Thursday, December 6, 2012

Reflections On Battambang

In traditional Khmer style, the road from Siem Reap to Battambang is long and bumpy with about a million stops in between. As in India, vehicles toot their horns for varied reasons, some do it for lack of an indicator while others simply seem bored. One thing is certain though, this orchestral horn tooting will rip you from any philosophical quandaries inspired by the landscape faster than it takes to turn up the volume on your iPod.

The scenery switches back and forth between rice paddies and riverbeds, both of which are staple sights in Cambodia's heartland. The tranquil scenery is at odds with ugly traffic, but rice farmers in fields adjacent wave frantically at those passing by.

The bus comes to a screeching halt within city limits and as all others pile off the bus, I can only assume we have reached our destination. The bus driver certainly doesn't help and he appears confused when I ask if we're in Battambang, like he's never even heard of the town before. Descending down the bus stairs and into a raging sea of tuk-tuk drivers and touts, it's time to put on my game face and deny offers too good to be true.

At first glance, Battambang is noisy and crowded, with trash littering the city streets and orange dust forever coating the people who live here. I remind myself though, that first impressions of most cities are rarely flattering, due to the inevitable stress of travel and the amount of luggage hauled on your back.

I can't help but notice the colonial architecture and wide sweeping boulevards, indicating a preserved French legacy. The city's famous statues and figurines however, give every street corner and public park a distinct Khmer flair. After a quick trek from the bus station, I find a fancy hotel that's easy on my bank balance - Vy Chhe Hotel ($20 USD). As soon as I put my bags down, I'm overwhelmed with positivity and head straight back outside to find food. Optimism rarely dwells in hunger.

Despite a steady stream of tourists flocking to nearby Angkor Wat, Battambang has escaped the carnage and manages to remain authentic. No effort has been made to recreate Bangkok's 'Khao San Road,' while the same can't be said for 'Pub Street' in Siem Reap. This is a town where restaurants close early and nightlife is limited to karaoke bars and warm beers on the riverbank. For those who seek it though, great opportunities to soak up authentic Cambodian culture are also available.

I start my search for food at the city's main market, Psah Nath. I drift aimlessly between the surrounding restaurants, looking for something to catch my eye. The first restaurant that succeeds in doing so is Gecko Cafe, which sets a great precedent for employers worldwide by giving opportunities to people in need. These endeavours are highlighted with a short bio section for each staff member at the back of the menu. The food itself is magnificently presented, while the aforementioned staff are shy but friendly.

Patrons can dine on authentic Khmer delicacies like fish amok or sticky rice desserts, while standard western cuisine is also on offer. I take the recommendation of my waitress and order the traditional sour soup to start, with a veggie burger to round out the meal.

Battambang is home to more preserved French architecture than anywhere else in the country and this establishment is no exception. The layout is like that of an old manor, with large open windows and high ceilings. The balcony is where the best seats are had (although predictably full at peak hours), for the local artwork that adorns the walls and the bird's eye view of the streets below.

Both dishes are superb and despite more than generous portion sizes, neither plate lasts long before disappearing down my gullet. One of the advantages of being a travel writer on the road is not having to fuss over social etiquette or table manners when eating alone. If you receive an intense glare for burping too loudly or scratching yourself with a fork - just remember to laugh it off.

After scoffing down both courses, I have nothing left to do but take a few moments to savour the murky orange sunset. I hear Cambodian folk music blaring out from the back of a distant tuk-tuk - an eclectic but pleasant mix of flutes and chimes. I can't help but cock my head like a cobra and sway back and forth in response to the music, as if a snake charmer is pulling my strings from above. The rhythm follows me back to my hotel room, transforming into an exotic lullaby by the time my head hits the pillow.

Arriving at sunset the previous night, I'm shocked at how much the city transforms between night and day. The overcast skies combined with kicked up dust produce a sort of eerie fog in the early hours. Looking out from my window to the manicured gardens below, I pinch myself to check if I'm still asleep. Admittedly, I'm not a morning person.

A cow amidst frangipani saplings, ignores the morning traffic with an indifferent shrug and relentless grazing. It's early and I have to remind myself that I'm Battambang, not Bombay. Despite the pastoral scene, I can't help but hold my breath when I cross the road to greet the young bovine. The population here may only be 250,000 on paper, but the traffic scene is more like that of a major metro centre - without rules!

