Monday, November 14, 2016

INDOCHINA: Travel Beyond Tourism

At one of the bus stopovers in Vietnam en route to Phonsavan
When the bus pulled over at a restaurant I looked for food in the shelves. But all I saw were tables with set meals. I thought they were for the drivers and their crew. Then they invited me over. I remembered Vietnam is a communist country! It was a feast for free.
Things like this are the highlights of my Indochina backpacking. While many people would imagine Angkor Wat, Wat Pho, The Royal Palace and the Floating Market when they hear Indochina backpacking, I devoted most of my time to things that are intangible like the stories behind Tuol Sleng in Cambodia and the bombs in Laos. As a matter of fact, I only spent 3 hours on my bike in the 25 complex of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom; but I spent 2 hours at the small COPE Visitor Center in Laos trying to know the horrors and impact of the atrocities of the US in Indochina. And while many would think that my Indochina itinerary is a wild rush, I actually almost always had a beer in one hand. It was a slow yet fun trip. If I wanted to linger at a spot, I'd do that in the mountains in the Philippines. Why would I waste 3 days (like the tourists recommended) staring at the temples in Siem Reap? When I saw the temples, yes I was amazed by the work of the human hands. But that's the case for all the other temples! The same loss of excitement that I felt two years ago upon seeing the Royal Palace. Actually the jungle in Siem Reap was the one that caught my attention. I enjoyed riding my bicycle under its canopy more than immersing myself among the tourists in the temples.
Of all the beers I tried in Indochina, Saigon Special is the best

And I loved the bus rides too. They were comfortable and they double as your hotel room too. It felt good to be the only non-Vietnamese or non-Lao on one inter-country bus ride. Most tourists would take the Dien Bien Phu - Muang Khua border or the Mekong River crossing. My objective was not to take a selfie at the temples nor to have an immersion. My objective was to find stories. And I'll share one with you.
Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. And whose bombs? The US--in their desperate attempt to win over Vietnam. The unexploded ordnance that they have left in Laos have killed more than THIRTY THOUSAND (and counting) innocent civilians in Laos since the end of the Vietnam war. And of course, we always disregard the injured! But the injured have more haunting stories to tell. And only 3 percent of these unexploded bomblets have been neutralized. COPE says that with the amount of support and manpower they have, trying to rid Lao lands of these bombs, it will take more than a hundred years to completely declare these farming lands safe! Now you know why Laos is poor.
These neutralized bomblets are the centerpiece of the CORE Visitor's Center in Vientiane
And the US has the audacity to bitch about Duterte's 3000 dead drug addicts! WTF?!!! And did you also know that the US supplied Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge with arms that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in 4 years? Why? You might ask. Because Pol Pot helped the US subdue the Vietnamese forces. You see this vendetta of the US against Vietnam has made the US volunteer to be instrumental in a genocide in Cambodia and a continuing massacre in Laos without even being there. Experiences like these are the ones I look for in a trip. Something that can improve my worldview. I don't think I'd get these stories in the temples. When you're traveling beyond tourism in Indochina, ten days is actually more than enough. If you're collecting temples and heritage sites, 10 days is too short and yes, in that sense, Indochina is actually already very common.

Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia for less than PhP20,000 in Ten Days

You might think that this is another budget travel where you closely monitor your expenses. Nope, this isn't. You should know that I spent one night at a 4-star hotel, I bought 50-USD worth of pasalubong and I even checked in at an inn just to use the bathroom. I didn't splurge but it surely wasn't the typical tight 'budget' travel.

Here's the itinerary (with details of my expenses) of my 9-day Indochina trip. Details of each day will be posted soon.

Day 0 (Oct 27; Thursday) Leaving on a Jet Plane  (PHP2,409)

The exchange rate at Ha Noi International airport is much better than at NAIA
0800hrs: ETD from Baguio for NAIA P455; snack at bus stopover P35
1400hrs: ETA Cubao; late lunch P120; MRT to Taft P24; Taft to NAIA 3 (Airport Loop bus) P20
1700hrs: ETA NAIA; Travel tax P1620 ; food (KFC) P135
2215hrs: ETD for Hanoi (Cebu Pacific Flight 5J744; NAIA Terminal 3)

Day 1 (Oct 28; Friday) BIG DAY; Ninh Binh (Vietnam)  VND612,000 (PHP1,332)

