My Korean Fall

a visit to South Korea in October 2014…

20within the palace grounds of Gyeongbukgong Palace in Seoul

296Ginkgo Tree lane at Nami Island

396an initial taste to the beauty of Mount Seoraksan National Park…beauty abound despite the mounds (ongoing renovation)

416one of the several bridges of the park

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my fave bridge

428by the riverside

409a holy ground

411breathtaking mountains

456view on top

458basking in the beauty from inside the cable car

474til we meet again Seoraksan

Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring!

Spring may not be a season in the Philippines but it definitely means the same thing, a time of growth or development.  And oh!  How I just love flowers in bloom.  All of these were taken at Forest Camp in Valencia, Negros Oriental, Philippines, not by me though.  Credit goes to my colleague Doc Arman Guines for allowing me to include these shots in my collection.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Threshold

ImageThreshold – the point or level at which something begins or changes.  I would like to represent threshold as that interplay between night and day, as symbolized by the lighting of this lamp.  Taken at Forest Camp in Valencia, Negros Oriental, Philippines, we knew that the day has ended, the night has begun, when the cottage lamp was lit.  We welcomed what it meant, an assurance of rest from the hectic daytime activities.  And that tomorrow when we have to put out the lamp light is another threshold, another gift to enjoy a brand new day.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Inside

Here are some photos from my trip to Macau in 2010 answering to the photo challenge’s inside theme.

I’ve always dreamed of stepping on the Great Wall of China.  So when I saw an exquisite ivory miniature of it inside a glass case at Grand Lisboa, I felt like I’m halfway to that dream (haha! I was just trying to be optimistic).

ImageHere’s a closer view.

ImageMacau is famous for its casinos.  At the City of Dreams casinos, we were greeted by female-posing mermaids inside the wall aquarium at the entrance.

ImageAnd once you’re in Macau, never miss to visit its biggest casino, the Venetian Macau.  Inside out, I was awestruck with its opulence.  Got a taste of it even in its hallway.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned

I’m interpreting abandoned here as being free from restraint, as abandoned inhibitions.  And I look up to children as inspiration for uninhibited behavior.  But the following pictures are not showcasing children at play.  Rather, these are pictures of me enjoying Hong Kong Disneyland like a child could one fine day in June 2010.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes

Better late than… whatever!  😉

I’m not strictly following the rule of three.  I just want to focus on one image, the Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun in Bangkok, Thailand, taken at three different time intervals in July 2013.

It took a lot of patience waiting for hours to witness the magnificence of the lighted temple.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Treasure

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This hand-carved pendant of intertwined figures catapulted my love for travel.  It was my first treasured travel memento from Baguio City, Philippines in 2006 peddled by a group of fine arts students along a sidewalk in Session Road.  The cord suspending it might be long gone, but I’m carrying the pendant with me all the time as a reminder of how enriching it is to discover other cultures through travel.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Selfie

Hmmm… Hope I’m not too late for this photo challenge (since I can’t commit to the other writing/photo challenges, I vow to at least complete the weekly photo challenges).

Here’s for the selfie challenge…

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If you travel alone, then prepare to take some selfies.  Taken at the Bridge of the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand in July 2013.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Object

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The main object here is the silhouette of a person.  However, as its position is inclined more to the left, it seems to be overshadowed by the blinding light of the sunrise.  In effect, the sunrise also gives light to other silhouettes, that of the pump boats,rocks and ripples. Now I’m not sure which is my object.  I guess you may take your pick. 😉

@Tingko Beach, Alcoy, Cebu, July 5, 2013

Weekly Photo Challenge: Juxtaposition

These are photos from my trip to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines in response to the juxtaposition photo challenge.

*** contrast between natural light as seen from the opening of an underground river and light from the flash of a camera inside the river cave

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***contrast between solid rock and crystal water as they met to form the opening of the underground river in Sabang, Puerto Princesa

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***contrast between wood and glass materials imbibing a modern rustic vibe to this gazebo at Haim Chicken Inato

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***contrast of colors and decors centering on a bunch of off-white garlic at Kalui restaurant

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Imprints of Batad

I felt rather than saw Rimas stopping behind me.  I sensed him smile, following my stare up those several flight of stairs spaced one and a half feet apart each other.

