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Happy New Year to All! Everyone has been busy busy busy but one thing is for certain is that we never stopped travelling. Travelling to us is a break from the daily grind. Discovering a new place or even rediscovering visited places is a feeling that I don’t think will ever get old. It’s not the destination but the journey that makes it worthwhile. For each of my trips last year they had different reasons for it. Whether just to get a breath of fresh air in Banaue or to experience the thrill of the longest zipline in Asia or even just to get away from it all to think (nerd alert!) I guess each trip served it purpose because when I got back I felt energized and ready to take over – I mean take on the world (true purpose is coming out).

Looking back at this blog, its last update was Panagbenga 2011 and I’m hopeful that this will be updated more often in 2012. 2011 was a pretty long and rough year personally but there is so much more to look forward to in 2012. Of all things I’m excited for is the “Its More Fun in the Philippines” DOT Campaign. In my little spare time the past couple of weeks I put together a few takes on the campaign. We will make these into postcards that we will send out thru postcrossing.com as promoting tourism is something we can actually do to help our country as well as build Pinoy Pride amongst Filipinos. To all the haters (and checking the news articles as well as the comments pages on them there are quite a lot), whatever the issue they tackled I say: it’s a campaign not a cure-it-all solution. Yes, the infrastructure needs work. Yes, there is corruption and politicking. But get on with the program. Our country is beautiful and quite smartly highlighted that its FUN. Tourism in my opinion is the one business that benefits both the big players and small entrepreneurs which enables the nation to keep moving forward as a whole (Meet the Robinson’s plugin complete). Big moving industries (taxis, planes, busses and trains) to small moving industries (jeeps, tricycles, pedicabs and even boats) all benefit. Big hotels and restaurants to small inns, lodges, markets and yes homestays all benefit. Thats not even mentioning tour agencies all the way down to the individual guides, drivers, porters and agents. Everyone gets a piece of the pie.

Quite a lot of trips planned (and in mind) for 2012, destinations new and old. I’m very excited to go back to Taiwan but this time we will check out the cherry blossoms. Banaue will always be on the list even if just a quick get-away for some fresh air. Maybe visit a new village as I want to visit each one (ok maybe not Pula unless I get into shape). Swimming with the whale sharks in Donsol is on the list for this year. I really want to try the Plunge in Danao this year. Every year I try to make a Batanes trip that never ever pushes thru for any reason. I promised my friends that this year we will push thru with the Chico River rafting in Kalinga because last year didn’t push thru due to work getting in the way of real life. Calayan Islands set to be discovered this year with Team Kain Tulog. And so much more in store.

So we raise our tapuey, here’s to the New Year full of New Hopes and New Destinations! See you in 2012!

Panagbenga 2011

This trip was a year in the making. I made 100% sure that I would have available days off for that weekend so that I could just enjoy shooting the festival. Inspite of all my preparation, something important dropped off my radar (my photographer passes). I thought that I would just make do without it. For about a year I plotted out my perfect vantage point so I knew I would atleast not be totally unprepared like last time. I had an absolute blast last year and was truly excited to see it again.

Tickets to Baguio were a bit hard to come by but we were able to get a seat on the Victory Deluxe bus. It was quite worth the extra bucks. Seats were nice and comfortable, the deluxe lounge had a relaxed atmosphere compared to the hustle and bustle outside. The deluxe bus gets a ‘stewardess’ instead of a conductor (note female counterpart) as well as snacks and water. Clearly living the life as far as deluxe buses go.

Day 1 of the shoot was my favorite part of the festival as it featured the street dancing students all fighting to get into the grand parade the next day. This year however, didnt live up to the hype of last year. The street dancing competition was limited to 1 tribal rhytmic song choice. So of course the audience (us) was subjected to the same song for about 3hrs. Everyone was dressed up in their tribal wear and had more or less the same dance steps (with a few different interpretations here and there). It looked like the kids werent having any fun either. Fortunately, I was able to grab one of my favorite pics for the trip.

Little Tribal Dancer

Day 2 was the grand parade, which honestly didnt fit last year’s definition of GRAND. Not enough floats or stars. Some of the ideas, floats and costumes were recycled from last year. My guess is that this year was not an election year so not much funds were poured into the event. Excluding that, I still found some cool floats which blew me away by the creativity and the amount of flowers/effort put into the creation of the float.

