The Top Three New Years Eve Movies

Sydney New Years Eve Fireworks
Sydney New Years Eve Fireworks

What are the top three movies that have a New Years Eve theme?  Well, obviously this is going to be subjective as everyone has different tastes.  However, the following are my three favourite New Years Eve films (in reverse order, starting at number three).

Number Three – Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places
Trading Places

This is one of my favourite 1980s comedies, and this was Eddie Murphy’s break-out film (although Beverly Hills Cop was his best film).  In addition to Eddie, the film stars Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche and Denholm Elliott.

Dan Aykroyd plays Lois Winthorpe (the Thiiiirrrrd), an up and coming young commodities broker, born into wealth and having every privilege and opportunity to foster his success.  He works for the Dukes (Bellamy and Ameche), two brothers who have a large commodities brokerage in New York, and who eventually make a bet as to whether success and crime are tied to genetics or environment.  In order to prove the bet, they arrange for Lois Winthorpe to lose everything (his house, butler (Denholm Elliott), his job and his girlfriend).  He is set up and caught with angel dust while at a board meeting, and then arrested.  At the same time, the Dukes arrange for Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) to take over Winthorpe’s place in the company, including taking over his house and car.  Valentine is a down-and-out bum and small time hustler and the Bellamys met him when he was wrongfully accused of trying to Winthorpe’s briefcase.

Winthorpe befriends Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a prostitute who feels sorry for him.  She believes his story about being framed and tries to help him get back onto his feet.  In the meantime Valentine discovers the Dukes are up to no good and eventually realises that he is part of a bet.  Valentine contacts Winthorpe and together they plan revenge on the Dukes.  The plan commences execution during New Years Eve celebrations, which significantly adds to the hilarity of the situation.

Number Two – Four Rooms (1995)

Four Rooms
Four Rooms

If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it.  It’s got a great cast, including Antonio Banderas, Jennifer Beals, Quentin Tarantino, Madonna, and Marisa Tomei.  It follows Ted (played by Tim Roth), who has just taken over the responsibility as bellhop of the Hotel Mon Signor (an old world hotel full of classic 1930s charm).  The movie then splits into an anthology of four separate (but sometimes interconnected) stories, all of which take place during the same night, namely New Years Eve.

The first story, “The Missing Ingredient” is about a coven of witches who occupy the Honeymoon Suite and are working on a spell, but one of the witches has forgotten a vital ingredient (semen) which she needs to find within the hour.

The second story, “The Wrong Man” is about a couple seeking to role play a hostage situation, but where things don’t go quite right and it is unclear what is a real hostage situation and what is role play.

The third story, “The Misbehavers” is about two children that the bellhop has to keep an eye on for the night while the parents go out to a New Years Eve event.  The children misbehave, start drinking and smoking and eventually find a disgusting mystery hidden inside the mattress of their bed.

The final story, “The Man From Hollywood” is set in the penthouse, where a famous Hollywood actor (played by Tarantino) and his friends have made a bet.  They require a block of wood, ball of twine, three nails, a club sandwich, a bucket of ice and a very sharp hatchet.  Basically the bet is that one of the friends can light his Zippo lighter ten times without failure.  If he succeeds he gets the actor’s car.  If he fails, he has to cut off his little finger.

Number One – Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard

I love old films, and this one’s a classic that you must watch.  It stars William Holden and Gloria Swanson.  Holden plays Joe Gillis, an out-of-work Hollywood script writer.  Joe has to flee some debt collectors and ends up hiding his car in what appears to be an abandoned house on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills.  It turns out that the house belongs to a former big name Hollywood actress, Norma Desmond (Swanson).  When Norma discovers that Joe is a screen-writer, she asks him to take a look at a new script she has written (she is hoping to make a come-back as an actress) and Joe lies to her that he thinks it is good.

Norma hires Joe to work as script doctor on her movie.  She also arranges a New Years Eve party, where Joe not only discovers he is the only guest, but also that Norma has fallen in love with him (she sees him as her savior).

Needless to say, Norma is misled (in many cases by her own stubbornness to accept reality) into believing that Hollywood wants to turn her script into a film and have her as a star.  Everything goes wrong, with fatal consequences.

There are a whole heap of other films that are New Years Eve related, that didn’t quite make my top three, but should get a notable mention, including Bridget Jones Diary, Oceans 11 (The original 1960s version, not the remake), Boogie Nights, 200 Cigarettes, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and Untamed Heart.

I hope you all have a very Happy New Year 🙂

How to Format E-Books for the Kindle/Amazon Using HTML – Introduction

Boating
This is where I was sitting as I typed this blog

Okay, I know this is slightly off topic compared to my usual travel related stuff.  However, myself and a co-author spent almost a year researching and writing a travel guide, with the first release being for Kindle, and then followed by a hard copy version.  Well, writing the book wasn’t so hard.  It took time, in terms of researching facts, but even that was a lot of fun as we did several trips for the purpose of that research.  The hard (and most annoying bit) was actually converting an almost 300 page word file into something that would work on a Kindle, and any other device running the Kindle app.

I downloaded and even purchased books on formatting word documents for the Kindle.  I read through all the relevant help files and discussion forums on Amazon.  I then went through my Word file and applied all the advice that I had gleaned, and then hit the upload button.  Guess what?  A lot of things didn’t work.  Despite setting styles, and meticulously ensuring everything in my Word file was attributed to one of those styles, when I previewed the e-book, the formatting was off.  I created a table of contents with clickable links as recommended on Amazon’s free e-book guide, and of course, the links weren’t clickable in my e-book.

I was getting a bit frustrated now.  After ten months of writing what I considered to be an outstanding guide, it was now going to look less than professional as an e-book.  Well, I wasn’t going to give up.  From all the reading I had done, I understood that Kindle’s format was based on HTML (hyper text mark-up language – the language used to create all of your beloved web pages and blogs).  Therefore, the key was in getting Word to convert to as clean a version of HTML as possible.  I opened up the HTML file produced by Word (both the standard HTML file and the stripped down version).  Even the stripped down version contained a lot of unnecessary junk in it.  One option was to go through the stripped down version and clean out the unnecessary junk.  However, I didn’t even like the way Word was trying to force format everything.  Web pages and e-books are meant to be fluid, with minimal formatting, thus allowing the reader to have more flexibility with page/window size, increasing font sizes etc.

The solution… I decided it would be easier to just copy my Word file into a plain text editor and then manually add in the HTML code to create the formatting (remember what I said above: e-books and web pages should have minimal formatting in any event… especially e-books).  So in the end, that is what I did.  It took longer than simply pressing the save as button in Word, but the end result was a perfectly formatted e-book, with full working links, table of contents, and clickable/zoomable maps.

HTML – The Basics

The good thing is that HTML is a very simple code.  You don’t need any special programming skills to write HTML.  Especially for e-books, you just need to remember a few key commands.  First off, all HTML commands are contained within the greater than/less than characters, for example a command to make text bold… <b>.  The other thing you need to remember is that when you start a command, such as bold, you also need to close off that command, which is done like this </b>.  The forward slash indicates the end for that command.

The other thing to remember is the rule about “nesting”.  That is, when you have several commands, for example, bold and then italics, you need to close them off in the right order, with first command closed last.  For example “<b><i>Italic and Bold Text</i></b>”.

To write your code is very easy.  Just open up Notepad in Windows, or TextEdit on a Mac.  If you want a bit more convenience, I suggest downloading one of the more specialised plain text editors that support colour coding of HTML code, so it is easier to see (and easier to spot when you have forgotten to close off a command).  My favourite is Notepad++, available here: http://notepad-plus-plus.org/.

Starting Your HTML File for Kindle

To start your HTML file, open up your Word file, and then open up your plain text editor.  In your plain text editor, paste in the following:

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding =”UTF-8″ ?>
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.1//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml11/DTD/xhtml11.dtd”&gt;

<HTML xmlns=”http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml&#8221; xml:lang=”en”>
<HEAD>

<meta http-equiv=”Content-Type” content=”application/xhtml+xml; charset=ISO-8859-1″/>
<TITLE>Insert Book Title Here</TITLE>

</HEAD>

<BODY>

Don’t worry too much about all of this code.  Most of it just ensures that Kindle knows what version of code you are subscribing to, and what unicode character set you have adopted.  You will not need to change anything here other than changing the text under “<TITLE>”, but even that isn’t necessary as Kindle doesn’t seem to do anything with it.

The essential features of starting a web page or Kindle document is that you need to identify that it is HTML code, hence the HTML tag in the third line.  After opening HTML, you then add the HEAD tag (fourth line).  HEAD is kind of like a header and contains information like your title and is also a useful spot to add any more complicated coding (which we will talk about in Part Two of this guide).

After we have finished with HEAD, we close it off, and then open up BODY (last line above).  Everything after BODY is the main content of your e-book.  Any text that you write after BODY (other than text within <>) will appear as text in your book.

The Basic HTML Commands for your E-Book

Okay, so we now have a text editor all set up and ready to go.  So what are the main formatting commands?  I will start with the basics so that you don’t get over-whelmed.  Note, there are plenty more that you would use for web pages, but the following are the essentials for e-books:

  • <P> – This stands for Paragraph.  You will use this for each paragraph of your e-book, and don’t forget to close off the paragraph with </P> at the end.
  • <B> – As mentioned above, this will create bold text.
  • <I> – As mentioned, this will create italic text.
  • <BR> – This forces a line break.  It’s normally not necessary to use BR because P already creates a line break between paragraphs.  Note, you do not close a <BR> command.
  • <U> – This will create underlined text.
  • <H1> – This is the Level 1 Heading style (similar to heading styles as used in Word).  Note, as with Paragraph, it will add a line break at the end.
  • <H2> – Level 2 Heading style.
  • <H3> – Level 3 Heading style.
  • <H4> – Level 4 Heading style.  There are more levels, but you shouldn’t need them in your e-book.  Also, after about the fourth level, the text starts getting smaller than your default paragraph text.
  • <MBP:PAGEBREAK/> – This is a special command created by Amazon that forces a page break.  It is the same as pressing CTRL-Enter in Word.  As with <BR>, you do not close a page break command.

Okay, so those are the commands.  I guess you would like to know how to use them.  Well, here is an example:

<H1>Chapter One</H1>

<H2>1.1 My Life as a Sponge</H2>

<P>It took me many years to realise I was a <B><I>sponge</I></B>.  I guess I always kind of suspected, but it was really only after I was taken out of my wrapper and used to scrub someone’s filthy body in the shower that I knew for sure.</P>

<P>Despite what you may believe, life as a sponge actually isn’t that bad.  I spend most of my days just hanging around on the soap rack.  I’ve made a lot of good friends there.  Palmolive in particular has a really good sense of humour, although Head and Shoulders can be a bit twisted.</P>

<MBP:PAGEBREAK/>

The above should be self-explanatory.  You will notice that I have a bit of space between the headings and paragraphs.  This is more for my benefit than anything else.  HTML code readers ignore all of the space and carriage returns, so put as much in as you want, to help you easily recognise different paragraphs and chapters.  Also, with the codes themselves, it doesn’t matter whether you use capitals or lower case.  I prefer all capitals for code because it makes them stand out more from the normal text of a book.

Slightly More Advanced Commands

Okay, this is where things get a bit more sexy.  There are two further commands that you will definitely want to use when creating e-books.

The first is the <IMG> command, which is used to display images.  As with <BR>, you do not close the <IMG> command.  However, you do need to put additional commands inside <IMG>, the most important being the file name of the image you wish to display.  Here is an example: <IMG SRC=”myphoto.jpg”>.

An important point here is that the image needs to be in the same directory as your HTML file.  You can create subdirectories and refer to those, but I suggest keeping it simple as there is less chance for error.  If you really do want a subdirectory (lets call it “Image”) then this is how you would do it <IMG SRC=”image/myphoto.jpg”>.

You can also define height and width (in pixels) of the photo as you want it displayed, although be careful with trying to force kindle readers to adopt fixed sizes as each kindle displays at a different resolution.  I will get into this a bit more in my next guide.

The next command that you will be interested in is creating links and bookmarks.  This is useful for both within-document linking (eg for table of contents) as well as having a link to an external website (such as in your bibliography).

The command that creates both a link and bookmark is Anchor, denoted as <A> </A> (yes you need to close off anchors).  As with images, you need to add additional commands within the <A> command to determine whether you want to create a link or a bookmark.  An example of a link is as follows: <A HREF=”http://wordpress.com”>Click on Me</A>.  HREF is short for hypertext reference, and is basically the address that you want the link to go to.  The words that appear after the command (ie “Click on Me”) is the text that the reader will actually see.  For links, it is actually good practice to just put in the name of the website so that the reader can see where they will be directed to if they click on the link.  Finally, after the clickable text, you will note that we have closed off the <A> Anchor command.  This is critical or else all of the remainder of your book potentially becomes one large clickable link (in blue underlined text).

To create a bookmark instead, find the section of your book that you want to act as a bookmark (for example, a chapter title), and then wrap the following command around it: <A NAME=”CH1″><H1>Chapter One – Life as a Sponge</H1></A>.  You will notice the command to create a bookmark is simply to use “NAME”.  Within the quotation marks, you can use whatever name you want.  Just remember exactly how you spelled it for when you create a hyperlink to it.  As a result, I tend to keep my bookmark names pretty simple, eg Ch1, Ch2 etc, and for sections within chapters, simply Ch1.1, Ch2.3, etc.  The bookmark itself will be invisible to the reader.

To link to your bookmark, you need to specify that the link is to an internal location, and not an external file or webpage.  You do this by using the # (hash or pound) symbol.  So if we had a table of contents, the entry for chapter one would be as follows: <A HREF=”#CH1″>Chapter One – Life as a Sponge</A><BR>

I added the BR on the end because I wasn’t using paragraphs for each item in the table of contents. <P> would normally provide too much space between entries and for the table of contents, you really just want a single carriage return.

Ending Your File

Once you have gotten to the end of your HTML file, you need to close it off.  Remember what I said earlier, that you need to close off commands that you started?  Well, two commands that you started early on in your document are the HTML and the BODY command.  Therefore, close off like this:

</BODY>

</HTML>

And that is it!  Save your file as “.html”, although for the Windows version of Notepad, it will add a “.txt” at the end.  You will need to open up Windows Explorer, and rename the file, by replacing the .txt with .html.  You can then open up the file you just created by double clicking on it in windows explorer (or Finder in Mac).  Your file will be opened up in your web browser.  This is a good way of checking for any formatting errors.  There are usually even options within your web browser that will show you a list of errors in your html file.  This is useful for quickly checking to see if you have forgotten to close any commands, or you forgot to use or close off any quotation marks in any references (very important).

Copying Your Word Book into Notepad

Now that we have gotten the basics of HTML out of the way, this is how I converted my Word file into HTML.  I know it takes a little bit of time, but the end result is perfect and efficient formatting as an e-book.

  1. I open up Notepad (or in my case, Notepad++).  I have a template already created that contains all the introductory text as per above.
  2. With my Word file open, I copy in chapters at a time, as plain text.
  3. All of the formatting within the Word file gets lost.  However, I don’t use that much formatting in any event.  Therefore, what I do is go through the plain text of each chapter, and add back in the formatting.  The most common is to just add in the Chapter headings, and <P> </P> for all paragraphs.  If I do have any separate bold or italic text (not that common), I add that in as well.
  4. Then at the end of each chapter, I add in the kindle <MBP:PAGEBREAK/> command to force a page break.
  5. I then go back to each chapter heading, and create the bookmark for that chapter.  I do the same for any other sections that I want to bookmark.
  6. Then I go up to the top of the document, after the copyright page, and add in a table of contents (you need to actually call it “Table of Contents” to ensure Kindle recognises it).  I add in each of the <A HREF> commands, pointing to the relevant chapters.
  7. As I do this, I tend to save, and have a web browser open with the file loaded.  I regularly click on “reload” on the browser and check that my changes don’t have errors and that all of the links (such as in table of contents) work.
  8. Once completed, I then upload the HTML file onto Amazon.  If I have images, I keep them in the same directory as the HTML file (for convenience) and zip all files together before uploading.

For those not used to HTML, I hope this wasn’t too difficult to follow.  I find it easier if you actually open up Notepad and just play around with it.  Feel free to experiment, click save and view what you have done in a web browser.

In my next article on this topic, I will get into content style sheets, which is where you can do some really neat formatting for your e-book.  Think of this as being akin to creating paragraph and heading “styles” in Word (its pretty much the same thing, just that you are doing it in code instead of point and click).

Oh, and if you are curious about the guide book… you can find it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P7XAZSC

Happy writing 🙂

Tips That You Didn’t Know for Getting the Most out of Bangkok – Part Two

Thai Police HQ
Thai Police HQ

How to Deal with Getting Stopped By Police

Getting stopped and searched by police in Bangkok is nothing new.  It first happened to me as soon as I set foot in Thailand in the early 1980s.  I had just landed at the airport on a night flight from Singapore and I was in a taxi with my father, heading down Vibhavadi-Rangsit Road towards the Moh Chit bus station.  Suddenly, I saw the bright flashing lights of a police car behind us, signalling for our taxi to pull over, and pull over we did, on the side of a major road in the middle of the night.  This is the sort of opening scene that they make movies about.

