With pandemic fatigue hitting an all-time high, perhaps it’s time for the soul to dream a little. Be it wishful thinking or wistful wanderlusting, let six clued-in personalities from the retail, hospitality and design sectors share with us the best things about their cities.
Founder + creative director, Blink Design Group
You’ve been based in Bangkok since 2006. Tell me a little why you chose Thailand, out of all the countries in the region.
What inspired me to move here from Hawaii in 2006 was the creativity of the Thais, the blossoming design scene, the rich culture and the warmth of the people. Geographically speaking, Bangkok is an ideal travel base to reach my projects and clients scattered throughout Asia and other parts of the world.
Which would you say are the best hotels Bangkok has to offer and why?
Bangkok has some amazing hotels. The newly opened Four Seasons on the bank of the Chao Phraya River is a wonderful property with amazing restaurants and bars and a great riverfront pool. The Siam and Mandarin Oriental are also great hotels in their own right. The Siam is in the old part of town and offers guests an escape from the city. The Mandarin Oriental has so much history that it’s hard not to fall in love with the sense of nostalgia.
Where are your favourite places to eat in Bangkok?
There are so many places to eat in Bangkok ... where do I start? My go-to Italian restaurant has been Lenzi Tuscan Kitchen ever since it opened. Chef Lenzi’s presence in the restaurant and the stories of his food make it an enjoyable dining experience. I also enjoy the dining experience at Sorn with its authentic Southern Thai flavours.
BKK Social Club, Crimson and the Bamboo Bar. My drink of the evening depends on my mood and the company. I love a good negroni to kick off the evening, for instance, or an amazing bottle of red wine with dinner, and whisky on the rocks to cap off the night.
Which shops get the lion’s share of your retail therapy budget?
I honestly don’t do a lot of shopping in Bangkok, though I do favour buying gifts at Alexander Lamont. It has amazing handcrafted accessories for the home.
What are the five must-dos for newcomers?
Explore the old part of town for its amazing architecture, do a street food crawl in Yaowarat by tuk-tuk, take a sunset cruise on the Chao Phraya River, dine at one of the city’s amazing Michelin-starred restaurants, and end the evening at the Bamboo Bar listening to live jazz music.
And for regulars, what would your insider tips suggest?
Go personal. Experience one of the many new chef’s table eateries like Table X for the ultimate dining adventure. Get a relaxing private massage in the comfort of your home or hotel.
For the outdoorsy types, what are your best Bangkok bets?
Enjoy Bangkok’s version of Central Park by heading over to Lumpini Park in the early mornings or late afternoons when the weather is cooler.
Where would you go to escape the crowds, though?
Just 1½ hours’ drive outside of Bangkok, there are some secluded beaches in Rayong. Or I would fly to Samui or Phuket to enjoy their amazing beaches and resorts.
Describe a perfect Bangkok day out for you.
I love Sundays in Bangkok. It’s the perfect time to relax and unwind and get ready for the week ahead. I enjoy relaxing at one of the many café or brunch spots that have popped up all over town and indulging myself with a soothing massage after.
What do you miss most about Bangkok when you’re not there?
After being on the road, I always look forward to returning home to Bangkok and the endless list of places to see and enjoy. And most of all, its warm and hospitable people.
Senior vice-president of commercial strategy + business development, Urban Resort Concepts
What are your favourite things about Shanghai?
I lived in Shanghai for eight years until 2001. It was love at first sight. The city was bursting with a cosmopolitan mix of people from all over the world and there was such an infectious sense of optimism ... an almost giddy excitement. Shanghai is very much the Paris of the East. There were parties every weekend and incredible events hosted by Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior. It was unbelievably glamorous back then and, I think, more so now.
It always felt like I never really left and now, many years later, I am physically back. Shanghai has evolved into a world-class city. I’ve always marvelled at the architectural skyline of the city. That mix of super-sleek modern skyscrapers and 1920s Art Deco buildings are unlike anywhere else in the world.
What are your favourite restaurants and where would you recommend we try?
I read somewhere recently that Shanghai has over 100,000 restaurants, the most compared with other Chinese cities. We are so spoilt for choice, but my all-time favourite has to be Hakkasan on Bund 18, which serves refined Cantonese cuisine amid simply stunning décor. I love the tables by the windows with views of the Bund.
Fu 1039 is an enduring classic, serving very authentic traditional Shanghainese cuisine and it is housed in a building that dates back to the 1920s. Sichuan Citizen is a must for Chengdu’s famous lip-tingling chillies and peppercorns.
A recent discovery is Polux by Paul Pairet on Taicang Lu, serving French bistro fare in a very cosy setting. Villa Le Bec is another favourite of mine, housed in an elegant 1920s villa. It is a casual French bistro and the outdoor seating is magical, especially in the cooler months of spring and autumn. RAC on Anfu Lu serves up insane crepes and galettes and is perfect for weekend brunches.
And what about the best bars?
In the old days, Bar Rouge on the top floor of Bund 18, stunningly sleek with an insane rooftop terrace, was the go-to venue for my friends and I. Nowadays, 44 KW is popular for a great Saturday night out. It is chic and yet has that underground vibe. For an impressive wine selection, Bar a Vin is perfect. You’re instantly transported to the French countryside. Senator Saloon is a 1920s-style speakeasy and its specialities are Prohibition-era cocktails.
If I need retail therapy, where would you send me?
There’s been a profusion of multi-brand boutiques across the city in the past few years. You’ll find creative local emerging talents and foreign niche labels. They have what is called a ‘hyper-curatorial’ approach to these stores and I can spend hours just immersing myself in these places.
Le Monde de SHC (LMDS) in the French Concession is chic beyond description and I have a deep obsession with Shang Xia. Its creations across apparel, jewellery, homeware and furniture are works of art and just exquisite. Its craftsmanship blends old traditions and techniques with new trends. I can spend hours in its three-storey French-styled maison in Xin Tian Di.
On any given lazy Sunday afternoon after a heavy brunch, we usually end up exploring Yu Garden, the fabric market in Lujiabang Lu (there’s always something I need my tailor to make!) or the antique market on Dongtai Lu. Tian Zi Fang is a favourite as it is a labyrinth of alleyways in the French Concession. Shops are tucked within local Shikumen architecture and I am always discovering something I suddenly can’t live without.
What five things would you recommend to Shanghai newbies?
Definitely the Bund and the French Concession for long strolls, drinks, long lunches and longer dinners. Shanghai is such a walkable city and once you’re in a particular neighbourhood, you’re set for the day.
The arts scene in China has exploded and art galleries in Shanghai are a must. The Power Station of Art is a contemporary art museum (yes, housed in a former power station) and there’s always an interesting exhibition going on. 50 Moganshan Road is another art district in an old industrial area where over 100 galleries and art studios are housed.
Getting to know the local markets and places like Yu Yuan Gardens and Tian Zi Fang are definitely must-dos for newbies as well. Shanghai’s spas are another important part of any itinerary. Whether you choose traditional therapies or just a good ol’ foot massage to revive your tired feet after a day of exploration, it’s simply soul-renewing. My go-to is PuLi’s UR Spa where I am reinvigorated after every session.
And what about the seasoned Shanghai visitor? What are your insider tips?
Shanghai’s so glitzy and it can be dazzling but for the seasoned traveller, seek out your trusty tailor, masseuse, jeweller or concierge. The locals are remarkable for their warmth and hospitality. After all these years, I still have the same community of regulars that I seek out and with whom I maintain regular contact via WeChat.
What activities would you recommend for the outdoorsy types though?
Jogging along the Bund and cycling around the French Concession or Huangpu River. Book a historical and heritage private day tour in the former French Concession or Shanghai’s Old Town. Another very memorable day visit was with my family to Zhujiajiao Water Town. Strolling through ancient streets and under stone archways, and taking a gondola ride are enough to tire anyone out.
Describe a perfect Shanghai day out for you.
Brunch at Polux followed by some retail acquisitions at LMDS or Tian Zi Fang. A late afternoon spa at PuLi to revive myself. Dinner at Hakkasan on the Bund and after-dinner drinks at 44 KW, fuelled by copious amounts of Nespresso shots!
Where would you go to escape the crowds?
There are secluded quiet cafés in the French Concession that I can hide away in with a book or magazine. There’s always my own apartment or a friend’s apartment in the French Concession with a spacious garden or terrace where we can hang out.
What do you miss most about Shanghai when you’re not there?
The vibrance and energy of the city. The beauty of the old architecture. My tailor and masseuse.
