Will Video Games Ever Replace Real Travel?

Midnight Club Tokyo
Midnight Club Tokyo

I have been a video game fan for most of my life… Nintendo Game & Watch, Atari 2600, Apple IIe, arcade machines, PCs, Gameboys, Playstations… the list goes on, and I have owned most of them (including an arcade machine).  In fact, I like video games so much that if you asked me if I would rather travel or play games, which would I pick… I’d be kind of stumped.  I get restless and therefore can’t stay in one place too long before I am overcome with the need to travel.  However, I also would struggle to go through an entire week without at least some dosage of video games.  The really neat thing though is that some video games combine both the thrill of challenging gameplay, together with travel… for me, the best of both worlds.

I get the impression that most people these days prefer first and third person shooter type games… I don’t mind those, but I have always been a bigger fan of games that gives you a significant amount of immersion… ie you get sucked deeply into the alternate reality that has been created.  With older games, you had to use a bit more imagination due to basic graphics, but that was certainly possible (at least back in those days).

Immersive games that involve travel have always been my favourite.  Probably the earliest I can remember playing was an Apple II game in which you had to travel the Oregon Trail back in the old pioneering days (I think it was simply called “The Oregon Trail”).  Next up (and one which I still enjoy playing) was “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”.  I am sure most of you from my generation will remember this title… its a detective series in which you have to travel around the world hot on the heals of a jewel thief.  In each country you are given clues and if you have good knowledge of geography you will quickly work out which country Carmen has fled to next.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego

However, the game that most impressed me when it comes to total immersion was Midnight Club 2.  Here we had a car racing game that on the one hand made you feel like you were living in “The Fast and the Furious” film, but once you completed enough races within LA, you then got to race in Paris and subsequently in Tokyo as well.  The game developers took a pretty good shot at attempting to recreate each of those cities.  When I visited Paris not long after playing Midnight Club, I was quite surprised when I saw many of the landmarks exactly where they were in the game (although the game did have to take short-cuts as well with respect to certain streets, but the main ones and main landmarks were all there).

Midnight Club 2 Paris Map
Midnight Club 2 Paris Map
Midnight Club 2 - Paris
Midnight Club 2 – Paris

So what is next in the world of gaming?  With the technology advancements, the limitations that the programmers for Midnight Club 2 had to deal with have definitely been reduced (just take a look at Midnight Club LA… an even more accurate rendering of Los Angeles).  Eventually, there will be games where an entire city has been faithfully recreated… you won’t need to travel to see such cities any more… you can just immerse yourself in a game instead, in order to escape there.

It all sounds good in theory, and I guess as a temporary reprieve from a stressful day at the office, its not such a bad thing.  Of course, I don’t believe technology will ever truly replace real travel.  At the end of the day, nothing beats the feel, smell, non-digital sights of a place and the interaction with the locals there.  Many of these things can be rendered digitally (and be quite immersive) but I think we will struggle for some time yet with full immersion.

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Cape Town – The Venice of Africa

Table Mountain
Table Mountain

I recently had the benefit of returning to Cape Town for a business trip… the last time I was there was during the apartheid era, when I was still just a kid.  What I saw during this trip was a city that is very different from anywhere else I have been on the African continent.

For those that don’t know, Cape Town is South Africa’s second largest city, with a population of about 400,000.  It is located on the South West point of the African continent, and was originally founded by the Dutch East India Company way back in 1652.  Since those early days of Dutch and English colonialisation, Cape Town has had a very interesting development and at present it is considered one of the most multicultural cities in the world.

Table Mountain
Table Mountain

The most notable feature after arrival at Cape Town airport is Table Mountain.  This is a large dominating escarpment that protrudes parallel with the southern coastline and the city sits at its foot on the west, terminating at the port.

On some days, Table Mountain is said to be wearing a table cloth (see my topmost photo) due to clouds that sit on the flat summit.  This is obviously a major attraction for both tourists and locals and on weekends it’s quite popular for people to hike up to the top (or for those that are a bit lazier, to just take a cable car up).

Cape Town
Cape Town

The main city centre is quite small, but then again, this city is only 400,000 people, so I am not sure what I was expecting.  Nevertheless, it looks a lot more modern than many other (larger) cities that I have visited in Africa and is definitely the most European in terms of architecture and atmosphere.  In fact, in strolling the streets downtown, I tended to completely forget that I was in South Africa, and often felt like I was in Europe somewhere.

Waterfront
Waterfront

However, my favourite part of Cape Town isn’t the city centre, but just to the west, at the port (known as the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront).  This is a place of real history, and gorgeous European architecture is represented everywhere you look.  Everything has been gorgeously redeveloped to both preserve the history and also to make things functional for locals to spend their evenings wining, dining and shopping, as well as offering entertainment for tourists.

Docklands
Docklands

When strolling through the waterfront, I noticed this area seemed to be the most crowded part of town.  I am not surprised because there were plenty of great restaurants here.  In addition, there were places offering shark diving excursions, combat helicopter flights and sailing adventures.  There was even a “pirate ship” that you could take a cruise on.

Cape of Good Hope and Lion's Head
Cape of Good Hope and Lion’s Head

At the end of the dock area (the very south west point) is the Cape of Good Hope.  This is the meeting point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.  Heading just inland from it is Lion’s Head… I can see how it got its name.

Clifton Beach
Clifton Beach

If you follow the coast around to the south or else cut through the divide between Lion’s Head and Table Mountain, you end up on the south coast (Indian Ocean side) which offers a complete change of scenery, and I honestly felt like I was at a beach resort in Spain… this is Clifton Beach, and is filled with gorgeous beach side houses and apartments and lots of great restaurants.  However, this isn’t the tranquil tropical beach lifestyle that one might imagine.  I actually found the sea conditions to be quite rough, the wind quite strong and the off-shore sharks to be quite hungry…. swimmer beware!

Century City Shopping Centre
Century City Shopping Centre
Bird sanctuary
Bird sanctuary

Beyond the main city and port area, I discovered there was even more to experience.  For instance, inland, up in the hills north of Cape Town there are plenty of vineyards where a lot the famous South African wines are created.  Also, just north of the city is an old swamp that has been turned into its own little city, known as Century City.  This is a recent modern development with canals ringing around buildings and the main swamp has been turned into a bird sanctuary.  The central feature is a massive shopping centre (Canal Walk) which is the largest in Cape Town and third largest in South Africa.  The architecture of Canal Walk and most of the buildings in Century City is “Cape Venetian” which has a very strong Italian flavour… but some features also seemed reminiscent of Moorish architecture.

The Canal
The Canal

The Canal area in Century City is definitely its own little oasis, and from what I could see, offered a very inviting lifestyle.  Houses, apartments, shopping and offices are all located within the same area, and I even noticed an amusement park at the southern end.

My verdict for Cape Town… I can definitely understand why it is the most popular destination in Africa for tourists.  There is a lot on offer here and it is a great place to visit.  I certainly felt a lot safer here than in other African destinations (and substantially safer than in Johannesburg).  I am now waiting for my next business trip there in order to engage in some of the activities that I didn’t have time for on the last trip, such as the combat helicopter flight.

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

Thonglor Police Leaflet
Thonglor Police Leaflet

I previously blogged that Thai police were increasingly stopping foreigners on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok and carrying out searches (including taking on the spot urine samples)… this is all contained in Part Two of my “Tips That You Didn’t Know for Getting the Most out of Bangkok” (link provided at the end of this blog).  Since I published that blog, events have changed quite a bit… for the better.

It seems that all of the negative publicity that the Thonglor police were getting for stopping and searching foreigners in the Sukhumvit area has not only resulted in the Thonglor police station releasing an information leaflet (depicted above) letting foreigners know what their rights are if they are stopped by police, but the practice of police stops by Thonglor police has almost entirely ceased.  I am not aware of anyone who has been stopped since the start of the new year (at least not on the odd numbered side of Sukhumvit Road).

Keep in mind that the even numbered side of Sukhumvit Road is controlled by the Lumphini police station instead, and shortly after Christmas I did hear a report about a Westerner who was stopped on Soi 4 near the Nana Hotel, and I also heard an uncomfirmed suggestion that people had been stopped and searched on Soi 12.  However, even if it is still happening, it is no longer happening anywhere near the rate of previous stops.

To everyone who contributed to spreading the news about this annoying and racist policy, well done!  It shows that social networking sites and international media can cause the Thai authorities to make policy changes and clean up their act.

Next on the agenda is to deal with the racist targeting of foreigners for littering by municipal officers… how come no Thais ever seem to be targeted?  However, if you do litter when visiting someone else’s country, I do think you deserve to get fined.  I just don’t like the double standards where tourists get fined but Thais can litter with impunity.

Happy travels 🙂

You can read my original report on Thai police stop and searches here: https://petertorjesen.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/tips-that-you-didnt-know-for-getting-the-most-out-of-bangkok-part-two/

The Future of Travel Guides?

Travelling with technology
Travelling with technology

The Good Old Days

For me, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a fantastic time in terms of travel.  I was young, energetic and had absolutely no fear.  I had no qualms about travelling in style or comfort and I was very willing to travel rough.  I also travelled very light.  You couldn’t describe me as a backpacker back in those days because I didn’t actually travel with one of those oversized behemoth’s that makes a backpacker stand out from the common tourist.  Instead, I had a simple three-day pack which only contained the absolute basics.  If I needed clothes, I would buy cheap clothing from local markets.  For accommodation, I would stay in relatively cheap local hotels (sometimes even in places that also charge by the hour), and for transport, I would take whatever cheap options were available, whether it was sitting cramped in a tiny non-airconditioned bus loaded with produce and drunk musicians sitting on the roof, or tucked up in the back of a pick-up truck.

In those years, I seriously got around and saw the world.  From Asia, to Australia, back to Asia, to parts of the former Soviet Union including Russia, and finally to Europe, before I returned to Asia again.  After money, the most important and useful item that I lugged around with me was my travel guide.  In those days, Lonely Planet had become the big name in travel guides and their “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” and “Thailand: A Travel Survival Guide” were the two best titles in their inventory.  I used to read their guides from cover to cover, and then go back and re-read the bits relevant to an upcoming trip.  Many times I found myself making random changes to travel plans while en-route, and suddenly having to get the guide out while in a cramped bus to quickly work out accommodation/onward transport options.  Other times, I remember being in dusty, deserted bus stops, studying maps of where I supposedly was and trying to work out the lay of the land.

The way I travelled in those days was truly adventurous and using a paperback guide to assist with navigation was an awesome part of the experience.  Nothing was cooler than being in some strange little town for the first time, and finding a hotel or restaurant or noteworthy attraction at the exact location that the guide promised.  I remember the disappointments and sadness when something wasn’t exactly as stated in the guide, and then having to do a bit of leg-work to find out where it really was.

