At the embassy: US visa appointment in KL (Malaysia)

Here’s my experience at the US Embassy when I went for my visa appointment. Prior to this, I followed the instructions on the official US visa Web site and submitted my DS-160 online application form including photo (the site has a test to show you if your photo is acceptable when you upload it, so no stress),¬† created a profile on the Web site and paid the visa fee. A few notes about these:

  1. DS-160 – they want to know dates of your last 5 trips to the US, so keep your travel itineraries for future reference, especially since nowadays with our electronic passports there are no stamps anymore. If you don’t have the exact dates, you are supposed to put in your best estimate. They also want to know the visa number of any previous US visas, so keep old passports as well.
  2. In order to make visa fee payment online, you have to create a profile on their Web site. You can only do the payment after the DS-160 is submitted, as it will generate the reference number. Once payment is made, you don’t have to wait for a receipt from the visa system to be emailed to you as it says on one page (I never got a receipt beyond my bank’s receipt). You can go back to the Web site and use the reference number (“Virtual Account Number”) as the receipt number to schedule your appointment.

Okay, on to the appointment! Mine was at 8.45 am. Everything went smoothly. Most of the time was spent waiting outside the Embassy. They were backlogged and I didn’t go in till about 9.15 am. Once inside it was very quick. Overall, I arrived by 8.30 am and was done by 9.35 am. The procedure was roughly as follows:

Two queues

  1. If you get there early, at first you don’t queue at all, you wait around until the security guard calls your appointment time. There are benches or you can stand around.
  2. Once your time is called, you queue in the outer line of 2 parallel lines next to the wall to submit your ID (MyKad or driving license) and passport. You get a Visitor ID card in place of your ID, and your passport is returned with a sticker on the back. TIP: I was watching the queues and was able to be one of the first in line for this queue when my appointment time was called, which probably cut down on my processing time as I didn’t have to wait behind all the people with the same appointment time!
  3. After getting your Visitor ID, you go to the second, inner queue along the wall which is the queue to get into what turned out to be not the Embassy but a very large guardhouse. Just before entering the guardhouse, you get a basket to put your handphone and other electronic items including headphones and car keys.

Inside the guardhouse

  1. Here you put everything through the x-ray machine, and you only have to hand over your electronics, e.g. smartphone. You sign for it and are given a number. The items are kept in a cubbyhole in the guardhouse, so it seems pretty safe. I got to keep my handbag with wallet and umbrella to bring in with me.
  2. After the security check, you walk up the steps to the Embassy. There is a guard who will do a visual inspection of your handbag there.
  3. Then you enter Consular Services, which was the door on the left while I was there.

Inside the embassy

  1. Here, there were people telling us where to go. No taking number (contrary to previous experiences I read online), I was ushered straight to queue for a counter, where the lady took my passport and student visa paperwork (I-20 and SEVIS payment confirmation). She checked them and folded them up, and sent me to the another counter.
  2. Next counter was for biometric fingerprint scanning, also very quick.
  3. Third counter was for the interview. Again, the line was short and the interview was short as well, just 4-5 questions and I was approved. The lady was typing the whole time. All the counters/booths are in a small room and it was very quick going from one to the other. Crowd/queue control was done by two local staff, all very efficient. (NOTE: I was not asked to show ANY of my supplementary documents, not even a copy of the photo, which they tell you to bring, which was a relief as I wasn’t too sure about the print quality. However I did have all the photos and documents there just in case, and you should too, of course).
  4. When I came out of the interview, that was it! I picked up my phone and ID at the guardhouse and left.

Courier Delivery

I had opted for home delivery for the passport instead of pick-up. The day after my appointment, I checked online and the status said the passport had been received by the courier company. It arrived at my home the morning after, i.e. the 2nd business day after my appointment. I wasn’t there but someone else was able to sign for it.

