Descent into baloney we must fix

Focus must be on less but better luxury: how companies can be purpose driven themselves and in turn help travellers live sustainable lives.

Bali, Indonesia / Covid-19 / Sustainable living

Boisterous bullfrogs wake me up earlier than usual. They’ve been going literally since three in the morning, went on for 30 minutes, stopped and started again at six, they haven’t stopped since. I am not in favor of killing them but I’d love to figure out a way to get them outta here. Yesterday, a chicken guy (he called himself that) came and took three of them away but they were immediately replaced by four others. As I said, they’re ‘bull’-proportioned and I tried to physically wrangle one of them away and he mauled me. That wasn’t so smart. I’m a city-kid, I know nothing.

I venture out of my garden villa for a dip in the common pool that jolts me out of sleep. It’s a least an hour until breakfast is served and the only sound I hear in the unoccupied hotel ground on this Sunday morning is more frogs croaking eerily. As my monthlong Indonesian escape draws closer to its conclusion, I chose to give myself into a lavish weekend at style-maven, Christina Ong’s COMO Uma in Ubud. There’s always effortless elegance in her properties – playful expression of style left uncurbed yet not screaming. Exercise in non-restraint, master-class in reductive exuberance.  I settle into a poolside sunchair and tap this out as I bask in the glorious low-rising easterly sun.

When I arrived in Bali for reunion with Pascal and his family I haven’t seen in over a decade (and some good ol’ loafing), I thought I escaped the bustle of Jakarta and down-at-heals island hardship of Belitung (see my previous blog on Jakarta arrival experience and island of Belitung).  Yes, Belitung’s granite formations are simply awe-some and its white sand beach lagoons are achingly beautiful but there’s only so much dyed-in-the-tweed-city-boy can endure forgoing urban pleasures like good coffee and… uhm, service.  So seeing throngs of cafes serving up minimum two bean varieties for cappuccino and endless rows of stylish warungs with Indo-pan-pacific menu, I thought this week was going to work out splendidly.

This rarefied work and lifestyle that’s meant to be wonderful and mindful… that man-bun of work must be questioned and examined.

Little did I know that a week in Canggu was going to be akin to Seminyak-style purgatory of crowds, dust and methane choking you up at every corner and noise pollution in 3D Surround Sound.  Canggu, it seems, has been taken over during Covid by a new breed: that in-phrase who colive and cowork (why is it always a verb?). Remote working, freelancing, digital-nomads who packed their bags and took to the road whatever work that is left to be had.  Balis and Tulums of the world had long attracted the creative bohemia but acceleration that is happening now with the hostelry troupe in the so-called new-normal seems to be taking on new urgency. What we have here is not a temporary dislocation but rather a new, constant seepage into the mainstream. Urgency that requires real exigency to consider what good and ugly impact it is having.  It feels like digital nomadism is the new overtourism… shapeshifting local economies for short-term, transient lifestyle and ruining native way of live one village at a time. This rarefied work and lifestyle that’s meant to be wonderful and mindful… that man-bun of work must be questioned and examined.  These people go to yoga in the morning, drink milk that’s as far away from milk as possible, wear recyclable clothes to creative studios where furniture is all styled and mis-shaped and you unfurl your man-bun and work.  Then they spend time with people photographing you photograph them.  And the whole thing looks wonderful when you pick the right filter for it.

A beach club in Canngu

This faux-profundity is not only not real, it’s a real missed opportunity.  What is the point of eating vegan in the most unsustainable environment where every grocery isle is stocked with imported meats and dairy, countless motorbikes carry transient life stock to and fro cafes and hostels, banged up lorries spew out toxic fumes across the island ill-designed for supply chain, no EV charging station are to be found and no recycling unless you’ve outsourced it to paid waste management services?

That the old trick of well heeled travel — hating the deplorable tourist swarm while celebrating one’s own travels — is in danger of coming unstuck.  

I needed an escape from an escape and sought solace and peace in Ubud. Thankfully, the uphills of Ubud is safe distance away from the new residents of Bali.  As I relish the peaceful cobblestone streets of Ubud, reality sets in that it is not just peaceful… it is in fact deserted.  As I survey the shuttered boutique storefronts and hollowed out upmarket dining halls of Ubud, I cannot but wonder if much of this can ever come back.  As vaccine rollouts prod public life back to some semblance of normality in more places and the engines of travel industry are preparing to fire and airlines are ramping up their schedules, those of us embedded in hospitality industry is awaiting with mild trepidation whether we will see international visitors again.  But it seems travel won’t be the same this summer, and that might mean it won’t be the same again.  That the old trick of well heeled travel — hating the deplorable tourist swarm while celebrating one’s own travels — is in danger of coming unstuck.  Tales of pilgrimage to exotic, mysterious, far-flung destination like Ubud has gone from badges of enlightenment to something like guilty pleasures.  While Ubud sits empty, Canggu the grey-zone of immigration and income taxation is packing it in.  There is uncanny familiarity to this dichotomy as in other corners of our social-political-economy.  Hollowed out historical and cultural center of Ubud vs. traffic congested Canggu that was the next inevitable piece of real estate in the ever-gentrification of Balinese coastline.  So we find ourselves at a moment of disquiet, uncertain of its trajectory.  It is a global moment for Ubud vs. Canggu: the context has changed in the past year, questions of good vs. bad travel are more vexed than ever.

Empty and shuttered streets of Ubud

We must accept that there is good tourism and bad and there is cause for pause to carefully examine the difference.  At one end are projects built for responsible tourism and positive impact (for inspiration, check out Village Ways); at the other, there are the new horrors such as ‘flights-to-nowhere’ that have recently found popularity (passengers fly for up to two hours so they can pass foreign airspace for in-flight meal Instagram, then return to the airport they left for a spending spree in the duty-free shop).  Before Covid, Bali was destroyed by unabashed mass market tourism and extra-large scale global conferences. Now a different wave of mass tourism – hostel living with a ‘community’ gloss on is talking shape in Canggu while Ubud, the more deserving of destination, sits empty.

I used to think it a blessing that travel wakes us out of routine and raise consciousness of the moment. I now wonder.

In the afternoon, I wander on the river banks of Ubud, eyes squinting in the unforgiving sun, mind grappling with the novelty of being somewhere foreign.  Ubud is stunning, friendly and empty — the scarcity of visitors right now giving a glimpse of what travel must have been like before mass tourism took hold but uncertain of its path from here. Coworking and coliving brands and operators may easily find customers who want cheap and cheerful lifestyle mixing it up with likeminded restless but may have to go further to promote good tourism – to reach out to those seeking meaning and for whom sustainability is a structured belief, not a social fad.  To reach disillusioned travellers who are questioning their consumption habits and wanting to buy only what’s meaningful and essential, companies will have to fight to be the chosen ones among the plethora of me-too hostelries.  Companies that aspire to market to more well-heeled cohorts like Gen. X and older Millennials will have to work even harder.  They must focus on less but better luxury: how they can be purpose driven themselves and in turn help travellers live more sustainable lives – ultimately become a force for good.

