Category: Travel

I anticipate your needs*

Sandbar Boracay

Can this day be any better? After having my brunch at nearby Bamboo Lounge, I decided to rent a beach chair and got very lucky to find one available at The Sandbar for only 100 pesos for a day’s use. Unfortunately, there was no available beach umbrella, so the attendant manning the place moved my rented chair in the shade and promised to get me one once it became available.
While I was out in the water, he found me an umbrella and immediately set it up beside my chair. I don’t normally get this kind of service anywhere else, as a lot of attendants merely pay lip service when they tell you they would do something for you. Say, it’s a way for them to dismiss you.
Sandbar Boracay
When I was reading under the shade of my umbrella, he offered water spritzer to keep my skin hydrated. I didn’t realize that even under the shade and wearing sunscreen at SPF 100, the noontime sun could still be terribly harmful. So after spritzing cold water on my arms and legs, he left the spritzer with me, but not before making sure that its contents were kept cool by placing the bottle in a bucket of ice. 
Twice during the rest of the afternoon, he moved my umbrella to make sure I was in the shade properly and replaced the ice bucket to keep my water spray cool. Having the kind man around also meant there was someone to keep an eye on my beach bag, book and gadgets whenever I had to take a dip in the water,  and he did.
That was just excellent service unlike any other that I encountered anywhere, especially the pricey joints in Makati. I didn’t have to ask him for more assistance yet he was kind enough to offer them, and so I couldn’t be more glad to give him a good tip when I left.
Sadly, I failed to ask for the Kuya‘s name. But if ever you feel like lounging by the beach on Station 1 in Boracay, choose Sandbar and look for the middle-aged gentleman who usually sits by the juice stand beside Bamboo Lounge. He will keep a good eye on your belongings and make sure you are comfortable. Don’t forget to give him a fat tip.
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*According to some literature that I have read in relation to my work, anticipating a customer’s needs is one of the behaviours that lead to advocacy, whereby people have a higher probability of recommending your business to their peers.

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel and Cafe

I cannot believe it has been more than two years since I last visited Boracay. There were a number of us on that trip as well, most of them friends from a company that I previously worked for. It was a weekend of epic parties, sailing, making friends, and soaking up the sun.

This time, the visit is to celebrate H’s birthday, as she hits a new milestone. Eighteen of us flew in by AirAsia-Zest from the old Manila Domestic Airport (now “Terminal 4”) at 06:50 and took the two-hour road trip from Kalibo to Caticlan. After nearly a half-hour of getting ferry tickets and settling environmental fees at Caticlan, we took a “proper” ferry going to the jetty port, from where I hailed a tricycle to go to my hotel. The rest of the crew took a van going to their hotel, since they made a separate booking (I booked accommodations differently and ahead of everyone). Since I had been in transit for nearly six hours, it was safe to say that all I wanted was to collapse in the comforts of a hotel room.

What a shame that the hotel that I booked via Agoda.com did not live up to its promise. In fact, what I saw on the booking sites that I visited and its own homepage was starkly different from what I had actually expected. This is the second time that a hotel I booked on Agoda turned out to be horrid. The other one was at The Inn at Temple Street in Singapore.
First, the whole place has seen better days and is surely in desperate need maintenance.  I was initially assigned to a room that obviously had not been cleaned for weeks, and until I decided to ask for a transfer to another room, I would have had to endure dusty sheets and curtains, cobwebs, and a bathroom that needed cleaning; not to mention that there were boards hanging on parts of the ceiling to cover God knows what.

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
This room is either in the middle of getting repairs or it’s just that dilapidated. Mind the live wires!

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
Paint job, much? And what’s the deal with the hanging board?

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
While it’s located just a minute’s walk to the beach from on Station 1, it sits along the busy main road.

Second, the so-called cafe is just a suggestion, as they don’t even serve food there. The sadder part is they don’t even have hot water in case you need to prepare your own coffee or tea, or have a  cup noodle in case you get hungry in the middle of the night.

As I requested for a room transfer, I was lucky to get a more decent one when the previous occupant checked out just as I arrived at the hotel. The queen bed was comfortable enough, and new sheets and a towel were provided. Note: they did not replace my towel with a clean one the following day.

