Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
I decided to try some plum saki.  Tsukinoi Nihonshu Shikomi Umezake
I decided to try some plum saki. Tsukinoi Nihonshu Shikomi Umezake

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

Sep 162011

Readers who have been watching the map on the website have probably noticed that we are no longer in Sri Lanka.  Indeed, we left the Pearl of the Indian Ocean a little over a week ago.  After almost 25 days of frequent use of Sri Lanka’s public transportation, coach seats on a Bangkok-bound airplane felt absolutely luxurious!  I still have quite a bit more to write about Sri Lanka but I thought I would interrupt the normally scheduled broadcasts and share our upcoming adventures.

During our last week in Sri Lanka I spent some quality time looking at airline award charts.  Ever since we left the States in July, I have been carrying hard copies of redemption charts for United, America, British Airways, British Midlands, and US Airways – all airlines in which I have a fair number of miles sitting in the bank.  I am sure I really confuse other travelers and locals alike when I sit someplace public and pour over these tables but staring at them for a long time is the best way for me to find the fun corner cases.  While planning our escape from Sri Lanka I think I had some good luck finding one of those corner cases.

The basic goals we had were as follows:

  • Thailand for a quick jaunt to Cambodia/Laos
  • Hong Kong – a city neither of us has visited
  • Mongolia – a country that has long been on my must-see list
  • Philippines – for more SCUBA and snorkeling

The first idea I had was to cash out some British Airways miles for an award with Cathay Pacific.  This would take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover then onward to Hong Kong for another stopover.  Finally, the award would terminate by carrying us from Hong Kong to either Manilla or Cebu in the Philippines.  This seemed to be a good value but I wanted to stretch it even more.

Mongolia has long been on my must-see list and we are in the same neck of the woods, sort of.  OneWorld has no service to Ulaanbaatar but Air China, a Star Alliance member, has once daily service from Beijing.  Nesting a second award ticket inside of our Hong Kong stopover was doable but the miles required wasn’t all that attractive and the Chinese visa issues even less so.

Image from Wikipedia Mongolia article

Mongolia

Eventually it occurred to me that I could probably accomplish most of our goals with a single ticket using my British Midland (BMI) miles.  BMI allows stopovers, even on one-way awards, and prices their awards with a zone-based system which favorable groups all those destinations into adjacent zones.  By booking two one-way reservations I was able to construct a ticket to take us from Sri Lanka to Thailand for a stopover and then onward to Ulaanbaatar.  After a 16-day stay from Ulaanbaatar a second one-way ticket will take us from Mongolia to the Philippines…but wait, there’s more!

While I was checking the Star Alliance timetables for Manilla, I noticed that Continental’s Micronesia division has twice-weekly service from Manilla to Palau.  I also noticed that Asiana has four-times-weekly service from Seoul to Palau.  I wasn’t sure if the airline would accept the detour through Palau but I was determined to give it a shot.  After checking award seat availability I phoned up BMI and read off the segments.  The agent commented on the long routing but also noted that routing through Singapore, a much longer distance, was legal.  He had to get a supervisor involved but eventually all was approved.  15,000 miles were used for the entire ticket: Sri Lanka to Thailand to Mongolia to Palau to the Philippines.

My good friend Charles opined that we will perhaps be the 55th and 56th people ever to fly from Mongolia to Palau.  It is certainly a strange routing and a testament to the power and flexibility of air miles and global airline alliances.  Even if we aren’t the 55th and 56th, travel that day should be a radical change of scene after 16 days out on the steppe!

Palau image from Wikipedia

Palau's Rock Islands

So in the end we didn’t accomplish the goal of visiting Hong Kong but we did add the bonus destination of Palau!  Hong Kong should be easy enough to hit up some other time as its a major hub.  Our stop in Thailand is scheduled to last 12 days; not enough time for Laos but certainly enough time to visit the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  We could have stopped longer but the Mongolian winter is closing in.  Even this week, the second full week in September, they are already seeing lows around 15F (-10C)!  It’s high time to shop for some cold weather clothing!

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