Saturday, November 08, 2008

Only the air is free, pay for everything else.

The Equinox @ Swissotel, Singapore.

It was the Thai beef broth I had for lunch. Their custom of using sugar, salt, spicy and sour in their cuisine had left my throat slake the whole afternoon. Even the two cups of Cappucino at Cedele Raffles City wouldn't quench my thirst. I desperately needed water by the time I arrived at the Equinox with my dinner date.

We arrived just as the restaurant opened and apparently they had just turned on the air-conditioning. It was still stuffy and warm inside, adding to my discomfort.

" Could I have a glass of water please?"
"Will that be still or sparkling?"
" Tap will be fine"
"I am sorry, sir, we don't have tap water."
" You wash your dishes with sparkling water?
Ok, nevermind. Could you tell me where I can find the Gents please?"

Despite what you hear about the waters here being recycled from the sewers, tap water in Singapore exceeds WHO standards and is safe to drink!

The Equinox is located on the 70th floor of the Swissotel complex, which was once the tallest hotel in the world, but now only holds the title for South East Asia. It was my 2nd visit in as many months there.

Personally, I think the place is overrated and is not value for money for the food. I was there only because I owed my dinner date a treat and she had not been up to the top level before.
Dinner was Black Angus steak and Coconut Chicken Soup with Cloudy Bay wine to complement the meal. And yes, we did order still water later, after all.

What makes the dining worthwhile is the view you get from the 70th floor. Go early before dark and you get to see the sky and city lights changing before your eyes.
click on any picture for a larger image
For the curious, the round thing sitting on top of the building seen clearly in the bottom left photo is rumoured to be the getaway spacecraft in case of an alien attack on Singapore. It's reserved for the Men In White who curiously all work within the vicinity of that building. You can read more of that alien technology rumours at this satirical website.

But caveat emptor!
(wow, this word sure is being abused these days with the banking guys having to find excuses for the big debacle in the financial crisis.)

And I use this here because while you are taking in the view at the Equinox, they are laughing all the way to the bank!

You have to pay to see the view from the top. At $20 a pop!
This is entered into your dining bill.

At the top of the bill, it says "Window seat $20"! @$*#%#!
Hey, I sat facing inside the restaurant, doesn't that mean I should get a discount??


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Shopping Streets - Kiyomizuzaka & Sannenzaka

Kyoto, Japan.

In eastern Kyoto, when you visit the Kiyomizu Temple (a World Heritage site not to be missed !), you will definitely pass these 2 shopping streets. These are the 2 stone paved streets that lead up to the temple compound and has been the only way for worshipers and tourists alike for past 400 years.

These streets have been around since the temple was founded and have houses lining both sides that are still typically japanese shophouses. Most are wooden and in keeping with the traditional outlook of the whole area. Thank God for that.

And this is what makes the place unique. You seemed to have been transported back in time and actually expect or hope to see samurais round the corner! Japanese residents in yukatas and Maikos in kominos still occasionally trod through cobblestone pavements. You know you are in Japan and you imagine "This is what Japan should be like!"

Although catering mainly to the tourists, these streets provide a unique glimpse into the Japanese way of life. Souvenirs are not the usual tacky shopping mall stuff (though it's also there) but you get offerings of many traditional Japanese goods like handmade parasols, fans, pottery & kyoto dolls. And this makes the world of difference to other shopping streets, even of those in japan.

One thing you must sample are the various types of Japanese cookies, yatsuhashi. These are all prepared in the traditional manner and are the usual omiyagi (gifts) which the Japanese themselves give to their friends and colleagues to mark their visit to that place.

Searching through the narrow alleyways and side streets along the steep incline will also reward you with unique japanese inns, cafes, and horrors, vending machines shops. Luckily, these ugly symbols of Japanese life are not so obvious here!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

ROTFLOL ! It's the funniest thing I've read in a long time.
What made it more incredible was that it was stated by the country's Home Minister during their Parliament session. Yup, it's official.
Here's how it was reported in the local press....

