Typhoons, Tears and Luxury – Philippines

Wow, flying into the eye of what is being called “The World’s Largest Storm on Record.” I’m an avid traveler, and have traveled almost 50 countries now, so not much phases me with respect to travel anymore. I get on planes, I hunker down for the ride, and I arrive in a new destination.

Sometimes I arrive in extreme luxury like Cathay Pacific’s First Class cabin, and other times it’s less than luxurious, but I do it because I love travel, I love new destinations and I love sharing my stories with people who also love to travel, or whom live vicariously through my travels – bottom line, we all love some sort of travel.

So, this story of travel is probably my most heartbreaking and daunting one thus far. I left Toronto for Manila on Nov 8/2013, expecting to arrive in Manila on Nov 9-10, just when this horrific typhoon was supposed to arrive with its whopping winds of 195 miles/hour. Needless to say, family and friends asked me if I was crazy, if I had a death wish, and some just knew, as I did, that everything would be ok. What airline or pilot would realistically fly into a typhoon or hurricane? So I went.
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Arrival in Manila was actually very good, like any calm after a storm, the wind was a peaceful breeze, but you could tell something had just gone through here. There was an eerie stillness in the air, in the city of Manila itself, and the only witness that “something” had occurred here, the day before, were the many billboard signs around the streets that were taken down and rolled up so the wind did not knock them over.

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Deserted airport arrivals area the morning after Typhoon Haiyan

 

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Billboards with all signage removed

 

This, of course, was because most of the damage had occurred in the outlying provinces past Cebu City, in smaller communities like Mindanao, Tacloban, and other eastern Visayas or provinces. Our group was blessed to be able to help out in a small way with the Red Cross cleanup effort, before we were provided with the luxury of staying at Shangi-La Mactan in Cebu.

Typhoon Haiyan Red Cross Cleanup Effort_Cebu

Red Cross Effort at Cebu Philippines during Typhoon Haiyan

If you have ever wondered or dreamed of travels to world famous beaches in the Philippines, we highly recommend this wonderful destination.

What an incredible nation of people, who come together when these regular and terrifying storms fall upon their lands, they always rebuild, and always help each other, with a smile. This is the nature of the beautiful Filipino people, and we are blessed to have many Filipino clientele we cherish!

Ganga Aarti Ceremony – Varanasi, India

Viswanath Ghat, Varanasi India

Truly, one of the most incredible travel and life experiences I’ve witnessed in all my travels was the Ganga Aarti festival, which is a ceremony or offertory of prayer to the Ganges River.

Bus that took us to the tuk-tuks. Just look at that traffic 😬 as far as the eye can see

Enroute to the event which starts at dusk, we passed by throngs of people, thousands of people, all together on the streets of Varanasi in what one could only describe as utter chaos. People darting in and out of alleys ways and shop fronts, cars are buzzing left & right in front of big trolleys and buses full of people, tuk-tuks zig zagging throughout the streets transporting their patrons to the desired places as quickly as possible.

The cacophony of Varanasi streets at night

If the thousands of people scurrying to the waters of the Ganges weren’t enough, then there were street workers working with hot tar, burning in big barrels on the streets, filling potholes as people in cars, trucks, buses and tuk-tuks all drove by (or over) their newly completed scalding hot street work. All this amidst the darkness quickly closing in, as we race through the squalor and madness of the Varanasi streets.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in this pungent, dark, toxic tar smelling cacophony, we were dropped off close to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is one of the main ghats (or sets of wide steps leading down to the Ganges River). If the scene on the streets of Varanasi was not chaotic enough from the relative sanctuary of inside the protection of the tuk-tuk, once you’re out in it all, on foot, you realize how very minute a speck you are in the world. Amazing!

This young lad took right over and was very protective of our group making sure the crowd broke way for us, and showed us where each step was, so none of us stumbled in the darkness. While a simple gesture it was hugely appreciated!

