Conquering Mongolia

17 Oct


It’s a summer afternoon, and the sunset has the steppe ablaze in a pink fire. Rob, Agnes, and I watch the clouds extinguish it to a chilly grey as dusk sets over the sweeping expanse of the Terelj. Our host, Davaa, calls out from a nearby ger — one of many dome-shaped tents that dot Mongolia’s nomad lands. “Judo match, Mongolia versus Russia!”, inviting us to watch the Olympics on TV.

“No thanks, we’re watching TV already,” Rob calls back cheerfully, gesturing at the sky, the rocks, the hills. “In 3D, HD, surround sound!” I add, laughing above the din of singing crickets.


Our Ger

Our Ger

It’s a funny thing, these little gers. Assembled in two hours, these shells of sheepskin and canvas can be outfitted with every modern comfort: linoleum-coated flooring, electricity, satellite cable, even air-conditioning. But the traditional Mongol tents are best at outstanding the elements of its rugged terrain — blazing temperatures of 40C in the summer, dropping to lows of -40C in the winter. Harsh is a word that describes it best, but the Mongolians build to overcome anything.

In history books, Mongolia is homeland to the great Khaans, the feared horsemen of the Far East, and one-time conquerers of all Eurasia. The year 1240 saw a compass stretching out on all directions under the protection of the Mongolian empire, as far west as Germany, as far south as India. All this from a small population of warriors on horseback, strengthened by military strategies that by many measures, are still completely modern.

Today they are still a nation of conquerers. Mongolian explorers have made it to the moon, to the Arctic frontier, to Everest’s peak, even to the past — dusting off dinosaur bones from the depths of the Gobi Desert.

Chinggis Khan

Chinggis Khan


Mongolia wins the Judo match, and we crack open the first bottle of vodka to celebrate. The brand is Chinggis, named after the greatest conquerer of them all. The inside of our ger is toasty and warm. Maybe just a little too toasty, but only because we insist on getting the wood stove going before the temperature starts to drop after dark.

The second bottle goes around later that night, over Poker. We share cigarettes, hands in our pockets, hopping up and down in the dark to keep warm. I attempt to explain tropical living to a puzzled Davaa as we try to keep down the last of the vodka. “It never gets this cold, even at its coldest! It rains half the year, and even still, it’s always sunny.”

“Oh, but that means that you have more trees, yes?” Davaa is quick to point out the differences in our climate and landscape. That night, I dream of giant trees emerging drunkenly out of vodka bottles, while shivering under a sheepishly old wooly blanket.






The next day, we get up with the sun. After a breakfast of homemade flatbread, berry jam, and cream, we set out to scale a tor looking over our camp site. It’s a steep climb, and my Chinggis hangover makes it almost unbearable. I start cursing for coffee, but Davaa is spry, as if last night’s bottles of vodka never existed. Dressed in leather school shoes, he hops from rock to rock, running ahead to point out different plants, burrows, and abandoned wolf dens.

Midway through the climb, we can no longer see the top of the tor. Our water bottles are empty, the sun is in our eyes. I fall behind gasping for air, and contemplate the fact that I am unfit, unprepared, and unhappy about this little excursion. A clunky camera bag weighs heavy against my sagging shoulders, my scarf is clingy against my sweaty neck. This is supposed to be a vacation, not torture! I want to shout but my mouth is dry and uncooperative, like the rest of my body. Birds circle high above. I envy them as I stop to shake out rocks in my sandals for the millionth time.

“Just a little higher!” Davaa is encouraging, but perhaps starting to doubt his clumsy city-dweller friends. He sings us Michael Jackson songs to help us through our apparent agony.

Rock eventually gives way to a softer soil, a more gradual slope.  Amongst the pines and squirrels, we spot cacti — traces of the desert, and little shells — traces of the sea. There is a strange chalky substance under the top soil. Mongolia is Land Of Dinosaurs. Despite my hangover I remember how old this land is, but can’t dwell on it as Davaa keeps pushing us up and up.


And before I realize it, we are standing at the top, our whoops of joy echoing off the cliffs.




It’s been over a year since our trip, but I find my mind’s eye often wandering back to the view of Terelj that morning: green, green grass stretching out, dissolving into a low, dense fog just above the horizon. Dirt roads cut through the green like veins, carving up the expanse dotted with foothills and gers here and there. For the first time all morning, I am glad my camera is with me.

But my perfect photo-op is short-lived. A fine feathery mist turns into true, honest rainfall roaring in the sunlight, filling the air with oxygen, the scent of wet pine and the enduring earth. Here everything around us is old, being made new. Again.

