Friday, December 28, 2007

Island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island

We arrived back from Tagaytay this evening after a two day trip to visit Lake Taal and the active Taal volcano (last eruption 1977). Lake Taal is only 70 km south of Manila, but it took us five hours to drive there yesterday and two and a half hours to get back this afternoon – such is the state of the traffic in the Philippines.

Lake Taal is in a large volcanic caldera (which many people incorrectly think is the volcano’s crater, but the actual volcano is on an island in the middle of Lake Taal). And inside its crater is another lake, and also an island called Vulcan Point – which the locals claim is ‘the largest island in the world that is within a lake that is on an island within a lake on an island’.

We’d visited Lake Taal on many occasions before – and it’s certainly worth the trip down from Manila just to see the lake as long as the viewpoints along the ridge to the east and west of Tagaytay City are not covered by cloud – but on this trip we intended to cross to the volcano island in the middle of the lake and then climb to the top to see the crater lake. We stayed last night at a small resort called Balai Isabel right on Lake Taal just to the west of the small town of Talisay.

The rooms were 4,000 pesos a night (about US$100) – which is over-priced for the Philippines – but we’d managed to negotiate a 30% discount through a friend of the owner, and after some extra bargaining on check-in, we managed to get two rooms for 2,500 pesos each – a good price. The rooms were basic but clean, with two double beds, a small ensuite bathroom, a TV and a fridge. The place was quite new and seemed to have only a limited number of rooms completed, with others being constructed nearby. We saw only one other family staying there. There was a nice swimming pool next to a small black beach (comprised of crushed volcanic rock).

On the lake itself there was a floating pontoon with six smaller swimming pools built into the pontoon (at least that’s what the resort called them, but they weren’t much bigger than spa baths, so you wouldn’t be able to do much swimming in them).

Dinner was quite basic (mainly local food) and so was breakfast, but reasonably priced. I woke up early and wandered down to the beach to take a few shots of the lake whilst the light was still warm. A fisherman was heading out to the middle of the lake in a sleek wooden boat with an inboard motor.

Several locals were paddling around on the lake on rafts made of three or four bamboo poles tied together. One had tied a small wooden chair to the bamboo poles and was paddling around with a young toddler wedged between his feet. It didn’t look very safe, but living on a lake I expect they learn to swim at an early age.

After breakfast this morning we arranged through the resort to hire a bangka (an eight-metre wooden boat with an inboard motor and bamboo outriggers) for Php 1,600 to the return trip to the island (which included two and a half hours waiting time whilst we were on the island).

The boat picked us up directly from the beach at the resort and took us across to Buco, a village on the northern side of the island – a trip of about 20 minutes.

When we arrived on the island we hired five horses for 500 pesos each to take us up to the crater at the top of the island. Most of the guides walked the horses up the trail, but we saw a few others riding on the horses with the tourists. Some of the guides were quite young kids, but they all seemed very capable riders. My guide annoyed me a lot because all the way up he kept asking for a tip. I told him I would tip him when we got back down, but he kept asking. We found out from talking to one of the other guides (who was a young pregnant woman) that they only got Php 50 (little more than US$ 1) out of the 500 pesos that we paid, because the rest went to the horse owner, so when we got back we gave each of the guides a 200 pesos tip, and they seemed happy with that.

The ride up took 40 minutes, and it was quite steep in places. We stopped about halfway up to admire the view looking back towards the edge of the caldera, on top of which we could just see Tagaytay City.

I’m glad we took the horses because the sun was unusually hot for December. A couple of other tourists who had arrived on another boat about the same time as us, decided to walk (which takes about an hour) and they arrived at the top about 20 minutes after us looking decidedly worn out and soaked in perspiration.

There were some drink stalls set up by local villagers under wooden shelters on the edge of the crater, so it was nice to rest there for an hour, enjoy the views and some ice cold drinks (which weren’t unreasonably priced at 30 pesos each given that they have to be carted up to the top on horses along with large blocks of ice which are placed into wire cages on the horses).

There was also a small police outpost on the crater rim, and the policeman on duty asked Alan if he would like to shoot his gun for 500 pesos. He said he could have five bullets for that price. He had set up some plastic bottles for target practice in front of some bushes along one of the paths on the edge of the crater. We took him up on his offer and Alan took five shots at the bottles but missed them all.

I wondered who was paying for the bullets – the policeman or the Philippines’ constabulary? I can’t imagine the police in too many countries selling bullets to tourists to make a few bucks on the side – I shuddered to think of the consequences if someone had decided to go behind the bushes to relief themselves.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Breaking the rules at La Mesa Dam

After several days of battling the Christmas shopping crowds at different malls in Manila (shopping malls in most countries are crowded in the week before Christmas, but I have never been anywhere where they are as hectic as those in the Philippines) we decided to head out to La Mesa Ecopark, a nature park next to La Mesa Dam on the north side of the city, to get away from the crowds. The picnic ground not far from the entrance was quite crowded (and lots of kids in an adjacent playground), but on the other side of a large pond, where there were a couple of people fishing, there were some walking trails which I had all to myself.

It was quite a pleasant place – cool and shady under a lot of big trees - and a lot cleaner and better maintained than any other parks I have been to in the Philippines. On the side of the dam wall there was a flight of concrete steps, flanked by spectacular pink mussaendas, which appeared to lead up to a viewpoint over the dam.

