Ringing in the new

Mylapore

LocalOn any given Friday evening, Mylapore is at its festive best. Men dressed in white dhotis (unstitched cotton garments knotted at the waist and allowed to fall free), with thick lines of sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, stand in groups of twos and threes, catching up over the news of the day. Women swathed in the traditional nine-yard saris, with strings of fresh jasmine in their hair, are busy decorating their courtyards with intricate kolam (auspicious floor patterns) created with dry rice powder. And then there are the flower sellers and the gypsy bead vendors on the streets.

Some parts of this Chennai suburb indeed seem like they are stuck in a time warp. The feeling is especially intense in the areas surrounding the towering Kapaleeswarar temple and water tank, fine examples of 7th century architecture by the Pallava dynasty.

TempleLegend has it that the village of Mylapore – now one of Chennai’s most vibrant neighbourhoods – predates the city by at least 2,000 years. It has seen the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese and the British come and go. And it finds a mention in the writings of Ptolemy (2nd century AD) and Marco Polo (late 13th century AD) who made their way there. City historian and author Pradeep Chakravarthy confirms this and says that there are fragments of inscriptions inside the temple, which indicate that Mylapore was always an important commercial centre.

Glitter and glamour

However, ask anyone in the know and they will tell you that Chennai’s real twin deities are silk and gold. And these are worshipped just around the corner, the first at Radha Silk Emporium. At this century-old shop, which locals know as Rasi, ignore the modern collections and stick to the heavy, traditional silk saris.

Pair your silks with dazzling gold and diamond baubles from NAC Jewellers, just a few minutes’ walk away. If you are on a tighter budget, then head to Sukra Jewellery down the road for its temple jewellery collection, typically worn by classical dancers. With a base of silver, coated with gold and studded with precious or semi-precious stones, the jewellery here comes with a classy antique finish.

About kaapi and coffee

In the heart of Mylapore, your best eating options are Saravanaa Bhavan (70 North Mada Street, Tel: 91 44 2461 1177) or The Grand Sweets and Snacks restaurant, both Chennai legends in their own way. Drop in for South Indian snack favourites (known as tiffin) such as masala dosa (crepe made with fermented rice batter) and vada (savoury fritter-type snack), rounded off with a cup of strong coffee.

Just around this little nucleus of history and tradition is also a world that has comfortably marched ahead with the times. As you move away from the four streets that form an almost perfect square around this ancient temple, hole-in-the-wall dosa joints give way to trendy global fusion cuisine cafes and there are as many mini skirts to be seen as silk saris. And the average Chennaite comfortably straddles these two avatars.

BrewRoom

Take the Brew Room at Savera Hotel, on Radhakrishnan Road, known locally as RK Salai (Salai means road in Tamil). While homegrown filter coffee (or kaapi) is still available here, this new kid on the block offers coffees from around the world, from Ethiopian to Thai blends.

Lifestyle hub

For brews of a different kind, Chennaites love Dublin at the Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers. At this pub and discotheque, which stays packed even on weeknights, sip on a Guinness beer or Bushmills Irish Whiskey, in a nod to its name.

Lamandier

L’amandier Bistro (57, 2nd Main Road, RA Puram, Tel: 91 44 4282 7882; above) has brought fresh and light European cooking to Chennai. You will find the interiors cheerful and inviting, with a clever use of Mediterranean colours. And in a city that has for generations tucked into rice-based idli (savoury steamed cake) and dosa in the mornings, L’amandier dishes out a hearty and popular Continental buffet breakfast, starting from 7.30 am.

Chamiers1

In this area, Chamiers is your best bet for an afternoon of eating and shopping. A white bungalow set in tree-filled premises, Chamiers is an oasis of calm away from the sweltering Chennai heat. Pick up garments in hand-block prints and earthy tones from Anokhi at ground level, or splurge on some Kama Ayurveda skincare products at the gift shop on the first floor – look out for the quirky illustrations on the staircase as you walk up. After shopping, rest your feet with a tall glass of watermelon juice or a slice of rich chocolate cake at the cafe next to the gift shop.

For modern silhouettes and comfortable work wear in Indo-western styles, make your way to Brass Tacks. Designer Anaka Narayanan uses dying traditional prints such as ajrakh and ikat in modern garments to create interesting style statements.

Along the way, spare a thought for the way modern businesses like spas, salons, and boutiques are housed in stately bungalows of old: perfect metaphors for the way Mylapore has enfolded the emerging into its existing self.

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Published in the September issue of Silverkris, the inflight magazine of Singapore Airlines, as “Ancient Indian City Buzzes with New Life”
(temple image courtesy: silverkris.com)

5 must dos in Siem Reap

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

1. ARTY SOUVENIRS

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

Angkor art
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

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

2. STAY IN STYLE

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

Raffles
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

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

3. GET PAMPERED

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

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

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

4. AFTER ANGKOR, WHAT?

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

In the grip of nature

The face

And then it dawned on me...

