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 enter 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 notice 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 looks 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.

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

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 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.

Find them on Facebook:
@realwordadvanture
@Vox
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Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

1st in a series on Siem Reap

It was a sunny day. Judging by what the previous groups who have been here before have told us, we only expect the weather to get even hotter as the day drags on. That’s actually a better prospect than when it rains, right? So I guess no one’s really complaining.

Immediately I notice how red the soil is (something I’ve noticed to be characteristic of the landscape here).

We were asked to assemble for a briefing to discuss the do’s and don’ts, the basics in biking, which gear is for what, and stuff. It was impressed upon us that this is not an individual race. Hence, we need to help each other out in order for the whole team to finish fast. Any member of the team struggling should be helped out. Now that’s something worthy of emulation in real life, don’t you think?

We are to finish a 12-km stretch of rough/dirt roads, with pit stops along the way for when we need to recharge – drink to quench our thirst, eat, relax, take selfies/groupfies, or just be silly with one another.

Some thirst quencher this Aquarius is

Despite the heat and exhaustion, one can admire the scenic view of the Cambodian countryside, complemented by a soft breeze generated by one’s own motion against the tepid air. I can only appreciate the simplicity of life here. Time suddenly stood still.

Photo courtesy of Rohjean Alberto, with Erene Araojo on the bike.

At the finish line, we were treated to the sight of an elaborately decorated Buddhist structure known as pagoda. Pictured below is the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda. It’s also a functioning monastery for monks so it’s alternatively called the Wat Phreah Dak.

Wat Phreah (Preah) Dak or the Phreah (Preah) Dak pagoda

I notice a lot of these interesting, colorful structures with spires in the temple grounds. Wonder what these are?

Colorful stupas

As explained by our tour guide Sip, these are known as stupas. They basically are tombstones that houses cremated ashes of deceased Buddhists. The more elaborate and bigger in size the stupas are, the richer the person (or the family of the person) who died who affords it. The deep colors represent peace.

Cambodia is 97% Buddhist, who believes in reincarnation. Death is merely a phase, a doorway to another existence – a rebirth. The remaining percent are Hindus, Muslims and animists. It’s interesting that in some of the villages we passed by in our route, we notice houses built in the second storey but nothing on the ground. The reason being that people believe spirits occupy the ground level. Humans would do well not to disturb them, I guess. This belief in spirits both benevolent and malevolent are strongly-entrenched in some areas that it’s common to see small, deeply-colored spirit houses (for spirits of dead ancestors) and local version of scarecrows (to repel evil ones) posted in front of homes. (I’m literally having goosebumps writing this, so enough already 😐 )

Let’s move on.

Now all this activity is making us hungry. So, we next headed off for lunch. But wait. As the tradition goes nowadays, it seems, we first had to learn how to cook our own food. Chef Khan Van Chhay demonstrated how to create spring rolls! I’m not sure if Cambodians traditionally would have their spring rolls deep-fried, but we definitely thought of it as a welcome gesture that he had it cooked that way, as an homage to our Filipino culture.

We even had a contest of who finishes cooking first with the most number of rolls passing quality check, to be pitted against the other groups. It was a fun activity and, suffice it to say, we’ve made some pretty bomb spring rolls (holler! 😀 )

Afterwards, we were treated to a parade of Cambodian dishes, plus the spring rolls we just made.

I appreciate the fact that they are big on veggies and salads, although the taste doesn’t always sit well with a lot of my peers. It’s an acquired taste, I suppose. I am definitely sensing some cilantro, star anise, in most dishes. There are some I probably haven’t heard of and have been trying for the first time, or just something we are not used to eating. I’ve been tasting everything because I’m adventurous like that when it comes to food.

