Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Last stop (in Asia): Hong Kong

Our last stop in Asia [sad face] was Hong Kong. We nearly didn't make it because, although we got to Manilla airport earlier than had been recommended, there was a queue for immigration which snaked through half of the airport and took 90 minutes to get through. If only there had been some sort of way for them to know how many people would be boarding planes at what times and staff the airport accordingly! Fortunately the plane was delayed to give everyone time to board, and the rest of the journey was problem free.

Our first taste of Hong Kong came from the bus from the airport. The multitude of skyscrapers on display was great, but I was most impressed by the high-tech bus that gave a sort of tour guide, announced each stop and stated which sights/hotel were near to each stop. We had decided to stay on the Kowloon Peninsular rather than Hong Kong island itself. For the first night we stayed in a pretty fancy hotel complete with a bathroom, mini-bar, overpriced nuts and other luxuries the likes of which we had not seen for months.

The following day usual service was resumed as we relocated to a tiny room without a bathroom that was more reasonably priced, and actually much better located as it was within walking distance of the harbour.  After checking in (and changing rooms after finding signs of bed-bugs) we took a stroll around Kowloon, which mostly consists of extremely high-end shops. At first it was quite good fun gawping through the window of the likes of Gucci, Prada and luxury watch and jewellery shops, but there is only so long one can window shop at places at which one will never be able to afford anything.

More interesting was the harbour and the famous Hong Kong skyline. It's easy to see why the skyline of Hong Kong island is so often preceded by the word 'famous” because it's rare for such a major city's skyline to be so easily visible without going to a viewing platform on top of a high tower. The other remarkable thing about the Hong Kong skyline is that behind the impressive tower blocks at the edge of the island is a sizable mountain covered with green trees. In fact, only 25% of Hong Kong is actually developed which gives it a rather odd mixture of some of the most densely populated and valuable real estate in the world right next to beautiful green slopes and a number of beaches.

I must admit that we didn't really make the most of Hong Kong. There is loads to do and see, but there was a definite air of lethargy about us. After 6 months of moving from place to place and trying to fit in as much as we could in each place, as well as the constant planning and organising that is necessary for that to happen, neither of us really wanted to make the effort to plan activities in our final Asian destination. As a result, we spent much of the following day wandering around the streets of Kowloon rather aimlessly. Now I like an aimless wander as much as the next man, but coming at the end of such a fantastic trip Hong Kong just lacked something to make it exciting. This certainly says more about us than it does about Hong Kong though, and anywhere with a Peanuts Cafe is ok in my book.

The day wasn't wasted though, as I did manage to trawl through a few of the numerous tailors in Kowloon and place an order for a tailored suit. I do intend to return to working at some point in the future! We did have plans to get lots of tailored clothes made in H.K. but it was actually much more expensive than we had anticipated so I ended up just buying one suit. I also checked out the notorious Chungking Mansions – a series of dilapidated former apartment complexes which are now home to the cheapest (and dirtiest) hotels in H.K. and just about any type of business you can think of, both legal and illegal. It definitely did have an elicit feel to it but it was a bit disappointing to be honest – although I expect that all the exciting stuff goes on behind closed doors. The most interesting thing about Chungking Mansions as far as I was concerned is how they somehow sit in such close proximity to the luxurious shops and hotels that surround them; fake watches being sold right next door to the real thing.

It hadn't felt like the most fun or exciting of days, but it was saved by a last-minute decision to take the ferry across to the island that evening. The views of the city from the ferry crossing were great, and it felt good to have a sense of purpose. We couldn't spend much time on the island that evening, but we did have time to enjoy the efficiency of the elevated walkways that can be used to walk around a large part of the city, the close-up views of the architecture, and some fantastic food before catching the last ferry back to Kowloon.

The following day we headed back to Hong Kong Island and after a lengthy queue took the a tram up to one of the highest points on the island to enjoy the fantastic views. It really is quite bizarre to see areas of natural beauty right next to densely packed office blocks.

We also bumped into a familiar face up there.

After enjoying the fresh air and scenery we headed back down and wandered around the city streets for a while, checking out the architecture in daylight.


