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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Boracay Island Philippines

On the Filipino island of Boracay, one place stands out the most — White Beach — a 4km-long tourism attraction lined with pubs, five-star resorts, budget chalets, restaurants, tattoo parlours, souvenir shops, professional hair-braiders and just about anything a tourist could want. This stretch of beach may just boast the softest, whitest sand in all of Asia. The water is clear and welcoming, but the main lure of White Beach is its breathtaking sunset, which takes place between 5.30pm and 6.30pm, depending on the time of year.

Surprised to discover that Boracay is a great hunting ground for funky tees, ultra-cool souvenirs, trendy beachwear, handmade picture frames and notebooks, lamps and totes of every shade and size, silver jewellery, pewter, carvings, leather bags adorned with puka shells, beads, bells and more, native rugs, paintings etc.

The shops selling custom-designed sandals and apparel, and the witty “attitude tees” with such catchy slogans as “Miss You-Can’t-Afford-Me” printed right across the chest — brilliant!

For some reason, dream catchers are exceptionally popular here even though they are an American Indian artifact.

Interestingly, the Tourist Center is a nice place to browse in. Basically, it’s a convenience store, mini market, pharmacy, bookstore, money-changer (note: it’s probably the only place on the island that accepts the Ringgit), ATM and information counter all rolled into one.

At the Plazoleta, a small native-style shopping plaza, you’ll find original handicraft. But if you are going for broke, then D’Mall is the place to be. It’s a maze of fashion, food and speciality shops that will keep you occupied for hours. The best thing about shopping at White Beach is that almost every stall is different. There are hundreds along the beach, and, at first glance, it may seem as if they are all the same, but take a closer look and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Oh, and if you get thirsty from all that shopping, note that the official “Happy Hour” is from 5pm to 7pm, when prices for alcoholic beverages get very enticing. But then again, drinks are relatively cheap even outside of happy hours, so no hour need be an unhappy hour.

As far as food options go, it’s a bit of a problem since everything looks good, the portions are huge and the prices are reasonable, especially the fresh seafood.

The small attap-and-bamboo outfits hiding in the shadows of the bigger outlets tend to serve reasonably-priced local food like rice and a variety of dishes, while the classier joints are more cosmopolitan, serving everything from Italian and Moroccan, to Spanish and Thai.

For something light, you can always drop into one of the many bakeries for their freshly-made cakes, bread and desserts. They make for great snacks while you shop. Meanwhile, fruit shakes made from any tropical fruit you can possibly think of are widely available. These are great energy boosters for the shopper-on-the-go.

After gobbling down some “light” fare, we made for the award-winning Lemon Cafe for lunch. Located at the heart of D’ Mall, Lemon Cafe offers cheese and chocolate desserts that are worth piling on the pounds for. And the main courses are absolutely lovely. Its airy ambience with walls of lime green and sunny yellow makes the café a great place in which to sit back and people-watch.

The Hobbit House, a bar cum restaurant with an extensive American, Filipino and Asian menu, staffed by — as the name suggests — friendly “little people”. No matter how full you are, though, you must make some room for one of Asia’s most famous exotic delicacies — the balut, a boiled duck egg containing a three-week-old embryo. Having heard so much about it, my friends and I just had to try it. A taxi driver told us it’s best to either eat it in the dark or with our eyes closed tightly!

Eaten with vinegar or salt, the yummy yolk, the half-formed embryo and some hard white stuff we couldn’t make out, turned out to be quite nice — if you can get past how it looks.

Fun in the sun - Boracay is located in Aklan province, 345km south of Manila, a dumbbell-shaped island in a nation of some 7,000 islands. It is accessible by air from Manila or Cebu through two principal gateways: Caticlan airport or Kalibo airport.

Boracay generally has two seasons: wet (Habagat) and dry (Amihan). The showers are usually from June to September, so the best time to visit is from October to May. The Christmas and New Year season is a particularly exciting time because most Filipinos are Roman Catholics and, be they rich or poor, will celebrate in a big way with lots of parties by the beach.

White Beach is “divided” into Stations 1, 2 and 3 — the first being the cleanest and most beautiful.

Accommodation is quite expensive in Station 1 and 2, so my merry friends and I did what any budget traveller would do — we bunked together in a cheap chalet on the “outskirts” of Station 3 (no view of the beach, I’m afraid) and blew our hard-earned money stuffing our faces, shopping and getting wet!

