Phantastic Philippines

I have now traversed 20 countries (Canada, USA, Mexico, Aruba, Liberia, Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, South Korea, Cambodia, Thailand, and Philippines), 4.5 continents and yet I just returned home from one of the best vacations of my life to the Philippines! Hiking to remote jungle water falls, massages, snorkeling, walking around the top of a 40-story building with only a harness, scrumptious cheap food, site seeing and excellent company were just some of the highlights.

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The Philippines is a Y-shaped archipelago south of China in Southeast Asia. Its 7,100 islands have a total land area of 300,000 sq. km. The Philippines is the third largest English speaking country in the world. It has a rich history combining Asian, European, and American influences. Prior to Spanish colonization in 1521, the Filipinos had a rich culture and were trading with the Chinese and the Japanese. Spain’s colonization brought about the construction of Intramuros in 1571, a “Walled City” comprised of European buildings and churches, replicated in different parts of the archipelago. In 1898, after 350 years and 300 rebellions, the Filipinos, with leaders like Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo, succeeded in winning their independence.

The Philippines was the first republic in Asia (1898), the first to be decolonized partially by a Western colonial country (1935), and the first in Southeast Asia to be granted full independence after the Second World War (1946). Following the Philippine-American War, the United States brought widespread education to the islands. Filipinos fought alongside Americans during World War II, particularly at the famous battle of Bataan and Corregidor, which delayed Japanese advance and saved Australia. They then waged a guerilla war against the Japanese from 1941 to 1945. The Philippines regained its independence in 1946.

Named after Philip II of Spain, the Philippines is a beautiful country and has been called “Pearl of the Orient”. With a fertile soil, healthy climate, rich and natural resources and fishing grounds, it is poised on the brink of an agri-business and aquaculture revolution. The chief agricultural products are rice, coconut, corn, hemp, tobacco, sugarcane and tropical fruits. It ranks first in world production of coconut oil, second in sugarcane, and fifth in tobacco. It is the greatest gold-producing country in Southeast Asia, ranks third in chromite, and has one of the world’s largest deposits of nickel, deuterium and copper.

It has the world’s longest discontinuous coastline (34,000 km.). Its forest provide one of Asia’s best supplies of timber and forest products, but forest resources have been seriously damaged by slash-and-burn farming, illegal logging, and poor management in the past.

The Filipinos are a racial mixture due to their reception of different cultures in history. Intermarriages are common, and the majority of the people have mixed blood. Aboriginal tribes populate the mountain Interiors. Most Filipinos belong to the Malay race, with a tawny complexion, black hair and black eyes. Because of its strategic location it has been a bridge between the East and West, a rampart of Christianity, and a showcase of democracy in Asia. Of the total population of 56 million, 93% are Catholics or Protestant Christians, followed by Islam and the Iglesia Ni Crito (a local sect). Thus, it is Asia’s only predominantly Christian country.

The National Language (Filipino) has become dominant, although English is still widely used in education, commerce and communication. The Philippines has the world’s third largest English-speaking country. Spanish and Chinese (Fukien and Cantonese) are also spoken by a minority. There are 55 regional languages and 142 dialects in the country. The Filipinos take pride in their education and literacy (at 90% the highest in Southeast Asia). Their 50 colleges and universities attract tens of thousands of foreign students all over the world for courses in medicine, nursing, dentistry, etc. Filipinos are famous for their warm hospitality, friendliness to foreigners, musical and artistic talents, romanticism, deep religiosity and bravery. They are fond of music, fiestas, and politics.

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The Trip:

The group was comprised of me, Chris, and my coworkers Ellie, John and Andra. We left Seoul at 10 pm in the evening on Sunday September 15th. We arrived to Cebu in the early morning hours. My coworker, John, who was born and partially raised in the Philippines had family there to pick us up from the airport, which was lovely. We checked into the hotel that his aunt and uncle had recommended for us around 4 am, took a nap and were up and dressed by 9 am to begin our busy day! Only… the driver was “on Filipino time” and arrived at 11 am. I was anxious about this, but all worked out and we wound up seeing some amazing sights.

First stop- the Chinese Taoist Temple.

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Next is Magellan’s Cross:

Magellan’s cross is believed to be the original cross planted by the Spaniards and Portuguese conquerors, as ordered by Ferdinand Magellan, who came here in the Philippines in 1521. It also marked the arrival of Christianity in the Philippines. The aged facade of the original cross is covered with newer wood to protect it’s integrity.