Vice president of retail, Marina Bay Sands
Which would you say is the best hotel in your city?
Without a doubt, it has to be Marina Bay Sands.
Where would you recommend we eat when we visit?
My favourite restaurant is Mott 32 at Marina Bay Sands. It serves a variety of my favourite cuisines — Cantonese dim sum, Sichuan (order the poached garoupa fillet), Beijing (don’t miss the Peking Duck) — all rolled into a single stunning dining experience! Mott 32 allows me to entertain clients, family and friends, young and old, in style because of its stellar food and trendy ambience.
What about a pre- or post-dinner drink?
I love Spago Bar & Lounge by Wolfgang Puck located atop the iconic Sands SkyPark. It offers some of the best views in town and my all-time favourite cocktail, Love You Long Time. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck has his body of work documented in a new programme on Disney +. It offers a fascinating look at his early years and illustrious career. Spago [in Los Angeles] was the first restaurant he opened and it was a hit right from the start!
Which shops would get the lion’s share of your budget?
I think you mean shopping budget? To call me an avid shopper would be an understatement. I appreciate every brand for their history and what they stand for. But if I have to name a few of my go-to stores, they are Aesop, Brunello Cucinelli, Chanel, Dior, Hermès, Jo Malone, Jimmy Choo, Lululemon, Maje, Roger Vivier, Sandro and Sephora … the list goes on.
What are the five must-dos for first-time visitors?
First-time visitors to Singapore should definitely explore Marina Bay Sands — we keep reinventing our offerings to bring the best-in-class leisure, dining and entertainment offerings. I would also recommend visiting the Botanic Gardens, Chinatown — particularly to see all the different wall murals by Yip Yew Chong — Gardens by the Bay, the Night Safari, Singapore Zoo, and to tuck into a feast at Newton Circus hawker centre.
And for regular returnees? What are your favourite insider suggestions?
I love Tiong Bahru market for its eclectic mix of old and new. It is one of the hippest neighbourhoods in Singapore with a fascinating history. You can find everything from nice hawker eats and wet markets to trendy cafés and restaurants. Another place to wander through is Gardens by the Bay, where they put up interesting themed installations all year round. For instance, they are currently showing Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures, which are stunning!
What would you recommend for the outdoorsy types though, those who need sun and/or sea?
I would recommend a leisurely bike ride through Singapore’s park connectors, or charter a boat out to neighbouring islands such as Lazarus Island, for a different perspective of Singapore, away from its hustle and bustle. For those seeking some sun and fun, Siloso Beach in Sentosa is the perfect spot to unwind. For the more adventurous, there is Pulau Ubin, where you can get off the beaten track and explore closer to nature.
Where would you go to escape the crowds though?
I sneak out to Dempsey or the Botanic Gardens for a nice long walk to appreciate nature at its best.
Describe a perfect Singapore day out for you.
My perfect day out is one that allows me to take care of my body, mind and soul. I’d start with a physical activity, followed by a pampering session at the Banyan Tree Spa, before ending the day with sunset drinks at Spago, followed by dinner at CÉ LA VI, located on the rooftop of Marina Bay Sands.
What do you miss most about Singapore when you’re not there?
That would be my favourite Singaporean hawker food! My usual haunts include Tiong Bahru for bak kut teh, Maxwell Food Centre for chicken rice, Chomp Chomp Food Centre for hokkien mee and Adam Road Food Centre for nasi lemak.
General manager—pre-opening, Royal Park Canvas Sapporo Odori Park
Which hotel in your city would you recommend for a traditional Japanese stay?
Onsen Ryokan Yuen Sapporo. It is located in the middle of the city and yet offers guests an authentic onsen and ryokan experience.
Where in Sapporo would you recommend we eat?
Itadakizen, near Maruyama Park, whose owner, Akiko Haruyama, carefully curates a super-creative vegan menu. It’s a Japanese organic and vegan restaurant with a branch on King’s Cross Road in London too. Her five-course omakase lunch gets my pick each time.
What about a nice place for a drink?
Hakko Yard, where fermentation is the theme running throughout its drinks menu. I always order the fermented lemon soda mocktail. Even many items on its Little Bites menu use fermented ingredients. Healthy and tasty!
And where would you recommend we go for a spot of Sapporo-style retail therapy?