Everlasting Rooster

Impressive LBC Float

Maybe the next visit to Panagbenga will be a few years down the road. Or maybe if some of my friends want to go see the festival I’d consider going back. Its a good thing that it seemed as there were not a lot of people this year so I kinda enjoyed walking and shooting around Burnham (something I found impossible to do last year). This year’s festival seemed just as dissapointing to me as the final float on the grand parade – a Santo Nino riding a Taruk from Avatar

 

More pictures at http://gse152001.multiply.com/photos/album/61/Panagbenga_2011

LOPBURI

The train to Lopburi

My friend A and I decided to hit up the town of Lopburi for a few hours before continuing on to Sukhothai, the final destination for the second installment of our Thailand by train trip. Lopburi was only a couple hours away from Ayutthaya by train (around THB 40 on the 3rd class train) and we had read that they had nice Khmer temples and wild monkeys freely roaming the city.

Upon our arrival, we left our backpacks at the station and haggled with a couple of bike rickshaw drivers to take us to the temples. The price was THB 100 for an hour’s worth of touring around the city. I think we could have done without the rickshaw bikes as the temples were much smaller than Ayutthaya’s, and located somewhat close together.

They weren’t kidding when they said that monkeys were all over. Seriously. They were climbing up telephone posts, swinging on electrical wires, chattering on sidewalks and fences, a couple of cars we passed nearly got into an accident – avoiding a trio of alpha monkeys chasing each other down the street. Yikes.

Monkey Business

Our Thai friends had already warned us about the Lopburi monkeys, which are taxonomically Thai crab-eating macaques. But during the whole train ride to Lopburi, A and I had images of charming little furballs shying away from treats of bananas while entertaining us with their monkey antics.

Instead, they were cheeky, non-cute, mini-Ewoks — some of them not even so little. They were as big as some human toddlers! They’d probably eat babies too!!

We had to put away our scarves, necklaces, rings, watches and bangles as they (apparently) had snatcher tendencies. One particularly naughty one jumped on A’s back, and that was when we decided not to get too cozy with the little buggers.

But anyway!

Oh yes, the temples!

A townhall meeting at Wat Mahathat, Lopburi

Lopburi’s architecture is visibly different from that of Ayutthaya, it’s much older compared to the latter’s overlapping styles thanks to the changing rulers in Ayutthaya’s history. Lopburi’s most famous temple, the Prang Sam Yot (also overrun by monkeys) was once a Hindu temple, but later on re-appropriated into a Buddhist one. Wonder how that went down with the Hindus and Buddhists alike…

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Buddha + Monkeys

 

France in Thailand

It’s interesting to know that Lopburi was once the summer capital of the Thai supremo in the 1600’s. According to this guy, the king brought in French and Iranian artisans to infuse their cultural styles with his Khmer. It’s a cool story and it could be true too since the street signs are in Thai and French.

We checked out the ruins of a house called Bahn Vichien, which was the official residence of the French Ambassador to the Lopburi kingdom, incidentally it was built by a Greek adviser to King Narai. The French Ambassador’s wife was credited with introducing the Thais to egg-based sweets which was adapted into what they now call “fawy thawng”, some sweet egg flossy thing which I still have not had the pleasure of trying.

Outside Bahn Vichien

So much East-Meets-West styling going on this little patch of a city, and once again our historical imagination kicked in. How grand this place must have looked –  gilded in gold, chandeliered, bespectacled, maybe even French petticoated (Egads! The heat!)

I wondered briefly if there were any Filipinos present in Lopburi’s glory days. At this time the Philippines was still under Imperial España, on the slow burn to the Independencia. For such a close Asian neighbor to be importing Western culture of their own accord, in some kind of cultural collaboration!

I was consoled with the fact that there were two Filipinos admiring it now. Thailand is truly Amazing.

Cautiously stepping over the monkeys scrambling for their lunch, A and I made our way back to the train station to grab our own chicken and/or pork with peppers and five helpings of soda each. It was a really hot and dusty day, and we had caught the tail end of a Buddhist service at the Wat Mahathat which is across the train station, so there was a bit of monk traffic. Yes, monks do drive cars and motor bikes. One awesome monk also had tattoo sleeves about him and I thought that was soo cool.

We caught the 1pm train bound for Phitsanulok, a good five hours away (don’t remember the price but it was something like THB 100 for the 3rd class train). As we settled down with a good book (The Historian for A) and a good playlist (for me), our train pulled away from the Lopburi station. A couple of scurvy little macaques waved goodbye to us atop one of the prangs of the Sam Yot.

Monkeys on the Prang Sam Yot

We didn’t wave back.

AYUTTHAYA

One never needs a reason to travel. So this reason explains why my friend A and I spent our entire Christmas vacation on a 10-day blitz across the great plains of Thailand – starting in Bangkok making our way to its northernmost frontier, Chiang Rai.

Route: Bangkok - Ayutthaya - Lopburi - Sukothai - Chiang Mai - Chiang Rai

Our adventure began at the Hua Lamphong railway station in Bangkok, and we were going to railroad it all the way North, slowly. We purchased tickets to Ayutthaya, the old Siamese capital, around 2H away by train (TBT 30). Despite friends’ warnings not to take 3rd class trains due to the major possibility of heat, fleas and other itchy things, we took it anyway because it was the one leaving the soonest.

 

Waiting for the train to Ayutthaya

We were pleasantly surprised that the train wasn’t as awful as we had expected. Sure there wasn’t any AC, and the seats were hard, but the window was big enough and the tracks not too bumpy. Soon we were pulling into the heat of the tropical sun, chugging our way to old Siam.

At Ayutthaya, we decided to ignore Lonely Planet’s advice to rent bicycles to get around the ruins. Renting a tuk-tuk to tour us around seemed to be better for us, who didn’t want to have to navigate around (oh did I also mention that I don’t know how to bike?) Fortunately for us, we found Sham Nan (mobile +66847669841) at the train station and haggled a good price for his tuk-tuk to take us around the popular temples. If I remember correctly, it was TBT 600 for 2pax for two half-day tours.

Buddha's Court, Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

From our guidebook we bought outside one of the temples:

Ayutthaya was once one of the major world empires of Asia, with influence extending all the way to China, Japan and Europe. The city had a population surpassing that of London and the capitals of the west.

This was totally interesting – trying to imagine ourselves back in how Ayutthaya used to be, stomping around on Elephants instead of scooting around Mang Sham Nan’s tuk-tuk. These Wats were but shades of their former glory, and these were pretty, pretty awesome shades already.

Walking Changs

Buddhas everywhere! Sitting, meditating, reclining, and standing. We learned there were different kinds of temple architecture in old Siam, with Ayutthaya, Khmer, and Chinese influences.

Buddha's Offerings

We stopped at the largest outdoor Reclining Buddha and offered him lotus flowers, candles, incense and covered him with gold leaves. We offered prayers of thanks and protection for our Thai adventure.

Later on that afternoon, we watched the sunset atop the Wat Phukhaothong built by Thai King Naresuan to commemorate his defeat of the invading Burmese army. On a clear day, you could see forever. *snicker at lame attempt at referencing Barbara Streisand*

Wat Phukhaothong, Ayutthaya

We stayed at the Moradok Thai Guesthouse (found on Asia Rooms — my best friend booking cheap ho[s]tels for our entire Thai trip!) TBT 900 for 2-night stay for two with breakfast. Our hosts Gina and Sam See with their gaggle of lady friends took good care of us and all of the hostel’s guests (well, some guests better cared for than the others HAHA *Wink Wink*)

We dubbed this This charming pension Cougar  Town. (Go figure.) But it was a very comfortable stay, our room had 3 queen-sized beds, AC and our own bathroom & shower. The house was located a corner away from a weekend street market, and a hawker’s food bazaar.

Day 2 of our Ayutthaya adventure started with brunch at the Floating Market where we had yummy Pad Thai, all sorts of bbq and satay, meatballs coated with what looked like instant noodles (yum!), chicken pandan, plus plus plus plus!

Thai Brunch at the Floating Market

The rest of the market was pretty touristy, a good place to buy souvenirs, shirts, little trinkets and other packaged snacks — but we skipped this whole part since we would have had to lug all that pasalubong all the way to Chiang Mai!

We went by way of the temples again, and by early afternoon we had pretty much exhausted the touristy ones. We had been telling Sham Nan that we wanted to see more of the non-touristy temples, in the real Ayutthaya style.

The glorious Wat Chaiwattanaram

Our guide kindly obliged us and took us to a couple of wonderful, quaint little wats in the middle of nowheres. There was one in a field beside a river — with birds calling and shiny beetles everywhere! At another, we laid lotus flower offerings to a reclining Buddha whose head barely fit under the ceiling of that modest temple. Our favorite off-the-road discovery was this little chedi tucked away in a secret garden guarded by stone dragons.

Wat Mee Nang Pleum, Ayutthaya

Far from the throng of tourists and tripods and softdrinks hawkers and vendors, discovering these wat gems was a revelation. Just to sit by the river and be quiet, or say a quick prayer of thanks under a tree was fitting for us to take all that splendor in, that splendor which had been waiting six long centuries to be found – by us.

