Touring Manila Without Pushing The Envelope

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A quiet corner of Manila, Philippines

Now that I’ve been able to get the whole Manila envelope pun out of the way by means of the title, I invite you to read on about what to see and do in the Philippine capital if you’ve only got limited time.

Overview

Manila is a sprawling metropolis characteristic of many rapidly-growing Asian cities –  filled with chaotic traffic, ramshackle development and increasingly Westernized modernization in the form of glitzy shopping malls that could rival anything back home (I’m talking about you, Mall of Asia). One could rightly argue that such things are reasons why a person wouldn’t want to visit. But at the heart of it all – just a few blocks off of Manila Bay in fact – is a relatively peaceful enclave that lends character to an otherwise indistinct urban conglomeration. It’s called Intramuros, and for those with limited time, it should be at the top of your trip itinerary

Intramuros

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Step inside the walls of the past in the Intramuros, Manila Philippines

Meaning ‘inside the walls’ this is the historic center of Manila – one that was home to its colonial past, and the site of some of the most dreadful devastation the country suffered during World War II (an estimated 100K died during the ‘liberation’ of the city). In fact, most of it was leveled by the intense fighting, and what exists today are mostly reconstructions. Regardless of the exact age, the overall effect is one that gives an appropriate nod to the past and the juxtaposition with the modern development on the outside is a welcome contrast.

What to See

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Exploring the grounds of Fort Santiago, Manila, Philippines

Fort Santiago – overlooking the Pasig River – is the top draw for visitors to Intramuros. This was once the stronghold for the Spanish, Americans and Japanese as they took turns as acting overlords. Today you can admire the mossy bastions of the fort’s walls and crumbling buildings, with intermittent peeks at the darkened dungeons that sit below. It doesn’t have the gravitas of other former fortresses around the world, but is worth at least an hour’s exploration.

Just down the road is another worthy destination – the Casa Manila museum and its surrounding complex. The museum was closed the day I visited, but the network of stone courtyards, flowery passageways, small cafés and shops were right out of colonial times, and if you get the sense that you’re waiting on line on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean you can be forgiven for the comparison.

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A rooftop view around the Casa Manila Museum, Manila, Philippines

Rizal Park

Just south of the Intramuros is Rizal Park – the Philippines’ answer to the National Mall in Washington D.C. – complete with their own obelisk. Around the open expanse of lawns and fountains are small alcoves with themed gardens accessible for nominal fees. For some relaxation amid the noisy chaos of the city, I’d recommend the Japanese gardens. For some tacky but fun photo opportunities in a Jeepney (the ubiquitous highly-artistic stretched-Jeep public transport option) or rickshaw, I’d recommend the Orchidarium, though you won’t find more than a few examples of its namesake.

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Take a ride on a Jeepney, Manila, Philippines

Practical Advice

Bear in mind that being located within the tropics, any visit to Manila is likely to be a hot one. I’d say you’d be baking in the sun, but with the humidity its more likely you’ll feel sauteed. That said, take in lots of liquids (available at one of the many 7-11s) and don’t be afraid to duck into air conditioned shops to cool down and perhaps pump a few pesos into the local economy.

There is a decidedly third-world feel in many places, and while you need not be overly concerned with safety during the day, it’s always a good idea to be mindful of your surroundings and belongings. That said, I found the Filipinos to be a friendly and engaging people and encourage you to find that out for yourself. All in all, one day is sufficient to see what needs to be seen, and if you have more time and care anything about military history, sites such as Corregidor and the military cemeteries will be worth your while.

Conclusion

With so many amazing places to see and visit in Southeast Asia, I would be hard pressed to recommend going out of your way to include Manila. Far more appealing is the resort island of Boracay not far to the south. But if your travels bring you through the Philippine capital, you might as well make the most of it, and a visit to Intramuros and Rizal Park will likely leave you feeling satisfied – without having to push the envelope.

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Mantas Need Showers Too – Diving Nusa Penida

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Me and the Manta, Nusa Penida

It had been over seven years since I had gone scuba diving when I got onto  a speedboat on Bali. I had heard that getting back underwater was like riding a bike, that it would all come back to me – and without all that tiresome pedaling. My destination was the nearby island of Nusa Penida, located about halfway between Bali’s east coast and Lombok. My objective was to see giant manta rays in action.

Getting There

If you’re staying on Bali, a dive trip to Nusa Penida is most easily arranged from the east coast. Many hotels can book you on a tour, and if you’d rather go it alone, just stop in to one of the myriad tour agencies sprinkled around the shopping districts, or even the dive operators’ offices themselves. The aptly-named Manta Point will be one of your options and a two-tank dive should cost you roughly $100-$120 U.S. Chances are, this will be your most expensive tour, so budget accordingly.

My particular operator drove guests to their boat, which was moored at gentle Sanur Beach on the east side of the island. From there it was a choppy 45 minute ride to the hulking silhouette on the horizon.

Nusa Penida

The island of Nusa Penida can also be visited by non-divers as well, but be warned that though there is a nice beach on the southern shore, waves and currents are strong. If you don’t believe me, just look at the towering cliffs being pummeled by spray.

