 20 minutes starting from 5.40am on weekdays and 6.30am on weekends


this article first appeared in the malay mail online and crave, sunday mail



fishing for rusticity

tai o overview

there is a quiet, bucolic side to hong kong and it’s found in the 300-year-old fishing village of tai o.

tai o houses
tai o cyclist

the small roads are built for pedestrians and the occasional bicycle; you won’t hear the honk or motor of any other vehicle. most buildings only reach as high as three storeys while pink dolphins are known to swim in the waters. if you’re very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of them on a boat cruise.

these are not images that one typically associates with hong kong, one of the most vibrant and busiest cities in asia that pulsates with skyscrapers, crowded streets and a nightlife that barely pauses for a breather. yet tai o is very much a part of hong kong, albeit stripped bare of all that makes the city what it is. instead, this last remaining and most intact of its traditional fishing villages is the quiet to central’s buzz and the languid to kowloon’s bustle.

from the airport, a 40-minute taxi ride will deposit you at the main entryway and that’s as far as any motorised vehicles can go. tai o is a car-free village with just a few small, narrow roads running through its centre where restaurants, bing sutt (traditional coffee shops) and shops are concentrated.

tai o lady
tai o fish shop
tai o fish on rails

the latter mainly sell seafood produce that’s a local specialty and make for popular souvenirs. wrapped in plastic or tied by the clusters and hung up like prized catches, stacked in bright red baskets or bottled in glass jars, there’s everything from salted whole fish to dried mantis prawns and pungent shrimp paste. yik cheong, one of the biggest of such stores here, also runs a small restaurant serving dishes cooked using their own produce. their shrimp paste is a bestseller, a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of ways: fried with rice or as a sauce for boiled squid, for example, both of which can be sampled at the restaurant.

walk around the village and it quickly becomes clear that it’s not just tourists who enjoy the dried seafood. laid out on rattan baskets and placed on top of stools by the side of the road, strung up one by one onto a wooden pole or even pegged to clothes hangers – locals not only regularly make their own salted fish but have devised various ways and individualistic styles of doing so.

tai o ham yue laundry
tai o shuttered
tai o ham tan
tai o weird art

it’s not surprising, given that this is a fishing village that dates back 300 years ago and the sea has always determined their lifestyles and livelihood. as you would expect of such a community, houses are built along the waterfront with boats docked at home. constructed mostly from wood and tin facades but bearing no specific style, these stilt houses – called pang uk in cantonese – were once de rigueur across hong kong. most have given way to modern housing projects or shiny commercial structures as fishing villages slowly disappeared.

tai o, on the other hand, has managed to preserve this built heritage on such a large scale that they are now its most iconic features. grab a table on the outdoor deck at solo cafe to enjoy views of the waterway and stilt houses, or stroll through the warren of lanes that connect these homes to catch glimpses of the simple, slow-paced life. with most of the young seeking a living in the city, it’s the elderly who make up the bulk of tai o’s population today. you may meet a cheerful grandmother during your walk, happy to tell you stories of tai o then and now, or even invite you into her home for a look. but not everyone is hospitable to tourists; some houses display signs warning against photography, others may be less than friendly as they view tourism as an intrusion into their peaceful lives.

tai o house

indeed, tai o is usually a cowboy town with many shops closed on weekdays. at night, you’d be hard pressed to find anything open past 8pm, except for a few restaurants where local men relax over beer and seafood. stay over for more than one night and villagers will know you by sight, curious as to what keeps you here when the weekend has not begun.

come friday evening, the village comes alive as city folks find their way here for a quick escapade, turning the usually laidback tai o into a noisy bazaar. street food stalls materialise to do roaring business of grilled seafood snacks while near the market, follow your nose to a famous kai tan zai (egg waffle) stall where the snack is made the old-school way: in a handheld pan flipped over a charcoal fire until the batter achieves golden crispness.

tai o drying trays

near the stall, an uphill road that passes under an old tree leads to the rest of the village. across from the post office, sit down for a bowl of silky, wobbly homemade tau foo far (soya pudding). ginger sugar, coloured a bright orange, is an option but a recommended one for adding a spicy kick to the dessert.

