05 October 2014

Hyderabad

Hyderabad is truly one of India's great cities for history, reflected in its beautiful palaces and museums. Located in the southern Indian state of Telangana, Hyderabad is on the banks of the Musi river.

CITY MAPPING
Many sights are located in the Old City, south of the Musi river. Go around 7 km north and you will reach the artificial Hussain Sagar Lake, in the centre of which stands a 17 meter tall Buddha statue. Around 5 km west of the lake is the area of Banjara Hills, a relatively upscale central neighbourhood comprising many hotels, malls and restaurants.

Hyderabad's Rajiv Gandhi International Airport around 30 km south of Banjara Hills.

SIGHTS
Home to several dynasties across the centuries, and being the richest princely state prior to India's independence, Hyderabad is a treasure-trove of attractions.

Old City
A bustling warren of tiny streets packed to the hilt, with shops selling everything from pearls to footwear, the Old City exudes images of chaos and exoticism at the same time. The area is home to Hyderabad's most famous remainders of its past grandeur. The following is a non-exhaustive list of them, beginning from the north to the south.

Visit the H.E.H The Nizam's Museum to see many items owned by the Nizams (rulers, of the Asaf Jah dynasty, which ruled from 1724 until independence). Like many other museums in India, many items are of significant importance, and are very interesting, but the infrastructure isn't the top- when we went, the power was out and torches were being used! Nonetheless, to appreciate and get a sense of the history, make a visit here. All the items are in gold and/or silver.

Many of the items on display were gifts from dignitaries from various parts of the world. One of the most famous item is the Nizam's huge wardrobe- the Nizam never wore a piece of clothing more than once.

The Nizam's wardrobe
The museum is open every day except for Friday. Timings from 10 am to 5 pm.
Fees: adult/child Rs 80/Rs 15; still camera/video camera Rs 150/Rs 500

One of the principal monuments of the Old City is the Charminar (which means "four minarets"), a mosque built in 1591. You can climb to the top, expect lots of crowds and queues, particularly on holidays. Closed Fridays. 

The Charminar
Very near, south-west of the Charminar, is the Mecca Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in the city, and among the largest in India. It is named so, as the central arch was made by soil brought from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The mosque is home to the tombs of the Nizams and of some of their family members. 

Mecca Masjid
Women must cover themselves with a shawl while visiting. 

A little bit to the south is the opulent Chowmahallah Palace, the official residence of the Nizams during their reign. 

The first interior you will see is that of the Khilwat Mubarak, the heart of the palace, and it is very beautiful. 

Khilwat Mubarak

Ceiling of the Khilwat Mubarak
Upstairs are various halls, such as the Hall of the Heritage Crafts (home to beautiful portraits, for example). In the other halls,have a look at the furniture and furnishings too, in particular the ornate screen.

Outside are the other palaces which make up the compound. You can also see some vintage cars, from jeeps to convertibles. 

Also located outside is the famous Khilwat Clock tower, in operation for well over a hundred years. 

Khilwat Clock
The palace is open from 10 am to 5 pm, and is closed on Fridays. 
Entrance fees: adult/child/foreigner Rs 40/10/150. Still camera/mobile phone for photos/video camera: Rs 50/50/100

About 4 km south is the Nizams' most opulent palaces of them all- the Falaknuma Palace, now a hotel operated by the Taj group. If you're not staying, you cannot just enter the hotel- you need a reservation at one of the hotel's restaurants. Once in, you can roam around the hotel or take a half-hour palace tour. Among the highlights include a snooker table built specially for the Nizam, the world's longest dining table, as well as the sheer opulence of the palace.

Unfortunately, photography isn't permitted in the interior.

A chandelier at the Falaknuma Palace
Koti
Koti is a neighbourhood located just north of the Musi river, about 3 km from the Charminar. Koti Main Rd is just as packed as the Old City, with the absence of the towering minarets. 

For a change, enter the Koti Women's College (part of the Osmania University) from Koti Main Road to check out the British Residency, a grand building virtually ignored by the masses of tourists. 

The Nizam, keen on attaining independence, had to accept a British resident who acted as an advisor. The grand building signifies the strength of the British empire. 

Visit this brilliant blog for more details on the Residency, including its historical context.

Access to the Residency may be difficult, particularly on working days. I visited on a holiday without problems, and was surprised to find a movie shooting taking place. Therefore, going inside the building was not possible.

