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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Illustration by Emilio Rivera III

Celebrity Trekkers
In a wired world where clicks are more precious than bricks, it's great that the jet setters still cross oceans and scale walls and mountains

For kung fu king Jackie Chan, it has to be Hawaii, smack in the mid-Pacific. One of controversial, best-selling Indian writer Shobha D's getaways is Sri Lanka -- Colombo, to be exact. Another island lover, Japanese actress Momoi Kaori enjoys Bali, where the sandaled horde seek sun-drenched enlightenment. Yes, sir, and yes, ma'am, in today's wired world, where globetrotters click on and off their favorite destinations without leaving their TV couches and PC desks, it's great to know the jet set still live up to that name.

And so should you. So hang up the mouse and log your mind off the fluttering Nasdaq -- it's time to pack your bags and hit the road. In case you hadn't noticed, it's official: the Crisis is history. Asians are traveling again by the planeload. And no better way to catch the fever and get some touring tips than listening to the big names who make a living writing, performing, designing and otherwise creating the shows, styles and stories that infuse Asia with excitement and enjoyment.

To kick-start the holiday season, Asiaweek chatted with, besides Chan, two actresses, two authors, two designers, a Thai model, an Indonesian pop star and a top Malaysian cartoonist about their favorite places to go and what they like doing there. Each chose a destination in his or her own country and another elsewhere in the region. For Kuala Lumpur caricature master Lat, "it's not fair to name a favorite, there are so many places that I like." But like all the other celebrity travelers, he obliged and picked his two dots on the map.

The best thing about Hawaii, says superstar Chan, used to be dressing up in casual florals and roaming the streets in unperturbed anonymity. Not any more for him since his name became synonymous with martial arts flicks. But Chan still recommends to the rest of us the grass-skirted, laid-back Hawaiian holiday.

Which isn't to say the master of kicks and chops only wants to let his hair down. He also likes well-ordered Singapore precisely for its precision. Designer Inno Sotto echoes Chan's choice: "Coming from a crazy city like Manila, I like the order and sanity, the sense that things actually get done." But the Lion City also has soul. Indonesian pop star Anggun relishes its ambience, heading for the Marina or Little India for the river view: "It's very romantic, especially with the evening lights."

Besides celebrities, travel writers are another good source of personal views that lend special charm to a place, even without leaving the hotel. Norman Lewis caricatured the decline of Singapore's Raffles Hotel in his book The World, The World: "Attracted by its reputation for embalmed Englishery, I took a cab to the celebrated Raffles Hotel, and was allocated a room with chintz curtains, a telephone dressed up unconvincingly as a cat, a Gideon Bible, and bedroom slippers for both sexes which seemed only to emphasize the loneliness of the long-distance traveler."

For many years now, of course, the Raffles has been restored to its past glory and more, like other landmark hotels prized by seasoned travelers (see story page 59). Such luxurious palaces of yore remind us to expect something different from modern-day hotels, with their sometimes excessive emphasis on convenience. There's little excitement in a sanitized, standardized room, with a generous dose of kiwi-scented shampoo and shower gel, and the regal enticement of an ironed newspaper in the morning. Do sleek gym facilities or broadband access to the virtual world define a hotel's character? What happened to personalized service, the joking bartenders who memorize the names and favorite long drinks of the counter habitues?

With their innumerable astute observations and insights, travel authors help make each holiday special, even with all the rough and tumble. More than a decade ago, another Briton, William Dalrymple, set out from the Mediterranean for Xanadu, Kublai Khan's legendary capital in China. When he finally arrived, he wrote: "I peeled off my old, stained traveling clothes, and set about relishing middle age. I vowed never again to travel on a heap of coal slag, never again to stay in a hotel that smelt like a morgue, never again to use a squatter which belched up its contents over the user. I had done all that. We longed for home, for comfort and for stability. Most of all we wanted to stop moving."

Japanese actress Momoi understands the feeling. She enjoys the "luxury of doing nothing" in Bali, the lush Indonesian playground she discovered on a two-week stay in 1977. At her favorite resort close to the airport, Momoi enjoys lying in a hot spa, sipping a glass of beer, and slumbering in blissful half-consciousness.

Illustration by Emilio Rivera III

Unwinding on a beach is Indian novelist Shobha D's idea of a perfect holiday too. An hour's drive south of Colombo, Bentota beach "boasts a string of luxury resorts on a stretch of endless white sand. I spent a very romantic wedding anniversary ensconced in a sprawling, wrap-around suite with an orchids-filled, Jacuzzi-fitted, bay-windowed bathroom. I can't think of a better eight-day break."

D also loves Sri Lankan cuisine, which is close to south India's "yet has its own unique flavors, like string hoppers floating in a spicy, creamy coconut milk curry." Couturier Sotto, for his part, takes pains to avoid the touristy restaurants where his hosts abroad usually take him. His advice: "Eat where the locals eat."

When Qu Ying takes a break from filming in China, she often visits Seoul. There she savors delights from the Korean kitchen. Though not as fiery as in her home province of Hunan, the food has a lot more bite than the dishes in her Beijing domicile. Qu's Seoul mates have also introduced her to their culture: "Every time I learn something new." Which, by the way, is as good a definition for a great destination as any.

No trip is complete, of course, without shopping. Momoi is one hard-nosed buyer. The actress goes to Bali with a near-empty satchel. No wonder her Tokyo home brims with wooden furniture, decorative crafts, batik and other textiles from the isle, which she also gifts friends with.

D wants value for money too: "Shopping in Calcutta takes my breath away. The prices are shockingly low, whether it's the finely woven, one-of-a-kind cotton dhakais or the woven tangails [both are saris]. And for those with the golden eye, Calcutta's goldsmiths are world-renowned. Most of my jewelry has been crafted by the babus at Ber bazaar. People from neighboring countries fly down on weekends to finalize their trousseaux."

One more piece of advice before you check in: Let each place tell its tale in its own language. Or as D puts it, speaking of Calcutta: "For a first-time tourist, I recommend an open mind and a receptive attitude. Don't let the obvious decadence get to you. It constitutes part of the charm. Call me if you don't end up saying 'Oh, Calcutta!' with astonishment and pleasure." Bon voyage.

With bureau reports

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