Ngong Ping 360 (Hong Kong)

On board the Ngong Ping 360 cable car.  L-R: Bryan, the author, Kyle, Jandy, Cheska and Grace

Our fourth day in Hong Kong was reserved for Ngong Ping 360, which consists of a continuous circulating bi-cable aerial ropeway gondola lift system (referred to by its operators as a “cable car”) ride and a themed Ngong Ping Village, plus its nearby sites such as the Tian Tan Buddha (Big Buddha), Po Lin Monastery, and the Tai O Fishing Village .

Check out “Ngong Ping Village” and “Tai O Fishing Village

The long queue for tickets at Tung Chung Terminal

From Yau Ma Tei Station, we all took the Tsuen Wan line to Lai King where we transferred to the Tung Chung line (Orange Line) and got off at Tung Chung Station. As we all had an Octopus card (their equivalent of Singapore’s EZ-link card) plus Cheska easily found our way around on the MTR, getting there was a breeze. The whole trip took all of 40 mins., passing 9 stations along the way.

Getting our passes at the exclusive Klook VIP counter

Once we got to Tung Chung station, we followed the signage out of the station (Exit B).  Past Citygate Outlets, we found the Ngong Ping 360 cable car terminal. When we got there, the queue was long, with long waiting times, for those purchasing tickets on the spot even if this this was on a Wednesday afternoon. I could only imagine how bad it can get during peak periods. Lucky for us, Cheska used Klook to get us cheaper cable car tickets.  At the Klook VIP counter, she simply flashed the e-voucher to redeem our physical ticket.

At the shorter queue for Crystal Cabin passengers

Once again, in order to avoid long queues, Cheska got us round trip tickets costing HK$210 each on Klook versus HK$255 on the official Ngong Ping 360’s website (tickets available two weeks in advance) which Cheska found reliable and easy to use, especially with her mobile app.

A set of cable cars

Her choice of the crystal cabin (the cable car with a glass bottom) was deliberate as the snaking queue for the standard, non-glass-bottomed cabin, though a fair bit cheaper, tended to be far longer. This turned out to be true. Both sets of cabins circulate on the same cable but their passengers are segregated by queuing systems at both terminals.

Kyle seated on the transparent, 3-layer, 5 cm. thick glass bottom of our cable car

Past the queue, we got on the cable car.  As they usually try to fit in about 7–8 people per cabin (and standing room for another 7) and our group was smaller than that, a couple joined us in our cabin.

Yat Tung Estate on Lantau Island

It was to be a 25-minute, 5.7-km. (3.5 mi.) ride to Ngong Ping Village.  The system has a capacity of 3,500 people per hour in each direction.

Ngong Ping Cable Car Angle Station

The lift system runs across eight towers (including the stations) with five of the towers located within the country park. From Tung Chung Terminal, our cable car ran across Tung Chung Bay to Airport Island Angle Station on Chek Lap Kok, where it turns through about 60 degrees before returning across Tung Chung Bay.

Ngong Ping 360’s magnificent views

It then ran up the Lantau North Country Park to another angle station near Nei Lak Shan (Nei Lak Shan Angle Station), before finally descending to the Ngong Ping Terminal.

Hong Kong International Airport

It changed direction twice at the two angle stations, one on the south shore of Chek Lap Kok; the other west of Nei Lak Shan within the Lantau North Country Park.

Boardwalk at Lantau North Country Park

Waterfall at Lantau North Country Park

During the 25 minute journey, we had a stunning bird’s eye view, from our windows as well as from our transparent, three-layer 5 cm. thick glass floor, over the verdant landscape of North Lantau Country Park, the South China Sea, the southern shore of Hong Kong International Airport, the Tung Chung valley, Ngong Ping Plateau and surrounding terrain and waterways. As we approached Ngong Ping, we saw The Big Buddha and the Po Lin Monastery.

Kaido cruising Tung Chung Bay

Ngong Ping Cable Car: Runs daily, 10 AM to 6 PM.

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor (Maryland, USA)

Inner Harbor

The Inner Harbor District, a historic seaporttourist attraction and landmark of the city, is located within walking distance of Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium, at the mouth of Jones Falls, creating the wide and short northwest branch of the Patapsco River.

The name “Inner Harbor” includes any water west of a line drawn between the foot of President Street and the American Visionary Art Museum plus the surrounding area within the approximate street boundaries of President Street to the east, Lombard Street to the north, Greene Street to the west, and Key Highway on the south.

The author (lower right corner) walking along the waterfront

The Inner Harbor, with its historically shallow water (prior to manipulation through dredging), was not conducive to large ships or heavy industry and, in the 1950s, suffered from the economic decline with the arrival of container ships after World War II as well as restructuring common to many industrial cities in the United States, ending both its freight and passenger use.

Jandy crossing a pedestrian bridge

To reverse the city’s decline and reconnect Baltimore with its waterfront, the Inner Harbor was gradually transformed with award-winning parks and plazas surrounded by office buildings, hotels and leisure attractions, starting with the adoption of the 13 hectare (33-acre) Charles Center project.

Children frolicking at a fountain

Between 1958 and 1965, Baltimore renewed this center of its business district with office buildings, hotels and retail shops. In 1963, the redevelopment program was expanded to include 97 hectares (240 acres) surrounding the Inner Harbor with corporate headquarters and hotels being built around the shoreline, with a public park and promenade added for leisure activity and community gatherings.

Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Following the U.S. Bicentennial, other tourist attractions were developed such as the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Harbor Place Festival Marketplace (opened on July 4, 1980 and operated by The Rouse Company). The nearby Baltimore Convention Center and Hyatt Regency Baltimore Hotel added to the services, resulting in increased population density and attracting a huge number of tourists.