The British Residency
Hussain Sagar Lake and around
The Hussain Sagar Lake was built during the reign of the Qutb Shahi dynasty, in the year 1562. The road around the lake is known as Necklace Rd, because when lit at night, the road looks like a necklace. 

Access to the Buddha statue in the middle of the lake is via Lumbini Park (entry Rs 10). Find your way to the jetty, where you need to buy tickets for the boat ride. You can take speedboats around the island, but the only boat which will get you to the island is the standard mechanised boat (adult/child Rs 55/35), from 9 am to 9 pm.


17 m tall, the statue is the tallest monolith of Buddha, and was built in 1992, by the state chief minister, who was inspired by the Statue of Liberty.

Close by is the Birla Temple (Birla Mandir- mandir being the Hindi word for temple), constructed with 2000 tons of pure white marble. Located on a 85 m high hillock, there are good views of the area, including of Hussain Sagar Lake. Cellphones and cameras are not allowed. 

The Birla Temple with its various shrines
Golconda Fort and around
Located 8 km west of the Old City, Golconda Fort was the capital of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. The outer wall measures around 7 km- there's a lot to see inside.

The fort
You can hire a guide at the entrance of the fort. They will show you, for example, the cool acoustics of the fort, feats of engineering, for example the structures are so placed that any sound from a particular point is echoed by the opposite structure and can be heard as far away as the hilltop. 

You can walk to the hilltop, passing by great viewpoints which provide a nice overview of the fort and the city too. Unfortunately, the weather is not always conductive for this, so try to come as soon as the fort opens (9 am) and pray for some cloud cover! 

One of the major structures you will pass by on the way to the top includes the Amber Khana (Royal Granary). Here, an inscription in Persian mentions that the granary was built by Khairad Khan in the year 1642, during the Qutb Shah dynasty.

The inscription

People walk up in the heat, against the backdrop of Hyderabad city

You will then come across a mosque called Ibrahim Mosque, followed by a temple. And then you'll reach the final viewpoint- on one direction will be the fort, on another the city. The boundary walls can be clearly seen.

Overview of the fort
Every evening there's a sound and light show at around 7 pm, where the history of the fort is told. An executive class ticket costs Rs 130, in addition to the price to enter the fort. For Indians, the entry fee is Rs 5 and for foreigners it is Rs 100. A ticket for a video camera is Rs 25. Open from 9 am to 5.30 pm.

Not far away are the Qutb Shahi tombs. These are the seven tombs of the rulers of the Qutb Shahi dynasty. Set in expansive green parkland, these are ideal spots to admire the architecture and escape the crowds (these tombs don't seem to be very touristy). 

Qutb Shahi Tombs
Unfortunately, maintenance is not top- expect overgrown grass and fading architecture. Particularly in Golconda Fort, people have scribbled their names on the buildings- so the fault is a two-way street.

ACCOMMODATION
We stayed in the Taj Deccan, located in Banjara Hills. Good quality, as you would expect from a business hotel of this standard. Walking distance to a few places in Banjara Hills.

FOOD
Like many other Indian cities, Hyderabad is particularly renowned for some food items.

Nimrah Cafe, very close to Charminar and Mecca Masjid, is very famous for Irani tea. They also sell biscuits- another of Hyderabad's specialty.

Kebabs and Kurries, located in the ITC Kakatiya Hotel (in Begumpet, close to the western shore of Hussain Sagar Lake). Serves brilliant biriyani and kebabs.

Check out branches of Karachi Bakery and Bikanerwala, such as their branches in Banjara Hills (they are both next to each other). They serve lots of Indian sweets, snacks etc (and good macarons too).

SPEAK
The official and most widely spoken language in Hyderabad is Telugu. However, many people you will come across (such as in restaurants) will speak at least basic English. Do not expect autorickshaw (3-wheelers) drivers to understand English. Guides in tourist attractions may speak good English.

As Urdu is a relatively popular language here, and since Urdu and Hindi are very similar at a conversational level, Hindi speakers will not have a problem being understood in Hyderabad (which is often the case in smaller cities/towns in South India).

TRANSPORT
Walking, while a great way to get a feel of the city, particularly in the Old City, requires caution in Hyderabad. First, of course, is the weather. Summer sees temperatures beyond 40 degrees Celsius, and above 30 is the norm even up to October (I went in October and it went up to 36 C). Secondly, those pedestrian lights you see serve just for decoration purposes- many (such as in Banjara Hills) never turn green! Cross with caution, and like anywhere in India, do not expect any vehicle to give way.

