Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Are there any Malays in the audience?



Undoubtedly, many Singaporeans have seen the above message. It is doing the rounds on social media.

Am I alone in believing the message is offensive? And I am not even Malay.

"Do not provoke the Malays people."

I guess it is fine to provoke Malays in normal times but not these days. However, if one feels aggressive then go ahead and provoke the Chinese. It seems they will not react to unnecessary provocations!

"Be friendly and keep a distance from them [Malays]."

If one happens to be a Malay Singaporean (odds are about one in seven) planning to visit family in Malaysia to celebrate Hari Raya, cancel your visit immediately. There is no telling what these fanatics might do – best to just stay at home and spread rumours instead!

"Malays are string [stirring] members and are planning a rampage to slaughter the Chinese becos of the LowYat incident."

So if you happen to be a 'normal' [aka non-Malay] Singaporean don't visit JB or any other part of Malaysia during the coming long weekend. It's not violent crime that should worry us; it's the possibility of being slaughtered for being Chinese.

I am normally not one to give credence to conspiracy theories. However, even if the message is well intentioned - which I suspect is not the case - it is alarmist, racist and certainly falls prey to negative stereotyping. It may create ill-will among Singaporeans.

Perhaps I have yet to come to terms with being a minority living in a Chinese majority (multi-racial) Republic? Or perhaps I am simply overreacting to an otherwise innocent message?
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Sarajevo: Bosnia’s microcosm of humanity


If Serbia was an eye-opener then Bosnia was no less an amazing experience!

As the crow flies, the distance between Belgrade and Sarajevo is less than 200 kilometres – a couple of hours on a German autobahn or an intercity train! However, train services between Belgrade and Sarajevo were suspended in 2012 making bus travel the best option.

Given the mountainous (and beautiful!) terrain traversed during the road journey, the actual distance traveled on a bus is approximately 300 kilometres. Including a few rest stops, immigration formalities to exit Serbia and enter Bosnia (two independent nations), the entire journey takes almost eight hours. A long but manageable ride.

The Sebilj or Ottoman style wooden fountain located in Bascarsija Square, an old city district
The highway from Belgrade takes one through fairly typical (yet beautiful!) European countryside. It is only closer to the Bosnian frontier that the land becomes mountainous. Sarajevo proper is situated 500 meters above sea level in a valley of the Dinaric Alps.

Although the Bosnian countryside is spectacular especially when seen from such high vantage points, it is the pervasiveness of graveyards, large and small, dotted across Bosnia which one finds striking. The cemeteries are a reminder of the horrors – and massacres – of the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s. As recently as October 2013, a mass grave believed to contain over 1,000 bodies was found near a village in Northwest Bosnia.

(View a vivid pictorial essay of the Bosnian War by the Atlantic magazine here.)

The bus curves its way up mountains on narrow roads until at some point it begins its descent again. (Travelers prone to motion sickness or suffering from fear of heights may wish to carry ginger and / or sleeping pills!)

There is a sense of excitement about entering Sarajevo after hours of driving in sparsely populated rural areas; entering civilization after wandering about in 'no man's land!'

The Latin Bridge across the Miljacka River. The bridge was the site of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914, an event which precipitated World War One 
From first glance, one realizes Sarajevo is an old and unique city. Europe but still not quite Europe: more Europe than Istanbul but as Ottoman as any Turkish city, especially in architectural terms.

Moreover, Sarajevo is a city of hills with narrow streets and lanes. A great city for keeping fit as walking – even a short distance of a few hundred meters to the nearest tram station – requires negotiating steep inclines. There is also a medieval, 'stone houses and cobbled streets' atmosphere within Sarajevo, nowhere more so than in the Baščaršija Square located in the old town.

Sarajevo is a must see city for any traveler: a city of functioning synagogues, cathedrals and mosques; a city which recently hosted Pope Francis. Sarajevo is also a city which was only recently (at least for historians!) plunged into despair, despondency and an orgy of bloodletting along religious and ethnic lines.  

A dog drinks water at the Sebilj water fountain
In so many ways, Sarajevo personifies the best and worst of human nature: a city of tolerance, peace and harmony and yet also a city of war and unspeakable atrocities.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Europe Extravaganza 2015 in bullet points!


