Monday, January 8, 2007

Lonely Planet: Opportunity of a Lifetime

If you've ever wanted to be a travel writer you must enter this contest. By recommending your travel experiences on the Lonely Planet bluelist you can travel around the world with experienced Lonely Planet writers, giving yourself the opportunity to be commissioned as an official Lonely Planet writer.

Sounds good to me.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Singapore: What Are You Doing New Year's, New Year's Eve?

On New Year's Eve I had a 22 hour layover in Singapore. Even though the Singapore airport is a really great place, I decided to get a hotel room, eat some local foods and go out on the town. A friend of mine suggested the Hotel Phoenix, which is a good, fairly inexpensive hotel located in the center of the shopping haven that is Orchard Road. When I arrived, they were out of regular rooms, so they gladly upgraded me to a suite with a massage chair, cozy living area and a great view of the city. The concierge helped me find a good Chinese restaurant, a nice bar in Clarke Quay and some Kaya toast for breakfast the next morning.

Clarke Quay is an interesting area on the river that is host to numerous bars and has fireworks for New Year's. There is basically every type of crowd you can imagine, so you're sure to find someplace you will enjoy spending your time. I ended up at a Blues Bar, the Crazy Elephant, which had live music, pool, ex-pats and plenty of Tiger Beer. Mean Jean & The Blues Machine was playing. Mean Jean is basically a refined version of the late Janis Joplin. Her voice is practically identical and only lacks the characteristic cracks that made Janis so unique. At the Crazy Elephant, I also had the opportunity to see stylish Singapore kids, get badly beat at pool and meet a few nice people that offered to show me the local perspective of the city the next day.

Singapore Must Do: Eat Kaya toast and drink Singapore coffee for breakfast, it's fantastically yummy!

On New Year's Day I spent most of my time shopping on Orchard Road. The majority of the shops are the same as what you can find in any large US city. But, there are some unique finds in the midst of it all, so don't worry. Here are some of the shops I liked best. Just keep in mind, nothing is really all that cheap in Singapore.

Takashimaya Shopping Center
This shopping center houses many upscale designer shops that you would find on 5th Avenue and Rodeo Drive. However, there are some stores that you won't find in the US as well and those are the best places to look for in this area.

Bin House, Indonesian Creation
This small boutique store has beautiful (and easy to wear) Asian inspired tops, skirts, pants and accessories. The store manager is extremely friendly and may offer you a snack. I found a lovely skirt designed like fisherman pants at the waist. You will be sick of seeing me wear it in the near future.

Une Nana Cool
I just found out this store is owned by Wacaol (figures!), but it still has some very tasteful, uniquely designed undergarments, pajamas and camisoles that you won't find at home.

The clothing wasn't very special at this store, but there are quite a few unique accessories, including necklaces, belts, headbands and shoes that are worth taking a look at.

Kinokuniya Book Store
This book store is quite large and has a great variety of English, Chinese and Japanese-language books. They had some really beautiful design books (my favorite was one on interior lighting) that are perfect for the coffee table. I was, however, a little disappointed in their selection of stationery.

Tax-free Shopping
Every time you spend more than 100 Singapore dollars ask for a tax form that you can turn in with your receipt at the airport for a reimbursement of the taxes you were just charged on your purchase. Without this form you will be out of luck.

Singapore Sling: New Year's Eve Mix
1. Paper Bag, Fiona Apple
2. Gold Lion, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
3. Fake Tales of San Francisco, Arctic Monkeys
4. Napoleon Says, Phoenix
5. This Charming Man, The Stars
6. Be Good, Tokyo Police Club
7. I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, Arctic Monkeys
8. Just a Man With a Job, The Rakes
9. One Time Too Many, Phoenix
10. Battle Without Honor or Humanity, Tomoyasu Hotel

Photography by me.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

I Say Bombay, You Say Mumbai

Bombay (now properly called Mumbai) is a city of great contrast. One minute you can be surrounded by poverty and the next minute you can be in a cozy restaurant enjoying great food and wine. About 60% of the population lives in the slums. Most other people live comfortably in large apartments, and they typically have drivers and servants (such as a cook). Meals are usually really cheap or fairly expensive. And most visitors of the city are said to either love or hate it.

I would say that I qualify as someone who was able to love the city. While there I was able to relax and enjoy what it has to offer, both inexpensive and pricey. I was also blessed to have both the tourist perspective (Lonely Planet guidebook) and a local from Bombay (close friend of a co-worker) to help show me the way.

Rather than bore you with the many details of my trip, below I am going to list the things I liked most about Bombay during the two full days that I had to enjoy it.

Very Inexpensive:

The Bombay Burger
This street food only cost me about $0.15 US. It's made with breaded and fried potato slices on a sweet roll with spicy sauce.
And it's so good that Pramit was asked to bring one back on the plane for a friend, who gladly ate it cold (and I'm guessing soggy).

Shopping in Fort/Colaba Neighborhoods
You'll find very inexpensive scarves, necklaces, t-shirts, leather sandals and anything touristy. I did some bargaining, but at a certain point it doesn't feel worth it to make a fuss over what's only worth $1 to you, even if they are technically trying to rip you off by their standards.

Traditional Masala Chai Tea
I've had a lot of chai tea and none of it compares to what you get in Mumbai. The Tea Centre has a shop inside where you can stock up on various Indian teas (Kashmiri, Darjeeling, Cardamom and more) for 1/5 of the cost that you would pay in the US.

Masala Dosa (usually in South Indian restaurants)
The dosa is basically a crepe made with ground rice and lentils. The masala is a tasty potato, onion and curry mixture that goes inside the dosa. Masala + dosa = yum!

More Expensive (similar to prices in the US for quality items):

Salt Water Grill
A sandy, outdoor, waterfront restaurant and bar with great views of the Queen's Necklace (the curved lights along the coast). I was there for drinks and conversation, but I hear the food is excellent as well.

Sabyasachi is a really great clothing designer and not just by Indian standards. You won't find any sequins here! Do your research on stores and find a backup, the store I tried (Kimaya) was completely out of stock. The designer fashion prices are more palatable while you're in India, so it's worth the effort. Right now only one store in the US (Malgosia in LA) sells his stuff and it runs about $1000 for a dress.

Taj Hotel
If you don't mind spending over $250+/night on your hotel room then it's worth it to upgrade, even if it's not the Taj, there is a really big difference in the quality of a $125 room vs. a $250 room in Mumbai. The Taj is by all the tourist attractions (and is one itself) and also has a lot of its own great amenities such as a spa, pool, upscale shopping, restaurants, salon, gym and more. Book very early, I missed out on the nicer hotels because high season is also wedding season.

A laid back restaurant with tasty Italian and Spanish influenced food and beverage. The main draw seems to be the atmosphere, Bollywood stars and fashion designers (Nisheel spotted one while we were there) frequent the popular white-walled location.

So, as you can see, I found a lot of things to love about Bombay in a very short period of time. I'm sure there are 1,000 other great places to shop, eat and just generally enjoy. Now if only I could find the time.

Destination Reading: Shantaram (by the anything but boring Gregory David Roberts)

Photography by me (except the Sabyasachi runway show, which I did not attend).