28 March 2018

Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) - Get on the Shoo-Shoo Train at Sentul Park

Date of Exploration : 15 Jan 2017

Continuing my hunt for off-the-beaten-track things to do in Kuala Lumpur, I stumbled upon Sentul Park and decided to follow the recommendations of some blogs to come here for a photo shoot. It is very Instagram-worthy. They say. And having made it here, I totally concur.

Except.

They failed to mention that PHOTOGRAPHY IS NOT WELCOMED in the park! That's because Sentul Park is owned privately by YTL Corporation Berhad to serve its gated community of condominium residents. However, the public is allowed to enter Sentul Park because the park is also home to the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC). A privately-owned residential development housing a public entity, that's like wearing your underwear on the outside... it is something private, yet the whole world is invited to see.

But no pictures please.

A tranquil oasis located slightly off the grid of Kuala Lumpur's choking urbanity, Sentul Park is in a little world of its own.
 Getting to Sentul Park

If I knew that Sentul Park does not welcome photography, I wouldn't have made the trip. Thankfully, getting here wasn't too much trouble as it is just a 15-minute cab ride from the famous Bukit Bintang district (where our hotel is located).

Sentul Park can be reached from the park's West entrance, which is accessible via Jalan Strachan. Jalan Strachan is located off Jalan Ipoh (which is parallel to Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah). This directional information is important if you're planning a visit because this place is tourist-unfriendly so not many taxi drivers know how to get here.

We had to direct our driver using Google Map to get to Sentul Park (West entrance) as he had no idea where the park is. If you come from Bukit Bintang, you will hit Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah. At a junction that joins Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah to Jalan Ipoh, make a U-turn to Jalan Ipoh and you'll come to an off road marked Jalan Strachan, which is the West entrance of Sentul Park / KLPAC.


If you have local data SIM card, simply use Google Map and search for "Bukit Bintang to Sentul Park". Then show the directions to the cab driver.

Getting out from Sentul Park can also be a problem as cabs don't casually drive in. To get a ride out, ask the ticketing personnel to help you call for a cab or dial the number listed at the counter if you have a local SIM card to get a cab.

Remnants of an Old Train Depot

As we drove passed the security sentry that guarded entry into KLPAC / Sentul Park and further down Jalan Strachan, we were greeted by a stately construct of red bricks that has gone beautifully neglected...

No idea what this concrete shell used to be, probably a bygone administrative building, but it is enchanting.
The skeleton that time left behind.

The empty arched hallways create an atmospheric setting that pleases the lens.


Before long, a security guard hollered at us to stop taking photos and shooed us away. He's probably concerned for our safety as ruins can harbour hidden dangers.


Lines & Circles

Moving along, we followed a path that led towards the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre and Sentual Park. The next curious building that greeted us was a nature-inspired minimalist low-rise that presented a sharp contrast to the abandoned red bricked ruins we just saw.

Simple lines but eye-catching exterior.

The exterior facade of wooden bars makes for a dramatic backdrop for some camwhoring.

Making the most of the line works while indulging in narcissism. LOL. Surprising, we weren't chased away. Maybe the security guards didn't see us.
Exploring further, we came across this concrete cylinder that could very well be a time tunnel.

Totally feeling the retro vibe of this portal from the yesteryears.

Unique photo-op with the unusual tunnel.

But we weren't trigger happy for long. Shortly after a few shots, a security guard marched over to shoo us away.
Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre

Opposite the concrete circular tunnel is the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC). From the red bricked ruins earlier, it's about a 10 minutes walk to KLPAC, if one could resist stopping for photos along the way.

Curves of the old juxtaposed with the order of modernity.

Only managed to get a few shots of the interesting profile of KLPAC before... you guessed it... a security guard came over and shooed us away.

An original spiral stairway that was salvaged from the area's history I suppose.

It was a quiet afternoon during our visit, allowing us the peace to mellow in the shadows of the past while soaking up nature.

Sentul Park lies beyond... We didn't cross over to explore the park as the sweltering heat quickly drained enthusiasm. Plus we weren't sure if photography will be prohibited over at the other side.

Sentul Park... a reclusive reflection of KL's past.


Having made it here as a tourist, despite the relatively secret location and photography restrictions, I'm actually glad that this place is not developed for tourism although it has the makings.

For a getaway from the hyper urbanisation of Kuala Lumpur to a place where history and greenery connect, Sentul Park is a tranquil little pause button.

14 February 2017

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Date of Exploration : 29 Jan 2017

Completed in 1880, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is perhaps the oldest major monument of its standing in Ho Chi Minh City. It is conveniently located within the heart of the city in District 1, just opposite the main entrance of the Reunification Palace (the two attractions are separated by a park).

