Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Visiting Thailand-Kanchanaburi, Hua Hin and Bangkok

I am currently touring Thailand- arrived yesterday and will be around for a week. I am being shown around by TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand), along with a group consisting of travel/lifestyle bloggers, writers, media professionals, travel agents and other people involved in promoting tourism. The delegation also has few people from Srilanka. 

Unlike last December, we are not biking around. [In December 2013, where we drove Kawasaki Versys and Honda CB500x superbikes for more than 2000kms all across northern Thailand.  I’ve written about it here in my blog and also in Ghumakkar and few other blogs.  Current visit involving exploring Kanchanaburi,  Hua Hin, Phetchaburi Province and Bangkok. A bit of history, little bit of beach and lots of temples. We are being driven around in a Jumbo bus that has massaging seats (which unfortunately switch off after few mins on their own :) ). This is my 3rd visit to Thailand but this time, exploring new destinations and few new places. The company of some of the elite bloggers, writers, consultants and other inspiring individuals is making this trip more enriching.

On Day 1 we arrived safely at Bangkok, took Visa on arrival [Details]. This time I opted for fast track lane which costed 200 baht more, because the team from Mumbai had arrived about an hour earlier and I didn't want to keep them waiting because of me. Visa processing was super smooth and quick.

After breakfast in Novotel, we headed to Kanchanaburi. Avoiding Bangkok city traffic, our bus took an outer ring road. Lunch at Felix River Kwai Resort and a visit to Erawan waterfalls. Shortage of time meant we could only explore part of the falls (It has 7 levels and we could explore only 2- reason to come back again).

Weather is pleasant, with ocassional light rains.

 Erawan waterfalls, Kanchanaburi, Thailand- Above: First fall, Below: second one

Bridge over river Kwai- few wide angle photos

Also watch: Sunrise at River Kwai

War memorial

The Felix River Kwai resort seem to resemble Park Hyatt Goa in overall design. This resort has a large campus, numerous rooms and ability to support large events, weddings or more. Unfortunately we are spending only 1 night here.

I am experimenting with GoPro on this trip. Day 2 (today) involves visiting Hellfire pass, Tiger temple (my 3rd visit and still looking forward to, view some pics here) and reaching Hua Hin city.  Will update on the go as possible.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

GoPro Hero3+ Black Edition-Initial impressions

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This post explains my experience and observations on GoPro Hero 3 Black edition camera, after spending about 10 days with it.

As I'd explained in this post, my original thought was to buy a wide angle lens- an 8-16mm one, but since that lens costed as much as the camera itself, I had second thoughts. When I learnt about GoPro, its versatility was tempting and I went for it, though I am not into adventure big time.

Past 10 days I used it along with my Nikon to take some photos and make some videos. Below is what I feel about investing in a goPro

What I like in GoPro:
1. Light compact design- easily fits into front shirt pocket. Had it not been for red light, could be used for spy missions.
2. Can take it to places where carrying a DSLR is not viable (either because it adds to luggage or DSLRs draw unwanted attention or when you don’t want to carry big bags around)
3. Wide angle view looks very nice. I am glad I didn’t buy a 8-16mm wide angle lens instead of this.
4. Initially it was inconvenient to get a proper frame, as there's no viewfinder. Had to click on guess. But eventually managed to connect the camera to its android app, so it is now very easy to control camera setting or frame through the phone.
5. Photo quality at par with DSLR.
6. Enables taking photos and videos through an angle/perspective otherwise not possible.

What I didn’t like/Possible improvements:
1. No internal memory and no memory card shipped. Given that camera has no internal memory, it would have been nice on part of GoPro to include a small capacity memory card. A 4GB micro SD card costs less than $5. Adding it to the kit will save the trouble for consumer to scramble for a memory card once they realize that camera won’t work without a Micro SD Card. I had to take a micro SD card from a mobile phone to take first few pictures/videos from the GoPro.
2. A standalone charger would have been nice. At present, to charge the battery, I need to put it inside the camera and then connect the camera to power. This has following disadvantages, forcing me to buy a separate charger:
o   Even if I have a secondary battery I can’t use the camera with it while the other battery gets charged.
o   It is very risky to leave a $400 camera by the power socket while battery is getting charged
3.  Inability of the GoPro website to indicate what will be the approx. customs charge for the shipment- makes comparison and decision difficult.
4. A few soft pouches for the camera would have been nice, to carry it around without suffering scratches or other damages. Default packaging can't be used regularly, I am currently using a bubble wrap to cover it.
5. The cap for ports is likely to fall off, since it is not attached to the camera
6. No DVD/CD with some video editing software. Cameras usually come with a software that lets manage the camera or its content. GoPro doesn’t come with any. Of course they have an app which is free for download. But a good video editing software would have been nicer. It is not very convenient to edit videos on a small screen phone- it is much more convenient to do it in a computer.
7. Quality of photo/video during night is reasonably poor compared to DSLR
8.  No service centres, support in India. If it fails, it fails. Buy another one.
9. Changing from one mount to another takes time because of screwing. (there're a few clip based mounts)
10. Absolutely no Zoom capability. 

Photo Samples
Safari clicked using gopro- being able to capture wide skies makes this photo more beautiful.

Curved effect of a road, though it is a straight road.
Bulged effect on an extra closeup shot- wheels of Merc E Class and wheel arch appear more curvy than they are
Wide angle view of the room (Park Avenue)- Photo of same place, clicked using Nikon 18-55 lens is given next to it.
Wide angle view of the dashboard. 18-55 can't capture this wide and limits to a small part of the dashboard

Below photo is clicked by Shande on kit lens, some after effects added
Below are a few videos taken using goPro
Of course the contents are not great, watch it only to observe the quality.

Bad Experience at Park Avenue BnB in Bangalore

I was invited by Roomnhouse.com to experience their service and review about it. Roomnhouse.com is a portal for booking accommodations across various cities in India. It works on the lines of Airbnb to bring together hosts who have few rooms to rent out and travelers who are looking for homely stay. It is very convenient for small time homestay/paying guest/service apartment operators to rely on aggregators like Roomnhouse than maintaining a website and sales channel of their own.

Though I had many relatives with whom I stay during my Blr visits, this time opted to spend a night at a place called “Park Avenue” recommended by Roomnhouse, to experience their service and share my experience. Unfortunately I ended up discovering lots of drawbacks in the services offered by the staff at Park Avenue, a 3 bed room facility located off Jayamahal Extension area, near Shivaji Nagar/Cantonment railway station in Bengaluru.

The booking process at roomnhouse.in was smooth. But booking confirmation is not instant- guest details are captured, communicated to host and host confirms that he wants these guests. I’d given specific note that we’ll be 2 people and I would need parking space for a SUV. No attention was paid for this note. (more later)
Within a day’s time I got confirmation from Roomnhouse.com that my stay is confirmed. They also promptly processed a refund, since my stay was complimentary. I arrived in Blr on Friday night, went to my relative’s place and we went on a roadtrip Saturday morning. Since I was offered only 1 night stay, I opted to spend Saturday night at the Park Avenue.

Their check in/check out time is 12 noon. Since I was driving around Tumkur, I could reach only late evening. I got few calls from the host and Roomnhouse that I’ve not yet arrived at the Park Avenue, I replied that it would take another few hours for me to reach.

Despite having Google maps we had some trouble locating the address. After half dozen phone calls and few kms of driving around, we reached the Park Avenue building. On the website, Park town is listed as “Elegant Service Apartment” I am not sure what to call this place- It is certainly not a hotel, as it has only rooms, I can’t call it as “Service Apartment”, because there's hardly any service and this is not an apartment. Also apartments are expected to have some living room, common area, balcony etc. I can’t call it a ‘Guest house’ because staff attitude/service towards guest is very poor. So for all practical purposes, it is just an overpriced accommodation or bed and breakfast option in North east Bangalore area. It was 7.30 in the evening. I was given a room in second floor. The room was clean and decent. But the building is extremely small- had no common area, no lift and had a congested staircase. As you can see from the pictures, this building was constructed on a small piece of some leftover land and isn’t a full-fledged building in normal sense. Also the name 'Park Avenue' seem to be cleverly chosen- as there're many international brands using the name Park, Avenue or park Avenue itself. Any guest complaints online may not get easily noticed.
We ordered 3 cups of tea, which came in reasonable time. At Rs 15 a cup, it wasn’t expensive. Few minutes later, one of the staff asked me for money. I thought he is asking money for tea, but realized that he is referring to Room rent of Rs 2000. After I told him that I’ve paid online, he backed off. Obviously he had no briefing on the guest. [Roomhhouse support later confirmed that there was a mis-communication about payment]

Room was clean, had a refrigerator (empty and switched off), a microwave oven and a non-operational balcony. Photos of the rooms at Park Avenue below- clicked during checkout, so the bed is not at its best.
Small non operational balcony
Sorry- you can’t have keys to your room: Next shocker came when I asked for room key. I was told on my face that I can’t have one. I was told to lock and go out, (door locks automatically if a button is pressed) and once I am back, they would come and open the door. I was told they have only 1 key and can’t afford to have it missed. This is the first hotel/guest house I’ve ever experience, where I was told I can’t have keys to my room. The building has no security guard, no CCTV camera, room has no safety locker, so safety of your valuables will be at the mercy of two north Indian boys who work at this hotel, if you chose to go out leaving your valuables behind. I didn’t feel safe with this.  I had to change my plans to ensure that one of us always stays inside the room, throughout the duration of our stay. 
When someone sees valuables worth several times their monthly salary, the temptation could be very high to steal it and claim innocence. If I report a theft I am sure management will not accept any liability and I will be left to suffer my losses.  While on their website they listed lockable rooms, they are not giving key of the room to the guests. Most fundamental requirement is compromised. Probably the operators don’t own this place- they have rented it from owners and running guest house business.

I understand it is common practice to leave the keys of your room at the hotel reception, but that is fine with well-established hotels with enough security and process, not to small scale apartments manned by two boys, whose background and credibility I have no clue about.

[Roomhhouse support later confirmed this practice, which I am told had to be enforced because many guests loose their keys]

Please park on the roadside: I realized that the building has no dedicated parking. I was asked to park the Safari on the road. I was reluctant because of 2 reasons- if some trees get uprooted because of heavy rain and falls on the car, I will have unnecessary headache in the morning. Second, parking on the street would invite unwanted risk of theft/damage. Hence though I had booking till Sunday early morning, I went to Dairy circle and returned the car Saturday night itself. Packed some good food from Hotel Kadamba in Shantinagar bus stand for dinner. Shande was kind enough to drop me back at the Park Avenue.
Had I been told that there’s no parking space, I would have probably returned the car first and then come here, saving me another trip to Dairy circle and Rs 15/km that zoom charges.

Calm neighborhood: One of the few good things about the Park Avenue in Jayamahal extension is that it is located in a calm neighborhood. Absolutely no noise of traffic or trains and we could sleep peacefully. This place is very close to Cantonment Railway station (Walk able) and 5kms from MG Road.

Sir, your tap is leaking: At 6.30 AM I get a phone asking me to check the taps in my bathroom. I checked and confirmed that everything is in closed position. But the staff insisted that they’ve checked other 2 rooms and since they were not leaking, taps in our room should be leaking. They claimed they also heard the noise. Being woken up from my sleep, I was in no mood to continue this conversation and had no way to prove anything (who is right).

Only 1 bath towel and soap: Though we were two guests, they had kept only 1 bath towel and 1 soap. [This is a minor issue- I am told if I'd asked for one more I would have got it]
Breakfast by 9AM only and that too Pasta: Next major disappointment came when I enquired about breakfast. I was told it will be ready only by 9AM. The printout on the table says breakfast will be ready by 7.30 AM. When I asked why so late, I get a reply that “because it is a Sunday”. When I asked why that is not specified in the printout, he had no answer.

Next I ask "what is there for breakfast?"- I get a reply that it will be Pasta. I ask what else is there, I get a reply “nothing”. Of all the breakfast items in the world, they had to make Pasta that day. When I probe more, I get a reply that “same item is made for all the guests” and “because it is complementary, we don’t bother asking guests what they want for breakfast”.  Nice trick to force people forgo their breakfast and save some money. I tried to explain that we don’t like pasta and would prefer something more sensible, I get a reply “Company Rules”.

Since Park Avenue service apartment is located in some remote area, nearest hotel where I could find some breakfast was 3kms away. I had the pleasure of walking all the way and buying my breakfast, thanks to Park Avenue guest house’s unique company rules of not factoring the guest preferences. All they have is 3 rooms. If they can’t factor convenience of these 3 guests, what kind of satisfaction they can assure anyone? How difficult it is to make few other breakfast items like Bread Toast or Upma or noodles or things like that?

Tea is not free with breakfast: Now that I’d forgone my breakfast option due to company rules, I thought I can have some tea at least. The next shocker was that tea is Not complementary with breakfast. Again first time I am experiencing an accommodation service provider who advertises complimentary breakfast but denies providing tea/coffee with it.

By this time I’ve had enough of this place and wanted to get out. Obviously the two boys manning this facility have no training on guest service and no motive to do anything to comfort their guests. They have nothing to lose if I don’t visit them again. Obviously I didn’t appear like someone who would tip generously, so they stick to their “Company Rules” and deny me the basic services deemed standard when someone books an accommodation.

[Update: Roomnhouse support has communicated that the host has been advised to re-look at their breakfast offerings and service levels]

I had the phone numbers of property owner, manager and few other people- If I had made the calls and complain, I could have probably got some of these rectified/compensated. But my mission was to experience their service as they offer and not to influence anything. I paid for my tea orders and left the facility. 
Once back in Chennai, I sent a mail to Roomnhouse support team explaining some of the pain points I had. I got an almost immediate reply that this will be investigated. 5 days later I did get a reply apologizing for inconvenience and standard explanation for the inconveniences, yet to get a reply on breakfast related concerns.  Hopefully the owner changes “company rules” after reading this post and puts some corrective measures.

I recommend Park Avenue owner/management take immediate corrective actions as below
-          Change locks to the rooms, give one key to guest, keep the other with a senior manager for emergency purpose. Add CCTV, electronic safes and security guard
-          Train your staff a bit to consider guest requirements and expectations.
-          Update the websites to reflect reality- the property is not suitable for events, doesn’t have enough space for kids to move around and there’s no parking space. Do not lie.
-          Breakfast is something very basic to your guests- give some options or factor guest preferences while deciding breakfast item. You don't want your guests to go out empty stomach cursing their mistake of booking with you, just because your staff is lazy to cook few more items.

Park avenue's listed page on the website http://roomnhouse.com/offers/hbvxzg needs to be corrected as below. 

Update: I noticed that Roomnhouse.com folks have promptly updated the page- below screenshot was taken a week ago, while current page shows red cross against elevator and few other items. Good job Roomnhouse. 

Service apartments and homestays are expected to give a better customer experience than commercial hotels. But this largely depends on the effort hosts take, to make their guests comfortable. Without this effort, stay won't be any different or better. Similarly portals that list properties should do adequate due diligence and surprise checks to ensure whatever is committed is delivered and things that are deemed basic/standard are offered. Ability for a customer to leave a feedback/rating is must, so that others can learn from previous customer's experience.

For 2000 Rs a night, there’re 100s of other decent accommodation options in Bangalore. [Try stayzilla] I can’t think of a single reason why I should recommend the Park Avenue B&B in Jayamahal extension to anyone.

I wasn’t expecting a 5 star experience and I could live with the few nuances listed above. My experience is an example of what all can go wrong in an accommodation experience, particularly when you chose a lesser known place without much verification. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

My thoughts on 2014 Honda City Diesel, S variant

This post shares my thoughts on the 2014 Honda city. Honda city has been the representative of one's status symbol, a coveted thing competition couldn't steal despite offering better/cheaper cars. Till few years ago, being able to afford a honda city means one has moved up in life, beyond the ordinary folks who could only afford a Hyundai or a Maruti.

But then, the growing demand for diesel made it worse for Honda who had no diesel offering. Last year Honda came back with diesel Amaze and this year, refreshed Honda city with diesel Engine option has been launched. Since then, there's been no looking back. New Honda city is selling two times its earlier rival- the Hyundai Verna.

Zoomcar has about 16 Honda cities in its fleet, available for about Rs 3000 a day for self drive. (Weekend rate, 40% cheaper on weekdays). I spent 2 hours with this car, driving around South Bangalore and this post shares some detailed photos of the car and my first impression of the car.

The new look City makes a much bolder front statement, is 20mm taller and has 50mm longer wheelbase. This is done without compromising on the "Arrow from the Bow" design

The one I drove was S variant, 2 levels below the top spec V and VX variants. One thing I noticed after I took my seat was the simplicity. Very few buttons and dials- just enough. Other cars I've seen had too many buttons on the central console, while city manages same controls with lesser buttons. (You may take some time to get used to it though)

The AC vent design in the center looks a bit old design and in my opinion spoils the beauty of otherwise good looking central set up.

City diesel has 6 gears but of no use owing to Zoom's 125kmph top speed limit. Same diesel engine on Amaze gets regular 5 gears.

City seem to have better engine insulation than amaze. The reduced seepage of engine noise could be felt. During the short drive I had, I couldn't judge it much, but I found no complaints either.

Sunvisors have no mirrors, no touchscreen and no AC vent for second row passengers in S variant. (V variant gets most of these, along with alloy wheels, fog lamps, leather on steering wheels, chrome door handles and more)

Speedo console is also extremely simple. No fancy design but has all the information one would need.

No fog lamps in S variant and no turn indicators on the mirror. Take a close look at the mirror and you can feel the empty space left for this purpose.
Min and max second row space can be as seen below. Surprisingly no fold-able armrest in second row of city, while Amaze gets it. Headrests in both cars could not be adjusted for height.
Extra wide second row window is visibly bigger than its rivals- Verna, Fiesta etc
I was not very comfortable with doors- when I close it with normal force, it won't lock and dashboard would beep warning that door is open. I had to open and close it with extra force each time. Not sure if it is a one off incident.

Fabric design on the door feels upmarket, but door can't hold large bottles.

I spent few minutes looking at the manuals. It was designed common for all variants. It had details on paddle shift (available only in petrol AT variants and about CD drive, which are discontinued in Honda city long back. The super thick manual could have been simplified a bit if pages on non existing features are removed. I guess Honda is trying to save some cost by keeping one manual for all variants.

 I did some comparison with a friend's Honda Amaze Z. More about that later.
 A class review * Fortuner Photoshoot * A class photoshoot * Honda amaze review *

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tiger temple Thailand upclose photos with the cats

These are the photos from my December 2013 tiger temple visit, during the Ride Thailand bike trip.
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This was my second visit to Tiger temple, during which we spent little less time than my first visit- we could spend some time petting the tigers, but didn't have time to take them for a walk or participate in other activities like feeding the cubs etc.

Nevertheless, it was good to be back. If things go as planned, I might go there again.

This time we saw a monk getting close with tigers- petting them, teasing them, letting them sleep on his arms and so on. The amount of faith and trust the big cats show in the monk is unbelievable. Even your pet dog may not obey you that much.

 That is me petting a tiger!
 Few up close photos of the tiger face

Did you call me?
 Volunteers and tigers
Herbivores roaming freely in the campus

Also see: Tiger upclose pics at Thyavarekoppa, Shimoga * Kannada article on Tiger temple published in Tarange * More ride thailand posts