Archive for Personal

ON “THE IMMIGRANT MENTALITY”

This is a new topic which is out of order, I know, but I promise to get to the others on my list soon.

The topic of the “Immigrant Mentality” has always been a passion of mine, as it seems to be a critical element for success in this now globalized world. Today, the playing field between rich and poor, have and have-not, etc, has been filled with many “hungry” people from the emerging economies. Today, there are tons of talented people from these markets eager for a life as good, if not better, than the one enjoyed in the west. What these people did not have in formal social benefits and opportunities available to many of us, they more than make up for with ambition and incredible determination. As a result, those of us educated and brought up in the western mentality must adjust our thinking to compete with these people on a global scale.

So what is the “Immigrant Mentality”? To me, it is the approach taken by 1st generation immigrants and one that is fairly personal to me. When my grandfather, Louis Weiss, first came the U.S. at an incredibly young age (early teens), he got off the boat from Hungary alone and immediately began seeking any form of work that he could do. This was a boy who should be in school by today’s standards, worrying about his middle school prom date, not how he’ll be able to afford bread and water for the day. It was his focus and intense interest in providing a life for himself and his family that drove him during his lifetime. His life was not easy by any means, but he was able to build a fledgling business, become a college graduate, and inspire family.

On my mother’s side of the family, my great grandfather and grandmother were both Americans by birth, but also had to manage in a similar manner. After getting married, my great grandfather was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Because there were no formal cures at the time, doctors suggested that he go to upstate New York and breathe “country air”. The photos of this treatment are quite amazing – men sitting in heavy coats, hats, scarves, gloves by a frozen lake. Truly amazing. My great grandmother was a brave woman to be able to handle such a radical shift in lifestyle so early in their marriage. After he was cured, the two of them opened a pharmacy and gift store in Long Island, in a strong Anglo Town. This was a hard place for them to live, given the fact that they were Jewish and were not entirely like their counterparts in this highly conservative town. Nonetheless, my great grandfather managed the business to success, building a name for himself and his family in the town, even being a Free Mason and members of the key local clubs, despite being a Jew. He was also a major participant in the building of the town’s synagogue and Jewish Day School.

My grandfather was sold the business and built it into a much larger and impressive enterprise, leveraging the reputation his father had built in the community, and adding his own narrative. As a trained pharmacist, my grandfather was known to offer the best customer service in town. One particular story I recall, involved his filling a prescription and dropping it off to a customer on Christmas Eve in several feet of snow. He was a tireless leader who worked hard and played hard, for the sake of his family. He too further extended the family’s commitment to the local general and Jewish communities. Unfortunately, as a sign of how unfair the world can be, he was diagnosed with Alzheimers at a relatively young age, pretty much at retirement, and died a slow, fairly painful death. Since I was the youngest in my family, and he was diagnosed with Alzheimers when I was in elementary school, I never had a great personal connection with him. In fact, I actually had a stronger relationship with my great grandparents…

OK enough about family history… I believe that to survive today in this world, with the competition that exists for talented people, one must take on the “immigrant mentality”. What does it mean in practice? It means saying yes more than saying no at work. It means being aggressive all the time. It means constantly fighting mediocrity in nearly all ways – work, education, arts and culture, physical appearance, etc. It means doing the work now, not later, and becoming a go-to guy for colleagues and friends. It means always being “hungry” to suck the marrow out of life…

As I write this note from Fontainebleau, France, I cannot help but note that France is an excellent example of a market filled with talented westerners who chose not to take this exact path. Their model seems fairly obvious to me at this point – they may be the most creative, liberal-minded people in the universe. You’ll never see shoes, clothing styles or cuisine quite as unique and creative as those made or thought up in France.

Why is that? I’d argue the French Revolution, which jumpstarted the secularization and westernization of societies around the globe (including the U.S. or course) gave the French the inspiration to push their limits and further personalize this country’s already storied creative past. However, one of the points of the French Revolution that was not taken in the U.S. to the same extent was the pursuit of bettering one’s life through a more collective, moralistic view. In the U.S., the model of laissez faire became more and more prevalent, although, to be fair, it was always driven by a deep moral base (albeit more personal or communal than government sanctioned). As a result, there were diverging views of how government should participate in the lives of constituents and the specific role of constituents in society. It seems that in France, the constituent was part of a collective, known for creativity, good food, good wine, good life, and high class. In contrast, the U.S. constituents were individual entrepreneurs known for hard work, willingness to change, energy, and aspiration.

