Sunday Sofa Sojourns #13: Jakarta, Indonesia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Unlike my other Sunday posts, this Jakarta weekend trip probably wouldn’t be of much interest to the usual tourist. We didn’t drop by the Monas (National Monument), buy batik, or visit any of the city’s museums and parks. It was more of a random stroll down memory lane, possibly an attempt to reconcile rose-coloured childhood memories of a city I loved with its current reality.

Because of my dad’s job, my family moved to Jakarta in the 1990s. My mom, siblings, and I had spent a few summers there prior to the move. To this day, I feel a strong connection to this busy behemoth of a city. It reminded me often of the bustle of Makati / Manila.

View of the Selamat Datang Monument from our hotel room. It was a Car-Free Sunday.

We eventually left Jakarta in the chaos that was 1998 along with a number of other families we knew, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis (Indonesia was badly hit) and the race riots.

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We lived in the Kelapa Gading neighbourhood in north Jakarta. The Kelapa Gading Plaza was close to our house but often the wares came to us. I remember the tukang sayur who used to go around our residential village with a cart of fresh vegetables every morning. Our family helper, whom we affectionally called Mbak, would call him over and buy a bunch of fresh kangkong for Rp500 (ah, the pre-1997/98 era before the Indonesian rupiah had too many zeroes). Then there was the jamu seller in her kebaya bearing her mysterious herbal concoctions, which Mbak drank near-daily (she never let us try some).

A tukang sayur. Source: Detik Food

My favourite mobile vendor was the chicken-shaped truck that sometimes toured our streets selling ayam goreng kalasan (deep-fried kampung chicken served in oil-soaked boxes, sprinkled with crispy bits of batter called kremes). Give me kremes over KFC chicken any day.

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Anyway, back to our trip. We weren’t in Jakarta long enough to eat at all the places where I wanted to eat, so we just settled for a trip to our old food haunts in Kelapa Gading and near our hotel, as well as a clandestine visit to our previous primary school in Ancol (it involved some wheedling on our friends’ part to get the security guard to let us have a walk around the school grounds late on a weekday evening).

Jakarta now has Chowking! I remember when Jollibee first opened here

The cinema facade of Kelapa Gading Mall (it wasn’t a plaza anymore) hadn’t changed much. I hazily recall looking up from our car at the movie poster for ‘Speed’, which was hand-painted then. Keanu barely looked like himself.

Me, still zipping by

Inside the mall, we made a beeline for Bakmi Gajah Mada, an old favourite. We had ice cold Sosro teh botol (which now came in cartons instead of glass bottles), bowls of bakmi bakso (Indonesian noodles with beef balls) and crispy pangsit goreng (fried wonton).

I introduced the Hub to A Fung’s vermicelli noodles (graced with more beef balls and a huge block of tofu with meaty goodness nestled inside).

For novelty, the Hub and I tried the infamous kopi luwak. The menu helpfully explained it thus: “The luwak (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) denizen of the coffee (kopi) plantations of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, eats only the ripest coffee cherries. Unable to digest the coffee beans, the luwak graciously deposits them on the jungle floor where they are eagerly collected by the locals. The stomach acids and enzymatic action involved in this unique fermentation process produces the beans for the world’s rarest coffee beverage.” What exactly was going on through the minds of those kopi luwak pioneers? (In case you’re interested, it tasted like normal Arabica coffee. No 💩 taste whatsoever.)

Here is a food court spread from Sate Khas Senayan, with bowls of sop buntut (oxtail soup) topped with emping crackers, satay mix (meat skewers), ayam goreng kremes (fried chicken with the crunchy bits), and a rice meal doused with spicy peanut sauce. God I missed Jakarta.

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Now that I think about it, maybe most of my rose-coloured memories were all about Indonesian food. Consider our pasalubong haul.

Indomie is life

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #12: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

When I first saw the moss-covered temple stones at Siem Reap in Cambodia, I was reminded of the mobile video game Temple Run released back in the early 2010s. Temple Run was a running game with no end, at least until you made an ill-timed swipe or the crazy monkeys caught up with you. The monkeys at Siem Reap are duelling kings however, pink and still in the ancient stone.