We headed off next to a small house that has some shack where traditional rice noodles are made. It seems like creating rice noodles is as tedious as planting rice itself – from the pounding to the mixing, to the cooking, to the washing. Maybe I will just skip to the eating part, yeah? 🙂

They’ve been using some curious contraptions where the noodle-makers literally had to ride on top in order to function, like when pounding the mixture, wherein someone literally has to step on the lever on the other end (much like how a see-saw would work), doing it repeatedly in a particular rhythm, so that the person on the other end could fold the mixture in sync with the steps. Otherwise, that person could get injured. It takes skill and a great deal of caution especially if you are on the receiving end of the pounding machine. Kung sa atin pa, “buwis-buhay”, “putol a-kamay” 🙂

Or, when pressing the goo out of the perforated container/thingamajig to be dropped on to the huge cauldron below with simmering water, where it has to be done gently but with much weight, such that the person doing it literally had to sit or ride over the lever using his full body weight but careful enough not to crush the precious cargo. The idea is to press slowly and gently in order to create long, continuous strands. It’s literally what you call, a “tough, balancing act” 😀

If anything however, it makes for good exercise since you partly might also need to lift your own body weight in order to strike that “balance”. There’s a bar or beam above which you can hold on to, to lift yourself up in case you need to relieve the pressure on the “soon-to-be” noodles.

Our jolly tour guide Sip, all smiles and looking all proud at the rice noodles 🙂

Remember Chef Khan Van Chhay? Well, he’s here again to demonstrate how to cook a traditional Cambodian rice noodle dish called somlor brorheur (pronounced somlor brahar). And to assist him is Mrs Team Hup. I couldn’t find any reference to her online but I’m guessing she is the owner of the house and maybe one of the few people who is keeping the tradition of rice noodle-making alive.

She was featured in the Cambodia Chefs magazine.


Chef Khan Van Chhay (left) and Mrs Team Hup (middle) at work. And Sip, well, being his usual self 🙂

Presenting, somlor brorheur.

Somlor brorheur is a curry-based rice noodle soup. If I’m not mistaken, I think it has water hyacinth and lotus flowers (?) as ingredients.

Next stop is a traditional Cambodian farming village. But in order to get there, we have quite an unusual ride waiting for us at the jump-off.

Water buffaloes! 🙂

Ain’t no Grab ride, but one can only appreciate their tenacity and subservience. Seeing them at work is a little heartbreaking, actually.

When we arrived at the village, we were welcomed by the local kids with a song and were given some neatly rolled cold towels so we could freshen up by wiping it on our face and hands. With the extreme tropical heat, nothing feels better than a nice cold towel! 😀

As you may have guessed, we are in a rice farming village for a reason. There’s a traditional Filipino song that goes: “Magtanim ay di biro. Maghapo’ng nakayuko”. It translates loosely to: “Planting (rice) is not easy. Everyday you are in a stooped position”, which basically signifies backbreaking work. This day wouldn’t go by without us having to experience this as this is pretty much the lifeline of all Asian cultures. Rice is such a ubiquity. One can say that the foundation of Asian civilizations stood on the back of this lowly member of the grass family, feeding millions, serving as catalyst for growth.

And so, plant rice we shall, barefooted and all 🙂 To the rice paddies we go!

My colleagues getting ‘down and dirty’, quite literally 😛

After that one-of-a-kind experience (it’s not everyday you see a city-dweller planting rice, yes?), we were asked to go back to the village since it’s already starting to rain. We washed our feet in the communal wash area where water is still pumped from the ground, just like in the old days. We were then treated to some refreshments (my favorite is the “buko” or coconut juice) and some traditional Cambodian song and dance.

It really was an exhausting day – fun, but exhausting. I think most of us dozed off at the bus on the way back to the hotel. And just when you thought you could finally go to your room and indulge yourself in some nice, warm shower, drop to your bed and sleep to your heart’s content, lo and behold, Sip just had to burst your bubble by announcing another activity. And just like that, your anticipated R&R was thrown out the window 😀

We headed back to the hotel, the La Residence Blanc D’Angkor, to freshen up and change.

We had dinner at the Phare Cafe, where one of the items on the menu is the famous fish amok. As usual, there’s always the salad, and for dessert we had some (I think) caramelized banana with rum and grated coconut. There’s a Filipino dessert which is interestingly similar. We call it minatamis na saging.