Up on that tor soaked to the bone, stubbed toes, every muscle beaten by the ascent — I feel a raw energy, an unstoppable fire in the heart. Pure freedom. Weak as I am, I am an eagle, a dragon, a velociraptor, I don’t know… something powerful, unrestrained.


I wonder if I had conquered Mongolia, or if it had conquered me.

Old and New

Old and New


Wild India

21 May

I’ve just come back from India.

Aouda, from Jules Verne's Around The World in 80 Days

From Around The World in 80 Days

India has always been the inspiration for my childhood’s favorite adventures. The jungles of India grew dense and lush in Kipling’s imagination, its red city gates guarded by turbaned, mustachioed men. It was here that Tolkien’s war Oiliphaunts were born, and where fathers from England went to leave their Little Princesses behind. It’s where explorers disappeared, Mughals rule, and condemned widows needed rescuing from funeral pyres.

Everything about the India I’ve grown up with is wreathed in intrigue and opium, cloaked in deep green forests, gleaming with rubies and sapphires, where man-eating leopards run free. It sounds of tinkling ankle bells on thinly veiled dancing girls, the music of a charmer’s pipe. It perspires every exoticity that the Western imagination can conjure about the mysterious East.

I had hoped to get a glimpse of the wild India of my storybook heroes, but unfortunately the wildest thing I ever experienced during my very short stay was the traffic.

Lucknow Traffic

Lucknow Traffic

We spent a day on the road, driving seven hours from Lucknow to Agra. The highways were a jumble of brightly painted ten-wheelers, overloaded vegetable trucks, tractors, motorbikes, tourist buses with gawking ferenghi. Towns we passed had narrow streets where pedestrians weaved in and out of traffic dressed in saris of every color imaginable, enviable moustaches, pristinely wound turbans, golden nose rings, foreheads dotted with red kumkums — all seemingly oblivious to the white heat of the Indian summer blazing outside.



They say that when driving in India, you need four things:

Good eyes, Good horn, Good brakes,

and Good luck.



I believe this. It’s really a lucky thing that there aren’t more accidents on the highway than there are.

Swerving into the tiniest openings, overtaking speeding motorbikes — even the most daredevil racer would balk at these opportunities to one-up another driver. Still, there must be some unspoken road rule about giving way to an overtaking vehicle when it becomes clear, from its frenzied horn-honking, that it’s about to be obliterated by the counterflow.

It’s chaotic, but organized. I mean, I see their point — who needs traffic rules when you have good judgement?

Close shaves in India have nothing to do with moustaches

“Close shaves” in India have nothing to do with moustaches

Our driver was impressively calm and efficient for the duration of our trip. Once, while overtaking, he slid our van back into the right side of the road with the precision of a neurosurgeon, only a split second before the oncoming container van would have surely smashed into the front seat. He never flinched once. He would have put The Stig to shame.

In fact, driving on the bits of uncongested highway seemed to bore him, much so that he sometimes looked as if he would fall asleep with such easy driving. It was a shame he did not speak English, nor I Hindi, because I really wanted to ask lots of questions. I tried anyway.

Compared with the drive to Agra, the cobra I saw on the street seemed almost tame. (It probably was.)

Cobra Commander

Cobra and friend

And in that long, dusty, bumpy, break-y roadtrip, my window seat offered me a small glimpse (about 330 km. worth) of what makes India a place of such mystery and wonder.

The sweeping vastness of the Mughal kingdoms and the calm rivers that cut through them. The mosques, the churches, the towering monuments of godesses with probably as many hands as there are religions in India. The red desert dust that sweeps over everything that sits still. The tyrannical sun. Bustling towns of beautiful, hardworking people who are proud of their cultural heritage. The wayward cow that turns into an obstinate roadblock. And of course, the swashbucklers that carve out a seven-lane queue out of a four-lane tollway.

I was able to see the wild India of my adventure books, after all.

Lessons from the back of beyond

19 Mar

We had lots of time, and the Internet at our disposal while planning for our 10-day trip to Sri Lanka. A safari day at the Yala National Park was high on our list while blitzing through the southern coast, and we thought we might level-up the experience by finding a different kind of accommodation for the night — a tent, a tree house, or something. We found Back Of Beyond, and were drawn to its promise of a private eco-retreat in our own solar-powered bungalow right on the perimeter of the Yala park.

