Why travel hundreds of miles and burning so much carbon footprint just to experience something new? There’s value in that, but there’s also value in exploring your own backyard. There’s a reason why I love staycations so much. Read on!Read More
In this first #flashbackfriday post, I dig up an old post when I was sent to Beijing at the height of the SARS epidemic.Read More
I've heard so much about Sekeping Kong Heng, a "hotel" designed by the architect Seksan. So, when I decided to have a short vacation in Ipoh last week, I made a point to book a room for myself there.
Located in Ipoh old town, Sekeping Kong Heng is a unique, one-of-a-kind lodging that you've got to experience at least once. It's made from of the bones of an old building, and Seksan has done it so well and so carefully that it's no wonder it's one of the most photographed buildings in Ipoh. Just look at the photos below (clicking on them will bring up a bigger picture.)
Personally, I don't think Sekeping Kong Heng is a hotel per se, and those going there expecting it to be so would be disappointed. You'd have an easier time of it if you think of it as a high-end, avant garde guest house.
I decided to book the Annex C5 room, the smallest and cheapest at RM80. The room, however, doesn't come with its own bathroom, which I'm fine with. I've backpacked a lot and do not need much beyond a good bed, and frankly RM80 for a private little room is luxury!
I took a 2.5-hour train ride from KL Sentral to Ipoh. And from the train station, it was a short 900m walk to Sekeping Kong Heng. It can be a challenge to find the place, but I was well prepared, having read oodles of blog posts about it.
First, find the iconic Kong Heng restaurant:
Then, walk in the lane between Kong Keng restaurant and Plan B, which is next to it. After the black gate, there's the reception on your left. It's literally a hole in the wall.
The man there took my bag up for me to the Kong Heng Annex, which is not in the same building as the other rooms. I rather like the Annex as it's not right next to Plan B - for reasons I will make clear below. Anyhow, we got to my room.
My room is the cutest thing ever! i loved it for its simplicity and minimalism. The bathroom was a walk away, past the pool. All in all, I do love the serenity of the surroundings.
Still, there are pros and cons about staying at Sekeping Kong Heng. In fact, its website makes it clear that the place isn't for everyone.
- The industrial chic design is beautiful, and there's much to admire in the careful reuse of old materials and the careful preservation of the old building.
- It's walking distance to Ipoh old town's famous eateries.
- Walking distance to the train station.
- If you stay in the Annex, you'd be right next to the pool, though I'm not sure if it's a swimming pool or a decorative pool. Still, a nice place to relax. I didn't get to, however, cos the first two days I was there, construction workers were sitting there. ;(
- Dear Lord in Heaven, it was NOISY. Plan B plays muzak from morning till midnight. I have no idea how the guests in the Family Room sleep because not only are there no walls in the room (just grilles), there's a speaker blaring loud music right outside their room. Fortunately, my room is possibly the quietest room in the Annex. One of its walls is solid brick and the room next door had been converted into a pantry. And I suspect I was the only one living in the Annex during those days as I didn't see anyone else. At night, the music was a tinny whine.
- Not for children or the elderly as there are far too many opportunities for people to fall, trip etc. For one, I was really nervous walking on the grates that was the floor around the swimming pool, and there were no waist-high barriers between the second floor and the ground floor around the swimming pool.
- Inconvenient security system: I had to struggle with the sticky lock to get in and out of the annex. And I had to do it while perched on narrow stairs. Not exactly the safest thing.
- Not very disabled-friendly; no elevators if you need to take bags up to your room, and with the stairs being the way they are, they are a trip hazard.
It was a unique experience, however, staying there for two days, and I did enjoy my room a lot. But the noise made it tough to sleep and I wasn't exactly restful there, alas. If, however, you sleep like a log and would like to experience something novel and unique, Sekeping Kong Heng is for you. Just take note of the pros and cons :)
I was really lucky that I had a job that allowed me to travel around the world when I was younger. However, one of my biggest regrets was that I did not keep detailed accounts of those trips. Fortunately, since I have been blogging since 1999, I did sometimes blog about the trips. Starting from today, I'll be reblogging some of these posts here.
This 2001 trip to Tokyo, written in 2004, was one of my first overseas assignments as a rookie reporter and the second foreign country I've ever visited besides Australia. (Singapore doesn't quite count!)
April 14, 2004
But reading through her archives and looking at the pictures she snapped of Tokyo just filled me with nostalgia.
I visited Tokyo three years ago. it was just a week, but Tokyo really left an impression on me. The iconic images you see in anime suddenly became real when you see Japanese school girls with leg warmers stroll the streets of Shinjuku or when you see people at the pachinko machines.
Before visiting the metropolis, all I knew about Japan was: a) anime b) they invaded Malaya in the 1940s and c) grandma said that the Japanese soldiers were nasty.
When I got to Japan, I felt as if I was on another planet. They had computerised toilets, for one. I rememer spending quite some time trying to figure out how to flush the toilet in my hotel room because there were literally twenty touch-pad buttons on this stand next to my toilet. Since I can't read Japanese, it was a purely experimental exercise.
Each button produced interesting results - there was this button which produced a "wave-like" effect in the water (I have no idea what for), then there was a deodoriser option, a seat-drying option, a button which warms the seat of the toilet, and even a button which produces air from goodness knows where.
The Japanese were incredibly interested in my namecards. Unfortunately, I must've offended quite a few executives because I quickly ran out of them.
There were way too many people on the streets. Sometimes, young people would jump at you offering you things to buy. Usually mobile phones or something. Unfortunately, the moment I said something in English, they sped off. Once, while crossing a junction in the city, there was suddenly a thousand people crossing the street at once. I nearly went cross-eyed.
The buildings were huge.
Nothing in Japan seems affordable. I spied a pair of shoes being sold for 50,000 yen. I can't even begin to think how much it must be in ringgit. But shopping appears to be a hobby. Isetan had one building for males and another for females to shop in.
They seem to like umbrellas a lot.
And the food. Maybe it is because I was brought to 'upper' establishments. I really wanted to eat the humble sushi, but got gourmet Japanese food instead. They were ... erhm, restrained in flavour. Let's just say that when I got back to Malaysia, I had a big huge hunger for extra-spicy Hokkien mee (noodles in a spicy, prawn-flavoured soup).
The jams were really scary.
They had multi-tiered highways. Like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Men, I swear this, but every woman in Tokyo seems beautiful. And their clothes sense made me want to hide in a corner.
If I wore skirts as short as some of the students in Tokyo were wearing them, my disciplinary teacher would really have a great time with the ruler with me.
Their houses were beautiful. Immaculate, and neat inside and outside. And did I mention the serenity of Japanese gardens? I was walking in a suburb one day, and in the middle of the maze of houses was a serene Japanese garden with lakes, bridges, and trees. Gorgeous.
Wish I could visit Japan one more time, but honestly, I have to strike a lottery first before I go there.
Afterward: I did manage to visit Japan again. I visited Kyoto, Osaka and then Hokkaido.
I love Airbnb. It gives me an affordable way to go on writing retreats every month without burning a hole in my pocket. And it is also super convenient to spend a vacation in an apartment with a kitchen and washing machine at hand.
The lovely red sign you see above is what greeted my friends and I when we "checked in" to our Airbnb unit in Penang recently.
The guy who rented us the place explained that just a few months ago, the management committee decided to ban AirBnb guests from using the gym and very gorgeous swimming pool.
Our spirits fell when we were told that we weren't allowed to use the pool. A huge bummer because that's why I booked this apartment. I didn't read the fine print that the owner had put into his ad that the pool was not available. My bad.
To ensure absolute compliance, the management actually grilled up the pool area. One would have to swipe security cards just to enter the area.
He had to give his apartment number to the management, and was summarily banned. Even if he tried to sneak in, the security guards at the pool area (yes, you read that right) would stop him because his apartment has been blacklisted.
"It isn't fair," he said. "After all, I pay for management fees too. Why should I and my guests be banned from using facilities that we paid for?"
The whole place felt like a detention centre, not a swanky condo, and the screaming red signs placed around the lobby made us feel like fugitives. Each time we walked past one of those posters, we felt like we were wearing a scarlet letter A!
My friends, possibly unused to the unpredictability and hiccups of travel, did not know how to react to the red-hot "unwelcome". They believe that as it was bad form and bad for Malaysian tourism.
Well, I think Malaysian tourism will be doing fine as there are many Airbnb units that are far more welcoming. I also don't think the apartment committee is responsible for good Malaysian tourism neither should they be, because this is their home after all.
Yes, believe it or not, I am sympathetic to the management of this condo.
