A Travellerspoint blog

March 2008

Sabang Beach

Diving and sleazy sex tourism :(

sunny 31 °C
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We went back to Manila for a brief stop, and waited out the Easter rush that would be taking place in all the diving spots. We stayed in a different hotel this time - Friendly’s Guest House - it was great, with wifi and a nice common area with TV and a kitchen. Once Easter was done, we headed for Batangas port and caught the ferry Sabang Beach, on the island of Mindoro, not far south of Manila.

Sabang Beach is not really a beach anymore - the hotels, dive shops, restaurants and girlie bars have built all the way to the water line and more.

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The place is brash and busy, with divers, alcoholics or a combination of the two. The many girlie bars and massage parlours add a bit of a seedy feel to it all… All these old, nasty men with their little filipina 'girlfriends' - its just not pretty to watch! Yet, the diving here is easy, and while it is far from the best in the Philippines, it is decent enough to be worth a few days.
We found a cheap hotel on a hill side, and a dive shop willing to do the dives for 18 dollars. And then we spent some relaxing days here, just diving and hanging out. The dives we did at Verde Island were particularly good, with amazing visibility and more fish life. Even the sites closer to Sabang itself had lots of critters to satisfy the cameras, and we enjoyed these few days here.

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By the 31st, we were drying out the gear and ready to move on.

Posted by monkyhands 12:31 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Manila to Donsol

Whale fish whale fish!

rain 31 °C
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So, from KL, we flew with Air Asia to Manila in the Philippines. Another busy Asian city, yet with its own Filipino character. The gap between rich and poor here is enormous, and so apparent everywhere. Also, the presence and visibility of guns is different to elsewhere - there are security guards posted at everything from banks to Starbucks, and they all carry guns. Anything from hand guns to huge automatic weapons ( I know nothing of guns, but some of them look like something out of a gangster movie). Quite unnerving. And Manila lacks the otherwise ubiquitous food stalls that are so great about Asia - here you either eat in restaurants, and pay the price, or in American fast food chains, of which they have more kinds that I have seen anywhere else! (Burger King, MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Dominos, Sbarro. Shakey’s, Dunkin Donuts, Pop Eye’s, KFC, Krispy Kreme Donuts to name a few). Another, worse, eyesore here is the obvious sex tourism, with girlie bars on every corner, and old Western men with their young ‘girlfriends’ walking the streets or frequenting bars and restaurants. Horrible, nasty to even look at!
Apart from that, I like Manila - its got a kind of wild edge to it, a feeling that anything could happen, and does. I mean, where else could you imagine there being a bar called the Hobbit House, staffed exclusively by little people - from bartender and waitresses to doorman. And they somehow manage to do it with dignity. Great place. And also, most of the people here are just so nice, polite and helpful.

From Manila, we caught a hellish bus ride down to Donsol. 12 hours on a bus where the seats were so narrow you could barely sit in them, and there was no leg room at all. Donsol is nothing much in itself - a small Filipino village, that used to survive mainly on fishing. But it has one unique feature - from around November to May give or take a month or two, there is a huge gathering of whale sharks off the coast here. You can go out on a boat for the day, and spot them, and then jump in a snorkel with them. We did this last time we were in the Philippines, and we had to come back again. I have never heard of anything like this anywhere else in the world.

Our first day of snorkelling here did not quite live up to our expectations - it had rained for two days straight, and the visibility was so low that the spotters could not see through the water. Besides, it was still raining when we went out, which meant there was no sun to penetrate the surface and show the shadows of the massive creatures. In the end, after spending three hours just sitting on the boat, they did manage to find one, and we had a decent look at him before he decided to take off - but still, with the viz so low, it was hard to see him until you were literally right next to him. Milena was so disappointed she was grumbling the whole evening, and I have to say that I too was a bit down.
After the snorkelling, we went diving one day, in the manta bowl as they call it here. They say there’s a decent chance of seeing manta rays here, and even hammerheads and thresher sharks. We did not see an of these things - except for the threshers, of which we saw lots of heads, all in the fish market in Donsol - so they are obviously here, but for how much longer? Also, in the whale shark season, it is apparently common to spot one of these giant fish on your safety stop. However, we were not so lucky with the diving, we spent three dives merely sitting on the bottom, holding on in the current and seeing little at all. Only on the third dive of the day, and the last, did we get a quick look at a whale shark as we were descending. Not too bad for three dives I guess - whale sharks are quite a treat, no doubt about it - but still, we were not ecstatic with the rest of the dives, and decided to try our luck with the snorkelling rather than dive again the next day. In the meantime, it had cleared up a bit, and we were hoping that a couple of days without rain would mean a better chance of finding the whale sharks.

