A Travellerspoint blog

Subic, Ocean Adventure

Final Thoughts

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Earlier, back in Puerto Galera, we met a man while diving who mentioned a city near Manila where you can dive with dolphins and killer whales inside a marine park, and said it was an unforgettable experience, and with almost a day to kill after the rice terraces, we put that activity as high priority on our list. Ss after arriving back in Manila around 5am, we immediately jumped on another bus heading in the direction of Subic (the location of a former US Navy and Marine base) to hopefully get a dive in before going back to Manila for our flight. The transportation getting there wasn’t too complicated, but for going non-stop the last few days, it felt a bit overwhelming. We arrived just as the marine park, Ocean Adventure, was opening and signed up for the dive. Although it was relatively expensive, this once-in-a-lifetime experience was definitely worth it. With our newly acquired certifications in hand the two of us along with the Master Diver headed to the show lagoon where the animals were located. Throughout the 25 minute dive we got to pet, feed, touch the tongues, and ride a bottle-nosed dolphin and false killer whale (it’s not actually a killer whale, but was originally mistaken as a baby KW, and that’s where the name originated from). It was great fun, and being underwater with them definitely put their sizes into perspective. We finished off the dive with a few phoo-ops on the beach with the animals and headed next door to another dive shop to inquire about a few famous wreck dives they offer. While we debated for some time which one we wanted to do, we were quickly reminded that you have to wait a certain amount of hours before getting on a plan flight, so we quickly realized that another dive was impossible, and the decision was easily made for us. It was a bit unfortunate since one of the wrecks was an aircraft carrier with sharks, rays, and other fish inhabiting the site, but hopefully we’ll catch a wreck dive somewhere in Bali. It was a pretty last-minute and random place to visit, but it provided us with some entertainment to pass the day since we were not eager to waste time in Manila.

We made it to the airport on time, eventually arriving in Jakarta around 11:30pm and checked into our guest house a few hours later. Although we’d be losing a day to travel, we decided instead of spending a day in Jakarta and taking an overnight train to Jogjakarta, it would be best to leave early in the morning in order to arrive early in the afternoon to Yogya, since the town is much more enjoyable than the hectic mess that is java's capitol. So we are currently on the train now, and our initial itinerary for Java and Bali for 13 days seems to be very promising. The only variable being the weather, and hopefully we can have some better luck than in the Philippines.

The Philippines overall was a very interesting country. Most everybody speaks English which made getting around and asking for help very easy, but transportation took forever, which was evident in the amount of days we lost to travel. The infrastructure is pretty poor, especially during the rainy season, as all dirt roads become impassible, and even ferry rides can take full days to reach popular destinations. Flying is probably the best option for getting around and Cebu Pacific Airlines was by far the cheapest option. Unfortunately the rumors regarding Filipino food was indeed true, in that it’s pretty miserable. We gave it a fighting chance, but after reoccurring disappointments, we quickly transformed our dietary habits to egg sandwiches and burgers. They do have some saving graces, such as their halo-halo dessert and really great breads and occasional pastries, but the main dishes themselves were pretty below average and not worth the expense. While there is lots of natural beauty and enough beaches and dive spots to make any person happy to forget about home, the only time to visit is during the dry-season, or else none of these places can really be appreciated. If we could plan our trip again, we would have probably bypassed Palawan, which is probably one of the more difficult and remote places to visit and instead taken a ferry from our first destination, Donsol, to the beautiful islands of the Vasayas. Not too big of a deal though since it would have rained the entire time, but Palawan did require a lot of travel days. Lastly, the culture here is very interesting as well. It’s very difficult to grasp exactly what makes someone a Filipino obviously aside from their residency. They don’t have the diversity or religious culture as other countries we’ve visited so far, and with the large American influence on their society, it almost felt as if it was a transplantation of the United States located in Asia. But all things aside, if you’re a beach lover or dive junkie, the Philippines is the place to be. However, if culture, food, and impatience with transportation problems is more in the cards, perhaps another country like Malaysia would suit you. For us, the saving grace was definitely getting certified. But beyond that, we had a great time with the whale sharks and visiting the rice terraces. While Palawan was very beautiful and interesting, for our time crunch, it was just a little too out of the way to warrant the visit. Next blog….Jogjakarta!!

Posted by STEVO1285 10:01 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Northern Luzon

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Northern Luzon and more specifically Batan, was an incredible sight. It actually brought back feelings of my experience witnessing Michaelangelo’s David this past summer. Sounds pretty cliché, but I mean it mainly in the sense that even after seeing pictures and hearing non-stop raves about the scenery, it still manages to impress when usually the hype can fail to live up to its expectations. We arrived early in the morning to Banaue, which is the jumping off point to Batad, a 9-hr bus ride from Manila. There are a few other locations in the area that are worth visiting and very popular with tourists, but our time was limited due to our flight leaving in two days. We decided there was a chance to visit Sagada the day we arrived, spend the night there, and the following morning make the trek over to Batad in order to view the rice terraces in the shape of an amphitheater.. However, as typical with the weather and the road conditions of this remote region, on the way over to Sagada (famous for their hanging coffins and burial caves) we were stopped in our tracks by a fresh mud slide blocking the one-lane road. Instead of waiting for an indefinite amount of time and possibly wasting precious hours, we opted to return back to Banaue, forget Sagada altogether, and immediately head to Batad for the afternoon and following morning. From Banaue it’s a one hour ride on tricycle to the junction point and from there a one hour hike up hill and another one hour hike downhill to reach the small village of Batad. As is typical of this time of year, the weather is immaculate during the day and by afternoon the rain arrives. We were lucky enough to finish our trek to the area right before the rain started and we settled in one of the handful of relatively basic guesthouses situated at great vantage points to the rice terraces.

After a late lunch we decided to visit the small village located in the middle of the terraces and possibly check out the viewpoint as well. We opted for an alternative route for the viewpoint and ended up getting a bit sidetracked, finding ourselves high up on one of the hills where another small village of rice workers live. The views were still great (much better than from the viewpoint), and with the rain pouring it was a nice adventure. By the time we made it down and finished taking hundreds of pictures, we left a visit to the village for the next day. Electricity ends around 10pm in Batad, so after dinner we headed to bed relatively early.

The next morning, even with sore legs from the previous day’s hike, we wanted to check out the waterfall about an hour from our guesthouse. Guides can be hired, but we went solo, which was doable, it just required a lot of help from the local villagers throughout our walk. The waterfall was really nice and refreshing once we arrived, unfortunately I took my sandals along with me through the waters and after taking a small stumble one of them fell off and was lost to the rapid Gods, causing me to hike all the way back barefoot.

After 3.5 hours for the entire trip we luckily joined another two backpackers and guide from the guesthouse for a more scenic and different route back to the junction point. The hike was incredible and much more interesting than the one we took the day before. A guide is definitely necessary for this route, and the views were incredible, with each turn uncovering more and more mountain sides covered in rice terraces. Looking at my watch, I realized that the impending storm was holding off a bit longer than the previous day, but once it started, it was an intense downpour, making any attempt to drive along the road impossible. We attempted to take a car to finish our journey, but the roads were too slippery and feeling a possible sense of danger, we decided it was safer to walk the road in the downpour. It was definitely a site, the roads were flooded with small and large rapids rushing across throughout the stretch. The rice terraces seemed even more impressive as small waterfalls along each level relieved the rice fields of access water. Apparently the current weather situation in this area is a relatively new phenomenon for these months of the year, so while the terraces are perfectly fortified to prevent damages, the roads connecting the towns are an absolute disasters with constant mudslides and flooding.. We fortunately made it safely to the junction and were able to catch a ride on a large, safe, four-wheel drive truck headed back into Banaue. Completely drenched, we rushed to grab our packs that we left back in town and headed to the bus station to catch the last ride back to Manila.

