Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tree planting with Haribon

Earlier in the year, I co-organized a charity fund-raising fun run in the office for the benefit of Haribon and Kythe. We raised more than P130,000 from pledges made for the more than 100 volunteer runners, and this amount was split between Haribon and Kythe. Our donation to Haribon was equivalent to almost 700 trees and we decided to organize an actual tree-planting activity so that we could plant the seedlings we donated.

We worked with Haribon to set up a date and decided to stage our activity on November 13. The venue was Tanay, Rizal, which has been a priority area for reforestation ever since Ondoy. We managed to get 50 volunteers - any more than that and each person would end up planting very few trees. As luck would have it, the Shangri-la hotel also had a tree-planting activity on that day and had 2,000 seedlings to plant but they didn't have a lot of volunteers themselves. We ended up helping Shangri-la plant their trees, which meant that our volunteers got to have a more worthwhile experience as they were not constrained by planting only a few seedlings in under an hour.

I took on the task of being photographer which proved to be a bit difficult since I didn't want to get mud in my camera. This meant that I managed to plant only a few trees but it was great to see the other volunteers fully immersed in and totally committed.

We are planning a bigger tree planting activity - more trees and more volunteers - next June. It'll take a lot more work to pull it off successfully and smoothly but I am definitely looking forward to it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Helping improve the quality of education in the country

A colleague of mine suggested that we look into partnering with the Ateneo Center for Educational Development (ACED) back in August 2009. She said she volunteered for one of their strategic planning workshops and said it would be good to have our Corporate Social responsibility program organize a group of employees to volunteer for this activity. Only a handful of volunteers are needed to run a successful workshop and it doesn't require a lot of logistics so after a few meetings to understand the requirements of the event, we decided to do a "test run" in January 2010.

Our initial call for volunteers resulted in almost 50 volunteers signing up in less than 20 minutes so we knew that a lot of people were interested in it. The first run we had was very successful, with a lot of good feedback from both the ACED staff and our own volunteers. As such, it was a given that we would continue with this partnership and help out in these strategic planning workshops whenever we could.

The workshops are not run during the summer months so we resumed the partnership once the 2010-2011 school year started. Weekend-long strategic planning sessions were scheduled on July 31-August 1, September 11-12 and November 20-21. I normally work on gathering volunteers without volunteering myself and just swing by during the event to provide some support, but one of our volunteers had to back out at the last minute during our September 11-12 session so I had to take her place. It was a really interesting experience. Once you are used to the corporate setting, it is almost automatic for you to define specific goals and objectives, assign responsibility, and track progress. This isn't the same in other settings because people don't want to be blamed for things not going according to plan or schedule and which results in a tendency to shy away from accountability. It took a while for the school participants - which included the principal, teaches, barangay representatives, and parents of some students - to get the hang of setting priorities and defining indicators that would allow them to measure the success of their actions but in the end, we managed to come up with a pretty good plan that was actionable and achievable.

The great thing about ACED is that after each workshop, they gather feedback from the participants and the volunteers to figure out how to make things better, and I can see some specific changes to the workshop when I compare the first workshop we volunteered for in January to the one that just finished last Nov 20-21. There are a couple more schedules this school year - one in January and another in February - and we are already in the planning stages for those. Hopefully, our continued efforts to partner with ACED will help improve the quality of education in our public schools.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Game night

My friends and I once had a game night a long time ago - shortly after Suzanne and Nenen came to Manila and gave us all board games as gifts - but we never got around to staging another one. That is, until my friend Mike returned from his six-year stint in the US. Mike had a couple of board games that he wanted us to play. We set aside one Friday night for it.

We had dinner in Kirin in Bonifacio High Street before heading to Mike's place to play Settlers of Catan. The objective of game is to be the first person to earn 10 points by building a colony. Players can earn these points in a variety of ways, like building houses or putting together the longest road or amassing the largest army. There were quite a few of us - Mike, Joh, Raffa, Suzanne, Me-ann, Nats, Julie, and myself of course. It was especially nice to have Nats and Julie there coz it had been years since I hung out with either of them.

