CNY Reunion in Phuket – Hangover & Burnt

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Since young, it has been our family’s tradition to spend the eve and the first few days of Chinese New Year outside Singapore. Back then, we had all our annual reunions in Muar, a small Malaysian town just south of Malacca. Since the passing our granny in June 2012, we stopped traveling back to Muar. We continue to have our annual reunion at many different locations outside Singapore.

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(See: Sentosa 2013, Desaru 2014, Kukup 2015, Bintan 2016, Batam 2017, Batam 2018)

Last year was exceptional. Despite having it planned out months before CNY, we didn’t have any overseas reunion in 2018 due to many unforeseeable reasons. My dad was recovering from his eye operation and the Cheng family couldn’t join us because they were hosting relatives from the United States. In the end, I had the smallest and quietest CNY reunion in a big pool villa in Batam with my mum, wife, and kid.

 

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This year was exceptional too, for the first time ever, all the families flew to meet in Phuket. We parked ourselves at the most happening street in Phuket, in the heart of Patong Beach City, right beside the popular chaotic Bangla Street where it took us only a 3-min walk to the beach. With hundreds of shops, restaurants, massage parlors, and bars around us, it was certainly a big contrast from our usual CNY destinations (private family villa or quiet resort). The streets and beach were so congested with tourists from all around the world. This is our most crowded and noisest CNY reunion destination ever!

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Phuket was the perfect CNY holiday destination for everyone. The older folks indulged themselves at the nearby massage parlors/shopping mall while the sporty brothers showed off their abs at the indoor wake park/pool bar.

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Felicia, Elkan and I preferred the tranquility of Phuket’s more pristine attractions. We left buzzing Patong and traveled 4 hours to a group of islands northwest in the Andaman Sea.

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Similan Islands are well known for its clear water, fine sand and ocean life. Unfortunately, for a Singaporean, the name “Similan” (meaning “nine” in Jawi) bears the exact pronunciation as another common Hokkien expression “what-the-f**k”. I couldn’t resist myself from laughing every time the tour guide mentioned the name. This was apparent when the tour guide announced loudly in his voice when our speedboat anchored at the island “Hello, everyone, welcome to Similan! Enjoy yourself!”

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Similan Islands are indeed worth the visit. At first glance, its clear turquoise water and soft white sand are comparable to the Maldives. However, the state of tranquility vanished as hordes of tourists arrived onto its shore. We were lucky to be one of the earliest visitors of the day. By noon, the entire island was occupied by thousands of people.

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The sea life beneath was in very bad shape. Most corals have died out. It wasn’t as colorful, diverse and lively as the Maldives. Today, out of the 11 islands at Similan, only 3 are opened for the public. Many islands are closed off for turtle hatching protection program and reef conservation efforts.

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On the eve of Chinese New Year, Felicia, Elkan and I traveled eastward towards the Straits of Malacca to visit another popular, iconic tourist destination – Phang Nga Bay. We went island-hopping from the colossal Khao Phing Kan (aka James Bond Island) to enigmatic Koh Hong. 

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There, we hopped onto a kayak and explored many beautiful sea caves where we spotted a “heart-shaped skylight” above the center of an inner cave lagoon, outlined naturally by the canopy of the forest. There wasn’t any fixed exploration route at Koh Hong, our kayak rower was extremely nice to us and brought us to many limestone islets where we saw many stunning limestone rock formations up close. We ended our day touring the floating fishing village of Koh Panyee.

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While we were exploring the sea caves at Phang Nga Bay, the rest of the families were exploring a different world at the Upside Down House. It was hilarious to see my old folks doing the impossible poses.

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Later in the evening, we rejoined the rest of the families at Patong where we had a super sumptuous CNY Reunion Dinner at a “Pig-themed Restaurant”. And yes, pork ribs were the restaurant’s signature dish! Because we were in Thailand, this was our first CNY reunion dinner without any “lo hei” ritual. Thanks to Chester’s generous treat, we had so much food leftover!

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We spent our last hours in Phuket back in the hotel room, drinking and playing cards with the old folks. I couldn’t drink as much as before. Sigh, it must be a sign of old age.