further up, look out for a low wooden house with a stack of large bamboo steamers out front. this is a tai o institution famed for steamed glutinous rice balls and dumplings handmade by a pair of brothers, who are both in their 70s and make everything from scratch and by hand. starting as early as 4am, they roll out these traditional delicacies until about 6pm, selling as many as 1,000 of them each day.                                                             

another authentic delight not to be missed is the sa yung, or hong kong-style doughnut, fried puffs rolled in sugar with crispy shells and pillow-soft insides. tai o bakery makes one of the best versions and they sell out very quickly, especially on weekends. be there around noon and you stand a good chance of getting a bite.

opposite the bakery is the village’s only b&b; most weekenders rent sparsely-furnished apartments located above the shops while on the other end of the spectrum is the luxurious tai o heritage hotel, a colonial-style building converted from the old police station. espace elastique is the mid-range option, a charming set-up owned by tai o native veronica chan, who retired a career in set design to return to her roots. she hopes to encourage more appreciation for tai o through artistic showcases at espace as well as the red-roofed building facing it that once housed her late grandfather’s fabric store and where the family lived.

tai o waterfront cafe
tai o house to house
tai o letterbox
tai o fish drying

such is the allure of tai o: comfortably entrenched in its heritage and moving at its own pace, it’s a living reminder of hong kong as it used to be, much like breakfast at dim sum and seafood restaurant fook moon lam. this is where locals start their day as they have for years, where everyone knows everyone and the food finds its way to you in carts loaded with little steamed plates, baskets of meat-filled buns and fried favourites. it’s a ritual that’s repeated day in and day out but far from being monotonous, the familiarity is comforting and one that urban citizens seek out from time to time.

tai o egg waffles
ta o tau foo far









rock of ages

uluru sunrise
uluru heli
walpa gorge

under the noon sun, uluru glows a fiery vermillion that fades to a light brown later in the afternoon. at dusk, it cools to a pale violet and just before nightfall, it’s almost blue as the earth’s shadow hovers over its base under the pink belt of venus. the sky around it is light as day for a few last moments before the blue spreads across and darkens into night.

it’s no wonder that uluru is often described as having chameleon-like qualities; every hour, it takes on a different hue as its surface interacts with the changing atmosphere around. this most famous of australia’s monument is already sacred to the anangu indigenous people and its ever-changing appearance just makes it all the more magical.

from far, it looks like one smooth stone slab but up close, uluru’s many curves, ridges, caves, valleys, waterholes and openings reveal themselves. on a guided walk around the base, a loop that’s 9km in length, park rangers who know uluru better than the back of their hands clue you in on the legends and stories behind the distinctive features and sacred sites.

snake rock
uluru art
every hour, it takes on a different hue
uluru sky
from far, it looks like one smooth stone slab
uluru gaping

there’s the mick jagger or tapaji, a cave with oversized, gaping ‘lips’; kulpi mutitjulu is a cave where families once gathered to dine, under a rock shaped like a snake or lizard; the carving of the mala wallaby-man’s face tells of his heroic efforts to protect his people against the demon-dingo dog kurpany.

the experience is not unlike tjukurpa, which means stories and form the foundation of the anangus’ culture. it governs their understanding on life, the environment around them, and the relationship between all living beings and the land. without listening to these ancient tales, the uluru is nothing more than a cluster of geological features. it is the stories that give meaning to its every facet and help you understand the uluru’s significance to its traditional owners.

just as old and revered is kata tjuta, its 36 domes rising majestically from the horizon about 50km to the west of uluru. step into the gorges that separate the domes and as you hike through the entryway of walpa gorge, kata tjuta’s magnificence is unmistakable. its highest peak towers at 546m, which is almost 200m taller than uluru and similarly, its ragged surfaces change colours throughout the day. wallabies are often spotted here.

walpa man
kata lookout
uluru wave rock

the two landmarks and their surrounding areas are protected as the uluru-kata tjuta national park, jointly managed by the anangus and parks australia, with the australian government holding a 99-year lease since 1985. this unesco world heritage site draws close to half a million visitors each year, most of them flying in to the ayers rock airport on daily flights from all major australian airports.

the adventurous traveller can drive here via alice springs, the closest town that’s a good 460km away or about seven hours by car. if you’re up for a cross-country jaunt, hop on board the ghan, a twice-weekly train that connects adelaide and darwin.

walpa bench

this is the same rail service that transports all food and drinks for visitors to the red centre. it is a desert after all, an expanse of land that’s the same shade as the uluru at noon. it’s a harsh, dusty environment where the uv index is constantly high and temperatures can soar to the mid-40°cs in summer.

