Friday, April 07, 2006

Cambodia: Around Phnom Penh

I was off to Suwannabhum. That is the nickname the Khmers call their country which literally means land of gold. The flight from KL to Phnom Penh was quite short. As we prepared for landing, below us was a vast expanse of rice fields up to the eye could see. Wow! I arrived in Phnom Penh at 4:10 p.m. It was a quick transit through the airport and I was out in about 10 minutes. Meeting me outside were SSEAYP batchmates Mongkol and Rathana.

We went straight for Mongkol's place where I was going to stay for the next few days for me to rest and freshen up. We were meeting more PYs for dinner at Lucky Bright Restaurant for my introduction to Cambodian cuisine. Hehe!

For dinner, we had octopus with young pepper seeds, fried fish with pineapple, and green mango salad with smoked fish. Really great! And I had the local beer, Angkor Beer, to go with it. In the photo are Thyda, Sophy, myself, Theary, Mongkol, Lucy, Rathana and his friend Vinh Anh.

After dinner, Mongkol and I went for some coffee at a local coffee shop. I ordered caramel cake only to realize it was leche flan. Hehe! My earlier order was durian, taro and jackfruit ice cream but it was out of stock. Sigh! Then it was late night on the net. Hehe!

I had planned to wake up at 7 a.m. the next day to accompany Mongkol to his workplace but I was in deep sleep when he checked on me so he just came back for me. Hehe! Anyway, for breakfast, we had kuay teow with soup and beef balls, cha kwai which is the Chinese version of churros, and dimsum. Then it was off to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda.

The ticket was US$3. I was pleased to find out that US dollars were accepted all over Cambodia and can be used together with the local currency, riels. Prices in establishments are quoted in both riels and dollars and the usual exchange rate is US$1 is to KHR4,000. So I didn't need to have my money changed. Good!

At the center of the grounds was the Prasat Tevea Vinichai or the throne hall which was quite grand inside. However photos aren't allowed inside! Sigh! Beside the throne hall was a Western building which was actually a gift of Napoleon Bonaparte to King Norodom. The adjacent complex is that of the Wat Preah Keo Morokat or the Silver Pagoda which got its name from the over 5,000 solid silver floor tiles that line the vihear or temple. Inside is an emerald Buddha as well as other important artifacts including an 80 kg gold Buddha statue encrusted with 1,086 diamonds, the largest being 25 carats!

Outside the temple where stupas honoring the kings and queens of Cambodia. This is where the ashes of the late rulers are laid to rest. After the Royal Palace, we went to get my bus ticket to Siem Reap.

The ticket to the gateway to the temples of Angkor costed US$9. I was to take the last bus which was going to leave at 12:30 p.m. I should be there in 5 hours or so just in time to watch the sunset at Phnom Bakheng. Hehe!

Then it was off to the highest point of Phnom Penh which is Wat Phnom. The place marks the legendary founding of the city in 1372 A.D. when a lady named Penh fished out a floating Koki tree from the Mekong River and found four Buddha statues inside. She built a hill and a small temple on what is not Wat Phnom. The area surrounding the hill came to be known as Phnom and its builder Penh which thus became Phnom Penh. At the bottom of the hill, we bought some chook or lotus seeds for me to munch on. Hehe!

Then is was time for lunch. We had pizza at the Pizza Company in Sorya Shopping Center which is among the few modern malls in the city. From there, I was able to take photos of Psah Thmei or the Central Market. Although it literally meant new market. One of the city's unique landmarks, this gargantuan art deco building towers over the vicinity.

After lunch, we went to Mongkol's workplace at the Institute of Foreign Languages of the Royal University of Phnom Penh since he had a class to teach. Since it was very hot outside, I decided to stay indoors and check mail for the meantime.

After class, we took a drive along Norodom Boulevard which had elegant colonial mansions. Some of these mansions have been freshly painted and restored and are serving as offices of institutions such as banks and embassies. We stopped by Sisowath High School which was a complex of large colonial school buildings (above right). Wow!

Here are photos of some of the houses. The one on the left is being used as the UNESCO office in Cambodia. Really nice!

For dinner, we had some lot cha or fried noodles (being prepared below), ku chai which were fried rice pancakes stuffed with vegetables, and sugar cane juice with lemon. Accompanying us was Mongkol's former classmate Sok.

After that we then went for a stroll along Sisowath Quay which becomes so alive in the evening. On one side, you hade dozens of hotels, cafes and bars filled up with foreign tourists. On the other side of the road, you had the locals enjoying street food, playing New Year's games since the Khmer New Year was fast approaching, or just hanging around.

