A Travellerspoint blog

The Philippines

Indispensable personal philosophy: Better Late Than Never

sunny

Our final stop was the Philippines. At high tide, there are 7,100 Filipino islands (and another 7 that surface when tides recede), so with less than two weeks in the country we had to be selective. Brie and Swhite flew straight to Palawan, a long narrow island that protrudes into the South China Sea to the west of the Filipino archipelago. It’s the island that friends at home and fellow travelers kept telling us is a must for the stunning beaches of El Nido. One of my co-workers at Saturna, Maria, is Filipina. She is from the central Visayan island Cebu and made arrangements for me to visit her family there. For the last time, our traveling team split up for a spell.

Our first and only night in Manila was spent figuring out how to ride a jeepney to the Mall of Asia from our hostel near the airport (we were too far away from downtown Manila to venture into the heart of the city). We quickly realized that seemingly everyone there speaks English extremely well. Later I read that the most successful, and longest lasting, impression that the United States made on the Philippines during its occupation (the first half of the 20th century) was in education. The first non-military Americans to arrive where educators and the Philippines was left with a healthy education system.

Day 2 in the Philippines I flew to Cebu, while Brie and Swhite took off for Palawan. Here’s Swhite’s write-up of their stay on El Nido:

~Sarah & Brie on Palawan~
We separated for the final time when Melanie went to stay with friends in Cebu and Brie and I headed
to the island of Palawan. We flew into Puerto Princesa, where we later reunited with Melanie, and spent
one night there before catching the 5am local bus to El Nido. After the 6 hour journey we made it to
sleepy little El Nido. It was exactly what we needed to end our perfect trip. It was a small little town with
a beautiful stretch of white sand and teal water.
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Gabrielle and I searched around for a cheap beach front
place to park for the week. We settled on one that had a view down the hallway of the beach, and two
beach chairs out front with our names on them :) We both just wanted to soak up the sun and enjoy our
last week on the beach before heading back to freezing Washington, and that is exactly what we did.
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We planned out our week around our beach time. The first day was spent ‘exploring’ the little town,
which consisted of one main road and two turns, so that took all of 10 minutes. We spent the rest of
the day at our private beach. We planned an island hopping tour for the next day. The day was a mix of
beaching it and snorkeling. We had a lunch break and our boat drivers cooked us some fish they had just
caught (maybe not but it sure looked like it!). We made the mistake of asking one of our boat guys to
take a picture for us, and from then on he was our private paparazzo.
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At every stop he would ask for our
camera and say ‘come, come, take a picture!’ so we had plenty of honeymoon shots from the day.
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We found a little trail that headed away from the main town area and decided to see where it led.
We found what must be the residential area. There were kids playing everywhere and cute little
colorful houses.
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The following day we rented a kayak and headed over to some of the islands that we
discovered on our tour. It was amazing to have a private section of beach all to our selves. The water
was unbelievably clear and it was so peaceful there. After a few hours of playing there (and taking some
awesome under water pictures) we headed over to a different island. Again we had the beach all to
ourselves. Gabrielle had never buried someone in the sand before, so I volunteered to let her make
some sand art around me. We decided a sand penguin was the best idea.
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And it turned out amazing! I
did suffer a few sand flea bites but it was definitely worth it! We then headed back to our hotel to return
the kayak.

We had one final beach day and then got an early night to catch the 5am local bus back to Puerto
Princesa and meet up with Melanie for the final few days of the most amazing trip ever!

~Melanie on Cebu & Bohol~

Arriving in Cebu, I emerged from the airport to see a waving sign that read “Welcome to Cebu Melanie!” We took an hour cab ride from the airport to Danao City, where Josef is a high school assistant principal at Sabang National High School. Josef had prepared his guest room for me, and while I napped on the ultra comfortable queen sized air mattress, he and Donald made dinner. They ate while I continued to sleep (oops), and when I woke up their friend (and a teacher at Josef’s school) Jenny had arrived. We chatted while watching TV. Filipino evening programming is dominated by So You Think You Can Dance? style group dance competitions, and telenovela-esque half-hour soap operas that air every weeknight. I love group dance numbers, so I was enjoying it. Then I found out that the next day at the high school was a special game day, similar to Homecoming week all wrapped up into one day. Festivities were going to kick off with a cheer dance competition between all the grades, and I was going to be a guest judge!
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The event was supposed to start at 8, but Jenny wasn’t concerned about us sauntering over to the covered basketball court/assembly space at 8:30. The competition didn’t get going until almost 9:30 because no one knew where the Juniors (last year’s victors) were. They were texting with their teachers saying they were on the way, but their hair (Jersey bouffant) make-up (dark and heavy) and costumes (their uniform plaid skirt folded under to half their normal length) took longer than they expected to prepare. “It’s not Filipino time,” Jenny explained. “Filipinos were on time until the Spanish arrived, and now this country works on Spanish time.”

When it was time for the judges to take their positions at tables in front of the audience I was introduced and received a roaring round of applause from the kids. Filipino high schoolers are generally aged 12-16. The first years were pretty shy, but I was incredibly impressed by the most of the performances! They looked like live music videos. The stars were unquestionably the young gay boys, who danced front and center with the girls. The other boys had separate parts of the routine that featured breakdancing moves instead of hip swirls.

Here are the third year students showing their spirit before the competition began:
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The Philippines are the first Catholic country I’ve visited where homosexuality – especially at such a young age – is displayed so openly. I asked Jenny about it and she said it was no big deal. Boys weren’t allowed to wear girls clothes to school, but they were free to behave however they pleased.

After the dance contest there were supposed to be “parlour games” all afternoon before the school started preparing for a beauty pageant that night. Jenny was in charge of the parlour games, but she accompanied me all day (Josef had to go to a conference in a nearby city).
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Because she had taken me into Danao City to buy mango and spent a few hours giving me Visaya language lessons, the parlour games never happened. She shrugged it off. Another stall in school plans: a group of stranded Girl Scouts. They were supposed to go to a Girl Scout competition a few hours into the mountains, but their driver had showed up drunk at 11am and by 2pm no one had found another driver.

A guidebook explained that beauty pageants are a ticket to instant fame and fortune in the Philippines. Winning a pageant young means sidestepping education as a means to succeed, it’s a direct line into the Philippines entertainment industry. The Filipinos I met were surprised that I’d never been in a pageant growing up, they have them in every arena from neighborhood high schools on up through national competitions.
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For the pageant at Sabang National High School, Jenny explained that they’d had to convince enough girls to participate. “It’s good for them,” she said. The girls were judged on a group dance number (done in Santa themed dresses), casual wear, evening gowns, and on their response to a Christmas question. All night long everything was in English. The girls had to respond to questions like “How do you and your family celebrate Christmas?” “What’s the best gift you’ve received?” Many contestants had short and jagged answers, a few were excellent – poised, eloquent, and well rehearsed- and there was one epic fail. The poor girl’s English wasn’t very good, her question was “what would you change about Christmas?” The MC repeated it 3 times in English, then translated it into Visaya for her. She looked like a deer in the headlights for a few minutes before she managed to eek out a response in Visaya.

Josef, Donald and I rode a Jeepney into Cebu City to do some sightseeing.
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Cubu’s most historic monument is Magellan’s Cross, marking the place and time where Magellen brought Catholicism to the Philippines.
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Sunday morning we woke at 4:00am so we catch the ferry from Cebu over to the island of Bohol. From the port town of Tagbilaron we took a 2 hour bus ride to Sagbayan, and then a 30 minute motorcycle jaunt to the Danao Adventure Park.
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The scenery all across Bohol was dominated by a lush green that I just couldn't get over. I took far too many photos...
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All three of us ziplined across a canyon, and Josef did “The Plunge”, a 300 foot drop into a swing across the same canyon. We wrapped up the day with a trip to the Chocolate Hills. An inexplicable geological phenomenon that is Bohol’s most famous attraction. We arrived just after the sun had disappeared over the distant hills and all was aglow with a warm light. So gorgeous!
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After the hills we managed to squeeze into a bus that was already overflowing with people. Josef and Donald climbed on top and I held on for dear life just inside the open door. It was on this bus that I finally had the quintessential travel experience of riding on a bus with a flapping chicken (fighting cock, to be precise) crammed in beside me. Cock fighting is legal in the Philippines. Along with skin whitening cream, TV ads for champion feed for fighting cocks were some of the most regularly played commercials.

Josef and Donald continued on home when I jumped off the bus at a backpackers’ haven called Nuts Huts in Loboq. The hostel is situated 750 meters into the jungle along a road so horrendously bumpy it took the motorcycle 10 minutes to maneuver to the entrance. The driver dropped me off peering down a seemingly endless cement staircase that cut into the lush foliage. Over 400 stairs later I made it to my room, the only furniture a small table and mosquito net shrouded wooden cot.
The next morning I paid 10 pesos to be ferried across the river in a canoe in order to walk along the water into Loboq.
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The town proper was tiny. It consisted of one block of shops, one church, and a few arms of residential streets snaking out from the center. I asked directions to the cross on the hill and was pointed along by friendly Filipinos at every corner. I really love poking through small towns. It’s cheesy, but it’s so fun plod through winding streets. Taking in my surroundings and the people grinning and calling out hello or starting conversations is part of what makes travelling exciting for me.
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It took me about an hour to wind my way to a hilltop with a giant white cross overlooking Loboq and beyond to the coast.
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Given our lack of exercise on the trip, I was tuckered out by the time I dragged myself into the outdoor sanctuary. On the way back through town I discovered a delicious treat: carmelized maduro bananas. The banana man laughed when I came back to his table 3 times within an hour.
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Loboq is known as being home to the world’s smallest monkey, the tarsier. Tarsiers are not monkeys, but they are a 45 million year old primate! My camera was locked in the Nuts Huts safe, so I don’t have my own photos. But here it is:
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I walked into a small walled in forest under a sign reading “Do not touch the Tarsiers!” A teenage boy followed me into the open air enclosure, saying his dad owned the place. He told me that the tarsiers were nocturnal, they swoop down to the river to feed on insects at night. With my hands respectfully behind my back I was leaning to peer at the tiny furrball when the boy grabbed it from the tree and plopped it right down into my hand. The tarsier had the body of a hairy frog (complete with the long knobby toes) with an enormous head, massive (terror stricken) yellow eyes, and a hairless rat-tail. When I lifted him close enough to the tree that he could glimpse the branches through his hugely dilated pupils (result of a nocturnal creature opening its eyes in broad daylight), the poor creature leapt into leaves and disappeared up into the high reaches of the tree.

That afternoon I made my way to Alona Beach, a scuba diving hot spot on the tip of Panglao Island (still part of Bohol). I signed up for a two drive trip the following morning to Balicasag Island, one of the Philippines most popular dive sites. My only prior diving experience has been in Thailand and where I got my certification in Honduras. In comparison, the Filipino dives were breathtaking! An incredible abundance of neon fish, beautiful coral, and TURTLES! I saw one with a shell that looked easily 5 feet long!
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Next up on my agenda was flying to Palawan to meet up with Brie and Swhite. The weather was iffy, but we enjoyed meandering around Puerto Princesa our last few days in the Philippines. We ate delicious food at a Christmas fair, took a day trip out to a sub-terranean river, and went to the hospital for a malaria scare (turned I just had a wee virus).
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Though I just experienced a tiny portion of it, I LOVED the Philippines! It was a fantastic ending to an incredible trip!

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I'm hoping you all are supporters of the better late than never approach. This blog entry was written over a year ago... Brie and Swhite have been teaching English in Seoul, South Korea since last March (check out their blog) and are both incredibly excited to be done in less than two months. They're going to head back to South East Asia for round 2, with a few stops in Europe on the way.

As for me, I spent nine fabulous months in the Methow Valley. I lived in an adorable little cabin, made some wonderful friends, and spent as much time hiking and biking in the mountains as I could. Next up for me: New Orleans!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 1.27.12 14:30 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

