DAY 1: EXPLORING THE STREETS OF MODERN TAIPEI

(JUNE 2016) Woke up quite early feeling recharged for the good night sleep, our first day in Taipei is set to explore what its bustling city life looks like from sun up to sun down. In the heart of Taipei, amidst skyscrapers and busy highways, are some interesting cultural establishments that mirror the nation’s struggle for independence from a very powerful nation.

_DSC3514

Yoyo Cards available in 7Eleven stores is your travel must-have as you learn the ropes of using their efficient Metro Rail System.

IMG_0969

One of the train stations in Taipei. Be sure to ready your feet for some walking while changing train lines.

We stayed at the heart of youth night life in Taipei, around Ximending area. We ‘got a basic room (Easy Stay Ximen at NTD 5,732 double bed for 5 Nights).

IMG_1150

In contrast to the busy night scene in the area, most shops are still closed early in the morning except for KFC (Our personal travel must try whenever we visit a foreign country :p) and some interesting dimsum mobile vendors, one of them is our favorite breakfast fare Xiao Long Bao at an affordable price (8pcs for NTD70).

IMG_1157

He is the friendly seller of yummy Xiao Long Bao (Our suki) along Ximending who did not hesitate to strike a pose.

IMG_1158

 

 

CHIANG KAI SHEK MEMORIAL HALL

_DSC3542

A perfect way to jumpstart our jam-packed  city tour was to start with the memorial hall dedicated to the man that started it all – Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall. Chiang Kai Shek, is the student of Sun Yat Sen that defy the rule of Mao Tse Tung and led Taiwan to break-free from the rule of Mainland China. While their sovereignty was at times questioned by China and though the Chinese influence still manifest daily, an interaction with their people would reveal just how they have built a culture and values of their own.

_DSC3559

_DSC3552

 

IMG_0957

More than being a beautiful tourist spot because of its artful architecture, perfectly manicured garden and spacious ground fit for national ceremonies, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall national monument standing in the heart if the city in memory of Taiwans first president.

IMG_0926

IMG_0941

The main hall is an attractive blue octagonal roofed building that houses a huge sculpture of Chiang Kai Shek and where the changing of guard happens every hour from 9am-4pm; bad thing we didn’t witness such event.The white pair of stairs leading to the main hall has 89 steps that represent Chiangs age at the time of his death. (SOURCE: https://guidetotaipei.com)

_DSC3585

 

HOW TO GET THERE: MRT Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Exit 5

YONG KANG STREET

IMG_0974

After paying tribute to the founder of Taiwan, we headed straight to Taipei food street called Yong Kang Street, where the oldest Din Tai Fung restaurant was located. While Din Tai Fung already expanded in different countries (it even has a store in Manila), its oldest branch in Yong Kang Street is still filled with foreigners that wish to compare differences between the original and the newly established outlets.

IMG_0995

As the sun was a bit rough in the morning, our giddy feet led us to a stall nearby for another must try in Taipei- their mango shaved ice.

_DSC3641

Around 11am customers were also busy in line at a branch of Smoothie House to get a serving of the refreshing huge bowl of shaved ice mixed with real fruits.

IMG_0987

We ordered Super Mango Snowflakes Ice with Sorbet (NTD 210) for sharing. It was indeed a delicious and refreshing bowl of fruits perfect for the hot weather.

HOW TO GET THERE: MRT Dong Men – Exit 5

K UNDERGROUND MALL

Afterwards, we passed some time looking through fashion finds at Taipei Station K Underground mall (located between Taipei Main Station and Zhongshan MRT Station).

IMG_0998

located between Shing Kong Life Tower, Taipei Main Station and Zhongshan MRT Station

And just like that instant connection between people and street food that draws passerbys to this type of food fare, we got curious at the freshly prepared serving of what seems a vegetable krepe filled with egg, onions and other fresh ingredients called Cong You Bing (NTD40).

IMG_1002

Confused on how to choose among the menu written in Mandarin script, we randomly pointed on an item and signaled “one order”. And that was how our food journey in Taipei went on in the absence of understanding Mandarin. Good thing our instincts didn’t fail us.

IMG_1005

 

True enough, Taipei offers an exciting streetfood scene may it be a typical night spot, daytime food street or an eccentric night market that offers even more choices to tickle your taste palate – such food adventure we will uncover in the next days.