Hyderabad lacks efficient public transport, and autorickshaws (who may not hesitate to rip off a non-local) are the often the best choice within the city. Taxis cannot be hailed off the streets. Nationwide brands of radio cabs include Meru, EasyCabs and Ola Cabs.

To hire a car + driver for a whole day, try Savaari.

Check in advance if the driver speaks English.

Hyderabad is served by the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport.

Last visit- Oct 2014
No of visits- 1

27 July 2014

Dalian

Dalian is a coastal city in the province of Liaoning in north-east China with a population of around 3 million. It is a popular tourist destination for domestic Chinese tourists and is known as the "square city" in China, with several beautiful squares.

HIGHLIGHTS
1. Witnessing the fast-flowing traffic amid lit colonial architecture at the lively Zhongshan Sq in the evening.
2. Admiring the green and hilly surroundings in the large, calm Heng Shan Temple.
3. Roam around aimlessly the tiny inner lanes of the central district.
4. Travelling on Binhai Rd and stopping at the various viewpoints
4. Walking up to the TV Tower.

CITY MAPPING
For the tourist, most places of interest lie in three districts, namely Zhongshan district, Xigang district and Shahekou district. The airport is located north-west of the center.

SIGHTS
The Harbour area at the eastern end of Zhongshan district is a wide open area, nice to take a walk around in and feel the cool sea breeze. It is a popular area particularly in the evenings, but with absolutely nothing, it is a wide empty area and is popular with cycling as well. The entrance is on Ren Min Dong Lu, and is close to the Dalian International Convention Center.

Dalian Harbour area
Squares
From the harbour, walk west on Ren Min Dong Lu until you reach the first square, Gangwan Square which has a few pieces of colonial architecture.

Gangwan Sq
Continue walking straight on Renmin Rd and you will enter one of the city's downtowns, with many hotels, commercial buildings, restaurants and shopping centers. Keep on walking straight until you reach Zhongshan Sq, one of the city's main squares in the heart of the financial district.

Dalian was a colony of both the Japanese and the Russians and colonial architecture can be seen here, amongst other places. Most of the colonial buildings now serve as banks or other financial institutions. 

Zhongshan Sq
The center of the roundabout is a popular place for locals, especially in the evenings. Dances and other performances often take place here. Some of the buildings are lit at night and it's worth coming for great photos at night. 

Continue straight from Zhongshan Sq, and Renmin Rd becomes Zhongshan Rd. A little further is Friendship Sq (Youhao Sq), at whose center is a crystal ball. 

Friendship Sq
Further continuing on Zhongshan Rd, in Xigang district is People's Sq (Renmin Sq), flanked by major government buildings on all sides. The square is quite large, and there are nice shady places to sit in where the din of the traffic disappears.

People's Sq
Among the important buildings located at the square are the City Hall and a court.

Located in Dalian is Asia's largest square called Xinghai Sq. Around the area are major tourist attractions such as the Shell Museum and the aquarium. The Dalian International Beer Festival, which occurs every year in July-end, takes place here.

Around Xinghai Sq
The area is very popular with domestic tourists. If you can put up with the crowds, the cool sea breeze is rewarding!

Colonial architecture
See Zhongshan Sq and Gangwan Sq above.

Besides, some colonial architecture is located around Russian Street. With the development of Dalian, much colonial architecture has been destroyed and replaced by modern facsimiles of Russian architecture, however some truly old architecture does exist. Also around are many tourist shops selling Russian dolls among other items.

Part of Russian St
Parks
With respect to city parks, Dalian is well served by Labor Park (Laodong Park), a large well-maintained city park. It's a great place to meander along, and serves as an access point to visit the TV Tower for views.

Labor Park with the TV Tower in the background

The park has amusement park-like rides for children, particularly on the eastern edge of the park. Access to the TV Tower is also from the eastern edge- one of the ways to get there is a 1.5 km uphill walk, along a green tranquil path. On the way there will be a barrier and a ticket booth (Y50) and from there it's only a little bit more to the entrance of the tower. You then get in the tower and take a lift to the viewing platform. The weather is often smoggy which can hinder views. 

Labor Park and beyond as seen from the base of TV Tower
Temples
On the outskirts of town is Heng Shan Temple, among the largest temples in north-east China. Set in green and calm surroundings, the only sound you can hear is the traditional Buddhist music if you come on a good day. It is said to be popular with domestic visitors but I got lucky: there were only a few other visitors. 

Heng Shan Temple
Other Sights
Often called the French Riviera of Dalian, Binhai Road is Dalian's seaside road with the twists and turns, and the rocky surfaces which did remind me of the French Riviera or the Amalfi Coast. There are several viewpoints and tourist attractions, such as Tiger Beach, on the way. 

Binhai Rd
SHOPPING
Very close to Friendship Sq, around one or two traffic lights west on Zhongshan Rd, is the underground Victory Sq shopping center. You will see many entrances to it but strangely there are few exits when you are underground. The layout is confusing and signs are only in Chinese so enter only if you have enough time. There are lots of different types of shops, from hairdressers to restaurants.

Nearby is a large area with modern malls such as New Mart as well as outdoor shops and stalls. Has some global brands and food courts as well as Starbuck's, McDonalds and Haagen Dazs. 

Wen Cho shopping centre is a fine place to shop for souvenirs.

ACCOMMODATION
We stayed at the Conrad Dalian, a new property at the eastern edge of Zhongshan district, close to the International Convention Centre, Harbour and Gangwan Sq.

Rooms- 9/10 Spacious and beautifully designed very clean rooms. The bathroom has a powerful rainshower and an automatic toilet.
Staff- 9/10 Very helpful staff, particularly the concierge.
Location- 8/10 Close to Gangwan Sq and the Harbour. Next to the International Convention Center.
Breakfast- 7/10 Fine breakfast, no special comment here.
Overall- 35/40 Recommended. 

TRANSPORT
Taxis can be hailed off the streets, just stick out your arm. Flag fall is Y10 and a journey within the tourist areas shouldn't cost more than Y25. Drivers should use their meters- and they generally do. Even occupied taxis look for more passengers going in the same direction, don't be surprised if your taxi picks up somebody else or the taxi you hailed has another occupant. Taxi drivers do not speak English so have your accommodation write down addresses of places you'd like to visit, many will give a card with the hotel address and a list of important places.

Walking within the tourist district is a good way to explore some of the inner lanes and distances are not large. Pavements may be large but are always used for parking so you may end up walking on the road. Be careful while crossing, even a green pedestrian light may have vehicles turning right from the road or vehicles coming into that road. As for crossings not protected by lights, do NOT expect traffic to stop for you, cross with caution. Take particular care at squares such as Gangwan Sq, which have neither crossings nor lights, and traffic comes from multiple directions at once. No matter how beautiful the square is, watch out! For utmost care, walk around rather than through the square. As for other junctions, use underpasses whenever available. 

The main form of public transport is bus, although trams, both modern and historic, operate a few lines. 

SAFETY
Dalian is by large a safe city, with traffic being a concern you need to watch out for (see above). Take usual precautions you would in any large city, including being watchful of your bags and pockets.

TOURIST FRIENDLINESS 
Language is a major barrier with effectively no one speaking a word of English. Bring along a Mandarin phrasebook. However, people are generally helpful and waiters etc may wait patiently as you point out specific words in your phrasebook. Even a few words of Chinese will be appreciated.

Last visit- Jul 2014
No of visits- 1

08 July 2014

Bali

How can a tiny island mean so many things to so many different people? Water sports, beaches, landscapes, temples- they're all there. Take your pick, or pick them all. That's why Bali is so great, it lets you try so many different kinds of activities.

MAPPING
Bali has an area of around 5780 sq km, tiny as far as islands go, but as far as destinations go, it is quite a big place. South Bali is home to many of the beach resort areas, such as Kuta, Seminyak, Sanur and Nusa Dua. The airport and the capital city, Denpasar, are also located in south Bali. Central Bali is home to Ubud, Bedugul. The volcanic Mt Kintamani is in East Bali.

SIGHTS
SOUTH BALI
Denpasar
Bajra Sandhi Monument
Denpasar is the capital of Bali with a population of around half a million people. The city centre is clean and green, with many government buildings and a number of interesting attractions.

Visit the Monumen Perjuangan Rakyat, set in nice well-maintained parkland, in Denpasar, built to recognise the struggle of the Balinese people from time to time. Climb the spiral staircase for good views over the city. Entrance fee for foreign adults is Rp 10,000. Opening hours are 8.30-16.30 MON-FRI and 9.00-16.30 on weekends. Closed all Hindu public holidays.

View of Denpasar from the Monumen Perjuangan Rakyat









Lapangan Puputan Margarana (Puputan Park) is a well-maintained park in the center of town. Next to one of its sides is the Jagatnatha Temple.