AirBnb like Uber is disrupting the way of life as it is. Hoteliers complain that AirBnbers get to avoid hotel tax and that their burgeoning presence is eating into their profits.
I suppose most of us would shrug and say, "Well, too bad. You're a business so you should adapt to new threats to your business."
But what happens if you own a unit next to an Airbnb unit and you sometimes get guests that walk around naked, get drunk or play loud death metal music until the wee hours of the morning, waking up your baby which you took hours to rock to sleep and thus, sacrificing not just your little darling's sleep but yours as well?
You get the picture. (Read Airbnb Hell just to see how bad it could get!)
So I can understand this condo management's desperation and fury, and who knows what horror stories they had to endure before taking this drastic step, but I still don't agree with how they went about doing it.
The loud red signs create a bad vibe for not just Airbnb guests but also residents. Imagine coming from a hard day's work to see the furious, red poster spewing such negativity?
Also, the policy creates resentment because apartment owners are being separated into two camps and one is being treated like pariahs.
And our apartment owner had a point: Why should he be barred using the facilities that he paid for?
I think, in the end, it would be inevitable that some kind of tension would brew between these two factions.
Wow, talk about a bad situation!
As far as I can see, there isn't really an easy solution to this. Apartment owners do have the right to rent out their properties for as long (or short) as they want, and people who live in condos have the right to a peaceful place to live.
It makes me wonder: Will Airbnb go the way of Napster?
I haven't had the reason to use Uber in Kuala Lumpur, but many of my friends raved about the car-sharing app and said that they couldn't live without it.
All I know about Uber is that it seems to create ripples everywhere it goes. Uber riders may love it, but governments seem inclined to ban it. There's always some form of protest when it comes to town!
In Malaysia, it's the same. Taxi associations have been protesting Uber's encroachment upon its ricebowl, and I've even seen "No Grabcar" (another Uber-like app) spray painted at a bus stop once - as if the taxis could claim sole right to pick up passengers there.
When I had to go to Penang for a holiday, I was recommended Uber to get around. Since I couldn't afford taxi everywhere I went I thought I'd give it a shot.
Using the app is really easy. So you just download the app to your smartphone, and then click on the icon and you're ready to use it. Then, you set your pick up point, and then where you want to be dropped off.
You can also get a fare estimate.
What I love about the app is how it shows you where Uber cabs are in the vicinity. When you book a Uber ride, you will be informed about your driver's Name, car type, plate number and be given his phone number.
Usually you (or the driver) will call the driver to tell him exactly where you want to be picked up.
Wow, I have to say that I am amazed at how cheap it is. RM5 to get to Eastern & Oriental from Times Square, and RM7 to get to Botanic Gardens from Times Square... this is quite affordable, especially to my friends who had the mighty Aussie dollar.
Freelance economy - good or bad?
Still, despite the ease and affordability, I'm not a fan of the freelance economy and what it does to the common man. I feel that Uber drivers had to struggle so much to get decent income.
I told one Uber driver that I actually felt guilty only giving him RM5 for the ride, so I gave him a tip. He was a happy camper.
He said that it was tough to make a living as a full-time Uber driver in Penang as they (Uber, I think) had slashed the rates. Most Uber drivers now have to make do with two jobs.
Of course, people using Uber are worried about safety issues, and I heard a few horror stories from a friend, who said that although there are horror stories, they are rare exceptions.
My first uber ride was not a great one - the man was clearly lost, could barely communicate properly with me, so he actually went round and round my pickup area and we yelled instructions at each other over barely audible smartphone audio. I tried to tell him where I was, but he didn't get me, and I didn't get what he was trying to say so in the end he picked me up after half an hour of waiting.
I was cross by then, but I could see that he was nervous as Uber drivers are rated after every ride, and they have to maintain a high rating. He gave me a discount, probably felt bad for the whole thing too.
Again, not a fan of the freelance economy sometimes, but I guess you gotta buck up if you are a Uber driver.
So would I recommend Uber?
Yup, most certainly!
Of the 10 rides or so my friends and I had in Penang, only one was not up to snuff, but even then it wasn't horrid as the man had a very clean car with great air-conditioning and I got to my destination with limbs and sanity intact.
Yes, you do have horror stories, but taxi rides have as many horror stories too. You will get a receipt of your Uber ride and details of the Uber driver, his car number plate and phone number, so it helps.
