Helsinki facts

After spending 3 days in Helsinki in May 2013, here are snapshots of my visit.
The first thing ,  Finnish people would be surprised for tourists to choose Helsinki  as first destination. After all,  the Finns are not themselves full of ego on the their capital . But as the most Russianized of Nordic countries and as member of eurozone ,  Helsinki is my first Scandinavian country ( well not exactly scandinavian ) . My travel buddy living in Sweden said Helsinki was really a  party destination.

We are in the best period to visit : from May to August . May is still spring , most attractions open in summer.

Sightseeing

Churchs

The landmark of Helsinki is the Helsinki cathedral. In front is the senate place. Overall I’m not impressed.

cathedral

The Temppelinauko church made inside a rock

Temppeliaukio2 Temppeliaukio1

The orthodox church ( my favorite )

orthodox

Boat Cruises

At the market square , there are of tour  boats. I chose Suomenlinna , a sea fortress , classified as UNESCO world heritage .

Other

A walk from the start of the Esplanden avenue  (filled with with luxury boutiques) earned a design award to the market square is really worth.

National pride

Nokia, the biggest Finn company , is very present in Helsinki . Even thought some Finns have bought smartphones from other OEM , they feel a bit of ashamed.

But the current national pride right now is “Angry Birds“. There are two “angry birds” shops in whole Finland, one is at Kamppi center, the other is at Vantaa. Rovio  , the company behind the global success, is located in Espoo west of Helsinki. But the brand is so huge that different merchandising such as clothes, bubble gums, sweets can be found anywhere in Helsinki. One my reason to come visit here is  Rovio Ltd.

angry_birds_shop

Cost

As a Nordic country the cost of living there is expensive.

Housing is expensive. For more than 100€, you can get only 2 stars hotel. Airbnb is still the better solution. Even food can be expensive, hot dog on the street cost 4€.

Alcohol is expensive. A pint in a bar is about 6€. Beer cans at supermarket are 2€. Not wonder, people go elsewhere shopping ( see Tallinn, Åland )

Languages

Everyone speak fluent English. Swedish is also an official language.
Finnish language sounds like no other language ( except Estonian ). It’s not related to the Indo European languages group.  FIt inspired the Elvish tongue in “the Lord of the Rings” series . Tolkien wrote :

Finnish, which I came across when I had first begun to construct a ‘mythology’ was a dominant influence

Cuisine

A lot of unflattering jokes has been around Finnish cuisine.

From my experience , I had a wonderful dinning experience at Konstan Möljä.
The buffet has fresh salmon, reindeer meat, pork meat , Borscht ans other specialties for only 18€ . On the left side of the photo is a rice Karjalan piirakka. At first I thought it’s eaten like a pizza. But Finns put something on top of it ( eggs, butter ).

helsinki_diner

Salmiakki

On Finnair, I bought a Salmiakki pack . The vendor asked and laughed: ” Do you like it ?”. “No but I ‘ll give it to my colleagues so they can have a taste of Finland :)” . Maybe only the Finns can like because it’s an acquired taste .

Helsinki as a Gateway

As its position in the Baltic sea , it’s easy to go visit Tallinn , Estonia . Most Finns go to alcohol there due the high taxes on alcohol in Nordic countries.  The old town of Tallinn is worth the trip ( read on  a next post )

It is also possible to visit St Petersburg without a Russian visa under 72 hours. I will explore more this option fur a trip to Russia.

Global rating

Sightseeing : 2/5  not really impressive landmark places
Cost : 3/5 expensive
Infrastructure : 5/5  transportation is really good. Thought Ion saturday May 11 , all the electronic display did not work. I had to take a taxi after waiting 20 minutes
People : 4/5 . Finns are willing to help and fluent in English.

 

29 years old

Today I’m turning 29 years . Time to reflect on year 2012 . It was a year with lots of change :
– I created a one man company around August : provide consulting services. Really different from being an employee. I learnt much more in the short time than being a permie. I think I’ll focus more on products rather than building apps for customers. Clearly build apps for client is regular pay , few developers make a living selling their own apps.
– travels : I was lucky to travel to London ,  China (Shanghai, Shenzhen ), Hong Kong, Macau, Geneva …

Some resolutions : I will learn more about business side. My “Expert Comptable” (Chartered Accountant) explained legal status, tax declarations and co clearly.
In February , I’m going to register for a training to create a company, raise  funding….

 

One day in Zhujiajiao

Zhujiajiao – Shanghai takes one hour by car . I took the bus from Shanghai Indoor Stadium.

