Exploring Penang

Credit: Papers by Sepia Lane; Elements and embellishments by SFJ CT

The streets of Georgetown, Penang’s capital, is filled with mouth-watering street food, artistic murals, and gorgeous heritage architecture.

If in season, the durian (in this case the musang– the king of durian) is sweet and creamy
A plate of oyster omelette can be found in many food hawker in the island.

An absolute feast to the eyes, the soul and the taste buds.

A city somehow frozen in time yet woven with today’s modern lifestyle caprices, Georgetown easily caters to history buffs, photographers, shopaholic and foodie fanatics.

Once an important trading hub, the British East India Company established spice farms throughout the island. The export of these spices helped cover the administrative cost of Penang in its early years.

The influence of Asia and Europe have endowed this city with a unique multicultural heritage and with all the astounding history around, Georgetown was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008.

Pedestrian-friendly, the well-planned series of roads and paths will reveal an exciting, vibrant city with eye-catching street art caricatures, colorful heritage houses, atmospheric temples, beautiful mosques, and bustling food hawkers.

Highlights of our exploration:

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

One of Penang’s most prominent attraction and one of the only 3 UNESCO Heritage award-winning buildings, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, also known as The Blue Mansion is a stately 1880 manor that stands out because of its indigo blue façade.

The Guestrooms

Designed in traditional Hakka – Teochew Style, the mansion was restored into a Boutique Heritage Hotel by a conservation project that went on to win numerous architectural awards.

A tour of the estate will reveal the lifestyle of Cheong Fatt Tze, his family and the cream of Penang society in the era it was in.

Penang Hill

Dominating the Georgetown landscape, Penang Hill was the 1st colonial hill station developed in Peninsular Malaysia. The top of the hill is accessible by a good hike or the Penang Hill Funicular Railway (which, by the way, is the steepest tunnel track in the world) from its base station at Jalan Bukit Bendara, Air Itam.

The hill is a community of attractions that include food and drink options set 821 meters above Penang’s capital. It is the last piece of tropical rainforest in Penang, so flora and fauna have been protected since 1960.

The Habitat on Penang Hill

For the ultimate Malaysian rainforest experience, a visit to this part of the hill is a must.

When you walk through the gateway of the Habitat, you enter a magical kingdom of a 130-million-year-old rainforest.

This world-class ecotourism site is the first of its kind in Malaysia. It aims to promote environmental consciousness and conservation awareness.

Walk on the new world-class Stressed Ribbon Bridge named the Langur Way Canopy Walk 
The Tree Top Walk

Clan Jetties

Along the pier are villages on stilts that house descendants of Chinese immigrants. Constructed over a century ago, the jetty has developed into a town propped up over the sea.

Planks create paths linking houses on stilts, owned by families of fishers creating a rustic and peculiar impression. We found ourselves at the Chew Jetty, but in total, there are 8 different clans still residing there.

The Chew Jetty Café is a good stop for lunch or refreshments. Though the White Curry is what the café is famous for, we were too late. Here’s what we had instead — also quite good and worthy of my recommendation.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion

The mansion allows you a glimpse back in time as to how the wealthy Straits Chinese settlers once lived. The Peranakan, also known as the Babas and Nonyas, was a prominent community of acculturated Chinese unique to this part of the world.

Adopting selected ways of the local Malays, and later, the colonial British, the Peranakan lifestyle and customs had not only left a rich legacy of antiques but its cuisine and languages as well.

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion is one of the best surviving examples of the lavish lifestyle of this prominent community containing an extensive collection of furniture, silverware, dresses, decorations, collectibles, and appliances.

Nyonya Cuisine

A feast we devoured in Kebaya

A must-try! It echoes the cultural identity of the Peranakans. Nyonya cuisine is as exotic as their east meets west architecture, their beautiful fashion, and their elaborate pottery. It is mostly traditional Chinese food altered to suit the local palate and to augment the limited ingredients found in their new homeland.

Some of the signature ingredients used in Peranakan cooking include coconut milk, laksa leaves, lemongrass, and tamarind. The result is an extraordinary cuisine that is altogether tangy, sweet, sour and spicy.

Little India

A few steps away from the Pinang Peranakan Mansion is Little India.

Wander around and experience a whole new world. Its culture and food adventure is definitely worth the exploration.

