Archive June 27, 2011

Visiting the 8th (to 21st) Wonder of the world

So as I said earlier I’m not one to take too many risks when I travel. I like to have things organised for me in bite-sized chunks. I find this to be particularly important in the Philippines because I’m still finding my feet and if I bugger it up I’ll have to charter my own tour (see my trip to Palawan). The problem was that all the travel agents were either jerks or too expensive (some were expensive jerks too), so I decided to go about organising my own tour which was all going smoothly.

The bus tickets I would either have to pick up in the middle of the day during rush hour traffic (probably taking an hour up or back) or take my chances on the night.

Unless, I thought to myself, I can pay someone to do it for me. You see I’m lazy, but Filipinos are entrepreneurial, so it seemed likely that this coincidence could only end in a mutually beneficial trade.

So after some furious googling I found this. Having previously vowed to never give my credit card details to a site with more than two pieces of clip-art, my hands were tied. I called the expensive jerks.

I know what you generation Ys are like, so here are some pictures of the town break up the text.

Now getting to Banaue in itself is a bit of an odyssey, except unlike the Iliad it ends with pie.

once upon a time (11pm) they slap a ‘deluxe’ sign on the bus, turn on the air-conditioners as high as they go and put ‘total eclipse of the heart’ on repeat. For the passenger’s safety the driver then consumes vast amounts of what I can only assume are coffee beans given this blog’s PG rating.

Sleep deprived and full of buko pie (the local delicacy) I waddled off the bus into the town of Banaue.

Now I have to say I liked Banaue right off the bat and I think the reason was the market. Now I’ve never been sure why I like markets so much, but I do and Banaue had a cool one, with a good mix of items I had never seen before. The town being a long way out from the industrialisation of Manila also has an ample supply of fresh air.

Anyway, this part of the blog is boring me so let me up the proportion of photos.

It’s a dog, dawg!

Yeah, that worked.

So we were there for a reason, to tourist the hell out of the place, which is a challenging task for the best out there. Fortunately we had the assistance of one of these bad boys:

Well not quite, but ours was still pretty cool.

So the first stop after some fancy ‘A-team-esque’ driving were the Clay-walled rice terraces. So as a bit of an introduction a rice terrace is kind of like a series of step like structures for growing rice. See figure 1 for an artist’s impression.

As the diagram clearly illustrates rice is grown in the basins of the steps which are sequentially irrigated. Although I’m not sure the reliability of this, it is believed that they were constructed bottom up. Builders would locate suitable valleys with sufficient water supply and build up, step by step.

Not an artist’s impression.

The zoom on my Olympus.

So once the Jeepney arrived at an appropriate point he dropped us off and let us walk amongst the terraces.

As you can see my illustration was dead-on.

Now besides from making arrogant self-references to your own blog or relevant material another thing which makes a good blog are facts. So here’s one, these terraces (or at least a lot of them) are over 2000 years old. To make that tangible if the average unicorn lives 43 years there would be over 45 generations of unicorns, probably a couple of unicorn civil wars and definitely one unicorn messiah.

One hell of an obnoxious flower, get out of my shot jerk!

So fortunately that was day one, fortunately because if it was day 0 and I had another night of pop music I’d have to kill myself.

Ifugao huts.

Day two also involved more walking, and more pictures. Probably less text too, yeah that’ll do.

Batad rice terraces.

So these are the Batad rice terraces, and as it turns out a hell of a good reason to come to Banaue. But for the record they’d also better be a good reason to do 4 hours of pretty hard-core trecking. Think stairmaster but you don’t have today tonight playing on the TV to sustain your anger.

Stairways to heaven or 7/11?

There was, however, a light of sorts at the end of the ordeal. Tappiyah Falls. I actually have to level with you at this point and tell you I had no idea where we were going and was surprised when our guide told us we were going to a waterfall. Like I said, I just want to be able to tell a story at parties unfortunately this one probably isn’t entertaining unless I embellish it, so I met Tom Hanks on the way.

My only shot of the falls without Tom.

One of the numurous subscribers to my blog, he was thrilled to meet me.

So for the final injection of rice terraces we visited Hapao, which is from memory on the back of the 1000 peso note. (I don’t have any of that denomination, but that fascinating story will come another time).

So that was my trip to the rice terraces. What’s that, you want to go but can’t because of the kids? Well firstly who are you? Because I can’t imagine anybody with kids reading my blog, seriously send me an email and justify yourself.