We arrived at our hotel in the afternoon. We wasted no time in hiring a tuktuk to take us to Angkor Wat, the “temple city,” the largest religious monument in the world. We read that the outer walls and moat surrounding this medieval temple complex symbolised the edge of the world and the cosmic ocean, respectively. Unusually for Khmer temples, the Angkor Wat faced the setting sun, a symbol of death.

Outside Angkor Wat

The causeway leading to the temple was lined with vendors selling pirated English guidebooks for as cheap as a dollar. There were too many tourists with impractical shoes. Some of them spat on the ancient stone.

Angkor Wat looked time-worn and understandably so, having been built in the 12th century. Wooden steps were constructed over the original steps — not only to preserve it but because the older ones were too steep. The sensual apsaras lined the walls in an assortment of poses, jewellery, and headgear. I had a strong urge to see for certain what it looked like in its original glory.

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The rest of the architecture at Angkor had its own pull: take Banteay Srei To Baphuon for instance, with its salmon-coloured stones and incredibly detailed reliefs.

Banteay Srei To Baphuon

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Then there was the surreal Ta Prohm, which was deliberately restored in a way that cut as little of the surrounding jungle as possible.

The majestic tree roots at Ta Prohm

Parts of Angelina Jolie’s film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were filmed here.

The giant banyan trees continue to simultaneously hug and crush the temple buildings, as they have for hundreds of years. In time, nature will finish its work and the temple too will fade.

A stegosaurus carved in the stone at Ta Prohm, or something else? It’s still a mystery

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Personally, I found The Bayon, also in Angkor Thom, the most enigmatic. The temple had a curious pull on me.

Our approach to The Bayon
The Bayon

The pyramid shaped temple mountain rises on three levels and features more than 200 stone faces, all with smiles as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.

The reliefs at the Bayon featured not only apsaras but also daily life — cockfights, festival celebrations, market scenes, meals being cooked. To me, this imbued the dreamlike temples with a sense of normalcy. In another time, ordinary people just like me lived here.

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The Baphuon was once one of the grandest of Angkor’s temples, built in the 11th century, but parts of it have long since collapsed. There is a giant reclining Buddha inside. Since the temple was dedicated to Hinduism the Buddha was probably added centuries later.

The Baphuon

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We had time to visit Neak Pean, a temple in the middle of what I call the Dead Marshes (it looked so much like how I imagined Tolkien’s Dead Marshes would look!). The temple’s pools were meant to cure diseases.

Neak Pean

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The “City of God Kings” remained on my mind well after our trip. I tried to search online for images of how Angkor’s ancient temples might have looked like in their heyday. Google did not disappoint. Scholars produced colourful overlays that show you the old and the new side by side, some even recreated the kingdom on video. The Smithsonian digitally reconstructed Angkor Wat, brightly coloured and gilded with shiny gold, a far cry from its present state.

More recently, laser scans revealed an intricate network of cities hidden beneath Angkor, suggesting a rich everyday life led by those who peopled it.

Source: The Conversation

The last lines of a poem came to mind as I reflected on Angkor (though it may be more appropriate for one of my previous posts):

And how one can imagine oneself among them

I do not know;

It was all so unimaginably different

And all so long ago.

The Gloomy Academic, Louis MacNiece

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #11: Dinner in Beijing, China

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

I plan to write a full post on my trip to Beijing in the future. This is just about an interesting dinner we had the evening of our first day.

I was on work training in Shanghai for six weeks. My colleagues and I thought it would be a cool idea to take an overnight train up to Beijing for a weekend. None of us had been to China before, so we were planning day trips left and right: Suzhou, Hangzhou, Xi’an.

We arrived in Beijing late in the day. After settling in at our hotel, we wanted to get some dinner. Being in Beijing, all of us naturally thought to look for a place that served good Peking duck. We ended up in a random restaurant called Tiānfǔ Shíbā Xiāng. (Think it was 天府十八香, which I suppose could be loosely translated to Heavenly Province 18 Spices? I’m not too sure.)

