Friday, December 17, 2010

Monkeys suck their thumbs too

I was walking back to my car after having lunch at the Kuala Lumpur bird park today when I spotted a monkey on a waste bin across the road eating banana skins from the bin. I took a few photographs as she had a cute baby monkey hanging onto her chest. When I got back to the hotel in the evening, I downloaded the photos onto my laptop. On a larger screen the baby didn’t look quite so cute (their faces look like old men!) but I noticed it was sucking its thumb. I guess that must be something that monkey babies and human babies have in common.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Water views, but caveat emptor

We arrived in Manila today after an 11 hour flight from Honolulu - the last leg of our four and a half months' trip around the Pacific. As we were flying in over Laguna de Bay, I noticed that a new sub-division of houses had been built on low lying land close to the water. Up until now I had only seen predominantly squatter homes in this area.

Why on earth would the local authorities permit building on such flood prone land? It is not long since Manila was devastated by floods, and there has been so much debate since then about the need to build away from flood prone areas because of global warming and rising sea levels, yet new homes are continuing to be built in areas that will be at risk of inundation by water in future years.

It was difficult to see from the air exactly how high above the surrounding water the houses have been built, so I shouldn't be too critical until I have had a look at the area from the ground. So I made a note to go and have a look at this sub-division in the next wet season. Might make an interesting case study.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

American Airlines – a goddamn awful airline

Over the past four decades I’ve flown on most of the world’s major airlines – except one that is: American Airlines (AA). Up until 9/11, that wasn’t for any particular reason. It just happened that way. After 9/11, I made a point of avoiding AA because of its name. It seemed to me that AA would be the first choice of Al Qaeda in any future attacks because of its ‘American’ name.

But that was until today when I found myself on a codeshare flight from Toronto to Honolulu that I had booked through Qantas but turned out to be on American Airlines planes. It was actually two flights because it was via Dallas-Fort Worth and we had to change planes there. It was an early departure out of Toronto – 6.45 am – so we checked in at 4.45 am. The lines for immigration and security were a mile long, so we only had time to grab a yoghurt parfait and a coffee before boarding. That didn’t worry us as we knew AA was a full service airline in the One World alliance, so we looked forward having breakfast on board on the three hour flight to DFW.

After take-off the flight attendants came through offering a drink. After an hour or so I was getting hungry and started wondering when the meal service would start. I looked back down the plane to see if there was any activity in the galley – but there was none. So I walked down the back and found the flight attendants sitting in the rear seats, one reading a book and one filling in a crossword puzzle. I asked when breakfast would be served. One of the flight attendants raised her eyebrows, then frowned, and replied: “there is no food on this flight”. She frowned again as if to suggest I was crazy to think the airline would be serving breakfast, and turned back to her crossword puzzle without any further explanation as to why a three hour 6.45 am flight on a supposedly full service airline would not be serving breakfast. There was no food for sale either, so AA wasn’t even offering as good a service as a budget airline.

I had read stories in the past about American airlines cutting costs and imposing extra charges for checking baggage, but I’d not heard anything about them cutting out the food service entirely.

When we got to DFW, I went to an AA service desk and asked the clerk there whether a meal would be served on the flight to Honolulu. I had assumed that perhaps AA had cut out its meal service on shorter flights, but surely on an eight and a half hour flight to Honolulu there would be meal served. But I was wrong. She asked if I was flying first class. I said no, to which she replied “you can buy a sandwich on board”.

There were three hours between the flights so I took the opportunity to have some lunch at the airport and buy some snacks for the rest of the trip, but what I found quite incredulous was the announcement at the boarding gate before our flight left. The gate clerk announced that due to the incoming flight being full, the cleaning of the plane would take longer than usual and therefore the flight would be leaving 15 minutes late. She then went on to suggest that passengers use this time to go buy some food because “we’ve got some food on board to sell but there’s not enough for everyone and eight hours 40 minutes is a long time” (referring to the estimated flight time). Not the sort of announcement I would expect from a full service airline!

The flight actually left 50 minutes late because after the cleaners had finished they announced that there were some “technical problems that had to be fixed” but eventually we were on our way – or so we thought.

About three hours into the flight the pilot came on the PA to advise that we would be diverting to San Francisco because there was a technical problem. He said it was nothing serious but he didn’t want to fly over the Pacific with it. He said parts were available in San Francisco and it should take about an hour to fix on the ground. “Nothing to worry about, folks” he said.

