5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Manila

Fort Santiago, Intramuros.  This is a latter-day restoration of how the Fort entrance would've looked like in the Spanish Colonial era.

Fort Santiago, Intramuros. This is a latter-day restoration of how the Fort entrance would’ve looked like in the Spanish Colonial era.

Manila was once the Pearl of the Orient, until it was largely demolished in the aftermath of World War II (the Battle of Manila). Since then, restoration of the city, particularly the historic Walled City of Intramuros, has taken place in fits and starts. But don’t let it stop you from visiting the Walled City though – amidst the ruins, and the informal settlements, are beautiful pieces of Spanish-Filipino architecture, most restored, but some original.

Here are the 5 must sees:

Intramuros

✑ The Church of San Agustin (1607), to be transported into the world of mediaeval Spain. The Church was the only one of Manila’s eight churches left standing in the aftermath of World War II – inside, there is a stunning museum of 17th – 19th century religious art. The church was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Casa Manila, for a so-authentic-its-eerie reconstruction of a wealthy colonial-era mestizo (Eurasian) household. The museum was commissioned by Imelda Marcos herself, and demonstrates the wealth and opulence of many a resident in Intramuros in the Spanish Colonial era.

Fort Santiago, to gaze in amazement at the mediaeval fortifications and walk along parts of the Wall. Follow this with a general wander through the streets of Intramuros, in particularly down General Luna / Real de Palacio Street, for Manila Cathedral and other ruined/restored colonial-era facades.

Extramuros

Rizal Park, formerly known as La Luneta in the Spanish Colonial era.  Pay your respects at the Rizal Monument, and pay a visit to the Philippine National Museum for its excellent collection of Spanish colonial era objects, as well as objects salvaged from wrecked Manila Galleons.

✑ Have High Tea at the fabulous Manila Hotel, which sits on a stunning riverfront location overlooking Manila Bay. The hotel and its immediate surrounds was built by the Americans during a brief American Colonial era from 1898 to World War II.

Note that Manila is by any standards, an extremely dangerous city. If you are venturing out alone, even in the day, keep your wits about you.  Don’t carry anything that would draw attention to you. That includes expensive cameras.  

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.] 

Baluarte, or ramparts over the Pasig River, Intramuros.

Baluarte, or ramparts over the Pasig River, Intramuros.

Calesa, or traditional horse-carriage, Intramuros.

Calesa, or traditional horse-carriage, Intramuros.

The San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The San Agustin Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Casa Manila, restored with traditional Hispano-Philippine architecture.

Casa Manila, restored with traditional Hispano-Philippine architecture.

The Rizal Monument is guarded 24/7 by two "Knights of Rizal."

The Rizal Monument is guarded 24/7 by two “Knights of Rizal.”

The iconic cast-iron entrance to Manila Hotel.

The iconic cast-iron entrance to Manila Hotel.

...and a final look back at Intramuros.

…and a final look back at Intramuros.

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake, shrouded in mist.

Hoan Kiem Lake, shrouded in mist.

Hanoi is a twin city, encompassing both the ancient Sino-Vietnamese Old Town of Hà Nội, or 河內 (meaning “river interior”), as well as a more recent French confection – Hanoï ville. For 1000 years, the city has existed, and has variously been anointed capital city of what is today’s Northern Vietnam. It was also the capital city of French Indochina from 1887 to the Vietnam War.

As a result of its illustrious past, the city is suffused with history and memories, both glorious and painful, intimate and royal.  Here are 5 essential things to do:

✑ Spend some time lingering by the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake 湖還劍 (“Lake of the Returned Sword”)- which lies at the very heart of the city and of Hanoi-ans’ collective memory. Go at dawn when the mist hangs heavy over the water and the view is heart-stoppingly beautiful. While you’re at it, visit the Ngoc Son Temple 祠玉山 (“Jade Mountain Temple”), situated on its very own island; and try to spot the one remaining giant turtle in the Lake’s murky depths before the entire species goes extinct.

