Friday, May 11, 2012

Weird Bangkok

A trip to a notoriously graphic forensic science museum wouldn't top the to-do list of many normal travelers in cosmopolitan Bangkok. However, fed up with glitzy shopping malls and the tranquility of temples, I find myself yearning for something off the beaten track. Instead, I found a celebration of severed limbs in what could only be described as the lair of a mad scientist.

To call it stomach churning would prove to be a grand understatement. However, even after watching the sallow faces shuffle in and out, curiosity won the battle and I ventured inside Thailand's oldest hospital to check out Siriraj Medical Museum.

For the bargain price of only 40 baht, those who aren't squeamish can gain access to six separate sections - each with their own interesting exhibits. As for the winner of 'most grotesque,' it's a tie between Forensic Pathology and the creepy crawlies found within the Parasitology section.

I start out with tapeworms and flesh eating bacteria, opting to face the worst first (or so I thought). The first stop is a delightful public service announcement, which although dubbed in Thai is reminiscent of infomercials around the world. My fear laid to rest, I take note of foods known to contain harmful toxins and pat myself (prematurely) on the back for having such a strong stomach.

From across the room I spot what appears to be spaghetti. Having had fettuccine alfredo for lunch, a possible link between pasta and parasites worries me. Inching my way up to the exhibit, I rejoice in discovering that it's nothing close to linguine, but recoil upon discovering the truth - tapeworms. A painstaking recreation of a man's rectum, overflowing with enough infectious parasites to start a game called tug of war.

After that truly disgusting display, I make my way to the Forensic Pathology section and breeze through the initiation displays of alcohol's damage to the liver and the lungs of a pack-a-day smoker. Scary stuff no doubt, but no worse than the graphic images on any cigarette pack in Australia.

I manage to make it past the dismembered body parts floating in jars, but the winding corridor of dead fetuses is enough to make me shudder. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a large group of students ogling a glass display in the corner. Resting his forehead on the stained glass, is the naked body of a dirty and decaying man. Unable to translate the small plaque, I ask one of the students for more information.

"Si Quey is a famous man, but not for good reason," says Ann, a first year law student at Bangkok University. "Over fifty years ago, he was executed for rape, murder and cannibalism." During his reign of terror on suburban Bangkok, he killed six children and ate their hearts and livers.

It's a strange feeling when you meet a dead celebrity. Si Quey is a name known outside of the law profession too, probably because his name is still used to frighten young children into behaving themselves. In what looks like a see-through broom closet, I notice the door knob has broken clean off and been replaced with a patchwork of cellophane. Although his mummified body is preserved in petroleum jelly and long dead, a cold shiver runs down my spine - it's time to go.

On my way out, I pass by a kiosk stall serving snacks and beverages. Not surprised at the lack of customers, I wonder if my appetite will ever return. Looking to stimulate the senses, I leave the hospital grounds and head for the throbbing heartbeat of this modern day metropolis - Silom Road. This is both the financial centre of the capital by day and a raucous party district after dark.

Street food stalls line the busy side streets, with more than just Pad Thai on offer. Thailand is a haven for foodies and the capital city is no exception. Almost all cuisines are represented and depending where you are, the distance between authentic Italian and a Syrian kebab may only be a few steps. As the intoxicating aroma of Tom Yam wafts over me, I'm shocked to find my appetite stirring into life once again.

After dark this part of town becomes a veritable maze of food, with vendors setting up shop on the busy pavement in every direction. Giant woks splutter with oil and do little to conceal the dancing flames below. I hear the bell of an approaching food cart, but what I see shocks me. No, it's no ice-cream. Instead, it's a bountiful buffet of bugs, deep fried to perfection! Stir fried water beetles, locust kebabs and many more 'delightful delicacies' that are sure to make your skin crawl.

Clinging vehemently to vegetarianism as an excuse, I choose not to chow down on a cockroach kebab, but instead ask around for an infamous restaurant in the area by the name of Cabbages and Condoms. The tropical heat and staggering humidity makes negotiating the crowded streets difficult, but i'm determined to see if there really is a restaurant in town that's decorated with nothing but prophylaxes.

After wandering aimlessly under a fool moon with my cheap t-shirt clinging to my back in sweat, I take a chance on a side street and finally find one of Asia's more bizarrely themed restaurants. Unlike other themed restaurants in Asia, such as Modern Toilet in Taiwan or The Lockup in Tokyo - this isn't just another money making scheme.

