Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bangalore's Cubbon Park - Green Lung of the City

It's ironic when a tour that highlights a city gets cancelled. There were supposedly just two of us who booked for a Bangalore Tour. The reason why I booked when I could have done it on my own was simple. It's economical and saves me the hassle of dealing with auto drivers. Imagine if there were 10 sights to visit; multiply that with 150 to 250 rupees each for the transportation alone, that would cost an arm and a leg already - at 1,500 to 2,500 rupees. Then consider the entrance fees for each site for foreigners - once again in the vicinity of 200 to 700 per site! With that kind of money, I could already buy a plane ticket to Hong Kong's Disneyland - or feed a village in Mogadishu? LOL. India is cheap, the cost of living is inexpensive too, but NOT for tourists like me.


Back to my City Tour. The KSTDC people didn't even have the sense to inform me of the tour cancellation. They have my hotel, they have my number. They even have my email address. What good is there of getting these details if not used when necessary? They could have texted me and that would have saved me the effort and unpalatable experience of constantly dealing with rickshaw drvers. Not to mention the fact that I had to wake up at 6:30 AM. Oh well, stuff happens.

It did give me the chance to roam that area around Badami House, which isn't pretty but informs tourists of how locals really live outside tourist-pretty sites. But I loved walking through narrow city streets. There was a rundown temple; cows by the roadside. But mostly, this was where they sell anything on computers, tech gadgets and IT stuff. It also gave me the chance to finally find an internet shop (after 3 days in the Silicon Valley of India) - which is rather ironic.

There were browsing centers near MG Road, but they are closed by 8PM. This is really odd, snce even those crumbling Rajasthani cities like Jaisalmer boasts of internet shops that open til late. Silicon Valley = few internet shops. Maybe I was at the wrong area of the city? But MG Road (as well as Brigade Road where I am staying) is the epicenter of activity. Bars and clubs are here; shops are everywhere. Party teens gather round Fusion Lounge to dance til 11:40PM. Rex Cinema finishes movies (I saw "Christian Brothers") at 1AM. Banks, KFC and McDonalds... everything is here.

By 4PM, I decided to troop to the nearby Cubbon Park which is vast! At over 300 acres - or 120 hectares, Cubbon Park (named after a former British Viceroy of India) is the "breathing space" of the city (aside from the lovely Lal Bagh Botanical Garden). There's a statue of Queen Victoria at the entrance. There's an area filled with huge rocks; a bamboo park, and the beautiful red buildings that house the City Library and the Hall of Justice. I love these solitary walks, away from tour guides. It allows me to famiiarize myself with the streets and to observe the locals in their relaxed laidback demeanor.

The best part about it is i didn't have to deal with auto drivers - the bane of a tourist's life - and sanity!

I would be taking the 9:30PM bus to Munnar later. It's almost a 12 hour bus ride to a hill station, awash with some of the most picturesque scenes in all of India. A bit anxious - but the people from my hotel (Hotel T.A.P. Silversquare) were accommodating. They have been very helpful. Something that I didn't expect from first impression. But this simple visit at the park has to be one of my favorites in Bangalore. It showed the city in a different light. I liked the sound of it as well - Cubbon! Very British? LOL

This is the Eye in the blimey Sky!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bangalore - Kindness of Strangers Three Times Over

It had been a long day and I was getting worn out from Bangalore's hustle. For a change, I didn't feel like dealing with autorickshaw drivers. But I didn't have much choice. This was a tour of Bangalore's "newer sites" (so there's no Tipu's Palace here). The KTSDC tourist bus was once again filled with local tourists, and I was its lone foreigner.

I was seated beside a gentleman from "Andhra Pradesh," he'd inform me. "Hyderabad" - the capital city? Ah, Charminar! How can I forget my scary encounter with an autorickshaw driver who (after agreeing on a 150 rupee ride - when it should be a mere 50 rupees), hiked the amount to 250 when we got to the site). This post isn't really about the day's itinerary. It's about the people who made a difference today.

I hailed my first autorickshaw at 7AM to get to Badami House (Tour was to start at 7:15). I asked the driver how much I'd have to pay to Badami, and without flinching an eyelid, he readily said, "50 rupees". Yesterday, I was asked for 150 from exactly the same spot in the morning, and upon my return from Mysore, the amount escalated to 180 rupees from another driver. Need more proof on the exponential degree of greed among rickshaw drivers? But this particular driver didn't even think twice. "Fifty rupees," he repeated. That started my day - with a huge smile. These days, people have to be commended for little acts of honesty.

Later in the day, while joining an Animal Safari at the Bannerghata Zoological Park, I got a window seat somewhere in the middle of the bus filled with local tourists. Before entering the Bear Sanctuary, the driver's assistant - a tall and lanky young man - waved his hand at me, then he lead me to the lone front seat opposite the driver. This, obviously, is the bus' best seat, with a clear view from up front as well as to my side. Whenever bears or white tigers would appear to the right side of the bus, the assistant would grab my camera and take amazing photos for me. It was embarrassing getting singled out from a throng of people. My only explanation would be, I was the only foreigner. And this particular foreigner is awash with gratitude for this act of kindness and hospitality.

Finally, while the same group alighted from our bus, this time to visit the National Gallery of Modern Arts (NGMA), we learned from the guide's annotation that the entrance fee for everyone would be 10 rupees, but I had to pay 150 rupees (being a foreigner). While queuing for the ticket, the guide whispered, "Just tell them you're from Dili (or is that Delhi?)". I have been in a similar situation before while traveling in Kathmandu and I didn't like the feeling at all. It was scary and I wasn't thrilled to experience that again. Before my turn came at the ticket booth, the guide (sensing I was gonna pay 150 rupees anyway) collected everyone's 10 rupees - then he shooed all of us outside.

