Keeping Paradise

Saving the country’s last frontier
(1st in a series)

This isn’t my first time to Palawan but I still get excited every time. Who wouldn’t? It’s a special place.

This time around it’s Apulit, which, according to our guide means castaway. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind being one if it means waking up to this view every day.

It’s actually a back-to-back weekend getaway for me. Fresh from our Liwliwa escapade the week before, this seemed to be the icing on top of the cake.

Part of the El Nido Resorts group, Apulit is just one of the other resorts in the area being maintained by the Ayala‘s – one of the Philippines‘ richest and most influential families. The others being Pangulasian, Lagen and Miniloc. It’s formerly known as Club Noah Isabelle, a little trivia I learned from Monique, the company’s environment representative while on a chit-chat with her on our boat ride to the town of Taytay on the way back.

The latest resort the Ayala’s are developing is Lio. It even has its own airport – an effort to make the resorts more accessible to the people by creating a vital corridor linking the properties. Our first breakfast in Palawan is in Lio, at Casa Kalaw.

With the development however, is the focus on sustainability. Don’t get me wrong, the very first time I was in El Nido was probably about 5 or 6 years back, in Pangulasian, and the resort is already on it doing the sustainability thing. However, because of the seeming apathy from governments and big businesses about the worsening climate crisis, this mantra has gotten louder and has become a more pressing issue now more than ever.

It only makes sense that stakeholders ensure a healthy and vibrant ecosystem, and that any development have the least or zero impact to the environment. With pristine, paradise-like environment as its main draw, one can say that the industry’s survival hinges on nature itself. It is, therefore, to the best interest of everyone – businesses, tourists, local communitiesto take care of the environment. It’s a huge challenge, for sure, but I admire the effort to really commit to the advocacy.

Climate change is a hot topic nowadays and yet, still, maybe not hot enough to make huge strides on a policy level. It is up to ordinary people and especially those who have money and influence to spearhead these movements. Everyone can do something in his or her own little way but especially if there is a concerted effort from all sectors can we only make a deep and lasting impact.

Hence, I applaud the effort being done to engage everyone in this. Part of our activity is to plant trees in certain areas of the mountain where we also hiked to the top of and where there’s a newly-built viewing deck.

I love the fact that this tree-planting activity is not just ‘planting for planting’s sake’ but that there is a lot of research that went into as well. It considers the types of plants or trees to be planted which are basically those that are endemic to the area. This activity would have been a defeated purpose if otherwise. In fact, I probably would have opted out had it been any different.

It was a quick breakfast in Lio as we had to prepare for the long drive to the dock in Taytay, our jump off point to Apulit.

We were learning a lot from our guide. Taytay is an old town, he says. It even has an old Spanish fort built near the docks, it being Queen Isabelle‘s favorite pit stop back in the day in her visits to this area en route to Puerto Princesa. The fort was built through forced labor (polo y servicio) by Filipinos.

We also passed by cliffs where, according to our guide, eggs from a certain specie of bird are harvested to make nido soup. Have not tasted one myself but I assume it’s good. Probably expensive because of its rarity and the difficulty of sourcing the main ingredient.

Upon arrival, we had some small snacks and refreshments. This, while waiting for the boat ride.

So, are you ready to see paradise? Details in the next article coming soon.

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Inspiration Meets Fun at Liwliwa Beach, Zambales

2nd of 2 parts

I maybe wrong but depending on who you talk to or which online reference you are checking, liwliwa in Ilocano could mean delight, inspiration or recreational fun. Ilocano refers to both the dialect and the people of this particular region where Zambales province is located.

Whatever the case, any of those adjectives mentioned at the outset would perfectly fit Liwliwa. It is all of that.

If you think yesterday’s spectacle of the sunset is bomb enough, think again. I, myself, did not expect this view. I mean, look at this.

A part of me is saying, ‘don’t spread the word just yet’, fearing this piece of paradise would not last long enough once people get wind. But part of me is also saying, ‘how could you not share such beauty?’ Urgh! I’m torn.

One has to be in awe and deep appreciation knowing this beauty in front of us is a product of a tragic event from decades ago. This part of the country was almost erased from the map by a powerful volcanic eruption of a mountain called Pinatubo who laid dormant for hundreds of years, the effects of which were felt worldwide and for years later.

Global temperature dropped and a more-than-the-usual clear glow of sunsets and sunrises were observed in different places. So powerful, in fact, it wiped out two of America’s largest bases this side of the Pacific (the Subic Naval Base in Zambales and Clark Air Base in Pampanga), prompting their eventual turnover to the Philippine government.

I wish for this place to have good management and care so as not to go the way of Boracay – the now poster child for anything that could go wrong to a perfect island by overcrowding and lack of strong, effective regulation.

It was almost lunch time so we went back to the resort to prepare for check-out, the Kapitan’s Liwa.

I wouldn’t let this article pass without having to mention one of our newfound friends – this cute labrador called Whiskey.

Being part of the owners’ family, he is a mainstay at the resort. He does a good job entertaining guests 😊👍💯🐶

Isn’t he the sweetest thing? Aaawww…

After check-out we transferred to Riverside again for lunch. I couldn’t be more excited, actually. We are having a boodle fight! 😀

There’s nothing more fulfilling and satisfying to me than using my own bare hands for eating, especially if served with Filipino food. Oh, delicious. We had ginataang sitaw at kalabasa, pinaupong manok and lumpiang shanghai.

So, are you drooling yet? 😀

It’s amusing to see our Dutch friends try their hands on… well, literally hands on the food (no pun intended) 😁👍

Afterwards, we were toured around the premises.

The owners planted coconuts and other types of plants which provide different kinds of practical uses – as source of food, shade, even aesthetics. This tree stump, for example, as simple as it looks, add interesting character to the place especially with mushrooms growing around its trunk.

You can paddleboard your way to the beach via the river

I love how this place is so in touch with nature. There is never a more pressing time for us to go sustainable given the climate crisis we are facing. It is my fervent hope that places like this remain for future generations to enjoy.

My 7,107 | Liwliwa Beach, Zambales

1st of 2 parts

Everybody knows how unpredictable the weather can be – one moment it’s all bright and sunny, and then rainy and gloomy the next. All the weather forecasts I checked online painted a not-so-good weather condition for the weekend which did not bode well for our planned getaway to the beach.

Our friends from the Netherlands couldn’t wait to experience the tropics – the sun, the beach and, well, everything in between. You can understand how relieved we were that this trip went on smoothly, let alone materialize at all, the bad weather forecast notwithstanding. The conditions were surprisingly cooperative. We did encounter some challenges but nothing we weren’t able to overcome nor anything that could have dampened our spirits.

We made sure it was a fun experience.

We arrived at the Riverside. One need not guess why it’s called that, yes? For obvious reason. A river runs through the property. It couldn’t be more straightforward. We even had to cross a bridge made of bamboo to reach the other side.

If there’s anything these inventive signposts below tell us, is that the owner(s) of this property are passionate about one thing, for sure – surfing.

It felt like entering some chill, peaceful village – the kind of atmosphere often associated with surfer/hippie culture. One would notice how indigenous and natural elements were incorporated in the design of the accommodations, giving it a traditional Filipino vibe. These huts you see with thatched roofs are called bahay kubo in the vernacular. Aren’t they nice to look at? These huts do a good job sheltering people from the tropical heat.

Noticeably too, are the people’s love for pets. All around you will see cats, dogs….

… and goats! 😀

You just find them everywhere here.

Another noticeable part of the landscape are the trees. Pine-like trees called agoho or agoo are abundant here. Not sure if these were planted here on purpose or have grown naturally after the place was covered by volcanic ash brought about by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo decades ago, some time in the early 90’s. This beach in fact did not exist back then. It was naturally created by the enormous volume of ash dumped by the volcano, as well as sediments washed by the river from upstream.

We arrived in time for lunch. We decided to eat at Tadhana, which means destiny. Food was good. The fruit shakes especially, were a hit. You can even play sungka while waiting for your food to be served. Sungka is a traditional Filipino tabletop game.

The Philippines’ unofficial national dish, adobo can be cooked in many different ways. As many as there are different dialects spoken in the entire archipelago, it seems.
Got myself a strawberry banana shake. Refreshingly good.

Off to the beach we headed afterwards. Thankfully, it did not disappoint. We went around late noon so that the sun’s heat wouldn’t be too harsh. We weren’t minding how time flies, so I guess we were having fun, yes? 😀

Nature though, has a way of ending the day quite nicely for us. We were treated to a spectacular view of the sunset, as if bidding us farewell till the next day.

What an awesome sight!

The squad

We capped the night off with booze, card games (any kind of game we could think of, actually), some silliness and then more … at one point beside a bonfire by the river.

