Category Archives: lakwatsa

Not all who wander are lost

I’m Spirited Away in Jiufen: An adventure in the land of Yubaba and Chihiro and the unending flight of stairs 

(I am writing this post while waiting for my flight back to Manila, whiling away time at the Taoyuan Airport. The trip to Jiufen is definitely the highlight of the trip hence I can’t wait to write about it) 

The first thing you will notice upon reaching is the cats. There’s a number of them: lazing away on the village generator while giddy tourists take tons of pictures of them; there are cat posters and cat painting and little ceramic figures made up of cats. 

In a tourist town made famous by a drama (City of Sadness starring Tony Leung) and a legendary animated film Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – the cats, without a doubt, are the resident queens of Jiufen. No offense to Yubaba. 

  
When I finally had the chance to return to Taiwan, on top of my list was to see Jiufen, a small town on top of the mountains of the Ruifang District of New Taipei City near Keelung, Taiwan. 

Jiufen (or “nine portions” from the nine families who first settled in the area) used to be an old mining town from the late 1800s to the decline of the gold rush by the 1970s. When the mines was shut down, Jiufen faced decline, with the town possibly going the way of forgotten settlements. That is until it was featured as location of the seminal movie “City of Sadness.” The interest came after the release of the movie saved Jiufen from being a forgotten town. The interest only further intensified after the release of “Spirited Away” by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. Jiufen was credited as the inspiration for the winding steep roads, the lantern laced alleyways and the magnificent bath house owned by Yubaba as seen in the animated film. 

 

Chihiro looks for her parents in Spirited Away

 
trying to find my way in the many alleyways of Jiufen

 How to get to Jiufen
There are two ways to get to Jiufen. First is you take the High Speed Railway going to Riufang county. From there, you can either take the cab to Jiufen or contract a fan who will serve as your tour guide to the many sights of the province, Jiufen included. Prepare to shell out at least NTD3,500 to rent the whole cab. 

Or you can do it my way, courtesy of mad research skills: 

Here’s a cheaper and more painless alternative to the option above. From where you are staying, take the MRT to Zhongxiao Fuxing Station under line 1. Take MRT exit 1, as you come out of the stairs, make a U-turn heading to the direction of the elevated walkway. The large SOGO Department store should be on your right hand side, with you facing the elevated MRT. 

Take the first left to the immediate intersection which you will reach in less than 60 seconds. Walk a few steps and you should see the pick up point for the 1062 Keelung bus headed for Ruifang and Jiufen. 

this is the bus that will take you to Jiufen

During weekends, expect a long line of local and foreign visitors waiting for the bus as Jiufen is a popular weekend destination. Ignore the touts offering their contracted service by saying there’s no bus going to Jiufen. Have your EasyPay tap card ready or NTS90 to cover the fare. 

Eventually, the highway will melt away to reveal a rustic and peaceful rural scenery. 

  
 
 
 The mural above celebrates the heritage of Jiufen as an old mining town. When you passed this, you are less than five minutes away from reaching Jiufen Old Street where you should alight. 
 

entrance to the old street

As soon as you see 711 and the marker – this means you’ve reached Jiufen. It’s now time to explore the inner bowels of this town. 

The best way to enjoy Jiufen is to get lost and just enjoy the little books and crannies of the town, then marvel at the little discoveries you have along the way: 

Note: photo heavy post

   
  
   

there are cats everywhere in Jiufen. these guys havent moved an inch!
    
 
And then you start seeing pieces of Spirited Away no matter where you turn: 

 

an old tunnel used by miners before

  
  
  

   


Of course, the piece du resistance was the Ahmei Tea House, which bear a striking resemblance to the Spirit Bathhouse being ran by Yubaba. 

