Singapore – Bugis Junction, Tree Inn Lodge, Plaza Singapura

The first world consumerism of Singapore hit me in the face as I disembarked at the Bugis Junction metro and weaved past top line brand stores and sanitised food stalls selling everything from coffee to ramen to international cuisine to the tune of “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele which could be heard no matter where you were in the building and it was only after I had exited through the covered arcade did I realise that it was the first bit of fresh air I was breathing in Singapore because I had been stuffed in air-conditioned comfort all the way from the airport in Mumbai to this mall by the Bugis metro.

Two minutes of fresh air and I was ready to go back to the AC comforts of the malls because when you’re inside enjoying the cool air from the vents, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a hot, humid tropical place that could soak your clothes in sweat in a matter of minutes. So I went back inside to the food court upstairs to have a “TCC Premium” coffee at this place called The Connoisseur Concerto thinking a place that used such big words might have a decent idea of how to do a good cup of coffee than places that named themselves Starbucks. Connoisseurs might not entirely be satisfied with the quality on offer here but for my low standards, it was serviceable even if not entirely worth the 6 dollars I spent on it.

Having fortified myself with caffeine, I strode out to Tan Quee Lan Street where, in one of the old Chinese shophouses still extant in this modern, burgeoning metropolis, lay the hostel I had booked before I left Mumbai. I had never stayed in hostels before, so I had no idea what to expect as I climbed up to the reception. A cheerful girl welcomed me and took me to my room while filling me in on house rules, things to do, eateries nearby etc. It was a small place with about three compact dorm rooms, a common shower/toilet area in a corner and a hall near the reception furnished with tables and benches which served as the common area for people to hang out.

Tree Inn Lodge was also an environmentally conscious hostel which attracted droves of cyclists from around the world. That meant you had rules plastered all over the place. So the shower area advised residents to finish their showering within 5 minutes to conserve water. There were notes put up on recycling and the benefits to the environment of cycling over other modes of transport. The air-conditioning would be turned off between noon and 6 pm every day to conserve electricity and to encourage people to go out and breathe some fresh air.

It was noon by the time I reached the hostel and I hadn’t gotten any sleep the previous night owing to my conversations with the surly man on the flight. So I was very much looking forward to getting some shut eye. But it became practically impossible for me to get any sleep in the humid Singaporean weather thanks to the environment friendly policies of my hostel, which while extremely commendable, were somewhat unkind to the weary traveller sweating in its beds.

But I needed sleep and I couldn’t just sit somewhere in a Mall or a Café or the Metro or the street because I didn’t know how Singaporeans reacted to random dudes snoring in public spaces, so I went to the only place where I thought I could sleep in comfort, the cinema.

I took a train to the Dhoby Ghaut Metro (and yes, it did incite a twinge of nostalgia if not for the iconic tourisy place in Mumbai certainly for the city even if I hardly been 12 hours away from it) and stormed into the Plaza Singapura past the obscenely gaudy Jelly Baby sculptures and into the Golden Village cineplex where I bought a ticket for a seat in an unpopulated corner of the hall for the longest film playing at the earliest, a Korean film whose name I didn’t bother to check which ran for about two and a half hours long.

As soon as the film began, I was immediately transported to its world of what appeared to be a grand Asian city complex of high walls, fluted columns, magnificently opulent ceilings gilded with gold, expansive gardens and beautiful women gliding gracefully by the grassy banks of the streams. This shot, among the greatest I had ever seen until that time, appeared to be from the perspective of the narrator as sweeping camera angles effortlessly swooned over the landscape and the buildings and in steady, fluid movements panned around the principal characters who looked and interacted with the camera as if it was the protagonist.

I couldn’t quite get what the characters were saying because the dubbing was very poor with dialogues spoken in a garbled, sluggish English but it was OK because I was thoroughly enamored at how ravishing it looked. The entire film was set in the mighty palace and new characters kept popping out of nowhere to set up intriguing plot twists which were forgotten just a few scenes later as another set of characters took over to carry on a new thread of narrative. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this film because it appeared to have been made on a stupendous budget and had the sort of bravura tenth wall breaking cinematic stunts that I had never seen in cinema before.

Then just as I began wondering why some of these characters appeared familiar and seem to have been borrowed from my life, I felt someone shaking my arm. I wanted to lash out at this person because who the hell shakes someone’s arm in the middle of a movie? So I turned to rebuke this person and when I turned to look up, the film shut down abruptly and I found myself staggering out of my seat from a deep slumber with a young boy with a big broom in his hand looking at me with extreme contempt and saying, “Show over, sir. Please get out.”