I was frozen stiff! I wouldn't be able to enter that museum that way. In fact, i didn't want to go. But like angels sent from heaven, all my Indian tourmates cordoned themselves around me, their multi-colored sarees shielding me from view, and we moved into the entrance "in a pack". They wanted me to get inside the museum - with them, like I did earlier in some 10 other tourist sites. Heck, I've only spoken to one of them during this whole tour! Yet they were willing to cover for a stranger like me.

Now tell me aren't these Indians the sweetest? I would walk around from one room to the next conscious of the fact that I suddenly acquired 60 new friends. I have to say though that the NGMA has one of the best collections of art work I have ever visited. I immersed myself in the scribbles and drawing of Rabindranath Tagore. I realized there were 2 other Tagores who made significant art work. How I wish I could have taken photographs of the display and share them to you. But it was prohibited. This is one of the best curated collections I have witnessed, and it's a waste that very few people get to see this. Hey people, it's only 10 rupees!

And I saw this collection through the kindness of Indian people's hearts. See? Most Indians find this "paying discrepancy" between locals and foreigners uneven and unfair. Foreigners should pay more, but not "exponentially". Otherwise, we feel like we're being taken advantaged of.

Thank you, my Indian friends for your hospitality. Sometimes, it pays to be a tourist in India because one witnesses the inherent goodness of people.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mysore - Of Palaces, Fountains and Gardens

Mysore, India - Greedy auto rickshaw drivers would usher me to an early day in Bangalore. The hotel concierge told me it would cost me 50 rupees to get to the KSTDC's Badami House (accent on the first syllable) near N.R. Square (a 10 minute ride from Brigade Road). I was supposed to be at Badami by 6:30Am for my full day, 16 1/2 hour tour to Mysore. The first two rickshaws asked for 200 rupees, the next one 150. Despite common sense, I took the third rickshaw. But as I'd learn later, 50 is really the asking rate to Badami. I am pretty familiar to such practice where foreigners are asked more than triple the usual. I guess the Indian transport society has accepted this as well. I heard an American tourist say, "Let's ask the Indians $500 when they visit our Disneyland!" Haha. I mean no disrespect to my Indian friends, one of whom is one of my best buddies, but this practice is just preposterous and is a critique on the system, not the people. It's just the way they roll here. Indian tourists are asked for 10 rupees while foreigners are charged 200; and I am talking about government installations like museums, palaces and forts. The taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers are a different population altogether, as I have experienced so many times before.

Anyway, my Volvo bus would be 2218. And I would be one of the only two foreigners (the other one was an American guy being accompanied by his Indian wife).


Two hours out of Bangalore, I couldn't help but notice the stack of litter - papers, fruit peelings, plastic cellophane - scattered by the roadside - and this runs the stretch of our destination (all 360 kilometers as I was told). Bangalore doesn't seem to have a rational garbage disposal system. Litter is found just everywhere, there's a sinking feeling the whole city would eventually drown in their own garbage. It's scary. I'd have thought that a city known for its manicured lawns and well tended gardens and I.T. acumen couldn't be more aware of proper garbage disposal. It's a jarring reality.

We passed by Channapatna, home of a military training school, and a site filled with undulating hills and picturesque slopes. The tourist guide was annotating in Indian thus I could only get words like "shooting" - a film? I can only guess. Sixty kilometers from Bangalore, our first activity of the day would be a 20-minute stopover at a toy factory called Sri Lakshmi Venkateshwara (SLV) Toy Factory. Great! Did I really sign up for a "cultural tour"? There is nothing in the itinerary that included wooden toys and trinkets. Or is this going to be an orgasmic journey into silk shops and sandals and garments? I shuddered at the thought.


My stomach was rumbling. I didn't have breakfast. Where would I get one before 6:30? Yet, I was to happily roam around a toy factory at 8:45AM? I could only offer my thoughts that if your tourists were fed well before taking them to a bazaar, they'd have the propensity to dispose of their hard earned money, right? I saw a stall selling biscuits beside the toy factory (just a shop really) and bought one. The biscuit was called "50/50" which is ironic under this situation which didn't improve when I saw the menu at the drive-in restaurant (it read "Kamat Upachar") where we were going to have breakfast.

"I am in trouble," I told myself!

Much as I wanted to be hip, intercontinental and otherworldly, my tongue disagrees with Indian cuisine and spices. My Kashmiri friend is too aware of this, he used to force me to "Come on, eat some more!" But you see, it is my problem. Some people would gladly trade places with me for getting exposed to the exoticism of Indian cuisine. From the menu, I ordered vaguely familiar terms - few things I've encountered in Tamil Nadu. I had to tell myself - Whatever it is I'd order, I'd consume, regardless of them being spicy or not. I ordered onion rava dosa and ghee plain roast and found out later, both were a variety of roti. Like I originally planned, I consumed every bit and rushed back to my seat.

Some 140 kilometers later, we were snaking through Srirangapatna. For 100 rupees (while the rest paid 10, I felt like the richest human being in the bus), we went inside Daria Daulat Bagh which was undergoing renovation, thus the view from outside isn't as pleasing as the one inside - bearing chipped paints and dusty crevices. But I find that despite my precarious position as a foreign tourist, I couldn't even get back home to show how Daria Daulat Bagh looks! No photos were allowed inside - a practice that's curiously common in this Bangalore sojourn! Are we really stealing a piece of tradition and the grandeur of thee chipping-off structures if we were to take photos? Much like the ethnic Zulu tribes who wouldn't allow their photos taken, lest we steal their souls? How quaint, right?

There were a few other temples we visited - Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, which didn't particularly strike me. The Lal Mahal Ruins were, well, ruined! Nothing but a piece of protruding stones.


