72 Hours In Siem Reap

3 May

Angkor Wat - sunrise with temple reflection

Angkor Wat – sunrise with temple reflection

If you’re someone who appreciates history like I do, you’ll fall in love with Siem Reap. To be sure, however, this isn’t a place merely for history buffs. If that’s not your thing, I have no doubt you can still enjoy this endlessly fascinating city immensely.

Long known to be synonymous with World Wonder, Angkor Wat (English translation: Temple City), an impressive religious complex constructed in the early 12th Century, the city has been welcoming visitors and enthusiasts for years ever since the temple complex’s declared status.
No doubt some may recall that Cambodia’s had a not too distant tortured past mired in tragedy and loss but If there’s one thing that’s evident today is that its citizens have shown incredible resilience through it all and a new generation’s at the helm with lofty ambitions, steering the nation to new frontiers.

Siem Reap is easily accessible by most modes of transport. If you’re arriving by air, you’ll be touching down at Siam Reap airport, REP, which is just on the outskirts of town and a short drive in. And as is common with most popular tourist draws, lots of choices abound when it comes to accommodation. The Privilege Floor right on National Road, one of the main thoroughfares in town, is an outstanding property which I would highly recommend. You can see my full review here. A second choice that’s quite nice, in the budget range, is the Men’s Resort and Spa mere blks away.

Once you’re checked in and settled, inquire of your hotel concierge if it’ll be possible to hire a Guide for the days ahead. I do recommend it as if you’ve come to explore what this city is famous for, its temples, there are so many and it just makes your exploration a tad more interesting and perhaps manageable if you have someone on hand who can walk you through the history and all the nuance. The Privilege Fl. was able to arrange this and a driver for us, for the duration of our stay which was excellent.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

Next, head out to Angkor Archaeological Park ticketing booth to purchase your passes for entry to the temples. The fee depends on the number of days you’d like the pass for. The 3-Day pass (40 USD as of this writing) I think is an excellent value. Do note that it is advisable to have cash at the ready here. Credit Cards are accepted at some establishments but we found that those were few and far between. Luckily, USD is the main tender, so you might even withdraw a sufficient amount before you head out on your journey. Otherwise ATMs in town dispense dollars.
Now that you have entrance sorted, you may choose to relax and take things easy the remainder of the afternoon (perhaps wise to prep for the days ahead). And if you happen to be staying at The Privilege Floor all the better. Head back to Damnak Lounge as you’re likely just in time for Happy Hour. Even if you’re not a guest there, you can also enjoy the Happy Hour for a mere 9 USD (all inclusive). It comes with an assortment of appetizers, in addition, and you can enjoy your drinks out on the terrace with a nice sunset view.

Day 1: Arise early, well before dawn, and head out to Angkor Wat to capture the immaculate sunrise over the temple. To be forewarned, you’ll have plenty of company at the viewing. It’s an event that tends to draw loads of crowds. Still, it’s a brilliant sight and one worth getting up early for.
After you’re through, you may elect to go back to your hotel, rest up and have breakfast before carrying on. Or, keep it moving by grabbing something locally within the area and carry on with your tour of Angkor Wat. To avoid the hordes, the East entrance, the back of the complex, is likely a better place to commence your exploration though your Guide may have a better idea. It’s a fairly massive area, so the duration of your tour is really up to you. I would say plan on a few hours as a general guide.

After Angkor Wat you may want to break for lunch after which you can carry on to Angkor Thom nearby to see Bayon Temple. It’s more of a ruin than Angkor Wat and has some interesting, distinctive architectural characteristics (note the mood of the Buddha faces). If temple fatigue hasn’t set in for the day yet then you may proceed to Ta Prohm which you’ll immediately notice is one of the most photographed and catalogued of the temples due to its appearance in the movie, Tomb Raider, and it’s overgrown vegetation–trees merging into the structures with mightily impressive roots.

At this point, no doubt you’re ready to call it a day. Head back to your hotel for some R&R and the later head out to Khmer Kitchen for some delicious grub (advance reservations recommended). Cap off the evening there or if you’re looking for something more stimulating to keep the night going, head out to Pub Street where a plethora of nightly delights await.

Out for the catch - at Kampong Klum

Out for the catch – at Kampong Klum

Day 2: Grab your Guide and head out to the floating village at Kampong Klum. This is a very fascinating village almost entirely on stilts following the river as it empties out to the Tonle Sap. Make an afternoon of it and stop for lunch at one of the floating restaurants on the water then tour the village afterward. When you’re through and you’re still up to it, you may choose to tack on a couple additional temples in the area: Preah Ko (temple of the sacred bull) and nearby Bakong. After a day of exploration, dinner at Viroth’s should be a fine way to end the evening.

Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap

Day 3: it’s a good time to tackle some of the further afield temples, Banteay Srey and Banteay Samre. These two are roughly 45 mins outside town but offer a unique perspective in terms of their architectural style, especially Banteay Srey which was constructed in the 10th century (well before Angkor Wat). In addition, its Hindu origins have been mostly kept in tact – another interesting detail to note.
Temple fatigue’s likely set in at this point, so perhaps it’s a good idea to head back to town and check out the Angkor National Museum and other sights of interest as you round out your trip.

