Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pampanga: Pampanga's pride

Pampanga's pride is indeed its heritage and cuisine. I got a lot of texts yesterday since my blog was mentioned in the article Hit the Road in 2bU in the Inquirer Lifestyle section. And people had been calling the Center for Kapampangan Studies for information. Anyway, the article information was based on entries 9 and 10 of my blog.

Just some corrections, what was mentioned as Furniture Clay (yes we had callers asking about the clay furniture) is actually Furniture City in Mabalacat, Pampanga. This is a complex of world-class furniture factories which export their products worldwide. Before you visit, please call Lisa Samia at (045) 8930092 to 93.

Abe's Farm is actually the Mt. Arayat resthouse of restaurateur Larry Cruz of the LJC Restaurant Group which includes Cafe Adriatico and Cafe Havana among many others. The fabulous resthouse is in Magalang, Pampanga, the hometown of Larry's father, journalist and artist E. Aguilar Cruz. Having lunch at his place requires arrangements made much earlier though (photo of buffet table is on the left). For more information, click here.

Another must try lunch or dinner venue is Claude Tayag's residence Bale Dutung in Villa Gloria, Angeles City. This P1800 per head Kapampangan feast has to be pre-arranged as well and you must have at least 12 persons in your group (photo of Claude's paella is on the right). Claude has a shop in his house where you can buy bottled buro and taba ng talangka but the Claude 9 brand is also available in Pampanga supermarkets such as Essel Supermarket. You can also pass by Tita's or Pampanga's Best along Gapan-Olongapo Road for even more Kapampangan delicacies.

C Italian Restaurant is among the many international offerings that line Fields Avenue and Friendship Highway beside Clark. You can check out Zapata's (Mexican), Salvatore's (Italian), Subdelicious (American), Cottage Kitchen (Cajun), and a host of Japanese and Korean restaurants among many others.

The ensaymadas in San Fernando are made-to-order and you have to call them at least 2 days in advance. But Imang Salud Dayrit's San Fernando ensaymadas are actually available in Manila. These melt-in-your-mouth wonders are six inches in diameter, made with the finest ingredients and topped with a generous serving of queso de bola. You can visit the Legaspi Sunday Market organized by San Lorenzo Village and open every Sunday from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. behind the Corinthian Plaza building. Make sure you look for the Imang Salud booth. Also on sale are atcharang gule, atcharang ubud, balu-balo, tibok-tibok and pickled mangoes. Another signature dessert but made-to-order is plantanilla, sweet egg crepes with latik filing. Yummy! You can call (0920) 9478819 for orders.

But one thing the article was not able to mention (since it wasn't in my blog article) was Everybody's Cafe where Kapampangan food is available everyday in their turo-turo style display. Try out the pako salad, calderetang baka, morcon, chicharon bulaklak, tortang bangus, inihaw na hito or bulalo soup. For the brave, go further and savor the buro with hito (fermented fish paste with catfish), betute (deep-fried stuffed frog), camaru (fried cricket adobo), dumara (wild duck adobo) or pindang damulag (carabeef tapa). They have branches in San Fernando along MacArthur Highway in Barangay Del Pilar, and Angeles City in Nepo Mart.

Other must tries are the Kapampangan halo-halo places. In fact, there are three distinct halo-halo varieties in Pampanga. These are Guagua (Razon’s), Angeles (Corazon’s) and Arayat (Kabigting's and Jurado's) halo-halo. It must also be noted that Kapampangan halo-halo is distinct from the other halo-halo served in the country because it uses only three or four ingredients or sahog. However, the richness of these ingedients more than compensates for the number of types thrown in the glass. Arayat for example is distinct for its pastillas, crushed beans and saging combination; Guagua for its macapuno, saging, and leche flan; while Angeles is distinct for its mais, saging, pastillas and crushed beans combination.

Also check out Aling Lucing's at the Crossing (Henson Street, Angeles City) which is the birthplace of Pampanga sisig and the steakhouses in Marisol Subdivision, Angeles City. Luring's of Guagua (with branches all over Pampanga) serves some of the best barbeque and other grilled meat products. Ikabud (the contracted form of ika kabud which translates as only you) is another restaurant that serves grilled food and is located in Hensonville, Angeles City.

If you want to try out everything, go for Smorgasbord, the buffet Kapampangan lunch and dinner offered at Partyland (MacArthur Highway and SM City Pampanga) and Holidayland (Gapan-Olongapo Road) both in San Fernando.

Visiting Pampanga has now been made easier and carefree with a tour entiled Pampanga's Pride offered through the Island Caravan. Visit their website for more information or e-mail

The tour includes a visit to...

  • Bacolor Church - this is the half-buried San Guillermo Church in Bacolor. Entering what was once the largest church in Pampanga, visitors enter the church through the choirloft windows, and are greeted inside by beautifully restored retablos dug up from several feet of lahar. The citizens of Bacolor take pride in their rich heritage which is why they painstakingly excavated the ornately carved wooden main and side altars which are now back to their pristine condition;
  • Betis Church - a must visit church in Pampanga, the centuries-old Betis Church in Guagua is nicknamed the "Sistine chapel of the Philippines" because of its wall ceiling murals. It is the second oldest church in Pampanga and one of the 26 churches declared by the National Museum as national cultural treasures;
  • Archdiocesan Museum and Archives - savor the grandeur and elegance of religious art in Pampanga with a visit to the repository of Pampanga's church treasures housed inside the University of the Assumption; and
  • Center for Kapampangan Studies - a museum, archives, library, research center and theater rolled into one, the Center for Kapampangan Studies was put up by Holy Angel University in 2002 to preserve, study and promote Kapampangan history and culture
Lunch is at Everybody's Cafe while afternoon snacks includes halo-halo at Corazon's. There are also optional visits to any of the following: Pampanga's Best Factory (for big groups), Lantern Factory, Minalin and Apalit Churches, or the pottery area in Sto. Tomas.

