Monday, August 29, 2011

My impressions of Malaysia

My wife and I have visited two places in Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi. In the last 14 months or so, we have visited KL 4 times and transited through LCCT airport (KL) a few more times. This is because of our new found love for Air Asia which has its main hub at KL. We have been using Air Asia extensively for our visits to several Asian countries.

Personally, I would like every Islamic country in the world to be like Malaysia – inclusive, tolerant, progressive, modern and forward-thinking.

The population of Malaysia is made up of ethnic Malays, Chinese and South Indian immigrants. They live together in good harmony. The Malays are predominantly Muslim and the country is full of mosques – some very grand and worth seeing. In addition there are numerous churches, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples and places of worship for other religious minorities. Right in the heart of KL I came across many huge Hindu temples. The entire Batu caves region near KL is Hindu dominated with many temples and gigantic statues of Lord Murugan, Hanuman, etc. There is a Hindu temple right inside one of the big Batu caves. I found the Hindus (mostly of Indian origin) freely practicing their religion, culture and dress code. I also saw some Muslims watching a Hindu wedding ceremony in a temple and taking pictures.

A Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur

Muslims in Malaysia are modern and tolerant. Almost none of the Muslim women wear the burqa or any face-covering but most of them use a headscarf. Even young girls use a headscarf though most of them wear jeans or trousers.

Malaysian Muslim women

India needs to learn many things from Malaysia in respect of governance, infrastructure, modernity, policing, security, tourism and thinking big.

Malaysia is an ideal tourist destination for a budget traveler. All essential things (for a tourist) like food, groceries, hotels, entry tickets, etc., are very reasonably priced. Additionally, one gets to use world-class transport infrastructure very cheaply. There are many things to see and do in KL and nearby places like Genting highlands.

Amusement Park at Genting

Malaysia is a very tourist-friendly place and English is spoken and understood widely.

One should avoid changing currency at the airports in Malaysia where the rates offered are the worst. I found the rates offered by money changers at KL Sentral station complex to be the best.

In Malysia, apart from KL we visited the resort island of Langkawi and simply loved it. We hired a car (self-driven) at Langkawi airport itself and finding our way around the small island was no problem at all. The island has been developed superbly for tourism. In spite of being a tourist island, things weren’t very much costlier than KL there.

Malaysia offers great diversity of food, thanks to it being a melting pot of three main cultures. For those who can’t do without Indian food (I’m not in this category though), it’s an ideal place with Indian restaurants everywhere. Excellent Malay, Chinese and other cuisine are available at reasonable prices.

Great variety of hygienic and economical food

Many more pictures I took at Kuala Lumpur, Genting Highlands and Langkawi may be seen at

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

My impressions of Korea

Jaya and I spent a week in South Korea during August 2011. We visited Seoul, Gyeongju and Geoje island. Here are some observations of mine about South Korea :

1) Almost everywhere we went, we were amazed by the loud chirping of cicadas in the trees. Even in the heart of Seoul (which has many big trees) we could hear the chirping all the time. The chirping of cicadas on different trees at any location seems to be in sync and waxes and wanes in a peculiar manner. Sometimes it rises to such a crescendo that it interferes with conversation outdoors. We came across the same phenomenon in Gyeongju and Geoje island. Nowhere else in the world had I come across such continuous and loud chirping, especially in urban regions.

2) Korea is quite warm and humid in August. Though rainy season usually ends in July, this year the monsoons are somewhat prolonged.

3) The country is highly developed, with top class infrastructure everywhere. People are very disciplined and helpful.

4) Free, clean and modern toilets are everywhere. It is mandatory for every organization or establishment to provide good toilet facilities to the public.

5) The use of electronic toilet seat / bidet is common in Korea.

Controls on an electronic toilet seat

6) The independence day of South Korea is 15 August (1945).

7) Most cars are medium to large size sedans or SUVs / trucks. Small cars or hatchbacks are few. Most automobiles are made by Korean manufacturers like Hyundai, Samsung, Daewoo, Ssangyong. Automobiles are left hand drive.

8) The country is full of hills and one passes through scores of tunnels (many very long ones) while travelling. One unique thing I found is that each and every hill is covered by dense vegetation. Apparently, many ‘mountain vegetables’ essential to Korean cuisine as well as ginseng are grown on the hills.

Large number of tunnels

9) The expressways are top class and there are many excellent service stations (comprising restaurants / eateries, toilets, grocery stores, petrol pumps, etc.) along the expressways.

A typical Service Station along expressways

10) On most expressways and even in some areas in the cities, the fastest lane is reserved for buses. So buses take you fastest (apart from trains and bullet trains) from one city to another. Strict lane discipline is maintained. One service lane on expressways is always left free for ambulances, police and other emergency vehicles.

11) I saw very few goods carriers (trucks) on the expressway. I was told that most goods are carried by rail or sea.

12) Power generation is mostly by nuclear energy.

13) I liked Korean food which is quite different from Chinese food. Koreans are very fond of eating out and eateries serving traditional Korean food are omnipresent. Making traditional food is quite an elaborate process and making it at home for working couples must be difficult.

Traditional Korean food

14) Very few poor people were visible in all the places we visited. In the Seoul subway train I saw a blind beggar seeking alms. He had a portable music player slung from his neck which was playing local music at a low volume. In the subway I also saw some hawkers selling small knick knacks.

15) Punctuality is given high importance. During our sightseeing tours, inter-city travel, etc., we found stringent adherence to time schedules.

16) Though language is a big problem (few understand English), it’s a very tourist-friendly country. There are many tourist information centres which are manned by English speaking girls who are very polite and helpful. Apart from free maps, brochures, etc., computers with free internet are available for tourists at these information centres. At all sites of tourist interest there are signages in English, as well as free English speaking guides.

Tourist information readily available

17) Motels are economical (INR 2500 to 3500 per night) and don’t charge any taxes. Tariffs can be negotiated to some extent. A desktop computer with free internet in every room is standard. One neither needs to identify oneself nor sign any register while checking in / out. In spite of this, nobody checks your room when you check out, though there are many costly items in the rooms that can be easily pilfered. This country obviously runs on trust, faith and honesty.

18) Many people often leave their homes for work without bothering to lock them.

19) If one loses ones wallet, bag, camera, etc., one just has to lodge a police complaint. In most cases, people lose things due to their own negligence and not due to theft and so the lost items are usually found and the police courier the recovered items to the owner’s home at govt. expense.

20) Motels are also used as love nests by Koreans and can be rented by the hour as well.

21) Wi-fi is almost everywhere. Even in the subway, bus terminals, tourist buses and some public buses one can use free wi-fi.

22) All old historical sites, palaces and monuments are perfectly maintained. Many historical monuments which were destroyed by the Japanese occupants or due to accidental fire have been perfectly restored to their former glory.

23) The Korean War Memorial in Seoul is probably the largest war memorial in the world. It is definitely worth seeing.

Korean War Memorial, Seoul

24) Geoje island has two shipyards – Daewoo and Samsung. Between these 2 shipyards, about 150 ships of VLCC size are produced per year (3 ships being delivered every week!). I visited Daewoo shipyard and was amazed at the infrastructure, efficiency, techniques and cleanliness. Above all, work was going on smoothly without any fuss. Obviously, the work culture in Korea is on a different orbit altogether as compared to India.

Daewoo Shipyard at Geoje

25) The biggest shipyard in Korea is Hyundai (in Ulsan). I did not visit Ulsan.

26) Christianity is rapidly spreading in Korea. About 20 years ago, ratio of Buddhists to Christians was about 70:30. But now it is approximately 50:50. America helped Korea in many major ways and American culture has been embraced by many Koreans as ‘modern’. American Christian missionaries have been propagating Christianity as a ‘modern’ religion. Senior officials in many Korean Chaebols and companies are Christians and they openly favour their Christian employees in promotions, etc. over Buddhists. Koreans are apparently religion-neutral mostly, i.e., they don’t attach too much importance to religion in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, they readily convert to Christianity either for the sake of their careers or due to the ‘modern’ image of Christianity.

27) Most employers credit their male employees’ pay check to their wives’ bank account.

28) Divorce rates in Korea are one of the highest in the world.

Some more pics I took in Korea may be seen at

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Friday, August 26, 2011

My impressions of China

Jaya and I visited China for 4 days during August 2011. We flew into Tianjin from Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia) and then took the Bullet Train from Tianjin to Beijing (took just 30 minutes; max speed was 334 kmph!).

Speed is displayed in every coach of Bullet Train

We stayed in a Hutong in the middle of the city which cost us USD 52 per night (including basic breakfast). The Hutong (Beijing Fish Inn, near XiSi subway station) was reasonably comfortable, with good air-conditioning, comfortable beds, en suite toilets, free wi-fi in room and other basic facilities. Room was small, though. The biggest advantage in the Hutong was that the Chinese girls managing the Hutong were quite fluent in English and were always ready to help with directions and other hints and tips about getting around in Beijing.

I booked our room in a Hutong because someone familiar with Beijing had specifically advised us to experience a Hutong there. Unlike the impersonal atmosphere in a hotel, in a Hutong there are greater opportunities to interact with other tourists in the central courtyard. Furthermore, the people running the Hutong are always accessible and they are conversant in English since the Hutongs are targeted towards foreign tourists.

We did most of the sightseeing inside Beijing on our own, using the subway and public buses. We took a conducted 1-day tour of the Ming Tombs and Great Wall (Badaling section) for USD 17 per head (booked online in advance). The tour cost included all entry fees and a sumptuous buffet lunch. Cable car tickets (USD 13 per head) for going up the Great Wall were extra, however. The tour also included visits to jade and silk emporiums.

Four days is a very short time to know a place, we could barely scratch the surface. Some impressions I gathered about China (Beijing) during this short stay were :

1) Beijing and nearby areas are quite warm and humid in August. Cotton half-sleeve shirts are ideal.

2) Security is very high everywhere. We have flown to numerous destinations from KL, but the way we were patted down before boarding our flight to Tianjin was unprecedented. While purchasing tickets for the bullet train at Tianjin, we were required to show our passports. Our passport details were also entered into the computer system while checking into our Hutong and whenever I changed money at a bank.

3) Infrastructure is excellent. Public transport in Beijing is world-class.

4) One can see poor people and destitutes in Beijing, but much less than in any Indian metro city. Beijing has many old, less affluent neighbourhoods right in the heart of the city.

5) People are disciplined, polite and helpful. Though Beijing streets have many bicycles, two-wheelers, three-wheelers and the occasional handcart in addition to a huge number of cars and buses, I did not come across any chaotic situations, indisciplined driving or honking which are the norm in India.

6) The residents of Beijing love group activities like dancing, singing, martial arts, playing various games, etc., in public parks, squares or any big open place outdoors. The most popular place in Beijing for such group activities is the Temple of Heaven Park. I found many elderly / retired people passing time in interesting ways by engaging in such group activities free of cost.

Group dancing in Temple Of Heaven park

7) Almost all 2-wheelers in Beijing run on batteries. Some are like electric bicycles and others are electric scooters / bikes. They move noiselessly without any emission and use lead acid batteries.

All 2-wheelers are battery operated

8) Most of the tourists we saw in Beijing and nearby places like Great Wall were Chinese, in very large numbers. Many probably come from different parts of China to see their capital which has many beautiful tourist spots. Most of the Chinese tourists appeared reasonably well-to-do and they were enjoying themselves thoroughly.

9) The compulsory one child per couple norm is visibly skewing the sex ratio in China. Most of the children I saw were boys.

Too many boys in China

10) Since children are ‘rationed’, they are greatly pampered by their parents and grandparents.

11) Chinese seem to be very fond of pet dogs.

12) Chinese men smoke a lot.

13) Most banks (including at the airports) offer similar exchange rates and don’t charge any commission. This is quite different from places like Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok where the bank counters at the airports offer the worst exchange rates (10-15% lower) and it is best to change money downtown.

14) Language is a big problem. Very few people understand English. However, apparently thanks to the recent Olympics, many signages are in English now. We had little or no difficulty in using public transport like subway and public buses because all subway and bus stations are marked in English too.

15) Taxis are good, not too costly, and run on meter. We used a taxi to travel from our Hutong (in downtown Beijing) to the international airport. It was booked by our Hutong staff and arrived 10 minutes before the designated time (5 AM). The taxi driver helped with our luggage. The meter was started only when we actually boarded the taxi. Upon reaching our destination, a printout of the tariff was provided. Additionally, toll (not much) was payable by me.

16) I was informed by an Indian friend working in a shipyard in China that the pace of development of the rural interiors of China was something to be seen to be believed. Almost every village is being transformed into a small town with concrete roads and other facilities. After good roads connect to a village, quick development of the village follows. The quality of life of the common people is rapidly improving.

17) The same Indian friend informed me that he saw some massive new shipyards coming up in China during the last couple of years and the pace of project execution there is mind-boggling, quite inconceivable in India.

Some more pictures I took in China may be seen at

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