Coke Studio Pakistan

Last weekend I seriously overdosed on Coke Studio Pakistan on Youtube and have not been able to purge it from my system since. Looks like this weekend is set to be a repeat.

As many have pointed out before, Coke Studio Pakistan is better than its Indian avatar. I had never heard of Rohail Hyatt – the producer of CS Pakistan – before ; but the guy shows sheer genius. I have forever been wary of fusion music (as also fusion food) given the difficulty of creating something truly seamless by merging massively disparate cultural contexts. But this man has absolutely done it. Read an excellent interview with him here.

And as another weekend creeps up, I am completely lost between the smoky voice, the aquiline profile and haunting melody of Meesha Shafi crooning Chori Chori..

HolidayIQ in Indonesia

HolidayIQ launched its Indonesia website today, our first real foray outside India. The soft launch is designed to allow domestic Indonesian travellers to add their photos, hotel reviews and the like. What a journey this has been!

A few years ago the only thing one had was this passion for travel and a desire to do something unique around it (read: not become a travel agent). And from an idea sparked off by reading an article about Zagat Survey to a 2-person team in a little room to now 150+ people across three countries, the journey has been a lot of fun and of course an ulcer or two.

Jakarta vignettes

As the Garuda Indonesia flight takes off from Singapore, all I can make out of the announcement by the pretty little stewardess is a single word loudly repeated thrice  – evacuate, evacuate, evacuate. My strong instinct to dive under the seat is tempered by the realisation that none of the other passengers  have twitched even the smallest muscle. Apparently catastrophe is not imminent. Actually the Garuda fight between Singapore and Jakarta isn’t bad at all. In addition to having lovely stewardesses, Garuda served a rice meal on the flight that had a very interesting dish of dried anchovies and peanuts. The last time I had small dried anchovies in food was when I was around 12 or 13 years – so it was with pleasure that I found that the decidedly acquired taste had not deserted me after all these years.

The first impression of Jakarta to an Indian eye brought up on classical Indian languages is the preponderance of Sanskrit. As you swing out into the highway from the airport you see big signboards that proclaim Soewarna Technology city. It is soon followed by Jalapuspa hotel and Sampoorna Square. Markers of an ancient connect with Hinduism are abundant everywhere; I start to dimly understand how westerners feel as they travel the world finding markers of their culture dominate the landscape in most countries.

Driving in Jakarta is educative.  Getting tired of the legendary traffic jams of the city, the good men running the government there came up with what sounded like an eminently reasonable solution. They mandated that cars have to have a minimum of 3 passengers to be allowed to traverse some of the main city thoroughfares during peak hours. The obvious idea was that single or double passengers should not take cars but use public transport so that cars do not take up too much of scarce road space. Unfortunately Indonesians are as adept at Jugaad as Indians and the impact of this rule has been to actually increase the number of people using roads. Since all cars now need to have 3 or more people, there are men hanging around intersections who rent themselves out as a additional passengers for a fee to motorists with lesser number in the car. So a large number of unemployed youth who otherwise would not be using roads or footpaths are all over the place now. Another strike for the law of unintended consequences.

You can’t escape SRK in Indonesia either. Shah Rukh Khan is repeatedly mentioned as the one Indian that everyone, especially the women seem to know about. Most of the time, the only Indian. Along with Korean superstars, SRK is up there in the not-too-hip celebrity scene in Indonesia. All the young hipper-than-hip hipsters are rooting for Justin Bieber. East Asia is definitely the latest theatre of war for pop culture supremacy and it is a three-cornered fight between Hollywood, Bollywood and the Koreans. It will be interesting to see where it ends up.

I return to Jakarta in another fortnight- cannot wait to see what I will uncover next..

Xiao Long Bao at Din Tai Fung

Yup, I know that is a mouthful. And to top it, we had to wait for more than 20 mins to get a table for 2. But boy, was it worth it!

The first time I had Xia Long Bao was on the last day of a trip to Hong Kong a few years ago. And the taste lingers. Xia Long Bao are steamed dumplings that have warm broth inside along with the more usual shrimp/meat mixture. The sheer mix of flavours and textures that this gives your mouth is crazy. I love it.

