Top 10 Indian restaurants Singapore

From the delectable aromas of south Indian tiffins to the tantalizing lure of Punjabi dishes, Singapore is a heaven for Indian food lovers. The sizeable diaspora of Indians living in the island nation has resulted in the mushrooming of several restaurants that cater to taste buds of all kinds. While there are pockets such as Farrer Park/Little India where you will be spoilt for options when it comes to Indian food, it can also be a bit overwhelming for someone new to Singapore or Indian food in general to pick out a restaurant. So, like the good Samaritan that I am, I decided to list down my favourite eating joints that serve delicious Indian fare in sunny Singapore. From quick bites to elaborate set courses, I have tried to include choices for all occasions. A disclaimer though, I am a vegetarian and have not tried any meat/seafood dishes but have dined with friends who do, so the list below includes restaurants that serve both veg and non-veg food. Here are our picks for the Top 10 Indian restaurants – Singapore

1. MTR: My favourite place to satisfy cravings for Mum’s dishes – MTR is a pure vegetarian restaurant located a short walk away from Farrer Park MRT. The dosas here are heavenly and if you love coffee then do not miss the filter coffee on the menu. Service is fast and while the ambience might not be much to write home about, the food does all the talking.
Must try dishes: Masala Dosa, Rava Idli, Filter Coffee, Daily specials

2. Kailash Parbat: Whenever my husband, Sid, and I are unable to decide on a restaurant, we end up going to Kailash Parbat. We have eaten almost everything from the menu here and have never been disappointed with any dish. There are two branches and we prefer the one near Little India because it is a bigger space and is less crowded. The menu has a nice balance of Punjabi and Gujrati dishes with some Chinese, Continental fare also available. The food can leave you feeling a bit heavy so we prefer going there for Lunch.
Must try dishes: Chaats, Paneer base curries, Koki, Bread basket

3. Bismillah: Possibly one of the best kept secrets of Singapore’s bustling Indian food scene, Bismillah isn’t really a restaurant unless you consider hoards of people waiting outside a shack in the sweltering sun to grab a parcel of gob-smacking delicious biryanis the definition of what an eating joint should be. We would recommend take-out although people do sometimes eat inside, but these are mostly tourists. Even meat lovers swear by Bismillah’s vegetarian biryani and despite hailing from the land of biryanis – Hyderabad, both Sid and I consider this  one of the best biryanis we have had.
Must try dishes: Veg biryani, Kulfi, Mango Lassi

4. Punjab Grill by Jiggs Kalra: Situated in the swanky Marina Bay Sands, Punjab Grill by noted chef/restaurateur Jiggs Kalra is one of my favourite restaurants in Singapore, period . While there are lots of Indian food serving restaurants here, very few are what I would call ‘date night worthy’ places. The food here is impeccable – we have eaten here on multiple occasions ranging from their amazing value for money lunch buffet, ala carte to the set menus for special days like Valentine’s – and have always come back with happy stomachs. The service is great with the staff in general very courteous, checking in on the diners yet giving enough space for a private meal. I would rate this over some of the similarly priced high end Indian restaurants such as Shahi Maharani and Yantra.
Must try: All items on the menu. Go for the buffest/set course to get a taste of everything.

5. Mustard: I love this place, I do. Except for that one tiny problem – you never get a table. Located along Race Course Road, Mustard is a Punjabi + Bengali cuisine restaurant which scores points just for offering unique items. Say goodbye to just Paneer dishes and greasy parathas (although I love them both) and instead order some authentic dishes. Book in advance to avoid disappointment. This is a budget friendly place to throw a treat or go for a romantic dinner.
Must try: Makki ki roti and Sarson ka saag, authentic Bengali dishes

6. Zaffron Kitchen: Our time spent on the East Coast was made pleasant thanks to this lovely restaurant. Conveniently located opposite I12 Katong Mall amidst a plethora of joints, Zaffron Kitchen offers typical north Indian food with a consistently good taste and service level. My favourite part about the place though is its charming decor. The industrial design, glass panes and yellow lights make the place stand out from the crowd.
Must try: Chef Sampler Chaats, Tandoor dishes, Palak Paneer, Halwas

7. 5th Season: Aah, I could write a love letter to Indian-Chinese food. You know the kind that is served up across street stalls in India. Yum! It is tough to explain what Indianized Chinese food is so we are glad 5th Season solved our dilemma by having a restaurant purely for this cuisine and aptly naming it Tangra Chinese. The food is top notch albeit a bit pricey for the quantity but cravings are never cheap now, are they?
Must try: Veg Manchurian, Hakka Chowmein, Chow Chow Rice, American Chopsuey

8. Nalan: Tucked away in a corner near the busy Bugis area, Nalan is a vegetarian restaurant that offers a perfect blend of north and south India food. It offers the best value for money and the food is consistently good. I have lost count of the number of times we have ended up eating food at Nalan because while the food is tasty, it also feels quite homely i.e. not as rich in oil and spices.
Must try: Samosa Chaat, South Indian dishes and Thaalis

9. Sri Lakshmi Narasimhan: A relatively new favourite of mine which is shocking considering this restaurant is located just next to MTR. Again a pure vegetarian restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine, the food here reminds me more of Andhra cuisine than any of the other south Indian restaurants like Ananda Bhavan or Komala Vilas. The look and feel of the place is a bit chaotic reminding you of the dhabas in India but the food is top notch.
Must try: Andhra style thali, Masala Dosa, Filter Coffee

10. Khansaama Tandoori Restaurant: A perennial favourite, Khansaama has made a name for itself thanks to the wonderful quality of their paranthas. The curries are of course good too but the wide range of breads is unique. They deliver to home as well and have been our favourite party catering choice for some time.
Must try: Samosas, Paneer Bhurji, Onion/Aloo/Paneer Parantha, Gulab Jamun. Naans

As you can imagine, it has been a challenge for us to keep our weight down thanks to all these wonderful eateries. But, you know what they say – ‘A happy stomach is a happy soul’ (not sure who said it but I live by it)

How many of these places have you tried? Would love to hear what you thought of them. Psst…do leave your suggestions below as we are always open to taking our tummies on adventures.

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Travelling the world as a vegetarian couple

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There are very few places where Sid and I do not stick out like sore thumbs when ordering food. Being from India, we were always aware how blessed we were with the wide variety of options available for vegetarians back home. Yet, it came to us as a shock that in many other parts of the world finding local vegetarian food was like searching for a needle in a haystack. We are now accustomed to being greeted with a sympathetic nod and smile the moment we reveal we are vegetarians. To make things even more exciting, I do not eat mushrooms and Sid will avoid eggs unless we are dying of starvation. So, yeah. There you go. Not a big deal. Did I mention we live in Singapore and travel a lot in SE Asia? I see tons of sympathetic nods coming our way!

Here are some things we have learnt during our travels that might serve you in good stead if you are sailing in similar boats:

1. Just because an item on the menu says ‘vegetarian’, it doesn’t mean it is. Unless there is a symbol beside it that explicitly states it is. Even then, it doesn’t hurt to double check. We have been served fish oil in noodles, shrimp paste in curries many times. Those dishes went back as did we, with less than full stomachs. In many parts of East and SE Asia, seafood and its derivatives are considered vegetarian. So, take your time to understand the menu and trust your gut when something does’t smell right to you.(vegetarians know what I am talking about :P)

2. Picture menus help: A lot of times, the names of certain local dishes might be alien to you. What goes into the dishes, even further so. Lots of restaurants carry picture menus to help you understand what a dish looks like. Ask for one to make a better choice.

