Having a hundred reasons to go back

Oh so spontaneous, we were. It took me less than five days to build an itinerary, make necessary reservations and complete our party of five, with the last two slots being filled a day before departure, but everything happened so smoothly that by the time we boarded the last bus headed for Alaminos, I have left all of my control issues behind. I was excited to return to Pangasinan!

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Ready to shoot and looking out for the start of our hundred islands tour. Photo by Joice Marinay.

Our outrigger boat was the first to leave the docks of Lucap Wharf at 7:00 in the morning. The coast guard warned us of strong amihan winds so we had to pay a little extra more to rent a service boat that will accompany us through the Hundred Islands National Park for safety precautions.

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Although you can register as early as 5:00 am, boat only start the tour at 7:00 in the morning.

Still groggy from the lack of sleep en route to Pangasinan, I decided to position my ass on the bow for an early dose of sun and sea breeze. I could taste the salt in the air as I recollected memories of my first time seeing these scattered islands five years ago. Back then, I questioned whether they actually had a hundred islets dotting this side of Lingayen Gulf or just a product of a province’s overestimation for tourism. I don’t know why I doubted in the first place because, hello, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to someone who lives in a country known for having more than 7,000 amazing islands.

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The Hundred Islands National Park is a protected area located in the city of Alaminos, Pangasinan and takes 4 to 5 hours of travel time.

The boatman maneuvered his vessel between several islets until it docked on the one known for having the best panoramic view. The sight from the view deck of Governor’s Island is what most of us have seen on countless postcards since it’s the only place where one can get a great vantage point of the island clusters unless, of course, you can afford a helicopter ride that’ll give you an advantage over us, regular people. We settled for the view-deck since it was free.

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There are a total of 124 islands scattered all across this part of Lingayen Gulf during low tide.

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Among the 3 developed islands, Governor’s Island is well-known for having the panoramic postcard view of the islands.

We then breezed through both Monkey and Bat Islands, which were named after the respective animals that it sheltered. The one with bats were kind of cool because, even though we weren’t able to go near it, we could see hundreds of bats hanging from the trees that populated the small floating land.

The sun was gaining momentum on its ascent and, with a little help from the wind caressing my face, my sleeplessness caught up before we even got near the most developed island in the national park. As my friends began to wrap snorkels around their faces, I told them I would rather stay behind and take a nap inside the boat. They swam for giant clams as I lazily snoozed on one of the thwarts. Morning well spent for me!

Quezon Island offers plenty of activities for energy-packed people which I found, on that day, quite troublesome for a sleep-deprived me. So once we docked, I slept under the comforts of the boat’s shade again. People always seem surprised at how much I sleep during trips. But that’s just how I prefer to roll. Under the covers that is. I remember back when I was in Maldives, I was asleep 70% of the time and it was all worth it.

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For a day tour service boat, we paid a collective amount of P1,500 that will take us to any island we want with no time limit.

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Quezon Island has covered dining tables and nipa huts for visitors who want to stay longer for lunch.

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Outrigger boats can easily navigate through the numerous islets. Right, Anna?

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Make sure to buy lunch for your group and your boat man at Lucap Wharf before you head out. There are no restaurants to be found in any of the islands.

I was barely recovering from my morning slumber when the boat man took us to another island with a small cave that leads to a short jumping spot. Cuenco Island, they called it. I let the girls take the lead with an instruction to come back for me in case they spot a hottie, which is the only thing that could get me up from my sleep. They were gone for no more than 5 minutes when my instincts told me to follow suit, and sure enough, when I reached the opposite side of the cave an eye candy was waiting for me. Brunch na po!

This is also where I encouraged the ladies to muster enough courage and take a leap into the refreshing water below while I volunteered to stay behind to document their moments of reckless abandon. It took a few minutes of coaching but I assured them that this could be one of the highlights of the trip for them. So they did. Twice!

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A local kid preparing for an epic jump on the other end of Cuenco Cave.

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Hello beh, musta ka na?

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Joice and her version of one giant leap for mankind.

