What’s your size?

Size.jpgSize can be a highly sensitive topic if not presented correctly. XS or XL can mean different things to different people. For some, being extra small is nice but others may feel that it translates to tiny, bony or skinny. Likewise, the other end of the scale is another massive minefield.

One of the biggest problems with buying clothes is getting the size right. Each continent has its own standards. An S is Asia and translate to XS in the US or the UK. Even then, the same L in the UK and the US varies with the US version tending to be a size or two larger.

I have comfortably fitted into a US XS (Abercrombie and Fitch), UK S and Asia M.

When buying clothes online, it’s important to check out the size chart, and in some cases, provide a little variant because cuts can differ. I have bought same size tops from my favourite team’s store and they don’t always turn out the same. Cuts, material and design make the difference too.

Even when you’ve done all your due diligence, like checking the size chart, reading reviews and looking at the cuts, things could still go wrong. It happened to me with an order from a China site. I ordered a jacket according to my measurements and mapped it against the shop’s size chart.

When the order arrived, I was stunned. The jacket looks like the picture but it at least three sizes smaller!

So, sometimes, it’s better to buy from more familiar brands that you’ve already bought from and are comfortable with. Otherwise, ordering clothes online is a case of hit and miss.

 

Airbnb surprises

Airbnb surprises

Travelling has not been the same for me and my family since the advent of Airbnb in 2008. While there have been horror stories of staying in such accommodation, my experience so far has been positive.

Over the years, I have stayed in Airbnb in a number of cities across four continents — Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States. I’m often amazed by the homes and feel honoured to be able to experience living in a real home instead of hotels.

As someone who is unlikely to use a five-star hotel’s facilities, I’ve found that Airbnb accommodation meets my needs best.

During our trip to China in December, my family spent time in Airbnb homes in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai — and each came with surprises that thrilled us. These are not expensive accommodation, just homes that cost less than S$100 per night — which is really affordable for our family of four adults.

Our criteria were:

  1. Location: Close proximity to public transport and eateries
  2. Privacy: No shared apartment, please. We value our privacy.
  3. En suite bathroom/toilet: For convenience and comfort.
  4. Big enough for four adults: There must be enough beds for all of us and space for us to maneuver. 
  5. Clean: Read reviews to find out what others say.
  6. Wifi: Staying connected is crucial for us but do note that there is a firewall in China.
  7. Washing machine: So that we do not need to bring too much luggage as space is needed for our purchases.
  8. Air-conditioner/heater: Depending on the weather, it is needed to make the room more cosy.
  9. Within budget: We were looking at S$100 per room per night.

After checking out dozens that seemed to match our requirements, we read reviews and dropped messages to ask those who listed for clarifications. 

Let me share a little about what surprised us at each of those that we finally decided on.

In Suzhou, we stayed in a mixed development complex with malls on the lower levels and homes/offices higher up. 

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Leveraging the benefit of its height, this loft apartment came with a projection system and four cinema seats. We could have caught movies using the entertainment system but there was a 50-inch flat screen TV on the lower level that makes it more conducive for watching.

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Our Hangzhou apartment also came with a XGIMI projector that produces crisp images and great sound. But what really stood out from this loft unit was the furnishing on the upper level. A rocking lounge by the window provides a cosy setting for reading a book, catching a nap or watching the happenings outside. At that level were also a table and two chairs that’s perfect for tea and a children’s tent with toys. This unit is very family friendly.

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After two loft units, our Shanghai rental home was entirely different. Set in a 1950s building, it is located a short walk from the Bund. The room was a stark contrast to the building’s facade. It was tastefully done up in a modern style with two queen-sized bed. But what really stood out for me was the spotlights on the ceiling of the bathroom. In cold wintry conditions, this brought so much warmth us when we were taking a bath. In fact, when we were cold after a trip out, we just stood there to heat up.

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One thing that all three homes had in common was the kettle. The nondescript white kettle is big, functional and especially useful in winter. 

These three homes continue to build on an enjoyable streak for us in our travels. My family and I simply love staying at such accommodation — for the reasonable price and experience.

Here are a few tips on choosing an Airbnb stay:

  1. Determine your criteria: Decide on your budget and requirements.
  2. Review each unit carefully: Look at the photos and description.
  3. Read reviews: What others say matters a lot but do consider the nationalities of the reviewers as well as they may have different expectations from yours. For instance, while some may find food in the vicinity too spicy, it may be just what you like if you’re from Southeast Asia.
  4. Ask questions: When in doubt, message those who listed. They are usually very accommodating and would answer questions promptly. And if they don’t get back in a timely manner, that may just be the signal for you to reconsider.

