Thursday, April 30, 2009

Climbing 777 Steps to Mystical Mount Popa

Mount Popa. Buddhist Monastery on Taung Kalat. This photo only courtesy of Ralf-Andre Lettau.

Mount Popa is a dreamer's destination. Located 50 kilometers south of Bagan's Nyaung U township, I hired a van to punish myself once more. Climbing 777 steps on barefoot doesn't sound so inviting for me, but cogitate on this. Popa, which literally means "flower", is the center of Nats worship - animism religion - that pervades this barren region. A monastery of half a dozen temples rise on top of an extinct volcano that stands almost vertical (instead of the usual inverted cone that we're used to). On your way up, frisky macaque monkeys litter the steps, the roof, the side rails. Don't leave anything on the floor - or just bid them farewell forever! They populate your arduous path and whisk away with all that they can grab. Along the steps are vendors selling bottled yellow flowers that devotees offer to the gods. All I had to offer was a barrel of sweat and diligence. Myalgia notwithstanding, the view from above is breath-taking.

Suddenly, the arid surroundings turn into an idyllic canvas of earth and greens, and blots of golden stupas that arise from everywhere within your 360 degree view. It is a spectacle.

If I sound relatively pleased, wait up I am not done - I haven't even mentioned an earlier sidetrip to a shanty in the middle of the dusty terrain called nowhere. My mind was blaring, uh-oh - another shop hardselling goods to stupid tourists. But no! How wrong could I be? Everywhere you looked was a parched land. An old guy started entertaining me, giving me the lowdown on wine-making, juice extraction, peanut-wine grating (a cow grinds the peanuts around and around until the sap is extracted then fermented - I never realized peanuts had juice). I was in awe. Suddenly this barren place that God forgot didn't seem so. This was nature's bounty. A singular toddy palm tree turns into a stool, a table, a couch that looked like bamboo stacks, a wine, an alcohol, a roof, and - my favorites - the toddy palm juice (so sweet!) and the palm sugar curdled into a chestnut-sized candy! Then they gave me 2 small bags full of this palm sugar candy - "our gift," they said! I've never been so glad to hand in a "donation".

I still carry those "small bags" of candy with me - less 7 pieces.

This is the Eye in the Sky in a giddy hyperglycemic state, and reaching to the heavens from Mount Popa.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Daydreaming in Old Bagan

Bagan, among a thousand temples and more. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's justiceiro.

Imagine yourself in an arid land of blistering sun. As far as the eyes can see, are mystical spires that revisit long forgotten era of splendor. Only, this particular day, there are no soldiers and princesses and kings, no palm readers nor slaves - just me. Just the occasional toddy palm tree and bushes that thrive despite the seasonal droughty spell. I found myself at the peak of a solitary tower made of bricks, cornices and stucco walls stare languidly from their dirt-ridden constitution. There are so many temples that my eyes can see, visiting each one would be close to impossibility.

This is the land that overdosed on temples way back 1st to 6th century, when as much as 5,000 temples have been erected. A good 2,000 still exists, although stages of neglect are obvious. Most of these temples are deserted. And I am honoured to be in their presence.

Way down below is my horse-drawn carriage. I am recovering from the hazardous heat. I have downed my 6th water bottle in the last 5 hours - that's a record. If I were a soldier or steward back in those days, what would I be thinking? I couldn't help but daydream.

This is the Eye in the Sky wallowing in the splendour of Old Bagan in the heart of Myanmar.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Eye in the Sky visits Yangon, Myanmar

A row of colonial buildings in Yangon. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's hintha.

I'm finally able to circumvent the block that this government has placed on Blogger, thanks to a friend I met at my hotel. Land locked, dusty, sweltering, Myanmar turns out to be a mystical place shrouded by military rule, a virtual place that the millenium has literally left behind. Cars that roam this former capital are beat up Toyotas and the denizens that walk around the streets don't carry cellphones around. Street billboards of the latest artist releases still advertise "available in tapes (cassettes) and CDs", and all email services are blocked by the government.

The telegram is well and alive.

For several days now, my skin has been burnt by the sun. I have taken to walking all over again. Who needs a taxi?