It was about 45 mins away from the main town of Thissamaharama, and a long, bumpy drive down a dusty yellow road. We had some trouble finding the house, as it had no gate, and no sign. The bungalow had a single thatched-roof and was nestled in the clearing of a little grove, with one walled-in bedroom. The open-air toilet and bath was to be shared with a family of cute tree frogs (that probably weren’t poisonous). The staff had a separate house a short ways off.

Our driver tried to convince us that he knew of better accommodations in town, but it was too late.

We loved the place.


Walking down the dirt road led us to where the brush meets the Indian Ocean, and the most hauntingly beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was heartbreaking to imagine this coastline to be one of the hardest-hit during the 2004 Tsunami.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting outside our bungalow, drinking tea and eating Oreos with milk, watching the birds, watching the sky, in awe that we were completely enveloped by Nature.

Chillin in the yard


We had gotten away from it all. No rattling hum of air conditioners, no rumble of traffic, no noisy neighbors, no beeping mobile phones (no signal). Just pure wind, birdsong, and lightness.


Living in the back of beyond

But I was to discover another side to living off the grid later at midnight, when the power went out, plunging our little bungalow into the pitch black of the Sri Lankan brush.

First 15 minutes wasn’t so bad, but as the night drew on darker, and with me unable to see beyond the foot of my bed, I lay there wondering how this blackout could have been prevented. The staff should have warned us about the power supply. I wondered if anyone would come to fix it. Nope, they wouldn’t. It was too late. Did it just go off by itself? Or did someone turn it off?! *Gulp* Oh God why did we even come here in the first place? Two girls spending the night in a little bungalow in the middle of nowhere, by choice. Why didn’t we pick a normal hotel in the center of town, like normal people? I sat blinking in the dark, waiting for night vision to kick in, and feeling tiny pinpricks of panic.

“Hey Bets,” I reached over to shake her arm, “the power’s out!” mostly because I wanted to say something out loud.

She looked around sleepily “I think it should be okay. The moon’s actually kind of bright outside.” She waited for me to calm down a little before going back to sleep. I envied her courage then.

Earlier that day, we discovered that an elephant had broken into the property a few days ago, to the delight of the guests present at the time. Upon verifying the damage on the barbed wire fence, we got excited about the possibility of a pachydermal close encounter during our stay.

Shutting my eyes made no difference to what I couldn’t see. I tried imagining the joyful trumpeting of elephants on parade. But the reality was that I was freaking myself out with sounds of the nocturnal wild I could not identify.

Crickets and frogs were something familiar to me, but all the chirping, flapping of wings, clicks, ticks, gurgles, grunts, hissing were too much for my city girl ear.

Okay, breathe please.

Even as my chest tightened in fear, I had to wonder if I had high cholesterol. What is hypertension, and how do I get rid of it in the bush? Damn! I had read about how to hopefully survive a croc attack (poke in the eye and avoid getting pulled in the water at all costs), a leopard attack (don’t turn your back, snarl and look menacing), but I had neglected to read about surviving premature heart attack a long ways off from a hospital.

Now I was starting to hear soft footsteps creeping towards our house. Cautiously.

I had to wake Betina again in miserable company. “Sorry, I’m afraid.” I said, looking in the direction of the window and the blackness beyond it. Whether it was man, animal, mythical, friend, or foe moving outside our house, I could only conjecture.

“The driver….” began Betina. I shushed her sharply. The driver was a bit dodgy was the thought I was unwilling to complete aloud. The last time we saw him, he was still sulking by the staff house. “I’m sure he’s just as scared of the dark as we are.” I offered. I listened hard, waiting for the footsteps to go away… or for a face to appear at the window… or for me to fall asleep (not likely). Because louder than the shuffling outside the window was my heavily palpitating heart.

I heaved desperately, trying to calm down, and I realized that I had prepared myself for this trip by knowing everything I could possibly know. What to wear, what the weather was like, how to greet people, if female travelers would have any “problems”. But Knowledge wasn’t going to make this trip foolproof. It wasn’t going to keep me 100% safe. There will always be a limit to knowledge. There will always be something, many things I don’t know, and now it was fueling my paranoia. I had invested too much on knowledge, and it was turning on me.

If it was a person, maybe they would have said something. Or not. Mentally, I ran through the items in my backpack, looking for something to use as a weapon. If we make it to the road, we should run to the nearest resort. Wherever that was.

The footsteps were directly by the window now. Louder, more daring.