We capped the night off with a spectacular performance from the Phare Cambodian Circus. No, not that kind of circus. No animal was harmed or even involved in any of its production. It’s all display of acrobatic skills – part-theater/part-acrobat. And it’s for a good cause, too. It’s helping Cambodian youths stay out of the streets, giving them better opportunity by making better use of their skills and talents. Should you ever go to Siem Reap, do watch their show. It’s amazing! 🙂

I’m leaving you with some of the photos of that night. Stay tuned for part 2 of this series on Siem Reap. Enjoy! 😀

Special thanks to Cambodia Cycling and Real World Adventure for arranging our cycling adventures of the countryside and our sampling of the local culture.

To La Residence Blanc D'Angkor for our accommodation. Their friendly, caring and attentive staff made our stay enjoyable.

Find them on Facebook:
@CambodiaCycling
@realwordadvanture
@residenceblancangkor

Leaving our Hearts in the Snow

3rd in a series

Previously in this series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

“Time flies when you are having fun”. So goes the saying. Couldn’t be truer than now, our last day in Yuzawa. The past two days have been a whirlwind. It’s been nothing but a plethora of different new things to the senses – from the weather, to the food, to the culture. It really is one for the books.

But wait, the fun isn’t over yet. We cannot leave Snow Country without having to experience winter activities it’s famous for, right?

So, as is the usual routine, we wake up early to have breakfast at GaiA (that cute, little cabin at the edge of the woods).

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Today however, we woke up a bit earlier than usual so we could maximize time.

Props to Yuki for cooking all of our delicious meals during our stay at the inn – the soup that was served upon our arrival (which I call the welcome soup), two of the breakfasts we had at gaiA, and the packed breakfast we had at the bus on the way back to Tokyo. She is such a sweet and nice gal, who had been nothing but patient and understanding to us 🙂 She probably find some of our customs weird but has managed to accommodate us still. For example, I don’t think it’s common for Japanese to put sugar in coffee (if they even drink coffee regularly at all). Doesn’t seem like it. So when I asked for sugar for the group, she was kind of surprised that one small pack is not enough. It had to be a small bowl for everyone 🙂

These are the meals she made for us for our breakfast for the past two days. All of these are organic, by the way.

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Today’s breakfast – eggs, sausage, salad and pumpkin soup

I particularly liked the set with the baked salmon. Delicious! Proof that going organic doesn’t mean taste had to be sacrificed.

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Country-style breakfast of baked-salmon, Japanese-style eggroll, fried veggies with dashi soup , and miso soup. All organic. Yum! 🙂

I also like the ‘hippie-dippie/new age/people-of-the-earth’ vibe of the place and the kind of lifestyle espoused by Yuki herself. Not something I expected.

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I guess it would be nice also to put the spotlight on The Vintage Backcountry Inn Arimaya – our accommodation for the past three days.

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It’s a traditional ryokan, so everything you see here are antique, save for some modern amenities like TV & WiFi.

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“Built in 1908 without a single nail, the original structure is a(n) exemplar of the exquisite traditional Japanese kominka construction”

There were just some modifications done with the heating, plumbing and lavatories to keep up with modern standards. But you get to sleep on a traditional Japanese futon and tatami mats. Also, please take time to read the house’s history and how it was built in the about section of its page on Airbnb. You’d appreciate it more.

Now we proceed to our first destination – ski!

We went to the ski rental first to get some boots. The boots had to be clipped tight. So tight in fact one could get sore feet and legs afterwards. We then proceeded to the ski area which is really just around the corner – the Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort.

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Since none of us have any experience with ski, or any of the winter sports for that matter, we were first taught just the basics – the essential gears needed and how to put them on; some warm-up exercises; the basic techniques of sliding and stopping, and how to get up after falling. Also, how to move your way to the top of the hill and how to, sort of, put on the “breaks” while sliding down.

Me saying it like this makes it sound easy, right? Wait till you try it, haha!

