Coconuts Q&A is a regular feature in which our reporters and editors get together to discuss subjects that require the expertise of our entire team based around the region. This week, our question concerns the best places to bring visitors to our beloved cities that you’d never find on the average tourist itinerary — hidden gems that only long-time residents would know about. Frankly, most of them didn’t want to give up these secrets, but their overbearing boss forced them to for your benefit, dear readers.
Okay, I’m greedy so I have two suggestions. The first is Kampong Lorong Buangkok, also known as the last village in mainland Singapore. I think most outsiders know Singapore as this futuristic, high-tech but magical tropical island but this place kinda reminds you of days before Singapore’s “glow up”.
It’s this little piece of land in the Northeast that – for me – represents resilience and a sort of stubbornness to conform. Life is slow and peaceful in the village; people still greet each other in the mornings and aircon is scarce. But also remember that this is not an attraction or a theme park of any sort; it’s still a residential area – so please be mindful when visiting!
The next hidden gem is unofficially called The Lost Ark and is hidden in an overgrown woodlands behind Hang Jebat Mosque, next to the Green Corridor. It has a most unique structure/deck made from fallen trees that overlooks a natural pond. The busy Ayer Rajah Expressway (AYE) is located just a few feet away from the pond as well. Not a lot is known about its history but it sits in the middle of Canterbury Road and the Wessex Estate, where you’ll find those famed colonial black-and-white bungalows, so I deduce that these woodlands could have acted as a sprawling park for its residents in the past, in the style of the English Landscape Movement with open, natural landscapes and rustic plants. — Delfina Utomo, Regional Managing Editor
Since I live in Bali, perhaps y’all expect beaches or waterfalls. My personal favorite is Pantai Seseh in Munggu with its dark and lovely sands with their small warung [traditional resto)… but, while still idyllic, I don’t think it fits the category of ‘hidden gem’ anymore. That said, I want to take another route here by recommending Warung Nads, a newly opened Indonesian restaurant located in Umalas, Kerobokan.
Locals sometimes joke that Umalas is like the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Kerobokan as many villas here are built making the place quite swank. For me, Warung Nads is a gem because, while located in the heart of Umalas, they manage to serve authentic Indonesian cuisine without so many bougie (dare I say, snobbish?) twists like their counterparts. The dishes are quite affordable at around IDR50,000 (US$3.5) or above that a little bit – still affordable considering the place and the location.
My personal favorite is their tongkol goreng (fried mackerel tuna) with mouth-watering sambal and steamed rice.
Fear of Bali Belly? Don’t worry about it – as the owners of Warung Nads try to keep all the ingredients as hygienic as possible to avoid it (and none of the repeated customers who happen to be foreigners ever complain about stomach flu after enjoying dishes here).
A restaurant in Bali surrounded by paddy fields? Perhaps it’s not so special – but again, considering the location (other restaurants in the area are quite pricey tbh), Warung Nads is indeed a gem. An unexpected one, that is.
Another thing that makes Warung Nads special is the community. Keep your eyes open here and you might find talented artists, movie directors, painters, designers, writers, etc. Many of them are connected through friendships so get ready to be involved in lots of interesting conversations.
Feeling blue and just want to be alone? Fear not, some of the corners are great for you to just open your laptop or read a good book after a full day of enjoying Bali. — Amahl S. Azwar, Coconuts Bali Managing Editor
Although I love living in big, dirty cities, I’m going to risk being redundant by suggesting a green escape just minutes from Bangkok’s thickest tangles of blight.
Nestled in a bend of the capital’s mighty Chao Phraya River, Bang Krachao is a green oasis only a few kilometers from the business district where exhausted urbanites can rent a bicycle and peddle through lush forests on raised walkways, breathe fresh air, and even see fireflies at night.
Getting there is part of the adventure. Head to the piers at Wat Khlong Toei Nok and someone with a small boat will ferry you across the river for about THB10 per person. Once across, it doesn’t take much looking to find someone renting bicycles, though be sure to check the tires and brakes before hurtling into the wild.
If nature and lungs full of marginally less polluted air is not what brought you to Bangkok, then get a ride up to the northern metro outskirts and drink craft beer on Koh Kret. — Todd Ruiz, Regional Managing Editor
Going island hopping has become quite the thing for Hongkongers since the Covid-19 pandemic struck the city. But instead of going to the more popular outlying islands, like Cheung Chau and Lamma Island (which are often flooded with people during weekends, and are, well, kinda touristy), I much prefer spending time chilling on Yim Tin Tsai, a small, quaint island in Sai Kung.
With a Cantonese name that translates literally to “Little Salt Pan”, Yim Tin Tsai is the only place in Hong Kong where salt is produced today. The island was first settled in the 17th century when members of a Hakka clan arrived in Hong Kong from southern China and stumbled upon it. After discovering that it is blessed with the natural conditions for salt production, those who have settled there built salt pans and water gates to control the water going in and out and set up a business, selling salt to Sai Kung and the neighboring region. You can still see the salt pans in Yim Tin Tsai these days! The last time I went, which was about a year ago, some guides explained to us how the salt pans work.
While the island may look beautiful and well preserved now, it was actually deserted in the late 1990s. But revitalization efforts in the new millennium have turned the island into a new nature and heritage destination. It even holds an art festival every year, featuring a number of large-scale art installations.