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Minor Basilica of the Santo Nino was founded in the 16th century. It is the oldest Roman Catholic church established in the country, purportedly built on the spot where the image of the Santo Niño de Cebú, a statue depicting the Holy Child Jesus was found in 1565 by Spanish explorers led by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. The image is the same statue given by Ferdinand Magellan to the wife of Rajah Humabon as a gift over forty years before after Humabon’s baptism to Christianity on April 14, 1521. It was found by a soldier preserved in a burnt wooden box after Legazpi razed the village of hostile natives.

The present building, which was completed from 1739-1740, has been the sanctuary of the oldest religious image in the country ever since. A full schedule of masses from 5:00 am to 12:00 midnight are held every Friday at the basilica for devotees of the Holy Child Jesus and followers of novena.

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Honestly it looked like the first episode of Toddlers in Tiaras, featuring a transgendered male who longed to be fabulous. Too creepy!

Santa Nino is a celebrated Roman Catholic religious vested statue of the Child Jesus venerated by many Filipino Catholics who believe it to be miraculous.

The image merited a Papal blessing on April 28, 1965, the 400th centennial anniversary, when Pope Paul VI issued a papal bull for the Canonical Coronation and Pontifical High Mass via the papal legate to the Philippines, Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani.

The Santo Niño image is replicated in many homes and business establishments, with different titles reinterpreted in various areas of the country. The image’s feast is liturgically celebrated every third Sunday of January, during which devotees carry a portable Santo Niño image onto the street fiesta dancing celebrations. The image is one of the most beloved and recognizable cultural icons in the Philippines, found in both religious and secular areas.

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Upper left: two Catholics traversed down the isle on their knees, presumably completing the practice of adoration and prayers.

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Below: Jeepneys!

Jeepneys are the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. They are known for their crowded seating and flamboyant decorations, which have become a ubiquitous symbol of Philippine culture and art. A Sarao jeepney was exhibited at the Philippine pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair as a national image for the Filipinos. Jeepneys were originally made from US military jeeps left over from World War II.The word jeepney came from the combination of the words “jeep” and “jitney“, a small bus that carries passengers on a regular route with flexible schedule.

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Lunch stop for Cebu’s infamous Lechon!

Lechón is a pork dish in several regions of the world, most specifically Spain and its former colonial possessions throughout the world. The word lechón originated from the Spanish term lechón; that refers to a suckling pig that is roasted. Lechón is a popular food in the PhilippinesCubaPuerto RicoCanada, the Dominican Republic, other Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America, and Spain. The dish features a whole roasted pig cooked over charcoal. Additionally, it is a national dish of the Philippines with Cebu being acknowledged by American chef, Anthony Bourdain (Chris’s man crush) as having the best pig.

After seasoning, the pig is cooked by skewering the entire animal, entrails removed, on a large stick and cooking it in a pit filled with charcoal. The pig is placed over the charcoal, and the stick or rod it is attached to is turned in a rotisserie action. The pig is roasted on all sides for several hours until done. The process of cooking and basting usually results in making the pork skin crisp and is a distinctive feature of the dish.

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We decided to enjoy some post-pig delights! Below Chris is eating durian ice-cream. If you remember from the Chiang Mai blog, durian is a fruit. It is foul smelling and not allowed in many public establishments. I tried one bite of the ice cream and it was disgusting- a combination of rotten wet garbage and gym sock! And this was only the ice cream, mind you! I’m sure the pure fruit is much worse. Chris thought it was delicious. He tried to bring it in to the restaurant while the rest of us were eating Halo Halo, but we all told him to leave because the odor was so profoundly rotten!

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Halo halo is very similar to the Korean Patbingsu, except in the Philippines it is much sweeter. Halo halo consists of a bowl of shaved ice with many different odd toppings such as jello, corn, ice cream, syrup, and corn flakes. It was a tad bizzare but I enjoyed the experience!

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Below: I be kitty huntin’ all over the world!

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Night time stop at Mactan Shrine and Lapu Lapu monument.

The Mactan Shrine located in Mactan Island, Cebu is dedicated in honor of Lapu-Lapu, Ferdinand Magellan, and the Battle of Mactan. Lapu-Lapu was the native chieftain of Mactan Island, and he resisted the efforts of Magellan to subdue his people and to be converted to Christianity and to be subjected to the throne of Spain. The subsequent battle on April 27, 1521 between the Spaniards and Lapu-Lapu and his men resulted in the death of Magellan. The shrine was erected on the supposed spot where the battle took place.