What and enchanting place! I fell in love with its people and culture and simply can’t wait to return. I highly recommend it.

Around Town In Luang Prabang

14 Apr

Miniature Buddha structures at Pak Ou Caves

Miniature Buddha structures at the Pak Ou Caves

I still remember blank stares I got when I recently embarked on a journey to Southeast Asia that included Laos. I’d say, yeah, I’m off to Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and the reactions were mostly oohs and ahs at the mention of the first two but then dead silence at the last and then, immediately, oh that’s cool — as if to say, wherever the heck that is. Well, I suppose to some extent somewhat understandable.

Laos certainly (and perhaps blessedly) does not have the same sort of massive tourist draw the aforementioned places command — at least not quite yet. They’re there but seemingly in manageable quantities which makes a city like Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place that still seems fairly off the beaten path and thus ever more so enchanting. Not just for the lack of its being overrun but also the sheer Zen nature of the city and its inhabitants, a population of just about 50k.

This was the last leg of our trip, traveling from Cambodia, and thus boarded a flight from Siem Reap direct to Luang Prabang on Vietnam Airlines, one of the few carriers operating this route. After a bit of a harrowing journey, largely due to the state of our jet, an ancient Fokker 100, we touched down at Luang Prabang airport, LPQ. Getting through immigration was relatively quick and painless (a visa is necessary for entry though this can be secured upon arrival at the airport). Next, we made our way into town. The Belle Rive Hotel is where we would call home during our stay and our experience there was mostly pleasurable. See my full review.

Luang Prabang is a very charming place that offers visitors truly memorable sightseeing and

Mekong River Cruise

Mekong River Cruise

recreational experiences. Early birds would appreciate the crack of dawn monk procession at the almsgiving ceremony. I’d be remiss in not mentioning that of course this is a sacred religious event and as such spectators should be mindful of the fact and respect the tradition. It is becoming somewhat of a tourist draw so the more cognizant we all are to help preserve the integrity of the ceremony, the better.

Further afield, roughly 18 miles south of the city is where you’ll find the multi-tiered magnificent Kwang Si or Tat Kwang Xi waterfalls. In my opinion, one of the must see attractions that should be included on any itinerary. It’s quite a remarkable experience and one of the better falls I’ve seen in some time. Don’t forget your bathing suits and flip flops, there are several swimming ponds along the trail to the largest of the falls where you can take a dip — a good reprieve from the sweltering temperatures.

Kwang Si Waterfalls

Kwang Si Waterfalls

Another notable attraction I’d recommend including on your list: Pak Ou Caves, roughly 16 miles the other direction, to the north of town. Make the journey via boat upstream on the Mekong (a distance of roughly 2 hrs – the scenery is well worth it) to Pak Ou, where the caves are located. They house an impressive collection of mostly miniature Buddha sculptures which have been collected over time.
Back in town, don’t miss the impressive 16th century temple, Wat Xieng Thong and the surrounding compound. And, as dusk nears, grab a driver and negotiate a sunset cruise on the Mekong. The views are quite picturesque; I think the Mekong displays a lot of character in these parts.

I think one of the more exhilarating experiences (if you happen to be an animal lover) is the elephant trek at Elephant Village Ban Xieng Lom. Have your hotel arrange for the trip out to Ban Xieng Lom or make arrangements directly. It includes pick-up, drop-off and a Guide. Grab your bathing suit here, too; you have the option to take a dip in the pool at the resort once the tour’s over. Lunch also comes included in the package.
When you’ve returned to town, ascend to the top of Phousi Hill for excellent views of the city and breathtaking sunsets. Once you’ve had your fill, from there, descend down to the night market on Sisavangvong behind the National Museum (another point that might be of interest) for some retail therapy. Lots of crafts and goods by local artisans are sold here.

By now you’re likely working up an appetite, head to L’Elephant Restaurant (making a reservation in advance is highly recommended) for some scrumptious Laotian and international fare. I recommend trying the Laotian tasting menu for a comprehensive sampling of what Laotian cuisine’s all about. Other restaurants to try are Coconut Garden, Tamarind and top rated, The Balcony by Lanith which I review in detail.

Luang Prabang is not a place that overly simmers with nightlife as the city does have a curfew. I do understand, however, that there are places like The Bowling Alley on the edge of town that opens late into the wee hours of the morning for those that like to keep it moving. Otherwise most restaurants and bars are open till curfew commences.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It is a city that endlessly fascinates and begs to be explored. Grab your tix and go. You’ll love it.

Clip: Almsgiving Ceremony

Bangkok Attraction: Jim Thompson House and Museum

11 Apr
Thai silk weaving, Jim Thompson House and Museum

Thai silk weaving, Jim Thompson House and Museum

The Jim Thompson House and Museum should make an excellent addition to your itinerary while visiting Bangkok. It’s located just a few blocks away from the BTS Skytrain stop (National Stadium terminus) in the center of town. Entrance fee is a negligible $3/100 Thai Bath (as of this writing) and includes guided tours that are conducted in English and French.

