Saturday, November 7, 2015

10 local secrets in Phnom Penh

For a month, Phnom Penh was home. And by the time I left, I carried with me its delightful secrets shared to me by its discerning locals.

Uncover the Secrets from the Riverfront
Phnom Penh in Cambodia--with its tree-lined streets, colonial buildings and endless rows of shophouses--sits where the mighty Mekong River and Tonle Sap meet. Near the intersection of the two rivers is a promenade which teemed with locals at sundown. A block down the road are hotels, bars, cultural centers, restaurants and cafes that cater to every whim and budget. The Royal Palace, a national symbol of Cambodia, occupies the epicenter of the Riverfront Area.

With my volunteer cohort during one of our Khmer Language immersion sessions: Elaine (UK), Laura (UK), that's me! (PH), Phil--Elaine's husband (UK), Ratana (Khmer language trainer) and Esther (Uganda). Not in photo are Trevor (UK) and Tess (PH). 

Cheap Thrills for Foodies + Culture Vulture 
My first foray into Cambodian or Khmer gastronomic adventure was unsuccessful. I swung by Cambodia 6 years ago on a backpacking trip. At the time, my knowledge about Khmer food was limited only to crunchy and fried grasshoppers, crickets and tarantulas. It ended there.

With this volunteering journey, I have enough time in my hands to dig deeper into the Khmer culinary traditions (trying). In the process, I picked up other cuisines through my friend Vic. Vic (Iloilo, PH) whom I met through another friend Hendri (Cebu, PH), has been based in Cambodia for about a decade already. An epicure and medical doctor, he does consultancy for the U.N., no less. With that being said, he is the best accomplice to unravel the secrets, dirty or otherwise about Phnom Penh. Hihihi. Seriously, Vic's discerning taste helped me navigate the best places to eat in Phnom Penh (without actually breaking the bank).

Let's get started! (but I will not give you the names right away para intense! :) 
1| best noodles + best view | This restaurant sits at the river bank of Tonle Sap and offers a sweeping view of the river and the island across it. I've eaten here several times and the quality of food and customer service have been consistently good. Highly recommended is the namya noodle--a thin rice noodle soup with shrimp, rich coconut sauce plus herbs and spices.

budget range: US$1.50-4.00 location: Preah Sisowath Quay *landmark is the yellow-painted Tourist Information Center just beside the Chaktomouk Hall (a building shaped like a handheld fan designed by Van Mollyvan).

2| Heaven on a plate! | From the street, this Indonesian restaurant looks rather very ordinary. What sets this apart from the rest is the very reason droves of people come here for--the extraordinary food. Word has it that the owner was the former chef of the Indonesian Ambassador in Cambodia. My all-time favorite is the garlic shrimp! Succulent with the right amount of brine and garlic--truly it's nirvana on a plate!

budget range is US$1.50-3.00. Location: One block from Sisowath Quay, just across the Royal University of Fine Arts. Come before 7pm as it's usually full house from 7pm onwards.

3| Iconic landmark + stunning sunset view | Not to be missed for anyone who visits Phnom Penh. While the food and drinks at this place are a tad too pricey for my volunteer living allowance (the brick oven wood-fired pizza is to die for!), another way to soak up the iconic vibe and to enjoy the view, especially at sundown, is to come during happy hour when the bar list is at 50% off. The third floor area is the best spot to do some el dolce far niente--the art of doing nothing.

Location: Preah Sisowath Quay. A cheaper alternative (for beer + the view, that is)  is just across the street though.

4| Cultural Centers | Giveaway: Sa Bassac, META House, Bophana and Institut Francais to name a few. On my third week in Phnom Penh, I had the good fortune of scoring a hard-to-get ticket for Shakespeare's Hamlet by the original cast from London's Globe Theater. I was with a fun and interesting motley crew of kababayans who are all based in Phnom Penh--Vic, Sister Len (a Maryknoll nun), Romyr (an events-talent manager). Dong (a teacher trainer) and Beth (works for an ad agency).

The possibilities of attending cultural events--from documentaries, theater, painting and photography exhibitions in Phnom Penh--are endless. Who knows in the coming days, I might bumped into Angelina Jolie at Bophana!  

