Thursday, May 27, 2010

Letter from Penang

Penang - I'm writing this while sitting on a reclining bed facing the ocean at the Hard Rock Hotel's spa in Penang, Malaysia. It's our last afternoon in Malaysia and I booked a "hard rock massage" to celebrate the end of a wonderful and interesting week-long trip for the Travelife editorial team that was productive and educational at the same time.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Our trip ends in Penang, Malaysia's Old World town and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is full of graceful old homes, quirky little shop houses, and all kinds of stalls selling everything from Indian nan and air batu campur (popularly called ABC or aisu kacan-- Malaysia's version of the halo-halo) to fake watches and designer bags. It also has a beautiful coastline lined with hotels and glitzy condominiums.

One of Penang's major coastal areas is along Gurney Drive, a wide tree-lined boulevard that has become synonymous with delicious food stalls and hotels. Another coastal area runs the length of one side of the island, from Gurney drive to past the community of Batu Ferringi; and it's lined with apartments and mansions that remind me somewhat of parts of Hawaii.

Hip and trendy accommodations

For this trip, we decided to stay at the newly-opened Hard Rock Hotel in Batu Ferringi. It's a real eclectic boutique hotel full of conversation pieces and memorabilia guaranteed to inspire rock music lovers. I'm not particularly into rock music but some of my team were, and they spent much of their free time exploring the hotel in search of rock music memorabilia like Elvis' platinum record or a guitar owned by someone in Deep Purple.

As for lovers of the luxe life -- and I confess that I probably fall more into this category -- the Hard Rock Hotel doesn't disappoint either. It's a hip and fun hotel full of pop art and tasteful kitsch, but where comfort is concerned, nothing is left wanting. We had incredibly spacious rooms facing the sea, great beds and state-of-the-art entertainment equipment. If we had just one more day here, I would've spent most of it lounging around the pool, which had a sunken bar, a sand bottom, and all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore.

Or perhaps I would just have stayed in bed watching movies with a view of the sea in front of me. The only time I ever get to watch movies these days is on the airplane, so it would've been a real treat to actually watch an entire movie in bed like normal people. More on the Hard Rock Hotel Penang in a future issue of Travelife.

I think it's safe to say that the Travelife editorial team fell in love with Penang. We're all big fans of Malaysia, but Penang is quite special because of its combination of history, beauty, culture and design. Much of it is quite rundown, mind you, so you'll have to look at things through rose-colored glasses. But if you get past the dust and grime of age, you'll find yourself appreciating the gracefulness of a beautiful old town with, literally, a million stories to tell.

The Blue Mansion

My managing editor and I both agree that Penang's grand Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, more popularly known as the Blue Mansion, made our hearts skip a beat or two. From the outset, it already called out to us with its striking blue facade and intricate designs. Inside, it was a specter of beauty because of the balance of its design -- it's perfectly created according to the principles of feng-shui -- and also a testament to a grand and charmed life from an era long gone. The owner had eight wives in that house and a couple of concubines to boot, so you can just imagine how charmed -- or charming -- he must have been. Again, more on this is in a future issue of Travelife.

Gourmet Paradise

Food was another joy in Penang. We tasted all kinds of food in all sorts of restaurants, including some places I would ordinarily never have gone to. One of them was a hot and messy affair with a tiled kitchen on the 1st floor and a linoleum-lined room with the grimy tables on the second floor that served a type of local food called nasi kandar. Huge vats of curries were lined up against a very oily wall, along with table-high pots of rice. By the entrance, several cooks were quickly churning out flat breads.

"This is where we're eating?" I asked the guide incredulously. My one request from the outset, after all, was to be taken to the best food places in Penang. And this was not exactly what I was expecting.

"This is one of the best places for nasi kandar in Penang," our guide, Corinne, confirmed. "It may not look like much, but I can guarantee you that the food is good."

With not a bit of trepidation, I made my way up the narrow, slippery staircase to the 2nd floor dining room. The room was filled with diners digging into heaping plates of curries and heavy with the smoke of cooking; and I could immediately feel the smoke as my eyes began to hurt before the minute was over. Our table at the end of the room, too, could've used a major alcohol rub. But I just gritted my teeth and sat down.

Thankfully, the tasty food was so worth the wade through the mess and the dirty table that would've probably made even germs sick. It was indeed the best nasi kandar we had in Penang, and the colorful atmosphere just gave everything we ate more flavor. Nasi kandar, original to Penang, is Indian food with a Malay twist -- or Indian-inspired Malay food, as more nationalistic Malaysians will tell you. Basically, we were given a choice of white rice or tomato rice and an assortment of curries from chicken, squid or beef (no pork here) was placed in front of us to share.

Being Filipinos, most of my team opted for white rice. I was just about to get the same when Corinne whispered to me, "This restaurant is famous for its tomato rice."

How could I then not get the tomato rice? Again, it turned out to be an excellent choice.

Most of the curries are heavy on sauce and spice, so you're going to need a good dose of aisu kacan or cendol (another Malaysian dessert made of coconut milk, crushed ice, pandan-flavored jelly and red beans) afterwards. And the best place to get ice kacan or cendol is at a little hawker stall along Penang Road, a major thoroughfare. You won't miss it because there's always a line of people waiting for their sweet tooth fix.