  This is Yubaba’s bath house in Spirited Away: 
 
Here is the Ahmei Tea House in Jiufen: 

   
  

To say that I squealed when I found it was a gross understatement. I was so happy to find it (thanks to the hubby) after walking to the many windjng streets of Jiufen. The only let down is that dining inside the Ahmei Tea House is quite expensive: they expect diners to order a tea set for NTS300 or if it’s lunch, have the lunch set at NTS400. There are no Ala Carte order or an English menu. We chose to take our lunch elsewhere. 
When in Jiufen, you will be assailed by the delicious smell of cooking meat or the sweet  aromatic smell of herbs anywhere you turn. It is a foodie’s haven and there is something for everyone, regardless of their meal preference:   

    
  

our sumptuous lunch: rice with meat topping (NTS30) and a stick of sausage (NTS35)
  
    
    

Jiufen is a good place for a day trip. However, there are also those who choose to spend the night here. There are many guest houses or home stays in Jiufen. All one needs to do is ask. Like the rest of Taiwan, the people of Jiufen are unbelievably nice. 

I can’t wait to go back to Jiufen someday. Maybe stay a bit longer? I hope it retains that authentic and quaint little town vibe that-in spite the hoard of tourists – makes the town a sweet to live in.

  

 

 
 

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…scoring cheap airline tickets!

USD2.50* for the destination of your dreams!
USD2.50* for the destination of your dreams!

… in my experience, it would usually involve an over-dependency on various social networks (Facebook and Twitter, mostly), the need to be up and about at ungodly hours to catch seat sales when they drop, then a protracted battle with the airline website to get cheap seats for both inbound and outbound trip, then finally — a bit of haggling with the Gods of Travel praying that your unpaid credit card can accommodate the cost of ticket for two!

I don’t know how you choose to travel, but for budget travelers like me, I usually travel through the graces of cheap airfares courtesy of the country’s largest airline, Cebu Pacific. Through the available seat sales, I was able to see the beauty of Seoul and Taipei (as well as Singapore and Hong Kong) which I never thought was possible before without selling my kidney to buy airline tickets.

Currently, my latest obsession is to see Japan during my birthday week in May. Ideally, I would have wanted to be there on my birthday, but the so-called battle with the seat sale has made me book the day after (which was selling for PHP99 only).

In the Philippines, here’s the usual means to get cheap airline tickets:

1. Pray that your favorite airline will offer cheap tickets for the period. Unfortunately, the only consistent airline to offer free tickets anywhere is Cebu Pacific. The company usually have monthly deals promoting the different destinations where they fly. Available deals can be as amazing (and unbelievable) as the Zero Peso sale (yes, you only pay for the taxes) and the Piso (1peso) Sale. I haven’t had the pleasure of scoring any of the two, but I was able to book tickets to HK for just PHP3,000 RT, while my sister got her Korea tickets for only PHP3,500! So, yes — this is definitely cheap! I know that the national carrier Philippine Airlines have Monday Promos while JetStar and AirAsia also offers cheap fares depending on the destination. However, Cebu Pacific still remains the undisputed budget carrier.

Yes, I have to point out that understandably, there are instances when the service given by CebPac leaves much to be desired. It’s either you get a bad service or good service. And yes, the airline seats are small — a Great Dane will have problems trying to fit himself. Plus, you will have to pay for almost anything: extra check in baggage, in-flight meals, seat preference, the list is endless.

2. Make sure to follow the carrier’s social media account. In my case, I follow all mentioned airlines in Twitter and Facebook. Make sure to check their feeds once a day!

3. Never swear off 12 midnight — that’s when price drops usually for Cebu Pacific. In my case, I was able to score my latest return trip when I woke up unexpectedly at 3AM and decided to fiddle with Facebook on iPhone. Saw the ad above and lunged for my laptop like mad.

3. Have everything handy and easily accesible – that means your passport and credit card. Remember, time is of the essence. How sure are you that at the very moment somewhere, another crazy lady is also trying to book the exact flight to Tokyo!

4. Make sure to play around the available travel dates to get the deal you want.

5. Make sure you have enough money to pay for the ticket.

The only downside is that due to the excitement, I was awake until 6AM just giddy due to the fact that I scored cheapo tickets to somewhere (yes, I am crazy!) that I never had the chance to sleep. Fast forward to 10AM — imagine me trying to stay awake during a boring departmental meeting.

Amazing Taiwan: the land of shaved ice, warm people, micro mini skirts and full-on PDA (Part 1)

I love, adore, yearn for Taiwan!