The water towns are typical around Shanghai area.  Amsterdam is famous for its canals, but the Dutch capital is not surrounded by as much water. The canals are larger in Zhujiajiao, the village is still authentic despite the construction of many shops. The town has a lot of  traditional Chinese sightseeing  : Kezhi Garden , Buddhist Temple and many bridges.

The local cuisine is famous for 扎肉 ( zha rou ) : meat wrapped in leaves .

The only return bus arrived at 17 . That will be the main drawback of the bus tour from Shanghai stadium.

The final sequences of Mission Impossible 3 in Shanghai made me want to see water town. Too bad that night , I learnt the scenes featured were in Xitang

More info

Zhujiajiao is a great place to evade from the “busyness” of Shanghai , it’s a complete different world . See my gallery

 

a Day in Macau

For the first day in Macau , we didn’t bother to visit typical tourists attractions but the casinos.

This adventure happened on Sunday April 22 2012.

Quick facts

Even tough macao has its own currency Macau Patacas ( MOP ). They accept Hong Kong dollars ( HKD ).

Macau is one of the two special administrative region (SAR), the other being Hong Kong. Official language is portuguese. But English is spoken as much as in Hong Kong = not very well but good enough to have directions.

If you’re coming from Hong Kong, bring your passport. My main complaint is the inefficiency at the customs, add one hour in the waiting line.

From HK to Macau/Macao

The boat travel takes one hour on TurboJet ( others may be as fast) . Since Macau used to be Portuguese and Hong Kong British. Even tough they belong to China now.They have separate immigration systems. So you’ll need to fill a form and your passport will be stamped. Yep if you came to Hong Kong for a visa SORRY. I’m surprised at HK departure, no one checks if you have your passport. The customs entrance takes another hour. That’s the big complain. If Macau wants to attract more tourists, why not just skip this step ?

After the port exit, we didn’t bother to take a paid taxi or paid tour guide. There are plenty of free bus to the hotels. The hotels have casinos. If you want to see the typical Macau monument : St Paul’s Church Facade …  If you want to feel casino, have a great buffet, then take the free bus. We took the latter path.

The bus took us at the grand Lisboa hotel. As you’d expect all casinos / hotels are lavishly designed.

grand lisboa hall interior

Casino/hotel ambiance

I had been in Las Vegas long ago, I was underage. But I did remember the ambiance, the sound coins dropping , free cocktails … The casinos were filled with people.  Macao casinos are nearly empty on a Sunday. In some cases , there were as many clients as staff. But most are BIG players and spenders : few slot machines,  plenty of poker tables. Unfortunately photography is forbidden inside gambling area.

The casinos from outside and inside look splendid. This one is taken at  the fountain of the Wynn ( 永利 shui li).

Buffet

Like all casinos , you ‘d expect a great buffet. We spent zero on gambling, we went to Macao for one reason: luxury buffet. BTW HK Dollars are accepted.

Look at the freshness of the sushis. FYI The red drink is watermelon juice ( I don’t know how why it’s so red )

lunch at MGM Grand Buffet

Fresh sushi at MGM Grand Buffet

fresh seafood

From outside

From outside

This buffet is under the transparent arch. At this time , a construction was ongoing for Buttefly Pavilion.

butterfly expo

Macau outside

Few more photos of the day.

One day certainly is not enough to discover Macau . Is it worth to spend a day ? Depends if you’re more than a week in Hong Kong , yes.

on the way back to Terminal Ferry

 

Hong Kong facts

Hong Kong ( 香港  Xiānggǎng ) means “fragrant harbour” . Been there in 2010 for a week and now 2012 for a week, walked past a dozen times avenue of stars. Some interesting facts I spotted from local friends who showed me around. For westerners, some local customs strike first and that’s part of the travel experience.

Locations

Lodging alone is the biggest spending. Most tourists stay in Tsim Sha Shui area ( southern tip of Kowloon ). Personally I don’t recommend to stay at Chungking Mansions.

Hong Kong people tend to judge social status from the place you live :
– New Territories = countryside
– Kowloon ( except Tsim Sha Shui ) = normal people
– the Peak on Hong Kong Island = riches

What Hong Kong streets look like on causeway bay

Causeway Bay street on Hong Kong island

Things to see

You don’t need spend a lot to enjoy Hong Kong tourist spots. A ride on the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Shui to Central costs only 3 HKD. It takes only 8 minutes : the instant you set the foot onboard until you land a foot on the other side of the sea. There you can see Hong Kong skyline ( better at night for the light show )

Hong Kong skyline

Tian tan Buddha ( visited on foggy day on April , not the best timing ) on Lantau island ( airport )

Victoria Peak or simply “the Peak” on Hong Kong island .