I perked up when it when we were to visit St. Philomena's Church, standing majestically at 165 feet. The stone engraving says it's actually a St. Joseph and St. Philomena. We were to spend 15 minutes before hopping on to the next site. There was an on-going mass, and once again, photography was not allowed. I guess we all have to make do with "mental snaps" to remember that we once were inside this Roman Catholic church in Mysore. But what really made me snicker was when we were taken to our next site: Kauvery Silk Arts and Crafts. "Mysore Silks are the best in the world," annotated our guide. What becomes of Kashmiri silks? My friend Junaid would absolutely disagree. How long were we to roam the silk factory? A leisurely 40 minutes!

St. Philomena Church - 15 minutes! Mysrore silk factory - 40 minutes! Toy factory - 20 minutes! There is a degree of disconnect here; an incongruence of priorities, don't you agree? Culture is henceforth more equivalent to toys and silks.

By the time they took us to Mysore Zoo, I was adamant and took my solitary walk. One hour to watch animals compared to 15 minutes to check out a structurally superior catholic church. I headed at the back of market, through winding little alleys until I found myself on a dirt road. From a distance. I saw majestic arches and cupolas of the Mysore Palace. I know we were to visit this palace later so I just took snaps from outside the compound. I made my way back while the sun was bearing its heat. A cup of sugarcane juice (10 rupees) didn't suffice so I bought myself a small bottle of Sprite (12 rupees). I waited at the bus stand as the Indian tourists gradually came back in trickles.


But what I learned from this experience was the way the locals stick to their own time schedule. In every single place we visit, a group would always find their way 30 minutes later than the appointed time. It's not that we were being rushed, but most of these sites supposedly had a 4PM closing time, and if we lose enough time from all the tardiness, we end up missing some of the places. The local tourists probably don't care much since they can always return to Bangalore, but some idiots who hail from America or the Philippines cannot always commute that easily back to India - just to check out some sites they missed because some people didn't feel compelled to follow a schedule. "We cannot scold anyone," said the guide. I wasn't going to complain, but am not gonna shut up about it either. If there is a so-called Filipino Time, Indian Time as it turns out takes a longer, more leisurely demeanor. As a result, we weren't able to stop by the huge Nandi statue by the hill sometime later in the day!


Lunch would be at Hotel Mayura Yathrinivas. I ordered boneless chicken with plain rice and a coke (160 rupees). I sat alongside a charming young Indian couple and their nauseous girl friend. They offered their insights on places like Munnar and Kochi, and we exchanged stories about local travel; something that I appreciated since it gave me pointers about places.

Infosys Campus

Mysore Palace (shown above) set me back by 700 rupees (that's close to 700 pesos) while the locals paid 100 rupees. Once again, cameras weren't allowed inside - because just maybe our cameras were going to siphon the beauty of such place? Anyway, the compound grounds was grand, I couldn't help but snap away like crazy. The whole grandeur was even more emphasized at night when hundreds of lights (100,000 bulbs to be exact) bathe this majestic palace. There were statues of black panthers (or leopards) guarding corners of the compound, a favorite site for the cam hoggers.


After the palace, we moved on to a temple by Chamundi Hills, rising 3,300 feet above sea level. Chamundi (Chamundeshwari) is a mythical god who killed a demon called Mahishasura. Ironically, this demon (not the God) gets immortalized at a roundabout enroute to the temple.


But saving the best for last was precipitous for this trip. Having missed a good 2 1/2 hours from all the delay caused by tardiness, we were to view the grandiose beauty of the Brindavan Gardens in stark darkness and downpour! It was a garden indeed, not of plants but of cascading fountains, the water was supplied by Mysore Dam just beside the compound. I expected a show of lights but there was none. People were just hovering all over, in some of the most congested sites I have ever been on. I swear, in every site, people don't get late for just 5 or 10 minutes. My tourmates were happy ridding us of 30 minutes every darn site, and I am not quite pleased with it. It's like living in a civilized world where people cannot fathom the essence of time and order.

In my book, human beings were given the "will" because it imparts logical reasoning. It allows us to choose right from wrong. And if tardiness were a sin punishable by death, we would have left with half of the bus population dead!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Brindavan Gardens illuminate festively at night. This photo only courtesy of Flickr's Velachery Balu.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bangalore - Annoying Welcome, Snail-Paced Traffic & Vibrating Rooms

Bangalore, India - It would be a free and easy ride out of KL. With a mid-afternoon Air Asia flight to the south Indian city of Bangalore (Bengaluru), I had enough time to enjoy a leisurely walk for a McDonald's Big Breakfast - but the one at Kota Raya has closed shop so I headed to the one beside Jalan Petaling (Chinatown). I almost never eat at McDonald's back in Manila, but I somehow always seem to prefer breakfast every time I'm in Malaysia. Must be the spice-free taste? After a sweltering breakfast (each of the three stories didn't have a functioning AC), I hopped into the nearby Central Market which now boasts of a new attention-catcher - the kite-inspired Kasawa Walk! I had to get stamps for my postcard (I always try to send my mom a postcard whenever I am on the road!)


After checking out of my hotel, complete with a smirking lady by the counter (she was oblivious to my obvious charm - haha), I hiked towards the nearest Metro, Pasar Seni. With just one stop to KL Sentral, it was an inexpensive way to get myself to the airport (LCCT). I 'd usually hail a 15 ringgit taxi to KL Sentral. This one cost me a measly 1 ringgit! With a prepaid Skybus e-ticket, I plopped down my bus seat to LCCT. A taxi usually costs 100 ringgit, It was 11:45AM and the flight was scheduled to depart at 3PM. Talk about "ample time", right?


But the rude surprise was when I checked the flight information counter that said Air Asia flight to Bangalore: "Canceled"! Again? Air Asia usually informs its passengers ahead of time via e-mail and text message. In fact, I got the cancellation 3x in the last 3 months or so. Air Asia is that efficient! The confusing thing here was purely semantics. Instead of saying AK211 flight was "moved to the next day", they would use "AK211 has been canceled, and rescheduled to this day". As mentioned earlier, this particular flight has already been canceled (giving me more time to check out Kinabalu). I rushed to the Air Asia counter and learned that my Bangalore flight was actually pushing through. The information board's "AK211 Canceled" was descriptive of this particular flight, i.e. "the previously canceled flight" - but they had to write down "Canceled" right where "status" is! Reading that as such was a tad deceptive, and a bit annoying.

The flight eventually left at 4PM (not the scheduled 3) - and this was attributed to the loading of "vegetarian dishes", according to the pilot. So the non-vegetarian meals were easier to load up the plane? LOL. Tell me if that made sense.


The flight took a little over 3 hours and 30 minutes, as we swathed through intermittently turbulent skies. The immigration officer, noticing the 3 Indian visas in my passport, was speculating, "You are doing business in India, not as tourist!" It was stated
matter-of-factly that I protested and told him my profession. And it took me more than 15 years of specialty training to suddenly change careers by trade spices and silks. You gotta be kidding me. In the usual sideways Indian head wave, he gave my passport back and didn't say anything further. I never liked Indian immigration officers. They have always been inordinately suspicious of tourists. What? You aren't pleased of us spending our disposable income to bolster Indian tourism? It's a curious thought.


Bangalore International Airport (BIA) glistens with sparkly glass panes and shimmery silver panels; wide open spaces and the smell of I.T. money. It is after all the Silicon Valley of India. But wasn't the old airport that my Lonely Planet was describing. This was a new one, located 35 kilometers from the city center (the old one was just 7 kilometers away). I rushed to the Information Counter where I was refered to the KSTDC (Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation) office, just beside the foreign exchange counter ($1 = 40.20 rupees, when it should be 43.20 or thereabouts). I had to make a fast decision as I didn't wanna go to their main office at Badami House near N.R. Square at this time. It was running late. Besides, I wasn't sure if they'd still be chirpy and accommodating after 7PM (they're supposed to close at 9:30PM). Besides, that was probably some 400 rupees more of unnecessary autorickshaw haggling. And I just hate rickshaw drivers with a passion.


After changing $100 worth of Indian rupees (just enough to pay for my tours and a deposit for a hotel that KSTDC was recommending), I booked 3 successive days of tours. Instead of staying overnight in Mysore (supposedly the cultural capital of the Karnataka State), I decided to base myself from Bangalore. My seatmate, a Indian girl who married a Malaysian, told me that there's no direct connection from Mysore to Munnar, Thus if I were to leave Bangalore for Mysore, then head on to Munnar after that, I would have to backtrack go back to Bangalore again for my Munnar connection! Thus my decision to stay put in Bangalore and just take the full-day Mysore tour from Bengaluru (a hefty 750 rupee full-day, 16 1/2 hour journey to Mysore - on a Volvo bus - and back). Thanks to my seatmate, my itinerary was coming to proper form. Lonely Planet doesn't say much about Munnar (which is a tea plantation hill, much like Malaysia's Cameron Highlands). It's also one of the very few places in India without a train connection.


Having done all that, I was instructed to just get a cab at the taxi queue. "No need for a pre-paid taxi," said the emphatic information officer. (The old airport had a pre-paid booth.) Then he added, "Say no to touts." True enough, and in big bold letters, "Say No To Touts" was on display at the airport exit.


With 35 kilometers of journey to the big city, I was soon to be ushered into one of Asia's worst traffic hubs (to rival that of Bangkok, probably even worse). As we were nearing the metropolis, traffic was in gridlock, moving into sobering hum. I noticed the rise of scaffolds of what would be one of South India's first metro trains (I think Chennai has already beat them to it. I saw Chennai building one 2 years ago.) "It runs 28 kilometers into the city," offered the driver.


My hotel would be Hotel T.A.P. Silver Square right in the bustle of Bangalore's Brigade Road. I always thought it was the Mahatma Gandhi (or just M.G.) Road, but the epicenter of activity and chaos of manual traffic is really Brigade Road. KFC, a Standard Chartered ATM machine, a McDonalds, a Rex Cinema, and several shops and bars line Brigade Road. I was starting to get the feeling that the airport booking was a hoax because they requested me to stay in a rundown non-AC room. "Just wait for a few minutes, and we will switch you to an AC room!" said the man at the counter. I could wait but I wanted to check out Brigade Road and MG Road, not to mention the fact that it was late and I was hungry. More than two hours later, I marched into the counter and demanded - yes, demanded! - that I wanted my room - or I wanted my money back (2000 rupees for 2 nights) so I could go to my original plan - Hotel Ajantha or Brindavan Hotel along MG Road. Heck, I have no idea where they are but finding them couldn't be the hardest I have ever done from my travels, could it?

The original room (104) I was given vibrated from the loud dance music blaring just a floor below. I wasn't told that this relatively new hotel sits on top of a club, the "Fusion Lounge". Every part of this particular room, shuddered and boomed and vibrated; from the window panes, to the glass bathroom doors, to the bed sheets and the wooden floors! And I didn't wanna settle down or take my shoes off in a room I didn't sign up for. Would you?


Like a lit flash bulb, they ushered me into a room that's worth 1, 600 rupees. "No extra charge," the man said to appease me. "I don't want to take advantage of the situation, but I do need a single AC room as was booked by the tourism office," I said. This room, 106, would be "home" the next 3 days in Bangalore; an upgrade twice over the original booking of 1,000 rupees. One day, I will be able to post photos here. The music from down below kept blaring in full techno base, but I really didn't mind much. It was like being in my own solitary dance club, in the comforts of my solitary room. I signed up for loud and chaos when I decided to stay at the M.G. Road area.

By 11:40PM, the music ended abruptly. And there was peace on Earth.

Not to mention good will to man. I sort of felt sorry for being slightly offensive, but I didn't like to be taken for a ride. And for the most part, I knew their "mistake" wasn't intentional too, as I'd realize in the next few days. But I wasn't going to suffer for someone else's mistakes.