The not-so-touristy side of Tam Coc

0030hrs: ETA Hanoi (Noi Bai Int’l Airport Terminal 2); buy USD and VND using PHP; loiter/sleep at the airport
0500hrs: ETD for Hanoi city center (bus # 7) VND8,000; city center to Giap Bat bus terminal (bus #27 VND7,000 + bus #16 VND7,000)
0700hrs: ETA Giap Bat terminal; book a ticket for Ninh Binh; breakfast VND22,000
0730hrs: ETD for Ninh Binh by pink bus VND70,000
0930hrs: ETA Ninh Binh; take a cab to Tam Coc (Nam Hoa Hotel) VND80,000 (dodgy taxi meter);
1100hrs: Lunch VND130,000
1300hrs: Ride a bicycle (free at Nam Hoa Hotel) to see spots in Tam Coc; Climb up Hang Mua cave/peak (VND100,000) for a good panorama of Tam Coc at dusk
1700hrs: Go back to the hotel; dinner +beer VND188,000

Day 2 (Oct 29; Saturday) Vinh (Vietnam)      VND1,018,000     (P2216)

The accommodation in Vietnam costs much less than in the Philippines
0600hrs: breakfast (included in the booking)
0700hrs: more shots of Tam Coc
0900hrs: Check out of the hotel (VND550,000); ETD for Vinh. Hotel staff calls an honest cab driver VND40,000; take the sleeper bus at the highway VND200,000
1230hrs: ETA Vinh; Check in at Saigon Kim Lien Hotel Lunch (hotel room service: ham and chicken sandwich + fried potatoes) VND35,000
1500hrs: walk to the bus station (1km away) to check the schedule for the trip to Phonsavan tomorrow.
1600hrs: soak in the bath because the pool isn’t very inviting
1800hrs: watch TV; drink get some beer from the mini bar; VND63,000
1900hrs: Dinner; pork steak + baked potatoes VND130,000
2200hrs: Have a good night’s rest

Day 3 (Oct 30; Sunday) Phonsavan (Laos) VND1,042,000 + LAK70,000  PHP2687

The Plain of Jars in Phonsavan

0500hrs: early breakfast (included): check out VND630,000; ETD for bust terminal by taxi VND12,000
0600hrs: ETD for Phonsavan by sleeper bus VND400,000
1100hrs: free lunch en route to Phonsavan
1200hrs: border crossing
1700hrs: ETA Phonsavan. Stay at some guest house (not recommended guest house): LAK40,000
1900hrs: Dinner + snacks LAK30,000

Day 4 (Oct 31; Monday) Phonsavan  (Laos)          LAK422,000  P2517

Plain of Jars (Site 1)
0600hrs: Breakfast LAK10,000;
0730hrs: hire a motorcycle to see Plain of Jars LAK100,000; Site A entrance fee LAK15,000
0930hrs: Go to Phonsavan for lunch and to visit UXO Information Center (tuktuk) LAK20,000; buy some souvenirs LAK25,000
1200hrs: Lunch LAK32,000
1300hrs: Go back to the guest house to check out (tuktuk) LAK25,000; beer + pho LAK25,000
1700hrs: Head for the bus station (tuktuk) LAK25,000; dinner LAK15,000; bus ticket for Vientiane LAK130,000
2030hrs: ETD for Vientiane

Day 5 (Nov 1; Tuesday) Vientiane       LAK221,000 + THB825  (PHP2480)

Just take a photo of Patuxai monument then head straight to COPE Center
0500hrs: ETA Vientiane northern bus terminal; wait for the green bus to get to the city (every 30 minutes) LAK3,000
0600hrs: ETA Vientiane morning market; breakfast (pho) LAK15,000
0700hrs: get a room to steal some sleep and take a shower LAK70000;
0900hrs: city tour; go to COPE; buy souvenirs LAK103000
1200hrs: lunch (pho) LAK15000
1430hrs: Take the bus at the morning market for Nong Khai (Thailand) LAK15000
1600hrs: ETA Nong Khai; get off near the train station. Dinner THB70
1910hrs: ETD for Bangkok (Train #70 second class lower berth) THB755

Day 6 (Nov 2; Wednesday) Bangkok (Thailand)             THB760      (PHP1055)

