Discovering the world with relentless curiosity

Cover Story For Malaysia Airlines Inflight Magazine!

It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing –…

Cover Story 1_GoingPlaces_Nov15It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing – mostly on blog posts here and some contributions on other travel sites. And this November, my feature article was chosen as cover story for Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Going Places in-flight magazine.

I’ve been flying MAS since I was very young and in more recent years I’ve realised that in-flight magazines are what I look forward to when boarding flights. Going Places has been a signature for MAS and I’m stoked to have contributed to its pages.

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The TransSiberian rail journey in itself is a lifetime experience. It crosses three countries; China, Mongolia and Russia and passes through five different time zones. Culturally, it is a robust experience, awakening every facet of your physical senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The real game changer for a holiday like this, is the people you choose to go with. I went with my husband and two-year-old toddler and they were fantastic travel buddies. We learned so much more about each other and about the world – the small train cabin forces you to be within close proximity. So choose your travel buddies wisely! 🙂

If you’re looking for a rich experiential holiday, take a read and decide for yourself if you’re up for a rail adventure of a lifetime.

The online version: http://bit.ly/GPTransSiberian

The November issue here:  http://bit.ly/GPnov15

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Radisson Sonya, St. Petersburg: A Literary Boutique Hotel

Step into Radisson Sonya in the heart of St. Petersburg to uncover the pages of one of Russia’s most celebrated literary novels – Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. If…

Step into Radisson Sonya in the heart of St. Petersburg to uncover the pages of one of Russia’s most celebrated literary novels – Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. If you’re like me, I knew nothing much about this novel but found a deep compelling sense to find out more after my stay at the Radisson Sonya.

The story starts in the lobby, a re-creation of the author, Dostoyevsky’s studio where he begin penning the novel. A large bookshelf filled with 100 or more copies of the novel in various languages and editions jumbled with some manuscripts and photos of Raskolnikov and Sophia, the two main characters of the novel.

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The novel is a tale of a gruesome murder committed by Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student as a result of an ideological poisoning. Raskolnikov conceived himself as being an extraordinary person and believed that if he murdered a despicable pawnbroker, he can use the money to make the world a better place. After the murder, Raskolnikov went into a mental spiral, overthinking his crime and was literally eaten away by his thoughts.

The light of redemption illuminated when he met Sophia “Sonya” Semenova Marmeladova, a sweet middle-class girl forced into prostitution to save her family from bankruptcy. He confessed the murder to her and she talked him into turning himself in. He was sentenced to prison in Siberia and begun his transformative redemption.

The hotel echoes chapters of the novel through interpretive decor starting at the lobby with a large sofa taking the form of a Russian lacquer box beautifully painted with scenes from the novel and a dark-glass coffee table etched with a 19th century map of St. Petersburg where Raskolnikov, in the novel, spent many gruelling hours walking and contemplating the murder he committed.

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The hallway leading to the my suite is shadowy, accentuated by the dark printed carpets and pictures of old St. Petersburg in black and white, depicting the long wandering walks that Raskolnikov took around the city as his mind raced in delirium after the crime. Each room number is accompanied by quotes from the novel.

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Entering the Business Room, I initially thought there was a mismatch in its decor. It is not the run-of-the-mill business room with white-washed walls and minimalistic decor. Instead, the wall featured a painting of a woman’s arm, whom I later found out was that of the Sistine Madonna, a character mentioned in the novel. The room featured a lounge area, an extended sitting area in the small oval overlooking the busy street, a working desk and a modern dark-tiled bathroom.

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The combination of furniture, colours, patterns, art and objects have been carefully selected to enhance the Russian atmosphere and to make it creative and a little eccentric. After all, the novel is a whirlwind of frantic thoughts and events. There are only two suites at the Radisson Sonya and it features a grand photo of Napoleon, the very character that gave Raskolnikov the inspiration to murder the pawnbroker.

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Meandering through the hallways of Radisson Sonya and uncovering the little details that bear reference to the novel is an adventure on its own. Unlike any other boutique hotel, a literary boutique hotel is both a work of art on the part of the designer and the author.

Radisson Sonya is located along Liteyny Avenue and is a great starting point for exploring St. Petersburg. It is within walking distance to Nevsky’s Prospect and the Summer Gardens and a few subway stops to the famous Hermitage Museum.