Travelling in Today’s World

The way we travel today has totally changed, thanks entirely to technology.  The only way for travel to become adventurous now is to go totally off the beaten track, and even then its hard to find true adventure, because so many others are already there, doing exactly the same thing.  Travel has become a lot more comfortable over the years.  Most countries have matured significantly in terms of their transport and tourism infrastructure.  More importantly, all the information you could possibly want (and then some) is available on the internet.  The reality is that you don’t even need a travel guide any more.  Most people, when travelling, will go on-line and check tripadvisor for accommodation, restaurant and tourist attraction advice, possibly use google maps (and street view) for navigation, use an online booking agent such as Agoda to find best prices/location on hotels (and even more detailed reviews on those hotels), and possibly even check out youtube for some video of the area.  Finally, to get various opinions and detailed tips and tricks, the various discussion forums dedicated to different countries are now becoming an immeasurably useful source of information.

The sad fact is, it is entirely possible to write a travel guide without even ever setting foot in the country you are writing about.  Unfortunately, it really does feel like a lot of travel guides today are written in exactly this manner.  I won’t name the publisher or guide, but I recently bought an “up to date” guide for a lesser known Asian country.  I came across so many inaccuracies and totally out of date information that the guide was next to useless.  Some of the information was already out of date before the previous edition had even been released.  I could have saved my money on the guide, spent a few hours doing my own research on the internet and I would have had a more accurate picture of the country.  I suspect that with the increased competition, guide publishers seem to be focusing more on quantity rather than quality.  As a result, guide book authors are under significant pressure to research information for several different guides, and with the internet at hand, it is easier to travel through a location very quickly and then obtain the details later via the internet (or worse, save the cost of an air ticket entirely).

What About Travel Guides?

The question then… is there a future for the travel guide?  I believe there is, but I also believe that travel publishers need to properly adapt to how technology has changed people’s access to information.  Everything that a traveller needs is already on the internet and available for free.  Therefore publishers need to provide guides that offer sufficient benefit and convenience so that it justifies paying money for a book.

Publishers have already shown a willingness to adapt to changing technology.  Travel guides are available as e-books and there are even mobile phone travel apps.  The benefit of e-books is portability.  In the old days of travel, lugging around my paperback guides was a real hassle.  With e-books, all you need is an e-reader, which can even be your mobile phone.  You can even have your guide on multiple devices.  Apps are starting to emerge, that provide interactive information guides, and more importantly, interactive map packs that don’t require an internet connection to give you real time location services.

However, the quality and availability of the different products varies quite wildly, even between products by the same publisher.  A related issue is that with electronic publishing, anyone can now release travel guides and apps.  There is no longer a gatekeeper seeking to maintain minimum quality standards in publishing, with the result that some of the items published are absolute crap.  I remember purchasing a city entertainment guide last year that turned out to be nothing more than a word file listing a bunch of locations, but offering no details or even addresses for them.  There were plenty of freely available internet sites that provided more information.  Fortunately, for such instances, there is a “refund” option on Amazon, so such authors won’t last.  Unfortunately, as travelers, we need to wade through the crap to find the better guides.

I find the situation even more difficult with mobile apps, because without downloading the app, all you can see are a bunch of screen shots that the author has placed on iTunes or Google Play.  It is only once you purchase, download, install, and then run the app that you can determine whether it was worth it.  I have found a lot of travel apps so far to be a waste of money, offering no real benefit to travelers.  The most common app is nothing more than a bunch of pages offering a selected listing of summary information, ranging from accommodation, to restaurants, to activities, and with a bit of a blurb about the country or city.  This format in fact offers less than an e-book guide (less information on that travel destination) and fails to take advantage of the technology available as an app.  I am not saying all travel apps are crap though.  I have found a few really good ones too (this is a topic for a separate blog).  The best apps are the ones that include off-line map packs, where the maps are interactive and tie into the GPS on the traveller’s phone or tablet.  These apps show current location, give directions to different destinations and the maps are interactive, allowing users to search for places close to them.  The best of these apps even give useful details (the same level of detail as a good guidebook) about the different locations on each map (or with certain apps, they give you the option to download and install wiki articles about useful places).  Unfortunately, these sorts of guide apps are still very much in their infancy.

I therefore believe that the future of travel guides currently lies more in the app market.  The e-book market will need to evolve to allow more interactive e-book formats for it to stay in the race (but it seems like this will happen).  The future travel guide will offer full interactivity, easy search and location features and make good use of multimedia (video, maps, sound, images, integrated with GPS).  Travellers can use the app prior to departure to do some reading up on places they want to visit.  Once they arrive, they can simply use GPS tracking to pinpoint their current location, and easily find destinations close to them.  The more innovative app publishers will start adding other features as well.  I have a number of ideas on that front, but I am going to keep those very closely guarded for the time-being given that I am currently developing a platform for travel apps.

Conclusion on Travel Guides

Technology has become both a curse and a godsend to travel.  I curse the internet because it has taken so much of the mystery and adventure out of travel.  However, at the same time, it means I get much more value for my money when I travel, and I am much more prepared (and ultimately more comfortable).  That explosion of freely available information has provided a real challenge to travel guides because now, more than ever, those guides need to convince potential purchasers that they actually do offer value for money.  The biggest value for a traveler is that the guide offers all necessary information in a single, easy to find location, rather than requiring the traveler to spend hours (or days or weeks) scouring the internet for that same information.  The next important benefit that a guide can offer is convenience as a travel aid, for instance, by taking away the need for an expensive internet data account when travelling.