✑ Explore the Old Town, also known as the 36 Streets (36 行), each dedicated to a particular traditional trade. Again, go at dawn, when people and motorbikes have’t yet appeared, so you can actually see the surprisingly varied architecture of the buildings, and leisurely stumble onto the dozens of temples dotting the area.  Note that in Chinese, the character for “trade” is the same as that for “street” – 行.

✑ Pay a visit to the Temple of Literature or Van Mieu 文廟, and pour over the ancient stelae documenting the names, in Chinese characters, of scholars who passed the Imperial Examinations. Temples of Literature are dedicated to Confucius and may be found in China and nations traditionally in China’s sphere of influence: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

✑ Take a walk down the city’s colonial quarters situated to the East and Southeast of Hoan Kiem Lake. Here you will find such grandiose monuments to la civilisation française – the likes of the Old Opera House, the Gothic Cathedral of St John and the former Banque de L’Indochine. Here also, you will find the infamous Maison Central, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton” and used as a prison for dissidents during the Colonial and Vietnam War eras.

✑ Take a tour of the city by a vintage 1950s Citroën (offered by the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel), for a delightfully nostalgic trip down memory lane, and the novelty value of having people stare at you through the windows.

Hanoi, like its sister city Saigon, is polluted, noisy, difficult to navigate and oftentimes completely enervating, on account of the traffic (and those thousands of feral motorbikes). The best time to see the city is at dawn, when everything is still and you are able to experience and appreciate the city as it was a hundred years ago. The best time to visit the city is during its winter season – Hanoi is only one degree south of Hong Kong and does actually get chilly towards December.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.] 

Hang Ma (or Votive Offering Street) in the Old Town, decked out for Tet - the Vietnamese / Chinese Lunar New Year.

Hang Ma (or Votive Offering Street) in the Old Town, decked out for Tet – the Vietnamese / Chinese Lunar New Year.

A variation on the traditional shophouse architecture found all over Southeast Asia - here in Hanoi's Old Town.

A variation on the traditional shophouse architecture found all over Southeast Asia – here in Hanoi’s Old Town.

Names of graduates of the Imperial Examination, carved onto steles at the Temple of Literature.

Names of graduates of the Imperial Examination, carved onto steles at the Temple of Literature.

Hanoi's gothic Cathedral of St John.

Hanoi’s gothic Cathedral of St John.

The Hanoi Opera House and the Hilton Hotel.

The Hanoi Opera House and the Hilton Hotel.

The other "Hanoi Hilton."

The other “Hanoi Hilton.”

Vintage Citroens at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.

Vintage Citroens at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.

Inscription in Chinese characters at the Ngoc Son Temple reads "Wind and Moon."

Inscription in Chinese characters at the Ngoc Son Temple reads “Wind and Moon.”

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Saigon

Dawn over the Saigon River - view from my balcony at the Hotel Majestic.

Dawn over the Saigon River – view from my balcony at the Hotel Majestic.

Old Saigon has been remarkably well-preserved in today’s Ho Chi Minh City, and there is a resurgence of nostalgia for the (colonial) past that means more of the city’s French architecture is slated to be restored.  If you block out the ubiquitous drone of the motorbikes, and look past the equally ubiquitous visage of Ho Chi Minh, the heart of Ho Chi Minh City – Old Saigon itself -makes for a delightful wander.  Here are five essentials:

✑ A promenade down Rue Catinat, ancien Champs Elysées of Saigon, and the backdrop of many a memorable scene from the Vietnam War. This street has the city’s most important monuments, including the former Opera House, the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the City Hall.

✑ Rue Catinat and its environs also plays host to all the city’s famous grand hotels. Stop for a cup of tea at the outdoor terrasse of Hotel Continental, to pay homage to Somerset Maugham, circa 1929. Head to the rooftop bar at Hotel Majestic for an aperitif to pay homage to Graham Greene, circa 1950 and to take in the spectacular views of the Saigon River.

