Saturday, April 18, 2015

Batad, Philippines

The spectacular rice terraces of Batad aren’t easy to get to. But they are SO worth it.


I’ve visited lush jungles and pristine beaches. Swam in volcano-studded lakes and ascended mountain peaks above the clouds. But never in my life have I been anywhere that felt more like walking around inside of a painting than Batad. A village so unlike any place I’d seen before, it was difficult to believe it was real. Colors almost incomprehensible to the human eye, brilliant brush strokes all around.  These stone terraces carved out of the mountains by hand 2,000 years ago are often dubbed the “Eight Wonder of the World”, and I can see why. Rumor has it, if the countless steps were placed end-to-end, they would reach halfway around the globe. Which is about how far we’d traveled to experience them.


We ambled for hours across the narrow rocks, careful not to fall into the pools of growing rice. We shooed away the odd rooster and stopped to greet the occasional pig. We listened to the sounds of village life echoing across the vast amphitheater. 



It was a day that stands out so sharply from any other, I remember each detail like a vivid dream from which I've just been awakened. And the scene becomes even more dream-like when you make it across the valley, and descend from its highest rim down the back side of this enchanting place. Dense foliage. A steep path. Wet heat and buzzing pests and blazing sunshine. 

Then this.


Tappiya waterfall is a favorite local swimming hole, and the dazzling icing on the rice terrace cake. Just when I thought my day couldn't get any better, I kicked off my heavy sneakers, peeled off my sticky clothes, and went for an ice cold swim. 



Then a boisterous group of local folks insisted that we pose in their family photo. Naturally.


Our luck lasted just long enough for us to make the grueling hike back up the hillside, across the terraces, through the small village, and a few miles out over what will one day be a paved road to this secluded paradise. But before we reached our tricycle ride home, the morning's rain returned and we sat, stranded by the storm. 

video

Eventually it let up just barely enough for us to not die on the precarious three-wheeled trip down the mountain and back to Banaue. And I mean barely. There were times when the wet road and gravity proved stronger than the motorbike, and we'd slide recklessly backwards towards our demise. On a few occasions, Reece had to jump out and help push the tiny vehicle over a stubborn hill, or both of us would vacate around a particularly hairy bend. Reece may tell you that I cried, and threatened to walk the treacherous distance all the way back to town. But I think he may have been dreaming ;)

For photos of our entire Batad experience, click HERE.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Journey to Batad

The journey to the incredible rice terraces of Batad is not for the faint of heart. Start by negotiating with a tricycle driver in the small village of Banaue… Actually, let me back up a bit.

Start in Manila. Because that is most likely where your flight to the Philippines landed from wherever you came from. Spend an entire day tracking down the correct bus station (it’s really far) to buy tickets out of Manila as quickly as possible. Because for lack of a better word, Manila sucks.

The following evening, try to hail a taxi to the (really far) bus station in time for your scheduled 9pm departure. Learn that every cab driver in Manila is a scammer who refuses to use his meter and won’t let you into his car until you agree to quadruple the actual fare. Argue. Panic. Curse the Philippines. Repeat. Acknowledge that you are going to miss your bus. Throw a temper tantrum. If you’re lucky, the security guard at your hotel (in the red light district) will take pity on you and help find an honest old man who switches the meter to ‘on’.

Arrive at the bus station (by ‘station’ I mean packed, fluorescently lit compound surrounded by a chain link fence and teeming with rats and cockroaches). Wait. Watch as they put a new tire on the bus. Hope that scrawny kid is screwing those lug nuts on tight. Get crammed onto the musty monster of a vehicle like sardines (who knew the aisle has fold-down seats?!) Get laughed at when you ask for the password that accompanies the “free wifi” sticker in the window.

Depart into the dark, gloomy night. Drift into a troubled sleep. Halfway through the journey, wake up to realize you’re at a dead stop on a two-lane road. Your husband is angry with the obnoxious, restless guy next to (nearly on) him. There is no explanation as to why there are bumper-to-bumper semi trucks for miles in the middle of a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Trade seats with husband. Try to fall asleep again (unsuccessfully).

Watch the sun rise. Stop for (terrible) food. Get off the bus when it pulls over on the side of the road and the driver tells you he’s not going any further. Recognize the name of your lodge on the sign in a small woman’s hands. Follow her to the back of a pick-up truck. Miraculously, arrive safely in Banaue.