In recent years, Inner Harbor East, the area along the waterfront to the east of the Inner Harbor (in the direction of Fells Point and Little Italy), has been developed with mixed-use developments incorporating office space, condominiums, street-level retail space, restaurants and hotels.

In the 1970s and 1980s, with the success of the renewal of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the city became a worldwide tourist destination and a model of urban renaissance, planning and development in cities around the world, influencing more than 100 other cities and winning more than 40 national or international awards.  In 1984, the American Institute of Architects cited it as “one of the supreme achievements of large-scale urban design and development in U.S. history. In 2009, the Urban Land Institute described it as “the model for post-industrial waterfront redevelopment around the world.”

Federal Hill Park

Federal Hill Park (300 Warren Ave.), a former lookout during the War of 1812 and the Civil War located on the south side of the Inner Harbor, allows visitors to take in ​a dramatic view of Baltimore’s cityscape from the top of the hill.

National Aquarium in Baltimore

The National Aquarium in Baltimore (501 E. Pratt St., Pier 3 and Pier 4, Inner Harbor) has a collection of more than 16,500 specimens representing 660 species, with exhibits including a multi-storey Atlantic coral reef, an open ocean shark tank, a 4-D immersion theater, a tropical rain forest, a glass pavilion with Australian wildlife, and a mammal pavilion that holds Atlantic bottlenose dolphins.

Check out “National Aquarium in Baltimore

Sloop-of-War USS Constellation

The Historic Ships in Baltimore (Piers 1, 3, and 5) features four historic ships permanently docked in the harbor that visitors can climb aboard and experience – the USS Constellation (first launched in 1854, it is the only Civil War-era ship still afloat), USCGC Taney (last fighting ship still afloat that survived the attack on Pearl Harbor), the USS Torsk (a Tench-class submarine, it is the last ship to sink an enemy vessel in World War II) and the Lightship Chesapeake (a U.S. Coast Guard lightship from the 1930s) plus the Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse.

Check out “The Historic Ships of Baltimore,” “USS Constellation Museum”  and “USCGC Taney

Harborplace and the Gallery

Harborplace and the Gallery (Light and Pratt Sts.) are two pavilions with a mix of local and national restaurants and stores, plus Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium (has 500 of Ripley’s trademark “oddities” in seven different galleries, plus a mirror maze and a 4-D movie theater)

Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium

Maryland Science Center (601 Light St.) has 3 levels of exhibits, a planetarium, and an IMAX theater plus a special exhibit on blue crabs.

Maryland Science Center

Top of the World (401 E. Pratt St.) an observation deck on the 27th floor of the Baltimore World Trade Center, offers sweeping a 360-degree birds-eye views of the city. On the pedestrian promenade outside the building is a memorial to the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Baltimore World Trade Center

Port Discovery Children’s Museum (35 Market Place), on the site of the historic Baltimore Fish Market, is a children’s museum with a three-story jungle gym specifically designed for kids ages 2-10.

Holocaust Memorial

American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway), a mosaic-clad museum, has a  collection of offbeat, innovative art produced by self-taught individuals, plus free outdoor movies and the Kinetic Sculpture Race.

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture

The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African-American History and Culture (830 E. Pratt St.), the largest of its kind on the East Coast, is dedicated to preserving the stories of the Maryland African American community, past and present.

Baltimore Civil War Museum

Baltimore Museum of Industry (1415 Key Highway), located in an old cannery, holds exhibits on various types of manufacturing and industry from the early 20th century. one of its star attractions is the Baltimore, the oldest surviving steam tugboat and a National Historic Landmark.

Baltimore Visitors Center

The Baltimore Visitor Center (401 Light St.), just north of the Maryland Science Center, has touch-screen kiosks that tell visitors where to go, and staff can help clue you into events happening in the city. It also has public restrooms inside.

Philips Seafood

Power Plant Live! (601 E Pratt St.), the former Pratt Street Power Plant  located 2 blocks north of the Inner Harbor, is an entertainment complex that comes alive at night with bars,  clubs, restaurants and music venues that includes Phillips Seafood, Rams Head Live!,  Hard Rock Cafe (opened July 4, 1997) plus Barnes & Noble and Maryland Art Place (a contemporary art gallery for Maryland artists).

Hard Rock Cafe

Other places to visit here include the Lloyd Street Synagogue (the third-oldest synagogue in the United States, now the Jewish Museum of Maryland), Civil War Museum (President Street Station), Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, Dr. Samuel D. Harris Museum of Dentistry (University of Maryland), Babe Ruth birthplace and museum, Oriole Park at Camden Yards (home of the Baltimore Orioles), Camden Yards Sports Complex, Columbus Center (home of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute), Bnai Israel (a Moorish Revival synagogue now open as a museum), Holocaust Memorial  (E Lombard and S Gay St.), Lockwood Place, Geppi’s Entertainment Museum (a privately owned pop culture museum at Camden Station opened last September 2006), M&T Bank Stadium (home of the Baltimore Ravens), Royal Farms Arena and the Pier Six Pavilion (a music venue at 731 Eastern Ave.)

Pier Six Pavilion

Blue and white water taxis (US&6-12), from 17 locations, connect passengers from the Inner Harbor to Fells PointCanton, and Fort McHenry.

Check out “Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine – Birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner

Water Taxi

You can explore the Inner Harbor on a traditional paddle boat (US$12 per half-hour rental) or the colorful Chesapeake Bay ‘Chessie’ Monster (US version of Scotland’s ‘Nessie,’ US$20 per half-hour rental),  both classic childhood favorites. Both boats hold up to four occupants. If you don’t feel like paddling, there’s the electric boat (half-hour rental – US$10 for one person or US$15 for two).

Cheska, Jandy, Grace and Kyle in a Chessie

Visitors can also explore the harbor via the red and purple-bottomed Cruises on the Bay by Watermark (US$6-17) and the larger yacht Spirit of Baltimore (US$42 and up); the bright yellow speedboats of Seadog Cruises (US$20 range) and the wood-paneled pirate ship The Fearless by Urban Pirates (US$20-25).

Spirit of Baltimore

Cruise ships also offer narrated, 45-min. tours of the Inner Harbor where you’ll learn about the city’s maritime and industrial history as well as the resurgence of the waterfront, Federal Hill, and Fells Point.  You can also avail of 60-min. tours focusing on Fort McHenry, 90-min. cocktail cruises and spectacular 60-min. “city lights” tours. 

Kampong Ayer (Brunei)

Kampong Ayer - The Water Village

Kampong Ayer – The Water Village

This Water Village (MalayKampung Air), along the banks of the Sungai Brunei (Brunei River), is an area situated over Brunei Bay that is home to a sizable population of 39,000, representing roughly 10% of the nation’s total population.  The district, a culturally important part of Brunei that preserves the nation’s river dwelling origins, has a unique architectural heritage of wooden homes with ornate interiors.

The mainland jetty

The mainland jetty

Built entirely of stilt houses and wooden walkways, it is the world’s largest water village and the most famous water settlement of Southeast Asia.  One of the most important centers of trade in Borneo, people have lived in Kampong Ayer for over 1,300 years. When the fleet of Ferdinand Magellan visited in 1521, Venetian scholar Antonio Pigafetta dubbed it the “Venice of the East.” Kampong Ayer has been the capital of the Brunei Sultanate for hundreds of years.

The modern-looking, 20-pax bot penambang (covered water taxis)

Boarding our modern-looking, 20-pax bot penambang (covered water taxi)

The author (right) with members of BEAT

The author (right) with members of BEAT (led by president Mr. York Virtucio at left) on board our water taxi

The establishment of the land town, acting as a population magnet, did not lead to its depopulation and arrival of new residents and natural increase maintained the population balance. Most of Kampong Ayer had survived heavy World War II bombardment. Around 2013-2014, smart new, two story stilt houses made of concrete were built in the center of the Kampong Ayer and given to the people in need of a new house but not wishing to live on land. Even today, many Bruneians still prefer the lifestyle of the water village to residency on dry land.

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View of the mainland

The villages on the river’s north bank (the same side as the city center) used to cover a much larger area, but many of the stilt houses have been razed to spruce up the waterfront area around the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

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Entering the narrow waterway

We were to have a personal experience of this heritage as we took one of the many 20-pax bot penambang (modern-looking, covered water taxis) that provide rapid transit daily between the Yayasan Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, in the center of town, and the water village itself. Our private water taxis resembled a long wooden speedboat. Before leaving the jetty, we all wore life jackets.

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A foot bridge

The Water Village is really made up of a cluster of 42 small, contiguous and relatively cramped stilt villages (kampongs) linked together by more than 29,140 m. of foot-bridges.

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This self-contained, close-knit community consists of over 4,200 structures, including homes, mosques, restaurants, shops, schools and a hospital, all interconnected by maze of 36 kms. of boardwalks. All of the six water village mukims (districts) are collectively known as the water village (Kampong Ayer) but, for administrative purposes, are identified as separate mukims.

mosque

One of two mosques

fire-department

The marine fire brigade

From a distance the water village looked like a slum but it actually enjoys modern amenities. The government, through the District Office, has provided it with numerous facilities including foot-bridges, concrete jetties, piped water, plumbing, electricity, telephones, schools, two mosques, clinics, seafood restaurants, a police station, a museum and a marine fire station.

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A colorfully painted house on stilts

Many of the houses also have air conditioning, satellite television and internet access. Some of the residents even keep potted plants, in container gardens, and raise chickens. They even say that if you look at the main roads on the banks opposite the village, you’ll see luxury cars lined up on the shoulder of the road.  Many of these cars belong to water-village residents.

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A village jetty

The wooden, sun-bleached houses, painted with shades of green, blue, pink and yellow, have not been done-up for tourists. From afar, we could see the 30 km. long Temburong Bridge, which is still under construction (it is expected to be completed in 2019), and the golden roof of the largest residential place in the world, the Sultan’s Istana Nurul Iman.  We made our first and only stopover at a village jetty.  Getting off the boat was an adventure on its own as we had to climb some worn-out concrete steps.

A second mosque

A second mosque

The unfinished Temburong Bridge

The unfinished Temburong Bridge

Upon reaching the top of the jetty, we walked along a treacherous, banister-less boardwalk, some with loose or missing planks, again another adventure by itself. Walking along these planked walkways (a bit of balance is required) while observing the various homes is probably what draws visitors here. However, while the houses were far from squalid, we noticed rubbish floating or carpeting the inter-tidal mud at low tide. For an apparently affluent country like Brunei which could afford to tidy it up, it was disgusting and disappointing.

Climbing the stairs up the jetty

Climbing the stairs up the jetty

We finally arrived at a local concrete home which was way too nice to be anything close to an authentic village house. The entry hall even had a chandelier. Just like in a mosque, we had to remove our shoes before entering.  Inside, there were lots of tourists like us. Obviously, it’s part of the tourist trail.  There, a good refreshment was served – 3 kinds of colorful kuih bingka, a local traditional sweet cake, plus tea. Our snack here capped our Water Village tour and we again made our back to our boat for the trip back to the mainland.

Traversing the wooden boardwalk

Traversing the wooden boardwalk

Removing our shoes prior to entering

Removing our shoes prior to entering

Our tour of the nondescript Kampong Ayer wasn’t really a visit into the past. Rather, it was just a peek into the everyday lives of some very friendly Bruneians while seeing some of the changes that has taken place over the last thousand years or so. Interesting but not amazing. Venice it isn’t by a mile.

