The Culture Focus: South East Asia

Over the past decade, the rapid rise of neighbouring China has hugely increased demand for an external hub of consumerism, and shopping in Hong Kong is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Most commonly found in Hong Kong is the ‘east meets west’ vibe, with the extraordinary clash between Western businesses, such as Burberry and Louis Vuitton, and the mix of old and new Eastern businesses such as Samsung and Lenovo. The forms of shopping are a mixed bag, in which atmosphere plays a large part. Large malls such as Cityplaza and Fashion Walk tend to be located on Hong Kong Island, a region at the southern tip of Hong Kong, and provide a friendly atmosphere for family days out. Much better is the hustle and bustle feeling you’ll take from the lively markets in Kowloon.  Stall-owners battle it out to offer the lowest price on a range of goods from English premier league t-shirts and cheap electronic knock-offs, to hand-made trinkets, decorations and jewellery. Word to the wise – while shopping in Hong Kong is not cheap, haggling is permitted in most places.

Singapore is truly an incredible place. As much of the city is man-made, created through the process of land reclamation, it is easy to see Singapore as an artificial island, with very little natural habitat or history. If sights are your thing, the priority should be 1-Altitude, a rooftop bar which stands at the peak of 282 metres, and permits a full 360-degree view across the entire of Singapore. Largely visible from this view are the markets and regions of Little India and Chinatown, the latter of which is far more neat, tidy and well-maintained that you might imagine. Chinatown is best for exploring the more organic markets of fruit and vegetables which have popped up over the years, a marked distinction from Singapore’s main shopping areas, which are dominated by chain stores and big American-style malls.

Little India in comparison is one of the most unkempt and loudest areas of Singapore, though this isn’t to say that it’s not worth a visit for its local services such as sari-making and jewellery-crafting. Perhaps the biggest downside to Singapore is its size, and the unavoidable fact that you’ll eventually run out of things to do and places to explore if you’re visiting as a tourist. However, with its recognition of four official languages, a real mix of ethnicities and professions, and the variation of events hosted in the city, it becomes incredibly clear as to why Singapore is the place to be in south-east Asia.

Bali is just one of thousands of small and large islands which make up the nation of Indonesia, and yet is one of the country’s most popular tourist hotspots. While its beaches are some of the most popular in south-east Asia, one of the island’s most exciting opportunities stems from trekking. If your time in Bali is short, there are two sights that absolutely have to be seen in this way. The hike to the Muncak Sari Temple is beautiful by the way of local step-structured ricefields, but the absolute highlight comes toward the end by the temple, an incredibly spiritual place for the Balinese people.

If you choose to, you can borrow a Sarong and visit the prayer areas, recognised for their outdoor nature and stunning views. On the way back, an absolute must is the path through the cocoa, coffee and vanilla gardens, where sampling of freshly grown products and interaction with the native species of the forest are some of the key highlights. The second and perhaps more well-known hike is the climb to see Mount Batur from a height – often known as the ‘Sunrise Trek’ of Bali. Personal experience dictates that it’s best to start early, at around four or five in the morning and to hire a private car to take you to the foot of the volcano. The climb took our party only around a couple of hours, and we were treated to a full breakfast once at the peak, accompanied of course by a breathtaking view of the surrounding plains.

If Hong Kong and Singapore are evidence of fast growth and development in south-east Asia, then Kuala Lumpur would be the opposite. Despite maintaining a population of over 1.5 million people, the city feels like a messy sprawl, though it still maintains a considerable sense of character thanks to some of its attractions. The epitome of these attractions is seen in the world famous Petronas Towers, best known in popular culture for their feature in the 1999 film Entrapment. At 452m tall, the Towers offer would-be visitors an incredible view over the city, complete with tour guides and an interactive segment where guests can select any object in their sight with instant access to any information related to it, including its full history. A cheaper option for a day out would be a visit to the Batu Caves, an incredibly old worshipping ground complete with enormous idols of deities and plenty of stairs. While the accompanying village and the caves themselves are interesting, the most entertaining aspect is behind these caves, where monkeys, having grown accustomed to human visitors, are happy to climb down from their dwellings and accept food and pose for photographs.

Aatish Thakerar 


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3 Comments on this post.
  • Chloe
    15 February 2013 at 20:58
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    Those monkeys are more than tame! I’d say more ‘completely unafraid and terrifying’. Great piece!

  • wanko
    15 February 2013 at 22:22
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    Just to be completely clear, does the sign in the picture at the top say wanko?

  • d a
    31 March 2013 at 00:55
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    Hong Kong existed as a consumerist hub well before the present Chinese growth.

    Singapore is rightly-known for being one of the dullest traveller spots going. The airport is the best part.

    KL is dull too but yeah rightly said, Malaysia’s charms exist outside the cities except maybe Georgetown and parts of Penang.

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