Fancy Schmancy: Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Singapore

by gabrielle

overcast 90 °F

Malaysia:
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We were abruptly woken up around 8 am on a pleasant overnight train ride from Thailand to get out and go through the Malaysian border crossing. While in line to get our passports stamped there was a notice about hippies and how they may not be welcomed into Malaysia. It was a bullet format that essentially said "if you appear to have unclean hair, poor hygiene, baggy pants with possibly no undergarments, sandals/inappropriate shoes, or in any way appear to be a hippie, the Malaysian border control reserves the right to deny you entry." Yikes right? That description matches about 85 percent of our fellow backpackers and usually us too! We happen to look moderately clean this day and had ditched our colorful "hippie pants" from India long before so luckily, we made the cut. It makes we wonder how many people get stopped/harassed for looking like a cliche Southeast Asia traveler and what happens if they cannot cross.
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We arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia around 10 pm on the 24th. Melanie's former coworker from Saturna was transferred from the Bellingham office to work at the KL branch for two years. Bryce, his wife KJ and their darling 3 year old Oscar were nice enough to let us stay with them over the next four nights. We had aimed to be in KL for Thanksgiving so we could be in a home and spend the holiday with other Americans. Bryce is quite the cook and got pretty creative whipping up some delicious dishes that fused his Thanksgiving favorites with all the fun, new Asian ingredients he now has access to. We also had a turkey prepared by a nearby hotel that came with lots of surprise sides such as stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts and cranberry sauce. Needless to say, we had enough servings for thirds and leftovers the next day! Our contribution to the feast was a mango crisp that turned out to be a real crowd pleaser. Melanie and I decided to double the topping portion which turned out to be a genius idea as the mountain of crunchy, brown-sugary oats went perfectly with the fresh mango flave! Swhite commented on how fun it was to have such a classic holiday scene as Bryce took breaks from cooking to play the piano, Oscar was running around giggling and we all struggled to carve the turkey, a task that eventually defaulted to me, the lone vegetarian.
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Did i mention they live on the 18th floor of a swanky condo building and have an incredible view of the city including the Patronas Towers? Well it was amazing and something we definitely didn't get tired of seeing.
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Day two in KL was craft day! Lucky for us, KJ is an artist and knew about a craft complex within walking distance where we could try our hand at some Batik painting. Batik is a popular style around Asia that is usually done on silk. Our paintings started with a pencil stencil (rhyme!), followed by a carefully done layer of hot wax over the design. The instrument used to trace with wax looks kind of like an old school calligraphy pen with a little copper scoop and narrow funnel to guide the wax out neatly. We could handle the tracing but after hearing an "ooops" from Melanie as she tried the wax, Swhite and I opted for the pros to help us out. Once the wax is on the silk, we got to paint with water color type paints. It was great because the wax acts like a boundary between spaces so you have to try pretty hard to get the colors you don't want outside the lines. We spent about four hours at this place and all ended up pretty happy with our pieces.
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The next day was spent on a five hour walking tour of the city with Bryce, KJ and Oscar. They showed us Chinatown, a beautiful park and some really neat neighborhoods with vastly different architecture styles. There are modern looking skyscrapers, a space needle wannabe tower, and colonial looking government buildings all in view of each other. The architecture seems to be a pretty accurate representation of the culture as well. The interesting fusion of people, languages, cuisines and clothing styles follows along the same lines. Malaysia is a primarily Muslim country. Considering that Muslim societies are known for having a male dominated culture, it was interesting to observe the Muslim women in Malaysia. I sort of assumed the submissive, sheltered role of women would be the same. It turns out that is so untrue! Muslim women in Malaysia still wear head scarves and dress modestly, BUT they are sassy, hold high profile finance and business positions around the city, have active social lives and they do aerobics in the park to hip music while wearing their colorful head scarves! We found out from KJ that many of the Muslim women have jobs and nannies and are not at all restricted to housework and looking after their children. What an incredible difference to the stifled lives of so many of the women in India. I can only hope progress will be made for them as well.