Seeking refuge from the snarl of angry traffic, I decide to cycle through the countryside instead. Wat Ek Phnom is a delightful ride out of town, anywhere between 10 and 14 kilometres depending on who you ask. Following the riverbed as it snakes through the surrounding landscape, it's the perfect escape from city life. The roads are paved and in good condition for the most part, while the lack of steep hills means everyone can give it a go.

Halfway between Battambang and Wat Ek Phnom, I narrowly avoid crashing into a game of Sepak Katkraw being played on the banks of the Sangkae River. This popular sport is a kind of hybrid between hacky sack and volleyball, with a bit of martial arts thrown in for good measure. Those taking part rush to one side of the path to let me ride through, hands shielding their eyes from the sun but beaming smiles in my direction.

Battambang really lives up to its reputation as a city of sculptures, with figurines and statues even stretching out to the outskirts of town. I stop to look at a giant Buddha that attracts many visitors, but it's the temple itself of Wat ek Phnom that I've come specifically to see. Built in 1029 AD under the reign of King Sorayak Varman II, little of the building remains upright, but the remote jungle setting makes you feel like an explorer of days gone by.

The vendors within the temple complex are a sight for sore eyes in this afternoon sunshine, as are their ice buckets and chilled drinks. Before rambling in the jungle ruins, I find a shady tree overlooking a lake of lotus flowers and ditch my gear for a moment. I kick back against the tree trunk and ponder the serene imagery before me. It's not a choice for my desktop background, it's real life and right in front of me.

"Do you know why this water has so many fishes?" asks Tung, a nearby vendor and tour guide in training. "It's because the Buddhist monks who live on temple grounds have forbidden fishing here."

"That's wonderful," I remark. "Life is bursting at the seams, so everything else seems more vibrant too."

"Such a waste," he nods, in what he thinks is agreement on my part.

Like some of the temples in Angkor Wat, the jungle too is reclaiming ownership of these ancient ruins. I guess it's inevitable when you give Mother Nature over a thousand years to catch up. Pillars remain behind, choked by vines, while what they once held up lays scattered throughout the complex.

Whenever I find myself in decaying ruins, I can't help but think back to what it once looked like in its heyday. I tend to focus on the finished project, rather than the fragile relics left behind. Archaeologists have their theories, but we'll never know for sure, which means that everyone who visits will have a different blueprint in his/her mind. One thing is certain though, if what remains behind a thousand years later is still impressive enough to warrant a visit, it must have really been revered to begin with.

It gets me thinking that despite being agnostic, we have a lot to thank religion for. It seems that throughout time and history, collective faith is what builds monuments. Whether it's a temple in Thailand, a cathedral in Europe or a mosque in Mecca - such buildings were the first skyscrapers to appear on Earth. It shouldn't matter if you're Buddhist or Catholic, these pillars of prayer were a vital building block in shaping the world we know today.

Monday, November 26, 2012

A First Time For Everything

My heart is racing like I've just completed a marathon. A single bead of cold sweat trickles down my left temple, pausing for a moment at eye level before plummeting down my cheek. It leaves behind a path of icy fear and I ask myself again why it is I'm doing this. Nobody dared me to, I foolishly volunteered - after which there was no turning back (my kid sister made sure of that).

I take comfort in the fact that the man next to me is just as scared as I am, perhaps even more so. I watch his legs tremble and his fingers twitch, before I introduce myself and shake his hand. His name is Kim and he's from South Korea. As I think to myself that he might be the last person I ever see, I slap that thought from my head as he nods to himself nervously.

A finger appears amid the darkness of a cloudless day and motions for my new friend to step forward. It's his turn to jump - guess who's next? I find myself wondering whether his baby steps towards the instructor are due to stress or fear (completely understandable), or maybe it's because his legs are strapped together in a safety harness.

I soon find out as a second instructor appears out of thin air and fits me with all manner of straps and cords. Instead of easing my doubts, it accelerates them to fever pitch. 'There's no backing out now,' I think to myself as I watch Kim preparing himself to walk the plank. A prison yard pace is tough work in such gear, akin to taking part in a Mexican wave while wearing a straitjacket.

"1, 2 ,3... Go," says the instructor with a smirk and rolls his eyes. He's seen it all before a million times.

Cold feet happens to the best of us, but it rarely takes place in the ticket booth - it's always on the jumping ledge. I see Kim squinting in the sunlight, staring down at his shoes and refusing to blink. He looks lost as he glances back behind me, perhaps at his girlfriend in the crowd. He turns to the instructors and shakes his head sadly, his disappointment is obvious.

