A Changi Recommends Story

Earlier today, in my haste to catch my flight today, I forgot to pick up a couple of items that I had purchased from Changi Recommends, I  only realised after I’d cleared departure immigration.

Now,  Singapore does not mess around when it comes to rules. (This is one of the things that appeals to me so much about Singapore). They’re also very helpful when you own up to an honest mistake.

Incidents where passengers clear immigration and come out only to clear it again will draw the wrong kind of attention, unless you have a very valid reason to do so. (Not too long ago, a couple of folks made the news for trying to circumvent the system to buy duty-free iPhones from the airport).

I approached the immigration duty officer who directed me to the information staff opposite the immigration gates, who were very helpful and got these items delivered to me in person while I waited. It helped that I had a few hours in hand before the departure of my flight.

This is yet another example of why this is hands down, the best airport in the world. Also a big thank you to Eric and his team at the information desk for helping me get these delivered, so that I can focus on enjoying my trip.

A great deal on a cuppa

As a Melburnian, I have been somewhat spoilt when it comes to choices for coffee. You can get amazing coffee in a range of different mom-and-pop operated cafes in Melbourne for about AUD4. This is not the case elsewhere in the world. I have heard that coffee in Europe can run about $12 for a cup. Singapore is not particularly expensive for coffee in the scheme of things, but it’s not cheap either. A regular skinny flat white will run you about SGD6 (or AUD6).

Recently, I signed up for a DBS Credit Card that I’ve tied up to my Apple Pay account. It turns out that Starbucks is running a promotion where they’ll take $2 off every order that is paid for via Apple Pay on a DBS Visa or Mastercard. So a venti skinny flat white is now effectively SGD5.90 for me every morning. As a result of this, I have become the most popular person in the office for morning coffee runs. (If you’re smart, you and your friends can just place separate orders and pay with a single individual’s credit card that qualifies for the promotion). I’m told that the promotion lasts for 150,000 instances for each outlet. Earlier today, when I picked up a coffee from Starbucks at Ion in Orchard (one of the busiest Starbucks in the city), they told me that they no were no longer offering the promotion there, and what the limit per outlet was.

So, if you’re a coffee drinker, and use a DBS Credit Card via Apple Pay in Singapore, you can pick up a cheap coffee while the going is still good!

A thousand Tori gates at sunrise

Sometimes you have to wake up at early to catch on location at the right time. This is especially true for the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

The location is perhaps best known for one of the iconic scenes in “Memoirs of a Geisha”. The path is lined with 1000 Tori gates. They are visually stunning in the early morning light. However, once the clock ticks past 9:30am, tourists descend upon the shrine. The path becomes crowded with tourists walking shoulder to shoulder, belly to back in what essentially becomes a tube. I was here at 5:45am, and it was completely worth it. If you’re planning on visiting Kyoto, I definitely recommend waking up early to visit the shrine.

A weekend in Borobudur

I’ll start out by saying that this this trip is something that I did on a whim, rather than something that I had planned over a long period of time. Having moved to Asia in March 2016, I realised that I now had the opportunity to visit the region with a lot smaller investment in time than it would require when travelling from Melbourne. Borobudur appealed to me as a destination that would allow me to take some photographs, and get away from the urban life of Singapore.

I didn’t do much research on the destination, and had set my sights on visiting Borobudur temple. I’d seen a few images online, and – being the photography enthusiast that I am – was intent on doing a sunset and a sunrise visit to the temple. What I didn’t realise was that I could have had the full experience of both sunset and sunrise, and allowed myself more time to rest while I was there.

Borobudur is served by Yogyakarta airport. It is located in Central Java, and is a two-hour flight out of Singapore. I traveled on SilkAir flight 152 and landed there at 9:50am local time (Yogyakarta is an hour behind Singapore). Yogyakarta airport is small. There are no air bridges, and you walk off the plane onto the tarmac and into the terminal building. They have three counters for immigration, and while the lines look long when a flight lands, you get through pretty quickly. The immigration officers are polite and professional, and after duly stamping your passport, will welcome you to their country.

I was travelling with carry-on baggage only, and walked straight out into the arrivals foyer. A cab driver looking for business got my attention, and offered to drive me to my hotel in Borobudur. The cab fare was IDR400,000 (around SG$45).

I forgot to mention, the Indonesian Rupiah is a high denomination currency. When I changed SG$250, I got the small matter of 2.4 Million Indonesian Rupiah, and it took a bit to get my head around. For a town the size of Yogyakarta, it certainly has a high density of traffic. The roads are good, but they’re not particularly wide. Highways are rarely more than two lanes wide in each direction. The 40km drive from Yogyakarta to Borobudur took two hours.

