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Archive for February, 2011

Winter Vacation 2011, (Vol. 1): Philippines

The first thing that hit me as soon as I got off the airplane in Manila and made my way into the airport was that I have officially been in Korea for too long.  The warmth of the Philippines and its many kind, mostly English-speaking people should have felt like home to me.  But it didn’t. You know why?  Home is freaking South Korea now. 

Instead of feeling at ease in my first steps outside of Korea in more than five months, I found myself paranoid when people were friendly to me and chose to talk to me without any apparent reason.  Instead of feeling right at home, I found myself a little taken aback by the prevalence of English everywhere we traveled.  And what’s more, I found myself needlessly bowing to people when I greeted them—something that I feel fairly certain is going to follow me back to the United States some day in the not-too-distant future.

The Philippines were the first and longest leg of our tour of Southeast Asia in January and February of 2011, and an endurance test that grew on me somewhat nearly every day of our stay.  Admittedly, the first day was a little rough for me.  The first reason is that I would liken the people associated with my bank in the United States with something akin to the hypothetical monkeys to which one refers when they speak of “The Infinite Monkey Theorem” (yes, it’s a thing:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infinite_monkey_theorem) and upon arriving in Philippines I was unable to take money out of any ATM I encountered despite repeated efforts to let my bank know in advance that I would be traveling.  I was also rather surprised at the number of beggars and, more specifically, child beggars that we encountered, something which I had been exposed to a’plenty in Nicaragua but had not prepared myself for in naively considering this trip a “vacation”.

Accordingly, Manila was an adjustment.  We didn’t have the luxury of escaping to some of the more tropical paradises one might consider when thinking about the more beach-offering regions of the Philippines.  We had to make due with whatever we could find in Manila’s vicinity.  We weren’t in the cleanest part of town (although we weren’t more than a few blocks walk from it) and hookers, alcoholics, strip joints, and street urchins were just a corner’s turn away at almost any walk to the more ritzier neighborhoods around us in Makati City.  Accordingly, it took us a while to learn to navigate, even though we did eventually discover the Greenbelt Mall area—this “Metropolis”-esque island of wealth and lavish temptation not more than a kilometer away from some fairly endemic poverty and your typical-looking cinderblock slums.

Seriously, you should check this thing out:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenbelt_Mall  We literally could have spent our entire vacation there (and we almost did).  The place even has a fully functional and well-attended open-air chapel in the middle of it, surrounded by a moat.

Once wearisome of Manila, we decided to take a couple of day trips, including one to Corregidor Island and one to the Taal Lake Volcano near Tagatay, which is said to be the smallest active volcano in the world, although it still looked pretty damn big to me.  Let’s start with Corregidor.  This tiny island located near the mouth of Manila Bay was a focal point in that city’s defense from Japan during the Second World War.  Lead by none other than Douglas MacArthur himself, a combination of American and Filipino soldiers bravely fought to isolate Manila Bay from Japanese use during the war and, eventually, the whole ordeal resulted in this movie http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036367/ which, frankly, sounds just dreadful.

I quite enjoyed our time on Corregidor Island.  It’s an insightful and well-organized tour that included a very delicious lunch and you’ll get to see plenty of old cannons and great vistas of Manila Bay and the island itself, and even a couple of plucky monkeys if you’re lucky.  However, touring the island is also a great chance to see obnoxious Korean tourists (Koreans are wonderful people but tourism seems to bring out the worst in them) climb all over the prized cannons that are celebrated across the island and just show a general lack of respect for the memorials and monuments scattered throughout Corregidor.  I personally watched a group of about seven Koreans climb all over one cannon just so that they could all pose for a picture, completely oblivious of the OTHER tourists who were content to have a picture simply standing next to it.  Way obnoxious and offensively disrespectful, in my opinion, and this is coming from ME.

The Taal Lake experience, though, was easily the highlight of my time in the Philippines.  Wary of the grueling bus and jeepney rides that it would take to cover the roughly 90 minute travel time between Manila and the lake, we managed to swing a private car thanks to the wonderful people at our hostel, Our Melting Pot.  We were delivered to the edge of the lake at some time around 1:00 in the afternoon and given a price that included travel across the lake (which took about 40 minutes roundtrip), the disembarkment/entry fee to the island, mule rental, etc.  The trip across the lake was choppy as Hell and got us quite soaked, but it was completely worth it and I, for one, enjoyed the horse ride tremendously, even though my horse panted enough to convince me that losing a bit of weight ought to be my 2011 resolution. 

