Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Lanao del Norte: NPC Nature Park at Maria Cristina Falls & Macapagal-Macaraeg House in Iligan City

Lanao del Norte is a a short ferry ride from Ozamiz City. From the Ozamiz Port, it's a 20-minute ferry ride to Mukas Port in Kolambugan, Lanao del Norte. The ferries across Panguil Bay cut land travel by several hours.

I was met by a colleague, Lanao del Norte Board Member Alexander Ali, who took me for a ride around the province. Our first stop was the Lanao del Norte Provincial Capitol in Tubod where a small museum on the province, its culture and attractions was set-up.

From there, we rushed to Iligan City to catch the Maria Cristina Falls. The flow of water is usually at 30 percent on ordinary days. But at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, the Maria Cristina Power Plant opens the water gates for five minutes to allow the falls to go on full-blast for the tourists. Unfortunately for us, Lake Lanao was experiencing a water shortage. So the scheduled full-blast did not push through that day.

They opened the NPC Nature Park just two weeks before my visit. So I got to try their brand-new zip-line. Unlike the usual single or double drop zip-lines, the one in Maria Cristina had four segments. You had to climb up a hill to get to the jump-off point. The first two segments were above land over a canopy of trees. While the last two segments were over the river.

The NPC Nature Park charges Php30 for entrance and Php200 for the zip-line. Other attractions in the park include an orchidarium and crocodile farm. If you plan to fly by air to visit Iligan, the Cagayan de Oro Airport would be closer.

After Maria Cristina Falls, we had lunch at Gloria's Ihaw-Ihaw for some lechon manok. The name is no surprise since it's located right in front of the Macapagal-Macaraeg Heritage House.

I walked over to the Macapagal-Macaraeg Heritage House after lunch to take some photos. In the yard is a sculpture depicting the young Gloria Macapagal on a swing, with her father President Diosdado Macapagal.

From Iligan, we drove through Baloi which is quite popular for its dodol, a toffee-like candy made with coconut milk, panocha (unrefined sugar or jaggery) and rice flour. Baloi is a relatively peaceful town (it's home to the Philippine Science High School in Northern Mindanao) and the local government plans to construct a Maranao heritage village soon to showcase the Maranao culture.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Malaysia: Filipino Market and other markets in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

There are several interesting markets in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia. I've already featured the Gaya Street Sunday Market which is open only on Sundays. But there are markets which are open daily. Aside from the Pasar Besar Kota Kinabalu or the Central Market along Jalan Tun Fuad Stephen, there are specialized markets along the same street. Would you believe that this complex of markets is more popularly referred to as the Filipino Market or Pasar Filipina since most of the stalls are run by Filipino immigrants mostly from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi?

The most popular is the Handicrafts Centre or the Pasar Kraftangan where you can buy local handicrafts such as shell curtains, baskets and bags, cultured pearls, cultural items and other souvenirs including key chains, magnets and t-shirts. Notice also the Filipino tailors station in front of the market with their sewing machines.

Beside the Handicrafts Market is the Salted Fish Market or Pasar Ikan Masin where you could purchase dried fish and other seafood. I saw a lot of dried fish, sea cucumber and even seahorses!

Next to the Pasar Ikan Masin is the Pasar Buah-Buahan Tempatan or the Local Fruit Market. Aside from the local fruits (Mindanao and Sabah virtually have the same selection of fruits), there are also snacks and other delicacies sold in this market.

Behind the main building of the Pasar Buah-Buahan Tempatan is a tent market which sells even more fruits and produce, and seafood among others.

Beside it is another tent market which hosts dozens of hawker stalls which is referred to as the Kota Kinabalu Night Market or the Filipino Night Market since the stalls usually open at sunset from 6:30 to 11 p.m. If you're a fan of street food, this is one place you should visit.

Another night market is the Kampung Air Night Market or Pasar Malam where you can find t-shirts, pants, shoes, and watches and other items you might want to give to friends.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Malaysia: Whitewater rafting in the Kiulu River (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)

After trekking up Mount Kinabalu, we decided we wanted more adventure in Sabah. So we went whitewater rafting in the Kiulu River. There are many places to go whitewater rafting is Sabah. Kiulu River has level 1 to 2 rapids which are good for first timers and casual travelers who simply want to try whitewater rafting.