Though it strangely feels like being cut off from the rest of the "civilized" world, the demeanor of the people have been something to chant about.

This is the
Eye in the Sky in new Burma.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Samut Prakan's Ancient City

Ancient City aka Muang Boran. This photo only courtesy of wikitravel's cheric baker.

I've always loved visiting Bangkok, but I almost never do a DIY trip here. Sometimes, those package tours - along with the United Nations crew - are huge savings. Imagine just paying 800 baht for a Kanchanaburi trip that visits a minimum of 5 sites, including a train ride along the bridge over the River Kwai? Today was different. I set my sight on Samut Prakan's Ancient City aka Muang Boran (pronounced nasally as "muy-yeng bolan" - or the locals will never understand you).

Lonely Planet recommended several buses, but after asking the stamp vendor at Banglamphu, as well as the tourist police at the nearby jetty, I was told to get Bus no. 82. This will take about 2 hours. The great news? To my surprise, this was FREE! - and aren't the best things in life... you know the rest!

Here is the catch. This will take you to Samut Prakan indeed - at the Phra Pradaeng area, which crosses the gargantuan bridge and across the river. Unfortunately, you should not cross that bridge after all. I did! There were a lot more options. Take a boat to cross the river, then from the other side, take another boat that... etc. etc. etc.

I ended taking a taxi - meter! - that directly took me straight to the compound of Samut Prakan's outdoor museum of Muang Boran. B200 later, and 30 minutes longer than what Lonely Planet mentioned, I paid my entrance fee of 300 baht; chose the tram, instead of a bicycle - it was blisteringly hot!

Samut Prakam is 32 kilometers south of Bangkok. And Muang Boran, as it is called locally, sits the world's largest outdoor museum which contains 109 scaled-down replicas of Thailand's most important sites. This is Thailand's version of the Philippines' erstwhile Nayong Pilipino.

About 500 photos later, and a dozen gallons of sweat absorbed within my shirt, I was a very contented traveller. This "museum" has replicas of the country's most famous sites, including those that have been completely eradicated or ruined already.

Go visit Thailand, everyone. If you have, come again! It is spectacular. There is the presence of the military as you head out of the metropolis, but this is not the case as you head out of the city. From outside the Muang Boran, I crossed the other side (there is an overpass) then took a minibus - a makeshift pick-up - at less than 5 baht to Pakham. Then with the help of those amazing Thai - strangers if you may - I took the AC bus 511 that took me back infront of Pratunam's Platinum Mall (at 16 baht only). If that isn't charmed traveling, I dunno what is!

Lesson learned: there is a reason why the Lonely Planet is updated almost on a yearly basis. If locals tell you a different story, than your LP, there must be a reason for that. If I followed what was instructed, I would have arrived there 30-60 earlier. I wouldn't have to pay for a metered taxi - 200 baht. I would have had more time to explose the almost 200 structures in Muang Boran. But no regrets. Some lessons you learn the hard way.

This is the
Eye in the Sky watching all the way from Samut Prakan, Thailand.

Nakhon Pathom, Thailand - A Visit to the World's Tallest Stupa

Phra Pathom Chedi, the world's tallest Buddhist monument. This photo only courtesy of wikipedia's jpatokal.

Nakhon Pathom, some 56 kilometers west of Bangkok, is reputed to be the oldest city in Thailand. And Phra Pathom Chedi is this bell-shaped brick stupa built by Khmer King Suryavarman I of Angkor. This is the world's biggest Buddist monument. Having mentioned this, I ventured to sneak a visit to see this chedi.

There were people dancing by the roadside, throwing pails of water at passersby. It's the last day of the Songkran - the Water Festival. This stretched all the way from Bangkok to Nakhon Pathon, which, via a mini-bus - van, really (from along Pathon Yothin Road near the Victory Monument) - took an hour to reach. After seemingly getting lost, I finally found the grounds where this huge stupa stands.

Several devotees populated the compound. Monks were chanting their prayers. People were writing names on a red board, throwing coins on platters, and offering lotus to the buddhas that sit in caverns, surrounding the chedi. I rang a bell - 3x - as they're said to bring luck. Why not? Just 60 baht away from Bangkok, why not visit? Did I say you can see this temple for free? Wish I wasn't so lazy to upload some photos right now, but I am, so they will be for another time.