It was all too much. I threw off the covers and jumped out of bed. “I don’t care anymore, I’m going to look outside!” By now, even Betina was tense from my tossing and turning. She nodded furiously as I groped my way to the window, with head lamp in hand. Like a horror film you watch through fanned fingers I shone the light out the window looking for the source of the sound. A leopard? No, they’d be too stealthy. Please, God, not a rapist. I held my breath.

And right at the edge of the lamp light, I caught the shake of tail bounding away, then all was quiet.

Axis axis ceylonensis. Sri Lankan Spotted Deer.





What You Want and What You are Afraid Of

My brain imploded with all these thoughts I could not process at once. I laughed as I wiped my clammy hands on my pajamas. Relieved, embarrassed, silly, excited, relieved again, stoked, guilty… The driver! WTF was I thinking??

As I went back to bed trying to empty the fear out of my lungs, I wondered why I had been so afraid to come to the window, even when I had been on the night watch for elephants to begin with. I had conjured all sorts of ridiculous scenarios (some of which included vampires and demon monkeys), when I really should have been running excitedly to check, like a child eager for Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve. The need for more knowledge, or, paranoia kept me in bed, and in the dark.

Knowing this made me calm. I was glad to finally have logic and reason working out for me.

“Are you ok?” Betina opened one eye to check up on me some time later.

“Yes,” I replied, still wide-eyed, listening intently. “I think our deer has come back!” I raced her to the window. This time I wasn’t afraid. We pressed our foreheads against the glass and strained the light out in time to catch a sea of wild cows hoof across the yard.

It’s amazing what a few sounds in the dark can turn out to be, when you aren’t afraid to find out.

Where knowledge falls short, faith is what holds the candle up, that willingness to discover truth.


The power came back on sometime before dawn, but it hardly mattered anymore.

View of our bedroom

What I want you to know about your trip to Sri Lanka

18 Mar

Sri Lanka is a little country packed with so much to see and do, warm and friendly locals, and fantastic food. They’ve got excellent infrastructure for tourism going on as well, with good roads, signs in English, and information centres in high-tourist areas. As a traveler from the Philippines, there were so many bits I found familiar and comfortable, and there were also so many things I found strange and exotic.

Since my trip, I’ve been getting lots of questions from friends and people online about where to stay, what to do, and if this place or that attraction was worth it. Part of the joy of traveling is planning something, only to discover something completely unexpected. (I’ve already told you about the one most awesome experience I had in Sri Lanka!) So, instead of boring you with a blow by blow account of everything else I saw and did, I’ll leave you with a set of considerations that might be helpful as you plan your adventure.

Have fun!!


What we found so charming about Sri Lanka was was that many of the locals open up their houses as bed & breakfasts with only 3 or 4 rooms. These kinds of places range from basic to luxury, all of them run by the families that live there and their (most likely) large army of household help. Many of them include breakfast with the price.

Trip Advisor seems to be the place to find them. ALL the places we stayed at requested for a review on TA after our stay. It must be a Sri Lankan thing. The guesthouses are also likely to have their own website, or at least an email address to coordinate with them directly, sometimes no reservation downpayment is required. Find someplace with a good location, as tuktuk drivers are hard to haggle with (especially while it’s raining), and they are hard to come by late at night. The more you can walk to places, the better.

Here’s what our guesthouses looked like:

Getting around

While you’re there, you might be hopping from one town to the next. If you’re pressed for time with a packed itinerary (like us!), hiring a car might be a good option — for the entire duration of your trip, or at least one leg of it. Though it will cost more than commuting, it’s not overly expensive, especially if you can divvy up between a number of people. Many of the guesthouses will have a room for the driver to sleep at for free, or with meals for an additional charge. Check out your travel route as well, in case there are any notable places along the way that you can stop at (waterfalls, temples, museums, restaurants, tea factories, etc.) so you can get out and stretch.

What we saw driving along the way:

Taking the bus or train is also a good & cheap way to go. Sri Lankans generally speak good English, so asking for directions and where to jump off won’t be too hard. You can purchase 1st and 2nd class train tickets in advance at the station, or else show up early for the 3rd class car. I also heard you can purchase train tickets online, but I haven’t tried it.

Note that provincial buses are generally non-AC unless specified. If the idea of an 8H ride on dusty roads breathing in toxic fumes in sweltering midday heat fills you with dread… vie for a window seat near the front and knock yourself out with dramamine. Might be a good practice to check out the bus or train station when you settle in at a new city to see what your options are for getting to your next stop, or ask for tips at the guesthouse.