For those who could afford to splurge, go for the overnight tour package which includes dinner at Claude Tayag's Bale Dutung, lunch the next day at Abe's Farm of Larry Cruz, and overnight accomodations at King's Royal Hotel and Resort.

Above are some photos of the natural heritage of Pampanga which I took way back in college in 2001 and 2002.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Malaysia: Putrajaya, city planning at its finest!

It was less than 48 hours before I returned to the Philippines. And my last two days was going to be spent in Kuala Lumpur, the hub of the no-frills airline AirAsia whose revolutionary air ticket rates are changing the airline industry in Malaysia and around Southeast Asia. Our own Cebu Pacific in fact seems to be following suit.

I arrived in the LCC-T of the KLIA at about 6 p.m. Then I took the AirAsia shuttle again from the airport to KL Sentral for RM9. From KL Sentral, I took bus no. 110 to Chinatown, the same bus I rode to the Putrajaya Bus Station. The fare was RM2. I got off at the corner of Jalan Petaling and walked around to look for a guest house. My bags were heavy and since I saw an Indian restaurant first, I decided to have dinner. It was roti canai and curry dip for me.

Then I continued looking around until finally, I saw a guest house. They didn't have single rooms anymore, but a double was available. The owner offered me a RM5-discount since I was alone so I paid RM30 for a non-aircon double room with a queen-sized bed. Good enough.

The evening was spent at the guest house resting and re-packing my luggage. A Singapore PY, Siti Mariam, had invited me to meet up since she was studying in Malaysia. I forgot to jot down her number so I went to an internet shop to get it. When I got it, I sent her an SMS and my boring next day suddenly had a long list of things to do.

In the morning, I took a walk around the center of Kuala Lumpur and Chinatown. I had breakfast first, again at an Indian restaurant. Then it was off for a walk. Among the sights in the area were Hindu and Chinese temples and old govenment buildings which included the old KL City Hall, the KL Memorial Library, National History Museum and the Sultan Abdul Samad Building (above) all around Merdeka Square, and the art deco Central Market (right).

I would like to make special mention of the adaptive reuse of buildings in KL. Notice the McDonald's store housed in an old colonial building. Why can't McDonald's in the Philippines do the same? They could have done that in Vigan by using reusing the ruins of the old convento. Again, I would like to reiterate that the McDonald's building in Vigan is nothing to be proud of. I hope the City Government of Vigan realizes that since nothing is better than the original. When McDonald's Philippines learns how to respect heritage, indeed that will be the day! Kudos to McDonald's in Malaysia. Notice the signage of the store as well. It does not clash or overpower the architectural details of the building. Bravo!

At about 11 a.m., I went back to the guest house to prepare for check out. By 11:30 a.m., I was off to KL Sentral where I would take the KTM Komuter to Serdang. Again, it was bus no. 110 going back to KL Sentral. Serdang was about 30 minutes away from KL and the fare was RM1.70.

Mariam met up with me at the train station and we went to Universiti Putra Malaysia where she studied, to have lunch. This time, food was Malay. I had a chicken dish with coconut milk, and a beef dish as well. Yummy! Then it started to rain again! Just great!

We were off to Putrajaya after lunch which was right beside Serdang. Putrajaya is envisioned to be the future capital city of Malaysia and was planned and constructed from scratch. This big investment in city and urban planning is scheduled to be completed in 2012 but the finished structures are already monumental and spectacular!

After asking around at the information office, we were off to the CruiseTasik Putrajaya which is the best way to see this city of the 21st Century. Putrajaya actually reminded me of another capital city in South America which was a result of planning as well. This is the city of Brasilia in Brazil which is in fact a UNESCO World Heritage site. And as the description goes, "Brasilia, a capital created ex nihilo in the centre of the country in 1956, was a landmark in the history of town planning. Urban planner Lucio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer intended that every element – from the layout of the residential and administrative districts (often compared to the shape of a bird in flight) to the symmetry of the buildings themselves – should be in harmony with the city's overall design. The official buildings, in particular, are innovative and imaginative." In just a little over 40 years, the city was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Putrajaya is similar as it was created ex nihilo (created out of nothing) as well with structures all in harmony with each other. And I wouldn't be surprised if 40 years from now, it is inscribed in the UNESCO list. Other planned capitals include Washington D.C. in the US, Canberra in Australia, and Astana in Kazakhstan. I really hope the government considers doing the same to decongest Manila. In fact, there were proposals to move the capital to Clark. If they do, I hope they plan it as well and as spectacular.

Anyway, we were able to get RM5 discount coupons for the cruise so we paid RM25 for the 45-minute cruise which took us around an island in the center of a man-made lake that offered magnificent views of the city in the making: (1) Putra Mosque and the Prime Minister's Office in the background, (2) Seri Wawasan Bridge, (3) the Millennium Monument, (4) me and Mariam enjoying the cruise, (5) Putrajaya International Convention Center, (6) Seri Saujana Bridge, (7) continuous construction;

(8) Darul Ehsan Palace, the palace of the sultan of Selangor, (9) me and Mariam in front of the Putra Mosque, (10) me with the Seri Gemilang Bridge at the back, (11) Putra Bridge, (12) the convention center and Seri Gemilang Bridge, (13) and (14) ongoing construction, (15) a playground waiting for children, (16) walls of the lake... even these were artistically done, (17) an amphitheatre and (18) another spectacular bridge.