The view at the top is not to be missed; not just for the fantastic view of the volcanic crater, which is pretty impressive, but also for the view of the lake itself which makes for some wonderful photo ops on the way back down.  We did get rained on a bit but there were plenty of tourists along the way so at no point did we ever feel completely isolated.  And the locals are plenty accustomed to dealing with tourists.  They all spoke pretty decent English and didn’t seem to offended when we constantly declined their offers for Tagatay/Taal Volcano t-shirts, which are freaking everywhere in that area.  You’re better served to simply enjoy a $3 bill (which is highway robbery for Philippines prices) and enjoy the view at the top for a spell and then apologize to the sweet ladies at the bottom as you make your way back to the boat completely t-shirtless. 

I wish I had had a little bit more time to explore Tagatay and Talisay as the communities surrounding the lake really seemed very colorful and friendly.  The town at the top of the cliffs leading down to the lake also seemed pretty nifty and I would have loved to have lunch there or something if we could have planned for it, but it wasn’t exactly in our funding.

Anyway, it took the Philippines about a day or two to really win me over but there really is some wonder to behold even around Manila—a place that many people who travel the islands will tell you to avoid.  Don’t believe the hype.  Manila has its rough spots for sure (stay away from China Town) and I wouldn’t go to places like Intramuros alone, for example, but there is also some fantastic eating and shopping in Manila, and the people area as kind as you’re liable to meet in Asia.  If you’re hard up for something to do, ask the locals as they’ll know the best things to do and the best (read: cheapest) ways to go about doing them.  Next time I’ll be making my way for Boracay and Cebu, for sure, but I’m happy that I planned the things the way I did my first time around in the Philippines.

And, hey, at least I’d like to go back.


Hostel Takeover

Dated:  February 10, 2011

Okay.  I’m feeling pretty decent again for the first time in almost a week, so I thought I’d finally start talking up my recent trip to the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia (and six hours in China).  With regard to my sickness, my fever is back down to normal and my appetite is gradually starting to return after one of the worst sinus infections I’ve ever had, but at least I lost about 7 or 8 pounds as a result of having the damn thing.  I guess it’s not all bad. 

So, for this first entry, I wanted to start by just critiquing each of the three hostels we enjoyed in Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, which I was going to abbreviate “PMS” to save time, but that suddenly seems like a poor decision.  I don’t have a lot of complaints about the hostels.  Each of them is very highly rated and, I believe, had the highest rating on HostelWorld for their respective countries.  So I’ll start with the beginning of our trip and work my to Singapore and Malaysia from there.

OUR MELTING POT (Manila)

In the Philippines, we stayed at Our Melting Pot in Makati City, Manila in the Philippines.  It’s not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue.  Maybe they couldn’t use “The Melting Pot” because of legal reasons, as it would then share a name with that horribly overpriced chain of fondue restaurants.  Anyway, I usually start with the weaknesses of a place so that I can exit with the more positive things that I enjoyed, but for this place I really want to flip that around and say that “Our Melting Pot” is one of the most professional, clean, and enjoyable places to stay you’re likely to find as a backpacker in Manila.  Also, breakfast rules.

The people who operate the hostel speak great English and I can’t compliment them enough on the way they do business.  They are extremely knowledgeable about the area and, indeed, all the Philippines for that matter, and they are also relentlessly passionate about what they do and about helping travelers who stay with them.  I cannot recommend enough getting to know them and talking to them as it could pay big dividends if you want to have a unique experience in and around Manila.  Many backpackers, for example, like to make the one-day pilgrimage to Taal Volcano close to Tagatay and the hostel actually helped us get our own driver and a nice air-conditioned car there and back for only about $17 a piece (there were two of us).  Trust me, I would have paid double for that kind of convenience.  They also know the best places to eat and the places to just have a good time if you’re going to be around Manila for a few days.

The only negative things I have to say don’t really pertain to the hostel directly, but indirectly.  At the moment, there is a building being constructed literally only a few yards away from the eighteenth floor of the A.Venue Suites building where Our Melting Pot is housed.  The construction is currently about sixteen floors high and will obviously only be going up for the next couple of months, I presume, so the noise can get a bit intense in the morning so, if you’re planning to sleep in, good luck.  Also, and more importantly, the hostel isn’t in a great location.  I’d qualify that by saying that it IS close to the most amazing mall I’ve ever seen (Greenbelt, which is about one mile away), but it isn’t close to Roxas Boulevard and the areas along Makati Street leading to the hostel can be kinda sketchy at night, full of peddlers, begging children who can get really pushy, and (unfortunately) a prostitute or two.  I’m not saying it’s dangerous, because it really doesn’t have that kind of vibe; it’s just kind of seedy.

CITY CENTER BACKPACKER’S HOSTEL (Singapore)

CCBH is an extremely new hostel but another great example of how I think every backpacker hopes his or her hostel experience will be.  Opened in January, the owners are clearly still kind of perfecting their craft, but the young Indian man in charge makes up for it with incredible kindness and hospitality.  We were only there for a night, so he didn’t have the chance to impress me to the degree that the people at Our Melting Pot did, but the place was spotless, the beds were comfortable, and the bathrooms were adequate, and in Asia, that’s really all you can ask for.  Any place that has a guitar on hand for guests is also going to earn points in my book.

Another positive that I would highlight would be its location, which is fantastic for Singapore.  You’re within walking distance of everything and boy, did we walk.  It’s also in what appeared to be a fairly quiet part of the city, located on the outskirts of China Town on Hong Kong Street.  However, we were there on Chinese New Years Eve so I was awoken (and terrified) by unexpected fireworks at midnight that were launched from China Town so, yeah, they literally rattled the whole row of buildings to which we were attached.

Negatives?  I’m not too picky, but after being spoiled by the hostel in the Philippines, there were definitely some things I immediately missed.  For example, the beds at Our Melting Pot have these cheap little curtains around every bed that affords some privacy.  These things are great for numerous reasons as they let you sleep without feeling like someone else in the room is staring right at you and you can leave clothes on your bed to dry during the day without leaving them out in the open where they might catch someone’s attention.  Not to mention, curtains tend to make people act a little more quietly and a little more respectfully when in the room because you never know if someone might be on the other side.  So, yes, I love curtains.  The bathrooms could also have been a little better, but they’re perfectly fine for a short stay like ours’ and clean enough.  Oh, and of course some Americans are going to complain about the 67 stairs leading from the street up to the hostel, with no elevator. 

Haters gonna hate, I guess.

THE RED PALM (Kuala Lumpur)

I hate to be instantly critical of a place, but this was a pretty big disappointment for me.  That said, the people who operate the hostel can’t really be blamed for most of the problems I had.  For the most part, I think you’re just dealing with Kuala Lumpur and its distinction from other places we visited.  I would also say that the Red Palm was at a disadvantage in being the third and final place we visited after what had already amounted to six tiring days of long travels and frustrations associated with such a trip, so I’ll give them some bonus points for just taking us in. 

That said, I’ll tick off the things I didn’t like about the place.  Considering that the place has won awards for being the best hostel in Malaysia and 3rd in Asia, there were a lot of things about the Red Palm that surprised me.  I don’t want to use words like “frustrated” or “irritated” because they’re very negative and running a hostel is hard work and I don’t want to slight the very real efforts of the people who run the place. 

However, the water pressure was virtually non-existent in the bathrooms, meaning that every girl who took a shower took about 30 minutes.  Accordingly, the upstairs bathroom was almost never open the whole time we were there (3 days).  And the downstairs toilet could only be flushed roughly every 15-20 minutes, which seemed to bewilder a lot of the visitors there.  As my companion pointed out on the trip, a hostel like this really should make it more clear, also, that they have cats as there are some people who have very extreme cat allergies.  Keep in mind, I’m a cat guy to the hilt.  I love my kitties, but if you’re running a professional business, it’s usually a good idea to make clients aware that they have animals in their facilities that could potentially kill them before taking their money.  Finally, the rooms upstairs do not really have ceilings so much as sheets or tapestries strewn across the walls, which means that all noise from other rooms bleeds across.  One jerk on our third morning in Malaysia let his alarm clock go off for about five minutes on the other side of the wall to our room and it might as well have been at the foot of our bed.

