Saturday, October 06, 2012

Staying connected

I just read of a user's experience using the internet in a San Francisco Hotel. She said that the hotel charged for internet use by the IP of the device. So if you used all 3 of your mobile devices, say an iPhone, an iPad and your MacBook, you end up paying internet access for all 3 devices. If the charge is $15 per IP, that's going to be $45 if you switch on all 3 devices' wifi. That's expensive and, as the user wrote, ignores the reality of today's pervasive use of mobile technologies.

At the Novotel Platinum Bangkok where I stayed last week, each room was given an internet access account and password. Each occupant in the room could use the same account concurrently up to a maximum of 2 devices each. So each one could log in to the internet access on his PC Notebook and smartphone, or any combination of whatever mobile device you have. If you attempt to use that same account on more devices, you will be denied. The good thing is that it informs you that you have exceeded the number of connections allowed and to switch off the connection that another device might still have connected to the IP that you are not using. No additional charges, just a friendly reminder, which is better than what the user in the San Francisco Hotel got. That said, sometimes the system miscounts the connections, so you would want to shut down the device instead of just switching off the wifi. I had this problem one evening - denied access because too many devices were already connected. This in spite of my turning off the wifi on all my devices and then reconnecting with just one of them. I was too tired that evening anyway, so I left it alone and went to bed, believing that the problem will sort itself out in the morning.  And it did.

This is not a perfect system, but I think a fair one. I would have preferred a wired connection in the room, for the speed. But hotels would realise that guests can use a mifi device and begin gobbling up bandwidth. Technology has certainly become  more complex since I last travel overseas 2 years ago. If you are going to be dependent on internet access when you travel, it is a good idea to understand how the hotel makes available its internet access, free or paid.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Novotel

Oh, and where did I stay while I was in Bangkok last week? The Novotel Bangkok Platinum Hotel - an excellent hotel for a couple of reasons:

  1. Location. It is just above Zone 3 of the Platinum Fashion Mall and just across the street from the very extensive Pratunam Market. If you are there for the first time, it will save you a lot of travelling time, which you can otherwise spend shopping. Zone 3 is next to Zone 2, which is next to Zone 1 (obviously) which, in turn, is one building away from Pantip Plaza. It is also next to the river where water taxis ply. Whether you choose to take the water taxis or not, its there beside where you stay. You can enter and exit Zone 3 directly through the 6th floor of the hotel. The convenience can't be beat.
  2. It is relatively new. Opened only last November (i.e. 2011), its furnishings are still fresh, and if you stayed at their Executive rooms, it is relatively private as they are all located in the highest floors. 
  3. Facilities are decent. There is the lounge where live music is played every night, a decent-sized restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Swimming pools, etc, are nothing to shout about though,, but they are available. The bedroom amenities are comprehensive., from the beds to the washrooms. The hotel provides each guest an access card, with a third inserted in the room's power slot. So effectively you have three cards for a double room. In the hotels that I have stayed in, I have always had to approach the hotel to provide me a third card. There is free and unlimited wifi for getting on the internet in the rooms as well as in the Premium Lounge.
  4. If you choose to pay a bit more for its Executive rooms (I believe it is S$30 more per person per day), you have exclusive access to its Premier Lounge, located at the 24th floor.The lounge has an almost wall-to-wall glass window (panel) that looks out to parts of Bangkok. You can order any drink any time of the day (coffee, tea, juices, etc.) on the house. 2 friendly and helpful staff are around all the time to attend to your needs. You check-in and check-out of the hotel from here, so you don't need to join in a queue. When you are tired from your shopping, just pop up here for a breather and a drink, in relative privacy, instead of going into a McDonalds or Starbucks downstairs and squeeze with the rest of Bangkok with your shopping bags. Tea and snacks are served from 5 to 7pm (buffet style), all on the house. The chairs are very comfortable. When you are rested, just continue with your shopping downstairs. Its worth every additional baht. Pamper yourself, I say.

  1. The staff are all very friendly and attentive. You get the feeling that they care about your comfort and needs but are sensitive enough to leave you alone when you don't want to be disturbed.
The only downside is the hotel is not near any BTS station. It is certainly more than a stone's throw away. But there are plentiful Tuk-tuks and Taxis around. So if you are not too concerned about the traffic jams, you can still get around relatively cheap.

Overall, I'd recommend this hotel. I will certainly return to this hotel when I next visit Bangkok.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Bargain or not

Bangkok still is a shopper's paradise. It is great for buying clothes, both for men and women, bags, shoes and accessories such as wallets/purses. It is NOT, I am sad to say, for IT products. The prices of big ticket items such as the iPad is not very different from Singapore's. Even if you save a couple of tens of dollars, it is just not worth the risk of getting it fixed should it break down within the warranty period. International warranty, I am told, is for one year. Local warranty is 2 years. If you are looking for IT products, and you live in Singapore, Sim Lim Square is just as good. For small tickets items? Check out, or any of the China-based online retailers. They will give you just as good a price, if not better. And the quality isn't any less good than the ones you will find in Bangkok. In fact, I saw some of these gadgets on display at Pantip Plaza. There are also available at these online stores. By the way, I was told and I have read reviews on the internet that Pantip is one of the best for IT products, price and assortment wise. My actual experience is anything but when it came to the price category.

