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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Hotel Asphodel Inn, Race Course Road, Singapore

Our sponsored stay at Singapore was only for 2 days. As I decided to extend my stay till the weekend, I had to book the accommodation on my own for remaining 2 days. After spending some time on booking.com, I zeroed in on Asphodel Inn, Race Course Road, Singapore.
2 nights stay for 2 of us costed SGD 200 or about Rs 10000. This booking was made some 10 days before check-in date and includes taxes. At 50 SGD per person per night, it is not the cheapest option I had seen- there were many hostels and hotels cheaper, but I zeroed in on this hotel because of following reason
- A metro station is within walking distance
- There are a few Indian food outlets closeby (Komalas)
- Hotel looked decent in pictures and offered WiFi
- Reviews were decent.
- Cancellation was free until 3 days before check-in date.

I missed to check if they are providing breakfast and unfortunately they don't. We arrived on time, were given a room in 4th floor. Room was decent but very congested.

View from the window was great- we had a colourful building next block and a temple


Bathroom was small but just served the purpose. So were the corridors and lobby.

There was a coffee making machine, but the powder kept was unconventional. I tried making a cup of coffee but didn't like it. Power sockets were closer to one bed only. Second bed didn't have any socket near to it, so one had to use the socket closer to other bed.

WiFi was good.

Tickets to various attractions can be had at the hotel itself, for a few dollars cheaper. But you need to inform in advance. But then I couldn't see much combi tickets- the Jurong Bird park + Night safari combi ticket at the counter probably gave us same discount we would have got if we had bought both tickets separately at the hotel.

The famous Srinivas Perumal temple is next block from Asphodel Inn. Farrer Park metro is nearest MRT station.

Overall Asphodel Inn is a decent choice, but I feel you might be able to find same quality rooms a bit cheaper if you have time and patience to search for more.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Malaysia Tourist Visa for Indians-Latest process & fees

Recently I applied for Malaysia Tourist visa for the second time. My previous application was in 2011 - had written about it here-the process has changed a bit since then, so this post provides the updates.
Malaysia-petronas-twin-tower
Below table gives quick snapshot of difference between 2011 and today, from my experience.

2011
2016
Visa Fee
Rs 750 + DD expense
Rs 3400 + DD expense (Rs 70 in SBI)
  1. Rs 1000 to embassy (in the name of Consulate General of Malaysia)
  2. Rs 2000 in the name of DU Digital Technologies Private Ltd (The name may vary per city- pls check)
  3. Rs 400 to VFS
  4. Courier and SMS extra at about Rs 400 and 100 optional
Processing time
3 working days
4 working days
Documents required
2 photos
Passport
Filled Application Form
Return ticket
Passport
2 photos
Approach
Can visit embassy directly
Via agency only
Duration granted
1 year, multiple entry
1 year, multiple entry
In 2011, we had got the DD done for Rs 750, filled application form, walked into embassy and submitted our passport, application form, DD and tickets. Passport with VISA was to be collected 3 days later.

But now, we can't approach the embassy directly (that's what I was told when I went directly)- probably embassy doesn't want to handle large crowd of applicants everyday. Applications need to be submitted via an agency like VFS. The Malaysian tourist visa fees has gone up 5 times.

As you see, major change seem to be the VLN fee, which is two times the consulate fee. VLN stands for VISA LUAR NEGARA. It is not very clear what is this, why this fee is charged and what services DU Digital Technologies Private Ltd (in whose name VLN fee is collected) provides. As per various websites that track company registration, such as this one,   DU Digital Technologies Private Ltd is a Delhi based company setup with a capital of 1 lakh rupees only. They don't seem to have a website of their own and no one knows what kind of service this company provides w.r.t Malaysian visa processing or otherwise. While VFS receipt given does acknowledge this amount, Visa stamped on passport doesn't indicate this fee- mentions only Rs 1000 as fees paid. Looks like this fee is applicable only if you apply in India, Bangladesh etc. 

Also it would have been simpler for guests to make one payment and let the embassy and its partners split among themselves later.

At about Rs 3500, Malaysian visa is little expensive compared to neighboring Thailand Visa on arrival (1000 baht) and Singapore visa. But only advantage is that Malaysia tourist visa is issued for a validity of 1 year, so you can visit multiple times. Singapore and Thailand issue visas for much shorter duration.