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
0600hrs: ETA Bangkok (Hua Lamphung Station);
0630hrs: Take a cab to hotel THB65. Check in (or leave stuff) at Rambuttri Village Hotel
0700hrs: Laundry THB60;
0900hrs: Wat Pho THB100; 7-11 snacks THB45
1200hrs: lunch THB40
1500hrs: buy souvenirs THB450
2100hrs: Night life at Kao San road (meet Japanese friends)
2400hrs: rest at the hotel

Day 7 (Nov 3; Thursday) Siem Reap (Cambodia)       THB1997 + USD7     (PHP3110)
Departure and arrival cards for Cambodia and Thailand
0600hrs: early breakfast (included in the booking); check out THB1100
0630hrs: take a cab to Mo Chit Terminal. THB110
0730hrs: ETA Mo Chit. Catch the 8am bus to Siem Reap (Transport Co / Nattakan) THB750
0800hrs: ETD for Siem Reap
1100hrs: lunch @ 7-eleven (complimentary); buy snacks THB37
1700hrs: ETA Siem Reap; tuktuk service to the hotel (compliments of Nattakan); check in at I Lodge
1800hrs: rent a bike for the early morning ride tomorrow USD5
1900hrs: Dinner USD2

Day 8 (Nov 4; Friday) Phnom Penh (Cambodia)                    USD56.5    (PHP2770)
The savage Ta Prohm
0400hrs: early breakfast (not included in the booking) USD2
0600hrs: Explore Angkor Wat USD20
0900hrs: done with Angkor Wat; bike back to the hotel; refreshments USD1
1100hrs: lunch USD3.5; check out USD16
1230hrs: ETD for Phnom Penh (not recommended van service) USD10 snacks at stopovers USD2
1700hrs: ETA Phnom Penh (night market); walk to G Eleven Hotel ; check in
1900hrs: Dinner USD2
2100hrs: Drink with Japanese friends
2400hrs: take a rest at the hotel

Day 9 (Nov 5; Saturday) Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam)  USD59 + VND80,000 (PHP3067)
Detention cells at Tuol Sleng (S-21)

0700hrs: Breakfast (included in the booking); check out USD19
0800hrs: Visit S-21 (Tuol Sleng) USD1 (tuktuk) USD3 (admission fee)
1030hrs: go to the Kumho Samco Bus office
1100hrs: ETD for HCM (Kumho Samco) USD10; lunch and snacks at stopovers USD2
1800hrs: ETA Ho Chi Minh; at the bus terminal take the yellow airport bus #109 to the airport USD1
1900hrs: Dinner VND80,000 ; souvenirs USD23

Day 10 (Nov 6; Sunday) Transit/Ho Chi Minh – Manila            PHP660

My last pho (at Thanh Son Nhat Int'l Airport)

0100hrs: ETD for Manila @Tan Son Nhat International Airport Terminal 2, Ho Chi Minh Cebu Pacific flight 5J752
0445hrs: ETA NAIA 3
0500hrs: Take the airport loop bus to the MRT station PHP20; breakfast PHP85
0700hrs: ETD for Baguio (Saulog Bus) PHP455; lunch and snacks at stopovers PHP100
1400hrs: ETA Baguio City (Home Sweet Home)

TOTAL EXPENSES: PHP24,303 (Exclusive of airfare)

Minus accommodation cost (PhP6324) = Pocket money of PhP17,978


Thursday, September 8, 2016

Don't Sit like a Frog; Sit like a King

Day 1

After nearly nine hours on the trail, we finally arrive in Les-eng. One is tired and can’t wait to just lie down and recover some sleep lost to driving from Bulacan to Baguio. The other just wants to wash up maybe for lack of anything else to do. I, on the other hand, am just anxious that the only store in the village won’t open tonight.

Paul was the first to wash up using the stored water in the daycare center and Jepoi was busy unpacking. Meanwhile, I was asking Manong Elio for directions to our destination the following morning while securing pans and pots for the night’s meal. When Paul finished, I tried to connect the waterline to the daycare center from Manong Elio’s. As it turned out, the waterline had just been cut off from the main source. Talk about a stroke of fate’s folly! We went down to another house in the village and got only a trickle of the last drops left from the water source. We looked farther and I remembered there was a waterline from a different source just below the kagawad’s house. When we got to the spot, I noticed that the faucet had already been replaced by a hose leading to a pigsty. I knocked at the nearest house and exhausted what little Kankana-ey and Ilokano I had. I kept repeating the keywords danum (water), wada (there is), and agdigos (bathe). All I got in return was the word ‘Tagalog’ in a murmur of unintelligible words rendered in a tone of confusion and surrender. The last time I repeated ‘agdigos’, the old woman pressed a switch and the pigsty was lit up. We thanked her and we bade her goodbye. There was no use denying the current state of affairs – we have to wash up among the pigs. When Jepoi settled, I left him and prepared dinner. Paul was already sleeping.