Tale of too many sarongs

Another thing I went slightly overboard on were sarongs. After seeing how the Malaysian women wore them so gracefully, I decided to pick up a few for myself. None of the touristy stuff that were selling by the dozens in the nightmarkets, though, but the less loud batik sarongs that could be worn outside of Penang's beaches and even to a cocktail party in Manila. (In fact, I'm thinking of wearing one to a wine-tasting event on Friday night in Manila...)

Corinne took us to a small workshop at the other end of the island with ongoing batik-painting demonstrations and a nice selection of batik designs that didn't scream out "Tourist in Penang." When I did my ringgit-peso conversions, the good stuff was not exactly cheap, but I decided to buy a couple of silk and silk-cotton sarong knowing I would regret it later if I didn't.

All in all, a wonderful week spent in Malaysia, our progressive neighbor only three hours away and a country and culture both so similar and also so different from us. Read more about our adventures in the August-September issue of Travelife Magazine.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Colours of 1 Malaysia and Martha Stewart

I began writing this entry from Kuala Lumpur, specifically from my computer as I sat under a canopy in front of a major KL avenue that had been temporarily turned into a big, colorful stage complete with costumed dancers on stilts, flame throwers, and every sort of amazing performer you could possibly think of, representing each region of Malaysia.

Tonight was the big night for the Colours of Malaysia parade organized by Malaysia's very efficient Tourism Malaysia department. The King and Queen of Malaysia attended, along with international VIPs like Martha Stewart. Meanwhile, Travelife's editorial team attended the event at the kind invitation of Tourism Malaysia since we're already in KL to shoot a cover for our anniversary issue.

We arrived in KL this morning, after an hour's drive from Genting Highlands. One of my friends just texted me earlier that it's terribly, almost unbearably, hot in Manila; meanwhile KL is comfortably cool so I've been walking everywhere -- from shopping mall to shopping mall, just to get a feel for what locals are doing and buying.

For lunch, our vivacious guide Eddie, who has become fast friends -- or shall we say partners in crime? -- with Travelife's Managing Editor Jon, took us to a literal hole-in-the-wall that served fantastic bakuteh (pork ribs in soup). I happened to mention to him that I love bakuteh and try to have it every time in Singapore. My favorite place for bakuteh is the coffee shop of the Raffles Hotel. I've tried bakuteh elsewhere in Singapore, but I still have to find one I like better than this.

"Do you like bakuteh with a thin soup or a thick soup?" He asked me. I couldn't remember which one the Singapore version was, but I had a feeling I liked thick soup better. So I said I liked thick soup and, thank goodness, for he then told me: "Singapore's bakuteh is usually in a thin soup, but the Malaysian version is much thicker. Today, I take you to the best bakuteh for lunch."

This was how we found ourselves in this hole in the wall that we would never have known about otherwise.

After lunch, we had some free time so I walked over to the Pavilion shopping mall, which is supposed to be the highest end shopping mall in Malaysia. Again, I just wanted to get a feel of current KL. Indeed, one side of Pavilion had all the high-end stores including Cartier, Hermes and Zegna. The other side had middle brands like Massimo Dutti and Nike. I really wanted to find good-quality local brands and shops, so I ended up buying nothing. At least it was a very good walk after all that bakuteh for lunch.

In the evening, just before the Colours of Malaysia began, we went to the Royal Selangor Club, Malaysia's most prestigious private club and ordinarily off-limits to women,I was told. Here we sat on the lawn having high tea while waiting for the festivities to begin, with a nice view of Malaysia's flag on top of the world's tallest flagpole on a clear and bright blue evening sky lit up by the illumination from skyscrapers around. It was quite dramatic, really. One of the club's officers also gave a short history about the club, but mostly we all took our phones out and started pounding away intently. When I happened to look at what exactly everyone on my team was doing, I realized that everyone was on Facebook mobile!

"Thank goodness for Facebook!" I exclaimed, and everyone smiled. It was certainly a good way to spend the hour.

Finally, we crossed the cricket field from the Royal Selangor Club to the makeshift performance and audience seating area made by closing off a major KL thoroughfare and transforming it into an event space. A literal street party of fantastic proportions that was so intoxicating that even I felt like dancing. The two-hour extravaganza began at 9 PM and the entire performance was simply amazing. For most of the night, I stood in front of my seat, eyes glued to the performance area as 5,500 dancers -- each dancer had a number on his or her wrist, as Malaysia was trying for a world record that night, and did it -- passed by me and then eventually danced in unison. The colorful assault of visuals struck me completely speechless and the vibrancy of the songs and dances was just electrifying. This will probably come across as trite -- but it was so true that watching this performance made me feel alive. And when the finale came on -- a traditional dance followed by a dance performed to the music of "Malaysia Truly Asia," accompanied by fireworks -- it sent shivers down me to witness so many people singing and dancing so joyfully.

Later, our friends from Tourism Malaysia told me that every single one of them is required to learn this dance along with some others. Talk about focused marketing.

There were many VIPs that evening, but Martha Stewart stood out in her beaded blouse and with her blonde hair amidst a pavilion full mostly of Asians. I was lucky enough to get very close to her, and I'm posting this photo I took with my Nokia phone of Martha with the Malaysian Minister of Tourism.

Tomorrow is our cover shoot day and frankly I'm quite excited. We have Zahnita, one of Malaysia's top models, posing for us; and Dexter, our creative director, and Brian, our photographer, have the shoot all worked out. She's coming to our hotel very early tomorrow morning, which is in a few hours, as we'd like to get as much done before the heat and then the rain catches up. Catch you all tomorrow when the shoot is over.

(PS: Most of the photos here were taken with my camera phone so excuse the poor quality in the interest of speed and timeliness.)


Friday, May 21, 2010

Al Fresco Dining in Genting Highlands

I've just returned from a lovely walk, in a terno, through the lush forests of Genting Highlands; and from an altogether wonderful evening of perfect weather, good food, fantastic entertainment and excellent company. Genting is synonymous with casinos and theme parks, but we're actually in a really quiet part of it -- so that I've not even
glimpsed anything remotely resembling a casino or a theme park. All we've had so far are nature, fresh air, and a pretty relaxing time.

This evening, the Travelife editorial team was invited to dinner by Tourism Malaysia and Resortsworld, and indeed they prepared a wonderful feast under the stars in the middle of mountain jungles. We were asked to come in national dress and from the hotel, we were ferried to a secluded spot in the mountains where the Resortsworld executive chef (who had earlier introduced himself to us as a Portugese-origin chef with a Filipina wife) and his team awaited us. Large round tables were set on a plain and surrounded by temporary stalls offering all kinds of food from every corner of Malaysia: roast lamb, Portugese-style baked fish, all kinds of curries, spicy noodles, salads and chicken rendang served with sticky rice, to name a few.

Before dinner, however, we were entertained by several dozen young people in the most colorful costumes. They performed a bamboo dance not unlike the tinikling, some lively dances that reminded me of performances I'd seen in India last March, and even the macarena. What I liked most, though, were the songs and dances they performed to music set to Tourism Malaysia's theme song of "Malaysia, Truly Asia." We just shook our heads wistfully, watching this performance to a tune and a slogan that almost everyone in this part of the world already knows by heart, and wishing the Philippines had an equally recognizable one as well. What a marketing success story for Malaysia, that travelers the world over now recognize this country by its slogan of "Truly Asia."

There were many other people present at this dinner, but for some reason, my managing editor and I found ourselves seated at the presidential table for ten persons along with our hosts from Tourism Malaysia, Resortsworld and Malaysian Airlines. It turned out to be a congenial evening where we learned much more about Malaysia's rich culture and multitude of influences. Malaysia's not a very big country in terms of population, but it has quite a wealth of natural and cultural resources. This was the main topic of discussion at our table tonight.

"Travelife is the leading travel magazine in the Philippines," one of our hosts said. "I hope you will help us to further promote Malaysia to your readers." My managing editor and I replied, almost in unison: "We certainly will."

We at Travelife Magazine do try to include interesting stories about Malaysia whenever we can. Malaysia, after all, is only three hours away from Manila and it's also a great value destination still. So with budget flights increasing, it makes for a pretty good holiday. In fact, in the current issue of Travelife, I've written about a trip I recently took on the Eastern and Oriental Express from Bangkok to Singapore. That three-night journey enabled me to travel literally from one end of Malaysia to the other, through wilderness jungles, rubber and palm oil plantations, and tea plantations; and allowed me to appreciate the diversity of its eco-system.

Personally, too, I myself am quite a fan and I've actually put my money where my mouth is, by buying a (modest) flat in Kuala Lumpur some years back. KL has always seemed attractive to me because of its lush greenery and its rich heritage. So when I chanced upon a nice property for sale in a lively expatriate neighborhood some years back, I bought it. So when I write positive things about Malaysia, I'm actually speaking from experience and from the heart.

Another interesting topic at our table tonight was the big Colours of Malaysia parade scheduled in KL tomorrow night, to which our team is going. Our host at dinner, the deputy director general of Tourism Malaysia, is also playing host to Martha Stewart, who is here for the Colours of Malaysia parade. Apparently it's her first time in Malaysia. She's going to be at the parade as well tomorrow night, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an opportunity to meet her!


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Good Morning Malaysia

3 AM, Friday. Good morning from Genting Highlands in Malaysia, about an hour's drive from central Kuala Lumpur. Travelife's editorial team and I arrived at Kuala Lumpur's international airport close to midnight, and from there we took a van towards Genting Highlands, where we are to stay for three days before heading off elsewhere around Malaysia. It's been a very long day that started with lots of work at the Travelife office in Legazpi Village on Thursday morning; and we would have arrived at our hotel much sooner, had we not decided to stop for a midnight snack at a 24-hour modern food stall in the heart of KL, about a kilometer or so from KLCC.

We'd left Manila at 630 PM Thursday on a Malaysian Airlines flight, which was comfortable and spacious. We spent the entire time discussing magazine strategy and all sorts of rather wacky promotional ideas over a fish and fried rice dinner -- and before we knew it, the pilot was already announcing our descent into Kuala Lumpur. Usually I spend most of the flight reading a book or watching a movie -- but this time, the movie was so-so and the company was better so it was good to catch up on what'd been happening and to brainstorm after a few very busy weeks.

From the airport, it was about 45 minutes in the van to KL. It was not exactly a great time to be awake for a drive through the dark, but Eddie, our incredibly perky guide, kept us laughing through most of it with jokes and odd humor interspersed by bits of history and culture. "No talk about politics or the economy, okay?" He requested. "Culture and history are much more interesting." At midnight, this was certainly fine with us. If he had mentioned Malaysia's GDP even once, I would probably have fallen asleep.

Again, time passed quickly and we were soon pulling into the last remaining parking space at the 24-hour food stall.

