Monthly Archives: March 2013

Highlander

The Cameron Highlands were discovered by a British government surveyor of the same name on a mapping exhibition in 1885. For the first time in a while, I was actually pleased to be at a higher altitude to escape the sweltering heat of the Muddy Estuary below.

Because of its extremely fertile soil and low temperatures, Cameron’s main economic activity is farming. Farms of many kinds are scattered across the highlands. Strawberry farms, pepper farms, butterfly farms, bee farms, cactus farms, flower farms, baby farms, boy band farms…farm farms, Cameron has a farm for almost everything…

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The Cactus reunited with family

While moseying around the farms, I learned a few things about some of the things being harvested here. Such as, strawberries actually just start out as a flower which contains a bud that eventually grows into a huge tumour that is a strawberry, all peppers start off green and then change to red or yellow, and Um Bongo (they drink it in the jungle) isn’t a fruit at all, you learn something new everyday…
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The life of a strawberry

The butterfly farm held hundreds of different species of these fluttering rascals while the reptile centre attached, featured some bog standard frogs, turtles and snakes. But one thing that stood out for me was the bald rat. Looking like something from a science lab, the disgusting rodent is actually native to Middlesbrough, and survives on a diet consisting solely of chicken parmos…

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Cameron’s other main income comes from the production of Tea. The Boh tea estates were founded by another Englishman, J.A. Russell in 1929. Boh tea uses the slogan ‘Boh as Ummph’. They’re not wrong there, I was nearly knocked off my chair by the taste, after months of drinking instant coffee, it was nice to rediscover my inner Englishman with a classic cup of Rosemary Lee.

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The highest peak in the highlands, was accessible by a walk through the Mossy Forest. I thought that the Ampang district of Kuala Lumpur reminded me of Manchester, well this forest defiantly resembled Moss Side. I was disappointed not to spot any obscure wildlife during the easy trek, but happy to hear a few song birds tweeting the melody to ‘Crazy Train’ by Ozzy Osbourne…

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Ipoh served as a quick stop over on our way out of Cameron. The surrounding area has a few interesting cave temples hidden away in the limestone landscape, one of which is the largest on Malaysia that the locals believe possesses spiritual powers. A well known guidebook describes Ipoh as ‘a gritty, frenetic city of faded tropical mansions’. If someone can please explain what this is meant to mean that would be great, as I could see no mansions and found it anything but gritty and frenetic. I think a lot of the time, this particular ‘bible’ as some travellers call it, instead of telling things as they are for the common man, sometimes prefer to speak in riddles, riddles harvested directly from the word farm…

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Categories: Malaysia | Tags: | 1 Comment

Muddy Estuary

We didn’t spend much time in Manila, but from the short time we did spend there I came to the conclusion that, this would be the hardest in place in the world to be a bus driver. 40 minutes to drive 4 kilometres through the afternoon traffic, I would have walked had it not been so hot. Whilst sitting in a taxi chewing my nails at the thought of missing our flight, I remembered one more thing I loved about the Philippines, Presto Creams Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies. The delicious snack, perfect for dipping, gave me a heavenly sensation every time they touched my lips. And so we left the Philippines, but not before the government could fleece me one last time and charge a 500 peso departure tax. Just to give you an idea of how much that is, 500 pesos buys 83 packets of Presto Creams!

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Kuala Lumpur, which literally translates as ‘muddy estuary’ was founded at the confluence of the Gombak River as a tin mining settlement. The currency over here is the Malaysian Ringgit (I’m thinkin about my doorbell, when you gonna Ringgit, when you gonna Ringgit?). The first thing I noticed when riding the Light Transit Rail (LTR) is that the voice on the tannoy at times resembles a broad Geordie accent, ‘next station, plaza RakYAD!’ Maybe this is how Geoff from Byker Grove makes a living these days…

Merdeka (freedom) Square, isn’t actually a typical paved public square, but a former cricket pitch. The pitch was where Malaysia’s independence was proclaimed in 1957. The surrounding area has some fine colonial architecture, a nice contrast to the modern urban sprawl…

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Malaysia has a surprisingly large population of South Asian inhabitants, largely due to the fact they were shipped over to work here by the British during the colonial days. We happened to stumble across a busy marketplace in ‘Little India’ as the area is commonly known. A festival was taking place near the Sri Mahamariamman temple where the local Hindus were smashing hundreds of coconuts on the road. If a coconut does not break, it is said to be a bad oman, I would just say you’re not throwing it hard enough…

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Poor Coconuts

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Sri Mahamariamman

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Spot the Difference

One of the things I was looking forward to most in Malaysia, had to be indulging in some world famous food. On the walk through Little India we called into a banana leaf mess. It is exactly as the name describes, a mess served on a banana leaf, delicious.

