Sunday, January 27, 2013

Lantau Island and Nicole's Visit

     After getting back into the swing of things from Christmas Break, we were blessed with a visit from an old friend, Nicole.  Now Nicole has been inspiring to me over the past year because she did what many people dream of doing........she saved up some cash, sold her possessions, quit her job, and went on a trip around the world.  I'd been following her blog posts and was blown away by her photos as she left from the States in March '11, beginning with Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia before going through Southeast Asia, Europe, Turkey, Morocco, and back to Asia. 
     We'd actually planned on hosting her while we were still in Germany, but the timing didn't work out and we had to put those plans on hold.  Instead, she came back through Southeast Asia in December and made plans to visit us in January before she made her return trip to the States.  I didn't realize that we actually hadn't seen her since 2009, before we moved to Germany, but it's funny how personalities remain just how you remembered them.

The only picture we managed with the three of us - we like to call this a "Jackson Sandwich"!

     We only had 4-5 days and we wanted to maximize the sightseeing and hanging out, so we kicked it off with a trip to Lantau Island (one of the outlying islands of Hong Kong).  The good thing about hosting guests is that it sometimes urges you to go and do some of the touristy things that you've been planning on doing, but haven't got around to it.  The big sight on Lantau is the "Big Buddha" and a monastery, both of which require taking either a ferry or a cable car to see.  We went with the cable car...

As you can see, or can't see, the visibility was rather poor and it was colder than we had expected, but we made the most of it.  The cable car takes about 20-25 minutes, stretching across the water and over the mountainous terrain.

After grabbing some coffee we were able to warm up and continue on...

...until we came across another darn cute Asian cartoon thing that necessitated a photo-stop.

 Just so you can appreciate the place as a whole, that's the "Big Buddha" with the pavilion below.
The lighting really wasn't helping us much and the weather was shat, but we did the best we could.


The crazy thing was that it was warm and sunny when we left Mongkok, but it was a different story on Lantau.

Thar she blows!  It's actually pretty new - built in the 2000's out of bronze.


If you look closely you see the shocking Buddhist symbol of the sun that closely resembles the Swastika.  Hitler was SO unoriginal!



Here's the bauhinia flower which is basically the flag of Hong Kong.

To find a monastery all you have to do is "follow your nose", except not to Fruit Loops - you have to follow the trail of incense that can get sickening after a while.




There were some wicked dragon carvings on the pillars of the monastery.

The view inside the monastery/temple is pretty typical: flowers, fruit, incense and some golden idols.

Besides going to Lantau we had a couple more days of sightseeing with Nicole after work.  We had wanted to check out a Michelin Star dim sum restaurant in Mongkok.  We sent Nicole out to get us a number ahead of time, so we were able to make it for an early dinner.

Prepping for our dim sum experience at Tim Ho Wan.

In an effort to find more local Mong Kok joints, we happened across the "Aqua" Bar, situated on a random floor of a random building but had a nice ambience.

Our personal favorite stop, cuz it's our neighborhood.

     We absolutely love hosting guests since they can be few and far between.  It's also nice becoming tourists in our own town.  We hadn't seen Nicole in a few years and it was great catching up, getting to know her better, and asking tons of questions about her travels.  Of course we love traveling, but it's hard to imagine 10 consecutive months of travel.  She's basically a rock star and has some great stories and experiences to share.  We only wish that she could've stayed longer!

--Justin

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Manila ain't Vanilla

     After a week of laying on the beach we thought it would be a good idea to get some history and culture, so we headed to the capital of the Philippines, Manila. Leading up to this trip a lot of people gave us funny looks when we said we were stopping in Manila. Manila has not always been the safest of places to go and some of our Filipino friends even warned us to be on our guard. All that being said, we stayed in a safe part of town and ventured down to Intramuros (old town) to learn some of the history of Manila. 

     First we went to the American Cemetery and Memorial. Did you know this is the largest cemetery in the Pacific for all the U.S. personnel killed in WWII? Honestly,  I know very little about what went on in the Pacific during WWII so this was a good introduction into that piece of history.