Posted by STEVO1285 09:59 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Puerto Galera

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That morning we caught our flight to Manila, jumped on the local bus heading south to Batangas, and then grabbed a one hour boat to Puerto Galera. The different boat companies heading to Galera are absolutely ridiculous with tons of staff members almost attacking you trying to have you purchase a ticket with them. There are warning signs about the likelihood of being scammed or over-charged, but we didn’t seem to find any other option. We were told on the bus by a nice man to ignore these people and head towards the building marked “Terminal” but even the security guards told us to head towards the blood-thirsty hawkers. We arrived to Puerto Galera after the dive shop, Action Divers, had already closed, so we found a really great guesthouse, which over in this area is pretty much like an apartment, furnished with bathroom, tv, and a kitchen (we were very excited about this aspect). So in a sense, this day was also lost to travel bringing us to a total of 5 days of travel and 3 days of activities. A pretty miserable ratio, but we’re making the most of what we can.

The next day we began our first step towards getting certified. The dive shop came highly recommended, and most of the staff there are Australian. We watched some movies, took a few quizzes, and had my first experience of diving underwater (Jessie previously did a Discover Dive back in Barbados). All-in-all a very good day, especially since it was raining the entire time, and I’m really excited about our next dives to come.

We lucked out the first day we arrived and found a pretty sweet guesthouse for the 4-night stay. Most places along the beach were charging anywhere from 30-60 USD, but we were able to bargain for almost an apartment style room, with bathroom, tv, queen sized bed, and kitchen all for 12 USD a night. So that was definitely an additional bonus to our certification since it meant we could shop in the markets and make some delicious meals. The following day we finished our coursework and completed a second dive off the shore and ended our class the next half-day with two more boat dives. The first three dives weren’t that interesting with respect to the types of fish swimming around, the attraction was mainly due to the corals and different sea slugs. However, the fourth dive was much more enjoyable since we got to see eels, large fish, a barracuda, three wreck sites, and some other larger sea animals. Our last day in Puerto Galera we decided to do one more final dive, our first while certified, and it was another good experience, more similar to the first three than the fourth, so not overly interesting, but still fun.

Once class ended each day we stayed active by touring around the area for different beaches and views of the surrounding islands. When the weather permitted we took a walk to an old lighthouse perched on a hill providing nice views of the surrounding waters, and we also rented a motorbike and drove to a few more beaches that were really nice, white beach and talisay beach. The weather started to clear up a bit each day, but showers would fall throughout the day. It started raining again in Manila right as we arrived to the bus terminal, so obviously the typhoon hasn’t fully fled yet. We’re currently on a night bus headed to Banaue in Northern Luzon, where the world famous rice terraces are located. Should be a blast!

Posted by STEVO1285 09:52 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

El Nido

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El Nido is a really small town, located next to the Bacuit Archipelago, and is the best jumping off point to go island-hopping along the limestone cliffs and snorkeling in the bight multi-colored waters. That night there was a beautiful sunset, which marked the first time in almost a week the sun had finally appeared from the clouds. We were pretty optimistic that we finally lucked out and would get some nice weather during our island-hopping tour. The weather in the morning wasn’t spectacular, but by mid-day the sun finally came out exposing the water’s magnificent colors.

Our tour boat from Alternative Guesthouse consisted of Jessie and I along with three other Germans (straight out of an SNL skit). The day consisted of visiting different secluded beaches and islands along with snorkeling, fishing, and eating a really great lunch prepared by the on-boat staff. The day in itself was very similar to our island-hopping trip in Ko Phi Phi; however, this was even better in every aspect. In Ko Phi Phi, the island-hopping mainly consists of visiting different beaches and lagoons within the second main island Ko Phi Phi Ley, while in the Bacuit Archapelago, there are seemingly hundreds of islands all scattered around providing more interesting visits and much better snorkeling. The food even was way more impressive. They bbq’d large squid, chicken, and a whole fish, along with rice, vegetables, and a massive fresh fruit platter. All of this from 9am-4pm for only around 14 dollars is unbeatable! After the trip, we spent a while trying to decide what our next course of action would be.

There were tons of options available and since staying in El Nido would mean simply doing another island-hopping tour to different islands, we were ready to leave the following morning for another destination. We could either head north to Coron, which required an expensive boat ride to reach. Here the main attractions are more island hopping along with popular wreck-site diving. We finally came to the consensus that due to the weather and constant rain we had been experiencing, that getting scuba certified would be the best option, since in rain or shine, diving is still fun. Therefore we needed to choose a location for the dive school and we considered both Marapascua Island off the northern tip of Cebu in the Vasayas, or Puerto Galera, a 5-hour journey south of Manila. In the end, while Malapascua seems to have some more interesting dive options and is considered the next Boracay, known to have the best beaches in the world, Puerto Galera is the most popular place to get certified in the Philippines, and it’s much closer to Manila, so in the event of lousy weather (a pretty good chance), we wouldn’t have to worry about cancelled flights in order to make the plane ride from Manila to Jakarta. Finally, with the typhoon upon us, we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the nice beaches in Malapascua anyways, so that wasn’t even a factor.

The following day we were planning on taking the 7am mini-van back to PP in the hopes of getting a flight that afternoon to Manila with Cebu Pacific, but once again, we ran into some transportation problems and didn’t arrive until all flights had already left. We had made a reservation through our guesthouse for the early morning mini-van, and while they later told us that the roads were bad and no vans were available, in reality, vans had arrived but filled up really quickly and left, not honoring our reservation. We found a French couple in the same situation, so lots of scrambling ensued to find an alternative means of getting to PP earlier than the local bus, but in the end the only option was the bus, so we conceded and finally left for PP around 10am arriving close to 7pm - another day lost to travel.

That morning we caught our flight to Manila, jumped on the local bus heading south to Batangas, and then grabbed a one hour boat to Puerto Galera. The different boat companies heading to Galera are absolutely ridiculous with tons of staff members almost attacking you trying to have you purchase a ticket with them.

There are signs warning against the likelihood of being scammed or over-charged, but we didn’t seem to find any other option. We were told on the bus by a nice man to ignore these people and head towards the building marked “Terminal” but even the security guards told us to head towards the blood-thirsty hawkers. We arrived to Puerto Galera after the dive shop, Action Divers, had already closed, so we found a really great guesthouse, which over in this area is pretty much like an apartment, furnished with bathroom, tv, and a kitchen (we were very excited about this aspect). So in a sense, this day was also lost to travel bringing us to a total of 5 days of travel and 3 days of activities. A pretty miserable ratio, but we’re making the most of what we can.

