Friday, August 11, 2017

How did I get a one year multiple entry Schengen Visa at French Embassy? Must read for all OFWs who wish to visit France.


A couple of moons back, the wife and I applied for Schengen visa at French Embassy in Manila through VFS Global; we registered on their website and had an appointment for submission of our short stay visa applications.

We submitted all the required documents plus copy of our previous Japan tourist visas to VFS Global lady evaluator/staff. She accepted my wife's application and unfortunately rejected mine upon seeing my valid Chad residence visa; I am presently working in the said country having 4 week jobsite and 4 week vacation rotation. They had the same case before according to her, the French Embassy rejected the OFW's application. After conferring with her supervisor, she advised me to send an email to French visa section; in case the embassy would reply in positive then that would be the time they would accept my application otherwise I have no option but to apply for Schengen visa at French Embassy in Chad, Africa. When I heard this, I felt my BP rose to 200/100. I was helpless, there was no way they'd accept my application at that moment.

Leaving VFS Global office in Makati, I was extremely stressed since I had only 3 weeks remaining on my vacation to process my Schengen visa and we were two months away from our flight. We still have to book our train tickets from Paris to Rome and one of our hotels' free cancellation deadline is fast approaching. I emailed the French visa section in Manila twice and received their reply on the final week of my vacation. Equally stressful was the possibility that my wife's application would be approved while I would be left hanging in the air; this means that a couple of thousand US dollars plane tickets would be wasted including mandatory insurance coverage and all preparations as early as January would go down the drain. Yup, we paid the airlines tickets even without our visa just to avail a 50% promo at Etihad Airlines in January.

wife's Schengen visa

Long story short, the wife received her Schengen visa after 5 working days and was asked by the embassy to report to visa section upon her return while I traveled back to my job in Chad. Her visa is good for 20 days (multiple entry) while the embassy's reply (after 2 weeks) to my email states that they are not competent to process my application since I have not completed six months residents in Philippines.
French Embassy's reply to my emails

I had no option but to ask support from my company. Our HR Manager arranged an appointment at French Embassy in N'djamena City, Chad on Aug 2 for my application and biometric. After two days, I received an email from our HR staff informing me that my passport has been released with Schengen visa for 90 days valid for 12 months with multiple entry.

 

Wohoo! I shouted and jumped in excitement. My expats colleagues started asking me whether I had another baby or grandchild, lol. Upon hearing the good news, our entire maintenance team was elated. Some of them even gave advice on places to visit and stories about European gypsies.

Soon after, I booked our TGV train tickets from Paris to Rome and Air France ticket in returning back to Paris. All hotels have been confirmed as well. The wife started shopping for her outfits as guided by our daughter who's managing our online shop, Happy Stripes (you may check HS FB and IG accounts) :-).

In addition, upon learning that I have applied for Schengen visa my Algerian colleague told me that our company insurance, which also covers my family by the way, is acceptable for Schengen visa application since our insurer is based in UK, London; aside from that, our medical coverage is higher than the mandatory 30,000 Euro required by French Embassy. He added that he never used other insurance companies in getting and renewing his Schengen visa. Too bad he was on vacation or in night shift whenever I am at work. I could have saved a few thousand pesos worth of Pacific Cross insurance coverage.

Nonetheless, what have happened in Manila was actually a blessing in disguise. Instead of 20 days I got a year with multiple entry anywhere in Schengen area.

So for all OFWs out there who are planning to visit France, as long as you have valid residence visa in your place of work don't waste your time and resources in applying for Schengen visa at French Embassy in Manila. Unless you've been a resident in Philippines for six months they would reject your application; you won't be able to refund the 60 Euro visa fee as well. This is their policy hence the French Embassy in Chad wasn't surprised at all when I applied there instead in Manila; later on I learned that three of my colleagues have applied at French Embassy in Chad too for their Shengen visa using our company provided insurance. Thus, if you have an insurance coverage from your company, confirm with your insurer whether your policy is acceptable for Schengen visa application or not.

Because of this, the wife is now waiting for airlines promo for next year. Yes, she's hell-bent in renewing her Schengen visa or else I'll be back in Europe next year; alone.

Update as of 18 Aug 2017 (9:30pm);

I booked two ticket last Tuesday noontime for Paris Disneyland through "isango!" at "Local Paris Tour" worth 97.50 GBP and received acknowledgement after a few minutes indicating that I would receive my e-voucher after 72 hours. However, until this moment I haven't received anything. Keeping my fingers crossed since this is the first time I booked on the said website. I have sent a couple of emails.

I will keep you posted.

After 15 minutes:

I received two tickets for our Paris Disneyland and a couple of discount vouchers!

I will keep you updated about isango!



Saturday, July 22, 2017

We go Foodie on Happy Stripes' 5th Annivesary

Admittedly, another dull year has passed for Happy Stripes.

My daughter who has completed her second year in Med school has been quite busy thus limiting her time and energy for her baby, Happy Stripes.

Because of that, during her vacation break we flew to Bangkok to replenish our stocks. Hence, this month of July, as we celebrate Happy Stripes’ fifth year of existence, you’d be seeing new collections in HS Facebook & Instagram accounts.

Sales has started to pick up not only from our old patrons but to new clients as well.

As expected, Happy Stripes’ collections are limited quantity for each model. So, aside from being affordable, you can be sure of wearing a quality and trendy dress with a sense of exclusivity.

To celebrate HS fifth anniversary, we’ll give you foodie tips on what to devour in case you’ll step foot in Bangkok. Don’t ever leave Bangkok without savouring the following:


1. Pad Thai - Chicken, seafood or pork. Always order this with egg. Don't forget to add ground peanuts, sugar and vinegar.
2. Chicken Fried Rice - Thai fried rice is yummy due to rice itself.
3. Chicken with Holy Basil - A spicy viand best eaten with plain rice. No idea why they call it holy, lol.

Don't forget Tom Yup soup. It is like a sweetened sinigang

My two sons were not able to come with us in Bangkok, unfortunately. However, we have something for them so they'd enjoy their favorite Thai foods too.

Authentic Thai food mixes







1      

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bahay na Bato of Luna, La Union


During our recent Holy Week family vacation in San Juan, La Union the family convinced me to visit “Bahay na Bato,” the newest attraction in the said province. So I drove 25 km from our hostel to Luna, La Union; for a traffic free and leisurely drive it took us around 45 minutes to reach the place.

However, due to its uniqueness, expect throngs of tourists especially during peak season. We ended up leaving our car along the shoulder of the main highway due to full parking and trekked for a couple of hundred meters to the place. No worries at all since some local guys are assisting the motorists; a couple of police were also there during our visit.

History of Bahay na Bato


We paid 30 pesos admission fee and another 10 pesos to see Mr. Kim’s 3-D arts gallery.


INSIDE MR KIM'S ART GALLERY





As the name implies, this house is made of stones and pebbles found along the coastline of this municipality. The flooring inside the main house is made of stone in mosaic design. Plenty of stone arts, old stuffs and paintings are displayed inside as well.

INSIDE THE MAIN HOUSE





Carved stones are common sights inside the compound. Some could be artistic while some could be funny. Beware though that stone picking is not allowed inside.




The sea view, as expected along La Union coastline, is quite mesmerizing not only due to vast and blue ocean but also due to strong and rolling waves. The place even has an open mezzanine at the back facing the sea so the visitors can enjoy the view.








It is preferable to visit this place early morning or late afternoon. The sweltering noontime temperature can be very uncomfortable since you’d have only trees to provide shade. Don't forget to bring umbrella or hat.

I could say that when you’re in La Union make it a point to visit this place.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Flotsam & Jetsam Artist Beach Hostel - La Union

The wife and daughter chose this place for our yearly Holy Week getaway because of Nadine Lustre. My daughter is an avid fan of this famous celebrity in the Philippines and she's extremely excited to stay at F&J knowing that her idol has stayed in the same place too.

As early as January, my wife booked two nights for two rooms, one was double while the other was triple occupancy, for our April trip. However, due to some miscommunication with my Boss, my vacation to Philippines was postponed resulting to my wife cancelling her booking at F&J on first week of February. A few days after that, my vacation was surprisingly re-approved by my Boss in Africa so I decided to re-book the same two rooms. Long story short, we were able to have our Holy Week vacation in the said place.

Holy Week in Philippines means an empty Manila and crowded touristy places in provinces especially in the northern part of Luzon.

As expected, F&J is full to the brim. After 12 hours on the road, we arrived almost dinner time and found their Kitchen Bar teeming with youngsters enjoying their beers and the music. Fortunately, after some time, a group left thus we were able to enjoy our dinner. Tired due to long drive, my family decided to take rest right after dinner while I stayed for several bottle of beers. Surprisingly, San Mig Light costs 50 pesos while Pale Pilsen was 30 pesos a bottle from their beer station. Yes, you heard it right, their beer station is separated from the bar.

breakfast area surrounded by dorms

entrance to dorms area

The following morning, though basic breakfast is free, we weren't able to have our morning meal because the four plastic tables in their garden were full or reserved by some hostel's or dorms' guests. We ended up taking our breakfast at KFC in San Fernando La Union which was 7 kms away. The same thing happened on our last day; all seats were taken or reserved by towels.

No worries during lunch time since we are able to scout earlier a good place to eat though dinner time was unfortunately the same situation but this time it was their Kitchen Bar that was full. On our last night, we asked if we could use their breakfast tables for dinner, we were told that the place was reserved for their guests artists for that night. Come on, we can devour our dinner in less than 30 minutes while your guests artists are still busy in your Kitchen Bar. We ended up travelling a few kms to the center of San Juan and dined at a Resto-bar with live acoustic band. I could say it was blessing in disguise since the food was great and cheap not to mention that the band was playing some of my favorite songs.

By the way, their Kitchen bar's guests are mostly from outside; you'll see their cars parked along the main highway and filling-up the hostel's parking area. Speaking of parking, there is limited parking at the actual hostel's vicinity so most guests ended up leaving their cars at the abandoned Pentecostal building just beside the place. Admittedly, for two nights, nothing untoward happened to our car; security was round-the-clock. Maybe because it was peak season, police and barangay outposts abound the area.

nice and comfy bed

sorry, no cabinet inside

lavatory is outside the bathroom

hostel entrance

The rooms are nicely decorated or should I say artistically decorated; the lively and contrasting colors are perfect for young individuals. Our rooms on the third floor have a nice but partially blocked sea view while our kids' room have no sea view at all. Unless you request housekeeping your room will remain the same when you return back. No electric kettle and complimentary bottled water inside the room so it means you can't have your coffee shots but you can refill your water bottle or glass at the water station beside the reception. Bringing footwear and foods inside the room is prohibited as well; typical hostel policy.

they should trim the treee


The split type aircon and electric hot water are both working fine but their WIFI is terribly slow. We gobbled up the data cap of my wife's mobile plan during our stay. You've been forewarned kids. Don't expect that you can upload instantly those selfies.

we enjoyed the sunset
rolling waves

To enjoy the beach, you have to walk for at least a hundred meters before you reach the shore. Arguably, San Juan, La Union is truly ideal for surfers but not for swimmers. In fact, night swimming is not allowed. Nonetheless, the whole family strolled, waited and enjoyed the stunning sunset.

I don't know the situation during lean season but I am sure that whenever Manila gets emptied due to long weekend this place becomes crowded with youngsters drinking their hearts out and enjoying the music. I have no qualms about that and in fact I love the music they play but I hope they'd allocate some place or space for their in-house guests staying at their new multi-storey hostel's rooms. Hence, if you are family with young kids then keep away from this place during peak season. You'll end up wasting your time waiting for vacant chair or table. Aside from that, there is nothing to do inside your room; poor WIFI connection and no cable TV. Did I mention that F&J Hostel is located away from the center of San Juan, La Union? However, if you're looking for a lively nights within this area and you're willing to spend more time in drinking and partying then this place is ideal. I have seen how the youngsters have enjoyed their evening here.

For family, I suggest that you stay at the center of San Juan, La Union where dining places are plentiful and the beach and waves are better though a bit crowded.

I hope F&J management would give especial consideration to their in-house guests and improve their facilities and services too since the rooms they offer are at the same price level compared with other nearby 3 star hotels with ample facilities for their guests. Why don't they serve breakfast at their Kitchen Bar so the guests would enjoy the morning sea breeze while seeping their coffee. Or at least provide room service and complimentary items so that their guests won't regret paying premium price for their newly built "multi-storey hostel."

By the way, it is now June and my wife hasn't received her refund yet for the second room. She received the first room refund a week ago less charge. In fairness, they have been very cooperative in this matter. Thus, if you're not sure whether you'll spend your vacation here then don't book online yet; if you run out of rooms then book in nearby hostels or hotels then visit F&J for night life. Unlike other tourists accommodation that offers free cancellation and using your credit card information as guarantee, F&J would immediately charge your credit card upon reservation. Thinking of cancelling your booking? You'll get your money a couple of moons later.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Hotel Pudu Plaza - Kuala Lumpur City

We visited Kuala Lumpur for 2 days during our recent family trip to Singapore. An overnight bus trip from Singapore provided us barely enough time to roam around KL the following day. We’re able to have selfie shots at KLCC and Petronas Towers, Batu and Ramayana Caves and stroll around Central Market, Merdeka Square and Bukit Bintang area. On our way back to Singapore, we passed at Legoland, Joho Bahru.

To make this possible, we opted to stay in the middle of KL city. We found Hotel Pudu Plaza an ideal place to stay during our side trip due to its competitive price compared with other 3 star hotels in KL. Our bus from Singapore arrived at almost 5 am at Times Square mall; we boarded a waiting cab for 30 RM after haggling. In less than 10 minutes we were at the hotel and expecting that we would be shoved into our rooms immediately since our booking started on the day before our arrival. However, the sole lady at the reception asked us to wait for half an hour before releasing our room keys.



Though the hotel is quite huge for a 3 star hotel the facilities are obviously dated. Our room has some sort of receiving area with walk-in cabinet and tea/coffee making facility; we booked one double and one triple excluding breakfast. Wifi connection is acceptable and a flat screen is mounted on the wall. We stayed for a couple hours only to arrange our things before exploring KL on our first day. The following day, we only had a few hours of sleep as well since we need to catch our bus going to Legoland, Johor Bahru. The night time view of the city from our small window was quite stunning.

This hotel seems a mainstay for throngs of Chinese tourists. They arrive in huge buses and can easily fill the whole lobby during their check in and out.

There is nothing especial about the hotel except the small shopping mall at the ground floor. The vicinity is dotted with local eateries and small shops. It is actually very far from KL Sentral but a few blocks away from Bukit Bintang area. It seemed the place wasn’t located along normal taxi routes because it took us several minutes a couple of times before we're able to hire a cab.

There were two reasons that the wife and I decided to book this hotel. The first one was its proximity to Times Square; our bus from Singapore was supposed to arrive at 4 am so we have to find a hotel near the area. The second reason was to have ample time in catching our bus to Legoland, Malaysia knowing that our kids usually take long time in using the bathroom. Legoland (Causeway Link) bus leaves at 7 am from Bukit Bintang Royale Bintang Hotel which is a few blocks away from our hotel. Hence, on the following day, we checked out at 5:30 am. Tough the same lady took ages to process our check out we still had enough time to catch our bus.

In case you’re planning to visit Legoland, Johor Bahru after your stint in KL City then I recommend this hotel for its price, shopping mall at the ground floor and proximity to Royale Bintang Hotel. Otherwise better stay at other 3 star hotels near KL Sentral or LRT train stations in Kuala Lumpur.




Thursday, May 18, 2017

Couldn't climb up Batu Caves? Then try Ramayana Cave.

If you have visited Batu Cave then you’d be aware how arduous it is to explore this place. In fact, my wife, daughter, and youngest won’t dare climb it on our recent trip. My eldest wasn’t with us during our first visit a couple of years back so I accompanied him to the top; the rest of the gang surveyed the different souvenir shops below.

Ground level entrance

Ms. "Happy Stripes" exploring Ramayana Cave

Fortunately we noticed Ramayana Cave at the back of Hanuman (monkey god) statue near Batu Cave train station. It has ground level entrance perfect for the whole family. Admission fee is 5 RM for adult and free for children.




Inside are the usual Hindu altars dotted with images of different Hindu Gods and characters illuminated by brightly colored lamps. My favorite among them is the giant sleeping statue surrounded by different smaller statues. Upon seeing it reminds me of Wat Po Temple in Bangkok where you’ll find the giant Reclining Buddha.

Unlike in Batu Cave where you’d immediately notice strong breeze at the entrance here it was dank probably due to lack of ventilation and a small water falls inside.

View from top

On our way down

Going deeper into the cave we reached a narrow stone stairs leading to higher level. Be careful when you climb these steps since some of them are slippery. Though you’ll find nothing exceptional on top, the view of the ground with brightly colored Hindu altars are stunning. Not to mention that this is the first closed cave that the family has explored. Batu Cave is different because of the open crater at the middle which provide enough lights and ventilation inside.

Waterfall at the back
Exploring a cave is something new to my family thus I can say that our trip to Batu and Ramayana Cave is unforgettable. By the way, added attraction are wild monkeys living along the forested slope of the cave.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Going back to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur with side trip to Legoland

One of the factors that cross-border tourists must always consider is how to visit a place in a different country and return back to his/her original entry point or another country.

On our recent side trip to Kuala Lumpur, originating from Singapore, the wife and I have researched on how to travel back to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur with side trip to Legoland, Johor Bahru. We learned that only Causeway Bus is providing a direct trip from KL to Legoland with pick-up point at Bukit Royale Bintang Hotel. The bus colorfully marked with Legoland logo leaves the hotel at exactly 7 AM daily.

On our last day in KL, we checked out from our hotel at 5:30 AM and taxied to Bukit Royale Bintang Hotel. Hence, we had ample time to wait for the bus and linger at the hotel lobby.


Beforehand, we booked online for 5 adult one-way and paid 57 RM per person. The entire trip took 5 hours including one stop-over. The bus has two comfortable seats on both sides while huge luggage are to be stowed at the bottom compartment. We brought some snacks since we didn’t have the time to have breakfast in the hotel. One of the advantages of daytime land travel is you enjoy the scenery for free; this is the main reason why we opted to travel at daytime rather than avail the overnight train trip.

During stop-over

The bus stops at Mall of Medini; Legoland ilocated at the back of this mall. To save money, we took our lunch in one of the restaurants in the mall before entering Legoland. Using our smartphone, we simply showed to the staff our admission voucher emailed by Klook Travel.

Read my review about Klook Travel: Klook Travel

Upon entering Legoland we realized that it attracts less visitors compared with other global theme parks such as Universal Studio and Disneyland. This could be a plus if you have smaller kids with you since you’ll have less queue time at different attractions and rides.

We dumped our bags inside a rented large locker then explored the place. We decided to call it a day after 5 hours and prepared ourselves to travel back to Singapore.

While inside Mall of Medini, we started searching for any available transportation that can ferry us back to Singapore. I saw one bus counter and inquired how we can go back to Singapore. The guy pointed towards a parked Causeway Link Bus along the main road and instructed us to wait at the nearby bus station since the bus would leave after 30 minutes; Causeway Link has regular daily trip to Legoland. I have no idea whether this bus is connected to Causeway Link bus that ferried us from KL to Legoland.

In short, we’re on our way back to Singapore. We used our EZ Link card for bus fare. Upon reaching Malaysian border, we alighted for immigration departure procedure. Take note that the bus won’t wait for the passengers but would pick-up those passengers that have completed the immigration procedure at the other sideHence, after immigration we proceeded to a marked Causeway Link bus station to wait for another bus to arrive. No worries since Causeway Link buses are regularly plying Johor Bahru area thus after around 15 minutes another bus has arrived. The same thing when we reached Singapore border, everybody has to undergo immigration arrival procedure. The only difference is that you have longer queue here. After the immigration, we lined-up again at Causeway Link bus station and waited. Be aware that aside from bringing all your belongings when alighting the bus there are several bus companies plying the same route so ensure that you are queuing at the correct bus station. 

Causeway Link bus ends its trip at Jurong East. From here you can now take the MRT train to reach your destination inside Singapore.

Though tired and famished, we were extremely delighted to have experienced another cross-border trip without any hassle or any untoward incidents; we’ve done this before between Macau, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. I am sure that my kids are gaining confidence in cross-border travelling and hopefully they’ll be able to use that experience when they themselves start to travel with their own families without my wife and I guiding them.