Jagatnatha Temple

A street in central Denpasar
Also in South Bali are the towns of Kuta, Jimbaran, Seminyak, Sanur and Nusa Dua which are touristy and don't have much apart from beaches, shops and restaurants. The beach town of Canggu, though, is less touristy.

CENTRAL BALI
Ubud
Ubud is the cultural heartland of Bali with superb temples, villages specialising in things like silver and wood carvings and simply beautiful architecture. More than 90% of Bali's population is Hindu and each house here has a temple, which they maintain carefully. Every village also has a minimum of 3 temples. 

Located here are some beautifully ornate temples and palaces, such as the Puri Saren.


The Ubud area consists of 14 villages, each specialising in either wood carvings, silver or paintings. If you take tours, you will be shown the process of actually doing the work and then you can buy- some of the things can be of good quality and at some places you can bargain.

Another attraction around Ubud is the cave of Goa Gajah (Elephant Caves). It was built in the ninth century and served as a sanctuary. I am claustrophobic and didn't find it a problem- the cave is quite small, however narrow and you are not likely to spend too much time in it.

Entrance to the cave, Goa Gajah

Bedugul
Bedugul is another area in Central Bali, and it is home to the picturesque Lake Beratan (Bratan). On the lakefront is the beautiful Pura Ulun Danu Bratan (Lake Bratan Temple). Entrance fee Rp 30,000 per adult. Parking also costs, around Rp 5000-10,000. The temple is on the western side of the lake and is an iconic image of Bali. You can't go inside the main temple but just viewing it from outside, and the whole compound is a great experience. There is some scenic greenery on the other side- behind the main temple.

The temple was built in 1663 for offering ceremonies to the Balinese water goddess, Dewi Danu.

Lake Bratan and the temple
The nearby town of Candikuning is a good place to shop for fruit and souvenirs. The sellers themselves encourage bargaining!

Bali is famous for its rice paddies, and one of the best viewpoints is at Jatiluwih, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Unfortunately it was raining when I got there, so views weren't too great.

This area is much higher than South Bali so it is usually much cooler up here. It may not be a bad idea to bring a light jacket, particularly when it is raining.

A farmer works at a rice paddy in Jatiluwih
EAST BALI
Mt Kintamani 
Mt Kintamani is a mountain in East Bali from where there are great views of Lake Batur and the active volcano Mt Batur. As in Bedugul, this area can be surprisingly cool, due to its elevation.

Lake Batur and Mt Batur
WEST BALI
Tanah Lot
On the western coast, not very far from South Bali, is the iconic Tanah Lot temple (Pura Tanah Lot), one of the most photographed in Bali, on Tanah Lot, a rock formation.

It is a very popular point at sunset and gets very crowded- however if you intend to visit at sunset, cloudy/rainy days can spoil the fun!

Tanah Lot
ACCOMMODATION
I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott Nusa Dua, in the resort town of Nusa Dua in South Bali. Nice hotel with good rooms. Has an hourly shuttle to a private beach jointly owned by this and a couple of other resorts.

FOOD
The Loving Hut in Denpasar (Pertokoan Sudirman Agung B 12A Jl. PB Sudirman Denpasar, Bali) A little hard to find- it is a lane of two inside a commercial complex. Good food though, all vegan.
Bali is famous for its bars, such as the Rock Bar in Ayana Resort, Jimbaran.

SHOPPING
The Ubud area has villages famous for wood, silver, batik etc and if you are going on tours, you will certainly be taken to those places. Prices may seem quite high; if you're stopping in Jakarta, it may be worthwhile to have a look there as well. Denpasar is home to the usual department stores.

For groceries and such, there are numerous branches of Alfamart, Indomaret, Circle K, Minimart and Coco Mart virtually everywhere.

TRANSPORT
Cheap petrol means that getting car + driver for a whole day need not be expensive. You can find a 5 seater for around 400,000 rupiah for 10 hrs, anywhere in Bali. Your hotel may have suggestions.

Bali is served by the Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS) in South Bali and has flights to many South-East Asian destinations. It is a modern airport, but with beautiful traditional designs on its exterior.

Last visit- Jun/Jul 2014
No of visits- 1




05 July 2014

Singapore

A small country packed with attractions. A multi-cultural city-state, with Chinese, Malay, Indian and colonial influences. Easy and efficient public transportation. Something for everyone, from amazing Buddhist temples to a top-notch zoo. Where else, but in Singapore?

CITY MAPPING
As far as countries go, Singapore is tiny- only around 716 sq km. However, as far as cities go, Singapore is just like any other big city, with lots of different neighbourhoods with different vibes.