Three different kinds of kuih bingka

Three different kinds of kuih bingka

Kampong Ayer: Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei.  Kampong Ayer is accessible by boat or land bridges. To get across the river, just stand somewhere where a water taxi can dock and flag one down (the fare is B$1, one way). To get to these villages from the Yayasan Complex, itself built on the site of a one-time water village, follow the plank walks, behind the Hua Ho Department Store, that lead west, parallel to the river.

Seine River Cruise (Paris, France)

Seine River Sightseeing Cruise via Bateaux Parisiens

After our morning tour of the Eiffel Tower, we made our way, by foot, to the boat docking station at Port de la Bourdonnais where we hopped aboard a popular and modern Bateaux Parisiens glass-topped trimaran  to embark on a quintessential, scenic and leisurely cruise along the Seine riverbanks.

Port de la Bourdonnai

Bateaux Parisiens trimaran

All aboard …..

Bateaux Parisiens has a fleet of four trimarans, three named after legendary French actresses (Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani and Jeanne Moreau) and another after a French businessman (Pierre Bellon). They each hold up to 600 passengers.

The author

Our trimaran, with terrace and exterior passageways, was well equipped, clean and well maintained, with plenty of outdoor seating at the upper deck.

Jandy and Grace

The company also has nine smaller boats, some of which are used for dinner cruises and private events.  They offer high priced lunch and dinner, to the sound of the resident band, with a choice of four different a la carte menus, on separate restaurant boats.  All boats follow the same 12-km. long route.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Eiffel Tower

Louvre Museum

Grand Palais

A fantastic introduction to the highlights and magic of Paris, we soaked up the passing sights of iconic, world-famous monuments and landmarks as we cruised up and down  the Seine River.

Musee d’Orsay

National Museum of the Legion of Honor and Orders of Chivalry

National Assembly

Registry of the Paris Commercial Court

On the left bank are the Notre Dame Cathedral, the National Museum of the Legion of Honor and Orders of Chivalry, Conciergerie, National Assembly, Les Invalides, the Institut de France, and the Musée d’Orsay.

Paris City Hall

Institut de France

Hotel Dieu

 

Paris Conceiregerie

On the right bank, during the return trip, are the Louvre,  the Grand Palais, the Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, Tuileries Garden, the Paris City Hall, and the Eiffel Tower.

Pont Neuf

Pont Alexandre III

Pont au Double

Pont de la Tournelle

We also glided beneath beautiful historic bridges (more than 30 bridges span the river), including the famous Pont Neuf. Even the Seine riverbanks, collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991, are a sight to behold.

Pont de Sully

Pont de l’Archevêché

Pont des Invalides

Pont d’Iéna

Pont Marie

Pont Saint Louis

After half an hour, our boat turned around and cruised back up along the opposite bank. Our 1-hour cruise ends back at the original departure point near the Eiffel Tower.

Passerelle Debilly

Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor

Bateaux Parisiens: Pontoon 3, Port de la Bourdonnais, 75007 Paris, France. Tel: +33 825 01 01 01 and +33 1 76 64 14 66.  Open 9:30 AM – 10 PM. Website: www.bateauxparisiens.com. Admission: adults (€15), children under 12 yrs. (€7), free for children under 3 years old. Ticket will be valid for one year at any given time. Departures: April to September (from 10:15 AM -10:30 PM, every 30 mins., no departures at 1:30 PM and 7:30 PM), October to March (from 11 AM -8:30 PM, at least every hour). Book online in advance to avoid queues. The boat also departs from Notre Dame Cathedral. Audio guide commentary with musical accompaniment, from a handset, available in 13 languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, American, Russian, Dutch, Polish, Chinese, Japanese and Korean). Smoking is not allowed on the boat and animals are not permitted on board.

How to Get There: Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel (RER C) 5 . Nearest metro: Trocadero or Bir Hakeim

Buenavista View Deck (Puerto Princesa City, Palawan)

Sheridan Beach Resort & Spa Media Tour

An invitation, from Mr. Pete Dacuycuy, to join a media team covering the 2-storey, 4-star and eco-friendly and nature-inspired Sheridan Beach Resort & Spa allowed me to reconnect with Palawan, my last visit there being in 1993 during a vacation to Club Paradise Resort in Coron.  It would also be my first visit to Puerto Princesa City.  Joining me and Pete were food blogger Ms. Joy Calipes-Felizardo (www.gastronomybyjoy.com), professional photographer P.J. Enriquez, free-lance travel writer Lester Gopela Hallig and Ms. Charmie Joy Pagulong of The Philippine Star.  We all took the very early 5:20 AM Philippine Airlines flight from NAIA Terminal III.

Buenavista View Deck

Buenavista View Deck

We arrived at Puerto Princesa Airport by 6:40 AM and were whisked, via the resort’s Toyota Grandia van, on a 75-km./2-hour drive through a winding, concrete zigzag road. Just 45 mins. from the resort, we made one stopover at Buenavista View Deck, along a high section of the road to Sabang.

Eatery and souvenir shop

Eatery and souvenir shop

Souvenir shop
It is part of the Community Based Sustainable Tourism program initiated by the Puerto Princesa City Government that aims to provide additional livelihood for locals residing in economically-marginalized communities.
Spectacular view of Ulugan Bay

Spectacular view of Ulugan Bay

A popular stop over for tourists going to Puerto Princesa Underground River and Sabang Beach, it has an elevated concrete observation deck. Climbing the view deck, we had spectacular and relaxing views of Ulugan Bay, a deep channel on the northwestern coast of Puerto Princesa, Rita Island, the rocky outcrops of Tres Marias and Oyster Bay.  Portions of the karst formations of St. Paul’s can be viewed over the intervening areas of dense forests in the north.

Bags

Bags

Hats and caps

Hats and caps

Bracelets

Bracelets

There’s also a small eatery which sells meals and light snacks and a souvenir shop which displays and sells locally made wood carvings (masks, walking canes, chaku, police batons, etc.), baskets, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, rings, hats, T-shirts, ref magnets and key chains.

