Summer Must-Go: Cebu, Philippines

It wouldn’t be called Queen of the Southern Philippine Islands if it does not possess the unparalleled beauty typical for a royal seductress – mesmerizing, captivating, one you can’t help but gaze.

Often featured as one of the world’s best islands among magazines as Travel + Leisure (6th), Cebu is a spectacle one should not miss dropping by: a mirror of what could be a complete Philippine experience – from the simplistic way of coastal living caught between the blazing sun’s heat and the cooling sea breeze, to the life-changing and surreal encounter with creatures of the ocean, to the modern-day way of city life.

An opportunity to visit Cebu came my way, and everyone knows I have to grab it. And I did, despite the lack of a concrete plan and solid savings. All I had were tiny specks of guts (which were enough for me to apply a 3-day vacation leave despite having been hired for only 10 months) but a big will to travel.

The flight was at 3:30 AM, an hour of delay so that’s 4:30 AM. I was with my officemates. We were sleepless, hungry and heavily disorganized. The one hour plane ride was scarcely enough for a nap.

At almost 6:00 AM, we took our first groggy steps in a 6-day stay in Cebu.

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Take a Bus Ride! It’s a perfect chance to explore the Cebu’s countryside.

Simala: Nook of Catholic Faith

We stopped by at the place of our friend’s friend to cater our personal necessities – water, a little rest, and of course, the toilet – before heading to our first stop: the Mama Mary of Ligodon Church in Simala.

From Cebu City, Simala is a 3-hour bus ride south. It’s long but it’s a fantastic opportunity to explore the Cebu island’s country side which excellently reflects the Philippine country scene as a whole.

History has it that one man prophesied about a mysterious woman appearing in grasslands and hills which now will be the Church of Simala. Years later, in the 1990s, a group of monks traversed amongst the area and the prophecy materialized: an image of a woman mystically appeared.

Now, the Church of Simala is an important place for pilgrims in Cebu and daily, hundreds of people from all over the country come to the church to deliver their petitions.

On the way back, we stopped by at Carcar City to treat ourselves with the nationally revered chicharon Carcar.

Million Sardines and Some Turtles

Next day, we woke up at 4:30 AM to head to Pescador Island in Moalboal, Cebu. The sun is so our mood that morning: dreamy, half-wanting to rise, half-wanting to recline. The sky is crimson orange and after almost two hours, the smell of the sea was already prevalent in the air.

The engine of the motor boat we’re riding to cross island to island  silenced our conversations, so we had the chance to just marvel at the vastness of the sea and beauty of the panorama.

Pescador Island is  a home for a million sardines and some sea turtles.

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Sea turtle gracefully maneuvering in the sea
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Sardines Run!
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Meek big one

Witnessing them maneuver  adeptly under the sea, in their natural habitat, was mesmerizing – especially the medium-sized turtle who swam like a ballerina in a perfect piece with its flippers gliding through the water flawlessly.

Taking the Canyoneering Plunge in Kawasan Falls, Badian, Cebu

Kawasan Falls was our next trip and highlighted by a 3-4 hour canyoneering adventure. Not just mentioning the time it takes to overcome the adventure, but mostly how to overcome the trail – the rocky steep slopes, sharp boulders, the strong current of the river, and especially the 20-, 30-, 40-ft. leaps from a barely enough stronghold  of cliffs down to the splash of blue, relaxingly cold but deep freshwater.

Personally, before I took that 40-ft jump, large amounts of fear, hesitation and excitement collided in my brain. Who wouldn’t when you’re not a professional diver lest a good swimmer? But then our guides told us to not think about the height or the fall. Thinking will only exacerbate the fear. Just take the leap. It only takes a second of courage to overcome the doubt and experience glory.

Unfortunately, we haven’t taken a lot of photos of our canyoneering trail because along the way, our action cam failed (sad).

Butanding!

At 5:30 AM the next day, we headed to the beach in Oslob, Cebu to witness with our very own eyes the one of the majestic sea creatures there is: the whale shark or locally known as butanding. Each morning while the sun is not yet too hot (thus, the early time) these gentle giants come to the surface to be fed by the local fishermen. This makes a fantastic opportunity for people to bond up-close with them, especially that they are generally harmless.

Encounter time is limited to only 30 minutes but were actually enough to revel at the sight of our friend in the sea (although at first sight, when it was 1 or 2 meters away from me and close to its overwhelming size, I was terrified. But that’s part of the process. It wouldn’t be called the biggest fish in the world for nothing).

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A queen fish in a queen island – Butanding in Oslob, Cebu

Sadly, we saw one wounded whale shark and somehow I questioned myself, am I enjoying at the expense of these beautiful beings? I hope not, but still it didn’t felt right and I pray the whale sharks get the care and respect they deserve.

From the sea to the top

After immersing ourselves in Cebu’s waters for days, we reached its highest point – the Osmena Peak. As is with other hikes, the trail was energy-consuming albeit not that difficult. After 10-20 minutes, we found ourselves marveling the Cebu island from its crown.

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A local boy from Osmena Peak
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Tourists not minding the cliff to get better photos
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Looking all over Cebu shrouded by dark clouds
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The mandatory group photo

And the richness in history and faith.

At a very young age, we were taught the richness of Cebu’s history: the landing of Magellan (who led the first navigator ship to circle the world – Victoria) and his death at the hands of arguably the first Filipino hero, Lapu-lapu, in the notable Battle of Mactan. The setting of Magellan became an important turnaround in Philippine history, paving the way for a 333-year of Spanish regime. This day, Magellan’s cross became a monument of this history. I can’t help but be amazed as I witness things I was taught as a young Filipino, as if ridiculously I was watching history unfold in my very eyes.

But perhaps what can be attributed most to Cebu culture-wise is the depth of its Catholic faith, as is evidenced by its monumental shrines and the nationally hailed Sto. Nino (celebrated annually during the Sinulog Festival).

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The sporadic food trips:

There are tons of A-class restaurants that offer palatable food in Cebu. In this trip, we went to Casa Verde (where we’re treated for a dinner by a generous officemate), La Vie Parisienne and Zubochon (where we satisfied ourselves with the cuisine Cebu is known for – the lechon Cebu). But coming to the point when we have to budget, thankfully there is a local street eatery that gave us just what we need, cheap but delicious meals – the Pungko-pungko sa Fuente – where crabs, chicharon bulaklak, hotdog, porkchop and chorizo are put all together in one rectangular plastic container. Just pick one and eat. It was fun since we haven’t had that kind of eating experience before.

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Pungko-pungko sa Fuente! Fun dining experience
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Magellan’s Cross – a monument of the 333-year Spanish regime in the Philippines

 

There’s still a long list of places to visit in Cebu: Bantayan Island, Tumalog, Aginid Falls and more.  Next time, I’ll make sure I’ll tick off everything.

Until the next time, Cebu!

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A Guide to the World’s Best Island: Palawan, Philippines

“The water is unbelievable! I’ve never seen anything like this before,” we heard an American woman comment on the El Nido waters. Of course, as Filipinos those were overwhelming to hear not only because we heard them from a foreign person but more so from someone who’s been talking about how she’s been to several places in the world already. It’s the world’s best island for two consecutive years according to Travel and Leisure magazine, and obviously for good measure.

 

In this post, I’ll be sharing our do-it-yourself itinerary and the costs journeying the most beautiful island there is – Palawan.

 

Before coming over, I and my friends were quite hesitant about a DIY itinerary in Palawan. It’s going to be costly and risky. The beautiful places are far from each other and the transportation is still limited. Yet at the very last minute, we ditched the travel agency we’ve contacted for a tour and decided to venture all by ourselves. I’m telling you right now, that was the best decision we made in this trip (and we saved ourselves a couple of bucks).

 

It’s worth noting that when budgeting for a Palawan trip, you need to know whether you’re traveling during the low or peak seasons as prices are double (or triple!) on the peak season compared to the low season. According to a local we conversed, peak season in Palawan runs from November to May while the low season is from June to October. Ours was on an August and honestly, we preferred the low season since there are less tourists (and again, we saved ourselves a couple of bucks).

 

Port Barton: The Next Thing in Palawan

 

The place might not be as famous as El Nido or Coron, but it’s worth spending a few days or so for. I’m talking about Port Barton, an out-of-place town in the middle of Palawan. The place is like time traveling to a certain period in the early 2000s when the internet was limited (or in my case, none at all), electricity is time-scheduled (6PM – 12MN) and the  locality is plain simple. When we were dropped by the van we rode from San Jose terminal in Puerto Princesa to our homestay in the town, I and my friends could not contain our reactions. The town was creepily quiet (not like how we were so used to living in the city) yet serene and relaxing at best. The town is the perfect spot if you’re looking for what they call me-time. My friend even said that if she’d be broken hearted, she’ll impulsively book a flight to this place (which is not entirely an absurd idea).

 

If you need to use a little bit of adrenaline, Port Barton has also many activities you can enjoy, the most common of which is island hopping. For just Php700, you can scout for tour agencies within the area and  book a day tour of the many islands that pepper the place.

 

Then there’s also kayaking. Even at what’s supposed to be a rainy season, the sea was calm enough for kayaking. Venture a little farther from the shore and you’ll have a spectacular view: waters in jade green below, the blue sky dotted with white clouds above and the vast expanse of the green mangrove trees in between. The view pulls strings of the heart (something I’ve never felt before). An ikebana of nature.

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Kayaking is splendid in Port Barton.

And snorkeling! I’ve had my fair share of snorkeling experiences in many places before but that what I took in Port Barton will forever hold a special place in my heart. Why? Because I saw a manatee, my first time! I’m going to say that again. I saw a MANATEE; a sea cow; in the wild; swimming and swirling gracefully and freely in the ocean alongside swarm of colorful fishes. She was a meter away from me, and I couldn’t get closer. She’s quick and she felt unreal. As a testament to the rarity of this event, our guide who’s lived in Port Barton his entire life of more than 20 years has never seen a dugong before. I’ve only been in Palawan for 2 days and God has afforded me the sight of His beautiful  creature. It was a humbling experience.

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We swam along a tortoise!
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God has blessed this place several ocean life forms.
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This place is love.

We stayed in Port Barton for three days and here are our costs (per person):

Port Barton

Note that these are the costs during a low season. If you want the costs for a high season, then double everything. Also, you might have noticed that meals are expensive. You noticed right, because food in the place is insanely pricey (and that’s not even luxury eating yet). If you’re planning to save, better bring some ready-to-eat goods with you,

 

El Nido: A Haven Can’t Be Explained Enough

 

When people say Palawan people think of the skyrocketing island rock formations floating in unbelievably clean and clear turquoise waters. The thing is you’re not thinking of Palawan, but a facet of it – that is, El Nido. Translated as The Nest, El Nido made Palawan famous around the globe. The town is surrounded by walls of rocks as tall as city buildings, giving El Nido the feeling of being enclosed, secluded, separated from anywhere else. Few meters walk and you’ll see yourself captivating at the beach view.

 

To make the most of your time in El Nido, island hopping is a must. Island hopping in El Nido is divided into four tours: Tours A, B, C and D. Many from the locals we talked recommended tours A and C and since we’re only staying for three days we chose those tours. Perhaps if given more time, we would’ve availed everything. Anyway, the tours can be in groups or in private (then you’ll have to pay more). We chose the group tours since we’re on a budget and we thought them as perfect chances to meet people.

 

However, if you want a beach for free then there’s the Las Cabanas Beach or Nacpan Beach down farther. A word of warning: those beaches may be free but they are inexplicably gorgeous. You might not want to leave.

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Trying to do some shots along Las Cabanas beach.
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They say sunset in Las Cabanas is breathtaking. Sadly, it was cloudy when we’re there. Nevertheless, everything is still exceptional.

We first had Tour C while Tour A on the next day. Truly, these were the best tours because of two phrases: rock formations and lagoons. All of the beaches (and those that composed it: sand, waters, sea creatures) in El Nido are superb but they can be easily compared to other famous beaches like in those in Phuket, Thailand (read about my Thailand travel here). But El Nido’s rock formations and the small and big lagoons – they are unique, they can never be found anywhere else (or so I guess). We were traversing the waters of the small lagoon when we heard one comment from an American woman, “The water is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I hope those words were enough to picture the beauty God has blessed El Nido with.

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Paddling on the surface of the El Nido waters.
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El Nido is a good snorkeling site too!
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It takes an actual eye to marvel at the astounding rock formations in El Nido.
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Of course, we’re more than willing to take the risk of taking a photo on a boat’s edge.
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Here’s another angle.
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And that familiar photo along the seashore, El Nido has the perfect backdrop.

We stayed in El Nido for three days and here are our costs (per person):
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Again, these are low season costs and just like in Port Barton meals are also expensive in El Nido.

Puerto Princesa Underground River (National Park)

Lately, Palawan is starting to be known for another acclaimed site: the Puerto Princesa Underground River. Dubbed as the longest underground river in the entire world, it is listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The only con we experienced in this part of our Palawan itinerary is that the entrance to the river is expensive (not costly, but expensive). When we asked the driver we commissioned why is that so, he explained that the high costs reduce the number of people coming to the underground river (thereby protecting it) and the maintenance cost of the site is demanding as well.

 

But ultimately we realized that what we paid was nothing compare to the thrill of experience the course has brought us. It was religious: communing with nature. Completely dark and peacefully silent but for the echoes of the bats, the experience is like going back to our natural, environmental roots.

 

Along the way, we saw astounding natural stalactite and stalagmite sculptures: huge vegetables, animals, even a teasing Sharon Stone. But what really made us gasp was what they call The Cathedral. We were carefully boating in a narrow cave when suddenly we’re welcomed by a humongous dome, much like a dome of a cathedral without the stained glass windows. To amaze us more is knowing that all of the recognizable rock formations were religious-related as well: a veiled Virgin Mary, a giant candle, the Holy Family,  an archangel, a reenactment of The Last Supper and Jesus’s face. Our audio guide said these stalactites and stalagmites took million of years to be created through heat, wind, sedimentation and erosion. That alone should amaze us. “Thankfully, nature is a patient artist,” affirmed our audio guide.

 

On our way out the cave we were told that despite the darkness and silence, the underground river is a home for thousands, even millions, of species. Indeed, “even at the deepest, darkest part of nature, life blossoms.”

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The Underground River took million of years to create. Thankfully for us, nature is a patient artist.
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In the deepest, darkest part of nature, life blossoms.

For information, tours do not cover the entire underground river. In fact, you may only cover a quarter (or one-eight) of the whole length of the subterranean river. But surely whatever you’ll get is enough to prick a bit of your humanity. Our underground river and Puerto Princesa City tour was packed in one day. Here are our costs (per person):
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Again, these are low season costs, and since there are already fast food restaurants in the city of Puerto, food can be cheaper.
Places to Look Forward To

As you might have noticed, we spent a complete week with that itinerary. But the thing is there are still a lot of places in Palawan that everybody should go, particularly Coron. I and my friends all agreed that this island is one you can always come back and feel amazed over and over again. And we promised next time, we’ll explore more. For now, that would be it. So whatever your worries about Palawan being costly and difficult to traverse, don’t drop them off. But remember that everything is going to be worth it. Take that from someone who’s been there and wants to be back again.

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Thank you! 😊

Just go to Thailand

“If you don’t trust me, you can’t trust anybody in the world,” said the Thai saleslady to me, as me and my friends were searching for the cheapest tour to Maya Bay and Ko Phi Phi in Phuket. Then and there I realized how I’ve been unjustly sceptical of the Thais, despite the many kindness these people have shown to us for 5 days now. I’ll be defensive though in saying you can’t blame us. I’d researched about the place and always encountered warnings of scams, overpricing, etc. Admittedly, we were not safe of them, but that’s a facet of traveling. You go outside your country, your home, your comfort zone and anywhere is unsafe. You have to take risks. In the end if it’s not scary, it’s not worth it.

When I lived in Taiwan for four months, some of the few people I got along with are Thais (you can read about my Taiwan experience here). They are very friendly that sometimes it borders to a little bit awkward. And the facial similarity with them and us is hilarious that one can’t tell which one is Thai and which one is a Filipino! It is from these friends that the idea of visiting Thailand budded in my mind. It took me three years though to materialize the idea.

In this post, I’ll be sharing our do-it-yourself Bangkok-Phuket-Ayutthaya itinerary, the costs we’ve incurred, the locals we met, the cuisines we delved, the Thai culture we’ve witnessed and of course, our overall experience.

