Thursday, October 30, 2014

Boracay Island: It's The Whole Package That Matters

Boracay Island is located in the central west of Philipines. This small island is only a boat ride from the main island of Panay. There are 2 airports serving tourists wishing to visit Boracay. The closest airport next to the jetty is Caticlan but it can only accommodate small turbo-props. If you are transiting from Manila or Cebu, you can consider this airport albeit the transit time may be long. The larger airport Kalibo is 1.5 hours away by bus but it can accommodate larger international jets. If you are taking direct flights from Singapore, this will be your option. From here, you can board a bus for 1500 peso per person to the jetty at Caticlan, which includes ferry fee and transport to your hotel.

Geographically, Boracay is shaped like a dog bone and very small in size. It is only about 7km long from one end to the other end, and only about 1km in width from western beach to eastern beach. There is only one main road in the middle of the island linking North to South. White Beach is the more popular stretch of beach in the western side. This is where the majority of hotels are located and center for activities. White beach is divided into 3 sections called stations. Station 1 is at northern side which has the most beautiful and white sandy beach. It also has more up class hotels where celebrities and artistes like singer Fish Leong who had her beach wedding there. Station 2 is the center for all activities, buzz and tourists. The central D-mall is located here alongside many big hotels. This is where you can come for food and all other activities. While there are many big hotels here, the truth is there is only one big player who had monopolized the whole area. Almost every hotels next to each other here are under the same foreign owned group Henann even though they have different hotel names. The last station at the southern side is Station 3. This side is very quiet with more boutique hotels and some western pubs and restaurants. The truth about this side is that many hotels and pubs here are also owned by foreigners who marry local wives who then bought up all the precious lands to build their hotels and pubs. Some even made so much cash that they ventured into other luxury holiday homes around the island. You can almost certainly see these foreign bosses sitting in their pubs everyday drinking beer and their local wives sending their kids to international school in the morning. Because of all these monopoly, do not expect prices of hotels to vary that much. I'd suggest you to choose Station 1 hotels since it has got the nicest beach and away from all the crowd. If you'd like, you can do hotel hopping from Station 1 to Station 3. Okay, so much about White Beach. The Bulabog Beach on the eastern side is a wind surfer's paradise. There is no white sandy beach here, a bit more rocky but the winds here are good for wind surfing.

Descriptions about the island above may give you an impression this island is very big. I must warn you that you may need to lower your expectations as beautiful pictures and words may not represent real experience. To walk along the beach from Station 1 to Station 3, you can cover the whole White Beach in just 30 minutes. To add in the fact that so many foreign players tried to land grab every precious piece of land facing the beach, it ends up with hotels and villas that are so small and cramped next to each other. I don't know about how others feel, but in my own experience, I felt very claustrophobic.

There are various activities that you can do here but another warning before hand. Prices are not regulated and official prices are often ridiculously high, maybe 3-5 times more than best price. Do not book from hotels. You can find very cheap prices out there and I'll explain why. The moment you step foot outside your hotel, the touts will swarm you like annoying flies offering cheap prices for activities. There was never one time where I had peace walking along the beach without all these flies bothering me. These touts work on commissions for activity operators and boat owners. The higher the price they fleece from you, the higher commission they will get. Again most of these operators/owners are foreigners so don't expect you can get cheap prices if you approach them directly at their counters or activity centres. No matter how annoying the touts are, they are still the best option for lowest price. Let me share with you the rule of thumb after I myself got fleeced a couple of times. Fair price or perhaps lowest price for activities like parasailing, helmet diving, zipline, zorb, ATVs, buggy etc is 500 peso per person. For sailing whether it's a day or sunset, it is 600 peso per couple. Don't buy into the offer of 1200 peso per couple for private sail because when you reach your boat, there may be other people and it's not so private after all and you've got fleeced. Just stick to the 600 peso price. Now for island hopping plus snorkelling, this is more tricky and the price range varies. Ball park figure is 1000 peso per person which you must insist includes the entrance fee to the private islands. If you are a good negotiator, you can negotiate to include lunch or some light bites for the same price. As a conclusion, do not be so hurry when the first tout offers you. With all these ball park figures in your head, you can right away ask for his price. If it's too high, you offer your final price. He will most likely counter offer with a slightly higher price. Then it's your time to gently decline and walk away. Very likely he will match the price you have offered. If not, you just walk away and I guarantee you the flies that had been watching you from the side will be able to match your asking price after you have walked away from the first one.

Activities that I recommend are sunset sailing, island hopping to Magic Island plus snorkelling, island hopping to Monkey Island plus cliff diving plus snorkelling, and helmet diving plus photos and movies included in CD. For adrenaline junkies, you can try parasailing, Zorb, zipline (make sure you ask for the longest zipline at the golf course, not at Mt. Luho and decline the cable car ride since they have free transfer anyway),and ATV or buggy ride to have a scenic view at Mt. Luho.

