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Tuk-Tuk: Thailand’s ride of a lifetime

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Remember that 2002 Visa card commercial where James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) rode a tuk-tuk to cut through the traffic and catch up with his date Zhang Ziyi in Bangkok and how the tuk-tuk collapsed to the ground from fatigue? Now i know why James Bond picked up the tuk-tuk.

The first time I rode a tuk-tuk last month, I had visions of going around Bangkok streets in a leisurely pace while I shoot photos to my heart’s content. Little did I know I would spend the next few minutes in that half-sitting, half-squatting position holding on to my bag and camera and for life. A couple hundred bahts was the magic word and the driver sprung into action and careened down the streets like it was the end of the world and we were racing against it. That moment I understood why a lot of the tuk-tuks have screens around them–so passengers or parts of them won’t fly on the streets.

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Until you have ridden a tuk-tuk–those sputtering, open-air three-wheeled motor taxis that ply and clog the streets of Bangkok and all over Thailand is one wild, daring ride that you should experience, you can’t fully say you have experienced Thailand. Tuk-tuks never die, but you will if you don’t hold on to the railing and keep your bags and hands and feet and head intact and safe inside.

One advice–don’t ever ride a tuk-tuk without first agreeing on the price. Learn to negotiate and haggle. It’s funny how the word tuk means “cheap” in Thai, but tuk-tuk rides are never cheap. You’re better off and more comfortable riding airconditioned metered taxis. If you really need to ride a tuk-tuk better hail one passing on the street and try to avoid those who are waiting outside tourist sites.

I gave it a couple more chances, and it was still the same. Different drivers, same madness, same sky-high prices. Maybe not all of them are mad drivers but i guess i picked the ones who are. Tuk tuks has become a symbol of Thailand and though they don’t have the best of reputations it’s worth experiencing one wild ride in your lifetime. Don’t leave Thailand without riding in one.

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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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Cemetery Tours at New Orleans

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I paused infront of the tomb which famous actor Nicolas Cage bought for himself…it was very far from what I expected.

THE directions in the brochure pointed to a closed door at the deserted St. Peter Street at the French Quarter in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.

P1030809There was no one on the street except for an elderly woman in a green shirt and long skirt sitting by the doorway. I and my travel buddy hesitated because she looked like one of the fortunetellers or palm readers minus all the paraphernalia but she turned out to be our guide for the cemetery tour indeed. Renee, her ID said, gave us black stickers and fans and told us to wait for the rest of the group.P1030585

At exactly 10 a.m., about 20 people from Sweden, Rome, New Zealand, United States and other countries showed up at the street side. Renee stood up and introduced herself and the tour then motioned us all to follow her with the words “follow me and you will know what I am going to do to you.”

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Tomb of actor Nicholas Cage

Our destination: St. Louis Cemetery 1, one of the oldest and most famous cemeteries in New Orleans opened in 1789. I know ghost and cemetery tours are best done at night but we happened to be there on a Sunday and almost all of the tour companies offer only one daytime tour.

Our first stop was in front of an old building at St. Peter Street and Renee who I discovered was one of the best tour guides to the cemetery tours from eavesdropping at the other tour groups we ran into at the cemetery told us the history of the cemeteries.P1030623

Renee told us how the first cemetery was near the Mississippi River but when the flood waters came in the dead were prematurely resurrected and showed up at the front doors of their families. She narrated how the cemetery was relocated to St. Peter Street but it was overpopulated in no time and when a fire broke out, the cemetery gained 200 new residents.

In a dramatic voice, shP1030546e told us that the city again had to push the cemetery backward to its current location. Right now, she said St Louis Cemetery 1 is ‘fully booked’ and there’s no vacancy.”

Renee, who comes with 12 years experience as a tour guide at the French Quarter tells great stories with her sense of humor and cheerful nature. She was telling us stories that were not in the books or brochures.

We reached the gates of St. Louis Cemetery 1 and Renee humored us ‘to all stick together and wander off on our own or she’ll be out of a job.’

Then we were in the middle of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, stopping every now and then as Renee pointed out the tombs of famous personalities and their stories.

