Archive for the ‘Travelogue’ Category

Maybe it is fate that brought our restless group to a haven nestled in the heart of Morong, Bataan. Maybe it is actually a call by Gaia to explore the bounty of a green kissed land. Maybe our tired body and soul needed a respite that can only be found in the warm sanctum of a divine place called Kai Lodge.

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Kai Lodge, if looked up in Google, would be described as  a perfect place for travelers seeking recreational activities with their family and friends. It boasts of an excellent service and essential facilities via its six well-furnished suites and two enormous family/barkada rooms. All rooms have air conditioning, large cabinets, lampshades, cable television, private toilets and baths equipped with a shower heater, and toiletries.

Much to our surprise, the stay and experience we had at Kai Lodge was phenomenal. From the moment we arrived, we had a world class welcome coupled with refreshing cucumber drinks and the most congenial staff. We need not ask for anything twice as the service provided was fast and efficient. Even the grandson of the owner, Ino Habana, was on hand to make sure that we get attended to. He would pop in from time to time and check up on us, he would also join in on our small drinking session. Ino’s gestures in making our stay comfortable and memorable made our team building all the more relaxing and extraordinary.

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Along with the warmest of welcome, Kai Lodge proved to be quite a gem well hidden in a cluster  of trees. It was huge yet peaceful. Indeed the tranquility of the lodge provided a respite to the noise and hustle of city life. The pathways afforded quiet walks for meditation and introspection. I had my one on one with God and the weather even cooperated with me, overcast skies threatened to pour down heavy rain but did not do so until late that day. It was a great nature walk as I looked at abandoned houses, basketball court and overlooking ledges surrounding the path. It is so easy to fall in love with the place and be lost in its rustic beauty.

Latter part of the afternoon, Ino volunteered to tour us around. Relics of Vietnam and Cambodian shrines abound. Although there were not much of the Cambodian and Vietnam gods left, the idols left behind still gave such a historic feel to the place. Ino was knowledgeable and eager to share. We were thirsty for knowledge and drank in whatever piece of historical memorabilia remained.

The next day, we trudged to the beach but because of the nonstop rain, the waves had an undercurrent and made swimming in it dangerous. So Ino, our wonderful tour guide, brought us to a unadulterated flowing river just a couple of minutes away from the lodge. The water was cold, fresh and crystal clear. It was a great place to cap the second and final day in Bataan. A nice old lady manned the place and she was as accommodating to my motley crew as Ino was. She allowed us to use her ihawan and she also regaled some of the team members with her stories. By 4PM, after going to the hanging bridge and having our late lunch we packed up and made a promise to come back. It was worth every penny we spent because we all had the best nature trip ever. So those bikes better be there when we come back Ino 🙂

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It was way back in September 2011 when we first tried out Hong Kong. It was not a pleasant one mind you because the moment we landed, we bought an Octopus card that proved to be detrimental to our first taste of Hong Kong. Not only did we not understand why we cannot get out even if the card was fully loaded with HK$100 each, we also did not understand what the guy at the front desk kept shouting in broken English. Out of exasperation we just bought new MRT cards and finally got out. The guesthouse mama booked had two beds, where one was lopsided. The curtains were old and had a big hole to accommodate the aircon. Food was not good either and we were perennially lost. So overall, aside from Disneyland, that Hong Kong trip was a big bust.

So we gave Hong Kong another shot. We wanted to be better prepared and go to other tourist places we haven’t gone to last time.

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First stop, we need to get to our guesthouse. To get there we need to know what bus to ride. The challenge, we lost one bus card and we had to either find it or buy another one (note though that one trip costs HK$33). As luck would have it we found the card on the same window we bought the cards from. An hour or so we again met another setback, the bus will not be able to run its full course. The roads leading to where we were going were closed for some road improvement works. Mind you it was a very long walk and at the end of the walk was a long queue going up the elevator to our guesthouse. It was way past 10 when we arrived inside our room. It was a bit of an improvement to the last one we were in because the beds were a bit bigger, there was a working TV and aside from the toilet we have inside the room, there were two others outside.