Changing money

Colombo is pretty cosmopolitan and will accept plastic most anywhere. If you’re in a town outside Colombo, it should be fairly easy to find a money changer (US$ seemed to be the easiest currency to exchange) or an ATM; and bigger (i.e. Western-type) restaurants and bars will accept Visa with no problems. Your guesthouse and driver, however, may not be set up for it. Cash is still king, if you’re going off the tourist track.

Internet access

All the guesthouses we had stayed at offered free WiFi, and many of the bigger restaurants, bars, cafes had it too. You can most likely ask to use the family computer at the guesthouse you’re staying with, if you’re traveling without your mobile devices. I was impressed by how fast their Internet was, even in places far from Colombo, but I get impressed easily — I’m from the Philippines, where the Internet is shitty. Colombo seems to have an active foursquare community too. Check for local hotspots in case you’re drawing blanks.

What to wear

This one’s for the ladies. While I noticed that lots of places in SL are really used to tourists from all parts of the world and what they wear, you should remember that it’s still generally a conservative country. It’s worth covering up shoulders and knees while walking around, especially if you’re hitting the temples. It was funny though, we went to a couple of churches, and most of the women were all covered up in their traditional saris, but back cleavage seemed to be what they would be competing to reveal!

Ladies in Kandy

Ladies in Kandy

The more popular beach towns are a lot more forgiving — they’re used to seeing people sunbathing in their itsy bitsies (I’m also talking about large European men and their love for very small Speedos). But maybe it’s best to bring a cover-up, or a shirt & shorts, for walking on the roads or riding in a tuktuk.


Eating in SL was one of the things I loved most! We kept a budget of R 1,000 each for food per day (roughly $8) and it was easy to stay within it at roadside roti or curry houses outside Colombo. There are also lots of vendors selling yummy things as you stroll — tropical fruits with chili salt (mmmmm), corn on the cob, pastries, cashew nuts, or veggie samosas. However, we also found it just as easy to blow our $8-a-day budget on a single meal at more upscale restaurants, cafes, and bars, especially if we wanted alcohol. Still not too bad overall, but these places are likely to accept plastic, in case you’re worried.

Also, Sri Lankans like to overfeed. Portions are always more than generous, especially at the guesthouses we stayed at. We never finished the food on our plates. Ever. In the Philippines, it’s only polite to finish every last morsel on the table. This was impossible in Sri Lanka, as every time we would get close to it, someone would notice and rush to serve us more! We were told that it’s in their tradition to keep a full table when guests are present, lest the hosts be thought of as stingy. This means that restaurants who say their dishes are only good for one person, probably really mean that it’s good for 2 starving girls.

A very happy breakfast (this was only half of it) at Sevana Guesthouse, Kandy

A very happy breakfast (this was only half of it) at Sevana Guesthouse, Kandy

Anything else I missed? Feel free to hit me up with more questions!

LF: Adventure!

5 Jan

I Laugh At You, Puny Humans

Alright. I’m super behind on my writing assignments. I realize I’ve had this blog a little over 4 years now, and I hardly post a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g.


Year of the Dragon, Year the world should have ended, Year YOLO was born.

In 2012, I’ve yielded a paltry 2 posts.

Not really sure why this is so. I guess I’ve been alternating between levels of utter boredom and extreme excitement that there’s never a bit of steady. I don’t even know if this exists. What I do know is that nothing has compelled me to write lately. Even the idea of articulating why I don’t feel like writing is a blah.

How strange!

And now, for some other news…


Old Ceylon

Wil be visiting the exotic isle of Sri Lanka in a month! It’s turning out to be a 10-day blitz with my friend B, passing through the cultural centre, the hilltop tea estates, wild cat jungles, the beach on the south side, before making it back to Colombo just in time to fly out.

Not sure if I’m feeling excited about it yet. Too many things going on.

Will let you know how that goes, maybe.

See you, hopefully sooner than next year!

2012 In Music

4 Jan

Since I’m in a writing rut at the moment, I guess I can kickstart 2013 charting my top tunes for 2012.

These are everyday, all-purpose tunes that can power you thru a Thursday morning hangover, lend you the license to strut down the street in the crazy Manila heat, head bop at work while whittling away on a brief, play air drums at the airport, dance in the kitchen in pajamas.. I suppose I did lots of this in 2012.

Give the full playlist a listen here.

