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Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Yes, maybe it’s age.  These days when I travel, particularly when it’s traveling for business, I hardly go for the popular tourist attractions or sites anymore.  I try my hardest to stay away from the crowds, chaos, traffic, lines, and the so-called “must-sees” and “must-dos”.  The setbacks of not having a “I’ve been here too” photo are well compensated by my own itinerary that is catered for my preferences, and pace.

When you travel for business, you usually only get a few hours in the evening, or if you’re lucky, half of a weekend before business commences.  A further half of that time is usually spent on socializing or dining with local friends and colleagues.  With the valuable time that remains, I am not prepared to stand in lines for the tourist attractions, only to mingle with visitors but the locals.

Trying to get a feel of the local culture and pulse is a must.  It can be felt on the streets, in the local eateries, subway trains, neighborhood markets, grocery stores, or even convenience stores around every corner.  Take a step back, suck in the air, the sounds, and the sights on the streets, can be different enough.  The key is maintaining an inquisitive mind at all times, and you will be nicely rewarded.

The reason I mentioned age is because younger folks generally have a lot more energy to fill up their itineraries by visiting a dozen landmarks a day.  Either I am too lazy, or simply I don’t have as much energy as them these days, especially when I see crowds and lines of people everywhere.  Instead, I gave myself much less aggressive targets by taking light strolls on the streets, sitting down for coffee or tea, taking my time at the park, and to find my bearings using guide books and the all so convenient iPhone apps.

The only complaint I have when traveling for business is the absence of dining companions other than work colleagues.  There are times when you just don’t want to talk about business anymore, and you know how inevitable it is even if you are already seeing your colleagues 12 hours a day.   My dining options are largely restricted if I haven’t had the luxury to make advance appointments with my local friends.  This is when local food courts usually come to my rescue.

Last month in Shanghai I discovered a newly opened food court right next to my hotel.  To my surprise, the establishment was invested by Taiwanese and hence the entire mall is inhabited by licensed Taiwanese eateries.

But then again, why would I go for Taiwanese food when I am in Shanghai?

Shanghai Food Court

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Do you agree with this list from Jennifer Chen of Travel + Leisure?  Make your own judgement.

Travel + Leisure’s list of world’s most underrated cities:

  1. Detroit
  2. Taipei (well for Hong Kongers it is not underrated at all!)
  3. Tucson Arizona (well my old school used to be at the neighboring state and you don’t see me returning after XX years…)
  4. Glasgow
  5. Nara, Japan
  6. Bratislava, Slovakia
  7. Providence
  8. Adelaide, Australia
  9. Valparaiso, chile
  10. Kotor, Montenegro
  11. Galway, Ireland
  12. Philadelphia (there is for sure a lot of culture there, but pardon me?)
  13. Antwerp, Belgium
  14. Merida, Mecixo
  15. Denver
  16. Valencia, Spain
  17. Montevideo, Uruguay
  18. Bologna, Italy
  19. Hangzhou, China (again, for Chinese they are not underrated either)
  20. Dusseldorf, Germany
  21. Granada, Nicaragua
  22. Calgary, Canada
  23. Bordeaux, France (hmmm….not for Hong Kong wine drinkers…)
  24. Durban, South Africa

For the full article and slideshow of why each of these cities are underrated, click here

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I was totally stressed out the other night – but in a good way.  I was relaxing at home after midnight when a good friend of mine informed me of some unbelievably good deals on Cathay Pacific Airways that are only valid for a week.  Seeing that this is a fantastic opportunity to see the world, I jumped on the chance and booked a trip to Paris this May. 

The story doesn’t end here.  There are still so many other attractive destinations that I would like to go or revisit, namely Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Moscow, Phuket, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg, Shanghai, London and New York.  I had been flipping through my calendar, browsing hotel deals, texting my friends, checking seat availability, for a good 3 hours.  I haven’t yet made any confirmed decisions yet, and that planning will continue tomorrow and the few days ahead, provided, of course, that there are still seats available for the dates I am picking.

So this afternoon I was visiting a friend on Kowloon side.  Walking on the busy Nathan Road I could actually hear two separate conversations of people passing by chatting about the exact same online promotion.  Talk about Hong Kong people’s obsessive compulsion to get out of the territory, with every chance we get.  Why is that the case?

  • the fact that we work 14 hour days and still finding it hard to sleep at nights due to immense stress from work
  • we are living in shoebox-sized apartments that we can hardly see the sky
  • we have forgotten about how clean air smells like
  • we find ourselves pressed like sardines in shopping mall elevators even on supposedly relaxing Sundays
  • we cannot get our foot into any electronics stores because every one of the 38 available sales reps were mobbed by our mainland Chinese neighbors
  • tons of rude, impolite, inconsiderate and selfish pedestrians on the streets and on practically all forms of transportation, and most of them are locals
  • news programs are flooded by retarded policies and tactics of the government, and increasingly violent protests spearheaded by our post-80s and 90s
  • another excuse to take 15,000 digital pictures of yourself with exactly the same pose and gesture, in front of landmarks of the world but with hardly any real appreciation of its history or importance
  • one more excuse to take 3,000 more pictures of all the foreign food you are going to eat beginning with the in-flight meals
  • way cooler to check-in at impressive foreign landmarks on FaceBook rather than Central MTR station in Hong Kong
  • experience how checking work e-mails, twittering, and FaceBooking abroad is like
  • witness how devalued the Hong Kong dollar is
  • feel the victory and accomplishment of successfully grabbing the few Hong Kong Chinese newspapers on return flights from abroad
  • another chance to wear NorthFace down jackets together with oddly colored crocs and huge alien-like sunglasses
  • read as many Hong Kong tabloid magazines as possible while laying by the hotel pools
  • a chance to continue being selfish and rude to unsuspecting service people overseas

Alright this may be way too much ranting in one post, but what’s the point of repeating the same old routine or even bad habits when you have a week of vacation time to unwind?  Let’s relax, let our guards down, take a few steps backwards, and be positive and appreciative in our travel adventures.  Take a deep breath, soak in the nature and culture, and teach your children a lesson or two about civility and consideration.  Amen.

 

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Paragon Scrapbook

Aside from the super hospitable and friendly people, great cuisine, relatively inexpensive hotels & apartments, natural remedies in terms of herbal products & massages, and gorgeous sunny weather, I have to keep reminding everyone that Bangkok is just beautiful.  No, not only the obvious natural beauties of beaches, landscape, the Palace as well as temples, but Bangkok’s design scene that is both innovative and mind-boggling.  I am no expert in interior design, but I just learn to be thankful and appreciative in everything that brings pleasure and enjoyment to my eyes.

And there is plenty to be thankful for, even if it means confining to one shopping mall for a day.

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THANN Addict

Ok I just have to write this when I am physically still in heaven.  This afternoon I had my forth massage / spa treatment on my fifth day in Bangkok this week.  Amazingly, the four treatments so far are all focused on different problematic areas, and every single one of them works its wonders.  Some people may think it’s a lame excuse, but I always believe that we need to treat our bodies right, whether it is eating tasty food, or better yet eating the right and nutritious food,  exercising, and relieving all its aches and pains from the daily chores and pressures of life itself.  Without a fit body, even the brightest mind can’t do anything.  Not anyone can be Stephen Hawking, period.

Among a million other reasons, having the luxury and professional resources to pamper my own physical and mental wellbeing is what I love about Thailand.  The Thais truly understand how important it really is to revitalize our bodies using the most basic herbs and the art of natural therapy.   Aside from traditional Thai massages, aroma massages, and healing stone massages, there are tons of personal products containing the best herbs and essential oils you can find on the planet.  Lemongrass, lavender, rosemary, shiso, peppermint, eucalyptus, and the list goes on. 