The Magellan monument consists of a plain obelisk on whose apex rests a sphere. A heroic sculpture of the chief of Mactan who defeated Magellan, Lapu-lapu stands near the Magellan monument. Lapu-lapu, sculpted with great realism, stands tall, with a shield held by his left and while a curved kampilan sword, drawn is held by his right. The sculpture celebrates the readiness of the brave warrior to confront aggressors.

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Our last stop of the evening was to the Crown Regency hotel for the ‘Sky Walk’ experience. The Crown Regency is the tallest building in Cebu. Towering at 40 stories high, it gives breath-taking views of the city from the top. We decided to do the Sky Walk which was walking around outside the tower with a harness attached. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Everyone, except Cbear, was in a good mood, we saw amazing views and the weather was fresh, breezy and cool. Chris is terrified of heights.

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In order to do the Sky Walk, one must wear rubber soled shoes. Chris did not wear his. They assured us that they could fit Chris for some shoes. Little did they know that he wears a size 16. Six employees came to stare at Chris’s feet in amazement and assured him that they would help him out. Their solution? Using shoe laces to secure his adjoshi-style sandals to his feet. I didn’t say anything at the time because I knew how terrified he was, but I would not have felt safe in that feet contraption.

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Day Two:

After going to sleep around 2 am, we got a nap and were ready by 9 am for our day excursion to Kawasan Falls. It was a 3 hour drive. We stopped midway to purchase our lunch (rice, EIGHT roasted chickens, mangos, and drinks) and a soy drink desert pictured below. It was warm and gooey. I honestly would not have it again, but I’m glad I tried it.

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Kawasan falls is located in the dense jungle. There are three levels of falls. We made it to two. At the second tier, we were the only ones there. This was such an amazing experience to dive, swim and relax in the cool refreshing clean water. We got a water massage from the falls the raft, climbed the rock edifice, and enjoyed the swing, pictured below. The whole day was quite fun, from the huge roasted chicken lunch to hiking, to hearing John giggle like a school girl in the falls to making out alone under a remote waterfall with my lover bear- magical memories 🙂

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Day 3:

Let’s get on a catamaran!

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Snorkeling time!!

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The best part of the day for me was eating at this floating village. The temperature was perfect and there was a nice ocean breeze. The 7 of us were all really comfortable with one another as we enjoyed some of the best seafood I have ever eaten. We drank, smoked, listened to a great local music group and ate some much desired fruit (which is pretty much impossible to find in Seoul unless you want to pay a fortune).

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After sunset, we returned to the hotel, got delicious BBQ dinner and then enjoyed some $6 massages that felt like they could have charged $100.  We departed the city the next day after final goodbyes to John’s aunt and uncle around 1 pm. The whole experience was just so lovely. Good sights, great people, and amazing memories.

One of the spectacular aspects of the Philippines is that vacationing there is so affordable. Including tickets, food, transportation, 3 days with a personal driver, and activities, Chris and I together spent under $1200 for the 4-day trip.

Information for this blog was gathered from: library.thinkquest.org, wikipedia, http://www.explorephilippines.org, www.wowphilippines.ca and www.cebucitytour.com.

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Ko Phi Phi… the island paradise

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Ko Phi Phi is truly the idyllic iconic image of paradise. Our time on the island was relaxing and picturesque. Getting to the island was not.

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We left our hotel in Chiang Mai at 4 a.m. only to arrive at a closed airport. We waited anxiously outside for over an hour as our extremities became luscious feasts for the blood-hungry mosquitos. The flight back to Bangkok for our layover was relatively painless because we were confined to the safety of the airport. We had one more flight down to Phuket, on Thailand’s southern tail. From the airport, we took a 1.5 hour taxi to the pier to catch our ferry to the island. The taxi driver acted like he was on some sort of narcotic, zooming speedily one moment, listless the next, with many abrupt stops to help cultivate the return of my haunting tummy troubles.

Once at the pier, I was glad to get some fresh air. Pictured below is one fashionable little Korean girl that reminded me of my kids back at school- I actually missed them! But not all the grading 🙂 Although this is a generalization, it is true that all Koreans travel in trendy herds with full hair and make-up done and stylish luggage. Koreans are popular travelers and found everywhere in Thailand, especially the tropical locations.

Next, was the 2.5 hour ferry ride to the island. The humid persperation-laden cabin gave me willies, so I stepped outside and remained patient. That is until a full on sea storm with 6-foot waves began. In minutes, everyone was forced inside. One obnoxious and obviously nitwitted Aussie was desperately trying to round everyone up to go downstairs because there was a threat that the boat might tip. His exact words, “What kind of English do you not understand? The boat is going down!” Mind you, this man was talking to a boat full of Korean, Chinese, Thai, and American individuals. Literally, most people did not understand him and those that did were turned off by his muscle meat-head behavior.  I refused to come inside because I told them I was going to throw up. They literally pushed me indoors. Needless to say I did throw up, and the crew let me spend the rest of the trip outside even though it was dangerous.

After the boat docked it took over an hour for them to unload the luggage. My pants split open while getting off of the boat so I was bare bottomed to the world and needing a bathroom because I now had diarrhea. I was anxious to get to our first night’s accommodations, but we weren’t done traveling yet. Le sigh. We walked about a mile through town and then took a 30 minute truck through the jungle to get to our sea-view lodge. On the way, the truck stalled about 6 times. I was SO frustrated and sick at this point that I was yelling directions at the driver. I don’t even know how to drive a stick but I could tell that he was shifting at the wrong time.

I wasn’t even talking to Chris by the time we arrived to check-in. I was not upset with him, but I was so utterly tired, stressed, and ill that I could not manage any niceties. The only thing that cheered me up was playing with a basket full of adorable baby kitties. After cleaning up and relaxing in the room, we enjoyed a delicious dinner and went promptly to bed.

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Above: Stylish Korean tourist. Below: Chris at Tonsai Bay Pier

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Above right: Our bungalow for the first night with sea view. Below: An adorable set of healthy well-fed baby kitties that occupied the resort grounds. Their shinny coats were impeccable and I did not see any traces of mites, nits or lice.

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Above right: View from our room the first night.

The next morning’s breakfast served to be one of the top ten best memories of the whole trip for me. The weather was gorgeous with a spectacular ocean view. We had plentiful food and we shared it with the dozen of kitties who were surrounding the table. Many of the kittens LOVED Chris. Mind you that Chris is ‘okay’ with cats but not a huge fan. They kept jumping up on him and needing his belly only to fall asleep soundly. He would attempt to take them off, but they would hop right back up and pass out. It was so funny and of course it was only one of the times that I did not have my camera with me. Either way, I will always cherish the memory of the delectable food, adorable kittens, and sleeping angels that bonded with Chris amidst the scenery of paradise.

Next we took a long-tail boat to our remote resort on the northeastern tip of the island that we stayed at for 8 days. This was paradise:

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While we were there, Thailand celebrated mother’s day. How could I have forgotten? I am always so organized! I promptly called my mom. When she answered, I declared, “happy mother’s day!” All I could hear were giggles on the end of the other line. “Robyn, mother’s day is in May.” “Oh, well, they are celebrating it here, so happy mother’s day again!”

The Thai people LOVE their queen because she is the ‘people’s queen’- think what Princess Dianna was to England. She has toured and continues to visit all parts of the vast country. She founded many education, trade and manufacturing programs, mainly in textiles, for underprivileged women that not only rejuvenated the silk industry, but also gave an income, purpose, and power to many marginalized women. She was voted most stylish women of the world in the 1990s. The resort held a show in her honor, had signs, and displayed carved vegetable flowers everywhere.

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Above: Enjoying the hammock sea side. Below: Sunset walk with the tide out.

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On our third day on the island, we enjoyed the honeymoon special at the luxurious Wana Spa. The treatment included a private cabin, a coconut milk bath, a full-body coconut scrub massage, and an hour deep muscle massage. I can honestly say that it was the best spa treatment I have ever received. I felt relaxed, rejuvenated and happy at the end. I also got a cute hairdo for the day 🙂

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Behind the 4-star resort was where the workers lived. There were also some restaurants and shops there that we perused. The discrepancy in access to resources and standard of living was so ginormous, I honestly did feel guilty for choosing to stay at the resort. From what I could tell, there is no school there, and yet I saw many children? When booking this trip, I thought a lot about my humanitarian obligation as a tourist to do as little harm as possible, but still get the honeymoon feel. That is why I read reviews for all activities, avoided tours that exploited village people and children, and tended not to buy anything unless I knew it was locally made. The loves and horrors of tourism were oh so evident on this trip though. Cultural customs and traditions are changed and edited to give the tourist what they want. Culture on one hand is preserved but not in the purist form. Instead, some mutated twisted money-seaking act performed like a circus eeks out. Expanded knowledge and exposure is given to the traveler, but for the locals, no structural change occurs and opportunities are still at an inhuman low.

On days when my stomach was settled we would frequent the restaurants behind the resort and play with the kitties. When we weren’t eating, we were swimming in the pool, reading in the hammock, or relaxing in our room- enjoying the feeling of a real bed and a TV.