✑ Pay a visit to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, to soak in the delicious period atmosphere of the building – this was the former residence of the Governor of Cochinchina. The exhibitions and displays themselves are rather more propagandistic in nature, but also make for an educational experience.

✑ Have a meal at Quan An Ngon, a chain of Vietnamese street food restaurants that occupy French colonial buildings. These are immensely popular with the locals and the local fare served there, though pricey by local standards, is delicious.

✑ Visit Cholon – Saigon’s Chinatown, to luxuriate in the sensuous atmosphere described in Marguerite Duras’ novel, The Lover.

Old Saigon typifies the “ROMANCE” in Romance of the Grand Tour, particularly in the early mornings and late evenings, when the streets are devoid of those pesky motorbikes, and one is transported back a hundred years to L’Indochine Française.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.] 

The beaming visage of Uncle Ho at the General Post Office building.

The beaming visage of Comrade Ho at the General Post Office building.

Statue of Comrade Ho before the former City Hall Building.

Statue of Comrade Ho before the former City Hall Building.

The Hotel Continental, on Rue Catinat.

The Hotel Continental, on Rue Catinat.

Colonial era apartments on rue Catinat.

Colonial era apartments on rue Catinat.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon, and a par of newly weds.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon, and a par of newly weds.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum was the former residence of the Governor of Cochinchina.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum was the former residence of the Governor of Cochinchina.

Miss Saigon, in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Miss Saigon, in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

A moment of silence - an old lady sits amidst the ancient banyans, contemplating the past and the future.

A moment of silence – an old lady sits amidst the ancient banyans, contemplating the past and the future.

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary: Old Bangkok

The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

The Grand Palace, Bangkok.

Look beyond the lights of Siam Square and Sukhumvit towards the Chao Phraya River (or “River of Kings”) to experience Old Bangkok – a part of the city that still reeks with history. Here it was, on the banks of the river, that travellers in the 1800s would have arrived in Siam.  And here you will experience a very different side of Bangkok than you would normally encounter.

The essential sights include:

✑ A random wander in the European Quarter of Bang Rak, particular along the many side streets off Charoen Krung Road. Pay a visit to the former Customs House and former headquarters of the Danish East Asiatic Company, both of which remain in a state of crumbling majesty.

✑ A river cruise down the Chao Phraya, because it is the beating heart of Bangkok, and because it is only from the river that you can get a view of some of the oldest European buildings in the city – including the Portuguese and French Legation Buildings.  Best taken in the evening when the sun burnishes facades a heart-stopping shade of gold.

✑ Take a klong, or canal tour, for a glimpse of Old Bangkok, once the Venice of the East. Go early in the morning, when the floating market at Thonburi is still active.

✑ A walk down Pan Street, off Silom Road. This is Bangkok’s “Street of Harmony” – with a Hindu Temple, Javanese Mosque, Portuguese shophouse, English library and many miniature Thai shrines.

✑ Visit the Grand Palace, for an otherworldly experience that will blow your mind. This was the seat of the Siamese Empire, and also the backdrop to the famous Hollywood movie, The King and I.  Prepare to spend a whole morning, minimally.

And of course, no visit to Old Bangkok would be complete without High Tea at the (Mandarin) Oriental Hotel.  This IS the Grand Tour, at its very essence. No reservations are accepted.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and London. Find it also at http://www.amazon.com, http://www.waterstones.com and http://www.bookdepository.com.]

The Chakri Maha Prasat - the actual palace itself is essentially a European style building, with a Siamese-style roof.

The Chakri Maha Prasat – the actual palace itself is essentially a European style building, with a Siamese-style roof.

The French Legation is one of the oldest European buildings in Bangkok. It sits in Bang Rak on the Chao Phraya River.

The French Legation is one of the oldest European buildings in Bangkok. It sits in Bang Rak on the Chao Phraya River.

Faded facade of European-style godowns in the vicinity of the Customs House, Bang Rak.

Faded facade of European-style godowns in the vicinity of the Customs House, Bang Rak.

And finally... High Tea at the Author's Lounge, in the Author's Wing of the (Mandarin) Oriental Hotel. This was the original hotel building built in the 1800s.

