30 May 2008

the heat is on in saigon - part 2

it was hot when we started our second day in ho chi minh. we woke up early and availed ourselves of the free breakfast at the hotel. outside, several tourists were boarding buses and vans to take them off to different sorts of tours. we were torn between the mekong delta whole day tour and the cu chi tunnel half-day tour. seeing as we were in the company of people itching to take pictures and the second tour was a lot cheaper than the first one, we soon found ourselves aboard a van with several other tourists bound for the tunnels.

it was almost a two hour drive to our destination, we spent it clicking away at whatever things we saw on the road. there was little conversation. i, for one, still had some sleep to catch up on. the only sound we heard was the conversation between the australian lady and canadian guy in the first row. they didn't stop talking until the van stopped at a handicrafts store (i think it was a required stop for all tours, by the number of tourists there).

guess what they had on the store: lacquerware! during my previous trip in myanmar, the chillis and i were shown how these things were made. and i appreciated the time and patience it took to make just one piece. in the store, everything was shiny, and pretty and colorful. you'd be tempted to buy a lot of things. the friendly (and talkative) australian lady told me before we left, she took pictures of the things she wanted to buy in the store when she got rich. her plan was to return to vietnam and buy everything and have them all shipped back home. not this time, she said. she was on a backpacking tour of the country for three weeks and she didn't plan on lugging around a lot of stuff.
when we got to the tunnels, it was almost lunch and it was hot! the tour started with a fifteen minute video that was probably made in the sixties, narrating how cu chi was a quiet little village where the city people spent their vacations. and how the war from the "evil Americans" drove turned their farmers into guerrilas. they created these intricate underground tunnels to hide (obviously) from the "enemy". and guess what? the people actually lived there. they cooked, the slept, they transported supplies and medicine to other towns, all within the tunnels.

it took about two hours to go around the "jungles". we were invited to try getting into the tunnels to get a feel of what it was like to stay there. i attempted to get into them, but seeing the cramped, musty, almost airless environment of the tunnel, i was overcome with claustrophobia (which i seriously thought i didn't have). i bailed out. three people from our group eventually made it out of the 50 metre walk.

after the tour, we were all sleepy and exhausted, not to mention hungry. we were dropped off near ben thanh market, where we proceeded to scour the area for food. we settled on traditional pho noodles, from pho 24. it's a vietnamese fast food chain, with branches in singapore and manila. since i've never tried it before (in singapore AND manila), this is as good place as any to check it out. it's vietnamese food in vietnam, regardless if it's fast food.

we all agreed to go around the market for an hour. seriously? for girls, an hour of shopping inside a greenhills-like market is clearly not possible. make it two hours. or three. when we finished spending our dhongs, we went back to the hotel to freshen up and lay down our purchases. by the time we went back out, it was drizzling.

we were going to walk around the town again, and i prepared myself by buying a plastic raincoat. my friends were teasing me about it. but i had the last laugh. by the time we got to the notre dame cathedral (again), it was raining hard. my friends had no choice but to buy raincoats themselves. this is how we looked like:

it didn't stop raining for about two hours. the boys had wanted to setup their tripods in front of the committee building to get some night shots. it didn't look like it was going to be accomplished. i consoled myself with a picture of the opera house.and then we found a little restaurant, where, in disappointment about the weather, we had a little feast. we stuffed ourselves with rice noodles and dumplings and everything else on the menu.

but after the meal, we were delighted to find the rain had stopped. we proceeded to the committee building, where the boys finally set up their tripods and had their photoshoot. here's one cool shot*

our last stop for the night was a little club called 'seventeen', where we had beer, and listened to hard rock songs by a band whose singers banged their heads so hard, it was almost painful to watch.

in the morning, we only had a couple of hours before we went to the airport to catch our flight. my last memory of vietnam, is their great coffee.

in a few hours, we were back in singapore. i went straight to the office an hour after the plane landed. the weekend was gone in a flash. it was back to work and reality --until anotherlong weekend comes along.