A lot of the action is centred around the Singapore river, with the CBD and colonial area around. The river empties in marina Bay, with Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer nearby. North of the river are the areas of Orchard Rd and Bugis. South of the river is Chinatown.




Changi Airport (SIN) is around 20-25 km north-east from the centre, on Singapore's eastern coast.

SIGHTS
Singapore River & Marina Bay
Singapore River snakes through the centre of town. Around its banks is lots of colonial architecture and the CBD.

Merlion
At the easternmost point of the river, just as it meets Marina Bay, is the Merlion, the half fish half lion, a structure meant to be a tourist icon of Singapore. The setting is really spectacular, with the skyscrapers on one side, and the Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer on another. 

Going west, on the north bank, streets are full with colonial architecture such as the Parliament and Supreme Court. Right on the riverbank is Raffles' Landing Site, the exact spot where Sir Raffles is said to have landed when he discovered Singapore. Located there is his statue. 

Raffles' Landing Site
There is a brilliant view of Singapore's skyline from there.

A few streets north, on St Andrews' Rd, near City Hall MRT, is St Andrews' Cathedral, the largest church in Singapore.

St Andrews' Cathedral
The iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its 3 towers and ship-shaped roof, is home to the Sands Skypark ($23 per adult) which offers amazing views of Singapore. Check the website for any closures when you want to visit. You can buy tickets on the spot.

Singapore skyline as seen from Sands Skypark

Chinatown
A bustling neighbourhood south of the river, Chinatown is home to interesting architecture in tiny lanes, as well as many shopping centres.

Take a stroll down streets such as Temple St and Smith St. There are lots of small shops offering touristy trinkets and clothes, bags and the like.

Chinatown Food Street has lots of small eateries offering interesting things to eat and drink. A good place to come for vegetarian food. Free wi-fi as well!

Nearby, on Sago St/Kreta Ayer Sq/South Bridge Rd is the beautiful BuddhaTooth Relic Temple, believed to house the sacred relic. You need to cover up to visit- they offer shawls.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Getting to Chinatown is easy- Chinatown MRT is located right in the heart of the neighbourhood, while Outram Park MRT is located not far off, and Clarke Quay MRT isn't far off either.

Not far off is the Singapore City Gallery, offering interesting displays on the history and current of Singapore.

Sentosa Island




Sentosa, a small island south from Singapore, is Singapore's resort island. There are various ways to get here, such as monorail from Vivo City Mall (HarbourFront) and Cable Car.

Various attractions here include Universal Studios located in Resorts World and the Luge and Skyride, the Sentosa Merlion, and a nice beach, as well as Underwater World, which includes a walk-in aquarium, a definite hit with kids.

Other attractions
Some other attractions which I have been to in earlier visits (which were a lot of fun) include the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park.

ACCOMMODATION
I stayed at Holiday Inn Singapore Atrium, located in the Riverside area.
Rooms- 8/10 Fine rooms, a little small, but this is Singapore. Have all the usual amenities.
Staff- 7/10 Most of the staff is helpful.
Location- 8/10 Good location, with several bus stops nearby. Great World City is a 700m-ish walk away. Outram Park MRT is the closest, 1 km south.
Breakfast- 4/10 Breakfast was disappointing, quality was poor and rates were high for that.
Other point- 1/0 A whole load of laundry (and a load is huge) at the hotel laundromat costs only $5.
Overall- 28/40 Recommended. But I would suggest not taking the breakfast.

FOOD
Singapore is known for its great dining opportunities from Chinese to Indian to Western. Food courts in malls offer good variety for the indecisive. Compared to other parts of south east Asia, rates are high.
Skinny Pizza- located in Great World City. Has paper-thin innovative pizzas, as well as amazing desserts.
SaladStop - serves great wraps in Great World City. Several options for vegetarians.
Marche- in Vivocity. A chain restaurant in a beautiful setting. You pay according to plate size differently, for different items such as salads, crepes, pastas etc.
Pita Pan- located in Marina Bay Sands mall. OK Lebanese dishes- many items were not available.
Little India has many South Indian restaurants, good for vegetarians.
Chinatown's Food Street has exciting options for drinks, desserts and snacky items.

SHOPPING
Singapore is renowned for its myriad malls and shopping centres, however prices of branded items are similar as elsewhere. Despite this, malls can be fun to just roam around in, and they offer great dining options. Besides, malls are home to hypermarkets which are convenient for shopping for food items, especially for longer stays.