"1, 2, 3, Go!" says the instructor again, this time with a little more oomph. He checks his watch again and stifles a yawn. Shaking his head, he shares a chuckle with his friend and pushes Kim off the edge. He drops out of sight at once and although his scream is strained and hoarse, it's loud enough to echo down the entire valley.

"NEXT," bellows the instructor. He grins maliciously in my direction.

Terror roots me to the spot, as all my instincts combine forces and beg me not to leap off this perfectly stable ledge. Since approaching the venue, I've made a conscious effort not to look down. It's at this stage however, that guidelines get a little blurry and I take in all that is around me.

Inch by inch, I make my way across the platform and peer down into the turquoise waters of the Waikato River below. My head jerks in another direction, anywhere but down, and I see Lake Taupo in the foreground - New Zealand's biggest lake. Beautiful and majestic indeed, it's not enough to distract me from the horrors at hand.

Hooked up to a weighted rope below the platform, each movement or timid step I take feels like I'm being pulled into an abyss. I wonder for a moment if it's my own imagination, or my brain working against me to try and trick me into turning around.

After seeing what happened to the person who 'jumped' before me, it dawns on me - I don't want to be pushed. I signed up for this precise reason, to be scared out of my mind. I think everyone did. If bungy jumping was a walk in the park, everyone would do it. They wouldn't wait till they were 25, they'd do it in primary school.

Not wanting to speculate or philosophize any further, for fear of being tipped, I open my eyes and exhale the brisk mountain air. I bend at the knees, planning to nose-dive as I've been instructed but before I know it, I'm scrambling about in what could only be described as a mid-air doggy paddle.

Without knowing I'm doing it, my body instinctively braces for an impact that just doesn't come. Instead of speeding up as I had predicted, time slows to a devastating halt and the silence is deafening. It's just me and the rope now, which looks frighteningly like a million rubber bands stuck together.

The water below me is crystal clear and looming closer with each passing second - or is that millisecond? I have no idea how long I've been airborne, but I'm no longer terrified. I come to realise that although I'm out of breath, the mounting pressure makes it impossible to refill my lungs. Instead of worrying about a lack of oxygen, I start to savour the sights around me in a dizzy haze. Rolling hills to my right, green pastures to the left and a flawless blue sky is reflected perfectly on the water's shimmering surface.

Just as I begin to enjoy my free-fall descent, I'm jerked back upwards and the sudden rush of blood to my head forces me to close my eyes. As the elastic pulls me skyward, I feel weightless but at least I can take a breath. It's not like I imagine flying to be, yet more like drifting aimlessly in space. I have no control as to which direction I float and can only flail my limbs helplessly.

After sufficiently bobbing up and down like a yo-yo, it's time to return to life on land. To do this is no easy process, as I must grab hold of a steel rod and lower myself into a rubber boat. Once the self-dubbed 'search and rescue' team remove the cord and harness, the banter begins.

"What was it you screamed out on the way down?" asks the boat driver, with a curious expression on his face.
"I told you so," I reply. "My sister told me I wouldn't have the guts to go through with it."
"You're nuts bro," he laughs. "No way would I ever do that!"

At first I think he's joking, as staff members must be privy to discounted jumps year-round or freebies on their birthday. I notice though, that he's not laughing so perhaps his fear of heights is genuine. I think to myself that it's probably no coincidence he's working at the bottom of the jump, rather than the top, as he would hardly be a motivating factor to prospective jumpers in the ticket booth.

SIDEBAR - Although not yet as well known as its South Island counterpart Queenstown, Taupo is also becoming a mecca for extreme sports. For those irked by the idea of dangling 47 meters above the ground by a giant rubber band, there is also world-class skydiving on offer and high-speed jet boating. The latter of which is a distinctly New Zealand activity and sure to get your adrenaline pumping.

Those looking for more sedate activities will be pleased to know they can also enjoy Taupo without risking life and limb. Lake Taupo prides itself on being the 'rainbow trout capital of the world,' so anglers take note! Fishing expeditions are offered at local tackle shops, while rods and reels can also be rented out for the day. Scenic flights are offered in the form of small planes and helicopters, while those wishing to remain on dry land can take advantage of the region's renowned wineries or take guided walks through the mountains.

For more information on bungy jumping and other extreme sports in Taupo, please visit -

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Uniquely Filipino

(Courtesy of Ike Stranathan)
The Philippines is home to 7,107 different islands, over 100 distinct languages, endless summers and an official population of 98 million people. It's a fascinating country that unlike some of its South East Asian neighbours, has yet to be ravaged by mass tourism and remains delightfully authentic.

