The last days of Zone 9

Some of my friends from Xian always admonished me about not visiting the fames terracotta warriors. Splendid they may be, but such buildings fail to rouse my interest much. I spent most of time in the market that grew around the old muslim quarter - for I am a fan of spaces that grow up organically. 

I was lucky enough to visit the local art space called Zone 9 in Hanoi just before the area was closed down.  The back story is that there were these factory buildings that were lying dormant. Some local artists moved in and set up their studios. Soon there were cafes and bars. Soon the students started to hang out. The zone turned into a vibrant night spot.  The prime location attracted developers and it was bought out. The new owners want to dismantle the units and build anew. I hope the artists find a new place to transplant this space.

I travel to Vietnam couple of times a year but I am coming back to Hanoi after 12 years. It is nice to be back, and I can finally appreciate the different characteristics of the people here. It is often said that the pace of life in Hanoi is slower compared to the south. I agree with this. I found that I was able to make more random friends in Hanoi as they had more time to talk to strangers. 

Perhaps the visit was also made special because my guide was PHM from Hanoi Grapevine. She is so passionate about the art scene in Hanoi and had many interesting anecdotes. 

Some reading about Zone 9

http://thediplomat.com/2013/11/vietnam-comes-of-age/

http://hanoigrapevine.com/2013/08/snapshots-of-zone-9-the-new-art-hub-in-hanoi/

(Thanks to PHM from Hanoi Grapevine for showing me this place)

Some pictures from Zone 9. You can see the bars, the artists at work and the shops. Hanoi Grapevine is a good site to learn about the events happening in the city.

Tips on booking tours, hotels, currency exchange and avoiding scams for tourists

Visitors to my blog often ask me about booking tours , currency exchange, hotels etc, buying souvenirs etc.. I am consolidating all the tips from those replies here. 

How to find a tour company or a hotel or some other travel service?

Open TripAdvisor.com on your browser. Run a search on the service that you looking for (say island hopping tour) and the destination (perhaps Phuket). 

Look for the search results and read the reviews. Often hotels and services hire "fake reviewers". If you find a overtly positive or negative reviews, looks for other reviews by that reviewer, just to make sure that they are not a "fake reviewer".

While you are at it, run a Google search for the tour company you end up picking with the word "scam" next to it. 

Also, run a search for the scams in the destination you are going to. This way you'll be prepared when someone want to sell you those gems.

For currency exchange, check the rate on Google. You can type in the currency codes and the amount of money you want to change, for example if I want to know how much Thai Bahts will I get for 5000 Indian Rupees, I will type in the following in Google search box.

5000 INR to THB  

I usually Google for the price of meals, cafe, hotels or hostels, local transport and add a buffer of around 20 USD per day. For example for a city like Bangkok, I can live comfortably on 30 USD per day.  I will add a buffer of 20 USD to make it 50USD per day. So for a four days trip, I will carry 200 USD. 

Using Credit or Debit cards In most of South East Asia, China and India, you can use the ATMs to withdraw money as a backup. Myanmar is probably the only place where I still carry extra cash when I am visiting smaller towns. However, the exchange rate that you get at the ATM is pretty bad. And usually the banks charge you a transaction fee for using a foreign card on their ATM. Call your bank to enable your credit or debit card for overseas trip before you leave.  While paying with credit card, insist that they do the card transaction in front of you. If the shop says that they do not have the machine and have to go next doors to do the transaction, ask to go with them. There have been cases where naughty employees copy down the card and cvv numbers and later use the data to buy stuff online. Once you are back home, pay extra attention to your credit card bill to see if there's is some charge that you don't recognize. 

Buying stuff for back home (AKA souvenirs)

Don't waste your money, most of the souvenirs are a racket. Don't even indulge the folks selling precious stones etc. If you really need to buy something precious, get a local friend to recommend a place where they buy thing from. 

Another option to go to a local supermarket and buy some local sweets, coffee or tea - the packaging is attractive and it is something unique and hopefully the people you are gifting to can actually consume the stuff. 

Getting to Moscow’s Izmailovsky market for souvenir buying

You may want to go to Izmailovsky market to buy your souvenirs. There are more shops and better bargaining compared to old Arabat street. The market is easy to reach via the metro.

Take the metro to the Partizenskaya station. In Russian, the name of the station is written as Партизанская.

