Category Archives: Beyond India

Changi Airport: Check in and never leave

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Singapore Changi Airport was voted the world’s best airport fifth year in a row at the 2017 Skytrax World Airport Awards. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover why it is the global favourite…

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After downing our Singapore Slings and Ruchi thali, a ‘Best of India’ menu curated by Chef Sanjeev Kapoor for business class, our Singapore Airlines flight was about to touch down at Changi. The flight from Bangalore was too short to fully maximize the Kris World in-flight entertainment but we managed a few reruns of Game of Thrones. In all our travels and transits through Singapore, this was the first time we would not stir out of the airport. It was a challenge thrown at us by Changi Airport and by the end of three days, we hoped to know the airport inside out, much like Tom Hanks in The Terminal

As we breezed past immigration at Terminal 3, we didn’t even need to step out of the airport or take a cab to reach our hotel. A short walk to the left in the arrival hall led us to Crowne Plaza Changi, voted again as the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2017. Our stunning room overlooked the runway with flights taxiing by. The toughened glass blanked out the noise but not the view. Changi has hotels in each terminal. Aerotel boasts the only outdoor swimming pool at Changi (SGD 17) while Ambassador Transit Lounge offered deals like unlimited alcohol for 5 hrs SGD 58.85.

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After a sumptuous buffet breakfast, we set off on our tour. Changi is more than an airport or transit point; it’s a destination by itself! Amazing art exhibits, spectacular gardens, duty free shopping, themed decor and the world’s tallest slide in an airport; there are many things make Changi the world’s most loved airport.

Massage chairs are free, not coin-operated. Dedicated Snooze Zones underline why Changi is repeatedly voted as ‘the best airport to sleep in’. But its biggest USP is the ability to take away the stress of travel. Uniformed volunteers rove the arrival areas as ‘Changi Service Ambassadors’ to intuitively help passengers who seem lost or stranded. We noticed each terminal was conveniently coded with a different carpet theme for a sense of bearing!

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Mirroring Singapore’s tag as a Garden City, the airport is full of vertical topiaries and greenery, giving it an air of a tropical garden rather than a busy travel hub. The Enchanted Garden in T3 showcases nearly 1000 types of exotic flora landscaped around four floral glass sculptures with stained glass mosaic. Hidden sensors triggered natural rainforest sounds and blooming of flowers!

Each terminal has something unique for everybody. T1 has an open air Cactus Garden with The Traveller’s Cactus Pub, a favourite beer n’ smokes hangout for Australians flying to/from Australia via Singapore. T2 is packed with attractions. The Sunflower Garden has 500 plants happily soaking up the tropical sun. The Orchid Garden has a thousand orchids from 30 species grouped according to hue, form and the four elements – air, earth, water and fire.

Changi-Orchid Garden IMG_4033_Anurag Mallick

The Butterfly Garden on Level 3 is a magical space home to 47 species. A clear favourite with every visitor, it offers a chance to closely observe the entire life cycle of a butterfly – from the laying of eggs at the Breeding Corner, to becoming a caterpillar and finally metamorphosing from a pupa at the Emergence Cage. Butterfly-shaped Feeding Corners have nectar containers and if you dab some on your fingers, the winged beauties gently perch on your hand for a photo-op.

We headed to the Duty Free Store (DFS), a duplex wonderland of spirits. The Wine Reserve, the Cigar Room and The Whiskey House encourage travellers to sample and experience the products before their final buy. The Changi DFS has the largest selection of Blended Whisky with a ‘Lowest Price in Asia Pacific airports’ guarantee. You can even scan a bottle to compare prices elsewhere! After a whiskey tasting session, we sauntered to the iconic Raffles Long Bar for a complimentary Singapore Sling.

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There’s plenty of entertainment –TV Lounges, Entertainment Decks with Xbox 360, MTV booths and a Movie Theatre at every terminal with free screenings all day, all night. At The Social Tree, Changi’s largest interactive installation, passengers can click selfies, choose a theme and upload their picture on a circular video wall or social media. Interactive installations tell you where to go in the city.

We flipped the ‘Make it Your Singapore’ info-discs to discover interesting factoids and quirky aspects about the island nation. Kids went crazy at the Motion Silhouette Wall and LED Dots Portrait Wall which used motion-sensing technology, allowing passengers to take self-portraits against famous Singapore landmarks!

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Young ones can try their hand at woodblock prints with icons inspired by popular culture, designed by Singapore artist Justin Lee. Changi truly celebrates art with stunning installations. Kinetic Rain features 1216 polished copper raindrops dancing rhythmically. The giant Daisy shaped like a propeller represents Singapore’s importance in air and sea travel. Baet Yeok Kuan’s Birds in Flight is inspired by the migration of the Artic Tern while Jorge Marin’s jaw-dropping Wings of Mexico gives travellers a chance to pose as angels.

By the second day, we were smiling at attendants with the familiarity of being on a neighbourhood walk. It was 9 am, time to be at the serene Koi Pond, where we watched the feeding of the fish (they are fed again at 4 pm, on all days except Sundays). At every step, we discovered a facet we had missed earlier. Recycle bins were shaped like a Plastic Bottle, Drink Can and Newspaper to help segregate plastic, metal and paper waste.

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If you are a foodie, Changi ranks second after Hong Kong as the world’s best airport for dining. The best part is that Singapore’s top street food icons can be found right inside the airport. Straits Food Village, a 24 hr food court was awarded Airport Food Court of the Year at the Airport Food and Beverage (FAB) Awards 2016. It captures the hawker experience, with delicious Bak Kut Teh (pork broth and ribs) and Nasi Lemak (coconut rice with anchovies).

From Vietnamese style food at Pho Street, Cantonese cuisine at Imperial Treasure to Hello Kitty-themed orchid garden restaurant, there’s every kind of flavour on offer – even Indian food at Kaveri vegetarian restaurant! There’s Killiney Kopitiam, which started in 1919 as a little Hainanese coffee joint on Killiney Road serving Kaya toast and freshly brewed kopi.

Food-Hello Kitty theme restaurant IMG_4192_Anurag Mallick

Curry Times, Singapore’s best curry restaurant, started in 1956 as Old Chang Kee on Mackenzie Road near Rex Cinema. Their curry puffs with potatoes, chicken and egg in crispy fried pastry puffs gained famed as Rex curry puffs. Tip Top, another classic curry puff icon since 1979, makes great sardine and beef rendang puffs as well.

Since 1969, Fragrance has been serving traditional Bak Kwa (Chinese pork jerky) blended with spices and 18 Chinese herbs like ginseng, danggui and wolfberry. Bengawan Solo serves a range of cakes like Orange Chiffon and Pandan Chiffon, besides Kueh, Prune and Cranberry Lapis. With excellent take-aways and gift packs, they make great last minute buys.

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Those looking for a makeover or relaxation may enter spa haven. Get a massage at Be Relax or a treatment at Shilla Beauty Loft featuring top brands like Chanel, Dior, La Prairie and SK-II. The SK-II Magic Ring predicts your skin in 10 years with prescriptions for suitable products while the Shilla Duty Free below, woos you with its range of cosmetics and perfumes.

For long layovers, take the free 2½ hour guided city tour, jointly organized by Singapore Airlines, Singapore Tourism Board and Changi Airport. The free shuttle leaves every 15 minutes. If your transit is 5.5 hours or more, take the Heritage Tour to Chinatown and Kampong Glam. If it’s 6 hours or more, enjoy the City Sights Tour, taking in Gardens by the Bay and the Merlion statue. Just register an hour before the tour at the Free Singapore Tour (FST) Registration Booth near Transfer Lounge F in T2 or Transfer Lounge A in T3.

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Those transiting on the national carrier Singapore Airlines or Silk Air, even get free Changi dollars to spend ($20/ticket)! By Day 3, we knew enough of the airport to max the quiz and win our share of Changi dollars! I Shop Changi lets passengers shop online 2 weeks in advance and up to 24 hours before their departure from Changi. Your shopping adds up to Changi Rewards, which can be redeemed later and a shot at being a ‘Changi Millionaire’ in the annual lucky draw.