Orchard Rd

Orchard Rd
Orchard Rd is probably what comes first to mind when "shopping" and "Singapore" are put in the same sentence, for seasoned travellers and first-timers alike. Home to a vast number of malls and department stores, Orchard Rd should satisfy even the fussiest of shopaholics. Even if you're not interested in shopping, just walking around is a great way to take in the city. Some of the malls here include Ngee Ann City (with the huge Takashimaya department store) and Paragon.  

Singapore River & Marina Bay
This area is home to Great World City, a big mall with half-hourly free shuttles to Orchard Rd (we however found the timings erratic). 

Attached to Marina Bay Hotel is its very posh mall.

HarbourFront
This area is home to Vivocity, the mall at whose level 3 the Sentosa Express monorail from Sentosa arrives. The mall is also a big, interesting place to shop. Do have a look at the fountain outside its entrance. There are good views of Sentosa from a terrace-like area of the mall.

Fountain at Vivocity
Bugis
This area is home to a mall called Bugis Junction.
Nearby starts Bugis Street, an air-conditioned street market of tiny lanes offering some bargains on clothes, watches, bags etc. Also a great place for street food. 

 TRANSPORT
Singapore is served by Changi Airport, on the eastern coast of Singapore, with flights from all over the world. 

Within Singapore, travel is easy with efficient bus and MRT networks. Taxis are expensive at peak hours due to ERP- the congestion charge, which can easily add $3-4 to a small journey within the city. Taxis can sometimes be difficult to find. The easiest bet would be the nearest shopping centre which have taxi ranks (but queues can be very long). 

Walking is safe as traffic lights are respected, but do not cross randomly, something that is otherwise common in many other Asian countries. Jaywalking is illegal so cross at a designated crossing whenever there is one. At crossings, vehicles give way to pedestrians. However, the universal humid weather means that walking long distances can be uncomfortable. Be prepared for rain anytime!

Last visit- Jun 2014
No of visits- 3
First visit- May 2004


04 July 2014

Jakarta

Jakarta, a massive city of more than 9 million people, is the big beating heart of Indonesia. It is Indonesia in a nutshell, home to people from throughout the country hoping to make a living. Clearly, a large city such as this will have something to offer, and it's worth spending a few days here for its sights and shopping.

CITY MAPPING
Jakarta is a huge city, with the airport north-west of the center. Some sights, such as Taman Fatahillah, are located north of the center, in Kota, while Lapangan Merdeka (Merdeka Sq) is located in the heart of town. South of the square is the more modern heart of town, with lots of malls, hotels and office buildings.

Jakarta's skyline, with the skyscrapers in the modern south
One key road is Jl Gajah Mada, a north-south road which comes from Kota. It becomes Jl Medan Merdeka Barat when it is on the western side of Merdeka Sq, then it becomes Jl MH Thamrin where many hotels, malls and the Hotel Indonesia roundabout (Bundaran HI) is located. Further south, it becomes Jl Jenderal Sudirman.

SIGHTS
JAKARTA PUSAT (CENTRAL JAKARTA)
Lapangan Merdeka
Lapangan Merdeka, or Freedom Sq, is a massive, nearly 1 sq km, green open area right at the heart of the city. In the 1997 Asian economic crisis, protesters engulfed the entire square, demanding the resignation of President Suharto. His resignation paved the way for the introduction of democracy in Indonesia.

Now, Merdeka Sq is a popular place for locals to just relax in, with its plethora of shops and street food. The square is home to the National Monument, called Monas, a 137 m high landmark which was officially opened by President Suharto in 1975. The top of the landmark is home to a 35 kg gold leaf.

Built to commemorate Indonesia's struggle for independence, the monument was opened to the public in 1975, and is topped by a flame covered with gold foil.

Monas


Just entrance to the monument is Rp 5000 which allows you entry to the lower level (which also has good views) and access to the History Museum, located just as you enter the monument. Weekends and holidays can be very crowded; I went the day before Ramadan and the queue to get to the top was so long, the waiting time was 3 hrs! The lowest level of the interior is a history museum.


View from Monas




Lapangan Banteng and around
Very close to the north-east section of Merdeka Sq is Banteng Sq.
The area around is home to the iconic Hotel Borobudur, Masjid Istiqlal (the largest mosque in south east Asia)- it can be seen from Monas, as well as Gereja Katedral (Jakarta Cathedral).

The mosque and the cathedral are bang opposite each other, in fact, the best views of the cathedral are from inside the mosque compound.