The result is two divergent points of view, and countries in completely different places right now. The U.S. became the most wealthy nation on the planet, while France fell to obscurity in many ways (politically, financially, etc). However, when you look at a microview of the two societies, it is not clear who is actually better off – the American who works 60+ hours a week (more than our parents), highly materialistic, focused on bettering themselves, but struggling from the “rat race”, or the French person who works less and less (35 hour work week) than their parents, materialistic, but not necessarily to the same extent as Americans, focused on enjoying the good life, not competing in the “rat race” by and large. I’m frankly not sure…

What complicates this whole situation is the emergence of immigrants who are eager to work in the (now post-)American world. Firstly, it means Americans must compete with people who are using the same mindset as them, for the most part. It also means that the underlying value of an American (education and skills) come into question in relation to those from these emerging countries. Herein lies the complication – do Americans have a true competitive advantage vis a vis the Indians, Chinese, or Israelis for that matter? Are we willing to put up a fight to stay on top, or are we too fat and happy at this point to care? I would argue that the French have taken a form of the latter approach, taking the “higher road” and creating an environment that is sustainable, as long as you dont care to be the best or have the best. They seem content with that solution. The French do not seem obsessed with new technology as much as Americans as the emerging East. The French have stopped innovation in some businesses a few technology generations ago, simply because they do not need to be enhanced – the added speed is not sought by the French people. This allows the company to maintain several local industries that would otherwise have been eliminated due to inefficiency many years ago (think gas station attendants)…

So, where do I stand on this whole issue – I’m a strong advocate of the immigrant mentality, of staying hungry, and seeking to be the best I can. Yeah, it leads to a lot of nail-biting and few moments of sheer bliss (I cannot sit on a beach for more than 10 minutes without needing to do something more useful), but it helps to differentiate me from my friends and colleagues. To some extent, it defines me.

Some of the downsides of being of this mentality includes “being a sucker”, when confronted with folks who do not subscribe to this mentality. At work, in school and in life, I find myself often eager to get my hands dirty and push a project from idea to execution. Until recently, I was not convinced this was a unique quality or even something positive/negative. However, it became clear to me this week that I have, and likely always will be comfortable with the idea of doing more than others to achieve. Its how I was brought up, how my parents were, how my sisters are, and the only way I know to behave.

This week, we had an American party at INSEAD, which i agreed to take part in organizing. I took on the role of picking up alcohol, paper goods, food, make the jello shots, and coordinating ice. The others organized music, negotiated the space, set up, cleaned up and sent out e-mails. It was clear to me and others that I took on more than was required of me. One of my colleagues even called me “a sucker” for sweating through the whole ordeal of moving all this crap into the party… I’m not sure how to be different. I’m not sure what that might even look like? I am not convinced I could take on smaller roles and still feel comfortable? I guess i’m a micromanager… To me, it fits with my “immigrant mentailty” model, that rationalizes such an approach as necessary and useful…

Thoughts? Confused? Drop me a line…

Singapore

Alright, I know i’m way behind here… It’s been a week since I’ve last blogged and the trip officially ended (Howard left Singapore last Monday morning). Since then, I have been preparing myself for the beginning of b-school at INSEAD, which begins on August 27th (Orientation week). I had originally planned to be in a French class this week (since INSEAD has a requirement of a 3rd language to graduate), but the class got cancelled on Friday. Thus, I have the week to read, relax and generally prep for the program…

First things first… Singapore is a lovely place. I’ve spent the last few days travelling all over the island/city/state and can honestly say its pretty great. There are quite a few myths regarding Singapore that came from the whole Michael Fay episode back in 1994. Unfortunately, the place gets a bad rap for the incident, even though the actions of Michael Fay were bothersome and anti-social (Who thinks spray painting random cars is a normal thing to do?) Regardless, the city definitely has a protective feel to it, with lots of regulations against “vices” and disruptive behavior. For example, there are many signs warning people against smoking, and there is a heavy tax on cigarettes (oh, and the packs have those gruesome images of people who had operations due to lung and throat cancer). The same taxation applies to beer (a 6 can pack is roughly $15-20 SGD or $10-15 USD for budget stuff). They also have many signs regarding death occuring from jaywalking as well as terrorism warning videos at train stations. Yes, this place is serious, and the locals seem to think it makes sense. While I have certainly seen lots of jaywalking and beer drinking here by locals, there is a general feeling of safety and conservativism here, no question…

I spent a lot of my time this past week dealing with my Lenovo laptop (which took a bit of a beating on my trip, resulting in some serious wear and tear on the outer case) and buying some basics, like a cell phone. For the laptop, I had to lug the device all the way to Chiangi Business Center (right by the airport, about 45 minutes from home) to have them assess the damage and the warranty coverage. If I bought the laptop in Singapore, I would have had to pay for the repairs, since physical damage is never covered. However, my US coverage was sufficient for a free repair. Unfortunately, they did not have the parts on hand and needed to order them (they finally arrived today). Hopefully, I can pick it up tomorrow.

For the cell phone, I went to Funan IT Mall and Sim Lim Center. Funan is a massive semi-fancy mall by City Hall that includes boutique-type PC and cellphone shops. It was here that I realized how complicated buying a cellphone would be here. There are way too many options, and too many functions to think about. Here, cellphone service is much better (including on subways) and everyone is obsessed with the latest gadgets (MP3 player, Camera, GPS, mobile office). I got overwhelmed pretty quickly. I decided a smart phone with some of these functions could be a good idea.