We also took a stroll through one of Hong Kong's many urban parks which included an impressive aviary. I do have to hand it to the Hong Kong authorities – the land on Hong Kong Island is so valuable that it must be extremely tempting to sell it off to the highest bidder, and yet this has been resisted to ensure that there are plenty of open areas throughout the city. In fact 40% of the island is protected as country parks and nature reserves. This, combined with the elevated walkways, give Hong Kong a much more spacious feel than I was expecting. Unfortunately we couldn't stay on the island for the evening as I had to get back to Kowloon for a suit fitting.

Monique may have been disappointed to find tailored clothes to be more expensive than expected in H.K. (and to be honest the tailors were firmly geared towards male customers) but she did manage to find some affordable shopping before we left. We took the subway inland to the area of Kowloon that is renowned for its fabric. Although we arrived to find that most of the shops and stalls were closed for the day due to a national holiday of some sort, Monique still managed to find some great fabric and buttons which she will turn into tailored clothing by her own fair hand. I'm sure that whatever Monique makes will be extra special to her due to where the fabric came from.

Hong Kong was an enjoyable enough stay, albeit far from a highlight of our trip. It is certainly an interesting place with a mixture of high-rise office blocks, high-end shopping, open space, and downright dodgy apartment blocks all thrown together in a small area. It would undoubtedly be a great place to visit for someone with money to splash around, but even then I don't think it would justify visiting H.K. in isolation. Like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Hong Kong would be a good place to spend a couple of days en route to somewhere else in Asia, but for us at the tail-end of our trip it felt a bit too tame but without some of the comforts that we were looking forward to getting back to. Maybe if it had been our first port of call we would have found H.K. to be a hectic city full of interesting sights, sounds and smells, but after seeing everything that we have seen on this tip those sort of sights, sounds and smells had become a bit...normal.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Far from a thriller in Manilla

Given that it had taken us two days to get up to the highlands from Manilla it was always going to be a long journey back to Manilla for the last time. First we took a jeepney out of Banaue. Unfortunately they never remain this spacious.

The jeepney was supposed to take us straight to where we could get a bus, but dropped us off in a random town because it was having mechanical problems. After a bit of a search we managed to find another jeepney that was going in the direction we wanted, and were able to squeeze in. I'm sure it was full when we got in, but about 6 or 8 more passengers boarded after us.  With some help from the friendly locals we got off at a roadside restaurant where we were assured the buses to Manilla would stop as they pass.  We killed some time by chatting to a group of local kids who were clearly intrigued by the tall pale people and so approached us and asked “Hello...why are you here?”. We gave them some playing cards that we hadn't actually used all trip, but they seemed more interested in playing some very random videos on a mobile phone.

I think the phone may have belonged to the father of one of the kids, because the title of more than one video stored on it included a western female name followed by the number 18!

After a fairly long wait a bus headed to Manilla finally stopped, and we were happy to find that there were some empty seats. The journey to Manilla was supposed to take about 7-8 hours, but due to the wet weather actually took about 10 hours or so. This little fella seemed to find us interesting for the whole journey, and it appeared that he would never get bored of playing peek-a-boo no matter how long the journey was.

Although the journey was long and not particularly pleasant, things went downhill when we arrived in Manilla. It was late and pouring with rain when we arrived, but we managed to hail a taxi before we got too wet and were taken to a hotel where we thought we had a reservation, only to be told in a rather unfriendly fashion that they had no record of our reservation by the receptionist who showed no interest in helping us find an alternative. We had little choice but to don our ponchos and braved the rain by foot; fortunately we were able to find a hotel with a room available and, in the circumstances, were able to overlook the slightly sleazy feel to the hotel and the rat that scurried through the reception.

So far, almost everything about the Philippines (apart from the weather) had been wonderful – beautiful, friendly, relaxed, clean, interesting, cheap. It turns out that that's because all the bad stuff in the Philippines is focused in Manilla. Manilla is busy, noisy, dirty and unfriendly. We hadn't seen any homeless people anywhere else in the Philippines, or had anyone ask us for money (apart from some cheeky children) but in the area around our hotel alone there were lots of homeless people and beggars, including whole families huddled under blankets. For the first time in the Philippines it was unpleasant to walk down the street.

Fortunately we had heard in advance that Manilla wasn't a great place, and so we had planned to make our stay there as short as possible (you may have noticed that on the two prior occasions we had passed through the capital we did so without stopping at all). We didn't do any sightseeing (I'm not sure if there are any real sights to see) but did find a good dental clinic where we both got some cheap dental work done, before eating and heading to the airport to catch our flight to Hong Kong.

