691st post: How to prepare to travel abroad

Having travel abroad myself, I have went through the trouble of preparing for my travels. I have seen and heard of people who don’t travel just because of the fear of the unknown, or not understanding the situation behind horror stories they may have heard, or while they are just about to travel, they have forgotten something important at the last minute. This guide assumes that you are not using an agent to help you or have anything that requires your attention while you are away that can’t be done while travelling.

This list is sorted according to how important you need to get things done, with the most important first.

  1. Get a passport
    1. This is the most important document you would need to travel. Some countries have agreements to let citizens of one country into another with just an ID, but you will need a passport for all others.
    2. If you already have a passport, make sure it isn’t expired, or a few months close to the expiry date. The exact number of months varies by country, but it is generally 6 months at most.
      1. If you are getting a visa (see below) for the long-term, like work or study, you might also want to take note if they require your passport’s validity covers the length of the visa that can be in years.
  2. Determine your destination
    1. You might also want to check if the weather or political situation there is suitable too.
  3. Check if your destination requires a visa
    1. Some countries requires citizens of certain countries to obtain a visa before entering the country, including a tourist visa. Even with that, which port of entry you would enter with may have different rules, or particular visas that could only be obtained there, or even the total amount of visa-free period you would be given.
      1. China, for example, have separate immigration laws for Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and China itself only allows a handful number of citizens of countries in visa-free. If you are transiting through China to another country, take note that transit visa would only be given at the Shanghai airports (Hongqiao and Pudong).
      2. Visa-free periods varies from 14 days to 6 months, and some have the additional requirement of not having spent more than more than a certain number of days in a year.
    2. For those entering for reasons besides short-term visit, you might also need to prepare additional paperwork to give to the customs officer.
  4. Check if you can take leave from work, and for how long.
    1. This would determine how long the trip would be and, indirectly, the flight you would book.
    2. You might want to reserve some days off should there be something.
    3. To maximise the amount of total days of your trip while using little of your leave days, take days off at on the work days before and/or after your days off. (I say “days off” instead of public holidays or weekends as it wouldn’t be correct for people who work on those days.)
  5. Reserve flight
    1. Book flights before booking the hotel (or check both without booking) as some airlines do not fly every day, or are fully booked. For the budget concious, different flights on different times/days to the same destination may have different flight fares, even within the same airline.
    2. To avoid disappointment of encountering full flights or not being able to sit together with your travel companion, make sure you book your flight months in advance.
    3. Flights with stopovers are likely to cost less than a direct flight, but waiting times between flights add up to your total travelling time.
    4. You might want to take note of the local time of departing and arrival locations. The airport may have public transport, but if your flight arrives after hours (or too close to the last train), or departs at a time that is practically impossible for you to catch, that would mean spending hours at the airport. Do you want that?
      1. Ideally, you should plan to be able to reach the hotel within a few hours of when the check-in hours are (usually in the afternoon), even if they allow you to check in up until their offices close for the day.
      2. Depending on the flight, timezone and travelling time, you might not have an option to change this.
  6. Reserve Hotel
    1. You can book a hotel before the flight, but in my opinion, flights should be handled first as they are trickier get on, where availability and costs varies greatly. You would be limited to the flights available and may be forced to take the more expensive flights when the cheap ones are unavailable.
    2. Check the reviews from reliable sources, and beware of fake comments and ratings that artificially make a bad hotel look good when it is not. Some groups may use names of different hotels but use the same images.
      1. For places like Hong Kong, where property prices are expensive, they might do this to have rooms in other places that are likely to be different units within the same building.
    3. Some “hotel rooms” are actually a bed in a shared dormitory with a number of other people, and facilities shared with other people. If you are lucky, they may have enough facilities so you don’t have to wait for another person to get done with their turn. Unless otherwise mentioned, assume they are mixed-gender dorms, though female dorms are available. This is among the cheapest option to have a decent place to stay in.
    4. Some places are what it is called “bed & breakfast” (BNB), where it is basically like someone’s place to sleep at.
  7. Exchange money
    1. It may seem funny for me to list this after reserving flight and hotel, but chances are you would have paid for those via credit/debit card, where they would be converted automatically, or you would pay for the stay at the hotel itself.
    2. It is best if you would exchange money in your home country, and withdraw the cash to exchange for at where there aren’t suspicious people around. If the currency you want to change to isn’t offered by the money changer, change to the USD first and change again at that country.
      1. If, for whatever political reason the country has against the US, you might want to change to another currency like the Euro instead.
    3. While you can use your credit/debit or ATM card abroad, you would want to have some local currency on you, and in case there is a problem with your cards.
      1. While some shops and hotels accept your currency, the exchange rates may not be favourable, and you would possibly receive change in the local currency.
    4. If you are transiting through another country, it is recommended you change some money for the currency of there too, though there could be ATMs that you can use.
    5. Keep in mind that exchange rates at the airport money changer may not be favourable than elsewhere, though the ATMs there might offer the same rates as anywhere in the country, which may be better.
      1. Note that not all ATMs accept foreign cards. If they do accept it, the rates and fees by one bank might be less favourable than an other bank.
      2. If the bank you are with have branches at the country you are visiting, withdraw with that bank before using another bank as you should not be charged for withdrawal.
      3. In countries like Japan, most ATMs operate only during business hours, so make sure you have enough cash to last through the night and weekends. Foreign banks and those at Seven Eleven are the notable exceptions.
  8. Pack your bags
    1. Don’t pack too much, unnecessary things especially.
      1. If unsure, or if it is something that can be bought at the destination country that wouldn’t be needed while travelling, do not pack it in.
    2. Don’t pack what isn’t allowed through the airport or the country.
      1. This includes liquid-based toiletries above a certain total capacity.
    3. If staying for several days, just pack a few clothes and wash it at the hotel instead of bringing clothes that covers the whole period: it would make your bag heavy, and take up space.
  9. Check and recheck your flight info.
    1. Airports, airlines, or destination country require that you check-in 45 minutes to 2 hours before the departure time. Make sure you are already at the airport when they open if you don’t want to rush, which means that you should start departing a lot earlier than that.
  10. Bring your stuff along, and check-in on time
    1. You wouldn’t want to forget everything you have prepared and miss the flight, would you?