Friday October 17, 2008
Policemen beat a retreat

KUALA LUMPUR: A police beat base located in the Chow Kit area of downtown Kuala Lumpur has been shut down because the “presence of criminals could make it unsafe for police officers". Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said the beat base was located in a dirty area where police faced the possibility of being exposed to contagious diseases. The presence of criminals also posed a threat to the safety of police officers.

He said this in a written reply to Dr Lo’ Lo’ Mohamad Ghazali (PAS - Titiwangsa).
Dr Lo’ Lo’ had asked why the beat base along Jalan Haji Taib was closed considering that vice activities were high in the area. She also wanted to know what kind of action had been taken by the police to curb vice activities in the Chow Kit area. Syed Hamid said police were in the midst of finding a new location for the beat base.

In an immediate response City Chief Police Officer Deputy Comm Datuk Mohd Sabtu Osman said the beat base was not shut down but had been relocated to bigger premises near Jalan Raja Bot. “We moved there to provide better service as we have increased our manpower and need more space,” he said. Dr Lo’ Lo’s question was the 30th in the Order Paper and hence did not get a mention in the House during the daily one-hour Question Time.

However, Dr Mohd Hatta Ramli (PAS - Kuala Krai) managed to raise the matter when he interjected during Azmin Ali’s (PKR - Gombak) speech during the debate on Budget 2009.
Dr Mohd Hatta said that if the police themselves felt unsafe in a beat base, it would be even worse for the public. “Maybe it would be better to put the beat base in the army barracks.”
Dr Mohd Hatta then managed to raise the issue again during his own debate on Budget 2009 saying that Syed Hamid’s response was irrational and hoped he would clarify his written answer as this was not the kind of police the people wanted.
“The police are there to make a place safe. If they themselves are scared and run away, how can we hope for others to want to be there?” he asked. Dr Mohd Hatta said if the place was dirty, it was up to the police to organise gotong-royong activities to clean it up. He added the only kind of contagious disease in the area was sexually transmitted, adding that getting infected was a matter of choice.

Copyright _ 1995-2008 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D) Managed by I.Star

The cops gotta move out because the place seems to be infested with not only with unsavoury elements but also contagious diseases. Notwithstanding, the natural fear of criminals, maybe the cops have been too fraternizing with the locals in the red-light district??? Well, guess it's all in the kampong spirit of gotong-royong*.

*gotong-royong=malay language, for community self-help programs

Thursday, October 16, 2008

How to get a free resort stay in Phuket, Thailand

.Pristine sand beach at Phuket

Seriously, there is a way to get a free 3D2N stay at a 5 star resort at Phuket, Thailand. What's more, it's nothing less than the renowned Laguna Resorts at Phuket! The Laguna resort complex comprise 6 major resorts including the Banyan Tree, Dusit Laguna, Sheraton Grande, Allamanda Resort and Laguna Beach Resort.

The only catch is that you got to sit through a presentation on the Laguna Holiday Club scheme while you are already at one of the associated Laguna resorts. Yes, that scary word... Timeshare!

I first heard about this when I was in Phuket in 2005, exactly 6 months after the devastating tsunami. Rates were understandably at rock bottom. I had a suite for only S$350 at the Dusit Laguna and this included the Silkair return flight! The Dusit Laguna resort was in the direct line of fire by the tsunami but by then it had been substantially repaired, though there were still signs of the devastation in that area, but that's another story...

Dusit Laguna Resort after the tsunami 2005

Anyway, how do you get that free stay?
This is how:
whenever you stay at a Laguna associated resort anywhere, you will receive a welcome call from the Holiday Club inviting you to a presentation of their timeshare scheme. This high pressure, albeit, no obligations talk lasts 2 hours but you will be rewarded for your time with an offer of a substantial lunch or dinner, or a US$100 shopping voucher, or a 3D2N stay at one of the Laguna Resorts in Phuket.

It was on the day of my departure and as I had time to spare, I agreed to listen to their talk. Truthfully, they were nice, professional, persistent but not too overbearing. In the end, I opted for the free lunch, as I was already in Phuket and had no thoughts of returning anytime soon.

So if ever you are at the Angsana Spa Resort or the Banyan Tree in Bintan, just attend the Holiday Club presentation and you will get a free 3D2N stay at a Laguna Phuket resort. You just need to make your own way there.

