During a recent weekend, I was hosted by the freshly opened Hotel Clover 5 Hong Kong Street, located just in between Raffles Place and Clarke Quay. This strategic location is very popular among the backpacking crowd, with many hostels in the vicinity. More recently, full-fledged hotels have also moved in but so far Hotel Clover 5 Hong Kong Street is the only boutique option in the area. The Hotel Clover brand is relatively new but rapidly expanding not just in Singapore but also overseas as a chain of boutique of hotels. In fact, during the time of my stay barely 3 weeks after the hotel opened, I was told that they’re constructing a new one next door!
deluxe room at hotel clover at 5 hong kong street
Due to skyrocketing hotel prices in Singapore – where even rooms in 3-star hotels can cost upwards of US$ 200 per night – boutique hotels have become a worthwhile alternative for lodging. Hotel Clover 5 Hong Kong Street is well-placed under this category and they’re going out in a big way with many hotels opening island-wide. And in keeping with the tradition of boutique hotels, each property is set to have its distinctive motif.
I stumbled upon Zagreb on a long train ride from Austria, past incredible alpine scenery, where the only thing that seemed to be missing were alphorns and blonde girls named Heidi yodeling from the hilltops. It was picture perfect. The train criss-crossed the snowcapped peaks of the Austrian Alps, then ran past the verdant plains of Slovenia, and stopped for a while near pristine Lake Bled. I spent one whole afternoon on the train but at the very least, the majestic views kept me entertained during the long train ride to Croatia.
zagreb’s st. mark’s church, standing beside croatia’s parliament buildings
After what must have been 6 hours, we finally left the European Union and were officially in Zagreb, Croatia. The gritty, random Soviet style apartment buildings that greeted me that evening before we stopped at the train station threw me off a bit with respect to my impression of Croatia. The azure seas, beach-side villas and medieval, fortified cities were nowhere to be found – Dalmatia, the thin strip lining the Adriatic Sea, was a hundred miles away. I was to have a one day trip in Zagreb. And I was there without any clue on things to see or do in city.
Shangri-la Makati is a hotel that I’ve known ever since I was a kid. In a couple of ways, it’s been host to many memorable events. I’ve been here several times for dinners with friends, colleagues and family in Circles, birthdays, weddings and other parties in their ballrooms. Many friends and relatives had their wedding reception here. I remember being awed the first time I witnessed the grand lobby more than a decade back, with the imposing staircase on either side and the center piece that changes every few days. If there’s one trademark about Shangri-la aside from their impeccable service and long buffets, it’s their grand lobby which they’ve replicated in properties all over the world.
the grand lobby of shangri-la makati… not airbrushed, it really looks like that
During one of my recent trips back home to Manila, I had the pleasure of once more being hosted by Shangri-la, this time in the Makati property. Built during the Asian boom in the early 90s, the hotel is now in its 20th year. It has always been known as a premier venue not just for lodging in Manila but also for events and conferences. This time around though, the hotel has been facing competition from new offerings that’s cropped up in the most recent economic boom. There’s now a Fairmont next door, and elsewhere in Manila there is a Marriott, a Hyatt Regency, a Pan Pacific and some other hotels that are due to open in the next coming years. It was only as recent as a decade back when Shangri-la seemed to be one of the very few truly 5-star hotels in the city.
A lot has been said about the quality of life in North Korea’s rural areas that it’s initially hard to tell which is real and which is fake. For sure, some of them seem too far-fetched to be true – or are they? During those rare times when we got to venture out of Pyongyang, I couldn’t help but look out of the bus window at every chance I got. Would I be able to see any evidence of the starvation, the prison camps, the nuclear facilities? Judging by what we saw by the road side, it was evident that things operated at a different rhythm here.
They say that a good way to gauge a country’s level of development is to take quick glance at its rural areas. The countryside of North Korea did afford us a few observations. For one, there were no animals to be seen. We did not see a single chicken, pig, goat or cow outside toiling the fields. Moreover, everything was done with human hand. There were barely any machines seen that could harvest the many road side plantations (likely to have been deliberately placed to show the country as self-sustaining) we saw along the way.
the amazing show!
Imagine 50,000 performers in a stadium. They jump, dance and march with sheer synchronicity. Apart from this, they’re backed by another group of 50,000 performers whose job is to flash flip card propaganda mosaics using human hands. If there is ever a highlight to a trip to North Korea, the Arirang Mass Games has to be it. I go one step further and dare say that this is probably the most spectacular thing to see in the entire Korean peninsula. Watching these “games” alone already justifies a trip to the Hermit Kingdom. It has to be seen to be believed.
Time sure flies fast. It’s hard to believe than this month marks one year since my staycation at Capri by Fraser Changi City, the first hosted staycation I’ve ever had. While a line of staycations have come after that, the very first one remains to be one of the most unique hotel concepts I’ve experienced (I still remember the gaming consoles and exercise machines they have in the laundry rooms). And I am not alone in saying this. Today, Capri by Fraser Changi City is one of the highest rated hotels of its class, having garnered consistently top-notch reviews from travel and booking websites.
Coinciding with the one year since my most enjoyable stay in Capri by Fraser Changi City, the said hotel is likewise marking their first anniversary this same month and they have prepared an exciting line up of activities and promotions to mark this occasion.
As if a trip to North Korea wasn’t surreal enough, a standard part of every respectable “revolutionary tour” of the DPRK includes a trip down the so-called Reunification Highway for a quick visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This very fact was all the more unreal to me, having had the chance to see the same heavily fortified DMZ, albeit from another side, some 4 years back from the south. It deeply intrigued me then. Said to be one of the most dangerous borders in the world, I saw it then as a gateway into a hermit-like nation that few people knew much about aside from its notorious reputation. Now that I was in the country with the notorious reputation, the trip down the DMZ now kind of became like a sort of irony. Instead of the DMZ serving as a gateway to the unknown, it now became that small hole into the so-called free world that I’ve been living in all my life. It was hard to believe that only some 100 kilometers away from that point where people worshipped Kim Jong Il even in his death, the streets of Gangnam in Seoul would be buzzing with Psy lookalikes and well-heeled South Koreans with the latest gadgets from Samsung.
Here’s looking at you, kid!
Rather than spend my time listening intently to the soldier talking about another one of Kim Il Sung’s heroic exploits, I spent my time making several feeble attempts at getting reception while at the DMZ (there is no roaming service at all in North Korea, and forget about the internet). And suprisingly, I did manage to get it… for a split second! So anyway, back I went to listening about the Korean War. I couldn’t help but notice how different some parts of it were to the version I heard during the DMZ Tour from the South, where an American soldier was giving an account of the same war. In the North Korean version of the story, it was the US-backed south that triggered the war by attacking first, while the western version involved Kim Il Sung making a first and bold move to recapture the entire peninsula by launching an attack. So what really happened? It’s anyone’s guess. But 60 years later, the war officially hasn’t ended yet. Only a truce was signed in 1953 and tensions have been on and off since then.
Having just arrived in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, we were met by two serious-looking “mandatory” guides who wore business suits more suitable for the secret police rather than for holiday planners. And to perhaps bring the seriousness of our trip to North Korea home, they started by giving us three rules – #1: You cannot go out without your guide; #2: You cannot fold, distort, deface or throw away any paraphernalia that contain the images of Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il and #3: You cannot take pictures of the military. And with that, our holiday to North Korea officially began.
the grand people’s study house, one of the most elaborately constructed buildings in pyongyang
North Korea is not an usual destination by any sense of the word. Everything is strictly controlled. Visitors are expected to pay their respects to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il by bowing several times before their statues or embalmed bodies. Even the hotel rooms are most likely bugged. Then again, a trip to North Korea offers one a rare peek into the world’s last true communist state. It’s a country that got swept into the Cold War and never managed to get out, thanks to the country’s inflexible government.