Posted by STEVO1285 06:55 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Puerto Princessa

Palawan

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We arrived in the evening to Puerto Princessa, the main town of the Palawan island, greeted once again by stormy weather. Apparently a typhoon is upon us causing the terrible weather and equally bad luck we’ve had with it these past few days, but hopefully it will pass quickly so we can start enjoying the true skies of the Philippines that we were originally expecting. As I’ve always said, the weather and people you meet while traveling are the two most important factors in determining one’s sentiment about a location, so hopefully the weather picks up, or it could leave an unfortunately disappointing taste in our mouths. Although both our books mentioned PP as a really great city due to its lack in litter and cleanliness, this does not make up for the air pollution caused by the seemingly hundreds of tricycle taxis clogging the streets. Local transportation around cities is extremely cheap in the Philippines, and the two main modes of transport are Jeepneys or Tricycles. Tricycles are simple motorcycles with a few seats attached, and a Jeepney is an extended version of a jeep that can fit many more people and are all interestingly decorated in multi-colors and pictures, to the driver’s liking. However, in PP, there are way too many of them zooming around such a small area. The main months of the rainy season here are June to August, but apparently its starting a bit early this year, so it was still pouring down heavily when we arrived and would continue until finally reaching El Nido.

After arriving to PP around 6pm, we checked into our guesthouse and eventually made our way out to eat dinner at a highly recommended restaurant, Ka Lui, which has delicious set seafood menus at really good prices. We ordered the grilled Marline steak and Calamari Sisig (Sisig is really famous here, but normally with pork parts, it kind of resembles a sizzling hash. We had to get it since we just watched Anthoney Bourdaine eat it on his episode to the Philippines). The next day we woke up early to go north for the day to Sabang, which is where the world’s longest subterranean river is located; however, we immediately ran into some issues upon arrival. After the terribly bumpy and uncomfortable bus ride north, we immediately found out the river was closed due to the heavy rains that had been hitting Palawan for the past few weeks. Not only this, but we arrived close to noon and the last bus heading back to PP leaves at 2pm, so even if it hadn’t rained, we probably wouldn’t have had enough time to see the river anyways. A little disappointed about wasting another day in the Philippines we walked around the town for a few hours before catching the bus back for another bumpy 3 hours back. Sabang, though was surprisingly a very nice beach town, which could definitely be a resting point for at least a few days. There’s not too much to do, but the town has some really nice beaches and it’s a very quiet and relaxed place. After arriving back to PP, we spent the rest of our day at Chowking using their free WiFi for future planning, since there’s not much else to do around the city. We decided that if the river were opened the following day we would make a second attempt, but if the rain continued into the night we would scrap the river and simply head north to El Nido, so we don’t lose another day. On the note of Chowking, although it’s a fast food Chinese food chain, they probably offer the best tasting Halo Halo that we’ve tried so far. Halo Halo being a very popular dessert consisting of shaved ice, coconut milk, many different types of flavored jelly substances, tender coconut, and ice cream. It’s an acquired taste cause its appearance can throw you off at first, but it’s delicious and addicting.

The river was opened again the following day, but due to some laundry issues back at the guesthouse we were 15 minutes late catching the 7am bus. We didn’t realize that the only other bus leaving for Sabang was at 9:30am, which was the same time we left the morning before. So, not only would we leave possibly too late to even see the river, but we’d have to wait around a few hours. We made a quick second decision and just decided to scrap the idea altogether and head to El Nido, since we had our bags with us. While we avoided losing another day trying to reach the river (which we later learned wasn’t that interesting), another day was lost to travel getting to El Nido. They are currently re-building or adding a road along the route up, so at the moment the road is completely dirt, which with the constant rain is now a mud road, making it almost impassible at times. So the ride up in a mini-van took close to 8 hours getting us in around 4pm.

Posted by STEVO1285 06:52 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Donsol

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There were a few directions we could head once arriving in the evening at Manila. The bus leaving the Clark airport, where we arrived from, took almost two hours to reach Manila, which happened around 8:30pm. We had no real motivation to stay in Manila for the day and since an immediate flight to Palawan (a beautiful island that we are now spending time in) was impossible, our only option was an overnight bus. Overnight buses either leave for the rice terraces, a very popular destination north of Manila in Northern Luzon, or Southeast towards Legazpi, which is the jumping off point for Donsol, famous for snorkeling with whale sharks. Since we’ll most likely need to return to Manila in order to fly out of the Philippines, we decided to choose the one destination that seemed most interesting and then if time permits we can visit the other location before heading out. The rice terraces seem very peaceful and people speak highly of it, but compared to whale sharks, something completely different and unique to anything we’ve done before, we chose that and left the terraces for the end.

So after arriving in Manila we immediately headed to the bus station and grabbed the overnight bus to Legazpi. After the 12 hour bus ride (it’s normally 9 hours with a more luxury bus, but they were all full at the time) we took the 1.5 hour van ride to Donsol, a quaint fishing town where the whale shark snorkeling tours originate from. There’s not too much interesting in Legazpi, it’s mainly known for having the volcano, Mt Mayon, which is apparently one of the most symmetrical cones in the world, and there are different trekking options, but apparently it can be a pretty dangerous hike since the volcano is still active and people have died from mudslides in recent years. Unfortunately the weather was pretty bad for the two days we were in that area, weather that would continue for some time afterwards, so the initial impression I was expecting of beautiful sunny skies and non-stop sunshine, wasn’t quite what we got.

Even though Donsol is a big tourist draw, it seems like it’s a relatively new attraction on people’s lists because the attention we got wasn’t to the extreme of Mukah, but still more than any other place we’ve been to thus far. We heard prior to arriving that Filipinos are very nice people and we immediately felt their welcome from the beginning. Everyone shouts, “hello friend!” when you walk by and the kids are especially friendly and love to have their pictures taken. The first day we stopped by the whale shark agency to register and watch a video and then lounged around for some time since it started to rain. The town of Donsol was pretty run down and the poverty was definitely apparent, much more than what I was expecting. But the area was still very beautiful and almost trapped in time, giving the sense that Thailand must have been this way before their tourism boom. That night we went on a firefly safari to visit some mangroves that were completely covered with fire flies, lighting up the trees as if it was Christmas. It was kind of interesting, but once you see it for a second, the remainder of the time gets pretty repetitive. We just happened to arrive during a three day Butaning (whale shark in Filipino) festival, and we were able to catch the Miss Butaning (or Miss Whale Shark…) pageant. It was pretty entertaining, and the whole town showed up for it. We didn’t realize at the time, but apparently out of the thirteen contestants, three of them were she-men (on a totally different note, there are tons of girl-dudes walking around and we are extremely curious at to why its so prevalent in this society and how it came to popularity).

The following morning was our snorkeling expedition. The weather was miserable when we woke up, and throughout the 3 hour search for sharks there was off and on rain; however, besides being cold after jumping in the water, the weather wasn’t too big of an issue. The main problem being that the spotters can’t see through the water as well, so not as many sharks were spotted. We had a nice group of seven for our boat, which was the maximum number, and therefore the cheapest, and while the first jump in to see the whale shark was absolutely thrilling, even though it was pretty small, the day almost ended with a feeling of complacency with a slight disappointment. However, on our last attempt right before heading back, our time with the largest of the three whale sharks we saw completely redeemed the trip and made it worth every penny. The shark started off below all of the swimmers but continually made its way up to the surface, heading right towards us the entire time so we were actually having to swim out of its way to avoid touching it. Swimming right next to its giant body for a seemingly long amount of time was truly exhilarating, and immediately elicited high fives from everyone once the shark eventually dove back under water. It was a fantastic experience, and although the waters can get crowded with tons of people jumping in and struggling to get a glimpse, usually resulting in fin kicks to the face, the silence of being underwater can almost drown out the surroundings so you don’t even realize it. And if you get a good spotter, there are chances when its only your group and the whale shark. The entire tours costs 300 PHP for snorkel and fin rentals, 600PHP for the registration fee, and 3500 PHP for the boat (with 7 people, 500PHP per person) amounting in total to under 30 USD, so not as expensive as some of our books made it out to be.

