Saturday, April 26, 2014

India: Lake Ashtamudi lunch cruise & Kollam Beach in Kerala

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Great explorers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta set foot in Kollam, the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala, India. It was a major port of the international spice trade. And it's a major destination in Kerala for those who want to immerse even deeper in the backwaters.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
From Varkala, we proceeded to Lake Ashtamudi for a lunch cruise around the lake and more views of the famous backwaters of Kerala. We saw some traditional fishing villages along the way.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Our lunch cruise was hosted by WelcomHotel Raviz Kollam, a fantastic resort by the shores of the lake. We were welcomed upon our arrival by drums, Kathakali performers and an elephant! Our boat was a larger version of the kettuvallam boat with an air-conditioned function room plus an upper deck for beautiful views of Lake Ashtamudi and the local color and culture.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Waiting for us on the upper deck was a sumptuous spread of local dishes which they served with Indian beers and wines. Yes, India has its own red and white wine.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
The backwaters are a cultural landscape filled with coconut trees. Every now and then, colorful fishing boats jump out of the continuous fabric of trees, sky and water.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
As our boat moved around the lake, we were also introduced to cheena vala or Chinese fishing nets brought in by Chinese merchants. They were all over the place and are a common sight in Kerala.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Different species of birds are also seen around the lake.

Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
Lake Ashtamudi, Kollam, Kerala, India
We made our way back at the resort to catch a Vallam Kali, a traditional Kerala boat race that was happening right in front of the hotel.

Quilon Beach, Kollam, Kerala, India
Quilon Beach, Kollam, Kerala, India
From the lake, we proceeded to Kollam Beach. We spent the night at the Quilon Beach Hotel. The next morning, I was too tired to get up to take photos of the fishermen pulling their nets. But I got a great view from my room anyway.

WelcomHotel Raviz, Kollam, Kerala, India
WelcomHotel Raviz Resort and Ayurveda Spa Kollam
Thevally, Mathilil P.O., Kollam
Kerala, India 691601
Telephone No.: +91 (474) 2751111
Fax No.: +91 (474) 2741111
E-mail: WelcomHotelRavizKollam@itchotels.in

The Quilon Beach Hotel and Convention Centre
Beach, Kollam
Kerala, India 691006
Telephone No.: +91 (474) 2769999
Fax No.: +91 (474) 2749009
Reservations: +91 (944) 6004251 or 6004252
E-mail: crs@qresorts.in or info@qresorts.in

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

India: Varkala Beach in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

Varkala Beach in Kerala, India is not just paradise for those who love beaches. It is also called Papanasam Beach, a popular pilgrimage beach. Papanasam literally means wash away sins. And many Hindus come here for purification.

The best views of the beach are from the top of red laterite cliffs that tower over the golden sand and blue waters of the Arabian Sea. Unfortunately, we did not have time to walk down and enjoy the water.

We had high tea at The Gateway Hotel, a Taj resort in Varkala, quite close to the beach. I would have wanted to stay overnight, but we were off to Kollam for the afternoon. Varkala Beach is 45 kilometers away, about two hours from Trivandrum. It's quite close if you plan to land in Trivandrum and are looking for a really nice beach nearby.

The Gateway Hotel Janardhanapuram Varkala 
Near Government Guest House
Varkala - 695 141, Kerala, India
Telephone No.: 91 470 6673300
Fax No.: 91 470 6673333
E-mail: gateway.varkala@tajhotels.com

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Ivan About Town turns nine!

Nine years ago, I was at the lobby of Trekkers Lodge in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. Spur of the moment, I decided to start a blog and rented their computer to write my very first entry. Aren't we all surprised how time flies? I usually forget to celebrate the blog's anniversary. But since we're almost a decade old, we're definitely nearing another milestone!

My very first blog entry was written on April 19, 2005. It was during a solo trip to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia and Brunei. I had just purchased my first digital camera the year before. And all I had was a 28MB memory stick! Here's the story of the blog.

Thanks to my parents, I was introduced to travel quite young. In fact, I wrote my first travel journal when I was just six! Here are some highlights from that journal. And I've previously compiled photos from my early years of traveling, including my first road trip at one month old, my first plane ride when I was five on a Philippine Airlines BAC One Eleven Series 500, our first international trip in 1985, and my first long-haul flight in 1993.

I'll reserve the long post for next year! In the meantime, here are photos of the places I visited in 20102011, 2012 and 2013. I wonder what's next?! But today, all I can say is thank you for nine wonderful years! Thank you for joining me as I continue to explore!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Malaysia: Redang Island in Terengganu

Definitely one of the best beaches in Malaysia, Redang Island in Terengganu is a popular resort island that is part of the Redang Island Marine Park. The hot summer sun was up and about yesterday when we visited Pulau Redang and neighboring Pulau Pinang. But despite the heat, the blue water was cool and definitely enticing for a swim. It would be a crime if we did not take a dip!

There are many ways to get to Redang Island. You can take a ferry from Syahbandar Jetty in Kuala Terengganu (in front of the post office) or the Merang Jetty in Setiu. The ferry from Kuala Terengganu took about an hour and thirty minutes. Berjaya Air offers flights to Redang from Subang Airport in Kuala Lumpur and a seasonal route from Seletar Airport in Singapore, but these are definitely not cheap.

Our first stop was Pulau Pinang which is popular for snorkeling. The Redang Island Marine Park is composed of four islands, Redang, Pinang, Lima and Ekor Tebu, and all waters two nautical miles from the lines that connect the four islands. Pinang was actually full of tourists but there was much room to snorkel. By late morning, all the groups had left and we had the island to our own.

For lunch, we proceeded to the Laguna Redang Island Resort on Redang Island where we spent the rest of the afternoon. We enjoyed the buffet spread at the resort, lots of choices. The beach in front of the resort was fantastic! The sand was soft and white, and the water was in beautiful hues of blue, I definitely had to jump in!

Next door was another beach where other resorts are located. The beach was lovely as well. Unfortunately, we were not staying overnight. We had proceed back to Kuala Terengganu that afternoon.

I hope I get a chance to stay a bit longer in Redang if I return to Terengganu. But I heard Redang has some competition in Terengganu. The Perhentian Islands also have fantastic white sand beaches. Now to those who've been to both, which is better?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Exploring Northern Thailand and Laos

For many, it’s quite difficult to travel and get away from work for more than a week. If we do get the chance, we always try to make the most out of it. Last November, I spent three weeks in Thailand and Laos.

From Bangkok we flew to Sukhothai to attend a cultural tourism workshop. The Historic Town of Sukhothai, the capital of the first Kingdom of Siam between the 13th and 15th centuries, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day, we got to tour the ruins of the royal palace and ancient temples in the Sukhothai Historical Park.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Twelve heritage towns near Manila

Taal Heritage Town, Batangas
There is no doubt that Vigan, Ilocos Sur is the best preserved colonial town in the Philippines. But for those in Metro Manila who just want to make a day-trip to a nearby heritage town, here are twelve places you might want to visit.


Taal Heritage Town, Batangas
1. Taal, Batangas
Taal (the town, not the volcano) is the best preserved Spanish colonial town near Manila. People might be thinking Tagaytay City because of its view of Taal Volcano, but the town is actually 42 kilometers away. The historic town center of Taal was declared a National Historical Landmark. Dozens of Spanish colonial homes, several historical landmarks, the Taal Municipal Hall, Santa Lucia Well, and two centuries-old churches — the Taal Basilica and Caysasay Shrine — are among the highlights of a visit to Taal.


Taal Heritage Town, Batangas
Taal Heritage Town, Batangas
The town has several museums including the homes of Marcela Agoncillo, Felipe Agoncillo, Leon Apacible and Gliceria Villavicencio and the Galleria Taal. Don't forget to visit the local market where you can buy good quality piña and other embroidered cloths for barongs and Filipiniana dresses. Popular dishes from Taal are longganisatapa, adobo sa dilaw, empanada, panutsa, sumantawilis and tulingan. The balisong, a pocket knife which is also known as the butterfly knife, is also from Taal.


Taal Heritage Town, Batangas
It's easy to do a day-trip to Taal. For those with vehicles, exit the STAR Tollway at Lipa (Taal town is about 32 kilometers from the exit). Please check this map for directions. By public transportation, take a bus to Lemery, Batangas and a then a jeep or tricycle to Taal. After exploring Taal, you can opt to have dinner in Tagaytay City, proceeding there via Lemery and Diokno Highway. But be prepared for the traffic snarls in Tagaytay. There are also several old houses which offer overnight accommodation such as Casa Severina and Villa Tortuga. Here's more information on Taal.

Pila Heritage Town, Laguna
2. Pila, Laguna
Another National Historical Landmark close to Manila is Pila, Laguna. This heritage town is a beautiful collection of colonial homes surrounding a green plaza with the Pila Municipal Hall at one end and the Pila Church on the opposite end. Walking around the plaza is like entering a time machine since the historic fabric of the town is relatively intact.


Pila Heritage Town, Laguna
Pila Heritage Town, Laguna
Even beyond the plaza are fantastic examples of Filipino homes built during the Spanish and American colonial periods. So if you're on your way to Santa Cruz, Pagsanjan or beyond, make sure to include Pila in your itinerary. Any bus to Santa Cruz, Laguna will pass through Pila.

Balayan Heritage Town, Batangas
3. Balayan, Batangas
Balayan is another Batangas town that is rich in heritage. The Balayan Church is a National Cultural Treasure. And many of its old ancestral homes are still intact. 

Balayan Heritage Town, Batangas
I heard the locals are planning a heritage tourism program. But for now, the homes are not open to the public though. Walking around the town will definitely make an interesting historical tour. You might want to pass by Balayan especially on the way to the neighboring town of Calatagan. And just further down the road is Calaca, which has a nice Spanish colonial church and several ancestral houses.

Sariaya Heritage Town, Quezon
4. Sariaya, Quezon
Further down south is Sariaya, Quezon. It has a fabulous Art Deco municipal hall and three of its many ancestral mansions are declared heritage houses — Natalio Enriquez House, Rodriguez House and Gala-Rodriguez House. The Sariaya Church is also quite interesting with convent buildings on both sides. Too bad though the local government built a multi-purpose hall on one side of what would have been a classic example of a colonial plaza.

The best time to visit Sariaya is on May 15 when the town celebrates the feast of San Isidro Labrador. The ancestral houses are also opened for a fee. But you'll have to deal with the crowds who a troop to Quezon for the many colorful celebrations on that day. Any bus to Lucena, Quezon passes through Sariaya.




5. San Juan, Batangas

San Juan, Batangas is another town with many Art Deco mansions. Few people pass through the town's historic center on the way to Laiya Beach not realizing its hidden treasure. None of the houses in San Juan have been declared. Hopefully the local government has the vision to create a heritage tourism program that will complement Laiya Beach.


6. San Fernando, Pampanga
San Fernando is known for many things — the Giant Lantern Festival, San Pedro Cutud Lenten Rites, and great Kapampangan food among others! It also has managed to preserve a small historic quarter in the downtown area. Five houses have been declared heritage houses — Lazatin House, Hizon-Singian House, Henson-Hizon House, Dayrit House and Augusto P. Hizon House. The San Fernando Train Station, where Rizal got off during his trip to invite friends to the La Liga Filipina and where the long walk of the Bataan Death March ended, still stands.

The San Fernando Cathedral and Pampanga Provincial Capitol can also be found in the heritage district. What excites me is the prospect of revitalizing the PASUDECO Sugar Central for conversion into a shopping and entertainment complex. My fingers are crossed.



San Fernando Heritage District, Pampanga
San Fernando must be the only city in the Philippines where motorized tricycles are not allowed in the downtown area. Instead, the historic center still has many kalesas (horse-drawn carriages) which can take you for a tour around the city. Here is more information on San Fernando.

After you tour, make sure to have breakfast, lunch or merienda in the many restaurants in the city (Everybody's Cafe is an institution) that serve authentic Kapampangan cuisine. You can also visit the nearby Bacolor Church and Betis Church, a National Cultural Treasure. Too bad Bacolor's ancestral mansions were covered by lahar. Pampanga lost a heritage treasure!

Malolos Heritage Town, Bulacan
7. Malolos, Bulacan
Malolos was a revolutionary capital of the Philippines. The Barasoain Church, home of the Malolos Congress, has always been featured on Philippine currency. The city's historic center was declared a National Historical Landmark especially since many of the houses served as offices of the Philippine Revolutionary Government.


Malolos Heritage Town, Bulacan
Too bad though that many of the owners don't seem to understand the historical value of their homes. And quite a number have been dismantled by eager antique dealers, despite being declared. So visit Malolos while it's still there, and before antique dealers beat us to it. This city would have made such an interesting heritage walk!

Aguinaldo Shrine, Kawit, Cavite
8. Kawit, Cavite
The birthplace of the Republic of the Philippines, Kawit has three major heritage sites — Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine (where the declaration of Philippine independence was made on June 12, 1898), Baldomero Aguinaldo Shrine and the Kawit Church. Aside from those three important sites, there's nothing much to see in Kawit. But most people stop by Kawit as part of any Cavite historical tour or day-trip which goes all the way to Maragondon.

Maragondon, Cavite
9. Maragondon, Cavite
Another town on the Cavite historical trail, Maragondon has three important sites — Maragondon Church, Bonifacio Trial House and the Execution Site of Andres Bonifacio. The Maragondon Church is a National Cultural Treasure. While the Bonifacio Trial House is a National Historical Landmark. Here is more information on Maragondon.

10. San Miguel, Bulacan
San Miguel is a charming old town with beautiful ancestral mansions. But the charm is fast disappearing because the local government of San Miguel, Bulacan has not really done anything to ensure the protection of the local heritage. 


Part of the Biak na Bato National Park is also in San Miguel. Ironically, despite the large number of ancestral houses, none of them are declared. So just like Malolos, better visit San Miguel before the heritage disappears.

Binan Heritage Street, Laguna
11. Biñan, Laguna
We've all heard the battle cry "Save the Alberto House!" The historic home of Teodora Alonso's family is still in Biñan, or what's left of it. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many Spanish colonial houses in Biñan. In fact, some of them still have clay tile roofs. The only things that need to be addressed are cleanliness and order in the heritage street which is very close to the market. Biñan actually has much potential as a heritage destination. Hopefully the heritage quarter is declared and revitalized by the local government.

12. Malabon, Metro Manila

Okay, so Malabon is part of Metro Manila! But it's at the edge and I just had to include it in this list. Most people don't realize that Malabon, as well as Navotas, used to be a separate islands until shortsighted reclamation projects fused it with the rest of Luzon. And we wonder why the area floods? Back to the heritage, Malabon has a fantastic collection of heritage houses. I wonder if the local government even realizes the potential for tourism. There are occasional cultural tours to Malabon, maybe once a year. But on a regular day, you'll have to explore on your own. While you are there, try out the pansit, sapin-sapin, kikiam, sumpia and broas!

Other interesting heritage towns near Metro Manila are (13) Tayabas (Tayabas Basilica, Malagonlong Bridge and several other bridges are National Cultural Treasures) and (14) Lucban in Quezon, (15) Angeles City (Angeles Church, Pamintuan Mansion, Museo ning Angeles and Center for Kapampangan Studies) and (16) Santa Rita in Pampanga, (17) Paete (Paete Church), (18) Pakil (Pakil Church) and (19) Pagsanjan in Laguna, and (20) Bustos in Bulacan. Did I miss out any heritage town near Manila?
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