Sunday, March 31, 2019

March 25th – Experiencing Traditions and Change in Colombo

If Trinco is laid-back, quiet and under-developed, then Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, is the polar opposite of that. This city is at the centre of an extraordinary property boom which is seeing construction sites springing up everywhere.

Just as we sail in, we could see so many half-built skyscrapers, and of course, right next to the port was the massive land reclamation project that is going to see a huge new high-tech city added onto the edge of Colombo. Whether Sri Lanka is really ready for Dubai-style development, and whether it can afford all this is another matter. The government is already massively in debt to the Chinese (who are keen to develop a trading base right next to their big Asian rival, India). We were told that there were 25,000 Chinese construction workers in Colombo at the moment – a crazy number when Sri Lanka has its own under-exploited pool of hard-working labourers available.

My plan was to go up to the Observation Deck of the new Lotus Tower that has been built over the last 5 years (of course, with Chinese money), and now dominates the city’s skyline. The tower was meant to open last year, and the internet said that it was finally due to open this March so I had high hopes of getting up it. But it appears that it’s all been put back again, and they’re now talking about July “maybe” – I will have to wait. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s growth isn’t quite as fast as it appears?

Instead, after a bit of general wandering, we went to have lunch at that Colombo institution – the Galle Face Hotel. It was good to see that some things in this fast-changing city are still the same – this stately hotel could still conjure up its old-style colonial elegance, and the food was great.

It was another absolutely roasting day, so we went back to the ship to cool off before the evening’s extravaganza – a Silversea Experience in the gardens of the The Kingsbury Hotel. In something bordering sensory overload, it turned out to be another amazing evening of music and dance that built into an incredible crescendo of noise, colour and movement that really captured the spirit of this unique and culturally rich country.

Our two quick days here in Sri Lanka have made us want to come back soon – especially before the country changes and modernises too much.

March 23rd – Glad to be Back in Sri Lanka (and Trincomalee)

Having spent a blissful month in Sri Lanka at the end of last year, we were really looking forward to getting back to this beautiful island, and even looking forward to getting back to the rather scruffy but welcoming town of Trincomalee (“Trinco” to its friends).

Trinco lay on the border of the Tamil lands during Sri Lanka’s vicious civil war, which meant that for 3 decades it saw frequent outbursts of violence that saw it branded as “Sri Lanka’s most dangerous city”. Fortunately, since peace returned a decade ago, the city is slowly getting back on its feet again, and a few tourists are now starting to come to a sleepy town that’s surrounded by beautiful beaches.

But, what Trinco may lack in must-see attractions, it more than makes up for in its friendly welcome – people aren’t used to seeing many tourists here, so there’s a genuine friendliness and shy curiosity to its people.

Having got the shuttle bus into town, we followed our noses (quite literally) to the slightly stinky fish market, which was a frenetic hive of activity. People were hacking away at fish outside, while inside, all sorts of exotic fish were laid out on the slippery floor, as the vendors shouted out what they had on sale. It summed up what Trinco’s about – rough and ready, but exotic; chaotic, but friendly, and always colourful.

We then visited the produce market, which was equally vibrant, before finding a tuk tuk to take us to a set of ruins that we’d never visited before, the Velgam Vihara, about a 40 minute drive out of town. On a stiflingly hot day, it was nice to get a bit of breeze as we zoomed out of town on our open-sided three-wheeler.

Having visited the amazing ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa when we were here a few months ago, of course this small scale set of ruins from a 1,000-year-old monastery couldn’t really compare. However, it was an evocative site, and a peaceful contrast to the activity of Trinco.

We got our driver to drop us off back in town at Fort Frederick and the Konneswaram Temple. Luckily, our visit co-incided with the morning Puja, as a fairly incomprehensible (but evocatively exotic) ceremony of banging drums, wailing oboes and parading statues was going on. Then, we strolled back through the atmospheric old British fort with its wild dear (and even wilder monkeys) walking around as if they owned the place.

Our final stop was for a drink overlooking the beautiful (but pretty much deserted) beach at Dutch Bay – with amazing views like this, I don’t think that Trinco will stay off the tourist  radar for too much longer.