*pic from cooljuhl

26 May 2008

the heat is on in saigon - part 1

well, ho chi minh is the official name these days. two weeks after myanmar, i was off to ho chi minh with some friends for the long weekend. it was a trip planned to get out of singapore for a little while, as for the past several weeks, the boys were complaining they were getting stressed out at work. nearby malaysia and the indonesian islands were off the list, we've all been there. so it was decided somewhere new, within our budget, and most especially, somewhere with lots of photo opportunities was the place to go to: ho chi minh, it is!

the first thing one sees from the plane window, just before landing, is the saigon river. from that vantage point, one sees how it snakes through the land and the other cities beyond. my friend and i noticed that it looks like manila, only we didn't see any roads, flyovers or highways, just a lot of buildings and houses that looked crammed together.

home for the three day, two night stay in the city was lan anh hotel right in the middle of the backpackers area. this may have been the cheapest hotel i've stayed in, 24 usd per night for a room for three people, with free breakfast, to boot! (the chillis might argue that last hotel in yangon is the cheapest, but that was 15 usd for a 2-person room, with no water, no electricity and no breakfast).

the thing you notice about ho chi minh is the abundance of motorcycles! they rule the road here, with nary a care for the traffic lights. even in the white stripes of the pedestrian crossing, you don't really feel safe. crossing the streets was in itself an adventure in this city.

getting ready to attack you

briefly unpacking and resting at the hotel, we then set off for the war museum, to see remnants of the vietnam war. there were old helicopters, tanks, bomb shells--leftovers of the war during the 50s and 60s. there were a lot of disturbing images about agent orange and how it affected the people of vietnam. that particular stop of the trip was, for lack of a better word, heavy. i'm not quite sure how the american tourists feel when they go to that museum.
where napalm bombs were dropped

we moved on to the reunification palace, so called because the last president of south vietnam, (whose term, according to our guide, lasted a mere two hours) surrendered to the troops from north, thereby reuniting vietnam in the 70's. it's like malacanang, only, in my view, less grand.

a little further down the street was the notre dame cathedral, a remnant of the french occupation of vietnam. beside that is the central post office. you'd think why would we want to go inside a post office, right? aside from the architecture, that dome-shaped hall inside was very pretty. plus, it had air-conditioned phone booths!


following our map, we walked to the corner of vo van tan street, for some (drum rolls, please!) JOLLIBEE! yes folks, there is a jollibee in vietnam. several branches, in fact. 2-piece chicken joy, please!

we were joined at this point by ex-housemate h and her friends who were also in hcm for the weekend. they led us to the high committee building (formerly the city hall). the photographers in the group clicked away. unfortunately, it rained, and we looked for a place to while the time.

we were drawn to a restaurant conspicuously named "no delicious, no pay". the waitress told us they really mean it. fortunately for her, we already had dinner and didn't try out the concept. instead, we tried out their local beer.
when the rain stopped, seeing as there weren't anymore places we can take pictures of at that time of the night, we headed back to the hotel. and then went out to try another bar, creatively named "go2eat, go2bar, go2bed, go2bbq". each floor of the building corresponds to the name (use your imagination, and think of the sequence). travelmate t bought 2 traditional vietnamese sandwich from one of the street vendors. it looked like a sub, filled with butter, liver pate, ham(?), and pickled vegetables.

by 2 am, we went back to the hotel to rest. we booked ourselves for a tour of the cu chi tunnels for the next day, and we had to be up by 7.

*pic grabbed from myk
more vietnam pics here

15 May 2008

getting back to singapore

sunday, 7am: we had an early breakfast at the hotel. we were not sure when our next meal would be, as we were determined to stay in the airport and wait for the airlines to be back in operation. we hoped for at least one flight, any flight, to get us out of myanmar and into another place. we were getting worried. and we knew people back home in singapore and in manila were getting worried, having heard nothing from us since yesterday.

we didn't even wait for the travel agent to fetch us. we had someone from the hotel get us a cab to take us to the airport. fitting six people into a tiny cab wasn't that much of a hassle, not when you're from manila. on the streets we passed, people were starting to clean up the debris. there was traffic everywhere. what was, on our first day, a city that impressed us with its rural charm and cleanliness, was now reduced to this:

there were a lot of people at the airport. the guards were not letting people in. only those with tickets were allowed to go through. a lot of other tourists, several we saw at the hotel, were also there. a crowd was gathering in the lobby, as people were asking for updates on their flights from several airline crews. thai airways had already put up a sign that they cancelled their flights for the day, until further notice. the phrase "until further notice" concerned us. how long will it take for them to get their airport running again?

thankfully, chilli d and chilli n were determined to get a status on our flight. they sought out the jetstar people, who came up with the same answer everytime: they were not sure yet if their planes will come in to yangon. we can contact their main office in the city to check on the updates. well, if the phone lines were down, how were we supposed to contact their office? do we risk paying $40usd for a taxi ride to the office only to be told the same thing? we didn't think so.we stuck by there, camped out at the lobby, waiting for news, any news that could tell us we were getting out of the country.