The place that I was staying at was a resort called Villa Borobudur. A friend of mine had recommended another resort, which was fully booked out on Expedia, so I ended up staying here, based on recommendations. It was a fairly new resort – open for about two years at the time – and directions were not particularly clear. My cab driver got me to within 3km of the resort, at which stage, I had to call them and have my cab driver give them our location. They then sent out a vehicle to come and collect me!

Arriving at Villa Borobudur was a pleasant surprise. As I drove up, their staff lined up on either side of the vehicle to welcome me. I was partly embarrassed (I’m not one for being the centre of attention) and partly felt a bit like royalty. I was handed a cool towel to wipe myself down, and led to my room. I was amazed at what I was presented with.

Villa Borobudur is perched at the top of a hill that overlooks the Borobudur valley. They have a series of villas with multiple rooms, and self contained single suites. I was travelling on my own and was upgraded to the suite at no additional cost. I could go on describing and raving about the room, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. In a nutshell, the suite was constructed entirely of timber and tastefully decorated in traditional Javanese decor.

The resort also had an outdoor pool, and two outdoor living and dining areas that overlooked the valley. The most striking thing about the location was how quiet it was, once the calls for prayers had come to an end.

The staff offered me a welcome drink that tasted like papaya (there were heaps of papaya trees all around), and took my order for both lunch and dinner. They also asked me for my schedule and organised a car and admission to the Borobudur temple for a sunset viewing.

Lunch was some fried rice with some marinated chicken that was served fresh off the pan. The portions were just right. Once I’d finished, their staff took my order and schedule for dinner, and escorted me to the car where the driver, a young man called Collis,  was waiting for me.

Borobudur temple (or Candi Borobudur as the locals call it) is about 3km down the road. This is very much in the literal sense… the road from the resort is steep, at a gradient of 1:1 in certain sections. The resort’s 4WD negotiated this easily. I’m glad that I wasn’t walking back with my camera gear on my back. Entry to Candi Borobudur for the sunset viewing is IDR400k for foreigners, through the Manohara centre. The hotel had a package arrangement which also served refreshments at the end of the sunset viewing, and supplied guests with flashlights and a rain poncho.

I’d arrived at the temple at 3:30pm. Sunset wasn’t until 5:54pm that day. Candi Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist Temple. It is no mean feat of architecture. The structure is built entirely of stone, and consists of nine ascending levels. The first five are square with panels of Buddha in slightly varying poses. The next three are circular, with perforated stupas arranged in a circle around the central major stupa that makes up the top level. Each of these perforated stupas contain a sculpture of Buddha, again in a varying pose. I overheard one of the guides saying that it is believed that when people look into these stupas, they see of the image of that deity that they feel most connected with – regardless of what faith they are of.

Candi Borobudur is very popular among tourists, who are mostly locals. There are times when it can get very crowded, with everyone looking to get a selfie or their souvenir picture for their collection.

After about an hour at the temple, I had begun to tire in the heat, and sought refuge in the shade of one of the stupas. Some local children – all young boys around the age 10 – began to get curious and attempted to start a conversation with me. A small crowd of abour 15 of them sat around me, trying to talk to me in English. One of them insisted on taking a picture with me together, and they all seemed to find the experience quite amusing. As this was unfolding, a couple of teenage girls approached me. They asked me if I spoke English, and I responded in the affirmative. It turned out that they had a school project to interview a foreigner, and get a foreigner’s view on what they thought of Indonesia, and Borobudur. They spent a few minutes with me, and then went on their way, after getting me to sign their homework for them.

At 5:00pm, security guards came around, and ushered everyone away, except those of us who had a sticker on our shirts for the sunset viewing. All of a sudden, the temple was quiet. As the group of about 50 visitors sat on the western side, gazing into the setting sun, I took a chance to walk around to the eastern side, and view Mount Sindara that began to change colour as the sun dropped below the horizon. Indonesia has a large number of volcanoes. Mount Sindara is one of two dormant volcanoes in the area that form the valley. Its eruptions from the past have left the area with very fertile soil that make it perfect for farming.

It was past 6pm before I made it down to the bottom of the temple, to return back to the resort. I had a brief couple of moments to capture the entire temple in its entirety without any tourists in the foreground.

