Monday, 25 May 2009

Living on the Edge...

of water, desert, city, country, discovery, ancient civilisation.

sunny 43 °C
Manama, the capital city of Bahrain, locates at the Northern edge of the island country. The Seef district situates at the north western edge of Manama. Our hotel, Fraser Suites, in turns, positions at the north western edge of the Seef district. In fact, if our hotel is 50 metres further west, it would fall off the edge of the official map of Manama.

Looking out from the hotel window on level 10, I could see that the Seef district is in the new part of the city, judging from the empty sandy plots of land that scattered around outside my hotel. Manama, I was told, was Arabic for "Sleeping Place". This Sleeping Place was woken up by the noise of construction last few years, although the construction industry was taking a break during the Sub-prime crisis/debt bubble/credit crunch/the Great Recession of the last 18 months. The money dried up, the property development stopped. And the economic boom-bust cycle continues.

Seef district composed of either empty land or buildings being erected. It is a upscale district in the capital with its posh malls, trendy cafes and swanky cosmopolitan restaurants. As we drove through the area, it was obvious that there was an explosive construction boom before the financial crisis era. Most of the cranes are now idle, only a handful of development manage to carry on its works at the moment. Looking at the stationary cranes and deserted work sites, it seems incredible where was the demand for this property market came from considering the small size of this population (around 1.2 mil people, only 62% are Bahraini, read my previous diary). Of course, most of this properties are probably target at the Saudis across the strait. Still, it seems excessive (one of the prerequisite for our economic bust and the bursting of property bubbles everywhere).

Looking toward the north from my hotel window I can see the ocean, and the map tells me that it was only 1 km from my hotel. So I decided to take a walk at the water edge one day (was a 43 degree day). As I got to the water edge, I looked to my left and lo and behold an ancient fort appeared like a mirage in a desert. I checked the map again to see if I missed anything. Nope, nothing significant was marked on the map. I've got into a museum looking building next to the fort to seek out some answers. As it turned out, this was a Portuguese Fort, also known as Bahrain Fort, which was built in the 16th century by the Portuguese and it's also the archaeological site of the capital of the Dilmun civilisation. And I discovered it by accident! I felt like Hendrick Schliemann or Howard Carter. This happens to be the most important tourist/cultural/historical sight in Bahrain and I just stumbled upon it like a blind man.

Dilmun was a very ancient civilisation that was mentioned by the Sumerian and Babylonian. So in the modern day, this area maybe the newest part of the city, but its existence was one of the earliest of human history - an interesting twist in the development of a history plot.

Not that this tourist sight wasn't advertised. It was advertised in the official map of Bahrain, it just didn't feel there's any need to mark it on the map. The F1 Circuit was clearly marked on the map (in fact, you can't miss its large pictorial icon). Funny priority, but if you read my previous entry (just the title alone), you'll understand.

As this place was so close to our hotel, and there are such a lack of tourist sights here, I re-visited this place for another three times, at different time of the day to get different photos. I've done my tour of duty as a good tourist should.

Friday, 22 May 2009

A Small Kingdom with Big Modern Shops

The French Connection.

sunny 37 °C
Manama has no supermarkets. Why? Only hypermarkets are big enough for Bahrain. Australia is the other end of the spectrum (and the world, hemisphere), where we're served by smaller number of supermarket chains. It was an eye-opener for an Aussie bumpkin like me to shop in this big space. They sell everything from grocery to computers and TV, etc. It's sort of a cross between Woolworth and Harvey Norman (or Wal-Mart for Yanks).

Australia is a resource-rich but brand-poor country (and Bahrain is a oil-rich, brand-rich kingdom).
Take fast food restaurants, Macky has about 45-55% market penetration (this is from my own 30 years observation with no official figures to back it up. But I don't think I'm too far off). Together with KFC, they corner about 75% of the fast food market (or 3 out of the 4 corners of Aussie market). Leaving a little corners for only a couple of franchises like Hungry Jacks and Red Rooster to pick up the crumbs left behind by the two dominant players. All in all, there are only a total of a handful of fast food restaurant brands.

This virtual duopoly in fast food franchise brands is quite typical in other Aussie markets. Take supermarket, Woolworth overshadows Coles, and together they take over 85% or so of the supermarket market. One more example, the duopoly also takes a strangle-hold of the department stores segment with David Jones and Myer play the whole field. In fact, they're duopoly in the purist sense. There's no level playing field to speak of. Telco industry is another duopoly. But I think you get the drift.

One might argue that because of the small Australian population, giant franchises have little interests in coming to Australia. Bahrain has similar variety of brands as Singapore and HK. HK has less than 1/3, Singapore has less than 1/7 and Bahrain has less than 1/12 of the Aussie population. So small population can't explain the large number of foreign brands in these tiny city-states/countries. Perhaps it was an Aussie government concerted effort in the past to local protectionism (at the expense of consumers). Maybe something else, or a combination of several historical reasons. In any case, the results of such few brands is that even a British company (her mother) like Marks & Spencer has no shops in Australia. In fact, many UK brands that you would find in Asia, and elsewhere, won't be found in Australia. Why should anyone care? Brand variety = consumer choice. And Aussie has much fewer choices when it compares to tiny city-states like HK, Singapore, and Bahrain.

I smiled when Australia Tourism Board pitched Australia as a shopping paradise. Don't get me wrong, Australia shines in the area of eco-tourism. But shopping destination Australia ain't.
All the hypermarkets in Bahrain are French brands: Géant, Carrefour, Lulu, and one other (its name escapes me). Géant locates sort of opposite from Fraser Suites, and we shopped there a number of times. There're lots of French restaurants and especially French café. Paul's Café is one of our fave bakery restaurant in Seef Mall. Although we like their coffee and burgers, most of all, I like their complimentary bread basket with their own olive paté. No, I'm not a cheapskate. I'm happy to pay for it. It's just their complimentary breads are simply divine, and I'm sucker for olives. c'est magnifique!
The French would be quite at home here. Perhaps, which is why Olivier jumped at the chance to come to Bahrain - a kinda woop woop place with lots of French businesses, and he is paid in BD and tax free. The traffic is going both ways, just differerent traffic. While the French comes here to make money (certainly not to travel), the Bahraini go to France to spend money (since they're obviously big-time Francophiles).

Singapore also has Carrefour. Singapore doesn't have Géant, but it has Giant, which is also a hypermarket founded by a Singaporean family. In fact, Giant is our substitute for Géant in Singapore, and has surprisingly similar product lines. I shop at Giant regularly because of their lower prices and the large range of merchandise. Most of all, I go there to buy their baguettes, and bakery.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A Small Country with a Large Currency

...and a small population with a large expat workforce.

sunny 38 °C
Things look so cheap here in Bahrain: a Big Mac costs only 1.4 BD (Bahraini dinar) until I have to convert it to AUD/SGD in my head. Look can be deceiving, I tell yee. The cost of living in Bahrain is quite high as measured by the Macdonald's Burger Index that cooked up by US economists. In this case, it's a reasonable accurate reflection.

1 BHD = 4.2 SGD/AUD at the time I arrived this kingdom (Locals call their currency BD, and the ISO 4217 currency code is BHD). 1BHD = 1000 Fils. Because of the large currency value, 3 decimal points are needed for accuracy. While we had a worldwide Y2K software bug back in the turn of the century, all software that are adapted to use in this country will have to be 3DP compliant (my own anagram - 3 Decimal Places) - job bonanza for the code cutters.

Bahaini Dinar is the second highest currency by value, only second to Kuwaiti Dinar (KWD), followed by Oman Rial (OMR), these three countries just happen to be all members of GCC countries. What a surprise! Needless to say, this high valued currency rate is very expensive for poor sod like myself who have most of my currency holdings in bank accounts denominated in AUD/SGD. In short, things are about 1.2 times (20%) more expensive in general than Singapore, 30% more than Sydney, and nearly 2 times more expensive than HK. Ahhhhhh...HK's food, its variety, its standard, its price, has never looked so attractive.

The GCC countires try to get a common currency, something like Euro in EU. All they need is coming up with a currency unit they can agree on - dinar, riyal or dirham. Ok, they have more serious obstacles to cleal with before they can come up with a common currency by 2010 if all go to plan.
Speaking of GCC currency. When you hand a 10 dinar note to a cashier in a shop and get a 50 note back, instead of yelling "Bonanza!", hold your Lorne Greene horses, (or giving it back to the cashier like a good Samaritan), look again. It's most likely to be a 50 Saudi Riyal note. Not surprisingly, the notes of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia look quite similar (all GCC banknotes look the same to me). Try to look for words like "Central Bank of Bahrain" for clues. The exchange rate between the two currencies is neatly 10 to 1. So just drop a zero from Riyal to get the equivalent worth in Dinar. No, I have never seen a 50 dinar note; I'm not that loaded.

Many Saudis drive to Bahrain on the weekend to grab some much needed R&R (alcohol and various other mildly sinful things are allowed in Bahrain) via the 28km King Fahd Causeway that turns the island into a peninsula. Because of this weekend ritual, Saudi Riyals are widely accepted here. Oh, weekend here are Fridays and Saturdays, so I frequently (and understandably) mistaken Sunday for Monday, Friday for Saturday, etc. When you get off a plane, best to reset your watch, and put your calendar one day forward to alleviate temporal disorientation.

When I was told that I am required to go to the Kingdom of Bahrain, i quickly looked up my map and found out it was a very small island locates on a latitude of 26 degrees north. The two facts - an very small island (practically the same size of Singapore), and the latitude - led me to conclude that the climate there would likely be quite similar to Brisbane, which is a port city locates on a latitude of 27 degrees south. this implies a temperature during this season (spring) around a pleasant 27 degrees Celsius or so. I was please because I'm getting out of the humid heat of Singapore. I looked the weather forecast and almost fell off my chair - the temperature for the week ranging from 37 to 39 degrees Celsius. So much for simplistic weather comparisons. The extreme low rainfall in this region turns this island into a sandy rock.

When you turn on the cold water tap and get very warm water, don't call the plumber. There's nothing wrong with your taps (faucets for you Yankees). The 'Hot' and 'Cold' labels haven't been incorrectly installed. No need to visit a doctor, either. Your temperature sensors on your hands work fine. This is normal cold water. In May anyway. I haven't lived here in Winter months, so I can't say. I suspect it's because the pipes are buried under those hot sandy ground, and the water can get heated up to lukearm.

I only have been here for less than two weeks, but I have already seen three dust storms that blew over here from across the strait (Saudis aren't the only arrivals). Although everyone here refer to this meteorological phenomenon as sandstorm, but technically, it should be called dust storm, especially those exist in the city. Even when it does rain, it's a light shower that's over in minutes. The rain water evaporates the seconds it hits the ground. Despite the total absence of heavy rain, windscreen wipers are critically essential as you can't drive during a dust storm without it.

As you drive around the city, you are graced by many palm trees, all of which are planted there by the government and watered every day to keep them alive. So the palm trees that are so associated with the Middle East, at least this country, it's a man-made myth.

After the initial shock of the weather and lukewarm tap water have subsided and walking around the city isn't as bad as I imagine. Perhaps, I'm more used to this dry heat that I used to in Sydney than the humid heat in Singapore. The temperature drops more rapidly as night fall. Also because of the proximity to the ocean (Who doesn't?), the ocean breezes help, too. I usually go out after 4:30pm, which is not all that bad. Because of the perennial dust layer that hangs in the sky, there's never a naked sun rays reaching the ground, especially when the sun is closer to the horizon. You can do a staring contest with the sun at 4:40pm without sunglasses.

Most of the massage shops are run by Thai. Surprise? They are clustered around Exhibition Avenue and its alleys opposite the impressive Gosi Shopping Complex. The massages are similar to those provided in Thailand, for example, Thai traditional , oil and foot massage, except over here, male clients are massaged by massuers and females are massaged by their masseuses, in different business premises (as supposed to only female massage workers in massage parlours throughout Thailand). ladies' body massage costs 10 BD/hr, while men costs 15 BD/hr. Some ladies' massage parlours also provide hair cut. Many beauty and hair salons intersperse among the massage shops.
There are also a visible Moroccan presence in this area that operate restaurants and other small business.

Indian (including Sri-Lankan) run most of the small retail shops in the souq in Bab-Al-Bahrain. The shops are aimed both at the locals as well as tourists. Think of the shops in China Town in Sydney, but not so upmarket. I bought a 2.5 BD obligatory souvenir shirt there. There are also Indians living here that belong the other end of the super rich, who carve out a slice of Bahrain prosperity in banking and financial industry.

There are also various groups of people from other parts of Middle East making a living here - Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Turks as well as African. In short, Manama is a cosmopolitan city, which appeals to the Koran's belief in the brotherhood of men. I won't cover sisterhood here. They get enough coverage.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Flying with Emirates

with more room for your bum bag (fanny pack)

overcast 37 °C
Our usual airline (as Atta company would prefer) is SIA. As airfare to fly from Singapore to Bahrain was $1200 SGD/AUD if we fly with Emirates - a $200 discount to SIA - we decided to defect to Emirates.

When I boarded Emirates, I wheeled my laptop luggage as per usual only to find the aisle was simply too small, so I had to carry it by hands (quite heavy as it contained two laptops, some books, and various electronic accessories). As I sat down I realised that small aisles was a blessing in disguise. It seems like that the aisles were narrowed to make the seats wider (more butt room). But it also apppeared that the plane also scarifies a few rows to add extra leg room as well. The pleasant extra room makes the whole 8-hour flight seems like 4 hours and 45 mins. I've never been so comfortable flying in economy (coach for you Yanks). I actually slept for 3 hours or so, thanks to a heavy dose of extra space. The tuna croissant supper wasn't too shabby, either.

The entertainment system also seems newer than anything I've been on (not so long ago), which makes me wonder if the extra room was part of Emirates' initiative or this is how the new planes are designed these days.

There was no direct flight from Singapore to Bahrain, we took a connected flight via Dubai, so in theory, we've already been to Dubai (no need to wait until October when we may have to go there). The second leg of the connected flight brought us back to earth as this seats' spaces in this Emirates plane is no different from a standard planes we've been to. Well, higher expectation leads to bigger disappointment. As it was only an hour flight, and we were so tired, we slept all the way through.
As Australian passport holders, we didn't have to apply a visa in advance, we simply pay the fees when we get our passports stamped at the immigration counters (The visa process had just freed up recently). We tried to convert some Singaporean currency at the Singapore Changi Airport for the visa fee, and not surprisingly, they don't stock Bahraini dinars. So we decided to get some BD at Dubai airport during our transfer. Guess what, when we got to the Bahraini immigration, we spotted a money changer just before the counter. D'oh!!!