Southeast Asia Map

Southeast Asia Map

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Dennis eats Balut! (Philippines)

Any fans of the TV show, Survivor? I've always thought Dennis would do well on this show and here is yet one more thing that strengthens that theory. Balut, commonly sold as street food in the Philippines and eaten warm, is generally considered a delicious treat. More recently it has even been introduced as an appetizer in upscale restaurants. But in fact, the population is split in its opinion as we found out firsthand through Ronnie and his family. 

Balut is a fertilized duck egg that is cooked when the embryo is partially developed. Taking a few photos to record the event, I watched in absolute fascination as Dennis unwaveringly consumed this strangely weird food item. If you think these photos are going to make you feel queasy you may not want to read any further! Though he declined to eat one himself, Ronnie instructed Dennis in the art of fully appreciating this delicacy.

Step 1: Gently crack open the hollow end of the egg and open it up just enough to make a 'cup'.

Step 2: Sip and savour the delicious broth!

Step 3: Once all the juice is gone, peel away the rest of the eggshell.

Step 4: Pop the whole thing into your mouth before you have too much time to think about it!

Just like Survivor!

Not so bad! Definite instant credibility with the locals!

So, what does Dennis have to say? "It tasted like a hard-boiled egg, maybe a little tougher." And as for me, I just don't have the courage to try it!

Note on current exchange rate: US$1.00 is about Philippine Peso P45 is about ZAR10.80

Philippines - First Impressions

Philippine Airlines is the best! Plenty of legroom for tall people and the kind of service that is rare to see these days. Well okay, our flight was delayed by almost an hour which at 2am in the middle of the night is no fun at all. Our tummies were grumbling as we boarded the plane; a midnight snack was well overdue! But we were pleasantly surprised to receive immediate dinner service. And three hours later we also received breakfast! Love is ... food!

Our experience in the Philippines differs to our travels in other southeast Asian countries because we have an extended family member living near Manila. In an exceptionally generous gesture, Ronnie accompanied us everywhere, thus providing us an intimate knowledge of his country and customized transportation. It was great to finally meet him and very nice that we didn't have to think about the logistics of getting around.

Ronnie collected us from the airport and took us to our home base; a house owned by Dennis's uncle and his fiancée in nearby Marikina City. The house is a thin four stories tall with the topmost floor being an outdoor kitchen and eating area. The view is expansive in all directions and fantastic for enjoying cocktails and sunsets! The neighbourhood is lively and friendly; small houses clustered tightly together and everyone socializing in the street.

Jessie, a family member who lives in the house, took great care of us while we were there and cooked some amazing meals in this tiny kitchen!

One of the first things Ronnie did was take us to a hilltop viewpoint where we could look out toward the incredibly busy city of Manila. It was a very hazy day but the cloud of smog is typical. Manila has one of the poorest air qualities in the world and despite government intervention and various clean-up programs, there has been little improvement in the last ten years. It's very unfortunate that the poor air quality extends for miles in all directions.

Filipinos regularly do their shopping at crowded noisy, hot and humid markets, in stark contrast to what we're used to; a sterile supermarket environment. It was fascinating to move through the narrow aisles, watching people laugh and interact with the vendors. Very friendly, very helpful and very relaxed! There was an incredible variety of food and other items for sale, all housed under a massive tin roof with open sides. Much larger than any Walmart or Hypermarket!

We visited historic Rizal Park on a gorgeous day! This is a very large urban park in downtown Manila, popular with locals and tourists alike as a place to relax and meet friends. A refreshing breeze lifted the haze and cooled the temperatures sufficiently that we could appreciate the sunshine. This is winter! We succumbed to a pleasantly lazy afternoon; leisurely strolling the park, admiring the sights and impressed with the cleanliness of the place.

A monument enshrining the remains of national hero, José Rizal, is the symbolic focal point of the park. It's a flagship of freedom and courage for the Philippine nation and is protected by a 24-hour guard. Sombrely watching the changing of the guard we were reminded of a similar ceremonial routine in Washington DC - USA, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The admiration of courage and those fighting for freedom unites us all.

The park was once notorious for its public executions by the Spaniards and most famous of these was that of José Rizal. These statues depict his execution on the actual spot where it occurred.

The puffball fountains entertained us for a while!

Apparently rules are merely suggestions here too!

The park is also a popular gathering place to practice all kinds of sport, in this case a form of martial arts. The wooden sticks simulate more dangerous weapons such as swords.

Our first jeepney sightings. These colourful vehicles were initially US military jeeps left over from World War II. They are often lavishly decorated and we can't wait to have a ride in one!

Our first weekend ended with happy smiles and a good feeling about the time we were about to spend in the Philippines! We'd been warmly welcomed and the open friendliness of everyone was lovely. Looking out at the sunset over Manila Bay I quickly grabbed a passing tourist and to everyone's amusement, gave him precise directions on how to take this photograph of all of us!

