by - 12:22 AM

Last 2008, in my 3rd year of  law school and in the midst of my final examinations, I decided to travel alone to Bangkok, Thailand on a weekend to have a sort of semi-reunion with my childhood and long-time friends Jaja and Sol.  

It was Thursday when I left Manila and went back on the day of the last scheduled exam of the following week (Monday), for a major subject critical as basis for evaluation to be part of the much-coveted list of senior (graduating) law students.  I still made it though (not to brag about it). And the rest is history.

The Bangkok trip started it all and soon after, I made it a point to travel to our neighboring countries and cliche as it may sound, that is, to discover the culture, visit the landmarks, try the best of culinary treats and meet its diverse people.

On my initial list of Southeast Asian travels as of writing:  Bangkok, Thailand (2008), Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (2009), Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Cambodia (2009), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2009), and Singapore City, Singapore (2009 and 2010)

with Siam Niramit dancers
Bangkok, Thailand (2008)

The four-day adventure began in a night at Patpong.  The area is known as one of the world's most famous red-light districts.  At this point, it pays to have a friend who knows how to speak the Thai language.  While in the area, we were approached by someone offering us to watch a show of women performing creative acts involving their genitalia at a discounted price.    The most striking of which is the projectile table tennis or the "pingpong show".  We then acceded.

Once inside the bar, I was personally amazed of the skills they possess though settlement of the bill is a different matter.  The serving staff offered drinks, but me and my friend refused.  After a few minutes, the bill was presented and indeed, it was inflated.  We protested with the said bill but to no avail, as there were even threats of physical harm if the bill remains unpaid. I could not understand a single word as my friend hurdles with the bouncer and the manager in Thai language and after a few minutes, they succumbed to our complaint.  My friend told me that they requested we keep silent with other customers regarding the issued billing statements.  After a few minutes, a group of Indonesian boys sat beside our couch and to my mind, they are the next victim.  True enough, when presented the bill they raised their complaint but since no one knows how to communicate with the culprits in their own native language, they have to pay the bill under protest.  My friend also advised me that when staying at areas like this, always bring your passport or a photocopy of it to save yourself from trouble.  Raid operations is a usual scenario in this area. 

crossing the Chao Phraya river
Despite the urbanization and modern living within the city, Thai culture has been greatly preserved.  Even in malls and large commercial complex, there are various mini-temples.  A number of buddhists and monks are likewise visible.  I was able to visit the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha via the Chao Phraya river cruise.  Honestly, the Chao Phraya River is not that remarkable, there are portions where garbages float and can be likened to that of the Pasig River here in the Philippines.  However, this has been greatly promoted by their government as the most convenient way to travel to the various historical and architectural landmarks of the city, thus, left with no choice.  The cruise has been part of most tourist itineraries especially for first-timers.  

a view of the Grand Palace
portrait at the reclining buddha

thanks to them for the great experience in Bangkok, Thailand
Visiting the temples entails a long walk.  As soon as we disembarked from the Chao Phraya River cruise, a lot of  souvenir shops await for those interested in Thai historical artifacts.  Then, we walked towards the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and a few minutes walk to wander in the Grand Palace and the temples.  Under the scorching heat of the sun, we were all perspiring, but who cares I said to myself. I compromised my study/review time for this trip and so I must enjoy and make the most of it.  While in the temple premises, my friend Marisol who works in Bangkok, was coordinating with a travel agent regarding our seats for the Siam Niramit, listed in the Guinness World Records as one of the best cultural shows.  I highly recommend that you watch this show to experience Thai's arts and cultural heritage.  We were able to secure the best seat then and after wandering in the palace, we headed to the MRT subway (forgot the station name) to catch the scheduled show for the day.  Before the show started, buffet dinner was served and those who are lovers of Thai culinary would definitely enjoy this one.  The show itself was extravagant and worth the time indeed.

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (2009)

Backpackers street- souvenir shop
Be careful when crossing the streets.  Fast-moving motorcyles are very much visible on that day of visit, which makes me think you are not a Vietnamese if you don't own one.  Our trip to Ho Chi Minh (Saigon City) is actually a side-trip only as we are actually bound to see the Angkor Wat of Cambodia.  We stayed at District 1 also known as the Backpackers Street, and true to its name, a lot of foreigners stay in this place for a transient.  Thus, looking for accommodations is never a problem in this area.  Plus, if you want to know how it feels to be a millionaire, stay in Vietnam and see for yourself!

The Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Church, the Allez Boo burgers and the Vietnamese cuisine and its  people (with features like a mini-chinese  based on my opinion) are the things I can vividly remember in this overnight trip.  Group exercises and work-out sessions, other sports and recreational activitites were also available on its parks and open spaces even at 10 in the evening.  My travel buddies Fate and Jaja tried to join the group as well while I wander on my own.  

allez boo burgers at District 1

sunrise at the Angkor Wat
Siem Reap, Cambodia (2009)

This was the longest land-trip in my life, which I said to myself during that time will be the last instance for an experience.  An airfare direct to Cambodia is one of the most expensive trips one has to incur.  However, due to our eagerness to reach the said destination, we opted for the long trip via Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) where a public bus would take you to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It was a  long, arduous and winding road. After almost 8 hours of travel, we arrived at Siem Reap.  Upon arrival and with no hotel bookings, a Khmer who goes by the name of Mr. Bim, approached us at the bus station and offered his services as our tour guide to the Angkor Wat and recommended the Angkor Deluxe Inn as our temporary home in the country, which we gladly accepted.  We had our first dinner at Cambodia at Koulen Restaurant with a cultural presentation of the Apsara dancers as backdrop.  The Philippines has the best cultural dances. (see it for yourself if you don't believe me)
buffet dinner at Koulen Restaurant
Infrastructures need to be developed in the city, roads have to be asphalted as it is dusty all over.  We were able to find an internet shop near our hotel, which is a good point for us, made friends with the Khmer and my friend Fate gave them 50 pesos as souvenir which is a thousand of bucks equivalent to their currency.  All major commercial centers starts with the name "Lucky" - the Lucky Department Store, Lucky Mall and the Lucky Burgers.  They must have been believers of luck!  We were also given free bracelets by a sales lady from the Lucky Mall, as a lucky charm, as they say.

The Angkor Wat adventure then begun.  We woke up at around 6AM, late for the expected itinerary of 5AM as set by our tour guide.  However, we were still able to witness the sunrise at the world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site Angkor Wat.  The temple Entry Pass can be bought near the gates which costs 20 US dollars for a day per person. You have to carry the said Gate Pass at major temples as the same is inspected for admission purposes.  On board a "tuk-tuk", transport from one temple to another has been easy and convenient on our part as our travel guide and driver rolled into one was there to assist us.  We were able to visit 7 temples including the Angkor Wat and Tha Phrom (the setting for the movie Tomb Raider).  The number of visitors in the temple is innumerable and it was just an ordinary day in Cambodia.  Carved faces of the king and the apsara dancers were all over the place, with elephants being used as well as a mode of transportation.  The scenery was what I expected based on our high school readings of the Asian history on Ancient civilization.  The pictures will tell how grand and amazing ancient civilization was.  The trip was definitely priceless and educational.        

enjoying the tour at the Angkor Wat
and the various temples around
elephants and the tourist police surround the temples

self-portrait with the many faces of the king

the tomb raider setting

Phnom Penh, Cambodia (2009)

Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia and by no plans at all, we decided to stay for an overnight here before we get back to Ho Chi Minh, which will be our gateway back to Manila.  We stayed in an apartelle to save money.  I already forgot the name of the apartelle but accommodations in Phnom Penh is cheap, safe and readily accessible to major points of interest.  There are a lot of museums in this City, owing to the rich history and preserved culture that they have.  

First stop is the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum The site is a former high school used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the  Khmer Rouge communist regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979.  According to wikipedia,  Tuol Sleng (Khmer [tuəl slaeŋ]) means "Hill of the Poisonous Trees" or "Strychnine Hill".  While wandering inside the museum, we can feel the pain and the agony that the Khmer prisoners had gone through.  Pictures of the prisoners/victims, were posted along with aligned cabinets of human skulls and the varied methods of torture.  No photos were taken. One visit is enough for me and I swear not to visit the museum again.  For the sake of experience and to understand more the history of Cambodia, you may visit the said museum.  As for me, never again.

the National Museum of Cambodia
The National Museum of Cambodia on  a lighter note was our next stop and to appreciate the arts in relation to Khmer's culture and religion combined.  We have to recover from the depressing mood while we were at the Genocide Museum. 

For foreign visitors, admission costs 3USD.  Photography is not permitted within the museum galleries but photographs at the museum courtyard and exteriors are allowed.  There are so many rules inside the museum.  The museum is open from 8AM to 5PM but the last tickets were sold at 4PM.

