The Hong Kong Efficiency


I have been to Hong Kong a number of times over the past over two decades or so, but I have not been there for the past few years.

When I went last week, should I say I was impressed? Yes, nothing much has changed in terms of efficiency and fast movement. By efficiency, I mean that almost everything happens in clockwork fashion. The train from the airport is the most efficient way to transport yourself to the heart of town, and I wonder why people, especially many foreigners, continue to use the expensive taxis. I could purchase a return ticket from airport to Kowloon and back for less than SGD 20, which I thought was a very reasonable fare for a very effective use of one’s time.

By fast movement, I mean the people who are moving through the subway system, malls and everywhere else. I could not see a single slacker anywhere. For Hong Kong people, time is money, and they appear on an everlasting mission to make money all the time. Even more than the Singaporeans. People were on a rush, moving in and out of activities everywhere – I could feel the buzz in the air. The escalators were overloaded. It appeared to me that people did not wish to miss a “trade” – they were all traders in a sense.

With a GDP per capita of over USD 44,000 Hong Kong is one of the most prosperous countries (Sorry! – it is now part of China as a special administrative region) in the world. You can see wealth everywhere, in the malls which are glitzier than those of Singapore, in the cars zooming along the roads, in the real estate prices (the most expensive in the entire world), in the high-end restaurants, and finally in the prices which cabbies charge you! At an average of USD 3,000 per sq foot of condominium space, and still climbing, it is hard to buy anything more than 500 Sq Ft and most Hong Kong folks make do with very small apartments. Cars are expensive but much cheaper than in Singapore. Parking space is priced the worst – there have been reports that car parking spaces have been sold for more than USD 1M.

If you recall, the Eighties saw the emergence of four economic tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. All these countries have been successful due to their early recognition of the fact that people need bread foremost, and nations need free trade. They also recognized the importance of manufacturing in building up their economic bases. The fundamental premise that economics should take precedence over everything else constituted the foundation of these economies. It proved to be prescient and hugely successful.

Hong Kong is also the city with the most skyscrapers in the world. They continue to build very tall buildings, and have not stopped building. The influx of people from China with huge amounts of cash has driven prices up. A decent meal for two in a nice restaurant is likely to set you back by SGD 120 to 150. A more advanced meal in an elegant restaurant with drinks et al, is likely to cost you in the range of SGD 300 to 400. I do not believe Singapore is the most expensive city in all of Asia Pacific, after seeing taxi and restaurant prices in Tokyo and Hong Kong recently.

With a relentless focus on the pursuit of perfection and efficiency, Hong Kong has built one of the most resilient economies in the world which is still growing. Of course, I complained about lack of credit card payment facility in taxis which is highly inconvenient for tourists who are forced to convert their respective currencies to Hong Kong Dollars. Uber is not that prevalent, though I used it and got a Tesla electric car to ride which was fabulous. The famous Didi taxi app from China works in Hong Kong, but there was no English version and the map was portrayed inaccurately so I could not use it. The powerful taxi union of Hong Kong is stopping the Hong Kong Government from introducing modern technologies – that was the only conclusion I could draw. When I used Uber, it was not cheaper than using the normal taxi, leading me to conclude that the taxi union has forced Uber to raise prices (which happened indeed).

British legacy can be witnessed in several areas including trade unionism!

That Hong Kong is very expensive can also be seen when you use a taxi to cross the tunnel under the sea. It can cost upwards of SGD 12 per crossing, which is very high. If everything is added, one can see the reason why Hong Kong is much more expensive than Singapore. Taxis, tolls, restaurants, and real estate are cheaper in Singapore. Only cars are more expensive. So I do not understand how Singapore is the most expensive city in the world (as some reports have stated).

Overall, Hong Kong is a great city with unrivalled business efficiency and fabulous views across the harbour (and almost from any high tower). In the night, it provides an unbeatable view – the glitziest in the world.

Have a wonderful weekend,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th June 2018

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Few Days in Batu Ferringhi


I am sure most of my readers are right now googling to find out where is Batu Ferringhi. It is located in the northern part of the Penang island in Malaysia. It was my second trip to Penang but my first trip was many years ago, and Penang has changed substantially over the years. Now it looks modern and well built-out with several large shopping malls and many condominiums all over the island.

Penang has been one of Malaysia’s success stories, which has offered skilled workforce to many of the leading global electronics manufacturers, and one can see a line of factories on both sides of the highway from the airport towards the city. It is well governed by the state administration and the people that I met were generally industrious and helpful, with good level of English communication. I was told that the occupancy rates of the famous hotels in Batu Ferringhi area were low at this point of the year, but I found that the Hard Rock hotel where I stayed was crowded, and it was difficult to get a reservation at their famous Hard Rock Cafe. However, the hotel itself is meant for families with young children, and one cannot complain when disturbed by shrieking noises of tens of kids from the swimming pool. I am not recommending this hotel if you just adults on a sight-seeing trip coming back tired and wanting to just relax. It is rather noisy, and the noise takes on a different colour as the late evening approaches as you get a vivacious DJ and enterprising singers belting out Western songs well into the night, which means only that you cannot get sleep easily as the noise drifts up to your room some couple of floors up! So, look for some other hotel if your requirements are not compatible.

My family wanted to see the Penang Hill with its Funicular train up the hill, and so we went to see that place. The funicular train is a fast one at a steep incline which is somewhat exciting as it climbs a distance of some 700M up the hill at a rapid pace. We enjoyed walking up the hill and reaching the Habitat Walk area from which one can get a complete 360 degree view of entire Penang. It requires some serious step climbing so you should pace it out over a couple of hours as you can combine it with some serious botanical investigation (there is a guided tour as well). Good experience, and good walking, helping me to reach some walking steps target!

Another day we visited the famous Kek Lok Si Buddhist Temple, located not far from the Penang Hill area. This visit necessitated a full two hours. It is South East Asia’s biggest Buddhist temple. There is an ornate Pagoda and several prayer halls, very similar to what I saw in Bangkok. There is also a small train carriage which pulls up passengers up the hill towards the statue of Kuan Yin or Goddess of Mercy. We walked around and learnt a few things about the temple, and its plans to expand further (they seem to be having plenty of land around). Penang being a largely Chinese society, the temple receives donations from the community for various activities.

We did not see all the tourist destinations due to lack of time. However, our Penang experience has been positive with good feelings about the visit. It is a nice place (though not cheap if you are using one of the big name hotels such as Shangri-La) with nice people; and you would find that taxis are cheap and food is also cheap if you eat in the town area (George Town) which has hundreds of eateries.

Now, let me see if I can post a few pictures from my trip to Penang:

 

All the pictures above are from the Kek Lok Si Temple. It was a great experience just exploring what the temple has to offer in terms of peace and tranquillity to any visitor, whether believer or not. Just silence everywhere, except when busloads of tourists arrive at the entrance of the temple!

The above pictures are from the beautiful Penang Hill.

Make a trip and enjoy the pristine environs of Penang!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

29th May 2018

Stunning Infrastructure


I was in Shanghai earlier this week. I was visiting Shanghai after several years (I had been going to Beijing more often).

The Pudong Airport was big and clean, and the immigration and customs processing was fast, though they follow the Indian procedure of scanning every bag of every passenger which takes some time as compared to Singapore or even Kuala Lumpur. The other similarity with Indian airports was that there was a long line of placards held by hotel drivers to receive the arriving passengers, and this exists only in pockets at Singapore Changi Airport (and most other global airports).

I picked up some coffee at the Airport Starbucks upon clearing customs, and was surprised to note that the “baristas” at Starbucks understood my English and also had my choice of flat white coffee. As I knew already, China is the second biggest market for Starbucks worldwide, and one can see countless Starbucks outlets all over Beijing for instance.

I was a bit confused as I stepped out and looked for exiting the airport. Of course, my benchmark of Singapore does not always do good at most other airports, as the differences aimed at passenger convenience are often glaring.

The previous times I had taken a taxi from the Pudong International Airport. This time around, however, I decided to take the Maglev high speed train, though I had to anyway take a taxi to the hotel from the destination.

Though the Maglev has been running for more than 15 years, it is still a tourist sensation with a top speed of 430 KMPH. It makes the journey from the airport to its destination (Longyong Road) in just 8 minutes over a distance of 30 KMs. However, when I travelled, the Maglev train reached a maximum of 301 KMPH as displayed on the LED display in every carriage. I could not “feel” the speed but could see that fields and trees were whizzing by. There was no shake or any kind of inconvenience to passengers. It was very smooth, and before I realized, the train had arrived at its destination.