I didn't!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Maharaja Palace

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Nocturnal Activities in KL

I got off my Star Shuttle bus at the Puduraya stop. I was pretty excited about Puduraya. To my surprise, it wasn't finished yet, but from the looks of it, it was already well planned: gleaming silvery interiors, the entrance has two escalators, and its surrounding filled with window and glass panels. I wonder when it's supposed to start operation. It's been a year since my July visit and I am missing the easy access to busses out of KL.

The rest of Pudu, which used to be rundown, is starting to come alive with better hostel facades too. Improved facilities will benefit tourists because, as far as I am concerned, KL has one of the worst budget to middle-rate accommodation facilities in Asia.

Elsewhere, an Air Asia office has opened right across Berjaya Times Square. And Marriott Hotel has started construction of a huge diamond shaped structure that will rival the grandeur of Pavilion's Liuli Fountain.

I was able to roam around the Pavilion while waiting for the screening time of a movie. I saw a Saisaki Restaurant, I was sure this was the Filipino owned franchise, with similar marquee design.

At 1AM, the sidewalk along Bukit Bintang Street was teeming with life, prostitutes and transvestites parade in proud glory. And this is a Muslim country, if I may add. By the time I made it to my hotel, the new man by the counter asked if I was gonna see someone at Room 206. At 1:30AM? "It's my room," I smiled. No need to be testy here. I'd be out in the morning anyway. With a 3 piece KFC chicken, I retired to my air cooled room, then rested. Relaxing night. Looking forward for Bangalore tomorrow in the evening though.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Friday, March 25, 2011

KL - Dilemma in KK and the Comfort of Familiarity

KL, Malaysia - Before making it back to KL, I had to see Atkinson Clock Tower right up a hill. It has somehow symbolized Kota Kinabalu, and I couldn't leave the city without paying my respect (sort of). Little did I realize that the clock tower was just a few walks at the back of Borneo Backpackers which, on its own has a historical anecdote worth telling. (It rises on "Australian Place" - and one of the three backpacker hotels habitating this "place". Australian soldiers who arrived in the island long time ago first settled here. The name stuck!)

Atkinson Tower is a homage to Francis George Atkinson, the first district officer of Jesselton (KK's original name). He unfortunately died of "Borneo Fever" at the age of 28. As a memorial, they secured a two-faced clock that was given by Atkinson's mother as a present and incorporated it to the tower. From BB, I crossed the street then immediately saw a hill. There it was! Nothing fancy, in fact it would be in its early state of disintegration.

From the tower, I walked around the hilltop. It was used as a parking lot for the nearby police (or was it army) academy. I continued to walk further, made my way down until I reached the City Hall and the adjacent City Park where a memorial of Australian soldiers who fought two 1960's wars stand. It was just a stone with names written in the middle of the slab.

I saw an Internet Cafe nearby, as well as a foreign exchange counter - two of the essential items I was looking for the first night I arrived. Great internet connect at 2 ringgit every 30 minutes. I then rushed back to Borneo Backpackers to checkout (they're rather strict with their 11AM checkout time).


The dilemma here was: do I "commute" and venture on a city-bus-and-minibus combination? It would be fun and educational if I had enough time. Or do I just take the taxi which is faster and dependable but more expensive. I wanted to experience the bus commute, so against the persuasive logic of a taxi ride, I headed to the nearby Bus Stop just across Milemewa Store where a bus was indeed waiting. I asked the "conductor", "Wawasan Bus Terminal?" He nodded, and I paid 50 cents. It wasn't quite 11 yet, but my departure was at 12:30PM. I am used to being at the airport early. I wasn't too comfortable playing with time because a lot of things could happen in between. Upon reaching the bus terminal right across Wawasan Center, I rushed to find the L.T.T. mini-bus. (It wasn't the Puputan that LP mentioned. The guy I asked instructed to look for "LTT" - so I did! The driver was also the one collecting fees - 1.50 ringgit. "Terminal 2?" I asked. He nodded. Then time started to agonizingly run ever so slow.

But I finally made it to T2 at 11:45AM!

The ride to KL was a bit bumpy and took 2 hours and 15 minutes. Arriving into KL feels like arriving at a familiar room; no more butterflies; no surprises; no photos worth taking. It was somehow comforting. But am I not here for the adventure? That will have to wait.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mount Kinabalu - Long Days, Scary Suspension Bridges & Blooming Parasites

Mount Kinabalu Park - Malaysia has 4 entries in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, not three. After all, you don't just always mention Melaka and Georgetown (Penang) together in one sentence, do you? They are nestled along the Strait of Malacca, but other than that, they are unrelated. One can't just peep through Malacca and then hop away north to Penang. The two other entries: Gunung (Mount) Mulu National Park in Miri, Sarawak (the second highest mountain in Sarawak, famous for its limestone karst) and Kinabalu National Park located 2 hours southeast of Kota Kinabalu (capital of Sabah).

To be honest about it, I wasn't too thrilled with the idea of spending 195 ringgit just to see a mountain park. I have seen a good deal of mountains in my life and I didn't have to pay almost $80 to see it, but hey, it's put up or shut up. Might as well check it off my heritage list.

Had an early start of the morning and took a walk to see the seaside in the daytime. Everything always looks better in the morning. I decided to check out some of the Malay Chinese restaurants near my strip - Restoran Nuryana, just a jump away from the more popular Fong Ip. A fried rice, fried egg and fried noodle only cost me 2 ringgit. Friggin' cheap, I could live here. Haha


My pick up came at 8:15 AM, right in front of Borneo Backpackers. Bas Persiaran no. 7061L carries an amorous Sabah girl named Dayang who, at 26, has never left her birth place although her folks hailed from nearby Brunei. I would be tourist no. 5, and we were to pick up a couple from the U.K. at the swanky Shangrila Rasa Ria Resort some 30 minutes off KK. It was a chance to see how this Shangrila looks like. (There's a dilapidated Hotel Shangrila in KK.) The rest of the pack consisted of 2 Hungarian girls and a Hong Kong couple.

