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Hanoi: In the Company of Strangers (Day 1)

To travel solo on a vacation has always been on my imaginary bucket list. While I may have conquered Hong Kong and Sydney on my own, these were for work and I’ve no choice but be alone. It was early this year when I finally decided to do this deliberate solitary trip as a birthday gift to myself. So two days after my birthday, I was on a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Cebu Pacific Airlines has the red eye flights to Vietnam (both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi); I was on the 1030PM flight and arrived in Hanoi at 1230AM (an hour behind Philippine time). Arriving alone in an unfamiliar place at an ungodly hour is a common plot in movies, so I decided to book a cab through the hotel I’m staying at just to be safe.

Tip:
The Noi Bai International Airport is about 35 kms away (estimated 45 minutes travel) from the city center. Save yourself the stress and book your cab through the hotel. It should cost you about US$16-18 for a private 4-seater cab. Therefore, if you travel in a group, it is way cheaper.

Some minutes later, I was dropped off in front of Thaison Palace Hotel. While it lacks the grandiose of a real palace, their warm reception pretty much made up for it plus the room they gave me is so huge for one person! I prepped for bed because I’ve yet to decide if I’ll go with the itinerary I prepared or take on the hotel’s suggestion.

For less than a P900 per night, this room is beyond my expectations.

For less than a P900 per night, this room is beyond my expectations.

The room was so spacious, I got a little too paranoid that I locked the closet and felt thankful that the tv was screwed up the wall that if ever Sadako comes out of it, she will fall. Hard.

The room was so spacious, I got a little too paranoid that I locked the closet and felt thankful that the tv was screwed up the wall that if ever Sadako comes out of it, she will fall. Hard.

I woke up early and headed to the dining hall for breakfast, expecting to have some quiet time to ponder on my itinerary for the day. To my surprise, the place was packed with Filipinos (with the exception of a lonesome Thai on a business). They were the ‘experienced’ group of Ed & Rose; Secenio & Linda; and Lourdes; the couple Celine & Ryan; and two more Filipino businessmen, whose names I wasn’t able to get.

It was a flurry of conversation about traveling, politics, schools, and just about anything in between. I knew from then, this is going to be a pleasantly different experience for me. I’ve always been wary of bumping into Filipinos abroad because some tend to be a little snooty and a tad too annoying. May angking kayabangan kasi ang ilang Pilipino kapag nasa ibang bansa. But this group? They are the reason why this is one of the most remarkable trips I’ve had. The group cannot be more diverse yet it was those differences that made the exchange of stories flowing and interesting.

Breakfast was such a delight that we had to pull ourselves out just so we can start our first day already. And before heading out, I thought to check the Halong Bay tour offered at the hotel. I was wheedled into getting the overnight stay (2D/1N instead of the full day tour) onboard The Viet Beauty Cruises and in the process, they computed my 2D/2N at the hotel and it all amounted to just US$200. They didn’t charge me for the very early check in at 2AM. Sweet deal!

With my itinerary on hand, I headed out and of course, managed to get myself lost several times in the first few hours of exploring the city by myself. I am the worst with directions. So I stopped by a coffee shop to mooch off their wifi, downloaded the map and saved it offline so I can just use the GPS. Worked perfectly!

Thaison Palace Hotel is within The Old Quarter but situated some 10 minutes away from the center, which is good because it's close enough to all the happenings but still give you the solitude you need at night.

Thaison Palace Hotel is within The Old Quarter but situated some 10 minutes away from the center, which is good because it’s close enough to all the happenings but still give you the solitude you need at night.

A mere 10-minute walk from the hotel is the Hoan Kiem Lake or the Lake of the Restored Sword and right in the middle of it is the Turtle Tower.

A mere 10-minute walk from the hotel is the Hoan Kiem Lake or the Lake of the Restored Sword and right in the middle of it is the Turtle Tower.

The Huc Bridge leads to the entrance of the 18th century Buddhist temple, The Temple of the Jade Mountain.

The Huc Bridge leads to the entrance of the 18th century Buddhist temple, The Ngoc Son Temple or The Temple of the Jade Mountain.