"This may not look very good but a lot of wealthy people and VIPs eat here all the time," explained Eddie. "Just look at all the fancy cars in the driveway."

True enough, it was basically a concrete version of a hawker's food stall. But all around, well-dressed diners tucked into noodles and various rice toppings. We all went around the stalls trying to decide what to order. Having just been in India two months ago, it struck me how great the influence of India is on Malaysian cuisine. Every stall had the usual Malaysian noodles, but they also offered colorful curries, nan, and tandoori-style meats.Jon, our managing editor, picked some spicy noodles; while Dexter, our creative director, came back with a heaping bowl of rice topped with all sorts of curry sauces and some chicken. Brian, our photographer, also happily tucked into a bowl of noodles. Meanwhile, I opted for two chopped-up salt-fried crabs and some spicy fried rice, accompanied by a bowl of curry. Too much for a midnight snack, actually, but I just couldn't resist. And when I placed it to share in the middle of the table, the crabs quickly disappeared.

From KL, it was another hour to Genting; and we found ourselves wearily checking in just after 2 AM. The upside over here is that the weather is wonderfully cool and nice. Driving up the mountain, we turned off the van's airconditioner and opened the windows to let in the lovely mountain breeze. Everyone immediately felt the difference between the sweltering heat of Manila and the comfortable coolness of Genting. In fact, we all slept with the windows open.

2 PM, Friday. This morning, I finally went to sleep at about 4 AM only to be woken up an hour later by a ringing phone with no one on the line. About 45 minutes later, it rang again, still with a mute caller. This time I pulled the plug on the phone and went back to sleep.

Later on, I mentioned this to Martin, one of the members of our group. "Strange," he said, and I could almost detect a shiver when he said this. We were both thinking the same thing but neither of us wanted to actually say it. Especially since I'm here in this hotel for another night.

Anyway, when I woke up, it was 10 AM and I'd missed breakfast and the van to the strawberry farm. Fortunately, when I eventually made my way to the lobby, there were a group of strangers going to the same place, so I ended up hitching a ride with them. My group had tried to call me from the lobby but of course I'd pulled the phone out. They'd figured that as usual I'd gotten stuck somewhere doing stuff on the Internet.

Genting is a pretty place that's good for families. Apart from the casino, the great weather and its relative proximity to KL, it hosts a multitude of shows for every generation and inclination of visitors. Last weekend, for example, Deep Purple and a top Hong Kong singing sensation had played to full houses. Meanwhile, this weekend, Englebert Humperdick (yes, he's still around...) is apparently coming to town. There are also a huge number of theme parks and stuff for children, including the organic strawberry farm we visited this morning. At the farm, where I caught up with my group, we were allowed to pick strawberries straight from the vines and eat it. Good for me, as I'd missed breakfast and so the strawberries were brunch.

Tonight, there's a wonderful traditional Malaysian dinner in a log house in the mountains. The dress code tonight is national dress and we're going there by car; but on the way back, we're walking through the mountains via a path strewn with traditional lanterns. This should be a wondrous sight to behold.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Rafe Totengco on Bali

From international designer and Travelife Global Editor at Large Rafe Totengco's column in the April-May issue ofTravelife Magazine.

A friend once told me that people only visit Bali once and the rest of the time they keep coming back. And that is exactly what I have been doing for the past three years. Since my first trip for a friend’s wedding, I have been smitten. If you’ve ever been to this exotic paradise you’ll totally second my emotion. In subsequent trips I have come to experience different aspects of this mystical island. I’ve enjoyed sunset cocktails by the beach, indulged in local delicacies, swam among schools of fish above a shipwreck, hiked up treacherous mountain trails and meditated in ancient temples.

Whenever I go on vacation, I always have the urge to switch everything off. But I somehow never have enough guts to do so.

On my last trip to Bali, however, I finally decided to take the plunge and go offline (no iPhone, no email, no Facebook, no Twitter- believe it or not!). Free of technological disturbance, I ventured off-the-beaten-track starting from Manggis; then driving around Bali’s east and north coast to its cultural heart, Ubud; and then finally ending in sedate Sanur. I highly recommend it for anyone permanently attached to their PDAs because it completely liberated me from the noise of the outside world. I was able to immerse myself completely and experience Bali, unfiltered and without distraction. I emerged centered and energized, ready to go back and face the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple. No matter what your personal Utopian dream is for your vacation, have no fear because in this island paradise, there is something for everybody.


NAUGHTY NURI’S This Ubud institution serves up intoxicating martinis and their world famous barbeque pork ribs. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain thinks they’re the best outside New York. I couldn’t agree with him more. The crowd is friendly and boisterous.

IBU OKA Roast suckling pig (babi guling) at its best and even rivaling the Filipino “lechon”. This roadside restaurant (warung) is a must if you’re in Ubud. Authentic and relaxed, it’s always packed with people so be prepared to wait in line. Trust me, it is so worth it!

INDUS Another Ubud “must” with breathtaking views over the Tjampuhan River valley and Mount Agung. This is where the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival happens every year. Try Indonesia’s national dish nasi campur (mixed rice with vegetables, various meats, peanuts, egg, fried-shrimp chips and chili sauce), tenggiri curry (white fish cooked in ginger and coconut) and coconut crème caramel.

GAIA OASIS Tucked away at the water’s edge in Tulamben, this low-key beach resort offers a tranquil view of the sea while you dine al fresco. You might even spot dolphins swimming from a distance. Whatever you do, don’t miss the fantastic buffet they serve for lunch. The lemon cake was so good I came back for thirds.

METIS Recently opened by celebrity Chef Nicolas ‘Doudou’ Tourneville, formerly of Kafe Warisan, this restaurant, lounge and patisserie in Kuta is a welcome addition to the list of gastro-chic destinations in Bali. They have huge variety of blissful and potent cocktails. If you have the urge to shop while sipping your bellini, there’s also a boutique that’s conveniently open late.

SEASALT Overlooking the sea and set against a lush tropical garden, this restaurant and cooking school located within the Alila Manggis hotel is causing quite a stir in the sleepy town of Manggis, thanks to executive chef Penny Williams. The ingredients are grown from a local garden 10 minutes away and Penny trains local farmers to grow organic vegetables and rice. I shared the Balinese megibung (tastings of 8 local dishes) with a friend and it was delicious. Save room for a dessert of red rice pudding with jackfruit and home-made coconut ice cream.


KUDETA Probably one of the sexiest bars in Southeast Asia and one my personal faves. With lots of eye candy, heady cocktails, a seductive playlist and a sultry setting -- what’s not to love?! Grab a beachfront chaise if you can and watch the waves come crashing in. It’s best to go for sunset if you can beat the traffic.

BALI JOE Bali’s friendliest bar where all the boys are sisters. You get the picture. Tons of fun, if you like being in that kind of a scene.

OBSESSION This 80’s bar has hot live music from latin to rock, a lively mixed crowd and strong drinks. It’s not as chic as KuDeTa but the music makes up for it.


HIKE UP MT. AGUNG OR MT. BATUR I did both and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Unfortunately this expedition requires getting up early in the morning. Guides can be arranged by travel agents or hotels. Watching the sunrise while surveying the landscape from above the mountain is a truly unforgettable experience!

SNORKEL OR DIVE IN TULAMBEN On a black rock beach just meters from the shore is the USAT Liberty, an American ship wreck that is Bali’s most famous and most accessible dive. I snorkeled above the wreck and swam with large schools of fish while observing all these divers swirling in and out of the ship. I’m determined to do another dive on my next trip.

SWIM AT TIRTA GANGGA WATER PALACE Take a dip in this sacred watergarden that was once the favorite swimming pool of the Karangasem royal family. It is now open to the public and but you’ll see mostly locals here enjoying their daily bath. The water is cool and refreshing, especially after a day of sightseeing under the sun. On a side note, the overflow of the water goes into irrigating the rice fields below. Now that’s green living!

VISIT ULUN DANU TEMPLE COMPLEX Situated in Kintamani district in the village of Batur, this 2nd most important temple complex in Bali has nine temples and 285 shrines and pavilions. You can easily spend hours taking pictures and meandering around this labyrinth. I recommend you go really early to avoid the crush of tourists, or late at night when it’s empty except for a few locals making their offerings. This is when you get to experience the deep spirituality of Bali!


BU DEWI Hidden away in the village of Nyuh Kuning in Ubud you’ll find incredible recycled sarongs and vintage hand woven ikats for a fraction of the cost of what it would cost you at fancy hotel gift shops. Unfortunately the streets have no name so you’ll have to ask the locals for directions. Bring cash because that’s all she takes. I walked away with a bundle!

THREADS OF LIFE This fair trade business / textile arts center in Ubud commissions local weavers and support women’s weaving cooperatives to produce painstakingly stunning works of art using traditional techniques passed down through generations. Even if you don’t buy anything, go and see the exhibits and talk to the staff. They’re walking encyclopedias with interesting stories about every piece in the store.

JEAN FRANCOIS FICHOT If you’re looking for a really special one-of-a-kind statement piece and you’re willing to max out your credit card, then you go to Monsieur Fichot’s store in Ubud. He manipulates baroque pearls, semi-precious stones, diamonds, gold and silver into fantastic objets d’art for the home and to wear. His love for the ancient worlds of India, Egypt, Majapahit and Mesopotamia are evident in every intricate piece. Business is booming for this sorcerer of the arts because he’s building a bigger store set to open this year.

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Read more about Rafe's travels in every issue of Travelife Magazine, and on his blog.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Accidental Transit

Travelife Magazine Editor in Chief Christine Cunanan wings it through four East Coast states in one day.

In my fourth year of college at the Ateneo de Manila, I joined a delegation of Philippine students traveling to Boston for the AIESEC International Congress. AIESEC was then – and probably still is today – the world’s largest international youth organization, composed of university students majoring in economics, business, and sciences.

It may have simply been a lack of planning on my part, but I journeyed alone from Manila to the East Coast via San Francisco without making any prior arrangements upon landing at Boston’s Logan Airport. The Philippine delegation had arrived several days earlier, but I’d delayed my departure to finish my mid-terms. It was my first visit to the East Coast and I assumed I would find some way to my destination, unaware that the conference site was halfway to Vermont. Neither had I planned on what to do post-conference. I simply departed home with a month-long absence permit from school, a modest sum, some telephone numbers, and vague accommodations offers from friends and relatives in different cities. In hindsight, it seemed a very reckless decision for a young girl in a foreign country.

Wandering through Boston Airport

But everything worked out. At Logan Airport, I was wandering the arrivals terminal less than five minutes when I spotted some people in AIESEC t-shirts. I hurriedly introduced myself and corralled a ride to the conference site about two hours away, in a van blaring rock and roll radio with these students and about five other strangers.