Taxi drivers in China generally do not communicate in English, and I am sure they do not understand spoken English. I always download the Chinese characters for my destination hotel (for example) and show it to the driver – I had to do this anyway at the Longyong Road taxi stand as there was no sign for special areas designated for picking up passengers by call taxis. In China, I use the DIDI app (Uber sold their rights to DIDI), which is as good as any with quick service, reasonable rates, and a unique facility of communicating with driver using English language messaging which will be read in Chinese by the driver (and his reply though keyed in Chinese will come to my app in English).

While inability to communicate to any taxi driver is surely an inconvenience, I would not place much emphasis on it as the DIDI app is wonderful and has worked for me effectively every time I had used it. The e-invoices are mailed to my email account, and there is an option to add tips to the driver if you are happy with his service.

Coming to the road traffic, I am happier comparing it to Indian cities or Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur. While Shanghai roads are good with expressways dotting the city, the traffic is really bad at peak times, and as congested as you might have experienced in Bangalore or Mumbai or Bangkok. There are simply a huge number of vehicles plying the roads, and it is apparent that people have not been weaned away from cars though the subway system is superbly constructed and convenient to use. Since it takes significant time to travel by road from one part of the city to the other, or to the airport, or to the main railway station (Hongqiao Railway Station), one needs to plan the route and add extra 15 to 30 minutes to the journey time. After seeing the impact of traffic and witnessing some road accident on an expressway, I came to the conclusion that this is not something that can be fixed quickly in such a huge and densely packed city like Shanghai. The only solution is to use the subway.

I liked the Pudong area and wandered around near the main riverside area. There were thousands of tourists and city dwellers taking a stroll, and it did not appear to be a so-called “controlled” city of China, I could feel that it was more like Mumbai’s cosmopolitan culture with emphasis on networking, socializing, partying, dining, enjoying what the city gives, and of course, making business deals.

I saw the beautiful Fairmont Peace Hotel on the Bund, which is an iconic landmark in Shanghai (though I could not afford staying at this 80 years old hotel which has been wonderfully maintained). I walked through the hotel, and I should simply say I was astounded.

Finally, on the railway station infrastructure of China and specifically the one I saw in Shanghai, the Hongqiao Railway Station, I thought that China has perfected the art and science of building infrastructure for its 1.4B people from concept to execution times which are simply unbelievable. I came to the quick (and bad) conclusion that India will never be able to catch up with China on infrastructure – and I believe that even most Western countries won’t be able to catch up with China. It is amazing to witness what has been accomplished just in the past two decades (of course, money was never a problem for China, and manpower came in cheap as well). India specifically is very far behind, and the Indian Government should make it mandatory for Indian Ministers and top bureaucrats to attend China’s world-leading university programs on planning and execution. They just have to take a walk along any railway platform or walk outside the platform areas in the Hongqiao Station which is so spaced out with ability to accommodate thousands of travellers at any time. They even run a free mini-bus service from one end of the station to the other end – probably a little over a KM.

Even the processing of passengers is super efficient. If you have the ticket, you proceed to security check (yes they have like in airports!), or else you show the printout along with identification to collect the ticket. Then you just proceed to the respective gate, which opens only 15 minutes before the train departure time (they maintain accurate departure and arrival times, and all trains run like clockwork). Passengers are disciplined and queue up in front of the respective carriages (marked on the floor of the platform – no need to ask anyone), they get in upon arrival of the train, and within a few minutes the train departs. If you are late, sorry.

Simply amazing infrastructure with money very well spent – and which is being used by millions of people in an efficient manner. For people who want to travel by train in China, please note that First Class is actually one notch below Business Class. I did not know this till I saw the difference. Business Class section is separate, and it has only few seats (like, less than 10 in the train I took). First Class is like a good and well spaced out Premium Economy Class! I did not see the real Economy Class on the train. For a 200 KM high speed train (which ran at 260 KMPH), I was charged SGD 23 which I thought was quite reasonable.