This time is upon us. I used to think it a blessing that travel wakes us out of routine and raise consciousness of the moment.  I now wonder.  Travel industry is turning a new corner as we exit from Covid and I feel it’s primed for another overtourism moment, one that depresses rather than enlightens.  Rarity of remote work and life owes it to untethering from stressful work environments and burdensome assets.  But then so does it to extra margin in our mind and spirit for purpose.

On travelling while Covid

Belitung and Bali / Covid-19 / Quarantine

Familiar hubbub greets me, although today it feels a little awkward as it has been months since my last routine. Flight crew performs their usual and soothing benedictions while the plane taxis on the runway in snail speed, flanked by permanently idling planes on either side. The wings lift and comes alive, the wheels fold away and the pilot turns left for Singapore. Incheon sky and the West Sea down below look beautiful and peaceful.

Obstacles that fate throws their way – as if in retribution for the sins for hope of earthly happiness – is perhaps omen for things to come my way for Covid-time escape to Indonesia

Banged out a proposal so time for a movie to wind down. Frances McDormand and Chloe Zhou feat, check…Soul, done that, too. An Affair to Remember, 1957 Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr classic is on. I loved Warren Beatty (and Annette Bening, whom he married just before this movie) version… let’s see how true to the original Beatty’s remake was.  That tan on Cary Grant is sublime as is the rhythm of graceful banter from the protagonist of leanly cut suits.  It turns out that it really is a remake than an adaptation. I notice many lines in which Beatty channeled Grant word for word.  And Deborah Kerr’s all-time howler of a last line… which I remember vividly recited by Bening. “I was looking up! It was the nearest thing to heaven. Don’t, don’t worry darling. If you can paint then I could walk. Anything can happen, don’t you think?”  Obstacles that fate throws their way – as if in retribution for the sins for hope of earthly happiness – is perhaps omen for things to come my way for Covid-time escape to Indonesia (yes, Indonesia of all places). Well, the movie does conclude in classic Hollywood feel-good ending… I tell myself not to worry.

On stiff refreshments on offer… it turns out that they do carry some. Just before landing a nice male staff offers a few sips of single malt on ice, in single use plastic sadly. By the way, SQ has gone all paper boxes and wooden utensils – American takeaway chow mein style. ‘Designed for a cause’, Tiffany’s ring box-size bento reads. I don’t know if I should root for minding the carbon footprint or lament the timely purpose-washing during the unprecedented aviation downturn.

I am en-route to Jakarta and Belitung then Bali for projects. I’ve been writing a marketing plan on the side for digital nomad business so I figure I walk-the-talk and spend a month mixing work, visiting some old friends and good’ol fashioned loafing. I am transiting in Singapore with naive hopes of putting my PPS (sitting like a duck to be expired at SQ’s whim) to work, with plans to kill time at SilverKris lounge and stock up on bourbon at The Whiskey House in T3.

For the second year in a row, it looks like August holiday plans won’t exist. Unable to decide whether to hang on for a trip to the west coast US (forced on me to begin with by Cathay Pacific by way of expiring miles) or bail early and book somewhere nice in Korean countryside, I have skilfully managed to do neither. The net result is that Greece and other sunny destinations in Europe seem to be booking up at exorbitant prices as quick-witted holiday makers snapped up every location within EasyJet’s range of the Mediterranean and Adriatic Sea. Things are so bad I may have to go to a travel-warning country and return just to secure a hotel room near Incheon airport (I mean two-week government facility quarantine).

To be clear, that isn’t why I am travelling to Indonesia. What did come my way was to pick up the work from where I left off for Maritime Eco-tourism Development project when the boarder closed in Belitung. (phonetically spelled) is an island on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia in the Java Sea and has a population of 270,000, meager density in this part of the world. The island is primarily known for tin mining and the name ‘Billiton’ (of the mining conglomerate BHP Billiton) comes from Belitung. I have been working on and off in concept development and branding of the 320Ha Maritime Eco-tourism Development site (see my 2019 blog here for more on one of few remaining paradises in South East Asia). In the time since, Belitung has been designated UNESCO Global Geopark thrusting the spectacular granite landscape and white sand beaches further on the eco-tourism map.

My naive hope, naiveté it was. Upon arrival in Changi, transit passengers were swiftly whisked away in single file to a drab quarantine transit zone at the far end of the terminal.  Indocafe three-in-one mix and Oreos were served, yikes! Poorly supplied snack counter was just the beginning of troubles. Just before midnight, I get a call from Jakarta saying mandatory quarantine hotels are not assigned upon entry but that I must find my own accommodation. Having my own choice is refreshingly welcome news but being told this 10-hrs before landing in the small hours of the night isn’t. I scramble to make a flurry of calls to hotels which all keep ringing except for one dutiful duty manager at the Wyndham (yikes again). 2M IDR nightly for 40 sq.m. room with full board and two PCR test inclusions later, I have a confirmed reservation so I can finally rest in peace. It’s almost 2 am so I lie down for some shut-eye before my early morning connection.

Some good news (omen for good things to come?): an upgrade for the second leg to Jakarta. It’s 930am, I’m so disoriented from going horizontal on the hard, transit-hall bench I almost ask for something stiff. I guess single malt at this hour is entirely inappropriate. Can’t really collect my thoughts at this point… let’s just hope entering Jakarta becomes reality.

There’s really no one here to mind who’s coming in. It was beautiful.

Unattended jet bridge and long, dimly lit terminal walkway to immigration towards the light at the end, near empty travelator on which but a few fellow travellers brisk walk, unsupervised and following each other at this point, in anticipation of what will meet us at the other end. I have yet to be told exactly what entry process during Covid entails. So I’ve equipped myself with a stack of print outs from invitation letter, PCR test report to health insurance policy ready to be waived at any bureaucrat taking issue with my arrival. Yet, the space we arrive into is a deserted immigration hall with a beeline straight to passport control booths. There’s no one really here to mind who’s coming in. It was beautiful. I glimpse the barren spaces around me: rows of empty faux-velvet seats, laid out for what purpose I don’t know and a cold-looking storage room stuffed with clear plastic bags full of unused masks and sanitary gloves. It must be the remnants of giant repatriation attempt that didn’t happen.