I love staycations. My friends find it weird that I'd check into a hotel at least once a month ... in the same city. But by staying somewhere new every month, not only does it feed that wanderlust beast in me, it feels like a relaxing day at the spa!
But hotel prices have been astronomical lately, and I've been getting more and more curious about the Internet phenom that is AirBnB. Since it was my first time, I made sure I booked with a host that has gotten a few good reviews. Here's the studio unit in Petaling Jaya I got in April:
So, this is what happens after you book your AirBnB unit (you have to pay up front): Your host would usually contact you - at least Vanessa did, and very promptly. In that email she detailed how I was to get the key. And we discussed, also via email, what time I was to "check in".
On the day: Finding Vanessa's unit was a little challenging, and on top of that I was desperately late because a lorry overturned on the highway. Luckily, the host was willing to wait an extra two hours for me. I fell in love with the apartment immediately. It was in a cosy green corner of Damansara Perdana and very near the shops. I could picture myself living here.
I've always been fascinated with living in a studio, so Vanessa's studio in Damansara Perdana scratched that itch.
Yup, I loved it! The minimalist in me really loved the simplicity and cosiness of studio living. The only thing stopping me for making studio living a permanent arrangement, however, is that the kitchen is often in the same room. That's a thing with me. I can't bear the thought of smelling bacon on my sheets - so perhaps a one-room apartment is better for me.
But I digress. Here's the best part about Vanessa's studio:
Watching TV with a glass of cold lemonade with that gorgeous view? Man!
I wasn't lucky enough to buy an apartment with a killer view, but now a view like this is just an AirBnB reservation away. Who needs mortgages anyway?
So my first experience was a great one! I've already booked my second.
How about you? What's your experience with AirBnb?
Penang folks are rather proud that they are Penang folk. We are proud of the fact that we have the best food in Malaysia, and the Chinese is most certainly proud to speak the genteel Northern Hokkien dialect. Which is why I jokingly refer to the state where I was born as "the motherland".
After an arduous 9 months slogging for the CIM Diploma in Digital Marketing, I was super excited to celebrate my emancipation from assignment hell by a trip up north. My goal for the 5-day vacation was simple: Eat, explore, sleep and read.
Is it me, or is it hot??
My family took the speedy 4-hour ETS train from KL Sentral (with me grumbling about waking up at an unholy 6am all the way). It's RM118 for return tickets, and we took the the 9am train. When we finally landed in Butterworth, the extreme heat (thanks to our good friend El Nino) was a shock to the system, especially since the train was soo cold just moments before. After lugging our bags up the very disabled-unfriendly stairs and ramps to the ferry that will take us across to Penang island, we were soaked in sweat.
Penang island was no better. I swear, it must have been a 40 degree Celcius day, because waiting for the bus that would take us to the hotel was so unbearable I threatened to take a taxi to the hotel. Being a stout, thrifty Penangite, Mum was mystified why I would consider paying $20 for a ride when a free bus ride could be had.
But we got to Heliconia hotel's air conditioned confines soon enough!
Below (from left) The ferries that take us from the mainland to Penang island, a refurbished shop house, Chowrasta market and some salted fish at a market.
WHEN IN PENANG, EAT!
I don't care what Singapore says in their tourism brochures, but Penang has the best food in South East Asia. So I did my duty in contributing to the Penang economy. Admittedly we ate at New Lane hawker centre, what most Penangites would consider a tourist trap, but it was very convenient to have all the best hawker dishes under one ... sky?
Actually, the family and I were also there for the annual Qing Ming (tomb-sweeping) festival. My paternal grandparents were enshrined at a collumbrium at Kek Lok Si temple. Because of the heat and an unfortunate and ill-timed bout of food poisoning for yours truly, we took a taxi to Air Itam. RM70 for return. Ouchies.
Five days was over just like that. I achieved my goal of being the laziest tourist ever - that's what I needed, to sleep after months of sleepless nights studying! With food purchases (tau sah peah and hiao pia, which are traditional Chinese biscuits) and nearly a dozen books from the Big Bad Wolf sale, my bag literally burst from the strain. It was a great vacation with the family, eventhough I have to admit I was a bit of a sourpuss from the blazing weather most of the time.
Thinking of visiting Penang? Don't hesitate, it's awesome! But then again, I'm biased. :P