We left that same day for Legazpi to stay the night there since our return flight to Manila was from the their airport. It’s really popular to fly from Manila to Legazpi or vice versa because during the flight the plane passes right next to the volcano for apparently some beautiful views. Unfortunately the weather was still raining and our original flight with Cebu Pacific was canceled for the day, so we were forced to get a refund and by another ticket from Philippine Air in order to make it to Manila that same day to get our flight from Manila to Puerto Princess later that afternoon. Although the cost of the flight ended up after all was said in done, much more expensive than taking another overnight bus, we couldn’t have foreseen the weather, so there’s nothing we could have done. It was just a shame to pay the extra money for the flight to view the volcano, and the weather being so bad the clouds completely covered it resulting in zero visibility.

Posted by STEVO1285 02:09 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Kota Kinabalu and Around

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I mistakenly booked our plane flight leaving for the Philippines a day later than we had agreed upon (oh well), so we had a about a day and a half to kill before our flight. We learned there was a way of getting around the whole ‘not being able to climb Mt. Kinabalu (highest mountain in all of SEA) because all accommodation was booked’ but unfortunately we wouldn’t have made it down the mountain quickly enough to make our 3pm flight the following day. This was a pretty big shame, since had we known of this alternate route, we would have planned more accordingly, but we still heard the national park which houses the mountain is really beautiful and worth a visit, so that’s what we decided to do. That night we headed to the Night Market/Filipino market for dinner, and it was definitely a must when in KK. Tables are lined with condiments, and at one end is an endless array of fresh grilled seafood priced accordingly to choose from, really delicious. And along the perimeter of the market lies all the skewers and desserts you could ever ask for. Our travel books make KK out to be a really great city and a must-visit but some travelers we met when first arriving to Kuching all said the latter was more impressive and nicer then KK; however, Jessie and I both disagreed with these people and thought KK was much more interesting than Kuching, and there was much more around this larger city to keep one busy for multiple days. But in reality, most people only use KK as a jumping off point for the many activities around Sabah, so only a day will definitely suffice.

Mt. Kinabalu is definitely a sight. It’s one thing to have a large mountain range with one peak slightly above the rest, but in the case of Kinabalu National Park, all other rolling hills and mountains are completely overshadowed by the giant Mt. Kinabalu peak, that juts about twice as high as all the rest. We spent the entire first day hiking to the base of the mountain, staying until sunset, which was pretty unusual due to the cloud cover, and then hiked back for our overnight stay. Accommodation in the national is entirely too expensive, but there are a handful of guesthouses right outside the complex that offer rooms for normal prices. The next morning we woke up to get a good view of the mountain before the clouds rolled in, ate breakfast, and hitchhiked our way back to Kota Kinabalu. It was really lucky that the guy who picked us up was going there anyways, so we didn’t have to make any stops, and his car was 100 times more comfortable than the public bus. Another instance of Malaysians being extremely nice people. After arriving back, we grabbed our bags from the guesthouse and headed to the airport for our 4pm flight to Clark (Manila), Philippines.

Posted by STEVO1285 01:54 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Mukah

Sarawak, Malaysia

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Mukah and the weekend festival Kaul was an unbelievable festival and not because of the activities themselves but more importantly the people in attendance. We arrived without any hotel reservations, which wasn’t too bright of us considering the magnitude of the weekend, but after searching almost every available hotel, a man approached us who had seen us twice walking around with bags and assumed we were having trouble finding accommodation. He proceeded to call a friend, who owns a hotel in the city, and she was able to set us up with a really nice room and for much cheaper than we were expecting to pay. Even prior to this one incident, a man who owns a seafood restaurant in town (where we later ate dinner out of appreciation) drove us around to different hotels and gave us his phone number so if we still couldn’t find anything we could give him a call for help. This was all within the first few hours of arriving to Mukah the night before the festival.

I was told that the festival was a full three day weekend event, but in reality Saturday is the only day when the celebration takes place. So it was a little more relaxed with fewer people than I was expecting, but it still ended up being a lot of fun for various reasons, and considering it was an unplanned destination of ours, it turned out to be a really great experience.

There aren’t many tourists that come around the Mukah area, and for that reason, Jessie and I were treated like movie stars (seriously). As we walked along the streets, every car that passed by honked and waved, every kid said hi, and all of this with unrelenting and curious stares from everyone in the community. We were even interviewed by RTM (radio television Malaysia) asking us about the festival and trying to improve their tourism. This was the first time in my travels so far that I’ve been treated this way, and it was a lot of fun. I think out of the whole festival we were only two of four non-Malaysians there. After the many performances that were put on early in the morning, all of the younger kids proceeded to a traditional game, whereby someone starts swinging on a oversized rope and people continually leap from the stands with perfect timing to grab onto the top of the rope in full swing. The goal is to see how many people can hang on at once. And obviously, since Jessie and I seemed to be the main attraction for that day’s festivities, we were pressured (to an extent) to try the game out for ourselves. So, Jessie and I separately started as the first person to begin the swing while others jumped over us, and then I attempted to jump and latch onto the rope in full swing. It was pretty exhilarating, and lots of fun.

That night we ate at a restaurant that was recommended to us and had our first try of Umai, very traditional in the area, which pretty much resembles the Malaysian version of Ceviche. We also tried their Laksa, which was equally as delicious in my mind to the first we tried back in Penang. We left the following morning for the bus ride back to Sibu to catch our flight to Kota Kinabalu, the capitol city of Sabah, Borneo.

Posted by STEVO1285 01:41 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Kuching

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After checking in to our guesthouse, we started talking with other people coming from Sabah (the eastern part of the island) and quickly discovered that our pre-trip perception of Borneo and plans were soon to be thrown in the trash. The main activity I was excited to embark on was the trek up to Mt Kinabalu, the highest mountain in all of Southeast Asia, a two day trek. However, we soon learned after contacting the national park that new management took over the only guesthouse located on the mountain (you must have a reservation there before being allowed to hike), and they have not only increased the price substantially, but all beds were full for the next two plus weeks. We did hear that cancellations occur, but we weren’t willing to sacrifice the short amount of time we had there to wait around for something that could possibly never happen. So right from the beginning, the climb was scrapped, which was pretty disheartening for me.

Next on our agenda was a visit to an Iban Longhouse, a must-do while in Sarawak. Once again we discovered that unless time is unlimited and you can go deep into the central areas of Sarawak to hopefully arrange a stay in a legitimate and non-touristy longhouse, you’re only option is to go through a tour group, which is both very expensive and the experience is apparently not that amazing. So in a sense, two of the major attractions to the island were scratched off our list after much debate and further research, and we would soon learn that Borneo is not only a very expensive place to visit, but almost every attraction is done through tour groups, since it’s difficult independently, and therefore the cost of doing everything is terribly pricey as well. We were almost ready to leave Borneo altogether after the first few days, until I visited the tourist office while Jessie took a nap.