3. Compromise a little: When I first started travelling, I wanted to taste local cuisine and eat where locals ate . Unfortunately, my naivety was given a well deserved jolt. While you will find restaurants serving vegetarian food, they will be few and far between and might not always carry local dishes. When you are travelling, you sometimes do not have the luxury of commuting to specific restaurants just to eat local food when there are other things to do. So, learn to make peace with having to fall back on Mexican, Indian, Italian cuisines ever so often. We have learnt to strike a balance. On days when lady luck is smiling on us, we discover two or three good restaurants that serve vegetarian food (none of that mock meat nonsense for us) and stick to them for at least one meal a day. The other meal we go back to our comfort zone. I would take a full stomach over a half happy one any day.

4. Fruits are your best friend, Breakfast is your most important meal: I like a good breakfast but now I have learnt the value of a good breakfast buffet. There have been times when we haven’t found vegetarian food while out and about and relied on our breakfast to get us through till dinner. We also buy and keep fruits, yoghurt, chocolates, snack bars handy in our bag just in case we don’t find food. I know this sounds like we are preparing for some sort of Armageddon but it doesn’t hurt to be well prepared. Plus, I get quite cranky when I am hungry. If you are like me then stuff your bag, just in case.

5. Learn how to say ‘no meat, no fish’ in the local language: Not everyone speaks and understand English. So, communicating your food preferences in the local language is a powerful weapon in any traveller’s arsenal. You can just note down the key words on your phone or a piece of paper and show it to the person taking your order so that there are no gaps in what you are saying and what is being understood at the other end.

6. Research and plan: Now, there are some people who don’t care much about food when travelling. We on the other hand love food, even more so when we are on vacation. Given our restrictive food options, we plan our itinerary for each day in such a way that we are near a specific restaurant that serves vegetarian food around lunch/dinner time. In most places, there are pockets of restaurants around the attractions – so we mark the restaurants on our map before we set off for the day. While this might seem ludicrous to the ‘free-spirited, let us just discover things’ kind of travellers, as vegetarians we sometimes cannot afford to do it – especially if you like  your food as much as we do!

These are by no means out-of-the-planet tips but, we have realized that following them has made our travels more enjoyable, fun and fuss-free. I hope this helps out other vegetarian travellers out there who might occasionally feel short changed when it comes to food. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of extra planning and effort but the end results more than make up for it. We have tasted some of the best vegetarian food on our travels thanks to reviews, recommendations and some smart thinking ! You will find specific details about where we dined in our individual posts on the blog. All this food talk is making me hungry :), so I will end the post here.

Happy travels!

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Year end festivities in Hong Kong – Four day itinerary

There are some things that just don’t feel right when put together. Christmas and 30 degree weather is one such pairing. This was my first “winter” in Singapore and although I am well aware of the city’s one season policy, my heart yearned for some cold weather. After all, Christmas and New Year feel extra special when you can cuddle in your bed with some hot chocolate and wear warm clothing[The freezing air conditioning in Singapore’s malls does not count as winter although they do give my long forgotten jackets a good outing]. So, with just a week before the holidays, Sid and I decided to go somewhere cold. Hong Kong ticked all our boxes and we were lucky to nab tickets and hotel booking at reasonable rates considering how exorbitantly overpriced travel can be at this time of the year. So, armed with our winter wear, off we went to Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China [Thank you, Wikipedia]

We were greeted by a chill in the air as we made our way to our hotel. The narrow streets through which our cab driver manoeuvred us was the perfect introduction to Hong Kong – busy, bustling, crowded and energetic. On our previous visit to the island, we did not do much so this time around I came equipped with a list of things to see and do. If you are planning a visit to Hong Kong, make sure you set some time away for shopping. Guys, don’t break a sweat. While your mothers, sisters, wives or girlfriends indulge in some retail therapy, you can drown your sorrows in one of the several electronics markets in the city with each shop outdoing the other when it comes to deals.

Tip: Travelling within Hong Kong is very convenient thanks to the extensive metro network called the MTR. Double- Decker buses (a constant reminder of the British legacy) are also a good way to get around if you have more time at your hands and want to take in views of the city. I would highly recommend purchasing an Octopus travel pass which lets you travel in both trains and buses and can be topped up conveniently across stations. While cabs are not that expensive, communicating with the drivers can sometimes be an issue. Make sure you carry your hotel’s address card with you at all times.

Here are some of my top things to see and do when in Hong Kong

1. Ngong Ping 360 and Tian Tan Buddha: Situated on the re-developed Lantau Island, the Ngong Ping 360 is a cable car ride that leads up to the Ngong Ping Village, Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery. The ride offers beautiful views of the South China Sea and the landscape surrounding the area. The sighting of the big Buddha statue signals the end of the breezy ride which in my humble opinion is one of the better cable car rides I have been on.

After getting off, you can walk towards the Buddha statue. Small eateries and shops dot the area and to my heart’s delight, it is one of the few times in Hong Kong when you see vegetarian food on the streets. A beautiful white gate greets you at the entrance to the Tian Tan Buddha and as you walk towards the statue, it appears more majestic. There is a decent walk up to the statue but take your time climbing the stairs. As I tried to catch my breath, the panoramic views from the top took my breath away [see what I did just there!]. One can easily spend hours admiring the views and tranquillity that this place offers. A must visit!

Stunning view of the Buddha at Ngong Ping

Stunning view of the Tian Tan buddha

2. Disneyland: I am in my 20’s but Disneyland brings out the child in me. If I could, I would dress up in Elsa gowns and pester Sid to take me on all the rides. Jokes aside, having been to the Disney resorts in Tokyo, the HK establishment felt much smaller. But, it is hard to not brim with excitement and feel happy when you are in Disneyland. I can imagine that hardcore thrill seekers will be disappointed and might prefer Ocean World to this but if you want less pulse raising rides and want to feel like a child again, do include this in your itinerary. And guess what, I finally managed to get a picture taken with Buzz Lightyear!

Scene from the Disneyland Parade

Scene from the Disneyland Parade

The iconic Mickey greets you at the entrance to Disneyland - HK

The iconic Mickey greets you at the entrance to Disneyland – HK

3. Mong Kok and Causeway Bay: Also known as Shopping Heaven. If you want to skip the fancy malls and big brands then head over to these two places where you will get everything from designer bag knockoffs to phone accesssories that you never thought you needed. You can also find lots of cosmetic stores such as Sasa, Innisfree, Bonjor, Etude House here and I ended up buying tons of stuff – partly due to the price (Singapore is expensive!) and partly due to the amazing packaging. I would recommend checking these places out in the evening because there is a whole new vibe and energy to the street markets once the lights come on.

Shopping madness at Causeway Bay

Shopping madness at Causeway Bay

4. Wan Chai computer city and Sham Shui Po: We had made up our mind to buy quite a few electronic things on our trip. Since Sid had lived in Hong Kong before he knew the places and shops to visit as well as the bargaining tactics to use. The shop salesmen are quite knowledgeable and speak English so do not hesitate to ask questions. While prices are reasonable to begin with you can always ask for additional discount. Do not buy at the first shop you enter , instead explore the floors to get an idea of what the prices and options are before making the final purchase.

6. Nan Lian Gardens: If you want a breather from the urban razzmatazz of HK, head on over to Chi Lin Nunnery that includes the beautiful Nan Lian Gardens. You will be greeted by Chinese style landscaped gardens, lotus ponds, temples of worship and clean fresh air! There is also a wonderful vegetarian eatery on the premises if you want to try out some Buddhist style fare.