Not exactly the original Orient Express but one of my own personal versions of Europe by train!  
Istanbul, Turkey: Can't go wrong with one of my favorite cities. However, Istanbul has become increasingly commercialized recently and is losing some of its charm. Ottoman architecture and friendly (animated!) Turks compensate for the loss.

Istanbul to Sofia (Bulgaria) by train: Cheap. Normally a decent journey but messy this round due to rail system upgrades in both Turkey and Bulgaria. In normal circumstances, one can't go wrong with the Turkish Railways (TCDD) sleeper compartment on the nightly Balkans Express train from Istanbul to Sofia.

Sofia, Bulgaria: Day trips such as to Rila Monastery make a stay in an otherwise somewhat grey city more enjoyable. The upside? Until today Sofia remains one of the cheapest cities in Europe. Pamper yourself by enjoying local food at some of the city's most popular premium restaurants – it won't break your budget!

Sofia to Belgrade (Serbia) by train: Very comfortable journey in a sleeper compartment which arrives in Belgrade early morning. Immigration formalities are conducted on the train by both Bulgarian and Serbian officials.

Belgrade, Serbia: Don't be thrown by the 'War Criminals' label associated with Serbia – all nations have demons to exorcize. Belgrade was friendly and cheap with lots to see. On a sunny day, budget at least half a day walking around the fortress area; you will not be disappointed.

Belgrade to Sarajevo (Bosnia) by coach: There is no railway in operation between these two formerly warring Yugoslav republics. The coach takes you through some incredible mountainous scenery. (The whole trip reminds me of a road journey in Northern Pakistan, e.g. from Islamabad to the Swat Valley.) Note the mass graveyards which dot Bosnia's landscape – a grim reminder of recent hostilities. If you are prone to motion sickness be prepared to carry your tablets for parts of the winding journey.

Sarajevo, Bosnia: Wonderful - a little bit of the 'Orient' in the middle of Europe! Not a Muslim city by an means, one sees many churches (Orthodox and Catholic) and the odd (functional) synagogue. My first synagogue visit was here in Sarajevo (Singapore's synagogue doesn't permit non-Jewish visitors). Be prepared for exercise while walking up and down hills if you stay in the old city. Food is good, people friendly and the city oozes history (which I love). A must visit.


Sarajevo to Mostar (Bosnia) or by road: Beautiful journey, often adjacent to a river and through mountains. The short two and a half hour journey can also be done by train (on my next visit to Bosnia!). The train journey seems like it should be on some 'Top Ten Train Journeys of the World' list. If you are 3-4 persons hiring a car for a 'door to door' journey is cheaper than traveling by train.

Mostar, Bosnia: The natural scenery surrounding Mostar makes the city an ideal candidate for a 'retreat' from civilization! From our apartment by the river we could hear the soothing sounds of a waterfall and flowing water. The old Ottoman bridge and bazaar are nice. For me, hearing the Islamic call to prayer (Azan) at the same time as a nearby church was ringing its bells was a highlight of my visit. (No, they weren't trying to drown each other out either!) For Catholics, the nearby pilgrimage town of Medjugorje is a pleasant day trip.

Sarajevo to Zagreb, Croatia by train: Another long train journey on carriages being pulled by a 1970s style diesel electric locomotive – I love it! The journey cuts through some amazing scenery and is a comfortable way to travel between the two cities. Be prepared for delays as both the Bosnian nor the Croatian railways staff operate the service in a relaxed manner without obsessing about on time arrivals.

Zagreb, Croatia: 'New Europe' retains a degree of religiosity which has been lost in 'Old Europe.' Catholic Croatia is as good an example as any – visit the cathedrals and churches! Zagreb also has a surprising number of decent museums and art galleries, take the time to visit a few. Not many cities count cemeteries in their 'must see' lists but the Mirogoj Cemetery is on Zagreb's list. One can easily spend a few hours getting lost in the graveyard while admiring the diversely handcrafted tombstones in Mirogoj.

Zagreb to Budapest, Hungary by train: Surprisingly, the train had free (and functioning!) internet wifi as soon as we entered Hungary. Otherwise an uneventful train journey through European countryside.

