Monday, October 31, 2011

Cambodia: Traveling to Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and the pinnacle of classical Khmer architecture. The temple is actually one of several in the temple complex of Angkor, situated several kilometers from Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor.

My first major Southeast Asian trip in 2006 was a two-week journey that took me to five countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. There were just a few travel blogs then. And mine was amusingly casual and conversational. Little did I know that my wanderlust for travel would bring me places. One of my stops during that trip was Angkor.

Getting to Siem Reap
There are several ways to get to Siem Reap. The most convenient of course is by air. There are direct flights from major Southeast Asian cities including Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately for the Philippines, there are no direct flights to Cambodia.

I took the land route from Phnom Penh which is a six-hour bus ride. You can also access Siem Reap by land from Bangkok via the Aranyaprathet-Poipet border crossing. I remember my bus trip lasted about nine hours. Or you can also hop on a bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh which is about six-hours. Then take the six-hour bus to Siem Reap.

Another option is to take the river ferry between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap which is also six hours, But this will take you through the scenic Tonle Sap River and Lake.

Visiting Angkor
The temple complex of Angkor is massive. The different temples are actually several kilometers apart. And unless you have a lot of time to spare and are used to walking great distances, it's best to hire a motodup (motorcycle taxi), tuktuk or moto-romauk (motorcycle trailer), or van to take you around. You can also opt to rent a bike.

Note that foreigners are required to purchase passes to be able to visit Angkor. There's a one-day (US$20), three-day (US$40) and seven-day (US$60) pass. With the tuktuk, I was able to cover a lot of ground with the one-day pass. But others visitors would get longer passes to be able to explore the archaeological park more thoroughly or walk between temples. The main park entrance is three kilometers from Siem Reap.

There are two popular routes you can follow. The Petit Circuit, aside from Angkor Wat, Bakheng and Angkor Thom, includes Thommanon, Chaosay Tevoda, Spean Thma, Hospital Chapel, Ta Keo, Ta Nei, Ta Prohm, Kutisvara, Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang and Prasat Kravan. The Grand Circuit, in addition to those mentioned includes Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Krol Ko, Neak Pean and Preah Khan. With the motodup, I was able to do the Grand Circuit in a day. Read the entry of my 2006 visit to the temples of Angkor.

Related entry
Cambodia: Day tour to Preah Vihear Temple from Siem Reap

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cambodia: Sihanoukville and its beaches

Cambodia is more than Angkor Wat. Beyond the fabled temples of Angkor is a sunny getaway called Sihanoukville, Cambodia's most popular beach resort town, south of the capital Phnom Penh. There are a lot of beaches in Sihanoukville and a wide range of accommodation choices for everyone.

Victory Beach is the backpackers' area. That's where you'll find many of the budget accommodation. Sokha Beach is said to be the best beach in Sihanoukville. It used to be a public beach but is now exclusive to the Sokha Beach Resort where we stayed during our visit to Sihanoukville. The other good beach after Sokha is Ochheuteal Beach which is conveniently located near the accommodation at Serendipity Beach. If those beaches are crowded, you can also try Independence Beach. Five kilometers from Ochheuteal is Otres Beach where there would be even less people.

We had traveled a great distance to get to Cambodia from Vietnam. It turned out, everyone was on their way back to Phnom Penh after celebrating the Khmer New Year holidays in the provinces or in Saigon. So we found ourselves joining the mad rush back and found ourselves over four hours delayed with a six hour trip extended to ten!

After staying a night in Phnom Penh, we got on the first bus to Sihanoukville. The ride was a little over four hours. And it took us through the vast Cambodian countryside. At the Sihanoukville bus station, finding a ride to the Sokha Beach was not a problem since tuktuks and motorcycles were readily available.

The impressive Khmer façade of the luxurious main lobby greeted us as our tuktuk entered the vast grounds of the Sokha Beach Resort. As soon as we settled down in our beach view rooms, we proceeded to the Champa Lounge for lunch.

The highlight of the resort is its 1.5 kilometer private white sand beach. The rest of the afternoon was spent taking a nap at the beach.

Later in the evening, we were off to Lemongrass, the resort’s beach side restaurant, for dinner. The Lemongrass was a perfect place to cap the day. As it slowly got dark, the enchanting lights of the restaurant took center stage with the sea breeze relaxing our senses even more. They had both outdoor and indoor dining areas. And nothing beats a night under the stars for a candle-lit dinner by the beach.

The next day, I could have spent the morning island-hopping since the beaches in the nearby islands are fantastic! You can easily arrange boat trips through your guesthouses or hotels. But I was not really feeling well because of some street food I must have eaten.

We were back on the road by lunch since we had to catch a 6 p.m. flight in Phnom Penh back to Ho Chi Minh City. Our fingers were crossed the whole time hoping that we would arrive at the airport just in time for the flight. And it was a good thing the bus from Sihanoukville conveniently passes by the airport. And we got there with a lot of time to spare.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Metro Manila: Mexican and TexMex favorites at Burritos & Tacos (B&T) Mexican Kitchen, Ortigas

Those posts about Mexico got me craving for Mexican food. Unfortunately, most Mexican restaurants in the Philippines are not actually Mexican. They serve TexMex (which comes from Texan and Mexican) cuisine which basically evolved from the use of ingredients available in the United States to create dishes with a strong Mexican influence.

