Back (kut teh!) in Malaysia!

I have been to Malaysia countless of times yet the thought of indulging on my favorite local dishes keeps me excited each time. My flight last Wednesday, 15 December was no different. On the plane, though delayed for half an hour, I can’t help to dream of various Malaysian food I have missed for the past 6 months. Bak kut teh, xiao long bao, satay, kuey teow, laksa.. name it! I’ve drooled for it.

Walking at Level 5 View Deck of Kuala Lumpur International Airport

Since I arrived way too early for dinner, I took the time to explore the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). If you’re arriving from the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), a shuttle bus would take you to KLIA for only RM 2.50 (US $.80). The airport is huge but not as impressive as neighbor Singapore’s Changi International Airport.

Exploring KLIA

Shuttle bus from LCCT to KL Sentral charge RM 8 (US $2.58) while from KLIA, it’s RM 10 (US $3.22).

Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Sultan, KL!

Now the highlight of my first night back in Malaysia.. Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Sultan! The first time I tried BKT was way back in 2002, at the same stall. Never mind the sweaty forehead, nose and upper lip! I just love this piping hot local dish eaten along the busy streets of KL’s Chinatown! Though I have tried excellent BKT at a more comfortable place such as Pao Xiang Restaurant in Pavillion KL Shopping Mall last June 2010, nothing beats the authentic street-side way of how locals enjoy BKT.

Bak Kut Teh is definitely a must-try Malaysia local dish

We ordered the BKT in clay pot which cost RM 9. The serving of meat, mushroom, tofu and various pig organ is a lot. The mix of assorted spices on the soup base is just heavenly. According to the street stall vendor, their specialty is the pig trotter with peanut for RM 7. I’d probably try it the next time I’m back in Kuala Lumpur.  A mental note to also eat at the Kim Lian Kee Hokkien mee which I tried back in 2002 as well.

What else would make Malaysians happily crazy aside from food?

On the way to the Bukit Jalil Bus Terminal to catch a bus back to Batu Pahat, we noticed the National Stadium was well-lit, with hundreds of motorbikes and cars parked outside. Also, loud cheering can be heard that no matter how tired and sleepy I felt that time, I can’t help to suddenly feel energized too!  Well, what else would make Malaysians happily crazy aside from food?

2 - 0 in favor of Malaysia! Woot!

You guessed it right! It’s soccer! The Malaysia – Vietnam AFF Suzuki Match was ongoing so after quickly leaving my heavy backpack at the pay locker, we head to the stadium to catch the last minutes of the game.

The game was won by Malaysia (2-0) so the stadium was full of happy Malaysians! I can’t help to cheer with them too. Good thing it wasn’t a match against the Philippines or else I would really stick out like a sore thumb!

It’s not difficult to love the Malaysian culture, with the great food and awesome people. I’m really glad to be back!

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A trip back to Sagada.. sweeter the third time around

Tree-lined path going to Sumaguing Cave in Sagada

Before starting on an event job a few months ago, I headed up North of the Philippines to prepare and recharge myself from incoming days of physical and mental stress. It was such a joy to be back in Banaue. It was my 3rd visit but the most memorable one because I hiked around the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces for the 1st time!

Fresh cabbages along the way to Sagada

After 2 fun-filled days sprinkled with unpredictable weather, we left Banaue for a trip back to one of my favorite places to re-visit, Sagada! We took the local jeep for Bontoc at 8:45 a.m. Fare cost is PhP 150 (US $3) per person.

The best seats on the way to Sagada

I was expecting an uncomfortable 2-hour ride due to bad roads like last 2005 but I was surprised that around 98% of the roads are now cemented. The road to Bontoc has one of the most beautiful landscapes. It was a sunny day and the urge to sit on the roof like how some locals take the jeep was very strong. However, my skin was still healing from the burn I got when we hiked the rice terraces so I settled inside the jeep. I just stuck my head out of the narrow window and tried to capture the amazing landscape as much as I can.

Amazing scenery on the way to Sagada

For some reason, we unintentionally set our trip to Sagada during the rainy season. Last August 2008, we even arrived on a stormy day. It wasn’t the muddy roads which delayed our trip to Bontoc but the occasional landslides.
There was a landslide near the town of Talubin but luckily, we only stopped for 20 minutes. I remember when we took the bus from Baguio to Sagada 2 years ago, we waited almost 3 hours for the huge rocks to be cleared.
Along the way, we passed by the Bay-yo Rice Terraces. It may not be often visited since the public transport don’t usually stop there. It has its own beauty. Not comparable to the more well-known rice terraces though.