And we were right, as it turned out. The next two days, we went out on boats snorkelling with the whale sharks. And even though Easter meant that the Donsol whale shark office had cut the trips from the usual six hours to three hours (at the same price), we managed to get some amazing encounters with the beautiful whale sharks. We saw altogether maybe 12 sharks in two days (not a record by far, some people get that in one day), but the encounters were so great, we were blown away! It was better than when we were here three years ago - we got to swim with several of the sharks for many minutes at a time, they were swimming slowly right below the surface, feeding I guess. We could overtake them, swim next to their huge heads, look them in the eye, and even get a good look at their wide, almost smiling mouths. Aaah, amazing nature. The feeling of being next to one of these enormous fishes is so humbling and exhilarating at once. One of them even decided to stick his nose all the way out of the water, and then almost suck on the camera in Alan’s hands, making for a great movie! (Sadly, our guide on the swim decided to mess around, and push the mouth of the shark closed - you see his hand in the movie - not very nice of him!). All in all, Donsol was a great success, what an amazing place!

Unfortunately for this blog, we were way too close to the whale sharks, and the viz was way too shit, to take any pictures - they simply do not come out. Instead, we shot some videos, I have entered a little compilation of the best clips below - check it out!

Posted by monkyhands 20:32 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur

Quick stop in Malaysias capital

rain 29 °C
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After Singapore, we headed to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia - this was simply a logistical move, as we could get a cheap flight from there to Manila. In KL, we met up with Jay and Milena again, they came down from Thailand. Oddly, it was raining here, even though it is well past monsoon season - they were calling it late monsoon - several months late in fact. Jay and Milena told us that it had been raining in Thailand as well- seems the seasons are well and truly screwed up around here.
KL, like Singapore, is full of malls. But unlike Singapore, it also has lots of street life and lots of character.

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We mostly ate from street vendors, who sell cheap, delicious meals here. Another note on hotels - we stayed at first in the Coliseum, which is dilapidated but with huge rooms. We then moved to Pondok Lodge - a hostel in the Golden Triangle area. Here, Milena and I started getting covered in itchy welts all over - at first I thought it was bed bugs again, but it started to spread into large red areas like an eczema, and Milena thought that it was some sort of skin parasite. Really horrible, and so itchy I could not sleep at all. So again - if you are heading to KL, I would stay away from Pondok Lodge!

Posted by monkyhands 11:31 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Singapore

Big City Blues

rain 30 °C
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From Chennai in India, we flew with Singapore Airlines’ budget subsidiary; Tiger Airways, to Singapore. It was almost a shock how clean and organised Singapore was, after spending so long in India. Indian cities more or less define chaos, whereas Singapore was order personified (if you can say that about a city). The city was full of malls - all of them huge and air-conditioned. It almost felt like the sidewalks were simply there to get you from one mall to another - there was no real life on the streets as such. A clean, efficient city characterised by high rises and futuristic buildings.

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In each mall, there was a food-court with cheap, decently edible food - mostly Chinese inspired, but also Indian and other styles. It was fairly easy to stay fed without breaking the budget - but it started to feel like you were eating in the same restaurant all the time. Even outside the malls, most of the restaurants seemed to have more or less the same menu. All in all, Singapore was certainly a relief after India and its mad cities, and it was a convenient and easy city to be in - but it began to feel almost soulless. There was not much character there, not much personality. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Singapore, but I did get a nagging sensation that something was missing. Maybe it was an after effect of India - maybe I had come to expect or even secretly enjoy chaos, I don’t know. I mean, Singapore did have some little details, like the small colonial buildings in Little India where we stayed, that made it more real, but overall, it seemed too organised for its own good.

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We stayed in the Prince of Wales pub and hostel - it seemed like a good idea at first, but it turned out to be infested with bed bugs, which left me looking like I had been attacked by a swarm of angry bees. So don’t go there if you ever head to Singapore.

Posted by monkyhands 11:11 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

The North-East, Kolkata and then Chennai

A splendid goodbye to India

all seasons in one day
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From Sasan Gir, we went up to Ahmedabad, and from there caught a direct train to Kolkata, clean across the country. In Ahmedabad, a hotel had collapsed near the station, and it was complete chaos. Apparently 15 people had been killed.

Kolkata, when we got there, was different to the other large Indian cities we had seen. Sure, it's dirty, loud and teeming with beggars, but there are some redeeming features. It has a more present colonial heritage than Mumbai, with lots of crumbling colonial buildings lining the streets. And though it has less glitter and glamor than Mumbai, it has instead a more intellectual feel. Bookshops everywhere, universities, students.

