Living and working in Yangon, Myanmar

Living and working in Yangon

This post is the first in a series focusing on Yangon, Myanmar. It is predominantly meant to provide an additional perspective on the logistics of living and working in Yangon. Recognizing that my knowledge and perspective on the city will change I’ll be updating it over time.

2016 Update: So it has been a little over two years since I wrote this post and it has turned out to be surprisingly popular post resulting in me often meeting people who are like ‘hey I read your blog’. But it’s not just my new found fame which has changed since writing this, so has Yangon. So to account for this I’ve gone back to my original post and made some additions/changes where necessary.

For anyone who has skimmed my blog you’ll know that not unlike Leonardo da Vinci I’m a man of many passions, including (but not limited to) economics and travel. Fortunately, I’ve recently been able to combine both these passions in my new role as an economist in Yangon, Myanmar.

Of course given the logistical challenge of moving countries, few people take the decision lightly. For me, this was made all the more difficult as I tend to only make hard choices after doing hard research, a task made particularly difficult given the dearth of information on living in Yangon. So here I am, writing a post covering Yangon 101, so if this doesn’t sound like something you’re not interested in you should probably stop reading somewhere around here.

Introduction

At the outset, I probably don’t need to tell you where Myanmar is. But to be safe, it’s a country in South Asia bordered by India, China and Thailand (among others).

 

Weather

Being much closer to the equator and at an altitude somewhere near sea-level Yangon can be hot. Of course this is not universally true with some areas in the north of Myanmar even experiencing snow, but in any case you probably aren’t going to need warm clothes.

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2016 Update: It’s worth mentioning the heat is really a big deal over here. Obviously this is going to subjective as I notice locals in arctic gear when I’m almost fainting from heat exhaustion, but be warned it can get very hot and uncomfortable. Power outages also seem to occur more frequently (or perhaps just more painfully) during the hottest part of the year, which means air conditioners and fans can stop operating when you least expect it.

Although you might be able to avoid this by finding an apartment with a generator, I personally still don’t think the extra cost of renting such a place is justified, but that will depend on you.

Traffic

Traffic in Yangon is bad, but not much worse than many other populated cities in Asia. For me it seems somewhere close to the traffic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On a practical level what this might mean is a 5 km trip takes 30-40 minutes instead of 10 minutes during heavy traffic.

Yangon is not the ‘wild west’: there are enough shops/restaurants and cinemas to make your stay more than comfortable. Although you shouldn’t expect wine, caviar and toast points, there are enough shops, restaurants and cinemas to make an unadventurous expat happy.

2016 Update: Actually, now you probably can find caviar and toast points (not that I’ve looked). But overall the food scene has improved a lot in two years, there are now relatively decent Mexican, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants there (you can see a good sample via Yangon Door 2 Door). There are also more and more decent coffee shops emerging, particularly around the expat-rich Yawmingyi area.

A Note on Food

Although this has been the death of my diet, there is actually a food delivery service in Yangon called ‘Yangon Door2Door’. Although I haven’t tested out much on their menu, they have a pretty decent range of food they’ll deliver to your door (including pizza, etc).

Internet in Yangon

The internet in Yangon is slow. Although I’ve heard this complaint a lot since being here, I personally think it’s perfectly manageable provided you’re not expecting to watch cat videos on your phone. I use it mainly for reading the news, calling friends via Skype and Viber and checking my email. It’s also not too hard to find cafes with free WiFi.

2016 Update: Internet in Yangon can still be expensive, but it has come leaps and bounds with a number of providers providing internet more cheaply than when I arrived. I probably spend around $30 USD a month on mobile internet for around 8gb. Not great, but definitely an improvement. More and more cafes have wifi connections too if you really want to save money.

Language

Although you can generally get around okay with English, I’d recommend you try and learn some Burmese to make life a bit easier and to show respect. You’ll likely be laughed at countless times for your miss-pronunciation (I certainly have been), but making mistakes is all part of the learning process. I’ve also found that most of the locals appreciate you making the effort and will be happy to help you learn.

Accommodation in Yangon

For those of you looking to move to Yangon for the long-haul, there are cheap accommodation options available, although less and less so as foreign aid and investment flows in. In the limited time I’ve been here, I’ve inspected around ten different places and done a fair chunk of research, but like everything here take it with a grain of salt.

Firstly, rental fees seem to operate like a Dutch auction in that the owners seem to start at the top and you have to bargain them down. Often I get the feeling that landlords will ask for more rent than they think a place is worth and hope that you won’t bargain. This is of course anecdotal, but the amount of rent a landlord asks in my (limited) experience can have little to do with the quality of the place, so shop around. This is probably why they say that ‘everything is negotiable’ when it comes to real-estate in Yangon.

Rent is also generally paid upfront and involves one month’s rent as commission. So if you were to rent a place for $500 a month, you’d need to pay $6500 upfront. I’d also strongly, recommend not pre-arranging long-term accommodation before arriving as it’s a sure fire way to pay too much.