Manta Point is close to the aforementioned spray-pummeled cliffs, and if you made it through the crossing without throwing up, get ready for your breakfast to make a reappearance once your forward motion stops and the boat starts pitching and rolling. I’m quite proud to say I made it to the end of my second dive before my breakfast revisited me.

The Dive

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Soaring together at Manta Point, Nusa Penida

Why are manta rays so consistently found here? It’s because of the existence of what is called a cleaning station. In basic terms, this means that the mantas know that over a certain large dome of coral located here, smaller fish will emerge as they cruise by, ‘cleaning’ them by eating any parasites and dead skin they might be carrying around. This is sort of like a fly-by shower, or drive through cleaning service. It is also a great reason for us to visit, as mantas are usually here in numbers.

Visibility was around 50 feet or so when I splashed down. As promised, my dive training and instincts came back to me as I eagerly peered into the blue. For this I was glad, because when I saw the first of what turned out to be a dozen mantas gracefully swooping around a large coral patch, my only focus was on them.

The site is rather shallow, allowing for long bottom times and plenty of opportunities to see the mantas up close. These particular mantas were at least 12 feet across and the same if not longer from head to tail. It’s quite humbling to be in the presence of animals so much bigger than you. It’s also kind of flattering to know that you’re not the fattest thing in the ocean.

For their part, the mantas are rather undisturbed by the daily presence of divers, and on several occasions I got very close – almost so that I could touch one – though I would heartily recommend that you avoid doing that. They may not eat you, but these are wild animals all the same. Content yourself with a bucket list experience of observing these majestic creatures up close, and for everyone’s sake keep your hands to yourself.

The Sideshow

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Tutrle, Manta Point, Nusa Penida

With a dozen mantas swirling around you, it’s hard to drag your attention away. But if you do, you will not only see swarms of colorful fish darting around various types of coral, but other denizens of the deep like turtles, stingrays, and if you’re truly fortunate, a mola mola, or ocean sunfish (think a fish, dinosaur and dinner plate all fused together).

Good to Know

Besides the potential of seasickness, be aware that currents are often strong. In practical terms, that means that you will be exerting lots of energy as the wave action pulls and pushes you (and the mantas) back and forth. It is not an easy dive by any means. You will come up tired, nauseous, and likely low on air, but if you are dive certified, thinking of becoming dive certified, and are planning a trip to Bali, you will not regret a trip out to Nusa Penida and back. Take comfort in knowing that you can take your own shower at your hotel.

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Mantas everywhere

 

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2016 Year in Review

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Dragon and Tiger Pagodas

2016 is gone, for better or for worse, and it is at this point that I traditionally recap the Trip Accomplice blog’s contributions in the past year (again, for better or for worse). Here’s a breakdown of what was covered, just in case you weren’t paying attention.

Destinations

This year I was a little light on dedicated destination posts – covering 5 foreign countries (3 in South America and 2 in Asia) and 5 U.S. destinations.

South America

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Check your straight-edge at the door at Casapueblo

I suppose I was feeling nostalgic for South America with three posts based on my 2008 Antarctic cruise.

In Playful Patagonian Penguins: A Lesson in Chilean Alliteration, I had some grammatical fun recounting a trip to Seno Otway and its resident penguin colony in the remote city of Punta Arenas, Chile.

Speaking of remote, I combined an obscure Pink Floyd Song with an even more obscure travel destination in Echoes of Pink Floyd in the Falkland Islands which details what to see and do on a visit to the Falkland Islands. It also lays the basis for a unique soundtrack when doing so.

I also shared some tips for visiting a surreal Uruguayan locale in Straight Lines are Overrated in Punta del Este

Asia

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Nighttime on Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

During nearly the entire month of November 2016 I was off exploring Southeast Asia with my wife and parents. Despite a wealth of new material to cover, I only got around to two of the many destinations I visited.

In Kaohsiung, Taiwan – The Nicest Little City You’ve Never Heard Of I provided practical advice for visiting this interesting ‘little’ city in Southern Taiwan.

I also shared a review of a great hotel for a relaxing stay in Bali, Indonesia in the appropriately-titled post  Hotel Review: The Samata, Bali.

You can be sure I’ll get around to some of the other spots in the months ahead.

U.S. Destinations

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Come for the sand. Stay for the sunsets.

Within the United States I shared the beauty of the Gulf Coast in the post Brazos Bend: Stars Above, Gators Below for a look at this lovely wetland landscape.

I also provided detailed information on visiting two of New Mexico’s greatest attractions in the posts Elevator Appreciation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands: Sun, Sand &…Sledding?

Lastly, I really enjoyed reflecting on a return to my childhood stomping grounds in A Travel Snob Returns to Disney World where I shared my thoughts on Disney’s progress versus preservation.

Top Tens and Other Lists

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Anse Lazio, Praslin Island, Seychelles

The beginning of the year saw me attempting to summarize some of my favorite places in the ever-popular ‘Top Ten’ list format with My Top Ten Beaches, And Why They Should Be Yours and My Top Ten List of World Monuments (Who Said Anything About Dying?)