Thankful that everything went smoothly! ūüėÄ

Taking the GRE in Malaysia (Logistics)

I recently took the GRE, and had some uncertainties about the whole test-taking process that were not addressed on the GRE Web site or any of the standard responses. So I thought I’d write about them, for future reference:

1) Registering with a non-Western / Chinese name

This was a big source of anxiety at first, as there is no information regarding the ORDER of names. Chinese names in Malaysia have the family name first, and all the ID documents, including passport, are like that. I have both an English and a Chinese name, so my family name is actually in the middle. In the end, it all worked out. I put the family name in the “Last Name” column and my English and Chinese names altogether in the “First Name” column, and I guess because I was taking the test run by local staff in Malaysia, there was no issue.

E.g. passport name Mary Tan Mei Ling – Last name “Tan” and First Name “MaryMeiLing”.

Again, I would stress that this is probably because the local staff are familiar with our naming conventions. and know how to deal with this.

2) Pencils provided

The test center provides pencils as well as scratch paper (paper is mentioned on the GRE Web site but not pens and pencils), so you do really only need to bring your ID – which in Malaysia, is your passport (not IC/MyKad, which doesn’t have a signature). Also do bring a coat/cardigan, as the test center is air-conditioned and does get cold after you’ve been there awhile.

3) Lockers and test breaks

The lockers to put bag, phone, water bottle etc were spacious enough. You are NOT allowed to access the locker during the break in the test, but there is a water cooler at the test center. There was also just enough time during the 10 minute break to go to the toilet, which is nearby.

I actually got there quite early and was asked if I’d like to start the test early. In the end, though, with all the check-in procedures, I think I started at about the scheduled time.

4) Score reporting

After the test was over, there were screens to go through to choose the institutions where I wanted the scores to be reported. I was not allowed to leave the test room to check whether I got the codes right (you can select by institution name or by code, and since I didn’t have the codes memorized, I went by institution name. However, I had also written the codes down earlier and kept them in my bag, but was not able to go and check them).

My advice would be to have a good idea of the codes, even if you don’t memorize them, so that you can verify you’ve chosen the correct university faculty/college. Some of my grad programs had their own codes, while others were under the general university code.

In general, the Prometric Center staff were professional and helpful and taking the test was a smooth process overall.

Replacing MyKad and Malaysian driving license

Replacing a lost MyKad:

1) I applied online via the myeg Website (had to register) and paid the RM 110 fine online. It was pretty straightforward.

https://www.myeg.com.my/faq/mykad-replacement.html

2) I chose my nearest branch rather than Putrajaya (24 hr pickup), so the period was said to be 10 working days.

3) In order to check status, I had to register AGAIN at the JPN Web site. After that I checked every so often, and found that in fact after around 5 working days it was ready.

4) I went to our local JPN branch and picked up the MyKad in person with my printed receipt. Very few people, my number was called almost immediately (this was in the afternoon). Fast and easy!

Replacing lost driving license:

1) Went to local JPJ. You need to have MyKad, a passport photo, and a photocopy of the MyKad and RM20 for the fine.

2) There were a lot of people and it was quite a wait before my number was called, but once at the counter it went very quickly. Gave MyKad and paid at counter, then went to another room where my photo was scanned and returned to me. A few minutes later, my name was called and my new driving license handed over.

(NOTE: This is actually from July 2014… drafted and forgot to post then!)

Staying at a hotel overnight with Qatar Airways

I had a 9-hour layover in Doha while flying Qatar Airways last year. Meant to write this up earlier but never got round to it. I thought I would try to get the “STPC” or overnight package that is sometimes offered.

I had not booked anything in advance (which they prefer you to do, I think), but it seemed I could try my luck, so at Doha, I went upstairs to the transfer desk and asked. After some waiting, I was told I had been granted a hotel stay and was given a bunch of forms and told to wait downstairs for the shuttle bus.

I went back to the doors downstairs and showed my forms to the guards. They indicated to wait inside till the next bus came. I waited around near the gate (unfortunately not much seating there), and was duly put on a bus. I had to get out at the departure terminal (same as for those entering Qatar), and again it was a wait at a transfer desk while they arranged more things. Good thing there was a single toilet available.