7. Hong Kong night skyline and A symphony of lights: Hong Kong’s skyline is legendary. The skyscrapers, billboards, neon lights all come together to form an eclectic sight in the night that has resulted in this becoming an attraction in itself. What makes the viewing that much more special is that it is accompanied by a light and sound show that can be viewed from Victoria Harbour and other parts of the city wherein several iconic buildings of the city get jazzed up. More details here: http://www.discoverhongkong.com/in/see-do/highlight-attractions/harbour-view/a-symphony-of-lights.jsp

Hong Kong Skyline - bloody brilliant!

Hong Kong Skyline – bloody brilliant!

Hong Kong is a true metropolis. Business centres, snazzy malls and an energetic vibe. But, its hidden treasures lie in the narrow lanes where shops hustle and bustle with activity, the eclectic street food, the juxtaposition of the old and new cultures and the beautiful islands away from the city centre.

Joi-Gin Hong Kong. You were a great winter host!

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Getting my ‘fit’ back

As someone who enjoys the idea of exercise and being fit, in principle at least, it shocks me that my absolute lack of motivation when it comes to doing active things has carried on for as long as it has. Let me also state that I am not obese (at-least not now as I type away on my laptop with a packet of Kettle potato chips in one hand) but I am not fit either. To put numbers to this observation, I cannot run for more than 5 mins without gasping for breath and calling out for help for resuscitation – that last part is an exaggeration. I hate the idea of sweating. Why couldn’t us humans be more like elephants – just needing a roll in the mud or a swim in the water to cool off! Plus, I run funny.

I feel you Phoebe!

I feel you Phoebe!

So, when I go on a run with my husband, he does the running for both of us. I try and run whenever I feel like taking a break from slow walking and people gazing. I realized that this was not going to work out for me and decided to try something else. Yoga was the obvious choice. By virtue of being an Indian, I thought I would naturally be good at yoga. No prizes for guessing I sucked at it. My yoga teacher had to contain a smile whenever I tried standing still on one foot. I had to contain my smile whenever those funny breathing exercises came up. But, overall Yoga was good. It is one of those things that will not give you instant results but if you persist with it your overall health can improve. Given my propensity or lack of it for patience, I concluded that while Yoga will always be something I can go back to or do intermittently at home, I needed something more fun. My prayers were answered when I discovered Zumba.

Now, for people who enjoy dancing, Zumba is tons of fun. It gives you an overall workout but you feel like you are in a dance rehearsal learning new steps with cool music in the background. I loved it and even if you cannot find a class you can always search on youtube and dance along in your living room. The only downside – it doesn’t necessarily target any specific body area or problem. I really thought that I had found the solution to my fitness woes with Zumba but I was wrong. Travelling to and from my class (is a bit of a pain in the Singaporean heat) along with scheduling issues resulted in a painful breakup with Zumba. I thought I would heed my own advice and train using online videos but that is yet to translate into meaningful action.

As you can see I make way too many excuses. Unfortunately, none of that has prevented me from hoarding work out clothes in department stores and buying stuff that I probably don’t need to. Every time I make such a purchase I have a rational argument with myself – “You need to look good when you exercise”. But on the upside, I burn some carbs walking in and out of the changing rooms!

All this mockery came to a much needed halt a few weeks back when I visited the doctor for a check-up and came to the realization that I needed to be more healthy. Nothing serious but there are so many factors such as genes, hereditary tendencies and lifestyle choices that can have an adverse affect on your health in the long run. I have started off doing some simple things which I am listing below:

1. Tracking my food habits using MyFitnessPal app. Trust me, once you get used to logging in your daily food intake, it will open up a whole new world of data for you to understand what you are putting into your body. This app is great because it has a huge repository of food which is a massive USP because it is hard to find Indian food in most of the other apps. I already find myself eating healthier food.

2. Taking the stairs whenever I can. Singapore is blessed with escalators and elevators at every nook and corner. So much so that, people do not mind queueing up near escalators for minutes instead of taking a flight of stairs. This activity may not be an exercise in itself but I like doing it because it makes me feel fitter.

3. Cooking at home more often. You do not realize how much better it is to eat at home until you actually stop eating out. It is inevitable to have one meal at work (lunch in most cases) and yes you can eat salads and soups but you will have those one or two off days when the team goes out for something more fancy. Coming back home and cooking dinner is not always possible but I have made a conscious attempt to get up early or prep over the weekend so that we minimize the no. of times we eat out. This has had the biggest impact on my heath in a relatively shorter span of time.

4. Playing badminton. I realized that when I am doing something competitive, I tend to push myself harder. This is exactly what I was not getting with running, zumba and yoga. Thank God for badminton because apart from being a fun sport to play (which sport isn’t? Err, Golf) I do not get bored or feel tired while doing this activity. I play every week with my husband and it is such a great couples activity to do as well.

5. Reconnecting with my old clothes. After I put on a bit of weight I realized there were some clothes that I could not wear. Not until I lost that weight. Slowly those favourite shirts moved to the back of my closet and newer ones replaced them. Every now and then I keep shuttling those clothes to the front to try and see how far I have come along in my quest to lose weight. There is no greater joy than being able to fit into an old pair of jeans. It is also one of the best motivations to keep you on track!

6. Trekking/Hiking: I hate going to the gym. If you are like me and prefer walking out in the nature over that on electronic machine then go on treks and/or hikes on weekends. You can go with your partner or with friends. It s not only a great way to exercise but also allows you to explore new places and newer views. Bonus points if you love photography.

Of course, eating healthy and regular exercise are your two best friends when losing weight but if you are unable to stick to your diet plans or are not feeling motivated to exercise daily, keep doing smaller things on a daily basis to stay on track. All of these are small steps but they are in the right direction and have slowly but surely helped me get back on the track to being fit.

I am in the early stages of my fitness goals but I will report back once I have accomplished something more concrete. After all I love my skinny jeans from 2008 way too much to watch it gather dust sitting at the back of my closet!

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The year end post – 2014

I hear you Michelle :)

I hear you Michelle 🙂

Wait, what? Year end post? Is it just me or did time just fly this year? For all practical purposes 2014 was supposed to be my year, at least in my head. Done with MBA (and studies, I swear), done with long distance, done with uncertainty. But guess what, life never pans out the way you expect it to. Life has a twisted sense of humor about it. So, here I am sitting in my house, typing away on my laptop, not knowing what 2015 has in store but still thankful for all the good things to have happened to me over the past twelve months. One of the biggest lessons I have learnt this year is to learn to be happy in one’s own space. It is easy to compare and contrast your life with someone else’s but Facebook check-ins and LinkedIn job updates do not tell the whole story. So, doing one’s own thing has never been more important than in today’s times. I do have moments of negativity creep in, but I’m only human. (Gosh, I need to get Christina Perri off my track list). But, enough of life lessons. Let’s move on to the more interesting part – my year end lists. If you have read my blog previously you must know how seriously I take these year end posts, I have been writing them for 6 years now which makes it a nice little tradition and I am a sucker for traditions [Find the previous posts here: 20132012 2011 2010 2009]. So without further delay, here it goes

Favorite music

While I love that ballads from John Legend and Sam Smith were lapped up by everyone, the success of songs like Anaconda by Nicki Minaj shakes my faith in the music universe. But, that is what is great about music – there is something for everyone. Here’s a roundup of music I loved this year:

1. All of Me – John Legend

2. Stay With Me and I’m Not The Only One by Sam Smith – Safe to say I am mildly obsessed with his voice. Plus, he sounds even better live. Now, how many current artists can we say that about? Listen to his magical duet with Mary J Blige:

3. Animals and Maps – Maroon 5 (My favorite band right now)

4. Sing, Thinking out Loud and Don’t – Ed Sheeran (His voice is incredible and undeniably unique)

5. Flawless, Partition, Drunk in Love, Pretty Hurts and Blow by Beyonce. I just love Beyonce. Period.

6. Chandelier – Sia

7. Uptown Funk – Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars (Watch the video and I betcha you will start dancing) Probably my favorite song of the year as well!

8. Guts over Fear – Eminem ft. Sia (Two of my favorite songwriters in the same song! Plus Eminem is the only rap artist whose songs I listen to religiously)

9. Blank Space – Taylor Swift

10. Rude – Magic (Reggae in the house! Sid loves this song too, so it had to feature on my list)

11. Budapest – George Ezra ( In my humble opinion, this guy could be really great in the future)

12. Hideaway – Kiesza

13. Dark Horse – Katy Perry ft. Juicy J

14. Who you love – John Mayer ft. Katy Perry (I am a sucker for a good love song)

15. Black Widow – Iggy Azaela ft. Rita Ora (Not a big fan of either of the singers but the Kill Bill inspired music video and the song itself are pretty catchy)

16. Love Runs Out – One Republic (I love the band and Ryan Tedder in particular)

Top movies of 2014

Gone Girl – I haven’t read the book so my interest around seeing the movie was based solely on the trailer, which I loved. I saw the movie with Sid on the first day and we were both blown away by it. David Fincher is the master of suspense but he captures the psychological complexities of his characters in this movie quite brilliantly as well. If Rosamund Pike does not clinch an Oscar nod for this role I would be very surprised.

Interstellar: I have to admit that I am an unabashed Christopher Nolan fan. He combines mainstream commercial elements with decently intelligent scripts and delivers entertaining movies one after the other. Interstellar was more science documentary than blockbuster viewing and the last act of the movie was all over the place, but I still tip my hat off to the Nolan brothers for bringing worm holes back in vogue! Physics was always my favorite science so I may be biased here but how often do you see a movie that forces you to think, analyze and deliberate.

Edge of Tomorrow: The predictable title and unimaginative promotions did disservice to this very fine movie . My love for Tom Cruise has waned over the years but I adore Emily Blunt so my expectations from this movie were high. I did not expect it to be as good and entertaining as it eventually turned out to be. Tom Cruise in fine form is still one of the most charismatic actors on screen and he proves that with this movie. It may not be as high on adrenalin as the Avengers flicks but it compensates for that with some clever scripting and screenplay.

Nightcrawler: I read rave reviews and oscar buzz for Jake Gyllennhal online for this movie so I dragged Sid to the theater to watch it. If there was one word to describe this movie, it would perhaps be Twisted. I mean, the protagonist in this very dark, sometimes comic but very scarily real movie is like none you have seen in recent times. There were some scenes where the entire audience gasped or let out a loud sigh shocked at the proceedings on screen. This movie might not be for everyone (Sid almost fell asleep somewhere in the middle) but I loved it!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: I really enjoyed the first movie and thought Andy Serkis was phenomenal as Caesar. The second installment in the series delves more into the man vs animal debate with the entire setting shifting into a more dark, apocalyptic world. The movie is entertaining and keeps you invested thanks to some great visuals. Who else thought Koba was the star of this movie?

I wasn’t as enamored with Captain America: Rise of the Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy as some others. They were good movies just not memorable enough in my opinion. [I am loving the new and improved Chris Pratt though!]
(The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, American Sniper and Birdman release in January in Singapore so will update the list once I get around to watching them. I am gutted they don’t release before I publish this post but I am 110% confident that these movies will blow me away)

Queen: Seldom does a Hindi movie blow me away the way Queen did this year. The movie was fantastic on so many fronts – great female lead in Kangana Ranaut, lovely music, earthy real dialogues and a warm message to top it all up. I hope more such movies are made where you feel that the makers invested time and brain cells into the process.

Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya: I really like both Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt so it is no surprise that this movie features on the list. The movie is neither path breaking nor cliched in its story or execution and depends solely on its cast to elevate the film. Plus, I am a sucker for DDLJ so this movie felt like a nice, modern day tribute to Raj and Simran.

Hasee Toh Phasee: I also really like Parineeti Chopra and think she is one of the better female actors we have today. This movie won me over partly due to the novel female character and partly for its music. (I think Siddharth Malhotra is super handsome but he has a way to go when it comes to acting). To have a female protagonist who isn’t all perfectly pretty and dolled up in designer wear, is quirky and not dumb was a welcome change.

Mardaani: We all know Rani Mukherji can act but it has been a while since we saw her flex her chops the way she does in this flick. Sid and I saw this movie not knowing what to expect – we had neither seen the trailer nor read any reviews, so boy were we glad that this movie turned out to be so good. Crisp story telling on the back of a great story and fine acting from the entire cast makes Mardani one of the better movies of the last year.

I enjoyed watching 2 States, Happy New Year (I know I shouldn’t be defending my choices but I quite enjoyed this movie. Not all movies need to challenge you intellectually and if paisa vasool entertainment is done convincingly and with a certain amount of skill, it works!), Daawat-e-Ishq as well.

Drushyam: I love Venkatesh as an actor. I grew up watching his movies and think he is one of the finest actors in Telugu cinema. Of late he has had a tough time finding his space in the movies given the influx of young talent in the industry. Drushyam was such a fantastic movie not just for him but even in the larger scheme of things. Granted it is remade from a Malayalam film, but its success bodes well for Telugu cinema where hero idolization, over the top fight sequences and predictable plots have ruled the roost for way too long. My only hope is that movies such as these where characters and not heroes are the center of attention continue being made.

Karthikeya: Honestly, we watched this movie on a whim. It was a weekend, we wanted to see a Telugu movie and everyone was saying how good Karthikeya was. So we went ahead. I loved this movie. I was pleasantly surprised at the great visual quality of the movie despite not being a high budget flick. The story is different and keeps you engrossed while all of the cast, especially the lead Nikhil, perform well. Also, I though the songs and shooting them in South India gave a grounded look to the movie.

Manam: Probably my favorite Telugu movie of the year. When you are assigned the task of bringing together three generations of the Akkineni family for the first time, the expectations are high. So it is to the director Vikram Kumar’s credit that he doesn’t fall into the trap of conventions and instead tells a story that seamlessly navigates between the leads – Nagarjuna, Chaitanya and the legendary thespian Late Mr. ANR. I also liked that the focus was not just on the male leads and even the female actors were given author backed roles. The music, cinematography (especially in some of the flashback scenes) and crisp editing made this movie a fantastic experience. One of the rare times when I felt like watching a Telugu movie in the cinemas for a second time.

Oohalu Gusagusalade: I think the best work in Telugu cinema is being done by small, independent film makers. The focus is more on the content and delivery which is great because I have had it with all the regressive, repetitive crap. This movie is one such small budget movie that has a very refreshing take on a love triangle. The performances, especially from the female lead, are very good as is the cinematography. The comedy is clean and some parts of the movie reminded me of a Sekhar Kammula movie.

Movies I didn’t like in 2014

Entertainment and Humshakals: Every year I feature a movie on this list that I haven’t really seen. This year that coveted spot goes to to two movies. I had the bad luck of seeing the trailers for both these movies and that was all that I needed. I genuinely think Sajid Khan has learnt his lesson after receiving the kind of flak he has for Humshakals but I read somewhere that Entertainment actually made money. What? Excuse me while I go and puke at the sorry state of affairs in Bollywood.

Haider: I know I might be in the minority here but I did not enjoy watching Haider. I really liked the performances from the cast members – barring Shahid Kapoor, but the movie was all over the place. It had the potential to be great but faltered. Plus, I hate pretentious pseudo intellectuals praising a movie merely because it handles a different subject. Making a movie is not just about picking a tricky theme, it needs to be executed well too. On a side note, can Tabu please act more. She is such a fine actress and deserves to be seen more on the screen.

Yay! moments

1. The Mangalyaan Mission – Probably the proudest moment for India this year.

2. Getting to watch Serena Williams play live ( I will also get to you Roger, one day)

3. Deepika Padukone teaching TOI a good lesson in journalistic ethics.

4. Travelling with Sid – There is nothing better than seeing different places and exploring different cultures. Wait, let me rephrase. There is nothing better than seeing different places and exploring different cultures with your partner. As a direct result of that, I started a new travel blog : The Round Trip Ticket!

5. Watching Bruno Mars perform live at his Moonshine Jungle Tour, Singapore. I mean, this guy is beyond talented. If you get a chance to see his concert, do not think twice. You will dance, lose your voice singing out loud and appreciate Bruno and his band – The Hooligans for being true artists. Plus, there is no twerking, auto-tuning and all that nonsense.

6. The Clean India campaign: Although the idea is not novel, the approach is. Kudos to PM Modi for bringing cleanliness and sanitation back into public discussion. India needs a mass scale, ground roots campaign like this.

WTH moments

1. The chief minister of Telangana – KCR and his countless gaffes. I wish we could recycle all the crap that comes out of his mouth and put it to some good use.

2. The sorry state of law in India. Every time you think maybe things are getting better, a news story hits you and makes you sick to your stomach. Women are of course suffering the most but like the Haryana case proved, so are men. As are the poor and underprivileged. And the middle class. Everyone. We need better functioning of law and order.

3. This video of Arnab Goswami and Subramaniam Swamy. Absolute facepalm! News channels in India are going to the dogs.

So, you read what I thought of this year. Did I miss out on any awesomeness? (Apart from the TVF’s Permanent Roommates which I will see shortly). Before I digress, here’s wishing all of you a very happy New Year. May 2015 be filled with adventure, love and laughter for all of you. And here’s hoping we all become better people too. Cheers!

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Being a Beach Bum in Langkawi

I was whisked away to the beautiful island of Langkawi on my birthday weekend as a surprise by my better half, Sid. It was quite a refreshing change to pack my bags in a couple of hours as opposed to checking off things from my list. The idea was to get away from Singapore’s heat and experience Malay sun for a change. Just kidding. Those of you who are familiar with this part of the world will know that seasons and weather changes are a concept we have given up on. But, a change of scenery and some time away from the hustle and bustle of the city seemed enticing enough for us. After being on some hectic trips this past year we thought it would be nice to do nothing for once on a vacation. And beaches are just the perfect destination for some nothingness 🙂

We stayed at Vivanta by Taj – Rebak Island for two reasons – 1) It was one of the few good hotels that was still available and 2) The hotel has a private island. Having been to quite a few beach destinations we realized the logistic difficulties in going to a public beach can sometimes spoil the experience. Where do you keep your belongings? One of us has to stay near the beach chair to guard the phones and other stuff. What if you want to do something else after the beach – where do you freshen up and change? So, we decided to trade in staying in the city to bumming on a private island. It is much more relaxed, peaceful and clean. There are some other highly rated hotels  in Langkawi that offer private beach access as well, on the mainland itself, so I would recommend booking one of those if they are available.

We were picked up by the hotel staff at the airport and driven to the jetty from where we boarded a speed boat to Rebak Island. As is the case with most Taj hotels, the staff are attentive and friendly. Our entire check-in process was hassle free and I was sweetly surprised when I was greeted by a chocolate cake and flower decorations on entering our sea-facing villa. The hotel is a bit run-down and in need of a few touch ups but neither Sid nor I are too picky when it comes to rooms. We appreciate a fantastic hotel but are not too bothered as long as we have a good view and all the basic amenities (which includes free Wi-Fi of course). The entire island is dotted with villa styled rooms and the beach is just a short walk away, so you can keep shuttling in between the two in case you have forgotten your sunscreen (which happened quite a few times with us) or just want to change out from your wet swimming gear and take a nap on the beach chair.

View of the private beach at Rebak Island

View of the private beach at Rebak Island

The lovely welcome provided by Taj on my birthday :)

The lovely welcome provided by Taj on my birthday 🙂

We spent most of our time playing in the pool, lazing by the beach, eating and drinking, reading books. Sounds like a dream doesn’t it? I am a bit of a restless soul though and not doing anything was getting to me. So, we decided to do some touristy stuff by visiting the cable car ride and Cenang beach on the mainland. The cable car ride in itself was pretty standard but the views from atop are spectacular and just the fresh cool air that greets you when you step off the car is worth the money. There will be long queues especially in the morning so plan your time wisely by visiting the Seven Wells waterfall nearby (beware: you need to climb more than 600 steps to get to the waterfall) or spending some time in the Oriental Village at the entrance to the ride.

Bird's eye view of Langkawi from atop the cable car ride

Bird’s eye view of Langkawi from atop the cable car ride

Cenang beach is one of the most popular locations in Langkawi. From adventure sports to eating joints, the stretch has it all. We spent some time on the beach watching time pass by and gorged on some vegetarian Roti Canai which was yum. If you are in the mood for some shopping then do visit the night market which is held across different locations in the city daily.

Langkawi is idyllic with its beaches, mangrove forests, wildlife, tropical thunderstorms and bright sunshine. I do not consider myself a beach bum but Langkawi’s white sand beaches are so relaxing that I turned into one albeit for a couple of days. If  you are looking for a chilled out getaway to unwind then put Langkawi on your map. It is a beach paradise!

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Skincare routine and favorite products

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below are completely my own. I realize that different people have different skin types and there is perhaps no one magic product that suits all. It is always better to try out samples of products and do a test before applying them on your skin, even more so if you have sensitive skin, acne or other problems. Also, this post is not about make up products but is focused on skin care, which really is the foundation for everything else.

I know it feels odd to have a piece on skin care on my blog. This blog has for the longest time been witness to my random rants, personal opinions on movies and sports to mundane life observations and even arbitrary madness(I once wrote an entire article about a lizard in my room). But, change is the name of the game. That is not to say that I am going to become a beauty blogger. I am not qualified enough to do that but over the last couple of years and specifically last few months, I have turned to the internet and some blogs in particular to figure out what the ideal skin care routine should be like along with product recommendations. The sheer amount of information available on the net can be overwhelming. Contrasting reviews and unknown brands can make you feel a bit lost but I spent a fair amount of time decoding data and tried to find products that I thought would be good for my skin.