All you want to do is sleep, but you quickly realize your courtesy ride was not free. You will pay. With being stalked for two days straight by this woman, trying to sell you tours of the nearby villages. She’ll be at the restaurant when you eat dinner. Outside of your door when you wake up. In the lobby when you charge your phone (cause there are no electrical outlets in your room).

Screw that. You’re an independent traveler. You don’t take tours.

After a little research (VERY little, cause internet doesn’t really work in the Philippines) and some asking around, you find a guy who offers to take you as far as he can towards the village of Batad, in the miniature sidecar of his motorbike (affectionately known in the ‘Pines as a tricycle). “As far as he can”, because the road ends a few miles short of the village, and you must hike the rest of the way in. And off you go.



Or shall I say, UP you go. Up the slick from recent rains, winding mountain road. Higher and higher and higher as the jungle dips vertiginously below. You swerve to avoid fresh landslides, while peering straight down at your worst fears over the rail-less edge. At times when the ascent becomes too steep, your husband has to get out of the sidecar and hop on the back of the motorbike to re-distribute the weight, leaving you alone to contemplate your imminent death-by-plummet. But these rice patties are reputed to be SO beautiful. You heard there was a waterfall there. It will be WORTH IT!








Forty-five minutes later (nobody told you it would take 45 minutes) you arrive at the edge of a construction zone. Someday, this remote village will be connected to town by paved road. Until then, trepidatious folks amble past excavators and bulldozers, and continue an hour down a narrow, rocky path, the sound of their own footsteps occasionally interrupted by nearby blasts of road-clearing dynamite.


You will be SO relieved when you finally arrive. You'll be met by a makeshift “tourist information center” where you pay a few bucks for permission to wander around these farmers’ land unattended. And when you catch your first glimpse of what you traveled so far for, your jaw will drop. You’ve never seen anything like it, anywhere else you’ve traveled. The colors are unreal. The amphitheater surrounding you, perfection. You’ve made it.




What follows, will be even more of an adventure. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

First Impressions: The Philippines

It pains me to say negative things about anyplace we are lucky enough to visit. But, this blog is nothing if not honest. So, here goes.

I heard a lot about “Filipino Hospitality” before we arrived here. This place is famous for it, and I couldn’t wait for the warm welcome we’d receive. Well, I haven’t seen it yet. Filipino unfriendliness? Yes. Filipino indifference? Sure. Filipino frowns? In spades. Maybe we’ve just been unlucky. Perhaps the people in Cambodia were just SO unbelievably friendly (they are) that anyplace after it would pale in comparison. Whatever it is, we do not feel the warm welcome here that we’ve felt in so many other countries. My theory is that once you know a local well enough to be invited into their home, I’m sure they are incredibly hospitable and wonderful people. But for the average tourist walking down the street, they really couldn’t care less.

The food. Ahhh the food. We’re really looking forward to the moment we find something we like. But we haven’t yet. I’m sure we must be ordering terribly. And I’ll bet if we got to know one of those hospitable locals, they’d cook us up a storm. But so far, everything has been overpriced (by southeast Asian standards) and underwhelming. When it comes to meat, either the color is odd or the texture is suspect. When it comes to white rice, well, there is no shortage of that. There are lots and lots of greasy fast food places, and not a vegetable as far as the eye can see. What we wouldn’t give for some Vietnamese street food with a mountain of fresh herbs. It’s one of the few places in Asia that isn’t known around the world for its cuisine, and I think I can see why.

Lastly, the tourist infrastructure is much less established than I expected it to be. Hostel staff can’t answer any questions about the country. Tourist offices and ticket counters basically don’t exist. Purchasing a bus ticket required a two-hour round-trip taxi ride to the depot, cause they don’t have any agents selling tickets in the city or the ability to purchase online. I would gladly pay a few bucks commission on a ticket if they would put a system, any system, in place. In most cities, you despise the touts trying to sell you tours and excursions, and yearn for that magical time before places become so touristy. Well, now that I’ve experienced that time, I have a new appreciation for the alternative.


I’m sure there are many people out there who would disagree with me on everything above, and I hope by the time we leave here I disagree with it too! Forgive me, Philippines.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Midget Boxing Lady Boxing

Cause when the bar around the corner from your hotel advertises midget AND stripper boxing, you go. And you watch. And you cheer.