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Baltschug Kempinski, Moscow: A Taste Of Luxury

Every city has a tourism heritage distinct to her own history, culture, tradition and socio-economy status. Very few ‘first’ hotels are still standing, much less in operation or thriving. It…

Every city has a tourism heritage distinct to her own history, culture, tradition and socio-economy status. Very few ‘first’ hotels are still standing, much less in operation or thriving. It was a great honour to visit one of the first 5-star hotels established in 1898 in Moscow, the Baltschug Kempinski. This luxury heritage hotel can’t be in a better location, overlooking the Moscow River and a panoramic view of the Red Square, the Kremlin and the unmistakable St. Basil’s Cathedral, Russia’s architectural icon.

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Built by the well-known Moscow architect Alexander Ivanov, the stunning facade embellished with decorative figures is the only remnants of the original building dating back to the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. By nightfall, the building illuminates and its reflection shimmers on the Moscow River, a great reminder of this hotel’s grand history.

The hotel is not short of VIP guests from international dignitaries to celebrities like Tina Turner and Sting. It’s hard to resist a charming hotel that’s a stone’s throw away from the Red Square with unobstructed views of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We were ushered into our Kremlin Suite, a beautiful and spacious suite tastefully decorated with luxurious European-styled furniture in shades of royal blue, dark grey, and creme.

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The suite has a large lounge area, a powder room, a small study desk and in a separate room with curved walls and windows looking overlooking the river and the Red Square is the master bedroom, the hallmark of the Kremlin Suite. The bedroom connects to a walk-in-wardrobe leading to a sensational bathroom featuring a standalone claw-footed bathtub on marble flooring, rainwater shower and a double dark-marble sink. I have been told that some suites have been designed by minor members of the British royal family.

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After catching a glimpse of the suite and its decadent decor, I was ready to taste the fine offerings of the Baltschug Grill. Chef Louis Badenhorst introduced himself and recommended some signature dishes – yellow fin tuna tatar and gazpacho for starters and for mains, prime steak cooked to perfection, paired with a red wine & thyme sauce and a green-pepper sauce and a grilled seabass on a bed of fresh greens and consomme. The table was beautifully filled with delightful side dishes like pommes allumettes (finely cut french fries), mashed potatoes, juicy asparagus shoots and a platter of cheese and crisps. Seth, our little toddler had his own serving of handmade freshly made pasta which he gobbled without much effort. Our amazing lunch ended on a perfect sweet note with a surprise from Chef Louis, a special that’s not on the menu – salted caramel ice cream macarons.

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The following day, we enjoyed another decadent breakfast at the Baltschug Grill. The open grill was whirling with activity and the restaurant offered a luxurious buffet spread of Russian favourites like blini and caviar, a salad bar, cheese bar, cold meats counter, overflowing sweet pastries, fresh fruits and other continental favourites like sausages, baked potatoes and eggs cooked in any way you desire. We sipped on beautiful rooibos tea and tucked into a hearty breakfast while enjoying the buzz around us.

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With professional and top class standards of service that befit the Kempinski Hotel group and as member of “Leading Hotels of the World”, the Baltschug Kempinski is a luxurious haven of peace and comfort away from the large crowds in Moscow city center, yet close enough to not miss out on the city’s happenings. I climb into my deep bathroom tub for one last soak, taking in all the grandeur this city has to offer – it truly is the glimpse of the glitz and glamour of the rich.

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Saying Hello At The Asian Women Empowerment (AWE) Conference

There are conferences all around the world that collectively bring people of like mind together – TED Talks for those who seek ideas, inspiration and new genius, Awesomeness Fest for…

There are conferences all around the world that collectively bring people of like mind together – TED Talks for those who seek ideas, inspiration and new genius, Awesomeness Fest for world changers and innovators, TBC Asia for passionate travel bloggers in Asia and TBEX for savvy social media travel professionals – the list goes on, and on. When I heard of the Asian Women Empowerment (AWE) conference in 2013, I was a little skeptical at first. Not another one off pump-it-up, you-can-do-it, feel good conference, I thought. But since it was in Kuala Lumpur and I had no plans for that weekend, I decided to pop in and registered for the conference. I wanted to drown the skeptic in me and truth to be told, I wanted some me time as I had just become a mom six months prior – so a breather at a women’s event sounded like fun!

Since the first AWE in 2013, in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve been hooked and I found myself registering for the second conference in Kota Kinabalu last year. 2015 would make it the third year running and network of people have grown stronger, AWE Alumni’s are now friends instead of acquaintances and most significant of all, AWE has not lost its special authentic touch to connect and empower. More of what makes AWE so special?