I’ve fallen a couple of times and it was really hard for me to get up without having to resort to the “shortcut” – that of releasing the locks from the boots 🙂 The proper techniques (there are two of them) both require that you carry your weight through the use of the poles. Good luck with that, really 😉

I was also challenged going up the hill. Gravity always win pulling me down. Ski blades are extremely slippery, you know. Anyhow, it was an experience.

By this time we are feeling hungry already. We went to this beautiful place with the mountains as backdrop and had grilled meat, or what is called yakiniku, under a covered or roofed space outdoors, much like a gazebo, if not one already.

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It’s like having your typical picnic, only it’s in the snow. There’s lots of meat to be cooked and they are so delicious. I don’t know how we managed to devour all of them up. Hungry much, I guess? 😛

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After that wonderful lunch, next activity is riding a snowmobile from ski-doo.

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This one’s easy. Anyone who wants to satisfy their need for speed can try it here. Everyone gets to try one round with instructor and one round by himself. Lucky if you get picked to drive for the race afterwards.

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It was an activity-filled afternoon. What we’ve learned and what we’ve been practicing for would be put to the test later with the mini-“Winter Olympics”, of sorts.

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I wouldn’t be delving too much though, with the nitty-gritty of the games and of the other activities, so as to keep the element of surprise for the other groups who are yet to experience it 🙂 All I can say is be ready with your wit and brawn. You will need them. Good luck! 😀

As you can imagine, we were all exhausted by the end of the day. Nothing could be more joyful and nourishing than a nice meal like this below.

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The main entrée to the left, which are thin slices of pork with some type of (what I understand) is a miso mixture at the bottom, and was cooked right in front of us, on our tables, with some special leaf for aroma, is super! It tastes really good. As we say in the vernacular, we were all “galit-galit” 😀

Not sure where we had the meal exactly, although below is the signage at the entrance. My online references direct me to the Yuzawa New Otani. I couldn’t be sure, though. The itinerary says closing dinner at a typical izakaya, or watering hole.

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But of course, this being our last day in Yuzawa, I wouldn’t miss the opportunity getting pampered in what I think is the most quintessential of our Japanese experience – the onsen. People can go to Japan but they may not always experience this, let alone the Snow Country.

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And that pretty much sums up my Yuzawa experience. Delightful! 🙂

Japan | A Gastronomical Experience that Satiates

2nd in a series

Previously in this  series:

Yuzawa – The Little Snow Country to the North

The words umami and oishi found their way in our vocabulary thanks to the Japanese who seem to have an acute sense of taste for good food. They have a way of elevating everything that is already good to even better – from presentation, to taste, to the whole experience of living well. It is also a study in contrast. Strongly-held traditions of the past sit side-by-side with modernity. Japan is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, yet unlike others, it has managed to preserve, nay, live its traditions to this day. Its cultural past is alive and well.

Interesting cultural differences abound. For example, slurping and burping, considered bad manners in the West, are acceptable here. No, in fact, not just accepted, it’s actually seen as a form of compliment to the host, especially if you finish your plate clean because that means you have enjoyed the food. As I would always say to myself: ‘If only by that standard, I could fit in Japan nicely 🙂 I can live here’. I could well be in my element, haha!

The culinary adventure started from even before we landed in Japan. Coming from the house with no breakfast, I was kind of feeling famished already during the flight. The smell of food wafting from the cabin crew station excites me. And when the food was finally served, I was sated like I was never sated before – or maybe I’m just really hungry, I don’t know 🙂

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Look at this spread and be the judge.

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They even have cute, little Haagen-Dazs ice cream served afterwards. How cool is that?

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One would be extremely amazed with the country’s obsession with vending machines. They are practically everywhere – at the airport, pit stops, train stations, convenience stores, even ramen houses! The ubiquity of these machines astounds me. I wish we have something similar back home. Oh, I’m missing the hot VanHouten chocolate drink already. Yes, they not only offer cold but hot drinks as well, and all other curious stuff, too 🙂

In one of the convenience stores we stopped by, I saw this cute robot. I think his name is Pepper, I’m not sure. I will call him Pepper. Judging by this bot’s more intuitive responses and smoother, more fluid movements, Pepper belongs to a newer, smarter generation of AIs. Another evidence of Japanese innovation at work. Aaawww, isn’t he adorable?