Eating manners

In dim sum restaurants, an empty large bowl and hot water may be served before eating. Nope this bowl is NOT to put food by-products ( bones ) . Its purpose is to wash utensils in hot water or tea. As a safety precaution, some locals may think dishes are not clean. How to do it properly ? Pour the tea in   in the large bowl. Wash the tip of chopsticks in the bowl. For tea cups, pour the tea inside first then bath in the large bowl.

There is no strict rules like the tea ceremony. But rest assured, cases of food poisoning are rare in Hong Kong. This practice arises in areas of Southern China : Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, Taiwan.

In higher end restaurants , a set of two chopsticks black and white are given. Black chopsticks are used to take food from mutual dishes to one’s plate. White ones are meant to carry food to your mouth.

Cuisine style

In Hong Kong it’s Cantonese style, the popular chinese cuisine in overseas restaurant. But it tastes different ( cannot describe by words ) on place.  Here is a glimpse of “oddities”

Below is the “creamy yellow bun”  and its alternate names are “steamed creamy custard bun” ,  奶黃包 (Nai huáng bāo) . It’s yellow egg inside, creamy and sweet. This one is a bit oily.

There is also the HK eggball, a version of “gaufre”

Shopping

Hong Kong is heaven for shopping. It’s tax free and you can almost anything. For electronics , it’s the best place  to buy. For example Apple products are the cheapest in the world. I bought a mac book pro for 9088 HKD (890 eur ) at the IFC Apple Store. In my country it would be 1150 eur. That’s more than 20% discount. How come ? Shenzhen , the world factory ( remember Foxconn) , is nearby. And Hong Kong is tax free. Ironically it’s even more expensive in Mainland China for products “made in China”, because the Chinese government put purchase taxes.

There is also an electronics market for computer hardware located at Sham Shui Po.

Airport

On Landing. When you land in the airport, take the Airport Express to go either Kowloon ( 90HKD ) or Hong Kong Central (100HKD). Then take the taxi or bus to join the place you’re staying. Taxi line can be very long at  station on raining days. I waited for nearly one hour for a 10 minutes ride. Probably it’s better to check if the bus is stopping at your hotel.

When leaving. HK’s airport is a model of efficiency. Luggages checkin are available at Airport Express stations (Kowloon, Hong Kong Central ) . No waiting lines. The stations themselves are shopping centers. The ride from Kowloon to airport takes 20 minutes. So after checking your luggages , there is still time to visit Hong Kong and arrive at the airport one hour before boarding. So great I’m used to arrive 3h before the flight thanks to Paris CDG airport.

Kowloon checkin

check-in luggages at Kowloon Airport Express station

In the airport itself , there are plenty of shops and food in the airport. The terminals are LONG, the longest I’ve seen. For this reason alone, I advise to arrive earlier.

 

Musical Mamma Mia! at Prince of Wales Theatre London

Every time I visit London, I see a musical show. In 2003 with my parents, we saw Les Misérables booked the same day. On the 2nd trip in 2008, my company  sponsored a weekend London to see Gone with the Wind. The overall (eurostar, hotel, theatre tickets ) cost was a bargain, so most did not even show up. Ever since it’s become an habit to attend a musical live show in London. When my father wished to go there, he asked me what musicals shall we attend ? I first searched for CATS not available. Then my eyes caught Mamma Mia! . I remembered the film starring Meryl Streep , Pierce Brosnan and of course the seventies ABBA hits.

If you visit London , there are plenty of attractions during daylight. London’s nightlife clearly beat Paris hands on !! You have to see a West End show . Even tough Mamma Mia! worldwide is staged in Brazilian, Japanese, Korean, French or Italian … I prefer to stick to the English version because the lyrics stay to the original. And somehow dubbed version sound strange at least in French. So if you’re in London or Broadway, take the chance to see this show.

The show is at the Prince of Wales Theatre , close Piccadilly Circus station , nearby to Soho area. Plenty of restaurants to dine before or after.

We booked the seatings in the stalls for 81 pounds per person . My seat was left to a group of three Swede blondes , country of ABBA. Like me they prefer the English version. Here is what the Prince of Wales interior look

during the pause

The plot is about Sophie preparing her wedding on a Greek Island. She wants her father to walk her down the aisle, but doesn’t know who he is.  Sophie discovers her mother ‘s diary and finds intimate dates with three men. Sophie believes that one of these men is her father and, three months prior to the wedding, sends each an invitation to her wedding writing in the name of her mother, Donna, without letting the unsuspecting latter know.