If you’re looking to save money consider going with an unfurnished place. The real-estate market is somewhat segmented, with furnished accommodation tending to be significantly more expensive, given it is targeted towards the expatriate community.

For instance, a two bedroom unfurnished place can be found for around $200-$500 US per month, while a similarly sized furnished place might go for closer to $800-$1,000 US and above per month. It also goes without saying that you can spend more if you want, with plenty of condominiums willing to charge you closer to the $2,000 to 4,000 US per month mark.

Given furnishing a place is likely to cost somewhere between $1,000 to $2,000, going for a furnished place is probably reasonably value as long as you’re not paying more than $80 to $160 extra per month in rent.

Although I don’t recommend searching for accommodation online, a friend of mine has had a surprisingly large amount of success using the website below to find places.

http://en.house.com.mm

There is also an excellent blog post from a bunch of Yangon Expats here:

http://lifeinthetropics.org/cost-of-living-for-an-expat-in-myanmar-yangon-in-2014/

Don’t Judge an Apartment by its Cover

Another key point to remember is that what an apartment block looks like on the outside has little to do with how it is inside. When looking at places there have been times when I feel like I’ve past through the door to Narnia as a seemingly dilapidated stairwell has led to an incredibly modern apartment.

2016 Update: I’d say much of what I said before still applies in Yangon except there is more competition and more options available now. Often when people talk about how real estate is becoming more affordable they’ll reference back to how expensive it was in 2014 (when I first wrote this blog).

I’d also note that because the exchange rate has changed so much the figures I’ve given aren’t necessarily accurate. Also, Frontier magazine came up with this more up to date and comprehensive guide to Yangon’s rental market here.

Some additional advice I’d give to people looking into local accommodation is is:

Look around your local area. Monasteries, Mosques, tea shops, restaurants and sometimes night schools can be noisy so if you want a nice quiet area it can be best to avoid these.

Be careful to look for buildings with speakers pointing out of their windows. These are relatively common in Yangon and can potentially play music and speeches from very early in the morning to late at night. This can become more intense and likely during the rainy season (May to October), when the amount of time  you spend indoors is likely to be much greater, so be warned.

Noisy neighbors and thin walls can make a big difference – Unfortunately this is hard to protect against without knowing somebody who already lives in the area, but when you look at places it’s a good idea to ask about the neighbors to understand the likelihood they’ll be noisy. I had a family people move upstairs from me who made noise at 11pm and 3am. While this deprived me of sleep for a long time, this wasn’t because they were obnoxious, but just because I lived in an old building and they had members of the family who worked or went to school in the very early hours of the morning.

Ground floor apartments generally aren’t recommended. They’re sometimes more expensive (for a number of reasons), they can be more likely to flood and subject to more noise from the beloved yangon street dogs and street traffic. I’m sorry to say that in some apartments I’ve lived in, people also throw trash out the window so ground floor apartments have the potential to be closer to this.

Rooftop apartments can be a problem during the rainy season. This is both if the rain hitting the roof is noisy and if the roof isn’t sealed properly. I’ve had friends who have experienced both issues. Still, I also have friends who have sweeping views of Yangon.

Cost of Living

When it comes to other expenses such as food, taxis and entertainment I’ve generally found that you can spend anywhere between $10 to $20 USD per day, with eating out costing around $5 to $10 and taxis between $2 to $3 (depending on how far you’re travelling). As you might expect where your costs end up will depend on where you choose to eat and whether you’re able to bargain, with there being plenty of upmarket places around to blow your budget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Cultural Tips

This pretty much goes without saying, but coming in to Myanmar with some level of humility and self-awareness is likely to go a long way. Although people are pretty forgiving (thankfully), it’s best not to test people’s patience. It is also pretty easy to avoid offending people, provided you tread lightly and be aware of some of the basics:

Myanmar Etiquette

EDIT: A Note on Furniture 

When it comes to finding stuff in Yangon, often all you need to know is the right street to wander down.

For hand made furniture and an opportunity to have something custom made there is a street in Tamway you can go to.

Although my strategy for getting there involved me saying ‘Tamway Furniture’ to a taxi driver, from memory it’s around Tha Mein Ba Yan Road 

For ready made furniture not made of teak (and pretty much everything else) you can got to Yuzana Plaza, also in Tamwe. This is a lot less rustic than the Tha Mein Ba Yan Road, but there are some things you can get at Yuzana you can’t get from the street of carpenters (bed frames, mattresses, sofas, desks etc).

If you’re looking for something a bit easier to get up the stairs, you can also check out the Rattan Store in Dagon which has basic stuff like chairs, shelves and lamps. They can also custom make furniture if you so desire. To find it, you take a trip east along Bagaya Street (away from the Dagon Centre). The store itself is just past the Myay Ni Gone Mosque and south down Thawtar Street. Actually, I’m not 100% sure if that’s the right street, but if you get to the Mosque you’ll be close!