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The day before we departed from our 3.5 week journey, we took a day trip on the long-tail boat to island hop.  I really enjoyed being out on the water, swimming, and taking in the sites.

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It is hard to see from the below picture, but there is a cluster fuck of ropes between two large cliffs leading to path that winds around to the white sandy beach featured in the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio. One has to climb the ropes with the waves smashing against the rocks in order to get to the location. I am thankful for my strong swimming skills, because I saw some that didn’t make it. Once there, the views were breathtaking. Is there such a thing as pure perfection? If so, I would have described the beach this way. The irony of my opinion is that when the movie was filmed, the Hollywood directors knowingly destroyed acres of forest and natural habitat so that they could plant palm trees that were not native to this island. The pictures of this particular beach were lost because our tour guide was a dick and gave us a blank CD at the end of the day.

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Below left: If you have ever heard of the delicacy of bird’s nest soup, then this cave would be of particular interest to you. This soup is made from tiny bird nests high in the cave ceiling. The nests are extremely dangerous to collect, but but the payout is so large, that many Thai risk their lives collecting these gems. The soup is extremely popular in China.

Below right: A monkey drinking from a Coke bottle at Monkey beach.

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On our last day- some final snap shots of paradise:

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You know you are headed back to Korea when you see couples wearing matching clothes:

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Our trip back was LONG- 36 hours to be exact. We left the resort at 11: 00 a.m. We took a long-tail boat for 40 minutes to Tonsai Bay where we caught a MUCH nicer ferry back to Phuket. Then, we had another 1.5 hour taxi ride to the airport which we arrived at at 5 pm. Our flight wasn’t until 3 am the next morning and we were not allowed to check in until 1 a.m. So… we… waited. Why didn’t we explore Phuket you might ask? We were tired, broke, and carrying luggage is the simple answer. We flew from Phuket to Shanghai for a 3-hour layover and then we embarked on our last plane ride to Seoul. Once in Seoul we took the bus to our apartment. Home sweet tiny apartment.

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I will end with one final funny anecdote about the above picture. This little punk was having a heinous temper tantrum in the middle of the small Phuket airport. After about twenty minutes without ceasing, I told Chris that he should go shut the kid up. I was half-joking. So, Chris went over to the kid, whose parents seemed unaware of the dilemma until Chris started walking towards, and just stood there giving the child a stern glare. The child shut up immediately and entered into a staring contest with Chris fueled by what I think was the child’s utter fascination with this large brown man. The child was enamored with him and even followed Chris around. Oh, the power of Chris Mungin.

Overall, the entire trip was a success. I feel so blessed and thankful to have had this journey. Two years ago, I dreamed that I would have another international adventure. I wanted to work abroad and share the experience with my love. We did it! I loved Siem Reap and Chiang Mai the most. My favorite days included white water rafting through the jungle, spa day on the island, seeing sunrise at the ancient Angkor Wat, developing a relationship with our elephant Tagoon, and meeting splendid English couple traveling companions. The overall cost of the 3.5 week trip including flights, food, transportation, activities, accommodations, and souvenirs was $6000. We went $1000 over our budget, mostly because of the fancier resort food we chose to eat the last week so that I wouldn’t have tummy issues. Thank you to my parents who loaned me the money. This concludes the tales of our backpack SE Asian adventure through Cambodia and Thailand!

Adventure Land- Chiang Mai, Thailand

Our arrival into Chiang Mai went smoothly. Chiang Mai is a medium sized city (160,000 including the surrounding sprawl) nestled in the crook of the surrounding rolling luscious mountains, which are covered in dense green jungle. I could smell the clean air, feel the freedom of space wherever we walked without harassment (unlike Bangkok), and felt right at home at our location. Our adorable little boutique hotel (featured below) was only a short 15 minute drive from the airport. The first day I still had tummy troubles, so Chris did most of the venturing. Thankfully, I mostly recovered and thoroughly enjoyed our 8 day stay here.

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Day 2: We had a traditional couples thai massage followed by a 6 course thai cooking class. Our cooking class started at the market where we got a lesson on all of the healing properties and/or health benefits in the ingredients that were to be used in our dishes. We were allowed to pick 6 dishes from 18 that we wanted to make.

Then we went shopping!

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Above left: Our instructor is showing us elephant ear mushrooms! I had never seen them before.

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Above left: Chris is holding the infamous durian fruit. Durian is the most foul smelling fruit in the world. If you eat it with alcohol, there is a  high chance of fatality. People with diabetes are advised not to eat it. And all over Thailand, one can spot the signs outside of establishments that declare, “Durian not allowed!”

