Sunday, April 27, 2008

Davao Beguiles

Davao City is a beguiling place to visit or live in. Situated at the southern island of Mindanao, and about 1 hour and 15 minutes of plane ride from the capital, Manila, the city is a temperate region of moderation, humid but not as it is in Manila. This is probably the reason why a variety of “exotic” fruits grow in abundance this side of paradise. If you love your dose of “Fear Factor” (I do!), then you cannot be unfamiliar with this solid crown of thorns of a fruit that’s intermittently being served as a fear bait in Joe Rogan’s compelling freak show – the Durian!

Break it like you do with a coconut, only harder because of the thorns surrounding the husk. Once “broken” into its compartments, a fleshy, milky meat of what is otherwise described by the unlearned as “olfactorily revolting” comes into being. Once you take a bite and gradually swallow its meaty flesh, you will discover one gastronomic delight that’s nothing less than “heavenly”! Ok! That statement is debatable. Haha. I once remember taking a taxi (in Manila) just an hour after eating durian. When I silently belched, the driver threw a fit… rolled down his window and started gagging!!! That’s when I realized how bad it smells for other people – so I won’t impose! As for me, I am addicted – for life! Other funny comparisons have been made with the civet, sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs. It’s unusual smell must have some form of pharmacologic effect. I can personally vouch for 2: “a generalized warm sensation” (thus others refer to it as an aphrodisiac) and, after 6-8 hours, a potent gastrocolic effect, i.e. you can be sure of a satisfying bowel movement. Haha.

Davao is home of the most delectable durian in Asia, although it is said to have originated from Brunei and/or Malaysia. I have tasted their varieties in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, but nothing comes close to Davao’s durians, regardless of the different hybrids that’s been coming out of late (the Puyat almost always never disappoints; lately though, in Davao del Sur, there have been Malaysian breeds which were renamed “Cojuangco” in honor of the millionaire-owner cultivating them). The price differs depending on the day you purchase it. There used to be a season for it, but its popularity has made it an all-year-round delicacy. These days, a regular sized durian would fetch between PhP50-80/kilo, roughly Php 160 per piece. Some fruits can be bought already-extracted and frozen in a plastic box, but then where’s the fun when you won’t see the thorny exterior crack? And it doesn’t taste as fresh as it should!

Other fruits thrive in Davao – the pomelo, mangosteen, lansones (which is already being sold these days), marang, mangoes, watermelon, etc. Another tourist come-on of this city is the relatively inexpensive standard of living. If you live in Manila and you get to visit Davao, you will notice how, except for the plane fare, everything comes cheap in the city. Seafood and local delicacies abound. In fact, you can stay for 2 weeks in the city and try a different “buffet” restaurant every day. I can mention “Kuya Ed’s” which boasts of a PhP99 buffet every meal. It gets too congested though especially during the weekend, but then there are a myriad of buffet places dotting the city!

Davao City is an amalgam of things cosmopolitan and basic, urban and rural, and one of the safest cities in Asia. There are probably about a dozen malls – including SM Shoemart, NCCC, Gaisano, and the new and sophisticated but sedate, Chimes. Though most taxis are rundown Kia cars, the city government has started to plan for its phaseout. The taxi drivers are relatively polite and honest (although this doesn’t mean there are no “monsters” – there’s always one anywhere in the world). There’s no Starbucks yet, but there are several alternatives including Blugre, which even serves durian coffee. These days, with just PhP2,600 ($62), you can fly to Davao from Manila and enjoy the laidback atmosphere that makes this city truly a haven for the weary!

A Reminder

Davao is a smoke-free city, and its stern yet revered mayor has made sure you won't have a pleasant stay if you break this city ordinance - so beware!

Trivia on durian:

It is genetically related to the following: hibiscus (gumamela), cotton and okra!

Chimes has a glam atmosphere and doesn't have the zany crowd of SM. Its front row of restaurants offers cafes and restaurants like Figaro, Red Ribbon, and Banana Leaf (a Thai restaurant).