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The Pertronas Towers are almost as iconic to Kuala Lumpur as the hanging monkey is to Hartlepool. Once the world’s tallest skyscrapers until 2004, the towers can be seen from almost anywhere in KL. I obviously wasn’t going to part with my well earned Ringgits just to climb a tower, but I discovered a great view point from the Skybar of a nearby five star hotel. Just make sure you’re clean shaven and walk with a purpose, they will never know you’re not a guest…

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A few more sights were taken in before the heat got the better of us. On a number of occasions during our stay in KL we ate at a popular restaurant chain ‘Steven’s corner’. When researching the restaurant I found out that the owner SC Sathisilan Aka Steven, was arrested after battering his neighbour for trying to move some chairs from out the front of his own restaurant. A Facebook group was started for people to ‘boycott the vile thug’s restaurant’, but in all fairness, if Charles Bronson owned a restaurant that made tandoori chicken as good as Steven, I’d still eat there.

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Masjid Negara

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Istana Negara

I’d never fancied coming to Peninsular Malaysia, nor had I planned to until the Philippines government insisted I needed an exit flight to enter their country. So far I can say I’m nothing but impressed with the amazing food and super friendly people, and I’ve yet to be ripped off!

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Cockfighting Through The Eyes Of A Kano

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Cockfighting is one of the most popular blood sports worldwide and happens illegally throughout South and Central America, Africa and Asia. It is only in the Philippines where it is accepted as the national sport, and is 100% legal.

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Having attended a few local fighting arenas known as cockpits, it was difficult to understand exactly what was going on, here is my version of events that took place at the fight. Please be aware that any sexual innuendos that may appear in this blog, are purely coincidental…

Not only is Sunday the holy day of rest, but also the prime time to catch a cockfight. The men turn up roughly thirty minutes before the fighting begins and simply loiter around with their cocks in hand. I assumed this is to size up each others cocks and talk about the odds for the day, and maybe a little trash talking…

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My cock is better than your cock

The standard one on one brawl is known as a ‘hack fight’. Just before the hack fight commences, an extremely sharp, 3 inch blade is fastened to one of the legs of each stag, this is so they do actually hurt each other, a fight to the death would last an eternity without a blade. Another two chickens are brought into the arena and are used to peck at the competing birds, this is to get the fighters psyched up, their role is a little like a manager in boxing. Then they are rubbed against each other just so they know ‘this is who you need to kill’…

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The blade covers are removed and the battle begins. The fight ends when one contestant is dead or can no longer peck at his opponent when the referee holds the two face to face. The final decision is normally made when a cock can no long stand after three attempts of being lifted to its feet, this is called a careo. The other way to lose is if one of the stags basically bottles the fight and runs away, this seldom happens and is normally received with a chorus of laughter from the hoi polloi, probably the most embarrassing way to lose for the sultador (owner/trainer). Time limit is 10 minutes but is usually over very quickly. To view one the fights from the San Juan cockpit click here

The rules vary from province to province, but this is generally how it goes. The winning sultador, as well as pride and prize money has the added bonus of taking the dead cock home for dinner…

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A variety of different house rules

One of the strangest things, being a foreigner, was understanding the betting system. As the cocks are getting fired up by their respective ‘managers’, everyone in the arena stands up and begins shouting at each other whilst throwing crumpled up piso bills back and forth. At first, I didn’t have a clue what was happening, but came to the conclusion that the people shouting, are asking which other persons would like to bet against them, so when you bet, it’s basically you betting against one other person, not a bookmaker. Cards are handed out to explain the odds but it somehow was determined by the colour of the cocks that coincided with certain dates and all odds were 2/1. To see the madness of a cockfight betting system click here

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Betting card

This is just my version of what took place around me, I tried to get a decent explanation from a local of exactly how it works, but the clientele at the cockfights were mainly tough folk with limited English, plus they always seemed to give the scary white man a hostile reception…

I cannot stress enough just how massive this sport is in the Philippines, everywhere you look there is cockfighting. We were constantly driving past training facilities called ‘game yards’ where the cocks are kept. Every town has stores called agrivet supplies that sell protein, speed pills, steroids and the like to increase the performance of the stags. Most of the supplements are legal, however, there was a case where one very famous cock ‘limpfoot Christie’ was banned for failing a drugs test…

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Fake chicken on a stick used for training