What I usually look / feel like at work

Me, on Work mode

  1. Breakbot – Break of Dawn
  2. Kishi Bashi – Bright Whites
  3. Skrillex – Bangarang
  4. Kimbra – Come Into My Head
  5. Beach House – Myth
  6. Yuck – The Wall
  7. Cloud Nothings – Stay Useless
  8. Chairlift – I Belong In Your Arms
  9. Ane Brun – Do You Remember
  10. Matt & Kim – Let’s Go
  11. Slam Donahue – I Turn On
  12. 1,2,3 – Work
  13. Midi Matilda – Stranger
  14. The Shins – Simple Song
  15. Hot Chip – Look At Where We Are

Bonus: Beastie Boys – Too Many Rappers (RIP MC Adam)


7 Jul

Just finished reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Howard Roark, in the movie version

I’m amazed, and completely mindblown. This is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. It’s not a thrilling page-turner, but it’s masterfully written, with sense of style that is so sadly lacking in a lot of today’s popular literature.

Its words are something to marinate in, something to chew on before turning each page. It doesn’t knock the wind right out of you, but it’s like a vise slowly squeezing the air out of you until you realize you can’t breathe. It was the kind of book that I didn’t want to end. Not because it was a wild fantasy adventure or giggly romance rollercoaster that should just go on forever, but I was more afraid of HOW it would end. It’s such a relief to me that the author chose hope rather than inevitability. And the world makes sense again — for now.

The best part about this book was that it made me feel so small. I can’t even begin to figure out how Roark or Dominique, the novel’s heroes, can relate or figure into my life. I’m not at all worthy of the comparison, even if I wanted it. Ayn Rand wanted to create Howard Roark as the Ideal Man, as twisted and exquisite as it should be. But it’s amazing just how another’s words and ideas can move mountains within you, even from a different era, a completely different world.




I’ve just turned 27 and things are going great! For the first time in a long time, I feel I can say it and really mean it. Of course there are lots of things still up in the air, but I guess that’s just what life is: A work in progress.

The great Transiberian Adventure is only weeks away, and I’m almost almost set! The last large hurdle was obtaining my Russian Visa (I think only the ultra-budget Filipino traveler trying to get this without the help of a travel agency will understand just how stressful this experience was!!) but that’s finally over with, and now I need to practice writing. I just bought myself a Bluetooth keyboard (which works like a dream, whenever it feels like working properly) so I can write on the road. Nothing like a new gadget to sucker myself into productivity, but hey! Here I am, writing again after months and months.

I still owe myself the last installment of the Northern Thailand set, and perhaps something on the mountains and the rolling hills of the Philippines I feel so at home in. OK there, I’ve said it so I can hold myself responsible for these assignments. I guess it doesn’t matter what I write, only that I write.

Unveiling: Project Steppe

18 Apr

OK, so I’ve got something cooking, which needs a lot of stirring up.

I’m gearing up for a big trip in August — going Trans-Siberian, starting out in Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia and ending up in Irkutsk, Siberia.


From Ulaan Bataar, to Ulan Ude, to Lake Baikal, to Irkutsk

And it’s not just a “save-then-fly-out” trip, this time. Before I actually fly out, I’ve got all these to-dos and little goals that need to happen: getting in shape for (what will be) lots of hiking, getting my finances in order, slowly building up my trek gear, and processing visas, etc. All these things make it more like a personal project, and one that I’m really excited to do for this year.

More on Project Steppe soon!

The Way North: Bangkok to Chiang Mai (Part IV)

7 Apr


I’ve been dreaming of going back to Chiang Mai lately, it’s been a year since our trip and I guess it’s a good time as any to finally start writing about it. Before I forget – though I know I probably won’t.

So far A and I had been through Ayutthaya, a quick stopover at Lopburi, then onto Sukhothai. The last travel segment from Sukhothai to Chiang Mai by rail was a pain. We had to leave Uncle’s house at 5am to get to the bus station which would get us to Phitsanulok, 2H away from Sukhothai. Then from the Phitsanulok had to hightail it by tuktuk to the train station to catch the 7:30am to Chiang Mai. We felt like we were on the Amazing Race. Next time for this leg, maybe I would just take the bus from Suhkothai instead.

We were majorly bored on the train, with too many are-we-there-yets. A had finished her book an hour into the trip and was now reading mine while I drifted in and out of snooze-mode. Our butts hurt and we were getting antsy since we had been up and travelling since 5am, and cranky for lunch. But a major plus on this 6H train ride was seeing the view out the window turn from dry farmlands and plains, into cool cricket forests as we wound up the mountain and into Thailand’s 2nd largest city. Despite my mother’s warnings about never sticking any body parts outside of moving vehicles, A and I passed the time sticking heads, arms, legs, and dangling fingers outside the train window to touch the trees, wave at railway construction men, and babies from the towns we had passed.