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At the Basil Healthy Cooking school for our 4-hour class:

 

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Above left: Drunken noodles with chicken. Chris made and is eating chicken pad thai.

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Above: the scrumptious and spicy green papaya salad.

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Above left: Our cooking couple companions: Owen from England and his girlfriend of 2 years, Ava from Greece. Above right: Fried bananas for desert!

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Above: Prepping for the Panang curry.

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Below: Panang Curry, spicy stir fried prawns in tamarind sauce, and deep fried bananas with vanilla ice cream. Don’t be jealous. Ok. Be a little jealous! It was aaahhhhhmazing!

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One great aspect of our hotel is that it was near at least a dozen temples within a 10 minute walk. This was one of them. The best thing about the temples were the kitties who were cared for there 🙂

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Below: Chris eating grilled squid street side.

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Day 3: White water rafting through the dense Chiang Mai jungle. This was my favorite day by far. I felt so special to have a partner who was willing to try the activities I like most, even though he is not inclined to water sports. It took us 2.5 hours to get to our remote location where we began our journey. During the actual ride, it was lightly misting for part of it, which lent to the mystical peace of the ride.

 

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Above: Pictures taken on our drive from the city into the jungle. Below: Launch location.

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Day 4: Rantong Elephant Save and Rescue Center. I initially wanted to go to a different location where the elephants roamed free and no one rode on the elephants because I was hyper-conscious of the grave travesties that many of the Elephant Trek/Ride tourist ventures incur all over Thailand. I will give you one horrifying example that I heard first hand from a fellow tourist who went through a terrible company. First of all, the elephants where she went were poorly fed and not cleaned. When people rode them, it was in baskets on top of the elephants back which is extremely painful for the elephant. The “trainers” used hooks to gouge into the elephants thick skin whenever it did not behave or immediately follow commands. The elephant was bleeding and crying the entire time. When not giving rides to people, the elephants where chained.

I am glad to say that I did extensive research and found a lovely sanctuary where the elephants are fed well, bathed in the river multiple times a day and are ridden bareback so as not to injure their backs. When they are not being ridden, they were only secured with rope and they have their personal ‘mahout’ with them 24/7. A mahout is a man who cares for the elephant- training, cleaning and feeding. A boy or boy’s family chooses the life of a mahout at a young age and it then becomes his life purpose to care for this gentle giant. Our experience was all that it could have been- absolutely magical.

 

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Feeding the elephants bamboo. This little guy is a 4-year-old male named Super Man. The facility goes through 3 truckloads of bamboo a day to feed the 12 elephants at the rescue sanctuary.

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Above right: Our elephant Tagoon for the day. She is the oldest and largest elephant there. She needed to be to carry Chris and my 400+ lbs! We were so scared that we might hurt her, but she didn’t seem phased. One can tell the age on of an elephant by the coloring of their ears and the level of “sunken in-ness” of their temples. Older elephants have pink tipped ears that are very thin, because they have had much more use and ware! The temples are also more deeply set.

 

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View from the mountain top where the elephants live:

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Below: At our “mahout” training we learned thai elephant commands and the history of elephants in Thailand. A little bit about elephants: they have excellent memory. Once they meet a person, they can remember that person for life. They live as long as humans, 75-85 years, if cared for well.They are extremely emotional animals and experience similar PTSD from trauma that humans do. Unfortunately, most elephants have experienced trauma at the hands of humans in Thailand. Once they have formed their first perception of you, they will keep it, for better or worse. Tagoon LOVED me (I think it was because I gave her head massages), but Chris accidentally kicked her while riding and she didn’t care for him as much.

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Above: Chris and me on our first walk. Because we are seated on the shoulders, it is very difficult to feel secure. Riding an elephant is actually harder than it looks. Imagine being 7 feet off the ground and clenching your ass and legs as hard as possible so as not to fall onto the jungle floor and potentially be trampled by an elephant! Below right: How the expert “mahouts” climb onto the elephants.

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One of my favorite parts of the day and entire trip was bathing with the elephants in the river. Here is one personal anecdote: I had gotten myself in a precarious position of being surrounded by three elephants in the water with no escape route. Tagoon entered the river and hastily fell to her side, plunging into the water and accidentally catching my leg underneath her. I didn’t panic but as you can imagine, having 2 tons on top of one’s leg could be catastrophic. I pushed Tagoon pretty hard and said “Owwww” in a painful voice, with no hint of anger. I did not give her a thai command. She then promptly got back up to a standing position (which is a feat for these large beasts)! She looked at me and waited for me to get to an appropriate position. Then I did the motion of laying in the water (again with no command given) and she slowly plopped back down into the water for her bath. The reason this was so special is because at no point did I command or instruct her to do something. She emotionally connected with me enough to know that I was in trouble. She also cared enough to move. It was one of those once in a lifetime memories and connections.

