Playful in Palawan: Life in the Philippine Countryside Series

Day 1 – Feb. 5, 2017 – (Sunday): Puerto Princesa on Two Wheels

The place is orderly and clean” was our initial impression of Puerto Princesa as our driver made his way around the city towards Socrates Road after he picked us up in an old, white van at the small airport in this capital city of Palawan.

Subli Guest Cabins would be our overnight shelter in the city that day as Matthew & Johan would be jetting-in from Manila the next morning for our northbound, overland trip to the touristy and popular but more remote El Nido.

We arrived at the guest cabins – made of concrete and bamboo-  in high spirits in spite of our red-eye flight from Siem Reap that included a 6 hour sleep-depriving wait in Manila’s newer and spacious Terminal 3 airport.

After we verbally agreed with the young and bubbly receptionist that we would rent their only Honda scooter for PHP 600 (USD 12) that day, we wasted no time to shower and to get some sleep as soon as we checked-in.

One of the hammocks underneath the huge mango tree that dominates the compound
Quiet surroundings provided deep sleep in spite of the spartan amenities inside these huts
This 125 cc Honda scooter would take as around the city – and beyond!

Refreshed from our 3 plus hours of rest, we strapped our helmets and ventured out at 3 PM along with a bagful of dirty clothes– only to run out of gas just a few meters away from the compound.

Ruby flagged a tricycle and they returned with petrol in a 2-liter PET plastic bottle.  For good measure, we filled-up the tank another PHP 90 (USD 1.80) at a nearby Shell gas station along Malvar Road after we finally got going.

Riding a scooter, motorcycle or even a bicycle is one of the simple joys of life that we, as human beings, tend to overlook. With the wind on your face and the sights and sounds of the surroundings all over you, one’s sense of adventure is elevated by having that constant awareness of the dangers being on the road so that you hold on to dear life on that handlebar.

We saw a body of water to our right immediately after we passed by the public market so we made a right turn on the next intersection. The road narrowed markedly and took us to a sweeping descent that ended at a small park -the Puerto Princesa BaywalkAlong its stretch were numerous open-air food stalls that overlooked a cove that is part of the Palawan Sea.

It was just about 4 PM but 2 or 3 food stalls were already doing some business and so we opted –K’na Boyet sa Baywok- for the one where a couple of tables were occupied by a group of tourists.  Once seated, the aroma of that familiar calamansi and soy sauce flavored BBQs that’s very popular all over the archipelago, sharpened the hunger fangs even more.  We sidled towards the charcoal-fed grill where several pans filled with assorted sea offerings vied for our attention.

Helmet off, Ruby at the Baywalk in Puerto Princesa
Ruby enjoys her green mango shake while waiting for the food to arrive

An order of grilled “pork liempo” (grilled, marinated pork belly), shrimps sautéed in butter and garlic, rice, a mango shake & two bottles of San Miguel Light set us back for about PHP 750 (USD 14.50).

Bellies filled, we then set our sights for Baker’s Hill and asked for directions from the very amiable waitress who suggested that we might as well visit Mitra Ranch as both were in the same area.

Amidst moderate traffic as it was a weekend, it didn’t take us long to find our way towards the city’s main highway, Puerto Princesa North Road but had to ask directions from locals twice to get to the junction of PP South Road that would lead us to our destination We dropped-off our laundry bag at a shop along the cemented two-lane highway while trying to find our way towards Baker’s Hill.

Like most roads in the city outskirts, the narrow road that goes up towards Baker’s Hill was so puzzlingly unmarked that we overshot it by a few miles in spite of asking directions 2 or 3 more times — the last one from a mechanic working on a wheel of a small truck along the grass-lined fringes of the highway. The tall trees behind the shop gave us glimpses of the rice fields beyond.  They would punctuate the highway the farther we got away from the city proper.

Baker’s Hill turned out to be just a family compound with –you guessed it– a bakery, an open-air restaurant and a souvenir stall.  It became popular as a ‘snack-stop’ for visitors going to Mitra Ranch.  It tries hard to become a major tourist attraction in the city simply through word of mouth as well as via recommendations by past visitors on travel websites.  The bakery sells mostly pastries and snacks notably the different varieties of the ‘hopia‘ (thin, flaky pastry filled with mung bean paste).