Nothing to worry about? Maybe not, but when we landed in San Francisco we were quickly surrounded by fire engines.

AA never did tell us what was wrong except that they “needed to replace a switch”. That took two and a half hours instead of one. When we were eventually airborne again I wondered whether AA would try and make up for all the delays by offering passengers a meal (after all we were now running over four hours late, and wouldn’t arrive in Honolulu until 3 am Toronto time). But no, all we got was a recorded announcement saying “American Airlines and One World airlines thank you for choosing to fly American Airlines”. I wonder how many passengers would have been thinking “for the last time”?

All we got was a single drink again and then the flight attendants disappeared until it was ready to prepare the cabin for landing in Honolulu. And I wasn’t impressed with the condition of the plane either. The headset socket in my seat wasn’t working so I couldn’t watch the movie (which was only on a small screen about five rows in front of me; so difficult to see) and the passengers about three rows in front of me kept complaining about a bad smell around their seats (fortunately I only got a few whiffs of it).

I’ve not flown on many airlines worse than AA. I’d rate it on a par with Uzbekistan Airlines. Maybe slightly better because Uzbekistan Airlines probably wouldn’t bother landing if they had a technical problem – but at least Uzbekistan Airlines offers a meal service on flights that are eight hours long (although admittedly not very appetizing).

What amazes me most about the atrocious AA service is that they are still part of the One World alliance. Having flown on most of the other One World airlines, I can say without fear of contradiction that AA is not in the same class. It puzzles me that One World would still want to have an airline in its alliance that doesn’t even match the service standards of many budget airlines in the US (e.g. JetBlue who offer free drinks and snacks, and have flight attendants who are attentive throughout the flight).

So I will put my two flights on AA (which turned out to be three) down to experience, but I certainly won’t be flying on them again.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

No age limit for this Cuban model

Whilst walking around Havana’s old town this morning, I came across an old woman sitting against a concrete wall in one of the side-streets, puffing on Cuban cigars and posing for photographs in exchange for dollars.

I don’t normally like to pay for posed photographs - to me they look too touristy - so I just walked on by.  But after walking another couple of blocks I regretted not taking advantage of the photo opportunity, because she looked such a character.  So I turned around and went back, and she was still there, seemingly doing a roaring trade posing for tourists who were snapping away with their cameras and handing over dollars.

I took my photograph (above) and paid my dollar and went on my way. I guess she was making a good living ‘modeling’ for tourists – certainly enough to keep herself well supplied in Cuban cigars. Not sure that the cigars were doing much for her complexion though (click on the photo to enlarge and you'll see what I mean!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A day with the Embera Indians

Today we visited an Embera Indian village north of Panama City. It was a fascinating experience providing an opportunity to learn first-hand about their culture and how they live. To reach the village, we traveled by road for about an hour out of Panama City towards Colon, and then about 30 minutes by dugout canoe down a river and across a lake. The village has no road access.

The Embera are one of eight indigenous groups that live in different parts of Panama. Sometimes the Embera and Wounaan (which have similar cultures but speak different languages) are referred to as Chocoe Indians, so that’s why there are references to there being seven indigenous groups, rather than eight. The village we visited comprised 16 families, most of whom were relocated from the Darien Gap about 15 years ago (due to raids on their villages by FARC guerrillas from Colombia).

It was a wonderful day. We were welcomed by one of the village chiefs, and it looked like the whole village came out to meet us.
Later the village medicine man showed us around, and then they cooked us a lunch of fresh fish and fried plantains.

It was so peaceful (the visitors comprised just four people – me, my wife, an American film maker and a guide/interpreter) and so far removed from the reality of modern day living, that when it came time to leave in the afternoon, we really didn't want to go.

This teenage girl looked so sad the whole time we were there (but I took quite a few photographs of her as she was very photogenic). I guess she was about 13 or 14 and maybe suffering ‘puberty blues’. In the Embera culture, girls get married soon after puberty. Most are married between 14 and 17. They will marry only other Embera or Wounaan. It is rare for them to leave their villages to live in the ‘outside world’. It’s hard to know whether they are better off living the simple lifestyle that their culture provides, or whether they should be given the opportunity to join the modern world. That’s a question that can be debated for hours.