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We also had the chance visiting a strawberry farm. Yes, you heard me right. You might be wondering, ‘how in the world are they able to produce strawberries in the dead of winter?’ Well, not a problem if you have a greenhouse.

We were asked to get five of the juiciest, most red, most plump strawberry we could lay our hands on. Look at these beauties 🙂

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Then off we went tasting different types of sake at the Shirataki Sake Brewery – a more than hundred or so year-old institution of this town which was established back in 1855. It is interesting to note that the Niigata Prefecture is the largest producer of sake and is long celebrated for the fine quality of the products.

We were briefed first on the process of making sake and then a tour of some of their facilities. And then the much-awaited sake tasting 🙂 It is no wonder the Japanese love their sake. After a few drinks, one would immediately feel his/her body temperature rise. It would then begin to feel warm inside – perfect in combating the cold.

Below are some of the types of sake we have tried.

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The orb you see hanging in front of the entrance is made of cedar. This serves a practical purpose in that it indicates the passing of time. The wood originally is green-colored. When it turns brown, like it is now in the picture, it means that the sake is ready.

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It’s a walking distance from the brewery to the train station. If you are interested in buying local delicacies, you will find a lot here. One of the specialties of the place is a type of rice called Koshihikari, which they say has the highest quality (I take that to be the most delicious, too) in the whole of Japan. There’s also lots of ramen houses here.

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I’m smelling something good cooking on the grill in that corner. Ah yes, street food! In all shapes and sizes, and in more variations, I suppose.

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Is that “baticolon” (gizzard) I see over there? Oh, look at those intestines. They are huge! For that size, they couldn’t possibly be your typical “isaw” (chicken intestine), could they? Pig’s, perhaps?

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It seems like in this aspect, the Japanese are like Filipinos – neither are keen on leaving any animal parts to waste as long as they are edible, yeah?

I tried the yakitori or grilled chicken on skewers. Oh man, this one is on a different level. It didn’t take long to cook, actually. Reason why meat is probably so tender. It is tasty but not overpowering. Yum!

Also, noticeably not as charred as it would normally be back home.

I also couldn’t resist trying this fish-shaped waffle filled with custard or red beans. I tried the one with custard. To a Filipino, this looks really unusual and interesting. I mean, why fish? Koreans also use this as cone for their ice cream. Is there something auspicious about it? Oh, well, doesn’t matter. As long as it tastes good, haha!

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These are just appetizers and desserts, and already we are feeling full 🙂

However, one still has to eat dinner, right? We were whisked to the Toei Hotel afterwards for some luxurious meal and some karaoke after, to those who want to belt their hearts out. Filipinos love to sing. It is interesting to note that although the karaoke was invented by the Japanese, it was a Filipino who patented it. Nothing spells entertainment more to a Filipino than karaoke 🙂

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The highlight of my day however, is the relaxing onsen bath. First time I’m trying this and it’s not without some first-time jitters I would say, what with local custom requiring you to strip down to nothing but your birthday suit, and this in front of strangers. Major intimidation, haha! Oh, but really, once you’re there, all inhibitions get thrown out the window. No room for body issues here. Important thing is to be able to enjoy the relaxing and the medicinal benefits of the onsen. You know what they say: “When in Rome”…, or more accurately in this case, “When in Japan” 😉

One has to make sure however, to familiarize himself first with the do’s and don’t’s in an onsen before taking that dip so as not to offend locals. Resource materials should be available at the hotel or from your travel agent. Google, even.

Yup, here’s to another item off my bucket list. Kanpai! 🙂

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice – and getting lost in translation, too

An unexpected invitation led to some interesting discoveries of the metro – this time in Makati. We were invited by a former colleague to this event held at the Indonesian Embassy where some of the activities include cultural shows, bazaar, food stalls, film showings, etc.

