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Hideaways & havens

Hideaways & havens
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First Published: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 52 AM IST

Lost and found: One of the last buildings of its kind in Penang, the painstakingly restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, dating back to the late 19th century, is open for tours once daily.
Lost and found: One of the last buildings of its kind in Penang, the painstakingly restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, dating back to the late 19th century, is open for tours once daily.
Updated: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 52 AM IST
When Valerie Wong takes a vacation, it is a brief one—and that suits her just fine. She has perfected the long weekend getaway. So far this year, she has been to Taipei for the Easter holidays, Kuala Lumpur over the Ching Ming Festival in April and Singapore for the Buddha’s birthday break in May.
“I do it all the time,” says Wong, a 30-year-old hedge fund analyst in Hong Kong. “It is great for when you just need to get away, to get a change of scenery.”
Short breaks of three or four days are easy in Asia—and alluring, given the array of cultures around the region. But what if, like Wong, you have already hit the well-trodden destinations?
Here are some out-of-the-way alternatives for your next mini-break. From the mystical aura of Indonesia’s ancient temples to the melting pot that is Penang in Malaysia, here are some easy-to-reach places—whether you are seeking a respite from everyday life or stretching a business trip into some time for yourself.
PENANG, MALAYSIA
By Lorien Holland
Step inside the lush Tropical Spice Garden, just past Penang’s main beach area of Batu Ferringhi, and whiffs of coriander, allspice, nutmeg, pepper and cloves waft over you. It’s a fitting introduction to this Malaysian island, which was a prosperous staging post for the East India Company’s spice route in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Lost and found: One of the last buildings of its kind in Penang, the painstakingly restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, dating back to the late 19th century, is open for tours once daily.
Today, Penang is every bit the melting pot it was those many years ago when traders, missionaries, sailors, settlers and adventurers from all over the world came to this state to make a new life. The 293 sq. km island in the Strait of Malacca is a fusion of Malay, Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Arab, Indian and European influences —from its architecture to its cuisine.
In George Town, capital of Penang, narrow streets of South-East Asian shop-houses—typically, two- or three-storey buildings that serve as home and business premises—give way to a broad mix of buildings such as ornate Chinese clan halls that house societies for overseas Chinese who share a surname. Burmese temples and Indian mosques blend with the handsome, Anglo-Indian style Suffolk House and the Anglican church, St George’s, an elegant example of Georgian Palladian-style architecture. Even the capital’s street names—such as Armenian Street and Rangoon Road—showcase the island’s diversity.
“The best thing about Penang is the variety,” says Alexandra Carey, a Briton who lives in Kuala Lumpur and recently took a family break on the island. “There are so many different things to do, from exploring Chinese temples, going up Penang Hill on the old funicular railway and bargaining in the craft shops to lazing on the beach,” she says. “And, of course, there is such a large variety of food to explore.”
From the Tamil Muslim nasi kandar (steamed rice with a variety of curries) to Malay asam laksa (thick tamarind curry soup), Chinese lor bak (fried pork balls in soybean sheets) and desserts such as shaved ice with red beans and sweet syrups, Penang’s array of food reflects its different cultural influences. Try the waterfront hawker stalls on Gurney Drive in the evening. The stalls serve all kinds of meat and seafood, fried rice, noodle soup, breads, sticky desserts and bright-coloured drinks.
Or go upscale. For a stylish European-with-an-Asian-twist dining experience, go to 32 at the Mansion, at 32 Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (60 4 262-2232, www.32atthemansion.com). This peach-coloured Italianate villa by the sea was built in 1926 by a businessman who made a fortune in tin mining. It has been refurbished and redecorated into a swanky restaurant serving Straits Cuisine (a name for the fusion food that’s unique to Malaysia and Singapore) and it’s well worth a stop. Sample the Mansion’s well-known favourites: spicy glass-noodle salad, osso buco lamb shank or six-spice barbecued chicken.
Penang went through something of a slump in the 1970s and 1980s after it lost its free-port status in 1969. But the upside was that many of its historical buildings escaped any modernization drive. The island’s fortunes have since revived, thanks in large part to an expansive electronics manufacturing base at the south end of the island.
A ramble through George Town might take you from Little India to Market Street’s spice shops, or down Love Lane to St George’s Church or to the Acheen Street Malay Mosque. The Penang Heritage Trust (www.pht.org.my) offers guided walking tours throughout the city centre.
