Thursday, December 27, 2007

Meeting Billy and Akaisha in Chiang Mai

Dave and I have been in Chiang Mai for a week and a half already! We are having a great time here and one blog post or even two is not going to cover some of our incredible experiences here!

I have been in communication for a couple of years with Billy and Akaisha Kaderli who started the web site called: I casually helped them promote their book and we share many traits in common. We finally got a chance to meet in person here in Chiang Mai! In fact, we have gotten together a number of times during our stay here.

I can't begin to tell you how nice Billy and Akaisha are and they have had a lot of good advice for us about Thailand. They both retired at the age of 38 and live in Thailand about half the time and spend the rest of the time at their home base in the USA or traveling around the world. I encourage you to read more about them on their web site. They are the real deal and live what they teach.

Well, I will have a lot more to post about Chiang Mai soon . . .

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Penang, Malaysia

Dave and I took the five hour bus ride northwest from Kuala Lumpur to the city of Georgetown which is located on the island of Penang. The island is about 295 square kilometers and is connected to the mainland via a long bridge. Georgetown is one of Malaysia's major cities and is known as a food mecca. There is a lot of history here because this is where the British first established a beachhead in this region. The island's population is roughly 700, 000.

As a sign of the level of diversity on this island (and in Malaysia), the taxi driver that took us to our hotel was a Roman Catholic Indian who had once lived in Britain and spoke fluent English. He was a real character and a very honest fellow who gave us lots of good tips on the way. We were asking some questions about Malay politics. Although this is very safe country, there have been some racial tensions recently. Apparently, the root cause is that there is some discrimination against non-Malay minorities (jobs, university placements, etc.) and this is enshrined in the Constitution. He was wondering aloud about American politics and figured that President Bush was a shoe-in for a third term. I patiently explained to him that a third term would violate the 22nd amendment of the US Constitution which limits a US president's tenure to two terms.

Our cab driver also pointed to an Indian restaurant named Jaya near our hotel and in his Indian accent said: "You will go to this restaurant and you will never want to go to another restaurant in town." Those words proved prophetic as we found Jayas, pictured below, to have cheap and tasty Indian food, as good as any Indian food I have ever had. We ate there four or five times.

In fact, I am developing a mild Chai Tea addiction (Teh Terik, I think) -- I can't resist their wonderful spicy hot Indian tea here, available at most restaurants, at only about US $0.30 per glass. I have been downing about three glasses in the morning and three in the evening and, well, some in between, also ;-)

We stayed in the unbelievably misnamed Modern Hotel -- the name was probably more appropriate 70 years ago. Dave and I had stayed in a nice place in KL but I wanted to introduce him to the more typical Asian hotel so we stayed in this place with shared bathrooms and a private (but cold) shower (and our room did have A/C, not just a fan). We had a large room and the hotel did grow on us after a few days and it was perfectly located downtown (about $12 per night). Here is a picture from our balcony:

Dave has a Malaysian friend in the US and her mother lives on this island! Her name is Joanne and she offered to show us around. Joanne's friend, Connie, joined us later. Joanne took us to a Chinese food court and the food was fantastic. There is a large Chinese population on this island.

We also tried Malaysian White Coffee for the first time and really enjoyed it. Coffee beans in Malaysia are typically roasted with sugar and margarine. But White Coffee, which uses the same type of coffee beans, are only roasted with margarine. This makes the roast less dark. When the coffee is brewed, the white coffee is mixed in with some regular dark roasted Malaysian coffee beans. There are chains here that serve White Coffee for a fraction of the cost of Starbucks.

Here is a picture of Joanne and I:

Later we all went to an all-you-can-eat Japanese place. And then we ended the evening at a live music venue. Here is a picture of Dave and Connie there:

The song "Hotel California" has followed me around Asia. I had to actually sing this in front of an audience in the Philippines and the locals always seem to like to request it for us at various live music venues. Dave says it is sort of a theme my Asia trip: "You can check out, but you can never leave". ;-) After spending a few weeks with me, Dave seems to think that I won't be going back to the States anytime soon.