Sleep was blissful. The plan was to go to Ocean Park and spend the entire day there. We had a great brunch at a Chinese eatery. The service was fast and efficient. Despite the language barrier, our orders were served correctly. We savored the food which was more than a plateful. I hardly finished mine before we decided to go to a 7-11 and buy us the tickets. The MRT ride remained an adventure. It was fast and economical. The transit can carry thousands of people to and fro without missing a beat. Also even if the entire station was filled to the rafters, everyone can get to their destination quickly and comfortably. No one looked stressed at waiting for the next train. It was always on schedule.

At Ocean Park, long queue for the biggest aquarium. But that was why we were there, so see the sea creatures up close and personal. I know they ought to be set free and allowed to live in their natural habitat but at somehow I feel they have adapted wonderfully. The seals, otters, sea lions etc can maneuver through their glass habitats flawlessly. I stared in awe at how truly amazing they look, how untamed, how natural they moved, how magical.

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The grand aquarium houses  5,000 fish from over 400 species. My brother even marveled at the manta ray which kept on flying by as if water was merely air. It was as majestic as it was surreal to see several of them up close.

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But the park is not just meant for the water world. The park also offers other attractions. We did try to see the pandas but they were too busy for us, they remained inside their make shift rooms far from the prying eyes of their human brothers. We rode the roller coaster and I got the fright of my life yet again. The way it turned, twisted and tumbled along the rails was nerve wracking and am grateful God gave me back my soul when the ride ended.

We went around to sample their food. It was expensive but not delicious at all. The fish balls or whatever they were assaulted my not so fine pallet. The drinks were not cold too. At such an exorbitant price, the least food vendors at the park can do was serve ice cold drinks. Lucky for us there was a Mc Donald’s in the heart of the park. Took some time before we managed to order a meal but we devoured everything like there was no tomorrow. Even my mom who never finished a meal, had her fill of fries and hamburger.

The next tummy churning, sanity reducing ride we got into was the cable car. Okay, to be honest who would not feel nauseated being rocked to and fro by a strong wind while slowly going downhill inside a metal ball with only steel bars as cover? Raise your hands please. That was the longest, single most frightening ride of my life, good thing I did not puke my brains out.

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Second day was Madame Tussauds day. I was expecting to be able to hob nob with actual celebrities I know of. Sadly most of those in the wax museum were figures of celebrities mostly know in China or Hong Kong I guess. There were no Robert Downey, no Leonardo di Caprio, no Chris Evans or even Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock, and the likes. For me it was rather lackluster in terms of novelty. I ended up often asking who the heck is this then I move on to another who the heck is this now? There was more confusion rather than memories…also the lay out was rather uneventful. The rooms could have been better conceptualized for a smoother transition rather than being thrown off kilter with confusing themes (note what is this now? where the what huh?)

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All in all, even if the typhoon ruined our other plans and soaked us to the bones each time we attempted to venture out, this second trip was far memorable than the first one. We know now not to get duped with tea servings, because that can turn out to be too costly without us even knowing or drinking them.

Cambodia was everything that I expected laidback but charming. The rustic feel combined with an urban lifestyle make for a very relaxed ambiance. It does not hurt either that the people there are extraordinarily nice.

We thanked our lucky stars because we met the best taxi driver, Phalla Pes, when we rented a taxi from the airport. Of course coming in from Manila late at night and being delayed for more than 2 hours, you do not have the patience to endure any hard selling of his taxi services. Wary, we did not readily accept his offer of $30 for a whole day tour of all temples. We wanted to make sure that we wont be paying too much for something that can be had for a smaller fee.

Shorter version, we did call Phalla and we asked him to be our dedicated driver to Angkor Wat. Along the way, he told us about a concert with big celebrities and how big a fan he is of our very own Dingdong Dantes. Thus when the latter visited Angkor Wat with lady love Marianne, Phalla made sure he was there to see his idol in person. Dyesebel, he added, was one of the popular Filipino shows shown in Cambodia.

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Phalla brought us to the various temples and gave instructions each time where he’d meet up with us. The second drop off, we failed to find him in the parking lot. There were a number of Toyota Camry of the same color. The long walk and the intense heat of the sun drained us too much that we decided to just check out the items being sold in one of the shops. We probably looked parched that the pregnant lady minding the tables inside one of the nearby restaurants took pity on us and offered us seats. She assured us that we do not need to pay or buy anything. Bless her soul, she offered to call Phalla as well if we really want to leave.