Rice terraces on the way to Sagada

We arrived Bontoc around 11:30 a.m. We didn’t go around the capital of Mountain Province like before and immediately took the 11:45 a.m. jeep going to Sagada. Fare is PhP 50 (US $1). For those who have the time and wish to explore Bontoc, the Bontoc Museum is a must-see. It has in its possession rare photos taken by Eduardo Masferre, the father of Philippine photography.
As recommended by our friend Ricky aka dutchpickle, we stayed at the very cozy Sagada Homestay. I highly recommend this place. The rooms were spotless, the kitchen and dining area are both well-equipped, free wi-fi, hot and cold showers.. for only PhP 250 per person. St Joseph Guest house is an option in case Sagada Homestay is full. We stayed there last 2008. The dorm rooms which are also double rooms cost PhP 200 (US $4) per person. The guest house got a huge garden overlooking the Sagada town. Cafe St Jo was renovated and is now open for business.

Early morning mist outside our dorm in St Joseph Guest house. Taken last Aug 2008

There are lots of things to do while in Sagada! Exploring the Sumaguing and Lumiang caves, hiking to see the hanging coffins at the Echo Valley, trekking Mt Ampacao, sunrise at the Kiltepan viewpoint, a swim at the Bokong and Bomod-ok waterfalls. Activities suitable for all ages.
However, for this particular trip, I skipped all of it and opted to laze around. I’ve done most of the outdoor activities on previous trips to Sagada as well.
For those who are adventurous enough to try caving, exploring the Sumaguing cave costs PhP 500 (US $10) for 4 pax. The Lumiang cave to Sumaguing cave connection cost PhP 800 (US $16) for 1 – 2 pax, PhP 1,200 (US $24) for 3 pax and PhP 1,600 (US $32) for 4 pax.

A typical Filipino breakfast in Sagada. served with organic red rice

Eating in Sagada is an attraction in itself. The Saturday Night buffet at the Log Cabin is a must-try! Make sure to make your reservation at least before the Saturday Morning Market since French chef and owner Philippe, also known as Aklay, buys the freshest ingredients good enough for the number of reserved seats.

Saturday morning market in Sagada

There are so many restaurants worth trying in Sagada. First time visitors shouldn’t miss Yoghurt House and Masferre Cafe. Both restaurants serve good food in large portions. Bana’s used to be a favorite but since the chef moved to Cafe St Jo, the food quality suffered a lot.

Glad to be back in Sagada!

No matter how many times I visit Sagada, whether to do the same activities, eat the same food or just laze around and enjoy the perfect weather, I’d still look forward to visiting again.. and again.. and again.

The starfish is alive!

I learned to swim and snorkel at age 8 in preparation for a week-long family vacation to Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro. This was way back in the 80’s but I would never forget the first time I snorkel and saw amazingly colorful corals, schools of fish and of course the starfish. I was astonished to see a star-shaped creature under the sea! But it wasn’t moving.. so I thought it was just another shell or small coral.

Fast forward to 2008. My friend and I went backpacking around Oriental Mindoro, and randomly picked the municipality of Bulalacao to visit. After talking with some locals on their recommended places to see, we were convinced to take a boat for Ph P600 (US $12) to see the serene and beautiful island of Tambaron. More on our stay at Tambaron Green Island Resort on a future blog post.

There were no other tourists! The huge, charming island all to ourselves!

We shared the island with all these gorgeous starfish.

I had the chance to see a starfish up close and finally I discovered, it is indeed alive and moving!

I was a bit apprehensive to touch it at first. Who knows what poisonous matter comes out of it as defensive act when touched by human!

The first sign of life! Small tentacles coming out of its body when turned upside down.

One of its legs starts to move! Was it just my imagination?

Was it the water ripple creating an illusion that the starfish is moving?

The starfish is indeed moving! It was trying to turn itself right side up!

I can’t help to think of Patrick Starfish of Spongebob Squarepants when I took this photo.

I hope I didn’t put the starfish under too much stress! It was amazing to observe it up close!