the area receives only about 308mm of annual rainfall but that is surprisingly enough to allow a diverse species to survive. more than 400 native plants have been identified within the park, many of them consumed as food or medicine by the natives.

pretty and exotic, some of the bush flowers feature on the menus of the restaurants at ayers rock resort, the only accommodation provider here that’s made up of five hotels and resorts, each catering to different types of travellers and budgets. rough it out at camp sites or live it up at the 5-star longitude 131°, designed like a desert safari with each of its 15 well-appointed tented villas directly facing uluru.

longi food
longi uluru
longi scallops
longi overview
uluru canapes
longi dune
longi spoon
uluru dining hall
longi villas

you’d be tempted to laze in bed all day and never take your eyes off the views through the glass doors, but longitude offers many reasons to step out and immerse in the natural surrounds. catch the sunset from a dune just behind the resort over canapés and champagne, then dine under the stars at table 131° while indigenous performers dance around a fire. after dinner, study the constellations and try to spot jupiter. on a full moon night, the desert lights up and shows off uluru and kata tjuta in their full glory.

these are no mere gigantic rocks or geological wonders, but symbols of an ancient wisdom that understands man and nature should never be separate. as mighty as man may be, here he is but a small part of an existence, a speck of dust compared to the two inselbergs that have stood the test of time for 600 million years.


longi campfire

exploring the red centre other ways to enjoy the outback:

soar through the sky get a bird’s eye view of uluru and see this sacred land the way the indigenous people depict it in their dot paintings. there are several different tours, lasting between 15 minutes to two hours.

rev it up ride pillion or in a trike attached to a late model heritage softail harley davidson to feel the desert wind in your hair. you can choose to ride into the sunrise (with breakfast) or sunset (sparkling wine will be served), or view kata tjuta up close with stops at interest points.

sail a ship of the desert australia’s largest camel farm, uluru camel tours, is home to 50 working animals that ferry visitors on a variety of rides. there’s also a museum on site, and a saddlery where you can watch skilled makers put the finishing touches to handmade saddles and harnesses.

voices of the desert listed in the australian tourism hall of fame, the sounds of silence dinner is an unforgettable experience that begins with canapés and wines at sunset, followed by a barbecue dinner under star-lit skies while a storyteller entertains you with tales as old as time. you can also ride a camel to the location or arrive by helicopter.

dot your i’s sign up for maruku arts’ dot painting workshop to learn the symbolism behind the colourful dots that characterise indigenous art. available daily at ayers rock resort and the uluru-kata tjuta cultural centre, it is suitable for children (ages five and up) as well as adults.

pedal power missing your spinning classes? here’s one way to make up for it – rent a bicycle from outback cycling and pedal your way along a 15km track around uluru, join their mountain biking tours, or ride and explore alice springs.









the perennial palace

it was built as a summer getaway but there are good reasons to visit the summer palace in all seasons, where it is said that all of china shows itself through art, architecture and its people.

sum pal main
sum pal boats

everything is bigger in china. drive along the multi-lane streets or boulevards of beijing and as you crane your neck to look up at one mammoth structure after another towering high-rise, you will realise another inevitable truth: that despite the ever-growing built environment of colossal proportions, there are still expanses of space waiting to be filled. to be precise, the world’s second largest country covers a total area of 3.7 million square miles divided into over 20 provinces and more than 600 cities, while supporting a population of 1.3 billion and counting.

in tourism-speak, china is a bottomless treasure pit with something for every wanderer, whether you’re an art lover or architectural enthusiast, budding historian or nature sightseer. even the most ardent of traveller, however, could not possibly traverse every inch although you come pretty close to it at one of the country’s biggest crowd pullers. as the saying goes, “see the summer palace and you will have seen all that china has to offer in art and architecture.”

just 15 kilometres north-west of central beijing, this was where the royal family would go to seek respite from the unbearable summer heat. in today’s road conditions, it’s a trip of 30 minutes or so by car, a fraction of the day-long foot journey it was centuries ago when the imperial escapade was first completed. the empress dowager cixi, who ruled behind the scenes for much of the qing dynasty, was to have none of such a strenuous road trip and so she commanded the construction of a canal that connected the forbidden city and the summer palace by a three-hour dragon boat ride.

sum pal toboggan
sum pal trees

the canals have long closed but boat cruises are part of the attractions at kunming lake, the focal point of summer palace that covers about three quarters of its total land area. like hangzhou’s west lake that was its inspiration, it is fringed by willowy trees, pavilions crowned with intricate roofs and bridges that range from simple wooden frames to dramatic stone arches.

where the west lake has the six harmonies pagoda presiding over it from a nearby hill, at the summer palace, it is the 60 metre-high longevity hill that’s the coveted vantage point, its summit home to grand halls and buddhist temples. they make up the more than 3,000 manmade structures found on the palace grounds that represent every known chinese architectural style.

the seventeen-arch bridge, for one, combines the aesthetics of beijing’s lugou bridge with suzhou’s baodai bridge and is marked by more than 500 marble parapets that are each crowned by a stone lion. at both ends of the bridge sits a carved figurine of the qilin, a mythical chimera-like creature that portends prosperity.

along the northern shore of the lake, the 728-metre covered long corridor is adorned with details consistent with both ming and qing dynasties, while vibrant paintings and frescoes tell of famous legends. step through this world’s lengthiest corridor and you will know what makes a truly long story. it is also believed that lovers who stroll this walkway together will end up in happy matrimony.

sum pal bridge
sum pal aman corridor

less joyful an ending but equally majestic an achievement is the marble boat, moored near the western end of the corridor and resembling a paddle steamer. marble only by name and appearance – it’s actually constructed from wood but painted to look like the metamorphic rock – it was destroyed during the second opium war and then rebuilt under the orders of empress cixi.

legend has it that upon its completion, the empress invited the craftsmen to a celebratory dinner that turned out to be their last meal; she wanted to make sure there would be no replicas of the boat anywhere else in the world.

more of a pavilion than an actual sailing boat, although it is equipped with a drainage system, the marble marvel sits lakeside, looking out to the waters that’s a hive of activities in warm weather as a daily melee of visitors descend upon it from day break to day’s end.

lovers who stroll this walkway together will end up in happy matrimony

in the thick of winter, when temperatures dip below -10°c and the wind beats incessantly against the face, the lake freezes to solid ground. you can walk on it, sled across it, carve a hole and throw a line in, or do like the locals and take a dip in the frigid waters first thing in the morning. all around, the scenery takes on a sentimental, almost romantic vibe as trees lose their foliage, their bare branches forming a wispy silhouette against cloudy skies. once-green lawns take on the same colourless, opaque appearance as the lake and together with the white stone bridges, blend into a monochromatic landscape. vessels that were left bobbing in the lake before the cold hit become extensions of it, rendered immobile and unmoving like the surface water.

it may be frozen in all appearance but the summer palace never stops. the crowds continue to throng through its three main entrances and more interestingly for these visitors, locals go about their routines just as they do in other seasons. it’s the older folks who make the most of this regal surrounds; local ladies brisk walk or jog, making their rounds along the hilly terrain and winding past pavilions where groups of men gather to play a round of chess or perform a traditional orchestra, and cut through old courtyard buildings that once played prominent functions when the royal family was in residence.

sum pal blader
sum pal musicians
sum pal walking on lake
sum pal marble boat

at suzhou street, a promenade filled with souvenir shops and fuss-free eateries that is a flattering imitation of jiangsu, it’s business as usual, even for the calligraphist who wields a gigantic brush that he dips into a small pail of water and with a few easy flicks of his arm, writes out phrases or names of countries – he likes to corner tourists and ask where they’re from – on the stone floor tiles in elegant hanzi. he puts on an entertaining show, for free, before trying to persuade you to buy one of his regular ink-on-paper scrolls.

in all seasons, the summer palace lives up to its promise of showcasing all of china in one breathtaking site, not only through its architecture, natural landscape and more tellingly, the people who make it a part of their daily lives. but it’s the grandmother rollerblading happily at one of the many ancient pavilions while clad in fuzzy ear muffs and a rainbow of leg warmers who best epitomise that essence – anything goes and you’ll find it all at the summer palace, even in winter.

aman summer
aman summer snow
aman summer suite
aman summer pavi

this story first appeared in the edge review





falling for karuizawa

when temperatures dip and the leaves begin to fall, tokyoites pack their weekend bags for karuizawa, to feast on the colours and pleasures of autumn.

karui yellow
karui kaleidoscope
karui red bush
karui lake house

soft morning sunlight peeks through uneven gaps in the canopy of rich yellow and amber leaves. reflected onto the still waters below, they form a postcard-perfect showcase of autumn’s richest colours. it doesn’t stop there. encircling komuba pond are more maple and larch trees bursting with dark pink, rich red and fiery orange foliage while below them, the damp ground is carpeted by fallen leaves in the same hues.

you can cover the periphery of the pond in just 20 minutes on foot, but most visitors will take at least twice as long, stopping often to admire the vistas. some spend hours here: families with young ones enjoying the crisp air and serene surrounds, couples walking their pet pooches, and artists attempting to capture the scenic beauty in watercolour.

it would take serious talent to do justice to the breathtaking landscape at this natural pond, one of karuizawa’s most popular attractions. this resort town in the nagano prefecture is just over an hour from tokyo on the bullet train, and draws city folks as well as tourists year round but mid-october to early november are the best times to visit if you want to experience the best of fall.

karui painter

affluent influences traditionally, the japanese enjoyed summering in karuizawa as its altitude – it sits at an elevation of about 1,000 metres – delivers temperatures that are at least 10 degrees lower than in the city. it was also considered a status symbol, like the hamptons is to new yorkers, with many prominent figures owning holiday homes here. karuizawa’s most famous guests have included reigning emperor akihito, who first met empress michiko at a tennis court in this town over 50 years ago.

karuizawa’s esteem had, however, been cemented long before that. the founding of this town is credited to canadian missionary alexander croft shaw, who arrived in 1886 and finding many comforting reminders of his scottish hometown, built his summer villa – the town’s first – two years later. he introduced karuizawa to people in tokyo and before long, the town’s reputation was established.

shaw’s villa is preserved as the shaw memorial house and next to it is the town’s first chapel that he built and where he delivered his sermons. both sit in a tranquil forested area in kyu-karuizawa, a part of the town known as karuizawa ginza as many of the famous tokyo shopping street’s high-end stores had outlets here, though it’s more fondly referred to as old town due to its nostalgic aura.

the main street is lined with specialty stores, restaurants, galleries and cafes housed in low wooden buildings that boast traditional japanese architecture. venture into the small lanes and you will come across shinto shrines and century-old cathedrals. occasionally, you might spot a traditional jinrikisha, or rickshaw, ferrying tourists on sightseeing rides. cycling is also a popular way to explore the town and you can pick up a rental for less than 1,000 yen a day.

karui old town 1
karui vintage suitcase
karui booth
karui church
karui red tree
karui shop

this version of ginza may not have the glitz and international brand names of its tokyo counterpart – those can be shopped at the sprawling karuizawa prince shopping plaza outlet mall near the train station – but there is a good variety of japanese goods worth dropping some yen on. gorgeous furoshiki cloths that can be used as gift wrappers or tied into simple carrywear make interesting gifts for those back home; pick up a few pairs of japanese chopsticks, carved from wood and daintily decorated.

epicurean enjoyment it’s a good idea to shop on an empty stomach, so you can leave room for food sampling at the gourmet produce stores that are a galore of local seasonal specialties. handmade fruit jams are among the town’s best offerings, said to be a legacy of christian missionaries who spent their summers here teaching farmers the art of preserving fruits. sawaya is the most famous name for jams, particularly popular for their strawberry variant.

karui bike
karui house in the woods

hankering for some good pure, natural honey? sample hachihige ojisan’s many floral varieties and other honey products at their standalone shop. founded in 1936, they harvest the nectar from their apiaries in the foothills of nagano where more than 1,000 hives are home to some 40,000 bees each.

when you’re ready for a proper meal, karuizawa presents you with countless options. to dine like locals do, start with the zarusoba, cold soba noodles made from locally-grown buckwheat. at the train station, you can pick up a kamameshi, rice with vegetables and meat cooked and sold in small earthenware pots.

you can also find a good array of international cuisines and light bites, from russian piroshki to hotdogs sandwiching plump german sausages, or do like john lennon and savour flaky pastries at the french bakery. the late ex-beatles and yoko ono were frequent visitors to karuizawa, usually staying at the historical mampei hotel and often breakfasted at the bakery, where a photograph of lennon still decks the wall.

karui coffe
karui ice cream
karui polka

finish off on a sweet note at mikado coffee, where there’s always a line for their velvety mocha soft ice-cream made from specially selected beans. lesser known but perhaps more charming is akaneya kouhiiten, which sits at the end of the main street in an all-black boxy building. their menu, like their signboard, is written in white kanji on a block of wood and lists just seven items, including drip coffee, black tea, grape juice and cheesecake. everything is priced at 735 yen and hot beverages are served in one of the many teacup sets that adorn the wall behind the counter. the more prized among their collection, including fine china pieces by wedgewood, are for the eyes only.

natural relaxation japan’s volcanic landscape has blessed the country with many natural hot springs and if you ask the locals, any time is a good time for a soak in the onsen. in autumn, after a day out and about in chilly climes, there is nothing more comforting than to surrender to the molten heat and let it warm you up while you wind down.

head to hoshinoya, a secluded resort that houses guests in stunning water and hillside villas luxuriously appointed in japanese decor. just 20 minutes via free shuttle buses from the train station, it is part of a forested area that’s known for wildlife diversity, with its most famous natural residents being the flying squirrels that soar silently among the trees at dusk. 

karui wedding
karui suits

at the resort, a special light and dark bath experience awaits staying guests while day visitors can pay to access the communal onsen. autumn is the season for the shinshu apple, a nagano specialty that’s loved for its crispness, juiciness and sweetness.

the indoor bath will be filled with these soft pink orbs, their natural fragrance scenting the air. as you breathe in the soothing aroma and your tired limbs loosen up in 42c water, you can imagine the appeal of this mountainous town that first drew europeans and the japanese elite. now, as it was then, karuizawa is a place to retreat, relax and revel in a leisurely lifestyle.

getting there from tokyo, you can get to karuizawa on the jr nagano shinkansen within 80 minutes. buses depart from tokyo’s ikebukuro station and take almost twice as long.






48 hours in barcelona

forget about taking a siesta; spain’s second largest city is a hive of attractions, activities and architectural gems that will keep you riveted day and night. to soak in the essence of barcelona, here are the landmarks you should not miss — and you can cover them all over one weekend.

 <day one>

mercat st josep de la boquiera rambla, 91 opens 8am-8.30pm, monday-saturday

start your day surrounded by the freshest spanish bites at the best market in the world, as awarded by the 2005 world markets congress. with a long history that dates back to 1217 when it started as an open-air bazaar, boqueria market is still today the city’s go-to place for choice ingredients, both fresh and dry, or to attend gastronomy events and cooking classes at the culinary classroom upstairs.

the market proper is spread out over the ground floor, a maze of over 100 stalls including many specialty providores who each sell just one type of produce, but offer astounding varieties of them. at the eggs stall, for example, suitably decked out like a barn complete with wooden sculpted chickens and ducks, your choice extends well beyond the usual poultry variety to include gigantic emu and ostrich eggs. the mushrooms stall is like a fairytale garden of delights with all manners of fabulous fungi sold by weight while the candy shop will make willy wonka turn green with envy with its plethora of colourful sugary creations in whimsical shapes.

don’t leave without breakfasting at bar pinotxo, a ferran adria-recommended stall that’s an establishment in itself, known as much for its silky cafe con leche (thick milk coffee) and catalan delights like cigrons (garbanzo beans with blood sausage, pine nuts and raisins) as it is for the owner, the always-smiling juanito. to find this 14-seat kiosk, look for its namesake pinocchio hanging above the counter.

la rambla 

boquiera is located along the 1.2km-long boulevard, with a big section closed to vehicular traffic, that’s lined with trees and populated by stunning period buildings tenanted by fashion brands, restaurants and cafes. all manner of street art can be seen here, from a joan miró tile mosaic on the ground near the liceu theatre to caricature artists and various sculptures. but take a closer look at the latter; many of them are actually human statue artists in elaborate get-ups busking for a living.


plaza catalunya 

stroll the length of la rambla towards the north and this sprawling square is where it actually begins, as do eight other main streets in the city. designed by puig i cadafalch, the same architect behind gothic castle casa de les punxes, the square came into being circa 1925 and is to barcelona as trafalgar square is to london. this popular meeting point is the ideal spot to take a breather and people-watch, shaded by trees that block out the frenzied traffic around and with benches placed near the centre to rest on.

if you want to take in all of the square and the city in one view, head to el corte inglés, spain’s answer to selfridges that was founded in madrid and has stores across the country. the outlet at catalunya is the largest and from their ninth-floor la rotonda restaurant, you can look out over parts of the city. grab a coffee while you’re here and find a spot on the roof terrace.