5| Biking in the back road | This island, located in the middle of Mekong River, is barely an 8-minute ferry (US$0.50/way) crossing. Once you set foot on this island, you will instantly notice the stark contrast between the concrete jungle of Phnom Penh to the idyllic and dusty countryside feel of this spartan getaway. Don't forget to stop by one of the silk-weaving centers for your pasalubong.

Silk Island (Koh Dach) do-it-yourself bike tour with Hendri and Vic. 

*tip: Bicycle rental shops in Phonm Penh are located near Orossay Market. Shops open at 7AM. Full day rental begins at US$2.00. Vic, Hendri and I set off at 7AM so we could finish the bike tour just before lunch.

6| Food + Social Enterprise | This restaurant employs former street youth trained in cooking and service skills by Friends-an NGO. The food and service never disappoint. A bit pricey though but the value of your buck will go a long way to keep the vulnerable youths of Cambodia out of the streets and lead better lives.

Advance booking is necessary. Location: Street #13.

7| A hole-in-the wall Anthony Bourdain will soon be raving about! | Do not be fooled by its unassuming interior of tiled walls and basic seating. This eatery offers authentic and delectable Thai food and arguably has the cheapest price in town! Its owner-chef was a chef at the Royal Palace in Thailand. The first crunch I had on the papaya salad I ordered brought back good memories at Khao San Road when I was still young and impressionable! Eating at Yosaya was a life-changing experience. Seriously, the food, by golly, is one of the best in town! Another personal favorite is the stir-fried crispy pork! Then there's pad Thai! I chug them down with lonkan juice. Whilst writing this, I couldn't restrain myself from salivating! Hurry before Anthony Bourdain beats you to it!

location: Street 105 corner Street 278 *landmark: just behind Preah Yukunthor High School which is in the corner of Preah Sihanouk and Monivong Blvds. Full house all the time at lunchtime.

8| Good juju at breakfast--eggs Florentine, spinach and bagel | Every time I am in Phnom Penh, my first meal of the day is always here. At the outset, it's eggs Florentine with spinach, bagel, hollandaise sauce and some greens got me hooked! This grub contains some superpowers to vanquish those inner demons. You know Popeye + spinach. hihihi

location: Sihanouk Boulevard. Near the Independence Monument.

9| Back street barbeque | BBQ Pork Ribs. Another hole-in-the-wall which might piqued the interest of Anthony Bourdain. The pork rib meat is tender and well-seasoned. The seating is by the roadside. You will know that you have stumbled upon a treasure trove of good local street food when you see a sidewalk eatery bursting at the seams at dinnertime.

Location: A few blocks from Bophana Center.

10| Chug the bugs! (without the risk of diarrhea or hepa) | Crickets & Grasshoppers. Locals eat them for snacks. It is sold at the local market everywhere in Cambodia. If you fancy, there is even tarantula. Just for bragging rights that you have eaten them without the fear of getting sick, you can head out to AEON Mall food court at the first floor and sample fried cricket and grasshoppers.

What are your favorite local cheap thrills in Phnom Penh?

Phnom Penh Weather
Either you get heat stroke or drenched. Save yourself the hassle by tucking a folding umbrella inside your bag. In June, the heat bit you in the morning toward lunch while quick but heavy downpours in late afternoons cooled down the air and cleansed the vehicle fumes in the city. The predictable weather pattern went on for several weeks. The Country Office staff said we arrived in the hot-rainy season (from May to October, the peak being July to September where it can rain everyday).

Thursday, November 5, 2015

South to South Volunteering: departures and arrivals

Life takes another turn. This time, a thousand miles away from home.

They call it Angkor Wat without the crowd--Banteay Chhmar temple in Banteay Meanchey Province, Cambodia.

My international volunteering journey kick-started inside a coffee shop in seaside Dumaguete City in Southern Philippines where one afternoon amid the roaring sounds of cars and motorcycles I clicked the send button of my application. In the weeks that followed, I had my first interview--first in a series of phone/Skype interviews. If everything went smoothly as planned, in just a matter of three weeks, I should be somewhere in Indochina lugging around my big backpack.

