Travel Story A feast for the senses

Have you had your fill of big-city mall sprawl in South-East Asia? Take a sidestep and explore real life on the edge of town.

Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Brilliant Chinatown

By night Yaowarat Road flows like a neon-lit river, alive with urgent traffic, diners and shoppers. You’re in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown, the biggest Chinatown in South-East Asia and one of the world’s oldest. In feng shui terms this is a “golden dragon area”, said to be ideal for turning a baht into a buck. 

Its thronged market alleys stand in nitty-gritty contrast to the increasingly lookalike, sell- alike malls that dominate the city’s main shopping zones. Just off the broad Yaowarat thoroughfare you can find a parallel universe of laneways with shrines, astrologers, herbalists and goldsmiths amid a streetscape that’s pure Blade Runner. Looking for flowers, furniture or electronics? It’s all here, along with hat racks, rat traps and fashion. 

Step into Soi Itsara Nuphap that runs between Yaowarat and Charoenkrung roads and inch your way along the 3m-wide alley past handcarts, grandmas, babes-in-arms and bargain hunters. By the end, a couple of hundred fascinating metres later (and however long it takes), you’ve sampled a “Thainatown” like no other.

When evening falls, hawker stalls spring up along Yaowarat, offering a progressive feast of seafood and every other kind of Chinese treat. You can dine either indoors at hectic, fun local restaurants such as Hua Sen Hong (371 Yaowarat) or at kerb-side table

The hawker food is fresh — just choose a stall that is obviously busy. Amble, stop and sample, and then do it again. Try a favourite local dish, guay chap — flat rice noodles in pepper soup — please skip the shark-fin and bird’s-nest options. 

You can start your Chinatown trawl with a drink at Shanghai Mansion (479 Yaowarat) where the street-front jazz bar is perfect for people watching. Or finish there with a late-night cocktail and more music. Between drinks check out the lobby’s chinoiserie — red sofas, lanterns and decorative screens — all paying homage to Deco- decadent Shanghai of the 30s.

Down by the River, Vientiane-style

In Vientiane, the languid capital of Laos, almost nothing is mandatory, including sightseeing. Most visitors do take a look at, if not climb, the Patuxai Gate, a large, ornate archway that straddles the central avenue and is nicknamed the Asian Arc de Triomphe.

Then it’s time for lunch, dinner or a drink. The best place for this is in the area down towards the Mekong River shore. A two-block walk along Rue Chao Anou will get you there; en route you pass an array of restaurants, cafes and even an Aussie sports bar. 

The Mekong’s liquid highway separates Laos from Thailand (visible on the opposite shore) but the actual flow, at least in dry season, is almost half a kilometre distant across river flats from where you stand. Gone, sadly, are the old makeshift bars, seemingly built from driftwood, that sat right beside the river until the large dams built upstream reduced the flow. 

As well as a pedestrian promenade and busy road, the broad, built-up embankment features a pumping night market that is, however, mostly full of the usual knick-knacks, faux tribal clobber and souvenir T-shirts.

Now it is time for dinner and to choose from the eateries you passed en route to the river. Or, aiming further up-market, from this area’s French restaurants such as Le Comptoir, Le Silapa and L’Adresse. Better still, a sunset stroll along the riverfront Quai Fa Ngoum brings you to a score of open-air eateries, all offering fresh seafood, Lao fare, and Thai and Western dishes.

 Recommended here is the long-established Spirit House restaurant that does a good steamed tilapia fish in chilli with garlic and lime sauce. 

Throw in a cocktail and no plus-plus surcharges, and it all comes to a ruinous $16.

Singapore’s Glampong

Kampong Glam isn’t, as the name might suggest, an ethno- bling boutique run by fashionistas. Instead it is the traditional name of a former Malay kampong(village) and fishing settlement just north of the Singapore River that has been overtaken by the tide of the times. 

Transformed these days by smart eateries, creative industry and IT workers and, yes, boutiques with a touch of glam, it is Singapore’s current go-to zone. Arab and Bugis traders settled here centuries ago and this past as a Muslim enclave is enshrined in the golden domes and prayer hall of its landmark Sultan Mosque, as well as the Istana and the Malay Heritage Centre. 

Singapore’s city burghers targeted Kampong Glam’s historic streets and lanes for refurbishment and its rows of beautiful shophouses along Kandahar, Arab, Baghdad and Bussorah streets (every shingle tells a story) are now home to hip aspiring enterprises, design studios, offices, art galleries and eateries. Some traditional textile and carpet sellers have survived, along with kebayah shops and a few blacksmiths.

 Haji Lane is home to a Babel of label stores and, even if contra-suggested by its devout street name, a number of good bars. Epitomising the area’s new wave restaurants is cafe/ cocktail bar Maison Ikkoku on Kandahar Street. Nothing however displaces true, down- home food and Kampong Glam is still the quarter to come to for Malay coffee houses and authentic local cafes serving the likes of nasi padang and Malay kuih snack cakes. 

Finally, where to lay your head amid this mix of history and modernity? Try the aptly named Sultan, a boutique, 64-room hotel that spans 10 restored shophouses.

Cheung Chau, Hong Kong’s Escape Clause

Dr Johnson famously declared he who is tired of London is tired of life. As for Hong Kong, she or he who is tired of it is probably just tired, tuckered out from all the colour, pace and humidity, snakes-and-ladders escalators, din and density. 

The cure is at hand. Cheung Chau (Long Island), just 10km south-west of Hong Kong Island, is your escape hatch, your reboot to sanity as done amid seafood feasts, beach walks and hiking trails.

 Nicknamed Dumbbell Island because of its twin granite masses joined by a tombolo, this fishing port (and former pirate haven) is one of the oldest communities in the Hong Kong territory. 

With a resident fishing fleet, its restaurants are guaranteed fresh daily catches, so try dining almost anywhere along Pak She Praya Road near the pier. 

Most visitors check out the Pak Tai Temple, dating from 1783, which is one of the oldest in Hong Kong, though the structure you see today was rebuilt in 1989. In front of its altar stand statues of two generals who are said to hear and see everything.

The island boasts some of the best coastal hiking in the territory along well-marked trails.

Cheung Chau is a year-round destination with a population of 25,000 people but this swells dramatically during the annual century-old Bun Festival, which was on this past week.

It features Taoist ceremonies, floats, children doing balancing acts while dressed as famous characters, papier-mache effigies of deities, lion dances, drumming and a traditional bun scrambling competition. Yes, bun scrambling.

Top image: Haji Lane, Kampong Glam by Angie Tomlinson

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