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On Assignment in Hua Hin

“There’s not much there.” I looked on in surprise as a coworker wrinkled his nose at the memory of a trip to Hua Hin some years ago. That harsh pronouncement didn’t bode well for my own upcoming assignment during the middle of Thailand’s monsoon season – we had similar tastes in travel and the resort town roughly 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Bangkok wasn’t exactly on my wish list. Read more

An Afternoon at Ancol

Jakarta is not a beautiful place. Not, at least, in the conventional sense. No decent travel publication would describe this gridlocked, teeming megalopolis of 10 million people – or 28 million if you include the surrounding suburbs and smaller cities – as “picturesque”, “stunning”, or “postcard-perfect”. Unlucky commuters associate the Indonesian capital with unbearable, hours-long traffic jams; civil engineers proclaim it the fastest-sinking city on the planet; and environmentalists warn of Jakarta’s worsening air and plastic pollution. In short, it is not the kind of place most people would fly halfway around the world to see. Read more

Lost in Buriram, Northeast Thailand

Barreling down a four-lane Thai highway on the back of a motorcycle, sans helmet, I wondered what on earth I was doing. Riding pillion was a risk I would never have taken back home in Jakarta – and yet there was no denying the thrill of feeling the wind on my face as we breezed past warehouses and low-slung cafés toward a monumental bronze likeness of King Rama I, presiding over Buriram’s main roundabout from atop a war elephant. Read more

A Visit to the Embassy

As a young immigration officer flipped through my passport at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport last month, I saw a look of mild confusion cross her face. Eventually she turned to the last remaining blank page and held it up for me to see. “Can I stamp here?” she shyly asked. “Yes, of course,” I smiled. With that, there would be just enough room for the entry and exit stamps I’d be given on a work trip to the Philippines a couple weeks later. My passport had simply run out of space. Read more

The Chocolate Queen of the Philippines

As tears stream down Raquel Choa’s face, I wonder what grievous deed I have done – or hurtful words I have uttered – to make her cry at our first meeting. The chocolate maker has been telling me how she developed a deep love of cacao during some of the toughest times of her life. “I don’t know why I cried,” Raquel says, wiping away the tears with a tissue. “I was also sharing this with a group of six people yesterday, but no teardrops fell from my eyes. I can feel that you have an open heart and you embraced the story.” Read more

Spanish Whispers in Cebu

When Ferdinand Magellan witnessed the sunrise from the deck of the Trinidad on April 27, 1521, he scarcely knew it would be his last. In the distance, the large coral outcrop of Mactan Island beckoned with a strip of powdery, cream-colored sand lapped by rippling cyan waters – the kind of tropical idyll that sun-starved modern travelers go halfway around the world to see. But the celebrated Portuguese explorer was here in the service of Spain, midway through an epic circumnavigation of the globe. His more immediate mission was to fight on behalf of his newfound friend and ally Rajah Humabon, the chieftain of a nearby port town named Zubu. Read more

The Philippines at Last

Growing up, as many Hong Kongers do, in a home with a live-in nanny from the Philippines, I was exposed to Filipino food and culture from a very young age. Lynn Che Che (literally “Elder Sister Lynn” in Cantonese) arrived on the scene when my parents and sister lived in Singapore; my brother and I were still in our mother’s womb at the time. With twins on the way, a mischievous toddler to take care of, and my father working long hours at the office, mom needed all the help she could get. Read more

Banjarmasin: Life on the River in Borneo

It came without warning. Barely a minute earlier, Bama and I had been puttering down a narrow waterway lined with ramshackle wooden houses, softly lit by the full moon as it peeked through a wispy layer of cloud. But here was a vast expanse of water that seemingly merged into the darkness of the pre-dawn sky. At once I felt infinitesimally small; the absence of lights on the opposite bank exaggerated its distance, and our boat was now dwarfed by an oil tanker and hulking flat-bottomed barges laden with heaps of coal. I knew then that we’d arrived on the mighty Barito River. Read more

Jakarta’s Magnificent Reprise

The last time the Asian Games were hosted here in Jakarta, exactly 56 years ago, it left an indelible mark on the cityscape. A slew of landmarks and infrastructure developments owe their creation to the event: these include the iconic Welcome Monument (as shown in the photo above) and the Hotel Indonesia next door, which was the first modern five-star hotel in the nascent country and the official lodgings for dignitaries and sports leaders back in 1962. Read more

Penataran Temple: Stories in Stone

Indonesia might be a relatively young nation – both in the demographic sense and in the fact that the republic turns 73 this week – but its complex layers of history are hidden in plain sight. Brooding stone dwarapala door guardians half-kneel outside hotels and gleaming skyscrapers in downtown Jakarta; Javanese traditional dances and shadow puppetry recreate episodes from the Hindu epics; and the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, borrows a plethora of words from Dutch, Portuguese, Hokkien, Arabic, Persian, Tamil, and Sanskrit. All these point to a millennial tradition of absorbing foreign influences to create something unique to this part of the world. Read more