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By on Sep 17, 2011 in Travel | 3 comments

3 guys, 44 days, 11 countries, 18 flights, 38 thousand miles, an exploding volcano, 2 cameras and almost a terabyte of footage… all to turn 3 ambitious linear concepts based on movement, learning and food ….into 3 beautiful and hopefully compelling short films….. = a trip of a lifetime. This video makes me want to Never Stop Moving. :)

Staying connected in Singapore: A guide to phone companies, mobile data usage, and international calling

By on Jun 19, 2011 in Reviews, Tech Takes, Travel | 17 comments

My last couple of blog posts have been angsty, because when you are twenty you Need To Rebel and Stick It To The Man for It Is The Cool Thing To Do and Eff Them… (See what I meant by being cynical of my own cynicism? I’m not making this up! I am genuinely that conflicted internally of what I feel about my own beliefs.) Deep breaths, Banerjee, deep breaths. Calm down. Reach your Zen state. And tidy up your fucking desk. So, for a break from Sticking It To The Man, I decided to help out The Man instead by writing a guide on cellphone companies and Whatever Else The Title Promised You. This is first in a series of informational posts that I intend to write, which I hope will be useful for transitory residents of the island nation of Singapore – tourists, exchange students, foreign students, expats, illegal immigrants, and pirates. I don’t promise anything interesting for my regular readers – except for a shocking statistic in the section on mobile data prices and a lone joke about a web telephony service that leverages on a racist Spanish stereotype. *** The Basics Singapore’s telecom sector is an oligopoly with three operators: SingTel (government-backed, 46% market share), StarHub, and M1. All three operate a GSM-based network with support for 3G handsets. The only serious implication on this for most visitors to Singapore is that if the current cellphone you own operates on a CDMA-network – as is the case with a few (albeit large) American networks – you will be unable to use it in Singapore. Most modern GSM-handsets come with dual-band / tri-band / quad-band support so they should work in Singapore. Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa generally use the same frequency bands; the odd-one-out is America again, so if you’re visiting from the US then you need to double-check whether your handset will work. Protip: In Singapore, the term ‘handphone’ is most commonly used. People will understand though if you use equivalent terms like cellphone or mobile phones; it’s usually visitors who get confused when ‘handphone’ is used. The easiest way to get connected is to get a prepaid (or ‘pay-as-you-go’, if you prefer) SIM card. You can buy one from any operator-run outlets, convenience stores (7-Eleven, Cheers, Fairprice…) as long as you have your passport with you. The details page of your passport will be photocopied / scanned for registration purposes. The only advantage of buying at an operator’s own outlet is that you can choose the phone number that you get – and if you have a fetish for specific numbers then you might just turn out to be a lucky bastard. There is no waiting period for SIM card activation. (India, as always, has insanely strict rules for issuing prepaid SIM cards – forms need to be filled, passport photo and proof of residence is required, there’s a waiting period of 2-3 days. Think about how hard it must be for tourists! I’d be extremely annoyed if I came across equally strict laws in any of the countries I’ve travelled to. ) A new SIM usually costs S$15-20, with S$5-10 calling balance included. In such a competitive market, there’s isn’t much price differentiation among the three operators for basic services such as voice and text, so it doesn’t make much different which operator you choose if all you want are the basics. Typical local call rates range from 8-22 cents / minute for voice calls (depending on time of day) and 5 cents / text (local) or 15 cents / text (international), so calling / texting is fairly cheap for light usage. Take note, however, that in Singapore you are charged for incoming voice calls too at the outgoing local voice call rate; this comes as a shock to visitors from countries where it’s not standard practice to do so. If you expect to receive a lot of incoming calls, you can get the incoming call charge waived by paying a daily charge of 60 cents instead; the procedure for this differs from operator-to-operator but should be included in the start guide included with your SIM. Another thing you should be prepared for is that customer care hotlines are not operated 24/7 and often there are call charges applied to speak to customer care (albeit a reduced price). Recharge vouchers can be bought at any convenience store or operator outlet. You also have the option of paying for a recharge online via credit card. Although in theory you can buy low-value ‘top-ups’ of S$5 too, I have rarely found these on sale. Top-up vouchers of denominations S$10 and above are available widely. If you are a heavy user, watch out for promotional top-ups: all three operators have specific recharge denominations, say, S$30 for which they give ‘S$130 value’. The way this works is that the top-up denomination – S$30 in this example – is added to your ‘main’ calling balance, and deducted when you make international calls or access data; an additional S$100 is added as ‘special’ calling balance, and deducted for all incoming voice calls and all local outgoing calls. The catch is that the ‘special’ calling balance is time-limited – usually 30 days – and then expires, but your ‘main’ calling balance never affected by time restrictions. Yes, it is as terribly complicated as it sounds. You need to...

On watching ‘The Hangover Part II’ in Bangkok, and being a cynical asshole

By on Jun 14, 2011 in Personal, Reviews, Travel | 19 comments

The first part of this blog post – a review of Hangover 2 – isn’t what I what I sat down to write; it just gives me a way to segue into the later bits. I find it funny that the owner of Segway Inc. died when he drove a Segway off a cliff. Segway segue segway segue… *** Every Vegas movie has a shot of a guy sticking his head out like a puppy from a car, awestruck by the dozens of neon signs and a thousand bulbs flashing by. Govinda cavorts around in the Swiss Alps, suspiciously singing and dancing with a bunch of schoolkids. As long as you give moviegoers an armchair vacation, it adds pizzaz to an otherwise lacklustre script. This is what I found myself thinking after watching The Hangover Part II, in Bangkok, the week it released in theatres. I count myself lucky that I got to see the filming locations. Hell-yeah I was excited. A quest to complete the trail and discover Bangkok at the same time! Armed with these guides from Travelhappy and CNNGo, I started off at the Sky Bar and Sirocco restaurant on the 63rd/64th floor of Lebua Hotel. Didn’t go to the top – for one, the cargos I was wearing wouldn’t pass their ‘smart casual only’ dress code. Also, prices – aptly for a place named Sky Bar – are sky-high: a drink costs about 500 baht (US $17)! It is supposed to have one of the best views of Bangkok (Bangkok doesn’t, yet, have a space needle like structure they can use to gouge tourists), so if you’re nattily dressed and have cash to spare, this one place to check out even if you aren’t a Hangover 2 fan. Many generic-Bangkok street scenes were filmed in Bangkok’s Chinatown, known as Yaorawat. Much of the lanes look the same as the next one; still, if you want to see the specific lanes where they filmed then these are Soi Phiphasya 1 and Soi Plaeng Nam. Chinatowns are a fascinating place in any city, Bangkok is no different. You can lose yourself in its sprawling Yaorawat district for a whole day and never get bored with watching life pass by. The Chao Phraya river is very much the lifeline of Bangkok. It flows north-to-south through the city, a major traffic-way that can often get you to your destination faster than Bangkok’s notoriously congested roads. As you take a Chao Phraya Express ferry down the river, you’re sure to find ‘longboats’ – small, private boats for hire with a long shaft connecting the engine to the propeller (hence the name). The Wolfpack travelled in one of these, in the scene where Stu strums a guitar lamenting their night epicly gone wrong. The speedboat scene in the final act is on the same river, though I never saw one myself. Perhaps this is only a possibility if you know international gangstas. Also on the Chao Phraya river, close to the Memorial Bridge pier, is the riverside café where Alan starts playing on an arcade machine – that’s Nang Noun Restaurant. Given the prominent role the riverway plays in Bangkok residents’ daily routine, it is no surprise that so many scenes were filmed there. A short walk from Sukhumvit MRT – a district full of high-rise fancy hotels and tourist-packed shopping centres – is Bangkok’s infamous Soi Cowboy, a lane full of go-go bars. (‘Soi’, in case you were wondering, means ‘lane’ in Thai.) I came here to see the place where Stu finds out he has demon/semen inside him. ‘Siam Siam’ doesn’t actually exist; it was a modified entrance to Cactus Bar. The interior shots were filmed at the Tilac, across the lane. When I visited Soi Cowboy early evening, the *ahem* trade hadn’t quite started, but I could already see expectant wolfpacks and Dirty Old White Men circling like vultures. The girls themselves took this time to gather and have a big family-style dinner together before their work started. I didn’t visit Ancient City, a theme park that was christened ‘Ching Mei Monastery’ in the film. (Don’t confuse ‘Ching Mei’ with ‘Chiang Mai’, which is a city about 700km from Bangkok! Any tuk-tuk driver offering to drive you to Chiang Mai is conning you.) I don’t remember whether I went to Soi Sukhumvit 7/1, where the riot scene outside ‘White Lion’ was filmed, as all streets in the general area of infamous Patpong look very similar (see picture above). Apparently, Bill Clinton visited the set here when filming was going on; this is an opportune moment to make a  ‘what was Bill Clinton doing in Patpong’ joke. You can see pictures from during Hangover 2‘s filming at this forum. And yet, somehow, seeing these places with my own eyes diminishes the exoticness, the unattainability that Bangkok was chosen as a setting for in the first place. For someone who hasn’t visited Bangkok, the narrative remains reasonably fresh because your eyes can feast on ‘something new’ (no, girls, I don’t mean Bradley Cooper). I attribute The Hangover 2‘s box office success to this. Roger Ebert seems to think the film is a deliberate attempt to hurt Bangkok’s tourist traffic by playing up the shady parts of the city but you’d be surprised how many in the audience will see it as an advertisement rather than a warning; a place to...

Not looking forward to this…

By on Apr 21, 2011 in Travel | 0 comments

Heading off for Ho Chi Minh City in about seven hours from now. Wonder what crazy food I’ll end up eating this time. Perhaps…drink snake blood / bile / heart? (Skip to 40 seconds into the video, where the good bit is. The freaking heart was still beating when he drank it!)

A day out in Pulau Ubin, More Strange Signs (TM), and cautionary tales about Google Maps

By on Dec 31, 2010 in Travel | 9 comments

Given the state of house addressing, using Google Maps to guide oneself around in India ends in tears. Singapore, though, is a well-planned city with a robust public transport system – and here Google Maps usually shines for a navigationally-challenged person like me. Usually. Last week, I needed to go to a place called Pulau Ubin (more on that later). I whipped out my smartphone, asked Google Maps to show me the best route via public transport from my (then) current location (it can do that, that smart cookie!) to where I wanted to go. Pat came the reply: “no buses found, 41 minutes walking from current location to Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam.” Hmmm. Turns out that I was standing on the wrong side of the road; therefore, there were no buses heading the way I had to. So – like the proverbial chicken – I crossed the road…and all was m’kay. **** Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s last remaining kampung (village). For a country that was founded no more than 50 years ago, urbanization has been rapid in engulfing any semblance of rural settlement that might have been there. Pulau Ubin is the exception – it is a tiny island off the coast of Singapore, now maintained as a nature reserve. I had a friend from my university whom I used to work with vacationing in Singapore, and we (along with some travellers he met in Kuala Lumpur) decided to go mountain biking. To reach Pulau Ubin, one can take the MRT to Tanah Merah (on the Green Line) – if you’ve been here, then you might recollect this as the place where the MRT branches off to Changi Airport – and then catch a bus from there to Changi Village Ferry Terminal. At the ferry terminal, Singapore’s fetish for weird public signs continued to catch me off guard. For instance, this sign asking people not to wash their feet in the washbasin (complete with plagiarised stock photography of a foot being washed in a washbasin)… …a comic strip explaining how and why people should dry their hands after visiting the toilet… …a bizarre ‘Beware of Glass’ notice on a free-standing pane of glass, that serves no apparent purpose… …’2 crews’ (as opposed to ‘2 crew members‘) for every 12 passengers on our ‘bum boat’… …right until we reached Pulau Ubin, where we were warned not to set up tents on the jetty. It’s insane! Someone, somewhere has a job in Singapore to think of every single ‘undesirable’ situation and come up with pictorial representation warning the public not to do that. (For more on this, watch video blogger Natalie Tran’s vlog for Lonely Planet from Singapore.) **** The name ‘Pulau Ubin’ means ‘Granite Island’. Not surprising, because in the old days this island used to be a granite mine. Ever since it was converted to a nature reserve though, mining activities have been stopped. Pulau Ubin is now an idyllic resort for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and fat old bastards with moolah to spend at resorts on the island. The ferry ride from Changi Village Ferry Terminal is a short one – for about S$2.50, a ‘bum boat‘ will take you across the channel to Pulau Ubin in fifteen minutes. (You might have to wait a bit for enough people to gather at the departure jetty.) Not a lot of thought seemed to have gone into the naming a mode of transport as ‘bum boat’ and why tourists might find it funny; I’m assuming that the descendants of the creative geniuses who did so went to name a retail clothing chain ‘Wanko’. A short walk away from the jetty area, you’ll find shops renting out bicycles. (With signs that read “IS IT REALLY TRUE? $2 HIRE!” The answer is yes, it’s true, but only for children’s bicycles.) Prices are standard at every stall so there’s no point price hunting – decide the kind of bike you want and hire one. Standard rates hover around S$5 for the cheapest bikes going up to S$8, so there’s no need to haggle either for a couple of dollars. Bikes are rented out till 6pm in the evening. Although you can go to Pulau Ubin for hiking too, the place is primarily designed for mountain biking. There are varied difficulty levels for tracks and varied settings. Personally, I had never tried mountain biking before this, neither did most of the others in our group. The sections of the trail passing through jungle were excruciatingly hot and humid to negotiate, but they were interspersed with stretches of less steep trails every now and then to ease the pressure. The humidity can quickly sap your energy. Make sure that you buy enough bottles of water at the jetty base and keep rehydrating yourself! Overall, the bike trail definitely is one intended for novices, with a few challenging stretches thrown in. The reward for taking on the challenging stretches is that you get to see granite quarries not reachable via the easier trails. Unfortunately, I had to drop out halfway through the trail. I sprained my right wrist quite badly recently; I was even forced to wear a wrist brace. I reckoned that since I had been wearing the wrist brace and popping painkillers it would be okay, but the pain become unbearable going on a particularly steep slope. I decided to drop out from...