Tales from Trakai (Lithuania)

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.” ― W.H. Auden

Trakai, a town in Lithuania located south-west of its capital Vilnius and is a former capital city of Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It is a pretty small town surrounded by lakes, wherein the scenic Trakai Historical National Park can be found. To date, it has become extremely popular from among Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans as a vacation destination making it one of the most visited spots on the cultural tourism map. It has even become a major landmark of Lithuania.

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The town is small enough for everything to be walked on foot, but there are also buses running from the bus station (where the buses from Vilnius also arrive/depart) to the Trakai Island Castle. The Trakai Island Castle, a 14th-century Gothic residence with some Renaissance features of Lithuanian dukes, is the main attraction in the town and has become a symbol of medieval Lithuania. I have learned that during the summer season, a lot of concerts and plays are staged here.

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Locals would say that Trakai is full of myths and secrets. One version is that of the story of Gediminas, a grand duke of Lithuania and one of the strongest medieval rulers of Eastern Europe. One day, he decided to hunt near a place called Kernave, a medieval capital of Lithuania. During his search, Gediminas saw a stunning landscape with lakes and islands to which he decided to build a castle in the middle of one of the lakes. Another version is a more romantic one. It is about a lovely woman named Birute who was a wife of a local duke. She was born in a seaside town who felt lonely because she misses her hometown. To make her happy, her husband gave her a unique gift — a castle surrounded by lakes. So there. Of course, there were also historical accounts but I am not very certain about its details.

Other sites worthy to visit are the Trakai Peninsula Castle, (this is the older of the two castles of Trakai), the Saint Mary Church – an originally gothic church altered during the Baroque period; and Galvė Lake, a relaxing nature spot where sailing can be done.

There are also restaurants worth trying. Most of which are known to serve Karaitian cuisine. If you want to stay overnight, several accommodations are also found.

Trakai is indeed a fairytale-like town. The architectural, natural and cultural wonders all add up to a wonderful experience visiting this seemingly magical place. I have to admit that Trakai is one of my favorites during Europe travel because it was simply fascinating, and yes, romantic!

Don’t be a wasted soul, be Juanderlust. Take it easy everyJuan.

Yangon: City of Golden Pagodas (Myanmar)

Yes, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit Yangon, Myanmar’s capital. And it was literally a 24-hour stay in this emerging Southeast Asian city without bringing with me expectations and whatnot.

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Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is one of Myanmar’s (formerly Burma) most busy and developing cities. Besides being dubbed as the City of Golden Pagoda, I really didn’t have much in mind on what to anticipate. But after my brief stint, I could say that Yangon is a city that is filled with charm and eccentricity (in a good way). And I believe that it is one of those Asian metropolitan that doesn’t always get the attention it merits.

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So what exactly did I see, taste, experience and feel when I was in Yangon? Read along:

The Shwedagon Pagoda: One of the most important religious sites not only in Yangon but the entire Myanmar. The 99 meters high golden chedi of the pagoda (that glimmers more during the daylight) is a landmark that is visible all throughout the city (reminds me of the Sky Tower in Auckland that is all seen wherever you are in the City of Sails). I admire how the Burmese people are able to preserve this sacred, cultural monument. Definitely one of the first things a visitor must do when in Yangon.

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How to get there: The easiest way to get to the Shwedagon Pagoda from downtown Yangon is to take a taxi. From the center, I took a taxi for 2,500 Kyats
Open Hours: 4 am – 10 pm daily (but closed during holidays)
Entrance Fee: 8 USD/ about 6, 000 kyats

The Sule Pagoda: Another pagoda worthy of a visit is the Sule Pagoda which is a notable historical and navigational pagoda landmark in Yangon as it is right in the middle of the major thoroughfare in the city. It is in close proximity to a number of government buildings and workplaces. I have read that the grounds near the pagoda is also a place for political activities and even protests. It may not be as massive and impressive with that of the Shwedagon Pagoda but still a sight to behold.

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How to get there: From central Yangon, it is located at the main circuitous intersection right in the middle of downtown. I actually walked my way from my hostel.
Open Hours: 6 am – 8 pm daily
Entrance Fee: 3 USD

The Botataung Pagoda: Located on the river banks of downtown Yangon is one of the city’s well-regarded temples. Botataung, which means 1,000 military leaders, is a 40-meter high golden pagoda that houses a sacred hair relic of the Buddha and is open to the public.

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How to get there: Take a taxi from downtown Yangon to the Botataung Pagoda which would cost between 3 to 5 USD. Actually, from Sule Pagoda, if you are into walking, you could make your way to this pagoda on foot.
Open Hours: 6 am – 10 pm daily
Entrance Fee: 3 USD

Chaukhtatgyi Paya (Chak Htat Gyi Buddha): More commonly known as the Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya is a humongous, 65 meters long reclining Buddha (hence the name) that is housed in a giant metal shed. One will surely be mesmerized with the bejeweled crown of the statue as it is adorned with various gems.

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How to get there: Take a taxi from central Yangon that may cost 2,500 to 3,000 Kyats
Open hours: 24 hours open
Entrance Fee: Free

Please note that as in any Burmese temple, kindly please remove shoes and socks before entering the temple.

Kandawgyi Park: I kinda have a soft spot for parks that offer a view. Admittedly, I was sold when I saw the wooden walkway/ boardwalk that goes along the lush green, man-made lake. I went here at night and early morning. And it was both a beautiful experience. A number of restaurants abound the park, including the lovely Karaweik Palace – a seemingly floating dining place. A visit here tops my favorite things to do in Yangon!

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How to get there: If you are coming from the Shwedagon Pagoda, you can just walk your way to this place. If you come from downtown Yangon, take a cab for 2,000 Kyats
Open hours: 4 am – 10 pm daily
Price: 300 Kyats ($.30) for restaurant area, Boardwalk – free.

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Maha Bandula Park: Just right across the Sule Pagoda is a public park called Maha Bandula Park or Maha Bandula Garden. Formerly named Fitch Square or Fytche Square, the park features a 150-feet Independence Monument, that was put up to commemorate Burmese independence from the British. It also has a rose garden which offers a view of the city hall, other government colonial buildings, and the Sule pagoda.

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How to get there: If you are coming from downtown Yangon or Sule Pagoda, just walk your way.
Open hours: 24 hours daily
Entrance Fee: Free (but according to some, there is a 500 Kyat entrance fee for foreigners only (apparently, I wasn’t asked to pay, maybe because I look like a local) 

Other places of interest you might want to visit if you have more time are as follows:
• Ngahtatgyi Paya
• Bogyoke Market
• Bogyoke Aung San Museum
• Aung San Suu Kyi’s House
• Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque
• Sri Varada Raja Perumal Temple
• National Museum (Yangon)

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And by the way, if there is one food place you must try when in downtown Yangon, go to 999 Shan Noodle Shop. It is a restaurant at No. 130 B 34th Street, very near the city hall and Sule Pagoda. It is not impressive in terms of its interior, but the food is certainly delicious at a very affordable price. Thanks to my friend Karlene for bringing me here.

I wish I had more time. It could’ve been great to have fully explored the city and experience the seemingly surprising Burmese ways of life. During that brief stay in Myanmar, I have truly felt how genuinely friendly and good-hearted the people are. Looking forward to trying more of their food, seeing more of the stunning attractions, and experiencing more of their culture.

Don’t be a wasted soul, be “juan”derlust. Take it easy ebri’juan’…

Bantug Lake Ranch (Negros Occidental, PH)

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. — Albert Einstein

Summer is over. That’s what I thought. After my consecutive stint in Indonesia, Singapore and Cebu (because of work related stuff), I thought my summer was over. A week after my Cebu business trip, I was sent to Bacolod. I grabbed the opportunity to see what more to Bacolod besides the many sweet eats I have been exposed to during my 1st 3 visits.

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Campuestuhan Highlands was on top of my list. I have been wanting to go there but time would not just let me. So I have made a point that I’ll see it this time (separate blog on Campuestuhan soon). Several people, I talked to mentioned about a lake found on the way to Campuestuhan. It was my first time to hear about it. It’s called Bantug Lake Ranch — dubbed as Bacolod’s newest picnic ground located in Barangay Alangilan, Bacolod City (the very same route going to Campuestuhan).