I was told that I could get the iPad a hundred or two cheaper than what I would get in Singapore. The Apple shop at Pantip Plaza listed a 16GB Wi-Fi-only iPad at B16,500. A shop that sold accessories proudly announced that it also sold the iPad. I was quoted a price of B18,500 for the same 16GB Wi-Fi-only model. Even if I bargained on the price, how much lower can it go? B16,000? Maybe B14,000 if I am a seasoned pro bargainer. Realistically, it would be nearer B15,000, which isn't all that different if I had bought from the Apple store. The bargainer must realise that the retailer will first mark up his prices so that he wouldn't lose a cent (or a baht) after the obligatory bargaining dance. You think you've got a good deal, but really, the retailer is the one walking away with the biggest smile. 

Not so the merchandise that list prices already cheaper than those you get at home. And these are the clothes, bags and shoes which is available in huge quantities and assortment.  You can really save after a good bargaining session, and the retailer gains too because his costs are already low. I spent 2 days trawling Pratunam Market and the Platinum Fashion Mall and don't think I have covered every inch, even though I lived just on top of it. You should plan for 3 solid days just in this part of Bangkok if you are there for the first time on a purely shopping trip. You see, the Fashion Mall closes at 7pm. Of course, there is the night market which, unfortunately, I didn't visit. Perhaps next time, soon.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hottest on the Planet

This must have the hottest Ramen on the planet - hotter than even the hottest Volcano Ramen in Ajisen's. I wasn't the one eating this - no I didn't have the guts, so I sympathized with the person eating it. He is a regular at Ajisen's and when he said it was hotter than any Ramen he had eaten, I knew he wasn't joking.  The restaurant was very generous with its drinks though, refilling the glass regularly. I believe this helped to put out the incessant fire that must be jumping out of the eater's mouth.

Where do you find this restaurant? I believe its Lot 10 in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is in the basement level.

Go there, if you want extreme torture.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


This Finnegan's, an Irish Pub in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, has seen better days. This is the shuttered outlet at the junction of Bukit Bintang - reputedly the Orchard Road of Singapore, if only for the traffic jams on the stretch of road where the former pub is located. I have heard of Finnegan's many years ago from some hip people boasting about being there. I don't crawl pubs, so that's the extent of my knowledge. My impression then was that it was like the Zouk or St James Powerstation of today - but largely for the 'ang moh' locals (i.e. Chinese, Indians, Malays, etc. who behave like 'ang mohs'). Perhaps a closer relative is Harry's Pub.

But wait. The very next day I took this photo (17th December 2010), The Star reported that Finnegan's has been acquired by a local Malaysia watering hole businessman, Ronald Quay. He has renamed the pub to O'Quay's Irish Pub, and of course, by retaining its original business concept, is keen to restore the Pub to its former glory. This calls to mind Mr Mulani's acquisition of Harry's Pub, another Irish Pub several years ago and eventually turning it into a successful venture. Let's hope that Encik Quay will be just as successful.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sights of old Beijing, or not

Beijing, that old city of the Emperors. Such are the lanterns and lights that grace the night.

The houses are dilapidated, although caged birds continue to adorn the windows.

Common folks eke out a living, selling hot and spicy Beijing food.

Tourists are a common sight these days, not in the days of the dynasty, when the red devils are shunned and vilified.

But hold on, they sell Rojak in Beijing. Since when? Nope this is not old Beijing. Where is this then?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tampines 1

Here are a couple of pictures of the newest new thing in Tampines - the Tampines 1 mall. I snapped these with my mobile camera, so you will understand that they are not my best work.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Barrage

There is really a new place to go to in Singapore. The Marina Barrage. I thought it was just a dam. It is that and more. Its a place, where, if you want to, you can have a picnic with your family or your significant other while you admire the Singapore Flyer, which is the tallest structure of its kind in the world. Of course, on a rainy day, the view becomes hazy, as in these photos, but the view is still expansive. Besides the huge circular arc that leads up to the park, there is the gallery which features several rooms full of pictures, decor, etc. that tells about water and the related technologies that the barrage is an example of. There is also a scale model of the barrage mechanism that lets the water flow out to the sea in case the water on the side of the Singapore River gets too full during a huge storm. You are allowed to take photos in the gallery, but video is not allowed.

The only problem with this place is that there is no public transport there, and even if you take a taxi, there may not be any to take you out, unless, by chance, one comes in. And I am not too sure that any taxi will want to respond to a booking as there isn't any surcharge that the cabby can earn, unlike going to Singapore Expo or Changi Airport.

But if you own a set of wheels, it is really a place worth visiting. Plan your journey ahead because this barrage is in the midst of the huge construction going on to built Singapore's first Integrated Resort.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Bintan redux

The Indonesian island of Bintan can be an idyllic getaway for the weary traveller caught up in the hustle and bustle of city life. To start off with, there is Bintan Club Med, for those who really want to relax and let the resort take care of everything, from organising activities for the kids to cooking up a storm to snorkeling. That's Club Med's style. But for those who have a limited budget, you can try Bintan Nirwana Beach Club or the lesser known Bintan Agro Beach Resort. Those more discerning will certainly check into the Banyan Tree Resort and Angsana Resorts, both promising Spa facilities and luxurious living quarters.

I was down in Bintan this month. Over the years, I have been to this island, which is 2 times the size of Singapore, about 3 times - all for holidays and relaxation. Frankly, there is nothing much else you can do on this island, unless you want to live and work there like the locals. I doubt that Singaporeans will ever survive the hygiene conditions. Anyway, there aren't any industrial parks on this island akin to those on the Indonesia island of Batam, probably because Batam is nearer to Singapore.

The first time I came here, the company I worked in, which has less than 15 people, treated its employees to a stay in Bintan Lagoon Resort. The second time I came I stayed in the Banyu Biru Villas, which are made up only of 2-storey Bungalows that accomodated from 4 to 8 persons. The family could cook their own meals here as all bungalows came with a kitchen. I have the best memories of my visits to Bintan here. We booked into an 8-person bungalow with the extended family, but one day into the stay, a nephew had tummy aches and the concerned parents took the boy home to Singapore. Over the next few days, others in the extended family left, family by family (they had committed to stay only that many number of days) until mine was left. Suddenly it felt spacious for 3 people to live in an 8-person bungalow, but I couldn't complain. It was really idyllic. All told, beach resorts can be quite noisy and crowded.

This year, I checked into a less expensive beach resort - the Agro Beach Resort. Bintan hasn't changed a lot since my last visit about 8 years ago. This time, I had the pleasure of a young tour guide all to myself as we travelled into town for a shopping trip. She is a native and a Chinese. We struck up a conversation and she told me about life on the island, the school system and the school that she attended as the bus passed by it. Schools in Bintan didn't teach English. The language of instruction was Indonesian, and they don't have a 'second language' taught in schools. Whatever other language they knew was picked up at home (their Chinese dialects) through their parents and elders. They learnt how to speak Mandarin through Singapore's Channel 8 Chinese language channel, watching the drama serials on TV, which they can receive quite clearly on this island.

I shared a little of what life was like in Singapore. She has relatives in Hougang, Singapore, which she lives with whenever she goes to Singapore. We compared notes on the good and not so good points about living in Bintan and in Singapore, on Bintan's relative under-development, compared to say, Malaysia or even Batam, and everything else in-between. I was sorry about the rest of the people in the bus, but as I had chosen the seat right at the front, it was only natural that she spoke more to me than anyone else.

Yes, coming back to Bintan never ceases to engage and refresh me.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Heavenly Heights

Henderson-Waves-005The world is in recession now. Overseas travelling traffic has been hit. Airlines are scaling back on their flight services. Even premier airlines like SIA are reducing the number of flights to some destinations to save on costs. Many, who just cannot do without the travelling, are going to destinations nearer home.

Well, why not take that logic one step closer - closer to home, that is. Many would forget that, in the rush to get out of the country, there are interesting places in Singapore that are new and probably remains unexplored. Take for example, the relatively new Alexandra Arch and Henderson Waves, which stretches from Mount Faber at the southern tip of Singapore to Kent Ridge on the west. These names themselves already evokes excitement and hints of adventures to come. These are a number of footpath and bridges that connects several hills in the south of Singapore right up to the western coastal area in Kent Ridge, the home of the National University of Singapore and Haw Par Villa.

I took a walk, well, not the entire stretch, but have seen enough to wonder at the ingenuity of our National Parks Board in creating these heavenly heights of greenery, which have become part of the Southern Ridges. The Henderson Waves boast the highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore. It is also, as the National Parks Board boasts, "one of the best spots in Singapore to catch panoramic views of the city, harbour and the Southern Islands".

Take a miss of Chiang Mai. There's the Souther Ridges in Singapore.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Elephant disappears

The vicinity of Buangkok MRT station was once a deserted place. So much so that SBSTransit kept putting off putting its already built Buangkok MRT station into operation because there was enough critical mass to justify the return on investment. It took a couple of white elephants and a very helpful Charles Chong, the MP for that area, to do a serious rethink. The MRT was finally opened on 15 January 2006, slightly under 3 years ago today.

The place has developed into a bustling area, with two perennially full (at least on Saturdays and Sundays) dining places and a smattering of shops. It's a nice little place, if you want to head there the next time. Meanwhile, here are some shot I took of the place today.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Beijing's Wangfujing Jie (Street) is a little of Singapore's Orchard Road and Chinatown rolled into one. It is also somewhat like Shanghai's Nanjing Jie (Street) where trams travel up and down the long long pedestrian mall. At the time of my visit though, there is still construction work going on along Wanfujing's boulevard.

Like Nanjing Jie and Orchard Road, branded shops and department stores line the Wanfujing boulevard. Like Singapore's Chinatown, there are many shops selling typically Chinese products - such as herbs and tea. Like Chinatown, there are small traditional shops dotted around Nanjing Jie.

In Wangfujing, you can enter a side street that is a bustle of activity, much like what Singapore's Chinatown used to have. Chinatown still has them now, but it is more sanitised. These series of streets sells traditional and popular Chinese food and souvenirs. It even has a Chinese Opera show that seems to run on and on. Children will be delighted to find shops selling 'Tanghulu' - or crystalline sugar-coated haws on a stick available at some of these stores. Eating them was another thing though. I found the haw pretty sour. If not for the sugar-coating, the haw would be almost inedible. I remember eating the same in Shanghai in December last year. Somehow, it tasted less sour and more pleasant.

One of the more common cuisine is the meat on a stick or barbecued meat. There are various, ranging from cuttlefish to pork to chicken to beef to lamb. True to character, there is nothing that the Chinese would not eat The sticks are really long and has more meat compared to Singapore's satay. Well worth a try. I wasn't so adventurous so I only ordered a couple of other noodles, minced beef and and 'jiaozhi' - all of which are edible but not fantastically so.

You have to soak up the atmosphere....

Friday, June 15, 2007

Happy Valley

Happy Valley Amusement Park in situated about 10-15 minutes taxi ride from Jianguomenwai Road. It is an amusement park styled after Disney and Universal Studios theme parks. It is quite sizeable, hosting themed locations such as the Lost Maya(n) Empire, Atlantis, Ant Kingdom and the obligatory features such as roller coasters (I counted three of them, each with varying degrees of challenge), Vertical Elevator, 4-D Theatre, Game Stalls, and what looked like an Indiana Jones themed location showing the adventures associated with treasure seeking. Of course souvenir shops dotted the whole park for visitors to take home a little of the memories through its merchandise.

We arrived at about 11.15am by taxi, which charged us RMB80 - not by meter although it was a taxi. But the cabbie was willing to fit 5 of us in his cab, so we wouldn't run the risk of getting separated and lost. We learnt much later from Alex Wu, the Chief Concierge at Paragon Hotel, that in Beijing, only taxis with a car plate number starting with 'B' is legally licensed. All others are illegal and if the operator/driver of these 'taxis' are caught, as was the driver that drove us back from Happy Valley to Paragon Hotel was, he faces a potential fine of thousands of dollars.

Anyway, back to the theme park. We could tell that the kids loved the place, particularly a multi-layered enclosure much like the kids' player area you'd find in Downtown East. The enclosure is wrapped round with mesh ropes to prevent the small cushion balls from getting out of the enclosure. What were the cushion balls for? To throw at each other, of course. There were several ball cannons for greater effect. Not only kids were having fun here, but young adults as well!

The park is pretty big, so we paid RMB20 for a maximum of three rides on the electric buggies. The first ride, we took through the whole park with the driver giving us an overview. Its probably what every new visitor to this park should do. We were almost drenched at Atlantis. One of the attractions here is a boat that would slide down from atop a hill and make a big splash when it reaches the bottom. But people were deliberately standing around to get drenched. Such was the huge splash it created every time the boat dived into the water.

Towards the end of the day, at about 6pm, we attended a show which is located at the entrance of the park. This show had athletic kids do slam-dunks over various obstacles, caucasians doing a Chinese dance, and acrobatic displays by on bicycles and skates. Very entertaining indeed. That was a good way to wrap up the day at this theme park.

Forbidden Transport

Today was for the children, and the child in all of the rest of us. We visited Happy Valley in Beijing. At first, I wasn't very hopeful that it would turn out to be fun. In the first place, we hopped onto a taxi that charged us the un-metered fare of RMB80 - about S$16 - way above the type of rates that I am used to when I traveled in Shanghai in December last year and March/April this. This in spite of the fact that it was clearly a taxi.

But he was willing to fit the five of us in his cab in a single trip. We didn't want to kick up a fuss, so we went along with the proposition. The trip was pretty smooth and uneventful. We reach our destination in about 10-15 minutes. The return journey proved to be very different. It was late - about 7.30pm - and we had just walked out of the shopping mall just across the road from the Happy Valley Amusement Park with loads of stuff we purchased earlier at Happy Valley and Tesco Supermarket. We were again propositioned for transportation. In Singapore, this activity is called touting. It can be quite irritating, but sometimes useful. I looked out on the roads and didn't see any available taxis cruising around. So we asked for the price and he quoted RMB60. That's RMB20 less than when we came, so we agreed to take his car. It wasn't even a taxi, just a small private car. It was quite a squeeze for four people in the back seat. I sat in the front - the privilege of having the biggest frame size of the group.

For much of the journey, the driver did not switch on his air-con. I thought it was ok as the roads were relatively free of traffic and we were moving along. He only switched it on when we entered the part of the city with more traffic lights and vehicles. The strange thing was - he asked us while driving if our destination was the ??? building. My wife instantly recognised that Chinese name and we said yes. Funny that he didn't asked if our destination was the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel. I just didn't want him to drop us off at the shopping mall where we would have to lug our shopping across to the Hotel. For S$12 taxi service in Beijing, we deserved more. In the event, when we reach our destination, I unwittingly directed the driver onto the road just in front of our Hotel, albeit on the other side of the road. He would turn in to the Hotel, but I wasn't prepared to argue. I paid him with a 10 dollar and 50 dollar RMB notes, but he returned the 50 to me because it was torn at one corner. So I exchanged it with another.

At about that moment, I head commotion outside the cab. Some official had come by to check on us and the driver. They began to question my companions - where we were from, what we were doing, whether we called for the transportation, or was offered the ride, and if so, how much we paid for driver. For the un-initiated, this look pretty scary - to be stopped in the night by somebody in some official uniform and assisted by a plainclothes person. But the uniformed person assured us that if we were offered the transportation service, it wasn't allowed. He then asked for my ID, which I duly obliged. Then he ticked off a list of questions on his 'form' and recorded my answers, including my HP number, address - the Hotel just across the street, etc. Finally he asked me to sign on the completed form. Mindful of not putting my signature on any document, particularly a document which I couldn't make out in the dark of the night, I didn't an initial, but the official requested that I write my Chinese name. He did seem honest about the whole thing, so I obliged. He also asked me to write on his pad that I had received the RMB60 back from the car driver, which I did through my companions.

Throughout the whole incident, the official seemed sincere, he didn't take about money from us - in fact he 'gave' us a free ride, he wasn't threatening and explained his motives reasonably clearly to us. On my part, we cooperated with him, though I gave him the wrong HP number, not deliberately - I was just confused at that time to think clearly. But there was only one of the number number which was wrong. Somehow, I just didn't want correct my unintentional error.

That done, we crossed the road back to our Hotel. We didn't know what happened to the driver. I was told that he was questioned, but whether he was arrested, fined, or whatever, I don't know, though I would have liked to know. I am surprised by the active enforcement action regarding the illegal hiring of transportation in Beijing. I was glad that I didn't engage any transportation for our 'forays' to our destinations. So far, we have either taken the subway, metered taxis from the Airport, and the public bus. The only exception was our journey to Happy Valley.

We speculated that this enforcement action was to clean up the unlicensed transportation racket ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Certainly, the Central Government does not want to hear complaints of unlicensed activities during the Olympics - that will be akin to the Government of the People's Republic of China losing face over its inability to govern and control illegal activities.

Whatever the reason, we got a free 'taxi' ride and we weren't in any trouble anyway. We probably would have incurred RMB60 in 2 'legal' taxis - one taxi could seat at most 4 passengers - so the money wasn't an issue as far as we were concerned. Call it a bonus, though it is at the expense of this illegal operator. I suppose he has earned enough from his 'premium' fares in his previous trouble-free runs that a RMB60 loss is not that big a deal. The only problem is his trouble with the law. One thing that still troubles me is that the arresting officers didn't wear uniforms that read "Gong An" - China's police. I noticed this when the officer was taking down my statement.

I only hope that my records are not abused. Somehow, I don't think it will. Much as we hear about widespread corruption in China, I must congratulate the Beijing Municipal Authorities on their active engagement in making sure that tourists do not get the short end of a deal.

Long Live the PRC!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City - the home of Ming and Qing Emperors for over 500 years, is steeped in Chinese history, culture and superstitions (referred to as Feng Shui today). It is not for me to give a full account here of these historical aspects of the Forbidden City - you would do well to pick up one of many books specifically describing this City.

One thing I can say here is that the City is HUGE - Chinese emperors of yore really lived it up! But then we should be mindful that the Emperor not only had his home here, this was the place to conduct the affairs of state, administer the Imperial Examinations and worship the God(s). Before we had our SOHO, the Chinese Emperors have already invented it, only it was not small.

As you enter the City, there are small little exhibit halls, each charging a small entrance fee, that showcase various aspects of Palace life and culture. In my opinion, these are probably not worth your time, though the money is not an issue. Each of these are priced as low as RMB5 per entry.

You can also eat at one of the many 'eating places' in this City, which occupies the buildings outside the Palace proper. Be forewarned - the food tastes terrible though the portion is huge. And if you are a stickler for clean toilets, you are in trouble. There are public toilets, but they emit a strong stench, probably because the cleaners can never clean them due to the constant stream of people using them. Also there are not many toilets to start off with. If you have a weak bladder, the Forbidden City is indeed forbidding.

While most of the outer perimeter of the Forbidden City is free for your to roam free of charge, entrance to the Palace (also known today as the Palace Museum) proper will set you back RMB60. It is worth the money though. The history of this Palace goes back hundreds of years that unless you are a history expert, it will be impossible for you to know or understand what you are seeing. You can rent a talking machine, which you can sling around your neck, that gives you a running commentary of various parts of the palace. It costs RMB10 for a Chinese version, RMB50 for an English version. There are other language versions too. But you need to pay a refundable deposit of RMB100. I almost rented one, but, in retrospect, I must thank the lady in front of me in the queue. She took so long that I gave up waiting. I found out later that a 'live' commentary was much better - and cost not much more. So we entered the Palace with nothing but the guide map that came with the entrance tickets in hand.

As in most places of interest, you get accosted by people offering their services, either to take you on a 40 minute tour, or something. They can be parasitic, but you must remember that you are in a foreign land, so no matter how irritated you get, you must maintain a degree of civility and politely refuse. They will still come after you, but these people are just trying to make an honest day's living, so bear with them. They aren't that bad. They are offering a service, they are not there to rob or anything - at least that's how I see them.

When you enter the Palace, there are guides dressed in blue who will offer a one and a half hour guided tour of the Palace grounds for RMB150. They will even offer to take a video of the entire guided tour, using their video camera, or even yours, if you have one. If you use theirs, you'd have to pay RMB50 for the DV-Tape, which is quite cheap. So the video-taping is not an extra above the RMB150. If it rains on that day, you can get an umbrella rent-free! Just pay RMB20 per umbrella, which will be refunded entirely to you when you return them the umbrella at the end of the tour.

These tour guides are professionals. We learnt that they are trained and need to be certified before they can act as guides. Because they go into some historical fact during the tour, they must be accurate with their commentary and also be able to answer tourists' (your) questions. Our lady guide came across as well trained, warm, and knowledgeable. She also learnt from her past customers who had expert knowledge on some remote bits of history at certain exhibits. These she readily shared with us. Now, that's humility and an acknowledgement that no one person knows it all.

At almost the end of the tour, in the place where the Empress and concubines lived, there is a Souvenir shop. Remarkably, our guide left us to our shopping because we wanted to browse around. Normally, a guide would tie up with some retail shop. In this case, it wasn't part of her itinerary, but she gave us the space and time.

At the end of the tour, we have to sign off on her 'ticket' and give her a rating - 'Excellent', 'Satisfactory' and 'Poor'. She was a great guide, and for all her effort, we rated her 'Excellent' and on top of that, tipped her RMB100!

I don't know about the machines, but this personal guided tour was definitely worth the price! The only thing I missed was her name. But never mind, we took a photo with her.

People's Square

I had a great day at one of the most famous, and perhaps also notorius, places in Beijing - Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City - once the home of China's emperors.

The notoriety that Tian An Men Square acquired was quite recent - 1989 to be exact, when hordes of Chinese congregated onto the vast Square to agitate for democracy. China was just only recently being opened up to the world, but this demonstration was too much for the authorities. The result was that the Chinese government sent in the tanks to disperse the crowd and sent Zhao Ziyang, then-Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, political exile for sympathizing with the demonstrators. He never recovered his political position - he died in 17 January 2005 - still under virtual house arrest.

Today, the Tian An Men Square incident, dubbed 6-4 (because it fell on June 4) - when the crackdown by the Chinese Authorities broke up the demonstration and arrested key student leaders - is still being remember by thousands of pro-democracy people, particularly in Hong Kong SAR. Today, this Square is peaceful which belie that June 4 day. A Mao Tse-Tung (or Mao Zedong) Memorial - formally named the "Chairman Mao Memorial" - is being renovated to honour the founding father of Communist China, and no doubt in preparation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the world will descend on Beijing.

The square is patrolled by the Police (Gong-An), but there is nothing sinister in this. The Gong An do not look intimidating at all - they are there to preserve order, which is well and good. The Square is huge and surrounded on all sides by Roman-columned Buildings - the National Museum, Chairman Mao Memorial, the People's Parliament Building, and not least of all, the Forbidden City (Gugong), which was the home of Chinese emperors for over 500 years. The last emperor - Pu Yi, was only 3 when he ascended the throne and was kicked out at 5 when the Han Chinese overthrew the Qing dynasty, first in Wuchang (in Wuhan) in 1911 and subseqently gathered speed in other parts of China.

Although the nationalist Kuomingtang (KMT) took over where the Qing Empire left off, it didn't quite consolidate China until the Communist Party of Chairman Mao Zedong came along. In 1948, the Communist Party of China constituted a united China. The KMT had to settle for the island of Taiwan. These and similar twists and turns in the history of China demonstrate the truth of the saying:

"The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide" - (Luo Guanzhong, circa 1600 during the Ming Dynasty, writing in Three Kingdoms)

Picture: Monument to the Heroes. Situtated in the middle of the Square.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

First into Beijing

Finally, after a journey that began this morning at 8am at Changi Airport, I arrived at Beijing Capital Airport. Beijing is a busy city. It is also, unfortunately, a hazy city. The air quality leaves much to be desired. The number of people from foreign lands must have increased an order of magnitude since Beijing and China in general, opened up to the world.

Even so, going through customs at Beijing was a breeze. There was a whole row of customs booths available - maybe 50 or so of them - all manned - to get the hordes of travelers through. One interesting feature at every booth is a voting panel. Commuters can express their rating of the customs officer serving them as they wait to have their documents checked and verified. And the customs officers are very efficient and fast. I didn't have enough time to figure out what the panel was about before I was cleared - it was that efficient and fast.

In some other airports, for example, those in Malaysia, the customs officers seem to take pleasure in making commuters wait in line and wait in front of them as they check the travel documents - at least that has always been my impression for one or two times I have used KL International Airport (KLIA). And even when multiple booths are available, not all of them are manned even when the crowds come in.

But back to Beijing. I didn't lose a single luggage and was well out of the airport in a jiffy. Taking a taxi is very much like that in Changi Airport. You line up for the constant stream of taxis coming into the pickup/waiting area. In some airports, you have to fight for one. I had no problem communicating my destination and was off and out of the airport in double quick time - just like in Changi.

The journey was also quite smooth and fast. We only encountered heavy traffic as we moved into the city proper. The one thing of concern in Beijing is the air quality. It is bad, really bad. That's when you start to make comparisons with Singapore. Whenever travelers remarked that Singapore is sooo... clean, we take it for granted. But these visitors are not being patronising - just being honest. Compared to Singapore, Beijing has this pall of dust all over the city, starting even from the airport. I was getting worried for the two kids who are traveling with me. Both of them have a history of asthma.

We arrived at our hotel - the Howard Johnson Paragon Hotel, just across from the Beijing Railway station - in slightly under an hour.

Onward Beijing

I am traveling again, this time to Beijing, China.

I left Singapore yesterday by Thai Airways on the morning flight, stopped over at Thailand's newest (and much maligned) Suvar-nabhumi Airport before taking the connecting Thai Airways flight. I didn't spend much time in Suvar-nabhumi Airport as I rushed for then connecting flight. I had to rush because Suvar-nabhumi Airport is very big and my connecting flight was located at the other end from the arrival hall. As this was my first time at this airport, I took some time to figure out how to get there. The directional signs were good, but could have been better. I was lost at one point and had to ask for more detailed directions. This though the signs were in English.

Initial impression is that shopping looks good. My companion said that she would spend more time here on the way back as our stopover then would be no less than 3-hours! Normally, this is a drag but travelers can eat up a whole 3-hours if the shopping is interesting enough. I only pity myself and my son, who would have to endure the wait as my wallet gets lighter and lighter. But that's next Monday, so I shall not think about it until then.

But the customs inspection was terrible. At least for some travelers. Some Thai customs officers went through the luggage with a fine tooth comb, and that took up a lot of our time. But they were not intimidating. You just have to factor a bit more time when you want to get through Suvar-nabhumi Airport.

Friday, December 29, 2006

The rain cometh

I had been expecting sun, sand and surf in the year end break in tropical Southeast Asia this December, but nature had other plans. I was virtually cooped up in my Hotel Room in Batam, Indonesia, all day for 2 days. The view of the hills from my room often indicated if the day was going to be wet or very wet. In this picture, a dense mist has descended on the hills, covering the entire outline of its peaks.

This next picture, taken from the same angle on another day, shows the outline of the same hills, but just only.

It was that bad.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Old bicycle habits in a new town

Sengkang town is relatively new in Singapore. It is situated in the Northeast corner of Singapore, just next to the coastal town of Punggol. A distinctive feature in Sengkang is its Integrated Development in the town centre, which has a Residential Condominium, a Shopping Centre, a Bus Terminal, an MRT and an LRT station together with its Operations Centre, all rolled into the same location. But alas, such new-ness and sophistication are spoilt by Sengkang residents who practice the park-and-ride philosophy but do so indiscriminately. This series of photos are self-explanatory.

Singapore is not that orderly and law-abiding after all, is it? This is not a posed picture. The bicyles in the picture are chained to the signpost and this happens everyday, without fail. It seems that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) (or is it the Pasir-Ris Punggol Town Council - PRPTC), isn't doing enough enforcing their own rules after spending taxpayers' money putting up this refurbished signboard. Yes, this same signboard was peeling not too long ago, and I wonder why the people who restored the signboard (must be LTA or PRPTC, right?) to its prestine condition never noticed the bicylces. Amazing feat of blindness or ignorance (or bo chap, as some Singaporeans will say). I wonder if the people at LTA or PRPTC see any meaning to life in the job they (are supposed) to do for which they draw a salary funded out of taxpayers' money. Or are they biding time till 62 to be released from the drudgery of life in Singapore? This situation has persisted for well over a year now. How Sengkang residents can take the LTA or PRPTC seriously is beyond me. In fact, it looks like the residents are playing I-dare with the powers that be by blatantly disregarding the order right under their noses. For a prominent and high traffic area (both of the human and vehicular types) in Sengkang's Town Centre, I wonder why this blatant violation of the law wasn't highlighted earlier? Must be bo chap again.

I suppose the LTA or PRPTC was waiting to be caught with its pants down. Well, it got what it waited for. I am ashamed to be looking at their err....signboard, I mean.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Star Wars - The Last Days

I went to the Singapore Science Centre yesterday to view "The Art of Star Wars" exhibition. It has been on since November 2005 and will end in 9 days' time, on 3 April 2006. So if you haven't been down there, you'd want to take note of the closing date.

Was it a good exhibition? Yes, because for the first time, I saw actual life size models of Star Wars characters, as well as the detailed models of the sceneries and ships that were used in the filming of the Star Wars movies. I have always wondered how George Lucas could create a whole universe and film it in such convincing detail. I knew that models were used, but you have got to see the models themselves up close to fully appreciate the possibilities. Flash photography is not allowed, but you can take non-flash photographs with your digital cameras. The effect can be quite movie-like. This is one of the pictures I took with my sub-compact. Framed drawings and sketches line the walls from Episodes I to VI, all brightly lit on its own. Someone was going from picture to picture, recording each on his digital camera - without flash!

The exhibit also explains, with many examples, the various filming techniques that Lucas' ILM uses in movie making. And a lot of the related Science fiction and fact were explained and discussed at these exhibits, such as the science of cloning (remember the Clone Wars?).

If you haven't seen it, consider going. I think you will like it. For an $18 adult ticket, you not only gain entry to the exhibits, you also get a limited edition (only 20,000) nickel medallion coin with Darth Vader on one side and the Year of the Dog 2006 on the other side. This coin is minted by the Singapore Mint. Its a collector's item.

P.S. The exhibition has been on for some time so I am not surprised that some of the activity-based exhibits are not working any more! But this is a minor blemish on an otherwise interesting exhibition.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Zoo evolution

When Zoos were first conceived and designed, they allowed human visitors to roam the grounds freely to view the animals that are safely locked up in their cages. Over time, this was seen as a form of cruelty to animals. It was also thought that if animals could roam freely so that they could be viewed in settings that were more natural, more could be learnt about them in their natural habitat.

Many zoos have made this change in their design with varying degrees of open-ness. The Singapore Zoological Gardens is one of these. Animals can roam in larger habitats outside of cages. In the Animal World in AFamosa Resort, which is situated in Malacca, it would seem that human visitors have switched places with the animals, as this photo shows. Visitors are locked up in a moving cage on a lorry, which drives them around the natural habitat of the animals in the zoo. If we interpolate the story of the Planet of the Apes, this scene would look very familiar to the apes! This photo was taken while I was similarly 'locked up' in a caged lorry.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bird's Nest Flattery

I spotted this shop in Chinatown selling Bird's Nest, a very popular Chinese delicacy which is at once expensive and supposedly good for health. Well, this wasn't what made me take a snap shot of this shop. Rather, its the name of the shop, which sounded very similar to a very popular Korean soap opera named Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace. This soap (or serial as its more commonly called nowadays) is very popular not only in its native Korea, but also in Hong Kong as well as Singapore. I am sure that it is just as popular wherever there are Koreans, Chinese or perhaps even Japanese. I was glued to this serial when it was broadcast in Singapore. The thing is - I am not normally a 'serial' fan.

Well, apparently this shop decided to make capital out of this wildly successful serial by naming the shop after the show, even right down to the fonts for the Chinese title of the show, shown here on the shop's signboard. The only difference is the last Chinese character. Here, the character means 'Gold'. In the serial, that last character stands for "today". But phonetically, the two words are the same. So the resemblance is unmistakable. Long after the serial is forgotten, this shop (if it is still around then, that is), can become a conversation piece about 2003's most popular Korean serial.

For more on "Dae Jang Geum", see:

Jewel in the Palace
Dae Jang Geum Theme Park
Han Cinema - Dae Jang Geum

Friday, January 13, 2006

Sweet smell of wealth

Well, gold and silver are not the only things Chinese hanker for during these festivities. There are others, such as peanuts, melon seeds, sweets and sweetened pickle fruits, amongst others. This shop sold a variety of melon seeds and peanuts, which are displayed by the sacks. People just helped themselves to them, sampling them, but I suspect, not intendng to buy any. Out of curiosity myself, I sampled the (Red) Soiled Baked Peanut (bottom left), which is going for S$5.00 per 500 grammes. It was really tough, and I decided that it wasn't a nut I wanted on the table when I served guests for the New Year. Its a good opportunity to sample some of the other unusual peanuts, as well as Melon Seeds, like the Hong Kong Roasted Red Melon Seeds (bottom right) going for $3.00 per 500 grammes and the Dragon (Eyed) Melon Seeds at S$8.00 per 500 grammes(?) (bottom right). They look georgeous, don't they? Nothing like garish red to bring out the atmosphere of celebration and fortune during the Lunar New Year.