However, when I got to the top (which was a hot climb as that part of the park is in full sun) there was a low fence blocking the way and a sign saying that loitering was prohibited and no pictures were allowed. And then across on the other side of a road which appeared to run around the dam, there was a higher fence blocking the view and another ‘No cameras or video taking’ sign (see picture below).

I wondered what the sense was of building steps up to a viewpoint, only to block the view with an ugly fence and putting up signs saying that you couldn’t loiter or take photographs. Perhaps a quick glance at the view is permissible, but anything longer would be breaking the rules (and of course my photo was breaking the rules as well).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Child abuse in Aurukun

I read a disturbing story today about a 10-year-old Aboriginal girl in Far North Queensland who had been gang-raped by six teenagers and three adults, and had been let off by Cairns District Court judge Sarah Bradley because the prosecutor had maintained that the sex had been “consensual in the general sense” and had described it only as “naughty”.

Apparently the rape happened in 2006 but the lack of convictions had caused such an outrage amongst the general community in Australia that the prosecutor, Steve Carter, was stood aside this week and an appeal announced which will be heard on 30 January.

I looked up the story on one of the Australian news websites this evening which said that the child was gang-raped at the age of seven in Aurukun on Cape York in 2002, and was then put into foster care with a family in Cairns. After being returned to Aurukun by the Department of Child Safety at the age of 10 in April last year, she was gang-raped again.

You hear about stories like this in Africa and a few Asian countries from time to time, but it is shocking to learn that such child abuse is still going on in a ‘civilised’ country like Australia.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sabah bureaucracy gone mad

This morning’s local paper carried a story about a 19-year-old girl who had gone to the National Registration office in Sandakan to collect her ID card – only to be told that it had been inadvertently given to someone else.

And what did the diligent National Registration officers suggest doing? Recover it? Cancel it? No. They suggested that the girl change her identity and apply for a new ID card under a different name! If that isn’t bureaucracy gone mad, I don’t know what is.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Half a wing and a prayer

There is an expression "flying on a wing and a prayer" but in Indonesia perhaps that should read "flying on half a wing and a prayer". I read in the local paper this morning that yesterday airport officials in Jakarta found a three-metre long section of a wing on the main runway - but no airline has come forward to claim it.

I wonder whether it fell off a Batavia Airlines jet? They got some bad publicity last month when parts of the wing of one of their Boeing 737s fell off after mechanics forgot to tighten some bolts (see my 21 November post) so maybe it's happened again but this time they are too embarrassed to own up.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Great value gardening books

I was browsing a bookshop next to the hotel where I am staying in Jalan Kemang Raya in Kebayoran Baru last night and I was surprised to see so many locally published books on Adeniums, Aglaonemas, Anthuriums and Caladiums (as well as a few on flowering Euphorbias in which I am not very interested). But what was even more surprisng was the quality of the books. Some were over 200 pages in full colour, and the quality of the photography and reproduction was top class. And another surprise was the price - ranging from 28,500 rupiah (about US$3) to a maximum of 65,000 rupiah (less than US$7).

Most locally published horticulture books that I had seen in Indonesia before were of quite a low quality, but these were excellent value for money. I ended up buying seven! The books contained excellent photographs of over 100 varieties of adeniums, over 300 varieties of aglaonemas, 175 varieties of anthuriums, and 220 varieties of caladiums, as well as very detailed information on propagation techniques. Only trouble was that they were all written in Bahasa Indonesia, so I will have to find someone to translate them for me. The variety names are all in English though, so the books were worth having just as a identification reference.

Another surprise of a different kind was in a taxi on the way to a meeting this afternoon. Whilst stuck in a traffic jam, a magazine vendor approached our window and tried to sell us a copy of Playboy. I've not seen that in a Muslim country before.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Jakarta’s aircraft graveyard

Flying into Jakarta this afternoon I noticed the two old Jatayu Airlines Boeing 727s that have been parked by the side of the runway for a few years (PK-JGT and PK-JGN) had been joined by a Batavia Airlines Fokker F28 (PK-YCM). The F28 – the only one still operated by Batavia Airlines - had some flat tyres, so looks like it was being consigned to the ‘graveyard’ along with the 727s.

Jatayu Airlines had its licence revoked by the Indonesian Government in July for safety breaches (it had actually not been flying for a while before that) and Batavia Airlines has also been threatened with closure for safety breaches. Earlier this month parts of a wing of a Batavia Airlines Boeing 737 fell off in flight after mechanics had made some repairs and forgotten to tighten some bolts. Fortunately they managed to land the plane safely.

At least the F28 looks like it is being retired gracefully, rather than waiting until it falls out of the sky which is not uncommon in Indonesia. PK-YCM first flew on 10 April 1981, so they managed to get about 25 years service out of it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Missie beats climate change

I was reading the Australian news site for Murdoch’s papers on the Internet this morning ( The main story was the UN Secretary-General’s report to a conference in Valencia about climate change having an even more devastating effect on the planet than even the IPCC report had predicted last year, and that governments needed to do more about cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, and there was another story about the death toll in Bangladesh from Cyclone Sidr having risen to more than 2,000.

But what were the ‘most popular’ stories on the website? The ‘top’ story of the day was about someone called Missie Higgins announcing that she was a lesbian (apparently she is an Australian pop singer), the second most popular story was one about John Travolta having kissed Kirk Douglas, and the third was about Prince William having a bald spot on his head.

