Siem Reap: First Impressions

I flew into Siem Reap airport from Singapore this morning on a nice and early 6am flight, fortunately I managed to get to bed early last night so I’m not too tired today. After arriving and taking the free transport to my accommodation I settled in and had a nap in the morning before exploring the town a bit.

Siem Reap is actually surprisingly modern and clean, the pavements are built up and there are a large number of expensive hotels here. There also don’t appear to be any shacklike buildings and the guidebooks sold in the shops aren’t photocopied! The prices for many things are correspondingly high, with the museum costing US$12, though I had a meal for only US$5 which wasn’t too expensive. The only hassle you get is occasional hassle for transport though the Cambodians are pretty laid back so don’t hassle you too much for it.

This afternoon I’m off to the museum and have a wander around town, before heading out to the temples in the morning.

OH MY GOD: Jurung Bird Park

On Wednesday I caught the MRT out towards the Jurong bird park. First I had some lunch in the mall at Boon Lay – the far end of the east west line. I had a chicken curry noodles. This was really tasty and also pretty damn spicy -a nice random dish. It also wasn’t too expensive at S$4.60 – at least it was a better price than I’ve been paying over the Chinese New Year holiday while the food courts were shut.

After that I caught the bus from the MRT station to the bird park itself. The bird park is run in a similar style to Singapore zoo and while it isn’t as impressive it’s still pretty good. I got to see lots of birds – most of which are in large cages from Barn Owls to Crested-woodpigeons. There are also lots of tropical animals like Macaws and a lot of smaller birds too. After that I saw a hawk display that was pretty good but not totally brilliant to be honest.

One problem with the zoos and wildlife areas in Singapore is that there is a sizeable minority who don’t know how to behave in venues like this – and I’m not talking about the children. They seem to think it’s acceptable to shout like they are in a crowded bar and bang on the glass – there are no signs telling you not to but it’s obviously unacceptable behaviour. It’s sad that they don’t have the common sense not to do stuff like this when it isn’t explicitly forbidden. Of course even then they do jaywalk :p.

After the birdpark I headed back to my hostel where I had a cheap supper before settling down for an early night before my early flight to Siem Rep in the morning.

Shopping for and using technology

This is a bit of a love/hate article as I love shopping more than anything on this earth and hate using technology unless it is forced upon me.

However on a serious note it is true that you get a much better deal on the stuff you buy if you have some knowledge of what you are buying so here are a few tips:

1) Buy online, the prices online for technology are always considerably better than in the shops especially for things like SD cards for cameras – these should cost around US$7 for 4GB at the moment or maybe even less. In a British high street shop you’ll probably pay 4-5x that price.

2) Download software from a reputable site, the internet isn’t really an undodgy place like it should be – if you are getting new software get it from a reputable site like download.com, versiontracker or softpedia. Of course leading companies like Google (NOT from a search though), Apple, Adobe and Microsoft as well as any other reputable hardware manufacturer are also fine.

3) Install updates for software when they are made available, mostly software updates are about removing security flaws so you should make sure you are installing software updates for all the software on your machine, especially the more popular stuff like Windows Update, iTunes, Adobe Flash and Java.

4) Consider Apple products. Now yes they are expensive, yes Apple’s retail stores make more money per square foot than Tiffany & Co, yes they are overly obsessed with making products small. This is purely down to Apple being practically the only company who gives a damn about ease of use which means that although they are expensive you will actually be able to use the features you have paid good money for. That they can reach out to ordinary users is why they’ve had 500 million downloads from the iPhone AppStore since July when they’ve only sold at most 50 million devices – even hard core techies like me have only made 50 downloads or so. (AppleTV setup is a notable exception – it’s not really ready for primetime yet.)

5) Append site:arstechnica.com or site:macrumors.com to product searches, yeah they are techy sites, that’s the point (the first is better though.) – you will get decent advice and if a search doesn’t work post yourself – the only real requirement is to use proper English when asking a question (using text slang is lame.) – also don’t be afraid to Google, urban dictionary or ask about any acronyms used.

6) Buy a business PC, any PC with any Intel “Core” chip and at least 2GB RAM will be plenty fast enough for everyday usage, basically the only reason to pay more is for reliability*. Business PC’s as sold by all the major manufacturers (except Apple) and are more reliable and offer better support than home models, go into the “small business” section of their online store to pick out a business or enterprise PC for your next PC.

7) Consider Panasonic lumix cameras, they kick ass and are much easier to use than my Canon point-and-shoot I have now (and Canon is one of the better makes.) Of course if you are professional/semi professional user you’ll want a more serious camera (SLR) and they are mostly made by Canon or Nikon. If you aren’t a serious user you will actually take better pictures with a smaller and cheaper Point-and-shoot (POS) camera.

8 ) Windows Vista isn’t that bad, yeah aside from a few features noone is really using it is not much of an improvement over Windows XP and while I wouldn’t upgrade an existing PC (XP will be supported for the next 5+ years.). Windows 7 is the next version of Windows and will probably arrive in 2010, it seems to be pretty good though I haven’t tried it myself.

9) Be wary of any “expert” who rubbishes any of the opinions here. Unfortunately although what I’m saying is just my view if they really strongly disagree they probably either don’t know what they are talking about or they are lying. If you really think they may have a point get them to comment here or find some evidence on a reputable technology site like Arstechnica which backs them up.

* Seriously, due to reliability issues Apple replaced my 2006 MacBook with a 2008 MacBook. I can’t tell the difference in speed – I can only tell the improvement in build quality.

Singapore over the Chinese New Year holiday

After celebrating in the new Chinese Year I had a pretty relaxing new years day like the rest of Singapore appeared to be doing. The first thing of note I did was watch the British horror movie “Eden Park” this was a great film until the end. It started subtle with some teenagers cycling across a red light (which is a crime in UK the average Oxford don probably commits.). The movie in general is great as mostly it just twists the rules of society and adds a bit of ignorance to create a great horror film. There are no monsters or demons in this film which is great. The film is flawed though in the last 2 minutes which turns it from the probable overall winner of the Patrick Levy award for cinematography to something little better than Four Christmases. If you watch it walk out in the scene with the inflatable swimming pool.

Then I went to the waterfront to see another free concert though this one wasn’t as good as the last one I saw and I walked off early before I returned to my hostel. Once back I found a copy of the Economist which I read – primarily to see why the British currency is quite so weak at the moment (it’s up to US$1.40=£1 today). On reading the magazine I did answer a curious question about racism in the UK that I’ve been pondering for a while. Now it is true in the UK that most of the rich areas are mostly full of only whites but that most people there have no/little overt problem with ethnic minorities. The issues is more subtle than this and there is actually a lot of pregudice based on class instead – as blacks and asians start more likely to be poor then due to this class pregudice they don’t get richer.

Of course there is a flip side to this argument as the economist also published an article on some psycological research on racism which said that although people aren’t overtly racist they don’t seem to act appalled when someone is racist in front of them.

The next day, which in the west would be Boxing Day, I first went to McDonalds again as the food courts still appear to be closed. After this I had a little shopping to do as I managed to lose my washbag. Of course the most expensive part of the replacement was the washbag itself; it was also the los difficult to replace and it took 2 hours including a lot of time borrowing the Singaporean free wifi (Singapore has free wifi practically nationwide now – well at least in the numerous shopping centres.) to find something. After this it was getting quite late so I headed to the Singapore botanic gardens for an hour or so to wander around. It was good; especially the national orchid garden which was beautiful though being a public holiday it was fairly busy.

Relaxing, trains and Chinese New Year

After the museum the next day I just chilled out in Kuala Lumpur and read the excellent book Absolute Power. This is about an American president who has rough sex with a woman which goes too far and she lands up dead. The problem is that there is a witness; a three times convicted burgler so from there the plot unfolds.

Apart from that I chilled out in my dorm. On the 25th I then took the train to Singapore which actually ended up taking 7.5 hours to complete the journey. This is due to the extreme speed of the Malaysia/Singapore border controls which took absolutely ages to complete. The issue is that Singapore and Malaysia have a lovers tiff over a few different issues including Singapores water usage and the railway line which is owned by Malaysia. I can see why the Singaporeans are upset about the railway. It is hardly used but the space taken up would allow six tracks to be constructed all the way through Singapore. To put this into perspective the Japanese run a Shinkansen up to 9 times an hour between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka with only two tracks (aside from stations which have four tracks – two fast, two slow) and some of those trains are much faster than others.