Only sign of life is 20-something dudes in military kit, lounging around scrolling through their Facebook feeds. “Do I have to do anything before I go to passport control?”, I ask. Guy doesn’t bother to look up, slowly stretching his arm and pointing his finger in the general directions of nowhere. Watching people in professional uniform of any kind, I am constantly amazed at how the body seems to have its own language. With movement it can convey and release emotion (in this man’s case, lack of) in ways that can either expand us or sap our energy and collapse us. This man is the latter. Soon, I do find that I need to have my PCR test report verified in a hidden corner office.

That was less than 20 minutes through the waiting hall, three chops for PCR test verification, immigration and luggage carousel (my oversized golf bag adding one-full minute)! I’m certain I shaved a few minutes from my last, pre-Covid, arrival. Only thing on my nerves is owing to the so-called hotel staff who greeted and escorted me to hotel van disappearing with my passport saying the hotel will hold it until the end of my quarantine. That’s one way to make sure I don’t disappear (apparently a few guys did in the proceeding weeks… as write this post there’s rumors that quarantine will extend to 14 or 21 days depending on the in-coming country).

So there it is. I write this post as I conclude 120-hour quarantine in room 1509 of the Wyndham Casablanca Jakarta. Hotel staff just took my second, in-room, PCR test and I await the result to depart the hotel (considering this is my third Covid test in 8 days, I know I’ll be fine).

How was it? Three square meals arriving exactly at prescribed hours, two daily ‘yoga-with-Adrien’ Youtube sessions and a lot of catching up on New Yorker… I can’t complain. Should I have done this to begin with? Yes. Was it worth it? I think so. Why? Because I only have to brave two more domestic flights to get to sand so fine it squeaks under your feet as you walk in Belitung. Also, in Bali I hear people still hug (I haven’t leaned in to anyone outside my household for more than a year). Like those trapped Chilean miners, I coming back out into the light and facing the shock of the crowd.

Adventure to be continued in Part 2 so please come back and read on.

On eating wholesome – sattvic diet (plus recipe)

Food and beverage / Sustainable living

If there is one thing that this Upside-Down-tragedy gave than took, it is my new found energy to peruse recipes I learned over the years and kick my hindside back to the stove. True, YouTube helped.  So did Jamie Oliver’s army of mignons that dominate search rankings for any food item you google. But it was also having spent so much time on the road when I surrendered control of what goes in my food to hotel cooks and airline catering and extended periods as an expat in cities where food supplies are outsourced to distant lands that always gave that nagging feeling I ought to care more for provenance of my food.  So when came quarantine, so many of my favorite restaurants boarded up and every online grocer started to compete with overnight delivery, it was finally time to start being more conscious of my food choices. Around the same time, I stumbled on something called ‘sattvic diet’.

I was introduced to sattvic diet while organising the launch of Woods At Sasan hotel brand – sustainability and wellness focused retreat built on 8-acre mango orchard adjacent to Gir Forest National Park, a wildlife sanctuary for Asiatic lions in western India.  I was looking for something to amplify the hotel’s unique wellness positioning when I came across an Auyrveda-based spa menu they trialed without real effort nor much success.  I found the underlying principles intriguing and wholly relevant to modern wellbeing thought so convinced the owner to rebuild the entire F&B concept and nutritional lifestyle program on it.

Sattvic diet is interpreted as eating simple, pure and wholesome food.

Sattvic food is the cooking regimen preferred in Ayurvedic lifestyle.   Ayurveda in sanscrit means ‘wisdom of life’ – meaning as simple as it is profound.  At the core of Ayurveda is the notion of attempting to achieving balance between body, mind and spirit which to me is simply about finding peace.  As a medical and energetic system – a means of remedying imbalances – there’s some prerequisite knowledge like dosha (body type) specific to you but I’ll leave it your voluntary pastime research rather than dwell on it here.   If you’ve spent time in Chinese-culture based cities you probably have been drilled in and perplexed by the yin and yang system in food (i.e. heaty and cooling). I interpret dosha something akin to that – a system of understanding of the world around us. Anyway, with all the modern knowledge we are acquiring about gut health specific to each individual and its importance, having better understanding of my unique dietary needs sounded like common sense that doesn’t need ideological or religious resolve so I was ready to dive in.

Talking about wellbeing, particularly when dwelling on alternative kind, can feel tedious, not so – and how profoundly easy – the sattvic diet. Sattvic diet is eating simple, pure and wholesome food. In today’s practice, this means consuming perfectly ripe, fresh, natural, not processed and easily digestible ingredients – kind of no brainer in promoting gut health. If you’d like a deeper understanding of Sattvic diet, this is the link to download the introductory material on nutritional and lifestyle program I developed for the hotel. We developed the whole program- from definition of Sattvic lifestyle principles to a new cuisine to multi-day, retreat program based on Sattvic principles.

What is it for food to be wholesome? Surely, it is equally about healthy food habits – how we eat, not just what we eat. Pondering on this has taught me to think about food in a way other than ‘what’s for dinner’. I try not to simplify food problems strictly through the lens of colonisation, globalisation and disenfranchisement but it seems to me food is the most foundational human right – I’d say you need food before liberty, equality and fraternity and it is only fair that we create a world that ensures everyone has access to nourishing food, that good food is universally affordable, that food is grown in a way that’s sustainable and protects the land, and that the industries that involve food provide well-paying jobs in food and farming.

Often our conversation of food is reduced to calories, a measure of heat. Underlying notion is that “a calorie is a calorie” – meaning all food is of essentially the same quality. That everything can be understood as the sum of its constituent parts. Nutritionally, this is a harmful, cynical and worse-than-idiotic argument because not all calories are created equal. How we chose to consume those calories is loaded with real world implications. There’s a lot broken in the food world and we can play a role by making smart food choices like looking for food that comes straight from sources that are known and having increased awareness in community involvement in ingredient sourcing and nutritional and cultural properties of food.

Nutritionally, this is a harmful, cynical and worse-than-idiotic argument because not all calories are created equal.

If eating better (or differently) is about cooking sustainably, another topic I have been thinking a lot about is cooking inexpensively. Cooking and eating well is really easy when you have an unlimited budget, but for almost all of us (I’m assuming), that’s not reality, especially right now. When I started these pages, I wanted to be more than just a witness to the world around me. Observations of the inspiring and the beautiful are fine but I also want to be helpful in ways I share useful and practical information. With that in mind, I’m really going out on a limb here and sharing a recipe on cooking inexpensively. Also, if you’re a proponent of cutting animal products out of your diets where you can, this recipe checks that box, too. Whether you’re vegetarian or not, this ultra-budget friendly recipe can easily find its way into your “yikes, I have nothing ready for dinner” rotation.