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We did a few days of volunteering for the Missionaries of Charity; Mother Teresa's organization. We helped out in a home they run for mentally disabled children. It was very simple and plain, without any luxuries, but the children seemed fairly well cared for. It was a brief experience, but rewarding and humbling all the same.

From Kolkata, we went to Darjeeling - former hill station and summer retreat for the British Raj. It sits on a mountain ridge at 2134 m. elevation (child's play after Bolivia). Darjeeling, of course, is famous for tea, and we certainly sampled lots of the local brew in the icy weather.
We went to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill, a famous view point, to see a majestic Himalayan sky line. Unfortunately, it was cloudy (very cloudy), and the sun rose as a pale disc in the grey, misty sky. We did get some clear, yet brief, stunning vistas of India's highest mountain (and third in the world I think) Kangchendzonga, as the clouds were blown away. So even without the famous panorama views, and the glimpse of Everest which you can get on a clear day, it was still worth it for the chance to see at least a tiny part of the Himalayas.

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In Darjeeling, we also visited a nice little Buddhist monastery. The colorful decorations, hand painted on the walls, were amazing. This area of India is strongly influenced by Buddhism, due partly to the large influx of Tibetan refugees. It was very interesting to see an example of another of India's great religions, and get a glimpse of a version of Buddhism which differs greatly from what we have seen in Thailand and Cambodia.

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All in all, Darjeeling was a charming, but freezing cold, little town, with a colonial history, its cute toy train from that era, and with a clear Himalayan history, in the form of its Mountaineering Institute founded by Tenzing Norgay (I think that's his name), who accompanied the English climber (don't remember his name) who was the first to climb Everest.

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After Darjeeling, we went to Assam to visit the Kaziranga National Park. This park is home to the majority of the remaining population of one-horned Indian Rhinos. Around 1800 of them live in this park - two-thirds of the world's total.
We went first on a morning safari, which involved riding trough the park on elephants. This was truly amazing. To feel that enormous animal moving, as you float on its back through the tall grass in the misty dawn. Truly lovely. There were several other groups of visitors, and so we made up a veritable herd of elephants stalking around the plains.

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We saw a huge male rhino close up straight away, and several others, including a mother and calf. The baby had yet to grow its horn, and looked quite comical.

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In the afternoon of the same day, we went on another safari, this time by jeep, in a different area of the park. Here we once again saw lots of rhinos - in fact, they were everywhere. It almost seems that the park is overpopulated with them - perhaps they should consider transferring some of them to other parks? Apart from the rhinos, we also saw some birds, and a weird giant squirrel. Lots of deer in the park, and we came across a ranger station where they had a new born elephant baby, which we got out of the car to say hello to. It was so cute! All in all, Kaziranga park made for a great experience.

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After the safaris, we stayed in the village of Kohora for a few days, and then went on to Guwahati, from where we caught a plane to Kolkata. We ended up staying in Guwahati a few days, even though it was a shit hole. We had planned to visit some other places in Assam, but there was a strike on, and no busses were running. So in order not to risk missing our flight, we stayed in town.

Back in Kolkata briefly, we went with a guy from the hotel to a poetry reading. Set on a breezy rooftop, it turned out to be a very interesting evening. It was held by a Bengali poetry group, and numerous poets got up to read a poem or two of their work. Some were in English, others in Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and other languages - a good example of how multi-lingual India really is, and another illustration of Kolkata's intellectual flavour.
We also went to see the Victoria Memorial. A huge marble building, shining white in the sunshine, it was built to commemorate Queen Victoria. It was impressive, and vaguely reminiscent of Taj Mahal, although not as airy or elegant.

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From Kolkata, I flew to Chennai, while Alan flew back to Goa to pick up the dive gear that we had left there. My few days alone in Chennai gave me a taste of what traveling in India as a single woman is like, and there was definitely a marked difference. I got stared at and followed down the street, and one guy nearly drove his bicycle into the ditch because he was craning his neck to stare at me. And I did get annoyed and tired of it, but I never felt unsafe or really threatened - just annoyed. There were always lots of other people in the streets, and I felt certain that if anything serious was to happen, someone would intervene. You can say a lot about India and Indians, and it is definitely a frustrating country, but for every annoying or rude person, there is one (or even two) who are kind and friendly, and who go out of their way to help you.
After a few days, Alan got here with the bags, and in two days we fly out to Singapore. So its now goodbye to India, and I must say that I have really enjoyed it. Amazing country, incredible India.

Posted by monkyhands 14:45 Archived in India Comments (1)

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