  1. It’s a small conference born out of a vision to empower women the same way Juno Kim of Runaway Juno was empowered to take a daring step out of the career world into the world of travel. You can feel the heart and soul of Juno throughout the conference – it’s nothing like another event based, sponsor-centric, soulless mega-conference.
  2. The people! I made friends there that I continue to keep to this day thanks to Facebook and Twitter. I reckon because the event is so intimate, we end up befriending almost everyone and some special ones stay on as friends event after.
  3. The conference is down-to-earth and relatable – while it is fantastic and valuable listening to high-flying CEOs and professors speak, there is a connection that can only be made with peer exchange and shared experiences. At AWE, successful entrepreneurs, budding writers, and promising trendsetters share their success stories, but they also share the struggles involved in the journey. I have been incredibly inspired by people like Lois Yasay of We Are Sole Sisters,  Nila Tanzil of Taman Bacaan Pelangi, Caroline Nguyen Ticarro-Parker of Catalyst Foundation, Jeannie Mark of Nomadic Chick, Amalla Vesta Widaranti of Swanky Traveler and of course, Juno!

Sadly, I won’t be attending this year’s AWE as my schedule is packed. A couple of months back, Juno asked if I would like to shoot a short video to say hello to the participants. I was delighted and thought hard and long about what I wanted to say in a few short minutes. The past year and half have been a steep learning curve for me with many exciting life changes and daring leap. I’ve gleaned so much in this short time and sometimes I wonder if I’ve gained a few extra strands of grey hair as signs of added wisdom! 🙂

P/s: There is a short appearance of a very special little boy named Seth in the video. Enjoy!

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Travel Guide: The BEST Of Siem Reap

There is so much to see in Siem Reap and this little province is bursting out of its seams with eateries, pubs, boutiques, markets and entertainment aplenty. Of course, you…

Siem Reap Travel Guide
There is so much to see in Siem Reap and this little province is bursting out of its seams with eateries, pubs, boutiques, markets and entertainment aplenty. Of course, you can’t avoid the fact that the magnificent ancient Angkor Wat sits at the very center of this booming province making it an essential destination when you travel Cambodia.

I have to admit, every time I make a trip to Siem Reap I’m bubbling with excitement – it’s that sense of familiarity – going back to favourite restaurants and massage spas, coupled with the sense of curiosity – trying out that new cafe or staying at the new hotel that keeps the anticipation stirring. I live three-hours away from Siem Reap, in the lovely countryside province called Battambang. While I absolutely love the laid back, friendly, local lifestyle here, I’m ever ready to play tour guide when it comes to bringing visitors to Siem Reap.

When, Smart Travel Asia contacted me to write a guide for Siem Reap, I was thrilled! The link below will lead you to a comprehensive guide to the province’s BEST. So pass the word around to anyone you know who’s planning a visit to Siem Reap – read it before you arrive, it’ll help you make the most of your visit.

P/s: If you have a few more days to spare, take a bus or a cruise to Battambang. I assure you, the people, ancient temples and old French buildings will make for a charming stopover.

Go to Smart Travel Asiahttp://www.smarttravelasia.com/angkor.htm for the full travel guide.
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Heritage Suites, Siem Reap: Hospitality With Heart

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s…

Cambodia’s a developing country, where the gap between the rich and poor is vast and the slow emerging middle class is the very stratum of society that indicate the country’s economic progress. Travel ten kilometres out of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s vibrant tourist town centre and you will see the real Cambodia – wooden stilt homes, lack of proper toilets and roads ridden with pot holes.

Now travel back to the heart of Siem Reap and the reality can easily be forgotten. Five-star and luxury boutique hotels, restaurants that cater for any palate with international standards in mind, wine bars and even designer boutiques – but none of these places are patronised by locals. They are established to serve the growing stream of tourists that have been increasing since the tourism boom in 2002.

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Those who stand behind the counter and serve the food and drinks are local Cambodians. They are young people who travel out from the countryside to seek employment in hope for a better life. Alongside this boom, organisations have sought to do more for Cambodia through social responsibility initiatives. You don’t have to look hard and long before you spot another initiative that sounds something like this: “Helping local Cambodians craft a future” or “Alleviating poverty one bag at a time”. While all this is great, I can’t ignore the fact that many organisations have also jumped on the bandwagon for marketing gain. Jarring leaflets and posters stuck on walls, tacky and thick compendiums in hotel rooms and websites claiming that they can save the world. When staff are asked if they know of the hotel’s social commitment, they simply shrug their shoulders and hand me another leaflet.

That’s why when I came across a hotel like Heritage Suites and an organisation like Sala Bai, I’m duly refreshed to learn of their genuine commitment and sustainable efforts in helping people through practical ways. In the sea of copycats, there are genuine organisations that want to help and find a way to make their contribution more meaningful and lasting.