Trinco may not be the most amazing place to visit in the world, but for Sri Lanka lovers like us, it was lovely to be back.


Thursday, March 28, 2019

March 19th – Looking Down on Kuala Lumpur

From whichever angle you look at it, KL is growing quickly. As we drove in we saw so many building sites and developments that you wonder how this is all being paid for. Obviously, the Malaysian economy must be doing pretty well.

The contrasts between the low-rise colonial district, and the high-rise districts all around it (and in danger of engulfing it) are massive. Scruffy old Chinese shophouses, renovated Art Deco markets, and impressive monumental British-era buildings are dominated by the skyscrapers that are shooting up everywhere.

The best perspective on all this was from the revolving restaurant at the KL Tower, where we could see so many construction sites looking like scars in the ground, or gleaming new tower blocks about to be finished off. Of course, we got some great glimpses of KL's most iconic towers - the Petronas Towers (which were once the tallest buildings in the world until 2004), but even they are now being eclipsed by a new construction that appears to be nearing completion – the Exchange 106. This 106-storey building, being built in a brand new Financial District, will soon become Malaysia's tallest building and beats the Petronas Towers by a good 40 metres.

But, before the Petronas Towers lose their title as their nation's tallest, we paid a trip up to its top, stopping on the way at its famous Skybridge on the 41st floor, before going up to its observation deck on the 86th floor. By the end of it all, I was getting a bit blasé about tremendous bird's eye views of KL's burgeoning skyline, but the most important point was that this is a city (and a country) that's on the up – quite literally.

March 18th – World Cruiser Reunion in Singapore

Doing a World Cruise is a great way to see an amazing diversity of sites – be they historical, cultural or natural. But, the other wonderful thing about World Cruising is that it gives you a chance to catch up with different friends in far-flung corners of the world.

So, today in Singapore, we weren't seeking anything cultural, apart from Singapore's famous food culture, as a big group of us met up with one of our favourite cruisers – James. He hosted a wonderful lunch at the Imperial Treasures restaurant, where we feasted like Emperors on some superb Teochew cuisine.

Over years of cruising together, you become like one big (sometimes dysfunctional) family, so this had something of a feel of a family reunion – everyone slotting back into relationships like we'd seen each other yesterday.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

March 15th & 16th – What’s Changing in Saigon?

Every year that we come to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, it gets a little more developed, a little more westernised, and steadily more built up – it’s always fascinating to see what’s changed since we were last here. But fortunately, some things don’t change – the food is wonderful, the people are great, and the prices are cheap (although like the skyline, prices are certainly on the rise).

And for a lot of cruise passengers (including us) the Saigon routine doesn’t change much either - they go to a spa for some health and beauty treatments, then they head to one of the knock-off markets where they stock up on some dirt cheap fakes, and then they go to one of the excellent restaurants for some tasty local food.

Before we got into all this consuming, we tried to get a bit of culture first by walking to the atmospheric Jade Emperor Temple. Built in 1909, this is one of the oldest surviving buildings in a city that seems to get younger by the year, and it provides a glimpse of traditional Vietnam that existed before the onslaught of western culture brought by colonialism and then capitalism.

On the walk there, we saw so many building sites that it’s going to be hard for Saigon’s infrastructure to keep up with the city’s phenomenal growth. And, in contrast to the speed of construction of all these upscale apartment blocks and malls, the construction of the city’s much-needed subway system appears to be moving at glacial progress. In fact, the same subway construction sites that we saw last year (and in 2017, 2016 and 2015) are still there, without much proof of progress.

But, in spite of all these rapid (and not so rapid) changes, the city still retains a sense of charm and fun – mainly down to its hard working but friendly people, who work so hard to please their customers.

As a case in point, we had a couple of contrasting, but equally lovely meals. For lunch, we joined Jerry at the upscale Vietnam House in central Saigon. Even if there weren’t any locals in there, the food was exquisite – really delicate flavours. Then, in the evening, after an obligatory sundowner in the trendy Chill Bar, we went to a place that was new to us, the Ngon Villa, in District 3. This place was a bit more local, but the food was really excellent – not a massive menu, but everything we had was gorgeous. Plus, the service was amazing – when people work as hard as our waiter, you know that this city is going places.