Thirdly, as with everybody else, they’re way ahead of you:

So that’s it. You have no excuses whatsover, get your arse there. It’ll be awesome.


Guns, Guns and Steel

When I first arrived in the Philippines I spent the first weekend with a copy of the lonely planet and a notepad listing all the things I wanted to do/see while in the Philippines.

Being focused (at the time) mainly on the prospect of being able to talk about my travel afterwards, I used what I would like to term the ‘fanboy’ approach.

Essentially the technique revolves around reading your chosen travel guide and just going along with their recommendations. On the list was Corregidor Island, a small parcel of land nestled inside Malina bay. It has been a key to defending the bay for centuries.

The main aim of the game for the island is to learn all about its role in World War II and flatter the tour-guide by laughing at their jokes. Fortunately, WWII history is a sombre affair so the guide is more than likely to refrain from telling too many,

I will try to pepper this blog post with some relevant stuff I can find, but I should explain that trying to show some reverence and make a travel blog entertaining is a challenging combination.

You see I generally will tell people I’m against the glorification of war, but just between you and me watching Narnia gave me nightmares. I’m the kind of person who is using the word pacifist as a euphemism for wimp, and so let me begin…

The eternal flame.

One hell of a symmetrical shot of the Corregidor War Memorial.

So, the island is scattered with cannons, and not your everyday cannons either, these are the kind that would have taken an hour of careful sketching with a 2B pencil during university to get even close to its rugged awesomeness.

This one is actually a mortar and from what I can find online, probably not suitable for being fired out of. If you were to weigh around 1000 pounds though it would throw your arse around 13kms, I think that’s one local shop away. But unless that shop has a cannon pointing back the other way you’ll have to find your own way home, and at a thousand pounds that’s a good thing, you’re morbidly obese.

So my basic knowledge of mortars is this: they’re designed to lob high explosives onto the enemy at great distances. They have the advantage of being able to shoot at closer targets as you can more or less aim directly up, I’m also informed that they can be moved around. But there is no way you can put these guys in your caddy and stroll around so I’m not sure how reliable that nugget of information is.

Now this one is particularly cool and unless you were good at flip books couldn’t be represented adequately on blue-ruled paper. This is a ‘disappearing gun’, the chief aim of this big guy was to fire and quickly retract. You can’t see this from here but underneath the gun is some seriously cool engineering going on, so that the gun will rise up before it fires and using the motion from firing, will swing back down to hide.

Cool shot right? Well there are about ten just like this available online. I’m not so creative…

So this cannon is designed to shoot around 30 kms. For those living in Canberra you’d be able to comfortably take out Belconnen. Particularly that terrible thai restaurant. You know the one. The tour guide told us a couple of interesting things about these cannons: 1.) the longer the barrel the longer the range, 2.) Modern cannons forced the projectile to spin before exiting the barrel, which improves accuracy.

I’m not so sure what these ones were for.

So, also littered across the island are the remnants of buildings from WWII and heaps of tunnels. Keeping in mind that a lot of these sites have been bombed heavily since first being built they look pretty good.

This is the Japanese memorial.

The tour guide said that nobody knew what it was meant to be because it’s a woman so can’t be Buddha. I tried to explain to him that it could still be Buddha as he/she is often presented as a female (my limited research suggests Buddha usually isn’t covered in babies tho). If I had access to the internet I would have shown him this link. Normally this would be the point to conclude and say something heartfelt about the experience. But it’s lunch time.


Okay fine, ending with the ‘it’s lunch time’ is as annoying as hell. So my conclusion will go something like this:

Corregidor Island is amazing and an easily accessible ‘time-out’ from Manila. Besides from being a razor-sharp reminder of how tough being a solider would have been, the island is also an easy way to be reminded why the Philippines was called the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ (actually I think there are a number of reasons).

You can actually spend the night at the island if you have the inclination and I sense that this would be well worth it as there is a lot to see. My limited experience also tells me that it is in fact a good indication of what to expect when you’re travelling around the Philippines more generally. Specifically, the island shows why if you’ve only been to Manila, you haven’t seen the Philippines. 

How Haggling Saved My Life

A Dutch auction is an auction started as high as the salesperson thinks they get away with, without alerting the buyer they’re getting ripped.

For me, who’s not your average moron on the moron bell-curve this has been quite a costly learning process. If I was to paint this blog post as a coming of age story my trip to Palawan would have brought me up to infancy.

