Friday, August 31, 2012

A Passport Encounter Makes My Day

My flight from Münich landed in Philadelphia about noon yesterday, en route to Phoenix.  I had started my journey home early in the morning (waking at 5:45am, Germany Time) and I had been awake most of the flight, though I did take a couple of short naps. After sitting for many hours on a plane, I typically enjoy taking an invigorating brisk (i.e., fast) walk from the plane to wherever I need to go, often skipping the automated walkways completely because they are too slow.

First stop yesterday, after the restroom, was the passport immigration check. There was a pretty long line which was filtered into many shorter lines of eight or so people each. When I was about in the middle of the  shorter line, I noticed the person who was with the immigration agent in front of me. He was there with his wife, who was holding a baby, and the look on his face and his body language was one of total disgust at having to be put through the passport check process. His wife also had a frown on her face, though she did not have the totally negative body language that the guy had.

When they left the agent shook his head and raised his hand as if to give the guy the finger, though he did not actually do that. For some reason, I thought to myself that I should try and get him to smile when I got up there. It is unfortunate that people who are just trying to do their job have to put up with the bad moods of others. The next two people in front of me, however, did not smile at all, though they were not grumpy like that one guy was. That then made me think that, well, maybe I wont be able to make him smile after all, and I mostly forgot about trying to do that.

It was now my turn. The agent asked me where I had been, how long I was gone and what I had been doing.  I told him I was in Germany for about 10 days to attend a conference and visit some relatives.  He then asked me what I did, and I told him I was a professor at Northern Arizona University, after which he asked me what I taught. I told him geography -- that is when things changed. He said he has come to like geography since he started his current job. I said that our students are typically a bit older than some other majors, because they usually discover geography later. He laughed and said that he was too old to go back to school. I wasn't trying to recruit him, but I laughed as well.

And after I left him I thought to myself, wow, that was pretty amazing.  I hope the rest of his day went well, because that encounter sure made my day.  It really is those small and unexpected encounters that are the most memorable when we travel.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Travel Tip: AirAsia's Row 4

Warning: This is not for the superstitious!  During my semester in Malaysia, I have flown on AirAsia maybe a dozen times now. AirAsia is the most successful discount airline in the world, and is a great money saver.  And, I have found an *almost* guaranteed way to get a full row of seats to yourself on an AriAsia flight. First, you have to pay a little extra for a "Hot Seat".  These are the first five rows and the two exit rows of most AirAisia planes.  They have a little more leg room (I think) and you get to board and unboard before everyone else.  Next, select Row 4.

The word "four" is considered unlucky by Chinese, for whom it is a homonym of the word for "death".  Thus, most buildings in East and Southeast Asia do not have a 4th floor. They either call it 3A or just skip it altogether.  I saw one hotel recently in Hong Kong that skipped both the 4th and 13th floors.

I accidentally stumbled on AirAsia's 4th row on a flight about a couple of months ago.  I was on a packed AirAsia plane on which almost all of the Hot Seats were taken (which is extremely rare -- perhaps caused by a canceled flight?) and I was in the 4th row, which I had selected not remembering the Chinese superstition at the time.  I had the whole row to myself, allowing me to lean against the window and put my legs up on the seats next to me.

No, I am not superstitious when it comes to numbers.  My lucky number has always been 13, and I have never had an unlucky number.  While I generally avoid 4 and favored 8, due to my Chinese background, it is not something that I have strong feelings about.  In fact, I think bad luck numbers are really silly.

I suspect that this 4th row tip may apply to most all airlines in East and Southeast Asia (and especially in China). So, if you are comfortable with the number 4, like me, take advantage of this more comfortable upgrade before everyone else figures it out!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Oh Cambodia!

It was election time in Cambodia when we were there. These are two of the opposition parties, which hold only a small number of seats in Cambodia's parlaiment.

Phnom Penh

We just returned from a short trip to Cambodia that included a one day symposium in Phnom Penh on community based tourism and visits to the Killing Fields and a Cham village in the Phnom Penh area, a visit to the Khmer Village Homestay (a "community involvement" social enterprise) between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and visits to Angkor Wat and the Tonle Sap out of Siem Reap.  We (the 25 people in our group) had brought donations (school supplies and used clothing) for the Cham village and a Khmer village next to the Khmer Homestay.

Except for my wife and me, all of our group were Malaysians and most were Muslim Malays. So the trip tended to include places of interest to Muslim Malays, including the Cham village (the Cham adopted Islam through Malaysia and many speak Malay, as well, because of visits there for religious education), another Cham community in Siem Reap where we had lunch one day, and restaurants in Phnom Penh that served Halal food to Malaysian (and other Muslim) tourists, though the food also tended to be Malaysian dishes and not Cambodian.

We also had Cambodian food, cooked halal when we were with the group and probably not when we were on our own.  One of the best meals was in a small restaurant a few blocks from the Tonle Sap River, which is where most of the international tourists are located.  The food was fresh, with lots of vegetables -- among the healthier restaurant meals that we have had eating out in Asia.  We also had some durian one evening, which was tasty and not nearly as smelly as Malaysian durian.

We stayed at the Ohana Hotel near Wat Ounalom and next to an interesting local street market.  Having been in Cambodia before, though not to Phnom Penh, I already knew that US currency was used everywhere, though I still felt uneasy about the colonial nature of that.  What struck me even more was the large number of western faces in this part of town -- they were everywhere, of all ages and from many different parts of the world. I heard Australian and US versions of English, French and German.  I also saw quite a few men, either by themselves or with one other man, which might reflect the large number of young women sitting in front of the many bars along the side streets in this area.

The Malaysian aspect of the trip was actually quite interesting.  The Cham, for instance, are the largest minority group in Cambodia (about 5 to 6% of the country's population) and are among the most impoverished (though the Khmer villages looked about the same).  Apparently there are two types of Muslim Cham, one that is close to Malaysia in their practices, and one that still practices traditional animist beliefs and are less tied to the outside world.  I am sure we only saw the former.

A Killing Field

The day visiting the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (a former Khmer Rouge prison) was quite haunting.  Because of all the photographs, the museum seemed to have a deeper impact than the Killing Fields, which is actually just one of some 340 around the country! However, it is the nearest to Phnom Penh and has been best developed to memorialize that sad period in Cambodian history.  Adding to the impact was our guide who was about 15 years old at the time (1975-79) and remembers it well!

Photos of victims of the Tuol Slep Prison (click photo for larger view).
The Tuol Slep Prison was originally a school. Holes were broken in the walls to create viewing doors between classrooms (so guards can keep an eye on each other), and prisoners created their own cells from bricks (for men, here) and wood for women.
One of two living survivors of Tuol Slep Prison (out of the seven who survived).
The child killing tree at the Choeung Ek Killing Field near Phnom Penh. A mass grave of over 100 babies and childen, plus some women, is to the right. (click photo for larger view)
In the afternoon of our visit to the Killing Fields sites, we visited a Cham village along the Tonle Sap River just north of the city.  This village occasionally has Malaysian tourists come to visit, because of their interest in things Muslim and because some of the villagers speak Malay. The villagers main income is from fishing in the river. Most have very simple homes on stilts, which are similar to that of many of the Sea Bajau in Sabah, Malaysia (where I have been living).  The children seemed very happy, however, and the village elders expressed an interest in having more tourism as a way to supplement their livelihood.  We did not pay to visit them, though we did bring donations of food stuffs and office-type supplies (I think).

Chatting with the leader of the Cham village (in pink) at the village mosque. Our guide is to the right of him. (click photo for larger view)
Two young Cham girls.
Typical house in the Cham village, with the Tonle Sap River behind. Some are much more simple thant this, a few are much better.
The kitchen area inside one of the Cham houses.
Cham kids playing in the water puddles after a rain. (click photo for larger view)

After the Cham village we stopped at another village that specialized in hand crafted silver and other thin metal products.  On the way back to Phnom Penh, several of us opted to take an evening river cruise to watch the sunset which was nice.  It was on the Tonle Sap River.  Phnom Penh is located where the Tonle Sap River connects to the Mekong River.  I say connect because the Tonle Sap River flows into the Mekong River during the dry season (November to May), while the flooded Mekong River flows into the Tonle Sap River during the rainy season (June to October).  In this way, the river changes direction from every six months or so.  I think this is the only place in the world where this happens!