Budapest, Hungary: A graceful historic city with much to see. Although most traces of over 150 years of Ottoman rule have been wiped clean, more recent influences from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and post war communist rule are widely visible. Keep your eyes open for the interesting architecture visible all across the city. If you like meat, the beef goulash is a must.

Budapest to Bratislava, Slovakia by train: A regular rail traveler once told me all trains to and from Budapest are late by about 30 minutes. My experience certainly bears this out! Nonetheless, the journey was comfortable and routine; no excitement.

Bratislava, Slovakia: I really did not know what to expect in Bratislava. While it was expensive – perhaps because Slovakia is in the Euro currency zone - the city was a welcome addition to the itinerary. Highlights included Devin Castle – a short bus ride from the city center and the amazingly cute St. Elizabeth's Church (Blue Little Church or Modry kostolik).


Bratislava to Prague, Czech Republic by train: Another uneventful rail journey. Perhaps 'railway fatigue' has set in after the several earlier train rides. Alternately, I believe as one heads farther into more 'developed' Europe and the trains become more advanced the beauty of nostalgic, traditional rail journeys is replaced by the sterility of (theoretically!) 'efficient and comfortable' modern railways – where every inch of leg space is fully utilized!

Prague, Czech Republic: Beware of the extortionate commissions (21-27%!!) charged by most money changers in central Prague! Other than the money changers (with taxi drivers a close second!), Prague is a wonderful city for travelers. Once you get the Old Town and Charles Bridge out of the way, make sure you visit St. Vitus Cathedral in the city's castle area.

Onwards from Prague: International flights from Prague are available to most parts of the world, through connecting flights in other European or Asian (Dubai) hubs. For those who wish to carry on with the journey, direct trains are available from Prague to several European cities, e.g. Munich. From Munich travelers can travel farther west and ultimately connect with the Eurostar from either Belgium or France and end their journey in London. Alternately, travelers can take a direct train from Prague to Warsaw and travel East or Northeast from Warsaw.
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Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Tito's Belgrade: Europe and Balkan simultaneously


After arriving at Belgrade railway station early in the morning, we took a taxi to our apartment. Based on my research, the apartment was supposed to be located in a central part of Belgrade, not far from the city castle and other local attractions.

As the taxi wound its way through Belgrade's streets, my heart slowly began to sink: we seemed to be heading farther and farther into nothingness. It seemed like my research left a lot to be desired – we were going to be stranded in an apartment in a strange and intimidating East European city in a deserted part of town!

Central Belgrade at night with a view of the Sava River
Thankfully, that was not the case once we explored the area around the apartment. We were indeed staying in a decent location, with the Danube River freely flowing behind the building and Belgrade city a short walk from the front.

Since this was the first 'new' (not previously visited by me) city on our itinerary, we had not yet overdosed on any of the 'standard' attractions offered by most European cities: castles, cathedrals and shopping! So, after getting out bearings it was time to go out an explore Belgrade!

Belgrade is an ancient city. Archeological evidence suggests humans occupied lands around Belgrade 20,000 or more years ago. Singidunum, Belgrade's name while it was part of the Roman Empire, was granted city status by Roman officials way back in the Second Century AD. Later the city became known as 'White City' or Bel Grad.

The Stambul (Istanbul) Gate of the Belgrade Fortress
Belgrade's geography – the city is sited at the meeting point of the Danube and Sava Rivers – partly explains the city's long history and strategic importance. Belgrade has been occupied by 40 different armies and substantially rebuilt 38 times! Recent history has Belgrade as a part of the Ottoman and Austrian empires until it became the capital of a Serbian kingdom in 1918. Following the end of World War Two in 1945, Belgrade became the capital of Tito's socialist Yugoslavia. Finally, in 2006 Belgrade became the capital of independent Serbia.

Belgrade's military importance is reflected in the Belgrade Fortress.

A part of the Kalemegdan Park which near the Fortress
The fortress sits on a site overlooking the confluence of the 1,900 km Danube River with the 990 km Sava River. The heights surrounding the fortress provide a great view of the rivers and Belgrade's Stari Grad (New City) district. The fortress is surrounded by a beautiful park, the Kalemegdan. The park was used by soldiers waiting for the enemy prior to battle. The name reflects the deep Ottoman Turkish influence on the city. Kale means fortress while megdan means field or square in Turkish.

On a nice day, a relaxing morning at the fortress and the park is a wonderful way to get a feel for the city. There are street stalls souvenirs and a military museum in the area too.

The Church of Saint Sava
Other sights in Belgrade include the Church of St. Sava. One of the largest orthodox churches in the world, the church is built on the site where Saint Sava's remains were burned in 1595 by Ottoman authorities during a Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule. Though not old, construction was completed less than a decade ago, it is a grand monument and reflects the importance of the Orthodox church in the lives of ordinary Serbs.

Marshall Tito (extreme right) with Yugoslav resistance fighters during World War Two
Off interest to those who grew up in the midst of the Cold War, is Marshal Tito's grave. Called the House of Flowers, the mausoleum is adjacent to the Museum of Yugoslav History.

Josep Broz Tito (1892 – 1980) founded modern Yugoslavia and held its various republics, including Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, united during his lifetime. Not long after Tito's death Yugoslavia descended into a complex orgy of bloodletting pitting distinct ethnic and religious groups against each other. The former Yugoslav republic is now divided into several small states, i.e. Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Montenegro.

Tito's grave located inside the House of Flowers
Belgrade is a friendly city, recovering from the stigma of being home to some of the world's worst war criminals. Despite Belgrade's current homogenous ethnic and cultural mix, the city displays unmistakable glimpses of its diverse past. Belgrade was an unexpectedly pleasant experience – and cheap to boot. Based on my experiences, Belgrade is a strong contender for my future travel dollars!
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Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

A Pakistani visits Serbia (and enjoys Belgrade)!


The train journey from Sofia to Belgrade (Serbia) was near perfect. If one enjoys long, old fashioned 'clickety-clack' rail adventures. It was a sleeper train which left Sofia station at night and reached Belgrade early the next morning. The duration of the journey was long enough to cater for a good night's sleep – fresh and ready for adventures in Belgrade at seven in the morning!

A map showing the division of the former Republic of Yugoslavia into various smaller states, including Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. 
Serbia was not a 'bucket list' destination for me. I imagine any non-European Muslim will be skeptical about visiting Serbia, due mainly to its history of committing genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Belgrade was added grudgingly to my Europe 2015 Extravaganza itinerary. The city was an easy connection from Sofia and provided an entry point into Bosnia and farther into Central Europe.

Serbia and the Serbs are closely associated with the Bosnian genocide, killings which primarily took place purely on the basis that most Bosniaks are Muslim. The civil war which led to the break-up of the former Yugoslav Republic produced many massacres and many war criminals. The war reinforced the notion of the Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian region as a tinder box ready to ignite larger European conflicts, like World War One in 1914.

A Bulgarian train stands at a station in 2012
My apprehensions about Serbia were such that I imagined Serbian immigration authorities will give me the 'Double Second Degree' treatment as a result of my Pakistani heritage. Pakistan, after all, was one of the few countries which provided Bosnia with more than just moral support, sending material and weapons also. A fact not missed by the Serbian authorities as noted by the Serbs formal request to produce a Pakistani general for prosecution at the International Court of Justice.

As it transpired, Belgrade was a wonderful experience. From entry until exit, Serbs were friendly. Knowledge of English was widespread, making the visit just that more comfortable. As for the war and war criminals, it seemed like nothing never happened. An ugly memory which is not to be discussed, particularly as Serbia moves forward in its quest to become a full member of the European Union.

Stay tuned for more on Belgrade in my next post.
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Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Bulgaria: the gateway to Europe


Sofia is not well known for tourism. The capital of Bulgaria has no recognizable icons like the Eiffel Tower nor commercial attractions like Disneyland. In fact, most people will be hard pressed to place Sofia - or even Bulgaria - on a map of Europe.

Nonetheless, for any traveler proceeding to Europe from the East by land, Bulgaria is unavoidable. On their march to siege the city walls of Vienna, Ottoman Sultans proceeded westwards into Europe through Bulgaria. The road to Vienna traveled through Sofia and while borders may change, geography does not. Hence, it was through Sofia that I went westwards, deeper into Balkan Europe.