Now that’s not to suggest that readers of Murdoch’s website news are a complete bunch of dills, because the climate change story did make it into fourth spot. However, the Bangladesh story didn’t make it into the top ten because there were more important news stories like:

- First pictures of baby Borat;
- Olivier helped me to heat says Minogue;
- Dicko dumps on Idol hopefuls;
- I’m just a country girl says Kerr;
- Falzon’s nude magazine shoot; and
- Di Caprio a virgin says Crowe.

Later in the day I checked back to read the climate change story in more detail – but I couldn’t find it. Instead there was a story about Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s reaction saying the world wasn’t going to end tomorrow because of climate change.

Well, that’s reassuring.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Justice Saudi style

The International Herald Tribune carried a story on its front page this morning about the hundreds of people killed in Bangladesh as Cyclone Sidr ripped through the country yesterday. That was a tragic story, but even more shocking, in a different way, was another story on page 2 about a rape victim in Saudi Arabia who had been sentenced to 90 lashes because she had been sitting in a car with a former boyfriend when they were kidnapped by seven men and both raped.

But what was so shocking about the story was that because she had complained to the media about her sentence being too heavy, the court increased it to 200 lashes and imposed a six months’ jail term as well – and the only law she had broken was being alone with a man who was not her husband.

That’s Saudi justice for you.

To read the full story CLICK HERE

Friday, November 09, 2007

Dubai keeps growing and growing

On the way back from Tehran we stopped off in Dubai for three nights to attend a conference and some meetings. The conference was at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, right next to the imposing Burj Al Arab, a magnificent building shaped like a billowing sail. The picture below was taken from the terrace coffee shop at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

We couldn’t afford to stay at the Burj Al Arab (billed as the world’s most luxurious hotel - cheapest rooms US$1,500 a night) or even the Jumeirah Beach Hotel (cheapest rooms US$950 a night), so ended up at the Arabian Park Hotel, a three-star hotel on the edge of the desert at Al Jaddaf, not far from the airport. The room was only 20 sq m but even that cost us US$250 a night. Dubai is getting so expensive these days. I remember when I first started going to Dubai about five years ago, I could stay at the five-star Sheraton on Dubai Creek for that price, but alas no more. The view from our room at the Arabian Park Hotel (below) was not quite as impressive as that from the Jumeirah Beach Hotel.

On the way back from the second day of the conference, the taxi took me via the new Dubai Marina which is under construction. It is a massive development with skyscrapers shooting up everywhere around a 3 kilometre long marina on the other side of Palm Jumeirah. It is almost like they are rebuilding Dubai again (in fact some of the maps call the area ‘New Dubai’). None of the buildings in the picture below are occupied yet – they are all under construction simultaneously – and this is only a fraction of the construction that is going on in Dubai because not far away they are building Dubai World Central, Dubai Sports City, Dubai Golf City, Dubai Studio City, Dubai Silicon Oasis, City of Arabia, Falcon City of Wonders, the Mall of Arabia (which will be the largest shopping mall in the world) and a 20 sq km extension to the Jebel Ali Free Zone. Dubai just seems to keep growing and growing at a pace I haven't seen anywhere else in the world.

The amount of construction going on is breathtaking, and wherever you look in Dubai, you can’t avoid seeing the world’s tallest building slowly rising over half a kilometre into the sky and dwarfing all the other skyscrapers on the horizon. The final height of Burj Dubai (on the right in the picture below) is a secret, but most believe it will be over three-quarters of a kilometre high. Currently it is up to floor 156 and at 585 metres high it is already taller than any other building in the world. I guess after Burj Dubai is finished in 2009, someone will try to build a skyscraper a kilometre high – I wonder if I will live long enough to see it.

On our first night in Dubai we took the free hotel mini-bus to Wafi City – a nearby shopping mall to have dinner. It was quite new and constructed like an ancient Greek temple.

The mall was almost deserted and we asked the Filipina waitress at the restaurant where we had dinner why it was so quiet. She replied matter-of-factly: “Oh, only sheiks and rich foreigners come here.” As we were neither sheiks nor rich, we worried about what the meal would cost us, but it wasn’t too bad – about double the price of eating out in Malaysia – and probably cheap by European standards. The food was excellent, and I had a large freshly squeezed pomegranate juice for 20 dirhams (about US$5) which was good value given the price of pomegranates. As we walked back through the almost empty mall, we wondered how all the upmarket designer stores could survive with such a scarcity of customers.

On our last day in Dubai, we had a few hours to spare after my last meeting, so we took a taxi down to the textile souk in Bur Dubai, and then an abra across Deira Creek to the Gold Souk, to check that there was still something of the old town there and they hadn’t been replaced by new skyscrapers and shopping malls. We discovered that was where all the people were – like any Middle Eastern souk, they were jam-packed with locals and tourists alike, who obviously knew they could get a better deal in the souk than in the Versace and Gucci stores in Wafi City. We’d heard that the abras (the wooden boats that provide the ferry services across the creek) were going to put their fares up to 3 dirhams a trip, but the boatman asked only for one dirham from us. So obviously the fares haven’t gone up yet.

On our abra trip across the creek I sat over the engine cowling and watched the boatman deftly steer the boat with his bare feet. Maybe when the fares go up he’ll be able to afford to buy a pair of shoes.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Divine Martyrs

Tonight we are winding down after a hectic week of meetings in Tehran. Althugh the days were busy, we did get a break most evenings for a dinner or cultural performance.

The highlight of this trip to Tehran was definitely a performance of ‘The Divine Martyrs’ by the IRIB Symphony Orchestra at the National Library. It was the most incredible piece of music that I have heard in a long time. It was composed by Hooshang Kamkar and was performed in ‘Mahour’ – a style of traditional Iranian music featuring the ‘santoor’ and ‘daf’ as accompanying instruments.