Amid all the excitement, you could easily forget to catch your connecting flight! Weighed down by our buys at Zara and Discover Singapore, we barely made it to our Singapore Airlines gate by final call. Strapped into our seat, a warm towel and a cold welcome drink in our hands and we were ready to say goodbye to the iconic Changi Airport Tower. It oversees the movement of 700 flights a day; one every 90 seconds, catering to 380 destinations worldwide and 58.7 million satisfied passengers each year.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies direct (4 hrs) from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities to Changi Airport, in the eastern part of town. Singapore is a great stopover en route to Australia with attractive flight deals. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay

Crowne Plaza Changi
75 Airport Boulevard #01-01, Changi
Ph +65 6823 5300 www.ihg.com

Aerotel
Level 3, Departure Transit Lounge, Terminal 1 (above Gate D41)
Ph +65 6808 2388 www.myaerotel.com

Ambassador Transit Hotel
Departure, Level 3, Terminal 2 Ph +65 6542 8122
Departure, Mezzanine Level 3, Terminal 3 Ph +65 6507 9788
www.harilelahospitality.com

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Where to Eat

Hello Kitty
#01-22, Terminal 3, Arrival Meeting Hall (Central)
Ph +65 6241 6127 www.hellokittyorchidgarden.com

Straits Food Village
#60, Terminal 2, Level 3, Departure Lounge (Central)
Ph +65 6449 3688

Penang Culture
#036-087-01, Terminal 2, Level 3, Departure/Check-in Hall
Ph +65 6546 7793

Curry Times
#B2-51, Terminal 3
www.currytimes.com.sg

Killiney Kopitiam
#031-001A, Terminal 1, Mezzanine Level 3, Departure Transit Lounge East
Ph +65 6214 1387 www.killiney-kopitiam.com

Fragrance
#026-034, Terminal 2, Departure/Check-In Hall Central
Ph +65 6542 4294 www.fragrance.com.sg

Bengawan Solo
Terminals 1, 2, 3
Ph +65 6242 3072, 6546 9835
www.bengawansolo.com.sg

For more info, visit https://in.changiairport.com, www.yoursingapore.com and www.ishopchangi.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 12 May 2017 in Indulge, the Friday magazine supplement of The New Indian Express. Here’s the link: http://www.indulgexpress.com/culture/cover-story/2017/may/12/singapores-changi-airport-check-in-and-never-leave-1473.html

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Bali: Temple Run

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The temples of Bali share the top spot on the must-visit list besides its beaches. ANURAG MALLICK goes on a Balinese temple trail to uncover some of these architectural gems

Ubud-Gunung Lebah temple Campuhan IMG_4052_Anurag Mallick

The sun was about to set across the cliffs of Uluwatu, the stony headland that gave the place its name. Our guide Made explained that ulu is ‘land’s end’ or ‘head’ in Balinese, while watu is ‘stone’. Perched on a rock at the southwest tip of the peninsula, Pura Luhur Uluwatu was a pura segara (sea temple) and one of the nine directional temples of Bali protecting the island. We gaped at the waves crashing 230 ft below, unaware that the real spectacle was about to unfold elsewhere.

A short walk led us to an amphitheatre overlooking the dramatic seascape. In the middle, around a sacred lamp, fifty bare-chested performers sat in concentric rings, unperturbed by the hushed conversations of the packed audience. They sat in meditative repose, with cool sandal paste smeared on their temples and red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears. At sharp six, chants of ‘cak ke chak’ stirred the evening air. For the next one hour, we sat open-mouthed in awe at Bali’s most fascinating temple ritual.

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The kecak dance, filmed in movies like Samsara and Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, was an animated retelling of the popular Hindu epic Ramayana. There were no instruments, yet the unbelievable cadence of intonations formed a musical underlay to the dance drama – Sita’s abduction by Ravana, Jatayu’s valiant aerial fight and Rama bringing Sita back with help of the vanara sena (monkey army). Dressed in white, a playful Hanuman posed for selfies before setting fire to ‘Lanka’. He kicked balls of hay with reckless abandon, drawing big gasps from the crowd. We had been warned about the notorious monkeys in temples, but this was something else!

We filed out of the arena in a daze, a magical start to our Bali tour. Over dinner at the seaside Mata Hari restaurant at Jimbaran Beach, we enjoyed more performances with temple dancers and dragon dances. Tanah Lot, another sea shrine perched on a rocky outcrop amidst crashing waves, was a 45-minute drive from Kuta to Beraban on the west coast. It was late, so we retired to our hotel Mercure Legian Kuta, to continue our Balinese Temple Run the next morning.

Pura Taman Ayun IMG_4112_Anurag Mallick

While Indonesia is largely Muslim, over 80% of Bali’s four million population is Hindu. The 5600 sq km island measures 90 km from north to south and 195 km west to east at its widest point. Yet, with over a thousand shrines dotting the island, one needs a plan to take on the Island of the Gods. After a hearty breakfast, our guide Made gave us a brief overview of Balinese Hinduism on the tour bus. The supreme all-in-one almighty god is Acintya (the inconceivable) or Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, composed of the trinity Brahma, Visnu and Siva.

There are four types of temples in Bali – public temples, village temples, family temples for ancestor spirits and functional temples based on profession. Farmers build a shrine of Devi Sri or goddess of grain in the fields; fishermen consecrate Deva Varuna by the sea. Every village has a pura desa for Brahma, pura puseh for Vishnu and pura dalem for Shiva. The Balinese hold sacred the philosophy of tri kaya parisuda – think positive, speak positive and act positive – to attain nirvana.

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From the bus, Made pointed out statues of Arjuna, Krishna and Ghatotkacha. Bhima’s son fought Karna in the Mahabharata war and is revered by the Balinese as a loyal, intelligent and powerful figure. As a flying knight, he was responsible for the air defense of the Pandavas and is thus believed to provide safe passage to all flights landing in and out of Bali! Driving past the roundabout dominated by the gigantic statue, we slowly climbed to the highlands of Ubud 400m above sea level.

Grabbing sarongs to be suitably attired for the 15th C Pura Desa Batuan, we learnt about the nuances of Balinese temple architecture. Temple layout is governed by the concept of tri mandala or three realms divided by walls – the Nista Mandala or outer courtyard reserved for waiting and performances, the Madya Mandala or middle realm for religious preparations with drum towers and gamelan pavilions and Utama Mandala, the sacred innermost realm.

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The main entrance or Candi bentar was split in two, as if hacked by an unseen giant cleaver. “That is the concept of Rwa bineda or maintaining balance between opposing forces. The left and right halves of the gate denote balance or harmony, a principle that governs our lives. Similarly, the guardian spirits or gatekeepers are clad in checkered black and white cloth,” explained our guide.

Kori agung, the gate between the madya mandala and the inner compound is an ornate roofed tower. Most puras (temples) have an aling aling or protective screen after the entrance to fend off negative spirits. It is believed that spirits travel only in straight lines, so are bounced off the protective wall. After exploring the temple and its various pavilions, we continued to Ubud.

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Centuries ago, Hinduism was brought to Bali by Sage Markandeya, who came from India with 800 followers via Borneo, Sumatra, Mount Demalung in Java to Gunung Agung (9944 ft), the highest mountain in Bali. Here, on the southern slopes, he established the mother temple Pura Besakih, the largest and holiest temple on the island.

Mount Agung is believed to be an embodiment of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe, whose fragment was brought to Bali by the first Hindus. Markandeya consecrated the pancha dhatu (five metals) and following the course of the Patanu river, he arrived at a confluence or ‘campuhan’ of the Pakerisan river.

Ubud-Gunung Lebah temple Campuhan IMG_4051_Anurag Mallick

Made continued the legend as we drove past the Sacred Monkey Forest in Ubud and stopped on Jalan Raya for a short walk to Pura Gunung Lebah, literally ‘temple on a mountain slope’. We halted at the temple steps near the spot where Markandeya supposedly sat in meditation, chanting mantras and asking the sick and diseased to jump into the river. Miraculously cured, they rejoiced and shouted “Ubad ubad” (medicine, medicine) and that’s how the place was named Ubud!

Even today, confluences are considered sacred by the Balinese who come here for purification ceremonies. Westerners come for yoga, Balinese massages, healing courses, rafting or hikes along Campuhan Ridge. At Ubud Palace, on the doorway of the royal shrine Puri Saren Agung, we saw Kala’s face as portal guardian. The serene lakeside Saraswati Temple was a short walk away.

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We drove 8km southwest of Ubud, where one of Bali’s most beautiful temples Taman Ayun, literally ‘beautiful garden’ sits in a serene park of trees and ponds. It is a pura tirta (water temple) as well as a pura wawiten (family temple), built by the Rajas of Mengwi. Its pagoda-like multi-tiered roof or Meru, represents the sacred mountain. An ornate sculpture of Lord Vishnu’s vahana (vehicle) Garuda stands proud, a symbol of Indonesia’s emblem and national carrier. It is omnipresent – in shops, the airport and GWK (Garuda Wisnu Kencana) cultural park.

Bali comes alive during temple festivals, which are elaborate affairs with ritual baths in rivers or ponds, processions, ceremonies and cock sacrifices. Every day outside homes, shops and street corners we spotted locals making ritual offerings or Canang sari, a small palm-leaf basket with flowers, rice and incense. It’s mandatory to include a trio of objects to represent the Divine Trinity – gambier or catechu (kattha) for Brahma, betelnut for Vishnu and tobacco and lime for Shiva. In Bali, there is divinity at every doorstep…

Canang sari-daily ritual offering IMG_4079_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there
Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport is at Denpasar, south of the tourist hotspot of Kuta. Flights from India take 8½–9½ hrs via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok by Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Garuda Indonesia. Ubud is 25km from Denpasar.

Temple etiquette & Tips
Wear modest clothing that covers your shoulders and legs; sarongs are available on hire outside most shrines. Do not enter the temple premises if you are bleeding or menstruating.

Where to stay
Mercure Legian Kuta
Centrally located and walking distance from bars, restaurants and Legian beach
Ph +62 361 9386100 www.mercure.com

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Where to Eat

Jendela Bali, GWK
Panoramic restaurant at Garuda Wishnu Kencana Cultural Park offering Balinese & Western fare with oceanic and mountain views to match. Ph +62 361 700 808 www.gwkbali.com

Sari Organik, Ubud
Organic café overlooking paddy fields with Balinese meals like nasi campur – rice, fried tofu, spinach, tempe (fermented soy cake), veg curry & chicken satay. Ph +62 361 972087

New Mata Hari Café, Jimbaran Beach
One of the many beachside restaurants at the popular Jimbaran stretch offering seafood, live entertainment and great views. +62 361 705 988

For more info, visit www.indonesia.travel

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the April 2017 issue of JetWings magazine.

10 Cool Things about Singapore

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ANURAG MALLICK uncovers the Big 10 as he indulges in the best that Singapore has to offer with this cool guide to the island nation

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For a country that measures just 50 km by 27 km, Singapore sure packs in a lot. There are enough attractions, entertainment, streets and museums on the island nation to merit a visit again and again. Here’s what makes Singapore so amazing…

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Cool Quarters: Little India to China Town
When Stamford Raffles developed Singapore, he earmarked ethnic quarters for various communities. Chinatown, lined with shophouses selling Chinese medicine and barbecued pork, has shrines like Thian Hock Keng and Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic temple besides quirky bits of history. Sago Lane was once called ‘Street of the Dead’ as old people moved into ‘death houses’ to save on expensive funeral costs. Kampong Glam, the old Arab/Muslim quarter dominated by the Sultan Mosque, has cloth merchants on Arab Street and shisha bars, Middle Eastern restaurants and boutiques on Haji Lane. In Little India, originally a European haunt, streets are named after eminent British personalities – Hastings, Clive, Campbell, Dalhousie. Europeans lived here in the 1840s, mainly for the racecourse, but moved towards Orchard and Dempsey. Little India’s location by the Rochor River with its grassy banks made it ideal for grazing cattle and vendors often brought their buffalos to shophouses to sell fresh milk. Hence, Buffalo Road! The India Heritage Centre retells history through interactive exhibits and Augmented Reality.

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Littering in the Long Bar
In a country that’s a stickler for cleanliness, there’s indeed a place you can litter – a National Monument at that! Inside Singapore’s iconic Raffles hotel, each table at the Long Bar comes with a complimentary bag of peanuts and it’s an old tradition to toss the shells on the ground. Five large sacks are used every day! Another tradition is to try the Singapore Sling where it was invented. Opened in 1887, the hotel was a haunt for writers, adventurers, tycoons and movie stars. Since it wasn’t fashionable for women to drink in public, the wily bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created a ladies’ cocktail disguised as fruit juice! In 1915, he concocted clear gin, brandy, Cointreau, Dom Benedictine, pineapple and lime juices and Grenadine syrup into the pink-hued Singapore Sling. While you spend more than peanuts for the original Sling ($36), the peanuts are free! www.raffles.com/singapore/

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3D selfie with masterpieces at the National Gallery
As if admiring masterpieces was not enough, Singapore’s National Gallery transforms two-dimensional art into interactive selfie stations. Visitors click themselves against giant 3D reproductions like Cheong Soo Pieng’s ‘Drying Salted Fish’, which features on the back of Singapore’s $50 note! Engaging hour-long guided tours by volunteers deconstruct works of local artists. Each tour has 20 slots on a first-come-first-served basis. The Building Highlights Tour (11am daily, 3pm weekends) explores the two national monuments the gallery is housed in – City Hall, where Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945 and Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew took oath and, the Supreme Court, with holding cells for undertrials and a domed Rotunda. Don’t miss the Foundation Stone with a Time Capsule of old newspapers and coins buried underneath to be retrieved in 3000 AD! www.nationalgallery.sg

Reinterpreted Spaces-Underground bunker now hip bar Operation Dropout-IMG_0628-Anurag Mallick

Restaurants in renovated spaces
As an island nation where space is limited, repurposing the defunct comes naturally to Singaporeans. Yesterday’s churches, plantations, barracks and underground shelters are hip hangouts of today. Lau Pa Sat, a Victorian era wet market was transformed into an open-air food court. Dempsey Hill, a British cantonment, is now a posh entertainment quarter with top restaurants like PS Café, ChoPSuey and The White Rabbit, actually a converted church. On Victoria Road, a Catholic convent is now a complex of bars and cafes. Built in 1841, the Church of Infant Jesus was renovated into CHIJMES, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the church bells. Ann Siang Hill was earlier a spice plantation of nutmeg and mace; today all the spice comes from conversations of rooftop bars. Besides Lolla and Oxwell & Co, hop into the uber cool subterranean haunt Operation Dagger, named after a Singapore Police drive to crack down on Chinatown’s notorious underground societies. The bar’s nameless entrance sports a secret scrawl like a gang sign. A collection of bulbs dominates the bar, lined with unbranded bottles mimicking an apothecary. Their cocktails – The Egg, Hot & Cold and Penicillin – are equally edgy.

Street art & graffiti
Street art in Singapore first became prominent at the old Arab quarter of Kampong Glam in the hipster Haji Lane, Victoria Street and Aliwal Street. At the Art Precinct of Bugis-Bras Basah, a low wall next to Peranakan Museum on Armenian Street is emblazoned with art commissioned by the National Heritage Board in celebration of their 20th anniversary. Nearby, an independent arts enclave The Substation has funky graffiti all over. Bras Basah Complex features ‘Rainbows’, part of a larger street art initiative by the Australian Commission of Singapore. ‘50 Bridges’ celebrated Singapore’s 50th year of independence with 50 pieces of street art across the island. Wherever you go – sidewalks, walls or pedestrian pathways at Clarke Quay – there’s art everywhere.

Food-Hainanese Chicken Rice IMG_0562_Anurag Mallick

Mind-boggling cuisine
From hawker centers, Michelin-starred restaurants to street food joints that made celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay eat humble crow, Singapore has ‘em all. Winning the cook-offs catapulted small eateries like 328 Katong Laksa and Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice into overnight sensations. In Singapore, the popularity of a restaurant is judged by the length of the queues. Topping the list are Jumbo’s award-winning Singapore chili crab, Song Fa’s bak kut teh (pork rib soup), Din Tai Fung’s steamed pork dumplings, Tanglin Crispy Curry Puffs and Ya Kun’s Kaya toast – crispy toast with a generous wad of butter and kaya (coconut jam). Kim Hock Guan, the city’s oldest bak kua shop established in 1905, serves the best barbecued pork slices. Try degustation menus at top restaurants like Pollen at The Flower Dome or pair signature desserts with sake at Janice Wong’s 2am dessert bar in Orchard.

Sentosa-Transformers Ride IMG_1251_Anurag Mallick

Experience ‘satisfaction’ in ‘Sentosa’
It’s hard to imagine that Singapore’s popular island resort was once a pirate hideout, a war outpost and a backwater of death and disease. After a complete overhaul and a public contest in 1972 by Singapore Tourist Board the island was renamed Sentosa, Malay for ‘happiness, satisfaction’, from Sanskrit santosha. You need a week to do justice to its attractions; thankfully the trams are free. Pose with the tallest Merlion statue and take in magnificent views from the revolving 131m high Tiger Sky Tower, the tallest free-standing observation tower in Asia. Stay at Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa at the western end overlooking Siloso Beach and get free tickets to a guided walk at Fort Siloso. At Resorts World Sentosa, an integrated resort with a casino, explore marine life at S.E.A. Aquarium and cut the queue at Universal Studios with a VIP Tour to experience dizzying Transformer 4 and Battlestar Galactica rides. For real adventure, try Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly or walk on a suspension bridge to the ‘Southernmost point of continental Asia’. http://staging.sentosa.com.sg/en/

Garden City-Singapore Botanic Gardens IMG_7431_Anurag Mallick

Garden within a city or City within a Garden?
As per the Green City Index, Singapore is the greenest city in Asia and it’s easy to see why. From tree-lined avenues to orchids and heliconias at the Botanic Gardens to vertical gardens at hotels like Park Royal and Oasia Downtown, it’s tough to discern whether it is a garden within a city or a city within a garden. At Gardens by the Bay, the dramatic SuperTree Grove channels rainwater harvesting to sustain thousands of plant species growing up the metal cladding of eighteen giant trees. Singapore has 300km of Park Connector tracks that meander around ponds and gardens. There’s even a Civic District Tree Trail that explains prominent trees around key monuments!

Changi-Butterfly Garden IMG_3960_Anurag Mallick

Explore Changi, the world’s favourite airport
Amazing gardens, slides, restaurants, shopping, artworks and as a bonus you can even take flights from here; Changi is more than an airport, it’s a destination! Many things make it the world’s most loved airport. The world’s tallest slide in an airport, Cactus Garden in T1, Orchid Garden in T2 and Sunflower Garden, Butterfly Garden and Enchanted Garden in T3. Uniformed volunteers rove the arrival areas as Changi Service Ambassadors to help passengers. Massage chairs are free, not coin-operated. For long layovers of over 6 hours, there’s a free city tour. And if transiting on the national carrier Singapore Airlines, you get free Changi dollars to spend ($40/ticket)! Snooze in dedicated Sleep Zones and discover why Changi is repeatedly voted as ‘the best airport to sleep in’. And if you forget to catch your flight, Crowne Plaza Changi was voted the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2016! https://in.changiairport.com

Singapore Flyer IMG_0315_Anurag Mallick

Night Life
Singapore’s nightlife is legendary. From the pulsating vibe of live music and animated chatter from bars and restaurants at Clarke Quay to throbbing clubs like Zouk, Singapore is a different animal at night. As the sun sets, tables and chairs crowd the sidewalk at Ann Siang Hill and Lau Pa Sat with alfresco dining as food and beverages are consumed with abandon. There are unique after-dark experiences like Food & Night Cycling tours, the Singapore Flyer and free laser shows at Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands. Pick up a ParkHopper Special ticket to visit Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo, River Safari and end the day with the Night Safari, an exciting tram ride through the world’s first wildlife night park!

Garden City-Tree-lined avenues IMG_4009_Anurag Mallick

FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct (4 hrs) from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities to Changi Airport, in the eastern part of town. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay
Oasia Hotel Downtown Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com
Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com
Crowne Plaza Changi www.ihg.com

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of JetWings International magazine.

Bucolic Bali

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ANURAG MALLICK experiences Bali’s rich culture and cuisine while uncovering fascinating legends that shape the unique island in Indonesia

Bali Airport Denpasar-Ghatotkacha statue_Anurag Mallick

At a busy intersection northeast of the Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, it was surprising to see ornate mythological statues of what seemed like Krishna and Arjuna in a chariot. However, unlike the calm exposition of the Bhagwad Gita, the towering colossal figure seemed not en- gaged in holy discourse but had a more warlike posture. Our guide Made corrected us and said it was not Arjuna but Ghatotkacha!

Built in 1993, the sculpture depicts the battle between Bhima’s son and Karna in the Kurukshetra war from the epic Mahabharata. Perceived as loyal, intelligent and powerful, Ghatotkacha is revered by the Balinese and is a key figure in wayang kulit (traditional shadow puppetry) of Indonesia. As a flying knight responsible for air defense of the Pandavas, Ghatotkacha is supposed to provide safety and spiritual protection to all outbound and inbound flights from Bali.

Balinese boys folding their hands in welcome IMG_4127_Anurag Mallick

While Indonesia is largely Muslim, most of the four million population on the island of Bali are primarily Hindus, with temples, traditions and folklore reminiscent of India. Interestingly, Hinduism was brought to the island by Sage Markandeya, the child saint who conquered death and wrote the Markandeya Purana. The story goes that he came from India with an entourage of 800 followers via Borneo, Sumatra, to Mount Demalung in Java. Plagued by disease, the group finally came to Bali and rest- ed on the southern slopes of Gunung Agung — the highest mountain on the island.

Here, Sage Markandeya established the Pura Besakih Temple, till date the largest and the holiest temple in Bali. Here, he consecrated the panchadhatu or five metals for the deity. Built on the slope of an active volcano, the temple miraculously survived the last eruption in 1963 with lava flow missing the shrine by metres.

Ubud-Pura Desa Batuan IMG_3964_Anurag Mallick

Meal with a view

We checked into our hotel in the tourist hotspot of Kuta and drove to the cultural park, Garuda Wisnu Kencana (GWK). The sprawling campus was covered with immaculate gardens, large statues, perform- ance halls and a souvenir store. But we were headed for Jendela Bali, a restaurant with a panoramic view. Perched on a hillside overlooking the city, we could see the lofty Mount Agung wreathed in clouds. It is believed to be an embodiment of Mount Meru, the central axis of the universe.

The three-course continental meal of salad, chicken spaghetti and dessert was punctuated with animated conversations on mythology — of Sage Kashyapa, his wives Kadru and Vinata, the eternal enmity between eagles and serpents, the churn- ing of the cosmic ocean, and how Garuda ended up being Lord Vishnu’s vahana (vehicle), and eventually a symbol of Indonesia’s national carrier.