I then went to Sim Lim, which is more like a flea market for high-end electronics (if you need some random cable, you can get it here). This place was filled with cell vendors touting hundreds of phones. Ultimately, I decided on the BenQ P51, a large phone that can double as a 2nd computer (I figured GPS with a Singapore map would be good for getting around here). That evening, I began to regret the purchase, finding that the device acted like a Windows PC (yes, it crashed a few times and I got some weird error messages). I went back to Sim Lim the next morning to try to return it, but the vendor did not have the replacement phone I was looking for (oh, and there are no returns at these stores). Ultimately, the vendor agreed to take the phone back, but I had to cover some of the pieces he threw in (I am now the proud owner of Singapore GPS software!). What a disaster… Finally, I found the Nokia E65 a compact slider phone with Wifi (so that I can speak to all of you via Skype for free/low cost) at another vendor. Its a very cool, small phone and i love it. For my cell plan, I got SingTel Prepaid, which is a bit complicated, but has very good service.

I also took care of my student pass documentation this week, involving a medical exam and dropping off the paperwork at the Singapore government office. The medical exam was pretty painless (even taking blood!), taking under one hour to complete. I then went to drop off the paperwork, and got onto the wrong line at the office. I waited for 1 hour only to find out that the line I was supposed to be on had a queue of 10 minutes. Whatever…

I also visited the local Jewish Community Center and the synagogue Maghain Aboth. The center was recently reconstructed (four months ago, actually) and now includes a beautiful restaurant and event space, along with the typical jewish spaces (market, offices, beit midrash, etc). There is a strong Chabad presence, led by Rabbi Abergel (who’s been in Singapore for 13 years now). The community is pretty small (about 100 people) with a few studets from Israel/etc doing exchange programs here as well. The prayer services are heavily Sephardic, very different than what I am used to, but quite nice. The community is actually quite similar to the one in Hong Kong, with a similar kind of community center. Shabbat services and meals were quite nice, and I expect to enjoy the place further over the next few months.

Aside from all of this, I have met a bunch of INSEADers studying at the pre-term course as well as some living in my building (Heritage View on Dover Rise). They all seem pretty cool and excited for the program…

Finally, a note on my apartment and the complex. The apartment is a 3 bedroom with a spacious living room, kitchen w/ washer/dryer, etc. Its quite nice. The complex has 4 pools (1 kids pool, 1 very shallow pool, 1 round pool with a massive waterfall, and one lap pool w/ a curve), gym, bbq pits, etc. Its definitely a great place to hang my hat for the next 6+ months. The only issue is distance, both from the city and the synagogue. Walking on Friday evening back to my apartment took upwards of 1.5 hours (the walk is about 10 kms or 6 miles). On Shabbat morning, walking back and forth was quite brutal. I might need to come up with alternative arrangements for the upcoming weeks…

Well, that’s the deal so far… Over and out. Keep in touch…

Chiang Mai

We arrived at Chiang Mai late on Tuesday evening. Our hotel, the Park, is very lovely, but a bit far from city center and the night markets. Luckily the hotel offers a free shuttle, but unfortunately it only runs until around 10:30. We walked around the area quickly, then settled in, following a day of commuting, etc.

On our travels around the immediate area of the hotel, we ran into another nuance of Thai life, specific to Chiang Mai. There is a serious obsession with Karaoke, with bars lining the streets. Additionally, one unique feature is the inclusion of women “hostesses” who participate with your group or cheer you on for a fee. Clearly, this is a lot more tame than some of the theatrics we saw in Bangkok and Phuket…

The next morning, we awoke and went out to see the major tourist sights in the area. The big attractions are buddhist temples, which I was frankly tired of (between China and Thailand, I think we’ve visited at least 10)… Howard however was still very excited to see them, so we split up. Before we went our separate ways, we went to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep and Wat Chiang Man, both beautiful in their own ways. The first included an amazing temple building with beautifully painted murals on the walls, depicting scenes with the buddha. The second had temples housing both a marble and a crystal buddha (see what I mean 🙂 ):





I walked past one of the temples to the main road, where there was a massive computer shopping mall. It was certainly not an essential trip for me, but I did have a good time checking out the machines available in Thailand, as well as the cellphones. After seeing this, and knowing how much farther along Singapore is on this front, I can only say that I am very excited to be in Southeast Asia for the next several months:

That evening, Howard and I visited the Night Market, home to thousands of shops selling wares from all over Thailand (at substantially lower prices to both Bangkok and Phuket). In checking out the markets, and realizing that Chiang Mai is actually a fairly normal place, with the red-light district clearly out of the mainstream view, I made the following observation –

Thailand truly has it all for people of all ages. For young people, there is Bangkok and Phuket, which offer exciting nightlife as well as culture. For seniors, Phuket is an excellent alternative to Florida or the Bahamas. And for young/old families, Chiang Mai offers a series of activities for the whole family, without the grit/schmutz found in Bangkok and Phuket. In fact, you find these groups making up the majority of the tourist public in these areas. Maybe I should work on their next tourism ad campaign…
The only exception is the Israelis. They are just everywhere, young and old…

Israeli restaurant in the middle of the Chiang Mai beer garden section
Locals making signs in English, Thai and Hebrew

The next morning, we traveled to Chiang Rai and northern Thailand. Our tour involved stops at a hot spring, monument, wat, “The Golden Triangle”, and two local villages, with lunch in between and lots of travel time. Long story shorty, the trip was a bit funny, since the content was light, in lieu of shopping destinations (much like our trip in Bangkok).