TexMex is characterized by melted cheese (most Mexican tacos do not have cheese) and beans. Texas-style chili con carne, fajitas, chimichangas (deep-fried burritos), hard-shell tacos with ground beef, or serving tortilla chips with salsa as an appetizer are actually TexMex creations. A burrito in the US would have pinto (black beans), Mexican style rice, guacamole, salsas, cheese, and sour cream. But in Mexico, the burrito or tacos de harina would usually just have meat and one or two other ingredients.

Anyway, I remembered Burritos & Tacos (B&T) along Ortigas in North Greenhills (a high school classmate brought me here right after I arrived from Mexico). And since I was in the area this afternoon, I dropped by for some Mexican tacos. They serve a mix of Mexican and TexMex dishes.

Basically, you get to choose your dish: Burrito, Frito Burrito, Burrito Bowl, Mexican Salad, Mexican Taco, Taco, Quesadilla, Guaca de Frito, Chimichanga, Tostada, Taquitos or Flautas. The price of your meal will depend on the meat you choose: Beef (Php350) Carne Asada, Barbacoa or Chili con Carne; Pork (Php340) Chorizo, Alpastor or Carnitas; Chicken (Php330) Jalapeno or Chipotle; Ox (Php360) Lengua Salsa Verde, Tripas or Cabeza; Fish (Php330); Shrimp (Php350); or Vegetarian (Php310).

The Mexican Tacos don't come with cheese while the TexMex Tacos do. You have a choice of corn or flour tortillas, corn usually for Mexican while flour for the TexMex Tacos.

B&T Mexican Kitchen
Sekai Building, Ortigas Avenue cor. Madison Street
(0917) 8126218 / (02) 9751850

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mexico: Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)

Even school campuses can make it to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Ciudad Universitaria (University City) of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City was inscribed in 2007.

According to UNESCO, "The ensemble of buildings, sports facilities and open spaces of the Central University City Campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), was built from 1949 to 1952 by more than 60 architects, engineers and artists who were involved in the project. As a result, the campus constitutes a unique example of 20th-century modernism integrating urbanism, architecture, engineering, landscape design and fine arts with references to local traditions, especially to Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past. The ensemble embodies social and cultural values of universal significance and is one of the most significant icons of modernity in Latin America."

Since we had time in transit between bus trips, we decided to rush over to UNAM to check out the famous campus. The most iconic buildings include the Rectorate Tower and the Central Library, decorated with murals made by David Alfaro Siqueiros (Rectorate Tower) and Juan O'Gorman (Central Library).

Also in the heart of the campus is the 1968 Olympic Stadium which was also used during the 1986 Soccer World Cup. The mosaic at the entrance of the stadium and reliefs in the stands were done by Diego Rivera.

Other attractions in UNAM include the Centro Cultural Universitario (CCU) where plays, film-showings and concerts are held and the Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone. Yes, the campus has ruins of what is believed to be the largest central settlement in Mesoamerica before the rise of Teotihuacán.

How to get to UNAM
Take the Metro to Universidad. Take exits D or F to access the free shuttle buses around campus. Bus No. 1 will take you to the center of the campus where the Rectorate Tower and Central Library can be found. From there you could walk to the Estadio Olympico. Bus No. 3 takes you to the CCU and Cuicuilco. The free shuttle buses don't run on weekends and during the summer break from late June to August.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Mexico: Historic Centre of Morelia and Good Friday Procesión del Silencio

After spending the night in Queretaro, we took an early morning bus at 4 a.m. to Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. The state of Michoacán covers the former territory of the Purépechas, a people of skilled artisans and warriors that was never conquered by the Aztecs. Morelia, when it was established in 1541, was called Valladolid. It was renamed after the Mexican War of Independence in honor of José María Morelos, one of Mexico's national heroes.

As soon as we arrived in Morelia, we left our stuff at the guarda equipaje (baggage storage) at the bus station and took a cab to the centro historico. Like many of Mexico's old cities, the centro historico of Morelia was easy to explore and we gave ourselves half a day to walk around the Historic Centre of Morelia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cab dropped us off at the massive Catedral, built between 1660 and 1744. Flanked by two plazas, the three-nave sandstone cathedral dominates the skyline of Morelia's centro historico with its two 70 meter-high bell towers.

We got to visit several churches including the Templo de San Agustin, Templo de la Merced, Templo de las Rosas, Templo del Carmen, Templo de San Jose, Templo de San Francisco, Templo de las Monjas and the Templo de la Cruz. Talk about church overload! But unfortunately, we missed the best one, the Santuario de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe which is a further away from the cathedral, near the historic aqueduct. The lavish decorations inside the church created in the early 20th century were molded from clay and combine Art Noveau and Baroque elements.

For those with a sweet tooth, you can pass by the Mercado de Dulces y Artesianas, a sweets market behind the Centro Cultural de Clavijero.

Walking around Morelia was quite straightforward and easy as long as you have a map. After an early lunch, we found ourselves hopping on a bus again, this time to Mexico City for a brief transit to the south of Mexico. More photos in the Ivan About Town Facebook page.

Procesión del Silencio on Good Friday
During Semana Santa, Morelia is famous for its Procesión del Silencio which departs from the Calzada Fray Antonio de San Miguel at 7:30 p.m. and goes through Avenida Madero, Catedral, Quintana Roo, Allende, Plaza Valladolid and ends at the Templo de Capuchinas.
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