Superstar Libra – The First Cruise


There was a time…..a long time…..when people travelled only by sea. It was slow, yeah, and sometimes perilous. And so when airplanes started getting the speed, range, reliability and commecial feasibility that they have now, travelling by sea got largely relegated to stuff like cargo. In fact the last time my feet stepped on a ship was 22 years ago, until just now.

Still, there’s something about travelling slowly at sea that flying through the air at three quarters the speed of sound cannot provide. Sure, it takes more time, way more time, but if time is gold as they say, then travelling by ship must be like taking a bath in gold. Travelling by air nowadays has become so mundane, it’s like taking a bus. It’s lost its sense of being a special event. As a child I still remember cabin crew cheerfully welcoming me as I board, like I’m someone they are actually looking forward to have on the plane. Nowadays, you sometimes (depending on what class and what airline you are flying) feel like cabin crew are sizing you up on how much work they will have to do for you during the flight. But you cant blame the crew entirely, as some passengers act like their economy ticket entitles them to a personal butler and concierge service. Planes, like buses, also now get overcrowded that they have to drag people out (ahem, United). 

Going inside a cruise ship however is a very different story. You get a five star hotel welcome. Here you are a guest, not just some guy who paid for a seat that could be raffled out anytime.

As my family and I were looking for a different kind of experience for the summer holidays, we grabbed a chance to book a cruise at a substantially discounted price. The cruise would start at the Malaysian resort island of Penang, and take us to Thailand’s most popular beaches, Phuket and Krabi, on onboard Star Cruises’ Superstar Libra. Though I have been on ships before, mainly inter-island ferries that used to take most people around the Philippines before budget airlines stormed the market, this is my first proper, leisurely cruise.

Being a relatively young market, the cruising scene in South-east Asia does not often get the latest, swankiest ships that ply the likes of the Carribean, or the Mediterranean. By global cruising standards the Penang-Phuket-Krabi loop is quite short, and by today’s cruise ship standards the Libra is quite unremarkable. Commissioned by the Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) in the late 80’s as the MS Seaward, it was designed for the 90’s type of crowd, and sailed in Florida and the Bahamas. When Star Cruises bought NCL in 2000 it was one of three ships transferred from NCL to Star Cruises’ Asian operations, to upsize the latter’s previously smaller Asian fleet, while NCL’s fleet was upgraded to 2000’s standards.

Given that history, the highlight of the cruise was certainly not the ship itself, but rather, the destinations and the manner by which you get there. We had never been to either Penang, Phuket or Krabi before, and given the time of year, there’s no better destination than the best of Thailand’s beaches, and there’s no better way to see them than approaching their coastlines from the sea, seeing the beautiful islets along the way. That however does not mean the ship is not comfortable. It is. Humble the ship may be by today’s standards, it still is a ship made for leisure, and it is maintained like a car in an enthusiast’s garage. It is a clean, beautiful white ship. It may not have the grand atriums, waterslides, and rides of today’s behemoth floating hotels, but there’s no stopping you from dining at its half a dozen restaurants, drinking at its poolside bars, enjoying its nightly shows or simply lounging at the sun deck. Another unique thing about cruising in Asia is the demand for gambling, and two-third’s of the ship’s deck 5 was made just for that.


One thing you will likely not experience in a cruise is hunger, unless you hole up in your cabin like a hermit. There will be food anytime of the day, all you need to do is get up and walk. Three of the Libra’s restaurants provide complimentary breakfast, lunch and dinner, and one has complementary snacks in the morning and afternoon. If you’d like a touch of fine dining at sea, there are ala carte restaurants open the whole time, and you’ll get the best the galley has to offer on gala night. Just as sure as the sun rises in the east, there will be food.

The delight of cruising is that it makes makes time slower…like the fabric of space-time in Einstein’s theory stretches when one is onboard a large metal vessel over a body of water. A minute suddenly feels much longer when one starts sailing, and there’s plenty of options to spend your sudden gift of time. You can lounge at the ship’s two pairs of pools and jacuzzis until the sun bakes you well done during the day, or until your skin wrinkles by a hundred years. You can drink like there’s no to tomorrow at the pool deck and sun deck bars (Unlike being in a hotel, on land, Star Cruises does not rip you off for alcohol. You can get 3 Coronas, Hoegaardens or the like for 32 MYR, which though not cheap, seems reasonable by Malaysian standards). You can shop or ogle at the modestly sized duty free stores (which have a suprisingly good stock of luxury items). You can dance on dance classes that seem to be going on all the time somewhere in the ship. Or, you can watch the nightly shows at the Stardust Lounge, the ship’s auditorium-cum-theatre in the fifth deck. These range from a magic show and acrobatic show done by a professional magician and acrobats, to a talent show presented by crew members.

If theatre, lounging by the pool, soaking up the sun, watching the shows, playing at the casino, getting drunk, or getting fat with the endless food, is none of of your thing – at all, then you can of course stay at your cabin (killjoy!). One disadvantage of the Libra compared to newer ships is the lack of balcony rooms. It seems having your own balcony on a ship wasn’t cool yet when the ship’s designers made their blueprint in the 80’s. But you do get cable TV, albeit with limited channels, and you can purchase wifi onboard for a number of hours, which is quite expensive but works reasonably well considering you are in the middle of the sea (not lightning fast but workable).

We got one of the smallest rooms with an outside view (courtesy of a porthole around 1.5 feet in diameter), in deck two. The room is small – barely enough for me, my wife and our 7 year old kid, but it is clean, with comfortable sheets, and we got it for a hefty discount, so no complaints. Be prepared to bath like you’re in a cramped army barracks though, as the en suite bathroom encourages the art of making the most possible activity in the least amount of space. You can of course get a larger room, or a suite, but you’ll have to pay more, naturellement.


*We sailed with Superstar Libra on April 2017.

Bacolod…at a loss for words


I’ve always felt that if you want to see the best of the Philippines, you must go to the Visayas. It’s the one place where you can get everything that’s good about this country. It’s got the beaches, the environment, the urbanity in its major cities, and the history – lots and lots of history. And one of the most “historical” cities in the country is here, Bacolod. It was one of the more affluent cities during the Spanish colonial era, with its wealth driven mainly by the vast sugar cane “haciendas” (plantations) that continue to exist to this day. Traces of its wealthy past can be seen with the numerous old mansions of the Spanish era “hacienderos”, on it and it’s neighbouring sister city of Silay.

Nothing captures the old, romantic Bacolod better than the sight of “The Ruins” (photos below). It is the remains of a once elegant mansion built by one of the local “sugar barons” – a name contemporarily used to describe the wealthy owners of plantations back then. The Ruins has a tragic backstory that led to it being called the “Taj Mahal of Bacolod”, for it was built not only as a house, but a monument to the then recently deceased wife of the then landowner. Unlike the Taj Mahal though, it was never a mausoleum, but was a fully functioning new residence of the widower’s family. The second tragedy was that it was burned by guerillas during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in world war 2. Today what remains is the skeletal structure of the mansion, but even that in itself is a thing of wonderous beauty.

Silay City, around half an hour’s drive away from central Bacolod, looks like a peek through a time machine. This city is abundant in old houses, old restaurants, old churches, old streets, and just about old anything. Here, some of the old aristocratic mansions have been preserved and turned into private museums – open to the public for a reasonable fee. The houses give a good view of the lives of the priviledged back then, but even simply navigating the streets of Silay sort of take you to a world where time moves slower,



Despite the rich history, Bacolod is a city that is in tune with the times. And that means big shopping malls and traffic, and more traffic. The center of Bacolod can be congested, and while it does not yet get into the EDSA or even Cebu levels of traffic induced stress, Bacolodnons are not spared from the urban hassles of growing cities. But there’s relief from the urban clutter in the form of a mountain resort. 

The Campuestohan resort is nestled in mountainous slopes in the outskirts of the city, and the weather here is noticeably cooler even in the middle of August, one of the country’s most humid months. The resort is sort of a mish mash of everything. It’s a picnic area in some areas, it’s a water park in some areas, an adventure park in some areas, an overnight hang-out in some areas, a Universal Studios wannabe in some areas –  sort of like it couldn’t decide what exactly it wanted to be so it decided to be everything at once. Not that it isn’t fun. It’s a legit option for recreation, and while it doesn’t give the peace and quiet most mountain resorts provide (it attracts quite a horde from all over the province), it can give families a much needed fun weekend.


So what do I think of Bacolod? It is a charming city, healthy and throbbing with life. It’s not as hectic and large as Cebu or even Iloilo just across the channel, but neither can you call it “little”. The transportation is as good as you can get in any major Philippine city, with taxis and jeepneys ruling the road. And it is orderly, and in fact I find it quite pedestrian friendly by third world standards, more so than its two larger Visayan neighbours.

We made this trip to Bacolod around 5 months ago, but only wrote about it now, which is a bit uncharacteristic of me. Why? I’m at a loss for words as to why. Perhaps I just could find the right words to describe it. 

Shanghai, 9 Years After


We visited Shanghai nine years ago on a guided tour, as part of a two-city swing along with Beijing. Being a guided tour, we really weren’t able to go around much, and our itinerary took us to too many shops, and we spent too much time on the road. Still, I got to like Shanghai, and I told myself that I will find a reason to be back, to tour the city on my own. The recent opening of Disneyland in Shanghai gave me that reason (or excuse).


This time around we stayed at the Howard Johnson Plaza, one of the more affordable western chain hotels right in the center of Shanghai. Sticking to a reputable western brand, I at least felt some guarantee that the front desk will be trained to deal with non-Chinese speakers, as judging by our previous visit, the language barrier in Shanghai can be quite considerable. And arriving from a red-eye flight in the wee hours of the morning, the last thing one needs is a misunderstanding at check in.

As it turns out, we couldn’t have chosen a better spot. The hotel’s front door practically leads to East Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s largest, busiest pedestrian-only shopping street. I consider this area the heart of the city, both in terms of geography, and in having practically everything you need. Shops and restaurants line both sides of the rather long street, and most are open late into the night. I also use this area to “center” myself while navigating the city, as I find it easier to get my bearings in the vastness of Shanghai if I consider my position relative to Nanjing Road. 




To the East of East Najing Road is the Huangpu River, and on its western bank is The Bund. Looking like a piece of Europe that grew in China, The Bund is known for its long row of colonial era buildings facing the river. We did make a quick stop here before, on an evening, but this time around we walked all the way there from Nanjing Road in daylight. This narrow strip is Shanghai’s, or perhaps even China’s, most “fashionable” spot.





Right across The Bund, on the eastern bank of the Huangpu where the river gracefully bends, is Lujiazui, Shanghai’s business district. The skyline of Lujiazui is perhaps the most photographed icon of shanghai. Nine years ago, the Oriental Pearl Tower dominated the horizon on this side of the river, but it since has been surpassed by other taller, and equally distinctive structures like the oddly (or interestingly) shaped Shanghai Tower, and the World Financial Center (aka the Bottle Opener). Climbing up the upper sphere of the Oriental Pearl Tower gives a good bird’s eye view of the sprawl of the city, and thankfully, unlike before, the weather on this day was perfect, with no hint of fog or mist to obscure the view.





South and west of Nanjing Road is the expansive French Concession. As the name suggest, this was the occupied by westerners, mainly the French, during the time when the Qing dynasty was in the decline and western influence in China was at its height. The tree-lined avenues in this area provide a cool, if romantic, backdrop. Within the French Concession lies Xin Tian Di, a high-end, shopping area made out of renovated old houses known as Shikumen. With expensive shops and luxury names scattered around, Xin Tian Di is the place to be if you want to look “trendy”.







Further west of Xin Tian Di, still within the French Concession, is Tianzifang, another haven of shops in clusters of old brick houses. Unlike the elitist Xin Tian Di, Tianzifang is more bohemian, like a rebellious little sister of the former. Here you’ll find an eclectic mish-mash of bars, small restaurants and quaint shops. If you find Xin Tian Di too stiff for your tastes, then Tianzifang might be a good alternative to hang out on.








South of the Nanjing Road lies the Old Town. This was the location of the old, walled city of Shanghai. In contrast to the serene, tree-lined streets of the French Concession, the Old Town is a dense concentration of shops of whatever kind. Streets here are packed with people, and while relatively clean, it can be quite chaotic, with people crossing everywhere. Traffic signs are not only just suggestions here, but mere decorations. Still, people who take delight in buying knick knacks of every kind will have a field day in this part of the city, with rows upon rows of shops. The must sees in this area are the Yu Yuan Garden, and the Zigzag Bridge. Be prepared to box your away among the horde of tourists though.






If you have a child that’s interested in the sciences, particularly in the study of pre-historic life, then a few hours at Shanghai’s brand new Natural History Museum will be worthwhile. With life-size fossil replicas, and some pretty realistic reconstructions of dinosaurs, the place could be pretty awesome for a young mind. The museum may be undoubtedly geared more for locals, but it is friendly enough for non-Chinese speakers to be enjoyable and educational. The museum has its own station in the metro system, so it is pretty easy to get to.







So how was Shanghai this time around? Well, no doubt I enjoyed my stay much better this time. The city itself changed quite a bit. The trip from the airport was now much faster, courtesy of a very extensive expressway system that wasn’t quite what I remember it was nine years ago. The Shanghai Metro, which kept adding and adding lines as years went by, worked perfectly to a T. However if there is to be any disappointment, then it would be the language barrier. It’s the one thing that I felt hasn’t improved much since then. Communicating to locals here is much more difficult than say Tokyo, or Seoul, and people who are not used to making their way through unfamiliar places could find this a limiting experience.

Still, Shanghai…at least to me, is a beautiful city, and this trip only made me appreciate it even more.

*Photos taken October 2016.

The Shanghai Disneyland

Disney opened their first theme park in mainland China last June 2016 to much fanfare. It was all over international news, with articles ranging from anticipation, to apprehension, and understandably so. It is the first Disney to open in communist territory (Hong Kong Disney doesn’t count, by virtue of the “one country two systems” principle), and the first time that Mickey Mouse, an icon of western culture, sets up shop in a society where western influence is not exactly free flowing. And there was the question of how Disney, a true blue American invention, will be received by a people who are not exactly big fans of Uncle Sam. Still, Disney bet big, and to start they acquired a piece of land 11 times larger than the original Disneyland in California. Mickey’s got balls…big ones!

The park’s opening did get its share of praises and jeers from international media. There was the awe at the sheer size of the park, and the innovative rides never before seen in other Disney parks like the visually captivating Tron roller coaster, and the ultra-high-tech “Pirates of the Carribean” and “Soaring over the Horizon”. And on the dowside were pictures of children peeing on the grounds, garbage on the streets and reports of shoving and pushing on the queues. Still, whenever Disney does something, you know it’s big, and so on my son’s first break from school for the year, we packed our luggage and went to see Mickey in China.

The first thing you will notice in the Shanghai Disney is that it is geared towards the local market big time. You’ll be surprised at how each Disney character has become so fluent in Mandarin, as all the songs, shows and ride narrations are in the local language. Mulan is probably so relieved that she can finally speak in her native tongue. Second, a lot of things were “orientalized”. Don’t go looking for Main Street USA here, as the street at the entrance has been named “Mickey Avenue” instead, and it doesn’t take a genius to know why.





As in any Disneyland, there’s got to be a castle, and Shanghai’s holds the record as the largest so far, beating the one in Orlando, Florida, the previous record holder in height and width. In another break from Disney tradition, the Shanghai castle does not belong to any particular princess. While California, Paris and Hong Kong are Sleeping Beauty’s, and Orlando and Tokyo are Cinderella’s, the Shanghai castle is simply called (for reasons I do not yet know), the Enchanted Storybook Castle. Still, despite not having a princess, the Shanghai castle is a thing of beauty, with its intricate details and sheer imposing presence. This thing makes the one in Hong Kong look like a school art project – no joke.








To the right of the Enchanted Storybook castle are two themed lands, the Treasure Cove, and the Adventure Isle. The pirate-themed Treasure Cove is the first of its kind in any Disney park. Anchored almost entirely in the Pirates of the Carribean movie franchise, the highlight of the area is the “Pirates of the Carribean: Battle for the Sunken Treasure” ride, a sort of grand-scale version of Hongkong Disney’s Mystic Manor with added water and water-effects. Prepare to hear Davey Jones and Jack Sparrow taunt each other in Mandarin as they fight in burning, sinking ships. I guarantee that the sheer scale and high-techness of the ride will leave you in awe, even if you don’t understand one syllable of Mandarin like myself.

Right beside Treasure Cove is Adventure Isle. The Adventure Land (or Isle) theme is pretty common in Disney Parks. In Hongkong, their version centered around the story of Tarzan, while in Shanghai it centered on no particular single character. But like all Adventure Lands, it had that Indiana Jones-ey feel. The highlight in Shanghai is one attraction called “Soaring over the Horizon”, a high-tech, virtual ride that brings you to many of the wonders of the world. Unfortunately the queueing time had already ballooned to 70 minutes by the time we got there, so we skipped it instead, so we could see more of the park.









Behind the castle lies Fantasyland, the staple of any Disney Park, the part where you see the characters from fairy tales, plus Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and everyone else that pops out of children’s storybooks. I’m not really a big fan of this section of the parks, and I’m sure any middle-aged male like myself knows the feeling. Needless to say we didn’t spend too much time here, except to take a boat ride along one of the park’s many man-made lakes. The boat ride took us to many scenes of fairy tale movies that Disney has made, like Little Mermaid, Alladin and such. It was fine, and quite visually pleasing, but to be honest, you will only get into rides like that because you have a child in tow. They do have a flume ride in this area, for adrenalin junkies, plus a Frozen show, which we unfortunately missed.