I did a half-day self-guided walking tour of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, the city's Old Post Office next to it, and ending off at the Reunification Palace.

As the foliage of the park that separated the Reunification Palace and Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon parted, the cathedral's transept made its stately presence felt.

I had wanted to start my day's exploration at Reunification Palace first but it was closed during lunch (11am - 1pm) so I came to the cathedral instead.

While I was at the closed gate of the Reunification Palace, a motorcycle taxi rider came up to me and offered to bring me on a ride to show me where the various attractions are located for US$5.00 (duration of ride is about 30 minutes). I did not take up the offer and pointed towards the park in front of the palace's main gate and indicated that I'm going to the cathedral. He told me that the cathedral is not located in the direction which I pointed and offered to take me there. So I consulted Google Map and it showed that the cathedral is very near.

With the staggering amount of traffic in Ho Chi Mink City, getting a clean shot without any vehicle in it is good training for patience. God knows how long I waited to get this shot without any vehicles in it.
I was a little baffled, wondering to believe him or not but I declined his offer anyway and decided to cross the park to find out. As it turned out, the motorcycle taxi rider hadn't been truthful. The cathedral is located exactly in the direction that I pointed and it took me under 3 minutes to cross the road from the gate of the Reunification Palace, cut across the park, and arrive at the side transept of the cathedral!

Personally, I feel that the attractions (Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City Old Post Office, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh Market, the French Quarter and Bitexco Tower) are located within a reasonable walking radius. That's if you stay at the centre of District 1 which is near Ben Thanh Market. So it is not necessary to take the motorcycle taxi ride. Moreover, US$5.00 (approx. 115,000d.) is rather expensive to just ride past the various sites. Anyway, there are a lot of taxi scams and other money rip-offs in Ho Chi Minh City so be very careful. Click here for some of the unpleasant encounters I experienced.


Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is right next to another of the city's historical gem - the Ho Chi Minh City's Old Post Office that was completed in 1891. It is also listed as one of the city's attractions to visit.

My visit coincided with the Chinese New Year period so while I was crossing the road to Saigon Cathedral, I caught sight of this CNY decoration on wheels. Talk about flower power! LOL

Facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Officially known as the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. I shall call it "Saigon Cathedral" for short.

Building materials for the cathedral were brought over from France with the marble statue of the Virgin Mary fabricated in Rome. "Notre Dame" means "Our Lady" in French.

Getting that essential "I am here" selfie shot :o)

In 2005, this statue of the Virgin Mary apparently wept tears from her right eye with a tear trail running down her right cheek. Is it a miracle?

The weather quickly turned gloomy with light rain during my visit but thankfully, the full blooming sunflowers planted around the statue added a smile to appreciate the cathedral with.

The two bell towers housing 6 bells each stands at a height of 58m.

Getting upclose with the Saigon Cathedral.

The cathedral was closed during my visit so I didn't get to see the interior.

Reflection of a star attraction from the French era of Ho Chi Minh City.

I stayed about an hour snapping photos of Saigon Cathedral's facade, most of the time spent waiting for traffic or people to clear the scene for cleaner shots of this historic religious monument.

Saigon Cathedral may not be as elaborate or atmospheric as the gargoyles-laden and medieval Notre Dame de Paris, but it offered a glimpse into the early Europeanisation of Vietnam. The "invasion" of France into Vietnam's politics started because a Catholic priest asked the French government to provide military support and help to Vietnam's Emperor Gia Long in reclaiming lost lands from the country's rebelling peasants.

So, always be careful when asking for help. Or one may end up losing much more.

09 February 2017

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Taxi Scams & Other Rip-Offs

Date of Scamming Experiences : 28 - 30 Jan 2017

There are many things that could go wrong during a vacation but nothing mars a holiday more than being scammed by the locals, resulting in a constant worry of what more you could be losing or the bad things that might happen next.

You simply cannot trust the people you rely on for help and hospitality.

And my first visit to Ho Chi Minh City was a crash course on the myriad ways one could be scammed, especially by the taxi drivers.

My 9D8N Vietnam trip spanned Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi. During the course of my research of the 3 cities, I came across a lot of warnings about the dishonesty of taxi drivers and cab scams in the various cities. I thought I was well-informed and prepared. But I was wrong.

There are other tactics that were not spoken about which I will share in this post as a matter of direct, personal experiences. Not something I've read about, or heard from, but actual incidents that happened to me.