It was almost noon when we told our boatman to take us back to Governor’s Island since the girls wanted to try the zipline that would allow them to soar over the shore across a separate island. Again, I stayed behind to take photos since i’m not a big fan of ziplines. It looked hella fun, yes, but I was not in the mood for it. Besides, I wasn’t willing to shell out P200 for a few minutes of adrenaline rush. Instead, I found my peace sketching the cluster of islands before me.

On my way down the paved stairs to the dock where our boat was patiently waiting, I smiled, sat down on a ledge overlooking the small harbor and started to trace the scenery on my notebook. Tamang emote lang ulit.

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These girls never tire of doing jump shots.

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Elixa zipping her way across the water to the neighboring island. Epic!

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With pieces of Pangasinan as my backdrop. Photo by Joice Marinay.

My friends knew little of what Pangasinan had to offer but I was able to share it with them, and from the looks of it, they were having a blast. And we were only five hours in to our trip! This could be my thing, I thought. Taking people to different places. I enjoyed crafting itineraries where my friends don’t have to worry about anything but to pack their bags and leave everything to me.

Even though it seems impossible to visit all one hundred of them in a single day, I have always wanted to come back for these islands. But nobody else I knew wanted to. Memories from five years ago have become vague but all I know is this was the trip that started it all for me. Pangasinan was my first. And it cuts the deepest. So it felt necessary that I begin the year with the waters that first took me in.

On the rocks of Norzagaray

In my head I screamed “WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE?!?” to my friends on the other side of the rock I was attempting to stand on. They couldn’t hear me, of course, but I was sure from my facial expression and shivering knees that they had an idea of what’s going through my mind. This isn’t what I signed up for, I thought. Okay, fine, I did. In fact, I was one of the masterminds behind this ordeal. Anyway…

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We were lucky the wind wasn’t blowing when we got to the top of the rock formation.

We were looking for a quick day trip when, coincidentally, my mountaineer friend posted a photo on his Facebook with him standing confidently on top of a rock formation aptly named the Lioness Back because of its resemblance to the animal. Because the photograph made me feel all sorts of envy and excitement I forwarded it to my friends in the office who then unanimously decided to go for it. Ginusto natin ‘tong lahat.

Little did we know what was in store for us.

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How the rockies looked like from the below.

Our team of 11 arrived in Norzagaray early in the morning and it took us half an hour of walking from the jump-off point to reach the foot of Bigte’s now famous rock formation. In no time, we found ourselves scrambling on rocks and scaling stone walls whose level of difficulty started from medium to hard all the way to tangina-levels within minutes.

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Kayla scaling the first part of the trail.

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Local kids go here every weekend to accompany climbers. To them this rock is just a playground.

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Verna holding on to boulders in order to maneuver across a gap between the rocks.

Being at the front of the pack, I was always the first one to raise my brows after seeing each vertical ascent where we have to literally hug the wall and its sharp surface to climb higher. Our guide, who was a big jerk, admitted to taking us through the harder parts of the rock formation which was not a smart idea considering most of us were beginners. However, midway through, a couple of young girls started accompanying us and they were far better guides than the one we hired. Way friendlier, too.

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Each of us had to climb this 20 feet rock wall. And we were only 20 minutes in to the ascent!

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Aldren trying to find his grip before pulling himself up the stone ledge.

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We were gifted with blue skies and fair weather. Not too hot, not too windy.

To be honest, given the technicality needed to climb this piece of limestone rock that reminded me a lot of the cliffs found in El Nido, scaling it fired up the adrenaline inside. If I had better upper body strength I might actually consider rock-climbing. But since I have arms like a high school girl who has never lifted anything in her life, that’s out of my bucket list for the meantime.

With every calculated step my confidence grew. We had no harnesses nor safety equipments to rely on except for the capability of our own bare hands and each other’s encouragement. It was a dangerous game we were playing where a single slip could lead to some serious injuries. The higher we got, the more we became aware of how our bodies would end up when we fall. Somehow our main motivation for holding on to the sharp rocks is to prevent having broken necks when we get home.

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Shella scaled the spiked rock walls like it was an ordinary hill.

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Maynard looking down on the height he has already conquered.

By the time we reached the summit the sun was glaring its rays at us from high up. We took turns in climbing the back of the lioness just so we can bring home a photo that we can brag about to everyone we know. The view was a stunner but the height was a killer. It took me a minute before I could muster enough courage to stand up since our douchebag guide’s constant yelling at me didn’t help my legs to straighten up either. I wanted to show him my middle finger but was too busy repeating several ‘putangina’s’ during that moment. But with one hand on my waist and a fierce distant look in my eyes, I managed to stand strong and seize a top model moment that would make mama Tyra proud.

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Verna standing tall on the head of the now famous lioness.

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The amazing view of Rhino Rock and the rest of Norzagaray from the Lioness.

I climbed down and immediately posted a photo of my accomplishment on Instagram, which led to an early scolding from my sister who questioned my choices of activities in life. Can’t help it if I’m so fucking adventurous, teh. Hahahahahaha. Not really.

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Aileen, Shella’s younger sister, bravely traverses through the rock surface like it’s not hundreds of feet above the ground.

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Maynard contemplates about life and its meaning.

After a couple of hours we finally decided to go down and prepare for our second rock formation. The one that looks like a rhinoceros which is why people have thought of such a very creative name for it: Rhino Rock.

The only problem was getting down seemed to be more challenging than our way up. We had to sit on the edgy rocks while descending and secure our footholds first while we inch our way down. While this is all happening the couple of cute little girls who accompanied us were skipping and playing on the edge of the rocks like frogs hopping on floating on lily pads. Eh di wow. One of us even slipped a little and ended up with a deep 6-inch long cut on his thigh that also tore open his trekking pants.

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Sometimes you can’t avoid seeing vandals on sites like this.

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Pao fooling around while we descend from the Lioness Back

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Posing during breaks in between the two rock formations.

Once we were all safe on the ground I had to reassess my energy to see if I should push forward to the Rhino Rock or not since I read online that it was technically more challenging than the Lioness. I ended up going anyway despite running low on battery. One segment I found myself crawling on knife’s edge and fearing for my life. Isang kembot lang patay na ang bakla. I was worried for everyone else, too!

Again, I found out that our guide led us through the dangerous route to the summit after finding out that my friends who decided to stay behind found an easier path as led by the two young girls, Shella and Aileen.

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The rouch climb on the Rhino Rock which Aileen is doing effortlessly.

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Verna and I on knife’s edge. Photo from Joice Marinay.

I was almost at the top when my instincts told me I should start my descent. Sure enough, minutes after stepping on warm soil my gout attacked and I had trouble walking again. Good call. I may have failed to ride the rhino’s spiky back but that gives me another reason to go back.

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The girls posing near the top of the Rhino Rock formation.

Photo by Joice Marinay

What it must feel like to be standing on top of the world. Photo by Joice Marinay

To date, our short day trip to Norzagaray to scale the province’s rock formations is the most technically challenging thing I’ve ever done. Also the most fulfilling. Years ago I would’ve given up halfway through and used my physical weakness as an excuse. In my early twenties, I’ve skipped adventures and avoided risks. Faced with every obstacle, each step was directed sideways or backwards.

But now at 28, I’ve never felt stronger.

Scouting the old walls of Manila’s historic core

History classes bored the heck out of me when I was a kid. Every day, words like ayuntamiento, guardia sibil, and ilustrados would stick to my brain cells like unwanted bits of amor seco firmly holding on to my white knee-high socks. I loathed having to memorize what I thought were hundreds of insignificant dates from the day Magellan landed in Limasawa in 1521 until the first People Power Revolution in 1986. Until today, I find these historical sites unappealing… except during photowalks.
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Then came March 7, 2014 when a friend from high school invited me for a quick exploration of Intramuros. I took it as an opportunity to revisit and familiarize myself with the streets in and around the old walls of Manila’s historic core. I almost didn’t want to push through with the plan because it felt unpractical to be scouting the area in the middle of the day. But I did and found myself helplessly sleeping on a bench inside Fort Santiago, under the shade of a palm tree, for half an hour, because juskopo ang init talaga.

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The textures and lines found in the architecture of these old buildings made me appreciate bits and pieces of Philippine History and how they managed to survive after several bombings from World War II. Like the Filipino people, they are still standing strong, and seeing them out of history books made me want to brush up on my lessons so I can formulate a complete tour of Old Manila for my friends in the future.

The older you get, the more you find an appreciation for heritage and history, I suppose. We spoil ourselves by spending hours inside air-conditioned shopping malls and office cubicles that we neglect places with deeper stories to tell. But at this age, you have a better understanding that things that have aged are far more interesting after realizing you’re not so young yourself.

What about Angkor Wat?

Shakily, my hands traced the contours of Angkor Wat on a piece of red art paper before filling in the empty form with white acrylic paint. I was only 10 and our school was celebrating United Nations Week. The country assigned to our class was Cambodia and I was tasked of crafting forty-something flags for decoration. The unusual shape of the temple irked me as I only had a few hours to replicate it several times. I had no idea then that the same outline would impress me 18 years later.

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The main tourist attraction and symbol of Cambodia, appearing on the country’s national flag, the great Angkor Wat.

We were on the sixth and final day of our Vietnam-Cambodia trip. The weather was not as cooperative as we had hoped for but it could’ve been worse. Because of the sudden downpour in the morning, we skipped the sunrise in Angkor Wat and decided to make it our last stop of the small circuit before heading back to the hotel. By noon the temperature quickly rose and, all of a sudden, there was barely any trace of the morning rain shower in Siem Reap except for patches of puddles.

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Angkor Wat is the prime example of the classical style of Khmer architecture, constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II.

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Today, Angkor Wat is stil being restored in order to protect and preserve the temple’s architecture from the annual growth of tourist influx.

When I dismounted off our tuktuk, my face instantly turned sour. See I have two major pet peeves during a trip: the first is an overcrowded tourist attraction, the second is unbearable heat. I have enough tolerance for each but put them together and you have one cranky, sweaty, uninterested gay man in his late twenties dragging his feet around a 400 square kilometre archaeological park. It didn’t matter that it was Angkor-fucking-Wat, I wanted to get in and out of there as fast as I could.

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The inner walls of the outer gallery features an extensive bas relief images that depict the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Probably the most large-scale stone carving I have seen in my life!

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Outside, the temple city is surrounded by a moat. Inside is 203 acres of land including the central structure.

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Almost every corner of the temple is carved and it makes you wonder how much work was put into the making of this man-made wonder.

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One of its main characteristics are these towers resembling lotus buds

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Wag na init ulo, baby.

Despite such nuisance, I tried to cover as much area as I could. One thing I realized while walking through the chaotic corridors and hallways is that the experience would’ve been much more insightful with a professional guide to fill you in on the historical facts behind the architecture and detailed design on Angkor Wat. Several of these uniformed men and women can be spotted approaching tourists at the west entrance of Angkor but we just had no extra cash to spare as we were on the last stretch of our budget.

One thing’s for sure, there’s a reason the temple became a symbol of Cambodia. I felt infinitely small in its splendor and I was a little embarrassed for belittling its wonderful shape back in 3rd Grade but lil ‘ol me knew very little back then. Up close and personal, this Hindu/Buddhist temple and the intricate bas-relief carvings that stretched throughout it’s outer walls made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be in its presence. The effort that went into it is beyond my understanding. Like, seriously, these ancient people had mad skills.

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Hello, turistas! This is probably one-tenth of those patiently waiting in line to get to the central towers of Angkor Wat.

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I think this used to be an indoor pool. Hahaha.

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Bring an umbrella, a hat, and a litre of bottled water because it gets hot. Or, if you’re anything like this couple, take someone to hold that umbrella for you.

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However, I walked out of Angkor Wat feeling incomplete. Like I have some kind of unfinished business to deal with that will prompt me to a return trip in the distant future. Maybe five years from now I will get to appreciate Siem Reap the way my nomadic friends have when they bragged about their epic experiences. Or maybe next year? Two days just wasn’t enough for something so elaborate and grandiose and my inability to cope with the day’s crowd and temperature got the better of me. At least, when I do come back, I know exactly what to do.

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 then that 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.

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