The “hot spring” was not like the photo in the brochure we had seen (a large steamy spring). It was actually just a small section by a truck stop, with a mixture of “hot spring” and cold water splashing into a pool that one can dunk their feet into. It was a bit of a sad sight, and as the German tourists with us would say, “the water was hardly 30 degrees (celsius)”. Here’s a photo:

No, this is not a joke…

The King Mengrai Monument, was not actually stop at all, but rather a brief mention from the van (Howard did get some kind of photo of it). That shocked us all in the van.

The next stop was an old Buddhist temple in Chedi Luang, with a nearby pagoda:


“The Golden Triangle” was pretty neat. The meeting point of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Laos, “The Golden Triangle” is actually a neat place to visit. We took a quick longboat tour that took us into Laos for about 30 minutes (of course, just to a shopping section). This section was called the “Golden Triangle” because it was the center of the Opium trade. Here’s some photos of the “Golden Triangle” from our boat on the Mekong river (please note the Snake whiskey bottles, which have actual snakes and scorpions in them. Apparently, this is the “National drink of Laos”):

The water was incredibly gross, with a strong brown color

Good to the last drop (now with snakes and scorpions in the bottle)
Yes, they make a lot of it
Here’s the mother load (the tasting container). They offered us each shots, but we declined (apparently, king cobra and scorpion taste like Chicken, but who knows…)

Myanmar on your left, Laos on your right, Thailand behind you…
Another big buddha…
Howard had a good time with this one… 😉

After a quick lunch, we headed to the northernmost city in Thailand, Mai Sae, which borders on Myanmar (seemingly, the city’s only redeeming quality). We opted not to enter Myanmar due to our time constraints and the recommendation of some locals (apparently, not much to see there for 5 minutes). Here’s the border:

After that, we grabbed a quick lunch, then headed over to two local villages. Here too, it was a bit strange, but for a different reason. The two sites were quite poor, and the locals were asking for money. It was really awkward and kind of shameful for the tourist company to take us to these places (unknowingly). What can I say…

That night, we headed to the Night Market and grabbed some Thai food (Pad thai for 30 baht or $1usd)…

The next few days, we relaxed and took in the scenery of Chiang Mai. Specifically, on Friday we visited the Phra That Doi Suthep, another Buddhist temple on top of a mountain in the Northwestern part of Chiang Mai, above the Chiang Mai Zoo. We travelled by tuk tuk to the zoo, then picked up a bus that took us up the mountain. There are 300 steps from the top of the mountain to the temple, with an amazing staircase covered in beautiful stones and designs. Here’s some photos of the site:



After we walked the site for a while, Howard and I found a food stand selling lots of products in a waffle, including bananas and hot dogs. We opted for banana waffle sticks, which were amazing:

After the bananas, we took a tuk tuk to the shopping mall for some R&R. We ended up watching “The Simpsons Movie” for 120 baht per person (~$4 USD) and another 100 baht for soda and popcorn (coming in three varieties: original, sweet and cheese). At the opening, we caught an amazing Pepsi commercial as well as several hilarious local commercials. Additionally, during coming attractions, they play a video in honor of the king, during which the entire crowd stands. It was pretty cool… As for the movie, it was just OK…

The next evening, we went back to the theatre and took in “The Bourne Ultimatum”. Also, a good time… We then hit up some local bars and shops at the Night Market.

The next morning, we would fly to Singapore, our last stop on this journey…

Phuket

Let me start out this blog post with a quick thought. Over the last few weeks, Howard and I have experienced this more than once… Have you ever walked into 7-Eleven seeking a Slurpee? Usually, you have Coke and another option (or two) to select from. As you walk up to the machine, you see that one flavor, inevitably Coke (because its normal) is still 100% liquid, and thus not Slurpee-worthy just yet, whereas the other flavor(s) are frozen and ready for delivery. However, the other flavors are weird/strange/awful sounding like “Coconut Delight” or “Orangutan Orange”. Without a doubt, you rationalize the decision to go with this weirdo flavor, simply because you were seeking a Slurpee in the first place. Then, following the initial “brain-freeze” one gets from the initial shock of Slurpee slurping, you regret your split-second decision… We’ve done this about 15 times over the last three weeks, but like the insane people that we are (see: definition of insanity), each time we are placed in the same scenario, we make the same decision and expect different results… Pretty sad on our part…

We arrived at Phuket on Friday and enjoyed and quiet and relaxing evening and Saturday on the beach and at the hotel. Our bus ride to the hotel involved another “unscheduled stop”, much like in Bangkok. Here, we were brought to a travel agency that tried to book us on tours to surrounding islands or get us hotel rooms (which seemed dumb, considering we all had reservations already – they were needed to get on the bus in the first place). Our hotel, the Seaview Patong, was right on the beach and has 2 excellent pools:


The excitement began on Saturday evening. Howard and I went out to the bar/restaurant scene in Bangla Road. The road is quite touristy and has a more subdued feeling than Patpong. There is still plenty of bars, clubs and random go-go bars, with the promoters outside pushing tourists to go to shows, etc. It was a weird experience, and frankly something I was kind of tired of, having just dealt with it (to a heavier degree) in Bangkok. We found a nice restaurant and ate dinner, then checked out the markets and watched an Australian Football match at a local Aussie bar.