EDIT: A Note on Nightlife 

Although there is an increasing amount of activities and night life in Yangon, it can still be a challenge on occasions to find activities that don’t involve beer and regret. Luckily, some one has come up with a great solution called ‘Myanmore’ a website and mailing list which summarizes what’s happening in Yangon.

Cambodia

So I have to admit, if you had asked me which country was next on my hit list, I probably wouldn’t have said Cambodia.

You see, as an Australian I have the wonderful privilege of being located next to a huge number of countries which I’d describe as being very ‘Me’ in that they’re warm, diverse and easy to visit. But I also happen to work in an industry where my business is looking at all things international, so the choice of Cambodia was not my own.

Spiders and Dolphins

Of course as is true of all good expeditions it’s probably best that I start somewhere near the beginning, which is with Tarantulas. See, although I knew bits and pieces about Cambodia, I had next to no knowledge about Kratie, the province where I was to be staying. But with the help of Google I discovered:

So armed with this extensive knowledge, I proceeded to focus on the most important point: Would I be willing to eat a tarantula?

Phnom Penh

Of course I was soon to find out how little my research had prepared me for the reality of Phnom Penh. You see far from being full of spiders, it was actually inhabited almost entirely by people.

 Perplexed by this I hit the books (and travel guides) again and here’s what I found out:

  • Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia,
  • It has a population of around 2 million, which is around 10 per cent of Cambodia’s total population
  • As a consequence of its French colonial roots and wartime history, it is as an eclectic mix of French architecture and Buddhism
  • I prefer starting my day with Phnom Penh noodle soup than Weet Bix
  • There is a lot of dust

In fact, with all the dust and activity I couldn’t help but feel that I was located in the centre of a Cowboy Bebop esque cacophony of culture, dust and disorder.

Then there’s the pagodas, which is a term (technically) used to describe the ‘tiered’ style of architecture typical in East Asia, but colloquially used for the Buddhist temples scattering the countryside. And when I say scattering, I mean scattered like ducks on a pond.

You see, way before hipsters spent their time coming up with ‘Facebook’ for the ‘Facebook generation’ on Kickstarter, Cambodian communities were crowdsourcing with the best of them. In fact, many of the Pagodas in Cambodia are not financed by the church, but from Cambodian expatriates.

What this meant was that even when I had travelled to areas of Cambodia which were scarcely occupied (or occupiable given it was the dry season) a monumental pagoda wouldn’t be far off (pun intended).

Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda

Woah right? Well, woah is right.

Unfortunately, thanks to my unapologetically crappy Olympus camera there are other pictures, but few which capture the magnificence of these buildings. But fortunately for you, Google has succeeded where my camera failed by providing you with an abundance of stock photos to choose from. Add this to Wikipedia providing me with all the information I need to fake my travel story and you’ve got a winning combination.

A very impressive mural on the surrounding walls near the Silver Pagoda

So here’s the deal, probably the most well-known Pagoda is the ‘Silver Pagoda’, a name which couldn’t be more appropriate given its floor is made of five tonnes or five thousand solid-silver tiles. It is also the home of some of the countries most treasured artifacts including a life-sized gold Buddha and a building donated by Napoleon (which is now occupied by monkeys).

Monument honouring the late King Norodom Sihanouk.

But of course for me to claim this as the end of my day looking at curios, artefacts and monuments would be widely inaccurate because after having toured the palace I spent the best part of my first day in Phnom Penh randomly wandering around the city.

Independence Monument

And this random wandering was how I found the monuments above and a myriad of other statues scattered nearby my hotel. You see, Cambodia has quite a history, being a colony of France from 1863 to 1958, having experienced around a decade of growth (squarely centered in the capital itself) and having barely emerged from a regime that wiped out or around 25% of Cambodia’s population.

So when it comes to effective strategies for tourism you’ll likely find getting lost a surprisingly successful strategy (provided you leave a trail of breadcrumbs).


The elusive museum rooster.

Getting Serious

Of course as inspiring as visiting the National Museum, Royal Palace and Wat Phnom were, I did have to set aside a day to desperately try to understand how it was possible for something as brutal as the Cambodian genocide to occur.

Now although admittedly there aren’t many tourist destinations you want to leave with tears in your eyes, Cambodia’s most well-known memorial to the genocide, the Choeung Ek Killing Field is undeniably powerful and a site which is a macabre must for all visitors to Cambodia.

Given the seriousness of the destination I’d suggest the following:

  • Think twice about taking your children – this is an extremely confronting experience which might not be appropriate for some kids. I certainly wouldn’t have had the maturity to provide it with the respect it deserves when I was a kid. But then I was a hoodlum.
  • If you plan to visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, be aware that it is also confronting, so you might want to rest in between so you can appreciate it. It is also not as well-funded, so I would suggest reading up on it before you arrive to get the most out of your visit.
  • I’d try and set aside around 2 hours at the fields themselves – working your way through the audio tour and museum takes time, and is undeniably worthwhile.
  • Don’t plan anything much for afterwards as you might need time to recover.
  • If you fire an AK47, don’t do it on the day you visit the fields.

