That Little but Formidable Red Dot Down South

I am a Malaysian who sincerely admires our Southern neighbour, the tiny island state called Singapore – who is somehow always one step ahead, one pace faster. The bustling city state that used to be a part of my country till it was expulsed in 1965 due to ideological differences between its ruling party and Malaysia’s.

With a small disparate population, and even fewer resources – the tiny newly independent nation had to find its own way to survive.

And when you are small and vulnerable with so many disadvantages, how do you overcome the odds? Singapore ended up becoming an example of how a nation can thrive despite it all. Having traveled there regularly for work for the past one year, I observe a culture that I am convinced has enabled the meteoric rise of this country from 1965:

1. Wise picks of battles to fight
When your resources are limited you have to decide carefully where you want to focus them on – whether it’s your energy or money. I have yet to come across any colleagues in my Singapore office sweating the small stuff, for example worrying about form and not substance. Though Singapore is now way past its past struggles, the wise pragmatism seems to have remained. 

2. An absence of excessiveness
There is a fine line between making tremendous effort in the name of excellence and trying hard to impress. The city looks impressive, no doubt – but that is just the inevitable result of thoughtful and pragmatic planning done with the intention of inspiring the confidence of its own people and the foreign people whose skills, talent and investment would be needed to help Singapore prosper. Not to impress and boost fragile egos. No wonder I have yet to come across any kitschy or tacky looking buildings or monuments in Singapore. It is quite simply the epitome of elegance.

3. A strong focus on developing its uniqueness, and looking to others not to compare, but to learn and find strengths to leverage
This is closely related to picking battles wisely. Of course many would argue that Singapore is a competitive place – but we tend to forget that being competitive does not necessarily mean comparing with others. It is when we give our all to make the most of what we have that we become a force formidable enough for others to reckon with – and by then we find ourselves in our own league. I posit that Singapore does not focus so much on competing as much as it focuses on leading and leveraging its neighbours’ strengths. Any wonder why so many of my country’s best and brightest end up happily heading down south?

I love my country and I know Singapore has its own flaws. But there’s so much to learn from our excellent neighbour down south.

So this is how I have experienced Singapore. I would love to hear what you think, whether you are Singaporean or not.

South

Sofitel, Oh Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16!

2015/01/img_0075.jpgThis is the higher-end sibling of Novotel–both being among the 13 brands owned by the Accor Group.

I stayed at Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16, which was a walking distance from the Macau historic center, a Unesco World Heritage site. Taxi from the Macau Ferry Terminal cost 40 MOP, but I should have known that like most major hotels in this gambling city, Sofitel also had its own free shuttle bus–which I eventually took the next morning to catch my ferry ride back to Hong Kong.

With the tagline, “Life is Maqnifique!”, Sofitel seeks to exude French luxury–thus the L’Occitane and Hermes toiletries. However there was a policy that restricted guests to only one extra set of these branded bathroom amenities–I am not sure if it applies only to this Sofitel, and if it applies to guests who stay more than two nights, for example.

That aside, service was pleasant and efficient, albeit lacking in warmth, I felt. Perhaps that was just because my time there was so brief–checking in late afternoon, and off the next morning by 10 am. There was a casino which I didn’t bother visiting, and a cafe and bar which my sister and I found a bit too hot and stuffy. The pub was playing loud music, with people playing darts and foosball, and a heavy smell of cigarette smoke–it reminded me of the clubbing scene during my college days and seemed out of place in a hotel like this. So we decided not to bother about drinks and just went back to our room.

2015/01/img_0084.jpgThe hotel itself gave an impression of luxury and grandeur at first glance, when we first stepped into the lobby to find ourselves going ‘wow’ over the glittery, gigantic Christmas deco–think life-sized reindeer and life-sized statue of an old man depicting, I believed, one of the three wise men on the night Jesus was born. And of course, fake snow. It was a visual feast that quickly lost its appeal instead of growing on me.

So it was tacky in my opinion, but since this was Macau, the lack of subtlety was probably an intent rather than an accident. It is, after all, known as Asia’s flashiest city. I am not quite sure what French luxury stands for, but I have a feeling Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 reflects its host country more than the one of its origin.

2015/01/img_0059.jpgEnough about the tackiness of Macau–how a rich, old world heritage ended up coexisting with such loudness is another post altogether. But I must say that having made it only to Senado Square at night, and one of its famous biscuit and pastry shops, Macau continues to intrigue me after I have left–like a mysterious stranger whose quiet charm I cannot deny after a brief encounter. I have a feeling I will be back in an attempt to understand it more.