Home to boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, money grubbing Imelda Marcos (2,800 pairs of shoes anyone?) and the world's largest supply of coconuts - check it out now before it's all too late!

While this country is officially one of the world's friendliest, a few tips on local culture and customs will always go a long way. Just remember that despite your own beer preferences, Red Horse is the local favorite and a beloved source of Pinoy pride!


Due to an overwhelming English literacy rate, many visitors don't bother to learn Tagalog during their stay. This makes Filipinos all the more appreciative for any efforts you make to learn the local lingo.

Filipinos are a polite bunch, so if they don't address you as sir, expect to be called either 'kuya' (big brother) or 'ate' (big sister). If you do the same yourself, you'll see that whoever named Thailand the 'land of smiles,' never made it as far as the Philippines!


Kaliwa (kah-lee-wah) - Left
Kanan (cah-nun) - Right
Diretso (direct-sho) lang - Straight ahead.
Para (pa-rah) - Stop


Kamusta (cah-moo-star) ka na - How are you?
Salamat (sah-lah-maht) - Thank you.
Magkano (mug-car-no)? - How much?
Maganda (mah-gun-dah) ka - You're beautiful
Masarap (mah-sah-rup) - Delicious


Did you know that the world's smallest primate is no bigger than a tennis ball?

If you didn't, then you'd best make your way to the island province of Bohol, which is home to this rather peculiar little creature known as a 'Tarsier.'

Upon first glance, their huge eyes implore you to do a double take, and it's perhaps no surprise that each singular eye is as large as its brain. Those big soulful eyes are that special shade of amber that melts your heart, so it’s no wonder that they’re the number one tourist attraction in all of Bohol - take that Chocolate Hills!

It takes just one look at their little fingers, each of them no bigger than a matchstick, to see where Spielberg got his inspiration for E.T. Looking at their bizarre head shape and alien-like ears, I can also see hints of Yoda flickering about. It's not all good news though, as I learn that these fascinating fur balls are in serious trouble.

“Tarsiers in cages are weak and sickly. They move slow and will never survive long in captivity,” says Joannie Cabillo, the program manager of Philippine Tarsier Foundation, Inc. (PTFI). “This is because tarsiers are not only nocturnal, but territorial, and once territory is established, they die to keep it.”

Unfortunately, tarsiers are also one of the few species capable of committing suicide. Rather than adding to their misery, responsible tourists should avoid the roadside zoos and make their way instead to the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary, just 14 kms from Tagbilaran. Visitors to the sanctuary can speak to the experts, engage in their natural environment and discover all sorts of fun facts about the world’s cutest primate!


* No matter where you find yourself in the Philippines, the locals have an unusual habit of pointing to things with their mouths. Rest assured Romeo, nobody is trying to kiss you.

* If you need to leave a restaurant in a hurry, the sign for 'bring me the bill' can be made by raising your hand and sketching a rectangle with your thumb and index finger.


Whether you're out front of a tin-roof shack in Tondo, or in the food court of one of many glitzy malls in Fort Bonifacio, dining options are seemingly endless in Metro Manila. Chinese food is particularly popular in Binondo, the world's oldest Chinatown - established in 1594. It's on the street scene though, that remnants of American colonialism are on display, as burger vans and hot dog carts are easily found.

For truly adventurous eaters (those of you functioning on an Andrew Zimmern/Anthony Bourdain level), why not try balut? In a country where day old chickens are deep fried (kwek kwek) and the national dish (sisig) is made from sliced pig cheeks, for a food item to be considered unusual - it must really stand out. Considered an aphrodisiac by some, the sight of a crumpled up baby duck, oozing blood and bone, won't meet everyone's preferences.

Best served with beer, balut is high in both protein and cholesterol, but differs from your standard duck egg as it has been fertilized and allowed to develop somewhere between an embryo and a chick. Depending on how long it has been aged, feathers and/or beak are distinct possibilities. Balut aficionados would describe the taste as somewhere between scrambled eggs and roast duck (imagine that!), while the majority of expats seem to deem it as nothing more than a dare.


You're never going to head home from an exotic destination, gather your friends and amaze them all with your story about that magical cab ride from your hotel to a shopping mall. Even if the traffic laws are non-existent, there are more exciting ways to get around than in your standard sedan.