So, am I embarrassed? No, but China’s achievements cannot be pushed under the carpet stating simply that they are a Communist country with hardly any democratic decision making. I simply do not agree with the foolish arguments from many Indians that India operates under different conditions so lack of achievements is totally justifiable. Another day, another blog post for us to thoroughly argue out on this fascinating topic!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th May 2018

Impressions from Washington DC visit


I visited New York and Washington DC (four days each) recently.

I am yet to meet a person who does not like New York, and I am no exception. I loved the buzz of the city, its vigour and life. Life in New York moves on its subway and on Time Square, it appeared to me. I saw several places in New York and will write about it sometime soon.

Washington DC appeared to me as a more relaxed place – may be that was because I was seeing mostly tourists everywhere. The metro subway network had newer trains and was not crowded even at the busiest stations. Traffic was there but not as heavy as it was in New York. I saw a lot more casual bistros in Washington, and the speed of life seemed to be at a slower pace.

However, the places of tourist attractions were overcrowded. For instance, I was at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument yesterday, and there were probably a thousand people crowding around these historic places. It was sometimes difficult to get a photo shoot. One thing for sure, Washington DC has some of the best buildings with architecture that could compete with any old European city, with a modern orientation that blends beautifully with old world charm. The huge buildings and the vast spaces between them characterize a global capital city, and its centre of power. The U.S. is indeed the world’s undisputed super power, and Washington is its capital city. It was easy to be over-awed by its enormity.

The other aspect which impressed me thoroughly was the free access to some of the best museums in the world. I had time only for two of them – the Smithsonian Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum. Both offer fantastic experiences, and I relished every moment of my visit to these world-class museums. There are plenty of other museums to visit, may be for another time!

The White House view did not impress me that much but the U.S. Capitol was fabulous. I took a free tour of the same, and also attended live sessions of the House and the Senate. It was democracy in action at the heart of the U.S. politics and government. This is the place where U.S. laws are enacted and the country makes decisions which could impact the entire world such as going to war.

Though I did not have time, I took a ride to see George Town, and it was fascinating to see the beautiful townhouses and the riverfront. In my opinion, the whole city appeared to be beautifully designed and constructed with utmost care and attention to detail. Architecture has played a big role in determining the beauty of Washington DC and I would surely rate it as one of the best cities in the world, notwithstanding some unseemly comments that one could chance upon on things like crime rates, etc., It is indeed an impressive city with some of the best architecture one can see around in the world. Apart from the same, the enormity of the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House descends on you like it would never happen anywhere else in the world – these are the places in which decisions with global import are made regularly.

While there were lots of foreigner tourists visiting these attractions, I estimated that 6 out of 10 folks in any queue are Americans who are exploring their own capital city and the unique things it has to offer. Not surprising given the fact that the U.S. is a huge country and many people normally would not leave their city or state and even travel to the neighbouring state. But then Washington DC has a special attraction for even those kind of folks. Everyone wants to see Washington DC and New York at least once if not more.

Overall, an excellent visit, and I would love to visit again!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th June 2017

 

Dallas Food


On the first day of our visit to Dallas, we wanted to try out Indian food (this is the default choice when there is a group of Indians trying to explore the local culinary scene, I am sure you can believe this!). We asked the concierge at our hotel, and he said that there is only one in the downtown area within walking distance and so we set out to discover how Indian food is faring in the heart of downtown Dallas.

We went to “Spice in The City Dallas” on Commerce Street. The restaurant looked stylish and different from the regular run-of-the-mill Indian restaurants. It looked like a fine dining restaurant from the outside surrounded by office blocks.

We were hungry and did not waste time exploring the whole menu. We ordered Papad Basket, Saag Paneer, Vegetable Korma, Yellow Lentil Dhal, and Garlic Naans. We were surprised and disappointed when the dishes arrived at our table.

The Papads were extremely oily (dripping with old oil). None of the dishes were tasty and each one of them lacked even little amount of salt or spice or chilli. The dhal was a huge disappointment with the lentils individually sticking out of the bowl with no creamy hold on the dhal surface providing an even taste. The korma was messy. The naans were actually thick flatbreads. Overall, it was a bad lunch. I don’t understand how Trip Advisor and Yelp could have given such positive ratings. We later told our colleagues to give this restaurant a miss.

On the other hand, our experience at Cafe Herrera and Meso Maya, both serving Mexican food in downtown Dallas, was very good – the food was excellent, the service was great, and the menus were comprehensive. Mexican food is a good alternative to folks seeking spicy food, and we were not disappointed. The only challenge is that the wrong choice of sauces could send you scattering looking for an exit, so be very careful when you insist on spicy sauce for the Mexican main course. It could simply stun you out of your senses. There is nothing like that in Indian or Chinese food.

We thought the hotel food (at the hotel where we were staying in downtown) may not be great, but we were surprised to see a fantastic breakfast spread for USD 15 (cold) and USD 22 (hot). There were some unhealthy offerings at the breakfast, but then most of the choices were good – like the amazing variety of expensive fruits for example, hot potatoes with red skin, hot medley of vegetables with lots of onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, scrambled eggs, omelettes made to order, a variety of breads, nuts, yoghurt, etc.,

Dallas is a great place for Mexican food – of course, I have not tried much of the other foods that Dallas offers, but my guess is that Dallas specializes in Mexican.

One of our colleagues had brought MTR fast food from Singapore, and so we tried that food in our hotel room late into night along with some drinks, and that was an outstanding experience as well.

It was good to be back in Dallas after a gap of two years.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

28th May 2017

Amazing Formula Rossa Thrill Ride of a Lifetime


This time I was really scared.

My son persuaded me to at least take a look at the ride video on YouTube. Take a look for yourself:

Ferrari’s Alonso and Massa ride world’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World

Formula Rossa POV – World’s Fastest Roller Coaster Ferrari World Abu Dhabi UAE Onride

Scary, right?

Well, my son and I went to the Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi last week, and I can tell you that the real experience of riding on the Formula Rossa was not any less scarier than the videos that you just saw. The website of Ferrari World is at Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi

Formula Rossa is currently rated as the fastest roller coaster in the world with a top speed of 239 KMPH which is achieved in less than 5 seconds of extremely fast acceleration using a technique used on aircraft carriers to launch jet planes on a very short runway. For the initial run, I chose to sit on the very back row of the Formula Rossa – though my son objected. I told him that I need to get a “hang” of it! Even while sitting on the back row, the ride was instantly terrifying with a speed which I have never experienced in my life. My heart beat increased and my heart was pounding when we finished the ride. The air pressure on the face and body was immense. The cork screw turn from the very top was scary to say the least. But the best part was the initial acceleration and the steep climb up.

For the second time experience, my son insisted on sitting in the very first row (like sitting on the very edge of the nose of a fast speeding bullet). I asked for time to think and so went around on other rides and eventually came back to Formula Rossa ride. I agreed to sit with my son on the first row of the ride. And, it was the most terrifying ride I have ever undertaken in a theme park ride. I could not even move my hand, the air pressure was too much not allowing any movement (I wanted to hold the plastic spectacle wrapper which was holding my spectacle glasses). While I managed to keep my eyes open for the initial 4 to 5 seconds, I could not do so once the roller coaster climbed up on to its steep ascent of over 50 metres and then accelerated with heavy momentum on the cork screw. I tried to open for a sneak view but decided to keep it shut as the tracks were speeding towards us at enormous speed (!!!). I only opened my eyes towards the last 5 or 6 seconds of the ride, but came out smiling as the thrill gene in my body seems to have grabbed its rightful sync with the Formula Rossa!

This is a fantastic ride, and I would strongly encourage you to take the first row, if not in the first attempt. It is a great feeling to almost feel what a Formula 1 race driver would experience on the race track (and more). It is overall a fabulous experience and very much worth the visit to Ferrari World (which is located at Abu Dhabi, some 75 minutes car ride from Dubai).

Hold tight and enjoy the speed, acceleration and momentum of the Formula Rossa – the world’s fastest roller coaster as on date.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd December 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Dispatch from Dubai


I wanted to send this one out before I returned from Dubai, however here it is – a dispatch on the cost dynamics of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

There is no income or sales tax in Dubai – there is just no taxation of any kind. So that would be a big incentive for most people as a draw to go and work in Dubai. Sure, it is a nice, and I would say a great feeling when you pay no taxes at all to the government. There are very few places in the world which provide such a strong incentive.