Locals and tourists mill around the entrance to the bakery at Baker’s Hill, Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Inside the bakery – all the good stuff for the sweet tooth

Just a few meters uphill, Mitra Ranch offered a better view of the city atop the hill as well as horseback riding and zip-lining.  The place was opened to the public after the death of the family patriarch, Ramon ‘Monching’ Mitra, Jr., who was an esteemed senator.  Unfortunately, he lost in the 1992 Philippine presidential elections in spite of being tagged as the early favorite to win it all.

Dusk was upon us after we picked-up our laundry and headed back to the city.  We had decided to have an early bedtime since we needed to be up early to meet the couple at the airport for our morning trip to El Nido.  Moreover, with our weather-beaten faces and aboard two small wheels that offered minimal comforts, tiredness had crept in on our bodies once again.

It was already dark once we reached the city proper and got lost once more; only to find ourselves buying some delicious ‘lechon (roasted pig) for dinner from a makeshift stall in front of a shop selling various solar-powered devices.

After handing us the take-out goodie in a plastic bag, the middle-aged vendor summoned us at the edge of the sidewalk and pointed to an intersection where we would make a right towards Malvar Road.  His instructions sounded like music to our ears.

It was about 8:30 PM when we made the final turn back to the comforts of Subli’s compound aboard our trusty scooter.

Day 2 – Feb. 6, 2017 – (Monday): The Road to El Nido 

It was about 8:45 in the morning and air was crisp with a light gust from the east.  It made the flowers -protected by a low, concrete encasement- sway to its rhythm.  I spotted the driver who was holding a sign with Matthew’s name on it while he waited just a few yards away from the exit gates of the Puerto Princesa airport and chatted with him.

Just an hour ago, we had checked out at Subli and had taken a tricycle to meet Matthew and Johan for our van ride to El Nido.  Matthew had arranged for the rides as well as our accommodations in that popular destination north of Puerto Princesa.  We would be out of the airport by 9:15 aboard a van that badly needed a new set of shock absorbers.

Ruby at Subli’s dining area the morning we checked out to meet Mat & Johan
Johan, Mat & Ruby at the Palawan’s Puerto Princesa airport

The driver briefly stopped by a hotel with a cheesy name-D’ Lucky Garden Inn– and picked up a young couple from the U.K. who joined us for the trip.  The four of us would be staying for a night in Puerto Princesa at this same hotel after our El Nido escapade.

D’ Lucky Garden Inn’s very eclectic landscaping left an impression on us

The very long (almost 5 hrs.) and tiring ride mainly along the two-lane but cemented Puerto Princesa North Road was really uneventful except for a few stops where the driver loaded up on a few more passengers along the way to augment his earnings.  There was a mandatory stop at an ‘agricultural checkpoint’ where we bought some drinks from a nearby store.  At kilometer 131, just along the highway, we had our lunch break at Elfredo’s Manokan & Seafood Restaurant somewhere in the sleepy municipality of Roxas.

Mat & Johan about to clean-up their plates at Elfredo’s restaurant
Along the Puerto Princesa North Highway towards El Nido

We would pass through undulating roads along the fringes of the municipalities of San Vicente and Taytay (the first capital of Palawan dating back to the Spanish colonial period and where the small Fort Santa Isabel built in 1667 still stands) until, on a small rotunda,  we bade goodbye to the PPNR and veered west towards the Taytay-El Nido National Highway.

Previews of what to expect in El Nido would manifest along the T-ENNH as the road got steeper while it followed the Malampaya River.  Majestic views of a few islands would behold our eyes as soon as the van crested a  a steep hill.

We finally arrived at the terminal in El Nido at about 3 PM and a short  tricycle ride (PHP 50 or USD) whisked us to our hotel’s downtown office along Calle Hama.  A woman in her mid-20s with hints of Middle Eastern ancestry, confirmed our reservations and radioed for 2 smaller tricycles to pick us up.  She also offered some of her insights about the place and handed out a simple map of El Nido that included a list of massage parlors, bars and restaurants located nearby.

Simple map-guide in downtown El Nido, Palawan provided by Caalan Beach Resort

The road that led to Caalan Beach Resort was too narrow -barely a meter wide in some areas- that on several occasions along the way, either our ride or the incoming one had to stop and gave way to the other.

The cemented road followed the shoreline until you hit an unsealed portion lined by coconut, banana & other small fruit trees as well as a variety of ornamental plants with nipa huts, slow-slung houses, two-story concrete hostels, sari-sari’ stores (a small, family-operated shop that sells sodas, snacks & various household goods typically attached to the house), makeshift food-stands, dogs by the roadside, all mingled in a locale called “Barrio Taiyo(Taiyo Village) .