Uluwatu kecak performance IMG_3875_Anurag Mallick

GWK is a great place to watch Balinese dancers and the famed kecak dance captured so beautifully in movies like Samsara and The Fall. However, we were off to watch the real thing at the Uluwatu Temple nearby. After being warned about the monkeys at the entrance, we watched the sunset by the cliffs before being ushered to our seats in the crowded amphitheatre. About 60 or so bare-chested performers squatted on the ground in meditative repose. They had sandal paste smeared on their temples and a red flower tucked behind the ear.

And then, all of a sudden, they broke into chants of ‘chak chak chak’, their intonations forming unbelievable cadences. As the clouds turned purple in the horizon, two ladies waltzed in. We browsed the pamphlet and learnt that the performance was a retelling of the Ramayana — the part where Sita is abducted by Ravana and Rama brings her back with the help of the vanara sena (monkey army). We watched in awe Jatayu’s valiant fight, Hanuman posing for selfies and fooling around with the audience be- fore setting fire to Lanka using balls of hay, which were kicked around with reckless abandon, drawing gasps from the crowd.

Uluwatu kecak performance IMG_3710_Anurag Mallick

The next morning, we drove 25 km north of Denpasar to the highlands of Ubud, stop- ping to look at master craftsmen of silver jewellery, stone sculptures and batik. The lanes were overflowing with stunning wood- en door and window frames, Buddha idols. At Sari Amerta, we watched local artisans use molten wax to create complex patterns on fabric. Little wonder that the UNESCO had designated Indonesian batik as a ‘masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.

At the Desa Batuan Temple in Ubud, our guide Made helped us grab sarongs in the outer courtyard before he explained the nuances of Balinese temple architecture. Guardian deities or fierce gatekeepers were clad in checkered black and white garments, which represents the concept of rwa bineda — maintaining the balance between opposing forces.

Bali Airport-Why gates are cleaved in half_Anurag Mallick

It’s for the same reason the entrance gates are split or cleaved in two, with the left and right halves denoting balance and harmony. Most puras (temples) have an aling aling or screen wall immediately after the entrance to fend off negative spirits. As per the local belief, spirits cannot turn left or right, but travel only in straight lines, and are bounced off as they cannot go around the protective wall.

A priest played the gamelan while locals offered prayers. Made explained that there are four types of temples: pura desa or public temples that are very large, smaller village temples, family temples where ancestor spirits are worshipped, and functional temples built as per your profession. Farmers build a shrine of Devi Sri or the goddess of the fields/grain while fishermen consecrate Deva Varuna. Every day on the streets of Bali, locals make ritual household offerings or canang sari — a small palm-leaf bas- ket with flowers, rice, tobacco and lime symbolizing Shiva, betel nut denoting Vishnu, and Brahma symbolized by gambier.

Canang sari-daily ritual offering IMG_4079_Anurag Mallick

Healing touch

In Ubud, just past the Sacred Monkey Forest, we continued to the Pura Gnuung Lebah or the ‘temple on the small hill’. It is said that Sage Markandeya came from Gunung Agung following the course of the Patanu river till he arrived at a campuhan or ‘sacred confluence’ with the Pakerisan river.

Here he sat down in meditation. Many local people suffering from skin diseases and other ailments came to see this holy man. Markandeya chanted some mantras and asked them to jump into the river. As soon as they did so, miraculously their dis- ease was cured. The people rejoiced and shouted “Ubad ubad” (medicine, medicine). That’s how the place was named Ubud!

Ubud-Gunung Lebah temple Campuhan IMG_4051_Anurag Mallick

After a quick stop at the Ubud Royal Palace and Saraswati Temple on the main avenue (Jalan Raya) lined with shops and eateries, a 15-minute walk past paddy fields brought us to Sari Organik. The view of jade green paddy fields all around and the delicious organic meal made the effort worthwhile.

The Balinese nasi campur — a rice meal with fried tofu, cucumber, spinach, tempe (fermented soy cake), vegetable curry, chilli sauce and chicken satay — was completely organic and sourced locally. In the distance, the tinkle of a baling baling (hollow bamboo wind chimes) kept the birds away, adding a bucolic touch. Back in Bengaluru, each time the baling baling catches the breeze rustling through the coconut trees, I close my eyes and I’m transported back to Bali.

Balinese organic meal at Sari Organik Ubud IMG_4027_Anurag Mallick

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared on 26 March, 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Leaping Tiger, Rearing Merlion: New experiences in Singapore

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There’s always something new to experience in this warm tropical paradise, discovers ANURAG MALLICK

Haw Par Villa IMG_0388_Anurag Mallick

The emblem of the leaping tiger on the gate looked oddly familiar… yet, the connection eluded me like the sighting of a big cat on a South Indian wildlife safari. I ran through all the wild felines in my head – it wasn’t the logo of a tiger park and enough Tiger Beer had been consumed in the past to know this was different. My itinerary, titled ‘Cultured Leopard, Rising Tiger: Finding Your Tao in Haw Par Villa’, didn’t reveal much either. I had turned up for a new walk curated by The Original Singapore Walks company without the faintest idea. And then it struck me…

A distant memory from a trek, a faded label, the smell of camphor, yellow ointment stains on the clothes; I’d be damned if it wasn’t the tiger from Tiger Balm! The guide Geraldine welcomed the group and led us up the slope as she outlined the tale of the two Aw brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par (called the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Leopard’) who transformed their father’s homegrown business that was set up in 1860, into an empire. “So what’s Tiger Balm for?,” enquired an Aussie visitor. Geraldine seemed aghast by his ignorance. “Shoulder rub, neck pull, backache, pain, sprain, congested chest, mosquito bite, anything and everything under the sun”!

Haw Par Villa IMG_0399_Anurag Mallick

On our walk, we learnt that Tiger Balm was originally white and labourers often complained that it was too gentle. One day, Boon Haw noticed that the jar of ointment at home was stained red. He learnt that his wife had been chewing seere (betel leaf), which stained her lips and fingers red. Her constant use had turned the balm ochre! In his eureka moment, the Tiger added a yellow pigment, the workers loved the new ‘stronger’ balm and the rest is history.

In 1921, Haw made Singapore the headquarters of the Tiger Balm business and built a sea-facing villa in 1937. Since the restricted entry to non-Europeans in Shanghai’s Huangpu Park was making waves at the time, the Tiger set up an elaborate garden and threw it open to all. The sculptures mirrored Chinese mythology, Taoist folklore and legends – from Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals and the Ten Courts of Hell to Commissioner Lin who played a key role in the Opium Wars. It was moral science meets tacky sculpture.

Haw Par Villa IMG_0441_Anurag Mallick

There was cool stuff as well – the 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop modified into a ‘Tiger Car’ with a horn like a tiger’s roar and the idol of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy after whom the camera company Canon was named. Sadly, Haw Par Villa was destroyed after World War II and the family business eventually sold. However, Tiger Balm is still a legend.

Besides this freaky tour, there was a new historical Battlebox tour at Fort Canning. Built in the late 1930s, the bombproof chamber 9m underground served as the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II. It was here on 15 February 1942 that the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British, often described as ‘the worst and largest capitulation in British military history’.

Fort Siloso SkyWalk IMG_1396_Anurag Mallick

For history and war buffs, the new Fort Siloso Walkway is a great way to explore Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. At the western edge of Sentosa Island just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, the lift transports you 36.3m to a viewing deck. The 200m long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea and harbor ending at the first of many gun placements. While entry to the lift and fort is free, the 90-minute guided tour for S$20 is worth every cent. Staying at the beach-facing Rasa Sentosa gets you a complimentary coupon!

When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found its location ideal for a trading settlement. It was at the crossroads of the monsoon wind and sailing ships could arrive here with ease. The early fortifications – Fort Canning, Palmer and Fulerton – protected the trading hub by the Singapore river. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a direct trade route from Europe to Asia Pacific. Since the Singapore river was too shallow to accommodate the new steam ships, trade operations moved to the deep waters of Sentosa.