Chaku and walking canes

Chaku and walking canes

Police batons

Police batons

Corn coffee and honey

Corn coffee and honey

They also sell local food products such as bottled honey, cashew nuts and corn coffee.

Wooden masks

Wooden masks

Baskets

Baskets

Rainmakers

Rainmakers

Buenavista View Deck: Brgy. Buenavista, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.

Sighnaghi: City of Love (Georgia)

After our short stopover at the venerated Bodbe Monastery, we continued on our GNTA-sponsored tour, proceeding on a short 2-km. drive to the town center of Sighnaghi.  We arrived at the town by 11:30 AM and alighted at a park with a monument to Georgian philosopher, journalist, historian and native son Solomon Dodashvili (May 17, 1805 – August 20, 1836).

Postcard-pretty Sighnaghi

Postcard-pretty Sighnaghi (photo: Ms. Riva Galveztan)

Other famous sons of the town include composer Vano Sarajishvili, political figure Sandro Mirianashvili and world-renowned primitivist painter Niko Pirosmani. We were to have lunch at Pheasant’s Tears but, as we still had some time to spare, our Georgian guide  Sopho Makashvili took us on a walking tour around the town.

Monument to native son Solomon Dogashvili

Monument to native son Solomon Dogashvili (photo: Ms. Riva Galveztan)

Sighnaghi, located in Georgia’s easternmost region of Kakheti, is the administrative center of the Sighnaghi district and one of the country’s smallest (2.978 km²) towns (2002 population: 2,146).  One of Georgia’s leading trading centers in the 19th century,  Sighnaghi’s economy is dominated by the production of wine, leather, gobelin tapestry, woodcarving, metal craft, ceramics, traditional carpets and traditional food.

Uniquely designed terrace architecture of the town

Uniquely designed terrace architecture of the town

The town and its environs, also known for their landscapes and historical monuments, has recently undergone a fundamental reconstruction and has become an important part of the Georgian tourism industry (it is now known as the “City of Love”).  The town is also the jump-off point for exploring the lush vineyards of Kakheti, the cradle of wine (Georgia boasts of 500 varieties of grapes, more than anywhere else in the world).

The author exploring part of Sighnaghi's defensive wall and towers

Exploring part of Sighnaghi’s defensive wall and towers (photo: Ms. Riva Galveztan)

The town was developed in the early 18th century by the king Erekle II (Heraclius II) as a refuge for the population against Lezgin and Persian attack, hence the name sighnaghi which comes from the Azeri word signak meaning “shelter.” In 1762, he sponsored the construction of the town and erected a fortress to defend the area from marauding attacks by Dagestan tribesmen.  The 4.5 m. high, 1.5 m. wide and 4.5 km. long city wall, one of the biggest in Georgia, has 23 towers, each named after local villages the town is surrounded by, and 6 entrances.

Our guide Sopho Makashvili, Riva Galvezltan, the author and Consul Buddy Cunanan

Our guide Sopho Makashvili, Riva Galvezltan, the author and Consul Buddy Cunanan (photo: Ms. Riva Galveztan)

Sopho showed us, from afar, the section of the city’s defensive wall that has been restored for tourism and we climbed one of the towers for a panoramic view of the town.  Walking along the town’s narrow cobblestone streets, I was also enthralled by the uniquely designed terrace architecture of the 2 to 3-storey tiled-roof houses of Sighnaghi, the majority of which still date back from 17th, 18th and 19th century.  Built with fine Georgian brick, they were built to accommodate a variety of stores and workshops, above which are wooden, lacy balconies and bow-backed windows.  The town also has a beautiful fountain.

A beautiful fountain

A beautiful fountain

Consul Buddy Cunanan and I also observed a number of Georgian men playing nardi (backgammon). Popular in Georgia, men, women, children and the elderly all know how to play it, and just about every family owns a backgammon set. They say that life in Georgia is like a game of backgammon – people tend to approach life like a game of chance.

Georgian men playing backgammon in the open

Georgian men playing nardi (backgammon) in the open (photo: Ms. Riva Galveztan)

We also visited the town’s market, near the town hall, where fresh fruits and vegetables, locally made Georgian red (saperavi) and white wine and the clear and strong chacha (Georgian pomace brandy); natural honey; churchkhela (the traditional type of Georgian candy from the Caucasus region also referred to as the Georgian “Snickers”) and cheeses.  Buddy and I each tried out a glass of Georgian wine.

An array of products sold at the market

An array of products sold at the market (photo: Ms. Riva Galveztan)

There are also Georgian spice and spice mixes such as khmeli suneli (a powdered herb/spice mixture), adjika (a spicy paste or sauce seasoned with hot chili peppers) and pilpili (pepper) plus a picturesque array of knitted goods (Georgian socks with traditional patterns, local wool, hats, scarves, slippers, baby booties, etc.) for sale at cheap prices.

The town hall with its distinctive clock tower

The town hall with its distinctive clock tower

Georgia National Tourism Administration: 4, Sanapiro St, 0105, Tbilisi, Georgia. Tel: +995 32 43 69 99. E-mail: info@gnta.ge. Website: www.georgia.travel; www.gnta.ge.

Qatar Airways has daily flights from Diosdado Macapagal International Airport (Clark, Pampanga) to Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia) with stopovers at Hamad International Airport (Doha, Qatar, 15 hrs.) and Heydar Aliyev International Airport (Baku, Azerbaijan, 1 hr.). Website: www.qatarairways.com.

Half-Day Cu Chi Tunnel Tour (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

No visit to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without a visit to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels and, during our walking tour of the French Quarter, Osang, Violet, Jandy and I visited the Saigon Tourist Office to book a half-day afternoon guided tour.  After lunch at the Propaganda Cafe, we promptly returned to the tourist office by 1 PM where we were to be picked up by our tour bus.