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Getting into the heart of the Metropolis

Our first concern when we landed in Suvarnabhumi International Airport was how to get to our hotel with an address we know nothing about. Thankfully, Thailand railway system is A-class it made our journey a lot easier. There is an MRT station right underneath the airport (called the airport link) that connects to other Bangkok MRT lines and to the superb Bangkok BTS Skytrain (transfer in Phaya Thai Station). Thailand, much like Taiwan’s, railway system to me are first class in terms of their convenience, efficiency and cleanliness that I hope someday Philippines will have a mass transport as awesome as this.

Fare from the airport to the Phaya Thai Station (to transfer to BTS) costs 15 baht while BTS Skytrain fare ranges from 30-50 baht, depending on your destination.

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Capturing a snap inside Bangkok’s BTS

Meet Bell!

We found our way to McDonald’s in Tesco Mall near On Nut BTS Station where our AirBnb host is going to meet us. Our problem now is: Where is our host?  We only contact her through Facebook Messenger and since arriving in Bangkok, we forgot to buy a tourist sim for Internet because our minds were still scrambling to understand everything. We were there for an hour making every possible way of procuring the needed sim (my friend even went to the extent of asking passers-by where we can buy the sim, but Thai people hardly understand our English). Frustrated, we let few minutes pass by as we sat down. There we noticed two people (a guy and a girl) who looked very much like Filipinos, but we were still hesitant in approaching them since Thais deceptively look like us. We were trying to listen to them but they were not near enough. And then the miracle happened: we saw the guy was wearing a shirt with a Vigan print. Vigan is a Philippine city! What we saw triggered us to approach them, and indeed they were Filipinos! It’s always heartwarming to find Filipinos out of the blue in a foreign land. Going back, we asked favour from them if they could call our host.

That’s how we met Bell.

Bell was just sitting behind us all along, and had been contacting us. We learned she waited 2 hours for us and we can’t help but feel guilty. “Never mind,” in thick Thai accent was her constant replies to our sorry. She fetched us with her car to her home which was very clean and comfortable as well. But what really amazed us is how she treated us like we were her friends and not just her guests. Bell made us feel the Thai brand of hospitality. Her home was “rakhome” she said, which means “love home”. In her home, we were “her family.” Bell was our first real encounter with Thai and we felt very welcomed. She said she owes this sense of hospitality and kindness from her experience in Japan, where she was adopted by a lady for a night while she was locating her lost wallet. She had none but when her wallet was returned to hers, not even a single cent was lost. “Paying it forward,” she would tell us, an attitude we hope to apply to tourists in our land.  Most importantly, Bell is also a very pretty person.

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Bell, our awesome host (farthest right)!

Chatuchak Weekend Market

First point of our itinerary was the Chatuchak Market, also called as Jatujak Market or JJ Market, the largest market in Thailand. To get to Chatuchak, take the BTS Skytrain to Mo Chit BTS Station or alternatively, take the MRT to Chatuchak Park Station.

Chatuchak, with over thousands of stalls, offers everything of Thailand that you need: clothes, souvenirs, Thai foods, Thai massage. Getting your way along the market could be really tough though since the lanes are narrow and the crowd is unbelievable (mostly are Western and Chinese tourists).

Fare to Mo Chit BTS Station is 42 baht and 1,000 baht budget could give you a lot in the market. In our case, we spent 150 baht for massage, 270 baht for a plate of Pad Thai and a bowl of spicy Tom Yum soup, and a couple more baht for souvenirs.

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Welcome to Chatuchak Weekend Market

Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the Grand Palace

Our second day was a wonderful tour around Bangkok City. Thankfully, we had a local to guide us – my Thai friend Tarn. Tarn is a close friend I met in Taiwan. She told me when I come to her country she would tour me and my friends around Bangkok and she did!

We went first to Wat Arun, one of two famous Buddhist temples in Bangkok (the other being Wat Pho). To get to Wat Arun, we crossed the massive Chao Phraya River from Saphan Taksin BTS Station. Ferry costs 14 baht. Just as always, I’m always in awe of the detailed architecture and ornate design of Buddhist temples. Entrance fee for foreigners in Wat Arun is 50 baht.

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Sailing at the wide expanse of the Chao Praya River in Bangkok is a must, too!
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Wat Arun was under construction when we came, but it was still a beautiful view.

The next temple was Wat Pho, a boat ride away from Wat Arun (costs 3.50 baht). Wat Pho is the home of the famous giant reclining Buddha who at first sight I found domineering and intimidating. It is here in Wat Pho that we witnessed a speck of the religious culture of Thai people. Always remember to take off your shoes before entering the temple and be silent. Inside the praying room, we kneeled in front of the Buddhist altar and bowed three times – trying to get a vibe of Buddhism. It was the closest encounter to a non-Christian religion I had. Entrance fee for foreigners in Wat Pho is 100 baht.

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Tarn (center) who’s from Bangkok, was our day’s guide. Here, we are inside Wat Pho with the giant reclining Buddha.
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One of Wat Pho’s structures.

Just around the corner from Wat Pho is the spectacular Grand Palace, previously home for the Thai monarchs. We weren’t able to go inside the Grand Palace because some VIPs came and the Palace has to be closed early. Nonetheless, the Grand Palace is still a spectacle of a view even from the outside.  Entrance fee for foreigners is 500 baht.

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The outside view of the Grand Palace.

While we were on our way to the Grand Palace, we notice a long queue of people in black just outside the gate of the palace. When I asked Tarn what they are queuing for, she said they are Thai people wanting to get a last glance of their King who passed away not more than a year ago. Thais love their King so much and everywhere, we saw memorials of him as proof of their gratitude.

Malling!

Thailand as well is a haven for shopping enthusiasts and avid mall goers. If you’re coming from Grand Palace you can return to the Saphan Taksin Station and take a bus to Central World (which was the route we took; costs 20 baht) or you can take the BTS again and get off at Siam Station where series of malls connected by bridgeways will greet you with their day and night vibrance. First of these parade of malls is the enormous Bangkok Central World. I and my friends treated ourselves a refreshing Thai milk tea here after long day’s walk within the busy urban.

Next would be the Siam Discovery (the first of the three Siam Malls in Bangkok). If you could indulge a little more baht, buying few designer clothe would be fun. We were traveling on a tight budget so we settled for window shopping.

Right next to Siam Discovery is Siam Paragon which boasts a beautiful transparent façade. When we came here, Siam Paragon was having a fruit fest and we were able to buy longan (a type of lychee, I think) for just 40 baht/ kilo. If you want more feast of the stomach, Siam Paragon’s lower ground has the gourmet market offering myriad choices of Thai and other international foods.

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Siam Paragon! My eyes are closed but this is the only nice group photo of the mall’s facade.

Finally, beside Siam Paragon is Siam Center. Here we found an intimidating but amusing life-size wax figure of George Clooney in a Madam Tussaud museum. I didn’t expect to find a branch of the famous museum in Bangkok which is why it was really a plus to this city tour.

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With George Clooney in Madam Tussaud’s

Bright City Lights in the Lively Khao San Road

It’s getting darker and Bangkok’s lights are turning on one by one. Perhaps, never in the city are the lights more colourful and the atmosphere inviting than the Khao San Road. The road very much resembles Taiwanese night markets: array of cheap but flavourful Thai streetfood stalls, souvenir shops, etc.

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Welcome to Khao San Road!

From Siam Paragon, we commissioned a tuk-tuk to drive us to Khao San Road for 140 baht. By the way, when you are in Thailand don’t miss out the chance to ride a tuk-tuk at least once because it’s so famous here it’s becoming a national symbol (remember the national costume of the Thai candidate for Miss Universe 2015?). It’s fun when the city wind blows your face as you speed by through the twists and turns of the metropolis. Just always remember to haggle down the price because tuk-tuk drivers tend to overprice rides for foreigners (ours was originally 150 baht).

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Hail a tuk-tuk ride for a fun experience, but don’t forget to negotiate the price.
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Trying to take a snap during our tuk-tuk ride

Khao San Road is one of Bangkok’s oldest cities, and now a major backpacker hub. We saw several tourists (mostly Westerners and Chinese) traverse the short road, pausing every now and then to eat pad Thai, have their hairs in dreadlocks, drink beer and chill in a bar, or eat durian, absurdly huge cockroaches, scorpions and other exotics.