Some people are blessed with great skin and clear complexion. I do not have bad skin but it wasn’t great either. I always had a very basic approach to my skin care – face wash, moisturizer, sunscreen and compact powder. That was all I needed. I thought I was doing an amazing job to be honest. Looking back I realize my skin went through quite a bit of torture. From not paying much attention to the ingredients in a product to prioritizing clothes and other spending to skin care, I have made my share of mistakes. That is all in the past though. In fact skin can be sometimes forgiving despite use of mediocre products when you are younger. I turned a corner when I became 25. I read an article in a magazine that spoke about how people in their 20’s neglect their skin only to realize later that some damage is irreversible. That, along with access to more products (both online and retail chains) definitely brought about a shift in my attitude. So, if you are interested in knowing more, read on.

The steps in skin care

I have shamelessly picked this up from skin care guru Caroline Hirons and it has now become a standard part of my routine. I do not follow all the steps in the routine (such as eye cream at night and serums in the morning) but I guess as I grow older they will become a part of my routine.

Morning: Cleanse – Tone – Eye Cream – Serum/Other Treatment – Moisturizer – SPF/Sunscreen

Evening: Cleanse – Tone – Eye Cream – Serum/Other Treatment

In the mornings, if I am staying home I stop at the SPF stage. If I am going out I follow it up with a primer and BB cream. The compact powder stays in my purse for touch ups because I have oily skin and Singapore is a humid place but after using a BB cream I do not feel the need for using powder on top immediately. I use a liquid/powder concealer only when I am going out for special occasions and want no blemishes whatsoever on my skin. While it might feel like a lot of products on your skin, bottom line is as long as you are using good quality products and remove them properly before going to bed, your skin should be fine. In fact, cleansing – toning – moisturizing are the three basic steps advised by almost all beauty experts. Because I have oily skin, earlier I would sometimes skip using a moisturizer out of the fear that it would create an oil spill on my face but now I use a mild moisturizer daily and feel that the oil production on my face has reduced. In fact, if I do not use a moisturizer my skin produces more oil to compensate for the lack of hydration!

My favorite products

Cleansing: I used a foam based face wash for the longest time. In fact, when I was a teenager I thought more the foam, the cleaner my face would get. That myth has now been laid to rest. I stay as far away from foam based products as I can. I use a mild facial cleanser in the morning (can be milk based) and a cleansing balm in the evening (because it helps to remove all the make up and products off as well).
Products I love: The Body Shop Tea Tree Skin Clearing Face Wash (do not confuse it with the Tea Tree Foaming Cleanser), Clinique Take The Day Off Cleansing Balm and Ren Evercalm Gentle Cleansing Milk

Cleanse Away :)

Cleanse Away 🙂

Toning: I frankly never used a toner till about a few months back. Now that it part of my routine I can already feel the difference in my skin as these products give your skin an even tone. I use two toners – one as part of my daily skin care routine and one that acts as an exfoliant that I use once a week to remove dead cells.
Products I love: The Body Shop Tea Tree Skin Clearing Toner (for regular use), Alpha-H Liquid Gold with Glycolic Acid (once a week, overnight. Whenever I use this product I do not apply anything else over it for better results as suggested by the brand itself)

Toners! Alpha H is one of my all time fav products!

Toners! Alpha H is one of my all time fav products!

Eye Cream: This is one category that I have not completely figured out yet because I am not looking at anti-ageing products yet. I use an eye cream only for brightening purpose or if there is some puffiness around my eyes.
Products I love: Body Shop Moisture White Shiso 2 in 1 brightening cream

Serum: I do not use a serum in the morning and skip this step to go straight into my moisturizer. But in the evenings I use a serum as an overnight night cream. I have to confess though that I am a bit irregular with this step but whenever I use a serum my skin feels soft, hydrated and supple the next morning.
Products I love: Olay Regenerist Regenerating Serum – Fragrance Free, Estee Laudeer Advanced Night Repair Serum ( I used this product for a few weeks when I bought a sample and really liked it. It is very expensive though and I might not buy it again. Still on the lookout for other serums.)

My go-to night cream

My go-to night cream

Moisturizer: There are tons of good moisturizers in the market. There are also tons of not so good ones. Choose a moisturizer based on your needs and the weather’s effects on your skin. All I looked for while buying my moisturizer was that it should preferably be fragrance free (I am not big on products with a strong scent) and not make my face too oily. I finally found two good products that I use regularly and keep switching between
Products I love: Neutrogena Oil Free Moisturizer For Combination Skin, Olay Total Effects Moisturizer

Favorite Moisturizer and Eye Cream

Favorite Moisturizer and Eye Cream

Other must haves in skin care routine

Scrubs: Most scrubs I have tried in the past have been effective. They remove dead skin, clean your pores and leave your skin feeling brand new. Thus, I have not experimented with too many products in this category. In fact, ever since I started following the above mentioned routine the need to scrub my face has gone down drastically. I use a scrub once every 2-3 weeks unless of course I feel like I am facing a sudden skin crisis.
Products I love: Everyouth Walnut Scrub, Body Shop Tea Tree Facial Scrub

My favorite face scrubs

My favorite face scrubs

Face Masks: In a complete contrast to scrubs, I had very little luck with face masks in the past. I found most of them to be ineffective. After a bit of research I found a few really good face masks that have now become my most favorite part of skin care because they produce instant results. Top of my list is products from GlamGlow. I use Glamglow YouthMud Exfoliate once every week or ten days, especially on Fridays, and it gives my skin a wonderful glow that lasts me a couple of days. For a more cleansing type of face mask I use Origins Active Charcoal Clear Mask that helps draw out all the dirt from your face. I also like masks from Neutrogena that are effective and great value for money.

GlamGlow YouthMud - Facial in a Jar

GlamGlow YouthMud – Facial in a Jar

Phew, that was quite a long list. But not long enough. There are quite a few products that are on my radar and once I get around to trying them I will update my list. While some of these products are pricey I do not mind spending a little extra considering I no longer need to get facials which in itself saves me quite a bit of money. Plus, most of these products last a long time and though it might seem a lot to pay in one shot, the benefits are enormous. My skin feels healthy and better. I would love to hear about your favorite products and skin care routines, so do leave a comment below 🙂

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Penang – Diverse and Vibrant

The first thing that hits you about Penang is its diversity – in food, language and culture. It is a modern city with things that you should find in a modern city – malls, tons of cars, tall office buildings and wide roads. Yet, there is a laid back vibe to the city which reminded me of my hometown Hyderabad. Considered a food heaven, especially if you are a non-vegetarian, Penang feels like many cities in one. If you walk into Little India you will get a strong sense of being in a crowded market street of Chennai, take a stroll around Georgetown and you will wonder if you are in another decade and if you visit Batu Ferringhi you might accidentally think you landed on one of Thailand’s beach towns. In that sense, Penang is a place where you can spend a relaxing few days exploring the myriad of cultures it has on display but if you want some hustle-bustle or tons of attractions then it might not live up to your expectations.

We visited Penang over a weekend and explored the Georgetown area primarily. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Georgetown is a charming old part of the city with beautiful temples, boutique stores and museums. A short walk away from Georgetown is Cannon Street which consists of world famous wall art and murals. Our hotel was a short walk away from Georgetown center so we kept going back and forth through the city, exploring Penang on foot which is really the best way to see any city. Read on to know more about the must things to do and see in Penang

The Camera Museum: We read great reviews about this place online so decided to check it out. Although not a big museum, this place offers a nice insight into the history of cameras, their evolution, the basic principles behind the art of photography and the opportunity to work some really cool cameras. If you are someone who likes photography, this place is a must visit. Even otherwise, this place serves as a pleasant break from visiting the outdoor locations in Penang under the tropical sun. Do get some pictures clicked after your tour, the people working at the museum add cool effects to your photos and you can carry them back as a souvenir.

