Sunday, April 25, 2010

Remote and Exotic Escape on a Shoestring Budget

Holy Kamote! Its hell's kitchen outside! Deadlines are hanging by a thread, reports are piling up and a  walk inside air-conditioned malls to, at least, shake-off  the writer's block or pin down the duendes doesn't help either. Nada! Nil! Before your tolerance level does a hairpin turn and your stress level shoots in a projectile motion, chillax! There’s a place remote and exotic to get away from it all, even for just a while. 

Up North is a charming little town called Sagada--the Philippine version of the mystical earthly paradise Shangri-la in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. This lovely little town is tucked in a valley in Central Cordillera. Aside from spelunking and hiking that will bring you to the hanging coffins and echo valley, this town 275 km. North of Manila also offers homey inns and cottages with fireplaces for those foggy evenings and misty mornings.

As for me, not that I would snap any given moment. I just needed a long bus ride, creating thought bubbles along the way. With that said, the ride to Sagada from Banaue was, by far, one of the best parts of the trip. I sat on the luggage rack on top of the jeepney and prepared myself for the danger of recklessness and the panoramic view this vantage seat could offer.

The mountains are never-ending backbones of green dragons sleeping side by side. A river gracefully carves its way between them. The road is a brown trimming. Between taking-in the views, I lived that moment of just closing my eyes and feeling the cold mountain air brush my face.

Famished from the long ride but still with energy enough to crawl toward the nearest hole-in-the-wall, I found myself inside Masferre Café. The café is hard to miss with its log cabin-inspired exterior and its location just down the road from the Municipal Hall. Without skipping a beat, everyone (I was in a motley crew this time) barked orders for the meal with the quickest preparation. Imagine a truckload of hungry wolves waiting to ambush its prey. This time, the prey was in a burger-and-fries clothing. Of course, as soon as the food was served, everything was gone faster than anyone can say ‘ketchup please...’

By sundown, the sky hung low and the temperature started to dip. After everyone in the group signed up for caving the next day, many decided to hole up at the fog-filtered cottage, built fire in the fireplace and wolfed on the left-over of the take-out meal.

For somebody who needed brushing up on history, my visit to Ganduyan Museum was a good option. After gingerly making my way through the narrow passageway leading to the second floor where the museum is located, I met the owner Lola Christina. She was passionate about telling the back stories of the important pieces—from the traditional backpack to headhunting (read: literally headhunting!) during the old days to the distinctive patterns of weaving by each tribe in the Cordilleras.

A few minute walk is Yoghurt House, raved about by many travelers as worth a visit but it was filled to the rafters. Another option was Lemon Pie House at the far end of the stretch. Without wasting time (town curfew, for reasons I do not know, is at 10PM), the order was served, baked to perfection. It tasted a bit crunchy on the outside and succulent on the inside. The tangy lemon taste was heightened with warm washing of the lemongrass tea. With that said, I got myself another helping.

                                     this awesome photo of Sagada is lifted from postcardsmanila

The cottage where the gang holed up is at Mapya-aw, a 15-minute leisurely walk from downtown, passing by St. Joseph’s Inn, St. Mary’s Church, Mission Hospital, the makeshift market and limestone cliffs. By the time I walked through town, the main road was dark with the whole town sleeping. When I got to the cottage, it was quiet already-- save for the fire making a crackling sound and the wind outside telling its secrets to the spirits of the mountain.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


The baggage is optional
The clothing thick
For the cold months

Bundled in years ahead

I only have myself

And a one-way ticket
To where the north wind lunged the last blow
To where the sky hangs low

I don’t know where to start
I only know where you want it to end.

by RV Escatron

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Lucky slash Unlucky Bastard in Hongkong

"How was your trip in Macau?" asked the immigration lady behind the counter.
"Pretty good. It was way better than I thought..." I answered bending over while tightening the belt of my backpack. She browsed through my passport, each single page of it.

"Short time."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You just got in this morning" she said smiling at me. Looking through the glass curtain, I could see her delicate fingers running through my passport.
"Yes. Early this morning, actually."
"Until when do you plan to stay in Hongkong?"
"I'm leaving Saturday this week."
"Give me a call sometime" she said as she slipped what appears to be a business card.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

7 hours in Macau: things to do (on a budget, of course)

With its reputation as Las Vegas of the East where many a rich Hongkonger and Mainland Chinese spend the weekend in its many casinos, Macau, at first, came-off to me as expensive and opulent. Opulent, yes. Expensive? Not exactly.