687th post: Water and electricity wastage

From time to time, I come across a situation where there is obvious wastage. No, these aren’t like “this factory uses too much energy”, but more of “hey, someone left this tap running for a long time” or people unnecessarily turning fans and air conditioning to its maximum, leaving the tap running as they brush their teeth, and so on.
I don’t know if anyone knows, but phones these days uses more and more energy (and battery technology not keeping up with it) means charging more frequently, and indirectly, more energy being used.
Well, at least the good thing about energy use these days are that devices are that they generally use less energy than the older counterparts.

682th post: Designing a profile, and maybe attract followers

So you probably have a Twitter account or some social networking page that says about you to other people. However, there is more to just typing words and inserting images.

This is probably what an average person would see on their screen. As you can see, the interface would take up some space. More importantly, the whole bio should be visible in the remaining space, and leave some space around them.

However, the view can look different if viewed on a mobile device and exclude some elements like profile background, along with possible extra steps to view everything. The banner image might not appear if viewed from a 3rd party app, or the mobile web version on non-smartphones. Keep this in mind as not everyone wants to view everything or viewing from something that doesn’t show it.

If people are viewing your profile, along with several others at the same time, you would want to make it look appealing. This also means that the choice or words and images needs to look nice too. I don’t claim to be an expert, but what I do with mine seem to attract people.

So here are the things to take note of:

Tweets
Not exactly part of the bio, but it is visible from the profile. People actually look at what you tweet (retweet and mentions too), particularly the recent ones. If it is filled with too much retweets, caption-less links to images, automatically generated tweets from places like YouTube, without any breathing room in between, that is not good. I have unfollowed people before because of this reason, and only because they flood my timeline. Who knows how many more that I failed to catch.

Depending on the person, they may also be particular on how often/little you tweet: too little and they may forget about you, or even not see your tweet if they follow a number of active people. If you tweet too much, your followers might see nothing but your tweets in their timeline.

Private account? There’s a chance that they won’t follow you just because they can’t see your tweets, which includes mentions to them. Sure they can send a request to follow, but if they have a lot of other people to look through, and/or have past experience of private accounts they followed being not good, they would skip private accounts completely, possibly quickly too.

But why make it private in the first place? If it’s because of spam, you are probably overreacting. If it’s because you don’t want certain people to see something, you should block them, or don’t say it (at least not with that account).

Background Image
So you want to put some box that is like an extension of your bio as part of the background image? Bad news: not everyone views it in the same browser dimensions as you, which can be bigger than your screen. Even worse, it is not visible on non-PC web versions. However, you should have a background image anyway as it would make your profile look better. After all, it is the largest image visible on your profile, and if they see the default image, they may think that you are a boring person. The same goes for the banner image.