After that waiting, was finally given papers and went through immigration. After that it was more waiting for the shuttle bus from the hotel. Where to wait was not clearly marked, but waving the forms around was helpful so people told me where to go.

Finally the shuttle bus for the hotel arrived, and we were taken to the hotel. It was a short wait for check-in, and wake up call and breakfast was provided. The hotel room was dark but clean, and after a shower, I saw I had about 4 hours of sleep time before it was time to wake up and go back to the airport.

Breakfast was basic, and then it was bus back to the airport, go through immigration (not long), and on to the gate to wait for the flight.

All in all, it was not bad as the hotel room allowed me to get some sleep which I hadn’t got on my flights (also the airport was very busy and it would have been difficult to get a quiet rest, much less stretch out, otherwise), though with all the waiting around prior to going to the hotel, and the need to get back to the airport early, it wasn’t as many hours it may have seemed. So it’s a toss-up.

There apparently is an option to pay for entry into one of the lounges – I had thought that to be my back-up plan if the hotel failed. The airport is nice enough for waiting at the gates, but it was very busy while I was there.

Excursions around KL

1. Pulau Ketam

You can get there by public transport. Take the KTM Komuter to Port Klang (Pelabuhan Klang) – it’s the end of the line – exit the train platform and turn right toward the water. The building about 2 o’ clock in front of you is the jetty building. There’s a public toilet there for a few cents admission. There might be a lady selling ferry tickets in the building. You do NOT have to take this boat, which is the covered/closed-in air-conditioned one, for RM 7. You can also go STRAIGHT to the jetty and get on one of the open boats there – a much more pleasant experience. The open, smallish motored-boat is only RM 10 per trip and takes about the same amount of time (about 40 mins?). You pay when you get off. There is also a larger wooden ferry which seems to be for locals and may take longer.

Pulau Ketam itself is a quaint fishing village on stilts. There are plenty of seafood restaurants (my friend and I should have ordered only 1 serving of crab between us, as each serving had 2 crabs. Together with prawns and lala, that was a lot!) and stalls selling keropok and other fish products. There were indeed plenty of small crabs around in the mud under the stilts. The police station is very cute. There was fresh sugar cane drink to be had, as well as deep-fried ice-cream (RM 2.50). The fried ice-cream stall was near the police station.

Bring an umbrella as it may be hot and sunny. The houses are also quaint and small and were brightly painted in different colours. Some people rented bicycles to cycle around, but I would have been a bit nervous about falling into the mud as some of the concrete walkways were not very wide… Spent just a few hours there, so it was a short trip, but overall a nice excursion.

2. Batu Caves

The new thing about Batu Caves, besides the golden statue, is that there is now also a KTM Komuter stop, also the end of the line, right next to it. Very convenient, just RM 1 or RM 2 from/to KL Sentral. Exit the station and bear left towards the temple-like entrance. Walk through the gateway and towards the Caves.

There is also a new “Dark Cave” attraction about halfway up the steps. It looked interesting – apparently it’s a ‘natural’ cave, with guided tours telling you about the flora and fauna, that sort of thing. It was closed by the time we came down from the top though.

3. Istana Negara museum

This is one place where it is really NOT accessible by public transport. Sure, you can take a taxi there, but to get back? We were lucky to be able to flag down a cab, but it’s really not certain as it’s on a major road where the traffic just sweeps by.

As with the National Museum and KL Tower, there is a ‘local’ price and a foreigner price, so be sure to bring your MyKad along to sure at any of these places. Local price here is RM 5, foreigners RM 10. It’s quite a nice attraction, pretty large grounds (which are not open for visiting unfortunately) surrounding the serene mansion.

One doesn’t wear shoes inside the house, so you can feel the plush carpet as you pad around the lower and upper storeys. Basically it’s like a European great house on a smaller and simpler scale. It was interesting that there’s nothing really ‘Malaysian’ about it. There are audience rooms, sitting rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, bathrooms. A private laundry room for the queen. The best part was the dentist’s chair… not in the laundry room, but in its own little dental office.

There are some people dressed in traditional garb patrolling the outside, and you can pay to have your photo taken in traditional costumes as well. Nice and quiet (aside from tour groups). Good place to rest from hectic sightseeing.

4. National Museum

Only thing to say here is that the Museum has been totally refurbished on the inside, so it’s all fancy and modern. However aside from the Prehistoric room and more powerful air-conditioning and newer-looking exhibits, I’m not so sure whether the change is for the better. One gallery was closed during our recent visit so I reserve judgment. However, out of the 3 rooms that were open, only one – the aforesaid Prehistoric-era stuff, complete with tombs and skeletons – was interesting. The rest was too much like a summary of secondary school history, Not many artifacts, too much explanation, ‘textbook’ perspective. Not very interesting. The best part could be the cultural gallery, which again, was closed. We shall see…

Don’t miss the Orang Asli crafts in a separate building in the same grounds, and the old vehicles around the grounds…

Flying Emirates and Tripoli Airport

I flew Emirates from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai and Dubai to Tripoli.

Emirates certainly lives up to its reputation as a great airline. Nothing really to complain about, even though on the first leg I was given a seat in the very last row, next to the wall. My seat could still recline and I had enough space. If I have one little down, it would be that I don’t think I was ever given a choice on the meals, even when the menu said there were choices. I seemed to just be given a tray of stuff.

Seats: Comfort – good. They have the moveable headrests on each side and do recline. Blankets provided. Outstanding design feature (perhaps this should go under entertainment) is that the controller with all the buttons that is usually in the side of your seat in the armrest, here is in FRONT of you, under the screen. Duh! Why didn’t someone think of this before??? No more awkward manouvering!

Entertainment: Outstanding. Two thumbs up. Individual entertainment systems with touch screens and a plethora of choices for movies, music, TV, and even live cameras from the plane (cockpit view or also view from the bottom of the plane, it seems, just below the front wheel). Headphones worked well, I think. Overall, the best entertainment system I have ever seen on an airplane.

Oh, and the system starts right from the get-go, so you can start your movie even while waiting to taxi to the runway, and is on during takeoff and landing. Though do note that your show will be interrupted for the safety instruction video in Arabic and English (one after the other, so it is shown twice) and slightly later, a rather lengthy introduction to the Emirates entertainment system, also in both languages.

Food: Okay-lah. As I said, I wasn’t given choices, though there were fancy menus handed out every time. The food itself did seem more gourmet than the usual, but I quite like the normal stuff, actually, so this time it wasn’t too appetizing to me.

Service: They didn’t seem to be around all that much, but overall no complaints. They got the job done.

—-

Then I flew Afriqiyah Airways from Tripoli to N’djamena. This entailed a very long wait (basically the whole afternoon and evening) at Tripoli Airport, made about two hours longer by delays.

Tripoli Airport is pretty basic. When I got off the plane, I seemed to be the only transit passenger. I had to ask a few times to ascertain where I was supposed to be going in the immigration hall, as everyone else was being ushered into rows to go through immigration. The transit line ended up being basically putting your carry-on bag through a small machine and then going through into the transit lounge. It seemed to me I could have done that anyway by going out the door and round to the lounge, without going through the machine, but there you go. I was good and waited for the officer to come and switch it on and bring me through. Good thing they spoke enough English to understand “transit” and “N’djamena”, as I don’t speak Arabic.

Person at a counter behind windows told me to come back at 5 pm to get my boarding pass. It was about 1.30 pm then.

The lounge is basically a big room with rows of metal seats. Some are cushioned, some not. The seats mostly have handles so you can’t really stretch out. There were a couple of large tvs showing news in English (I think) and Arabic.

There is a cafe/restaurant. They take USD and I suppose Euros too. A bottle of water cost me $3. I think it would have been 3 Libyan dinars too. A large piece of pizza (the size of about half a small pizza) was also around $3.