Before I'm ushered to my table, I walk around the courtyard and take note of all the billboard size posters on display. Funded by the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), I learn that a large percentage of profit goes towards helping the poor in rural areas across the nation. The condom theme is explained instantly by all the safe sex themed t-shirts, latex insignia and novelty keychains for sale in the gift shop.

Although more expensive than street food, the restaurant is nothing if not a classy affair. The open courtyard plays host to traditional Thai musicians each evening after 7pm, while Christmas lights drape the trees and wax candles occupy a space on each table. While some of the condom creations such as table flowers are rudimentary and basic, others are elaborate and meticulous like the light features (pictured right).

While it's more than most backpackers would spend on an average meal, it's good knowing that a large portion of the bill is going towards helping people in need. The menu reflects the Isaan region of Thailand, which as the poorest region - is where most of the funds are directed.

Those who like it spicy are in for a treat, as Isaan is home to the almost mythical Papaya Salad (not for the faint of heart) where chilies aren't so much used as a spice, but as a main ingredient. I choose to keep my eyebrows in place and order a light and refreshing bowl of mushroom soup. As I smell the aroma of fresh coriander mingling with crushed lemongrass from a few tables over, my appetite returns with gusto. Dining without a date, I take full advantage of my anonymity and slurp down the fragrant broth in a flurry.

First-timers can be spotted laughing at condom chandeliers, but many more come back time after time for authentic regional cuisine. Like all good restaurants the food quickly takes centre stage, although the restaurant's choice of after dinner mint substitution almost always results in a giggle.

Blissful Baguio & Panagbenga


Text - RJ Fry
Images - Rob Rownd & Kelsey Barrick 

While hard to believe for those of us in colder climates, the Filipino trend is to escape the heat during summer and flock to the mountains. Baguio, nicknamed the 'Summer capital of the Philippines,' is a charming city in Central Luzon with much to offer the visitor. 

Although most postcards of the Philippines highlight white sandy beaches and coconut trees swaying in the breeze, a trip up North to the Cordillera Central mountain range provides a different viewpoint on this fascinating archipelago of 7,107 islands.

As well as trying the local delicacy of taho (soy bean pudding), a trip to Camp John Hay is a must-do when visiting Baguio. Home to a world class golf course, designed by none other than Jack Nicklaus, the cool mountain breeze makes 18 holes a delight – rather than a chore. The cooler climate also means it's also the only golf course in the Philippines to contain bentgrass greens, meaning you won't have anything to blame – except for your putter. 

There's also more than just golf to keep you entertained, with amenities like garden mazes and paintball sure to keep a smile on everybody's face. If you don't feel up to the full eighteen, there's also a mini-golf course – so you won't miss out!

The Philippines is known for such stomach churning delicacies such as Balut (partially formed duck foetus), made by famous by TV chefs such as Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. However, for those of us a little less adventurous, why not try Chocolate de Batirol? Somewhere between a hot cocoa and peanut soup, this ancient chocolate concoction contains no preservatives whatsoever – not to mention a delightful lack of feathers and beaks!

The ancient preparation has remained unchanged for centuries, as I see for myself with the barista dashing out from behind the counter to grind out the mixture on my table. It's a gluey mix that's both thick and bittersweet, not to mention 100% Filipino. Choco-late de Batirol is located by Gate 2 at Camp John Hay and offers this traditional beverage, along with a few flavorful twists.

Baguio's Botanical Gardens are also worth a visit, as they proudly showcase woodcarvings and traditional artworks from local tribes. Talking with local vendor, Edmund, I learn to spot the difference between handmade carvings and those formed by machines.
“In Cordillera region, we use only one piece of wood – so each piece is unique,” he says proudly.

Not for the first time in Baguio, I spot the carving of a sullen man with no expression who sits solemnly to stare at each person who walks by. Edmund tells me this is a carving of their rice god, who goes by the name of Boolo.
“He is a very good luck charm for businesses. In ancient times, he would guard the rice sacks or barrels of rice wine,” he says. So essentially, having faith in Boolo meant one would never go hungry.

The indigenous people are not forgotten here either, with proud statues and sculptures scattered throughout the gardens. While there are all sorts of flowers and plants to be found, the real focus is on learning about local culture that has remained so for thousands of years. I learn that be it oil painting or weaving, the number of barrels depicted has to do with the celebration at hand. Three barrels is for a small celebration such as graduation, while five barrels is for a wedding and seven barrels is for a baby.