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The next day, all of us flew out of Phuket. Strange but it is true, we were on 4 different flights (3 separate flights to Singapore and me alone back to Hong Kong). The families continued to celebrate their CNY gatherings back in Singapore, yes, with more festive dining, drinking, and playing cards.

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Me? That marks the end of my 7-week holiday travel. Now, back to my little nest and spending the second day of CNY with my Indian brother. Enjoying the peace in the city while preparing for my next trip. What a great year ahead!

Sleepless in The Caffeine City, Seattle

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Long before the mass popularity of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon Go, Nora Ephron romanced the world with her classic hit “Sleepless in Seattle”. The perfect on-screen’s love chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan combined with the soulful duet of Celine Dion and Clive Griffin weaved an everlasting love story in the hearts of millions. It was through this 1993 movie that I formed my first and lasting impression of Seattle.

26 years later, I am finally here. And it was the lure of Amazon Go that brought me to Seattle. Chowpo was extremely excited to show me around, after all, she grew up in Seattle.

 

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I was very lucky to be blessed with great sunny weather during my visit as Seattle is one of the wettest cities in the world (and heavy downfall is generally expected between January and May). We visited Seattle’s most popular Instagram sites, the Snoqualmie Falls Park, the Space Needle, the Museum of Pop Art and Kerry Park.

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There is something unique and charming about Seattle. Perhaps its buildings and its people. Or maybe it is the weather and its spacious lush terrains. It is like falling in love with an old typewriter or a vintage car, I just can’t describe the feelings in words. I had a very good cozy feeling about this city of old-&-new and it intrigued me to stay longer. Good gracious, what kind of “charms” they put in the Starbucks drinks here? I am started to get addicted to this small city.

We visited the first Starbucks shop at Pike Place Market where I bought many souvenirs for my friends back home. It was a small shop filled with busloads of tourists.

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Chowpo then brought me to an unusual tourist attraction at the lower alley of Pike Place Market. It was the infamous grossest Gum Wall. At first, I thought it was fun but the pungent smell of gums and sight grossed me out. And being a brainwashed and law-bidding Singaporean, spitting chewing gum and vandalizing public properties are offenses that carry heavy, painful penalties, I didn’t even think of leaving my mark here. (I left that place with one big question – why aren’t there any ants on the wall??)

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Thanks to the connectivity of social media, I met up with my childhood penpal, Venina & family (our second meeting in 30 years!) and cousin Bin in Seattle! What a small world!

When I told Chowpo and my cousin Bin that I am meeting my penpal in Seattle, both of them asked me the same question separately, “You mean meeting a friend from Paypal?” I had to repeat it was a penpal. And their next question was “What’s a penpal?” (Yes, you can imagine my long unhappy face. Can’t blame them, I bet my son didn’t know this term too! Sigh….)

Venina was my first penpal. (I only had 2, one from Indonesia and another from Tripoli, Lebanon whom I lost contact) Venina and I connected when I was only 10-11. We first and last met in Singapore when I was 14 years old. We lost touch when she moved overseas and we managed to reconnect back on MSN and later Facebook. Till date, I still keep all the letters she sent. This is our second meeting in 30 years! And she is happily married to a wonderful doctor with 2 lovely boys! We met at Starbucks Reserve Roastery at Pike Street. Never expect to meet my penpal in Seattle! It was one of the best things that happened to me here! (Thanks for reaching out on Facebook and it was great meeting all of you, my old pal!)

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Our next stop – meeting Cousin Bin at Seattle’s must-visit iconic site. Housing over 40,000 plants, the iconic Amazon Spheres are impressive with its pentagonal hexecontahedron panels. The spherical domes are more than just a gigantic greenhouse, it houses Amazon staffs and a discovery center, Understory, literally at its first story.

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Cousin Bin and I went next door to visit the world’s first Amazon Go shop where we attempted “deliberate shoplifting”, in the hope of breaking its unmanned system. We sneaked products discreetly into our pockets and left the shop. For 2 days, I tried numerous methods and failed. No matter how carefully I concealed the products from the ceiling-mount cameras, Amazon Go knew what I took. There is no way to trick and confuse the 2-year old system.

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A day before we flew back to Hong Kong, Chowpo insisted that I should visit Vancouver as it was only a short 3-hour drive away. Our journey was affected by heavy fog that blanketed the entire highway. Driving through the thick fog and icy road at night was something new for us. It was a scary experience for me because the visibility was less than 20m away. Chowpo is an experienced, calm, confident driver, despite my worries and fear, she got us to and fro slow and safely.

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I had planned another surprise meeting in Vancouver. Earlier that morning, our ex-colleague, Raymond messaged me for a meetup. We planned to surprise Chowpo at her favorite Hong Kong cafe but it was closed. Finally, Raymond turned up and gave Chowpo a fright at the food court. What a pleasant surprise!

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It was great to see Raymond after so many years! 5 years to be exact! He gave us a short tour around town. Due to the heavy fog, we didn’t spend too much time in Vancouver City. I was trying to get back to Seattle before nightfall. We had a 2-hour tiring hike at Capilano Lake and headed back to Seattle. We were so exhausted and hungry by the time we crossed into the USA. We took a short dinner break at a Starbucks cafe by the USA border.

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On our last day in Seattle, Chowpo brought me to another unusual tourist attraction. It was an underground city tour of old Seattle town which was burnt down a century ago. We spent an hour walking through old underground tunnels, immersed in historic and haunting stories about Seattle’s founding pioneers.

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On our way to the airport, we made one last stop at the most instagrammable site of Seattle, the Gasworks Park. We had another beautiful view of Seattle city from the other side of the lake. The sun was setting and it was time to go.

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Looking forward to coming back soon. Hopefully, with my family, old folks and kid to experience Seattle hospitality and charm.

Valleys of Wonders (Part II – Death Valley)

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Las Vegas McCarran International Airport never fails to delight me with its unique fanfare of bright and chirpy whimsical slot machines. The sounds of play companied by vibrant visuals of promised payouts create a celebratory atmosphere of winning. Lining right outside the connecting airbridge, these visually stimulating slot machines are the first and last things travelers see when they visit Las Vegas. Never underestimate these harmless-looking game machines, they are built with deep psychology insights to lure and keep you coming back.

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I love CES! More than just an expo of the latest tech offering, it is a big trove of everything! I get to touch and experience some of the latest and most interesting gadgets. Best of all, I get to ask all the questions I need to know about the magic behind the tech. The effort to put together such a great show requires infinite resources and millions of hours of creativity, research and development, production and planning. It is worth every cent, effort and time just to be here.

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This year, we were much more mentally and physically prepared. We knew where to go to look for the kinds of stuff we needed. We actually walked lesser and covered more grounds. We paced ourselves pretty well.

2019 is going to be another exciting year with many AI-aided innovations. From smart watches to autonomous electric-vehicles, every smart gear that you have will only be smarter as AI is taking over most of the control. The presence of powerful optic, audio, and atmospheric sensors enable AI-engines to be faster and even more precise. You don’t even need to give any vocal command to Google or Alexa, predictive patterns and AI-analytic models are going to remember your movement, preference and anticipate what you need. When technology is being put to good, sustainable purposeful applications, it fulfills mankind with A Better Life, A Better World (echoing the core aspiration and value of CES).

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What’s delightful to know was despite the advancement of better tech-offering, many suppliers are keen to keep retail prices at an affordable range. A 3D-printing-cum-laser machine used to cost around USD2,000 is now priced at USD800. It is something Apple must learn to avert its falling sales.

This trip, I didn’t visit any casino (other than the exhibition halls at Venetian Sands) or any naughty joints. Some cheeky friends texted me to visit Playboy’s Mansion. Guess they didn’t know that the infamous joint closed down for many years.

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Instead, I went to have a drink at a pretty well-known bar, Tipsy Robot Bar. It is the world’s most famous unmanned theatric robotic bar that is capable to mix a cocktail in less than 90 seconds. Ordering is easy via a tablet, just pick and pay with a credit card. The robotic hand picks up a cup and start to draw different blends of mixers from the ceiling. It then shakes the concoction in true robotic style before pouring the mixture into the cup. Just before the cocktail is being served, the robotic arm gives a final touch with decorative garnishes. I paid USD15 for the drink. It was fresh and rich in taste! And yes, no tips required.

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Just before we fly out of Las Vegas, I wanted to make a quick visit to another world’s famous valley, the Death Valley. Not sure what kind of terrain we will be encountering, we rented a 4-wheel-drive Jeep. The Death Valley was a 3-hour drive away from Las Vegas City. The entire journey will take us about 8 hours to and fro the valley.

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We were blessed with terrific weather. It was clear sunny blue sky! Due to the recent US government shutdown, we drove to our first destination with uncertainty. True enough, we were unable to proceed to our first destination as the road was closed due to the federal shutdown. Thankfully, we were able to visit the other attractions as there were friendly park rangers working without pay.

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Death Valley is full of wonders. It is certainly not a dead place but a big gallery of timeless canvases of colors, textures, and formations. Crafted by the forces of nature and time, each canvas is sculptured vibrantly with unique depth and style. Here, we don’t just see the art, we literally live and breathe in the art. Walking through the gigantic terrains and deepest point (85m below sea-level) of USA, we get to see its artistic form in various different dimension, lighting, and perspective. Feeling so small in its majestic presence, it is a humbling and awakening experience for both of us.

It is, after all, a mystically deadly and beautiful place.

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Valleys of Wonders (Part I – Silicon Valley)

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After last year’s bad traveling arrangement, we needed more time to adjust the uncomfortable jetlags, this year, we began our annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of Gizmos (CES 2019) 3 days before the opening of the event. And it was the wisest decision ever!

This year, we also decided not to transit at the City of Angels. Instead, we made a short 3-day stopover at the City by the Bay, San Francisco to visit one of the world’s most famous valleys – the Silicon Valley. It is the birthplace of many new start-ups and home to 3 global technology giants – Apple, Facebook, and Google.

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While Chowpo enjoyed her business class status, I was extremely “lucky” to have an upgraded “SSSS” status on my boarding pass. Trust me, it is a special privilege you won’t want when flying to the USA. It stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection. According to a UK news website, it says travelers who are given the SSSS code are on an FBI counter-terrorism watchlist and there are others who are assigned this code at random. For some strange reasons, TSA viewed me as a high-risk traveler. (Nope, I didn’t fly or crash any drone in the USA last year!) Due to this, I couldn’t check in my luggage at the downtown airport express. Prior to boarding the plane, I had to go through another “special body massage” and had my bag scanned and checked.

Other than this special treatment at the airport, I had the best long-haul red-eye flight ever. It was so smooth and gentle compared with last year’s violent rocky ride to Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, the dreadful rain spell followed me from Taiwan to San Francisco. Luckily, we arrived one day before the big storm which resulted in the cancellation of over 300 flights. I slept through the storm and adjusted my sleep cycle.

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San Francisco’s steep slopes are scary and challenging even for an experienced driver like Chowpo. It was so rare and unreal to see fearless Chowpo driving in anxiety. I can’t blame her. Some of these roads are visually impossible to drive. Some of the steepest roads are at only 17.5°. Now, that’s insane!  Imagine doing parallel parking on such crazy steepness (under heavy rain and strong wind), our logic and senses simply couldn’t compute.

We had our worst nightmare while crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge at the peak of the storm, confronting the unexpected gales. I panicked when Chowpo told me that she was unable to control the vehicle straight. We literally crawled through the ferocious gales. Our cheap light Japanese car was just too weak to handle such weather condition. Thankfully, I had a very skillful and fearless driver.

We didn’t do much in San Francisco. Despite the driving nightmares, I asked Chowpo to drive me down the world’s crookedest road at Lombard Street. We visited the San Francisco Cable-Car Museum, Chinatown and dined along the Fisherman’s Wharf. We actually wanted to pay a visit to one of the world’s most famous cages, Alcatraz but it was closed over the weekend.

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Finally, on our last day, the sun was out and we made our way to the Golden Gate and a speedy tour around Silicon Valley. On our way to the new Apple Park and Google Campus, we paid our homage to the late Steve Jobs at his old garage.