There is a business class lounge with computers inside in another room.

There was also a small souvenir shop and a travel shop with bags, travel items, toys, etc with prices in Euros.

I had heard that the toilets are pretty dirty. Basically they are pretty wet, which for a Malaysian, is quite usual. They started out cleaner and got dirtier as more people came along. Nothing too revolting, though you don’t really want to go if you don’t have to. Good thing is there was one squatty stall, which I used. I don’t know how the seat toilets were. Unfortunately the squatty stall was quite dark.

Announcements were made in Arabic, sometimes with an additional one in English (for certain flights) or French. Around 4.30 pm, an announcement in French said that those going to such and such places could go get their boarding passes. One of the officers at the counter spoke English as well as French.

A host of planes scheduled to leave from 6 pm onwards were delayed. About 4 flights, I think. They all left within half an hour of each other, near midnight. You wait in the transit lounge until you are called to the gate. The announcement in Arabic and French comes on way before the large electronic sign, so it is best to listen out for your destination.

My flight was called around 11.30 pm, and then it was a short walk to the gate, machine check, short wait at the gate, across the tarmac, and the plane took off around midnight. I was so tired I slept through most of the flight. Small plane, 3 seats each side. Individual touch screens, a few choices in each category. Full meal served.

In N’djamena, down the staircase to a bus, and then to the terminal. Immigration cards are filled at the terminal. I had no trouble with immigration. After baggage collection, there’s a guy who takes your baggage tags (off your itinerary/boarding pass) and off your bags. I was not stopped at customs, though others were.

All in all, the wait at Tripoli was pretty grueling, partly because I was so tired already, and partly because it wasn’t all that comfortable. Dubai would have been a much more pleasant airport to wait in (or KLIA, for that matter!)

Flying with Gulf Air

I just experienced the KL – London flight via Bahrain by Gulf Air.

While other Middle Eastern airlines like Emirates and Etihad have gotten high marks for quality and affordability, the Internet comments about Gulf Air were not reassuring.¬†A lot of complaints were registered, though more about service in Economy class (with good comments for First/Business Class), so at least it wasn’t about the planes themselves.

Anyway, my verdict is that it is: ok-lah.¬†It’s¬†adequate for being the cheapest flight available.

The good stuff:

  • No problems with check-in/counter staff, transits, etc. They didn’t have address tags readily available at the counter, but when I asked I was given one… it’s a sticker type.
  • Frequent flyer programme people apparently get an extra 10 kg of baggage allowance on top of the usual 20 kg. I didn’t try the limits ūüôā but it is good to know.
  • Speaking of FF, your itinerary is always accessible by logging in on the Web site. I bought an e-ticket online, no problems, and was able to easily change my reservation dates by phone (calling the office in KL). Phone calls were answered promptly (unless the line was engaged); no long holds! and no charge for date changes (Note: this probably varies depending on the kind of ticket you buy)
  • Service/Crew: One thing I noticed and really liked was the crew was quite multicoloured – I mean, multiethnic. I don’t know if the diversity was intentional; I’m inclined to think it’s accidental, given the diversity in the Middle East, but in each flight, the stewards/stewardesses looked Asian, Caucasian, African, and Middle Eastern. I heard Filipino, Indian and African accents in the English announcements over the PA system. They¬†all looked good (btw, nice hats, ladies) and were nice and friendly. So thumbs up for service, in general.
  • The food was ok, there were individual entertainment systems,¬†pretty good in-flight magazine (interesting travel articles, though no crossword!)
  • Non-full flights (surprising, considering the price), which meant two-seaters and chance to spread out! I was a bit¬†surprised at being given a seat in the back cabin even though I checked in early (or was it because I got my ticket later?), but I later realized the wisdom of this. The back¬†is where all the free seats are and greater freedom to move around.
  • Nice warm blankets (and nice colours too) – though I only got one in the first leg; somehow they didn’t give them to everyone in the 2nd leg.

