Kennie Ting’s | TRAVEL BLACK BOOK

Travel author's insights into Kolkata, a city of extremes

Imperial splendour exists side by side with abject poverty in the Indian city

Who: Kennie Ting, 36, director of policy and development at the National Heritage Board. He is also an author and his new book, The Romance Of The Grand Tour - 100 Years Of Travel In Southeast Asia, is available at all major bookstores from this month.

It features 12 port cities and grand hotels in South-east Asia which were popular stops on the grand tour, a luxury exploration of the East Indies (what South-east Asia was known as), done by European colonials and well-heeled American and Asian travellers in the 1900s.

Favourite destination: Kolkata (Calcutta), India

Why: The city was the capital of British India from 1793 till 1911. It is fabulously old world, oozing imperial splendour and decadence with its majestic, though sadly crumbling, buildings.

It is a city of extremes, with abject poverty existing side by side with fabulous wealth and it provides a picture of Old India with its streets heaving with life and people, the air perfumed with rich smells.

It is special for me because from 1830 to 1867, Singapore and the Straits Settlements were ruled from Calcutta. Being two major port cities in the British Empire, Singapore and Calcutta have many similarities - not just in terms of urban design and colonial architecture, but also in that both cities are melting pots.

Favourite place to stay

My favourite hotel is The Oberoi Grand (15 Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Kolkata; www.oberoihotels.com/hotels- in-kolkata/). Built in the early 1900s, it is the grand dame of the city's hospitality scene, having hosted royalty, celebrities, writers and heads of state in its more than 100 years of history.

It is the equivalent of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and, in fact, is very similar to the Raffles, in that it too was established by an Armenian family.

Unlike other colonial-era hotels in the city, the hotel has kept its old-world ambience intact and is an oasis away from the hustle and bustle.

Favourite restaurant

The Oberoi Grand Hotel's La Terasse has an extensive menu of traditional Bengali food. My favourite dish is the Grand Bengali Vegetarian Thali (a thali is a dish of rice with about five different main and side dishes, served on a banana leaf).

The restaurant is not cheap by Indian standards - expect to pay the equivalent of at least $30 for one main dish and rice or naan, and more than $60 for the thali, but it is worth every cent.

A more affordable place is Oh Calcutta! at the Forum Mall in Elgin Road (www. facebook.com/ohcalcuttasrl). It may look like any other restaurant in any other mall in the world, but the food is authentic and lovely. Try the kosha mangsho, a traditional Bengali mutton curry, and the chingri malaikari, or prawns in coconut curry. Prices are $7 to $8 for a vegetarian main and $15 for a meat or seafood main.

For a unique Kolkata experience, check out The Oriental Room at the historic Bengal Club (www. thebengalclub.com). One needs to be accompanied by a member to enter the club.

The Oriental Room is the club's more casual Chinese restaurant and serves authentic Kolkata Chinese (Hakka) food. A must-try is the prawn- on-toast, a crispy and flavourful delight, a direct result of the fusion of British, Bengali and Chinese cultures.

Favourite museum

The Indian Museum (27, Jawaharlal Nehru Road; indianmuseumkolkata.org)is the oldest in India, founded in 1814, with one of the best collections of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures in the world. Its Natural History Galleries have an awesome collection of taxidermied mammal, bird and reptile specimens and skeletons.

Favourite tourist site

The Victoria Memorial (www.victoriamemorial-cal.org) appears like a mirage in marble - a mix of English country mansion and the Taj Mahal - in the middle of the bustling, congested metropolis.

It's also a museum, with objects and oil paintings of Kolkata and India from the time of the British Raj, but the highlight of the building is the mosaic which goes around the dome's interior. It depicts the life, coronation and death of Queen Victoria and presents her as an almost goddess-like Byzantine empress.

Best place to shop

Oxford Bookstore (17 Park Street, Kolkata 700 016; www.oxfordbookstore.com/dotcom/oxford), established in the early 1900s during the days of the British Raj, is a great place for books by Bengali and Indian authors and about Kolkata.

Also check out the New Market in Lindsay Street to get fabrics, scarves, bags, a sari, khameez or kurta. But be prepared to be overwhelmed by the crowds and persistent touts.

If you hate bargaining, don't buy anything here - just come for the experience.

Best view

Prinsep Ghat on the banks of the Hooghly River is the best place to watch the sunset in Kolkata.

Prinsep Ghat (ghat is the local term for jetty) is known for two things - a colonial-era porch erected in 1841, where there are regular music performances in the evenings, and the stunning view of the sun setting in between the Vidyasagar Setu, also known as the Second Hooghly Bridge.

From Prinsep Ghat, there is a 2km waterfront promenade with spectacular views of the Hooghly River and the ships that have plied its waters for centuries.

Best hidden find

Kolkata's best-kept secret is the district of Bowbazar, which sits between the colonial "white town" in the south, where the British used to reside, and the Bengali "black town" in the north, where the wealthy Bengali landowners and merchants had their mansions. Everyone else who wasn't European or Bengali, such as the Chinese, Armenians, Portuguese and Jews, lived in Bowbazar, making it Kolkata's melting pot.

While the Jew and Armenian populations have dwindled, there are still other ethnic communities living here. Kolkata is the only city in India with a Chinatown, located in Bowbazar.

The best way to experience Bowbazar is to take the Confluence of Cultures Tour offered by Calcutta Walks (calcuttawalks.com), run by local historians and Bowbazar residents, who serve as guides.

The highlight of the walk is the magnificent Magen David Synagogue in Canning Street, built in 1884 by a Jewish merchant Elias David Ezra. The marble, stained glass and chandeliers make it one of the most beautiful places of worship in the world.

Best advice

Take one week to experience Kolkata, preferably between October and February when the weather is slightly cooler.

It is safe to walk around. In fact, walking is the only way you can take in the spectacular monuments around Dalhousie Square (the Old Town) and Bowbazar.

Where possible, take the Kolkata Metro (its version of the MRT) which is safe, runs largely on time and is remarkably cheap (5 rupees, or 10 Singapore cents, to 10 rupees a journey depending on the distance).

A distance covered by a 10-minute ride on the subway could take 30 to 45 minutes by taxi because of the terrible traffic.

vlydia@sph.com.sg