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Why You Should Not Miss Inle Lake

Inle-LakeCredits: Sepia Lane HT Dots and Green Papers; Simply Kelly Christmas Treasure Kit Cream Scalloped paper; Flower, Frame elements and paper 3 from Sus Design Let’s Scrap Kit; Scrap with Brooke polka dot papers; Paper 1 from Studio Tangie All That is Best Kit

This beautiful highland lake, wedge in the valley between two mountain ranges of Central Myanmar, was the reason why we found ourselves in Nyaung Shwe.

farmer

In 2015, UNESCO designated Inle Lake the country’s first biosphere reserve. This sanctuary was established in 1985 to protect and conserve the natural vegetation, wetland birds, and fresh water fishes.

wildlife

Inle Lake is known for water birds and migratory birds and for the floating agriculture farms of the lake. The locals, known as Inthas, learn to fish from the age of 13 and generally continue until they are around 75 years old.

fishermanUsing just one leg to balance on the front of the boat, these skillful fishermen use the other leg to guide their conical nets through the freshwater lake.

Inle Lake has become a popular tourist destination, with visitors flocking to photograph the fishermen who still use an age-old technique for catching fish in the shallow water.

fisherman-posing-for-tourists

Floating Gardens and Fishing Villages

The expansive lake is 116 square kilometers wide and is home to some 70,000 Inthas living in numerous villages along the lake’s shores and on the lake itself.

people-everyday-life-2

The communities are settlements made up of stilted, stationary structures sitting above the water.

Houses-and-Village

They are connected to form channels navigated by long dugout boats.

channels

They grow crops in floating gardens, making use of traditional hydroponic methods. It is a fascinating and unusual technique that showcases Burmese creativity and tenaciousness, as it is not an easy task.

floating-garden

The farmers gather up weeds from the bottom of the lake and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, secured in position using bamboo poles.

flower-floating-farm

Depending on the season, they grow flowers, tomatoes, squash and other fruits and vegetables. You will see farmers paddling up and down between the rows tending to their crops.

Boat Excursion

The tranquil lake is a great way to decompress after the hot and dusty excursions throughout the country, and the best way to explore the lake is to choose a longboat, sit back and float wherever your guide takes you.

long-boat-parking

Never mind that it may seem like a tourist trap to many. The workshop stops along the way, in my opinion, is part of the charm.

umbrella-making-workshop

Some may look too touristy and may have been set up for such, but they are nice breaks to stretch your legs and meet the locals. Having said that, here are some notable stops.

Lotus Weave Workshop

Lotus plants flourish and grow in abundance on the pristine water of Inle Lake, yielding lovely blooms and healthy stems needed to create fibers for lotus weaving. The workshop is set up in such a way that visitors can be guided through the process chronologically –

lotus-fiber

how fibers are extracted from the stem to how the thread is spun using a spindle.

weavers

All done by hand. The process is tedious, a scarf will require 4,000 lotus stems and may take weeks of hard work to complete.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda

Phaung-Daw-Oo-Pagoda

The holiest religious site in the Inle Lake area houses five old images of the Buddha that are entirely covered in gold leaf.

market-outside-the-pagoda

Surrounding the Pagoda, and in the basement are shops selling traditional Shan and Burmese merchandise. It is usually part of the boat tour.

Shwe Indein Pagoda

One of the 17 small villages of Inle Lake, at the end of the narrow Indein Creek on the western banks, is dotted with stupas dating a few centuries back. There are 2 sets of pagodas, the first set Nyaung Oak Pagodas are the first set behind the village and near the boat landing.

Nyaung-Oak-Monastery

A covered stairway leads to the 2nd set, Shwe Inn Thein. This mysterious, hillside setting is a complex of hundreds of weather-beaten pagodas of many sizes in various state of ruin.

shwe-Indein-weather-beaten

A truly magnificent sight and should not be missed. Some tours will eliminate this village due to its remoteness.

Shwe-Indein-collage

If you have the time and don’t mind an extra hour at the river, do go the extra mile for this reward.