As ever, Saigon delivered.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

March 11th & 12th – Both Sides of Hong Kong

The standard view of Hong Kong from the tourist brochures generally consists of  - super-tall skyscrapers; huge shopping malls; luxury hotels; congested streets; ferries ploughing their way across the harbour. It’s easy to find (in fact, hard to avoid) all this and more in Kowloon and Central Hong Kong, where most of the tourists hang out.

However, that leaves large parts of the territory that tourists don’t tend to go to, and that don’t conform to these stereotypes. I joined a tour to the New Territories, the last bit of Hong Kong to become a British colony, and one of the few bits of Hong Kong that have Chinese traditions that long pre-date the arrival of the British. In fact, this part of Hong Kong feels much less westernised than Kowloon and Central, with traditional temples and busy street markets that feel a world away from the action of “modern” Hong Kong, and where few people speak English.

But, the most interesting part of the New Territories, is to visit its few remaining old walled towns that date back hundreds of years, to the days when the Chinese Emperor granted them certain legal privileges – privileges that the British were forced to recognise and still survive to some extent today. This is a glimpse into old Hong Kong that few tourists get, and it’s interesting to see what impact the gradual assimilation of Hong Kong into mainland China will have on these last vestiges of the Imperial and Colonial systems.

After an obligatory Peking Duck that evening, our next day went back to the standard Hong Kong fare in Kowloon – shopping malls and congested streets. That’s the great thing about Hong Kong - whatever you’re looking for, it can provide it.

PS. For our stay, we had the “pleasure” of docking at Kai Tak (the site of Hong Kong’s old airport) for the first time. Not only is this a fair distance from the action, but the terminal involves a ridiculous amount of walking through hallways and arrival lounges (about 15 minutes) to get from the ship, just to the Shuttle Buses. Our guide told us that the plan is to extend the subway system to connect Kai Tak to the rest of the city, but for the time being, this place is out on a limb.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

March 6th-8th – “Old” and New Shanghai

On the face of it, there aren't many cities that present a more modern view to the world than the high-rise city of Shanghai. In fact, the city acts as a deliberately over-the-top glittering showpiece for the burgeoning economic power of China – if you were to judge China on Shanghai alone, you'd be left in no doubt which country is going to dominate the 21st century.

Obviously, the rest of the country (and in fact much of the outskirts of Shanghai) are nowhere near as glitzy as this. While, if you scratch below the surface, you see that the workmanship on many of these shiny new constructions is actually fairly shoddy – the cruise terminal (which was only constructed in the last 10 years) seems to be undergoing its third renovation.

Just our first glimpse of the city from the ship – viewing its staggering array of space-age skyscrapers confirms that most of this city has been constructed in the last 20 years. But, for me, the joy of Shanghai is to discover the parts of the city that pre-date China's rapid conversion from Communism to Capitalism, the buildings that have survived the city's dramatic transformation.

Obviously, the Bund area has the most impressive colonial-era buildings, but if you disappear into the backstreets behind it, there's so many wonderful art deco and neo-colonial classics to discover, many of them now being renovated so that high end boutiques and hotels can move in.

My favourite part of town to explore is in the French Concession, around Fuxing Park – low-rise residential streets where you can really imagine what Shanghai was like in the 1930s, when the city was going through a different capitalist boom. Here, you stumble through tight-nit alleys of 1930s apartment blocks, and then emerge next to a super modern mega-mall. If Shanghai wants to maintain any unique character (rather than just becoming a "world city") then it needs to preserve these original neighbourhoods.

As if to illustrate the point, on our final morning, I paid a visit to the Yu Yuan Gardens, in the middle of the "Old Chinese City" – the part of Shanghai that wasn't given over to foreigners in the late 19th century. This area appears to have the most "Chinese look" of all Shanghai – lots of pointy tiled roofs and traditional-style Chinese architecture – but it's almost all a modern confection from the last decade or so. To me, this faux Chinese district feels like it's part of Disneyland rather than Shanghai, but the local tourists clearly love it, because it's absolutely packed.