Heritage, Creating A Legacy

The luxury 26 room and suites boutique hotel is tucked away in Slokram Village not too far away from the buzz of Pub Street and the Night Markets, but far enough for a peaceful retreat. During the day, I hear children from the local school laughing and chatting and school bells ringing just behind the hotel’s compound walls and at night, along the street leading to the hotel, I watch families sitting out on their verandah enjoying a meal of rice, soup and vegetables. The hotel in all its luxury and top-notch service is set amongst a local Cambodian commune – the very thing that preserves its sense of place and community charm.

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The facade is that of a French colonial building curtained by palm trees. The hotel’s lobby, restaurant and bar sharing the same space, a lofty open hall with a tall ceilings supported by timbers and grand massive candle lights hanging over top. The arched window panes and large panelled mirrors at the bar facilitate the flow of natural light and magnify the spaciousness of the restaurant.

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The same simplistic grandeur follows through into the suites. My bungalow suite had wall-to-ceiling windows with thick curtains that turn the suite from a bright and airy space into a slumber wonderland. The decor is minimalistic with an emphasis on Cambodian art and modern furnishings. The hallmark of the suite is the private steam room and stand alone oversized stone tub facing the private garden and open air shower.

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Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed my suite, I wanted to understand Heritage’s stand on their community efforts. So I sat down for a chat with Magnus Olovson, the hotel’s general manager, a seasoned hospitality professional who’s been in the industry for years and leading in his game. “I’ve been doing corporate hospitality for so long and when I was given the opportunity to return to old fashion hospitality, I jumped at it”.

“What is old-fashioned hospitality?”, I asked. “It’s where I get to greet every guest by name and learn about their day. It’s like welcoming people into your home”. Just then, he spots a couple behind the thick glass doors alighting from the hotel’s vintage Mercedez. He politely excused himself to greet some guests that have just arrived from the airport. After a few handshakes, some jovial laughs and a warm welcome, he returned and candidly said, “My guests are important to me but my staff are so much more important. Without them, all this would not be possible”.

Magnus continued to explain Heritage’s partnership with Sala Bai, a hospitality vocational school that have trained over 1000 students in the last 13 years and given them job opportunities at world-class hotels in Siem Reap and beyond. “Look around, would you have guessed that they (the staff) come from really poor families? Look at them now, they are thriving and building a future of their own”.

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Dressed in crisp black and white uniforms and a perpetual smile, the staff at Heritage Suites are all hands on deck. During my stay, I was met with prompt attentive service with the genuine warmth of Cambodian hospitality. I have stayed in Cambodia long enough to know that good job opportunities are hard to come by and even harder to keep. Cambodians, especially women have to battle with ongoing issues like human trafficking due to severe poverty and the social stigma that women are better off staying at home instead of working and earning a living. And those who fight through those battles have the chance to emerge as Cambodia’s new middle class.

Hope For Cambodia

Such is the story of Kim Hiv, a sweet, pretty, small statured lady with a big bright smile. At 27 years old, Thy Kim Hiv is the F&B supervisor at Heritage Suites and have hopes to climb the ranks in the future. Just five years ago, Kim Hiv’s story was extremely different. A graduating high schooler with no plans or means to further her studies, she heard from her neighbour about an application into Sala Bai school. She knew nothing about hospitality and her parents were disapproved of her decision to waitress as the job was frown upon and carried negative implications.

Kim Hiv Heritage Suites

After some persuasion, her parents agreed to her application into Sala Bai and she underwent seven months of intensive hospitality training with an additional four months of practical training. For Kim Hiv, this was the ideal opportunity as her food, lodging and tuition fees were completely paid for by Sala Bai and a job was guaranteed after her training.

“Heritage is my first job and I have been working here for five years. I am very lucky to learn about Sala Bai and when I started working, I help pay for my sister’s school fees”. Her family is one of many families living below the poverty line. They are simple farmers slogging to make ends meet. “Now, I am able to give my parents money too!”, Kim Hiv added with a wide grin. Schools like Sala Bai give hope to people who have little to look forward to. Sala Bai’s efforts are realistic with a clear goal in mind, to raise people from poverty and to create opportunities for a better life.

But the model won’t work without the commitment of hotels like Heritage Suites, the Raffles, Amansara and other trusted hospitality names. Heritage Suites give amateur hoteliers a chance to be further trained on the job and allow them equal opportunity to climb the ranks if they so desire.