Din Tai Fung is the Taiwanese mecca of Xia Long Bao. And since they make it so well, they have now spread everywhere in Asia including to Singapore. On Saturday I went to their outlet at the Paragon Mall in Orchard.

Thanks to Martin for suggesting this place and accompanying me for an awesome meal.

For a useful lesson on how to eat Xia Long Bao, click on the above photo.

Rajinikanto

(A Korean music video set to an Indian pop number)

The man even has a fan site in Japanese. But it does not seem to end there. Indian popular culture’s (especially our movies) creeping globalisation has East Asia squarely in its sights. Come to think of it, not particularly surprising. We are the largest producer of ‘pop culture’ after the West. We have a domestic market of a billion people, give or take, for the juggernaut to feed on. There are a large number of people in Asia who find Indian cultural elements at least as interesting as Western ones (and probably less alien).

Ergo – India’s new sphere of cultural influence.

Roast Duck in Suntec City

(Baby Kai Lan – photo source : Gluttonqueen)

Another satisfying meal in Singapore, this time it was Roast Duck and Roast Pork at Crystal Jade Kitchen in Suntec City. The Roast Duck with a lemon dip and the pork with a more pungent one. Along with Baby Kailan with Garlic. And of course rice.  Yum.

The Geography of Religion

Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism which together account for 75% of the world’s population all originated within a small part of Asia. In fact, these four dominant religions arose from a relatively small geographical area on Earth : between latitudes 20 degree north to 40 degree north and longitudes 30 degree east and 90 degree east. So here is my question. Why did humankind’s most important cultural moorings in the form of its major religions originate from a tiny area that probably occupies less than 2% of the total surface area of our earth? Strange.

I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain which brought home the obvious truth that Christianity is an Eastern religion. Of course, each of the other 3 religions continue to have their epicentre in Asia and so the connection is a lot more obvious.

In spite of looking for clues to this riddle (albeit desultorily I must admit) , I have not found compelling enough answers for it.

 

Another travel scam?

HolidayIQ got this email recently…

Hello,

How are you doing! I hope you are fine? I’m sorry i didn’t inform you
about my trip to Scotland for a program, I’m presently in Scotland and
got mugged at a gun point by some armed robbers on my way to the hotel
where my money and other valuable things were kept including my
passport. I would like you to assist me with a loan of 1620Pounds to
sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the
matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist
me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return, let me
know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where i can be
reached.

Please let me know immediately.
Regards

DR.THAMMAN

Geylang Serai Market & Arab Street, Singapore

Arab_street_singapore

Over the last few visits to Singapore I trained my sights on  ‘alternative’ food destinations away from Orchard Road, Chinatown and the such. And found Geylang Serai Market and Arab Street.

The Geylang Serai area is culturally Malay. Arab Street is , as the name suggests, Muslim and so intersects with Malay culture in addition to Middle Eastern & North African.

Hogged on the briyanis, kebabs, hummus et al. Next time in Singapore, you must absolutely check out these places.

Arun Veembur

I will never meet Arun Veembur – and it is very much my loss. Arun was an intrepid traveller who died earlier this week in a tragic accident while trekking near the remote city of Dali in the Yunan province of China. He was just 28.

Arun started out as a journalist with an english newspaper in Bangalore. On a trip to India’s north-east, he came across the story of the Stilwell road (Ledo road), the tough mountainous road that the british built in the backdrop of WWII. And was hooked. Soon he gave up his job and went to Kuming the chinese outpost where he spent the next few years. He was researching for a book on the Ledo road and in the years that he was there became a bit of an institution.

More on Arun:

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/35518/bangalorean-dies-china.html

http://newshyderabad.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/young-writer-and-intrepid-traveller-dies-in-china/

http://www.dalichina.info/

Chinese accountability

On my first visit to China a couple of months ago, I realised that everything we have all heard about China is pretty much right. The main point being that it has awesome infrastructure (clean, wide roads, for god’s sake – how do they do it!).

But the real eye-opener was the undercurrent of government accountability  that one noticed. A couple of simple examples illustrates this.

