Singapore goes by many names – the Garden City and the Lion City just to name a few – but no name can truly describe the experience of traveling and … [Read More...]
I was excited to land in Rio, the jewel in Brazil’s crown. This metropolis is home to the late musician Antônio Carlos Jobim, samba, and the crescent-shaped Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, both of which serve as playgrounds for locals and tourists. Now that I was in Rio, borrowing the cheerful and feisty spirit of the locals, known as “cariocas” was inevitable. It was more than likely I would have to return it when it came time to leave Brazil.
Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish. Portuguese is a tricky language; some sounds, such as nasal vowels, are very rare in English. Cariocas have a sing-song like accent and following what they say is daunting for the first time visitor to Rio. However, I knew that with a little time and practice, mastering basic phrases would be a cinch.
On a sunny morning I ventured out to see the famed Christ the Redeemer Statue designed and built in the early 1930s by Brazilian engineers with the help of a renowned French architect, Paul Landowski. With its arms outstretched and head slightly bowed, it’s as if the statue is blessing the city of Rio. The Archdiocese of Rio wanted to rekindle the spirit of Catholicism in Brazil after World War I, and that’s how the statue came to be. I was impressed with the statue and the view of the city from the summit! I was equally pleased with the vista of Rio from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, which can only be reached by cable car.
To understand Brazil and for a once in a lifetime cultural experience, I went to see a football (not soccer) match at Maracanã Stadium in the northern suburbs of Rio. I was taken aback at the size of the place and realized I had entered a different universe. Being a spectator in Maracanã wasn’t anything like watching a basketball match at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Brazilians fans whip themselves into a frenzy when a goal is scored, and I couldn’t help but ride the wave. Just think how full the stadium will be once the 2016 Olympics get underway! If Brazil is victorious the ensuing celebration will be unlike anything that has ever been witnessed.
London is so tourist friendly it’s no wonder the city was chosen to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. I like London so much because many of the city’s top museums are free to explore, and this isn’t the case where I come from. I’ve been a history buff for as long as I can remember so I can revel in all the familiar landmarks: Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Buckingham Palace.
What is the best place from which to begin a tour of London? First of all, get acquainted with the Tube, or the “subway” as North Americans like to call an underground rail system. Take note, however, that the word “subway” in the UK means pedestrian underpass. All underground lines are color-coded, and the system is divided into six zones. All of the stuff worth seeing in London is concentrated in Zone 1, so getting around won’t be difficult at all. An Oyster card saves money in the long run.
I would say that Trafalgar Square is an excellent place to start a walking tour of central London. This square was named after the naval battle on October 21, 1805 that cost Horatio Nelson his life. Walk north of Trafalgar Square and soak up lots of history at the National Portrait Gallery. To beat the crowds visit early in the morning on any day of the week. The good news is that the gallery is free! That meant I would have more money to shop and eat and in London these activities aren’t exactly cheap.
The Imperial War Museum is off the radar for many visitors, but I consider it to be one of the best in the city. It’s smaller, quieter, and free. This always puts a smile on my face. There are some great exhibits in here, including a sobering reminder of the Nazi persecution of European Jews from 1933 to 1945. It’s not a coincidence that this exhibit is on the museum’s top floor, out of sight of younger children who aren’t quite ready to see the horrors of the past.
Okay, enough about museums. There is so much more to London. Hyde Park is the place for an afternoon stroll. Reflect on everything you’ve seen while having a relaxing lunch at the Serpentine Café.
I like Kuala Lumpur, a city that’s cheaper than Singapore and a tad more conservative than Bangkok. On the way to the city center from the airport, I caught the familiar scent of humid, tropical air I knew so well from previous visits to Asia. This was my first visit to Malaysia, and was anxious to find out what the nation’s capital looked like.
I stayed in the centrally located Concorde Hotel, and felt as if this was the best place to crash for a few days because it was so close to the action. Like the World Trade Centers which used to stand in New York City, the Petronas Twin Towers dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur. The external design of these buildings has a noticeable Islamic motif and serves as the headquarters of Petronas – the national oil company of Malaysia. Next to the Petronas complex is the Suria KLCC mall – one of Kuala Lumpur’s more popular centers for material consumption. The place was huge, of course, with six levels and an ultra-modern interior.