Later on she, like Phalla, engaged us in a conversation about Dyesebel and Dingdong. But she was interested in Richard Gomez more. A round of cold drinks later,  we bid her adieu to look for our dear lost driver (in this case, we were the ones very, very lost in a sea of foreigners and shuttles). We did find Phalla and he brought us to a great restaurant with the king’s vast pool in full view.

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We enjoyed being the only ones in the car because it made for a more convenient and flexible  tour of the various temples in Angkor Wat. Although I must say I agree with most of the comments that once you see one temple, you’ve seen them all, you will still be in awe of the classical style of Khmer architecture. Since we did not hire any tour guide, probably the most apt description would be the one I lifted from Wikipedia “Architecturally, the elements characteristic of the style include: the ogival, redented towers shaped IMG_8443 like lotus buds; half-galleries to broaden passageways; axial galleries connecting enclosures; and the cruciform terraces which appear along the main axis of the temple. Typical decorative elements are devatas (or apsaras),bas-reliefs, and on pediments extensive garlands and narrative scenes. The statuary of Angkor Wat is considered conservative, being more static and less graceful than earlier work.”  The most exciting part for me was being able to be in Ta Prohm mainly because it was where the Tomb Raider was shot and then there were those trees that have become part of the ruins, the trunks and roots intertwined with the walls give it a surreal feeling. Too bad we were not able to stay for long, there were hundreds of tourists that got in the way of being in the moment just because they flock, shove and take shots without nary a care to other people (namely us) whose there to imbibe Ta Prohm’s rich history. Well we still tried to have our fill of the Elephants Terrace, Bayon, Deads Gate, Pr. Prerup and ultimately the magnificent Angkor Wat. During this time, water and the shade were our dear friends because long walks under the sun can zap out your energy instantly.

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We decided to wrap up our little expedition and head on back to our hotel. When the temperature became bearable, our night time adventures involved walking along the Sivatha Boulevard where the Old Market, Pub Street and Night Market are located. Our hotel, Mandalay Inn, was just right smack in the middle of it all that we did not have to ride a tuk-tuk to get anywhere for a bite or some shopping. We found it amazing that there were several lounge chairs filled to the rafters of people who want a massage. Even the aquariums had a number of people with their feet submerged inside getting nibbled by the fishes.

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It was the most relaxing three-day stay ever, good food coupled with a very quiet environment proved to be the right combo before we head off to Ho Chi Minh. We did not think that we would have a harrowing experience en route to Vietnam just because of the wonderful time in Cambodia. Alarm bells were ringing the moment I failed to book us seats in Mekong Express, which apparently was booked until the following week. Since we do not want to shell out $211 per head for airfare, we opted to go for the sleeper bus and paid $20 per head. 

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Mandalay Inn staff helped us book a ride from Virak Buntham transport. Since it was a very cheap rate, I dare not feel crestfallen when the inside of the bus was like  being inside a very cramp dormitory on wheels. To add insult to injury  the dispatcher, driver and conductor badly needed social skills. We were not told where to go and whether the bus was our bus. They kept making angry gestures when asked if the bus was the one going to Ho Chi Minh and if we can already bring our luggage in. Although confused as hell, we just followed and positioned ourselves on the top bunk. I do not know if my brother and mom managed to sleep but I was half asleep as I get tossed about on the “bed cum seat” because the driver’s devil maycare driving just zoomed through the rough patches on the road. Six hours later, the sun was already shining, the bus stopped in the middle of the road with only an empty patch of land around us. I asked for a toilet and the conductor pointed to the barren land, of course I did not dare pee as there was nary a bush or tree to seek a bit of cover from. I had to hold my pee an hour more before the sleeper bus finally came to a stop. Me and my mom hopped off to find a toilet so when we came back we were again faced with the conundrum of what the hell was going on as most of the passengers left and there was only my brother in the bus. Turned out, we were supposed to wait for another bus that would take us to Ho Chi Minh.