I think the HULRB needs a revamp! Urban planning in the Philippines is non-existent in the government and it's about time our politicians start creating an urban planning superbody if they still had brain cells left in them after all that squabbling. This body should be manned by nothing less than the best and brightest urban planners and architects who would rework our obsolete land use standards and practices.

After the cruise, we took more photos near the Putra Mosque and the Prime Minister's Office. Then it was back to the train station since I was going to meet up with another SSEAYP batchmate, Jesslyn Wong in Petaling Jaya.

To get to her, I had to take the KTM Komuter back to KL Sentral then transfer to the Putra LRT where I would take a train to Asia Jaya. And I had to do it with all my luggage. Hehe!

Anyway, Jesslyn passed by for me at the station and we went to Chinatown for dinner. We passed by for her sister who knew the great places to eat at. Today was a great culinary sampling of Malaysia's diversity. In the morning I had Indian, for lunch it was Malay and for dinner, it was Peranakan, a fusion of Chinese and Malay! We had Asam Laksa, a tamarind-based noodle dish with fish, and Yau Yu, a cuttlefish dish with vegetables and crushed nuts. Yummy!

After dinner, we went to meet up with another ex-MaPY, Andrea Chong at a Mamak cafe near her place. This time, I had chicken murtabak. At 11 p.m., it was off to the airport where I was to spend the night. Since my flight was at 7:15 a.m., that meant a 5:15 a.m. check-in time and I did not want to suffer the hassle of looking for transport at 3:30 a.m. since the airport was an hour and a half away from KL. It turns out, I was not the only one spending the night at the airport since when I got there, all the seats were occupied by sleeping passengers, mostly foreigners. Some had their own sleeping bags with their luggage and other belongings such as surfboards right beside them.

I picked an empty spot and lay down on the cold granite floor to get some sleep. I was up at 5 a.m. maybe since I heard a slight noise when they opened the check-in counters. Sleeping at the airport was indeed a good move. I didn't have to worry about getting there at such an unholy hour and I saved on lodging costs. Hehe! Anyway, after two more hours of waiting at the departure gate, we were off to Clark Field. We arrived in Clark at 11:15 a.m. and that put to a close another great summer backpack trip.

Now that I'm back, it's time to discover more great places around the Philippines. I may have criticized the way our government runs this nation. But we have more things to be proud of as can be seen from the many wonderful places around the country I've been to. Check out my blog index for backpack ideas around this island paradise called the Philippines.

Monday, April 17, 2006

April 18 is World Monuments Day!

The International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is the institution behind World Monuments Day. The theme for this year is industrial heritage. For more information on industrial heritage in the Philippines, visit the ICOMOS Philippines blog.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Thailand: Cruising the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Today was another take it slow day. All I needed to do was to get my luggage from Ton's apartment. I had left one of my bags with Ton so that travelling in Laos would not be that much a hassle for me. So I woke up quite late.

Since Ton's apartment was near Chatuchak Market which was quite a distance from where I was staying, I made sure I planned my transportation to his place. And this included the Chao Phraya River Express. As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the Khao San tourist area was not connected to the skytrain or subway and the cheapest way to get to them was via ferry from Banglamphu (Pier No. 13 - Phra Arthit Pier) to the Central Pier which was a few meters from the Saphan Taksin BTS Station.

The Phra Arthit Pier was about half a kilometer from Khao San Road. So it was just a few minutes walk away. Right beside it was the Phra Sumane Fort (above), one of the few remaining fortified outposts in Bangkok. You could also see the newly-contructed Rama VIII Bridge (below) which was opened to traffic in 2003.

Sigh! The newly-built bridges in our Southeast Asian neighbors just makes me despise the DPWH which constructs some of the ugliest infrastructure in the world! I guess they've already mastered the formula of estimating just the right amount of material to build a bridge so that they could pocket as much of the funds allotted to the project as they can. In fact, there are well-entrenched corruption networks in these agencies that newly-appointed agency heads, no matter how clean, are powerless against them.

Anyway, the ferry ride was just THB11 and you passed by some of the best sights in Bangkok. In fact, river cruises along the Chao Phraya are a very lucrative business. There are even luxury ferries which offer lunch and dinner packages for tourists and locals. I was amazed at the variety of tourist ferries which were sailing along the river from the traditional to luxurious! Many if not most of the great cities of the world were founded along the banks of rivers. It makes me feel sad that the country neglected the Pasig River which had the same potential as the Chao Phraya or the Singapore River. In fact, much of Manila's heritage is found along the river. And if we rehabilitate both the river and its banks, we can lure visitors for a cruise. But this I could say, you will know if a country is mature if some of its best real estate is found along the river. I'll expound on this later.

Among the landmarks along the river are (1) the domed building of Thammasat University, (2) Patravadi Theater, (3) Wat Arun, (4) the Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, (5) and (6) the Royal Naval Institute, (7) Wat Kanlayanamit, (8) Santa Cruz Church, (9) Memorial Bridge, (10) and (11) more heritage buildings and temples, (12) Holy Rosary Church, (13) pagoda of the Foundation for Morality and Propagation for Welfare, and (14) five-star hotels and office buildings along the river.

As I mentioned earlier, you will know that a country is mature if some of the best real estate is found along the river. Here in the Philippines, the Pasig River is a dumping area for factory wastes. I mean if we did urban planning right, you should see some of the best buildings from the Guadalupe Bridge. But instead, you see factories, shanties and billboards!