10am: the manager from the travel agency arrived. no good news from him either. but he said there might be updates in the afternoon. we agreed with him that we will stay put in the airport for updates, while he will check if the phone lines are available again. chilli a, d and i went with him to a local market to buy food for the group (bread and chips).

12pm: by this time, all of the airlines posted their notice of cancellation for flights. almost all of the tourists went back to their hotels. but the six of us, we stuck it out there. our travel agent was going to pick us up at 5pm. with no way of contacting him, we hung out at the airport.

for the whole afternoon, we tried to amuse ourselves. there were several rounds of charades where someone got a new nickname, there was singing, dancing, picture-taking, making videos. and there was talk. talk about how we missed singapore (which i personally didn't know was possible), how we hoped friends we told about our trip knew what happened to us, where our next trip would be (yes, after this one, there most definitely will be, only the next destination will be one where phones worked). we were eating small portions of the bread we bought for fear that we might not get served dinner at the hotel, and we dreamed of food..junkfood, fast food, any food.

5pm: a few minutes before our travel agent arrived, our singaporean hero from the day before came to the airport to check on his flight, which it turned was the same as ours. after the "van-stuck-in-mud" incident from yesterday, we felt we had bonded. i think that's what happens when you share a difficult moment.

mr. lin told us he went to the singaporean embassy and was able to make a phone call home. of course, we thought to go to the philippine embassy the day before, but were told that it was about an hour from the city, and with the storm and all, we just chose to go to the hotel. we also thought to go there the next day, but we didn't want to miss our flight, just in case the airline opened again.

our travel agent had some good news. the phone lines were working! we all eagerly went with him to the office, and quickly scrolled through the phonebooks of our useless phones. each one of us made two, even three calls each to friends and family who were in singapore and manila. we didn't mind the expense ($3usd per minute!), just as long as we heard familiar voices on the other line.

after that, our stay at the nearby hotel was more relaxed. it didn't matter that there was no electricity and no running water. the staff at the hotel provided us candles (actually, we also bought candles earlier), and even took our orders for dinner so they can buy it for us at a store close to the hotel.

dinner by candlelight was over in less than 10 minutes. we slept early that night, charging our energies for the next day's airport challenge.

monday, 7am: we packed up early and went with our travel agent. it was the same scene as yesterday. only this time, there were more people. tourists, locals, they were all around. the airlines were open! woohoo!!

the only problem was, our supposedly 10am flight delayed (again!) for three hours. we hadn't had breakfast and there was no canteen at the airport. we had one loaf of bread for six people. the only thing we were looking forward to was the in-flight meal when we got onboard.

1pm: the plane finally, finally arrived! we boarded up, our "hero", mr. lin, included. but alas, they announced that they will not be serving meals on the flight. instead, they served packets and packets of cookies, and nuts, and kept the drinks coming.

and at last, after three and a half hours, we were back in singapore! never before have we looked forward to walking through changi terminal's halls. we turned on our phones to find a lot of messages from friends and families, worried about us. missed calls, voice messages..i think the chillis will agree with me when i say, those messages made us realize how a lot of people care for us.

we were then off for our first real meal of the day: fried chicken at popeye's! yep, we were definitely back in singapore.

overall, i would have to say, this is one we all will definitely not forget. more than the really beautiful sights we've seen (sights i would recommend to anyone to see at least once in their lifetime), i think this trip made us get to know each other a little bit more: our quirks, our strengths, our attitudes. and it made us appreciate what we have right now, appreciate the friends who genuinely are concerned for us.

so the question is: can i go through that whole experience again? honestly, i wouldn't. but if i had to make another difficult trip, i would definitely want to be with the people i was with in myanmar. let's just hope there's no big cyclone to get caught up in this time. i could do without that.

*going home*

14 May 2008

and then there was cyclone nargis..

friday, 2:30 pm: on the way to the hotel, mr. sun, in a very calm manner, told us that our flight back to yangon was cancelled because of a storm. not to worry, though. the agency had prepared a van and assigned a driver to take us there by land. we were going on a road trip. a 14-hour road trip. by the agency's calculations, we would be in yangon by 7 am the next day, with just enough time for breakfast at hotel and catch our 10am flight back to singapore.

coming from a country that gets frequently visited by typhoons, we treated this road trip as a minor inconvenience, nothing really serious. so we headed back to the hotel, quickly packed up and waited for the van and our new driver who was going to take us to yangon. we waited for an hour. apparently, we were not going to pass by any gasoline station, so our driver had to stock up gas by the gallons in the van.

3:30 pm: saying our goodbyes to mr. sun, we loaded up in the van and prepared ourselves for the very, very long ride. there were jokes, talks about how everything was so inspiring, and still more picture-taking. we stopped by a little town to buy some food.

what did we talk about in the van?

8:00 PM: we made a brief stop in another town (i'd forgotten the name) for dinner. that would be our last meal (apart from the cookies and chips we bought earlier), until we got to the hotel in yangon the next day.

and after that, we were back on the road again. after running out of stories to tell and songs to sing, we all fell asleep.

saturday, 3am: our driver stopped the van to change the car's batteries and load up on oil. i'm hazy on the details, but i was told by my friends we stopped in the middle of nowhere, and it was a tense moment for them.

6am-12PM: i had a good sleep, considering the bumpy road we took. remember what i said about us coming from the philippines and we were used to storms? we were used to it, alright. when storms come in manila, we were all safe inside our houses, waiting for it to pass.

we were not inside a rented van, whose sunroof was starting to leak and pouring water on chilli n's head. we were not outside, on the streets while fallen trees and electric posts blocked our way. no, this is definitely not the typical storm we were used to. we woke up to see this:
(pics courtesy of chilli a)

but this time we were. we were right in the middle of what we later learned, was the worst cyclone in myanmar in 50 years. i could believe that now, with the experience we had. we had to stop several times to wait for brave locals to chop down trees that were blocking the road. and every time the van stopped, we were all in silence, because the heavy winds seemed determined to knock us down.

we passed by buses, cars and trucks on the road, some were lying on their sides, either from a collision with another vehicle, or maybe just plain carried by the wind. when our van waded through floodwater i prayed that our van will not suddenly stop.

the crazy thing about all this was, we did not even think of going some place safe. all we were thinking about was catching our flight back to singapore. when clearly, it didn't look like we were going anywhere.

*clip1 from the van*
*clip2 from the van*

and then, the unthinkable happened. our van got stuck in mud. we all had to go down (with the exception of chilli f, who was assigned to the driver's seat), to help push it out. it would have been a funny sight, of two guys and four girls who were pushing up a van, digging through mud. but at that time, it was definitely not funny. not when you're soaking wet, with really hard winds and rain that, when it fell on your skin, was actually quite painful. we were all shaking from the cold.

thankfully, there were several passersby (yes, there were still people walking around) who stopped to help us push the van. we were about half an hour into the unsuccessful pushing when a pair of kind middle-aged men helped us. and surprise, surprise, they were from singapore! my friends and i agreed, at that moment, our perception of singaporeans totally changed.

after we got the van out of the mud, the singaporeans told us that the airport was definitely closed, all flights were suspended. best to get ourselves some place safe. they were going to their embassy. they told us to go to a hotel. and so, we went to the hotel where we were previously booked.

1PM: it was the same hotel we stayed in on our first night in myanmar. only this time, the hotel was damaged by the storm. the doormen were actually tying a rope to hold the front door together. pails were strewn all over the lobby to catch water from the leaks, and one elevator was not working. the hotel was running on generator, they said. and worst of all, all phone lines were down. not just the international ones, but the local ones as well.

our first goal was to contact our travel agent, so we can ask him about rescheduling our flights. the second was to get ourselves a room. we failed on the first one, obviously. we did get a suite, where all six of us stayed for the night. since there were a lot of other tourists stuck in the city, we were thankful we got at least one room.

after we've cleaned up, we had some lunch. and we bugged the front desk of the hotel every so often for any updates on contacting our travel agent.

6pm: our tour guide from the first day came to the hotel to check on us. he told us that one of their managers were checking on the airline availability. we told him that we would like to go to the airport very early the next day. we were sure there would be some flights available by then. he agreed and told us they will pick us up the next morning at 7 in the morning.

we didn't even bother with dinner, because we wanted to make sure our money would be enough for a longer stay, just in case. our credit cards were useless here. they all dealt in cash.

back at the room, we were thinking of back up plans. and amused ourselves with fortune-telling, and talking (i don't know why we never ran out of topics, seriously), and thinking of what we were supposed to be doing at that moment (there was supposed to have been dinner for chilli a in singapore with some other friends). and we looked back at that day's experience. we all agreed, by this time, that this was one of our most unforgettable trips.

the next morning was another hurdle before getting home.

the myanmar adventure-day3

we had an early start on our second day in bagan. chillis a and n, the two who researched the temples we MUST see, were determined to accomplish just that in the limited time we had. our flight back to yangon (to take our singapore-bound flight the next day) was at four in the afternoon, so we had to complete our sight-seeing before that.

after a quick stop at a souvenir shop to buy some trinkets, we visited our first temple for the day. similar to the sunset pagoda, we climbed on top of it. and again, the view was breathtaking. this time, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and our feet weren't getting burned....yet.

we walked ancient roads...

and saw structures that have been in existence for thousands of years.

mr. sun had a lot of interesting stories to tell us about each and every temple. you know the term, information overload? we experienced that! between that and the awesome structures we had around us, one is bound to space out, literally, and forget some of the things that are being said.

i did, remember the story about the temple built by the crazy king, whose workers were executed if a needle can be pushed between the bricks they laid. and, there was no scaffolding, no ladders used on this one. the workers were made to stand on top of each other to build this temple...

and then there was this story about the king who wasn't supposed to be the king, because he wasn't the first-in-line. but he got chosen anyway, because the white umbrella tilted in his position. he built this..it was by this time, we noticed mr. sun would answer "why not?", in a distinctive tone everytime we asked him a question. we started imitating him. could we climb up the pagoda? "why not?" could we stop by this place? "why not?" but as i said previously, this phrase will be part of our vocabulary for the duration of our stay.

there were many more stories told by our guide. and i could see he wanted to say a lot more, but we were really short of time. there were some interesting places we didn't go into. we either stopped by the road and took pictures of it, or viewed it through the window of our van.

our last stop, at about two in the afternoon, was lunch at a restaurant beside their city gate.

we figured we can still make a quick stop to the hotel to freshen up and get our things, just in time to make it to the airport for the flight back to yangon. we were mistaken...

more pictures from bagan here
the view from the top of a temple

13 May 2008

the myanmar adventure-day 2

we took an early flight out of yangon to go a little further up north to the ancient city of bagan. it was our good luck, that a few minutes on our way to the hotel, we passed by a street procession. mr. sun, who was our guide for the duration of our stay, told us it was a family celebration for children who are going into the monastery. there, they'll be taught the ways of buddhism. there was a horseman, and an elephant dancer. mr. sun said that richer families would sometimes rent a real live elephant.

after that was a little trip to the local market, to look for souvenirs, interact with the locals, and of course, take more pictures...
and try on the local dress. i only wanted to try the skirt, but the lady in the store decided to put the top on as well.
after that, was a brief stop at a local coffee shop. food was finished faster than you can say "bagan".

and what do you know, the coffee shop was beside a small artist's house. i was haunted by this painting.

but decided to buy one of these. they just seemed like a positive likeness of our experience (so far)in myanmarour guide offered to take us to the hotel for some lunch and rest. but we all knew we had limited time to look at a lot of temples, so we decided to set aside the hotel trip. i mean, really, who can think of the airconditioned comfort of the hotel, and the normalcy of hotel food when one sees these on the road?

we had a lot of road stops to take pictures. after that, it was information overload: on each temple's history, burmese history and of course, buddhism. each and every one of those structures had a special story, and a special name. i'm still having trouble connecting the name to which temple. but each one of them, was breathtaking..

if it were up to us, we would have continued to go around, take hundreds (maybe thousands) of pictures. but mr. sun, with his gentle but firm manner, told us to have some lunch to prepare ourselves for the highlight (what highlight? everything we saw were highlights) of the trip. but first, was lunch with a view of the irrawady river. this is one of the cleanest rivers i've seen, considering that it runs from north to south of the whole country.

mr. sun was right. we needed to sit down, and contemplate on the amazing things we've just seen. we had after the meal, we proceeded to the "sunset pagoda", popular because of it's view of the whole of bagan. we didn't go inside the pagoda. we climbed this:

and from the top, this is what you see
there was no sunset to speak of, because the grey clouds started moving in. and there was a slight drizzle. taking one lst look at the pagoda, we headed off, finally, for the hotel...

...where we had a nice dinner, and a taste of the local beer. the perfect end to a perfect day (well, not too perfect. our feet got burned, after all)

more, more pictures of the second day here
how hot was it in bagan? find out here
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