However, the picture is not so simple. Almost all items that one needs to consume are expensive, and even more expensive when compared to Singapore. I think this is true even when a comparison is made with Hong Kong prices of consumption items. May be only Tokyo is more expensive than Dubai.

A Cafe Latte in Starbucks costs 19 AED (Dirhams, the U.A.E. currency), which translates to SGD 7.5 (as against SGD 5.5 in Starbucks Singapore). A decent lunch at a foodcourt in one of the fancy malls of Dubai costs the equivalent of SGD 20 to 25 as against a typical comparable lunch at SGD 11 to 15 in a Singapore mall. All tourist attractions are heavily expensive when it comes to the entrance fees. A typical entrance fee to a theme park or water park costs around AED 270 or SGD 106 – whereas a good price that can be obtained in Singapore for a similar attraction ranges from SGD 40 to 60. Taxi prices are more or less comparable, though the base fare from the Dubai International Airport is AED 25 (or SGD 10) as compared to SGD 6.20 (SGD 3 surcharge from Changi and base fare of SGD 3.20) as base fare from Singapore Changi Airport. There is no apparent reason for such a high base fare.

So, apparently, what the government does not collect is being collected by product and service providers in Dubai via increased prices. The argument that they have to operate with imported labour (mostly Filipinos in service industries) does not fly as the situation is not very different in Singapore for lower-end jobs. The real estate prices are comparable, so that argument also does not work. So, it has to be only the motive of higher profit from the flow of tourists and resident foreigners that is driving higher prices in Dubai.

I have not had the time to do a detailed research on retail prices at Dubai malls (though I bought a couple of items), but had the opportunity to kill some good time at the fabulous shopping areas of Dubai International Airport before departing to Singapore. The liquor prices at the Duty Free Shops were lower than in DFS Changi Shops, and the chocolate prices were marginally lower though the variety of chocolates available was vastly superior in Dubai. I ended up buying good amount of chocolates which are not available in Singapore. The electronic product prices were more or less similar – again, the variety of offerings in Dubai was superior. For example, I saw six different brands of drones in a single shop with almost all accessories as compared to just two brands in a typical Singapore electronics shop. Drones are hot selling items and I am developing an interest as my son is keen to try out the same, and will eventually buy one raptor kind of drone with electronic eyes quite soon.

Overall, living in Dubai is an expensive proposition but then residents save on income and other taxes though paying higher prices for consumer items. Interesting, isn’t it? More news on Dubai soon, it is a place worth visiting for all. Abu Dhabi should not be forgotten either, it seems to be more organized and apparently has more wealth than Dubai itself.

Welcome to more expenses as you travel the world!!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

3rd December 2016

Dubai Impressions After 11 years


I landed in Dubai early morning of Friday, past midnight of Thursday. Apparently, it is the busiest time of the airport with a number of flights landing around that time. I was puzzled why Emirates Airlines landing terminal did not have immigration facility – we had to take a lift (elevator) down several levels and then queue up for a train to take us to the main terminal. The crowd was quite heavy, but we somehow cleared the immigration rather quickly and were on our way to the hotel in less than 45 minutes from the time we got out of the aircraft. The A380 flight was very nice with excellent on-board service and very quality of entertainment and food. My guess is that Emirates is overtaking Singapore Airlines firmly as the leading long-haul international airline.

I am visiting Dubai after a long time of 11 years. While the Sheikh Zayed main road was more or less the same, I noticed that they have added another, may be 3 lanes, making it one of the widest highway with 7 lanes in several places. Radar guns and cameras were located frequently, and I heard that the traffic penalties were quite severe. Nevertheless, car drivers were driving well in excess of the permitted speeds, the excellent quality of the roads giving them the motivation to press the accelerator!

Dubai has undergone a massive renovation after the 2009 economic downturn, and appears to be throbbing with life, activities, tourists, and shoppers, everywhere. We are staying at the Dubai Marina, which is a fabulous place to stay, with a great view of the marina and a walkway which is 7 KMs long (ideal for my early morning walks!). The weather is cool, with temperature dropping to 20 deg C and I am enjoying the same coming from hot Singapore where the needle rarely drops below 29 deg C during the day. I saw huge numbers of Western expats everywhere, and a lot of Chinese tourists (probably from Mainland China or Taiwan). Large sized cars are to be found everywhere as car prices are really cheap – for example, I found out that BMW 740iL costs around USD 100K in Dubai as against USD 450K (SGD 590K) in Singapore. Not surprisingly, there are many Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising the expressways.