As you step out of the station, look to you left. Diagonally across the street you will see a gate with Russian letters around the frame.

Walk towards this gate.

As soon as you enter this gate, you will see a commented path leading to the market some 300 meters away.

The large shopping mall in this complex (about 70 meters to the right of the path to the market) has restrooms, ATMs and some fast food restaurants. 

Crossing into Cambodia via land borders

Cambodia is another fun destination in South East Asia. The best part is that most people can get a Cambodia visa at the border posts.  All you need to do is to fill a visa form and pay a fee of 20 USD.  You need to fill in an address in Cambodia . Fill in the hotel you plan to stay at.  You will need a photo too.

One of the bus plying Cambodia -Vietnam route

This is the process at Bavet (Cambodia) MocBai (Vietnam) border (this is the usual bus route from Saigon to Phnom Penh) but the process is similar at Thailand-Cambodia border too. Once you have finished Vietnamese exit process the bus will take you a little distance away to the Cambodian immigration. There is a visa on arrival counter where you can fill the form and pay the fees. The officer will paste the visa. After this you can join the immigration queue.

Cambodia Arrival Form

This is how the arrival card looks like. You will have to fill in the address in Cambodia even if you are not sure what hotel you are staying at. Just fill in the name the hotel you intend to stay at.

You can also apply for Cambodian e-visa, this is by far the most convenient method though you need a lead time of 2-3 days ( I have gotten the e-visa in 24 hours most of the time).  I have often heard of travelers being hassled for more money at Cambodian Thailand border. If you have the e-visa, you just walk through and you don't have to pay anything extra. You apply via the e-visa website here. http://www.mfaic.gov.kh/evisa/ and these are land borders where you can use e-visa http://www.mfaic.gov.kh/evisa/Map.aspx

Budget Accommodation, Hostels stays, Transport, Mobile plan, Mobile data, Laundromats in Singapore

Updated: March 2017

Budget Accommodation

Singapore has good accommodation when it comes to the high end. But, anything south of 50 USD is harder. You will have to look for shared accomodation in the form of hostels. These are my recommendation from all the places I have sampled in Singapore. I also mention one sub 100$ hotel that I have settled on. If you are booking a hotel, you might get a better rate via a travel agent from your home country.

Hostels – You will be in a dormitory style accommodation with shared bath. Some of the places mentioned here also have capsule style accommodation – you slide into a tunnel like sleeping place – gets you more privacy.

Fisher BnB, 127 Tyrwhitt Rd, Singapore 207551, +65 6297 8258,  Close to a swimming pool and across the street from an Asian food court. About 10 minutes walk from the Lavender MRT.  Priced around 30SGD per night per bed. Has ladies only dorm too.
http://www.fisherbnb.com

The Plot Hostels, 259 Outram Road, Chinatown / Tiong Bahru, Singapore 169056 This is a posh, albeit friendly place – your fellow guests will be fashionistas from Thailand or Malaysia who like to party at nearby clubs. The neighbourhood is also peaceful with many new cafes around. About 15 minutes walk to the nearest MRT. Around 40$ a night.

Shophouse, the social hostel. 48, Arab Street, This place is centrally located, about 10 minutes walk from Bugis MRT.  Priced around 22 to 30 SGD per night per bed. There is a big terrace with lounge area and good view of the city. Good for roaming techies as there is a computer room at top where you code away. Has ladies only dorm too. Book on their web for the best prices. They will also wash for $8 per load of clothes. http://www.shophousehostel.com

This is also where I am often at, so if you happen to be here, look for me. I will show you some secret places. Gap Year Hostel 322 Lavender Street, Singapore 338821 Another favourite. In the Lavender area. About 20 minutes walk from Lavender or Farrer Park MRT.  Priced around 18 to 28 SGD. Nice lounge area.http://gapyearhostel.com

Travellers Inn, No. 290A/B Jalan Besar, 208953 Singapore Another inexpensive place. Close to public pool and walking distance to the Little India neighbourhood. They have a large lounge area when you can eat and work away on your computer. Priced around 25 to 30 SGD. http://travellersinn-backpackers.com

Vintage Inn: 60 Race Course Road, Singapore 518567 Located in the Little India area (5 minutes walk from Little India MRT) this capsule style place is clean and comfortable. It is on the higher end of budget accommodation 35++ SGD, but I have often found deals on booking.com for 26 to 28 SGD. http://www.vintageinn.sg/. There are good Indian and Nepalese eats around this place. Spacious and comfortable capsule.