Main gate of the Ngoc Son Temple

Main gate of the Ngoc Son Temple.

I chanced upon some cute students wending their way to the temple.

I chanced upon some cute students wending their way to the temple.

To the left of the main gate, you will find this 1o-meter high stone structure. The symbols on the stone mean “Ta Thanh Thien”, which translates to “Writing on the clear blue sky”.

To the left of the main gate, you will find this 1o-meter high stone structure. The symbols on the stone mean “Ta Thanh Thien”, which translates to “Writing on the clear blue sky”. 

Taoist symbols guard the second gate to the temple; a tiger on the left and a Vietnamese dragon on the right. The temple may be closed at night but it sure is more gorgeous at this time.

Taoist symbols guard the second gate to the temple; a tiger on the left and a Vietnamese dragon on the right. The temple may be closed at night but it sure is more gorgeous at this time.

The third gate to the temple is closed at night but you can visit in the morning and pay US$1 or VND20,000. Meanwhile, enjoy the beauty and peace of this place at this time when there are less tourists to vie with for a good shot.

The third gate to the temple is closed at night but you can visit in the morning and pay US$1 or VND20,000. Meanwhile, enjoy the beauty and peace of this place at this time when there are less tourists to vie with for a good shot.

Just when you think you've seen enough of Hoan Kiem Lake, visit at night and be mesmerized. Locals and tourists abound the side of the lake to jog, eat, date, take photos, or just sit and take in the beauty of the place.

Just when you think you’ve seen enough of Hoan Kiem Lake, visit at night and be mesmerized. Locals and tourists abound the side of the lake to jog, eat, date, take photos, or just sit and take in the beauty of the place.

The Huc Bridge is one gorgeous sight at night.

The Huc Bridge is one gorgeous sight at night.

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That Scramble To Sydney

Three months earlier….

It’s been a crazy and lazy three months but I thought I post something on this week-long Sydney assignment because I’ll be off on vacation soon and there’ll be new places to see and photos to post. 🙂

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Just one week into my new project last May and I had to rush to Sydney. I’m trying to make that sound like a complaint but I was only too happy to take over the tasks that a colleague is leaving me with. Few  get to have that kind of project handover anyway. So yes, I was giddy-stressed going through all my requirements for just a week’s notice before my flight.

It only took three days to get my business visa. And I was surprised that it's just on paper and not the usual visa label on passports. If you still require it, then it will cost AUD150.

It only took three days to get my business visa. And I was surprised that it’s just on paper and not the usual visa label on passports. Australian visas are electronically recorded so you won’t need the visa label anymore. If you still require it, then it will cost AUD150.

 

Skyview of the gorgeous sunset on the way to Hong Kong.

Skyview of the gorgeous sunset on the way to Hong Kong to catch my flight to Sydney.

 

After the 2-hour flight to Hong Kong; 1.5-hour waiting time for the connecting flight; and 9-hour flight to Sydney, I was home at last.

After the 2-hour flight to Hong Kong; 1.5-hour waiting time for the connecting flight; and 9-hour flight to Sydney, I was home at last. Sitting for hours made me so tired I actually fell asleep on the couch minutes later; and completely missed a meetup with my friend.

Tips:

  • Sydney is just two hours ahead of Manila so there really is no jetlag. It’s the hours of sitting on the plane that will really tire you out.
  • Getting a cab ride from the airport to the hotel in the center will cost you about AUD50.
  • Alternately, you can take the airport shuttle which will just cost you around AUD14 I think. The concierge will advise the nearest stop to your hotel in case it’s not the shuttle’s designated stop.  You can take this option if you travel light since you will have to lug around your suitcase to your hotel. 

I woke up around 4PM and had to scramble yet again because it’s a Sunday and shops close early and my stomach is rumbling. Plus I need to check our office location because getting lost on my first day is not an option.

The Sydney Harbor is within walking distance from the apartment.

So a quick check from the reliable Google maps and I headed out on foot to check the neighborhood. Some ten minutes later, I found myself at the Sydney Harbor; completely forgetting I was hungry.