SIDEBAR: Panagbenga Festival

While Carnivale of Rio de Janiero is famous the world over for lasting five days and nights, Panagbenga Festival lasts for over a month. A lot of the events are aimed at children, making it an ideal choice for families. There are carousels and bumper cars, just as you'd find at any showgrounds back home. Those looking for a throwback to yesteryear, rest easy – there's a roller disco found inside Burham Park.

This annual 'festival of flowers' has been going strong for 17 years now, with each year attempting to outdo the last in the form of elaborate artwork and colorful displays. It was first held in 1995 to rebuild the city's image and morale after a devastating earthquake that shattered Baguio in 1990. The Grand Float Parade takes place each year on the last Sunday of February and it truly showcases the creativity that's possible through gardening.

As you can imagine, the streets are flocking with people as tourists from near and far gather to see these artistic creations. Forget sleeping in, as the parade starts in the crisp morning air at 8am. Visitors and locals flock to Session Road, where the floats are marched proudly down the street and on to the field at Baguio's Athletic Bowl, where they remain on display for the rest of the day.

Oriental dragons, the type that wouldn't look out of place in Chinese New Year festivities, are an annual staple entry. Complete with delicate scales and fearsome teeth – you can only tell they're made from flowers when you're close enough to touch it. Some of the floats are topical, mimicking the latest trends or popular web games such as “Angry Birds.”

More than just a celebration of flowers, Panagbenga is a celebration of Spring and green living. As I trekked through Baguio's winding and often steep roads, I found myself entering Burham Park to wander through a dazzling display of florists and gardening stalls, with vendors all too happy to share helpful advice. It was the bonsai stalls that held my attention the longest, and I couldn't keep myself from gazing at their intricate, albeit miniature, system of roots and branches.

While Baguio has always been somewhat of an escape from the hustle and bustle of Metro Manila, those seeking solitude would be more at home in nearby mountain towns such as Sagada or Banaue during the month-long festivities. Originally built for 25,000 inhabitants, it has adapted to fit 250,000 people fairly well. However, that number rises almost to a million during Panagbenga, which is one of the biggest festivals in the Philippines.

In a time of iPhones and 3G wi-fi connectivity, it can be hard for the younger generation to connect with their ancestral roots. Northern Luzon, or at least pockets of it, was one of the few areas in the Philippines to escape colonization, which meant their culture and customs were kept intact. Every year during Panagbenga, indigenous people from various nearby tribes put on workshops, perform tribal dances and sell traditional woodcarvings.


By Air – Although there is an airport in town, unfortunately there has been no commercial service to Baguio in recent years. Through flying Air Asia though, you'll arrive at Clark Airport, rather than Manila, which means only a 3 hour bus ride rather than 5.

By Bus – The most convenient and economical way to get to Baguio is by bus. The journey will take 5 – 7 hours, depending on traffic. For a smoother journey, opt to leave at night or very early in the morning.

Buses leave throughout Metro Manila and the fare is 450 – 700 PHP ($10 - $16 USD) depending on if you choose standard, deluxe or VIP. Buses depart frequently from Victory Liner's terminal, in both Pasay and Cubao.


El Cielto – ( isn't located downtown, but it's only five minutes by taxi from all the city's attractions. Rooms start at $42 USD per night which includes hot/cold shower, cable television, air-con and wi-fi. It's terrific value for money.

Red Lion Pub – ( More than just your standard pub, Red Lion also plays host to many weary travellers and there's live music every night. Rooms start at $18 USD.

Paladin Hotel – ( Located in the heart of Baguio, Paladin Hotel is somewhat of a boutique option. All room rates are inclusive of breakfast, hot/cold shower and cable television. Rooms start at $40 USD.

Taal Volcano - A Tale Of Two Cities

Taal Volcano

City #1 - Tagaytay, Cavite

Like Baguio to the North, this small mountain town serves as a welcome respite from the steamy heat of Manila – not to mention the crowds and chaos. However, unlike its Northern counterpart, Tagaytay is only one hour away by bus, which makes for a perfect weekend escape.

Although not as chilly as other mountain towns such as Sagada or Banaue, the average temperature is still a mild and pleasant 22.7 degrees Celsius - which will sound like bliss when you're sweating it out in the capital. The cool alpine breeze and fresh pine scent will surely stir your senses, while just single glimpse of Taal Volcano from your bus on the highway will have you reeling. 