For now I was gonna go watch a Thai film called "Sassy Players" which feature a young cast, set on a high school. They were gonna be the odd-guys to enter a hotly contested football match (soccer). The Thai title has a funny literal meaning that when I asked the girl at the ticket booth, she laughed "Sexy Players", she said. Huh? "Horny Players?"

This is the
Eye in the Sky watching all the way from Nakhon Pathom, Thailand.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thai in the Sky - Arrival in Bangkok

Pure gold...
Wat Pho

Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Bangkok - With a lot of anxiety, I braved the streets of the Thai capital. Even at 11:50PM, the air was hanging thick with humidity. So hot! At least in Manila, nights are mild and comfortable.
Earlier this morning, I was hesitant to go out of my room, but a rioting gastrointestinal system decided what to do. I looked from inside my hotel. Looked safe. No one seems to be throwing water around. It is still the last day of the Songkran - the water festival. There are so signs of the political unrest either. As the news would have it from last night, the demonstrations have been called off by the red-shirt leaders. Fine!

As I strolled outside Rajprarop street, Pratunam was uncharacteristically depopulated. People were still in their provinces to celebrate the new year with their family. The concretes were blotted with white specks. Moving taxis and parked cars were smeared with dried talc/ soft chalk.
I proceeded to the nearby Indra Mall and ventured into the most delicious McDo Big Breakfast in years! Jeez! The hash brown was to die for. Or was I just hungry. Doesn't matter, I was happy. 115 baht with coke instead of coffee. Bought a couple of postcards at 10 baht each, then walked back through Rajprarop to look for internet cafes.

What used to be an easy find isn't today. Shops are shut. I walked towards side streets. Somewhere further, I turned left and just roamed the street straight ahead. At the end of the isquinita - Pantip Plaza! Wow! I looked for another street that would ultimately lead me back to Rajprarop.

At a block, I saw a couple of kids, throwing water at a passerby. Oops. I walked faster. Success. Up further, I saw an older guy carrying a pail full of water. Uh oh, trouble. As I noticed him inch his way towards me, I shouted, "Noooooo...." then made a dash away from him! Hah! You thought you'd get me? Hahaha. Success again!

Then as I drew closer to my hotel, I didn't notice this little child holding his water pistol! Bullseye! Sprayed to my face and arms. At least this wasn't the messy talc. But I now have tales to tell. Spoils of war - care of a child. Haha.

My morning ends with joyous defeat. My first day in Bangkok.

To compensate for my crushed ego, I bought 2 pieces of deep fried garlic chicken legs from the road side. They have always been my favorite. 15 baht a piece. My price!

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rude Awakening, or So It Seems - Unrest in Bangkok

Serenity in the midst of unrest.

Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva

I got a rude wake-up alarm early in the morning as my phone blurted a couple of messages from Citibank informing me of the cancellation of my flight to Bangkok. I froze as I read my messages. My mother has been "breathing down my neck" since last night, begging me to cancel my trip. I was anxious, who wouldn't be, but this trip involves 6 booked flights and an arranged work schedule that would wreck havoc on me in the next few months. So - I went on line and checked on some discussion boards monitoring the situation in the Thai capital. An hour later, I went to check my phone. Another message from Citibank. They recanted their first message. Disregard the first message, they said. They sure know how to confuse their customers.

Now - I wasn't sure how to feel about this. Should I be ebullient that I am after all Bangkok bound? Or is it time to find out how the cookie crumbles. Last November, it was the terrifying Mumbai attacks and the cyclone in Chennai. Phooey!

I have been to Bangkok several times. It's like a second home already. And there is always some sort of demonstration every time I am there. This time though, the crowds are bigger and bears colors (red shirts). The government of young Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva is reeling from this political unrest. But the crowds seem to grow. I just hope that people would act with a little more sobriety and not let emotions overwhelm their cause. Thailand, after all, is a veteran of coup attacks - about 18 since the 1930's. The last one was former Prime Minister Thaksin's - who is now spearheading the call to dislodge PM Abhisit.