And because I’m so horrible with directions, I managed to get myself lost and took the long and winding route to the office. Had I merely turned right, I would’ve found it immediately; less than five minutes away from the apartment and housed in one of the landmark buildings in the area, 1 Martin Place.

The preserved landmark buildings makes Sydney truly charming and worth coming back to.

The iconic landmark buildings are so charming and so irresistible that you just go trigger-happy with your camera.

Between being lazy and not having enough inspiration to blog, I hope I can put up another post on places to visit in Sydney because this is a very picturesque city and even with their cold weather, I am surprised at how warm the locals are. I wasn’t able to capture that with a photo but the experience surely made this short deployment sweeter than I could possible imagine.

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Siem Reap Chronicles: Day 3

I posted our Day 2 adventure on November 9, 2013 and the last leg today. (*゚ー゚)ゞ  Just how lazy is that? Tsk.

I vividly remember it was raining the night before and it has not abated the following day. We were dreading the temple-hopping we’ll be doing because it will surely be muddy and slippery and downright scary given that we’ll be traversing the Indiana Jones temple.

Prasat Beng Mealea

Translated as Lotus Pond Temple and known to tourist as the Indiana Jones temple well because the movie of the same title starring Harrison Ford was shot here.

This Hindu temple is about 800 years old and reminiscent of the sprawling Angkor Wat but in a smaller scale.

Because not even the rain can dampen our good spirits. We got ourselves a US$1 flimsy raincoat that saved us from lugging around a huge umbrella that our tour guide readied on a rainy day like this.

Because not even the rain can dampen our good spirits. We got ourselves a US$1 flimsy raincoat that saved us from lugging around a huge umbrella that our tour guide readied on a rainy day like this.

A few meters of walking along a muddy trail, we arrived at the collapsed entrance of Prasat Beng Mealea.

A few meters of walking along a muddy trail, we arrived at the collapsed entrance of Prasat Beng Mealea.

The wooden floorboards around Prasat Beng Mealea make traversing the ruins suitable for tourists but on a rainy day like this, it can get slippery so just be careful.

The wooden floorboards around Prasat Beng Mealea make traversing the ruins suitable for tourists but on a rainy day like this, it can get slippery so just be careful.

With the rain still pouring, I can hardly make any decent shot without getting rain spatters on my lens.

With the rain still pouring, I can hardly make any decent shot without getting rain spatters on my lens.

For all its seemingly wild outgrowths, Beng Mealea is a quiet temple and well worth the additional US$5 as this is not included in the Angkor pass.

For all its seemingly wild outgrowths, Beng Mealea is a quiet temple and well worth the additional US$5 as this is not included in the Angkor pass.

With the rain still pouring, it was impossible to explore Beng Mealea ala Indiana Jones; it’s too slippery to walk over the ruins so we stayed on the wooden structures. And when we have circled the entire place, we headed to our van to get on our next stop.

The sun seem to have finally talked some sense to the rain since it stopped pouring at last. Halfway to the Rolous Group, I was just so happy to see the fierce afternoon sun from the window.

Siem Reap scenes

Sitting by the window gives you a passing glimpse of the local’s way of life. It was past 12NN so I guess school day is done and it’s time to head home.

I’ve lived a sheltered life and as embarrassing as it may be, I’m putting it out here. ***tada!*** I don’t know how to bike. (-_-) But I’m planning (operative word, planning 😀 ) to get me one with a nifty little basket in front, just like what these kids have.

Rolous Group

The Rolous Group consist of three temples: Lolei, Preah Ko and Bakong. Unfortunately, Lolei Temple was closed when we visited last October 2013 and so we headed instead to Preah Koh.

Preah Koh (Sacred Bull) is a Hindu temple and the first to be built in the ancient city,  Hariharalaya, now known as Rolous.

Preah Koh (Sacred Bull) is a Hindu temple and the first to be built in the ancient city, Hariharalaya, now known as Rolous.

Prasat Bakong was built in the late 9th century and was considered Angkor's state temple for a few years.

Prasat Bakong was built in the late 9th century and was considered Angkor’s state temple for a few years.

View from the steps of Prasat Bakong. You will notice a modern Buddhist temple on the right side of the east entrance.

View from the first level of Prasat Bakong. You will notice a modern Buddhist temple on the right side of the east entrance.

So this is the other side of Prasat Bakong and our tour guide declared himself as our official photographer, hence my camera was with him the whole time. So I'm free to photobomb my friends. :D

So this is the other side of Prasat Bakong and our tour guide declared himself as our official photographer, hence my camera was with him the whole time. And that means, I will finally be included in the photos. 😀

We have finally reached the end of our three days of temple-hopping. And so, off we trekked back to our van and passed by this part of the moat surrounding Prasat Bakong.

We have finally reached the end of our three days of temple-hopping. And so, off we trekked back to our van and passed by this part of the moat surrounding Prasat Bakong.

Souvenir shot with our humorous tour guide, Reah (the one in lilac shirt) and nice driver,Toy (yup, that's his name).

Souvenir shot with our humorous tour guide, Reah (the one in lilac shirt) and nice driver,Toy (yup, that’s his name).

We finished our tour early and as they dropped us off at our hotel, we bade Reah and Toy farewell. And of course, we can't let them go without a souvenir shot. :D

We finished our tour early and as they dropped us off at our hotel, we bade Reah and Toy farewell. And of course, we can’t let them go without a souvenir shot. 😀

So, will we recommend Sam Tuktuk Tours to our friends? YES! I likewise placed my review of his tour here. It’s just crazy that Reah had a pink eye that day and he still decided to go to work. And because I know it’s contagious, I always had my hand sanitizer ready whenever I came in contact with him the whole time. But in my excitement to check the photos in our room, I completely forgot to wipe my camera. So two days later, I got more than a souvenir from our tour guide: a Khmer pink eye. 😉

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Siem Reap Chronicles: Day 2

After a very long day, we just had dinner and then went back to our hotel again as we have to wake up early for our sunrise date at Angkor Wat.

Tips:

If your accommodation offers breakfast, you can ask them the night before to pack it for you so you can eat it while waiting for the sunrise. 

Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day so the sun didn’t show itself over Angkor Wat. So if you really want to witness this, it’s best to go here during summer  when there is least chance of raining.

After breakfast, Reah bought us to a modest Buddhist temple and school. We were able to speak with the man who converted himself to be a monk and dedicate his life to this place.

Buddhist temple

The man sold everything he owned and had this temple and school built . We came at a time when he was preparing for the memorial of his son who died in a motor accident.

The interior of temple is consistent with the overall simplicity and serenity of the compound.

Some few minutes later, we bade him farewell and headed off to our first major trek of the day.

Kbal Spean

After presenting your Angkor Pass at the base, you can now proceed with the 1500m trek. For someone who does not regularly exercise, I felt that this has compensated for all those times I’ve been lazy to run and play badminton. It really is quite a trek especially when your tour guide leads you to the more difficult trail. Crazy, humorous Reah. 🙂

The sandstone in this area has a pinkish overcast; the same material used in building Banteay Srei, likewise known as the Pink Temple.

The sandstone in this area has a pinkish overcast; the same material used in building Banteay Srei, likewise known as the Pink Temple.

This is what awaits you at the end of the 1500m trek.

This is what awaits you at the end of the 1500m trek. It’s nothing spectacular but after the trek, the cool water is a welcome treat to wash off my face and extremities.

Kbal Spean is also referred to as the River with a Thousand Lingas. ‘Linga’ is a Sanskrit word which means “mark” and is often represented by a phallic symbol. I’m no expert in Hinduism but I’m sure the Shiva linga is more than just a structure resembling a phallus. It may mean great power or something that is very distinguished mark.

The riverbed

Some meters from the waterfalls is the riverbed with the stone carvings related to Hinduism.

One of the preserved stone carvings on the riverbanks of Kbal Spean.

One of the preserved stone carvings on the riverbanks of Kbal Spean.

Few minutes later, we decided to go back down but Reah led us once more to the more adventurous route.

The current is pretty strong but it sure compensated for this rather ho-hum place.

The current is pretty strong but it sure compensated for this rather ho-hum place.

Tips:

  • Make sure you start off your day here as it’s bound to get really hot. That way, you’ll be out of here before noon.   
  • If you’ll ask me, you can skip this place but if you don’t mind the climb, go ahead and explore.
  • Don’t forget to bring water and extra shirt. 🙂

The airconditioned van is a welcome refuge after that tiring climb. But we were already at our next destination before we can really bask in the comforts of our seats.

Banteay Srei

Among the temples we have visited, I find this temple the most charmingly exquisite. It’s another Hindu temple that has been standing since the 10th century and fondly referred to by the locals as the Pink Temple or Lady Temple.

The temples we have visited did not have the same intricate carvings as that of Banteay Srei.

The temples we have visited did not have the same intricate carvings as that of Banteay Srei.

What it lacks for in size, is very much compensated by its sheer exquisiteness and elaborate design. Come to think of it, its miniature size is actually a huge chunk of its charm.

Very charming indeed.

Very charming indeed.

It’s getting crowded again so we took that as our cue to proceed to our next destination.

East Mebon

This is a five-tiered Hindu temple built in the 10th century and dedicated to Shiva.

There are guardian elephants posted on the corners of the first and second tiers of this temple.

There are guardian elephants posted on the corners of the first and second tiers of this temple.

Structures here are made of sandstone, brick and stucco.

Structures here are made of sandstone, brick and stucco.

Up close, one can see the detailed work on the lintel.

Up close, one can see the detailed work on the lintel.

With the heat enjoying beating down our back, we headed off to our last stop.

Preah Khan

Part of the Grand Circuit, this temple is built in the 12th century and translated as “sacred sword”.  Much like Ta Prohm, this site has been left unrestored except for clearing the area and other maintenance works.

Preah Khan

Most of this temple has been left unrestored; the paths were just cleared and the overgrown trees atop structures were left as is.

Preah Khan is built on the 12th century and this is all that remained of its library.

Preah Khan is built on the 12th century and this is all that remained of its library.

The gateway to Preah Khan. One uses a specific doorway depending on his status. I cannot remember who enters on the left and right but I'm sure that the central doorway is only for royalty.

The gateway to Preah Khan. One uses a specific doorway depending on his status. I cannot remember who enters on the left and right but I’m sure that the central doorway is only for royalty.

With one last look at Preah Khan, we hopped on the van and went back much earlier than we did the first day. That night however, it started to rain already. Though it didn’t stop us from dining over at Pub Street, it certainly was a prelude to what lies for us the following day.

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Siem Reap Chronicles: Day 1

When I first visited Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, there was no direct flight to either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. So for budget travelers like me, direct flights to Siem Reap is really a dream come true.

If there was one thing that baffled me about this popular tourist destination, it’s the pronunciation. So I asked our tour guide, Reah and he said, it’s pronounced as “See-em Ree-ap” and is translated as ‘Siamese Defeated’. I’m not very familiar with their history but on a top level, it was on this land that Khmer (Cambodians) defeated the Siams (the Thais).

Allot at least 3-4 days to explore Siem Reap. So, to efficiently get around, it’s best to contact a trusty tour guide. Thanks to Liquiddruid for recommending Sam Tuktuk Tours. 🙂  For budget travelers, traveling in a group will really cut the cost. I’ll post the expenses towards the end of this series.

First stop is the Visitor’s Center where we shall purchase the Angkor Pass. It’s impossible to finish the various circuits in one visit so getting the US$40 for a 3-day visit is the best option. Remember to carry this with you at all times as there are staff who will check this at the entrance.

Angkor Wat Pass

Be sure to fix yourself up before your turn because they will just snap away the moment you stand in front of the camera. 😉

As soon as we got our passes, we boarded the van once more and off we went to our first day of temple-hopping.

Prasat Bayon

Prasat in Khmer means ‘temple’ and Bayon is the central temple in the ancient city of Angkor Thom.

We entered through the south gate; here you can opt to ride the elephant for a fee to tour the area. Riding an elephant never appealed to me. No, I’m not scared. I just feel a sense of pity for these symbols of royalty that were reduced to work for their food and care.

Also known as the Smiling Temple. This is said to be one of the finest example of Khmer architecture.

Also known as the Smiling Temple. This is said to be one of the finest example of Khmer architecture.

According to websites, there are 216 stone faces around Bayon Temple and it’s said to be a fusion of the images of Buddha and Jayavarman VII.

While having a tour guide gives a rather restrictive itinerary, they also provide efficiency in going around the temples. They even know the good spots for that touristy shot. 😉

Trick shot courtesy of our tour guide, Reah :)

Trick shot courtesy of our tour guide, Reah 🙂

The grounds of the Bayon Temple is littered with tourists so getting a decent shot can be very stressful so I had to take a shot and crop it.

Bayon Temple grounds

The next temple is a few meters of walking under the intense midday sun.

Preah Ngok Pagoda

Along the way, we passed by a Buddhist shrine most often just looked over by tourists. The diminutive shrine is almost disproportionate to the enormous Buddha that it houses.

Preah Ngok

Prasat Baphuon

A few meters ahead is Baphuon, a temple built on a rectangular sandstone and five levels high.

Prasat Baphuon from afar.

Prasat Baphuon from afar.

After scaling the steep steps of Prasat Baphuon, you will come across this structure. I’m unsure of the name of this one so I’ll leave it alone for now.

At the top

Further along, you will see the Royal Pools of the King, Queen and even the children’s pool; what’s left of it now is a dry bed soil littered with weeds.

Still along are some ruins and reminders of the ancient city of Angkor Thom. We rode the van again and some short distance later we arrive at another landmark.

Victory Gate

There are five entrances to Angkor Thom and this is the second most used gateway to the Royal Square.

The gateway is designed with the same face tower in Bayon and built very high as to accommodate the royal elephant carriage of the King.

The gateway is designed with the same face tower in Bayon and built very high as to accommodate the royal elephant carriage of the King.

We went down the van for a short climb and took the chance to snap some photos from the top.

Framed shot of face towers crowning the Victory Gate.

Framed shot of face towers crowning the Victory Gate.

Ta Keo

This temple was left unfinished for unknown reasons. It’s a very steep climb and because our stomachs are begging for some nourishment, we just climb some few steps and from this photo, you can see just how enormous this temple really is.

Ta Keo

Finally, lunch! But so as not to crowd this post with food, I’ll make a separate one on the must-try food in this gorgeous province of Siem Reap.

With stomachs full, we braved the raging early afternoon sun, to head to the temple called the Jungle Temple or the Angelina Jolie temple because this is where Tomb Raider was shot.

Ta Prohm

As expected, the place is packed with tourists and with the intense heat, it’s a bit difficult to enjoy this fascinating temple. But as soon as you get used to it, you just wend your way and see for yourself just how beautiful this temple is in its state of ruins. With the enormous roots of the banyan trees growing atop structures or wedging itself between them.

Ta Prohm means 'Old Brahma', the Hindu god of Creation.

Ta Prohm means ‘Old Brahma’, the Hindu god of Creation.

After the usual rounds of taking photos, we finally escaped the Jungle Temple and enjoyed the space outside. Some few meters, Reah took us to a place that is littered with monkeys. I was hesitant to come close given that they can be quite rabid but our tour guide assured us that they are the tamed kind. And so we moved closer.

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And off to our final temple for the day…

Angkor Wat

This is the only temple built in the Angkor area that is facing west because it is said to have been built as a funerary temple. The sun sets on the west, making this direction a symbolism for death.

One just cannot help but be in awe upon seeing the magnificence of this world wonder that has been standing since 1125. This was built at a time when machinery that we have today were nonexistent and yet they built a structure that is perfect in its composition and proportion.

To build a temple, people must first build a moat that will be used to transport the rocks from the mountains and then elephants are used to carry these to dry land. The physical labor alone that went into this grandiose structure is enough to amaze me.

The sprawling Angkor Wat from the back.

The sprawling Angkor Wat from the back.

Angkor Wat

A sight to behold. Breathtaking is an understatement.

The sheer magnitude and craftsmanship put into this magnificent monument will leave anyone gaping in amazement.

Just the perfect way to end the day.

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