Sofia's impressive Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
The Bulgars are a predominantly Eastern Orthodox people following their own church, the Church of Bulgaria. The Church of Bulgaria is one of the oldest churches within Christianity, formally recognized by the Constantinople hierarchy in the early 900s. Not surprisingly, one of the top sights in the city is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, catherdal church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria.

The Nevsky Cathedral in just over 100 years old. The structure was completed in 1912. The cathedral has a capacity of 10,000 persons and is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world. The cathedral is named after Alexander Nevsky, a Russian prince. The cathedral also honors Russian soldiers who died in the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78, following which Bulgaria obtained its independence after almost five centuries of Ottoman rule.

During Ottoman times Sofia had over seventy mosques but today only one remains, the Banya Bashi Mosque. The remainder were destroyed once the Ottomans were vanquished by Bulgarian nationalists. The Banya Bashi Mosque is one more marvel of Ottoman Master Architect Sinan. The mosque was completed in 1576 and, unusually, was built over natural thermal spas. The mosque serves the city's Muslim minority. Muslims comprise almost ten percent of Bulgaria's present population.

Sofia's sole surviving mosque, the Banya Bashi Mosque, completed in 1576
Outside of Sofia there is a beautiful monastery located high in the Rile mountains. The Monastery of Saint Ivan of Rila or the Rila Monastery is located approximately 120 kilometers south of Sofia and at an elevation of 1,150 meters above sea level. The monastery was founded in the tenth century and also houses a museum. A visit to the monastery makes for a pleasant day trip.

A view of the Rila Monastery as seen on the back of the One Lev banknote
Undoubtedly, Bulgaria is European. Indeed, for railway enthusiasts Sofia is also the perfect starting point for any rail journey heading west into Europe. So while Bulgaria has been part of the European Union since 2007, the nation is anything but mainstream Europe. The remnants of decades of communism and political isolation are still pervasive – though slowly disappearing - making Bulgaria an unique travel experience.
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Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

The Balkans Express: Istanbul to Sofia train


A few years I had a pleasant experience traveling on a Turkish Railways (TCDD) sleeper overnight train from Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria. So while planning my latest European rail extravaganza (yes, extravaganza!) I didn't think twice about repeating the journey. Particularly because Sofia is a nice entry point into Eastern Europe with a direct train to Belgrade, my next destination.

The first sniff that something was not right came when the TCDD officer in Istanbul's Sirkeci railway station informed us the journey to the Bulgarian border was by 'special' coach. Subsequently, after crossing into Bulgaria, all passengers will board a Bulgarian train for the remainder of the journey to Sofia.

The Turkish border town of Kapikule located on the Turkish - Bukgarian frontier
Ok, slightly inconvenient but really not such a big deal? Right - wrong, very wrong!

The journey began uneventfully enough. A comfortable TCDD operated coach to the Turkish border town of Kapikule. Turkish immigration formalities were completed at Kapikule. Once out of Turkey, a Bulgarian train was waiting to take us all the way to Sofia. Or so we thought!

The train left Kapikule as expected. Bulgarian immigration officers boarded the train and completed immigration formalities on the moving train. (Singapore and Malaysia: please implement similar immigration procedures for rail passengers traveling between the two countries). Again, nothing unusual.

The bombshell was dropped by a Bulgarian railways conductor a little while later. The present train terminated at Plovdiv – about 160 kilometers short of Sofia! All passengers were required to board a connecting train to Sofia at Plovdiv. A hassle, but not the end of the world. The only hitch: there was a transit time of two hours in Plovdiv. Not exactly how one wanted to spend the morning after an all night, coach – train journey.

Stuck for two hours in Plovdiv without any Bulgarian Lev and not knowing if any shops – or money changers – in town are open! Certainly an enticing and ominous way to inaugurate Europe Extravaganza 2015 rail journeys?!

The front of the train station at the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv - an unscheduled detour in Bulgaria!
Traveling, like life, means rolling with the punches and looking at the bright side. The bright side? I got almost an hour wandering around Plovdiv, even eating some Bulgarian pizza in the bargain.

The Sofia train departed Plovdiv as scheduled and rolled into Sofia at lunchtime. Sure, a 634 kilometer journey from Istanbul to Sofia took approximately half a day … but the sun was shining in Sofia and my 'Europe 2015 Extravaganza' had well and truly begun.

It can only get better from here onwards!
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Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.