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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

A love letter to Jakarta

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Handa stared at me in wide-eyed shock. Over lunch in the basement canteen of our office tower, another young coworker had told us a month-long trip to Europe was an exercise in self-discovery. I quipped that Jakarta – and Indonesia by extension – was the place where I’d found myself.

“How could you find your soul in such a soulless city?” Read more

An Indonesian homecoming

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Travelling into town from the airport in Semarang, Indonesia, I was struck by the familiarity of all that I saw. Bama and I peered out the window from the back seat, as the car sped past a slightly decrepit museum we’d entered a year before, then a magnificent Chinese temple painted in vibrant shades of gold and vermilion. Soon we arrived at the family home, fronted by the same green gate that played a musical scale when rolled back, and a slender custard apple tree with unripe fruit hanging from its branches. Read more

South Sulawesi’s ancient secrets

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The outboard motor thundered and kicked up a fountain of spray as it propelled us between rows of water palms, their luxuriant fronds aglow in the early morning light. Just one and a half hours outside Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi and the largest city in eastern Indonesia, we were cruising a placid green river in search of karsts and prehistoric handprints. Read more

Jakarta for the long haul

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What if I told you impossible dreams could come true? Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know of my serious obsession with Indonesia, where I have taken eight trips (including a three-month stint) in the past four years. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances far beyond my control, I have left Hong Kong to start a new job in Jakarta. Read more

Memories of Panjim

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Olga is delighted when she learns I was recently in Goa. “I’m from Mumbai,” she says, “but a Goan Catholic.” I meet her by chance at a Hong Kong restaurant, and before it gets too busy with patrons, I declare my adoration for the food of her home state. There are two things I regret not doing in Panjim, Goa’s laid-back state capital: the first is that I didn’t stay longer, and the second, that I never joined a Goan cooking class. Read more