LONGSHAN TEMPLE

 

Afterwards, we paid a brief visit one of Taiwan’s oldest Buddhist temple named Mengjia Longshan Temple (Chinese: 艋舺龍山寺) which was built around 1738. Its façade shows just how old the structure is if not for LED signage installed in front.

IMG_1024

 

Buddhists pay their respect by lighting incense and uttering prayers and wishes to the gods; some taking family photos in front of the temple as if it’s an important family pilgrimage, a scene quit typical when you visit Buddhist temples around Asia.

IMG_1022

IMG_1020

Inside the temple

 

The area around the temple also typifies a rather old neighborhood different from the modern face of the rest of the city – old residential buildings and a park with grandpas playing Chinese chess.

IMG_1011

This one reminds me of the park we visited in Macau. Typically parks situated in the middle of a community serve as an important social structure that encourages interaction in the neighborhood, an integral part of community-building process in Asia.  Human interaction, of people connecting to people across social and even personal spaces, for me is still an interesting element of Asian culture.

RED HOUSE

Before we reached our hotel to supposedly have a quick rest, it suddenly rained as we stepped out of Ximen station. Afternoon rain showers seem to be typical in Taipei during our stay, happening around 2-3pm that we somehow expect it every day adjusting our itinerary to the weather. We took refuge from the heavy rain by roaming around the Red House, an eye-catching red brick octagonal building (Think Bagua!) resting in the midst of busy Ximending.

IMG_1029

This structure built in 1908 as Taiwan’s first public market is now transformed into a place for cultural exhibits, with theater in its 2nd floor. Exploring shops around Ximen station are also good way to wait for the rain to stop (wink).

SUN YAT SEN MEMORIAL HALL

Our city tour continued with a brief visit to Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall, a building meant to commemorate one of the instrumental historical figures in Taiwan history. Sun Yat Sen is said to be the mentor of Chiang Kai Shek.

_DSC3651

_DSC3671

Apart from the glimpse of history thru the museum exhibits inside, the highlight of the tour would have been the gigantic bronze figure of Sun Yat Sen, a portrait of a pleased general sitting on his throne as harmony rules over his territory.

_DSC3673

Outside the orange building is the obstruction-free view of one of Taiwan’s iconic building towering in the midst of busy Taipei.

dsc3684.jpg

TAIPEI 101: TAIWAN’S ICON OF BUSTLING COMMERCE

Located in Xinyi District known as the business hub of Taipei, the infamous Taipei 101 had once been declared as the world’s tallest building in 2004-2010 (until Burj Khalifa snatch the top spot). It is comprised of 101 floors (Hence the name? :P) that offer breath-taking bird’s eye view of the entire Taipei city in commune with its mountainous backdrop as if a balanced blend of nature and city living.

Apart from being that record-breaking fact, Taipei 101 is not content with just bagging the tallest building mark as it has a lot more interesting things to offer, some of them:

NOT YOUR TYPICAL ELEVATOR

The ride going to the observatory itself is also an adventure as the building also houses the world’s fastest elevator tagged by Guinness Book of World Records, taking passengers from the 5th floor to the 89th floor Observatory in a whooping 30 seconds.

IMG_1100

THE OBSERVATORY

The entire 38th to 39th floor is the indoor observatory (NTD500 Entrance fee, operates from 9:00 am–10:00 pm) offers a 360 degree view of the entire Taipei with interactive digital display to help visitors identify which landmark is visible on each respective sides of the building.

_DSC3695

Meanwhile, an outdoor observatory is also available for guests should they want to feel the strong gush of air on their skin while enjoying the vibrant lights of the city at night. Though there is no time limit in staying in the observatory, it might be recommended to start your visit around 5pm, just about time for sunset.

_DSC3715

We arrived around 6:30pm and the place was already starting to turn gloomy and we stayed until around 8pm to witness the changing of daytime and night time landscape.

THE GOLDEN BALL

_DSC3720

Resting on the 87th floor onwards is a seemingly gigantic golden ball at the building center which served as the Taipei 101’s wind damper, tagged also as world’s largest and heaviest visible damper (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taipei_101).

IMG_1127

This innovative infrastructural component in the top floors of the building is said to help the entire building keep its balance to withstand earthquakes, a phenomenon common on the region, and strong winds. Amazing science!