An hour after the last sms - I got a call from my airline - advising me about the flight schedule tonight. I said, ok. I will be there. I am of course keeping my fingers crossed that somehow, the riots won't escalate any further. Please, God... if you are listening!

I shall learn of my fate... tonight - at crunch time!

It will be an insightful, adventure-rich saga for the Eye in the Sky.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Songkran Festival and the Water-Splashing Revelry of Thailand

Khao San Road water wars. This photo only courtesy of

Hose your daddy? This photo only courtesy of James L. Stanfield of

In a few days time, I shall fly back to Bangkok, my transit (well, it’s 2 ½ days) to a new country, one that I have never visited before. Little did I know that this little trip – that I booked 8 months ago - will be one eventful journey! My plane lands as Thailand sits in the feverish revelry of the Songkran Festival – the Water Festival celebrated by Buddhists the world over. During this festival, believers are encouraged some few things: merit-making, donate food to the monks, visit the elders, cleansing of the spirit as well as the body and the surroundings (this is when Thais do their spring cleaning as well). As a consequence of all these, a water-splashing ceremony is being practiced. It should be interesting, right? The precepts involve sacred water soaked with fragrances called Nam Ob - not just any available water, and the body painting – with talc or soft chalk solutions – called Din Saw Phong!

However, this frolicky water-logged ceremony has evolved into a mad revelry where people turn this rite into
rabid water fights! It used to be just cups poured down your back. Now, kids buy water guns. Adults save up for water sprays. Others turn their water hoses into ammunitions for any one. In the Philippines, the feast day of San Juan has turned a single day into this wet ceremony. I am not such a fan of it, but I am not against it either – as long as I don’t become a recipient of this revelry. It is my prerogative not to get soaked, thank you very much! But everyone else is free to do what they want as long as they leave me alone. Since that isn’t possible every time, I avoid going to San Juan on those days!

Little did I realize I will be where this mad festival is happening at an even more frenetic, pulse-pounding scene than San Juan’s! In Chiang Mai, the Songkran is celebrated with a lot of gusto. It will run for days without letting up. Bangkok will be at its quietest since most Bangkokians return to their provinces to celebrate Songkran with their family. Local transport will be minimal, and traffic will be at its mildest. This signals the
Thai-Buddhist New Year. However, the area of Khao San Road (KSR)– the city’s backpacker ghetto – becomes the epicenter of this water-splashing ceremony. This year, Songkran will officially run from April 12 to 15.

Wet wet wet. This photo only courtesy of

Here is my predicament. My guesthouse – which I paid already – is located in soi Rambuttri, which is a major subdivision of Khao San Road! When the world shatters into splashes of summer water, I will be right at its core!

It was a big blunder on my part to have missed this, but it is staring right in front of me. I just don’t want my stuff wet.
If I had a week in Bangkok, fine! I may even join and go soak someone. But I’ll be flying within 48 hours and I don’t want to be drying my stuff while in Bangkok – instead of roaming and seeing places!

A situation like this has caused vehicular accidents and even death during the Songkran. Splashing water on moving vehicles has been outlawed. This photo only courtesy of

So – I posted a message at some travel discussion board. Maybe – just maybe – this water-splashing would have died down on the 15th, since everything starts on the 12th, right? Tough! Here are the interesting replies straight from the world wide web – a virtual Eye in the Sky!

Read on as I weep:

Captain Bob:

On the 15th it will be a water war zone on Khao San Road and adjacent Soi Rambutri. Walking down these roads, you'd get totally soaked. Since you know where you're staying, get a taxi from the airport straight there and keep the doors locked. Same if you want to go shopping (MBK, Siam Discovery/Paragon) metered taxi and lock the doors. Can't comment accurately if your daytrip will be going (Nakhon Pathom - floating markets?) but anywhere with lots of tourists and a water source could be a soaker. The activity will probably extend to the 16th as well. Wrap your passport/phone/camera in plastic and get ready to duck. Sawatdee Pii Mai!