la pedrere de caxia catalunya
passeig de gracia, 92 opens 10am-8pm daily

recharged after that coffee and views, it’s time to hit the streets again — unless you’ve been distracted by the shopping at el corte that is. leg it about 15 minutes from the plaza and you will reach this antoni gaudi masterpiece, designed as a private residence and completed in 1912. also known as casa mila, it’s a cultural centre of sorts that captures the life of barcelona’s bourgeois in the early 20th century by way of a fully-furnished recreated apartment, an auditorium and reading rooms that promote barcelona culture through concerts, workshops and film screenings.

the attic exhibits the surrealist architect’s many works in detail but it’s the roof deck that’s not to be missed — a playground of the wildest imaginations, where alien-like “heads” crown stone columns and are linked by curved bridges to large honeycomb-patterned “bells”, and there are surfaces covered by ceramic pieces. join the night tours to discover “secret pedrera”, with options to include dinner at its in-house cafe and in summer, end your evening with a jazz concert on the roof.


le sagrada familia carrer de mallorca, 401 opens 9am-6pm daily, october-march; 9am-8pm, april-september; 9am-2pm, 25-28 december and 1-6 january

if you like what you see at casa mila, you’ll be positively bowled over at this roman catholic church that’s also on the gaudi trail and is still at various stages of construction — a process that has taken a staggering 132 years to date and has an estimated 12 more years to go. every single feature of the colossal structure reflects catholic elements, from the 18 towers of differing heights (12 for the apostles, four for evangelists and two dedicated to mary and jesus) to sculptures and scriptures decorating every square inch of the facade.

awarded unesco world heritage site status in 1987, some sections have been open to visitors for a while now, including a gift shop, museum and some of the towers which are accessible via a ticketed lift; you can descend on foot afterwards to access unique vantage points. the parish church held its first mass in 2010 and now holds daily services.

 <day 2>

picasso museum montcada 15-23 opens 9am-7pm, tuesday-sunday; free admission every thursday from 7pm-9.30pm; closed mondays except public holidays

pablo picasso may have lived most of his life in france but barcelona was where the father of the cubism movement considered his home. the artist himself initiated the idea of establishing a gallery of his pieces in 1960 and three years later, an early incarnation of the museum welcomed its first visitors. but the musee picasso as it is today only opened in 1983, a full decade after picasso’s passing. more than 3,000 pieces of his works are showcased in a permanent exhibition, which makes it one of the world’s most extensive collections of picasso’s art under one roof — or actually, five. the museum is spread out over five stone mansions built in the 14th and 18th century. come early to beat the queues and yes, there’s always a long one.


underground art

barcelona’s subway system is fairly well-connected, placing you within easy reach of the city’s top attractions. the metro stations themselves are often worth a second look, dressed in striking contemporary designs or doubling up as galleries for various works of art.

along the new l10 line, for example, you can view photography installations by ramon parramon while the drassanes station is a sleek showcase of organic shapes and furnishings that mirror the subway cars. there are three stations near musee picasso but it’s liceu that will place you on the right track to your next destination.

poble espanyol avenguda francesc ferrer i guardia, 13 opens 9am-8pm, monday; 9am-12am, tuesday-thursday and sunday; 9am-3am, friday; 9am-4am, saturday

barcelona is definitely a holy grail for architecture aficionados, who not only worship at all the gaudi landmarks but also make a beeline for this open-air gallery that was designed as an iberian village filled with replicas of 117 buildings, streets and squares from around the country and that showed off the various architectural styles. like plaza catalunya, poble owes its conceptualisation to puig i cadafalch and was initially meant to last only six months — that was the duration of the barcelona international exhibition 1929, for which this village was built. it proved itself so popular that its demolition never took place and it stands today as the city’s fourth most-visited attraction.


magic fountaion of montjuic placa carles buigas show times every half hour between 9am-11pm, thursday-sunday (30 april-30 september); every half hour between 7pm-9pm, friday-saturday (1 october-30 april)

from poble, a short walk will take you to this eye-catching landmark that, like poble, was also built for the exhibition. join the crowds in the evening and be mesmerised by the coloured lights, music and water ‘acrobatics’. the fountain pumps about 2,600 litres of water per second and performs up to 30 choreographed arrangements. it’s a true spectacle and a great way to end your day, and wrap up a whirlwind weekend in barcelona.


this article first appeared in crave/themalaymailonline on 19 oct 2014