Nicknamed the city of fog for good reason, mist in the air only adds to the charm and romance of the place. Winding roads, a nip to the air and a full moon puts me in mind of Bram Stoker's Transylvania. 

Famous throughout Central Luzon province as a 'fruit destination,' stalls line the city streets selling tropical delicacies such as mangoes and pineapples, as well as stranger items such as jackfruit (lanca). Always curious to try something new, I order this strange and alien-like fruit and watch the vendor prize it open with a few swift moves of her machete.

The taste is unique, somewhere between the range of a mango and a banana, but with a texture to remember, it manages to be both chewy and soft – something like the tapioca pearls found in bubble tea.

You can't help but notice the merchants hawking their goods, as if you attempt to make any purchases at a busy time, you'll notice a sound akin to the commentary box at a horse race – regardless of the language used.

The clean fragrant air and abundant fresh produce on offer, always means that delicious food is never far away. For those looking to splurge on a fancy night out, Antonio's Restaurant is widely regarded as the best restaurant in the Philippines and is officially the 5th best in all of Asia (Miele Guide). Think of it as French/Filipino fusion, itself an oddity, but with a view like nowhere else in the world. 

I rise early and am fully dressed and out the door of my guesthouse by 5am, expecting to jostle for position with other members of the snap happy contingency, but strangely – nobody's awake. I make my way to Starbucks, known for having the best viewpoint along Tagaytay ridge, but I've got nobody to keep me company but a surly security guard intent on watching me like a hawk.

Unable to get that perfect shot of sunrise, I jump on the next jeepney bound for People's Park in the Sky. This crumbling structure was originally intended to serve as a guesthouse for former president Ronald Reagen but was never completed. Open to the public, it's popular among visitors for having a nice viewpoint of Taal Lake, but also Metro Manila on a clear day. 

I arrive at around 7.30am, a full thirty minutes before the gates open, leaving me enough time for an alfresco breakfast. Fresh buko juice (coconut) is a steal at 30 php, while a sweet juicy segment of pineapple is only 10 php.

Sitting along the roadside, I'm caught up in a swirling sea of clouds and can barely see 5 meters in front of me. While People's Park isn't exactly atop Mt. Everest, the omnipresent fog for which the city is famous for, will make you feel as if you've ascended into the clouds and reached the round table with Zeus. 

The amphitheater is perfectly positioned and with blinding white fog in each direction, it looks like the elaborate set and stage of a Greek tragedy. While the rest of the buildings look drab and unfinished, it's the location adjacent to heaven's pearly gates that keeps people coming back.

City #2 - Talisay, Batangas

To really appreciate Taal Volcano, you must view it from above and below. To do this you must visit both the towns of Talisay and Tagaytay, but don't worry – only a short tricycle ride separates the two.

Barely ten minutes downhill from Tagaytay, this small lakeside town is in another province nonetheless (Batangas). The township itself stretches out, with several guesthouses and restaurants sprawled along the water's edge. The magnificent volcanic backdrop looms in focus and with a little bargaining, a boat ride to the island within the crater lake can be had for under 1000 PHP.

Taal Volcano is not only the world's smallest active volcano, but also part of the Pacific ring of fire. Since 1572, there have been a whopping 33 recorded eruptions and as such, it's under constant surveillance. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,335 people, while dangerous activity such as toxic fumes and rumbling sounds were reported as recently as last year.

Climbing to the top is relatively stress-free, but rather than make a miserable horse's day a little worse, I decided to scale the 400 meter summit solo. Vendors renting horses warned me it would take hours, but after taking their suggestions with a grain of salt – managed to reach the rim within 40 minutes.

Easily done for both children and adults, the amount of dust and dirt accumulated along the way is remarkable. Whatever you do, don't wear your Sunday best! Visitors who make it to the top, whether by horse or by foot, have the opportunity to buy 'Taal Volcano' souvenir t-shirts, while similar apparel is absent from stalls and stands along Tagaytay ridge.

The scenery is stunning along the way, although it never allows you to forget you're trekking up a volcano – not a mountain. For instance, instead of regular soil to tread upon, warm volcanic ash will heat you up with each and every step. Also, whenever you see smoking rising, don't get alarmed and assume it's a bushfire – those are just normal volcano emissions.