By the way, this is not a paid blurb for the holiday club scheme, ha ha, but I wouldn't mind another free stay at Phuket though. Click on the link here and drool.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Freezing Beer in an instant

What has this to do with a travel blog???
Well, actually nothing but these are some tips you pick up when you travel around, and end up at foreign watering holes with nothing better to do.

This is a method on how you can freeze beer instantly. Any beer will do but I am using the clear bottled Corona so that you can see the actual freezing process happen in front of your eyes. It's not a trick.


What to do when you are not travelling II

If you had seen my attempt at the coke trick in my earlier posting, just wanted to say that the illusion was done correctly except that the videography wasn't too good then.
But you won't believe the comments I received from doubting Thomases!
Anyway, here's another attempt and i hope you can see it better this time. Enjoy.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Setting off the airport sensors

The last three trips I made this year had me setting off the airport security sensors.
It happened once at the Budget Terminal, once returning home from Tokyo Narita and once at Phuket. The reason?

Gory, isn't it !!!
That's the platinum implants in my spine to correct the slipped disc problems I had last year.

Got the X-rays off my doctor today when I went for that 'see me in 6 weeks' consultation. And the prognosis? "Nothing seems wrong, continue with the medication, acupuncture and come back in 2 months."

The screws and pins will make the 2 vertebrates fuse in about 2 years time.
Medically, it's termed as L4 and L5. This is the most common place where slipped discs occur. It's there permanently and need not be removed. I hope.

And it's what's been tripping off the sensors each time I pass through the security panels at airports. I get stopped every time and each time when they do a manual scan on me, they always think it's my belt buckle that set it off. Of course, I'm not going to bother telling them my medical history, so long as I get passed.

Strangely, it had never happened at Changi Airport; not counting the Budget Terminal.
Hmmm, I wonder?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A painful trip

Warning: The accompanying picture may make you squirm!

On August 10th, 2008, exactly 10 months to the day that I had my spinal operation, my bliss ended with a most unpleasant trip. This trip unfortunately brought back nothing but pain.
This wasn't a trip to anywhere. I tripped and fell, sprawled flat on my face.

First thing I did was to check that everything's OK.
No problem, up and atom.

Then five days later, the pain down my right leg was so bad that my ortho specialist had to give me a fast pass to his office. X-rays showed nothing out of place. Everything was intact. The surgery was healing well. The platinum implants were still secured but the pain was still excruciating. Maybe just a contusion, said Prof Hee, I'll give you some painkillers, see me back in six weeks time. Total damage: $85 for the x-rays, $120 for the consultation and $35 for the painkillers...see me in 6 weeks! hello?

For the next two weeks, the pain became really unbearable. I simply couldn't get out of bed without pain shooting down the length of my leg. But the strange thing with this daily morning ritual was that once I managed to get up and about, the pain slowly diminished and after an hour or so, I was able to walk almost normally.

Finally, on the advise or more like threats from the missus, I decided to seek adjuvant treatment. This was to the neighbourhood sinseh for acupuncture! This young China trained practitioner, Dr TK Neo, at Bukit Batok Funan TCM had treated me last year before my surgery.

Four days after the acupuncture treatment, the pain was completely gone! I just couldn't believe it myself but I was so relieved.
Went for a second session today just to touch all bases.
And the cost? just $20! Take that NUH!

This is a picture of me undergoing acupuncture today. It's not a pretty picture (see the big tummy?). Total of 17 needles. Six on the legs, one each on the head and hand, and the rest on the tummy! ouch!!

Argghhh!!! that's really me! Ouch Ouch Ouch!

By the way, here's something really funny to watch......
It's in Teochew even.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I'll drink to that !

For years, the accepted view on drinking whilst in flight has been that you will get drunk more easily due to the high altitude, cabin pressure, changing time zones , etc.
Well, all that's been debunked now with the studies conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration and reported by The New York Times, Sept 1st, 2008 (click here for the article)

In that study, researchers tested subjects in simulated high level and ground level conditions. They found NO difference in blood alcohol levels.

This means that you won't get any more lightheaded in flight than you would on the ground.