 

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After a couple days of much needed rest at the hotel, we ventured to the market for some shopping and foot massages. I bought the blue fish painting on the far right below and also lost my debit card in the process. Don’t worry, no one stole it, but it did have all our money on it. Eeek!

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On the last day of our stay in Chiang Mai, Chris got a tattoo! He got a traditional thai bamboo tattoo on his right breast. The difference between Western tattoos done with a needle and bamboo tattoos is that instead of taking your skin off while inserting the ink in straight lines, bamboo tattoos insert the ink directly into the skin’s pores by method of thousands of tiny darts into the skin. It took 2.5 hours to complete the creation. Chris said it did not feel less painful than a Western needle tattoo, even though some say it is. In Thai culture, the tiger is a symbol of protection. Chris likes to think that the left tiger protects his family, friends, and loved ones, while the right one keeps him safe. I think it looks pretty fierce too!

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The next morning we left the hotel at 4 a.m. to catch our plain to Phuket.

Welcome to HELL: Bangkok, Thailand.

Admittedly, I set myself up for the disaster that was Bangkok. I had a self-fullfilling fear of the depth of depravity I may have to see in Bangkok and I feel that by looking for it, not only did I see it , but it hunted me down like I was an injured baby zebra that had strewn from the pack. The greed, scams, uncleanliness, sex-tourism, drugs, hounding… it’s all there. Our first mistake was crossing the boarder by foot instead of on plane (which cost us a $120 fine later in improper visas). Our second, and most ghastly error, was staying on the infamous Khosan road that caters to tourists and lost souls alike in a budget motel.

Walking down this particular street is like being raw meet in a sea of starving savage sharks. The incessant petulance of taxi drivers, store owners, children, and near-death-looking cats was like no where I had been in the world! Tuk tuk and taxis were always trying to over-charge or take us on a ‘tour.’ Store owners plunged for Chris, desiring to make a suit for him.   Wandering aimlessly spreading disease, I am sure, were helpless, half-furrless once beautiful kitties. They had open sores and mites badly in the ears, eyes, and nose 😦

Now, don’t get me wrong. I can and have traveled cheap… through Europe and in Liberia. I have also been to ‘developing’ countries before. I was in Liberia when it was the poorest country in the world. But something about the dirty heat, scheming culture, and normalcy of it all got under my skin in Bangkok. The first night there I noticed a little bug on the sheets and feared the worst- BED BUGS! I had gotten them previously in a hostel in Belgium, but Chris (who has never had them before) was sure that I was just paranoid because we were no longer staying in luxury. The next morning I had bites all over my legs and stomach. If that weren’t bad enough, our AC dripped all night and flooded our room. The front desk didn’t seem to be too surprised by the complaints, nor too eager to help me get out of my room. Because of the room fiasco, we were late heading to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew which literally translates as Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In the hast to get to the tourist sites, I forgot about the dress code I had read many times about the palace: no tanks, no tights, no flip flops- I did all three.

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Above: Room disaster photos Below: Our ‘classy’ tuk tuk ride to the Grand Palace. Take time to notice the addition of the play boy bunny.

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To say that I was in a foul mood to have to change out of my ‘potential picture of a life time’ outfit into some overly-used and under-washed shared garment is a severe understatement. Worse yet, the street food I had eaten the night before was coming back to haunt me. I think this was one of those triumph of partnering times. Chris was literally the perfect, patient, and calm gentleman as I slowly careened into full on food poisoning and bitterness about expectations being shattered and/or confirmed.  My mom and Chris can certainly confirm that I have only two swings to the pendulum of my personality- outgoing, personable, interesting, intelligent and engaging vs. bitter, bitchy, controlling,  intolerable, and impatient. The later does not come out too often, rarely in public and almost never in groups. Unfortunately, only the ones who love me the most get to see it. The highlights of the day are seen below. Wat  Phra Kaew was spectacularly gorgeous- even in my mood.

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Above: Chris could have eaten the security guard standing on a box for a snack. Below: A sickly little kitten let me pet her for a few moments before realizing that I had no food.

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Above: Chris eating a scorpion! Below: The delicious, yet sometimes dangerous street food.