This little girl was another that I photographed quite a lot during the day as she had a cheeky smile and was happy to be photographed.
These children (they looked to be between 4 and 7 years old) were paddling a large dugout canoe across the lake to feed some monkeys living on a island in the lake. They were doing it without any adult supervision. Parents in western countries would probably freak out at kids so young doing something like that, but I guess in the Embera culture this is how kids have fun.

The medicine man told us about some of the many medicinal plants that they grow in the village. Illnesses are treated almost entirely with herbal remedies. All of the villagers looked very healthy, so I guess his remedies must be effective.

He also told us that he is alive because of this tree. He said his mother drank a tea made from the leaves when she was 60 years old – way past menopause – after which she gave birth to him.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took at the Embera Indian village, please follow this link:

Friday, October 08, 2010

The fascinating Uros islands

After settling into the Intiqa Hotel after our arrival from Copacabana, we strolled down the street and had a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant that the hotel had recommended in the town square. The lunch was excellent – probably the best food we had eaten for about 10 days – and there was an interesting array of shops along the street between our hotel and the town square. Puno looked to be a much more interesting town than it appeared from what I had read on the Internet, so we were somewhat disappointed that we had planned the itinerary to spend less than 24 hours here. On the way back to the hotel I bought a knitted Alpaca wool sweater from an old woman on the street. It was less than US$20 and a good fit for me.

In the afternoon we took a boat with a guide out onto Lake Titicaca to visit the famous Uros Islands – a group of about 40 floating islands in the northern section of the lake.

The islands are made of totora reeds. The roots of the reeds are used to construct the base of the islands – several metres thick – and cut reeds are used for the surface which is soft and spongy to walk on. The islands are anchored to the lake bottom by ropes tied to sticks.

The Uros are descendants of pre-Inca people and they still live a traditional lifestyle – although these days they have modern technology such as solar panels and motor boats (the traditional reed boats with the puma heads that you see in some of these photographs are now used just for giving rides to tourists).

Between three and 10 families live on each island. Children go to school on the mainland by boat. Tourism provides additional income for the Uros, but it is a challenge for them maintaining a traditional lifestyle in the face of rising tourist numbers.

It was a most interesting afternoon. We had hired a private boat so there was just the four of us and our guide, so the visit was more intimate (I don't think I would have enjoyed it so much joining an organised tour). There were five families living on the island that we visited and they took us around a few of the other islands in one of the reed boats.

If you'd like to see more of the photos that I took on the Uros islands, please follow this link:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Maybank shows how to screw up a global brand

If any Malaysian students of marketing are looking for a good case study on how to degrade a good brand, they need look no further than the outcome of the 'Strategic Alliance' between Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank) and American Express Inc (Amex).

I've had an Amex charge card since 1980, and they've always been the most efficient credit card company that I have ever dealt with . . . until about three or four years ago that is. Back in 2003, Amex was a stand alone charge card in Malaysia, like it was in Australia where I had my first Amex card. But then on 3 December 2003, Amex and Maybank announced a 'Strategic Alliance' that would purportedly offer “the combined strength, convenience and rewards of two leading institutions”.

The 'Strategic Alliance' would involve Maybank taking over “all operations . . . including billing and accounting, customer service, credit management and charge authorizations, as well as marketing”.

I didn't notice much change for about three years (knowing now how inefficient Maybank is, I guess that it took them that long to start doing any damage), but then one day towards the end of 2007 I got a call from Maybank asking why my Amex account had not been paid. I told them that it was on auto-debit from my RHB bank account – and always had been since I transferred my Amex account to Malaysia in 1998 – so the problem must have been at their end.

Over the next few weeks I kept getting the same call from different customer service agents, and I kept telling them to check the auto-debit, until one day one of the agents said “Oh we don't accept auto-debit from RHB accounts any more – you will have to open a Maybank account”.

Well, then the fun and games started. Just trying to open an account with Maybank was like trying to get a visa for an Israeli to visit Iran, and over the next three years I started to gain some insights into why Malaysians complain so much about Maybank. I had always found Malaysian banks fairly efficient – I had banked mainly with RHB but also did a fair bit of business through CIMB – but OMG it is hard to describe the bureaucracy and inefficiency that I have experienced as a Maybank customer since early 2008 when I had to open a Maybank account.

But that's not the reason for this blog post. I could write a book on some of the crazy things that I have had to endure on visits to Maybank branches. The purpose of this blog post is to comment on Maybank's latest fiasco with the American Express website in Malaysia.