Here’s sharing with you more captures of the beautiful community of Inle Lake.

farming-village

structures-forming-channels

fishermen-at-dawnFishermen caught at dawn
peopleIntha Tribes on market day
fishermen-posing-for-touristsFisherman posing for tourists
people-everyday-lifeGoing about their regular chores

house-details

Useful Info:

Myanmar’s 2nd largest lake, Inle, is best accessed from Nyaung Township. Boat trips can be arranged directly at the docks or through hotels or guesthouses.

boat-dock.jpg

Minalungao

It’s the first days of summer, and this draft has been on the back burner giving way to other bigger trips I’ve had.

So before I start writing about my next destination, which took place last month in an icy setting and is the exact opposite of what we will be experiencing in the coming days, I’d like to take you to a place in Nueva Ecija. A little gem, they say it is. It was a spur of the moment and as these things go, we all made it.  Sometimes to plan is vain.

The small part of an otherwise well-paved road was only wide enough for our Explorer to safely get its way past the stream, thanks to this boy who helped us navigate our way.

Thanking him after, he offered to be our guide. Enterprising young man. And so for 500Php, the then 14-year-old AJ took us around his playground.

We navigated the short but somehow challenging, sometimes slippery rocks and trail to the cave that AJ said would take only 5 minutes. “Akala ko 5 minutes lang sa loob ng cave, bakit parang 20 minutes na kami ditto sa loob ah?” (I thought it only takes 5 minutes to explore the cave, why does it seem like 20 minutes already?) I asked AJ. “Kasi ang bibilis nyo mag lakad!” “Because you all walk so fast!” he said. He has a point.  🙂

In the foothills of the Sierra Madre lies a protected area in the municipality of General Tinio (sometimes also called Papaya – don’t ask me why) where the Penaranda River flows cutting through magnificent limestone walls.

One can trek to the caves through the limestone wall, swim in the crystal clear, refreshing water or simply soak in the scenery while enjoying a packed lunch on the raft.

Do try to make your way there if you haven’t. An enjoyable day trip it certainly was.

Responsible Traveling

Sagada's-RealityCredits: Papers by Splendid Fin 4ever Swirls and Now is paper in green; The Design Girl paper 1; Elements from Scrap Matter’s Life Little Surprises: leaf and flower by Scrapmuss; frame by Gwenipooh Designs; Splendid Fin Now is Striped ribbon

My first entry to Sagada was in 1994. I was instantly drawn to it because it reminded me of a TV series set in Alaska that I love. Remember Northern Exposure? Rustic town, log cabins, lots of trees, hilly and winding roads, cool weather, sunflowers, indigenous people… well, it doesn’t snow in Sagada, but you get the drift. But more than that, it had caves, waterfalls, rice terraces, lakes and green pastures too. It has become my haven of rest, my respite when the going gets tough in the metro. I’d frequent it through the years.

St-Mary'sUnobstructed view of St. Mary’s Episcopalian Church back then.  1997.

Back in the days when going to Sagada entails eight to ten hours of (no air conditioning) bus ride and two very bumpy, dusty jeepney rides because you dare not subject your car to the condition of the road (fit for a 4×4 only) leading up to Sagada. Inaccessibility kept Sagada away from the crowd. You had to adore the place to keep going back or even attempt a visit back then.

Walking-to-Lake-DanumWalking to Lake Danum.  1997.

Back in those days, we’d walk everywhere. Sumaging Cave, Lake Danum, Kiltepan, Echo Valley, except for Bomod-ok Falls, where we’d take a jeep to the jump off point to the village of Fedelisan. I remember my first attempt to the falls—muddy and slippery and scary.

narrow-path-to-the-falls
The terraces were narrower then unlike the wider cemented walkways of today (done for the tourists in mind).

Fedelisan-terracesSome paths only had rocks to step on. That was scary.

Back in those days, there was no way to book a room in advance. We’d take a chance and stay wherever there was room. We’d take cold showers because we didn’t know that they sell hot water by the pot for 10 pesos. Crazy, I know. But those were the best times.

The way to Sagada has gotten so much easier because the roads are paved now. Visitors tripled, probably quadrupled over the years. Accommodations of all sorts have sprouted, eateries too. Subtle changes I didn’t mind at all. I actually loved the new additions until my haven of rest started to morph from a tranquil, laid-back escape into a noisy, car-packed town. I now become nostalgic of what Sagada used to be and desiring the old one back.

IMG_7145Basura and problema  naming ngayon (we now have a problem with trash),” says friend and guide Fabian. In the many years that travellers (mostly foreign and local backpackers) have come, trash had never been an issue until recently.