The not-so-good/bad stuff:

  • The sound system left much to be desired. This would be my main gripe and could be a deal-breaker if you can’t live without your movies and are particular about quality. I am a bit particular, but I guess I got used to it: 1) there were inexplicable short losses of sound every once in awhile – like when swear words are censored, except this time it wasn’t censorship, it was just the sound system going out! It was just for a few seconds each time, but you did lose a bit of dialogue when it happened.¬† 2) the sound quality was just bad, in general. I had to turn the volume up and it was noisy. This could be related to the headphones and the connection as well. 3) the headphones were unreliable. In the first flight, I tried 2 or 3 sets before finding one that worked. In the second leg, mine worked the first time. They look like they are recycled (only the ear muffs come in a sealed pack and you have to fit them on to the headphones), which is ok, but would be better if they worked better.¬†Still, maybe it is the point of connection/seat sound system that is at fault.
  • On the first flight, one of the channels had bad video quality – really jumpy. Note that the movies are on their schedule, not on-demand. (Which¬†could be a good thing as it makes you rest rather than wear your eyes out, but in this age of personalisation, most people would want that control, I think!) There’s a significant break, when nothing is playing, in between loops.
  • I had a seat that reclined by itself (not tight) in the second flight.
  • My checked luggage got dirty (sand from the desert??). Not a big deal, but usually it doesn’t get that dusty.

Anyway, so on balance – Gulf Air gets you there. Not the best, but it’s definitely bearable for the savings compared to other airlines. I also didn’t have any problems with delays or missed connections which some online people did. The only weird thing is the PA system in Bahrain airport announced final call for the flight when boarding hadn’t even started! Had a rough landing in London, but don’t know whether that was the pilot or some other cause.

So: not my airline of choice, but if it’s really cheap, I’d definitely take it again.

P.S. Had a pleasant surprise at Heathrow. Though it was a long way to Immigration, once I got there, I found there were lots of counters open, and no queue! Got through Immigration in less than 5 minutes, and baggage reclaim also within 5 mins or so. All in all, I was out of there within about 20-30 mins after the plane landed.

Getting a TGV reservation (Belgium – France)

TGV, the high-speed train in France, “requires reservations”. From what I understand, this simply means that you have to book a particular journey, because there are other train tickets which are ‘open’ tickets and you can go anytime.

Anyway, some info from my online adventures trying to make a booking from afar:

TGV Web site (http://www.tgv.com)
This is by far the best… It allows you to choose your seats. Best if you understand French and book from the Belgium/France site (you can choose English as the language there, but at some point you may be redirected to a French-language page). The catch is for Belgium, tickets can only be collected from a shop in Brussels (not the train station) or sent to a local address. For France, they do have self-service machines at some stations, but you must use the credit card you used to book the tickets to retrieve them. Booking in Euros is definitely cheaper than booking from the UK site, in Pounds.

Belgian Railways (www.b-rail.be)
The advantage of booking through this site is you can pick up your tickets at any station in Belgium, again with the same credit card. The problem is for a Brussels – Lyon journey, it only gave me the Thalys journeys which go through Paris (and requiring a change of stations there from Gare du Nord to Gare du Lyon, which are not in the same place), which is also more expensive than going on the TGV from Brussels – Lyon. I had a tough time finding a way to get the TGV journey. I did finally by going through a France section of the site, but then it didn’t allow choosing seats like the TGV Web site does.

– Your local travel agent. The TGV site showed that our local agent for tickets in Malaysia is Boustead Travel. I called them and they were able to book the tickets with the Euro fee, converted to RM (cheapest I could find so far), with some extra charge. However, apparently you can’t choose seats! (I wanted a window). Service from them is ok and should be fairly convenient for me to get tickets from them. Update later when I’ve completed the transactions.

Getting a Malaysian passport renewed

This is a bit late, but just an assurance that the new, improved passport renewal process is true (more or less)!