This prolonged 150 minute nap in the cinema hall gave me an adrenalin surge and I felt I could finally take on Singapore with all the energy and clarity I possessed. But first, I needed to have some coffee. So I headed up to the branch of Wang Café in the Plaza Singapura and had a highly fulfilling cup of Kopi with a set of kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs to go with.

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Gluttony in Pokhara

Wake up, breakfast, work, lunch, stroll by the lakeside, work, coffee, work, dinner, sleep. That’s what I did for the 3 and a half weeks I spent in Pokhara. Many people I met in Pokhara asked me with some consternation, “But why would you come to a place like Pokhara and work?” “Well”, I said, “to lead the kind of happy-go-jaunty lifestyle I lead, I need money and to make money, I need to work.” And frankly, sitting and working in a fancy café on the lakeside strip in Pokhara sipping organic coffee while enjoying the fresh breeze from the Himalayas on one side and the serene Phewa Lake on the other, surely beat sitting in a little cubicle in a claustrophobic prison cell/glass building complex in Mumbai.

There are probably more places to eat in Pokhara than there are people to eat in them. So I spent a lot of my time in the city trawling around the lakeside strip looking for a good meal or a quiet place to sit, work and drink coffee. You get possibly every conceivable cuisine on the 3 kilometer road that runs east to west along the Phewa lake. Here’s my attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Monsoon Café – A small café attached to the Sacred Valley Inn. This one does fairly decent organic all-day breakfasts that are easy on the wallet. The quantities are somewhat pitiful but it’s a good place to spend the afternoons reading a book, drinking coffee and watching people go by.

Almonds – Every time I ran out of GBs on my Ncell datapack, I had to lug myself to their office which was in a part of town that’s very wisely hidden away from touristic eyes. This was the Pokhara of choking traffic, ramshackle shops and dusty streets and where its residents lived and worked. The Almonds on the noisy traffic circle of B.P. Chowk was an Indian restaurant and the less fancy, more authentic branch of the one on Lakeside. It’s the kind of Indian food that you get served in a Shiv Sagar or Kamat’s Hotel in India but it was a welcome change from the dal bhaat and fancy European staples usually available in Lakeside Pokhara. It’s easily the best “Indian” food I ate in Pokhara.

Moondance – I avoided this place for the longest time because it looked too expensive and intimidating for someone as penniless and classless as I felt I was. But one stormy evening, I found myself moored outside during a fearsome thunderstorm without an umbrella with two British classical musicians EB and JB. They weren’t skinflints and I was too proud to make myself sound like one, so we took shelter in its cozy candle-lit confines. It was certainly expensive by Pokhara standards but the food was so delectable that it seemed churlish to complain about the rates. In any case, EB felt it was a steal because steaks of that quality would cost more than 10 times as much in a little joint in London. After that joyful evening of discussing Beethoven, Berlioz and John Cage, I went to Moondance many more times, to sample their eclectic menu of salads, steaks and desserts. The lemon meringue pie was an absolute winner. It’s probably my single favourite restaurant in the whole of Pokhara.

Mike’s Restaurant – Oh, the much heralded Mike’s Breakfast. The potential here is so great that it seems a bit harsh to complain about the mediocre food. Here, the location is everything, as close to the edge of the lake as one could get in Pokhara. Many afternoons, I would just lounge here with a pot or two of lemongrass tea, while reading a book and looking at the tranquil lake. Old Tibetan ladies who strategically placed themselves close by made frequent conversations in an attempt to sell their goods. Boats would take off from the nearby jetty, ferrying locals, fishermen and tourists. People would be taking relaxing strolls on the promenade by the lake. It was a beautiful place to be. So it’s a pity that pretty much every dish on the menu tastes bland and insipid.

The view from Mike's breakfast
The view from Mike’s breakfast

Bella Napoli – One of the numerous faux Italian restaurants on the main strip. The pizzas aren’t too bad but for the price you pay for a meal here, you might as well be spending a little bit more at some of the better Italian places on Lakeside.

Natssul – The best Korean restaurant on Lakeside with generous portions and waiters who can help you decipher what many of the incomprehensible dishes mean. I went there with a Korean friend and he vouched for the quality of the food. We had the bimbimbap and the barbequed pork, both of which were excellent. It’s not inexpensive but a good change from the typical backpacker food that you get here.