ABC Premium Hostel, 91A, 93A & 95A Owen Road, Little India, 218919 Singapore This place is decent too. There is a meeting place and a terrace for hangout. Few minutes walk from Farrer Park MRT. Priced around 30 to 35 SGD. Spacious Capsule. http://www.abcpremiumhostel.com.sg

The Little Red Dot,127 Lavender Street, 338734 Singapore. Slightly smaller capsules compared to others but inexpensive at 18 SGD, has a great lounge areas where you are sure to meet and make friends with several travellers. Book via online booking sites.

Most hostel in Singapore, do not offer 24 hour reception. So if you are going to be arriving late in the night, the hostel may give you instructions on how to get the access card or keys.

Budget Hotels – private room with attached bath etc. Le Peranakan Hotel , 400 E Coast Rd, Singapore 428994, This is an inexpensive, clean and good looking hotel that offers free wi-fi that I can find around 70 to 90 SGD per night.  Located in the East, this place is about 15 minutes by taxi or 30 minutes by bus from the airport. There is a nice local food court just next doors. There is also a western style cafe and cake shop downstairs that has good wifi.  Great food in nearby Siglap area (two bus stops) and Joo Chiat area (two bus stops). www.leperanakanhotel.com/

Kam Leng Hotel is another good pick, they are on the Bendemeer road, a short walk to Little India and Bras Basah Road neighbourhood. http://kamleng.com 

85 Beach Garden Hotel, http://85bghotel.com is another relatively inexpensive place with good location. 


From the airport to the city From the airport you can get a taxi (around SGD 20$ to city), the subway (or MRT as it is known in SG) or bus. If you are going to be staying in the city and arrive between 6AM and 11PM, the MRT is the best option.

Mobile and Internet access - You can buy SIM cards from the telco counters at arrival area at Changi Airport. You will need your passport for registration of SIM card. SIM cards can also be bought at the city at any phone shop. Mobile data is bit expensive (compared to neighbouring SE Asian countries). For three-four days of internet access, be prepared to spend around 20 SGD. Your phone must be unlocked and GSM. CDMA phones do not work on Singapore networks. Compared to rest of South East Asia, not many cafes offer free wifi in Singapore, the ones that do, the connection tends to good.  If you are going to working on your computer a lot, and moving around, I would recommend getting a mobile data plan. There is also a free city wide wireless service wireless@sg, you will need a local mobile number to receive the password. 

Starhub Maxmobile Prepaid Card

http://www.starhub.com/personal/mobile/prepaid-plans/prepaid-data-sim.html

Singtel
http://info.singtel.com/personal/phones-plans/mobile/singtel-prepaid

M1
https://www.m1.com.sg/mcardSingapore also has a free island-wide wireless network – wireless.sg but you will need a mobile phone with Singapore number to receive the password. Register at http://www.icellnetwork.com/reg2.php You can get a temporary login and password for wireless.sg at the airport information counters too. Boingo subscribers can access the wireless.sg network.

Public Transport You can buy a Singapore Tourist Pass for use in the bus and the MRT. The card is available in 1,2 and 3days options and allows you unlimited rides on public transport. It costs 20$ per day. The pass is available at the Changi airport. Check this web: http://www.thesingaporetouristpass.com.sg/ For longer duration (or if you only plan on doing 2 or 3 public transport trips) , you can purchase the regular Ezy Link card from any MRT. You can top these up with cash whenever you run out.

Costs In addition to your accommodation, budget for about 20 to 30 S$ per day. Most shopping malls have money changers. You can also use your bank card to withdraw money from the ATMs (tough your bank may charge you a transaction fee, and give you terrible exchange rate when you withdraw from an overseas ATM).

Food Local, regional and international food is easy to find in Singapore. You can eat at hawker centers and food courts from 3$ onwards. Most of the muslim vendors serve halal food. Most shopping malls have a food court. Pure vegetarian food is slightly harder to find. Little India is your best bet or go to Fortune Centre near Bugis MRT – this building has several vegetarian options. Another option is to go to regular food court or hawker centre and look for the stall that serves rice and a variety of dishes. You can then point to the vegetables you want.

