Saturday, August 18, 2007

Visiting Tokyo on a budget

Whenever I ask my friends if they are keen to visit Japan, the same answer would always be "Yes ! but it is so expensive!" Okay, if you're comparing products sold elsewhere, it's probably cheaper elsewhere. But visiting Japan means more than just buying stuff. You come for the culture and things uniquely japanese.

Going on a packaged tour seems like a good deal, especially if you are unfamiliar with the place and language. However, ithe major drawback is that you get to see what they want you to see at their pace. You are left with little choices of your own.

So, is there a way to see Japan without burning a big hole in your pocket? Without going on a packaged tour? Yes !

Here are some of my tips if you want to plan your own free & easy trip to Japan.
  • Make friends with japanese people around you. They 'll be too glad to show you their home towns.
  • Glean information from the internet before you travel. This will save you lots of precious time planning an itinerary.
  • Travel with someone who has already been there before.
  • Travel during low season. This is when discounts abound.
  • Stay in Japanese inns (ryokans) rather than hotels. Alternatively, home stays (minshinku) or temple lodgings provide good alternatives. These can be booked directly through the internet.
  • Eat where the locals eat, e.g. train stations, side walk cafes, pushcarts stalls. These provide good value meals and are much cheaper than restaurants and coffee houses (kissaten)
  • Trains and buses will have Day passes or tourist passes (Tokunai pass, JR Rail Pass, etc). Use these rather than paying per trip tickets
  • Take the free tissues given out on the streets and the food discount coupons.
You can survive Tokyo on less than $50 a day.
Next time you want to go to Japan, call me!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shopping Streets

A friend commented that had she been in my place, she would never survive coming back given her mania for shopping.
Alas for me, shopping had never been something that I had much enthusiasm for. Of course, the cursory visits to the malls and street markets is something I do on my itinerary. Some of these due to necessity and some for leisure.

Where have I been that has the best shopping? Well, if I were to categorize shopping abroad, then of course, the most famous, and tourist oriented places, would come to mind.

The first category would be the more exclusive and expensive places which are strictly, at least to me, only for window shopping, and just for the sake of saying "I've been there, done that! ha ha! " would be places like Ginza in Tokyo, Champs Elysee and Ave Montaigne in Paris, Oxford Street in London, Rodeo Drive LA and 5th Ave NY in the US.

The more affordable category would then be places like Orchard Road in Singapore, Shinjuku in Tokyo, and even the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Yes, I'd probably buy stuff from these place.

Lastly, the cheapest places to shop would list Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok for best value

But if I were to name only 1 place that to me would be the best shopping street anywhere, my vote goes to The Stroget in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Stroget is a pedestrian only shopping street with cobble stone pavements and is a joy to stroll along, especially in the cooler seasons. Running from the nearby famous Tivoli Gardens right across town to Nyhavn. You've probably seen those places without realising it. It's always used on jigsaw puzzles for some reason, very likely due to its picturesque scenery, esp Nyhavn Harbor. Be warned though, the prices are astronomical but the quality of the products being Danish is outstanding.

The shops, no malls thank goodness, are all located along a mile long stretch with more adjoiningg streets all being pedestrian streets. Al fresco cafes and street buskers all lend an endearing atmosphere to the entire place. And a cool beer is always waiting at the end of your walk.

The things I like best here are the amber shops. There seem to be more shops selling gems and amber here than in any other places I've been. This place set me off on my fascination with amber, the semi precious stone that contains organic matter like leaves and insects inside.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Phuket - For the hansum man

“You velly hamsum, you buy me delink, okay?” seems to be standard greeting call at the infamous Bangla Road at Patong in Phuket.

This short stretch in the centre of Phuket’s main nightlife zone has what’s been described as the highest density of hookers per sq ft of real estate anywhere in the whole world. Within this half kilometer, there exists a few hundred bars, nightclubs, brothels, discos, pubs and food establishments. Multiply this by the number of attendant staff, the result is staggering. So much so that Patong has come into its own as a major tourist attraction in itself. Each evening hoards of tourists pour in by the busloads into this area, giving an implicit nod to this sleazy world. Hell, even the tourist police have a station here.