Recently, there is an option to choose if the transparent layer over the background (the gaps between each parts in the top screenshot) be either white or black, so you can pick which one is better, like black for a dark background image., and whether the image be positioned at the left, center, or right. Depending on the image and its size, having it tiled can be a good idea too. However, there is no option to change the horizontal positioning between top, middle, or bottom.

Banner Image
Kind of like background image, but behind just your profile image instead of the whole profile. You can choose what area to crop to and what level of zoom. Unlike backgrounds, it could also appear on mobile apps or mobile web for smartphones. You can try to align it with your display picture, but you wouldn’t want to be exact with it as, for example, your alignment in the web version might not be the same in landscape mode of the iPad version. I know you might not use it, but this is about what other people see when they view yours.

Images and videos you tweet and retweet
This would say more of who you are, particularly to people that don’t know you. Retweets with images do not appear on your profile unless you manual retweet them. If you tweet too much images at a time, particularly of a particular theme, it can turn people off and possible have them unfollow you just so their timeline isn’t flooded with those. As of the time of writing, they have recently introduced a feature where image previews are visible without the need of expending. Not a good thing if your image tweets are questionable or even not-safe-for-work.

However, only supported sources would appear there. It is not clear what exactly these sources are, but these include YouTube, vimeo, twitpic, and so on. Some sources, like pixiv or tuippuru has the preview appear like a news article preview. Keep note that this may change over time, or even be excluded completely. Historically, this includes yfrog and instagram.
(Why? Well, Imageshack (company behind yfrog) services are getting more annoying to use lately, unusable if on a non-smartphone mobile device. As for instagram, probably because they have been bought over by rival Facebook)

Bio and website link
Try not to follow the crowd, avoid unnecessary details (like your age and gender), and keep it short and simple. After all, you can only enter a limited amount of characters in it. Also, avoid using hashtags or typing everything in caps.

For the link in your bio, try to link it to a place to where people who may be interested in you to know more, like your blog. And please do not use a link shorterner here: people may think you are a bot if you do. This link could also be one of the chances (probably the only chance if your account is private) if someone wants to find out more about you.

Personally, I would prefer that there would be no hashtags or links in your bio besides the website link next to the location field. Placing a link to a portal of where you would place all your other sites is not recommended: I wouldn’t know which one to click, or not want to go the extra step just to find out more (keep in mind that there may be tabs of other people’s profile in their browser), and not bother going further. I would if this was on the blog instead.

Location
You can enter the name of your town/city here, your GPS coordinates here, stuff like “Within the Whelm of Darkness ( ´Д`)σ)Д`)”, or just leave it blank.

Take note: There are apps that tells you where your followers are from. Don’t know if they get the information in this text field. Also, if you are entering a real location, be mindful that it is viewed from around the world, so people may not know what your two-letter US/Canada postal short-forms for the state means, and it could be mistaken as a short form of an another country in the world.

678th post: Pseudo Japanese things that aren’t Japanese at all

You may have seen them before. From that “How to Draw Manga” I came across in a London museum (above tweet, possibly by an American author), to having the “の” (or its romanised form “no”) being used excessively like “Ookami no Jutsu” or, if in Chinese, something like “时间の乐趣”.

If you aren’t familiar with Chinese or Japanese, notice the random の being used as a substitute for 的 in the middle of a Chinese sentence that contains characters that aren’t normally used in Japanese, or used only in Simplified Chinese. If you are having trouble telling apart a genuine Japanese product with a copycat from China (Taiwan especially), look at the design like the fonts used: some products uses particular fonts that are commonly used on other Japanese products, but never elsewhere. If there’s a barcode, the first two digits of a genuine Japanese product should start with “42”. If it doesn’t, it’s not a real Japanese product.

Then there are overused Japanese themes used in the media that, while not historically inaccurate, it may give the impression to those who know nothing about Japan that it’s still filled with ninjas, samurai, geisha, houses are made up of low-rise wooden houses, and people get around by horses. To make things more complicated, there are actual dramas on Japanese TV that does look like it takes place in the Edo era (Early 17th century to mid 19th century) or earlier, which, if it is the only thing that a non-Japanese that knows little of the country were to see it would think that it is the modern-day Japan. (It’s possible if the influence is none or not obvious, and the local media hardly or doesn’t cover it at all, which itself you don’t watch.)

