Sunday 31 December 2023

Month of December 2023

The travel bug might have been still itching as the wife suggested an overnight trip to Malaysia. It's probably around six years since I last drove in. The jam at the Causeway was expected as we took two hours to clear customs at 9am on a Friday morning. Johor is so close yet feels so unfamiliar. We were conservative as fears of car and police incidents played in our minds. So without stopping for a break, I drove to Mid Valley Shopping Mall which came highly recommended by friends and it's also where our hotel is situated. At that time, the only thing to do was to have breakfast at the only cafe that was opened. As more shops slowly lit up, our first activity was to indulge in a head spa. It's a new realization that an oily scalp can still have dandruff. I had been using wrong types of shampoo all these while! Well, a simple treatment was better than no treatment although I'm rather skeptical of the result unless it's consistently applied. Lunch was rather light since we had a massage appointment lined up. In the end, we spent the entire day in the mall. The next day, we stopped over at KSL City for Kuay Teow Soup before doing some grocery shopping. Traffic back home was unimpeded as we passed immigration in ten minutes. Overall, it felt like being in Singapore yet spending just that little bit lesser.

Still, my family prepped ourselves for the final trip of the year, this time with a bunch of friends and their kids, totaling 23 people! We were going to Bali. Yeah! One of those places that I missed for so long. Travelling in such a big group brought a different kind of challenge from accommodation to transportation and activities. Thanks to a friend who's basically been a regular here for the past few years due to his business, he and his wife helped organize every little detail. It was a jam packed 5D4N experience. We did a day of water sports, half day of golf followed by beach club party and another day of water rafting and ATV. Our time was split around Ubud, Seminyak and Kuta. In between, we were introduced to cafes with delicious food and views. The consensus was clear that the favourite was Pison Cafe as we visited twice after being impressed by its range of items. I thought golf at Handara was wonderful with the cool mountain, easy terrain and pure relaxation. The most challenging was the rafting adventure. From the beginning, it rained heavily. For the young ones, walking twenty minutes down steep steps to get to the riverside was nerve-racking. Occasional lightning flashed overhead. It was cold and reminded me of my army days in the field camp under similar condition. However, even with rain, once the activity got going, everyone had fun riding the quick rapids and being splashed by muddy water. It was amazing that the group dynamics worked out well. Each family had a fulfilling moment. The ladies enjoyed their hair wash and massage while the kids happily played among themselves. A few of us learnt to play Bridge. My youngest son enjoyed paragliding and surprisingly, the rafting. However, there's an unfortunate remark to the trip. The villa we stayed in fell way below expectations. The rooms were not clean, some had air conditioning issues, water pressure from the shower head was mostly low, my mattress creaked, the pool looked slightly greenish with overgrown bushes etc... I mean, I could list down many more points but we stuck it out and didn't let this spoil our spirits. Be warned, do not stay at The Light Bali Villa @ 11 JL Tunjung. Even our Pasir Ris chalets offered better.

Tip: Macallan Classic Cut 2023, pleasant honeyed nose, a dash of cinnamon and soft dew

Friday 22 December 2023

Closing Out 2023

I closed my eyes to recall and the first thought that came to my mind was, "What just happened? A year has passed again?" Nothing in particular stood out as it felt like moments went by too quickly to leave a significant imprint. My colleagues recently commented my hair seemed to be greyer than before. That's probably right, it's been so gradual that I didn't notice such a change. Perhaps it's because my health was more of a concern. According to the app, things have improved. Number of average steps clocked have increased by about 500 per day, 80 more calories were burned daily along with higher distances. A drop of 3.5kg body weight is the result of the effort made. Considering that I was sidelined by a nose operation and post recovery period of two months, the overall state is quite decent.

At work, the team achieved its target once again. They celebrated and morale was high. Inside, I felt mental stress, nil excitement and waiting for the pay cheque. My mind often drifted to when the next break would come. Social engagements were less as I declined a number of requests. Maybe it's due to me being more discerning about meaningless gathering for the sake of it. Most people I met remained as corporate contact, there's hardly any follow up unless required. We usually add each other on social media and to me, it's just a method to keep connected although I have also stopped wishing others on events like birthdays, congratulations on baby arrival and anything of note. I can't pinpoint what's caused this change. All I know is my work tank is running on empty. Even a few holidays this year couldn't re-energize my spirit. Those were mere distractions.