Jeepneys on the other hand, are less about getting somewhere for the sake of convenience and more about embracing the local culture, living life as a local. This is the nation's most popular mode of public transportation and can be found in every region, from the inner-city streets of Pasay to remote island provinces such as Batanes.

Originally just modified US army jeeps that were left over from WW2, the jeepney is unique to the Philippines and often decorated in a flamboyant style to catch the eye of commuters. Like falling snowflakes, no two jeepneys are identical. This leaves the streets looking something like an oil painting from above. The patok (popular) variety for instance, can be seen screeching down highways at breakneck speeds, with disco lights flashing and pulsating pop tunes - literally a disco on wheels!

Many hands make light work, as you'll see when everyone on board helps out to make sure the driver gets his fare. If you pick any seat but the one closest to the exit, you'll take part in passing people's fares to the driver and if you really want to impress the locals, say 'bayad' when doing so.


Taking place each year during the week leading up to Easter, Holy Week has long since been an exodus from Manila to family homes and provincial hotspots dotted throughout the archipelago. There's a long list of festivals and celebrations, but surely witnessing a crucifixion first hand is not something you'd find on the to-do list of many travelers.

The epitome of one of those 'only in the Philippines' moments, I decide to go along and see for myself what all the fuss is about. The 'Lenten Rites' take place on the outskirts of San Fernando, only an hour's drive from Manila and perhaps the only place in the world where a vendor selling helium-inflated balloon animals can stand adjacent to a man being crucified. He looks on in interest as a man is readied for crucifixion, but seems more concerned with the crowd and their need for tacky pasalubong (souvenirs).

I notice that a soft thud from the hammer, is all it takes to force out a blood curdling scream as the volunteer's body thrashes about in agony. His body is writhing, like a snake being skinned, and his howls of pain could easily wake the dead. The same thing happens when his right palm is nailed to the cross, and he's sobbing as they stand the cross up straight. I shudder to myself and think in dismay that he's not out of the woods just yet, as both of his feet must soon be nailed down too.

I remind myself throughout the process, that this man has volunteered to be where he is, as a way of cleansing his sins. In fact, some of the volunteers come back year after year to go through it all again. Whatever their reasons, it's an impressive display of faith.

All of a sudden, it feels a tad familiar for me, as if I've stumbled into this stranger's bathroom to find him sitting on the toilet. It's an uneasy feeling, as we're wired to help people in need rather than watch on silently. It's not for everyone, but how many chances in life do you really get at seeing a crucifixion?

Once they come off the cross, they're treated like rock stars and mobbed by the adoring public. Everybody wants their picture taken with these brave souls, but shaking their hands is strictly frowned upon. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Varanasi - The City of Life & Death

RJ Fry

Text - RJ Fry
Images - Daniel Baum

It's not yet 5am and the city is remarkably still, not quite silent but a stark contrast from the usual chaos and post-dawn rumblings. In a strange way, this eerie silence makes it feels like the whole world is asleep - not just Varanasi. Footsteps shuffle in the distance as incense burns behind closed doors. Slowly but surely, the signs of a new day are upon me.

"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and  looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world. Although this claim is disputed by scholars, at the very least it's over 3,000 years old. When you consider that Kuala Lumpur was only founded in 1857, it really puts things into perspective. First impressions feel more Arabian than Indian, with timeless qualities perhaps more old testament than new.

After wandering aimlessly from my guesthouse, I'm lost rather quickly in the giant labyrinth that the locals call the old city. The rather simple task of 'go outside, find water' has become a rodent-like quest for cheese in a mad scientist's laboratory. Dressed in only board shorts and a towel, I look everywhere for a ghat, the descending steps that make their way into India's holiest river - The Ganges. Instead I meet a Sadhu, one of India's wandering holy men, not to mention a Varanasi staple.

I remark to him upon the similarity of both our styles. We both have long shaggy hair, scraggly beards and are dressed in little to nothing, him a glowing orange robe wrapped snug around his midsection and myself in the aforementioned board shorts. He just smiles though, bows his head slightly and presses his palms together to say, "Namaste." A traditional stance/greeting found throughout India, and not just with holy men.

He opens his eyes slowly, and in a voice befitting a wise prophet, he asks in perfect English, "which country are you from?" I tell him Australia, and when I do he does what everyone else does in India - he mentions cricket. He is disgusted with the 'underarm incident' and asks me about Shane Warne's apparent lack of morals.

