Monday, December 8, 2014

Viva, Vigan!



Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur in the Philippines was voted as one of the New7Wonders Cities of the world. This was announced on December 8 by Bernard Weber, founder and president of New7Wonders Cities. The other cities included in the list are Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), Durban (South Africa), Havana (Cuba), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), and La Paz (Bolivia). 


I can see why Vigan charmed voters from around the world. Vigan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where structures from the Spanish colonial period still exist. Last July, I visited Vigan together with my mother, sisters, and nieces. After a seven-hour night trip  by bus from Cubao, we arrived in Vigan at dawn. After alighting from the bus at Plaza Salcedo, we immediately walked to Calle Crisologo, the center of the said historical district. It is here where many of the 18th century colonial houses can be seen.

The cobblestone streets and Spanish houses of Vigan

Souvenir shops and antique stores along Calle Crisologo

Tour the city aboard a horse-drawn carriage called calesa

We hired a calesa for a tour of the city for P150/hour and saw various historical places.

Monument for Father Jose Burgos, one of Gomburza, the three
martyred priests during the Spanish period

St. Paul's Cathedral, the Baroque-inspired Catholic church
completed in 1800
Bantay Belltower
Nearby is said to be the grounds where Ilocano hero
Diego Silang fought the Spaniards
Antiques from the Burgos Museum

Vigan is also popular for its abel weaving and clay jar industry. We have been using blankets made of abel cloth and they are really sturdy. We saw a demonstration of how the cloth are woven and were also given a chance to try it at Cristy's Loom Weaving Shop. 

Trying my hand at abel weaving
Abel cloth
Potters forming clay jar

Vigan is a city where structures from our Spanish colonial past have been preserved. It is also a city that showcases the craftsmanship of our people with crafts such as weaving and jar making. It is a city that cradled martyrs and heroes. And now it is one of the New7Wonders Cities of the world. Viva, Vigan!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thankful Traveler

As I turn a year older and make a list of things to thank God for, I couldn’t miss the blessing of traveling. Hans Christian Andersen, Danish writer of fairy tales and travelogues once said, “To travel is to live.”  Another writer, Gustave Flaubert, explained it this way: “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”

It’s true. There are more than 190 countries in the world. Aside from my country, the Philippines, I have only been to seven other countries: France, Germany, Brazil, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, and Laos. Traveling to these places made me realize there is a big world out there and there is so  much to discover. Visiting these countries has enriched my life experience.



I’ve experienced autumn, spring, and summer. I have yet to experience how freezing it would be in winter.

Autumn in Bonn, Germany

To speak with the locals, I’ve spoken a phrase or two in German, Portuguese, Swahili, Bahasa, Lao, and of course, English.

Haggling at The Village Market in Nairobi

I’ve tasted French bread, Thuringian sausage from Germany, Brazilian churrasco,  laksa and nasi lemak of Malaysia, Hainanese chicken rice of Singapore and yes, sticky rice and fried insects from Laos.

Food trip in Malaysia

Free taste of Brazilian coffee

I flew by plane to reach all these countries. Rode the ICE (Inner City Express) train in Germany, saddled on a motorbike in Vientiane, toured via a safari van in Kenya, went from place to place through the MRTs of Singapore and Malaysia. Always rode the taxi in all these countries, and yes, walked some distance.

The ICE
Walking in Vientiane

I’ve been to centuries-old castles, museums, churches, temples, monuments, and parks. I had close encounters with giraffes and saw hippopotamus from a safe distance in their habitat. I’ve posed with a tribesman for a souvenir photo, walked into the writing room of a famous historical figure, and met many interesting people from different culture.

At the Giraffe Center

Each time I travel, I learn something new about a country, its culture, its people. I also discover something about myself. And always, I see how God provides, protects, leads me to different places and brings me safely back home.



I’m aware that there will come a time when God would call me to that final destination. It’s going to be a glorious place incomparable to any place in this world. Seeing God’s providential hand in my journey on earth, I could trust my life to no another but to Him, my Lord Jesus Christ. I’m one thankful traveler on this earth but I’m certainly looking forward to that final trip to heaven someday.



Do you want to know more about heaven? Here's a short article about heaven


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lao Food? Love It!

One of the things I enjoyed in Laos was the food. On my first day, I had a taste of feu, or Lao beef noodle stew. This stew with rice noodles was served to us with herbs, bean sprouts, and string beans. I've never eaten uncooked string beans, but this time I took them raw. The crunchy uncooked string beans took on a spicy-sweet-nutty taste when dipped in peanut sauce.

Feu 

At the recently opened Kap Khao Lao restaurant along Luang Prabang Road, our local host ordered traditional Lao food for us to savor. Of course, we had sticky rice served in bamboo containers. Just like the way it’s normally eaten in Laos, we shaped the sticky grains into small balls and ate them with our bare hands together with lab kai (minced chicken salad) and sin dat dyo (fried dried pork). We also had mok pa (steamed fish in banana leaves), keng som pa (sour fish soup), and keng nor mai (bamboo soup). For appetizer, we had tam mak hoong (papaya salad) topped with the familiar chicharon or pork rind. Lao papaya salad is seasoned with fish sauce and shrimp paste, or in Filipino, bagoong

Sin dat dyo, keng nor mai
and sticky rice (inside the bamboo container)


Lab kai


Keng som pa


Mok pa

My food experience in Laos was pleasurable. I’m not fond of spicy food but I came to enjoy the ones I ate because they were also flavored with refreshing herbs and spices like basil, lemon grass, mint, lime, tamarind, and galangal which looks a bit like ginger but not as strong as its taste. The fruits I tasted like dragon fruit, ripe papaya, and lanzones were very sweet, The French  bread we had for breakfast were superb. 

Sticky rice and spring rolls


I will also remember eating in Laos because for the first time, I was lured into trying kua tuk tan or fried insects. Actually, the small winged creatures didn't look distasteful. They even smelled like citrus and looked palatable because they were fried with herbs. I only chomped on a few pieces, just enough for a beginner's taste. 

Kua tuk tan



I gained a few pounds after almost a week of eating Lao food. I missed the papaya salad so much that as soon as I returned home, I made my own version of tam mak hoong. Looking forward to more Lao food!

My version of tam mak hoong

A Visit to Vientiane

Last month, when I visited Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I did not see any McDonald’s, Jollibee, or any other fast food restaurant that’s a staple in major cities of the world. What I noticed was the presence of Buddhist temples in every road, an obvious indication that majority of the people there are followers of Buddha.

Pha That Luang, the Buddhist monument
and national symbol of Laos


Aside from the temples, another famous landmark of Vientiane is the Patuxai Victory Gate or Monument in the middle of the Patuxai Park. The monument was built in honor of the people of Laos who fought against France for their independence. It is similar to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but the artwork is Laotian. My friend and I paid an entrance fee of 3,000 kip (about 40 US cents) to climb the tower where we had a spectacular view of the city.

Patuxai Victory Gate

View of Vientiane from the rooftop of Patuxai Victory Monument

A visit to Vientiane would not be complete without a stroll at the banks of Mekong River. We strolled at sunset and saw long rows of red tents for the night market. There are numerous food stalls where people can choose a variety of seafood (big tilapia, clams, squids, shrimps) and meat (beef, pork, chicken, frog) for dinner by the river. Plastic tables and chairs are set in the open air for dining. A few mats with pillows are laid on the floor for those who prefer a more relaxed dining. Next to the food stalls are the tents where locals sell clothes, bags, paintings, and other souvenir items. Further down, there was a group of people engaged in aerobic exercises.

Sunset at Mekong River

Dining at Mekong River

According to a friend who has been working in Vientiane for some years, tourists usually just pass through this city before going to the more popular destination Luang Prabang, the former royal capital. Vientiane is so small that it can be explored on foot, by tuk-tuk, or by bike. Food and accommodation are inexpensive. Local food is good, a bit spicy but flavorful.  

There are no direct flights going to Laos from the Philippines and I had to take a flight first to Bangkok before catching the plane to Vientiane. Though there are no direct flights going to Laos from the Philippines, once you’re in Vientiane, if you have the time and patience for long trips, you could cross-country to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.

At Mekong River where you can see Thailand, which is
just across the river
This photo courtesy of B. Lee

Friday, May 2, 2014

Looking Forward to Lobo

When you hear the word Lobo, you probably think of a balloon or wolf. But as you read this, remember that Lobo is a third class municipality in the province of Batangas, about 145 kilometers from Manila.  It is bounded by Batangas City to the west, the municipalities of Taysan and Rosario to the north, the municipality of San Juan to the east, and Verde Island Passage to the south. If you are considering a quiet, charmingly simple vacation spot with beaches and underwater wonders as well as a side trip to a historical landmark, you might consider trekking to this place.

I went to Lobo last week with a companion primarily to take a look at the century-old Malabrigo Lighthouse built during the Spanish period. We first dropped by at the Tourism Office and Pasalubong Center at the heart of the town plaza to buy some local delicacies. 



We were glad we stopped by that office first because the tourism staff members were friendly and eager to help us get to our destination. We didn’t have a private vehicle so a staff member hailed a tricycle for us. One of their interns even accompanied us to the historical site. From the town plaza, we passed by the barangays of Olo-Olo, Mabilog na Bundok, Sawang, Soloc, and finally Malabrigo.


After an uphill ride, the 19th century lighthouse and pavilion came into view in the middle of a big lot. The grounds of Malabrigo Lighthouse is open to the public but visitors are not allowed inside the tower, adjacent pavilion, and machine room because the structures are already very fragile. But the cylindrical brick lighthouse still actively guides international and local seafarers passing through the Verde Island Passage. Solar panels provide power to the 56 ft Spanish lighthouse also known as Faro de Punta de Malabrigo. Locals call it the parola.





From the hill, we saw a panoramic view of the  Verde Island Passage with Isla Verde and the island of Mindoro on the background. Farther out into the sea, the island of Marinduque can also be seen. We went down to the beach  using the cemented stairs. According to our tricycle driver, the stairs were built by Olympic swimmer Akiko Thomson and her group which advocates the preservation of the lighthouse.

A view of  the Verde Island Passage



Compared to other beaches in Batangas, the beaches of Malabrigo are not sandy, but littered with pebbles.  Rock formations are also common. And the water is so clear. Underneath, one can also see colorful corals and different marine life. This makes Malabrigo and the surrounding areas a haven for scuba diving and snorkelling. We also visited a nearby resort which was chosen as the shooting site for a TV series.




When you visit Lobo, be ready to navigate through winding roads amidst mountains. At the moment, accommodations are limited to beach resorts. There are no hotels, inns, or pension houses. There are no fastfood restaurants but you can savor local food at any of the eateries in the market. The municipal  tourism officer, Mrs. Lota Manalo, has high hopes for tourism in this town. She shares to us of her department’s plan to actively promote Lobo’s other natural wonders like their water falls, mangrove swamp, peat forest, rice terraces, pawikan (sea turtle) nestling area, and of course, the historical Malabrigo Lighthouse. That is something we can all look forward to. 


To get to Lobo by private vehicle, head to the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX), straight to ACTEX then to the the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR) Tollway. Exit at the end of the expressway at Balagtas, Batangas City. Turn left onto National Road and follow the signs leading to SM Batangas. From that area, continue onto Gov. Antonio Carpio Road (14.7 km) then Taysan-Lobo Road (16.7 km).

By commute, take any bus from Manila going to Batangas City. Get off at the Grand Terminal, hop into a jeep going to Batangas City. Get into another jeep plying the Libjo-Batangas City route and ask the driver to drop you at the Lobo jeep terminal. Alternatively, from the poblacion, you can take a jeep going to SM Batangas and get off at the department store. From there you can walk a few meters to the Lobo jeep terminal. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Cuenca: Mountain, Lake, Volcano


Mt. Maculot in Cuenca, Batangas is one of the mountains close to Manila and its proximity to the city makes it a favorite among mountain climbers. People who want to climb Mt. Maculot are advised to register first  at registration sites in the town. A guide can also be hired to help you with the trek to the Rockies. The Rockies is a popular site of the mountain so called because of its rocky terrain. Once you reach the top, you can see a breathtaking view of the Taal Lake and Taal Volcano below.

But unlike mountaineers who follow the trail to the Rockies, I was led to a different route to see Mt. Maculot, the Taal Lake and Taal Volcano. I went to Brgy. Dita, Cuenca  to visit family friends. They live in the Dita side of Mt. Maculot, hundreds of meters above sea level. The air up in the mountain is so cool and the forest supplies fresh oxygen. Fruit-bearing and other kinds of trees abound in the forest but what fascinated me most was the lovely, colorful flowers and ornamental plants, some of which I saw for the first time.






A view of the towns of San Jose and Lipa City from Mt. Maculot


From Dita, our friends’ 78-year old father drove us to the next barangay, Balagbag, so I can have a view of the mountain peak from afar. Maculot is a wide mountain and we were on the other end of the Rockies, but they told me that I can also view Taal Lake and Taal Volcano from Balagbag. We found an elevated spot that gave us a panoramic view of the Taal Lake and the Taal Volcano. The lake was so placid. Some parts were blue, other parts were sparkling like emerald. From a distance Taal Volcano protrudes. From where we were, the place was framed in green foliage with birds flying into the scene, and chickens cackling in the background. A gentle, cool breeze brushed me. Inspired by the scene, I breathe in the fresh air. No pollution, no distraction. I felt at peace.




Philip Yancey said, “Wilderness announces to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untameable God…the world cannot contain the delight God inspires.”* After going up to Mt. Maculot, I begin to think that maybe mountaineers are drawn to the mountains because when they are up there, they sense the presence of God. And indeed, God displays His beauty and power in the mountains, in the volcano, and in the lake. Our appropriate response is awe and praise to Him.

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
    burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
    with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
    shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
 Let the rivers clap their hand
 let the mountains sing together for joy.”  Psalm 98:4-8


Here’s an old gospel song about a mountaintop experience with God.

*Source of quotation by Philip Yancey: Our Daily Bread