JADE COLLECTION

IMG_1136

Upon leaving the observation deck, you will pass by an elaborate collection of intricately-carved jade sculptures seemingly depicting Chinese scenes, icons and symbols. While it is free to appreciate it by the eyes, each one surely costs a fortune.

 

IMG_1180

Demonstrating how resourceful Taiwanese people are, this is an art piece in form of an unborn fetus made from old metal ropes from Taipei 101 elevator, supposedly a waste already after the elevator maintenance.

After the several record-breaking and world-bragging titles of this building, generous serving of beef noodles at the food court of Taipei 101 is a nice way to cap off the night.

_DSC3724

Our jam-packed tour around the modern scenes and landscapes around the city only gave us more reasons to LOVE Taipei!

IMG_1176

Advertisements

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.

DSC07604

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.

 

DSC07612

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).

_DSC2805

_DSC2806_DSC2813

DSC07625

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.

DSC07642

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.

20151104_084442

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).

DSC07646

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.

_DSC2827

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

_DSC2818

_DSC2821

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.

DSC07682

 

_DSC2840

Everything golden plus the Golden Sun

DSC07657

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.

 

DSC07699

_DSC2853

_DSC2856

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

DSC07659

DSC07670

DSC07660

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.

DSC07728

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.

received_10208117903524356

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.

DSC07729

 

_DSC2866

DSC07819

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

 

_DSC2876

 

CHOEUNG EK GENOCIDAL MUSEUM

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.

DSC07776

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.  

DSC07738

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.

DSC07734

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.

DSC07743

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.

DSC07753

DSC07752

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.

DSC07778

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.

THE MUSEUM HIGHLIGHTS

 

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.

DSC07789

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…

DSC07808

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.

DSC07732

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.

DSC07210

Our first tuk-tuk ride

DSC07211

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.

DSC07232

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.

20151102_124224

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.

DSC07247

DSC07256

Shrimp Loklak

DSC07258

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.

20151102_072322

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.

DSC07282

Preah Phrom Rath

DSC07294

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.

DSC07280

DSC07281

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.

DSC07341

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.

DSC07307

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”.

DSC07318

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.

DSC07308

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.

DSC07320

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

 

received_10208117909444504

DSC07327

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

received_10208117909364502

KFC’s Pepper Chicken

DSC07423

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.

THE FIRST SIGHT OF ANGKOR WAT: FREE SUNSET WATCHING

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).

DSC07469

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.

DSC07465

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.

DSC07427

DSC07454

DSC07451

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.

DSC07461

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.

DSC07503

DSC07485

DSC07531

DSC07517

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.

DSC07568

 

 

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.

DSC07583

DSC07580

DSC07582

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.

DSC07588

DSC07589

DSC07592

DSC07593

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.

20151105_120750

Spring Rolls, Pork with Cashew and Stirred Beef

20151105_120134

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.

20151105_132127

The cafe’s cozy ambiance

20151105_132117

20151105_132448

And some famous pizza parlours for the adventure-seekers.

DSC07831DSC07830

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.

20151102_220655

 

DAY 2: DISCOVERING THE MYSTICAL ANGKOR TEMPLES (SMALL CIRCUIT TOUR)

_DSC2312

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.

_DSC2328

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.

_DSC2344

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).

_DSC2340

_DSC2349

_DSC2348

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 (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668). 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.

_DSC2352

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.

 

 

BAYON

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.

_DSC2395

A fine day to explore the temples

_DSC2381

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.

_DSC2384

_DSC2378

The four-faced Buddha, said to be a smiling portrait of the King himself, was also dubbed as Monalisa of Southeast-Asia (http://www.sacred-destinations.com/cambodia/angkor-thom-bayon-temple). Compared to other temples in Angkor, Bayon seems to be primarily a Buddhist temple that incorporates Hindu elements.

_DSC2501

_DSC2411

_DSC2419

 

_DSC2421

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.

_DSC2430

_DSC2462

_DSC2443

_DSC2495

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

_DSC2470

_DSC2489

_DSC2440

You’ll need to literally crawl up and down stairs

_DSC2545

_DSC2507

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.

_DSC2457

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

_DSC2456

_DSC2563

BAPHUON

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.

_DSC2598

_DSC2599

_DSC2611

_DSC2619

_DSC2621

_DSC2637

_DSC2633

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.

_DSC2643

_DSC2651

_DSC2672

The fruit of our labor climbing to the topmost floor.

_DSC2669

_DSC2667

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

_DSC2680

_DSC2681

TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS AND TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING

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.

_DSC2682

Terrace of the Elephants

_DSC2684

_DSC2687

_DSC2685

_DSC2692

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.

_DSC2696

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.

_DSC2697

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.

_DSC2706

CHAU SAY THEVODA

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.

 

_DSC2718

Entrance to the temple

_DSC2726

_DSC2723_DSC2735

_DSC2734

THOMMANOM

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.

_DSC2745

_DSC2752

_DSC2761

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

TA KEO

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.

_DSC2765

Construction on-going at Ta Keo

_DSC2767

_DSC2774

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

TA PHROM

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.

_DSC2780

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.

_DSC2787

 

received_10208117905564407

received_10208117905164397

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.

PALMBOO RESTAURANT

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.

received_10208117904684385

Yellow Noodles with Pork

SRAS SRANG AND BANTEAY KDEI

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 (http://www.mountainsbeyond.org/events/Cambodia/Siem%20Reap/SR091003d.htm). 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. (http://www.ferretingoutthefun.com/2013/02/28/temples-of-angkor-outer-circuit/). 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.

ANGKOR WAT

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.

_DSC2799

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.

_DSC2794

_DSC2797

_DSC2798

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.

FINAL NOTES

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.

 

_DSC2359

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.

DSC07834

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.

HOW TO GET TO BIAK-NA-BATO VIA COMMUTE

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.

 

HOSPITAL CAVE

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.

_DSC0017

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.

 

IMBAKAN CAVE OR ARTILLERY CAVE

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

_DSC0041

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.

_DSC0054

Outside Imbakan Cave, we passed by a string beans plantation

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

 

TANGGAPAN CAVE

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.

 

AMBUSH CAVE

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.

_DSC0094

_DSC0091

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.

_DSC0097

Are these two destined to meet some day?

Are these two destined to meet some day?*

_DSC0103_DSC0106

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! *

 

BAT CAVE

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.

_DSC0281

_DSC0299

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.

_DSC0354

We are so ready to swim!*

We are so ready to swim!*

_DSC0331

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

DSC04102

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

_DSC1596

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.

DSC04214DSC04245

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.

DSC04242

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

DSC04297DSC04302_DSC1609_DSC1613

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

_DSC1616

_DSC1615_DSC1618_DSC1619

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.

Chill

Chill

*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.

Kelvin Camera (669)

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.

Kelvin Camera (236)Kelvin Camera (230)Kelvin Camera (687)

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.

Kelvin Camera (686)

Kelvin Camera (233)

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.

BITEXCO SKY DECK

Kelvin Camera (320) OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKelvin Camera (312)

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.

Kelvin Camera (274)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKelvin Camera (288) Kelvin Camera (256)Kelvin Camera (253)Kelvin Camera (259)DSC_1022OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Kelvin Camera (319)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Saigon Opera House

Kelvin Camera (369)

Ho Chi Min City Hall

Kelvin Camera (330)Kelvin Camera (368)Kelvin Camera (357)Kelvin Camera (709)Kelvin Camera (379)

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKelvin Camera (380)Kelvin Camera (714)Kelvin Camera (716)Kelvin Camera (399)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKelvin Camera (397)WATER PUPPET SHOW

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.

Kelvin Camera (404)Kelvin Camera (410)Kelvin Camera (413)

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.

DSC_0004

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Kelvin Camera (153)Kelvin Camera (152)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Kelvin Camera (169)

Neri Camera (34)

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

Kelvin Camera (176)Kelvin Camera (178)DSC_0908

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.

DSC_0911

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.

Kelvin Camera (196)

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.

Kelvin Camera (211)

Elephant ear fish

DSC_0941

NATIVE COCONUT CANDY FACTORY

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.

DSC_0956

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kelvin Camera (650)

SOUTHERN VIETNAM MELODY

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

DSC_0962

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.

DSC_0996

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.

BACK TO THE CITY: KFC & TRUNG NGUYEN COFFEE

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

Neri Camera (75)

Neri Camera (74)20140323_211931

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.

Kelvin Camera (664)

20140323_221931

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

20140323_215606

Neri Camera (80)

DISTRICT 1 NIGHT LIFE

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 .

Kelvin Camera (665)

Kelvin Camera (667)

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.

20140323_232220

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!