I was able to find out enough information to keep our Borneo trip alive, it would just be severely altered from our original plan of visiting both ends of the island. We decided instead, that maybe it would be better just to focus on Sarawak and save Sabah for another trip. In our new itinerary we wanted to spend one more day in Kuching visiting an Orangutan rehabilitation facility and going to the Sarawak Cultural Village Center to get a better understanding of the different people and their cultures around the area. We would then take a boat and bus to reach a small coastal town called Mukah, where the people of this region have their biggest festival of the year to bring in the new harvest. The three day festival includes traditional dances, food, and games throughout the weekend, so we thought it would be a cool event to check out and get a little culture in. Afterwards we would head to one of Sabah’s most impressive national parks, Mulu, only reached by plane or boat to visit the world’s largest caves and embark on a 3-day, 2-night trek to reach The Pinnacles, which are hundreds of massive granite spikes that reach towards the sky…an apparently pretty exhausting hike. With new itinerary in hand, we felt very good about our new compromise, and after Mulu we’d head back to Kuching for a flight to Jakarta, Indonesia. That night we went to a highly recommended food court called Top Stop Seafood Centre, where all the stalls have on show every type of fish and vegetable available, and for a very reasonable price, the diner picks whatever fish and vegetables desired as well as its preparation for the meal. We went for butter prawns, fried soft shell crab, and sautéed vegetables with oyster mushrooms and jungle fern (only found in Sarawak). It was one of the better meals we’ve had so far, and for only a little over $10 total!

The following morning we stayed on track, visiting the Orangutan facility, which was a nice experience. The two main times to visit are at 9am and 3pm, when feeding occurs, and while I thought it would be a false attempt to see these animals, taking pictures amongst large crowds through a window, the experience actually ended up being much more appealing. Although the monkeys arrive due to the food, you’re able to walk around the park, getting different vantage points of the animals as they swing through trees in their natural habitat, so it felt almost as if we were stumbling upon them on a hike. The monkey s though were awesome, and it was great to see them and their impressive abilities to sore from tree to tree with large pieces of fruit occupying all limbs. Even watching them maneuver their to way to opening a coconut was impressive, and the obvious baby orangutan holding tight ly to his mother’s side wont result in anything else than a newly felt urge to have one as a pet.

After arriving back to our guesthouse, we did some more research on our trip, looking up different flights around Indonesia, trying to deicide whether our idea of visiting some friends in Melbourne was a possibility and still trying to decide whether we could make it to Hong Kong for the dragon boat races in the end of May. We headed to the Sarawak Cultural Village soon afterwards, and it was a fine glimpse into the lives of Sarawak’s natives, but not overly impressive. Perhaps since it was a Thursday and the facility was pretty quiet, not many of the staff members felt motivated to really interact and demonstrate the crafts of their people, but it almost felt a bit unstructured and unorganized. But with half off the ticket with a student card, it was fine enough and with a beach located only 5 minutes walk, the day could have been much worse. We decided to eat cheap at one of the food stalls along the river that night, and after being extremely disappointed we added another rule to our growing list (I think we’re at 15 how)….we are no longer allowed to order a fried rice dish or fried noodle dish of any sorts. It’s better to order something completely foreign and have it disappoint than order the typical noodle or rice dish and be unsatisfied, hopefully that rule carries through the rest of the trip.

That night, while doing even more research, I found on Air Asia a flight leaving Kota Kinabalu (the capitol city of Sabah, referred to as KK) to Manila, the capitol city of the Philippines for around $30, and from that moment our trip and itinerary completely changed. Since the Philippines was off our radar from the start, I never realized how close it was to Borneo, and while we had recently started talks regarding a short visit to the islands, I quickly decided it would be a shame to be so close and not visit this area people speak so highly of. After some debate we thought it could be possible to visit a few really impressive and beautiful areas for a week before continuing on our previous itinerary to Indonesia. I then began to doubt our current itinerary for Borneo, considering the possibility of scrapping the national park in order to have five extra days in the Philippines, which I easily convinced myself would be more interesting than the three day trip to the Pinnacles, considering two of those days are walking through flat rainforest and only the second day sees any real attractions. So, all said and done, at about 1:00am on the 25th we booked our tickets leaving to Kota Kinabalu immediately after the festival, bypassing the national park, and the tickets leaving KK the following day for Manila to begin our journey to the Philippines. This hasn’t been the quickest last minute change I’ve experienced, but definitely the quickest for such a trip-effecting decision, but that’s what travel is all about! It’s just great to know that both Jessie and I are flexible enough to make that kind of decision, throwing all original plans to the wind. There was a bit of hesitation coming from Jessie, but luckily, it’s never too hard to convince her that two weeks on some of the world’s best beaches may be more interesting than a rainforest, so she was in. We are now on the boat heading to Sibu where we’ll transfer by bus to Mukah for the start of the festival. Hope all is well.

Posted by STEVO1285 09:53 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur, Melaka

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When we finally arrived in Kuala Lumpur after another full day of travel we immediately checked in to our guesthouse, Grocer’s Inn, right in the heart of Chinatown, where most of the cheap eats and shopping is located. It was late in the afternoon our first day in the capitol city so we decided to walk around Merdeka Square to visit their Independence building and colonial grounds. We soon after had our first try of Malaysia’s staple food, the satay. We went to a stand near our guesthouse and had some of the best in my life - the peanut sauce was exceptionally good, and later that night I had my first try of chicken and rice in a clay pot, which was pretty tasty, but for the expense, probably wasn’t the best deal.

Since we had two and a half days to spend in KL, I decided it would be a shame if we left the peninsula without visiting Melaka, a popular port city, similar in nature to Penang, but apparently better, since the trip only takes 2 hours by bus. We awoke very early the next morning for the bus ride over so we could have a full day in Melaka and still make the last bus back to KL. Unfortunately we made the trip on a Monday forgetting that most stores are closed due to Islamic tradition so we weren’t able to see Melaka at its fullest, but it was easy to see why people speak highly about the main heritage area and it’s Chinatown. While only a few days in Melaka would suffice, the numerous small boutique stores and restaurants that line the streets can keep any traveler busy, and with the large variety of Nonya food available Melaka is just as much a culinary adventure as Penang (although Penang takes the cake). As I mentioned earlier, most of the restaurants serving Nonya food that were recommended were closed while we were there, which was unfortunate, but I did get to taste their version of the Laksa, which was similar but no where near the deliciousness of that little coffee shop we went to in Penang. We ended up taking the afternoon bus back in KL and took advantage of the night by heading to the Petronas Towers to marvel at their shining bright lights against the dark sky. As the second tallest building in the world standing at around 490m it is a true engineering feet.