At the resort, we were greeted and offered welcome drinks by Bee who informed us that she’s simply helping her parents run the place along with her husband, John, when they’re in the country for a vacation.  She added that her father -married to a Japanese- was an engineer from South Korea who decided to settle in this part of Palawan when he got assigned near the area during a road construction project.

We finally settled in our second-level room with a balcony that offered  magnificent views of several islands in the bay, the immediate & largest one among them being Cadlao Island.

That’s our room on the right, 2nd level inside the Caalan Beach Resort in Barrio Taiyo, El Nido, Palawan
This is the view from the terrace if you to stay in the room seen on the preceding picture

Mat & Johan checked out the beach front but found it too rocky and the nearby waters too shallow to take a quick swim so we all just had a quick nap before heading out back to town to have dinner after briefly waiting out the mild drizzle brought by dark clouds that passed by.

The beach front at Caalan Beach Resort was too rocky to take a dip

Calle Hama is the unofficial party street in El Nido since it’s where most tourists end up after their sorties along the beach.  It’s a narrow, interior road, hence, it is closed at night to all vehicular traffic –except for tricycles owned by resorts along the coast– to allow enough space for all the touristy goings-on.

Because of poor or even non-existent urban planning & zoning, it suffers, just like most of remote bayside resorts all over the country, from its failure to exude any charm or appeal.  The area is simply a potpourri of haphazardly-erected food stalls, souvenir shops, hostels, houses and where locals, backpackers barely out of their teens and elderly tourists mingle and simply wander around.

After trying out a few pieces of barbeque-on-a-stick from a sidewalk stand, we got bored of the area as it was a bit early and took another tricycle ride towards Bulalo Plaza. 

We stopped just a few meters after we exited the junction of Rizal Street and the Taytay-El Nido highway.  Unless you’re a local, and although the place is open 24 hours every day, it is, nonetheless, so easy to miss as the very small signage is overwhelmed by the cliff walls and the surrounding greenery.

We climbed a few steps into the eatery and we’re ushered to a table right in the middle of the place by a pleasant, effeminate waiter who introduced himself as Megan.  The entire setup looked more like a kitchen converted into a restaurant that has about 8 wooden tables and bamboo benches in a squat, elevated location that fronted the highway.

Two orders of the house special, ‘bulalo‘ (beef shank soup with vegetables), a plate of ‘seafood sisig’ (a variety of minced seafood sautéed in a sizzling skillet topped with chilis & fresh egg), rice, sodas and a bottle of beer were more than enough for our stomachs.  Afterwards, we decided to walk back to town to shake off some of the cholesterol deposits.

Along the way, Mat & Johan inquired from a roadside travel and tour stall for the earliest trip back to Puerto Princesa on Wednesday in order to catch the underground cave trip on the same day.  Mat balked on idea after learning that they would not only barely make it to PP on time but that he would also lose the money he paid for our already-booked and scheduled return trip.

Mat and Johan just outside a travel & tour stall along the Taytay-El Nido National Highway

Back at Calle Hama to get our free ride back to the resort, the trio went shopping for souvenirs while I scoured the place for some cold beer in cans.  I managed to get some but they were not cold so I searched in vain for some ice.  Our driver suggested that I could just ask them for free back at the resort so our tricycle squeezed back into that same narrow alley, its motor sputtering in the stillness of the early evening along the shore.

Ruby showed up later in the room holding a block of ice wrapped in plastic that Bee gave her. While they all prepared their things for the island-hopping trip the next morning, I sat back on the bed to enjoy my ice-filled glass as I slowly poured the country’s best beer –San Miguel– into it.

It was a luxury that I would regret in the next few hours; in fact, for the next few days.

Day 3 – Feb. 7, 2017 – (Tuesday): Island Hopping Tour Day 

Immediately after breakfast, John tapped on our door and informed us that we need to get prepared for the island-hop tour by 9.  A few guests had already milled around the nipa-roofed gazebo where we could see them choose and pick among several sizes and colors of snorkel gear neatly arranged atop a low table in the middle of the sandy floor.

Early morning in El Nido

Last night, however, my seemingly innocuous decision to ask for some ice for my warm canned beer resulted in vomiting episodes and several trips to the bathroom – bad water– that rendered me so physically exhausted.  But who wants to miss a cruise of the islands on a very nice day in El Nido?

He prepped us along with 6 other guests on what to expect with during the ‘island-hopping’ tour and offered great tips how to ‘survive’ the almost day-long trip water trip.  Then, without John, our boat crew of 4 led by a spunky Palaweña in her late twenties herded us to a quarter mile walk along the shore towards the deeper part of the bay where the resort-owned outrigger was moored.