Jakarta Cathedral

Masjid Istiqlal

The roads around these squares are very green and parts are beautifully landscaped. If you feel tired of Jakarta's concrete jungle, you really just need to drop into the centre of town!

Gambir station is on the eastern side of Merdeka Sq.

Also located in central Jakarta is the National Museum, and very close by is the Mahkamah Konstitusi (Constitutional Court of Indonesia), both on Jln Medan Merdeka Barat.



KOTA
Kota is Jakarta's true old town, and is located north of the centre. By road, excluding in the worst of traffic, it should take 30-40 minutes from around Lapangan Banteng.

Kota is home to some well-maintained colonial architecture. Much is around the main square of Kota, called Taman Fatahillah.

Taman Fatahillah is a bustling square, home to various attractions such as the Jakarta History Museum and the Museum Wayang (Puppet Museum).

Jakarta History Museum
Entrance to Museum Wayang is Rp 5000 for an adult and exhibits are really beautiful, truly showing how artistic Indonesian society really is. Maintenance is not top, but the place is blissfully air-conditioned.

The museum is open Tue-Sun 9 am-3 pm. Closed Mondays and holidays.

The square has lots of street food- up to you whether it's safe for you, but the things not using cut fruit/tap water should be fine.

The above list is far from exhaustive: we had only 2 nights. Other places of interest include National Museum, Ancol and Glodok.

ACCOMMODATION
We stayed at Hotel Merlynn Park in Central Jakarta, a few kilometers north-west of Merdeka Sq.
Rooms- 8/10 Generally of good quality, but edges in and around the wash basin are not very clean.
Staff- 8/10 Fine staff, no special comment here.
Location- 7/10 Not the best possible location. It is central but many other 5-star hotels are located in the southern part of the centre, which is more modern. However, amenities such as ATMs and convenience stores are closeby.
Breakfast- 7/10 OK breakfast, no special comment here.
Other point- 1/0 Free 4 garments laundry per day per room.
Overall 31/40 Recommended. Rates were good. However I would prefer a similar quality hotel at a similar rate in Sudirman or Hotel Indonesia roundabout area.

FOOD
Cafe Betawi serves good local cuisine and is located in many malls. We went to its outlet in Plaza Indonesia.

SHOPPING
Jakarta is very famous for shopping, with well over a 100 malls and shopping centres. One of the top is Plaza Indonesia, a posh mall at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in central Jakarta. Prices of branded goods are very similar to those elsewhere so there are no great deals to be found, in general.

However, you can get genuinely good discounts and prices for a wide range of clothes (including batik), shoes etc at Blok M, a shopping centre in south Jakarta, not far from Senayan. A must-visit for bargain hunters, in my opinion. Next door is Pasaraya, home to a wide range of handicrafts, souvenir items and clothes etc, but at standard prices.

TRANSPORT
Jakarta is served by the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport (CGK), around 25-30 km from the centre. Travel times depend a lot on day and time, so ask your accommodation to avoid tense moments spent sitting in traffic.

Taxis are available from the airport but they can be infrequent, resulting in large waiting times even for relatively small queues. There are different queues for different taxi companies. Queues for some of the more expensive taxis may be very short. A Silverbird (one of the more expensive ones) should cost Rp 150,000 to 200,000 to the centre.

There are many taxi companies within the city, such as Blue Bird and Silverbird. Other taxi companies, also reliable, such as White Horse, are attached to different hotels. Taxi fares are cheap compared to fares in Singapore or any Western city so travelling by taxi is a viable option. A Blue Bird from Plaza Indonesia to Hotel Merlynn Park (around 4 km) should be around Rp 20,000.

There is no metro but there is a suburban train network.

TOURIST FRIENDLINESS 
People are in general friendly but English is uncommon, compared to, say Bangkok. It is wise to learn a few phrases in Indonesian, especially for taxis. There was not a single sign in English at Monas, but signs were in English as well in Museum Wayang.

Know the address of your hotel, as well as a nearby landmark/main road. For example, Hotel Merlynn Park is on Jln K.H. Hasyim Azhari, however few taxi drivers understood this, as compared to a nearby main road Jln Gajah Mada.

Crossing roads requires more awareness of what is going on than knowledge of rules. A time we crossed, absolutely no one obeyed the pedestrian light outside the Jakarta Cathedral- this is because pedestrians do not obey traffic lights either. Cross with care! Take help of locals, or cross at a junction where there are other pedestrians.

Last visit- Jun 2014
No of visits- 1