To the left of the castle is an entirely different story. Here lies Tomorrowland, and this is where most of the action in Shanghai Disney is. Inspired heavily by the Tron movie, I would give Shanghai Disney’s Tomorrowland an A+ for effort to live up to its name. This is one part of the park that trully stands on its own. You could detach this Tomorrowland from the rest of Shanghai Disney, and it will still generate it’s owm stream of revenue generating visitors. It’s…that…awesome! 

Unlike Hong Kong’s Tomorrowland which looks like it grew on the imagination of, well, Buzz Lightyear, the Shanghai version is all grown up. This one is a man’s park, not a boy’s one. The theme revolves around the Tron rollercoaster, which replicates the movie’s iconic lightcycles. Now, unlike most rollercoasters which try to scare your wits out, the Tron looks pretty mild. There are no scary drops, loops, tumbles and all that. Instead, what it does is drop jaws with its awesome, lighted canopy, as well as giving the riders an innovative, motocycle-like ride rather than the usual hanging or sitting position in other rollercoasters. Unfortunately the Tron shut down at some point while we were there, for some technical reason, so we took a ride called the “Jetpack” instead, which is like a spinning ball with arms. Not as awesome in any way, and it does look like a kiddie ride, but it spins quite fast. Apart from the rides, there’s also one section here dedicated to the Star Wars series. Trekkies, beware.






Shanghai Disney also does the customary parade, but again be prepared to sing along in Mandarin. The usual characters are there ranging from the staple Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story and such, and the latest Disney cash makers like Olaf and Elsa of Frozen, plus of course Mulan, the heroine of China, as the anchor Disney princess.



Oustide the park itself, and outside the entry turnstiles (which means it’s open to the public without a fee) is Disney Town, a sort of Disney version of a strip mall, with numerous restaurants and shops, including a huge two-storey Lego store. If you happen to be in this part of Shanghai for more days than one, and don’t want to spend for entering the park in multiple days, then Disney Town could be a good place to hang out on.


Even if you stay far from Disney, which itself is quite some distance from the center of Shanghai, transporation is no problem. The Disney Resort Station, of Shanghai Metro’s line 11, is just a short walk from the entrance. The train ride from the Bund (East Nanjing Road station) to Disney takes around 50 minutes to an hour, with 2 transfers.


So how was the experience? Well, for one there is that undeniable Disney magic once you enter – that feeling of being in another world. Although unlike the one in Hong Kong which retains an international flavor, this one in Shanghai feels like it trully is China’s own Disney, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, even if you can’t converse one second in Chinese. The staff are trained, and though some can command English better than others, you can see the effort to accomodate as much as they can. And that’s good enough in a city where the language barrier still forms sort of an invisible great wall. And about the bad press it got? Well, the park was as clean as any, though I did see just one, and only one, kid who pee’d behind a rock, and there were a couple of times when people in our back attempted to jump the queue. Not appreciated, but tolerable, especially if compared to the shoving match we were anticipating courtesy of news reports. And the park itself is really beautiful, to say the least. It would not be an exaggeration to say Disney made a masterpiece in Shanghai.

*Photos taken October 2016

The Windmills of Rizal

Renewable energy. No I haven’t become an environmentalist, but it’s nice to see clean sources of energy gaining ground in the country. The windmills of Bangui, Ilocos Norte have been around for quite some time. I saw them back in 2005, if I remember right. I was afraid windpower was going to be a one off thing, but I’m glad to see that a decade later, it was not to be.

Rising from the lower peaks of the Sierra Madre are the windmills of Pilillia, Rizal. Standing like white flowers on a backdrop of mountains and sky, the windmills have become an attraction in themselves, much like the ones in Bangui were, only these ones are closer to the big city.

On a good day, a visit to the windmills present a taste of fresh air and blue skies free from smog. And as a bonus, you can view the vast expanse of Laguna de Bay, and the silhouette of the city you temporarily left behind, at a distance. At just two hours away from Manila, it’s a perfect roadtrip destination, and a cure to urban boredom.



*Photos taken May 2016

Siem Reap

A Cambodian style Tuktuk

Having been engaged in some bit of moutaineering in my collage days, I am familiar with the term “base came”. Apart from just being the lowest camp, base camp is where the party plans the climb up. Assessments of the weather, provisions, logistics, security, and other risks inherent with venturing into the wilderness are all made here. And upon completion of the descent, base camp is where the partying takes place. Food is carefully rationed during the climb, but once base camp is reached, all remaining food and booze are wiped out with no regard. Base camp is a serious place before a climb, but there will be nothing but fun there after.

Visiting the temples of Angkor in Cambodia requires some planning too, though not as rigorous as going up a mountain. And at the end of a day long tour, everyone will be thirsting for an ice cold drink. When visiting Angkor, your base camp is Siem Reap. The place is serious business in the morning, but it’s all fun and eating and drinking in the evening. It may be a medium sized town (it’s not even a city), but “sleepy” is hardly ever a word you could associate with Seam Riep. From the airport, to the temples, to the hotels, resturants and bars, there’s almost always a flurry of activity somewhere. 

As most people are out “Tomb Raider-ing” during the day, it’s in the evening that Siem Reap is in its most vibrant. The town is still devoid of malls and large commecial establishments, so most of the shopping is done at the night market (below). From souvenirs, to cheap clothing, to duty free items, to counterfiet watches, you can find them all here.

   
  
    
   
   

Right next to the Night Market is Pub Street. This is where you find many expats, especially westerners who like to bask in the warm evening air, hanging out. What is most unusual about pub street is the proliferation of small, mobile cocktail bars, such as below. These motorcycle-pulled carts park by the streetside to sell shots of liquor. Add some funky neon lighting, and put some plastic stools out infront, then you have an instant outdoor bar.

   
    
   

At the edge of Pub Street is an alley lined with restaurants and cafes. Imaginatively called “The Alley” (below), it’s a rather quiet corner with a Bohemian feel to it. If you’ve been in Cambodia long enough and would like to have a rest from Indo-Chinese cuisine, this is a good place to get some Western food.

   
 
 

Though quite obviously touristy, restaurants serving dinner buffet and cultural shows are still very popular among visitors. The Koulen restaurant, right on the town’s main street, is a good place to spend an evening in. Food is good, though the place is almost always packed to the brim so be prepared for long queues at the buffet tables. A reservation is also very much recommended, which your hotel or tour guide should have no problem doing for you. The highlight to an evening here is the dancing of the Apsara, Cambodia’s traditional dance.

   
   

Among South East Asian countries, in recent times, Cambodia had the unfortunate distinction of being the one at war for the longest time. From suffering the spill-over of the Vietnam War, to the terror of the Khmer Rouge, to the invasion by Vietnam, it seems war made a home on their land. But even before the recent troubles, the Khmers, as they were then known, had a troubled past. Being sandwiched between two influential neighbours, Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam, whose relationship with each other swung back and forth from cordial to confrontational did not help, and indeed some say repeated intervention by both neighbours led to the decline of the ancient Khmer empire.

As such, the scars of war is embedded deep in the Cambodian psyche, and war museums like this one in Siem Reap (there are several all over the country) tell as much of their story as the temples do. Though they are in no way aesthetically comparable to the well funded museums of the west, they tell a very rich story. And here, stories are not just printed on walls, they are told by people who lived through the horrors.

   
    

And of course a visit to a place is not complete without tasting local cuisine, and given there’s dearth of western chains in Siem Reap, you cannot avoid local cuisine. Khmer food is surprisingly simple. Being a neighbour of culinary giants Thailand and Vietnam, I half expected their elaborate cooking, but to my surprise, I find Khmer food more similar to Southern Chinese, with simple cooking methods highlighting the fresh ingredients. They do borrow from their neighbours too, like the use of currys and coconut milk, and even some dishes like the Tom Yum Soup and the Fresh Spring Rolls. Fish is their primary source of protien (very healthy!) and their national dish is the Fish Amok, fillets of fish in curry and coconut milk. Other notable dishes are the Lok Lak (a sauteed beef dish) and their own version of the steamed fish.

 

Fish Amok

  

Beef Lok Lak

  

Fresh Spring Rolls

  

Tom Yum Soup

  

Steamed Fish

  

Sour Soup

  

Sauteed Squid

 

*Photos taken March 2016

Angkor…the Big Circuit

  

So what do you do after one whole day of seeing temples in Siem Reap? See more temples on another day! One writer described temples in Seam Reap as something like a Chinese lauriat…they don’t stop coming even after you’ve had enough.

This time we took the “big circuit” tour, after we took the short one a couple of days prior. This took us through the outer ring of temples in Angkor. The big circuit would normally start at Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but since we had been there before, we bypassed them and went to the first temple north of the walls of Angkor Thom, the Preah Kahn (photos above and below). Another single level temple, the Preah Khan looks in a way quite similar to Ta Prohm which we visited before, save for the tree roots crawling on temple walls. But I’m no temple connoisseur, so I’m sure there’s plenty of unique things here for a trained archeological eye. And the good thing is unlike Ta Prohm, this one doesn’t get as crowded.

   
    
   
 

Next up is Neak Pean, the temple in the middle of a man-made lake. Unique among the temples of Angkor, the Neak Pean does not show so much vertical structures, and instead features pools surrounding a single central tower. It is said that it was made so that people with illness can get cured by bathing on its pools. Though not as structurally prominent as the other temples in Angkor, it makes up for it with the beauty of its surroundings, including the long, scenic walk across the lake to the island.

   
   
    

Going further along, we reach Ta Som. Similar in construction to Ta Prohm and Preah Kahn, but smaller, this temple is even more isolated and draws much less visitors. Looking at it from the map, this is the farthest point from central Siem Reap in the Big Circuit. Diminutive compared to its neighbors but nevertheless rich in bas relief, the Ta Som’s highlight is a tree whose roots have embraced the eastern gate.

   
    
   
Heading back down to the south, the route passes by the East Baray, the dried up eastern reservoir of ancient Angkor. In the middle of the East Baray is the East Mebon. By now the Baray is completely covered by vegetation and a road even runs across its bed, but back when it still had water, the East Mebon was a man-made temple-island, similar to Neak Pean but larger in scale.

    

Further south of East Mebon is Pre Rup. Almost similar in construction to the East Mebon, the Pre Rup appears red, as both it and the East Mebon were constructed of Laterite, unlike the rest of Angkor’s temples like the Angkor Wat, which were made of Sandstone. Both the Pre Rup and the East Mebon were constructed at an earlier period in the Khmer Empire, and predated both the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. You could also see it in the way these two “twin” temples were constructed, as they had much less detail than the younger temples. Laterite is also a softer rock, and was used by Khmer builders before they gained enough proficieny to work on the harder Sandstone.

   
   

The last stop is Beantey Kdei, the next door neighbor of Ta Prohm. Almost a look-a-like of the latter, the Beantey Kdie was also deliberately left in a state of “semi-ruin”, although there’s no significant vegetation growing on it. What it does have however are towers held together by rope. And another thing to note is that while tourists generally consider the temples around Siem Reap as “attractions”, to Cambodian Buddhists they are active, functioning houses of prayer, as shown on a photo below.

   
    
   

Though not officially part of the Big Circuit, we added Pnohm Bakheng to our itinerary that day. Sitting on the top of a hill, the highest point in the surroundings of Siem Reap, this temple is a popular destination during the sunset hours. Though not as visually grand as the other temples of Angkor, it nevertheless holds a unique title – it is said to be the very first temple there, and predated all the other temples in the area. The walk to the top of the hill is a good exercise, but it’s also possible to ride an elephant to the top for a bit more thrill. The place though gets a very heavy influx of visitors, and due to its more compact size, you could feel more constricted there than even in Angkor Wat
   
   
  

Photos taken March 2016.