People and street hawkers and children and all the smells and sounds you’ve just witnessed are your immediate in-your-face reality. All at once, all of it invades your senses with such an overload that it’s a bit scary, overwhelming and thrilling at the same time. Every sense is on fire! Someone is touching you, someone else is grabbing you to keep you with the group, another child is beckoning you and offering to sell you flowers or candles or henna, the smells of the tar invading your nostrils, the warmth of the Varanasi night, the sounds of everyone talking and chattering and there you are, on the steps of the Ganges River, looking over a literal sea of bodies on boats, sitting and bobbing and watching this amazing ceremony taking place.

The ceremony itself (that we witnessed) takes place on the rooftop of the Viswanath Temple, considered one of the largest and most elaborate temples along the Ganges. We were hurried down to boats floating in front of Viswanath Temple, and were blessed to sit amongst locals who took part in this ceremony with us.

You sit on these boats, all tied to one another and watch in complete awe and relative silence (compared to the streets) and it’s impossible not to marvel and look around at this sea of people, all watching and experiencing this same religious “life experience.”

Ganga Aarti Festival

If you love to become one with your surroundings, I cannot suggest any experience that will so fully immerse you into local culture than the Ganga Aarti festival on the waters of the mighty Ganges River!

CAMBODIA: Angkor Wat Temples, Bayon Temple

CAMBODIA: Angkor Wat Temples, Bayon Temple

CAMBODIA – September 2011

Wed like to thank our Indonesian Tour Operator, Blue Ocean Tours for the wonderful itinerary that they put together for us, as well as the knowledgeable tour guides in each location we visited (Vietnam [Ho Chi Minh, Can Tho, Mekong Delta, Cai Be, Vinh Long] and Cambodia [Phnom Penh and Siem Reap].






Angkor Wat

Word about travelling during “rainy season” in Indonesia: prepare for that wonderful feeling of having swam (swum?) in your clothes all day. There is no getting around it, unless, of course, you don’t sweat!


A day’s visit to Angkor Wat Temples simply isn’t sufficint to see most of what is available to see but if you have only one day, you can visit a lot of areas.

We visited the awesome complex of structures known as Angkor Wat and also South Gate of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple (my fave), Bauphon Temple, the Elephant Terrace, Terrace of the Leper King (also a fave), Ta Proum Temple and finished the day at Angkor Wat’s main temple.

                               
Demon & God statue heads at Angkor Thom, South Bridge
One drawback I suppose to visiting some of the most popular sites within Angkor Wat are the crowds.  The pictures depict the gods (left side) and demons (right side) of the Southern Gate entrance and bridge.

In peak season travellers can expect to stand around in the heat waiting for up to 30 minutes as numerous buses, cars, bikes and even elephants push forward to pass through the narrow gateway at Angkor Thom. 

Of all the temples, personally I liked Bayon Temple, for all the thousands of faces atop every single high feature in the temple.




Bayon Temple, Angor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temple is magnificent if for nothing more than its immense size. It has a moat that surrounds the temple on all sides, and 5 main gates: East/West/North/South and the Elephant Gate (or King’s gate) which is where the King would have come up to the entrance on his elephant This gate has no stairs to allow the elephant to walk up directly to the gate so the king and his throne could be lifted off and directly into the temple.

Elephant Gate Entrance at Angkor Wat

Our amazing guide, T. at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Angkor Wat reminded me in some ways of Chichen Itza in Mexico for the magnitude of the structures and the planning that went into creating these fortresses for security, for prayer, and for daily living.

The jungle like temperatures will definitely make you feel like you’ve been out swimming with your clothes on, and this simply adds to the full Angkor & Siem Reap cultural experience.


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CAMBODIA: Siem Reap’s Night Market & Dr. Fish

CAMBODIA: Siem Reap’s Night Market & Dr. Fish

Cambodia – September 2011

Siem Reap Night Market: For anyone that loves shopping, local markets with indigenous products, souks and the like, there is a fantastic place located in the center of Siem Reap town with hundreds of little markets selling all kinds of wares from silk scarves, to bamboo carvings, to luggage, to jewelry, to t-shirts, to the ever-available massage (you get accosted walking past the massage ‘clinics’) – Sir, Sir, One Dollah, Massage Sir!

Siem Reap Night Market
Angkor Night Market

The dining choices truly are endless as you get to choose from many local restaurants in the general area of the night market, and the waiters will bring your dinner to this central area with lounge chairs and masseage booths within a hundred metres.

What I loved about Angkor Night Market was that you can sit and have a drink, sample food for about 10 different restaurants in the area and do your shopping all in the one compact area, no strolling around for hours in the sultry night heart of September in Cambodia!

Last but not least in Siem Reap, the “DR. FISH stands everywhere.” On so many levels this concept grosses me COMPLETELY out, but I have to admit it actually works!! We stopped at Dr. Fish – I mean if the store says DOCTOR, it must be legit right!? Plus, they offer free beer or coke while your “feet get eat!” I mean C’mon, what a deal. :))

Dr. Fish, Cambodia. Sir, Sir, Just 2 dollah! ($)

There are tanks full of little minnow type fish (later research of course led me to determine that these fish of course originated in the Country I love most aside from Canada – Turkey, and teh fish are known as Garra Rufa.)

These tiny fish eat the dead skin off your feet or hands, (*urge*) but I swear to god they make your feet feel like new. I didn’t do it (in Cambodia), as I had to video the event taking place – god forbid. However, we all know, any man that has feet (that would be most of you) and is not gay (hey it’s a fact that my gay peep friends tend to spa & primp more than the regular dude) tends to have horrible feet. Let’s call a spade a spade here ok, most dudes have gnarly feet! Add to that, men in the military have horrible feet x10 (or more).

So I figure, if these fish (aka: miracle workers) can make a military dude’s feet almost like baby’s feet, this concept MUST WORK yes??!! $2 for 20 minutes, AND a free beer. Life is good my friends! I think you can convince even the most hardened man to  go for Dr. Fish (in a foreign land), and they will love you for opening the world of Spa-dom and Pedicure-dom to them as they walk around on their new ‘baby-like feet.’

CAMBODIA: Tonle Sap Lake

CAMBODIA: Tonle Sap Lake

We arrived in Siem Reap by overland bus travel, again everything arranged by our tour operator Blue Ocean Tours. The overland bus was a great experience and I highly recommend it as a way to see so much more of the local culture and country side
Upon arrival in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we were immediately taken out on the waters of Tonle Sap Lake by our fantastic guide, T.



Pics of T on his wedding day in Cambodia!

Tonle Sap Lake is the largest fresh water lake in South East Asia (located in Siem Reap province) that measures approximately 300 kms long by 50 kms wide and is home to many thousands of Vietnamese people who have crossed the border without documentation.

Local residents on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
Local resident’s homes on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia
Tonle Sap Lake homes in Cambodia
Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

Where the homes and storefronts along the Mekong seemed at times unstable as they stood on stilts in the dank water, these homes on Tonle Sap Lake are completely built on boats and the owners move with the dry and rainy season, further up and down the lake as the water rises and falls. When it is dry season and low water, there are rice fields that are accessible (currently under the waters) and during rainy season these rice fields are flooded out and no planting or harvesting takes place. It is definitely a damp, dank and different way to live, completely in and on the water of Tonle Sap Lake.

Cambodia, where the art of hammock sleeping is perfected!! :)))

The English school on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia

If you get the opportunity, definitely try to include a visit to Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia to see a very unique, albeit damp way of living!

CAMBODIA: Apsara Dancers

CAMBODIA: Apsara Dancers

I’ve always wanted to see the Apsara Dancers of Malaysia (or Asia) and I finally had a chance in Siem Reap, Cambodia (Sept 2011)


These beautiful dancers always seemed mystical and exotic from pictures I had seen. After seeing these Khmer entertainers in person, I was even more enthralled with their exquisite beauty, and their intricate facial, hand and foot movements entranced me completely.

I learned that the Cambodia Apsara dancers’ headdress contains 5 points, and 2 rows of decorations similar to the Apsara that is pictured at Angkor Wat temples.

Apsaras are thought to be a form of female spirit representing clouds and waters, and is revered in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. The Apsara is considered one of the most beautiful women, protraying an image of youthfulness and elegance, and who mystify others with their ethereal movements throughout their dancing.

This evening was as beautiful as I expected/hoped it would be with the Khmer classical dancers portraying this mystical dance!