In Bangkok, the Royal Orchid Sheraton, Shangri-La, Oriental, Sofitel Bangkok and the Peninsula are just some of the few luxury hotels right by the banks of the Chao Phraya River. In fact, when I took a walk around the Bang Rak area a little later, I was surprised to see that the land route to these hotels were not scenic and you had to pass through some narrow streets and backroads to get to these hotels. Thus, the river is their biggest asset and each has a port from which their clients could go on cruises along the Chao Phraya.

I think Metro Manila can change this by re-zoning the banks of the Pasig River. All factories and other industrial structures must be relocated elsewhere and these properties along the river should be redeveloped. Once this is done, coupled with the rehabilitation of all the heritage along the river, and that includes restoring the old bridges and preserving the Arroceros Forest Park which we all hope Mayor Atienza won't chop down, we can lure tourists to enjoy a dinner cruise along the Pasig and out into Manila Bay.

I got off at the Central Pier and walked a few meters to the skytrain station. I got a day pass for THB100 but unlike the Hong Kong pass I got, it wasn't a 24-hour pass and was good only up to 11:59 p.m. of the day you purchased it. Anyway, I got my bag and then took the subway from Lat Phrao to Hualamphong Station where I planned to take a cab to Khao San. As soon as I got out of the station, it started to rain again. Damn! It was supposed to be the dry season and my trip had been marred by rains everywhere I went. Our weather has gone haywire thanks to human intervention, especially those countries who produce the most pollution and yet don't want to sign the Kyoto Protocol.

I had planned to walk around Bang Rak after dropping off my luggage at the hotel. Since it was raining, I took a cab to the area instead of a ferry. The Silom-Bang Rak areas offered several great walking tour routes including one that took you around the seat of Catholicism in Thailand. My first stop was the Holy Rosary Church (which is known in Thailand as the Temple of the Beaded Virgin). It's signature gothic spire can be seen from the river. Built in 1767 after the fall of Ayutthaya, the current structure was rebuilt in 1897.

Then it was off to the Assumption Cathedral which was a kilometer or so away. The walk under the rain was most worth it. Greeting me was a complex of stately and elegant colonial buildings surrounding the Assumption Cathedral. The interior of the cathedral was so grand that you would even think while marveling at the interior of the Assumption Cathedral that Thailand was more Catholic than the Philippines! Right beside the church and the complex of old convent buildings were more stately buildings including the East Asitic Company and the Oriental Hotel.

After saying a few prayers, it was off to more exploring. On the way to the skytrain station, I passed by a hawker stall which sold noodles and rice meals. I realized that there was something in the way they arranged the ingredients in the stand that attracted tourists like myself since a few minutes later, a lot of foreign tourists were stopping by as well to order food, attracted by the display. First and foremost, if our hawker stalls in Manila are to become popular and tourist-friendly, we have to ensure cleanliness at all times. At the same time, displays must be attractive with ingredients colorfully presented for all to see. Anyway, I ordered noodles.

The next day, I was off to the airport. For breakfast, it was more phad thai! Again, the stand was attractive thanks to the mounds of noodles and other ingredients on display.

I booked an airport bus the day before which costed THB100. I had planned to go by train since the ticket was much cheaper but I realized that that did not include the cost of the taxi, the hassle of carrying your bags here and there, and when you got to the airport train station, you had to bring all your luggage up a pedestrian flyover to the terminal. And it was a good move as well since it was raining. I could not imagine the hassle I would have gone through if I took the train.

It was actually a van that took us to Don Muang Airport. The ride offered me another way of seeing Bangkok's core. The avenues and boulevards were wide and islands and sidewalks full of neatly-cut shrubs and flowers. Stately colonial buildings and government offices were in abundance. And every little bridge over a canal was a work of art. I have yet to see a bridge in Bangkok's center similar to our ugly standard DPWH bridges since every little bridge had a unique design, pedestrian bridges included! Hello DPWH! Wake up and stop making Manila the ugliest city in the world!

Anyway, my flight to KL left at 3:15 p.m. There was a THB500 airport tax so don't forget to save money if leaving Bangkok from the airport.

Thailand: Songkran in Bangkok... Sawasdee Pee Mai!

I was back in Bangkok from Ayutthaya at about 7 p.m. When I arrived at the Mo Chit Bus Station, I took a quick cab to the Mo Chit Station of the skytrain for THB35. Then took the skytrain to the Sala Daeng Station in the Silom area to check out the night shopping areas which included Patpong, a red-light district which had a popular night market.

However, as soon as I exited the skytrain station, I could hear loud shouts from below. Just great, the whole street had teenagers with water cannons and powder paste celebrating Songkran. Hmmm, I would have joined in the fun if I didn't have my camera and celphone with me.

Songkran is the three-day celebration of the Thai New Year which coincides with the new year celebrations in Cambodia (Bonn Chaul Chnam Khmer), Laos (Pii Mai Lao), and Myanmar (Thingyan Water Fesival). The word itself translates from Sanskrit as "beginning of the solar year." During this three-day event, Thais pray at temples and bring food and other offerings to monks. There is also a bathing ceremony where monks will pour a little water on the shoulders of devotees as a symbol of cleansing and blessing to begin the year. Now this is where the water wars evolved from wherein the public "blesses" one another with water as well and thus, over time, the festival has become a lively celebration and a national water fight. Equiped with water pistols, super soakers, balloons or buckets of ice water, locals and tourists alike make sure that no one remains dry during the three-day celebration.