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With funds tight near the end of the trip we had to choose carefully what tourist activity we wanted to do. KJ's mom had just visited and she recommended we go to Firefly Park, an hour and a half away in Kuala Selangor. Our cab driver was new and hadn't been to Firefly Park so we bought him a ticket so he could come see them too. There were about 8 of us in a quiet little boat that took a half hour ride along the river where thousands of fireflies were hanging out in the trees. It was so sparkly and beautiful I was amazed! At first it seemed unreal, like there were way too many and it must be some kind of trick with lights or something. But as our boat guy steered us right into the branches of one of the trees, Swhite caught one and we verified that they were in fact real! Apparently around 7:30-8:30 pm these fireflies are blinking bright as a means to attract their mate and once they find them, they stop glowing. We arrived at the perfect time and it was stunning. Melanie was saying how cool it must have been for the person who first discovered this collection of fireflies and what a treat that probably was!
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We left Malaysia to head to Singapore on Sunday the 28th. At the bus stop Swhite and i were on a mission to spend ever last bit of our Ringett on snacks for the bus while Melanie waited with the bags. When we came back to relieve her of bag duty she was surrounded by a pack of 5 hyper little children! Melanie went to the bathroom and they immediately starting asking, "where's Melanie?" apparently they got to be pretty good friends while we were gone. The kids were darling and couldn't get enough of using their favorite English phrases on us and asking rapid fire questions. We heard "I think you are sooooo nice!" many times along with "I want to marry you" from the boy in kindergarten who was being fed lines by his older cousin. I asked them if they could sing in English too and they immediately burst into a chorus of "Twinkle, Twinkle" and "Ring Around the Rosie" when they forgot a word they looked kind looked at each other then added an obviously made up word or maybe a word in another language without skipping a beat. These little cuties were a great send off for sure!
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Singapore:
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Knowing Singapore is an expensive city, we planned ahead and set up a Couch Surfing contact to save on accommodation. We stayed with four young finance professionals who lived right on line with the slick train system and were grateful for their hospitality. Unfortunately, since we arrived late on a Sunday night and left early on Wednesday morning, we barely got to spend any time with our hardworking hosts. The four guys had met at university in Singapore and all happened to be from India. They told us there was a grant that paid for all of their schooling if they agreed to work in Singapore for three years after graduation. Apparently people in Singapore are working too hard and not having children until much later in life which has resulted in huge economic growth, without enough people to sustain it. Therefore the government offers this grant that requires the graduates work for at least three years with the hope that they will choose to stay permanently. Two of them were studying for their CFA exams the following week, one had to report to the office at seven AM but was always on call and the fourth was busy during the day but was able to chat with us a bit before bed time. However, they were extremely kind and helpful in giving suggestions for what we should do/see around the city.
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The weather didn't agree with us for long either of our two sight seeing days in the city which made for a rather limited experience. There are lots of touristy things to do in Singapore they just happen to be extremely expensive and way out of our price range (like a $20 cocktail or a $25 Christmas light bus tour). We have adapted 100% to a "traveler's budget" and local currencies making it pretty difficult to justify such purchases even if we would have been willing to shell out the money back home. However, since we needed to fly out of Singapore anyway we decided we might as well see what we could just by walking around. Over the next two days we walked around Little India which was fun to be able to name the sweets we came to love so much while traveling there. We also ventured to Chinatown and I got gusty ordering a spicy soup called Lahksa and had to pick 7 of about 30 choices to add to my soup of which i was probably able to recognize three. Like KL, the architecture in Singapore is also very unique and varied. There is neat stretch of colorful buildings along the river framed by sky scrapers and other standard, metallicy high rises.
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When the rain would come (as it did often), we sought refuge in one of the many fancy malls that we could access via the underground train stations. The network of tunnels down there was impressive and Melanie commented on how we could probably get pretty far without needing to come up to the ground level at all. For as much time as we spent in the malls, we didn't spend one penny on anything besides food and movie tickets. Our hosts tipped us off that the basement level food courts were cheap and had a huge selection which we took full advantage of. My fave was a tomato pizza with sesame crust and a hint of cream cheese. Melanie and Swhite got pretty into the bubble tea. We also discovered that movie tickets were only about $5 so we saw a movie each night too. Yes it's lame to be in a foreign country and spend time in a mall, but in our defense, the Christmas decorations really were beautiful!
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Posted by 3ifBySEA 12.10.10 06:01 Archived in Malaysia Comments (1)