Other major difference seem to be simplified process- I had taken filled application form, flight tickets, invite letter and other support statements. But at VFS office, the staff said none of those is required. Only DD, Passport and two photos were collected. I could see that VFS staff filed an application online with my passport details for tourist visa, so no physical application was needed. (but VFS website still asks you to come with application form)

Also when I applied for Australia visa, VFS arranged DD. But for Malaysia,I had to go to bank, get the twin DDs and then submit them at VFS. be sure to get the DD only from designated banks- SBI, Axis, IndusInd, Standard Chartered, Ratnakar and Deusche. When I went to Axis bank, they refused to issue a DD unless I pay via cheque- sounded like a stupid logic- no cash, no online transfer would be accepted (I had account with them, but wasn't carrying cheque book)- then had to go to SBI. Rest of the banks are not very easy to find. This time I didn't opt for SMS alert- just to send 2-3 SMS they charge Rs 100+- waste of money, as same information can be tracked online too.

Disclaimer: I have only shared what I experienced. Requirements and process may vary based on city where you apply, type of visa applied and various other parameters. Please check with agencies like VFS to find out if there are any specific needs in your case. 

Also check: How to get the max out of AirAsia Big sale? * Putrajaya- Malaysia's administrative region

Best place to stay 'INSIDE' Singapore's Changi Airport!

This post is not about hotels in Singapore. This post is not about hotels 'near' Singapore airport. This post is about Hotel/accommodation options INSIDE the Changi Airport, Singapore. If you have a long transit and do not want to spend all your time in public areas of transit section and if you can afford to spend 50-100 Singapore dollars, then you can book yourself into some of the luxurious stay options inside Changi Airport.

This post explores some of the stay options inside Changi Airport. All of these facilities operate 24x7 but please note that none of these facilities will alert you about your flight- you should be sure to check the gate and time status of your flight once a while so as to ensure that you reach your gate on time.

Plaza Premium Lounge in T1

Plaza Premium Lounge in  T1 is a great place to relax- it offers unlimited free food (alcoholic beverages chargeable), different kind of seating areas to suit your needs- open seats, seats with more privacy, VIP rooms etc. Plaza Premium Lounge has tie up with several airlines, credit card firms and other corporate- so you are likely to get some discounts or even free access if you happen to be associated with one of those brands (Refer picture below) Plaza Premium Lounge Singapore doesn’t seem to have full size private rooms like the Ambassador transit hotel, but it has sleeping areas called "Private Resting Suite".

Plaza Premium lounge basic 5 hour access costs SGD 58 (includes shower, food and sitting areas). 10 hour access costs  SGD105, inclusive of all taxes.

If you want to sleep flat, then private resting suite costs SGD 75 (3 hours of sleeping cabin + 3 hours of access to rest of the lounge. If you just want to use shower, you can do so by paying 16 SGD. You can also try a leg or head and shoulder massage. Besides all these, there is great view of the runway, lots of charging points for your devices, supply of wide range of magazines to keep you occupied. Friendly staff can get you a coffee or snacks on demand, you can also help yourself with a range of food, including a live counter where items will be readied for you on demand.


One disadvantage I could see is the size of the suite or sleeping room- seems a bit tight. If your intention is to just sleep the entire duration, then you are better off with a room at Ambassador transit hotel. If you are interested in pool then you should consider the hotel near the Pool in T1. Otherwise, Plaza lounge is a great choice. Plaza runs lounges in several airports across the world.

Other options- Ambassador Transit Hotel in T2 and T3
There are transit hotels each in each of the 3 terminals- T2 and T3 transit hotels are managed by by one company under the brand Ambassador. One in T3 is little expensive (rates shown below) as it was recently renovated. I also walked in to Ambassador transit hotel in T2- it was cheaper at about 35 SGD for 3 hours. But below rate is only for lounge usage. If you want full room, then it costs from SGD 55 (budget room, 1 person) to SGD 135 (triple room) for 6 hours. (Details here), which gets you a decent private room with basic refreshments, shower, internet and Television facilities.
Aerotel Transit Hotel in T1
Aerotel manages the transit hotel in T1. Uniqueness of T1 transit hotel is the outdoor Swimming pool. If you book a room,you get free access to pool.
Else you can even buy pool access separately for 17 SGD. Besides the pool, you can also access Gym and a spacious library- shown in below picture. Pool is closed from midnight to 6 AM.
Of course most of the popular airlines- Qantas, Singapore Airline, Emirates etc have their own lounges inside the airport- often accessible to Business and first class passengers or for frequent flyers.

On average, for about 50 to 100 SGD budget you can have a very comfortable stay inside Changi airport. If you wish to step out, then there's Crowne Plaza that you can consider.

You can refer Changi's official website for more details.  Other unique facilities at Changi airport covered in this post.

TVS XL100 4 stroke- Most affordable moped now more peppier!

When I went to nearby TVS Showroom to service by bike, I spotted the improved version of TVS XL moped. This XL100 was launched in select markets last November (UP) and there was not much news of its launch in other states. May be because of floods in TN, TVS opted to launch this first in a far away state instead of home state of TN. A small moped may not be of much interest to bike/car enthusiasts but this model deserves some attention and publicity because of various reasons.

TVS XL is the most affordable two wheeler in India, at about 33k on road. Any other two wheeler costs about 45k onwards. TVS XL is extremely popular in rural areas among farmers and small businessmen, because of its ruggedness, affordability, easy maintenance and decent fuel economy. There was an even more popular TVS50 that had peddle start- but it was eventually discontinued. Kinetic Luna was also pulled out from the market long ago, Bajaj BYK also didn't hold ground for long, so TVS XL - in its two variants- Heavy Duty and XL super ruled the entry level moped market since decades and is still ruling the same. During my college days, I had a stylish version of XL super, branded as TVS Sport.

But one main disadvantage of XL Super/XL heavy duty was that it had two stroke engine. It meant one had to add 2T oil along with petrol. Today if you go to a fuel station and ask for "100 Rs fuel including oil"- you will get some Rs 86-88 worth petrol and rest will go for a 40 ML 2T oil packet. 2 stroke is also more polluting than 4 stroke.

TVS has done a great job providing XL100 with a more powerful 100 CC 4 stroke engine. This costs about Rs 4000 more than the 2 stroke variant, but the price difference is well compensated by extra power and savings in fuel. Because traditional XL owners are used to adding 2T oil, TVS has added a sticker on the handlebar instructing not to mix 2T oil. With slightly improved power, XL100 is now more peppier and can try to keep up with other 100cc bikes and mopeds. (XL Super had a top speed of 55kmph. Hopefully XL 100 can touch 65)

Fuel tank design is slightly modified- but other than that, absolutely no changes in the design XL is never positioned as style symbol, so it is perfectly fine. Making it more stylish increases cost, compromises on ruggedness, ease of maintenance and its utilitarian values. Nonetheless 2 new colours have been introduced, to mark selling of more than 1 crore mopeds in this series.

Unfortunately side stand, saree guard, ladies handle and luggage hook doesn't come as standard. Customers will have to shell another 1k for these essential accessories. Thus this new moped will cost about 37k to take home while ex-showroom price is pegged at 30k in Chennai.

Another good thing is that XL100 can be called XL100 only, not One Oh Oh like the Mahindras!

My best wishes to the new moped in town!

Similar- Bajaj discover long term ownership report * Heritage scooters * Harley Davidson rental in Bengaluru *  Royal Enfield factory visit * Road trip- Bike vs car- which is better? * RideThailand big bike tour

Friday, January 29, 2016

Skywatch: Singapore Civilian War Memorial

The civilian war memorial in Singapore is erected in memory of thousands of Singapore residents murdered during Japanese invasion and rule of Singapore during second world war. Civilian war memorial is located next to Raffles tower. It has four identical pillars, each 70 meters tall, one each representing Chinese, Indian, Malay and Eurasian community. The remains of the war victims are burried under the monument, giving it a emotional connect for family members of the victims.




 
During my previous visits I couldn't visit this memorial. This time managed to spend some time around it. May those souls rest in peace.

Similar: 9th fort- World war memorial-Kaunas * War memorial in Kanchanaburi * Ta Pai world war memorial bridge

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Review: Hotel Crowne Plaza @ Changi Airport, Singapore

We stayed at Hotel Crowne Plaza, next door to Changi Airport Singapore. This post is a quick review of what I experienced at the hotel.

Crowne Plaza is known worldwide for their hotels right next to the airport- extremely popular with transit passengers or those who have their work closer to airport.
 
The good things about Hotel Crowne Plaza
  • From the corridor we can see the runway, flights taking off or landing. 
  • Campus has lots of natural air due to open corridors (but this can be very hot during summer) and plants all over.
  • Rooms are spacious, well equipped
  • Bath tub seems technologically modern- controls felts more sophisticated than what I had seen in other hotels 
  • They had fresh cashew nuts for buffet breakfast- not many hotels keep it as cashew is expensive. I enjoyed lots of cashews during breakfast. Even otherwise there were enough veg options.
  • Pool area with built in trees is very nice. Most hotels will have just pools and no trees in them.
  • Room television is customized with guest name, so feels good when you switch it on. (It was another matter that I was booked under Mrs/Ms Shrinidhi, so when I identified myself at the reception I was told there is no booking for me. After sometime they figured out and let me in!

Not so convenient things/Possible improvements
1. The power socket had a switch which was getting obstructed by devices and getting turned off. As you can see in the picture below, the red switch is too close to the multi-country adapter and if I press the adapter hard, it gets switched off.
2. Once we take off the key card, power cut off is instant. In many other hotels a few seconds delay is enforced, so that there will be light till we get out of the room. May be this is their eco-friendly feature- I am not sure.
3. Some of my friends had issue taking elevator to Level 3 where pool is located. Since elevator is access controlled, if your room is in some other floor you can't take elevator to Level 3. Of course there is an external staircase. May be there is a workaround for this that I am not aware of. If you can get to Level 3 using stairs or with help from others then going back to your room is not a problem.
4. If you hail a taxi at Crowne Plaza you will still be charged an airport parking fee of SGD 3
5 As I walked from airport towards hotel, I had to take an elevator- but once I got in, I had no clue which floor to press for Crowne Plaza- so faced some confusion- but eventually realized that either of the two floors will connect us to Crowne Plaza- it is connected to Changi Airport at two levels- one that leads to reception and main entrance and one level above which takes us direct to restaurant area.




Unfortunately roof is not accessible. A roof top pool or restaurant would have been very nice (but may not be safe due to too many aircrafts around)

Rooms cost in the range of SGD 250-300 a day. Check this post for more accommodation options INSIDE Changi airport

Similar: Hotel Oasia, Singapore *  Peninsula Excelsior, Singapore *  Fullerton Hotel, Singapore 

Dr Anbumani Ramadoss's pitch as next CM of TN

On 26th Jan evening, I attended a function in which PMK leader and former Union Health Minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss addressed an audience full of influencers as to why he is the best fit to be CM of TamilNadu after the 2016 assembly elections.

I felt I was tricked into attending this event- because I was told the event is about “The Chennai we want” initiative run by an NGO to “Explore ways to make the state capital prosperous place to live”. It was supposed to be an event where we discussed various burning issues concerning Chennai- the floods, road safety, pure water etc and Dr Anbumani Ramadoss (Sitting MP and former union health minister) would be chief guest speaker. But in reality, the event which started 1 hour behind schedule ended up having a 2.5 hour speech by Dr Anbumani Ramadoss about himself and his vision for the state and more importantly why he deserves to be the next CM.

If the PR agency had revealed true intentions-that it is a political event where Dr Ramadoss would pitch himself for the position of Tamil Nadu’s CM, probably most of us wouldn’t have turned up to the event. But then, after sitting through the entire session which went on till 9.30 PM and beyond, I don’t regret attending the session. Because Mr Ramadoss came out as a man with lots of ideas, vision and strategy. He didn’t talk random things blaming everyone else and portraying himself as god. He didn’t promise moon if he were to become CM (In fact he said he won’t give anything free in your hands if he gets to become CM- that is a bold statement for TN voters who are used to getting freebies.) His statements were backed up by statistics, ideas, strategies and lots of sense- which is rare to find among politicians. So in a state traditionally exploited by two main parties, people like Anbumani Ramadoss stand unique and probably deserve a chance to bring in some change.

In this post, I will try to list all the key points made by Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss and other outcomes from the session.

Background- Dr. Ambumani Ramadoss has earned his MBBS degree, was India’s youngest cabinet minister when he became health minister in Congress Government, he said he was an athlete in school days and has traveled the world, from Africa to US to Copenhagen to Singapore and beyond. That alone makes him much more qualified candidate compared to Actor/Actress turned politicians who have been ruling the state for decades.

Ramadoss said 108 Ambulance service is his initiative. I was under the impression that 108 is brainchild of Satyam Founder Ramalinga Raju and the EMRI set up by his foundation. When questioned, he explained that the idea was his and when he met Ramalinga Raju in Hyderabad, later expressed interest to implement it for Hyderabad. Thus EMRI only implemented the idea seeded by Ramadoss on trial basis- this is the claim made by Ramadoss, I don’t have a contact with EMRI or Raju to cross check. He said that 25% of the calls are for child birth incidents, 21% is for accidents. So far 16000 babies have born inside 108 Ambulances.
Ramadoss explained various initiative he took as health minister- to reduce IMR and MMR (Infant Mortality Rate and Maternity Mortality Rate) by 55% and 50% (not sure in comparison to what), to fight various lobbies (he brought in policy that bans smoking in public areas, sale of tobacco within 100 meters of education institutions and mandatory warning messages on cigarette packs), the awards he got and that UN Secretary breaking protocol in coming and meeting him to thank him for the good work he has done.

Once the intro is over, Ramadoss listed various problems TN is currently facing

Today one third of TN’s revenue comes from TASMAC. Out of 105000 crore revenue 36k crore comes from sale of alcohol. TN is the only state that commissioned a SWOT Analysis when TASMAC sales went down. (I have seen that even during floods, TASMAC shops were doing brisk business, men wasting money on alcohol instead of using it to rebuild their homes or feed family members.) For all other state, revenue from alcohol is in the range of 3 to 8% only. Why should Government be running alcohol shops? While liquor sale brings lots of revenue, the actual loss in terms of GDP is huge- if a drunken fellow causes an accident, time and effort of police, doctor etc is wasted, his income till he recovers stops-value of all these is much more than profit gained from alcohol sale. Ramadoss pegged the total loss because of Alcohol at 1,76,000 crores against the revenue of 36000 crores. Kerala and Guajarath have already banned alcohol. Anbumani promised to do the same if he is elected to power. Said most of the women folk are with him in this decision as they are directly affected by this menace.

On questioned how he would compensate for the loss of revenue, Dr Anbumani spoke of bringing some order into sand mafia- today only small % of actual sand extracted is reported to govt. While sand price is Rs 670 at the river bed, end consumer pays 10 times more- if this can be channelized, we can have more revenue- the MP said.
  • Industrial growth is down from 6% to -1%
  • Agri growth down from 2% to -12% (I don’t know compared to what period- assume it is what it was 5 years ago vs today)
  • Economic growth down from 8 to 3.5%
  • Recently state govt spent Rs 200 crore public money on investor meet and claimed MOU worth 242000 crore is signed- MOU is just a piece of paper and doesn’t signify real investment-So this is a complete eye wash, according to Ramadoss. (I agree- I have shared my concerns on this topic in an earlier post here). No real investments are happening because investors are unable to meet the CM. [I have written a separate post on this topic- why investment values announced doesn’t mean anything] If he becomes CM, he could dedicate 3 hours every week to meet Industrialists who wants to meet CM- Ramadoss added.
  • 65000 crore worth of investment has gone out of TN as Hyundai, Ford, Nissan and Bharath Benz have chosen other states (mainly Gujarath and AP) to set up their second plants
  • Debt has increased from 1 lakh crores 5 years ago to 2.12 lakh crores today- this refers to only administrative debt.

The two leading parties have found an easy way to keep public engaged- for men, there’s alcohol, for women, freebies like mixer grinder etc, for youth, there’s movies (TN has a cap of Rs 120 per ticket to show movies, irrespective of how popular the movie is or posh the theatre is. Same movie in Bangalore may cost 5 times more and it will be cheaper to catch a train, come to Chennai, watch the movie and go back)

Speaking of public transportation, Ramadoss said long ago there were 3000 buses for 20 lakh population, today there’s 3500 buses for 50 lakh people. Chennai needs 8000 buses, outer ring roads and dust pollution need to be tackled. He said he can make the state highways toll free. Said that toll road agreements will have clauses that mandates that even if there is one pot hole, toll shouldn’t be collected. But this is never enforced. Ramadoss said Lithuania offers free public transportation in its capital. I was surprised to hear this. I was there in Kaunas and Vilnius last year and transportation was cheap but not free. I countered him on this during Q&A, Ramadoss checked with his staff and said he meant Estonia, not Lithuania. (I was too tempted to Take a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, capital of Estonia during my visit to Helsinki, but that meant not getting enough time for Finland, so I dropped the plan. Should visit Estonia sometimes.
Mini bus in Kaunas, Lithuania

Tram buses in Lithuania
He talked about corruption in the state and various other topics.

But we need to note that such a forward thinking person still seem to believe that 27% of opportunities should be reserved for OBCs (Source: Wikipedia, I read this only later, couldn’t ask him a question during the session). He is also against atomic power and believes solar and other renewable sources of energy are adequate to generate required power.
On being asked what is his strategy to win the state election, Dr Ramadoss said that there is anti-incumbency and ruling party is not likely to win. He said main opposition has lots of infighting and rest of the parties do not practically count. He said he is confident of winning this time.

Overall, I don’t regret attending the meet- Dr Ramadoss has managed to project himself as a viable alternative to the two major parties in the state. He has several qualities (education, experience, will power, energy, vision etc) that his rivals lack. Will he be able to repeat the magic Kejriwal created in Delhi? Will voters of TN give up their temptation for freebies, ditch the sun and the flower to embrace Mango? Will his efforts have desired Impact on the state? Only time will tell.