Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Philippines: Taal Volcano (Video)

The tour books, guides, and the locals will recommend it – after all Taal Volcano is an easy day trip from Manila.  In two hours you will arrive at the town of Talisay.  It’s from there you can get access to Taal Lake and Taal Volcano.

Taal Volcano is known for several reasons.  It’s the world’s smallest active volcano.  It’s also part of a chain of volcanoes, so from its peak you can see several others.  However, it is likely most famous for its sulfuric crater lake, which some even choose to swim in.  Although we wouldn’t be swimming, my husband and I wanted to get a glimpse of Taal Volcano.

(Our Bangka boat -- these are the traditional boats used in the Philippines)

This volcano is also an island, so first you must traverse Taal Lake.  On the day of our journey I thought we might be in for a relaxing Bangka boat ride.  How I was wrong.  We were warned we may get wet on the ride, but feeling proud of my forethought I pulled on a poncho.  It wasn’t enough.  The boat captain draped a plastic sheet over our legs and I soon learned why.  For 25 minutes we were pelted with water.  This lake looks beautiful, but it’s hardly serene.  As our small boat hit white caps head on, you could see the waves of water coming at you.  And, soon we were laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.  By the way – all that plastic is still not enough to keep you dry.

(View on the boat ride of a neighboring inactive volcano)

Once we arrived, I was in for another surprise.  People actually live here at the base of an active volcano.  Although living off the tourist trade, these people live a poor life.  It’s from them we rented a couple of sad and tired looking horses or burros (I can’t be certain) to take us to the top of Taal Volcano.  A horseback ride sounds relaxing doesn’t it?  This wasn’t.  Our horses/burros were obstinate and mine was gassy.  The ride was bumpy and at times a bit painful.  Thank goodness for the views.  As we climbed higher we saw untouched wildlife and jungles and were afforded views of other another volcano sitting in Taal Lake.

(A typical home at Taal Volcano's base)

(Me and my horse)

Thankful to have arrived at the peak, you’re bombarded with people in ramshackle accommodation selling drinks and souvenirs.  But, what you really want is just a few steps away – the view.  It’s another surprise, you don’t expect so suddenly to be staring down into the crater of a volcano.  Crater Lake is a lovely sight.  Around the edges you can see spots that are bubbling with boiling water and pockets of gases and smoke spewing through cracks in the earth.  It’s a reminder this volcano is still alive.  At the top there isn’t much to do but just sit and admire what’s in front of you.

(On the volcano's ridge with a view of Crater Lake)

Then, when we were ready…it was back on the sad, tired horses and back on the boat to be pelted by water and filled with laughter.  Finally, it was time for lunch.  The setting in a private nipa hut overlooking the lake was wonderful.  The fish awaiting us all went to Cameron, a much more adventurous eater than myself.  I know one thing, I don’t want my meal looking at me.  However, I enjoyed the chicken adobo and vegetables.  With our bellies full, it was time to nap in the car as we headed back to Manila.

(Cameron says my lunch pictured here was delicious)

Tours & Advice:  Our tour was through the Filipino Travel Center – the tour was affordable and our guides were nice.  However, was I to go again I’d probably avoid the horses and just walk the trail.  I’ve also read about other less traveled trails that sound appealing.  The Taal Lake Yacht Club offers good information on different treks and tours.  Our tour also didn’t include a stop in the town of Tagatay.  The views from the ridge here are supposed to be lovely and Manila Stay offers a tour with that option.

Monday, February 21, 2011


(Roosten giving us a smile)

Walking along a windswept beach in Boracay, taking photos, we were being followed.  A young boy was on our heels.  This wasn’t unusual – he was begging for money.  But, this boy would turn out to be a little different.  His name was Roosten.

Upon our arrival in the Philippines, we were a bit surprised by the poverty we saw.  Arriving at our first tourist site, we walked into the Binondo Church in Manila and within two minutes a small child was in front of me with her hands outstretched, begging for money.  These children don’t say much… “Please, mam,” or simply “I’m hungry.”  They don’t have to say much.  Their dirty, ill fitting clothes and lack of shoes tell the story.  My heart immediately ached and I remembered similar encounters in Mexico. 

At times I gave money to the children we encountered and at other times I didn’t.  I learned I had to move quickly, because once I reached for my purse, others in need would materialize from all corners.  As a tourist, we were already targets.  I remember one child doing a dance of joy or simply gloating to his friends, after I put a few coins in his hand.  And, these children were persistent.  However, none quite like Roosten.

