Three nights in Manhattan

“The City That Never Sleeps” certainly showcased why it got its nickname in the scant few days that I was in New York City for work. For three nights (I don’t count the first one because I arrived at my hostel at 9pm, dead-tired from a trans-Pacific flight), I returned to my hostel past 9pm because there was always something to see, even at the late hour.

First night: outside Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral

We started walking from Instituto Cervantes on E 40th St towards Times Square (where a co-delegate was meeting his aunt) on W 46th St, but with a slight detour to pass by Grand Central Station on E 42nd St. It sounded near enough in my head, forgetting to take into account the width of NYC’s blocks.

We didn’t have the time to enter Grand Central Terminal (I did that the next day) but even seeing just the outside was enough. Continue reading “Three nights in Manhattan”

My top Hong Kong travel apps

The smorgasbord of travel apps have made planning and executing travel plans so much easier. But which ones do you need for a trip to Hong Kong? Here are my tried and tested favorites:

HK eTransport
Hong Kong’s public transportation system, in my opinion, is what every other system in the world hopes to become. (Of course, this is helped by the fact that Hong Kong is smaller compared to everywhere else but that’s besides the point.) Everything runs like clockwork: the trains, the buses, the ferries, even the taxis! But navigating the entire system can be confusing to the newcomer (like me!) so this is where HK eTransport comes in.

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The HK eTransport app was created by Hong Kong’s Transport Department and gives you a complete guide on how to get from Point A to Point B. Just enter your starting location and your ending location and the app will calculate the various commuting routes available to you using the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Light Rail Transit (LRT), franchised buses, green minibuses, ferries (the famous Star Ferry and the ferries that service the Outlying Islands), regular trams, the Peak Tram, cross-boundary coach to Huanggang (China), and the bus to Ma Wan and Discovery Bay. It will even give you a detailed breakdown of each route and you can sort through the routes according to the number of interchanges, total fare, and estimated trip time.

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Suggested routes from where we stayed to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Cons: Requires an active data connection to use. Also, the suggested routes only include stops that are a maximum of 400 meters away from your origin or destination, thus potentially limiting your route choices. For example, there are normally two options for getting to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum from where we stayed in Tsim Sha Tsui: 1) taking the East Rail line from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Sha Tin (no transfers) then walking for 15 minutes to the museum), and 2) taking the East Rail line from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Tai Wai, transfering to the Ma On Sha line and take it to Che Kung Temple station, and walking for 5 minutes. But because of the 400 m restriction, the first option doesn’t appear. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, there are bound to be times when you just want to walk and see the sights.

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Download for iOS and Android

Official MTR app
This standalone application developed by the MTR gives you a detailed guide to Hong Kong’s MTR system. Enter your start and end stations and the app will give you the line you’ll take (and any line changes, if ever), estimated trip time, and total fare. It also lists the different points of interest accessible at each stop.

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If you don’t know the specific name of the station, you can search for popular landmarks instead.

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MTR map from Tsim Sha Tsui to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, with Che Kung Temple as the nearest station.

Pros: The app works even without an active data connection. However, you should have an active data connection when you first open it so it can download the latest fare guides.
Cons: The app is redundant if you already have the HK eTransport app.

Download for iOS and Android.

OpenRice Hong Kong
Hong Kong is all about the food and the OpenRice Hong Kong app is your best guide to Hong Kong’s best eats. It has an extensive list of restaurants, where they’re located, estimated cost per person, and reviews from the community. Aside from searching for a specific restaurant, OpenRice can also use your location to suggest nearby restaurants that you can sort according to cost, cuisine, and review scores.

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That blue dot was me and the Wah Kee Snack Food stall was a restaurant near me that served cheap but good food.

My friend Eric used it to bring up restaurant recommendations for me and sent the information via Facebook. You can also send the information through email, SMS, Twitter, and WhatsApp. In my case, Eric suggested that I try Honeymoon Desserts in Sha Tin (this was after our visit to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to eat there at the time as I accidentally left my wallet at home (long story). No sweat though, as I used OpenRice to find the Tsim Sha Tsui branch (it’s located inside Harbour Mall) and I was able to walk there from where I was staying.

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Directions from my apartment to the nearest branch of Honeymoon Dessert

 

Cons: Requires an active data connection to use.

Download for iOS and Android.

General travel needs:

XE Currency Converter
This app is a staple in my phone, regardless of whether I’m traveling or not. The user interface is easy to use and very pretty. Don’t forget to check the exchange rate for the day to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your money.

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Pro: the app works even without a data connection. Just remember that the exchange rate you’ll be using is the one the app got the last time it was online.

Download for iOS, Android, and Blackberry 10.

A SIM card and a data plan:

If your (unlocked) phone uses a micro or nano SIM card, you’re only in Hong Kong for 5 days or less, and don’t mind throwing the SIM card away after your trip, get the PCCW Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM card. The HK$69 SIM card is the cheapest available, is valid for 5 days, and you get 1.5 GB of data (3G speed), unlimited local calls, unlimited csl Wi-Fi, and HK$25 of usable value. If you want to extend the validity for another 5 days, you pay an additional HK$50 and get the same benefits. There’s an 8-day SIM card for HK$96 (gives you 5 GB data and HK$35 of useable value) but you cannot extend the validity of this card. Please note that this SIM card does NOT work on Blackberry devices. BOOOO!

hong kong tourist sim

If you’re staying for more than 5 days, I suggest that you get the regular China Mobile SIM card instead. The SIM card sells for HK$80 (HK$78 consumable) and is valid for 180 days since the last time it’s used. However, be sure to subscribe to the data plan you need. If you don’t, you’ll be charged HK$0.5/MB. I went with 1.5 GB data for 5 days (same as the Tourist SIM), costing HK $48. Subscription codes are here.

china mobile sim card

 Many, many thanks to Eric who suggested all the HK apps and the China Mobile SIM card! 😀

Macy’s Top Ten Taiwan travel tricks and tips

It’s been a week since I got back from a 10-day trip to Taiwan to present at the 3rd Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS). APCRS was my first time to present at an international scientific conference so YAY ME! After a hectic schedule of shuttling back and forth between Taipei and Pingtung, of balancing work and having fun, here’s my Top Ten list of (suggested) things to remember and/or do to make your trip easier, more fun, and less tiring.

1. Good news! Filipinos holding valid multiple-entry US, Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, or Schengen visas are visa-exempt for Taiwan! Just register online 1-2 months before you leave and bring a printed copy of the authorization certificate with you. The authorization certificate is valid for multiple entries for 30 days, starting from when you first enter Taiwan. I have US and Canadian visas so the exemption saved me time and around P2,000 in visa application fees.

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2. If you’re between 15 to 30 years old, apply for a Youth Travel Card at the airport Visitor Information counter when you arrive. It’s free, the card gets you discounts at participating attractions (the National Palace Museum is included!), and it makes for a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough Googling prior to leaving so I thought that you could only get it at the airport. Since the counter closed at 10pm and we arrived at 1:30am AND I didn’t know that you could get it elsewhere, I wasn’t able to get the Youth Travel Card myself. So yes, this tip comes from a (sorta) shallow well of bitterness 😛

3. Get an EasyCard. This reloadable tap-and-go card is the single-most important thing you’d need to travel around Taipei and possibly the rest of Taiwan. It works for the MRT, buses, the High Speed Rail, the Tamsui ferries, even the Taipei Zoo! You can also use it in convenience stores. Some Starbucks branches also take it 😛 It’s basically the equivalent of Hong Kong’s Octopus card. You can get the EasyCard at any MRT station. A NT$100 deposit is required plus any credits that you want to load on the card. You can return the card at the end of your trip (also at the MRT station) for a refund of the deposit and any unused value, minus a NT$20 administration fee for a card that’s been in circulation for less than 3 months or used less than 5 times.

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4. Taipei Taoyuan International Airport is Taiwan’s main gateway but it’s not located inside Taipei itself. The airport is about 1 hour out of Taipei and the cheapest and most convenient way to travel between Taipei and Taoyuan Aiport is via bus. Kuo Kuang Motor Transportation operates express buses between Taipei West Bus Station (beside Taipei Main Station) and Taoyuan Airport and the trip generally takes 50 minutes to an hour. Adult tickets are NT$125 each. Operating hours are:

Taoyuan Airport to Taipei West Bus Station: 5:30am to 12:20am the next day (buses leave every 10-15 minutes)
Taiwan West Bus Station to Taoyuan Airport: 4:30am to 11:50pm (buses leave every 10-15 minutes)

Since we arrived at the airport at 1:30am, we had to take a taxi to our hostel. The taxi cost NT$1,200 with similar travel time as the bus.

5. Unless you want to take advantage of discounted early bird tickets and/or are traveling during super peak times, there’s really no reason for you to buy High Speed Rail tickets in advance. I got my Taipei-Zuoying ticket at NT $1300 (30% off) instead of the usual NT $1630 but my Zuoying-Taipei ticket was at regular price. My friends had no problems buying tickets even five minutes before the train was scheduled to leave.

6. Get a translator app and maps. Yes, this seems like a no-brainer but I thought it worth mentioning it anyway just in case you somehow forget it in the rush of getting ready. None of the taxi drivers we got spoke English – one of them asked us (politely?) to get out of the cab once he found out that we didn’t speak Mandarin. He only agreed to take us to Taipei Main Station once I pointed it out on the map. The map itself was in English (the street names were also in English) but Taipei Main Station had a cute illustration to mark the spot and the driver recognized it.

7. Eat at the roadside eateries and streetfood areas. All of the places we ate at served cheap and delicious food AND we didn’t get sick. Hooray! If you plan correctly, NT $400 can get you 3 square meals plus snacks. The only semi-letdown was the not-so-stuffed takoyaki I got at Shilin Night Market. Boo 🙁

8. If you’re the type that flinches at the idea of no Wi-Fi, never fear! Taipei offers free Wi-Fi in many public areas, including the MRT, bus, and train stations. Some users can register using their mobile phones (depends on the country where your mobile phone is registered) but for others, you’ll have to register at one of the many Visitor Information Centers. A valid ID is required to register at the centers.

9. Bring an umbrella if you’re visiting in June. Seriously. I’m Filipino so I’m used to the heat but Taiwan’s heat and humidity is something else. I felt ready to take another shower after just three hours of walking outside.

10. Bring a little notebook with you to collect stamps. Yes I’m serious again. In a brilliant (IMHO) move by Taiwan’s tourism authority, they have stamping stations located in their top tourist destinations and even the MRT. The collected stamps are a fun, cute, and free souvenir of your trip. If you’re a completist, the stamps can be a standalone goal. Bonus points if you buy your stamping notebook in Taiwan and get the ones with Taiwan maps and images on them (like mine!).

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How to get to El Nido, Palawan (AKA Paradise)

Finally decided to visit my work place? Awesome! 😀 There are several ways to get here:

From Manila:
Island Transvoyager Inc.
ITI flies 3x daily from Manila directly to El Nido using 19-seater Dornier aircraft. Travel time is 1 hour 15 minutes. Luggage allowance is 10 kg per person, including carry-on baggage. Excess baggage is Php 100/kg. Drawbacks: unless you’re a guest of El Nido Resorts, you can only book 5 days in advance. Tickets are also pretty steep at Php 13,500 per adult. If you’re super flexible with your travel schedule, you can look out for ITI’s seat sales, which usually happen when ENR has a large group traveling to or from El Nido (necessitating more planes from ITI) and few passengers on the way back.

From Puerto Princesa City: (you fly Manila-PPC using any of the domestic carriers)
RoRo bus
Finally, an airconditioned bus to and from Puerto Princesa City! The bus started operating just this March with daily schedules:

PPC-El Nido El Nido-PPC
6:00 AM non-airconditioned 4:00 AM
8:00 AM airconditioned 6:00 AM
10:00 AM non-airconditioned 8:00 AM
12:00 PM airconditioned 10:00 AM
2:00 PM non-airconditioned 2:00 PM
6:00 PM airconditioned 6:00 PM
10:00 PM non-airconditioned 10:00 PM

The buses leave on time even if there are no passengers, something that isn’t going to happen with the aircon shuttle vans. The seats are also bigger than the van’s and they recline. Travel time is 6 hours, with stops in Roxas and Taytay. Fare is Php 480 per way for the airconditioned bus and Php 350 for the non-airconditioned.

Eulen Joy bus
If you want the ultimate “roughing it” land trip from PPC to El Nido, take the Eulen Joy non-airconditioned bus. The bus ride is 6-8 hours, with frequent stops to pick up passengers (both human and non-human) along the way. The bus leaves PPC at 5am, 7am or 8am, 9am, and 10am. Fare is Php 350.

Shuttle van
If you’re part of a group of 6-12 people, renting a private airconditioned shuttle van may be the way to go. Renting a van is Php 7,000-10,000 per way (depending on how good you are at bargaining). Fare on the regular trip is Php 500 per person, per way.

From Coron:
Supercat fast ferry
The Supercat ferry service just started two weeks ago and will most likely supplant the large outrigger boats that also ply the El Nido-Coron route. The fare is cheaper (Php 1,720 for the Supercat compared to Php 2,200 for the outrigger boats) and it’s FASTER (4 hours for the Supercat vs 8 hours). There’s only one ferry boat and it goes back and forth within the day – El Nido to Coron in the morning then Coron to El Nido in the afternoon. I’ve yet to check the exact departure times though.

Exploring Hong Kong: the Airport Express, going home, and Cebu Pacific’s lateness

As our flight back to Manila leaves at 8:30 am, we opted to take the Airport Express to HKIA instead of the Cityflyer bus. The bus route starts at 5:30 am and would take maybe an hour to the airport, while the train starts at 5:50 am and takes less than 30 minutes. Yes there was only a slight difference in the time we’d get to HKIA but we didn’t want to chance it. The Airport Express cost HK$72 one-way compared to the bus’ HK$33.

We found a taxi after only 5 minutes of waiting (Carla advised us it might take 10-15 minutes because of the early hour) and paid HK$35 for the 2++ km trip to Kowloon Station (there’s a surcharge for luggage). We exchanged our vouchers for train tickets and sat down to wait. If you’re taking Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, or any of the other airlines that support in-town check-in, you can check your bags at the train station for an even more hassle-free ride. You can also use your Octopus card to pay for the train. The train ride was fast. Wow. Even though the trip was much longer, I’m glad we took the bus into the city as our introductory sightseeing tour as the AE train mostly goes through tunnels so there’s no view. We got to HKIA in about 25 minutes, checked our bags, then wandered around for something to eat. We easily found seats in the food court area and ate some pancakes and eggs. Unfortunately, the bane of my airport existence is also found in HKIA: expensive drinks. A bottle of water cost HK$16 🙁 Incidentally, you can use the last of your Octopus card load at the airport because you can also use it to pay for food. You can also opt to return your Octopus card to get the deposit and any remaining credit back, though there’s a surcharge if you return it within three months of buying it.

We found our gate without any trouble and waited for boarding. Unfortunately, Cebu Pacific‘s 20%++ delayed flights record reared its ugly head. Our flight was delayed by 30 minutes with no explanations as to why. We landed in Manila at 11 am and got out of immigration and baggage claim by 12 nn. The Customs guys didn’t bother me as it was obvious that I didn’t do much shopping. Aids and I parted ways at the airport. Until the next adventure 🙂

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And thus ends our awesome Hong Kong trip. To recap:

Day 1: getting there and our first meal in Hong Kong

Day 1: Hong Kong Space Museum, Avenue of Stars, Mong Kok

Day 2: Ocean Park

Day 3: Peng Chau and Tai O

Day 4: Po Lin monastery, Ngong Ping village, Central

Day 4: more Joon, Victoria Peak, Symphony of Lights, and a last walk through Tsim Sha Tsui

All in all, I’m happy with how our budget turned out 🙂 We didn’t do a lot of shopping and ate cheaper food but invested in nicer accommodations. Now, time to save up for the next big adventure! *ponders Thailand, Vietnam, or South Korea*

Exploring Hong Kong: Ocean Park

Day 2 of our Hong Kong exploration led us to Ocean Park. Why Ocean Park instead of Disneyland? Because I said so 😛 But seriously. Aids wasn’t interested in going (he’s not much for thrill rides) and I’d already been to Disneyworld twice and Disneyland California once (plus Universal StudiosIslands of Adventure, Universal Studios California, and Universal Studios Singapore :P).

Going to and from Ocean Park is a breeze. Just take the MTR to Admiralty station then take the Citybus 629 Express Bus to Ocean Park (HK$10.60 per way for the bus ride). The bus also picks up from Central station but check the schedule. The bus ride takes about 30 minutes and drops you off right in front of Ocean Park.

Ocean Park tip #1: it’s best to be there by the time the park opens at 10:00 am. We left TST late so we got there by 11:30. We’d missed the first animal shows already so that threw off our entire schedule – we were hoping to leave by 3 or 4 pm to visit the markets in Stanley.

I loved Ocean Park, although me being my ocean-lover self may have contributed to that. The animals looked well-cared for, the exhibits were both beautifully designed and functional, and the written interpretation and displays were superb. I can’t say anything about the verbal interpretation as it was mostly in Cantonese. The dolphin show had a pre-recorded narration in alternating Cantonese and English while the bird show was in Cantonese with only sprinklings of English here and there. If you’re set on watching all of the shows and seeing all of the exhibits, check out Ocean Park’s website for the show schedules on the specific date you’ll be going to better plan your day. I did this but silly me forgot to print it out.

Ocean Park tip #2: buy your tickets in advance. The lines at the gate for admission tickets can get very long and waste your time when you could be exploring the park already. See my earlier entry for where you can get discounted tickets.

While each exhibit was great, my absolute favorites were the Giant Aquarium, Amazing Asian Animals, Giant Panda Habitat, and the Sea Jelly Spectacular.