They had many mosaic maps like this that outlined different battles in the Pacific

The Memorial- each branch of the military was represented as well as all the states. It even included the names of the Filipinos and allied forces that fought along side us in WWII.

The American and Philippines flags

Marble crosses and stars of David


     After our visit to the cemetery we headed to the famous Carlo Celdran's walking tour in the old part of Manila:  Intramuros.  In Spanish it means "within the walls" because Intramuros was a walled portion of the city that the Spaniards constructed in the 16th Century.  Before the arrival of the Spanish in 1565, the Philippines had been claimed as part of a few different kingdoms by Islamic sultans.  Manila was chosen to be the capital of the Spanish colony due to its strategic location as a trading port and for its rich resources.

     So, the Spanish ruled until 1898, when the Americans bought the Philippines from them (along with other lands) after the Spanish-American War.  The USA held control until WWII when they temporarily lost them to the Japanese, then retook them with a horrific bombing of Manila.  Afterwards the Philippines were granted independence in 1946.

Spanish priests in Intramuros
It was a rainy day for our tour, but we pushed through without an umbrella and were glad that we did.  Here we are entering the reconstructed Fort Santiago.

Jose Rizal is the national hero of the Philippines who was a famous nationalist and reformist during the Spanish colonial period.  He was imprisoned in Fort Santiago and put on trial and executed by firing squad in 1896.  His last steps are commemorated in bronze inside the fort, from his cell to his place of execution.

From inside the fort you see Rizal looking out toward the church in the background.

Rizal mural inside Fort Santiago.

In the old town you can take horse-drawn carriages around and take in the sites of Intramuros.

Manila Cathedral - rebuilt after WWII.

"Jeepney's" are the most popular form of public transport in the Philippines.  They're all uniquely decorated with blessings and prayers of protection and sometimes nicknames like this one.

Our tour guide Carlos was enthusiastic and passionate about the old part of Manila.  We definitely felt enlightened about the history of this city and the country as a whole.

Outside of our hotel we came upon an elaborate light show in one of the parks - I think it was a Christmas thing, so we caught the last week of it.

Scratchin' the Philippines off of our list!!

--Marisa and Justin

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Christmas in Boracay

After talking with some of our coworkers we decided to head South to the Philippines for a beach vacation for Christmas.  In particular, we chose to spend a week on the island of Boracay.  It would be our first tropical Christmas and there weren't any regrets.

Upon arrival in Boracay we grabbed dinner, drinks and watched the sun go down.  It was certainly satisfying after a crazy day of travel through Manila, a domestic flight to Kalibo, a 2-hour bus ride across an island, and a ferry ride to our island.

Default sunset on Boracay.


One of our splurges was a really nice Christmas Eve dinner at one of the nearby resorts - the Shangri-La.  We had an awesome buffet, two live bands and of course a visit by Santa!

The beach was soft and white, the water was shallow, warm and clear and there were tons of people running supplies to and fro in these little canoes.

Since it was a school break, tons of kids make a little pocket change by building sandcastles.  "Ariel's House" is the restaurant of the place we stayed, and pretty much where we spent all of our "happy hours".

Filippinos love them some live music.  We get tons of Filippino bands in Hong Kong so we were prepared and we found a few cover artists in a bar called the Hobbit House - at which all of the employees are "little people".  Helluva themed restaurant.

While I used to think San Miguel was a Spanish beer, I have recently been corrected that it is THE beer of the Philippines.  You have three options at happy hour:  San Miguel Pale (pictured), San Miguel Light (only for teenage girls and small children), and Red Horse (a "strong beer" brewed by San Miguel - my personal favorite).



Not sure of the connection with the Philippines, but apparently they love Obama too.

Sometimes the kids add some candles to take their sandcastles up a notch.


White Beach has a volcanic rock outcropping called Willy's Rock that features a Virgin Mary on the right side - did I mention that the Philippines are big on Catholicism?

view along White Beach

Merry Christmas and a Happy 2013!!

--Justin

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