The pleasure dome: Bali chic from day to night

22 10 2015

The whole sprawling Kuta-Seminyak-Kerobokan-Canggu conurbation forms an urban corridor – more or less a de facto city- devoted to pleasure.  I was taken aback by its sophistication. Of course the beery Aussie bars are still there, the dispiriting fast food joints and Quicksilver outlets still dominate Kuta, but around Seminyak a new locus of sophistication has been blossoming, and at its best it gives any other city in Asia a run for its money for its own brand of breezy but confident island chic. Further north in Canggu, the tangled roads present an intriguing cityscape of hipster restaurants and boutiques sprinkled among local shops and rice fields. There is also a proliferation of charming street art, bright and whimsical outline drawings, which appear on walls and cover the whole sides of some houses.

Slickly designed Australian-owned cafes have proliferated with good coffee, food ranging from tasty to outstanding, and chic interiors.

The Junction, at the heart of Seminyak, is one such establishment, stylishly constructed out of weathered faux-driftwood, with a scattering of other stylish cafes a stone’s throw away.

Sea Circus around the corner also employs a similar sun filtering facade to great effect.

Betelnut, further out in Canggu, has a hippyish vibe and a great breakfast menu – I had the scrambled tofu with tabasco and this delicious dragon fruit puree with toasted coconut. There were many others we didn’t have time to sample also: Revolver, Hungry Bird, Sisterfields, Grind and Grocer…

My favourite shopping spot was undoubtedly, Skull, a chic and quirky gallery space and clothing store devoted entirely to representations of the human cranium. Yes. It stocks all kinds of embellished disco skulls, shell skulls and other skill ornaments, skull-related paintings and skull-shaped furniture. Truly awe-inspiring.

For eating out  we also had a clear favourite. The (again Australian-owned) and pan-Asian inspired Mamasan was so superb that we went there twice. In an elegant loungy environment in a brick warehouse-style conversion, it serves superlative versions of many Asian favourites – the roti chanai was a knockout, and braised pork was sensational. After sampling the menu twice we were yet to stumble on a poor option.

Seminyak’s nightlife scene centres around its famous beachfront bars of Ku De Ta (recently franchised to Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore and involved in a legal wrangle over naming rights), and the oddly-monikered Potato Head. There is also the surfer bar/ vintage store/bookshop/music venue Deus Ex Machina, the strikingly designed bar-as-amphitheatre Char Char (you have to see it), Dead Celeb and La Favela, where tourists from the first world enjoy opulent drinks in a stylishly-designed den named after a third world slum.  Despite the meta-nature of this, and the questionable taste level, it is apparently great  – but we didn’t go.

I did however drop into the venue that embodies Bali’s newfound style, albeit during the day. Motel Mexicola is a stunning tequila bar/restaurant with lounges, terraces and dancefloors, decorated in the style of Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Think: Luis Barragan colours, Frida Kahlo-style naive art, neon crucifixes, coloured candles and a framed portrait of Carmen Miranda at the entrance.

Bangkok stays quirky, Hong Kong shuts up shop

23 09 2015

Not content with its gay dogs cafe and alpaca karaoke, Bangkok’s restless pleasure-hungry hordes have turned their attention to the Northern suburb of Nonthaburi, where the Little Zoo Cafe has just opened. It features a free-ranging menagerie of a European red fox, adorable fennec foxes from the Sahara, meerkats and a racoon to entertain customers while they sip their coffee.

The city is also celebrating the 101st anniversary of its Chulalongkorn Hospital with a bizarre celebrity-studded “medical fashion photography show” dubbed “Anatomy101”.

And finally, the new Museum of Thai Corruption has opened at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre, aiming to educate the Thai public on the history of rorts that have been perpetrated against them. The museum hopes to move in soon to a permanent new home. The BACC though is already home to artist Wit Pimkanchanapong’s likeminded painting “If There Is No Corruption,” a satirical subway map showing a dense network of rail lines, in stark contrast to Bangkok’s actual tally of three (although that is soon to change).

Keep on fighting the good fight!

Meanwhile, while Bangkok is expanding its attractions, Hong Kong is losing two if it’s. The Goldfinch Cafe, a retro “soysauce Western” restaurant known for its dim, 1950s interior and classic pork chops, closed this month after more than fifty years at its Causeway Bay address. The restaurant will be forever remembered as the scene for the dinner between Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in “In the Mood For Love”.

Hot on its heels, another old-timer, the Louis Steak House in Wanchai, annouced that it will also close due to a rent hike.

Heaven is a place on Earth? – A Saturday report

20 09 2015

First order of the day was breakfast at the chic-plastique Gradini restaurant of the chi-chi Pottinger Hotel. Everything looked luxurious, but on closer inspection, was made of plastic.

Next I hopped on a ferry to the ultimate artificial wonderland, Hong Kong’s Stepford-like expat ghetto of Discovery Bay. Located a twenty minute ferry ride out of Central on the neighbouring island of Lantau, D.B was purpose-built in the 70s as a sea and forest-ringed suburban retreat, self-contained, wealthy and very intentionally divorced from the rest of the city.

I had come here to hike, so from the central piazza, lined with tapas bars, French restaurants and organic groceries, I walked past spacious streets where blonde children played under gnarled banyan trees to the start of the two-hour track to Mui Wo.

I walked along beaches, past farmers in their vegetable patches and a scruffy indigenous village – in sharp contrast to the rest of D.B. – until finally I started to ascend a wooded slope towards another attempt at an earthly paradise – the Trappist monastery.

From here it’s forty minutes or so down from the crest of the hill, towards the town of Mui Wo, strung along its gorgeous beach, lined with kitsch, striped 1970s hotels, until you hit the centre of town, more organic feeling than D.B (if still expat-heavy) and home to a surprisingly located Turkish restaurant.

From here it’s another half hour ferry ride back to the “real world” of Central.

The Magic Kingdom

20 09 2015

For a report of my trip to Ho Chin Minh’s city bizarro Suoi Tien amusement park see here. And don’t worry, contrary to the video title it is not “abandoned” – they just took the footage after closing time.


The Thai Temple of Tai Wo

29 08 2015

This weekend I went on a super-satisfying adventure. One evening, while idly googling, I had found a hand-drawn map on the internet, detailing the way to a Thai “forest temple” on a hillside in Tai Wo which I had never seen or heard about anywhere else. For some time I had been wanting to test out this “The Beach” style scenario, with my my cyber-secret map to the mysterious shrine, so undeterred by the rain I set out to relatively distant district, close to the border at Lo Wu.

I set out from Tai Wo station across a river, through a New Territories village and up a lushly forested slope where a fast-flowing mountain stream ran amid thickets of banana trees. A gargantuan freeway spanned the valley above. Thunder rumbled and birds and butterflies flitted through the undergrowth. A light rain was falling, but occasionally I would come across a sign in Chinese bearing a Thai flag, reassuring me that I was headed in the right direction.

Then, sooner than expected, I was there.


Greeted by barking (but it turns out, harmless) dogs, I came to a group of women around a table heaving with fruit, tofu, vegetables and spicy sauces. One of them, who spoke English, insisted I sit down and eat. She explained that the feast was held every Saturday and Sunday, free of charge, for visitors to the temple (breakfast around 7.30am and lunchtime at 11am, as the monks are forbidden from eating after noon.) I chatted to her for a while and wandered through the modest complex with its various Buddhas and burning Vassa candles before being led to an orange-robed monk who blessed me and offered my life advise – I should exercise in the mornings and not worry so much, apparently.

And with that, my heart singing and plans for returning already buzzing in my head, I set off again down the green, dripping valley, thankful for having stumbled on to such a beautiful secret.

Many thanks to Dr Anchalee Gibbons, whoever you are, for the wonderful map!

L.A state of mind

18 08 2015

I’ve yet to make it to America’s West Coast, but despite all the breathless love I hear for San Francisco (and I’m sure its great), I have always been more attracted to Los Angeles. Maybe its the impression I have of the city as a Northern version of another one of my favourites, Sao Paulo: same twisting freeways and shimmering towers, same dripping wealth and contrasting grit and adrenaline, same ethnic confusion, same voraciousness, same endless centre-less sprawl. When I think of LA I think of Lana Del Rey playing, martinique wallpaper and splashes in sunlit pools, Silverlake hipsters dancing away at (gay Asian club) Gameboi, convertibles cruising sinisterly late at night along Mulholland Drive, gunfire, Koreatown, tacos, the plastic Persian princesses of Tehrangeles, new age pyramids, South Central and all combinations and permutations thereof.

And now I have two new mental images to add. “Everything is terrible” is an intallation, or a “temple” if you will, erected in the city’s Chinatown and constructed of 10,000 VHS tapes of “Jerry McGuire”, a cryptic comment on LA’s perfect monster child, the little-loved Tom Cruise.

Also, there is this place: Clifton’s Cafeteria. It operated in the 1930s as an eccentric city landmark, a “cafeteria” decorated with carved redwood trees, a gushing indoor waterfall and stuffed animals, that also served meals and gave them away for free to the city’s needy. It was part of a string of bizarre diners in the city that included others with a tiki “South Island Seas” theme. The exciting news is that Clifton’s is due to re-open this year as a restaurant/ bar/cafe/bakery following the original wild theme, with (bonus!) a steampunk nightclub in the basement.


18 08 2015

The “Godzilla view” room at the popular new Gracery hotel in Kabukicho, Tokyo, which opened in April this year. It looks like it is near the old Koma Theatre and where Liquid Room and Code nightclubs used to be, around a dusty concrete square where homeless people always slept and I went to see “Dreamgirls” in the rain. Ahhhh, Tokyo memories…

…and while you are there, why not try out this Tokyo Snake Cafe?


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