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The bustle along Khao San Road

We got ourselves henna tattoos, ate mango sticky rice, drink a bottle of beer and to be more adventurous bought a stick of scorpion for 100 baht to eat! It wasn’t really a nice taste, though. Along the road, we met two drunken German guys who challenged themselves with the durian. With just one bite they threw off the fruit, which we found absurd because we love durian (the fruit being native to us)!

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Grilled scorpions are only one of the exotics found in Khao San.

It was getting late, but the street lights were not getting any dimmer nor the noise fainter. Yet, we really have to go back to our hotel to pack up things. We have an early flight to the next major Thailand place we’re visiting – Phuket.

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Palawan: Island of Dreams

“The water is unbelievable! I’ve never seen anything like this before,” we heard an American woman comment on the El Nido waters. Of course, as Filipinos those were overwhelming to hear not only because we heard them from a foreign person but more so from someone who’s been talking about how she’s been to several places in the world already. It’s the world’s best island for two consecutive years according to Travel and Leisure magazine, and obviously for good measure.

In this post, I’ll be sharing our do-it-yourself itinerary and the costs journeying the most beautiful island there is – Palawan.

Before coming over, I and my friends were quite hesitant about a DIY itinerary in Palawan. It’s going to be costly and risky. The beautiful places are far from each other and the transportation is still limited. Yet at the very last minute, we ditched the travel agency we’ve contacted for a tour and decided to venture all by ourselves. I’m telling you right now, that was the best decision we made in this trip (and we saved ourselves a couple of bucks).

It’s worth noting that when budgeting for a Palawan trip, you need to know whether you’re traveling during the low or peak seasons as prices are double (or triple!) on the peak season compared to the low season. According to a local we conversed, peak season in Palawan runs from November to May while the low season is from June to October. Ours was on an August and honestly, we preferred the low season since there are less tourists (and again, we saved ourselves a couple of bucks).

Port Barton: The Next Thing in Palawan

The place might not be as famous as El Nido or Coron, but it’s worth spending a few days or so for. I’m talking about Port Barton, an out-of-place town in the middle of Palawan. The place is like time traveling to a certain period in the early 2000s when the internet was limited (or in my case, none at all), electricity is time-scheduled (6PM – 12MN) and the  locality is plain simple. When we were dropped by the van we rode from San Jose terminal in Puerto Princesa to our homestay in the town, I and my friends could not contain our reactions. The town was creepily quiet (not like how we were so used to living in the city) yet serene and relaxing at best. The town is the perfect spot if you’re looking for what they call me-time. My friend even said that if she’d be broken hearted, she’ll impulsively book a flight to this place (which is not entirely an absurd idea).

If you need to use a little bit of adrenaline, Port Barton has also many activities you can enjoy, the most common of which is island hopping. For just Php700, you can scout for tour agencies within the area and  book a day tour of the many islands that pepper the place.

Then there’s also kayaking. Even at what’s supposed to be a rainy season, the sea was calm enough for kayaking. Venture a little farther from the shore and you’ll have a spectacular view: waters in jade green below, the blue sky dotted with white clouds above and the vast expanse of the green mangrove trees in between. The view pulls strings of the heart (something I’ve never felt before). An ikebana of nature.

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Kayaking is splendid in Port Barton.

And snorkeling! I’ve had my fair share of snorkeling experiences in many places before but that what I took in Port Barton will forever hold a special place in my heart. Why? Because I saw a manatee, my first time! I’m going to say that again. I saw a MANATEE; a sea cow; in the wild; swimming and swirling gracefully and freely in the ocean alongside swarm of colorful fishes. She was a meter away from me, and I couldn’t get closer. She’s quick and she felt unreal. As a testament to the rarity of this event, our guide who’s lived in Port Barton his entire life of more than 20 years has never seen a dugong before. I’ve only been in Palawan for 2 days and God has afforded me the sight of His beautiful  creature. It was a humbling experience.

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We swam along a tortoise!
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God has blessed this place several ocean life forms.
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This place is love.

We stayed in Port Barton for three days and here are our costs (per person):

Port Barton

Note that these are the costs during a low season. If you want the costs for a high season, then double everything. Also, you might have noticed that meals are expensive. You noticed right, because food in the place is insanely pricey (and that’s not even luxury eating yet). If you’re planning to save, better bring some ready-to-eat goods with you,

El Nido: A Haven Can’t Be Explained Enough

When people say Palawan people think of the skyrocketing island rock formations floating in unbelievably clean and clear turquoise waters. The thing is you’re not thinking of Palawan, but a facet of it – that is, El Nido. Translated as The Nest, El Nido made Palawan famous around the globe. The town is surrounded by walls of rocks as tall as city buildings, giving El Nido the feeling of being enclosed, secluded, separated from anywhere else. Few meters walk and you’ll see yourself captivating at the beach view.

To make the most of your time in El Nido, island hopping is a must. Island hopping in El Nido is divided into four tours: Tours A, B, C and D. Many from the locals we talked recommended tours A and C and since we’re only staying for three days we chose those tours. Perhaps if given more time, we would’ve availed everything. Anyway, the tours can be in groups or in private (then you’ll have to pay more). We chose the group tours since we’re on a budget and we thought them as perfect chances to meet people.

However, if you want a beach for free then there’s the Las Cabanas Beach or Nacpan Beach down farther. A word of warning: those beaches may be free but they are inexplicably gorgeous. You might not want to leave.

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Trying to do some shots along Las Cabanas beach.
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They say sunset in Las Cabanas is breathtaking. Sadly, it was cloudy when we’re there. Nevertheless, everything is still exceptional.

We first had Tour C while Tour A on the next day. Truly, these were the best tours because of two phrases: rock formations and lagoons. All of the beaches (and those that composed it: sand, waters, sea creatures) in El Nido are superb but they can be easily compared to other famous beaches like in those in Phuket, Thailand (read about my Thailand travel here). But El Nido’s rock formations and the small and big lagoons – they are unique, they can never be found anywhere else (or so I guess). We were traversing the waters of the small lagoon when we heard one comment from an American woman, “The water is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” I hope those words were enough to picture the beauty God has blessed El Nido with.

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Paddling on the surface of the El Nido waters.
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El Nido is a good snorkeling site too!
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It takes an actual eye to marvel at the astounding rock formations in El Nido.
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Of course, we’re more than willing to take the risk of taking a photo on a boat’s edge.
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Here’s another angle.
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And that familiar photo along the seashore, El Nido has the perfect backdrop.

We stayed in El Nido for three days and here are our costs (per person):

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Again, these are low season costs and just like in Port Barton meals are also expensive in El Nido.

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I’m blessing you with this aerial (and amateurish, lol) photo of El Nido.

Puerto Princesa Underground River (National Park)

Lately, Palawan is starting to be known for another acclaimed site: the Puerto Princesa Underground River. Dubbed as the longest underground river in the entire world, it is listed as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature and is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The only con we experienced in this part of our Palawan itinerary is that the entrance to the river is expensive (not costly, but expensive). When we asked the driver we commissioned why is that so, he explained that the high costs reduce the number of people coming to the underground river (thereby protecting it) and the maintenance cost of the site is demanding as well.

But ultimately we realized that what we paid was nothing compare to the thrill of experience the course has brought us. It was religious: communing with nature. Completely dark and peacefully silent but for the echoes of the bats, the experience is like going back to our natural, environmental roots.

Along the way, we saw astounding natural stalactite and stalagmite sculptures: huge vegetables, animals, even a teasing Sharon Stone. But what really made us gasp was what they call The Cathedral. We were carefully boating in a narrow cave when suddenly we’re welcomed by a humongous dome, much like a dome of a cathedral without the stained glass windows. To amaze us more is knowing that all of the recognizable rock formations were religious-related as well: a veiled Virgin Mary, a giant candle, the Holy Family,  an archangel, a reenactment of The Last Supper and Jesus’s face. Our audio guide said these stalactites and stalagmites took million of years to be created through heat, wind, sedimentation and erosion. That alone should amaze us. “Thankfully, nature is a patient artist,” affirmed our audio guide.

On our way out the cave we were told that despite the darkness and silence, the underground river is a home for thousands, even millions, of species. Indeed, “even at the deepest, darkest part of nature, life blossoms.”

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The Underground River took million of years to create. Thankfully for us, nature is a patient artist.
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In the deepest, darkest part of nature, life blossoms.

For information, tours do not cover the entire underground river. In fact, you may only cover a quarter (or one-eight) of the whole length of the subterranean river. But surely whatever you’ll get is enough to prick a bit of your humanity. Our underground river and Puerto Princesa City tour was packed in one day. Here are our costs (per person):

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Again, these are low season costs, and since there are already fast food restaurants in the city of Puerto, food can be cheaper.

Places to Look Forward To

As you might have noticed, we spent a complete week with that itinerary. But the thing is there are still a lot of places in Palawan that everybody should go, particularly Coron. I and my friends all agreed that this island is one you can always come back and feel amazed over and over again. And we promised next time, we’ll explore more. For now, that would be it. So whatever your worries about Palawan being costly and difficult to traverse, don’t drop them off. But remember that everything is going to be worth it. Take that from someone who’s been there and wants to be back again.

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Or email me at:

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Thank you! 😊

Sawasdee! Traversing Thailand’s Trail

“If you don’t trust me, you can’t trust anybody in the world,” said the Thai saleslady to me, as me and my friends were searching for the cheapest tour to Maya Bay and Ko Phi Phi in Phuket. Then and there I realized how I’ve been unjustly sceptical of the Thais, despite the many kindness these people have shown to us for 5 days now. I’ll be defensive though in saying you can’t blame us. I’d researched about the place and always encountered warnings of scams, overpricing, etc. Admittedly, we were not safe of them, but that’s a facet of traveling. You go outside your country, your home, your comfort zone and anywhere is unsafe. You have to take risks. In the end if it’s not scary, it’s not worth it.

When I lived in Taiwan for four months, some of the few people I got along with are Thais (you can read about my Taiwan experience here). They are very friendly that sometimes it borders to a little bit awkward. And the facial similarity with them and us is hilarious that one can’t tell which one is Thai and which one is a Filipino! It is from these friends that the idea of visiting Thailand budded in my mind. It took me three years though to materialize the idea.

In this post, I’ll be sharing our do-it-yourself Bangkok-Phuket-Ayutthaya itinerary, the costs we’ve incurred, the locals we met, the cuisines we delved, the Thai culture we’ve witnessed and of course, our overall experience.

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Getting into the heart of the Metropolis

Our first concern when we landed in Suvarnabhumi International Airport was how to get to our hotel with an address we know nothing about. Thankfully, Thailand railway system is A-class it made our journey a lot easier. There is an MRT station right underneath the airport (called the airport link) that connects to other Bangkok MRT lines and to the superb Bangkok BTS Skytrain (transfer in Phaya Thai Station). Thailand, much like Taiwan’s, railway system to me are first class in terms of their convenience, efficiency and cleanliness that I hope someday Philippines will have a mass transport as awesome as this.

Fare from the airport to the Phaya Thai Station (to transfer to BTS) costs 15 baht while BTS Skytrain fare ranges from 30-50 baht, depending on your destination.

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Capturing a snap inside Bangkok’s BTS

Meet Bell!

We found our way to McDonald’s in Tesco Mall near On Nut BTS Station where our AirBnb host is going to meet us. Our problem now is: Where is our host?  We only contact her through Facebook Messenger and since arriving in Bangkok, we forgot to buy a tourist sim for Internet because our minds were still scrambling to understand everything. We were there for an hour making every possible way of procuring the needed sim (my friend even went to the extent of asking passers-by where we can buy the sim, but Thai people hardly understand our English). Frustrated, we let few minutes pass by as we sat down. There we noticed two people (a guy and a girl) who looked very much like Filipinos, but we were still hesitant in approaching them since Thais deceptively look like us. We were trying to listen to them but they were not near enough. And then the miracle happened: we saw the guy was wearing a shirt with a Vigan print. Vigan is a Philippine city! What we saw triggered us to approach them, and indeed they were Filipinos! It’s always heartwarming to find Filipinos out of the blue in a foreign land. Going back, we asked favour from them if they could call our host.

That’s how we met Bell.

Bell was just sitting behind us all along, and had been contacting us. We learned she waited 2 hours for us and we can’t help but feel guilty. “Never mind,” in thick Thai accent was her constant replies to our sorry. She fetched us with her car to her home which was very clean and comfortable as well. But what really amazed us is how she treated us like we were her friends and not just her guests. Bell made us feel the Thai brand of hospitality. Her home was “rakhome” she said, which means “love home”. In her home, we were “her family.” Bell was our first real encounter with Thai and we felt very welcomed. She said she owes this sense of hospitality and kindness from her experience in Japan, where she was adopted by a lady for a night while she was locating her lost wallet. She had none but when her wallet was returned to hers, not even a single cent was lost. “Paying it forward,” she would tell us, an attitude we hope to apply to tourists in our land.  Most importantly, Bell is also a very pretty person.

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Bell, our awesome host (farthest right)!

Chatuchak Weekend Market

First point of our itinerary was the Chatuchak Market, also called as Jatujak Market or JJ Market, the largest market in Thailand. To get to Chatuchak, take the BTS Skytrain to Mo Chit BTS Station or alternatively, take the MRT to Chatuchak Park Station.

Chatuchak, with over thousands of stalls, offers everything of Thailand that you need: clothes, souvenirs, Thai foods, Thai massage. Getting your way along the market could be really tough though since the lanes are narrow and the crowd is unbelievable (mostly are Western and Chinese tourists).

Fare to Mo Chit BTS Station is 42 baht and 1,000 baht budget could give you a lot in the market. In our case, we spent 150 baht for massage, 270 baht for a plate of Pad Thai and a bowl of spicy Tom Yum soup, and a couple more baht for souvenirs.

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Welcome to Chatuchak Weekend Market

Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the Grand Palace

Our second day was a wonderful tour around Bangkok City. Thankfully, we had a local to guide us – my Thai friend Tarn. Tarn is a close friend I met in Taiwan. She told me when I come to her country she would tour me and my friends around Bangkok and she did!

We went first to Wat Arun, one of two famous Buddhist temples in Bangkok (the other being Wat Pho). To get to Wat Arun, we crossed the massive Chao Phraya River from Saphan Taksin BTS Station. Ferry costs 14 baht. Just as always, I’m always in awe of the detailed architecture and ornate design of Buddhist temples. Entrance fee for foreigners in Wat Arun is 50 baht.

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Sailing at the wide expanse of the Chao Praya River in Bangkok is a must, too!
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Wat Arun was under construction when we came, but it was still a beautiful view.

The next temple was Wat Pho, a boat ride away from Wat Arun (costs 3.50 baht). Wat Pho is the home of the famous giant reclining Buddha who at first sight I found domineering and intimidating. It is here in Wat Pho that we witnessed a speck of the religious culture of Thai people. Always remember to take off your shoes before entering the temple and be silent. Inside the praying room, we kneeled in front of the Buddhist altar and bowed three times – trying to get a vibe of Buddhism. It was the closest encounter to a non-Christian religion I had. Entrance fee for foreigners in Wat Pho is 100 baht.

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Tarn (center) who’s from Bangkok, was our day’s guide. Here, we are inside Wat Pho with the giant reclining Buddha.
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One of Wat Pho’s structures.

Just around the corner from Wat Pho is the spectacular Grand Palace, previously home for the Thai monarchs. We weren’t able to go inside the Grand Palace because some VIPs came and the Palace has to be closed early. Nonetheless, the Grand Palace is still a spectacle of a view even from the outside.  Entrance fee for foreigners is 500 baht.

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The outside view of the Grand Palace.

While we were on our way to the Grand Palace, we notice a long queue of people in black just outside the gate of the palace. When I asked Tarn what they are queuing for, she said they are Thai people wanting to get a last glance of their King who passed away not more than a year ago. Thais love their King so much and everywhere, we saw memorials of him as proof of their gratitude.

Malling!

Thailand as well is a haven for shopping enthusiasts and avid mall goers. If you’re coming from Grand Palace you can return to the Saphan Taksin Station and take a bus to Central World (which was the route we took; costs 20 baht) or you can take the BTS again and get off at Siam Station where series of malls connected by bridgeways will greet you with their day and night vibrance. First of these parade of malls is the enormous Bangkok Central World. I and my friends treated ourselves a refreshing Thai milk tea here after long day’s walk within the busy urban.