Two young boys copying the adults in the family, who are actually making silver crafts for sale. (click photo for larger view)

Phnom Penh is a fairly pleasant city of about 1.5 million.  The culture and ambience is reminiscent of Hanoi, though the buildings are not nearly as old.  People are friendly, there seems to be a lot of international tourists, prices are high in the most touristed areas, but pretty cheap if you venture further beyond.

Baray District

The next day we drove from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. On the way we stopped at a rest stop that specialized in selling fried spiders and crickets, and at the "Khmer Village Homestay".  The latter was created by a Malaysian Chinese woman who came to Cambodia to do missionary development work in the 1990s, but recently started a a restaurant and dormitory-style accommodations to train and teach entrepreneurial and other skills to the locals.  We ate at her SOLAR restaurant (School of Livelihood and Refuge), and toured here accommodations, which can hold up to 100 in stilt houses.

Khmer Homestay. (click photo for larger view)
One of the dormitory accommodations at the Khmer Homestay. They come in a wide variety of styles.  You can see the mosquito net where the beds are.

Most of her guests are young people from Singapore, where a volunteer experience to a less developed country in Southeast Asia is a required part of their secondary school curriculum.  This is in the Baray District, which used to be a Khmer Rouge stronghold and was, until recently, considered one of the more "wild" part of Cambodia. While there, we visited the Khmer village next door where all the children stood in line to receive gifts of school supplies and used clothing that we had brought.

The Khmer village next to the Khmer Homestay. Note the plastic sheets.  These are lit up at night to attract crickets that are collected in the water below the sheet and then fried for eating.  You see this all over the Baray District.

Children lining up to receive gifts from the tourists at the Khmer village.  (click photo for larger view)

Siem Reap 

That night was spent in Siem Reap and the morning of the next day was spent visiting the three most famous temples of Angkor Wat: Angkor Wat itself, Ta Phrom (famous of the tropical trees that are tearing it apart), and Bayon.  We had lunch as the Cham village that I mentioned above, then after a rest we went to the Tonle Sap Lake.

This was our second visit to Siem Reap. Last time we were here was in 2008 and we spent one day at Angkor and one day at the Tonle Sap. While a somewhat slower pace at Angkor Wat would have been nice, we did see the three most impressive sites there (we saw six sites last time, which may have been too many).

View from the top of Angkor Wat (which was not yet open when I came  here in 2008). (click photo for larger view)

Victims of land mines play music for donations a the Ta Prom Temple. I also gave them some money the last time I was here.
The biggest change was that our tickets (which had our photos on them) were checked at every site we visited. Last time they were never checked! I think that is a good thing. There is also a lot of reconstruction going on, especially at Ta Prom (the Raiders of the Lost Arch movie temple). I hope they do not rebuild too much. To me, leaving a good part in its more "authentic" decay is a good thing.  Other than that, however, the experience of the temples was the same: awe inspiring!

For us, the Tonle Sap was a little bit of a let down in comparison to our previous visit there in 2008. At that time, the the year-round port facility was under construction. It is now finished and this is now where tourists get on boats to go out to the lake.  The waterway to the port is now wider, but seems to be more shallow, causing more challenges for boats going in both directions.

Close to where the small river enters the Tonle Sap lake. (click photo for larger view)

A tourist boat revs its engine, splashing muddy water on villagers who approach the boats asking for money. (click photo for larger view, not the one boy in a round pan)
The Tonle Sap (usually translated as "Great Lake") triples in size during the Mekong River's rainy season, when the Tonle Sap River flows into the lake, and shrinks in the dry season, when the river flows from the lake and into the Mekong River. In theory, the lake should be higher this time (in May) than it was the last time we came (in March).  However, it seemed like it was lower! (drought? new up river dams?)  Because it was so low, our boat could only take us one of the floating restaurant platforms (same one we visited in 2008), and could not take us through the floating village, itself.

That was a bummer.  The village is really cool, with floating churches, stores, gardens, poultry, and even a basketball court.  It seemed like there were several more restaurant platforms now, compared to before, and even more floating houses.  Perhaps the floating village is experiencing urbanization?!?!

The buildings here will be floating when the lake reaches a higher level, and all of the trees seen here will be covered by water. (click photo for larger view)

"Real photographers" (you can tell by the long lenses!) visiting one the clusters of buildings along the side of the river linking the new harbor with the Tonle Sap lake.

Oh Cambodia!

The trip may have been very different if the original plans had not been thwarted by money issues.  The symposium was supposed to include a dozen or so people and papers by Cambodian academics, in addition to the Malaysians.  Malaysia, a much more wealthy country, was paying for it all, and the Cambodians had requested about US$400 per person to use their university facilities (which is a lot of money!).  The Malaysia side, however, was not able to come up with the money as quickly as the Cambodians said they need it, so the Cambodians canceled the event.

The only problem was that the Malaysians had already bought all of the airline tickets and booked the hotel rooms for the trip.  So they found another venue for the conference, at a fraction of the price, and went ahead organizing it all on their own.  The Cambodians were invited, at no cost to them, but they all had other commitments and could not make it.  Too bad.  The symposium was really good, and would have been better with their input.

Apparently (and this is just a guess), someone on the Cambodian side did not get paid their cut in organizing the event, causing it to be canceled.  From what I understand, bribery is part of the culture of Cambodia.  There are hierarchies of authority throughout the society and money taken at any lower level must include enough to pay off each of the higher levels.  So when a policeman takes a bribe, he keeps part of it and passes on the rest to higher ups.  This is just they way the society works (or so I was told): everyone getting a cut of every bribe and scheme.

Unfortunately, we experienced some of this ourselves, both coming into Cambodia and leaving the country.  (We were fine within the country, itself.)  On arrival we had heard that even though a "Tourist Visa on Arrival" for Americans only costs US$20, they will try and charge you US$25 (the price for a business visa), and you just need to call them on it to get your money back.  Well, they did that to us, as well.  Unfortunately, we were so concerned about getting our passports back, and a bit tired and dissheveled from the flight and trying to figure out what line to stand it that we completely spaced the fact that they gave us US$50 in change instead of US$60.  We did not realize our mistake until we were on the bus to the hotel!!!

On the way back, we flew AirAsia from Siem Reap to Kuala Lumpur.  On arriving in KL, one of our two checked bags had the lock missing, meaning that someone had opened it to inspect it.  They had opened my computer accessories bag, full of wires, chargers and an external hard drive.  After we got back to KK, we found (1) that they had manhandled the external hard drive, bending the USB 3.0 cable, which now needs to be fiddled with to get it to work; and (2) they had taken three SD memory cards from a pouch that was now empty!  Oh Cambodia!

(All photos are by Alan A. Lew and are release under a creative commons copyright with attribution required, only non-commercial uses allowed, share alike final products. If you do not know what that means, look it up!)

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Dive 54, Where Are You?

There was a sitcom from youth called "Car 54, Where Are You?" about the antics of some wayward NYPD policemen who drove car number 54. This came to mind as I wrote some notes in my dive journal about my 54th dive, which I did yesterday on Pulau Sapi, just off the coast here in Kota Kinbalu.

I recently decided to try and do at least one dive a month while I am here in Malaysia, excluding January, when we arrived, which is generally not a good dive month due to the monsoons.  In early February, I went diving at Mamutik Island, which is close to P. Sapi and also part of the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park.  I did three dives yesterday, the last day of March, at Pulau Sapi.  And I hope to get two dives in April, if possible -- other travels may get in the way.  In May, I will be diving at Mabul and Sipidan islands, the latter being one of the top dive destinations in the world.  In June we head to Peninsular Malaysia, where I will have a couple of opportunities to dive before we leave Malaysia at the end of the month.

Pulau Sapi is the smallest of the five major islands that make up Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park (the islands) and Marine Park (the underwater areas), which is named after the founding father and first prime minister of Malaysia.  The islands have become a huge tourist attraction for Kota Kinabalu, mostly drawing tourists from East Asia who are looking for a sun, sand and sea destination.  The islands are developed by Sabah Parks as recreational parks, with grassy picnic areas, a small restaurant, roped off areas for swimming and snorkeling, and banana boats and other recreational activities to partake in.  Hiking trails are also found that go into the interior jungles of the smaller islands.  Pulau Gaya is much larger and has several high end resorts scattered on its edges, as well as large illegal immigrant (Filipino) settlements on parts that are outside of the national park.

Many people have told me that Pulau Sapi is their favorite island in the national park.  I actually never stepped foot on it, as I was either on the boat or at a restaurant on P. Gaya, a short distance away from P. Sapi.  My wife (not a diver) signed up for snorkeling and had a great time, seeing a lot of coral and fish while snorkeling with a guide and hanging out on the beach on P. Sapi.  She was the only snorkeler with Diverse Borneo that day, and so she had a personal guide to show her the highlights in the coral reef.  We met for lunch and she did her third guided snorkel off the boat in the same area that I did my dive #54.

Dive #52 and #53 were both really good. Looking back at my photos, the best ones were from the first dive (#52) at Clement Reef. The sunlight must have been just right for that dive to bring out the color, which can be a challenge underwater.  I actually thought the second dive (#53) at Agil Reef was better than the first while I was doing it, both in terms of coral and fish.  I saw a very large porcupine puffer fish, though mostly the fish I saw throughout the Sapi area were on the small side.  My wife said that she saw large fish snorkeling.  The two reefs for #52 and #53 were on the back side (the South China Sea-side) of the island, away from the beach and town side.

After the second dive we picked up my wife and had lunch at the restaurant on P. Gaya.  The food was great!  We had curry chicken with rice and fried kway teow (flat rice noodles) with seafood. The noodles, in particular were delicious.  On the other hand, I think most any food tastes really good when you are diving. We sat with my dive buddy from the second dive.  He was from the Tubingen area of Germany, where I had taught a semester many years ago, though he now lives and works in Shanghai.

Dive #54 was at the Coral Garden reef, which was just beyond the Sapi Beach swimming and snorkeling area.  I was amazed at the great diversity of coral in this area.  There were many different kinds coral, all densely jumbled up and blanketing the ground.  I was going a bit crazy taking photos and videos, though the resulting pictures were less colorful than from the earlier dives.  As I was doing this, I kept falling behind my group and had to paddle to catch up.  Once I lost them entirely in the murky waters  deeper down, but found them quickly by swimming in the direction they were going ... or at least I think I found them.

After taking a short video, I again could not find them.  I again swam in their direction and soon found the orange fins with a white cross on the bottom that our group's guide was wearing.  I did not lose them again, but was kind of surprised when he started heading to the surface, as I still had about 70 bar of oxygen left (normally the dive ends at about 50 bar).  It was also only about 35 minutes into the dive, instead of the ussual 45 or more minutes.  However, sometimes there are reasons to end a dive earlier than expected, so I went up with the others.  At the top of the water, much to my surprise, I discovered that this was not my guide.  It was a different guide for a different company (Borneo Dream).

OOPS!!!  I had lost my group on dive #54.  This was the first time this had ever happened to me, and it was very embarrassing.

I was surprised at how far away my group had come up compared to where I came up.  I am guessing that there was a strong current, which is why my group kept getting so far away from me. The Borneo Dream boat came to pick up its divers and offered to take me to my boat.  That was nice of them.

When I got to our boat, others from my group were just starting to return.  They had told my wife that they had lost me. She thought they might just be kidding -- until the other boat appeared with me on it!  My guide was actually out looking for me and did not get on to our boat until  just after I did.

I readily agree that it was my fault for falling behind the others and not paying close enough attention to where they were.  On the other hand, we did not have "dive buddies" on this last dive, as we did on the second dive.  (My German dive buddy only did the two morning dives and was not with us.)  I kind of think that if I had a dive buddy on this last dive, that I would not have gotten lost. Maybe I need to proactive in asking guides in the future to assign buddies.

Also, in the future, I need to carry my emergency signal tube, which is a long orange plastic tube that you fill with air so people can easily find you on the surface.  I have one, but never bring it when I actually dive.  If I had lost my group and not found another (which I actually thought was my group), I would have slowly made my way to the surface and waited there for someone to find me.  That is the appropriate way to deal with being lost.

Dive 54, where are you?  Yes, I was embarrassed by my dive #54 -- but at least not until the end, after I had actually finished diving for the day!


On a somewhat related topic....

I am also embarrassed by this new promotional effort to sell Sabah to China.  A local company here in KK has hired 13 "Beachhoney Models" from China (famous for their bikinis) to sell Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park in an effort to get even more Chinese to visit Kota Kinabalu and Sabah.  The Tunku would probably turn over in his grave!  While I find it both exploitative and the wrong message/image for Sabah, it will probably work with China, and unfortunately tells a lot about the future of tourism development here in Sabah, which used to be (and mostly likely still is) among the premier ecotourism destinations in the world.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hanoi: How to Make a Place Memorable

“A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly.” - Homer, The Odyssey, 9th Century BCE

I was reminded of this statement from the over 3000 years ago  following my recent visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.  I was there for a conference that brought together 60 Fulbright Scholars (professors and PhD students) from throughout Southeast Asia.  It was the most Americans I think I had ever seen in one place in Southeast Asia, which is generally not on the travel map of people back in the US!  I opted to stay two additional days as I had never really spent much time in Vietnam and I had heard that Hanoi was an especially interesting place.  I was not disappointed.

Our first stop for the Food on Foot tour was for dumplings.  The temperature was maybe in the low to mid 70s  -- enough for down coats in Hanoi. (click on photo for a larger view)
Prior to our visit, my wife had read about a "Food on Foot" tour on  Being an amateur "foodie", this sounded like the kind of tour that we would be particularly suited to so we gave Vietnam Awesome Travel a call when we got to Hanoi (their website,, had been hijacked and was not accessible).  Mr. Anh came to our hotel and we arranged to do the three hour Food on Foot tour for dinner that night (US$20/pp).  It was a great introduction to the city's Old Quarter, and especially to its food.

Pho Bo (beef pho noodles). A bit blurry, but in the background, upper right corner, hangs the semi-dried beef  for the pho.
Based on our interests, which border on the more exotic, we at a variety of dishes, each at a different restaurant.  In fact, each of the restaurants specialized in particular dishes, and several only sold that one dish.  The restaurants were mostly on the sidewalks, where we sat on small step stools and ate on slightly taller step stools.  We had dumplings, deep fried fermented pork, fresh jicama and green guava as vegetables, eel soup, pho bo (beef pho noodles), and a fresh fruit cocktail with thick cream as a dessert.  We ate so much!  It was great!
Hao Qua (what I called "fruit cocktail" in the blog) is fresh fruit, jelly (the white thing) and and avocado slice on top, with thick cream.  Ice is an optional topping.  This was sold on a side street with about four shops all selling this one dessert.
We stayed near the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, which put us just outside of the core of the Old Quarter, but within a very easy walk.  During our Food on Foot tour, Mr. Anh introduced us to some of the major sites and interesting back alleys of the area, where some of the restaurants were located. Hanoi's Old Quarter is such a great walking area -- compact, lots to see on every street, Some of the most narrow buildings you'll ever see, easy to get lost and then re-found, and very easy on the wallet (be sure to bargain).  There are also lots of small hotels and tourists everywhere.

Hoan Kiem Lake, with its turtle island.  The core of the Old Quarter is in the background.
Downsides? Well, there are a lot of motorcycles, which the government encourages by charging a fairly low licensing fee compared to cars.  Some of the streets near the Dong Xuan Market were among the most crowded I had ever seen --- with motor scooters.  It is actually a very intense experience, almost overwhelming at times, but also quite memorable.
In Hanoi's Old Quarter. There are some pedestrian-only streets, as well.  (click on photo for a larger view) 

A dense street near the Dong Xuan Market.
The other downside that we experienced was our day trip to the famous Halong Bay limestone islands.  After a 3.5 hour bus ride with off and on rain, we got to Halong Bay to find that none of the boat tours had been allowed to depart.  All of the tours were standing around waiting to see if the port authority would allow them to go.  After awhile we went to a restaurant for a long lunch, and then finally, giving up, we returned to Hanoi.  At least we got to see the Vietnam countryside -- and why Vietnam is a major global rice exporter.  And we also met a very international crowd at our lunch table: China, Netherlands, UK, Italy and Thailand.
Rice and vegetable fields north of Hanoi, on a rainy day and through a bus window.

Tour boats at Halong Bay.  With so many boats, it is understandable why they would ground them all due to the fog.  Could be like bumper cars in the relatively small space between the limestone islands!
For us, at least, it was not a total loss since we had seen Halong Bay a decade earlier on a Star Cruise from Hong Kong. We felt bad for the others, though, who have yet to see this remarkable place. We did, however, get a full refund on the tour.  Mr. Anh, who had arranged this trip for us, said he works with this particular tour company because they share his high service values, as evidences by the 100% refund.  Other tour companies only gave a 50% refund for canceled tour boats.
Fruit and vegetable sellers on the street behind the Dong Xuan Market.
Everywhere we went in Hanoi we met such friendly people. You can find foods at international level restaurants with international prices, but you can also find great foods at really low prices, like about US$1 for a bowl of pho bo.  I really liked the ice cream cones for 6000 to 10,000 Dong (US$0.30 to 0.50).