He stops mid-rant, interrupted by the yelp of an animal in distress. It appears my tour of the temple is over, and we spend the next five minutes collecting lost puppies for their exhausted mother. I find a tiny puppy, black and white but shivering with the cold, her eyes are closed firmly - perhaps not yet open. I place the puppy alongside lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, no doubt canine for 'thanks.'

I make my way to a nearby ghat, with directions from a bemused German backpacker. Last year a western man died after drinking water from the Ganges while swimming, so any effort to bathe in these polluted waters is met with disbelief or jeering. I think I'll stick to the shallow end when I go for the plunge, there's no way I'll be dunking my head.

With all the remaining notes in my pocket, I buy floating flower pots in which I can light a candle for each member of my family. The kids push me to buy an extra pot for Lord Shiva, and as it's his city, I decide it's only the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into Mother Ganga. The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of this most sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims for good measure. Unlike me, they have all brought soap along, complete with little toiletry dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing.

Step by slippery step, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, as others around me are doing. The colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup, but not the good kind. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. At once  I hear the sounds of people yelling from the ghats, and look back to see a concerned party of pilgrims pointing to a 'no swimming' sign, but alas it's in Hindi.

Bathing on the ghat is an out of body experience. The feeling is like being lost in an alien land, left behind as the spaceship takes off. Taking part in this ritual, something that has been going strong each day (60,000+ pilgrims) for thousands of years is something I had to experience. I promised myself that I wouldn't leave India without doing so, regardless of any hazardous health aspects soon to plague my subcontinent safari.

Making my way back to my room for a shower, a self-appointed tour guide informs me that this city was a gift from Shiva to his wife as a wedding present, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' I learn of a festival that is held each February, where the town is overflowing with drunken lovers and bhang lassi is served discreetly from many guesthouses. A city of rooftops, the only thing missing from this enchanting place is a flying carpet.

Varanasi is a veritable melting pot of Indian culture and for centuries many elderly people in India have chosen to live out their final days in Varanasi. I learn that dying here isn't the passport to heaven I believed it to be, as to escape the cycle of rebirth one must pass away only during the 'festival of the dead,' or Pitru Paksha. These fifteen days differ each year as they're determined by astrology and while the chances of passing away within these dates are minuscule, it's also a chance to honour the spirits of deceased relatives and to keep evil spirits at bay.

Despite that early morning dip in what would politely be described as human soup, the gloomy image of inevitable death I had to come to associate with Varanasi has long since passed. While you can't help but notice the houses for sick and dying around town, or witness the riverside cremations (some of the more popular ghats cremate 200 bodies a day), you get the sense that celebrating life is an everyday affair too. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Temples can be found in every corner of the city, some of them several thousands of years old. The ghats that line the riverside are also numerous, while the burning ghats themselves are a sight to behold with naked bodies burning in full view of bystanders. The dearly beloved gather, while their deceased relatives lay on the ground, belching out fumes from beyond the grave.

Taking a step back from the mourning family members, I see pilgrims watching on, many of whom bathe on the steps of these ghats daily. It's not just a spectacle, but a ritual thousands of years strong and i'm more than thankful for such an authentic experience.

While the city is still waking up, I decide to indulge my inner-tourist and take a boat ride up this fabled river. At only an hour long, it feels like I spent more time bargaining with the vendor than I did on the water. As the rickety boat makes its way up and down the river, I spot a skull floating alongside us. Dislodged from its former body and bobbing up and down in the murky water, I laugh to myself and think there's no way I'll ever swim here again - no matter how sacred this water is!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Weird Bangkok

A trip to a notoriously graphic forensic science museum wouldn't top the to-do list of many normal travelers in cosmopolitan Bangkok. However, fed up with glitzy shopping malls and the tranquility of temples, I find myself yearning for something off the beaten track. Instead, I found a celebration of severed limbs in what could only be described as the lair of a mad scientist.

To call it stomach churning would prove to be a grand understatement. However, even after watching the sallow faces shuffle in and out, curiosity won the battle and I ventured inside Thailand's oldest hospital to check out Siriraj Medical Museum.

For the bargain price of only 40 baht, those who aren't squeamish can gain access to six separate sections - each with their own interesting exhibits. As for the winner of 'most grotesque,' it's a tie between Forensic Pathology and the creepy crawlies found within the Parasitology section.

I start out with tapeworms and flesh eating bacteria, opting to face the worst first (or so I thought). The first stop is a delightful public service announcement, which although dubbed in Thai is reminiscent of infomercials around the world. My fear laid to rest, I take note of foods known to contain harmful toxins and pat myself (prematurely) on the back for having such a strong stomach.

From across the room I spot what appears to be spaghetti. Having had fettuccine alfredo for lunch, a possible link between pasta and parasites worries me. Inching my way up to the exhibit, I rejoice in discovering that it's nothing close to linguine, but recoil upon discovering the truth - tapeworms. A painstaking recreation of a man's rectum, overflowing with enough infectious parasites to start a game called tug of war.

After that truly disgusting display, I make my way to the Forensic Pathology section and breeze through the initiation displays of alcohol's damage to the liver and the lungs of a pack-a-day smoker. Scary stuff no doubt, but no worse than the graphic images on any cigarette pack in Australia.

I manage to make it past the dismembered body parts floating in jars, but the winding corridor of dead fetuses is enough to make me shudder. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a large group of students ogling a glass display in the corner. Resting his forehead on the stained glass, is the naked body of a dirty and decaying man. Unable to translate the small plaque, I ask one of the students for more information.

"Si Quey is a famous man, but not for good reason," says Ann, a first year law student at Bangkok University. "Over fifty years ago, he was executed for rape, murder and cannibalism." During his reign of terror on suburban Bangkok, he killed six children and ate their hearts and livers.

It's a strange feeling when you meet a dead celebrity. Si Quey is a name known outside of the law profession too, probably because his name is still used to frighten young children into behaving themselves. In what looks like a see-through broom closet, I notice the door knob has broken clean off and been replaced with a patchwork of cellophane. Although his mummified body is preserved in petroleum jelly and long dead, a cold shiver runs down my spine - it's time to go.

On my way out, I pass by a kiosk stall serving snacks and beverages. Not surprised at the lack of customers, I wonder if my appetite will ever return. Looking to stimulate the senses, I leave the hospital grounds and head for the throbbing heartbeat of this modern day metropolis - Silom Road. This is both the financial centre of the capital by day and a raucous party district after dark.

Street food stalls line the busy side streets, with more than just Pad Thai on offer. Thailand is a haven for foodies and the capital city is no exception. Almost all cuisines are represented and depending where you are, the distance between authentic Italian and a Syrian kebab may only be a few steps. As the intoxicating aroma of Tom Yam wafts over me, I'm shocked to find my appetite stirring into life once again.

After dark this part of town becomes a veritable maze of food, with vendors setting up shop on the busy pavement in every direction. Giant woks splutter with oil and do little to conceal the dancing flames below. I hear the bell of an approaching food cart, but what I see shocks me. No, it's no ice-cream. Instead, it's a bountiful buffet of bugs, deep fried to perfection! Stir fried water beetles, locust kebabs and many more 'delightful delicacies' that are sure to make your skin crawl.

Clinging vehemently to vegetarianism as an excuse, I choose not to chow down on a cockroach kebab, but instead ask around for an infamous restaurant in the area by the name of Cabbages and Condoms. The tropical heat and staggering humidity makes negotiating the crowded streets difficult, but i'm determined to see if there really is a restaurant in town that's decorated with nothing but prophylaxes.

After wandering aimlessly under a fool moon with my cheap t-shirt clinging to my back in sweat, I take a chance on a side street and finally find one of Asia's more bizarrely themed restaurants. Unlike other themed restaurants in Asia, such as Modern Toilet in Taiwan or The Lockup in Tokyo - this isn't just another money making scheme.

Before I'm ushered to my table, I walk around the courtyard and take note of all the billboard size posters on display. Funded by the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), I learn that a large percentage of profit goes towards helping the poor in rural areas across the nation. The condom theme is explained instantly by all the safe sex themed t-shirts, latex insignia and novelty keychains for sale in the gift shop.

Although more expensive than street food, the restaurant is nothing if not a classy affair. The open courtyard plays host to traditional Thai musicians each evening after 7pm, while Christmas lights drape the trees and wax candles occupy a space on each table. While some of the condom creations such as table flowers are rudimentary and basic, others are elaborate and meticulous like the light features (pictured right).

While it's more than most backpackers would spend on an average meal, it's good knowing that a large portion of the bill is going towards helping people in need. The menu reflects the Isaan region of Thailand, which as the poorest region - is where most of the funds are directed.

Those who like it spicy are in for a treat, as Isaan is home to the almost mythical Papaya Salad (not for the faint of heart) where chilies aren't so much used as a spice, but as a main ingredient. I choose to keep my eyebrows in place and order a light and refreshing bowl of mushroom soup. As I smell the aroma of fresh coriander mingling with crushed lemongrass from a few tables over, my appetite returns with gusto. Dining without a date, I take full advantage of my anonymity and slurp down the fragrant broth in a flurry.

First-timers can be spotted laughing at condom chandeliers, but many more come back time after time for authentic regional cuisine. Like all good restaurants the food quickly takes centre stage, although the restaurant's choice of after dinner mint substitution almost always results in a giggle.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pearl Farm Resort

After twenty minutes of smooth sailing, our almost silent boat (a novelty in The Philippines) docked upon the shore of this sublime island paradise. Recently swallowed up by the ever-increasing city limits of Metro Davao, Samal is the perfect island for escape.

My first impressions of Pearl Farm are nothing but awe and wonder. It's perhaps no surprise to me, that this resort was designed by an artist and not an architect, which adds to its already abundant postcard persona. The theme is Asian tropical, with Balinese style high ceilings, bamboo structures and thatched roofs.

Once home to an abundance of pink, white and gold pearls, the resort covers 14 hectares and was once home to thousands of white lipped oysters. Unlike other resorts in the area, the buildings don't impose on the tranquil settings. Instead they were built around the contours of the island.

Before I even get a chance to step inside my room, I'm dwarfed by the size of it all. This may be considered basic accommodation by the elite, but these lodgings are bigger than my house. This really is how the other half live, with the price tag reading 'splurge only.'  The moment you step off the boat, the staff are there to welcome you with warm smiles and open hearts. You don't just feel like a VIP here, you are one.

Something as simple as bathroom towels, become origami creations, with each day presenting a new animal. I can scarcely believe my eyes, as I spy an elephant sitting on my bed, made from about 3 bath towels and a boatload of patience. The following day, my elephant friend is gone only to be replaced by an elegant swan.

The sandy coves are a blinding shade of white with the midday sun, and the surrounding turquoise waters fluctuate between green and blue throughout the day. I sprawl myself out on a lounge chair to read a book, and notice the change of colors between chapters. Yes, it really does happen that fast.

Breakfast and dinner is a buffet affair, with world class cuisine and both Filipino and Western food available. Maranao Restaurant serves a varied mixture of cuisine, with many different palates catered for to suit a complex list of clientele.

I opt not to wait the required thirty minutes before swimming, as the twinkling ocean rises and falls before my eyes, teasing me. The water is just right for a dip, making swimming a superb activity of choice anytime of day. The warm waters are akin to a jet-stream jacuzzi. The snorkeling is also good with supreme visibility and calm currents.

For those snorkelers who consider themselves a little more adventurous, the bigger fish lay waiting under the resort jetty. It's here you will find tuna and snapper, as well as barracuda if you're lucky. For scuba divers with an itch for exploration, there are two sunken WW2 battleships less than 60m from the resort.

Aqua Sports Activity Centre is home to many activities, both above and below the water's surface. Speed boats and outriggers can be rented out for a sunset cruise, perfect for honeymooners and hopeless romantics. Although banana boats, kayaks and wind surfing is all on offer, I can't refuse a jet ski.

Jet skis are available on a per use basis, and feeling like something new, I decide to give it a go. It's like mixing the 'walk on water' abilities of Jesus Christ, with the rebellious nature of 'Easy Rider.' It's bliss. As I roar across the water to a not too distant mountain, all the worries of the world are blown away. The huts on the shoreline quickly come into focus, and the ripple of waves left by my wake, provides a nice rocking action to my machine.

Home to more than just indulgence and water sports, visitors are also able to learn about the Mandaya people, a tribe native to the area of Eastern Mindanao. Adjacent to the tennis courts, I watched the intricate process of transforming a local cloth known as Dagmay, into everything from handbags to household ornaments. In the process, I was lucky enough to learn a little about their tribal folklore and spiritual beliefs, something I don't think they offer at Club Med.


By Plane - From Metro Manila, three major airlines fly daily to Davao and the flight is a breeze at only 1 hour and 45 minutes.

By Boat - Two shipping lines (SuperFerry & Sulpicio) have regular trips to Davao from various locations, scattered throughout the country, including; Manila, Iloilo City & Cebu. Travel time from Manila can reach two days.


Prices range from somewhat affordable to downright expensive. The Hilltop Room is the most affordable at $150 USD per night, while those wanting to splurge on a Malipano Villa can expect to pay $680 USD each night for the privilege.

Roundtrip transfers from the airport will set you back $20 USD, while the roundtrip boat transfers will cost another $25 USD.