Once I got the notice that I was accepted, a series of send-off/get-together with my boss, students, colleagues, friends and family were in order. It was fun. I had a drink too many for the first time in a long time! Fun indeed. Though at some point it felt like an elegy. I, for one, avoid drama like the plague!

After a battery of medical laboratory tests in my home city followed by vaccinations (one in Cebu due to unavailability of the vaccine), series of orientations and then the face-to-face Skills in Development Training, medical briefing and pre-departure briefing in Manila, I was all set to fly to Cambodia!

That humid evening middle of June found me in NAIA.

NAIA Terminal 1 was a pleasant surprise! After getting the flak for several years as the World's Worst Airport, it has redeemed itself (though the laglag-bala is pulling it down this time). The high ceiling, mood lighting, polished marble floors in the departure hall, sleek check-in counters and carpeted floor from the immigration counters until the pre-departure areas--it has all the feel of a first-rate boutique hotel. Changi Airport, even.

The check-in staff at Malaysia Airlines asked for my return ticket. I then explained to her the arrangement for international volunteers then showed her my folder containing documents from different government agencies in the Philippines and Cambodia plus the documents from the NGO I work for. She then asked me to pay for the departure tax across her counter. When I came back, in a jiffy, she handed me my boarding passes (one for the Manila-Kuala Lumpur leg and another for KL to Phnom Penh) and tagged my luggage as check-through. I was secretly wishing for an upgrade. No luck this time, though.

It was seamless at the immigration counter. The young immigration officer just asked about the length of my stay in Cambodia and when she saw my Japan Visa, she asked me about my stay in Japan and that was it.

Many in the flight appeared to be kababayan Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). Probably working as household staff in Malaysia for the first time. I could make out sobbing sounds in front and at the back of my row. Many of them with swollen eyes. Some were trying to say their cracking goodbyes as the plane taxied the runway. It was heartbreaking. Then, as if on cue, entered the irritated flight attendant marching in the aisle to remind everyone to switch off their phones.

As the plane took off, classical music was piped-in inside the cabin, which, in a way helped ease out my nerve for flying with the airline which just months ago had a series of air mishaps. The flight attendants soon handed out dinners and choices of orange juice, tea, water or red wine! Of course, I picked red wine. Red wine at cattle class was unheard of before!  

The plane landed in Kuala Lumpur in the small hours. I spent my 6-hour layover time sleeping in one of the benches and by sunrise I got some coffee and sandwich while waiting for the boarding gate to open.

By 8am, I was up in the air again. An hour later, I could see endless fields of green with snaking rivers around them. And before I knew it, I was already inside Phnom Penh International Airport arrival hall. The visa officer that morning seemed grumpy. After I got my visa, I proceeded to the immigration counter where the smiling immigration officer stamped my passport and greeted me welcome to Cambodia!

(next post: In-Country Orientation, Language Training and meeting an interesting group of Pinoys in Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

teaching English (ESL) in South Korea | for Filipinos and other non-native speakers of English

South Korea is in the top-tier in terms of pay and benefits for expat English teachers. The hagwons or academies alone is a US$20 billion industry.

Ewha Womans University, an exclusive school for women, is one of the top universities in Korea. 

My visit to Korea last year gave me the opportunity to see up close the lives of my expat friends--the non-native English teachers in particular.

After all the news and job qualifications postings online that screams native speakers only, the question begs: Can a non-native English speaker (Filipino, Kenyan, Singaporean etc.) legally teach English in Korea?

The answer is yes. But the teacher must satisfy two basic requirements:
  • a post-graduate degree (any field)
  • teaching experience (preferably in a university setting)
These expat non-native English teachers hold different post-graduate educational qualifications back home. There's one with an MA in Psychology. Another with MA in Organizational Development. Most of them hold an MA in English. A few have Ph.D degrees.

The next question is: How can one apply for a teaching job in South Korea.

The answer and process come easy for native speakers of English because most Korean institutions normally hire the services of a recruitment agency abroad to head hunt for the most qualified applicant. Saves them time and resources. There are job postings online, too, wherein applicants can directly contact the school. Other applicants throw caution to the wind--fly to Korea and apply directly to the institution. If one has Caucasian features, that's already a foot in the door. This is the boon to the industry. These hagwons, to please the parents who demand teachers must be native speakers, would place anyone with blue eyes, blonde hair and fair skin regardless of qualifications, nationality and competence.

So how can a Filipino--a non-native speaker of English--apply for and pluck a teaching post? Most of my friends began their journey back home when a university in Korea went to Cebu to look for ESL teachers to teach in Korea. It was word-of-mouth. When one is successful, he/she gets the documents from the sponsoring university and goes to Embassy of South Korea in Mc Kinley in BGC for an interview to secure the employment visa or E1 Visa. The fate of the teacher now lie in the hands of the consul and on how the applicant answers the questions.  
  • E1 Visa is issued to University Professors of English and other fields of study. 
  • E2 Visa on the other hand is only issued to a native speaker of English.

When one gets the visa, he or she flies (all expenses paid) to Korea and is assigned a flat or apartment (paid for by the sponsoring university). Teaching contract normally is two years and renewable. Some of the teachers I know, toward the end of the contract, apply to other universities. And yes, the pay cheque for English teachers in South Korea is way generous compared to anywhere else in Asia.  

For now, teaching English in elementary, middle school and high school in South Korea is only for native speakers of English. It was in the news that the Korean government plans to allow Filipino teachers of English to teach in basic education but everything is still in the pipeline.

Next post I will talk about the life, lifestyle and work environment of a Filipino teaching English in South Korea.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

the biggest luxury resort in Panglao Island in Bohol opens

The biggest luxury resort-hotel in Bohol welcomed its guests a couple of days ago.

With 400 rooms, 12 luxury villas and a convention center that can accommodate 1,000 guests, Henann Resort Panglao Island is a new addition to the growing list of world-class tourism facilities in my home-province Bohol.

Henann Resort Panglao Island has the longest beachfront and sits on the quieter side of Alona Beach.

Back in the day when I was based in Alona Beach to manage a Language and Culture Camp, the beachfront of Henann (it was Alona Palm Resort back then) was my favorite spot--wide and well-maintained coco grove and a long stretch of a quiet white beach with talcum fine sand.

Henann Group of Resorts owns Boracay Regency, Henann Lagoon and Henann Garden in Boracay Island.

Henann Resort Panglao Island
Address: Beachfront, Alona Beach, Tawala Panglao Island, Bohol 6340, Philippines
Telephone Number: (63) (2) 775-6734

Saturday, April 11, 2015

8 most expensive resorts and hotels in The Philippines

"If you ask about the price, it means that you can't afford it," goes the tongue in cheek remark I read from the society page of a national daily.

Hotel room rates for this list of The Philippines' most expensive hotels and resorts (arranged in random order) are non issue for the mega rich kind of holiday makers. Probably those who live off through trust funds. Well, some. Especially for number one. Walang yaya's meal dito.

Here's the round up:
 1| Amanpulo Resort in Pamalican Island, Palawan
Average rate per night: US$1,000.00 or Php44,600.00. Peak Season: minimum length of stay is 5 nights with US$9,660 (Php430,908.00) price tag. I can buy 10 tricycles already for a pangkabuhayan showcase with that amount.

While the resort neither deny nor confirmed, high profile guests who have stayed here were Michael Jackson, Julia Roberts, Diana Ross, Robert de Niro and just last week, Bill Gates and his family daw

2| Shangrila Boracay
Cheapest rate per night: US$449.99 or Php20,000.00. Villa Balani US$1,500 or Php70,500.00. A private boat will ferry guests from Caticlan jetty port directly to the resort. I can buy one brand new motorcycle pang habal habal with that amount.

3| Sofitel Philippine Plaza in Manila
Known for its Imperial Residence accommodation which costs a whopping US$8,200.00 or Php368,000.00 a night! The guest list includes Imelda Marcos, Justin Timberlake, Antonio Banderas, Tony Blair, Pavarotti, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and just last year, US Pres. Barack Obama.

Also best known for its buffet at Spiral.With that amount, I can open the biggest sari sari store in my barrio.