Over the past couple of days, I have visited the newly opened IMG Worlds of Adventure, which is slated to be the world’s largest indoor theme park with many scary adventure rides. I also visited the very massive Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, which is an engineering feat. When I went to the 124th Floor, I did not feel over-awed: the views were fantastic but I did not feel scared for a moment. However, when I came down and stood under the Burj Khalifa tower near the Dubai Fountain, the enormous height and beauty of the Burj Khalifa overwhelmed me. There is no other structure in the world that high at 828 Metres. Just the spire atop the tower is some 200 Metres long!

There are several other places to be seen before I leave from this short holiday of just 5 days, such as the Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, the Atlantis Palm Water Park, the Evening Desert Safari, etc., and more about these places in a later post. I just wanted to share some early impressions of the ever-changing Dubai which is the most dynamic city in all of Middle East.

Great place to visit, but with an appreciating USD (the UAE Dirham is pegged to the USD), it is also an expensive place to visit. A Cafe Latte costs SGD 7 at a coffee shop located in a food court of Dubai Mall – it is more expensive in the individually located coffee shops. Taxis are reasonably priced but given the distances between places, you can easily run up a bill of SGD 100 per day, and if you are going to Abu Dhabi and back it could cost SGD 300 for the day easily. Food is also expensive, but good quality food anywhere in a global city is going to be expensive. Not much point in shopping, as I think Singapore is slightly cheaper for the same items, but then the shops in Dubai are massive and it was a pleasure just walking around the mall.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

27th November 2016

The Kolkata Experience


I was in Kolkata last week just for 2.5 days.

A city of some 18M (some folks say that the population of Kolkata is over 20M, putting it just next to Mexico City) people, Kolkata had been in the forefront of British India for a long time. It has what I call “cultured” people, who are still steeped in a colonial mindset. The funny thing though is that Kolkata has been a Communist bastion for over 4 decades, till Mamata Banerjee (the current Chief Minister of the West Bengal State, of which Kolkata is the State Capital) came along and usurped the Communist Party from their long-held power and sway over the Bengalis (as the people of West Bengal are called).

So, here you have a gargantuan city of enormous proportions (it is actually a twin city, with the Howrah Bridge connecting Kolkata to Howrah, its twin city), which has the distinction of hosting Mother Theresa till she died. It has many accolades from the past, not the least being the Capital of British India which was later taken over by Delhi.

The Bengalis are a passionate people with rather strong opinions on everything which matters. They are what I call as “the intelligentsia” of modern India. They are also the source of some of the most talented actors and actresses of Bollywood. And, who can forget Shri Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Nobel Laureate of India, and who hails from West Bengal ? And so on and so forth………

Surprisingly, the part of Kolkata that I visited (Southern Avenue adjoining the lake), Tollygunge Road, and areas around these locations were not crowded. The traffic was light for the size of Kolkata and when I checked with one of my hosts, he happened to remark that there are no big crowds due to lack of industrial activity. Which may be true, given that the Communists were always against the industrialization of the State, and drove away Capitalists who wanted to invest in the State, leveraging the strong intellectual capital of the Bengalis. But that was not to be, and today West Bengal is one of the least industrialized states of India. This led to Bengalis migrating en masse to other progressive states of India and overseas, and you see them almost everywhere you go.

Still, Kolkata has its charm, and I loved the New Alipore area which I visited to meet up with some old relatives. A rather charming area, with neat roads and large apartments which was strange amidst the chaos in the rest of the city. I also bought some sweets in a famous old sweet shop in that area – Bengalis are very famous for their sweet tooth. Fantastic sweets which you cannot get elsewhere in India are available from the 100 year old Kolkata brands of sweet shops – I bought from one such brand – Balaram Mullick Radharaman Mullick. Excellent choice, but there are several other brands equally famous.