Getting to Palawan, from Manila is a relatively painless affair and requires a taxi and a ticket. For anyone who has been or who’s going to visit, if a taxi driver spends half the time telling you how young his wife is (who is in the car at the time) and the other half raising your expectations about the price because of the ‘added safety features’ it’s probably not legit. This dawned on me after I handed over 500 pesos and he handed me an escort agency’s contact card.

Landing in Puerto Princesa, the first impression I had was its level of greenness. The countryside is incredible. The second thing was the main conveyance in the area the tricycle (right), it’s hard to do justice to these things they’re noisy and everywhere, but are great fun. They also make a fair bit of sense in a region where the concept of finishing a road is a new one. Actually, in all fairness the town is beautiful and there is a reasonable amount of tourist friendly infrastructure. That aside you can pretty much walk most places other than the underground river itself which was on my agenda for day one.

I remember chatting with a mate about his experience being a tourist in the Philippines and he said that there was a lot of ‘hurrying up to wait’. Sure enough this was to be my experience too. Luckily I worked for the government before so was prepared for the idleness. Making good use of the time I hassled eagles and obnoxiously photographed as many private residences as possible.

A Philippine ‘monkey eagle’ assessing my position in the food-chain.

So sure enough after some hard-core waiting we made it to ‘Sabang’ the stop off point before the subterranean river. After showing the office some ID to prove that I was the real slim shady (having a name like a butler and being the only westerner on the tour should have tipped them off) we proceeded to wait for one of those dudes to take us across. In the meantime I actively lived life by learning some curse words in Tagalog, eating the local delicacy raw woodworm and saving a drowning chicken to the chagrin of its clucky mother (illustrated below).

Eventually the waiting paid off and after a short trip on one of those boats with training wheels.

You’ve probably been wondering ‘why would you want to go and see a subterranean river? I can sit in the bath with a sheet over my head for free! Well that weirds me out and I think is taking our friendship too far at this point. I think we should start seeing other people.

The subterranean river.

Not to spoil the surprise but much of the inside of the river looks something like this.

So that was day one, which is coincidentally the same number of days I had actually organised to do something. So the next day after some valiant efforts by the Pagdayon Inn to find me a tour, I had the day to myself. Sans something to friggin’ do, I decided to charter my own tour by hiring a van for the day. My plan of attack being essentially to tell the tour guide to take me where he thinks is worthwhile in the area. He began by taking me to Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm.

Prisoners are allowed to roam freely around the grounds and although you may wonder how it is the prisoners don’t escape, they are way ahead of you. All the prisoners have to wear a shirt labeling their security level (‘minimum’, ‘medium’ and ‘maximum’). The system works.

Some hills and obligatory rice paddys

Actually truth be told, it does seem to work. In fact it worked so well that three of the prisoners used the magic of the free-market and me being a wuss to sell me one of their shirts. I haven’t been game to wear it in Manila yet, but if I do and get sent to Iwahig I’ll give you a discount on my shirt.

Although I’m not going to mention this stop in detail, there is a place in the lonely planet called ‘baker’s hill’ which is like a kids amusement park (anyone remember peppermint park?). I thought it was worth a look if you’re in the area and you can see the charming guy below in person:

The Philippines should slap a tariff on bad-taste.

The final place I visited was the Immaculate Conception Cathedral which is an old susipiciously well-maintained cathedral dating back to 1872. Besides from being an additional illustration of the wealth of the church (juxtaposed by a poorly maintained basketball court next to it) it is also definitely worth checking out if you get a chance.

Word to the wise there is a dress code. Had I known this I wouldn’t now be excommunicated.

Just next to the Cathedral is this old fort. I haven’t been able to find anything on the internet about it (because I didn’t look) but from what I gleaned eavesdropping on the tour guide provides a reminder of Palawan’s role in the war.

Where I Spent the End of the World

I imagine a lot of you have wondered where I would spend the end of the world (in particular so you could share the occasion with me).

Well after a lot of time, money and science the optimal choice was obviously inside a volcano. After all if there is anything I remember from primary school it’s that putting baking soda and vinegar in a cardboard cone is a lacklustre affair and consequently the most boring (and therefore safest) place to be.

So on the 21st of May 2011 I traveled out of Manila to Mount Pinatubo the last place God would think to look for sinners.