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The gargoyle located near the entrance of the embassy’s main lobby

We didn’t get the chance to see the cultural show/s but we were able to taste some of the Indonesian food, which, actually, was our primary objective. Unfortunately, we came in a bit late so some of the stalls started closing already.

The Mertabak pancake stall which we were so excited to try, apparently, was already closed when we checked, although it didn’t really scream “We’re closed” at the outset. I mean, we still see them cooking, and there are people who are, actually, still waiting in line, so we thought we could still order.

And, so, here’s the funny story. We inquired about the pancakes, and, of course, we were replied back in Bahasa (Indonesia’s national language). Unfortunately, we know little, if nothing, about Bahasa, so one could understand the confused, dumbfounded-look on our faces. But we carried on still, as if we understood (and quite confidently at that, I must add), asking each other what flavor or type of pancake we decide to get for ourselves while pointing to the products’ list displayed in front of us. Good thing one of the ladies standing in line was kind enough to explain in Tagalog that the stall is already closed and that they were only cooking for those who have ordered earlier.

I thought to myself: ‘Really?? Darn!’

Very easily with those words from the lady, our bubbles burst. Our faces now turned from one of excitement to one of disappointment. As we say in the vernacular: “sayang”.

Oh, well. It is what it is. On the bright side though, we were happy and excited to be able to catch up with some Indonesian friends who were former colleagues of ours. It was nice seeing them again after a long time and learning of what they have been up to and how they’ve been doing all these years. It’s good to know of their accomplishments both in their professional and personal lives. We wish them all the best.

Ok. I digressed.

Going back. I was able to try the Bakmi Ayam (from Bakmi NyoNya), which, as per some online sources I’ve checked, is basically a wheat yellow noodle topped with diced chicken meat seasoned in soy sauce and topped with some vegetables like chinese cabbage and mushrooms. Fried shallots are often added as garnish. And just like many of the other dishes in Southeast Asia, this too has a strong Chinese influence to it.

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“Bakmi Ayam”

The dish, I think, has a more subtle flavor compared to the other Indonesian dishes I have tried before, and so I think I probably should not have added the chili sauce at the start as I find it difficult to discern the natural flavor of the dish. One thing I can say is that it didn’t quite create the same strong impression I had with Mee Goreng when I first tasted it from years back – savory, addictive and with a delicious aroma. Whew! I’m salivating just thinking about it. So, I guess I would just have to give it another try at some other time, maybe in their restaurant.

Now all of this spicy goodness had to be balanced out with something sweet. So, off we went to find some café or restaurant where we could get our saccharine fix. We ended up in Naimas, or Balay Naimas (as shown on the receipt I’m looking at right now). More than the food, what struck us most is the interiors and all the funny and witty quotations, and maybe just some random thoughts about food and food lovers, spoken out loud, framed and hung on the walls.

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There are also some pictures of famous Hollywood stars of yesteryears – the “classic” Hollywood – whose names I am not even familiar with, embarrassingly so. I probably heard the name or read about it somewhere but, it isn’t my cup of tea, really. My colleague, on the other hand, this friend of mine from work, is THE expert 🙂 She couldn’t stop gushing about it and could not stop taking pictures. Well, she knows her stuff. She knows her classic Hollywood. As they say: “Different strokes for different folks”. And as we say in this country: ‘walang basagan ng trip’ 😛

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We ordered their vanilla ice cream. Nothing spectacular, really. Just your straightforward vanilla ice cream right there.

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Afterwards, we met up with another friend from work together with her kids, and we decided to go to this place they usually frequent, Tutto Domani. Things we ordered were ‘Butter, Cheese and Sugar Crounds’, some pizza, chocolate brownie, and a club sandwich, for them, and just cappuccino for me. Cappuccino made more gourmet with some all-natural coconut sugar.

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Butter, cheese and sugar crounds

I like the way the foam was designed. Very intricate. Like work of art. In fact, sometimes it feels such a shame to mess it all up when it comes time for you to drink it.

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What’s interesting and nice about this place is that its location makes for some quiet surroundings.

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I may not be able to say the same for the inside, though – at least not all the time, I suppose – especially when the kids (and kids at heart) start playing with the toys (yes, the free toys provided by the café itself). Nice concept though, especially if you have kids with you, as this is an effective way to pass the time and a good form of distraction. Also good while waiting for your food to be served. Genius, huh? I saw people play card games. There’s probably some board games, too. And there’s even a guitar for music enthusiasts. Isn’t that cool?

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Aside from these, there are toys and other items (like key chains) on display that are actually available for purchase, most of which I think, if not all, are from abroad, or that are probably hard to find locally. There’s this collection or series of toys that caught my eye called Labbit (by Kidrobot) that has a cute bunny donning different types of costumes depending on the theme. I think these are what they call designer toys, which probably explains the heavy price tag (P600). It may not sound much but it’s definitely costly for its size, and considering that there’s probably nothing much you can do with it other than for display purposes.

Oh, but they’re so cuuute….

If money is no object, I would have bought one right that very moment. But, as it is, I had to stop myself. And so now I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Dang! Cheapskate problems.

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My 7,107 | Sabang, Palawan – Last of 2 Parts

Day 3 – “Tamilok” challenge

You might be wondering what a tamilok is. I didn’t know what it was before either. The first time I’ve heard of it was in this show on cable called Bizaare Foods hosted by Andrew Zimmern. It’s a slimy, worm-like creature found inside mangrove trees. It’s something that would gross a lot of people out.

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Anyhow, I was up to the challenge. I think the prospect of being able to tick items off my bucket list kind of made me excited.

So, here goes nothing…

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Aaaand… Success!

I’ve made it. It’s not that bad, actually. Some say it tastes like oyster. Well, at least it was bearable as a kinilaw (ceviche), pickled in vinegar. I’m not sure how it really tastes like in its natural state, though.

The tamilok challenge was basically the only highlight of the third day. There was really nothing much to do after this but to relax and prepare for the trip back home.

In the three days we were here, our host, Sheridan Beach Resort and Spa, has been gracious and generous at best. It wasn’t perfect, though. There were a few bumps here and there in the service. I just hope they could address the issue of lack of air conditioning in their coach/es. Simple gestures like providing curtains for the windows, and/or fans would go a long way. It felt so hot inside especially in the midday sun, it’s like being in a sauna. Also, the seeming lack of coordination with the assigning of rooms. We had to wait for like over an hour before we could be checked-in. I’m sure they could come up with something to fix these issues.

To its credit, the place is nothing but amazing. And to show my appreciation, I have pictures of the resort grounds and the buffet we devoured for your enjoyment. Scroll away! 🙂

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Yes, because I like B-A-C-O-N… (drool)

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Truly, a summer to remember 🙂

It was a long journey. Thanks to AirAsia, going to Sabang was made easier. It was my first time flying the airline and I had some good impressions.

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My 7,107 | Sabang, Palawan – 1st of 2 Parts

Day 2 – Sabang and environs

First order of business: visit Sabang’s rainforest and one of the World’s Newest Natural Wonders – Puerto Princesa Underground River, formerly known as the St. Paul Subterranean River.

From the resort, we walked to the nearest port and took a boat ride going to the island where the underground river is located.

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Going there we passed by some of the interesting geologic rock formations unique to this region – limestone cliffs. They look amazing. It’s like being transported to a different world.

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Before going to the river, you first need to go through a lush jungle where you will meet some of the amazing wildlife like monkeys and monitor lizards. It is advisable not to bring food or show transparent plastic bags with colorful items inside as the monkeys might think they are food. And I’m not sure if it’s true, but we were also advised not to smile with teeth showing as the monkeys might get too comfortable and would get too close.

These monkeys are known for stealing food from tourists, and they can be insistent, we were told.