The joy of travelling is in the experience. And the right accommodation can set the right tone for an enjoyable trip.

 

Ohhh…that bowl of good rice!

IMG_20181223_173014.jpgJust a bowl of good rice.

The name cannot be more in your face. It says it all. This chain called “Just a Bowl of Good Rice” serves really good rice. And that’s coming from someone who is trying to wean himself off rice.

We stumbled upon this outlet by chance while shopping in Wanda Mall in Suzhou. Located in Basement 1, it doesn’t really stand out from the many other food and beverage establishments.

What drew us to the restaurant was — hold your breath — the fact that there were empty tables. It was dinner time and many of the others were crowded. We were hungry and wanted something warm for our stomachs in the wintry cold.

With a fast food style ordering counter at the front, we were able to take a look at the menu, which is limited, but finding a place to eat was our top criteria.

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I went for a braised pork belly set while my family members opted for beef and chicken sets. As I did not want to over-eat, I shared the rice with my daughter.

The dishes are not spectacular or to-die-for. After all, most pork belly I’ve tasted in China were great — even the ones in the local shops.

What stood out was the rice. Cooked in a claypot, it came piping hot. Even after eating for several minutes, steam still emitted with each scoop.

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The white, fluffy rice has a nice soft bite and tasted great. It goes really well with the pork and other dishes.

Rice at the side and bottom of the bowl was a little burnt, not blackened but browned and crispy, adding any dimension to the bite feel.

Personally, I think the portion is good enough for two persons but a quick glance at the other tables revealed that every diner had a pot in front of them.

Such was the pleasant memory of the rice that we ate it again at other Just a Bowl of Good Rice outlets in Hangzhou and Shanghai.

Thankfully, this is not available in Singapore yet. Otherwise, my diet plan will go haywire. The rice is irresistible.

 

Shanghai Disneyland: Magical and most memorable

Shanghai Disneyland: Magical and most memorable

The main reason for our December holiday to Shanghai was to visit Disneyland. It’s the final stop in our family’s Disney adventure that started with Disneyland Paris in 1999.

Dubbed “The Happiest Place on Earth”, Disneyland has never ceased to amaze us with each visit — to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Orlando, and Anaheim. The atmosphere makes one feel really young and fresh again and the rides are exhilarating.

We thought we had done the whole Disney thing when we completed the Anaheim leg but who would have guessed that another magical kingdom would be built in Shanghai, the business capital of the Middle Kingdom?

In the run up to our trip, reviews on the China edition were mixed with some giving it five-star ratings while others rambled about the long queues and lack of toilet facilities.

But, that did not deter us as we were just one short of having a full deck.

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Affordable transportation
The train ride to Shanghai Disneyland itself was the first surprise. Our journey covered 17 stops yet we paid just six Chinese yuan each. That’s S$1.20 or under US$1.00. It’s the cheapest transportation to any Disney resort that we’ve been to.

What’s best was that the train wasn’t packed. We were secretly hoping that that’s the sign the theme park won’t be either. Incidentally, we went on a Friday because most reviews said Saturdays were the most crowded.

Like most other Disney parks, the walk to the entrance was long but the adrenaline within us was enough to melt the tiredness away.

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And soon, the all familiar tune was heard and we saw the entrance that marked the beginning of our adventure.

Ticket and photo taking
Our tickets bought through Klook was cheaper than the walk-in entrance fee so do buy in advance if you can. Getting in was just a matter of scanning the QR Code and being issued with a ticket.

The sneaky part here was that our photos were taken when we placed the ticket in the slots at the turnstile. This is how the park ensures that tickets are not misused as tickets are needed for entering the rides.

Nearly everybody headed to the front of the Mickey Mouse Garden to capture that first Disney shot for posterity. Needless to say, we did likewise.

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The walk down Main Street was nostalgic — it’s the same as any other Disney Main Street. The only difference is that the announcements are primarily in Chinese with a smattering of English inserted occasionally.