After arriving into Singapore I caught the bus from the unmarked railway station bus stop (evidence of the lovers tiff from the other side) to the MRT to get to my hostel. After arriving in Singapore I headed down to get some food first of all – as it’s Chinese New Year I expected to have some Chinese food. Unfortunately all the Chinese restaurants were shut leaving me with a choice of McDonalds, Burger King, KFC or fish and chips. After careful deliberation over my difficult choice I went for the fish and chips – however it was only average as it was in breadcrumbs rather than only being cooked in batter.

After this I headed down to the bay to watch some free live Chinese jazz by the waterfront (the venue is actually called Esplanade outdoor theatre) before returning to my hostel at 9pm to see who was there. I liked the atmosphere on the waterfront it was chilled out and relaxed and not tense at all so it was very non-Anglo Saxon in a good way. They do this every Friday, Saturday and Sunday and it isn’t a Chinese new year think so if you’re in town go and check it out.

At this point I returned to my hostel were I met some English guys and we had a few beers before going to Chinatown via the longest wait ever at the MRT ticket machines – if you go to Singapore at festival time get an EZ link card – do not pass go do not collect £200 (which at the current exchange rate is US$200 :p – seriously it’s only US$270 when at the start of my trip it was US$400.) the people I was with didn’t and we had to queue for 30 minutes. After this we hung around Chinatown waiting for midnight. At which point there were some cool but loud firecrackers followed by frankly mediocre fireworks. My local school has put on better for bonfire night in the UK.

More time in KL

After seeing the Islamic side of KL the next day I headed to the Petronas towers and the KL aquarium.

First I met up with some people from my hostel for a morning drink at my favourite restaurant – McDonalds. After this I walked over to the Petronas towers to pick up my free ticket to go onto the skybridge as they limit the numbers allowed before I returned to have a look around the aquarium. Once I arrived at the aquarium which frankly was only OK especially for the money. The problem was that there weren’t that many minor tanks and they were all either too small or had too many fish in them for my liking. There were a lot of fish swimming round in circles or barely able to move at all in their enclosure. Overall the only good tank was the main ocean tank which was massive and contained sharks and other sealife. This tank was actually excellent and contained a huge tunnel through the bottom which gave you a great view of the fish there. For me the perfect aquarium would contain the main tank here with the smaller tanks of the Osaka aquarium.

After seeing this I headed back to the petronas towers for my skybridge visit. Firstly we watched a glossy 3d film before going up the south tower and crossing the skybridge half way up. What’s incredible about that is that you are still taller than practically every other building in the city which really shows how much taller the Petunas towers are than the other buildings in KL. The view from the top is fine but KL isn’t a particularly great city to look down on. To be honest I prefer the view of the buildings themselves from the outside.

After that I went and had a look around the colonial district of KL which contains beautiful European-style buildings but is tiny essentially consisting of a single square. After that I was hungry as malaysian dishes are often very small so I went to Burger King before returning to my hostel for the night.

The next day I headed out after breakfast to the national museum which was supposed to be rubbish but actually wasn’t bad – especially for the enterance fee of 2RM (40p). The first gallery was excellent and on the prehistory of Malaysia. Things got worse as the museum progressed mostly down to them being in the middle of a refurbishment. They even talked about independence and while they criticize the British for lack of education and not fully integrating the country they do give them implicit respect too for giving them independence and building things like the railways.

After this I went outside where they had an exhibition on ASEAN this was interesting as it showed the cultures of the countries and was intended to show how integrated they are but frankly it failed – most notably their economic status which aside from Viet Nam were in native currencies rather than the standard US dollar (or Euro) so a comparison can be done between the countries. Also from the list of bodies each country chose to include that they were a member of it was clear each country had made their exhibition piece separately – they’ve clearly got a long way to go before they’re anything like the EU.

After this I again returned to the hostel as I was tired given how hot it is in KL.

Islam in KL

On my first full day in KL I went to the Islamic Arts museum. I did this by public transport which involved first taking the monorail from Times Squsre shopping centre to KL Sentral station which went past a lot of interesting architecture.