The video documentary

The video documentary

This 75-mile (121 km.) long complex of tunnels has been preserved by the Vietnamese government and turned into a war memorial park with two different tunnel display sites open to visitors – Ben Dinh, closer to Saigon, and Ben Duoc (15 kms. further) which contains part of the original tunnel system. We were to visit the former, the site where most group tours go. As such, it can be extremely crowded.

Exhibit of Vietnam-era weapons

Exhibit of Vietnam-era weapons

Our 40-km. trip to Ben Dinh took us 1.5 hours. There are a number of stalls selling food and drinks near the entrance. Our Cu Chi tunnel tour started at a classroom-style hut with a wall chart and a cross-section of the tunnels.  Here, we were shown an introductory black and white, Russian-made video detailing the tunnel’s long 25-year construction as well as live footage of American planes dousing the land with Agent Orange and destroying it with bombs.

A B-52 bomb crater

A B-52 bomb crater

Then, Mr. Do Thanh Ngan, our local English-speaking guide took us on a fascinating tour of the Cu Chi tunnels along a well defined walking track, with lots of interesting things to see spaced at regular intervals, that loops around the area. Along the way, we walked past huge, mind-boggling hollow basins of earth, actually bomb craters that are evidence of the heavy B-52 bombing campaigns in the region during the Vietnam War.

Entrance to the Ham Hoi Truong (meeting room)

Entrance to the Ham Hoi Truong (meeting room)

During the Vietnam War, the tunnel system was a safe haven for thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians and it was virtually an underground city with dwelling houses, schools, hospitals and factories. Through lots of compelling photos and personal effects left behind, we learned more about the conditions these people lived in, the hardships they faced, and the amazing ingenuity employed to maintain life in the tunnels.  We also saw examples of how people lived and what they ate.

Jandy trying out the hidden tunnel entrance

Jandy trying out the hidden tunnel entrance

At one seemingly empty area, our guide pointed to us a small, hidden tunnel entrance just beneath our feet.  A Vietnamese soldier first demonstrated to us how to enter and exit the tunnel, closing the entrance with a 2 x 1.5-ft. manhole cover.  A tourist also successfully tried her hand in doing so, followed by Jandy.

An array of terrifying but lethal booby traps

An array of terrifying but lethal booby traps

Chong bo (door trap)

Chong bo (door trap): heavily spiked wooden cross sections suspended above a door or opening via a trip wire.  When the wire is tripped, the trap swings down and impales the victim

A see-saw trap

A see-saw trap with sharp punji sticks at the bottom of the pit

Also on display were the different types of lethally terrifying but clever booby traps using punji sticks, ironically made from the scrap metal of the American’s artillery, bomb and rocket shells, which were used on American soldiers – chong bat (swinging up trap), chong can coi (see-saw trap), chong canh cua (window trap), chong ghe xep (folding chair trap), chong tru quay (rolling trap), chong-hom (fish trap), chong bo (door trap) and hong tho (sticking trap).

Chimneys

Tiny chimneys that disperses smoke from the kitchen

Tiny ventilation shafts

Tiny ventilation shafts

We also wandered past tiny little chimneys in the ground that dispersed smoke from the underground hoang cam kitchens, tiny ventilation shafts and climbed up what remained of a U.S. army M-41 tank destroyed by a delay mine in 1970.  Underground conference rooms (ham hoi truong), where campaigns such as the Tet Offensive were planned in 1968, have also been restored.   There were also some mannequins re-enacting soldiers in different settings (an army camp, military workshop, etc.).

The destroyed American M-41 tank

The destroyed American M-41 light tank

Jandy and I, as well as other guests, were given the opportunity to do a tough crawl through a 100 m. long section of the “touristed” tunnels, never part of the real network, which have been specially created and enlarged (around 50%) and widened so that the larger Western tourists can now fit through.  Though low powered lights have been installed to make traveling through them easier, it is still not recommended for the claustrophobic.

The tunnel entrance

The tunnel entrance

The tunnel we entered

The tunnel we entered

Violet tried but gave up while Osang remained above ground.  The crawl space was so small and tight that I found it impossible to believe that anyone ever survived here before the tunnel was enlarged. For those who may not want to, or may not be able to continue, exit points were located at the 20 m., 40m., 60m. and 80 m. marks. Jandy and I exited after 20 m.  This was the highlight of our tour

Cong binh xuong (military workshop)

Cong binh xuong (military workshop)

A sandal-making factory

A sandal-making factory

Other above-ground attractions include numerous souvenir shops, at the end of the walking track, some focusing on war memorabilia as well as the traditional Vietnamese souvenirs which could be found elsewhere.  Nearby is a shooting range where visitors can play real war games by firing a variety of authentic Vietnam-era assault weapons such as the K-54 pistol, the M-16 rifle, AK-47, M1 carbine, M1 Garand, Russian SKS and the M-30 and M-60 light machine guns.

Jandy at one of the souvenir shops

Jandy at one of the souvenir shops

Firing range rates

Firing range rates

Sounds like great fun but I cannot help but put off from my mind what these “toys” were really designed for – killing. Besides firing a weapon costs 20,000 VND/bullet (US$0.95) for the K-54 pistol all the way up to 40,000 VND/bullet (US$1.88) for AK-47 and M-60 machine gun, and you have to buy at least 10 bullets (you can, however, share these with someone else).

Jandy, Violet and Osang posing with some manikins

Jandy, Violet and Osang posing with a pair of mannequins

The Beached Ships of Tacloban City (Leyte)

As a consequence of Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) hitting Tacloban City and the ensuing tsunami-like storm surge, a number of ocean-going ships were beached. These hulking ships are fast becoming a tourist destinations by themselves. During my visit to Tacloban, 8 months after Yolanda, I made it a point to visit some of these huge boats.