Note: If you find a nice looking hotel in Manila that's in your backpacker budget, it's probably in the red light district.

Monday, April 13, 2015

All Too Civilized

One day you’re walking down a road that is under water for half of the year, amongst naked kids playing soccer with plastic bags and houses on wooden stilts. The next day, you’re riding down an escalator in a shopping mall with a Starbucks cup in your hand. Travel has a way of messing with you.

It’s strange - We’ve always felt more culture shock upon arriving home from a developing country than the reverse. Everything is just SO convenient! There are SO many things to choose from at the grocery store! Portions are SO big! People have SO much stuff! We always return to the first world overwhelmed by the excess, and determined to live more simply.

But inevitably, within mere hours it seems, we’re right back into the swing of things. We upgrade to the latest iPhone. We become particular about the kind of cheese we buy (New Zealand grass fed extra sharp white cheddar). We need new clothes and new shoes and our apartment slowly gets filled with new stuff. How are we all innately so hard wired to consume?

On our recent transition from the remote dusty village of Kompong Phluk to the metropolitan city of Manila, the shock was a particularly strong one. Because over the past several months, we’ve grown to feel so connected. To those around us. To history. To the earth. Okay, I know I sound like I’ve gone completely off the reservation here. But I’m telling you, long term travel heightens our senses in a way we could never have understood before experiencing it. We found on our 2010 trip, and again now - when we are constantly surrounded by strangers, judging who we can trust, finding our way, navigating the unknown - a sort of sixth sense emerges that enables us to read the energy of a person or a room or a place in an instant. The longer we’re gone, the stronger it gets. And when we return home, it fades right along with the desire to live simply.

So I find myself on this escalator in the mega Greenbelt Mall of Manila, and everybody around me just feels so… disconnected. Wandering the air-conditioned halls like zombies. Phones in hand. Shopping bags on arm. It felt so empty to me in contrast to where we had just been. Sterile. Soulless. It was difficult to comprehend how both of these worlds are happening simultaneously, less than a day’s travel from one another. It felt like another planet.

We sat down at a generic, overpriced restaurant in a spotless booth with colorful, laminated menus in our hands. I asked Reece – Why is it that sitting on a dirty stool on the sidewalk, breathing the exhaust of passing motorbikes and eating whatever their serving up that day, is so much more satisfying than this? I don’t get it. He answered - Because it makes us feel human. Funny, I bet a lot of people out there would argue the opposite.

We both felt a bit sad by the realization that we weren’t excited to be back in “civilization.” That we missed the dirt roads and lack of technology and the connection with perfect strangers. Cause after all, this is the world we’d be returning to in LA. Were we ready for that? Had we been too quick to book our flights home? The feeling made us uneasy.

Ultimately however, there are a million amazing things about going back to California. We are so, so lucky to call it home. And it goes without saying that we’re excited about everybody we get to see when we get there. To enjoy the existing, lifelong connections of friends and family, instead of perfect strangers. And we are so insanely blessed that we have the choice to experience both. To get lost in a third world country, and then return to the comforts of the US. 

Further, we are grateful that places so unlike home still call to us so deeply. That we share the desire and apprecaition. And that hopefully, even after going home, it won’t be long before we return to them again J

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap really turned us off when we first arrived. I mean this place is TOURISTY. A street called "Pub Street" with nothing but bars. "The Lane", a tiny alley with cafes and wine shops. The "Night Market" full of souvenir stands and foot massage parlors. A plethora of boutique hotels with comfy beds and stylish pools. Wait a minute. This place is awesome!

That's pretty much how our experience there evolved.



Yes, it's full of tourists. LOTS of them. And all of the comforts that cater to them. Not at all the exotic, mysterious land I envisioned. Which makes sense, considering the 2 million visitors to Angkor Wat every year. Once we got over our damn selves and embraced it, we had a really good time. How can you be mad at $1 beers? What could you possibly have against $2 foot massages? Tell me one bad thing about a $22/night hotel room? And who wouldn't love $1.50 margaritas at an open air restaurant that actually serves damn good Mexican food? Be reasonable.

Toss in some Khmer boxing, Apsara dancing, and traditional craft-making, and you've got a pretty well-rounded experience. Not to mention that somewhat significant series of temples nearby.