Now for food. Pretty standard type of international cuisine available from a typical tourist place. Most commonly are the western breakfast, western steak, fish and chips available from almost every hotel lobby and western bars and pubs. Due to the fact that 50% of the tourists here are Koreans, you can expect to find Korean restaurants everywhere too with few Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese restaurants. Station 2 is popular with night buffet with prices ranging from 300-600 peso per person. D-mall at Station 2 has many eateries too which you can explore and even McDonalds for those on a budget trip. Local food that you can try is the roast pork which you can taste from the dinner buffet. High end dining is available at some hotels where you can choose fresh seafood on display to be cooked to your likings. Prices range from 600-1000++ peso per person. Do not expect Michelin star kind of food and also if you work out the price in your dollars, it may seem expensive even for the lowest priced food at the lousiest restaurant set up.

If you like to travel around the island, motorised tricycle is your best choice. Just walk out to the main road and hail down a tricycle. These people will also try to fleece you and asking ridiculous price of 60 peso or more. Just remember that travelling from anywhere around Stations 1 to 3 only costs 10 peso per person. You just need to share the remaining seats with others along the way. If the price is not right, walk away and hail down another one. It's that simple. For hire to Mt. Luho or further, the price may be higher.

Well, it seems like this post has more negativities. Do not be put off if you have planned or booked your trip there. Different people have different expectations and opinions. Maybe you'll be able to work out something to your fun and advantage with all these info in your head before you head off to the island. I have to agree that the section of the beach at Station 1 and sunset sailing here is beautiful, but that's just it. The whole package is just not there. This highly monopolized island by foreign owners, annoying touts and unregulated prices just kill the fun and charm of this otherwise beautiful island. If you ask me a choice between Maldives, Koh Samui, Phuket, Bali and Boracay, I would rate them as in this order.

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Bath, UK

Bath is a city in the south-west of England which traces back to the Roman empire. There are only very few hot springs in England and Bath is probably the most famous of them all when the Romans built the famous Roman Baths dedicated to the goddess Sulis. Bath is listed as a World Heritage Site and it attracts millions of visitors each year.

If you are travelling from London, you can reach this city in one and a half hour time by train. A same day off-peak return ticket only costs slightly less than 60 pounds. The train stops directly in the city centre. Since this city is not big, you can explore the whole city by walking. Half day tour is ideal choice if you are travelling from London and don't have much time.

Famous landmarks that you must visit in this city are the Pulteney Bridge, The Circus, The Crescent, The Abbey and the ever famous Roman Baths. Although you cannot enjoy the hot springs anymore in the Roman Baths since it has been turned into a museum, you can visit the grand and luxurious modern hot springs spa next door called the Thermae Bath Spa.

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Friday, August 29, 2014

The Best Surface Yet

Confession of a geek: I'm a total sucker when it comes to PRACTICAL and cool looking new gadgets. When Microsoft announced the Surface Pro 3, I had been following very closely to the development and specs of this machine. After all, I use the Surface Pro 1 and never been happier after switching from tablets.  For me, tablets are just another marketing gimmick to milk more money from people. Tablets are just an oversized phone running kiddy apps. Sure you can watch movies and play games on an oversized phone but when it comes to productivity, it's just a waste of money owning such device. There are many limitations to what a tablet can do especially desktop computer oriented tasks and even simple desktop web tasks.

It was a gamble for me to switch to Surface Pro 1. I'm glad I made that decision. It opened up a whole new world to me in terms of mobility. In the past, even if you own a tablet, you need to run to the desktop computer or laptop once in a while for heavy tasks which tablets cannot do. With the Surface, I broke free from the shackles of desktop and laptop when I'm travelling. I travel in style by carrying a desktop powered device in the form of a tablet. Sure the first version of Surface is not perfect. The battery life suffers because the chipset used was not advanced and matured back then.

Now with the Surface Pro 3, I would say Microsoft finally perfected the art of hybrid PC. With an 11 inch screen, thinner and lighter form, and more than 8 hours of battery life, this is the best Surface yet. Packing in a Core i7 and 8GB RAM into the machine, this is even more powerful than desktops built for gaming. This is really a revolutionary device that can replace a desktop and laptop. Forget about MacBook Airs. Those are ancient with chunky keyboard attached. It's like carrying bricks. Forget about tablets and ipads. Those are only look cool devices running kiddy apps and cannot do simple task like running Flash player in a web browser. Worse still, many websites are broken or even inaccessible when viewed on a tablet.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Hague, Scheveningen and Madurodam

I had a brief preview of The Hague when the tour I joined last time passed by this city. I was enchanted by this beautiful city and vowed to come back again in the future on my own free time and schedule. The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch) is the capital of justice where the Palace of Justice housing the International Court of Justice, Court of Arbitration and many other international courts are located. While Amsterdam enchants visitors with its canals, red light district and "coffee shops", The Hague has its own charms and flavours. This beautiful city is very much laid back with wide streets and avenues, big parks, and nice buildings. Of course it is also home to one of the most beautiful beach in Holland, the Scheveningen area. This beach resort cum casino area reminds me of the Gold Coast of Australia. In the middle between the city and beach is the big natural park and Madurodam; where the whole of Netherlands has been miniaturized so visitors can see the whole country in just one day.

