Thursday, 6 December 2018

The Best South Asian Birding Destination

The vast region of South Asia is a paradise for ecotourists, and birdwatchers in particular have a field day. From the giddy heights of northern Nepal to the scenic south of Sri Lanka, and from Pakistan in the west to the east of Bangladesh there are rich ecotourism destinations with bird-species galore.
In India alone, there are world-class bird-watching destinations in numerous states, but our particular favourite is a relatively unheralded triumph of local government and community-led conservation efforts at the very southern tip of India.
To us, The Best South Asian Birding Destination is the Suchindram Kulam Wetlands in Tamil Nadu.
We have chosen this hidden treasure for several reasons.
First is its unique location. As part of the Suchindram-Theroor-Manakudy Conservation Reserve, this area underlies the southernmost continental range of the Central Asian Flyway. About two-thirds of Kanyakumari District consists of lowland plains dotted with over 2000 freshwater kulam or ponds. 
The second is its rich biodiversity. Although it has a few small mammals such as flying squirrels, giant fruit-bats, macaques, otters and the rare Malabar Giant Squirrel, this Conservation Reserve has an impressive array of plant-life, ranging from towering mangrove trees to over 110 species of tiny aquatic flowering plants. Its large variety of aquatic vegetation includes water-lilies, lotus, floating-hearts,  water-plantains, arrowheads, cat-tail reeds and other water-plants that attract birdlife. 
The main attraction of the Conservation Reserve, of course, is its variety of birdlife. About 250 bird-species have been recorded in the district, including both migrants and residents.  4 species are relatively rare or threatened, while another 12 are endemic. A few tall trees and bushes on a central island have become a natural safe roosting-place for breeding birds such a Black-headed Ibis, Spot-billed Pelicans and Painted Storks, forming a precious ecosystem that has flourished since the area was officially designated a Conservation Reserve.
However, what stunned us on our visit to Suchindram Kulam was the sheer quantity of birdlifeThere were literally hundreds of waterbirds, large and small, crowding the wetlands. It was a stunning sight. We were informed that birds such as Greater Flamingo, Northern Pintails, Common Teals, Spotbill Ducks, Bronze-winged Jacanas, Whiskered Terns, Little Terns, Black-Winged Stilts and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas have been recorded in the greater Conservation Reserve, while species such as Gargeneys, Pintails, Ruffs, Reaves, Coots and Little Stints have sometimes been recorded in their thousands.    
What specially inspired us about Suchindram Kulam however, was the splendid community-led effort that led to its conservation. In 1988, local resident  and renown ornithologist Dr. Robert B. Grubh of nearby Nagercoil initiated a proposal for the conservation and management of Suchindram-Theroor-Manakudy wetland complex in cooperation with global organisations such as Birdlife International , The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Wild Bird Society of Japan, the World Resources Institute, and the United States Agency for International Development.
Although some traditional fisherfolk and farmers had initial misgivings, the majority were eventually won over by the passionate efforts of a large number of local people ranging from schoolchildren and undergraduates to village-folk and pensioners who were engaged in wetlands conservation.  Community workshops, local television broadcasts, field-demonstrations, press-coverage, school-programmes, and intense personal efforts were utilised in the local languages to raise conservation-awareness.  
Most importantly, visionary local government leaders swung into action. The Tamil Nadu Forest Department, District Collectors, the Public Works Department, Village Panchayats (Councils) and other local and regional government entities have supported the conservation efforts. The synergy of local people and government in effective conservation is exemplary!  
The practical benefits of nurturing the area’s rich local natural heritage are now being realised, and today the Tamil Nadu Tourism blogspot has a prominent feature on the Suchindram-Theroor-Manakudy Conservation Reserve  – showcasing this exquisite ecotourism gem to the world. What a source of pride for the state of Tamil Nadu!   
If the Tamil Nadu Forest Department continues its serious efforts to protect this area while providing visitor-friendly amenities such as tourism-information kiosks, car-parks, public toilets and well-managed nature-trails, we believe that Suchindram Kulam and the rest of the Suchindram-Theroor-Manakudy Conservation Reserve could continue to be The Best South Asian Birding Destination for generations to come!  

 (All photographs by Dr. Robert B.Grubh)

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Best Airport-Lounge Company

For nearly a century of commercial aviation, Airport Lounges were exclusive cocoons that individual airlines provided for their elite passengers flying First and Business Class. In that milieu, front-end passengers paying top-dollar for exclusivity and luxury in the air could enjoy similar benefits at airports before their flights, provided by the airline they were travelling with.

Then, just before the new Millennium, came a former global banker and erstwhile entrepreneur. Once a frequent-flyer on business trips, Hong Kong-based businessman Hoi-see Song chafed at not being able to access the privileges and conveniences at Business Lounges for a variety of reasons.