From left to right:
Ronnie, Nicky, Jenica, Romalyn, Arra, Karen & Dennis

Note on current exchange rate: US$1.00 is about Philippine Peso P45 is about ZAR10.80

Friday, March 7, 2014

Bali - Final Notes

Our onward flight to the Philippines was scheduled for 2am, giving us a full day in Bali before having to go to the airport. We decided to arrange for a car and driver to take us to a temple on the southern-most part of the island, stay there until sunset and be dropped off at the airport on the driver's way back to Ubud. To hire a personal driver for this length of time (almost eight hours) would usually be a decadent extravagence but in Bali it cost us IDR360,000 (about US$30).

Transport service touts can be found at almost every street corner in Ubud so after speaking to a few the day in advance of our departure, we selected one we liked. We were definitely under the impression that he would be the one driving. However, someone else turned up to collect us. I'm mentioning it now because we've discovered this is very common practice in all the southeast Asian countries we've since travelled in.

The person speaking the best English is the one on the street, drumming up business. He'll be the one who gives you the confidence that he knows exactly where you want to go, and you feel pretty good about the fact that he's able to communicate effectively in English. The person who actually delivers the service is someone who doesn't speak any English or, if you're lucky, may manage a few basic greetings and responses.

In this case, we weren't terribly concerned as our driver seemed a very nice young man and hand gestures go a long way when they're accompanied by a wide smile. The vehicle had a distinct new car smell and we managed to learn that our driver was using his father's brand-new SUV, driven out of the showroom just the day before! Aah, now we understood the flower blessings on the car and of course, he drove exceptionally carefully the whole way!

Pura Luhur Ulu Watu is another of Bali's important directional temples. It's also one of the most scenic with the pagoda perched on the edge of a cliff high above the crashing ocean waves.

A beautiful stone wall and pathway lines the cliff edge.

Our driver did not accompany us into the temple grounds but gave us the freedom to explore on our own and in the timeframe we set. Dennis was given a bright purple sarong to wear and I was obliged to put on a bright yellow 'good luck' sash.

This temple also has a large number of monkeys that intermingle with the tourists. In some places the paved pathway is so crowded with them that over time, and in order to keep some distance, the tourists have worn a new pathway through the brush next to the official pathway. But I was still only about 10-feet away when I took this picture. The babies are so cute!

Be warned, the monkeys will steal anything they can get their hands on; hats and glasses being on top of the list. They run up and down along the pedestrian path wreaking havoc amongst unwary tourists. Unfortunately, the monkeys are rewarded for this behavior because the only way to retrieve your belongings is to give them food. Opportunistic locals will quickly pass the naughty monkey a banana, retrieve the stolen item when the monkey drops it and then demand IDR20,000 to IDR50,000 in payment for their 'good deed'!

One monkey tried to grab my cap but I yelled and the monkey hissed, neither of us very happy. In the next moment he had someone's sunglasses in his cheeky little hands! Thankfully, not wanting to even risk losing prescription glasses I'd taken mine off. With no opportunistic local nearby, this poor tourist watched her glasses being twisted, then broken and when all interest was lost, they were carelessly discarded. Bad monkeys!

As the sun went down the monkeys disappeared, as did most of the tourists. A quiet stillness fell over the temple. Beyond the changing colour in the sky and the sound of the ocean below, you could finally feel the spirituality of the place. We stayed, silently watching and listening, until we knew it was time to go. Au revoir, Bali - so many very special experiences we've had here!

Note on current exchange rate: US$1.00 is about Indonesian Rupiah IDR12,160 is about ZAR10.60

We'd like to go back to Bali one day so I made some notes for future reference. If you'd like to go, you may find the following helpful in planning your trip.

A note on the visa and departure tax:
Currently, for US passport holders at least, Bali conveniently issues a visa on arrival (VOA) valid for stays of up to thirty days. They cost US$25 each or the equivalent in IDR, these two currencies being the only ones accepted, plus VISA or MC. There is also a departure tax fixed at IDR150,000 or US$18, a very bad exchange rate. Note to self: next time, remember to hold back enough local currency to pay the departure tax! And remember that we liked it so much we should definitely stay the full thirty days of the VOA validity!

A note on the weather and seasons:
We were in Bali from the 2nd to the 18th of January. This falls in the wet season that runs from October to April. It rained most days but this was usually welcome relief from the heat. It never rained so hard that we were afraid to ride the motorbike, or had to change any of our plans. We also discovered that the rain was very localised; if it was raining on one side of Ubud, it wouldn't necessarily be raining on the other. This was a good time for us but the months of February and March may be better; the rice would be further along in its growth cycle. The dry season is from May to September and two of the busiest tourist months fall in this period; July and August. December is another busy month.

A note on accommodation:
Though our Airbnb studio was perfectly adequate we weren't very happy when we found out that certain information had been misrepresented on the internet. When we made the booking we were under the impression that we were staying somewhere owned and managed by a Balinese family. In fact, this family was nothing more than a front for the westerner who was subletting the property she was renting. And the reason for the subterfuge? The westerner was living in Bali on a visa that did not allow her to profit in any way on the Balinese economy. Besides being initially disappointed that we were not being accommodated by a local family, we also felt uncomfortable with this situation and vowed not to stay there again. We can only conclude that it ultimately all worked out for the best because we met Tinni and Nyoman who rented us the motorbike, and the Chinese gentleman Mr. Chu, whom we also really liked. In any case, we felt our later homestays were also much better value for money.

The following homestays are all owned and run by Balinese families. These are the ones we'd happily stay at again and highly recommend.

- In Jatiluwih:
Warung Teras Subak and Homestay
I Nengah Putra Yasa (Owner)
Jl. Raya Jatiluwih No. 1, Jatiluwih, Penebel
Phone # 081-237-026-333
IDR200,000 incl. breakfast (about US$16.00)
Rice terrace view and wi-fi (Ask for room # 4)
Their talented daughter, Yande, is learning traditional Balinese dancing and she danced for us.

- In Jemeluk:
Sunrise Homestay
Jemeluk Beach, Amed, Karangasem, 80852
Phone # 62-363-23477
Mobile # 085-237-506-725
IDR200,000 incl. breakfast (about US$16.00)
Ocean view and wi-fi (Ask for an upstairs room)

- In Sideman:
Sweet Home Stay
Wayan Yuda Manis (Owner)
Br, Tebola, Sideman, Karangasem
IDR150,000 incl. traditional breakfast (about US$12.50)
No wi-fi

- In Ubud:
Sayong House
Dewi Sita Street, Maruti Lane, Ubud, 80571, Gianyar
IDR200,000 incl. breakfast (about US$16.00)
Central location, swimming pool and wi-fi

Accommodation cost:
Airbnb average cost per night including service fee: US$20
- small studio included shared fridge and hotplate, no breakfast or wi-fi.
Homestay average cost per night, no service fee: US$16
- always included breakfast and sometimes included wi-fi and other amenities.

A note on renting a motorbike:
There is minimal paperwork to fill out which can be a little disconcerting. If something happens to the bike you are fully liable unless you've taken out your own insurance separately. There's a lot of trust involved when hiring from a local. That being said, if you decide it's worth the risk, we highly recommend renting a bike from Nyoman:
Phone # 089-685-468-158 (Nyoman)
Phone # 087-860-913-036 (Tinni)

Motorbike rental cost:
Total cost for a 2-week rental including fuel to go roughly 600km's: US$62
We also had to purchase a new inner tube for the back tire, and have it fitted: US$8

A note on current prices:
Small bottle of water: IDR2,000 (US$0.16)
Large bottle of water: IDR4,000 (US$0.33)
Large bottle of beer (660ml) at the supermarket: IDR24,000 (US$1.97)
Large bottle of beer (660ml) at a restaurant: IDR28,000 (US$2.30)
Really good street food meal for two: IDR35,000 (US$2.88)
Really good restaurant meal for two: IDR200,000 (US$16.45)
As expected, wine was expensive and we chose not to drink any while we were there.
One cup of Luwak coffee directly from the coffee plantation: IDR50,000 (US$4.11)
1-Hour full body massage: IDR60,000 (US$4.94)

A note on things we especially liked:
1. The people are genuinely kind and friendly. Poverty is rife but everyone seems happy and we were always greeted with a smile. 
2. It may sound strange but the smell of Bali is lovely. Incense is burned at all times of the day at every temple, including personal shrines in every place of business, restaurant and home.
3. Mee Goreng - fried noodles typically served with a fried egg on top.
4. The coffee; neither brewed nor instant, the powder remains sludge-like at the bottom of your cup. But the taste is so good we bought some to bring home.
5. The fresh ginger tea!
6. The variety of tropical fruit, in juice form or otherwise! Snakeskin fruit, anyone?

And lastly, a note on things that we found tough or didn't understand:
We felt very positively about Bali and everything it has to offer. We loved the people, the scenery and perhaps especially, the food. But there were two things that really bothered us:
1. Skinny and/or uncared for animals. There were stray dogs around every corner, we dodged them all the time on the scooter. There were a few exceptions but for the most part the Bainese people seem to consider animals to be responsible for themselves. It was tough to see painfully thin dogs scrounging for food, eating the few grains of rice from the daily offerings to survive. Other dogs were clearly owned by someone (a rough collar) but roamed the streets at will, constantly at risk of being run over. We saw very few cats in the city and in the country, being natural hunters, they definitely fared better than their canine counterparts. In the country too, the extreme poverty spilled over to the farm animals.
2. Litter. There are two parts to this; the first is the mess created from the daily offerings. Offerings are typically served on a small bamboo 'plate' with a few grains of rice on a banana leaf, together with some candy, flowers and an incense stick. Some places are good about removing the previous days offering when making a new one, others simply let them pile up. The sidewalk was sometimes so badly covered the only way around it was to walk in the busy road. An air of neglect hung over a few temples with large piles of old offerings and only the freshness of the latest offering to indicate recent activity. The second part is litter in general. Everywhere in Bali, cities and countryside alike, the roads are lined with litter. Public spaces everywhere and many of the temples are littered. We found it very strange that the Balinese respect for their religion did not extend to the desire to have their temples look as nice as they possibly could.

Salak, or snake-skin fruit - like apple in texture but a distinctly different flavour: