One Community for Sustainability
“Our region is characterized by coopetition—a cooperative, collaborative decision by all players to compete with each other so that the world will choose the region before choosing the country.” —Philippine Minister of Tourism Ramon R. Jimenez, Jr.
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Manila (Philippines) will host the 35th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) this January 19-22. This year’s theme is ASEAN–One Community for Sustainability.
Since its inauguration in 1981, the annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Russia had been ASEAN’s fastest growing tourism market, but the Russian financial collapse has evaporated those inbound numbers.
The tourist appeal fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.
This forum is ultra-focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Philippine Tourism Secretary/Minister Jimenez notes, “Our countries become, in very real terms, each other’s value extension—we become each other’s developing markets. And to make this development last for our children, we have to make certain that we are mindful of the social and environmental context that our region’s growth exists in.”
News from the ATF 2015 (held in Myanmar)…
ATF 2015 attracted 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, and international and local media.
BRUNEI is a handy gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort. Brunei’s quest to draw curiosity from western travelers to Borneo is reflected by its complete overhaul and expansion of its international airport. While under 10,000 Americans visit Brunei each year, it is rich in rainforest and mountain terrain that could be very attractive to adventure travelers. It is also working to promote itself as a dive destination thanks to an abundance of mint-condition shipwrecks.
CAMBODIA has discussed building a new road to Angkor Wat, but talks have been tabled for the time being. The dispute is that it would increase the number of day trips and cut down on overnight stays at Angkor Wat, weaken the economy and potentially degrade the ruins. “Overnight stays at Angkor Wat are very good for the tourism and local economy,” Dr. Thong Khon, the tourism minister, said. Cambodia now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.
INDONESIA: Cruises of Indonesia’s huge archipelago are beginning to become more popular, exposing the country’s beautiful coastline outside of Bali, the only destination most Americans visit. Indonesia’s presence on Borneo is often also overshadowed by Bali, making it perhaps one of the best kept secrets in Southeast Asia. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
LAOS is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion. The big news out of Laos is its commitment to improving the roads and transportation infrastructure, allowing tourists to move easily throughout the country without flying. It is also upgrading all four of its international airports – Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Pakse, and Savannakhet. Luang Prabang continues to be one of the main draws for western travelers, and Laos is hoping that places like Vang Vieng evolve from backpacker hangouts to upscale destinations.
MALAYSIA: This is another year of festivals in Malaysia, with over 50 events happening throughout the country. A highlight is the Rainforest World Music Festival. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR: In 2015, ATF was held in Myanmar for the first time. Tourism continues to grow at an amazing rate, breaking 3 million visitors in 2014 (another exponential year-to-year increase) after welcoming only 1 million in 2012. 2015 could possibly see 5 million tourist arrivals—book ahead! The country is working to improve transit, road conditions, and flight options. Yangon, Lake Inle, Mandalay, and Bagan are currently the main attractions, but as the country continues to open up, other regions will no doubt catch on. One area in particular is the Chin State, which dropped its strict entry requirements this year. I can testify that the online tourist e-visa (evisa.moip.gov.mm $50) and business visa on arrival ($40) both work.
PHILIPPINES: The US remains its second largest market, the first being South Korea—one out of four tourists here are Korean. Philippine Airlines announced that it will begin a direct flight from New York (JFK) to Manila on March 15th. Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its tourism slogan, It’s More Fun in The Philippines.
SINGAPORE: One of the country’s largest projects is a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, with an aim to eventually extend through Thailand to Kunming, China. While that plan develops, things remain busy on the homefront. This year marks the country’s 50th birthday, and it will celebrate with a number of openings, including the National Gallery and the Pinacotheque de Paris Art Museum. Last year, it opened a Chinatown street market that has proved to be very popular with locals and tourists.
THAILAND: Protests continue to plague Bangkok, and Thailand is using it as an opportunity to promote more of the regions outside its capital city. At the moment, westerns typically stick to Bangkok and the southern beaches, but those seeking an experience outside of the party tourist track should look into Loei in the north and Buri Ram in the east. The Amazing Thailand brand (reinvented this year as Thainess) continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.
VIETNAM: The popular yet hard-to-reach Northern Highlands of Vietnam are now more accessible thanks to a new road from Hanoi to Sapa that halves the travel time between Hanoi and Lao Cai to only 3.5 hours. Vietnam continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms.
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Tourism encourages human connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving the ASEAN community. Peter Semone, Chief Technical Adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) adds to this notion: “Reaching towards greater sustainability in tourism is paramount to our future and there is no better time than the present to create a community led movement to achieve these goals. The freshly minted Sustainable Development Goals will lead the international community development agenda, while the new ASEAN Economic Community will provide unity among ASEAN member countries. One must not forget that these initiatives must translate into the local context if lasting sustainability measures are to be accomplished.”
A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers included Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries create buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.
ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2016 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
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For more information visit ATF Philippines. ATF 2017 will be Singapore.
Nobody gossips about virtue.
A mopey, well-fed stray hound strolls by and faintly sniffs me. I’m leaning against an impromptu beer truck on the fringe of a resort area on the Caribbean island of Grenada while distant Calypso music fills the barbequed night air. I’m fishing for West Indian gossip from the middle-aged guy whom I just gifted another icy brew. He grins and announces the same thing four times, as his songlike accent is lost on me until a fourth translation: “Who have cocoa in sun, look out for rain.” This Grenadian proverb suggests minding your own business—as in, it takes six consecutive days to sun-dry cocoa beans, so pay attention to the weather instead of trivial matters. The mellow dog takes the cue and moseys elsewhere, but I stick around.
This lively traffic circle near Grand Anse beach borders a makeshift outdoor marketplace sarcastically named “Wall Street” because the strip-mall parking area is bookended by banks. Along with being a mini-bus hub, the circle attracts locals who gather to buy open-air grilled meat and drink beverages sold from ice chests in pickup beds. At night, cars blare music, creating instant parties. Unlike other over-priced Caribbean islands that are designed so tourists rarely meet non-resort personnel, here I’m dancing in a parking lot with grandmothers, sipping bargain brew.
Strolling away from Wall Street, I follow the sound of steel drums into a palm-tree surrounded auditorium to behold a showcase of senior Calypso musicians. It sounds happy, so I wonder why 500 fans are calmly seated. I find out that Calypso, a West Indies invention, is “listening music” that doubles as delivery for satire and political commentary. Now I understand why the concert-goers are chuckling more than foot-tapping. At this point, I still have no idea how passionate these folks are about their history and politics. A woman looks away from the stage and smiles at me. I’m going to like it here.
Spice Island is an apt metaphor, as all races blend here. Children don’t speak about black or white skin, rather brown or peach skin. I stumble upon a new definition for relativity after meeting several men in my age bracket whose fathers had 10 or more offspring, sometimes with as many women. With so many folks related on this small island, everyone knowing each other keeps things safe. Also keeping the peace is their attachment to British Colonial law. One must bow to a picture of the Queen when entering a court. And if you swear, it’s not hard to land there. Locals call this a “church state” because cursing within earshot of a cop can warrant an arrest.
A long way from church, I step out onto the beach and wander down to a seaside bar. Nuggets of Grenadian folklore fly at me from every direction. As the sun dips into the water, the wave-crashing soundtrack is competing with singing frogs—a tiny newt-like chorus that sounds like an army of loud piccolos. The bartender leans forward to tell me something arriving via “tele-Grenadian” (meaning, gossip spreads fast here). “Don’t let the sun go down on it,” he adds, urging everyone there to solve problems with loved ones quickly. There’s just something about getting good advice when you’re barefoot.
I hail a cab wanting to be delivered to a popular dance joint. My plans rapidly change, however, when my taxi driver pulls over. Also a recreation advisor, Keith gives the bar I’m heading to a thumbs-down and redirects us to a local joint where the upbeat Soca music takes center stage and gets Grenadians up and bouncing. They call it whining, pronounced why-ning, a carnal dance demonstration I first witnessed in
Five hours later, I ask Keith, “What time is it?” “GMT,” he replies (Grenada Maybe Time).
The nutmeg on Grenada’s flag is telling, as it’s used to flavor many local dishes and heralded to cure everything from colds to infidelity. Taxi talent Keith and I share a few meals in local joints. The national dish is called oil down, namesaked by the coconut-milk oil residue that infuses the one-pot stew of breadfruit, callaloo, okra, cabbage, fish, dumplings, turmeric, and whatever else is on hand. While graduating from a heaping plate of oil down to brew, two schoolgirls in uniform sit across from us. Keith advises them, “Boys and books don’t agree.”
A few days later, Keith drops me off at the airport. As I walk away from his car, he reminds me, “What you miss ain’t pass you.” His way of saying, don’t worry about anything, it’s coming either way. He then retells me that copasetic is a Grenadian word.
A bad attitude is a disability. —Grenadian cabbie Keith
What a difference a walk makes.
Long-distance walking veterans, my father and I tackled the renowned 240-mile, coast-to-coast trek across Northern England’s rugged terrain in 1996. Two years later, shortly after dad endured life-saving surgery, we tackled Offa’s Dyke, a 200-mile long wall built in the eighth century to keep the Welsh on their side of that giant fence.
On our third walk across the Commonwealth, my father, then 76, and I rambled the width of England’s Cotswolds region, a country paradise defined by enchanting drystone walls dating back hundreds of years. The region has a woolspun history and is picture-postcard flawless. And, one benefit of undertaking an exhausting itinerary is that it left us no energy to recycle any debates about my tenth-grade car-crashing spree.
The Romans laid out this part of Europe in ten-acre plots. Don’t dare suggest it was the French. Today, these plots have matured into showcases of a fading way of life. These serene river valleys of sheep pens on soft rolling hills with limestone buildings and outcroppings remain out of harm’s way from developers. It endures as a haven of trout-filled streams, quaint stone hamlets, stone walls, and romping horses.
