Saturday, March 19, 2011

2000 pages

I have noticed this week that more that more than 2000 pages of this blog have been viewed!
Thanks for reading!

That's all for now, I just wanted to share that with you :-)

Mt Pinatubo or what is left of it...

Everyone knows Mt Pinatubo's name, but personally I wasn't sure why... So let me give you a bit of history. It's a volcano north of Manilla which had a major eruption in 1991, it lost 300m height, covered a gigantic area of ashes creating an incredible landscape, even leading to the closure of an American air force base 50 km away.
So here we go, we are flying to Angeles-Clark, the airport which opened following the closure of the American base. Landing at midnight, we are being picked up for 1h30 drive to Santa Juliana, the village on the foot of Mt Pinatubo. We spend the night in a farm and we are waken up by chicken, ducks and other noisy animals. 6h30, our 4*4 is here to pick us up and drives us to the registration office where we pay the fees and meet a lot of other tourists!
Soon we are back on board, we pass at least 3 check points all saying "entrance to army air base" but I don't think they have ever seen a plane! No runway anywhere, and apart from the 4*4, everyone is on foot or on the back of a cow...

Anyway, we now have 1h10 of 4*4 before the beginning of the treck. We had been told to check the weather forecast before going up and once we have crossed the river for the 10th times, you understand why!
The landscape is moon looking, grey ashes everywhere with a river eroding the soil very easily , that can easily be turned into disaster if the flow of water becomes significant!
After a 1st flat-ish part, the 4*4 gets to demonstrate its full power in the 2nd part, it gets rocky and steep. We go through one or two villages where people seem to live so far away from modern civilisation
and we observe walls of ashes/volcanic sand which have now been taken over by vegetation.
After reaching the car park (2nd 4*4!!!), we are the first hikers to get started, we enjoy this peace and quite!
Now is probably a good time to say that we really don't know where we are going... The usual conic shape of a volcano is nowhere to be seen, there are some very steep cliffs around us but we have been told on the morning that the 2h walk we thought we were going to do was in fact just a 1h, so there is no way we can climb these cliffs, really no idea... So we keep on following the river which goes from bright yellow to an orangy-red depending on the dominant ions.
The rocky walk is just about to transform into a jungle walk when we see the following sign:
Ok, so it is nearly over... We actually get into the crater by a crack of the enclosure, and soon after that, we reach the lake which now occupy the centre of the volcano.
It's beautiful but really not as impressive as the landscape we saw earlier in the walk or in the 4*4, we sit for a while with our feet in the not too cold water and we study a few rocks, not like I'm an expert but they were different from any volcanic rocks I had seen before.
A bit granite looking with some bits looking like sea salt inside!
To come back to the "where were we heading" question, we couldn't see a typical conical volcano shape because there is none left, Mt Pinatubo properly destroyed himself during his last eruption, there is no more mountain, I'm sure there is one point which could be consider as the summit if you take the highest point of what is left, but not a point of any significance.
After enough photos, we decide to head down, we are counter flow of all the other tourists arriving.The trip back in the 4*4 is a chance to get more stunning views:

By lunch time, we are back at the administration office for a gigantic meal made of Korean and philippino specialities. Then it's time to test the local spa! First being buried alive (head out:-) under hot volcanic sand. It's itchy, it's heavy and you end up sweating a lot (at least much more than during the walk), then we get covered of mud and left to dry in the sun. When it becomes painful to smile and bend, we are ordered to the shower once again so we can get clean for a massage! What a great day!!!!
As it is still early in the afternoon, we decide to rake the public transport instead of a taxi to Angeles. Ok we start by cheating a bit as we took a tricycle to Campas where we were told we could take a bus. In Campas, we look for a jeepney, this old jeeps which have been extended and are now buses. We get on the first  jeepney and the driver makes an attempt at charging me 500 pesos, I refuse laughing and we wait for the bus to start. As it is taking for ever, we get into another one who was already on the go; price 36 pesos, people have really no conscience! The system is really fun, people get in and out at any time, (entrance is at the back), and then money is passed from the back to the front until it reaches the driver and the change is passed back from hand to hand, the same way.
Soon we reach the outskirts of Angeles, the city known for its sex workers; even the lonely planet hasn't found anything which was worth a visit!
We spent the rest of the WE having dinner, sleeping late and enjoying the glorious weather around the pool! And this time we are back in Singapore on time for dinner on sunday evening!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

5 days in Visayas

 I started this post when we came back from our 1st trip to the Philippines, but following an iPhone incident (it deleted half of what I had already written!), I got annoyed and the next WE post also had to be written so I gave up! But I couldn't keep on ignoring it for ever, so just imagine you are jumping back in time, it is now November 2010!

It is Hari Raya in Singapore, Wednesday is a bank holiday, the occasion for a 5 days WE is just too good. This time we are adding a new country to the map: the Philippines. It is not as bad as Indonesia for the number of islands but there are quite a few, this time we are visiting 3: Negros for the airport of Dumaguete and then Apo and Siquijor islands.
After a night trip between Singapore and Dumaguete via Cebu, we are on Negros early morning. As we are lucky enough to have arrived here on a Wednesday morning, our first visit is the local Market, the highlight being the animal Market. After observing several people trying to get several uncooperative pigs in several pick ups, we realise that there is an entire area full of goats, small and enormous pigs, cows with a big bump on the back etc. After having paid a few pesos to get in we wonder around the animals, the sellers, the buyers and their vehicles. Funny enough, no one seems to bothered about the 2 white people going around with their backpacks and taking pictures of pretty pink suckling pigs playing/sleeping in the mud.

Once we have enough pictures, we indulge in a breakfast of fried fish and rice (the local treat!). It's barely 8am when we start discussing boats to Apo island, you can see it, it's very close but it still takes 45 minutes to reach on a "medium" boat. Medium is an interesting choice of word, it's barely stable, we are handed life jacket before we get on board, there are no side barriers or anything, we are just sitting on a flat piece of wood, getting very wet and trying to grip anything to hold on in the waves!
Soon we reach Apo, after paying the park fees, someone points us in the direction of rocks, apparently our hotel is behind!

Indeed, the hotel is on the most secluded beach I have seen so far, from now on, we'll wake up watching the sea and will have every single meal with our toes in the sand!

After a nap to catch up from the sleepless night in planes, we go for a first dive
then we hike to the highest point of the island where there is a good view of the area.

When the sun goes down, we discover the pleasure of life on a remote island, electricity is on from 6pm to midnight, but it's dark at 5pm so with 1 candle we make an attempt at having a "shower" using a cup to pick fresh water up from the black bin without confusing it with the sea water of the blue bin (which is obviously here to flush the toilet!) it goes without saying that AC and hot water do not exist...

Thursday is dedicated to diving and snorkelling in the protected maritime park.

After 2 days on Apo island, it's time to continue our transport marathon: back to main land (by that I mean bigger island) by "medium" boat, taxi back to Dumaguete and another boat to Siquijor island, the  island of witches! It's well known for its healers. Our hotel is way more luxurious than the previous one, AC and hot water! But tons of mosquitoes, finally I would have happily switched the AC for a mosquito net! The afternoon is spent snorkling in front of our hotel trying to avoid stepping on sea urchin and on the scary looking seastars!
A few hours later, we are treated to the best sunset I have ever seen:

On saturday, we rent a motorbike and go around the island. There are lots of monasteries and churches not looking their best left from Spanish colonialism, some stunning beaches very very hard to find (which might explain why they are unspoiled) and some nasty spiders which like having a go at my legs (very painful and big bruise!)

Some of the landscapes are also amasing:


Our last day is more or less dedicated to transport: tricycle to the harbour where we can admire how difficult is a cow's life on Siquijor! 
Then a boat and another tricycle, 2 planes and a taxi and we are home, ready for another week of hardwork!

Apologies for the delay on publishing this post...

Monday, March 7, 2011

Trekking the jungle in Sumatra. Or how to meet "forest men"?

2 days WE, what do we do? Let's go to Sumatra, we haven't been yet! There is a place called Bukit Lawang which is one of the only 2 places on earth where you can see wild orang-utans (the other one being on Borneo)
Departure on Friday evening to Medan, only 1h flight, brilliant! Nothing to mention about the city, it's huge like any Indonesian cities (nearly 2 millions inhabitants), it's hard to find food and when you do, you eat it only because you are really hungry!
Anyway after a night in Medan, our driver pick us up at 7.30am on Saturday morning for 2h30 drive to Bukit Lawang. It takes a long time to get out of the city and then we go through villages, palm tree plantations, we pass huge palm oil factories and we avoid death by millimetres several times, the driving style is as always crazy: cows sleep on the road, there are enormous holes, overtaking blind is a national sport and seat belts are yet to be invented at the back of cars...
At some point we have to abandon the car, the road is not going any further, the last 15 minutes to our hotel are on foot, it's the last one before the jungle!
After checking in our suite (that's how rooms with mosquito nets are called), we book a trek to the jungle for Sunday and we start exploring the village. It's situated on both side of a lovely river, there are 2 bridges and both of them are entertaining to cross...

It's a lovely relaxing place! We have another nasi goreng (fried rice) for lunch and then relax for a while on our balcony.
At 15h we are going to the feeding station with the rangers for the daily distribution of banana to the semi-wild orang-utans.
First we cross the river on a very unstable tiny little boat, then we argue a bit with a ranger because apparently we should have gone to the other side of the village to get a permit before coming here but finally we are on our way; 15 minutes walk in the jungle and we are at the station (with 20 Indonesian tourists). The ranger bangs a stone on the platform and very soon after that some trees quite far away start moving and a couple of orange dots appear in the green of the forest.
They get to the platform and one is given banana, coconut milk and other stuff but the rangers try to push the other one off. 
After a bit of incomprehension, one of the rangers finally explains that he is a wild orang-utan and the rangers don’t want him to get used to be fed. Unfortunately, this explanation hasn’t been well understood by the semi-wild one who keeps on giving his bananas away to the wild one.
Their little game is great for photos even if with all the leaves and trees, it’s difficult to get a good/clear shot!
After 30 minutes all the Indonesian tourist disappear and when it gets quieter 3 more orang-utans turn up including a mum and her baby! Lucky us!

Soon it’s time to go down again; we can’t stay more than 1h.
We go for a drink at our hotel’s bar and we watch the little monkeys climbing over electrical cable, jumping from one house to the other, just having fun!
I suddenly realise that I have left the mosquito spray, the sun cream and my flip-flop on the balcony but seriously, monkeys are not interested in that????
Mmmhh apparently they are, they knocked the mosquito spray off the table (they were right, it’s useless anyway), the sun cream had disappeared and they had a bite at both of my flip-flop!!!!!!!!!
Now next question: what can a monkey do with sun cream? Apparently: bite the bottle, unscrew the top and throw it from the roof in the stairs!
After the monkey story, we have a quiet evening trying to avoid getting drenched by tropical rain.
Sunday morning, 8 am, we are ready, covered with mosquito spray and tiger balm (one of my colleagues told me that tiger balm is very effective against leeches). Trouser tucked in the socks, no entry possible!

We go down the village, cross one of the 2 famous bridges and we start climbing going through trees producing liquid rubber and meeting our first few monkeys. The jungle is made of very steep hills so we are going to spend the day going up and down, nowhere is flat!
We have 2 guides, one who speaks English and one who is really good at dragging us out of the decent path into the deep part of the jungle to get a glimpse of the wild life
We learn plenty of things:
-         don’t touch young bamboos, they have a very itchy surface and if you have touch it (like me) rub your hand in your hair
-         Mosquitoes are nasty individuals who bite through trousers and to avoid them you should start smoking! (according to our guide)
-         Leeches don’t indeed like tiger balm (M-0; R who didn’t believe me-4); they go through socks, and they seem to inject anti coagulant so your trousers and socks quickly turn to bright red!
During the day we get very close to some more orang-utans, pretty monkeys, turtles and we get to see some fantastic views of the jungle.

We do end up completely covered of mud after sliding several times on the very muddy slopes: We use roots for abseiling, we really did have some Tarzan and Jane moments!
But the good new is that we are going rafting to go back to our hotel so the mud should be cleaned away! The raft is made of joint tubes, it’s low key but it works, the water is fresh and lovely and it’s another way of seeing the jungle.
Arriving back at the hotel, we get a good shower and a drink and it’s time to jump in the car again, back to Medan for our flight to Sg!
Bukit Lewang is a beautiful relaxing place and as you can see from the pictures, the orang-utans are amasing and it’s easy to understand why they are “jungle men”, they can smile (at least I’m sure I saw one smiling at me) and they do have lots of expression in their eyes.

And here are a few extra animals we met during the WE: