Saturday, August 27, 2005

CDMA - GSM divide

Korean telcos use CDMA cellphones. This is not compatible with the European GSM type phones, which are used in Singapore. Besides Korea, Japan and the US also use CDMA.

What this means is that your GSM phone will not work in Korea or any of these CDMA supported countries. If your cellphone is the GSM type and you travel to a CDMA country, you have 3 options on phoning home:

1. Rent a CDMA phone from your telcos; or
2. Call from the hotel you are putting up in; or
3. Use phone cards at their public phones

I do not have any experience with 1, and I avoid 2, both of which can be prohibitively expensive, but I have some tips for the 3rd. Phone cards can be very expensive - about US$5 (roughly equivalent to W5000) that will give you about 6-7 minute talk time. These phone cards are sold at most retail outlets bearing the KT brand. Unless you are in an emergency, don't buy them. As a comparison, you get 3 minutes local talktime for S$0.10 in Singapore.

Instead take the subway to one of the larger subway stations (such as Dongdaemon) where there are pushcart vendors in the underground subway. They sell prepaid phone cards of various brands ('Leader' - a brand from Serome, is the best, I am told). These 'mega talktime' cards come in a range of prices (W5000, W10,000, W12,000, W15,000) with different talktimes for different countries. These are all listed prominently on display charts at these pushcart stalls as well as with the card when you buy them. The clincher is the talktime. A W10,000 phone card (about S$18) gives you 120 minutes (i.e. 2 hours) of talktime for calls made to Singapore using a fixed line phone. Talktimes for calls made from a handphone is less for the same destination. The talktimes vary for country to country too. In any case, the point is that an equivalent talktime using the normal phone cards would have cost me about W75,000 (or approximately US$75)!

What's the physical difference between these two types of cards? The mega talktime cards give you a number which you reveal by scratching off the covering paint. The instructions on how to make calls is written clearly at the back of the card. (Note: don't key in the country code as the card suggests - that's the only problem in the instructions on these cards). The other difference is that for normal phone cards, you need to insert it into the phone slot. You don't have to do that for the mega talktime cards. All you need to do is get a dial tone by lifting the handset, then key in a string of numbers (including the phone number) and you'd be connected.

The best thing about it is that, with 2 hours on the card, you can now take your time talking to your loved ones back in Singapore (or any supported country).

There is one caveat, though. The card expires one year from first use. But even if you use a quarter of the available talk time, it would still be far cheaper compared to the normal phone cards.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Korean subway gym

Subway systems generally have escalators to help move people up and down the subway stations. Human traffic is generally very high, especially during peak hours. People move at different pace, but seem particularly quicker during peak hours. A couple of years ago, the Singapore subway system (the MRT) encouraged commuters to use the left side of the escalator if they want to remain stationary on the escalator in order to allow others to walk up the moving escalators. This had limited success. Even today, not every commuter is cooperative.

I was therefore surprised to find that in South Korea, every subway commuter, without exception, spontaneously stands to the right of the escalator to allow others to walk by. My colleague and I, although foreigners in that land, automatically fell in line with that practice. It just felt like the thing to do.

I wonder how long Singapore commuters will take to achieve this. I am not sure what is required. When it was first suggested in Singapore, I was one of the uncooperative commuters, for I thought that nobody should be telling me how to ride an escalator, or which side I should be standing on to allow other commuters to pass me by. After all, I am a left-hander and tend to hold my bag with my left hand. So standing on the right side holding the handrail with my right hand was more natural. This argument for right-handers would be the opposite. For one reason or another, this wasn't an issue for South Korea's commuters. What is the difference between Singaporean and Korean commuters, I wonder?

On a different note, one of the most challenging things about the Korean subway is the miles and miles of staircases commuters have to 'conquer' to get from platform to the street-level and vice versa. There just seems to be so many of them, with so many steps, that the commuter can safely stay away from the gym so long as they take the subway everyday. It'll keep them fit.

Sunday, August 21, 2005


I couldn't find a picture of the faregates at the Singapore MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system on the internet. Those that I did find where too small compared with the picture of the Seoul faregate/turnstile in my last blog entry.

In this age of the digital camera, where you can capture almost any image on your own, taking a picture of the faregates at the Singapore MRT system may be a simple, even trivial, undertaking, particularly when the MRT station is downstairs where I live. However, it may prove a costly undertaking. That's because the MRT (subway) system in Singapore is now heavily patrolled by arms-bearing soldiers. It is now not uncommon to meet a pair or more of these soldiers either standing or walking through the tunnels carrying mean-looking automatic rifles where, usually, only commuters are seen.

So, no, I will not be taking any pictures in or around the MRT stations whether they are above ground or underground. It'll probably save me having to explain myself in the police station. Neither will I post any picture not taken by me to avoid any mistaken suspicion that this blog is anything but a personal journal. If you want to look at a Singapore MRT fairgate, you will need to surf over to the respective SMRT / Transitlink websites to look at them, if they are available in the first place.

I do not apologise for this paranoia, for as Andy Grove said in his book of the same title, only the paranoid survives. And this is exactly the approach that Singapore is taking with regards to the terrorist threat. I am all for it though it might take away some of my 'civil liberties'.