Monday, February 20, 2012

Taal Volcano - A Tale Of Two Cities

Taal Volcano

City #1 - Tagaytay, Cavite

Like Baguio to the North, this small mountain town serves as a welcome respite from the steamy heat of Manila – not to mention the crowds and chaos. However, unlike its Northern counterpart, Tagaytay is only one hour away by bus, which makes for a perfect weekend escape.

Although not as chilly as other mountain towns such as Sagada or Banaue, the average temperature is still a mild and pleasant 22.7 degrees Celsius - which will sound like bliss when you're sweating it out in the capital. The cool alpine breeze and fresh pine scent will surely stir your senses, while just single glimpse of Taal Volcano from your bus on the highway will have you reeling. 

Nicknamed the city of fog for good reason, mist in the air only adds to the charm and romance of the place. Winding roads, a nip to the air and a full moon puts me in mind of Bram Stoker's Transylvania. This historic city was once a getaway for corruption politicians in the Marcos era, drawn in by elaborate cocktail parties thrown by Imelda and the enchanting backdrop of the world's smallest volcano.  

Famous throughout Central Luzon province as a 'fruit destination,' stalls line the city streets selling tropical delicacies such as mangoes and pineapples, as well as stranger items such as jackfruit (lanca). Always curious to try something new, I order this strange and alien-like fruit and watch the vendor prize it open with a few swift moves of her machete.

The taste is unique, somewhere between the range of a mango and a banana, but with a texture to remember, it manages to be both chewy and soft – something like the tapioca pearls found in bubble tea.

You can't help but notice the merchants hawking their goods, as if you attempt to make any purchases at a busy time, you'll notice a sound akin to the commentary box at a horse race – regardless of the language used.

The clean fragrant air and abundant fresh produce on offer, always means that delicious food is never far away. For those looking to splurge on a fancy night out, Antonio's Restaurant is widely regarded as the best restaurant in the Philippines and is officially the 5th best in all of Asia (Miele Guide). Think of it as French/Filipino fusion, itself an oddity, but with a view like nowhere else in the world. 

I rise early and am fully dressed and out the door of my guesthouse by 5am, expecting to jostle for position with other members of the snap happy contingency, but strangely – nobody's awake. I make my way to Starbucks, known for having the best viewpoint along Tagaytay ridge, but I've got nobody to keep me company but a surly security guard intent on watching me like a hawk.

Unable to get that perfect shot of sunrise, I jump on the next jeepney bound for People's Park in the Sky. This crumbling structure was originally intended to serve as a guesthouse for former president Ronald Reagen but was never completed. Open to the public, it's popular among visitors for having a nice viewpoint of Taal Lake, but also Metro Manila on a clear day. 

I arrive at around 7.30am, a full thirty minutes before the gates open, leaving me enough time for an alfresco breakfast. Fresh buko juice (coconut) is a steal at 30 php, while a sweet juicy segment of pineapple is only 10 php.

Sitting along the roadside, I'm caught up in a swirling sea of clouds and can barely see 5 meters in front of me. While People's Park isn't exactly atop Mt. Everest, the omnipresent fog for which the city is famous for, will make you feel as if you've ascended into the clouds and reached the round table with Zeus. 

The amphitheater is perfectly positioned and with blinding white fog in each direction, it looks like the elaborate set and stage of a Greek tragedy. While the rest of the buildings look drab and unfinished, it's the location adjacent to heaven's pearly gates that keeps people coming back.

City #2 - Talisay, Batangas

To really appreciate Taal Volcano, you must view it from above and below. To do this you must visit both the towns of Talisay and Tagaytay, but don't worry – only a short tricycle ride separates the two.

Barely ten minutes downhill from Tagaytay, this small lakeside town is in another province nonetheless (Batangas). The township itself stretches out, with several guesthouses and restaurants sprawled along the water's edge. The magnificent volcanic backdrop looms in focus and with a little bargaining, a boat ride to the island within the crater lake can be had for under 1000 PHP.

Taal Volcano is not only the world's smallest active volcano, but also part of the Pacific ring of fire. Since 1572, there have been a whopping 33 recorded eruptions and as such, it's under constant surveillance. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,335 people, while dangerous activity such as toxic fumes and rumbling sounds were reported as recently as last year.