flatWe waited at the terminal for two hours before a shuttle brought us to where the bus was parked. It seemed there really was no terminal where buses are parked as the one we got on was just located at one of the streets. Two hours in the trip, we heard a very loud bang and steel hitting concrete. We were lucky that at our speed and how badly the tire blew up, the bus did not turn turtle. We all waited inside and then all of a sudden the conductor was making noises and sort of shooed us. Three times we tried to get our bags but he pushed us away. We really could not make out anything he was trying to say except for 25 minutes. Since we were too spent, we just followed our fellow passengers to another bus which after a couple of minutes stopped over a restaurant. Half an hour later we were again inside our bus, shooed down two hours later at the boundary of Cambodia and Vietnam for the customs check. It was 14 hours all in all when finally we reached Ho Chi Minh but without any map we do not know where we can go down straight to our hotel. We felt we cannot ask our conductor as he had been very rude since we got on the bus (we feel he does not like tourists very much or he hates his job). Thus the first taxi driver who was there became our ride off the streets of Ho Chi Minh. I was thumbing through the research I did about bad cab drivers who dupe their passengers. This one did, he not only went round and round the city when we asked him why his meter was very fast, he switched from broken English to Vietnamese. To get more money out of us, he said he did not accept dollars only dong and brought us to a pawnshop. This must have been their modus operandi as the one there did not accept anything below $50 and exchanged our money from $50 to just 700,000 Vietnamese dong. We did not antagonize him anymore since we do not know how many of his “friends” were there.

Lesson learned the hard way we made a promise that we wont ride anymore taxis or anything else in Vietnam unless we rented it out through Saigon Mini Hotel. We felt more cheated when we saw the hotel’s sign that it only costs 190,000 dong for a ride to the airport. Also that our hotel was just a block away from where the bus dropped us off. Good thing our hotel was very lovely, it took some of the negativity of the day’s ordeal. Like Mandalay, even when it was right smack in the middle of the city, the hotel was quiet that we slept late until the next day.

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Saigon Mini Hotel 6 with a city view.

We ventured out and searched for Saigon Square where we met two ladies who gave us a lot of discount for our loot. We got Kiplings and North Face brands in the form of back packs, belt bags, shoulder bags, laptop bags and wallets. We haggled until we were blue in the face. It was a bargain to find some genuine items at reasonable prices. There were some imitations but the sales people would tell you which ones are the real articles and which ones are merely imitations. We promised to be back just because we know we would be getting a lot out of our peso there. Next time I’d get some dresses and T-shirts.

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Ho Chi Minh has a different feel from Siem Reap. There were several notices tacked on several posts about being careful as there are a lot of robbers around. Even our very own hotel had the same warnings. We would had been duped again by a seemingly friendly buco vendor when he supposedly accompanied us to the museum only to just thrust in our hands a buco juice for 60,000 dong! We stood our ground and kept saying “No” then we moved away from him. So tip: be extra wary,learn to discern if their being friendly is real or not.

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Be warned: Keep your bags closed to your bodies, even your wallets. Robbers are everywhere.

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The buco juice vendor who thought he can fool us.

Trust only two companies:

Trust only two companies: Vinasun and Mailinh. According to Trip Advisor they have a lot of imitators who will copy the logo colors, or have a name that’s very similar to these companies, or have phone numbers that are very similar. Do not get into any other taxi, because even if the driver turns on the meter, it will jump by 50,000 to 200,000 Dong when you’re not looking. And you won’t have much luck arguing with the driver. If you do get into a non-Mailinh or non-Vinasun taxi, and you notice the meter jump inexplicably, get out of the taxi immediately and take another one, otherwise it might jump again.

Also crossing the streets was very scary. You do not know whether to look right to left or left to right as the mopeds were everywhere and anywhere. But once you get the hang of it, you can cross the street with ease. Remarkably my brother told me that there are no known reported incidents with a moped here. Huh. Incredible. 

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I enjoyed both countries regardless of the incidents in between. But I miss my home. There really is nothing like being back in Manila. 🙂

 

→Lifted from a soon to be gone Friendster blog September 26, 2009

The rain was never ending, the streets were already flooded and most of the flights to some parts of the Philippines got cancelled. We waited for more than 5 hours before we finally had a chance to board the plane. Of course there were a lot of could haves and should haves that we didn’t foresee. Like not bringing food to the plane because charging for a Nova chips bag for P50 is extortion. Also the three hour flight proved to be boring that even while trying to sleep we felt bored, staying awake we felt bored. There were no food and we had to contend with our growling tummy till we reached Singapore.

