Saturday, January 20, 2007

Taiwan: Taichung, culture city of Taiwan

How can one forget the date we left for Taiwan. It was February 14, 2003. The City Government of San Fernando was being sent by the Department of Tourism to represent the country in the 2003 Taiwan Lantern Festival which was held in Taichung. I had previously been to Taiwan when I was five but we only went around Taipei. So this was my first time to get out of the capital city. But time was limited since although we were there for almost two weeks, most of our time was at the festival and meeting with local officials.

It was a late night Philippine Airlines flight since I remember, our passports were stamped in Taipei on the 15th. We were met by the Tourism Attache who accompanied us on the two-hour bus to Taichung, Taiwan's culture city. The bus ride was very comfortable since the chairs were really big. It was like sleeping in your own living room. When we arrived in Taichung we all went straight to bed.

Most of our time that day was spent at the Taichung branch of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), our de facto embassy in Taiwan. That night was the opening of the festival. We had passes but didn't get to use them since we were busy preparing the San Fernando giant lantern.

Anyway, when our work was done, I checked if I could still catch the program. But when I got close to the stage, President Chen Shui-bian was about to leave. I was just about a meter or two away but because of tight security, I wasn't able to have a photo taken with him like I usually do when I get the chance to meet heads of state . Who wouldn't? Oh well!

On the right is the main lantern that was lit by President Chen. I remember that the NT$10 million (US$287,356) spent by Chunghua Telecom to produce this 20-meter lantern was the talk of the town during the festival.

We only got to go around Taichung on the 17th and 18th. I remember walking around Taichung Park, also known as Zhong Shan Park. Its main attraction is Jih-Yueh Lake which was originally a natural pond. After years of human modifications, it now covers an area of about 13,500 square meters. In the middle of the lake is a pavillion built in 1908 to commemorate the completion of the north-south railway when the island was still under Japanese occupation. This pavilion has become an important symbol of the city.

It was while reading on the Japanese rule in Taiwan that I found out that the Republica Filipina was not the first Asian republic as some would claim, but was predated by the Republic of Formosa (May 24, 1895) and the Republic of Ezo in Japan (December 25, 1868) among others. In fact, according to Wikipedia, the first republics in Asia are Vaishali, Licchavi and Vajji all established in India circa 600 B.C.

The next day, we visited the Confucius Temple. According to the Taichung website "Taichung's peaceful Confucius Temple features impressive, rectangular Sung Dynasty-style structures, surrounded by spacious courtyards and a garden. The buildings and grounds are usually quiet and near-deserted, giving the temple a relaxing, meditative air. Once a year, during Confucius' birthday (Teachers' Day), the temple comes to life for a dawn ceremony featuring processions of marchers and musicians clad in traditional Chinese imperial court costumes, government officials and hundreds of spectators." Beside it is the Martyrs Shrine. But we weren't able to go inside since it's closed on weekdays.

We also got to visit the Paochueh Temple, a Buddhist temple in the northern edge of the city which is known for its big Buddha statue. The 88-foot gold statue is a big-bellied, happy Buddha known as Maitreya. Below it is an inscription which translates "Happiness to All."

The temple complex is a quiet and secluded place where one can reflect and meditate. The main shrine hall, with a striking blue glazed roof, was built in 1928 and houses three Buddha images protected by a row of fierce guardians.

That afternoon, we also made a courtesy call to Mr. Chen Tien-Wen, the Vice Speaker of the Taichung City Council at the historic Taichung City Hall. It was commissioned in 1912 as the Taichung State Building by the Japanese colonial government. This wood and re-inforced brick structure was completed in 1924 and is considered one of the most elaborate and ornate buildings of the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan.

That's it for Taichung. Up next is the day trip to the mountains in Nantou County we did the day after.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Manila: Stopover in Manila

To those asking about what one can do in Manila while in transit and waiting for their flight out, here is a suggestion: Go to the SM Mall of Asia!

Ton, my SSEAYP SG-mate from Thailand, was in Cebu the past few days for the 12th ASEAN Summit being part of their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was all work for him and he didn't get to see much, just Shangri-La Mactan, Cebu Midtown and the CICC as well as the sights along the way. To add to that, he only had three hours in Manila today from the time his PAL flight arrived in the NAIA Centennial Terminal 2 to the time his Thai Airways flight left the NAIA Terminal 1.

So Pam, my SG-mate from the Philippines, and I played it by ear and met up with him at Terminal 2. The vehicle from the Thai Embassy was there to bring their group to Terminal 1. So we joined them in the van.

We found out that they were having lunch at the SM Mall of Asia after they checked their luggage in. Good news, since at least we get to have lunch with Ton. So we waited outside until I received a phone call from Ton that they had left Terminal 1 from the VIP level of the arrival area which I had forseen since obviously, the vehicle had diplomatic plates. Haha! We had no choice but to take a taxi to SM Mall of Asia.

The trip was less than 20 minutes and we spent PHP75 for the taxi. If you are a passenger in transit and want to save on a cab since the airport taxi is costly, go to the departure area and sneak into one of the taxis that had just unloaded its passengers. Hehe!

We only had an hour to go around and eat lunch. So we rushed to find the first Filipino restaurant we saw. The name of the place was Bangus. Since Ton wanted pork, we ordered sisig, crispy pata, and chicken and pork adobo, as well as garlic rice. He enjoyed the sisig but found the adobo quite salty. Same reaction here, their adobo was quite salty. We got to walk around a bit after but not too far since we had to be in the van by 1 p.m. So much for my first visit to the SM Mall of Asia! Haha! Sad to say it was my first visit too. Haha!

Anyway, I haven't really traveled much these past few weeks. I regret not going out of town during the Christmas break since now, school, work, the Senate meetings on the proposed Heritage Bill, as well as meetings for the Ateneo Alumni Association have occupied most of my time. So in the meantime, I'll write about my trip to Taiwan, also in 2003.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

AirAsia is giving 1,000,000 free seats!

Those who already know about it will kill me for posting this. But those who might find out about it when it's too late will kill me too for not posting it. It's like a damned if you do, damned if you don't thing. Hehe! Anyway, AirAsia is at it again. I almost thought they weren't giving away free tickets this year. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the announcement in my inbox, that they had 1,000,000 free seats up for grabs.

In fact, I've already booked flights to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta this June! Although the fare is free, you pay for taxes, surcharges and other expenses. My round-trip ticket from Clark to KL came out at PHP3,290. Add the PHP1,620 travel tax you pay at the airport plus the terminal fee of PHP300 (I'm not sure about the security fee), it's really cheap! I also bought a round-trip ticket from KL to Jakarta for just RM175 (PHP2625).

Hurry because the free flights are going... going... gone!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Malaysia: More Straits Settlements history in Malacca

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Penang late in the evening. Of course, the first thing we did was go for a late dinner. If I remember it right, it was at a mamak which served roti canai, beef murtabak and teh tarik.

September 19: The next day, I think we went shopping since the only thing I could remember was that we passed by KL's Central Market. That evening too, Leon took a bus from Singapore to join us in KL.

September 20: We decided to go to Malacca (Melaka) and meet up with Shyamala, another SSEAYP batchmate who lived there. Aside from me, Kenneth and Leon, two Filipino friends of Kenneth joined us.

Since I had been to Malacca the previous year during the SSEAYP program, we didn't go around much. I hadn't realized it then but I had actually visited the three major towns of the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang and Malacca) during the trip.

Just like Penang, Malacca had its own heritage trail sponsored too by American Express. We started at the Town Center of Malacca Town. One of the major structures there is Stadthuys. which according to the Melaka website was built in 1650 as the official residence of Dutch Governors and Deputy Governors. It adds that "the edifice is a fine example of Dutch architecture, with solid doors and louvred windows. Believed to be the oldest Dutch building in the East, the port-red theme extends to the other buildings around the Town Square and the old clock tower."

Also painted in port-red is Christ Church which was completed in 1753. Inside this Dutch church are 200-year old pews, an altar painting of the Last Supper on glazed tiles, as well as 15-meter beams each made from a single tree.

From the Town Center, we walked straight to Jonker Street (Jalan Hang Jebat) which is a cluster of art galleries, antique and souvenir shops, as well as traders of traditional items, "among them goldsmiths, watch repairers, clog makers and beaded shoemakers, blacksmiths, rattan and bamboo weavers, Chinese traditional medicine merchants and food outlets."

Also in the area were several mosques and temples, among them the Kampong Kling Mosque, one of the oldests mosques in Malaysia which has Sumatran architectural features; and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple which was built in 1646 and is thus the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia.

One of the must see sights which I got to visit the previous year is A'Famosa, the "hallmark of Melaka and perhaps the most photographed subject next to the Stadthuys. Built by the Portuguese in 1511 as a fortress it sustained severe structural damage during the Dutch Invasion. The British had set to destroy it but timely intervention by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1808 saved what remains of A' Famosa today."

Also visit the ruins of St. Paul's Church, where the remains of St. Francis Xavier were briefly enshrined in the open grave in 1553 before they were brought to Goa, India.

When it comes to food, don't miss the Baba-Nyonya cuisine which is unique to Malacca. The Baba-Nyonya are the Straits Chinese, descendants of very early Chinese immigrants who partially adopted Malay customs. Another collective term for these immigrants is Peranakan which refers to descendants of foreigners who had assimilated into the local community. There are Indian Peranakans called Chitty and Eurasian Peranakans known as Kristang. In the Philippines, we had the mestizos de Sangley, with Tsinoy as its modern day equivalent

After that long day in Malacca, Shyamala joined us back to KL where we met up with another batchmate Andrea. The five of us went up to Genting Highlands for the evening. It is a 2000-meter high peak which is occupied by a mountain resort called Genting - City of Entertainment. They call it the Las Vegas of Malaysia since it is the only legal land-based casino in Malaysia. Aside from the casinos complex and the world-class hotels, other facilities in this resort include a theme park, golf course, shopping malls, sky diving simulator, concert hall and many more

September 21: It was a Sunday and we didn't do much. Leon had to commute back to Singapore since he had work on Monday. All I remember was we just kept on eating, and eating, and eating since Kenneth was very eager to let me try as much Malaysian hawker food as possible.