I guess not a lot of people know that a starfish can bend like the Cirque Du Soleil!

Almost there!

And… done!

Roughly 10 minutes for the starfish to turn right side up!

Nature is fascinating! I can’t help to feel glad to see the starfish move like watching it straight from the National Geographic Channel. And the fascination over the beauty of nature never ends. A beautiful sunset to cap our relaxing day in our private island.

The Marble Mountain of Da Nang

Welcome to the Marble Mountain, Da Nang

On the 6th day of our pleasant stay in Hoi An, we extended our motorbike rental for another day to see the Marble Mountain. We dare not take the bus again after the annoying incident which happened the last time we went to Da Nang.

The street leading to the entrance of Marble Mountain

You’ll know you’ve reached the place when you see the street with the stalls selling all kinds of marble figures. Buddha, dragons, tigers.. name it! Everything you can think of, made of marble. What do you expect? Welcome to Marble Mountain!

Whew! Climbing the steps leading to the pagoda was tiring!

The entrance fee is 15,000 dong (US $.85). Be ready to climb cemented steps to see the caves and pagodas.

Steps going up the Marble Mountain

There were several vendors selling cold drinks if you get thirsty from your trek up the mountain. Thanks to sponsored concrete seats scattered all around, you can enjoy your drink and have a good rest too!

I'm not a Buddha but a beautiful and graceful apsara =p

It took us the whole afternoon to explore all the caves, pagodas and altars all around the sacred mountain.

I think I'll just wait outside..

Inside one of the caves

The temperature inside the cave drops a bit. A relief from the humid afternoon.

Natural light source brighten the caves

Buddhas were all over the place!

Round and happy Buddha

Buddha on a lotus flower

Meditating Buddha

More Buddhas!

A panoramic view of Da Nang from the Marble Mountain reward the one who sweat it out.

 

Da Nang from Marble Mountain

We saw China Beach from afar so we decided to drive there to see the beautiful beach up close.

On the way to China Beach, here’s what we saw on the main road.. Cows! We have to stop to take photos.

We saw local men collecting seashells when we arrived China Beach. They sell it for 3,000 dong per can.

A last look of Marble Mountain from China Beach before heading back to Hoi An.

 

A day trip to My Son

On our 4th day in Hoi An, we were pleasantly surprised to see German couple, Werner and Ruth, whom we’ve met in Dalat. They are the coolest couple we’ve known. Both are retirees and regularly flies to Asia to escape the winter months in Germany. We chat, had coffee in one of the riverside cafe then planned to rent our own motorbikes and drive to the ruins of My Son, one of the tourist attractions just a few kilometers away from the ancient town of Hoi An, the next morning.

The ruins of My Son

We rent 3 motorbikes for the whole day; 1 automatic gear bike for 80,000 dong (US $4.57) for Ruth and 2 manual gear bike for 50,000 dong (US $2.85) each for Werner and Ming. Of course I shared the bike with Ming since I’m not as confident as Ruth to drive my own motorbike.

It took us an hour and a half to reach My Son. It was a pleasant bike ride because the weather was cool and not too sunny.

One of the less damaged structures in My Son

The entrance fee to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 60,000 dong (US $3.42). Worth a visit if you have the time to spare.

How splendid the temples may have been. It’s just unfortunate that the war between the United States and Vietnam ruined most of the structures.

My Son Ruins

Our wonderful excursion with Werner and Ruth was capped by plates of cake, coffee and tea at Cargo Cafe. Mango cheesecake and chocolate cheesecake for only 25,000 dong (US $1.43) each! Really a must try.

We had excess petrol loaded on our motorbike so we decided to extend the rental for another day.

A trip to DaNang’s Marble Mountain on my next blog!

Happy to be stuck in Hoi An Part 1

The riverside of the ancient town of Hoi An

It was more of a necessity that we have to stay in Hoi An for 13 days. Our passports were sent back to Saigon for the visa extension and we had to wait until it was ready. A quarter of our two month stay in Vietnam was spent in Hoi An and there’s no other place I would be happier to be stuck in.

Lanterns of Hoi An

Beautiful lanterns lit up the ancient town of Hoi An when night falls

Some of the hotels and guest houses within a kilometer walk from the ancient town have swimming pools, free use of internet and are under the US $15 rate. We wanted to stay within our US $10 budget yet lodged near the Old Quarter so we took time in looking for the ideal accommodation. Besides, we knew we have to stay for days so we wanted our lodging to be as cheap as possible. Right in the center of the ancient town, in Le Loi Street, we found Thuy Duong; a double room with fan, cable television and own bathroom for US $10.

One of Hoi An's specialty, the White Rose dumpling

Within an hour after settling in our hotel, we have roamed around the ancient town and have tried Hoi An’s specialty, the White Rose dumpling. Bits of pork, shrimp, herbs and spices are mixed together, wrapped in smooth rice paper shaped like a rose then topped with fried shallots. More than a year now, I can still remember how good it tastes, specifically at Mr Hong’s and at Friendship Cafe.

Cao Lau, another Hoi An specialty. Photo courtesy of http://travelhungrychef.com

Another specialty is the Cao Lau, a noodle dish topped with either pork or chicken, vegetables and herbs. What made the dish unique is that the water used in making the noodles are from the lone Ba Le well of Hoi An. The dish is not one of my favorites though I recommend first time visitors to try it.

Hoi An Chicken Rice. Photo courtesy of littl3monk at Flickr
Chicken rice is a common dish in most Asian countries including Vietnam. In Hoi An, we have discovered that the best tasting chicken rice is being sold in a small dark alley along Le Loi Street. When night falls, we often see the alley crowded with locals dining on small table and chairs so we got curious and tried it. It’s not just good on the palate, it is good on your budget too. 10,000 dong (US $.57) a plate!
A chicken rice alternative for those not brave enough to try street food on a dark alley is Ly’s stall at the open restaurant. For 20,000 dong (US $1.14) a plate, it’s almost as good.

Lanterns in Hoi An

One can never ran out of things to do around Hoi An. Museum and Cultural sites tickets can be bought for 75,000 dong (US $4.28). Each ticket allows one to choose 1 museum out of 4 and 1 cultural site out of 4 listed to visit. If you want to visit all 8, it would cost 300,000 dong (US $17.14). For the budget-conscious traveler, there are several museums which are free of charge. Most of it though are also shop houses but one is not required to purchase anything.
For those who love to drink and party, Hoi An got a lot of bars offering free or discounted priced drinks even beyond happy hour. One place we gave a shot offering free rum coke is the King Kong Bar. The young teens on motorbike giving out the flyers all around Hoi An were successful in promoting the freebie because the place was packed with tourists! Well, it just shows how backpackers love an occassional freebie. We didn’t stay long though as some of the tourists at the place makes us feel uncomfortable. The German couple we were with, Thorsten and Susanna felt the same way so we headed back to the Old Quarters and stayed at the Before and Now bar until 2 in the morning.

Late afternoon in Hoi An

On our 4th day in Hoi An, we were pleasantly surprised to see another German couple, Werner and Ruth, we’ve met in Dalat. We chat, had coffee in one of the riverside cafe then planned to rent our own bikes and drive to the ruins of My Son, one of the tourist attractions just a few kilometers away from the ancient town of Hoi An, the next morning.
More of My Son and Hoi An on my next post!

Back in Banaue for the third time…and surely, it won’t be the last!

The magnificent Banaue Rice Terraces. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I have a 2 month contract for an event job coming up on the 1st week of August and what better way to spend my last few days of unemployment bliss than heading up North of the Philippines to enjoy the cool and relaxing weather of Banaue! It is my third time to see the Banaue Rice Terraces up close, one of the Philippines’ marvelous tourist sites. It will be the first time I’d be spending a night or two in Banaue though.

Banaue Town. Several guest houses and restaurants are on this street.

There has been several wonderful changes since the last time we were here. First, there are more buses plying the Manila – Banaue route. Florida Bus Company now has 2 daily trips. One is at 9:10 p.m. for PhP 400 (US $8) and the deluxe bus with own toilet leaving at 10:45 p.m for PhP 450 (US $9). We wanted to take the Florida bus since one can clearly see how well maintained their bus fleet are. However, other travelers may have the same thing in mind that by 9:30 p.m., all the seats for the 10:45 p.m. trip has been taken.
Florida Bus Company Flower Bus. Photo courtesy of Drift Kid/ DK at Flickr.

Autobus. They have upgraded their buses too! Photo courtesy of shining_daggers04 at Flickr.

We have no choice but to take the Autobus leaving at 10:00 p.m. for PhP 400 (US $8). I was surprised to see that Autobus has upgraded their buses too! A healthy competition paves the way for better service, much to the advantage of traveling consumers.
We left the Manila terminal of Autobus at exactly 10:00 p.m. and as soon as the bus rolled off, I wanted to sleep so I have the energy to trek the terraces the next day. Over-all, it was a comfortable ride. The air conditioning not as strong as I remembered so my fingers didn’t freeze like popsicle and I was able to doze off easily after catching a few scenes of ‘Hancock’, a Will Smith movie playing on the bus dvd player. The bus arrived Banaue around 7:20 a.m. We were too energized from the 9 hour sleep that we were the only passengers that walked from the bus terminal to the town proper, which is not more than a kilometer away.

More photos of the Banaue Rice Terraces

The second wonderful change that greeted us as soon as we arrive the town proper was a WiFi sign at Uyami Greenview Lodge. We didn’t think twice on where to stay for our first night in Banaue. A double room with clean shared bathroom cost us PhP 400 (US $8).
As usual, several Banaue locals gather around newly arrived guests to offer their tour services. We and three more travelers on the same bus and guest house, managed to negotiate PhP 1,500 (US $30) for a 4 hour drive and trek through the Banaue Rice Terraces viewpoints all the way through the winding terraces and through the town, with a jeep driver and tour guide. A good deal split among 5 persons! As soon as we finished our breakfast and a quick freshening up, Ming and I met with the other travelers; a Danish couple and a German guy.

The view from the 3rd viewpoint. Same rice terrace printed at the back of the Philippine P1,000 bill

We stopped at three viewpoints. The view gets more magnificent the higher the viewpoint. The 3.5 hour trek around the rice terraces started at the 4th and main viewpoint. The hike was fairly easy at the beginning. Cemented yet steep steps going down and up the rice terrace and stone wall edges welcome us for the first hour of our trek.

Cemented steps leading up the rice terrace.

If you look closely, you can see the cemented steps leading up the rice terraces.

Hiking the Banaue Rice Terraces

Midway, the trail gets difficult as we need to cross unstable and muddy terrace edges which is only around 10 inches wide at a height that could break a few bones if you fall. The trek is definitely not for the those with fear of heights.

One must know how to balance and walk through a narrow pathway. A fall from this height would surely break some bones.

The rice fields were so green and lush! It was a nice time to visit the Banaue Rice Terraces, though in the afternoon, it’s always raining.
Once the rice fields turn gold, it means the rice is ready for harvest.
Some of the rice on several terraces were ready for harvest. We saw local women harvesting and took the chance to see how a newly harvested rice looks like.

Newly harvested rice!

We were back at Banaue town by 2:00 p.m. and with some luck, we got back before the heavy rain. I didn’t realize how sun burnt I was until I was scrubbing my back when I took a quick cold shower a few minutes before dinner time. Literally, it was a pain in the neck (and shoulders!).

Nope I wasn't on the beach. I was high up in the mountains and burnt my shoulders. A real pain for the last 2 days.

Another pleasant surprise later during the day was a chance meeting of travel writer, Ricky a.k.a. dutchpickle. We’ve checked his website for new information on Banaue and Samar before our trip and we never expected to meet him personally. We were chatting with him during breakfast and my impression of him was he looks like your usual seasoned traveler yet friendly and humble. He even shared landslide photos near Hapao since he heard we were planning to hike the area that same day. A great guy indeed! Only during dinner time when we shared a table with him and had the chance to chat longer that he showed his website. How amazed we were that he is dutchpickle.

A shot from the main viewpoint

On our second day in Banaue, we went back to the viewpoints by taking the jeep going to Bontoc for PhP 50 (US $1) per person. We were hoping to take better photos by getting there early, however, when we reached the 4th viewpoint, it started to get cloudy. A few minutes after that, it rained heavily which went on for almost the whole day. We were fortunate to catch an empty tricycle going down to the Banaue town proper so we reached our guest house clean and dry. What’s more fortunate was the driver charged us the local rate of PhP 20 (US $.40) for 2 people!

Happy to be back in Banaue!

I’m glad I had the opportunity to revisit Banaue, stay a few nights, meet new friends, view and hike around the world-renowned rice terraces. I am pretty sure this trip will not be the last.