The Giant Aquarium deserves its name as you have to take an escalator up – you start from the top of the building then work your way down. Each section is themed according to the ocean depth the animals live in – intertidal, coral reefs, and deep sea. The intertidal section also had a touch pool with starfish and sea cucumbers – something sure to appeal to the kids. The section on coral reefs has several tanks full of colorful reef fish, including one chockfull of “Nemos” – false clown anemonefish (Amphiprion ocellaris). However, the giant viewing window at the end of your tour is sure to become a highlight. The window is 68 cm thick plexiglass, holding back hawksbill sea turtles, sharks, a Napoleon wrasse, groupers, tuna, and thousands of gallons of seawater.

The Amazing Asian Animals exhibit lived up to its name. They showcased giant pandas, red pandas, and goldfish. A giant panda had his ass pointed in our direction as he did his business. As expected, panda poop is green from the food that it eats. Another one was eating, easily breaking the bamboo in half before ripping it apart to get to the soft inner parts. This was my first time to see a giant panda eat and its sheer brute strength surprised me. I’d temporarily forgotten that despite its sluggish movement, it’s a bear and a hunter at heart.

The goldfish exhibit was also really interesting, something I did not expect at all 😀 They had diagrams showing the different features of each particular variety of goldfish and the proper terms to describe them. I kept wondering though if the goldfish were comfortable with the modified body parts they sported. Bubble eyes aren’t hydrodynamic after all.

The dedicated giant panda habitat (separate from the Asian Animals exhibit) was also really cool (both literally and figuratively). Giant pandas are mountain creatures so Ocean Park takes care to bump up the AC to make them comfortable. There was virtually no line to get into the exhibit, something we appreciated. Everyone was crowded against the glass and snapping photos continuously.

The Sea Jelly Spectacular was truly spectacular. Jellies are mostly translucent white and pretty enough, but Ocean Park designed the jellyfish exhibit to show them off to their best advantage and then some (basically like women wearing makeup :P). Aids and I stood in front of one jellyfish tank for about 10 minutes, just taking photos. Hopefully we didn’t disturb the other visitors who wanted to take photos as well. I also took some video of the moon jelly (Aurelia aurita) tank as the tank lights (so also the jellies) changed color from green to red. It was pretty awesome.

Ocean Park tip #3: visit on a non-holiday weekday to avoid the crowds. We went on a Friday so it was already somewhat crowded. The lines for the rides weren’t too bad, though the animal shows were definitely full.

We got to the Amazing Bird Theater with 5 minutes to spare and took seats on the left side of the performance space. The bird show itself was nice and okay but not as great as the show in the Jurong Bird Park in Singapore. The highlight for me was the scarlet macaw taking donations from the crowd for the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCF). The volunteer holds out a folded bill (preferably at least HK$20 :D) and the macaw lands on his arm, takes the donation in its beak, then flies towards the donation box and drops it in.

Coming in for a landing
Getting the goodies (photo by Aids)
Turning around
Takeoff!

I was seriously impressed with how Ocean Park gets its visitors to donate to OPCF. First, they make a great heartfelt appeal. Second, they make giving fun. Having a macaw collect donations was a genius move. And third, they make it easy. The giant panda and Chinese sturgeon exhibits had stations where you could donate via Octopus card. Just swipe your Octopus card and *ting!* you’ve donated HK$10 towards saving the planet. I donated at the Chinese sturgeon exhibit while Aids swiped his card for the pandas.

How can you resist that cuddly panda?!

Buildable space in Hong Kong is a premium and Ocean Park is no exception. It expanded up the mountainside so tip #4 is to wear your most comfortable shoes or flip-flops and be prepared for a lot of walking. You will have to go up and down several hilly areas during the day, especially if you didn’t plan your route out beforehand. On the other hand, the need to break the park up in two resulted in Ocean Park’s cable car system. There are four cable lines (two going in each direction) running continuously so the waiting time isn’t so bad. Your wait is rewarded with a 10-minute cable car ride that gives you astonishing views of Hong Kong’s mountains, coastline, and surrounding waters.

Lastly, Ocean Park is famous for its Halloween parties! The park builds special “haunted houses” and 4D theaters full of spooky stuff and is open until way past the regular 7 pm closing. This requires a separate ticket and these tickets go very fast. According to my friend Eric, tickets for Ocean Park’s Halloween extravaganza were sold out months ago.

We left the park before the 7 pm Symbio closing show to meet up with our friend Chris in TST. If you have no early evening plans, I highly recommend that you stay for Symbio. It’s a show on conservation and symbiotic relationships featuring fire, water, lights, pyrotechnics, music, and animation. Eric said it’s really good 🙂

The next day’s itinerary: an unexpected-yet-totally-worth-it stop in Peng Chau, Tai O, Po Lin monastery, Ngong Ping village, and Central 😀

Victoria Harbor after the failed meetup with Chris