Monday, September 25, 2006

Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 2006

I went to Malaysia’s capital last Sept 10-13 to attend 2 conferences sponsored by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF). From the air, areas around metro Kuala Lumpur has thick vegetation, could be natural forest or plantation forest. As the plane descended further, I admired the capital’s land zoning: there is clear demarcation among natural forest, palm and other agricultural plantation, and the sprawling urban landscape (residential, commercial and industrial). There are scattered patches of land clearing and land conversion – from forest land to agri land or industrial and residential projects.

The plane descending further towards KL International Airport (KLIA) and away from the city center, the wide palm plantation became more visible. Thousands of hectares of this plantation almost everywhere.

My plane (Air Asia) landed at LCC terminal; this is the terminal for budget airlines and some cargo planes. Although this is not the main airport, the passenger terminal is bigger than Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila, the Philippine’s biggest airport. Getting through the immigration section takes about 15 minutes.

There is no train from LCC terminal to KL city proper. Take the green bus to KLIA, fare RM 1.5 (Malaysian Ringgit; average exchange rate then was RM3.60/US$). The bus ride is about 15 minutes, could be around 12 kms. between LCC and KLIA terminals. Road infrastructure is good, no houses near the 2 terminals.

KLIA is really one of those gigantic airports in the world. Well, Malaysia hosts one of the races of Formula 1 and motorbikes grand prix every year in Sepang circuit, so its airport should be as impressive as its race track and the grandeur of the Petronas twin towers.

From KLIA to the city proper, you have 2 options: taxi would take about 1 hour and would cost between RM70-95. Or take the KLIA Express train, that takes only about half hour to KL central station, fare RM35. This train is really modern and fast. There are tv monitors that flash international news, exchange rate of the ringgit with other major currencies, cities temperature around the world, etc.

As the train moves from KLIA to KL central station, the views change: from a dark subway to the wide palm plantation and patches of land clearing, to the sprouting new buildings and real estate projects of KL’s periphery, then to the dense buildings and skyscrapers of the city proper, and back to the subway.

My destination was Corus Hotel, the venue of the 2 conferences. From the KL central station subway, I moved to an elevated train station, the Putra LRT line. After a few stations above ground, the train went underground. I did not check how many LRT lines in KL, but the stations in the city proper, especially around the twin towers, are all underground. Fare to Ampang Park station (after KLCC station) is RM 2, and Corus Hotel is just a 5 minutes walk from there. Wow, the Petronas twin towers is just about 3 blocks away from my hotel, only about 5 minutes walk!

After day 1 of the conference, Atlas treated us to a sumptuous dinner at a Chinese restaurant at KL City Center (KLCC), a big mall at the foot of the twin towers. The mall is big, about 6-stories, the roof is transparent, so you can see the twin towers above it. After day 2 of the conference, FNF treated us to another yummy-yummy dinner in a big restaurant on the other side of the twin towers.

After day 3, no more free dinner, we’re on our own. I joined a big group of fellow conference participants and we went to the central market to buy some food and souvenir items for our trip to our respective countries the next day. The central market is not big, well not big compared to a shopping mall. But from its 2-storeys structure, there are lots of shops. I bought a few white t-shirts with various KL designs at RM 5 each.

By the way, there was a live band that performs every night (except Mondays) near the lobby of Corus Hotel, composed of 3 ladies and a male musician. One night as our Japanese friend treated us to a drink at the lobby, I heard the girls sang the “Otso-otso”, they’re Filipinas! So I approached them, learned later that they’re all Cebuana. I even danced with one of them on the dance floor, and jammed one song with them.

Departure day, my flight was 7:20am. I shared a cab with 2 Nepali friends to the airport, we left the hotel a little past 4am. Malaysia’s road infrastructure is indeed impressive. The Philippine’s infrastructure is a joke compared here, except for the privately-operated toll roads in North and South Luzon. Midway between KL city proper and the airport, we stopped on a red light in an intersection. Beside our taxi was a police car, and it also stopped, even when there were no other cars moving from 3 other directions. If it’s in Manila and other Philippine cities, police cars and other government vehicles seldom stop on red lights, especially when there are no other vehicles moving from other directions.

