Friday, July 3, 2009

My Introduction to Asia

I have travelled a lot. admittedly most of my travels have been here in my native Australia, however I have also been to other countries. I've visited Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, & Thailand. I might add that I have enjoyed every bloody minute of it. Asia as a whole is a fascinating place, rich in culture & heritage. I always make a point of trying to stay away from the main tourist areas, and get the real experience of the country. I stay away from the 4 & 5 star hotels. I stay away from the western style restaurants & supermarkets.

My first trip to Asia was to the Philippines, & what an eye opener it was. I arrived at the International airport in Manila, & as far as airport terminals go, it is old, but not too bad. On walking outside I got my very first smell of Asia. Now this is interesting, I've never smelt anything quite like this in my life. I have read various descriptions of the smell, most of them are derogatory, & most of them written by Americans. Very sensitive people , these citizens of the USA. So many things seem to offend them. Never mind, back to the story. Myself & 2 friends found a waiting taxi, well actually to be honest, it found us. I had just had my very first lesson about life in Asia as a westerner. Everybody notices us, & a taxi is almost always close by.

There are a few things to keep in mind when travel to Asia. Number one, keep an eye open for the scams. When I say this, please keep in mind that it really depends on your own definitions of scams & getting ripped off. In Asia, you WILL get ripped off to a certain degree, PERIOD ! The trick is to lessen the amount that you get ripped off. Stop & think for a moment about the life of the average taxi driver for example. He usually has several jobs, and a family to feed. The 200 Peso that he rips you off for is only really a couple of dollars to you, but it will more than feed his family for a couple of days. Put it into perspective. When you see the beggars on the streets, do not give. I know that you want to give, I did. I made the mistake. Before I knew what was happening, I was surrounded by them. Some seemed to be only 6 years old. All of them asking for a few coins. all of them had seen me give to the young lady with a small child. They instantly knew that I was a "Soft target". You give to one, & you seem to have to give to all. My advice is do not stare & do not give. Please do however take note how some people must live. Then when you get home, say thank you to whatever brand of government help that is handed out to some of your countries citizens. Be thankful for what you have in your country, it could be a lot worse.

We went to the hotel that my 2 friends would be staying at. The very first thing that I notice was that the Philippines is a strange mix of the very old Asian ways, & yet very modern at the same time. New western style shopping centres near the old outdoor open markets. Modern style buses run next to the old style Jeepny. They also have the Sari sari store {kind of like a very down market 7/11} where you can get almost anything including food, usually with some plastic tables & chairs outside. This is in stark contrast to the McDonalds, Jollie Bee {part of the Burger King chain} & KFC that are everywhere. We eventually arrive at the Isaya Hotel. It is not fancy, but it is good basic accommodation with clean rooms in reasonable condition & very reasonably priced. You will find them at del pilar, Ermita. A really big bonus is the top floor. The owner has ripped out all the rooms & converted the whole thing into a guest restaurant. With almost half of it being an outdoor barbeque area, the food that comes from this area is great & a credit to the staff.

The airport terminal
The airport terminal
<span class=Jeepney, a great way to get around. These vehicles get loaded to the point where it can be concerning to the health. There is almost total disregard shown to tyre & suspension wear."

another view of a <span class=Jeepney. I have seen these with livestock tied to the roof, while still alive.

Tricycle {Trike}. Like the <span class=
Tricycle {Trike}. Like the Jeepneys, they get very heavily loaded at times. I'm also not sure about all the extra lights, as they have very low wattage bulbs. But they look great !!
Basilica <span class=Minore Del Santo Nino" title="Basilica Minore Del Santo Nino"
Magellan's cross
Magellan's cross
At the base of Magellan's cross. Check out the dates on the <span class=
At the base of Magellan's cross. Check out the dates on the insciption....

The next day I was off to the Domestic airport for a flight down south to Cebu. I have friends that live down here so it was going to be great. The domestic airport terminal is in total contrast to the International terminal. Oh my god! The place looks little more than a bloody huge garden shed. It is old, it is very worn & very very dirty. Being the organised & positive person that I am, I had somehow arrived at the airport early. I had met a taxi driver the previous day. I had a chat with him & we had arranged a set price for him to pick me up and take me to the airport. We also organised that he be my driver when I came back to Manila on my return journey. I knew that I was going to be there for several days on my return. We swapped phone numbers & the deal was done. Now that I was here at the airport, I now had a fair bit of time to kill, so thought that I'd best go and do the normal check in routine. This turned out to be a really good idea.

It seems that rules in the Philippines are made to be a little bit bent at times. I was doing the check in when the clerk inform me that I was early enough to get the different flight. Ok, when does it leave? In about 15 minutes, they are doing final boarding call now! He said something to the lady next to him, and next thing I know they are taking my bags onto a trolley and loading them onto the plane as I walked very hurriedly towards it with an airline staff member beside me. There was of course a small "extra fee" for the late change of flight, it was about 300 Peso. As I handed the cash to the airline staff member as we were walking to the plane, I'm not sure if it really was a legitimate fee. I really did not care, I was happy that I was on a plane & not sitting in that filthy terminal. I have heard that things are a lot better there these days. I'm not sure because I have not been there for a few years now. These days if I go to The Philippines I go via Malaysia (The food is great) and enter the Philippines at Cebu.

I spent a couple of weeks in & around Cebu. It is a great place. I love the people & the lifestyle there. It is a lot more relaxed than the huge Manila. The people seem to be more friendly as well. Don't get me wrong, you can still get scammed, so be aware. But the scams are not everywhere that you look. I had an absolute ball for the time that I was there, & have been back many times now. Although I usually stay with friends while in Cebu, a few times space did not permit, so I had to seek accommodation. I found that Days Hotel was very handy for me. Days Hotel is located close to the airport on Mactan, so it may not be convenient for everybody, it all depends on exactly what you are looking for.

Getting around Cebu is easy. Jeepney is available almost everywhere, and they usually meet up near the area where the tricycles are when at the end of there route. The Jeepney is a interesting way to get around. They are a national symbol in the Philippines. The fare is not expensive and most people will be very help full to guide you to where you need to go. Be aware that if you ask the operators, they will expect that you give them a little something for their trouble. Remember, it is only a few bucks for you, it feeds their family. A Tricycle {Trike} is basically a motorbike & sidecar, but it is unlike any that you have ever seen in your life. These vehicles also travel along routes, but they can be a little vague, & open for direct exclusive hire. My advice is find a good taxi driver & get his Phone number. A good way to find a good driver is to ask. ask the people at the reception desk if they know a good driver. Most of them will have a brother, cousin, uncle or friend that they will recommend. When meeting the driver be friendly and ask if you can use his services exclusively while you are there. Arrange that you will call him several hours prior to needing him so that he can do other work. Let him know that at the end of your stay , you will tip him generously, and do tip him. I gave my driver a 1,000 Peso tip for 8 days of service. The next time I visited, I called him up & it was on again. He even invite me for a meal at his home with his family. Yes, I did accept, & I had a great time.

A few places & things that are worth a look around Cebu. At the Top of the list is "Tops". Tops is basically a lookout at the top of a mountain that overlooks Cebu. The view is fantastic, especially at night. Not far from Tops is a Taoist Temple that is also well worth the trip. Basilica Minore Del Santo Nino is one of the most fantastic church I have seen. From most outside views it does not look anything special, but inside is another story. Outside the Basilica is a small building that houses Magellan's Cross. This is THE Cross that Magellan presented to the people of the Philippines when he introduced Christianity to the Philippines. Everybody has their own views on this subject, but I just can't get over this simple wood cross that is older than any building that can be found in Australia.

Colon Street is an interesting place, with many different types of shopping available. It is also the oldest paved road in the Philippines. I went to Colon Street just to walk on some history & to say that I had done it. We went for a look at Fort San Pedro. This was where the people of the Philippines fought off the Spanish under the leadership of the great Lapu Lapu.

It was all too soon that my time was up & I had to return home. As is normal, it was to be the reverse of my journey to Cebu. This means I would go back to Manila, then it was Guam, Pohnpei {Both in Micronesia}, Nauru, & then home to Brisbane. I spent 4 days in Manila & enjoyed it. I did contact the taxi driver that I originally met on my inbound journey. He did pick me up from the airport & take me back to the Isaya Hotel. I had a few things to do in Manila for the next couple of days, & he took me to the various different places that I needed to travel to. I always gave him several hours notice & he was always reliable. He also arrange for his brother to pick me up at the hotel at 3am in the morning to take me back to the airport on the day that I had to depart.

As normal with a lot of airline travel, I get to go to interesting places, & not spend enough time there. I'm sure that a lot of people can relate to that feeling. Being a transit passenger and staying in the airport terminal while waiting a few hours for the connecting flight. Guam seems like an interesting place. I can not however recommend the coffee at the one & only cafe that was open for business while we were there. I admit that it was 5am local time when we arrived, but my god is it too much to ask to have it served in a real cup & not a paper one. The coffee tasted like it had been burnt as it had been in the pot for hours. I did ask for a fresh brew, but it also tasted very similar. It was also the most expensive coffee I have ever paid for at US $4.

Pohnpei was the next stop on the up again, down again trip. I have sworn a vow to myself that I will return to this little paradise in the Pacific. What a spot! The landing approach made the whole trip worthwhile. The view is fantastic. I was totally gobsmacked by the natural beauty of this place. The facilities at the airport terminal leave a little to be desired, but that is actually part of the charm of the place. I hope that it does not improve, because then it will probably get found, and it will all change. The people are just so nice, & nothing seemed to be too much trouble if it was within the limited capabilities of the terminal. Admittedly I do use the word terminal simply to describe that there was a place for a plane to land, & for passengers to get on & off the aircraft. This is not a complaint, simply a statement of fact. I chatted to some of the locals while waiting for the next leg of my trip. I learnt that the fishing & diving was world class, & I do not doubt it one bit. I spotted the reefs from the air on our approach to the airport. I also noticed the pristine beaches & the rain forest covered hills. I just gotta get back there for a longer stay & a better look around.

I am one of these strange people that actually enjoys the flights that stop in lots of places on my way to the final destination. I find that I get to see so many more interesting places that normally I would not even consider to visit. It is because of this method of travel that I have returned to some of the places that I have previously only stopped at for a few hours. I figure that if I am going to spend the time & money on a trip to somewhere, I may as well see as much as possible along the way. There is not a lot that I can say about Nauru, as I was only there for an hour or so both times, and it was also the middle of the night on both occasions. I will say that the one item that will forever stick in my mind was that there are boom gates for the plane. Try to picture this. There is a public road that runs next to the main runway. This road is between the runway & the terminal buildings. This means that for the aircraft to get from the runway to the terminal, it needs to cross the road. a set of boom gates has been installed to stop the traffic so that the plane can get from the taxiway to the terminal, just like a railway crossing. I'm sure that this is not the only terminal in the world with this type of setup, however, I had never seen anything like it & it surprised me to see cars sitting at the gates while our aircraft crossed the road. This trip was prior to the events of 9/11, so I wonder if it is still the same because it is not exactly what you class as a good security measure to have civilian traffic with such ease of access to the aircraft side of the terminal.

I arrived back in Brisbane in the early hours. After a few days I realised that I was viewing my country and its people with a very different attitude. So many of my fellow countrymen take so much for granted. That is not their intention, just that they are not aware of how life is lived in other parts of the world. This is also not their fault, just a fact. See, prior to my first travels, I thought that I was aware that there were people in the world that lived in poverty, & I thought that I understood how lucky I was to live in a great country like Australia. Then I visited & got to see with my own eyes. It really does make a huge difference, to see with your own eyes. As I have previously said, I have returned to the Philippines many times since that original visit and fully intend to return many more times. Do yourself a favour & go and have a look.

Next up I will tell of a short visit to Malaysia & Brunei, with a longer stay in Thailand.