The former house of American Jim Thompson who’s popularly known for helping revitalize the Thai Silkindustry. It’s exemplary of what an upper class Thai home would have resembled in its day — complete with rare collector pieces. It’s quite impressive. Mystery still shrouds Thompson’s final days. No one knows what happened to him precisely. Makes a visit to this museum all the more fascinating. It was doubly special for me as I happened to have visited on March 21st, which was coincidentally Mr. Thompson’s birthday.

Property grounds

Property grounds

This premises is a complex of sorts — housing a couple shops and onsite restaurant (which happens to be quite decent – if a tad pricy relatively speaking of course). Alternatively, if you’d like to grab lunch after your visit, hop back on the Skytrain one stop in the other direction to Siam. You’ll be exiting right at Siam Paragon–Bangkok’s mega mall. Descend to the food halls (lower level) for a massive (and relatively inexpensive) assortment of scrumptious delights.

Between Business and Economy, A New Class Emerges

11 Apr

It’s commonly referred to as Premium Economy or Economy Plus/Comfort or Main Cabin Extra (locally) though it’s not entirely a new phenomenon. In some form it’s been around for years albeit limited to a number of airlines and serving as an additional revenue generating offering especially for airlines with just two-class configurations.

These days though, just about every major player’s onboard (pardon the pun). It’s growing increasingly popular and really beginning to carve its niche as a third or, indeed, fourth class, targeting a specific demographic – the leisure traveler who can afford to do a bit of splurging for just a bit more comfort and finesse. Though, perhaps, one may take the cynic route with the view that the situation in coach has just gotten so horrendous that it’s likely the only more decent way to fly as opposed to having to shell out the cash or premium miles for that business class seat.

It’s a bit of a wild west however in terms of these class of seats. There doesn’t appear to be too much consistency with the offering though I believe we’re starting to see some themes emerge as airlines become more competitive. Sadly however, domestic carriers still lag a bit here. In fact there isn’t really such a thing as Premium Economy this side of the Atlantic yet (with the exception of Air Canada on select jets). Most of the players here have decided to stick with simply bolstering the pitch of seats at the forward section of their Economy classes.

United has Economy Plus, Delta, Economy Comfort and American, Main Cabin Extra. All offering these seats at an extra cost to your average traveler. American is taking the lead however in creating a completely separate Main Cabin Extra cabin and the best pitch of the 3 carriers, 36″, on its new 777-300ER jet (retrofitted B772s arriving in the next few months will feature these seats, too). The best I’ve seen on Delta and United is 35″ in a similar class. The perks ends there though, no addnl. frills, with the exception of Delta that offers free alcoholic beverages on coast to coast flights – a nice touch and point of differentiation.
With rising competition however and the general state of the aviation industry on a healthier projection, I anticipate things will continue to progress in the right direction.

The brighter spot lies with Asian and some European carriers. On average we tend to see seat pitch at 38″ and wider widths. A couple clear standouts though are both Japan Airlines and Air New Zealand at an impressive pitch of 42″ offering exceptional cabin comfort.
The perks go on: Pre take-off champaign, better catering (British Airways touts Business Class meals), larger screens for In-flight Entertainment and Priority Boarding, etc., including, in a few cases, lounge access.

All these come with a premium though (up to $300 one way depending on the route) and at some point, one may wonder is it truly worth it? Curious to learn about experiences others may have. It’s a trend I’ll continue to follow.

Lan Airlines US

Japan Airlines (JAL) – A Pleasure In The Skies

11 Apr

Flight Review:
Route: JFK –> NRT
Flight #: JAL 005
Jet: B777-300ER – New JAL Sky Suite.
Class: Economy

This was my very first flight on Japan Airlines and I must say I was quite impressed indeed. I’ll start with the very minute and work my way to what I consider the more significant details.

Firstly, check in was smooth and easy at JFK. Being an AA (American Airlines) Platinum Elite member (Sapphire leveling on Oneworld carriers) it means an extension of preferred benefits network wide. What JAL does differently though is that it immediately includes Priority Boarding status and lounge access on your ticket which I found helpful and convenient. A bit of a slight negative in my praise, if ever so little, is that the lounge at JFK has seen better days and could use some sprucing up.

That aside, on to the actual flight experience. Without a doubt, I must say this was one of the most pleasurable flight experiences I’ve had in a long time having flown so far (14 hrs straight) and in economy class. JAL has done something clever which is really assess the flying experience for ALL passengers, including those in coach, which I’m afraid tends to be an afterthought–even if so–on other carriers, especially domestic ones. What’s impressive about what JAL’s done is design a standard economy seat with comfort and practicality foremost. With a pitch of 34″, this has got to be one of the most generous legrooms in coach period. For comparison, that’s just 1″ shy of (or in some cases equal to) an Economy Plus/Comfort seat which costs extra on United/Delta.
JAL takes Premium Economy to the next level with a whopping 42″ and a whole slew of other amenities (beats all others I know of in the same class — Cathay Pacific and British Airways offer 38″ in similar classes for comparison).