Amazingly, by day, you could walk through it without even knowing the alter ego of this place. With its departmental stores and shops looking like any other tourist trap. But it really comes into its own at night - a man's Disneyland, as someone happily puts it.

It's safe enough to simply walk through the area but be prepared to be accosted by trinket sellers, free lance hookers, katoeys and pimps who will tout their wares from the sidelines.
Soi Crocodile, Soi Dragon, Soi Eric are the zones where most of the '10 stools' bars are located. Transvestites and ladyboys are to be found mainly at Soi Crocodile. If you are taking pictures, know that they expect a tip in return.

From Irish pubs to agogo bars like Dragon Club and Rock Hard, you are spoilt for choice as to where to nurse your drink and ogle their girls. By the way, the girls ARE all available. Its only a matter of your negotiating skills and the bar fine. ;-)

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Las Vegas - Gambled with life.

Las Vegas - Convention City par excellence! Five days on company expense! My very first trip to sin city, and almost my very last trip anywhere!

I live in a city far removed from LV. Getting there meant almost 24 hours squashed into your seat, the constant droning of the aircraft engine in your ears, and worst of all, your bum becomes so sore that you will never again ask for a window seat. Aisle seats at least lets you get out at anytime for relief.

I'll never forget the first impression of Las Vegas. It began with the slot machines at MacCallan Airport enticing you even while you wait for your baggage to appear. The glitter and gold finish of the airport interior exudes wealth. This is a rich city!

Twenty-four hours on an SIA/Delta flight and now finally at the El Rancho Hotel. El Rancho was* located right on The Strip, that stretch of road where all the major casinos are located - MGM, Caesers Palace, Reviera, Circus Circus, New York, New York, Treasure Island, etc. etc. I was there with my colleague for the COMDEX convention, at the time the world's largest IT show.

Everything is different in the US, the sounds, the smell of the air, the wide open spaces, the service at restaurants, and the traffic, which flows in the opposite direction. We drive on the wrong side of the road, according to the Americans.

COMDEX was tomorrow but now it was time for dinner. Going out into the neon, our first order of business was food. Across The Strip we saw MacDonald's. OK, that's familiar. Let's go.

The Strip is a one-way 2 lanes highway with a road divider in the middle.
Look right. No cars coming. Cross now!

Honk honk honk honk!!!! screech screech honk honk!!!
SHIT ! The traffic was from the other side! LOOK LEFT, not right!

Missed us by just that much! "Assholes!" screamed the american driver.

So our first gamble at Las Vegas was with our lives, and we won. phew!

Must be jet lag.

*footnote: The El Rancho closed in 1992 and was demolished in 2000.

London - Gullible's Travels (2)

Had just walked out onto the street in front of Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury where I was staying, when I was greeted by an elderly gentleman. Typically english, round and portly, looking a bit like Harry Secombe which was why I stopped.

He: "Hello, Jeepon? Connie Shewah."
Me: "Who?"
He: "Speak English? Yes?"
Me: "Yes, I speak English."
He: "Where you from? HongKong? Malaysia?"

He begins telling me how much he liked the Orient, been there many years ago, had lots of friends there, etc. Seemed friendly and even brought out from inside his coat an album. Showed me pictures of his 'friends' he made here in London. The pictures were mainly of japanese women and taken at tourist places like Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, etc.

He: " You want to be my friend?"
Me: "Okay."
He: "Come, let me take your picture".
He takes out a small camera and made me pose in front of the hotel. Snapped 2 photos.

He: " OK, give me your name and address and I'll sent the pictures to you. Give me 5 Pounds and I post it to you tomorrow."
Wham! Then it hit me! Bloody idiot, you just got conned. 5 Pounds at that time was about $30.

