A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Whale Sharks and Ancient Rice Terraces

9 Days Exploring the Philippines


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We left the country of malls (Singapore) and took a flight to Manila, the capital of the Philippines. The US had a strong presence in the Philippines for about 50-years in the early 20th century. As a result, to this day, English is a common second language. When we arrived in Manila we noticed an instant departure from the Asia we’ve been travelling through over the past few weeks (Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in particular). Manila is pretty dirty, with a large, urban poor population - it felt more like some of the cities in Africa we visited. Manila has malls and first world restaurant chains (Kenny Roger’s Roasters, KFC, and A&W do shockingly well here), but it’s all just a shiny façade in a lot of ways. The people are generally nice and, interestingly, 90% of the population claims to be Christian in contrast to the rest of Asia which is overwhelmingly Muslim or Buddhist.

While in Manila, we hit up the major tourist sites including the Intramuros, all that remains of Spanish colonial Manila. It is a walled town within the city and contains some old churches and Spanish architecture. The main draw in the Intramuros is Fort Santiago, a Spanish fort which was later used by the Japanese during WWII to house POW’s. Jose Rizal, a writer and national hero, was also kept in the fort immediately before his execution by the Spanish. He is revered to this day as a martyr for national freedom because the Spanish claimed he was an instigator and had him executed.
IMG_1302.jpgThe oldest Spanish church in Manila
IMG_1316.jpgIn the Intramuros
IMG_1328.jpgAt Fort Santiago
IMG_1331.jpgThe jeepney- no two are alike and they a national symbol of the Philippines

After seeing the sights in Manila we headed to Donsol. The long distance bus system in Manila is difficult to navigate – you can’t buy tickets online or over the phone and there is no central bus station – as a result, you have to go to each individual bus company to find tickets. Thankfully, flights were $80 roundtrip and would cut our travel time in half, so we just decided to skip the headache and fly. We flew from Manila to Lugazpi at the foot of Mt. Mayon, a still active volcano which last erupted in 1993. Then from Lugazpia we traveled by minivan for one hour to Donsol.
IMG_1337.jpgCatching a tricycle in Lugazpi- I swear we've taken almost every mode of transportation there is

Our whole point in getting to Donsol was to cross off a bucket list item – swimming with whale sharks. After getting situated at our hostel, we headed out the next morning on a converted fishing boat with two other couples and spent the better part of the morning just trying to spot one. We had just about given up hope when at the very end of the morning a “butanding” (Pilipino for whale shark) was spotted. In a mad dash, we raced over and all jumped in the water. Our guide grabbed my hand and said “swim now, it’s coming”. I hate to sound cheesy, but it was like magic. Almost out of nowhere the shark came into view, a bus sized object gracefully swimming only six feet underneath me. My first view was its enormous mouth which could swallow a person whole (but thankfully, it only eats plankton). This particular whale shark was about 21 feet long; half the size of a full grown adult! We swam along with it for about 30 minutes in total before it disappeared into deeper water. It was a truly amazing life experience!
IMG_1356.jpgOur butanding spotter
IMG_1364.jpgMt. Mayon
ws1.jpg While not our pics (no underwater camera), these next two are basically what we saw
ws2.jpg

We left the magic of Donsol, flew back to Manila and then caught an overnight bus to Banaue. Like most night buses, it was a fairly painful experience, but we made it and checked ourselves in to a cute B&B. Banaue is a small, mountain town with a very pleasant temperature compared to sweltering Manila and Donsol. The town is famous because it is built in and around 2000 year old rice terraces which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On our first day, after catching up on the sleep we missed on the bus, we walked around the market and found ourselves constantly stopping to say “hello” to probably the friendliest lot of children we have met in our travels. We also found an American country music bar in this small town of all places. Jeff looked about as excited as I do when I’m at the mall. We sat in the bar for a while and listened to a little Filipino man with a shockingly soulful country voice belting out songs like “Friends in Low Places” and “I Love This Bar”.
IMG_1417.jpgThis was the best- the Philippine solution to "we oversold the bus by 12 seats"- they just put plastic chairs in the aisle- and it was an overnight bus!
IMG_1438.jpgDowntown Banaue with the "Friends Country Music Bar" in the background