All in all, it was fun. The long drive was worth it. We all retired to bed feeling beat ready to be recharged for the next day 😊

Singapore, Day 2 – Home Ideas & Swedish Meatballs

2nd in a series

Previously in this series:

Summit 2019 – Singapore

Well, what can I say? My first IKEA ever!

While PH is still in eager anticipation of its very first IKEA store, Singapore already has two to date. I say, “What’s up with that Philippines ?? ”

If anything, I can only describe it as humongous.

The one we visited was the store in Tampines. We took the shuttle and arrived in time for brunch, or thereabouts.

There’s already a long line at the counter when we arrived and the huge dining area is already packed with hungry souls. It isn’t this much people we traveled with at the shuttle service coming here so I guess the others came in earlier from other hop-on points, or have used other mode(s) of transport.

I’m loving the idea of a multi-layered tray cart

A friend suggested that I try the Swedish meatballs and one of the cakes, so I did. I got myself a chocolate cake with crunchy caramel.

Now, what I like about Swedish food (if this is in fact representative of authentic Swedish food), which I am trying for the first time, by the way, is that it’s more on the healthier side. It noticeably uses minimal sodium and sugar. The ingredients too are probably mostly organic, if not all.

It’s delicious, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it’s not as seasoned as much as we are used to with our own dishes. Filipino food, as we all know, is BIG on flavor. Like it’s all savory, sweet (or both) in our world, right?

This focus on providing healthy alternatives is actually a good thing. With the increasing number of cases of degenerative, lifestyle diseases like diabetes and cancer, we do well to be more mindful of the food we eat. We ought to go easy on sodium, sugar, rice and all other bad carbs, and add more of the different veggies instead.

This flat lay though. Hands down.

After that filling and satisfying meal, we are now ready to explore this giant of a maze where it seems like anything and everything you would ever need for an ideal home could be found – from linens, to decor, to furnitures, to all sorts of knick-knacks, you name it. You literally need to follow the arrows on the floor so as not to get lost.

The thing that strikes me the most is the fact that customers are actually encouraged to try the couch and the bed to check how comfortable it is to their liking. Something that’s very different from what we are used to in the Philippines where you would often see signs that say “Thank you for not sitting” or not lying on the bed, or something to that effect.

As a matter of fact, I found myself some nice spot in some (er, not-so-discreet) corner where I had to doze off. I couldn’t help it. For that brief moment, I was the epitome of the saying “masandal, tulog”.

You should cut me some slack, guys. I have very punishing work schedule.

If it’s any consolation, I’m not alone in this. As you can see here, R too has found herself some cozy spot for some snooze.

And this here is the difference (quite literally) between sitting-pretty (left) and sleeping-pretty (right). 😀

If anything, I guess you can call this a testament to IKEA‘s high-quality and comfort, right? Because really, “you’ll doze off in no time”.

Haha! Did you see what I did there? Some segue, huh? And no, I did not just pull-off some tagline 😀

We were feeling pretty beat that day, we hadn’t really made anything out of our itinerary for after. So we just prepared to go back to the hotel. We decided to have some snack first on the way (albeit a bit heavy) and a few more shopping.

The mall we passed by adjacent to the train station has a food court with purveyors selling laksa. Toast Box (where we decided to eat), used to have a branch in Manila at Robinsons Place, but it was short-lived. It didn’t quite took off after its launch. The menu might have needed some tweaking, I surmise.

But this laksa right here? It’s good. Nothing bad to say.

We went back to the hotel afterwards.

By the way, I think our choice of hotel couldn’t be more perfect. We recommend it to anyone whose budget is somewhere in the mid-range. Hotel 81 Premier Star is what it is, of the Hotel 81 chain.

The hotel’s lobby

The rooms are clean and has this minimalist Japanese zen vibe. It’s pretty much stripped down to just the basic necessities (to bring down cost and maximize space), but not sacrificing aesthetics, functionality and comfort. It’s still complete with everything you would practically need but without the frills.

If Mt. Fuji and cherry blossoms aren’t a dead giveaway enough to its vibe, I don’t know what.

Summit 2019 – Singapore

1st in a series

Can I just say? I couldn’t be more excited with this trip.

It’s been a long time since I had this kind of adventure/get-together with some of my favorite people from way back – from my call center days to my stint in a well-known GDS (excuse my jargon). It’s a different kind of feeling being with people you are in the same wavelength with, right? Oh, happy days 😀

My friends have been on this so-called “summit” for quite a while now – sort of like an inside thing they came up with to describe this yearly affair of getting together in a different city each time. I didn’t know about this so-called “Summit” until I got to THE actual “Summit” itself. It was only then that I’ve learned about it.

