Saturday, September 19, 2009

9 Hours in Shanghai

I've always wanted to visit mainland China. The closest I ever got was a month in Hong Kong and a couple of weeks in Taiwan. When this opportunity to work in Malaysia came up and I was looking at airfare one of the lower fare flights had a 9 hour layover in Shanghai so that's the one I chose reasoning that 9 hours is better than nothing. Of course I should have checked first if one needed a visa to leave the airport.

Surfing the internet after the fact wasn't much help since the information was contradictory. Some claimed that you need a visa no matter what. Others that as long as your connecting flight left withing 24 hours to third country (or 48, even there the information was kind of confusing) you didn't need a visa. I just crossed my fingers and figured I'll see what happens once I am on the ground in Shanghai.

As luck would have it (bad for most travelers, but worked out for me) the counter attendant in KL for Malaysia Airlines informed me that due to some regulations my luggage could not be checked straight through to Chicago and I would have to recheck my bags in Pudong and check in at the AA counter to get my tickets to Chicago. This of course would mean that I would have to clear Chinese customs first.

To make a long story short, after waiting in line for over an hour and being sent hitter and yon by Chinese customs officials I found myself on the other side of the Silk Curtain. Figuring valor is the better part of discretion I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth (how's that for mixing metaphors) I found a place to keep store my luggage and followed the signs to the Maglev.

For those of you who don't know the Shanghai Maglev is the world's first commercial high speed Magnetic Levitation train capable of speeds over 500 km/h (300 mph). There are simpler and more direct ways to get to the heart of Shanghai, but the geek in me couldn't pass up the opportunity. Its around $10 for a round trip ticket and the train ride itself is only 10 minutes each way. The train runs only from Pudong Airpor to Longyang Road Station and there's not much to see of interest around Longyang itself, but the experience is definitely worth it. Its eerie to travel that fast and that quietly as you watch the world outside your window zip by. The train hits a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph). And judging by how full the train was and how many people people were snapping pictures of the speed readout in each car I wasn't the only geek along for the ride. Once we arrived at Longyang there was a taxi stand at the bottom of the station and from there you can pretty much get to anywhere in Shanghai. Taxi prices are really, really low so its the best option for travelers pressed for time. As in Taipei, since most of the taxi drivers do not speak English or read latin alphabets, before you get into the cab a dispatcher hands you a sheet of paper with the most popular attractions listed in both English and Chinese (it also includes the prices of the ride so you don't have to worry about haggling) and you simply point at the destination you want and the taxi driver can read the Chinese characters underneath and everyone lives happily ever after. Hang on to that piece of paper since it will be handy for the return trip. I couldn't find the Maglev station on the sheet and when I hailed a cab for the return trip I had a couple of panicked moments since the driver didn't seem to understand what I meant when I said Maglev or Longyang, but I pulled out the Maglev ticket itself and that did the trick.

Shanghai is a huge city with a population of over 20 million. 9 hours isn't that much time so you have to pick and choose your spots carefully, but having read about the Bund and seen it in the movies I knew that would be my next destination.

Unfortunately turns out most of the waterfront is still undergoing renovation so the waterfront itself is hidden behind boards and it wasn't quite the experience I had hoped for, but it was still worth the trip since I got some great views of the Shanghai skyline. Chicago is no stranger to powerful skylines and KL has the Petronas towers, but this was truly something else.

I walked around the Bund a little bit, but since I didn't plan out any specific locations on the Bund that I wanted to see other than the waterfront itself I just meandered around aimlessly. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but often when visiting a new place I just pick a direction and start walking with no specific destination in mind. Sometimes this pays off and sometimes not, but it does give one the opportunity to get a true sense of place. I did go down the Bun Sightseeing Tunnel, but judging by the quality of the Engrish signs around the entry figured it might be a better idea to spend my time elsewhere so a meandering I went.