I have been a fan of the Thann brand for a long time. Every time I am in Thailand I will stock up on supplies.  I know there is now Thann in Hong Kong, but there is just no comparison visiting the holy temple from where this all originates.  Even though I just bought a load in my last trip here in November last year, I still found myself hypnotized to visit its store on my second day in the city.  In the new arrivals section, I found this cutest little electric incense diffuser that I couldn’t say no to.  I haven’t used my incense burner for some time, probably due to the mess of candles and the scary thought of burning my apartment down in the middle of the night.  Now with this unit that diffuses aroma by ultrasonic oscillation without heating or burning the essential oils, it feels safer and also maintains the original effects of the oils at the same time.

Alright, with the new diffuser, comes a replenished supply of large size (50ml) essential oils.  I picked their Flower & Vanilla blend oil (lavender, rosemary, geranium), Enigmar blend oil (rosewood, rosemary, marjoram), Mediterranean Floral oil (lavender and rosemary), Sea Foam oil (peppermint, thyme, rosemary and eucalyptus), and Woody Floral blend oil (orange, cedarwood, ylang ylang, tangerine, bergamot, clove, sandalwood), enough to make my whole apartment floor smell like a spa center.  In addition, I also bought a gift set that contains three small size (10ml) oils of Sea Form, Oriental Essence (lemongrass) and Aromatic Wood with potpourri.  One more Mediterranean Floral Natural Flax Seed eye mask and essential oil that offers heated pressure relief on the eyes, all added up to a huge heavy bag of soothing goodies for me to bring home and indulge in the next few months. 

No that’s not enough.  To thank my apparently generous patronage, the store gave me two huge sets of gift boxes that contains at least a dozen samples of body gel, shampoo, conditioner, lotions and soaps in each.  I don’t think I will ever finish it all, but it will be welcoming gifts for just about everybody.  The storekeeper asked me when I would be leaving Thailand, which was a question I did not expect.  Turned out he gave me two gift vouchers to their renowned Thann Sanctuary which is worth any spa treatment of THB2,200 each.  That is good for a 2-hour spa treatment of just about anything.  I didn’t expect this.  What a pleasant surprise.   For a spa and massage maniac like I am, this is literally like a further 30% off my entire purchase.

It was indeed marketing investment well spent on their part.  After enjoying the 2-hour Thann Sanctuary Signature Massage with my local friend,  I have to admit it is by far the best spa treatments I have ever had, and that includes 5-star hotel spa experiences.   I think aside from the massage techniques, the fact that they couple with their signature oils and products, and that its small establishment provides the coziness that no fancy grand hotel spas can compete with.  While I am wholeheartedly recommending the place to my friends, I hope that it will forever remain to be a small-sized hidden gem that provides individualistic services to its customers.

And I also just found out that they have a Thann  Tea Cafe in both Gaysorn and Paragon, as well as a florist.  What a great lifestyle brand.  If they continue to offer sincere marketing promotions to its customers, I am sure it will convert many more of them, not that they have not already, into loyals, like I do.

A healthy and balanced body brings a healthy mind.  And a healthy mind brings fortune in life.  Not a great saying perhaps, but it’s my saying.

 

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Hell Cab

As I was chatting with friends today over lunch in Macau, my impression of a city is heavily influenced by its cab drivers.  Every single person will have a million (always horror) stories about cab rides somewhere, and it is exactly those 15 to 30 minute 1-on-1 encounter with a stranger that makes our lives so full and eventful. 

Hong Kong cab drivers have improved somewhat over the last 20 years or so.  The SARS period and the economic meltdown played a big part in toning down the temper of a few cab drivers.  The relatively intact public transportation network in the city also means that passengers have slightly more bargaining power when the alternatives are abundant.  I like this kind of co-dependency situation.  Yet I am completely sympathetic over innocent tourists still being gouged just because they look foreign or speak in another language.  I get so worked up over these scumbags tainting the image of our city.

Taipei cab drivers are very chatty.  I see it as a reflection of their friendliness culture.  They often ask me where I am from, what I am doing there and sometimes even comparing price levels of the two cities.  I guess most middle-aged cab drivers there are big fans of the many prime time political talk shows on TV.  I seldom run into cab drivers who don’t know exactly where he is going with the addresses provided.   So that’s good.