On the other hand, my financial journey is on track. Watching online videos on financial independence provided some joy and ideas to apply. I'm happy there's been real progression. This is well documented in the other posts of this blog. Markets are complex so it's been a good experience this year to manage new investment products while trying to find a correct mix. It's a looping process and more shall be done. I've been blessed in this aspect.

Just hoping to discover the mojo in life and improve myself.

Tip: Le Petit Smith Haut Lafite 2018, ripe currants, inky flower petals, mild herbs, commendable

Friday 15 December 2023

Finance Investment Movement 40

The most anticipated event of this month just ended and the Fed Chairman had changed strategy on the inflation fight. Employment numbers were healthy, consumer prices looked to be steadying, supply chains had normalized and a recession possibility was banished. In response, the stock market went into immediate front loading, anticipating juicy interest rate cuts in the coming year. Looks like the skies are clear, or is it not? I thought it was very clever positioning by the Fed. They needed to bring cheer to the people not just because Christmas is coming but also kept in mind there were other major events happening next year. Several presidential elections will happen (US, Indonesia, Taiwan) and big money is required to finance projects for supporting a couple of small wars, build massive infrastructure, invest into technology and pull ahead of a competitor who's gotten too close for comfort. All these are dependent on people's support but the key is whether the US can generate more income than expenditure. My take is, inflation is here to stay!

My investment window has sort of closed for the year. I'm preparing to join the SCB Priority Banking program so as to gain access to other products and get preferential rates. I'm still contemplating whether to apply for Jan SSB. The more exciting part would be to tabulate my overall portfolio status at the end of the month.

Tip: Baron Gaston Legrand Armagnac, dried fig infused toffee, almost like an alcoholic tea

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Another Trip Completed

This was quite a last minute trip so the itinerary preparation was a little rushed. Luckily, it's to a country where we had been before but there were several firsts achieved which I shall elaborate below. Taiwan is such a beautiful place with friendly people. Though I had been there close to ten times, there will always be something new to enjoy.

Day 1: Taoyuan
It was our first experience flying with Starlux Airlines. When I booked it, the App felt incomplete as it couldn't perform check in function. There was only one flight per day. I had prepped everyone to expect a Scoot-like environment but was glad to be proven otherwise. The seats were comfortable, equipped with a multi-plug charging point, hot meals were served and in flight entertainment was available. We arrived in the evening, booked out the Wifi router and found the rental car after ten minutes of searching in the basement carpark. I had chosen Goodcars to rent a Luxgen M7. It's a locally branded MPV and the reservation process was a little dubious as everything was done online. Communications were done via Whatsapp, documents were uploaded there and full payment made before the trip. The vehicle was collected via self service so the keys were left in the glove compartment. And I had to get used to left hand drive in an unknown car model. Quite challenging for a start.

Day 2: Yilan
Departure was early at 9am as the journey to the next location would take around 2.5 hours. The Google map became our trusted navigator as I drove carefully towards Sanxing Sinbow Farm. Along the way, a refueling stop was required and it took us some time to find a petrol station. Taiwan's road design is rather haphazard and there are almost non existent service areas between inter-cities, unlike say Japan. One should not conveniently exit the highway unless necessary as it's a big loop to get back on. We managed to arrive at our destination just before noon and purchased the full package experience. Part of this included the petting area for ponies and simbar deers although I felt the amount of feed given to each person was too little as it's basically a small cup of pellets. The greying weather was kind enough to hold out as we got into the muddy field to harvest a handful of spring onions each, wash and roll our own dough. Happily, the fried pancake turned out delicious such that even the picky eaters also finished their portions. We left around 230pm to head towards our accommodation for the next three nights, a private house in the outskirts of Luodong. A spritely lady (XP) welcomed and showed us around. She took our orders for breakfast the next day and left us to rest. An hour later, we were on the move again for dinner at Leshan Spring Ramen in Jiaoxi. The temperature at night can get rather cold. We adjourned to a nearby park where there's a public foot bath and soaked our feet for half an hour before calling it a day. My wife did a round of laundry while I fell asleep.

Day 3: Yilan
The door bell rang at 815am. All of us had changed and ready for breakfast. XP laid out a feast of salad, Cheong Fun, Shao Bing and juices. It was too much for stomachs that had barely woken. We struggled to finish half before leaving for the next activity. The roads were quite empty on the way to Kili Bay Pearl Milk Centre. Its museum area is small and unimpressive. Our main activity was to DIY a cup of milk tea which took 15 minutes to complete. Soon we were off to lunch at Nanfangao port even though my breakfast had barely digested. The port is home to a fishing village and surrounded by mountains, providing a safe harbour. Shops mainly sold dried and fresh seafood, fruits and sauces. We ended up at an eatery to have fish soup, tuna sashimi, small squid, braised pork rice and vegetables. All these for less than S$30. With our bellies full once again, the next stop was at National Centre for Traditional Art. This is a huge compound comprising of shophouses promoting local cultural products such as wood, black jadestone, soap etc. It was 2pm and a street opera performance was going on. The crowd moved along with the actors who were enacting a scene to find a thief and that eventually ended up at the performing theatre. We strolled leisurely, bought some souvenirs and fed a school of hungry carps. Then proceeded to dinner at Qing Gou Night Market. This was set at a main street which cordoned off to cars at 6pm, motorcycles continued to weave among the visitors to make quick pit stops for food purchase. We had pizza, fried boneless pork rib, candied fruits before taking away braised meats and stir fried beef udon.

Day 4: Yilan
Another day of hearty breakfast, this time with burgers, nuggets and fries. That provided the energy to play among the cute animals (goats, deers, capybaras, kangeroos and tortoises) at Zhang Mei Ama Farm. By the time we left, large groups were queueing which testifies to its popularity. Lunch break was at Artemis Garden before a visit to Jim and Dad Brewery. These two spots were sparse and meditative, with the food quality average. Since there was time, we searched and ended up at Xin Xin Family Farm. This was an authentic place with free roaming geese, chicken and a very pregnant pig. Other animals such as goats and deers were in enclosures. The boys enjoyed feeing the racoon with live meal worms while my wife disbursed the unlimited bundles of grass. Essentially, we paid to become farm workers while the owner sat in a corner with his friend, munching peanuts amid conversation. The grounds may be a little dirty but that's to be expected. I would love to visit it another time. This night, the kids stayed in while my wife and I went to Luodong Night Market. We settled on mutton soup, sweet potato balls, meat skewer, green bean shake and took home a hamburger alongside noodles. As per the previous night, it was supper and beer with the local entertainment TV programs.

Day 5: Hualien
XP served up our last breakfast here comprising of Youtiao, meat bun, soya bean and fruit platter. She reminded us to leave the parking tickets at the reception table of which she would make payment as part of the accommodation package. We thanked her and left the property soon after to head towards Li Chuan Aquafarm. Along the way, it was mostly paddy fields as the skies dimmed inland. The drive was pleasant with 2.5 hours passed. Upon reaching the destination, there wasn't much people as we contemplated whether to pick clams from the muddy pond. The thought of doing this barefoot kept us away so we did the next best thing, that is to eat lunch featuring clams of course, in soup and stir fried versions. The size of these clams were small but plump, and the generous serving meant we probably ate 200 pieces! Straight after, we headed for coffee break at the very iconic containers of Starbucks in this city. It's located outside a grand looking mall but pathetically empty inside. We helped a bored looking employee by purchasing tickets for the kids to go into the world's longest indoor slide. Barely five seconds of fun for S$10 per person. The coffee we had later costs less. After half an hour inside the cosy container, we could finally head for hotel check in. For dinner, it was simply ten steps walk to the cafe beside and it served a surprisingly yummy mini hotpot. While the kids went back to the room, my wife and I decided to do a recce at Dongdamen Night Market which was three minutes walk away. It was filled with many game stores and the usual food variety. One notable point was the big number of students hanging around.

Day 6: Hualien
Today's the designated scenic drive day. The Hualien coastline is renowned for its beautiful ocean views and we were treated to good weather throughout. First, we stopped at Xin She Rice Terrace which is really an over-rated spot. It allowed me to take a break from driving, inhale proper breaths of fresh air and a family photo opportunity. Shortly, we left for Guangfu Sugar Factory. It's a big compound showcasing an once active sugar mill, demarcated into working, living and dining spaces. After a quick walk, it was time to lunch on beef noodles, fish noodles and curry rice. Big servings and decent taste. This is the kind of place good enough for one visit and no more. Next, our ride took us to an elevated area where the Li Yu Lake awaited. There were options to self paddle, self drive an electric boat or be ferried around in a guided boat. As the sun would set in about two hours, we decided on option two. The boat didn't go above 15km/h as we slowly navigated the lake perimeters. The boys took turns to be at the helm while I sat back to enjoy the tranquility. We talked, observed birds and marvelled at low clouds that hung over the mountain. One hour later, the peaceful ride ended. The road traffic back to hotel was smooth and daylight remained as we settled for a Japanese donburi each for dinner.

Day 7: Taoyuan
We left early so as to gain more time for Gloria Outlet shopping. About 45 minutes in, the GPS took us off the highway as there was anticipated bad traffic jam. Ok, perhaps the small roads could be less utilized. Barely a few kilometers later, the navigated route went towards the same highway again. Right, quite a long winded way to drive, I thought. But the GPS didn’t know that police had blocked off side access roads so we couldn’t get onto the desired path repeatedly. Instead, I had to make a U-turn after going backwards to the exit spot where we had originally come from. This particular turn took an hour. If traffic had been good, by this time, we would have been close to the destination. Yet here we were, less than halfway. Hunger crept in, luckily we had snacks and water. When the bladder threatened to give way, we had no choice but to let the youngest son use a water bottle. The rest of us just held on. Traffic was slow and rain made it worse. A journey of four hours became seven. When I related this to the hotel concierge, the staff just smiled and said, “Never drive from Yilan to Taipei on the weekend. This is normal.” A day spent purely on the road.

Day 8: Taoyuan
A last minute change occurred. The farm visit that was planned wasn’t open. I found out after searching for its information the night before. So we detoured to Pushin Ranch. Similar to those before, we paid an entrance fee but had to fork out for the animal feed. By comparison, this was the least impressive place though an unsuspecting first timer to Taiwan would still enjoy. Then a petrol stop was needed to get the needle above 25% tank capacity. Lunch and outlet shopping was next. We didn’t buy much since the prices were not enticing. After putting the boys back to hotel, my wife and I drove to the car return point which was five minutes away. The self service option meant I had to take photos of the car’s condition over six angles, the dashboard and the glove compartment that contained money for highway toll incurred. The level of trust must be high to leave an unattended vehicle in a public car park and a Whatsapp message to thank me for the patronage. I was quite impressed how this worked out.

Day 9: Taoyuan
We wanted to give the boys a taste of Taipei so it’s onto public transport today. Taking the HSR and metro to Ximending took around 40 minutes, excluding waiting time. After days of Chinese food, it was timely to eat something they had been craving i.e pasta. Following that was foot massage, shopping and more food eg Ah Zhong Mian Xian, tempura assortment and honey bittergourd juice. By 4pm, our minds were empty and thus headed back to hotel. The rest of the evening was to pack the luggage and enjoy a drink at the hotel bar along with dinner. The boys played a game of darts.

Day 10: Singapore
The hotel airport transfer service costs NT$1400 and took us at 615am to Taoyuan airport in 20 minutes. Check in and immigration were surprisingly smooth. The plane entered sunny skies as the youngest one requested for two servings of the chicken meal. We were glad to return home. I estimated the all-in bill to be S$10000.

Tip: Taiwan Beer 18 Days Draft, smooth malt with light hop, a delight