Until seemingly recently, I have also seen people using random katakana (or some typeface that tries to look like it) or some funny curved lines (which is also used in Chinese context) that are like what I call “chicken markings”. They then try to excessively use it when talking about Japanese things. Sometimes with some strange accent that even Japanese speaking English would never use. I said “until seemingly recently” because I almost never see them these days. Possibly due to increased awareness of the Japanese language and culture, mostly through anime.

647th post: Getting around abroad

In recent years, I had travel to countless number of different countries around Asia. I travel because I hear so much about different countries, but never actually visited them.

Back then, I had thought that you could only go abroad through “packages” by travel agencies, which I found expensive and inflexible. Not a fan of tour guides that travel around in large “herds” I see around me either. Just visiting a tourist spot near where I live and I could already see how expensive it is over the “less-touristy” ones.

  • Expensive: Hotels they offered, which is typically 3 to 5 stars, and may include meals containing food I do not want to eat.
  • Inflexible: They have schedules that are made up of mostly visiting tourist places and, looking at it, there is only little time where we aren’t herded around except perhaps arriving and departing days, which, depending on what time of the day, can be short or long. I hate following schedules.

Anyway, during my travels abroad, I usually brought about 2-3 pairs of clothing (more for underwear and socks) and other random stuff that would fit in a haversack and still have room. Since I’m also boarding a plane without any check-in luggage as much as possible, I did not bring along toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Actually, you can bring these along, as long you check it in, total liquids you are carrying does not exceed 100ml in a transparent bag (which is troublesome to measure), or non-liquid versions of these. These kinds of things can be found at the destination country’s hotel or stores anyway.

Another thing is to take note is to keep an eye out for the exchange rate between your currency and the currency you are visiting for a few weeks. Depending on the rates, you may need to change early, or right before the trip. If there are stopovers in a different country, exchange a bit of that country’s currency (US$100 should be more than enough if you are just buying a meal) too. Depending on the country and place, rates from the ATM or outside the airport might have a better exchange rate. Note: Excluding the local currency, coins are generally not accepted or given at money changers.

Anyway, here are the things I find about a place that other countries do not have or are in a different way.

Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Malacca, Johor Bahru)

Getting around is kind of straightforward, but not so easy if outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Everywhere you see are likely to notice are car models that you would not see anywhere else in the world. The atmosphere feels kind of fierce, strong influence of a particular religion is noticeable too, and the crime rate there doesn’t make me feel easy there. Even though the cost of things there might see high, the currency exchange rate against my home currency actually makes it cost less than back home.

1 USD is about 3 Malaysian Ringit

China (Shanghai and Shenzen)

I only made a short visit to these cities as I need to travel to get to elsewhere in an another country, so I don’t really know much. Easy way to calculate is to think of it as divide the amount by 10 to get the amount in British Pounds, a currency more familiar to me.

The first thing I noticed is that the side of the road and tracks buses and trains travel on are at the opposite side from what I’m used to. I actually found myself wondering how to get around as it wasn’t planned. Cost of things are cheap compared to back home, and probably at par with Malaysia. Can’t put a rough number on it though.

Hong Kong

The reason why I mentioned being to Shenzen is because it was part of a side day trip from Hong Kong. Macau was considered, but did not go there in the end. The HKD rate may be 0.8 yuan or 12 yen per dollar, but the cost of things are actually that of between China and Japan. The Hong Kong coins are the thickest, heaviest, and largest (in size) that I have ever come across. Excluding the HK$10 note (issued by the government to replace the coin version), the banknotes are distributed by several different banks instead of a central bank, which is the weirdest thing I have come across for money.

As I get around, there are actually features that help the blind at pedestrian crossings and the ends of escalators, along with brale signs. Just crossing the border with China (Shenzen) and you would notice how different things are, form the standard of English, to cleanness. Signs are bilingual (English and Traditional Chinese) everywhere.

To ride on public transport, I obtained an Octopus Card (or 八達通 in Chinese) to save the hassle to dig up for coins, and exact change in some cases, to pay for buses, tram and trains. You could also use it to pay at convenient stores (though the cashier seem reluctant when I asked) and vending machines too. I am not sre about this, but apparently paying by Octopus Card might be cheaper than paying in cash too. I never paid in cash for transport except to top up the card, so I don’t know about that.

Kansai Region (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe)

Visiting this region feels like being in a different country than Tokyo. It may not be for neighbouring Kyoto, but in Osaka (and I forgot to mention earlier: Hong Kong too), people riding the escalator stand on the right instead of the left.

