Saturday, April 30, 2016

10 Absolutely Free attractions to visit in Singapore

Singapore travel itineraries are often packed with city’s most popular attractions. But most of them are paid entries and shoot up your budget. What if you are on tight budget and prefer free to explore attractions over paid ones?

I have listed 10 Singapore attractions which are worth visiting and is Totally Free to enjoy. Most of these are not promoted well, either because operators and agencies do not see money in it, or because Singapore already has lots of paid entry attractions which can easily fill up a one week itinerary. Some of these free to visit spots can  be visited early morning/late evening without affecting the main agenda while rest can be explored if your package/visit has few free days. Better still, you can plan your own itinerary and plan the entire trip yourself- refer my earlier post- 5D Optimized itinerary for Singapore.

Let us read about those 10 attractions in Singapore that can be visited without having spend money on entry.

1. Labrador Nature Reserve: Located off Alexandra road, Labrador Nature Reserve has historic importance as British battle stations were based here. Labrador Nature reserve campus is green with lots of tall trees, waterfront and world war artifacts (A tunnel also exists but is closed)

Labrador Nature Park, Singapore can be reached by MRT (1.5 kms away from Labrador park station). Check my earlier post on Labrador Nature Reserve for full details.

2. Fort Canning Centre: 
Fort canning centre is a nice campus close to Clarkey Quay and is walkable from City Hall MRT. Fort Canning was HQ of British army when they were occupying Singapore. Centre of the park has the giant HQ building which is now a dance theatre. Fort Canning campus gives elevated view of the city and is located in heart of city. Great place for early morning walk.

Read my 2012 post on Fort Canning Centre

3. Marina Bay Sands Laser Show: 
Every evening at pre-defined timings, the laser show of Marina Bay Sands is an eye catching event. You just need to be in a spot that gives clear view of Marina Bay Sands to enjoy the show. Full details in this 2015 post.

4. National Gallery Singapore
This is one of the newest attractions in Singapore, showcasing two of its most historic and iconic buildings- Former Supreme Court Building and City hall. The campus is free to explore, tickets required only to visit art galleries. (For Singapore nationals even that is free)

Check my post on National Gallery for more pictures and details

5 Botanical Garden: 
Another large garden in Singapore with free entry. Botanical garden campus houses many attractions and activities. Half a day can be spent here in leisure. Must visit for nature lovers.

Check some pictures here and here

6. Sentosa Island
While many attractions in Sentosa- such as Universal Studios, Madam Tussauds, Tiger tower, iFly Singapore, Underwater world etc are ticketed, the Sentosa campus is free to explore. You can either walk or even avail free trains/shuttles that operate there to get from one point to another. Free attractions in Sentosa includes many beaches, a point claimed as southern most point in continental Asia and many more

7 East Coast Beach near airport
East Coast is the beach front in Singapore where residents go to set up barbecue dinner (permission required, limited slots), take a swim in the ocean or in general relax. Last year on our way to airport we stopped here for sometime. You can head there for regular beach crowd and experience.
Update: Ankur Sharma has stated that water sports here is not for tourists and is permitted only for registered clubs.

8  Postal museum (Singapore Philatelic Museum)
This one is near Fort Canning Centre, walkable from City Hall MRT. Free only for Singapore Nationals, others need to pay 6 SGD fee. If you are into stamp collection and or interested in postal history, this place is worth a quick stop.

9 Light and sound show at Gardens by the bay
Every evening at 7.45 PM, an eye catching light and sound show is performed in the supertree area of Gardens by the Bay. Entry to Gardens by the bay is totally free (except like flower dome, cloud forest or going up the supertrees). Do not miss this. More pictures and details in this post

10 Kinetic Rain at Changi Airport, T1
Changi has several attractions inside transit area, which you can explore while you wait for your flight. But the Kinetic Rain which is in public area in T1 is a must visit.

If you are flying in and out of T2, you will miss Kinetic Rain. Hundreds of gold coloured droplets moving in unison to create different shapes is a wonderful experience. Either while entering or leaving Singapore, go to Changi Airport's T1, enjoy the Kinetic Rain and then proceed to your terminal gate. Read my detailed post here.

I've not included Merlion park as it will be covered in most of tourist itineraries

Read all other Singapore posts under this tag.

Review: Sangam Hotel- Madurai's Premium Stay Option

Sangam Hotel is one of the popular hotels in Madurai. Costing about Rs 3700+ per day onwards (Add 25% To Whatever amount you see in the ad). I spent a night here. It was slightly above my budget, but I booked it thinking I will be spending most of the time indoor, given the temperature outside, thus a more comfortable hotel is a priority than budget hotel. This post is a brief review of my stay experience and observations.
Sangam Hotel, Madurai- Lobby and Reception
Good things about Hotel Sangam, Madurai
I was impressed by the Four different juice options for breakfast
  1. Breakfast option is great. Lots of items, including 4 juice options (most hotels offer only 2), south Indian and western food.
  2. Rooms are spacious, comfortable
  3. Check out was extended till 2 PM on request
  4. Hotel is located few kms away from the city centre- though this adds to travel time, locality is calm and traffic free.
  5. Spacious campus
  6. Central Air conditioning keeps room cool if even when keycard is taken out. (In cheaper hotels you need to wait for room to get cooled)
Room View (GoPro) of Sangam Hotel, Madurai
Lobby of Madurai's Sangam hotel and outdoor chess unit.
Sangam Hotel Madurai- Pool as seen from 3rd floor
Sangam Hotel Madurai- restaurant
Not so great things about Hotel Sangam, Madurai
  • WiFi was not reliable. Worked for some time but didn’t work most of the time or was of poor speed. BSNL is the network.
  • Breakfast that was supposed to be ready at 7 AM was ready by about 7.45- 8 AM (some simple items were available at 7 AM but most items were ready only by 8 AM
  • The videocon DTH remote was not very intutive. I had difficulty identifying the guide and navigating to a news channel. (May be because I am used to Tata Sky only, but a quick guide leaflet might help as remote doesn't have any text near the buttons)
  • On weekends expect the pool to be crowded. Hotel management seem to be selling pool access to locals in the name of summer camp. Expect a group of kids and their parents in the pool
  • Couldn't see any Tamil newspapers (Didn't matter to me, but those looking for local language papers may have to make specific request)
There are cheaper hotels with AC rooms in Chennai, but may not have a campus as spacious as Sangam Hotel. Hotel Tamilnadu is right opposite Sangam Hotel. Gandhi Museum is the only place closer to Hotel Sangam. (2kms). Everything else is about 5 kms or more from Hotel Sangam, costs about Rs 100 in Ola Mini for each trip to city/ back.
Sangam Hotel Madurai- Main entrance
Check Gateway Hotel Pesumalai  * South Indian budget hotels we tried in Nov 2015

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

ISKCON Temple Madurai: Is it worth a visit?

Indian Bloggers
While I was looking for places to explore in Madurai, ISKCON temple came up as an option. As I was debating if I should go there, one taxi driver said he is not aware of ISKCON temple. Second one said “there is nothing, no need to visit”. Another Ola driver said “I know it is there, but don’t know if it is good or not”. Apparently no one in Madurai seem to take this temple seriously. Internet literature confirmed that temple exists but very small.

With no other attractions left worth visiting around Madurai town, I decided to go there anyway and take a look. ISKCON Madurai is a super small building located in a small alley some 2kms away from Meenakshi temple. in Below are my findings and opinion about ISKCON Madurai.

As I entered, I was given a print out with the krishna chant (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare) to be recited 108 times. I took my seat on left side of the hall (Right side is for women) after clicking two pictures. While I could see the deity, soon it was closed with the curtain. There were just a few staff. After sitting down for about 10-15 minutes I left, not before taking the Theertham and Prasad offered by one of the staffer

Is ISKCON Madurai a must visit attraction?
NO. It is very small and if you have visited bigger ISKCON temples (say in Bengaluru, Chennai or elsewhere) then this one can be easily skipped

Is ISKCON Madurai worth a short visit?
Yes. If you have an hour to spare and nothing else critical to do/visit, do drop by at ISKCON Madurai. It is good for a short meditation and visit

Is there a fee involved to visit ISKCON Temple in Madurai?
No. Entry is free, Shoe Stand is free. Free drinking water is provided for visitors. Of course you are free to donate or buy some books.

What are ISKCON temple Madurai opening timings?
5.30 am to 1 PM and 4 PM to 9 PM is the opening hour. Even within this, most of the time the idols will be in a covered status. Which means you can enter the temple building, but if you wish to see the god, you will have to wait (few minutes to half an hour or so max) till the curtain in-front of the idols is removed. So if you are going there go with at least 30 minutes to spare.

Where exactly is ISCON Temple in Madurai?
Madurai's ISKCON is listed on Google maps so there shouldn't be a challenge locating it. Address is
12/37, Maninagaram Main Road, Madurai, TN 625001. About 2 kms from Meenakshi amman temple, in the heart of Madurai city.

I wonder why cash rich ISKCON management settled for such a small campus in Madurai.

Similar: ISKCON Chennai Puja timings

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Start-up funding crisis and its adverse impact on bloggers

2015 was a great year for Indian start-ups. Besides those who already existed, thousands of new start-ups were born, hundreds of them secured multi-million dollar investments and a good part of this investment money was spent on brand building, marketing campaigns and needless to say blogging community benefited a lot from these spending. Unlike traditional companies that took decades to grow and are cautious in spending, start-ups were keen on quick growth and spent lots of money on activities that could get them better visibility, mileage and valuation. Good part of the promotional budget was spent on social media and bloggers, social media influencers and digital agencies that coordinated between brands and bloggers benefited a lot from these expenditure, in terms of sponsored posts, campaigns, paid trips or goodies. Of course bloggers and influencers did their part-writing about the brand and its product/services, giving the brand lots of back-links, twitter trends, facebook likes and such online visibility.
This huge spend on online activities by brand also resulted in emergence of thousands of new bloggers and social media influencers, who saw money in blogging/other online activities and wanted a piece of action. With no pre-defined qualifications or a governing body that certifies someone as an influencer or blogger, anyone and everyone could open a blog or call themselves as influencers. Many of these folks were happy to buy followers online so as to get noticed by brands. This sudden surge in bloggers and influencers made life difficult for brands and PR agencies- identifying and engaging a quality influencer among the crowd started to become increasingly difficult. With desperate influencers willing to work for very small amount, many brands found it sensible to go for quantity instead of quality- like engaging 100 newbie bloggers for Rs 1000 each instead of approaching 10 popular bloggers for Rs 10000 each.

But first half of 2016 is NOT looking good
  1. Few startups have begun to shut shop (TinyOwl, PetterTrap, Vasan etc)
  2. Few others (like Jabong) are on sale for an amount 10% of what they were seeking an year earlier.(news)
  3. Many other start-ups are having difficulty getting fresh funds and their valuations are under pressure, such as foodpanda (news)
  4. Investors are waking up to the reality that the joyride can’t go on forever and are pressing for cost cutting, consolidation and focus on profitability
  5. These have forced other start-ups- even if they are well off as of now- to review their spending and strategies
  6. Discounts, sign up bonus etc have nosedived.
This has already begun to show its impact on blogging community. Below are some of my observations
  • Many new social media agencies that have come up in recent times, which had begun collecting database of bloggers with an intention of pitching to brands and getting some business- are yet to get their first campaigns
  • Number of new campaigns at existing agencies/platforms (like Blogadda, indiblogger, blogmint) etc have reduced. Brands are avoiding big budget social media spends.
  • In 2015, Indiblogger used to have at least two new campaigns every month. Now may be one in every two months. (Good that they launched IndiPR, ensures some sustained revenue, even though not as lucrative as mega campaigns)
  • I have noticed few brands suddenly going cold. They were interested to engage sometime back but when the time has come to close a deal, sudden loss of interest has kicked in from nowhere
  • Have noticed few instances where brands have refused to pay after blogger/influencer delivered required posts, citing some silly reasons
  • Average delay in payment has gone up from few weeks to few months.
  • Some agencies are running campaigns for an amount as low as Rs 10 per tweet and even at that rate there’re enough people signing up for it. [Read this Mint article about trending your brand on twitter]
Thus we can say a sort of slowdown/recession is pertaining for social media community who were on an upbeat based on 2015 experience.

How Bloggers can overcome current scenario?
  1. Don’t quit your job. If you were thinking of quitting your job and doing blogging full time, may be now is NOT the right time. (That is just a thought. You be the judge. If you are already earning good money from online and have repeat business then maybe there’s no harm)
  2. Keep writing: When going gets tough, tough gets going. Once paid campaigns become scarce, all those who jumped blogging bandwagon with hopes of making quick money will go away. If you are serious, keep writing and use the time to increase your reader base, engagement rate. Keep writing at regular intervals, even if you don’t make money. When the situation improves, you will be ready to reap the benefits.
  3. Support worthy brands in their time of distress: If you have worked regularly with a brand/start-up, know their core team and/or believe in their product/service and potential, do support them during their tough time even if they are not able to pay you. Once situation improves, brand will remember your support and will be more than happy to start paid engagements with you again.
  4. Offer some discounts- I am sure some bloggers may not agree with this, but the market dynamics demand that prices go down when demand goes down. So maybe you can lower your quotes a bit for serious opportunities.  Where possible give extra discount for advance payment, so that there’s no painful follow-up to endure.
  5. Don't get desperate: While working for a small discount is fine, avoid getting desperate and accepting deals way below your value. This will only make things worse- you will end up disappointing your readers, blogging community and might end up in frustration. Let next level of bloggers get these deals instead of everyone working super cheap and reducing the bar.
  6. Try to deliver more value than promised. You will be noted if your contribution performs better than what brand expected
  7. Try additional revenue sources- there are many other ways to make money- such as affiliate marketing, CPC/CPM ads etc- these may not bring huge cash, but can give you some little but critical income.
  8. Focus on print: If you think you are good writer, try contributing to magazines in your area of specialization. If they accept to publish your work, it will get you some money and more importantly recognition.
  9. Network better with your peer bloggers: Indian bloggers are known to try outsmart each other instead of helping one another. If you can network well with other bloggers in your niche then you can know what’s working and what’s not working. Being aware and helping each other will put you in a better position against brands/PR agencies trying to take advantage of current scenario.
  10. Work more with offline brands/physical business: Build relationships with real entities in your city in your area of specialization. Form city based groups and try to engage with local brands (Chennai Bloggers' Club is doing great job in this regard)
Do you agree? What are your thoughts?

Similar: Startup Saturday at IIM B * The Mouse Charmers by Anuradha Goyal * How much to charge for sponsored posts? *

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Gateway Hotel Pasumalai, Madurai-campus pics

The Gateway Hotel is one of the top star hotels in Madurai with one night stay costing about INR 6K onwards (including tax). I went there for lunch, primarily to take a look at the campus. As buffet lunch was not ready yet, manager suggested I take a walk in the campus, which was exactly I had in mind.

The Gateway hotel occupies 62 acres of campus. Though hotel properties are located on hill top, entire hill seem to be taken over by the hotel. Right at the entrance security will check your purpose of visit. Hotel reception is couple of kms uphill. Steps also exit besides the well paved roads.

The Moon terrace at The Gateway Pasumalai gives great view of Madurai town.

The campus maintains lots of greenery, even in the middle of summer. However I was expecting some cool breeze but there were none. But the shades and trees themselves offer lots of comfort from heat.

While most blocks seem to be from old heritage building, some rooms seem to be added recently and they sort of miss the heritage feel.

Peacocks roaming freely in the Gateway campus. There are lots of birds too.
Dining area with bright orange theme. Buffet lunch costs Rs 1202 per person inclusive of tax.

Not very disabled friendly: I find this stairs setup interesting. Campus is full of ups and downs but only steps are available. Not very disabled friendly. Wheelchair guests may have some difficulty, but I am sure there will some rooms in ground floor and level ground which should be easier to access. If you have seniors then do specify the same during booking or ask for easy access room.