About a month ago I went to log onto the Amex website to check the exchange rate on some hotel charges I had put on the card in Jakarta, so that I could complete my expenses claim at the office. To my surprise I discovered a notice on the website that said:

“Due to a systems upgrade on 5 April 2010, all Online Services users will be unable to view their transaction history. New Online Services registrations have also been temporarily disabled. We sincerely apologize for this inconvenience and expect the upgraded service to be available in May 2010. Should you require any assistance, please feel free to contact American Express at 1800-88-9559.

I think it was about 18 April that I logged on, so that meant the website had been down for about two weeks by then. I had seen banks do upgrades to their websites many times and take it offline overnight – but never for two weeks.

So I rang the 1800 number and asked how I could check my account. The customer service agent said that I would have to wait until 1 May when the website would be back up, but in the meantime they could link my Amex account to my Maybank account, so I could access it through the Maybank online banking system.

He told me that it would take two days to do that, so I waited for a couple of days, checked my Maybank account – and there was no Amex account showing there. I called back and a different customer service agent couldn't tell me what had gone wrong, but said she would link the accounts straight away – but it would still take two days before I could access it. Another two days went by, no sign of the account, so another call to the 1800 number and same apology and same promise to link the accounts.

It is now more than a month since I first called, and the accounts still aren't linked.

In the meantime I called and asked how else I can access my charges. The customer service agent suggested that she could send me a fax of my statement – but again that would take two days. So I asked her to do that, but no fax came after two days. Another call, another apology, another promise, and still no fax to this day.

Up until the end of April the customer service agents were promising that the site would be back up by 1 May. When that date came and went, they promised it would be back up by the middle of May. It is now 20th May and the website is still not back online. I have no idea what the latest promise is because every time I try to call them now, nobody answers the phone. I just get a continuous recording saying "Sorry, all our executives are busy" (I guess they are busy fielding complaints).

In a few days time I expect the dead-tree copy of my Amex statement to arrive by snail mail, so I will eventually be able to see what I have spent a month ago and do my expenses claim. But it has probably cost me more time on the phone to Maybank in the past month than my claim was worth.

In the past four years my opinion of American Express, on a scale of one to ten, has gone from about a nine to zero. My opinion of Maybank was never much better than about a one, and that's gone to zero too.

It puzzles me as to how a global brand like American Express can let a local bank, whose customer service if bordering on incompetency, take over management of their brand and drive it into the gutter.

So what’s the take on this for students of marketing? Simply that if a multi-national company franchises its brand (which is effectively what Amex did with Maybank through its ‘strategic alliance’), there should be some mechanism by which the brand owner can monitor and if necessary supervise day-to-day operations to ensure that the reputation of the brand is not damaged through sub-standard customer service.

In 2002 BusinessWeek magazine rated American Express No 15 in their Top 100 Global Brands listing. In 2009 American Express had slipped to No 22 in the same listing. I wonder how much Maybank contributed to that?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Strange stares at Zouk Cafe Bar

Here is a short review of the Zouk Cafe Bar that recently opened in Kuala Lumpur's Gardens Mall:

Excellent food – lousy service.

Okay, maybe I should explain the 'lousy service' bit.

My wife and I went there for dinner last night. She had eaten lunch there a couple of times since it opened in December, and said the food was good. We seated ourselves when we arrived because the staff seemed too busy to notice us standing at the entrance (even though the place was only a third full). We then asked one of the passing waiters to bring us some menus, which he did promptly. It was a while before he came back, and when he did he said: “Are you ready for me to take your order?”. “Yes” we replied. He then picked up the menus and took them away – and that was the last we saw of him! We sat there somewhat bewildered, and after it was apparent that he wasn't coming back, we called one of the waitresses over to take our order.

I ordered a Caesar salad with chicken and a glass of Chardonnay. “Sorry we've run out of white wine”, she said. “Okay, well just give me an iced lemon tea instead”, I replied. And then she walked off without taking my wife's order! My wife called her back and said: “Aren't you going to take my order as well?” to which the waitress just stared at her as if she was making a very strange request.