“It’s as if you’re the guide,” he complimented.  It was one of his statements prodding me on, approving and comparing me to previous visitors he once toured around.

We were on our way back to the Junction Point at 7:30 in the morning.  I was in a hurry to catch the 9 a.m. ride, the only jeepney to transport both tourists and locals to the town center of Banaue.  Rimas said there was no need to hurry.  At the rate I was going, I could cut off the regular trekking time by half.

Not again! My weary part disgustedly echoed.   I do love trekking, but the thought of departing made the task ahead of raising wobbling legs one after another on slippery and narrow steps a hundredth times grueling.  I had to push myself to keep on moving upward and set aside rest as the final prize.

I was leaving Batad, home to the UNESCO World Heritage amphitheater-like rice terraces, home to the longing of a searching, clueless heart.  As I struggled to move up the only-one-person-at-a-time trail under the early morning drizzle, panting, half-listening to Rimas’ anecdotes, I recalled how I dreamt of this trip for months.

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I longed to witness the tribal Ifugao’s ingenuity and confirm my amazement of their skillful hands able to build unequaled structures like these rice terraces thousands of years ago.

I invited friends to backpack with me to this off-beaten path.  But the prospect of an hour-plane ride from Cebu to Manila, 12 hours overnight bus ride to Banaue, Ifugao, an hour-plus bumpy tricycle ride to the drop off point, more than an hour uphill trek to Batad Junction and an hour-plus downhill trek to the zero-communication signal village proper, definitely put them off.

A few steps before the Junction Point, I turned and faced one more time towards the direction of the village peeking between windows of leaves silhouetted by fog and soft rays of the early sunshine.

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I remembered the contentment felt from waking up to the chirping sound of birds outside my window.  I savored those moments perching by the window sill, mesmerized a thousand times by the stupendous presence of the terraces.  Then I looked beyond the mountains and felt the trickling down of cold waters from the Tappiya Falls onto my body.

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I arrived in Batad eager but restless, in search of something.  I departed from it still eager but now able to name and give meaning to that restiveness.

I arrived to that point of knowing more of myself, when I choose to depart and embark on this trip alone, among strangers who came to regard me as their own.

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“When are you coming back?”  Rimas’ voice cut me off from my reverie.

“Soon…”  We both grinned.

I was raring once more for another departure.

Must-See Ruins/Spots in the Old Kingdom of Ayutthaya, Thailand

You should not miss going to Ayutthaya if you are in Thailand.  It’s very accessible, an hour-plus van hire ride from the Victory Monument in Bangkok.  This old kingdom had been the Thai capital for 417 years and is now one of the country’s major tourist attractions.  Its magnificent ruins indicate that Ayutthaya was one of Indo-China’s most prosperous cities.

Let’s look at some of the ruins (and tourist spots) that made the city’s historical park earned a spot in the UNESCO World Heritage list since December 13, 1991.

1)  The monastery Wat Phanan Choeng, that houses the image of Big Buddha, the most revered by the inhabitants of Ayutthaya.

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2)  The Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, a magnificent ancient royal monastery conveying a sense of the power of the Ayutthaya kingdom which once expanded in all directions.

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On each side of the temple and front are elegant rows of sitting Buddhas.

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3)  The Ayutthaya Elephant Village.

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One can also see a replica of a Thai house.

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There is a small floating market too.

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4)  The Wat Maha That, the most sacred royal temple in Ayutthaya during the glorious time.  It is renowned for the remains of the sandstone Buddha image of which the head lies beneath a Bodhi tree while the body has disappeared.

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One of the magnificent prangs.

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5)  The Thanon Si Sanphet, the path leading to Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the most outstanding monastery located in the grand palace compound.

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6)  The Wat Phra Si Sanphet, with its bell-shaped chedis.  The three large chedis contained the ashes of different kings.

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7)  The Wat Lokayasutharam, the site of the large reclining Buddha made of brick and covered with plaster.

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8)  And the finale, which for me is the most gorgeous (I’m out of fitting adjectives), the Wat Chaiwatthanaram.  Its great beauty has been reflected from the main stupa and its satellite stupas along the gallery. Its architecture was influenced by Khmer.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Family 2

ImageAnd of course, I cannot resist from highlighting my own family in this photo challenge.

“The family that travels together, have fun with each other…”

– against the scenic greenery of the Chocolate Hills in Bohol, Philippines, May 2013 –

Weekly Photo Challenge: Family

ImageLet me play it backward.  I focus on this couple to signify the beginning of a family.  It is at this stage that the institution of a family is being crafted.  I took this shot, caught up with the couple’s private world as they enjoyed each other’s company against the falling waters of Nam Tok Sai Yok Noi in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Hopefully, they will still travel as a family like the one I met traversing the old charm of the Bridge of the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

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Bohol Before the Quake

Oh no!  Why am I swaying?  Am I awake?  Definitely not.  Then I woke up.  My daughter woke up too.  Rather, let me emphasize, we were forced to wake up.  Involuntarily, we hugged each other.  I hold her tight while we both watched the vigorous dancing of the electric pole line outside the bedroom window.

Though the heavy shaking of the bed waking us happened last October 15, 2013, around 8:10-8:15 in the morning, that moment when I thought “This is it Lord, is it?” is still vivid up to this day. We later learned that the epicenter of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake hitting the Philippines was in  Bohol, the nearest province to us in Cebu reachable by 4-hour plus regular boat ride.

We watched the evening news and was devastated to find out that the most hit were those destinations Bohol is so proud of, the Chocolate Hills and its century-old churches.  I remembered how quaint Bohol is.  Its charm originated from its provincial and laid-back appeal.

And we did witness this allure Bohol offered to its visitors.  My family explored Bohol in May 2013.  This is what I aim to feature.  Bohol, as beautiful as it was, before the earthquake.  Just don’t mind the presence of my family in most pictures.  As it was a family trip, they claimed it their right to plaster their faces on most photos.

Let me start with a close-up look of one famed Chocolate Hill.  So called because of rows of hills in chocolate brown color during summer.

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Bohol is also well-known for the smallest primate Philippine Tarsier, commonly known as the world’s smallest monkey.  It’s so small you can’t really decipher it from the picture (haha! I’m just actually making excuses for this bad shot).

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But this is how the tarsier looks as drawn.  There were few of them housed in Sagbayan Peak Resort and Recreation.

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Sagbayan also had a view deck overlooking the rows of thousands of chocolate hills.

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ImageThere was a themed-park for children…

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ImageAfter Sagbayan, we drove down to the town of Carmen, the original viewing place for the chocolate hills before the town of Sagbayan built its own view deck.

ImageOne has to climb those steep steps if one wants to see a more captivating view of the hills.  So there…

ImageWhile driving through to the town of Bilar, we came upon a rare structure along the road.  It was a house built like a ship.  No wonder since the owner is a ship captain.

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It was raining hard when we arrived to the Simply Butterflies Conservation Center in the town of Bilar.  It was educational for kids and adults alike to see different species of butterflies and learn their life cycle.

ImageThe rain did not stop the kids from hoping for butterflies to land on any parts of their bodies, just to feel how ephemeral their delicate wings are.

ImageNext town to check out was Loboc.  But before arriving at Loboc, we passed through the man-made forest in Bilar.  It was a long section of the road, and we felt too the cool air along this part.

ImageThen came Loboc, famed for its river cruise…

Imageold bell tower…

Imagescenic old church…

Imageas repository of culture…

Imageand not to forget, the town that bred the Loboc Children’s Choir (sadly, I don’t have a pic of them).

Further down the road, next town to offer us something was Loay.  We went to the Xzootic Animal Park in Agape, Loay to check out primarily their pythons.  Yikes!  I abhor snakes.  I really detest them.  But you know kids, they fear and at the same time are fascinated with these slimy, treacherous crawlies.  Be quick Jim!  My hands were shaking taking this shot.

ImageAt least there were other attractions in the zoo.

ImageAlmost there, down to the last spot.  Baclayon Church, declared as a National Historic Treasure in 1995. It is considered the best preserved church in the region.  And I’m so proud of this church and the town itself as this is my father’s native town.

ImageThen the Sandugo or the Blood Compact Shrine in Tagbilaran City.  Sandugo, a Visayan word meaning “one blood”, was performed between the Spanish Explorer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Bohol chieftain Datu Sikatuna on March 16, 1565.  It was considered the first treaty of friendship between Spaniards and Filipinos.

ImageBohol is also a beach getaway.  Never miss the white sandy beaches in Panglao Island.  Let me showcase such beauty at Dumaluan Beach Resort.

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the long shoreline…

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lovely nipa hut…

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the powdery sand…

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to infinity & beyond…

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low tide charm…

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and sun setting beyond rows of coconut trees…

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Before parking for the night, we dropped by the town of Dauis.

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The cave closed at 6pm.  While going down to take a quick look, bats were also clamoring to go outside to I don’t know where.  Our fun-loving grandma reminded us it’s time to head back home.

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So long Bohol!

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Window

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Well, yes, mine is not really showing a traditional window.  But I’m trying to showcase a glimpse of Lantau Island in Hong Kong as seen from inside the glass panel of the Ngong Ping cable car.  It was my first cable ride in June 2010, from Tung Chung to Ngong Ping Village.  As with any transportation, the cable car served as my window to this beautiful island in Hong Kong.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Beginning

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In October 2012, I had my first experience as a solo traveler within my country.  I’ve dreamed of seeing the UNESCO World Heritage Batad Rice Terraces in Batad, Banaue, Ifugao, Philippines.  I invited friends to backpack with me to this off-beaten path.  All were interested but eventually, none could spare the time at this particular month and year.  I thought of it several times then decided it wouldn’t be a problem.  I would just force my courage and determination to accompany me.

Aside from witnessing the craftsmanship of the Ifugaos in building the amphitheater-like rice terraces, one is also afforded the rugged beauty of the Tappiya Falls above.  Reaching the waterfall entailed an hour-plus of trekking along the terraces and up and down mountains that were visible right across the window of my rented Ifugao hut (see picture below).  These two pictures depicted a beginning of one adventurous day in Batad, from the moment I woke up to the chirping birds and misty mountains outside my window to building up my excitement of splashing in the cold waters of Tappiya.

But as a whole, this solo trip marked a beginning of believing.  I came to believe the possibility of going to places I’ve dreamed about by acting on this dream, not just daydreaming in the corner.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Joy

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Ah-ah!  My niece was not frowning.  She was actually joyous, and a little bit ticklish, with her first encounter with this beautiful winged-creature.  Not that she did not see a butterfly in all her 17 years.  But born and reared in the city, she was only afforded a fleeting glimpse of the rare presence of this flighty insect.

Last May 2013, we were fortunate to visit the Simply Butterflies Conservation Center in Bilar, Bohol, Philippines.  We were introduced to various species of butterflies and felt some of them.  I envied my niece’s reaction.  It seemed she can’t believe the butterflies landed at the side of her face, she had to shut out the world and just feel the moment.  Afterwards, she was a bit shy, wondrous, but joyous, that she reacted towards a butterfly that way at her age.

Go Girl!  We all have our moments.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: One (2)

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One road connecting all three routes…  One tree at the center of them all…

– at Calauit Safari Park in Calauit Island, Busuanga, Palawan, Philippines, March 2013 –

Weekly Photo Challenge: One

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“Anymore food, anyone?” asked the lone giraffe.

She (I insist, she has to be a female) was the only one left loyal after her fickle companions left us for another tourists waving leafy foods to them.  She tiptoed around our safari ride, unbelieving we already were empty-handed.

Just one more peek to be sure.  “Anymore food, anyone?” asked the lone giraffe.

– at Calauit Safari Park in Calauit Island, Busuanga, Palawan, Philippines, March 2013 –

10 Things to Do at Khaosan Road in Bangkok, Thailand

Khaosan?  Does it ring a bell?  Remember the movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo Di’Caprio of which is based on a book of the same title by Alex Garland.  That’s Khaosan.  It’s a short street in central Bangkok in the Banglamphu area about 1 km north of the Grand Palace famous as a haven for backpackers and as the center of night life in Bangkok.  Curiosity brought me and my friends there and true to its reputation, Khaosan indeed is teeming life of its own.  So based on a few hours that we were there, let me offer 10 things one can do in Khaosan.

1)  Get lost in the crowd.

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2)  People watching (and probably make friends).  There’s a plethora of colors and personalities.

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3)  Inspect souvenir shops.

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4)  Eat and drink in a sidewalk cafe.

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5)  Eat Pad Thai by the road.

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6)  Drink Beer Chang by the road.

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7)  Sample fresh fruits and veggies.

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8)  Discover a quieter section of the stretch of the road.

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9)  Discover ingenuity like this automobile cafe.

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10)  Don’t forget to take a souvenir shot at this marker.

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Enjoy Khaosan!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Community 4

…..of imposing structures or dominant parts of a structure that define the distinctiveness of a place in the Philippines

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the enormous buttresses on the sides of the Church of Saint Augustine or the commonly known Paoay Church in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, Philippines.  Paoay Church is a prime example of Earthquake Baroque architecture aside from exuding Javanese architecture traced to Borobudur of Java.

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Bangui windmills (or Bangui Wind Farm) in Bangui, Ilocos Nortes, Philippines.  Each of these 230-feet high wind turbines, all 20 of them, is capable of producing electricity of up to the maximum capacity of 1.65 megawatt.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Grand

then I met GRANDEUR…

A Journey With My Aunt

It was 20 years ago, or so.  I sat on the lone chair beside her bed, wanting to hold her gnarly hands.  Instead, I busied myself by patting her head and tucking errant hairs away from her face.

“How are you?”  She feigned a smile.  Too late.  We both knew I should not have asked that.  My aunt had been in and out of the hospital.  We were just waiting for her remaining days with us

“Have I told you about Baguio?”  Many times.  But I said, “not yet.”

“It’s the most beautiful place I had been to.”  I listened fondly.  It was her signal to reminisce.  Despite hearing it several times from my aunt’s quivering lips and incorrigible words, I was still excited to hear about Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines, the city of pines.

I saw in her dreamy eyes an uncongested city on top of a hill, mountains all over, lots of pine trees, culturally diverse as the center of arts and commerce in the Cordillera region and as home to the Igorots, proud to be the only producer of strawberries in the country and boastful of its various vegetable and flower farms and nature-filled garden parks.

She stopped.  She seemed so tired.  “Do you want to rest?”  I thought I was tiring her with the strength used to gather those memories.  She tried to wave, gesturing a no sign.  “I will soon rest anyway.”

So she did go on.  She shared how hardworking the Igorots are.  Females can toil the land while carrying children on their back.  As a mountainous place, they found a way to build rice paddies as terraces.  The city’s high altitude made it a perfect getaway for summer vacations.  People from all over the country would clamor to flock to the city.

Then my aunt shivered from remembering how cold Baguio was.

“If ever it would snow in the Philippines, it would be in Baguio,” she lamented.

“Promise me you’ll go there one day, then tell me.”  She held my right hand and looked faintly into my eyes, forcing a promise from a teenager about to enjoy her high school life and eager to hear of other places.

By 2006 and 2011, I had seen Baguio for myself.  It still has its old charm but time caught up with it.  Congestion forced residents to locate their houses on mountain sides, perceived an eyesore by first-time visitors.  Traffic in the city center Session Road usually resulted to frustration.  And the once-pure fog was clouded with smog.  Despite this, I admit Baguio is still one of those places I would love to return to.

I talked to myself, convinced my aunt would hear me.

“You’re right auntie.  Baguio is the most beautiful place to live in.”

For my aunt’s sake, I had to put a tinge of a little lie.  Baguio was her only image of how a beautiful place should look like.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Unexpected

Ingenuity in Ordinary Settings

1>  naughty dessert at Kalui in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines

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2>  yellow-painted broomsticks as decors in Baker’s Hill, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines

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3>  gin bottles as table stand in Ramon Homestay in Batad, Banaue, Ifugao, Philippines

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4>  doggy-shaped seat at an eatery in Banaue, Ifugao, Philippines

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In Awe of My Country

I’ve been hearing raves about Coron.  The place actually alluded to this albeit overused phrase, heaven on earth.  But living in a city and accustomed to its bustling and chaotic urbanism, this conception of heaven was far removed from my imaginative mind.  Probably I was not fully convinced that such perfection exists within reach.  Or more likely, I prevented myself from despair owing to the refutation that such perfection could not possibly exist just within reach.

So when together with some friends we set out to explore Coron in early March of this year, I could not decide whether to get excited or to feel cheated.

Heaven, after all, was within reach.

