Monday, 25 August 2008

So far from God, so close to the United States

Forgive my tardiness once again. We have been back in the UK now for 5 days, and I needed to add a last post or two to get up to date.

We arrived at Clark Airport (Clark being some US military bloke from the early part of the 20th Century, I'll come onto this later). This is a Manila airport in much the same way that Birmingham International Airport is a London airport as it is 2 hours out of the city. We got on a fairly comfortable bus and set off in the light which receded as we approached the urban sprawl. Then the rain came, brought all of its squally friends and stayed for a couple of hours. I have never seen rain like this anywhere in the tropics. Within the bus you could not see out of the windows for the sheer deluge running down the pain, which you might have been forgiven for thinking was because some young Filipino scalliwag was pouring bucket upon bucket of water from the roof. This was coupled to the fact that the traffic was also the worst we had ever encountered in the world meant it was a slow and fairly uninteresting trip into the city. We arrived about 20 or 30 minutes late having made it to a shopping mall as the terminus for the coach. We were tehn surrounded by people trying to get their luggage out of the bus, and taxi drivers trying to offer us lifts. Smuggly we declined as we knew we had a lift waiting for us

Well, I say "knew", actually it was more "hoped". My cousin, Aunt and Uncle were being driven to meet us by the parents of the bride. Except they weren't there. With the reputation of the Philippines in general and Manila in particular for crime we decided to wait at the main entrance of the shopping mall where we felt safe as they had security checks for people entering performed by armed guards. So here we waited. Fortunately we had a number for Frances' (the bride) mobile so managed to send her a text message and had some communication and discovered the transport was stuck in the horrendous traffic. So we waited two hours! It had been a bad night as:
1) it was Friday
2) it was a payday
3) it was the begining of a long holiday weekend
4) it was pissing down. Actually pissing doesn't do the weather justice, unless you are talking about a massive flock of flying elephants on diuretics who had also had a skinful of lager

Once we did meet up, everything went well and we were taken to get some food. This was to a place specialising in ribs and BBQ type stuff. Not Filipino (see later) . We then got whisked. Well, OK, crawled to our accomodation for the night, narrowly avoiding a disaster with the lock to the bedroom

This was our first night in Manila: two plus hours to get to the city, two hours outside the SM Megamall, and a long time in the car to get to our accomodation. and I hate to say this but what we had seen of the city so far was not impressive. It is an ugly concrete jungle of a city with little charm in the main. The whole place is covered with signs for fast food places: McDonalds, Burger King, Jollibee and is where the title of this blog entry comes in. The phrase usually refers to Mexico, or more lately anywhere in Latin America, but it is equally apt for Manila. OK, it's not close to the US geographically, but the stranglehold of American culture is everywhere from these fast food joints, to an airport named after a US general to the armed guards at every shopping mall, hotel and even the aforementioned burger bars. Couple this to the extremes of poverty which we saw later, the pollution and traffic, and the frequently high likelihood of typhoons, and you do feel a city that is so far from God and so close to the United States.

However, scratch beneath the surface and you do find a real Asian city. People are as warm and friendly as in Thailand, there is excellent local food to be had if you know where to look, and above all, there is a national pride in abundance, despite being variously Spain's, Britain's, Japan's and, most lately, America's bitch. True, there are parts of Manila where you wouldn't walk around at night, but there are also parts of Manchester, London and even Wakefield where you'd be pretty stupid to do that in too. Manila has a lot to offer.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A lot o' chips now

Where was I? Oh yes, We were about to head towards the jungle. We did, in a minibus with a few other people from Italy and the UK. They were a nice bunch. We arrived at our destination where another coach was offloading its passengers, including a family who looked SO annoying. Father: paunch, sunglasses, brand spanking new walking boots (still smelling of cardboard from the box they had been removed I'd wager), and worst of all a Manchester United cap. Kids: spoilt kind including Ali G wannabe son. We got over from the place where we were dropped to the lodge proper across the river by boat. The trip there was unremarkable for the fact that the landscape was mainly scarred with the orderly monoculture of palm plantations, some on what I assume was freshly cleared native forest. The road was tarmac half the way, then half-metalled the rest, so a very rough and dusty ride. Thank god for air conditioning

We got to the lodge then our room and set off on a boat cruise to see wildlife. We did pretty good. We saw lots of monkeys (macaques and proboscis), various birds including a few hornbills. Best of all though, at the end we saw a herd of wild elephants which was magical.

The elephants as seen from our boat!

That evening we set off on a night walk through the forest near the lodge and again saw various birds and insects, but also a Western tarsier (see below. {EDIT} this is now my own picture!) which we were told is pretty rare. It is one of the absolutely cutest things I have ever seen. There wasn't much in night life after that though, so we played cards and had a beer

A Western Tarsier

Next morning was a stupidly early one as we were to have a dawn cruise. We set off at 6. Well, it was actually 6:30 by the time we set off, but that was because people were late. We saw more monkeys, a big eagle and a python coiled up in the crook of a tree branch. There was breakfast, then a trip out to an oxbow lake which was through the forest. And another evening cruise later which went on way too long and we were in the last boat back, with it pitch black when we had returned. We had got to know the family a bit more by now and though the kids were fairly uninterested, and spoilt they were OK in truth. The father though really was something of an arrogant prig (that's being polite). The horror, the horror...