Our food came about 10 minutes later, and I had no complaints about the Caesar salad – the lettuce was very fresh (a rarity amongst many other KL restaurants where the lettuce always has brown edges from being cut up hours before) and I liked the fact that Zouk provided the dressing on the side – but it was a very small portion. I finished my salad when my wife was only about a third of the way through her meal, and one of the waiters took my plate away – and then tried to take my wife's plate away as well, even though it was clear she had not finished eating. Then twice before she had finished eating, other waiters came by and tried to take her plate away! It reminded me of one of those episodes of Fawlty Towers where Manuel the waiter had decided that it was time for the guests to finish their meal (or was it Basil Fawlty?).

As I was still hungry, I asked for the menu again and ordered a bowl of wild mushroom soup. As I was waiting for the soup, the waitress that had originally taken our order walked by with a glass of white wine for one of the other tables. I called out to her and said: “Hey I thought you said you had run out of white wine?” to which I just got another strange stare as if she didn't understand a word I was saying.

My soup came about 25 minutes later after several reminders to other waiters (I think they had forgotten about it). Again it was excellent – freshly made and very tasty (and a better sized portion than the salad).

So no complaints about the food at Zouk – but OMG the service is woeful.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The strange logic of Jetstar's change fees

I recently booked a flight with Jetstar from Kuala Lumpur down to Singapore for travel in July. The fare including taxes was a very reasonable MYR95 (about US$27) – can't complain about that.

Today I decided to go down a day earlier and went to check the fares on their website – still the same MYR95 – that's lucky I thought.

I retrieved my booking and changed the flight, but then up popped a change fee – of MYR110.

So if I want to change my flight to the previous day it will cost me MYR110. But if I just forget about the flight I had already booked and do a new booking for the previous day, it will only cost me MYR95.

What is the logic of that?

It's actually encouraging people to abandon existing bookings and buy a new ticket, which would mean I wouldn't turn up the following day and Jetstar would have an empty seat that they could have sold if they had made the change fee a more reasonable price – at least less than the cost of doing a new booking.

I thought budget airlines were supposed to be efficient inventory managers.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The amazing Delhi Book Store

I visited the Delhi Book Store today – reputed to be the largest book store in Asia - and what a strange experience that was.

I had read that the Delhi Book Store stocked many books that were not available in other countries, so I thought I would check it out to see what books they might have on tropical horticulture. Their website says they have 99,000 titles on display in a 20,000 sq ft showroom on five floors, so I was expecting to see a flashy store-front like a Borders or a Kinokinuya. But it is located in a grey and very unimposing building in a busy backstreet of Darya Gani (see photo below), about 10-15 minutes in a taxi from the centre of Delhi, which you would never guess was a book store but for the sign on the front of the building.

Inside, the place looks much more like a book store, although the ground floor felt more like a library with chairs and tables for reading:

My first surprise was to discover that I was the only customer. It was late morning, so I would have expected to see many more people in the store (although there were plenty of staff about). The two lower floors were devoted to medical books – tens of thousands of titles on everything from brain surgery to parisitology. Some of the titles I saw were on very obscure topics such as 'Intestinal Anisakiasis in Japan' (which I gather is something you get from eating infected fish in Japan) and 'Percutaeous Lumbar Discectomy for Dummies' (okay, I admit I partly made that second one up).

I asked one of the staff where the titles on tropical horticulture were, and one of them took me up to the third floor and handed me over to another staff member. There were no elevators, so we walked up some narrow marble staircases which were stacked with thousands of books against the wall. I guess they must have run out of storage space elsewhere in the store. In any other country that would be regarded as a fire hazard – but hey this is India!

The sales guy on the third floor explained that they did not have any Indian books on horticulture (which was really what I had come for) because all their titles were imported, but showed me what they had. I discovered a few interesting titles that I had not seen before – a book on botanical orchids, an encyclopedia of mushrooms (an English translation from a French book) and a book titled 'Creative Propagation'. The sales guy who had been watching over my shoulder as I browsed the shelves said: “That's an excellent book on propagation, sir. I would highly recommend it to you”. I wondered whether he was a student of horticulture in his spare time, or whether that was just standard sales spiel that they were taught at the Delhi Book Store. I didn't feel entirely comfortable having him hanging around all the time whilst I was browsing, but at least it was convenient having him hold the books for me.

I also found in one of the other sections on the same floor a book on digital imaging that looked interesting, so I added that to the other three and then asked the sales guy how much the books were (none of them had price labels). This is where things got interesting.