I did a quick research about the place before I decided to go and check it out. Bantug Lake Ranch is a ranch with a man-made lake. (The only man-made lakes I have seen prior to this are Burnham Lake in Baguio City and Lake 77 in Bislig City). With my yearning to spend some serene moments with nature, I took a cab and went to visit Bantug.

After a good 20-30 minutes, I was there already. I paid the entrance fee of Php50.00 and I started my photo walk within the ranch. True to what some blogs I have quickly read, the place radiates the tranquility of nature. I immediately noticed the lake surrounded by verdant flora. There were several boats and kayaks docked while a few ducks were swimming. I went around the lake to take photos.

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Near the lake is a koi pond where a number of koi fishes are. There is this walkway that is lined with yellow bell plants that look really beautiful. There were other animals like horses and birds that I saw from afar. I was contented walking around the lake area so I decided to just stay there. What I love the most were the beautifully lined lanzones (Lancium domesticum) trees. They were such a delight to the eyes.

It was indeed a relaxing morning at the ranch despite the gloomy weather then. I was able to talk to one of the ranch’s caretaker who shared that people can actually do a lot of activities within the ranch. One can try horseback riding or feed the various animals. I would have wanted to go on kayaking or boat riding (or fishing) then but I had a limited time so I guess I should come back next time. I asked if camping was allowed and I was all smiles to hear that they allow it. (Even bonfires are allowed). I was also told that the place may also serve as a venue for events like birthday parties and weddings to which they provide catering services. Interestingly, the ranch has an organic vegetable farm too.

It was indeed a short but relaxing visit at the Bantug Lake Ranch. So if you want to commune with nature and you are in Bacolod, consider including this place in your itinerary. For questions (and reservation), you may call these landline numbers (034) 213-1916 / (034) 435-5306. You may also visit their website at http://bantugranch.com/

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Don’t be a wasted soul, be “juan”derlust. Take it easy ebri’juan’…

You can click on this —-> Negros sights for more!

Kabalin-an Lake (Negros Oriental, PH)

The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.” – Anais Nin

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I have a penchant for places that screams mystery… one that makes me stare for a moment with several thoughts clouding my mind..

That is exactly what I thought of when I first gazed at Kabalin-an Lake in Sibulan, Negros Oriental.DSC_1535Sibulan, a pretty large town adjacent to Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental, is gifted with both beaches and mountains It is known for its golf courses and the Twin Lakes of Balinsasayaw and Danao.

Although the Twin Lakes are more famed, I personally love the charm and anonymity of Lake Kabalin-an, which is found at the foot of a mountainous area where the twin lakes are nestled.

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Going to Kabalin-an requires a risky ride via “habal-habal” (a motorcycle taxi or skylab). The ride will take you into some unpaved, dust or muddy terrain (depending on the weather) as it penetrates into the rain forests of Sibulan. The road heading up the mountain was actually picturesque (and if only I wasn’t  scared of the ride, I would have captured loads of photos. The ride took around 30-45 minutes (but it felt like it was longer due to the dodgy ground).

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Upon arriving at the registration site, your sense of sight will automatically be drawn into this very serene lake that is Kabalin-an. What is very striking are the tall trees submerged in the middle of the lake. It is really pretty interesting as I have only previously seen such a thing in marshy areas. Lake Kabalin-an is definitely an undisturbed refuge that made me forget about that  gruelling ride.DSC_1550I have seen photos of this place prior to visiting the area. And that prompted me to visit the lake. Never did I think that it is way more magical to see them in person. After some reading, I have come to learn that the trees are willow trees (Salix tetrasperma). It just felt good looking at how verdant they are as there reflection becomes vivid in the water.

Despite the fog slowly setting in (as the lake is at the foot of a mountain), the area became more mysterious and lovely.DSC_1540

How To Go to Kabalin-an Lake:

From Dumaguete,  ride a Ceres bus bound for northern part of Negros Oriental and tell the bus conductor to drop you off at the junction going to Twin lakes. The ride should only take more or less 30 minutes. For your reference, there is a signboard at the left side of the road going to Sibulan directing to the Twin Lakes.

From this, hire a habal-habal. They normally charge Php200-300 per person one-way. The habal-habal drivers can wait till you’re done exploring the lakes. There is an entrance fee of Php10.