Unfolding our map and our sense of humor ensured that we had a grand time losing our bearings, never a long way from a stone wall or a friendly character. Our route from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold started on a forgotten, car-free single-lane road that visited woods, farms, cottages with window-sill flower boxes, tiny medieval stone villages, bounteous wildflowers, and rare fellow walkers. Roaming 10 to 20 miles per day, sort of with a plan, we slept in archetypal English inns. Predictably, these accommodations were made of stone with low-overhead medieval-era doorways. We become aware of separate hot and cold water faucets, uber-creaky stairs, and twin beds so short that our feet were left dangling.
On the trail, my ears adjusted from urban car horns to ewe-speak. The footpath broke into farms divided by stiles; turnstile gates allowing ramblers to pass but not livestock. Dad had no trouble covering our daily distances, or hurdling the older five-foot-high wooden stiles.
Minutes before sunset, we encountered a stone wall and the man working to preserve it. Today’s stone-wall builders preserve an ancient tradition that both pays the bills and safeguards the Isles’ uncommon landscape. The hardworking stone mason, a chap with meaty hands, massive forearms, and steady phrasing, assured us his art form couldn’t be mechanized. A dry stone wall uses no mortar, only limestones, gravity, friction, and a talent for made-to-last jigsaw puzzles. A symbol of national pride, this typically inherited craft merits prestige; wall building is to Britain what gourmet cooking is to France.
Dry stonewall architects obsess about their materials, describing shades of limestone as passionately as interior designers might salute skylights. They wax eloquent about subtle hues from specific quarries, renowned builders who left unmistakable signatures, and how an able mason can dismantle and rebuild—stone by stone—an identical wall. Like radiance passing through a prism, stone walls share ancestry and imagination.
As the sun set behind us, the wall builder chuckled, “The last ramblers passing this way asked me ‘What I made building walls’…and I told them I make people heave a sigh.”
Dad then asked about optimum stone sizes and which stone position in the wall was the most vital for longevity. The Englishman rested a hand on the wall, looked at the ground, and then slowly raised his head to trace his eyes along a mile of accomplished stonework behind him. Turning his glance my way—but slyly gesturing at my father—he mused, “Just don’t pull that card, or the whole thing collapses!” After that wily epiphany and another chuckle, my dad and I trekked on.
On our final day, we strolled through a retired nobleman’s digs with miles of hilly lawns and well-spaced chestnut oak trees, some 800-years-old with trunks having 24-foot circumferences. We paused at a 13th-century water mill and agreed that we were in an outdoor museum. In the final mile, we climbed a steep ridge near a two-house settlement that wound past friendly miniature ponies, another hundred sheep, and led to a bench set on the high point.
I sat on the bench and watched as my dad walked slowly with a slight limp up the steep path toward me. He was puffing a bit, scaling a mountain once summited by Alexander Cromwell. I thought again about the cunning dry-stone wall builder who had said—speaking about his wall’s hidden power—but also I think in retrospect, about parents everywhere…
“What you don’t see is the strength of the wall.”
It was then that I vowed to keep discovering the charms of life with my dad—that vital card in my familial deck and a stone wall of love—one step at a time.
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“Wallers do it in all weathers.” —Drystone Waller’s credo on a bumper sticker
(from: THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons)
The detour is the journey.
We all start somewhere—love it or leave it. If I could blitz the U.S. with air-dropped leaflets, they would urge: Pack a small bag, march outside, wander into a different neighborhood, ask strangers fun questions. Faithfully beholding this tactic—anywhere and everywhere—turned most of my life into a working vacation. First, I had to wrestle the establishment to learn a few lessons about freedom.
My first income involved petty theft. As an eight-year-old living across the street from the Hempstead, Long Island golf course driving range, I was motivated by the pro shops’ return policy, which netted a nickel per ball. The pilfering ring began with me coaxing balls through the fence using a long stick. The scheme matured into fence-hopping sprints onto the driving range to load as many balls as possible into the belly of my shirt and then bounding back over the rusted eight-foot chainlink fence using the free arm not securing the loot. Older brother initiations aside, this midday one-armed banditry delivered my earliest adrenaline rushes.
Ball burglary was only a symptom of the recreational terrorism my two older brothers and I routinely enjoyed inside those suburban-liberating golf course fences. We’d camp overnight, buried deep in the courses’ leaf piles, sled year-round on any slope, and spend hours clinging to soaring treetops. In an early stride toward independence, I constructed and maintained my own treehouse in a lumbering white pine to spy on a sport I’d never fancy, except as a caddy.
When the dreaded greenskeeper, Tony Matueza, finally captured me red-handed snatching balls on the driving range, he drove me in his supply-laden golf cart onto the street and into my driveway. As we walked up to my front door, his chunky claw still clutching my arm, he threatened, “You’re in a world of trouble.” After citing abundant crimes to my mother, he remanded me to her custody and left me to ponder a troubled planet.
Skip to now, as the news media continue fanning that world-of-trouble myth (my mom let me off the hook and didn’t tell dad), my worldwide search for guidance reconfirmed that we actually reside on a very friendly planet. Tony was wrong.
Don’t let blanket travel warnings, the bruising 24-hour news cycle, and other implanted delusions limit your scope of the world. Heed the common sense revealed by unlikely sages in faraway places and just down the road from you. Detour away from ill-advised gloom and the scorn of crotchety pessimists. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Grace over race.
I’m sitting outside on a mini stool in northern Cambodia where my bent knees don’t fit under the table. A three-course meal arrives from the nearby food stall—a hard-boiled egg served as a delicacy with three additional finger bowls presenting spices, limes, and mint. Egg vendor #7, Chantheaea, giggles when she returns with a tiny long-handle spoon. Meanwhile, I watch two guys, Narit and Ponlok, shoot it out on a makeshift outdoor pool table. This jungle-encased village, Cheabb, probably won’t see electricity in the lifetime of these two pool sharks. Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, has just built its first shopping mall with an escalator that has become an instant tourist attraction. I realize later that Chantheaea was chuckling about my inside-out T-shirt. I haven’t passed a mirror in weeks.
I’ve flown 15,000 miles by plane, over-nighted on a bench of a chugging riverboat, spent a day in the dusty cab of a puny Japanese pickup crammed with 10 riders, and then 10 hours on a wobbling motorbike sputtering on rutted, meandering jungle trails. The trail, barely worthy of foot traffic, frequently requires crossing rivers on slimy log bridges. It becomes impassable during the wet season.
My brother Basil and I were repeatedly warned not to venture into this isolated region that’s supposedly rife with landmines and holdups by teams of bandits. However, our reward for forging ahead was a spontaneous night that fused a wedding and a bizarre theater odyssey. The first thing we saw in Cheabb was a mobile PA system announcing what later turned out to be a play. The PA system involved two guys on a motorbike rigged with a large horn on the handlebars connected to an amplifier sitting in the drivers lap. The rear passenger held a mike to a Walkman that made the announcements.
In this off-the-grid destination, the wooden box houses are raised on six-foot stilts. In the shade below, black buffalo, pigs, and chickens reside. The people, mostly rice farmers, steal naps in hammocks slung between stilts under the houses or between the trees. Everyone we pass waves hello. My hunch is that once war-ravaged, perpetually destitute Cambodia had a lighter side, and I wasn’t quitting until we found it. Landmines, civil war, and genocide dominate many associations with Cambodia, but life has returned to a new version of normal, even in Preah Vihear Province, one of the poorest and most isolated.
There’s no way for an outsider to know they’re crossing between the neighboring villages of Cheabb Lech and Cheabb Kart (Cheabb east and west). But that’s where we were invited into the soul of this village with zero tourism. In one magical night, we attended a wedding reception, which later segued into an outdoor theater performance, and then slept on the top cop’s porch.
The wedding highlights included proud toasts ladled from a 35-gallon jug of homemade milky-fermented booze, dancing to insanely loud Cambodian pop, eating bugs, and listening to the best man speech in which he noted that the bride’s premiere hobby was jumping rope. The groom, dressed in a frumpy, oversized suit, couldn’t stop snickering during the should-be solemn slow dances. Our go-to-guy, the only one in town who could speak English, told us about the local pothead, a little girl who wears a red cooking pot as a hat.
After the wedding reception, the group marched across town to join 200 people already seated on the ground before a stage that was amplified by a lone microphone hanging from a wire. The wooden stage set was draped in billowing, silky tarps. The performance, hours and hours of short bits, were punctuated by the manual closing of a dainty pink curtain. A flash photo (Basil’s) started a tizzy that startled the entire audience and made actors modify their act and speak in even higher pitched voices.
Where there are no televisions, traveling troupes are still the stars. Within the crowd, several campfires were maintained to combat the 70-degree winter chill. At one point during the six-hour Khmer epic play, half of the audience suddenly stood up and gasped—a reverse domino effect that didn’t seem like a standing ovation. It wasn’t. A six-foot-long heat-seeking venomous snake had crawled into the audience. Once the snake was hacked in half by someone who happened to have a machete handy, the show resumed. Basil suggested that the snake’s demise might be a metaphor for what happens here when someone threatens married life.
After the marathon performance, we feasted with the wedding gang, but passed on the cow stomach and dried blood patties that resembled black tofu cakes. After waking up on the hospitable police chief’s front porch, we visited several schools, all raised 12×12-foot platforms either under a home or outside covered by tarps. The blackboards were black paint on flat boards and the instructional guides were laminated posters, one for math and one for language. After Basil donated hordes of pens and notebooks to these makeshift schools, he also stepped in as interim teacher, which routinely inspired more laughter than learning.
Despite the forewarnings about landmines and holdups, we ventured to Cheabb where the people, like most Cambodians, exemplify warmth, grace, and pride, which is incredible when considering the unspeakable horrors many of them have endured in their lifetime. In these more prosperous times, some still manage to survive on one dollar and 1,000 calories per day. The Khmer capacity to overcome extreme adversity and still welcome unannounced travelers with smiles and respect is humanity. Being the first foreigners to visit a place where they’ve never seen any is a traveler’s cliché—but when you unearth the last remnants of virgin turf in Southeast Asia, dignity and joy is what you’ll find.
