Saturday, November 30, 2013

QUO VADIS THAILAND?

Where will this end? And, when will it end? Protest follow protest for years and I am sick and tired of it. I am having a flashback memory to 26. November 2006 when I checked out of my hotel on Sukhumvit road and my taxi driver told me the airport was closed. Yeah, right...I thought this is another attempt to go shopping somewhere rather than going where I want to go to. 

2006 flash back
But as it turns out the airport was closed by yellow shirt protesters and it stayed closed for 11 days in which I got stuck in the Land of Smiles (yeah right!!).

Returning to my hotel, the price had already doubled! Being confined to my hotel room and answering worried family members and friends emails that I don't know when I would be able to leave, I decided to make the most out of it and go visit Ayutthaya for a few days. Hotels up there were cheaper and I finally managed to see all the temples I had ever wanted to see.

2006 flash back
But after a week, I had to get back to Bangkok, checked with airlines daily to see when I would be able to leave. I ran out of money (tough if you spent all that is on your bank account!) and medicine. The restaurants were empty, as most people left by buses to go south and cross the borders somewhere. I met a German girl who lost her new job, because she was not able to go home and start her new employment. And I was getting tired of being the only western tourist on the street who was hit by hundreds of street vendors. Buy this and buy that...if you have it already, buy another one!

2006 flash back
In the following years, I cancelled one trip all together and cut short two trips because of protests. This time by red shirt protesters!  But after 10 years of visiting Thailand and spending a lot of money there, I started going to Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and avoided Thailand!

Just in 2012 I was finally starting to go back to Thailand. It seemed quiet, even if there was always an underlying feeling that things could flame up again. And they did. Just as I am about to go back to Bangkok in December, the streets are filled with all kinds of shirts, red, yellow, multi-coloured and who knows what else. And I am fine with the Thai's to sort out their political chaos. None of my business! But it does mean that this country is not reliable for long-term planning.

2010 flash back
Maybe backpackers do not care. Maybe you can't feel a thing in Pattaya's bars or on Phuket's beaches, but those are the tourists who visit once and then move on to another spot next year. Those are not the ones who spend money, other than beer and tourist crap at the night market.

Thailand is not aware of what the risk is for them. Not only do they suck in terms of English language skills, but by being so inwardly focused, they missed the opening of Myanmar to tourists who spend big bucks. They also missed all the developments Cambodia has undergone with grade A tourist spots. Angkor, Phreah Vihear and even a stroll along the Mekong in Phnom Penh is more fun than sitting in a bar in Bangkok. Malaysia's beaches are better than those in Thailand, Penang's food trail is awesome, Singapore blows my mind away each time I visit there and the people of Java are the friendliest people in the world. I could go on an on about alternatives to the Land of Smiles! 

But, dear protesters in Bangkok - when you go back to your everyday job, being it rice farming or in hotels, restaurants, banks or as taxi driver, I don't ever want to hear you say "now I have no money". And you will say it, because I have heard it over and over again. We will spend our tourist dollars in other countries, because we DO have a choice!  Singapore and Malaysia for 2014 are already booked!

Friday, October 25, 2013

DOUBLE STANDARD PRICING - THAILAND

Bangkok Post's recent headline "B500 foreigner-entry fee on the table" pissed me off again. While it is not a lot compared to the amount we overall spend on a trip to Thailand, it is yet another attempt to rip off foreigners only. 

You can see it all over the beautiful Kingdom that there is a double standard for foreigners, foreign-looking tourists, or even foreigners who live in Thailand. 

Just recently I realized that the entry fee for foreigners at Wat Phra Kaeo, the temple in the Royal Palace, is now 500 Baht. I haven't been back a while, but last time I paid just 200 Baht. And yes, castles in Europe are expensive too, but we do charge every person who visits, and don't just charge foreigners. Can you imagine how many people would call us "racists" if we charged only foreigners?


Also recently I came to Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya again and given the huge number of tourists I have brought here, I should actually get in for free (or be paid!!). Seeing the sign and having been here for a while I naturally just read the Thai language and handed over 10 Baht, instead of the 50 Baht they charge a foreigner.  



During the recent Vegetarian Festival in Bangkok, I wanted to pay my respect to the Golden Buddha Statue in Wat Traimitr, as I usually do when I am in the area. But even to just do a quick prayer, in and out, I had to pay an entry fee, because I was a foreigner. Thai's don't pay.  But leaving the temple compound I found this sign around the corner of the main shrine, which was a parking for foreigners only sign. Take a good guess why foreigners have to park here! 

And yes, I know when in Italy or Germany, we have to pay a tourist fee for certain hotels, but it is not an "entry fee" for the country. And it is not a racist double standard pricing policy, because natives and foreigners have to pay the same fee.

So, back to the Bangkok Post article! It is just another way of ripping off the tourist and finding yet another lucrative way of getting more money into the pocket of the officials. I am sure we all pay 500 Baht many times during our stay in Thailand, but then it goes into the pocket of someone who works at a restaurant, a tip for a tour guide or a souvenir shop, but not to some government official. Those 500 Baht will do absolutely nothing for us "foreigners"!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

MY SINGAPORE F1 SLEEPS AGAIN

My second stay at LeHotel in Singapore's River district. F1 times again and outrageous prices again. LeHotel proved OK during our last stay, so we gave it another try.  Again, this is not one of the fancy, large rooms with a grand view, but a clean and basic accomodation. After all, I am going to the race track day and night and don't spend a lot of time in the room. 

 
A warm "welcome back Sir" when arriving showed me that I was still remembered (and I remembered the nice lady at the counter as well). 


 The room I had reserved and which was confirmed in writing was not available though - bummer! But an email and a day later I was able to move into my preferred room. A miracle during F1 times!!! 

 
While we faced the back and dozens of windows and A/C units last time, we had a nice window to the street this year. Much better, though I was not really sure if the office building across the street can actually look into the room, so the curtains remained closed most of the time. 


 This room proved better than last year's because their was a "safe" gap between the two beds, while we literally layed right next to each other a year ago. Not a good idea, since I did share with a person I hardly knew a year ago!

Shower room also came with a shower cabin this time. The rest was similar - Coffee maker with free coffee and tea. Bottled water and free, though very mediocre Internet connection. There was almost no way to connect in the room, independent of the floor I tried to connect. The lobby connection always worked, but sitting there with a bunch of other guests was not my thing. 

 
Staff was as good or bad as a year ago - one person is really nice, the rest is "neutral" to "non existent" at best. Two nights I came in with nobody even manning the desk. 

 
The price is another question. Though it was cheaper than other hotels, it is waaaaay to expensive for what you get.  The downsides are like last year: no safety box, no storage for cloths, just hangers, no breakfast and a bad internet connection. But it is clean and with a great location a block away from the river and within walking distance to the F1 circuit is awesome though. One thing which I didn't mention last year: This is the only hotel I have ever had with no inside lock and no "do not disturb" sign available...makes you feel very uneasy when using the bathroom or sleeping, so I keep blocking the door with my suitcase or furniture to prevent people from just walking in.


2014 again? Prices are even higher than this year, so I made a provisional reservation at a different place, a year in advance!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

WOULD YOU WANT TO SIT HERE? - BKK AIRPORT



I still remember how exciting it was in October 2006 to fly out of Suvannaphum airport, or just BKK, Thailand's huge international airport. I even took that photo which every traveler seems to take upon getting to the first point in the departure/arrival wing. Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Visnu on Kurma, with the asuras on one side and the devas on the other side. I am sure most tourists don't really care, but it is a nice statue and (if I remember correctly) one of the most featured photos on Instagram.

Well, that excitement is long gone. Definitely after the first time I had to stand in line for an hour for meeting a very neutral immigration officer who stamped my passport without a word and for sure after getting outside the secure area for the first time where hundreds of people want to offer you a taxi ride to the city. 

I have turned to VIP limos and Fast Track Service since, which is quite costly but lessens the degree of airport frustration in my head. I have also spent most time in those nice Airline lounges and didn't mind to wait for long periods while I stuffed myself with yummy food and drinks, free WiFi and nice people around me. But since my ex-favourite airline United started not to credit my flown partner airlines miles anymore, I am out there with the backpackers and sex tourists, beating time. 



Well, coming from Singapore's Changi, my experience couldn't be any worse, despite the VIP limo transport and the nice lady's company who "smiled" my way through immigration and security. There I was, looking at Visnu and wondered if I turn to the devas or the asuras first. Shopping is not my thing at airport prices, but shopping is what Suvannaphum wants you to do!


There is not a single area to sit and have a meal or drink, or just to sit and relax for a mere 400 meters on either side of Visnu. I just found the sign telling you that eating and drinking is 400 meters either way. So you walk past the exclusive and overpriced shops until you get to the point where your gates start and the restaurants begin....well, not really restaurants, but more Starbucks, Subways and Coffee Shops. Though I did find one place to eat, which was Mango Tree. It was ok, actually. But after eating I tried to just sit and wait for my plane to board. Sit somewhere other than those rows of chairs at the gates, or do something at the airport which was not shopping. 



But compared to Changi, which tries to include passengers/tourists in fun activities or at least provide you with nice areas to enjoy, sit, relax, even lay down and rest, there is really nothing at Suvannaphum. The few "nice" things to see are all "fenced off/do not touch" photo opportunities. Once that is done, you can only go back to shopping, eating or wander around. 



Finally I remembered the seating areas with free WiFi/Internet access on the lower level, so I went there only to find bus loads of people who where sleeping like this was a youth hostel. Before you get to the gates (here at the gates C) there are "lounge areas". At least from far they looked like nice lounge chairs, but getting closer I thought to myself "yuk...I would not want to sit there without a blanket or cover". Those seats where the filthiest things I have ever seen. I certainly did not expect them at an Airport and most certainly not at Suvannaphum Airport, which just a week before was quoted in the paper as an airport which wants to play in the ranks of Changi and become the #1 airport!!  The free Internet stations where filthy. The reclining leather lounge chairs on the way back to the Airline lounges looked better but some where broken and dirty. Trash from other travelers had not been removed and there were plenty of critters walking the floor between the chairs. 


But it was my only option and here I could test the free 1 hour WiFi Service, which was actually great. The only positive experience for those 5 hours I had to spend here at the airport before my long delayed flight finally started to board. 

broken lounge chair


There were people working here. Well, they looked like staff, but they were just sitting around, doing nothing. But since this is a common thing in the LOS, I wasn't sure if they were just lazy or on strike (another common thing). If they got up and moved around, they certainly did not try to clean things up. 

So, have a look at those seats and tell me honestly: would you want to sit there?  BKK, if you want to play with the big guys like SIN, you better do your homework first!





CHANGI AIRPORT HAS DONE IT AGAIN - SINGAPORE


Have I mentioned that I love Changi Airport? Yeah...I think I did...but I can't get enough of it and I think it absolutely deserves to be the #1 airport in the world!  I find it extremely efficient, swiftly move from the airplane door through immigration, pickup my luggage and am in the taxi within minutes!  I know, some friends have told me that their line reached all the way up from immigration to the escalators, but I have never ever had such experiences before. And I have been in Changi a lot in the past view years. 




Changi also has the friendliest immigration officers I have ever met. Even when one of them recently scared me and paged forth and back in my passport. I thought "what now?"..."Don't start with those questions the US immigration keeps pissing me off...why are you here? whom do you know? or the best yet 'what-do-you-want-in-my-country-question' ...". But he was just looking for some space on already used pages, so he would not have to waste a new page for the stamps.



Besides efficiency I just love to spend time at Changi and it is the only airport in the world, where I do not mind to spend time. Even a 4 hour layover of a yet to take flight in a few months will be no problem for me.




The airport is simply beautiful. I love the carpet and the fact that you cannot hear other passengers walk around. I also enjoy the selections of restaurants I can chose from at prices which are not too bad for an airport. I have recently been at Munich's airport and was shocked to see their prices, even for a simple sandwich. Drinks? Forget it!!! Even just buying a bottle of plain water will cost you, because of the refund for the stupid bottle. And I am not going to walk around an airport to bring back my bottle or keep the bottle for an international flight, just to bring it back after a few weeks. Munich's very few restaurants and pubs are not even nice enough to sit there and enjoy a meal or drink, compared with Singapore. And Munich is listed with the best airports of the world! I have no idea what got them even into the ranking!



In Changi I enjoy the new arrangements of flowers and plants, fish ponds and exhibits. Even their latest gadget "the social tree" seems fun, though I would never put in my details and photos, but people seemed to enjoy it. The free WiFi is not working to well, but there are plenty of Internet stations around.


 
Transportation from Changi is also so cheap compared to other airports. A mere 15-20 S$ brings you into Chinatown. 25S$ during F1 days, because of heavier traffic and for a few dollars you can even take the MRT. Last visit a taxi driver even told me my trip was free because we had such a great conversation in his cab. Never happened to me anywhere in the world...on the contrary, they would expect a high tip for being nice!




Well, I could go on and on here, but I am really just doing this post here because my next post will be about Bangok's Don Muang and Suvannaphum airports. I'll even through in a few new photos from Changi to remind myself how nice my #1 airport in the world is.





Friday, October 4, 2013

SINGAPORE F1 GP - RACE DAY

...and then there is the actual race day, the most exciting day at the event (though I do not want to miss the other two days). Race day is also the day when most people come to the event. If I recollect the announcement over the speakers correctly it was 80609 people (in that range...) who came to race day and I believe I heard something like 260.000 people for all three days, but don't quote me. 


Again, the day starts late and after a heavy security search, I wanted to get a close-up look at some of the drivers. There are certain points within the race track where we see the right drivers walking right by you, at a certain date and location. Those I won't name here, since it is depending on your ticket category if you even get up close. 



I was lucky and got a real eye-to-eye moment with Webber, Vettel, Alonso and a few others. With some of them you can feel the stress they must be going through ahead of the race, while a few others are very relaxed and give autographs, smile and wave at people. 



The GP2 series race is in full swing when the F1 drivers walk to their garages, followed by the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia Race. This is all happening during daylight and by that time the grandstands and the platforms are filling up with people. 



So, in order to get a close look at some of the stars I actually missed a good place at my intended platform in Turn 3. By the time I got there, there were too many people up there and I was not in the mood to push myself in. 

But I had a view other options in mind and they turned out to be better locations with a better view of the start of the race. I later changed mid-race to another location so I could see the end of the race and of course the fireworks. 



Drivers track parade is happening just before the actual race and gives you a great view of all the drivers, as they parade-by in their Oldtimers with their names clearly visible on the side of the cars. By then all seats will be taken and you will have to live viewing the action from a third or fourth line in front of the fence. 

I was a bit annoyed by the huge amount of alcohol which was consumed by some groups of men, mostly from (sorry to say) Australia and New Zealand. Beer was spilled everywhere and some of the seats/stands where turned into swimming platforms of beer. Some of those guys where also so drunk that they had no more feeling for time and place. They had to go to toilets (which takes anywhere from 15 mins to 20 mins) and some decided to go get another few rounds of beer....all while missing the start of the race!



It is getting exciting when all drivers bring their cars into the starting positions and leave the pit lane, driving one round, followed by the warm up round. When the lights finally go from red to green all cars will pass you with an unbelievable noise (still some had no ear protection!!) after which every face turns around to face the huge screens where the first maneuvers at the first view turns will be seen. 



Funnily EVERYONE tapes the start of the race. Well, me too! But I see more hands and cameras/mobile phones than race cars. 

One of my F1 friends shares my view on another point, which is that in Singapore there are a lot of people who seem to go to an event rather than a F1 race. Many people don't really watch the race or the whole race, but spend time with friends, eat and drink or even just going to concerts and other activities. At other race tracks there are more people who will watch the entire race until it is finished. Here in Singapore it is a constant coming and going (with many people blocking your view). I had one couple in front of me (western and asian) who were engaged in heavy kissing and hugging throughout the race. I think they never even watched a single round!



Well, as the race comes to a close, there will be more people pushing onto the platforms again and as expected my favourite driver won the race, cheered by myself but booed by some unfair sports fans. Whoever you support at a F1 race, no driver should be booed, for anything!




Fireworks in Singapore happens immediately after the winner goes over the finish lane, which some drivers are still on the track. And it is a grand firework!! 



As it happened last year but at a different location, some of the parts of the fence will be opened and fans are streaming onto the race track, running down to the pit lane to see the three winners of the race getting their price, showering themselves with Champagne and giving interviews. I was lucky enough to do just that too and got some really nice close-up shots of the stars and myself. 



That is really it! After the interviews thousands of people are moving back to either the Padang Stage to see the concert or walking towards the exit gates. Walking on the race track itself is somewhat exciting (and of course I picked up some rubber from the track as most people here do). Besides that it is a faster route out of the race, and brought me faster to the Padang where Rihanna just started her concert, but that is a completely different story, which I posted already. 


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

SINGAPORE F1 GP QUALIFYING DAY

Qualifying to me is where the excitement starts!  

Q
Again, it starts late in the afternoon, so no need to go really early to the race track. For one, because you won't get in and secondly because there is nothing to see or do. 



The GP2 first race started at 16:00, which was just when I arrived, using yet another entrance, which saved me from walking through the masses and the long route down to Zone 1. I had seen the other Zones many time, so I took Singapore's excellent MRT system to get to my gate down at the Zone 1. 



Security this year was really beefed up! Even when we landed at the airport, we had to go through full check-points upon arrival! I have never seen anything like this before. And here at the race, it is also full search of bags and body scanners. In certain areas they even scan again! 


Third practise of F1 happened again at the time the sun sets and the race track is lit up by hundreds of lights...if not thousands. This time I watched third practice yet from another platform which I could use with my ticket. I was determined this time to watch the race at turn 3, which is right after the start of the race and gives full view of turn 1, 2 and 3. 



The Porsche Carrera Cup is happening before 20:00 and I filled the gap of the remaining hour with the over-priced drink and food stands. The prices are really outrageous. A beer costs more than at the Munich Octoberfest, but at half a litre, while we have a full litre in Munich!!  Food is offered in all forms and flavours. I decided to have a vegetarian (yes, they do!!) Falaffel, sitting down by the river and enjoying the view. 



Qualifying then happened between 21:00 and 22:00 and as expected Sebastian Vettel got the Pole position :-)) During the Qualifying I observed the people over on the other side in the super-expensive Paddock Clubs and thought to myself "what a waste of money" since they seemed not interested in the race. But I also wondered about the people over on my side who stood there with their fingers in their ears. Do they not know that a F1 race is loud, or do they not care about a possible damage to their hearing?




The Killers were performing on Padang Stage this night! Walking back from the Start/Finish point takes a while. And while walking with the masses, you are being entertained with all kinds of events along the way. But it takes a while and so I got a seat (or rather a standing position) in the middle of the lawn called Padang. I still had a good view of the stage and the music had already started when I got there. 



The crowd was all hyped up. Probably by the beer which was consumed in large amounts, despite the high price. It is always amazing to me to see totally sober Asian guys and completely drunk Caucasians at those events. While the base vibrated in my stomach and my camera, I thought that those people up there on the balconies of The Swissotel The Stamford had the best seats! Though they can't sleep or do anything else due to the noise. 



The Killers weren't my thing....they were great, just not my kinda music, so I left before the other 60.000 people or so would join me on the way home.