Caffe Concerto – Easily the best Italian restaurant I ate in Lakeside. The fresh, wood-fired pizzas, salads garnished with generous dollops of feta cheese and virgin oil and the best apple pies this side of Marpha are totally worth the gasps of anguish that are certain to escape your mouth when the waiter hits you with the bill.

Black & White – This was my haunt on those mornings when I was caught up in World Cup fever. It was the nearest place with a TV showing cricket matches. Inevitably, the most popular matches were the ones starring India and Bangladesh. The Kashmiris, Biharis and Bangladeshis running the nearby shops descended on its largely vacant seats to catch up on the scores. What about the food? The breakfasts were great! They were well presented and filling. The “American Breakfast” with fried eggs, toast bread, hash browns, salad, bacon, sausage, pancakes and cappuccino was so enormous that I made it my breakfast AND lunch.

AM/PM Café – This was a fancy little café that specialized in bagels, salads and organic food. The people running it were friendly to a fault. The customers were largely flashpackers slouching in front of their laptops over mugs of coffee. Everything here was of a standard somewhat higher than you would find in a similar sort of place elsewhere in Pokhara. The coffee was especially awesome.

Metro – This tiny little place with a sprawling roof-top terrace served, by far, the best pancake crepes in Pokhara. There are a wide variety of options to choose from covering the whole gamut from the usual nutella, cinnamon and banana standards to cheese, ham and veggies. They also do some spectacular slushes and coffee. It’s not the easiest place to find, down the alley right next to Adams Tours & Travels. While most places in Pokhara have wifi, the one here was especially fast.

Newari Kitchen – You know times have changed when people come to a restaurant less for the food than for the wifi. I was always the only person eating here watching people turning away when they found out the wifi didn’t work, which is a pity because the food here was absolutely first-rate. Although they serve undeniably good Italian, Indian and Tibetan food, it’s the Newari specialities that stand out. My Newari set was huge and supremely spicy even for my burnt out Indian taste buds and exploded a riot of flavours that I had never experienced before.

Pokhara Thakali Kitchen – If you don’t have the time to go to Mustang to sample the distinctive dal-bhaat of the Thakali people who reside there, this is possibly the next best option. The great thing about Pokhara Thakali Kitchen is that it serves the dal bhaat with all the chutneys that one would find in a meal in a Thakali home. You get a complimentary chang (rice beer) with some of the options. For the kind of authenticity and the ambience it provides, the meals are surprisingly inexpensive.

Tara’s Vegetarian Restaurant – A tiny 4 table café tucked behind a little shopping complex that houses the Fujiyama Japanese restaurant. The menu is refreshingly simple with just a handful of choices that are made fresh in the open kitchen with organic ingredients. It looks particularly well-tuned to yoga afficianados with detox breakfasts and fresh fruit platters. The alu parathas are particularly well-made, greaseless and yummy.

New Marwadi Restaurant – There are a few of these scattered around Pokhara although pretty much all of them are run by Nepalis. This one is close to the Old Lan Hua Restaurant and is inevitably filled with Indian tourists and a few clueless backpackers. The food is cheap but quite terrible. My dosa felt like chewing gum and their idea of sambar was a putrid tasteless mixture of watery dal with chilli powder thrown in. Yuck.

The hippie lounge in Oxygen
The hippie lounge in Oxygen

Oxygen – By sheer coincidence, I ran into BR and SM, while strolling on the lakeside strip. I had met them the previous year in Goa and now that our paths had crossed, we made plans to do a trek to the Annapurna Base Camp. All our “meetings” were held at this chilled out lounge bar with good food, lake-views and lots of beer. We usually had the whole place to ourselves most afternoons and evenings. The place filled up when a football match was on and when there wasn’t a match on, a band was called on to play Nepali folk songs and 80s pop covers to lure customers.

Perky Beans – My favourite coffee shop in Pokhara. The rooftop had the most sought-after seats, with the two chairs facing the lake being the most popular. The other side faced the street, an absolutely terrific place to look at people from up above. Many of my working, reading, writing, idling and socializing hours were spent here thanks to their awesome coffee and ginormous smoothies.

Punjabi Restaurant – Nothing very Punjabi about the food but try telling that to the backpackers who flock here in droves to get an “Indian” taste. The food is significantly spiced down to cater to a Western palette. It’s not the worst imitation Indian food ever but frankly, when you have a branch of Almonds just around the corner, a trip here is easily avoidable.