Space 1-15. Housed in an old condominium building just around the corner from my place, it is occupied by many individual shop and café owners. Some are edgy, some artisan. It’s a lot of fun to shop-hop here.
For first-time visitors to Sapporo, what’s at the top of your list of recommendations?
If visiting in winter, you must absolutely try skiing or snowboarding. Sapporo is also a great place to shop for winter clothes as you get a full variety of choices. Enjoy the fresh-as-can-be sushi. Even the sushi train restaurants are nice here. Visit the JR Tower observatory in the evening for an enchanting night view of the city. And lastly, hit an onsen. Any onsen. Don’t be shy!
And what about for the regular returnees?
I always love a stroll around Maruyama, such a posh neighbourhood.
Hokkaido is great all year round for the outdoorsy types. What do you recommend?
During the Green Season, go on a self-drive holiday. For White Season, snowshoe trekking offers fun for everyone if the idea of skiing or snowboarding sounds a tad too adventurous.
Describe a perfect Sapporo day out for you.
Reading and sunbathing at Odori Park and then catching an artsy movie at Theater Kino in Tanuki Koji.
Where would you go to escape the crowds though?
You needn’t worry about that. Hokkaido is immensely vast!
What do you miss most about the island when you’re not there?
The first-class food and nature, of course.
Co-founder, Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat + Ambong Pool Villas
Apart from your two very lovely properties, which other hotels on the island get your vote?
Overall, it has to be The Datai. It is a world-class resort in a stunning location and its commitment to conservation must be lauded. For families with young children, the Meritus Pelangi on Pantai Cenang — it has great amenities plus all the conveniences of a five-star resort. For the seeker, the Temple Tree as it’s uniquely different, creatively reflecting Malaysian traditional architecture and suitable for Covid-era tourism.
Where are your favourite places to eat on the island?
Unkaizan Japanese restaurant for sushi and sashimi. Jom Ikan Bakar Langkawi near the airport is my favourite for local Malay food and, as the name suggests, ikan bakar is the highlight. One of my kids’ favourite places for comfort food is the Fat Cupid, where we always order the thin crust margherita pizza. For Italian, Gallo Nero in Padang Matsirat. It serves authentic Italian food and has a smart and sleek décor.
For Mediterranean tapas, Tapaz at Tubotel has a delightfully informal ambience, excellent food, serves a good selection of draft beers, good views and — again with Covid in mind — a well-ventilated, open-concept dining area.
And where could one go for a lovely cold drink?
Tapaz at Tubotel for the same reasons above. Casa del Mar on Pantai Cenang. The Hidden Bar on Pantai Tengah and, of course, Rimba at Ambong Pool Villas. All are great spots to catch the sunset as well.
What’s the shopping like in Langkawi?
Shopping shouldn’t be one of the main reasons to visit Langkawi unless it is duty-free goods you are after. There are a number of souvenir shops in Kuah and Pantai Cenang. For local crafts, the Langkawi Craft Complex is worth a visit.
What are the five must-dos for Langkawi newbies?
Take the cable car up to the Langkawi SkyBridge for stunning views of the island. Go on a jet-ski safari and explore the many uninhabited islands of Langkawi. Take a zip line ride through the rainforest. Do book a sunset dinner cruise. If you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a pod of dolphins and if you are really lucky, a whale shark! Exploring the mangroves in a kayak is a must as well.
And what do you suggest for the seasoned traveller?
Spend a day or two on Pulau Tuba for a glimpse of what kampung life was like in the past. You can also hire a boat to be ‘marooned’ for half a day on one of the remote beaches. Wake up early and enjoy a bicycle ride through the kampung. You can also play a round of golf at the Els Club, make a trip up Gunung Raya to bird-watch (hornbills, especially) and go on a night safari to spot colugos and slow lorises.
What do you suggest the active, outdoorsy types do?
Spend half a day hiking up Gunung Machinchang, stopping by Telaga Tujuh along the way.
Where would you go to escape the crowds, though?
Langkawi is generally uncrowded outside of Cenang and Kuah. If you want to go off the beaten track, there are some lovely beaches in the north of the island or on several of the other outlying islands.
Describe your perfect Langkawi day/night out.
Being out at sea, exploring the many islands, coves and beaches, and reaching back in time for sundowners and a leisurely dinner.
What do you miss most about the island when you’re not there?
The unhurried, laidback, lotus-eating lifestyle; the constant awareness of the sea, jungles and paddy fields; and the clean, ocean-scented air.
