Monday, November 2, 2009

A plane trip back home to Manila

Years ago, I immigrated from the Philippines to Canada. In a matter of less than a year, I left and hurried back to the Philippines. It may be a mystery to some why I went back (Philippines having such a "backward" image - an image at times true a lot of times false) but the immigration experience made me realize that the Philippines is really where my heart belongs and where I am truly happy.

I try to explain to others what makes the Philippines (or Manila) so special for me. It may be hard for others to appreciate it amidst all the pollution, corruption, natural (and unnatural) disasters, poverty and chaos but I think it this chaos what makes the "gems" of the Philippines even more special, more valuable, shiny and truly "bling bling"! A lot of foreigners / visitors have experienced this for themselves but if you haven't visited the country, you will certainly have a lot of apprehensions about Manila and the Philippines.

Gems like the happiness and smiles among the desolate, the helping of others by people who have nothing of their own, the strong family bonds despite the forces that pull them apart - lots of gems to enjoy and to learn from.

For the next part of this blog, I will continue and try my best to write and draw more of the gems, the stories and experiences I have of the Philippines and show why it is a GREAT place to travel too! Cheers from the Philippines!

A ferry to Hong Kong

I've visited Hong Kong many times before but never on a backpack budget (I'd be with family and stay at hotels). Never did I think that Hong Kong was "backpack friendly" till I stayed at a hostel at the Chungking Mansions at Nathan Road. The place isn't for the faint hearted (a bit cramp and crowded) but it suits me just fine! I found a hostel maintained by a friendly Filipina who kept the hostel real clean and safe - that's all I ask for!

You can see from my drawing that there isn't much of a view from my hostel window and there isn't much space either - but I'm out most of the day anyways and so this doesn't bother me one little bit. Whenever I go overseas, there is something I always do (aside from sketching) - i wake up in the middle of the night and look through my window. I look at the road, look at what other people are doing, it's real interesting to me. My Hong Kong window was a whole stack of windows, clothes lines and air conditioners: fascinating!

Hong Kong is completely modern with all of the shopping, all of the contemporary architecture and it's busy busy busy. Not much drawing for me but I've always loved Hong Kong and it's vibrancy.

A real short bus ride from China to Macau

Macau is small as China is gigantic. By mistake, we didn't get off at the right bus stop and by that, we were able to get around the whole of Macau. I had the impression that Macau is a place for gambling, gambling and more gambling (i don't gamble and so I wasn't so keen on visiting Macau). I was wrong - Macau is WONDERFUL with old Portuguese architecture, pocket gardens, museums and lots of culture! Macau is so much like Europe in Asia.

There are great architecture landmarks full of wonderful detail which is great for drawing. I recommend visiting the Macau museum and probably a casino just for experience.

Since Macau was a bit pricey, we would keep our eyes open, observe where the locals (construction workers) go to dine. We found a small hole in the wall "cafeteria" where locals went - it was inexpensive and the food was healthy and hearty - vegetables were SO fresh! I imagine there are a number of them around, so just look out for them - we don't have to eat at fast food joints all the time.

A stone's throw away: Hong Kong

Bus from Hanoi, Vietnam to Nanning, China

This is where the traveling took a notch higher - China isn't much of an English speaking country but we met a whole lot of helpful and friendly Chinese people who were more than willing to help us with directions, tickets etc. The Chinese were WONDERFUL!

We stayed overnight at a Nanning Hotel and took a train to Beijing. There are several "classes" to choose from in the train. We picked an "upper berch" (317 RMB) which meant We could sleep in a bunk bed during this long train ride (more than 20 hours). It was comfortable (My standards are not high) and it was a GREAT new experience (purchase food or snacks before you board the train is my suggestion).

Of course Beijing was absolutely mind boggling! I love movies about old China (The Last Emperor , Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell my Concubine etc.) and so, seeing Beijing in real life was a big thrill for me. We stayed in a 350+ year old hostel which was 10 minutes away from Tianamen Square - what more can you ask for?

I feasted on the lamb bar b que which is sold on the streets and went on the "Secret Wall" tour of the Great Wall of China - I REALLY enjoyed Beijing.

We took another train from Beijing to modern Shanghai. It is best that you make early reservations for the backpacker hostels (unlike in Southeast Asia) in Shanghai because it can get really fully booked at times. Shanghai is much like the complete opposite of Beijing - completely modern which was also very nice to see (Don't miss: The Bund).

From Shanghai, we took another long train ride to Macau (more than 20 hours!) this time we took the "hard seat" which is the economy version of a plane ride. REAL uncomfortable but an experience not to be missed. Here's a drawing I made - there were people EVERYWHERE (even in the bathroom). People were falling asleep right and left - including a stranger who fell asleep on my lap.

Off to Macau!

Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by bus for 8 US$

Vietnam was a FANTASTIC surprise for me. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that a war torn communist country would be one of the world's best travel destinations!

First stop was Saigon, where we found a place to stay for 2 US$ a night. This is also where we got a "Ha Long Bay Tour" for a mere 28 US$ - a steal for an overnight stay at an authentic junk including meals and the tour!

We took an "open bus" ticket (paid 14 US$ depending on the number of stops) wherein you get to pick how many stops you'd like throughout your bus ride of the WHOLE of Vietnam (you can stay as long as you'd like at each stop)! We stopped at Nha Trang (a place where I'd like to live): a small city by a great big beach, Hoian: a vibrant and ancient town full of small roads and alleys with really nice shops, cafes and bargain shopping. We then stopped at Hanoi right at the north of Vietnam and where we took a bus ride entering China. The Open bus is a BRILLIANT idea I wish other countries have - it gives you ALL the flexibility for travel. I think it's the BEST travel deal.

In the whole South East Asia trip, we stayed the longest in Vietnam - because we travelled the whole of the country, it was inexpensive AND there was a whole lot of stuff to see and do. Heaven was drawing street scenes from a local cafe while nursing a cup of coffee.

Next stop: China!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

From Laos to Cambodia - with a stopover at Bangkok, Thailand

Aside from Louang Phabang, we also visited the capital of Laos - Vientianne. From Laos we took a bus to Bangkok and then a bus ride (10 hours all in all) to Siem Reap. It was a bumpy and dusty bus ride. We all looked like we were caked with powder dust.

If you have the chance, YOU HAVE TO see and visit Siem Reap - THE temples of Angkor are NOT to be missed in this lifetime. This was my second visit to Angkor Wat and I'm very glad I had this chance. During the first trip (with my sister) I couldn't manage but just gawk and be dumbfounded by the history and majesty of it all. This trip I was able to draw and enjoy.

Siem Reap was full of bicycles and all sorts of scooters - this is where I drew one of my favorite images (see left). I drew this right outside the hostel we were staying in.

Of course I also had the chance to draw the temples - Bayon is just one of the many favorites. I love drawing "onsite" - almost ALWAYS someone (or a whole lot people) come over and watch me draw. When I was younger, I was uncomfortable with people watching but then I thought it was a good way of "sharing" my art and talents. Now I enjoy meeting people through my art. I remember while drawing the Ta Prohm temple (I was sitting among the uncomfortable rocks and ruins), a very young blonde boy sat with me very quietly. We were then joined by a lot of local children who I think live somewhere among the ruins. We all had a nice "quiet time" together.

On the bus, I also loved the local architecture of small provincial houses - their roofs were so nice with elaborate trimmings. I couldn't draw in the bus (too shaky a ride) so I had to take snapshots which I later used as a reference for the drawing. Next, off to Vietnam!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Two days on a slow boat from Thailand to Laos

From the tip of Thailand, we took a "slow boat" to Houeixai, Laos. It's called a slow boat beacause there's a much faster one - wherein you have to wear a safety helmet - and i heard stories that it wasn't that safe. the slow boat ride to Louang Phabang (Laos) however takes two days with an overnight stopover at Pakbeng. The ride is along the Mekong river and is quite nice as it is a bit uncomfortable. Sketching made my trip not just bearable but real nice.

When we arrived at the shores of Louang Phabang, it was late in the evening - I could hardly see a thing. i remember we had to clamber up a hill from the dock. Reaching the top, I saw an absolutely magical sight - the main road (not very wide) was a turned into night market. There wasn't any electricity that night and so the whole street was lined with the warm glow of candles. It was wonderful to see and I was absolutely mesmerized.

Morning brought me even more wonders - I saw the whole town was full of old French colonial architecture. I thought, "Ah! I'll just stay by the curb and draw all day long" - which is exactly what I did. Of all the stops in all the 10 countries I visited in the trip, Louang Phabang was my favourite.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bus From Malaysia to Thailand

We got a bus ticket to Bangkok from a small travel agency (at a local mall) - ALWAYS ALWAYS bargain! I think being Filipinos (we look a lot like locals), we do get great prices.

Bangkok was MOST amazing! First stop was THE backpack capital of southeast asia - Khao San Road. I LOVE the vibe of Khao San - the street is closed to vehicles and people from all over the world walk to and fro the street. Most if not everyone was interesting! I would sit by the curb and draw (as usual). This is also where you could find inexpensive backpack hostels and even more inexpensive (AND MOST DELICIOUS) street food!

Aside from Bangkok, we went to Chang Mai (where I rode an elephant, Inefficiently steered a bamboo raft), and the River Kwai. Thailand is also THE place where I made my first backpack friends (now facebook friends as well) who I will treasure FOREVER. Next stop: Laos! :-)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bus from Singapore to Malaysia

From Singapore, we took a bus to Kuala Lumpur. The Backpackers hostel we stayed in would be HELL for a lot of people but it was pure heaven for me!

First thing - it was OLD. Second, it was filthy! When i reached my room (more like a box with no windows) i thought to myself, I think I'll have to lock the door (looked a bit dangerous) - while trying my best to lock the door, the door fell on me.

BUT I LOVED IT. the owner was an artist and so art was EVERYWHERE. People were amazing. I remember an gentleman from the Middle East wanting to share his newly cooked noodle soup, a couple of Japanese drummers who looked like samurais! We met a super friendly Aussie surfer, a stunning French woman, a Filipina at the crossroads of her life - all sorts of interesting wonderful people.

A companion of mine doesn't speak very good English (in crazy Philippine standards) and he's quite insecure about it. BUT this time, around Japanese, French, Germans - they were all SO impressed by his English. He shined. We had a grand time!

Plane from Manila to Singapore

My Backpack trip from Manila started with a plane ride to Singapore. We (5 of us) took the most inexpensive flight from the the net which started our adventure of scrimping and traveling without much money.

In Singapore, we stayed at "The Cozy Corner" Backpackers Hostel. I remember the taxi driver telling us about the hostel - "it's not so cozy"he said. Apparently not - but i LOVED it. Backpackers sleeping on mattresses out on the roof deck, shared bathrooms, a table where everyone shares breakfast. It was my first encounter with backpackers and I loved it and felt right at home!

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