Take the tuk-tuk!

Batad
Batad rice terraces, Philippines

I’ve been home nearly a week and am struggling with a story about our trip. Three weeks away is a long time! So much happened. So, we’ll do this in parts; let’s start with a summary. Future posts may go into more detail.

The itinerary

Fly to Manila.
Spend 8 days on a G Adventures tour of Northern Luzon, the Philippine island where Manila and the famed rice terraces are.
Spend 4 days on a visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Spend 3 days on a trip to a beach resort in the Palawan province of the Philippines.
Spend 5 days in Manila.
Fly home.

The reasons

Why the Philippines and Cambodia: In this life, I figured I’d travel the world, and though I feel fortunate to have traveled as much as I have, I am feeling like I’ve played it too easy, visiting mainly western Europe, North America, and just a couple places in Mexico. I have a friend in the Philippines I’ve been promising to visit for about eight years. With a flight that would take a full 24+ hours to get us to Asia, it seemed like a good idea to try and visit more than one country. Angkor Wat, a large group of Hindu + Buddhist temples in Cambodia, is near the Philippines and, I was told, can be visited in less than a week. Also: winter in Minnesota is tediously cold and long. January is apparently the best time of year to visit this part of the world, as it’s the very short “dry” (and warm) season.

tuk tuks
Tuk tuks in Siem Reap

Why this insane agenda, involving 10 flights, 9 places of lodging, a ridiculous number of coach, bus, van, taxi, tuk-tuk, fast boat, ferry and jeepney rides? Maybe paying for 3-5 day hotel stays is easier to stomach than booking a whole 3 weeks at just one. We like variety, too. Sometimes a cute B&B is lovely; sometimes we need the space and visual calm of a chain hotel. Or the warmth of a friend’s home. Or the adventure of sleeping in a rice farmer’s hut on stilts.

Or perhaps adventure may simply be my (other) middle name. Or least, it was until January 25, 2014. Maybe it will be, again. Stay tuned. I’m still catching up on sleep; my stomach is still adjusting to normal. Our agenda promised: some culture, some physical challenge, some snorkeling and lovely beaches, some visiting time with friends, some opportunity to meet other adventurous travelers, some exploration of Hindu, Buddhist, and Cambodian culture, and some testing of our traveler mettle.

The best

We were just over two days into the trip, and I think my most memorable sight was rolling into Banaue at the tail end of an overnight bus ride. I hadn’t slept a wink: not only do I have trouble sleeping while sitting up, but the seats were designed for bodies with narrower shoulders and shorter femurs than mine. I was sitting up, and askew. For the 6+ hour duration, I’d been doing some reading on the Nook, maybe a little listening to music, and plenty of looking out the window. Also, my torso did a fair amount of weaving around: the whole bus weaved, constantly. Our driver was very aggressive with passing other cars: we got there 2 hours earlier than planned.

Banaue
Banaue Valley, from Banaue Hotel, the second morning.

Just before sunrise, or rather (obviously) as it was happening, I watched round, high hills start to emerge, outside the window. Many shades of blue, some of them green, some of them more purple. At times I’d look down a little and see that the road on which we traveled was on a ridge. Finally, I looked down and saw a giant, wet, bright blue eye, peering at me from the darkness. It was a rice terrace, ovoid in shape, reflecting back the sky at me. From the bus there was no way I could get a good photo of it, but it’s burned into my memory. Imagine this picture, but a lot darker, perhaps. Beautiful, wondrous. We passed a few of these, that early, dark morning, before disembarking & heading to our hotel for a buffet breakfast.

Best food: sticky rice, made in Batad with the very rice that we hulled by hand. YUM! It was also very good at People’s Palace in Manila, especially as there was fresh mango with it, there. Second best food: the Cambodian fish curry dish, amok. Other favorite foods: the omnipresent garlic rice. Pork tocino at breakfast (Philippines); noodles for breakfast (Cambodia).

Best meal: lunch at Antonio’s in Tagaytay. Spicy sautéed pig’s ear and house-made limoncello, sticky date pudding, plus wonderful soup, fish, steak, greens in between. Gorgeous premises.

Most fun: it’s a toss-up, between our Batad waterfall hike, and our karaoke jeepney adventure in Manila. In Batad, a few days in to the trip, we hiked all the way up to the top of a rice terrace, then around the corner to a stunning waterfall. The photo at the top of this post was taken on this hike. The jeepney adventure was a bar-hopping trip via rented minibus (“jeepney” in the Philippines), which included dinner at a great pizza joint, a few visits to see some excellent live bands around Makati, and just a small amount of karaoke with some friends of friends in town. We sang our hearts out and danced our shoes off.

The Library
Orange you glad you met a monk?

Most powerful experience: spending 4 days in Cambodia and doing more than just check out 12 temples. Our guide Kim Sy, whom we booked via FIlipino Travel Center, took great care to help us learn more about his country and some of its history. While the temples were the reason I put this country on our itinerary, they were certainly breathtaking, but they made less of an impact on me than did some of the interactions we had there. We met a Buddhist monk (and his students), some silk artisans, some fisherman and farmers, various restauranteurs, and a few merchants at the public market and along the road to the temples. In prep for the trip I did some reading about the difficult and bloody recent history there, though I knew I had much more to learn. It was a lot to take in, and I’m still processing it. Wow.

Also educational in Siem Reap: realizing we were the only westerners at our hotel. Awash! In a sea of Japanese tourists, we were.

Apulit Sunset
Apulit Sunset

Best part about the beach weekend: the wondrously colorful coral at Nabat reef. And the many hours of lazing in or near our beach hut weren’t bad, either.

Best part, overall: spending time with my friend there. It’d been too long, and we got a lot of time together. It was refreshing and lovely to see a little part of her life in this faraway country. Secondarily: realizing daily that we were in a brand new, faraway place. For awhile, I was thinking it would never happen. Steve and I did it! Together!

Additionally: I came back to work, feeling refreshed and invigorated. And darn tired, but that will pass. Three weeks is a great idea! Four or five may be even better.

Surprises

Profound realization: Steve and I feel that we spent too much time in vehicles, and too little time on foot (or on butt). He started the trip with a sore butt, from a fall in Minnesota, and by the end of our last van ride, I too had a sore tailbone. However, the scenery we got to see, from the bus/van/jeepney windows, on those trips was breathtaking. Northern Luzon is a large, mountainous area, and it just kept getting more spectacular. Sadly, as we were in a bus for most of it, and stopped only briefly at truck stops with unreliably good vantage points, I didn’t get too many photographs of said scenery. Just look at the photos I do have, and pretend that the rice terraces just keep on going up, or that the faded blue hills keep going back, further and further, getting a deeper and deeper blue. Gorgeous. So, all that bus-sitting was definitely worth it.

boat drivers
Captains on Tonlé Sap Lake

Related: sometimes the best way to see a place is not on foot. This was difficult for me to wrap my mind around and in fact, I regret not learning it earlier during our Siem Reap visit. Not all cities or even villages are pedestrian-friendly. Take the tuk tuk or trike! Or even a cab.

A less profound but reassuring discovery: for the most part, I packed the right stuff. Notables: the lightweight travel yoga mat (the Manduka eKO Superlite! Love it!) was great. I only used it 4-5 times, but for those 4-5 times, it really helped me take a calming breather and stretch. The lightweight flat shoes (a sparkly, semi-casual pair of Toms) were useful for a few nights out. The big scarf that I added, upon my travel pro friend Mary Irene’s suggestion, was a lifesaver, several times, both warmth- and stylewise. My combo of 3 cameras -–my iPod touch, my tiny Canon PowerShot ELPH 100 HS, and my Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT fitted with a 70.0-300.0 mm lens– was very versatile, though next time I’d feel more comfortable if my day bag were more padded and large enough to comfortably carry the big camera and my various other personal items. My Nook reader gave me something to read, those times that the scenery wasn’t as interesting (mostly, during the flights).

Next time…

Maybe I’ll take a laptop, or in any case, I won’t take a paper journal. I did sometimes have desire to write, but various scraps collected while traveling sufficed for those notes. The big u-shaped travel pillow that I bought for this trans-Pacific flight will stay home: it didn’t enable me to sleep, though it was nice as a foot pillow or Nook rest, but my fleece jacket would have sufficed for that. A light, larger beach blouse and cropped climbing pants will be more versatile than a tailored blouse and yoga pants.

Lahar field, Pinatubo
4×4’ing in a volcano crater

Several times, I wanted more of a naturalist’s approach to some of the mini-tours we had. I wanted to know more about the birds, the volcano, or the coral. I may keep this in mind for the next big trip we plan.

Alternatively, it’s good to keep in mind that I have a wide array of interests. This trip was fantastic: a blend of culture, visiting friends, world history, and testing/improving our own patience and willingness to allow an adventure to unfold. Other trips may be more about nature (bird watching with Mom, soon?), physical challenge (Zion, here we come), or simply spending time with family in a familiar place. So little time, so much to do: another test of my patience and decision-making. Onward!

If you’d like to see all of my photos, here’s where to go: my Flickr set. Steve’s excellent, complementary photo set is available here.

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