I was jealous. I want in.

The arrival of “delegates” 😀

I like the idea of being with them in a different city every year. I mean, with all of life’s stresses? Pfft! This couldn’t have been a more well-deserved break. At least I know it will. And I know it’s going to be for all of our future trips, I claim.

So, Singapore. Where do I even begin? There’s a lot to process.

Well, where better else to start than with one of our favorite things to do, if not THE most favorite thing we love to do – EATING!!! (you are free to dispute me here guys… if you can).

Multi-cultural Singapore is a foodie’s paradise. Not far from the hotel where we stayed at is a famous restaurant that sells Singaporean chili crab – the No Sign Board Seafood Restaurant in Geylang. Not sure though if this is the exact same branch Anthony Bourdain went to in his trip(s) here.

We didn’t pass up trying the Singaporean chili crab, of course. Thank goodness it didn’t disappoint. It was quite the messy affair but it’s all worth it. Although you can opt to use utensils, eating it with bare hands would have been better. It just adds a different dimension to the experience. Thinking about it now makes me salivate.

Equally interesting and satisfying are the fried mantou buns that pair best with the chili crab. We went crazy for the mantous!

We also tried the cereal-coated deep-fried prawns together with yang chow rice, which, I would have to say is sort of like the de facto Filipino barkada’s pigout staple as a side (…or main) – the yang chow, I mean. A true-blooded Filipino would have it either way. Because, you know, we love rice like that.

The movie Crazy, Rich Asians has just been shown fairly recently at the time. And maybe in keeping up with this theme, the morning after we decided to first visit the place where the wedding scene was shot, purportedly. I maybe wrong.

The place is called CHIJMES – a 19th-century structure which was a former convent and school, that now houses restaurants, bars and an events space.

View from the back of the CHIJMES

Another reason why we were all in Singapore that week is because it is T’s birthday week. It seemed like stars aligned so we could all meet together in SG for this special occasion – she being based here for work and others coincidentally are in the city partly on business. I, for my part, have been wanting to go to Singapore for the longest time. So, there – mission accomplished 🙂

Here we are goofing around at the CHIJMES. This was on the day of T’s birthday.

A short walk from the CHIJMES is the Bugis shopping district. It has a combination of shopping malls, restaurants, nightspots and regulated back-alley roadside vendors, or what we call in the Philippines as tiangge. This is one of the go-to places for souvenirs.

Oh and look! There’s a Manila Street in Bugis.

We spent hours shopping and scouting for discounts, hoping to score good deals. I’m not really so much into shopping but some of my friends are, which is great because Singapore is a shopping haven. It pretty much has everything anyone would ever want.

All this activity, the going to and fro between shops within the district, made us hungry. We took a break and had late lunch in one of the food courts. You probably recognize this Singaporean staple below. Normally for breakfast, this kopi & toast combo is easily recognizable with its soft-boiled egg mixed with soy sauce.

We were discussing where to go to next. Our itinerary is jam-packed and we thought we may not have enough time to visit every one of them given the limited time we have. To make the most of it, we thought it best to first visit Singapore‘s latest attraction – The Jewel at Changi.

It’s amazing how Singapore constantly reinvents itself. There is always something new to do and see. This latest project is a nature-themed mixed-use development that connects three of the city’s airport terminals.

Its centerpiece is the world’s tallest indoor waterfall called Rain Vortex, surrounded by a terraced forest setting – the Shiseido Forest Valley.

The Rain Vortex

Consistently awarded Best Airport in the World for 7 consecutive years since 2013 by Skytrax, Changi isn’t one to be outdone. It’s definitely not resting on its laurels.

Just recently it has unveiled its newest terminal – T4, which is touted to be the world’s first fully-automated airport. This, they say, is a game-changer. I had the opportunity to experience T4 on my flight back to Manila.

T4 departure lobby

We’ve noticed automated counters inside the Jewel, too. In its bid to revolutionize travel and to even further make visiting and transiting Singapore a more pleasurable and seamless experience, they have options for early check-in in these counters for specific airlines for now. I’m pretty sure there are plans to roll out the same for all carriers in the future.

Automated check-in counters and baggage drop-offs at the Jewel

Last on our itinerary for the day is the Light & Sound Show at the Marina Bay Sands.

Can I just say? The view of the Marina Bay is killer! A postcard-pretty snapshot of an exquisite and vibrant city. The city of the future.

It excites me to know what other treasures this city-state offers. That’s something you will find out on the next post.