Uncle Ho's Mausoleum. We joined the very long morning line here (guided tourists get to cut the line) to go into the mausoleum to see Ho Chi Minh's preserved body.
Also food related, we booked a private city tour (USD$55/pp) on a Sunday, our last day in Hanoi. We decided to do the private tour, rather than a group tour, so that we would have more control over our time and places where we went.  We did some of the standard city tour sites, such as the Ethnology Museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and home, and Temple of Literature -- all of which were very interesting.  And we also did the top of the Sofitel Plaza Hotel, which a friend told me had the best view of the city and Red River -- and which was a first time visit for Mr. Anh.

At Mr. Ahn's apartment.  (click on photo for a larger view)
Yes, Mr. Anh was again our guide for the city tour and he gave us the option of either having lunch at a restaurant or with a private family.  We chose the family option, which turned out to be with his family and sitting on the floor in his apartment.  He said 90% of his guests choose that option, which he usually only offers on Sundays because of the family's work schedule.  Meeting his wife, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, and toddler aged daughter and nephew was another highlight of the trip!

Lunch on the floor at Mr. Ahn's apartment. 
We left Hanoi feeling really good.  We thoroughly enjoyed the city and felt like it was a place that we both wanted to visit again some day.  Part of that was the great walking and exploring opportunities of the Hanoi's Old Quarter.  Being able to "explore", "discover" and be "surprised" is a really important part of a good tourist experience.

The other key to our very positive experience of Hanoi, however, was the friendliness and hospitality of the people we encountered.  Not just one person, though Mr. Anh really stood out, but also so many of the other people we encountered.   Homer was so right when he wrote that “A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly.”
This has to be among the thinnest functional buildings in the world -- just wide enough for a door. Hanoi has many narrow buildings  because taxes are based on street frontage -- the more narrow the building the lower the tax (or so I was told).  (click on photo for a larger view)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Living the Good Life in Kota Kinabalu

So many adventures, and so little free time to write about them....

As I mentioned briefly in a previous post, we arrived in Kota Kinabalu for the first time on this Fulbright trip on January 11, 2012.  It was my second time here, the first time being in January 2007 as an External Examiner for the Universiti Teknologi MARA (aka UiTM) to visit their Sabah branch campus, review exams and write a report.  I was here for three or four nights and fell in love with the place.  In addition the the great diversity of physical landscapes, from Mt. Kinabalu and its surrounding highlands to its beaches and many islands, I think it was the way people here get along and relate to each other that made it the focus of my return.

Kota Kinablau from AirAsia (click on photo for larger view)
Double rainbow over the Central Wet Market area on the KK waterfront at sunset.
This was supported by comments made while I was in KL last month by two friends (one Chinese and one Malay) who separately told me about how special they felt Sabah was.  In essence, they said that people in Sabah are Sabahan first, above their ethnicity, and that the ethnic strains of West Malaysia (aka Peninsular Malaysia) we far less evident in Sabah because of this. An Orang Sungai man who I met this past weekend in Kinabatangan (who was also part Filipino and part Sulawesi) told me the same thing in a discussion about language and the Sabahan accent that they all share.

Anyway, we were here for one week in January to find a place to live and to find a car to rent.  The problem we had was that apartment rentals are mostly either for the day (vacation rentals that are costly in the long term) or they want a one year lease.  We only needed three months (which I have since extended to four months).

After being a bit frustrated in the process of home hunting, we thought to ask the nice lady at the front desk of our hotel, Eden54. She said she had a friend who was a part-time real estate agent and she would ask her. Later that day, we were sitting in the hotel lobby looking at the local paper for rentals, when Susan introduced herself.  She said she had a client who had a place that might work for us, but she needed to confirm with her about the less than one year term.