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

Bantaey Srei
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

5. EAT AND MAKE MERRY

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

Fish Amok
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

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

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

Read more Cambodia stories on this blog here

5 Must-Dos: Hyderabad

In 2013, Lonely Planet had declared Hyderabad one of the must-do destinations of the year, describing its old city as ““Elegant and blossoming, but also weathered and undiscovered…” and therefore “ripe for exploration.” This is a piece I had written for the inflight magazine of Silverkris on Hyderabad’s attractions, culled from my memory of several childhood summers spent in the city and a quick trip early in the year.

From many issues ago in Silverkris, 5 Must-Dos: Hyderabad

1. Pearl-Fect

Pearls Hyderabad has been one of India’s best places to buy pearls since the time of the Nizams – rulers of Hyderabad until 1948 – who patronised pearl dealers from the Gulf region. These days they are imported from countries including Sri Lanka, Japan, Indonesia, Iraq and China. Be sure to compare designs and prices. For peace of mind, buy your pearls only from reputed shops like Jagdamba Pearls and Mangatrai. The stretch of Pathar Gatti is known for its array of pearl shops, the most famous of which is Krishna Pearls & Jewellers.

2. Old Quarters

Bangle BlingIn contrast to its twin and very modern city Secunderabad, located 20 minutes up north, Hyderabad resounds with stories from the past. For deeper insight into this world – one of quiet grace, charm and beauty – head for Hyderabad’s old quarters. The Charminar, named after its four towering minarets, is possibly Hyderabad’s most famous and recognisable landmark. The monument and mosque is located at the physical core of ancient Hyderabad, and stands on the intersection of two main historical trade routes. Andhra Pradesh Tourism conducts guided walks every Sunday at 7.30am. While in the old quarters, be sure to visit the 200-year-old market Lad Bazaar, where you can pick up bangles in every conceivable colour and material from glass to gold.

Lad Bazaar

Charminar

3. Biryani Binge

Biryani Along with Lucknow, Hyderabad is considered one of the best places in India to savour biryani. The subtly spiced yet flavourful rice cooked with marinated succulent lamb (or in some cases, chicken) pieces is a legacy from the days of the Nizams. In the Hyderabadi version of biryani called kacchi (meaning raw), raw meat is marinated and cooked along with fragrant basmati rice. (In other regions, the meat and rice are cooked separately, then combined and baked in a sealed pot.) Order a raita (cold yogurt condiment usually containing vegetables) or mirchi ka salan, the city’s famous spicy curry containing peanuts and long green chillies. The best places to sample Hyderabadi biryani are at Paradise and Shadab (21 High Court Road, Tel: 91 40 2456 5949).

4. History Galore

Don’t miss the once impregnable 13th-century Golconda Fort. Besides the splendid ruins, Golconda – about 11km west from the main city – is famed for mines that have produced the world’s most famous and coveted gems, including the 106-carat Kohinoor diamond. Catch the 6.30pm (from March to October) light and sound show, in which Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan narrates the history of the fort.

Make a trip to the recently restored Chowmahalla Palace. Plans for the palace were initiated in 1750 but it was only completed in 1869. The Palace originally covered 18ha, but it was abandoned in 1973 and after a long period of disrepair, only about five hectares remain today. Architecture buffs will love the palace’s mix of Persian, Indo-Saracenic and European styles. Part of the palace is now a museum, showcasing the opulent lifestyle of the Nizams.

Chowmahalla1

Chowmahalla2

5. This Museum’s a Must

Check out Salar Jung Museum, one of the world’s finest and largest art collections by an individual. The museum, established in 1951, houses artefacts owned by Mir Yousuf Ali Khan. Also known as Salar Jung III, he served a brief two-and-a-half-year term as prime minister of the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad state. The art connoisseur, who died in 1949 at the age of 60, amassed a collection of over 46,000 objets d’art and 58,000 books.

Be enthralled by the Veiled Rebecca, a stunning white marble sculpture that represents purity and innocence. Created by Italian artist Giovanni Maria Benzoni in the 19th century, its exceptional craftsmanship is most evident in the face, visible through a gossamer marble veil. Another masterpiece you should not miss is the clock in the central courtyard – a toy soldier appears to strike the gong on the hour throughout the day.

Veiled Rebecca

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Also read: Pearl of the South – published in South China Morning Post.

5 Must-Dos: Prague

A quick guide to one of my favourite European cities – published in the November issue of Silverkris, the Singapore Airlines inflight magazine…

1. DAWN ON CHARLES BRIDGE

Begin your day at the beautiful 14th century Charles Bridge and you’ll have it all to yourself without the jostling crowds. This 520m-long bridge over the river Vltava spans 16 arches and is lined with 30 Baroque statues of religious figures. Walk up the Old Town Bridge Tower – it opens at 10am – to enjoy panoramic views of Prague Castle and the river on one side, and the heart of the Old Town on the other.