On our second day we headed out for a day trip to the nearby and very scenic village of Batad. We had no idea what we were in for. We took an hour long tricycle ride on some really bad roads up into the mountains (I can’t believe the tricycle made it up) and then we hiked for an hour and a half to the village. The closest road to Batad is a 45-minute hike. Because it is so difficult to get to, the village is cut off from the tourism of Banaue and retains a quaint feel. To this day, most of the villagers continue to grow and harvest rice by hand on the adjacent 2,000 years old terraces. The scenery was really amazing and after about 6 hours of up and down hiking we were exhausted (even our guide looked beat).
IMG_1493.jpgA view of Batad from above
IMG_1494.jpgAnother view of the terraces
IMG_1528.jpgTaking a breather near a waterfall
IMG_1540.jpgWalking back along the terraces

On our last day in Banaue, we relaxed for a while and then went to a lookout point by tricycle for some final views of the terraces. Our tricycle driver explained to us that each rice terrace is owned by a certain family and that the oldest child (boy or girl) inherits the family’s rice terrace(s) and the youngest child (boy or girl) inherits the house. Middle children (usually between 4 to 6 of them) either end up working for the oldest child or have to find alternative jobs (such as our tricycle driver, a middle child).
IMG_1578.jpgFrom the viewpoint

After three days in Banaue, we caught another overnight bus back to Manila. For our last day in the Philippines, we visited the surprisingly interesting Chinese cemetery. In the cemetery, wealthy, local Chinese families have built extremely elaborate mausoleums for themselves equipped with chandeliers, bathrooms and kitchens, among other amenities. The over the top mausoleums are both a status symbol and a home away from home for visiting family members. Like our guide book points out: “[the cemetery] boldly challenges the idea that you can’t take it with you”. The things people come up with. We rounded out our time in Manila by having dinner with one of my old high school buddies. Alison is working in Manila temporarily and it was an awesome coincidence that we were both there at the same time! Of all the places to catch up with old friends :)
5IMG_1617.jpgOne of the elaborate mausoleums
IMG_1618.jpgThe mausoleum affectionately referred to as "Starbucks"- can you see why?
IMG_1628.jpgMy old French partner from HHS :)

Next, we’re heading to Indonesia to explore the islands of Java and Bali – we’ll write soon!

Posted by geldere 04:46 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Back in the States – Oh wait, it’s just Singapore!


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So, we took yet again another fantastic VIP bus from KL to Singapore through one of the easiest and most efficient border crossings ever. We got dropped off at a metro station and were totally blown away by how clean, modern, and efficient the whole system is here (I’d actually use those same words to describe the entire country). We were only in Singapore for four days, but we managed to see quite a bit of the county both on foot and with the help of the metro – size-wise it is really just a dot of a country on a world map.
IMG_1169.jpgOn the metro

Most people associate Singapore with a strict police state, but I didn’t feel that presence very much. There are signs in places that threaten hefty fines for things like littering, spitting, or bringing bombs onto the metro, but really, who needs those things, anyway? And again, even if English is not the official language, it is the defacto first language here. For example, if someone bumps you on the metro, there first reaction is to say “I’m sorry” in English.
5IMG_1245.jpgSends a pretty clear message

Singaporeans love their electronics, shopping, movies, and eating – these are my kind of people. Jeff described Singapore as “one big mall”, which I would definitely say has some truth behind it. You could spend days here walking from high-end mall to high-end mall and shop until you drop in air-conditioned bliss. So, when in Rome… we took in a few movies (all in English) and spent time on Orchard Road, which has been rated the #1 shopping street in the world – did I mention I love it here? It was rough :)
IMG_1226.jpgOf all places we found a Hershey's store in the mall

