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Oscars 2014 Top Picks

March 1, 2014

Just like last year, I’m sharing my personal favorites from this year’s Oscars list.

As with last year, these were ranked as a fan of moving stories, persuasive portrayals, and visually-pleasing scenes — in short, by personal preference (See Reads & Reals List for 2014). I’ll leave the most-likely-to-win predictions to hardcore cinephiles and avid awards prognosticators. I’ve also listed some of my favorite films and performances not included in the nominees list.

12 Years a Slave
Dallas Buyers Club
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
American Hustle

Other notable films:
August: Osage County, Rush, Before Midnight, Warm Bodies, World War Z

Alfonso Cuarón, ‘Gravity’
Alexander Payne, ‘Nebraska’
Steve McQueen, ‘12 Years a Slave’
Martin Scorsese, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
David O. Russell, ‘American Hustle’

Other notable performances:
Spike Jonze (Her), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), John Wells (August: Osage County),
Ron Howard (Rush), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight)

Matthew McConaughey, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Chiwetel Ejiofor, ‘12 Years a Slave’
Bruce Dern, ‘Nebraska’
Christian Bale, ‘American Hustle’

Other notable performances:
Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra),
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon)

Meryl Streep, ‘August: Osage County’
Cate Blanchett, ‘Blue Jasmine’
Sandra Bullock, ‘Gravity’
Amy Adams, ‘American Hustle’
Judi Dench, ‘Philomena’

Other notable performances:
Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight),
Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Jared Leto, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’
Jonah Hill, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’
Barkhad Abdi, ‘Captain Phillips’
Michael Fassbender, ‘12 Years a Slave’
Bradley Cooper, ‘American Hustle’

Other notable performances:
Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Paul Dano (12 Years a Slave), Faysal Ahmed (Captain Phillips),
John Goodman (Inside Llewyn Davis), Tony Danza (Don Jon)

Lupita Nyong’o, ‘12 Years a Slave’
Julia Roberts, ‘August: Osage County’
June Squibb, ‘Nebraska’
Sally Hawkins, ‘Blue Jasmine’
Jennifer Lawrence, ‘American Hustle’

Other notable performances:
Amy Adams (Her), Sophie Kennedy Clark (Philomena), Scarlett Johansson (Her),
Elizabeth Banks (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
American Hustle

12 Years a Slave
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street

Faces and Phases of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh + Five Cardinal Rules for Solo Travelers

January 19, 2014

This post is republished on Thought Catalog.

You probably have read recent articles on the web telling you why you should travel alone at least once. I’m pretty sure you’ve even retweeted and reposted these in all your social media accounts, then added to travel solo in your never-ending list of things to procrastinate with.

I could give you a thousand more clichés on how exciting and empowering it is to travel on your own. But I’m sure you’ve heard enough from others that say traveling solo provides the perfect opportunity for self-discovery and all that metaphysical, new age-y stuff.

Exploring a new city by yourself has that certain je ne sais quoi.

Just recently, I visited the cities of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh in Cambodia and (re)discovered the joys of going solo. ‘Seeing the silhouette of the Angkor Wat outlined by the picturesque sunrise behind it’ is now ticked off my bucket list.

While all these may sound too idealistic, traveling solo still has its own perils. These concerns — getting lost, safety issues, and the dreaded table-for-one dinners — easily intimidate many. But with ample preparation and some common sense, going solo may turn out to be that once-in-a-lifetime adventure you’ve been dreaming about, even if you’re thinking of doing it on a shoestring budget.


Connect with locals and other travelers.
The phrase ‘traveling alone’ is actually a misnomer. When traveling solo, you’re actually not traveling alone. You have the locals, other travelers, and more importantly, you have yourself. You are never alone.

Engage in conversations with the locals and other travelers. Listen to their stories and ask for useful tips and recommendations.

In Siem Reap, I was hosted by Olga Shuruht, a Russian travel guide and teacher based in the city. Olga’s passion for the Khmer culture and language is quite admirable. It’s not often you find someone who’s willing to embrace a lifestyle totally different from what they’re used to. It was charming to see her exchange banters with the locals and talk about her love for Cambodia for hours.

As a backup option for a place to stay, I also contacted Bou Savy Guesthouse before my trip. Although I ended up staying at Olga’s place, Bovorn, Bou Savy’s owner, and his staff treated me like I was a guest. They made sure I had the best time while in Siem Reap, from the free airport pickup to helpful assistance in bike rental and tuktuk tour.