For now, I’m leaving you with an amazing light and sound show I was able to record the entire 13 or so minutes of.

Enjoy! 😀

Siem Reap | A Taste of the Gastronomical and the Strange

3rd and last of a series

Previously in this series:

Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

The Ancient City of Angkor – a Cautionary Tale

Yesterday was exhausting. We spent the whole day touring the ancient sites of Ta Prohm, Bayon, and Angkor Wat. Though it was undoubtedly an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience – one filled with awe and wonder, it was also exhausting, what with the long walks and the heat.

This however, did not deter us from spending the night partying in Pub Street – the center of Siem Reap‘s nightlife.

Before that, we decided to stuff ourselves crazy with food – glorious food! We had dinner at the Asian Square restaurant near the Art Center Night Market.

Asian Square restaurant

We ate to our hearts’ content. Well, at least, I did. I’m adventurous like that when it comes to food.

Pound Green Papaya Salad
Deep-fried Fish Cake with Stir-Fried Mixed Vegetables

Speaking of adventurous, there’s something I did I think would be worthy of that description – all in the name of fulfilling some bucket list. A random act of adventurism, I guess you can call it.

We were looking for a nice place we can party when we saw this lady selling some kind of street food that kind of looked unusual (to us) – some critter most people back home would probably freak out upon seeing, let alone eat – scorpions and snakes!

I mustered the courage to eat them. If anything, I would say, it was a revelation. The scorpion was crunchy and tasty, and the snake reminds me of a typical Filipino street food called isaw, or grilled chicken intestine. There are parts of the snake that’s close to being burnt that have crisped up, that actually tasted like “chicharron” (pork rind or deep-fried chicken skin).

The idea of these critters used as food has got some interesting history behind it, one that’s borne out of necessity and survival. During the Pol Pot regime, people had to escape the atrocities by hiding in the jungles. They survived by making do with what was available in their surroundings. Thanks to these critters they were able to get their nourishment.

Truly, one can never underestimate the value of nature, and the human spirit in overcoming adversity.

Such resilience these Cambodians exemplified, yes?

And what an experience this has been for me, personally. Couldn’t be more random 😅

By now we were able to find a place to party. The thumping and the booming were heard even from afar. It called and tempted, and we heeded with practically no resistance. Man, we partied like crazy! 😛

Haven’t partied this hard for a long time, actually – got drunk, loosened up, got my groove on.

Booze a’flowin’, thanks to Gen 😁👍.

Good times, indeed. Especially because I’m spending it with some of my most favorite people. It just made the experience much more fun!

I got back to the hotel wasted.

The day after is “free” day so we get to do whatever we want since there is no formal itinerary planned out for us by the travel operator.

As always, we start the day with breakfast. We never miss breakfast. This one below I had on top of a wooden deck (or bridge, I guess it is) over a koi pond.

And if there is dinner provided for by the hotel, we would be more than happy to devour 😁 No need to ask us twice, for sure. Such was the case when they provided for our dinner on the last day before heading to the airport. Here are some of the pics.

Fresh Vegetable Spring Roll
Beef Lok Lak
Key Lime Pie. This one’s a hit 👍

Breakfasts are a combination of continental and local Cambodian dishes.

There is this soup similar to pho, the name of which escapes me now. Anyone who knows what this is, feel free to sound off in the comments section. It was delicious.

Any of you know the name of the pho-like soup on the left?

There’s also breakfast staples like toasts, coffee, sausages, omelets, rice, etc.

We spent our free day shopping and below are some of my haul. Looking at all of these now, it brought back to me how amazing Cambodia is – its history, its culture, its people; and how amazing this whole experience was overall.

Afterwards, we ate lunch at Pub Street and decided to have Tex Mex. Because, why not? No, really, we’re just hankering for something familiar 😁. Boy, we were full after. This was at Cafe Latino.

We went back to the hotel to prepare our luggage as our flight leaves in the evening.

Before I end this series however, I want to share something I want you to try to figure out what happened exactly. If it’s even something that can be explained by reason or logic.

I slept late on my first night in Siem Reap. I was still up early morning hours of the 2nd day – wee hours. I just finished ironing my clothes and took a shower afterwards.

I was in front of the mirror patting myself dry with towel when suddenly I heard some rustling – some kind of footsteps, coming from the back door, like someone is approaching. I immediately rushed to the door, afraid I might have left it unlocked.

There are different possible scenarios playing in my head at that time:

1. Whoever it is on the other side is probably oblivious of the fact that there ARE people who are checked-in and so would have entered by mistake.