My Own Foray into the Travel Guide Market

I am no stranger to writing travel guides.  I have one published already (see my Amazon author page linked at the bottom of this blog).  I am also currently working on both the second edition of the existing guide, and in addition I am working on an exciting new guide.  My current guide (which I co-wrote with fellow Viking, Jay Brookman) is for… surprise… surprise… Pattaya, Thailand.  No one to date has written a decent guide on Pattaya, notwithstanding that it is the biggest tourist drawcard in Thailand after Bangkok (and 23rd most popular tourist destination in the world).  We initially released the guide as an e-book while we sorted out all the issues that go along with publishing a print version.  As an e-book, we performed very well against our competitors, notwithstanding that our book was also the most expensive Pattaya guide for sale.  However, we were also the only guide that had any interactivity at all written into the book and the only guide with maps, pictures and clickable links.  The competing e-books were nothing more than text and our biggest competitor didn’t even have a functioning table of contents so that it was impossible to navigate his book (and this from a travel writer who has written for big name publishers).

Our print book was released just before Christmas, and what was actually quite a surprise was that paperback sales were quite strong, possibly stronger than electronic sales at the moment.  I have to admit that this is unexpected, but I suspect this may be due to this particular guide being more attractive to an older demographic that still prefers physical books compared to e-books.

The next step now is we are creating a platform for apps for iOS and Android that allows full interactivity, offline maps, and some innovative secrets to be revealed later.  To be honest, this is all very exciting stuff, and I really do look forward to seeing where things will be guidebook-wise in the next ten years.  I am quite confident that travel guides will still exist then, although probably not in the form that we currently take for granted.

Some Quick Links:

My Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Peter-Torjesen/e/B00OC39Z8O/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

Pattaya: The Comprehensive Guide: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00P7XAZSC

Our Youtube Guide to Pattaya (which also showcases the interactive abilities of the e-book): http://youtu.be/asVuiwRwgNA

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

Where to take a dump in busy, hectic Bangkok?
Where to take a dump in busy, hectic Bangkok?

This week I give away my secrets for where the best toilet facilities are when you are out and about in Bangkok.  It’s all well and good to know where all the star attractions are, where to buy that hard to find shopping article, or what is the most efficient way of getting around town.  However, possibly more important than all of the above is knowing where the best places to visit are when nature is calling… and sometimes calling urgently.  This post therefore looks at the best toilet facilities that I have found, broken up into different regions of Bangkok.

Rama I/Ploenchit Road

MBK Shopping Centre - one of Bangkok's busiest
MBK Shopping Centre – one of Bangkok’s busiest

This is the central shopping district of Bangkok and is flanked by centres such as MBK, Siam Discovery, Siam Centre and Siam Paragon, with Siam Square located on the Southern side.  In this section, the place you don’t really want to be when nature is calling is Siam Square, as the quality of toilets depends on the little enterprise that you happen to be visiting which sometimes offers nothing more than a traditional squat toilet with water scoop.  Instead, it is better to scurry over the road (if possible) and hit one of the big shopping centres.

Siam Discovery - rest rooms that you can meditate in
Siam Discovery – rest rooms that you can meditate in

The best choice amongst these shopping centres for toilets is actually Siam Discovery.  Many of you will disagree with me on this point, but hear me out.  MBK is extremely crowded and their bathrooms get more use than any of the other shopping centres (they also used to charge money for the bathrooms, which is always a warning sign of a poor quality bathroom in Thailand).  Siam Centre has the most recently upgraded bathrooms, but it also can be quite crowded, and there are always Thai youths hanging around (and sometimes causing “innocent” mischief).  Also, Siam Centre’s renovations were still tied to a building structure that was designed in the 1970s and so bathroom size is quite small and cramped.  Siam Paragon has the most nicely designed bathrooms.  If you like to take photos of the bathrooms you visit then this is the place for you.  However, I find it hard to find a quiet bathroom in Paragon and due to use, I find a lot of things tend to be regularly broken in their bathrooms in recent times.  They aren’t as busy as MBK or Siam Centre, but still quite busy, especially because some of the bathrooms get used by the adjoining commercial centre.

Siam Centre
Siam Centre

Siam Discovery wins because they have neat and tidy bathrooms (not ultra modern like Paragon, but still nice, and it has what you need), and most importantly, they have peace and quiet.  You can use the facilities and meditate if you want to.  It doesn’t feel like you are in the middle of a train station.  The busiest bathrooms are on the two skylink levels (ie the level where the MBK walkway enters and the next level up for the bridge to Siam Centre).  The most peaceful level is the top floor where the ice skating rink was (the rink seemed closed last time I was up there, although not sure if the closure is permanent).

Ratchprasong/Ratchadamri Area

You just finished some high-octane shopping and suddenly your bowels give you “the sign” as you walk along the Sky Walk between Central World and Gaysorn Plaza… then head into Gaysorn, as you will be guaranteed peace and quiet.  This has to be one of the emptiest shopping centres in Bangkok’s shopping hub.  Once you over-come the sheer blast of “white-ness” as you enter, head up a level and use the top floor bathroom if you want guaranteed peace and quiet for your meditations.

Gaysorn Shopping Centre
Gaysorn Shopping Centre

The options in Central World and Amarin Plaza are also pretty good.  Amarin recently upgraded their toilets (previously they were so old they even had squat toilets in some stalls).  Amarin is another very quiet/empty shopping centre, although avoid the food hall level at the top… there’s some truth to the correlation between spicy curries and bathroom usage.  For Central World, head towards the back just near the entrance to Isetan Department Store.  The bathrooms near that entrance (on each level) tend to be in the quieter areas of Central World.

Paragon Shopping Centre
Paragon Shopping Centre

Patpong and Silom Area

If you find yourself in the Patpong and Upper Silom Road area (or even if you are in Lumphini Park but want to avoid the horrible park toilets) then the best place to visit is the newly refurbished Silom Centre (just across from Patpong and directly linked to the Sala Daeng skytrain station).  This place gets pretty busy at lunch but bathrooms are a decent size and there are plenty of levels, so just head up (or down) until you get a more peaceful floor.

Incidentally, one of the worst shopping centre bathrooms I have found is in the Thaniya Plaza centre, near the link to the Sala Daeng station.

Taksin Bridge Area

The Shangri-La
The Shangri-La

If you find yourself around the Saphan Taksin skytrain station or down below at the ferry boat pier and nature starts making its rumblings, there are a few solutions nearby other than contributing to the already foul contents of the river.  The closest is to walk back a bit from the river, turn the corner and go into the Shangri-La hotel lobby.  They have nicely appointed rest-rooms (photo-friendly for all you selfie-freaks), but try to act like you are meant to be there or else hotel security might get on your case.

The second option is slightly further away, but if you back-track all the way up to the intersection with Charoen Khrung Road, there is a Robinsons Department Store.  It’s a bit of an older building and could use a renovation, but if you got kicked out of the Shangri-La then this is your most viable alternative.

Asoke Area

Terminal 21 - Best bathrooms in Bangkok
Terminal 21 – Best bathrooms in Bangkok

Okay, if you need to go while you are near the Asoke intersection with Sukhumvit, then congratulations, you get to see the nicest/coolest bathrooms in Bangkok.  Head to Terminal 21 and check out the bathrooms on each level.  Each one is done differently, in concert with the different country themes of each floor.  My favourite is London, where the bathrooms are done up like the London underground stations.  The biggest surprise is that each bathroom uses the new ultra-high tech Japanese digital toilets, that include warm seats and different programming options for streams of water.  Be careful if you are a guy though, as there is nothing more annoying than accidentally getting water sprayed up your front instead of back.  The service staff in these bathrooms are incredibly friendly as well (and no, that isn’t code for any special services for those of you with dirtier minds;  I simply mean that literally, the bathroom attendants are very cheerful, friendly and seem to take pride in keeping their bathrooms clean).

Ekamai Area

If you need to go while in the Ekamai area, then head into the Ekamai (Eastern) bus terminal and go to the bathrooms there (just between the waiting area and the bus concourse)… actually I am just kidding.  This is one of those places you don’t want to go to.  However, if you are in the area, then one of the newest malls in Bangkok is here.  Head into Gateway (just off the Ekamai sky train station) and pick a floor.  Notwithstanding being new, this place isn’t normally too packed either.

On Nut Area

Not many tourists make it this far on the sky train line, but many of us expats come through here.  The only real option off of the On Nut sky train station is the Tesco Lotus store.  It’s crowded and it needs maintenance, but its the only option that I can think of.

Chatuchak/Weekend Market/Central Lard Prao

Street food - delicious to eat, but sometimes wants to make a hasty exit as well
Street food – delicious to eat, but sometimes wants to make a hasty exit as well

If you need to go while shopping till you (sometimes literally) drop at the Weekend Market, some of the better bathrooms that I have found within the markets are past the Northern end, within the Chatuchak (or Jatujak) Plaza.  That is the airconditioned section of the markets.  Other okay bathrooms within the markets are at the Northern end (just off Section 19, just near all the banks) and also the two bathrooms on the Western side (at Section 1, also not far from a bank).  All of the other bathrooms within the markets can become a horrible experience and you certainly wouldn’t dream of taking your time in one of the stalls (think long lines of impatient people yelling curses at you for taking your time).

If you are across the massive Vibhavadi Rangsit behemoth from the markets and in air-conditioned luxury within Central Lard Prao, then have no fear.  The shopping centre was fully upgraded a couple of years ago and the bathrooms are now very attractive (although very dark).  They have a bit of a “cave” or earthy feel to them, but I find it quite good for quiet reflection.  The better ones are on the upper floor of the shopping mall near the Central Department Store entrance.  There tends to be less foot traffic on this level.

Thoughts and Conclusions

Okay, you guys are probably thinking I am a bit weird for having so much experience with so many different bathrooms around Bangkok.  Well… I blame Thai food.  Notwithstanding that I eat a lot of it, the spicier stuff can still have an impact on me.  Also, when I am out and about, I tend to be out the whole day and often late into the night before getting back to my condo, so using external lavatories becomes a necessity.  As a result, over the years, I have simply made mental notes of the best places to go… and now, for the first time ever, I have shared them with you, my loyal readers (all 11 of you!)

Anyway, if you are ever in Bangkok (or even live full time in Bangkok) I am sure you will find this information useful.  I did promise to give you useful tips that you wouldn’t find in any guidebook, and now I am making good on my promise… 😉

Why a Holiday in Legoland Denmark was Reminiscent of a Friday the 13th Slasher Film

Legoland Denmark - Replica of Copenhagen
Legoland Denmark – Replica of Copenhagen

I recently had the opportunity to fulfill one of my childhood fantasies, a visit to the original Legoland in Denmark.  As a kid, Lego was easily my favourite toy, and I had often nagged my dad to take me on a holiday to the ultimate plastic brick paradise.  Sadly, it never happened, and instead, roles were reversed and as an adult I ended up bringing my dad to Legoland instead.  With both my dad and I being cheap-skates, we tried doing the Legoland trip on as much of a budget as possible, and ended up staying at a summer camp near Billund that was very reminiscent of the Friday the 13th horror films.

The original Legoland opened in Billund in Denmark in 1968.  Since then, the popularity of both the toy and the original theme park has resulted in Legoland expanding to five additional locations, namely, Windsor in England (1996), San Diego in California (1999),  Günzburg in Germany  (2002), Winter Haven in Florida (2011) and the newest in Nusajaya in Malaysia (2012).

Los Angeles in miniature
Los Angeles in miniature

When Legoland first opened, it was nothing more than a park that displayed a number of models that had been created entirely from Lego.  Eventually, the park (and the Lego line itself) became so popular that the park was expanded to include newer, more intricate models (including with motorisation) as well as Lego themed amusement rides.

Our Accommodation

Before departing for Legoland, we decided that we would see just how cheap we could do a visit to Legoland.  We therefore avoided buying any of the package tours that included flights, hotel and Lego tickets, and instead we drove to Billund and stayed about 10 kms out of town in a small camping resort, Randboldal.  The price of the resort compared to staying in one of the hotels within Billund was drastically cheaper (the Billund resorts were around US$200 to $350 per night for a room for two whilst we had a cabin for four people that only cost about US$40 per night).

Randboldal Summer Camp
Randboldal Summer Camp

We stayed at Randboldal in the middle of summer (July) and as a result, it was totally packed.  It turned out that everyone staying there was also going to Legoland, so obviously we weren’t the only people looking to save some money.  Note, this would not be a place that I would recommend staying at in winter (then again, with most of Legoland outdoors, I doubt I would want to visit it outside of summer either).

As a camp ground, Randboldal was pretty cool.  Obviously, you can’t expect any of the luxuries of a hotel, such as room service.  Instead, you bring your own sheets and blankets, and make up your own room when you arrive.  Similarly, before you depart, you clean up your room or else you get charged an additional cleaning fee.  Also, there aren’t toilets attached to each room.  Instead, there are toilet and shower blocks scattered around the site.  There is a restaurant in the camp, as well as kitchens within each cabin (with utensils).  However, the nearest supermarket was about 8 kms away.

In terms of entertainment, the camp grounds are very much geared towards kids, with a large shallow man-made lake, water slides, rafts and plenty of playgrounds.  There is also a river flowing behind the camp and a nearby fish-farm, as well as plenty of forests to hike through.  Blueberries were in season at the time and ripe for picking, however, my suggestion is to be careful when picking blueberries growing right along pathways given that some of them smelled like urine, whether from dogs, people or otherwise I am not sure.

The town from Friday the 13th
The town from Friday the 13th

The camp ground takes its name from a small town right next door.  We decided to take a walk through the town in order to get a feel for what a Danish country town was like.  What we discovered was that the town felt almost deserted, with about half the houses appearing to be uninhabited.  Walking through, you could see the few remaining residents peaking through their curtains to see who had disturbed the eerie peace of this ghost-town.   During my walk, I honestly felt like I had been transported into a Friday the 13th slasher movie and I often felt like Jason Voorhees was watching me from the shadows in the forest, ready to pounce.  The building style, forest and the fact that it was next door to a summer camp had all the hallmarks of the Friday the 13th franchise.  Perhaps that is an idea for a new theme park?

Legoland

The next morning, we got up early, cleaned our room, dropped off our key and drove the 10 kms to Legoland.  As you enter the town of Billund, you can see how the town has been impacted by the Lego Group.  Just on the outskirts is the main Lego factory (painted in bright Lego blue) and a prominent sign for the airport, which was built purely for the convenience of tourists.  Driving through the town, we passed several resort style hotels, each trying to copy the original Legoland resort (and being sufficiently confusing in name and colour schemes that you may mistakenly think you were staying at the Legoland resort).

After the resorts, our car turned a corner and there it was, the great and almighty Legoland.  I was quite enthusiastic to be finally completing a childhood dream.  The front entrance is similar to all other Legolands, with a large Legoland sign for group photos and selfies.  I get the impression some people spent more time at the front taking photos of themselves rather than enjoying the park.  Ticket prices at the gate were about US$100 per person (for adults).  Fortunately, we ordered our tickets in advance and therefore only paid about US$80 per person.

Once through the front gate, the park is divided into zones, which you can either walk between, or you can conveniently jump onto the Legoland train and ride through instead.  We initially opted for the train, but afterwards, we walked the whole park as well.

My favourite in Mini-Land - the Star Wars section
My favourite in Mini-Land – the Star Wars section

The first zone is Mini-Land.  This is what Legoland originally featured when it opened (although it has since been drastically expanded).  Mini-Land contains many cities, towns and features around the world built in miniature in Lego.  Many of these are automated such as Copenhagen airport with planes and cars driving around, or the European waterways with boats travelling around and bridges opening.  There are also miniature models for other themes as well such as several fantastic Star Wars displays.

Lego City Fire Station
Lego City Fire Station

After Mini-Land, most of the other zones are tied to the different Lego themes, such as the Wild West, Castles/Vikings, Pirates, Aqua-Zone, and Lego City.  Unlike Mini-Land, everything in the other zones is the reverse, with Lego themes now being life-size.  One that I thought was really cool was the Lego City fire station that had been rebuilt into life-size scale.  In addition, the fire-engines had been turned into an amusement ride where different teams had to compete by driving the fire engines to a burning building and manually pump water to put out the fire.  The objective was to be the first to put out your building’s fire.

The Pirate zone is pretty cool, with an amusement ride where people can ride around a water course in quarter scale pirate ships.  Instead of cannons firing iron balls, the cannons are armed with water and the ships “mates” can aim these water cannons at both targets within the circuit (and if hit, the targets activate different scenes) and also at people viewing along the side of the circuit.  Fortunately, there are also land-mounted cannons so that the viewers can fire back at the pirates.

Pirate ships
Pirate ships

Each of the zones offered their own amusement rides.  Some of these rides were nothing more than Lego themed variations on common amusement park rides, such as the log ride (or in Lego’s case, the Viking barrel ride).  There is even a roller-coaster, although not a very challenging one.  However, what I liked is that a lot of the other rides were more interactive and required participation rather than just remaining passive.  For example, in the centre of Legoland, there is a large driving circuit for children.  Kids drive through the circuit (which resembles the streets from the Lego City range) and need to learn to obey the street signs, such as traffic lights and give way signs.  At the end of the session, kids are then given their Legoland driving diploma.

For lunch, there are a few different places to eat, once again, adopting different Lego themes.  We managed to get food and drink (a bbq mix of spare ribs, steak and sausage, plus sauerkraut and potatoes) for about US$20 per person.  The food was really good and for Scandinavia, I thought that was a pretty good deal.  I suspect we had found the best deal in the park because where we ate was really crowded but I noticed other restaurant areas that were not nearly as packed out.

After a full day exploring the park, we finally returned to the exit.  Just before the exit is a massive Lego store which contains not only the full current release Lego range, but also spare parts and hard to find minifigs.  Having been to Legoland, we couldn’t depart without souvenirs.  What could be better than a Lego set that was actually purchased at the original Legoland?

The viking log ride
The viking log ride

Conclusion

Whilst Legoland was an interesting enough visit, it really was very child oriented, with almost all of the amusement rides aimed at children rather than adults.  Other than viewing the Lego sculptures and scenes, there really wasn’t much else for adults to do other than helping their kids on the different interactive rides.  Therefore, from my perspective, I would definitely have enjoyed Legoland a lot more if I had actually gone there back when I was 7 years old.  As a destination for kids though, its pretty cool.

A Secret Island in the Gulf of Thailand?

Fishing boats near the Royal Palace - Ko Sichang
Fishing boats near the Royal Palace – Ko Sichang

When most people think of islands in Thailand, they think of Phuket, and then Ko Samui and the gorgeous limestone cliffs of Ko Phi Phi.  Party-goers will probably think of the wild all-night full moon raves on Ko Phangan, while divers will think of the crystal clear waters of Ko Tao.  Next down the list are Ko Samet, a popular retreat for Bangkok Thais, followed closely by Ko Chang, which still has idyllic charm.

However, I know of an island that is only a two hour trip away from Bangkok that barely ever gets mentioned, yet it offers a lot of interesting scenery and history.  That island is… (drum roll please)… Ko Sichang.

Interesting Information About the Island

Ko Sichang is located in Chonburi province, and lies just off Si Rachaa (slightly North of Pattaya).  Its population is about 5,000 and total land area is only about 17 square kilometres (I suspect this figure includes the surrounding smaller satellite islands).  You can fully circumnavigate the island in a day and easily walk the length of it in a couple of hours. The island serves primarily as a customs office catering to nearby shipping and there is also a university on the island that concentrates on marine biology.

Ko Sichang Main Town
Ko Sichang Main Town

The island is famous to the Thais because each of Kings Rama IV, V and VI used to come to the island as a retreat.  In fact, King Rama V built a beautiful summer palace on the island and used to meditate in secluded limestone caves within the island’s hinterland.

As mentioned, the island serves as an important customs point for shipping in the area.  In fact, this function has been going on since at least the early 1800s and it was such a popular stop for international shipping at the time, that the island was often referred to as “Little Amsterdam” due to its popularity with ships from the Dutch East India Company.

In 1893, the Thais temporarily abandoned the island (including King Rama V’s summer palace) to French forces during Thailand’s war with France over the ownership of Laos.  The French used the island as a staging post for the war, and ultimately blockaded shipping from entering the Chao Phraya river towards Bangkok.  Due to lack of any allies, Thailand ultimately relented and gave Laos to the French, causing French forces to depart the island and Thai waters.

Ko Sichang was also used as a staging post for hostile forces on at least one other occasion, during World War II, when the Japanese occupied Thailand.  The Japanese had sailed into several key areas along the gulf of Thailand, while Thailand was silent as to whether it intended to ally with Japan or declare war.  Ko Sichang was one of the main staging areas, particularly in preparation for an assault on Bangkok.  On December 8, 1941, the Japanese commenced their attack, and following a few hours of fighting, Thailand agreed to ally itself with the Japanese.

I hope all this history has piqued your interest about this exotic island!

Things to See and Do

Well, Ko Sichang is not a large island, like Phuket, Ko Chang or Ko Samui.  However, for its size, there is quite a bit there to keep you occupied for a day or two.

Chinese Temple on Ko Sichang
Chinese Temple on Ko Sichang

The first thing you will notice when your ferry docks is the gorgeous large Chinese temple built up on the cliff.  This temple is known as Saan Chao Por Khao Yai (Shrine of the Father Spirit of the Big Hill), and actually has shrines built into caves in the mountain.  This is the oldest temple on the island and goes back to the days of Chinese junks sailing to Thailand to trade ceramics for silk.  This is a significant temple to the Chinese Thais and on Chinese holidays, this place becomes packed as tens of thousands make the pilgrimage over from the mainland.

One of the houses in the Royal Palace compound
One of the houses in the Royal Palace compound

On the other (South) end of the island is the location of King Rama V’s summer palace.  After the French occupation in 1893, the King had the palace dismantled and moved to Bangkok, where it is was renamed as the Vimanmek Palace (you can visit this in the Dusit district of Bangkok).  The concrete foundations of the original palace can still be seen and in addition, the various other houses of the complex, such as the houses of the King’s wives, are still intact.  The Royal Boat Pier and Royal Gardens are also still there.

Going into the hinterland of the island, you will find the Wat Tham Yai Phrik meditation centre.  This is a full Buddhist community where everyone works, and strives to attain nirvana via regular meditation.  Visitors are offered a tour of the facility, which includes various caves for meditation (including the cave where King Rama V used to meditate).

The Yellow Buddha
The Yellow Buddha

The Big Buddha (also known as the Yellow Buddha) is located in the centre of the island, just inland from the main town.  You can walk up the hill yourself (although it is easy to accidentally walk past the turn-off).  Alternatively, take one of the tuk tuks.  The statue itself is interesting, and you also get some nice views over the island.

Dracula’s Castle… I am sure I have your attention now.  Yes, there is a large Moroccan style castle in the middle of the island (up on the hill), that looks unfinished and very much fits what I would imagine Dracula’s Castle to look like.  This place was designed and built (although never completed) by a US architect.  It was intended to be a hotel, although main building was never completed and instead, some of the smaller surrounding buildings eventually became a guest house (Malee Blue Guesthouse).  This is a great place for photos and I bet your friends will never believe the photos were taken on an island in Thailand.

The main town is a tourist attraction in itself and is a nice place to stroll along.  There is a single main road that goes from North (the pier at the foot of the Chinese temple) to the South (where it intersects with the original pier (mostly for fishing now).  As I stroll through and look at the old wooden Chinese shop-houses, I like to imagine what this place was like back in the 1800s, when you had drunken sailors from the four corners of the globe staggering across these streets, fighting, boozing, whoring, cheating, trading and smuggling.

Royal Boat Pier
Royal Boat Pier

If you want beaches, well, this isn’t the best island for that.  The area around King Rama V’s summer palace is probably the better option, although do not expect to find tropical scenery that you see in Krabi or on Phi Phi or Ko Tao.  Really, this island is more for its sites and history rather than swimming.  If you really do have a hankering for some nice beach photos or coral reefs, then hire a boat to go out to one of the neighbouring islands.

How to Get There

From Bangkok, go to the Eastern (Ekamai) Bus Station on Sukhumvit Road and catch a bus straight to Si Rachaa (about 120 baht).  From the Si Rachaa bus stop, catch a taxi or tuk tuk (or walk if you feel like a bit of a stroll) down to the ferry pier, where you can catch a ferry (between 6am to 8pm) for 60 baht each way.  If you want to get there from Pattaya, there is a songtaew running along Naklua Road that goes to Si Rachaa (white songtaew from memory… get the one heading North) or else stop a bus or songtaew on the Sukhumvit Highway and ask if they will pass Si Rachaa.

Getting Around

I found a pretty good map at http://www.ko-sichang.com/islandmap.html.  When you arrive by Ferry, you will find a bunch of tuk tuk drivers (on old style, large motorbikes with big Nissan diesel engines) waiting to offer you passage.  I generally prefer to walk, at least initially, and then hire a tuk tuk a bit later when I want to get to some of the more distant locations.  Pricing is entirely by negotiation, but expect between 60 to 100 baht per hour.  You can also rent your own motorbike in town for about 400 baht per day.

Places to Stay and Eat

If you are hungry, then head back into town, where you will find a bunch of different restaurants scattered around.  Most serve Thai food (including good, cheap seafood).  If you want a more international menu, then check out one of the small hotels or guest houses.  Also, try Pan and David’s Restaurant, which is just before the Rama V Palace entrance.

Memorial Shrine on Ko Sichang
Memorial Shrine on Ko Sichang

For accommodation, most places are located in town or just on the periphery.  The most expensive place is Paree Hut (isolated on the other side of the island) which charges about 5,000 baht per night.

Everything else is about 1,500 baht per night (or less) and the one place that I consider to really be worth mentioning is Charlie’s Bungalows in the middle of town (a bit South from the Chinese temple and main ferry pier).  Good food, well maintained and attractive rooms, all for only 1,000 baht per night.

Conclusion

If you want picturesque tropical beaches with palm trees and squeaky white sand, then Ko Sichang is not the place.  Instead, you will need to travel a bit further away from Bangkok to get that pure beauty (and the limestone rich waters of the Andaman sea are a better bet for such photos).  However, if you want an island that is jam packed with history and great photos of temples, banyan tree roots growing into rocks, limestone caves, and Dracula’s Castle… then check this place out.  It’s easy to get to and offers a great day trip away from Bangkok or Pattaya.