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I’m not a big fan of monitor lizards, or anything reptilian in nature for that matter, but just to give a little bit of a trivia, these monitor lizards are close relatives of Indonesia’s komodo dragons, only smaller. Still, these creatures, just like any other, should be treated with respect. It is wise to keep a safe distance. These lizards have potent bacteria in their mouths that could prove lethal to humans if bitten.

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The Sabang rainforest is one of the last remaining holdouts of virgin rainforests in the country, and they are under constant threat from illegal loggers and greedy corporations.

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It is a sad state for our rainforests. In fact, I believe statistics show that the Philippines is the only country in SE Asia who has now lost more than 80 to 90% (?) of its rainforests. Such disappointing figures. I wish people and the government would do more to reverse the trend before it’s too late.

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Now we arrive at the UR (Underground River).

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Our guides assisted us to our boats and took some pictures before we headed off inside. I was assigned to be the “light bearer” as I have to put the spot on some of the stone structures (upon instruction from the guide himself) while he describes the form or image of the stones we are seeing. Better prepare yourself with big imagination when you come here.

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Unfortunately, I was not able to take pictures because it was dark inside. Photos would only come out as blobs and patches and blurred images. A word of caution though, when gazing at the amazing structures, refrain from opening your mouth as these caves are also home to bats – lots and lots of bats. And you know what that means – lots and lots of “guano” (bat poop). So, you’ve been warned.

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Another exciting part of the itinerary is the Sabang zipline.

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This is a first for me so I couldn’t be more excited. We took a boat ride to go to the other island where the zipline is. We first registered at the foot of the hill known as the Central Park Station, which is also near the beach.

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From here, we trekked up hill following the trail leading up to the station where the zipline starts. The view from this spot is breathtaking.

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All the exhaustion from the trek faded away. It was more a fun ride than a scary ride for me. Taking all that scenery in could not have felt more satisfying. And this goes for the scenery at the other end of the line as well, as you can see below.

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My only regret is that I wasn’t able to take a video of me while going down the beach as I thought I turned the video on, but did not. Darn!

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The last leg of this itinerary before we headed back to the resort for lunch was the Sabang River Mangrove Boat Tour.

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This tour is more chill, more relaxed, more classroom setting. And we got mangrove lesson 101, complete with scientific names to boot, which, I, as expected, would have forgotten by now. Family Boceferra something, something…

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Notice how the roots get exposed during low tide.

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If you would notice closely, you will see a yellow-striped snake coiled on one of the branches

More importantly though, is that after this tour, we were able to understand how important the role these mangrove trees play in our ecosystem. Mangrove trees only appear in tropical countries along riverbeds that have the perfect ratio of fresh and saltwater. Too much saltwater can stunt the growth of these trees. But here in Sabang, they thrive and flourish and form extensive jungle networks. These riverbeds are full of nutrients and they act as fish nurseries and as natural barrier from predators. So when mangrove jungles thrive, fish populations thrive as well. Only in the Philippines do mangrove trees grow these tall.

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There is another practical purpose for these mangrove forests. They act as natural barriers from storm surges. Our guide says if Tacloban had kept their mangrove forests intact, it would have helped mitigate the effects of typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).

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A little bit of trivia: Mangrove trees/forests in the vernacular is called “bakawan”. What do you call a single mangrove tree, then? This is the question posed by our guide and we were all clueless as to the answer. We even thought he was joking, thinking it was some kind of play on words (baka-“one”, “two”,”three”, get it?). Well, the answer is “bakaw”. So, there. Now you know 😉

Second half of the day was free time. We started with lunch and then swam at the pool, swam at the beach, did some kayaking, others played volleyball, made sand castles, took pictures (lots of pictures) and then waited till dinner. It was buffet, buffet, buffet, every time. Oh man, it was the good life. To top it off and to really dig into the R&R mode, I treated myself to a spa. The hard pressure applied loosens stiff muscles, relieving stress. It was sensual. And I was knocked out.

To be continued…