The words of ‘The Divine Martyrs’ are from a poem by the famous Persian poet and philosopher, Molana Jalal-e-Din Mohammad Molavi (who also called Jalal al-Din Muhammad Mevlana in western literature and commonly known as ‘Rumi’). The singer for the performance I attended was Mohammad Abdolhosseini who was very impressive. (I must check to see if he has recorded any CDs next time I am in Iran). The orchestra was conducted by Mohammad Bigleri Poor and the choir by Razmik Oohanian.

A highlight of a different kind was meeting the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was a smaller man than I expected, but he had a long and warm handshake, and came across as a very friendly person – so different from the impression of him that is gained from the western media. After his speech to the conference I was attending, the delegates crowded around him for photos – somehow I couldn’t imagine George W. Bush’s secret service bodyguards allowing people to get that close to their President.

As is often the case when I visit Iran, many of my memories of the trip relate to the wonderful meals that I had in different places. I remember the delicious plate of fresh pomegranate that I was served during one of my meetings, and the tasty freshly-baked Iranian bread, that I had hot from the oven for lunch one day in a restaurant down town. I’m not a big meat-eater (in fact I’m almost a vegetarian), but I can never resist the lamb kebabs when I am in Iran – so tender and tasty. And the salads are so fresh as well – eating in Iran is very healthy compared to many other Asian countries.

One of the British delegates remarked to me that it was probably doing him a lot of good not to have access to alcohol for a few days. He said the non-alcoholic beer was surprisingly good – only he couldn’t get used to not waking up with a hangover the next day!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A place to shop at 5 am

I arrived in Dubai at 4.45 am to catch a flight to Tehran. I am always amazed when I travel to or through Dubai how busy the airport is throughout the night. Most other airports quieten down between midnight and dawn, and some with curfews close down completely, but Dubai International Airport is as busy at 5 am as it is as 5 pm with planes arriving and departing around the clock. It occurred to me that the duty free shops at Dubai airport could well be the busiest shops in the world at 5 am.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The death of Lake Tai

Another disturbing story in today’s International Herald Tribune shows that being an environmentalist in China is almost as dangerous as being a journalist in Myanmar.

The story is about Wu Lihong, a 40-year-old factory salesman turned environmentalist who was jailed for three years on some trumped-up charges of blackmail and threatening to extort money from the Communist Party Committee of Zhoutie by threatening to report pollution problems.

The story reported that Wu had been tortured for five days and forced to sign a confession, but because he couldn’t prove to the judges that he had been tortured, he was jailed on the basis of his ‘confession’, and his lawyer denied the right to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses.

Wu’s real ‘crime’ was that he was trying to expose the pollution of Lake Tai, once one of the Yangtze delta plain’s most beautiful lakes (and the third largest freshwater lake in China) but which is now covered in a foul-smelling green algae.

The pollution of the lake, according to Mr Wu, had been caused by the 2,800 chemical factories that were situated around the lake, manufacturing food additives, solvents and adhesives, and illegally discharging effluents into the lake.

The story reported that local rice farmers couldn’t tend their padi fields without wearing rubber gloves and boots because the irrigation water from the lake caused their skin to peel off.

But the most incredible part of the story is about the visit of Wen Jiabao (then a vice premier, now China's prime minister) in 2001 who came to investigate reports of Lake Tai's pollution. The IHT story reported: “Like most Communist Party inspection tours, word of this one reached local officials in advance. When Wen asked to see a typical dye plant, one was made ready, according to several people who witnessed the preparations. The factory got a fresh coat of paint. The canal that ran beside it was drained, dredged and refilled with fresh water. Shortly before Wen's motorcade arrived, workers dumped thousands of carp into the canal. Farmers were positioned along the banks holding fishing rods. Wen spent 20 minutes there. A picture of him shaking hands with the factory boss hangs in its lobby”.

That’s almost unbelievable, but doesn’t surprise me knowing to what lengths the Chinese government will go to muzzle environmentalists.

As the IHT story pointed out: “Pollution has reached epidemic proportions in China, in part because the ruling Communist Party still treats environmental advocates as bigger threats than the degradation of air, water and soil that prompts them to speak out.

“Senior officials have tried to address environmental woes mostly through pulling the traditional levers of China's authoritarian system: issuing command quotas on energy efficiency and emissions reduction; punishing corrupt officials who shield polluters; planting billions of trees across the country to hold back deserts and absorb carbon dioxide.

“But they do not dare to unleash individuals who want to make China cleaner. Grass-roots environmentalists arguably do more to expose abuses than any edict emanating from Beijing. But they face a political climate that varies from lukewarm tolerance to icy suppression”.

The full story is quite a long one, but well worth reading by anyone interested in the preservation of the environment, and the ongoing persecution of grassroots environmentalists in China. To read the full story CLICK HERE

Cruelty of the Myanmar military

Our local paper this morning carried a statement from the military junta in Myanmar commenting on the death of the Japanese photojournalist, Kenji Nagai, in their brutal crackdown on the street protests in Yangon in the last week of September.

The story said that he had only himself to blame for his death because he entered the country on a tourist visa and not a journalist visa.

What sort of logic is that? Everyone knows that Myanmar doesn’t issue visa to journalists, so it would have been impossible for him to enter the country on a journalist visa. I have many friends who are journalists and have wanted to go to Myanmar for holidays, but their visa applications have been refused on the basis of their profession – even though they had no intention of reporting on anything there.

Are the Burmese generals saying that if he had applied for a journalist visa, it would have been refused, so he wouldn’t have been killed?

It’s disappointing that to date Japan has done nothing more than express ‘regret’ at the incident. The video footage of Nagai-san falling to the ground with his camera still in his hand, that was broadcast around the world, looked very much like he was being shot at point blank range by one of the Burmese soldiers (see Japanese news broadcast video below). And all the Japanese government can do is express ‘regret’. Japanese people are renowned for their politeness and going out of their way to avoid conflict, but this was one instance where they should have been loudly protesting.

There was also a disturbing story in the International Herald Tribune today recounting some eyewitness accounts of the brutality that was seen on the streets of Yangon. In the IHT story, one housewife who was out shopping for food on 28 September recalls:

“I saw people in the street just beaten up for no reason - just walking along the road, not even part of the protests. There was this young boy, he was alone and not shouting with the crowd or clapping. This captain came up to him, just started beating him and the boy fell on the street. Then the police pushed him into one of those trucks that were lined up to take demonstrators. As they pushed him, he fell again. Then the police took out a big stick and gave him a huge blow on the back.”

To read the full story CLICK HERE

Friday, October 12, 2007

Rhapsody in video

Yesterday evening, after the conclusion of the first day of a conference I was attending in Seoul, our hosts took us to an art exhibition by the famous Korean ‘video artist’, the late Nam June Paik. I’d heard of his work before, but never seen any of it, so didn’t know quite what to expect. The exhibits comprised ‘works of art’ either made out of TV monitors, or displays inside TV monitors. The reaction of the delegates was interesting. They ranged from: “What an exquisite exhibition – this is so avant garde” to “What a childish load of rubbish – how can they call this art” (I suppose those making the former comments would call those making the latter comments something like ‘Philistines’). Some of the delegates in the former category spent ages admiring each exhibit from different angles, whilst those in the latter category retired to the snack bar or went outside for a smoke (one sat on the stairs reading a book, looking most uninterested).

I can’t make up my mind which category I fall in. I am still not sure whether I liked the exhibition or not. I have difficulty in calling it ‘art’ but would not disagree with calling it ‘artistic’. One very impressive exhibit was a 10 metre long turtle in the centre of the exhibition hall, made out of 166 TV sets.

I was told the turtle was ‘created’ in Germany in 1993 and was on loan to the exhibition. I suppose it was dismantled in Germany and the TV sets shipped to Korea in boxes, and then reassembled again, so on that basis I do have difficulty in describing this as ‘art’ (especially as the artist is no longer alive, so he wouldn’t be the one doing the reassembling). And I suppose when the exhibition is over, they will pack the TV sets back into their boxes, send them back to Germany, and whoever owns it there will have to reassemble it again. I wonder how the artist would feel about his ‘work of art’ being dismantled and reassembled all the time.

After the art exhibition we attended an excellent concert of both traditional and modern Korean music and song, but it was the Korean opera sets that were performed by Kim Yeong Im and the Incheon Opera Chorus that were most inspiring. There was a full orchestra in the pit (and a very flamboyant conductor) and the overall production was world class.

A most enjoyable evening (although I am still scratching my head about the ‘art’ exhibition).

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sleepless in Singapore

My room at the M Hotel was not what I booked. I’d booked a non-smoking room, but on arrival the receptionist told me that there were no non-smoking rooms left. She said the hotel only had a limited number of non-smoking rooms (why do hotels limit the number of non-smoking rooms if there is so much demand?) but assured me that the room “didn’t smell much”. I should have asked her to define “much” because the moment I walked in the door, I was overpowered by the smell of stale smoke. However, that turned out not to be the biggest problem with the room.

My room had a connecting door to the room next door, and when I checked in about 9.30 pm, all was quiet. I went down to the reception for a couple of hours after unpacking my bag to use the wi-fi (I’d forgotten to bring my LAN connector) and when I returned to my room about 11.30 pm, the people in the next room were making a lot of noise. The connecting door between the rooms was not soundproof. There were two males and two females (one of which was a young girl who was constantly whining) and one of the males was shouting at the others. It sounded like he was the father of a family, and for a while I thought he was angry, but after listening to their conversations for a while, I realised that was just the way he spoke to his family – in a very loud voice at about twice the level that most people speak. This went on until after midnight, so I called reception to ask if I could be moved to another room. I was told that wasn’t possible because the hotel was full, so I covered my head with a pillow and tried to sleep. I eventually drifted off in the early hours of the morning with the man still conversing in a very loud voice.

At 6.30 am the people in the next room received a wake-up call – which woke me up as well. Almost immediately the man started shouting again, and the girl whining again, and I realised I wasn’t going to get much more sleep. At that stage I lost patience with them and banged on the connecting door saying: “Would you please lower your voices – I am trying to sleep in here”. The man replied: “Okay, okay” and did lower his voice for a while to about a normal speaking level, but the girl kept whining, so that didn’t help much. At about 7.00 am I think they must have forgotten about my complaint because their voice levels were back to the shouting level, so I gave up on getting any more sleep.

When I checked out after breakfast, the receptionist said to me: “Did you have a pleasant stay, sir?” I replied: “No, I had a most unpleasant stay,” and told her about the problem with the connecting door that was not soundproof. She replied: “Oh I am so sorry about that, sir. We have a lot of people from the Lupin Group in India staying here on an incentive package, and they are all very noisy.” I didn’t have a clue who the Lupin Group was, but they way in which she conveyed her apology to me almost seemed like I was expected to know who the Lupin Group was and that I should know they are noisy people. When I was at the airport this evening waiting for my fight back to Kuala Lumpur, out of curiosity I googled the Lupin Group, and found they were a pharmaceutical company (the third largest in India apparently) – so that didn’t shed any light. I thought maybe if they had been a heavy engineering company, and all the employees had to converse during the day in loud voices, that would explain why they spoke so loudly.

So from now on when I book a hotel room, my standard request will be: “No smoking AND no connecting door please.”

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Singapore's oldest taxi driver?

I caught the 6.50 pm flight to Singapore this evening, after leaving home at 4.20 pm in a taxi. The flight sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes waiting to take-off (apparently there was only one runway in operation at KLIA for some reason today) and we came in at gate F60 in Singapore – the very last gate in Terminal 2 (I can’t understand the logic of making passengers from a short shuttle flight walk the longest distance in the airport) so it was about 8.30 pm by the time I got to the immigration counter.

Fortunately there was not much of a queue at immigration, nor at the taxi rank, so I was soon on my way into the city. However, my taxi ride into the city turned out to be the slowest taxi ride I have ever taken, courtesy of what I would guess was Singapore’s oldest taxi driver. She was a small Chinese woman, who looked about 75 years old, and could barely see over the steering wheel. As we pulled away from the airport she said: “Where you go, ah?” I told her that I wanted to go to the M Hotel, to which she replied: “You know where M Hotel, ah?” I replied that it was in the financial district. “You know how get, ah?” was her next question. “Yes, go along the East Coast Parkway, take the Prince Edward Road exit and then turn left into Shenton Way,” I said. There was a pause as she absorbed that, and then she said: “I call my friend, ah.” I guess she was not familiar with what was a very simple route into the city, because she spent most of the journey chatting in what I assume was Mandarin or Cantonese or some other Chinese dialect to her ‘friend’ on her mobile phone, who was apparently giving her directions.

We headed into the city at about 30 kph under the speed limit – in the fast lane. The rest of the traffic passed us on the inside, and it was surprising nobody beeped us (if that had been KL, people would have been honking their horns at us all the time). When we got to the traffic lights at Shenton Way, she was in the wrong lane, so I said to her: “You have to turn left here.” When the lights changed to green, she immediately pulled straight in front of another car in the left hand lane, but again surprisingly we didn’t get beeped – Singapore drivers are so polite compared to Malaysian drivers!

I wondered whether she actually had a licence to drive. Maybe her husband was a taxi driver and he had sent her out to earn some money whilst he had his dinner. She certainly didn’t know Singapore very well and was a pretty hopeless driver.

Arriving at the M Hotel, I looked at my watch – it was 9.20 pm. It had taken me five hours, door to door, a journey I could have easily driven in four hours. Oh well, at least flying is safer than driving, even if it does take an hour longer.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Credit card worries

We live in an apartment overlooking the second largest shopping mall in Asia – the Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur – which is a bit of a worry when you have a wife who is a shopaholic (I guess most wives fall into that category). Mid Valley often promotes itself as the largest shopping centre in Asia, but I always put that down to marketing hype because the SM Megamall at Ortigas in Manila has always been larger.

However my worries were heightened this weekend (in terms of impact on my credit card) when Mid Valley opened an extension called The Gardens which doubled its size – now properly making it the largest shopping mall in Asia. I had a browse through the new section yesterday morning. It’s nice and airy, and more upmarket than the older section (lots of leather armchairs for weary shoppers to rest their feet), but it’s all designer stores – women’s dresses, shoes, bags, etc. – so I don’t think I’ll be shopping there much myself.

KL has so many upmarket shopping centres these days – Suria KLCC, Star Hill and the new Pavilion mall in Jalan Bukit Bintang which also opened this weekend – that you wonder where all the money comes from to support the multitude of designer stores. Perhaps they survive on the patronage of the Arab tourists that come here over the summer months and spend up big in those stores. The rest of the year they look half deserted most of the time.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Air Asia’s turnaround secret

We arrived back in KL in the early hours of the morning after our Air Asia flight from Shenzhen. For this flight I had to compete with about 20-30 other passengers who had bought the express boarding option (see Sept 23 blog). I was lucky though as I was fourth out of the boarding lounge door and managed to overtake two other passengers in the race to the aerobridge, and thus succeeded in getting a front seat again.

I realised then how Air Asia manages to achieve its 35 minute turnarounds, which full-service airlines would never be able to do: Because there are no allocated seats, the passengers start queuing at the gate at least half an hour before departure, and then run to the plane in order to try and avoid getting stuck in a middle seat. That means boarding is over in about half the time it takes normal airlines to fill their planes. But having to queue for so long and then having to run to the plane takes all the pleasure out of traveling by air.

The flight attendants must have problems on this particular flight with non-English speaking passengers not knowing what the words 'flush' and ‘press’ mean. They had taped a piece of tissue paper in the toilet, next to the flush button, on which they had written in Chinese the words “Please press flush button, thank you” and an arrow pointing to the flush button. I thought that was very ingenious of them. Maybe they’d had problems with nobody flushing the toilet on the flight from KL to Shenzhen.