Like all island holiday destinations, Boracay has more than enough water activities to keep you occupied. There doesn’t appear to be any lifeguards here but security is tight. Every few metres or so you will find armed security guards and police personnel. A local said that security is very tight during the peak seasons because the government wants tourists to feel safe.

You may want to skip the typical activities like jet skiing, windsurfing and snorkelling, but kiteboarding at Bulabog Beach, on the eastern side of the island, is apparently worth a try. My friend says it is much more of a challenge than surfing.

Island hopping is another option to consider. You could take a boat-ride to the north of the island at sunset for a spectacular sight of hundreds of fruit bats flying over to the mainland to feed. Or why not sail into the sunset on a beautiful yacht. A massage by the beach is a must, since White Beach is one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

Now, if your entire holiday plan is to just laze by the beach sipping piña coladas from dusk till dawn, and you can only make time for one water activity, then try parasailing. The price per person is 2,500 pesos , which is, admittedly, pretty steep but worth every sen. Trust me, you haven’t fully appreciated the beauty of Boracay until you’ve hovered above it. It’s only then that you can really see the contrast between the crystal blue water and pristine white beach.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

It's Jumbo Hostel ...Plane!!!

When you exit Arlanda Airport on the highway toward Stockholm, Sweden, you’ll see a Boeing 747 on your left that looks curiously out of place. The plane sits idle and lonely on a grass-covered mound just outside the airport perimeter, without any recognizable airline colors.

You might think the giant aircraft got lost on the way to the runway and was abandoned here, were it not for the inscription on the side: “Jumbo Hostel.’’ Turns out this former Pan Am jumbo jet is no longer taking passengers to the skies, but will soon be accommodating them on the ground. Left inactive at Arlanda, Stockholm’s main airport, after its last owner went bankrupt, the plane was rescued by a Swedish entrepreneur looking to expand his hostel business.

“I got information about this airplane standing abandoned at Arlanda,’’ says Oscar Dios, who runs a hostel in Uppsala, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Arlanda. “I thought why not try to convert it into a hostel? Since you’ve been converting boats and light houses and trains before into hostels.’’

Construction crews are working through the holidays to get the 25 rooms ready for the scheduled opening on Jan. 15. Jumbo Hostel is already taking bookings.

The 65-square-foot (6- square-meter) rooms are spartanly furnished, with a bunk bed, an overhead luggage compartment and a flat screen TV with entertainment as well as flight information.

Every inch (centimeter) of the 3,800-square-foot (353-square-meter) floor space is being used. There will be a reception and small cafeteria just inside the front entrance, two rows of rooms on each side of the aisle, and showers and toilets in the rear. The bubble on top is being remodeled into a conference room with first-class flight seats.

Dios is hoping for a diverse clientele, including airport taxi drivers stopping for a coffee break in the cafeteria, business travelers needing accommodation close to Arlanda and even wedding parties looking for an unusual ceremony.

As soon as the guard rails come up, couples will be able to exchange vows on the left wing, receive a small party in the conference room and spend the night in the cockpit, converted into a bridal suite with a private bathroom.

Rates range from 300 kronor (RM135) for a bed in a shared four-bed dormitory to 1,350 kronor (RM605) for a private room with a twin bed and a single bed. The bridal suite costs 3,300 kronor (RM1480) per night.

Dios says his idea of aircraft lodging is unprecedented: “That’s what we’ve heard so far. Smaller planes have been turned into restaurants, but never a 747 into a hostel.’’

While emphasizing comfort, he’s added details in the interior decor to remind guests “that they’re actually inside an aircraft.’’

When you wake up, you’ll see the soft curvature of the ceiling, and, through the row of windows, the tail fins of operational aircraft parked at their gates at Arlanda.

Hostel staff will wear cabin crew uniforms — what else — and the furniture in the cafeteria will evoke the glory days of air travel.

“We’re going for the Pan- Am era. A lot of ‘70s,’’ says project leader Gisela Olsson, holding up an orange seat for the cafeteria chairs.

Built in 1976, the plane — now named Liv after Dios’ daughter — first took to the skies with Singapore Airlines before shifting to Pan Am for about 10 years.

After that airline went belly up in the 1990s, it flew under a variety of colors until being bought by Swedish leasing company Transjet. When that, too, went bankrupt, the aircraft was left decaying at Arlanda Airport until Dios came along with a bundle of cash.

It remains to be seen whether his idea will take off among Arlanda air travelers.

“If I’ve been flying all day, I wouldn’t want to sleep on a plane,’’ says Lynn Sundelius, a 19-year-old student at Stockholm University.

Still, Dios is confident Jumbo Hostel will be profitable, and even spread to airports around the world. “It’s no kamikaze project,’’ he says.

On the Net:

Official Web site:

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Heart of the Grand Canal

Yangzhou’s history is inextricably linked to the Grand Canal and to the salt trade which made it one of China’s richest and most cosmopolitan cities for over a millennium. THERE are places that, for some reason, you immediately take a liking to the moment you set eyes on them. That was how I felt when I arrived in Yangzhou.

It is not easy to say what exactly makes a place appealing, especially one that you know very little about. With Yangzhou, it was perhaps the verdant environment, or the seemingly slower pace, or maybe it was simply the romance of the “Jinghang” Grand Canal which passes through the city.

Perched on the northern bank of the Yangtze River at its confluence with the Grand Canal some 250km northwest of Shanghai, Yangzhou was a very important and prosperous city through much of its 2,500-year-old existence, right up till the turbulent mid-19th century.
As a key transportation hub for grain, silk and salt (it was the seat of the salt monopoly in the Qing dynasty), it was a magnet for merchants from all over the Chinese sphere and beyond.

Arab and Persian traders arrived there as far back as the early Tang dynasty, while some sources suggest Marco Polo served there as a municipal official in the 13th century.

Yangzhou has the distinction of possessing one of the oldest datable sections of the Grand Canal, going back 2,500 years to 486BC. A thousand years later, Emperor Yangdi of the Sui dynasty linked up the waterways between Beijing and Hangzhou (hence the name “Jinghang”) to create the canal that at its current 1,800km, remains the longest in the world.

Sui Yangdi evidently sailed down the Jinghang to visit Yangzhou three times. Some tales recount he had weeping willows planted on the water’s edge to shield the fair skin of the women who lined the banks and that besides inspecting the southern reaches of his realm, he was also there to inspect the lovely ladies.

Of course, our guide did not fail to mention that Yangzhou girls are renowned for their beauty but with a twinkle in his eyes, was quick to add (as did our Suzhou guide) that the “best ones” have married people in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

With these colourful stories swirling through my mind, I was a little disheartened to find the reality of Yangzhou’s Grand Canal somewhat more prosaic. We arrived at a grassy park and walked towards the water’s edge.

There the Canal stretched before us, much wider than I had expected, its placid surface mirror-like. There were few of the legendary willows, just stretches of immaculate lawn with shrubbery. In all fairness, our guide said the Canal is still being prepared for World Heritage application and its restoration not yet complete.

Unsurprisingly, the homes of the former salt merchants are located in the vicinity of the Canal. “There were initially about 100 of these mansions,” recounted our guide as he pointed several out to us, “but most were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.”

According to him, some 20 of the residences are slated for restoration.

One restored villa, the Qing dynasty Geyuan, though not built by a salt merchant, was bought by one in the early 19th century.

It seems the wealthy trader, surnamed Huang, paid six million taels of silver for the property. Merchant Huang was not only rich, but well-educated and held in high esteem the bamboo which symbolises modesty, dignity and moral rectitude. Small wonder then that he named his villa Ge, for the character “ge” resembles two bamboo leaves joined at the stem.

Thickets of different bamboo varieties greeted us as we stepped into the enormous, yet refreshingly quiet and serene garden. They lined the meandering trails that brought us past a meticulously landscaped gazebo where several girls dressed in hanfu (traditional Chinese costume) were chatting beside a flower bed.

An unassuming side path led to a picturesque pond with a stone bridge. With tall weeping willows and a delicate red maple among the evergreen shrubs framing the water’s edge, the sight was stunning in the setting autumn sun.

The architecture of Geyuan appears more formal and weighty than that of the intimate villas of Suzhou. Strangely enough, some aspects seem vaguely reminiscent of the mansions of the Jin merchants of Shanxi – the high brick walls flanking long straight walkways that lead off into one small courtyard after another reminded me of the Qiaojia dayuan (Qiao family mansion).

Given Yangzhou’s location at the interchange between north and south, this is perhaps not so surprising.

Geyuan’s back garden contains one of the most elaborate rockeries I have seen with boulders of differing colours in four sections, each representing a different season.

I sat down on a stone bench amidst the rocks, trees and shrubs and took in the pavilions and water features; it just seemed a perfect way to end a leisurely afternoon in that very pleasant city.

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