Day 2

Curious kids joined us in the morning. Jepoi kept them at bay while I was preparing breakfast. He was showing them magic tricks. Paul was immersing himself in the grandeur of Les-eng. There was no need to rush. Even though the continuation of the route was going to be new to all of us, I knew, based on the endurance of my companions on Day 1, that we could manage the downhill trek to La Union. We left at ten. We had lunch in Sugpon, Ilocos Sur. Then at a little past two, we had our exhilarating Amburayan River crossing. The current was very strong. It was as if all the mountains of western Benguet had poured all their tears down to Ilocos Sur through the mighty Amburayan. I fastened myself onto the bamboo raft as manong skillfully negotiated with the raging water. After what seemed like a demo, Paul, who didn’t know how to swim, was the second to get onto the raft. I was nervous for him especially because manong had already told us that the color of the water was threatening a flashflood. But he survived the scariest 3 minutes of his life. When Jepoi got to the other side, we were all consumed in recounting the thrill we had just had.

the scariest three minutes of his life

It was an uphill trek again. Finally at 8pm, we got to the highway in Balaoan, La Union after more than an hour of precarious muddy motorcycle ride. Paul was convinced his driver deserved more than 300 pesos. He was prudent enough to ask me first. My driver was also dropping a hint that it should be 400 pesos. But I was quick to reestablish the agreed-upon price—the same amount that my friend paid one of our drivers the weekend before under the same circumstances—rainy, muddy and late. We caught the bus back to Baguio where Paul had left his van. It had been a great weekend!

The lessons we picked up

It was my eleventh birthday as Lagataw. In August, 2005 I had my first communion with nature in Mt Romelo in Siniloan, Laguna. Every year I celebrate my anniversary by spending some time away from home regardless of whether I have a companion or not. And just like any travel I do, I always pick up bits and pieces of lessons along the way.

The value of giving depends on what is given

And while Jepoi showed some learning in how he found something to give the kids other than candy and coins which introduce an innocent child to the concepts of greed and begging, Paul and I can pick up some important lessons from the search for water during the first night and our dealing with the habal-habal drivers during the second.

A tip for tips

As travelers, it breaks our hearts to see the ordeal the locals go through doing what they do on an ordinary day—things we normally can’t and aren’t willing to do ourselves. This necessitates us to give a tip. But we’re forgetting that our willingness and ability are not the standards which set the price. This practice of paying more than the value someone deems right for the work he does is the birth of the ‘standard price for tourists’. And eventually this results in other travelers asking ‘Why is the cost higher than that of the locals?’ We actually sometimes contribute to the creation of something we complain about. Goodwill is good but tipping is another story.

Travel beyond tourism

I’ve always enjoyed traveling like a salmon. I love to go against the mainstream. But this recent travel slapped me with the realization that it’s been eleven years and I still travel like any other tourist after all.

When there’s a glitch in the envisioned trip, a typical tourist tends to blame everything on the system of the place he has come to. When we were becoming frustrated looking for water in Les-eng, my impatience led me to a string of vain poetry ‘This is the paradox here Jepoi! For a place where springs and streams abound, it is almost impossible to find water.’ It led me to the selfish thought of how the villagers were too indolent not to be doing anything about the problem. ‘No wonder there is no progress in this place!’ I quipped. Our own selfish affinity for comfort and convenience makes us forget that it was not a problem as far as the villagers were concerned. We forget that none of them would feel the need to wash up at nine in the evening at any time of the year. And in the first place, none of them might feel the need to be awake at that time of night. We forget that we are the problem that has arrived in the village; that we are the intruders that stirred the dogs and the babies into a confused chorus of distress and panic. Our romanticized notion of traveling makes us assume that it is right and proper for the old woman to rouse herself up to open her door and attend to the weary filthy travelers because that’s what the oft-repeated dogma of hospitality has inculcated in us. Our vanity and self-importance have made us believe that we are the guests that need to be accommodated and that the villagers were not responsible enough to learn Tagalog. For us we are not a disturbance; we are a spectacle to behold. And this shame dawned on me as I woke up the following morning to once again see how an ordinarily uneventful day would transpire in Les-eng. It was difficult to forgive myself.