After less than an hour at sea on a foggy morning, the fast ferry (HKD134.00) from Kowloon docked at the terminal at Taipa (there are two ferry terminals in Macau; the other  one is in the city, near Macau Grand Prix) just across Macau International Airport terminal. From where I stood, I could see the long stretch of what appeared to be a boardwalk. But that impression changed when a Dornier  plane  which hovered a few heartbeats earlier started to descend and eventually touched down on it. The airport runway, built like a bridge above South China Sea, is quiet an engineering feat. 

Like Hongkong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China. The two regions have separate immigration formalities. So,  prepare your passport and immigration info card in both ports of entry.

Two images, postcard-pretty to say the least, perfectly capture Macau: the ruins of Sao Paolo Cathedral and The Venetian.  These two are considered the stars of the show and access is free of charge. Sao Paolo for its glorious albeit tragic colonial past and the Venetian (representative of the big boys casinos) pumping the local economy. With that said, Macau is presently one of the richest city in China and the world. For the record: Sao Paolo was the largest Catholic Church in Asia during its time and The Venetian is currently the biggest casino in the world (and by the looks of it, will hold on to its title in years to come).

It is said that during Sao Paolo's golden era, the royalties of Europe vied with each other to bestow upon the cathedral the best gifts. And of course The Venetian is no less the playground of the rich who come far and wide to Macau for gambling. Gambling in Macau has been legal since the 1850s. There is an anecdote that is doing the rounds about the free shuttle service around Macau. It is said that the free shuttle is to provide broke gamblers at least a decent trip back home. In practical sense, the complimentary shuttle service is for travelers who have more time to burn than cash.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hongkong and Macau on a Budget: from HK Airport to The Venetian

The downside of promo fares has always been the schedule--you arrive or depart during the small hours. Either way, for lack of anything else to do since most shops at the airport are closed, you spend time sleeping in the departure or arrival lounges. As for me, because I love staying in airports only when it is alive, I am not sold on  the idea of killing the small hours in airports for many reasons. The fear of losing my valuables or worst, my backpack, is one. The discomfort of sleeping on those airport chairs is another. But since I love cheap thrills whenever I travel (read:kuripot), why  spend on anything unnecessary like taxi and hotel when there are buses and hostels, no?

 Sleeping in Hongkong International Airport (Chek Lap Kok Airport or 赤鱲角機場) is a non-issue to airport police. Contrast this with my experience at Ho Chi Minh's Tan Son Nhat International Airport during my first backpacking trip around Southeast Asia and you'll spot the difference.

By two in the morning, after breezing through the HK Immigration Counter, I was greeted with rows and rows of cushioned chairs with other travelers sleeping on them. I found a vacant row just behind the Airport Express Counter, snugged, and woke up just in time for the first bus to Hongkong Island.

But for light sleepers, let me tell you that the arrival lounge is not  a  bargain. Expect kids to loiter or worst, adults to blab endlessly for the whole airport to hear! I'd like to believe that those adults are from the mainland who are regarded as lacking in manners as compared to Hongkongers. 

Originally, I planned to go straight to Macau after landing in HK Airport since this can be done without the hassle of going to Kowloon or HK Central. But lack of research trashed the plan. Hopping to Macau on a ferry is only possible if one did not exit the airport, instead took the exit leading to the ferry terminal and have the immigration formalities done in Macau Port.

With that said, I took the first trip bus A11 (way cheaper alternative to Airport Express by more than half the price) and seated at the front row, upper deck, to enjoy the landscape leading to Kowloon. By the way, bus payment options are: 1. purchase the ticket at the terminal counter, 2. pay the exact fare to the driver or 3. use the Octopus card (best option since fares are discounted and you can use the card in many octopusy ways like 7/11 purchase, tram fares and more).

In less than 30 minutes, apartment buildings grew denser and skyscrapers more familiar. A few more minutes and the bus blended into the Kowloon traffic. Seeing what appears to be Turbojet Ferry from a distance, I grabbed my backpack, held the railing, went down a flight of stairs and told the driver to pull over at the stop for Macau Ferry Terminal in Central.

The sound of utensils clanking against plates and the smell of dimsum  filled the air whilst people queuing in food counters or ticket outlets or rushing toward escalators filled the open space. I found three ferry ticket counters and looked for a real bargain. Bargain hunter that I am, I bought the Cotaijet ticket with a promise of a free shuttle to The Venetian not knowing the whole of Macau, known as the Las Vegas of the East, is networked with free shuttle buses courtesy of the casinos pumping the local economy.

next entry: things to do in Macau