2015/01/img_0101.jpgMeanwhile, back to the hotel–Sofitel Ponte No. 16, in a nutshell, has all the trappings of a five star establishment. Comfort, cleanliness and prettiness. But its attempt to be sophisticated is overshadowed by all the tack–and at the end of the day I actually prefer the four star sibling hotel I stayed in the following night, Novotel Citygate Hong Kong. It was supposed to be a lesser hotel by star rating and price, but I found the Novotel to be elegant, sleek and unassuming.

Maybe it’s the location rather than the hotels themselves. Maybe Macau is trying too hard to differentiate herself from Hong Kong, the fast and sophisticated metropolitan neighbor. Another post for another day!

Novotel Citygate Hong Kong: One Awesome Mid-Range Hotel!

And here’s why:

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/b88/68413283/files/2015/01/img_0201.jpg1. I can’t stop gushing over this one: it is directly adjacent to the Citygate Outlet Mall, where discounted luxury and branded shopping abounds. Even without shopping on my agenda, the convenience of having many food and beverage options in the same building is a big delight because it saves me the trouble of finding out where to eat in an unfamiliar city.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/b88/68413283/files/2015/01/img_0234.jpg2. Excellent connectivity for getting around in Hong Kong: the Hong Kong International Airport is just a 15-minute bus or taxi ride away, and the hotel provides a very courteous and efficient shuttle service to and fro. It departs every 15 minutes from the hotel, and is free of charge.

On top of that, the Tung Chung MTR station is also connected to the Citygate Outlet Mall. All it takes is a 5-minute leisurely indoor stroll through the mall to get there, and from there getting to the rest of the cosmopolis is a breeze, without having to spend a small fortune on the city’s taxis. Another gem for a directionally challenged person like me!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/b88/68413283/files/2015/01/img_0222.jpg3. Quiet, scenic location away from the hustle and bustle of the city: the hotel, as does the mall, faces the sea, with a beautiful view of Lantau Island and Ngong Ping 360. Discounted luxury shopping in a spacious mall with a view — can’t complain!

4. Cosy and comfortable rooms with efficient, pleasant service: the soft bed felt heavenly after one day of shopping and sightseeing, and all my requests to housekeeping were met in less than 10 minutes.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/b88/68413283/files/2015/01/img_0221.jpg5. A nearby park with a running track: this one is for the runners! The clean and beautiful park is just a 2-minute walk from the hotel. Enough said!

I guess I have decided where to stay on my next trip to Hong Kong.

Heritage Hotel Stay at 23 Love Lane for Mother’s Day – My First Post on this Blog

23 Love Lane Hotel Penang

The hotel courtyard proves a tranquil spot despite the building itself being right smack in the middle of Georgetown City.

When I decided to resume blogging (and try to be consistent this time around), I was rather excited that a blogworthy event would be coming up – my family’s short getaway to this highly acclaimed 5-star heritage hotel at the Penang Heritage area – a treat from me, my brother and sister-in-law to mom to celebrate Mother’s Day.

Just like mom, I love mini getaways even if it’s just to our very own backyard! Around 10.30 am last Saturday, I received a surprise call from the hotel staff telling me that my room was ready for check-in. It turned out that this pleasant gesture was the first of more to come – like offering to make me a cup of coffee when I was sitting at the hall reading and the simple nods and smiles of acknowledgement from the hotel staff.

23lovelanehotel

No problem dozing off on a strange bed when it is as plush as this one

So I went to the hotel and took a nap on the plush bed in that airy high-ceilinged room, typical of any colonial era building before my parents and sister arrived. I even had time to explore the nearby heritage area briefly on my own when I got hungry and had to go out to look for my lunch because the hotel’s Steak Frites restaurant serves only, well, steak. Shortly after they did, I happily bagged the Crabtree and Evelyn lotion and L’occitane toiletries before leaving to let my parents enjoy the stay on their own, casually asking mom to request another set from the hotel.

23 love lane hotel c

The afternoon tea – an experience enhanced by the warm hospitality of the hotel staff

The hotel serves complimentary afternoon tea to their guests at 4.30 pm everyday, and dad sent me photos of what they had over Whatsapp – which appeared to be a modest and yet pleasant mix of local and western fare.

But the best part of this entire getaway was when I received Whatsapp messages from my mom, and then dad – saying ‘thank you’ for booking the stay for them. It was Mother’s Day, and for all my parents had done for me and my siblings, the least we could do for them in return was to come up with simple gestures like this to put a smile on their faces. Like typical parents they complained that the room rate was too high, but it was still apparent that they enjoyed themselves. And this, to me, is the whole point of it all – and the mini milestone worthy of a blog post.

 

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/hindsight/

My Running Journal: Pounding the Grounds of Vivanta by Taj, Rebak Island

3_TCSNYCM_Instagram_Team-for-Kids-Member-Fundraising_2_for WP Widget23rd of November 2014, Sunday
This morning’s weather was again sunny and gorgeous, and having been more accustomed to this resort I had a more 20141123-163212.jpgproper training. I covered some of the hiking trail (without going anywhere near the jungle) and ran to the marina, shipyard and then back, and then covered the part on the left of my unit. 20141123-122709.jpgI did the walk and run routine since running on real grounds outdoors was quite a different ball game from pounding the treadmill. My legs felt heavier and I got breathless faster. It could be the stunning sceneries around me, but I am not 20141123-122833.jpgsure. But according to the Nike running app I did 1.75 miles (around 2.8 km) in less than 22 minutes — not too bad for me. But I also felt the strain on my thighs after the run, perhaps this was because of parts of the track that were slightly uphill.

As usual, it was shower and then heading to the cafe for the buffet breakfast. I won’t bore you with food pictures again, but it was still a wonderful breakfast.

Next time I will have a more serious training yet by carbo loading before my run, and I will see what difference that makes to my stamina.

It’s time to check out soon and say goodbye to the lovely Vivanta by Taj Rebak Island Resort and Spa.

——

This is an entry into the running journal I have created to chronicle my experiences as I train and prepare to run the TCS New York City Marathon 2015 and fund raise for Team for Kids, an international running group that is committed to supporting health and fitness programs for underprivileged children in the US and Africa. Read my introduction entry where I share how this journey started, and if you would like to donate to the cause, simply go to my secure fundraising page here!

My Running Journal: Nature’s Track and Runner’s Binge

3_TCSNYCM_Instagram_Team-for-Kids-Member-Fundraising_2_for WP Widget22nd of November 2014, SaturdaySo this was my training ground on this sunny morning at Rebak Island, a small island off Langkawi Island, a popular tourist spot in the north of Peninsula Malaysia. 20141122-102936.jpgKudos to me for getting up early for a 7.50 am run on a Saturday! But then again, with such gorgeous surroundings, it would have been a crime to sleep in — even on a weekend.

20141122-103159.jpgI decided it was a good time for an outdoor run because I have only run in the gym since I started training for the marathon. But I must admit that today I ran only for twenty minutes, and I am not sure how far because I wasn’t using any app to track my distance. I also brisk walked in between and stopped a few times to snap photos and to decide where to turn since I was not familiar with the grounds of this resort cum marina.

20141122-103328.jpgBy 8.30 am I had already showered and was well on my way to the cafe for my breakfast. It’s 10.30 am now and I have just finished eating. It’s lovely how running enhances my appetite.

——

This is an entry into the running journal I have created to chronicle my experiences as I train and prepare to run the TCS New York City Marathon 2015 and fund raise for Team for Kids, an international running group that is committed to supporting health and fitness programs for underprivileged children in the US and Africa. Read my introduction entry where I share how this journey started, and if you would like to donate to the cause, simply go to my secure fundraising page here!

Why I Love the JW Marriott Kuala Lumpur

Completing the lovely room ambience was the music that played from the TV the moment I slotted the room key card into the main power slot.

I stayed at this hotel early September this year, and wrote an incomplete post about it. It’s time I finish writing about the marvelous experience I had lounging around in my room at this flagship hotel.

Aside from the spelling error on my name by the receptionist who helped me register for the Marriott Rewards membership, the service was impeccable. I love smiling and I got to return many smiles and greetings the moment I alighted from my taxi at 11.30 am for the early check-in I had been given. Assistance was offered proactively – almost automatically. It felt like with every step I made there were a few more made towards my direction, with hands extended so readily – whether it was to open a door, take my luggage, or press the lift button.

In perfect order.

In perfect order.

And of course, there was the room–I will let the photos do the talking. I had a formal event to attend at this hotel the next morning, so I decided to spend my day just relaxing before meeting up with my friend for dinner and cakes. The  perennial introvert, I was more than happy to just nap in the bed, laze on the sofa by the window and watch the scene outside since my room faced a popular shopping mall, The Pavilion KL.

The delicious beef tacos from one of the hotel's seven eateries - I can't remember which one.

The delicious beef tacos from one of the hotel’s seven eateries – I can’t remember which one.

I ordered room service for my lunch – beef tacos – which was sent up to me by a very polite butler and came with a glass of iced water which I did not request. A very thoughtful little gesture. My request for extra lotion and mouthwash was happily met by their housekeeping staff, who also went the extra mile, asking: “Is there anything else you need, ma’am, more mineral water, maybe?”

There were sun loungers at the shaded area too, which I interpret as yet another thoughtful arrangement by the hotel. Perfect for people who want to be outdoors without being directly under the sun.

There were sun loungers at the shaded area too, which I interpret as yet another thoughtful arrangement by the hotel. Perfect for people who want to be outdoors without being directly under the sun.

Came 6 pm, I changed into my exercise clothes to go for a workout at the gym and made a request for my room to be made up while I was away. I came back after my workout to find the room restored to perfect order, and the bathrobe hung behind the bathroom door-another thoughtful gesture. The lavender and ylang ylang scented toiletries were perfect for a relaxing post-workout shower, and since bath salts were also provided I soaked in the bathtub…and was feeling so pampered that I started contemplating extending my stay till I remembered that my flight home had already been booked.

Meeting up with my friend Eroll was also a breeze–the KL Pavilion Shopping Mall was at the hotel’s doorstep–I just had to cross the road! So he drove to the area right after he finished work and we met at the mall’s food court for dinner and cakes.

The luxurious bath. There is also a separate shower.

The luxurious bath. There is also a separate shower.

Checking out was a pleasant experience. I had water offered to me while the receptionist worked on the necessary procedure, and when that was done, I did not even have to ask for assistance for my luggage to be carried to the parking lot because a bellboy came right to my aid after I told the concierge that I did not need to call for a cab anymore since I made a lovely new friend at the event who offered to send me to the airport.

This was the first Marriott hotel I had ever stayed in–and I couldn’t find any fault with it. The location was also perfect, with KL Pavilion right at its doorstep, and the hotel being connected to the Starhill Shopping Gallery, right in the heart of Malaysia’s capital city.  So I came to associate the Marriott label with thoughtful, impeccable service, and the expectation was thus set for future stays at JW Marriott KL’s sibling hotels–and who can blame me?

Why I Love the Swissotel Phuket Resort and Spa

I had to swim.

I had to swim.

At 10, 470 baht for three nights, this place was a steal. Especially when what we got was a minimalist, but tastefully furnished two-bedroom studio apartment, with a kitchen, dining area, living room, and balcony. Not to mention the lovely swimming pool, restaurant, free shuttle to Patong area, polite and helpful staff, and numerous massage parlours and shops right at its doorstep!

One of the seating areas at the lobby.

One of the seating areas at the lobby.

Needless to say, I loved the Swissotel Phuket Resort and Spa from the moment I stepped into its lobby. It was spacious, with three seating areas, including one with a bookshelf offering books and novels in various languages. The whole place smelled of lemon grass, befitting its status as a resort cum spa. The wooden furnishing, with colourful cushions and potted plants gave the whole place a warm, welcoming aura with an unassuming elegance.

We were given welcome drinks of strawberry cordial, and then had our luggage sent up to our fourth-floor unit, for which I was grateful because there was no lift since this resort consisted of low-rise blocks.

IMG_5599

Can’t complain! Disclaimer: this wasn’t all I ate.

The restaurant was right next to the pool so we decided we would have breakfast there for one least one of the days we would be in Phuket. After checking in, we set out to look for an early lunch to appease our hungry stomachs–but hunger did not dampen the fun I had walking out of the resort on that sunny morning. Being a lazy holidaymaker, I always love it when I discover shops within a few steps away from the place I am staying. But since it was still early and the eating places would only open at 11 am, we decided to go for a foot massage at one of the parlours. I did not bother taking down its name because later that evening we discovered a far, far better place with much better massages – Kamala Massage 2 – just a few more steps down the road from the first parlour we went to. I would wind up ending my first day in Phuket by walking back to the resort slightly dazed from two hours of post-dinner massage.

The shops at the resort's doorstep, literally.

The shops at the resort’s doorstep, literally.

Alas, we did not find the nearby eateries interesting, so we simply hopped into one of the cabs waiting at the area near the resort. 200 baht and 5 minutes later, we found ourselves at the Kamala beachside town – a reasonably pleasant place for dining, some shopping, and a relaxing stroll along the beach. It was away from the hive of activities of the prime Patong area, so it would be perfect for those who would just like a leisurely getaway without the crowd and congestion.

On our last day in Phuket, we had our breakfast at the resort’s poolside restaurant after our swim. I enjoyed the generous spread with Western and Thai offerings–bacon and pork sausages always make my day. The night before, our last night in Phuket, we went for another massage at Kamala Massage 2 again – and this time I tried the oil massage, having had Thai traditional massage and foot reflexology on my first day. It did not disappoint – and felt so blissful I wished it would just go on and on. Ahhh.

Every unit comes with its own balcony.

Every unit comes with its own balcony.

As we prepared to leave for the airport I remarked to my friend and sister that I would not mind staying at this place again, especially if I were to make one of my solo, introverted trips again. With the massage place, convenience store, restaurants just a few steps away from the resort, I might even not go anywhere else in Phuket!

The Pain in Phuket: An Unpretty Perspective

Who could tell the pain that exists alongside such beauty?

Who could tell the pain that exists alongside such beauty?

Three months ago, inspired by my first solo travel to New Zealand, I wrote this post, The Paradox of Travel, about how I travel looking forward to enhancing my perspective. After New Zealand, I had another vacation to Phuket Island, Thailand, albeit not alone this time.

It’s been 3 days since I bid the beautiful island goodbye–a good time to reflect on the trip. Flashing through my mind as I write is the image of a male beggar I saw at the local night market we went to, wanting to experience a slice of daily life there. I noticed the ugly stumps on his right hand–he had lost all his fingers except for the thumb, with which he was holding the cup he used to beg for money. He was sitting on the dirt floor with a crutch next to him, so I guess he couldn’t walk unaided. But what I really cannot forget was the look on his face–his eyes were red and moist though I did not see any tears, and he was just glaring into space. I thought I sensed a mixture of grief and anger, and helplessness and defiance. All that aside, he looked physically healthy, a man in mid to late thirties of medium build.

I didn’t quite know what to do, and I felt uncomfortable giving him money so I just walked away. Beggars can be a common sight, and some may be bogus…but this one…maybe with the look on his face, I sensed he might have been there by force and whatever money given to him might just go to some cruel human trafficking syndicate.What could I have done now, I wonder. Make a report to local police that there was a beggar sitting at the corner of the Kamala town night market?

As it turned out, I did nothing about the beggar, and just went on shopping for dinner, which we took back to our suite to eat before showering and then heading out for more massages. On my first day in Phuket, I had three massageas – a foot reflexology in the morning almost right after we arrived, and then a full-body traditional Thai massage after dinner, followed by another foot reflexology, just because the masseuse was so good I became reluctant to leave after the full-body massage ended!

The next day, we took the free hotel shuttle to the  central Patong area, where all the action was supposed to be. Shopping at nearby local stalls while waiting for the Jungceylon Shopping Mall to open its doors at 11 am, once again I encountered the harsh reality of life on this touristy island.

“Tell me what price you want, miss. Give me some good luck, you’re my first customer today.”

“What do you want? Do you want this bikini? No? Then you go away.”

I looked at the quiet lane where these stalls were situated, and concluded that these traders were really hard pressed for business. There had been crackdowns recently by the Thai authorities on stalls selling imitation branded goods, which had driven many tourists away.

I ended up buying a floral dress and a pair of shorts from the first trader for 400 baht after some haggling–partly because I liked the dress, and my sister liked the shorts, and partly because I felt a bit intimidated by the gangster-looking seller! “400 baht, only for you, miss, because you are my first customer today.”

This is almost good enough for me to want to go to Phuket again. This, and the massages.

We quickly left the stalls and we happily joined the crowd that had gathered in front of the mall and went in the moment the doors opened. Lunch at the mall’s food court, Food Haven, was good (I miss the Patong coconut ice cream already!)… and after that we encountered a few more frustrated stall owners inside the mall, but at least within the confines of the air-conditioned complex, we did not feel so threatened.

Back at Kamala Beach, where we stayed, the shop owners seemed to be facing a similar quandary. Only the massage parlours enjoyed reasonably good business.

“You from Malaysia? Apa khabar?” (“How are you?”)

I joked back: “Khabar baik.” (“Good.”) “Sabai dee mai?” (Thai for “how are you?”)

And they answered: “Mai sabai. Business no good.” (“Not good. Business not good”.)

We smiled and walked on. We were on holiday, but once it ended, it would be back to work too for us, and back to the daily reality, harsh or not.

All over, we are all just humans, trying to working out our own levels of survival. Some are more fortunate, some are less…but dare we complain and insist on carrying another person’s cross? I choose to be thankful for my lot, and make the best out of it.

Phuket, surprisingly, has turned out to be quite a humbling experience.