As my brother and I prepared to roll out of Cheabb, we enjoyed a final hard-boiled egg at the food stall. The newly married couple rode past and waved to us and all of the food stall workers. They were honeymoon bound—a visit to the other side of the village—which made the staff cheer wildly. That’s when it dawned on us that the bride was #7, our previous egg vendor, Chantheaea.
The Milling Room’s refreshing space is a discovery even for veteran Upper West Side Manhattanites. There’s no indication from the establishment’s street view—which only reveals their inviting bar—that a huge, inspiring restaurant space with high ceilings capped by a glass atrium awaits. The rustic, industrial brick is counterweighed by recycled wood and cast iron trimmings. I’ll get to the dazzling food in a bit. The history of this lofty space is equally amazing, as it transitioned from a hotel lobby bar hangout for “high-end” 1930s gangsters into an asylum for the mentally ill during the 1940s through the 1960s. It later became a food court. Then, after a few restaurant incarnations, it established itself as this trusted local retreat.
Olden and classic blues play while old-school 1930s cocktails (that won’t break the bank) accompany supreme appetizer stylings of Hamache Tartar and Roast Beet Salad. I settled in with a Casino, a classic concoction (Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, lemon, orange bitters) that has multihued notes which make you ponder New York’s oft-glamorized mobster era. A disused fireplace mantle is one more bit of history inside this bygone but revitalized gem.
The American-style cuisine is prepared by veteran Chef Scott Bryan. Bryan, who was heralded by Antony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as one of New York’s top chefs, turned me into a fan of Long Island Duck Breast via its preparation in parsnip puree, shaved brussel sprouts, and brandy jus. Bryan’s take on Skate (crisped with couscous, capers, tomato, and verjus) elevates this fish in the ray family to new heights.
This spacious getaway that melds tavern, historic site, and memorable cuisine—while transporting NYC’s aggravation eons away—won’t disappoint.
The Milling Room, 446 Columbus Ave, NYC, 212.595.0380
“Write This Way: In The Directions to Happiness, the gallant globetrotting New Yorker Bruce Northam writes that smiles ‘can inspire contagious winds of change.’ Well, so too will this captivating book … you’re certain to be carried by the book’s undercurrents of ‘If not now, then when?’” —Huffington Post
Check out the full review here, I’m #9…
New York Comfort Food—with a Twist
Swifty’s restaurant feels like an old-style Upper East Side private club, but with reasonable prices and a few designer-t-shirt hipsters spiced into the mix. Dinnertime, which seems to start at 7pm-sharp for sport-jacket-wearing retired men and their spouses, means Frank Sinatra might be crooning as the backdrop. There’s no shortage of chatter and cheer in this eatery namesaked after a dog who used to be the VIP at a now-closed nearby restaurant that took its reputation—and clientele—here. Enjoy clear-cut American cuisine with classic Euro options, ranging from Baked Meatloaf to Wild Bass with Chanterelles and Port Wine Sauce.
What does ‘bistro’ mean to you? If desired descriptions include non-flashy, intimate, romantic, old-world-real, and house-made ice creams, then this place is for you. The lingering, clandestine 65+ high-society vibe is balanced by affable, mostly European waiters. It seems that at least one person at each table (your neighbors are not far away) is an expert storyteller (or filibusterer). Inside this neighborhood parlor with huge, slightly down-turned mirrors, vintage wallpaper, and talk of the Ivy League, you won’t see many diners ogling their phones. If you wear a cowboy hat here, you will be the first. Arrive early (6pm) and run the show. There will be no brawls.
Swifty’s, 1007 Lexington Avenue, NYC, 212.535.6000
Condé Nast (another great review on The Directions to Happiness)…
“Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, each story delivers a message that continues on well beyond the page.” —Condé Nast (Jaunted)
Condé Nast also reissued my description of this book as a “Chicken Soup for the Traveler—with balls.”
Check out the full write-up here…
Stanton Street Kitchen—Craft Beer & Wine Bar
I’m fully aware of the advance of cool joints creeping into my neighborhood of 15 years. This stretch of Stanton St., unlike its parallel universe, hip Rivington St., is still an archetypal lower (lower) east side street with little fanfare and some lingering grit—the edge of a creeping frontier. Charging ahead on this frontier is the Stanton Street Kitchen Craft Beer & Wine Bar. Grand but intimate, this open-kitchen food show features an in-house beer advisor (suds sommelier) who’ll no doubt be tailed by a wine whiz for comrades so inclined. The décor is reminiscent of the late 1920s with brick walls, high ceilings, copper accents, and black granite. Newsflash: if scallops, pork belly, gigantic tasting stouts (from the cellar below your feet), and a revived take on non-mainstream handpicked wines are your kind of thing, then this is your kind of getaway.
As opposed to being an opinionated foodie, I review restaurants based on how they physically transport customers. To me, this key to this destination is renowned master chef Erik Blauberg’s passion for food-inspired travel. When not fine-tuning his restaurant, he leads food and wine journeys—literal cooking tours—via Culinary Passport, which frequently collaborates with The Culinary Institute of America. With years of guiding food and wine lovers around the world on his resume, Blauberg’s forthcoming fine-food foray opportunities are to Spain, France, Italy, and New Zealand. Throughout these trips, customers enjoy local culinary experiences and exclusive food and wine tastings available only to travelers in these exclusive groups.
Back on the Stanton St. home-front, Blauberg has created a menu of small plates designed to pair with the beer and wine offerings, allowing guests to fashion their own tasting menus. There is also a “Chef’s Feast” tasting menu presenting off-the-menu seasonally inspired dishes, available to guests who are seated at the 14-seat bar that overlooks the open kitchen. The contemporary menu reflects Chef Blauberg’s worldwide travels and is heavily influenced by the many different global cuisines he has studied.
So if you can’t join Blauberg on a culinary journey, don’t fret, as he brings the best of his gastronomic discoveries from around the world to you on New York City’s Lower East Side. Bring on the truffles paired with beer sampler “flights” that hit each of your taste buds. The beer cellar features 100 different varieties of bottled beers from around our planet, ranging in styles from Kolsch to Imperial Stouts, and is no stranger to the revolution of small batch brewing overtaking Brooklyn. Trust their beer sommelier to pair the 24 rotating seasonal drafts—and an extensive wine list—with their reasonably priced menu.
The menu features an assortment of “beer bites” served on toast such as Spicy Prawns with cracked corn, jicama, and cilantro; Kadotas Figs with goat cheese and 50 Year-Old Sherry; and Braised Pork Belly with red cabbage and toasted peanut slaw. Small plates such as Sugar Pea Risottowith cepes and delicata squash; Homemade Tagliatelle with hen of the woods mushrooms and wild boar sausage; and Port-Braised Oxtail with foie gras and fava bean ravioli can be yours. The lineup also includes a few vegetarian items, including a Salad of Wild Arugula, flat bread, Humboldt-fog goat cheese, candied spicy pecans, and pistachio vinaigrette.
You won’t be bored.
Stanton Street Kitchen seats 70, including a 14-seat intimate food bar overlooking the open kitchen and the hustling chefs. The beer cellar also showcases a private Chef’s Table with seating for up to 30 guests.
178 Stanton Street, Manhattan, NYC, 917.963.6000, Stanton Street Kitchen
The idea of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is not lost on Southeast Asia.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is an organization comparable to the European Union with its enduring effort to achieve regional solidarity. Myanmar hosts the 34th annual ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF) in Nay Pyi Taw on January 22-29, 2015. This year’s theme is “ASEAN – Tourism Towards Peace, Prosperity and Partnership.” ATF will be held in Myanmar for the first time since its inauguration in 1981.
This conference is laser focused on how its member countries can work together to market themselves as one destination. Myanmar Tourism Minister Htay Aung is keen on promoting “Myanmar’s richness in culture and biodiversity…while sharing products and services for the local tourism players to showcase their products and services to the global market.”
Last year, the 33rd forum took place in Kuching, Borneo, with the theme “Advancing Tourism Together.” The fusion of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries and their amazingly varied cultures poses several challenges, one of which is its diversity. ASEAN members range from wealthy Singapore and Brunei to agrarian Laos and Cambodia. Politics also run the spectrum, from the democratic Philippines, which is largely Christian, Indonesia, which encompasses the world’s largest Muslim population—and, until now, a sometimes difficult to access Myanmar.
Tourism promotes people-to-people connectivity—one of the key strategies towards ultimately achieving the ASEAN community. Peter Semone, chief technical adviser for the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (Lanith) noted that “ATF points to what lies ahead for the region where human capital is at the core of its sustainability and a robust tourism economy.”
ATF 2015 is expected to attract 1,500 attendees from more than 40 countries, including tourism ministers and officials, ASEAN exhibitors, international buyers, international and local media, as well as tourism trade visitors.
A goldmine for business and leisure traveler news and forecasts, speakers will include Green Recognition Award winners and homestay program pioneers. Also, press conferences led by tourism ministers from member countries will create buzz about plans for a single or no-visa policy for the entire region, as this visa-free tourism strategy will help create an ideal single destination.
ASEAN Tourism Forum 2014 news…
Tiny BRUNEI is a gateway to remarkable Borneo. The last Malay Kingdom celebrates its options to play golf or polo, dive, or relax in a plush resort.
CAMBODIA now partners with Thailand for a single visa option. The symbolic Kingdom of Wonder campaign remains an enduring symbol of Southeast Asia’s incredible history. Here, white gold equals rice while green gold equals tourism.
The “Wonderful INDONESIA” campaign continues successfully selling its brand beyond Hindu Bali. Despite a few political setbacks, tourism numbers continue growing as the country offers incredible cultural and geographic diversity.
Simply Beautiful LAOS is undergoing major infrastructure developments that will soon change the face of this hospitable country. The “Jewel of the Mekong” continues a sustained effort to support soft tourism and local immersion.
For the first time ever during decades of international travel, upon landing in Kuching, MALAYSIA, there were no forms required to clear immigration or customs, only a quick scan of both index fingers. The Malaysia Truly Asia campaign continues showcasing the best of its mixed native, Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage.
MYANMAR had a 93-percent increase in tourism in 2013! Prohibitive to tourism for decades, its democratic rebranding includes visa on arrival and the acceptance of foreign investment. Every aspect of tourism is rapidly evolving, and securing accommodations can be difficult.
Still recovering from Typhoon Haiyan, when a PHILIPPINES Tourism Minister was asked about what stage of climate-change awareness, he replied, “Painfully, aware.” Many of the Philippines’ 7,017 islands share some form of American-influenced musical, religious, and Hollywood traditions, hence its new tourism slogan: It’s More Fun in The Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. followed South Korea as its strongest arrivals market.
SINGAPORE is gearing up for a hi-speed railway link to Kuala Lumpur, a project that aims to eventually extend through Thailand and all the way to Kunming, China. The Your Singapore brand drives an efficient tourism machine, including Formula One Racing Week (once featuring ZZ Top) which as has been extended until 2017.
THAILAND’s anti-government demonstrations continue, but the tourism influx endures outside Bangkok. The Amazing Thailand brand continues setting the example for tourism in Southeast Asia with growing golf and health/wellness sectors. The country is considering waiving its tourist visa fees, but not its exotic culture of service.
VIETNAM continues trying to simplify its visa policy, which recently doubled in price. A French Imperial twist continues fanning its hidden charms. Russia is its fastest growing market.
This ASEAN cohesion emphasizes partnerships rather than competition. Tourism Ministers continue developing a mutual recognition agreement aimed to improve the quality of human resources and giving workers in the tourism sectors of member countries a chance to work in other countries. A single market free-trade agreement is another goal of the association. Until December 2008, the 40-year-old organization had no written constitution. The new charter sets a 2015 goal for establishing economic integration via a 10-country free-trade zone and established commitments respecting human rights, democratic principles, and keeping the region free of nuclear weapons. Binding the 10 members to an enhanced legal framework, the regional charter sets out their shared aims and methods of working together.
For details about the ASEAN Tourism Fourm in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, visit ATF-2015.
The annual ATF rotates alphabetically through its 10 member-countries with a total of 570 million people—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
There is no burnt rice to a hungry person. —Philippine proverb (Ifugao Province)
Our first urge to travel was motivated by finding food. This transient lifestyle requires a mobile crash pad. Tracking migratory herds, primeval wanderers fashioned portable shelters out of stones, branches, and animal hides. Today, our movable shelters—tents and the like—have roots in archetypal havens like Native American tepees, Inuit tupiks, and Mongolian gers. Even well-fed never-get-their-knees-muddy city kids want to build forts inside of their apartments.
While many are now concerned with our food’s farm-to-table odyssey, we rarely have to worry about defending it while it grows. Grown in water, rice is the staple food of three billion people. In traditional rice paddies, a hidden few take shelter and wait to defend their crops. While trekking in the mountainous northern Philippine highlands, I came across a recurring curiosity, farmhands who seemed to be watching the rice grow. I discovered that the rice business requires 24-hour surveillance where live scarecrows protect mountainside rice terraces from persistent rice-loving birds. These farmers spend their days in temporary thatch-and-bamboo huts called ab-hungs, makeshift sheds built for two. They are built into manmade mountainside terraces and provide relief from the sun and rain for the people whose job it is to spy and scare off the thieving birds.
These human scarecrows rely on tactics that evolve with the growing seasons. Early on, pounding on a barrel or a basin would suffice in frightening the birds away. When the birds tired of that ploy and returned to the crime scene, the farmers created noise by pulling on strings attached to rows of jingling cans. When that jig was up—the birds don’t fall for the same tricks for long—ab-hung security ultimately had to shoo the birds away by running after them.
Fortunately, this mode of occupational scaremongering does pay off.Highland rice is tastier, more aromatic, and more nutritious than the lowland’s industrial version. Then again, more work goes into it, as it takes six to seven months to grow, three times longer than chemically fertilized rice. Locals perform planting and harvesting rituals to invoke ancestral spirits who watch over the crops—and it seems to work. The International Rice Research Institute wasn’t so lucky. When it tried introducing new strains here, they didn’t yield. Farmers then resurrected their ancient methods after rejecting a non-governmental organization’s pesticide invasion, which killed tiny fish and snails—additional food sources—that also grow in the rice-paddy ponds.
Savoring moments in an ab-hung, I’m reminded of the ancient nomad musings today’s weekend warriors enjoy inside their camping tents. Entering one makes the hut smaller but the world bigger. While avoiding some midday rain in this bird-spy shack, I chatted with a local elder about rice watchmen until the sun came out. Inside the primitive lean-to, I offered the farsighted, squinting man a pen, and he doled out a pinch of tobacco for me to chew, redefining the notion of insider trading. He then trotted out a thought that was loosely rendered by an eager kid who had been tailing me. I later employed the eager one as my guide, and the old man’s quote as fact…
“A peace on birds would probably work better than this war on birds.” —Rice wisdom, and an ageless take on disputes
Check out Travel+Leisure’s rave review of THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons.