Charles Bridge

Statues

2. GO GHOST BUSTING

If you are in the mood for some chills and thrills, go ghost hunting at night. Every corner of Prague seems to have hidden secrets of the supernatural kind, and there are a variety of walks to help you discover these mysteries. Some even come with costumed guides, perhaps to help you cope with the disappointment of not actually spotting an ethereal being. These guides have enough tales up their sleeves to keep your pulse racing for the next few days. Choose from an Old Town & Underground After Dark Tour or a Ghost Boat Tour that takes you to dark places on land and on water.

Ghost tours

3. KOOKY STRUCTURES

In Prague, the two extremes of classical and quirky architecture coexist peacefully. The Dancing Building – locally known as Ginger (Rogers) and Fred (Astaire) – is an example of the latter, built in a twisted shape to resemble two dancers. The building houses the modern French restaurant Celeste – go for its tasting menu. And to see rather startling sculptures of babies “crawling” up a tall tower, head to Tower Park Prague , a relic from the communist era, formerly known as the Zizkov TV Tower. There is a buzz around this renovated tower, particularly the Oblaca Restaurant located at 66m. When the great views and modern Czech cuisine (like the poached rabbit leg with herbs) have satiated your appetite, head up to the Observatory at 93m for an interactive show of sound and images featuring different aspects of Prague.

Tower Park
(image courtesy: Silverkris)

fred-and-ginger-building

(image courtesy: trekearth)

4. SAY CHEERS

It is well known that the Czech Republic is home to beer brands like Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar. However, the city is also known for its microbreweries, favoured by the locals. The hilltop Strahov Monastery Brewery, dating back to the 13th century, makes for an ideal evening out. Its dark St Norbert and semi-dark Amber lagers come highly recommended. Also tuck into international fare like beer-flavoured cheese and spare ribs in beer marinade, made with the frothy brew.

Czech beer

(image courtesy: Silverkris)

5. CASTLE CHARM

Prague is called the City of a Thousand Spires, and of them all, Prague Castle is the most striking and significant. This UNESCO World Heritage site, said to be the largest castle complex in the world, dominates the city’s skyline. The mishmash of styles in the numerous churches, courtyards and palaces inside the complex speak of the various royal influences over the centuries. The highlight is the Gothic-style St Vitus Cathedral, with its stunning stained glass windows and the ornately decorated St Wenceslas Chapel. Take a leisurely stroll down Mala Strana (Lesser Town), stopping for coffee at one of the street cafes located right under the castle, on the way back to the city centre.

Church

PRAGUE: FUN FACTOIDS

1. When most of Europe was destroyed by World War II, Prague escaped almost without any damage. It was intended to be preserved as Europe’s arts and culture capital.

2. Prague boasts of the highest per capita beer consumption, a staggering 161 litres of beer per person, leaving behind other guzzlers like Germany and Belgium.

3. The city is home to a John Lennon Wall, although the musician has never visited the country. The graffiti-covered wall close to Charles Bridge once stood for the voice of the city’s youth against the oppressive Communist regime. Today, it still enjoys its place under the Czech sun, with visitors and locals alike leaving their mark on it for posterity.

4. Puppetry is a popular entertainment option in Prague and enjoys a long and rich history. The best shows are to be found at the National Marionette Theatre, with its fabulous productions of Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.

5. The Astronomical Clock in the old town square is 600 years old and is still one of Prague’s biggest tourist attractions. On the dot of every hour, a whole performance is set in motion with the figures surrounding the clock, which ends with the ringing of the massive bell on top of the tower.

Clockwork couriers

It is 8.30 am and I am almost running, trying to keep pace with dabbawalla Kiran Gawande as he purposefully navigates, on foot, the narrow lanes of central Mumbai’s Lower Parel area. He has already been up and about for two hours, and has travelled by train from the distant northern suburb of Goregaon. For the next two hours, he will go through his usual routine of picking up dabbas on his route, from upscale apartments and small homes alike.

Dabbas are lunch containers, usually with two or three smaller steel containers inside, each carrying a different food item like roti (Indian-style flatbread), dal (lentils) and sabzi (vegetables). The dabba is kept ready for pick up by wallas (service providers). Among middle income families, eating out every day is not an option due to financial constraints. Culturally too, Indians prefer home-cooked food. This keeps the dabbawallas in business.

Gawande is unperturbed when I ask him about competition from restaurants and fast food places. He says, “People don’t like to eat out daily, no? That’s why our business is still strong; nothing like home-cooked food.” For those without access to home cooking, there are small catering canteens such as the Health Awareness Centre founded by nutritionist Vijaya Venkat in 1989. The idea was to promote the cause of healthy living among her clients through specific kinds of food.

A typical dabba from such a place will cost the customer about 3,750 rupees (US$70) per month. But if the food comes from the customer’s home and only has to be collected and delivered, then the charges range from 400 to 500 rupees each month.

Read on for my story on Mumbai’s awe-inspiring dabbawalas in the November issue of Silverkris, Singapore Airlines’ inflight magazine…

At the train station, loading the dabbas to their final destination…

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