4| Pangulasian Island, Miniloc and Apulit in El Nido, Palawan
Overnight rates starts at US$683.00 or Php30,500.00 to US$829.00 or Php37,000.00 for the pool villa.There is also Miniloc Island Resort where rates range from Php22,000.00 to Php28,000.00. And Apulit Island Resort where rates are between Php20,000 to Php21,500.00. No other option to get food elsewhere. Or else swim 2 hours to mainland. 

5| Discovery Shores Boracay
Rate starts at US$600.00 or Php26,700.00 per night. At least may Mang Inasal at talipapa sa Station 2.

6| Huma Island Resort and Spa in Busuanga, Palawan
Rate starts at US$597.00 or Php26,864.00 per person/night. Half year lunch money din yan sa carenderia.

7| Dedon Island Resort in Siargao
The all inclusive rate (food, drinks, massages, excursions to nearby islands and all equipment) starts at US$522.00 or Php23,265.00 per person per night (double occupancy) to US$983.00 or Php43,812.00 for single occupancy.

Past Hollywood celebrity guests include Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie daw. Again, the resort would not confirm nor deny this information. It's a trap. All inclusive, eh.

8 | Balesin Island in Mauban, Quezon
To those who have been curious about Balesin after the yaya's meal trending topic in social media: Balesin Island is an exclusive membership club where membership fee begins at Php3,000,000.00. Yes. Six zeroes! 3 Million pesos! That excludes monthly dues. At walaeng monobloc extension, student at senior citizen discounts sa 25 minutes plane ride.

What resort is missing on the list?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where to sleep in Seoul for less than P500.00 a night?

After a week of staying in a city outside of Seoul (where my student and his family hosted me in their upscale apartment), it is now time to move to where the action is--Seoul. For my big city fix.

Finding a cheap, safe and centrally located hostel in one of the most expensive cities in the world is a bit of a challenge.

I pick Hongdae Area in central Seoul as my base. The district is considered as budget friendly being a university belt surrounded by affordable shopping, dining and partying venues in Seoul.

My artsy hostel, located in a quiet neighborhood, is clean, convenient and comfortable. Just two blocks from Hongdae Subway Station. But it gets very noisy in the small hours when pissed drunk guests come home, bang the door and switch on the lights. So on my second night, I decide to move to another hostel.

Off I move to Myeongdong! Another shopping district and tourist trap. Based on the reviews in hostelworld, Myeongdong is my second best option. No harm in trying. So, I set my sight on a hostel that offers total privacy. A rarity in hosteling terms. The best part? I had the good fortune of scoring it for P400.00/night. Promo rate! Plus it's a highly rated hostel.

The hostel is centrally located. Just a 3 minute walk from Myeongdong Subway station. My bunk has a curtain for privacy. Inside the bunk is my own flat screen TV, reading light, electric socket, a soft pillow and a nice smelling comforter. Beside my futon, there is a little space for my carry on luggage. The locker where I stored my backpack is located just across my bunk.

The common area has a weighing scale, computers, dining tables and a common kitchen/pantry with toaster, fridge, sink and water station for guests to use. Breakfast which is Shin noodles and toast (self service) is complimentary. Liquid bath soap and shampoo are also complimentary.

If you plan on staying out late, the doors are locked by 10pm and won't be opened until 9am the next day. If you don't want to be locked out, don't forget to ask for the passkey (four digits) to gain entry past 10pm. I failed to ask for the passkey on my first night! Terrible experience. Ask for it because the staff won't give it unless you ask.

This is by far my most favorite hostel in Seoul in terms of privacy, price and cleanliness. During peak season (or if you are a walk in guest during low season), the bunk bed could go as high P1,400.00 per night. The best deal, I must say, is online. Through hostelword or agoda.

Namsan Guesthouse 4
35-2 Namsandong 2(i)-ga (43 Toegye-ro 18-gil),, Myeong-dong /Namsan, Seoul, South Korea 100-042

Word of Caution:
I arrived past lunchtime and was very sure that I found the right hostel. I made research prior to coming and took the cue from the review that there are 4 properties with same name. A reviewer mentioned that for a guest to avoid the same pitfall that she experienced, one must find this so and so landmark and hostel branch number.

