No matter how awe-stricken I was when I stood in the middle of the huge Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, it did not prepare me for the experience that I was to face the next day. 
We took the overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan and arrived in the wee hours of the morning. The group spent some time having coffee and tea at a shop which was luckily open at that hour. A few drivers and their horse carts were at the bus terminal, eagerly waiting for us to decide what we wanted to do at such an ungodly hour. I honestly cannot remember whose idea it was to watch the sun rise on top of an abandoned temple but I'm glad we did.
Out in the dark
The group patiently waiting for the sun

Imagine sitting on a loose brick atop an abandoned temple while watching the whole place come to life as the sun cast its rays on more than four thousand pieces of century-old temples, stupas, and pagodas scattered in every direction.

The feeling was beyond words.

Here, there
and everywhere!

It took a while before I finally got back to my senses and started taking photos of the view around us and actually include people in it! Based on this photo, we might have been discussing some really serious matter.

Somewhere in the middle of the discussion, a visitor came up and said hi. Say hello to this young Burmese. 

This kid and his sister, Htay Htay, invited us over to their house located right behind the beautiful temple in the photo below. Thanks to Ed's post, it all came back to me in detail. Their family taught the guys how to properly wear their longyis and gladly let us try putting on thanaka. A thanaka is a cosmetic paste applied mostly to the face but it can be used on the body as well. It is made from a bark of a thanaka tree and aside from aesthetic purposes, it is also used as a sun block.

The guys in their longyis
How to wear a tanakha - I think I can pass as Burmese!
It was finally time to say goodbye to the generous family. We still had a full day ahead of us and we needed a quick rest. Before we left, they gave all of us a piece of thanaka stick to use on our faces for the rest of the trip.

That early morning trip was a proof of the kindness of Burmese people. And it is also, by far, my best sunrise experience.

Po from the movie Kung Fu Panda is adorable, but he comes nowhere near the charm of real-life giant pandas.

Meet Le Le and Ying Ying from Ocean Park in Hongkong! These 2 lovable giants are mainstays at the Amazing Asian Animals complex.

Pandas are proof that huge and cute are two words that go together. One look at them and you know you just can't resist that hug-inducing feeling. I could not stop gushing as I felt like a kid running towards these sleeping creatures. 
Le Le, the male panda
Ying Ying, the female panda
Is there any other animal out there that looks as sweet as these two when sleeping?

According to this site, pandas spend 54.86 % of the day looking for food, 43.06% for rest, and only 2.08% of time for play. All a panda ever does is eat, play, and sleep. When we got to Ocean Park, we saw the pandas doing what they do half of the time.. resting. Sometimes they would stir in their sleep and raise their heads. These mere movements from the two always elicit a collective "Aaaw! That's cute" reaction from the audience.

On the other side of the fence are the red pandas. They are smaller than the giant pandas and though they do not have that I-want-to-cuddle-you-now vibe, they work their charms on people. I think they look like an offspring of a fox and an ewok. But that's just me!

If pandas were not endangered species, I would keep a backyard full bamboos so I could take one home with me. Or maybe I could get a place huge enough to keep two. Polar bears and tigers work their magic on me too, but I don't think I would want them in my backyard. ๐Ÿ˜‰
That's Ying Ying, the panda, and me channeling a penguin

What's the most adorable creature you've ever seen?

It has been a year since that trip and I still could not come up with apt words.

You know that quick judgment that you make the moment when you first set foot in a new place? That Ahh, this place is laid-back or This one feels busy and fast-paced.. that did not happen with Myanmar.

I could not put my finger on it at first. The country is poor but not depressed, quiet despite of people chattering, and a part of me wanted to think of it as uneventful but I could not dismiss the nagging feeling that there was something beneath the surface. Or maybe I was just being extra careful.  At the airport, my friend started to take a video but a guy came up to him and warned him to not do such things.

Looking back, I guess I felt an air of subdued anticipation and feigned obedience. The same way we behave when we know a secret and we're trying to hide the smile on our faces. Or that feeling when you just said yes to follow the rules only to break them.

I'm going to try and recount that surreal experience before a year passes by and I slowly forget.

First stop: Yangon.

In my mind, this is how Philippines might have looked like in the 80's. The rest of the world, with its neon billboards and bullet trains, have left Myanmar trapped in the past century. It felt like a trip back in time and I had no problem imagining Ferdinand Marcos as the ruler. I thought of Yangon as a cleaner version of Recto, with the throng of U-belt students replaced by men in longyi.

It is a country with a few skyscrapers in sight and hardly no ATMs.