From KL station I then took a damp (probably from the air conditioning) commuter train north to the old Kuala Lumpur station. This was apparently reminisant inside of an old London railway station but if so it was like Fenchurch street or something – not Paddington. The outside of the station was suitably impressive however as was the KL rail headquarters across the road which were built in a cross between British and Islamic style. I’m starting to understand Islamic style more now I’m in Malaysia and it seems to be very mathematical and geometric. This is because you aren’t able to display pictures of people in mosques you have a lot of beautiful patterns instead.

After seeing this I went to the Malaysian national mosque which was fairly attractive though not particularly impressive. There they were supporting a boycott of American companies as their government supports Israel. This was of course highly ironic as the posters were probably made on computers manufactured by an American company using American chips (possibly even chips made and designed in Israel as Intel has a multi-billion dollar microchip factory there – source: Arstechnica.) running American software and researched using an American search engine and hosted by an American webhost.

Prehaps a boycott of Intel (use AMD instead) would be in order to show that people feel Israel acts appallingly (which frankly they do – though the Palestinean terrorists also behave badly towards Israel.) and that would also severely affect the Israeli economy.

After this I went to the Islamic arts museum just up the road. This had a couple of special exhibitions on including one on Islams role in Britain. This was very interesting photographic exhibition funded in part by the British High Commission (the equivalent of an embassy in a commonwealth country.) here in Malaysia. The exhibition included pictures of a lot of British Muslims including a white, female Judge (this was occompanied by the punnish title never judge a book by it’s cover – probably only funny if you have been away from puns for a while.). I think the pun is a piece of humour that only the British do and it is part of our culture. This exhibition was a very interesting look at my culture at least partially from the outside – the exhibition would do well to be shown in the UK as well.

Although Britain took Islam into account as far ago as 1911 when Halal meat was allowed most of the progress has occurred within the last 10-15 years. I do think that the London central mosque should be demolished and rebuilt as it is a concrete monstrosity and is undoubtably one of the ugliest mosques in the world. From further looking at the museum this seems to be typical as Chinese and South East Asian mosques seem to take a traditional local style – though the mosques I’ve seen in Malaysia seem to be styled as you’d expect.

After seeing the exhibition on Islam in Britain I went to a local street stall for lunch as the museum restaurant was too expensive for me (45RM – £9) and after this I returned to the museum. The next exhibition I saw was on Islamic architecture which was interesting and even included the mathematic significance of it including the golden ratio which is apparently also the ratio between the sides and radius of a pentagon as well as linking the terms in the Fibonacci sequence. These relate to many things in nature as well as music and buildings like the Taj Mahal also has a lot of mathematics in it’s construction.

After this I saw the main exhibtion galleries which included some Islamic history as well as beautiful ceramics, metalwork and cloth. The ceramics especially looked very European as 19th century European pottery took a lot from Islamic pottery. These were also very interesting to see – it is clear there is a lot more to Islamic art than Persian rugs! There was also some more stuff on several of the Islamic empires including the Mughals in India – there apparently wealth and power had to be displayed.

After that I had a wander around before getting a new cover for my Nokia 6230i to replace the old and busted cover. After that I went to a food court for dinner which was excellent; except for the main course which was average. Then it started absolutely pouring down with rain so I went indoors to McDonalds for some chips.

Kuala Lumpur: First Impressions

I decided to come to Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it is often known.) on a fairly last minute basis. I was planning to go to Penang in the north of Malaysia but I hadn’t arranged my onward transport to KL and it was otherwise going to be a bit close to Chinese New Year for comfort.

The bus was a little quicker than expected taking just over 4 hours to reach the bus station in KL (which is being rebuilt so we got off outside.) then there was the usual attempt to overcharge with the taxi which I avoided by catching the bus instead – this did seem to be shocking to some of the passengers who didn’t seem to realize that we have buses in Europe too. Then I checked into my accommodation and then continued to read my book before having some lunch at the shopping centre across the road. I had a dish with Japanese noodles and a Chinese sauce which as great. To eat it I was given a spoon and fork but to be honest I find chopsticks easier to eat noodles so that I asked for them instead. To be honest I think it was an attempt to just be more western as when I’d finished my meal everyone else seemed to be using them to whereas beforehand they all seemed to be using a spoon and fork.

After this I went to the cinema to while away the afternoon before supper. I saw the film four Christmases as it looked like a bit of shallow fun. It was actually very amusing though not exactly the best film I’ve ever seen. It did have a good message which reiterated the point that being able to communicate was the basis for any good relationship.

I did also get a bit of a feel for the city. There is a lot of half finished construction and some stuff is first world and some really isn’t it’s definitely an interesting mix. It does feel very multicultural but it does feel like the Chinese are running the show – though it may be the time of year. It does feel a bit like an inferior Singapore which is interesting but it also seems to be more influenced by the west than maybe it should. We certainly aren’t the best at everything – chopsticks are better for noodles for example :p.

The Cameron highlands

I took the bus up to the cameron highlands on Friday evening. After arriving I had supper at the hostel and had a chat with my roomates before falling asleep. The next day I got up fairly late as I hadn’t slept amazingly on the train and had brunch of a mostly tradtional English breakfast at a nearby restaurant before returning for another chat. Then at 2pm I headed out on a walk up the side of the valley to a peak called G. Jasar. This was a tough climb through the trees to reach the top and get views of the jungle and the hotels starting to invade it – there is more jungle left than in Argentinas northern province however. I also got to walk directly underneath an electric pylon which was quite interesting to see architecturally. After this climb I then climbed down again to an electric substation – once there I could see a road on the other side but not how to reach it so I turned back and returned the way I had come.

Then on Sunday I decided not to do a walk and instead took a totally average tour to see various sites. These included a beautiful rose garden. A strawberry farm that was just an opportunity to buy strawberries (these were good, but not up to my mothers standards. There these are grown in plastic to keep them healthy and to stop pests eating the strawberries. This seems to work but I’m not sure on the plastic usage – at home we use straw. After this we went to a tea factory and then a butterfly park both of which we good before heading to the beautiful Sam Poh Chinese buddhist temple that included interesting but slightly tacky gold Buddhist statues probably including the four kings (the guardians of the Buddha from the north, south, east and west) as well as the laughing Buddha – the guide didn’t seem to know anything about the temple so I didn’t push.

The next day I got up early and after checking my email and doing some shopping I headed out on a fairly ambitious walk. I was going to return to the Sam Pho temple but the final bit of path was very steep so I gave up and did a circuit back to town which took about 6 hours and covered about 9km or so – though most of it was on narrow and twisty woodland paths. This walk was a success in another way as this time I didn’t have to turn back. The woods were beautiful though I heard a lot of birds I didn’t see much wildlife except a snake very briefly. I thought I saw the bushes move in a snake-like fashion on the first walk as well.

One thing I like about Malaysia is that the prices are reasonable so you don’t have to bargain as much as in other countries which makes a nice change!

Ipoh and Singapore Zoo

On my last day in Singapore before I caught the overnight train to Ipoh I went to Singapore Zoo. It takes quite a while to get to the zoo, taking almost an hour from the railway station where I was buying my ticket out of the country, but it is quite out of the way for Singapore.

The zoo contains lots of different types of animals and some, like the Orangutans are able to freely go around a large area of the park, I really enjoyed it and spent about 3 hours there. One thing to note is that the zoo has a tram which cost $5 extra, that I didn’t use, basically the problem is that it doesn’t have enough stops so it isn’t obviously bad until you are actually there.

After visiting the zoo I caught the bus/MRT back to town so I could go to the excellent Hawker centre Lau Pa Sat which I went to last time I was in Singapore, there I had some Indian food before returning to the hostel to collect my bags and head to the Singapore railway station.

The Singapore railway station is actually owned by Malaysia and you can tell the Singaporeans don’t like it much as there isn’t an MRT station (even though a line passes straight underneath and there is a numbering gap for a station there) and most of the bus routes avoid it too. Anyhow the train ride was fairly uneventful but the first half was very bumpy until we got near to Kuala Lumpur where everyone except me in my carriage got off. After this the train went on practically brand new and smooth track all the way to Ipoh (which is pronounced eepoh with a “spanish” i; not iPoh like iPod or iPhone :p).

Ipoh is a nice friendly little town with very cheap food costing just $1.50 for a full meal, it is an OK town with some really nice building and some that aren’t so nice, it reminds me of Italy to be honest though and it is much nicer than I expected. I spent a few hours waiting for the bus to the Cameron Highlands where I am going to tonight as I just missed one at 11am and then had to wait until 3pm.