Siem Reap is easy and fun and affordable and, while crowded, a place I could easily recommend to anybody. And please, have a blended margarita at Viva for me. With salt.


For photos of our time in Siem Reap, click HERE.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Kompong Phluk, Cambodia

One of the most remote, undeveloped, real places we’ve ever been. 

Cause here’s the deal. If we know about a place, it’s cause somebody has been there and told us about it. Or wrote about it in a guidebook. Or started a tour company to take hundreds of folks like us there.

But sometimes, you find yourself with two weeks to kill, in a town with one REALLY MAJOR tourist site. And few people really bother asking what else there is to see and do there. And with a little digging and a willingness to suffer down a bumpy dirt road for a few hours, you are met with a place that’s unlike any other place you have ever seen in your life.

Kompong Phluk. 


Yes, it’s in the Lonely Planet. I don’t get any credit here for discovering it. However, we didn’t meet a single person in Cambodia who had ventured there. And it has but a brief blurb in the book, with not much guidance as to how you get there. We started asking around and found a guy who could arrange transport in a small van with about eight other interested people. So while roughly 6,000 tourists visited nearby Ankgor Wat, we went there.

Now you see, this town is located on Tonle Sap which is, during the wet season, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia. The houses are built upon 20 foot stilts, and its residents travel entirely by boat. But, for a few months during the dry season, the lake shrinks from an enormous 12,000 square kilometers to just 2,500. Leaving Kompong Phluk and villages like it unnaturally exposed. It is a surreal, beautiful, haunting, chaotic mess of a place. 


They don’t see a whole lot of tourists here. Naked kids unabashedly run down the street (if you can call it that). Locals go about their business of boiling shrimp (to make shrimp paste) with curious glances and the occasional wave. A haze of lakebed dust and the scent of fish hangs in the air. There are no restaurants or souvenir shops. Just a couple of inquisitive tourists ambling down the lane with jaws slightly agape.

We played with local kids, tossing around the bundle of plastic bags they were using as a ball. We observed a small English class in session. We took a boat ride out on what’s currently left of the lake, in hopes of a stunning sunset that never revealed itself. We drove away feeling moved. Connected to this simple strange place and it’s warm welcoming people. A little bit like we had just been told a secret. I didn’t want to leave, and my heart grew heavy as the distance between us grew.




I searched online about it after returning to Siem Reap, and was met with very conflicting accounts. It sounds as if during the wet season this is in fact more of a tourist attraction, with canoes carting visitors through the nearby “flooded forest” at wildly varied prices. And people don’t seem to walk away from that experience with the same feelings that we did. I’m really grateful we got to see it at this time of year, to simply witness village life. It was a special day that will leave a lasting impression on both of us.


For photos of Kompong Phluk, click HERE.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Persistence. Perfection. Poor Planning.

Angkor. The magnificent remains of the Khmer Empire (often referred to by the name of its most famous temple, Angkor Wat). The filming location of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider movies. One of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. The largest religious monument in the world, stretching over some 150 square miles in the Cambodian jungle. And at the top of my bucket list for the past several years.

Our ticket allowed entry on any three days within one week. On our first of these visits, we checked off the item on every tourist’s itinerary: Watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Our tuk tuk driver picked us up from our guesthouse at 4:45am. We’d chosen him days earlier because we liked his smile, his festive tunes, and the bounty of LED lanterns swaying ferociously from his tiny roof with every bump in the road.


We sped down the dark roads under the blanket of night, air already thick with humidity of the day to come. Music blaring, passing other tuk tuks, hearts racing as the time was finally upon us. We arrived amidst a sea of others and raced across the long moat into the temple, our path illuminated only by the dancing beams of flashlights, unable to catch a glimpse of the imposing outer walls we were about to penetrate. Once through the main gate, the whisper of dawn began to reveal the outline of a magnificent temple within, and we took our seats amongst the crowd to witness what we’d come all this way for.


Now, it’s tough to be present and in the long-awaited moment when hundreds of people are competing with you for the perfect shot. But we got a few nonetheless, and when the sun's rays finally ascended above the temple, we took a seat nearby to eat the breakfast picnic we’d packed the night before. Sunrise over Agkor Wat: Check.