The servings were huge, good value for money, and surprisingly tasty. We had the Peking duck we wanted; it was carved skillfully tableside. You have to place the duck –including slices of crispy, juicy skin — in thin Mandarin pancakes, add hoisin sauce, cucumber sticks, fresh scallions and voila! A delicious bite-sized duck wrap. Apart from that, we ordered pork dumplings, diced chicken, plates of spicy tofu, and two kinds of rice (egg fried rice and soy sauce rice). It really was quite a lot of excellent food.

Food aside, one of the more memorable things about the meal was some inadvertently funny translations of dish names on the menu.

To be fair, this was around ten years ago. Google Translate didn’t exist and some poor employee at the restaurant probably had to dig out a physical dictionary and translate all these somehow.

Now that I also have the benefit of knowing a little bit of Chinese, I can figure out some of the characters myself… KIDDING! Of course I used an app (shout-out to Pleco). Also, sorry about the quality of the photos. By this time, I hadn’t saved up for a decent camera yet.

So, let’s begin:

1. Rabbit Leg Singular Taste. The script is stylised so I can’t make the last character out. I only understand 兔 (tù, rabbit). Can anyone tell me what the rest means?

2. Squirrels GuiYu (松鼠桂鱼). I initially thought this was referring to squirrels of the nut-eating kind. Now, even a Chinese language newbie like me knows 鱼 (yú) means fish. This dish is actually called Squirrel Mandarin Fish, a very popular dish because the fish lacks bones. It belongs to Huaiyang cuisine, from China’s Jiangsu province. The dish is called “squirrel dish” because the way it’s presented resembles a squirrel’s tail. I wouldn’t mind having this the next time I get the chance.

3. Poached [various] animal offal (毛血旺). Don’t get me wrong, I like plenty of dishes with offal ingredients (in fact, my all-time favourite dish is lengua estofado). But I generally prefer a bit more specificity when it comes to knowing what went in my soup. 😅 In Pleco, the name for the dish actually translates to “duck’s blood and beef tripe in spicy soup,” which kind of reminds me of Pinoy dinuguan (a delicious Filipino stew made from pork and pig’s blood).

4. Monolithic beef has generated a lot of income (铁板牛柳). I would like to think they meant this was a bestseller. 😂 The name of the dish translates to sizzling beef fillet served on a hot iron plate.

5. Bullfrog burning (小炒牛蛙). No, they don’t serve the dish burnt. This just translates to wok stir-fried bullfrog. And don’t knock frog meat until you’ve tasted it! Frog is a relatively common ingredient in Singapore, especially in congee. It tastes just like chicken (really!).

6. Shaozi soil egg (绍子土鸡蛋). No soil here! I think “绍子” may be referring to Shaanxi cuisine, which generally means dishes that are seasoned with many spices and condiments, including Sichuan peppers; while “土鸡蛋” literally translates to “soil eggs” but actually means free-range eggs, or eggs laid by home-kept chickens.

7. Chinese style hoecake (玉米饼). My friend’s favourite. I guess they should have just translated this as “corn cakes!”. And finally…

8. One for the world (一品天下?). This one had — and still has — me stumped. I think I can guess what the main ingredient is though!

My main takeaways from this menu are 1) tourists have it so much easier these days — clarity can be had with the tap of an app, 2) it’s easy to get things lost in translation, and 3) it pays to be a little adventurous.

If I could go back, I’d definitely order myself a sizzling plate of monolithic beef.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #8: Singapore

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

Today’s a special post since it’s Singapore’s National Day, so it’s not quite about a trip. Happy 55th Birthday, SG!

Celebrating SG51 with pancit canton and Peranakan kueh back in 2016

八 (Bā) or 8 is an auspicious number in Chinese culture because it sounds similar to 发 (fā) which means to “become rich, make a fortune” (among other meanings). This year marks the 8th National Day my small family has celebrated in this Little Red Dot. (I also just realised this is my 8th #SundaySofaSojourns post!)