The sales guy took me and the books over to a portly Sikh with a bushy beard, looking resplendent in a bright turban, sitting behind a large empty desk on the other side of the third floor, in front of what looked like one of those home altars with carvings of Indian gods and incense sticks burning in bronze urns (the smell of burning incense permeates the whole book store). He pulled out a pad of blank paper from a drawer in the desk, and after glancing at each book, wrote down on the pad: 1 x 400, 1 x 500, 2 x 750.

He tore off the top sheet and showed it to me. “These are the prices of the books. Okay with you?” The prices looked fine to me – much cheaper than I expected. Even the most expensive books (the book on botanical orchids and the encyclopedia of mushrooms) were only 750 rupees (about US$16) and I was sure that you would not be able to buy those for much less than US$40 anywhere else in the world. But what I was amazed about is how he quickly priced the books with only a glance at them. Did he know the price of the 99,000 books in the store in his head? Or was he employed as some sort of estimator to price them on the spot?

After saying I was fine with the prices, the sales guy took the books and the sheet of paper on which the prices were written over to a girl sitting behind a desk on the other side of the floor. I thought she was the cashier, but she only entered the details into a computer and printed out a list of the titles with their prices.

Then we had to go back down to the ground floor where it turned out the cashier was located. The sales guy accompanied me the whole time carrying the books, so I felt like I was getting very personal service. I paid for the books with my credit card, and the cashier then write out an invoice by hand and gave that to me with my credit card receipt. I thought that was the end of the sales process – but no, we had to then go to another desk near the entrance where another girl behind a computer entered the details of the books into her computer from the hand-written invoice (I am guessing that was some sort of inventory management system). After that the sales guy placed the books into a canvas bag and handed them to me, thanking me for my custom.

As I headed out to the street, I saw two other customers entering the store (the only ones I saw in the half hour or so I had been inside), so wondered how this place with all its staff, manual sales processes and enormous inventory made any money – but I suppose as labour is so cheap in India, they don't need to bother about the more modern sales practices that book stores in other parts of the world have adopted.

The Delhi Book Store is certainly bigger than any other book store I have seen in India. It's hard to tell if it really is the largest in Asia, because it's hard to compare with the big book stores in Singapore and Hong Kong which are more spread out. I suppose I could try counting the books next time I go into Kinokinuya in Singapore to see if they have more than 99,000 titles in stock.

(PS added 28 February: When I got home to Kuala Lumpur, I looked up the books on The botanical orchids book was listed there for US$39.50 – so looks like I got some real bargains in India)

Saturday, February 06, 2010

In defence of TripAdvisor ratings

It seems government officials in the Malaysian state of Melaka have got very upset over two of its hotels – the Mahkota Hotel and the Seri Costa Hotel – being included in TripAdvisor's 'Dirtiest Hotels in Asia 2010' listing.

A story in The Star today commenced:

“State tourism authorities have brushed off traveller's reviews in TripAdvisor, which ranked two hotels (in Melaka) as among the top 10 dirtiest hotels in Asia.

It was not an accurate representation of the situation here and was carried out without a proper rating system, said state Tourism, Culture and Heritage Committee chairman Datuk See Har Cheow”.

With all due respect to Datuk See Har Cheow, let me enlighten him about something: Regular travellers trust TripAdvisor's ratings far more than any 'official' ratings system. Why? Because they are written by REAL travellers who have experienced first hand the services and conditions of the hotel.

I guess that what Datuk See Har Cheow is thinking about when he refers to a “proper” ratings system is one where government officials visit a hotel and give it a rating after ticking off a check-list of items.

First of all, in most south-east Asian countries, such a system would be open to graft and corruption. Nothing new about that. And even if there was no money changing hands, it would be unlikely that such inspections could take place without advance notice being given. But even if government inspectors could conduct inspections unannounced, and were given the budget to stay several nights at the hotel (because that would be the only way they could properly experience the service of the hotel), a single stay is not going to be sufficient to 'properly' rate a hotel.

That's the great thing about TripAdvisor ratings – they are based on feedback from many visitors (over 30 million in fact) over a number of years.

For example, the Mahkota Hotel has (as of today) 63 reviews. Of those, 6 rated it as Excellent, 7 as Very Good, 10 as Average, 12 as Poor, and 28 as Terrible. That in itself illustrates the different perceptions that people have staying at different times, in different rooms and interacting with different staff. For a government officer to make an objective rating based on a single visit (or even two or three visits) would be near impossible because of the obviously variable service and experiences that travellers have experienced at that hotel.