2. Some maintenance or security guy doing rounds checking if doors are properly locked or maybe to check if the water tank or pipes are working fine. At one point I thought I heard some faint clanking, as if someone’s working the pipes.

3. A break in (with the purpose of hurting people or stealing). You know, the stuff of nightmares. This would’ve scared the s#@! out of me.

So, I don’t know. The first option is quite far-fetched. The second option seems off. It doesn’t seem normal for hotel staff to be doing this especially in the middle of the night.

The other strange thing is that the backdoor opens to just a small, sort of like semi-enclosed patio adjoined to a wall which pretty much draws the property’s boundaries – perimeter wall, I guess is what you call it. Beyond that, supposedly, is the neighbor. I’ve learned of this when I checked after the sun was up. There’s no sign of a “water tank”, either. At least not anywhere I can see in the immediate vicinity.

On either side of the patio are walls separating the other rooms. So it’s unlikely to be a prank pulled off by my colleagues from the other rooms. I don’t think anyone would go to great lengths, scaling walls and stuff, for that.

What I know for sure is that someone did try to open the back door – I saw the door handle turn with my own two eyes. I was looking at it up close, ready to deal with the “supposed” intruder, in case of forceful entry. Luckily, my colleague (roommate) was able to lock the door using the bottom lock before going to bed.

I was waiting with bated breath as to what would happen next. I’m expecting a knock, at least, or someone calling anyone from the inside. In my head, I was imagining my worst case scenario – a banging on the door. I’m preparing myself for a loud scream and some martial arts action 😛 (not that I know any martial arts, haha!). I’d probably just run as fast as I can, and in my towel 😀

But, yeah. Nothing. Nada.

Things couldn’t have gotten any more odd, actually. Remember the clanking sound? After that, the shower turned on briefly by itself and then turned back off again. I didn’t see the lever or the shower handle move.

Afterwards, I heard some kind of buzz in the front yard. In fact, I might have heard the door pushed lightly, like someone trying to enter. But not like banging, or something. By this time, my imagination was already running wild. I thought someone might be entering from the front door. Again, my concern was that the door might have been left unlocked so I immediately ran to the front while asking, in an alarming voice, my colleague (who was already sleeping at the time) if the door was locked. He was inadvertently awoken because of this.

No one was outside, apparently.

I don’t know. Maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. What do you think?

What’s more peculiar is that my other colleagues from the other rooms experienced something similar at around the same time, they say. Others have other strange things happen to them as well. Coincidence, you think? You be the judge.

On a lighter note, I would like to commend the hotel staff for doing a great job accommodating us. They’ve been very attentive and hospitable.

To all the friendly staff of La Residence Blanc D’Angkor, thank you 🙏😀 for making our stay memorable.

This wraps up my Siem Reap experience. It’s been a fun and exciting (and sometimes strange) three (or is it four?) days. Lots of lessons learned. Definitely something I would treasure for life. 😊🇰🇭

The Ancient City of Angkor – A Cautionary Tale

2nd in a series on Siem Reap

Previously in this series:

Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

Truth be told, I don’t know anything much about Cambodia before this trip. So are most of the people I talked to. Stories circulating online show others being so clueless they don’t know they are dressing inappropriately – some go shirtless, or worse, naked!

Ok, maybe it’s because of the heat, but still, it underscores the fact how little they know about the place and what these ancient structures mean to the local people. They think Siem Reap is just another exotic Southeast Asian beach town. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia has beaches, but Siem Reap (where the concentration of the ancient temples are) is 280 miles from the nearest seashore. 

I surmise most Filipinos are introduced to Cambodian history some time during middle school. This is where we’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat the first time. However, as is true with most of the things we learn in school, we only remember them by rote (only because we need to pass the subject) but not really getting the import of what was taught (more often than not, I suppose). Not only until later in life and until it fits into one’s scheme of things, does one able to make sense of these things.

Cambodia, for a long time, isn’t really the kind of destination Filipinos are very familiar with. Except recently, it isn’t in the Filipino tourist’s radar. Not even in the OFW’s radar. I mean, I don’t hear OFW’s saying: “Oh, I work in Cambodia very often. In fact, nada.

I think the one time it made an impression on me as an exciting destination was when it came out in the first Tomb Raider movie. A very smart move to break into popular culture, I would say. It has effectively put Cambodia back on the map.

The image of giant trees growing on top of ancient temple walls, with huge roots exposed, left a strong impression. There’s an otherworldly feel to it. It’s become iconic now.