We’d paid our driver just $20 for a full day tour, so we proceeded to be whisked around the complex, stopping at various sites of interest along the way. It was packed. And hot. An inferno unlike anything we’ve felt in most places in the world. Record high temperatures, we later learned. Each time we returned to the tuk tuk from exploring yet another temple, Mr. Saan offered us a fresh bottle of water and cool cloth to wipe our sweat. The piles of old stones began to blur into one another, a haze of history under an unrelenting sun. But we were determined to see all that we came for, heat stroke be dammed.











By noon, we had completed our circuit. The hotel's not-quite-cool-enough pool offered a reward for our persistence.

On the second visit, we took a different approach. Go to where the least amount of people will be, and avoid the sun altogether. Another 4:45am pick-up, but this time we ventured deeper into the jungle to Bayon Temple. With every surface covered in giant serene faces, it was a magical and eerie place to watch night turn to day. We were literally the only two people out there, secluded and enveloped by the sounds and smells of the surrounding jungle.







Once the sky was lit to a soft powder blue, we sped off to my favorite of Angkor’s temples, Ta Prohm. One of the few in the complex where nature has been left uninterrupted to take it’s course, the crumbling walls have been consumed in places by ancient tree roots. A beautiful reminder of the power of mother earth, and a rugged place where you can actually feel the years that have passed since the fall of the Khmer empire. We had seen this site on our first day's visit, but being one of just a few people there - while everyone else was miles away at Angkor Wat - was a truly magical experience.






We returned home for a mid-day swim and snooze, following by another swim and lunch. We finally had this Angkor thing figured out! That evening, we returned to watch the sun set at Angkor Wat, catching it in a different light and from the reverse view of our first visit. Day 2, absolute perfection.







The very last day that our passes were valid, we skipped the sunrise and opted for a sleep in, another swim, and some $1.50 margaritas at our favorite Mexican joint in town instead. Just two more items lingered on our wish list: Exploring a temple I was denied access to prior (for wearing a tank top), and watching the sun set from high atop the hill of Phnom Bakheng temple.

As the afternoon drifted on over frozen beverages, we realized we may have waited too long to contact our favorite tuk tuk driver. By the time we reached him, the sun hung low in the sky, and we nervously awaited his postponed arrival while debating whether we should go with one of the dozens of other guys parked on the street beside us. But we loved our driver! And wanted to stay loyal to him! I guess we better order another.


Our guy finally arrived and we rushed to Phnom Bakheng, with just a half hour to spare before we had to make our way tot the famous sunset spot. We parked and sprinted to the gates in my long sleeved shirt, but I was denied again, this time for wearing shorts. WHAT?! The sign didn’t say anything about shorts! Upon further investigation, it turned out that shorts were okay, they just had to be longer than my shorts. Between you and me, I think this is a ploy for the nearby vendors to sell their wares, but that’s neither here nor there. I sulked back to the tuk tuk where Reece, never missing a chivalrous opportunity, offered to trade shorts with me. This way I could at least run up and get the photo I wanted before our time here came to a close. 

We struggled (and failed) to find a private place, so we covered up as best we could with a towel and dropped our pants. All the while considering whether showing a bare ass in front of the temple was any less offensive than wearing shorts inside it. In my rush, I fell and sliced up my knee on thousand-year-old rubble. The pleasant margarita buzz had evolved into a hot and hazy sleepiness. So far, things were not going as planned.


I finally limped across the pavilion, inside the main gates, and up the stairs to the viewpoint I sought. Oh, so many stairs. Oh, so hot. For a moment, I actually felt like I might pass out. No shade in which to seek relief. No supportive husband by my side. No stop to the pounding in my head. It was a miserable rush but I got the shot. You can see the overwhelming excitement on my face.






Now it was time for the grand finale. A short hike to the top of a hill where we could sit upon ancient ruins and watch the sun dip into the distant horizon, across Cambodia’s lush landscape, while contemplating life and counting our many blessings... And being pushed and shoved by a swarm of other tourists trying to capture the same moment of peace. We had to wait in a line to even get up the stairs to see the view, where we stood around idley searching for a place to rest our sore bums.



Did I mention Reece was still wearing my shorts??


Ultimately, it was so crowded that it wasn’t even worth waiting around for the sun to go down. We took our time strolling down the hill back to our waiting driver, pausing to appreciate the orange sky for a moment away from the hoards. Our final day may have been poorly planned, but we couldn’t have asked for a more well-rounded Angkor experience.



For more photos of our Angkor Wat experience, click HERE.