Lentil griddlecakes

Makes: 4 servings
Time: About 30 minutes 

Anything cooked with beans and legumes are delicious and wildly inexpensive. When people talk about fake-meat, I’m like… (I think their heart is in the right place, but) we really have good food that exists that comes from the earth and know how to grow like beans and grains which are the best source of proteins, all kinds of amino acids and fiber so we don’t need to invent things in a lab. And there’s so many different ways to cook them(!)

As is true for any bean dish, starting with dried beans that you cook yourself is more flavorful and cheaper, but canned are completely fine, and you can use any kind you like. And when I say beans, what I should really say is legumes which – are the most important source of protein in the world – together with beans and peas are a family. This happens to be an example with lentils. You roughly mash the lentils soaked and split overnight and make what basically amounts to a thick pancake batter that you can jazz-up in any number of ways (see the section at the very end). Cooked in a skillet (just like pancakes), the cakes get golden and crisp on the outside while staying slightly creamy in the middle. Easy, cheap, rustic and essentially good for you.

  • 2 cups of red split lentils, soaked overnight and drained
  • 1 cup of coconut milk (or soy or almond, if you have none just whole milk)
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons (30ml) melted butter, olive oil, or good-quality vegetable oil, plus more for cooking
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • (Soy sauce and finely chopped scallions – for dipping sauce, in picture)
  • 1 cup equals approx. 250ml

1. Soak lentil overnight and split. I split the lentils myself to remove protective seed coat. This is fairly easily done by rubbing and washing whole lentils by hand in warm water. Seed coats will come off and float so you can discard water on top. Just repeat. As lentil soaks in water most will split by itself.

2. Using a blender, mash the lentils rough (do not purée). Use a fork to slowly stir in the coconut milk, egg, and melted butter. Stir until thoroughly combined. 

2. Add the flour and sprinkle with salt and pepper (less necessary if you’re using already-seasoned, canned kind). Stir with a fork just enough to incorporate the flour, adding more milk or reserved lentil water if necessary to achieve the consistency of thick pancake batter. 

3. Preheat the griddle. Working in batches, first brush with a little oil. Spoon on batter at a time to form 4 to 5 inch griddlecakes. Cook until bubbles form on top and the cakes firm a bit, then turn and cook the other side until golden. If you are adding extra jazz (see below), sprinkle them on top side when bottom is cooked and firm and flip it after the toppings stick to topside of batter. As they finish, transfer the griddlecakes to the prepared pan and keep warm in the oven while you finish the others. Always serve hot.  Store extras in freezer until you reheat on the griddle.

Additions for extra pizzaz

Stir and mix in these additions, individually or in combination to add taste and flavour. 2 tablespoons for hint of flavour or liberally for, well, a lot of taste. Sprinkle some paprika on topside to add a dash of color and taste.

  1. Minced scallions or leeks – typical of Korean mung bean pancakes made
  2. Minced mild fresh herbs like parsley, mint or cilantro plus piemento
  3. Minced potent fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme or tarragon
  4. Minced fresh ginger, garlic

Watching In the mood for love on New Year’s eve

Arthouse cinema / Hong Kong / Current affairs

It is level 3 in Seoul which means restaurants are only open for take-out and entertainment is all but nil. So when I found out that movie theaters were open (with capacity limits) on New Year’s eve, that’s how I was going to spend the evening in this oddest of the odd years. I was afforded two choices – Wonder woman 1984 or (to my surprise) digitally-remastered, Wong Kar Wai’s In the mood for love. It made for trouble-free decision making.

If you’re a reader of these pages but haven’t seen In the mood for love, you have definitely suffered information asymmetry and I can only chastise you to fall in with modern, global cinematic sensibilities. Watching Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in the signature colors and frames of Wong Kar Wai evokes mood and emotions unlike for any other I can think of. This tour de force, Wong Kar Wai at his most stylized cinematography, is non-stop feast for your senses. I’ll attempt to describe it with two scenes and a costume (you’ll see what I mean… read on).

How does the purveyor of such outlandishly beautiful and perfectly fitted cheongsams live in such a modest rental apartment… but that’s besides the point when she levitates above us mortals shrouded in her quietly melancholy.

Wong Kar Wai is a genius of cinematic aesthetics, full of lavishly warm colors switching to and fro invigorating cool palette. His dramatic plot sequences are punctuated by arresting music as if a cue to turn the scene to the next. In fact, the main theme music (called Yumeji’s theme) played in harrowing violin bowing layered on top of plucked cords is repeated innumerable times in the most tender and melancholy scenes making the key plot lines linger long in the memory just by recalling the music. One particularly repeated scene is in which Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung make their respective trips to a wonton noodle hawker traversing through a narrow alley, Maggie Cheung always descending the steps showing her sleek cheongsam silhouette framing her from behind for the viewer and Tony Leung climbing up, many times intersecting without actually meeting. Rain is ever present feature in the film which adds to melancholy and romance. Dramatic narrative reaches a crescendo when the two leads are trapped in the alley in a chance encounter for cover from the rain.

Which brings me to the costume. In this chance encounter, Maggie Cheung is in green silk (perhaps linen blend) cheongsam – one of many, may mesmerisingly beautiful, endless procession of the close-fitting dress with impossibly high-neck and short-sleeves. How does the purveyor of such outlandishly beautiful and perfectly fitted cheongsams live in such a modest rental apartment… but that’s besides the point when she levitates above us mortals shrouded in her quietly melancholy. Her high-necked – stiff and lined with thin sheet of plastic – design is particular, almost unusual, and simply sublime on top of Maggie Cheung’s shoulders.

Another favorite scene of mine is the low key, intimate dinner they share in the booth of a typical Hong Kong tea house. Dim, art deco down-lights, cheap laminated menu, kitsch crockery – all hallmarks of quintessential Hong Kong cha chaan teng experience and here we find them as one of the most romantic scenes unfold. Two lonely souls sharing the most pragmatic meal together (sinewy steak, Maggie on mustard and Tony on ketchup) is a brief escape from their crammed rented dorms, away from the watchful gaze of the overbearing landlady. What finally brings them together with intension is where Tony gently quizzes Maggie about the handbag she is carrying, which happens to be the same make and model supposedly gifted to his wife by someone only for Tony to be quizzed back on his tie which is also identical to one gifted to Maggie’s husband. Confronted with the realisation that their spouses are having an affair with each other, time stands still in this most heart aching yet beautiful scene.

Perhaps it was recent news I read that global banks are boosting Singapore hiring to mitigate Hong Kong risk after crackdowns from Beijing (news here). Perhaps it was reading John le Carre’s obituary and remembering the opening scene in An Honourable School Boy in the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, one of my favourite old haunts (for those uninitiated in anti-hero spy tropes, George Smiley is the Gary Oldman character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Recently, I’ve been reminiscing a lot about the glorious days past of Hong Kong. At least, the gritty underground neon nostalgia that defines its Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood and references the romance of Wong Kar Wai. I’m just not ready yet to say goodbye to Hong Kong I loved.