Champion cocks are bred to produce future champions. Some of the main arenas in larger cities like Manila hold thousands and some men bet everything they earn hoping to have a big win. As well as hack fights, I saw advertisements for three cock derbies and fatal four way matches, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an annual Royal Rumble where the winner takes on the champion at the annual PPV ‘Cockmania’, and yes, cockfighting is televised. I noticed school children swapping cockfighting stickers and one day I got a nice surprise when I opened a packet of crisps to find I had won a cockfighting pog…

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Most westerners are disgusted at cockfighting and believe that it is inhumane. This is no more cruel, than pumping a KFC chicken full of steroids, only for it to live a life of hell before being slaughtered and served up in a zinger burger, but yet most still eat it. To me, this is like going back to the days of gladiators fighting to the death at the Coliseum in Rome, and when in Rome, do it like the Romans, as in the end, there was no escaping cockfighting in the Philippines. I realised this one morning when I read front page newspaper headline “Champion Cock ‘Crazy’ Erik in hooker sex scandal!”

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Categories: Philippines | Tags: , | 3 Comments

Things To Love About Ng Pilipinas

Around the Northern tip of Cubu lies two stunning small islands, Bantayan and Malapascua. Some would say Bantayan is a lazy retreat, I would say it’s a bone idle sanctuary. The perfect place to recharge the metaphorical batteries and reflect as our time in the Philippines draws to an end. I’d read Kota beach was home to a blinding stretch of white sand, but didn’t realise this meant literally. Stepping out of our hut in the morning was like the scenes from Lost when everything turned white before they travelled through time, shades were essential. In almost a week that we spent here, I really did love every minute of it. Bantayan has such a laid back vibe it is hard not to lose track of time here. Without ditching its local touch for a pretentious vibe like other tourist hotspots in the Philippines, Bantayan hit all my buttons. The town of Santa Fe has some of the tastiest (and cheapest) food I’ve had in the whole of the Visayas, which we ate a lot of. I also climbed a few trees and drew a face on a coconut…

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View from our hut on Kota beach

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Geordie the coconut

Over in Malapascua, an island overrun by expensive resorts, we still managed to find the cheapest place going. The lodgings were more like a mosquito motel, but thankfully they accept humans also, always willing to run the risk of malaria for the sake of my tight budget! Malapascua is, you guessed it, one of the best diving spots in the Philippines. Its most well known dive is Monad Shoal, a sunken island that is home to the Thresher Shark. An early start is required in order to see the sharks, where they congregate at the cleaning station for their daily wash. Getting up at 4:15 and out in the sea for dusk was certainly worth it, the beautiful creature has such a unique look I could have watched them all day. Their elongated tails are said to be used like a weapon to whip and stun their pray.

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Malapascua Beach

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Island life and diving, two of my favourite things about this country and a class way to end my stint here. It got me thinking about my other highlights of this unique nation, so without further ado, here are the top things that I have loved about Ng Pilipinas!

Philippines Mango

Once voted the sweetest fruit in the world by the Guinness Book of Records. I think it was more deserving of the lushest fruit in the world prize. Cheap, healthy and makes the mangos back home look like stale and sour prunes…

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Overland Transport

Making it from A to B can sometimes mean many different forms of transport. Jeepney to trike to habal habal to jeep to bus etc, etc. You won’t need to worry about finding where to go for your next leg, your cramped mode of transport will find you. You will rarely have to wait, most of the time your bags are in the trike before you step off the bus. Travelling like this can be fun and frantic, you might not always get a seat, although clinging to the back of a jeepney is highly recommended!

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Jeep, Trike, Jeep/Trike Hybrid

Cockfighting

There is nowhere else in the world that shares the same passion for this ancient blood sport, in the Philippines cockfighting is truly astronomical…

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Adobo

The Philippines are not known for producing mouthwatering cuisine, their most famous dish being ‘balút’ a boiled egg that contains the dead embryo of a chicken. Adobo however, is simple and delicious. A vinegar and garlic based sauce served with a selection of meat, spices, herbs, vegetables and sometimes fruit. There is no right or wrong way to make adobo and it is different almost every time, depending on who’s making it. Oily, but I can safely say that I have never had a bad one.

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Chicken Adobo

Filipino Facial Gestures

This is one thing I could never get used to, Filipinos are known for getting their point across using their face instead of their mouths. The answer ‘yes’ is signalled with a sharp raise of the eyebrows. If you ask for directions, you won’t get a point of the finger and a ‘that way’, the person will simply poke their lips towards where you want to go. There were many more gestures to learn as I found out that Filipinos are capable having a full conversation using only their face!

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No, Yes, Over There, What?