We took lots of photos to document our first time out of the country. Lo and behold when we landed, I got approached by the airport personnel at the tarmac saying incoherently “delete, no pictures.” Of course frightened and shocked out of my wits by the bombardment of Singlish, I deleted the tarmac shot. Hello, WTF! Anyhoo, it wont be my last time to be shouted at because while on board the bus going to the city proper, my mom nagged me to ask for the nth time the driver if we are near so I asked and the guy shouted (I later learned that they are not friendly nor are they accommodating, they are very aloof, unhappy people) at me to just wait for him to tell me if we were there. Good thing for maps and my brother’s navigational skills because the people that we asked for help turned out to be very unaccommodating, they just don’t know or they didn’t understand our questions, there was a definite language barrier. Imagine Kimmy trying to talk to Dora but in slow mo. Of course this is an exaggeration but then it was hard to comprehend thru the thick accent. We were often misunderstood.

Our dinner mainly consisted of a chicken turn over in 7-11 and fruits and corn cob for my bro and mom. Need I say that we are not an adventurous lot when it comes to food? This already explains enough. But despite this Kopitiam was our main source of breakfast, the coffee was really good. At S$2.50 we had a toast, two eggs, hams and coffee which was very filling. 7-11 was still the main source of chicha and water. Sunday morning we ventured out and saw one luxury car after another. There were jaguars, Porsche, Benz, BMWs…drooling moment. Then there were buildings too of really luxurious items like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Zara, Rolex and the like. The streets were litter-rodent-beggar-smoke-traffic free. There were a number of drool worthy luxury cars. Big malls that only has name brands like Hermes, Zara, Louis Vuitton. 7-11, money changers and tailor shops lined up the streets. So all day we explored Orchard Road, visited the Singapore Visitors Center to get some info on how to go around the city, went in the malls and bought some trinkets at 3 for S$10 each as pasalubong. But they were really too costly for comfort and my budget will not allow me to even splurge on myself. Could do that maybe here in Manila.

Late that night, we spent it at the Night Safari which was very uneventful. The animals were sleeping or the place where they were at were too dark. Monday we went to look for the Botanic Garden, got lost because we couldn’t find the bus stop of the bus going there and by the end of the day was just too tired. Sentosa was ok, not as beautiful as what was claimed but well it was certainly such a sight. Singapore’s landscape truly is remarkable.

I found it amazing that stores were nearly empty, some food courts were not even filled up. I also found myself in awe on how efficient their transportation system is, the SMRT can get you anywhere. If not that, then a numbered bus can get you where you want to go. Taxis are far too expensive so we had that only when we had to go back and meet up Kaye, Sasha and Roger at the Lucky Plaza. I found it also weird when there were no repair shops nearby nor gasoline stations. Children are not running around nor were there teens, old people are also scarce save for the bus boy and girl in McDo. Singapore in itself looked like Makati and Fort, just cleaner and with nicer cars.  I know I can live there. But even if I enjoyed the time we stayed there, I terribly missed Manila on just the second day. Tho Singapore felt familiar, it wasn’t home. Still I would come back to Singapore just to experience again the litter free streets, see the luxury cars that ply every where and to get to visit not only Mustafa for the almonds but also to check out Universal Studios which at the time we visited was still under construction. 🙂

It was such a nice, relaxing trip to a beautiful place. This paradise in the Philippines seems too good to be true but it is. It was worth the visit and I know I will come back again. The food, the people and the wonders of nature are just the breath of fresh air we badly needed.

Who would think that squatters live here? But they do, Mayor Hagedorn made it possible for them to stay near the place where they earn a living. These people pay off a monthly fee and in 25 years the unit will be theirs.

The Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm was originally set up in 1902 by the United States to house Philippine prisoners who had fought against the American colonization of the Philippines. Today, situated on the lush island of Palawan, only 30 minutes by road from Puerto Princesa City, Iwahig is unique among penal institutions. Despite the fact that most of the 2,300 inmates have been convicted of homicide, the majority are minimum security prisoners and are thus not locked up within the colony. Instead, these minimum security inmates live in dormitories and work on one of the many agricultural projects located within the prison farm.

This is but less than a quarter of the land being tilled by the prisoners with light sentences. Here they can be productive and make better use of themselves.

Here we had our rather very, very late lunch. The food is cheap but cooked to perfection.

Colorful bancas that will take us to the underground river from Sabang.

Majestic rock formations abound in the island going to the underground river.

Interesting facts abound while on the footpath to the underground river.

Paradise, at last!