The game requires a lot of strategy and planning and it takes a while before someone manages to earn 10 points. We played two rounds - Mike won the first round and Julie won the second. We all enjoyed game night so much that a couple of weeks after the first, we set another one up while Che was in town. There were fewer of us in part 2: me, Che, Joh, Me-ann, and Mike. We ditched Settlers in favor of Ticket to Ride just so we could try a new game.
The objective of Ticket to Ride is earn the most number of points by completing train routes. We got to play only one round as people had to get up early the next day, and Mike, who is an expert on all these board games (he owns them after all), won yet again. Doesn't matter as we all had fun (apart from the fact that I kept singing the Beatles' song 'Ticket to Ride' the entire night, so much so that at some point we decided to play music so that I wouldn't drive everyone crazy LOL). Hopefully we can all get together every now and then to have more game nights.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

F1 season comes to a close

Congratulations to Sebastian Vettel for clinching the 2010 F1 Drivers' Championship. It wasn't easy, but a win in Abu Dhabi (the final race) combined with Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber placing 7th and 8th respectively meant that Vettel became F1 World Champion. This was made even sweeter by the fact that Red Bull Racing won the Constructors' Championship, ahead of McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari.

The podium in Abu Dhabi was also pretty interesting in that Vettel was joined by the last two World Champions: Lewis Hamilton in 2008 and Jenson Button in 2009 (they placed 2nd and 3rd in the race respectively).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Brunei: Final Thoughts

Brunei has enough going on to keep tourists interested. In fact, if you are more into nature-tripping, there are rainforests and parks outside the city that you can visit. However, Brunei is not your destination of choice if you are looking for late-night, alcohol-laden parties since the sale of alcohol is banned in the country (I believe that people flying into Brunei are allowed to bring a few bottles of alcohol, but there is a specific limit).

Bus fare in Brunei is quite cheap: BN$1 or about P30-35 even if you are traveling to the furthest point in the bus route. The same can't be said about taxis, however, but since our hotel was within walking distance of the bus terminal and a lot of the sights in the city center, we never had to take one. What surprised me was the relatively low cost of food. As I mentioned in previous blog posts, my mom and I got to try two hotel buffets (dinner at the Radisson and lunch at the Empire Hotel and Country Club) both of which cost about P1,000 or less (buffet lunches and dinners in the top hotels in Metro Manila are all more expensive than that). A lot of decent restaurants had menu items that were in the BN$4-6, or about P130-200, which is the same amount of money you'd spend on a decent restaurant meal in Manila. A latte in Coffee Bean is about BN$4 (P130) while a coke zero in can purchased in a convenience store is about BN$1.

This holiday was also the first time that I was able to try a couple of restaurants suggested by my travel book. In all my previous travels to other countries, I've always wanted to try recommended dining places from my books but somehow I never got to. In this trip, however, my mom and I got to eat in two places highlighted by my Lonely Planet book - Nyonya Restaurant and Portview Cafe (both in or near the Yayasan Complex). If not for my stomach problems, we might have been able to try a few more. Probably our favorite resto was Nyonya. This is where we had our first meal outside our hotel. We thought the food was good and reasonably priced that we decided to have our final dinner here as well.

One really cool thing about Bandar Seri Begawan, at least for Pinoys, is the fact that Jollibee has become a permanent fixture in the city. I saw four branches - one in Yayasan Complex, one in The Mall, one somewhere on the road from the city center to the Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque, and one in the airport. I guess it isn't surprising since there are a large number of Pinoys working and living in Brunei. You can very easily find Filipinos working in hotels, restaurants, stores and shops, and in the buses. It made it so much easier traveling around the city since there was always someone who could help out when needed.

If you have the time and funds, I recommend a trip to Brunei. It may not be as popular a travel destination as other countries in Southeast Asia, but it definitely has its fair share of sights worth seeing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Brunei: Travel tips and Suggested Itinerary

Your most economical option to visit Bandar Seri Begawan from Manila is most likely Cebu Pacific, which frequently has promo airfares to Brunei. The caveat is that flights are not daily so you have to plan your trip carefully, and you most likely have to take days off from work.