A final note that I would make is, compared to the people we met at CCBH and Our Melting Pot, a few of the workers at Red Palm seemed kind of cold to me.  I’m not going to judge them for this, though, because I would imagine that operating a hostel literally sucks the life out of you over time and the Red Palm has been going strong for several years now.  I can’t imagine what kind of snobs and pretentious douches they probably run into on a weekly basis as during our 9 days touring Asia we encountered absolutely some of the rudest, most obnoxious people I could possibly imagine.  I tip my hat to anyone to runs a good hostel and keeps good spirit.

On the bright side, you absolutely can’t beat the Red Palm’s location.  It is very centrally located and it’s no more than 20 or 30 steps from a KL City Tour stop where you can buy a $15 24-hour double-decker tour bus pass that allows you to jump on and off at all of the city’s major tourist sites.  It’s definitely worth it.  You’re also within easy walking distance of KL Tower, the malls, tons of great, friendly bars, and of course the Petronas Towers.  I also need to mention that one of the employees at the Red Palm absolutely came through for us when he let us enjoy some of his vast DVD collection while we waited for our flight back to Incheon that left at 2 o’clock in the morning.  Most of the movies didn’t work, of course, but we did watch “Old School” and “Monster’s Inc” (there’s nothing odd about that combination) and I could not have been happier to call that an evening.

So, like I said.  No BAD experiences at all, but there was some disappointment.  Our Melting Pot was my favorite but I would happily recommend any of the three to backpackers looking to experience the beauty of the Philippines, Singapore, or Malaysia.  The Red Palm and OMP had pretty diverse crowds while we were there, and there is a good reason why those two hostels attract such unique travelers from around the room.  They have developed reputations founded on the way they do business and their enthusiasm for helping introduce their respective countries to international travelers. 

To anyone looking for affordable lodging in the aforementioned countries, any of these hostels is a great place to start.


Blogging…Against All Odds

Dated:  February 8, 2011

Well, I’m finally back at the blogging this week here in Korea.  I know I haven’t been as dedicated to the page recently as I had been several months ago but there really just wasn’t much happening in January aside from the usual apartment troubles.  I’m going to try to use the 13 days between my return from the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia and my departure to Cambodia with my folks to blog it up about my Southeast Asia adventure, but in the meantime, I just want to touch basis with everything in general.

So, I returned from Malaysia and was promptly greeted with what I’m guessing is a really terrible sinus infection.  On Monday I had a 104-degree fever and had to go to the hospital.  I’ve had the shakes like crazy and my head feels like it’s rocking at the bottom of the local swimming pool.  My left ear is so congested that I still haven’t been able to work out the pressure from the flight back to Incheon and I’m practically deaf in it, but the doctor has informed me that there does not appear to be any damage to it, luckily.  The fever has since broken but I still feel dizzy and nauseous most of the time right now.

But I will force myself to be healthy by next Saturday.  This, I promise.

So as soon as I’m feeling 100% I’ll try to blog away about all things related to my trip to the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia, starting with my experiences at the hostels.  Then I’ll probably highlight our food experiences and later get into the more touristy stuff.  I’ll also devote an entry to exploring simply the atmosphere of Manila vs. Singapore vs. Kuala Lumpur.  I’m not sure I could conceive of three more distinctly different cities in such (relatively) close proximity to each other and if the trip accomplished one thing, I feel it was to truly capture the vast diversity of this great continent. 

East Asia is probably the most diverse region on the planet and the culture shock was pretty jarring in Manila after being in Korea for six months.  Filipinos probably give you funnier looks than Americans when you go around bowing to them.  More on that later.

In the meantime, I think I might finally be on the mend with regard to my illness.  I think I’ll be feeling great as soon as I can unplug my ear.  I feel like once I can yank out the stopper, the headache and everything else that hurts will just drain out of me.