Coron, belonging to the Calamianes group of islands, is a first-class municipality in the northernmost part of Palawan, Philippines.  It comprises Coron Island, some parts of Busuanga Island and other outlying islands.  The official tourism website promises Coron to be blessed with pristine white beaches, turquoise waters, limestone cliffs, breathtakingly beautiful volcanic lakes, lagoons, natural hot springs, caves and a thriving marine population.  It is most famous for its World War II wreck dive site.

But despite my readings, I still could not come up with a concrete idea as to what to expect from Coron.

Setting foot outside the airport of the neighboring town of Busuanga, all I can see was a vast expanse of barren land, with the midday air so hot and dry to the skin.  For almost an hour we traversed a narrow cemented road, along leafless trees, vegetation-unfriendly soil and rocky countryside in going to Birang Guesthouse.  Tired and hungry, my eyes did not catch any peculiar sight to assuage my first impression.

At last our van service stopped in a mixed residential and entrepreneurial area, a 20-minute leisurely walk from the town center.  Upon disembarking, we were greeted by the coziness of Santino’s Grill.  We sampled its offerings of yummy Filipino dishes, slowly discovering the distinct sweet Coron taste.

Longing for the comfort of bed after a full stomach, we unknowingly followed a constricted alleyway, dodging clothes left hanging to air dry, and passing by rows of houses with sometimes screams, banging or shrieks of laughter emanating from inside.  We had no time to question the passageway, as we were in a hurry to get to our place of stay.

Standing now by the entrance of the guesthouse, this was the moment images of heaven rapidly conjured.  Eyelids about to fall from sleepiness were forced to open wide.  I felt my mouth parted a little from gawking at the picture-perfect sight of a hammock beckoning the sea beyond.  In a span of a few seconds, my sight fell on a solitary boat in the middle of the blue, calm ocean, invoking a similar peaceful scene from the movie “Life of Pi.”

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Birang is a two-floor floating residential turned guesthouse that can accommodate a group of tourists in the two large rooms below and honeymooners on the two intimate rooms above.  Guests can choose to lounge on the hammock while reading, surveying the cove-like spot of the water, exposing the skin to the sea air, or simply contemplating.  Others can go upstairs, stay in the balcony and be afforded another angle of the open wide sea.

Rested and refreshed, we were ready to tackle the energy-sapping city tour.  For indeed, I never thought this would test our endurance.  There were no museums, malls or other urban amenities.  What Coron offered was a mountain view of the municipality and neighboring islands.  And it can only be made possible by climbing 700+ steps up Mount Tapyas.  Huh! Imagine the debate going on whether we were to finish the climb or simply cheat ourselves up to midway.

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But what was a little suffering in exchange for the prize.  There above, on top of Mount Tapyas, the sun was slowly setting down, soft orange rays illuminating every spots around.  The scenic view erased negative thoughts, even made us forget the would-be ordeal of going down those steps for another round.  But we need not worry.  The tour was concluded with a soak in Maquinit Hot Springs, with every limb and joint massaged therapeutically.

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Second day was island hopping day.  Breakfast by the bay, talks and laughter over tasty viands and the serenity of the sea beyond started this day with a bang.  We had ample time to relax while waiting for our motorized banca to pick us up in Birang’s makeshift dock.  Seeing the green-painted pumpboat coming, our excitement was heightened.

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Our guide approximated the trip to our first stop to be about 45 minutes.  We were jovial, alternately surveying the pointed mountains we passed by and the clear blue-green waters, then chattering by ourselves while listening to the guide.  Suddenly, we sat still.  We were transfixed.  In front of us were two gigantic rocks, or mountains, covering much view of the sky saved that portion peeking in between, affording us the illusion of the turquoise waters continuing to heaven as we neared and about to enter.

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This was the entrance to Kayangan Lake, dubbed the cleanest lake in Asia.  Out of the 13 lakes maintained by the Tagbanua tribe, Kayangan is one of the two lakes opened to the public.  To reach it, we had to submit again to climbing 300 steps of rugged and slippery stones.  But no guts, no glory.  And glory we got upon reaching the iconic Kayangan cove, the most photographed view of Coron.

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Image                We had to get down a fewer steps to get to the lake proper.  Hurrah!  What magnificence.  It was a clear mixture of 70% freshwater and 30% saltwater.  A makeshift wood walkway was built for visitors’ ease.  Enclosed by mountains, a small cave made known its presence in one of them.

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Image    Image            Our itinerary for the day consisted of six stops.  I would like to mention just three.  After Kayangan Lake, I was impressed with Banol Beach.  I saw clean, white sand, very clear waters unhampered by eyesore and cottages against a backdrop of acorn-like rock formation.

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Then we got to the finale, the Twin Lagoon.  It was so-called because of the presence of two 40-feet deep lagoons separated by a huge wall of limestone karst.  We docked at the smaller lagoon.  To get to the hidden one, either we swam under the crevice of the wall rock or braved the slippery makeshift ladder on top.  The water’s dark green color made it murky, and eerie.  Looking around, it felt dark, so quiet, despite the afternoon light bouncing off the encircling limestone rocks.  Any moment, I anticipated unseen creatures tugging at my feet then dragging me down to the deep.

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Having enough strange silence, we got back to the first lagoon, enjoyed the discomfort of hoisting up our bodies onto a raft, and proud to finally align and balance on top.

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Our Coron experience would not be complete without mentioning the Calauit Safari Park.  Calauit Island is part of the municipality of Busuanga, a 3-hour plus drive from our guesthouse.  It housed the only safari park in the Philippines.  Compared to the African safaris, it is very little.  But it was memorable to me as I had several firsts from the place.

It was my first time to see striped-horse (kidding!) zebras.  It was my first time to feed flirty-eyed and gracefully-necked giraffes.  It was my first time to touch the sharp and stiff quill of porcupines.  And it was my first time to learn there is such a species as a camouflage tree.

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I know that there are more enchanting places than Coron.  That if I am to cite an analogy with the world being a 12-inch ruler, it is a disheartening realization that I could never witness even just one millimeter of it.

The fox in the book “Little Prince” said “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  So true, yet it makes me wonder too.  The fox was definitely referring to those intangible needs signifying the sanctity of human relationships.  But if I am to relate his words into the context of natural and man-made creation, I believe that the more visible this treasure is, the more we can be reminded of life’s preciousness.

But with all the social ills and calamities my country is facing, and where travel is deemed a luxury, am I just being an escapist?

I only aim to preserve what human stupidity and natural catastrophes might ravage.  I long to take comfort in the belief that my country is still beautiful and has so much to give.

Perhaps, who could know, this would be my legacy.

The Rail Less Traveled By

Poet Robert Frost immortalized “The Road Not Taken.”  I would like to borrow one line of the poem and pictures out the essence of my experience as a solo backpacker to Kanchanaburi, Thailand along this line.  Specifically, I will focus on the feelings and impressions I derived from riding the train that passed through the Death Railway.

What is this Death Railway anyway?

Months before I researched on our trip to Thailand, I chance-encountered a 1957 movie entitled “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”  For reasons unknown to me, I was so drawn to the movie then later found out that the real bridge on the River Kwai is still standing, imposing and history-filling just at the heart of Kanchanaburi.

The bridge was part of the Thailand-Burma Railway or the Death Railway, so called because of the deplorable conditions leading to numerous deaths of the Asian laborers and Allied prisoners of war (POW’s) who constructed the railway during the 2nd World War under the command of the Japanese.  The POW’s were mostly British, Australians, Dutch, Americans and some Canadians and New Zealanders, forced to labor when the Japanese found an alternative route to transport war supplies away from the senses of the enemies.  This was the railway from Nong Pladuk in Thailand, passing through Kanchanaburi then Nam Tok (a town in Kanchanaburi), leading to and connecting to Burma (now Myanmar).

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The part of the railway connecting to Burma is no longer in use.  Passengers from Bangkok are brought only up to Nam Tok, and back from Nam Tok to Bangkok, costing foreigners 100 Baht every time they ride the train, no matter where they got on and off.  Two trains from Bangkok travel to Kanchanaburi up to Nam Tok, one in the early morning at 7:50, the other one in the afternoon at 1:55.

The railway’s war background then became the motivating point of my journey.

From Bangkok, I met a few foreigners riding the early train, mostly Westerners.  For one who was having her solo trip abroad for the first time, I longed for the presence of a familiar feature, someone distinctly Asian, if not rightly Filipino.  Seeing none, I did not let it deter me from enjoying the lush and green scenery of the countryside we passed through, of breathing the cool and grassy smell of places I know nothing about and of dreaming of old scenes in the war, traveling back into the era of 1940’s too well suggested by the clickety clackety sound of the 3rd class train I was riding.

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After almost four hours, I arrived in Kanchanaburi .  I immediately surveyed the phenomenal bridge despite the tiny speck of rainfall, crossed it on foot, walked barefoot to feel the dampness of the iron track, and hung around the side platform to drink in all the scenic view of the surrounding river. I got my fill of the bridge and the nearby tourist destinations like the war museum, the floating restaurants, jewelry market and knick-knack booths along the way on my first day.

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My second day proved to be more adventurous and way extraordinary.  With several tourists, most in group tours, some in two’s who appeared to be backpackers like me, and I, who was enjoying the comfort of my own company, together we waited for the train from Bangkok that would transport us along the old, rickety and rugged track of the Death Railway.  Almost 12 noon, the arrival of the late train (of which I overheard someone commenting that it was to be expected), was met with a euphoric clapping of hands and heightened whistles by most waiting passengers.

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The train had not fully stopped but people were clamoring to step on the side doors, in a race to get the best side of the window, left in going to Nam Tok, then right upon coming back.  Excited chatters of different tongues assailed my stretched-wide ears, hopeful and alert for a tiny bit of a familiar word.  None came.  I shrugged, with a slight regret, but life on the train along the Death Railway moved on.

The journey from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok amounted to almost three hours.  Getting the best view of the left side window, I ignored the sound of my tummy protesting for food, tiny silent hunger pangs ashamed to break my wondrous mood.   Like most tourists, I can’t sit still from gazing on my side of the window, then suddenly craning my neck hoping to look closely on a spotted view from my neighbor’s side.  Our train was speeding in between fields of green on top a reddish brown land, ranges of mountains forming a horseshoe, enclosing the rust-colored train solitary in the center.

I knew there was more to the rows of trees, corn fields and betel fields once we neared the Wang Pho viaduct.  This section of the rail is the highlight of every trip along the Death Railway.  The viaduct is a wooden lattice structure supporting the railway line around a cliff wall with the unending stretch of the spectacular view of the River Kwai below.  It was a heart-stopping near-death crossing over the creaking, ancient wood bridge.  Passengers all flocked to the left window, gathered as much shots and videos of the moment, unmindful of the train’s seemingly tilting movement, as if to bowl over and throw us all out of the window into rocks, stones and pointed branches before going under.

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Whoah!  I lost track of time when we crossed the viaduct.  It was short, maybe not more than 15 minutes, but the experience will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.  At that moment, we were aware of the grave danger, that even just one mechanical or human error, several lives could perish.  But the subconscious pointing out the danger was overruled, brutally pushed to the outermost portion of the mind, letting the ecstatic heart rule otherwise.

Elated glances from eyes that have seen varied forms of beauty and madness, coming from different cultures and lands, became unified.  I forgot my solitary state, felt one with the whole group, especially when someone spontaneously told me “careful” when I let half of my body inclined outside the window to take pictures and I didn’t notice that we were about to pass through a tunnel-like mountain.  I was touched, and can only grin apologetically like an answer to an old friend who knows of my errant ways.

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There and then I affirmed the wisdom of my decision to follow this unpopular path.  For to me, the Death Railway was indeed a rail less traveled by, at least for us Filipinos.  Thailand?  Let’s cross-country then to Cambodia and Vietnam, is usually the plan.  The rail to Kanchanaburi may be un-trodden by some, but it definitely paved the way back to what for me is essential, rediscovering my free mind.

Riding the ramshackle train, listening to its worn-out noise, and passing through the deathly rail, I had ample time to contemplate on some ironies in life.  In danger arose the need to seize and preserve an ecstatic moment signifying life at its best.  In diversity came a need to stand out to keep the distinct trait alive and intact.  And in solitude there originated genuine confidence, empowered by the fact that if one can be happy by oneself, then one can rise above other predicaments.

As Robert Frost immortalized, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

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Indeed, the rail less traveled by, has made all the difference.

3:52pm, Sunday

10/13/2013

Nescilisa M. Buta