We had a pitcher of Angkor beer at one of the cafes while we enjoyed watching the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh's nightlife. After the beer, Mongkol and I went for a traditional Khmer massage. Hehe! What a way to cap a great day in Phnom Penh. It's off to bed now for me. I still have a lot to do tomorrow before I leave for Siem Reap.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Malaysia: Lessons and notes from Kuala Lumpur

Since the room I was staying in had no windows, I didn't know it was already morning. I think I was up by 9 a.m. After freshening up, I was off to the KL Sentral Station where buses to the LCC-T left every 15 minutes. It was a short walk from the lodge to the nearest MRT station. But I got to marvel at all the freshly painted pre-war buildings and shophouses. I also got to see KL Tower from a distance. I've been up there twice before.

Talking about adaptive reuse, check out the photo of Burger King in a 1909 building! They do not touch the building at all! I saw a McDonald's in an old building in Singapore as well. Really nice! Attention Vigan, your biggest crime was demolishing the remains of a centuries-old convento and replacing it with a McDonald's building which most heritage people have been criticizing. Sorry to say, it does not blend with the rich heritage fabric of your historic city. You don't put a belltower replica right beside the real belltower.

This goes as well to the parish priest of Lingayen. Instead of demolishing that perfectly preserved convento of yours, you could have done some adaptive reuse instead. And for Mayor Lito Atienza, adaptive reuse was the best thing to do with the Jai Alai Building. The City Government demolished it and now they do not even have funds to build the proposed Hall of Justice when they could have used the Jai Alai Building for the very same purpose. Oh well!

I got to the station and took a short subway ride to KL Sentral which was a kilometer away from the old KL Train Station. I saw the old station on the way to KL Sentral. Magnificent old building! I wonder what got into Mayor Atienza when he had most of the Paco Train Station demolished into oblivion.

Finally got to KL Sentral and went straight for the bus. An middle-aged Chinese Malaysian businessman sat beside me and he started a conversation. When he found out I was from the Philippines, he started reminiscing. He said he had wanted to visit the Philippines for the longest time. When he was in high school, the Philippines was a leader in Asia. Everyone wanted to go there. It was so well-developed. It's sad that because of political instability, the country is now at the bottom.

Tourism was so strong then. He said that today, no one hears about the Philippines anymore... attention DOT, I think this is a comment from a Malaysian who knows much about the Philippines but hasn't seen it yet. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising tool and in order to utilize that, we have to attract the ordinary backpacker to visit the country among others.

He was well-read since he knew all our presidents from Marcos to GMA. He said that the people power thing is not giving a good image of the country. It makes investors feel that the Philippines is unstable and that anything could happen anytime. I guess one EDSA was enough for a proud moment. But the second, the third or even a fourth is just too much.

He said that people like him were very scared to invest in the Philippines. And it also has a lot to do with how the media projects the country. Attention Philippine media, he was right in saying that you have the prerogative on how to present the country. There are so many good things you can show the world and yet you chose all the negative things since that is what sells. Can we please do something constructive and productive.

In the eyes of a foreigner, the coup was bad and the fact that it was immediately crushed sent good signs abroad. Listen up GMA and the opposition, quit the bickering! If you really love our country, sit down, settle your differences and start doing your jobs right. No more family members and their cronies taking advantage of the people's money, no more unlawful arrests or human rights violations, no more street rallies and other disruptive exercisies, no more grandstanding at legislative inquiries. Stop it! While both sides are in a power struggle, Juan de la Cruz is getting poorer, his standard of living going down ever further. Sigh!

Then he said it was good that I travelling while I was young. While one is not yet committed to his family, he should try to visit the world since the knowledge one gets from travel is much more than what we get from any formal education. Once you have a family, you will no longer have any time for educational travel.

It was nice listening to his thoughts. Anyway, I arrived at the LCC-T at about 1 p.m. and had lunch at a fast food which served local food. It was another nasi lemak. Ever since that trip to Kota Kinabalu last year, it's one of the dishes I crave for especially the sambal sauce. When I get back to KL on the 17th, it's Indian food I will be looking for.

On another note, Kota Kinabalu is one of only 12 cities in Malaysia. In fact before 1994, there were only five. At least they know what a city means. Here in the Philippines, some rural municipality for some reason becomes a city only because it satisfied land area and population. Hehe! At the same time, they are merging localities globally. The opposite is happening in the Philippines since we have so many LGUs. I think we should cut the number in half!

I was quite early for check-in for the Phnom Penh flight but it's better to be early than to be left behind. On the bus, there was this American girl who was close to tears since she was already late for her flight. Low cost carriers are very strict with time and counters close exactly one hour before departure. So don't even think of being late. Hehe! Left Malaysia at about 3:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Singapore: Sunny island set in the sea

I had been travelling for over four hours by now but it was still a long way to Singapore. It was a one hour and a half bus ride from the new KLIA LCC-T (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) to Kuala Lumpur. I reached KL Sentral Station at about 10:15 p.m. and took another bus from there to the Pudu Raya Bus Station. From there, I took a bus to Singapore which was about six hours. For dinner, I had nasi lemak on the plane and mee rebus at the stopover midway between KL and Singapore. This is the second time I've done this border crossing to Singapore so it wasn't much of a hassle. I got there at 4 a.m. after 12 hours of non-stop travel!

As soon as I got down, I gave my SSEAYP friend Leon Ong a ring. Hehe! He had thought I was arriving the next day but he went straight
to fetch me at the Golden Mile Food Centre where the bus dropped us off. And of course, since we were in Singapore, we went straight for food. Hehe!

Breakfast was soya... tau huay and soya milk. I hope I got the spelling right but that is taho to us Filipinos, although the Singapore version does not have syrup or sago, just boiled peanuts. After breakfast, we went straight to Leon's flat and it was off to bed for me.

Obviously, I slept the whole morning. I had been to Singapore several times before so I've seen most of the sights. Things you shouldn't miss include walking tours around the colonial district or even better, a boat ride on the Singapore River which comes complete with a narrated recording of the history of the former British colony and the buildings you pass by; and trips to Sentosa Island, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay and of course, Chinatown and Little India. In the evenings, there is the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo.

Anyway, I had breakfast take two when I woke up prepared by Leon's mom since he was at work. After lunch, we bought my bus ticket back to KL. Driving around Singapore is indeed refreshing. It's an urban jungle. Not the concrete one but literally, the island is very green with trees! You have modern buildings right beside virgin forests. I hope Mayor Atienza learns to follow the Singapore example. He should stop cutting trees at the Arroceros Forest Park and should even start planting trees all over Manila! I also wonder where Bayani Fernando got this idea that trees cause slow traffic. I still remember that Katipunan incident where he wanted to get rid of all those big trees. I heard Singapore even imports big trees for their downtown areas.

Check out the photo of the East Coast Parkway (ECP). In the middle island, you have trees and bougainvillea shrubs in full bloom. At the sides, you also have trees and flowering shrubs. All pedestrian overpasses and flyovers have hanging bougainvillea shrubs on either side and ivy crawling up the concrete posts. It saves up on paint since the green ivy does the trick of covering the concrete. I laud Bayani for the cadena de amor but I think he should first make ivy crawl up the MRT posts then let the cadena vines to grow over them so that even if the cadena vines dry out which happens quite often, it's still green underneath. Maybe the NLEX and SLEX could also learn a lesson or two from the ECP.

Another thing is the urban planning is nothing but excellent! You feel there is so much space despite the fact that land is scarce in Singapore. In the Philippines, it's the opposite. We have so much land but everything feels so cramped up. Sigh! Can our mayors please create forest parks in their jurisdictions. We need trees to breathe! At the same time, Singapore was able to eradicate its slums thanks to the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Maybe Gawad Kalinga and the HUDCC could learn a thing or two from the HDB.

And all over Singapore, you had centuries old buildings and shop houses freshly painted. Hello again Mayor Atienza, please see how Singapore does it. They don't go around demolishing old buildings like the Jai Alai, YMCA and San Lazaro or plan trashing the Army Navy Club and Elks Buildings. In fact doing that in both Singapore and Malaysia is a crime. The trend in most old cities all over the globe today is urban renewal and renaissance or "re" which stands for restoring, regenerating, rebuilding, reviving, resurrecting these old urban centers, not demolishing old buildings like Mayor Atienza does.

Later in the afternoon, we met up with Dawn Pereira, another SSEAYP batchmate and went for some kaya roti at the Ya Kun Kaya Toast along China Street. Yummy! Hehe! I had a Horlicks drink to go with it. I wonder why those Horlicks candies are no longer available in the Philippines. I used to love them as a kid.

After that snack, it was off for early dinner. I really consider Singapore and Malaysia as food havens since there is so much to eat thanks to the mixture of many cultures which includes Chinese, Malay and Indian. The photo of the hawker centre above is in Ang Mo Kio. It is however a regular Singapore scene which you can find almost everywhere. I definitely had to have some char kuey teow which is a fried noodle dish with scallops. But aside from that, we also ordered oh-luak which was oyster omellette with wansuy and green onions, and chendol for dessert.

Then is was off to somewhere I haven't been to before. The best place to take a photo of the Singapore skyline is a bridge which is rarely visited by tourists. You park at Suntec City and it's a short walk from there. Wow! Great view!

And we weren't done eating yet since we met up with Singapore PYs Vincent and Francis. I had satay which is the Malay version of our barbecue, ice-cold sugar cane juice, chai tow kway the Chinese version of carrot cake and roti john. We were done eating at 10:30 p.m. since I had to catch my bus back to KL which was the last bus for the night. The first one in the morning was at 7:30 a.m. and I would be late for my flight if I took that one. So it was less than 24 hours in Singapore but it was most worth it.

I arrived in KL at 4 a.m. Tired from all that travelling, I got myself a room at a backpackers place for less than US$10 which was good enough for a few hours of sleep and a shower before I left for the airport. Zzzzzzzz!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cavite: Corregidor Island fortress from the sky

As I mentioned in my earlier entry, it's fun seeing the things down below from a bird's eye view. From the DMIA, you see a different landscape. The most prominent of these attractions is Mount Arayat which towers over the central plains of Luzon. I was able to recognize the City of San Fernando as well. From there, you also see the towns at the Pampanga River delta and Manila Bay.

Then Corregidor came into view, like a little tadpole swimming at the mouth of the historic bay. Since we've touched on the island, might as well talk about it. A few years back, I got to take an alternative route to Corregidor, faster at that. We're all familiar with those fastcrafts which leave from the CCP Complex. They charge quite a hefty amount if I remember it right. But if you are vacationing in the Subic or Morong area, you might want to consider visiting the island since it is only 30 minutes by pump boat from a certain barangay in Mariveles.

At that time, I think the boat ride costed us PHP1500 total. Imagine the savings if there were more of us. I and a brod, Felix Lopez dared another brod Ryan Tan that we could meet up with him and his family in Corregidor. He thought we were joking since we were in Bataan, hours away from the port in Manila. Hehe! So to make the long story short, we were able to reach the island just as they were about to depart. The good thing about pump boats is that you had your own departure time.

So after Ryan left, we had our own tour of the island. I contacted Col. Art Matibag, head of the Corregidor Foundation, who was kind enough to lend us a vehicle around the island. I had met Col. Matibag when we were actively pushing for the preservation of the San Fernando Train Station which is a very important Second World War site.

Corregidor is actually part of
Cavite City although it is closer to Bataan. The other island you see at the tip is Caballo Island. Known as "the rock," it was host to Fort Mills during the American colonial period which is when most of the artilery was placed there. Today it is one of the most important Second World War shrines in the country having been the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Battle of Corregidor.

Some of the more popular sites on the island are the batteries, the Corregidor War Memorial, the Corregidor Lighhouse which is one of the few remaining Spanish structures left standing, and Lorca Dock where MacArthur uttered his famous lines, "I shall return!"

Anyway, we flew down the coast of Cavite and Zambales, then over the island of Mindoro. Sigh! And we all wonder why we have all these landslides. The forests were all gone. Just a few patches of green. I hope the DENR focuses on protection of what's left as well as reforestation.

From there, we made a right turn toward continental Asia. Didn't see much since it was dark. We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at about 8:30 p.m. after a four hour flight.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Learning from our Southeast Asian neighbors

I will be flying in a while to KL from the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport in Clark. This is my transition post of sorts. Hehe! From backpacking in the country, it's time to visit our Southeast Asian neighbors and see what they are doing right. The plan is, from KL, I will take a bus to Singapore and back, after which I will take an AirAsia flight to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. From there, I travel by bus to Siem Reap to visit the temples of Angkor.

From Siem Reap, it's another bus to Bangkok in Thailand from where I will take another bus to Vientiane in Laos. A few hours north is the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. Then its back to Bangkok where I take an AirAsia flight back to KL and back to Clark. Let's see how things go.

I purchased the Lonely Planet book Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, and from the data I read, we can see why the Philippines is doing badly with regard to visitor arrivals. To Secretary Durano and our policy makers in the DOT, the advertising is good but unless we sit down with the tourism industry players and work out ways to lower costs of traveling here in the country, the funds spent for advertising would be a waste. At the same time, target backpackers. They are the reason behind the bustling tourism industry in Southeast Asia.

Please see the data below of the average daily budget spent traveling in Southeast Asian countries. I'm not surprised that Brunei Darussalam is at the top, and so is Singapore since the cost of living there is quite high. I'm also not surprised that East Timor is on top since they do not have the necessary tourism infrastructure to bring costs down since they are just a new nation. But the Philippines having the same cost as Singapore?! Hmmm, now Mr. Secretary, that is something we have to consider.

Budget per day (US$)
Brunei Darussalam: 30 to 50
East Timor: 25 to 25
Philippines: 25
Singapore: 25
Vietnam: 23
Indonesia: 15 to 30
Cambodia: 15
Myanmar: 12 to 20
Malaysia: 12
Thailand: 11 to 15
Laos: 10
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