By the way, I keep getting email questions about the safety situation for foreigners in Malaysia. We found absolutely no issues about safety in the places that we visited and no discrimination against us as foreigners. In fact, I found the people to be warm and incredibly friendly and I can't wait to go back for a return visit. It might be a little different in the eastern part of the country away from the big cities. We did not visit there because it is the rainy season in that part of the country.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Awesome Kuala Lumpur

Dave and I met up in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (KL). I have been traveling alone for about two months, so it is nice to be traveling with someone again.

Of course, KL is famous for having the world's highest twin towers (Petronas towers) -- there is only one building in the world higher than these towers. Lit up at night, they are astonishingly beautiful:

We stayed in chaotic Chinatown where street stalls are everywhere and you can buy anything from shirts to Chinese donuts to satay (seasoned meat on a stick) dipped in spicy peanut sauce to a sim card for your phone (and actually we did buy each of these things!):
I was able to buy a sim card for the cheap Nokia phone that I bought in the Philippines for about US $2.50. I topped that up with about US $6.00 of talk time and suddenly I had a mobile phone with a local number and plenty of talk and text time in Malaysia.

On our second day we attended a local couchsurfing party put on by Elma. Elma likes to meet new people and travelers and I had been in communication with her for a couple of months. There were probably 50 people at the party -- it was a great mix of travelers and local people that like to meet travelers. Dave and I brought Elma some nice souvenirs from the USA.
At the party we met so many nice people including Shelly and Mei. We spent the following day with them and they showed us all around KL! Here is a picture of Dave, myself, Shelly, and Mei inside the largest Batu cave. The Batu cave complex is a set of famous Hindu pilgrimage caves located just outside of KL. One look at Dave's shirt and you can tell that he is still acclimating to the heat!
Here is a picture from the outside. One has to climb 271 steps to reach the inside of the largest cave:
Each year around the month of January thousands of Hindus make a pilgrimage here. They come to worship deities and many of the pilgrims also severely flagellate themselves as they process up the steps in order to atone for sins they have committed during the past year.
The four of us later visted a forest reserve outside of the city. As we were leaving there, we noticed that a traditional Malay wedding was taking place inside one of the buildings. Mei Yee's sister, Mei Kuan, had just joined us mid-day and mentioned that we should crash the wedding because this was the "opportunity of a lifetime!" Well, I was pretty shy about entering or even getting out of the car but then someone who was leaving the wedding came up to us and told us to go inside as the main part of the ceremony was over and things were just winding down.
We slowly walked up to the front of the building and the bride suddenly came outside and asked us to come in and eat! I was pretty leary about being an ugly American dressed in shorts and crashing an otherwise civilized proceeding but she insisted that we come inside and eat. Mei Kuan kept repeating that this was an "opportunity of a lifetime" and that they were amazed at what they could get away with when accompanied by two American tourists ("with you guys we can do anything!"). The Malay food was delicious. They gave each of us decorated eggs which is a key part of the Malay wedding ritual. After eating, they insisted that we take a picture with them!
We have found the Malay people to be so friendly and this wedding story and the kindness of Shelly, Mei, and Mei-Kuan is just a small sample of the warm hospitality that we received.
Later, the five of us went out for Chinese desserts, yum!! These are some sort of ice flavored sweets and the lower right is a peanut sauce that tasted like melted peanut butter except that it was sweeter and tastier:

I wish I could tell you exactly what these Chinese desserts were, but they were all good! The little white ball you see in the dishes is a sweet dumpling:

The following day we met up with Jessica, another friend that we made at the couchsurfing party. Fellow American Matt, also from the Bay Area, joined us and we had a nice traditional Malay meal (sorry no pictures). Thanks, Jessica!

The day after that we met up with Febri and Nanie:

We had a wonderful Malay meal together. After that, we toured the most modern part of KL, Bukit Bintang. We randomly chanced upon a live performance of a well known Malay singer and we were able to stay near the stage and attend for free. What a night! Thanks so much ladies!

If you can't already tell, I loved KL. This place has it all from the modern to the old, from First World to Developing World. It is an ultra-modern city, yet despite such Western comforts, food stalls and night markets are never far.