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After we finished touring the temple and palace, I needed to go back to the hotel. I spent the next 12 hours with fluids coming out of both ends. Chris was an absolute knight. He went out to retrieve everything and anything I could need or want. I did the dirty work of nearly chewing out the front desk lady boy who tried to claim that we couldn’t check out because we had stayed in two different rooms and their might be room damage. Needless to say, I was happy to get the hell out of Bangkok and on to Chiang Mai.

Siem Reap, Cambodia… Our Favorite!

Siem Reap captured our hearts, enlivened our souls, sparked wonder in the mysterious ways of mankind’s spectacular architecture and art, and took us on an awe-inspiring journey. Starting with the people, not one person treated us remotely poorly. Granted we are tourists and a major part of most citizens’ major income, but our relations seemed surprisingly genuine. Chris complained that I reminisced about Liberia so much while being there. It was because the same Cambodian warmth of experience was conjured in my memories of Liberia- a kind, hard-working nation with a corrupt government and not many options. I visited Liberia only a few years after its civil war, and I was again in the same situation with Cambodia. Instead of being scary, creepy, or worrisome, to me it felt honest, raw, unapologetic. I appreciate the truth being seen, even though I have the same haunting to want to be able to give back more and/or become more invested with human rights groups who focus in the region, as I did when I returned from Africa. I researched the politics before I left and had some great conversations with locals (we were there on election day!! And a pretty scandalous election at that!). The temples were grand beyond imagination. The accommodations were disgustingly lavish, especially when put in comparison to the locals’ housing and the food was splendidly delicious- from the expensive to the dirt cheap.

The flights to Cambodia went smoothly. We had a hiccup with visas when we got there because we didn’t have the correct currency and the one and only cash machine was down, but we figured it out. Meanwhile, The Lotus Blanc hotel manager, Panith, was waiting for us for so long! I felt bad. We told him it was our honeymoon and boy did he hook us up! He gave us a free upgrade to a suite. Just to let those of you know how small my apartment is in Korea, the suite was 5 times the size of my space in Korea.

I loved the bed, the high ceilings, the dark hard wood floors, the fact that we had two bathrooms, two balconies, a shower and a tub! There was breakfast included every day, a pool, pool side service and gym. I felt like we were in heaven. Panith even gave us a honeymoon surprise cake, champagne, and flower petal bath. We were so excited to be ‘living the dream’ that sometimes we didn’t even want to leave the hotel.

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Pictures below were taken while riding around town in a tuk tuk:

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When we went into town we decided to get fishy pedicures. As you can see, Chris was overdue for a pedicure because all the fishys when to him instead of me! The female fish love to eat off the dead skin on peoples feet.

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We went to Le Tigre de Papier for dinner. There we met three facinating characters. First, was this slinky little black fellow who was perusing the tables for scraps. He took such a liking to me that within minutes he was in my lap. We got some worried glances from the restaurant staff but I kept saying how much I just loved kitties. Chris was sure that I would catch a disease. The second and third characters were an exciting British biracial couple: Claire and Twembie. For hours we drank, ate, and chatted about travels. They were traveling the entire world and had taken off over a year from work in order to do so!! They had just finished Central and South America and were on their way through Asia. I wish them continued safe travels as we follow them on facebook 🙂

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The next morning we were supposed to have been out the door at 4:30 am to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. We left at 5:45 am. Our tuk tuk had been there since 4:30 am waiting for us 😦 Despite this we paid him for the day and he stayed with us. The sites were spectacular.

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Afterwards we went home to eat breakfast and nap before heading to the next temples. This is Bayon Temple below:

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Ta Prohm Temple below:

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Election craziness:

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The following day we met up with Claire and Twembie to take a tour of the Artisans d’Angkor and then chill poolside for most of the day. It was spectacular to watch the artisans in action! We ended the evening with delightful conversation, 2 bottles of wine, and traditional Khmer food.

Artisans Angkor developed from the ambitious belief that it is possible to revive ancient Khmer Arts & Crafts while improving the lives of thousands of people living in rural areas. Not only has Artisans Angkor become a company dedicated to the preservation of traditional Khmer skills in silk-making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting, but it is also an organization committed to promote the development of individuals and secure their future by the means of education and welfare.

Their 1300 employees are proud to show that Cambodian handicraft is still alive and more creative than ever. By developing high quality products that express the dynamism of the Khmer culture, Artisans Angkor strives to be a timeless showcase for Cambodian crafts with pieces inspired by Angkor heritage as well as fashionable handmade clothing and decorative items that can suit contemporary lifestyles.

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All products, including the 4 types of stone above, are gathered locally from within Cambodian boarders.

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