And that recently is when the Filipino hit flick, “That Thing Called Tadhana” unwittingly made Sagada an “in” thing.   Nothing wrong with that but sad to say, many of new visitors are irresponsible tourists leaving not only their footprints but also their trash behind.

IMG_7146

I have yet to understand their psyche but I sense a lack of respect for nature and the surroundings. While waiting for the sunrise in Kiltepan (which by the way was packed with perhaps 200 people taking “selfies”that morning),

crowd-in-Kiltepan

taking-selfiesI’d hear words like “Bet ko nandito parin tayo ng 7 o’clock” (bet you we’re still here by 7 o’clock), like the sun will never rise.

sunriseSana natulog nalang tayo” (we should have just slept in), one said before leaving because the sunrise wasn’t spectacular.   Folks, the sun will rise, that’s for sure but life does not promise dramatic ones every day.   I tell myself to chill because people think differently but how do you explain this one— “Pinaasa lang tayo ng sunrise” (in essence, it means – the sunrise led us on).   Really? Like nature owes you?

I always encourage people to travel because it is enriching. Depending of course on how one takes a trip, the experience can be priceless. But, we need to change our travel habits and be responsible travelers, to be responsible enough to properly dispose of our trash, respect local tradition and most especially their environment. I hope one day we learn to be just that.

‘Responsible travel’ means assessing our impact on the environment and local cultures and economies – and acting to make that impact as positive as possible. – Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Lonely Planet

Begnas: A Ritual for Good Harvest

Happy and contented with finally being able to see up close the Panag-apoy, witnessing another festival is, what I would like to think of as, a bonus.

a-few-days-ago-2Walking to town from Ex-Mayor Killip’s house, which we rented for our stay, we saw these men in traditional Igorot clothes.

Former Sagada Mayor Tom Killip invited us to watch their ritual for a good harvest if we have time before heading down. Of course, we have time, we will make time.

dancing-2

Deeply rooted in culture and tradition, the Kankanaey community of Sagada celebrate a Rice Thanksgiving ritual that follows the cultural calendar of the Igorot. The dates of the Begnas are usually decided by the tribal leaders via age-old omen and signs and, therefore, have no fixed dates.elder

It is generally held to mark the different agricultural cycle—pre- planting or land preparation, planting and harvest—and apparently happens three times a year, loosely in March, June and November.

We were advised to be there early so not to disturb their celebration. Being early has its advantages.vantage-point

From our vantage point, we were able to watch the celebration up close without being in the way.gathering-in-the-dapay

Arriving in traditional clothes, men and women from different barangays gather in the hosting dap-ay.to-the-patpatayan

It starts with a group of men in a single file going off to the rice fields to sacrifice a pig on sacred ground the community calls patpatayan.practicing

Meanwhile, the men left in the dap-ay started to perform their traditional dances, not to entertain us (but perhaps themselves) but that we were.   After a half an hour perhaps, they came back, still in single file, to the dap-ay with the pig divided into pieces. The ceremony ends with everyone participating in the dance and the pieces distributed to each community.

dancing-3

pig-distribution

I am honored to have seen this tradition and was well worth setting our trip back for a few hours.

I leave you with more photos of the celebration:

a-few-days-ago

dancing-4

dancing

My New Paradise

AdamsCredits: JSprague Digi in Deeper course material.

Adams.  A familiar name yet peculiar for the Ilocos Norte, yes?  With names like Laoag, Pagudpud, Paoay… Adams sounds off.  The first time I heard of Adams was 16 years ago when Anton explored the river with fellow guides. He raved not only about the river but its natural surroundings as well.at-the-river

He went back several times to raft and to kayak the Bulo River but never with me. In 2009 on an Ilocos Road Trip, we attempted a visit to Adams to hike to the waterfalls. It rained, and we chickened out.  We never made it to the town.

2009-AdamsThis was at the junction where we’d take a habal-habal (motorcycle for hire) to take us to town.

view-of-the-townSprawling over a land area of 159.31 square kilometers on the northern coast of Ilocos Norte,

floraAdams is a treasure trove of rainforests with rare flora and fauna, centuries old trees,

hanging-bridgehanging bridges and waterfalls.

anuplig-fallsAnuplig Falls
cultural-danceWe were treated to a cultural show.

It is a small town of only one village but is a melting pot of ethnic groups composed of the Yapayao or Itneg, Ilocano, Igorot, Kankan-ay and Ibaloi, which explains why their cuisine is different from the Ilocano dishes we know.

local-produceWe had fried frog, udang (river shrimps), stir-fried pako, and mountain rice.

It is a hodgepodge of the various ethnic groups and what is locally available like gabi (Taro), crab lets, baby damo (wild boar), frogs, Udang (river shrimps), purple mountain rice, and my favorite, stir-fried pako (fiddlehead fern).

baguio-climateLike its name, it is a divergent from the rest of the region.  The climate is pleasantly cool especially at this time of the year, with temperatures just a few notched higher than Baguio.

I wish I had made more effort to visit this mountain-river town. It took me fifteen years to finally set foot here. My first trip to Adams was last year around this time. Ask me how many times I’ve been back since. Four so far. I have fallen in love with the area. Expect more posts from me. Meanwhile, here are some photos to whet your appetite for the place.  This is my new paradise.

bulu-riverThe Bulo River from a bridge.
enroute-to-anupligLush forest en route to Anuplig falls.
entertainmentHospitality to the hilt.  Entertainment provided by the villagers.
Ilyn's-HomeystayIlyn’s Homeystay: our home in Adams.
lover's-peak-2A beautiful point called “Lover’s Peak”
lover's-peakLovely grounds at Lover’s Peak.

The Trek to the Underground River

Underground-RiverCredits: Papers by Plum Dumpling Designs, Pri Rocha, The Design Girl, Trixie Scap Design; Ribbon by Design by Tater, Red string with flowers by Graham Like the Cracker, and String wrap by Haynay Designs. 

Elusive in the past, I became disinterested and eventually gave up the idea of visiting Palawan’s famous Underground River. Then they re-opened the Jungle Trail.

Initially slated for December but due to unforeseen reasons, we moved our Puerto Princesa trip to January.  We planned to simply chill out, visit our favorite jaunts and catch up with friends. Then, the grand idea— “why not go to Sabang for the day so you can finally see the Underground River?” Anton to me.  Me to him,  “Ok, but we will trek to the cave.”

Sabang-Pier

The Sabang Pier is the main jump off point to the Underground River or The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, once also called the St. Paul Subterranean River. Yes, it has many names. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, the cave was provisionally chosen (through votes—and you know how we Filipinos can vote) as one of the 7 New Wonders of Nature in 2011.

Entrance-from-the-shoreEntrance from the shore

The usual way to get there is to take a 15-20 minute boat ride (I estimate) from the pier.

There are two trails to the cave, The Monkey Trail, and the Jungle Trail. The former has been closed for a time now and the latter re-opened only last year. Having heard of the Monkey trail from friends who did it some 10 years back, I knew that I’d do it at some point. Well, the jungle trail, I reckon, is good enough.

crossingThe trek starts by crossing the mangrove.

A recommended option for the active, the jungle trail meanders through a beautiful lush forest.

dwarfed-by-trees

It lets you hike through ancient trees, well crafted wooden staircases, bridges and benches made from confiscated wood that adds character to the trail

wooden-walkways

one-among-many-bridges

and at one point, limestone formations becomes backdrop behind the foliage.

limestone-backdrop

Not only does the pleasant 2-hour hike enhance the experience but it also gives jobs to the 20 or so Tagbanua indigenous community members.

guide

reminder-before-the-trek

As “Park Wardens” they serve as guides and caretakers of the jungle.

path-to-the-riverthe path from the trail

The Underground River itself was not a let down at all. Having heard of so many mixed reviews, expectations were low.

paddle-boatsWaiting in line to enter the cave.

But to my surprise, the chambers especially the one called “the cathedral,” towering some 800 meters high, impressed me.

inside-the-cave

Truth to tell though, I fell asleep some part of the way, perhaps due to exhaustion and the fact that the only thing lighting the way was a flashlight held by the person in front. Our guide was adept and quite engaging in providing intelligent albeit elementary information about what a cave system is.

lush-forest-2

My take on this experience: to go there just for the Underground River may not be worth the effort (it’s still a 2-hour ride to Sabang). The hikes makes the difference.  Having seen Sabang, I wish I had stayed a few nights to explore the quiet town.