Unfortunately cameras are not allowed during performance. The actors were the same in the following photos.

Sophie and her three possible fathers : Sam , Bill, Harry ( left to right )

Sophie on her bachelor party

The play came after the songs. The story is written around the ABBA songs.  My favorites are : “Mamma Mia” , “Dancing Queen“, “Our Last Summer“.

Tanya

It’s definitely worth to watch it if you’re in London. The actors are great singers & dancers and it’s packed with energy. Great entertainment!! For more information about tickets  go to their website

The next day, I saw “The Wizard of Oz” , I enjoyed it but not the same excitement as Mamma Mia! .

Afterward I re-watched the film. The live show was much more lively & funny. The song sequence, text script are the same .  I remember at the end the funny dialogue.
Sophie: ” I don’t care if you slept with hundreds of men .  You’re my mum”
Donna: ” I haven’t slept with hundreds of men”

Sounds like Greece would be great destination.

 

28 twenty eight

I’m turning 28 this year. This the the first time I blog on my birthday

The year 2011 , I switched to a job which brings me closer to my goals. I travelled to 5 countries. In my  twenty-eight year , I have some resolutions :

  • turn some of my Post-it ideas into products available on the App store or Android market. Something useful to me and users.  Of course have direct feedback from them.
  • develop some skills. I love reading on personal development . But I also started to follow Stanford CS193P course on iOS development.
  • try to improve my Mandarin speaking and writing. That will be a big one.
  • travel cities I’ve never been to and blog about interesting facts in a short format not really à la Anthony Bourdain style. But trying the “off the beaten path” spots. Learn a few words in the visited country.

After reading Matt Mullenweg’s blog , I made a donation for fundraising clean water in Africa. Here is what I wrote in the comment

Happy Birthday Matt ! January 12 is my birthday and I’m turning 28 too.
Once I met you in WordCamp Paris, I asked what inspired you to create WordPress at such a young age. It was passion. Ever since you’re my ideal entrepreneur (would love to travel around the world and meet fans) that’s why I’m supporting your charity. For my birthday, I’m buying this gift.

 

Prague facts

After passing a few days in Prague during new year eve and walked over a dozen times on Charles Bridge  , some interesting facts :

  1. Prague castle (Pražský hrad) is the biggest ancient castle according to the Guinness book. Built in AD 879, the main castle itself is not as big as Versailles , Buckingham palace, Bangkok Grand Palace.  What they call Prague castle is the area ( 7.28 hectares ) surrounding it : St. Vitus Cathedral, Vladislav Hall, golden lane …. The neighbourhood Hradčany is composed of shop souvenirs , churchs, palace …
  2. Czechs drink the most beers per capita ( nearly 160 litres annual). Is it because local beer is cheap ( one pint costs 30czk ) and of good quality ? Maybe but not only. Ordering water in restaurant is more expensive than beer, so people generally tend to choose beer over water.
  3. Czech cuisine loves meat (pork by excellence ) and beer . In fact, it’s hard to find food for vegans.  Even Anthony Bourdain is begging for vegetables . My favorite dessert : Trdelnika rolled pastry caramelized over charcoal . My Czech friend told me , Trdelnik just started a few years ago in touristy spots. The pastry originates from Transylvania under the name Kürtőskalács in hungarian.
  4. Tipping is expected  in restaurants. But you have to know how to do it. In most culture , clients leave some money on the table after the server gives back the change. Czechs  round up , so the server gets directly the tip into his/her pocket.
  5. The subway system is really deep. The escalator at Náměstí Míru station is about 100 metres long and is the longest escalator in Europe. The communists were worried that Prague might be targeted so they built the subway deep underground to doubly serve as a nuclear bomb shelter.
  6. Avoid Taxis. First the city is walkable. Second taxi drivers are rip off. According to my Czech friend, some used to be prisoners and others are related to mafia. If you don’t have enough cash , they will force you to redraw at the automatic teller machine.
  7. The christmas market is the best I’ve seen.  But nothing really beats the atmosphere here in the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí ). Shops with mulled wine , ham, Trdelnik again . Though this year 2011 , it didn’t snow . That’s what a Christmas market should be.

Sensitive subject

palladium toilet

Last and most interesting, I met an expat in Prague. What he’s doing for a living ? Porn films : behind and in front of camera . Prague is second city after Budapest for making porn production . Men do love Czech female look . The country is open minded. As a former Soviet Union member , the cost of living is lower than western counterparts.

For more photos check my album http://www.flickr.com/photos/photosray/sets/72157628722439523/with/6662869763/