MV Eva Jocelyn (4 were pinned here)

MV Eva Jocelyn (4 were pinned here)

A total of 10 commercial ships were were swept inland during the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda. Eight were stuck in Rawis and Anibong Districts, one in Brgy. Diit, and one near San Juanico Bridge. In addition, two government vessels; a dredger found in Fatima Village in Brgy. 75, owned by the Department of Public Works and Highways; and a ship owned by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources; were also beached.

Beached Ships at Anibong (16)

Five more ships were beached in Quinapondan and Guiuan (Eastern Samar) – the MV Eastern Samar (Lilygene Shipping Lines Inc in Guiuan, Eastern Samar, owned by Mr. Generoso Yu), the MV Lady of Fatima (owner unknown); and 2 tugboats (MT Maharlika-A and MT Maharlika-B) and a barge (Vicente Uno) of Vicente Lao Construction based in Davao City.

Beached Ships at Anibong (12)

The MV Gayle (Unilink Shipping Corp., owned by Alfred Yanglua of Cebu), a big part of which was already floating on the water (making it easier to pull away from the shore), was removed from the shore last April in a salvage operation that lasted for 30 minutes. Afterwards, it was brought to Cebu City to be fixed (its propeller was destroyed and its engine needed to be replaced).

Beached Ships at Anibong (13)

Nine other ships have yet to be removed – the MV Eva Jocelyn (Eva Shipping Lines of Mandaue City, Cebu); the  MV RKK 1 (RKK Shipping Lines, Inc.); the MV Star Hilongos (Roble Shipping Corp., owned by Joey Roble of Cebu); MV David Legaspi (Candano Shipping Corp., owned by Elena Candano of Tabaco City, Albay); the MV Jaguar (Tacloban Oil Mill of Tolosa, Leyte); the MV Ligaya V (Avega Brothers Integrated Shipping Corp. in Makati City); the MV Lancer (Matsya Shipping of Cebu City) the MV Tomi Elegance (Tacloban Oil Mill ); and LCT Rosman (owned by businessman Richmond Ng of Quezon City, Metro Manila).

Beached Ships at Anibong (17)
At Brgy. 68 (where the typhoon claimed 20 lives), we visited the 3,000-ton, red and blue MV Eva Jocelyn.  When the supertyphoon smashed through Tacloban, a dozen cinderblock houses were directly hit by the ship and 4 residents were later found dead, pinned by the ship. Now sitting on unstable ground composed of debris, this ship is tilting due to the movement of the deteriorating ground. This could crush surrounding makeshift houses that were repaired by their owners.  A bizarre sight was tourists having their picture taken right in front of this ship’s massive hull that flattened homes and killed people.

Beached Ships at Anibong (19)

However, these beached ships are temporary “tourist attractions” as the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) wants the ship owners to retract, refloat or make into scrap their vessels by the end of January or mid-February 2015, otherwise, the PCG would salvage the ships at the owner’s expense.

The DPWH Barge

The beached DPWH dredger at Fatima Village

The owners, however, appear hesitant to immediately remove the vessels because of unfinished documentation for insurance claims.  The residents want them removed as they have been “imprisoned” by these cargo vessels. They are also a painful reminder to them and hinder the removal and cleaning of the debris as well as in restoring the devastated coastal areas.

The Coral Garden and Underwater Cave of Puerto Galera (Mindoro Oriental)

A number of us availed of a package tour to San Antonio Island consisting  of a visit to an underwater cave and snorkeling the spots around the Coral Garden, the  premier snorkeling area of Puerto Galera, looking for a meter long giant clam underneath —all for PhP300. Our outrigger boat was small carrying, aside from the boatman, just me and Sheena as big boats cannot go near the shallow area of the Coral Garden.  Though I dabbed lots of sunblock on my skin, I forgot to bring a hat and my sunglasses, sorely needed as the sun was way up in the sky..

On our way to the Coral Garden

On our way to the Coral Garden

Our boat made landfall at another resort to pick up our snorkels then proceeded to the Coral Gardens.  Here, we donned our snorkels, dropped into the water and clung on to a nylon cord, between the boat and the outrigger, as the boat slowly dragged us along as we snorkeled. At some parts, the water was so shallow the corals almost touched my belly.  Tourists here are encouraged to bring bread to feed the fishes.

Snorkelling alongside the moving boat

Snorkelling alongside the moving boat

The underwater cave, our next destination, was just a 10-min. boat ride from Coral Garden.  It was located on one corner of a small coral rock formation beside a small white sand beach called Munting Buhangin.  There were a lot of boats parked along the beach and we could also see a long queue of tourists lining up to enter the cave. As such there were stalls, manned by locals, selling refreshing halo-halo (PhP25). Not waiting to see our boat parked, Sheena and I alighted from the boat and made our way to the rock formation.

The narrow white sand beach

The narrow white sand Munting Buhangin Beach

Getting up the rock formation was difficult as we had to carefully find our footing as the rocks were quite sharp and jagged. Its a good thing I brought along thick slippers.  The top of the formation has a panoramic view of the beach, the emerald green water of the sea and various rock formations nearby.The entrance of the cave had a bamboo stairs where we could climb down.

The queue up the rock formation

The queue up the rock formation

The underwater cave was not totally drenched in darkness, thanks to some rays of the sun beaming through a natural skylight.  The water inside was now deep, it being high tide when we arrived, but it wasn’t so cold.  High tide also prevented us from seeing the cave’s opening to the sea. Sheena and I alternately took each other’s picture inside the cave and through the skylight as we weren’t able to bring our boatman with us to take our pictures.