Angkor…Short Circuit

  

It was our first day in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and we chose to hire a van (through our hotel’s front desk) to take us through a Short Circuit tour. No, there was no electrical faulty wiring around Siem Reap. Short Circuit is what tour operators call the inner ring of temples of the ancient city of Angkor, the capital of the once powerful Khmer Empire. Cambodia is a hot and humid place, and couple that with the absence of public transport within Angkor itself (which I agree with), then it’s best to contract a ride for the tour, unless you like to take a bicycle to the woods (fun), or walk for miles (not fun). You can take a ubiquitous tuk-tuk for an al-fresco, wind-in-your-face feel, or ask for a car or van and driver from the hotel if you’d like the luxury of air conditioning.

Our first stop was the South Gate of Angkor Thom, the walled city. Being the link between the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, it is the gate most used by tourists, and is therefore the subject of most restoration efforts. The ancient Khmer experienced back and forth shifts between Buddhism and Hinduism, and this is immediately noticeable at the gate. At the top are the four faces of the Buddha facing in each direction, and at the bridge you see a line of Hindu Devas.

  

Going past the gate and further along is the Bayon (photos below). Being the main temple of Ankor Thom, it sits right smack at the center of the ancient city. Though nowhere as large as the Angkor Wat, or even the other ancient South-East Asian temples like Indonesia’s Borobudur, it looks rather unique compared to them. Bayon’s silhouette is what I would call an “organized chaos”. It is the youngest of the three temples mentioned here, and it departs from the smooth lines of the other two, and is instead composed of a series of towers of varying heights, giving an impression of a sort of “man-made canyon”, rather than a mountain which other large temples would suggest. Still, similar to the other grand temples of this corner of the world, the interior contains intricate details, from the stories carved in stone to the decors in its passageways.

Be warned that the Bayon is one of the most heavily visited temples in Angkor, perhaps next only to the Angkor Wat, so taking a photo with not too many people around takes some patience and foresight, but it’s not a hopeless endeavor (at least while we were there – it was a Wednesday). I would also suggest being ever mindful of the people taking pictures around, so as not to invade their frames. We only earn the respect that we give.

  
   
    
 
  

Not too far to the north of the Bayon is another temple, the Baphoun (photos below). A little bit larger, and older than the Bayon, the Baphoun looks a lot more conventional. It comes in the form of a wide, low pyramid, a shape commonly found among old civilizations, from Asia to Egypt to South America, though this one is pretty well decorated and detailed for a pyramid. I read somewhere that the Baphoun was the inspiration for the game “Temple Run”, though I don’t have proof so I would treat it as hearsay, but it wouldn’t seem too far off if it were true. Being less structurally stable than the others though, access is restricted to anyone under the age of twelve.

   
 

Next door to the Baphoun, again to the north, is the Royal Palace complex. Most of the palace was allegedly made in wood, so there’s virtually nothing left of it except the entrance gates and the temple in the middle called the Phimeanakas. Again the temple is shaped like a pyramid, but much smaller as I believe it was only used by the royalty.

   
 

Right outside the Royal Palace complex are a couple of terraces lined with intricate stone carvings, the Terrace of the Elephants, and the Terrace of the Leper King (photos below). The former was named, contemporarily, after the elephants carved in it (elephant cavalry were the “armored divisions” of ancient Asian armies), and the latter was named after a Hindu god whose statue stood here before, and who looked liked a leper to western explorers (the Khmers did not actually have a monarch afflicted with leprosy, as far as historians are concerned). It is said that it is from these terraces (which face an open field) where the Khmer king stood to view his army on parade.

   
 

Just outside Angkor Thom, to the East, is a small temple called Chau Say Thevoda (photo below). It’s the first of many “lesser temples” in our tour. Now I’m no expert in archeology, and I call them “lesser” simply because they are single level structures, with little vertical prominence, and in no way denotes their religious or cultural significance.

  

After a brief stop for lunch we came upon Ta Prohm (below). If you’ve seen photos of temples being embraced by tree roots, most likely it was taken from somewhere in Ta Prohm. Though a single level temple like the one above, and therefore not really visually prominent, it is nonetheless one of Angkor’s most photographed temples, its main allure being the way nature has sort of partially reclaimed it. It was also popularized by the movie Tomb Raider.

   
    
   

On the road back to central Siem Reap, our last stop was the grandest of the temples of Angkor, the Angkor Wat (photos below). Surrounded by a wide moat and an enclosure as big as a small town, the towers of the Angkor Wat dominate over the neighboring woods like medieval sky scrapers. Holding the record as the world’s largest religious monument, the temple projects a strong sense of majesty and power, which I have to admit my photography could not convey enough. It must have looked jaw dropping to any visitor of the Khmer Empire back then.

Be warned that the walkway from the road to the temple is long, open and unshaded, so it is best to visit early in the morning, or late in the afternoon.

   
    
    
 

* Photos taken March 2016

Sunrise in Angkor

  

Until a few weeks ago I was watching castles in the British Isles. Those tough, hardy structures made of solid rock symbolized power in Europe, centuries ago when kings and nobles held power over the land, and fought each other quite often. Made to withstand sieges and medieval artillery, but not so much the ravages of time, castles, in various states of repair or disrepair, were a sight to behold

But now I’m back in Asia, and here – with the notable exception of Japan – castle building never really caught on as a fad. That’s not to say Asians couldn’t build, for there are structures here just as grand or even more so. Except that the grand structures here were not built to withstand war and heavy weapons. Rather, they were made for prayer, to reach out to the heavens.

Temples can be found throughout the continent, from as far east as Java and Bali in Indonesia, to as far west as the Greco-Roman inspired temples in the Mediterranean coast. From as high as the plateau of Tibet, to as low as the Irrawady River basin in Myanmar. Yet none are perhaps more popular (and more heavily visited) than the grand temples of the ancient city of Angkor, deep in the heart of Cambodia.

And there is perhaps no more recognizable feature of a temple, than the towers of the Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument and the crown jewel of Angkor. These towers, whose silhouette also serves as the national symbol of the Kingdom of Cambodia, has graced many movies, TV shows, magazines, games, beer cans and what have you. In fact if you don’t recognize the silhouette of Angkor Wat I would have to ask you what planet you’ve been staying at all these years.

