Category: Travel

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

Torture the Tourists and Travellers


That’s exactly what happened at Chennai International Airport last evening.

Unbelievable, right?

What I am referring to here is the closure of the three entrance doors of the international airport side, keeping only one door open for ALL travellers, which resulted in long, serpentine queues outside the main doors all the way down along the main corridor wherein travellers disembark from their taxis and cars.

First of all, I saw many irritated folks (that includes me, of course), who could not find a trolley to load their baggages. There is no trolley point at the point(s) at which travellers disembark from their vehicles. All the trolleys are dragged to the points just outside one of the main doors, which forces people to wade through huge crowds in search of trolleys. What a dysfunctional idea is it to park all the trolleys away from points where they are sorely needed? I had to wade through the crowds, first to my right where I could not locate any trolleys and then to my left where I saw trolleys parked some 200 feet away but I could not reach those trolleys as there was a long line of folks trying to get into the only door which was open! However, I did wade through and reached the trolley line, and managed to get two trolleys and then had the unenviable task of climbing over people and cutting across lines to get to my baggages (I luckily had another traveller taking care of my belongings). This was ridiculous, no international airport has such a mess going on at the peak time for international travellers. I was already profusely sweating by the time I managed to bring the trolleys for loading of baggages. Chennai is not for anti-humidity and anti-heat folks.

The most annoying thing however, was the long queue (usually there will be at least 3 doors operating for different airlines) and the quick adaptation of the Indian Q-Theory which I have written about in the past. This theory predicates that if there is one feet of space between two people on a Q, then you can rest assured the gap will quickly covered by a suddenly appearing person who grabs that space, or that space will be used as a “bridge” for people crossing from one side to the other. This theory also advises folks to take care of their nostrils because of the pungent smells which hit one from folks all over in a sweaty weather. This theory then goes on to predicate that people like to rub each other with complete lack of sensitivity in India while existing on a Q, and when it suits them they ignore the presence of people in the front by smashing their trolleys into the inviting legs in front of them as they decide it would be a good resting point for their trolley. And so on, and so forth.

It took me more than 40 minutes to just get through the outside Q, before I reached the only open main door to the airport terminal. Now I was sweating badly, and saw an intruder trying to cut me just at the entry point from nowhere. I threw him away by strong and loud questioning as that is the only way to put some sense into such idiots – they get scared and move away (they must be thinking “what a moron – what is there – I am just one single guy trying to jump into the Q”).

Once inside the terminal, there was a small Q at the airline counter, which I tackled in about 10 minutes. Armed with the boarding pass, I then turned my attention to the immigration Q, and was appalled to see a very, very long Q spilling out of the immigration area by a mile. This was just hugely ridiculous. How do other airports even within India handle crowds? Mumbai and New Delhi stand as prime example on how queues are managed effectively, even with an operating Indian Q Theory. But Chennai International Airport has failed its passengers completely, it is a dysfunctional airport with new buildings which do not make sense. One previous time I saw the new terminal building leaking in pouring rains and puddles of water all over inside the terminal.

Chennai is as close to my home town as any city can be, and it is shameful that the authorities could not manage such an important international airport effectively. Almost everyone I talked to complained or put the blame on one government agency or the other. Unless there is shame which is deeply felt, unless the government ministers and officials are forced to go through the mess like an ordinary passenger, the situation on the ground is not going to change.

What a pity? Why would tourists choose Chennai over the other cities? When is this situation going to change for the better?

No answers yet. Hope is still there.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th September 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

Bullet Trains for India


Five decades after bullet trains (“Shinkansen”) revolutionized land transportation in Japan, it is the turn for India to enjoy such high-speed mode of travel with its speed, convenience and elegance. Japan is funding most of the investment required for the bullet train service between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, and if this proves successful, then we can see all the key land corridors connected by bullet trains in the next couple of decades.

This is a huge milestone in the relationship between the two most powerful democracies in the world – Japan and India. Japan has also agreed to transfer nuclear technology to India after a long period of reluctance. In combination, these two milestones will provide the much needed boost for the Indian transportation and energy sectors in the years to come and further, solidify the partnership between India and Japan.

The Shinkansen system has not had any accidents over the past 50 years or so, as against the bullet trains from China which has had one major accident in the recent past. The reliability of the Shinkansen, combined with very low interest financing by Japan, and transfer of technology for local manufacturing clinched the deal for Japan.

However, one cannot ignore the Chinese competition. China has been working aggressively over the past couple of years in conducting feasibility studies for the New Delhi – Mumbai and New Delhi – Chennai corridors. These implementations will entail a very huge investment due to the distances involved, and my view is that the Indian Government will be hard pressed to ignore a competitive offer from China. The bullet trains from China are obviously lower-priced (like anything else) as compared to the Shinkansen which comes with a very long experience and expertise of inventing and running such systems with an impeccable accident record. However, a developing country like India will need to consider both the countries’ offers before making decisions on every corridor, and politics might eventually dictate such decisions.