Later that same day we finally looked at an apartment at the 1Borneo Hypermall -- billed as the largest shopping mall on Borneo.  1Borneo is a large, sprawling complex of structures all jumbled into one, including hotels and a couple of apartment towers. It also has the highest concentration of fully furnished apartments that can be rented on a daily to monthly basis.

1Borneo Hypermall (click on photo for larger view)
The one we looked at there was OK.  It came with everything, including a rice cooker, though the furnishing were quite bare and it was a little worn.  1Borneo is somewhat far from KK's great downtown area, but it is closer to the UiTM campus and would have worked.

We then got a call from Susan and so our hosts from the university took us to look at the place she had.  It was a brand new apartment, no one had ever lived in it!  It had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, though overall was only about 1200 972 sq ft.

 Our new home (click on photo for larger view)

The location was just outside of the downtown, but only a 10 minute walk to the very popular Foh Sang and Damai eating districts!  It also has a small gym to work off all that great food.  The price was RM2000 a month (USD$667), plus utilities, and after a few minutes of thought we grabbed it. (Fulbright gives us RM1500 a month for housing, and KK tends to be more expensive than most other parts of Malaysia, except KL.)

While it was not fully furnished when we looked at it, Susan and the owner managed to get us everything by the time we moved in on Feb. 1st, including a washing machine, rice cooker and microwave oven.  The only downside has been a second block (apartment building) that is under construction outside our bedroom window, which makes for some noisy daytime hours (actually they work almost 7 days a week and as late as 11pm on some days - the workers live in the building that is under construction).

One nice feature of our apartment is a shoe cabinet outside of the front door.  Here in Malaysia everyone takes their shoes off before entering a home.  Many homes have shoe racks, and some, like ours, has a shoe cabinet where we could actually lock our shoes -- though we never do that.  The floors of homes here are all  very smooth and usually large tiles, which make sweeping easy to do (with the ceiling fan turned off).  They also help to keep the homes cool on very hot days.

Children of the constructions workers playing on the site.
Our friend at Hotel Eden54 also contacted the company that she gets rental cars from for her guests.  He gave us the best deal yet on a monthly rental (with insurance).  We got a 2011 (almost new) Proton Saga for RM1700/month (USD$567; Fulbright does not cover this cost).  It is a four door, automatic transmission sedan that was designed and made in Malaysia. Interestingly, while it has air conditioning, it has no heater, because they are not needed so close to the equator.  There are cheaper cars available, but they are tiny boxes that are more like toys than cars.  Thank you Ling Ling.

I bought a GPS unit because even though KK is fairly small (population about  200,000) and compact, some streets can be pretty confusing.  while I could probably figure it out eventually, the GPS saves a lot of time in having to do that!  Driving in KK is interesting because of the use of center u-turn lanes.  These are often placed in the middle of a long street so people do not need to go all the way to the next intersection to do a u-turn.  They are everywhere and widely used -- first and only place where I have ever seen this.  In addition, I always find driving on the left side of the road a lot of fun (I'm serious, I like it).

Another interesting car-related note is that all of the cars in Malaysia come with backup beeping systems. When you approach an object while backing up it starts beeping.  The closer you get the faster the beeps come, until it goes solid, which means you better stop.  I know that this is an option on some cars in the US. Because of the often tight spaces in Malaysia, it is required for all cars here -- and I really appreciate that.

The Foh Sang morning wet market (click on photo for larger view)
Our purchases typically include some breakfast items, as well.
In our local neighborhood, Foh Sang is our favorite destination.  The 10 minute walk to get there makes a nice little exercise when getting vegetables and breakfast items (like Chinese meet baus) in the morning, or going out to eat in the evening.  We try not to go out too often because we have both put on more pounds than we would like since we got here.  The nearby City Mall (a 20 minute walk, though we usually just drive) is one of the new malls in town and has a really good food court and a huge Giant Hyperstore (groceries and household items; like a smallish Walmart Super Center).

How Lee is one of the more popular evening restaurants in Foh Sang.
(click on photo for larger view)
So now we are living the good in of Kota Kinabalu.  We are enjoying it so much that I managed to change my research plans to spend four months (or close to it) in KK, instead of just three.  Now I need to get back to work...

Chinese New Year lasts 15 days and even though fireworks are illegal in Malaysia, it was a very noisy in our neighborhood each night until the middle of February. (view from our window)
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