Fort Siloso SkyWalk view IMG_1455_Anurag Mallick

Sentosa was once tagged Bulao Panjang, Malay for ‘Long Island’ and Pulao Blakang Maki or ‘Island of Death’, after the bodies of sailors killed by pirates that washed ashore. When the British first came here, many died and the island was hurriedly abandoned. What was regarded as the ‘Asian curse’ turned out to be malaria. But the need for newer forts made the British blast the mountaintop of Mount Siloso to erect a coastal fort in the west, Fort Serapong in the center of the island (now a golf course) and Fort Connaught in the east (which made way for Sentosa Cove). Giant pulleys hauled cannons up the steep inclines over a bed of logs, aided by Chinese coolies. Since the Chinese didn’t have a problem cooking beef or pork they also ended up being cooks! At the barracks, life-size models depict the soldiers’ life among cooks, tailors and dhobis.

During World War II, while the British expected a naval assault from Sentosa or Changi, the Japanese attacked through the Malayan peninsula, taking them by surprise. The cannons had to be turned towards land but the hull-piercing shells meant for ships didn’t cause much damage. The Japanese took control of the water supply and pushed for an unconditional surrender.

Fort Siloso Surrender Chamber IMG_1509_Anurag Mallick

The WWII Surrender Chambers recreate the scene of capitulation and show their clever psychological warfare tactics. Despite being fewer in number with supplies for only two days, the Japanese turned up in big numbers and in full military regalia to give the impression of a large force. The three years of occupation were the darkest days in Singapore’s history with mass executions on beaches.

It was only after a complete rebranding exercise that the island was christened Sentosa, after the Sanskrit santosha, meaning peace and fulfilment. With tourist attractions like Universal Studios and its amazing 4D Transformer and Battlestar Galactica rides, Madame Tussauds, S.E.A. Aquarium, Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly and Resorts World, Sentosa has become an essential stopover in everyone’s Singapore itinerary. You could spend a week here without getting bored!

Indian Heritage Centre exhibit IMG_0045_Anurag Mallick

Back in town, the Indian Heritage Centre had moved out of Little India Arcade to a new four-storey building. Inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) and mirroring the hexagonal design of the paved street, the glass-fronted building gives the impression of a jewel by day and a glowing lantern by night. The galleries span two millennia of cultural transfusion in Southeast Asia caused by waves of migration between 1st century CE to the 21st century.

Hindu-Buddhist icons, motifs from the Ramayana-Mahabharata, arduous sea journeys undertaken by migrants to distant port towns during the establishment of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore (1786-1824), their culture and contributions to Singapore form the broad theme. Armed with a tab and aided by Augmented Reality, it’s story-telling taken to another level. The headgear section actually encourages visitors to choose a pagri or topi for a selfie.

National Gallery Singapore guided tour IMG_7480_Anurag Mallick

The National Gallery Singapore which opened last November is spread over 6,90,000 sq ft and is the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks, it is also the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world. The self-portraits of Georgette Chen, Liu Kang’s Life by the River, the wildlife themes of Indonesian artist Raden Saleh, art installations like Matthew Ngui’s Chair are stunning, while Cheong Soo Pieng’s Drying Salted Fish, featured on the back of the Singaporean $50 bill, lets visitors click pictures against a 3D version of the same.

The gallery is housed in two national monuments – the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass and metal façade that seamlessly conjoins the two buildings in a make-believe bamboo lattice, it’s a delight to the explore the prison cells, Rotunda (round library) and chambers. The terrace deck overlooks the padang (ground) and the Singapore skyline. It was in the City Hall that Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on 12 September 1945.

National Gallery Singapore IMG_7556_Anurag Mallick

Adding to Singapore’s impressive roster of museums – the Philately Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum and National Museum of Singapore – is the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Part of Sir Stamford Raffles’ museum of Southeast Asian biodiversity started in 1849, it forms the current Heritage Gallery section with taxidermy kits, stuffed birds and Cabinets of Curiosity housing collectibles that survived World War II.

Tracing the history of life on earth, the twenty zones across two floors have over 500,000 Southeast Asian animal and plant specimens ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Highlights include the world’s largest crab (Japanese Spider Crab) and the smallest (Coral Spider Crab), trilobite fossils, three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale ‘Jubi Lee’ that washed ashore in Singapore in 2015 and was unveiled in March 2016. All day long, the dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half-hour.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9980_Anurag Mallick

Singaporeans love their laser shows, be it Wings of Time (S$18, 7:40pm, 8:40pm) at Sentosa, WonderFull (8pm, 9:30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (7:45pm, 8:45pm) at the SuperTree grove in Gardens by the Bay; both free to public. A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at 165m was the world’s tallest Ferris wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014.

While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take-off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and fully-functional aircraft controls. The Flyer also lets you reserve a pod for a private 3-course dinner. But if you’re not into ‘slow travel’ or ‘slow food’, hop on to the new Gourmet Bus to take your taste buds for a ride. Singapore always has a new trick up its sleeve…

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FACT FILE

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies direct to Singapore from Bengaluru, Chennai and other cities taking 4 hrs for the flight to Changi Airport, located in the eastern part of the city. www.singaporeair.com

Where to Stay

Oasia Hotel Downtown Ph +65 6664 0333 www.stayfareast.com
Great location, this new hotel in the CBD is close to attractions

Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Ph +65 6275 0100 www.shangri-la.com
Top beach resort at the western end of Sentosa overlooking the Fort Siloso walkway

Crowne Plaza Changi www.ihg.com
5-star hotel at Changi voted as the World’s Best Airport Hotel in 2016 by London-based Skytrax, with top multi-cuisine restaurant Azur.

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What to Do

Experience Changi
Changi Airport is a destination by itself with art installations, recreational facilities and the world’s tallest slide in an airport. There’s a Cactus Garden, Orchid Garden, Sunflower Garden, Butterfly Garden and an Enchanted Garden. The airport outlet of the Long Bar by Raffles at T3’s DFS (Duty Free Store) serves a great Singapore Sling besides awesome deals! Changi also organises a free city tour for transit passengers with a long layover (over 6 hrs).
https://in.changiairport.com

The Original Singapore Walks
D/Centennial Building, 100 Lorong 23 Geylang Ph +65 6325 1631 www.journeys.com.sg
Timings 9:30am, 2:30pm Guided tour S$38 Adults, S$18 children 

National Gallery Singapore
1 St Andrew’s Rd Ph +65 6271 7000 www.nationalgallery.sg
Timings 10am-7pm (till 10 pm on Fri/Sat) Entry S$20 adults, S$15 children
Daily free guided art/architecture tours (20 slots) in English from Visitor Services Counter.

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM)
2 Conservatory Drive, National University of Singapore Ph +65 6601 3333 nhmvisit@nus.edu.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$21 adults, S$13 children 

Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum Singapore IMG_9991_Anurag Mallick

Indian Heritage Centre, Little India
5 Campbell Lane Ph +65 6291 1601 www.indianheritage.org.sg
Timings 10am-7pm Monday closed Entry S$4

Flight Experience, Singapore Flyer
30 Raffles Avenue Ph +65 6339 2737, 1800 737 0800 www.flightexperience.com.sg
Timings 10am-10pm Entry S$175

Fort Siloso, Sentosa
Ph 1800 736 8672 www.sentosa.com.sg
Timings 10am-6pm Entry free, 90 min Guided Tour S$20 adults, S$14 children

Universal Studios, Sentosa
8 Sentosa Gateway, Resorts World Ph +65 6577 8888 www.rwsentosa.com
Timings 10am-7pm Entry S$74 adults, S$56 children, VIP Tour Unlimited Access S$298

For more info, visit www.yoursingapore.com

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.

When the twain met: Germany Reunited

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PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Brocken and the remote borderlands of erstwhile East & West Germany to bring back real life stories and anecdotes of the Cold War, 25 years after the German Reunification

IMG_9142Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

It was unbelievable, standing between two former Border police officers for a picture at the very border in Bad Helmstedt that once separated them. Decades ago, the now balding Helmut Maushake from East Germany and the grey-haired Lothar Engler from West Germany eyeballed each other in hostility; today they clasped hands like long lost friends.