And finally… High Tea at the Author’s Lounge, in the Author’s Wing of the (Mandarin) Oriental Hotel. This was the original hotel building built in the 1800s.

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary – Surabaya

Pnisis boats at the Kalimas port.

Pnisis boats at the Kalimas port.

Surabaya is the dark horse on this Grand Tour. It’s not a city frequented by history and heritage buffs; and because it’s actually rather large, sprawling and run-down, it is not for the faint-hearted. But I heartily recommend it precisely because it is so off the beaten track – that you will often find yourself perhaps the only visitor wandering around in the Old Town, experiencing life in the city as the city-dwellers experience it.

Other than Penang, it is also the city that most resembles Singapore – with its old town divided into Arab and Chinese quarters, and with those thousands of traditional shophouses lining its streets.

Here are 5 essential things to do:

✑ A random wander through the Old Town of Surabaya, including the banks of the Mas River, Chinatown, Ampel (the Arab Quarter), the Jembatan Merah (Red Bridge) area and Willemskade.  Willemskade contains the most impressive instances of Dutch-colonial architecture in the city.

✑The House of Sampoerna, to revel in the old-world atmosphere. Have lunch at the excellent adjoining restaurant.

✑ Take a taxi to the ancient port of Kalimas, and if possible, get one of the seahands to allow you onboard one of the pnisis. Just don’t accidentally get transported to Madura Island

✑ An evening stroll in the Tunjungan area, to admire the art deco architecture and discover the Dutch Indies-style colonial bungalows dotting the area. Stay, or stop off at the magnificent Hotel Majapahit – formally known as the Hotel Oranje. Just be forewarned, that the hotel is incredibly haunted!!  (But I enjoyed it).

✑ Pay a visit to the Heroes Monument, if only to acknowledge the thousands of native Javanese who died for their nation’s independence.

Surabaya has a rather vibrant street art/graffiti scene. As you walk around the Old Town and Tunjungan, look out for the many vibrant works of art that line the sides of buildings.

The Nuutspaarbank building on Willemskade.

The Nuutspaarbank building on Willemskade.

Interior of the House of Sampoerna.

Interior of the House of Sampoerna.

The famous Jembatan Merah, or Red Bridge, is Surabaya's most famous landmark.

The famous Jembatan Merah, or Red Bridge, is Surabaya’s most famous landmark.

Jalan Pahlawan.

Jalan Pahlawan.

Graffiti Art in Tunjungan

Graffiti Art in Tunjungan

Courtyard garden in the magnificent Hotel Majapahit (formerly Hotel Oranje).

Courtyard garden in the magnificent Hotel Majapahit (formerly Hotel Oranje).

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary – Jakarta (Batavia)

The former Stadhuys (City Hall) is today's Fatahillah Museum.

The former Stadhuys (City Hall) is today’s Fatahillah Museum.

Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia today, and was formerly known as Batavia, when it was capital of the Netherlands East Indies. Old Batavia still exists today and can be experienced as follows:

✑ A walk around the Old Town, Kota, and along the banks of the Kali Besar where the oldest Dutch-era merchant houses slumber in a kind of purgatory.

✑ Take in the monuments around Fatahillah Square. Visit the Jakarta History Museum (the ancien Stadhuys) for the building and the Wayang Museum for the tomb of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Lunch at Café Batavia – an institution in its own right.

✑ Stop by the Mandiri Bank Museum, for an eerie experience of life stopped in media res; and the Bank of Indonesia Museum for the few precious photos of Indische families that it presents. In both cases, check out the stained glass.

✑ Pay a visit to the National Museum of Indonesia at Merdeka Square, for a mind-boggling display of ancient sculpture from Java’s Hindu and Buddhist era.

✑ Take a short detour to the residential district of Menteng, for a glimpse of wealth, privilege and beautiful Indische-style colonial villas. Lunch at the excellent Bungarampai, serving Dutch-Peranakan food.