I spent 4D3N in Ho Chi Minh City and can't help feeling I'm nothing more than a wallet on legs. From the moment I arrived at the customs to getting a cab to the city to various experiences in patronising businesses as well as street encounters, the whole city just came across as being very money hungry.

Here are my experiences with the money scams that I encountered in Ho Chi Minh City...

Custom Officer Asking for Ang Pow Money

I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on the first day of Chinese New Year (28 Jan 17, Saturday). While getting my passport cleared at the customs, the immigration officer kept saying something I couldn't decipher while he cleared my entry into the country. He kept repeating himself and when I continued to have a blank expression on my face, he opened a drawer next to him and blatantly waved a collection of about seven pieces of S$10 notes. There were other monies of different currencies in the drawer.

That's when I realised hes asking him to give him "ang bao" (red packet) money because it is Chinese New Year. I just smiled and waited for him to stamp my passport and left without acceding to his request for money. My friend who is Malay and got his passport cleared by another immigration officer did not experience that.

If you visit Ho Chi Minh City during Chinese New Year, or possibly during any other major festive periods, just be mindful that the immigration officer might take the opportunity to ask for money. Just smile, wait for the immigration process to be completed, take your passport and leave.

Taxi Coordinator Asking for a High Flat Fee for a Ride into the City

Outside the airport, we wanted to take the metered taxi to the city centre where our hotel is. A coordinator who's helping passengers get cabs told me that it is Chinese New Year, all the cabs go by fixed rate and not by meter. He asked for a flat fee of 250,000d. (approx. S$16). This is the taxi coordinator, not even the taxi driver. What if we paid this coordinator and get on the taxi and the taxi driver still charge us a metered fare?

When you exit Ho Chi Minh Tan Son Nhat International Airport, turn left to get a public taxi to your hotel. There are touts offering taxi rides inside the airport but those will ask for a flat fee that will be much higher than a metered fare.

From online sources, estimated fare from airport to the city centre is about 140,000d. I didn't believe the coordinator so I asked a Vietnamese who's also waiting for a cab next to me if it is true that it's a fixed rate. He said no, the taxi should go by the meter. The coordinator promptly walked away and we got on a cab who used the meter to take us to our hotel.

So if you encounter a taxi coordinator asking for a flat fee, ignore him. Check with a cab if it is using meter and get on. As a general rule, use only the green Mai Linh taxis or the white with blue and dark green Vinasun taxis.

Taxi company to take in Ho Chi Min City - Mai Linh Taxi (green).
Tel : 38 38 38 38

Taxi company to take in Ho Chi Minh City - Vinasun (white with red and dark green logo).
Tel : 38 27 27 27

I've taken both Mai Linh and Vinasun and the drivers use the meter. But be careful of copycat companies who use these taxi company colours but are not by them. The copycats may use the same colours (especially the Vinasun colours) or similar looking logos.

While drivers from these two taxi companies are generally trustworthy and use the meter, that does not stop them from not giving exact change or going a long way to clock mileage so they can earn a higher metered fare. And that takes me to the next scam...

Taxi Driver Did Not Give Exact Change

On reaching our hotel, the metered fare showed 118,000d. Less than half the price that the coordinator asked for. But our driver turned around and asked for 200,000d. I said no. Unfortunately, I do not have smaller notes as I've just arrived in HCMC so I gave him 200,000d. and asked for change back. He gave me back only 50,000d. instead of the correct change of 82,000d.

Before I could ask for my exact change, he promptly got out of the cab and unloaded our luggage.

Driver Stole Handphone

The worst of the experience was when we took a cab to a further district. We made the mistake of not sticking to Mai Linh or Vinasun taxis as we couldn't get any. After walking around quite a bit, a taxi driver called to us near the Ben Tanh Market area and we boarded his cab. I can't recall which taxi company it was but it's neither Mai Linh or Vinasun although it is mostly white in colour.

When we got on the cab, the meter showed 100d. I immediately wanted to get off as I thought the driver is charging me a starting fare of 100,000d. But he assured me it's only 10,000d. So we took the cab and when we reached our destination, the meter showed 188,8880d. We were shocked and confused about the fare as it couldn't have cost so much since the journey was barely 15 minutes. So the driver clarified by taking a piece of newspaper over to explain the fare.

The newspaper covered my friends bag. He explained that it's only 18,000d. We gladly paid him 20,000d. and he kept the change. We thought we were in luck to have taken such a cheap ride. 20,000d. is roughly only about S$1.30. Immediately after we got off the cab, as a habit of checking our belongings, my friend realised that his handphone was gone. He placed it in the front pocket of his bag and the driver has distracted us with the confusing fare, newspaper and stolen it.

Driver Went a Big Round to Get Higher Fare

When we headed back to the city centre, we took a Mai Linh taxi and the driver went off on a tangent road, attempting to make a big round instead of the direct road that leads to our hotel. Thankfully I've been following our journey on Google map and asked him why he didn't take the direct road. He said he saw the address on our hotel's card wrongly, but I doubt it. The fare came up to 90,000d.

The scary thing is that we encountered all the above money scams all in a single day!

TIPS WHEN TAKING TAXI IN HO CHI MINH : 

1. Take only Mai Linh or Vinasun taxis
2. Use Uber instead of the public taxis
3. Invest in a local SIM card and turn on Google maps to track your journey
4. Take a photo of the driver's license displayed on the car's dashboard. If the taxi driver doesn't display a license, it is most likely a scam cab. Get off.

Dishonest Motorcycle Taxis

The four-wheeled taxis aren't the only ones that will potentially scam you, the motocycle taxis will do that too.

I went to the Reunification Palace for a visit but it was closed during lunch time. As I exited the ticketing office, a motorcycle came up to me, offering to take me on a tour around the city sight's such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and other sights for US$5.00.

The Reunification Palace is closed to visitors during lunchtime from 11:00am to 1:00pm.

I declined the offer saying that I'll just walk to the Notre-Dame Cathedral as it was just across a park at the opposite end of the Reunification Palace. I pointed right ahead across the park to where Google Map showed me the location of the cathedral is. The motorcycle driver immediately said no, that that is not the cathedral and that he will take me there.

I smiled, declined his offer again and walked off. I crossed the road from the Reunification Palace towards the park, cut across the park and rising before me after the park's tree foliage cleared was... you guessed it, the Notre-Dame Cathedral! It took me under 5 minutes to walk from the palace to the cathedral.

Another motorcycle scamming incident was when we headed out to a club for a drink. It was about 2am when we left and there were no taxis in sight on the road. A little drunk, we had no clear idea of our location. After walking for a while, a motorcycle came up to us and offered to take us back to the hotel for 150,000d.

As it was late, we were tired and a little tipsy, we agreed to the price thinking we were far. However, we actually weren't that far from our hotel. The bike ride lasted only around 5 minutes. If we had taken a cab, the fare would've probably been around 50,000d. Our bad for agreeing to such a high price.

Coconut Con Artist

Other than the transport scams, there's another high level scam around the outside parameters of the Reunification Palace. This is the coconut seller scam, which belongs to the highest grade of conning.


As we were making our way to the War Remnants Museum, we walked past a coconut seller. He walked alongside us and engaged us in light banter, asking where we are going and pointing us the way (even though we didn't ask as I was using Google Map). Then he said his coconut burden is very heavy and asked us to try. So we had a feel of it, posed for some photos and returned it to him.


We saw many people posing with the coconut seller's prop and there were a couple o them operating in the area.

Taking back his coconuts, he went on his way without trying to sell us anything. This is where the psychology game sets in. We felt bad for him and the fact that he wasn't trying to sell us anything and yet so friendly made us decide to buy drinks from the seller.

So we caught up with him and I asked him how much for one. Before he even answered me the price, he already split open one fruit and stuck a straw in it. He was about to open another one when I stopped him That's when he told me the price. Each coconut costs 50,000d. (S$3.20). At a restaurant, one coconut costs about 20,000 - 30,000d.

That's when we realised he's a high level type of scammer. So we paid for the expensive coconut drink and take it as fees to learn yet another lesson about the scams in HCMC.

Pay no enough in Singapore. Come holiday also must work part-time as coconut drinks seller. But I promise I won't scam you. LOL.

The scams we encountered were total holiday mood killers. It was such a damper when my friend's phone got picked and the police weren't of much help, telling us to go from one station to another to lodge a report until we gave up.

This was my first visit to HCMC and the more I ventured into city, the more I felt ripped-off and can't wait to leave. I've never felt like this before for any other place. It will definitely be the last time I come to this scam city of Vietnam.

24 January 2017

Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) - Limablas Peranakan Restaurant @ 25 Jalan Mesui

Date of Exploration : 16 Jan 2017

Peranakan cuisine has always been one of my weaknesses and any mention of udang petai (prawns stir-fried with stink beans) would instantly start a wild saliva party between my teeth. So when I saw a friend's Facebook photos of his nyonya lunch at Limablas, my keyboard got drenched.

But more than just serving up mouthwatering Peranakan food, Limablas' contempo-retro decor is a photographer's dream come true and would turn even the most camera-shy into an instant camwhore.

Here. I must come!