I expected a half day itinerary, but it was becoming clear I would be home by 6:30 PM. My 195 ringgit started to make sense, considering it would cover most entrance fees and a sit-down lunch as well. Two hours later, we were in Nabalu Market. Aside from a longhouse-designed market place selling souvenirs, there was a 47-step Observation Tower (capacity 15 persons) and a View Deck that boasts of an unhampered sprawl of Mount Kinabalu, all covered with low-hanging clouds, painted much like a surreal dream. It was beautiful. After an intimate visit at the loo (30 sens), we headed to our first official Kinabalu Park - yeah, World Heritage Site, that accounted for the 100 ringgit of our 195 as conservation fee - this was the Botanical Garden where we spent an hour. Dayang was just making small talk, blabbering away with almost incomprehensible scientific names, intermittently stopping by to point to a variety of orchids (Laughing Orchid, Spider Orchid); the extreme sizes of the Pitcher Plants, cinnamon trees, raspberries in bloom; and the Malay version of the non-edible senorita bananas (they're mostly made up of seeds - and inspires constipation). The temperature from that altitude went down to a chilly 18 degrees, but got more comfortable later.

Lunch would be at Round Inn Restaurant which served 7 courses. We had a little debate about a particular dish that turned out to be a mayonaised breaded shrimp, so that broke the ice. After late lunch, we just walked across, and found ourselves at the Poring Hot Spring ("poring" means "bamboo"). There would be several activities here:

1. Canopy Walk - 5 ringgit entrance if you're not in a tour group; plus 5 ringgit camera fee for everyone. This would encompass 4 suspension bridges, blood-curdling, I almost said "forget it". No, I actually said "forget it" then gathered enough balls to save face. Haha

2. Butterfly Park (Taman Kupu Kupu) - optional at 4 ringgit, and unimpressive. The one in Cameron Highlands still tops my list.

3. Poring Hot Springs - Sulphur-soaked spring water tapped and cloistered in several cabanas, and on a first-come, first served.

4. Kipungit Waterfall - Once again, unimpressive at 665 meters. I didn't even attempt the Langanan Waterfall which has a height of 3,715 meters, and goes further than we were given the alloted 1 1/2 hours. Signs suggest at after 2 PM, tourists are advised not to attempt Langanan Falls anymore. "Too dangerous," they would mention. Might as well, because there's not enough time.

5. Rafflesia in Bloom at the Tropical Garden, just off Bamboo Garden Park - Another optional visit. This would be a measly 10 ringgit, way cheaper than the more popular private Rafflesia Resort outside which requires a hefty 30 ringgit. "It's because this is government property, thus cheaper," remarked the caretaker, who had to padlock the blooming Rafflesia, everytime a tourist leaves. There was just me during my visit.

My thoughts: The 20-minute hike up the Canopy Walk isn't exactly a "walk in the park" as they say, but it was navigable unless you're physically handicap. I almost didn't go through with it when I realized the altitude, and the 8-inch wide wooden plank I would have to step on, navigating through 4 suspension bridges that initially challenged my sanity. But hey, everyone else did it, and I told myself its a mind trick, so off I went and conquered one of my very few phobias. The ticket checker advised, "Just walk straight ahead, and don't look down." I've heard that line so many times before, but it helped my passage. Kipungit Waterfall was another arduous hike - a muddy, soggy, pebbly uneven trail. I went mostly on my own and didn't see the Hungarian girls (they were a bit too heavy to do much arduous task) nor the elderly U.K. couple. The Hong Kong couple were always 10 minutes behind me.

Butterfly Park was, as mentioned, as unimpressive, I must have spotted just two varieties. But the air conditioned "butterfly museum" was a respite from the sweltering sun. I made my way back to the "bas parking" and found no one there so I decided to made a dash into the trail-less Bamboo Garden, almost fell through slippery mud a couple of times. I found the Tropical Garden at the end of the trail. I paid my 10 ringgit, and was lead into the secured garden. There it was bigger than 3 heads, and blooming beautifully in its stink! Flies were gathering around it. This one took 15 to 20 months to grow to its full size. I ran back to my tour bus (well, it's a van). Fortunately, I wasn't the last one. The HK couple weren't able to see the flower (a parasite, FYI). They tried to leave but they weren't allowed. We were already running late. We waited for the UK couple who went to see the Rafflesia themselves.

By 4 PM, we were on our way back to KK. I had a nice, but brief chat with the UK couple who asked a few pointers on Batu Cave, Genting Highlands and Penang. I didn't feel like becoming an unofficial guide. I learned that KLIA Transit wasn't working a few days ago. It never conked out on me during my several KL visits - and there's been a lot!

Most of our ride, I slept as the afternoon rains poured its sombering wrath. It would take us 2 1/2 hours to get back to KK, which doesn't seem to expalin the 88 kilometers distance of Mount Kinabalu from KK (and I have to mention that our driver was speeding away like a demon in heat). There was also heavy traffic upon plying through 1Borneo, their latest and most luxurious entertainment and shopping complex.


Before leaving my van, I asked Dayang why, the long road to Kinabalu were peppered with numerous "gereja katolik" (Catholic Churches) - some saints I'm not even familiar with. St. Helen? St. Horace? St. Anna? I have never seen so much churches anywhere outside the Philippines, the only Catholic country in Asia. Her explanation was that, despite KK being mostly a muslim populace, a great number of the people from north and east of KK are devout Roman Catholics. Kinabalu Park sits southeast of KK.

