Sunday, December 25, 2011

South Africa, China, and Korea

This is a long overdue entry and covers several trips. First is a trip to South Africa and later a short trip to China and Korea.

We left for Johannesburg on a direct flight from NYC via South African Airways (SAA). Although the flight was excellent there was a 20hr delay before takeoff. As I made the booking only a few days before departure I was not able to select my seat for all the flights but 73D or exit row seats are the economy class seats on SAA that are most desirable according to www.seatguru.com and verified by me because there are no seats in front of them.

Johannesburg like many others is a city of contrasts. We started a city tour by visiting the Houghton neighborhood, which has many beautiful villas hidden behind tall stone fences adorned with electrical security wire at the top. Most of the signs in the neighborhood advertised pool and tennis court repair, which gave us an idea of the demographic and its needs. Just a little while later we visited Hillsborough, where we were scared to get out of the car. Later on we visited the Apartheid museum and were reminded about how recent were the atrocities took place in South Africa.

Next stop is Cape Town, which is the ultimate tourist destination in South Africa with great sightseeing and great entertainment. We stayed at www.africanpridehotels.com/crystal-towers-hotel-spa.html which is in Century City and 10 minutes away from downtown but the huge discount more than compensated for the taxi back and forth. We took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and also visited Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Everything is very scenic and restaurants are top notch. Not too far away is beautiful wine country with many enormous vineyards and restaurants with some of the best chefs in the world - http://www.stellenboschtourism.co.za/. One restaurant that we really enjoyed here is Le Quartier Francais in Franschhoek - http://www.lqf.co.za/cuisine.htm. It is currently rated #36 in the world and #1 in Africa and the Middle East and the food stands up to the test.

A very special place is Salt Restaurant - http://www.newmarkhotels.com/restaurants/salt-restaurant/, where Sara and I decided to celebrate our birthdays. We were there with our families and my classmates from the Global EMBA program. Special occasion is not only our 30th birthdays but also our engagement. I got down on one knee and after 10 years asked Sara to be my wife to which she agreed.

We went on to rent a car and drive to Kruger National Park for a relaxing safari. It should be noted that the driving is done on “other side” of the road in South Africa. It took about 6 or so hours to get to the park from Johannesburg and we had to enter through one of the official gates. We stayed inside the park for about a week an alternated between different camping sites. Camping sites have different accommodation from tents to townhouses and are much less expensive than if you were to stay outside of the park in a lodge. For comparison we paid about $100/night for a room and did our own sightseeing in our rented car while a comparable organized tour with accommodations in a lodge outside of the park would cost $1,000+/night and would require a long time to get inside the park everyday as the park speed limit is very low. All information is available on the official park website - http://sanparks.com/ and all tours should be booked directly with the park.

Everyone embarks on an African safari to see the big 5 animals, which are Leopard, Lion, Elephant, Rhino, and Buffalo. The big 5 are not categorized based on size but on aggressiveness. Different parts of the park are populated with different animals so I recommend that you visit different parts to see more animals. The best time to see animals is in the morning when they come to drink water so be ready to wake up at 4am. One night drive is also recommended just to get an idea of what’s it’s like. These can only be done by official park rangers and need to be booked at the campsite.


China and Korea

I was in Beijing as part of my school required international assignment. This was not my first time but Beijing has changed tremendously and I felt that it deserved a note.

The number of cars has doubled in the last few years and what used to be a Chinese dream is now a nightmare as there is chronic traffic almost everywhere in Beijing and simple drive just a few miles away can easily take an hour.

Apartments in Beijing, and many other large cities in China, are more expensive than in NYC. There are actually advertisements that say if you have $250,000 to spend for an apartment come to the US to buy 5 homes, if you have $500,000 learn about how to get official residency in the USA.

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt - http://beijing.grand.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp?null, which has an amazing pool and Jacuzzi and a super convenient location near Tiananmen Square and Forbidden City. We visited the wall and the other attractions, including 798 Art Zone, which is an artistic community among decommissioned military factory buildings often compared to Soho in NYC.

After China we took a short trip to South Korea, where we spent one night and had just enough time to try Korean BBQ, which is awesome and much less expensive in Korea than it is in NYC. Something that stood out was that a lot more people knew English in Korea than in China, which for some reason was a surprise to me.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia/Thailand 2011 - The End

Thailand met expectations - beautiful and affordable. We arrived ahead of our group to stay at the Beach Republic – http://www.beachrepublic.com/ ($120/night). As a group we rented one villa and a bunch of rooms which was the perfect arrangement for us as we used the villa to get together around the private pool and pre-game before going out for the night.

The resort markets itself as the destination for the jet set crowd that likes to party but it was mostly deserted even during high season. We felt like we had the hotel all to ourselves which suited us just fine. It had 2 amazing infinity pools, several day beds, and many beach chairs with a live DJ for most of the time.

We spent most days just enjoying the sun by the pool and drinking strawberry mojitos. One day we decided to rent scooters ($5-$6/day) and take them to a zip line adventure ($50/person) which was very exciting, especially for those who have never done zip lining before or never rode a scooter.

One of the most memorable days was spent on a large catamaran that we rented from Kia Ora – http://www.kiaorathailand.com/ ($100/person for private charter). We spent the day on the water with lots of dancing, drinking, eating, diving, and swimming while visiting remote beaches.

As most of the group went home mid-week those who remained visited Nikki Beach – http://www.nikkibeach.com/ (free). Nikki was similar to the Beach Republic with nicer beach and not as nice accommodations. We had such a good time that we contemplated organizing a Global regatta to visit all the Nikki Beach locations around the world.

As a note the whole group was introduced to 2 girls 1 cup - http://www.2girls1cup.ws/ (priceless), an epic film that shows what’s really possible.

Now in Bangkok as a stop before going back home to NYC - staying at the Banyan Tree – http://www.banyantree.com/ ($165/night) for the 2nd time but at a higher price than 3 years ago.

As per Bertrand's recommendation just ate at Miyatake (Tokyu Supermarket, MBK, Bangkok) - amazing tuna toro and other Japanese dishes. A very plain sushi counter at a supermarket with quality and prices to rival Tokyo. We were about to give up looking for it when finally figured out where it was. I wish I took a video of our journey there through the massive electronics floor.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Singapore/Malaysia/Indonesia/Thailand - Summer 2011

At first I was not going to blog about this trip because it is only 2.5 weeks and mostly beachy as my time will be spent going from one tropical drink to another. However, after the first week I realized that I am in an important part of the world and it should be shared.

Sara and I are already a week into this trip and have been to Singapore, Malaysia, and now in Indonesia.

Singapore - This is an island surrounded by Malaysia and Indonesia. There are 5-6 million inhabitants on only 270 square miles. This country is only 46 years old and already has one of the highest per capita GDP's in the world.

I was blown away by how developed and wealthy this country is. It went far beyond my expectation. We stayed at Marina Bay Sands www.marinabaysands.com which is a Las Vegas style resort and casino with 2500+ rooms, shoping mall, theatre, ice skating rink, 500 feet long infinity pool shaped like a ship and placed on the roof across all three towers. The hotel was one of the best I have ever experienced. I did not want to leave the pool as it gives you a birds eye view of the city and allows to enjoy a sangria at the same time.

Beyond the hotel, Singapore has everything that you would expect from a modern city including a high-rising financial center, luxury boutiques such as Prada, LV, Ferragamo, and many diverse restaurants. English is also an official language so it easy to get around and talk to people. It is also very safe. We had an excellent host in my classmate Steven who took us around to all the major sights in Singapore.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KL) - we arrived here to achieve my 10 year old dream to see the Petronas Towers - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petronas_Towers. I first saw the towers while watching Entrapment (1999) and fell in love. They are called Twin Towers by the locals and that's exactly what they are. Two identical buildings joined together by a sky bridge about half way up. The buildings are impressive and so is the view from the top. They are also stunning at night. It was worth the trip to see the towers but I was not impressed by the rest of KL. It was dirty, dangerous, and not very exciting.

Now we are in Bali, Indonesia. Bali is one of the many islands in Indonesia but unlike other islands where citizens follow Islam it is the only one that is populated mostly by those following Hinduism. It is friendly, beautiful, known for its art, and overall amazing. Originally, we were going to stay at a Marriott but at the airport here we decided to change to a villa and what a good choice it was. We are staying at LaVillais - http://lavillais.com/home.html which is a villa resort. Each room has it's own inground pool, outdoor living room, kitchen, and all the amenities that come with it. All this for under $200/night. I love getting a good deal and I never want to leave. If you go to Bali..stay at a villa....this is way to go here. For those who think that this is an expensive vacation we just had a lunch special which included an excellent salad and pasta for $6. So far Bali is highly recommended and definitely a place I would visit again. Any takers for renting an enormous villa here next summer? Next on the trip is Thailand!