Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spellbinding Tokyo - Japan Through My Eyes part 1



Tokyo, Japan – Home to the most populated urban area in the world. At the center of this 400 year old metropolis is a macrocosm where futuristic technological advancement meets old world charm and tradition; where most of its 12 million people represent some of the most polite beings to walk the earth. Who could ever imagine what was once a sleepy fishing village should rise into one of the most fascinating urban centers in the world?

Tokyo is expensive! In fact, it is the world’s 5th most expensive city to live in. A coke in can is 130 yen ($1.45/PhP67), McDonald's Big Mac is close to $3.55 (320 yen/PhP164). A 1.5 liter of evian water is 260 yen ($2.90/PhP133). Watching your favorite movie at the cineplex will cost you 1,800 yen ($20), that's a staggering PhP920. At least, London has the likes of Prince Charles Cinema right in the heart of Leicester Square with admissions of just 2 pounds. A taxi ride costs 710 yen ($7.90) for the first 2 kilometers, then 80 yen ($0.90) for every 274 meters thereafter!

With a population of 35 million populating the Greater Tokyo area, it can be a pretty overwhelming, intimidating, alienating experience roaming this conglomeration of cities!

Impression. It's a clean, beautiful city without the much hated red tape that is common in the rest of Asia (Southeast and South Asia, particularly). The four-star hotel rooms were lilliputian, so it's best to watch out where you stretch your arms or move your head. The taxi cabs are guided by GPS, so as long as you have a clearly written address, the cab drivers will just punch it in and, voila, you'll be on the way wherever you're going in no time. If you want a fast, inexpensive meal, just head for the nearest 24-hour convenience stores and buy a bowl of noodles or take-out sushi, you can even eat them inside the store (they have hot water in thermoses).

Everything is super expensive (and I could hardly find Diet Coke), but their rice meals are to die for. You grow up eating rice and this is where you realize how scrumptious Japanese rice is. It's chewy, tasty and comes in different flavors (those take-outs at 7/11s and their other convenience stores are a treat.) But many of these super efficient people don't speak a lot of English. They're not rude, they're not effusively friendly, but they'll point you in the right direction. I was extremely impressed when it was time to check out of the hotel, and was told to just punch my hotel "keys" in an ATM-like machine to check, and as soon as I did that, it was done. Nobody even checked my room! You have to hand it to the disciplined Japanese.

If you want to get some gifts but don't have enough money to go around (in the first place, let me just say that I don't really think Tokyo is for budget travelers and backpackers), just go to the nearest 100 Yen Shop and you'll find a lot of "local color" items that you can bring home to your friends and family.

What I found odd was the fact that it was so difficult for me to find Japanese DVDs (even the originals), but the concierge will give you a map and a serviceable instruction as to how you'll find DVD stores and rental shops, but let me just warn you that they are extremely expensive.

There's a little wrinkle in this otherwise lovely city and its people--while it is true that their trains and light rail transit system can take you to so many places, these stations have very few signs in English, so make sure you know where you're going, check the color-coded lines serving the different destinations, and carry the railway map with you. If the whole railway system discombobulates you, ask the help of a train station officer.

As for those "notable" landmarks and historical sites, as pictured above (and elsewhere), you will find them lovely and pristine, but I found it odd that it took the cab drivers sometime to figure out which place I wanted to go to and what it looked like. They're like preserved "houses, shrines, and monuments" that look imposing but not really quite astounding as you'd expect.

Roponggi on the other hand is a cultural melting pot that offers a lot of treats for tourists craving for various adventures, but the now posh Roponggi Hills, which used to be a seedy district in Tokyo, can still be dangerous, so just be wary of overly helpful strangers.

There are a lot of ATM machines, but many of them are local ones. Ask the concierge where the ATMS that serve Cirrus/Visa affiliates are, because there are not many of them. It's not easy to find them, so plan your finances ahead.
Immigration. Tokyo welcomes a lot of visitors from all over the world. You'll find the immigration people efficient and fast, especially if your travel documents are all in order. It's better to pre-arrange a taxi service to pick you up, because taxi fare can be very expensive, especially if you get caught in the terrible albeit orderly traffic situation in Tokyo.

People. The city looks serene, and so do the people. But don't be deceived. They lead a fast and furious existence. They are not the friendliest, but they are hardly rude (though there are certainly exceptions to this), and they will answer your questions if you need some help getting around. If an establishment says that it doesn't accept "tips" for their employees (like in restaurants), they mean it. A friend and I once gave the usual 15% tip and was very much surprised when the waitress, with her very lovely smile, tried to catch up with us as we were making our way out of the lift (elevator) of the three-story building...to return the tip!



























My taxi. Notice the GPS screen.




Monday, February 15, 2010

More NAIA Terminal 3 – And the Rude Skies of Cebu Pacific!

Check-in Counters taken from the Food Court at the 2nd Floor.




More and more tourists are finding their way to the hustle and bustle of Manila. Though we almost forget the continuing popularity of this metropolis, the steady stream of backpackers is a testament that inspires this spotlight on Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s (NAIA) Terminal 3.

I fly Cebu Pacific more often for several reasons. Low fares notwithstanding, they have an extensive choice of flights and schedules - and more importantly, I like the airport terminal they use, Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3. A relaxing departure calms my nerves.

The Food Court at the 2nd floor of the Departure Hall is an excellent place to get your meals before your flight leaves. It's a much better alternative (read: cheaper) than the food stalls inside the pre-departure halls. There's a Mini-Stop Convenience Store (which sells siopao, etc - and all those items), a coffee shop, Jollibee and more.

Check out NAIA Terminal 3Basic Information – More photos at http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2009/08/naia-terminal-3-manila.html.

AVOID MARY GRACE CAFE


And just so you avoid delays, if you're taking a meal or snack at the Food Court, we feel we need this special mention. Avoid Mary Grace Cafe. The place is messy, the servers are inattentive and take forever to serve you and they forget orders.

GOOD NEWS: Major International Carriers Move to T3
(July 2014 Update)

Starting July 2014 , NAIA Terminal 3 will be accepting major international carriers: Delta, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Emirates, Singapore and CathayANA has also been using this terminal a while back. This makes the terminal fully operational, which used to only operate a mere 50% of its facility and services. They've in fact opened the once-empty right wing. These new airline companies will also be posting shuttle bus services for its passengers with connecting flights to other terminals (1,2,4) - for free! Travel between these terminals usually take 30 to 45 minutes. These will give tourists arriving with these carriers a better impression and a more relaxed arrival in Manila. Three other carriers are slated to move from Terminals 1 ans 2 to Terminal 3 in the coming months. This was made possible after the settling of the long-running court cases related to the construction of NAIA Terminal 3.    



Yipee! I'm airbound!


Waiting area at the Departure Hall.






Makati skyline taken on my way to the pre-departure area.


Asia's Rudest Skies – It’s Time Everyone Flies

Cebu Pacific ground staff anywhere in the Philippines and abroad is fast earning its notorious reputation as Asia’s most discourteous and rude manpower – this is the airline company that ignores teaching good manners to their staff and crew. I’ve had several misfortunes of dealing with these morons from Davao to Cebu to Manila. Most times, I just ignore them altogether; but with the slew of complaints that deservedly reached the halls of the Senate, I was sure this was going to catch up with them.

Recently, there has been a high profile complaint lodged by a mother whose “special” child was barred from taking his flight back from Hong Kong to Manila. Yes – even CHILDREN aren’t spared from the ignorance and arrogance of Cebu Pacific’s pea-brained Neanderthals! As an update, this complaint is finally finding its way to the courts to the tune of PhP3 million ($64,900).

Unfortunate Encounters

My unfortunate experience with Cebu Pacific came in threes one summer of 2007. During that time, choosing a seat was on a first-come, first served basis. You get to the airport on time then choose from the available seats upon check-in. I had a long haul trip that would take me from Manila to Cebu, then Cebu to Davao, and finally Davao to Manila!

I was checking in for my Cebu departure and just wanted to tell the lady by the counter that I preferred any aisle seat (I hate disturbing people when I have to pass through their seats for the loo), This was an era before one could pay a hundred bucks for a preferred seat. I waited for my turn for the check-in. Lo and behold, 15 minutes of standing before the check-n lady, I couldn't get an eye contact from the idiot by the counter! She just took my ticket and ID, looked everywhere but my way - while I kept waiting for her to look up. I didn't want to talk to someone who wasn't looking at me. I don't waste my words on inattentive schmucks. Call it social grace or ethics, it was just wrong! More than 10 long years of professional education taught me that! You look people in the eye when you talk to them, and vice versa. Guess what, she never looked up! It was an artistic feat for her never to have looked at her customer's face as they checked in! Oh well, I guess it's alright. She will forever be a ticket puncher. That she will evolve into a tycoon like her boss Mr. Gokongwei seems unlikely! Not with an attitude like that!

The tycoons that I know have enviable historical past that showed character built on hard work and an upstanding character. These were people others could talk to. These were people who could look at clients in the eyes, regardless of how preoccupied they were.

As I was leaving Cebu, and heading towards Davao, another Cebu Pacific check-in girl was raising her voice to a couple of elders who - for some reason - were confused with their departure details. When my turn came, this idiot girl was still smirking. I didn't want to cross her for fear of her imminent transformation into a constipated monster!

Then once again, we encountered a similar scenario upon our Davao departure on our way back to Manila! I was chucking with disbelief. What are the odds of witnessing 3 rude Cebu Pac personnels in one long haul trip? Then suddenly, common entrepreneurial practices flashed before my eyes. Sales ladies in SM Department Stores addressing everyone sir and ma'am with a smile. Cashiers in McDo and Jollibee affording even a 9 year old child with utmost respect. Ushers in cinemas assisting their patrons like they owned the place! 

Curiously, these practices seem foreign to the Cebu Pacific staff!

This pervading arrogance is probably due to Cebu Pac's leadership in domestic and foreign sales, but this also underlines biblical tales of the mighty that shall eventually fall down their pedestals once they forget who it is they serve!

My local travels are still peppered with Cebu Pac flights. This is because I like NAIA 3; not to mention the fact that Cebu Pac tickets are relatively cheaper (though not by much) and finally, their extensive flight schedules are very convenient. I guess, like most products, you get the quality with the price that you are willing to pay! Mas mura, basura! But when I can, I prefer to fly the skies of those who respect their customers! I am gradually addressing this concern. In fact, my international travels last year didn't have Cebu Pacific in them. I was proud of that. I try avoiding Cebu Pac when I can. Patronage is deserved. I simply cannot reciprocate Cebu Pac's utter ignorance to common customer courtesy with loyalty and patronage.

Having said that, maybe the Cebu Pacific bigwigs need to use their thinking caps by actually investing on a Summer Camp on Good Manners and Basic Customer Care for all their employees! They used to be the lone budget airline in the Philippines, affording them arrogance and blatant thoughtlessness on dealing with customers. In the long run, people are more than willing to seek options once Cebu Pac's monopoly is contested. I believe this is happening sooner than we think. Loyalty is after all deserved, as much as patronage is.


Food Court. There are limited tables though. But the choices have increased considerably in the last couple of years.










General Information and more photos of NAIA Terminal 3 - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2009/08/naia-terminal-3-manila.html

Covered Parkinghttp://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2014/09/naia-terminal-3-covered-parking.html

UPDATE on NAIA Terminal 3: February 2011 Feature on NAIA 3 here:



For specific inquiries, here are some important telephone numbers and email addresses at T3:


Airport Trunkline+63.2.877-7888
Terminal Manager+63.2.666-1513tm.3@miaa.gov.ph
Asst. Terminal Manager+63.2.425-2262atm.3@miaa.gov.ph
Terminal Operations+63.2.666-1512to.3@miaa.gov.ph
Concierge+63.2.666-1474conc.3@miaa.gov.ph
Lost & Found+63.2.877-7888 loc.8139iid@miaa.gov.ph
Bureau of Animal Industry+63.2.877-7888 loc.8238/8239quarantine_bai@yahoo.com
Bureau of Customs+63.2.877-7888 loc.8127/8197info@customs.gov.ph
Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources+63.2.877-7888 loc.8238/8239bfarmfdc@bfar.gov.ph
Bureau of Immigration+63.2.877-7888 loc.8128/8187xinfo@immigration.gov.ph
Bureau of Plant Industry+63.2.877-7888 loc.8238/8239buplant@yahoo.com
Bureau of Quarantine+63.2.877-7888 loc.8125/8193info@quarantine.doh.gov.ph
DENR Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Unit+63.2.877-7888 loc.8238/8239denrncr_wtmu@yahoo.com
Philippine Overseas Employment Adminnistration+63.2.877-7888 loc.8051info@poea.gov.ph
Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority+63.2.877-7888 loc.8159
Customer Relations Center+63.2.823-0669crc@miaa.gov.ph
Passenger & Customer Relations+63.2.877-7888 loc. 8044pao@miaa.gov.ph
Terminal Administration+63.2.877-7888 loc. 8074t3admin@miaa.gov.ph
Terminal Security & Safety+63.2.877-7888 loc. 8129tss@miaa.gov.ph
Terminal Engineering+63.2.877-7888te3@miaa.gov.ph

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cameron Highlands v.02 - The Road To and From The Highlands



It was Sunday in KL. I bought a copy of Sunday Star (1.50 ringgit/$0.40/PhP20.30) because it might save me from boredom during the bus ride. It was easy to find the counter selling tickets for Cameron Highlands. Counter 87, the blue one. I paid the fare – 22.50 ringgit ($6.55/PhP304.50) and mentally took note of my seat (#27)! Not long after, I found my bus along Jalan Pudu, just across Puduraya Terminal.

Cameron Highlands is just 214 kilometers north of the capital, and if I were to believe wikitravel and Lonely Planet, I’d reach Tanah Rata (CH’s main town) in 2 1/2 hours! Pfft!

LOVING STOPOVERS

Our driver was a 350-pound guy who could hardly skip down the bus. He relished our frequent restaurant stopovers. He would be the first one to leave the bus, order his food, then the last one back! He was nice though. Seeing that i was he only Asian tourist, he waved to me and pointed me to the VIP seat right in front, instead of seat 27 in the middle of the bus. I was glad to oblige.

4 1/2 HOURS

Along the way, I bought some crackers and chips. My seat was right by the door, so I was enjoying the view. The bus was almost full. Though I had no one to chat with, it was a relaxing ride that eventually took 4 hours and 30 minutes! Not 2 1/2 hours! As we drew near Tanah Rata (where backpackers usually conglomerate), I noticed several road blocks being cleared! There were rubbles which have fallen off the mountains. Gosh! Landslides! It had been raining for the last week or so. In fact, I just survived a cyclone in Chennai (India) a couple of days before arriving in Malaysia.

To be honest, I never realized that the roads were tortuous. So, much like Baguio, Cameron suffers from occasional landslides during the monsoon season. There was no advisory from any news papers, not even from the Sunday Star I just bought!

It had been drizzling again as we arrived in the town of Tanah Rata, one of the 8 towns in Cameron Highlands. The center of town enjoys the laidback demeanor of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. No hustle and bustle, with few people walking around the streets!

TRIP CANCELLATION

The minute I got off my bus, I went to the ticket counter to buy my return – as I always do! Guess what? All bus schedules had been cancelled due to the landslides occurring along the sinuous zigzagging roads! I will be stuck here until they have completely cleared the roads.
Oh well!


My bus from Jalan Pudu in KL.




Beautiful roads - from my "VIP" seat! ;->




Tanah Rata's Bus Terminal. All the ticket counters were closed!


A restaurant stopover!


An overpass on the way to the highlands.




Treacherous curves


Zigzagging road and falling rocks and landmass make an adventurous trip to and from Cameron Highlands!


My comfortable bus ride. I was surrounded by a horde of young Korean tourists. I was seated beside a Korean guy.


Tea plantations almost as far as the eyes can see.


Undulating fields of tea plantation. This photo only courtesy of www.vacationinmalaysia.com.


Surreal spot. This photo only courtesy of www.farawayholidays.co.uk.


Fast Facts:

Elevation of Cameron highlands – 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) above the sea level
Distance from KL to Cameron Highlands – 214 kilometers
Duration of Bus Ride to CH – 4 hours 30 minutes. (Return ride took 5 hours!)
AC Bus Ticket to CH - $22.50 riinggit
Postcard in Tanah Rata - 0.80 ringgit ($0.22/PhP10.80)
Cameron Highlands belong to the Pahang State and enjoys a range of temperature from 12 to 28 degrees Celsius.


A call away. One of our several restaurant bus stops from Cameron Highlands. My 400-pound bus driver loved sampling all the restaurant!


We must have had 3 restaurant stops, plus a petrol stopover on our way to KL.



Check out:
Cameron Highlands part 1: Photos of Tanah Rata and the tea fields. - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2010/02/cameron-highlands-v01-in-place-called.html


This is the Eye in the Sky!




Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cameron Highlands v.01 - In A Place Called Tanah Rata




Picture this. Undulating terrain of equidistant tea plants that stretch on for kilometers, fog that hovers in the early morning slumber, cool air blowing against your hair while you break into the mildest sweat as you hike around serene plantations, a kaleidoscopic spread of butterfly shaped petals, freshly picked strawberries that you handpicked yourself – and the corresponding juice delectably dripping down your chin as a bite lacerates the wounded flesh of your choice fruit. Add a dash of David Garrett playing Pablo de Sarasote on your iPod (or maybe a Jack Johnson or Metallica – whoever drives you to your Zen!) Heaven on earth!

THREE TIMES BIGGER

Cameron Highlands (CH) has all the trappings of a perfect highland destination! Nestled on an elevation of 5,000 feet (1,500m) above sea-level in the state of Pahang, 121 km east of Ipoh, and 214 km north of the capital Kuala Lumpur, CH is Malaysia’s answer to Thailand’s Chiangmai and the Philippines’ Baguio City. (Nope, it’s not the very limited area of Genting Highlands.) Pine trees and rose gardens abound - and tea plantations blanket its land mass; Malaysia’s largest tea-producing region. Some areas also remind one of the quaint chalets of Devonshire. With a population of barely 35,000 despite its size that’s almost 3x bigger than Singapore, Cameron Highlands enjoys a laidback atmosphere.

EIGHT TOWNS
There are eight towns in the Cameron Highlands. Brinchang (its biggest town), Tanah Rata and Ringlet are the three main townships among others such as Tringkap, Bertam Valley, Kuala Terla, Kampung Raja and Blue Valley. Tourist spots and shopping places are concentrated mostly in Brinchang and Tanah Rata.All buses arrive and depart in Tanah Rata which has the most number of varied accommodations. This is the reason why most tourists prefer to make Tanah Rata as their home base when in the area.


Pansies all over!


NAME ORIGIN
In 1885, William Cameron, a British colonial surveyor discovered the plateau during a mapping expedition. The fame of Cameron Highlands then grew when British capitalists realized its agricultural potential for growing tea, then a prized commodity. These days, the highlands sub for a major tourist destination.

ATTRACTIONS
Apart from the cool weather, key attractions in Cameron Highlands include a butterfly farm,strawberry farms, rose gardens and vegetable gardens. There are also the Brinchang Hindu Temples and the Sam Poh Chinese Mahayana Buddhist Temple. Other features include Cactus Point, Cactus Valley and theBOH Tea Plantation. There is Market Square, the Cameron Highlands Time Tunnel Galeria (at nearby Kea Farm) and accommodation at the Kampung Taman Sedia Homestay, Tanah Rata and The Smokehouse Hotel.

LANDSLIDES
There is a minor problem with visits in Cameron Highlands: During the rainy season (November-March), intermittent landslides become a source of inconvenience as these bus schedules are temporarily cancelled to clear the rubble. During my visit, travels to and from this “town” were suspended for more than a day.

BEGGING FOR A RIDE
More importantly, one has to secure his bus ticket as soon as possible as busses that head back to KL aren’t as numerous as I thought they would be! I practically “begged” the lady at the ticket counter to give me a seat – a “space” – I was willing to stand all the way through the ride! The departing bus was the only bus leaving for the day. Others had their “holiday” to avoid landslide troubles. I waved my eticket at her face and with all the theatrics I could muster, I employed all the dramatics I could muster! Begged like I never had! After a 2 hour wait, she finally opened her cabinet! Gosh! She had several available tickets! I wonder why I had to beg! To cut the long story short, I got back to KL and hopped on a taxi to catch my flight back to Manila. Just in the nick of time!


More pansies!


I bought my postcards nearby! This is part of the strip of shops in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highland's backpacker country!



The main strip of shops at Tanah Rata. This small lane is also the main highway (Jalan Simpang Pulai). To the left is the Bus Terminal. Some 100 meters further ahead is the Tourist Information Office. Shops, restaurants, ATM machines, postcard and souvenir shops, a post office can be seen along this row.








A walk among tea plants. This photo only courtesy of www.backpacker.com.tw.


A view from a moving bus!




This map only courtesy of www.bjaya.com.




Up Next: The Road to and From Cameron Highlands (More Info!) - http://eye-in-the-blue-sky.blogspot.com/2010/02/cameron-highlands-v02-road-to-and-from.html


This is the Eye in the Sky!