September 22: The M/S Nippon Maru docked in Port Klang. I attended the welcome ceremonies in the afternoon as well as the reception on board the ship in the evening. I had to leave immediately after the reception since I had to rush back to KL which was about an hour away to catch the 11:50 p.m. bus back to Singapore.

Septermber 23: I arrived in Singapore early in the morning. I think I took a nap after breakfast. I was in Changi Airport by early afternoon for my Singapore Airlines flight back to Manila.

Related entries
Melaka, Malaysia is a historic city of the Straits of Malacca
Exploring the Penang heritage trail on foot
Bus trip from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, Malaysia
Following the heritage trail in Penang

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Malaysia: Following the heritage trail in Penang

The good thing about most Asian cities is that they have central bus terminals unlike Metro Manila where every bus company has its own terminal which, although clustered together in areas such as Pasay and Cubao, make transferring from one bus to another very inconvenient since the distance between each of them is quite far for a walk. Anyway, Kenneth had already purchased for me a round trip ticket to Penang (Pulau Pinang) at KL's Puduraya Bus Station. A one-way ticket for the five-hour trip on Transnasional was RM22.70 then.

I arrived in Penang at 5 a.m. which was good since I was able to save on hotel expenses. When I got there, it was still dark. I went straight to the hotel where I was booked and tried to get some more sleep.

Penang is also referred to as Pulau Mutiara which means Pearl of the Orient. I was actually surprised when I found out about this since we all thought the Philippines is the undisputed Pearl of the Orient. Well, if we weren't heavily bombed during the Second World War and if the City Government of Manila starts doing something to preserve what's left, there would be no contest. Today, the stunning architectural heritage of Penang is very much intact. In fact, Penang is working to put its capital George Town on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list which they hope would put Penang in a better position to protect her rich cultural heritage.

Established in 1857, George Town became the first city of Malaysia when Queen Elizabeth II granted it a city status by a royal charter on January 1, 1957. It was the only city in Malaysia until Kuala Lumpur was granted city status in 1972.

I was up at about 10 a.m. and started my walk around George Town. The good thing about George Town is that there are readily available brochures for do-it-yourself walking tours called the Penang Heritage Trail. The structures along the heritage trail were restored using a grant given by American Express. Here are the brochures for Penang Heritage Trail 1 and 2.

Among the interesting sites in the trail is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, an 1880s Chinese courtyard mansion which is distint for its cobalt blue walls. The restoration of the mansion from 1991 to 1995 was recognized in 2000 by the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation as the Most Excellent Project of the Year. You can actually book a room in the mansion for a unique heritage homestay.

You also shouldn't miss the City Hall which was built in 1903 in the British Palladian architectural style. It currently houses the Penang Municipal Council Chambers and was listed as a national monument of Malaysia in 1982. Between 2004 and 2005, the Penang Municipal Council spent RM3.58 million (PHP54 million) for its restoration.

The most famous historical monument of Penang is the Khoo Khongsi which is called the Heritage Jewel of Penang. It is the clan association temple of the Leong San Tong (Dragon Mountain Hall) clan, whose forefathers came from the Sin Kang clan village in Hokkien province. Built in 1906 when the Khoo clan was at the height of its wealth and eminence in Penang society, the temple underwent a RM4.2 million (PHP63 million) restoration between 1999 and 2000.

I also got to visit the Residence of Ku Din Ku Meh, the Benggali Mosque, Cathedral of the Assumption, St. George's Church, Fort Cornwallis, the Town Hall and Yap Khongsi among other structures that day.

The next day, I continued my walking tour, walking as far as Wat Chayamangkalaram which was quite a distance from the downtown area. Along the way, I saw some elegant colonial country mansions!

Built in 1845, the temple is most know for its Reclining Buddha, the 3rd largest of its kind at 33 meters length. When I got there, they were raising funds to restore the tile roof and what they were doing was actually a good idea since visitors are requested to donate RM10 to sponsor one tile and you could write a dedication at the back of the tile.

I then walked back to the historic core where I hired a trishaw to tour me around. The driver knew the history of the different sites and I was impressed. I visited the Malay Mosque, Mahamariamman Temple, Syed Alatas Mansion, Kapitan Keling Mosque, Kuan Ying Temple, Christian Cemetery, Dr. Sun Yat Sen's Penang Base and Hainan Temple before finally boarding the 5:30 p.m. bus back to Kuala Lumpur.

Related entries
Bus trip from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, Malaysia
Exploring the Penang heritage trail on foot
Melaka, Malaysia is a historic city of the Straits of Malacca
More Straits Settlements history in Malacca
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