One thing to note is that the tourists in Phuket are quite different from those in Bangkok. There are tons of Australians and Europeans, not many Chinese or Japanese. Additionally, Phuket has many older tourists and many venues for them (i.e. Elvis and light music bands). On numerous occassions, Howard and I found ourselves wondering where the young people were…

On Sunday, we took a day trip to James Bond Island (named for its prominence in “The Man with the Golden Gun”. We took a tour with SIM Tourism Group, specifically because their advertisement is centered on not taking tourists to unwanted shopping stops. Since we had already experienced that, it was a great pleasure to avoid these shops this time around…

The tour included three stops: 1) Suwankuha Temple(Monkey Cave) with the Reclining Buddha statue, 2) A fishing village near James Bond Island, 3) James Bond Island itself. The last two were reached by longtail boat. The sites were quite cool, although there was minimal substance here…

Suwanka Temple was surrounded by a monkey park, in which wild monkeys walked and climbed around everywhere. There were a handful of people in the immediate area selling fruits to feed the monkeys. Boring and a bit scary (who wants Rabies!)… Inside the temple were a few cool statues, the reclining buddha and two caves (dark and light). Not a lot to do here:



i love it when people follow the rules
the wild monkeys

We then took a longtail boat to the fishing village. This was a pretty cool place to see, with amazing views of the surrounding islands:





Finally, we arrived at James Bond Island, home to a sea shell beach and a breathtaking rock formation in the bay:


the cook rock




The next 007? I think we always knew…

That evening, we ventured out again to Bangla Road, and took in the local culture. What happens in Phuket stays in Phuket, but here are some photos to give you a sense of the atmosphere:
Christin Massage Parlor – a brothel the size of a city block
Looks like one sick grandpa!
“Hard Rock” bar, with a U2, Bon Jovi, and Metallica tribute band
The concept of the tribute band was much better than the reality of it (really awful)
Howard in front of Sharkey’s bar, home to dancing women in schoolgirl uniforms who like to play Connect 4
Another shot of Howard at Sharkey’s

Here’s some shots of the beach:
lots of mopeds/cycles/bikes for rent

Yesterday, we explored Phuket City, which was a huge letdown. We did get a chance to try some exotic fruit though, at this fruit stand:

Pineapple was amazing

We also had the chance to see the great industry of Phuket, Latex:

We ate lunch at the local mall at a Thai shabu shabu-type place – the vegetable plate for 2 was about $100 baht ($3.33 USD). After our time in the city, we took a 20 baht (roughly 66 cents) local bus back to the beach. The bus was crazy packed, leaving Howard and I sitting next to two schoolkids in a 2-seat section of the bus. We were still better off than this elderly gentleman who was asked to sit on a box next to the driver. Needless to say, he did not look happy:

Today is a travel day, with a stop over in Bangkok. Since the stopover is somewhat short, I’ve decided to relax in the Novotel Airport Hotel… We’ll be in Chiang Mai later tonight…

Bangkok: Day Two

We awoke at the ungodly hour of 5:30am to prep for our trip to the Floating Markets. Supposedly, these markets are only open in the mornings up to roughly 11:30am. We got on a minibus with a Vietnamese/Philipino family from Houston, TX. Our guide told us that she’d be taking us to some extra sites during the day, along with the floating markets and whatever the family from Houston had paid for in the afternoon. The ride out of Bangkok to the Floating markets was roughly 1.5 hours, which was a great opportunity to sleep… We awoke at our first “extra site”, the coconut “farm” where locals make coconut oil, trinkets out of coconut tree bark, coconut chips, cookies, etc. This was random, and clearly a tourist trap. The locals were selling the same stuff we had seen in Patpong the night prior, only near coconuts. Neither Howard nor I were in the mood to shop, so we just walked back to the bus…

Our next stop was the floating market. First we took a speed boat to the market, which was pretty neat. The boat is the one found in an old James Bond movie (supposedly) and actually hits a reasonably fast speed (which caused a major splash of the very murky water below us):



When we got to the docks of the floating market, we switched to a canoe-like boat with four seats and a single paddler for us. This was an “extra” for our tour, and thus cost us $150 baht each ($5USD). The boat ride was interesting, taking us through a very crowded river, filled with boats of trinket, fruit, soup/food, and other vendors. Clearly, this market is entirely tourist-driven today… During our trip, we did get some amazing produce, including rambutan, mango, pineapple and other exotic fruits… The photos are pretty cool, despite the non-authentic/touristy nature of this locale:







After the floating market, we travelled to a handful of additional destinations, including the Elephant ride / Monkey zoo place, the snake farm (w/ snake show), the intricate wood cutting “factory” and finally the precious gems/jewelry “factory”. All were like the coconut place in the morning, with a marginal connection to a particular theme, with vendors selling common Thai wares found on the streets of Bangkok (and surely elsewhere in Thailand) easily. What a sham… Howard did partake in the Elephant ride, while the remainder of us (me and the Houstoners) sat on the sidelines:


Turns out the father is an engineer at Shell Oil, and decided to take the family on a one week vacation to Bangkok (wife and 4 boys) to vacation and show their kids what life was kind of like for them when they grew up in the Philipines and Vietnam. They shared stories of the fruit they used to eat, and how it compared to what was available in Thailand (very similar). The boys had not been to Southeast Asia in their lives, so this was a very special experience for them.