The author inside the underwater cave

The author inside the underwater cave

Back at our boat, we continued on towards the Coral Garden where we could find the giant clam. The place was almost in the middle of the bay. We again donned our snorkels and dove in. The Coral Garden obviously was littered with colorful corals plus different variety of fishes. However, even if I kept my eyes opened and peeled I still couldn’t find the giant clam.

Sheena underneath the cave's skylight

Sheena underneath the cave’s skylight

Automobile Association Philippines (AAP): 28 EDSA, Greenhills, San Juan City.  Tel: (632) 655-5889.  Fax: (632) 655-1878.  E-mail: info@aap.org.ph. Website: www.aap.org.ph.
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Provincial Tourism Office: Provincial Capitol, Calapan City, Mindoro Oriental.  Tel: (043) 286-7046 and (043) 441-0306.

The Pagbilao Islands (Pagbilao, Quezon)

It was already midway in the afternoon when we finished our lunch at Cortijo de Palsabangon Farm Park & Restaurant and, according to Lurhen, we had to leave now if we were to catch the boat and avoid the low tide at Pagbilao Wharf (also known as Daungan) in Sitio Kalawit.  Up ahead was the piece de resistance of our Appsline Travel-sponsored Lucena-Pagbilao Media Tour – the Pagbilao Islands.

Author at Pagbilao Grande Island

Author at Pagbilao Grande Island

Upon arrival at Daungan, our huge 25-pax outrigger boat was already waiting for us.  Here, we met up with Mr. Celedonio “Dionnie” Dapla, member of the town’s tourism council and former head of the DENR Mangrove Experimental Forest.  We were supposed to visit Dionnie’s forest-farm and nursery in Brgy. Pinagbayanan but, as it was already late in the day to do so, he just saw us safely off.

L-R: The author, Lurhen, Dionnie, Rannie and Mel

L-R: The author, Lurhen, Dionnie, Rannie and Mel at Daungan

Mel, Maichel, Angela, Lurhen (with her son Marxus), Rannie and I were soon on our way, cruising the river, passing thick patches of mangrove forests along the way before heading out into Pagbilao Bay and the open sea.

Mangrove forests

Mangrove forests

The Pagbilao Islands, also called Pulo Island, are a lovely pair of islands (Pagbilao Grande in the north and Pagbilao Chico in the west)  joined together by a 500 m. long, 200 m. wide (3 m. above sea level at its highest point) sandy isthmus called Tulay Buhangin (meaning “sand bridge”).  The main settlement (also called Tulay Buhangin) is located here.

On our way into the open sea

On our way into the open sea

Though part of Pagbilao town, the islands are more accessible by boat from Padre Burgos.  Bounded by Laguimanok Bay in the north and east and Tayabas Bay in the west, the islands are 100 feet above sea level on a promontory overlooking Padre Burgos town to the east.  This ancient and still developing coral rock formation has numerous coves, caves cliffs and a hilly interior with clumps of giant yuccas and small, emerald forests.  There are also white sand beaches and rich fishing grounds.

Patayan Island (Pagbilao Chico Island)

Patayan Island (Pagbilao Chico Island)

Around 30-40 mins. on our journey we passed Pagbilao Chico Island, also called Patayan Island.  It has a smooth stone beach and a single privately-owned beachhouse that can be rented out.  Its Bansilan Cave has cathedral-like dimensions.

The Team Energy coal-fired thermal power plant

The Team Energy coal-fired thermal power plant

We next espied the tall chimney of 735-MW Team (Tokyo Electrification and Marubeni) Energy coal-fired thermal power plant.  During our visit, a  huge cargo ship was unloading coal at the power plant.  The plant is the landmark for those taking the land route to Puting Buhangin Beach. Turning a corner past the power plant, we were greeted by beautiful rock limestone formations and Kwebang Lampas and, past it, the beautiful cove with white sand Puting Buhangin Beach with its clear emerald waters and coconut trees.

Puting Buhangin Beach

Puting Buhangin Beach

The 70 m.  long and 10 m. wide white sand Puting Buhangin (which literally means “white sand”) Beach, with Kwebang Lampas at one end, is located in Brgy. Ibabang Polo at the southwestern part of Pagbilao Grande Island.

Author at Puting Buhangin Beach

Author at Puting Buhangin Beach

We requested the boatmen to dock and, upon reaching the shore, Rannie and I  made for the beach. This private beach (also called Lukang Beach  after the Lukang family), available to the public on day trip visits (PhP100 entrance fee), was filled with people during our visit.  Some were staying on native picnic huts (rented for PhP300-500); others pitched tents along the beach, while others just availed of the shade of coconut trees.

Visitors making their way to the beach via the power plant and limestone formations

Visitors making their way to the beach via the power plant and the treacherous limestone formations

Other destination, though, was the small, unique cave right at the edge of the cove famously known as Kwebang Lampas whose opening we saw on the way to the cove.  Walking along the beach, we reached the foot of the limestone formation and carefully negotiated the rocks to the entrance of this easily explored, tunnel-like cave.   We could see the cave’s other opening at the opposite end.

Kwebang Lampas

Kwebang Lampas

They say that the water at one end of the cave is freezing cold, while water at the opposite end is warm, but I didn’t notice any difference.  Mel, Angela and Maichel soon joined us. After the usual photo ops, using Rannie’s camera, we made it back to the beach and our boat, thoroughly sated with the adventure we just experienced.  It was with some feeling of regret that we  left the island back for the mainland.

The author, Maichel, Mel and Angela at Kwebang Lampas

The author, Maichel, Mel and Angela at Kwebang Lampas

Appsline Travel Services and Consultancy: Phase 2, Krisanta Village, Brgy. Bukal, Maharlika Village, Pagbilao, Quezon.  Tel: (042) 716-0067.  Mobile number: (0922) 633-0363 (Ms. Lurhen T. Cortes). E-mail: yvette_24@yahoo.com andappsline0305@gmail.com.