HA HA! I wish I was going to be there for that, I'm going in May. it seems like such a fun thing - all the photos and videos ive seen all the people look so happy and exited. would probably be a nice way to adjust to the heat too, someone dousing you with water every 5 minutes.

We arrived one Songkran but our taxi couldnt get near Soi Rambuttri so we had no choice but to get out and walk. The young Thais were respectful if we held up our hands and shook our heads but its the Europeans who have no qualms about drenching all and sundry, packs and all.


I think you're already toast, you just don't know it.

It is worse on Khao San than in any other part of the city.


They only had to look at us to know we werent young and after a drenching.


You will not be able to get a taxi to the hotel door for the crowds. I thought Pattaya was bad, but it's nothing on KSR. Assuming you arrive in the day time, either stay in the airport till late at night, or get crushed, wet and covered in white powder.If you want your pack to stay dry, put it in a rubbish bin liner. You will not stay dry. Re: "The young Thais were respectful if we held up our hands and shook our heads" LOL. The Thais are into it just as much as farangs, if not more.You will get wet anywhere during the day. Young Thai kids lie in ambush everywhere.


Hmmmmm. Have a dry set of dud's and t-shirt handy your going to sadly get soaked, just have fun and stop been such a grinch, as other posters have said just keep passport camera and MP3 player in a good zip locked plastic bag and enjoy the festivities,it's only once a year...

(Charming guy, this ribblerat, isn't he? LOL)

Will I get soaked at the Songkran? It will probably be a tricky thing, but I will know in a few days.
Water Festival. This photo only courtesy of

Fast Facts:

Buddhists within the region celebrate the same
Water Festival. In Myanmar, it is the Thingyan Festival from April 13 to 16, 2009. April 17 is the Burmese New Year. In Cambodia, it is called the Chaul Chnam where transport is at a stand still for 1 to 2 weeks. I know this. I got stuck in Siem Reap last 2007 – so instead of taking the bus back to Phnom Penh then back to Saigon for my connecting flight to Hanoi, I had to take the plane from the Siem Reap International Airport instead. In Laos, it is called the Pimal. Several other neighboring places celebrate this “water festival” like the Tamils of India. Most of these events are celebrated in the middle of the scorching summer!

Painting of talc or soft chalk - din saw phong - should have the permission of the recipeints. This photo only courtesy of

Humans and beasts alike. This photo only courtesy of

Water anyone? This photo only courtesy of

Get messy with us. This photo only courtesy of

Here are photos during my actual Songkran experience:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Backpack Accommodation in KL part 3 – Hotel Hibiscus City

A busker at the festive Bukit Bintang.

Kuala Lumpur is notorious for some of the worst accommodations for the scrimping backpacker. Compared to its neighbors from the Indochina route, KL’s budget lounges and guesthouses are gag reflex-stimulating and cringe-inducing. Consider this. From my last entry into KL, and having just arrived from a paranoid India, I decided to try out a new place along Jalan Pudu (where Puduraya Bus Station is). The rows of buildings just across the station are a smattering of guesthouses. I went up to check out a room from one of these guesthouses. 

As I turned the knob to open the door, what greeted me was a dim room with a musty smell. Hmm… Sheets looked clean, but then you can never be sure when there’s not enough illumination. Fan was working. I just wanted to steal a few winks so I can rest up and recharge. I badly needed some sleep. I sat at the corner of the bed and my gaze was transfixed at the pillow. Hunched down, pupils accommodated, then I jumped from my seat. I saw what could be the biggest booger-sized bug roaming, crawling away on the pillow. And I haven’t even checked out what’s under the sheets. This was about 10 millimeter big! Friggin! Gathered my bag and hastily returned the room keys at the check-in counter. Definitely, no thanks!

Nearby, I saw
Hotel Hibiscus City with an addendum written under – a budget hotel”! Photos on tarpaulin were promising. Through its elevator, I made my way into the 3rd floor hotel lobby. I think I have inquired here before last year, but there was no vacancy. Luckily, this time I got lucky! I like this place coz it is just across Puduraya, and there’s a metro (monorail) at the back of the same station. Bukit Bintang is just 200 meters away. Beside its entrance, is a 24-hour restaurant – the Maulana Food Court. Quite convenient for those with several out-of-the city itineraries. If you are into walking like myself, Petaling Street (KL’s Chinatown) and the Central Market are all within walking distance. Restaurants, Watson’s, mini-malls are within the vicinity. Even the Main Post Office is just at the back of the Central Market!