Back at my room in BB, I took a nap to recharge. By 8PM, I lazily made a dash for dinner at Fong Ip Restaurant where i paid 8.80 ringgit for a Kon Lau Mee BBQ (just fried noodles mixed with pechay, and slices of chicken barbecue), nasi putih (at 1.20) and a coke. I walked along the dark, drizzly promenade checking out the malls and stores and the long line of bazaars and markets facing the South China Sea. I saw Le Meridien, Warisan Square and the Marina Courts.

I couldn't decide if I wanted to call it a night or watch a Malay movie. I headed inside Centrepoint Mall and its adjacent Palm Square Mall. At the top floor, I found the oddly named Growball Cinemas.


It was a choice between a Malay drama called "Ratu - The Movie" (a drama about 10 beauty queen hopefuls) and a historical epic called "Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa". Picked the latter which, to my surprise, was a good one. Reminds me of the grandeur of Chito Rono's "Emir" sans the music. For a change, a Malaysian movie did not scrape bottom. It starred Stephen Rahman-Hughes, Dato Rahim Razali and Gavin Stenhouse (an American actor who looks like a younger Paul Walker). It chronicles the story of Langkasuka's first king that commenced with the Roman empire sending a prince Marcus (Stenhouse) to marry a stubborn princess of the Han Dynasty. Once attacked by the Gerudans - a bunch of mystical pirates, the Romans and the Chinese were left with very few fleet. They asked for the help of the Goans while Rome was gathering another army, but that would take time. They hired a free soul named Merong Mahawangsa to protect the Prince. Merong would become the first king of the kingless land, and ancestor of Malaysia's iconic, albeit mythical kings. Great sparkling cinematography; an ensemble of actors from the US, Malaysia, China and India; an epic scope that had lots of action and even CG's (the gerudans can summon a storm and a lightning which should make veracity of this epic tale a bit dodgy).


The good news: it was a promo night, so instead of the usual 13 ringgit, I only paid 5 ringgit for the ticket. Neat huh? What I didn't like was the practice of the ushers to actually lock us inside the hall while the movie was running, then open it once the movie's done. What if fire breaks out? Would they be fast enough to open the hall doors? Fire hazard waiting to happen. Scary thought, actually.


I walked back to my hotel, through dimly lit avenues and soggy sidewalks. There were a few transvestites making their post-midnight round. Prostitution is a reality even in Sabah. It was close to 2AM by the time I finished my readings. Long day, but not bad at all.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Kota Kinabalu - Horror Ride in Jesselton Town

Kota Kinabalu - There was turbulence in the last 80 minutes of our plane ride en route to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Malaysia. To be honest about it, KK was just an afterthought during the planning stage of this long haul trip. When Air Asia cancelled and moved my Bangalore trip a day later, I decided to extend my stay in KK. What the heck, I've seen too much of KL already, it wouldn't hurt discovering more new places.

It had been a relaxing flight from Clark. The chicken rice meal (PhP153 if pre-booked) was tastier than usual, albeit a wee bit oilier. It also sported a name - Uncle Chip's Chicken Rice. But as we were nearing the Borneo city, the plane started shaking. The view outside both windows wasn't uplifting - smoky gray, with no hint of cirrus clouds. The lady beside me started praying hard, she shut her eyes tight as though summoning the angels. I was starting to worry too. In my several years of riding planes, turbulent patches don't usually last longer than 30 minutes. This has gone so much longer.

By 5:55PM, our scheduled arrival, we were still nowhere - suspended on air. "We have to 'hold it off'," the pilot announced. Pete's sake, we couldn't land? Twenty minutes later, there were hints of descent, but the view outside was still dark. I didn't see any land surface until 5 minutes from our landing. When we finally touched ground, the passengers clapped! Yeah, clapped! I have never been in a plane ride with clapping passengers before, I swear! Rain was pouring hard outside. We had to disembark from the rear door while we waited for umbrellas.

I was worried about my hotel pick up. I booked for two nights at the Lonely Planet-recommended "Borneo Backpackers" which offers complimentary airport transfer (if you booked a minimum of 2 nights). Immigration formalities were fast and uneventful. Upon retrieval of my luggage, I rushed at the lobby. A Pinoy couple were picking up "guests" for their "hostel". They approached me, I smiled and told them I already had one. Thankfully, I saw my name waved just behind the Pinoy couple.

His name was Rex, tall, confident, welcoming - he speaks very fluent English, with an educated cadence. I was impressed. He asked if I wanted my money changed first before getting inside the car. I nodded. I have disposable pesos which I won't be able to use. I wanted to get rid of them and mustered 305 ringgit from my Philippine money. Not bad! Took some fast snaps inside the airport, which was moderately busy. Kuching's was the prettier one, but KK International Airport hosts more flights. This would make it more tourist-friendly too.

From the airport, the city center is 7 kilometers away. As we made our way out of the compound, the heavy rains turned into a lazy drizzle. In 30 minutes, I was in "Borneo Backpackers". I was given my security code too, that way, I could roam the night without worrying about curfew (there's none). After paying for 2 nights (50 ringgit per night for a single room with AC), I hastily booked for my Kinabalu Park and Poring Hot Spring Tour the next day. I hoped it wouldn't rain in the morning. I secured my room key (number 12), then headed out.

So there I was again, taking my solitary walks in the dimness of the night, amidst the drizzle. KK's city center reminds me of Kuching. At 8 PM, a lot of stores have shut their doors. I visited a new mall called Suria Sabah - Metrojaya. I checked out the Golden Screen Cinemas at the 8th floor, but there wasn't any Malaysian movie: "Big Momma", "Beastly", "The Fighter", "Rango". I wasn't too thrilled with the titles so I decided to just walk around in old Jesselton (the original name of the city) in its sobering darkness.

I reached the seafront and saw a huge statue of a fish at the roundabout - mackerel? swordfish? There was a Hyatt Hotel, a Capitol Hotel, a Seven-Eleven, an Air Asia office, a Burger King, a packed restaurant called "Upperstar". I ended up with the sure thing: 2 piece chicken with rice at KFC at 11.05 ringgit! Yes, there's one along Lorong Segama, There's another at Suria Sabah too.

At 9:30 PM, I started my walk back "home". I've explored some of their major hangout places. It will be an early morning tomorrow. I am curiously looking forward to plop down my back. I have a comfortable bed at Room number 12. And the staff are very accommodating. Nothing beats friendly faces.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

This photo only courtesy of the top photo is courtesy of

Monday, March 21, 2011

Palace of Culture's Exteriors - Istana Budaya Part 2

The front yard of Istana Budaya is lined by white porches and stairs of ponds and kite-like structures rising from the waters. I knew it had to mean something of local color, but if you were aware that the building itself was designed by local architect Muhammad Kamar Ya'akub taking the "traditional moon kite in flight" as its inspiration, one could easily pick up the reference to these kite-like designs.

The National Art Gallery is located just beside the Istana and is worth a visit.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Traditional moon kites in flight.

Istana Budaya at the floor of the pond.

Istana Bupaya

For information on the architectural design and history of Istana Budaya at our previous post.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Palace of Culture's Interiors - Istana Budaya Part 1

It's easy to interchange Budaya and Bupaya. I do, quite often. But the Bupaya that I know is the Bagan Temple along the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar; beautifully shaped like a proud golden pineapple. It is one of my favorite sites in Myanmar (Burma). On the other hand, Malaysia's Istana Budaya is its Palace of Culture.

Founded in 1999, this istana ("palace") is the Malaysian capital's main venue for theatrical shows - musical theatre, operetta, classical concerts, operas. In fact, while I was checking out the place, I found tarpaulins of their upcoming and previous shows: "West Side Story", Magikal Che Det, Arirang - Korean Week, Samsara, etc. Three streets can be used to locate Istana Budaya: Jalan Tun Razak in front; Jalan Kuantan to its right side; and Jalan Beserah at the back (facing Lake Titiwangsa). To its left side is KL's National Art Gallery (circa 1958) which I didn't know during my two visits in Titiwangsa. Now I do. ;->

The theatrical arena is part of a cultural complex measuring 54,400 square meter that began construction in 1995 and completed 1998 - built to the tune of 210 million ringgit ($69.09 million or a whooping PhP3 billion). Had it been done in the Philippines, it would have only cost PhP50 million pesos, and the rest would have gone to the pockets of the mayor, the middlemen, and the contractors. Wanna bet? LOL

The Main Theater Hall - Panggung Sari - has a unique design of royal boxes traditional Malay windows. It can accommodate 1,412 people at a time. It is considered to be among the Top 10 Most Sophisticated Theaters in the World, and said to be at par with London's Royal Albert Hall! Istana Budaya is home of the National Theater Company and the National Symphony Orchestra.


The building is designed by local architect, Muhammad Kamar Ya'akub. The inspiration for the design is based on a traditional moon kite in flight. The turquoise folds on the roof and the intricate design of the foyer are just two of the interesting features of the building. Istana Budaya’s architecture has intrigued experts and academics.

The main building takes the shape of the 'sirih junjung', a traditional arrangement or a present made of betel leaves used during Malay weddings and welcoming ceremonies. As in a traditional Malay house, the building is divided into three areas:

§ The "serambi" (lobby and foyer)

§ The "rumah ibu" (main house) as the auditorium

§ The "rumah dapur" (kitchen) as the stage and rehearsal hall.

The interior was constructed using local resources such as Langkawi’s marble and high-quality tropical wood for the doors crafted by hand to shape flowers and leaf motifs. The verdant carpets in the entrance hall and lobby feature cempaka flower and the beringin tree, inspired by Malaysia’s traditional opera, Mak Yong.

In the auditorium, there are royal boxes on each side, patterned after the windows of a Malay house. The entrance to the theatre, too, replicates a palace’s main hall, or the Balairong Seri and is said to be modelled after one in Melaka.

The theatre lobby on the third floor extends the influence of Malay culture, taking the shape of the rebana ubi or traditional drum. Its 1,412 people capacity includes 797 in the stalls on the first floor, 312 in the grand circle on the second floor and 303 people in the upper circle. The orchestra pit, when it is not in use, can take in 98 people.

While there seems to be a large number of stairs, the disabled can take heart. Istana Budaya has wheelchair facilities, including a ramp into the foyer, a lift with easy-to-reach buttons and an area designated for the handicapped. Restrooms for the disabled are also found at both the stalls and grand circle areas. Additionally, there is also a costume gallery featuring clothes from Malay traditional theatre. The costumes are from Bangsawan, Mak Yong, Ajat Bebunuh, Layang Emas and Bambarayon performances, among others.

(Acknowledgement: Wikipedia for the architectural facts)

Panggung Sari Theater Hall

During my visit, they were fielding an Architectural and Interior Design Exhibit at the lobby. Photographs of neo-classical and modern designs were on display, some of them are featured below.

There wasn't any performance during my visit, but finding the place was nothing short of a pleasant discovery. I didn't plan on visiting Istana Budaya because I thought it was too far from Lake Titiwangsa. Little did I know that my 30-minute walk would eventually take me there. Guards were eyeing me as I navigated the premises in solitary splendor. They knew I was a tourist. After the interiors, I checked out the front lawn. It was as carefully planned as its interiors.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


In a few days, I will be taking my annual March/April long haul trip that will take me to a minimum of a dozen new places in Asia, covering 3 countries. Yes, it's not too inexpensive considering this involves 7 plane rides. We will be posting our daily blow-by-blow account, an undertaking that's truly tiring but more enjoyable than post-trip blogging. We are praying for a calamity-free travel. To those who are traveling soon, safe travels!