PHNOM PENH: Looking through Cambodia’s present and rekindling with its dark past

November 2015 – Boarding a sleeper bus (USD16/Php750 – pre-booked online) from the Giant Ibis bus terminal in the Old Market area (facing the rotonda) that departed at 11pm, we were able to maximize the night to travel to Phnom Penh and see the other side – perhaps the more progressive side of Cambodia. The bus was a bit compressed and with the lower bunk being too dark, I think it is more comfortable to take an upper bunk bed for its being more spacious – btw you can charge your gadgets and has free functioning wifi during the entire travel.


Sorry for the blurred photo – but this is the upper bunk. Right side 2-person bed and single bed for the left side

Phnom Phenh is the capital city of Cambodia. A clear contrast to Siem Reap and true to being the urban center, Phnom Penh at the very least possesses that city vibe defined by a few tall modern office buildings, crowded residential strips and busy main roads and alleys filled with various vehicles, aside from Tuk-tuk and motorbikes of course – scenes that are less typical in Siem Reap.
After boarding off the bus by the Giant Ibis bus terminal around 6’oclock in the morning, we walked towards the long highway to our first destination that day – Wat Phnom.



It is a Buddhist temple built on top of a hill (“Phnom” translates to “hill” in Khmer) that is said to be where the name Phnom Penh was derived apparently by some legend where the main character’s name was Penh (Daun Penh).




The temple is similar in structure to those in Thailand built with a huge stupa beside the main temple hall and a few House of Spirits around the place. While these two countries share a few similarities on culture and tradition, they had once been enemies of each other, attacking temple structures to demonstrate power over the other. We took some time to rest at the park benches below the temple under the shade of the trees along with the chirping of birds and insects – what ideal mornings are made of.


Central Market’s iconic dome

Afterwards, we took the long trail back and forth in search for Central Market. We asked locals but apparently, even tuktuk drivers find it hard to understand that we are looking for Central Market. Yes we found it hard to look for people who understand English – some locals even seem to be too shy to converse. After several back-and-forths we reached the Central Market, which appeared to be a fascade of a wet market with small eateries and few dry goods. We just admired its structure from the outside and didn’t bother roaming inside.


After filling our stomach at a Chinese restaurant around Central Market – the only decent eating place we saw, we flagged a tuktuk to take us to the Royal Palace (Entrance fee USD6.25).


Living up to their name “Kingdom of Cambodia”, with the country even up to present still observing elective monarchy, the Royal Palace complex (Preah Barum Reachea Veang Chaktomuk Serei Mongkol) plays significant role during events concerning the royal family.


It houses the coronation hall where ceremonies to welcome the successor of the royal family into position are being held.



Considered to be a highly respectable place among Cambodians, visitors are obliged to come in proper attire (no shorts allowed) or they will lend you a sarong for cover-ups.




Everything golden plus the Golden Sun


The palace ground also holds stupas where the remains of the members of the royal family are being kept and offered with flowers. Though less intricate and a rather neater version of the Royal Palace in Thailand, structures like these draw you to zoom in your perspective to admire the delicate details – the tiny carved works of art making up these edifices.





To complete the vibe of this special ground, pigeons flock at the temple as if paying tribute to the king.




To escape the scorching heat of the sun, we took a stop at Soria Shopping Center, one of the shopping malls in Phnom Penh and took a nice sit at the sight of ice cream at Swensens – a taste of ice cream is heaven for the relief it brings.


While the exterior of the mall somehow promises a taste of a modern structure, a basic department store type with variety of goods displayed in counters is what you should expect once you enter. The poorly-lit interior is somehow reminiscent of old floor plan of SM department store in the 90s. To be fair, we never bothered going upstairs which they said to be where the shops are located as we were too relaxed with ice cream and air-conditioning.

It was also in Phnom Penh, though also present in Siem Reap, that we were able to try the popular burger chain in Cambodia, the Lucky Burger (sister company of Lucky Supermarket) at a newly-built mall called City Mall. Perhaps strolling around airconditioned malls seems to be a luxury too elusive in Siem Reap.


Outside the Sorya Shopping Center are tuk-tuk drivers joyfully chatting while waiting for prospective passengers leaving the mall. We negotiated for our roundtrip Tuktuk ride to Choeung Ek Genocidal Museum for USD15 (good for 3 pax). It was a long, half an hour dusty trip going to the museum with several road construction on-going, very much a typical scene in the Philippines.





Mini groceries in place of sari-sari stores around Phnom Penh – Trade Check!





Behind the mighty halls of the temples of Angkor that typify a vibrant civilization is a saddening history of PolPot that shook the peace and grandeur of era before it.


Visitors voluntary leave their thread bands to sympathize with Cambodia on this part of their history

Compared to other history museums I have ever visited, Choeung Ek is one of those that left a mark in my spirit – something that connected to one’s soul allowing you to feel, not just think & see, and empathize over the brief yet very significant memory among the Cambodian people. Entrance to the museum costs USD6 inclusive of the rental for the audio-recording tour available in several langauages.  


The museum retells the story of Polpot’s leadership over his then established Democratic Kampuchea by taking its visitors through an audio-visual tour to every significant corner of the actual ground where thousands were unjustifiably executed. Polpot took over the reign of King Sikanouk in 1975 through showcase of military force following a civil war, soliciting sympathy among the “lower” class peasants and rural dwellers, people he regard as less thinking & non-opposing class, that he later on turned his back on. His 4-year reign cost more than 2 million lives – a period of political oppression and forced labor in the namesake of “development”. His heartstrong mantra that justifies it all: “To keep you is no benefit, to kill you is no loss” is equally horrifying to hear.


Finding it hard to even smile while listening to the audio narration

Visitors will walk through several numbered stops around the outdoor area and an audio-recording emotionally narrating the significant events that occurred on each spot will be played upon pressing the respective number codes.


One of the stations – the marker for the area that served as storage for chemicals (Press Button 6)

As you will hear from the recorder, bones of victims of Pol Pot’s genocide can still be seen all over that small area.



If there’s one stop that would bury deep in your heart, it would probably be the heart-breaking site of an old tree tagged as the Killing Tree where babies, whose parents were slain and victimized, are said to be beaten to their death against the tree’s hard, sturdy trunk.