On my way to the Angkor Wat, I met Couchsurfers Sirkku Isokangas and Patryk Szambelan and we ended up sharing a tuktuk while going around the temples of Angkor. Patryk was in the middle of his solo Southeast Asian tour, while Sirkku was in Cambodia to celebrate her birthday.


Put down your camera.
I hate to break it to you, but no one wants to see 100+ sepia-toned photos of the sunset or of what you had for breakfast. Just put your cameras down and stop spending so much time choosing which Instagram filter you’re going to use on your next awkwardly-angled selfie.

I’m still a bit guilty with this one, so what I do is I intentionally leave my camera charger at home whenever I travel. That way I’ll be forced to take fewer photos. I instead take rapid mental notes and photos, somehow similar to how Benedict Cumberbatch does it in Sherlock.

Limit the photos you take and pay attention to what’s actually going on around you. Savor these moments.

The most likely the reason why millions visit Siem Reap is to see the majestic temples of Angkor with the fabled sunrise as a backdrop. Aside from our innate fear of the dark, the prime reason why we love watching the sun rise is because we all yearn for that familiar warmth — that reassuring embrace — reminding us that we’ve still got the time to make things right.

Finding that perfect spot in the temple area of Angkor to watch the sunrise or sunset alone is almost impossible. These thousand-year-old structures, which seamlessly blend with the surrounding forests, are popular for a reason.

Hundreds of visitors, with their necks craned and cameras in hand, will fight for the best spots. As charming as these temples may be, the scorching sun and the hordes of tourists — half of them awestruck and the rest just plain rowdy — may easily overwhelm even the most-experienced travelers.

Instead of visiting ALL the temples, spend more time in some (including Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Baphuon). Choose quality over quantity. Don’t mind the other tourists and, instead, bask in that communal sense of wonder and delight.

Once you’ve got your fill of the Angkorian temples, rent a bike, try the local Khmer delicacies in the Old Market, and visit the small yet equally appealing temples in downtown Siem Reap.


Channel the inner Anthony Bourdain in you.
Granted, we may not be as witty as Mr. Bourdain or be as adventurous as Andrew Zimmern, but channel the inner food/travel junkie in you and try out food items you’ve never had before — be it the stinking tofu in Taipei, sizzling crocodile sisig in Davao, or even the fried silkworms in Yangon.

My only rule whenever I try a new food item is that it has to be fresh out of the pan or it’s freshly picked, caught, or prepared.

Don’t miss the chance to taste the local cuisine. And please, don’t be afraid to take yourself out for dinner. You’ll be surprise how fun it is to have yourself as your own date.

In Siem Reap, Olga brought me to some of her favorite places to eat. My favorites: somlor ktiss in Navy Khmer Kitchen, pumpkin soup in Rina Rino, and butter masala paneer in India Gate.

Also when in Cambodia, buy genuine Kampot pepper, considered as one of the world’s finest peppercorns. I brought back several packs and still use them until today.


Use all your five senses.
The best way to get to know a new city is to do it using all your five senses. Every sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch reveals the character of the city you’re in. Going to a new city should always be a feast for all your senses.

After spending a couple of days in Siem Reap, I hopped on a bus to the capital city of Phnom Penh and stayed there overnight. At first glance, Phnom Penh may seem to be your typical Asian metropolis — its skyline filled with towering buildings and gleaming temple rooftops, the usual cacophony of roaring motorbikes and chanting monks, and the savory smell of roadside noodles and an array of grilled animal parts. But Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle is more subdued as compared to other Asian capitals, retaining much of the laid-back charm of its French colonial past.

Among the must-visit places in the city are the impressive Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and other smaller wats, all just a good walking distance from the banks of the mighty Mekong. A visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also offers a glimpse in to the country’s dark past under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. It’s easily one of the most depressing places I’ve been to.


Have fun.
One of the joys of traveling solo is that you can travel at your own pace. You can go wherever you want and do whatever you want to do. You wouldn’t feel guilty checking out the city’s red light district. No one will judge you trying out Siem Reap’s happy pizza. No one will know if you’ve been wearing the same pair of jeans for days. To some extent, you have an excuse to be stupid.

The most important thing to do whenever visiting a new city is to have fun. Live in the moment. Don’t be afraid to get lost; it lends perspective. Do things you haven’t done before but always be safe. Take calculated risks.

Set your travel non-negotiables. These are things that you do or items that you bring in order to make your trip as fun and comfortable as possible. Some travelers have their favorite travel blanket or pillow. Others are picky when it comes to choosing their beds or toilets. I know people who can’t start the day without sipping their favorite coffee or without taking 30-minute showers. Whatever floats your boat, it’s all good.