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Most of these tech campuses looked old and lifeless on the outside. The endless rows of short flatted factories reminded me of Singapore’s old industry parks in the 90s. The new Apple Park Visitor Center was pretty disappointing. Over 70% of the visitor center was the usual Apple Retail Store. There were many expensive exclusive items for Apple Fans (like T-shirts, mugs, and pens) but many of those limited editions were produced in China. We couldn’t enter the UFO-shaped complex. Visitors were given an iPad to view the building through an interactive AR app. Yawn… What’s the point of traveling all the way there just to play with an iPad?

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Google Campus was slightly more colorful and fun. The Android Statues Park is home to many giant Android-sugary-characters. Made of soft foam, it is a harmless joyous sugary playground for all adults and kids, even for the diabetics! There is a Google Store next to the park where we bought a few Google Exclusive toys and t-shirts (all made in China too!). I got a Google Home Hub which cost 50% cheaper than the ones in Hong Kong. What a sweet deal!

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We left Silicon Valley and made our way to the airport. Next stop – Sin City, Las Vegas!

 

A Belated Happy New Year Blog

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Usually, I try to finish my vlog editing and blog writing within 48 hours after I shot all the content. This takes a lot of effort and it drains out a lot of energy into the late night. Editing and uploading a travel blog takes me around 3-5 hours now. I realize I am unable to travel and edit my content on a daily basis now. I must be getting old and rusty.

I am writing this belated new year blog in the wee hours (as I am still coping and adjusting from my recent jetlag). I just came back from my long 17-day travel. There are tons of photos and videos waiting for me to sort out. I love sharing my blogs and vlogs with my loved ones back home. I just need to finish all the travel blogs before my next trip.

 

This new year, Tracy and I made a short 4D3N trip to Taiwan. I chose the destination because I volunteered to deliver 3 large boxes of hardware to my friend in Taiwan. We flew out at the same time as Felicia and Elkan (who were flying back to Singapore) on new year eve.

Despite being a frequent traveler to Taipei (at least 2-3 times a year), I realize that there are still so many places around Taipei I have never been. Thanks to Mr. Chen, Sean, and lovely family, I had a great rewarding trip. From local art districts to geothermal sites, every moment is a brand new refreshing experience.

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This was also a good short casual trip for me to test out my new tiny travel gears – The new DJI OSMO Pocket and Huawei Mate20pro. The verdict? Amazing compact travel gears for bloggers and vloggers! The DJI Osmo Pocket is super user-friendly and it captures footage in 4K quality! Huawei Mate20pro is awesome too. Its HDR photos are stunning! With this trials, I convinced myself I do not need to carry heavy bulky gears for my upcoming US trip.

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Sean and family picked us up at the airport and he drove south to avoid the rainy weather up north. Sean brought us to an unusual tourist attraction, Longteng Broken Bridge (龍騰斷橋) at Mouli County (苗栗縣). This unusual attraction is actually an earthquake ruin caused by 2 major earthquakes – the 1935 Shinchiku-Taichū earthquake and the 1999 “921” earthquake. Since then, this unique ruin has been listed as a national monument by Taiwan’s Cultural Heritage Assets.

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Just 15-minute drive away, Sean brought us to an old locomotive village, Sheng Xing Train Station (三義勝興車站) where we saw many adorable “self-paddled” electric train coaches. These mini train coaches offer a colorful rejuvenation to the long-abandoned railway track. This place reminded me of Shifen Old Street (十分老街). There are many local shops selling local crafts and food.

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By nightfall, Sean drove us back to Taipei where we joined hundreds of thousands of people congregating at Taiwan’s most prolific new year countdown site, the Taipei 101. It was a traffic nightmare and many roads were closed. Thanks to the uncanny skillset of Sean, he managed to avoid many roadblocks miraculously. It was pouring cats and dogs and we were worried about finding a parking lot. Another miracle happened when our car came to standstill just right below Taipei 101 just 5 minutes before the final countdown! What an amazing precision! We were in the right place at the right time!

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Despite the cold rain and foggy weather, we had an enjoyable and memorable countdown. This was my first ever countdown at Taipei city. Getting out of the traffic was a nightmare. It took us more than an hour to leave Taipei 101. We were extremely lucky when we got back to our hotel before 230am. I remembered when we were in Kaohsiung 9 years ago, we were stuck in traffic for more than 4 hours!

We stayed one night in Taipei and 2 nights in Beitou (北投溫泉), a small hot spring town location right beside Yangmingshan (阳明山) National Park. Pardon my ignorance, I have never been to these 2 places despite their close proximity to Taipei City! I complained to Mr. Chen and Tracy about their “inhospitality” for not bringing me to these sites earlier. I felt like a frog in a well. I always have this false impression that all the geothermal attractions are located far far away from Taipei city. Goodness, where have I been for the past few years? This is such an unforgiven mistake.

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There are so many hot spring resorts in Beitou. Sadly, I am never a fan for hot spring as my body is not able to take the slightest warm water. It was still a delightful trip for me to visit the geothermal sites (hot spring lake and sulfur lake). The sites are not as big and impressive as the ones that I saw in New Zealand but it is located just minutes away from the city center.

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This is a surprisingly rewarding trip for me as I didn’t expect to see so many new things in Taipei. Taiwan is indeed a “treasure island” full of many hidden gems. What a great new year with so many new discoveries. We are blessed to have good friends like Sean and Chen who sacrificed their family & working days to show us around. Thank you once again! May our countdown to 2020 filled with happy discoveries and rewarding journeys!

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The little boy who can memorize everything!

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We were perfect strangers until we met yesterday. And it turns out to be one of the most enlightening meetings of the entire year! Thanks to an old friend in India who connected us a month back.

Meet this amazing father and son, Siva and Anirudh.

Anirudh is only 10 and he is already one of the top memory talents in India. Representing India, Anirudh flew to Hong Kong to take part at the 27th World Memory Championships. Anirudh’s feats are aplenty. One of his feats is able to memorize up to a 100-digit number within minutes and recite it with distinctive accuracy. Not only that, he could recite the numbers backward. Anirudh is also able to memorize a couple decks of poker cards simply! (Yes, I thought of bringing him to the casino to play blackjack!)

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Anirudh is like any other kids you see on the street. He is shy, humble, curious and kind. Credits to unconventional and amazing parenting methodology, Siva unlocks the hidden wonders in his boy. A very humble (full of humanity and positive energy) and wise dad, Siva reminded us a few times that his son is not special or born with a special power. Siva said with discipline, conviction, and practice, all of us can unlock the other unused % in our brains.

We were at a cafe at Tamar Park when Siva asked if we wanted to see a little demonstration. Felicia, Elkan, Harshad and I were thrilled to see the wonder boy in action. Four of us formed a unique 22-digit number randomly and Siva read the number to his son (Anirudh didn’t get to see the number). In less than 120 seconds, Anirudh memorized the number and he recited the number effortlessly front and back to us. What’s more, Anirudh is able to tell us the sum of the same 22-digit number! It was amazing! 45 minutes later Anirudh is still able to remember the numbers.

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It was more than just Anirudh’s feat that enlightened us. It was the love and passion of Siva who enlightens us on some of the most important things in life:
1) Never give your child money or gifts. Anyone could offer the same thing to any child. Give them time, experiences and teaching so the child can become a better person when he/she grows up.

2) With good practice and discipline, anyone can be as amazing as his son. We just don’t explore the other parts of our mind and body. If a right-hander starts using his/her left hand more often, the left hand will grow strong over time. Just like our brain, we do not train it to its limit. Our reliance on digital tools made us lazier than ever. To unlock the wonders in us, we must start exploring and training the “unused” wonders of us.

3) Maintain a balance in life. Stay healthy in physically, mentally and emotionally. If we are able to achieve a state of good health, we will be able to channel our body and mind to achieve the unexpected. Watch our daily posture, maintain good oxygen intake, eat well and sleep well (not under and over), these are the nutrients our body and mind need.

4) The more we use our 5 senses, the more sensitive we are to capture all the memory. Because memory is more than just what we see or hear… we smell, taste and feel. All these 5 senses help to anchor and relocate back our memory.

Just before we say goodbye to our new friends. Siva gave my son and us 2 simple tips. The first tip never fears or be discouraged for not achieving the impossible. Start with the first steps and add more challenges as we grow stronger. Second tip, 10 minutes before we doze off every night, try to replay (in details) the things we did today. Not just in vision but also reenact the sound, the feelings and the taste of what we did.