Here is a picture of a local mall, all decorated up for Christmas (more Christmas music heard here in this Muslim country than in the USA!):

And Malaysia is simply food heaven for me. It is tops of any place that I have visited on this trip. The mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian for a spicy food lover like me is simply irresistible. Dave and I even had a wonderful Indonesian meal on our last night in KL.
It is astonishing how widely English is spoken in the capital. In fact, during my entire time in Malaysia, I heard almost no live entertainment in the Malay language. It was either in English (75% of the time) or in Mandarin (15%) and perhaps in Malay 10% of the time.
I hope to come back through here on my way back to the USA and maybe more often in the future ;-)

Itinerary Change

I am writing from Georgetown, Penang Island, Malaysia (northwest part of the country). I met Dave in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia last week and we have had a great time together! I will be posting more stories and pictures soon.

Dave and I have decided to fly to Chiang Mai, Thailand tomorrow instead of working our way up through the south isthmus of Thailand. Chiang Mai is way up in the north of Thailand. We were able to get plane tickets there for about US $145 each.

And we are planning to meet some friends that we met in KL for New Years in Bangkok. So we will work our way south from Chiang Mai to Bangkok during the rest of December.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Writing from Malacca, Malaysia

I am posting from Melaka (also Malacca) Malaysia, in the southwest of the country along the coast. Melaka became famous as one of the world's busiest commercial centers starting around 500 years ago. It is strategically located along the narrow strait of Melaka through which today about 20 to 25% of all world ocean commerce passes, and along the ancient spice trading routes between India and Southeast Asia. It is also located where the monsoon winds change directions so traders could safely moor here. Early in its history, a fair set of commercial trading laws was developed, further encouraging traders to stay here. The original village converted to Islam early in its history and so Melaka also became a regional center for the Islamic faith. The city has a population of over 600,000.

The region was strategic enough to be of great interest to the Western colonial powers. The Portuguese succeeded in taking it in the 16th century. In the 17th Century the Dutch took it from the Portuguese and finally, in the 19th century, the declining influence of the Dutch caused them to hand it over to the British. British rule did not formally end until 1957 and this year Malaysia celebrated 50 years of statehood.

From what I have seen so far, Malaysia is a true melting pot. Here in Melaka, Malay is the primary language but almost everyone speaks some English and most signs are in Malay and English. English is not spoken nearly as much here as in Singapore. In Singapore English is the lanuage of instruction whereas here it is just a required language class that pupils typically start taking at age 7. There is a big chinatown here because many Chinese came here when Melaka was a trading center. In fact, this region and China traditionally had very close ties. There is also a somewhat smaller Indian population and a Little India section.

Malaysia is definitely cheaper than the Philippines or Singapore. My guesthouse here is just US $5.50 per night and I can eat a nice breakfast or lunch for about $2.00, including tea or coffee. I love the food here -- Malay, Indian, and Chinese are abundant. I have been able to buy Chinese donuts off the street, too, something that I had missed for awhile.

Due to the rich history of this area, there are museums galore here. And so I have been able to satisfy my curiousity about Malaysian history. In fact, I have noticed that my rate of learning has accelerated now that I am traveling and not working. Before, when I was working on my job, I was not really able to satisfy my intellectual curiosity because I didn't have the time or I was too mentally tired after working all day or week. Now, I am reading much more and learning more about a wide variety of topics and meeting a lot of interesting people from all walks of life around the world.

I have met a couple of interesting early retirees here at my guesthouse. One became a permanent resident here in Malaysia through the Malaysia My Second Home Program which makes it pretty easy for individuals to gain permanent residence status if they put some money in escrow to show that you have means to support yourself. These folks live part time in Thailand and part time in other countries like Indonesia. A nice residential hotel room in some nice parts of Thailand off the tourist trail might run a little over $100 per month. Here in Malaysia, a much wealthier country, the cost might run 3 times that. But they are able to live quite a bit cheaper than they could in their home countries (UK and New Zealand, respectively).

The Malay language has a Roman alphabet and is the easiest Asian language for a native English speaker to learn. It is only a little more difficult than a traditional Roman language, like French or Spanish, according to US State Department statistics. Malay is nearly identical to Indonesian except that it has incorporated more English words.

Well, tomorrow I hope to meet Dave in Kuala Lumpur so that we can begin our adventure together, slowly traveling north through Malaysia then Thailand and possibly Cambodia and/or Laos. It will be nice to be traveling with someone again. We hope to travel together for about five weeks. Then, in late January, I will be meeting up with my friend Elena (who lives in France) in Bangkok and we plan to explore Burma together. I just bought my Burma plane tickets a couple of days ago.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


I arrived in Singapore from Manila and secured a dorm bed in a great hostel for about US $14 per night. I had expected to meet Dave but I checked my email and discovered that he had suddenly delayed his trip overseas by one week in order to leave his work project in better shape. So Dave and I will meet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, instead of Singapore.

Public transportation here is the best in the world. With a single card I can ride the subway or the bus and add money to my card at many locations. I found it so easy to get around that I ended up seeing many different parts of the city. Here is a picture of metro entrance near the city center:

Upon arrival I made a beeline for the Little India section of town. Indian food is my favorite and the few times I have tried it so far in the previous three months of my trip it has not been good at all. Well, that was about to change -- the Indian food is great here! I have been gorging myself nightly on it. I didn't mention this in my blog, but I was really losing weight after a couple of months of traveling. I think I may have lost as much as 4 kilograms (9 pounds). Part of the reason, I think, is that I don't snack as much between meals while on the road, I will sometimes miss meals due to traveling, and I am exerting myself with a lot of physical activity (primarily walking many kilometers everyday). So, about a month ago, I started stuffing myself silly at every opportunity and my weight seems to have stabilized. And it is so much fun! ;-) I have waiters ask if I am really sure about what I am ordering -- yes I am and I never leave food on my plate, either!

Here is a street scene from little India, about 14% of Singapore's population is Indian:

In this part of town, I mostly see only Indian men, not Indian women -- especially at night when no women seem to be out but there are hundreds of men milling about. I am not entirely sure why. I asked one of the locals but I could not really understand his response.

Here is the beautiful Clarke Quay area (unfortunately, the gorgeous night scenes did not photograph well on my camera):

I was having dinner down in this area one night and met Rego (on the left), an Indian who was raised by caucasian parents. He sings on the street for a living. We talked for a long time and he struck me as being a very sensible person. Later, we went down to where he sings, and he trains other people in his art (one is pictured on the right), also:

Singapore is a shopping mecca and the Orchard shopping area is where the most high end shops are located:
But these places were actually pretty expensive. For cheaper shopping I toured Mustafa's in downtown Little India. He is an Indian equivalent of Walmart's founder Sam Walton having come to Singapore with nothing and now fabulously rich by providing Singapore shoppers with great retail value.

I was at the Mustafa's money exchange (which is located outside, facing the street) to get Malaysian Ringits. There are several other money exchanges nearby. I looked and could not see one policeman or guard anywhere (in the Philippines there would have been half a dozen armed guards, at least). This is one of the safest cities in the world. There is less freedom here -- some restrictions on speech, gum was famously banned here until recently, smoking/eating/drinking on public transport is banned and subject to large fine, etc. But the system seems to have brought about a great deal of safety for local citizens. There are signs reminding people to: remain vigilant low crime does not mean no crime.

Singapore has been ruled by the same party (People's Action Party) since it gained full independence from Great Britain in 1959 and its first Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, ruled for over 30 years and was Prime Minister until 1990 (his eldest son is now the country's third Prime Minister). Since Singapore declared independence from the Malaysian Federation in 1965, the standard of living has skyrocketed and Singapore has become a center of finance and education for Asia thanks largely to free market policies.

I was also amazed at how widely English is spoken in Singapore -- it is the official language in practice and I would say there is more English spoken here than in San Francisco. I thought that Mandarin and Malay would be more common but that is in fact not the case. In fact, when I visited the zoo and other places where I could observe families interact, I noticed that many parents, whose first language was obviously not English, spoke to their children only in English.

Here is a photo from the upstairs patio of my hostel. I really enjoyed staying in my hostel -- it was the first time on my trip I stayed in shared quarters and I may try that more often now. Hostels tend to have much nicer common areas than hotels and I meet a lot of interesting travelers there. Just before I snapped this photo the call to prayer went out for the mosque in the center of the picture. I love these gritty, colorful urban scenes and with the mosque in the center it is like a scene from the movie Syriana:

Some more pictures of the city center area:

I am really impressed by Singapore. They have the best public transportation, the best airport, the best zoo, the best botanical gardens, some of the best food, the cleanest city, they are trying to be America's most reliable ally, etc. As my friend, Surendra, told me, it is an underdog city trying to be the best in several things and I think they actually succeed.