Yesterday afternoon, before we headed downtown for our dinner, we had agreed to purchase island-hopping package C (hidden beaches and shrines) which began with almost an hour long ride towards Tapiutan Island.  Our group was barely enjoying the waters in our snorkel gear when a coast guard band of two aboard a small motor boat waved us to move to a different location to protect the coral reefs in the area we’re on.

Tapiutan Island from a distance

Next stop would be ‘Secret Beach‘.  It is accessible via a narrow portal that leads to a cove with shallow water surrounded by limestone walls that had seen a good slice of mankind’s history. The big boulders below the water made it just an ideal place to waddle around and enjoy the sun.

Lunch aboard the boat consisted of a salad medley made cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, grilled ‘pork liempo’,  steamed ‘tahong‘ (mussels), grilled ‘tambakol‘ (skipjack tuna) complemented with slices of watermelon and pineapple.  We also bought fresh coconuts from an enterprising vendor on a boat who also sold canned soda and beer.

Boats mill in the calm waters in Matinloc Island where island-hoppers have their lunch

After lunch we our boat headed to the Hidden Beach, which was the most difficult part of the trip for non-swimmers as one had to fight a swell near the edge of the cove amidst huge rocks that was being constantly slammed with waves.  At least 2 boat crews had to assist each guest who either couldn’t swim or just wouldn’t dare venture into the dangerous waters.

The last leg of the tour was a brief stop at the Helicopter Island –so-called because its silhouette resembles a heli when viewed from a distance-where we took pictures of the majestic cliff walls.  We missed those beautiful sunset views as gray skies was the theme for the rest of the afternoon.

Matt & Johan at the shore of Helicopter Island, El Nido, Palawan
Bong – the web author- in El Nido, Palawan

It was almost 5 PM when we finally made the channel crossing back to the bay and a short walk along a narrow, tree-lined path led to the back door of the resort where some drinks and biscuits awaited us.

Day 4 – Feb. 8, 2017 – (Wednesday): Back to Puerto Princesa on a Bum Stomach  

My stomach felt a bit better after a cup of tea and a Pepto-Bismol tablet.  Breakfast consisted of two boiled eggs as I was too weak and tired to even go down to the restaurant.  The styrofoam box with my dinner lay untouched on top of the shelf.  Last night, after the boat trip, Mat & Johan went back downtown to get some food and to check it out a bit more while Ruby just opted to stay in order to help me out in my struggle with the stomach bug.

We quietly packed all stuff and our still-damp clothes as the lack of breeze from the bayfront and that it had been mostly overcast for the reminder of the afternoon after the boat trip didn’t help the somber mood.

A narrow tricycle but with enough space for the 4 of us took us back to town for our ride back to Puerto Princesa.  At the bus terminal, I looked out for our luggage while they took off on foot in search for a pharmacy to get some anti-diarrheal tablets, electrolyte mix and bottled water to, at least, stabilize my bum stomach on the long trip back to PP.

For reasons unbeknownst to us, just a few miles out of El Nido, we were transferred to another van already loaded with 2 other passengers.  The van was more comfortable so we didn’t complain.  The return trip was uneventful except for a lunch stop at an open-air restaurant that offered a nice view of the hillside and a glimpse of the waterfront further down.

We all managed to doze off in the air conditioned van along the way, maybe partly in anticipation of all the activities when we reach PP or partly because our bodies were still recuperating from that strenuous water activities we had yesterday.  Or, maybe, it was simply just another one of those sleepy, beginning-of-summer days in Palawan that’s perfect for a siesta?

By 2 PM, we’re back in the city of Puerto Princesa and we had to wait for a few minutes at the odd mixed-business-and-living-room-like reception area of the enigmatic D’ Lucky Garden Inn – – our overnight shelter for the day before we head back to Manila the next morning.

The place had such an unusual appeal because of its maze of very narrow passageways that leads to several doors that will leave you guessing where they will lead you to next.  My suspicion is that the entire place is an ‘all-purpose lodge’ that can accommodate all patrons either looking for a quick 3-hour ‘love motel’ service to monthly renters.

Mat had booked two separate rooms for us and both had that unmistaken scent of a love motel which I could simply describe as mix of household bleach and a strong musk fragrance. Mat and Johan’s room even had a motif- a red mosquito-net-like fabric draped over the center of the double-sized bed.