Bangkok cabs have plenty of reputation.  I don’t need to be rude at them, I just need to be forceful.  As long as the first 2 minutes of directions, meter pointing and mutual sizing up is past, I am usually relaxed for the 25 minute traffic jam.   Well, they almost never know where I am going other than the major tourist spots.  Apparently, local language instructions from the hotel doesn’t help either.  Great.   I was just lucky that I didn’t end up in Pattaya. 

Kuala Lumpar gave me one of the biggest headaches.  I am really hesitated to go back purely because of the city’s cabs.  I need to bargain, be rejected and almost laughed at.  The public transportation network wasn’t as established the last time I went, and hence I was quite discouraged to go out.   Sorry KL.

Singapore used to be efficient and predictable, but lately I can never hail any cab on the streets.   I was lining up with 10 other people for cabs to go to work from the Grand Hyatt stand, and after a hopeless 20-minute wait, the concierge politely asked me whether I would consider to call for one.  Why not?  Within minutes, an empty, not-for-hire cab who had been waiting by the curb for as long as I was standing there, pulled over to pick me up.  All that for the few dollars surcharge on top of regular fare.  Something is seriously wrong there.

One needs to be extremely fit physically to be in Shanghai.  There are always 50 people anxiously waiting for cabs with you on the same street at all times day and night, and everyone is picking their favorite strategic spots.  If you see one coming, just run along with the others toward it, regardless of whether it is occupied or not.   Just practice your elbow strength, vocabulary and running on heels before you land.  It will come in handy.  You think you will just wait patiently in lines outside hotels and shopping malls?  Tough luck, 49 people are hailing around the corner to make sure you will keep standing there till eternity.  And what’s with the locals always picking the front seat even when they ride alone?  Sorry, I have serious intimacy issues.

How can I leave out Macau?  I hopped on one this afternoon with my friends and we were going to this Portuguese restaurant with only an address.  The driver started driving with zero response.  “Do you know where it is?” No response.  So I asked the second time.  “Only if that is where you are going!”, he responded dismissively without looking at me.  Pardon me?  What have I done to offend you? 

It’s because of cab mentality like this in Macau, that I am glad I played a part in negotiating the city-wide free guest shuttle bus services my company built from scratch for our various properties.  Otherwise, there will not be any customers setting foot in our billion dollar investments.

Cheers.

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We so-called city folks are full of ourselves.  We think we are street-smarts and hence we are constantly guarded against everyone around us.  Indeed there are loads of crooks out there prying on the least prepared and the most gullible.  Though as residents of almost every fast-paced city, we should all learn to be a bit more accepting, and a bit more compassionate to people around us. 

We never want to lose out, so when we interact with people, a mental calculator surfaces that shows us what potential benefits, or trouble, we can get from the other party.  Shall we be friendly, or shall we just nod along politely?  What are the odds that we will be taken advantage by him or her?  What do they want from me? 

Not until I left the city and entered into a new surrounding did I realize how ridiculous our behavior could be.  I came into contact with all kinds of people in Taipei, and I received a lot of friendly treatments from all of them.   The people I met genuinely wanted to share life stories with me.  They opened up, and they took the time to invest in conversations. 

And I don’t mean hollow conversations where people only talk about what food they have eaten, cars they drive, or how much money they make.  I don’t think people should need these topics to justify their existence or value on the planet. 

I was greeted by very sincere folks in Taipei who were genuinely interested in knowing about each other.  I met people who openly shared their darkest secrets and insecurities with me, a stranger from Hong Kong whom they had never met before.  Though I cannot recall the last time I experienced it here at home, I didn’t find that odd at all.  It should be human nature.  The conversations I was engaged in were always candid, honest and at times vulnerable.  I like that on people.

