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I walked all the way from Thailand to Malaysia

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Crossing borders on foot

If I say I walked all the way from Thailand to Malaysia and you haven’t done that, chances are you won’t believe me but I did!

P1330284Traveling to Malaysia from Thailand is easy, especially if you are already staying near the border. I was at Narathiwat, Thailand’s southernmost city for a couple of days before I decided to proceed to Kuala Lumpur.

If you are in Bangkok, it’s another story though that involves a two-hour plane ride or 14 hours trip on a bus.

Narathiwat is only an hour away by van from Su-ngai Golok Boundary Post and the van dropped me and my buddy Rolly right in front of the immigration building. I joined the long line to get my passport stamped with “exit” then we walked across the border to Malaysia, leaving Rolly on Thailand soil. The Customs and Quarantine officers were friendly, asking light questions about the contents of my backpack (my only luggage) until I said I had a bottle of Excedrin. That was when the officers looked at each other and asked me to step aside. Then they inspected my backpack, something which they didn’t do to others and asked me if I was feeling okay and how many days I had been ‘sick’ and they need to take my temperature if I had a fever or anything contagious. Baffled, I explained that the Excedrin was for migraine and it had been in my backpack forever. One of the female officers touched my forehead, then let me go, apologizing for the delay.P1330277

Then I was on Malaysian soil for the first time, all alone on my way to Kuala Lumpur and without one single Ringgit in my pocket.

If you don’t have Ringgits with you, cross the street after you exit the immigration building and there’s only one money changer in the area. I exchanged all the US dollars and Philippine pesos and Thailand Baht I had in my wallet for Ringgits then crossed the street. Communication is a challenge. I asked four people and after so many frustrated gestures I understood they all said the fare to Kota Bharu was 500 Ringgits.

I waited with other passengers at the roofed walkway where Bus 29 stops by every 30 minutes or so, and when the bus came, I boarded it, not sure if I had enough money. Passengers are required to pay the driver as soon as they board. I showed the driver all the bills I got from the money exchange and he looked at me with a funny expression then peeled off five Ringgits from the wad of bills. I have never felt like a stupid tourist in my life.P1330300

The bus ride to Kota Bharu is about an hour and will take you through several interesting towns and villages. I reached the bus terminal just right after sunset and waited for the next bus to Kuala Lumpur for three hours.

The trip to Kuala Lumpur took eight hours in a freezing bus with centralized A/C so if you can’t stand the cold, bring a blanket. These buses usually don’t hand out blankets and water and snacks, and there are no restrooms onboard either, so you have to take advantage of the short stops in between. It’s a trip where people sleep. Shortly before sunrise, we entered Kuala Lumpur and everything yelled civilization. Here is a city where everyone still mistakes me for a Thai but where almost everybody speaks and understands English.

By the way, the border from Thailand to Malaysia is less than half a mile away and crossing it on foot is no big feat. I got you there.

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In search of drums and feathers

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PONCA CITY–The number one item in my bucket list when I visited Oklahoma a few months back is to shoot real cultural dancers from the Oklahoma Indian tribes in photos and video.

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I searched online and saw one that was scheduled for that weekend in Ponca City about two hours drive from Oklahoma so we started out early one morning and drove all the way through long flat interstate highway which I described later as “endless stretch of nothingness.”

The drive to Ponca City is uneventful because unlike the routes heading to Texas where the roads are bounded by rivers, lakes, mountains and hills, the road to Arkansas is flat and all you see are the roads looking like slender ribbons stretching to forever.P1340433

We and took the turn to Ponca City and started to wonder if we were in the right place. We had to rely on Siri for instructions until we finally saw the sign. I was expecting a whole campsite filled with “real Indians” but it did not look like that at all. Except for a couple of Indian tepees, the site was filled with modern regular camping tents and cars. It was siesta time and everyone was just milling around, except for a couple of kids were taking a bath from a hand water pump.P1340272

I could not call them exactly friendly and it was like we were like stepping into a private territory. I could not blame them. We “crashed” into the area with a GoPro mounted on the hood of the car, and I was rapidly shooting at everything alternately with two cameras—one with long and one wide lens. Everybody stopped and stared at us then went back to what they were doing like they saw nothing at all.P1340504

My buddy went down and bought sodas from a makeshift store but he got no information because no one was willing to say anything. We finally found a police car and parked right next to it. The friendly cop told us that all activities were going to start at 7 p.m. and onwards. There was no way we can wait and drive all the way back.P1340501

My search for drums and feathers finally ended up right where we started off—at the Noble Museum in Norman at the University of Oklahoma campus where a whole section is allocated to exhibits about the different Indian tribes of Oklahoma. The exhibits are something worth a visit. The shelves contain traditional clothing of the early tribes, accessories, footwear, bows and arrows, culinary items, toys, pottery, jewelry, feather bonnets, moccasins, and everything else that depicted the rich history of the different tribes.