Back to Manila for a week

Well, after that nice visit with Tom and Fhona and a one day stopover in Cebu City, it was time to fly back to Manila. There were plenty more sights to see on the big island of Luzon where Manila is located, but I never did get time since I spent most of the week with friends. Paolo showed me around some of the awesome malls in Manila.

In fact, Greenbelt Mall in Makati section of Manila is the most stylish mall I have ever seen -- the coffee culture is alive and well there! Paolo and I also took a trip to some mineral hot springs outside of town. Paolo even took me to a kickboxing match -- his friend owns the kickbox training gym. And he introduced me to some new Filipino foods. Since he is also a budding chef, he cooked me an Italian dinner, also. Thanks, Paolo!

I met several times with the friends that I had traveled with earlier. We seem to have a thing for cemeteries, so we visited the American Cemetery in Manila:

I was not sure where my Great Uncle Travis had died or was buried. He died in World War II in late 1944 and never got to see his son, Travis (after whom I was named). I did not see his name on the walls. We went to the office and got an official printout and found out he had died in France. However, Helen found her father-in-law's name on the wall. She had not known that his death was recorded here. She immediately called her ex-husband to let him know. Here she is pointing to the name:

The entire World War II campaign is explained by about 20 stone murals. The artwork and historical detail is quite amazing:

The Filipino people are quite thankful for America's sacrifices that led to their liberation from the Japanese after World War II. It is one of the reasons our countries continue to have such close ties today.

I did not take many photos during the times we went out but here is one of Helen, Liza, and Ara:

Later in the week we also went to a Karoake Comedy bar north of Manila. Basically, there are two men dressed as women on stage who crack jokes, sing, and require virtually everyone in the bar to come up and sing, too, at some point during the evening. This was far enough outside of the main part of Manila that they had apparently never gotten a regular tourist there before. So they spent about a third of the night making me the butt of their jokes, which was actually a lot of fun. Their routines were in Tagalog, but they would use English when joking about me ;-) I also sang three songs, something they required of me -- oh, the humanity! I am not sure if I have ever heard a worse rendition of "Hotel California," I think I will be getting some more practice back in the States. Karaoke is a big part of Filipino culture -- it is almost the default entertainment wherever you go, so be prepared!

I attended an Asian music contest very similar to American Idol. Wow, some of the singers were so good -- filipinos can really sing! Also, there were some distinctive Asian sounds that were really refreshing.
My new friend, Leah, and I also met through couchsurfing and after having lunch together she took me to a Chinese massage place in Chinatown. I had never had a proper massage as it just something that is not very common in America. Massage is definitely a part of the Filipino culture and is a common topic of conversation. Thanks, Leah!
Now I am off to Singapore to meet up with my friend Dave and begin our adventure together!

New Friends on Cebu Island, Malapascua Island

A friend of mine is a Christian missionary abroad. After I told him that I was visiting the Philippines, he mentioned that his father (Tom) had retired there and asked if I would be interested in meeting him. Tom and his wife, Fhona, live in the very north tip of Cebu Island, about a 5 hour bus ride north from Cebu City. I stayed with them in their beautiful home for several days and had a great time. Although they live in a small town, this is a more rural area and so I got to see the agricultural side of Filipino life. Tom and Fhona also gave me a lot of insights about Filipino life and culture. Fhona's extended family lives nearby. Before moving to the Philippines five years ago, Tom and Fhona lived in the States for 10 years.

On the first full day of my visit we roasted a pig at Tom's little beachhouse (which is a couple of kilometers from his house). I have some pig roasting experience and let me tell you, these guys know what they are doing! I met the extended family that day. Most of the family speak English, but many of them only know the basics, so anything beyond simple communication is not easy. It is not like in the city where most young people speak English quite well -- English is now the medium of school instruction for virtually all schools (public and private) in the Philippines. Many of Fhona's brothers and brothers-in-law have taken jobs abroad -- some of them as far as the Persian Gulf. This is common in the Philippines and can create strains on families when the mother or father or husband or wife is away for long periods of time. It is not an easy life.

On my last evening as Tom's guest, they finally relented and let me spend some money and so I took everyone out for a special dinner. Here is the extended family along with Tom (the caucasian) and Fhona is seated next to him (on the right when looking at this picture):

This is a picture of Vanesa and I. Vanesa is Fhona's niece. Wow, what a cutey!

During my visit at Tom's place, I took two days out to visit Malapascua Island on my own, which is a 30 minute ferry ride from there. I had a great time there! The island was gorgeous, probably the most beautiful scenery I have seen in the Phils. It is a tiny island known for diving and shallow coral reefs -- it is only about 1 kilometer wide and 2.5 kilometers long.

I hired a small boat to take me around the island snorkeling. I also explored the island on foot and walked through several villages (permanent population of about 4000 people) and met some locals while searching for the lighthouse on the island. I was having trouble getting to it, and so one of the locals helped me. Soon, we were joined by two curious little boys and finally by another teenager who could speak some English. They were showing me around including some things I would have missed on my own.

I was interested in a boat ride back to my hotel and I asked them how much -- they said they would take whatever I wanted to pay them. I said please tell me a price, so they said 100 pesos (about $2.40). I said I would pay them more, don't worry about it. They showed me several of the local sites. The boat owner, Toni, had lost a father to dynamite fishing. This used to be a common practice but is now illegal. Unfortunately, the practice of dynamiting has wrecked a lot of the corals around the island. Fhona's brother also lost a leg to this practice. Anyway, after showing me all around (there were a group of 5 of us now) and sitting down and talking and then taking me back in a boat right up to my hotel on the other side of the island, I paid them 300 pesos ($7), much more than they had asked for. This is a typical Filipino experience -- the people are kind and always willing to help. That amount of money is actually about 1.5 days wages -- there is a huge gap in income and wealth in the Philippines.

Also at Malapascua, the gorgeous(!) girls from my hotel invited me to the disco. There was some kind of fiesta on the island -- they could not explain to me exactly what was being celebrated, however. As part of the celebration, there were cockfights in the afternoon (a local took me as his guest) and then in the evening came the disco.

The girls had told me they would arrive at the disco about 10 PM, but I ended up arriving early at 8:00. The disco was basically an empty basketball court outside that was all lit up. When I started dancing, I was suddenly surrounded by about seven dancing transvestites. From where did they all come? They were fascinated with me and some of them were dancing uncomfortably close and in an alluring fashion. I started talking to one of them. He was only 17 years old! He said they were all there for a gay beauty pageant that was to take place in two days. OK, that explains it. He also said they like to pick up on foreign men. It turns out there is a big gay scene in the Philippines. I had no idea before arriving. Anyway, this is definitely not my cup of tea but they were friendly enough once I explained that I was not interested -- as always, I tried to maintain a good sense of humor throughout and that is the Filipino way! I also got to dance with the girls and we all had a nice evening.

After this last cockfight experience, I now realize that cockfighting is an insidious influence here. Many of the men sneak away from the family and lose a lot of money there. I have decided that I have attended my last cockfight.

I returned from Malapascua island to Tom's place for one final evening there. A typhoon came later to the area just as I was leaving Tom's place the following morning. The bus ride back to Cebu City took a long time and when I arrived it was dark and there were no taxis available because it was still raining. So I ended up walking from the Cebu City bus station to my hotel, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles). Here is a picture of what was left of my umbrella, shown fully extended, which I promptly threw out. It had served its time . . . and I could only laugh about the whole situation! ;-)

I had a great time with Tom and Fhona and the extended family -- what great memories! They showed me unsurpassed hospitality and stimulating conversation. I hope that I get the chance to visit again.

Iloilo City and Cebu City

I visited Iloilo City which is located on the south of Panay Island. It is the second largest city in the central Philippines (also known as the Visayas) and has around 300,000 people. I definitely enjoyed this town although it is more of a nice place to live than a tourist destination. It is big enough to have lots of amenities but small enough to be easy to get around and there is not much pollution. I did not take many pictures, but you can see some pictures here taken by an American expat:

Since I didn't meet anybody at Boracay island, I decided to finally give a try. This is a web site that allows you to register your profile and meet up with other travelers and hosts who live in particular cities. It is safer than randomly meeting people since people post information about themselves and get vouched for by other travelers and hosts. Anyway, I met Frank, who owns a local IT school, through couchsurfing and he showed me all around one evening. What a great host! Although he is Filipino, he used to live in the Bay Area, too, so we had a lot in common. Frank showed me all around the night life of the town and I could see how this place was small enough that you really could know a lot of the people that you ran across during an evening out. Frank invited me to a party at his house a couple of days later, but unfortunately my schedule required that I leave one day before that. I have discovered that Filipino hospitality is simply legendary.

I then visited Cebu City on Cebu Island. I think Cebu City has a population of around 2.5 million. It is a more manageable version of Manila with less pollution and traffic. Cebu City is where Magellan planted his cross when he "discovered" the Philippines for the West (he was killed not long after that) and also the location of the Spanish fort that was erected a few decades later when the Spaniards returned in force to take the islands. Anyway, I liked Cebu a lot more than Manila. I also think that this is where many of the foreign expats live -- I saw more of them here.

I am beginning to see that the malls in the Philippines are as nice or nicer than their counterparts in the USA. There is real mall culture here. And American franchises dominate everywhere. People like to hang out at the coffee shops -- the coffee culture seems to be as strong or stronger here than in America.

By the way, when I was in a taxi cab in Cebu City we passed a placed called "Big Bucks Cafe" with a logo amazingly like the Starbucks logo -- I asked and was told that the trademark laws are not as strong here. I did not get a chance to go back -- but I imagined a good photo would have been me sipping a latte and smiling at the camera in front of the "Big Bucks" logo. Well, I hope that just imagining it brings a smile to your face.

Well, I am only in Cebu City for a couple of days before heading to the northern tip of this island to meet Tom, an American expat, and his wife and her family.

Boracay Island, Philippines

The small island of Boracay is a world class beach resort and the most popular tourist destination in the Philippines. I ended up spending three full days (and four nights) there. I had my own cottage, bathroom, and small kitchen for the bargain price of about US $9.50 per day. Boracay has the kind of beaches that you would imagine for a wonderful tropical destination:

This beach (White Beach) stretches for perhaps 3 kilometers and behind the palm trees is a row of restaurants, bars, and stores the entire length. Also, motorized vehicles are forbidden in this section. All in all, Boracay is a wonderfully relaxing place.

Here is a flavor of travel in the Philippines. . . to get to Boracay from north Mindoro island I had to take a jeepney for about two hours to a larger town. The coastal road was astonishingly beautiful. Then I took a hired van that had stopped along the road to another town 3 hours further down the road from which I could take a ferry. Then I took the four hour ferry journey to Caticlan, which is at the tip of Panay Island. Then a short but somewhat treacherous 20 minute ferry ride to tiny Boracay Island, then a tricycle ride from the Boracay pier to my cottage. Yes, transportation can be an adventure here.

For the first time in my trip, I didn't really make any new friends in a place. I mostly spent the days alone on the beach and reading my new book on randomness and algorithms and their application to financial markets (OK, I needed a small break from fiction).

But I did feel "in the zone" here. By that, I mean a place where I am enjoying my time and not spending much money. I did a quick calculation on what I have spent on my trip so far, including all internal flights, immigration fees from before I left the USA, and my flight back to Singapore, and it is about $53 per day -- including my one-way flight to Hong Kong (reasonable since my trip is a little less than half over) it is about $61 per day. This includes all my SCUBA fees, too. I could have traveled much more cheaply (for instance, I have never stayed in dorms yet). That said, traveling in the Philippines is much more expensive than either Vietnam or China (or Malaysia or Thailand).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Diving again

It was sad to say goodbye to my new friends. But we agreed to meet up again when I return in a few weeks to Manila. So I took the ferry from Luzon island (where Manila is located) to Mindoro island. Here is a picture from the side of the ferry on my way. The scenery in the Phils is just gorgeous.

I ended up in Sabang, part of the Puerto Galera area in the north of Mindoro Island. Sabang is a beach town catering to divers with a population of around 20,000 people. I dived here for a few days, paying around US $25 per dive. It was a lot of fun. I got to explore coral reefs, steep dropoffs, shipwrecks, etc. Also, it was a great chance to polish some of my diving skills. What I had forgotten was a lot of the prep stuff before I get in the water -- once I am under the surface I am fine. But making these dives really helped me to hone my diving skills. And the diving sites were all near our beach -- basically within five minutes of leaving the beach on our boat we were underwater.

Toward the left side of this picture, if you look carefully, you will see a "floating bar" out in the water.

Barbeque at the Lake

The largest lake in the Philippines is nearby Pagsanjan Falls and called Laguna de Bay Lake. We actually had to increase elevation to go up to the lake, which is quite large, generally shallow, and has good water quality.

My friend knew about an old abandoned house on the lake and so we went up the day before to see if we would be able to use it for a grand barbecue. Here we are in our transportation for the lake reconnoitering mission:

Picture of a part of the lake itself:

We took a boat out to see the abandoned house and we found it! The owner mysteriously disappeared seven years ago. There is a caretaker on the small island who has his own place and takes care of this larger house. He also raises Talapia fish encased in nets about 60 meters offshore.

We found a farm that had a bunch of extra vegetables. We talked to one of the workers, and they said we could have all the veggies we want for 30 pesos (about US $0.70).

Here is the scene after he told us the price:

Well, the next day all of us went out to the abandoned place. My friends made a special Filipino vegetable paste out of the veggies we gathered and it was really good! I swam out and we netted some Talapia fish (we paid the caretaker). We barbecued the Talapia and they were so good! This was all polished off with some San Miguels, the national beer of the Philippines. I have never been much of a beer drinker but those San Miguel Lites are actually quite tasty!

It turns out that most Filipinos cannot swim, much to my surprise. I can swim like a fish, so I even gave a few swimming lessons for those willing to try. It was a great and relaxing day!

The Falls

After visiting the Tagaytay area, my friends and I went by bus, tricycle, and jeepeny to Pagasanjan Falls, located about 92 kilometers south of Manila. One the way I got to try a buko pie, which is a special coconut pie for which this area is famous. I don't like coconut in the USA, which is usually shredded, but it is different here -- chunky and apparently made from some special kind of small coconut. Well, it was great and I had an extra piece!

The Falls are famous here in the Phils, and many of the river scenes from the classic movie Apocalypse Now were filmed in this part of the river on the way up to the Falls:

Unfortunately, the bigger upper part of the Falls is closed this time of year, so we stopped at the smaller Falls downstream:

Some of us also opted for the special raft pull that takes you directly under the falling water. The water is coming down so hard that it can be a bit painful, but fun nevertheless!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


My late uncle raised fighting cocks but I never got a chance to see a real cockfight since it is illegal in most of the USA. Most of the folks interested in this sport from the state where I come from, southern California, either go to certain parts of Arizona or Mexico for the fights (where they are legal). And most of them are Filipinos -- it is part of the culture. Even though I know this is a cruel sport, I have always wanted to see what it was like up close. Well, I finally got my chance!

On the way back from Taal Volcano we happened by chance upon a cockfighting ring that was holding fights. I had told my companions of my interest the day before. So three of us popped in for about 20 minutes to see what it was like. Until recently, women were not allowed inside, but this has now been changed. Actually, none of my Filipino friends had ever been to a cockfight, so they were also curious!

The way it works is that a sharpened blade is attached to at least one of the rooster's legs. Then they are both put in the ring together. What often happens is that they prance around for a few seconds, sometimes pretending not to even look at one another:

But then the feathers start flying when they attack:

What drives this sport is gambling. I think there was a fight about every 5 to 7 minutes, and you can see the frenzy of people placing their bets before the roosters are released in the ring:

I actually found this sport crueler than I had imagined. One rooster always dies and sometimes they both die. After each flurry of attacks, the roosters are reset in front of each other until one has made the other completely helpless (and bound for death). Even if the roosters can no longer stand, they will place them close to each other in hopes that one will regain strength to kill the other:
Here is a close up shot at some of the prize money offered for an upcoming day of cockfighting. There are around 43 pesos to the dollar, so one thousand pesos is equivalent to about 23 US dollars. The prizes range from a refrigerator down to 1500 pesos for the fastest kills. Also, notice that there is a 5000 peso prize ($115) for the *slowest* kill:

Well, I am glad I went for the experience, but I think this will be my last cockfight for awhile!