Café Amsterdam – SM and I hung out in this pub to watch the World Cup semi-finals over a few beers. To our agony, South Africa crashed out depressingly after another nail-biting finish with Dale Steyn giving away 12 runs in his final over. There were more people for the next match and the two of us were full of patriotic jingoism because India was playing Australia. Our enthusiasm quickly died when we saw that we were the only Indians amidst a sea of Australians. The sight of a yuppie backpacker draped in an Australian flag made me want India to win more than ever before. But they were roundly thrashed by a far stronger Australian side and the two of us left before it all ended inevitably painfully.

Café Italiano – This place had just opened and was very close to where I was staying. They had an inaugural discount going and I was welcomed by every waiter who worked there like I was some celebrity. They’re not as good as Caffe Concerto but they aren’t as expensive either. The food is genuinely good and their crunchy thin-crust wood-fired pizzas run a very close second to the ones served in Concerto.

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Gluttony in Pondicherry

One of the pleasures of coming to Pondicherry is hopping from one café to the next, either sipping a lovingly brewed cup of coffee or munching a sublime croissant that melts in your mouth or gorging on freshly made pancakes. I should say, though, that the best food I had here was not in a fancy café but at the busy South Indian restaurant Surguru. Some days, especially on week-ends, it gets so packed, there’s a long queue waiting to get in, always a good sign. Now, I have had my fair share of dosas, “meals” (the South Indian version of the unlimited thali), idli’s, parottas and filter coffees but nothing quite compares to the quality you get here. Unlike the infamous Saravana Bhavan, the food isn’t oily, looks hygienic and is as tasty as Tam food gets. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a list of places where I enjoyed other kinds of food –

Baker Street – Being impossibly absent-minded about most things in life, I have lost many an expensive item on the road. A mobile in Sri Lanka, another in Goa, a portable stove in Zanskar, spectacles in Vientiane, a bag in Chiang Rai, countless room keys and dozens of other very important things. If it wasn’t for the friendly and honest people at Baker Street, I would have added a Kindle to the list. So, thank you, people who run Baker Street, for keeping my Kindle safe and returning it back to me. On the food front, you get great croissants, quiches, salads and all manner of French-like things here. I heard it’s very crowded usually but it was empty both times I went. The desserts were positively yum too, especially the flan and the eclairs. Nice place to put on a few kilos.

A quiche and a croissant in Pondicherry

Arokya – Although I find much of what passes for “organic” tasteless and insipid, I do have a tendency to go for healthy sounding meals every once in a while. You would think a place like Pondicherry, the land of ashrams, yoga and Auroville would have more of these but Arokya is a pioneer, being the only organic-themed restaurant in Pondy (according to Sundar who runs it) and I’m very happy to say that they make healthy food without making you feel like you’re eating tasteless gruel. The veggie soup wasn’t great but the main course was delicious. The carrot paniharam which was accompanied by sambar and chutney was delightful and so was the nine-grain chappathi that came with a helping of vegetable kurma. I washed it all down with a mixed fruit juice that was ever so slightly sweetened with sugarcane.

Zuka – Everything here screams chocolate and how! Zuka is a cosy little café that values quality over quantity and although my hot chocolate felt more like having a shot of whisky than a mug of beer, it was still the best hot chocolate that I can remember having in a long time. The last one was in the (also) ex-French colonial town of Luang Prabang. The hot chocolate here comes with bits of chocolate in little chocolate thimbles so you can make your drink more chocolatey. Did I mention they do good chocolate here?

Hot chocolate at Zuka

Le Café – This one wins purely for the location on the promenade facing the sea, which makes it possibly the most popular café in the city. Sip on well-brewed filter coffee with the crowds and enjoy the fresh sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal. It’s open 24 hours, so perfect for the ones who wake up at 5 in the morning and go jogging on the Promenade.

Kasha ki Aasha – A rooftop place run by local ladies that makes piping hot pancakes that are a world away from the imitation banana/honey pancakes you get on the backpacker trail made by Nepali cooks. I have never been to France but the Frenchman who lives next to me at my guest house swears it’s as authentic as it gets. The coffee is fantastic too, served with a lot of love and a few smiles. It’s the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon reading a book and if you don’t have a book, there’s free wi-fi to make sure you don’t get too bored.

Coffee at Kasha ki Aasha

Cafe Xtasi – If Pizza is what you crave for, this is where you should go. This place has a menu with a whopping 7 pages of pizzas with just about every permutation, combination and ingredient that you can think of. The breads come out of a wood-fired oven that lies outside the air-conditioned dining area in public view so you know what you’re getting is the real thing.

If anyone’s been to Pondicherry and has more suggestions, do let me know! I’m here and always willing to eat.

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