Good Business is the New Business

Whilst on holiday in South East Asia, I came across two incredible companies. In each case, the proprietors and I chatted about how customers find businesses – and how businesses could find the right customers. See, in Cambodia, places routinely emblazon TripAdvisor signs in huge font outside their establishments to pull in the tourists. Even if it’s a 3.5 star review, it goes up on corrugated plastic on a sandwich board outside – I found the whole thing very interesting, as both the businesses below chose not to go that route.

Though I am not a big business CEO (yet!) I have been lucky enough to talk frankly with some pretty big movers and shakers in technology, manufacturing and more as part of my job. And tea and good food makes me very talkative. I was particularly intrigued by the places below because there was an extra element to them: the idea of running a small business with a degree of social responsibility built in.

Place 1: Haven, Siam Reap, Cambodia

Haven Restaurant is run by a formidable couple who after holidaying in Cambodia, decided to sell everything they owned, and pack in Switzerland for the ‘wet and sweat’ combo of Siam Reap – beloved home to Angkor Wat and hundreds of smaller temples. Sarah and Paul braved the complexities of setting up a business in a foreign country. They built (and now run)  a chilled-out restaurant that serves tasty cuisine at a reasonable price for tourists – the place also happens to train young adult orphans as apprentices as part of its business model. As well as a salary, graduates gain the skills required for re-employment, and have all their tips saved in a bank account so they also get a lump sum at the end of their year’s training.

The food is good too. So I asked if Haven could make me a fresh Vietnamese roll that I could triumphantly unpack and eat while everyone else looked on with undisguised jealousy. It occurred to me – if I (and other lovers of tasty food) could be discerning enough to seek out good restaurants then clearly we would be prepared to pay for a nice packed lunch. I suggested this to Stef, one of the staff members between mouthfuls of baked Oreo cheesecake.

My business-minded companion added that this is actually a well known strategy – to ‘expand into related revenue streams’ outside a business’s limitations – for example, in a restaurant, you can only sell to people physically sitting in a space, and when they are full of food and drink, that’s it. So, restaurants can offer cookbooks, hampers, packed lunches, food delivery, you get the idea. I’ll update this blog if I hear they’ve decided to do that – because my lunch was indeed triumphant.

Above: Pictures from Siam Reap, Cambodia

Place 2: Reaching Out Teahouse, Hoi An, Vietnam

A beautiful coastal resort, Hoi An is liberally scattered with tourists who forgive the ‘theme park’ nature of the Old Town because of its beauty and tranquility, that is, on certain days when they close the tiny streets off from motorcycles.

Side note: People who spend enough time with me know I have a serious thing for tea – notably pu-erh and oolong as well as good old builders (without sugar), not forgetting what I like to call a Picard (Earl Grey, Hot). These long-suffering types have accepted that passing a teahouse for me is pretty much impossible. They are resigned to the fact that, left to my own devices,  I am happy to consume tea until there is no tea left. Small wonder then, that the Reaching Out Teahouse and I were destined to cross paths. An artisan teahouse, complete with artisan biscuits. As far as I was concerned, this was where I would sit for the rest of the day. And so I watched the sun set, slowly bloating myself with delicious, high-quality tea.

Time passed. After a vast and quite frankly impressive quantity of tea – in many forms –  was absorbed, one of the owners of the social enterprise, Quyen, came to say hello. She explained that the staff here are deaf or speech-impaired, which is why it is in fact a silent teahouse. Everyone communicates with smiles, gestures, or wooden blocks with writing in English on one side for the customer which is held up to summon the staff member.  By the way, it wasn’t just the contentment gained from silently enjoying tea and biscuits which made me fall in love with this place. It’s also that the Single Estate Oolong tea might be among the best I have ever tasted. Readers of the previous paragraph will realise that is a very, very big data set indeed.

Above: Pictures from Hoi An, Vietnam

I like the “Good Business” business model!

Both places were so delightful, I visited them twice. And, in both cases, this was mainly because service and product were outstanding. I came away with the feeling that if places just had a good idea and ethical ‘feel good’ factor it might get people visiting – but repeat custom and earnest recommendations will only come if the product is ultimately desirable regardless of any worthy underpinnings. I wish both Haven and the Reaching Out Teahouse the best of luck in their endeavours.

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Above: Pics from the Heaven & Earth Bicycle Trip, Vietnam

Las Vegas with Less Money

After my Nth time to Las Vegas, I get the odd request for the best things to do and see when first-timers go.

In fact, one came a few weeks after my most recent visit to the Consumer Electronics Show 2011. I duly sent off an email, and got told by reply that I should blog it, so – here you are! My tips on getting the best bang for your Las Vegas Buck.


When you come out of L.V. airport, if there are 3 of you or less (and you’ve not hired a car) consider getting the shared shuttle instead of the taxi. For $6 each or so you get driven to your hotel (if it’s on the strip) with a bunch of other people who are also doing the same – great place to start random conversations.


If it’s your first time, I’d recommend staying on the strip, some bargains can be had if you shop around. You’ll probably be visiting a lot of hotels on your trip, so don’t worry about paying top dollar for a top hotel unless you intend to stay in that one the whole time.


Make a particular effort to see the Wynn and the Cosmopolitan – also mooch through the Bellagio, Venetian and Paris. If you ever watched the series ‘Las Vegas’ pop over to the Montecarlo hotel. There’s a pretty good sushi bar on the ground floor there.

Things you MUST MUST MUST Do in Las Vegas.

0. The best free thing in Las Vegas is the Fountain show at the Bellagio. Every time I watch it, I find it utterly breathtaking. 

1. Eat at the Wicked Spoon in the Cosmopolitan hotel – 29 bucks gets you fed and watered (more if you want booze) – prices are correct as at Jan 2011

2. Go see a show: it may cost a bit, but ‘O’ at the Bellagio is SPECTACULAR. you are best off getting blocks 203 (or 303 on the cheap). Section 10X will be cool, but you’ll be paying a premium for being closer to the stage. You may get wet in the first few rows. go for the insider tour and for $260 you get great seats and a backstage tour – which I haven’t done ! Jan 2011 saw me with a ticket in section 303 at the back costing $100.

3. BARGAIN ALERT: if you gamble at tables in Paris or the Wynn, you will be given complementary drinks while you’re at the tables.

4. Yes, do the Fashion show mall, get 30mins at the oxygen bar but if you’re really into shopping, hit the PREMIUM OUTLET STORES for better prices. There’s an all you can eat japanese which is good value here if you’re not burger-inclined.

5. Other places to eat:

Margaritaville – surf food, and a brilliant evening out on the strip, try the tuna tataki – they also do lots of steaks.

There’s a Japanese restaurant in the MGM grand called Shibuya which is very tasty  – I was taken there for dinner and consequently have no idea about the prices.

I would stock up at breakfast time, generally hotels will have an all-you-can-eat buffet where you can stuff in food to last you the day. If you’re staying on the strip, you can also wander into Denny’s for breakfast 24 hours a day. That’s a LOT of pancakes and hash browns.

6. Ride the Monorail! it gives you a great idea of where things are. It’s a terrible attempt at infrastructure and not actually near that much but it’s fun. $12 day pass.

7. Go to the shops at the Venetian and eat italian food under the fake sky. The gondolas are nice but be warned v. expensive – unless you’ve got a yearning, don’t worry too much about it.

8. If you like roller coasters, then go to New York New York and stick everything you own in a locker near the coaster queue. Buy a re-ride, you’ll want it! Also hit the Stratosphere hotel – have drinks on the nearly-top-floor bar, and go up on the roof for some truly hair raising rides. I highly recommend the drop ride on the top of the tower at night, which gives you incredible views of the strip. Ask nicely to be facing it when you’re hurled into the air.

The rides are not for the faint hearted, but the bar is the nicest part of the hotel, and they do vitamin water Detox/retox cocktails.

9. If you’re into quirky, look up both the Neon Museum and the Pinball Hall of Fame. You could also visit Fremont Street (the old town) although I’ve not had a chance to get down there yet. If you want to shoot things with live ammo, go to American Shooters who will let you fire real guns on their range.

and finally

10. Learn how to play craps!


It looks a lot like a city, so it’s easy to forget that Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert. So drink lots and lots of water. You might want to bring along some throat sweets too – a combination of dry air, lots of cheering and rollercoasters means you might be a bit croaky after a few days. At night it gets cold, so even if the sun is out, it’s worth packing an extra layer.

Have a lovely time, and let me know how you get on – Viva Las Vegas, baby !

Back from China Part 2: Chengdu and Giant Pandas

Chengdu Old Village

Chengdu Old Village

After the sprawling civilizationsof Shanghai and Beijing, (previous post) I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at Chengdu airport only a month and a half after the terrible Earthquake– but I saw a city that had weathered a tragedy and was on its way back to normality. 


We talked a bit about it with our guide, who told us that he was taking a shower when the earthquake hit – his first thought was to wonder what downstairs was doing.   He told us that although the majority of buildings in Chengdu were structurally sound enough to deal with the tremors, only a few kilometres outside the city were the images that were reported on the world’s news, so horrifying and stark. Our driver lived nearer to the epicentre and was going to register the damage to his place that evening.  How strange, then, that Chengdu (out of all the locations in China I visited) felt the most like London – stylish, sometimes laid back, the old and new sitting comfortably together.  Both tourists and locals would hang out in the same places, another good sign.

Chengdu is wonderful in its own way, with giant pandas, monasteries and beautiful scenery – the relaxed attitude of our guide definitely influenced my view of this city.  In fact, this place turned out to be my second-favourite Chinese destination after Li Jiang.

Dinner was odd enough to photograph:


Eat your greens

... just a glass of water, please

... just a glass of water, please











[food digression: I feel it important to point out this strange pseudo-cuisine was only prevalent in the package-operated parts of our tour in Beijing and Chengdu; most places we found on our own (or our friends took us to) were incredibly tasty.  The above were specific meals laid on for tourists above shops or in hotels – for example, in Beijing, one gets dropped off at a jewellery factory after visiting the Forbidden City, then herded upstairs to eat after (presumably) buying stuff (- a few tours we did in Egypt had a similar “Steer tourist toward purchase” policy as well).  

We got the impression that every single person who visited before us absolutely did not want to try the local cuisine and would rather have chips.  However, once we explained to our guide that part of the adventure of travelling was eating, we ended up at a fantastic veggie-friendly buddhist temple 10km north of Chengdu City Centre, and I ate myself into a contented food coma there among breathtaking views and pineapple juice, so all was well in the end. /food digression]

The hotel we stayed at in Chengdu was very central indeed, and I think slightly disreputable, but that’s another story.  The next morning was Panda day!  Too excited to sleep the night before, I stayed up watching my camcorder batteries and power monkey charge as I chose my panda clothing…

…then at stupid o’clock in the morning, it was off to the Chengdu Giant Panda Research and Breeding Base, which is massive, and currently holds around 60 Giant Pandas, and a few red pandas too.  On arrival at the base, we had to walk for around 15 minutes before we even got to an area containing real pandas.  This place is like a gigantic health club for these adorable (if clumsy) creatures, a giant panda spa filled with bamboo and stuff to climb on. 

I quite fancied staying there myself.

Pandas are at their most active when they are being fed between 8am and 10am, and when we got there, we only had to share them with about 10 other tourists, another pleasant surprise!  We shot over 25GB worth of Panda Media (thank goodness for the Archos!), and I got some great footage of two pandas playfighting:

RSS / Can’t see the link? click here

By donating extra money at the base, (and if the pandas are in the right mood), you can meet a giant panda and stroke it!!  If you’re wondering what pandas feel like, the answer is just like you’d expect a panda to feel, all soft, furry and sweet.  The panda was stuffing its face at the time, eating apples, biting into one and holding another one just in case.  I’ll put some pics up when I can.  I think I may identify quite a bit with pandas, what with their fussy and ritualistic eating, their willingness to play and their frequent (and graceless) unintentional slapstick manoeuvres. 

I would like to return to Chengdu one day.

Back from China! Part 1

Ni Hao! Click on this pic for my China flickr gallery

Wow, I really missed blogging, as it proved almost impossible to do from behind The Great Firewall – other than that, China was one of the most astounding, amazing and unapologetically bonkers places I’ve ever visited. 

Landing at Shanghai was a great orientation, as it’s widely thought of as the chinese version of New York City, a bit more western than other parts of China, complete with tall buildings, copious shopping/eating destinations and big businesses doing bigger deals. Traffic lights are more of a suggestion than a binding law, personal space is widely considered to be negotiable, and even if you know a little Mandarin, it’s like learning English from a textbook and visiting Newcastle.

By far the most difficult thing for me to negotiate was the traffic.  To be honest, I find it faintly terrifying crossing the road in the UK – imagine trying to complete Frogger at a high enough level to be impossible (play the easy levels here!) and you get the idea.  Roads appeared to my foreigner’s untrained eye to be a complete gladiatorial free-for-all, although everyone still seemed to be roughly aware of other vehicles and pedestrians, working on the faith that people/vehicles/animals will simply get out of the way if they know how to walk/drive/gallop properly.

Car drivers use their horns like bicyclists use their bells,  announcing their position as opposed to sounding a warning.  Buses drive like boy racers, bicyclists drive like they have transplant organs to deliver, and pedestrians do some kind of quantum thing where they can exist in the same place as traffic without actually appearing to encounter it.

They play music on the trains here (I quite liked it, although I’m told it’s an acquired taste).  People come through with actual bowls of fruit and green tea instead of kitkats and bendy sandwiches.  Trains are fast, smooth and clean, and cost £3.50 for the equivalent of travelling from London to Oxford (about 60 miles). Amusingly, despite a vast gulf of cultural differences, there was still a man shouting on his mobile in our carriage (I like to think he was saying the Mandarin equivalent of “I’m on the TRAIN!  I’ll be home in 5 minutes!!”) – I settled myself in with my Accelerated Learning Chinese book with renewed determination. 

But I digress (as usual). So, after singing KTV with friends and sampling the Shanghai nightlife, it was off to Beijing for the classic tourist rat run, consisting of Summer Palace, TianAnMen/Forbidden City and Great Wall.  

One plane journey later, and I’m squeezed into the last vacant computer spot in a Blade-runner style Internet Cafe, realising why someone made up the phrase “culture shock”.  I was truly in the heart of the People’s Republic, surrounded by world-of-warcraft-playing Shaolin Monks (long story, we were next door to Beijing’s Kung Fu Demonstration Theatre, the show was on in an hour, these guys were killing time (and other players) before taking to the stage to kung fu each other). 

It’s hot and humid in Shanghai and Beijing, without being sunny, Despite the crowds, It’s low season in China.  The Olympic Games are only a month or so away, accordingly, tourist attractions were less crowded than usual, and I got some fantastic vid footage of the Great Wall, north of Beijing, which I shall hopefully trim up and stick onto youtube soon. 

The Great Wall was incredible, although walking in 35 degree heat for 3 hours armed only with warm bottled water, rehydration salts and comfortable shoes proved slightly tiring. It turns out that the main thing one does in Beijing is walk… and walk.  After a quick (2-mile) stroll around the Forbidden City, it’s a “gentle” ramble around the Hutongs, followed by a “soothing” hike up 60 steep stairs to the top of the Drum Tower. 

Sample dialogue included:

Tour guide: “Well, when I ran up the Great Wall, and it took me around 40 minutes, so an hour and a half should be enough to get to the top and back”
LJ: “Ok, see you in an hour and a half”
three hours later
LJ: “…need …water …and …new …cardiovascular … system”

Tour guide: “well, if you’ve done the Great Wall already today, then these 60 steps should be a breeze…”
LJ: “Ok, I’m up for this.  Great, let’s Gooooo!” 
60 steps later
LJ: “…legs …shaking …uncontrollably”

So, Beijing left me thoroughly educated and exhausted (in equal measures). 

Climbing (very slowly) into my plane seat,  I wondered what Chengdu, my next stop, would have in store…

Part 2 is here