Each held a piece of Germany’s post-war history and memories of a wired wall that was more than just a geographical demarcation. My weeklong trip took me to Germany’s borderlands, where locals narrated stories of an Orwellian past. A period that saw the clash of two different ideologies – capitalism and socialism, sparking off a Cold War between neighbours for forty odd years. Ironically, the Iron Curtain is now a Green Strip, with many of these stretches developed into national parks and historic trails.

IMG_9139Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

We stood at the wall’s western side marked by remnants of concrete that separated Bad Helmstedt from Beendorf. Once stretching for 1400km, it divided the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany controlled by UK, France and the US from the Soviet Occupation Zone of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. As things got strained, the wall became impermeable, affecting the lives of thousands. Pointing to the information panel, they showed us the uniforms used while patrolling the border, recalling how a mere step across the wires could set off an alarm and result in death.

On a November winter morning, we were invited for the launch of Grenlehrpfad information trail to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall and 25 years of German Unification. Today, the former border area near Elm-Lappwald Nature Park is a popular walking and cycling site. We trudged along a path carpeted by autumn leaves past a lake with ducks paddling around.

IMG_9102Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

Behind us, a board captured the ironic humour of the Bad Helmstedt townsfolk with the words emblazoned across the German black, red and gold tricolour – “40 jahre am arsch der welt, jetzt mitten un Deutschland” meaning “Forty years in the world’s ass, now in the middle of Germany!” We laughed and thumped our glasses of beer and scooped into bowls of hot goulash.

The contrast between East and West was palpable. Easterners seemed more wary and guarded while talking of their grim past. West Germans, like our guide Jens Becker, were light-hearted and open. A frequent traveller to East Berlin, Jens elaborated how one needed ‘day visas’ and ‘transit visas’ for the highways. “The visa was given in the East and once you reached West Berlin, you returned it at the border.

IMG_8868Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

Back then, they even checked how long was your drive from one point to another. If you took longer, they suspected you were up to something. So no stopping to admire the scenery, getting lost or whimsical detours!” he revealed. Helmstedt was a key border point to reach West Berlin and Becker pointed out three famous checkpoints – Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.

Driving past fields and beautiful brick homes to Grenzdenkmal, we met local guide Hans Gunter Apun at what looked like a bus stop; it was a shelter near the inner German border in the former Soviet Zone. “The demarcation line that later became the border reminds us of a period that started in 1945 and ended in 1989, when the wall came down”, he explained. Hans lived 3km away in the British Occupation Zone. In 1945, the border was marked by a barrier of barbed wires. People tried to cross it at night using the cover of bushes.

IMG_9178Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

Before the war ended, the victorious Allied powers and anti-Hitler coalition of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided that Germany would lose the eastern territories, be divided into four occupational zones, with France invited to occupy parts of Germany. Berlin, the capital of the Third Reich, was also divided into four sectors. In Berlin, you still see sideboards – Former American or British Sector. After the war was over in 1945, everybody was euphoric. At first the four powers unanimously administered Germany as a whole – socially, economically, politically. But that did not last long.

“Things changed in 1946-47 because of ideological differences”, Apun explained. “The Western allies had a different vision from the Soviet Union’s Eastern zone on how to organize public life. And that caused all the problems, friction and confrontations in the following forty years. The more the two sides disagreed, the more the East reinforced its border. They built walls near villages, towns, any habitation. But never on the Western side!”

IMG_8850Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

“We were allowed as close to the border as we wished,” Apun chuckled. “The West German Border Police warned us, ‘Sir don’t put your foot there – it may cause diplomatic problems!’ People on the other side were not allowed to even go near the border.” By 1961, obstacles prevented cars from crossing. The entire 1400km border had a strip of land 10m wide, which was always ploughed and raked, to detect footprints of potential refugees!” Apun remembers.

At Sorge, in the restricted zone of the former German inner border (also the smallest town in the county with just 86 people), we met the lovely Mayor Inge Winkel. She ran a small museum to keep the past alive, replete with a model of the region, original signboards, warnings, black-and-white pictures of border posts with a collection of tickets, permits and passes issued to people. A 13km stretch of the wall was retained as a reminder why history must not repeat itself. The town’s name, Sorge, meant ‘worry’ or ‘preoccupation’.

IMG_8898Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

Sharing glimpses of her life in the GDR, Inge rued how a special 5km stretch called Sperrgebeit was a Closed Zone where everyone was prohibited. It was cleared of vegetation and one needed a special permit if you lived there. Another 500m near the border was closed to all. Minefields were planted with danger signs cautioning people not to venture further. She remembers how some young people made a dramatic escape from east to west before the walls were reinforced. “We had a very hard winter and were hit by snow as high as the fences, so people with skiing skills managed to escape to the other side!”

A short drive past a railway track led to the entrance of the open-air museum showcasing Sorge’s actual border. The razor straight pathway cutting through tall trees could pass of as a scenic walking trail if it wasn’t for the strange stray relics around – wired fences, dog runs for patrols, and a perforated concrete cylinder that allowed water to flow but prevented anyone from swimming through canals and escaping! Further down the path was a watchtower called B-Tower.

IMG_8918Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

The trickiest part was that the high security border lay deep in the Eastern side and people coming from the freer Western side didn’t actually realise they had reached Eastern territory, for which they could be shot! The ground near the fence was always bare, often poisoned so nothing could grow and officers could check for footprints. We posed for pictures at the border fence that once emanated frissions of shock.

In the lovely half-timbered town of Wernigerode, the famous heritage train Brockenbahn took us to the highest hill in the Harz mountains. Being the best vantage to survey the region, Brocken used to be a high security area. A watchtower intercepted radio signals and an old domed listening post at Urian was used for Stasi surveillance. The TV tower and museum display old espionage and communication equipment besides geological history. Over 50 shows of the famous rock opera ‘Faust’ have been performed on the summit.

IMG_8423Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

The Brockenbahn chugged past fir forests. The foliage had begun to turn in late fall and we saw how the Cold War had left several tracts along the border undisturbed for decades. Nature takes over where man is scarce. The transformation of a virtual Death Zone into a place brimming with life was inspirational. Fauna that had long disappeared, now returned.

Today people walk their hounds, hike, cycle, picnic and enjoy peace and tranquillity that now pervades the region. Twenty five years on, the changes were more than geographical or political; the old border had transformed the emotional, ecological and cultural fabric of Germany.

IMG_8373Brocken-Priya Ganapathy

FACT FILE
Getting there:

Fly to Hannover and drive 122km to Wernigerode in Saxony Anhalt, from where Bad Helmstedt, Grenzdenkmal and Sorge are short drives away. From Wernigerode, the heritage steam train Brockenbahn takes you on the Harz Narrow Gauge Railway to Brocken in the Harz mountains. www.hsb.wr.de

Stay:
HKK Hotel Wernigerode +49 (0) 39439410 www.hkk-wr.de

For more info, www.germany.travel

Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 January 2017 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper.

Marvellous Melbourne: 10 reasons to visit

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Local markets, eclectic architecture, cool cafes, global cuisine, graffiti splattered walls and much more, ANURAG MALLICK finds out 10 cool reasons to visit Melbourne

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A planned city laid out around a central grid north of the Yarra river, Melbourne is a vibrant, multi-cultural place known for its love of art, culture, music and food. In this buzzing metropolis the old and the new meet in a delicious blend of architecture ranging from the classical to the whimsical. Bylanes are abuzz with the chatter of bars, restaurants, shops and theatres. With regular events and exhibitions at National Gallery Victoria, Victorian Art Centre and Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the city’s cultural calendar is packed. There’s lots to love about Melbourne and here’s what makes the city so cool.

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In CBD, the trams are free
The best thing about the Central Business District is that tram rides are free. When you are about to leave the Free Tram Zone, there’s a voice alert! Walking around the streets and bylanes is a delight as lovely ornate buildings dot the entire CBD area. In the rectangular grid, every street has an immediate equivalent lane from north to south – Flinder’s Street, Flinder’s Lane, Collins Street, Collins Lane, and so on.

From the western end, you have Spencer street named after the influential Spencer family to which Winston Churchill and Lady Diana belong. There’s King Street named after King William, Elizabeth Street after Queen Elizabeth and so on… As the local adage goes, if you get lost, all you have to do is think about the old dead monarchs of England.

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Laneway Dining
It’s a bit of a Melbourne thing to have bars and restaurants tucked away in alleyways, often without any prominent shop front or signage. Bar Americano is a tiny joint at Presgrave Place that serves good cocktails and seats only ten people at a time. Melbourne’s best Spanish fare can be found at Frank Camorra’s MoVida restaurant in the graffiti-splattered Hosier Lane.

Pastuso, the Peruvian grill and bar serving ceviche and pisco is tucked away on ACDC Lane. Adam DySilva’s Tonka presents Indian cuisine with a twist in a back alley at Duckboard Place off Flinders Lane. What they save on real estate goes on to your plate! Duck into any laneway and you’ll stumble onto something exciting…

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Street Art
Wherever you go in Melbourne, the streets are alive with art as if the entire city is one giant canvas. Corporation Lane was renamed ACDC Lane as tribute to the legendary Aussie rockers who hail from the city. Lined with funky artwork, fans painted the band’s trademark lightning bolt over the street sign because the city officials refused to change the nomenclature format.

Rather than chase kids spraying walls with aerosol cans, an entire lane was given to them in 2008 as a graffiti mentoring project. Union Lane, tucked away between David Jones & Book Building, is a great place to see local street art, besides Hosier Lane and Presgrave Place, which is known for its funky three-dimensional installations.

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The buskers of Bourke Street Mall
If you’re a busker, your ultimate platform is Bourke Street Mall. The popular location, thronged by the young and restless, has been running the sonic gauntlet for years and is Melbourne’s premiere spot for busking. But you can’t just land up here with your regular busker license and plonk your gear on the sidewalk.

Buskers must go to Melbourne Town Hall where they are screened, almost like Australia’s Got Talent or Australian Idol. The scene is very well managed and they can’t play all at once. There are three major points – off Elizabeth Street, Swanson Street and right in the middle. Unlike other street corners terrorized by wannabe musicians clanging away at pots and pans, the musical talent here is topnotch.

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Rooftop honey
One of the coolest things about Melbourne is its Rooftop Honey. All over the city 80 swarms of honeybee colonies have been ‘re-homed’ at unused roofs, balconies and gardens. Located at hotels, restaurants and coffee shops, the bees were resettled after their unwanted colonies elsewhere were saved from extermination. Being an agriculture driven country, Australia understands the importance of honey bees for a sustainable food supply chain as they pollinate agricultural and horticultural crops.

The reason why urban bee farming took off is the diverse flora growing in the city in comparison to the countryside which often has mono cropping. The result – truly ‘local’ produce of delicious honey unique to each site – Melbourne CBD, North of the Yarra to South of the Yarra. Buy test tubes or small jars for $14.95. www.rooftophoney.com.au

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Local sayings inspired by streets and buildings
Melburnians find a lot of inspiration for their aphorisms and adages from their cityscape. If you get out of a car or a tram onto a bustling street, people often remark “It’s busier than Bourke Street.” If you met ‘under the clock’, it was outside Flinders Street Railway Station. In the 1870’s it was fashionable to traipse down Collins Street in your glad rags and this fad was called ‘doing the Block’. When a shopping complex was built there in 1892, it was called Block Arcade.

Then there’s the building Buckley & Nunn, which gives rise to the phrase ‘Buckley’s chance (or none)’, rhyming slang for no chance at all. One of the biggest names in retail, (Sydney) Myer came in 1900 as a young Russian Jewish refugee who began by renting a small shop and within 18 years, he bought over everything. The 7-storey tall Myers runs all the way across Little Bourke Street to Lonsdale Street. If you are talking about someone who is too full of himself, they say “That guy has more front than Myer.”

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Reclaiming old buildings
One of the most charming aspects of Melbourne is the ability to take pre-existing unused spaces and reinvent them into hip venues. Like the switchboard room of the Manchester Unity Building where the controls were housed has been transformed into the tiny Switchboard Café. Postal Lane, an alleyway between Meyer and the General Post Office, was where delivery trucks took their mail in and out for 150 odd years.

When the Post Office shut down, some enterprising people started a few European style restaurants. Walk past the cast iron gates and dine next to signs that say ‘Beware of Motor Cars’ and ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted.’ Center Place, between Majorca building and Center House, used to be a rundown laneway where hawkers sold stamps, coins and knickknacks until it was converted into a warm intimate European style, lamp-lit alley. Today, it features in all publicity material of Melbourne!

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Exploring Vic Market
Established in 1878, the Queen Victoria Market is the largest market in Australia and the oldest Victorian era market in the southern hemisphere. Spread over 7 hectares in the heart of the CBD, its façade bears the figures of the Melbourne coat of arms – fleece, bull, ship and whale, representing the four major activities on which Melbourne’s economy was founded – wool, livestock, shipping and whaling.

Take a 2-hour guided Hunt and Gather Tour for $49 through The Meat Hall the oldest building with lively butchers and fishmongers who have been around for four generations. As the sign at Jago’s proclaims “We don’t yell to sell”. Walk through the Art Deco Dairy Hall and Deli for tribal flavors of kangaroo meat, fresh oysters, local cheese, handmade chocolate at Koko Black, Greek stuffed olives and more. Closed Mondays and Wednesdays. Ph (03) 9320 5835 www.qvm.com.au/tours

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Irreverent architecture
From the modern interpretation of Federation Square with shards to the slender spire of the Victorian Art Centre dubbed the ‘mock Eiffel Tower’ (it’s actually shaped like a ballerina’s tutu), Melbourne’s architecture is rich and diverse. All the wealth from the gold rush triggered a construction frenzy and in the 1870s, the city was hailed as ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.

Perhaps the most irreverent piece is the large clam shaped ladies’ purse made out of locally sourced pink granite and stainless steel by local artist Simon Perry. Created from contributions of the public purse, it’s a bit of an artistic joke that the installation is called the Public Purse. Pose for a selfie here or wait for a tram.

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Coffee culture
Melbourne is easily Australia’s coffee capital. While Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street started in 1912, is one of the earliest cafes to open in town, Melbourne’s coffee craze dates back to mid 20th century. After the second world war, several Italians and Greeks moved to Australia and Melbourne in particular. Aided by the timely invention of the piston-driven espresso machine by Achille Gaggia in 1945, the Italians brought the café culture to the city and Melbourne took it to another level.

With its laid back vibe, multi-cultural air, small independent roasters and love for the beverage, the stage was set for a coffee obsession that was only fuelled by the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Today, you could try The League of Honest Coffee for their single origin brews, the same blend of Vittoria beans served for the last 60 years at Pellegrini’s, grab a quick cuppa at Market Lane Coffee or try Manchester Press, Everyday Coffee, Proud Mary or Brother Baba Budan. As the sign at 1932 Café in the Manchester Unity Building states ‘More Espresso, Less Depresso.’

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies from India to Melbourne (13½ hrs) via Singapore – 4½ hrs to Changi Airport and 7½ hrs to Melbourne. www.singaporeair.com

Stay
Melbourne has great accommodation options – Citadines on Bourke Street is a great hotel centrally located in the CBD. www.citadines.com

Eat
There’s excellent global cuisine on offer in Melbourne – Italian fare at Grossi and Florentino, American Diner and CBD’s biggest beer garden at Trunk, Indian cuisine with a twist at Tonka, Hellenic ‘filthy food’ at Gazi and great breakfast platters at Heirloom Japanese restaurant in Citadines Hotel.

For more info, visit www.tourism.vic.gov.au

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in the January 2017 issue of JetWings magazine.