But I made sure I wouldn't get wet yet. Hehe! So I ate dinner instead inside the mall and bought some stuff at the supermarket. Then I took the skytrain to the National Stadium Station which is the nearest to the Khao San area. That is also the station nearest to MBK, a very popular shopping complex to Thai teenagers.

I got down and looked for a cab. First cab asked me for THB200. Asshole! Then I checked with the tuktuks who asked me for THB100. I walked around to look for more taxis and the next one asked for THB300. Crazy! No one wanted to do meter service if you said Khao San Road since they knew you were a tourist. Sick! So I asked around for buses to Khao San and I was told to wait for bus no. 15. After 30 minutes of waiting, I decided to just take the tuktuk and got it for THB80 which I guess was good enough. The taxi from the National Stadium Station of the skytrain and the Hualamphong Station of the subway (these are the nearest to the Khao San area) should be between THB55 to 65.

You could also take a skytrain to the Saphan Taksin Station where there was a Chao Phyraya River Express terminal waiting to take you to Banglamphu, the main tourist area of Bangkok (there seemed to be more foreigners than locals in the area of Khao San Road). However, ferry service ends at 3 p.m.

Anyway, it was the end of the dry road for me since I just remembered that Khao San Road was the epicenter of the new year celebrations. Argggggh! So as I manuevered my way into the sea of wet revellers, ocassionally being hit by water guns, trying to avoid getting dirtied up in the face by powder paste and keeping my camera and celphone dry, I finally got to my hotel.

I changed into my beach shorts, slippers, put my camera in a ziplock back and left my phone and other belongings in the room. I first went to an internet shop to relax a bit but on the way, a street fight was brewing and people started moving away. So I entered the internet shop first.

After an hour, I was expecting to see the party in full swing but to my surpise, there were much fewer people walking around. Broken bottles on the ground was evidence of what had just occurred. I went to the convenience store accross the street to buy some water and asked the cashier why there was no more party. And they confirmed that beer bottles were flying all over the place and the police stopped the party. Hmmmm... good I was in the internet shop while it happened.

Things like these rarely happen since during the three days of Songkran, you have to be a good sport. If your celphone, camera or anything of importance gets wet during these three days from April 13 to 15, you can only smile at the person who wet you and say to yourself how stupid of you to bring it out without protection. Anyway, this is the last night of the three day Songkran Festival so... Sawasdee Pee Mai!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Thailand: The historic city of Ayutthaya

I didn't try to wake up early today since I had been travelling nightly for the past few days and this was my first time in a bed since I left Bangkok Tuesday. In fact, I don't even consider Monday night as sleep since I was rushed to the hospital early in the morning. Hehe! So I was up by about 9:20 a.m. if I'm not mistaken. It was raining! Just great! So I was pondering whether to push through with Ayutthaya.

I ate breakfast at the same place Ton and I ate dinner Monday night. This time, I had green papaya salad (the less spicy version) and phad thai. Hehe! The rain stopped so I decided to go even if it continued raining. Going tomorrow was out of the question since I did not want to be caught in the Sunday madrush back to Bangkok.

So I got dressed and took a cab to the Hualamphong Train Station which was the grand old station of Bangkok. Our main train station in the Philippines was the Tutuban Train Station. But since Filipinos think of building nothing except malls and shopping centers, that grand old station of ours is a shopping mall today. Sigh! Although I'm happy they did adaptive reuse since the old structure is still standing. I hope when the Northrail is completed, they reinclude this old building as the main entrance to the new terminal.

Ayutthaya is about an hour and a half from Bangkok. I arrived at the station in the nick of time since the next train left in ten minutes. I was charged only THB15 for the trip! It was a non-aircon train but it was quite ok since it was a short ride and there were not much people in it. On the way, it started raining again. Sigh! I arrived in Ayutthaya at about 1:30 p.m.

The train station at Ayutthaya reminded me of our own
old train stations along the Manila-Dagupan route. I hope the policy makers of the Northrail project realize that these old stations are a better attraction than any new ones they will build. They could easily equip these old structures with modern amenities inside if they wanted to. Check out the ICOMOS Philippines blog for photos of these old train stations today.

In the station, there was a sign board which detailed the tuktuk and taxi fares from the station to any particular site in the city. That is a must in every tourist city so that cheating drivers could easily be detected. At the bottom, there was also an option for a tour at THB200 an hour. Hmmmm... since it was raining, I decided to rent out a taxi for an hour and hope the rains stop a bit.

The Historic City of Ayutthaya and Associated Historic Towns was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991. I was founded in the year 1350, and became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai, another UNESCO site. The city was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century and the structures that remain are characterized by the prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries, a somber reminder of its past glory.

The nearest important site to the station was the
Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol. Entrance fee was THB20. I took quite a while inside since it was difficult to move around due to the rain. So I told the driver to bring we to the Wat Mahathat where I would take a walk to other nearby sites.

It was heavy traffic into town due to the water wars along the street. From the bridge, you could see pick-up trucks seemingly parked along the street as its passengers at the back ensued in water fights with each other. So the driver made a turn to avoid the area. We got to Wat Mahathat a few minutes later where I got off and paid him THB200 for the 1 hour. By this time, the rain stopped a bit. Good! Entrance fee to the site was THB30.

Next to the Wat Mahathat was the Wat Ratcha Burana. Entrance fee was another THB30. Hmmmm, every site had its own ticket. And that helps raise funds to maintain the sites. I wonder why the Philippines does not charge for visiting its UNESCO sites. Hehe! It reminded me of Hue since each royal tomb had a US$3 ticket. Once declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it increases market value as well. Hehe!

As soon as I had exited, the rain started to get stronger again. So I ran to the nearby restaurant to have a late lunch. It was a traditional setting since you sat on a suchion on the floor. And the view of Wat Ratcha Burana was great and relaxing. After the meal, I waited outside for a tuktuk but none passed by.

Walking to the next site was out of the question since it was raining and there were so many pick-ups just going around with new year revellers at the back with drums and pails of water looking for hapless victims to drench even further. As if the rains were not enough! Hehe! It was a very lively atmosphere with passengers at the back banging on drums and pans, shouting, chanting and singing, or dancing to the beat of the loud music being played up front the vehicle. Well, I had a camera and celphone to protect so I really avoided getting wet. Hehe!

By this time, for some reason, my camera lens fogged. And it seemed like it wasn't going to dry up within the next few minutes. Sigh! So I guess that was my signal to go home. I checked mail a bit to kill time and then took a walk to the ferry station that would bring me to the train station. On the way, I happened to pass by the bus station. Just great! Hehe! Since it was raining, I decided to take an aircon bus. It was THB50 back to Bangkok. On the train, that would have been THB40. So that was not bad at all.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Laos: Pii Mai Lao in Vientiane

It is New Year in this part of the world. That means Laos (Pii Mai Lao), Thailand (Songkran), Cambodia (Bonn Chaul Chhnam Khmer) and Myanmar (Thingyan Water Festival). While in the Philippines, everyone is silently commemorating Good Friday (except in Boracay and Puerto Galera maybe). Oh well! Hehe! I was able to call Loulou at 7 a.m. and she picked me up at the bus station a little later. Since she had to take care of her son today, Kao and Tuy took care of me today.

We (myself, Kao and her husband) joined Tuy's family for lunch at a really nice restaurant outside Vientiane. It was beside a lake with several huts built over the water. More Lao food today! Hehe! While waiting for lunch, we munched on some dry rambutan and camote chips, while I drank some Beer Lao. Lunch was plentiful. The first to arrive were green papaya salad and bamboo soup which was soooooo spicy it took quite a while for the effect to wear out.

Then came in noodles, some fried insects (they seemed to be bigger than the camaru we have in Pampanga), roasted chicken and fish roasted in salt, and of course, the ground lamb meat for good luck. I liked the taste of the roasted chicken. I'll try to find out the herbs they put in it. After lunch, it was a short nap in one of the huts. Hehe!

I think it was about 2:30 p.m.when we made our way back to town. We stopped by a market where I bought a bottle of Beer Lao for my collection and some Bastos cigarettes for pasalubong. Hehe! Then we made our way to the place where my bus to Bangkok would pick me up. This time, I learned my lesson. It may have been more expensive at THB690, but it was a no-worries ride. No need to worry for the next bus since it took you straight to Bangkok, there was dinner included (although it was only fried rice), and the seats were very comfortable and no one sat in the middle.

In fact, we left at 5:45 p.m. and got to the border by about 7:15 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., we were on our way to Bangkok stopping briefly at a riverside restaurant for dinner. In fact, the bus ride was so comfortable, the bus driver had to wake me up when it arrived at Khao San Road in Bangkok. Hehe!

Tired and sleepy, I looked for a nearby hotel. I wanted to sleep comfortably the last few days of my trip since I would be in the hotel more often and I had a lot of stuff to mind. I was able to find a room for THB550 a night. I guess that was ok but there were cheaper options but they were full or I was just too tired to walk around further. Sigh! I was off to bed as soon as I got to the room since I was going to visit another UNESCO World Heritage city, Thailand's former capital Ayutthaya, later in the morning.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Laos: Luang Prabang is a stunning old town along the Mekong River

I'm here now in Luang Prabang taking it slow after another long bus trip. After finishing up my entry yesterday, we relaxed a bit then went to the bus station only to find it full of people waiting for buses to the provinces, Luang Prabang included. Sigh! It was the holiday rush as well in Laos and getting a bus to Luang Prabang was going to be difficult. Luckily, someone tipped Kao that a extra VIP bus trip was leaving at 7:30 p.m. and we were able to get a ticket just in the nick of time before other people found out and started rushing to the ticket desk. Had we gotten it a few minutes later, I might have been in the center aisle. Hehe!

Anyway, the bus trip took about ten hours, mostly along a zigzag road through towering mountains. I'm sure the views we're stunning since I could see silhouettes because of the near full moon. I arrived in Luang Prabang at about 5 a.m.

Since the bus station was about 3 km from the town proper, I had to take a tuktuk. By the time I got to town, I was tired, sleepy and sweaty. Sigh! So I tried to look for a guest house. Lonely Planet advice, "The two most important annual events in Luang Prabang are Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in April, when Luang Prabang gets packed with locals and tourists (book accomodation well in advance)..." Yup, I now know how Joseph and Mary felt since I walked from one guest house to another only to hear that they were full. While walking around, I got to witness the morning alms tradition where monks walk around town receiving rice from the locals.

Until finally, there was a lodge with a room. But they were charging me THB600. Hmmm, I was going back to Vientiane tonight so it was a difficult choice. When I was about to say yes since I really needed a shower, the caretaker told me that I had to wait since the room that would be empty at 7:30 a.m. was still occupied. Then I asked if it was OK if I just paid for a shower. He agreed. Great! So I just paid him THB100 for it. Good enough!

Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos until the 1975 Communist takeover. The Town of Luang Prabang was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995. I started the rounds of the temples early. At the tip of the peninsula is the Wat Xieng Thong, the most magnificent temple in the town. Built by King Setthathirat in 1560, it remained under royal patronage until the 1975 revolution.

Along the street, it was one temple after another! There were just so many. How I wish Intramuros was still standing today in all its glory. It was one magnificent church after another. But alas! It was carpet-bombed by the American Army and they only left the San Agustin Church standing! According to stories, Manila's old ladies were crying as they watched shells hit one church after another. I passed by some including Wat Khili, Wat Saen and Wat Nong Sikunmeuang.

The main street of Luang Prabang was lined as well with charming colonial shophouses and homes which have been converted into guesthouses (countries which promote and push for adaptive reuse reap the benefits with increased tourism arrivals). If not for the Laos text on the shops as well as the monks walking, you would think you were in a small town in France. Really nice! I had breakfast at a French bakery. Then took a walk to the Royal Palace Museum which was the former residence of King Sisavangvong.

Then it was off for more walking around and maybe find out if I could check out one of the waterfalls. When I got to the boat dock area, they were charging me US$15 since I was alone. No thanks! So I just had a drink at a cafe by the Mekong River. It was quite relaxing watching the water flow down the river.

Since I wanted to stay indoors for lunch, I just had a foot massage. At least I was abe to take a quick nap. That costed me 30,000 kip (the street exchange rate is THB100 = 25,000 kip = US$2.5), not bad for an hour. As I got out, the water wars had already started and you could see many of the foreign tourists with water guns, joining in the new year revelry. Hehe! Then trucks with pails of water were also passing by. Oh great! So I walked along the side streets since the trucks could not pass there.

So I'm here in an internet shop trying to stay dry and cool when I read a sign outside that the shop also does tours to the waterfalls for US$3 each! And it leaves in 10 minutes! Imagine the timing! Hehe! So I'm off to the Kuangsi Waterfalls. Hehe!

It was about an hour away. When we got there, I could immediately see that there were so many people. Can you think of a waterfall in the Philippines which could attract thousands of visitors everyday, half of them tourists? They even charge 15,000 kip for entrance. The DOT will really have to rethink the way they look at tourism. Backpackers should be the target more than any other group and we are the only Southeast Asian country without an established backpack route. That's why let's backpack in the Philippines to help establish that tourism trail.

The water was really clear. Greeting you were smaller falls cascading from limestone cliffs with pools in each of them just perfect for swimming. There was also a bear sanctuary where baby bears captured from poachers are nursed to better health. The main falls was a few minutes walk bu the view was magnificent. If I didn't have my backpack with me, I would have gone to the top of the falls since there was a clearly-marked trail to it.

Anyway, the tour I took set the assembly time at 5 p.m. and that would have been too late for me if I were to catch the bus back to Vientiane. So I hitched a ride with some backpackers on the way back to town and they asked me for US$1. That's the point of backpacking, every dollar counts. You try to meet other backpackers going the same way and pool in resources, organize a groups in order to lower individual costs.

The LGUs in the Philippines will have to realize that many of these foreigners are not looking for classy hotels. They'd be happy with a room, a bed and a fan with a very clean common bathroom that charges between US$3 to 5 per night. The hotel must be close to cheap, clean and delicious street food as well! You see the sights, you taste the local flavors the way the locals do, that's backpacking. They don't come to see malls. They travels to see both cultural and natural heritage. These are thus the things we have to preserve in order to attract these tourists. And until our LGU officials and priests realize that, we will continue to get the crumbs of the multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Anyway, I was able to get a bus back to Vientiane for 85,000 kip. As always, the ride was about ten hours so we left at 7:00 p.m. and were in the capital by 5 a.m. Since it was too early to call Loulou up, I took a nap at the station. Hehe!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Laos: The Friendship Bridge to Laos PDR and around Vientiane

As I mentioned in my previous post, land travel in Southeast Asia can be difficult. Just right after I posted the last entry, Ton had to rush me to the hospital at 2:30 a.m.! Hehe! Let's not get into the details but it was sort of a result of that long trip. And the rest of the plans almost got cancelled if I did not improve. Luckily I did and I'm at it again. Hehe!

So I rested the whole morning and met up with more of my SSEAYP batchmates for lunch. I took a subway from Ton's apartment then a skytrain to Siam Square where Nun would meet me. We had lunch with Bee at See Fah restaurant. Cee joined us as well. In the photo are myself, Bee, Cee and Nun.

After lunch, Nun accompanied me around Siam Paragon, a really nice mall which is said to be the largest in Asia. That's why Mayor Atienza shouldn't have demolished heritage structures like the YMCA Building and the San Lazaro Racetrack, replacing it with two SM malls because unless SM stops building those prefab malls (no unique design whatsoever), it's no attraction at all. Sigh! I liked the greenery inside the mall. Nicely done! We had some ice cream. A lot of unique flavors like red bean and green tea, horlicks, ovaltine, roasted sesame, etc. Yummy!

It was then off to catch a skytrain to Mo Chit Station where Matong would meet me to accompany me to the bus station. I had wanted to take a train to Nong Khai so that I could sleep comfortably but it was fully-booked a long time ago since it's New Year in Thailand as well as in Cambodia and Laos. So I had to make do with a bus. Little did I know that the ride was going to be another horrible fourteen hour trip! Imagine the Holy Week rush to the provinces. In Thailand, it was the same rush for the long holiday. Sigh!

For some reason, we got a ticket easily. I got on board the bus at 4:30 p.m. It was scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. We left a little late though. When we were on our way, I slept only to wake up an hour later since we were in another bus station stuffing in more passengers. When we left the first station, we were already full. But the bus was not satisfied, they placed stools in the center!

When I thought we've loaded enough, the bus just kept on stopping trying to lure in more passengers. My God! Greedy is the only term I could think of. Thailand and the Philippines as well should enact a law against overloading. If there are no more seats, they shouldn't overload. It may be ok for those in the center that they are in the center aisle but did they care to ask those seated comfortably earlier if it was ok with them? Hmmm... And the air-conditioning wasn't that strong.

By the time we got to another station, (yes, we stopped at a third, fourth and fifth station if I remember things right) passengers were already complaining since we were always stopping! To make the long story short, I wasn't able to sleep well since we were so cramped up.

We arrived in Nong Khai at about 6:30 a.m. just in time for me to get a ticket for the 7:30 a.m. bus to Vientiane. At least it was more comfortable but just a short ride to the border and the Friendship Bridge to Laos. The Friendship Brigde is the most popular border crossing between Thailand and Laos. And at least I did not have to walk far since the bus took us to the other side.

By 8:30 a.m., we were in Laos. It's a good thing Filipinos don't need visas in all ASEAN countries except Myanmar. I didn't go to Vientiane with the bus since Loulou, another SSEAYP batchmate was at the border with Tuy to meet me. We picked up another Tuy at her house then went to Kao's shop. Since Loulou had to go to work, Kao, Tuy and Tuy would take me around.

We first went to Patuxai, an imposing concrete monument which is sort of Laos' version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built to commemorate those who died in battle with concrete donated by the U.S. supposedly for a new airport runway. Hehe! There was a cafe underneath and you could climb up to the top but I was just too exhausted. The interior was nice but it seemed like an unfinished structure when seen up close from the outside.

After that, we proceeded to another imposing structure, the That Luang, the national symbol of Laos and its most important religious building. The present gold leaf stupa is a recreation of the 16th century temple thought to have been built by the King.

Outside the stuppa, we bought roasted honeycombs from a hawker and let me taste. Hmmm... not my type especially since there were bees roasted in it too. I thought it would taste like honey. Hehe! It had this wierd aftertaste as well. They were also selling live snakes! I had some roasted banana as well.

We then had lunch at Loulou's place since they were having a new year celebration there. Joy, another ex-PY joined us. For good luck on new year, we ate lamb aside from other dishes. There was so much food including a whole roasted-calf! It was a good introduction to Lao cuisine. In the photo are Joy, myself, Tuy, Loulou, Tuy and Kao.

Then, it was off the the Ho Phrakeo (below). This temple, built in A.D.1565 by King Xaisetathirat, is the oldest temple in Vientiane. You would notice outside a sign that the temple used to house an emerald Buddha image which has been out of the country for several centuries now. Well, that emerald Buddha is the one in Thailand after it was captured during an invasion.

Anyway, I'm resting now since I'll be off for another long bus ride to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. I should prepare to get wet within the next few days since the new year celebrations in this part of Southeast Asia tend to become water wars. Sigh!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cambodia & Thailand: The difficulties of land travel and crossing borders

Crossing borders in Southeast Asia can sometimes be a harrowing experience and is not for the faint-hearted. I had another 12 hour trip today from Siem Reap crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border to Bangkok. It was a good thing I rested the whole day yesterday since I did not expect the ride was going to be that bad.

Yesterday, I only went out for dinner. I had more Khmer food, this time beef amok which is a coconut milk based entree with vegetables. On the way home, I bought some jackfruit chips. Yummy! Hehe!

The service picked me up at the guest house at about 6:45 a.m. a while ago. We went to other guest houses to get the other passengers. I was expecting the vehicle we were going to use was a coaster. But I did not expect they were going to stuff it beyond capacity. Everyone on board was a foreigner and was complaining about being so cramped up. I was expecting I would be able to sleep. But I was wrong. The roads had potholes bigger than the moon's craters. For most of the way, it wasn't paved at all. The ordeal lasted six hours, with two stopovers in between.

We arrived at Poipet, the border town of Cambodia at about 1:45 p.m. I still had to endure lining up at immigration which was open-air, walking about a kilometer to the Thai border. It would have been ok, but by now, my bags were quite heavy. And the afternoon summer sun was just too much. Then we went through Thai immigration. And then we walked a few meters to where another bus would pick us up.

At least this was a much bigger bus and the roads were in much better condition. There was a store outside and the first thing I bought was cold water. Prices were much much cheaper here! Anyway, we were on our way at about 3:30 p.m. after close to two hours in transit. This time I was able to sleep better.

About two hours away from Bangkok, we made another stopover. And this is where I was able to get some Thai street food. There was so much to choose from. Anyway, I got some sausages and machang. I was very much impressed by the road network in Thailand. Maybe the DPWH could learn a thing or two.

We arrived in Bangkok at about 8 p.m. There was a slight confusion as to where we were dropped off. Anyway, I called my SSEAYP roommate Sorawit Sangsuwan (Ton) who had been waiting for me at Kao San Road which was a tourist district.

He treated me out for dinner at a Thai restaurant. And then, we went for a traditional Thai massage to get me back to my senses after that 12-hour ordeal. Thai massage is quite distinct in technique since it entails applying pressure for a few seconds in key points as well as stretching. At least that relaxed me a bit.

I'm now in Ton's apartment where I'll be staying for the night. The campaign for the Thai Senate is ongoing. And there are a lot of campaign posters all over. But the thing I like about the campaign here is they don'ty use gawgaw. They don't put posters on walls or buildings or wherever. Candidates neatly mount their posters on sticks and place them in the soil. After the elections, it would be easy to clean up.

I'll meet more of my SSEAYP batchmates tomorrow. I've been to Bangkok several times before so I'm out to explore other places. If all goes well, I should be on my way to Vientiane in the evening.

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