Assuming you take the same flight schedule we did, you will have the following itinerary:
  • Depart Manila on Saturday, 11:45 PM, arrive in Bandar Seri Begawan on Sunday, 1:40 AM
  • Depart Bandar Seri Begawan on Wednesday, 2:25 AM, arrive in Manila on Wednesday, 4:20 AM
The schedule is tricky and you have to be very careful when planning your trip around this itinerary.

Tip #1: book accommodations correctly
Arrival in Brunei is on Sunday at 1:40 AM, which means you still need to sleep that night. This qualifies as a Saturday check-in (albeit a very late one). Departure from Brunei is on Wednesday at 2:25 AM, which means that at around midnight, you should be heading to the airport already. As such, you don't need to book a room for Tuesday night anymore (otherwise, you pay for a room you won't really use). Given this, make sure you check into your hotel on Saturday and check out on Tuesday. That's a total of three nights - Sat, Sun, and Mon - which makes sense because you will spend 3 full days there (Sun, Mon, and Tue). A group of Pinoys checked into the same hotel and they made the mistake of not booking a room for Saturday night, and no standard rooms were available which caused them a significant amount of hassle.

Tip #2: if you are on a budget, stay at the Jubilee Hotel
It's a very basic hotel, probably 2-star, with basic amenities and no room service. However, the Jubilee Hotel is pretty cheap - about BN$70 or P2,400 a night - so if you are not fussy and just need a place to stay, this hotel is for you. The biggest selling point, though, is the free airport transfer: transportation is provided to the guests during pick-up (yes, even at 1:40 AM!) and departure. Given that taxis to and from the airport cost about BN$30, you save $60 or about P2,000. That means you effectively spend "only" P1,700 a night on accommodations. That's a steal in my book. The hotel also has free wifi access.

Tip #3: buy a travel book and bring it with you
It isn't too difficult to get around in Brunei so you are better off spending about P1,000-P1,500 on a good travel book instead of spending big bucks on a tour. I find tours to be quite limiting in terms of flexibility. Figuring out what you want to do when you want to do it allows you to explore the city more, and it gives you a lot more time to take the photos you want. You could also read the internet to prepare for your trip and mark the places you want to visit, but I prefer having a book with me so I can read and re-read the details of the places I want to go. It also helps a lot when your plans change and you have to figure out what else to do and how to get there.

Tip #4: Proposed agenda
My last three blog posts share what we did in each of our three days in Bandar Seri Begawan. But there were things we wanted to see that we were unable to visit. As such, assuming health and weather conditions permit, here is my proposed itinerary:

Day 1 (Sunday)
  • Late morning: Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque. Try to climb the stairs of the minaret to see a great view of the city, or take the elevator (we didn't get to do this).
  • Mid afternoon: Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.
  • Early evening: Jerudong Park Playground. This amusement park is closed on Mon and Tue, so Sunday will be your only chance to visit. (We weren't able to go here since we were too tired.) It might be hard to get a taxi from the Park when you are there, so try booking the transportation from your hotel.
  • Note: if you are Catholic and want to hear mass, you can go to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. You can catch the 9:30 AM mass if you wake up early enough, but if you miss it, you can still catch the 5:30 PM mass.
Day 2 (Monday)
  • Early morning: Royal Regalia Museum. If you are interested in buying souvenirs, this is actually the best place to do it. A lot of items carried in their souvenir shops like post cards and magnets are cheaper than anywhere else and they have some inexpensive shirts that you can't find anywhere else. Try to go the museum at around 830-9 AM so you can leave by 1030-11 AM.
  • Late morning/Noon: take a trip to Seria to visit the Brunei oil fields. The bus terminal is in Jalan Cator and buses to Seria leave every 40 minutes. The trip itself takes about 2 hours. If you catch the 11 or 11:40 AM bus, you should get to Seria by 2 PM at the latest. Once you are in Seria, you can take photos of oil fields from afar and the Billionth Barrel Monument up close. You can also visit the Oil and Gas Discovery Centre. It is closed on Tuesday hence my recommendation to visit it on Monday. You can spend a couple of hours here before heading back to Bandar Seri Begawan in time for dinner or maybe some more souvenir shopping.
Day 3 (Tuesday)
  • Mid-to-late morning: Kampong Ayer water tour (including a trip to the mangroves for a backyard view of Istana Nurul Iman)
  • After lunch: You have the option of dropping by Istana Nurul Iman for a quick photo op outside the gates. If you don't feel the need for this, you can instead move quickly to
  • Mid-afternoon: Empire Hotel and Country Club. Take photos while the sun is still up in the afternoon. You could even have dinner here before heading back to the city center. Make sure you check out one of the souvenir shops here since they also offer some items like shirts and pewter mugs that cannot be found elsewhere.
  • Evening: you could make a return trip to the main mosques so you can take photos of them in a different light.
The important thing to remember is that some of the sights are not open daily, so make sure you map out your itinerary to take into account days and times of the day when these tourist spots can be visited.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brunei: Day 3

One day left in our holiday in Bandar Seri Begawan and there were still a couple of key destinations we hadn't been to yet so we made sure we got to visit them in our final day. First on the agenda was a water taxi ride to Kampong Ayer, the Water Village.

My Lonely Planet book said that water taxis can take you to see Kampong Ayer and the mangroves for about BN$30 (about ~P1000). At first we were being charged $40 to $50, so we had to haggle a bit with a few water taxis before we found one that agreed to $30. However, my mom and I wanted to visit the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery, so we agreed to pay our water taxi driver an additional $10 for him to bring us there and wait for us.

Our water taxi initially took us to the mangroves. There wasn't much to see there - the proboscis monkeys normally come out in the early morning or late afternoon - but we did manage to see the backyard of Istana Nurul Iman, the official residence of the Sultan. This palace was built by a Filipino, Leandro V. Locsin. People are only allowed to enter the grounds to see the palace up close during the annual Islamic celebration of Hari Raya Aidilfitri (the festival at the end of the Muslim fasting month).

We then headed to Kampong Ayer, which is also known as the "Venice of the East". Kampong Ayer has great historic and cultural significance in Brunei. It has been in existence for over 1,300 years and served as a major port of Brunei, exporting a variety of goods. It is the world's largest village on stilts, with more than 30,000 residents. While Kampong Ayer may look like a slum from the outside, it is actually lot more modern and self-sustaining than people may think, with houses having air-conditioning, electricity, plumbing, internet access, and satellite TV. The village itself has restaurants, shops, schools (nine of them, in fact), and even a fire department. Other notable things we saw during our tour of the village were a mosque,

a police station,

a hospital (and water ambulance),

and a Shell gas station (I even saw a boat come up to the station to refuel as we passed by :)).

We capped off our tour with a quick trip to the Kampong Ayer Cultural and Tourism Gallery. Entrance is free and visitors get to learn more about the background, history, traditions, society, and arts and crafts of the water village.

After a late lunch, we walked to the Royal Regalia Museum, another one of the must-see places in Brunei. As is the case with the other museums here, entrance is free.

What makes this museum unique is that it displays the gifts that have been presented to the Sultan of Brunei by government officials from different countries, including a treasure chest made of abalone shells from the Philippines given by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The timing of our visit wasn't particularly good since the crown jewels were being cleaned at the time so they weren't on display, but there were still a lot of other things to see. Probably the best thing on display was the recreation of the sultan's coronation day parade which included the royal chariot that carries the newly-crowned sultan, the different soldiers that pull and push the chariot through the city streets, and even life-sized photos of the actual crowd during the last coronation day posted all over the walls. Photos are not allowed inside expect in the main receiving area so my mom and I took a few photos of the memorabilia there.