The next morning we awoke bright and early to wait in line at the Petronas Towers in order to make an appointment to walk along the sky bridge located halfway up the building. We arrived to a much larger line of people then expected, but it moved pretty quickly and we were able to get a decent time of 1045am, a wait of only 2 hours. We headed to the tourist office to get more information about Borneo and then returned back for our free tour. Unfortunately the sky bridge isn’t too high off the ground, but for a nice vista of the KL skyline, and for free, it’s a definite must while in the city. There’s also a ton of information about the building and a 15 minute 3-D presentation of the construction process that was pretty interesting as well, so overall it was worth the early wake-up. Later that afternoon Jessie and I split off and while I took a bus over to the Batu Caves, she decided to visit an Islamic Museum and one of the city’s many gardens.
The Batu Caves were very cool. Although the bus ride over took about twice as long as expected, the trip was worth the effort. From the base of the cave stands the 43m-high Murga statue (the highest in the world) and from there 270 steps must be climbed to reach Temple Cave, where a small Hindu temple can be found. As one of the largest caves I have ever seen, walking within the confinement was pretty interesting. The highlight of the trip; however, had to be the 30+ monkeys lining the stairs performing every type of animalistic behavior possible….pretty entertaining.

Jessie spoke highly of her trip to the museum and gardens, so both our excursions went well and we spent the rest of the day walking around the Petronas Towers again along with a visit to Menara KL, the 4th highest telecommunications tower in the world. There is a restaurant serving northern Indian cuisine near the top floor, which provides excellent views of the city as well as the Towers at night, but the price rang was out of our budget, along with the 40 ringgit per person fee simply to get a viewing from the top. Instead we headed to McDonalds for about the 3rd night in a row to grab some really cheap and delicious late-night ice cream.

Our flight left early the following morning, on the 22nd of April, for Kuching, the capitol city of Sarawak, on the western half of the island Borneo, a two hour flight. We had very high hope for Borneo since there are tons of activities throughout the island, but bad news would come once we arrived that quickly changed our itinerary, but possibly for the better…

Posted by STEVO1285 09:41 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Taman Negara

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We arrived in Kuala Taman around 6pm after a full day of bus travel. The afternoon was spent organizing ourselves for the following day’s hike and signing up for a night jungle safari that night. At 8pm, us and 8 others set up on a truck on a search for different animals lurking in the night. We were a bit skeptical of seeing anything too interesting but we were told that different cats and snakes are seen daily with a possibly cheetah spotting. We figured there was nothing else for us to do that night so we joined the group. Luckily we got the best seats in the car, sitting up on the roof with the guide made the trip a bit more interesting and while we did spot a few cats, some birds, a couple of snakes, and a type of monkey, they were all pretty small in size and kind of unimpressive. The most impressive aspect of the trip was how amazing the guide was at spotting different wildlife. Sometimes just a slight feather peaking out from a far off tree was enough to warrant a stop. But regardless, it was still something to keep us busy so worth it.

The following morning we woke up early and took a small boat across the river to reach the rainforest headquarters. We booked a hide for the night about 5 kilometers away, which ended up being the perfect distance as we were able to see the main attractions of the rainforest while still being close enough to the headquarters to make the 9am boat ride en route to Kuala Lumpur the following morning. Hides are basically an elevated room in the middle of the rainforest with wooden bed frames that overlook flat areas of the forest, good for possible animal sightings and sleeping to the endless noise from the night. There are multiple hides scattered throughout the park and while some are farther away boasting a more likely chance to see animals, the one we choose was far enough way from civilization, but not as far into the rainforest as the others. We hiked pretty much the entirety of the day walking along the world’s largest canopy walking, going uphill for the views at Mt. Teresek, and peaking into a cave to visit the sleeping bats. Jessie, not too keen on the bat sighting, stayed behind, which ended up being lucky as she was forced to feed me our snack while I tried desperately not to contaminate anything with my bat-dropping crusted hands. We packed a pretty delicious 3 meals for the day. A nice can of tuna with crackers and an apple constituted lunch, Pringles and cookies for a snack, crackers, a can of beans, and cookies for dinner, and finally half a protein bar and orange for lunch.

We unfortunately didn’t see any animals that night or were too impressed by the loudness of voices throughout our stay, but it was still an experienced, highlighted by a bat flying into our sleeping area scaring the hell out of Jessie. I guess the noises must be much more intense during monsoon season when the insects are more abundant. We also didn’t spot a single leech on our journey.

After a miserable nights sleep, we woke up around 6:30am, while still dark, frantically packed up our belongings, and rushed back to make the 9am boat. We ended up making some great time compared to journey the previous day so we arrived with more than enough time to spare. This almost 8-hour journey to KL comprised of a 2-hour boat ride to Jeruntut, 1.5-hours of waiting in the town for our van, and then a 3-hour ride to KL. We just recently purchased our first flight leaving KL on the 22nd for Kuching on the island of Borneo, so we are currently planning our next week and a half of adventure, which should be pretty packed with activities. Until next time…..

As a recap of our trip to the rainforest....it's a nice experience if you've never hiked or slept overnight in a jungle before. Since I had been on some hikes in the jungles of Colombia, the scenery wasn't anything overly impressive. The hides were an interesting experience to say the least, but it's not too likely you'll see any animals and the sleep is pretty tough to find. We were able to hike in the park for a majority of the day seeing all the main attractions, so it's definitely a possible day trip. However, since it takes all day to get there and leave, it may not be worth the hassle, especially if you plan on heading to Borneo, which is mainly rainforest. So once again, if you're low on time and have other places you'd like to see and must make a decision between there or Taman Negara, I'd recommend choosing the latter, but it obviously depends on your preference. Just be prepared to sweat more in Taman than you will during your entire trip in Southeast Asia combined...I surely did.

Posted by STEVO1285 09:51 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Cameron Highland

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The Cameron Highlands was once the vacation spot for the British some time ago, and is now famous for their strawberries, tea plantations, nice jungle hikes, and cool weather. Fortunately we were able to experience all of what this region has to offer. The first afternoon we arrived was spent walking along the one major street in town, eating strawberry ice cream, strawberry scones, and drinking tea ( we had to take advantage). We stayed at Father’s Guesthouse, which had some great staff and nice comfortable beds, which was perfect for the cold nights. The following day we signed up for the half-day leisure tour, which consisted of a visit to a rose garden, Boh tea plantation, honey farm, strawberry farm (great strawberry milk shake!), market, and Buddhist/Hindu Temple. It was a great trip, very efficient that ended at 2pm. After a short nap I decided to do a quick jungle hike up to the top of a nearby mountain for the sunset, while Jessie remained back at the guesthouse. The hike was a lot quicker that I had expected, and wanting to be at the top for sunset I had to wait a while at the top for the sun to drop. The hike though was exactly what I needed. A little physical exertion and alone time up at the top amidst the clouds was perfect. Finally when the sunset arrived, it was worth the wait. High up in the mountains the sunset can be pretty unpredictable due to the constant arrival and departure of cloud cover, but luckily the clouds parted just in time to expose one of the nicer sunsets I’ve experienced. Unfortunately I waited a little to long to hike back down, so walking through the jungle at night was a little scarier more anxiety-producing than I had wanted, but since the trail was easy I was back down in no time. I went to town for dinner that night and had my new famous Roti (similar to a crepe), coconut, peanut, and honey….delicious. The weather throughout our stay here was a great respite from the heat in Thailand and even Penang. While Malaysia is slightly cooler than Thailand, I stress the word ‘slightly,‘ so it was nice to get a break from the heat. I also realized that the first day we arrived was the only time on our trip I hadn’t been sweating for the entire day, and didn’t need to shower multiple times, thank God! Today we slept in for a bit, ate breakfast, packed up our stuff, and our currently on the van headed to Taman Negara, the oldest rainforest in the world. It’s a long journey, almost 8 hours, but we’ll have plenty of time to plan our trek and accommodation in town before we head out early the following morning.

Overall the Cameron Highlands was a nice getaway from the heat we'd been accustomed to in Thailand and the first part of our Malaysia trip. However, for those who are considering heading up to visit the area, unless you have a lot of time traveling and find a few days to kill, have to get out of the heat, or are really obsessed with tea, I'd say the Highlands are definitely skipable since there's not too much to do over there, and you'd be better off spending those few days in a more interesting location around Malaysia.

As a quick reflection, Malaysia has been so far an amazing experience with regards to the people here. Almost every single person we’ve encountered not only speaks English, but does so very well, and are extremely kind, helpful, and cheerful people. It feels like night and day from the specific interactions and experiences we had with some of the people in Thailand. Obviously everyone’s perceptions are different and you could find people who think the opposite, but for us, these our the small things we’ve noticed that have made a big difference so far in our trip.

Posted by STEVO1285 09:43 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Penang

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The bus ride down to Malaysia went very smoothly, and even though there were a few hiccups along the way we arrived around 8:30pm in Penang. We checked into the 75 Traveler’s Lodge guesthouse because it was recommended by both our travel books for having a very helpful and cheery owner. As the books predicted, the owner Lo was very helpful and immediately we felt a breath of fresh air from our past experience in Thailand. Obviously my main reason for stopping over in Penang was for their reputation of being the best city for food in all of Malaysia, so we immediately headed over to The Red Garden, a late night food court with live music and dancing. With a list in hand of Nonya dishes (Chinese and Malaysian fusion specific to Penang) we started our eating fest, which would continue into the following day.

Since we only had one full day to see all of Penang we started early and continued moving for the entire day. We started by walking around Georgetown visiting most of the heritage sites located throughout the cobbled stone streets and colonial buildings. Penang was the location of the first British settlement in Malaysia and for that reason it has a town of culture and history amidst its buildings. After visiting multiple temples Muslim and Hindu, and eating some Thosai in Little India for Breakfast, we checked out the tourist information center for information about getting to our next destination, The Cameron Highlands. While in Koh Phi Phi Jessie cut a few of her toes on some coral and unfortunately became infected so she was having trouble walking, so once again we decided to rent a motorbike for the day.. On the way out of the tourist office and nice man came up to us asking if we knew where we wanted to go (a common occurrence throughout our first day in Malaysia. People would freely approach us asking if we needed help, give us their advice and say goodbye with a smile). We asked the man where we could find the best Laksa in town, since that’s the most famous of the dishes from Penang. Laksa is a spicy seafood broth either served with or without coconut milk served with noodles, vegetables, and mint. He told us the best place for Laksa in all of Penang is in a small town outside of Georgetown called Balik Pulau. He even showed up a great route to take on our way there that passed by the beaches of Penang and through mountains passing by the National Park, Botanical Gardens, Tropical Spice Farm, Tropical Fruit Farm, and Butterfly Farm (the first in the world). We didn’t stop at any of these places since we were short on time after visiting the heritage sites, but the views were still amazing and an added bonus to our visit there. On our way to Balik Pulau, we stopped at a food market to try our first Durian. Even though we were extremely ripped off, it was worth the taste. No Durian fruit is created equal, and while most people say it smells like Hell but tastes like Heaven, our fruit was neither of those. It had a hint of onion odor to it, but nothing repulsive, and the taste was pretty oniony as well, which stayed on the breath for multiple hours. I could taste a hint of deliciousness every once in a while, and I’m still optimistic that if I find one that smells terribly, that fleeting delicious taste may have a stronger presence.

Anyways, we weren’t told exactly where the place in Balik Pulau was for the Laksa, so once we arrived we asked around and noticed one coffee shop in particular that was much more crowded than the rest, and that was the one! Probably one of the more interesting and delicious dishes I’ve tried on the trip and highly recommend the drive in order to try it. In fact, the grandmother who’s recipe they use was famous for the home made noodles she used in her Laksa and sold them all throughout Penang and other areas of Malaysia. So this place was definitely legit. After our meal we continued on to Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si Temple (the highest temple in Malaysia). We had a slight lapse of judgment which caused us to unfortunately miss a visit to the temple, but being on Penang Hill for sunset was a great ending to our day. The lapse mainly consisted of forgetting that with the one hour time difference from Thailand that sunset started at 7:30pm instead of the 6:30pm start time in Thailand. For that reason, we rushed to Penang Hill for the sunset, while the Temple was closing, instead of spending time at the temple first while still having time for the sunset…oh well. Our guide book was also completely wrong about the temple which was a bit surprising. They mentioned that the Temple was open until 9pm and is “the most kitsch and impressive light spectacle you’re likely to witness in a while….it makes Las Vegas look positively tame in comparison.” The Temple closes at 6pm and when we arrived at night there wasn’t a single light shining.

That night we stopped in another hawker street market for our tasting of other Penang specialties, who’s names elude me, but still very tasty with a variety so extensive you could eat a different dish for weeks. We left the following morning at 7am for a seven hour ride to Tanah Rata, one of three townships in the Cameron Highlands.

Posted by STEVO1285 09:40 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Ko Phi Phi

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I had been looking forward to Ko Phi Phi for a while now and was really eager to get there after arriving back in Ko Samui. We took the ferry to Surat Thani and then a four hour bus to Krabi from which we took another ferry to Phi Phi, arriving in at around 4:30pm. We arrived with no accommodation planned, something I’m used to but Jessie hates, but the seemingly hundreds of tourist offices located right off the peer that have all the guesthouse information makes it very easy to find something. We then spent the night walking around the town area, ate at Papaya which was highly recommended, and booked our trip for overnight camping on Phi Phi Ley, sleeping on the beach where the movie "The Beach" was filmed. Phi Phi Ley is uninhabited and enforced by the Thai government so the only way to stay the night is by signing up for a tour.

The following morning I left Jessie in the room and headed down to confirm our trip only to discover a better one from the tour group next door, so I made a quick decision and opted for the other one and canceled the first. The second not only offered everything the first did, but also included snorkeling and cliff jumping around different beaches and bays, while the first tour simply brought their customers to The Beach and dropped them off. The trip was fantastic! There were only 6 of us staying on the beach that night which was really nice, a few guys from Italy and a couple from Canada and England. We visited Monkey Beach, where monkey roam around waiting for their daily bananas provided by the boat drivers (slightly staged), went snorkeling in an area where harmless sharks can be spotted (we didn’t see any), and jumped off of an 18m cliff. The jump was probably the highlight of the activities, since the hundreds of tourists each day that make the journey all end up in the same areas at the same time, which can be overwhelming. I originally wanted to rent a private boat and do the itinerary backwards in order to avoid the masses, but once we signed up for the overnight trip, there wasn’t too much more to see. Simply being in a long-boat and driving around the island was spectacular, the crystal clear turquoise water surrounded the massive cliffs formed in the middle of nowhere was another world. Not to mention the sunset from our camping grounds was incredible, with a sailboat positioned just perfectly in the distance (we think it’s just for show). But overall it was a great trip and a unique experience to actually stay overnight, since most just do the day tours.

After arriving back a decision had to be made. The couple we met the night before spoke very highly of Ko Lanta, which is an island an hour off of Phi Phi where trips can be arranged to see the Emerald Cave, an interesting cave that at some point fell through exposing the inner lagoon to the sun, allowing for the growth of vegetation. Apparently you swim underwater in pitch black through a narrow passage way in order to reach the lagoon, but once arriving the setting is incredible. We found a family-run tour group that received rave reviews for their 4-island hopping day trip including the cave, but unfortunately they were all booked for the possible two days we wanted to spend there. After hearing the heavens were going to fall during that time period anyways, we decided it would be best just get into Malaysia as quickly as possible, which is where we are now, in Penang. The trip to Ko Lanta seems pretty amazing as well as some other islands off the Krabi and Trang province, but we only could spend two weeks in Thailand and our time ran out. I was able to squeeze in my first Thai massage very last minute the night before leaving the country, it was great, even though the people next to me were screaming in pain, I wonder which massage they asked for. It’s actually the beginning of the Thai New Year today which is celebrated for 3 days as a massive water fight, so its been fun riding through the southern end of the country watching truck full of kids with buckets of water having wars with other packed pick-ups containing similar weaponry. It's also a pretty good idea we left when we did since conflicts are heating up around Bangkok these days with lost of hostile fighting. Luckily we weren't planning on going back up to Bangkok so we avoided the whole situation and didn't need to think too much about it.

For my overall impression of Thailand, I’d unfortunately have to say the feelings are mixed. As my first country in SEA, it is difficult to make a informed judgment since I have nothing to compare to, but we ran into a few issues with customer service and friendliness that were a bit off-putting and definitely different from South America. First, the guesthouses were very hit and miss with their staff. Jessie and I have had to do a lot of research on our own, because frankly, the staff either don’t speak English well, don’t have any information available on activities in the area, or more probable, just don’t really care. We discovered that unless you can provide a direct profit for a large portion of people here, more specifically tour groups, guesthouses, or anyone providing a service, they won’t only give you the time of day, but also get unnecessarily frustrated and raise their voices after only a few inquiries. But I guess, with the way tourism has run this country, it should be something to expect, but at the same time, SA is very touristy but the majority of people were very helpful and happy to help in most situations. The best experience I had was at the P Guesthouse in Sangkhlaburi, the place was beautiful, cheap, and the staff were very friendly, and it was a location that’s much less touristy than the rest, and a decision we luckily made last minute by heeding to the advice of Travel Fish. As for the food, we did eat our fare share of Thai food, and it was delicious ( I was especially obsessed with all things coconut milk, more specifically the curries), but the amount of hawkers or food carts serving interesting foods and unbelievably tasty dishes, was not so readily on hand, which was disappointing for me. Most either sold skewered meats or noodle/rice/soup dishes that were done very quickly consisting of a starch, meat, a few vegetables, and pre-bought sauces such as oyster or mushroom added for flavor. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice street food, but the options run low after a while (I can’t even describe how excited I am for Malaysian food at this point). Anyways, the third interesting element was the language barrier as well. We found that it was almost impossible to predict which people could speak English and whom couldn't, since we conversed with people who should speak but didn't and others (working the most random jobs) that spoke perfectly. It was a little upsetting to find some tourist police officers and especially guesthouse workers that couldn’t communicate properly, since it made planning much more time consuming. But overall, these first few weeks have been very packed with activities and considering the short amoun we did a really good job visiting some great locations all throughout the mainland and islands. I’m sure that if we maintain this kind of momentum and motivation to get-up-and-go every few days we will have ended this trip getting in everything we started out wanting to do. Looking back, we also did a great job of taking advantage of the many modes of transport offered here, we rode: cars, back of pick-up trucks, elephants, motor bikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bamboo rafts, trains, terrible buses, really nice buses (with massaging chairs), motorboats, longboats, and ferries.

Posted by STEVO1285 03:46 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Island Hopping

Ko Samui, Koh Phanang

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After finally arriving to Koh Samui it was difficult at first to decide whether it was the smart decision to have chosen this location to stay or if it would have been better to have just showed up in Koh Phanang, even without a reservation. The part of the island where our guesthouse was located, which is known for cheaper accommodation, was pretty quiet when we arrived and the beaches were impressive, but nothing jaw-dropping. The island was much bigger than I had originally thought, so once again it was necessary to rent a motor bike in order to get around, since the “meter-less” taxis were always asking for ridiculous rates (pretty standard, obviously). After perusing around the island the first day, we started noticing a larger populous of sun-bathers located in the more touristy and expensive beaches along the eastern portion of the island. That arrival day we spent time on the beach and visited a very large Buddha on top of a hill. The weather was unfortunately pretty miserable throughout our stay in Koh Samui and continued into the Full Moon party until we arrived to the Andaman Coast. We met an Irish guy who was selling tickets for “exclusive” access to a bar during the party the following day in Koh Phanang (it would turn out to be a slight waste of money, but it wasn’t expensive so worst decisions have been made). He did give us a recommendation to eat at a restaurant about 30 minutes away from where we were staying that was pretty cheap and had been ranked top 50 restaurants in the world. It was a pretty eclectic guesthouse/ resort that housed the restaurant, but the food was delicious, we ordered a green chicken curry and steamed whole fish with vegetables. We had some issues with our motor bike on the way back home. I guess going through so many puddles while the rain poured had an aversive effect on the engine, so it randomly shut off and wouldn’t start back up. Eventually a kid helped us kick-start the thing and we finally made it back, completely drenched from being in the down poor for multiple hours.

The next day we booked our ferry to Koh Phanang, which took a lot of deliberation since the ferry costs were very high, but just decided to go with it since it was worth the experience. In the long-run, it would have been more cost affective to stay in Ko Pangang instead of Ko Sumui since the boat ticket would have been eliminated, or if possibly we were able to leave our bags at the island’s ferry, we wouldn’t have had to pay for the return ticket, which was the most expensive part. After arriving back form the Full Moon Party we ran into some issues, once again, with the ferry company since one of the worker’s promised we could get a free taxi ride to the bus station (a 400 Baht savings), and then were told he was a new employee and his promise would be impossible to uphold. Lots of yelling ensued and eventually things worked out, but it was definitely not a highlight while still suffering from the previous night.

As for the Full Moon Party, the island was packed with tourists, and the anticipation and energy could be felt from everybody awaiting the 9pm start time. As usual, it started down pouring and at some point all the power went off, so Jessie and I were stuck in a restaurant eating fries, drinking beer, and watching the terrible movie Stepbrother, containing the most ridiculous English subtitles I’ve ever seen in my life, which made it somewhat entertaining. Long story short, after one bucket things were going great, then a second bucket down, things were taking a turn for the worst, and after helping out on the third, my night ended with Jessie waking me up about 3 hours later on a couch in the bar we purchased those tickets for. So in the end, most of the night was a blur, so it’s tough to tell whether the expense to get there was worth the effort, but at least we can both say we’ve experienced the Full Moon Party, and that’s about all. Next stop...Ko Phi Phi!

Posted by STEVO1285 03:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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