After the museum visits, we wander around the city. We had our refreshing drinks at one of the street lanes where a happy pizza is served.  Due to some negative notions about the happy pizza and as first time travellers, we did not try one.  We don't want to be detained at the Immigration Office. These boxes of pizza in this side of the town are served as either "Mildly Happy Pizza", "Extra Happy Pizza" and "Very Happy Pizza". The happier the pizza, the stronger dose of marijuana it has.

at a restaurant serving happy pizza:
we don't need happy pizza, we're always happy! 
Khmer people are indeed accommodating. After a three-hour stroll, we were able to view the Royal Palace and the Independence Park.  Noticeable are the main streets passable by fruit vendors with their carts and the parks full of foreigners and locals alike.  

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2009)

at the Petronas Twin Towers
Honestly, I lost count of the number of pictures I had with this architectural landmark of Kuala Lumpur - the Petronas Towers. From dusk til dawn and of all angles, this I could say is the only remarkable site in the country's metropolis. 

As per consultation with wikipedia, the said skyscrapers and twin towers were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 until surpassed by Taipei 101 (this I have to see), but remain the tallest twin buildings in the world.

Going around the city is so easy due to the metro rail transit stations' accessibility to major destinations in the country.  We wandered around the city by foot, shop at the night markets and stroll at the Chinatown.  For budget travelers, a lot of apartelles and transient dormitories are available in chinatown.  But cleanliness is a big issue on the said District.  Speaking for myself, even if on budget, I cannot stand to stay in a cheap apartment or hotel yet the security and hygiene is compromised.  But were able to locate a two-star hotel in Chinatown which has a reasonable cost

Batu caves
Another must see destination while in Kuala Lumpur is the Batu Caves, located 13 kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the Gombak District.  This is one, if not the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India.  

It is easy to go there as buses are available at the Puduraya Terminal to avoid cutting trips.  An alternative is through the Komuter train from KL Sentral Station or the taxi cab which may cost from 20-25 RM on a metered taxi ride.  Once inside the premises of the Batu Caves, beware of numerous macaque monkeys as they are almost everywhere ready to be fed by visitors involuntarily.  Lesson: do not bring food! My friends' food was grabbed from her and for seconds, we disturbed the tranquility of the temple by our voices.  These monkeys may pose a hazard to tourists especially to small children and I hope the caretakers do something about this.

The Batu caves also known as the limestone hill, is home to different limestone formations and regarded as the world's tallest statute of Murugan, a Hindu deity.

Wanting to travel from Malaysia to Singapore? From Kuala Lumpur, it is advisable to travel directly to Singapore through a public bus to save costs.   It is easy to find a bus at the Puduraya Terminal  and fare is around 1,000 in Philippine peso for a one-way trip.  Likewise, trips are on an hourly basis, so you don't need to hurry to catch up.  Rates may have vary since my date of travel, so to be safe check also with the bus companies such as the StarMart Express Air Asia Liner, First Coach, Transnasional  Coach Services.  Drop off point in Singapore depends on the bus company.  On our case, since we don't have maps and we traveled late at night, we could not remember the exact stop we disembarked.

Singapore City, Singapore (2009 and 2010)

the new skyscraper of Singapore- the Marina Bay Sands
To date, I have been to the Lion City twice and kept on praising how the government was able to maintain a well-disciplined population and an outstanding urban planning. 

Most Filipino tourists I know, once they step on this country would later dream of working here.  And I am not an exception to that.  But the same remains a dream as I am still here in the Philippines.

this says it all

Of the many tourist attractions in the city, the fast development of its tourism, infrastructure and commercial sectors, there is indeed a lot of catching up to do.  As of writing and taken from personal experience, I recommend dining at the Clarke Quay, shop for souvenirs at the Chinatown for reasonable and affordable prices, stroll at the malls near the Esplanade for a panoramic landscape, take a picture with the merlion in front of the Fullerton Hotel and the durian-shaped architectural dome of the Esplanade, experience the Night Safari, which in my case, gate crashed for a party and mingle with locals and tourists dressed in elaborate and well-thought halloween costumes for the party (2009), sip on a cup of coffee worth a dollar and treat yourself for a dirty ice-cream sold by senior citizens at the Orchard Road, buy electronic gadgets at a very low price  at the Orchard Road as well, a day tour at Sentosa and the newly-opened Universal Studios.

As an English-speaking country, getting lost in the alleyways is never a problem but it is quite costly to live in this country.  There are dormitories for backpackers as well in Chinatown, but I cannot vouch as to its safety and sanitation as I was not able to try it.  It pays to have friends who live in this country to be able to save for accommodations. For that, a big thanks!

To complete the list of southeast asian countries, I have yet to travel to Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos and to two territories which I have no idea exists - the Christmas Islands and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

More discoveries of the Southeast Asia soon.




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