One of the best souvenirs I bought on a recent trip was a shirt I got in Vietnam that says “Same, same” in front, and on the back read, “But different.” It reminded me of how a friend and I had acculturated in Singapore by speaking with the least words to get our point across.
It also reminded me of how Filipinos should travel.
Filipino travelers often get stuck in a travel rut. It becomes almost a formula. If they’re going to Bangkok, they go to Chatuchak. In Singapore, they spend a day in the endless maze of malls along Orchard Road. If it’s Chiang Mai, more shopping or the occasional elephant ride. In Vietnam, it’s panic shopping at Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City and nearby Cu Chi Tunnels.
Blessed with a job as a travel writer, I get to explore not-your-usual destinations. Often, I seek them out. Other times, serendipity brings me there. In other instances, kind souls lead me to these special places.
I know budget can be a consideration, and you have to contend with a limited travel period, say the next officially-declared long weekend holiday. With that in mind, I chose a few destinations to shake things up on your next trip.
I’m not suggesting you fly out to faraway Iceland or exotic Uzbekistan. But it can seem like you’re in some faraway or exotic destination anyway—if you’re ready for a new twist to your usual trip. A few suggestions:
1. The Singapore Countryside. So you’ve checked off the usual things to do in Singapore: Eat chicken rice, pose at Louis Vuitton Store along Orchard Road, visit Universal Studios, play the slots at Marina Bay Sands, go on a night safari.
With your Singapore dollars dwindling and your children still bursting with energy, why not spend a day in the Lion City’s countryside? Yes, you read that right. Contrary to popular belief that nothing grows in Singapore except high buildings, malls, and HDBs (government subsidized housing units), yes, they do have farmlands.
Take a day trip to the Kranji countryside. While it is accessible by MRT (get off the Kranji stop) and bus, it’s a world away from the urban life. There are few cars, lots of green, and a slower pace of life. You can see Malaysia in the distance.
This is still Singapore, and they have a wonderful system in place here. By taking the Kranji Express Bus (about $2 for the day), you can hop in and out of the bus to visit different farms and attractions. There’s Hay Dairy, a goat farm where kids can feed the goats and drink fresh goat’s milk. If you’ve ever wondered how those spiky red dragon fruits grow, head over to Spring Orchard next door. These fruits are actually red bulbs harvested from cactus bulbs.
For an instant nature trip, hie off to the Sungei Buloh wetlands. The 130-hectare mangroves, mudflats, ponds, and secondary forest are home to monitor lizards, dragonflies, butterflies, birds and many plants and animals. There are bird observation hides, allowing you to discreetly and comfortably watch the winged creatures in their natural habitat for hours. Take advantage of the free tours from the mangrove volunteers. Little boys who love all things green and slimy will love the Jurong Frog Farm, with the bullfrogs croaking in unison.
When hunger sets in, head for Bollywood Veggies, an organic farm growing papayas and bananas. Inside the farm is Poison Ivy Bistro, which serves organic banana curry, banana bread, nasi lemak, and aloe vera, fig tea or lemongrass tea. Kids will enjoy running around the farm while waiting for their food to be served.
2. The Hills Are Alive. Chiang Mai is synonymous with cooking classes, elephant rides, and shopping. Or, you can be alone with your thoughts, or immersed in a world so different from your reality.
After a 35-km drive north from Chiang Mai, I arrived in Lisu Lodge located in the Lisu Village. In this lush green valley and home of the Lisu Tribal community, time stands still. This ancient tribe originally from Southern China has managed to hold on to its rich cultural heritage. The lodge offers traditional hill tribe pavilions with modern comforts. Think thatched roofs, bamboo walls, and floor mats, with comfortable beds, electricity, fans, and hot water, overlooking rice fields and sprawling hills. But the best part is the interaction with the lovely Lisu people. They still wear their traditional garb, not for show for the tourists, but as part of their everyday life.
Visitors get to experience village life, visit a Shaman and a monks’ herbal medicinal garden, enjoy a 13-km scenic mountain bike ride to the Mae Tang River, take elephant rides through the forest, or go white water rafting. But for me the best part is connecting with the tribal people, even without a common language. It is bliss to simply dance with them under the stars or to giggle with the Lisu children in the stress-free afternoons.
3. Seaside Surprise. Ho Chi Minh City seems to be the new favorite city to visit for Filipino travelers. Exchanging US$100 instantly makes you a millionaire, with over 1 million dong. That’s an instant ego-boost. Ho Chi Minh City is also attractive for the low cost of food and affordable shopping. For many, it has replaced the lure of Hong Kong some 20 years ago, or Bangkok about 10 years back. But beyond shopping, many of the attractions of Vietnam are connected to the war. This is great for macho guys and history aficionados.
But wanting to stay in my feel good zone, I opted to skip the museums and tourist sites that recall wars and death. On my last visit, my aunt, a resident of Ho Chi Minh City for the last seven years, thoughtfully organized a road trip to Vung Tau.
The seaside town of Vung Tau, two hours south of Ho Chi Minh City, is a welcome break from the frenzy of Saigon’s mad motorcycle drivers. There will be no fear or hyperventilating when you cross the road here, as you will not be run over by motorcycles. The pace is slower, the roads are wider and the beaches are aplenty, although on weekends they are packed with families from the city.
To get to Vung Tau, take a two-hour bus from Ho Chi Minh City or the Vina Express Hydrofoil, which gets you there in 80 minutes. You arrive in Vung Tau, on a hillside facing the sea, and wonder where you have been transported to. The many boats docked by the waterfront give it the feel of a Mediterranean town. The hotels and restaurants lined up downtown and the strong retiree vibe remind me of Florida. But before I can take the thought much further, I catch sight of a giant Jesus Christ statue with his arms outstretched towards the South China Sea. Am I in Brazil? It is a smaller version of the statue in Rio, but a site many Filipinos would definitely welcome. Oil-drilling is the main business here, and there are a number of Russian expatriates in town. Vodka seems to be a staple at the cafes, bars, and restaurants.
But for day-trippers like me, my aunt and her friends, the attraction is seafood alfresco lunch by the waterfront at Ganh Hao. Try the prawns with garlic and the soft-shell crab cooked in butter and onions, and wash it down with ice-cold 333 beer, or as they say in Vietnam, ba-ba-ba.
After the meal, stroll through Villa Blanche, once the summer home of the French governor general Paul Doumer dating back to 1898. Located on the slope of Big Mountain, you can be assured of great views. They also have a collection of antiques on display. in your last stop before heading back to the city, cool down with a gelato at Nine Café. My pick was a strawberry gelato. My companion opted for a lime gelato doused with Vodka. •
For more golden delicious moments in food and travel, follow the author on [email protected], read Maida’s blog, www.themaidastouch.blogspot.com or email her at [email protected] com Maida Pineda is also the author of “Six Degrees of Expatriation: Uncovering Lives of Expats in Singapore” and “Do’s and Don’ts in the Philippines.” Maida has a Master of Arts in Gastronomy from Le Cordon Bleu and the University of Adelaide.