Me: "What! I'm not going give you 5 pounds! You offered to take my picture. I didn't ask you to"
He: "F*ck off you bloody chink! bloody sod!"
Me: "You go f*ck yourself"

When in London, beware of nice old gentlemen offering to take your pictures.
A bloody chink at Tower Bridge, London.

Monday, August 06, 2007

San Francisco - Gullible's Travels (1)

Back in the early 90's, when I was what was then known as a 'yuppie', I traveled extensively as required by my job. Of course, being in different environments present different views and outlooks - culture shock, as some authors put it. I'll relate some of the more memorable incidents.

San Francisco. One of the most beautiful place to be in. The firm had sent me to the corporate HQ down in Silicon Valley. A place called Fremont, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. After a week's work, I was due home but took the opportunity to stay in San Francisco to catch some of the sights. I was alone then and, actually, it was my first time there too.

At new places, you always get a bit apprehensive whenever it comes to eating. You're not sure of the menu, the prices, or even the procedures at times! So, on that first day, it was time for lunch and I decided to take the easy way out and take-out at a fast food joint.

Frankly, I had never heard of Subway till then. But they had nice pictures of sandwiches on the front glass. Okay, sandwiches which be nice.
So in I went and, wow!, how in the world do I get a sandwich here??
Hi, what kind of bread? huh? what would you like in it? huh? you want greens? huh? you want mustard? oh! you wanna drink with that? yeah yeah ok.
What an ass I must have been. But hey, all I wanted was a sandwich and I get 20 questions thrown at me!??
That'll be 14 bucks. So I proceeded to take money from my wallet, and what does this guy say?
Hey, guys, he's really gonna give me 14 bucks for the sandwich! crew sniggering behind.

Hey! its my first time here, how would I know the price of your crummy sandwich! grrrhhh.
Anyway, it turned out that the sandwich was only about 3 bucks, and the guy was of course just pulling my leg. They were actually nice young people, probably school kids only.

Welcome to San bumpkin.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Pain - the cross that I carry

Unbelievably, within the past 3 months, I had to cope with 3 major bouts of excruciating pain.

The first, my chronic back pain, resulting from some unknown episode first felt about 5 years ago but which was simply written off then as muscle strain.
This now has been diagnosed as a prolapsed vertebra disc ("slipped disc"). I had undergone X-rays and MRI scan and it has been determined I have a prolapsed disc between the vertebrae L4 and L5.
What happened was that the soft tissue in the disc between the vertebrae burst (prolapse) and the resulting issue pressed onto the sciatic nerve that runs down both legs.

This pressure on the nerve causes excruciating pain in my left leg near the calf and ankle areas. So much so that on some days even walking becomes a major event. Apparently, doctors are wary of operating, as the result may not always be favorable despite achieving clinically successful surgery.

I've had physiotherapy, traction, compression, acupuncture, massages and a whole host of ointments, herbs and TCM. All these serve only as temporary relief. Being allergic to NSAIDs (paracetamol, aspirins, etc) also means that I am restricted to my precious Tramadol as the only possible painkiller.

The 2nd episode occurred exactly at 1.30 am on the 12th of June. Waking up to abdominal pains, the likes of which I had never felt in all my life. So much so that I really thought I was dying. Being rushed to hospital by emergency ambulance was also a first in my life.

Kidney stones was the preliminary diagnosis. Painkiller, muscle relaxant and observation - not so life threatening after all. Yet the pain of this episode was a 10 in comparison to my leg pains. Luckily, the stones passed naturally out and now I am on a restricted diet (no chocolates, no red meats, no peanuts, no strawberries, etc etc, drink liters and liters of water every day....). I've lost 4 kg since this episode, which is not a bad thing given that I could be better off losing a few pounds.
The 3rd, and hopefully, final chapter in this painful story was that of the dentist drill !
I broke my molar, eating of all things, unleavened bread. "Sorry, it's better to extract as more than half is gone and filling might cause more pain in future" That's all I needed again!!!!

Thankfully, and to the amazement of my dental surgeon, I felt no pain or discomfort. Simply due to the fact that I had built up a very high tolerance of pain. And drilling and extraction was just a walk in the park!

Bearing your cross has its lighter moments after all.

Ohashi - chopsticks etiquette

Uniquely asian, the chopsticks has supposedly been around for 5000 years. With it, an unconscious etiquette has been ingrained into all asians from young.
For those who may be unfamiliar with this utensil, a few pointers:
  • Do not stick your chopsticks into the food, especially your rice bowl.
  • Do not poke the food or use your chopsticks to search the dish.
  • Do not wave, or especially point at someone, with your chopsticks.
  • Place your chopsticks together on the chopstick stand when not using it.
  • If there's no chopstick stand, it quite acceptable to place it on the side of your plate/bowl, or even on the table with the the tips resting on the plate.
  • Hold the chopsticks near the ends, not in the middle or near the tip.
  • After splitting disposable chopsticks, do not rub them together to remove splints. It's uncouth. Quality chopsticks will usually not have splints, but a quick look will suffice to re-assure you.
If you are in a restaurant and the chopsticks come in a paper envelope, do not throw away the envelope or crush it. It is re-used to keep your used chopsticks at the end of the meal.
If there's no envelope, place your chopsticks together with the tips pointing left at the end of the meal, on your plate or table in front of you.

Important tip to avoid a faux pas :- In most japanese homes, or even at restaurants, where a communal dish is shared, use the opposite ends of your chopstick to pick food from the communal dish. Do not use the end that goes into your mouth! That is, turn your chopsticks around for picking shared dishes.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Tokyo Disneyland - A lesson in humility

Having first arrived in Tokyo in 1993, I passed Tokyo Disneyland on numerous occasions, whether on the Keiyo train or being driven along the Shuto Expressway. It had never ever occurred to me that I would ever want to visit that place. Kiddy stuff I thought. For tourists and for kids. In fact, on early occasions, I even thought that it was a love hotel on seeing Cinderella's castle from a distance. Well, you can't be blamed for that as love hotels seem to congregate in that region of Chiba. And if you've seen how gaudy some of these are, who will fault you for mistaking Cinderella's castle for another of those uniquely japanese places.

Having taken and shown so many visitors around Tokyo, it thus became inevitable that someone will ask..."I want to see Disneyland.. Can you take me there?" And so it was in 2002 that I finally had to make my foray into the Magic Kingdom.

What occurred in that initial visit was a mind opening experience, for which I would always berate myself. Was it a kiddy's place?...Yes. Was it kitschsy, tacky, for tourists?..also Yes. Was it enjoyable? absolutely Yes!

TDL is unique as a theme park. It sure changed my perceptions about theme parks. The atmosphere there is one of pure joy and happiness. You really feel away from the 'real' world.

The lesson I learnt from Tokyo Disneyland?....... Don't knock it unless you've tried it!

I been back there 4 times already. hee hee.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Indonesian Spa retreat

Just got back from a 3 days retreat at the Angsana Spa & resort located at Bintan island, an hour south by ferry from Singapore. It been more than a year since I last visited this place but the ambiance is still fantastic. The resort room could use a bit of refreshing though. It's starting to look old and worn.

Of course, the main reason for being there is the Spa! They have introduced new treatments but again all the treatments are heavenly. The spa is located on the roof top of the hotel annex but done in such a manner that there's no hint of where you really are as all you see is the enclosed garden pavilion and looking out towards the sea or the beach.

The Angsana Spa is the twin sister of the Banyan Tree Spa located nearby. Having tried both, I feel that Angsana provide the better treatments whereas the Banyan Tree Spa is unbeatable for it's ambiance if you have your treatment in the individual villa pavilion. Treatment at the Spa Center tends to be more clinical and lacking the ambiance.

Spa Pool Banyan Tree cimg0013Banyan Tree Resort Bintan