And all these years I've been holding back! Reports of dehydration, air sickness due to excessive alcohol intake must have been a ploy by the airlines to lower costs and maximise profits! hee hee.

So the next time the stewardess asks "coffee or tea", take the Dom Perignon. Afterall, it's still free and with the rising fuel costs, who knows how much longer that will last.

Just hope that the pilots didn't read the New York Times article.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Monja at the Ginza

Flashback to 1996.

You know how you sometimes get flashes of nostalgia?
I had just picked up my Japanese dictionary when out popped a photograph which I had all but forgotten about.
It was a group picture taken in 1996 at the Dai-ichi Ginza Hotel in Tokyo.
Well, this picture sure brought back some memories.

We were the official delegation sent by the Singapore government's then Trade Development Board (TDB) to showcase Singapore at the Japan Data Show, a major Japanese IT convention.

I was there to present a video conferencing system using PCs over the ISDN telephone connection. (The internet was too slow at that time to do real video conferencing)

There were 4 delegates, Raphael & Thomas (centre) and Winston (at right) accompanied by Karen Tan, the TDB officer. The gentlemen with the ribbons on their lapels were the commercial secretaries from the Singapore Embassy in Tokyo.

For most of us in the group, it was either the 1st or 2nd time in Tokyo. It was only my 2nd visit and at that time I could hardly manage more than a few simple phrases in Japanese. So imagine us trying to sell technical products in a country where the people hardly spoke English! Thank goodness we were assigned interpreters for the trade show.

The Japanese are very strict time keepers and the Data Show ended promptly each day at 5. This meant we actually had a lot of time visiting places in Tokyo after the show. One of the places we went to was the Ginza, where we had a most unusual dining experience.

Winston, who is an architect, was most interested in those pencil thin buildings all along the Ginza. Back in 1996, real estate in Ginza was priceless and every inch of space was utilised. This resulted in buildings hardly more than 15 to 20 feet across in width!

Curiosity led us up to some of these slim buildings, which we realised were not used only for offices but had boutiques, restaurants, pubs, bars, banks as well as apartments.

At one particular building, we were welcomed at the door somewhere on the 6th floor.
It turned out to be some sort of restaurant but none of us knew what kind of restaurant it was!
The staff did not speak English, none in our group of five could read the menu, there was no plastic food showcase to point at, so we all just tried our hilarious best.

Turned out that the restuarant specialised in, and served only MONJA.
What in the world is Monja??! Up to then, even we didn't know.
Monja as we slowly found out is a very fun food and should be eaten in groups.
It's the Tokyo version of Okonomiyaki ! (Get it now?). Well, sort of anyway.
Remember, this was when even okonomiyaki was still an unknown entity in Singapore, not like it is nowadays. But whereas, okonomiyaki is served more like a pizza or pancake, monjayaki certainly is not!

It's a 'what ever you wish, what ever way you want it' dish that you cook yourself on a hot plate griddle set in the table. You are given the basic ingredients, batter, fish, meat, lots of cabbage, other vegetables, and whatever else you want.
Mix it all up, pour in onto the hot plate, it let cook till a bit burnt and then using really tiny tiny spatulas cut off bits and eat straight off the griddle! A dash of mirin or soy sauce, or even mayonnaise, adds to the flavour.

There's no right or wrong way with Monjayaki. But it can be really delicious.
Best eaten with good company and beer.
Here's how it looks like.......
If you are ever in Tokyo, you must try this. Just remember to tell them you want to try real Tokyo monjayaki and not okonomiyaki which is actually from Osaka.

Ja neh.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

What to do when you're not travelling

August 21, 2008

I've done this trick in front of people many times and I realise that doing it on video require a better videographer than simply setting the camera on the table top! haha.
Treat this as a rehearsal while I try and find someone who can video the event later, ok?
There's a bit of editing, because the camera fell, which in no way affected the illusion.

In case you can't see what happening, the new coke can is emptied, then re-sealed and re-opened and poured out again. You can almost make out that the container has doubled its volume. Well, this is temporarily back on request by my sis. Until the new video is out....

Friday, August 15, 2008

No such thing as a free lunch?

No takers for a free trip!