My personal travel non-negotiables include bringing a copy of the Lonely Planet guide and buying a SIM card for mobile Internet. I usually ‘invest’ in these items because it makes me feel at ease whenever I’m in a new country.

If you have time, you can also participate in voluntouring activities whenever you’re in a new city. It’s a fun way to give back to communities and at the same time get to know the locals.

Weeks before I went to Cambodia, my friends from the UNESCO Youth Peace Ambassador program and I set up a relief drive in Phnom Penh for communities affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The group was able to raise funds and collect 10 kilos of relief items and school supplies.

These are just a few tried-and-tested tips on traveling solo. Don’t get me wrong, I also like traveling with family and friends. But sometimes, you just have to satisfy your body’s craving for the thrill of the unknown and the euphoric feeling of absolute freedom.

Now, do yourself a favor and start mapping out your own solo adventure. The world is waiting.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Thom’s moat


Ta Prohm

Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace

A torture room in Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

With CS host Olga Shuruht

With UNESCO youth ambassadors Kanitha Chroeung, Lina In, Kimsan Seong, and Tin Kolmen

More photos of here and here.


December 31, 2013

Capping off 2013 with this obligatory year end post. For this year’s entry, here’s a rundown of some of my favorite photos and tweets this year.

JANUARY: With fellow UNESCO Youth Peace Ambassadors from the ASEAN region in Manila |  FEBRUARY: February Fair in UP Los Bańos |  MARCH: Visited the National Museum for the first time  |  APRIL: PEMSEA’s 20th anniversary kickoff; special anniv publication also launched this year |  MAY: Voted again after missing two previous elections |  JUNE: Went to the Malacańang Palace and met the President for the first time |  JULY: Traveled to Hong Kong and Macau with high school friends |  AUGUST: Holiday break in Davao |  SEPTEMBER: Keeping the GCM fire burning with fellow GCMs Jecel and Tom; British Council’s Global Changemakers program officially ended this year |  OCTOBER: Celebrating my birthday in Borobodur in Indonesia; travel entry published in Thought Catalog and Maptia |  NOVEMBER: Exploring the Angkor Wat in Cambodia |  DECEMBER: Dizon-Ronan family reunion

You can be there for somebody, but you cannot be somebody’s everything. Leave some of you for you. #notetoself

Hey you, look up at tonight’s full moon and let’s pretend we’re staring at each others’ eyes.

I may not be a big fan of Catholicism, but there’s no denying that Jesus’s journey is one of the greatest stories ever told. #easter

#HappyEndings remains to be one of the most underrated shows on TV today.

Riding the MRT/LRT and jeepneys during the rush hour should be declared as an Olympic contact sport. #ThisIsSparta

Find that place “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” #notetoself

Just because there’s a ladder presented in front of you doesn’t mean you need to climb it. Go find the right ladder. #notetoself

Vicious cycle of a #cyberheartbreak: Secretly like someone. Stalk all social networks. Add/follow. Die a little. Read all posts. Post witty replies. Pretend you’re in a perfectly platonic relationship. Discover s/he is seeing someone. Denial. Anger. Acceptance.

If there’s one thing UP taught me, it’s resilience. Malaglag ‘man, tayo kaagad pero mas may angas. #UPFight

Now sitting under a tree at the foot of Borobudur. It’s just me, the temple, and birds chirping. #spaforthesoul

Feeling down lately? Carry out random acts of kindness to strangers or even to people you know. Start that chain of positivity. #YolandaPH

When we were in college, we also had something similar to ‘The Elbi Files’ where we can rant, share secrets. It’s called having friends.

Wrath of Haiyan (Yolanda)

November 13, 2013

Donate or volunteer if you can. Carry out random acts of kindness to strangers or even to people you know. Start that chain of positivity.

Here are lists of ways to help affected communities collated by CNNRappler, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).

Infographics by UN OCHA.

Faces and Phases of Yogyakarta + Five Shoestring Travel Tips in Exploring a New City

November 4, 2013

This post is republished on Thought Catalog and Maptia.

Exploring a new city is the closest thing to life’s reset button. Being immersed in a sea of different languages and tasting food items you’ve never had before — in short, going out of your comfort zone — is similar, I believe, to pressing one’s CTRL+ALT+DEL buttons.

So when you feel like you’re getting off track and want to break the monotony, go to a new city. When you feel like you’re stuck in a rut and want to take a look at life in a new perspective, travel. Some people might describe these as typical symptoms of the proverbial quarter-life crisis. But I refuse to call it a crisis*.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to the city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia to take a breather and — (insert Homer Simpson’s voice over) d’oh! — to celebrate my birthday, which was a first in several years, since I often find celebrating birthdays a tad too excessive. #killjoy

Nestled amid Central Java’s volcanic peaks and rice paddies is the bustling city of Yogyakarta. More popularly known as Jogja, the city remains to be one of Indonesia’s largest cultural hubs due to its strong Javanese heritage. In fact, one of the last reigning royal families in Indonesia is based in Jogja.

Located north of the city are some of the world’s finest temple complexes, the Borobudur and Prambanan. Visiting the Borobudur has always been in my bucket list as I have a very deep fascination with old, royal, and/or religious structures. The best I’ve seen (so far) are Myanmar’s Bagan and Kyaiktiyo, India’s Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, and Thailand’s Ayutthaya. #humblebrag


SHOESTRING TRAVEL TIP #1: Sleep while you’re in transit.

One of the best ways to save money is to schedule your sleeping time while you’re on the road or in transit. Since there are no direct flights from Manila to Jogja, I first took a midnight flight to Kuala Lumpur before taking another flight to Jogja the next morning.

There’s a very big difference between being a tourist and being a traveler. That is, travelers are no stranger to sleeping in flights, midnight bus/train rides, 24/7 cafés and airports. However, sleeping in airports is not an easy task (unless, you’ve collected enough frequent flyer miles to stay in airport lounges). Finding that perfect spot requires adept knowledge and experience. Among the key things to consider: areas with the least activities (preferably away — but not too far — from check-in counters, immigration desks, duty free shops), nearest power sockets for charging, and the nearest toilet. Sleeping in airports is one of those special skills that should be included in one’s CV.


SHOESTRING TRAVEL TIP #2: Try Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing is not just about getting free accommodations. It is a great and fun way to meet people and learn about cultures, places, and travel tips/secrets that no other travel books can offer. I’ve been with Couchsurfing for almost three years and I’ve had great experiences since.

When I arrived in Jogja, I was welcomed by my CS host Zaki Fajri at the airport. Zaki is a geophysical engineering sophomore based in Jogja and he hosted me for three nights while I was in the city. My trip to Yogyakarta wouldn’t be as memorable without Zaki’s generosity.

Zaki had an exam that afternoon, so he first took me to his apartment to settle in and to take a rest for the meantime.

After his exam, our first order of business was to look for the city’s best soto bakso. Yanto, my Indonesian housemate in Yangon, used to prepare bakso for breakfast but he would usually warn me that it wouldn’t taste like the authentic ones he’d prepare for his family since the ingredients were not available in Myanmar. The best place to have bakso in Jogja, according to Zaki, is in Bakso Pak Narto, about a 20-minute drive from his place. Zaki borrowed his housemate’s motorbike and asked me to drive it. And of course I said yes, just because. #YOLO

Driving a motorbike without a license and helmet on the busy left-hand-drive streets of Jogja has to be one of the best (and most dangerous) things I’ve done in my life. After having my first authentic bowl of bakso that night, I knew it was all worth the risks.


SHOESTRING TRAVEL TIP #3: The best way to get to know a city is to visit its public market.

Every city has a public market — be it a farmers’ market, a seafood bazaar, or roadside fly-by-night bargain stores. A public market is a city’s lifeblood. This is where you’d usually find the best place to have breakfast or where you can buy the cheapest souvenirs. Case in point, you’ll find the best shawarma shop in Islamabad in the F10 markaz and the cheapest laver sheets in Busan’s Jagalchi Fish Market. It’s also the best place to people-watch, one of my favorite activities whenever I’m in a new city.

The next day, Zaki and I went around Jalan Malioboro, a major shopping street in Jogja where you’d find cheap batik and some of city’s best street food treats. At lunch, we caught up with fellow UNESCO youth ambassadors Muthiah Muthe and Anggita Putri Chaerani. Muthiah and I were together in a conference in New Zealand in 2011, while Anggita and I first met in Bangkok last year.


SHOESTRING TRAVEL TIP #4: Learn basic conversational sentences.

When traveling, it pays to know how to start a conversation in the local language. Based on experience, here are some essential conversation-starters:

  • How are you? What is your name?
  • Have you eaten?
  • How much?
  • Where is the toilet?
  • The weather is (too) hot/cold.

Make sure that you also know how to say ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘help’. If you’ve memorized these, then you’re good to go. If you’re into languages, the easiest way to master a language is to identify the sentence pattern, especially the placement of the verbs. It would be much easier to learn a language, once you’ve grasped verb placements and conjugations.