One would naturally ask why even innocent babies were killed; the audio recorder’s answer to that inquiry would equally puzzle you. Today, the tree as well as the house of spirits beside it is filled with colorful thread bands left by visitors that empathize with the people of Cambodia.



Perhaps also one of the most striking highlight of the tour for me was when we stopped by a tree tagged as a Magic Tree that is said to hold the loudspeaker during that time. The significance of the speaker in masking the brutality that happened constantly within the compound from the locals living in the surrounding area, making it appeared like a meeting de avanze hit my imagination.


The fear of not being heard

It’s as if I could imagine the far cry of the victims which everyone outside the compound seems oblivion about as shouts and cry for help were drowned by the loud noise from the sound system, making it appear to be a happy gathering, felt like a nightmare.

To think about it, society seems to be like that often times, either too pre-occupied with their personal worries or intently keeping our ears closed to hear enough the silent cries of our fellow humankind. The ironies of life…


The tour’s last stop concludes at the stupa, the central building in the compound that houses several skulls and bones of the victims of that era, classified one by one based on age, gender and cause of death.


The central stupa at Choeung Ek to commemorate the victims of Pol Pot’s genocide

After the tour, one would feel sad and heavy taking all the information that history painted bitterly among this nation. As we went back to the bus terminal for our return trip to Siem Reap, I felt like I still could see the struggle of the people at present, their humble condition, greatly thankful for the meager money they earn for a living once you hand-over their hard-earned dollar in exchange for their services. The different though is that now they are happily free from those senseless killings.


I have to say I left a piece of my heart in Choeung Ek, a piece I felt for the people of this humble country who are the true epitome of simplicity, of smiles painted despite the struggles of the daily grind, of constant carrying a strong heart to find means to live – live simply, peacefully and with contentment for the grace.     


SIEM REAP: Discovering the town and ruins of the ancient world

NOVEMBER 2015 – A free Tuk-Tuk ride from our hotel complimented by a warm greeting of our local Tuktuk driver jump-started our very first local experience upon arrival at Siem Reap (Tan Son Nat International Airport). We traveled across a long peaceful highway in an open-air tuk-tuk welcomed by the cold November evening air.


Our first tuk-tuk ride


Our hotel, Blossoming Romduol Lodge located just a short 5-minute walk to town center where attractions like Old Market and Pubstreet are located became our home for our almost 3-day stay in Siem Reap. It’s a nice choice especially if you are to take the sleeper bus to Phnom Penh as the terminal is just located at the corner of the street near the hotel, by the intersection of Sivutha Road, which is the main highway in Siem Reap.


Room accommodation is at USD80 (Php3,680) for 4 nights in a three-bed AC room with private bathroom and free breakfast. Our favorite feature of the hotel is the unlimited free use of fish spa – a perfect way to spend a lazy hot afternoon and temporarily relax tired feet from all-day of walking around town. The hotel also provides free use of bicycle, that we found as always available during our stay, to roam around town even at night. Riding a bicycle is a breeze since the attractions such as Pub Street and other night markets are just a few blocks away.


Upon check-in, we also tried out the hotel’s restaurant that offers fusion of Cambodian, American and Italian Cuisines. Our first Cambodian dinner comprised of Shrimp Lok Lak and the very gingery Chicken Amok – these being must try Cambodian dishes when in the country.



Shrimp Loklak


Chicken Amok


DAY 1: Exploring the Siem Reap Town by foot

After breakfast (included in the room accommodation) with a serving of egg, French Baguette and a cup of coffee or tea, we went off for a short DIY walking tour to experience the sights and sounds of this humble town.


We walked along the path of the small river that stretches through the town walking pass some sights such as the Old Market, Preah Phrom Rath and Angkor Trade Center.


Preah Phrom Rath


Walking around town made me realize how far laid back, or should I say backward, life in Siem Reap remains to be. Life around Siem Reap is too simple – no modern malls, few fastfood chains, no high rise buildings, no taxis or other public transportation around town and Tuktuk is the king of the road.



The town is highly dependent on tourism, with people engaged in selling souvenirs and as tuktuk drivers for temple visitors – and with their growing number roaming around town it might be quite a challenge to get sufficient number of customers. Simple luxuries like shopping malls in Siem Reap are simply defined by a few local fastfood restaurants and a some retail shops selling unbranded goods, others imitation of the original, confined in a 2-3 storey building.

Perhaps one noticeable sign that the area has just stepped a foot forward to embrace globalization is the limited presence of giant international food chains, with KFC being the only one in sight along Sivatha Road.


On duty – “At your service!”

What one would enjoy though during your discovery of the town is the warm smiles of its people that despite language barrier would take the extra mile to help out lost strangers. And when they discovered we were from the Philippines, whom they often mistook as Malaysians at first sight, an instant expression of “Ohhh Manny Pacquiao” would be blurted out – talking about Pinoy Pride.


Rotonda in front of Royal Garden

As our first stop that morning, we reached Royal Garden by the end of the river trail, where one can also enjoy a morning jog. It is a simple park, with semi manicured garden surrounded with tall trees – don’t set high expectations though despite its being tagged as the “Royal”.


It houses the Preah Ang Chek temple, which was filled with worshippers, paying their respect, lighting incense and taking family pictures outside the temple during the time of our visit.


Preah Ang Chek

Tall trees beside the temple also house quite a number of bats during daytime – Don’t forget to look up with mouth closed and watch out for the droplets :P.


Behind the temple is a dried up man-made lagoon where locals and students used to hang-out to pass time.




After taking lunch at KFC, we headed over for a mini souvenir shopping at Lucky Mall and Supermarket and the nearby Angkor Market.


KFC’s Pepper Chicken


These outlets not only offer local food and delicacies that you can bring as pasalubong for relatives and friendsbut also personal care items that you may find cheaper compared to selling price back home. An Adidas Ice Dive 500ml cost only USD8 (Php368) while coconut cookies can be bought at USD1.5 per small box.


As the sun’s heat becomes way hotter during mid-day and nothing much left to do, we often go back to the hotel to enjoy the fish spa instead and go back to business by 4pm once the sun is not quite as harsh on the skin.

