Saturday, June 21, 2008

Time travel.

Geographical travel is so passé. Directions, locations, co-ordinates, choice of country… it’s so done. Much better to travel chronologically; to make your travel plans according to the era you prefer. You want to travel to the 1930s? You can. You want to make a getaway to the 1970s? Uh huh. Or you want to spend a weekend in the 1950s? By all means.


Interesting how several of the places on our list represent a certain era as a result of some great calamity. An earthquake in New Zealand, the partitioning of India, a war in Cambodia, a cyclone in Australia. Perhaps the human race needs a major disaster to leave things as they are.  In 1972, Cyclone Tracy wheeled through Northern Australia, tearing up everything in its path. One of those things was the city of Darwin, which was ripped into shreds in a matter of hours. The resulting rebuilding programme was swift, vast and intelligent, and defines the atmosphere of the town to this day. Lovely early 70s tropical modernism, gorgeous wide avenues and planned parks, the clean lines and soaring optimism of the era reflected in every public building, framed by the tropical sky and the lush greenery everywhere you turn. Lovely louvered windows, flat white roofs, frangipani trees on perfectly manicured lawns: When you step off your Tiger Airways flight onto the Northern Territory tarmac, you’re taking a step back 30 years. And that can only be a good thing.


Thank God for Communism. Without it, Cambodia would be just one more Asian country full of ticky-tacky buildings, petrol stations and mini marts, untrammelled development and overblown six-lane highways. As it is, the calamity that befell the nation in the 1970s means that Cambodia’s architectural heritage is still for the most part intact. Sihanoukville, the stylish beachside enclave where the noblesse oblige of Cambodia holidayed before the Khmer Rouge decided they wanted a part of the action, is still preserved in all its 1960s-chic glory. Modernist bungalows, low-slung marine-cubist villas, lovely, little curvy hotels that could have been plucked from a Thunderbirds set – and yes, one or two very funky little petrol stations from the era. In this little corner of Cambodia, it’s as if the last 40 years never happened. Very handy.


A short history lesson. When Pakistan separated from India, the province of Punjab was divided between the two countries. The Punjabi capital, Lahore, is a lovely Victorian town, Melbourne mixed with Mughal, and was perhaps India’s loveliest city: until it found itself in the Pakistani half of the province. India’s leaders decided they needed a new capital of Indian Punjab to replace the one they lost, and gave legendary modernist architect Le Corbusier a call. The result was Chandigarh. A totally planned city, laid out on a grid, built entirely in concrete. Some say it is nothing more than an English council estate transplanted onto Indian soil, but the sheer spectacular appeal of the place is undeniable. And the unique architectural stamp of the brutalist era is apparent everywhere you turn. If the 1950s is your time, it’s time you headed to Chandigarh.


While the rest of the world was involved in the fine mess of World War II, New Zealand – despite a huge proportion of its population fighting fiercely in Europe and Asia – was itself physically unaffected. In fact, the years towards the end of the war and afterwards were a veritable boom time, with exports to the rest of the world at record levels. Prosperity translated into construction, and the people of Christchurch benefited as much as anyone. Lovely mock-Victorian mansions, modern Arts & Crafts cottages, impressive state-of-the-art shopping precincts and solid public parks gave the city the mark of the era which remains to this day, and gives a lovely historical feel to the place which complements its more modern activities like bungee-jumping and whitewater jetboating.


Hard to believe today, but there was a time when Indonesia was synonymous with all things modern, and people from around the world travelled to Java to see the world’s most futuristic city. That time was the 1930s. Bandung, built at altitude a respectable distance from the capital Jakarta, may be looking a little worn around the edges these days but the 1930s elegance can still be found. Built entirely in Art Deco style, the architecture is consistently beautiful and some of the interiors of the restaurants, cafes and homes are simply lovely. An Art Deco society exists in the town, and tours are available where visitors can explore private suburban homes in the leafy outskirts. Things have stood still in many ways in Indonesia, but in Bandung, that can be said to be a mainly positive development.


Visitors to Singapore are often heard lamenting the fact that a good part of the colonial architecture was pulled down in the 60s and 70s. If only the place had retained its faded colonial charm, they say, the place would be a lot more appealing. Well, they need not fret. All they have to do is board a plane, fly 800 kms north to Penang, and they’ll find what they’re missing. Not just the famous landmarks: the Funicular Railway, the Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Georgetown but practically the whole island retains its slightly weird between-the-wars atmosphere. Wander down any street or peer into almost any building and you’ll be transported back to the era of gin slings, bow ties and frilly hats. Penang, despite the Malaysian government’s determination to make it some sort of IT hub, steadfastly refuses to lose its 1920s soul. Hip hip hooray. As they might have said back in the day.

Maymo‚ Burma

If Penang isn’t quite surreal enough for you, take a step back another 10 years and see if this decade is more to your tastes. When the British were in Burma, most of the colonials from the Sceptr’d Isle were in fact red-headed Scots, not blue-blooded English. Going slowly mad in the tropical heat and understandably missing the mists, the rain and the chill of home, they did all they could to recreate the atmosphere of Bonnie Scotland in Burma. Finding this place in the Burmese Highlands suitably reminiscent of the crags and lochs they had left behind, they built a hill resort here and retired here whenever the furnace temperatures of Rangoon got too much. Today, the place is almost entirely untouched, and all the houses they built remain completely intact. Spooky would be an unkind word to describe it, but we’re confident that a couple of nights here will see you very glad to return to the year 2007.

Hua Hin

These days, Hua Hin is best known for its slick design hotels and funky beachside restaurants. But enough of the original Edwardian town remains to justify a visit on temporal grounds. When the railway was pushed through the jungle from Bangkok to Singapore in the late 19th century, Hua Hin was selected as a suitable spot for a seaside resort catering to weary rail travellers. Ladies would enter the sea in bathing machines to protect their modesty from prying eyes, and gents would stroll the promenade with one eye on their fob watches to count down the minutes to the first Pimms of the day. From that era, plenty remains: the original Railway Hotel (now renamed the Sofitel and the only possible choice for accommodation), the lovely railway station, His Majesty’s Klai Klangwon Palace, several other beachside mansions and much besides if you care to discover. Edwardian-era pastel creams and greens are in abundance, matching so well with the blue of the sky and the golden sands. Those Siamese certainly knew how to live.

This article first appeared in Lifestyle + Travel magazine.
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