Thailand Part 2: Still Sweet as Banana Pancakes

by Melanie

sunny 92 °F

Many backpackers warned us that Bangkok is a dump and should be merely used as hub for travels elsewhere. We definitely did not agree. Khao San Road is the city's backpacker central and we decided to spend a few days there as our base to explore Bangkok. Khao San and several surrounding city blocks are lined with cheap hotels, noodle carts and fruit vendors, sidewalk bars, travel agents, stands selling cheap travelers' clothes and trinkets, tattoo parlors, and one room spas. From 9 in the morning to well after midnight the streets are bustling with travelers and Thai totters. Khao San may not be a part of Thai culture, but it's undoubtedly integral to the SE Asia backpacker experience.
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One morning we stumbled onto a Chinese parade. It consisted of kids dressed up as dragons, and adults dancing and grooving up the middle of the street. Some of the ladies were going all out!
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A fellow spectator saw us peering through these temple gates and explained that the gathering was being hosted by the family of a new Buddhist monk. He said that all Thai men have to either join the military or a Buddhist monastery for a period of service.
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Government tuk-tuks (blue bodied with Thai flags as antennae) can earn gasoline reimbursements if they bring tourists to particular tailors and jewelers. We went along for the ride (our stops were brief since we were clearly not interested buyers) and also visited the Lucky Buddha temple.
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The river is one of Bangkok's main arteries and the ferries running up and down it an efficient alternative to the clogged streets for commuters. At dusk we hopped on a ferry heading to Chinatown. The long narrow boat pulls along side the dock, a man jumps off with a rope to tether the ferry to the dock just long enough for passengers to leap back and forth to the landing before the ferry surges back out into the open water again. The turn around at each landing was 30 seconds or less, no time for dawdlers.
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Chinatown was full of bright lights and an brand new slew of street food for us to sample. Our favorite treat was this ice cream-like substance that was pulled out of the freezer in an ice block and shredded thin into bowls before being topped with fruit and condensed milk.
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Since we didn't have enough time to head to Chiang Mai in the far north, Brie and I took a 2 hour bus trip west to Kachenaburi. Our destination was Erawan Falls National Park. A Dutch chap we met on Khao San claimed that it was the most beautiful place in the world. The falls were spectacular! Seven falls wind up along 2.5 kilometers of trail. Teal water cascaded over white stone steppes, gurgling and pooling into luscious swimming holes.
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The white rock was coarse, and there was always a climbable water route from one fall to the next. Brie and I had fun surprising people by popping up over the edge of the falls instead of via the trail. We climbed all the way to the top of this one:
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One pool had two huge boulders covered in algae that we slid down. So Swiss Family Robinson!
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The ONE downside: nibbling fish! Some of the suckers (literally) were the size of small sharks. I jumped in and flailed as much as possible while scurrying out of the water to keep the fish away. They're harmless, but having scaley beast-fish (slight exaggeration) clamoring around me was not OK.
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A mere few minutes after this photo was taken, a seemingly lazy monkey lunged at Brie when she tried to pose 5 feet behind it. The signs don't lie.
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En route down south we stopped at the Bakers condo in Hua Hin to collect some belongings and purge our packs of all the weight we could do without. We thoroughly enjoyed buying some pasta at the grocery store, cooking for ourselves, and lounging around watching movies for the evening. After months in cheap hotel rooms where the shower head squirts into the middle of the bathroom, it is heavenly to step out of a shower and onto a BATH MAT. Dry feet are fully under appreciated in the west.
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We spent our last days in Thailand on Koh PhaNgan, an island in the South China Sea. We timed it to be on the island for both the Full Moon party and Loy Krathong, a Thai lantern festival. Given the double event, we were told that all the hotels on the island, as well as the transportation to and fro, would be booked, so we decided to arrange everything through a travel agent. This is Peter, the agent.
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To make a long story short, we paid too much and did not get the treatment we were promised. First off, there were huge gaps between modes of transport (9 hours waiting at a train station) that made the trips both To Koh PhaNgang and then on to Kuala Lampur hugely inefficient. Second, the hotel booked for us was 1) rather dumpy 2) on a beach that managed to be both gooey and filled with sharp rocks 3) WAY overpriced and 4) in the middle of nowhere. Travel agents won't give you a breakdown of your cost, but at the hotel we discovered that we were being charged 1400 ($43) baht per night, a RIDICULOUS sum for such a mediocre hotel. Luckily we had a Thai cell phone and I could keep ringing up our dear friend Peter. We hoped for a refund, which did not work because the hotel wouldn't return our money, but Peter did manage to move us from Beer Bungalow to the WeangThai resort. The new place was fabulous! Beautiful beach, pool, wifi, fun staff, best bed/pillow combo we've had so far, well located, and to top it off, Peter threw in $15 tickets to the Loy Krathong feast.
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The WeangThai manager convinced me to be a participant in the Ms/Mr WeangThai competition. I really had no idea what I was signing up for, but I did get to wear the incredibly voluminous and scratchy traditional Thai ensemble!
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The event turned out to be 30 seconds of dancing on the catwalk. I attempted to mimic the 6 year old dancers we'd just seen perform, and then threw in a few other killer moves before shimmying off the stage in about 15 seconds. I did not win (though a few friendly audience members told me I was gyped), but it was fun!
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Throughout the day, we saw people furiously making these beautiful lanterns out of flowers and banana leaves to be released out to sea during the Loy Krathong celebration. The photos don't do it justice, but about a hundred floating lanterns were gently shoved into the water, each with one wish from the shover.
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A few of the floating lanterns were also released. Environmentally, none of this is OK. But when in Rome...
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Be sure to check out our updated photo gallery! http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/3ifBySEA/

Posted by 3ifBySEA 12.3.10 18:56 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Same Same- Cambodia

by Sarah

sunny 90 °F

Same Same, But Different

When we were in India someone told us that their favorite country in SEA was Cambodia because it reminded them of India. As soon as we crossed the border the similarities with India were clear to see. Both Cambodia and India are a little behind Thailand on the development scale, and both are seriously lacking in infrastructure. Cambodia is very similar to Thailand, but feels like it might be what it was like there 10-15 years ago. Roads are littered with pot holes and everything is a little crazier, louder and more hectic. But we loved it nonetheless.
We traveled from Bangkok to Siem Reap, where the Angkor Temples are. On the Thai side our ride was pretty smooth. Once we crossed the border we were herded from one bus to another several times, before being dropped off at a friend of the driver's hotel. The driver's friend was on the bus and explaining to us where we would be dropped off, and if we didn't want to stay there what we should do, when he was interrupted by his cell phone. He started laughing and rolling his eyes, and then shook his head and said "oh nooo, it's my girlfriend" debated not answering it, and then reluctantly picked up and lowered his voice. I guess some things are the same same across all cultures. (Same same, but different is a common phrase here that people use for pretty much everything, it's like the Indian head bobble...don't quite know what it means but we just go with it!)
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We finally arrived in Siem Reap at the friend's guesthouse and decided that it was actually an alright place to stay. We wanted to do a little more reading about the temples and decide how many days we were going to visit them, so the first few days were spent wandering around the town. I had been interested in visiting an orphanage to talk to people about how they run it, and see if there were any possibilities of volunteering. I found one online and we set out to find it. The directions were brief, and said that if we got to the crocodile farm we had gone too far. Luckily we were able to find it quite easily. They didn't offer any opportunities to volunteer as they have a full staff at the moment, but they did give us a run down of how the orphanage was run. The children seem to be very well cared for and they receive a lot of private funding form donors, so all the children are able to attend school and participate in any extra-curriculars they want, including dance, singing, sports and extra language lessons. It was nice to see one that was so well run and where the children seemed truly happy.

After our few days of wandering we decided to only spend one day looking at the temples and if that wasn't enough, we could always go back. We got up before dawn to get there in time for the sunrise. It wasn't a very clear day so the sunrise wasn't that amazing, but it was still really neat to see the light rising above the great Angkor Wat. There are thousand Angkor temples (now in ruins) for miles around. Angkor Wat is meant to be the most impressive, and was originally built in the 12th century and is still used as a religious site today. It is the world's largest single religious monument in the world. The temples bring in about 2 million visitors annually, which is a tremendous help to Cambodia's economy.
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On our bus trip down we met a solo traveler, Lukas, and hung out with him the whole time we were there. It became apparent that he is a bit of a scaredy-cat, and is not a fan of most animals, bugs, reptiles or anything of the sort. At the temple we saw an enormous hairy spider on the wall and Lucas freaked out pretty bad. But the worst was once we finished touring and got back in the tuk-tuk i glanced up at melanie and noticed she had an even bigger spider on her face! she was wearing sunglasses and it was right on the top of them near her forehead. I froze and tried to decide how to tell her. I didn't want her to freak out and fling it into the car so I wasn't sure what to do. I tried to calmly whisper to Brie that "umm...i don't know what to do but Melanie has an enormous spider on her face..." But it turns out I wasn't as quiet as I thought because Melanie heard and flung her sunglasses off her face, luckily outside of the tuk-tuk. As soon as Lukas realized what was happening he screamed and jumped out of the tuk-tuk as fast as he could. It took some convincing but he finally got back inside. Our driver thought this was hilarious and kept trying to scare Lukas and make him think there was a spider on him. He even told all his other tuk-tuk driver friends about it and everyone teased him.
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We left Siem Reap the next day on a night bus. We each had our own little beds. A Cambodian mother and her three kids got on about five minutes into the 12 hour ride to Sihukanville and were ushered to the back of the bus, standing in the aisle next to my bed. The littlest one was sick and threw up everywhere...which wasn't very pleasant but I did feel bad for the poor thing. you could tell the mom was worried about her and the older two were told to just stand and wait in the aisle. I felt bad for the kids and invited them to join my bunk. It made it pretty cosy, but it was only for about a half hour so it wasn't too bad. I swear the kids didn't actually hate me, despite what it looks like from the photo! We arrived in Sihunikanville early in the morning and had to wait for all the hostels to open. We looked around a few and since they were all closed, we just picked one and waited. It turned out to be a cool hangout spot in the evenings and has cute little bungalows to sleep in.
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After a day of sleeping and lounging at the beach we decided to rent scooters (yes, again) and try and find a waterfall. When we first got them our guy told us that Brie and mine needed some air in the tires. So we filled them up and were on our way. Melanie ran out of gas about 1 km from our hotel, and we we noticed her behind us we headed back, only to be pulled over by the police! (don't worry moms, we hadn't done anything illegal). Turns out they just wanted to see Brie's license, which we had forgotten back at the hotel. Brie headed back to get the licenses and Melanie hitched a ride to get some gas for her bike. After returning her bottle, Melanie was then pulled over! She had barely run a red light (all the locals don't even stop for them), but was able to talk her way our of that. After all that we were actually on our way. However, we didn't realize that the road to the waterfall was a 3 mile dirt/gravel road. Gabrielle and I could feel our bike fishtailing, but though it was just the terrain. Turns out our tire had gone flat already, and then the tube of the tire popped and we decided it was best to not try and drive it. Luckily we were only a few yards from the entrance to the waterfall. We all piled onto Melanie's bike and slowly made our way there. We called for help and then went to enjoy the waterfall. The guy we hired the bike from came out and fixed if for us, and we were on our way back home.
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The next morning we wanted to take the bikes to a beach a little ways away that was meant to be quieter and more relaxed. We went to start the bikes, and of course, Melanie's (not the one with the flat) wouldn't start. We called our guy and he happily brought us a new bike, and we were off. The beach was beautiful, and we were some of the first people there. There was a random bull in the water we we of course did some power kicks off of, and had a great day.
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We had heard about boat trips to neighboring islands and decided to go on one that went to a protected beach. The boat ride out was nice and peaceful and had a beautiful view of all the islands. We stopped part way out and the girls snorkeled while I fished. I even caught the first catch of the day! He was pretty little though so we had to throw him back. It took a little while to get the hook out, and I think he may have died in the process, since he was floating upright when we threw him back. He did swim upside down for a little bit, so I like to think that he made a full recovery. We got to the beach and it was stunning. It had pure white sand and aqua water. After a few hours in paradise we boarded the boat back. We were relaxing on the sun deck after our tiring day of beaching it, when we heard some shouting and dance jams blaring from the lower deck. We headed down and realized that there was a huge dance party going on, so of course we joined in. The macarana came on ( not the first time we had heard it recently) and gabrielle and I started everyone off. We docked and the party slowly died down and everyone headed their separate ways.
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We were booked on a night bus to Bangkok in a few hours, so we headed back to our hotel to get ready. After our 12 hour (that took 14) we changed buses in Siem Reap, and then changed again, and again, and again. On our bus that we finally took to the border we had a very enthusiastic Cambodian guide who was able to talk non-stop, without any engagement from passengers, for about 3 hours. He was entertaining, but a little hard to understand. The one thing we did understand was "you know what mean 'boom, boom'?" which we didn't,but later found out when he said "some people don't eat 'food, food' because they do too much' boom, boom' and that is why the are so skinny". We finally made it to the border, crossed back into Thailand and headed for Bangkok. Hello Thailand round two!!
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Posted by 3ifBySEA 11.23.10 05:21 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Island Time is the BEST Time! Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi

by gabrielle

semi-overcast 85 °F

Holy gorgeous!! The islands of Thailand are truly paradise and i couldn't be any more thrilled to have spent the last nine days livin' the good life...barefoot!
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We trekked down to the island of Koh Samui on the southeast coast from the condo in Hua Hin on Friday night. Our journey started off strong with a luxury sleeper train but unfortunately plopped us into Surat Thani (80 km from our ferry port) at 3 am. The only tuk-tuk drivers available at the station brought us to a tourist agency that may have been opened especially for us where we did not find a cheap public bus leaving within the hour as promised but rather an outrageously expensive personal car. Once we discovered we had been hoodwinked we took off walking and found an adorable tuk-tuk truck style driver passing by about 3 blocks away who was willing to drive us the 80 km for a fair price. As we were loading in our bags the son of the angry woman from the tourist agency rode up on his scooter and started arguing with our dear driver claiming we were on our way to the ATM and that he stole their business. This exchange was happening in Thai but we figured out what was going on through tone and body language and were sure once the angry woman showed up and our new driver asked us to tell them that we were in fact leaving when he found us and never planned on giving her our business. It is big in Thai culture to save face and have a sound reputation and they were threatening to tell people our driver stole our business unfairly and he was obviously uncomfortable being put in the middle. After some more arguing things finally got resolved and we were on our way at about 4:30 am. It's really interesting that we were so taken aback by the attempted scam after all we had just been through in India. Although it's completely unfair we had come to expect to be cheated in India and in turn began to distrust people from the beginning. In Thailand, everyone seems so sweet and honest and patient we were automatically trusting and ended up getting burned a bit. It just goes to show that there are always going to be people who are in the business of screwing over tourists but there are also always people that are honest and helpful and just plain friendly. The tough part is figuring out how to have our guard up a little bit without unfairly assuming people are out to get us.
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We planned to come down to the islands at this time because the big full moon party on a neighboring island called Koh Phanghan was happening that night. These parties are supposed to be a huge (8-15,00 people), crazy beach dance parties with different stages set up featuring various genres of music, fire show dance performances, neon clothing and of course neon, glow-in-the-dark body paint. We took a 1/2 hour long boat ride over just after sunset, got crazy with some body paint and danced the night away. It was so much fun! We met people from all over the place and it was pure madness. Exhausted, amused and with really sore feet we took the boat back the next morning at about 4 am and spent half of the day recovering; it was totally worth it!
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The next three days were definitely more low key hanging on the beach, wandering through the rows of market shops, taking scooter adventures to different parts of the island and scouting for affordable restaurants. We were hanging on the beach our last night and got to share in the magic of an Australian couple's wedding reception. We observed the standard best man's speech, the hootin' of the garter retrieval and the commencement of the dance party. After bobbin to a few killer dance jams from about 40 yards away, the party moved further onto the beach to release these awesome, barrel-sized lanterns into the air. Once they are lit and filled with enough hot air they floated up crazy high and swiveled south in a really neat swirly pattern. They probably released at least 20 and at could still be seen in a galaxy like formation above the moon. It was so cool! Environmentalists in the States would probably make a fuss over something like that but if i get married abroad i'm totally doing it! After they ran out of lanterns they started setting off some pretty legit fireworks (don't forget we're still only about 40 yards away). It was amazing to be watching them so close and believe it or not our camera wasn't zoomed in at all when we took the pictures. We did have a close call when the second one pictured went off and shot every which way and a sparkling stream headed straight for Dan forcing him to dodge out of the way. It was still sizzling in the sand for a second about 3 feet behind him, major yikes!
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From Koh Samui we headed to the west coast of Thailand to the famous island of Koh Phi Phi.S PP is famous because of it's white sand and turquoise waters, renowned diving and unique shape and set up of a skinny stretch of land framed on two ends by incredible cliffs covered in palm and leaf trees. PP is also backpacker central and a huge party island, not to mention Leonardo DiCaprio's famous backpacker movie, "The Beach" was filmed there. We were planning on staying just a few days but ended up staying about a week. I'm pretty sure this happens to almost everyone who visits.
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On one day, Swhite and I went snorkeling while Melanie went scuba diving with a separate group. Our boat stopped at about 5 locations around the island where the snorkeling was best or just an exceptionally beautiful place to stop and swim. We saw some vibrantly colorful fish and sea life and Melanie even saw a shark (the kind that are afraid of people though so no worries there)!
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Besides relaxing on the beach, swimming and having nightly epic dance parties a highlight of the week was definitely meeting this group of three guys from Vancouver Island, B.C and their smiley English friend who danced like he was from Jersey Shore and looked Italian. Two of the Canadian guys were SOOO Canadian it was insane. They had the accent for sure with the pace and pattern of speech and the classic denial of the term"aboot". The town/island was so small that even if we didn't plan on it we saw "the Canadians" about three times a day. Once when we were sitting in a restaurant and saw them walking by i called out, "hey Canada" but they didn't seem to hear me. When i told them later they said, "no, no, you have to say Oh Canada!" Of course the boys grew up playing hockey, had the longish curled slightly at the ends brown hockey hair and often had to ask us to repeat things because their hearing wasn't that good, no doubt from being checked into the boards one too many times. The icing on the cake though was when we were at dinner with them and the younger, even crazier one took off his shirt and... wait for it....took out HIS RIGHT FRONT TOOTH before aggressively digging into his pasta! Yes, he lost his tooth playing hockey and, yes, he does this at every meal including on dates and yes, we laughed SOOOO HARD! Apparently it happened three years ago and his friend says he's not embarrassed but has a lot of fun with it. I was overwhelmed with how entertained i was and told him i couldn't wait to tell my dad about the most stereotypical, young, Canadian male ever!
There was one bar/restaurant on the Island that had a boxing ring for both Thai professionals or foreign visitors to try a kick box. We stopped in one night and i noticed one of the foreign fighters didn't have anyone supporting him in his corner while his opponent had three. I shared this concern with a guy watching the match and he offered to go up with me and support the feisty young Englishman. We stood there and cheered, gave up brief neck rubs, water and our words of wisdom like "jab and tuck"! it was fun and Ewan (our fighter) seemed to appreciate it even though he was boxing his "best mate".
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One other fun cultural experience was a 20 minute fish massage. We sat with our feet in these large fish tanks as the sucker fish gnawed away at our dead skin. Lovely right? It tickled but was pretty darn fascinating. The woman claimed she had to buy the fish from Japan and that they only lived for 2 weeks. Not sure of the details but it was a neat experience!
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To polish off our great week in Koh Phi Phi we got to celebrate Halloween on Sunday night. With limited funds, space in our packs and resources we had to get creative when coming up with a costume of some sort. We settled on "hood rat gypsies" or tacky girlfriends of bad boys with hippy scarves as tops. The tipping point was when we discovered we would get to creatively corn row our hair and wear lots of intense eye make up. It took Swhite and me awhile to convince Melanie that braiding her whole head would be awesome but once she got involved, she had mastered the fiercest tough girl face of all! On our way to the bar we passed the massage parlor we pass everyday where the women get our attention by saying, "massaaaaaaage?" I swear they somehow drag the word out for a good three seconds.
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Throughout the night we ran into some nerdy tourists, zombie geishas', lots of toga wearers and cats/bunnies but the night was once again ruled by neon body paint. On our way from one bar heading to the beach party we came across a group of Thai women and their young, darling kids. Talk about a detour! We played with the three and five year old brothers until the moms handed over two, jolly little babies! The two older boys and one baby all had whiskers painted on their faces and couldn't possibly be any cuter! The moms were having fun and were so trusting as Swhite and i swooned incessantly over their little ones. Love them!
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The next afternoon we hopped on a ferry in the pouring rain to start our overnight journey back to Bangkok then on to Cambodia. It turns out we left just in time because we've since heard the late monsoons have hit so badly that boats cannot land on PP and people are getting stuck on the island. Rough.

We're lovin' Thailand and i'm grateful and elated things are working out so well!

More Photos!! http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/3ifBySEA/

Posted by 3ifBySEA 11.7.10 01:42 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

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