And here in Angkor (the whole place is part of what is now the province of Siem Reap, but Angkor just sounds so much more majestic), there is no better time to see the towers of the Angkor Wat, than when the sun rises from behind them.

 

People waiting for the sunrise at Angkor Wat

 
 

Angkor Wat, through the morning haze

  

Sunrise

   
*Photos taken March 2016

And We’ll Never Be Royals…in Windsor

  

“And we’ll never be Royals. It don’t run in our blood. That kind of luxe just ain’t for us”, so says the kiwi singer Lorde.

Windsor castle is one of the very few ones that are both open to the public, and still functions as what castles should be – royal residences. It is a weekend home for the Queen, and it’s still used for hosting banquets for VIPs, like other heads of state. When not in official use, parts of the castle are open to the public, and it’s quite interesting as a visitor to walk the same floors that the Queen and her guests walk on during official events.

Rising at the highest point of the town of Windsor,  the Windsor Castle has an imposing, but also elegant presence. The site is of strategic military significance, and the castle was made to withstand sieges, but it does not look all war-like. From the color of its walls, to the many nicely shaped windows, you could see that it’s a house – a gigantic one at that – fit for a queen. But you haven’t seen Windsor until you’ve been inside the castle – and I guarantee you that seeing the state rooms inside is worth every mile and every penny of your journey. Inside the castle are many adjoining rooms, some of which are still in official use, and some just retained for historical signifance. These include the previous kings’ and queens’ bedrooms, their studies, closets, changing rooms, etc. And then there are those gigantic rooms where the Queen hosts dinners, or where members of the royal family stay occasionally. The artwork on these rooms, from the painted cielings to the portraits and busts of important people, are breathtaking to say the least. Unfortunately photography is not allowed inside, so I will leave it to Google and your imagination to see what’s in it.

A walk inside Windsor castle is perhaps the closest thing ordinary mortals like us would ever get to feeling what it is to be part of the the Queen’s family, for “we’ll never be royals”.
   
    
    
    
 

The towns of Windsor and Eton

The castle sits majestically atop the town of Windsor and its next door neighbour, Eton. The two towns are just separated by the River Thames, upstream from London. Both are  quite good examples of old English towns, and a stroll around their narrow streets are a good way to feel what life in England used to be like. Being just an hour (or less) north of London, a trip to the towns is a good way to experience the English countryside, if you have limited time.

   
    
    
   

The Eton Collage

Eton’s most notable resident is, perhaps, not man, but a school. The Eton college, an all boys school and one of England’s most exclusive, educated no less than 19 former British prime ministers, and counts Princes William and Harry as former students, along with several other royals and heads of state from other countries. 

   
    
   
*Photos Taken January 2016

The Fairy Tale Town of Conwy

  

We’ve all heard of fairy tales when we were kids. The stories of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Beauty and the Beast, and many others. They were stories of princesses, princes, kings, queens, dragons, witches, castles and little old towns around them. As a child I’ve seen almost every Disney fairy tale animated movie from our school’s audio-visual room, which turns into a free movie house during lunch break, and from those movies I’ve always pictured medieval towns as walled villages with a castle somewhere inside. I’ve always pictured it in my mind in a “cartoonish” way, where white walls and bright orange roofs make the town stand out.

And then, I saw Conwy, a small town in North Wales that had exactly what the fairy tale towns had, minus the princesses, princes, and certainly no dragons nor witches. Conwy is a walled town set along the banks of a river, and in the foot of the mountains of the Snowdonia region, Wales’ most famous national park. Enclosed within the walls of Conwy is a small town that looked like the setting of the fight between Belle, Gaston and the Beast. Walking along the town’s very narrow roads felt like walking in the centuries past when everything moved by push carts and horses, and people’s daily clothing looked funny or shabby by current standards. And on one corner of the town lies the castle, a mandatory element of every fairy tale. Built during the 13th century, the castle has an imposing presence over the town, and it is relatively intact, considering it’s eight centuries old.

Though it’s walls are not white, and the castle is an old ruin – nothing like a princess’ castle in Disneyland – the beautiful little town of Conwy has all the magical elements, that make a fairy tale.
          
   
  
   
   
    
   
   
    
 

   
    
   
*Photos taken February 2016

Random Wanderings, in London

  
 

Three months after I started my assignment here in London, and I’m now here sitting on the train to Heathrow airport for my flight home, typing away on my iPad and using the complementary wifi. It’s been what I would call, a “bitter-sweet” experience. I was away from my family for 3 months and missed Christmas and New Year at home. There were those late nights for video calls with my son, and on few occasions I fell asleep while in the middle of a call. It was winter the whole time I was here, and sometimes it felt like the cold bit not only skin but also bone, especially on the walks between home and office in the mornings and evenings.

Yet it has been a fun time as well. I managed to go around the UK, as much as a busy schedule would permit. There was the new year trip to beautiful Edinbrugh, Scotland, a weekend on Belfast and the breathtaking northern Irish coast, and then I got drenched in Wales and ate black pudding. I managed to accomplish one of the things I wanted to do while here – visit the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). I managed to see Stonehenge, see the city with unusual name – Bath, wander around the towns of Windsor and Eton, and saw what punting in Cambridge was all about.

But most of all, I managed to see more of London this time around. It’s the most cosmopolitan place I’ve ever been to. Some parts of it feel like genuine England, while others are like East Asia, or the Middle East. People of all colors, varying heights, varying builds, walk the same packed sidewalks, and ride the same packed trains. Parts of the city are immaculately clean, while some downright dingy. Sometimes you wonder if you’re still in you Europe, and in other times you are reminded that you are in Europe. But one thing is clear – London is an experience like no other.

And before I disembark from this train, let me just show you a few of the pictures I’ve taken, from my random wanderings in London.

  

  
  

  
   
   

   
 

  

What are you doing in Wales, in this weather?

  

A colleague and I arrived in Wales, soaking wet. It was one of those days that would have been the perfect time to go out and explore, but the weather didn’t agree. We got off the train at Llandudno station to a driving rain, the kind you normally associate with the tropical monsoon. And then there was the gale force wind with the temperature of an ice bucket. We might as well have taken an ice bucket challenge, it would have felt the same.

With heads bowed from the wind and hands deep in our coats pockets to look for whatever warmth there is left, we walked the few hundred meters from the train station to our guesthouse. And as we arrived at the front door, we rang the bell and were met by a smiling old lady who promptly greeted us with the words “Oh my, what are you doing in Wales in this kind of weather?”. Yeah, what in the world were we doing indeed.

Llandudno is a  seaside town in the northern end of Wales, one of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom. Bordered by the sea in the north, the mountains of Wales on the south and a rocky coastal hill called “The Great Orme”in the west, Llandudno lies on beautiful, god-given spot. The north shore of the town is a long gracefully arching coastline with whitish sand called the North Parade, and it would have been a postcard worthy scene on any other day, except the one when we were there. The view from the Great Orme would also have been perfect, I would imagine, on less rainy and misty days.

Still, despite the weather, Llandudno was worth the three hour train ride from London. It is a charming, laid back town where life seems to be very different from the perpetual rush that is London.
   

Llandudno, and the Great Orme

    
    
    
  

The North Parade

  
    
    
   
  

We stayed for a night at the Glenavon Guest House in Llandudno, and I would have to say it was one of my most pleasant overnight stays. The guest house is owned and managed by an old couple who kept the whole place very cozy and clean. And then there was the breakfast – a plateful of wonderful Full English Breakfast prepared with tender loving care in their kitchen. No rain is hard enough, and no weather is bad enough, for that breakfast.

   
    
   

* Photos taken February 2016.

Anglaagan, Is Turning Six

Yours Truly, the author

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they’re here to stay. Oh I believe, in yesterday.

Six years ago, in the first week of March, I started writing articles here. I named my site Ang Laagan (Visayan for “The Wanderlust”), to denote my penchant for travel, and my roots in Davao City, Philippines, where Visayan is the most widely spoken Filipino dialect. Six years, but it only feels like yesterday.

I started Ang Laagan because I wanted to show my experiences, to whoever bothers to read. I believe each of us has something to share, about our experiences, the happenings in our lives, and how they shape who we are. I simply chose Ang Laagan as my medium.

Despite being a site about personal travel experiences, I made it a point not to post pictures of myself here. Why? Because this site isn’t about me. Rather, it’s about the things that I see, feel, and taste as I go around doing what I like doing best. But I’m going to make an exception this time, as I post a photo of me crossing the most ordinary yet most famous crosswalk ever (expertly taken by a gracious colleague and friend). Forty years before I started Ang Laagan, a photographer took a few pictures of the Beatles along this crosswalk a few steps from their studio. One of those was made an album cover, and the rest is history.

It has been terribly busy for me lately, as each year gets busier and busier at work. I have been able to write less, I must admit, but that still has not drowned out my passion to escape and go to other worlds, whenever I can. Life will always be hectic, busy, impatient, but we shouldn’t let the world drown out what we are. Let’s just take life for what it is, the good, the bad, and make it better. Cheers!

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better“.

  
  
*Photos taken February 2016

Belfast…The Devil’s Own, No More

The Belfast City Hall

I remember the 1997 movie, “The Devil’s Own”. Brad Pitt played a Catholic Irishman from Belfast. He was an IRA (Irish Republican Army) assassin, who was sent to the United States to buy and ship weapons home, where the troubles between Catholics and Protestants raged on for years. Opposite him was Harrison Ford, a New York cop who played a gracious host to Brad Pitt’s character, not knowing of his true identity. However as no secret remains hidden forever, Ford’s character’s suspicions of his Irish guest’s identity grew over time. And before the movie ends, they face each other with who they truly are. Both Pitt’s and Ford’s characters believed they are doing the right thing, based on their own moral code. The former was just fighting for his hometown that is being torn apart by internal conflict, and the latter was just a cop upholding the law, as his job requires him to.

Since then the words “Belfast”, the IRA, and the struggles of Northern Ireland, was eternally stamped in my consciousness. The tension in Pitt’s character, for me exemplified the tension that was being felt in Northern Ireland at that time. He was a murderer in Belfast, but when he got to New York, he was just an ordinary man, like you and me. Belfast in those years, and the preceding three decades, was the most dangerous place in Europe. Conflict between the two sides of the divide frequently raged through bullets and flying petrol bombs in the streets. Both sides felt threatened by the other, and both believed they were doing the right thing by taking the fight to the streets and protecting their neighborhoods. Most of the fighters on either side, I believe, were good men who just got sucked into the conflict that was upon them. Put them in another part of the world, and they might be doing else, something more peaceful.

Thankfully the year after the movie, in 1998, a peace agreement was signed between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, ending an undeclared civil war that raged on for three decades. Peace was given a chance to build a nest in Belfast, at last. Present day Belfast still bears the visible scars of that conflict, but has moved on, at great pace. The Belfast we landed on in 2016 was no longer the Belfast Brad Pitt’s character came from in 1997.

Present day Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, looks like any other small European capital city. It has a very beautiful city hall, a main shopping street with the latest brands, and an extensive bus transport network. And there’s the one thing the people of Belfast are most proud about, their new hotels. Prior to 1998 they had none at all, because no tourist with a right mind wanted to go there. It is also now very peaceful. In fact I would be more nervous walking alone at night in London, than in Belfast.

 

Royal Ave and Donegall Place, Belfast’s main shopping street

  
 

Belfast’s Parliament house

 

Typical Belfast Neighbourhoods

  
 

Still, even though Belfast has has been at peace for the last 17 years, reminders of its troubled past can still be found, especially in the western side where most of the fighting occurred. There are still walls that divide the Catholic and Protestant areas, and the communities around them are not yet comfortable enough to bring them down. Murals drawn by the various groups that fought during the troubles are still around, alongside memorials of those who perished during the fighting. All these serve as reminders of the past that the people want to learn from, but not live in. As a Northern Irish saying goes, “Look with one eye to the past, and you are wise. Look with both eyes to the past, and you’re a fool”.

   
    
    
 

*Photos taken February 2016.