The cable TV was okay, although the remote’s battery needed replacing. The room had a working mini-ref and air-con, while the small bathroom was clean enough and had its own water heater. About the heater, if you are not used to these things common only across Asia or in places where having warm running water is a privilege and not a right, you might find it a little daunting that the shower at this hotel only had one temperature setting. You’d have first to find the heater and fix the knob to a higher setting.

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
Yup, that thing under the sink *is* the water heater. 

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
At least the bathroom was clean and had warm water. 

Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
Now THIS is much better than the first room that they gave me. A trick I learned from a friend was to keep the TV and the lights switched on to give the impression that there was someone in the room, each time you have to leave. Too much waste of energy, I know, but it’s better than losing your stuff to akyat-bahay.
Boracay Ocean Bay Hotel
A percolator or thermos to heat water would have been really great. 

Anyway, I think I learned a few good lessons from the experience: Don’t trust Agoda because it buries negative reviews; shell out juuuust a liiiittle more and you can find a much better place. Also, don’t panic just because it’s Valentine weekend.

There are so many hotels in Boracay, one could just walk in without prior reservation and get a decent room at a convenient location. Walking on Station 1 beach front, it hurt a little each time I saw a “Rooms Available” sign.

Walking around Central Hong Kong on a Sunday morning, possibly in search of happiness

When I read the following passage on Francois Lelord’s book, Hector and the Search for Happiness, I knew he was referring toa familiar sight in Hong Kong where domestic workers gather in parks and practically every available space, mostly around the Central business district, to enjoy their day off.  It was my first tiime to see for myself the convergence of these workers on a Sunday morning amidst the rather fancy backdrop of massive buildings and adverts for luxury goods.

Most of these workers are Filipinas coming from various regions and talking in varied dialects and accents, and it is during this one day off in the week where they meet amongst friends, sometimes making calls to families, trade gossips and stories, and share food that remind them of home.


Hong Kong CentralHector began sipping his large coffee and watching the entrance to the tower.

And he saw something he’d seen several times before when he came to his neighbourhood: a group of Chinese women had spread an oilcloth out on the ground and were sitting on it in a circle, like schoolchildren having a picnic. on closer inspection, Hector noticed that they weren’t exactly like Chinese women; they were in general slightly shorter, and quite slender and dark-skinned. They seemed to be  enjoying themselves, continually chatting and laughing. He’d seen several groups like that when he came to his neighbourhood, with their oilcloths spread out beside the entrance to the towers, under the footbridges or anywhere that gave shelter from the rain, but always outside the buildings.



Hector wondered whether they got together like that in order to practice some new religion. He would have liked to know what it was, perhaps the same one the old monk practised, because, like him, they laughed a lot.

… There were also westerners like Edouard, and Hector tried to guess where they came from just from the way they looked. No doubt they got it wrong a few times, but since he couldn’t check he didn’t know, and it amused him, and from time to time he laughed to himself.

Edouard’s colleagues didn’t look amused at all as they left the towers, they looked tired, and some of them were staring at the ground as if weight down by worries. When the group of them emerged, talking amongst themselves, they looked very serious and sometimes it seemed as if they were cross with one another. Some looked so preoccupied, so caught up in their own thoughts that Hector almost felt like going up and prescribing pills for them. This cafe would have been a perfect place to establish himself as a psychiatrist if he had been planning to stay longer.

Finally, he saw Edouard, and he felt glad, because it’s always more heartening to see afriend in a country than simply to come across him at home, even if you are slightly annoyed with him. Edouard looked very pleased to see Hector, and he immediately ordered a beer to celebrate…

Central Hong Kong

…He asked Edouard who the groups of women were that he’d seen everywhere sitting on their oilcloths. Edouard explained that they were cleaners, and that they all came from the same country, a group of small, very poor islands quite a long way from China. They work in this city (and other cities in the world) so tat they could send money to their families, who’d stayed behind.

‘But why do they gather here on those oilcloths?’ asked Hector.

Hong Kong Central


‘Because they’ve nowhere else to go,’ replied Edouard. ‘Today is Sunday, their day off, so they can’t stay at work and they don’t have enough money to sit in cafes, so they meet here and sit on the ground.’