“For one thing, in some countries many airlines did not provide Airport Lounges for passengers on short-haul or domestic routes.  For another, most airlines simply could not provide an Airport Lounge at an airport where they did not have a sufficient number of flights to justify the significant investment involved. As air-travel became more and more a necessity, many affluent air-travellers found that they could not enjoy the benefits of an Airport Lounge simply because they were flying Economy Class due to corporate policy or governmental regulations”,  Song recalls wryly.

“Personally, I did not mind dining at the excellent variety of restaurants at most airports, but I did miss the convenience of being able to have a bite while accessing Internet and Wi-Fi facilities as well as the business-requirements of that time such as printers, fax-machines,  telephones, meeting-rooms and even the ability to have a refreshing hot shower in one convenient location at an airport. Airport Lounges also provided helpful staff and a conducive environment to relax, think or get work done, depending on my needs or mood at any particular time.”                                              Thinking out of the box, Hoi-see Song came up with the innovative idea of Pay-Per-Use Airport Lounges  that would cater to all air-travellers . This immediately empowered airlines of all sizes to provide a full-service Airport Lounge for their elite front-end passengers, practically anywhere in the world! Credit-card companies also found that, for the first time, they could extend executive facilities at airports to their members in a savvy move which met the evolving lifestyles of their target markets. Thus was born the Plaza Premium Lounge – a facility now found at airports all over the world, and a concept being emulated by a host of me-too players. 
Headquartered in Hong Kong, the Plaza Premium Group provides premium airport services to nearly 14 million passengers a year in over 160 airport-locations across the world. The Group has grown to provide four core airport-services:- Airport Lounges, Airport Transit Hotels, Airport Meet & Greet Services and Airport Dining.

With its corporate commitment to make the airport experience exceptional for all travellers by going beyond expectations. the pioneering Plaza Premium Group is our obvious choice for The Best Airport-Lounge Company in the world!

(Photographs by Plaza Premium Group)

Friday, 19 October 2018

The Best Public Park

Public Parks are often regarded as mundane necessities of urban planning, but in some cities, a public park has become a beloved landmark and a destination in itself, enhancing the city in which it is situated.

Some well-known public parks in major global cities have matured into classics of greenery, rest and recreation like Regent’s Park in London and New York’s Central Park.  In this category, we like 400-hectare King’s Park in Perth, Australia, which is a serene and scenic mixture of landscaped parkland, fascinating botanical gardens and wild, untamed natural bushland. Gorgeous views of the Swan River and glistening city skyline add to the charm of one of the largest inner-city parks in the world.

Other public parks have become iconic for the people and programmes that bring a unique buzz of zing and zest! Our favourite in this category is Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on weekends, when an amazing number of subcultures and countercultures manifest in different parts of the park. From classic-car buffs and proud owners of dressed-up dogs to Elvis impersonators and sinister-looking Goths, to small chamber orchestras, bopping break-dancers and hyperactive clowns, people transform Yoyogi into a must-see destination.

Our choice of the World’s Best Public Park, however, is one of its newest and probably most unlikely in location. This is the Gathering Place Community Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A daring vision, coupled with years of planning, generous donations and active input from the local community have transformed 100 acres of scenic waterfront along the lovely Arkansas River into an innovative, unconventional and thoroughly delightful interactive environment.
Opened in September 2018, the Gathering Place is fast-becoming a magnet far beyond the immediate vicinity of Tulsa. We predict that this stunning and ever-evolving experience will become a major tourism attraction, transforming the image of this unprepossessing city – which, by the way, also has some of the most fascinating, educational and child-friendly museums/libraries/interpretive-centres in the world.
Friends with children tell us that their offspring have gleefully reported no less than eleven different slides in various parts of the park as well as an amazing mirror-maze, “old-looking holes in walls you can climb through and real musical-instruments hanging in the air”(sic), plus details of a fantastical Fairyland Forest that kept them talking excitedly for weeks afterwards. They ain’t seen nothing yet! The reality at the Gathering Place actually transcends imagination – seriously.
The Land Of The River Giants, Spiral Connector, Chapman Adventure Playground, Skywalk Forest, Volcanoville, Ramble Sensory Garden, Cottonwood Lawn, Charlie’s Water-Mountain, Picnic Grove, Oneok Boathouse, Williams Lodge, Yvette’s Global Rainbow, Peggy’s Pond and The Reading Tree are just come of the wonderful attractions, all entirely free!
What ‘sealed the deal’ for us are the caring touches for the less fortunate. Visitors with disabilities are delighted to discover thoughtful features that include dedicated parking-lots and toilets, Ultra ADA Pads, braille signs, wheelchair-accessible dining counters and specially-designed seating throughout the Gathering Place.  All park entrances, pathways, bridges, lawns and gardens as well as some drinking-fountains are disabled-accessible.  The food-items sold here include vegan and allergy-friendly options. The Management also invites guests on the autism spectrum to use spaces provided in the Gathering Place to overcome sensory anxieties.
Foodies and hungry guests find “exciting eating opportunities” at The Patio, Redbud CafĂ©, Vista@The Boathouse, and a constantly-changing array of food-trucks, kiosks and food-carts. Add the pretty scenery around the Gathering Place, top up everything with a regular stream of imaginative and absorbing events and activities, and you have a really outstanding destination that we believe is the World’s Best Public Park!
Photographs: ©Alex S. Maclean, ©Shane Bevel Photography, ©Gathering Place

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

The Best Airport Train

When it first began operations in April 2002, it raised mixed emotions with its odd-looking snub nose that belied its superfast speeds of up to 160 kmh.  Now on track to welcome its 100 millionth passenger, it has in the 17 years between, won regional and global accolades as the undisputed World’s Best Airport Rail Link.
This is the modest-looking Express Rail Link (ERL) that connects Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur to its international airport in just 28 minutes. 
For most of its existence, ERL used German train-sets from Siemens AG, but in recent years it has added several new train-sets from CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles Company of China.
Regardless of the nature of the equipment, the ride on the fastest trains in Southeast Asia seems consistently swift, smooth and seamless. With an enviable claimed record of 99.7% on-time performance and excellent standards of customer-service, Express Rail Link is now being called in as consultants to other rail projects around the world.
We particularly like its complimentary porter service where purple-liveried porters assist you with your luggage, transfers and check-in. This helpful porter service also includes complimentary wheelchairs and assistance for aged or infirm travellers. For a small fee, a porter will accompany you for the entire ride, and usher you into or from an exclusive limousine that comes with the package. 

Another feature we like about the iconic Express Rail Link is its commitment to the environment. Its operations have been certified ISO14001:2015 compliant for environmental management, and Express Rail Link says it helps save 44,800 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year, taking 5.3 million cars off the roads in that period.
Add the extra convenience of city check-in for participating airlines at its KL-CAT terminal, and we fully agree that Express Rail Link deserves its kudos as the World’s Best Airport Train!

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Best Commercial Aircraft

When the idea for this aeroplane was conceived in August 1965, it seemed an impossible dream. Some experts said it could not be built, while others said that even if one was ever built, it would simply be too big to fly. Yet just three years later in September 1968, the first production model was completed. It had to be seen to be believed. The body of this aircraft stretched out almost a full city-block; the cockpit perched 30 feet above the ground, the tail towered six storeys high, the wings stretched 195 ft or almost 60 metres - and most awesome of all, it had a maximum take-off weight of 735,000 lbs or 333,400 kg. This gargantuan creation was the Boeing 747 - the world's first wide-bodied airliner,  and the Best Commercial Aircraft. It looked amazing, but how could such an enormous mass ever break free of the earth's gravity and soar into the sky?
From its birth, the Boeing 747 incorporated new technology that made the dreams of designers a practical engineering reality. Intimidating terminology such as High Bypass Turbofan Engines, Fault Tree Analysis, Widebody Design and Three-Segment Slotted Flaps were introduced, and soon became normal bywords in aircraft-engineering. In February 1969, the huge Boeing 747 made its maiden flight, and in January 1970 the first commercial flight of the Jumbo Jet took off from New York to London. The first 25 planes were bought by Pan American World Airways, and other airlines quickly queued-up to order this flying behemoth.

Once again, the naysayers were out in force, saying that just a couple of hundred units would be built before the Jumbo Jet was made obsolete by the new supersonic aircraft. Once again, the Boeing 747 proved them wrong. Now, over fifty years after the first production model was rolled out, about 1560 units have been built, with more on order. answers! has selected the Boeing 747 as The Best Commercial Aircraft for several reasons.

First of all, the sheer audacity of its concept and the swiftness with which it was made a reality changed attitudes in aviation-engineering forever. We estimate that it has carried over 2 billion passengers, making it one of the most popular commercial aircraft models of all time. Decades before the idea of Low Cost Carriers even germinated, the Boeing 747 had made air-travel affordable and accessible to millions of first-time air-travellers. Its long-range, large capacity and economic viability transformed the development of air-routes all around the globe. The 747-400 is one of the fastest commercial airplanes, reaching up to Mach 0.85; and with up to 550 seats the Jumbo Jet was the highest-capacity aircraft for almost four decades. It is also the most recognisable commercial aeroplane in the world with its distinctive and much-loved frontal hump.
The Boeing 747 is also one of the most versatile aircraft ever built, being equally effective as a people-carrier, cargo freighter, presidential transport, private luxury jet, flying hospital, and even spacecraft-transporter.

Most of all, we believe that the Boeing 747 will eventually become the longest-enduring commercial aircraft ever built, with variants flying our skies more than half-a-century after its first pioneering flight. Slim supersonic beauties have come and gone, and mega-planes are lumbering over the horizon. Computer-control has become commonplace and smaller, sleeker planes are zipping across the air-lanes. But with a current production-backlog stretching on to 2022, the trusty Jumbo Jet will continue to fly for decades to come, living up to its reputation as The Best Commercial Aircraft!

(Pix by Flickr, Science and Society Picture Library, the Widebody Aircraft Parade, Reuters, Antoon's Foobar,etc)