Sunset at Ayutthaya

We capped the day off with a nice cold frappe, ice cream and waffles at the Weing Fa Hotel, down the street from our own CougarTown. Free use of computer to patrons of the coffee shop, so we took this opportunity to post some photos on Facebook and send out our wish-you-were-here’s.
The next day we left aboard the 8am train to Lopburi, a town we were interested in stopping at en route to Sukhothai. But more on those two places in my next post.
OH and if you want to see more of Ayutthaya, STEVEN SEGAL, yes the Glimmer Man himself has an awesome smash hit single called “Girl It’s Alright”, the video of which was shot all over old Siam. HEE HEE HEE (thanks Pat for showing this to me!)
– Cels

Banaue, Ifugao

Strictly Banaue

I decided to go to Banaue on a whim so off I went, one stormy Friday night, from Manila to Banaue. I practically slept the whole way. Being able to sleep uninterrupted over the roughest rides is a skill I pride myself of having.

I woke to the sight of glorious clouds dancing with beams of sunlight. As much as I would have liked to capture that image to share with you, I decided to indulge and just take in the moment for myself. I then had a good calm breakfast at Halfway Lodge. There’s nothing like warm eggs and toast plus hot choco against the backdrop of rice terraces. The cool breeze slipping through the window was the most enlivening breath of air ever.

I spent the day just exploring the little town of Banaue. I went to market and got the best deal on hammocks. I Had the coldest coke and sweetest home made ice cream there too. Lunch came and more good food was what I had. I even fell asleep on the dining table for a good hour. Careless and free. No fear of deadlines or anyone mugging me.

Lawrence* and I, together with Charles, “the name you can trust”, capped the day off at the Traditional Bar. BPP pioneers, I’m sure you know what happens there after a few stallions. Our stack of 5 peso coins (for the videoke machine) disappeared faster than you can sing “Banaue Road”.

Then came my queue to exit with three honks of the horn. As I boarded the bus, so ended an epic day. Strictly Banaue.

– Richard

More photos from this trip are posted here:

http://richardyulo.multiply.com/photos/album/173/Strictly_Banaue


Traveler’s info:

Lawrence Timanggo is a local guide in Banaue and is an officer of the Tour Guides Association of Banaue. Contact him for a tour of any of the villages of Ifugao. Mobile no. +63.916.8444578

Panagbenga Tips

Panagbenga Travel Tips
First things first, I have lived for a few months in Baguio a few years ago (during summer) and I know that Baguio is the summer capital of the Philippines but nothing prepared me for its transformation during Panagbenga. Everything was just FULL of people: restaurants, mall, shops and everything in between. Prices weren’t as bad as I thought, like a bottle of water costs just as much as a bottle of water being sold on the streets. Another thing I learned about Panagbenga was that taxis become a rare commodity. Taxi drivers in Baguio are probably the nicest taxi drivers I’ve ever been around with. They try to give you your EXACT change even without expecting any tip or sometimes they would just be embarrassed of getting additional fare. Rarely they will ask for “plus” fare even if they know you want to go to a heavily congested area (SM) or out of the way place (John Hay) and the best part is they DON’T make you feel guilty about it by rambling that your going to a traffic area and that it would take more gas to get back without passengers blah blah (please take note Manila taxi drivers!). Reserve, reserve, reserve from the bus going and coming home to your lodging house/bedspace please reserve especially if you plan to stay at a nearby location. Everywhere was fully booked for that weekend.

Stuff I Learned About Photography (Panagbenga Trip)
I learnt a lot more Don’ts than Do’s in this trip. It was my first time to shoot a festival with a parade so I decided to try and shoot in burst (not a good idea). I just had too much photos that I was comfortable with. I ended up with around 1,700 photos which eventually turned up using around 100 or so. Since I shot in burst, I needed to shoot jpgs only. This lost me my control as I normally shoot in raw. The most important thing I learned was when shooting festivals SCREW THE WIDE and TELE is KING! On my first day my UWA was strapped on my cam which I just got screwed. Even when I was directly on the parade line, I really didn’t any good captures on it. Also, due to favoring landscapes I like shooting a pretty slow shutter speeds like longer than 1/50s which turned out too slow to capture movement. Walking movement is fine around that range but when the dancers are twirling or doing their number capturing their “happy face” at that speed is totally useless. On my 2nd day, I decided to use my 75-300mm for tighter shots. This got me better photos as bokeh gets better. I rarely use my telephoto, this was probably my first time to use it exclusively for a few hours as I determined that my kit lens wouldn’t give me distance I required. While I was shooting, it was only then I realized that I am now ready for a xxD body. Focus-recomposing was pretty hard on fast moving people, I got a lot of out-of-focus due to my technique. With a xxD body, I would be able to control the AF points better and would probably AF quicker. One thing to note is that I am a total hater of netbooks. I don’t see the point of using something so small and slow. But this trip turned me into a believer. While reviewing my photos from my LCD, I really thought I had some good ones. But once I downloaded it into my pc I realized some were OOF and my shutter was too slow. Having a small netbook to download and store files/photos/videos would have been very handy as a learning tool in the field. I could have reviewed my stuff the night before and my adjustments for the next day. Looking back at my experience and photos, I guess I could have picked a better spot as my area was half-cast by the shadow of the building behind me. And for the 1st day, the sunlight was so harsh that some my color kinda died out due to overexposure. Especially those shining and shimmering stuff really screws up the lightmeter.

– Gello

Travelogue
I’m not sure how our trip started but it was sure a blast! Sure it wasn’t perfect: Richard missed the bus and I blew out a knee and a hip but we were in Ifugao and thats all that mattered at that moment. The plan was to go to Cambulo only but once we got to Banaue we decided to take on the Cambulo – Batad Traverse. Our guide/singer/songwriter and all-around rockstar Lawrence explained to us that we would take a special “Dual” jeep to get to Cambulo because of the steep uphill road which jeepneys cannot ply. As it would cut our hike from the 4hrs trek up the rocky to roughly 20mins from the jumpoff point. Enroute to Cambulo, we picked up an elderly Japanese hiker/photographer about halfway up the road. Although he was huffing and puffing (his vein looked like it might pop) he said he was hiking for about 7 hours already. Lugging around his gear up the mountains as he was discovering the wonders of the Philippines was truly inspiring.

At Cambulo, you can’t NOT notice all the kids. Smiling kids, playing kids, dirty kids, crying kids, working kids. And ALL of them liked to have their pictures taken. They knew how to smile and play to the camera like real models. Lawrence explain to us that they are at home acting to the camera because Cambulo is one of the adopted sites of the Black Pencil Project (a group of photographers who provide school supplies to kids). While resting from the long bus ride and bumpy jeep ride the kids were just smiling, playing with us and our cameras. We gave them treats of course but next time we will bring some more useful stuff for them. After settling down (and some lunch) we took off to the river of Cambulo to do some exploring of some of their Rice Terraces. As I’ve been to Batad before, the rice terraces in Cambulo is so much different. The rice terraces are small in height but it makes it up by the shear vastness. Village like is also so interesting. I’ll never get tired to hearing the story of why the kids pound rice (because if they don’t do it, they can’t eat :-))

Our night in Cambulo was also memorable. Eating dinner while being serenaded by Lawrence and his guitar (Take Me Home). His lyrics was just hilarious: My grandfather is so cool…. The kids also put on a great show for us. As part of Lawrence’s package, he always puts on a show for his guests. As you may have guessed by now, Lawrence is just one cool dude so all the kids love him. Not just because he’s like Santa Claus with his big bag of candies. But its because he really cares so much about them. The night was topped off by the kids showing their traditional dances and all of us just had to dance along.

Our next day started early because we knew we had to cover a lot of ground. Our journey to Batad was long and uneventful (not counting someone who fell in the rice terraces). The walking on the rice terraces gave me the same peace I get when I visit old structures (Churches or Monuments). Thinking that I was walking on a structure that was built thousands of years ago. It took us 3hrs to get to the Batad Viewpoint. It took us 3hrs to get to the most spectacular sight I’ve ever seen!! After hiking for 3 hours we took a break on a waiting shed. Feeling tired and hot, Lawrence said that Batad was just a mere 20 steps uphill. We took the final 20 steps, Lo and Behold the beauty of Batad. While my jaw dropped wide open, I said a quick prayer thanking God for the majesty of the Batad Amphitheater and that I was able to return to it seeing the best it has to offer (ABB has visited Batad before). Just writing about takes me back to the creeping moment that I saw it all. And I just have to go back.

From the viewpoint, we moved towards the mighty Tappiyah Falls. It was steps all the way down. The falls would provide some rest for most of us. The 100-ft tall waterfall just blasted sprays of cool water in every direction. The freezing cold water gave us a break from the heat.

After having lunch at the restaurant there we started the return trek up to Batad Village. Just as we were to leave, it started raining. However, that was not to stop us from getting home. Once the rain stopped, the clouds opened up and out came a truly rare event the double rainbow. I have seen a double rainbow before but never a FULL Double Rainbow as bright as could be. The Batad Amphitheater Rice Terraces provided the perfect backdrop to the rainbow and in my opinion ended the trip on the highest note I could ever imagine.

-Gello

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