Hong Kong is far from prefect. One is subjected to a number of grievances – living in shoeboxes, intolerable muggy-heat, pollution and permanent crowd and ambient noise. I will always remember my local, head of external relations colleague’s (during my Hong Kong Disneyland time) favorite excuse for Hong Kong exception – that Hong Kong has always attracted bandits, pirates, wanderers and immigrants and that there’s a uniquely rebellious side to this survival story. His conclusion always was that Hong Kong deserves – demands – a second chance.

I will always remember my local colleague’s favorite excuse for Hong Kong exception – that Hong Kong has always attracted bandits, pirates, wanderers and immigrants and that there’s a uniquely rebellious side to this survival story.

Perhaps it is my New Jersey upbringing… growing up looking across the river to Manhattan with awe and admiration. I instantaneously recognized the quintessential Hong Kong attitude – that don’t-mess-with-me and fuhgeddabaudit rants in Cantonese, yet unmistakeable in their facial and bodily expressions. It may even be my Korean background, that contempt for authority and unwilling pliability which comes so naturally.

If Hong Kong is anything, it is grit, self-serving pragmatism, brave (perhaps naive) optimism and most of all adaptability. It would be historically unenlightened to regard that Hong Kong was ever really British – that it should remain a vestige of colonial rule – and naive to think now that its spirit would be thumbed and quashed by Beijing. Last 100 years was a brief aberration resulting from Opium War in the long history of bandits who have resiliently eked out a living in the southern shores, irrespective of who ruled the middle kingdom to the north. Hong Kong never belonged to anyone. Hong Kong will adapt. Beijing’s might can’t bend its plasticity. I won’t write off Hong Kong. I root for my adopted city.

Year of the Covid holiday gift ideas 

Holiday season 2020

It’s that time of the year when everyone including editors and contributors of magazines and newspapers dispense their seasonal wish-lists.  Normal’s proprietor is shamelessly no exception so I’m having a go at my own rendition but hopefully of a conscious kind appropriate in this time of anguish.  Frankly I wasn’t expecting to see this annual ritual in the pages of my go-to (enlightened?) newspapers and magazines this year, at least not so early in the season.  I just saw daily flashes of the US four week average infection exponentially upward at some 70%.  Are we doing elaborate gifts this year? Gift-to-self, really? Herringbone tweeds with ribbed mulberry-silk cuffs (sustainable fashion I’m sure, if the term made any sense if you don’t say it too fast), that indispensable shearling-lined Austrian sneakers and oh, spicy, woody olfactory notes of the macho kind– with ginger at the top, because you’re in search of something stiff yet calm and collected ‘tis time of the year.  I can’t help but feel somewhat frivolous…if not wanting consideration. As I look around though, it doesn’t look like our cities are going to be stopped by the pandemic from gearing up for Christmas. Some shows must go on… perhaps it warrants a sigh of relief.

Here is my shortlist of pandemic era, stay-clear-from-lavishly-chic covering kits both for the outdoors-bent and the ever cautious homebody. Prices are in USD unless otherwise noted.

The North Face Cryos Hiker Boot – Made In Italy

North Face has been releasing a small selection of outerwear and boots Made in Italy and they add understated sleekness and those oh-so-Italian details. This boot handmade in Italy from premium leather is equally rugged and versatile.  Felted-wool linings ensure you rough it out in severe conditions while the natural fabric adds breathability. And yes of course, Vibram® soles so you have traction while looking good.

Pictured is in ‘black and glacial white’. Also comes in ‘bitter chocolate’, ‘warm brown’ and ‘solid black’.  Women’s collection has some beautiful material/color combinations like ‘felted wool upper in charcoal’ or ‘light grey’ (approx. $199)


Fox Brothers Flannel Lounge Gown

Fox Bros. & Sons. have been cloth makers based in Somerset England going back to 1770s. They produce high-quality, wool and cashmere in quintessentially English patterns. In fact, they are the original creators of Flannel. I’ve been occasionally ordering clothing and accessories from their online shop (The Merchant Fox) for years as they only produce and market a handful of items per year, all at reasonable prices. Actually, their email marketing went dark for a couple of years and then recently returned to my inbox (perhaps something happened to the team?), this time with a lot more product lines than usual.

This shawl collar lounge gown in mid-grey with contrasting navy piping would make a great gift. I’ve worn mine out for years (when I happen to be residing in city with winter, I mean) and hope one day someone will gift a second (you’ll see what I mean when you see the price… Prince of Wales please).

GBP 750

While you’re browsing, check out what they’re calling Utility Jacket (military style cross between over-shirt and jacket) in indigo wool (GBP 450).

DJI Mavic Mini 2

I’m thoroughly uninitiated when it comes to gadgets so when I called on a friend to witness the inaugural flight one Sunday afternoon this past summer, he blurted out ‘was that a gift?.’ So I can safely assume it’s not something you spend your own money on. If you want a breather from everyday grind wanting a different perspective, this maybe a welcome distraction.

Starts $449 (invest in Fly More Combo at $599 with three batteries, these batteries are appallingly short lasting)

Stagg EKG Electric Pour-over Kettle

Some believe that using a pour-over coffee kettle is a waste of energy.  A gimmick that makes you look more like a coffee hipster, akin to belabored latte art atop an otherwise perfect espresso beverage. If you’re like some of my – pounce on your 21 grams with 10kg weight – espresso snob friends, well… pour-over isn’t even coffee.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  Particularly when you’re in quarantine no. 4 of the year and have hours to spare.

Stagg EKG made by Fellow, orignally a coffee shop in San Francisco Mission district, has become synonymous with highend electric kettles with its sleek design and built-in features like precision temperature control. You can’t go past the EKG if you’re serious about pour-over coffee.

Pictured is in polished steel but if I had to gift, I’d go for polished copper (think iPhone rose-gold). Or black which is their signature color, particularly handsome with walnut handle. Pass on the bluetooth connect (EKG+) version and save $30.


Prima Pietra, Tenuta Prima Pietra

This Toscana IGT (50% merlot, rest in cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot) comes from Castiglion del Bosco’s estate in Riparbella in the northern Tuscan coast near Bolgheri. Castiglion del Bosco is Ferragamo family’s scion Massimo Ferragamo owned winery in Montalcino. This Toscana IGT (50% merlot, rest in cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petit verdot) comes from Castiglion del Bosco’s estate in Riparbella in the northern Tuscan coast near Bolgheri. Castiglion del Bosco is Ferragamo family’s scion Massimo Ferragamo owned winery in Montalcino.

This is 2016 vintage (current is 2017), elegant and complex perfect for lunches and dinners in holiday season with meats or just pasta. 2015 and 2016 are among the greatest vintages for Brunello and my hope is that same is the case for Super Tuscans like Prima Pietra. A lot of cherries and chocolate. I’m drinking now.

EUR 50 per bottle (box of 6 in this photo would make sense for shipping).

Or contact Carolina Bracalente (, Wine Club and Hospitality Manager at CdB for seasonal offers.

Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World, Fareed Zakaria

So now onto some substance you can share…. Fareed Zakaria is the smartest guy I know on TV. In his newly released book Ten Lessons For A Post-Pandemic World, the international sage compares Covid-19 to 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis as the third major post-cold war shock to hit the global order and unspools his endless wisdom on how this crisis is fundamentally changing our world. He describes that Covid-19, like the two cataclysmic event before it, is bound to have the proverbial butterfly effect on our world. “What began as a healthcare problem in China . . . prompted a simultaneous lockdown of all business across the globe, resulting in a Great Paralysis, the cessation of economics itself.”, he says. Zechariah in the bible was proven to be prescient when Gabriel appears to him and announced that his wife will bear the harbinger of Christ. I had to throw that in there… (anyway, that’s what I always think of when I hear Fareed Z speak).

In a YouTube video of his fascinating hour-long talk with Reid Hoffman (founder of Linkedin) he compares the current remote work situation to pre-industrial era when a farmer lived and worked on his farm and a shopkeeper living above the shop, which seemed only natural. He describes how our Madmen style work-life divide, in which we go to work and have three-hour martini lunches and after return to our suburban home, where everybody knows you but nothing about your work life and vice versa was never really sustainable. Well, my money is on the smart guy… I wish for this Christmas that remote work will only become natural in 2021 and my family, friends and coworkers will live a much for mixed and muddled up life.

$10.75 in Hardcover, $9.32 in Kindle (discounted)

Merry Christmas from Normal.

Cities, profit from this

COVID-19 / On cities

As I write this story I glance down from my perch in Seoul. On this particularly crisp October morning I was enjoying a cup of Fall Blend on the terrace of a coworking café. Groups of young men dressed in the sharp, telltale style of consultants in their first year on the job (navy suit, white shirt, no tie, monk-strap shoes) pacing through rotating doors of the building; boisterous women in pairs in fashionable getups with just-so-right hemlines (below the knee but not quite calf-length) flashing their Galaxy phones toward contact tracing QR code reader; around me clusters of two or three were having pre-work meetings and on the streets there was busyness and a sense of purpose.

Seoul is not Hong Kong or Singapore, nor is it Tokyo; its conditions are different. Seoul has (to date) done a commendable job of managing the pandemic while not succumbing to global peer pressure of shuttering its economy.  It doesn’t benefit from deep pocketed, monopolizing sovereign wealth funds or unimaginably loose monetary policy.  Giant chaebols which have traditionally lead the country’s growth are deep in their fair share of troubles owing to trade wars and economic nationalism of usual, go-to importers.  So it is up to Seoulites to pull up their hemlines and get things going.  As I eavesdrop on effervescent chatter (veiled by the facemasks that barely contain it) around me, it was easy to witness how entrepreneurial gusto, not government planning and policies, had helped the city to get back in action. It’s a formula that other cities would profit from if they want to maintain the positive of revitalised neighbourhoods while also figuring out what to do with all those hollowed out city centers.

We in cities require better information on true likely longevity of this conundrum beyond few weeks at a time.

As case counts surge as shutdown fatigue rises and temperature falls, authorities around the world seem eager to revert back to harsh restrictions to movement and shutdowns of public venues. I am genuinely sympathetic to suspended civic lives this brings to compatriots of those cities I love as we here in Seoul attempt at normalcy.  I can’t imagine the anguish of owners and operators of small businesses whose livelihood depends entirely on diktat by fits and starts. We in cities require better information on true likely longevity of this conundrum beyond few weeks at a time. We are in dire need of more transparency from civic leaders on longer term trajectory and consequences of decisions they are suggesting. And if that is simply too much to ask for, we proud members of this citizenry will have to pull up our bootstraps and get going.  

I just read in the weekend pages of a prominent paper in which local correspondents hail how marvellous their cities are now that they’re devoid of tourists.  “Isn’t it great?” Muses one correspondent as a visitor was heard saying to her friend in front of Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire” in the empty National Gallery in London. Piazza Navona, always been regarded by locals as a place to avoid is now starting to be reclaimed by locals so they can enjoy the newly replaced menu catering to local tastes, another reporter celebrates. But what about the hard reality these venue are at half of its originally designed capacity on which their leases were granted, not to mention that the newly rolled out menu and pricing to attract locals simply isn’t financially feasible when government handouts discontinue? Travails of owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazzas clinging to survive in hollowed out city centers is no less tragic than overtourism – remember? that used to be a word. No one would have predicted that the tourists would stop coming one day and we should not pretend to wish that for anyone.

Travails of owners of the restaurants, bars and cafés around the piazzas clinging to survive in hollowed out city centers is no less tragic than overtourism – remember? that used to be a word.

We don’t need bureaucrats to tell us how to live our lives much less the political divide informing us to lean epidemiologically one way or the other. As I pull up my facemask and brave the late October chills of broad boulevard of Seoul, I cheer for our collective enterprising esprit to open up our cities and get going again.

Loving (Kim Hwan-gi) in the time of pandemic 

Seoul / Modern Art / Semi-abstract Acrylic

The Pandemic reduced my mobility to a radius of inches, not hrs in flight time.  Greatest challenge I had to endure is the oppression of the mundane.  Groundhog Day in this uninspiring Punxsutawney urban living in Seoul (since lockdown in Singapore I left to Seoul, first to maternal comforts of three hot meals during 2-week quarantine and then hunkered down in a service apartment). Little did I foresee this hunkering down to become months-long hibernation. ‘This great pause needs to become the great recalibration’ I heard someone say.  Are you for real? ‘Relishing the day-to-day mundane’ is something we say to console our broken heart…  My heart—my actual physical heart, nothing figurative here—has ran away from me, has become its own separate thing, beating too slow, its rhythm at odds with mine. This is an affliction not merely of the spirit but of the body. Flesh, muscles, organs are all compromised. No physical position is comfortable.  People are inviting me to speak in another Zoom presentation and regular notifications ping my iPhone. How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?

My heart—my actual physical heart, nothing figurative here—has ran away from me, has become its own separate thing, beating too slow, its rhythm at odds with mine.