Obviously, three short days is not enough to discover the beauty of Taiwan. But my four short days in Taipei (actually 2 1/2 days in Taipei and half a day in Yehliu) pretty much gave me fond memories of this country formerly called as Formosa. What can I say about Taiwan?

It’s a land of chilled out, laid back happy people who always offer you a smile whenever you need it. It’s the land of amazing wonders waiting to be discovered, of simple culinary delights that will blow your minds away — of teeny, weeny skirts matched with cute, affordable boots and the throes of teenage love that pushed young lovers from devouring each other’s faces while on the subway ride.

We had three short days, but tried to make do with the limited time we had. Early on, we vowed to see more and spend less — and with one character in this story currently jobless after passing her resignation and another one perpetually broke (*ehem*), it sure make a very interesting story.

First day: “Let’s pretend we’re on Amazing Race Asia”
My sister and I arrived on a chilly, midnight aboard a Cebu Pacific midnight flight from Manila. Because Taipei Taoyuan International Airport is located in Taoyuan County and far from Taipei, we decided to book for hotel transfers from CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending, our home for the next two days in Taipei. However, following a small confusion on the booking, we are to spend the night in another hotel called Keyman’s located near the Taipei Main Railway Station. CityInn Hotel Plus was fully booked on the first night (technically early morning) of our stay and even a quick check from other CityInn in the area yielded zero rooms.

No sweat, we just wanted to have a room where we can crash for the (early) morning, get a few zzzzz and score free breakfast in preparation for the long day ahead. We plan on hitting the tried and tested usual sights of Taipei, maybe find little slices of city life in between and then check in at CityInn Hotel Plus in Ximending.

Our bedroom at Keyman's
Our bedroom at Keyman’s
our home away from home: CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending
our home away from home: CityInn Hotel Plus Ximending

(Read my hotel reviews here and here)

Here’s some notable images of Day 1 (warning: photo-heavy post)

So, we covered the Chang Kai Shek Memorial Hall, Sun Yat Sen Museum and Taipei 101. These attractions are near each other and usually found on the same line of the metro (blue line “Yongnin to Taipei Nangang Exhibition Centre), so you’ll get to save time and your fare while you hop from one attraction to another. Prior to touring, we headed to Yuanshan in the red line to hear mass at St. Christopher’s Church, where hundreds of Filipino workers converge every Sunday to hear mass and reconnect with kababayans.

St. Christopher's Church in Yuashan (red line), near the Taipei Expo Park - best mass I attended
St. Christopher’s Church in Yuashan (red line), near the Taipei Expo Park – best mass I attended

After asking for God’s blessings, we are off to discover the city!

planes always fly overhead the Taipei Expo Park due to its proximity to the Taipei Airport (the domestic one)
planes always fly overhead the Taipei Expo Park due to its proximity to the Taipei Airport (the domestic one)
...flying through the expo's gardens
…flying through the expo’s gardens
The Main Gates of the Chang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
The Main Gates of the Chang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
The roof of the Taipei National Theatre located inside the Chang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
The roof of the Taipei National Theatre located inside the Chang Kai Shek Memorial Hall
my sister taking a breather in front of a quaint bridal photography shop
my sister taking a breather in front of a quaint bridal photography shop
My sister chasing a hapless fat pigeon
My sister chasing a hapless fat pigeon
at the gardens
at the gardens
cherry blossom tree in full bloom
cherry blossom tree in full bloom

DSC_0112

i love this part of the garden... i can just imagine how it'd look like if the cherry blossom trees are full
i love this part of the garden… i can just imagine how it’d look like if the cherry blossom trees are full
these bikes are available throughout the city. just run your easy card through the censor and you're off!
these bikes are available throughout the city. just run your easy card through the censor and you’re off!
On our way to Taipei 101 (pic courtesy of the Queen's instagram account)
On our way to Taipei 101 (pic courtesy of the Queen’s instagram account)

During our first day in the city, the first thing we noticed is how short the skirts are and how cute the ladies looked with their short, short skirts, tights and matching boots. The ladies always looked fashionable albeit we’ve grown alarmed on finding some non-existent trousers or skirts. It’s like seeing the pages out of Vivi and sitting through a daily fashion show of Asian fashion. I instantly loved it there! Though, if I am to live in Taipei and dress how these ladies dress, I really need to get a few pounds out my massive tree trunks. Boots were available at the numerous shops in Ximending. A typical day-to-day wear will include a coat or jacket, blouse or shirt, the aforementioned fast-shrinking bottoms (shorts or skirt), tights and boots. Ladies are also partial to wearing sneakers (in varying colors and design) or boat shoes. Here’s our usual schedule every night: my sister and I would buy the sweet candied strawberries from an old uncle in Ximending, look for a nice area to sit and people watch and just soak up the culture and the active buzz that is commonly found in the area.