Starting off from Amsterdam central train station, you can buy a day return train ticket for just 21.40. It is a direct train from Amsterdam to The Hague. Journey time takes about 50 minutes. You will alight at the last stop which is The Hague Central Train station. The train station is in the city so you can just walk around the city right after you get off the train. I suggest you start off from the Tourist Information at the main library which is only about 300m from the train station. You can get detailed map of the city and suggestions of places of interest by the friendly staffs. While the city is not too big and walkable, you should buy a day tram ticket from the Tourist Information if you plan to explore further till the Palace of Justice, Scheveningen and Madurodam. It only costs 7.70 and you can go anywhere you like on any trams and buses.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

SEA Aquarium, Sentosa

SEA Aquarium in Sentosa is truly an amazing feat. One of the best underwater aquarium with many fish species and themes. At the entrance, the informative maritime expo greets visitors. One can learn maritime history of the world with many great displays and artworks. The maritime expo will lead visitors all the way to the aquarium. A word of advice to visitors: try to avoid peak periods like school holidays and weekends if you plan to visit. During peak periods, the crowd is just too big. Your experience may be impacted by the huge crowd in front of every display. You either need to wait patiently for your turn to get to the front of the aquarium display or you may need to be rude to squeeze your way to the front if you encounter groups that refuse to budge.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Mini Travel Log: Munich, Germany (5)

On a lovely summer afternoon, I walked to the town center for some pork knuckles and beer. I normally do not take pictures on a short trip like this. And I will also not bring along my camera. But on a beautiful day like this, I just had to take some. It's just a photographer's instinct. And so my Nokia Lumia 1020 was given the real field test. I had this phone for quite a while already and finally this phone had a chance to step up to the plate to impress me. It didn't fail me. Shots taken at 41 MP are rich in details, very close to DSLR quality. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

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Related link: Mini Travel Log: Munich, Germany (4)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Munich, Germany (3)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Munich, Germany (2)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Munich, Germany (1)
Related link: Mini Travel Log: Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Friday, April 04, 2014

Stonehenge and Salisbury

Stonehenge is a well known UNESCO world heritage site. Mention the name Stonehenge and many people will associate it with druids in robes doing sacrificial ceremonies in this complex. But the true nature and purpose of this standing stones are still a mystery. The oldest stones date back to almost 5000 years ago. Some theories point out this stones were used for some astrology and time calculations. While others point it to a ceremonial building of some sorts. Whatever the purpose, you should visit this mysterious stones and be mystified.

I traveled from London by train to the nearby town Salisbury. Same day return ticket costs 37.40 pounds. From Salisbury train station, there is only one bus operator to Stonehenge. The bus ride which includes entrance to Stonehenge costs 26 pounds. Total is 63.40 pounds which is very expensive, but the only advantage is the tour bus will bring you back to Salisbury town which you can spend the rest of the afternoon. There is a cheaper option to visit Stonehenge direct from London. Many tour bus operators in London offer Stonehenge tour with entrance for just 40+ pounds.

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Salisbury is a very beautiful medieval town which you can spend the whole afternoon. The main attraction is the Salisbury Cathedral. The town itself offers vibrant shopping places, eateries and pubs. Many buildings are preserved from the medieval times which adds to the charm of this town.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre (pronounced as cheenkwe tehrre) is a collective of  5 beautiful villages recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site that were built on rugged cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea, part of  the bigger Mediterranean Sea. These villages started as fishing villages. Over time, people from outer region discovered the beautiful landscape and soon this place became a major tourist point. Starting from the north, the five villages in order are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

I started my trip from Milan by train which took slightly over 3 hours. There are many ways to get here by train from Milan, which runs frequently and hourly. Just visit trenitalia.com and input your departure and destination (any five villages) and it will return with multiple train choices. You can buy ticket in advance for super low fares from the website but I didn't know how to create an account. Therefore I bought the standard fare from the train station. You are advised to reach at least 30 minutes earlier because the queue at the ticket counter can be quite long.

The villages are quite small comprising of only few streets from the cliff top down to the sea. One day affair should be sufficient for tourists short on time. However, I recommend a night stay in any of the villages so you can take in the sights and sound. You can buy a local train ticket for just 4 euro that is valid for multiple travels for 8 hours. Then you can start hopping around the villages. Boat rides are available but only during summer period.

If you are the adventurous type, you can hike from the first to the last village. As the cliffs are very rugged, it will be quite strenuous and it will take whole day. Some paths are closed during winter so again, it is best to plan your trip there during summer.

If you find yourself left with too much time after done exploring Cinque Terre, you can consider hopping on the train down south to La Spezia which is just a stop from Riomaggiore. From this town, find a connecting train to Pisa which is just few stops away and you can visit the leaning tower of Pisa.

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