Meal service was also a big plus. Two full meals and a midflight snack were served. The initial meal after takeoff comprised of two different types of appetizers, fruit salad, slaw salad and your choice of entrée. Very scrumptious. The meal on my return journey, on a different airline, Cathay Pacific (which seems to be making more of a play for premium vs. coach customers these days) was a scant offering by comparison.

Meal Service - JAL 005 - JFK to NRT

Meal Service – JAL 005 – JFK to NRT

Inflight entertainment was fairly good though lacking a little in the variety of English language TV shows. Movies were excellent — several recently released Oscar nominated flicks were on feature. Also really enjoyed the cabin crew; they were all very gracious and accommodating.

Overall, a very pleasurable experience. Keep up the good work.

Another Braxton Star in the Making: Love and War Delights

7 Sep

ImageImageBaby Braxton, aka Tamar Braxton, the youngest of the Braxton quintet, debuted her long awaited sophomore effort, Love and War, this week. Braxton’s first outing, her last full length studio recording, was 2000’s Tamar which garnered lukewarm audience reception. One might say the then tepid commercial performance was to be expected as big sis, Toni, was at the time a resident at the top of the Pop and R&B charts.

It’s a different tune this time around however. Fans of WE tv‘s smash hit, Braxton Family Values, got introduced to the saucy Tamar who emerged as the show’s breakout star and since developed a following of fans affectionately known as tamartians. The frenzy prompted the network’s spinoff hit show featuring Tamar and hubby, heavyweight Producer and Lady Gaga Manager,  Vincent Herbert in the series, Tamar and Vince.

Love and War is a carefully curated R&B record who’s delivery is apropos in an era that has (thankfully) seen a recent resurgence in that genre. The set features powerhouse ballad and title track, Love and War, leadoff track and summer smash, The One, plus drop-it-to-da-flo, twerk worthy, Hot Sugar.

No longer in the shadow of her super star sister, it is palpable Braxton has a point to prove on this album. She shows formidable vocal prowess on most of the cuts and shines on slower tempo tracks, Stay and Fight, All The Way Home, Pieces and White Candle.

Love and War sizzles from track to track. There are no filler songs to skip and it flows quite nicely. Careful though, it’s mildly addicting. I’ve had it on heavy rotation and can’t quite seem to be able to tear myself away from it. Give it a spin. It’s brilliant.COM

72 Hours In Cairo

21 Jan

WP_002573It’s a nation in the grips of one of the most trying times in its recent history. It toppled a dictatorship in what the world came to know as one of the major events of the Arab Spring and still, a couple years or so years on, the struggle continues.

This is Egypt. Lands that birthed ancient civilizations millennia past where dynasties ruled and truly awesome architectural marvels still stand today. It is a shame then, that a place with such a glorious past, should be going through such trying times at the present.

Still, its splendor remains a wonderment today. It’s been a place of immense curiosity for me – ever since I can remember, the pyramids have been in my dreams. Recently, the opportunity presented itself to me, to visit and I felt compelled to seize it. Sure, news headlines of clashes in Tahrir Sq. are enough to dissuade even the most fearless of travelers  (and I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself to be a part of that distinguished category of brave souls) but it was a calling I yearned to heed. And thus, a couple months ago, I beheld the pyramids at Giza for the very first time. It was an immense experience.

WP_002609From the US, Egypt Air flies directly to Cairo from John F. Kenney Airport. Connections are also available via major European gateways, London Heathrow, Paris – Charles Du Gaulle and Milan – Malpensa, to list a few.  You do need a visa to enter the country but this can easily be obtained upon arrival in Cairo. Go straight to the kiosk adjacent immigration to make the purchase before proceeding to Passport Control. Depending on traffic, your journey into town should run roughly around 45 mins. or so. Hail one of the white taxis outside arrivals and make sure its metered or settle on a price before getting in. Conservatively estimated, it should run roughly around 80 Egyptian Pounds.

My choice for accommodation in Cairo was the Kempinski Nile Hotel in the Garden City area of town. It straddles the Nile (as most other hotels in the area do) and you have a choice while making a reservation to book a room facing the

Nile – I recommend it. The Kempinski is truly a treat; an excellent hotel right in the heart of town. You can see my review here. Some other recognizable choices you may elect to consider are the Sofitel Cairo El Gezirah (right across the Nile in Zamalek), Hilton, InterContinental or Four Seasons.WP_002514

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot do and see in Cairo and its environs. I highly recommend arranging tours ahead of time or at the very least consult your hotel concierge for their suggestions. This is not a place to ‘wing it’ as it may prove particularly trying to navigate. Beware of unscrupulous readymade tour guides willing to take you to see the pyramids, etc, for a ‘small fee’. I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler but even I found myself in quite impressive situations where I was expertly out-haggled.

WP_002617Right in town, be sure to check out the magnificent Egyptian Museum housing a spectacular collection of antiquities. Do not miss the special exhibit featuring relics retrieved from boy-king, King Tot’s tomb. His personal items on display are in astonishingly immaculate condition, given their age.

After the Egyptian Museum, head out to Old Cairo and check out centuries old religious sites in the Coptic community. Do not miss the Hanging Church and impressive Coptic Museum. After your visit, you may proceed to the Islamic district where you can visit ancient mosques and then cap off your outing at Cairo’s grand Souk, Khan El Khalili.

The world famous pyramids and Great Sphinx at Giza are indeed are a splendor to behold. No doubt, the major attraction in the area. It’s roughly


 45 mins outside Cairo. If time permits descend down to the tomb of Pharaoh Khufu and witness a space where a mighty king once laid millennia ago. I understand the light show at night (you can perhaps arrange as part of your tour) is very entertaining as well. I unfortunately didn’t get to see it.

Seamless excursions to majestic sites just outside Cairo, along the Nile, are possible as well. Check out the Saqqara, the WP_002684necropolis at Memphis and the ancient city itself. At Saqqara you can see the world famed Step Pyramid and at Memphis, the image of Ramses II comes to life in the ancient city. You can see various statues of the great Pharaoh spread across the area and the alabaster sphinx found outside the temple. Don’t miss the colossus inside the museum.

Further afield is the royal necropolis of Dahshur. This can also be easily added to your excursion. There you can see the Red and Bent Pyramids, both predating the pyramids at Giza. It is possible to visit the tomb inside the Red Pyramid at no extra charge. The charming city by the Mediterranean, Alexandria, can also be easily paired with a visit to Cairo.

WP_002622You’ll eat very well in Cairo. Choices are plentiful and run the gamut from casual to luxury dining. In the Garden City area, check out Osmanly restaurant at the Kempinski Hotel. Osmanly serves delicious Turkish fare and features and array of Egyptian wines to go along with your meal. El Kebabgy at the Sofitel Hotel is a fantastic choice for Egyptian grilled specialties. The food is scrumptious and the ambiance warm and inviting. Select a table on the outdoor deck for soothing views of the Nile and enjoy traditional Arabic tunes from the live band as they serenade diners. Another good choice in the Garden City area is Taboula serving up tasty Lebanese cuisine at extremely reasonable prices.

Egypt is an endlessly fascinating place. And at the heart of it, the thumping city of Cairo. To be sure, it’s not exactly for WP_002688the faint of heart. It can be chaotic and the frenzy runs at a feverish pitch at times–such as now. Amidst all this, however, is a city with charm and a lot of personality to spare. Visit. You may just be enchanted.

Tip: for US citizens venturing out to places that may be volatile or questionable, register with the US government through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at step.state.gov. It’s a pretty handy service that gives registrants up-to-date alerts on the latest goings on, so that one can plan accordingly in case of emergencies.

In The Land of the Rising Sun: 72 Hours in Tokyo

19 Jan

Japan Nov 2010 014It’s probably fairly safe to say that whatever you’ve heard said about Japan–if you’ve never experienced it for yourself–is true. At least I found it to be so on my recent trip to Tokyo and some of its environs like Kamakura, for instance, which is absolutely a Japan Nov 2010 024must see.

Japan had (and still does) remain an endlessly fascinating place to me–its people, culture, way of life; I find it all very intriguing. And, so do most people I’ve conversed with on the subject. Thus, it’s no reason that it’s been on my travel shortlist for some time. Fortunately for me, in November of last year, I got the chance to make the jaunt.

Getting to Japan is fairly easy and straightforward from most major North American cities. As a hotbed of world commerce, the demand for business travel is fairly high and thus plentiful are the options, in terms of airline carriers, to whisk you off on your journey. At last count, there were 5 carriers in the NYC area alone offering nonstop service to Tokyo-Narita (NRT), namely, American, ANA (All Nippon Airways), United, Delta and JAL (Japan Airlines), so you have at least one choice for whatever airline alliance you may be a member of. Seamless connections are also possible via west coast cities like LA, San Francisco, or Europe if the 14 hr non-stop flight seems too daunting. Arrival in Tokyo is at Narita airport which is roughly 40 miles outside the city and could take anywhere from approx. 1 to 2hrs–depending on traffic–to Japan Nov 2010 001get into town. There’s a second airport serving the Tokyo areas that’s much closer, Haneda, but it’s mostly (or at least historically) served by domestic/regional flights. Lately some international service has begun from this airport with US carriers like American (to JFK), Delta to (to LA, Detroit), and JAL (to San Francisco), establishing new routes.

After clearing Customs and Immigration, proceed to the main arrivals hall where you’ll have Japan Nov 2010 055multiple options to choose from, in terms of transportation into town. Airport Limousine bus service is a decent and popular choice for making the trip into Tokyo. Most often, you can get dropped off right at your hotel if it’s one of the major ones in town. Ask the very friendly attendants at the reservations counter and they’ll be all too happy to assist.

As with any major metropolis, lodging options run the gamut, so finding suitable accommodation shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. Where the challenge may lie (as Japan–and particularly Tokyo–isn’t terribly inexpensive), is finding a place that fits the budget in the neighborhood of choice, especially in high season. You may do well to consult travel aggregators like Hotels.com or Orbitz who often offer desirable packages (air+hotel) at discounts, obviously when booked together. If you happen to need to book separately, I find that Hotels.com tends to have the most competitive rates and once you sign up for their rewards club, you’re off on your way to earning free nights after every 9 booked and consumed stays.Japan Nov 2010 023

My choice for accommodation was Park Hotel Tokyo, which is in the Shiodome business district, though a super short walk from Ginza and a world of shopping within easy reach. It’s a good choice – see my review here. Amongst the plethora of designer shops in the area (Gucci, Louis and Bvlgary are household names here), do not miss world famed and historic Mitsukoshi department store right at the intersection of the Ginza metro stop. Just make sure the wallet’s fully loaded with Yen and/or you’ve got the American Express on standby; you’re going to need it. While at Mitsukoshi, do not miss the food hall downstairs. The options are pretty varied with Asian and European selections; a great place to grab a quick bite–perhaps some lunch or a snack and beverage–or purchase souvenirs or gifts for loved ones back home.

There’s lots to see and do in this very lively city that I would highly suggest Japan Nov 2010 065mapping out a comprehensive itinerary prior to plunging into the experience of it all, so as to ensure you get a good sense of it all, especially if you’ve got limited time. I typically recommend taking tours should you not have the can-do adventurous spirit to attempt the explorations all on your own or have a local at your disposal to traverse the area with you. Personally, I enjoy being whisked about in those comfy coach buses while the Guides takes you through the historically significance of this relic, Emperor, Samurai, etc, or other. Of course there are several operators to choose from like Gray Line, grayline.com, and Sunrise Tours, each offer comprehensive Full (including lunch) and half day tours and relatively run about the same cost. I recommend the Full Day as you obviously get to see and do more. Some notable points of interest not to be missed are: Imperial Palace, Meiji Shinto Shrine, Tokyo Tower, Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa Shrine, the neighborhoods of Harajuku, Roppongi Hills, Shinjuku and Shibuya (Tokyo’s Times Square equivalent) amongst others.

If time permits, I’d also encourage you to take advantage of some of the historic towns outside Tokyo like Kamakura; it’s quite aJapan Nov 2010 052 treat. While there, make sure you see the 13th century Great Buddha, Hase-Dera Temple with its beautiful gardens and view of the nearby beach and Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Another point of interest may be Mount Fuji which isn’t terribly far outside Tokyo and the aforementioned tour operators have scheduled expeditions to this popular landmark as well.

There’s something on the menu for just about everyone here, even for the pickiest of eaters. Of course recognizable (to Westeners) Japanese fare, like sushi, sashimi and kobe run the gamut and quite tasty but there are other Japanese delicacies that the more adventurous may enjoy as well. If you can’t quite place your order in Japanese and English isn’t an option either, in some cases you can always point to a showcased model and make your selection that way. Gonpachi on the 14th Fl of one of the buildings in Shibuya (additional locales in Fukuoka and Beverly Hills) is a pretty decent choice for a scrumptious meal before a night out. The restaurant also features a sushi bar which tends to be more sedate than the adjoining main restaurant hall which can get a little loud especially during peak dinner hours, so you at least have a choice of either depending on what you’re in the mood for. As an added treat you also get nice views of Shibuya below.

Japan Nov 2010 069If you’re in the mood to splurge a little, head off to the Conrad Tokyo—in Shiodome–close to Park Hotel mentioned earlier in this write-up. Chef turned celebrity Gordon Ramsay’s taken up residence there – with a couple restaurants, Gordon Ramsay at Conrad Tokyo and Cerise by Gordon Ramsay. The former’s open for dinner while the latter for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even if dinner plans take you elsewhere, I would encourage you to check out the hotel and adjoining lounge – the views are stunning and digs pretty smart. And, perhaps, at least, grab some breakfast or refreshments while you’re at it.

Indeed Tokyo’s nightlife simmers and partygoers and night owls alike are in for a treat. Whether you’re belting out your favorite tunes in the plethora of Karaoke booths in Roppongi (trust, you haven’t experienced anything quite like it), gyrating your hips to the latest pop tunes at the bar/clubs in Shinjuku, or having a late dinner and cocktails in Shibuya, Tokyo serves it up for just about everyone.

One thing’s for sure on holiday here—you’re bound to be drawn in. Before you know it you’ll be planning you next trip back. I know I can’t wait to make a return journey.

The Pura Vida Way

9 Sep

It’s a nation sandwiched between two massive continents in the Americas—though, technically speaking of course, it’s in the north. It has however earned its place (rightfully so) as a dominant force in what we refer to as Central America.

Costa Rica is endlessly fascinating: The versatility of its microclimates, its people’s enthusiasm, richness in culture, etc., are all endearing characteristics that leave visitors utterly charmed. It’s no wonder throngs descend upon the country every year.

Alas, with limited time to explore, I was only able to merely scratch the surface on a recent journey. This feature mainly focuses on San Jose, the capital and its environs and, to the southwest, straddling the Pacific, the vicinity of Quepos, particularly Manuel Antonio.

First up: San Jose. It’s easy to snub (as most visitors to the country do) this capital city. To be sure, on the surface, it doesn’t immediately grab you; however, much lies beneath and you may do well to spend at least a couple days here.

Arrival by air is at Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO), roughly around 12 miles on the outskirts of the city center. Transfers into town are fairly smooth and seamless via shuttle service or taxi. My choice for accommodation in San Jose was the centrally located Aurola Holiday Inn San Jose  which offers decent value for money. Buffet breakfast is included in your reservation and the hotel offers other amenities such as wi-fi access, three onsite restaurants, a pool and concierge. See my review here: Decent Choice for a Short Stay in San Jose.

While in town be sure to check out several of the area’s gems: the 112-year-old Doka Estate and Coffee Plantation, Poas volcano and the Volcán Poás National Park, plus the nature and wildlife park, La Paz Waterfall Gardens. I found Costa Rica Connection to be a very efficient and professional travel agency that helped me package customized tours that included all the aforementioned. They were also very instrumental in organizing transfers to/from the airport and other parts of the country. I highly recommend their services.

Manuel Antonio is simply an oasis by the sea that first time visitors should consider including as part of their Costa Rican itinerary. It’s one of the nation’s national treasures of course along with other fan favorites, Monte Verde, Guanacaste, etc., and it’s by and large easy to connect to via a 30 minute puddle jumper or, (better yet, in my case), a shuttle bus which takes roughly about 4 hour. Not to worry, however, it’s a mostly scenic journey and you get breaks along the way — as such, it makes an otherwise lengthy trip somewhat seamless. InterBus is a reliable service and pretty efficient company that runs this route.

Being a tourist hotspot, Manuel Antonio has lots to keep vacationers quite occupied from leisure to the most daring outdoor activities. In fact, it’s a prime location for those who enjoy nature and the outdoors.

Accommodation is plentiful and quite varied. Opt for a hotel/B&B in the area around the park for convenience and more variety. If it is not possible, the nearby town of Quepos (the municipality Manuel Antonio is in) is easily accessible to the park and environs.

El Parador further up the hill is a good choice. The views from the property’s outdoor infinity pool are quite magnificent; the staff very friendly, rooms sparsely but adequately appointed, and the free breakfast buffet features a variety of local and American selections. Don’t miss the happy hour specials from 6-7 PM daily (subject to change). It’s a very kid friendly hotel as well, so if that’s not your lane, beware. See my review here: Tranquil Sanctuary in the Middle of the Jungle

Gaia, an ultramodern 5-star property a short distance away from The Parador is another excellent choice. No doubt it’ll cost you but fret not, if not within your price range, there are plenty of other options that are more budget friendly around. Even if booking at Gaia isn’t a possibly, make your way there for sunset cocktails (the view is spectacular) and hang around for dinner at La Luna. Alternatively, you may also head to the neighborhood bar and restaurant, Barba Roja, for cocktails, a meal and spectacular views. Arrive early to grab a spot in the outdoor adjoining bar. Watching the sun go down from here is simply breathtaking.

If you particularly enjoy wildlife and the outdoors, you would love Manuel Antonio. Staying at El Parador (as I would imagine most other hotels in the area) arranging Park tours and other excursions is fairly easy. Options run the gamut from zip lining, whitewater rafting, to horseback riding, etc.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and can’t wait to return. Give it a whirl — your ‘Pura Vida’ experience awaits.

Doha’s Dawn

7 Apr

Mention Dubai or (perhaps less so) Abu Dhabi and what’s likely conjured up in the mind of your listener are images of Persian Gulf states with excess wealth on display: glitzy skyscrapers, lavish hotels, manmade islands far beyond fathom, etc. Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve more than likely been regaled with fantastical tales of their extravagances (hello! Burj Khalifa).

In comes Doha, the largest city and capital of the Gulf state (which is also a sovereign nation), Qatar. Now, stateside, at least, it’s perhaps not a household name (not quite yet anyway) and, as such, you’re likely to evoke quizzical looks from your audience when it’s uttered. To be fair, it isn’t the most conspicuous to locate on a map; it’s literally a tiny protrusion along the larger Arabian peninsula. If you blink, you just might miss it. Small in area, however, it is quite massive in ambition.

I myself only recently, relatively speaking, perked up to Qatar. For one, seeing their flagship carrier, Qatar Airways (offering daily nonstop flights to Doha), at JFK, then the announcement that Doha will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup (not that I’m an avid follower of the sport per se), press coverage around last year’s DTFF, (Doha Tribeca Film Festival), and uber-hip hotel chain, W Hotels, adding a property to their roster there, W Doha Hotel and Residences. Naturally, I was intrigued.

I’m in a taxi headed into town from Doha International Airport, just on the fringe of the city’s core—which is roughly about 20 mins to West Bay (Doha’s commercial district). As we navigate our way through Al Corniche (a picturesque bayside drive that winds through the banks of the Gulf), what’s immediately noticeable is a skyline of imposing glitzy skyscrapers that dot the area. The architecture–perhaps not entirely surprising as one’s come to expect with rapidly developing cities in the area-is ultramodern, almost futuristic in fact, with several more projects underway.

I check in to W Doha Hotel & Residences, one of the towers in this section of town which in addition to being Doha’s commercial center or downtown of sorts, has seen a surge of new luxury hotels spring up (with fellow sister hotel, St. Regis Doha, celebrating its grand opening just last month, March). My choice for accommodation, W, for familiarity, of course, but also out of curiosity as it’s ranked one of the top in the city. Not to mention, in addition, the hotel boats two signature Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants, Spice Market (New York, Atlanta) and Market (Vancouver, Boston). As a fan of Jean-Georges’, it was a no brainer. Other nearby choices, The Kempinski Residences & Suites (right next door), and further afield, The Four Seasons (which is said to spot some of the best bay views in the area).

My itinerary is mapped out for the next few days though I’m beginning to feel like I may just make this an R&R trip. There’s a sense of calm here which makes you just want to go with the flow. Yes, you can indeed do lots of that and being at the W makes it very easy to lay poolside, order cocktails, then head on over to W Cafe for afternoon tea. I do indulge but eventually make my way out.

Taking the path along the bay, Al Corniche, I make my way to Souq Waqif, a leisure stroll that’ll take roughly 40 mins, if you’re up to it. Alternatively you may just hail a taxi which is quite relatively inexpensive. You get the best views of the bay, however, by walking the pedestrian-friendly path along Al Corniche.

Souq Waqif, akin to bazaars you’re likely to find in Marrakech or Istanbul but, admittedly, with not as much personality (I do prefer a little bit more of a bustle), is a great place to spend the afternoon. There are some bargains to be had there. It’s also a great place to grab a bite to eat. You’ll find a mélange of restaurants serving regional fare along the main strip of the souq, Al Souq. Try Al Adhamiyah Iraqi Restaurant for scrumptious Iraqi/Arabic fare. It’s fantastic for lunch or dinner. The Souq is quite bustling at night, so perhaps you may want to save your visit till later in the evening. Alternatively, Tajine, on the same strip, Al Souq St., is a decent choice. The eateries are plenty along this main thoroughfare, so not to worry, you’ll have plenty of choices to choose from. If you aren’t completely exhausted from the day’s activities, pop by the spaceship looking Museum of Islamic Art which is relatively close by. A word of caution, however, make sure you call ahead to ensure they’re open. Hours of operation are posted on their website but I would advise calling or having your hotel call ahead to ascertain. I hadn’t taken this precaution and ended up having to be turned around because it was closed when I tried to visit.

Ensuing days are spent sampling more regional fare. Al Mourjan  on the Al Corniche is somewhat of a decent choice; though don’t be alarmed though when you see inauthentic menu offerings like burgers listed. The Lebanese choices are quite good and the restaurant’s ambience is warm and inviting. The wait staff is quite charming and friendly as well. Grab a table on the outside deck for spectacular views of the city’s skyline. As previously intimated, for variety, most of the restaurants in Souq Waqif are good choices for dinner as well.

For pre/post dinner cocktails, check out Wahm (W Hotel) or The Lounge at Kempinski next door. Remain at either one of these locations (as they’re open late) or migrate on over to Crystal Lounge where the revelry goes on till the wee hours. A word of caution: make sure you have your passport (the only accepted form of ID) handy if you’re going out to any of the late night clubs, especially if you’re not staying at the particular hotel the club may be located in.

To pump up the volume just a tad more (hey, you’re in the Persian Gulf, why not; just make sure the AMEX is handy), head on over to The Pearl; an artificial island just off the coast. Featuring a Riviera-style atmosphere—yachts of varying degrees blanketing the Arabian waters—the standard here is sheer opulence. And foreign nationals are starting to take notice. I remember my taxi driver proudly saying to me: “Janet Jackson just bought a place there!” Well, we may not all have a bank account nearly as sizeable as Janet’s but we can still dream and, importantly, indulge if only temporarily. While at Pearl, snag a table at Mexican born Restaurateur, Richard Sandoval’s New York City outpost, Pampano, where coastal Mexican selections dominate the menu. Gordon Ramsay’s Maze (The London NYC) has also taken up residence at The Pearl, in addition to some other recognizable names, so choices are plentiful. You’d be hard pressed to find regional cuisine at The Pearl; most of the choices are non-Arabic, so be mindful

It’s a fascinating place that sure has a lot of ambition and I’d say very soon—if not so already—it’ll be synonymous with already established names in the region. Check it out now. It’s still got a certain cache to it – that is of course before hordes begin to pour in.

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