2020, of course, is turning out far differently than any of us expected.

National Day in Singapore is held annually on 9th August. I think it can be best described as a celebration of how this city-state proved itself to be “the little nation that could.”

There’s a live parade (a.k.a. the NDP) where members of the Singapore military, police, and civil defence force as well as its best homegrown companies march, where almost everyone from students to seniors showcase musical performances, and where one can see all the nation’s politicians don their best red & white clothing on TV.

My kid watching a past parade with his pork floss bun

There’s a much-anticipated fly-past of the country’s flag, the Red Lions freefall jump, and the fighter jet display (usually, they spend over a month practising this – from our office building in the business district, it was common to hear the deep rumble of the jets every day in the weeks leading to the NDP). The parade itself is broadcast real-time on free TV, but tickets to see it live are balloted to citizens months before.

This year’s NDP Funpack includes hand sanitiser, face masks, and a digital thermometer (Source: Mothership)

Apart from the NDP itself, there are signs of celebration elsewhere – sales, commemorative cakes & breads, ‘I ❤️ SG’ t-shirts.

Bread Talk, a popular bakery chain, offers a Taste of Home Set which includes breads with local flavours like kaya (coconut jam), seafood laksa, and otah (a delicious fish paste)
Toys“R”Us is still operational here

Everyone is encouraged to participate. This year’s theme song is “a tribute to Singaporeans’ spirit of community” and gratitude for each other. While NDP 2020 will be a more sombre, more reflective affair, the ceremony will go on.

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For any country, there is value in this kind of active retelling of its history — for the younger generation, that they are introduced to this sense of belonging (outside of their immediate families and communities), and for the older generation, that we may remember what we were taught in school. It is easy to forget. And when we forget, we risk repeating past mistakes.

As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

I am trying to think of a unified ceremony celebrated in a similar way across the entire Philippines (one that covers all Filipinos, so religious or provincial holidays don’t count) and I am coming up short. (I may be missing something here, so if you have an example please share in the comments.)

For us personally, this question of national identity is becoming more relevant as our kid grows. We want him to feel connected to both countries and to be able to navigate both cultures, with understanding and mutual respect for each. How do we do this? What stories do we tell our children? These are not easy questions.

It is in the stories we choose to tell that we shape our nation’s collective memory, or leave it without one.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #4: Yangon & Bagan, Myanmar

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

I think visiting a country for the first time feels a bit like plunging into a pool — there’s a mild feeling of disorientation initially, but you slowly adjust. Then you start to see the similarities.

To me, Yangon looked like Quiapo, and its old creaky buses looked like those Love Buses popular in Manila during the ’80s.

The Burmese looked just like us. The Hub got mistaken for a local at least twice. Women and men both used thanaka, a white pasty cream spread on their cheeks and forehead (in some cases, all over their face). Our cab driver said it’s a traditional cream made from tree bark and acts as a coolant / sunscreen. Useful in the sticky heat.

A young boy sporting thanaka patches on his cheeks

We visited the Sule Pagoda and the much larger Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The latter was crowded with tourists and locals alike. We took off our shoes and the feeling of cold marble under our bare feet was nice since it was so hot that afternoon. Around the pagoda were labels with the days of the week. These corresponded to certain planetary saints and birthdays. We also saw the locals conduct a coordinated sweep of the marble floor with long walis tambo — a long line of women with thanaka-covered faces.

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We took a cab to the bus terminal for JJ Express. They run an overnight bus that would take us from Yangon to Bagan in the Mandalay region, where the ancient pagodas were. There were several stops along the way. We had a late dinner at Feel Myanmar Express, a local fast food. I recall we had fried eggs, fried rice, and something that looked (and tasted) like beef tapa.

We arrived in Bagan around 6am and made our way to our hotel in Old Bagan. The Hub started to sing “We’ve only just Ba-gaaan…” (to the tune of The Carpenters’ ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’) and it cracked me up.