Be sure to check out the Eastern and Oriental Hotel (otherwise known as the E&O). This seafront, white-wedding-cake of a structure was built by the Sarkies brothers (of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel fame) in the late 1880s and has hosted many famous guests, including Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Sun Yat-sen.
Just around the corner from the E&O is the historic Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, a courtyard home built at the end of the 19th century by a Chinese millionaire known as the “Rockefeller of the East”. The “blue mansion”—named for its indigo exterior—is one of the last remaining examples of southern Chinese architecture of this period. In the late 1980s, after the death of Cheong Fatt Tze’s last son, it was put on the market. But a group of Penang conservationists bought the house and it was painstakingly restored. It’s now a bed and breakfast establishment. The formal rooms inside the indigo courtyards are open for tours once a day, at 11am.
Penang also has beaches. Some might find the sandy strip of Batu Ferringhi (some 20 minutes outside George Town) heavily built up, but there’s plenty of space to chill out under the island’s casuarina trees. The Shangri-La’s Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa offers all the bells and whistles of a five-star resort with three swimming pools, a gym, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, water sports and a big children’s indoor playroom called the Adventure Zone. For a quieter, more intimate experience, try the boutique Lone Pine Hotel, which is also on the beach.
TRIP PLANNER
Penang is three-and-a-half hours from Hong Kong; two-and-a-half hours from Jakarta; 1 hour from Singapore and Bangkok, and just 30 minutes from Kuala Lumpur.
Luxe rating: Medium. On the high end, there are beach resorts such as the Shangri-La (‘www.shangri-la.com’) and Lone Pine (‘www.lonepinehotel.com’). There’s also the E&O in town (‘www.e-o-hotel.com’).
Family factor: High, given the beach.
The draw: Authentic Asian-fusion culture and food, plus sandy beaches.
Best time to go: All year round.
(Lorien Holland is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer.)
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LANGKAWI, MALAYSIA
By Lorien Holland
As you fly into Langkawi’s airport, you ?can’t miss the long stretch of white sand that this lush archipelago is famous for. That strip, which is right beside the airport, is just a tease: There are plenty of other, more secluded beaches that are nestled beside rainforests.
Cruising: View through a cave at Burau Bay, Langkawi.
A string of 99 islands in northern Malaysia that is home to fishermen and farmers, Langkawi—also the name of the archipelago’s main island—was off the radar as a resort destination in Asia until recently. Some islanders chalk that up to an ancient legend—the place swirls with mystical tales—about a young woman wrongly accused of adultery. Before her execution, she placed a curse on the islands for seven generations—a spell that expired in recent years. In truth, the area’s growing popularity as a resort area has more to do with its designation in 1987 as a duty-free shopping zone—a calculated move by the Malaysian government to promote Langkawi as a tourist destination.
Over the years, Langkawi has worked to become a popular vacation spot. There’s the Langkawi Cable Car that whisks you to one of the island’s highest peaks, Mt Mat Chinchang, for sweeping views of the Andaman Sea and the surrounding islands. A bike ride down the mountain and through paddy fields at the bottom is even better. It can be arranged through many of the island’s resorts. There’s also abseiling, sailing and canoeing.
Even so, Langkawi has managed to maintain a certain hideaway quality—it doesn’t have, for instance, the club scene so prevalent on some islands in nearby Thailand. And that suits most visitors here, who are after a do-nothing trip anyway.
Besides a handful of luxurious resorts, there are a number of little friendly places to stay on the main island, including Bon Ton Resort, a collection of eight old wooden village houses converted into stylish accommodation. If you can tear yourself away from your resort, go on an island-hopping trip by motorboat. Visit the Island of the Pregnant Maiden—its name comes from the mountains, which resemble a pregnant woman lying on her back, that surround a freshwater lake on the isle. Local legend has it that a fairy blessed the water after burying her child there and any woman who bathes there will conceive.
TRIP PLANNER
The island is a 1-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, and one-and-a-half hours from Singapore.
Luxe rating: High. There are several luxury resorts, from the Four Seasons (‘www.fourseasons.com/langkawi’), the Datai and the Andaman (check out both at ‘www.ghmhotels.com’) to other less pricey but chic places to stay such as the Bon Ton Resort (‘www.bontonresort.com.my’).
Family factor: High. Lots for kids to do.
The draw: Classic beach getaway.
Best time to go: Hot and sunny throughout the year, but a mild rainy season in September and October.