This is a departure from the bad image the country has suffered for years under the Pol Pot regime – one of gruesome violence and genocide. Almost every Cambodian alive today has some loved one or relative, who fell victim to the atrocities. Truly a dark chapter in this country’s history.

Some people may not be too keen on studying history, hence, must have felt on the fence regarding this trip. I get that. But just like anything else in life that is good for us, like a healthy diet and exercise, it’s something we should develop a liking for, for our own good. It takes discipline.

Also, because our modern global civilization is faced with a similar crisis the ancients did, the repercussions of which we haven’t fully realized. We need all the help we can get to overcome it. Any precedence in history that could be of any value would be a good start to even get a bit of a clue on what’s the best way to deal with this problem.

And so, although I don’t know much about Cambodia, I approached it with an open mind. I was an empty cup willing to learn, and boy, did I realize a lot of things. Just the magnificence of it all – the splendor, the scale, the engineering marvel, especially at a time when (complex) machinery was unheard of – took my breath away. Mind you, this vast area dotted with numerous temple sites was once a vibrant metropolis (or whatever the equivalent of it is in ancient times). This, in fact, was once the world’s largest city before the Industrial Age – a world heritage that merits our admiration and appreciation. A gift to humanity.

There are three temple sites we visited that are in relatively close proximity to each other (satellite view below).

First is Ta Prohm, where part of the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. I’m sure you’ve become familiar with this image by now, thanks to the movie.

“Founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, it was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found – the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors” – Wikipedia

All this traveling back in time, at the same time being surrounded by magnificent ancient architecture, makes one feel like going on an adventure – Indiana Jones level 🙂 And to kick it off, we were given a group activity – a treasure hunt of sorts. We are to find a bas relief of an apsara head partially hidden behind some huge temple block ruins, overgrown with tree roots. We were just given a picture of how it looks like facing the image and then had to find the actual location for ourselves. Given the huge area we need to scour and the seemingly similar features of a lot of the places in the temple grounds, it seemed like an insurmountable task to accomplish. However, persistence and team work paid off and has won the day. Surely no task is so great with a clear vision and game plan, and a strong team spirit 🙂

Do you see in this photo where the apsara is hiding?

Apsaras seem to be the first ones to greet us upon entering our first temple – Ta Prohm. They serve as good introduction to Cambodian culture and history. In fact, they play a prominent part in the whole Angkorian culture and architectural theme of the day. Below are the apsaras stationed at the wall near the entrance.

Apsara (in Hindu mythology) is a celestial nymph, typically the consort of a gandharva or heavenly musician. In the Cambodian culture, Khmer female figures that are dancing or are poised to dance are considered apsaras; female figures, depicted individually or in groups, who are standing still and facing forward in the manner of temple guardians or custodians are called devatas.” – Wikipedia

Here are some of the other areas inside the temple grounds. As expected, it’s teeming with tourists 🙂

Next stop is the Bayon Temple, also known as Angkor Thom.

“Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences” – Wikipedia

It goes on to say that the JSA, the main conservatory body in charge of the conservation and preservation of the site, describes the temple as “the most striking expression of the baroque style” of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat.

This is where I got lost for a time, having been separated from the group. Was having a hard time finding my pass and so the group went ahead without me. By the time I was allowed to get in, the group is nowhere to be found. So I just made my way to the top and explored Bayon by myself.

Been exploring corridors and galleries on the lower levels and got few surprises here and there. Turned a corner and found “treasures” like this.

I wonder what it’s like being a Buddhist.

Made my way the to the top and found gigantic statues (towers) of Avalokiteshvara faces, a bodhisattva. This is actually a Bayon temple signature. Hence, its other title – ‘the face temple‘.

Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who are destined to become buddhas but postpone that final state in order to help humanity.

Another striking feature of Bayon is its adornment of 1.2 kms of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures.

I wouldn’t be delving much into the details and stories behind these bas-reliefs but I highly suggest you search and read up on their background. It’s full of history and lots of interesting stories to tell. It’s like taking a peek into the soul of a proud kingdom – its glorious past, its people, its kings, its tales and legends; its everyday life; the mundane and the otherworldly; its idiosyncrasies and all.

Lonely Planet was on point when it said : “There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face”.

By this time, I was already able to catch up with the group.

Our final temple to visit is no other than the grandest and most majestic of them all – Angkor Wat. But before that, we first went to a restaurant outside the temple grounds as we all have been wanting to eat and take a break from all the walking and climbing, under a terribly hot weather.