On my third day in Jogja (also my birthday), I decided to catch the sunrise over the Borobudur. Taking the local bus (or any other local transpo) during the early morning rush is also a fun experience. You get travel with mothers on their way to the market, fathers on their way to work, and the little kids on their way to school. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get to travel with the fresh produce and live chickens.

The majestic temples of Borobudur are located in Magelang, about one-and-a-half hours north of Jogja. I left Jogja around 5 am and arrived in Borobudur shortly after sunrise.

At the entrance gate, there were two busloads of local visitors queuing. Not knowing where the entrance for foreigners was, I decided to join to line and paid the entrance fee at the gate. Owing to birthday luck and my rusty Bahasa skills, I only paid USD 2 instead of USD 20. Pretending to be a local, however, is not always advisable.

Once inside, I immediately went around the main temple, starting from the lowest platform until I reached the main stupa. Another tip: when visiting a Buddhist temple, always go around it clockwise for good luck. When I reached the highest platform, I saw what the Japanese describe as a komorebi: the moment “when sunlight filters through the trees” or “the interplay between the light and the leaves”. I couldn’t ask for a better way to start the day.

After that, I searched for a spot where I could take a rest and enjoy the picturesque view. For about an hour, I sat down under a tree at the foot of Borobudur. It was what my favorite travel mates Anna and Joseph would describe as the spa for the soul aka bubble bath for the being.

On my way back, local CSer Muhammad Jati sent a message inviting me to go around the Kraton, the royal family’s main palace. After a quick tour of the Kraton, Jati and I went to a small mosque for the afternoon prayer. We then went straight to Muthiah’s street runway gala in Jalan Prawirotaman. What better way to end the day than with a street party.


SHOESTRING TRAVEL TIP #5: When in doubt, look smart.

It’s always easy to spot wide-eyed travelers in the crowd and they’re usually the ones easily preyed upon by tourist scammers. Whenever in a new city, act as if you’re a local. When in doubt, walk. Walk as if you’re going somewhere important.

On my last day, I went to visit the Prambanan temples, one of the biggest Hindu temples in Southeast Asia. The entrance gate to Prambanan is about a 45-minute walk from the nearest bus station and, along the way, hordes of tourist guides will lure you to come with them to visit ‘secret gates’ and ‘hidden temples’. Be wary of these unscrupulous schemes.

At the temple complex, I met local CSer Asa Alamsyah, who is originally from Jakarta and is also just in town for a couple of days.

Later that afternoon, I met Zaki and his friends from UPN Yogyakarta’s English conversation club, where we shared our travel stories and some pointers on running community youth projects. They also taught me my new favorite Bahasa word, jomblo, which loosely means “forever alone” in English. After the discussion, we had a quick lunch at this spicy chicken joint near the university and went straight to the airport to catch my flight back to KL.

A recent Medium article describes the act of traveling as overrated and “certainly not an accomplishment”. The author has no idea how completely wrong he is. Visiting Jogja that weekend gave me that orgasmic warm fuzzy feeling. It’s like my whole body heaved a huge sigh of relief. And it doesn’t hurt that minus the airfare, I spent less than USD 100 the whole weekend.


*It is just a state of mind. If you choose to be happy, then you’ll be happy. It’s all about tapping your cognitive to work with what you believe in and then with what you feel (or vice versa). They describe this in social psychology as learning the ABCs of attitude (affect, behavior, and cognition).


Bell-shaped stupas of Borobudur

Jalan Malioboro

With CS host Zaki Fajri and UNESCO youth ambassadors Muthiah Muthe and Anggita Chaerani

The temples of Prambanan

More photos here.

Exploring Davao

August 13, 2013

Davao is one of the largest cities in the Philippines, both in terms of land area and population. Located at the foot of the mighty Mt. Apo, the country’s highest peak, the city serves as one of Mindanao’ s major regional centers.

Talaandig women of Davao

Dakila, the Philippine eagle

Monfort Bat Sanctuary, the world’s largest fruit bat colony

Sasa Wharf

On the way to Samal Island

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Macau

July 28, 2013

Known as the ‘Las Vegas of Asia’, Macau’s glitz and glamour is definitely not for the fainthearted. Although best known for its casinos’ bright lights, much of Macau still reflects its rich colonial past, from its small cobbled streets to its Portuguese-inspired sweet treats.

Senado Square

Ruínas de São Paulo

Ruínas de São Paulo

Fortaleza do Monte

Macau Tower

A-Ma Temple

Random street corner in Macau

The Venetian Macao

Grand Lisboa

More photos here.


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