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Bern: Switzerland’s picturesque capital

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Not long after that very first trip to Switzerland in the summer of 2000, my father showed me a picture book on the natural and man-made wonders of the Alpine country. One of the photos that stood out to me most was taken in the medieval heart of Bern, showing a cobbled street that led to the Zytglogge, a whimsical yet stately clock tower capped by a curving pyramidal roof and spire. Read more

Geneva, the crossroads of Europe

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It’s a place synonymous with international diplomacy and human rights. But despite its long history and scenic location at the southern tip of the Alps’ largest lake, the Swiss city of Geneva doesn’t register on many travel itineraries. As part of a 10-day work trip, I’m treated to a walking tour with longtime guide and resident Ursula Diem-Benninghoff, who is a fount of knowledge on her adopted home city. Read more

Kyoto revisited

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When I was nine years old, a family friend gifted me with a branch of plastic cherry blossoms. I tied it to a pin board above my bed, wrote a haiku about Kyoto in the spring (though I’d never been at the time), then drew a pagoda and cherry trees beside the poem. It was an obsession fueled by lunch breaks spent in the school library, where I returned time and again to a thick hardcover book on the Japanese city. Read more

Hong Kong for the holidays

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When I moved to Indonesia last May, I promised my parents I would be back for Christmas. But it was a strange feeling to return to a place where I’d lived for nearly 20 years. Apart from a high-rise hotel taking shape on the Kowloon waterfront, and a handful of other construction sites, it appeared that my hometown had barely changed at all. Read more

A walk in Kurashiki

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We were not meant to visit Kurashiki at all. Though I’d heard of the place and looked up pictures several weeks before our trip to Japan, it never became a priority. But that changed with a chance encounter inside a sushi bar at Okayama station, four stops down the Sanyo Main Line. Read more

Okayama and the garden of delights

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Arriving at Okayama station just before lunchtime, Bama and I are struck by the sheer volume of people passing through. Most lug a small suitcase for the long weekend; gaggles of students in uniform – the navy blue and white outfits we’ve seen in all those anime cartoons – throng the tiled corridor leading down to an outdoor plaza; suited-up businessmen and families with strollers crisscross our path. The unexpected aroma of Belgian waffles, freshly made on the griddle, wafts into our nostrils from a brightly lit stall. Turning right through a pair of sliding glass doors, we see gift boxes immaculately arranged by colour on the shelves of a department store, people lining up for lunch at a sushi bar, and a chain restaurant specialising in tonkatsu, the breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet perfected to an art by the Japanese. Read more

An Osaka stopover

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The last time I was in Osaka, nearly 15 years ago, the rows of cherry trees lining the riverbanks were in full bloom. Arriving by night, I spied walls of blazing neon through the windows of our tour bus, and a series of waterways carving their way through an urban labyrinth. By day I remember standing in the grounds of Osaka Castle, marvelling at the size of its curving ramparts and the gilded reliefs on the uppermost level of the main keep. Read more

Dieng, the mystical highlands

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“No,” Bart said forcefully, “Not here. The view isn’t the one I saw in my friend’s photo. We have to go further.”

On a grassy ridge at the top of Gunung Prahu, the mountain shaped like a boat’s hull, I was getting exasperated. “Close enough,” I thought. We’d pulled ourselves out of bed at one in the morning, as the rest of the village slumbered peacefully under the brightness of the full moon. Captivated by the rugged scenery around Dieng, a fertile basin in Central Java’s volcanic highlands, our group had unanimously agreed to a sunrise hike some two days earlier. By this time, on the cusp of dawn, I had grown so tired and miserable I almost didn’t care. Read more

Remembering Bagan

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Last Wednesday, two major earthquakes struck Europe and Southeast Asia within nine hours of each other. As residents slept in the historic towns and villages of central Italy, a 6.2-magnitude tremor rocked the Apennines, taking the lives of at least 290 people. Amatrice, the birthplace of the famous pasta dish spaghetti all’amatriciana, was one of the worst-affected locales. Later that morning, a 6.8 temblor shook the heart of Myanmar. Footage of bricks being torn from an ancient Buddhist stupa seemed eerily familiar, and the reports I read soon confirmed my underlying fears. The quake’s epicentre was roughly 30 kilometres from Bagan, a sprawling archaeological site of 2,200 temples that Bama and I had visited just 10 months before. Read more

Feeding the soul in Sri Lanka

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The word “serendipity” comes from Serendib, the old Arabic name for Sri Lanka, but for Bama and I our first few days on the island were quite the opposite. On arrival, I was sleep-deprived and recovering from illness; Bama was also tired from a series of long journeys, not to mention the stress of looking after a sick companion. Our first stop was the beach town of Hikkaduwa on the southwest coast, where an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine came in a plate of devilled chicken – spicy, glazed with a sweet and sour marinade, and especially delicious when paired with fried rice. Read more