In this most modern of cities, it's appropriate that even the old-looking architecture should actually be younger than the super-modern skyscrapers that overlook it. Proof, if it were needed, that nothing in China is quite what it seems.

Monday, March 4, 2019

March 3rd – Rainy Day in Tokyo

On a day of constant rain and chilly temperatures, it's safe to say that Tokyo was not looking its best for our final day in Japan. Plus, the congestion and disruption caused by the Tokyo Marathon being staged today meant that it was not going to be easy to sample too much of this high-energy city.

The best option was to stay inside and under cover as much as possible, so we caught the Metro to Shinkjuku, Tokyo's high-rise business district to see what we could discover. Fortunately, many of the retail and food options here were underground, so we didn't have to brave the elements too much.

In spite of her protests that we wouldn't be able to see anything through the rain, I persuaded Tracy that it would be a good idea to go up to the Observation Deck on the 45th Floor of the Metropolitan Building. Well, it turns out that on a murky rainy day in Tokyo, amazingly enough the visibility is indeed terrible, but we did get a bit of a better sense of what a massive sprawling city this is – actually not nearly as high-rise as many people expect. Just to rub it in, one of the guides helpfully showed us a picture he'd taken last week, of perfect visibility, with Mount Fuji in the background. However, the good thing is that the Observatory is free, so we didn't lose any money by not actually observing very much.

So, given the fact that the weather only seemed to be getting worse, we went back down underground, did some shopping and did some eating – seeing as half of Tokyo seemed to be doing the exact same thing, I think we made the right choice.

February 28th – March 2nd – 3 Fabulous Days in Kyoto

It's not an easy task to take 184 well-travelled World Cruisers away from the ship, and keep them in the luxury that they're accustomed while being royally entertained, fed and stimulated for 3 days. But, somehow, in an amazing logistical exercise, Silversea pulled off one of the best World Cruise Events that anyone can remember.

It helps that our destination was the sublimely beautiful city of Kyoto – a place that can effortlessly boast so many eye-catching temples, peaceful gardens and fascinating relics of Japan's long history and unique culture.

In spite of a rainy start in Nara, we had a succession of fabulous meals that always put the spring back in the step of our weary travellers, while the cultural experiences were superb. Being entertained by 2 geishas and 2 maiko (trainee geishas) was the highlight of our first night. Just being so close to their delicate beauty and trying to get to grips with the obscure traditions of these female entertainers was fascinating. On the face of it, they put a rather austere face to the world, but when we were talking to one of the maiko, she was just like any other 17-year old girl – giggling and making jokes.

On our second day, we all got to dress up in kimonos which was great fun (we might have seen a lot of the world, but a chance to dress up will entertain almost anyone), we practiced Japanese calligraphy, and some had a go at flower arranging. After a visit to the superb Nijo Palace, people had a choice of 8 restaurants around town, offering a different range of western and Japanese foods, from grills to tempura, tepanyaki to kobe beef. I went to an excellent Japanese-French fusion restaurant where we sat at a bar in front of an open kitchen. It was fascinating to see how calm all the activity was as they constructed the delicate flavours that were an excellent mix of east and west.

Our third day took us to a tranquil Zen Monastery and achieved something that I thought would be a total impossibility – getting all 184 passengers to sit still together in one room and meditate in total silence for 2 sessions of 10 minutes. The time seemed to pass in a flash and (for me at least), it was a strangely powerful experience.

This was followed by a simple vegetarian meal in the same temple that was maybe a little bit more difficult for some guests to swallow, but I found it pretty good – plenty of things that I'd never tasted before.

Having seen so much of the traditional side of Japan, it was time to be brought up to speed with the modern side of this multi-layered country, as we caught the super-fast bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. As ever in Japan, it's the juxtapositions that strike you – whizzing from the quiet contemplation of an ancient monastery in Kyoto, to the super-modern mega-metropolis of Tokyo.

What an amazing experience.