Here’s some photos from the Snake farm and Wood carving places:


By the time we got to the precious gems place, Howard and I could not stop laughing at how ridiculous this whole process had been. Our first image of this place was following entry. Tons of buses had been in the parking lot, meaning many other tourists were here against their will as well… As we entered the facility, we saw a young American guy with his wife slouched over a chair, desparate to get out of there. Funniest thing I had seen all day…

We finally were brought back to our hotel late afternoon. We trekked back to the Chabad House and grabbed an early linner. The food was again quite good. Afterwards, we came back to the hotel, rested up for the evening, then ventured out again. This time, we went to the Japanese-oriented block 2 blocks over from Patpong. Similar kind of place (i.e. still skuzzy) but interesting. We grabbed a quick dinner and walked around for a while. We then decided to call it a night, after such a long day…

Finally back on track with this blog… Tomorrow we go to Phuket for the weekend…

Bangkok: Day One

We arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday evening… We took an airport shuttle from the Bangkok airport to what was supposed to be near our hotel, but we decided (mostly due to my poor judgement and a lack of english speaking bus staff) to get off the bus about 15 minutes from our hotel. About 2 minutes later, it began to rain. Not just any rain, but huge gobs of rain, in a monsoon-like manner. The streets were flooded in seconds and Howard and I were drenched. We decided to stop under a canopy for 10 minutes, while we reviewed our map. When the rain did not let up, we decided to grab our bags and run for it. Ultimately, we did get to the hotel, but only after getting drenched from head to toe, with no sign of dryness anywhere. We walked into the hotel complex (2 shopping centers and the hotel) and immediately stood out as the two people without umbrellas walking through this mess. The hotel gave us our key and we immediately ran upstairs to change/shower…

That evening, we decided to venture out to Patpong, the infamous “red-light” district and night market in Silom, Bangkok. It was a relatively clear night, but still quite warm (despite the heavy rain earlier). We found a charming Japanese restaurant with a “buffet” menu which was entirely ordered through the sushi chef at the sushi counter for the equivalent of $15. As we began eating in Bangkok, we realized just how cheap things here were. Needless to say, this was a good deal… We grabbed as much salmon and tuna as we could, then ventured into the markets.
Patpong is a space unlike any other, with go-go bars and massage parlors being touted by all walks of life to all walks of life (I saw a one-legged man suggesting a hardcore show to a boy who couldn’t have been older than 15). There is little shame here, with prostitutes and masseuses touting their services openly, bargaining with local men and women for services. Along with these services, there are several stalls all around selling all kinds of local and counterfeit wares. It’s a sad state of affairs, but nonetheless, an interesting market. For the life of me, I don’t understand parents who bring their (young) children to the market, but to each his own… We walked through, avoiding solicitation as much as possible, while trying not to laugh at their tactics (“no charge for looking!”). After a little while, we called it a night…

One editors note: To be honest, the idea of a massage in Thailand is quite tempting on the face of it. It New York, a comparable massage would cost five times what it costs here, and the hospitality is superb (at least from everything else we’ve participated in). Even the concept of exotic women masseuses is tempting, since its an experience that cannot be had elsewhere. However, the way it is presented and cheapened through the so-called “promoters” is a massive turnoff. It’s really unfortunate… Brutal honesty people…

Yesterday, we ventured out to two major tourist sites, the Wat Po and the Grand Palace. Funny story – When we got to Wat Po, a man approached us and told us it was only open to Thai people that day, but that we could go somewhere else with him. Yeah, right… So, we disregarded him, only to find that he was trying to “scam” us. Then, when we got close another man approached us and told us that I needed to wear long pants at the site, and that he could direct me to a store. We disregarded him as well (luckily they offer a free pants rental at sites where they are required). On both occassions, there were guards standing near us who gave us a look like “these guys are full of it”. Thus, Howard and I came up with a general rule for Thailand – “Whatever the guys with the guns/bayonettes say, goes. Everyone else is full of it”. Words to live by…

Wat Po is home to magnificent Thai architecture, complete with amazing shingled roofs of multiple colors, intricate sculptures of wood and stone and of course budda, in this case a large (understatement of the year) reclining buddha. Here’s some photos of the grounds and the reclining buddha:








big shoes, for a big buddha

The Grand Palace is another amazing site, with two sections, namely the Wat Phra Kaew, which includes the temple with the Emerald Buddha, and Chakri Mahaprasad Hall, the old palace of Thai Royalty. The first section is a huge complex with similar buildings as found in Wat Po (nice shingles, intricate work, etc.), with a few distinguishing structures such as the golden chedi called the Phra Sri Ratana and several amazing statues. It’s a wonderful site to see, so check it out:








The actual palace is a bit of a letdown, with the only main attraction coming in form of guards who must stand their post while tourists photograph themselves with them:



After the Grand Palace, Howard and I ventured to Bunglampoo to eat lunch at the Chabad House. To get there, we took a Tuk Tuk. For those of you unfamiliar with the Tuk Tuk, its an excellent 3-wheeled vehicle that is sort of like a motorcycle with a bench in the back that is enclosed. One note on transport in Bangkok – dirt cheap. A cab starts at 35 baht (roughy $1.15 USD) and goes up by 2 baht every km or minute in traffic. Thus, a 45 minute ride (which is common, given the terrible Bangkok traffic) costs about $75-90 baht, or $2.50-3.00 USD. The Tuk Tuk’s are usually quite a bit less, with several offering to take us for 5-10 baht per hour. Here’s some photos from the Tuk Tuk:


Here’s a photo of the Chabad restaurant sign from a distance (it’s in the middle of a backpackers district) :

You’ll notice an Israeli hostel right up the block as well. Lots and lots of Israelis everThe food at Chabad is amazing, and since they keep prices at local levels (and have a local shochet), the meal is quite inexpensive. Howard and I had appetizers, a full lunch, dessert and drinks for about $12 USD with tip. Not bad…

After lunch (roughly 3pm) we walked around the area by the Chabad house. We came across a fruit stand for Rambutan. Howard had never tried them, so I encouraged him to get one. He asked the price, and was told 20 baht. He paid, and received 1 kg of Rambutan, which is roughly 30 pieces. A Rambutan is like quite tasty, but 30 is a bit much… After Howard ate all the Rambutan, we headed back to the hotel to rest up, prior to the evenings festivities. We walked by Patpong as they were setting up:Why do they do this every night? Why not just leave the tables up each day? Good question posed by Howard. When we find out, we’ll let you know…


That night we walked into Patpong. On our way, we ran into an elephant on the sidewalk (which is of couse completely normal). Yes, it was weird, and no we did not pay for photos. It was just kind of crazy. After being turned off again to the thought of a massage and a quick dinner, we both sought refuge at the Montien Hotel, listening to music of a local Thai woman. She was singing Whitney Houston and other American music pretty poorly. However, it was fun for a while… We headed back to the hotel around midnight to prep for the next day’s early adventures to the floating markets…

Macau

We got to Macau late on Sunday evening, and began our adventure from there. The Casa Real Casino Hotel had a shuttle bus that picked us up right at the airport. We arrived, and decided to venture out, checking out the Golden Dragon and Sands Casino hotels, in the nearby vicinity. These casinos were not nearly as interesting as US ones, with less glitz and glamour. Additionally, there were seedy activities at the hotels, including one “Crazy Happy Show” at the Golden Dragon which was just a strip-club front for a brothel. Very disturbing…

The next morning, we ventured to the town square to see the main attractions in Macau. For those of you who do not know, Macau was once a Portugese colony, and much of the Portugese architecture style can be found here. Additionally, there are several Christian sites due to this connection. Here’s some photos of the town square:We got to Macau late on Sunday evening, and began our adventure from there. The Casa Real Casino Hotel had a shuttle bus that picked us up right at the airport. We arrived, and decided to venture out, checking out the Golden Dragon and Sands Casino hotels, in the nearby vicinity. These casinos were not nearly as interesting as US ones, with less glitz and glamour. Additionally, there were seedy activities at the hotels, including one “Crazy Happy Show” at the Golden Dragon which was just a strip-club front for a brothel. Very disturbing…

The next morning, we ventured to the town square to see the main attractions in Macau. For those of you who do not know, Macau was once a Portugese colony, and much of the Portugese architecture style can be found here. Additionally, there are several Christian sites due to this connection. Here’s some photos of the town square:



Next, we visited the ruins of the Saint Paul’s. This structure is pretty small, but cool looking and includes a crypt and small museum with old Christian art. One piece of note involves a group of Japanese Christian monks:

Next we visitied the Monte Fort. What can I say, it was a huge letdown. Boring site, with little but a few cannons to see:


After the Fort, we travelled to Macau Tower, for a great view of the city. There is a Hacker Challenge post here, involving three stunts that people can participate in. One is walking around the ring at the top of the tower. The next is scaling the top of the tower. The last is bungee jumping off the top of the tower, apparently the largest drop available globally (233 M or 765 ft). No, we did not do any of that, but we did take some photos (the last one is from the glass floor of the observation point):




From the Macau Towers, we ventured to the Hotel Lisboa, the old-school casino/hotel of Macau. There, we found a delightful Japanese restaurant and had an amazing lunch (tuna was the best i’ve had):


After lunch we went to the Wynn, which is nearly identical to the structure in Las Vegas:

We spent the evening venturing the local hotels, found a bite to eat and went to bed. The next morning we were off to the airport to fly to Bangkok…

Photos from Shenzhen and Hong Kong

Here are the much anticipated photos from Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Enjoy!