People watching would always lead us to a pair of amorous teenagers usually caught between liplock or gazing dreamily on each other’s eyes — like as if they were leads in the latest Taiwan drama airing on local channels. It was simply amusing, as young lovers often hold tight against each other as they sway to the train’s movement, oblivious to other passengers. Ah, the perils of young love 🙂

…to be continued

Note: A more detailed post of the trip including itinerary and budget breakdown will be published on my travel blog

Airport Taxi Scam at NAIA3

After an amazing trip to Taipei, we arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 sleepy and cranky following a 1AM flight from Taipei. It was almost 4AM and we are tired and badly in need of sleep. Like any enterprising Pinoy, we avoided the line of cabs at the Arrivals area, mainly because they do not use the meters and in the rare instances that they do, it is set too fast which results to almost 3x the normal fare.

Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3
Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3

Along with other arriving passengers who apparently had the same idea, we went up the Departures area where metered taxis were known to drop off departing passengers. The first thing that greeted us (and a sign of things to come) was all the doors roped off, with a handwritten “closed” sign taped in the middle. To further emphasize a point, discarded passengers’ chairs was placed on the same area, should someone have an idea to sneak past the rope. All four exits had this, and all the tired and sleepy passengers were asked to head to the last exit at the farthest corner of the terminal.

Desperate to find a cab and finally go home, we headed for the only exit available. Outside was a line of white taxi cabs eagerly engaging the emerging passengers who were all harried looking. Everyone wanted the same thing: it was 4 in the morning and we all just wanted to go home and sleep in our beds.

Because we have been burned before by crooks masquerading as taxi drivers, we asked the guard on duty if the line has metered taxi – the guard said yes. Not satisfied, I asked the taxi driver who was eagerly stuffing our luggage in his trunk if his taxi was metered. Again, he said yes. Satisfied with his answer, we climbed on the back seat and waited for him to open the meter (which, all taxi drivers do before even stepping on the gas). Nothing. So I asked him twice to switch on the meter. On my third try, he finally opened his meter. It was then that we realized that his so-called “meter” is different from the correct meter usually seen on cabs. Instead of the cost of the trip, what was reflected instead were just numbers. Good thing we weren’t that far from the airport doors. We asked him to stop the car, pulled out our luggage and walked back to the taxi stand.

Now that I think about it, I realized that it took him so long to switch on his meter so that we won’t have no choice but to stick with him, since the airport’s drive way is dark and long and we will find it hard to hail another one considering it was 4AM.

Well, he thought wrong. My sister and I walked back to the cab stand and realized that all cabs in line were not metered taxis at all but those who contract passengers depending on their destination. The real metered cabs were out in front and were not allowed to enter the cordoned area where the scammers masquerading as cab drivers were located.

We were lucky to find a real metered cab, who explained that the NAIA 3 does not allow them to fall in life and usually blocks them from reaching the passengers. As soon as they drop off passengers, they were asked to leave the premises immediately. Even if there are passengers who are flagging down. The guards usually point these passengers to the line of white cabs. Our concern was this: what is important to the security people of NAIA – earning extra bucks by conniving with these unscrupulous drivers or ensuring the safety of passengers? We spent so much to promote Manila and the rest of the Philippines to foreign guests so that they will come and visit what our country has to offer but we can’t even provide them a better infrastructure, especially safe and credible transportation from the airport going to the city. The pathetic looking rope with handwritten “closed” signs — the pathetic row of chairs, is this what we want them to see the moment they step off the plane and into our country?

I feel for the Department of Tourism, whose efforts to promote the country and make it appealing to visitors was truly commendable. While DOT is doing its job, the airport management is still as lousy as ever.

When I relayed this information to my friends who also frequently use the NAIA 3 and usually gets their cab from the Departures section, they said that this might be an isolated incident since they didn’t experienced this at all. I learned that all their flights are in the morning and they are usually in the airport by at least late afternoon. It is then that I realized that this scam might be in full effect during late evening to early morning flights when people are few, there are no police presence and passengers are desperate to go home and rest.

No matter the time, I think the airport security should look into this. Not all who use our airports are freaking millionaires who can pay for unmetered cabs and deal with the crap usually given by crooks (masquerading as cab drivers). We were appalled considering that the flight we are in had tons of OFWs and foreigners who all wanted to get out of the airport as soon as possible, and the first experience that they will have is an encounter with scums like these cab drivers.

I realized that this rant will fall into deaf ears. In fact, I even sent a message to DOT as soon as I arrived from Taipei but no one bothered to reply to my message. Maybe because I am not a celebrity or a celebrity blogger, but damn it, I pay my taxes and I deserved to be heard. I am still thinking if I should refer this matter to public affairs programs airing here in Manila while I do not welcome the hassle it will give me (provide a statement, etc.) I kept thinking that if I don’t do anything, the unscrupulous behavior of airport taxis will continue.

Flight: Here’s what not to watch when you have a plane to catch the next day

Who the eff watches this movie (and THIS SCENE) a few days before their flight? You’re right, I do!

The said scene is from the movie Flight, a 2012 drama starring Denzel Washington and directed by Robert Zumeckis, the same guy behind Forrest Gump. Flight’s story is straight forward, a passenger plane takes a steep nose dive from 30,000 feet and the pilot, William “Whip” Whitaker managed to save 96 out of 102 lives on board by doing a complicated maneuver where he commandeers the plane right-side up before crashing in a field. While Whip should be considered a hero, investigation revealed that his toxicology report came back positive for alcohol. For on the day of the flight and subsequent accident, Whip took the helm following a night of bingeing on alcohol, cocaine and sex. Obviously, Flight’s visual effects guys did one hell of job to make that scene so believable you’d be tempted to swear off air travel altogether.

The plane crash scene above literally took me on the edge of my seat. As in literally, cos after watching that scene, I almost cancelled our tickets bound for Taipei since I was that scared. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but this has been a common scenario every time I travel.

Here’s my routine: I flip the channel to National Geographic and wait for an episode of “Air Crash Investigation, then I’ll buy my choice of soda and chips and watch with utter fascination. A bit morbid, I know…but it has become a ritual since 2007. It’s like the time when my sister traveled on her first inter-island ferry trip, traveling from Manila to Visayas. Guess what’s playing on the ship’s television sets through out the old ship? It’s Titanic. Of all the movies set in steam liners and ships, the company had the gall to show a movie where the so-called indestructible ship of the early 20th century was brought down by an ice berg. As my sister puts it, “Titanic is not something high above the public’s choice of movie when they are on board an aging ship and in the middle of the Philippines’ choppy waters.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not after the entertainment value of the show or the film (because there is nothing entertaining or joyful about plane crashes where many lives are lost), I am after the lessons learned following a tragic accident. How do airlines pick up the pieces? How do government agencies work to ensure that a crash will not be a possibility again? What are the steps taken to ensure the safety of a passenger and their love ones? Years after these accidents, what has the government and the airline company done to make air travel safer and more accessible? These are the things that I am very concerned about.

I guess I always believed that plane travel is still the safest means of transportation. Yes, that’s a direct quote from Superman (Brandon Routh era). And I really love airplanes — I am one of the weird ones who always point to the sky and stare really hard (until my neck hurts) until the plane is out of sight.

Seven steps to getting your Taiwan Tourist Visa

(NOTE: This was originally posted on my travel blog, but I figured I might as well post it here also)

It’s official — I am going to Taipei in two weeks! I am so excited just thinking that I’ll be seeing Taipei in two weeks time.

Honestly, I really had a hard time researching for tips on getting a visa for Taiwan. Unlike other countries like South Korea and Japan, there aren’t a lot of blogs or forums discussing guidelines for a hassle-free, nervous breakdown-free application for Taiwan visa. As a way of giving back and in recognition of the blogs and forums (at PEx) who shared how to go about the visa application process, I am posting what I did when I applied for a tourist visa last Monday. (NOTE that I am writing this on a Thursday, hence it only took me three days to know my fate).