I had to sneak away from time to time to take photos. In our group, there were only me and my buddy plus two other guys who were into serious photography. The rest used their cellphones or were just there for the tour.1

Under the noonday heat, the cemetery was not scary at all. There was none of the s hivers and goose bumps always associated with cemeteries. We kept running into other tour groups among the tombs.

A lot of politicians and famous personalities were buried at the St. Louise Cemetery 1, including the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Renee told the group to put a hand on her tomb and make a wish because wishes were known to be granted. I didn’t do it.

Then we came to a white pyramid-shaped tomb with the words ‘Omni Ab Uno” engraved in it. In Latin it means “Everything From One. The tomb stands out because of its shape and we learned it was the tomb actor Nicolas Cage purchased for himself.

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Since March 1 this year, St. Louis Cemetery was closed to the public because of a rise in vandalism but tours are only allowed if you have a tour guide.

The architecture, the ancient tombs, decoration and history of the graveyard is absolutely worth your $25.

The tour ended after two hours and Renee took us back to St. Peter Street, with a final message “tips are appreciated but I like to earn mine.” You bet she got a lot.

Don’t leave New Orleans without taking a cemetery tour, and check out www.HauntedHistoryTours.com for more information.

This article was first published at The Guam Post October 25, 2015 issue

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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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Paris experience in Vegas

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I SAW it the moment the taxi drove through the famous Las Vegas Strip from the McCarran International Airport that early morning—the towering 541-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower. It was not actually in my list as the Stratosphere topped everything but after seeing it, I knew I was not going to leave Las Vegas without going up to the Eiffel Tower.

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At 6 a.m., the whole Las Vegas seemed to be asleep except for a few cars and people on the road.

Fast forward, my chance to experience Paris came on my third day in Vegas.

The entrance to the tower was a wonder in itself, with gambling machines everywhere, shops and replicas of the Arc de Triomphe, the Paris Opera House, the Hôtel de Ville, and the Louvre almost made us forget why we were there.

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Luckily, the line at the ticket counter was very short and soon my travel buddy and I were heading up the stairs toward the glass elevator that gave us an exhilarating ride 46 stories up to the top. The sun was still up at 7:30 p.m. but we wanted to be there when it sets for the night.

The elevator doors opened and we stepped out into the observation deck. My jaw just dropped in awe. The deck which was enclosed by bars and screen for safety presented us a breath-stopping 360 degree view of the whole Las Vegas Strip below and the whole city.

P1310277An icon of the city skyline, the Eiffel Tower is a half scale replica of the world-famous Paris, France landmark. I learned that the original plan of the designers was to make it exactly the same but with the airport so close by, they had to scale it down to half.

I almost forgot I P1310284was up there to take photos and videos and not just gape in wonder. There are small square openings in the deck enclosure that you can insert your lens to take photos and for the next half hour, I didn’t see my buddy as he was also busy shooting photos.

The sun started to disa ppear, leaving streaks and splashes of fiery reds, golds and vermillion magic in the skies. I saw planes landing and taking off from the airport a short distance away.

P1310273 Hundreds of feet below, colorful lights began to flicker and the spectacular panorama of the city, the Nevada valley and the distant mountains once again set me in a trance.

Majority of the visitors stayed at the left side of the tower and I learned why. The fountain show at the Bellagio below is designed to romance your senses—a mesmerizing show of water, music and light beautifully choreographed to all-time classical and Broadway favorites.

From my perch at the most romantic spot in Las Vegas, it was all too magical and unmatched.

If you don’t have a camera, which I can consider a serious crime, stop by their photo shop for a souvenir pose because you just can’t go home without a memento of your Paris Las Vegas experience. Remember to bring lots of memory cards and extra fully charged batteries.

IMG_1544We were told that during the holidays, you can see Las Vegas in a new perspective from the Eiffel Tower’s observation deck, and it’s the best spot to watch New Year’s Eve fireworks for instance. Okay, added to my bucket list. For tickets and more details visit their website here . (First published at the Guam Post October 4. 2015 issue. See page 15 here)

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