In the year 2000, I gave up my job traveling on business and took on an ‘earth bound’ job. Over the past years I had travel almost everywhere, including making round-the-world trips. One of the perks was frequent flyer points.
I had milege points from almost every airline program including Star Alliance, One World and independents like EVA, ANA, MAS etc.

In Nov 2001, I was informed by Star Alliance that 125,000 points were to expire by 31st Dec that I had to utilize or forfeit.

I offered all my colleagues a free trip to almost anyway. You think they would jump on this chance? No! None of them actually believed I was genuine. There's no such thing as a free lunch! they said.

With the deadline almost due, I finally decided that I would take a trip by myself then to London and by First Class on SIA. In all my years, I had not flown first class and this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it took exactly 120,000 points for a 1st class ticket.

The day before I was due to make the booking, I bumped into Joyce, a colleague whom I remembered had just got married to Fred, who used to work with me at another branch.
“Hey, how would you and Fred like a free honeymoon anywhere in Asia?”
I asked.
“No catch, just that I had to go along and you have to pay for your own hotel and meals”

And so it was that Joyce and Fred made their first overseas trip to Japan with me in February 2002. We flew Business class on ANA. Stayed 5 days and toured Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.

The following year when again I had to utilize my frequent flyer points, you can bet there was no shortage of eager friends!

Changi Airport ANA Business Class Lounge___________ Fred & Joyce

Joyce & me______________________________ Tokyo Japan

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

My sister in Texas

13 August 2008

My sister Jenette, lives in Texas, in a city called Grapevine, near the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport.
She tells me that she's planning a vacation to San Francisco very soon.
Just wanted to tell her 2 things.

Firstly, go before 15 September 2008, Jen. That's when the (US) airlines will cut 15% of their schedules due to the high cost of fuel. This means less seats available and pre-planned schedules will be in jeopardy.

Secondly, to tell you about Rule 240.
Rule 240 is all about flight delays, getting bumped or having your flight cancelled. It affects only american carriers with flights originating in the US. It's something which most airlines will not tell you about but it's in the 'conditions of carriage' fine print which you would probably never read anyway. Knowing this rule would mean the difference between fuming at the airport and jetting away as scheduled.

Simply put, Rule 240 says that in the event of a delay or cancellation which is not caused by weather or for reasons which the airline has no control over, then they are obliged to put you on the next available flight out. Mechanical faults, aircraft arriving late, crew missing etc are reasons which the airlines are responsible for and for which Rule 240 applies.

Rule 240 also mean the next flight to your destination and not on their next scheduled flight. It can be on any other airline. Exceptions are airlines that don't have interline code sharing like Southwest, Jetblue, etc, so avoid these.

If this happens to you, simply ask for the supervisor or shift manager and tell him you are invoking Rule 240. It will be better if you asked for it and not demand for it. You can imagine the desk crew being harried by all the upset passengers about the delay or cancellation. A nice request will be usually be more receptive to the check-in personnel, who are empowered to changed your ticket.

So much the better if you can check the departing flights available beforehand and make a suggestion like "I'd like you to put me on the Delta that's departing in 45 mins". Remember, it need not be the same airline that you've booked on.

Of course, the airlines will try and put you off by offering vouchers, meals, or what not to keep the business. They'll be further obliged if you can prove you have a connecting flight to catch, even to an international destination like Singapore. They have to make the arrangements all the way to your final destination.

Happy vacation, Jen, and hope you won't need to 'Rule 240' 'em

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Safe cracking at Nirwana Gardens Resort

2 August - 3rd August 2008.

My store had been undergoing renovations for the past 3 weeks. I have not had a break for the past 14 days. So it was a godsend when I was given the weekend off to 'recharge my batteries'. "Go take the weekend off and come back fresh and ready for the grand opening of the store" .

So where do you go on a weekend break? The spa resort at Bintan!
And it so happens Pricebreakers had a special running for Bintan Resorts at $118.

Angsana Spa Resort? Sorry, fully booked for the weekend.
Banyan Tree Spa Resort? Sorry , no room available.
The neighbouring Nirwana Gardens Resort? Sorry, fully booked for the next 2 weekends. Urgghh. There goes my weekend spa!