At around 3pm, we stepped off the train thankfully, cranky and sore from some 10H of travelling (any more, and this was like flying from Manila to Milan). Grabbed a tuk tuk to take us to the Montrara Happy House on Thapae Road. In the 15min ride from the station to the hotel, I fell in love with Chiang Mai. It was a far cry from Bangkok’s concrete hustle, but was a lot more busy than any of the other Thai cities we had been to on the way. We drove through art shops, secondhand book stores, furniture shops, Swedish families in Thai pants and flip flops, backpacking couples, and biker dudes. There were sunny street-side cafes with bohemian names, and massage and manicure places everywhere — everything nice clean and cool.

And our little hotel was awesome! We couldn’t have asked for a better home base for our last 6 days in Thailand. We were only planning to stay overnight and check if we could find a better hotel when we got there, but we liked Montrara so much we ended up staying all through Christmas. The staff was wonderful, and the rooms clean and neat, though a bit small. The room cost us around THB 1,000 per night, if I remember it right — with hot water, cable TV and air conditioning. Though the hotel didn’t have an elevator (so we had to huff & puff our way up 3 flights of stairs to get to our room), Montrara had the best location ever!

A really Happy House!

It was a few steps away from a night market right at the Thapae Gate with a lot of yummy Thai food to try, skirts, pants, earrings, nice shiny things. Not sure if it was a regular thing there or if it was there just for the Christmas week (strange, for a largely Buddhist country, that night market had a Christmas show every night!) A and I loved having Chiang Mai pork chops, pad thai, snow cones with fruit, crepes, salads, sushi, milk tea, while enjoying the evening’s show.

Our favorite stop before going back to the hotel to pick up great reads for the night

The Sunday night market along Thapae Road is a must-see for any tourist in Chiang Mai for great souvenirs, but do go early (it starts around 3pm). When the crowds rush in, the streets get so packed, which can totally kill your shopping buzz.  This is great for souvenir shopping, though very touristy. My best finds were: handmade earrings of hammered brass, beautifully packaged dried ingredients for Thai dishes like Tom Yum (with neat, handwritten instructions for my foodie friends!), colorful pouches from the mountain tribes, and my now-favorite keffiyeh (scarf) made of combed bamboo fiber.

Thapae Road on a regular day is pretty busy too, and here we found a tour operator that gave us great prices on day tours to some interesting places in and around Chiang Mai. We signed up for three day-tours which consisted of: elephant riding, a short jungle trek and river rafting on Day 1 (THB 600); a trip to to Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand, and a visit to a Karen Hill Tribe on Day 2 (THB 500); and Day 3 visiting Chiang Rai, and the Golden Triangle — looking over Burma, then crossing the Mekong into Laos’ border town (THB 1,000). We got a pretty good deal since we signed up for more than 1 tour.

Here’s what we saw on those tours.


Riding an elephant is pretty magical. The mahouts (elephant trainers) seem to be quite dedicated to their animals, and to go crashing through the jungle a’la oilyphaunt seems to be a really cool way to get around!

An elephant walkabout

Our little jungle “walk” took us through the forest, up a hill, then down to a river where the elephants cheekily sprayed us with water. Then we took a raft trip downstream where we caught glimpses of large butterflies, colorful birds, and monitor lizards. There was a Burmese couple on the tour with us, and we were burning to ask them everything about their country and political situation, but unfortunately we were too shy to do so. After river rafting and a simple lunch, we hiked to a nearby small waterfall. The water was FREEZING, none of us swam at all!


Our tour van went up into Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak. At over 2,500 meters above sea level, it commands a glorious view of the foothills around it. According to our guide, this is mountain itself is one of the foothills of the Himalayan Mountain Range. The mountaintop itself is a vast nature park, featuring the mighty Wachirathan waterfall.

The fresh air was glorious. It was a beautiful day in December, perfect blue skies, and a crisp breeze. Our tour group went up and down the twin hills to see the commemoration Chedis for the Thai King and Queen. Surrounding the Chedis are beautifully manicured lawns, blooming bushes of every color trimmed into hedge hearts, elephants, and other cute things.

A glorious garden at Doi Inthanon

After visiting the Chedis, we walked through some kind of forest canopy trail, to visit the shrine of another well-loved Thai king. The tour van also took us to a gorgeous botanical garden on a hillside with a charming waterfall at the top! It was all so picturesque and lovely.


Our tour took us to Chiang Rai, the Mae Hong Son border into Burma, and then we went crusin’ down the Mekong River, and into the Laosian border town of Don Xao. More about that trip in the next post.

On our last days, A and I visited temples in the old city by foot. We had quite the workout, but it was nice to see Chiang Mai a little closer — with the houses, shops, schools, and alleys. My favorite wat was this tiny flower of a temple around which a hulking home depot and a grocery store grew.

Terracotta, Saffron, and Gold

On our last morning, we caught one of the red roving “tourist taxis” up to Doi Suthep, to see another temple, famed for it’s beautiful golden Chedis and an Emerald Buddha.

By this time, were all watted out, and ready to fly home.

Thailand is so lovely, and in our journey from Ayultthaya to Chiang Rai we had seen at  least three dozen edificial testaments to sacredness and love for God. Sure, today most of these temples are kept more as tourist sites, but it cannot be denied that within these ruins run a hallow majesty — a serenity —  that makes itself known when you gasp in awe, and lasts well beyond shutter clicks. And that feeling of mystic wonder makes you feel truly blessed by Buddha.

Thank you, Thailand, for showing us all of this!

Hands are for Loving, by #3

2 May

My grandfather’s hands are like mine. Or rather, my hands are his.

We both have hands with small, stubby fingers — looking like they were supposed to be longer and more graceful but somehow got stuck at an awkward length. A child’s hands, but more rough, more weathered. A worker’s hands. Nails shorn short, ready for action.

The first time I saw my grandfather in the hospital after his stroke, he was droopy. Tubes were everywhere, a machine beeping to let us know he was still breathing, he could barely open his eyes. But when he saw me, he eagerly grasped for my hands from under the blanket.

He and I spent lots of time holding hands in those last weeks. Actually, we spent more time together than we ever did in this last year. And we hardly talked, really. He could barely speak at all, except to keep asking me to tell him more stories. And I really didn’t want to do much talking either; my voice felt awkward in the stillness of the CCU room, with all other doctors and nurses talking in hushed tones. But I was more afraid that he would notice that I kept trying hard to keep my tears at bay. So we stayed mostly silent. And we held hands.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what those hands had created. An engineer by profession, he had built many things for many people. His talents brought him to many places around the world. He loved telling me the story how his team reconstructed the grand Borobudur complex in Yogjakarta after seeing my photos of it during a trip to Indonesia. At 80 years old, my grandfather had long retired. But he never lost that twinkle in his eye as he showed us cousins photos of him, debonair  in Europe circa 1970, arms clasped tight around our beautiful grandma, explaining what kind of project brought them to those parts, or that they were on their 3rd, 4th, or maybe even 5th honeymoon-pilgrimage.

At 80, he had stopped mapping out blueprints, and was now using his hands for other things. Mostly for tickling his grandchildren – even if they were by this time, no longer babies, for fixing things around the house, for helping Lola look for her dropped crochet needle. On Sundays after the family lunch (he loved nothing more than having all of his children and grandchildren around), he would play tong-its with whoever wasn’t napping, point out words at the Boggle tray, pull out his wallet to show us 17 grandkids that he had all our pictures crammed in there, or switch channels on the TV looking for a good family-appropriate movie to watch. And when we would leave, every Sunday without fail, he would stand outside the door and wave goodbye – his special Lolo wave – as each car pulled out of the gate.

Those same hands served communion to parishioners at Sunday mass. He liked to think that out of all the lay ministers in the church, his line for communion was always the longest. I knew it was true, and it was because he smiled and winked at all the little kids in the line. And oh, how he adored children! He kept wishing to fill up his house with their excited chattering. And this is why we’ve got lots of extended-extended family. His children’s friends never called him “Tito“, but always “Papa“, and now their children call him “Lolo” too. Like his neighbor’s kids, who would come by everyday after school to show Lolo their test papers with stars on them. He was always the first to welcome the cousins’ boyfriends and girlfriends to the Esguerra family, with a big smile, always teasing.

When I saw my grandfather’s body at the wake for the first time, I resisted the urge to grab his hands. It was instinct rather than grief, really. He had such beautiful hands, beautiful because they sought to create goodness. Hands are for loving. For building, for giving, for praising God, for serving, for forgiving. My grandfather’s hands taught me this.

Today, I wish to make my hands beautiful too.

Father's Day

Sundays at Lolo's house

Lolo and I