(Nellie S. Huang contributed to this story.)
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BOROBUDUR, INDONESIA
By Steve Mollman
Hidden for centuries under volcanic ash and overgrown by jungle, Borobudur was rediscovered in the mid-1800s. Now restored to its former glory, this ancient Buddhist temple makes a great first stop on a three-day break filled with Indonesian culture and some shopping (think gorgeous batiks) thrown in for fun.
Sanctuary of peace: The Borobudur temple—one of the greatest Buddhist monuments in the world.
Fly into the city of Yogyakarta, considered the cultural capital of the island of Java. Borobudur is about 45 minutes away by car. “It is such a peaceful place,” says Yulinar Ekasari, an insurance agent.
One of the best views of Borobudur—a complex of eight stone terraces stacked one on top of the other and capped by a monumental stupa—is from Amanjiwo, an Aman resort, a few minutes away by car. From the resort’s airy colonnaded restaurant, and from some of the villas (No. 9 and No. 24), you can see the temple nestled on the delicate green Kedu Plain, with volcanoes for backdrop. For $68 (around Rs2,900) a person, hotel guests get early access to the temple—sunrise is about 5.45am—before other tourists start to arrive when the complex opens at 6am (the resort will provide a guide as well, at $68 for two people).
Alternatively, you can buy a ticket for $11 and pay an extra $5 at the ticket booth for an English-speaking guide who will explain the temple’s history and design.
An option to the Amanjiwo is to stay at Losari Coffee Plantation Resort and Spa, a former Dutch coffee plantation. It is 2 hours from Prambanan, a collection of Hindu temples built around the same time as Borobudur that is also a World Heritage site. In the early morning, Prambanan’s high pointed temples look, if anything, more mysterious than Borobudur (some of the temples are currently off-limits due to earthquake damage).
You’ll want to set aside a morning for each temple visit. There’s little shade at either place, making afternoon visits uncomfortable. Spend the rest of each day lounging around your resort.
When you’ve had enough of temples, head back to Yogyakarta. Stop at the museum and the quirky former home of Affandi, a top Indonesian painter who died in 1990; it’s about 5km from the centre of the city (www.affandi.org).
For shopaholics, there are inexpensive batik and leather products along Jalan Malioboro, the city’s main shopping drag (tip: Bargain like a demon and ignore the touts). You can lodge within walking distance of this bustling road at the Melia Purosani hotel (www.meliajogja.com). Another option is the elegant Grand Mercure (www.grandmercureyogya.com), with a main building dating back to the early 1900s (the attentive service seems to date back to another era as well).
And there are other remnants of bygone days: “They still have becak,” notes Ekasari, referring to the cycle rickshaws plying the roads.
TRIP PLANNER
From Jakarta, it’s about an hour to Yogyakarta, and from Kuala Lumpur, it is two-and-a-half hours. There are no direct flights from Singapore to Yogyakarta, but you can fly to Solo. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive to Borobudur.
Luxe rating: High. There are several upscale hotels in Yogyakarta. In the same part of Java as the temples are Amanjiwo (‘www.amanresorts.com’) and Losari Coffee Plantation Resort and Spa, a former Dutch coffee plantation (‘www.losaricoffeeplantation.com’). It’s best to hire a car and driver for your stay and be picked up at the airport. Try Berlian Travel (‘www.tinyurl.com/6pwphf’). For $38 a day, excluding fuel, you get a Toyota Avanza.
Family factor: Medium. Central Java is all about cultural attractions.
The draw: History, culture and scenery—but Yogyakarta also offers shopping and nightlife.
Best time to go: May to July is ideal. Dry season is May to September. October to April is damp.
(Steve Mollman is an Asia-based writer.)
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SEOUL, KOREA
By Junho Kim
Korean hospitality: The entrance to the Rak Go Jae guest house courtyard.
At first blush, South Korea’s bustling ?capital city may seem an odd choice for a mini-break, but there are some hidden treasures to discover—and shops worth exploring.
Beijing has its hutongs and Bangkok has its traditional canal-side neighbourhoods. Seoul’s blast from the past is Bukchon village, a 600-year-old enclave near the city’s centre that is filled with traditional Korean-style courtyard compounds known as hanok. Typically, a hanok is constructed with white-washed mud walls, timber frames and dark-tiled roofs. The openings of doors and windows are covered with thin, white paper.
The residence of royalty and high court officials during the Joseon dynasty, about 400 of the village’s hanok remain. Some are private residences open to visitors; others house museums, art galleries, restaurants and boutiques.
In the middle of Bukchon sits Rak Go Jae, a small, 130-year-old guest house that boasts a sprawling courtyard patio and a garden with a pond. Each guest room has its own veranda, and beds are in the form of traditional thin mattresses on the floor. Guests get a taste of local culture through live performances of Korean music played on traditional flutes and stringed instruments, and they can watch traditional Korean cuisine being prepared in the restaurant.
About a 15-minute walk from the guest house in the area of Insa-dong is Kyung-in Museum, a complex of three museums, a cafe, a lovely garden and an old-style tea house, where you can try a Korean brew. One of the best for summer is a cold omija tea made from a berry known by the scientific name Schisandra chinensis that is also used in traditional Korean and Chinese medicine. It’s a taste sensation—at once sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy.
Cap off the day with dinner at Min’s Club (Min Ga Da Heon, in Korean), a restaurant that combines a hanok-style exterior with European furnishings such as club chairs (it’s located around the corner from the Kyung-in Museum). The food is a fusion of East and West, melding Korean spices and cooking methods with Western-style standbys. Try nobiani, a dish of roast beef and grilled pine mushrooms, and marinated steamed pork served with garlic mashed potatoes and chilli oyster sauce.
Now for the shopping: On your second day, jump into a taxi and go for a short ride to Myeong-dong, the pulsing centre of Korean youth culture and trendy fashion. More than one million people a day visit this area, which offers a variety of local and international brands of clothing, shoes and electronics. Most of Korea’s top cosmetics brands, including AmorePacific’s upscale Laneige line, have outlets here. There’s also an excellent selection of shops selling a spicy rice-cake dish known as ddeokbokki and other Korean street food. While Seoul isn’t known for its bargains, well-made but no-name leather goods are good buys. Try Dongdaemun, a shopping area —a 10-minute cab ride if traffic is light—from Myeong-dong.
End your day by hitting Rak Go Jae’s wood-heated sauna. Constructed of red clay, it is designed to leach toxins from the body, improve blood circulation and reduce fatigue and stress.
TRIP PLANNER
From Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo, Seoul is about 2 hours by plane. It’s about a 4-hour flight from Hong Kong.
Luxe rating: High. You can stay somewhere unique, such as the Rak Go Jae (‘www.rgj.com’), a traditional Korean style house with all the modern conveniences, or in a five-star hotel such as the Grand Hyatt (‘www.grandhyattseoul.co.kr’). Or the W (‘www.wseoul.com’), which is farther from the centre of town but features great restaurants and edgy design.
Family factor: Also high. There are plenty of things to amuse the kids—from street performers to changing-of-the-guard ceremonies at Seoul’s royal palaces. For teenagers, there’s the shopping scene in Myeong-dong, a centre of Korean youth culture.
The draw: Traditional charm plus cutting-edge luxury.
Best time to go: September and October or April and May.
(Junho Kim is an Asia-based writer.)
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YANGSHUO, CHINA
By Iris Kuo
It was raining when I arrived in Yangshuo just before dawn. But I did not care. Hours before, I had been at home in Hong Kong, with its choking smog. Here, the air was clean and fresh, even with the drizzle. As the sun rose, I watched mesmerized while the town’s majestic moss-topped mountains came into full, stunning view.
Eastern promise: The famous Karst mountains at Li river near Yangshuo, Guanxi province.
I had skipped nearby Guilin—that mecca for tourists seeking the jagged limestone peaks and dark waters of the Li River that are pictured in so many Chinese paintings. Instead, heeding the advice of a friend, I had headed straight for Yangshuo. For those who fly to Guilin, it is only an hour away by car and offers all the scenery of the better-known city—with fewer tourists and tourist traps.
Yangshuo is “just beautiful”, declares Seth Blodgett, a 37-year-old American teacher living in Tokyo who travelled here in December with his family. The town’s surrounding rice fields, mountains and rivers give a sense of “what China had once been”, Blodgett says.
The town’s old-world feel—“low-rise” defines Yangshuo, unless you are referring to its limestone peaks—may not last long. Travel aficionados have been buzzing about it lately. A survey of travellers conducted by the website TripAdvisor last October names Yangshuo as one of the Top 10 destinations in the world. And the town is fast becoming a popular weekend destination for people in Asia: Luxury travel company Abercrombie and Kent in Hong Kong says it regularly arranges quick getaways here for people who live in Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Elisabeth de Brabrant, an art consultant from Shanghai, went to Yangshuo with friends and family in March, after meeting a bicycle tour operator who raved about it. She sold me on the place with her descriptions of the vistas and the challenging bike rides. “It is up there as one of the best trips I have ever taken,” de Brabrant says.
Of course, there are a few irritating hawkers and crowded tourist attractions to avoid. But getting away from town is easy in Yangshuo.
You can head out on foot. Or rent a bicycle, which costs about $1.40 (Rs60), and be in the countryside in about 15 minutes. You will pedal past farmland, ringed on all sides by limestone peaks. At points along the way, you may even share the road with water buffalo, children and flocks of plump chickens. Or, hire a car and driver for about $30 a day through the China International Travel Service branches in town; add another $10 a day for a tour guide.
You can also take to the water. Hiring a small bamboo raft to ply the calm river under the stewardship of a local farmer costs about $8 a person. It sounds more dangerous than it is—the steady raft I rode measured about 2mx4m and included two seats for passengers. If you don’t swim, you might find it a little nerve-racking, but Blodgett and his wife felt comfortable bringing their two children—aged six and eight—along for the hour-long ride. Plus, the open-air raft offers better views of the limestone peaks than the alternatives—such as a cramped riverboat that seats about 25 people on wooden benches and costs $36 for a two-and-a-half-hour trip. The boat’s opaque roof obscures much of the scenery, so if you don’t get a seat near the small windows, you will miss most of the views.
My cheerful bamboo raft guide initiated me into the local pastime of naming the area’s many craggy, knotted peaks. As we drifted along the river, he occasionally rattled off names and accompanying myths. “There! That’s Frog Crossing the River!” He pointed, exuberantly, at a lump of a mountain poised by the water’s edge. Indeed, there it was—the curve of a frog’s back, a long, bulbous throat and neatly folded hind legs tensed for a leap.
The main section of the town is all of two bustling streets, with a handful of bars and coffee shops. At night, locals linger over bowls of noodles, and along Xi Jie (or West Street), you will find peddlers selling handcrafted jewellery, trinkets and wooden puzzles. Every night (except for a short hiatus after the recent earthquake in Sichuan province), there is a show—a must-see—staged on platforms and bamboo rafts in the Li River, against the backdrop of the peaks. Impressions Liu Sanjie marshals the star power of about 600 locals—children, fishermen and other townspeople—under the direction of celebrated Chinese film-maker Zhang Yimou (of Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers), who is also directing the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August.
Yangshuo is a serious rock climbing destination, too. There are about 300 climbing routes, ranging from easy to hard. Five routes have earned a 5.14 “expert” Yosemite Decimal grade, the second highest rating of a detailed system used in the US. A route of that calibre is for elite climbers only, says Scott Browning, a general manager at ChinaClimb, a local adventure tour operator (Tibet is known for its mountaineering—not rock climbing).
Other sports include kayaking, mountain biking and caving. If you are up for a field trip, visit Ping’an village, a 3-hour drive away (your hotel or the China International Travel Service can arrange a trip). There, you can see soaring rice terraces and villages occupied by ethnic minorities, such as the Yao and Miao. “In the spring, when the rice shoots come up, it is emerald green and these incredible terraces go on for miles,” says Gerald Hafferty, who organizes China tours for Abercrombie and Kent.
TRIP PLANNER
By plane, Guilin is 1 hour from Hong Kong, 3 hours from Beijing and 2 hours from Shanghai. From Guilin, it’s an hour by car to Yangshuo.
Luxe rating: Low. Lodging options in Yangshuo range from hostels to basic hotels. One popular spot is the Paradise Yangshuo Resort Hotel, at 116 Xi Jie, which has clean, spacious rooms and a central location (86 773 822-2109). For a rustic inn, try the Giggling Tree, which is run by a Dutch couple and is about 5km outside town.
Family factor: Medium. There is plenty for families to do: light hiking and biking or a mud bath in the caves.
The draw: Stunning scenery and a laid-back atmosphere.
Best time to go: April to October; the winter in Yangshuo can be damp and chilly.
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First Published: Sat, Jun 21 2008. 12 52 AM IST
More Topics: Asia | Travel | Penang | Malaysia | Langkawi |