We headed back to our hotel after that, just in time for our 4pm late check-out. We were planning to go to the Brunei History Center but it was closed to the pubic. I think it was under renovation or something since the staff there told us it wouldn't be open until next year. Our flight wasn't until 2am so we had coffee before taking a bus to the Istana Nurul Iman so we could see the palace from outside the gates. Unfortunately for us, it rained again, so we decided to just stay on the bus and take a road trip (after all, one way bus fare is only $1 or about P30). The bus conductor was Pinoy so this trip became our unofficial tour of Bandar Seri Begawan, with our conductor sharing stories of how it is to live and work in Brunei and pointing out some places along the road, including the Istana Nurul Iman. We had one last meal in the Yayasan complex before heading back to our hotel to rest in the lobby.

All in all, a great experience and a very good and satisfying holiday. I definitely recommend a trip to Brunei, especially since Cebu Pacific offers cheap flights to Bandar Seri Begawan now. I'll share some travel tips and recommendations in my next blog post.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Brunei: Day 2

The initial plan was to get up early and take a bus ride to Seria to see the Brunei oil fields. Unfortunately, my stomach didn't seem to agree with something, or everything, I ate the night before. My mom and I had more or less the same savory items in the Radisson buffet (including the baked mussels) but I ate more than twice as much as she did. Plus I had a truckload of dessert. I guess all that food turned my stomach upside down. I certainly felt it when I woke up. So much so that I barely ate any breakfast.

My mom and I scoured the city center for a pharmacy but the only one available was still closed. We ask around and ended up in some store managed by Pinoys that actually sold Imodium. Thank God! However, by the time we got back to the bus terminal, there were no air-conditioned buses available to Seria. And since the trip to the oil fields takes 2 hours (during which time my stomach might act up again), we decided to just go to the Empire Hotel and Country Club, which was a lot closer and had a lot of restrooms ready for use.

My Lonely Planet book on Brunei highly recommended a visit to the Empire Hotel and Country Club, and upon arrival, my mom and I understood why. The place was lavish, with its very high ceiling, multi-tiered lobby, and massive columns. Some of walls were made of glass so you could look out into the beach, the pool area, and the beautifully landscaped grounds. My mom remarked that the columns made the hotel look like a monument in Rome so she wasn't surprised when I told her that they imported the marble from Italy.

We decided to have lunch in the hotel lobby (or well, the 2nd tier of the lobby as the 1st one served mainly coffee and dessert). I had buffet again (this one cost about BND31 I think, or about P1000, still cheap for a hotel buffet!) while my mom, who was still full, decided to just get a sandwich. I still couldn't eat - I skipped all the seafood - so I ended up having a few bowls of soup and a lot of bread along with a few other solid items. Once we were done eating, we decided to take a few photos inside the hotel. This piano was set up right next to the lunch area.

It was drizzling on and off when we were there so the moment it stopped raining, we decided to head out and take some pictures in the pool and beach area.

At around 3 P.M. we head back to the city center but not before taking a few more snapshots inside the Empire Hotel. One of the most interesting pieces we looked for was a camel made of Baccarat crystal and gold. My book said the hotel carried two of these pieces, one in the lobby and the other in in their biggest and most expensive suite, and that each of these camels was worth US$500,000. It wasn't ostensibly huge so I am not sure about the accuracy of this piece of trivia, but I took a photo anyway. :)

The plan was to hit Kampong Ayer (the water village) once we were back in the city center but once again, the rain started pouring heavily. So we make another adjustment in our plans and head to The Mall (right next to the Rizqun Hotel) instead so my mom could look for more souvenirs. We lucked out earlier in the day because one of the shops in the Empire Hotel actually sold a lot of souvenirs that were not available elsewhere and they were nicer and cheaper than similar items we saw in the city center. But of course we needed to get more. :)

We managed to buy a couple of items in The Mall, including jogging pants for both my nephews, before heading back to our hotel. We wanted to catch the last bus back so we didn't have dinner in The Mall anymore (the last bus was at 7pm and we felt it might be tough to get a taxi due to the weather). Since it was raining quite heavily, we decided against eating in the city center. we ended up buying bread and peanut butter in the convenience store at the ground floor of our hotel and eating in our room (our hotel was quite basic and didn't have any room service).

Despite the stomach problems and heavy rains that caused us to change our plans a couple of times, we still managed to make the most of it. We still had one day left in Brunei. More on this in my next blog post.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Brunei: Day 1

Two things about Brunei: (1) it's officially an Islamic state with a strong and rich Muslim culture, (2) due to the abundance of oil, it is a very rich country, with the 4th highest GDP in the world. Given this, it's not surprising that two of the must-see sights in (or around) the capital Bandar Seri Begawan are mosques: The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. These were the first two places we went to see.

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is right smack in the city center and was within walking distance of our hotel. We got there at around 11:30 A.M., giving us enough time to go inside (prayers start at 12 noon so the doors of the mosque would be closed to visitors at that time). The exterior of the mosque is stunning, with its golden domes (the main dome is made of pure gold!) adding a touch of extravagance to the pristine white walls.

Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside, which is too bad because I would have loved to take a picture of the dazzling Venetian mosaic that can be found in the interior of the main dome. Anyone who enters needs to put on an Islamic robe.

This "boat" that stands right next to the mosque is replica of a 16th century mahligai barge.

We headed to the Yayasan complex, which is just across the road from the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, to have lunch before walking over to the bus terminal in Jalan Cator. There we got on a bus that took us to the second item on our itinerary that day: the Jame'asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.

This mosque was built to commemorate the 25th anniversary of His Majesty the Sultan's reign. Naturally, this landmark just absolutely takes your breath away. We first caught a glimpse of it on our way from the airport to the hotel and it was spectacular in the evening lights. During the day, it was just as awe-inspiring. The first thing that hits you is the scale of it. I mean, it's just so massive, and the four minarets that surround it seem like giant soldiers keeping watch.

There was no one at the entrance of the mosque so my mom and I got a bit confused about the whole process since no one could tell us which parts of the mosque we could visit and which were off limits. But as luck would have it, a small private tour was going on when we got there, and the tour guide who wanted to make sure we followed protocol invited us to join them (for free haha). Once again, no photos are allowed inside. Such a shame because once we entered the main prayer hall, my jaw just dropped. It was beautiful! The thing that drew my attention the most was the massive golden chandelier in the center of the hall.

We took a bus back to the city center before walking to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. We went to the church in the morning and learned that masses on Sunday were held at 7:30 A.M, 9:30 A.M (both of which we missed) and 5:30 P.M. So we made it just in time for the late afternoon mass. The good thing for us was that the ceremony was held in English.

On our way home, we decided to swing by the Sheraton Utama Hotel (or the Radisson) to have dinner since the two restaurants in our hotel were both under renovation. We figured the Radisson would have a good restaurant with a buffet dinner and we were right. The buffet dinner was "only" 26 Brunei Dollars or about P800, which is actually really cheap for a hotel buffet. The fact that it came with refillable coffee made it an even better deal!

I ate way too much food to compensate for the exhaustion and lack of sleep (I was working like crazy leading up to the trip) and I got a very bad lesson in overeating. I'll talk more about this in my next blog post.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Holiday in Brunei

It's always an interesting experience when visiting a country for the first time. So when my mom asked me if I wanted to travel with her to Brunei on holiday (Cebu Pacific had an airfare sale - as they often do - and the flights to Brunei were even cheaper than domestic flights), I jumped at the opportunity. I didn't know what was there to see in Brunei at the time, but it didn't really matter. I always keep a very positive and open outlook when traveling to a new destination and this always allows me to connect to new cities and countries I visit. I was sure the same would be true in Brunei, and it was.

We stayed in the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, and made sure we got to see as many of the sights during our trip. There aren't a lot of landmarks and tourist attractions and the city isn't too big, which means that spending a few days here will allow you to see all the key tourist spots without having to rush from one place to another. Some highlights of our trip:

Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque

Kampong Ayer Water Village

Empire Hotel and Country Club

More about my trip to Brunei in the next few blog posts. :)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Nelly's "Just a dream"

I heard this song while driving and it got stuck in my head that I just had to search for it the moment I was online. Didn't realize Nelly could come up with music like this. It's such a beautiful song with great lyrics. Definitely my current favorite!

video uploaded in youtube by user ChannelMusicHD