Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
Omozakana: Simmed  Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice
Omozakana: Simmed Black Rockfish with simmered An Sauce, grilled Tofu and steamed Tawara Rice

One of Continental Airline’s more obscure routes took us from Palau to Manila. We spent a couple of nights in Manila but honestly we didn’t see much more than a few shopping malls. The city really doesn’t have all that much to offer the tourist so I don’t think we missed much. Maybe we should have tried harder?

The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney

We had a few days to kill before Charles, a good friend of mine, arrived in Manila. We had heard some decent things about Taal Lake which lies a couple hours south of Manila so we headed that way.

Like most of its neighbors, the Philippines has a creative and entertaining solution to mass transit: the jeepney. Jeepneys used to be surplus military jeeps that were extended and converted into bus-like vehicles. These days, jeepneys are made locally from scratch but still keep the styling of the originals. What’s cool about the jeepney is that it comes in all shapes, sizes and colors – it is as if there are no two that are the same. The only commonality amongst jeepneys is that they tend to be severely overloaded with passengers and cargo at all times!

During our three weeks in the Philippines we saw and made use of many jeepneys. My friend Charles amassed a sizable collection of jeepney photos and those are featured in the album.

To ride a jeepney you just flag it down (they will stop anywhere), climb in the back and hopefully find some space on one of the benches. Next you yell your destination at the driver and pass forward the correct fare (the other passengers help to pass it forward). If you don’t have exact change then the driver will count out change all while driving, shifting and honking. Cheap transport but not comfortable transport.

Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay

Fortunately, Taal lake is quite close to Manila. We spent about an hour on a bus and then a further hour on a jeepney to get to Talisay on the north side of the lake. Talisay is perched on a ridge overlooking the lake and, thanks to the altitude, has a mild climate compared to Manila.

The entire Taal lake area is part of the Taal volcano, one of the most active in the Philippines. There are numerous craters visible from the ridge. The most popular excursion is to take a boat to volcano island, hike up to the ridge and get a look at the boiling sulfurous lake below.

We took a boat out to the volcano one day and hiked to the ridge. Sadly, most tourists make the trip by horse and they all looked to be pretty sickly and overworked. The climb wasn’t all that bad but we were glad we started early in the day when temps were lower. The view from the top was good but I think we are starting to get a bit spoiled by all the fantastic landscapes we’ve seen on the trip.

Food-wise, the Philippines didn’t impress us. It is a bit of a paradox because they certainly have access to the same ingredients as their neighbors. Most of the food that is available sort of reminded me of carnival food – fried chicken, hamburgers, cotton candy, deep fried ice cream, etc. To be fair, I did have some very good chicken adobo (a Filipino national dish of sorts) but there wasn’t the variety of cuisine you see elsewhere in SE Asia.

Despite the Philippines shortcomings on the food front, we did have a few entertaining culinary experiences. The first came when we were on the bus down to Talisay. Food vendors came on board the bus to sell their goods. This is common throughout the world but what was interesting here is that it is done by the big corporate food outlets. We had a guy in a Dunkin Donuts polo shirt hocking big boxes of donuts! I was in the mood for lunch so I got a mini pizza. The other thing the Philippines does right is cold beer. A bottle of respectable pilsner for under a buck is universally available. Perfect after a long day of diving!

Taal Lake and Jeepneys
The mighty jeepney
The mighty jeepney
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Is he filling it with water or petrol? Note the hose running to the engine. Does it have a steam engine?
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Taal Lake as seen from the ridgeline at Talisay
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
Our boat was partially made of discarded circuit boards!
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
The Philippines may come up a bit short in the area of cuisine but they do deliver on cheap cold beer.
Chicken adobo
Chicken adobo
Sample Mexican food outside of the America's is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
Sample Mexican food outside of the America’s is a big risk but Army Namy in the Philippines did a good job.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food.  Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
They even put a funny stamp on your receipt after you get your food. Run by an ex-pat, I assume.
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines
There is a very respectable assortment of peanut butters to chose from in the Philippines

Nov 072011
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?

We decided to only make two major stops in Cambodia since our visit was a mere ten days in length. Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city at 140,000 was our second destination. The city has some nice colonial buildings but the main attractions lie a short tuktuk ride outside of town.

The fastest way to Battambang from Siem Reap is to take the bus. A more interesting but slower and more expensive way of making the trip is by boat. The trip started with a van transfer from our guesthouse in Siem Reap to the boat docks on the shore of Tonlé Sap Lake. I think this part of the trip is usually pretty fast but we had to forge some pretty deep door-seal-testing flood waters along the way. Ironically, the flood waters also cut our boat journey short at the other end of the trip as our boat was unable to pass under some of the bridges near Battambang.

At some point on the river, we broke down. I think this is par for the course on this ride; the guidebooks warn about it. This time one of the steering cables broke but our crew fashioned a splice out of a pair of knock-off vice grips. The breakdown was actually nice because for once we could enjoy the peace and quiet of the river. Best I could tell, our boat had a very minimal exhaust system – straight pipes seem likely. All I know is that it was really loud whenever the engine was running!