Once again, the only available room was a double bed. AC room, with draw curtains, very clean/new glazed tiles, 2 medium sized beds with very clean sheets – and the absence of creepy crawlies! Did I say that a
KFC is nearby?

My room at the Hotel Hibiscus. Two beds all mine and a new AC!

What’s the catch? There is no attached bathroom within their rooms, which is quite tricky. I love my bathrooms – clean dry ones without leaky faucets ! But hey, why don’t I check out the common bathrooms. They can't be that bad, can they? There were about 8 of them for anyone to use – small sized shower-cum-toilets with sliding fold-doors. At any given time, there are several unoccupied bathrooms, that's for sure! My only complaint is – I found it hard to flush any of these dump-seats! I had to manually hold a cut hose towards the inodoro (bowl) and wait for 3-5 minutes before every debris cleared out! Ewwww! – as my 6 year old Paulinian niece would say! But I was really really tired! So after clearing my bowels and freshening up, I went into a very relaxing sleep that made me lose a good part of daylight! The bed was very comfortable, and AC was new and working overtime! I pulled the curtain string to open and I had a magnificent view of the east-bound Pudu Street. Except for the dodgy toilet, this was a great place!

How much? A very affordable
60 malaysian ringgit ($16.60 or PhP798)! Beside the counter is a common room with sofas and 2 units of desk top computers for your online needs at 1 ringgit an hour ($0.28). The annoying thing about this is the way they collect payments, which is on a daily basis. I insisted on getting a receipt of my payment on the first day and the lady at the counter felt lazy to issue me one – which is a big no-no! Every idiot knows that if he pays, he should get a receipt to protect himself from some unscrupulous people. The very next day, I offered to pay early in the morning coz I was gonna go out of town, but this same idiotic girl said, “Later!” Meanwhile, do I wait until she found the time to accept my payment which she might actually need for her salary? Unbelievable! And it’s not as though she was busy with other customers! So – took off and went my way! Upon my arrival in the evening, guess what? They were beating on my door – asking me for my payment! Kung hindi ba naman anak ng… Morons! I mustered all my resolve not to make a scene, but I was obviously annoyed!

Except for that incident and their dodgy toilets, Hotel Hibiscus would be an acceptable place to stay for the budget conscious wanderlusts!

The usually unmanned entrance. Lobby is through an elevator at the 3rd floor.

Walking home from Bukit Bintang, I passed this side street where there's a nice view of the colorful KL Tower, 2nd tallest structure of the country after the Petronas!

Maulana Food Court, Malay gastronomic delight - and bottles worth of chili paste. This restaurant is open 24 hours, and stands beside Hotel Hibiscus City. From its corner, there is a paper vendor where you can buy your English dailies, like the Sunday Star at 1.50 ringgit ($0.40 or PhP20)!

Masjid Jamek, a majestic white mosque just a stop away from monorails' station Imbi (above and below).

Merdeka Square area at night! Notice the Hibiscus lanterns at the top of the lamp posts.

Bukit Bintang! Just cross this street (Jalan Ismael) to check out the posh Lot 10 Mall. Walk further for the bright lights of the Bintang Walk. Just further ahead is KL's biggest mall, the Pavilion!

As an afterthought, it would seem that the Hibisbus is Malaysia’s national flower. Well it is! Locally called Bunga Raya, Hibiscus Rosa Sinensis, is also common in its neighboring countries, including in the Philippines where it is called “Gumamela”. Variants of the said flower are also the official flower of the state of Hawaii and South Korea. This is the reason why this flower is honored with a park all its own at the Lake Gardens. Moreover, lanterns that illuminate the city, especially the Merdeka Square, are shaped like the hibiscus.

This is the
Eye in the Sky!

For more accommodation options, please check out these 2 posts:

More Accommodations in KL here (follow the succeeding posts here for different hotels):