On that beach, Roosten was one of several beggar children.  We put up our fa├žade and tried to ignore him as he tailed after us.  But, it’s simply heartbreaking.  How can you ignore a child when he tells you he’s hungry?  So, at first my husband and I just started talking to Roosten.  And then he started hamming it up for us and we took a few photos, which he said was okay.  He enjoyed seeing the results on our digital screen.  We told him he was handsome and did he know what that meant?  Yes, we did give Roosten money.  I was surprised, he continued hanging around.  And, when it was time to go, he stood on the corner as we hopped on a trike (motorbike and sidecar).  With a big smile he waved to us until we were out of sight.

Those are images that aren’t easily forgotten.  It’s hard to see anyone beg for money or food.  But, of course children are different.  You can still see the light in their eyes and they’re still quick to smile.  They laugh and play as all children do.  Amazingly, many don’t seem defeated by their circumstances.  I hope they never are.


(On the same beach, these children also asked for money)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lauren's 5: Phillipines Travel Tips

(Enjoying Boracay's White Beach)

Here’s what I learned in the Philippines in the form of practical travel tips!  If you go, this could make your visit to Manila or Boracay a little less stressful and a little more affordable.  As the title suggests, I've narrowed this to my 5 top tips.

1)      Take a Taxi:  Starting at the NAIA airport, the best way to get to your hotel is to take a taxi.  Prepaid coupon taxis are available.  You go to a tiny office near the arrivals area of the terminal and pay a set rate in exchange for a coupon.  The advantage is there’s no wait.  You hand your coupon to a waiting taxi driver and you’re on your way.  The disadvantage is the fare is more than double the rate of a regular metered taxi.  If there’s no line, go for the metered taxi.  Getting around Manila I would continue to use taxis.  There isn’t a great public transportation infrastructure in Manila or one that’s easy to use.  Plus, Manila taxis are cheap.  But, you must insist the driver use the meter.  Negotiated rates will always be higher.

2)      Get to the Airport Early:  I’m really talking about international flights out of Ninoy Aquino International Airport.  The process is unlike any other I’ve experienced and that meant 90 minutes in lines before getting to my gate.  Security lines start outside – you must go through security just to get into the airport.  Then you must get in line to pay a terminal fee (it’s 1500 php each, so keep that money handy before exchanging currency).  Then you wait at customs, and again at security.  For domestic flights out of NAIA, I would also suggest arriving early.

3)      Small Bills:  When you exchange money, ask for small bills (500 php and lower).  You will find trouble making change with larger denominations.  Taxi drivers may tell you ‘Sorry no change’ as they hope for a very big tip.  And, speaking of tips, 50 and 20php bills are always handy.

4)      Boracay on a Budget:  Boracay is a hot destination, so it may not be as budget friendly as the rest of the Philippines.  However, if you want to save money, stay at a hotel off the beach.  A two minute walk to the white sands could save you 50% or more on hotel costs.  We opted for La Bella Casa at Station 1, and I would highly recommend it.  The rooms were lovely, breakfast was included and cooked to order, and the staff was incredibly helpful.

5)      Boracay is for the Beach:  The soft, cool white sands stretch as far as the eye can see and the blue-green waters of Boracay will refresh you.  This is a great beach scene with great nightlife.  However, it’s not the best locale for snorkeling or diving.  Unfortunately, off the beaches of Boracay you can see for yourself what a coral graveyard looks like.  We did, and it isn’t pretty.  The Philippines are known for outstanding diving.  If that’s your draw, pick a different island.  You have 7,000 to choose from!

(Hanging off our bangka boat -- snorkeling didn't meet expectations)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Philippines: Chinese Cemetery (Video)

The Chinese Cemetery in Manila is unlike any other cemetery or burial ground I’ve seen.  Here the wealthiest Chinese citizens are buried with modern conveniences in houses for the dead.  Some of the more ostentatious tombs have furniture, bathrooms, and air conditioning.  Peering through the gates, I spied crystal chandeliers and spiral staircases to second floor balconies.

All of these houses create a sprawling neighborhood – for the deceased.  Typically I find cemeteries to be peaceful places.  However, there was an eerie sensation here.  Because of the design, it felt like a ghost town where everyone had just quickly grabbed their belongings and left.  It was fascinating and as we were told, a must-see in Manila.

(The neighborhood -- a street lined with houses for the dead)

Founded in the 1850’s, the Chinese Cemetery was designed as a place for those who were denied burial in Catholic Cemeteries by the ruling Spanish.  The location is also telling – the cemetery was far outside the city walls.

Each tomb has large pictures of the deceased and you can’t help but wonder about these people.  Who were they and what were their lives like?  The only thing you may be able to figure out is socio-economic class.  While some tombs are lavish and typically gated, others are small, simple, and in disrepair.

(Peering through the gates at the pictures)

(A tomb in disrepair)

Chinese families don’t just visit their loved ones to drop off flowers.  On Sundays and especially on All Saints Day (November 1), the local Chinese come to honor their dead.  That sometimes means having dinner in the tomb and possibly sitting around the table playing mahjong.  An empty chair is left for the departed.

The tombs are fascinating, so I snapped several pictures.  However, since we walked the cemetery without a guide, we may have missed some impressive tombs.  Check out for additional photos and a recommended tour guide.  Otherwise, you’ll have to try your luck with whomever is offering at the cemetery gate, and we didn’t like our options!


Admission: Free

Opening Hours: 7:30am to 7:00pm daily

Location:  Enter through the South Gate on Aurora Avenue, Santa Cruz

Getting There:  You could take a Jeepney Monumento to Aurora Blvd.  The nearest LRT station is Abad Santos.  I just hopped in a metered taxi, the fare from Ermita/Malate was 160php (a few US dollars).

(Tombs reveal many of the deceased were Catholic)

(Access to most tombs is by peering through the gates)

(A monument to Chinese war heroes)

(The details at each tomb are fascinating) 

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Philippines: Impressions of Manila

(Posing along Manila Bay with some Filipino children.)

When people travel to the Philippines, they often skip the capital city, Manila.  The city has a bad reputation, and some of that is deserved.  But, it also has a rich history and some interesting cultural pockets.  So, we decided that we would start our Philippines trip with two days in Manila.

I found Manila to be both appealing and intimidating.  It is chaotic, there is no doubt about it.   The city is noisy, crowded, and dirty – the whole city could use a power washing.  The traffic is notorious and unrelenting.  From a distance, Manila is a modern city with tall buildings, bright lights and beautiful palm trees lining Roxas Boulevard along Manila Bay.  But, clearly it’s still a developing city that is fighting a poverty visitors won’t be able to ignore.  The small street children with rags for clothing and no shoes will come begging, and your heart will ache.  Shortly after the sun went down we would retire for the night, uncertain if we were safe wandering the city streets alone.

(Eating Mandu stuffed with pork in Chinatown) 

However, all of those things didn’t turn me away from Manila.  It’s just a part of picture.  The neighborhoods have character and the people in them are friendly and charming.  In the neighborhood of Binondo you will find one of the oldest Chinatown’s in the world.  As we visited during the week of Lunar New Year, the streets were packed with vendors selling traditional foods, gifts, and good luck charms.  We ate our way though the neighborhood on a walking tour (Tour: The Big Binondo Food Wok).  Traditional dishes, hand made dumplings, and sweet desserts are found here. 

(Fresh, handmade dumplings in the northern Chinese style)

(Wreaths of limes & pineapples sold for Lunar New Year)

Then, there is Intramurous.  This is the area from which the Spanish ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years.  The walled city with lush greenery, European architecture, cobblestone streets, and beautiful churches is simply lovely.  Eating dinner outside, we were serenaded by the sounds of the Catholic mass across the street.  If you enjoy history, you will enjoy learning about Intramurous.  We joined a walking tour that shed light on the Manila’s history and as an American, we played a big role in that.  (Tour:  If These Walls Could Talk)

(In the "Walled City" outside Fort Santiago)

(San Augustin Church, the oldest in the Philippines dating to 1587)

We also spent several hours in Quiapo, which has an energy and atmosphere that is very unique.  First, we arrived at the large Quiapo church during Sunday mass.  People were literally spilling out a dozen doors onto the sidewalks, as the priest's homily wafted from loud speakers into the streets.  Here, people come to pay homage to the Black Nazarene – a somewhat disquieting statue of Jesus.  The square outside the church is lined with vendors; many selling religious items, others selling healing crystals.  You can sit with a fortune teller or tarot card reader.  What an odd juxtaposition outside a Catholic church!  The square extends and you’ll find street markets throughout the neighborhood.  I would describe Quiapo as pleasantly chaotic.

(Inside Quiapo Church is packed with worshippers)

(People line up to pray before the Black Nazarene)

(The markets outside Quiapo Church)

Manila may not be the Pearl of the Orient any longer, but is still has much to recommend it.  A couple of days immersed in the culture and history of this city is the perfect prelude to some relaxation at one of the Philippine's beautiful beaches.