Disneyland for adults

OCT East, where we have been staying for the past week, is sort of like a Disneyland for adults. It promotes itself as an eco-tourism mountain resort and theme park, where stressed-out urban residents can get ‘back to nature’, but it’s a park in the true sense of the word (i.e. constructed gardens) not a park with roller-coasters and kid’s rides. It comprises a ‘Swiss’ village called Interlaken, a golf course and health spa, the Sanzhou tea plantation (which includes an ‘ancient’ tea town), a large wetlands area, a botanic garden inside a large greenhouse, and a steam train that winds it way along a tall viaduct through some reforested valleys. The train is the closest resemblance to Disneyland, and the main street of the Interlaken village looks a little like the Main Street USA that you find inside the entrance to every Disneyland – except the one at OCT East has more of a Swiss look to the architecture (as you would expect given that it’s called Interlaken).

That part of OCT East didn’t appeal to me at all – it’s all tourist shops and over-priced restaurants – but the ‘ancient’ tea town further up the hill is quite relaxing because it’s not so touristy and there are some nice relaxing walks radiating out from there, either through a real tea plantation, through bamboo groves or through the wetlands at the bottom of the hill.

At the entrance to the tea plantation, there is notice that reads: “Surrounded by mountain, river, tea garden and wetland, it is a lovely area where the bamboo flourishes and rivulet gurgles. Fresh air is rich in ion content, and hundreds of acres of fluctuant tea garden is a great place to learn knowledge of tea. Travellers may wander along the sinuous plank road to seek for loneliness.” I suppose given the air pollution down in Shenzhen, having “fresh air rich in ion content” would be a major drawcard for the locals – and the residents of nearby Hong Kong too. Perhaps given the crowded conditions under which people live in Shenzhen and Hong Kong, “seeking loneliness” might also appeal.

It’s certainly a good place to get some exercise as the roads are not crowded (at least not during the week when we were there – it might be a different story at the weekend). The only thing I didn’t like about the roads around the tea plantation were all the plastic cherry blossom trees that had been ‘planted’ in amongst the real vegetation. I think the guy on the right in the picture below is checking out one of the trees, trying to make out whether it is real or not.

The “sinuous plank roads” (I think they mean boardwalks) go for miles, through the hills, across suspension bridges, and down into the wetlands. The views along the way are very relaxing and on the day that I walked up there (mid-week) I saw only three or four other people in about an hour.

About every 500 metres or so there are clean toilets in either bamboo huts or stone buildings (made to look like ‘ancient’ buildings) so it’s almost like bush-walking with all modern conveniences laid on. However, I didn’t like the music coming out of speakers in the trees (the Chinese instrumental music wasn’t so bad, but it was the constant interruptions by ads for KFC or tofu burgers that I didn’t like) – that really spoilt the ‘back to nature’ feel.

Down in the bamboo groves, mists of water hiss from pipes hidden behind the bamboo to create a foggy atmosphere to help you imagine that you are walking through a ‘real’ bamboo forest.

The only thing I didn’t like in the bamboo forests were all the giant fake insects that were scattered through the forest. At one stage I was climbing a hill in an isolated part of the forest and looked up and saw this giant ant in front of me. Although it took only a second to register that it was not real, my heart missed a beat in that moment.

The wetlands offered some nice boardwalks through valleys and around large ponds. I didn’t see a lot of wildlife except a small snake on one of the boardwalks. I don’t know whether it was poisonous or not (it was brown with a yellow-banded neck) but I stepped back and let it have right-of-way. I don’t think you would find any real snakes like that in Disneyland.

Next year OCT East will expand to include a ‘Red Wine Town’ (sounds interesting) and a “Statue of Guanyin Sitting in a Lotus Throne” according to the promotional literature. If you are not staying at the Interlaken hotel (in which case entrance to all the park areas is free) you can buy a day pass on arrival for 128 yuan (about US$15) which is quite good value. It takes about an hour to reach OCT East from downtown Shenzhen, and about two hours from downtown Hong Kong.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A magical finale under a full moon

The closing show of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival was held on a stage built over the lake in front of the Interlaken Hotel at OCT East. It was a spectacular location for the concert which lasted about an hour - not as long as the previous shows because it followed the AYAF prize-giving ceremony held in the nearby Interlaken Theatre. However, the fireworks and laser displays that accompanied the show gave it a magical atmosphere under a full moon (the rain finished yesterday) and it was a fitting finale to a fantastic week here in Shenzhen.

At the end of the show, as fireworks lit up the sky, cannons shot brightly coloured streamers and confetti out over the stage and over the lake. It was a spectacular sight, but as the smoke from the fireworks cleared, I thought of the old man that I had seen each morning in a rowing boat cleaning up bits of rubbish from the lake with a small fishing net. I imagined the look of horror on his face when he got to work this morning and found the whole of his lake covered with streamers and confetti.

The only act that fell flat – and I would say the only one of the whole festival – were a couple of ‘famous’ rap artists from the US who appeared as special guests courtesy of MTV (I can’t remember their names). I’m not a great fan of rap, so it was hard for me to judge whether it was a good or bad performance, but even the applause from the young audience was very muted.

Later that night when I was going back up to my room in the hotel, the two rap artists got in the lift with me. They were wearing baggy pants, basketball shirts and basketball caps on back to front. I was wearing a suit and tie (because I had been participating in the prize-giving ceremony earlier). One of them looked me up and down disdainfully. He didn’t say anything but I sensed a rather wide generation gap in the way we were dressed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Another night, another show

After four nights and four shows, I feel like I am starting to suffer show overload – and there is still one more night to go. That’s not a reflection on the quality of the performances – they are all superb, and tonight’s show was no exception. It’s a bit like having your favourite food every night of the week – after a few days you feel like you need a break for one night otherwise you start taking the best for granted.

There were more dance presentations in tonight’s show than singers or bands. The dances included a classical Cambodian peacock dance, a vibrant Bollywood dance routine, a traditional drum dance from Vietnam and a very impressive modern adaptation of South Pacific traditional dances by a talented group of 16 dancers and musicians from Fiji.

As all the performers gathered on the stage at the end, they received a standing ovation, and now we hold our breath for the judges to determine the prize-winners which will be announced at a gala closing concert tonight.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bums, bumps and balancing acts

The third night of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival saw a lot of variety in the 13 performances that were presented. A rock and roll band from the Philippines opened the show followed by some traditional dancing from Micronesia, a solo performance from a young Japanese pop singer, Takuya Kumats, and a traditional Apsara dance by some performers from Cambodia who were wearing exquisitely intricate costumes.

Then came a group of very energetic dancers from Bangladesh, but during one of the moves in which male dancer jumped over three others, he slipped on the stage on landing and fell flat on his back. He was knocked unconscious, and lay there not moving until the end of the dance routine. Most people thought it was part of the act – until all the other dancers had left the stage and two stagehands dragged the unconscious dancer off the stage. Someone later told me that they could see them administering CPR on the dancer in the side wings, but I heard later that he had been taken to hospital with concussion, but was otherwise okay. It was fortunate that he was not more seriously injured.

The Bangladesh dance routine was followed by a more traditional dance from Thailand in which several dancers took the part of puppets, with other dancers manoeuvering their arms and legs. It was a dance that I had not seen before and was very well presented with the ‘puppet’ dancers wearing spectacular costumes:

After a guest performance by popular Malaysian singer Tan Kheng Seong, the Chinese entry of the night comprised a solo acrobatic performance by a teenage member of the Chinese Acrobatics Group in which he enthralled the audience with his amazing sense of balance on the soft steel wire:

Then a conservatively dressed solo female performer from Indonesia presented a soft ballad in English that she had composed herself, which was followed by two very unconservatively dressed singers from Mongolia called Sister Twins. They were dressed in sexy lingerie outfits and they performed a hard hitting number which involved gyrating their bums towards the audience which generated some loud cheers and screams from the appreciative young audience:

Then another very unconservative act from five male and three female dancers from Pakistan, which on the programme was labeled ‘Traditional Dance’. It was more like a Bollywood performance than what I would call a traditional dance – as I was watching it, the thought crossed my mind that the Taliban definitely would not approve if they saw it.

Finally a performance from a cultural dance group from Mauritius, and that wrapped up another very entertaining night with just as much variety as the previous two nights. The amount of talent that has assembled here in Shenzhen this week for these performances is mind-blowing. I feel very lucky to be here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stars walk the red carpet in Shenzhen

The second night of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival (AYAF) in Shenzhen kicked off with a red carpet walk of international stars and performers from the 24 countries participating in the event. The loudest screams were reserved for Jay Chou – the young Taiwanese heartthrob that Time Magazine labeled as Asia’s hottest pop star. He performed a number in the concert that followed as a guest artist. Another guest artist was the 24-year-old Chinese classical pianist, Lang Lang, who has been described as one of the greatest classical pianists of the current generation.

The contrast between the performances of the two guest artists was as marked as the contrast between the performances of the other performers competing for the AYAF prizes – they ranged from elegant classical dances to heavy rock numbers – and just about everything in between.

I particularly liked a group of dancers from Macau, who performed a very elegant flamingo dance (not the Spanish flamingo dance, but a dance based on the movements of flamingo birds) and a group of eight male dancers from South Korea called B-Boy who performed Michael Jackson type dance numbers (but in comparison to those guys, Jackson looks like a stuffed doll). Their energy was unbelievable.

But the performance that surprised everyone and generated the loudest applause was by a group of young Mongolians who made up a horse-hair string instrument band. They were dressed in traditional Mongolian costumes, and everyone thought they were going to deliver a classical number – but it turned out to be hard rock. Their voices were amazing and the instrumentation most unusual – the audience loved it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Showers and stars in Shenzhen

Last night we went to the opening show of the Asia-Pacific Youth Arts Festival (AYAF) which was held in front of a large man-made waterfall at OCT East in Shenzhen. It was organised by China Central Television and they did a magnificent job of staging the open-air concert given that it was windy and showering. We sat through most of the concert with umbrellas over our knees to keep at least the lower parts of our bodies dry. We couldn’t use the umbrellas above our heads otherwise that would block the view of the people behind us.

The rain made the stage wet, and a few times various artists – especially the acrobats and kung fu artists – slipped on the stage, but fortunately there were no serious injuries. They had a few ‘stars’ like Joey Yung from Hong Kong, Stephanie Sun from Singapore, and performances that ranged from cultural dances by ethnic Koreans living in the northeast of China, to Japanese rap singers and a hard Russian rock band. There was certainly a lot of variety and talent on display throughout the two-hour concert. I particularly liked the China Disabled People's Performing Arts Troupe which performed their ‘dance of the thousand hands’ which I had seen last year in Beijing. The dancers are deaf and take their cues from the hand movements of two instructors positioned on either side of the stage. The elegance and grace of the dancers is just incredible knowing that they can’t hear the music. It is a very moving experience to watch them.

Here are some pictures from the concert: