Bayon’s smiling faces and Ta Phrom’s overgrown trees

A murder of crows can be seen flying over the trees in the distance. Unseen hounds howling echoes in the empty halls of Bayon temple at 6:30 in the morning. Lai and I were the first ones there as everyone else preferred to wait for sunrise at Angkor Wat. Here at Bayon however, it was only us left to face the gigantic, smiling faces looking over us from the upper terrace of the temple. For a moment, the eerie morning made several hairs on the back of my neck stand still. Mga 37 na hair follicles. Binilang ko eh.

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The Bayon was built as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII

Our tuktuk driver picked us up at 5:00 AM for the sunrise. The skies have been pouring angrily since 4:00 AM so we knew than there won’t be any sun to catch and it would be impractical to spend the morning with hundreds of tourists as they wait for it at Angkor Wat. So being the smart travelers we’d like to believe we were, we opted to go straight to Angkor Thom instead. We waited for daybreak by the South Gate where several stone statues lined up on a causeway facing against the 23 meter tower gate. On our left, gods. To our right, monsters. At least, that’s what our guide told us.

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Stone gods guarding the South Gate of Angkor Thom

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Deserted. Face to face with the many…. faces of Bayon.

At the very center of the great city of Angkor Thom stands Bayon, known for the towers where faces of King Jayavarman VII is carved on each side as if watching our every move. We proceeded each step carefully because, aside from a photographer and his guide roaming around, it didn’t feel like we were alone. Most of my friends who have gone around Siem Reap told me about their preference of Bayon over the other temples in Cambodia. It was built a hundred years after Angkor Wat but the crumbling walls of the former makes it seem like it’s the much older brother of the Khmer temple family.

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The indigenous Apsara dance carved on the stone pillars

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Bayon is surrounded by 54 towers each having 4 faces looking at different directions. A total of 216 huge, smiling faces!

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One of the intricate carvings found on the temple walls.

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The faces are said to be King Jayavarman VII himself, signifying his omnipresence on the city of Angkor Thom

The central tower is enclosed inside two galleries with walls and stone pillars featuring bas-reliefs depicting historical Hindu events. These Khmer people were a bunch of talented and hardworking fucks for having the time and effort to carve that much detail into their architecture. I can’t even create a decent mould of play-dough for crying out loud! It makes one wonder about the level of technology that ancient civilization had to produce such decor. Eh di wow.

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The upper terrace is host to the gigantic face towers of Bayon

By the time we reached the upper terrace where the stone faces greeted us with their warm smiles, the sky was still devoid of any color from the morning rain shower. I disliked the indifference of the heavens. For some reason, I could not feel any connection with Bayon no matter how many of these faces made me feel welcome. The weather wasn’t helping either. I could appreciate the cooler temperature, but seeing nothing but the varying shades of gray against the colorless sky was uninspiring. Mother Nature dashed the ruins with hints of green but that didn’t seem enough. Taas ng standards ko eh.

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Be careful of locals helping you out to pray. They will ask for a couple of dollars afterwards!

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Baphuon

It wasn’t long before it started raining again so we seeked shelter among a stretch of overpriced eateries conveniently located several hundred steps away from Bayon. We sat at a table between two Filipino women and a European couple. The English man sitting next to me was very attractive. Like gay porn material. Enough to make me think of naughty things I wanted to do to him as I ignored the plate of bread and scrambled eggs the waitress placed on my table. Shortly after breakfast, we all waited for the weather to stabilize but it was us to leave the table first. The rest of the tourist population was still probably on their way to Angkor Thom so we wanted the opportunity to get to our next stop before it gets too crowded.

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One of the few locals we caught biking around that morning on our way out of Angkor Thom

We visited a couple more temples before heading to Prasat Ta Prohm. There, buses of Chinese tourists were beginning to build up so we hurried to the entrance gate in order to have a bit of quality time inside. Unfortunately, some of these talkative bunch were already spreading their noise pollution as they made their way through the jungle dirt path. Beads of sweat started forming on my already damp forehead and my frustration over the crowd was not helping. But as soon as I entered the complex, the folds on my forehead flattened out.

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The hidden nooks and sprouting trees in and around Ta Prohm

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Originally called Rajavihara, Ta Prohm is popular in the tourist crowd for its feature in Angelina Jolie’s film Tomb Raider

The same king who had built the Bayon was responsible for Ta Prohm’s construction. Back then it was named Rajavihara and was meant to be a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university. Imagine how pleasant it would have been if your college looked like this. I sure won’t mind going to class everyday! Now it’s one of the major draws of tourist attractions in Siem Reap thanks to a certain Lara Croft and for being part of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992. And it’s no wonder people flock to this site. Ta Prohm has it’s own unique character which you won’t see in any other temple within the Angkor complex.

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Walls that reminded me of the previous day’s trip to Beng Mealea.

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As part of its protection and restoration, ugly wooden platforms and walkways have been installed to help tourists get around the complex easier.

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The most distinctive feature of Ta Prohm are the trees outgrowing the ruins and almost taking over the temple walls.

Much like Beng Mealea, this temple have lost a thousand year battle with nature as enormous trees and their roots have taken over most of the moss-covered walls. I couldn’t help but remember Chihiro as she entered the abandoned theme park in the middle of a forest leading her to the spiritual world that Miyazaki created for his movie, Spirited Away. I felt like I was under the same story as the young heroine. Then I see all the ugly wooden platforms and railings built around the temple grounds and I am instantly transported back to reality. But as much as I hated the installations, it’s the only way to manage and protect the monument from the daily damages caused by tourism.

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While these photos may show that we had the place to ourselves, there were actually hordes of other tourists going around that I had to wait minutes to get a clean shot.

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The temple features bas reliefs of devatas and meditating monks.

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Haunting corridors during daytime

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It’s hard to imagine that this temple was home to 18 high priests and 615 dancers back in the day. Overpopulated lang!

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And, of course, that famous tree.

Like living giants, each of the silk-cotton trees emerged from the rubble in search of light, while their tentacle-like roots creep on stone. The bas-reliefs told of stories I could not decipher. As I follow the constructed path, it felt like as if I was reliving the adventures of fantasy heroes from the role-playing games I used to play day to night during summer vacation when I was 14 years young. In my head, I would imagine unlocking hidden staircases leading to an underground dungeon. This is a place where many boss fights took place, I thought.

Among the temples included in the small circuit, I felt the most connection with Ta Prohm and its gradual surrender to the jungle giants that have conquered it. Maybe I’ll get to see Bayon again on a better day. Perhaps then, Jayavarman’s signature smirk would feel warmer with bluer skies in the background. No matter how much Bayon smiled at me, it was nature’s persistence in Ta Prohm that won me over. See, unless you’re a charming cutie, hindi ako nakukuha sa basta ngiti. Minsan kailangan sapilitan. Chos.

Beng Mealea: The beauty in getting ruined

It was 2:00 in the afternoon and around 10 minutes into our tour when the inseam of my thigh-high shorts tore open after my right leg stretched out to reach a much higher step. I could feel the exposure as it got a little cooler down there, and as if that wasn’t enough, the sky showered us with a light drizzle prompting me to hide my camera under my bright red tank top. However, neither stopped me from getting in and around the ruined temple of Beng Mealea.

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Located 77km from Siem Reap, Beng Mealea draws less tourists, making it a perfect escape from the heavily populated temples of Angkor.

As first-timers in Siem Reap, one might assume that our priority was the famed Angkor Wat. I mean, sure, one mention of Cambodia and the first thing that would come to mind is the temple city complex considered as as the largest religious monument in the world and one of the most popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s hands down the country’s biggest tourist draw.

But that wasn’t the highlight of our short visit to the Khmer Empire. During the planning stages months before the trip, my friend Mark highly recommended allotting an entire afternoon in this Hindu temple located 40 kilometers away from the main archaeological circuit. We only had two days to spare in Cambodia and spending a quarter of it at a lesser known seemed like a risk. But my curiosity for Beng Mealea grew stronger as weeks passed until I permanently pinned it on top of my list.

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Piles of sandstone blocks prevent you from exploring most of the temple grounds.

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This temple was built to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, although the latter wins in terms of size.

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This abandoned ruin is now accessible through wooden planks and bridges that go around the main parts of the complex, but getting to better areas require climbing on moss-covered stones

We hired a private car to the site after realizing that a 2-hour ride via tuktuk would further our already battered behinds. The extra $15 was worth getting there under an hour with the air-conditioning blasting comfortably inside the vehicle. Since Beng is not part of the usual temple circuits, we still paid an additional $5 for the ticket, but that also meant there’s less tourists to compete with in getting a full experience of the ruins.

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Through its abandonment, plants have began to grow on rocks and roots started to creep on walls

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The site is currently on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List

Wooden bridges and walkways were built around the temple grounds so that people can get around easier. However, for a more up close experience, hiring a local to guide you through the much more challenging areas is a must. In our 2-hour exploration we only encountered less than 30 other people going around and half of those are Cambodian kids who have made this ruined temple a playground, making me imagine that growing up near such site would’ve made for an adventure-filled childhood!

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A ticket to Beng Mealea is only $5. But hiring a private car and guide to take you there will cost you $55, and $35 if you take a tuktuk.

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Many local kids play and hang out on the temple complex

Nature has spent its time beautifying Beng Mealea: a cross between Angkor Wat and Ta Phrom.

Moss carpeted the sandstone blocks that were scattered everywhere like pieces of legos piled recklessly on top of each other. Roots the size of my arms embraced the eroded walls while hundred year old trees emerged from every corner from years of abandonment. A web of intertwining branches and vines hovered above us, only letting hints of sunlight pass through. It’s hard to imagine how grandiose it may have looked in its heyday, but I was not able to contain the kid in me as I carefully climbed and crawled through the ruined pathways, admiring the ruined yet romantic rubble and carvings amidst the foliage.

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Our guide, Poly, is literally just hanging around.

Our driver and tour guide, Poly (0977137138), was generous in telling stories about the Khmer culture and history of Being Mealea. A survivor himself, he lost one of his eyes in a childhood accident but still worked hard to get good education and learn English so that he can earn by freelance as a guide.

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We saw this tourist posing several times for the camera and I couldn’t help but take a snap as well! Tried to recreate her poses afterwards but I miserably failed.

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Extensive carvings can be seen on doorways depicting Hindu mythology.

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Climbing out of the wooden barricades is prohibited unless you have a professional guide with you. Lucky for us, we did!

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“Beng Mealea” means “lotus pond” in English

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Tour buses visit Beng Mealea in the morning, so it is best to go here late in the afternoon foe a less crowded exploration.

Out of all the temples we saw in Siem Reap, this was probably the one that gave the most authentic experience of raiding an old abandoned temple. Pair that with having no competing tourist blocking my view from the other side of the lens an I have found my favorite place in Siem Reap. Getting there might’ve been a little out of our budget but boy were we glad to have taken that route instead of spending the afternoon learning how to cook Fish Amok and other Khmer dishes.

 

Because Binondo is my kind of hood

Finally! After years and many trips back to Binondo, I have fulfilled my longtime wish of doing a sketchwalk within the streets of the oldest Chinatown in the world. I always seem to go back just to stuff my mouth with dumplings, frog legs, roasted duck congee, and dimsum, which are legit distractions to any intention of being a productive artist. That day, however, I was more determined than ever to try and translate the overlapping lines and shapes of Ongpin into paper.

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There I was, feeling presko and candid against the famous bright red wall beside Santo Cristo de Longos.

It was my first time at it, sitting on a sidewalk to draw from real life, so I brought along a few friends at work who showed interest in urban sketching and are also skilled at food consumption. What’s attractive about Binondo that gets me to keep coming back (aside from what fills my tummy and good-looking chinitos walking around) is how it never seem to run out of great angles. All the grime and grunginess of the place gives it plenty of personality. And the tangled powerlines? Ugh. I can imagine how living in a similar kind of neighborhood would bring about thousands of imagery on paper. Babalik-balikan!

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The first of two bridges one has to cross to traverse the main street of Ongpin. Aren’t the colors just lovely?

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My favorite stop in Binondo for lunch! Favorites include the roasted duck congee, hakaw, and century egg siomai.

The gruesome scene of the battlefield after lunch

The gruesome scene of the battlefield after lunch

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A symbol of both Catholic and Buddhist religion, the Santo Cristo de Longos is a small shrine found by the side of a building.

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Three generations. The streets are filled with people minding their own business like this one.

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The golden crucifix is adorned with sampaguita garlands with incense sticks below it.

A walk through the narrow Carvajal Street for a hard-to-find fruits and other Chinese delicacies.

A walk through the narrow Carvajal Street for a hard-to-find fruits and other Chinese delicacies.

Passers-by would often stop for a couple of seconds to check out what we were doing. Some would stay a bit longer to gaze at our progress, like these bunch of kids who live on the street that huddled around us as we attempted to copy the Binondo Church. They played around and asked questions about our motives. In return, we trusted their innocent and inquisitive looks. In the end we concluded that they were nothing like your usual pesky children who touted for cash or notorious pick-pocketing scoundrels on the streets. On the contrary, they were just a bunch of sweet and curious kids which proved that no matter the social status, anybody can be disciplined with a little proper guidance.

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After lunch at Wai Ying, we headed to Plaza San Lorenzo Ruiz to sketch the facade of Binondo Church. These kids suddenly swarmed around us to watch.

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They were nice enough not to bug us but asked curious questions instead.

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The official first urban sketch of the year!

We hit the usual eateries like Wai Ying and Dong Bei. For the first-timers, I introduced them kids to Estero for some fried frog legs, who like everyone else that have tried it, said the taste resembles fried chicken legs and they’d be easily fooled had no one told them otherwise.

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LGA Fastfood at Estero is home to the notorious fried frog legs

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Estero was named because of its location beside a now-dirty creek.

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Fried frog legs: looks and tastes like chicken

In between ingestion and digestion, we’d stop at sidewalks and cross our legs on the ground as we let the tip of our pens dance a brilliant dance on blank sheets of paper. We’d spend an hour on each stop to try and fill up pages with ink. After half a day at work, our bodies got used to the feeling of solitude amidst chaos as we focus on our subjects while everything else around us moves at top speed. I liked that feeling.

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Friends from work: Marc, Ebeth, AJ, and Yohan.

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Another personal goal was to find and buy cherries for my gout. They were expensive at P550 for half a kilo! There’re plums and persimmons, too!

By 4:00 PM only Yohan, AJ, and myself were left sitting by the fountain facing the famous Arch of Goodwill. It would be our last and most challenging sketch of the day as we try to capture the chaotic scene on our drawings. But my right hand seemed like it was already on autopilot. Muscle memory from the previous hours. The pen printed out the windows, letters, and powerlines that my eyes traced. Buildings quickly took shape and our quick illustrations formed decent interpretations of Chinatown.

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The gate to Ongpin and subject of out final sketch of the day

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An hour’s worth of lines. Though I wasn’t able to capture what makes the street so busy, it’s not too bad for the first try.

It’s amazing how a single subject brought out three different perspectives. Each of us saw something different and we highlighted what seemed important to us. As I focused on the architecture, my friends went for the vibe of the place and an hour later the scene was immortalized on our notebooks. We walked out of Ongpin with full stomachs and full hearts. Sarap ng feeling!

Perfect days do exist. And we’ll be chasing more days like this.

2014: The greatest views of the year

When I find myself gleefully staring at something for over 10 seconds with mouth partially opened, excluding photos of naked men on the internet, that’s when I consider anything a truly great sight. And after last year’s short list of stunners, I never imagined the number of amazing views I’d see this year would double. But it did and I can’t help but feel like the blessings have also multiplied.
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But getting to these places was not as easy as morning trips to the local coffee shop for a cup of warm white chocolate mocha. No, no, no. Like all good things in life, you have to work hard for it. One needs to suffer man versus nature levels so that when you reach that edge of glory, the view is ten time much more rewarding.

So before the final hours of 2014 leave us, I look back at the most amazing sights that sent a tingle in my pants.

11. Kek Lok Si Temple (Penang, Malaysia)

It is arguably the largest Buddhist temple in Asia, but when I returned to Kek Lok Si a year after my first encounter, I was as overwhelmed as before. However, this year I was able to climb to the top of the seven storey Pagoda of 10,000 Buddhas overlooking the entire temple grounds and a glimpse of the statue of Kuan Yin from a distance. The texture of the roof tiles and ornamented Chinese structures and gardens was a treat for the eyes.
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10. Beng Mealea (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

While the Angkor Wat may be the most visited architectural site in Cambodia, my personal favorite was a rundown Hindu temple two hours away from the city of Siem Reap. The ruins of Being Mealea are less populated by tourists and more photogenic than the former. I scrambled across the scattered sandstone blocks throughout the temple grounds observing the moss carpeting the ornately designed eroded walls being embraced by overgrown roots. If there’s one temple worth raiding, it is definitely this one.
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9. Bangui Windmills (Ilocos Norte, Philippines)

I have longed to see these Ilocos giants up close and they were as intimidating as I imagined. Twenty towering windmills dotting the beach of Bangui Bay. My curiosity tried to pull me closer as each rotation of the turbines attempted to hypnotise me but my fear kept me at a safe distance. But the heat in the land of Ilocandia was the worst I’ve experienced. Neither these gargantuan fans nor crashing waves could save us from the hellish temperature.
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8. Mt. Batulao (Batangas, Philippines)

Almost breathless from the hike, I sat on a boulder and reunited with the view from Batulao’s highest point. It was my second time to see the iconic peaks of this mountain but a virgin to camping underneath the stars that watch it at night. My unprepared legs rested after an entire day of traversing the mountain’s old and new trails. Hiking is never my strongest skill but I do it anyway despite the struggle. For similar views, I’d do it all over again.
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7. Batad Rice Terraces (Banaue, Philippines)

While the rice terraces found in Banaue wins in popularity because of its inclusion in the Philippine banknotes, postcards, educational textbooks, and often self-praised as the “8th wonder of the world”, I find that it’s much underrated brother in Batad is the clear winner in terms of sheer beauty. Built painstakingly by hand over 2,000 years ago by the Ifugao, this man-made stairway to heaven and its lush green paddies surrounded us as we trekked to see the waterfall hidden on the other side of the mountain. But despite its soothing views, it aint a walk in the park.
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6. Borobudur Temple (Yogyakarta, Indonesia)

We had to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to take an hour drive to Setumbu Hill where we’d catch the sun rise and hover over Borobudur Temple. Was it all worth it? Heck, yes. Even though I’ve never felt as legit of a tourist battling the view out with several others as much as I did back then, seeing that tiny silhouette of a temple amidst a misty cascade of trees was surreal.
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5. Salagdoong Beach (Siquijor, Philippines)

Back in 2012, I left the island of Siquijor vowing that I would return and take that leap off of the 20ft high ledge into the clear blue water at Salagdoong Beach. Two years later, I came back and fulfilled that promise. As I ran across the cemented platform everything else seemed to move in slow motion until my entire body was up in the air. The feeling of accomplishment once my head emerged from the water was priceless.
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4. White Sand Dunes (Mui Ne, Vietnam)

I drove my ATV to the highest dune and watched as tiny strangers created patterns with their footsteps across the vast landscape. The coordinates of where I was standing can be traced with a flick of my finger, but the scenery tricked my mind into believing I was in the middle of nowhere. But regardless of my position, I was clearly in awe. It was hard to believe we were still in the same country known for streets overrun by motorbikes. There, it was just us and acres of sand.
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3. Maadhoo Finolhu (Kaafu Atoll, Maldives)

The sand was literally white as snow and the aquamarine water stretched for miles making the scene look like I was in the middle of a gigantic infinity pool. It felt like we were the only ones left in the world and right then and there I declared that those particular coordinates in the world map was far better than anything I have seen back in the Philippines.
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2. Mt. Pulag (Benguet, Philippines)

Some places are worth visiting again. My experience at Mt. Pulag during the Valentine’s weekend was proof of that. The sun bathed us with golden light as it slowly peeked from the sea of clouds in front of us. I thought the universe conspired on showing me a mediocre mountain view in 2012 just so I’ll have enough drive to come back for seconds. Because that weekend turned out close to perfect and my friends were lucky, too, for witnessing the sea of clouds in its grandest on their first try.
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1. Vayang Rolling Hills (Batanes, Philippines)

Hands down, if one is looking for the most spectacular views that could literally blow you off your feet, Batanes is the place to be. In fact, this lonely province at the northernmost tip of Luzon has enough views to fill the top five slots of this list. But if I had to choose one, my sweet spot was at the edge of Vayang Rolling Hills. There are very few places in the world so intensely grandiose that would make you feel so little and humbled, yet so empowered at the same time.
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I have been spoiled in 2014 and I can only wish that the following year can grant me with even half as much. But for now this is what I have. This is how much I’ve seen. And it’s enough.

Despite lacking spectacular views, my visits to Rizal, Baguio, Bukidnon, and Dumaguete this year are also worth mentioning.

Four foodies in the City of Pines

Two weeks before Christmas, me and my perpetually craving friends climbed the stairway to foodie heaven that is Baguio in an attempt to stretch the limits of our seemingly unlimited appetites. Despite the city’s disappointing temperature that weekend, our band of four slowly crossed out names of the restaurants on our carefully planned checklist as we ate our way to some of Baguio’s finest. “Magkakaalaman na kung sino talaga ang #foodie”, Love said confidently.

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We know how to appreciate good food!

We like to tease each other as ‘foodies’  for our natural desires for food yet everyone’s in denial of it even though our appreciation for quality food exceeds everything else. And when I say ‘quality food’ I mean mouthwatering dishes cooked with love that is sure to make me utter bedroom noises on the first bite. Or something to that effect.

After dropping off our luggage at the guesthouse, it took us little time to hail a cab and tell the driver to take us to Camp John Hay for our first food stop: Chocolate de Batirol. Because of it’s rustic outdoor cafe atmosphere, the place has always been a staple every time I visit Baguio, especially when I’m craving for a cup of hot chocolate during afternoon siesta. I had mine topped with mallows that looked like soft rainbow-colored icebergs floating on a tiny pond of steaming chocolate and paired with a bowl of hot arroz caldo to warm up my stomach interiors before ending the wonderful brunch with a small plate of bibingka.

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We’re never gonna get tired of Chocolate de Batirol’s quaint space while surrounded by a garden.

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Choco Mallows <3

We then made our way to the stalls near Mine’s View Park just so I can buy another beautifully handwoven cardigan, eat a stick of grilled corn on the cob, and buy some of Good Shepherd’s famous homemade jams and snacks. I took a risk in buying a jar of Guava Jelly but I discovered several hours later that it too sweet for my aging taste.

Tired, we dragged ourselves back to The Forest House, our now official go-to guesthouse when in Baguio because of the staff’s great service and its overall cozy vibe that made us feel like Christmas came too early this year, to officially check-in and get our much needed rest from the overnight trip.

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That weekend, Good Shepherd had run out of stocks of Strawberry Jam.

With refreshed spirits, the couple (Love and Pao) led us to one of Baguio’s busiest restaurants: Good Taste! I can still remember the first time I took a bite of the famous Garlic Buttered Chicken at their Dangwa branch so it took me no second thoughts in ordering an entire platter of it and two cups of rice for myself. Because ang tunay na lalaki eats extra rice.

Unfortunately, this time around, the first bite brought disappointment. Although it was still delicious, it no longer packed the powerful punch that knocked me out on our first fight three years ago. Still, Good Taste offers a huge serving of good food within a student’s budget which is probably the main reason this establishment is always filled every hour with loyal patrons. Plus, they cook vegetables perfectly, too!

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A platter of chicken for P160! Lomi was so-so but those vegetables on the side were cooked perfectly!

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Far from its old flavor, I blame their previous chef who was said to have resigned his post already :(

Our collective cravings for something sweet brought us to a twin restaurant along Session Road known for having the best Strawberry Shortcake in the city: Vizco’s. We were only there for desserts but upon a quick glance at their menu we decided to come back for dinner the next day, crossing off Ketchup Food Community from our list. Each of us were eager to pick personal favourites the moment four plates of cakes landed on our table. But despite the shortcake’s reputation, Pao and I chose the Decadent Chocolate Cake as the night’s winning dessert.

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Moist and glistening Strawberry Shortcake. Hands down, the best in Baguio!

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Clockwise: Decadent Chocolate Cake, Lemon Torte, Mango Torte, Strawberry Shortcake

Month’s from now, this new coffee shop in Gibraltar will be filled with hipsters visiting Baguio. Cafe Yagam is a newbie in the Benguet food community and has that artisanal vibe fused with Cordilleran culture. But aside from the art + coffee ambience, the place actually has decent, affordable food and one of the best cocoa I’ve ever tasted in my existence. My friends say their medium roast Benguet coffee is top notch as well.

Still full from the plateful of buttered chicken, I shared a plate of mouthwatering Chilli Cheese Fries with Love while we wait for a couple of Baguio-based friends. Looking back, I wish I had found a way to make room inside my already bulging belly to try their other dishes whose names and ingredients sounded foreign to my ears. My palate took a sampler of Kathy’s Blood Sausage and instantly hated myself for being busog. There will be a next time!

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The hip and cozy interior of Cafe Yagam

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Those Chilli Cheese Fries were amazing! Right, Love? Hahaha. And the best hot cocoa ever!

Being an early bird, I was the first one to wake up the following morning and was already excited for our morning feast. Pao phoned in our orders while I graciously dumped everything I digested the day before into the toilet. Less than an hour later, the food was waiting for us by the diner overlooking a great view of pine trees and city roofs. Five pieces of bagnet and a lump of scrambled eggs sat on my plate at the table, accompanied by pickled papaya strips and spicy tomato relish to add some kick to my fatty breakfast.

One more thing to love about The Forest House is the selection of good food they serve for breakfast. I mean, who else makes bagnet in the morning? And yes, bagnet for breakfast makes sense.

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I woke up to this rustic view of our room in The Forest House.

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Bagnet for breakfast? Yes, please! :)

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Big breakfast, check! Amazing view, check! Good company, check!

But the highlight of our gastronomic adventure is an hour’s drive away from the city of pines: Eve’s Garden. They are are only open for reservation from 11:30 to 2:30 and the set lunch will cost each person a whopping P650, but the food is worth every peso, I tell ya. Tita Eve’s all-organic menu will change how you look at healthy food! You can feel all the love that went into the dishes in every spoonful

We were greeted with a refreshing iced tea composed of lemon and pineapple juice, mint, sage, and Muscovado sugar. Then the server brought in soup with a base of onion and squash topped with croutons and parmesan cheese. My eyelids involuntarily closed, my head tilted, and my shoulders relaxed as I exhaled a breath of contentment after the first mouthful. It was a bittersweet moment for me after seeing the empty bowl of soup sitting in front of me minutes later.

Then came the salad platter. “Per person yan?!?”, I asked in surprise after seeing the gargantuan plate of greens. My eyes remained wide open for five more seconds, ignoring the beautifully plated vegetables adorned with edible flowers. It came straight out of the Garden of Eden. Too bad I was only able to eat half of it and I blame myself for eating a McChicken burger an hour earlier.

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And the award for most photogenic salad goes to…

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Pao, Love, and Karen with our friends from Baguio, Kathy and Grace.

I barely survived the salad when the main entree arrived: Steamed Norwegian Salmon with caper dressing, a pairing of two of my favorite ingredients cooked in perfect unity. We ended the meal with an oatmeal dessert and cup of hot ginger ginseng mint tea before leaving Eve’s Garden with a full stomach and a happy heart.

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A perfect marriage of salmon and capers <3

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking off the extra pounds along Session Road and since the girls wanted to take home some fresh vegetables back to Manila, our feet brought us to Maharlika Market where an abundant supply of produce can be found. As for me, I just couldn’t bear leave Baguio without a box of strawberries and a couple of walis tambo for my mom.

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I’ve always fancied the Baguio Cathedral for its symmetry.

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Lakas maka Avril Lavigne album cover.

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I belong! My fellow halamans!

Most of us were already having stomach problems by the time we climbed the front door steps to Ili-Likha Village, the host of our friends’ quaint restaurant, Urban Kamote, that serves Balbacua, a dish that takes almost an entire day to cook! From what I know of it, the meat is cooked on an open fire for several hours. I had one partnered with miswa, a glass of iced coffee, and a cup of batirol. The rich stew was perfect for the cold night but the gelatinous texture of the oxtail and boiled cow skin was not my cup of tea. I blame my gluttonous self for not being able to finish what I ordered especially the Balbacua whose tasty flavor massaged my palate like no other, but my body was already warning me that I needed to have a moment with the toilet.

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The artsy Ili-likha Village, an alternative to Oh My Gulay! regulars.

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Balbacua with miswa at Urban Kamote. This’ll heat up your cold, lonely nights!

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Urban Kamote, the baby of our friends Grace and Kathy.

We went back to the hotel to get our bags and to release some unnecessary baggage. An hour later and it was back to regular programming! Another episode of ‘Who’s the Ultimate Foodie?’ commenced as we went back to Vizco’s for dinner. This time around, I failed to take photos for documentation as the two pizzas and a plate of Sundried Tomato Pasta disappeared minutes after the kind waitress dropped them at our table.

Baguio will always be that comfort place where I can loosen my belt for some guiltless food tripping. Where the morning sunshine complements the cool temperature that the surrounding mountains bring. Where fog is not a phenomenon, culture and tradition mixes with modern life, organic food is in abundance, and great ukay gems come in cheap. Regardless how many times I come back here, the city will never run out of new things to show me.

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