Collis was waiting for me when I returned to the entrance of the Manohara centre, and quickly drove me back to the resort. The team there had already begun preparing my dinner and served it to me within 10 minutes of my arrival – enough time for me to freshen up. They’d also put up the mosquito nets around my bed and deployed electronic mosquito repellents to keep me safe from any mosquito bites.

After dinner, the staff took my order for breakfast for the next morning. They also arranged a car and driver for me at 4:00am. As I retired to my room, I realised that it was only 7:30pm and that I had enough time to unwind, rest and sleep, and still be up at 3:30am the next morning to be ready for my sunrise shoot.

At 4:00am the next morning, as I was getting ready, I heard a knock on the door. One of the hotel staff had dutifully turned up to wake me up and ensure that I did not miss my visit. I was out the door 15 minutes later, and was greeted by Collis, and another one of the staff who had packed some muffins for me, to make sure that I had something to give me some energy. Collis drove me over to Manohara in 15 minutes. There was a decent line already formed for the purchase of tickets, but he’d already got things sorted. Once he got me my ticket, he escorted me to the entrance. As I was about to head up the path, it started raining… not just a gentle shower, but a full-on downpour!

This is something that is very characteristic of the region. Borobudur lies between a series of mountains. Storm systems often develop at sea, and float in at a higher altitude quicker than you might realise. The moment they hit one of these mountains, a downpour will begin with little to no warning. I donned the rain poncho that I had been provided with, and a headlamp that I had brought with me. The downpour began to ease up. I began to make my way up the path towards the temple with a few other tourists.

Sunrise on that particular morning was not as spectacular as it normally is. There was a lot of cloud cover on the low horizon that prevented the brilliant pinks and reds from developing. They did make for some eerie blue skies and mist on the western side, as the valley unveiled itself. By 6:30am, the sun was well and truly up, and I made my way down the steps to Manohara. The staff were already serving some hot beverages and snacks. After grabbing a quick bite and a cup of tea, I met Collis who took me back to Villa Borobudur, where the staff had breakfast ready for me. The staff took my order for lunch, and then arranged for the vehicle to be ready to drop me at the airport. My flight was at 5:50pm. They suggested that I leave by 1:30pm to be there on time to catch my plane.

I spent another hour or so photographing the valley from Villa Borobudur before retiring to me room to catch up on some sleep.

I’d originally planned on heading out of Borobudur early to stop at Yogyakarta to visit the Prambanan Temple. After taking a look at the weather forecast, I decided not to. I spent the rest of the morning catching up on sleep. I was vindicated in my decision. Shortly after I’d retired to bed, I heard the skies open up again, as it poured for another two hours.

At noon, I’d sat down for lunch. The resort manager stopped by to settle my accounts, and provided me with a parting gift from the hotel – a carved Buddha head. She explained to me that it is something that you receive and not something that you buy for yourself.

It was time to leave. The staff had loaded my one suitcase into the vehicle. As I said goodbye, I couldn’t help but reflect on how relaxed the trip had made me feel.

Collis started the car, as we made our way to Yogyakarta airport. It was Sunday, and as he had foreseen, traffic was heavy. The 40km trip normally takes two hours. It took us two detours, and a total of three hours to get to the airport. I still had plenty of time to catch my flight, but nonetheless, it was a lesson learnt for my next visit to Indonesia.

Check-in at Yogyakarta airport was smooth. It’s a small airport, and they only have 6 check-in desks at the international terminal. They’re efficient for an airport of their size, and are very helpful. I discovered that in Indonesia, you cannot carry a camera tripod onto a plane as part of your carry-on baggage. I ended up having to check it in, though they were kind enough to pack it for me, and put  “Fragile” and “Priority” tags on it. It’s also worth noting that Yogyakarta airport does not have any food or coffee stalls once you go past immigration into the waiting room. This is worth remembering in case you’re planning to get a snack before getting on the plane.

Overall, this was a perfect weekend getaway. It’s a bit of a “do it once in your life” destination, but there’s enough of a reason to come back again if you need to get some peace and quiet.

Some final thoughts

When staying at Borobudur, I recommend reaching out to the resort to organise a pick-up and drop off to and from the airport. While it may be a bit dearer, it will allow you a bit more flexibility of organizing activities.

If you fly in on SilkAir from Singapore, you’ll depart Singapore at 8:00am and arrive in Yogyakarta at 9:50am. You could cover this destination in two days and one night, where you’d get picked up at the airport by the resort car, visit the Prambanan temple, and then make your way to Borobudur for a sunset viewing of the temple, before retiring for the evening. You could then do a sunrise viewing of Borobudur, before leisurely returning back to Yogyakarta to catch your return flight to Singapore which departs at 5:50pm.

The accounts in this article are compiled from my own experiences from trips that I paid for myself. This post has not been sponsored – be it by any individual, commercial entity, or any other organisation. The opinions reflected herein are strictly my own.

Arriving in Singapore: First impressions

I’m here! Courtesy of an 8-hour flight on Qantas Airlines QF35, I have touched down in my new home (at least for the next couple of years).

It’s different from being a tourist. I now have to familiarise myself with things like medical clinics, post offices, banks, and grocery stores. I also have to set myself to a routine which will become part of my life for the next couple of years. So here are a few observations that I have made of Singapore so far.

  1. The train system is supremely efficient. There’s usually a train every two to three minutes. The stations are clean and well organised which is great since it is such a core part of everyday life for the general population.
  2. Shops open late and are open till late. This was one of my pet peeves in Australia of everything closing down at 6pm. No such issues here, where it is common to find shops open till 10pm.
  3. The days can be oppressively hot and humid, but the evenings are balmy and offer cool relief. The best time go out in Singapore is after the sun goes down and the lights come on. The city takes on a different feeling after dark.
  4. It’s safe. There is very little petty crime, and local laws crack down hard on misdemeanours making it very unattractive for one to even consider breaking the law.
  5. Locals are warm and polite, especially for foreigners. In a nation which has no natural resources, Singapore’s economy is based on being a business hub and tourist destination. I get the sense that locals have been ingrained to make foreigners feel welcome here, both for short visits, and to do business and invest.
  6. The food is awesome! The best food is found at hawkers markets, and it’s cheap! Lunch typically costs me about $5 to $8 with more food than I can eat.

Bangkok’s MBK Market

I’ve been running grossly behind while publishing these.

In mYa 2017, I had visited Bangkok for a weekend. I’d stayed at a hotel across the street from the MBK Centre, and discovered this little market that was underneath the train station infrastructure. This is the MBK Market. It’s a modern market – a far cry from the traditional Thai markets that Bangkok is well known for. It still is a great place for some decent Thai street food, and picking up some local products. I highly recommend the leather-bound stationery, and the passport covers which you can have customised with your own name and monogram of choice.

Beyond the American Dream

It was the Autumn of 2005. I was recovering from an ankle injury that I sustained at my martial arts school. During my recovery, I began to think about my future. I’d been living in The United States for 5 years. I’d graduated with a Masters degree, and had a decent job at a Fortune 50 company. I drove a nice vehicle that was paid off. I had savings and no debt. I lived in a nice neighbourhood that was safe.

My life was not too dissimilar from migrant professionals in the US who come in as international students and transition into the US workforce. I was a law abiding, respectful member of society, and an exemplary and high performing employee.

Life in America is a lot better than most other places in the world. Overland Park, KS where I lived is consistently ranked the best place in the United States for the quality of life. This is a part of America where the roads are wide, the neighbourhoods are generally safe, land is reasonably cheap, the cost of living is low compare to the rest of the country, and all things considered, life is relatively stress free. There is access to good education, and people are generally nice. If you’re professionally employed, well educated, and in good health, life is pretty good here. This is especially true if you are a US permanent resident, or better yet, a US citizen.

 

I had little to complain about. I had a decent job, a relatively stress-free life, and a good social circle. I was fundamentally comfortable with my life in the present. It was my future that was calling out to me to consider what I wanted to do next.

It is a human trait that one doesn’t really appreciate what’s out there until one steps out of their comfort zone.

When I moved to the US from India, I gained an appreciation for everything in the US. I just hadn’t stepped out of the US during my time there to gain an appreciation for what may lie beyond.

I had been living in the US for 5 years, and was still considered an “alien” (that is the official term).  I was on an H1B Visa. When you’re employed by an American company on an H1B Visa, you can only work for that employer, in the specific role that you were hired for.

The terms of your work visa restrict you from applying for roles other than what align with the skills that it defines, even within your own employer (if you’re an engineer, you can work as a software developer, but you won’t really qualify for a role in marketing).

Changing employers is somewhat complicated; the fact that you’re on a working visa is sometimes enough to put off another employer from hiring you so that you can take your career forward.

I was fortunate that I had a good employer, and good managers who were supportive. I also realised that it was my responsibility to plan my own future, and that I’d have no one else to blame if my life didn’t turn out the way that I wanted it.

I hadn’t become a permanent resident at that stage, being aware that to become one required a considerable investment – either in time, or in money, or both.

There are a few ways that one can become a United States permanent resident.