Khoo Kongsi Temple: This magnificent temple located near Cannon Street serves as a wonderful reminder of the Chinese history in Penang. Apart from the gorgeous architecture and vibrant artistry on display, this temple also houses a museum underneath which gives a detailed history about the various clans in Penang. While it is beautiful to see in the morning, when the lights come on it looks even more stunning.

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Penang Hill: After a day of touring, we decided to head towards Penang Hill around sunset. We weren’t quite sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised when our train arrived. The ride to the top of the hill is short but fun since the train moves up at an inclined angle and at a fast speed. The views from the hill are pretty good. There is a small bar/restaurant at the top as well if you want to grab a bite whilst enjoying the views but we did not see a lot of people doing that. I would highly recommend going around or after sunset because the air is much cooler and the views better.

Penang at night from atop the Penang Hill

Penang at night from atop the Penang Hill

Dharamikarma Burmese Temple: Through our travels around SE Asia, we have come across a lot of beautiful Buddhist temples but the Dharamikarma temple is one of the most unique, serene and beautiful temples of the lot. Built in Burmese style, the temple has stunning Buddha statues, walls covered with stories and quiet prayer rooms. We spent more time in this temple than anywhere else in Penang because it was so peaceful. The monks inside are friendly and if you are lucky you can even converse with them. This place is a must visit.

Beautiful Buddha statues inside the Dharmikarama temple

Beautiful Buddha statues inside the Dharmikarama temple

Fort Cornwallis: Honestly, there was not much to see or do at this place. We walked quite a bit to reach the fort expecting something more concrete but were disappointed. If you are short on time, you can certainly give this place a miss.

Wat Chayamangkalaram Temple: This temple was not originally on our list but just as we were about to leave for the airport our driver suggested we give this place a visit. I am so glad we listened to his advice because the Wat Chayamangkalaram is a stunning temple dedicated to Lord Buddha. The star attraction of course is the massive statue of reclining Buddha that reminded us of the Wat Pho temple in Bangkok. The interiors are stunning and there is an aura of peace and calm around the place. You can also light a candle and make a wish inside the temple.

Statue of the Reclining Buddha in Penang

Statue of the Reclining Buddha in Penang

The only thing we missed out on was visiting the Kek Lok Si temple because of our time restrictions but everyone we spoke to recommended it highly so do include it in your list of things to do in Penang. Food options are aplenty with various cuisines to choose from, so even though we are vegetarian we ended up eating hearty meals during our short stay. If you want to get away from the maddening rush of cities and explore a different culture, then Penang is a good destination to head to. Plus, where else can you find such quirky street art?

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Exploring Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

If I were a poet, I would write an ode to sunrise at Angkor Wat. It is as beautiful as everyone tells you. The rising orange sun casting a shadow over the huge expanse of the Angkor Wat temple makes for a sight to behold. Visiting this magnificent temple was on my husband’s to-do list for many years so we jumped at the opportunity to travel to Siem Reap over a weekend  (Aah, the advantages of living in Singapore). I wish we had more time though considering the sheer number and sizes of temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park. You can check out more details about the temples, cost of tickets and operating hours at Tourism Cambodia . Here is what the layout of the park looks like

Map of the Angkor Archaeological Park [Courtest: TourismCambodia.com]

Map of the Angkor Archaeological Park
[Courtest: TourismCambodia.com]

We booked a guided tour from Angkor Wat Services – Private Day Tours and were given the flexibility to choose the temples we wanted to cover. The tour included an A/C car to travel from one spot to another, an English speaking guide, endless supply of cold bottled water (Siem Reap is hotttt) and fresh wet towels. I would certainly recommend taking a guided tour if you are not familiar with Hindu mythology because the guides know the important parts of the temple to take you to and will explain the history and purpose of each construction. Since we knew the stories quite well we felt that a guided tour was perhaps not necessary but we appreciated the extra information nonetheless. Here is how our guided trip went

Sunrise at Angkor Wat and exploring the temple: If you want to catch Angkor Wat in all its glory, visiting it during sunrise is the best time. You will still be greeted by crowds of tourists falling over themselves to get the perfect shot, but instead stand back and take in the views. Your eyes are the best camera! There is something very peaceful about this temple and it is easy to get lost in the intricate architecture on the walls and pillars. You can spend hours exploring the temple because it is quite huge so we were glad that our guide made sure we did not miss out on any important part of the temple – right from the stories of Ramayana etched on the walls to the views of the gardens. Angkor Wat is not just a temple, it is an experience.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Thom: Angkor Thom in itself isn’t a temple. It is rather a complex consisting of several temples that served as the seat of the Khmer empire in 12th century. It is hard to miss the bridge covered with statues along its length and the towering gate that greet you into the area. This kind of construct can be seen across Cambodia’s temples and there is an interesting reason behind it as well. It is basically an interpretation of the Samudra Manthan story in Hindu mythology which is deeply rooted in Cambodia’s culture. As you make your way inside, you will see number of temples of which the most popular ones are Bayon and Baphuon.

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Me all smiley and cheery at the bridge leading to Angkor Thom

Bayon: “How many faces do you see?”, asked our guide enthusiastically. This was the question that stumped us as we entered the Bayon temple. Although not as huge as the Angkor Wat, Bayon has its own unique charms – the most prominent of those being the smiling, calm stone faces that dot the temple. There are also two ornate walls at the entrance of the temple that tell stories from a bygone era and contain some of the most intricate work we saw on our trip. It is just a stunning temple overall.

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The beautiful serene Buddha faces at Bayon

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Intricate stone carvings on the outside wall of Bayon

Baphuon: Located right opposite the Bayon, Baphuon is a tiered temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The structure itself is quite barren now and appears more like a ruin considering it has not been as well preserved or restored as some of the other temples in Siem Reap. Despite that, walking along the corridors of the temple gives you a glimpse of how glorious it must have been in its heyday.  As we made our way out, our guide asked us to look at the temple from outside and see if we noticed something. After a lot of eye wincing and head tilting we saw the outline of a reclining Buddha on one of the outer walls. History and architecture can be fun too! A note of caution, there are lots of red ants near the temples so make sure you wear covered shoes and/or are careful when walking.

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The tiered terraces at Baphuon

Ta Prohm: Also known as the Tomb Raider temple, Ta Prohm was my favorite temple in Siem Reap. Popular among tourists for not just the movie but for its massive tree roots, this temple is unlike any you will ever see. As you walk inside you will be mesmerized to see how old stone pillars intertwine with tree roots to make the most amazing shapes. Thanks to the trees, the temple has managed to stay in a good condition. There will be tons of photo opportunities inside the temple so be your playful best because this temple has that vibe about it. Now, how many temples can you say that about?

Trees and temples living harmoniously at Ta Prohm

Trees and temples living harmoniously at Ta Prohm

More roots

More roots

By this time we were exhausted beyond measure and decided to call it a day. If you have an extra day, do make it a point to visit Banteay Srei and Preah Khan temples which we hear are beautiful. In fact, in hindsight we realized that a minimum of 3-4 days is necessary to enjoy Siem Reap without rushing because there is a lot to see and learn.

