A tale of three cities

Authentic encounters with local people and cultures are the new black in travel. JON UNDERWOOD reports on three very different experiences to be found in Thailand, Malaysia and South Africa.

I WOULDN’T call myself a spiritual man. Usually, the only spirits I enjoy are those that come in a glass with a couple of ice cubes.

So, it was with a mixture of intrigue and scepticism that I met spiritual healer Bongi Thabede.

We arrive mid-morning at her modest home in the Durban township of Umlazi, home to some 400,000 people. It’s already baking hot, yet she greets us wearing the immaculate red, white and black regalia of a Sangoma, a highly respected traditional and spiritual healer among the Zulu people.

As we sit on plastic chairs in her driveway, she tells us about her “calling.”

A sickly child, Bongi started having dreams and visions at an early age but initially denied her calling, as her mother had done before her. She enjoyed a successful career in middle management until fate seemingly played a hand.

“My life was perfect; money was not an object and I did whatever I wanted to do. Then I lost everything – I was unemployed for two years.”

Her elder sister introduced her to a friend who encouraged her to go through the initiation process to become a Sangoma. The rest, as they say, is history. Now she charges patients R100 (about $AU9.) for an hour’s consultation.

“My special talent is ensuring that people connect to who they are. I am not a medium, but I can tap into your paternal or maternal side and I can perceive messages that are coming through from them. That is what I do.”

Later, Bongi invites us into her home to try Umqombothi, a traditional beer made from maize, yeast and water, among other things. I’d love to tell you it was delicious – let’s just call it one of those things you should try once. She also puts on a spread, which IS delicious.

Despite my lack of spirituality, I found Bongi utterly charming, extremely funny and totally committed to her beliefs. In a world where mental health is now a major problem following the pandemic, who’s to say she can’t provide comfort in her own special way?

“People have lost so much and normal life is no longer what we are used to. There has been such a lot of change and we haven’t had enough time to acclimatise ourselves to the change.” 

It would be easy for cynics to dismiss this divorced mother of three as a well-meaning but perhaps misguided individual. She’s patently aware of this but has no room or time for animosity.

“I think we are scared of the unknown, but I don’t need to be validated by anybody. I used to, but it destroys you as a person.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. I can’t force people to believe in what I believe in. That’s not how we live in this world. We are free to believe in whatever we want to believe in. But I know that after they’ve tried everything, I am the last option.

“This is not a cloak that I put on and take off willy-nilly. I don’t need anybody to confirm me, except my ancestors. Once my ancestors stop confirming me, that is when I’ll be seriously worried.”

I’ll drink to that…just not with Umqombothi.

[email protected]; southafrica.net


HERE’S A question for you.

At what point did good old-fashioned graffiti become street art? (Answers on an empty spray can, please…)

I mention this because in my travels I have seen this modern art form slowly emerge across the globe, in countries as far afield as England, Malaysia, the United States and Australia.

Now it’s making its mark in Bangkok at the Ong Ang Canal project that joins Rattanakosin and Chinatown.

Rattanakosin was established as Thailand’s capital in 1782 by King Rama I and the canal, which runs for more than 1,400 kilometres, was constructed on his orders. In the city it used to house a thriving business community but in recent years has fallen into disrepair, with empty homes boarded up, awaiting their fate.

Backed by the Governor of Bangkok, the restoration project features the work of some of Thailand’s best-known street artists and is part of a project to turn this somewhat dilapidated district into a tourism and leisure hub.

These renowned paint jockeys include Alex Face, Bigdel, Pakorn & Asin, Bonus Tmc, Mauy & MSV, Alaii, Joker EB and other artists from Happening group (to be honest, I don’t know who these guys are – I had to look this up!).

Before COVID, buskers, jugglers and all manner of entertainers would thrill the crowds who gathered here to eat at a myriad of small restaurants and cafes lining the canal. That vibe is slowly returning and during my visit there was a definite buzz about the place.

Of course, the major drawcard is the murals and there definitely is something for everyone. Whether your taste is to the historical, the anatomical, the comical, the whimsical or the mystical, the colourful art works will delight, amuse and entertain in equal measure.

Being a history buff, I particularly enjoyed the images of a bygone era, when shopkeepers and cart owners would peddle their wares by the canal side. Looking at the pictures you really got a sense of what like must have been like here in 18th and early 19th century Bangkok.

Having strolled around the impressive open-air art gallery, you’ll probably have worked up an appetite. Time to check out the street food and restaurants dotted along Khlong Ong Ang Art Walking Street.

If you love Asian food (and you’d be mad not to), this is definitely the place for you, with a nose-twitching aroma filling the air and making the tummy rumble. And the best bit? You can have an amazing meal for just a few dollars. (If you like Indian food, try Mama Restaurant, which I’m told serves some of the best in Bangkok.)



If street food or small, local eateries aren’t on your menu, can I suggest you take a five-minute walk from Ong Ang and try Chom Arun in Phra Nakhon?

Here, you’ll pay about $20 to $40 for a delicious Thai meal, but the main reason to come here is for the view.

With a rooftop setting, the restaurant offers cracking views of Wat Arun temple, which at night shines like a golden candle. You’ll also witness all the action on the busy Chao Phraya River as party boats take revellers up and down the major waterway.

[email protected]


I love hotels that break the mould and dare to be different. Siam@Siam ticks both boxes…and many more besides.

Great rooms, a cracking rooftop space and a cosy café in the lobby. Funky, arty and fun, it’s the kind of place that street artists would hang out in.

[email protected]/bangkok


“NEVER LET a good crisis go to waste.”

That quote from Sir Winston Churchill back in the mid-1940s has often been repeated as we emerge from the nightmare of COVID.

In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s pulsating capital city, they’ve taken the advice and put it to good use.

Jalan Panggung is one of the oldest streets in the city, dating back to the 19th century. It sits on the southern part of Chinatown and pre-COVID was a somewhat seedy area frequented by ladies of the night.

Once the pandemic hit, however, the old crowd moved out. Cue a massive restoration and refurbishment program and now this is one of the places to hang out in KL, with a mass of cool bars, funky restaurants and cafes, and impressive street art.

I stumbled across it while dining at Panggung, a theatre-themed restaurant and bar that looks straight out of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! movie. The cocktails were powerful and colourful, the food was yummy and fresh, and I loved the old movie posters adorning the exterior.

In the past I’ve thought KL lacked a bit of a heartbeat, being all about huge shopping malls and the famous Twin Towers. I’m pleased to report the patient is not only alive but thriving. malaysia.travel

A reality check

I must confess I’m not a big fan of video games, virtual reality and the like. Give me a good walk (preferably around a golf course) any day.

So, it was with a huge amount of scepticism that I visited VR Live in the My Town shopping mall. My mood didn’t improve when it appeared that most of the VR games involved shooting, stabbing and generally eviscerating zombies.

Passing on ZombieJail and Horror Hospital, I opted for the child-friendly car racing game Crazy Rush…and was immediately hooked. This was my first VR gaming experience and I could totes see the attraction, as the young folk say.

Having finished a credible seventh I then fought to save the planet in City Hero before attempting an Indiana Jones-like adventure in Azuwa, which I failed to complete because I kept thinking I was going to fall to my death (trust me, it’s that lifelike!). Clearly, I’m more Gerald Ford than Harrison Ford…

Like me, you may still be a little sceptical, but given VAR Live operates 17 such stores in 12 cities around the globe, it seems like this is the future. Expect to see one in Australia soon (you read it here first). var.live

Where to stay

The Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur is one of those big, bustling Asian hotels that wraps itself around you like a comfort blanket as soon as you arrive.

It opened back in the 1980’s but has been refurbished and modernised over the years to be the sleek, sophisticated and welcoming hotel you come to expect in this part of the world.

The property has 662 rooms – apparently the largest inventory in KL – and mine was incredibly spacious, with a super comfy bed, plenty of storage and am ample bathroom.

The variety of food on offer in the Lemon Garden was impressive – a colleague managed to have pizza, sushi and Malay food all in the one sitting. Arthur’s Bar is a great place to hang out if you like your sports and if you’re lucky enough to be invited into the Horizon Club, enjoy the experience.