I went to the Immigration office at Subang Airport (look for the sign and turn off to the left). I had my form filled in (downloaded from the Imm Dept Website), my passport photos, photocopy of IC, and money. There was a self-service kiosk there, but I opted to go the normal way with the counters.

The first counter is where they check that you have all the right stuff and give you a number. I was impressed that they opened this around 7.30 am, even though the office officially starts work at 8.00 am.

The next counter (when your number is called) is where you submit the documents.

The third counter is the bursary where you pay for your new passport. Here you get the receipt for picking up your passport 2 hours later. Here is where things hit a snag, as their computer system was down… anyway I got my receipt and decided to come back in the stipulated 2 hours.

I came back later – my new passport was there, but apparently computer system was still down and no guarantees when it would be up. So I went off and decided to pick it up another day.

Another day: with my receipt, got my new and old passports, no problem.

Note: There is a convenient carpark right outside the Immigration Office. Plenty of space early in the morning but is pretty packed by mid-morning/midday.

Three Days in Chennai, India

Well I’m back from Chennai. Spent just 3 days there, attending a friend’s wedding. We were at the wedding for most of the first 2 days, and did a bit of touristy stuff on the 3rd day.

Getting around Chennai:
1) Auto-rickshaws (“autos”) – they hurtle around with amazing skill and precision, with breath-taking stops and swerves. It’s a miracle they don’t crash into the trucks and lorries around. You have to negotiate and agree on a price to your destination and specify that you want to go straight there (if you don’t wish them to stop at a tourist shop on the way). We paid about Rs. 40 – Rs. 70 per ride, depending on the distance. One long ride was Rs. 100. The hotel helped to hail them.

2) Call taxis – taxis called in advance, which work on a meter basis. The hotel called me one to get to the airport on the way back.

3) Prepaid taxis – from the Chennai Airport, you can get a prepaid taxi with fixed rates from the Govt of Tamil Nadu.

On the 3rd day, I went to Mahabalipuram/Mamallapuram, which is about an hour and a half outside of Chennai. The 2 transports were Rs 1550 each, split among 9 people, so we paid just Rs 400 each. At the place, we hired a guide for Rs 400 (though I think a similar group before us got one for Rs 200-300). The guides are experienced and rattle off stories and background with ease. I heard one speaking in Spanish.

Mahabalipuram is a really touristy area, with lots of local as well as foreign tourists. We visited the 5 Rathas and the Shore Temple, and various cave temples, as well as an ancient lighthouse.

Dakshina Chitra, an artisan village on the way to Mahabalipuram, is a really nice set-up and worth visiting. It covers the arts of South India (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, etc.) and includes an orientation film, and you can wander around the various recreations of different types of houses of South India, with exhibits inside, and also little stations for you to do some crafts for a small fee. There are also artisans selling their wares, so you can buy some nice items for gifts. Entry was about Rs. 175 for foreigners.

Within Chennai, we went to Spencer Plaza, which is basically a shopping place with lots of little shops selling clothes; there is also a nice juice shop and a Subway. We also went to a fancy mall called Citicentre. Both places had a large bookshop. Books are generally cheaper than in Malaysia. We also visited a family beach where there was a large temple and brightly painted machines for the kids. Fishermen and huts took up one stretch of the beach. A popsicle cost Rs. 7, while a Cornetto was more…

We stayed at a very nice little hotel called The Chariot in T. Nagar (they have a Web site). The staff were friendly and helpful, though you do have to tell them where you want to go (they do not really recommend places to visit etc.). The hotel charged Rs. 50 to the room bill for Internet use (a computer in the office behind the front desk). The Hindu is delivered daily, and cable tv is available in the rooms.

Down the road from the hotel was a nice little restaurant called Kababish. Average meal costs Rs. 80 for the meat and Rs. 10 for naan and Rs. 25 for white rice.

*One final note about transport: Chennai is huge and sprawling, and the autos frequently did not know how to get to places, e.g. our hotel, or the Theosophical Society, or my friend’s house. They sometimes had to stop and ask people in the vicinity.