Step 1: Complete all necessary documents. I wrote about the documentary requirements here, but here is an excerpt:

1. An online Visa Application Form – please note that as of April 2012, the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) of Manila no longer accepts handwritten application forms. Please access the system-generated forms at https://visawebapp.boca.gov.tw. Fill up the forms and print it on A4 paper after. Please avoid leaving spaces blank, for questions that does not apply to you, write N/A.
2. Two (2) passport size photos 1.5”x2” with white background – should be taken within the last three months.
3. Passport valid for at least six months and old passport showing previous travels (if any)
4. Birth Certificate issued by NSO
5. Marriage Contract (if applicable) issued by NSO
6. Supporting documents related to the purpose of VISIT such as :
A. Confirmed round trip Air ticket or Booking Certificate
B. Certificate of Employment and Letter of permission to leave from the employer
C. Financial statements of the applicant such as:
(1) Income Tax Return (ITR)
(2) Bank Book or Bank Statements – I got my bank certificate at BPI for less than an hour. To apply for a bank
certificate, just approach the teller and she will give you a form that you need to accomplish. You have to pay
PHP100 for a copy of the certificate.

These are the exact documents that I prepared during the course prior to submitting my application last Monday. Make sure that you have completed all these documents. Prepare a photo copy. I read somewhere that having complete authentic documents is winning half the battle. I highlighted authentic to emphasize and plea that if for some reason some of these documents are hard to procure, please resist the urge to submit a fake or tampered one. Please save yourself and your kababayans the embarrassment that may arise out of a doctored-Employment Certificate.

For the Online Visa Application form, take note of your application number. If for some reason you made a mistake, don’t be afraid to start again. I made a mistake twice, first was when I entered the wrong return date (TPE-MNL) and the second one was when I forgot to tick the “married” box. What I did was to start all over again and just disregard my previous application. I got a new application number and printed the correct form. Whatever you do, resist the urge to write on your printed form.

Step 2: Affix your passport-sized photo on the printed form using a glue. Since you will need two copies of the photo, you may attach the other one using a paper clip.

Step 3: When all of these are complete, head to the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) located at the 41st floor of the RCBC Plaza in Ayala, Makati (in front of Makati Medical Center). This is the tower nearest the museum. Surrender a valid government issued ID at the reception desk (they do not accept company IDs) and they will give you a slip of paper indicating your number then ask you to go up the 41st floor.

Step 4: Wait for your number to be called. Service is fast but this depends on the number of people present. Note that there are a lot of agencies rep there applying for tourist or OFW visas so service may be fast or slow, depending on this. When your number is called, approach the counter and submit your completed documents. And if your documents are complete, I can assure you that transaction is as fast as paying your electricity bill. We were in front of the counter for 10 minutes tops. The consul may or may not interview you, depending on the purpose of your travel. In our case, we were not interviewed. The consuls can speak Tagalog so they can definitely understand your answers should they have any questions for you.

Step 6: Then, you will be asked to wait for a few minutes until the cashier calls your name. You may now pay for your visa. A single entry tourist visa costs PHP2,100. This is non-refundable, so in case you don’t get a visa — you will not get your money back. After paying, the cashier will issue your receipt showing the date when you can claim your passport:

receipt which you need to present when you are about to claim your passport
receipt which you need to present when you are about to claim your passport

Step 7: Go back on the date indicated in the receipt, and repeat the process: leave a government-issued ID at the reception, get a number and wait for it to be called during the passport release.

Here it is! The key to seeing Ying De University in the flesh:

I need to fix my rooooots!
I need to fix my rooooots!

Note that passport application is every morning: 9:45 to 11:45 while passport releasing is done every afternoon, 2PM to 4PM.

Honestly, the process is easy and very simple. I guess the only hard part during visa issuance is completing the documents, but as soon as you went past that – it’s very easy and manageable. If you have spare time, why don’t you do it yourself? No need to hire a travel agency and pay extra bucks for a service you can do yourself.