We were bussed back to Sandakan the next day for an impromptu stop in this shabby fishing port. Nothing much to write home about, so I won't. The highlight was Agnes Keith's house up a hill which was a taste of old colonial Malaysia from the mid 20th Century., and had an English tea shop which was amazing, and it did make a tranquil place to watch over the city below. Until we were literally inundated by a massive rainstorm. We were under cover so stayed dry. The croquet lawn was more of a croquet swamp by the time it had finished though.

It did make me think I was born in the wrong era and should have been part of Agnes Keith's generation. Colonial Borneo, tea on the lawn, gin and tonics to stave off malaria, and more local staff in the house than you can shake a stick at. No you wouldn't shake a stick at them, because you would have a man to do all your stick shaking.

We headed back to the airport then to KK again for two nights in the same hotel as previous. This time we had no window whatsoever, so it was like being in prison, but with poorly finished decor in the style of some crappy DIY programme. We discovered more about KK and really started to get to like the town as we uncovered more of its character. The restaurants (fish head curry is to die for!), the shopping centres (not like the ones at home which are a clone of the one in the next town, or the next town, or the next county), and the evening fruit and food market on the front that we hadn't seen previously.

Then we transferred to a posh hotel where I'm writing this. Beautiful, plush, with amazing pools, fantastic views (yes, we have a window over the golf course), and trips to nearby islands which we did today. This time it was a different island to the previous one. It was no less idyllic and had good snorkelling.

Tonight it's hopefully going to be live seafood again, and a few drinks in KK.

Next stop Manila, tomorrow.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

I wonder if I can use my Swiss Army Knife to knock up an ark?

Some internet cafe, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. 8:43pm

It's dinner time and we came to an internet cafe to check e-mail, planning to head off for something nice to eat when we noticed it utterly peeing down outside so I thought I'd add an update to supplement yesterday's brief post

1: Jungle
We went to Sepilok Orang Utan wildlife reserve to watch the animals being fed. We were staying literally five minutes up the road in Sepilok Jungle Resort who were also running our trip into the Heart of Darkness, or Kinabatangan as most people would refer to it. The forst day we toddled up to the Rainforest Discovery Centre wqhich had some great walks through prmary rainforest, associated with the University of Malaysia. They had some really good metal walkways over the canopy, and the place was teeming with life. Not visble life, but noisy life. We saw a few birds of various types including a very impressive bird of prey, though we're not sure what type. One of the trails though was supposed to have a wooden bridge over a stream, but the bridge was replaced by a single loose plank. Not ideal

We saw the feeding time at the orang utan place which was fun. It was like the chimps tea party, but without PG Tips. OK, not quite. There were four apes in the morning of various ages, and in the afternoon feeding there were six or more. The place is also full of macaques. Macaques are everywhere in Asia, and even the Gibraltar Barbary Apes are a type of macaque, and urban ones that live alongside people are like smart rats. Common and a nuisance, like simian chavs. Also in the park there are more rainforest walks which, annoyingly, aren't circular, so you have to walk down one way, then back the same way. This was OK for the 1.1km one we did, but we decided the 5km mangrove walk was a little gruelling in tropical heat without much water. We didn't se much wildlife here, apart from leeches. Jane got four, though not bitten.

Later I'll tell you about the jungle trip, with more Conrad references. The rain has eased off, and dinner, once again, is calling.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Hi viewers (I always wanted to say that!),

We had a fab time in the jungle, we saw LOADS! I haven't time to do a proper update as dinner calls. BBQ'd fish is the order of the night I think

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Borneo, jungle bound

Finally I get some time to catch up with the blog. It's been hectic, all this sight seeing, eating and drinking.
At the last blog entry I didn't mention Macau much ore than how we got there. Well, it was fun in the evening. It is kind of like the Las Vegas of Asia, so we went to the Venetian Casino which is apparently the biggest in the world, a few times bigger than its US cousin in Vegas. It is IMMENSE! The gaming floor musty be the size of a couple of football fields in itself, but it is also a huge hotel, a large shopping mall and has canals running through it a la Venice. It is incredibly tacky, but donw so well. Unlike things like the Trafford Centre at home, here the walls are clad with marble, not fibreglass, and finished so well. There is a blue sky over the shops through which run the canals, complete with gondola rides, and with at least one singing gondolier! We had some food at a massive food court then hit the casino. Well, we didn't really hit it. It was WAY too expensive. For teh card tables the minimum stake was $100, which is about UKP 7.50! We played some slots with minimal success. Better still was wandering through the casino with a drink and watching other people playing. The High Limit area was scary. The minimum here was in the $1000s per stake
We made it to Sabah on Borneo quite without trouble. Imediately you land it was obvious the place was very different, with everything less Chinese, people speaking better English and everything feeling that much more relaxed. We got some money from a handy ATM and got a cab into toan and our hotel. The hotel room is fairly small but quite stylishly done out and has a decent LCD telly in the wall. There isn't any view to speak of as the window faces out onto the roof, facing other rooms. Consequently there is no natural light.
We are ideally placed though to nip across the road and go to the promenade which has some great bars on the waterfront, though the booze prices aren't that cheap. Food is though. We had soemthing to eat there having arrived at about 11ish. Fortunately things were still very much still going on.
Next day we saw the view over the sea, and it is rather nice with a few tropical islands to see. We did a bird reserve, but didn't see a great deal. More Malay food though which is always goodf, apart from when it's bad, but you don't find that out until you hit the toilet the next day. We had seafood last night where we picked a fish to be cooked. A live one. I'm sure he or she would have been happy to know it tasted wonderful steamed in tom yam spices. Well it would have if it remembered, give that fish are renowned to have a very short memory. We also had some wonderful prawns and jungle ferns for veggies. Basically greens, but they are as the name says ferns from the jungle, so have a little more cache. And Stella. Yes, they even have Wifebeater, the fuel of domestic violence, by the bottle. In Borneo. So not content with head hunting, they are being given the option of Stella, which is quite good I suppose as if you are a head hunter you have all the more skulls to get out of when you drink it
Today we went to one of the islands and had fun. There was decent snorkelling, though a wind hit the island over the space of a minute just when we were due to leave. I mean a seruious wind, which appeared out of nowhere, blowing up dust so you felt sand blasted. This made for an interesting boat trip back and we both got soaked. The taxi driver insisted on putting paper down on the seat as we got back to the hotel. I felt like a kitten being house trained
Tomorrow it it time to head off to Sandakan, another town in Borneo to see orangs. That's "orang utans" by the way, not a typo of "oranges". If I wanted to see oranges it would have been quicker, easier and cheaper to go the the Co-Op. We are off into the jungle where other sights we might see include crocodiles, elephants, probocis monkeys and of course jungle ferns

Monday, 4 August 2008

4th August, 18:30, Macau Airport

The last couple of entries have been a little rushed, andthis one is likely to be as well. We had a great time in Hong Kong and caught a hydrofoil Macau. This sound exciting and we saw a couple of them the day before when we had gone to Cheung Chan Island and they looked really cool. But onboard you might as well be on a plane or something as it's really smooth and not too loud. You can't even get up on deck and watch the sea go by. It is seriously fast and efficient, which is more than can be said for Macau immigration. You arrive on the jetty and are husted into a huge hall with immigration desks as normal, but they were a mass of people. Admitedly it was in fairly well organised lines, but it was so slow. We entered and had a little trouble seeking out a bus to take us to our hotel. It arrived and got us to a reasonable looking hotel where we checked in. The staff at the Best Western Taipa are defintely unhelpful though
Excuse the formatting change. The keyboard here is playing silly buggers as it’s something to do with Chinese characters

Anyway, Taipa village around where we were staying was very pleaant, sleepy even. A stark contrast from HK. This is despite the huge monstrous casinos we saw on the bus ride from the ferry terminal. Taipa is a seperate island you reach by one of a number of bridges.You get a view of the incredible casinos as you arrive. It really looks like Vegas, with an MGM Grand and Sands venues, plus the local Hotel Lisboa. Our hotel was comfortable and clean, though the staff were pretty unhelpful.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Saturday night in HK

3rd August 2008, 12:25 am
Mix cafe sandwich shop , Hong Kong

This is our last night in HK, and we are in a place to get some food before heading off into the melee that is HK nightlife. We are in a district which is mainly full of expat bars and quite expensive. One bar we were in and an English guy rolls up in his Porsche outside and comes in. It's THAT kind pf place. SERIOUS money The drinks here are pretty pricey at that.

I have to aplogise about yesterday's entry. We got kicked off the computer in the library before I had a chance to polish it up and get rid of the mistakes. This entry is not likely to be as long either as when this Texas wrap is finished we need to go and find a nice place for more cocktails. Nightlife in HK is brilliant. The bars aren't particulalry noteworthy in themselves, though they are pleasant enough, but they are open so late. Later yesterday after I posted, we went to a place called Stanley Harbour on the other sdier of Hong Kong Island which was quite pleasant. There is a bar there called the Smuggler's Bar which now is forever England since I stuck a note up saying how much we liked it and giving this blog addy. How long it lasts is anyone's guess, but it was there yesterday. The trip over there was very hair-raising, on the upper deck of a double decker (the bus, not the kids TV show from the 70s), and winds over some serious hilly terrain with some sheer drops over the side. Cheaper than any theme park ride. THe place is noce, on the coast (well, duh! the clue's in the name: "harbour"!), but it's a nice excursion from teh buzz of the city, and little more than 30 minutes away

Dinner was finally some decent street food, with a fish, and veggies with fried rice. On an alleyway. Just how it should be. We went back to the Eastend Brewery place for a few bevvies afterwards.

Today we went over to Cheung Chau, an outlying island which was lovely. It has a very Med feel about it, reasonable beaches (complete with shark net shrouded swimming areas!). I'll mention more about this, but my sandwich is nearly done, and there is a margarita with my name on it somewhere nearby