We stopped by the obligatory tourist sites as well including the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery (say that three times fast), 12 beautiful temples with both Chinese and Hindu influence. We checked out the old Colonial Town which still has some well preserved British colonial buildings and great walking streets. We also stopped by Little India to peruse the markets and people watch. On our last day, we went out to the MacRitchie Reservoir for some trail walking – Singapore’s version of New York’s Central Park. It is really hot here, the temperature hovers around 90 degrees and the humidity pushes 100% most days, so we stuck to shaded paths and trails. Given the weather, locals seek refuge in the air-conditioned malls and you can walk between most buildings in the downtown either underground or through sky bridges – you could literally spend days here and never walk outside.
IMG_1193.jpgAt the market in Little India
IMG_1196.jpgLittle India
2IMG_1214.jpgA building at the monestary
9IMG_1221.jpgA Buddha garden at the monestary
IMG_1234.jpgA walking trail at the Resevoir
IMG_1239.jpgAt the Resevoir
IMG_1254.jpgOn an old cricket field- with the Singapore skyline in the back
IMG_1264.jpgThis is how they do ice cream on the street here- a block of ice cream in between a slice of bread- wasn't that bad actually
IMG_1267.jpgSnazzy architecture here- it's supposed to be a boat on top

All in all, I would have to say that most people I know would love Singapore. It’s so modern and above all else, clean, which is hard to come by in Southeast Asia. It is also a great jumping off point in Asia and easy to get to – check it out! We fly to the Philippines next and we’ll post soon!

Posted by geldere 23:06 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

On the Banana Pancake Trail in Malaysia


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Travel has its good moments and its not so good moments – Leaving Koh Tao and traveling to Malaysia was one of the more frustrating moments. For starters, we rode in the uncovered back of a pickup truck to the pier in a light rain. Then, we took a two-hour ferry ride to the mainland which was delayed due to rough seas and pouring rain. The ferry also happened to have a ceiling leak in the passenger compartment which spurted water like a nicked artery every time the boat swayed far enough. Once we reached the mainland, we took a bus to the train station where we waited a few hours for an overnight train. Somehow, beyond our comprehension, we missed the train we had tickets for even though we were at the station when it passed through. As a result, we had to cough up more money for the next train heading south which we made sure not to miss after obsessively asking the police and train workers when it would arrive. The night train dropped us off early in the morning at a Thailand border town from which we had to catch yet another train traveling across the border and to the town of Butterworth, Malaysia. After clearing customs and immigration and arriving in Butterworth, we took our second ferry to the island of Penang. And, finally, we took a bus from the Penang port to Love Lane, the street where our next hostel was located. Lord have mercy, sometimes it’s a process! Jeff rolls his eyes at me as I write this – he didn’t think it was that bad ;)
IMG_0827.jpgThe ferry ride to Penang

Penang is an island on the Western coast of Malaysia and Jeff refers to it as the biggest place he’s never heard of - its skyline looks like a little Hong Kong. Georgetown, the main city on the island of Penang, is a real melting pot of culture and history. It was along a major trading route for the British and thus has scores of English architecture. We spent our first two days on Penang walking the streets of Georgetown, checking out the museums, and visiting the must see Chinese clan house (very ornate). We also scored our best Indian food since being in Dar es Salam, Tanzania and caught a movie at one of Penang’s extremely modern theatres (Sherlock Holmes). On our third day we took a funicular ride to the top of Penang Hill for some spectacular views of the city. We then walked back down Penang Hill and through the Botanical Gardens before catching a bus back to Georgetown. Penang boasts several great night markets with “the best hawker food in Malaysia” so we tested our taste buds and stomachs with some of the street food (see pictures below). The food choices in Malaysia are a reflection of the diverse culture - Malay, Indian, and Chinese.
IMG_0854.jpgThe Chinese Clan House
IMG_0897.jpgAt the top of Penang Hill
IMG_0918.jpgCendol: Shaved ice treat with jellies, coconut milk and cane syrup- Jeff's reaction was "wow, it's good- that is not as disgusting as it looks!"
IMG_0919.jpgChar Kway Teow: Medium width rice noodles are stir-fried with egg, vegetables, pork in a dark soy sauce. Also sugar cane juice which incidentenally was not that good
IMG_0925.jpgChicken Satay: grilled chicken on kebabs with the most amazing peanut sauce you've ever had
IMG_0920.jpgscenes from the night market
IMG_0922.jpgI passed on that one

The Malaysians we have met have been extremely nice and you get a smile and a hello wherever you go. Shockingly, almost everyone here speaks near perfect English – But for English, the three dominate ethnic groups (Malay, Indian, and Chinese) would have trouble communicating with each other. It’s also awfully hot here, very similar to Florida in the summer, hot and humid- walking into an air-conditioned building feels like taking a dip in a pool.