Next would be the Siam Discovery (the first of the three Siam Malls in Bangkok). If you could indulge a little more baht, buying few designer clothe would be fun. We were traveling on a tight budget so we settled for window shopping.

Right next to Siam Discovery is Siam Paragon which boasts a beautiful transparent façade. When we came here, Siam Paragon was having a fruit fest and we were able to buy longan (a type of lychee, I think) for just 40 baht/ kilo. If you want more feast of the stomach, Siam Paragon’s lower ground has the gourmet market offering myriad choices of Thai and other international foods.

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Siam Paragon! My eyes are closed but this is the only nice group photo of the mall’s facade.

Finally, beside Siam Paragon is Siam Center. Here we found an intimidating but amusing life-size wax figure of George Clooney in a Madam Tussaud museum. I didn’t expect to find a branch of the famous museum in Bangkok which is why it was really a plus to this city tour.

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With George Clooney in Madam Tussaud’s

Bright City Lights in the Lively Khao San Road

It’s getting darker and Bangkok’s lights are turning on one by one. Perhaps, never in the city are the lights more colourful and the atmosphere inviting than the Khao San Road. The road very much resembles Taiwanese night markets: array of cheap but flavourful Thai streetfood stalls, souvenir shops, etc.

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Welcome to Khao San Road!

From Siam Paragon, we commissioned a tuk-tuk to drive us to Khao San Road for 140 baht. By the way, when you are in Thailand don’t miss out the chance to ride a tuk-tuk at least once because it’s so famous here it’s becoming a national symbol (remember the national costume of the Thai candidate for Miss Universe 2015?). It’s fun when the city wind blows your face as you speed by through the twists and turns of the metropolis. Just always remember to haggle down the price because tuk-tuk drivers tend to overprice rides for foreigners (ours was originally 150 baht).

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Hail a tuk-tuk ride for a fun experience, but don’t forget to negotiate the price.
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Trying to take a snap during our tuk-tuk ride

Khao San Road is one of Bangkok’s oldest cities, and now a major backpacker hub. We saw several tourists (mostly Westerners and Chinese) traverse the short road, pausing every now and then to eat pad Thai, have their hairs in dreadlocks, drink beer and chill in a bar, or eat durian, absurdly huge cockroaches, scorpions and other exotics.

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The bustle along Khao San Road

We got ourselves henna tattoos, ate mango sticky rice, drink a bottle of beer and to be more adventurous bought a stick of scorpion for 100 baht to eat! It wasn’t really a nice taste, though. Along the road, we met two drunken German guys who challenged themselves with the durian. With just one bite they threw off the fruit, which we found absurd because we love durian (the fruit being native to us)!

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Grilled scorpions are only one of the exotics found in Khao San.

It was getting late, but the street lights were not getting any dimmer nor the noise fainter. Yet, we really have to go back to our hotel to pack up things. We have an early flight to the next major Thailand place we’re visiting – Phuket.

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Cebu and Why It Is A True Queen of the South

It wouldn’t be called Queen of the Southern Philippine Islands if it does not possess the unparalleled beauty typical for a royal seductress – mesmerizing, captivating, one you can’t help but gaze.

Often featured as one of the world’s best islands among magazines as Travel + Leisure (6th), Cebu is a spectacle one should not miss dropping by: a mirror of what could be a complete Philippine experience – from the simplistic way of coastal living caught between the blazing sun’s heat and the cooling sea breeze, to the life-changing and surreal encounter with creatures of the ocean, to the modern-day way of city life.

An opportunity to visit Cebu came my way, and everyone knows I have to grab it. And I did, despite the lack of a concrete plan and solid savings. All I had were tiny specks of guts (which were enough for me to apply a 3-day vacation leave despite having been hired for only 10 months) but a big will to travel.

The flight was at 3:30 AM, an hour of delay so that’s 4:30 AM. I was with my officemates. We were sleepless, hungry and heavily disorganized. The one hour plane ride was scarcely enough for a nap.

At almost 6:00 AM, we took our first groggy steps in a 6-day stay in Cebu.

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Take a Bus Ride! It’s a perfect chance to explore the Cebu’s countryside.

Simala: Nook of Catholic Faith

We stopped by at the place of our friend’s friend to cater our personal necessities – water, a little rest, and of course, the toilet – before heading to our first stop: the Mama Mary of Ligodon Church in Simala.

From Cebu City, Simala is a 3-hour bus ride south. It’s long but it’s a fantastic opportunity to explore the Cebu island’s country side which excellently reflects the Philippine country scene as a whole.

History has it that one man prophesied about a mysterious woman appearing in grasslands and hills which now will be the Church of Simala. Years later, in the 1990s, a group of monks traversed amongst the area and the prophecy materialized: an image of a woman mystically appeared.

Now, the Church of Simala is an important place for pilgrims in Cebu and daily, hundreds of people from all over the country come to the church to deliver their petitions.

On the way back, we stopped by at Carcar City to treat ourselves with the nationally revered chicharon Carcar.

Million Sardines and Some Turtles

Next day, we woke up at 4:30 AM to head to Pescador Island in Moalboal, Cebu. The sun is so our mood that morning: dreamy, half-wanting to rise, half-wanting to recline. The sky is crimson orange and after almost two hours, the smell of the sea was already prevalent in the air.

The engine of the motor boat we’re riding to cross island to island  silenced our conversations, so we had the chance to just marvel at the vastness of the sea and beauty of the panorama.

Pescador Island is  a home for a million sardines and some sea turtles.

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Sea turtle gracefully maneuvering in the sea
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Sardines Run!
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Meek big one

Witnessing them maneuver  adeptly under the sea, in their natural habitat, was mesmerizing – especially the medium-sized turtle who swam like a ballerina in a perfect piece with its flippers gliding through the water flawlessly.

Taking the Canyoneering Plunge in Kawasan Falls, Badian, Cebu

Kawasan Falls was our next trip and highlighted by a 3-4 hour canyoneering adventure. Not just mentioning the time it takes to overcome the adventure, but mostly how to overcome the trail – the rocky steep slopes, sharp boulders, the strong current of the river, and especially the 20-, 30-, 40-ft. leaps from a barely enough stronghold  of cliffs down to the splash of blue, relaxingly cold but deep freshwater.

Personally, before I took that 40-ft jump, large amounts of fear, hesitation and excitement collided in my brain. Who wouldn’t when you’re not a professional diver lest a good swimmer? But then our guides told us to not think about the height or the fall. Thinking will only exacerbate the fear. Just take the leap. It only takes a second of courage to overcome the doubt and experience glory.

Unfortunately, we haven’t taken a lot of photos of our canyoneering trail because along the way, our action cam failed (sad).

Butanding!

At 5:30 AM the next day, we headed to the beach in Oslob, Cebu to witness with our very own eyes the one of the majestic sea creatures there is: the whale shark or locally known as butanding. Each morning while the sun is not yet too hot (thus, the early time) these gentle giants come to the surface to be fed by the local fishermen. This makes a fantastic opportunity for people to bond up-close with them, especially that they are generally harmless.

Encounter time is limited to only 30 minutes but were actually enough to revel at the sight of our friend in the sea (although at first sight, when it was 1 or 2 meters away from me and close to its overwhelming size, I was terrified. But that’s part of the process. It wouldn’t be called the biggest fish in the world for nothing).

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A queen fish in a queen island – Butanding in Oslob, Cebu

Sadly, we saw one wounded whale shark and somehow I questioned myself, am I enjoying at the expense of these beautiful beings? I hope not, but still it didn’t felt right and I pray the whale sharks get the care and respect they deserve.

From the sea to the top

After immersing ourselves in Cebu’s waters for days, we reached its highest point – the Osmena Peak. As is with other hikes, the trail was energy-consuming albeit not that difficult. After 10-20 minutes, we found ourselves marveling the Cebu island from its crown.

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A local boy from Osmena Peak
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Tourists not minding the cliff to get better photos
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Looking all over Cebu shrouded by dark clouds
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The mandatory group photo

And the richness in history and faith.

At a very young age, we were taught the richness of Cebu’s history: the landing of Magellan (who led the first navigator ship to circle the world – Victoria) and his death at the hands of arguably the first Filipino hero, Lapu-lapu, in the notable Battle of Mactan. The setting of Magellan became an important turnaround in Philippine history, paving the way for a 333-year of Spanish regime. This day, Magellan’s cross became a monument of this history. I can’t help but be amazed as I witness things I was taught as a young Filipino, as if ridiculously I was watching history unfold in my very eyes.

But perhaps what can be attributed most to Cebu culture-wise is the depth of its Catholic faith, as is evidenced by its monumental shrines and the nationally hailed Sto. Nino (celebrated annually during the Sinulog Festival).

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The sporadic food trips:

There are tons of A-class restaurants that offer palatable food in Cebu. In this trip, we went to Casa Verde (where we’re treated for a dinner by a generous officemate), La Vie Parisienne and Zubochon (where we satisfied ourselves with the cuisine Cebu is known for – the lechon Cebu). But coming to the point when we have to budget, thankfully there is a local street eatery that gave us just what we need, cheap but delicious meals – the Pungko-pungko sa Fuente – where crabs, chicharon bulaklak, hotdog, porkchop and chorizo are put all together in one rectangular plastic container. Just pick one and eat. It was fun since we haven’t had that kind of eating experience before.

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Pungko-pungko sa Fuente! Fun dining experience
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Magellan’s Cross – a monument of the 333-year Spanish regime in the Philippines

 

There’s still a long list of places to visit in Cebu: Bantayan Island, Tumalog and Aginid Falls and more.  Next time, I’ll make sure I’ll tick off everything.

Until the next time, Cebu!

How I Ended Up Regretting Underestimating My First Hike

Mt. Capistrano? Never heard of the mountain before.

And when my officemates organized a hike to this mountain’s top, I was more neutral than excited. I even thought of not going. Well, I even decided not to go at all.

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The moon as we started the hike.

But events turned out so quick and I found myself at the foot of Mt. Capistrano
at 4:00 AM on January 15.

No exercise, not even a minor jog. No warm-ups whatsoever. I was even confident carrying a heavy bag and wearing fitted shorts.

But ten minutes of climbing the landform and I found myself desperately wanting to leave my bag behind, among the wet shrubs; not bothering if I’ll still find it when I come back.

A quarter of the trek and I did not hesitate wearing off my fitted shorts and have my trick pants instead (I bless the minute my brother persuaded me to bring the pants).

Every step along the trail, I and my friends are close to saying ‘Okay, I’m done. I’m not climbing that mountain anymore.’

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7:58 AM and we’re halfway through.

But every step along the trail, we were peeking at the vista there is of the panoramic mountain ranges of the beautifully green Bukidnon (bukid is actually mountain in our native tongue!).

That’s what holds us from giving up the climb; the thought of reveling at the top, watching all of the sceneries in full circle, 360 degrees, back-front, left-right.

We were slipping along the slope; scratching our hands on sharp edges of rocks; traversing through snake holes.

We were literally crawling, with nothing but a rope to hold on and prevent us from sliding down.

We were trailing behind most of the legit hikers, chanting ‘This is not a race. We’ll get there.’

‘Slowly but surely.’

‘It’s the journey that counts. The destination is just an added bonus.’

‘All of this will be worth it in the ended.’

Before we knew it we were already reciting mantras not only applicable to this hike, but virtually in every aspect of life.

So this is what hiking is all about: believing it was all easy at first until you reach that point of giving up.

Until you reach that mountaintop.

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And only if you could pat yourself on the back and say ‘Dude, thanks for not giving up.’

And as if everything is not enough, there’s an underground spring in a cave nearby that can surely relax your cramped muscles.

Relax in a cold spring inside a cave nearby!

Exploring the Exotic Camiguin

Northwest of the Mindanano island, Philippines is the exotic island of Camiguin. Indeed, its geography of four active volcanoes in one island is unmatched anywhere else in Asia. Riding a ferry from the coast of Misamis Oriental, I can only stare at one of its steaming volcanoes, Mt. Hibok-hibok, as the swerving water transport approaches the Port of Benoni, Camiguin. The journey was long, but like any other journeys, it was worth it.

The island of Camiguin is the perfect stop to one looking for a getaway from civilization. There are areas where signal is low so you have no choice but to forget about Twitter and keep that mobile phone away; few people and simple human habitations and roadside cliffs peppered with lofty rainforest-like trees. In fact, I decided to go there along with my sister and her friends not just to travel and create this entry but more so to calm my mind amidst the busy and demanding work of an auditor.

Anyways, our first stop was the Sto. Nino cold spring, with cool and relaxing waters coming out straight from a mountain’s bottom. The moment I submerged my toe in its pure water, the relaxing chill reverberated to my entire body.

Later that day we went to the Sunken Cemetery. Needless to say, the cemetery is covered by meters of oceanic waters with only a huge crucifix emerging above the surface. The place dates back thousands of years ago during the Spanish era around 1500s. A combination of all of that creates the surreal, historic, somehow terrifying yet overall, invigorating feeling. There were foreign tourists snorkeling and watching underwater tombstones when we arrived.

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The setting-sun background of the Sunken Cemetery magnifies its surrealism.

The next day we went to one of Camiguin’s famous spots which in my opinion is the iconic symbol of the place, the Camiguin White Island. The treeless, all white sand landform is located in the middle of the sea kilometers away from mainland Camiguin. And to sum up my experience there is the word breathtaking: the fine sand comprised of white rocks and seashells powdered by the coming and going of the rhythmic waves is breathtaking; the sun kissing and slightly burning your skin and then cooled by the breeze as it passes by to blow the hairs of ladies captivated by the view of steaming green volcanoes far away. Breathtaking.

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A cheap but delicious local food. 

 

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My snorkeling experience has been fantastic, given the fantastic waters.

Truly, when I came back for work after that trip, I was more ready.

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Coming back home with a more positive mood

Make sure to come in Camiguin, too!

 

Living Alone in Taiwan: My Experiences as an Exchange Student

Two years ago, I had this once in a lifetime opportunity to become an exchange student. Initially, the thought was a bit scary to me due to the fact that I’ve never lived away from home for a long time lest to be alone in another country. But somehow, the thought also ignited a spark in me that (as I’ve found out), I cannot just shelve in the corner – the excitement of what could become a fantastic adventure. So despite many concerns, hesitations and a palpitating heart, I took the chance and applied for an exchange student program.

And to cut the long story short, I was bound for Taiwan.

Boarding off a DragonAir flight, I couldn’t simply describe how I felt the moment I stepped on the Taiwanese ground and be surrounded by Chinese characters and conversations I could not understand. There was fear that what if I made such a decision emotionally, mentally and financially unprepared? What if halfway through I wanted to go home? What if I don’t fit in? I’ve never had a longer conversation with a foreigner before so what if I can’t adjust? But then in the middle of these worries, I would finally think ‘This is it! This is the adventure you need to color your life!’

Perhaps, the most significant place in my journey in Taiwan is the place I lived in in four long months -a dormitory inside our university’s campus in Kaohsiung City, south of Taiwan; and one of the things I’m most thankful for is that my roommates and dorm mates are very friendly. My roommates are Bryan, from Macau and Yuya, a Japanese. What’s funny in our setting is that, Bryan barely speaks Japanese or English, Yuya barely speaks English and is just starting to learn Chinese while me have no idea about Japanese or Chinese at all! So verbally, there’s no way for us to connect with each other. Yet thankfully, all of us willingly tried to communicate with each other as much as we can – which means a lot of funny gestures, unintelligible languages and Google translate. I felt really happy looking back at those moments.

People from our nearby rooms come from different nations as well: there were four more Japanese guys across our room; Chinese, Indonesians and Malaysians are on our left and right; further down the hall was a cool guy from Haiti, a multilingual Vietnamese, a floor above is a Thai and French friends of mine, and more. I got particularly close with my Japanese, Malaysian and Thai dorm mates, and with them I made a great number of funny Taiwan memories even in a bleak, high-walled dorm.

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I in a Japanese traditional costume my Japanese friends made me wear. My Malaysian friend (leftmost) was there to have fun of me too!

Next thing that’s great about any travelling experience (and I’m sure we can all agree) is food, and Taiwan has many local, exotic and delicious delicacies to offer. At the close of every day, night markets open; and in Taiwan a night market means a rich hub for food enthusiasts.

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A night market in Taiwan – a rich place for food and more.

