My Battambang with Allison Jane Smith

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Over the years, I’ve asked friends from around Asia, met through my online and offline adventures, to share their must-stop spots in South, East, and Southeast Asia’s great cities.

Today, welcome Allison Jane Smith, a writer and communications consultant. She was an editor at WhyDev, a thought leader in the international development community, and her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ONE, TakePart World, and Matador Network, among others. Like me, she has strong opinions about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter at @asmithb.

And now, over to Allison…

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Battambang is a provincial capital in northwestern Cambodia with more laid-back charm than Cambodia’s flashier cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Settle in for a relaxed visit with great food, incredible local art, and delightful surprises in the Cambodian countryside. I enjoyed my first visit to Battambang so much it turned into living there for a year, and I know many others who have similarly found their stays in Battambang lasted much longer than originally intended!

Must eats?

Chinese Noodle (Street 2) is a perennial favorite for its hand-pulled noodles and delicious dumplings. Its popularity means it can be slow at busy times, but the food is worth the wait.

Jaan Bai (corner of Street 2 and Street 1.5) offers sophisticated small plates inspired by the best of southeast Asian cuisine, from pad Thai to eggplant and shiitake dumplings. A particular highlight is the crab served with Kampot pepper, a Cambodian speciality, and the selection of cocktails and fresh juices mean you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect beverage to complement your meal.

Soline of Choco l’Art (Street 117) serves Battambang’s most decadent desserts. Her chocolate mousse, cheesecake and pastries will satisfy any sweet tooth, and the art hanging on the walls, much of it created by Choco l’Art co-owner and local artist Ke Prak, will please anyone interested in Cambodian art.

For coffee, there’s no better place to go than Kinyei (Street 1.5), whose baristas have won multiple barista championships in Cambodia. Order a street latte for a Cambodian take on a classic latte, or try an iced Cambodian coffee for a truly Cambodian experience. If it’s not too busy, strike up a conversation with the staff; while shy at first, they like the opportunity to practice their English.

Must dos?

Battambang is home of Phare Ponleu Selpak (National Highway 5), a circus troupe that travels internationally. Take the opportunity to see the circus in Battambang, in an intimate atmosphere unlike any other. Phare’s shows feature local artists, musicians and acrobats for a unique artistic experience people of all ages will enjoy.

Don’t miss the bamboo train, a seven-kilometre trip through the countryside on a wooden frame lined with slats of bamboo. When I go with friends, we time our trip for sunset and ask our conductor to stop at the bridge about halfway through the ride, for beautiful views of the sun setting over rice paddies.

Twelve kilometers southwest of the city on National Highway 57 is Phnom Sampov, which has a whole lot to explore – bring comfortable shoes! There’s a complex of temples, a deep cave, and the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampov, now a memorial for the people clubbed to death by the Khmer Rouge. Visit at dusk, when millions of bats pour out of the north side of the cliff, an impressive show that turns the sky black and lasts for a good half hour.

Soksabike offers half- and full-day cycling tours of the countryside, with stops along the way at family-run businesses to learn how they make rice paper, rice wine, and bamboo sticky rice. Stock up on the dried bananas offered on the tour, as they are sold in Thailand rather than at local markets. Book tours at Kinyei (Street 1.5).

Must shops?

Battambang is too small to have much shopping, but the few shops it has are unlike any others you’ll come across in Cambodia.

Bric-a-Brac (119 Street 2) is a one-of-a-kind boutique, serving as a workshop, showroom and gift shop for design textiles, antiques, and souvenirs. Ask shop co-owner Morrison for your turn on the handmade loom, to see what it’s like to weave on a loom that has created tassels and braids for royalty and heads of state.

The Lost Stick (76 Street 2.5) describes itself as an “emporium of strange items and underground comics” and is full of old photographs, novelty toys, and other kitsch. Always worth a browse.

Must art?

Battambang has a long and proud tradition of artistic excellence in Cambodia, and even today most of the country’s best artists come from Battambang. There’s no better place to learn about Cambodian art and meet Cambodian artists.

Across from The Lost Stick is Lotus Bar and Gallery (53 Street 2.5) in a beautifully renovated shophouse. On street-level is a bar, while upstairs is a gallery which specializes in showing the best of local arts. Lotus also hosts film screenings, live music and poetry events, so it’s worth asking at the bar what’s planned for while you’re visiting.

Sammaki (87 Street 2.5) is an artist-run community space offering workshops, exhibitions and other arts-related events.

Must go?

Except for the bamboo train, Phnom Sampov and the circus, everything is located in the city center and is easily walkable. Take a tuk tuk to get to everything farther away.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Allison Jane Smith; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)

Women’s Action


PSA: Women’s Action, a memory project that documents and celebrates the history of the women’s movement in an independent Singapore, launched this weekend! It covers the Singapore woman’s history through ten themes with original videos and photo essays, archival pictures, and researched stories. It is really a spectacular resource.*

Two themes—Education and Civil Society and Activism—are live, but bookmark the site for all nine. “The interweaving of certain events and milestones across the ten themes is also testament to the many ways in which women’s issues cannot be separated from the rest of society, and how we are always connected in our journey,” say the project’s team.

The project is spearheaded by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), and is funded by the Singapore Memory Project’s irememberSG fund as part of SG50 Celebrations.

*Full disclosure: I’m one of the project’s writers.

My Panjim with Chryselle D’Silva Dias


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Over the years, I’ve asked friends from around Asia, met through my online and offline adventures, to share their must-stop spots in South, East, and Southeast Asia’s great cities.

Today, welcome Chryselle D’Silva Dias, a freelance writer/journalist based in Goa, India. Her bylines have appeared in Time, BBC, The Atlantic, VICE,, The Guardian Weekly, Marie Claire India, Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal Asia, Silverkris, and Architectural Digest (India) among others.

And now, over to Chryselle…

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Panjim is Goa’s capital city, one that feels more like a charming over-grown town. The city is a curious mix of old and new, of heritage buildings and new structures with glass facades, of hole-in-the-wall joints that only the locals know about and contemporary cuisine that the world appreciates.

Must eats?

If you’re hungry in Panjim, head to one of the little eateries along every street, the one that seems unremarkable in its decor, or menu. If it is crowded with locals, that’s the place to eat. Whether it is for the staple fish-curry-rice or a mid-morning snack of pav-bhaji (freshly baked Goan bread with different types of gravies), traditional Goan restaurants are in a league of their own. I love Cafe Aram (18th June Road). Its chana-masala (chick-peas cooked in a spicy base) with puris (fluffy deep fried Indian bread) fills you up and leaves you perfectly sated.

For a meal, try the blink-and-you-might-miss-it Anandashram (31st January Road), a favourite lunch-time spot for commoners and politicians alike. Their fish thali is sumptuous and the queues waiting in the aisle for a table are testimony to its popularity.

A short distance away is the popular Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, one of the oldest bakeries in town (31st January Road). Traditional Goan sweets and savoury snacks line the shelves in this tiny bakery. The freshly baked biscuits and cakes are tempting. Say hello to Gleta, the owner if she happens to be there when you visit.

Cream Centre near the Panjim market has the most delectable dessert – Gadbad, which literally means “mess.” The mess in question is a tall glass of several scoops of ice-cream, mixed with bits of fruit and nuts. A tall chunk of heaven, for sure.

If you’re looking for a change from traditional Goan food, head straight to Black Sheep Bistro (near Old Passport Office, off 18th June Road), my favourite contemporary restaurant in Goa. Their menu features farm-to-table recipes ensuring fresh food with a local twist (chorizo with chocolate, anyone?). Their cocktails are amazing as is their service and attitude. The owners Prahlad and Sabreen are friendly, professional and evidently love what they do. Which is why we love them too!

Must dos?

Panjim is a very walkable city so put on your comfy shoes and explore.

Dedicated to Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, or Nossa Senhora da Immaculada Conceição, Panjim Church is the city’s most iconic landmark. It is one of the oldest Christian shrines in Goa, and is believed to have been built in 1541. The four-tiered zigzagging stone stairway that leads up to it was added a good three centuries later in 1841. The magnificent bell in the belfry, at 2250 kg, is second in size only to the “Golden Bell” of the Sé Cathedral in Old Goa, and once belonged to the Monastery of St Augustine in Old Goa (whose ruins are well worth a visit when you are in Old Goa).

Check out the magnificent Azulejos in the Institute Menezes Braganza. These beautiful blue and white tiles depict scenes from Os Lusíadas, an epic poem by Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões. It tells the story of Portugal’s 15th- and 16th-century voyages of discovery. Goa was a Portuguese colony until 1961 and the azulejos are a work of art to be preserved and celebrated.

Walk around Fontainhas, Panjim’s charming Latin Quarter where time seems to stand still. The old houses and by-lanes are mostly well maintained and is lovely to walk through.