So, if I were to compare KL with Metro Manila, here are my quick notes:

1. Road infrastructure, KL is way more advanced and developed. Potholes are non-existent or very few.

2. Trains, again KL is more advanced. In MM, only the 3 LRT lines operational and only 3 subway stations (Buendia, Ayala & Katipunan).

3. No jeepneys and tricycles in KL, while there are tens of thousands of those smoke-belching vehicles in MM.

4. Manila’s international airport is way, way inferior compared to KLIA, including the infrastructure linking the airport to the city proper.

5. Beer and alcoholic drinks in Malaysia are very expensive. A beer that would cost only around US$0.40 in a supermarket in MM would cost about US$2 in a supermarket in KL. Heavy taxes on beer and alcoholic products explain for the big price differential, not to mention that Malaysia is a Muslim country.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Clark airport, Pampanga

Clark International Airport is part of the sprawling Clark Ecozone, a former US military airbase in the Philippines vacated by the Americans in 1991, and converted into a wide commercial and industrial zone. It is located in the province of Pampanga, about 100 kms. north of Manila, via North Luzon Expressway (NLEX), Dau exit.

If commuting, one can take Philtranco buses from Pasay and SM Megamall that go direct to Clark Airport. Fare is P350 to/from Pasay, and P300 to/from Megamall. If traveling light, one may also take any north-bound buses that stop at Dau bus terminal. From there, walk a few blocks to the highway, take a jeep to Clark main gate, fare P7.50. From here, there are taxis that can take you to the airport (about 6-8 kms.) at a high price (P150 upwards); some enterprising jeepney drivers will sweet-talk you for P150 to P200. But if you travel light and it’s not raining, just take a regular jeepney from the main gate, pay P9.50 and get off at Clark airport gate. You can walk up to the passenger terminal building for around 400 meters, not far really.

Clark airport hosts a few no-frills airlines – Tiger air (to Singapore), Air Asia (to Kuala Lumpur), Asiana air (to Seoul), Cebu Pacific (to Cebu), other smaller airlines flying to Boracay, other domestic destinations.

The terminal is small, and airport security inspection for departing passengers is simple. You go through body frisks only once and that’s it. But government taxes and fees are not exactly simple and cheap. When I got Air Asia’s promo rate of only P409 one-way for Clark-Kuala Lumpur (excluding taxes by Malaysian and Philippine Governments), that was really cheap. But after checking in for your flight, you have to pay P1,620 travel tax ($32.4 at P50/$), then P350 ($7) terminal fee. At NAIA in Manila, the terminal fee is P550 ($11).

By the way, before I booked my flight for Air Asia, I got 2 price quotations for the Manila-KL-Manila flight: $380 + taxes for Singapore Air (via Singapore) and $400 + taxes for Malaysian Air. I was really grateful to my friend who texted me, “check, cheap!”

There are a few food shops and 1 duty free shop at the departure lounge. If you are flying no-frills airlines like Air Asia, better take some drinks and food there as those airlines offer no free drinks and snacks, not even water, during flights, you have to buy them from the flight stewards.

Coming back to Clark airport from foreign lands, a pestering sight are the Bureau of Customs people: they really open and inspect every luggage as if every arriving passenger is a potential smuggler! Small or big boxes, even small hand-carried items, everything inspected! To me, they seemed like small vultures with government IDs, waiting for an opportunity to harass (and possibly extort money from) some innocent arriving passengers. I asked the Customs guy who opened my luggage, “why do you have to open all luggages and hand-carried bags?”, he replied “Gano’n talaga eh” (“that’s the way it is”). I only shook my head with this typical callous bureaucratic attitude.

If you take Philtranco bus to Manila from Clark airport, be aware that the buses make only 2 stops, in Megamall and Pasay terminals only. In my case, since I have to get off at Quezon Blvd that day, I decided to go to Dau bus terminal and take any of the air-con buses bound for Cubao/Pasay. So I walked again to Clark airport gate, took 2 jeepney rides to Dau, had launch at a fastfood shop before boarding the bus.