As we intended to take the Small Circuit Angkor Tour the following day, we walked around the Old market and Pub Street and let Tuktuk drivers approach us and negotiate for tours. Luckily, the first persistent Tuktuk driver that approached us agreed to tour us the following day for USD16 (good for 3 pax). Additionally we hired him to take us to the ticket booth and see Angkor Wat sunset that day for USD8 (good for 3 pax).


Going to the ticket booth – street scene going to the temples

The travel from town to Angkor Wat can be quite long, hence the price. In addition, “Bhuti”, our driver, had to wait with us until 5pm until we were allowed to purchase ticket for the following day.  Since we only allotted a day to explore Angkor Wat, we find it more prudent to purchase the ticket (USD20 for one day) a day prior not only to prevent the hassle of falling in line for tickets early in the morning but also to avail of the free sunset peek of Angkor Wat when you purchase your ticket after 5pm the day prior the tour proper.


Since we arrived early, Mr. Bhuti offered to take us to the Killing Field nearby without no extra charge just so we can pass time. Though the interaction with Tuktuk drivers can be intimidating at times especially that you have to bargain to prevent overpricing, you’ll encounter some who would be more than willing to show the hidden gems around town despite the difficulty in speaking in English.




Though the famous ones are located in Phnom Penh, there are also killing fields in Siem Reap such as  Wat Thmey. Inside the complex were several stupas, a temple and a small tower that houses bones and skulls of the victims during the Pol Pot Regime, serving as a testament to the dark past that shook an entire nation thru brutal slavery.


Come 5pm, tourist flock at the ticket booth to buy tickets and proceed to Angkor Wat to see the sunset. The day concluded with a sight of the setting sun, shedding its last streaks of light over Angkor Wat. Though not as stunning as what we expected it to be, the mere first sight of an ancient structure that stood through time is nonetheless captivating enough.





A hint of sunset over Angkor Wat

We were able to further enjoy our night in Siem Reap by exploring the night scenes around town through biking. We juggled the poorly lit streets of the town center, cautious of passing vehicles beside us.




We stopped by the very lively Pubstreet where tourists convene after a tiring hot day of temple hopping. The entire street is closed from all types of vehicles even bikes and the alleys are filled with people having booze and enjoying the vibe of varied loud music from establishments in the area.




It is also where one can have a taste of different Cambodian streetfood including exotic servings tarantula, crickets, snakes and silk worm, the latter being the most bearable for my appetite I guess.





For dining options, Soup Dragon Restaurant is at the corner of Pubstreet offering delicious Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes that we had for lunch during our last day.


Spring Rolls, Pork with Cashew and Stirred Beef


Asians will always be Asians – condiments on every table

For dessert, there is also a newly-opened Blue Pumpkin branch near Pub street for ice creams and frappe.


The cafe’s cozy ambiance



And some famous pizza parlours for the adventure-seekers.


The retail shops are also alive during this time of the night so I took advantage to buy souvenirs – a Pashmina Shoal for USD5 and Silk Scarf for USD3.

Though prices at the Night Market and the daytime Old Market do not necessarily differ for all items, bargaining for the lowest price remains as key for shopping in both places to get the best value for your dollars. Apart from the typical T-shirts (USD2 low quality basic tees) and food, silk scarfs are also lovely and economical pasalubongs. Ref Magnets cost USD1 while a mini Apsara Dancer Figurine costs around USD3. Mainly due to proximity, the Old Market is a convenient choice for souvenir hunting if only you could endure the bargaining. Paintings of Angkor Wat are also a popular merchandise among shops here, I personally bought 2 medium-sized paintings for USD15. The night concluded with a relaxing stay at the fish spa and an ice cold Angkor Beer.





We were fetched by “Whata”, Bhuti’s brother and our new Tuktuk driver, by 5:30am the next day to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat.


In the midst of the darkness, a lot of people, most with flashlights, gather by the lake in front of Angkor Wat to witness the spectacle of the rising sun casting its rays over Angkor’s main temples. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy morning and the sun did not fully rise.


Come daylight, people started to wander around the halls of Angkor Wat but our driver suggested that we explore other temples first to avoid the crowd (and the unwanted photobombers).




Kids selling souvenirs

Roaming around the ruins of the temples of Angkor transports you back in time, a time where there was just nature and a firm belief to a supreme being, walking pass structures and monument that shape a society as Cambodia.

Angkor, which meant “Capital City” in Khmer and “Holy City” in Sanskrit, became the capital of the Khmer Empire in the 9th to 15th century ( Each temple in Angkor is purposely built by each reigning king to pay respect to their Hindu gods, often with a central temple symbolizing Mount Meru, supporting significance of these structures in Hindu religion.


Angkor temples are admired not only for its architectural design, intricate stone carvings and bass reliefs depicting the different facets central to Cambodian life but also for its religious significance for the people of Cambodia. With temples sutiated in the middle of the jungle, a temple tour serves as an instant nature retreat for willing travellers.




Approaching the gate of Angkor Thom Complex, we passed by a bridge lined up with different Hindu figures, that appeared to be guarding the passage/entrance to a mystical world.


A fine day to explore the temples


Similar to Angkor Wat, the Angkor Thom complex is also enveloped within a body of water. At the heart of Angkor Thom is Bayon, which is one of the most famous temples of Angkor mainly due to its many four-faced Buddhas carved on huge temple stones. At this point, Whatta bid goodbye and allowed us to roam around the complex on our own, showing us a map of temples that we can explore by foot.



The four-faced Buddha, said to be a smiling portrait of the King himself, was also dubbed as Monalisa of Southeast-Asia ( Compared to other temples in Angkor, Bayon seems to be primarily a Buddhist temple that incorporates Hindu elements.






Isn’t it obvious I so love the facade of Bayon?

Intricate carvings on the bas relief as you roam around the temple depict scenes from legends and historical significance.





I have to say, this temple took a lot of our time as we enjoyed discovering its seemingly never-ending halls.




You’ll need to literally crawl up and down stairs



Never forget to look up at its ceiling and you would be amazed (or feel fear) on how the temple is formed from piles of rocks seeming glued together in a very organized manner.


Believe or not, this is the ceiling forming a dome of one of the towers of Bayon.




After leaving Bayon, we walked north towards another temple in sight, Baphuon, which turn to be one of our personal favorite. The entrance towards the temple seemed to be an inviting path, a long catwalk stage that would lead to you towards the central temple.