Fortunately, my entire stay worked out with similar coincidences. After the conference, I hitched a ride back to Boston with other Filipinos, staying a few days with them at a Boston University student’s apartment. Then I rang up my father’s old West Point classmate, who was now living in a ritzy penthouse apartment with a huge terrace in the center of the city. He and his wife took me to dinner, after which they handed me the spare keys to their home.

“We’re flying to the Bahamas tomorrow for winter holidays,” they told me. “But you’re welcome to stay in our flat for as long as you wish. Please feel at home.”

Home Alone -in a Boston penthouse

I still remember the giddiness I felt upon entering the palatial penthouse, relishing both the realization that it was mine for a week and the independence it accorded. After the strict regimen of schoolwork, it was liberating to be free of schedules and to simply do as one wished. Not that I was irresponsible though. The most reckless thing I did was to sit in the terrace and enjoy three TV dinners in a row with an amazing view of the city as entertainment.

One night, still in Boston, just as my AIESEC friends and I were finishing up dinner in a Chinese restaurant at 10:30 PM, someone had the idea to hit the New Hampshire ski slopes very early the following day. Everyone was enthusiastic but me -- and the fact that I could barely ski was just one of my considerations.

Marathon drive to New York

“I can’t,” I groaned. “I’ve got to be in New York tomorrow night for a party.” My Manhattan-based cousins were hosting a get-together in an Upper East Side bar and I had planned to train to New York the following afternoon.

“Come with us,” they all cajoled. And then our host at Boston University added, “We’ll leave early tomorrow morning and spend the day skiing in New Hampshire; tomorrow night I’ll drive you to New York. I guarantee you’ll be there in time for your party.”

I certainly couldn’t refuse such an offer. The next day, things happened exactly as planned. We set off on our ski adventure at 4 AM – a few hours after parting – and were on the New Hampshire slopes by 9 AM. And by 10 PM, just as the Manhattan party was starting, we were driving down Park Avenue in his Range Rover, rock music blaring; and soon we found ourselves right in front of the bar. We'd barely stopped for a few minutes and already one of my cousins had spotted me and was heading out the door with the party's de rigeur welcome drink: glasses of Long Island Iced Tea.

“Why don’t you join us?” I asked my gallant escort from Boston. He’d just completed a marathon driving session from Boston to New Hampshire, then Boston again, and then to New York – and now he was planning to drive back to Boston. The least I could do was buy him a nice meal. Besides, everyone at the party wanted to meet the endurance driver.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I really just intended to drive you over as I promised.”

With a smile and a casual wave, he drove off, back to Boston, leaving me to the welcoming shrieks of my cousins and friends.

Postscript: I never saw my new friend again although I just realized he's one of our Travelife Magazine Facebook friends! Hope he reads about himself on this blog...


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Bistro Miyake in Greenhills

Tanya de Joya checks out a new and reasonably-priced modern Japanese restaurant in Greenhills

It was Friday night and we were looking for a new place to go to celebrate the end of a busy week, when one of my friends suggested trying out Bistro Miyake, a Japanese restaurant that had recently opened along Annapolis Street in Greenhills. The name itself intrigued us – bistro is a casual French eatery, after all, and not at all connected with Japanese cuisine – and we all loved Japanese food, so we gamely agreed. Besides, location-wise it was a good compromise since it was halfway between the office and home for most of us.

We liked Bistro Miyake from the outset. It was warm and inviting, but also refreshingly modern, especially compared to the typical Japanese restaurants in Metro Manila that preferred traditional wooden interiors and waitresses in kimonos. And for a new restaurant, it was certainly busy when we arrived. There were some guys excitedly talking about basketball by the bar, several couples in the tables alongside the wall, and two large families with elderly grandparents in tow. Outside, the bistro had seating for smokers and diners who preferred al fresco, and the place was almost completely taken up by young people having sushi and cocktails.

We secured a table by the window inside and my friend Billy, a certified Japanophile, took over the ordering.

“We’ve got to have the California maki and the chawan mushi (steamed egg custard),” he began. And then he rattled off a series of Japanese terms which I assumed meant a whole lot of delicious food.

The California maki arrived first -- colorful rice rolls generously covered in bright orange fish roe and looking almost to good to eat. We prodded each other to take the first bite. But when we each had a mouthful, we ended up fighting over the last pieces. Juicy bits of mango and crab blended excellently with mayonnaise.

Then came assorted sashimi, including uni (sea urchin) sashimi, a personal favorite for its rich taste. Usually, restaurants scrimp on this precious ingredient because it’s so pricey. Bistro Miyake’s version, however, was fresh and heavy on the uni. The salmon sashimi too was obviously a recent catch, judging from its beautiful color.

“You know what they say about salmon sashimi,” my friend JonJon quipped. “You can never have too much of it.” Not exactly a profound statement, but we certainly all agreed.

About six or seven other dishes came and went very quickly, most with much praise for the creativity of the chef and the beauty of presentation. Some dishes, however, stood out in my mind. The chawan mushi, of course, was wonderful – a tasty steamed egg flan containing a delightful surprise of chicken and shrimp. It was the perfect hot pairing for platefuls of raw fish. We also loved the salmon wasabi with cream sauce – a juicy salmon fillet was baked and then topped with a spicy cream sauce full of chopped vegetables. The seafood omelet rice was also a big winner for its delicious taste and impressive presentation. A thin sheet of omelet was fashioned into a box and filled with seafood rice flavored with tomato sauce. It was the perfect ending to a sumptuous meal.

However, the biggest surprise was probably the bill. We’d ordered a feast and, yet, for an upscale Japanese restaurant, the cost was relatively reasonable.

As we left the restaurant, Billy said, “That’s one of the most satisfying meals I’ve had in a long time. If we had dinner like this every Friday, I think the week would go a whole lot faster.”

We couldn’t have agreed more.

Bistro Miyake Restobar
Unit 101, Intrawest Building
33 Annapolis St., Greenhills
San Juan City
Tel. 7219793, 44849339


Friday, May 7, 2010

From Yellow to Green

Manila -- Perhaps for the last time, we at TRAVELIFE Magazine digress from writing about travel and the good life to say our piece on politics before an extremely polarized nation goes to vote on Monday.

For most of our adult life, we've been unabashedly yellow. In fact, we were yellow long before it became fashionable - and certainly at a time when it was very dangerous to be so. And throughout the years, we've worked for the yellow camp and the good and honest Corazon Aquino, and had many opportunities to interact up close and personal with her.

We risked arrest and organized Cory's Crusaders at the Ateneo, distributing leaflets and marching in the streets when many of our classmates were safely at home. Later on, we worked for Corazon Aquino in various capacities. In one of these capacities, we were privileged to accompany her several times on her visits to Japan. I still remember one particular trip, when we made up a party of four -- President Aquino, her daughter, another person and myself -- and visited the city of Kobe. In the evenings, we sat around the living room of President Aquino's suite; and I never forgot the radiance and aura that surrounded her, even then amongst people she knew in the privacy of her living room. As a person, she was truly a special lady.

From Yellow to Green

But this time we're unabashedly green because this good lady who was the reason we were yellow has passed away, and she is not the one running for election. And I believe that anyone else running under the Aquino name should be taken entirely on their own merits -- especially right now, when the country is in such dire need of good and strong leadership.

In choosing our candidate, we took a long and hard look at each of the serious contenders. The job of running a poor, fractious and corrupt country like the Philippines is a tough one that requires vision, talent, management skills, integrity, vigor, stamina and an honest-to-goodness good heart. Most of the candidates had some or the other, but only one really had most of these qualities -- at least in our opinion.

Out of all the major candidates running for election, Gilbert Teodoro is the one candidate we had no connections to and the one we knew least about -- yet he impressed us the most, and this is why we're casting our vote with him. Through the campaign season, we had opportunities to meet him and each time we found a good, smart, honest, principled and sincere man who we thought could and should be president. When he spoke, he had a realistic vision and a no-nonsense approach when proposing solutions. I also liked that he had worked hard all his life in spite of being the son of a privileged family.

"GIBO stood out for his brilliance.."

Early last year, way before the elections heated up, I was at a farewell dinner at the Mandarin Oriental for the head of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of Germany. Gilbert Teodoro was the guest speaker because he knew the foundation head well. At my table was Gilbert's law professor. This was not yet election fever and her attendance at this dinner was completely unrelated to Gibo's presence at the event.

She said to me: "You know, even in law school, Gilbert stood out for his brilliance. But what really impressed me was that he really worked hard and diligently. He belonged to a batch that included several sons and daughters of famous families. Most of them simply went through the paces of school, confident that whether they studied hard or not, a good future in law or politics awaited them. But Gilbert Teodoro was different. He was brilliant, but he was also among the hardest working and diligent students of that batch -- and of the thousands of students who've passed through my classes over the years."

Everywhere, people are for GIBO

Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion regarding presidential candidates -- although I'm happy to note that almost everywhere I go, so many people are for Gilbert Teodoro. On Thursday, at an Italian restaurant in Makati, four out of five of us were green. And the restaurant servers were green as well. But even in other sectors of society, I found Gilbert Teodoro supporters everywhere. My facialist confirmed that everyone in their salon was for GT, and just yesterday at a spa, my therapist whispered the same. They liked how he spoke and what he said, these service personnel told me; he sounded smart, sensible and different.

Although we are for Gilbert Teodoro, we certainly respect other people's choice of candidates. However, it baffles us constantly, when we meet friends and acquaintances and they say they're supporting a candidate because "my brother knows him," or "my uncle worked for his mom," or "we went to the same school," etc. The funniest one I've found so far is: "Because my husband knows his cousin-in-law." It's as if we're voting for a school alumni association president rather than the president of a country.

This is about the fate of 90+ million Filipinos

Voting for a president isn't about choosing the candidate we know or went to school with, or the one most likely to give someone in the family a job. This is about the fate of 90+ million Filipinos and not just a few hundred families, so the candidate the nation elects had better be up to the job. Winning the elections -- especially with massive propaganda machines and the support of major media establishments -- is the easiest part of the process. The hard part is running the country afterwards. I cannot stress enough how damaging six more long years under a mediocre president will be. It may be good for a few hundred families and a couple of media, but it will be devastating for the rest of the country. And each time I think of this possibility, I really feel sorry for this country and its people, who could really and finally use a break from the cycle of poverty, mismanagement and corruption.

As for us voters, it's easy to wear the baller of your candidate, or to post his sticker on your car or his photo on Facebook. But when you're actually in that polling booth and ready to choose, please remember that your choice will have serious repercussions for your country.

1) Does your candidate personally have an ambitious and yet realistic vision for the country? (The vision created by his PR machine and by some smart ad agencies doesn't count.)