Self-Service Laundromats Wonderwash (24 hour coin operated laundromat) http://wonderwash.com.sg/outlets/ Laundrymart (24 hour  coin operated laundromat) at 22 Boon Keng Road, 01-37Singapore 330022 Phone : +65 6294 2256 http://www.laundrymart.com.sg/about.html

Useful Mobile Apps 

Google Map on Android and iOS is pretty good with directions and public transport recommendations.

Get Grab and Uber apps.

Power Singapore uses 230 Volts /50 HZ the power plug and the socket looks like this (Type G). You can buy adapters from your hotel or any local shops for 2 to 3 SGD. 

Travel Resources Singapore’s Wikitravel page has comprehensive information on the city. http://wikitravel.org/en/Singapore Happenings, event and interesting spaces 

The great thing about Singapore is that there is always a good number of events happening where you can meet locals, learn new things etc.

Hackerspace.sg – Check the event calendar on the Hackerspace.sgweb – http://hackerspace.sg/. Friendly space to head to when you want to meet many femes people or just leach off wi-fi for an evening. You can also get a short term membership here.

Sgentrepreneurs have a broader tech/startup events calendar at  http://sgentrepreneurs.com/calendar/

Singapore’s Hub is near Orchard Road and great place to meet locals working on fun projects. http://www.eventbrite.sg/o/the-hub-singapore-1886107979

Thelist.sg – Curated weekly technology and entrepreneurship event list

Singapore’s Lucky Plaza is a good place for stuff from the Philippines

Lucky Plaza is one of older shopping malls in Singapore’s Orchard Area. Whenever I miss the Philippines, I show up here. Of course the Philippines is a large and diverse place and this place probably is as representative of the Philippines as Little India is of India. Still it is said that a drowning man tries to hold to anything, so an yearning person tries to find solace in even a small thing from the land he or she misses.

Head up to level 4 and the back lanes have food places offering interesting snacks from the Philippines.

Earlier we talked about the power of nostalgia. Jollybee is a popular fast food chain in the Philippines, This is the first one in Singapore. I was here on the second day after it opened and it was packed with people yearning to get some feel of comfort food from back home.

Lucky plaza is also a good place to buy air tickets to the Philippines.Level 4 and 5 have some pubs too where you can have a listen to latest Tagalog songs.

Lucky Plaza is along Orchard Road. The best time to visit is after 11 AM to late.

See Also

Kuala Lumpur’s little Philippines’ enclave - http://smarterbysharing.posthaven.com/kotaraya-complex-in-kuala-lumpur-the-place-to-go-when-you-miss-the-philippines

What are good SIM cards and data SIM cards for tourists in Thailand

Where can I buy the SIM cards? Is it better to buy at the airport or in the city? 

You will see the telco sales counters in the arrivals area of Suvarnabhoomi airport (once you exit the the customs area). DTAC and AIS are next to each other. If you walk another 200 meters or so you will see the less busy TRUE. You can also buy the SIM cards from the 7/11 counter in the basement (same level as the train station to the city). At the Don Mueang and other international airports, check the arrivals area or any convenience store like the 7/11s. 

You can also buy SIM cards from the mobile shops in the city. I would recommend buying the SIM at the airport, as the counter staff will be able to set up your phone and advise you on top ups. The convenience stores in the city tend to be busy and the staff will not configure your phone. The phone shops are all right, but the staff may not know enough English. Having said that, the SIM cards do not need any configuring. I have found that the internet access works as soon as I slot the SIM card on my iPhone. On my Android phone, I had to reboot the phone to get the data connection to work.

What are the data enabled SIM card options for Thailand? Following are the data SIM cards you can purchase

DTAC’s happy SIM card. More details at https://www.dtac.co.th/en/prepaid/

AIS 12 call is another option. Again, this SIM card is available at shops all over the city. See http://www.ais.co.th/roaming/visiting/sim-for-traveller-en.aspx

True is the third option. http://truemoveh.truecorp.co.th/3g/sim-truemoveh/prepaid/entry/2258?ln=en

True's SIM card for tourists.

Most of these SIM cards will allow top-ups that will increase the validity beyond a week. Just let the sales person at the counter know how long you are going to spend in Thailand, and they will recommend a suitable plan to you. You can request them to show you the recharge steps.

I have used SIM cards from all the networks. Coverage on all these networks were good ,though there were some areas with slow or no connectivity -  for example the outskirts of cities, on highways etc.

FAQs

Do I need to show the passport or any other papers to get the SIM card? 

Some places ask for you passport, some don't. Better be prepared with some sort of ID.

Will the SIM work for a SIM locked phone or a CDMA phone? 

No, your phone has to be SIM unlocked. The SIM cards will only work on unlocked phones from Japan, South Korea and some US networks. If you are unsure, please call your network provider before you leave your home country. They might have an inexpensive data roaming plan that you can use for short trips. The networks run on GSM technology so the SIM cards will not work with CDMA phones.

Will they have nano SIM card for iPhone 5s, micro sim card for iPhone 4s and others? 

Of course, they have. If not, they will cut the SIM card for you.

DTAC's SIM card in regular and nano size.


Thai mobile users are ahead of the curve. They are heavy users of latest smartphones and the phone shop staff are familiar with latest phone models. Back in 2007, Thai schoolgirls were one of the first demographic in Asia to use the iPhone. Suvarnabhoomi airport is one of the most instagrammed building in the world.

What is the best place to buy a new, unlocked phone in Bangkok? 

Try MBK Centre http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MBK_Center or Phantip Plaza http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pantip_Plaza. Thai mobile users are always experimenting with new phones. So you can always find newer phones in the second hand market too.

Is it easy to get free wifi at cafe and restaurants in Thailand? 

You hotel or hostel will surely have wi-fi. The more upmarket the hotel, the more stingy they are with wifi. The number of cafe and food places offering free wi-fi has gone down in recent years in Bangkok. Either they don't offer wifi, or the network does not work.  Chiang Mai and smaller cities are much better with respect to free wifi in cafes.

If you have questions, email me at smarterbysharing@gmail.com.

Indonesia Visa on Arrival for Indians and others

Indonesia is another of my favourite destinations that allows for inexpensive living and interesting places to visit.

The world in her eyes

Starting late 2015, Indonesia has started offering visa free entry for tourists. Just land at an international airport and at the immigration counter mention that you are on vacation. They will stamp the Visa Exemption stamp on your passport at your entry. It is valid for 30 days. 

For people going on business, you still have to get a paid visa which is available at a counter near the immigration. 

Information design for a hostel or hotel website

You know, it is easy to get the simple things wrong. You see so many hotels and hostel website with so little information on how to get there, what is around and general information for the traveler. It is a such a joy to see some one get it right. I was looking to find a place to stay in Jakarta and I found the Six Degrees Hostel. I was impressed by their website at http://jakarta-backpackers-hostel.com/.

Here is a screen shot of the page that offers directions to the hotel. I like the way they have a downloadable PDF that one can print. The PDF file has instructions in local language for the taxi. http://jakarta-backpackers-hostel.com/getting

Here is another page with information for travellers. I like the part where they discuss things to see and do in the neighbourhood.

http://jakarta-backpackers-hostel.com/useful_info

Besides the website, the Six Degrees is a pleasant and affordable place to stay. There is a also a public swimming pool next doors.

I spent some time at the Bokoel Koffie near this hostel. This neighbourhood has convinced me to move my secret hiding place from Saigon to Jakarta. The other reason being that Indonesian visa takes only half a page compared to Vietnamese visa  reducing my passport renewal trips.

Thinking about photography and privacy in the deepest undersea tunnel

I took the express train from Aomori to Hakodate. This train passes through the longest and deepest undersea tunnel in the world – between Honshu and Hokkaido. While in the tunnel, the ride is as comfortable as it can be, it is not scary at all, and there is nothing much to look at. So I started looking at the travel magazine in the seat pocket.

Face blurred in a photo

I noticed that whenever a public space is shown, the editors blurred out the faces of the people. I had always assumed that posting images of people in public is fine. I like to study how people use technology and I probably have dozens of such images (of people in various countries using their mobiles etc) on my web. Now more I think about it, I feel I should respect people’s privacy more. These days I take pictures in ways where the faces cannot be identified or I try to blur the face just like in this picture.


Some questions

Do we inform people at an event that we will be posting the pictures online?

Would camera apps in future rather than tagging the faces you have shot will instead blur them out by default?


Some resources

iPhone photo app to hide parts of your body and face (Warning, the site has some naughty pics)

http://obscurabylafilledo.com/


Android app to hide faces and other recognizable aspects from a picture. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=org.witness.sscphase1&hl=en