ET Phone Home

It was a rainy day when we arrived. The streets were clean and litter-free but most buildings were dingy, to which I attribute the Recto-feel.

There were magnificent architectures in different stages of ruin. Below is a photo of The Minister's Building which used to be the home of the administrative seat back in the time when Yangon was still the capital of Myanmar. We walked around the block and was disappointed when we found out that the gates were closed. Then came another letdown: military men were washing and drying their clothes out in the vast lawn. Sure that huge structure can house troops but there seems to be other worthwhile things to do with a century-old edifice than let it crumble away. I bought a guava from a street vendor and munched on it on the way back.
The Minister's Building - View from the Olympic Tower

We visited the Sule Pagoda, Shwedagon Pagoda, and Bogyoke Aung San Market. Here is a shot of the Sule Pagoda gleaming against the gray clouds. We went around the pagoda silently, snatching photos here and there as devout Buddhists said their prayers.

The next stop for lunch: Bogyoke Aung San Market. I forgot the name of the dish but I remember it tasting like our local misua dish. The right photo is a vendor of an okoy-looking food.

After a filling lunch, we walked towards Shwedagon along with the monks. Vendors were lined-up on both sides of the street selling everything from Buddha images and candles to necklaces and plastic flowers. The boys decided to get their own longyis and got a free tutorial on how to wear one.

The way to Shwedagon is through a long flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs, this wide open complex of pagodas plated in gold greeted us. I have never seen so much gold-plated things. At the tip of the Shwedagon is a 76 carat diamond. 
I made several attempts to create a panoramic shot but I just couldn't bring myself to steady my hands and come to a full circle.

I spent the day noticing things and making little notes in my head. After Shwedagon, I decided that I liked Myanmar. With all the contradicting things that I thought of, what won me over was the way how things subtly gelled together. For a country with an economy that is one of the least developed in the world, who would expect to see huge gold-plated pagodas and a larger-than-life Buddha patched with golden leaves daily?
The first day ended with a trip to the station for our overnight bus ride to Bagan. Little did I know, I was in for a bigger surprise. It really pays to stay away from Google before going on a trip.. unless, of course, if you're doing the itinerary. ๐Ÿ™‚
For the itinerary of this trip and all the nitty gritty, please visit Eazy's post.
This is Day 1 of a week-long trip to Myanmar. Next stop: Bagan.

Perfect setting for murder. That was the first thing that came to mind when I saw Cloud 9 in Siargao at night. The sound of the crashing waves will drown out screams, the pitch black night sky will conceal the act and the perpetrator, and the huge waves and the reef breaks will ensure that whoever you want to kill will be dead before dawn. Shove someone off the planks and poof! Gone.

That's my criminal mind talking.

From our island-hopping activity, we proceeded to Cloud 9 around 6PM to drop-off our new Taiwanese friend and check out food options for dinner. I was expecting a vibrant night life comparable to that of Boracay since this is a popular surfing turf, but I was surprised that the shore was free from crowded establishments. The only thing loud is the sound of the waves. Visiting the Surfing Capital of the Philippines in December is a quiet escape from the holiday bustle. Think of the usual province where there's coconut trees, sand, and occasional houses, then somewhere in this setting, add gigantic waves and killer reef breaks!

We decided to go back on our last day to see the famous Cloud 9 before the sunrise. I have tried surfing in La Union before and for some reason I thought that I could do it again in Siargao. Who am I kidding? Though calmer in the morning, Cloud 9 waves are definitely not for beginners, especially not for those who doubt their swimming skills.
The area transforms during competitions, when surfers and enthusiasts all around the globe flock to the small island. The long boardwalk and the 3-story viewing deck is packed and people normally pitch their tents wherever possible.

We wanted to see surfers in action, but apparently, the early morning swells were not huge enough for riding. We watched these two boys walk away with their boards.

We ate at the small restaurant nearby and learned that those boys are the proud recipients of these Surfing Festival awards. It is a good thing to know that the locals themselves take part in the competitions, and some of them take surfing as a way of life.
Aside from Cloud 9, we also visited the Magpupungko Tidal Flats (the first I've ever seen!). I wish I took good photos but unfortunately, it was raining hard that day. The tidal flats can only be seen during low tide. Do trust me when I say that it is one of the must-see places in Siargao. Check out Eazytraveler's photos here for proof.

We went around 8 out of the 9 municipalities of the island in 4 hours, while riding our reliable mode of transportation, the habal-habal.  My back and leg was aching by the time we got back to the hostel, but a sumptuous dinner at De Colores Restaurant in Dapa cured me of my soreness.

PS: There's one thing I've discovered about myself on this trip: I can fall asleep while riding a speeding habal-habal.