Here are some of the food we devoured. I didn’t get the names of everything but some of them include: chicken with Khmer spice, deep-fried fish, fried egg, sauteed fried pork with eggplant, stir-fried veggies. I may not have gotten all the names correctly but you get the idea, right? No need to be all fussy about it 🙂

And so we entered the Angkor Wat temple grounds. ‘Massive’ is an understatement. We had to cross a body of water which seemed like some natural waterway, a river or something, but in reality is a gigantic man-made moat that surrounds the complex.

We noticed monkeys roaming around freely. There are those who seem to be welcoming us on the other end of the pontoon bridge, seated on stairwells and on railings.

Angkor Wat is “one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum” – Wikipedia

Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Coming from a predominantly Catholic country, this is a sight to behold. I feel like finding new religion 😀

Though damage is minimal, Angkor Wat has not been spared the effects of modern warfare. In fact, before entering, our guide showed us bullet holes left by a shoot-out between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces in the late ’70’s. This photo, in particular, shows bullet still left inside one of the walls of this ancient structure.

Even more destructive than the war itself though, were the rampant looting of the archaeological finds, by art thieves working out of Thailand. One could not help but notice the numerous headless statues and figures, as a consequence of this looting.

“Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation” – Wikipedia

Statue of god Vishnu

Once again, monkeys roam careless and free 😀

Angkor Wat is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

Before entering the temple itself, we gathered in front of, what looked like a depression on the earth with a small lake-like structure at the bottom, to have our group and individual photos taken. This is a popular spot where people can take picture-perfect photos because of the reflection created by the water, for added drama.

Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.

The magnificence, the splendor, the scale of this ancient wonder. I was in awe.

The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls.

“The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last. Each gallery has a gopura at each of the points, and the two inner galleries each have towers at their corners, forming a quincunx with the central tower. Connecting the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side is a cruciform cloister called Preah Poan (the “Hall of a Thousand Gods”). The four small courtyards marked out by the cloister may originally have been filled with water. North and south of the cloister are libraries” – Wikipedia

The steep stairway symbolizes the difficulty of reaching heaven

“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome…”

Henri Mouhot, 19th-century French naturalist and explorer

Yes, we romanticize how magnificent the structures are and how ingenious the engineering that was used to build them, but I don’t think people really understand the enormity and scale of this project even if I say it repeatedly and candidly. So, let’s put it in perspective, shall we?

The Khmer Empire ruled over a vast area of Southeast Asia, even larger than what modern Cambodia is today.

Its capital city is Angkor. At the time, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was the world’s largest urban center. And in order to support such huge population, the Khmer built water management systems like huge reservoirs, canals, channels and dikes. They made good use of the resources that are available in season such as the monsoon. Water can be abundant in one season and scarce the next. This ingenious solution of efficiently utilizing a precious resource secured them a regular harvest.

For a long time, it has been a mystery how the society collapsed after about 200-300 years after its peak. There have been lots of theories, of course. Recently, however, a new one surfaced (and this is a real kicker). It states that environmental factors, otherwise known as ‘climate change‘ could have played a huge role in its demise. The ‘freaky’ weather patterns, like floods and droughts, overwhelmed those water management systems. And when I say freaky, I mean those that are not within the parameters of what is considered regular or normal. Basically, weather phenomenon that are off the charts.

We often hear about once in a 100-year type of flooding or drought, or heavy rainfall, right? They do happen as part of the natural cycles of the earth. What’s scary about our time though, is that our brand of climate change is self-inflicted. We create the causes for our own demise. And there’s no precedence of it anywhere in history. The CO2 levels and other pollutants we put in the air are staggering. Nowhere in recorded history has there been this much level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists fear reaching a tipping point where we face the risk of a runaway weather, in which we wouldn’t have any control over nor could we predict with a much better certainty how the weather is going to behave.

Now who says history is not relevant to us today? We may have come a long way as a species but we surely have not learned from the errors of the past, or at least not have been as vigilant as we should have. The ancient ruins of Angkor are a poignant reminder of how even with the best technology and advancements, humans are no match to nature. We could very well suffer the same fate as the ancient Khmer people if we don’t change our ways.

So often we fail to value the natural world because of our greed. We treat it like a commodity, an unlimited resource. We need to realize that it is to our best interest to work with it and not against it.

Here’s to hoping things would work for the better. And soon.

Special thanks to Real World Adventure for arranging our tour of the temples.

To Vox for this video, where screen grabs of the maps of Southeast Asia were taken.

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