At the Shanghai international airport, every immigration officer’s desk has a little widget on it (a little screen with two small buttons next to it), kept facing the traveller. Once the immigration officer processes your visa, they press a button. As soon as that button is pressed, the little screen lights up and asks you to ‘rate’ your experience with the immigration official – was the official’s work satisfactory or not? In effect, the traveller is treated as a ‘customer’ and you are being asked to rate your ‘purchase experience’. Presumably the results of this go into the relevant immigration officer’s appraisal systems and therefore is of importance to them.

Now, Roads. I went to Hangzhou, China’s 6th largets city (ie. not it Shanghai or Beijing). The roads across this city were wide and clean and the only roads in India which I can compare these to are in Lutyens’ New Delhi.How can a relatively small city in China consistently maintain all its roads at a quality comparable to the less than 0.5% of India’s best roads? The answer I thin is again, accountability. Having good roads is important for a country and its citizenry and therefore is important for its local government. Remember, city roads are made and maintained by the local government of the city and clearly they believe they need to do this job well.

Popular discourse in India & the west seems to suggest that China is ‘un-democratic’ and even ‘dictatorial’ and therefore does not represent the aspirations or needs of its people. Maybe. But there is no doubt that somewhere in the Chinese system, there is a regard for the the ordinary man that one misses sorely in India.

Where does this grace come from?

Among the glass and concrete of Bangkok’s Suvarnmabhumi International Airport (about which there is unflattering post just below) is a massive installation of a scene from the Ramayana. It is noticeable for its size and glitter. It is even more striking for its grace.

This is something you notice in Thailand all the time – its innate sense of Grace. Whether it is in the movements of the dancers in the small temples that dot Bangkok,  in the folded hands ‘sawadee’ of the Guide who comes to pick one up at the aiport, of the lines that define the overhead concrete that carries the skytrains or the clean silhoutte of the little boat that carries you into the caves of Phang Nha, this is a country of consummate Grace and Aesthetics. I love it.

Beauty of form is something I miss a lot in today’s India. Our urban environs are cess-pits of ugliness and and even the minutest of aesthetics calls up cries of joy. But it was on a visit to Tanjavur some time ago that I discovered that India was not always like this. The 1000 year old Brihadeeswara temple there is an extraordinary creation of Grace embodied in a massive form. With a muti-tonne rock crowning its Gopuram, weight could easily have overcome Grace, but did not. The massive temple almost floats and this is architecture at its graceful best.

In fact, it is almost certain that India’s ancient civilisation had some influence on this grace that one notices in Thailand and in other parts of Indo-China. Of course, to give ourselves too much credit for this would be to miss out on the truth. The truth being that these people of the lands between India and China have somehow discovered and maintained a Grace that is one of the glories of human civilization.

Duty Free Scam at Bangkok airport

Since I am transiting again through Bangkok in the next few days, a friend of mine who lives in the region alerted me to a scam that has been reported from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport.

Evidently, sales people in some of the duty free shops are likely to unobtrusively slip in an item that you have not purchased, into your bag. As soon as you step out of the shop, the police are called in and you get ‘arrested’. The only way out of this apparently is to pay a hefty bribe all around.

I do not know whether this is true. But I guess it certainly pays to be watchful..

http://www.asiaone.com/Travel/Tips/Story/A1Story20090415-135496.html

http://www.travellerspoint.com/forum.cfm?thread=62493

Researching Holidays Online

ASIA

 

Here is why I love the business I am in – because it piggybacks on the biggest thing in Travel since the Wheel (ok – mild exaggeration, but still…)

The Internet has become the most popular medium for Chinese travellers seeking information about their trips, according the latest Nielsen China Outbound Travel Monitor. The Nielsen survey found that travellers will search for conventional destination information ahead of their trips (61 percent of leisure trips taken), and then turn to online travel discussion forums (48 percent) to fine-tune their plans. This suggests that opinions and comments about travel experiences posted to online forums are nearly as likely to influence travellers’ decisions as the destination websites themselves. Conventional travel agents were approached on only two in five travel occasions.

The Nielsen survey also found that travellers were much more likely to recall seeing Internet advertising for travel destinations, compared to seeing travel advertising on other mediums. Close to 70 percent could recall seeing travel advertisements on the Internet, with only four in 10 recalling seeing a travel advertisement in a magazine or newspaper, at a travel agent or on TV and radio.

Read the full article here..

‘Heaty’ food

It was while having a great seafood meal with Carolynn & Wallace at the  ‘No Signboard Seafood Restaurant‘ in the Vivo City Mall in Singapore, that I first heard the word ‘heaty’. Here is the story.

The Chinese overlay the concept of yin & yang on a lot of things and Food is one of them. So all foods are divided into ‘heaty’ foods and ‘cooling’ foods. Fried Food, for example,  is considered ‘heaty’ which means it gets your body all excited and sweaty. According to Chinese grandmothers (who like all other grandmothers have a direct line to secret-stuff), to make things stable, you have to have some ‘cooling’ food along with the ‘heaty’ ones.

Interestingly, this concept is not particularly alien to me since it appears in many local Indian cultures too. The Konkan coast (ie. most of India’s western coast) for example uses Sol Kadi, a drink made from Kokum, to cool down the body after ingesting huge amounts of ‘heaty’ seafood, particularly shrimp (to experience what I am talking about, try one of the famous seafood restaurants of Mumbai such as Mahesh or Saiba). Ayurveda too makes a lot of this concept and recommends eating both hot & cold foods to balance one’s ‘kapha dosha’.

The most interesting aspect of all of this is, how two of Asia’s earliest cultures (and two of the world’s most ancient systems of health-care) both recognise the primacy of ‘balance’ in well-being.

Read all my Singapore posts here & Food Posts here.

Travelocity India

Travelocity is coming through (and not just by buying up Indian companies) – looks like they have some of the better flight deals in the region. I recently found a Bangalore – Singapore return (economy of course) on Singapore Airlines for Rs 11,200. And a Bangkok return for 13,600. Both of which are better than the normal fares offered by m0st travel Agents.

So, if you have the time (or the necessity!) to do research f0r good flight deals, I suggest Travelocity India.

Taxi musings

Talking to taxi drivers is often illuminating & almost always very interesting. And Singapore this week was no exception.

It started with Piara Singh who dropped me downtown from the budget terminal at Changi. His take on the economics of Tiger Airways (to which I have recently defected casting aside all moral and other compunctions I had about low-cost flying – a chance to get Singapore return at Rs 7.5k is no time to be queasy) flights to India was better than any commissioned Market Research I could have done.  He explained to me why the Load factors on Singapore bound flights were very high on Mondays & Tuesdays (incidentally, it was 100% on Monday last) and why the India bound flights are full on Thursdays and Fridays. Piara Singh’s ancestry was in Amritsar and he talked of how Indians from Amritsar are spending a lot of money in Singapore.  Most of all, he seemed calm & at peace with himself.

And then I got a succession of Mr Tan and Mr Tang, these names being common I understand because of the overwhelming presence of the Hokkien people in Singapore. One was particularly noteworthy. He hated Ikea – you know, the Swedish, clean-look, low-cost furniture company. He hated them with a vengeance reserved by Spanish terriers for large & woolly bears. In short, a passionate hatred that is unlikely to significantly affect the hatee. His hypothesis went so. The mastermind boss ( the way he hissed it, I was almost reminded of the evil Shaakaal in the early 80s Hindi movie Shaan – my teenage touchstone for villainy) of Ikea makes poor quality things that he very cleverly gets the stupid Singapore customer to buy by employing a combination of black-magic and European smoke & mirrors. And Since Singaporeans flock to Ikea in ever increasing numbers, Mr Tan/Tang has his view’s validated everyday!  When he found that I too had fallen into Master Ikea’s seductive trap and ended up buying a table-lamp, the bottom fell out of his respect for Indians too.

The next chap told me about Asian people. He started with the Thais since he was engaged to a Thai girl and due to get married the next year. This is what he told me about the Thais.  Be very careful around the Thais, he said – they never show their anger.  Now, this is true. I have always found the Thais to be fairly pleasant and never angry, which I had always taken to be a sign of their essential good nature. Not so, he said. Remember, if they get angry with you, they will smile at you and bam, before you know it, you will be knocked out cold from behind. I started wondering  about the likely longevity of his upcoming marriage. So, I asked him who are best & the worst people in Asia. The Japanese he said are the best. And the Malays the worst. And before he could tell me why, we reached my destination.

And then I stumbled upon Singapore’s most interesting citizen, who for the rest of this post will be called No-name. This guy had eyes that verily twinkled with villainy – late twenties, aquiline jaw, a small beard and a unique complexion that teetered between south-east asian brown and south Indian dusky.  Seems his grandfather ran away from Kerala as a boy of 10 around the first world war.  He then married a Chinese woman in Singapore and they begat a son that was no-name’s father. His father then married a Malay woman and brought No-name to the world, as the quintessential Singaporean with all 3 races well blended in. We started with the obligatory chat about how I had my beginnings in Kerala too and why he should visit it just once. But he quickly put that behind and got down to brass tacks and on to his favorite subject – Hookers. I got the most comprehensive run down on the seamy side of Singapore – incidentally, Singapore has legalised prostitution, which no-name assured me thrives in a corner of this otherwise squeaky clean city/country.  He told me all about the difference between races & the sophisticated economic calculations that went into the buying process. Although he got mildly irritated when I passed up on his offer to help me get acquainted with the situation, he was too good a sport to let that get in the way of bonhomie and we parted friends.

Immigration

Immigration officials across the world are all sent to this common, secret school (run, I suspect by particularly virulent commissars of the ex-USSR) where they are taught the essential niceties of their job – a deeply suspicious look & the ability to never ever let the slightest smile (or even a suspicion thereof) escape on to one’s face, being the most important.

Two countries I have visited stand apart in this – Cyprus & Thailand.

The gate-keepers at the Larnaca airport smiled at me (giving me the heebeejeebies, since to the best of my prior knowledge these guys smile only when about to effect a cop) and – I kid you  not – asked about the weather back home.

The guys at Phuket were the best of the lot. Their interaction was as between mature adults. A smile breaking out of a ‘yeah, we know you are here only to have a good time and as soon as your money runs out, you will go away – but we gotta do this…’ look.

I have been to Saudi Arabia too, where I met the guys who took all the prizes at the commissar’s school.

Learning from Thailand’s tourism

We all know that Thailand has a pretty effective inbound tourism sector, clocking up about 3 times the number of foreign tourists we get (just to keep this stat in context, India has 6 times the land mass of Thailand and of course 20 times its population).

My recent trip to Phuket gave me some clues as to why this happens. The most important reason that I can see is that the Thai people are ‘naturals’ for tourism, with a warm & cheery disposition that makes an outisder welcome immediately. The second key reason is that the logistics of tourism involving the co.ordination of activities between multiple small actors works surprisingly smoothly in that country.

Let me take an example. We did a a one-day trip to Phang Nga, the place made famous by innumerable photos of awesome towering limestone rocks and sea caves. We booked this trip with a small tour operator just outside our hotel in the Karon beach area. ‘Tuk’, the smiling and cheerful young lady who ran the outfit spent enough time with us to go through all the options needed before consensus could be reached by an opinionated family of 4.  Then she made a call, confirmed availabilty and booked us for the trip. She said the cab to pick us would reach at 9 am the next morning.

It did. The cabbie picked up a couple of more small groups in a clean van and drove us over a neat expressway for about an hour to the pier from where we were to take a boat. At the pier we were met by ‘ying ying’ another smiling thai girl (so now you now why they get a real rep!) who was to be our guide on the boat trip. We got on to the boat and reached the caves where we were transferred to small canoes handled by young local lads. And then we were shifted to a small man-made island on stilts where we had lunch at a small restaurant. And so on..

Here is the notable thing. Tuk, the cabbie, ying-ying, the canoeists, the floating restautant – none of these people were officially a part of the company that operated the trip. However, every person performed their role to perfection and with complete predictability. We did not have to call or talk to anyone to co-ordinate anything. Imagine the same thing in India – the likelihood of one of these pieces not working seamlessly would have been very high.

I do not know how the Thais do this. But I do know one thing. If we can emulate this to even 50% of the efficiency of the Thais, we can substantially improve our tourism image.