So I did my own searching on the Net and what did I find out?
Angsana was full, Banyan Tree was full, but Nirwana Gardens had rooms!
So I took the chance and booked a Deluxe (meaning 'sea-facing') room at $185.

In travel terminology, you gotta be careful with descriptions such as 'sea facing', 'near the beach', 'deluxe', etc. They literally mean what they write and not what you assume it is.
For example, my room was about 100m from the seafront. Yes, it's facing the direction of the sea but there's about 100 metres of development in between, which they conveniently forget to mention in the brochures.

But the good part was that I got upgraded to a Suite!
What better way to chill out. Sitting on your own balcony with your cold beers instead of being cramped in a 'deluxe' room.

This was the sea facing suite that i was upgraded to.
The sea is somewhere behind the trees.
(click on the pictures for a larger view)

Relaxing meant the spa treatments. Though Nirwana Resort had an in-house spa, it was the trusted Angsana Spa and Banyan Tree Spa that I went to.

The spa treatments really deserve a writeup of its own but now I just gotta tell you about the safe cracking incident at Nirwana Resort which i witnessed and actually captured on film!
The audacity of the Resort staff taking a safe from the guest's room and cracking it open to get at the contents!

Ok ok, so it was the safe from my own suite and wasn't an Ocean's Eleven heist haha.
Typical of Murphy's Law, I had tried out the safe a few times opening and locking it to make sure it works. Once assured that I got the combination right, I placed my mobile phone, wallet and passports into the safe and, voila, the safe wont open again!

The front desk sent the night manager who tried his earnest to unlock the safe using their special electronic unlocking tool. Three times it failed causing the safe to go into a security countdown mode which meant no one could do anything for next 30 minutes. So in all, wasted an hour and a half including 2 calls to their Singapore support office and still the safe won't open.

In desperation, the manager said that he would call engineering the next day to cut open the safe. The pictures above are of that safe cracking operation.

You won't believe how easy it was!
Took less than a minute to cut the weld in 2 places at the back and simply remove the back panel. Now I know how secure the room safes are! Next time put your stuff at the front desk security boxes, but I suspect it can be just as easily opened.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Drinking Pure Water - Kyoto, japan

Have you ever been to a place where suddenly you feel in awe? You feel a presence of sanctity, a feeling that the place is sacred? A feeling of unspeakable greatness surrounding you or a mysterious presence? And that you feel really small in comparison with your surroundings?

You start to ponder philosophically at your destiny and of those around you. You wonder about your place in this world? Places like the Grand Canyon and the Vatican makes you do things like that.

You also get this feeling when you visit the Kiyomizu-dera temple complex in the eastern hills of Kyoto Japan. There is a pervading sense of holiness, of sacredness and calm in this temple.

is built on a mountain side, with the main hall overhanging a cliff. Several minor temples and shrines are spread over a vast landscape on the mountain. When you enter the complex, notwithstanding the fees and crowds, you will immediately feel that this place is special. It's a feeling which can't be described and must be experienced yourself.

Legend tells of a buddhist priest Enchin, who in year 780, discovered the source of pure water flowing from Mt Otowa. The temple complex you see today is built around this water source.

This is the Otowa-no taki, where 3 streams flow out from the mountain and falls into a pond.

Pilgrims to this shrine drink from these 3 streams which are said to have spiritual and therapeutic properties. The 3 streams are said to confer Wisdom, Health and Longevity. Kiyomizu means pure water.

On a lighter side, this temple complex also contains a shrine dedicated to the God of Love. This is the Jishu Jinja, where supplications and prayers are made for marriages, love and childbirth.

One curiosity in this shrine are 2 large boulders placed about 40 feet apart. If you can walk with your eyes closed from one boulder to the other, you will find love.

Following is a short video of visit to Kiyomizu with some of my colleagues.
They simply can't get enough drink of Pure Water !

By the way, the pictures of Kiyomzu-dera above are not mine but were taken off the Net and enhanced a bit. I don't seem to have a picture of it in clear weather.

It seems every time I visit Kiyomizu, the pure water come from the sky instead! hee hee.

ja neh