Jakarta has an excellent and totally brand new Bus Rapid Transit system that plies the main streets of the city. It is the only way to beat the traffic, and it is highly recommended if you want to get anywhere. Prepare to brave the crowds.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Waterstones in London. Find it also on http://www.amazon.co.uk andhttp://www.bookdepository.com]

Former bank buildings along the Kali Besar.

Former bank buildings along the Kali Besar.

The former Chartered Bank of Australia, China and India, along Jalan Bank.

The former Chartered Bank of Australia, China and India, along Jalan Bank.

Cafe Batavia, on Fatahillah Square.

Cafe Batavia, on Fatahillah Square.

Stained glass in bank building.

Stained glass in bank building.

Makara at the National Museum of Indonesia.

Makara at the National Museum of Indonesia.

Borobudur Buddha head at the National Museum of Indonesia.

Borobudur Buddha head at the National Museum of Indonesia.

Fountain at Jalan Teuku Umar, Menteng.

Fountain at Jalan Teuku Umar, Menteng.

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist’s Itinerary – Singapore

Gates to the Old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill.

Gates to the Old Christian Cemetery on Fort Canning Hill.

✑ A stroll around the Singapore River, the Civic District and Fort Canning Hill, taking in the sights of Colonial Singapore. This tiny area has Singapore’s greatest concentration of museums, monuments and historical sites, all immaculately preserved. There’s so much that is historical here, it’s mindboggling.

✑ Visit Singapore’s historic districts – Bras BasahChinatown, Kampong Gelam/Arab Street and Little India. In particular, pay attention to the “streets of harmony” – streets on which multiple places of worship stand side-by-side in harmony – of which there are three: Waterloo and Queen Streets in Bras Basah, and Telok Ayer Street and North Bridge Road in Chinatown.

✑ The Singapore Botanic Gardens, to catch glimpses of the colonial. The park is one of the oldest in the region, and hasn’t changed much since the British left. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

✑ A stroll down Orchard Road, once a landscape of orchards and colonial villas, but today the region’s most upscale shopping street. Take a short detour up Emerald Hill for the beautiful Peranakan Chinese mansions.

✑ Have a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel. The atmosphere is raucous, cosmopolitan and touristy; very much the Grand Tour at its very essence.

Singapore is the best place in the region to get an authentic taste of the colonial life; to experience the splendour of a world lost everywhere else in the world but here.

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, at his purported landing site, along the Singapore River.

Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, at his purported landing site, along the Singapore River.

Boat Quay, along the Singapore River, today. Note the row of colonial-era godowns.

Boat Quay, along the Singapore River, today. Note the row of colonial-era godowns.

The Former Supreme Court Building in the Civic District is today's National Art Gallery.

The Former Supreme Court Building in the Civic District is today’s National Art Gallery.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Waterloo Street is Singapore's oldest synagogue.

Maghain Aboth Synagogue on Waterloo Street is Singapore’s oldest synagogue.

Colonial Contemporary - St John's Church on Queen Street juxtaposed against the National Library.

Colonial Contemporary – St John’s Church on Queen Street juxtaposed against the National Library.

Thian Hock Keng Temple, Telok Ayer Street.

Thian Hock Keng Temple, Telok Ayer Street, is Singapore’s oldest Chinese Temple.

Sri Mariamman (Hindu) Temple on North Bridge Road.

Sri Mariamman (Hindu) Temple on North Bridge Road.

Sultan Mosque, in the Royal Compound of Kampong Gelam.

Sultan Mosque, in the Royal Compound of Kampong Gelam.

Colonial Contemporary - the last surviving Sino-Portuguese Mansion on Orchard Road proper.

Colonial Contemporary – the last surviving Sino-Portuguese Mansion on Orchard Road proper.

Colonial black and white at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Colonial black and white at the Singapore Botanic Gardens – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And finally... the grande dame herself: Raffles Hotel.

And finally… the grande dame herself: Raffles Hotel.

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Waterstones in London. Find it also on http://www.amazon.co.uk andhttp://www.bookdepository.com]