The strangest part of Kolkata was the Airport. It is a gleaming new international airport. But, there was not much activity in the international side on a late evening/ night time, unlike Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi wherein there are always thousands of passengers and a long list of flights right through the night. When I arrived at 9 PM at the Kolkata International Airport, I could count only 5 or 6 flights, and there were few passengers at the airport. In fact, everything was a breeze – check-in at the Silk Air counter, immigration clearance, security check-up, etc., were surprisingly fast. Of course, this shows the influence of the Communist ideology on the residents of West Bengal and also the lack of tourists.

I took a drive along Howrah Bridge during a rainy day, and it was fabulous. The Victoria Memorial visit was great, with its beautifully maintained gardens and statues, but also reminding one of the British dominance in the 18th and 19th centuries over India. I have always detested their acquisition of India and their politicking with the Kings and Princes of India on a divide-and-rule philosophy. They did leave some good things behind in India when they left in 1947, but overall I think that India would have been better off in a faster manner had it not been for the Briitsh rule. That topic is for another blog post, I guess.

In any case, there are a number of places to be seen in Kolkata (ensure you have a good English-speaking driver), and do not miss these places. And, the traffic is not worse than other metro (large) cities of India.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th July 2016

The Las Vegas Experience


I recently made a trip to Las Vegas, the most famous sin city in the world.

My defining experience of Las Vegas was not the gambling in the casinos. Rather it was the various shows which seem to be going on for ever in the city.

I saw three shows when I stayed for just over 4 days. The first one was David Copperfield at the MGM Grand. Amazing magician – while I have heard about him, this was the first time I saw him in close action. In one act, he disappeared from the stage, and appeared almost next to me in the middle of the audience. How the hell did he do that ? And, at the end of the show, he vowed the audience by inserting a life-like dinosaur skeleton inside an empty cage on the stage, which made noises and opened its mouth repeatedly !

The David Copperfield show was simply the most amazing magician show that I have seen.

The second one was the Jeff Dunham show. It was equally good. Jeff is a ventriloquist and a stand-up comedian with his set of famous characters which all appeared to be alive and kicking. These are the famous Walter, Peanut, Bubba J, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, Melvin the Superhero Guy, etc., His show is really entertaining, provided one can follow the accents of the various characters closely. I had a bit of struggle with that, but eventually managed to understand what was causing an uproar in the audience. Again, Jeff Dunham show was fantastic, creative, original, and designed to cause unhindered laughter.

The last show that I saw was the Cirque du Soleil. I had big expectations of this circus and entertainment show. Unfortunately, the Ka Show that I saw in Treasure Island casino fell far short of my expectations. It looked highly rehearsed and artificial, and did not have much of an audience connect or impact. My feeling was shared by couple of other folks around me. May be it was the wrong first show of circus for me from Cirque du Soleil, however I expected nothing but the most outstanding quality in any such global show provider.

In any case, the shows were great, and I only regretted that I could not see many other world-famous shows in Las Vegas ! There are a number of shows to be seen, and one tip I can give is that “do not buy the tickets online in advance”. You will be paying full price, the only advantage being you can select the seating. However, if you care to take a walk along the “Strip”, you will find the same tickets for the same shows at 45% discount ! Next time around I am not going to order tickets online.

The other defining experience of Las Vegas was the 4 mile walk up and down the “Strip” – you get to atleast see the exterior of all the major casinos and the shopping malls. And, it is a good walk – on the day I took that walk, I clocked nearly 15 KMs since I walked in and out of most buildings. It is not that hot during April, though a bit warm. You will get to see the “action” on the “Strip” all along, including some excellent food places.

I took the helicopter ride by Maverick to see the Hoover dam. Again, my expectations were high, but the experience was not that great. First, the helicopters have a constant shake going on. Second, the Hoover Dam does not appear that great from the helicopter – it would have been very good if the helicopter goes around the dam a couple of times allowing a better view and photography. But that was not to be. In a nutshell, it was not worth it, and I did not have the time for a Grand Canyon helicopter ride.

Well, all said, Las Vegas is surely worth a trip. You don’t have to be a gambler, though it feels probably good losing money at the black jack for most people around the casinos. I must have walked many KMs up and down the Wynn and Encore casinos and couple of other ones such as MGM Grand. It is all the same. At the end of the day, 99% of the people are losing money and some their shirts even for sure.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th May 2015