Tucked along the eclectic Jalan Mesui lined with quirky shopfronts, the entrance of Limablas is an invitation to travel back in time. It felt like I was walking into a 70s hipster's home.
 The good thing about Limablas is that it is located within the popular Bukit Bintang tourist district so it doesn't need a spaceship to get to. We stayed at Rae Hotel (which is on a street parallel to KL's famous Jalan Alor food street) and took us under 5 minutes to walk here.

We had initially wanted to come by for lunch on Sunday but the restaurant was closed so we came back on a Monday expecting a large lunch crowd but it was comfortably patronised. Unfortunately, they were out of petai (stink beans) that day and I'll have to find equal pleasure in Limablas' other menu offerings to make up for the disappointment.

Limablas means fifteen / 15 in Malay and is the unit number where the restaurant was originally located on Jalan Mesui. It's current unit number is 25 that's why there's a "@25" at the end.  To match the retro decor theme, I decided to channel Fei Yu Qing (费玉清) so that my poses will fit the setting...

... but of course, I can't emulate my evergreen idol so it's free-styling with the patchwork of vintage furnishings.

Limablas has an open bar at the patio but it was too early to sample their interesting sounding cocktails.

Hello there! This uncle chio or not? Hahaha...

Interior of Limablas... Yesterday didn't happen once more, it never went away.

Limablas offers a set lunch menu as well as ala carte selections. Most of the Perankan signature dishes are in it except Ayam Buah Keluak. At RM13.90 for the set lunches, they are a pretty good deal. Otherwise, eating here would rank on the high side. I find eating in KL generally quite expensive by local standards.


Retro-hip... a place to feed the stomach and the camera!

This flower fan looks like it fell out of the pages of Alice in Wonderland.

One of the fun things to do was to take a closer look at the display items... sometimes recovering a memory, and sometimes discovering a good laugh.

Old things given a new purpose at Limablas... me not included.
The period setting very got 'feel'. We stayed till past 2pm when all the customers had left and practically had the restaurant all to ourselves to shoot.

Put me in a vase and I'll bloom for you :)

We were so caught up with capturing nostalgia and putting ourselves in the photos that we almost missed the arrival of our orders. The charms of Limablas' movie-set grade interior could almost steal the limelight from the food.

Now that I've fed my Olympus Tough TG-4, it is time to feed the tummy...

We ordered the Bendil Kukus (literally translated as "bundle steamed", which is the okra dish), Nyonya Laksa, Ayam Ponteh (stewed chicken) and Gerang Asam Fish. The servings are rather huge so for the two of us, this is an over-order. Usually, waiters would warn us that we've ordered too much but maybe the waiter at Limablas thought I looked yao gui so he didn't stop us. Thankfully we didn't waste food. *Burp!*

Our bill totaled RM106.95.

The steamed okra (Bendil Kukus) was easily my favourite. The lady's fingers were cook just right and really tender and fresh but the belachan dip it came with was a stranger. Usually when I order this Peranakan dish, the vegetable comes with a coating of stir-fried minced garlic, onion and chilli in lime sauce layered on top with crispy hae bee (deep-fried tiny shrimps).

Maybe that's another dish altogether and not Bendil Kukus. For this, I much enjoyed the okra on its own without the sauce.
As for the Nyonya Laksa, I think it has an identity crisis. It looked like Penang Laksa (cucumber strips and lime) fell into a bowl of Curry Mee yet resembled neither in taste. The broth was thick and hearty but it didn't taste like the Nyonya Laksa I know. The taste wasn't bad, but somehow the flavours didn't quite work together and left me baffled. Perhaps some Laksa leaves could turn things around or it should be called Nyonya Curry Mee... LOL

The Ayam Ponteh won us over. Although the gravy was a tad too watery (nothing that a little tapioca flour solution mixed into the sauce can't fix), the dish hit all the right notes in taste and aftertaste. The chicken was stewed till the meat divorces the bone readily and the potato and mushroom had all soaked up the robust flavours.

No room for dessert... We were thinking of some Peranakan sweets to end off the saliva party but we were too stuffed!

Okay, I must qualify ah... I'm no expert in Perankan cuisine except for being good at eating so what my tastebuds dance to may be different from yours. Overall, although vintage-themed cafes and restaurants aren't exactly a rarity nowadays, I feel that Limablas has a character of its own and makes for an interesting dining (and photography) experience in the heart of KL's downtown tourist district.

Address : 25, Jalan Mesui, Bukit Bintang, 50200 Kuala Lumpur
Opening Hours : 11am - 3pm, 6pm - 10:30pm (Mon - Sat)

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