The open area swimming pool is nice but is fully exposed to hot sun. It is located in residents only area but visible from drive way. Not too much privacy
 View of rocks and town from Pasumalai
The Gateway Hotel on Pasumalai hills is about 6-7 kms away from Madurai city centre. Ola mini ride cost me Rs 129 one way. I did not stay here and do not have pictures of the room, but they are believed to be as grand as the campus and exterior.

Thirumalai Nayak Palace, Madurai: Sound and light show!

Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace or Mahal probably qualifies as #2 attraction in Madurai to visit, after the main Meenakshi temple. It is a 17th century palace set up by Thirumalai Nayak of Nayak Dynasty.

I arrived at the entrance of Tirumalai nayakar palace at about 5.45 PM, without knowing if it will be open or not. Noticed that while regular visiting hour has closed, I could still go in during the evening sound and light show, which was just perfect.

The sound and light show doesn’t involve any laser or fountains. It involves strategically placed lighting illuminating the palace is a well coordinated sequence, along with audio that narrates the history or a role play involving king, queen, his commander etc. There are multiple references to King of Mysuru marching towards Madurai, instilling atrocities on the villages en-route and eventually Tirumalai Nayagar’s brave commanders forcing the Mysore army back. Story also explains how the Nayaka dynasty came into existence- Rulers of Vijayanagara empire sends one of his commander to settle a dispute in Madurai, but this commander, upon resolving the matter, declares himself the King, which annoys rules of Vijayanagara-this commander's son who convinces King of Viajayanagara to let him reclaim Madurai invades Madurai again, overthrows his own father and seeks pardon for his father from the king of Vijayanagara, who then lets this fellow continue as King of Madurai, starting the Nayaka Dynasty. Somehow these facts do not match 100% with the information I could see in Wikipedia and other sources. My guess is in order to make the sound and light show story plot interesting, the makers of audio have made small tweaks to suit their needs. (Or may be I didn't research enough?)

Few other elements of the story narrates how the king trusted his commander even after some rumors that commander is planning to kill the king and claim the throne. His hunting skills, his development initiatives etc are narrated during the sound and light show.

The sound and lights show at Tirumalai nayagar palace lasts exactly 50 minutes. Most people started leaving after about 30 minutes- apart from the audio, visuals sort of get repetitive and fail to hold interest. It will be good if the narration is trimmed to 30 minutes and if authorities can leave the lights on for about 10 minutes after the show, so that people can take photographs. Today if I need pics I need to take them while the show is on. As soon as show ends, complete darkness prevails inside the palace and security begins to usher people out. If I walk into the palace during the show,I can't hear the audio well.
I was one of the first few to buy the ticket and when I went in at 6.35 PM, there was still some daylight left. So I could take some pictures.

Below: King's Throne and reflection of evening light through the window

Current palace complex as it stands today is reportedly the main building. Rest of the buildings around it are gone. I could only see large halls, no rooms as such (say where king would have rested)

Overall I am glad I went to Madurai and went to Tirumalai Nayak mahal just in time for the sound and light show.

Thirumalai Nayakar Palace, Madurai: Entry timings and fees:
Day time opening hours: 9 AM to 5 PM
Entry fee: Rs 10 for adults, Rs 5 for children, Rs 50 for foreign nationals, Rs 30 for still camera and Rs 100 for video camera.

Sound and light show timing and fees:
English show from 6.45 PM to 7.35 PM
Tamil show from 8 PM to 8.50 PM
Adult: Rs 50, children/students: Rs 25, same fee for international tourists as well and there's no separate fee for cameras.

Which is better? Day time entry is cheaper but if you have a camera it almost costs Rs 40 total- while you get enough time to explore the palace in full day light, you will miss the sound and light show.

If you go for sound and light show and manage to enter at 6.30-35PM, you will still have about 5-10 minutes of day light left. It is possible to take some good pics but not in detail. Interiors will be bit dark. But there will be good illumination during sound and light show and you might be able to manage some good pictures.

Similar: Shivappa Nayak Palace, Shivamogga *