Unlike other temples that would only take one or two floors, this challenges visitors to climb through steep STAIRS (I really mean steep, forget about going on heels!) until you reach the topmost floor that would let you enjoy a good view of the whole complex.




The fruit of our labor climbing to the topmost floor.



Towards the exit, you’ll notice a pile of bricks interestingly forming an image of a reclining Buddha.




Beside Baphuon, we passed by the two flat temples, Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. Facing the parade ground, these serve as viewing deck of the King during processions and for watching his victorious returning army.


Terrace of the Elephants





Terrace of the Leper King

At the end of the trail, we already found Whatta waving towards us with his tuktuk. Amazingly, Tuktuk drivers are really attentive to their guests as you’ll be surprised to see them right at the exit once you step out of each temple.


We rode the Tuktuk to continue our journey to the rest of the small circuit temples before we went back to see the details of Angkor Wat. By that time, we were already feeling a bit “templed out”, as if all the temples appeared as already similar and non-distinctive from each other. Passing by a slightly paved road enveloped by trees in a seeming jungle is a breather.


Templed Out rather “too tired”

Leaving Angkor Thom through the victory gate, we passed by two temples at the opposite side of the road, parallel to each other – Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda. These seemed as minor temples in terms of size compared to the other temples we visited that day.



A significant part of Chau Say Thevoda was said to be restored, one can notice the newly built parts and reliefs around the temple. They say that the flower carvings in the central temples can be considered as a distinct feature of this temple.



Entrance to the temple





On the other hand, the Thommanon temple’s distinct feature, which I only discovered after google research after the trip, is the Devatas carving on its walls in sampot (Cambodian Skirt) holding a flower in a unique way. The gopuras (entrance) of both temples, with its equally intricate carvings and frames offer an interesting composition for your photography.




To beat the summer heat, a local ice cream aka “ice drop” in the Philippines, only with flavors like Taro, Coconut, and Durian.


Afterwards, we quickly passed and had a sneak resting time at Ta Keo. The temple is under restoration during our time of visit, with modernity in the form of different construction equipments being a seeming distraction to the supposed ancient ruin visit. By this time our feet is too tired to walk up the stairs towards the central temple.


Construction on-going at Ta Keo



Too tired to go up (Yes coming on heels is my biggest mistake)


After a quick cold water break (1 liter of water for USD1), we went straight to one of the famous temples of Angkor mainly because of its Hollywood appearance in Angelina Jolie’s movie Tomb Raider. Ta Phrom seemed like a temple hidden in the middle of a jungle.


Entrance to the main temple

This only explains why the famous Banyan tree, which is also considered as a sacred in Buddhism, swallowing the halls of one of its temple became the highlight of every visit to Ta Phrom.





Upon entering the west gate, one would have to walk through dusty tree-shaded path leading to the main temple. One can stop by to admire paintings from local artists but also arts in different forms such as on leaves among others. Music from playing band comprise of victims of land mines can also be heard in the area.


Approaching lunch time, we decided to stop by a restaurant in the temple complex to eat lunch with Whatta at Palmboo Restaurant. The restaurant ambiance is great, with view of the king’s swimming pool which Whatta mentioned of dragon boat races during festival season. Meals were quite pricey though perhaps because there’s a charity component when you eat in this restaurant as it is said to provide employment and trainings to willing locals.


Yellow Noodles with Pork


Before going to Angkor Wat, we stopped by 2 minor temples in close proximity to each other: Sra Srang and Banteay Kdei. Apparently, Sras Srang is almost in complete ruin located beside a body of water said to be the king’s bath/swimming pool ( Unfortunately, by this time, camera’s battery was already drained, hence the downloaded photos.

Meanwhile, we took the time to rest (again) under a tree inside Banteay Kdei Temple. The main temple is partly shabby, with temple stones scattered on one side of the temple. With the same king that mandated its construction, its main gate or gopura assimilates that of Bayon bearing the four-faced Buddha. ( Despite being in this state, it appeared to be a functioning  temple as a shrine where worshippers make offering can be found in the temple near the entrance.


To conclude the tour, we headed over to Angkor Wat to personally witness its splendor and its intricate bas reliefs that made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list. No doubt it proved to be the grandest temple in terms of land area. The temple is seemingly enveloped within a lake, adding a sense grandeaur as one passes through the bridge towards the temple gate. Within the temple ground is a small lake, with reflections of Angkor Wat seen through its waters.

Upon entering the main halls of Angkor Wat, a long, seemingly never-ending hall filled with bas reliefs narrating a story of appearing spiritual significance will capture visitors’ attention.


The long hall at Angkor Wat with bas reliefs on the left side

With the little grasp of Hinduism and Buddhism information from college, I tried to identify and make sense of the narration sculpture on its walls, with images of Brahma and Garudas in scenes depicting a battle came to mind.




At the end of the tour, Whatta drive us back safely to the hotel and gave him the USD16 – the last words he said that almost stuck us is “Thank you for your help” with the warmest smiles he got. It was not in fact a “help” as it was a payment for a service to us. But perhaps, with the struggles of the people that we witnessed in Siem Reap in earning a living, earning a little amount may be such a big thing.


Indeed, the one-day visit to the temples of Angkor has that magic to transport its visitors in a time, walking pass structures and monuments that shape a society as Cambodia. Though these bas reliefs may seem like a piece of ancient art to be admired for a person from a different culture and religion, the temples of Angkor somehow reminds me that spirituality is so important, apparently became so central in Cambodian life that its leaders dedicated several structures to achieve said purpose.



My one big Angkor Adventure

Exploring around town took me back to one reality that we always tried to surpass in the modern age: and that is the simplicity of life. And I guess, realizing this once in a while reminds us to count our blessings that surmount the basic needs of man.  From the feeling of awe from the GRANDEUR of Angkor temples to the renewed sense of appreciation of life you get from simple interaction with the locals, Siem Reap surely is one overwhelmingly humble surprise of an adventure in the eastern side of the world.


Biak na Bato National Park: A trek back to history

SEPT 2015 – The eight rays of the sun, as depicted in the Philippine flag, testify to the significant contribution of the province of Bulacan in the revolt against Spain in 1896. Indeed, Bulacan is one of the eight provinces that shed light towards the fight for independence, ending hundred years of slavery against the Spaniards.