Mt Pinatubo erupting in 1991


So I’ve taken this end of the world thing further than is warranted (or at least as far as I can be bothered with), so I’ll just get to putting up some of my most impressive pictures and making the occasional comment. The first of these much-anticipated comments will be a (retrospectively) obvious observation that the closer you get to the mountain itself the larger the rocks are, so the initial trek went from being a pleasant stroll to an epic struggle of man against nature (as usual my preference is to simply eradicate nature, but it’s a work in progress).

And even though an epic struggling may seem to some an exageration, it’s not, and as far as I’m concerned you’re not a man until you’ve stared down the barrel of one of these bastards:

Unintentional double-entundre aside the walk was long, but cruisy and in my opinion an undersold component of the journey (along with the absense of Jollibees on the trail), the landscape is incredible, depite the state-sanctioned age discrimination (see below).

I’m not telling you where I belong.

I have to admit the sign’s overconfidence bothered me the most, essentially its accuracy (and the reputation of the Philippines) rests on a sixty second window. After obnoxiously elbowing (pretty much literally) my way past a bunch of octogenarians not adhering to the sign’s recommendations I managed to make it to the head of the pack, at least that’s how I’ll be telling this story from now on.

Thanks to some naturally occurring signage, I managed to track that crazy crater down.







I don’t have a legitimate segway for the next part, so let’s just say we fucked around swimming in the crater for a bit until a boat was available to take us across to the other side of the crater.

Unsurprisingly the opposite side of the river was pretty much identical except that you could burn your feet on the ground and that there were some of the scraggliest rocks I’ve ever seen:

You scraggly bastards!

As you may have also already guessed the water was also (at least in parts) piping hot, meaning that you had to piss-bolt out of the water when swimming to outrun third-degree burns. Having been able to do this successfully, I then proceeded to wash my hands in the water ten metres along dashing my hopes of hand modelling.

Anyway, the trip was amazing and highly recommended. If there is one thing I could say honestly at the end of the day, it’s that this destination is undersold to foreigners. In anticipation of the runaway success of my call to arms I’ve purchased Qantas shares.

I also met a monkey:



Putting the ‘Man’ in ‘Manila’

Like all great men, I’ve decided to start where it all began. The ninth floor:

Having paid many a Peso to secure myself a shoebox in the city, I was pleasantly surprised that once I opened the balcony door I had twice the space and a view overlooking Ortigas, Manila.

It being three weeks since I first set foot in the city it is hard to remember precisely what my first impressions were but from the best of my recollection:

1. Heat.

Yep, not surprisingly Manila (and I’m told the Philippines more generally) is hot. Hot to the extent that around 24 degrees (Celsius) is the average low throughout the year, the temperature’s max peaks around April and may at around 34 degrees.

To give you ozzies a reference point Sydney’s typical max is around 24 degrees. So Manila’s min is higher than Sydney’s max. Manila could totally win in a fight.

2. Traffic.

This shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me, but there are zebra crossings littered around Ortigas which seem to have no other function than knocking the pride from westerners such as myself. Zebra crossings don’t work and cars don’t stop. On the plus side it’s like playing frogger.

This seemed like an appropriate time to show you one of the popular forms of getting around the city, a ‘jeepney’. These are everywhere and cost around 16 pesos (30 cents). The aim of the game is to pile as many people in there at once and call out ‘para’ when you want it to stop. Because they travel down specific routes you generally need to know where you’re going, which I don’t.

3. Pollution.

Yep, the air can be thick. Wikipedia tells me it’s from automobiles and industrial production.

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But the Filipinos aren’t super friendly just because I’m good-looking (gwapo). They’re (also) friendly because they know how to handle all these minor inconveniences. Firstly, unlike me they don’t complain and secondly they have malls. Lots of them. In fact there are three within walking distance of me.

They also have self-esteem with over 48 per cent of men rating themselves in the looks department. (Google Filipino men most narcissistic in Asia… no I’m not doing it for you). I personally don’t think 48 per cent is that high. In fact, having 52 per cent of men thinking they’re not attractive might explain why the nation attracts so many ugly westerners.

So those are some thought on Manila. I’m not going to stand by the quality of those thoughts, but mainly because I don’t trust my workmanship at this hour.

I will say, however, that Manila is a great city. The people are friendly, the food is cheap and down every street is something new, possibly somebody looking to mug a bald Australian (see postscript) or possibly somebody selling legitimate DVDs for 50 pesos.


That last paragraph is more a whimsical sign-off than anything else so I should clarify that in fact I’ve found Manila to be generally safe.