Ten Tips for the Taipei Tourist

It’s been far too long since I last wrote on this blog. I am pleasantly surprised it is still available. Since then, I’ve already been to many other places, watched many other movies, which were very blog worthy but I never had the time (nor patience) to write about.

I recently realized that I must start being a media active contributor rather than being the usual voracious media consumer, as most millennials are wont to do. So, after my recent trip to Taipei, I got the brilliant idea of re-starting this blog again. Yay.

Why Taipei? First, when I was looking for a flight under the 75% off promotion of a local airline, I immediately crossed out other destinations, mainly because I have been to these other places (local and within the region) and anything else out of the continent was out of the question (even with a 75% off promo, it would still be way too expensive) so Taipei were one of the places which fit the bill. Second, I was travelling with cousins, M and C (C ended up not joining us due to work commitments – damn responsibilities always get in the way of fun!), and I wanted to go somewhere none of us had experience with. Lastly, I was so enamored with stories about how good food-tripping was in Taipei, and what better reason was there than great food. Taiwan ended up more than what we expected.

We only stayed for 3 days, 4 nights because we arrived at midnight of Saturday and left Monday evening. But those 3 days, wow, were they full. If we had more energy, we would have stuffed a lot of other activities in there, but we chose not to overextend ourselves.

My first impression: it’s a good hybrid of Japanese and Chinese. The Japanese had control of Taiwan for 60 years, but one can tell that Chinese influence is paramount (the language and script kind of gives it away). My friend’s description is spot on: Taipei is a version of Tokyo.

Without further ado, here are some tips for those thinking of going to Taipei.

  1. Get to know the subway system.

This is true for all cities with efficient train systems. Taipei is one of those. The Taipei Metro (MRT) has 5 lines, and the whole island is easy to navigate using their nationwide rail. Make sure where you’re staying is near a subway station. We stayed at Check Inn Songjiang, a mere 30s away from Xiantian Temple station.

One ride costs anywhere from 20-40 NT$, but weekly passes are available which might be useful if you feel like just staying within city limits.

While we’re at it, props to Check Inn. It may be a bit too hipster for an older person (definitely not my choice if I were traveling with the parentals) but it was warm and cozy, accessible, and cheap. Breakfast was BIG. Breakfast of Champions! Not too shabby indeed.

  1. Bring an umbrella. And sunscreen.

Again, another “the usual.” We visited mid-October, and while monsoon season was over, a week prior to our trip, heavy rains poured in Taiwan. We made sure to bring umbrellas. We did not expect that the weather would be so unpredictable! While just waiting for the bus in Bitou, we experienced: heavy rain, drizzle, intense sunshine, and clouds. All this in a span of 20 minutes. It was all crazy weather the whole we were there (which we partly blame for not having visited all the night markets. HA!) In some subway stations, free umbrellas are available (just get one and return in the next station, if you’re so inclined) but I never saw an umbrella there, so better bring your own.

  1. Send yourself a postcard.

I love getting snail mail, and I think sent postcards are an underrated souvenir. It helps if the place where you’re travelling, like Taiwan, mail service is great. Postage is cheap and post offices are very accessible. A post office was about a 2 min. walk from Check Inn, so that was great. Nevertheless, since the hotel had its own mailbox, I just stuck my postcard in there and the hotel handled the rest. Mail arrived a mere 3 days from mailing, and because I distrust our very own post office, I give a lot of credit to Taiwanese post. Cute postcards are available everywhere, but I especially love those in Jiufen and Pingxi.

Almost all Taiwanese stops also has stamps (think rubber stamp and stamp pad) so your postcards are a nice way of having all these stamps, and a real postage stamp to boot.

  1. Take advantage of the city-wide, even island-wide, free WiFi for tourists.

Yes, they have FREE WiFi! All you have to do is register at any of the Visitor Centers. Online registration is likewise available. I did the online thing before flying in, but you still had to go to a Visitor Center anyway to verify, so better do it all in one go. More information can be found here: Taipei Free WiFi and Taiwan Free WiFI

Please take note that it only works for public buildings, and not outdoors. Still, most if not all train stations have it, and it’s always handy whenever you feel like you need some guidance from the internet.

  1. Go to the Visitor Centers.

Main subway stations have Visitor Centers, where you can register for WiFi (see above) and ask for almost anything touristy. I recommend the Visitor Center in the World Trade Center/Taipei 101 Station, as they were so friendly and helpful, and spoke very good English. M and I went there to ask questions about where to go on our 2nd and 3rd days, and we got well thought out itineraries from the wonderful Piouyuiop (not her real name). They also give out maps, give ideas as to what to eat and where to get them, fastest routes and times of buses and trains, and all sorts of information a tourist might need to navigate Taipei and beyond. Very useful indeed, especially if you have no idea what you’re doing.

  1. Be carefree and ride a bike.

Taipei has a bike sharing program called YouBike and for just NT$5 you can get one of the orange bikes lined along the streets and ride for 30 minutes, then return the bike on any YouBike rack. You can explore lesser known neighborhoods and get in some exercise while on vacation. Just make sure you ride safely (I didn’t see bikers wear helmets and knee pads, but sure, you can do that for safety) and on the right side of the road. From what I saw, Taiwanese drivers are fairly disciplined but since there are many bikers and motorcycle riders, one just has to be extra careful. Also, make sure you pre-planned your route, especially if you can’t speak and read Mandarin.

  1. Skip the mandatory “city tour.”

Because we booked our accommodations through a travel agent, we were subjected to a mandatory city tour, which went to the Presidential Palace (just the front), Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Martyr’s Gate, a “local temple”, “handicraft store,” and the National Museum. From these, only the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Martyr’s Gate, and National Museum are worth a visit. There are so many other things in the city that merits a go other than the “local temple” and store. I regret not visiting the Longshan Temple and Ximending, the oldest temple and the premiere shopping district. I kept putting it off, thinking that because of its popularity, it will surely be part of the tour. Apparently not, as it was in a totally different side of the city. Still, I feel like they are worth the visit.

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, Taiwan’s version of the Lincoln Memorial, opens at 9am. If you get there in time, you’ll see the changing of the guard ceremony. Same goes for Martyr’s Gate. The changing of the guard ceremony in the Martyr’s Gate is much more spectacular, though, as the soldiers walk the full length of the temple to the gate to do the change. It’s longer, yes, but deserves the wait. The National Museum is also worth the visit as it houses nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient artifacts. Entrance to the Museum is at NT$250.

  1. Taipei 101. But be prepared.

Taipei 101 is the ultimate icon of the city, overshadowing every other landmark, and for good reason. It towers over the city in such a magnificent scale, it’s very easy to see why that’s all some people know about Taipei. Going there is easy enough, thanks to the subway, but a gameplan is a must to fully make use of your time in that district. Note that the building also has a 5-floor mall (with a nice view of the top) attached to it, and an office tower, so there’s really much to see and do in the building. Not to mention the numerous other malls around the area.

You can go to the observatory, of course, but you can also explore the restaurants (and Starbucks) on the 86th floor. For that though, reservations are a must.The building also has a nice food court, stores to buy the famous pineapple cake and other local delicacies to bring home, and a grocery, for more mundane stuff. Plan wisely, so you can still have time to line up along with everyone else at the building’s Din Tai Fung (located near the subway exit).

  1. Go outside the city.

While there are so many things to do and places to see in Taipei, exploring beyond the confines of the city would do you well, too. Beitou is technically still within the city but it is in the outskirts, and is a good place to go to relax and experience the Taiwanese hot springs. Yangmingshan National Park is also worth a visit for all nature types out there, as is the Taipei Zoo and Maokong (tea farms). M and I chose to go to Jiufen and Pingxi (jump off point is Ruifang), about two hours travel time from Taipei. Jiufen is an old community by the mountainside in the east part of the island, which is the jump off point to get to the Golden Waterfall, etc. Jiufen Old Street is chockfull of street food and souvenir stores as well. Pingxi, on the other hand, is along the old coal mine rail, as is Dahua, famous for its cat cafes and other cat-related novelties, and Shufen, just two stops away from Pingxi. In Pingxi and Shufen, the most famous activity is releasing lit lanterns to the sky, where you can write and draw all your heart’s desires. We went there just when all the shops are about to close (not a bad idea as you can see the lighted lantern go up, and it was a full moon, so it looked extra special) but you wouldn’t be able to see and do anything else. Going in the afternoon might be better so you can still explore and go to the Shufen waterfalls. Another day trip to consider is the Taroko Gorge, a bit farther south from Pingxi.

  1. Fear not the street food.

Finally, the main reason why we went there: FOOD TRIP! While of course xiao long bao is a must try in Taiwan, as is their milk tea and shaved ice desserts, street food is the way to go. And the best way to experience these gastronomical delights is to explore the night markets, which abound. Try Rahou, the oldest, and they have pork buns, seafood, beef soup, braised pork rice, name it. Other street night markets to try are the Shilin Night Market (get off at Jiantan station, not Shilin station), and those markets near Longshan Temple. Those who are picky about food and fussy about presentation need not try. This is one big culinary adventure.

Xiao long bao recommendations include Hangzhou and Jin Din Rou. Not to mention, the very famous Din Tai Fung. I got the recommendations when I asked the people manning the Visitor Center: If you were to eat XLB right now, where would you go? I’m sure their answers would go beyond DTF every time.

Taipei street food scene is very interesting, and language is definitely a barrier. Just point and it should be fine. Just be ready to be surprised!

All in all, Taipei, and Taiwan in general, really surprised us! We did not realize the great number of things we can do and taste there. It would’ve been better if we planned more and used our time more efficiently, but still we got to do a lot of new things. It was a great trip, to say the least.

Here’s our itinerary:

DAY ONE

8am: Breakfast

930am:  Ride subway to Beitou – transfer to Xinbeitou

1030: Beitou hotsprings,

1pm: Lunch at Mankewu Ramen, ride subway from Xinbeitou to World Trade Center/Taipei 101

2pm: Taipei 101

630pm: Rahou Night Market

DAY TWO

7am: Breakfast

830am: subway to Taipei Main Station, train to Ruifang

11am: Ruifang going to Jiufen

4pm: Jiufen to Ruifang, catch train to Pingxi

7pm: Pingxi to Ruifang

835pm: Ruifang to Taipei Main Station

DAY THREE

7am: Breakfast

8am: City tour (Presidential Palace, Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, a local temple, handicraft store, Martyr’s Gate, National Museum)

1230: Lunch at Golden China buffet (there’s a back story here)

2pm: Taipei 101 (again)

330pm: Din Tai Fung, Taipei 101

5pm: To airport!

Overall expenses: less than PhP 27,000.00 (US$550), including airfare to and from Manila, food, and souvenirs.

Lenten (Re)Treat at Mirador

Happy Easter!

I just came from a 3-day retreat held at the Mirador Jesuit Villa, Baguio City. I will not share my realizations from the said retreat, I find that to be too personal to be written in such a public forum. I would just like to share what it was like there.

It was actually my second time in Mirador, and I missed every bit of it! Mirador is located at the very top of Mirador hill, where the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto is located. If one can remember the gates at the very top of the stairs of the grotto, that is Mirador :). I love the fact that it is just there, very much in the thick of things, but detached at the same time. Despite being in the vicinity of one of Baguio’s most visited spots, it is still secluded and kept private.

Mirador is a villa house for Jesuits and retreat house, but also at one time or another in its long history, also served as an observatory, scholasticate for Chinese Jesuits and a Japanese dwelling during the war. At present, Jesuits come to Mirador for their own annual retreats, but lay people are also welcome for their own contemplation. It is primarily made out of very old wood, the age and history of the place apparent in the creaking of the boards. It has a nice, peaceful charm, but some might be too overwhelmed by it all.

Tiny rock garden in the foreground

From Scrapbook

There are rooms, nooks and private spaces for prayer and contemplation in and outside the building. On the Resurrection Wing (Wing A), there is a meditation room, just outside it is the Sun Room, which had a sun roof. There are also couches near the front desk. You would think that because of the location, it would be noisy and busy, but it is not. I think it also helps that everyone is in a silent retreat, so that helps the retreatants. Further to the west is the dining hall, which offers a fantastic panorama of the Sierra Madre mountains, and even to the distance, the Lingayen Gulf. Just beside the dining hall is the Main Chapel, and the last room to the west is the Vigil Room. If I had to choose my favourite spot in the whole villa, it would be the Vigil Room. Apart from the cross, native depiction of the Passion in the walls, shallow bas reliefs in the ceiling, and a tiny grotto in the corner, it also managed to incorporate local flavour by using local materials such as the throw pillows covered with Ifugao woven cloth. Apart from that, the panorama of the mountains, especially at sunset, is just breathtaking.

That is the moon setting.

From Scrapbook

Sunset from the Main Chapel

From Scrapbook

The Main Chapel

From Scrapbook

Outside the villa, you have the vast garden and mountainside at your disposal. Mirador also has one of the few labyrinths in the country, which when stretched out, is 125 meters (I counted my steps when I walked the labyrinth, it was 377 normal steps, one way). There is also a tiny pond filled with carp just beside the labyrinth. There are also kubos (houses of light materials) scattered in the compound, as well as rocks and stumps one can use as chairs and tables. Very precious too are the sculptures in the mountain, a huge white sculpture showing Jesus and his Sacred Heart, and the Jesus Christ on the cross reaching out to man just beside the Resurrection Wing stand out. The sunrise is just divine under this metal sculpture, it’s a pity I only had my mobile phone to take pictures with.

Sunrise.

From Scrapbook
From Scrapbook

Not to be forgotten is the food served in Mirador! As retreatants, we were treated to three full meals featuring fresh vegetables and other meats, and two snacks per day! Not to mention the unlimited brewed coffee, and my favourite, the MJV tea. Oh just thinking about it now that I am back in the city makes me want to go back.

Not counting the grace-filled sharings I had with my retreat director, the solemn celebrations, and my private moments with the Lord, I had more than a great time in MJV. As Fr. H.V. dela Costa, SJ stated in his notes on Mirador, indeed it still serves its purpose as a Prospect Point, especially to people who trek to the mountains to seek contemplation and grace.

“And if this House could speak, perhaps this is what it would say to you: Look out of my windows and try to extend your vision beyond the Gulf of Lingayen to all of Asia, try to make and see clearly what God’s plan for all these peoples is, and for all those, who – like yourself – seek nothing else but to be of service to man.” – Fr. H.V. dela Costa

From Scrapbook

(On our way home, we passed by the Baguio Cathedral and Good Shepherd Convent to buy the obligatory peanut brittle :D. Good Shepherd Convent is located at Gibraltar Road, Baguio City. To get there, follow the signs pointing to Mines View Park. Good Shepherd Convent is on the second corner to the right from Mines View Park [the road goes one way only])

Vietnam Cambodia 2012 Itinerary and Expenses

In a nutshell, here is our itinerary and a breakdown of expenses. Please note that I traveled with 3 others, so our cab expenses, tour guide expenses, and other expenses that can be broken down were split among the 4 of us.

Day 1:

0040: Arrive at Ho Chi Minh City

0145: Arrive at Pham Ngu Lao, Phan Lan Hotel

0500: Wake up!

0600: Breakfast in hotel

0800: Pick up from hotel, going to Cu Chi tunnels

0930: Arrive at Lacquer factory

1040: Arrive at Cu Chi tunnels

1240: Depart Cu Chi tunnels

1410: Arrive at Ho Chi Minh City, War Remnants Museum

1510: Reunification Palace

1625: Notre Dame Cathedral/ Post Office

1650: Ben Thanh Market, eat lunch at Pho 24

2035: Go back to hotel

Day 2:

0500: Wake up!

0600: Breakfast in hotel

0700: Pick up from hotel, board bus to Phnom Penh

0925: Arrive at Moc Bai/Bavet border

0955: Lunch at Bavet

1340: Arrive at Phnom Penh

1430: Depart from Phnom Penh for Siem Reap

1748: Dinner at Stung Sen stopover

2040: Arrive at Siem Reap

2105: Check in at Soria Moria Hotel

Day 3:

0500: Wake up!

0630: Breakfast in hotel

0710: Pick up from hotel

0730: Arrive at ticket booth

0735: First glimpse of Angkor Wat

0850: Climb the central tower of Angkor Wat

1025: Leave Angkor Wat

1035: Preah Kravan

1055: Lunch at Rumdoul Khmer Angkor Restaurant

1205: Leave Srah Srang area

1215: Ta Prohm

1315: Banteay Kdei

1350: Back at Srah Srang

1410: Silk Factory

1435: Reserve seats for the night show at Koulen Restaurant

1445: Back at the hotel for some rest

1545: Leave for Tonle Sap

1620: Arrive at Tonle Sap

1655: Arrive at the middle of the Tonle Sap to wait for sunset

1815: Sun finally sets, depart Tonle Sap

1930: Arrive at Koulen Restaurant, just in time for show

2030: Show ends, go back to hotel

Day 4:

0400: Wake up!

0500: Pick up from hotel to go to Angkor Wat

0510: Arrive at Angkor Wat

0540: First light to shine on Angkor Wat

0630: Sunrise, finally.

0700: Breakfast at Angkor Reach Restaurant

0745: Depart for Angkor Thom

0755: Arrive at Angkor Thom, enter through South Gate

0820: Bayon

0855: Preah Ngok

0900: Baphoun

0955: Phimeanakas

1020: Elephant Terrace/ Royal Palace

1030: Leper King Terrace

1110: Preah Palilay

1225: Preah Khan

1315: Lunch at Neary Khmer Restaurant

1420: Checked in at Borei Angkor Hotel

1700: Pick up from hotel to go to Healthy Hand massage

1850: Drop off at Old Market

2025: Dinner at Khmer Kitchen Restaurant

2100: Art Centre Night Market/Angkor Night Market

2200: Back at the hotel

Day 5:

0500: Wake up!

0600: Breakfast at hotel

0700: Pick up from hotel

0735: Pre Rup

0845: Banteay Srei

1110: Banteay Samre

1230: Lunch (and nap) at Steung Torcheak Restaurant

1430: Preah Ko

1500: Bakong

1700: Dropped off at Centre Market

1850: Dinner at Cambodian bbq

2030: Back at the hotel

Day 6:

0500: Wake up!

0600: Breakfast at hotel

0700: Pick up from hotel to go to bus terminal

0800: Depart from Siem Reap

1000: Stopover

1400: Arrive at Phnom Penh

1430: Depart from Phnom Penh

1530: Mekong River crossing

1735: Dinner at Bavet

1755: Moc Bai/Bavet border

2105: Arrive at Ho Chi Minh

2235: Arrive at airport

2250: Dinner again at airport at Lotus Restaurant

2330: Board for Manila

Day 7

0430: Arrive at Manila

Expenses

Airfare: 5325.66PHP

Cab from airport: 200,000VND

Cu Chi tour: 136,000VND

Cu Chi entrance: 90,000VND

Water: (approx price) 5,000-10,000VND (depends on where you are)

War Museum: 15,000VND

Reunification Palace: 30,000VND

Pho: 103,000VND

Cab expenses (approx per ride): 25,000VND

Hotel: about 6-7USD

Bus: 22USD per way

Weasel coffee: 110,000VND

Spring rolls: 40,000VND for 4 pieces

Meals in Cambodia: around 2.125-6USD per meal, except for Apsara dance buffet 14USD

Entrance fee to temples: 40USD

Tonle Sap (entrance and boat): 18USD per person (it was 68USD)

Water: about 1USD each

Scarves: 27USD for real thing, 1.40USD in the market

Shirts: 1.50-4.00USD

Tuktuk rides: 3.00USD per ride

Magnets: about 1.00USD each

Massage: 10USD

Tour guide: 60.00USD (3 days)

Sweets on the street: 1.00USD for 3 pieces

Tuktuk (3 days): 72.00USD (this includes Tonle Sap, Banteay Srei and Rolous)

Spices and lotus seeds: 2.00USD per pack

Hotel in Cambodia: 90USD

My total expenses: 23,380.59PHP or around 420USD without the airfare

Some of what I brought home

From Scrapbook

Conversion rates:

1USD

=4,000Riel

=20,850VND

=43PHP

Mekong Express

On our third day (20 March 2012), we woke up at around 0500 to prepare for our 12-hour trip to Cambodia. We were packed and ready to go by 0630, because we were warned “Chanh” that we should be ready by that time. For our tickets, O asked him when we were still in Manila to buy Mekong Express tickets for us. The two-leg trip costs 22USD per person, and had to be paid in cash (as in US Dollars).

The bus conductor was very prompt, we were fetched from Phan Lan at around 645. After profusely thanking Van and “Chanh”, “Cam ern!”, we were herded to the Mekong Express bus parked along Pham Ngu Lao. One thing to know about Pham Ngu Lao, not only is it very busy because it is essentially the heart of the backpacker district, it also doubles as the bus stop of many busses.

The Mekong Express boarding process was very orderly. We were asked for our tickets and baggage. Each baggage was tagged and we were given part of the bag tags, which we were instructed not to lose. We were then pointed to our seats.

The Mekong Express Limousine Bus was just a regular airconditioned bus with a washroom in the rear. What initially struck us most was the décor. It looked like an 80s party bus. The curtains had pompoms on them. Very interesting. As O said, we should not raise our expectations. We didn’t, and we were pleasantly surprised. It’s not too bad, really.

Look! Pompoms!

From Scrapbook

At exactly 0700, we left Pham Ngu Lao. We had a Cambodian “stewardess,” who immediately spoke about the trip ahead: it will be approximately 6 hrs. to get to Phnom Penh. We will cross the Mekong River about 2 hrs. from Ho Chi Minh, and stop at the border at Moc Bai (Vietnam side) and Bavet (Cambodia side) in 3 hrs. We will also stop for a meal at Bavet, and the total travel distance is 262 kilometers. We were also given immigration forms to be filled out by us. The bus was full of passengers!

The stewardess

From Scrapbook

Our “stewardess” also handed out cold towels, a bottle of water an a box of snacks (ham and cheese sandwich). This came with the ticket, and also explains the premium price we paid for the trip. Other bus services are cheaper, as I understand, but Mekong Express had these additional factors that made us choose it over the others.

The freebies. Cold towel, water, snack

From Scrapbook

The snack

From Scrapbook

The journey was comfortable enough, and I fell asleep almost instantly. I only wake up again when we were about to cross the Mekong River. There was no bridge connecting the two banks, and we had to board a barge. Thankfully, we need not leave the bus and simply look at the river from our bus. It was barely a 10 minute ride between the two banks.

The next stop was at Moc Bai/Bavet border. Our “stewardess” asked for our passports and reminded us that we had to go down the bus with all our belongings, and present ourselves to the Vietnam immigration authorities. Inside the Vietnam border building, we passed through the x-ray machine and waited for our names to be called. It was a wee bit confusing, as there was no line, our passports were with our “stewardess” and she just called out names. Eventually, we got our passports, presented ourselves to a Vietnamese officer at the door, and out we went. A short distance away, we were asked to de-bus again, this time to present ourselves to the Cambodian authorities. On this side of the border, we lined up at the counters, asked for a picture and our fingerprints, and passed through a thermometer. This was the first time we were asked if we were Filipinos (the Cambodian who asked did not see our passports). This would be a theme of our Cambodia trip (How do they know we are Filipinos???). I understand some nationalities need to obtain a visa at the Cambodian border, but not for us Southeast Asians.

We again boarded the bus and we proceeded to an eatery on the side of the road about a kilometer or two away from the border. It was almost 1100hrs, so we thought of eating our lunch there. It was your good old carinderia (eatery), with prices ranging from 6,000-8,000 Riel per meal (that is roughly 2USD, or 85PhP). It was clean, and we were quite peckish, so we all settled down for a meal. What was noticeable were the individual trash bins in each table. We all thought, why didn’t we think of this! It was a very useful indeed. Another noteworthy observation T and O had was the excellent quality of the rice.  According to them, it was aromatic and flavourful. I wouldn’t know, I am not a rice expert… even though I am a very voracious rice eater. Lastly, we noticed that you can actually pay in US dollars! There was no need to have your money changed, that definitely came as a surprise. After 30 minutes, we again boarded the bus and off we went to Phnom Penh.

The "carinderia" (eatery) style

From Scrapbook

Free tea!

From Scrapbook

To get to Phnom Penh, one has to pass through the provinces of Svay Rieng, Prey Veng and Kandal. Between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the provinces of Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhang and Kampong Thom will be traversed. After three more hours, we finally arrive at Phnom Penh.  We first stopped at the market where the passengers getting off at Phnom Penh alighted. The bus subsequently went to the Mekong Express Terminal. We all had to get out of the bus and get our luggage. There we showed the part of the bag tags given to us (yes, there was a purpose, unlike the tags given to us by airlines :p). It was about 1330hrs. We had some time before our 1400hrs trip to Siem Reap, but not too much time. We just stayed at the (thankfully airconditioned) office, and decided to buy our tickets for the 24th Cambodia-Vietnam trip. It was similarly priced, 22USD per person, and the woman who assisted us was very sweet and charming. By 1350hrs, we were called to board the bus, and it left at 1400hrs. Unlike the Ho Chi Minh-Phnom Penh leg, the bus was only about 3/4 full.

Mekong Express Terminal at Phnom Penh

From Scrapbook

For this part of the trip, our “stewardess” was a man. He immediately gave out the cold towels, bottles of water, and snack (this time, it was a tuna turnover, and a slice of cake). This leg of the trip was uneventful, except for the exceptionally beautiful sunset we saw at about 1800hrs. Unfortunately, I was unable to take a photo of it.

Party bus mode

From Scrapbook

We also stopped for a meal at Stung Sen Restaurant, where we had dinner because it was already 1748hrs.. There were also trashbins under every table. We started to think this was a Cambodian thing. We had to eat very fast, as we were only given 30 minutes, and we dilly-dallied for the first 15 minutes.

I should also tell you about the entertainment in Mekong Express. For each leg of the trip, they show a movie on the wonderfully designed tv :D. For our trips, they played Indiana Jones (the new one), a Khmer film, and Khmer mtvs. The mtvs were very entertaining! They are unlike the mtvs we’re used to watching, they are much rather like the videoke films, but with a storyline. One story could be told in several songs, so you’d have to watch the next video. It’s fun 😀

From Scrapbook

Finally, and after about 13 hours, we arrive at Siem Reap. The bus parked at the bus terminal, where there are numerous tuktuk drivers waiting for us. We immediately gathered our things, and carefully chose our tuktuk driver. We settle on Li, who gave us the ride for 3USD. We asked to go to Soria Moria Boutique Hotel, where we were booked for two days. Upon arriving at Soria Moria, Li asked if we already had tours booked. We asked for his prices, and said that it was 15USD a day, with additions for other trips (like the farther temples). We also asked if he knew of a tour guide who could accompany us during the trip, and he said he will take care of it. O and Li shook hands and it was a deal. He said we had to be ready by 0700hrs the following day.

Fast forward to 23 March 2012.

We decided to avail of the hotel pick-up service offered by Mekong Express. It just so happened that we went to Central Market that afternoon, and saw the Mekong Express office there. We did not have our tickets with us, but since their system was online, they found our reservations. However, horror of horrors, we did not have reservations for the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh leg, and the bus was already full! We had to explain that we booked the ticket at Phnom Penh 3 days prior, and paid in full. We were offered the aisle seats, which we refused. It would be uncomfortable and not at all worthy of the 22USD per person! We asked if they could just bear the expenses of booking us in another bus company, but the manager of the office said she will try to fix the problem. Apparently, the sweet and charming girl who assisted us failed to book us for the Siem Reap-Phnom Penh part of our ticket. After several fretful minutes, the manager using 3 different phones, struggled to procure seats for us. In the end, however, she did get tickets for us, although we were seated in separate rows. We did not mind, and we were just very grateful that the mess was settled. For that, we are very thankful to Mekong Express for not simply abandoning us, and acknowledged (though not directly) that it was their fault. Also, we would like to thank the staff at Siem Reap for being so accommodating. They also took down our hotel and our request to avail of the complimentary pick up from the hotel.

For our trip back on 24 March 2012, we left the wonderful Borei Angkor at around 7. Since we were ready by 0600hrs., we still had time to grab some breakfast. At the lobby, we met fellow Filipinos who were also taking a bus (though not Mekong Express). It is so Filipino to ask “What is your work?”, which is an awkward question especially when posed to strangers. Anyway, by 0700hrs, we were picked up from the lobby by a minibus, and brought to the Siem Reap bus terminal. There, our tickets were checked, luggage tagged and put in the bus compartment, and seated. Once again, we had the complimentary water, cold towel and snack of 2 kinds of bread. We stopped over at a restaurant midway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and in the street stalls, O bought some mangoes for 2000Riel. It was different from the mangoes sold in the street in Manila, in the sense that the condiment was salt with chili. In Manila, it is usually bagoong (fish paste) and chili.

We once again changed busses at the Phnom Penh terminal of Mekong Express, where our passports were checked and listed down (in some sort of guest manifesto), to be submitted at the Vietnamese border. Once again, there was the complimentary water, cold towel and snack. After some time, we finally reach Bavet. We stopped at the same bus stop we stopped at on our trip to Siem Reap. We ate a meal again, we anticipated that we would not have much time when we reach Ho Chi Minh. At the border, and we were requested to go down to get our fingerprints again, and at the Moc Bai part, we had to get all our stuff out of the bus to undergo the x-ray machine.

At the border. There's our stewardess

From Scrapbook

There we met a fellow Filipino (let’s call him XYZ), who told us a tragically comic story of how he came to the bus. He related that he brought the wrong passport so he did not make it to his original bus schedule, had to buy a new ticket, and he would meet his friends at a department store in Ho Chi Minh, a city he had not yet been in. He asked for our help, but we did not know the store either. After about 2 more hours, we finally reach Ho Chi Minh. Once in the busy part of the city, he shouted “Ate!” (a Filipino term of respect for women older than the speaker), referring to me, and I spun around. I actually did not know what he wanted, but I approached the stewardess anyway, and asked if he can be dropped off. The stewardess beckoned XYZ and told him directions. He looked dazed and confused, but we are not in a position to help him any further. We merely wished he would meet his friends. (NB: we met XYZ again at the airport, he was also about to fly to Manila. Thankfully, he met up with his friends)

Upon arriving at Pham Ngu Lao, we immediately hailed a cab to go to the airport. It was hard at that time (around 2030pm), because the cabs were occupied. There was even an accident right in front of us, not a major one, but still caused some commotion (it was between an Innova cab and a motorcycle). We got to the airport in no time, waited for about 20 minutes before check in, and got through uneventfully. I just have to note that the airport was extra chaotic as there were a lot of people waiting in the lobby, it seemed that the departure and arrival gates were the same. I also have to note with envy the fact that there were direct to Europe flights from Ho Chi Minh. At the time we were there, there were three flights to Paris! How I wish it would be the same in Manila, but as luck would have it, the last direct to Europe flights from KLM have been cancelled already.

Before boarding, we still had some time to kill so we searched for a pho place in the airport. We settled at Lotus Restaurant at the mezzanine floor, where there was also a Burger King, a coffee place, and some massage places. We wanted some pho to cap our Indochina trip, and we did get our fill. Unfortunately, it was expensive at 8USD per serving, plus it was really just mediocre pho. Oh well, as I am writing this I am craving for some pho!

Mekong Express Front

Mekong Express Back

Vietnam 19032012

So on to Day 2 of our whirlwind Indochina tour (excluding Laos :D). I wrote about our hotel, Phan Lan, in a previous post. It is along an alley in Pham Ngu Lao ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. It has 15 rooms in 6 floors. Our rooms had 2 beds, a bathroom, flat screen TV, and complimentary wifi. Breakfast was also included in our booking, which was 20USD per person per night. We were not allowed to bring our shoes/slippers up the stairs, so we left them at the lobby. We were assigned rooms in the 4th and 5th floors (which were actually the 5th and 6th floors, as they start numbering floors from 0), and we had to climb several flights of stairs as there was no elevator.

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the room, already messed up

We repaired early, as our day was to start at 7am, in time to catch the 8am bus to the Cu Chi tunnels. At that time, we have not yet decided on what to do on our sole day in Ho Chi Minh, and we just thought we had to meet at 6am to think about it. But Van (the doorkeeper/night receptionist) suggested the Cu Chi tunnels tour. By the time we went to our rooms, it was almost 3am, Vietnam time.

— change topic — I was not able to sleep early, as I was really bugged with my roaming service from Globe. I already activated my roaming through text, their *143 service, and by phone. But I had no signal! I would be having this problem for 2 more days before order was restored in the universe. Not to mention haranguing Globe’s customer service every single night I was abroad. Geez, you’d think they would do something about their crappy service as the competition was consolidating, BUT NO! — end rant —

The next morning, that is to say, that very same morning, we woke up early and met for breakfast. The dining room was at the bottom floor (hmm… -1?) and it offered a very homey approach. We felt as if we were just having breakfast at a friend’s house. Breakfast was simple, but pleasant: omelette, Bahn Mi (Vietnamese baguette, very crusty but unlike Filipino pan de sal, airy and hollow), coffee, and pineapple juice (which really tasted like calamansi juice. but very yummy).

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the dining room

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breakfast

We then talked to Van to arrange for our Cu Chi tunnels tour. Thankfully, it can be arranged the morning of, so we just waited for the bus in the alley.The bus could not enter our humble eskinita (Filipino for alley), so we were expecting the bus conductor. It was the only time I got to appreciate the alley. Though very small, it certainly had character. As we were in the backpacker district, one should not really expect that much, but it was good enough. O and Y, being from Manila, were very familiar with the sights and sounds of it all. It was nice, though initially disconcerting, I have to admit. But it grew on me.

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i was trying to capture the Vietnamese hat

We then proceeded to the bus, parked along Pham Ngu Lao. The bus was not out of the ordinary, but full of tourists. There were just a handful of Asians there, though. Most of the tourists were Caucasian. We did not have time or opportunity to talk to them, as we were all in our own small groups.

We first stopped at a lacquer factory, where the workers were victims or family members of victims of agent orange. As explained by our tour guide (his name I have forgotten, or did not hear right therefore did not register in my memory), agent orange was a chemical sprayed on the fields of Vietnam by the Americans during the Vietnam War. We would be enlightened by the War Remnants Museum on the matter. Anyway, the factory showed how the lacquer was made, and it also had a gift shop. The process was impressive, and the products were amazing. It was just on the steep side and we did not buy anything. 😀

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how lacquer products were made 

 so many Tintin products!

bakya (clogs)

We then went straight to the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi tunnels are a network of tunnels used as hiding spots during combat during the Vietnam war, aiding them in communication, supply, care and other matters during that tumultuous time. We got off the bus, and proceeded to pay the entrance fee of VND90,000. To get to the Cu Chi tunnels part, we also had to walk through a tunnel, much bigger, pretty much like an underpass.

it was well-lighted, so no twilight zone moment 😀

Before we could proceed with the tour, we were first herded to an “underground bunker” (I can’t think of any other description) to watch a movie about the Cu Chi tunnels, and its role  during the Vietnam war. For all intents and purposes, it was a propaganda video, and attacked the Americans. Because we did very little background reading prior to the trip, we were initially confused as we thought that the Vietnamese welcomed the Americans during that time. We were further enlightened when we visited the War Remnants Museum, which will be featured later.

After the video, we proceeded with the tour, which entailed showing the tourists the various traps made by the Vietnamese, or other concealment devices, such as the hollow point in the ground, meant only for one person. I wanted to try it, but knew I would be trapped because of my small stature.

 it’s a trap!

it’s a tank!

The trail also showed artillery used during the war, figures showing what like was during that time, and featured a firing range, where you could fire an AK-47, M-16, carbine, M1, M30 or M60, buying only the bullets to be fired (minimum bullets: 10). We did not do this. I found it expensive (I’m a cheapskate, is it showing already?) While the other people in our group fired guns, we sat in the gift shoppe and had a snack of corn (VND15,000) and soda crackers. We were aching to go into the actual tunnels!

After about 20 minutes, we proceeded with the trail. We had to walk through a mini-juncgle throughout the whole Cu Chi tunnel tour. Trees everywhere, and the trail had a slight bump in the middle. After a short walk from the firing range, we reach the part of the tunnels open to the public for exploration. We were made to choose between 20m, 60m, 100m, and 120m, with those choosing the 20m going into the tunnel first. We chose 60m, which we figured was a good enough distance. We were right! The tunnel was hot, damp, dark, and small. I am 4’10 and I had to crouch most of the time. Definitely not for those suffering from claustrophobia!

cue twilight zone

It took a while before we got to the end. We waited for the other people of our group who opted for the 120m walk. They emerged from the tunnels all flushed and sweaty, but still in good spirits (ie, not vomiting or out of their wits), which was good. Our guide then gave us taro (kamoteng kahoy), which was used by the Vietnamese for their subsistence during that time. We were used to eating this crop, but not with sugar and peanuts, as the Vietnamese did. That ended our Cu Chi tunnels tour, this was around 1300hrs already.

The bus did not stop for lunch, instead we drove straight back to the city. I was asleep most of the time, but in the times I was awake, I noticed the style of the houses in Vietnam. Unlike in the Philippines, the doors of the houses always faced the road. This was amusing for me.

When we reached the city, we asked to be dropped off at the War Remnants Museum. We were dropped a few corners away, and that was the first time we experienced crossing the street, Vietnam style. The motorcycles made it very difficult, no one slowed down for anything! This caused fright among us, we hesitated, we couldn’t dance through the throng! We waited for other pedestrians to cross the street, as there was no regard for the pedestrian lane. Luckily, many locals were crossing the streets we also crossed, and there was even one time when a local offered to help us cross the street (even though he was not supposed to cross the street in the first place). To you, oh kind stranger, thank you.

whew!

This was also the first time we walked the streets of Saigon. O was amazed with the trees in the street! It made the city environment fresh and breezy, which is certainly lacking in our dear Manila.

After crossing 2 streets, we reach the War Remnants Museum. The entrance is VND15,000, opens at 0730hrs, closes at 1700hrs. The War Remnants Museum (sorry, I can’t find the official website, if any, of the museum) showcases exhibits culled from the American phase of the Vietnam War. It has 3 floors worth of exhibits,   showing what was used during that time, but more importantly, the effects of the war on the Vietnamese. An exhibit on the ground floor also showed the worldwide rage against the war. But for me, the exhibits on the second floor were the most striking. The exhibits recounted the effects of the war, the massacres that happened, and Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a type of chemical sprayed on the fields of Vietnam, killing crops, affecting the soil, and exposing thousands of Vietnamese to the deadly chemical. The effects to the agent were horrendous, I could not even recount them here, mainly because I cannot fully describe the physical state of the victims shown in the exhibit.

A block away from the museum was the Reunification Palace. (entranceL VND30,000 each) The Palace was known also as the Independence Palace. It was the home and workplace of the President of Southern Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the highlight of its history was when an army tank crashed through its gates.

 Reunification Palace

At this point of our trip, we were already so tired that we had to stop at the entrance first, catch our breath, and have a drink. The water in the vending machine was VND10,000 each, which is more expensive than when bought outside. However, we were left with no choice as the sun was just beating at us furiously and we were dehydrated. We entered the Palace from the side (primarily because we hugged the shade made by the trees), and so we got lost inside. We had to make our way to the front of the palace once we were inside, so we can avail of the free tour service.

one of the rooms inside.

view of the road from inside

a courtyard for the first family

the magnificent staircases

the notre dame cathedral

the post office

pho!

we were trapped here for more than 30 minutes…

fruit stand

goi cuon

ben thanh market

Vietnam 18032012

It was January 2012 when we (O, Y, T, and myself) decided to go to Vietnam and Cambodia. At that time, there were no direct flights to Siem Reap, so we had to book flights to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly, or even currently but informally, Saigon). We were supposed to book right after it was decided, but thought of waiting a week, as the prices of the airfare were not to our liking at that time. After a week, Cebu Pacific published promo fares for Saigon, and I booked our tickets right away. I also booked tickets for cousins A and C, but they were unable to come with use because of exams. Because what we had were promo tickets, they were unable to refund. Rebooking was very expensive, so it was decided to just let go of the tickets. 😦

Our flight was to leave from NAIA Terminal 3 on 18 March 2012 at 2250hrs. We were at NAIA at around 2030hrs, fearing the lines at the travel tax and immigration stations, even as we have already checked in online. At the check in counter, we saw Mayor Alfredo Lim of Manila. The Cebu Pacific personnel at the counter even asked us “Ma’am, gusto nyo syang makatabi?” Apparently, Mayor Lim was also flying to Saigon! O and Y are Manila residents, but as Y quipped “Shucks di ko ata sya binoto,” so we were content in shooting him from afar.

ImageThe plane left ontime, or thereabouts, but we were stuck for a bit in the runway. Let’s say about 10 minutes. My cousin N, who was a pilot for a local airline, always lamented on this unfortunate situation of the airport. The flight was uneventful, your typical Cebu Pacific flight, ie. no food or drink, unless you’re willing to spend an arm and a leg for instant noodles. Can’t complain though, and I was asleep for most of the flight anyway. O was unable to sleep, so she read Smile Inflight Magazine twice.

We arrived at Tan San Nhot International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City at around 0140hrs. The flight was 2 and a half hours, but there was a time difference between Manila and Saigon of 1 hr., Saigon being an hour behind. We passed through immigration and customs without a hitch. What I noticed was the abundance of flowers (orchids at that!) in the airport! How refreshing!

ImageWe then went to the money exchange booth, and exchanged 100USD. The exchange rate was 20850 Vietnamese Dong for 1USD. We were then instant millionaires!

Out the airport we went. We refused the insistent offers of cab drivers outside the airport. Instead, we walked to the right side of the airport, straight to the domestic terminal. O read in a blog that cabs were cheaper in the said terminal. What greeted us after our short walk was an empty, and I mean desolate and dark, terminal. The few people hanging around didn’t speak a word of English so we just went back to the arrival gallery of the international airport. We figured that tip would only work in daytime 😀

We went to the extreme left side of the airport, where the supposed taxi stand was. We picked a cab (an Innova) and bargained with the driver to take us to Pham Ngu Lao, District 1. We settled at 200,000D (approximately 9.60USD or 412.25PHP) for the 4 of us.

Imageview of the domestic terminal from the cab

We actually did not know where we were staying. O, prior to take off, contacted Chanh of Bich Duyen Hotel to book our beds. Unfortunately, the said hotel was already full, so Chanh referred us to the hotel next door. We didn’t even know the name of the hotel. It was funny, we really just relied on Chanh’s word about the whole thing!

After about 20 minutes, we arrive at Pham Ngu Lao. We asked our driver to drop us off at Bich Duyen’s address. I, Y and T didn’t know what we were in for. We arrived at an alley, a sort of Diagon Alley, should you miss it, you’re doomed! It was really a darkened alley, with flashes of Hostel, it was practically an eskinita (Filipino for alley, sort of derogatory, actually). It was so funny! And scary, I have to admit. We passed some hotels and finally reached Bich Duyen. We had to wake the gatekeeper to ask about the “other hotel”. The gatekeeper was “Chanh” (or, as we found out later, was a general name used by all in Bich Duyen) and knew of our arrangement and led us to Hotel Phan Lan. The gatekeeper was Van, and took us in. It was surreal.

I was unable to appreciate Phan Lan at first, probably because of the shock. I will write more about it in my next post.