Head of communications, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
The property you represent is iconic. But if you had to recommend just one room, which would it be and why?
My favourite room is Escoy. The highlight of the room is its gorgeous, intricate wooden panels, which were donated by the Escoy Tin Smelting Company to the mansion in 1998, and the room opens out to the oriental garden and pool. There are also sentimental reasons — when I got married in 2012, this room was my ‘residence’ where my husband-to-be and his groomsmen collected me from, in the traditional ‘get the bride’ ceremony.
Penang is justifiably famous as a foodie’s dream destination but where could we find you eating?
Most Penangites favour the neighbourhood restaurants and kopitiams which they grew up with, and these are our regulars rather than the ‘famous’ stalls visitors flock to. The duck meat kway teow thng on Argyll Road and the mee goreng at the Mt Erskine food centre are two stalls you’ll often find me at. The lady bosses there have known me since I was a baby. Although they have handed over the cooking to their adult children, they are still on hand to monitor the quality.
And what about for a cold drink — or three?
Keat la sim boey (calamansi with sour plum) is always a refreshing treat — most kopitiams have it, so be sure to order one. I do love an Amaretto Sour in the courtyard at The Blue Mansion as well. It’s the perfect way to take the edge off a hot afternoon and take in the chi. For coffee, I’m always at Mug Shot. It is like our Penang version of that bar in Cheers. Good coffee, great vibe, familiar faces.
Is there any retail therapy to be had, though?
Jing Ooi at Maison de Poupee makes the most gorgeous custom pieces, such as this cheongsam I am wearing. We also love the Nala shop on Beach Street — beyond the clothing, accessories and homeware, the store itself is a visual delight.
What are your top five must-do suggestions for island newbies?
Visit the Pulau Tikus market in the evening for dinner where you will find Penang’s greatest hawker hits. Stay or do a tour at The Blue Mansion and not just learn its history and marvel at its architecture (and do your IG shots), but also absorb the energy.
Walk around the Unesco World Heritage Centre — a late afternoon stroll searching out Ernest Zacharevic’s works, popping into cafés and souvenir stops and visiting the various Kongsis is a must. Visit Penang Hill — take the tram up and go for a wander, see the old colonial buildings and beautiful flower gardens, or explore The Habitat for a more complete overview of the flora and fauna of the area.
And lastly, drive around the island — the backwaters of Penang offer sleepy little towns, padi fields and coconut-fringed deserted beaches. In the right season, durian sellers will set up stalls right outside the plantations, offering fresh off-the-tree tastings of legendary Penang durian strains.
And what about for the seasoned visitor?
It’s worth looking at what’s new on the food front, as there is always a restaurant pushing the scene such as Gen, which was recently voted into Asia’s Top 100 Restaurants. There are always new cafés popping up such as Mangga, which is situated under the giant mango tree at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, or hidden bars concocting new things such as Backdoor Bodega. The weekend market at Hin Bus Depot is always nice to visit in the mornings too.
What about for the active, outdoorsy types?
Hike from the ‘End of the World’ at Teluk Bahang through the Penang National Park to Pantai Kerachut, where you can spend the day at the beach before hiking back. The hike typically takes an hour to an hour and a half. Alternatively, you can catch a boat taxi from Teluk Bahang to Monkey Beach and spend the day there.
Another great hike is the one from the foot of Penang Hill, called the secret trail, which takes you past shrines and a Buddhist temple with golden stupas, all while offering breathtaking vistas of the island. If you still need an adrenaline rush at the top of the hill, the Flight of the Colugo zipline at The Habitat may do the trick.
Describe the perfect Penang day/night out for you.
The perfect day begins with kopi or peng kaw and kway teow thng, followed by a wander through George Town — no fixed destination, just discovering old or new nooks. For lunch, perhaps some mee goreng or nasi Melayu, then coffee at Javu or Gusto before meeting friends and their children on the beach at the Penang Swimming Club. Then, it is to a restaurant such as Beach Corner Seafood for a family dinner, and maybe a nightcap somewhere quiet such as Good Friends Club, 32 or George Town Wines, depending on what we feel like.
What do you miss most about Penang when you’re not there?
Besides the food, I miss being surrounded by the sea — seeing it, smelling it and hearing it.
This article first appeared on Jul 19, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.