Overall 76% of people who wrote reviews did not recommend the Mahkota Hotel. Instead of complaining about TripAdvisor's ratings, the state government should be chiding the hotel for not doing enough to improve its service. TripAdvisor's reviewers provide independent and objective feedback that hotels should be grateful to receive to lift their game.

As is well illustrated by the fact that the Mahkota Hotel has received ratings from 'Excellent' to 'Terrible', different travellers have different perceptions of what makes a good hotel, but by reading the reviews you can get a good feel of what is right and what is wrong with a hotel.

I have come across a few hotels on TripAdvisor where they have had 50+ reviews and nothing below 'Excellent' or 'Very Good' (and I've stayed in a few of them too and rated them likewise). When hotels get ratings like that it shows that they have worked hard to deserve the top ratings. As a result they achieve high occupancies, but then they have to work even harder to maintain those ratings because people staying there based on the TripAdvisor ratings have high expectations.

So, Datuk See Har Cheow, rather than complaining about TripAdvisor's ratings not being “proper”, you should be using them to identify those hotels in your state that need to pull their socks up.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Going underground in a paddle boat

Palawan’s most famous tourist attraction is its underground river system which is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site (its official name is the ‘Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park’). We hired a van and driver for the day to take us there. The price was a very reasonable 3,500 pesos (about US$75). We had to pay another 350 pesos for a permit, 300 pesos for a boat to take us there from Sabang Beach, and entrance fees of 200 pesos each on top of that. Lunch cost us 200 pesos each, so all up the day worked out to less than US$50 a person. The alternative would have been to take an all-inclusive day tour for 1,500 pesos per person which would have been cheaper, but then we wouldn’t have had the flexibility to stop off where we wanted on the way there and back. The boats that operate out of Sabang Beach to the entrance of the underground river system cost 700 pesos per round trip, but we found four people who were willing to allow us to share their boat (they take a maximum of six passengers) so that’s why we paid only 300 pesos for the boat trip. That also enabled us to jump the queue at Sabang Beach because there were already 50-60 people waiting for boats when we got there.

We left Puerto Princesa on the east coast at 9.00 am and arrived at Sabang Beach on the west coast at 11.00 am, after a couple of short stops on the way. Our driver, Danny, drove carefully so it was a comfortable two hours drive through some quite attractive scenery as we crossed from one side of Palawan to the other.

The road was sealed for most of the way, and as we approached the west coast we found ourselves riding on a very good concrete road. Only problem was that the local rice farmers were using half the road to dry their rice. It was good that traffic was light. But on one occasion, as we came around a corner, there was a vehicle on the clear side of the road, so Danny had to drive over the rice in order to avoid it. I asked Danny whether the farmer would be angry that he had driven over his rice. He replied: “Well, if they are going to use half the road, they have to be flexible.” I guess he’s right. The road was built for motor vehicles, not for drying rice.

When we arrived at Sabang Beach, after Danny managed to locate the other two couples willing to share their boat, we boarded for the 20 minute ocean trip north to the entrance of the national park.

That part of the trip on the sea was a bit choppy so I had to keep my camera covered to avoid it getting splashed with sea water.

On arrival at the national park we transferred to a smaller boat to enter the underground river.

The cave system through which we paddled was pitch black and completely natural. There were no lights or any man-made constructions inside. The orange lights that you see in the photos below are from the spotlights that the boatmen use to point out features in the caves.

I have been in so many cave systems in developing countries before – and been disappointed with what I saw (they are usually damaged and polluted) - that I wasn’t expecting that much from this trip. In fact we arranged the trip more to see the west coast of Palawan. But I was very impressed with what I saw in the national park. I lost track of the time that we spent inside the cave system. I suppose it was something like 30-45 minutes, and we traveled for maybe a kilometre or so up the river. The cave system goes on for another 7-8 kilometres, but you need a special permit to go further. There was a lot to see, and I was particularly impressed by how well everything was preserved. My only criticism was that I would have preferred the boatman’s commentary to be a bit more scientific than pointing out stalactites that looked like Sharon Stone’s bum and cracking corny jokes about stalagmites that resembled part of a man’s anatomy. But I guess he wasn’t joking when he told us not to open our mouths when looking up because there were thousands of small bats hanging from the roofs of the caves (the last of the four pictures above shows about 100 bats hanging from a small section of the cavern roof).

As we were walking back to the beach from the entrance to the underground river, our boatman saw a monitor lizard crossing the rainforest track. He ran forward to grab it by the tail to show us. I don’t think the lizard was that impressed!

Back out on the beach there were about a dozen boats waiting to take their passengers back to Sabang Beach.

We had lunch at Sabang Beach before driving back to Puerto Princesa. The beach was completely deserted and stretched for as far as the eye could see. I guess if the west coast of Palawan was not so far off the beaten track, there would be high rise condos behind the trees and hundreds of western tourists soaking up the sun on the sand.

On the way back, Danny stopped on the crest of a hill where a friend of his was building a house. He told me that his friend had bought 2.5 hectares there for 800,000 pesos (about US$17,000). This is the view from his land:

Can there be many other places in the world where you can buy 2.5 hectares with a view like this for $17,000?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Natural farming with worms and microbes

We visited Aloha House today – an orphanage and organic farm near Baker’s Hill on the outskirts of Puerto Princesa. We met with its director, Keith Mikkelson, who showed us around the farm. He is growing a very wide variety of vegetables and herbs, and also has a fish pond and is raising livestock in quite a compact area.

He has an extensive vermiculture operation as well, and is using African Nightcrawlers which he propagated from the native worms found in water buffalo dung. He is using a method of top harvesting the vermicast that is different to what I have seen in other vermiculture operations. It ensures that only casts are harvested and avoids worms and manure ‘contaminating’ the vermicast.

He has also recently started growing organic mushrooms:

Whilst touring the farm I noticed that the leafy greens had very few holes in them – a problem that you often see with organic vegetables that are attacked by caterpillars and grasshoppers in the absence of them being sprayed with pesticides. Keith said his ‘secret’ was in their technique of inoculating the soil with beneficial microbes that helps the plants to take up more of the minerals (calcium especially) and trace elements that are needed to make them unpalatable to insects (but still tasty for humans!).

I bought a copy of Keith’s book ‘Sustainable Agriculture in the Tropics’ and look forward to learning more about his obviously successful growing techniques. Keith also runs three-day seminars on organic farming every month, along with a local horticulturalist, Simon Gill. We made a note to book one before we start growing vegetables at Mandala Farm.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Windows but no Vista on Cebu Pacific

My New Year’s resolution for 2010 was to keep my blog up to date. (I didn’t do a very good job of that in 2009!). So here I am four days into the new year and posting my first entry for the new decade. And unfortunately I have to start with a gripe – about Cebu Pacific airlines. We arrived in Puerto Princesa (Palawan) earlier this evening after two flights with Cebu Pacific from Singapore via Manila. On both flights the aircraft – an A320 and an A319 – had the dirtiest windows I have seen on passenger aircraft since a flight I took with Ariana Afghan Airways about six years ago.

I know not to expect too much from budget airlines, and I am normally very tolerant of shortcomings if I have paid a low fare, but if they never bother to wash the windows, it does make you wonder what other areas of maintenance on which they may be taking short-cuts. For a photographer like myself, one of the pleasures of traveling by air is being able to capture the odd good aerial shot – but there was no chance of that on my Cebu Pacific flights – the windows were so dirty it was like looking into fog.

The picture below was taken under a clear blue sky over the South China Sea and ought to show the distinctive outline of Linapacan Island as a green land mass in a turquoise coloured sea – but through the dirty window of my Cebu Pacific A319, it was only barely possible to see.

But maybe you have to pay extra to have a clean window? These days with budget airlines, everything is an extra. An extra 200 pesos for a seat with extra legroom, an extra 400 pesos for another 5 kg of baggage, and so on . . . so maybe I missed clicking the box that said “Clean window: 200 pesos extra”.

But to finish on positive note, we’ve just had a nice meal at Kinabuch’s Bar and Grill in Puerto Princesa of fresh tiger prawns, vegetable curry and rice, a buko shake, and a mango and ginger shake – all for the grand price of 625 pesos (about US$13) – that’s about half the price a similar meal would cost at a restaurant of equivalent quality in Malaysia.

It started raining lightly about halfway through the meal, but we were seated under a coconut palm so the fronds kept most of the rain off us. It was nice and cooling given that it was a very balmy evening.

We took a tricycle back to the hotel – that set us back all of 20 pesos.