The trains uses a non-rechargable magnetic card that can be use instead of queuing up at long queues for the ticket machine, but you still pay the same fare. Like other cities in Japan, but not outside, you can use it even when the value is low and chose to pay for the insufficient difference either in cash or with another similar card. I bought several of them of 1000 yen each (minimum you could buy, but it’s worth about less than 5 trips anyway) for the card design.

There are contactless card, but those are linked to your phone bill and obviously not accessible to the foreigner. I hear it’s also compatible with JR West’s ICOCA card, but I hardly ever come across any JR West station. The ICOCA card itself is also compatible with the SUICA card of the Kanto region (including Tokyo) and vice versa, but the PiPoPa doesn’t work with the SUICA card.

Singapore

What you would notice is how similar it is compared to Hong Kong due to both being former British colonies and small land area, which relates to infrastructure and such.

If you will be taking public transport a lot in Singapore, get the ez-link or NETS Flashpay card from the ticket counter (or customer service at the ticket barrier if there isn’t any) as not only would you pay cheaper than by cash, it would be less of a hassle to pay the bus fare as there is no facilitation for change and therefore need to pay in exact change (or more). On top of that, distance-based fares means that no matter how many buses and trains you take, the total fare you would pay is just one long mode of transport. The only catch is that time between transfers must not exceed 45 minutes, not take the same bus service number more than once, and not take the train more than once.

These cards contain a $5 deposit, which is included in the card balance. You cannot use this card if the balance is less than $5 for trains, or, for buses, less than the maximum fare at where you board the bus (which includes transfer discounts from buses and trains you may had taken up to 45 minutes earlier). Don’t forget to tap out as you had paid the maximum when you tapped in or you would not be refunded for the fare difference.

As for taxis, prepare to pay in cash even though various modes of payment are displayed on the door. You would be charged more on top of surcharges anyway. Yellow and black taxis are privately run and are less likely to support payments anything other than cash. At the city center, taxis are not allowed to drop or pick up passengers besides taxi stands and private roads.

Thailand (Bangkok, Kanchanaburi)

The cost of things you would find in Thailand are very noticeably cheaper than the other countries I had been to. Being from where the cost of things is higher, along with a higher exchange rate with the baht, means that it’s so cheap that I would go “that can’t be right”. Of course, that also means that if I were to settle there, that would mean that I would be (likely to be) paid less than back home for the same job. I feel safer here than when I was in Malaysia.

The Thais would usually take the the bus as the BTS Skytrain is considered expensive for them, but for the more well off and foreigners like me, it’s still cheap. When you first enter Bangkok, you would notice the motorcycle taxis and vehicles that are louder than what I’m used to. If it weren’t for the language barrier and cases where tourists are cheated, I could had rode them. For the buses, they seem kind of old. Fare is paid to the conductor, so you just board the train and the conductor would come to you where you would pay the fare, if they noticed you.

For the Skytrain, you would buy a prepaid card, just like the one in the Kansai region, but paying only for the trip you are travelling. Except for the newer ones, the machines accept only 5 and 10 baht coins. Use the newer machines (which can have a long queue) or the service counter next to the ticket gate to exchange. The new underground subway system uses the same method as the new ticket machine, but dispenses a (plain) round token. There are ongoing developments to develop a card that works on both the Skytrain and the subway.

But if you are headed to places like River Kwai section of the Death Railway near Kanchanaburi (about 200km Northwest from Bangkok), you are better off taking a tour bus or with your own transport. Sure there is a bus terminal there to and from Bangkok, but the bus terminal is about 2-4km and, at the Bangkok side, you would have to take a bus from the city centrer to a terminal some distance away that is at the outskirts of Bangkok. If you can’t speak Thai, you are going to have trouble asking for help.

645th post – World records and their authencity

So, you may have come across a book like “G****** World Book of Records” and looked through and get amazed at the things they mention.

But how many record-breaking things are there that are not recorded in this book? How many are achieved through cheating, or through impractical and unrealistic means? Which record has the most number of failed attempts? Some of these records looked as if they are done for the sake of doing it and either beat the previous record (even by just a tiny amount) or have it to themselves.

If you watch their shows, or a news article about it, you would noticed that the event is “officially” supervised by someone. Nobody is going to recognize an event that actually breaks an existing record without shortcuts used if it is not “officially supervised”, like a man running up and down the countryside by himself faster than that Bolt guy.

Just don’t believe everything others say, but leave room in the possibility that it could be real.