Lake Baikal in Russia
Lake Baikal in Russia
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, we had an excellent mileage redemption lined up to take us from Japan to Namibia. The only problem was that we had to get from the Philippines to Japan on the cheap.

ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline

The first step was a short hop from Palawan back to Manila on ZestAir. They call themselves “Asia’s most refreshing airline.” Kind of a bold claim for an airline that doesn’t even provide complimentary beverages but they did get us to Manila mostly on schedule for the low price of US$51.

Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau

From Manila we took a bus to Clark Airfield about an hour’s drive to the north. Clark used to be a major US air force base but these days it is a commercial airport popular with the discount carriers. Cebu Pacific took us from Clark to Macau for the astoundingly low price of US$62. Certainly one of the cheaper international tickets I’ve flown.

Macau was more or less as expected. After grabbing a taxi from the airport to the Macau Westin Resort (another points redemption!) we took the hotel shuttle down to the strip. Huge casinos were all over the place with many more under construction. All the familiar brands were there (Venetian, MGM, etc) and they all seemed to be spot-on replicas of their American counterparts. Did you know that Macau’s casinos now bring in more money annually than Las Vegas? It is the gambling capital of the world.

The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau

After a night in Macau we boarded one of the high-speed ferries to Hong Kong. Despite all my travels I had yet to visit Hong Kong so I was very anxious to check out one of the world’s most iconic cities.

My friend Charles insisted that we stay at the infamous Chungking Mansions to get the full Hong Kong budget travel experience. The mansions didn’t disappoint. The massive complex of buildings are crammed full of everything from tiny guest houses to money changers to restaurants to laundry mats. It’s truly a city within a city.

The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions

Amy stayed with our bags in the comfort of the Holiday Inn lobby next door while I explored the labyrinth of guest houses for a place to crash. I was able to view 8 or 10 different places within a half hour and I have to say, it pays to shop around. They vary widely in cleanliness, room size and price. Haggling is of course a requirement. In the end, we got a small but perfectly acceptable room in the heart of Hong Kong for just over $20 per night.  Here is a video showing the walk from the street to our guesthouse which was nestled back in “D block” on the third floor:

Sadly, I didn’t get to explore nearly as much as I had hoped during our two day stop. Our award ticket from Japan to Africa needed some tweaking so I spent many hours on the phone with United while Amy was out exploring. Charles arrived on our second day and led us around on a brief tour of the waterfront one evening and across to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry.

Osaka at night
Osaka at night

By our third morning it was time to head to the airport for our flight to Osaka. Amy and I have both spent considerable amounts of time in Japan so we didn’t have any must-dos on our list for our two night stop. This was just as well since Japan is extremely expensive with the strong yen. To keep costs down we burned some hotel points for a couple of excellent nights at the Sheraton Miyako and ate cheap convenience store food.

Osaka by day
Osaka by day

During our only full day in Osaka we headed up to the Umeda Sky Building so that Amy could check that out and then we wandered through some of the massive department stores and camera shops. All in all, we didn’t do all that much but that was fine by me since we had a busy week of flying ahead of us.

Macau, Hong Kong and Japan
ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline
Mmmm...zesty!
Mmmm…zesty!
I'm glad that I don't have to eat a meal on this thing!
I’m glad that I don’t have to eat a meal on this thing!
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
Manila's not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Manila’s not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Westin Macau – a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Vegas?  Nope, the Venetian in Macau
Vegas? Nope, the Venetian in Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
Historic center of Macau
Historic center of Macau
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Our ride to Osaka
Our ride to Osaka
Osaka at night
Osaka at night
Osaka by day
Osaka by day
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty

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

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