2) Can your candidate manage people?

3) Can your candidate wisely manage resources?

4) Do you believe your candidate will work hard for the good of the country? Has he done so credibly in the past?

5) Does he have proven leadership skills?

6) Can he intelligently represent the country and its interests in the international arena?

7) Can he truly run the country?

From all of us at Travelife Magazine, the Philippines' leading travel & lifestyle publication, good luck with your choice and -- for the sake of our poor beloved country and its many suffering people, most of whom live in poverty and have no access to the Internet -- may the best, most qualified man win.



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Raising the Steaks This Summer

Clifford Lichaytoo of Bacchus Epicerie shares with Travelife his secrets for the perfect barbecue.

When the sky turns a clear shade of blue, and the ambient heat is suddenly cooled by the shade of a tree, I know summer is definitely here. The midday heat can be unbearable, but as the afternoon light turns into a benign, golden shade that makes everything look good, the thought of hosting the perfect outdoor barbecue is tempting: good friends and engaging conversation, libations that slake the parching thirst, and - easily the piece de resistance – excellent cuts of steak sizzling and smoking on a grill, that lend the air an appetite-whetting waft.

For me summer barbecues can be as elegant, or as rough-and-ready, as you want. But this is a moot point really. If your wines and steaks are of the best quality, the rest are superfluous. And risking a shameless plug, Bacchus Epicerie’s beef is prime grade, and we’re ready to take your summer cookout to a higher level. We have levels of quality from our Wisconsin suppliers that are very close to Wagyu, at one-third the price. This is the best value for quality, premium grade food.

Hey don’t take my word for it. Slap a ribeye or porterhouse on the grill, and watch the light red steak -- the white marbling fat combined with the juicy redness of corn-fed beef -- turn a delicious red brown. With beef this good and just a dash Sicilian (Rock) Sea Salt, I can guarantee an almost perfect barbecue. The little details are up to you.

Bacchus Recommends: Wines for the summer barbecue

The French will always serve reds at ‘room temperature.’ But in emulating this, we commit a common mistake since rooms in France are probably 10 degrees cooler than those in the Philippines. Besides, a warm wine on a sweltering summer afternoon may be quite overwhelming. But cooling it in the fridge for two hours will turn it into a downright refreshing beverage. To me, the heat accentuates each wine’s bouquet of each wine, and sniffing a red through a narrow mouthed Reidel Sommelier Bordeaux or a White Vinum Chardonnay glass in my mind will bring you that much closer to the hints and notes hidden within the liquor.

Michele Chiarlo – Nivole
Moscato 2008

Asti, Italy
A charming, straightforward, sweet sparkling white that hints of fresh, remarkably lively peaches and apricots. Served chilled, it comprises the perfect summer cooler.

Parallele 45 Rose 2008

Cotes du Rhone, France
Paul Jaboulet
A brilliant, salmon pink perfectly matches the slow march of the summer’s day, but an intense bouquet and a tart palate of berries belies its benign coloration.
Php 840

Red Hot
Louis Jadot (White Burgundy)
Macon Blanc Village 2007

Dry and fruity, this wine with a floral bouquet and a hint of lemon is best served chilled. Goes well with grilled meats and fish.
Php 990

Downright Cool
New Zealand
Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Php 1,740
Offering a complex nose that resounds of pineapple and guava, tempered by strong minerality as evidenced by hints of chalk and flint. Served chilled, it’s acidity is quite refreshing in the afternoon heat.

Clos Henri Pinot Noir 2006
A delightful counterpoint to dry and acidic wines, distinct notes of ripe plum and cherry, with hints of cinnamon and clove are reminiscent of a cool breeze under a tree’s shade, or the cooling heat at sunset.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Official Grading of Beef

Would you choose Angus over Wagyu? Guess what. It doesn’t really matter what kind of cow or breed your steak comes from. There are 20 distinct cattle breeds, but ultimately, it’s the grading that determines quality, and that has to be clearly marked on the package. Keep in mind that a single cow can produce steak cuts of differing grades.

The Grades:

Usually the steaks served at Peter Luger and Morton’s, or sold by high-end markets.

What is usually available in Gourmet Markets and Steak Houses.

What common supermarkets have offered up.

While super prime is not an official grade, we will use it to describe the quality of beef available at Bacchus Epicerie.

Cooking the Perfect Steak the Bacchus Way
A Short Guide

Maximizing the flavor and tenderness of steak requires patience and understanding in the cooking of the dish. What follows are time tested methods that you can adopt. I guarantee, you’ll never cook steak the old, haphazard way again.

Do this gradually, ideally inside the refrigerator for 1-2 days. (Thawing a frozen steak in running water or in a microwave will spoil it!) But bring it to room temperature 30 minutes before cooking so that it cooks evenly inside and out.

High, even heat of about 260 o Celsius will ensure a perfectly seared, crusted steak that is done on the outside, but red, juicy and tender (rare or medium rare) inside.

Is a quick method using high heat usually from below, requiring a flip to ensure even cooking. An advantage of this is the smoky flavor imparted to the meat by using fragrant woods for embers.

Pan Frying
A default method, use a little fat and high heat to create perfect searing that seals the juices inside. A cast iron pan spreads and retains heat evenly, aiding consistent cooking. The Le Creuset Cast Iron Grill pans perform admirably in this respect.

Finally, give your meat a break of two to three minutes after cooking. This will allow for the absorption of the cooking juices.