A trip to Biak-na-Bato, in the town of San Miguel in Bulacan, takes you back to the era when Filipino Katipuneros took their plan of revolt against the Spanish conquerors. It offers a track back in history when the revolutionaries took refuge in hidden caves along the mountainous landscape of San Miguel to cure wounded revolutionaries, gather armors and hold secret meetings. To my mind this is our own version of the Cu Chi Tunnels of Vietnam that Cong Viets used to fight war against the American fleet.


Ride an ES Transport Bus Bound to San Miguel and alight at St. Paul School in San Miguel. ES Transport Bus Terminal is located in Cubao Quezon City. Bus travel from Cubao to San Miguel can take up 3 hours. In front of St. Paul is tricycle terminal, a tricycle that can load up 3-5 people can take you to the entrance of Biak-na-Bato for Php150 pesos per trip. Don’t worry for your ride on your travel back to town as the guides will surely offer you their transpo service at parity pricing.

The map of Biak Na Bato National Park by the entrance/registration.

The map of Biak Na Bato National Park by the entrance/registration.*


Upon arrival at Biak-na-Bato, a tour guide will approach you should you want to do spelunking through the several caves around Biak-na-Bato while the guide tells you the role each one played in history. Entrance to the Biak-na-bato is affordably at Php30 for adults and Php20 for students. A visit to Aguinaldo Cave and Bat Cave would cost Php300 pesos. Should you want to explore the slightly farther but equally historical cave system comprising of the Hospital Cave, Artillery, Ambush Cave and Tanggapan you have to pay an additional Php500 for the tour guide. Our group chose to explore both route despite arriving at Biak na Bato almost around 11:30am.

TIP: As there is only one carinderia once you alight at St. Paul, it will be better if you take your own packed lunch. There are available picnic tables around the park.

The group rode a tricycle going to the jump-off point of the trek towards Hospital Cave. The trek going to each cave is breezy, comprised mostly of flat terrain passing by scenic rice paddies, small houses often in isolation and surrounded by view of the distant mountain ranges.

Probinsya-feel and the scent of fresh air*

Probinsya-feel and the scent of fresh air*

The interior of the caves often has slippery floor so make sure you got your sturdy rubber shoes or trekking sandals, ready for stepping on mud.



After a short trek, Kuya Abet, our tour guide, suddenly stopped in the middle of the grassy path to introduce us to the entrance of Hospital Cave, a few steps from where we were standing. No wonder the Spaniards would not easily notice such a place.

The hidden entrance of Hospital Cave (Yungib 3)

The hidden entrance of Hospital Cave (Yungib 3)*


We reached the entrance to the Hospital Cave, where Katipuneros brought their wounded comrades for treatment and remedies.


Inside the Hospital Cave, the floor is perfectly flat, which makes it ideal for nursing wounded revolutionaries.

Hospital Cave

Inside Hospital Cave or Yungib 3 - "Yungib" is a Filipino term for cave.

Inside Hospital Cave or Yungib 3 – “Yungib” is a Filipino term for cave.*

Amazingly, in the middle of the cave, is a purely white stalagmite formation that seemed to sparkle in the midst of the darkness once we focused our flashlight on it, like a gem being displayed as the highly regarded centerpiece of a museum.

A shiny gem in the middle of the Hospital Cave. "Shine bright like a diamond"

A shiny gem in the middle of the Hospital Cave. “Shine bright like a diamond”*

Cath posing beside the stalagmite

Cath posing beside the stalagmite*

Since stalactites and stalagmites are considered delicate rock formations that once touched by people have that tendency to stop their growth, keeping it intact despite several tourists visiting that place is truly commendable.



Shortly after walking around bamboos, trees and shrubs, we have entered the Artillery Cave, also known as the Imbakan Cave, where Katipuneros hid collected firearms and other revolutionary supplies.

The entrance to the cave seemed like an abyss of darkness.

Imbakan Cave


Inside Imbakan Cave the streak of light group pose

Inside Imbakan Cave the streak of light group pose*

The exit to the cave can be too narrow that you have to walk sideways to pass through it.


Outside Imbakan Cave, we passed by a string beans plantation

Outside Imbakan Cave, we passed by a string beans plantation*



After a short walk passing a shrubby path, we reached an open cave tagged as the Tanggapan Cave.

Tanggapan Cave

As the name implies, this cave served as a reception area, where they used to accept and orient new recruits of the Katipunan before they were eventually immersed to the operation and introduced to the secret caves of Biak-na-Bato. This was said to be where the famous tradition of blood compact as part of the initiation to Katipunan ‘newbies’, an act that somehow signified the way they bravely fought for the nation, with life and blood.



After walking passed Tanggapan Cave, we continued the trek passing by a refreshing sight of a calm river cum stream before reaching the mouth of our last, a relatively most difficult to traverse cave, the Ambush Cave.



Ambush Cave served as a trap to trick Spaniards towards a planned ambush. Some Katipuneros would let themselves be chased by the Spaniards while they led them towards the cave. Since the cave was completely dark, some Katipuneros would be on standby inside while they waited for the enemies’ footsteps specifically the sound of their boots, before attacking them. When inside the cave though, one couldn’t help but think how many had died inside – creepy thoughts.


Are these two destined to meet some day?

Are these two destined to meet some day?*


The cave has a narrow opening that you literally have to bend your knees and do the duck walk. You don’t have to entirely do the duck walk throughout the cave but you have to somehow bend your body as the cave ceiling is really low and uneven and sometimes…

Cave wall

You have to climb the ladder on your way out of the cave

You have to climb the ladder on your way out of the cave – Look at at those muddy sandals! *



After the series of caves, we took the trike back to the park entrance to explore the other side of the park.

Hanging bridge by the entrance of the park

Hanging bridge by the entrance of the park*

Pahingahan Cave because we are just tired.

Pahingahan Cave because we are just tired.*

The walking continued*

The walking continued*

We walked through a cemented, newly renovated pathwalk leading towards the Bat Cave. Bat Cave or the Bahay Paniki seems to be an open cave but the path can be too rocky and slippery so we dare not pursue it.

Bat Cave on the background*

Bat Cave on the background*

To conclude the trip, we had a refreshing walk crossing a river and enjoying a relaxing plunge by the man-made waterfalls.



We passed by what they call as Aguinaldo Cave, where General Emilio Aguinaldo (Yes, the first president of the Philippine Republic) took temporary office and held secret meetings. The cave is covered by freezer-cold fresh spring water that only brave souls would dare swim at.

Spring water swim*

Spring water swim*

The cave is situated beside the river and there is a portion that the spring water and the warmer river water meet.


We are so ready to swim!*

We are so ready to swim!*


Apart from the historical significance, it is good to note that the park has been given special attention by the government lately as it is currently being developed, with construction of several comfort rooms for visitors and renovation of the pathways. With a nation with a history as rich as ours, it can be through these caves can we physically feel how the country’s independence was fought by several generations before us – and hope at the end of this activity you’ll also realize that it was not an easy fight for freedom.

With this, I have high hopes that the government will realize the importance and take actions in preserving and promoting the history of Biak-na-Bato to the young generation simply because we take pride in our history as a nation.

*All photos are credited to Cath dela Roca.


Burot Beach

(April 2015) A 3-4 hour drive from Manila, Burot Beach is said to be a secret beach getaway for the adventurous ones who are into camping trips. Having read a lot of blogs including it to the “It” list of beaches near the metro equate to its rising popularity in recent years.

The dusty road going to Burot Beach

The dusty road going to Burot Beach

Upon arriving though, I was surprised to see a busy crowded beach, with several tents pitched by the shore. At first look, the downside of the place might probably be the first realizations — limited unmaintained CR, no electricity and crowded piece of earth.

_DSC1594DSC04093Entrance fee for overnight stay is Php130 per person, slightly lower fee applies for daytrip. It was merely past 10am yet the sun’s heat seemed to be as draining as the heat at noontime. Some were busy in line for the limited number of “basic” comfort rooms, some busy eating brunch under the few shades of the trees near the beach while sadly, some kids were running around holding a starfish or two, what seemed to be a source of wonder clueless that what they are holding is worth a life.

Summer heat

Summer heat

We pitched the tent along with the cluster of campers by the longest stretch of the beach hoping that come daybreak, the place would be less crowded and less noisy.

Our source of shade from the sun's heat

Our source of shade from the sun’s heat


Camping buddies.

Camping buddies.

Walking at the far end of the shore, away from the crowd, somehow became a more relaxing spot to get by a lazy hot summer afternoon.

The quiet side of Burot Beach

The quiet side of Burot Beach

The dog guard

The dog guard

DSC04123The breakwater

The breakwater


To our surprise, come sunset, some just started to arrive by batch, group of students, entire clan etc. Even the night became unforgiving as the surrounding still possessed the party vibe from loud speakers and campers chatting in the middle of the night, having their bonfire confessions. As we walked around the beach at midnight, the whole place was still alive and busy.

Camping at night

Camping at night

Being an undeveloped beach strip, there are no activities you can do except to do island hopping (Php 130 per person) to 3 nearby islands – Sandbar,  Starfish Island and Coral Island.


The sand bar is usually knee-high deep during low tide and invisible during high tide.

DSC04231DSC04227The Starfish Island has waist-deep water and clear waters where one can see several kinds of starfish that you can hold (but please not for take-home). It was a first time to have a close live encounter with this sea creature, what seemed like an instant biology class in the middle of the sea. I just hope the government will do something to preserve their piece of sanctuary.

DSC04233Lastly, we stopped by to a part of the sea where you can see corals through the water – Coral Island. We didn’t bother going down the boat because we are scared to step on the corals and to prevent destroying them.


To cap off the day, the lovely sunset never failed to captivate.


Only during our beach walk the morning after that we discovered a rather more tranquil part of Burot Beach where few tents were pitched and  mangrove trees added color to its calm waters. Most of them do not resemble a tree yet, a sign that they might be newly planted.

Good morning Burot Beach -- waking up at the campsite

Good morning Burot Beach — waking up at the campsite



Perhaps I had high expectations or maybe summer time is not the right time to see Burot Beach or perhaps the hassle of taking the comfort room may take its toll. Nonetheless, the good things as its lovely sunset, its starfishes and its mangrove trees seemed to compensate for the disappointments, making it worth the experience nonetheless.



*Photo courtesy of Alyssa de Leon


Part 4: Ho Chi Minch Walking Tour Continued

MARCH 2014 – While Bui Vien (District 1) where our hotel is located offered a lively night life come moonlight, its artsy side takes limelight during the day as several art shops selling paintings at affordable prices can be found one after the other in the entire stretch of the street.

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Approaching lunch time, we tried a famous Pho restaurant called Pho 2000, bragged as the hole-in-the-wall restaurant tried by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

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It was crowded with tourists when we arrived and we had a wait for a while to secure a table. While they also serve rice meals, their specialty is the famous Vietnamese noodles, the Pho. The restaurant is located just in front of Ben Thanh Market.

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One can do the souvenir shopping at Ben Thanh afterwards. Ben Thanh Market, in my opinion, offers the cheapest price and the most variety of touristy pasalubong stuffs like souvenir t-shirts, magnets, key chain and other interesting handicrafts that would remind you of your culture-filled Vietnam trip. The stall which was said to be operated by the government seems to sell the cheapest prices for souvenirs. There were also some local treats mostly preserved fruits that you can buy per kilo in Ben Thanh. Applying the same rule, do not make eye contact or inquiries for prices with the vendors if you do not intend to buy.


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We flagged a taxi (a Vinasun Taxi of course) to take us to Bitexco Financial Tower, which is the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh. It also has the Sky Deck that lets you see the entirely of the crowded city thriving along Saigon River.

Kelvin Camera (245)Kelvin Camera (298)DSC_1013DSC_1052DSC_1043Entrance to the observation deck is VND 200,000. And though you will be amazed as to how compact the city can get, the feeling was just like observing the view from a high-rise building in Makati – nothing more, nothing less. The good thing about it perhaps is it gave us a chance to plot our walking tour to see some famous sights we hadn’t covered so far.

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Later that afternoon, we continued the walking tour to visit the façade of the Saigon Opera House and its famous City Hall.

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Saigon Opera House

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Ho Chi Min City Hall

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Out of our curiosity, we ate at a food chain that all are very familiar with, a.k.a. Jollibee!

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Just in time to catch the 5pm show of the Golden Dragon Water Puppet show that we reserved with the help of the hotel front desk, we went straight to the theatre.The show ran for about 40 minutes but it was perhaps the longest 40 minutes of my life.

Kelvin Camera (384)Though you would be curious about how the puppets were moving on top of the dirty brown water, we find it hard to grasp the entire show as it is ran in Vietnamese. Because of that, there were parts of the show that find ourselves near asleep except from the random “Oi oi oi oi oi” uttered by the dubbers that brought back to our senses. It would help perhaps to have a translation of a rather cultural show like the puppet show if it wants to attract foreigners to appreciate this kind of art that is unique to Vietnam.

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That concluded our rather short but sweet visit in Ho Chi Minh City. What left me in awe of this humble city centre is the admiration for the persistence of the Vietnamese – not only from the determination you witness in its market place or in various ways people make a living to survive, nor the suffering of their ancestors in underground living quarters but also in simple corners of the city that make opportunities to its people to harness their creativity adding splashes of color and character to the busy city life that is Ho Chi Minh City.


Somehow it gives you a new balance – to keep pace with the dynamism of city life as fast and furious as raging motorbikes on its streets but also make way for some quiet time to stop for while, appreciate nature or grab a cup of coffee as you look back on life.

**Photo credits to Alyssa de Leon and Jake Gatioan


Part 3: Cruising along Mekong River

MARCH 2014 – Thinking of cruising on a small canal shaded by “water coconut trees” with branches seemingly sprouting through calm brown water of Mekong River, wearing a Non la (traditonal hat)? You would more likely find yourself craving for the feel of the countryside away from busy Ho Chi Minh.


We booked a tour to see this side of Vietnam via the Mekong River Tour (My-Tho-Ben Tre Route) for VND220,00 per person (Php440). The tour started with a roughly 2-hour bus ride towards the south of Ho Chi Minh passing through paddy rice fields with a quick stopover for a morning snack at a small cafeteria beside the dusty road. As one can observe, there are several small cafeteria and stores usually with hammocks seemingly inviting visitors for a relaxation and a cup of coffee.

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Upon alighting at My Tho, we boarded a motorized boat going to an island where we were given a complimentary cup of natural honey in hot water with calamansi.

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At Unicorn Island, the guide showed us a honey nectar with live bees inside.

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After sipping a hot cup of honey that supposedly soothes your throat, the attendants would place some local treats like banana chips and ginger chips that visitors can purchase as “pasalubong” aside from a bottle of honey.


With new friends from Vietnam

With new friends from Vietnam

Afterwards, we walked towards the “boarding area” where tourists would get to ride on a small boat meant to navigate thru small shaded canals along Mekong Delta.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADSC_0917Kelvin Camera (628)A wooden boat can ride at most 4 people apart from the 2 locals rowing at the front and back. To complete your rural Vietnam experience, you will be given a Non la or the traditional hat made from coconut leaves I suppose, commonly found in agricultural areas of Vietnam that you can use for the short trip through the canal.

Kelvin Camera (190)DSC_0926OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe small canal filled with murky-brown colored water and surrounded both sides with coconut palm trees appeared to be very busy with smalls boats going back and forth in service of paying tourists. Along the canal, one can see the humble life of the locals through the small houses we passed by as the boatmen forcefully rowed our boat seemingly hurried to get to the end to get to the next set of tourists.

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Some locals were even tasked to remind visitors to give the boatmen some tip or extra money. You would then realize that this serves as a livelihood for the small community thriving at this side of the delta.

Kelvin Camera (195)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfterwards, we board the boat again to get us to an island for lunch. The packaged already includes a lunch meal comprised of rice, vegetables and steamed pork that seemed to be too pale for my taste buds.

Kelvin Camera (637)Good thing took our guide’s advice and tried out the elephant ear fish (which looked like a fried Tilapia) that we enjoyed with vegetable wrap.

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Elephant ear fish



After lunch, we went back to the boat to transfer to a pump boat that can load 15-20 people to navigate to the other side of the canal which appeared to be wider than the first one.

DSC_0952Kelvin Camera (642)We stopped by a local coconut candy factory, which also appeared as a form of small livelihood project for the locals. Our Guide demonstrated the production process from the opening coconut to the process of cooking them into candies. After the demo, visitors can purchase the freshly cooked coconut candies for pasalubong.



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As the last stop of our Mekong tour, we stopped by at the other side of Unicorn Island where guests can enjoy a serving of tropical fruits like pineapple, dragon fruit and bananas while listening to southern Vietnamese traditional music.

A local playing a traditional instrument made from bamboo

A local playing a traditional instrument made from bamboo


On our way home, it is easy to notice several establishments both residential and business having a marble bench at every front yard beside the highway.


I thought it is something that implies something on how Vietnamese people socialize but upon asking out a local, it turned out to be a marketing promotion thing.

Living quarters in the city

Living quarters in the city just beside the river that seemingly cuts the city into half.


We were back at the hotel by 7pm and immediately had dinner at a nearby KFC (as part of our “travel tradition”).

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Before walking home, we dropped by at a nearby Trung Nguyen coffee shop to sample their coffee-flavored ice cream for dessert. Trung Nguyen is one of the major coffee shop brands in Vietnam apart from Highlands Coffee where chains are scattered at almost every corner of the city.

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And just like a typically strong kick that is a signature of Vietnamese coffee, the coffee ice cream offers just the same.


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The still-party vibe at the vicinity of the hotel in District 1 truly exemplified a true backpacker haven at this side of the city. People, mostly Western tourists were sitting on crowded make-shift mats holding a bottle on one hand while doing their get-to-yous with other tourists .

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The area is also surrounded by different drinking holes and pubs catering to the same profile of tourists also render a more formal venue for party people to enjoy the rest of the night. In our last night in this busy district, we decided to join the fun, grabbed a few bottles of Saigon beer and sat on the mats elbow to elbow with other foreigners.


How can a day be fully jam-packed with a complete contrast of the humble rural life and the busy chaotic vibe of Ho Chi Minh City – both though being fuelled significantly by the boom of tourism.

See you again!

See you again!


Part 2: An Underground Adventure at Cu Chi Tunnel

Can you survive living a day underground, with limited air and moving spaces and soaked up in almost complete darkness. What if a month? Or perhaps a year? all the more what if as long as a war is not yet over? We allotted a day to discover how the Viet Congs waged war against their enemies.

MARCH 22, 2014 -Limited transportation in Vietnam may also be a struggle for tourist to roam from one town to another unless you avail of a tour package. We booked a whole day tour to Cu Chi Tunnel with the help of our hotel’s reception which we got at a fairly cheap price (VND183,000 or roughly Php366).


After breakfast, we were fetched from the hotel by the tourist bus at around 8am (Vietnam time) to traverse quit a long road to the town of Cu Chi. Our tour guide, Minh, narrated a few background about Cu Chi Tunnel and the developments in Ho Chi Minh from his personal experience as the bus went on its journey. I personally thought it was a rare chance to meet a person like Minh who shared his actual account of what had happened during the war including a part where he recalled how he lost a friend because of it, a hint of sadness streak through his eyes as he told it.


Part of the tour, we stopped by a factory of Vietnamese handicrafts that gives opportunities to handicapped people to be productive and earn for their family. The area further showcased just how artistic and creative Vietnamese are. We observed just how materials like egg shells, sea shells and sands were intricately made into exquisite living room display pieces.

Egg shells


Sea shells

Sea shells

A worker sprinkling sand to make up a masterpice

A worker sprinkling sand to make up a masterpiece

At the end of the factory tour, as tourist hoax as it may sound, there is a gallery where visitors can by finish products comprised of different ceramic and glass wares.

Finished product

Finished product

On sale


The price of items here though, when we were able to compare it from the same items on sale at Ben Thanh, is priced surprisingly higher, at about twice the price considering this is supposedly a “factory outlet”. But then again, you can think that the proceeds are for the benefit of people who might be of greater needs.


A trip to this handicraft factory made me realize one thing: that out of pains and sufferings blossom a sweet smell of hope. Society may label them as “disabled”, but they truly rise above stereotype that they may have been “less” on one part of their physical body but never less of hope and will to live. They epitomize the rising consciousness for the “differently-abled”  as their outputs indeed are beyond wonderful. I hope programs like this, when implemented properly can produce amazing individuals and members of the society.


The main temple of Cao Dai

The main temple of Cao Dai

Afterwards, we hit the road again to Tay Ninh to visit a unique temple built as worship temple of followers of Caodaism. It was my first time to hear a about this religion and it was said to be the third largest religion in Vietnam next to Buddhism and Roman Catholic.

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According to our tour guide, it seems it is a combination of the different religions of the world like, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Christianity and Islam among others as it appears to promote unity of all religions.


Visitors should take off their footwear before going inside the temple.

A bell rang, a signal call for worship. Worshipers in different colored attire of red, yellow, blue and white went inside the temple, sat on the floor and seemingly utter a worship chant. It was a noontime prayer service. Picture taking inside the temple is allowed as long as you are not part of the subject and them as your background – you can take photos of the ceremony and the temple’s interior though.


Inside the temple during their worship

Inside the temple during their worship

A young follower

A young follower

Outside the temple, there is a gated area covered by trees where many monkeys would be spotted roaming around. If I am not mistaken, monkeys are considered sacred, that’s why they are taken care of. There were even circumstances when they would get out of the gate to get near visitors and vendors. They are not friendly though so avoid them for your safety.

Cao Dai Temple

Life is easy if you’re a monkey!

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A lovely garden outside the temple.

A lovely garden outside the temple.


After a stopover for lunch for some delicious spring rolls, we proceeded with our journey towards the Ben Dinh in the district of Cu Chi. Visitors would first watch a video clip to acquire a background of what happened in Cu Chi.


Visitors going down the tunnel

The original size of the tunnel

The original size of the tunnel

Uprisings in the North rooted from protests by poor and middle class working class against landowners. The Soviet went in to manage the dispute but the war, known as the Vietnam War, sparked across the region. It was also during this time that the ingenuity of Vietnamese soldiers, popularly referred to as Viet Cong, was showcased as they dig up an immense network of underground tunnels (roughly 200 km) in Cu Chi to defend the advances of the United States Army forces to the other parts of Vietnam.

Inside the tunnel

Inside the tunnel

Believe us, it's hard to breath underground

Believe us, it’s hard to breath underground

These tunnels, when they were still undiscovered by the US Army, became Viet Cong’s secret weapons to attack the enemies. Many of them were killed in the town of Cu Chi by the various unimaginable booby traps the Viet Congs improvised to kill the Americans which they treat as enemies- replicates of some of these scary traps were even on display around Cu Chi.

Step on this trap.. and closed chapter.

Step on this trap.. and closed chapter.

The seemingly death holes

The seemingly death holes

Please don't enter! That is Minh demonstrating how the door trap works.

Please don’t enter! That is Minh demonstrating how the door trap works.

Perhaps, a visit to Vietnam would not be complete without a glimpse of the remnants of these tunnels and realize just how life, not just of a family but an entire community, can survive underground. These tunnels served not only as hiding places and also as actual living quarters where they cook, sleep, hid ammunition and basically did their routines.

Seemingly anthills but actually served as holes for air circulation inside the tunnel.

Seemingly anthills but actually served as holes for air circulation inside the tunnel.

Only a small part of the tunnel can be navigated through by tourists as these holes can be too small and some may still have land mines. Though still small and hard to breath, the tunnels were even modified since then to provide wider space for tourists who would dare explore its underground.

Finally we made it outside the tunnel!

Finally we made it outside the tunnel!


After the tour, we had the opportunity to visit a cute coffee shop with Neri’s friend based in HCM. As Vietnam is famous for its coffee, concept-themed coffeeshops were also popular in the city.

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In the one we have tried, there are different crafts that visitors can learn and enjoy located at the first floor of the cafe. Going up to the second floor seemed like you were transported to a world of wizardry with a feel as that of Harry Potter.

Some of the crafts in the first floor

Some of the crafts in the first floor

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Love potion.

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We ended the day with a yummy pizza treat at Alfresco, a food gem we never thought we could possibly find in the city. The pizza got us at first bite, a retreat from the various greens we had eaten from the past day.

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They say all is fair in love and war. I guess I its just too hard to see such fairness. But then without it, would it have the same persistent people as it has now? I may never understand the significance of the war in a day or so of touring around its museums and traveling through its tunnels but surely I know, there is a long way to go for Vietnam, but similar to the Philippines, it is a work in progress.