One of the maze-like alleys inside D’Lucky Garden Inn – Puerto Princesa, Palawan

After settling down in our rooms, cold showers we rested for the remainder of the afternoon until the couple took off again aboard another van for the ‘firefly watching’ trip in an area of the Iwahig River where a penal colony is situated nearby. They would be the only takers for the PHP 1200 (USD 24) per head tour as the inclement weather discourage other tourists.

Meanwhile, Ruby wandered all over to sort out the entire compound while this I simply stayed inside the room to battle with the bacterial infection that had now settled to the lower intestines.  The numerous trips to the bathroom made me so hungry that the ham & cheese sandwich, fries and bottle of Sprite that I ordered did not last long on the serving tray.

Mat had sent a text message to inform me that we both were already  asleep when they returned from their trip by 9:30.  They would report the following morning that while they enjoyed the food at the restaurant stop before they took the boat for the firefly watching, just a few of them showed up and failed to dazzle with their fireworks as it briefly rained during the trip.

Day 5 – Feb. 9, 2017 – (Thursday):  Puerto Princesa Airport in 3 Minutes

Since our one and a half hour flight back to Manila was scheduled for noon, just after having their early morning coffees, the trio took up on the offer of one of the receptionists- whose husband owns a tricycle- to give them a ride to Baker’s Hill and Mitra Ranch, at a discount.  Ruby decided to return to Baker’s Hill simply to buy those delicious hopia again, this time, as ‘pasalubongs’ (presents) for the folks back in Manila

The young couple at the zipline experience inside Mitra Ranch, PP, Palawan
Entrance to the former Mitra family residence in Palawan. It is now a family-run museum.

With renewed spirits after in bed for almost 18 hours since we arrived, I decided to look around the place after a hearty breakfast of ‘cornisilog‘ (corned beef hash, fried egg and fried rice). My bum stomach had markedly improved after the continuous intake of the electrolyte mix, cold Sprite and Diatabs.

The ‘lucky garden’ was just immediately across our room and so I made a few trips between the bathroom and the garden as well as the restaurant just to the right. I took a few pictures of the surrounding areas to while away the time as I waited for the trio to return.

A nipa hut at the middle of the D’ Lucky Garden Inn’s interior garden
Probably the owner himself was the chief landscaping architect of the entire place

Sometimes you visit a place and one bad experience would be enough to ruin your entire perception about its people.  On the other side of the coin, the friendliness of the people in a particular place could be so overwhelming that you wished that you had stayed much longer.

Palawan is one of those places that could be categorized on the latter.  Its people will afford you with just the right amount of personal space so that you could simply introspect in your life’s journey and enjoy what the entire island has to offer.

Ruby, Johan & Mat at Puerto Princesa airport’s boarding gate
Malaysian-owned Air Asia planes at Puerto Princesa airport

After the trio arrived, an almost brand-new white van picked us up at about 10:50 AM.  From PEO Road, it made a left turn towards Rizal Avenue, then after a brief moment, turned right into a open gate.  After that very long trip to El Nido and back, we’re all taken by surprise by that rather brief interlude of a ride to the airport.

At 10:53 AM we quietly unloaded our bags from the van and headed for the check-in counter of Air Asia for the flight back to Manila.

Adventures in Siem Reap: Khmer Kingdom of Lam Lot

During our short trip to Siem Reap to marvel at the spectacular temples in the Angkor complex – Angkor Wat is just the centerpiece in this massive Khmer kingdom- we learned not only about the ancient past but also how young Cambodians look up to the future.  Thanks to our young ‘tuk-tuk‘ driver, Lam Lot and the universality of the English language.

Aboard his black colored cart with that distinctive purple seat covers and pulled by a 125 cc. motorcycle, he informed us that he had invested about US$1450 ($550 for the cart & $900 for a popular Japanese-brand motorcycle) for his contraption after he left his all-around job at a hotel that paid him US$ 100 per month.

Taxis are very rare specially in the outskirts of downtown Siem Reap which made the tuk-tuks the most convenient way to get around the city.   Although shops are abundant that rent out motorcycles, scooters, ATVs and bikes but you’re on your own to figure out your way around.

Educated by Buddhist monks, Lam Lot is the epitome of the new breed of young Cambodians who are determined to not only forget their grim, yet not-so-distant past and focus on the now but are also willing to embrace new technologies.

During the Pol Pot regime, simply being an intellectual was already a death sentence.  These days, thanks to the internet and the tourism boom, young Cambodians are much more aware of what’s going on in and outside of their country and are also willing to step up to the plate to propel their country forward.