Some of Taiwan’s palatable cuisines include the xialongbao (steamed buns), lu rou fan (pork braised rice bowl), oyster pancakes, and the very famous chou dofu (stinky tofu). Eating all of them together with new found friends, my Taiwan journey has been more flavorful.

 

Taiwan is also a very livable place, with excellent transportation system, clean environment, scenic and artistic spots and friendly locals.

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In Formosa Boulevard, one of the subway stations in Kaohsiung.
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One of the many buildings in my university.
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Taiwan is a very livable place.
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Strolling around the city
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Through a bridge
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In one of Taiwan’s museum.
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A magnificent Buddhist temple
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A sunset view in Taiwan – different country, same sun.

It is this Taiwan experience that ignited my desire to travel the world. In fact, it is this experience as well that made me create this humble travelling blog – for me to share my thought about travelling and how the world is too wide and big and great to be undiscovered.

Honestly, I felt like I became a different person when I came back. One who is not settling in a single, safe place in the world but one who is a discovered of a wider horizon.

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Cultural differences will make you a more understanding human being, but more friendships will make you a better person.

If there is one significant learning Taiwan has given me, it is the cultural immersion experience that widened my understanding and perspective of differences among people of varying nations and how we should treat everybody with respect regardless of what they believe. Most importantly, I’ve learned a society can become more beautiful if the people within it are different but equal. Imagine a rainbow. One color alone cannot create a rainbow – it can be too bright or it can be too dull – but position them side by side as if they are a single ray and voila!, a beautiful rainbow. In Taiwan, I’ve learned the importance that in a setting of different people, you should not brand yourself as different. Rather you should learn to blend by learning what makes you different from them – be it in religion, tradition, even political and social views -and accepting those differences no matter how they can be contradictory to yours. In that way, you can widen your thinking of people without losing your own identity. In fact, you can become more appreciative of who you are and your roots and you will learn a lot.

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A smile in an adorable Taiwanese baby. A world can be filled with this if every body does his or her part in promoting harmonious living.

 

Ta-al Trekking

Being one of the most known volcanoes in the Philippines, and perhaps in the world, a trek to the crater of the Ta-al Volcano is definitely a must-try.

Why go to Ta-al?: If you want to get real up close an active volcano accompanied by several surprises along the way, Ta-al is a very good choice.

How did we go?: We wanted to go to certain locations first before finally heading up to Ta-al. In this trip, we rode a bus headed from Manila towards Sta. Rosa, Laguna to stop over in Enchanted Kingdom, a local fun amusement park, then hired a van going towards Tagaytay to enjoy its noted cool and clean surroundings. After that, we drove us to Talisay City, Batangas. where we rented a boat to cross Ta-al’s outer lake to its inner land circle.

Note that there are many ways one can access Ta-al. It is best to plan your trip ahead of time so that you can decide wisely which path suits your comfort.

What you should do?: The most enjoyable trip of your life in Ta-al doesn’t have to be that costly. At the foot of the Ta-al volcano, the locals of the community will welcome you warmly. There, you can ask one of them to accompany you to the crater. Of course, you have to give them some freebies as well. After choosing your tour guide, talk with him. Ask him what’s his name, how is he, how long has he be doing this job or does he have any other form of livelihood. Ask them anything about Ta-al as well, they know more the place they live in than anybody. By doing this, you’re not just discovering the place but more importantly the life within it. I have the opportunity to mingle with a local named Dennis, the horse jockey I had to accompany me. He was born in Batangas, lived in the same place ever since in his 36 years of living and has been doing the job for  10 years now. Dennis, was no taller than I am so I felt like I was talking to a comrade – a very close comrade if I may describe it. His dark complexion, black pupils, dry hair, dirty nails and gapped teeth spoke much of the simplicity of the life of the humble people living within the vicinity.

Aside from having a local tour guide, you can horseback your way to Ta-al too! Horses in this part of the world are so friendly and their names – Jericho, Cristina, etc. – are very amusing as well.

But my suggestion is that you trek to the crater and then horseback your way back to the town. That method, you’ll enjoy the the perks of both options. Just remember that any of those ways mentioned, you’ll have to bear with the smell of horse poop along the track. In my case, I just laughed out my disgust of the smell but occasionally covering my nose to avoid it. Besides, it is still part of the entire Ta-al experience, isn’t it?

You can do these things while you are on your way to the crater as well:

  • Locate some sulfur emissions of the volcano and its rotten egg-like smell
  • Talk to your fellow tourists and ask them how they’re doing. If they are enjoying, tell them great.If they are not, tell them have a life.
  • Wonder at the scenic views of different islands.
  • Take pictures! Just remember not to obsess too much on documenting the trip through your cam or phone that you fail to actually document it in your memory.

Once you reach the top, take some time to rest. Perhaps, you can take a sip of a local vendor’s buko or buy souvenirs like locally-made shirts and other items. This way, you’re having physical memoirs of your journey and at the same time, helping the community.

After gaining energy, now’s the perfect time to enjoy the view. Meditate on the view, capture it in your mind thinking you might not come back to this place. If you’re with your family, now’s the time to enjoy it with them; with friends, to have fun; with a lover, to be romantic; or alone, to reflect on everything worth’s reflecting.

Where to eat?: After the tiring yet fun trek, it’s just right to reward yourself a hearty meal. You can go back to Tagaytay and drive straight to the Mahogany Market.  The market is known for its sumptuous and delicious native cuisines, all for reasonable prices! You can try their roasted crablets, fried shrimps, sweet pineapples and their bulalo (beef stew) is one, if not the, place’s finest. If you want, you can pair all those food with a native coffee. Just to mention, Tagaytay is known also for its coffee.

So what are you thinking about now? Plan your next rrip and let that trip be a trek to Ta-al.

 

Sohoton’s Waters: Amongst the Finest

A six- to eight-hour ride from Davao City will take you to a place uncrowded of tourists, unpenetrated with big establishments but blessed with a wonder of nature so beautiful and pristine one gloomy heart will surely lighten. The place is called Sohoton in Siargao Island near the northeast tip of the bigger Mindanao island, Philippines.

Why go to Sohoton?: While the physique of Sohoton can be compared to places like Palawan, its atmosphere is something to brag about. It offers serenity and quietness which famous island tourist spots usually lack – a perfect moment for someone to relax, meditate and destress from the hullaballoo of the city and life in general.

What to do in Sohoton?: You should go to the Hagukan Cove, an opening found beneath the ocean where you can cross over to enter into a hidden cove. Our tourist guide told us Sohoton got its name there, because you have to sohot or so-hot or so-ot (to swoop) the opening to get in. Inside, the green waters will look like they’re sparkling, mainly because of the enough amount of light playing with the water’s ripples.

 

You should do these things as well:

  • Dive into the clear waters 15-25 ft deep. In our case, Club Tara, our accommodation, has its own diving board. We took this opportunity to dive as much as we want.
  • Hire a local tourist guide to accompany you in the trip. Ours was named Michelle, who is a really beautiful lady with her sun-kissed skin and hair, brown eyes and fit stature. She’s also really kind, as with most of the people we’ve met here.
  • Thrill yourself in the Bolitas Cave. Bolitas Cave has a particular tunnel enough only for an average human to fit in and pass through. If you’re looking for some adrenaline rush in your entire Sohoton trip, Bolitas cave is the perfect choice.
  • Go island hopping! It seemed that when God rained islands to the earth, this particular area got a lot. So go ahead, hire a boat and hop from island to island. Not to mention that there are islands that are perfect for swimming because of their not so deep water and shores strategically located to avoid the sun’s rays.
  • Take pictures of the entire scenery. There are unlimited places to go and snap that perfect shot (or selfie!) you want.

 

What to eat?: The place is the reality for that sumptuous and straight-from-the-ocean fresh seafood buffet you dream of. You can order wide arrays of varied seafood delicacies ranging from steamed squids, prawns, shrimps, lobsters, grilled milkfish, malasugue and more. All of that and never a worry of bad fat and calorie!

Tips: Although, it is advisable that you know how to swim, you don’t have to be a really good swimmer to enjoy the deep waters of the place, as there are life vests and life guards to assist you. But for those who can’t, I recommend a little more care and attention – but not too much as to stifle your enjoyment of this nature’s beauty. So go ahead! Go to Sohoton and immerse yourself as much as possible in its majestic waters.

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