How quickly my life has become another life, forcing to contend with second, daily trips to the gym and mindless resistance of the elliptical machine. Gripping the handle of kettlebell, I notice I am not even sweating properly anymore. Body temperature control is compromised … another sign of corporal dislocation in the time of involuntary shelter. Yet how slow I am to adapt, hastily donning the ever-uncomfortable PPE at the first sign of dirty look from the gym attendant – accusing me of lack of empathy for my fellow-man. In the changing room, my thumb executes a numbingly practiced tap on Instagram. I see a post of a woman in beautiful Tuscan sun, and I think, I should checkout that place next time I’m there.  In that small moment, what has been true for as long as I can remember is still true—that marking up my calendar months out, nominating places to visit, acquaintances to check in on is what I do.  Then, with a horrible lurch, I remember again. That brief forgetting feels like both a betrayal and a blessing. Do I forget because this world will return to normal?  I think so. I hope so.

Sheltered in my room 20 hours at a time, I’ve been staring at a pair of cheaply reproduced prints of Kim Hwan-gi painting hung against lackadaisical beechwood wall, so in character of this service apartment.  Kim belongs to the first generation of turn of the century Korean artists that adopted western technique of representation.  His paintings exist somewhere between abstraction and depiction, while establishing a vocabulary of his own.  Working, for the most part in oil and acrylic, Kim made paintings of varied hues and patterns – lines, dots, spaces. 

They give order to the chaos of displacement and communicates what feels to me like a dislocated body lost but finding harmony in this dreamscape. 

In this mind-numbing time of the pandemic, I sensed a particular bonding with his lines that meander without end and dots that drift boundlessly.  His pictures are cool in tone but psychologically charged. His blue semi-abstracts are particularly arresting.  They give order to the chaos of displacement and communicates what feels to me like a dislocated body lost but finding harmony in this dreamscape.  I’m told dots were typical of Kim’s style toward the end of his life when his work tended become even more pattern oriented.  Perhaps it was his yearning for a place where he found his true identity – a world to call his own.   Perhaps all the pandemic talk has taken an emotional toll – I must find a way to call this world, however disoriented, my own.

K House

Southern Sri Lanka / Architecture / Holiday Home

Way beyond Galle and past Ahangama and Matara in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka is K House, a secluded beach front property surrounded by lush Indian Ocean flora and open ocean views. It is where minimalist architecture of two villas effortlessly blend into nature and stand in comfortable distance to provide intimate privacy within. I was in Sri Lanka over an extended weekend to visit and talk-shop with the proprietors of four boutique hotels in Boosa, Galle and Ahangama but my real intent was to get to K House with as much weekend left to take in the architecture and lounge about (if you can call a 20 hour visit including to and fro ground transportation that).

Time and again I am surprised how warm and temperate weather allows the built environment to immerse into nature through generous openings

Arrival experience at K House is somewhat disquieting affair as my car forks off main road and twists turns into a village pathway obstructed by overgrown jungle. After a few minutes of bump and grind in the back seat of the car, I’m confronted by extra-wide metal door slowly pulled open by a groundsman. Once on premise though, the large openings, soft transitions and natural materials harmoniously present itself among lush greenery.

Time and again I’m surprised how warm and temperate weather allows the built environment to immerse into nature through generous openings. The vast roofs of the two buildings cover indoors and porches from rain and sun, both of which can come down intensely one after another here, protecting you from but also allowing opening to nature.  Semi-outdoor living and dining, large sliding doors agape wide into porches and the lush greenery all connect to each other seamlessly. The two villa structures are positioned perpendicularly in two different planes defining thresholds between them.

I felt a deep and real connection to the place. Perhaps it was the harmony of architecture and pared down nature. Or precious sliver of peace afforded by the welcome, slow weekend. Nature is something that transcends all cultural preferences because we have a natural connection between us and the natural environment and natural materials. We are, after all, at the core, a natural being. 

Early mornings and late afternoons are special time of day when the sun drapes shadows in sharp angles. Simple lines as backdrops for natural textures of concrete and wood abound in K House. Cushions throw a burst of colors to otherwise earthy hues everywhere but curiously seem to soften the overall ambience.

Tide flows deep, all the way right in front of the fences of K House but when it drains away from shore, a wide sandy path shows up for miles to the east. My long solitary walks were occasionally broken by scenes of local families and kids happily noisy yet calm with an utterly charming sort of delicate tenderness. Little girls digging in the sand, absorbed in their activity. Fathers kicking balls around without abandon, each time his boy chasing it down obligingly.

K House is a collaboration between AIM Architecture in Shanghai and Norm Architects of Copenhagen. My visit here was provided by generous courtesy of Wendy Saunders, principal of AIM.

K House – Tangalle Rd, Godauda, Sri Lanka

Yakumo Saryo – in cloud eight

Tokyo / Impossibly-light Interior Design / Dining Room


My taxi ride is getting longer, going deeper into nondescript residential neighbourhood.  I pass by some oppressive modernist gymnasiums of 1960 Tokyo Olympics era … and then it keeps going again. Finally I’m dropped off curb side in front of a gated residence (again nondescript) and I wonder “is this going to be another sit and eat what I’ll give you” in an underwhelmingly minimalist restaurant. I walk up the steps through a small courtyard and greeted by Sugimoto-san, in perfectly bleached chef’s robe with a mild, forced smile.

I’m here on a field trip of sorts to prepare for our upcoming Asia Pacific Owners Retreat. I’m getting together a dozen or so hotel owners in Tokyo for two days of meetings and good-old camaraderie. I want to treat them to some high quality restaurants which are not overly exposed (read not-Jiro) and Yakumo Saryo was referred to me by my friend Masa who is accompanying me.  Masa and Sugimoto-san exchange quick, polite pleasantries and then we’re whisked around the tea room, through the corridors and the two small dining spaces. Along the way we are introduced design elements from flooring to traditional hanging ornaments to custom built case goods.  Main reason we are here is because Yakumo Saryo is owned by Shinichiro Ogata, creator of Simplicity – a minimalist objects brand – and better known abroad for his Aesop retail shops and Andaz Tokyo design.  His proportioned layout, attention to detail and natural texture and tones are evident in all corners we pass by.  We are then seated in the communal dining table close to the kitchen across from the sunlit, sunken dining area with smaller tables.  As I slide into my seat gently pushed in place by Sugimoto-san, I notice that our extra long table is one giant slab of Japanese cypress wood, the ones usually seen in upscale sushi counters – just larger.  I brush my palm against the wood to feel the warmth of the surface and smooth yet impeccably tactile wood grain.  Impossible lightness sets in. I feel at home.

I look around and observe. And observe you must… nothing jumps out but everything seems to be subtly in perfect place.  A staff at far end of our table is shaving off slices of sashimi and rolling them into three equidistant placements.  He is also in pearly white uniform, almost looks like freshly laundered high school baseball kit (his head is shaved).  Behind him on the minimalist kitchen counter is a singular pot, something gently simmering and steaming.  Toward the end of the meal my rice come from that pot.

I can’t remember the exact servings in our course lunch.  I was distracted. Sufficiently mesmerized by the entire experience which all fell into place in perfect harmony. Quality of the ingredients of course, accompanying plates and glassware (our meal was pared by teas) and attentive and friendly service.  I just remember it was beautiful.

Occasionally I see testament to those places where it is borne out of singular philosophy, not of our own to comprehend but for the proprietor to profess.

It’s Tuesday lunch hour and the dining room is surprisingly sparse for such an amazing establishment.  Sugimoto-san explains they manage reservations so not to fill the restaurant. I tell him I thought I’m reasonably well-informed of good restaurants in Tokyo but I’m  surprised that I’ve never heard of Yakumo Saryo.  He replies with a polite and awkward smile – ‘we don’t invite journalists… and we never advertised’.

After lunch we are escorted across the hallway back to the team room (called Sabo Tea House).  An extra large square table with a view out to the Japanese garden dominates the sparse room. On the opposite side are counter seats separating the room from a small kitchen where tea is prepared.  Darker hues permeate throughout this room. Flooring is tar grey concrete, imprinted with tatami patterns.  We watch the tea ceremony in silence and are each served frothy matcha.  I pick up the bowl in my palms and take a sip. It’s delicious so I unconsciously blurt out some exclamation.  Staff’s face lightens up and says something in Japanese. Masa smiling, translates “it is proper manners to complement the person who created tea”. I’ve done something right today.

Ever since Kevin Costner recited that harrowing call, I have been a faithful believer of ‘If you build it, They will come’.  Visionaries don’t create to please customers, much less to make profit. True makers make because… well, they know what they want to create. Occasionally I see testament to those places where it is borne out of singular philosophy, not of our own to comprehend but for the proprietor to profess. A place so beautiful because the creator is faithful to what he believes in.  It is steadfast yet not stubborn. Yakumo Saryo is that place of singular vision and, I daresay, perfection.

Yakumo Saryo, 3-chōme-4-7 Yakumo, Meguro City, Tōkyō-to 152-0023, Japan

Breakfast – starts 9am, traditional Japanese breakfast Y3,200

Lunch – starts 12pm, course lunch Y8,000, Y12,000

Dinner – starts 7pm, course menu Y25,000

Sabo Tea House – 9am to 5pm

Belitung EcoBeach and surrounding islands

Sumatra / People & Culture / Retreat

When Davide (pseudonym) first made an appearance in my office with an hour notice and announced he owned one-tenth of Belitung Island and that he’s wanting advice for developing that area as socially and environmentally responsible project, I only had two questions – first, where in the heck is Belitung (I’ve been in hospitality for 20 years in Asia and never heard of it) and second, ”ya that environmentally, socially… you and everybody else”. Then I forgot about it for months until he called me again when I was sitting in the back of bus in Singapore. Second time, I was intrigued by this persistent proprietor. Now, I regard Belitung one of few remaining paradises in South East Asia and I pray that influx of low-cost carriers and overtourism won’t ruin it. And I am completely on board with Davide’s vision and have been trying to contribute ever since. (phonetically spelled) is an island on the east coast of Sumatra, Indonesia in the Java Sea and has a population of 270,000, meager density in this part of the world. The island is primarily known for tin mining and the name ‘Billiton’ (of the mining conglomerate BHP Billiton) comes from Belitung. In fact, the original dutch mining company Billiton, which later merged with BHP, was founded on this island in 1860 (I bet you didn’t know that, as I). Belitung’s glorious history goes back further as it had been an important stopover along the maritime silk road and hosted traders from both east and west. Zheng He, the great Ming dynasty mariner, explorer and diplomat passed through Belitung on this way to the Arabian Peninsula. From the Sultanate of Oman came a ship laden with treasures, much of which are still on exhibition in the Singapore Asian Civilisation Museum. Upon studying Xi Jin Ping’s lesser known ‘maritime’ Belt and Road map, Belitung is prominently featured (probably without any Indonesian endorsement).

On my first encounter with EcoBeach, I thought of White Beach on Boracay or the less crowded versions in Cebu and its surrounding islands for sand so fine it squeaks under your feet.

On the northwest corner of this island is Tanjung Kelayang, informally called EcoBeach (I think Davide made that up…). On my first encounter with EcoBeach, I thought of White Beach on Boracay or the less crowded versions in Cebu and its surrounding islands for sand so fine it squeaks under your feet as you walk. Then there’s granite rock formations look like something from The Flintstones, perhaps reminding of Seychelles. Surrounded by mangroves and tall swaying palm trees, the powdery sand and turquoise seas was simply not something I expected and not heard of in all my time in Asia.

On the opposite side of Belitung, across the south west shore of the island is an islet called Seliu. Only about 300 households habit it mainly subsisting on fishing but it real lure is the prettiest of white sandy beach. We had a somewhat different agenda. We travelled to Seliu to survey the local architecture as I was told traditional housebuilding technique still survives there. Upon first inspection, they are raw and, frankly, overly dilapidated to even understand what was originally there. But over time, I saw patterns emerge. Elongated dutch style buildings with multiple bays, a porch up front with decorated picket fence, ornate pedestals and even occasional column capitals. My travel companion Lyndon (principal of Neri & Hu) blurted out… ”it reminds of houses in Philippines!”. I think they made him home sick.

Travelling to Seliu isn’t easy. First you have to get to Membalong in the southern end of Belitung, at least an hour by car from Tanjung Pandan – where most visitors are based, and then travel further to reach Teluk Gembira Port to catch an irregularly scheduled ferry. A speedboat may carry you to Seliu Island or you could negotiate a ride on local fisherman’s boat, options viable only if your group is small. Boat journey itself is a glorious, island affair basking in generous sunlight bouncing off shimmering seas. Plenty of azure and dash of pretty colors and motifs on local boats and signages. Most pleasant of all, smiles from the locals all around.

At the time of writing, Garuda had four weekly direct flights to/fro Singapore to Tanjung Pandan Airport in Belitung. After a swift 50min. flight from Singapore on stylish Bombardier CRJ 1000 (seating capacity only 90), local team zipped us through immigration cum customs in Belitung. It was magic. That Garuda schedule was meant to be seasonal but unfortunately it’s been discontinued since. Hopefully the schedule would resume soon. There’s also been talks between Jetstar and Belitung to connect from Singapore.

Belitung EcoBeach Tents

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