This post is part of the Surigao del Norte year-ender trip

For the nitty-gritty of this trip, visit Eazytraveler's posts.

Back from our morning trek to Tappiyah Falls. We came home to Mang Ramon's Homestay, with our lunch of steaming brown rice and crispy porkchop waiting for us. 
The day's second agenda: visit Cambulo. A village located north of Batad, reachable by 3-4 hours of trekking on rice paddies and terraces. I didn't know a thing about Cambulo but Dandy mentioned guiding a group to the village the previous week. So we said, "Sige kami rin!", gaya-gaya mode ON. He said there's no electricity in Cambulo so there will be no meat for our meals. Patay. I can't live without meat.. yet. So I asked Irene to fry me some porkchop for my baon.
Thankfully, the sun was not shining so harshly when we left Batad.  We listened to Dandy's tales of the trail but most of the time we walked quietly (or hummed a tune) and let ourselves be engulfed by the serenity brought by all the shades of green.


Trekking along the landslide ruins

It drizzled halfway through the trek and we were drenched again on our second day. On our way, we ran into a man with a rifle, with a kid trailing him for a sidekick. Tall, dark, toned, and and yes he was a handsome Ifugao, with a rifle slung on his shoulders, wearing a brown vest. I muttered, "Wow, action star!" I swear he looked like one! May kasamang sidekick pa kasi.

It was almost 5PM when we reached the village. We rested at Cambulo Inn, took a hot bath, and asked them to cook chopsuey for us(with porkchop bits). We met another drenched traveler, Mark from Denmark, who trekked for 7 hours from Pula (without a guide!), another village in Banaue. We marveled at his skills in navigating the trails. It was a good thing he didn't get lost. Well, he said he did get lost, but he found his way back.
The solar-powered lights eventually flickered out. It was raining the past few days and the solar batteries had ran out of charge. What to do with the lights out at 6PM? Do socials.. the Cambulo way!
We went back to the table as the kids started to fill the dining area. The entertainment of the night: song and dance numbers courtesy of the kids of Cambulo!

My favorite kid
We gave out chips for the kids - feeling ko birthday ko

It was great that we took someone's advice from the web and brought matchboxes with us.  We gave it out to the villagers, including the action star. By the way, the action star laid flat on his belly on a wooden bench, with a lady kneading his back. Classic! 
They were teasing us to sing a song for them. If they were a bit more persistent I would have gladly sang one for them, good thing they weren't! Haha! I think they knew we were telling the truth when the 3 of us said we can't sing. We took a photo with the kids instead.
Mark, Aaron, Me, and Dandy - all burnt from the day's trek
By the time we finished with our socials, somebody told us that the fireflies were out already. We went out at the back, and there they were. Wonders like these can really shut me up in awe. I stood there fascinated by the blinking, flying lights. It was Christmas in August! 
The fireflies are right outside our room's window. This was the view that put me to sleep. Plus Cynthia Alexander playing softly on the iPod speakers.
The next day, we woke up to a cold morning, later on eased by the warmth of hot banana pancakes and a fresh cup of coffee for breakfast.  We said goodbye to Mark, who went on his way to Batad, took one last walk around Cambulo, and said goodbye to the friendly villagers. We slowly made our way back to Banaue.

Last look at the terraces
The trek back home was longer than usual because of the landslides brought by Typhoon Mina. The roads were blocked with boulders and no vehicle could pass through.  It took almost 7 hours of walking to get back to Banaue. 

Road blocks ahead

We got back to Banaue, exhausted, muddy, and hungry. The perfect stop for people like us? People's Lodge! They offered the use of their shower for a minimal fee.  They prepared our food while we scrubbed ourselves clean. It was still a few hours before our ETD so we spent the rest of the day walking around the town.

Feel fine when you dine!

And in one of the restaurants, we found them! The friends we made on our first day at Batad. They left a day early to visit Sagada but had to come back because the Sagada-Baguio road was impassable.

We all took the same bus back to Manila. I slept throughout the 9-hr ride, and when I woke up, I was back in the crowded city I call home.
Photos by Aaron Manila, except of course, the ones he's in. ๐Ÿ™‚

Call Ohayami Transit for your bus reservations. Manila-Banaue tickets cost P450 as of August 2011. Contact Number: (632) 516.05.01
When in Banaue, contact Dandy Umhao, our knowledgeable and accommodating guide. 
Contact Number: 0910.346.5310

This is Day 3 of a long weekend trip to Banaue:
Day 1: The Road to Batad
Day 2: Tappiyah Falls
              Going Local at Ramon's Homestay