Eventually we entered the delta of the Stung Sangker river and passed a number of floating villages. They are quite a remarkable sight. Pretty much everything: houses, gas stations, stores and schools are floating. Some of the houses even had floating pigpens and chicken coups. The only permanent structures I could spot were the numerous cellular phone towers anchored to cement pylons.

Once we arrived in Battambang we tuktuked into town (an extra 8 kilometers thanks to the flooding) and found a nice room at the Lux Guesthouse for $18 per night. Surprisingly enough, we heard that Battambang had some good vegetarian restaurants. Starving from the boat ride we immediately went and checked one of them out (Mercy House).  Faux meat dishes aplenty on the menu and those proved to be one of my favorite things to eat during our three night stay in Battambang. Lunch or dinner for two people came to $5 on average. Great food at a cheap price.

Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring

The big thing to do when visiting Battambang is a tuktuk tour of the surrounding countryside. The tuktuk driver who picked us up at the boat seemed like a nice guy but despite emailing and calling I couldn’t reach him to scheduled a tour. Instead, we ended up with one of the guys who works for our guesthouse.

When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.

One of the first stops on our day tour was the bamboo train. Although there are plans to revitalize it, the Cambodia railroad system is currently defunct. This hasn’t stopped the locals from continuing to make use of the tracks. Makeshift bamboo carts with small engines are used to transport people, goods and tourist along the tracks in this part of the country. The carts are easy to disassemble so anytime another “train” is encountered the one with the lighter load must yield the way. Apparently these were also used when real trains were plying the tracks!

We blasted a few kilometers down the tracks at what felt like a very high rate of speed. The train tends to scare the insects living in the grass around the rails so you are constantly pelted with grasshoppers and the like along the way. Amy wasn’t too fond of this!

The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan

Next we drove to Phnom Banan, a temple perched nicely on a hill surrounded in pancake-flat brilliantly green rice fields. From the dropoff point it is a 358-step climb to the temple which was a good way to work up a sweat in the Cambodian heat.

The final stop of the tour was at the killing caves of Phnom Sampeau. The Khmer Rogue dumped hundreds of bodies in these caves and nowadays the site has been converted into a memorial. After the climb to Phnom Banan we weren’t too keen on climbing another mountain so we hopped on the back of a couple of motorcycles.

I spent quite some time chatting with one of the motorcycle drivers. He was a young kid, maybe in his late teens and his goal was to become a tuktuk driver like the one who was showing us around that day. He explained that it is a very highly paying job – they earn approximately $15 for a day tour. They usually spend one day searching for a customer and then spend the next touring with them; at least that is the way it can be in high season. It doesn’t sound like much money but in Cambodia it is way above the average.

He told me that he had to leave school prematurely in order to help his parents run their restaurant near the killing caves. He takes tourists up the mountains as a side job to help support the family and to save for a tuktuk. What struck me about this guy was his mastery of English – much better than most Cambodians we met during our visit. I complimented him on it and we left him a nice tip for showing us around the caves. I really hope things work out for him.

On our third morning in Battambang we rose early and schlepped our bags over to the bus station to catch a Bangkok-bound bus. Actually, there was no direct bus to Bangkok but we didn’t know that until we were dumped in some obscure town along the road to Poipet. Watching the morning “rush hour” while we waited for our second bus of the day was good entertainment.

A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.

At the border things moved very smoothly for us but some of our fellow backpackers apparently had issues leaving Cambodia. Something about their entry visas not being legit – shocking. I think we were waiting on the Thai side of the border for a good hour before they found their way to the minivan.  Then we had to wait longer for them to get food because they were starving.  Classic.  In retrospect, we should have just bought a bus ticket to the border and then a second ticket from the border to Bangkok. Less wait and less hassle!

Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

We had no idea if it would be problematic to get out of Cambodia so we had padded our schedule with an extra day. This left us time to gorge ourselves on more Thai food and run an important errand: buying winter clothing. Next stop, Mongolia.

Battambang, Cambodia
Floating gas station
Floating gas station
A floating flood vendor
A floating flood vendor
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Sunset with a thunderstorm
Battambang's central market
Battambang’s central market
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Three kids on a bike in a torrential rainstorm.
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Loaded up in the tuk tuk and ready for a day of touring
Are those donuts?
Are those donuts?
Riding the bamboo train
Riding the bamboo train
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
When you come across another train, one of them has to be dismantled.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
I hope this bridge had a few more wooden ties back when real trains came through.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Bamboo lever is used to slide the engine and make the belt taught.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
Cane juice! One of my favorites.
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
The steps leading to Phnom Banan
A good reason to stay on the path.
A good reason to stay on the path.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
One of the killing caves where the Khmer Rouge disposed of countless people.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Checking out some abandoned German and Russian built tanks.
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Cambodian gas station (soda bottles filled with gas)
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over.  Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Old Pepsi factory that wa abandoned when the Khmer Rouge took over. Oddly, the lawn is still maintained.
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
Chicken is always on the menu in SE Asia
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I'm glad this guy isn't loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
The horse quite nearly took to the air as the trailer was loaded. I’m glad this guy isn’t loading cargo into the jumbos at BKK.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
A textbook example of proper horsecart weight-and-balance technique.
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Thailand has some great vegetarian options
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Sweet dessert made of sticky rice, coconut milk and sweet beans.
Spicy green papaya salad
Spicy green papaya salad

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