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 – 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]

5 Essential Sights for the Grand Tourist – George Town, Penang

View of the Malacca Straits from the Grounds of the E & O Hotel in Penang.

View of the Malacca Straits from the Grounds of the E & O Hotel in Penang.

George Town, Penang is a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its being an exemplary multi-cultural trading town with many layers of history. In particular, emphasis was placed on it being a showcase of living heritage, embodied not just in the continued use of many heritage buildings, but also in the observance of a variety of traditional customs practiced by the various ethnicities that share the city. Here are 5 essential sights in this city of heritage:

✑ A walk down Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling – Penang’s “Street of Harmony” – and a visit to the stunning Khoo Kongsi Temple Complex.

✑ A leisurely saunter down Armenian Street for the beautifully restored colonial-era shophouses and the graffiti/public art.

✑ A sprightly jaunt around the Padang to the northern edge of Beach Street, for the air of colonial authenticity, and for the monumental civic and commercial architecture. Look out for Town Hall and City Hall, and the Standard Chartered Bank Building.

✑ The Pinang Peranakan Mansion, for the gloriously over-the-top interiors and the stories of matriarchs and their rebellious progeny. The Cheong Fatt Sze, or Blue Mansion, is equally stunning on the outside but far less well furnished inside.

✑ The Clan Jetties, particularly the Chew Clan Jetty, for its sheer size and for the gorgeous view at the end of the “boardwalk.”

Food is so good in Penang that even Singaporeans down South acknowledge this readily. Brave the many outdoor hawker centres for the most authentic culinary experience and the widest range of local dishes (such as Penang Char Kway Teow, Penang Laksa, Roti Canai, Indian rojak, and so on.)

And of course, stay at the magnificent Eastern & Oriental Hotel (the E & O to locals) for the stunning view of the Malacca Straits from the longest seafront promenade anywhere in the city.

Town Hall, at the Padang.

Town Hall, at the Padang.

Traditional shophouses along Armenian Street.

Traditional shophouses along Armenian Street.

Interior of the Khoo Kongsi Temple.

Interior of the Khoo Kongsi Temple.

Detail, Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Detail, Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

The edge of the Chew Clan Jetty.

The edge of the Chew Clan Jetty.

Jalan Green Hall - an image which demonstrates Georgetown's multi-cultural nature.

Jalan Green Hall – an image which demonstrates Georgetown’s multi-cultural nature.

[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]

Hôtel Métropole, Hanoi

The iconic and fabulous La Terrasse cafe restaurant, at today's Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

The iconic and fabulous La Terrasse cafe restaurant, at today’s Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

Hôtel Métropole in Hanoi is one of the most beautiful hotels on this Grand Tour of Southeast Asia, and it is easily also one of my favourite hotels of all.  Opened in 1901, it was the grande dame of the Hanoi social scene; and over a hundred years later, as the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, it remains the city’s most illustrious hotel establishment.

Hotel Metropole sits at left in a postcard from the early 1900s.  The square it sits on was known as Square Chavassieux.  Across from the Hotel stood (and stills stands) the Residence Superieur.

Hotel Metropole sits at left in a postcard from the early 1900s. The square it sits on was known as Square Chavassieux. Across from the Hotel stood (and stills stands) the Residence Superieure.

Stepping into the hotel is like stepping back in time – the atmosphere is chic, glamorous, chic and steeped in nostalgia.  Wrapped up in a seasonal quilt in Winter and supping at one’s aperitif in the famous Bamboo Bar inside the hotel’s central courtyard, one feels transported to Paris during the Belle Epoque (1870s – 1910s). The hotel is lit up with a thousand christmas lights, and the lilting melody of French chansons waft through the air.

Another memorable and unique experience the hotel offers is a spin across town in one of its 1950s vintage Citroën cars. Sailing through the streets in this vehicle, with hundreds of ordinary Hanoi-ans peering curiously at one from their motorcycles, it is hard not to feel like a turn-of-the- century colonialist, ostentatiously descending onto the town for a sumptuous dinner and subsequent merry-making at the cabaret.

Que la vie est belle!

[The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia is available now at all major bookstores in Singapore – Kinokuniya, Times and MPH – as well as at museum shops and the airport. As of mid-June, it will also be available at major bookstores across Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, at Waterstones and Blackwells in London. It is further available on http://www.amazon.co.uk and http://www.bookdepository.com]

The Hotel Lobby today.

The Hotel Lobby today.

The Hotel's chandelier.

The Hotel’s chandelier.

Vintage Citroens at the hotel.

Vintage Citroens at the hotel.

The Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang

The Facade of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (built in 1885) today.

The Facade of the Eastern & Oriental Hotel (built in 1885) today.

In Penang, stay at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel – the grande dame of the city’s hospitality scene since 1885, when it was established by the illustrious Sarkies Brothers. This is the sister hotel to the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Strand Hotel in Rangoon, and a close cousin to the present Hotel Majapahit in Surabaya.

In its time, The E & O – as it is familiarly known to Penangites – played host to nobility and heads of state as well as literary and cinematic greats, such as British authors Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling and American movie stars Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks.

The E & O is the second stop on our Grand Tour of Southeast Asia. Period postcard views from the early 1900s, and photographs from today show that it hasn’t changed much in spirit and ambience in 100 years, though of course, the E & O today has all the fittings of a modern hotel – in particular its swimming pool set right by sea along the hotel’s seafront promenade.

Be sure to opt for one of the sea-facing suites with attached balcony, if only to wake up to spectacular views of the Malacca Straits and the ships bringing cargo from afar, exactly like they have done so for two centuries.

The Romance of the Grand Tour – 100 Years of Travel in Southeast Asia will be available from 15 April onwards at all major bookstores in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, as well as at hotels featured in the book.  It will also be available online at http://www.amazon.co.uk.

1900s view of the famous Palm Court, with its fountain and whispering dome (guests seated underneath the dome could hear conversations occuring across the room).

1900s view of the famous Palm Court, with its fountain and whispering dome (guests seated underneath the dome could hear conversations occuring across the room).

1900s view of the E & O's back-lawn facing the Malacca Straits, and its Victory Annexe.

1900s view of the E & O’s back-lawn facing the Malacca Straits, and its Victory Annexe.

The E & O's back-lawn was turned into a swimming pool in the '50s and remains so today.

The E & O’s back-lawn was turned into a swimming pool in the ’50s and remains so today.