As you may have gathered, Monique and I are really quite fond of the Philippines. Despite the fact that the weather had been pretty awful for the majority of our time there, and had actually prevented us from doing some things that we were really keen on doing and had prevented us moving around as we would have liked, we have completely fallen for the beauty and friendliness of the Philippines. It is definitely a country that we will be revisiting. In a way it's a good thing that we disliked Manilla so much, because if it hadn't been for that it may have been too difficult for us to actually leave.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Beautiful Banaue

From Sagada we took two jeepney journeys south east to Banaue (pronounced Ban-ow-ee) via Bontoc (our second brief stop there). The scenery on the journey was really great, although unfortunately jeepneys (U.S. Military trucks left over from WWII which cram far too many people into the back on two wooden benches) are not particularly suitable for admiring the scenery.

Banaue itself is a tiny town (although bigger than Sagada) situated on the slopes of the surrounding hills which would have made it quite picturesque if the weather hadn't been so bad while we were there. As ever in the Philippines, we weren't there for the town itself but rather for the beauty surrounding the town; in Banaue's case the beauty takes the form of the Ifugao rice terraces.

We had previously seen rice terraces in lots of different places, most notably in Vietnam, Laos, Nepal and elsewhere in the Philippines. However, the rice terraces around Banaue were built around 2,000 years ago, extend several thousand feet upwards in some places, and if placed end to end would apparently go half way around the world. Not just any old rice terraces! In fact the terraces are a UNESCO world heritage site and some of the locals refer to them as the 8th Wonder of the World.

In the first of two trips to view the rice terraces we took a tricycle up one of the nearby mountains to take in the views from three different points. For a change I'll let the photos do the talking.

On our second trip we went a little further afield to take a closer look at the terraces. The journey there was quite long, but felt much longer because it was so uncomfortable. Firstly, although we regularly saw tricycles transporting 4 children (plus an adult driver, thankfully) they are clearly not sized to fit one western-sized adult, let alone two. I'm not sure if I've explained what the most common form of public transport in the Philippines looks like, but it's essentially a small side-car with two wheels attached to a motorbike. Here is one being modelled by Monique:

Secondly the road we took up the mountain was pretty bumpy at the best of times, but it hardly resembled a road at all when we were there because extensive road works were in progress. This meant that periodically the road became nothing more than a construction zone, and on several occasions we had no choice but to get out and walk to enable the tricycle to make progress. This photo betrays how spectacularly uncomfortable it was.

All the discomfort was forgotten, however, when we arrived at our destination and saw some more beautiful views.


We then took a walk through the terraces themselves, balancing along the ancient walls which make the sides of the terraces. It was really remarkable to see them up close, and really brought it home how every single one of the terraces that we had seen from a distance was a great deal of work to make, and no doubt to maintain. We weren't in Banaue at the best time because the rice had already been harvested so the terraces were more brown than green, and we saw very few people out working. I can only imagine how spectacular it would look with 1,000s of workers harvesting the rice.


After walking through the terraces for a while we passed through a tiny village made up of just a few buildings. Just the other side of the village was a natural hot spring which the villagers had erected a low wall around to collect the water and turn it into a basic spa. The water was only about a foot deep, but we took a deserved rest and soaked our feet while chatting to our guide who showed us how the locals use a certain type of stone found locally to wash their feet. It felt really good!

After relaxing at the hot spring for a while it started to look like it was going to rain so we made our way back through the terraces, and reluctantly got back into the tricycle for the bumpy return journey.

The rice terraces were undoubtedly spectacular; the photos really don't do them justice. The Philippines really is one of the most beautiful countries we have visited (and that's a lot of countries when you think that the Philippines was number 50 for Monique!), and the area around Banaue is a beautiful area of the country. I'm not sure that the billing of the rice terraces as the 8th Wonder of the World is entirely justified (although we only saw a tiny fraction of them, and we didn't have time to make it to the most spectacular terraces which require a 2-3 day trip from Banaue due to the remote location), but they are certainly a stunning sight and after seeing them up close it is apparent that they are comparable to the Great Pyramids in terms of the amount of sheer hard work that has gone into making them.

We had time for a spot of souvenir shopping to pick up some mementos of our time in such an amazing country, before reluctantly making our way back south to Manilla.