In my mind, everyone should possess a certain level of confidence.  Showing your vulnerabilities is not a sign of weakness.  If you have inner qualities that excel amongst others, people will feel it without you needing to flaunt it.  Confident people, as long as they are not cocky, are incredibly attractive.  Insecure people, on the other hand, are usually despised and almost hated by others.  When I see people who are humble and willing to improve upon themselves, you will see me throwing myself at them like a moth to a flame.

Sounds like a bunch of random thoughts, but I owe it to Taipei who reaffirmed me on the goodness of people in the start of 2011.  Thank you.

 

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Taiwan is famous for its book scene.  I seldom see Hong Kong people holding a book in subways, buses, coffee houses or restaurants anymore.  Instead, we fiddle with our blackberries, smart phones, PSPs and NDS whenever we go.  Even if you think the launch of Kindle and iPad will re-ignite our passion of reading electronically, I often see people reading online newspapers, magazines and comic books instead.  Well, to be fair I do think having the proper infrastructure does play a big part in cultivating the reading phenomenon in Taiwan.  The city is filled with gynormous-sized book stores that open way into the night.  The stores are cozily decorated, quiet and artfully displayed.  There is plenty of seating, and flipping through every page of the book for hours in a row is not frowned upon.  The stores look more like libraries instead of commercial sales points in Hong Kong.  The latter, is definitely not an enjoyable experience.  No wonder Hong Kong people do not find reading pleasurable.

You can tell a city’s culture pretty much by the bestselling books on display.  Yesterday night when I did my last round of bookstore surfing after a soothing day of hot springs and comfort food, I paid attention to the bestsellers’ rack.  The titles (translated from Chinese) include:

  • The Anatomical Chart of Homes
  • Tokyo Design Life 100+
  • The 14 Economic Wars that China will Face
  • The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe
  • Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (And How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)
  • The Goldman Sachs Conspiracy
  • The Secret Laws of Management
  • Getting Organized in the Google Era
  • Living Life Out of Relaxation

…to name a few…

I am quite impressed.   Most titles I come across center around self-improvement, emotional quotient and living well-balanced and full lives.  Bravo.

So what are some of Hong Kong’s bestselling Chinese titles?

  • Land and The Ruling Class in Hong Kong
  • Taipei Travel Guide 2010-2011 Updated Edition (surprise…surprise!)
  • My Retarded Way of Raising My Baby (comic book I believe…and excuse me for my literal translation)
  • Tokyo Travel Guide 2011-12 Eat, Play, Buy Ultimate Edition
  • Learning English with Regina
  • Out of Control Hong Kong’s Kids

…and I am skipping 258 titles of “How to Get Rich”, “Investing in Property”, “Stock Market 101”, “How to Read Just Enough to B** S*** Your Way through Wine Appreciation”, “How to Get Your Kids into the City’s Hottest Kindergartens”, “Year of the Rabbit Fortune Telling”…

This is the fast food reading culture of Hong Kong.  We are all too goal-oriented, as if there has to be a definitive purpose to pick up a book and read.  It’s good that we like to be informed and knowledgeable at all times, but reading 698 pages of Eat+Play+Buy travel guides is not going to do yourself too much good when you find yourself exhausted running around a foreign city like a maniac.  The how-to guides are necessary evils but should be tamed down a notch.  I seldom hear people make good money from reading those get-rich guides either.  If we can all just pick up a handful of titles that are intriguing enough to our minds, I am confident this mental exercise we do will benefit us a whole lot more, and that may very well include living a positive life, maintaining healthy relationships and ultimately, building an emotional wealth that no money can buy.

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When I stepped into this hidden villa less than an hour away from the city, I was already impressed.  Listed as the “Hot List of The Year’s Top New Hotels” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2006, and rated as one of Asia’s best spas by CNNGo this year, one has to see it to believe it.  The villa used to be reserved for private members only and now it’s available through advance reservations.  Amazingly, the moment I entered the villa, all their staff, including their security guards out front, greeted me by my surname.   How do they do it?  I have only experienced similar treatments in Mandarin Oriental and Trident Gurgaon, India, which costs a whole lot more fortune to say the least.

 

The villa has 5 suites for overnight stays, and that screams exclusivity.  There are 5 other private rooms for hot springs, public pools separated between male and female, one Italian restaurant, and a spa catered for everything in between Chinese meridien treatments, skin care, and toxin relief programs. 

I signed myself up for the public pool access so that I can make it a grand finale of my Taipei getaway trip.  Like hot springs developments in Japan, there are a number of similar establishments in Beitou.  I was recommended by a good friend of mine to experience this villa due to its exclusiveness and tranquility amongst the neighbors.  The reason why advance reservations are required is for the villa to manage no more than 30 guests in the public pool area at any one time.  Yes, 30.  The result?  I hardly saw more than 10 guests during my 4-hour stay.  No kids under 16 years of age are allowed, and the facilities are all top-notch.  I can really tell that the owner has put in tons of money designing, building, and maintaining the property similar to a Bali-like facility.  There are lots of wood, stone, fountain and greenery everywhere. 

 

 

There is nothing better than soaking yourself in 42.5 degrees outdoor baths on a chilly drizzling day.  Since there were hardly anyone around other than the super attentive and courteous staff,  I could hear the natural hot springs bubbling underneath the property, and I could witness the sky filled with hot springs steam, so much like I was in heaven.  Indeed I really thought I had gone to heaven.

 

There were altogether 4 outdoor and 4 indoor pools, and I concentrated on soaking between the 2 hotter outdoor pools.  My neck and shoulder pains were simply gone.  The hot springs made my heart beat really fast, and for every 15 minutes or so I had to get up and lay down in comfortable lounges out on the porch.  No doubt I was feeling a bit dizzy and pumped from all the blood circulation, and then I realized I was drunk!  Not by alcohol, but by hot springs and the picturesque harmony of sounds and nature.

 

There was a meditation room upstairs, and a resting area for guests to take a nap.  When my hangover has slightly subsided, I made myself a cup of tea and relaxed myself in the cozy lounge area.  Again, I hardly saw anyone else.

I left with the biggest grin on my face, and the biggest weight off my shoulders.  Though I hardly ate at all the whole day prior to the bath, I felt relieved, nurtured, pampered, and recharged.   I would definitely visit again.  Well, as if I need any more excuse to come back to beautiful Taipei.

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Eat, Pray, Love… in Taipei (Part One)

Taipei is a destination where I don’t mind traveling alone, similar to Bangkok.  The two cities however are very different in the most obvious ways.  Although I have been to Taipei both for business and leisure countless number of times, it’s been a year since my last visit to the city.  I am here for 6 days which I think is the longest consecutive period that I have spent, and hence I have a lot of time to re-acquaint, chill, and take in what the city can offer.

Though it’s always more enjoyable to savor a city’s cuisine with good friends, sometimes I just need to make do when the circumstances don’t allow this to happen.  This time, I have skipped all the sightseeing activities and shopping.  I have done my more than fair share of supporting our economy back home in the last 2 months, and the weak Hong Kong dollar is not making it much fun either.  Instead, I am focusing all my energy in finding local food which I can sample myself, alone.  And it’s not difficult at all, here in Taipei.

There are plenty of street side stores serving the most mouth-watering local delicacies, and I am not even talking about the ever delightable night markets.  I can’t help but notice that none of these eateries operate like what we have in Hong Kong.  They don’t serve 158 different dishes and 37 beverages.  They hardly charge service fees, and they seldom change hands.  Many stores have been in the same business and location for the past 40 years or more.  Most of them stick to the same menu and sometimes even prices.  They always sell what they are specialized in, and very often work on complementing their neighbors.  I find it very refreshing, and at the same time sorry about the depressing food scene at home mainly due to exorbitant rental prices.  I love to return to a simpler time when I can go back to the same place, eat the same food, meet the same owner, and be consistently satisfied in the same way. One dish, is all I need to remember them and to go back again and again.

Maybe it’s a sign that I am really getting old, but I am always thankful to a city which has given me so much joy and comfort, both spiritually and gastronomically.

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