Wednesday, April 22, 2009

10 Most Amazing Places I’ve Visited

I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to travel. And though oftentimes I travel for work and don’t have the time to tour, I do try to grab pockets of time to absorb the culture and just totally enjoy the beauty, the exhilaration of seeing something for the first time. And for those trips that are purely vacations, ahhhh, I’m a great vacationer. I do my research and I make it a point to see something new and interesting. I also love visiting a place alone. So I can totally enjoy the place at my own pace, take as many photos as I desire, take short little appreciation breaks, linger, ponder, meander, without the vacation nazi (aka my husband) breathing down my back so he can beat some imaginary record for the shortest time to get from one place to another. But I digress.

Here are my top ten amazing places:

1. The Louvre, France – This is a place that humbles you. One of the first stops is the Department of Egyptian Antiquities ( As I gawked at relics of early civilization, I just felt the reality that I am just one inconsequential fraction of a nanospeck in the timeline of the world. The giant paintings at the Medici Hall made me feel small, insignificant, and I realized that whatever talent and skills I had could not possibly match those of the creators of those master pieces. I felt so humbled, yet my soul felt so elated, my eyes so sated, and my heart a little proud to be part of the human race that has created all these beautiful works of art. The one day we spent at the Louvre was hardly enough. One of my dreams is to be able to come back to this place to wander at leisure for days.

2. Harajuku, Japan – One stop from the Shibuya station in Tokyo, and you leave the train to step into a different planet. Harajuku offers dazzling out-of-this-world spectacles. And it has nothing to do with the architecture, art, or any manmade tourist attraction. It’s the people. Young people. With an aversion for looking like everybody else. Japan’s fashion sub-cultures sporting the strangest, hippest, wildest of fashions taking the streets as their runway. Name a color, and somebody around there has that in his or her hair. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve last been there, so I don’t know if it’s still the same avant-garde young fashion capital of the world. A peek at Wikipedia says parts of it have become mallified. But Japanese youth in Manga, Gothic Lolita (the first time I’ve heard of this fashion genre), hip hop, still swarm in this surrealistic fashion wonderland.

3. Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan - You have to wake up at dawn to be able to catch the action here. The noise first, and the smell next accost you, wake you up. And then it’s the frenetic activity that wipes out any vestige of sleepiness. Your eyes dart from one spot to the next because there’s something interesting going on wherever you look. Who knew that fish auctions can be that much fun to watch? You look at the organized lines of frozen fish, numbered like marathon runners, most of them longer and bigger than most of the humans there, and you just know that the tuna panga you had in Davao or GenSan is related to some of the headless carcasses lined up on the auction floor. There’s also a market section retailing a dizzying array of seafood from all over the world. Because we were staying in a hotel, we couldn’t really go shopping for our lunch. But then again, I don’t think I would have been able to buy anything, because I would have been too overwhelmed to make a choice. Salmon, cuttlefish, fish I’ve never seen before, the longest clawed crabs. With my scuba dive card forever out of reach, this is the closest I’ll be to being underwater.

4. Huntington Gardens and Library, California – I’m surprised not a lot of people know about this place. Selfishly, I’m glad not a lot of people know about this place. It’s sort of a secret hideaway only a few minutes from Los Angeles. You pass a posh residential area to get there. The library is a bibliophile’s wet dream. A high ceiling accommodates two levels of rare, leather bound books. My heart ached in envy and desire for my own library to be that awesome. The 2nd print of the Gutenberg Bible, encased in glass, brought out the geek in me, and I almost genuflected, thanking God, and Gutenberg of course, for inventing the printing press. But the library, magnificent as it is, holds your attention only for a few minutes. The gardens, take note of the plural form, beckon. I made the right decision to go alone so I can walk at my own pace, and sit down when I wanted to just rest, read, relax, and wish that I could sketch. Each garden has a theme. The Japanese garden might look familiar to you since it has been used for some supposedly Japan-set Hollywood movies. There is a rose garden, an herb garden, and an English garden they call the Skahespeare Garden. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but from my memory, I liked the desert garden best because I got there by sunset and the giant cacti drew dramatic silhouettes against the orange cast sky. Next time, you’re in LA, check out these secret gardens.

5. Kiangan, Philippines – Check this out.

6. Sapa, Vietnam – It was the perfect vacation and we came at the perfect time – during the Tet holiday. It was the first time we’ve taken an overnight train ride. I slept at the upper bunk and my husband took the one below. We slept and when we woke up, it was dawn. We took a van with a number of people who were on tour. And that’s how this amazing vacation started. Sapa is breathtakingly beautiful especially in the winter, when there is a heavy mist covering the town plaza and the church. Women from different tribes pester and follow you around selling their wares – and at some point you give in and buy something that’s beautiful, and colorful and done with painstaking detail. The vacation is about hikes -- hikes up mountains, hikes down valleys where the tribesfolks live, make indigo dyed fabrics, hikes along cliffs with awesome views. But the highlight of my Sapa adventure was the magical rose plantation. It looked surrealistically beautiful and I felt that I just stepped into the dream scene of a period movie. Even more astonishing was when these local teenagers called us into their cottage to have tea with them. A cottage so simple the floor was of packed earth. Song, our tour guide, helped me to communicate, but mostly it was their facial expressions of innocent wonder that spoke to me. Sadly, I never blogged about the experience, but sappy as it may sound, this scene will forever be etched in my memory.

7. Hanoi, Vietnam – In the trendy store at Church Street, Tina Sparkles, they sell a beaded bag that says “I was in Hanoi before McDonald’s.” One of my biggest regret is not having bought that bag, which says so much about what Hanoi is, but might not stay that way anymore. It is a place that one must see now, before the malls take over. While it still feels like you’re in another place in another time. While the streets are lined with little stores selling the most colorful crafts and art; you get the sense you’re in the Orient’s version of the souk. I only lived there for 7 months, but a part of me will always miss Hanoi with its 7 lakes, Highland Coffee shops, 12-dollar hotel rooms, street food; where getting lost in its littered streets is a game I play; where hopefully no golden arches will ever invade.

8. Capones Island Lighthouse – Scattered along the coasts of the Philippines are Spanish-era lighthouses badly ravaged by time and neglect. My first lighthouse trip was to the one in Burgos near Pagudpod. I’ve also visited the Bolinao and Calatagan lighthouses. My favorite is the one in Capones Island in Zambales.

9. The waters of Donsol and the Butandings (Whale Sharks) – Butandings are solitary creatures. They do not swim in schools. They are also very shy; you get too close to them, they leave the surface and go down into the depths of the sea. So, they’re a bit hard to find. When I finally got up close and personal with one, I was stupefied, glued to one spot in the water, and with the snorkel in my mouth, I just exclaimed, Oh My God. I was in awe. Laughing too. The butanding we saw was a magnificent creature. It had rows of white dots on its back. It looked more like a whale than a shark. It was amazing being only about 3-4 meters away from the creature. It glided under me and I saw the whole beautiful creature. Awesome.

10. I struggled to choose the 10th place to put in this list, so I’ll just list down the runner-ups which will share this last slot – Old Town beside Jet D’eau in Geneva, San Francisco’s Halloween night, Little Italy in Boston, Bethlehem Town in Pennsylvania during the Christmas season, New York, Palawan, Bohol and the underwater world of Anilao.

The other amazing places I still want to visit are: Morocco, Egypt, Greece, Batanes, Borobudur, and Ankor Wat.