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Fast facts:

The Sam Noble Museum is located at Chautauqua Avenue, Oklahoma City.

Operation hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed on holidays. Contact number is (405) 325-4712. Visit www.samnoblemuseum.ou.edu.

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Dallas: The X-Spot

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A spot in the middle of the road marked with a white X is the next focus of attention. This is the very spot where past US president John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

WHEN one is heading to Dallas, Texas for a visit, the most recommended and must-never-miss place is the Dealey Plaza at Elm Street, considered as the Front Door of Dallas and one of the most historic districts in Texas.

P1340006Stand on the curb of Elm Street and you can immediately identify visitors. They will all look up the windows on the fifth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository now turned JFK Museum, then down to the street below.

There is more to the place than just a park and ordinary street. It is a spot that carries volumes of extraordinary stories, a place where people come to “walk, feel, touch and experience history” all over again. It is a significant part in the history of the United States.

P1310526This is where Kennedy’s motorcade and his life ended while on his way to the Dallas Trade Mart to speak at a luncheon.

A spot in the middle of the road marked with a white X is the next focus of attention. This is the very spot where past US president John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

Despite the heavy traffic in this busy street, people risk their lives just to run and touch the white marker on the road and have their photos taken with the red brick historic building as the backdrop.

P1310539From the safety of the street, I took photos and watched a photographer mount a tripod on the roadside and make a dash for a ‘selfie’ shot standing near the white X mark in the middle of the road. Before his camera flashed, the traffic lights turned green and he had to run for his life.

My travel buddy and I circled the area in our car several times while we captured it all in GoPro attached to our windshield before deciding to check out the place on foot.

This Sixth Floor Museum tour will take visitors to a trip back in time through the precious historical collections of JFK’s assassination.  The collections include art, artifacts, audio, books, documents, films, magazines, newspapers, oral histories and photographs that you can go over to revisit that fateful day when bullets felled one of the US presidents.

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This corner window at the Fifth Floor is marked as the spot where the gunman fired the shot that killed president John F. Kennedy. Photos by Raquel C. Bagnol

There are buses and tour companies that offer special JFK Tours as well as other historic sites in Dallas but if you are daring enough and have the luxury of time, this is a tour best done on foot, at your own time and pace.

Driving around Deleay Plaza and around Dallas at night is a whole new world you should experience. The city lights are just dazzling and there is so much to see. I missed the market fair as it only opens on the weekends.

Dallas is a mix of tourist attraction sites as well as back streets where my friend who was driving told us to “lock our doors and windows because she forgot her gun at home.”P1340053

If you come from the islands where the limit is 45 miles per hour, be ready because people from other states have told us that “Dallas drivers have a reputation of being “mad, crazy drivers” on the road.” From what I saw, I guess I can easily believe that.

This article was first published at the Guam Post Daily November 15, 2015 edition page 12. See the story here.

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Discovering historic Guthrie

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At 9 a.m. there was barely anyone around and only a few cars were on the streets. I had a strange feeling that we stepped into a storybook set in the 1800′s.

IMAGINE waking up one morning and finding yourself in the middle of beautiful tree-lined city streets in historic Guthrie about 30 minutes drive away from Oklahoma City. You will rub your eyes to see if you are awake and make sure you haven’t stepped into a time machine.P1310867

I had no idea what I was in for when my travel buddy and I drove into Guthrie on our way to Ponca City some weeks ago. He just mentioned vaguely about stopping by to see some sights then we were in the center of a movie set, except that it is populated with real people.

At 9 a.m. there was barely anyone of the streets and only a few cars were driving around. I had a strange feeling that we stepped into a storybook set in the 1800s.P1310731

Guthrie, Oklahoma’s first capital is destination for history buffs, antique lovers and collectors. The streets were lined up with rows and rows of antique shops, thrift and resale stores, art galleries, and old-looking structures that house Oklahoma’s artifacts and collections. From the glass store windows the sight of various antique stuffs will lure any shopper in—old chairs and furniture, lamps, kitchen utensils, tapestries, and all sorts of knick-knacks.

Towers emerge from beautiful quaint buildings made of red brick and native sandstone, and don’t be surprised to see classic cars parked on the streets.

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Shopping in Guthrie is the most popular and must-not-miss thing to do but I never had a chance to do it, one more reason to return.