You'll have to book this activity with one of Sabah's accredited travel agencies. Our driver picked us up at our hotel at about 8:30 a.m. There were two other people in the group for a total of four passengers. It's a one and a half hour drive to the Kiulu River area.

Each travel agency has its own facilities and equipment in the area. Our boat was just big enough for four people plus the guide. Before rafting down the river, we were given a safety and instructional briefing, particularly how to sit down and what to do when you fall off the raft.

The whitewater course is about 7 kilometers and the trip lasts about an hour or two. There is a rest break in the middle which allows you to swim in the river or do some body rafting, which is riding the rapids using only your life jacket.

The guide is very entertaining as well and makes sure you enjoy the boat ride. You don't have to worry about steering the boat since the guides can ably do that as you paddle your way downstream.

At the end of the ride, there are changing and shower facilities. After freshening up, we rode the van to Kiulu Town where a heavy lunch of chicken and vegetables was waiting for us. We were back in Kota Kinabalu at about 2:30 p.m. which gave us some time to explore the city some more.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Malaysia: Kinabalu Park & trekking up Mount Kinabalu in Sabah

Mount Kinabalu is said to be the rooftop of Southeast Asia. At 4095.2 meters above sea level (MASL), it is the highest mountain in archipelagic Southeast Asia. My main reason for attempting to scale the mountain was that it is part of Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

At 6:30 a.m., we were picked up at our hotel in Kota Kinabalu for the two hour drive to Kinabalu Park. There is a brief stopover at a place called Nabalu where you could shop for fruits and supplies as well as take photos of Mount Kinabalu from a distance. We bought some bananas for potassium as well as isotonic drinks for the trek up.

The entrance of Kinabalu Park was about 15 minutes from Nabalu. At the park headquarters, our driver made all the arrangements for our permits, fees (permit, environmental, insurance, etc.), mountain guide and porter. They are very strict at Kinabalu Park since they require climbers to have a permit if you want to hike up Mount Kinabalu.

The permit is a plastic ID card which contains your name, permit number and the date you entered. You must wear the ID at all times since rangers check at various points on the mountain. Each group is also required to have a guide who must accompany you at all times, following the last person of the group.

There are two trails that lead up to the summit, the Timpohon and Mesilau Trails. The Timpohon Trail is the shorter and more popular route. It’s approximately 6 kilometers to Laban Rata, and an additional 2.72 kilometers to the summit which is known as Low’s Peak, for a total of 8.72 kilometers. The Mesilau Trail is 1.6 kilometers longer and navigating it is more challenging since the trail is not as developed as Timpohon. The two trails converge after KM 4 of Timpohon.

At the Timpohon Gate (1866.4 MASL), the guide is required to give you one final briefing before you are allowed to enter the gate. He then submits a record to the ranger at the gate who will ask you to sign beside your name and check that you are wearing the correct permit. From there begins the 6-kilometer trek up Laban Rata, the accommodation facility 3272 meters up Mount Kinabalu. Take note that accommodations and meals at Laban Rata have to be prearranged and reserved way in advance.

Along the way are several shelters called pondoks which serve as rest areas. Each pondok has a toilet and running water. But you will have to provide your own toilet paper. These pondoks, together with their altitude and distance from the previous one, are Pondok Kandis (1981.7 MASL, 793 meters from Timpohon Gate), Pondok Ubah (2081.4 MASL, 441 meters from Kandis), Pondok Lowii (2267.4 MASL, 750 meters from Ubah), Pondok Mempening (2515.45 MASL, 920 meters from Lowii), the Layang-Layang Staff Quarters (2702.3 MASL, 950 meters from Mempening), Pondok Villosa (2960.8 MASL, 934 meters from Layang-Layang) and Pondok Paka (3080.42 MASL, 417 meters from Villosa) before you finally arrive at the Laban Rata Resthouse (3272.2 MASL, 550 meters from Paka). Between pondoks, there are also distance markers every 500 meters of the trail.

One thing that also surprised me was that mobile phone signals were very strong throughout the trek. And this is so that communication is easily facilitated especially during emergency situations.

It is a very scenic trek and the trail is quite developed. But it is no easy trek for any beginner and navigating it will require some preparation and a certain level of physical fitness. Hiking up to Laban Rata usually takes 4 hours. The average time to get up is about 5 hours. Longer than that is slow. And we fell into that category since me and my companion had to push our physically unfit bodies up to Laban Rata for a total of 8 hours! But to make the long story short, we made it up before it got dark and in time for dinner.

Laban Rata Resthouse is the main accommodation on Mount Kinabalu and the most convenient since the food is served there. There are other huts scattered around the area, namely Gunting Lagadan Hut, Panar Laban Hut and Waras Hut. But staying in those huts will require you to walk to the main building in Laban Rata for meals. The facilities are managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. Despite being basic facilities which include dorm rooms and common showers, the dorm beds are not cheap since everything, including food and supplies, has to be brought up daily by porters. Private rooms are even more expensive and very limited. Unfortunately, there was no warm water when we got there due to problems with electricity supply. So no one in the entire lodge dared take a shower since the cold water was not good for the muscles.

Lights out is very early since everyone wakes up between 1:30 to 2 a.m for a light breakfast before attempting to scale the summit. The trail opens at 2:30 a.m. and you’ll have to be up really early because the park rangers will allow attempts up Low’s Peak only at certain times, especially for those who are not experienced climbers. Unfortunately, altitude sickness is also another thing you have to face. And unfortunately, I got hit several hundred meters up the trail. Low’s Peak unfortunately had to wait another day.

Down at Laban Rata, I took a short nap before waking up to watch the sunrise. Another breakfast buffet is served and heavier than the one at 2 a.m. which is available just in time for those returning from the summit.

Going down back to the Timpohon Gate was easier for me. And I managed to make it down in four hours, half the time I took to get up. It also gave me more time to appreciate the flora and fauna, including the nepenthes (pitcher plants) and orchids. Note that there are a thousand species of orchids documented in Kinabalu Park. And you’ll notice a good number of them in bloom along the trail.

After going through the Timpohon Gate, the ranger takes note of your permit number and logs down that you've exited. At the gate, we were picked up by our driver for the 4-kilometer drive down to the Park Headquarters where a buffet lunch was waiting for us.

At the headquarters, we received our certificates that note how far we were able to climb up. After the late lunch and some rest, we made our way back to Kota Kinabalu. Others would choose to stay in the park to rest and recuperate.

How to get to Mount Kinabalu from Kota Kinabalu
You can try arranging your climb on your own. But the convenient way is to get a tour package which already includes transfers from Kota Kinabalu and back. Here is a list of travel agencies from the Sabah Tourism Board.

Public transportation conveniently passes by the gate of Kinabalu Park. Vans leave the Merdeka Field in Kota Kinabalu between 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and the fare to Kinabalu Park is about RM17. Time of arrival varies since the vans pick-up and drop off passengers along the way. So make sure you take the first van if you are to arrive at the park HQ in the morning. Later than that means you might have to book a place to stay for the night in or close to the park HQ and trek the next day.

Preparing for a Mount Kinabalu climb
Climbing Mount Kinabalu requires a lot of preparation with logistics and physical training. Here are some things to remember when planning a trek up Mt. Kinabalu:

1. Book your accommodation way in advance
Accommodation at Laban Rata and the nearby huts is usually full. It's not a good idea to make reservations only when you arrive at the park headquarters. Beds at Laban Rata, if these are still available, are the most convenient. While you can make your bookings directly with Sutera Nature Lodges (which is usually packaged with meals), it may be more convenient to find a travel agency to do all the bookings for you since their packages include round-trip transfers from Kota Kinabalu to the park HQ and Timpohon Gate, and all the permits and fees. You simply wait and walk around the park HQ as they take care of all your papers, permits and coordination with the park management.

Permit fee for non-Malaysian is RM100 (US$32) per person. Other fees include the insurance fee RM7 (US$2.25), conservation fee RM15 (US$5), and guide fee RM85 (for 1 to 3 persons from Timpohon). Porters can also carry your luggage but it will cost RM80 (US$27) for up to 10 kilos, and RM8 (US$2.50) for every kilo thereafter.

A dorm bed accommodation at Laban Rata Resthouse (based on 2010 tariff rate) costs RM435 (US$140) while beds at Gunting Lagadan, Waras and Panar Laban cost RM385 (US$123). A room good for 2 persons at Laban Rata cost RM920 (US$294). While a room good for 6 persons is RM2835 (US$905). Rates include packed lunch on the way up, buffet dinner, early supper and breakfast at Laban Rata, and buffet lunch at Kinabalu Park Balsam Restaurant. For accommodation in Kota Kinabalu, here is a list of accommodation from the Sabah Tourism Board. Just click on the accommodation type to get the full list.

Bilik Operasi Taman Kinabalu (Park HQ)
+60 88 889095 / +60 88 889099 / Fax No. +60 88 889068

Sutera Sanctuary Lodges
+60 88 318888 / Fax No. +60 88 308449

2. Bring the proper equipment
Don't take your equipment for granted. At the very least, make sure you have reliable trekking shoes from reputable brands. (1) Shoes: Before the climb, I made sure to pass by R.O.X. and they suggested I try out the Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra trail running shoes. The grip of the shoes was really good. And I liked the fact that the shoes are water-proof and kept my feet dry despite the rains in Mount Kinabalu. I remember wearing ordinary shoes during previous rainy climbs and had deal with soggy socks. Plus the Salomon shoes served as cushions which were very helpful on the way down. No blisters on this trek!

(2) Water-proof jacket: Also make sure you have a water-proof jacket which is handy especially when it rains or when the winds are strong. I had The North Face Mammatus Jacket with me. (3) Fleece jacket: You should also bring a fleece jacket with you and the Salomon Track Hoody worked wonders for me in the cold weather with its actiTHERM technology. (4) Trekking pants: The Columbia Titanium line is a good choice. The pants I used were Columbia Titanium. Also don't forget your (5) Gloves, (6) Hat or tuque and (7) Thermal socks. It would also be wise to bring (8) Trekking poles. I had two with me. You'll also be required to bring a (9) Headlamp and (10) Whistle for the pre-dawn ascent to the summit. Also bring a (11) Socket adapter which you will need for essential charging.

3. Be physically-prepared for the climb
They say it's mostly steps going up to the summit. But it's no walk in the park. The trail is 8.72 kilometers and you will climb a total of 2228.8 meters to reach the summit. So make sure you are physically fit and train properly to be able to attempt this climb.

In emergency situations, they carry climbers down using a stretcher. But it is the park ranger who determines whether it will be charged to insurance or personal account. Only accidents get charged to insurance. If it's only muscle cramps, you can get charged at least RM400 per kilometer or approximately RM3200 (US$1000) from the summit down. So better make sure you're fit!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Malaysia: More adventure activities in Kota Kinabalu and Sabah

I flew back to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia a few days ago. After doing the leisurely activities around Kota Kinabalu and Sabah last month, I decided to do the adventure stuff for my return trip. I visited Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and trekked up 3554 meters of Mount Kinabalu. The day after my descent, I tried out whitewater rafting on the Kiulu River. Watch out for the continuation of my Kota Kinabalu and Sabah series.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pampanga: Outlet shopping at Robinsons Starmills Pampanga

Those who've been to the U.S. should be familiar with outlet shopping. Outlet malls are usually out-of-town and people drive there to shop at these outlet malls. They usually sell clothes and other items from the last season at really attractive prices. If you still don't know, there's an outlet mall here in the Philippines in San Fernando, Pampanga. I'm sure we pass by Robinsons Starmills Pampanga all the time we use the NLEX not realizing it's actually an outlet mall.

Well-known brands like Mango, Guess, All Flip Flops, American Rag, Adidas, Nike, Space, Plains and Prints, Mogao and Collezione are just some of the notable brands which have outlet stores there that give really hefty discounts. For the ladies, dresses at Mango could go as low as Php350!

And while at Robinsons Starmills, don't forget to visit Fiesta Kapampangan. Unlike the usual mall food court, Fiesta Kapampangan offers mainly Kapampangan cusine which I'm sure you'll all enjoy. I'll talk about this in another entry.

How to get to Robinsons Starmills
Robinsons Starmills Pampanga is located at the San Fernando Exit of the NLEX. If taking public transportation, Victory Liner has a terminal at the mall itself. Buses will drop you off at the rear entrance. For other bus companies, most buses that go to Olongapo pass by San Fernando. You can ask the driver to drop you off at the San Fernando Exit.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Malacañang cancels August 23, 2010 non-working holiday

While I agree that keeping the holiday on the day of the actual holiday preserves the solemnity of the observance, I believe Malacañang was very inconsiderate in issuing Proclamation No. 13 stating that "Ninoy Aquino Day shall be observed this year as a nationwide special (non-working) holiday on 21 August 2010 (Saturday) instead of August 23."

Holiday economics has induced people to plan their travel early. I personally have booked tickets on the previously scheduled long-weekends this month. It's totally naive of Malacañang to think that most people plan their travel back home to the provinces or for recreation just a few days before a holiday. What do they want our countrymen to do, forfeit their plane, ferry or bus tickets? Cancel paid hotel bookings? Take leaves from work or absent kids from school because of long-scheduled family vacations? Could this be a result of the executive disorder the Philippine Daily Inquirer was talking about?

Any changes to holiday economics should be done next year. And policy has to be made clear so people would not anticipate any more long-weekends. Unless the president wants to be accused of siding with business interests again, I do hope he reconsiders this decision because many of our countrymen are looking forward to these long-weekends later this month.

Update (08/13/10): According to Malacañang, August 30 will remain a non-working holiday in observance of National Heroes Day.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Index of Declared Structures and Sites updated 08/05/2010

As you all know, I've compiled a list of structures and sites declared by law or by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), National Historical Institute (NHI), or National Museum (NM). And as new sites and structures are declared, I update the list. This week, we got the latest list from the Cultural Properties Division of the National Museum.

The additions to the list include new National Cultural Treasures: Manila Metropolitan Theater (Manila) which is also a National Historical Landmark, Bonifacio Monument (Caloocan City) which is also a National Monument, Main Building, Central Seminary, Arch of the Centuries and Open Spaces of the University of Sto. Tomas (Manila) and the Santa Cruz Church (Maribojoc, Bohol) which was previously an Important Cultural Property.

For Important Cultural Property, there is one new declaration, the Parish Church Complex of Santa Monica (Sarrat, Ilocos Norte).

Misamis Occidental: Our Town Cafe's chorizo taco in Oroqiueta City

While we were driving around Oroquieta City, I noticed a sign which said Our Town Cafe but didn't give it second thought. I should have! That evening, my host received a text message that I should try out the Chorizo Taco at Our Town Cafe. It was my last night in Oroquieta so it was now or never. But we got the number of the cafe when it was about to close.

It was funny since we pleaded with the owner to prepare one serving of the Chorizo Taco since I really wanted to try it out before leaving Oroquieta. After some convincing, the owner relented and we were to proceed to the restaurant in 20 minutes.

We were met by the owner Renee Evangelista who brought out a plate with two soft shell tacos. At Php80 per serving, that's Php40 a taco, it was a bargain! And the Chorizo Taco was really good and it definitely made our night! They make the Spanish chorizo and soft taco shells themselves. Plus they add a cream sauce to go with the taco which makes it taste even better.

They also serve barbecue and ribs, Spanish rice and frozen chorizo if you want to take home some. Too bad I couldn't order anymore since it was way beyond closing time. I'll definitely come back!

Special thanks to MJ and Sim Moneva for being such gracious hosts during my stay in Oroquieta City!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Misamis Occidental: Halang-halang in Oroquieta City

Halang-halang literally means spicy-spicy in Cebuano. In some parts of Mindanao, it's a chicken dish with coconut milk and chili. But in Oroquieta City, halang-halang is a spicy clear beef broth which is served together with pork and chicken barbecue, and puso (rice steamed in coconut leaves).

If you happen to be in Oroquieta City, make sure to drop by the halang-halang strip beside the city plaza. Make sure you're there late in the afternoon or early in the evening because the halang-halang and barbecue run out really quick especially in the more popular stalls.

I discovered that the hard way since we went out for dinner quite late and ended up missing the delicious barbecue in one of the stalls. So I made sure to go again the next day, this time in the afternoon, for another serving of halang-halang.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Misamis Occidental: Swimming with dolphins at the Misamis Occidental Aquamarine Park (MOAP)

A lot of people had suggested that I visit Dolphin Island at the Misamis Occidental Aquamarine Park (MOAP) to check out their swimming with dolphins experience. It had been advertised as a Dolphin Rescue Center where injured dolphins are brought to recover. In fact, when you land in Ozamiz Airport, one of the first things you'll see is a tarpaulin promoting the place. So it was worth checking out.

Entrance to MOAP is Php10 per head. From the MOAP Visitors' Center, you walk to the ferry port where another ticket counter will charge you Php250 for the round-trip boat ride and entrance to Dolphin Island which is about 20 minutes away.

At Dolphin Island, you pay another Php300 for the swimming with the dolphins experience and gear rental. A guide will take you into the enclosure and hold the bag of fish you will feed the dolphins. To be honest, I actually enjoyed the experience because the dolphins were quite playful as I fed them the fish. Unlike the dolphin shows which has elicited a lot of opposition from animal rights activists, they do not train the dolphins here to perform any tricks. They just swim around, albeit in captivity.

I had been asked by animal rights friends to find out if the dolphins were released after. Unfortunately, MOAP does not release the dolphins even after they recover. They are kept there for entertainment purposes. While I personally understand the existence of zoos, I do not agree that MOAP should continue to call it the Dolphin Rescue Center because part of rescue is release after recovery. I mean let's be straightforward that the dolphins there are kept in captivity even after recovery. So when people visit, they know what they are visiting.

This project had been promoted by none other than President Arroyo. She visited the island together with the Australian Ambassador. From what I understand, AusAID was somehow part of this project.

While dolphins in captivity are seen as okay by the general public (part of my childhood were visits to Ocean Park and SeaWorld), animal rights advocates are against it. Just to open the discussion, I would like to share Dolphins in Captivity: FAQs for you to learn about the issues behind dolphins in captivity. So if you do visit MOAP and try out their swimming with dolphins experience, at least these issues are clear to you.

After you swim with dolphins, your guide will offer to take you to the coral reefs around the island. There is no fee for this but you'll have to give your guide a tip. I was floored by the variety of coral and fish species around the island. My guide gave me another piece of fish which I held in the water for other fish to eat. By the time I knew it, I only had bones left! There were also a lot of Giant Clams in the area.

There's another pool were they keep a pawikan. But watch out because it bites! Lunch is also available on the island so no need to worry about food. During low-tide, the sand around the area surfaces. But the island disappears when it's high-tide. So you can hang around there for some swimming.

Back at the mainland, I walked around the park while waiting for my ride back to Oroquieta City. I saw a wooden bridge that led to a mangrove forest which turned out to be a zoo. I was quite disconcerted seeing a dozen or so monkeys tied up with chains around the waist to bamboo poles. Looking at them doing nothing but walking up and down the poles was not a happy experience. For a project that won the Galing Pook Award in 2005, I was a bit disappointed to see how they treated the monkeys. I hope the Provincial Government of Misamis Occidental does something about the zoo.

Anyway, I left with mixed feelings. While I genuinely enjoyed the swimming with the dolphins experience, I couldn't help but ponder on the issues behind dolphins in captivity.
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