Finally, before you leave Cambodia I recommend you read ‘First they Killed My Father‘ by Loung Ung. If you do what I did and read this on the plane, bring enough tissues to have people around you think you’re going to craft your own pillow. You’ll need them.

Kratie

Of course, I wasn’t being sent to Cambodia for the purposes of testing out firearms or taking photos of the roosters loitering around museums. I was there to work, which is where the province of Kratie comes in. So to give you an essential flavour of the area, Kratie (pronounced ‘Krashee’) is a province north-east of Phnom Penh:

Kratie is not actually red.

Source

But beyond the fascinating story of Kratie’s position relative to Phnom Penh is the fact that the Kratie province is essentially the bread in a Mekong sandwich, providing an excellent source of water for irrigation or Huckleberry Finn style adventures. Now as a result of this, people are furiously using the Mekong in every way they can as it slithers its way through Cambodia.

What this means is that not only are villages scattered across its shores, but so are rice paddies and the (very) occasional Irrawaddy dolphin. Also when I say ‘shores’ I mean it, you see in Australia we have the tendency to call any trickle of water a river, even when it’s just a result of somebody accidentally leaving their hose on. But the Mekong River, unlike the leaky tap in your backyard, is of epic proportions.

The view of the Mekong across from my guesthouse.


The view of the pagoda on the other side of my guesthouse.

But of course the purpose of my trip was not just to make relative comparisons of flowing water (as undoubtedly useful as this is), but to assist with the monitoring and evaluation of a number of local development projects. So each of my days went something like this:

Potentially the most attractive road I’ve ever seen.

And as simple as this daily routine might sound, it was actually nothing short of exhausting. Particularly given that travelling to and from a site took anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. In any case, at the end of the day the bamboo mat I slept on was nothing short of luxury. It was also another great opportunity to see first-hand both how participatory development projects can function on the ground and just how entrepreneurial NGOs can be.

Siem Reap

But like all things, my time in Kratie was only temporary and with limited time to myself I did what any sane person in Cambodia would do and headed for the temples.

Food white people like to take photos of.

Of course whilst I will openly admit to being much less adventurous in Siem Reap than the rest of Cambodia, I can reveal to you at this point that I did in fact have what it took to eat a tarantula. Although it was more to the amusement of the expatrates than the locals, the closest thing I can compare it to is hairy cheese.


Dr Fish.

I also got to experience the wonders of being (slowly) eaten alive by fish. Now, although I had first tried a ‘fish massage’ when I was in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap brought something a little different to the table.

You see, the fish in Siem Reap probably as a result of subsisting on a diet of overweight westerners, are themselves ahhh… big. So instead of being lightly nibbled, you are mercilessly devoured. In fact when you put your feet in the tank they hand you a pointy stick for defence and a beer for anaesthetic.

Ankor What?

Look, I am fully aware that joke has been used countless times before. But there is a reason some jokes rise to the ranks of ‘dad jokes‘ and others don’t.

Some are timelessly awesome.

In any case, like everyone else, I was in in Siem Reap to see temples in the butt-load (the standard measure of temple quantities).

Angkor Wat

Silly tree, get out of here!


Phnom Bakheng

Statues watching their back at Bayon Temple

Now, for anyone who has been to Siem Reap you’ll know that the streets are littered with tour guide operators offering standard temple packages, making it pretty easy to plan your trip once you arrive. Unfortunately this can make it rather difficult to determine the standard of your tour guide before booking.

Luckily for me I went with my gut and decided to avoid the first tour guide I spoke to, mainly as a result of them having an electrified booth. No really, I stood there watching as the poor guy manning the booth tried not to touch anything as his friend (while laughing heartily) ran to turn off the power at its source.

Needless to say, I didn’t go with this guy, but for those of you looking to do a tour I would highly recommend taking the luck out of it and researching and booking your tour ahead of time so you don’t miss out on snagging one of the legendary tour guide operators.

I said the motorcycle tour was manly right?

I would also suggest mixing up how you do your tours, as I have to say after the first day I was keen to go somewhere where I might have a bit more solitude. So here’s my second suggestion, consider taking a quad-bike or motorbike tour of the area outside of Siem Reap. I personally found this to be the most satisfying part of my time there as not only does it allow you to escape the crowds, but provides a great opportunity to get a more authentic view of some of the countryside.

Think of all the manly things I can keep in that basket.

Photo credit to Nelson

Unfortunately, the motorbike tour was also the last thing I did before leaving, resulting in me being left with an undeniable sense of sadness on my last day. Despite this, I have to say Cambodia rates very highly on the my list of places I’ve visited.

So much so, I am intending on returning and unlike Indiana Jones, when I do it will be awesome.

San Francisco

I’ve often been asked by friends ‘Giles, how can you have a phobia of hipsters but be so fond of San Francisco’?

Well that’s a good question. Such a good question as a matter of fact, that I’m going deal with it in the only responsible way: by all together ignoring it. You see, hipsters are people too and the only bartenders who don’t look at me funny when I ask for a cocktail involving pickle brine.

As a result, they’re okay by me. Kind of like bears, they’re probably as afraid of me as I am of them.

Now although I’m not one to claim myself as a scholar of American history, I do know that San Francisco holds a special place in its books, being a metropolitan hub during the California Gold Rush, a stage for large scale immigration, a nexus of the gay rights movement and a focal point for an unfolding wave of liberalism.

But before I discourage my readers by packing paragraphs with more parables than puns, let me assure you, like all my blog posts, this will be targeted towards a readership with a low attention span (just like its author). So much so, that I fully intend to include a whole array of random photos in completely inappropriate places. Like here:

Rectangle frames are too mainstream for San Francisco.

Fortunately, that photo serves as more than just eye candy, it provides a (not so) clever segway to my opening point: San Francisco is cool. So cool in fact, that no matter where I went, I always felt like something was going on that I wasn’t invited to.

Unfortunately for San Francisco, unlike at my neighbour’s parties, there was no fence to keep me out.

Any place which is willing to risk its financial viability for the sake of humour is okay by me.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Now, as my well-travelled and no doubt learned readers know, San Francisco is home of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is kind of like San Francisco’s equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, as it was the first sight for immigrants entering the United States through the bay.

Wikipedia is a better photographer than me…

China Town

Unsurprisingly, San Francisco’s history of immigration played an important role in shaping the area. In fact, as of 2010 San Francisco had the highest share of Chinese-born immigrants in the US, which is perhaps why it is also home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.

Now for anyone who has seen my previous travel blogs you’ll realize that I have a thing for immersing myself in markets and whatever other obscure attractions I can find. As a result, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown.


In fact, after spending around 4 hrs walking around in this one, I can assure you it’s impressively large. In fact, in the world of eating random street food and buying solar power waving cats, I’m king.

But SF’s CT almost had me beat, with a seemingly endless supply of toys, balms and disconcertingly food, which I find fascinating. You see generally for there to be a product, there has to be a buyer and understanding who they are and what they might be buying it for interests the hell out of me.

Of course, I already know who purchases fish ice cream, because it’s me. But who is purchasing solar powered plants?

And then there is the random assortment of graffiti:

Wait to ruin a perfectly awesome dragon Banksy!

Of course, I’m not going to be so bold as to claim it to be a major attraction of SF’s CT, but there are some pretty cool pieces of street art around the place. And although typically I’m vehemently against the defacing of dragons, for Banksy I’ll gladly make an exception.

It’s also hard to be mad when faced with the world’s largest LOL Cat.

Also home to the world’s biggest LOL cat.

 


Stanford

As you probably also know, I’m a geek.

Typically I’d rather sit in a library writing, than at a pub drinking. In fact even better is being at the library drinking. And while I was lucky enough to be taken on a number of whirlwind tours of bars in the area, they’re not included in this blog because touring Stanford trumped them.

Although it’s hard for me to objectively reflect on why I liked Stanford so much, I dare say it was mostly to do with how magnificent the campus is. You see, although I think it’s pretty cool to be walking around a campus full of nerd, a high nerd density is not sufficient for me to be impressed.

The reason I can attest to this, is that I have also toured Harvard…. although that might have something to do with me being escorted off campus after making too many references to Animal House. 

The Gates Computer Science building.

In any case, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Stanford, partially I suspect as a result of what the buildings at my university typically looked like.

Okay, my university looked nothing like that. We didn’t have walls. But check out this next photo:

It’s a car park.

That’s right, not content with just any old building to park their cars, somebody has constructed what is a Sydney Opera House for cars.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t spend ample amounts of time fawning over this thing, but it does make my point pretty directly that the Stanford campus is nothing short of epic, even when they’re just dealing with the temporary storage of cars.

Of course the explanation for this rather extravagant storage of cars is quite simple. You see Stanford is an amazing campus, with smart students and generous benefactors, and in such a place you can’t have your cars slumming it in a ‘car hold‘.

This is particularly because the university is built on such noble origins. Of which, I was lucky enough to be regaled with after ascending the illustrious Hoover Tower:

Hoover Tower.

You see, the founders of Stanford university did so in the memory of their 15 year old son, who died of typhoid in 1884. But as part of the endowment they stipulated that all Stanford roofs must be red, their son’s favorite color, so he could see them from heaven.

The view from Hoover Tower.

Now, maybe it was the fact that I’m a sucker, but I have to admit when I was told this story I shed a tear, which is in my defense is pretty easy when you’re staring down the barrel end of a view like the one above.

But let me assure you it was a manly tear. In fact it was so manly, that it impregnated the ground.

Unfortunately, like many origin stories, outside of Marvel, this one and by extension my whole Stanford experience, was a lie. The roofs are just red because that’s the style, and there is no heaven.

Okay, a tad melodramatic, but it really didn’t make a difference as I didn’t tip the tour guide. Take that, thoughtful stranger!

Overall though, I have to say San Francisco stands out as one of my favorite places outside of Asia.

Which is why in an attempt to get closer to living there I’m already devising a plan to become a billionaire.

Langtang

If somebody from the future had told me that I’d be willing to pay good money to lug a backpack around and not shower for seven days I’d be sceptical to say the least. However, when the nearest beach is further away than the nearest mountain you have to make a choice.

The trek I chose to do is in ‘Langtang ‘ which, for those who aced geography, is right next to the Nepal/Tibet border (north of Kathmandu).

For those who aren’t good at geography here is a map:

Nepal – the meat in the China/India sandwich

For those of you who want to get up close and personal, here is a more detailed sketch of the area:

Langtang trek –Syabrubesi to Kyanjen Gomba

Although my method of estimation is rather crude, from all accounts the trek I had planned was 20km and went from Syabrubesi (1,550m above sea level) to Kyanjin Gompa (which was around 3800m above sea level).

For references sake, Everest base camp is around 5,360 metres above sea level which means if we apply a linear ‘hardness’ formula I’m 43% as hardcore as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

As an additional point of reference, ducks have three eyelids. So I’m 33% duck.

Day 1 – Kathmandu (1,300m above sea level)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nepal, the main expression you need to know is ‘geez there are a lot of mountains out here’.

The country is home to 8 of 10 of the world’s tallest mountains, and if I had to do an interpretive dance for Kathmandu I’d try to look like this:

Unfortunately, I’m not very good at interpretive dance, , unless what I’m trying to communicate is ‘the sprinkler’.

But my point here is that Kathmandu is surrounded by mountains, meaning that getting out of the city can take some time. In fact, for me, it took something like 5 hrs to travel 145km which although might suggest we were driving at a leisurely pace of 30km/h, was actually more like this:

In any case the drive was much better than riding on the top of a jeepney and in any case, I made it to my first stop:

Syabrubesi (1,550m/5,100ft above sea level)

Syrabrubesi (Seera-broo-bessy) is a common stop-off-town for those doing the Langtang trek or crossing (more rarely) over to Tibet.

The town is of a moderate size and stocks a whole range of modern necessities like coca cola and oreas. Although I wouldn’t suggest you rely on it for any of your trekking supplies, it is a safe place to pick up snacks and some minor woolly items (such as beanies and the like).

It’s also overrun by chickens, which are my favourite animal (no really).

    Syabrubesi – the township

The river next to the town

    The hill is prime real-estate

 

Day 2: Trek to River Side Lodge 2,769m above sea level (seal level?)

Now call me superstitious and all, but around six people have gone missing on the Langtang trail over the last couple of years and none of them had a guide. Obviously I have no proof that there is a correlation between having a guide and whether a person gets lost, but who wants to take chances? I had a guide and I’m alive. Coincidence? I think not! Actually, on a serious note after the last person went missing the Nepali government has imposed a ban on trekking without a guide.

Anyway, much of the first hour of the trek is pretty straight-forward with nothing more complicated than the occasional wire bridge, steep hill and pit of snakes. But probably the best thing about this first hour is that it gives you a chance to whet your appetite before having to climb near-vertical inclines for 6hrs.

    The first bridge on the way to Langtang

“Get out of my way fatty”

Okay so I might be exaggerating, those donkeys look like they’re having a leisurely stroll more than scaling a cliff. But it was an ordeal, I can assure you.

Although there are significant portions of steep inclines they’re predominantly in the shade, meaning you aren’t being simultaneously roasted by the sun while putting your legs through their paces and it makes it all the more enjoyable when you arrive.

    River Side Lodge (our first place to stay)

Now I’m not usually one to parade pictures of my accommodation all around the internets. After all who really cares what my bed looked like?

But this time I’m making an exception as a lot of people expect they’ll be sleeping on an icicle with three other people, wrapped in penguins. Fact is I only had to do that once, and that was because I couldn’t work the temperature control on the spa.

For those of you from a temperate climate I would suggest three things to help make you more comfortable:

  1. Bring a sleeping bag;
  2. Check with the owners of the lodge whether you can hire a blanket for the night; and
  3. ‘borrow’ one of the chickens wandering around to use as a hot water bottle (and an alarm clock if it’s a rooster).

Although I don’t know exactly how cold it gets at night, it definitely drops to the negatives.

    Photos of my room, complete with that teenage heartthrob Buddha

    The view from our guest house

Day 3: Langtang village 3,430m

Now, although any time is a good time to talk about breakfast, this is a particularly good one. So you know what to expect breakfast is usually pretty basic, insofar as there is no Pop Tarts or French toast. Maybe there weren’t enough USB ports to plug in this baby over there. But the Nepalese have their own local substitute: porridge and Tibetan bread.