Don't keep the kids at bay! Come to terms with the fact that curiosity is natural to kids.
But that’s just the way it is. We focus too much on things that are easily seen. We are fanatics of the LNT principles and the BMC. But we forget to look into the very element that constitutes our persona—our perspective! And while our perspective is not readily observable, it dictates the way we behave in the place we’ve come to. It determines to what degree we’d demand for beer in a place where the nearest store is 4 kilometers and 3 hills away. And it decides whether we’ll take a plain question like ‘What brings you here?’ as an ordinary inquiry or an accusation.

Sadly, the Department of Tourism appears to be taking the perspective of the tourists. They accredit guides who are fluent in English and Tagalog and keep the more able and adept locals from guiding visitors. They prefer homestays with raised toilets. And they allot funds to replace wild trails with the more civilized footpaths and banisters because tourists can’t walk on a slippery terrain. They need to be conveyed safely and comfortably to their desired selfie spot.

And so with the influx of visitors who try to impose their culture on their hosts, some indigenous practices are slowly disappearing. Precious cultural entities like the day-un have been labeled as pagan. The locals have become frogs and the intruders, kings.

So are you traveling to really be in a different place? Or are you traveling to look for your origin in your destination?  As for me, in Benguet, I choose to be in Benguet.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Happiness is real when it is ORGANIC

Some people profess ‘I climb because I love the mountains’ or ‘I climb because I wanna achieve peace of mind’. But it appears these are all empty clauses that they have gathered from the many hours they have spent loitering on Facebook pages and groups.

I find it amusing how some new climbers leave the city with the pretext of seeking solace in the heart of Mother Nature when in truth, they can’t live a single second without their city life. They head for the mountains with thoughts still stuck on their city friends—their IG and FB audience. So, a quarter of their backpack is occupied by a camera, a smart phone, a portable speaker, a charger, a monopod, a power bank (things that their parents can’t even name) and a whole lot of props for their ATM posts—a make-up kit, a bottle of wine or probably a Spiderman costume.

These are things that make their climb fun. These are fertilizers for their happiness.

And this leaves me wondering ‘Why do some people need to outsource happiness?’ Why can’t some people be happy without a bottle of Red Horse that they even have to order their local guide in Mt Tenglawan to go down and buy another case of beer when they run out of booze at 2 am at the camp site? Why can’t some people relax when they can’t smoke a cigarette? And others have to have marijuana to attain good vibrations. Why do some people need a loud laugh to warrant that the joke was hilarious? Why do some people need a joke to be happy? Why can’t some people stop looking for electrical outlets every time they reach a house or a store in the mountains? Why can’t some people stop looking for signal every time they hit a take-five spot? Why do some people leave in order to stay connected with the people and things they’ve left?

It is true telecommunications have made us all stay connected…whenever, wherever. But we’ve failed to notice that as we try to reconnect with the people and places that we have left, we lose our connection with the place we have come to and the people we are actually with.              

Why can’t we just be indigenously happy?

Stop looking for happiness elsewhere. You can find it within you and around you.
Let’s learn to hear the music of the rustling leaves, the whispering breeze and the chirping birds.
Let’s get intoxicated by the cool sweet taste of natural spring water.
Let’s marvel at the panorama of the landscape right in front of us and post it in our memory.
Let’s enjoy the quaint little conversations with the locals whose stories remain frozen in time.
Let’s learn to enjoy a story without pictures for attention.
Let’s savor the peace and quiet of being alone.

I guess I’d have to disagree with another empty clause adopted by many outdoor enthusiasts. How could happiness be real only when it is shared? Does that mean you can’t be happy alone?
I think happiness is real when you don’t need anything that is not present. It is real when it is derived from you alone and the place you’re in. Only when you’ve achieved indigenous and organic happiness can you truly share that happiness. The people around you will feel that you, in fact, are happy. And this happiness becomes contagious.  Happiness should be real first before it can be shared.

And happiness only becomes real when it is organic.

YOU deserve a holiday!
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