India deserves to be served by such fast bullet trains as trains will become an “economic” mover. For the Indian economy to continue to flourish, the efficiency of the transportation sector, especially rail transport, is crucial. This combined with improving infrastructure logistics, will pave the way for the “make in India” campaign to be successful over the next decade. It will be easier to connect the metros with bullet trains than with roads, if one ignores the financing required. Further, trains provide mass transportation as compared to roads in India which still do not measure up to international standards – most people on the roads seem to be driving their cars followed by lorries. It is obviously not possible to run very long distance buses (for more than 500 KMs) due to passenger fatigue and other considerations.

Given the above situation, bullet trains provide an excellent alternative to the congested road systems of India. If one can travel at the speed of 300 KM per hour on bullet trains, why bother using flights for shorter distances ? It takes a long time door to door when one uses flights anywhere in the world, even for shorter flights. One prime example is the time it takes to reach your hotel in Kuala Lumpur from your home in Singapore. It takes not less than four good hours to go through the two airports, with the flight taking up less than 40 minutes. This is the reason why a high-speed bullet train is being contemplated between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. This is one of the highest air traffic routes in the world.

I am happy to see the closeness developing between India and Japan, this is a much needed collaboration. The Indian Prime Minister has taken a fascination towards the Japanese Prime Minister, and personal chemistry does deliver some wonders in due course of time. Japanese technology for anything is one of the finest available anywhere in the world (I am making this statement in a generic sense), and if India could find a financially meaningful way to leverage various Japanese technologies in its “Make in India” Campaign, then both countries would benefit enormously.

Let us not forget that this is a Democracy to Democracy partnership. The Japanese apparently see value in catering to the large Indian population, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this partnership becomes the most critical, defining strategic partnership in Asia, between any two countries.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

13th December 2015

 

 

 

 

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

The Mangalore Experience


Last week I had been to Mangalore/India for personal work. Mangalore is located on the Western coastline of India in the state of Karnataka, and is accessible from Chennai (where I was visiting) only via Mumbai or Bangalore.

Mangalore is a nice small city, which is known for its very heavy rains during the monsoon season starting sometime in June and also for its wonderful cashews/dry fruits. It is at the confluence of multiple cultures, so people here speak many languages such as Kannada, Tulu, Konkan, and Malayalam (Mangalore is located around 10 KMs from the border with the Kerala State). It is also known for a significant portion of its eligible employees working in the Gulf (Middle East), just like Kerala.

I had good experience in my personal work which involved multiple parties working together in a short time span of less than 24 hours. Such an experience is rare in India. Everyone involved was professional and helpful. They ensured my work was completed on time, and I could get on to a flight back to Chennai the same evening.

I shopped for cashew nuts, dry fruits and banana chips with the help of a friend. The quality was excellent; the price was just right (may be slightly on the higher side because of better quality). For example, 250 GMs of roasted cashew nuts costs INR 260 or just SGD 6 (USD 4), which is cheaper than what you can get in Singapore of course.

I stayed for a night in a pretty decent hotel which costed just INR 1,400 or SGD 31 (USD 23), and the breakfast of 2 idlis, 1 vada and a nescafe coffee costed – you won’t believe this – just INR 70 or SGD 1.6 (USD 1.1). Amazing, isn’t it ? In Singapore, that food would set me back by SGD 10.

While the traffic on arterial roads was heavy, overall the traffic situation was not bad. There was thin traffic in the early hours of the afternoon, and when I left for the airport at 6 PM, I thought we are going to be held up in the evening traffic but it was not to be – there was not much traffic and I reached the airport in 25 minutes for a distance of some 16 KMs !

I had assumed that the old style cyber centres for providing internet access to consumers had disappeared in most cities, but Mangalore had a plethora of these centres. I had to use such a facility twice that day I was visiting Mangalore, since otherwise it would have taken considerable time to go to someone’s office or home. I got my e-ticket for the flight back to Chennai booked and issued at a cyber centre !

The airport was a nice experience – it is an international airport with good facilities and not much crowd. I got annoyed a bit in the waiting lounge as one of the passengers was shouting non-stop at a loud pitch into his cell phone and did not look like going to stop. I was disturbed because I was trying to concentrate at reading a new book I had bought – “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande, and that required good concentration.

In a nutshell, Mangalore is a good city with nice people overall. And it is worth a visit for various reasons including the fact that it is located close to Udupi, Coorg and Manipal.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

12th April 2015