Both are highly recommended on account of them not being frozen, and because they’re reasonably tasty substitutes for French toast. In fact if you look at the photo below you should be able to see a plate with the Tibetan bread on it. Essentially it looks like a pancake but tastes like not a pancake.

    An oven in one of the kitchens in Langtang

An icy waterfall -You cold bro?

The yak equivalent to ‘come at me bro!’


Now I have it on good authority that I didn’t see that guy (the yak) after I saw the icy waterfall. But let’s face it, Yaks are the main reason (after the mountains) people come to Nepal. This one was no exception. As you can see from the photo he is filled with hate. He is pretty much the hitler of the yak world. But I came prepared with my puffy jacket which makes me look 3 times bigger (and squishier) than I actually am.

Those photos above are also just after I had escaped the clutches of the forest part of the trek (which is pretty much the first day and a half of the trek)Although I won’t claim that it’s an easy walk, you’re likely to face at most a moderate incline. The views are also, as you can see, spectacular.


The disadvantage of wide open spaces is how small you feel, particularly relative to the trek you’re doing. This is also around the time you have to start thinking about altitude sickness, as the sign below clearly indicates. The rule is basically once you get over 3000 metres you should only increase your altitude by 300 metres per day (to allow acclimatisation).

Things just got real…

Also, as you might expect as you get closer to the Langtang things get more and more …Tibetan. Tibetan bread, yaks, rocks piled on top of each other and prayer wheels.

A lightly frosted prayer wheel

Prayer wheels are reasonably rare things to find, but there were at least two that I saw while doing the trek.

As you hopefully can see from the picture above there is a brass cylinder inside a stone box. The one above is also suspended above a (currently frozen) river, which typically will turn the wheel. Although the pattern on the wheel might vary, typically they have in Sanskrit the prayer ‘Om-Ma-Ni-Pad-Me-Hum’ which I’m reliably informed is a prayer or mantra which means ‘Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Diligence, Renunciation and Wisdom’.

As far as I’m concerned having nature doing the praying for you is clever. I wish Catholicism would have caught onto this so that I didn’t have to do this prayer thing manually.

For an idea of what one of these looks like in action have a look here.

Again, although I was nowhere near basecamp altitude, I did start to feel impacts of altitude as the trek progressed. For me this essentially involved feeling short of breath and having moments of what, at the time, I would have described as lucidity.

My favourite moment of lucidity was in my dream. Essentially this involved my uncle, Rowan Atkinson, showing me around New York City. Rowan Atkinson is not my uncle for the record and I remember he looked like a hobo. Still I didn’t call him on it as I wanted to know more about New York.

I suspect this was painted thousands of years ago with dye made from the tears of mountain lions. Only science knows for sure.

Kyanjin Gompa (3,870m/12,697ft)

Our final stop was a place called ‘Kyanjin Gompa’. Although I am informed that this is a Buddhist temple, I personally saw nothing which looked like a temple while there.

I did, however, see the hill ‘Kyanjin Rr’.

Kyanjin Ri (4779 metres)

Kyanjin Ri, as it’s called is what I (as an Australian) would say is a mountain. Unfortunately when I used this term with my guide it was lost in translation as he claimed it was a ‘hill’.

Whatever it was, it was intimidating. Particularly after I had been walking up a slight incline like Neil Armstrong. But it seemed unlikely I’d have another shot at this, so I gave it all I had.

About half way up the epic hill

Now while my guide pretty much ran up the hill (mountain) I took plenty of time to take in the scenery. As you can see from the photo above, the view was amazing. There were also ‘cairns’ (stone stacks) right up to the summit.

Now I’ve done a lot of googling and haven’t found what I’d consider an authoritative guide on their meaning, but from my guide and the interweb I know that they are stacked to bring luck. In some ways the higher they are, the more ‘lucky’ they can be, as individual stones may represent an individual wish.

Mind you, they’re also fun to make (I made a couple) and help mark out the trail for other travellers. So like most things the etymology is probably more grey than black and white.


Anyway, the trek up that hill was epic for all except my guide, who had been power-walking the entire way, and ended in the view below.

Langtang Lirung Glacier

So there you have it. A brief overview of the langtang trek, complete with an evil yak and crash course on why people are stacking stones everywhere.

One thing I didn’t talk about much was just how good our guide and porter were. Besides being tough as nails they were friendly, patient and extremely knowledgeable. So if you’re planning a trek in Nepal I would highly recommend you contact Shanta.

EDIT: Shanta, my wonderful guide from this trip has recently launched a website with more details about the services he offers as a guide:

http://www.magichimalayatreks.com

This photo of a chicken was intentional. It’s an intentional chicken.

 

Taipei 101

My impression is that nobody really knows where Taiwan sits in the world of touristy-flavoured adventures. I for one, am was no exception, in fact I must admit having chosen this as a holiday destination solely based on its lack of Visa requirements and the flights being cheap at the time.

Admittedly both reasons aren’t particularly inspiring. Despite this, it was the fiscally responsible choice and therefore the only logical one.

Being painfully aware that the dialogue I learnt from Crouching Tiger hidden dragon would be unlikely to be of use to me outside of situations where I am required to draw on my ninja (Wudang) skills, I made a plan for 48 hours of communicating through clicks and grunts.

Having such a plan required two things:

  1. Guts and
  2. Language cards.

Being unable to acquire the first of these I engaged the skills of Google to find the second. My strategy was simply to make a list of things I wanted to do/places I wanted to see and print out the Chinese characters (I assumed) would communicate these concepts (such as food, hotel, Taipei 101 and internal bleeding).

This plan was I already knew far from fool proof, particularly as Taiwan was unlikely to be a text based adventure.

In fact I learnt this lesson right from the outset, having no language card for “bus” or “driver, where the hell are we going”?

After landing in Taipei with as little much as a sideways glance from customs officials I put my best confused westerner face and remembered what I knew about written Chinese: the symbols kind of look like what they are. For instance the character for person looks like this:

Which is extraordinarily accurate if you focus on people from the waist down. Even without this being true, I also figured I would be able to navigate through matching the characters from my map and street signs.

While it doesn’t take a genius to guess that I was mistaken, it also didn’t take a genius to realise I had no freakin’ idea what I was doing and a bilingual local soon directed me where to go.

And with my new found sense of dependence I got off the bus right in front of my first temple:

 

Now I personally don’t remember what the significance of this particular temple was but it dragged me inside both because it was the first touristy thing I had seen and because being a temple it was bound to sell hot dogs (or so I thought). Fortunately for the temple’s personal integrity there were no hot dogs, rather there were a lot of kids graduating from calligraphy classes and sculptures of dragons.

Now the man-child in me wants to tell you more about dragons. As you might expect there are dragon carvings and statues all over the place in Taiwan but one of the things which struck me was they looked more like the love-child of bebop and rocksteady than the dragons I’m used to.

So I asked the tour guide (in a culturally sensitive way) why this was and she said that their dragons look like they do because they are made up of all the most powerful parts of other animals (the claws of a lion, teeth of a dog, scales of a snake, wings of a bird etc etc).This certainly was a good explanation but one which didn’t explain why the hell the dragon had the eyes of a prawn (WTF ROFL?) Anyway this paragraph is boring and so here is a full stop to put an end to it.

I should say something of the number of temples there were in Taipei: A shite-load. Obviously never having been there before (or knowing much about the city) this was a pleasant surprise as it provided me with ample opportunities to atone for my latest sin (I try to average one sin per 3 city-blocks so temple-density is an important factor for me).

 

This is the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, which at the time was housing the international biology Olympiad. Best after-party ever.

Now what made seeing the hall pictured above particularly cool was it was massive and housed the most polite giant I’ve ever met:

Out of respect for the man behind the statue (the founder of the Republic of China) please find a link to a Wikipedia page which goes some way to explaining why he has a statue inside a hall of epic proportions.

Epic proportions is also a good segway to this:

Taipei 101, the second tallest building in the world.

If people know one thing about Taipei it’s likely to be their reputation for making everything not from China and Taipei 101, the world’s (2nd) tallest building.

In fact it was the tallest building in the world until Dubai took this title in show of one-upmanship in 2010. I’m not going to go on too much about the experience of actually going up the thing seeing as it’s an experience one would expect. You go up a lift and surprise, surprise you’re really high up and can see stuff. Meh.

However, what wasn’t high on my Meh scale was everything else about Taipei. The streets are clean, the rail system is excellent (and had subtitles) and slow people keep to one side of the escalator where they belong (unlike Sydney).

The place is also packed with random stores, markets and cool little streets and stores like these:

Unfortunately as much as they reminded me of a cooler version of Melbourne I didn’t find any cool cafés (loss) but there also weren’t any people wearing skinny-leg jeans (win). I did, however, find lots of lots of cool markets even when I wasn’t looking for them.

Finally something made in Taiwan -The Shinlin Night Markets.

So I’m not sure what there is to say about the Shinlin markets. They are pretty much like any other market you’ll go to in an Asian city except there is less crap.

I’m not really sure what this shirt is about.

Actually what really attracted me to markets, wasn’t shirts which make no sense it was to eat stuff.

Mmmm that is extra malty!

Bubble tea.

No freakin-idea. But it tasted like an uncooked pancake.

 

Toffee tomatoes.

        Ranked one of the top ten restaurants in the world, the original Din Tai Fung shop.

So what can I say at the end of my epic waddle around Taipei?

Highly underrated tourist destination. The food is cheap, the city is safe and clean and the people are patient enough that they don’t mind you pointing at food when you order.

In fact it’s the kind of place I’d love to live at some point in my life. Unfortunately until somebody invents a real-time babel fish I’m unlikely to be a very attractive job candidate. Despite this I am ready to pounce as soon as there’s a vacancy for someone willing to eat everything and make repeated cultural faux pas.

One day.

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.

Win.

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.


Postscript:

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.


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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.

Postscript:

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.