It took us two days to tour the temples in Bagan. We hired a car from our hotel the first day, and took our time visiting each temple, marking it off the map as we went. The heat was amazing — but our hired car came with cool towels scented with lemongrass (the driver seemed to top this up mysteriously every few temples or so) and cold bottles of water. We made good progress, and the Bagan pagodas were more interesting to explore than the newer ones in Yangon.

We watched the sunset from the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It was gorgeous — but the crowds, the jostling, and the nonstop camera clicking dampened the mood somewhat for me.

Behind every great sunset photo, a crowd

Bagan has over 3,500 temples, stupas, and monuments scattered around the landscape, built between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Sadly though, I read that several of the structures were restored a little too hastily by the military regime, and some academics viewed this as having damaged the integrity of the old architecture. While this initially impeded Bagan’s designation as a UNESCO heritage site, in July 2019 Bagan was finally officially named by UNESCO as such, 24 years after the military government first nominated it in 1995.

In line with this, from last year onwards Bagan has stopped tourists from scaling the temples. A good move, I think.

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The second day we had a buffet lunch at Golden Myanmar. It was a wide array of food at a carinderia-style establishment. Excellent value at 4,000 kyat (Php 150 or US$3) per person, with dishes that looked and tasted like Filipino dishes: binagoongang baboy (pork in shrimp paste), adobo (but an oilier version), pinatisan (meat in fish sauce). Familiar yet unfamiliar.

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The third day was especially exciting, as we had booked a ballooning trip with Oriental Ballooning (they use green balloons). They compete with the established Balloons Over Bagan (which uses red balloons) — but as we later saw for ourselves BoB left the ballooning grounds later than we did and landed earlier than we did. I also noticed BoB had bigger baskets that held more people, which (to my non-ballooning expert mind) probably meant heavier balloons and lower flying altitude.

We woke up 5am and were fetched from the hotel. The deflated balloons lay spread on an empty field of dusty red clay. Oriental Ballooning served a light breakfast of unlimited coffee/tea, croissants and small banana muffins. It was a chilly morning. We were given a safety briefing then they started pumping the balloons with air.

Our balloonist-in-charge, Mike, hailed from the UK and had only been in Bagan for three weeks. He had been flying balloons since 1982 as a hobby. He told us most of the balloonists only stayed 2-4 months, some for half a year, then went back home. He was still getting to know Bagan’s temples himself.

Ours was the first balloon to go up. We also went the highest. We watched the sun rise higher over the landscape and color all the temples in soft red, then orange hues. There was a light mist and in the early morning light, the view seemed surreal.

We waved to people down below, and they waved back. One kid actually hurried out to greet us — she was so excited she hadn’t tied her wraparound skirt up properly and almost tripped.

We had champagne and papaya slices afterwards.

A beautiful start in beautiful Bagan, and hardly past nine in the morning.

Think critically dear readers,

Sunday Sofa Sojourns #1: Tagaytay, Philippines

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post a throwback photo every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

It’s Father’s Day today, so for my first #SundaySofaSojourns post here’s a special one with Dad.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tagaytay – its cool breezes, its view of Taal (the second most active volcano in the Philippines), its roadside stalls teeming with souvenir pineapples and walis tambo. The city is home to local favourites Bag of Beans barako coffee, Rowena’s buko tarts (coconut tarts), Sonya’s Garden greens, and Antonio’s upscale fare.

It’s also the city where I got married.

This is a photo from our father-daughter dance. I had carefully chosen my wedding playlist and picked Jose Mari Chan’s ‘Sing Me A Song Again, Daddy’ for this moment. Chan’s whole album was one of the soundtracks of my childhood and this song was particularly meaningful for both of us.

I could not get through the dance without crying. Likewise, for Dad.

I heard the traffic going up to Tagaytay has only gotten worse since then. These days we also have to navigate four time zones for a family call. And of course, there’s the virus to contend with.

I still hope Dad and I get to see you again, Tagaytay. Our bowls of hot, hearty bulalo soup at Josephine’s await.

Think critically dear readers,