When I arrived, after the staff checked the system, he said that I got the wrong property and told me to go to the property up the hill. When I got to the other property, the staff checked the system and told me that my hostel is down the road. I was pissed. 

I returned to the first property and the staff met me with apologies. I was too pissed off because what I was trying to avoid happened.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Filipino backpacker in Seoul, South Korea

It's been an amazing 2-week mega city experience in Seoul!

Time to move to the equally amazing Korean countryside. Seoul Capital Area (Seoul + Incheon + Bucheon) is now my new favorite mega city. Free wifi practically everywhere, efficient mass transport system, delectable ssamgyupsal meals, well-mannered people and the museums here? They blew the top of my head! 

The downside though is that eating out is not solo traveler friendly so food here leans toward the expensive side and there's no rice in fast food restaurants (hahaha) here so 7 11 and Family Mart (CU) are my refuge for budget rice meals and familiar Korean food in between culinary adventures!

See you on the road!

*all photos during my backpacking trip in Korea and Japan are taken using iPhone5

Out-of-the-box Campus | Ewha Womans University in Korea

The design of Ewha Campus Complex (ECC) is nothing short of stunning!

The state-of-the-art ECC (dug up in the middle of the campus) has attracted tourists in droves, especially Chinese tourists who arrive in busloads. These tourists got out-of-hand--disturbing classes and taking photos of the students without their consent that university management decided to limit access to certain areas in the campus. 
Meanwhile, inside this underground complex (the largest underground campus in Korea) one can find Starbucks, movie theaters, high-end fitness gym for faculty and students, banks, bookstore, lecture rooms and performance halls. 

The buildings that surround the very modern ECC are homes to the different colleges of Ewha. Ewha is ranked 1st in South Korea in the following fields: Education, Engineering, English Language & Literature, Environmental Engineering, History, Law, Mathematics, Nutritional Science & Food Management, Physics and Sociology.

Notable alumni of Ewha include 3 of Korea's First Ladies. It has also produced the most number of Korean female executives in the country's top 100 corporations.

Just outside Ewha campus is one of the popular shopping districts in Seoul. 

How to get there:
Five  minutes walk from exits #2 & 3 of Ewha Womans University Station (Subway Line 2)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Day of Silence in Bali, Indonesia

The world has come to a full stop in Bali, Indonesia today.

I arrived in the epicenter of the Hari Raya Nyepi or the observance of Day of Silence in the island which means all windows must be shut or covered (I used newspaper) and all people must stay at home and be quiet the whole day. The mood was like arriving in Boracay on a Friday during Holy Week sans the crowd, music and electricity #throwback • Selamat Hari Raya Nyepi to all my Indonesian friends!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

outward-inward journey II (Cebu en route to Dumaguete)

If Cebu were to have a title on how it shaped a chapter in my life, it would have to be Coming of Age. That's part I. Part II would have to be called Rebirth. 

I spent 8 years in Cebu where I found the best circle of friends whom I still banter and share a good laugh with to this day. We still see each other despite how we are dispersed by geography and work.

I learned years after college that most of them envied my take on life. I was nonchalant about serious personal issues while they all pored their hearts out, sometimes drowning their sorrows with Red Horse while I just listened to what they all had to say. It could be naivete or could be that I shunned dramas like the plague. Either way, a barbeque at Larsian's or Litang's and then Milton's halo-halo afterwards appeared to have solved everything for me.

I recall college life in Cebu with fondness. Night out was in Club Royale (one of the hippest places back then) that always ended up At the Boulevard with buckets of beer until the sun peered in the horizon. Two hours later, we all found ourselves in our first period thesis writing class groggy, reeked of chicos and with bloodshot eyes. That happened a couple of times.

That was the beauty of being a communication arts student. Exact opposite when I was a nursing student two years before that. No more formulas and theories to memorize. No more serious study groups. No more burning of midnight candles. I just submitted buttery essays for most majors and I was good to go. In short, it was a no brainer course to those who devoured anything printed and to those who had a knack for something that has cinematic value. I enjoyed reading and watching Emmy worthy tv shows, so passing all my subjects was just a breeze. Well, except for the required units in typing and basic math. Those were hell! The typewriter and eye patch were brim stones in disguise.

*to be continued