Sadly the stamp in my passport says time is up, after seeing every last minute of our visa. Over two months navigating the archipelago, we’ve barley scratched the surface of the what the Philippines has to offer, but what I have seen, has been truly breathtaking…

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Categories: Food, Philippines | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Swimming With Money Sharks

Rhincodon Typus, commonly known as the Whale Shark, is a wonder of the animal kingdom, and holds many records for its sheer size and weight. I have never seen one of these beasts in my life, never mind in the wild, now was the time.

Oslob was nothing more than a tiny settlement situated on Cebu island, now it’s the main draw for spotting butangding and has turned it into a huge money making opportunity. The big fish are known to be very friendly and somewhat playful towards humans and the fact that they have no teeth, made the idea of diving with them perfectly safe.

Let me make it clear, the whale sharks in Oslob are there everyday for one reason, and that is that local fisherman are feeding them between 9am and 1pm. Most of the time the sharks are just hanging around right next to the bangkas with their mouths open waiting for their daily serving of fish guts, to me this made the whole scenario seem phoney and more like a underwater circus. You have to pay a £25 ‘marine fee’ just to go into the sea at the beach where they can be seen, a marine fee by the way, is a sum of money that goes towards the barangay captain, town mayor, the police department, district governor and by now, pretty much anybody who is anybody who is involved with politics in Cebu. This was introduced when the locals realised that people were curious about seeing whale sharks in the wild. Anyone familiar with corruption in the Philippines, will understand how the system works. The whole set up at Oslob was a bit of a joke to be honest, which I realised when the fisherman demanded an ‘entrance fee’ to walk into the water from that part of the beach, and charged to sit in a cheap wooden shelter to get changed into our diving gear…

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A Whale Shark is printed on the reverse of a 100 piso bill, ironic

The catch 22 being that, this is the only place where you are guaranteed to see whale sharks in their ‘natural environment’. To be within touching distance of these leviathans was a pretty cool experience, close enough to see the toothless whale looking like grandpa Simpson hoover up the constant supply of grub, close enough to swim around and see the gills, fins, tiny eyes and everything else that make the shark tick, close enough dive beneath it and see the feeder fish which literally live of the butangding just like the political hierarchy are living off this entire scheme…

Is it whaley worth it? All been said and done, it was fantastic and something that can be enjoyed with the right management of expectations, even though you do get the feeling you’re being extorted. The day when I get to see a whale shark drifting along graciously in its real natural habitat will have to wait…

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Categories: Philippines | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Boholic

Tagbilaran city had nothing to offer whatsoever, but managed to serve up the worst pizza I have ever had in my life. I think the cheese could possibly have been made from human tit milk and the pepperoni, I was almost certain it was still alive. Jerac’s pizza offers a special prize for anyone who can eat their huge 22″ pizza in 40 minutes which is obviously impossible. Some photos on the hall of fame showed an obese Texan giving up after 8 of 36 slices. This eating challenge is one that man vs food would not even put to bed.

Bohol is home to one of the world’s smallest primates, the Philippine Tarsier. You’ve as much chance of seeing a Mackem in Moscow this week, as you have of seeing one of these strange little creatures in the wild. Luckily a sanctuary has been set up to rescue the tarsiers from the verge of extinction. I must say, the tiny nocturnal animals were even smaller than I had imagined and looked twice as bizarre, I’d describe it as a cross between a monkey and a rat with aliens feet and eyes like a regular of the Haçienda.

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A sad fact about the tarsiers is they have a tendency to commit suicide while in captivity. The animals are extremely sensitive to daylight and noise so are known to bash their heads when unable to cope with the stress. Thankfully the sanctuary seems to be doing a good job in keeping the environment natural and doing its best to keep the noise to a bare minimal whilst banning flash photography.

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The Chocolate hills are one of the Philippines premier tourist attractions, and are the result of the uplifting of ancient coral reef deposits. The token ridiculous story says that they’re the tears of a giant that cried his heart out after his lass left him, or something like that. The hills take their name from the browny colour that they’re meant to turn at this time of year, but I could still see many patches of green, so it would be more fitting if I renamed them ‘the fortnight old netto’s chocolate hills’. The grassy mounds reminded me of tele tubbies land, excluding the sun portrayed by a really annoying baby…

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Dipsy, La La and Po

I wasn’t expecting anything mind blowing, but I did enjoy the hills. Even though they are just that, hills. And so we took a couple of up roads, we took a couple of down roads, and made our way home from the green and brown, Chocolate hills.

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Three of the 8 sisters hillocks

(The boat from Larena on Siquijor to Tagbilaran, Bohol runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays departing at 7.30pm. The cost is 220 piso for economy and is a much cheaper option than the ocean jet daily service from Siquijor town that costs 800+ for the same duration)

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