Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Philippines: Elsewhere

Dagupan Beach

Dagupan was a stopping point between Vigan and the 100 Islands. It's interesting, but not that interesting. All along the beach there are small little huts that serve as private karaoke bars. You rent them by the hour and get to sing to your hearts content. Beyond that, there is not much to do in town. The seafood restaurants are okay. We didn't see any other non-Philippinos there, so I guess it's a good place to meet the locals.

Pagsanjan Falls

Pagsanjan is home of some famous waterfalls that are supposed to be quite beautiful. I didn't see the falls, as the town was just one big tourist trap scam. For example, before I went, the official website listed the per person boat price at $630 Pesos. When I got there, it was $800 Pesos, with a two person minimum. Now, the price is up to $1000 Pesos. The hotels are overpriced. And everywhere you go in town people are shouting at you, waving you down, all in the hopes of selling you something. After one night I left without ever seeing the falls.

Nasugbu Beach

Maybe I'm just not a beach person, but I found every beach I visited in the Philippines to be lacking in anything of interest. The sand here was nice. And there were lots of hotels to choose from. On the down side, it is a tourist trap, with people constantly trying to hawk things, especially a boat ride to the white sand beach. I couldn't find a halfway decent restaurant along the beach. Even in town the choices were slim.

About the only think that peeked my interest was a group of men hauling in their fishing net. After what seemed like several hours of work by a small group of men, they finally landed their catch. It was handful of fish that an old woman quickly weighed on a scale and were spirited off to someone's dinner table. A rather disappointing climax to such an rigorous ordeal. Which serves as a good closing metaphor for Nasugbu.

Philippines: Tagaytay

Tagaytay is another mountain town that draws people with its cool temperatures. Another draw is the view of Taal Lake and Taal volcano down below.

Overall all, it is a pleasant city. Although saying it is "probably the most pleasant city in Asia" (as per the link above) is a tad too much hyperbole. The biggest drawback for the backpacker/budget traveler is that the town is stretched out along the top of a mountain ridge. So from one end to the other is probably 10-15 kilometers. So unless you know where you are going, it is difficult to just wander around checking out the sites. Also, as it is a big tourist destination, the hotel prices are quite a bit higher. I was able to find a room for 1200 Pesos after several hours of looking around. Most of the hotels are 2000 Pesos and up.

There are a lot of good restaurants in town, but again, they're pretty much spread all along the ridge. Near one end of town is Picnic Grove Nature's Park. The view is worth the 50 Peso admission price. And check out the modest zip line which crosses over a small valley. There is also a hostel at the park, but I'm not sure what the price is. Probably cheaper than elsewhere in town.

If you want to a quick escape from the heat of Manila, Tagaytay is a good choice. Personally, I prefer Baguio, and the Mountain Province. But those are a little further than Tagaytay.

A view of the ridge

A view of Taal Lake and Taal Volcano

The zip line and gondola at Picnic Grove

Friday, January 23, 2009

Philippines: 100 Islands

100 Islands National Park is another place I give a lukewarm recommendation for. The islands are nice, but it feels more like a tourist trap than a park. As soon as we arrived there was a middle aged woman trying to rent her house to us, rent us a boat, rent us a cabin on the island, sell us water, etc. And everywhere you went there were more people trying to rent us a boat, rent us a room, sell us trinkets, etc.

When you arrive in Alaminos, stock up on some picnic food. There are no grocery stores around the park itself. As an alternative, there is an open market by the main pier where you can be some food. From Alaminos, there is no bus to the 100 Islands Park. The motorized tricycle rate should be around 50 pesos. At least that's what people told us. There might be an organized conspiracy to charge tourists more though. Once there, walk around to the various hotels and check out the prices. You shouldn't spend more than one night there.

When renting a boat, just get the basic 800 peso boat package. The "service boat" for 1200 pesos doesn't really cover much else. We negotiated a service boat for 1000 pesos, but we only stopped at a couple additional islands. And there's really no need to spend an extra hour or two checking out every single island. They all look pretty much the same.

They do have "cabins" on a few of the islands where you can spend the night. But we didn't like the pushy sales pitch and the ever escalating costs. It starts off with the price of the cabin. And then you have to pay for a boat there. And then a boat the next day to pick you up. And then water. And then a lantern. And then food. It just wasn't worth the hassle to us. And when we saw the actual cabins (see picture below) we were relieved we didn't make that choice.

Overall, it's just one of those places that is going to burn a little time and a little money off your trip. I suppose there are worse places, but why bother with this one?

Some of the islands

Boats at one of the islands

A closer look at the islands

One of the "cabins" you can spend the night at

A collection of stranded toilets

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Philippines: Vigan

Vigan is on the World Heritage List as "the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia." Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. The "colonial town" is more or less one street of old Spanish colonial buildings. Granted, it is a nice street. But it is pretty much just the one street. There is some interesting architecture off that main street, but the puttering motorbikes, motorized tricycles, and taxis take away all the charm.

We did luck out in some respects. We were there for one of their festivals, and watched a Filipino burlesque drag show. In addition, I celebrated my birthday there. And since we had a TV at the hotel, I was able to watch the inauguration. But beyond those special events, there wasn't much to see or do there.

If you're passing through the area on a bus, by all means stop and spend an hour or two looking around. But I wouldn't make a special journey to see it. Rather check out Intramuros in Manila. It's a much larger area of preserved Spanish colonial architecture. Just don't spend the night there, as the hotels are all priced higher due to it being a famed tourist destination.

A scene of the Spanish colonial street

Another scene

And another

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Philippines: Sagada

From Bontoc we headed to Sagada by foot. It's a picturesque 20 km hike, but I'd suggest doing it in the reverse direction, as Sagada is up mountain from Bontoc. Sagada is pleasant little Mountain Province city. It has good weather, a few good restaurants, and good scenery. The only downside is a 9 pm curfew. That, and the large collection of noise making animals about town. Between the dogs barking at night and the roosters crowing in the morning, you're not likely to get much sleep. Even with the early bedtime.

Some of the sites worth visiting:
-the town itself, off of the main street is very interesting. There are no streets, just sidewalks. It's a great way to see how some people live.

-Instead of burying their dead, they have a tradition of hanging the coffins from cliff faces or inside of caves. So you can find the famous hanging coffins in Echo Valley or Lumiang Cave.

-There are some good rice terraces around town as well.

-Sumaguing Cave. This is not a visitor friendly cave. There are no lights and no foot paths in the cave. But it's a great way to see a cave in its natural form. The journey is a little rugged, and occasionally dangerous though. There's even a through hike that exits out a different cave entrance. If you're alone or with one other person, it'll be usually be cheaper to join up with others for the tour.

Note: All visitors must register with the town tourist office and pay a visitor's tax. I forget the price, but it wasn't very much. They also sell a town map and provide all the information you need. It's definitely one of the better run tourist operations in the places I visited.

The view from the hotel room

Rice terraces

Hanging coffins in Echo Valley

Hanging Coffins in Lumiang Cave

Friday, January 16, 2009

Philippines: Bontoc

Bontoc was another one of my favorite places to visit in the Philippines. The size of the town is small, so it's easy to get around. It's in the mountains, so there are a lot of hiking opportunities nearby. And the people we met were all very nice.

The main stretch running through town has a number of hotels, making it easy to find a reasonable room and negotiate a good price. We ended up paying 400 Pesos for a decent room, which is less than $10. On the other hand, it is pretty easy to pay just as much for a meal at one of the hotel restaurants. There are also quite a few small bars with karaoke machines were you can belt out a tune for 5 Pesos.

Nearby is the even smaller town of Malicong, which has rice terraces. While the rice terraces there are not as famous as the ones at Banaue, they are quite stunning. And there are virtually no other tourists there to crowd you. You can pretty much just walk all around them and just see the local farmers doing their work. The road ends in Malicong, but if you do some exploring you'll find another town on the other side of one of the mountains. Somehow, they bring everything they need in on foot from Malicong. One group of men was hauling a pig down through the rice terraces, and then back up the mountain, and on to their village. Jeepneys go to Malicong from near the central market. From Malicong back to Bontoc, I recommend hiking back. It is an easy 5 or so kilometers downhill.

And note that Bontoc is in the Mountain Province, so there is a curfew. Around 10 pm the bars will stop serving and within 30 minutes or so everybody is sent back home.

Motorized tricycles in Bontoc

The jeepney to Malicong

Rice terraces in Malicong

More rice terraces

Locals taking a pig to their village

The path through the rice terraces

A banana plant with flower

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Philippines: Baguio

Baguio was our first stop out of Manila. Located at 1500 meters above sea level, it is known as the "summer capital of the Philippines." In terms of sight seeing, it's nothing special. But it is one of the more livable places I visited in the Philippines. There is a large college population, so it's got a lively feel to it. Session Road has a lot of good of restaurants. There is an SM Mall, with a variety of fast food joints. There's also a large open market in the center of town as well. Outside of town, Camp John Hay has been turned into a high end tourist destination, with golf courses and luxury resorts. And being located in the mountains, there is a large array of hikes one can partake in.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hong Kong

This was my second time to visit Hong Kong. The first time was in 1997 for the handover to China. It was in the middle of summer, and I hated the place. Hot and humid to the extreme. And the only relief from that was from torrential buckets of rain. The only highlight was that I flew on a FedEx plane and got to ride in the cockpit for the landing at the old downtown airport. Nevertheless, I decided to return for a 24 hour layover on the way to the Philippines.

This time, it was much, much better. The weather was excellent, and I had a plan of attack. After arriving on Saturday night we headed to our guest house at Chungking Mansions. The rooms there are super small, and not always the most tidy of places. But the location is excellent, and the price is cheap. After taking a brief walk about, we decided to rest up for a busy Sunday.

On Sunday we did the quick 1-day tour of Hong Kong. Walking to the ferry terminal; taking the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island; checking out the Mid-levels, and their wonderful escalator; eating at a local Chinese restaurant; riding the tram up to The Peak; doing some sidewalk shopping in the street markets; eating some Chinese street food. And then finally, heading back to the airport for our flight to the Philippines.

After all of that, it makes me wonder what city I actually visited back in 1997. I don't remember the restaurants, the sites, the vibrancy of the city. I'll chalk it up to the bad weather. All in all, Hong Kong definitely moved up on my list of favorite cities. I'd still never go back in the summer though.

Tip: Never, ever exchange money at the airport. The rates are terrible and the guest houses will be able to exchange your major currencies (i.e. don't bring Won).

The goldfish market

Part of the Mid-levels escalator system

The tram to The Peak

The view from Victoria Peak