In the late 19th century, European missionaries came to the Sai Kung area to spread their faith. As villagers embraced Catholicism, the island’s St. Joseph’s Chapel was built and blessed in 1890. The chapel is well preserved and now listed as a Grade 2 historic building by the Hong Kong Antiquities Advisory Board. It was also given the Award of Merit by the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2005.
Like many outlying islands in Hong Kong, you can find local food such as tea cakes made with glutinous rice.
To get there, you can take a kaito from the Sai Kung Public Pier, which takes about 15 minutes. For more information on the kaito timing, fees and opening hours of the attractions, click here. — Peace Chiu, Coconuts Hong Kong Senior Reporter
Do go chasing waterfalls if malls and hipster cafés are what you’re used to (what’s up, TLC fans?) in Jakarta. Few used to know about the nature trails in Sentul, Bogor Regency, just outside of the capital, but those desperate for a change of scenery during the pandemic sought it out and were pleasantly surprised by its lush, relatively untouched trails and pristine streams. The trails, which are generally under 5 kilometers in length, aren’t too challenging either, even for the couch potatoes among us. Seasoned trekkers can opt for longer tracks of at least 10 kilometers.
That said, you are advised to trek with certified tour guides, who charge around IDR200K (US$13.37) per person for shorter tracks and around IDR300K (US$20.05) for longer tracks. Either way, you will be in nature from early morning until the afternoon, so pack light, put on sturdy footwear, and, of course, bring a camera.
As the tracks are customizable, I recommend that you make a stop at Love Waterfall, which was named as such because the fall is split by a rock that is somewhat shaped like a heart. Ahead of the waterfall is a gorgeous narrow canyon that is as picturesque as they come. While I might still call this site a hidden gem, there is some concern that its newfound popularity will attract crowds of Instagram obsessives. But perhaps not, as Jakartans are once again traveling out of the city. — Andra Nasrie, Regional Managing Editor
One hidden gem that I will recommend to visitors is Kampung Baru. Amidst the city’s metallic skyline and rhapsodic traffic, the century-old village still stands strong, still defiant against the creeping hands of urbanisation and gentrification. Wooden houses, aged yet quaint, line up on the sides of narrow streets and pathways. Shops and food stalls are lively as ever, refusing to surrender to elegant malls and restaurants. One always considers Kampung Baru when they crave for nasi padang, nasi lemak and various foods be it daytime or late in the night. Time will tell if the village can hold on for much longer but, for now, it is definitely one of KL’s hidden gems — for locals and foreigners alike. — Aminah Farid, Coconuts KL Reporter
This question is a bit tricky as for me, Metro Manila is one big hidden gem — it’s not exactly top on the list for tourists, who would rather be shuttled on the next flight to the nearest sandy shore than explore this misunderstood city. But once you get past the urban chaos and traffic, the National Capital Region has a diverse and vibrant culture to offer to everyone.
Anyone willing to venture out of their comfort zone and understand what makes Metro Manila special and soulful better start at the beating heart of the metropolis — the character-filled City of Manila, once a shining Asian district that has since fallen into ruin. It’s littered with desecrated reminders of what were once glorious Art Deco and neo-colonial structures — not exactly promising for the budding sightseer — but understanding why and how that came to be is essential context for appreciating the city’s complex history.
The late Carlos Celdran and his half-performance art, half-guided tour Walk This Way has left a hole in the historic Intramuros area no one can replace, but perhaps this Bambike Ecotour — which lets you explore the cobblestone streets and Spanish-era relics on bamboo bikes — is the next best thing. It’s two and a half hours long and takes you around eight of Intramuros’ heritage sites by bike, providing a fresh perspective on Manila’s history, literally and figuratively.
Next, make your way to Escolta Street, which has gone through multiple rebirths: from luxurious district to derelict slum to hipster enclave, thanks to a new generation of artists and creatives taking up space and giving new life to the area. You can meander through the First United Building, an art deco high-rise housing different kinds of creatives and their galleries, workshops, and exhibits. Start from the bottom, work your way up, and then down again — and get lost in the myriad of installations, creative concepts, art fairs, specialty coffee, and all else.
When all that exploring has you famished, walk over to Binondo, which not many know is the world’s oldest Chinatown. Book a tour with Ivan Man Dy of Old Manila Walks, taking you through the best eats of this 400-year-old neighborhood, and where Filipino and Chinese cultures collide.
For the curious and adventurous, take a 5-minute jeepney ride to Quiapo — a quirky and mystical quarter. You won’t miss the looming Quiapo church, frequented by a special kind of devoted Catholics, along with the motley gang of fortune tellers and vendors selling indigenous amulets (anting anting), folk potions (the love potion is extremely popular), and charms in front. At best, they supposedly protect you from bodily harm; at worst, they make for a unique souvenir.
Not far from the folk Catholic landmark is Quiapo’s own Muslim Town, which houses Halal carinderias (roadside eateries) and food stalls serving up cuisine from Mindanao, where over 90% of the Philippines’ Muslim population hails from. While you’ll find roti, paratha, and murtabak here, head over to June-Nairah Halal Food Restaurant for distinctly Maranao eats such as chicken piaparan, chicken cooked in coconut milk, turmeric, and garlic, served with a side of palapa — a condiment made with dried coconut, wild leek, chilies, and ginger.
Getting through this hidden gem of a city — and understanding what it stands for — gives you much greater context to explore the rest of the diverse cultures and landscapes the Philippine islands have to offer. —