Guthrie has been in the limelight too often as the location shoot of several popular movies including Twister, The Rain Man, Fast Charlie…the Moonbeam Rider, The Gray Man, Public Enemies, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, Fingerprints, The Killer Inside me and parts of Outlaw Kingdom.

Flashback to the city’s origins, Guthrie was located in the Unassigned Lands of the Indian territory. The early settlers were among the over 50,000 people who lined to grab their piece of land from the available 2 million acres in the first land rush in Oklahoma in April 22, 1889.  A gunshot was fired, a cannon roared and horses and wagons sprang to life. Guthrie has become a tent city for over 10,000 people  and developments followed right after.

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On our way back, we drove by Guthrie again and stopped on the road to ask a guy talking where the best place to eat was.

He pointed at the building behind him and said “they serve excellent steaks down there at the basement,” and added “I know because I own the place.”

Instead of taking the elevator, we went down a rickety flight of stairs to the basement where another surprise awaited us. Gage’s Steakhouse, the sign said, and true to the owner’s word, they serve really good steaks but that is another entirely article. Watch out for it. P1310845

It was exhilarating walking and driving around the streets in a town that started as a tent city in 1889. Guthrie has preserved the rich architectural legacy while merging with the advent modernization. The magic aura of this unique territorial city continues to draw thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

This article first came out in page 23 of the Guam Post October 18, 2015 issue.

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Road trip through the US ‘marshlands’

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Prepare to enjoy a very ‘marshland-ey, allegator-ey but breathtakingly scenic road trip from New Orleans, Mississippi (yey I spelled it right without Googling!), Alabama and Orlando, Florida.

?I always love road trips especially when all I have to do is ride buses and enjoy the views from my window and get short town to town stopovers along the way, but driving for over 10 hours in the interstate in a compact car is a totally different experience.

You can be in Orlando from New Orleans in an hour or so by plane but my travel buddy and I decided drive the 639-mile trip which he described as a “marshland-ey alligator-ey adventure” with lakes and rivers and marshlands all along the way from New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama and finally Florida.

?We drove around the French Quarter a couple of times before finally heading out of New Orleans in a rented 2015 Volkswagen Beetle. I was having doubts how the little thing could take us all the way to Orlando and little did I know my doubts were not unfounded.

We were just crossing the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain when one of the lights in the dashboard began flashing. I fished out the manual from the compartment to check what it means and learned it was the water level and we were supposed to stop right away.

Not on the bridge and not just anywhere in the interstate though, unless we want to be towed. I’m an idiot when it comes to cars but women and their intuition is at most times reliable.P1330241

I suddenly missed driving in a small island like Saipan. We called the rental company and was instructed to drive on to their next outlet. It was scary driving on low water, knowing we could overheat anytime. We drove into Slidell and found the nearest Avis office and spent about an hour to change cars, this time a Kia Optima. It was far from clean as it was just returned but we didn’t have options.

We took to the road and five hours later were in Pensacola where we left the interstate and took the diversion toward Gulf Breeze coastal roads. We were expecting scenic views of the ocean for the next four hours but surprise! We found ourselves crawling along with the regular traffic as schools let out and we only saw glimpses of the blue sea from time to time.P1330018

After over two hours battling with the agonizingly slow traffic, we took the next exit out and went back to the interstate. We had to be in Orlando by 11 p.m. or else we will be charged for another day’s rental in our car and we were going to lose a paid night at the hotel we booked.

The sun set just as we entered Suwannee County and it was growing darker. When we reached the Florida panhandle, the weather changed. A thunderstorm was in progress and we were lucky it was not headed toward our direction. Soon rain started to pour in torrents and I couldn’t take anymore photos from the car window. Driving in the dark wet roads next to huge rigs and trailers is a bit challenging. My buddy had to drive all the way as my license already expired but I helped him by not going to sleep and supplying him with an endless stream of stories to keep him awake. We made it to Orlando Airport just after 11 p.m.P1330151

Road Tips: If you take this route, take the coastal road in Pensacola if you have the luxury of time. The long drive is worth the fun, and you get chances to shoot thousands of photos. Don’t sleep on the way and miss the tunnel to Mobile, Alabama. Just past the tunnel is the USS Alabama Battleship Park.

There are rest stops along the way where you can park and join the trailers and watch out for the road signs for the next exits, food stops, gasoline stations, hotels and yes, coffee stops.

Oh, don’t forget to have dollar bills and lots of quarters in hand. You will need them when you get to Orlando. The toll gates are just within shouting distance from each other. And no, we didn’t meet any alligators on the road although we were hoping for one just for photo and video ops. You might be luckier!

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