Although Siem Reap is mostly about the the Angkor temples, here are some other things that should be on your to-do list

Try Khmer Cuisine: I always feel let down while travelling in South East Asia because the local cuisines are predominantly meat or sea food based. Being vegetarian, we end up scouting for Indian/Italian/Mexican places to fill our stomachs and trust me, after a hard day’s travel the last thing you want to be doing is running to some corner just to get food. Thankfully, Siem Reap was different. We managed to find some fantastic local vegetarian food cooked in the traditional Khmer style. I would highly recommend a small restaurant called Chamkar located near Pub Street that offers pure vegetarian food for a pocket friendly price. If you are in the mood for some Indian food, then try out Dakshin’s a specialty Indian cuisine restaurant which is a 5 min walk from Pub Street.

Spring Rolls and Salad cooked in Khmer style

Spring Rolls and Salad cooked in Khmer style

Shop at the Night Market: I love shopping at street markets because it gives you a good feel of local art, fashion and culture. And if the market is open through the night – even better! Siem Reap has a vibrant night market although it doesn’t compare to the one in Chiang Mai. You can find lot of very good paintings on the streets made by local artists. We bought two of them for 10$ and would have purchased more had we had more baggage space. You can also find lots of cotton shirts, souvenirs, jewelry and crafts in the market. Make sure you have a look around the shops before choosing one place to buy and do not hesitate to bargain.

Visit Pub Street: Probably the most popular street in Siem Reap, Pub Street consists of numerous cafes, restaurants and bars that remain open late into the night for tourists. You can find everything here from barbecues to hot pots to Irish pubs. While it might be tempting to sit in any of the restaurants here, make sure you research the place before visiting. Most of the good restaurants are just a walk away from each other and located in and around Pub Street.

Get Massages: There is a lot of walking in Siem Reap, so we were exhausted after we got back to our hotel room. A bit of internet research led us to a spa called Lemongrass Garden. They have two locations, both of them close to our hotel and Pub Street. We loved the treatments we got – the service was good, people very friendly and the rooms were clean and spacious. There is no shortage of spas and massage centers in Siem Reap but if you want a high quality treatment for affordable price, look no further than Lemongrass.

So, you heard what we had to say about the beautiful city of Siem Reap and all its beautiful temples. I think we might end up going there once again just to tick off all the other temples from our checklist. Plus, I love visiting places that have history and a story to tell. What about you?

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To Venice, with love

Venice is one of the most romantic cities in the world. Yes, it is highly commercialized and touristy but if you look in the right places you can still enjoy your time in the city of canals. When we first arrived in Venice the sight of people and crowded boats took me by surprise. It seemed as if there were two kinds of people in Venice – tourists and the people who run businesses for the tourists. It is hard to get a sense of what life in Venice must be like considering it has turned into a massive tourism hot spot. A part of us felt sad because when you go to a new place you want to get a sense of culture and life from the locals which is hard to experience in Venice. But, the city is so charming and unique that after a time you get used to the crowds and learn how to soak in the spirit of the city. So, read on to know how we spent our Venetian vacation

1. Take in views of the Grand Canal and St. Mark’s Square early in the morning: The best time to visit this crowded city square is early in the morning, preferably before 10 a.m. Jet lag resulted in us waking up early but it was a blessing in disguise since we were able to discover St.Mark’s minus the crowds and hawkers. We also managed to get into Palazzo Ducale smoothly despite not having made online reservations. [Note: Most of the palaces,churches in Venice have an online reservation system which allows you to cut through long lines. Do avail this option]. We spent some time just gazing at the water, gondolas and the beautiful structures in the square. It felt peaceful and serene because there weren’t many people. This is also the best time for photography enthusiasts to set their cameras rolling otherwise getting a picture without a person in the frame is next to impossible.

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The Adriatic Sea overlooking St.Mark’s square

2. Take a Secret Itinerary tour at Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace): Everything in Venice is grand, from the intricacy of the architecture to the rich artwork gracing the walls. But Doge’s Palace takes the cake when it comes to being the grandest of them all. Room after room filled with works from great Italian artists that give you a sense of history about Venice and its rulers. There is a grand courtyard at the center of the building which gives you a glimpse of the size and scale of this palace. Most paintings and room carry descriptions in multiple languages and we ended up spending more time than we had initially thought, lost in the time travel through Venice’s glorious but turbulent past. We were bummed that we could not get tickets for the Secret Itinerary Tour, something which was highly recommended by everyone. Tickets for this tour can only be purchased online and there are limited seats and time slots, so do keep this in mind while planning your trip.

3. See views of the square from St. Mark’s Basilica: We had fortunately booked our tickets online for the basilica (from our hotel the night before. Free Wi-Fi for the win), so thankfully there was no standing in the sun or waiting in a long queue! This Basilica consists of an ornate church on the ground floor and then leads up to a museum on the first floor. The climb up is short but the steps are steep. The highlight though is the balcony on the top floor that gives you unbeatable views of the entire square and the sea.

Bird's eye view of St.Mark's Square

Bird’s eye view of St.Mark’s Square

 

4. Visit the Rialto bridge and eat pizza at Antico Forno: Rialto bridge is in a sense the heart of Venice. It is the oldest bridge spanning across the Grand Canal and also serves as the site for umpteen souvenir shops. Always bustling with activity, in part thanks to the vaporetto station, the bridge in itself may not be much to write about but the places around it are always busy. You can find some great fresh fruit and Venice’s specialty masks in shops here.

Ornate masks are popular in Venice

Ornate masks are popular in Venice

Once you are done exploring the area, head on to a wonderful pizza shop called Antico Forno. As someone who loves pizza, I can vouch for the awesomeness of this place which serves fresh pizza in multiple flavors through the day. You can either grab a piece or stand inside the restaurant and eat but rest assured that the warm, fluffy crust of the pizza and the fresh vegetables will keep you coming back for more.

Delectable pizza at Antico Forno

Delectable pizza at Antico Forno

5. Gondola Ride through the canals of Venice: I fought the idea of taking a gondola ride on our first day because I felt it would be a disappointment. The experience is entirely dependent on the gondolier you pick or end up getting. Do not expect to be serenaded by beautiful Italian songs. It is just a boat ride at the end of the day and costs 80 euros! But it is one of those things that is so synonymous with Venice that if we didn’t do it, after having traveled for almost a day, it would be a shame, really. So we took the bait like most tourists do. Our gondolier did not speak a word the entire ride and when we tried to make small talk he would give one word answers, so we gave up. The canals are quite crowded so you do not get a romantic vibe either. I think the gondola rides in Venice are over hyped, over priced and inconsistent. So, if you get a better deal or find an interesting gondolier go for it, otherwise skipping it is not a bad idea.

6. Gorge on some of the finest Pasta at Dal Moro’s: Venice is an expensive place, period. So, when our close friend recommended we try this take out place also known as Alfredino’s, we did not think twice. Little did we know that the pasta we would have here would be one of the best we had ever tried. Freshly made pasta, yummy sauces, tomatoes and cheese to top it all off, all at a price of 7 euros! Unbeatable deal if you ask me. We loved the food and service so much that we ate there twice in two days. We would take our pasta boxes and sit beside one of the canals near the streets as gondolas would pass by. Considering how commercial most restaurants are in Venice, Dal Moro’s is a god-sent gift. We were so busy devouring our pastas that we forgot to take pictures !

There is no city in the world quite like Venice. The canals, gondolas, narrow cobbled alleys, brick houses give it a distinct feel. But, it is crowded beyond words and commercialized beyond measure. Pick the right season to avoid crowds so that you can get a better feel of the place.  We discovered romance in Venice when we walked through the streets and bridges of Venice away from the hustle and bustle of tourists. That was my favorite part of the trip. What was yours?

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