Glad I did. Reversing direction I headed up the Bund and found myself on Fuyou Road and its mass humanity and tourist shops. I am not really a shopper, nor particularly a fan of massing humanity, but the riot of colors, goods, restaurants and people is a real experience. Its that sense of place again. Chicago isn't exactly a small provincial village, but Shanghai takes it to a different level.
9 hours is not nearly enough and eventually I had to hop a cab and head back to the Maglev and back to the airport, but I was glad I took the chance of a lengthy layover in Shanghai. While this doesn't really count as a real visit to China it certainly reinforced my desire to come back some day and truly explore the country and all it has to offer.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The slogan is everywhere. Posters on buildings. Adverts in newspapers. On the radio and TV. In the news and on the street. On the other end of the spectrum there's a crowd with a cow's head marching on a proposed Hindu temple in a majority Muslim area. Vigilante anti-alcohol activists removing beer from a Seven-Eleven. There's the caning sentence for a Muslim girl for drinking a beer in a night club.
Malaysia is a multicultural melting pot and pots are known to simmer and occasionally boil over. Malaysians make up 50.4% of the population, the Chinese around 23.7%, the indigenous Sarawak around 11%, and the Indians about 7% (for the record most of the Indians I met in Malaysia actually consider themselves to be Tamil). Almost all of the non-Malays have been on Malay soil for many generations. The Chinese came with the trade. The Indians as soldiers and labor for the plantations during the British colonial period.
The country gained its independence from Britain in 1957 and has been working hard at developing a stable identity ever since. The road hasn't always been smooth. The same party (UMNO) has been in power since independence and with the power of the ISA isn't shy about using it to retain power. While the Opposition is growing in strength its still fairly weak and fractured. Its interesting reading the newspapers here. You always read the UMNO reaction to something the Opposition has said or written, but you never actually read what the Opposition's position was. The ISA requires all newspapers and media to apply for a renewal of license once a year to the government. Connect the dots.
For the most part tensions are fairly low between the people, but there is always that under current bubbling below the surface. For the most part Malays control the political sphere, the Chinese the economics and the Indians the lower end of the labor market. The non Malays complain about the quota system (Malays and the indigenous groups get preferential treatment in eduction and housing). The Malays on the other hand are very sensitive to any slights on their identity and Islam. Rumors of corruption and political scandals abound. And now there are also tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia over, of all things, a dance used in a Discovery promotional video.
Where it will all lead to is hard to predict. The people get along and the country is relatively prosperous due to oil exports and IT outsourcing. Tensions, as I wrote are very low, but when you add to it a single political party clinging to power, religion and ethnic and national politics it can be a volatile mix. Here's hoping it all shakes itself out for the best.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The IPhone and I

I am too poor to be a true early adapter. New technology when it first hits the market tends to be expensive and only as it matures and more and more people take it up the price goes down and the rest of us get to play. Still I have had my moments. Particularly when its media related.
I started using computers around 1980. I actually owned an original Pong and I even bought one of the first Radio Shack 16k computers. Yes. That's correct. 16k. Then I moved on to the PCs and kept on moving along the PC food chain up to the present.
The Internet is an old, old friend. Again started surfing around 1980. E-mail, multi-player games, news groups, chats, are things I used long before they became indispensable to the rest of the world. Still remember sitting in a PLATO computer lab at Truman College around 1982 and talking with a bunch of friends about how wouldn't it be cool if more people knew about what we knew and how someone should build a commercial business around this. We all laughed at the absurdity of the idea since computers weren't exactly user friendly and confined to the world of geeks and nerds. A few years later, Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL, Windows, Netscape and cheap PCs changed the world. Not ignoring the contributions of Apple computers, but they were always a bit out of my price range and since my main use of computers was for gaming I never left the PC zone.
I love movies so the moment I could afford one I bought a VCR. I skipped the laser disc fad and only joined at the tail end of the DVD era, but the moment plasma screens came down in price a bit I got myself a big screen TV.
Once the Walkmen hit the market I got myself one. Same for the Discmen. Was a little late to the IPod and digital music party, but once I got one I haven't looked back. Digitized my entire LP, CD and Cassette library and haven't bought any music other than in the digital format since.
There is one area, however, that I just never ever took part in. The cellphone revolution just kept on passing me by. Part of it I guess is that I am not one of the most sociable people out there. I have and love my friends, but unless we have something to do and say I am not one for just talking for the sake of talking. Part of it is that I am of a generation and history where the phone wasn't really all that integral part of my life. We never had a phone at home until we moved to the US and I was 15 by then. To me the phone is something you use in case of emergencies or to call someone to say you are running late or to set up a face to face. Looking on the bright side, my phone bills are always very, very low.
But some things are unavoidable. My mother will soon be 79. My father soon to be 90. All three of us are in different parts of the world, so when I found out about my six week Malaysia assignment I decided to get a cellphone so that in case of an emergency I could always be reached no matter where or when.
I wouldn't know a good cellphone from a good rutabaga, but since I loved the IPod and I always admired Apple for its design, technology and innovation I settled on the IPhone. I didn't realize that I was buying into the top of the cellphone food chain, but oh my. I won't bother with a review of the IPhone (plenty of those around) nor is this meant as a plug for the brand (there are other smart phones out there that probably deliver pretty much the same) or an overview of the various features like actually using it to communicate with other humans, but as a piece of media its nothing short of incredible. Here's just a few of my IPhone Adventures:
  • Driving around the suburbs of Chicago I get slightly lost. Being a typical male I will not ask for directions. Out comes the IPhone. Click on the Compass icon, get my bearings and point the car in the general direction I need to go. Minutes later click on the Maps icon, click on the location icon, GPS gives me the exact location of where I am, type in the location I am trying to find, and up come step by step driving directions. My masculine pride is in no danger of being compromised.
  • Walking around Putrajaya, Malaysia. Same as above.
  • In Tioman Island, Malaysia, just for the heck of it use GPS to locate the island and then zoom out to settle a minor argument about how far we are from the peninsula.
  • In the middle of KLCC while trying to figure out if they will or will not have fireworks for Hari Merdeka, click on the Safari icon, go to Google and type in "hari merdeka fireworks Kuala Lumpur 2009" and surf a few forums to see if we can find any information about when and where they might have fireworks.
  • Watching TV shows on airplanes and during long layovers. Never have to worry about how to fill the time.
  • I step out to the hotel balcony to take some photos with the IPhone of the Putrajaya cityscape. Since its hot outside and the AC is running full blast inside I close the sliding door. Point, click, photo. Point, click, photo. Turn around, pull sliding door open. Ooopps. Sliding door will not open. Try again. Nope. Looks like the security bar at the bottom of the sliding door must have fallen down into the secure position when I closed it. Good to know it works as designed. Unfortunately I am on the wrong side of the security. I am on the fourth floor on the garden side in the middle of the afternoon in the heat when most other sane people are indoors. Luckily I spot a gardener walking across. I shout. I wave. He looks up. I explain my predicament. He shrugs. As luck would have it I have come across one of the few in Malaysia who do not speak English. I shrug back. Plan B. I wait a few minutes hoping that another soul will brave the heat. I briefly consider climbing down, but I am not in my 20s anymore. I consider shouting louder until someone answers, but there's that masculine pride again. And then I glance at the IPhone in my hand. Call for help. This way I can keep my voice down and salvage what pride I still have. Problem 1: I do not know the phone number for the hotel. I could try dialing information but being overseas I am not sure if its as simple as dialing 0. IPhone Solution: Click on the Safari icon, go to google, type in Putrajaya Shangri La and find number. Problem 2: For some reason Safari doesn't want to work properly and no matter what I do I can't launch google. Wait a few minutes. Consider climbing down, but I am not even in my 30s anymore. Consider shouting again, but there's still that shred of pride. Glance at the IPhone. IPhone Solution: Click on the Maps icon, locate myself, type in Putrajaya Shangri La in the directions box, up pops a box with Putrajaya Shangri La as the legend, click on it and I have the phone number and location, homepage, etc. Briefly consider memorizing the number then remembering the wonderful world of technology I now live in just click on the phone number itself and the phone dials the front desk. 5 minutes later housekeeping to the rescue.

What will they think of next?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sipadan -- Mabul

They say that 6/7ths of the planet are covered by water. That's a lot of water. I haven't had the chance to explore all of it yet. Maybe just 1/6677 of it, but I've been fortunate to dive in some really nice portions of it. I've been to the Red Sea, Cayman Islands, Cozumel, Roatan, Belize, Tobago, Turks and Caicos, Costa Rica, Phuket and Florida. I even dove within sight of a nuclear reactor in Kenting, Taiwan. There are many places I've yet to dive, but Sipadan ( is the second best place after the Red Sea I've ever been to and Baracuda Point ( the single best dive site I've had the pleasure to dive.

Each diver has his or her own preferences. Some like the big things. Some like the little things. Some like coral. Some like rocks. Some like caves and dive throughs. Others like open water. About the only thing that can spoil even the best dives is poor visibility. The visibility in Sipadan, since this was rather late in the season, was poor to average, 5-15 meters, but even with that the Island did not disappoint.

As the name implies there are the barracudas, but that's only a small portion of the story. In my first dive I encountered turtles, white tip reef sharks (, bumphead parrot fish (, jacks, leaf scorpion fish (, nudi branch ( and on and on and on. Basically Barracuda Point is like an underwater visual buffet of almost everything Sipadan has to offer.

Sipadan is a protected area and only 120 divers are permitted on the island each day. There are no resorts on Sipadan itself so you have to stay on one of the neighboring islands. Usually either Mabul or Kapalai. I used Dive the World ( to book the vacation and opted for Mabul ( and Borneo Divers Mabul Resort ( Good choices on all accounts. I had used Dive the World for the Phuket trip and wasn't disappointed and they delivered on all accounts on the Sipadan trip as well. The price was a little on the high end, but ultimately worth it.

This was my first exposure to BDMR, but they too delivered on all accounts. The rooms were clean, the AC worked and the food was good. Okay. So my standards might not be as high as some, but its the diving that is the star attraction and that's what BDMR is for. Besides any place with dogs is okay with me. The diving was well organized and the guides professional and knowledgeable. Dove mostly with Maadil and Lorenco and both are excellent at what they do.

The best test of any resort is how they react when things go wrong. When the scheduled divemaster for one of the dives didn't show up and the other boat left without some of us BDRM just set up another boat for us and we caught up to the boat already on its way to the island hopped on board and continued our dives without any problems.

Each resort is allotted a certain amount of permits, so with that in mind I had booked 8 days just to make sure that I get at least one day of diving in Sipadan. As luck would have it this being the low season and the one advantage of being a solo traveler I actually dove Sipadan 5 days in a row. Each day included four dives and at least one dive was to Barracuda Point and each time it was something new. Its not that the other dive sites are not worth diving, but Barracuda point is truly something special. Even the most experienced and jaded of the divers on the island all came up with big grins and excited chatter after each dive. In addition to Barracuda Point we also dove South Point, Hanging Gardens, Turtle Tomb, Dropoff, Mid Reef, White Tip Avenue and Coral Gardens. Mid Reef was probably my second favorite, but all of the other sites were quite good as well. Besides you never know what you will see on any given dive. On our dive to Coral Gardens we came across the biggest manta ray I had ever seen. Easily around 10-15 feet. It just hung there for a few minutes as we all gaped at it in amazement. The biggest problem was the visibility. I'd love to dive Mid Reef in high visibility since the amount of coral and rock formations would really be something in good light and visibility.

Eventually my Sipadan luck ran out and on the last day on Mabul we did local dives. I almost gave up after Old House Reef and was going to pass up the rest of the diving since the visibility was so poor. Maybe 3 meters at best, but the second dive was going to be to the Seaventures Rig ( and curiosity got the best of me. Seaventures is an old oil rig that has been turned into a dive resort just off the coast of Mabul. Glad I did. The visibility was much better, 5-10 meters, and saw some things I've never seen before like the crocodile fish ( as well as a lot of the usual suspects like leaf scorpion fish, stone fish, nudi branch and eels. Overall, while the diving off Mabul is certainly not as spectacular as Sipadan if Sipadan is not an option then Mabul will do. As to Mabul Island itself. Really not much to do. Dive, eat, drink, repeat. I've heard of sleepy fishing villages, but that's basically what it is. Okay. Maybe not so sleepy since there are a lot kids running around doing the things that kids do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tioman Island & Malacca

Thanks to Nunda for first suggesting it and then Adrian, Lisa, Michael, Nesh and Tim for letting me tag along, I got a chance to visit Tioman Island ( and on the way back Malacca ( To get to Tioman you start out in the port of Mersing. We didn't really spend that much time in Mersing other than park and board the ferry, but that's the joy of traveling that even the smallest things in foreign places can be of interest. Wish I could have found a better angle, but the picture on the left is of a Hindu temple across form the gas station where we fueled up. Note the interesting iconography. The Firesign (its fairly common across Asia and not meant as reproduction of the Swastika), but also a six pointed star. Its the first time I ever seen one. Wish I had more time to see if there is a story there, but we were due for the ferry. A mystery for another day.


Tioman has multiple resorts and locations with a variety of options all the way from the high end to the low end. We stayed at the Salang Indah Resort (

in Salang at the northern most point of the Island. The resort itself is fairly basic. Like most resorts in South East Asia it covers the basics. We got one of the low end lodges. No AC, but it did have ceiling fan and since the nights were cool and during the day we didn't spend that much time in our rooms it was more than adequate.
Salang very much reminded me of the West End of Roatan. A long stretch of beach lined with bars and lodges. There's really not much to do other than beach, water and bars. Not a criticism of the Island itself since the beach and the surroundings are beautiful, but for those who aren't looking for either of the three above the options might be limited.

While the rest of the group went snorkeling I went diving. I went with Fisherman Divers ( Good guys and I'd recommend them to anyone. The diving was good, but not great. We did Labas and Salang Bay. A lot of the coral is dying due to the high volume and traffic and the marine life is relatively sparce. Still do not regret going and would definitely recommend it to those who find themselves on Tioman for reasons other and for novice divers who just need to get wet.


On the way back from Tioman we stopped in Malacca. Definitely one of the highlights of my stay in Malaysia. Tim is originally from Malacca so it was like having a native guide. (Thanks Tim. I owe you one). Malacca is an old city and you really get a sense of place that I didn't really get in KL or Putrajaya. Putrajaya is much too new and still developing and KL is a major city in many ways not unlike other major cities around the world. But in Malacca due to the mixture of cultures. The Malays, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Chinese all left an indelible mark on the city and it all melds into an interesting combination of the various cultures and flavors. Each retaining something unique and complimenting the others. We got into the Malacca Town fairly late on Sunday so all of the museums (and there are a lot of them) were closed, but we did walk through the center and then climbed the hill up to St. Paul's church and watched the sun set over the harbor. Our final stop was Jonker Street.
Lots of restaurants and street stalls. The street food is really, really good. I was even brave and tried some Durian Chendol ( For those of you who have never tried a Durian it is an acquired taste. The flavor is best described as a sweet onion garlic mix.

Wish we had had more time to spend in Malacca, but this will definitely give me a reason to return.