Ducks for sale: a young Khmer woman on her way to the market

Lot -he preferred to be called by that name -is employed by the hotel (Sekla Villa Angkor) where we stayed at that has a stable of about 4 or 5 tuk-tuk drivers to transport guests around for free as a marketing ploy.

We got endeared to him by his persistence to converse with us in English although we have to literally stick our ears to his mouth in order for us to comprehend what he meant.

Accompanied by hand gestures, we were able to relay most of what we wanted to accomplish while we toured the city.  He also refused to take our tips -we persisted- for the trip from the airport to our hotel and informed  (yes, almost scolded) us that everything was part of the hotel deal.

Our young tuk-tuk driver proudly showed his social media profile on his smartphone

Before we headed to our room, we paid for the “grand circle tour” ($5) as well as for the “sunset viewing” ($10) in one of the temples along the way but made us wonder why the former didn’t already cover the latter.  We also reminded the young lady receptionist that we wanted the same tuk-tuk driver that brought us in.

The next morning, immediately after we had our breakfasts, Lot greeted us with his sheepish smile and provided us an overview of the grand circle tour of the Angkor complex using a map that he pulled out from the canopy of his tuk-tuk.  He had also brought a cooler that he filled up with ice and several bottled water.

Except for our lodging, we had done almost no research about the Angkor complex and we all thought that going to Angkor Wat was simply a matter of visiting another UNESCO World Heritage site in maybe a couple of hours, take a few pictures, head back to the our hotel to rest and then pick another interesting spot to visit in the city.  How wrong we were.

Siem Reap, in spite of its eclectic blend of the old and new, its provincial and small city charm, had already instilled a mixed feeling of excitement and sadness inside me yesterday after I saw piles of garbage strewn all over the place just a few miles from the airport and inside the city proper.

A small creek floating with food take-out boxes and an assortment of plastic debris nearby our hotel didn’t help to contradict that sadness–that, sometimes, border on outright disgust.

Soon, the narrow inner roads gave way to much wider, cemented roads where, from a distance, we could see a cluster of tall, white-colored structures with bright red roofing — the Angkor Complex Visitors Center.

Tourist buses, scooters, and tuk-tuks vie for space at the Angkor Visitors’ Complex

Lot told us to get our tickets inside and pointed to a spot where he’ll meet us amidst the pandemonium of people — tourists that poured out from numerous tour buses, cars, tuk-tuks, scooters, bicycles, peddlers, tour guides, etc.– in the parking lot.

He had also explained to us along the way that ticket prices were increased from US$37 for a single day entry (usually $20) and the special “‘buy 2 days & get the 3rd day free” to $62 (usually $40) to take advantage of the influx of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia for their holidays since it’s their Lunar New Year.

The US dollar is the unofficial and widely accepted currency in the country although locals will still gladly take Cambodian riels.  Most shops will either give your change in riel or dollar depending on what’s available.

Now armed with our 3-day passes, we drove for another mile or so until we reached a checkpoint manned by two uniformed personnel who verified our faces with the pictures on the passes and punched the date we entered located at the back of our tickets.

It was after we made a short right turn towards our first stop in our grand circle tour that we all realized how massive the Angkor complex was. This is going to be a very long day.

Our first stop: Prasat Kravan (modern name: “Cardamom Sanctuary”). Features very fine interior brick bas-reliefs.
Very detailed carvings everywhere you look!

The temples in the almost 16-mile long ‘grand circle tour’  not only mesmerized, tantalized and dazzled our eyes but also made our feet very sore.  Unfortunately,  I had lost my custom-made foot orthosis on the flight to Manila (we traveled to Siem Reap via Hanoi from Manila) and the off-the-shelf foot support that I used did not help much either.

There were several occasions during our 3-day sorties inside the Angkor complex that I just preferred to stay in the tuk-tuk with Lot because of the constant pain on my left ankle while my wife and her sister, Rosana, excitedly clambered up the steps of the taller stone towers.

Past noon saw us sleeping in a row of hammocks beside a roadside eatery near Neak Pean which is an artificial island with a Buddhist temple as its centerpiece.  Most eateries inside the complex -as well as the tuk-tuks– have hammocks that provide a quick way to take a nap.

Tired from all the walking, tourists take a nap in hammocks provided by a roadside restaurant near Neak Pean

We were so tired after we emerged from the west gate of the next temple, Preah Khan, that we had the comforts of the hotel bed in the back of our heads as soon as we boarded Lot’s tuk-tuk once again.

Nature vs. culture: Old trees interlaced among the ruins in Preah Khan

The Bayon was so big that we all decided to just take a few photos aboard the tuk-tuk, revisit the place the following day and head back to the hotel instead.  Not after we passed by a memorial for people who died in the ‘killing fields’ during the Pol Pot regime.

Before we headed to our room, Lot informed us that he would take us to a massage parlor – they’re all over the city – to soothe our tired legs and bodies as well as a night tour of downtown Siam Reap.  We had to do this impromptu trip in a jiffy as we still had the “sunrise viewing” of Angkor Wat that required us to be up by 4:30 AM the next day.

If there’s a compelling reason to return to Siam Reap, it would be those massage parlors.  Not only were the massages ridiculously cheap -as low as $1.50 for an hour-long foot massage- but they also served as the perfect way to end your very, very tiring day inside the ancient complex.

You would do your conscience a big favor when you tip well those masseuses and masseurs as we all agreed that those low rates straddle the thin line between slave labor and gainful employment.

Mid-morning at the east gallery side of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat’s east façade as captured in this GoPro clip

Very early the following morning, after we picked up our breakfasts in paper bags from the receptionist, Lot motored us to a different route for our dawn viewing of the magnificent Angkor Wat — the main reason of our Cambodian trip.

We eventually spent almost half a day inside the splendid Angkor Wat whose walls, lintels, nooks and crevices were adorned by some of the most fascinating carvings and inscriptions the human race had ever seen.  We also managed to venture as far as the outer, eastern portion of the complex.

For the Khmers, life simply goes on; content with the knowledge that the temples will remain with them for as long as they live.  For us visitors, we can only enjoy every moment of this special opportunity to marvel at one of mankind’s greatest creations.

Later on, he showed us another part of downtown that’s popular among expats and had lunch at a fast-food joint that featured an eclectic mix of just about everything on their menu.

This fast-food restaurant’s olive-oil fried chicken recipes were really delicious.
So similar to the ‘tap-si-log’ (and variants) dish in the Philippines. But this one had a “Korean-twist” — fried rice with kimchi.

Afterwards, Lot recommended that we visit the fishing village of Kompong Phluk, which took the better of 1.5 hours for the one way, back-breaking trip on mostly unsealed roads.

It was almost like a scene from a “Mad Max” movie as our boat meandered along the murky Tonlé Sap river whose stench competed with our curiosity for any marine or human activities on this surreal backdrop.

On a muggy day, the sight of these house on stilts is surreal — like a ‘Mad Max’ movie
Fishermen ply their trade along the river bank of Tonlé Sap

The Tonlé Sap river ends on a lake with the same name and connects it with the 7th longest river in Asia — the Mekong.  Just like the river, this huge lake had suffered great sedimentation due to the exploitation of its resources.  A patina of brown seemingly tints the water as the sun’s reflection bounces from the bottom towards the surface.

Dusk arrives in Tonlé Sap Lake
A Buddhist temple sits atop the banks of Tonlé Sap river

On the way back to our hotel, Lot would point to us the dusty road that leads to his parent’s house where he and his young wife stays.  He pays for the family’s food and utility expenses.  A few more miles on the same highway, he would point to a grocery store owned by a relative of his wife where she helps out.

On our last day in Siem Reap, Lot would take us again to the old market early in the morning where we bought a luggage for all our extra stuff since we arrived in Hanoi exactly a week ago.  He also helped us get discounts for all our souvenirs in the tourists’ market nearby the very popular night attraction in downtown —‘Pub Street’.

Parking a tuk-tuk can be difficult in the old market

After we packed all our bags and turned them over to the front desk for custody, we checked out of our hotel and allowed Lot to make the decision for us how to spend the remaining 8 or so hours we had to spare before our late evening flight to Puerto Princesa in the Philippines.

Without wasting any time, he drove us to the temples in Ta Phrom which is a much smaller complex east of the Bayon.  Because of the humidity, I decided just to stay aboard his tuk-tuk while I peruse my newly-purchased guide book, “Ancient Angkor” by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques.

The Ta Prohm’s entrance gate. It is a temple-monastery with mostly silk-cotton trees interlaced among the ruins.
Touring the Bayon alone would take you the entire day…or, a few weeks!

While we waited for the sisters, we had our late lunch at a spot where locals and tuk-tuk drivers eat -there was a pair of tourists on backpacks- and had fried chicken wings and fish and sautéed mustard greens that went along with a heap of steamed rice.