Thrilling rides
With the downloaded app, we managed to secure Fastpass to our must-go rides. Top of our list were:

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  1. TRON Lightcycle Power Run: We were early for our Fastpass and noticed that the walk-in queue wait time wasn’t long so we queued for it. The futuristic motor bike-style ride was thrilling. It’s a roller coaster with a difference so it gives the perception that you are in control. After our first run, we strolled in a second time using our Fastpass.
  2. Soaring over the Horizon: An Imax-type experience where we were taken on a flight over different parts of the world. The best part was that it’s not just a visual, audio and motion experience but also olfactory with the scent of grass as we travelled over the African jungle.
  3. Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue: This dodn’t set the heart beating as fast but was just as fun as the ride involved blasting away at Emperor Zurg’s abominable bot army.
  4. Roaring Rapids: This is our perennial water-drenching favourite. We were prepared for this ride — we brought our ponchos. It’s wise to buy one from the entrance if you do not have one because you can get wet while going down the rapids.
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure: Not much to do here other than just to sit in the boat and enjoy the trip to an underwater world where Captain Jack’s swashbuckling band of buccaneers duel with monsters.

There are milder rides for younger children and the faint-hearted but these were our favourites.

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Best Disney food
Beyond the rides, I must say that the food at Shanghai Disneyland was the best I’ve ever had in any Disney park. OK, I admit, I have a penchant for Chinese food but the braised pig’s trotter’s was tender, tasty and terrific!

The food fully justified the ban of outside food from the park. It’s really good and fairly affordable — unlike the outrageous price of less palatable food at other parks.

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Tips on having a great experience at Shanghai Disneyland

  1. Buy tickets online: It’s cheaper and saves time on queuing at the ticket office when you arrive.
  2. Go on a weekday: We went on Friday, which wasn’t crowded. Our friends went on Tuesday and reported likewise. The day to avoid seems to be Saturday when the locals take a break and turn up in force.
  3. Be early: Go before the park’s opening time if you can to avoid the crowd.
  4. Plan your rides: Decide which rides you want to take and get the Fastpass on your app. This helps greatly instead of waiting in long queues for the more popular rides.
  5. Eat early or late: Though the park wasn’t crowded, the food establishments filled up quickly during meal times. Plan to have your lunch before 12pm or after 2pm so that you can snag seats for you and your group. No outside food is allowed in the park.

More than just another tick on my bucket list, this trip to Shanghai Disneyland has been simply magical and most memorable. It turned out much better than I had expected and left me longing for more. If asked which Disney park I’d like to visit again, this would be it.

Hai Di Lao: Sizzling hotpot experience

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No queue? Don’t be fooled.

Dinner at 海底捞 (Hai Di Lao) was on our must-do list while in Shanghai. And we wasted no time because that was where we headed immediately after we checked in to our hotel.

After a check with the concierge on the nearest outlet, we were on our way to the Nanjing East Road restaurant.

For the uninitiated, like me before this dinner, Hai Di Lao is a famous hotpot chain in China and has outlets in Singapore too. I was told that it’s expensive in Singapore but more affordable in China.

We knew there would be a queue and may need to wait for an hour or more but we decided to see if somehow, we could get in faster.

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The waiting area is filled with snacks, drinks and games.

True to prediction, there was a long wait for a table though those waiting were not visible outside the restaurant. There’s a holding room with seats, snacks and drinks for those waiting for tables. And Hai Di Lao even provides Internet access, board games, and shoe polishing and manicure services. Impressive!

The staff offered us a private room for a fee for our large group. As all of us were hungry, we took up the offer — turned out that it was the only room available at that time — and strode right in.

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A snack platter to get us started.

Inside the private room was a table that can comfortably fit 10 persons. A platter of snacks was in the centre — a welcome sight for our hungry troops.

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Just some of the meats that we ordered.

We placed our orders and service was surprisingly fast. A large hotpot was set up with our preferred soups — herbal and spicy szechuan — and the dishes came quickly.

A condiments station in the main dining area housed a ton of ingredients to create our own sauces, as well as pomeloes and greens. My combination ended up tasting like satay sauce which went really well with the meats.

The meats and seafood were fresh. The soups were tasty though surprisingly, my preference is the herbal soup. I generally don’t like herbal soup but this tasted more like chicken soup, which is one of my favourites.

As if the food wasn’t enough, there was entertainment in the form of a dancing noodle maker, who stretched the dough till it became strings of noodles.

Our order was more than enough for us and we finished off our meal with a platter of very fresh fruits — it’s orange season and the water melon and longans were fresh and juicy too.

When we settled our bill, we discovered that we had ordered enough to have our room booking fee waived. That’s the real icing to the cake.

I highly recommend Hai Di Lao for the food and experience. If your group is big enough, go for a room if one is available. It’s worth the time and you get privacy as well.