“By the end of the book, you like the author, you believe him, and you’ve had a fun ride–because this is no namby-pamby travelogue.” —Travel+Leisure
Bustling Midtown still has a few secret hideaways. As part of Hotel Chandler’s inviting entrance, Juni and its understated elegance might go unnoticed if you’re hustling along East 31st St—but they shouldn’t. Juni’s famous Australian chef, Shaun Hergatt, slices and dices locally sourced ingredients (think nearby Union Square Market) to enliven the contemporary American theme. The chef—no stranger to media fanfare—provides a minimalist but exotic experience that allows you to have a fling with his culinary imagination.
Paying homage to every season, chef Hergatt serves up enticing combinations, such as the “stone crop–fresh hearts of palm–purple basil.” Other standout choices include the “garden radish–live montauk scallop–citrus coriander” option, which sounds as tantalizing as it tastes. This is an extended journey, not a mere meal. Juni’s inventive ingredient pairings awaken the taste buds with flavors meant to be savored.
The universal appetizer medley is the first of four or six courses (not including chef’s samples). A team of attentive waiters swoop in with oyster-soaked leaves, and the odyssey begins. You’re invited to explore your boundaries with a menu that encourages and rewards experimentation.
The modern, plush setting, inspired by Capellini Design Associates, whispers relax. It’s Midtown majesty without the pomp. However, be prepared to have the wait staff cater to your every need. The server to diner ratio seems almost one to one in the 50-seat restaurant. If you’re a true foodie and can’t get a reservation at Noma (waiting in line?), add this classy but unpretentious gem to your culinary hit list. Dress nice.
Discover Juni at 12 E 31st St., Manhattan, (212) 995-8599.
The musician Sting launched a tradition of concerts raising money and awareness for South America’s rain forests. Borneoa wild and wonderful Malaysian island, has stepped up to the plate with its version of celebrating music in their tropical setting.
moncler vests menThe Rainforest Music Festival (RMF) is a weekend concert (June 20-22) featuring musicians from around the world with a common theme of tribal and traditional music. Every continent is represented, but there is a focus on regional Southeast Asian island culture with performances by the indigenous musicians of Borneo. Their instruments go well beyond standard guitars and into the exotic. The indigenous Iban tribe,
for example, plays an ensemble of an engkerumong (similar to a xylophone), a tawak (bass), a bendai (snare), and a set of ketebungs (single-sided drums).
In addition to the concerts and performances at night, the RMF also has workshops during the day that dive into the cultural aspects of the music. Think dance lessons, theory lectures, instrument education, and fire-drum demos. Local food vendors serving up Malaysian specialties will also be a big part of the fanfare.
The festival takes place about 40-minutes outside of Kuching in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo. The exact location is the Damai Peninsular, home of Gunung Santubong National Park. You can hike your way up Mt. Santubong as a side adventure, or visit the Sarawak Cultural Village to soak up the local history.
Tickets are still available if you’re looking for a last-minute idea for some frequent flyer miles, but otherwise, keep it in mind for next summer as it’s a yearly event.
I love being in situations where it’s nearly impossible to make a culinary mistake. In most restaurants,you order, and then your entrée is parked upon your table and that pretty much defines your experience. At Fogo de Chão, the circulating waiters swing by your table to slice your preference of 16 different cuts of prime fire-roasted meats. It’s all about revolving options at your own pace.
Behind the scenes, the knife-wielding waiters—gauchos—who roam the restaurant are also grilling the individual skewers of your meat.
You turn the meat service on and off by flipping the coaster on your table. When you’ve had enough
filet mignon, prime sirloin, sausage, or chicken parked on your plate via your personal tongs, the gourmet salad bar (30+ items) is available to satisfy any other cravings. Fogo de Chão also has an enormous selection of wine, including its own signature label.
Fogo de Chão’s Midtown location, 53rd street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, doesn’t conjure up intimate images of leisure, and there’s nothing about its nondescript façade to lure you in. But, inside, 30-foot ceilings and sweeping staircases create a modern museum atmosphere—then add the fabulous aromas. Adding to the ambiance is the friendly staff, many who are Brazilian. The staff to customer ratio is unheard of in most other
city restaurants. This is the company’s 22nd opening in the U.S., and a true escape from hurried Midtown Manhattan.
This Brazilian steakhouse experience means no commitments—or regrets. Visit or call 212 969 9980.
While in Estonia, I asked several street-strolling locals to sing for me, and true to form, they obliged. One woman sang the entire unofficial anthem as we stood on an empty street. The Baltic Singing Revolution made me wonder, what would the U.S. choose if it needed a new anthem to sing its way out of a real jam? “Won’t Back Down,” “Born in the USA,” “American Woman,” “Highway to Hell,” “Don’t Stop Believin’?”
Estonia’s national bird is the barn swallow. It’s no pin-up like the bald eagle, nor a chart-busting singer—but, aptly, a humble survivor for all seasons. Healing conflict with music, now that’s a concept.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
“We are the music makers, and we arelouis vuitton sale uk the dreamers of dreams.” —Willy Wonka