Must shops?

Marcou Artifacts (31 January Road) has pretty, traditional and sometimes humorous ceramic goodies for your home. From rooster-shaped bowls, sea-horses for your balcony wall or a Mario Miranda cartoon coaster, there’s something for every taste and budget here.

The mother-of-pearl windows that still adorn many traditional homes are increasingly difficult to find, but you can take home a shell-inspired souvenier or three. Shell chandeliers, necklaces and vases are popular, as are packets of the luminescent, disc-shaped “capiz.” (Try Shankwalkars, next to the Old Secretariat.)

Must art?

At the end of the 31st January Road, Gitanjali Gallery (31st January Road) is an increasingly important destination for local and national artists. Drop in to check out their latest exhibition and you might discover a new favourite. Owner Miriam Koshy Sukhija welcomes guests and is very knowledgeable about her work. A few hundred yards away (follow the little road to the left of the Gallery) is the elegant Fundação Oriente (Filipe Neri Road), now the permanent home to an impressive collection of paintings by António Xavier Trindade (1870-1935).

Goa is also home to the annual Goa Art and Lit Festival. This year, the festival will be from 10-13 December 2015 and speakers include popular authors, poets and international journalists.

Must Go?

Panjim is a fairly small city with promenades along the river and pavements (on most roads) for pedestrians and you can easily walk around. If your feet get weary (or the humidity gets to you), there are other ways to travel.

The yellow and black rickshaws are available at most corners and will take you in and around the city. Or hop on to a unique taxi service – the motorcycle taxi, which is exactly what it sounds like. These motorcycles with their “pilots” (as the drivers are called) have yellow and black number-plates and bright yellow mudguards which make them easy to spot. Public buses are available from the main bus stand and along the main roads, but not easy to find in the inner roads. For rickshaws and motorcycle taxis, do determine the price before you set off, to avoid any confusion at your destination. There are also traditional taxi services available but these tend to be more expensive.

(Additional credits: Photographs by Chryselle D’Silva Dias; photo layout via Pugly Pixel.)

#SG50ReadingChallenge: Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore by Loh Kah Seng and Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project by Michael D. Barr and Ziatko Skrbis

ori5dp8obikyflwt10it(On January 1, 2015, I challenged myself to read twelve history books this Jubilee year to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and blog about them.)

May’s read was Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore by Loh Kah Seng and June’s read was Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project by Michael D. Barr and Ziatko Skrbis.

In Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore, Loh, Assistant Professor at the the Institute for East Asian Studies and Sogang University, tells the history of the Bukit Hoo Swee fire, a national emergency that led to the creation of Singapore’s first public housing project, with incredible vividness and sensitivity. Squatters into Citizens attempts to counter the State’s official narrative of the fire as “a blessing in disguise” and set the country on “the right path to progress and modernity” and is a truly excellent account of the stories at the margins of the Singapore’s public housing “success” story.  The book relies heavily on oral history (over 100 interviews conducted in 2006 and 2007) and, to a lesser extent, archival and official documents. In the book’s preface, Loh writes that his greatest challenge was in accessing archival materials; he was deemed “the wrong candidate” and was not allowed access materials deemed to be “politically sensitive.” But because of this, some important questions about the fire go unanswered, such as its causes.

Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project was the first Barr-authored book I’ve read. Barr, an Associate Professor of International Relations at Flinders University, has written widely about crucial institutions of power and shifts in Singapore’s political system. Following the death of Lee Kuan Yew, in March, his piece, “The Son of the Father,” was widely circulated on Facebook. Constructing Singapore largely examines Chinese ethnocentrism as played out in Singapore’s educational system, and is the first book I’ve read as part of this challenge that addresses “a Chinese ethno-nationalism [that] has overwhelmed the discourse on national and Singaporean identity.” This work has roundly been criticized by Singapore academics (see this scathing review by Dr. Daniel P.S. Goh in which he claims, “[The] book has already caught the eye of the dissident fringe, claiming academic validation of their conspiracy theories.”) Still, I found it an informative read, and I’ve put Barr’s latest, The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence, on my reading list. 

#SG50ReadingChallenge: The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years by Poh Soo Kai and The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee, and Koh Kay Yew

ori5dp8obikyflwt10it(On January 1, 2015, I challenged myself to read twelve history books this Jubilee year to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, and blog about them.)

March’s read was The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years by Poh Soo Kai and April’s read was The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore by Poh Soo Kai, Tan Jing Quee, and Koh Kay Yew. (Yes, I’m late in putting these mini-reviews up!)

“Operation Coldstore,” a security operation during which 111 leftist activists, newspaper editors, trade unionists, and university students were arrested and detained, including key members of the opposition political party Barisan Sosialis, was touted as an anti-communist sting. In fact, the following day’s Sunday Times reported that Operation Coldstore was “aimed at preventing subversives from establishing a ‘Communist Cuba’ in Singapore.”

In The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore, Coldstore detainee and Barisan assistant secretary-general Poh Soo Kai, presents a collection of accounts of this event by ex-detainees, interspersed with academic essays that provide context to the historical events and a critique of history writing in Singapore. Operation Coldstore remains the most contentious event in the history of postcolonial Singapore, as the establishment argues that the arrests was rightly justified as a security measure that saved Singapore “from subversion and imminent outbreak of violence,” and ex-detainees who maintain that it was to prevent the opposition forces from winning the 1963 general election. Reading The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore has prompted me to read a new “establishment” book, Revisiting Operation Coldstore: Deconstructing the “Original Sin” by Kumar Ramakrishna, Associate Professor and Head of Policy Studies at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The Fajar Generation: The University Socialist Club and the Politics of Postwar Malaya and Singapore is similar in stricture (personal accounts and academic essays) by members of The University Socialist Club in the University of Malaya (University of Singapore) who advanced an agenda of anti-colonialism, democracy, multiculturalism, and social justice. The events in this book predate the events in The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore, but the many players were the same. Reading The Fajar Generation has prompted me to read The May 13 Generation: The Chinese Middle Schools Student Movement And Singapore Politics in the 1950s by Tan Jing Quee, Tan Kok Chiang, and Hong Lysa. On May 13, 1954, a group of Chinese students delivered a petition for exemption from military conscription to the acting colonial governor of Singapore; it was a pivotal moment for the struggle against British colonialism in Singapore.

Again, both books are definitely good and necessary reads, though they assume readers already have a lot of background information about these eras in Singapore politics. I found myself Googling quite a bit while reading, and discovered just how disputed these narratives are by the State.

FYI, I purchased The 1963 Operation Coldstore In Singapore at the new 草根書室 (Grassroots Book Room) and borrowed The Fajar Generation from NLB.

St. John’s and Lazarus Islands

photo-2We took advantage of a relatively cool, overcast, drizzly Sunday morning to explore St. John and Lazarus Islands, two of the eight Southern Islands of Singapore. (The others are Kusu Island, Pulau Seringat, Pulau Tekukor, Sentosa and two Sisters’ Islands.)

St. John’s Island once housed a quarantine station for cholera-stricken Chinese immigrants and, later, Asian immigrants and Malay pilgrims returning from Mecca to Singapore; a penal settlement for political detainees; and a drug rehabilitation centre for opium addicts. The island’s historical past seems to have largely been scrubbed by its developer, Sentosa Development Corporation. We traipsed along its paved trails and identified flora and fauna along the way, such as kites and a small patch of mangroves.

Lazarus Island is connected to St. John’s Island via a 100-meter paved causeway. (“Rustic,” this is not and, for the most part, stroller- and wheelchair-friendly) From here, we spotted a raft of smooth-coated otters swimming to shore and massive container ships lumbering to port. We had been told that the island’s beach is as perfect a beach as one can expect in Singapore. And yes, the water was clear-ish and the surf was calm. But, garbage (i.e. aluminum cans, plastic bottle caps, rubber slippers, juice boxes… you get the picture) is swept in with the tides which makes sitting on the beach and enjoying a picnic none too appealing.

Both islands are more developed than I thought they would be, yet there are murmurings to develop them further (resorts? casinos? what?). We hope to return to St. John’s to explore its splendid rocky shore and its fringing coral reefs on the western and north-eastern edge of island. We sadly saw (dead) hard coral flung near picnic tables near the ferry pier.

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The short ride to St. John’s Island and back was the best and it was wonderful seeing the city’s iconic skyline from another vantage point. We also loved navigating in between the water’s varied boats (tugboats, tankers, yachts). Be forewarned: the ferry schedule indicates that a boat will depart from St. John’s Island at 11:50AM (returning to Marina South Pier); today, the boat arrived at the pier at 11:00AM and departed at 11:30AM. The next boat was scheduled at 1:50PM. Get there early, so you don’t miss your ride!