Siva is a great father, teacher, and friend to his son. A very motivating and inspiring duo. A kind soul unlocked with amazing skills, I am certain we will be inspired by their next adventure in the near future!

Our real-life encounter with Siva and Anirudh is humbling and inspiring. And with that, we threw away our skepticism and started a little test last night. Never underestimate our human body and minds, and with that belief, Elkan attempted his little impossible feat last night with great success!

It is great meeting you guys! Hope to see you soon! Thank you, Raghu for connecting us.

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Addictive Laser Toy (Not LightSaber)

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I fell in love with laser personalization machine 10 years ago when I was working in the agency. Back then, I flew to Taipei to meet up with a Taiwanese vendor, Mr Chen whom I found in Alibaba (and we become close friends ever since). Mr Chen and I pioneered the first laser engraving machine that can be engraved directly on paper (through the thin packaging’s polywrap without burning the plastic wrap). What’s even more amazing was our machine took seconds to finish the engraving while other took over quarter of an hour. Our machine and software was indeed superior back then and Mr Chen traveled around the globe selling the machine. The machine wasn’t cheap then, one machine cost over USD32,000.

After a decade of experiencing different laser personalization machines (fiber, CO2 or UV) on different materials (glass, metal, paper, wood, leather, plastic), nothing surprises me anymore. In fact, I often tell my friends not to buy those cheap (anything that is under USD500) laser-engraving machines that were marketed on Kickstarter, Facebook Ads or Instagram Ads. Many of those videos were speed up to create the illusion of speedy engraving. In reality, these affordable (low-powered) laser heads work but it takes numerous minutes (not seconds) to engrave.

Being a geek and shopaholic, I was intrigued by a Taobao ad displaying a small USB-powered laser personalization machine (Brand NEJE DK-8-KZ极速微型激光雕刻机刻章机). The entire unit is only 16cm x 15cm x 20cm and weighs about 1KG! I watched the video (which was speed-up at least 20X), read the positive reviews and was impressed by the finished products. What attracted me was the price. It is selling at only RMB500! That’s about USD72! Without any hesitation, I bought it on Taobao and it arrived at my place 2 days later.

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Impulse Mistake Number 1 (Warning for Mac User) – this machine requires a PC to operate. To get this going, I have to spend extra HKD1,500 to install Parallel software and Windows OS on my iMac. The software UI is not as pretty as those offered by more established technology companies but it was quite easy for me to figure out (as it was similar to the other marking software I used). Connecting is simple. Just connect the USB power cable and data cable to any USB slots in the computer and the machine connects instantly to the software.

 

Using the machine is simple. Most laser engraving machines use the same process:

1) Import the Graphic (BMP) or Text
2) Select the engraving time/power (the longer, the slower and deeper the burn)
3) Pre-Marking Alignment – see the area where the graphic will be engraved
4) Adjust the effective laser height – the precise height for the laser to work
5) Start Marking

Laser Engraving Machine5

I tested a couple of graphics (which came with the software) on paper and unwanted wooden items I can find at home. The machine was very very slow but it worked perfectly! The “marking resolution” was better than what I have expected from a USD72-machine. A small 30mm x 10mm graphic took over 15 minutes to engrave. For those who never experience the commercial machine, this speed may be acceptable. In comparison, Mr Chen’s commercial machine takes less than 12 seconds to complete the same task.

Laser Engraving Machine1Laser Engraving Machine

After a week of trials and experimenting, NEJE is quite a reliable hobbyists’ tool. It is quite an addictive toy (to watch and use) and I had fun engraving my own graphics/text on the gifts I was making for my friends.  NEJE is a very low-powered Fiber-Laser Machine so it can’t be used on any reflective and transparent materials like acrylic, glass, stone, gemstones, and metals. Due to its small size, its maximum engraving output size is at 38mm x 38mm. This model is perfect for many households small items products like souvenirs and keychains.

Laser Engraving Machine6Laser Engraving Machine4

Verdict? At USD72, it is a steal and good buy! For someone new to laser engraving machine, there will be some confusion and frustration trying to adjust the marking position and also the effective laser height. Once the user is familiar with the machine’s logic and flow, it is as simple as getting set, on your mark, go.

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