As with all NGO organisations, Sala Bai is dependant on donations and have been thriving since with strong donor partnerships across the globe. Heritage saw an opportunity to give back and so every year since 2013, the hotel organises an annual charity gala dinner and auction at their beautiful property. This year in May, the gala titled ‘Changing Lives’ featured a culinary feasts prepared by Thailand’s rising culinary star Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. The dinner was aimed at raising funds to help Sala Bai expand its new campus to accommodate more students. The gala was a glamorous success and Heritage raised a total of $15,000 in funds, which, for a property of its size, is truly remarkable.

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Photo credit: Sala Bai

Social responsibility can be a fad that fades off over time for those who jump on the bandwagon, but genuine organisations are those that go the extra mile because they believe in the cause that would outlast the organisations lifetime.

Claude Colombie, director of Sala Bai explained, “Our model very simple, in a country as poor as Cambodia, we need to find real solutions that help close the gap. We find the poorest of the poor, educate them and give them a job. That’s it! And this model has proven successful over 13 years, families who earn less than $500 a year now have a daughter or a son who earns half or more a month and are able to support their families”.

It’s incredibly remarkable what a door of opportunity can do for one life, one family, one community. At Heritage Suites, there are no garish posters that spell “DONATE” or leaflets in the room’s compendium. Instead, an unassuming bicycle with a simple poster at the entrance explains the hotel’s partnership with Sala Bai. Hotel guests can donate if they wish and donations help pay for school materials and bicycles for the students to get to their place of work. The truest and most sincere testament of Heritage’s commitment to social responsibility is in the people, people like Kim Hiv who live to tell her story.

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Exploring Pokrovka In Moscow

We arrived in Moscow after a 40-hour train ride from Omsk. Two nights on the train with mediocre food and no shower, I was ready to jump off the train…

We arrived in Moscow after a 40-hour train ride from Omsk. Two nights on the train with mediocre food and no shower, I was ready to jump off the train and explore Moscow. Coming from the east, we made stops at Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Omsk – each city with its own distinctive charm but it lacked the buzz of a thriving metropolitan like Moscow. We exited the train station and caught a cab to our hotel. The sparkling clean city and her grand architecture stood out amidst the growing morning traffic.

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Moscow boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world according to a Forbes report with New York coming in second. I imagine this city has a lot to offer to satisfy the deep pockets of the rich. It wasn’t too hard to imagine when a group party goers followed from behind, dressed in designer cocktail dresses, to-die-for stilettos, crisp suits and shiny shoes as I entered into the lobby of Mamaison, an all-suites luxury hotel in Pokrovka.

This trendy property with a modern artistic feel is the perfect getaway for savvy executives, artsy hipsters and weekend staycationers. Our suite was bright and lively in a pastel palette of minimalistic and modern furnishing. It had all the mod-cons – a fully equipped kitchen, dining area, lounge and a separate bedroom with a large comfortable king sized bed. While the rooms are more modest in design, the wow factor is definitely in the choice of eclectic furnishings and elaborate chic-looking chandeliers at the hotel’s lobby and restaurant. mamaison1 Mamaisoniphone2

The neighbourhood around Mamaison was a great place to start our exploration around Moscow. Pokrovka Street is filled with dainty cafes, boutiques, upmarket bars and restaurants. When evening falls, the place comes alive and beats a different tune – friends mingling over a bottle of wine on outdoor terraces, live music from a nearby garden bar, families tucking into Japanese bento boxes. Walking the Pokrovka stretch was enough to convince me that Moscow is a melting pot of cultures.

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I later learned that the street itself had a wonderful history to keep. It was the first stone road build in the 17th century and it was the roadway that connected the Kremlin to the Tsars villages. This was an affluent and gilded neighbourhood speckled with large homes and opulent cathedrals. The glitz never wore off, instead it evolved with time. Old buildings and cathedrals have been restored to near perfection, some new buildings have been put up and sandwiched in between high-end restaurants and bars are small groceries shops – a reminder that this was once a residential neighbourhood.

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We cooked a full breakfast the following morning taking advantage of the fully equipped kitchen and fancy cutlery. Having slept in the train for two-nights, waking up to a sprawling living room and bacon sizzling in the kitchen is pure comfort.

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Putting it on the map: Mamaison All-Suites is located 40 minutes walk from the Red Square. That’s also where the Kremlin, Lenin mausoleum, GUM departmental store and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral is located. It’s a 10 – 15 minutes walk to the closest metro station – Kurskaya Metro Station or 20 minutes walk to Kitay Gorod station.

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