I’ve always had a fondness for history, and always make it a priority to learn something about a country’s past. I spent a few hours around the heart of Kuala Lumpur. Merdeka Square (or Independence Square) was where Malaysia declared its autonomy from Great Britain at the stroke of midnight on August 31st, 1957. The British used this square as a cricket pitch, which I suppose isn’t all that surprising. Didn’t they play cricket in just about every country they colonized?
On the east side of the square is the impressive Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which the British used as an administrative center in colonial times. The architecture is Moorish in appearance and reflects the Islamic heritage of Malaysia.
I had eaten great food (Malaysian satay is scrumptious), seen wonderful sights and met nice people in Kuala Lumpur. It was a pleasant taste of a country that I would like to visit again. Kuala Lumpur isn’t so ostentatious and it takes a while to find the city’s charms but they exist, and the infrastructure is impressive. And, many locals speak English! That eliminates any communication worries, particularly for tourists from North America and Britain.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Beijing twice. The Chinese capital has so many layers of history, politics, and conflict. The city is a beast, an incredibly pushy and crowded nucleus in which personal space is a coveted luxury. Beijing cyclists have to be particularly careful on the edges of the city’s wide avenues: cars, trucks, and buses are all competing in one big race and the right of way isn’t observed here. I had to remember this when crossing the roads.
A bus tour took me to Tiananmen Square, a big plaza where so many skirmishes, uprisings, and revolutions began. The event that came to my mind was the pro-democracy rally in 1989. Just about everyone in Beijing who is old enough can recall the iconic image of the “tank man,” the nameless individual who stood in front a convoy of tanks the day after the massacre. Nobody knows who he was or even if he’s alive. During my visit in 2006 I didn’t fail to notice the police officers and soldiers in the square, ready to pounce on any serious demonstrator who dared to challenge the regime, still intent on clinging to power.
The Forbidden City commanded my respect. For centuries, all the political power in China was concentrated in this imperial complex. This was the home of Chinese emperors, their empresses, eunuchs and concubines. To think of the decadent lives they lived within those walls! It’s hard to imagine the wealth of those ancient monarchs.
The Great Wall of China isn’t a single entity; in fact, it’s a collection of walls built over the course of many dynasties. The Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to keep those pesky invaders from Mongolia and points further north out of China, so he conscripted thousands of men – soldiers, criminals, and peasants – to build the wall. Not an easy task, by any means. I was in awe of this feat of defensive engineering. To see photos of the Great Wall of China is one thing; it’s quite another to actually walk on it. Ironically, it’s drawing foreign tourists to China instead of keeping them out. Perhaps Chinese rulers planned it that way!
I can use many words to describe Bangkok: hot, humid, vibrant, riotous, cosmopolitan — and, I daresay, beautiful. Well, saying the Thai capital is beautiful as a whole would be stretching it a bit. However, the city has remained charming and attractive even though the rush into modernity has continued unabated. Bangkok may lack the order of Singapore and the sophistication of Tokyo, but there’s no doubt that it’s the most popular city in Asia — and the world, apparently. In 2013, Bangkok beat London as the world’s favorite tourist destination. I find myself wishing to return to experience the unique Thai hospitality and the ever-present desire for “sanuk,” the Thai word for fun. And believe me, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Bangkok. It’s not hard to find.
For newcomers not used to a tropical climate, the heat of Bangkok can be difficult to adjust to. This is Asia! I would suggest carrying a big bottle of water while sightseeing on foot and they cost next to nothing. Start the day by touring the Grand Palace Complex, the spiritual heart of Thailand. This used to be the home of Thai nobility. The grounds are immaculate, with gold spires and roofs with green and dark orange tiles. There is a dress code in effect for men and women. Don’t show up with tank tops, shorts, see-through shirts, etc. The Thai Royal Family still uses the complex for state functions, but they don’t live there. Still, appropriate clothing is a must!
The humidity in Bangkok is suffocating and the traffic can be horrendous, but stepping into an air-conditioned mall is a heavenly sensation. MBK Center (Mahboonkrong) is a great place to escape the heat while shopping for bargains. Locals and foreign tourists from various corners of the world seem to like this malla lot, because the prices are cheaper than the Siam Paragon. I got lost in the MBK mall once, and didn’t really want to leave.
End a long day of sightseeing at the Moon Bar on the top floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. All of Bangkok will be laid out below, and at night the city lights up and the sight is wonderful. Who ever said Bangkok isn’t romantic?