Puto ( a rice cake), pineapple and watermelon - from the dessert table of Kuya Ed's.

A vision of poetry - and serenity - in the bowels of Davao del Sur - 1 1/2 hours from the city!

Sun-kissed and picture perfect!

Piles of sugarcanes. It's harvest time!

This is a favorite area when plying the road from SM Davao to San Pedro Street. This view from the bridge is where the river meets the sea.

The durian!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Short Film: “Bulong” (Whisper) by Pedro Valdes - plus the new face of Greenbelt

Film Commentary:

In the undisclosed future, the world has been reduced into a utopian society of conformity and passivity. A good majority of the population works at a “center” that somehow voyeuristically scrutinizes the movement of its minions. There is a blatant rutfest of humanity’s aggressive soul. Set among monitor-congested offices, 2 souls (Julio and Grace) are spotlighted as they live their robotic existence amidst a society that suppresses all forms of active cognition and participation. Into this impersonal community, a seemingly ordinary “worker”Julio (Sid Lucero) starts hearing voices that commands actions that would otherwise risk his job and his well-being. Soon thereafter, he starts to abide by the voice’s commands. He is immediately set at odds with his girlfriend (Maita Ponce) who senses the former’s distracted demeanor. Is he spiraling down a bottomless pit that may cost him everything - his job, his relationship with Grace and his sanity?

Intended as a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a Dante Alegheiri tale, this briskly and meticulously edited work boasts of haunting imagery and an inspired black-and-white photography, rendering a perfect atmosphere to its dark theme of indifference, paranoia and man’s internal capacity to breakout from any form of constraint! With its myopic philosophical musings, one can’t help but be transported to a world that we sure hope we don’t fall into! Sid Lucero is intense, sympathetic and succeeds with aplomb. The director’s vision that started with a sense of grave serenity soon unravels into a frenetic fight for self. This was expertly handled, without the awkwardness that’s usually evident among new directors. Though it may be too early to hail director Pedro Valdes (aka theater’s new wunderkind Joaqui Valdez after his stint as Jack in NVC’s “Into the Woods”) as an emerging filmmaker to reckon with, he sure is a promising find. He knows his media well, and he is comfortable with his narrative as well as his directions. His cinematic vision packs a wallop! No wonder this work was produced by Butch Jimenez (who graced the screening that night)!

If you are tired of your usual weekend soiree, try visiting Serendra’s Fully Booked (Bonifacio High Street - The Fort) and catch Valdes’ short film, “Bulong” (Whisper) for free! It screens this Saturday - April 19th - at 8 PM. If you can’t make it, call Fully Booked and “insist” for another screening! This ouvre deserves to be seen by more people. You will be amazed how a complicated subject is expertly and compellingly tackled in less than 30 minutes! And did I say it was for “free”?

Since you are there already, go check out the 5 levels of Fully Booked. I have to warn you, you just might lose yourself there. And I found myself going home with 4 more novels to read! Darn! LOL

From there, I found myself roaming the new wing of Greenbelt, the fifth! Compared to the opulence of Greenbelt 2 and 3, Greenbelt 5 is a study of understated elegance – intimate, a little less spacious, yet posh! Had dessert at Fely’s Restaurant (at the 2nd floor – which has horrible serving practices – it took them 20 minutes just to get my order, considering they didn’t have other customers!). Saw that BeBench runner-up John, with his mom – who acted as his personal photographer. Awww!

Greenbelt 5 - Are those teak wood?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Food Trip all over Vietnam and Thailand

Dinner at spiffy, posh Hong Ngoc Restaurant: Pork meal with “small” order of rice – haha! – and a mushroom soup. Cost: VND 200,000 ($12.40), Hanoi

Tom Yum Goon (B90/$2.85) and Pasta (B70/$2.20), Coke in Can (B20/$0.60), at the "Brown Coffee", Pier near Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

Stir fried chicken with garlic and pepper, Four Sons Village Guesthouse, Soi Rambuttri, Banglamphu area, Bangkok. Cost: 60 baht ($1.90/PhP80). This was my favorite during the whole trip. I must have returned 4x at the same place just for this. It felt like comfort food then.

Food was never on the “menu” every time I travel. It has always been about places, accommodations, and transportation that highlighted my concerns. Even during my very first solo backpacking trip – which was in Europe, hopping on and off European trains on a whim with no prior reservations for 3 months – food didn’t become a major concern. If there was a McDo nearby, I was contented. In Berlin, the most German delicacy I’ve had was an apple strudel. In Segovia, I felt like a connoisseur after trying out their own version of lechon (“roast pig”). I wasn’t too fond of those “steel-belted” 2-feet long French breads in Paris! In London, I was delighted with a bag of fish and chips – with a dash of salt and vinegar (cod, please!) And of course, you can’t escape the paellas of Madrid. Other than those mentioned, my gastronomic experience during such travels is nothing to boast of.
Lately though, I’ve caught myself actually reading the “Food” section of each Lonely Planet city guide and taking note of the local culinary pride. I’ve started noticing how the Vietnamese love their coffees bitter and very sweet; or how odd it was to find a sweet potato (kamote) in a Khmer’s curry. My whole 3-week trip in Vietnam and Thailand was more enlightening. I found out that I wasn’t too different from the other travelers. Both my German and London-based Malaysian friends had no idea what a Tum Yum Goon is (which might as well be Thailand’s national dish). I taught them that. Haha. As I was checking out my stakes of photos, I realized I had too many “food pics”. So I decided to dedicate a special photo-blog of all the culinary delights – both good and bad, scrumptious or gag-inducing, cheap and expensive, fine-dining or street food - during the whole trip. This constitutes a wide range of dishes, fruits, and anything that I could masticate, swallow and digest! Bon appetit!

Sumptuous breakfast buffet at the posh and newly renovated New World Lodge Hotel, riverside, Banglamphu area (one of the very few high-end hotels in the Banglamphu area), Bangkok. Cost: B1,600/pax/night, breakfast inclusive ($50.80)

New World’s chili version of stir-fried chicken, New World Lodge Hotel, Cost: B150 ($4.75)not to mention the gustatory damage it did to my tongue and buccal mucosa. It was hot~! Hot! Hot! My mouth was on fire.

Lunch at our Coral Island (Koh Larn) visit, an hour travel from Pattaya. Cost: B1,200 ($38) for the whole tour which includes this mediocre set.

Street food: garlic fried chicken. YUM! It was so delicious I wanted more! Tumutulo ang laway ko remembering it! Hehe! Sarap! Cost: 40 baht ($1.25). Saw this stall while taking a stroll along the main stretch of road facing the beach in Pattaya, South Thailand.

Chicken Meal, some small café, Hanoi. Cost: 55,000 dong ($3.40)

Street food: rice cake of sort. These cakes are fried, cut into little squares, then dipped in a sauce, and eaten beside the vending lady. Cost: 10,000 dong ($0.62). I brought my cake with me on my way to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc.

Dinner at another high-end restaurant, Dinh Fang Restaurant, located just beside Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of Hanoi. Crunchy and delicious spring rolls (small order: 170,000 dong/$10.50), braised grilled chicken (165,000/$10.20), plus “normal” sized rice (40,000 dong/$2.50). The moment I went up the steps, I knew this was gonna not going to be cheap. We were paying for the touristy atmosphere, the magnificent view of the lake, the French-speaking Vietnamese waiters, the ethnic musicians playing ( a lady was giving roses to each table. Cost (including service charge, etc.): 450,000 dong/ $28.

Dinh Fang Restaurant, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Fruits galore at a stall near Tung Trang Hotel, Hanoi. I bought several pieces of huge atis aka “sugar apple” half the size of my head. Cost:20,000 dong per piece.

Guava-looking fruits locally called "tao" (taw).

Breakfast at the Ciao Cafe: Sausage, bacon, fried eggs and a super-sarap hash brown (45,000dong/$2.80) and orange juice (20,000 dong/$1.24 )

Atis aka custard apple aka sugar-apple. Cost: 20,000 dong a piece. Had fun eating the huge piece at a bench facing Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi. One Viet even stopped and asked for the other piece sitting beside me. No-no-no!

Dessert at the Highlands Coffee (Viet’s version of Starbucks). This one was set on a boat parked by the dreamy West Lake. Capuccino Cheesecake (right, 35,000 dong/$2.18) and Crème Brullet (left, 40,000 dong/$2.40), plus fresh coconut juice (40,000 dong/$2.40). Didnt like the cheesecake at all as I couldn't taste the cheese at all.

Hanoi Marina Restaurant dinner buffet, West Lake, Hanoi. One amazing, delighful discovery in Hanoi. All these, plus several replenishments, several change of dishes, 3 more table stretches plus drinks, Cost: 99,000 dong/$6

Hanoi Marina Restaurant is located at 12 Tran Vu-Ba Dinh, Hanoi, just a stone’s throw from Ho Tay or the West Lakes

Dessert table at the 99,000 dong-buffet at Hanoi Marina Restaurant

Boat vendor at the Surprising Cave visit, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

At 8 degree Hanoi weather, I couldn’t resist trying a scoop of French-Vietnamese ice cream at a small restaurant across the street from Hoan Kiem Lake. Cost: 11,000 dong/$0.68

Brunch at the posh-looking Hapro Bon Nua Restaurant located infront of the street just across Hoan Kiem Lake. At first, the well appointed lighting and interiors may seem intimidating for the budget conscious, but the prices turned out to be affordable. Not the cheapest, but quite alright. Dish: Grilled Pork Ribs. Cost: 75,000 dong/$4.70. Although tasty, the consistency of the meat was rubbery. Ang tigas! I got tired slicing through my meat! Haha. As I’ve mentioned at an earlier blog, I have noticed that the Vietnamese are quite clueless what to do with their pork dishes.

Hapro Bon Nua interiors.

Name the fruit! These horrendous, bettle-looking fruits taste like a sweeter version of singkamas/turnip. Really delicious! I finished the whole supo on my way back to Hoan Kiem Lake. Who can name this fruit? They are peeled then popped in the mouth. Cost: 35,000 dong/kilo or $2.15

Another fruit stand in Hanoi.

Street food: an ambulant vendor cooks and prepares these egg sandwiches right on the sidewalk. Nainggit ako and got one myself. Hanoi. Cost: 10,000 dong/$0.60

Looks delectable, di ba?

On my last night in Hanoi, I spotted this cozy looking restaurant-café, Maxx Café. Dish: Vietnamese Chicken with special sauce. Cost: 55,000 dong/$3.40

Interiors of Maxx Cafe, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Patatim-like pork dish that I shared with my Malaysian friend Irene at a Chinese carinderia in Chiangmai, Thailand. Cost: 45 baht/$1.40

A carinderia at a Lampang bus stop on my way to Sukhothai. Unfortunately for me, most of them were spicy so I ended with just an egg dish and rice. Damage: 45 baht/$1.40

A carinderia in Lampang, North Thailand.

Pastillas everywhere, Lampang, North Thailand.

A rice meal cooked up by the server (cook/waiter) just for me. It was a fried rice mixed with vegetables, chicken and egg. They only had noodles so I asked if they have any rice meals. He came up with this. Delicious, actually! New Sukhothai Bus Station. Cost: B50/$1.60; coke in can B15/$0.45

Brunch at Tops Restaurant, Airport Plaza Mall, Chiangmai, North Thailand. Cost: 60 baht/$1.90

Stir fried chicken with garlic and pepper, Four Sons Village Guesthouse, Soi Rambuttri, Banglamphu area, Bangkok. Cost: 60 baht($1.90/PhP80). Couldn't leave Bangkok without having one - again!

This is the Eye in the Sky!