The cops went through all of our luggage, and they seemed to be looking for something very specific.  Whatever it was, they didn’t find it on us, and they let us on our way, even offering us a polite apology.  I’ve always suspected that they were waiting for a drug trafficker at the airport that night, and somehow, they ended up following the wrong taxi cab (yep, taxis look alike).  Some friends have also suggested that they just wanted to bust us for something innocuous like being over the duty free level for alcohol or cigarettes.  However, in our case that night, we were and they weren’t concerned about it.

In the last few years, the reports online about foreigners being stopped in Bangkok and searched by police have increased significantly.  The worst area is along Sukhumvit Road, between Soi 21 (Asoke Road) all the way down to Soi 33.  Some searches also take place on the opposite side of Sukhumvit, especially around Soi 22 and Ekamai Bus Station. Interestingly, Each side of Sukhumvit comes under the jurisdiction of different police stations.  The odd-numbered side is patrolled by Thong Lor station, while the even-numbered side is patrolled by the Khlong Toey station.  I blame the Khlong Toey police because years ago, it only seemed to be the area around Soi 22 and the Ekamai bus station where single Western guys would get stopped for a quick drug search (and yes, there is a bit of a drug problem in that area, with people heading down to Khlong Toey port to buy drugs).

However, the Thong Lor police have now really gotten into the act, and they seem to be doing significantly more searches than their Khlong Toey brethren.  They have even stepped it up a notch and sometimes make passers-by go into the petrol station toilets near Soi 23 in order to take a urine specimen which they then test for drugs.

A lot of Westerners will read this and think, “this is unfair!” or “this is a breach of our rights”… well, Thailand has never really been a fair country to begin with.  However, in the old days, the Thais had a lot more respect/awe/admiration/fear of Westerners and because there were fewer of us we were somewhat of a novelty.  As a result, Thais (including most cops) tended to be very polite to Westerners.  Obviously, if you got busted committing a real crime… well, off to the monkey house, but otherwise, the worst you might have to deal with is a 40 baht on the spot fine for breaking some minor traffic rules.

These days, the Thai attitude towards foreigners has definitely changed.  There have been too many “undesirable” foreigners who have hit the shores of Thailand, especially in tourist areas, and created very negative perceptions in Thai minds about us in general.  A lot of those undesirables do commit crimes on Thai soil, get busted, make a lot of noise, but then get little help from their own embassy, and the Thais then believe that they can punish foreigners with little recourse from the foreigners’ home country.  Most foreigners in Thailand (especially tourists) don’t have any significant alliances with Thais of influence either.  Therefore, it is now fairly well known in Thailand that foreigners are “weak” and therefore easy targets.

What Should You Do if Police Want to Search You?

Police Convoy
Police Convoy

If you spend a lot of time in Sukhumvit, either on foot, or driving around the Asoke/Sukhumvit intersection via car or taxi, then sooner or later you will get stopped for a search.  If you do get searched, my strongest recommendation is to at all times be very polite.  Do not yell and do not become uncooperative.  All you are doing is making the police officers lose face.  Also, there’s no point trying to argue that the police do not have the right to stop you.  They don’t care, and their argument will either be that you looked suspicious, or you matched the description of a known drug dealer, or they were doing random stops as permitted under anti-terrorism legislation.  All you have done is made yourself more of a target and become more suspicious in their eyes.

The stop and search issue has now received enough media attention that the Thong Lor police station have evidently released their own notice to foreigners letting them know what they should do if they are stopped (please note, I found this posted here: http://www.richardbarrow.com/2014/12/know-your-rights-if-a-policeman-stops-you-in-bangkok/ and I have not personally verified that this notice was actually published by the police station).  The notice provides as follows:

Thonglor Police Station notice about searching foreigners for contraband

1. Searching foreigners
1.1 Foreigners may take photos of police officers who do the search before searching begins
1.2 Searching has to be done in a place with sufficient lighting and not be desolated
1.3 Do not pay any amount of money to police officers whether you are asked to do or not
1.4 In case you are in a vehicle or a taxi, police officers who stop a vehicle and do the search must be in a proper checkpoint, under control of a commissioned officer

2. Collecting urine specimen must be done only in the police station

3. Foreigners could carry a copy of first page and entry stamped page of their passport instead of the original one.

If you experience any problems, you can call the tourist police on 1155, 24 hours a day. You can also call any of the following police stations in Bangkok:

Thonglor Police Station: 02-3818853
Klongton Police Station: 02-3140041
Lumpini Police Station: 02-2555993
Bangrak Police Station: 02-2340242
Makkasan Police Station: 02-3181821

Interestingly, notwithstanding the above notice, there have been plenty of people being urine tested at petrol stations.  Also, I have read reports of people being fined for only having a photocopy of their passport (http://bangkok.coconuts.co/2014/12/04/surge-reported-police-harassment-suggests-campaign-targeting-tourists-expats).  However, I have personally witnessed others get away with just showing a photocopy or an alternative form of ID.

If you are taken to the police station (eg for urine testing, or because you managed to piss off the police, or they found something), I would suggest this might be the time to call either your embassy or a lawyer for assistance.  Once you have someone more official or influential involved, you become a more undesirable target and the police are more likely to want to get you out the door.  However, if you made them lose face, expect some retribution, like a fine for something innocuous.

If you have illegal drugs on you… well, even your embassy can’t rescue you now.  It’s time to get yourself a good lawyer.  I would still recommend being very polite to the police.  However, don’t sign anything unless/until it has been approved by your lawyer.

If you have illegal drugs in your system, and they entered your system while you were outside of Thailand (eg while you were living it up in Amsterdam), then no crime has been committed in Thailand, but you will need to explain this to the police, and I would immediately be on the phone to a lawyer to assist in this regard, because otherwise, you have made yourself vulnerable for either a shake-down where a large “donation” is called for, or else arrest and spending time in a cell.

If you have prescription medication in your system (or on your person) then the best advice is to have a letter from your doctor confirming the prescription (and for certain medication, confirming it may give a false positive on a urine drug test).  For prescription medication that you carry on you, in the least, keep it in the original box that has the prescription sticker on it.  Don’t carry tablets just in their foil without the original packaging (or worse, loose tablets) as that only raises suspicion with the cops and increases your chances of getting taken back to the police station for further inquiry and testing.

On the question of what is sufficient ID that you need to carry on you, the legal position does not seem that clear, which is perhaps why there is so much contradictory advice.  One law firm even seems to suggest a lot of it comes down to the discretion of the individual police officer (http://www.sunbeltlegaladvisors.com/carrying-id-thai-law/).  The safest option is to always carry your passport.  I personally rarely have my passport on me, but I do carry a drivers’ license, a photocopy of my passport, and I will bring my passport with me if I travel away from Bangkok (eg to the beach).  That way, the worst case scenario while I am in Bangkok is I need to call someone to go and fetch my passport from my condo.

Police HQ
Police HQ

Conclusion

Hopefully, my suggestions better help you to understand how to react if you are stopped and searched.  Unless you have done something wrong, it is nothing to panic about.  Just remain polite, let the police carry out a search, and then go on your way.  There are plenty of reports springing up on the internet about some rather scary searches that have occurred.  Although I am not saying some of those reports are outright lies, I have never personally witnessed (nor heard from a reliable source) anything similar.  Therefore, where things do go off the rails, it would seem to be a rare occurrence and I would have to ask whether there is any information (eg the way the person being searched was acting or behaving) that had been omitted from their online post.  I still think the best advice is: don’t piss off the police in the first place.  If you act rude, you make them lose face and you become a target.

How to Holiday in Pattaya While Avoiding the Red Light Scene

Pattaya Beach
Pattaya Beach

Pattaya is the closest major beach resort to Bangkok, but many people avoid the place due to its reputation as a red light area.  However, it is possible to enjoy a relaxing weekend escape or beach holiday there without being exposed to its seedier side.

A Bit of History

In the 1950s, before Pattaya’s fate as a sex and sin destination was sealed, it was emerging as a boutique beach resort for well-healed Thais and a few Westerners looking for something a bit different from Hua Hin.  Unfortunately, the Vietnam War turned Pattaya into an R&R destination for GIs, and by the mid 70s, after the war had ended, the GIs were replaced by single male tourists who had heard all the rumours brought back by the soldiers.  It’s fate was sealed and Pattaya emerged to become the biggest red light beach resort in the world.

Over the years, there have been many attempts by Pattaya City Council to change its image and attract more regular visitors including families.  However, in 2012, with the opening of Central Festival shopping centre on Beach Road, the demographics of Pattaya started to change dramatically.  The new luxury shopping centre, together with the opening of the Centara Grand Mirage Hotel in Naklua (the bay just North of Pattaya bay) brought back a lot of Bangkok Thais looking for a weekend escape.  In addition, due to its massive range of accommodation, Pattaya started becoming attractive to mainland Chinese tour groups.  Fast forward to December 2014, where Walking Street is having a fairly slow high season, and it looks like regular tourists are taking over the beach resort from the single male visitors.

That being said, there are still considerable red light activities happening around Pattaya that may cause embarrassment for holidaying families.  So how can you enjoy Pattaya without being exposed to this seedier side?

Step 1 – Avoid Staying Near Red Light Areas

This should be a no-brainer, but I often see Russian tourists (travelling as a family with kids) staying right in the middle of it all in South Pattaya.  The areas you will want to avoid are any hotels near Walking Street in South Pattaya, or Sunnee Plaza (on the other side of Second Road from Walking Street).  Basically, avoid staying anywhere in South Pattaya entirely.  Also, avoid: Beach Road Sois 6, 6/1, 7, 8, 13/3 and 13/4; Soi Honey and Soi Diana Inn (off Second Road), and Soi Buakhao, especially the area around Soi LK Metro and Soi Lengkee.  Even staying close to these streets can be uncomfortable.

Marriott Resort
Marriott Resort

Instead, the best places for families to stay for a more pure holiday experience would be at one of the larger resorts in Naklua, or else head South of Pattaya to either Phratamnak Hill or Jomtien (however, in Jomtien, avoid Jomtien Complex or Sois 3 to 5).  You can also stay in North Pattaya in places like the Dusit Thani, Amari, Holiday Inn, Hard Rock Resort or Montien.  There are also great places in Central Pattaya such as the Hilton (attached to Central Festival) or the Marriott (attached to Royal Garden Plaza shopping centre).

The best places to stay if you are travelling with kids are: Centara Grand Mirage (Naklua) – as it has a large water park for kids and has its own private beach; Hard Rock Hotel (North/Central Pattaya) – constant pool-side activities for kids (and adults); Royal Cliff Beach Resort (Phratamnak Hill) – beautiful hotel with large gorgeous facilities and private beach; and the Dusit Thani (Northern tip of Pattaya bay) – great swimming pools for kids and its own (semi) private beach.

If you are travelling with kids but on a budget, then my suggestion is to stay at the Pattaya Park resort (located in Phratamnak Hill, just South of Pattaya).  This resort has its own amusement park and a water park with large slides.  There is even a revolving restaurant up in the Pattaya Park tower.  The other option (although a bit more pricey than Pattaya Park) is Birds and Bees resort, also in Phratamnak Hill.

Step 2 – Family Friendly Dining Options

Central Festival
Central Festival

Pattaya has an incredible array of dining options these days, making it easy to get a decent meal without having to set foot in a red light area.  The easiest option is to head into Central Festival and pick what you want to eat there.  This has become the single biggest collection of eateries in Pattaya, so you will have no problem finding desirable food options in every budget category.  If you want something a bit more special, then head into the adjoining Hilton Hotel.  Also note that you can get good deals on the Hilton buffet lunches and dinners.

Royal Garden Plaza
Royal Garden Plaza

If you want a bit of entertainment, then head down to Royal Garden Plaza.  On the third floor is Benihana’s, which is an American based chain of Teppanyaki restaurants where the chefs cook the food in front of you, providing you with a bit of acrobatic amusement at the same time.

The Sizzlers at either Central Festival or Royal Garden Plaza are also always safe bets.

If you want to get away from the shopping centres and enjoy a bit of beach side dining, then head to one of the major beach side resorts that I mentioned above.  Centara Grand Mirage, Dusit Thani and Royal Cliff all offer fantastic restaurants overlooking the ocean.

Pattaya does have some great seafood restaurants.  Unfortunately, the more famous ones are located on the ocean side of Walking Street, such as Nang Nual (the oldest) and King Seafood.  These restaurants are perfectly fine to take your kids to as they do get a lot of families eating there in the evenings.  However, you will have to walk through Walking Street to get there, although early enough in the evening it isn’t too bad.

If you want to avoid seeing evidence of the red light scene entirely, then go to one of the seafood restaurants up in Naklua.  Two of the best there (outside of the big resorts) is Rim Talay, located next to Centara Grand Mirage; and Mum Aroy (or Moom Aroi), located in the Northern end of Naklua on the beach just before Naklua Road turns into Sukhumvit Road.

Step 3 – Fun Attractions

Pattaya Park
Pattaya Park

Pattaya offers a surprisingly large number of activities, ranging from golf to sailing to go karts to paintball.  For tourists or families, there are plenty of open zoos, cultural exhibits and museums.  You can also catch a ferry (or hire a speed boat) and head out to Ko Laan island.  In short, it has now become very easy for families to enjoy a vast number of activities in Pattaya without being exposed to its red light scene.

Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Underwater World – a large aquarium located on Sukhumvit Highway, between South Pattaya and Jomtien.
  2. Dinghy sailing at the Royal Varuna Yacht Club (Phratamnak Hill).
  3. Ripley’s World of Entertainment – offers a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, a couple of ghost houses, a laser and mirror maze, a balloon ride, and a Louis Taussaud’s wax museum.  Located in Royal Garden Plaza.
  4. XZyte Paintball – Pattaya’s best tournament paintball field.  This place rents out good hire gear including electronic speedball markers and good quality face masks with thermal lenses.  Located in XZyte Sports Club, Chalerm Phrakiat Road North Pattaya (not far off the intersection with Pattaya Nua Road).
  5. Mario Land – Arcade machines, laser shooting and air hockey.  Top floor of Central Festival.  There is also a bowling alley, karaoke and heaps of cinemas there as well.
  6. Splashdown Water Park – This is kind of like Takeshi’s Castle, where you can compete through a bunch of water based obstacle courses.  Its location is a bit of a hike from Pattaya though as it is at the halfway point between Rayong and Pattaya on Highway 36.
Sunset over Pattaya Bay
Sunset over Pattaya Bay

As mentioned above, Pattaya’s popularity as a general tourism location is growing.  A big part of this relates to Pattaya’s close proximity to Bangkok and the main airports.  Notwithstanding its naughty-boy reputation, there is still plenty to do in Pattaya for everyone and it is actually quite easy to avoid the red light areas entirely.

If you want to know more about Pattaya as a tourism destination, I am co-author of “Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide” which is available as both a paperback and ebook from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P7XAZSC

How to Holiday on a Budget in Tokyo

Tokyo
Tokyo

People often ask me for suggestions on holiday spots and I often offer Tokyo as a possibility.  The usual response I get back from people is that they heard that Tokyo is too expensive.

What people say about the pricing in Tokyo is true, if you holiday like a Westerner.  However, if you do a lot of things the Japanese way, you will save a considerable amount of money.  That doesn’t mean you have to adapt your entire Tokyo holiday to be Japanese style, but at the same time, what is the point of travelling somewhere just to do everything the same as you would back home.

Saving number one – Accommodation

Tokyo is a mega-city and the most highly populated metropolitan area in the World (population 37.8 million).  As a result, space in the city comes at a premium price, especially in the most popular city areas like Shinjuku (business area), Tokyo central, Ginza (entertainment district) and Yokohama (shopping and amusement).

The first trick therefore is to stay a bit outside of these popular areas, given this is where space really is in short supply and also where most of the international chain hotels are.  I therefore often stay closer to Shinagawa (half-way between Tokyo central and Yokohama).  There aren’t many international chain hotels here.

Tokyo Hotel Room
Tokyo Hotel Room

Instead, I tend to stay at local business-traveler type places.  You can even sign up as a member to one of the chains for further discounts.  The price for a room per night… about US$80, Japanese breakfast included.  Take note that room size is pretty small and bathrooms are quite cramped.  However, they do manage to fit in a queen size bed and writing desk, and everything is modern… with heater/air con, tv, fridge, and best of all… the digital toilet in the bathroom.

Saving number two – Transport

Notwithstanding the massive population of Tokyo, I have never witnessed any traffic congestion around town.  The reason is that almost everyone uses the train.  The train system in Tokyo really is incredible in the sense that no matter where you are in Tokyo, there should be a train station within walking distance.

When you arrive in Tokyo, either from Narita or Haneda airports, avoiding heading to the taxi area and instead go underground to the train station to catch a train into town instead.  This may seem a little daunting to some, because so much of the signage is in Japanese, you don’t know your way around and not many locals speak English.  However, Tokyo has special airport trains (Narita Express), and you can buy tickets for them from a special counter, rather than having to use machines.  The staff at the airport train counters speak English and will give you a pamphlet explaining the train system and all the stops, including where you need to get off, switch trains etc.

If you are truly on a budget, don’t catch the airport train, but go for the local trains as the passenger fare is significantly cheaper (about one third of the price).  However, read up a little on the local trains before you arrive so that you understand where to switch trains, where to get off and what the fare for your ultimate destination is.  To give you an idea of cost difference.  The Narita Express into Tokyo central station will cost about 2,800 yen (US$24.00) while a standard JR train will cost about 1,000 yen (US$8.30).  The normal JR train will take a longer time compared to the Narita Express and Narita Airport is a considerable distance.  For those landing in Haneda, this airport is in town, so no excuses.

The Tokyo Train System
The Tokyo Train System

For getting around Tokyo generally, whether you want to or not, you will basically find that you are propelled to use the rail network.  Its all part of your Tokyo experience anyway and you will be amazed at what you discover down in the massive underground train stations.  Using the normal JR trains is incredibly easy.  At each train station you will see a large map of the network, with each of the coloured lines.  All you need to do is find your intended destination and you will see the fare for that destination.  Go to a ticket machine and press the fare that you need, pop in the coins and take your ticket.  The tricky bit is remembering which line and which direction on that line gets you to your destination, because once you go through the turn-styles, you will need to know which platform to head for and which side of the platform to wait for your train.  Once on the train though, you will know because there is usually a screen showing the current train location and the upcoming stations in order.  If you get on the wrong train, then simply get off at the next station, cross to the other side of the platform, head back and try again.

Also, if you change your mind about your location (or just got your fare wrong for your ticket, or you didn’t know what the fare was to begin with so you just guessed your fare), don’t fret.  Just before the exit turn-styles, you will find a “fare correction” machine.  These are really handy because you stick your ticket in and it will tell you how much more to pay (I also assume it gives you a refund if you over-payed, although I never tested it this way).

Saving number three – Food

In the main tourist areas you will find international chains as well as local restaurants catering to foreign tastes.  For example, we stumbled across McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Hard Rock Cafe etc.  However, there aren’t nearly as many international restaurants as you would expect in a city of this size and most places tend to be local food.  The Western places tend to be pretty expensive (although obviously McDonalds will hardly break the bank for those days that you need some comfort food).

You are in Japan to experience Japanese culture, so learn to eat like the Japanese.  Most of the Japanese places are cheap.  There are local fast-food chains like Mos Burger (a bit like McDonalds but cheaper than Tokyo McDonalds).  There are also a variety of other chains that offer sandwiches and the like.  In addition, you get the hole in the wall little sushi bars and noodle places.  They are nothing more than a bench under some awning, where you sit, order, eat and leave, but these are the cheapest eating options.

Kobe Beef
Kobe Beef

Be careful though, as some local restaurants can be incredibly expensive.  Always check the prices.  For example, a bunch of us went to a restaurant located upstairs in the Ginza district.  We had Kobe beef plus sake and the bill (for four people) was close to $1,000.  Fortunately, it was a work expense.

Conclusion

Those three tips alone should save you a bundle in terms of your Tokyo holiday.  I could go further, such as how to save money on alcohol, but I won’t because you are on holiday after all, and you don’t want to skimp too much.  I have at least shown you how to save money on the necessary costs and it is then up to you how much you want to spend on the other items (eg stick to the main tourist attractions like the Imperial Palace, let your hair down in the clubs of Ginza, or go on a shopping spree in Akihabara).

Happy travels 🙂

Tips That You Didn’t Know for Getting the Most out of Bangkok – Part One

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For those visiting (or even recently re-located) to Bangkok, here are some tips that you will not find in any guide book (and I doubt you will find most of these tips online either).  These are some simple but useful little tips for enjoying your time in Bangkok that much more, that I picked up from living there.  Today’s post will start this series off.

Tip 1 – How to get through 1.5 kilometres of shopping malls without ever stepping out onto the pavement

As you can see from the above photo, Bangkok can get really congested… and its not just the roads, but the sidewalks can be a real nightmare too, with shopping stalls, motorbikes, food carts, hazardous paving and, of course, pedestrians, all creating their own little traffic jam.  Therefore, especially in downtown Bangkok, you may want to avoid walking on the footpaths.

It is possible to get from MBK (Mah Boon Krong) shopping centre, all the way to Central Chitlom (1.5km away) without setting foot on the pavement (and without cheating by taking the skytrain either).

I will describe how to do it, but at the same time, I also take the opportunity to give you some background about the different places you will pass by.  As such, this becomes a bit of a walking tour of the main sites in the shopping district of Bangkok.

Here’s how to stay off the pavement:

  1. The starting point is MBK shopping centre (located at the intersection of Ploenchit/Rama I Road and Phayathai Road; or get off at the National Stadium stop on the Sky Train).  MBK first opened in 1985, and continues to be the most popular shopping centre in Bangkok, selling everything you can think of, plus having lots of food options and entertainment such as movie theatres, bowling and video games.  From within MBK, get onto the Sky Walk (either exiting via the 3rd Floor North East exit; or if in Tokyu department store, then the 2nd floor North exit).  Head East on the Sky Walk away from the National Stadium skytrain stop (and don’t litter in this area, because this is where the litter police like to hang around).
  2. You will hit a t-junction where the Sky Walk stops and you can either cross to the right which will take you down to the pavement of Siam Square or left which will take you to a staircase heading up into the third floor of Siam Discovery Shopping Centre.  Head up into Siam Discovery.
  3. Siam Discovery opened up in 1996 and at that time, its focus was to be an exclusive high end shopping centre focusing on luxury brands and what was then Thailand’s best cinema.  In more recent times it has reinvented itself slightly and the cinema is replaced with a Madam Taussaud’s wax museum and there was until recently an ice skating rink on the top floor.  The restaurants on the higher floors offer great views over Bangkok.  Once yo get inside Siam Discovery, take the escalator up one level to the fourth floor.  If you look towards the East, you will see a Starbucks… walk past it, keeping your heading East and you will discover a plexi-glass enclosed bridge/tunnel that crosses over to the next shopping centre.  Go through the tunnel and you will find yourself inside Siam Centre.
  4. Siam Centre is Bangkok’s oldest air conditioned shopping centre.  It opened in 1974 and has always been a central hub for fashion.  These days, this is a great place to view the offerings of some of Thailand’s best designers, as well as some of the harder to find international brands.  The top floor is also good for food, with a nice food court.  From the tunnel, you should find yourself on the top floor of Siam Centre (you should see a Sizzler to your right).  Take the escalator down one level and keep heading East.  At the North East corner of the store, you will see a Teddy Bear Cafe, glass doors, and escalators that go down half a level.  This will lead you to the court yard in front of Siam Paragon.
  5. Okay, some of you will now try and argue you are now on pavement… sorry, but you are wrong.  Your are on an elevated section.  You could actually have exited one level down as well, in which case you would have been on street level (well, half a floor above it).  Instead, you are now in the court yard where the owners of Siam Paragon host special events such as concerts, shows, fairs, etc.  Chances are there will be something happening as you pass by (I rarely see this square empty).  From here, head across the square into the main entrance of Siam Paragon.
  6. Siam Paragon is one of the newer shopping centres in Bangkok and currently the most high end of Thailand’s shopping centres.  In the basement is Ocean World, a large walk through aquarium.  The ground floor is possibly the largest food hall in Thailand (and most crowded) and the top floor contains the best cinemas.  There are plenty of high end stores selling luxury brands, including Lamborghini.  Anyway, after you are done window shopping, get back to the main entrance and walk due East until you get to the exit (South East).  You will know it because it leads to the Siam Sky Train station.
  7. Once you exit out of Siam Paragon and you are heading towards the Sky Train station, keep walking South (towards Siam Square) past the Sky Train gates and you will eventually notice a small walkway at the end that continues heading East (but now on the opposite, Southern, side of Ploenchit Road).  Follow this old walkway over Henry Dunant Road and past the beggars and souvenir sellers and eventually you will find the walkway links in with the Sky Walk again, which sits directly under the Sky Train tracks.
  8. Follow the Sky Walk East.  Eventually, you will have the option to veer off to the left (just before Ratchadamri Road intersection) which will take you into Central World.  Central World is currently Thailand’s biggest shopping centre (and one of the biggest in the World).  It offers a lot of the same sorts of stores as Siam Paragon, but is a little less luxury brand focused (no Lamborghini).  It also has great restaurants, a food court and cinema on the top floor and you can access the tower which will take you to roof top restaurants offering high altitude views over Bangkok.  There is also an ice skating rink at the North Western end of level 2.
  9. Assuming you are still on the Sky Walk out the front of Central World, then keep heading East, across Ratchadamri Road.  As you cross over the road, you will see some Thai dancers on your right hand side around a shrine.  This is the Erawan shrine (the statue is of Vishnu) and was built because during the construction of the original hotel, there was a lot of misfortune (and quite a few construction workers died due to unfortunate accidents).  The Thais believed this was due to the construction work disturbing the local spirits of the area, so the Erawan shrine was built to give the spirits a nice home.
  10. As you near the Erawan shrine, on your left hand side you will notice another shopping centre.  This one is Gaysorn Plaza and seeks to be another high end luxury mall.  Unfortunately, it is quite small compared to Siam Paragon and doesn’t have the selection.  There also aren’t many dining options within.  As a result, this mall tends to be very empty, which is perfect for those seeking a bit of peace and quiet.
  11. Just after the Sky Walk entrance to Gaysorn Plaza, and after Erawan on your right hand side, you will see Amarin Plaza, which is characterised by white Roman columns in the front.  On the ground floor is the original branch of McDonalds in Thailand which opened in 1985.  Originally, this shopping centre was built around the Sogo department store, which will explain why there are now large empty open areas in the back (where the department store used to be).  These days, this place contains mostly Thai souvenir places, but there are some interest items available.
  12. Back on the Sky Walk, heading East, you will notice the walkway starts to rise up and narrow, as it leads into the Chitlom Sky Train station.  Here you have two options.  If you want to remain true to the tour and not hit the pavement at street level, then you can use your sky train ticket (you do have an all day pass don’t you?) to swipe through the gate.  However, instead of going up the stairs to the sky trains, just keep walking East until you reach the next set of gates, at which point you swipe again to exit.
  13. If you don’t have an all day pass, take note that you will be charged for swiping in and swiping out again (5 or 10 baht from memory).  If you don’t have a sky train ticket or don’t want to spend the money, then instead of  going through the gates, back track until you get to a set of stairs on the Northern side that heads down to street level.  You should now be in front of the Intercontinental and Holiday Inn hotels.  Keep heading East until you find another stairway heading back up to the sky train.  This should be in front of the electricity generating authority, and there is usually a pretty good orange juice vendor here.
  14. You should now be in front of the Eastern gates of the Chitlom skytrain station.  Continue East until the Sky Walk ends and turn left up a half storey of stairs leading to the entrance to Central Chitlom.
  15. Central Chitlom is the premiere department store for the Central Group and is the largest department store in Thailand (one of the largest in Asia and I think is still the largest in South-East Asia).  It first opened in about 1980 but has been significantly remodeled since then and has an excellent selection of items on sale.  I tend to do most of my clothes shopping here.  On the top floor is a great upper end food hall with great views over Bangkok.

As an FYI, once the shopping centre (Central Embassy) next door to Central Chitlom is completed, I suspect it will be possible to access this centre as well without setting foot on paving.

I hope you enjoyed this little guide.  Often when I am playing host to overseas visitors to Bangkok, I take them on this little tour, and they really appreciate the convenience of being able to shop in luxury surroundings with minimal toll on their comfort.