We then caught a bus to the Cameron Highlands which is about the altitude of Denver and in the center of the country. The ride was really pleasant and we’ve been blown away by how developed Malaysia is. The highway and bus systems are top notch and the rest stops were Western standard, if not better (clean bathrooms- don’t take them for granted). The elevation in the Highlands provides a unique “high-altitude tropical environment” which is perfect for growing strawberries and tea (the area’s specialties), plus it also provides an amazing break from the heat. We took a tour of the area which included stops at a tea plantation, butterfly farm, rose garden, honey bee farm, Buddhist temple, and strawberry farm. The area is really beautiful and reminded us a bit of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (if by happenstance you’ve ever made the pilgrimage to Dollywood). Coincidentally, the area is also full of old Land Rovers that looked like they’ve been driven hard since at least the 1950’s. They’re used by farmers here to transport goods and such, but there’s so many of them, people refer to the Cameron Highlands as “the place where Land Rovers come to die”. On our second day in town we headed out to complete one of the many hikes the area is known for. All in all, the hike took about four hours, including several wrong turns along the way, but the views were pretty and it gave us some much needed exercise in order to burn off all of the Chicken Tikka we’ve been eating :) The Cameron Highlands is certainly a unique stop-off on the Banana Pancake Trail (as the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit is referred to) if you are ever in the area.
IMG_0963.jpgA view of the tea plantation
IMG_0982.jpgAt the strawberry farm
IMG_0997.jpgOn our hike up the mountain
IMG_1000.jpgTaking a breather

We then headed out to our last stop in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, the capital of the country. We took a bus that sold itself as a “VIP” bus and were shocked when it actually turned out to be a nice bus. When buses are advertised as “VIP” or “First Class”, they usually just end up being standard, overcrowded buses. We cracked up as other Westerners boarded the bus after us and exclaimed our same sentiments – “holy crap, this is the nicest bus I’ve been on in a while”, “check out the leg room” – it apparently doesn’t take much to please us. We happened to meet two ex-pat Americans, Simona and Jason, on our tour in the Cameron Highlands who were living in KL and they generously offered to let us stay with them. All in all, we spent about three days in KL wandering the city, seeing the sights, and checking out the malls. We enjoyed the view from the top of the Petronas Towers (the tallest buildings in the world between 1998 and 2004) and headed out for some hiking on a “canopy walk” in a nearby forestry reserve. We saw the Batu Caves (a Hindu holy site) and amused ourselves by watching monkeys snatch food from visitors and drinking out of plastic bottles - naughty little creatures. While in KL, Simona and Jason took us out to some fabulous restaurants and we even worked out at their gym and swam in the huge and very refreshing pool at their apartment complex. It was definitely fun to experience the ex-pat life for a few days!

IMG_1168.jpgOur "VIP bus" :)
IMG_1048.jpgAt the mall in KL
IMG_1072.jpgPeople watching- Malaysia is 80% Muslim
IMG_1076.jpgThe famous KL landmark- the Petronas Towers
IMG_1139.jpgOn the skybridge at the Petronas Towers, 41 floors up
IMG_1100.jpgOn the canopy walk on the KL outskirts
IMG_1110.jpgOutside the Batu caves
IMG_1114.jpgEveryone gets thirsty
IMG_1162.jpgOur last feast with Simona and Jason- it had to be cake!!

Our time in Malaysia has come to an end and we are now making our way to neighboring Singapore. We really enjoyed our time in Malaysia and were very impressed by its “first world-ness” and the melting pot of culture and food. We’ll write more from Singapore soon!

Posted by geldere 19:42 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Island Hopping to ring in the New Year


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We left our cushy existence in Bangkok to head south down the Thai peninsula for some island hopping. We started our journey on an overnight train and arrived early in the morning in Surat Thani, our jumping off point for the islands. After a one-hour bus ride to the port and a three-hour boat ride, we finally arrived on our first island, Kho Pha-Ngan. All in all it took nearly 20-hours to travel from Bangkok to our beachside bungalow, but islands are usually worth the work. The islands here remind me a lot of St. Lucia in the Caribbean – green, lush, and mountainous. Our crescent shaped beach was located on a small bay filled with turquoise water. We spent three days lounging in beach chairs and swaying in hammocks. I somehow managed to get burnt even though it was pretty overcast most of time. And, like any good beach vacation, we ate our fair share of surprisingly delicious food at the resort (14 simple bungalows with one restaurant/bar).
IMG_0650.jpg On the ferry to the Islands
IMG_0660.jpgFrom the beach on Kho Pha-Ngan
IMG_0665.jpgJeff relaxing in the hammock
IMG_0667.jpg A view of our little resort and bungalows
IMG_0669.jpgOur small strech of beach

After our R&R on Kho Pha-Ngan, we hopped aboard another ferry and headed for our next destination, Koh Tao. While waiting for the ferry, we enjoyed some great people watching. Kho Pha-Ngan attracts quite the mix of travelers, from retirees and preppy kids, to hippie backpackers and those sporting the 90’s grunge look. Some of them also looked completely destroyed as Kho Pha-Ngan is home to the notorious Full Moon parties (though it wasn’t a full moon while we were there, but apparently a half moon is a sufficient reason for a rave).
IMG_0683.jpgOur ferry to Koh-Tao

We arrived at Buddha-View Dive Resort on Koh Tao several hours later. Jeff’s birthday gift was to get his Advanced Open Water Scuba Diving License and Koh Tao, a diving mecca, was just the place. We were also extremely excited to be meeting up for New Years with friends we made while traveling through Mozambique months ago, Tristan and Caroline from Switzerland. They are also traveling around the world and our paths have now crossed in Mozambique and Thailand, and will likely also cross in Australia and New Zealand in the coming months. We spent our first night on Koh Tao getting caught up with them about their travels since Mozambique (South Africa, Hong Kong, Nepal and India) and enjoying some local and relatively cheap Thai food.

After Jeff’s diving lessons the next morning, we all made our way across the island to a beautiful stretch of beach. The island is surrounded by reefs, which is what makes it such a great place to dive, but it only has a few patches of white sand. Nevertheless, we managed to find one and enjoy the scenery for several hours. It was New Year’s Eve that day and our resort was hosting a little shin dig with complimentary fireworks. The party included a massive BBQ with all the island specialties (shrimp, fish, corn, etc.) and we enjoyed an amusing band that changed the words to several popular songs by inserting scuba diving references. Once it hit midnight, the resort started setting off the fireworks, which happened to be right near where we were sitting. Drunk folks and fireworks are generally a bad combination, so I was glad that no one ended up blind (deaf maybe) and that all limbs were intact at the end of the show.
IMG_0693.jpgOn our hike to the beach
IMG_0700.jpgShark's Beach
IMG_0710.jpgRelaxing on the beach
IMG_0727.jpgThe vast array of seafood to grill-yum!
IMG_0728.jpgThe deck on New Years
P1040191.jpgNew Years with Tristan and Caroline
IMG_0758.jpgFireworks at midnight!

We awoke in 2012 and had breakfast at a fabulous little French bakery on the island specializing in chocolate croissants – delicious! Jeff had three dives scheduled for the day, including his first night dive. Unfortunately, the visibility on the dives was not amazing, but he can now at least he can call himself Advanced :) We parted ways with Tristan and Caroline as they headed north to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We have tentative plans though to meet up with them again when our paths cross in Australia and New Zealand.

We had hoped to get off the island on the morning of January 2nd, but between our procrastination in making travel arrangements and the weather, we were tragically stuck on the island for another day :) The south bound trains were fully booked and there was flooding in southern Thailand blocking road travel to Malaysia, our next destination. So to mix it up for a day, we decided to rent a moped in order to see more of the island. It was a fun and nerve racking experience all at the same time. For starters, neither Jeff nor I had ever driven a moped before, and it was surprisingly hard to balance and steer. On top of our inexperience, the island is also mountainous, so occasionally the moped didn’t have enough juice to get us both up and over some of the hills. Thankfully, we survived the morning but that afternoon the skies opened up, putting a definite kibosh on moped-ing from there on out.
IMG_0785.jpgOn our moped tour at the opposite end of the island
IMG_0791.jpgEnjoying the view
IMG_0804.jpgJeff on the infamous moped

Our time on the Thai Islands has come to an end, but we are not done island hopping just yet! We head to Penang Island in Malaysia next and will catch you all up when we get there! We hope you had a wonderful New Years and a great start to 2012!

Posted by geldere 18:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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