I also went the list route with Safety Tips for the Skittish Traveler – a rundown of simple precautions to make sure your trip stays all about having fun, along with An Apology to the 14 Countries I’ve Visited More Than Once Without Doing Them Justice which highlights the sad fact that it’s nearly impossbile to see everything a destination has to offer on one (or even multiple) trips. Just as a side note, I now have to update that number from 14 to 17.

Pet Projects

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2016 also saw me widening out my repertoire to include some pet projects. I shared my passion for travel art and showcased some of my work in Putting the ‘Art’ into the Art of Travel. And I also announced my travel-themed  public speaking business in the post I Am the Globechatter…. Both then and now, I invite you to check them out if you haven’t already done so, and share these posts with anyone you might know that would be interested in the services offered.

The Year Ahead

As mentioned before, I still have lots to share from my recent trip to Asia. Keep an eye out for more on Bali, both as a general review and site specific posts. My return to Singapore and Hong Kong will result in updated posts in the coming months, and I look forward to sharing my take on places in the Philippines and Borneo, Malaysia.

Other than that, I have nothing set in stone, as my own travel plans are wide open at this point. But as you well know by now, dear loyal readers, you can be sure of two things: 1) I’ll go somewhere, and 2) I’ll be sure to write about it.

Wishing everyone the best in the days, months and years ahead; I thank you for another year of being my travel companions.

Ben Pastore

 

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Hotel Review: The Samata, Bali

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The Samata’s main pool in the public area

At the tail end of my latest whirlwind Southeast Asia tour, what I really wanted more than anything else was to have some privacy and time to relax. If you’re coming to Bali for that, I can enthusiastically say that the Samata is the place for you.

Our positive experience started right from the airport where the driver was waiting for us with a placard (which was even nicer then the cheap print-out of the Four Seasons – just sayin’). He took our bags, gave us cool towels and took us on the approximately 45 minute ride northeast to the hotel.

The public areas are gorgeous, with two long pools and comfortable lounges. We were technically there in the “off” season so it was not at all crowded. Even if it were, once we were ushered into our gorgeous two bedroom villa (2) we would have left them all behind.

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The Master Suite (2 bedroom villa) at the Samata, Bali

The canopy beds with mosquito netting were soft and clean, the outdoor shower and tub were charming and the decor was distinctly Balinese. The enormous, open-air covered living area was a great place to relax (we loved the driftwood couch) in between dips in our private infinity pool – where we spent the majority of our time looking out at the rice paddies in front of us. There was a dining and kitchen area but we had no time for that, and food on Bali was so cheap that it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle.

Breakfast is included and was beyond just a basic meal. You’re offered a juice, coffee or tea (go with the Balinese coffee – it’s a little muddy by the end but delicious) then a selection of fantastic dishes. I highly recommend the vanilla French Toast and berry pancakes.

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The main building, restaurant and reception at the Samata, Bali

Twice we decided to have dinner in the onsite restaurant, and while it was a slightly pricier than the restaurants in nearby Sanur, the food was just as good as the breakfast was, and still very reasonably priced if you’re coming from Europe or the U.S.

They have spa and massage treatments onsite but I just opted to get the standard $5-$6 massage offered about every other 15 feet in town. I wouldn’t be surprised if “massage?” is the most widely known English word on the island.

There are tennis courts, a well-equipped fitness center and yoga studio on the grounds – not that I used them. If you want to work up a sweat in Bali, all you have to do is stand outside.

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Private pool with a view, the Samata, Bali

Depending on the driver’s availability, they offer free shuttle service to Sanur, which is about 10-15 minutes to the south. You’re on your own getting back, but finding a Blue Bird cab (they have meters) isn’t hard and only costs a few bucks. Make sure you take the hotel’s business card as the hotel is tucked away in a backstreet and not all cab drivers know exactly where it is.

Best of all was the staff. They were exceedingly polite and Leni in particular was a most excellent hostess. They arranged a private driver for a tour up to Ubud and the rice paddies that was competitive, though not quite as cheap (but still really cheap) as the operators in town. They even just charged it to our room which made things easier.

Some details worth knowing: Wi-fi is included and refreshingly fast compared to some other places in Asia. Air conditioning works well too, which regardless of when you visit, is something to be grateful for.

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The ample living area in the two bedroom villa, The Samata, Bali

There is a beach not far from the hotel (you can see the water from your balcony) or you can just go down to Sanur. From here, you’re approximately a 45- minute ride from the much more lively Seminyak /Legian/Kuta area. The area immediately around the hotel is not particularly interesting or suited for tourists unless you’re looking to buy a giant stone statue or wood carving from the dealers lining the main road. And if you stay in villa two, there’s a tall window in the master bedroom without a curtain, so if you have friends or relatives staying in the other bedroom, be cautious when prancing around after using your outdoor shower.

We got a spectacular deal – probably since it was the low season – that meant for less than one night in Manhattan our group of four stayed in our private two bedroom villa. If you’re looking to splurge then this is a great spot. I cannot say enough good things about this place, and if you’re looking for the quiet, but not too quiet part of Bali, and don’t feel like partying over in hopping Kuta, The Samata is just right

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