After we had picked up the sisters, we passed by the Bayon again with the hopes of just relaxing in one of its many open spaces near the water since the noon day heat had jacked-up the humidity scale much higher.

He suggested that we buy some snacks and drinks once outside the Angkor complex and suggested that we proceed to a “picnic spot where he often goes when he and his wife were still sweethearts“.

The place turned out to be West Baray, a man-made lake or reservoir that was constructed in the 11th-century and was a crucial component of the Angkor complex during the heydays of the Khmer empire.

Some construction is going on in the artificial island – the West Mebon, where a magnificent bronze Vishnu still stands- located in the middle of this huge reservoir that covers an area of about 1,760 hectares (4,349 acres).

It’s very popular with locals who go there to picnic, take naps or a quick dip on its murky, brown water.  There are no gates either where you pay a fee upfront to enter.  Lot simply spoke to an elderly woman who proceeded to find a spot for the 4 of us amongst the numerous huts that were on stilts.

Taking it slow and easy in West Baray after all those walks inside the Angkor complex
Enjoying fresh coconut juice at the reservoir (West Baray) in Siem Reap

Each hut seems to have a few hammocks randomly strung on it but we found it more refreshing to lay on the mats strewn on the bamboo floor.

It was in this rustic setting, after we had some snacks, that I pondered long and hard on the calm waters of the West Baray.  My thoughts drifted to the days when I was still a young kid growing up in a sleepy town called Baclaran.

Manila Bay was my West Baray and the nearby Redemptorist (Our Lady of Perpetual Help) Church, although not afloat in a body of water, could have been the West Mebon.  The noon day heat had reached its peak and slight breeze from the north lulled the three of us into a slumber while Lot borrowed a piece of cloth from the elderly woman as he prepared to take a swim.

In my short dream, various nostalgic moments rumbled through my head but they were not too vivid enough for me to recollect when I woke up smiling afterwards – except for one: that I was walking along the grass lined walkways inside the Angkor complex with Khmer people all smiling at me on a quiet day sometime in those ancient days.

 

How Long Until Halong Bay?

After the more than 3 hr. van ride from Hanoi Old Quarter (we stayed at a deceivingly cramped but comfortable hotel –Hanoi Guest House– along Mã Mây Road)- my initial impression of the place was, “here we go again, just another tourist-packed place hyped-up by all those travel magazines.”

The van ride ended at a bland, squat, white-washed terminal building (Tuan Chau International Marina) whose design seemed a bit out of place and where our guide instructed us to wait until we were handed out 2 tickets.

All ‘junk boat’ tours to Halong Bay start at this architecturally-inapt building
Ruby and Rosan wait for their boat ride
Nice looking boat…always ready for Halong Bay cruise

It was not until we went past the visitors’ building, saw the open waters as we followed the throng of tourists form a queue for their boat rides, that my biased, unimpressive opinion about the whole trip slowly gave way to both astonishment and awe.

For US$72 or less (depends on what tour company you booked with) that included stops for lunch (not free) & some shopping along the way as well as the included simple lunch during the boat ride in the bay, it was an okay deal as you’re visiting a UNESCO world heritage spot.

Scorpion and snake infused ‘medicinal’ wine, anyone???
A ‘cooking show’ on the boat just before serving lunch

Whether you’re part of a big group or hired a special boat all for yourself, Halong Bay is sure to offer that special connection with nature and reinforce the fact that traveling is the best form of education. One’s romantic notion of a place as seen on those glossy magazines and books will now depend on your own perception while you’re actually there —you can now paint your own picture.

Among nature’s wonders

Our Halong tour had the option to either explore some of the islands in detail either by a smaller boat (max of 4-5 persons) or by kayak (max of 2). It also included a longish stop at an island where you’ll hike up a steep bluff to explore the caves — this alone really sweetened the deal.

Up this steep bluff lies one of the entrances to the caves
Time and water created this mammoth formations inside the caves

If would be a good idea to spend a night or two -depends on your budget- and explore the other areas of the bay where you can actually walk along its shores and take a swim while having a nice view of everything.

In the nearby areas surrounding where most of the tourist buses parked, we just did not see activities like swimming or any other water sports.

You can ride a smaller boat or paddle a kayak to tour the numerous islets
These islets dot the Gulf of Tonkin

 

At the end of the day, on that return trip back to your hotel, you’ll have that smile on your face that you had finally visited that “famous, picturesque place in Vietnam.”