Climbing to the top is relatively stress-free, but rather than make a miserable horse's day a little worse, I decided to scale the 400 meter summit solo. Vendors renting horses warned me it would take hours, but after taking their suggestions with a grain of salt – managed to reach the rim within 40 minutes.

Easily done for both children and adults, the amount of dust and dirt accumulated along the way is remarkable. Whatever you do, don't wear your Sunday best! Visitors who make it to the top, whether by horse or by foot, have the opportunity to buy 'Taal Volcano' souvenir t-shirts, while similar apparel is absent from stalls and stands along Tagaytay ridge. 

The scenery is stunning along the way, although it never allows you to forget you're trekking up a volcano and not a mountain. For instance, instead of regular soil to tread upon, warm volcanic ash will heat you up with each and every step. Also, whenever you see smoke rising, don't get alarmed and assume it's a bushfire – those are just normal volcano emissions. If you happen to see a man teeing off from the top of a volcano, don't worry, you're not seeing things. Of all the places in the world to find a driving range, I never expected it to be atop the world's smallest volcano. 

Looking down into the vibrant crater lake, I ask the vendor to crack open an ice cold buko (coconut) and taste for myself what the locals have nicknamed 'nature's Gatorade.' After my attempts at drinking it leave onlookers in stitches, one kind lady emerges from the crowd and hands me a straw. I discover both a delicious and refreshing taste, but I'm shocked to learn of the high potassium and mineral content (not to mention the ability to use it as an intravenous hydration fluid!) which puts it firmly in the 'health drink' category. Amidst a barrage of coconut trivia, I learn that the Philippines is the world's biggest producer of coconuts. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Getting To Know Taipei (101) - Eating

Home to more than just ancient temples, bustling city streets and looming skyscrapers, Taiwan is known the world over for their bizarre food items and restaurant themes. Made famous in recent years by TV chefs like Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain, Stinky Tofu is a local delicacy that's hard not to notice. Like the durian fruit of Malaysia, you either love it or hate it - there's no middle ground. Opinions on how to describe the odor differ, but in my opinion it's a little like rancid garbage meets rotten milk.

If you can battle through the aroma though, it's actually delicious. Best served deep fried and rubbed with hot peppers, it differs from regular tofu in both texture and flavor. It must be the three months of fermentation underground in a salty solution that give it a meat-like texture and sharp flavor - almost like biting into aged cheddar.

Shilin Night Market is the perfect place to find this local oddity, as it's world famous with tourists from across the globe stopping by to check out some bargains. Like most of Asia, this marketplace is home to pirated DVDs, jewelery, cheap t-shirts and more food stalls than you can shake a skewer at. Besides Stinky Tofu, some other local specialties involve Oyster Omelets and Scallion Pancakes.

Why anyone would think that a toilet-themed restaurant would work is crazy, but what's crazier is a chain of toilet-themed restaurants that's spreading like wildfire throughout Asia! Modern Toilet Restaurant is proof that no idea is too crazy. From modest beginnings in 2002, this franchise has now spread throughout China with three outlets and counting.

Let's be honest, there's not a whole lot about this scenario that makes sense - but let's consider Taiwan for a moment. This island shaped like a sweet potato is home to more strangely themed restaurants than anywhere else in Asia, it's even spawned a culture. For those of you who prefer your drinks served from a vat suspended from the ceiling, there's a hospital themed restaurant. If you'd rather your waiter be dressed in black and carrying a sword, there's a ninja themed sushi place. Heck, even if you just like Hello Kitty, eating from your tray aboard an Airbus A380 - it can all be found in Taipei!

The sight and sound of someone slurping green tea out of a urinal, or eating soup out of a small-scale toilet bowel may not sound appetizing, but it makes a discernible difference to your usual dining experience! I wonder why this concept would work, but looking around the restaurant, I notice more locals than tourists. Seeking answers, I ask my waitress, Joanna, to explain the polarizing popularity.

"Weird is good. You must remember, Taiwan is abnormal - not normal!" she laughs, cheerily. "It's fun and different. Where else can you watch your food cook in a toilet?"

I look around and concede that she's right. Everything inside, although clean and sanitized, can be found within your average restroom. One wall is adorned with urinals, while another is decorated with toilet lids - even the chairs are recycled toilet bowls. If that wasn't enough, you can pick up a signature poo poo key chain from the cashier on your way out!