Edouard also explained that as their country was made up of small islands, women from particular islands or villages often sat together, and it was almost as if all their oilcloths formed a map of their impoverished archipelago in the midst of these very wealthy towers.

Hong Kong Central


Hector watched the women who had nowhere else to go and who were laughing, he watched Edouard’s colleagues coming out of the tower looking very serious and he told himself that the world was a very wonderful or a very terrible place — it was difficult to say which.

When they left the cafe, Hector wanted to go over and speak to these women, because he felt that it was very important for his investigation. He walked towards a group of them, and as they saw him approach they all stopped talking and smiling. It occurred to  Hector that they might think he was going to ask them to move along. But people usually quickly sensed that Hector meant well, and when they heard hilm speak in English they began laughing again. He told them that he’d been watching them for a while and that they seemed very happy. He wanted to know why.

They looked at one another, chuckling, and then one of them said, ‘Because it’s our day off!’

And another added, ‘Because we’re with our friends.’

‘Yes that’s right,’ the others said, ‘it’s because we’re with our friends.’ And even with their families, because some of them were cousins.

Hector asked tem what their religion was, and it turned out that it was the same as Hector’s! This dated back to the time, long ago, when people of Hector’s religion had occupied their islands, because at that time they tended to think that everything belonged to them.

But they didn’t seem to hold it against Hector because all said goodbye to him smiling and waiving.

From Hector and the Search for Happiness  by Francois Lelord. The book is being translated into film, starring Simon Pegg as Hector.

Taking the Cable Car and Walking around Ngong Ping Village

Ngong Ping 360 Big Budda

We were blessed with clear weather on the day we scheduled a trip up Ngong Ping Village via cable car. The trip takes 25 minutes each way, and it is best to get to the cable car station as early as possible to avoid the crowds of tourists lining up for tickets. Otherwise, you may opt to purchase tickets in advance.

Ngong Ping Cable Car
The crowd waiting for their turn. 

Ngong Ping Cable Car
Shades, sunblock, and hats do come in handy when visiting on a sunny day.

Ngong Ping 360
Different ways to say “Welcome”.

There are two options for cable car rides: by standard cabins costs HK$135 return, while taking the “crystal” cabin, which has a glass floor, will set you back HK$213. This page has more information about ticket prices.

Ngong Ping Cable Car, Tung Chung Bay
Due to the number of people lining up, we had to share a cabin with other guests. However, we got  lucky to be sharing it with a nice family from Singapore and avoided the rowdy kids from… uhmmm… somewhere else!

Ngong Ping Cable Car
Passing by towers always freaks me out, for some reason.

Ngong Ping Cable Car, Lantau Island
Lantau Island

Ngong Ping Cable Car, HKIA
You can see airplanes landing and taking off from Hong Kong International Airport Between
Towers 2B and 3. 

Ngong Ping Cable Car
Tung Chung Bay

At Ngong Ping Village

The village has a number of restaurants and souvenir shops…plus a Starbucks and
a Subway branch.

Ngong Ping, Switzerland Cable Car
My favourite at the International Cable Car gallery.

A lucky tiger (cat?) installation at the entrance of one of the many shops inside the village

Where I come from, these warning signs would only be treated as suggestions. Glad to know some rules are still being followed somewhere else.

Dawg’s chillin’ by the gates

The walk towards Po Lin Monastery

Much as I wanted to see the Tian Tian Buddha up close, I wasn’t too keen on climbing 240 steps.  Some other time, maybe, when I’m back on my fitness routine.

Big Buddha, Po Lin Monastery, Ngong Ping Village
I wish I had my DSLR so I could take better pictures. This was as good as I could get with
my point-and-shoot.

Baguio, Revisited

It had been over a decade since my last trip to Baguio, so I thought a bit of catching up with the city of pines would be a good idea to spend a long weekend.

Getting there

Eight days prior to taking the trip, I booked a ticket for one of Victory Liner’s deluxe buses. A seat costs P715 plus P100 service and delivery charges; I received the tickets just two days after my confirmed booking.

The bus left the Pasay at exactly 1:15 AM and reached the Baguio terminal 10 minutes before 6:00. Paying twice as much as I would have if I had taken the usual aircon buses was well worth it for the speed and convenience of getting there.

Accommodations

After spending hours on Agoda and reading a number of reviews and blogs on the best places to stay in the city, I was left with two options: Casa Vallejo and new-ish The Chalet. For its old-world charms and proximity to the city center  I decided on booking a room at Casa Vallejo.

Located on Upper Session Road, the hotel is one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating back to 1925, and has survived even the Japanese onslaught during WWII.  And similar to most old structures found anywhere in the Philippines, an urban legend has been passed on from one generation to the next concerning so-called ghostly apparitions within its halls. But ghostly apparitions or not, I thought that with the promise of having a very accessible book shop, a charming restaurant, and a mini theatre, Casa would be a great alternative to the usual hotel.

I booked a Single Standard room, which cost me roughly P2,400+ a night. Perhaps like most hotels in Baguio too, the room I was booked in had no aircon because the weather was cool anyway, especially in this time of the year. Although the room featured some basic necessities, I still wished there were at least a mini-bar and a hair dryer.

I reached Baguio too early, slightly hung-over, and too tired to wait for mid-day check-in.  I thought I would be charged extra for showing up too soon, but maybe the hotel had more rooms available for that day and could accommodate me immediately. That, or the hotel staff are just too nice–which they are.

I wasn’t too happy with the room that they provided, though: it just smelled of mold and mildew, so I asked that they move me to a cleaner one.

Casa Vallejo

Similar to other offers from nearby hotels, booking at Casa Vallejo includes free breakfast. However, I’m glad that breakfast was served by its in-house restaurant, which is frequented by locals, particularly it seemed by university types–professors, students, the “artsy” crowd. Hill Station serves a mix of Filipino, Asian, and basic Continental fares.

Casa Vallejo Hill Station Restaurant Baguio City
Hill Station interiors
Did someone say refillable brewed coffee?
First breakfast: fried mountain brown rice, eggs, and Baguio longganisa (sausage)
Guests’ meal stubs included desserts and drinks. I recommend their NY cheesecake.
Yep, they serve cocktails in the morning, as well.

 A quirky bookshop and a mini-theatre

Mt Cloud Bookshop reminds me of those independent book stores found around university/school districts. The shop sells anything from select textbooks to local anthologies; books on anthropological studies, travel, business, and non-fiction. If one’s lucky, they could also land second-hand titles at much lower prices. For light reading, I decided on Jessica Zafra’s Twisted Travels, which was just right for the occasion.

Mt. Cloud Bookshop Casa Vallejo Baguio City
Customers can pull any open copy from the shelves and read it at any of the shop’s reading nooks.

On my first night at the hotel, I was lucky to catch a poetry reading about HIV/AIDS  to commemorate World AIDS Day:  Those who wanted to read or have their works read at the event could pay P100 to participate. 

The week of my stay in Baguio, Instituto Cervantes was also sponsoring a Spanish Film Festival, which luckily was held at Casa Vallejo’s mini theatre. After a few attempts to show up before screenings began, I just realised I wasn’t that keen on watching a movie when the city and I had so much to catch up on.

Where else to eat:

I decided to skip some of the touristy places that I’d seen nearly half a dozen times during my previous visits and instead tried to discover some of the things I might have missed. For one: there are more restaurants than I can remember, and while these establishments do not necessarily offer anything unique (I’m not a fan of pinikpikan, so to heck with uniqueness), it was still worthwhile to try them out or at least to compare them with what I was used to in Manila. Verdict: Baguio’s restaurants did not disappoint, except for one.

I love the Thai/Vietnamese fares at Ocha Asian Cuisine on Session Road, where I ordered spring rolls that bested the ones served at the more popular Vietnamese restaurants in Manila and a Thai soup that unfortunately I didn’t realise was good for 4-5 people. Imagine my surprise when the food attendant set a humongous bowl on my table.

For cakes and coffee, it’s best to visit the local joints, and one of the best is by a viewing deck of SM City. A house blend and cake set costs only P155 at Syblings’ Nook located at the mall’s third level.

syblings nook

For dinner, I chose to stay in, as I didn’t want to venture out in the cold or go out by myself in a still unfamiliar territory. Hill Station serves tapas, pasta, and pizza, as well as cocktails and wines.

Looking for a quiet, relaxing dinner? Hill Station is a good bet.
Hill Station - Chorizo
Their chorizo is a must.
Bolognese and Tequila Sunrise, oh yes!

A friend suggested the now famous Cafe by the Ruins, just a couple of blocks from Session/Burnham Park. I guess the best thing about Cafe by the Ruins is its interior design. But as far as food went, I wouldn’t have missed much if I had skipped the cafe altogether.

While the open-air design of the place is quite something for its furniture and quirky layout, what ruins the ambiance is the fact that people are lighting up just about anywhere in this city, and Ruins is one of those anywheres. If you’re going to the city dreaming of clean air, think again: Baguio has no ordinance against smoking in public, you might as well walk around wearing a facial mask.

Not the best ensaymada I’ve tried.

Baguio still has the charms that pilgrims often look for–the cool weather, the hundreds of pine trees that lined its winding roads, fantastic vistas, its courteous people. However, the city has seemed to develop beyond its capacity through the years, marked by the traffic that now clogs some of its main roads and the apparent sprawl beyond its edges.

My biggest disappointment is the air quality, which has remarkably suffered from too many diesel cars, jeepneys, and taxis on its roads and the lack of ordinance needed to manage smoking in public areas. Any place that is not within the confines of an air-conditioned building is fare game for smokers, the rest of us be damned.

Session Road, Baguio City
Session Road
Session Road, Baguio City

Although there are a lot of pedestrians and cars on its main roads and especially within the centre, what’s good about the city is that nobody (or very few, if ever) jaywalks; drivers stop or slow down for crossing pedestrians; and traffic lights are there to really control the flow of traffic. Its people are also among the nicest and most courteous one can have the pleasure of meeting anywhere in the Philippines. I guess it’s just how Ilocanos are, but then again I am biased. From its taxi drivers to food attendants and hotel staff, none of the people I met treated me rudely which is something especially in a highly urbanised area. 

Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province
A view of Baguio from the SM City’s upper deck. The cluster of buildings on the right is the city centre.
Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province
University of Cordillera’s track and field area. These are facilities that many an overpriced universities in
Manila  cannot even match.

Places to visit

Tam-Awan Village showcases the culture of Baguio’s indigenous peoples. Mind, however, that the place is not for those who have neither patience nor strength to deal with the countless steps that brought visitors from one level of the village to the next. Going around the village is another version of a cardio exercise, and its best visited wearing very comfortable shoes.

Tam-Awan Village, Baguio

Tam-Awan Village, Baguio
Tam Awan Village, Baguio City

Tam-Awan Village

Camp John Hay is perfect for group/family picnics and retail therapy. However, as someone who’s a regular at Landmark, Greenhills, and Surplus Shop, I could tell that CJH’s bargains are still way too expensive for the casual shopper. Thrift shopping is best done somewhere else, including the famous Ukay-ukay.

Camp John Hay shopping, Baguio City
What I enjoyed most, however, was walking along its tree-lined roads. At least John Hay is not yet suffering from the presence of too many diesel engine cars, and there are areas where visitors can have a good time away from the noise of motor traffic.

Camp John Hay, Baguio

 The road back to Manila

This was the first time that I actually saw Marcos Highway, or at least the section on the upper Cordilleras. The grandeur of the mountain range, as well as its deep ravines that go hundreds of meters are something to behold, and one just had to be there to really appreciate the effort (and surely, the public budget) put into place to make the road safe for motorists. 
Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province, Marcos Highway

Baguio City, Cordillera Region, Mountain Province, Marcos Highway
Baguio City has now expanded towards the outer reaches of the mountains

I should have bought return tickets prior to my trip and spared myself the agony of spending eight butt-numbing hours on the road while crossing my fingers, hoping to make it in time for a Saturday night out with friends. Deluxe buses take roughly five hours to reach Manila, while ordinary aircon buses take their merry time jetting passengers back to the capital.

All in all, it was still a fun and much-needed trip away from the craziness of Metro Manila and some of its bothersome people, among other things. If either money or time is not an issue, I would choose a quiet weekend in Baguio over the hustle and bustle of  NCR.