Shenzhen
The city is new and expanding significantly. Here’s a few pics of the skyline:


Here’s the Lowu Commercial Center from the outside as well as a photo with our tailors:

Hong Kong

Here’s some photos from the skyline and the city:


The Peak Tram:

Here’s the subway:


Simposons Movie in Chinese…

10,000 Buddha’s Monastary:



– no unibrow here…

Drinking on Saturday Night in Lan Kwai Fong:

Escalators:

Floating Restaurant:

Ferry to Macau:

Hong Kong: Day Three

On Saturday night, we ventured out to a few hotspots, including the Lan Kwai Fong beer festival, the Temple Street Night Markets, and the local arcade. The Lan Kwai Fong beer festival is held annually and is a true frat party on several social blocks on Hong Kong Island. The area is filled with bars, restaurants and clubs, and is thus quite lively in its own right. However, during the festival, yards of beer are served on the street and people are openly gulping beer, grabbing finger foods, and singing karaoke on the streets. It was a real sight to see…

The Temple Street Night Markets are more of the same from Beijing and Shenzhen, namely knock offs and other random Chinese goods sold by vendors on a particular block. Since we had seen so much of it already, neither of us were particularly excited by this. At the end of the evening, we found a local arcade and decided to go in. I got whipped several times by a few locals in Virtua Tennis, which I guess I am not very good at (nothing like 4 straight 40-love matches to give you that impression)…

The next morning, we decided to really dive into Hong Kong on Day Three. Specifically, we went to Stanley Market, right by the water in southern Hong Kong Island. Its home to an amazing market and some very nice sites. I’ll post some pics shortly. At Stanley, I picked up a few paintings for my parents and sister Mechal/bro-in-law Chaim. They’ll be in NYC in about 2 weeks, so enjoy…

Additionally, I picked up an ipod remote control for about $11 USD, much less than the retail price in NY. Finally, I picked up a random t-shirt depicting a kung fu master in the battles with “Noodles of Death”. Yup, cool shirt. Howard also picked up a painting…

We decided to lunch at the infamous “Jumbo” floating restaurant. We took a small boat from the dock to the ship, and found one of the 6 restaurants suitable for our budget and palate. We ordered typical vegetarian food, but did not get our order for roughly 1 hour. We both complained, but got little response from the manager. Oh well… I won’t be going back there anytime soon…

In the afternoon, we took the escalators to the Mid-levels on Hong Kong Island, on our way to the JCC for an all-you-can-eat BBQ. This was an amazing dinner, possibly the best of our trip, and only cost $220 HKD (~$28 USD). We ate sushi, salads, fish, steak, kebabs, sausage (yes, Howard had sausage!), chicken and lamb. Great times… The desserts were also amazing…

In the evening, we took the ferry to Macau, which took about 45 minutes. At Macau, we got stuck on the worst immigration line, which took another 30 minutes to get through (literally the entire ship was through immigration when we got through)… Once in Macau, we took the shuttle bus to our casino/hotel, the Casa Real. Our room is quite nice and we’ve enjoyed checking out the adjoining hotels this evening (The Golden Dragon and the Sands). Howard and I are both down, $18 USD and $30 USD respectively… We’ll see what happens tomorrow…

Hong Kong: Day Two / Shenzhen: Day Three

My Friday was particularly interesting… I travelled in the morning back to Shenzhen to pick up our suits. We were both a bit concerned about getting them via our tailor’s transport guy who would drop it off at the hotel for $10 USD. I wanted to verify the pickup, and since I had a multi-entry visa, agreed to travel alone back to the abyss… At Shenzhen, I picked up two “Ralph Lauren” polos for about $30 USD, an ipod case for $3USD, a replacement bag strap for Howard’s bag for $3USD, and two “Mont Blanc” pens for $6USD. Then I picked up the suits, and let me tell you, the extra fitting was huge. These suits looked awesome… Not a bad morning…

I met Howard at the DHL in Mong Kok trainstation, which had a student rate for packages sent to Singapore. A 5kg package (roughly 10 lbs) would cost about $40 USD and get to Singapore in a day. Given that we needed to drop weight in our bags for our flights through Thailand (15kg max, which is pretty low, especially when Howard’s bag alone is 7kg), we packed the suits and random items into the boxes and shipped them off.

After the shipping, we travelled off to the Monastary of the 10,000 Buddhas, which is on the northern end of Kowloon. We reached it by KCR (the train to Shenzhen). This was an amazing buddhist temple, with a massive staircase housing hundreds of buddha statues showing different faces and accents. At the top, the temple is very elegant with many smaller buddhas from floor to ceiling. Additionally, there are several buddha statues on the top platform, along with a beautiful pagoda. It’s an amazing place and the amazing craftmanship of the buddha statues is quite breathtaking.

Shabbat was quiet… We rested from our long journeys thus far and reflected on our next few weeks in China and Thailand.