  • Most migrant students who begin working for a US employer go through labour certification – a process that requires them to be sponsored by their employer. This can be a long process that, depending on one’s country of origin, can take several years. (I have friends who were on their 7th year of waiting on approval since their applications had been filed). While your application is under process, you cannot change roles or jobs. Doing so will require one to restart the application process from scratch. This was too restrictive and was going to take too long for my own aspirations in life.
  • If you have an advanced academic degree, as I did, one has the option of applying for what is known as a national interest waiver. The process is quick, but expensive. A friend of mine acquired his green card in this manner, and has happily settled down in Kansas. The amount that it would cost made this somewhat unattractive for me to pursue.

With my swollen ankle compressed, iced, elevated, and rested, I’d assessed the opportunity cost of securing a United States Green Card was too high for me to put all my eggs in a single basket. I proceeded to do some research on immigration programs around the world.

My choice of destination was based upon the values of the nation, career opportunity, climate, quality of life, political and legal stability, and good social infrastructure that looked after its citizens.

I came up with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Singapore as my potential destinations. All of these nations offer a form of skilled migration.

I ended up applying for residency in both Australia, and Canada. My application for Australia was accepted first.

The entire process took 18 months from the day that I started considering the move, to the day that I was granted my residency. This was less than the time it took me to graduate from university in the United States. I had become an Australian permanent resident without even stepping foot on Australian soil. Six months later, I boarded a plane to Melbourne to move there permanently.

So why did I choose Australia at the end?

Well, I would have probably chosen Canada if their paperwork would have come through earlier, but at the end, both Australia and Canada offered much of the same that I was looking for in nations that offered what I was looking for in a place that I’d be happy to make my home.

Both nations offer:

  • A set of western values.
  • An English speaking society (this was important for me to fit in).
  • A clean environment.
  • A great quality of life.
  • Law and order in stable societies
  • Civil liberties and freedom.
  • Career opportunities.
  • Good social services that looked after its citizens.
  • Economic stability.
  • Good healthcare.
  • Good higher education.
  • Accessibility.
  • Good immigration laws for family.

Australia has a warmer climate which appealed to me more than the cold Canadian winters.

If I were to have moved to Canada, I would have moved to Vancouver. As it happened, I moved to Melbourne (which happens to be the coldest city on mainland Australia). Both cities are consistently ranked in the top 5 best cities in the world to live in.

Canada is easier to get to from the Northern Hemisphere, and has easier access to the United States of America.

Both countries have economic treaties with the United States, which makes it relatively easy for their citizens to secure working rights in the United States.

Australia has a great sporting culture and shares a love of cricket (which is a religion in India). Both nations have an outdoorsy culture – though Canada probably pips Australia in this department… though only just.

Canada is a more attractive destination for musicians on tour.

In closing…

At the end of the day, the one thing that I have to say is that there is life beyond the United States… and good ones at that.

The United States of America will always have a special place in my heart and in my memories.

It is where I earned my advanced degree, and where I learnt how to step out of my comfort zone and gather the courage to step out into the unknown. I made a lot of friends there, and I still enjoy going back… though this time, I know that it is purely as a visitor.

This is not to say that the US should not be your destination of choice.

It finally comes down to the individual to decide where the best place is for them to settle down. Its important to be honest to yourself when making this decision.

Sometimes, not getting what you want when you want it can be a blessing in disguise. Just because the American Dream doesn’t work out (or takes too long to become a reality), doesn’t mean that you can’t get another dream to make a reality.

Big Fish at Tanglin Village

As part of my relocation package with my employer, the relocation company assigned an agent to show me around Singapore for a few places that may be of interest.

One of the places that really stood out to me was Tanglin Village. I’ll write a more thorough write-up about the location in general in a future post. We had to pass by a pool which was home to a few fish, including two very large fish that are native to the Amazon. Continue reading “Big Fish at Tanglin Village”

Bike sharing in Singapore

This has recently appeared here in Singapore. It’s a black sharing program run by a couple of private enterprises. The two bicycles that you see here are run by an organisation called O-bike. It’s Singapore’s first station less bike sharing program. They have their own app I have which uses can locate a nearby bike, and then check one out for their own use that they pay by the hour.

The bicycles are available around most MRT stations, HDTVs, and shopping centres. Riders can locate one using an app, and drop them off at any designated area.

I haven’t tried using one yet, but having considered getting a bicycle, and then questioning how often I would use one, this appears to be the perfect solution.

I will have more to share after I take one for a test drive (no pun intended)!