Sunday, 22 February 2015

Is This Real Life? - Finding (Sur)reality in El Nido

Just like the limestone cliffs that surround El Nido and give it it's charm- our journey there was a rocky one. After spending a couple days in Cebu- a lively city with less chaos than Manila (so I've heard), we were itching to get out the city and into the paradise awaiting us. In order to get to El Nido, we were to fly from Cebu to Manila, have a quick little layover, and then head straight to Palawan, the Island where El Nido is located. All was fine and dandy- we went through security, boarded the plane, even started our descent and could see land! All of a sudden, we were no longer descending- we were going back up, very very quickly. Everyone was quite confused at first, especially since there was no announcement made by the pilot. Maybe the runway is full, or something. Five minutes later, we were told that they were unable to land the plane due to extremely strong winds, so we were to head back to Manila. Our reaction? Laughter. That's all we could do at this point! Although naturally we were a bit annoyed of course. So, we made our way back to the airport in the city we planned on spending the least amount of time in. With that being said, that made the decision to leave the airport, or sleep at the airport, an easy one. Everyone should sleep in an airport at some point in their lives, right? We grabbed some pizza, found some "comfy" floor space, and made camp for the night. Pashmina scarf as a blanket, eye mask, and earplugs, I was set! Ok, it wasn't quite that glamourous, but at one point I had 3 hours of nonstop sleep! At 11AM the next morning, we boarded our plane for the second time, and it actually landed where we wanted it to land this time. The only thing we had left to do was the 5 hour bus ride from the airport to El Nido. This place was well worth any amount of layovers or bus rides.

Corey, Tom and I. Quite accurately depicts our sleep that night.

The Town of El Nido

Disregarding the abundance of natural wonders surrounding El Nido, the town itself is quite a gem. It is what some literally call "The Last/Final Frontier of the Philippines". Although tourism is the town's primary resource, it neglects to feel touristy in comparison to other places. It is a quaint and rugged beach town, with plenty of home owned shops nestled at the base of the limestone cliffs.  At night it transforms into quite a social atmosphere, with beachfront bars and restaurants bustling with people. We stayed in an area called Corong Corong, not directly in the town itself. The only way to get from point A to B was to either walk, or take what Filipinos call a tricycle. Taxis do not exist in El Nido- how refreshing! A Tricycle is basically a tuktuk equivalent- a motorized rickshaw, seen in the second picture below. The ride was about 10 minutes into town, and cost 50 Philippine Pesos (approximately $1.42). Yay for cheap transportation!

Where We Stayed in El Nido

We stayed at a place called Island Front Cottages, which is actually divided into two: a lower end and a higher end. We had originally booked at the lower end side (called Island Front II), however upon arriving they told us they had made some sort of mistake, and that we would stay at the high end side for the same price. Wicked! After staying in luxury for one night, we simply couldn't go back. So, for the rest of the week, we treated ourselves. Plus, they upgraded us to a sea-view room for free! We really lucked out with this place. We booked it on a whim, reluctant since it wasn't right in town, but we saw that it had it's own beach. Sold! The beach at our hotel was far more beautiful and cleaner than the one in town, and town was only a short (and cheap) ride away if needed. Breakfast was included everyday, and not just a typical free continental breakfast! You could choose from omelettes, eggs/toast, smoothies, etc. They also had a restaurant and bar where you could order from and enjoy your food and drinks on the outdoor patio overlooking the beach. 

 View from our room

Sunset from Island Front

Enjoying some beers on the outdoor patio (Photocred: Mark B)

Sunset watching on the patio (Photocred: Mark B)

Highlight of El Nido- Island Hopping

What draws many people to El Nido are the abundance of surrounding Islands and how accessible they are. Our time in El Nido would not have been complete without this island hopping experience. I have never been so blown away and in awe of Mother Nature. Hence the inspiration for this post's title, "is this real life?" Our guide and captain picked us up at 9:00, and we headed to sea. We managed to book a private tour since there were already five of us, for the same price (1200 Philippines Pesos- $34). I still can't believe the prices in Southeast Asia, you get so much for a small price. Our guide, Ronnia was fantastic. He knew the timing of the other tours, so he did his best to avoid going at the same time. This resulted in the ultimate experience- less people, less busy, better photo ops, etc. Our first stop- Secret Beach. We anchored our boat, hopped out, and immediately realized why it was called Secret Beach: a hole in one of the limestone cliffs, the perfect size to climb through. 

Heading through the hole!

Inside Secret Beach!

 A magical place with the most fascinating reflections on the rocks

Inside Secret Beach was quiet and peaceful- you almost felt the need to whisper. Sounds became amplified, the slightest tread of your body against the water becoming more noticeable. Surrounding us, giant limestone cliffs creating an almost perfect circle of water. The water and light not just reflecting against the rocks- but dancing and sparkling across them. We waded for a while, taking in the surroundings, and headed out of Secret Beach and back to where our boat was anchored- this beach beautiful in itself. Our next stop on the Island hopping tour was the place we would be stopping for lunch- our own private beach! While our guide and captain cooked lunch, we had time to do some snorkelling and exploration of the area. 

Our beach for lunch

Our Captain cooking us some lunch in the cave

Lunch is served! Fresh grilled fish, chicken and pork with copious amounts of rice and fruit. Delicious!

Our third stop was Big Lagoon. This is the one that left me the most speechless. There was something so breathtaking and unique about it, the right words escape me.

Photocred: Mark B

The last stop on our Island hopping journey was Papaya beach. It was nice to simply relax and lay on the beach, float in the water, and reflect on the day. 

The Philippines was never at the top of my travel list. It wasn't until a friend mentioned she was going there that I started to consider it a possibility, and I am so glad I did! The natural beauty is astounding, and it is quite less touristy than other places but still has the benefits of a place frequented by backpackers. For example, cheap everything: hostels, food, transportation, activities, etc. If it isn't on your list already, I highly suggest putting it on there! 

Whew! That was a lengthy one. For those of you who made it to the end of this post (or even halfway through)- thank you. Thank you for taking the time to travel with me and continuously encouraging me to share my journeys. 

Next Up: How I Spent Lunar New Year in Seoul!

Stay tuned!


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Jungle Stays in Chiang Rai

Spending my last few days in Thailand at the Bamboo Nest was the only thing I had actually booked in advance before leaving for my trip. The idea of spending a few days in a bamboo hut in the middle of the jungle was captivating, and the rave reviews of the place only solidified this. I had to do this. So, after my time in Chiang Mai, I took a minibus to Chiang Rai for the final leg of my journey.

The owners offer a free pickup service from the downtown bus station, and thank goodness they do. When I say the middle of the jungle, I really do mean the middle of the jungle. The ride took about 45 minutes in the back of the owner- Nok's, Ford truck. This was an adventure in itself. The further we drove from civilization, the more natural beauty started to reveal itself. We drove through rice paddies, hot springs, elephant camps, and local hill-tribe villages. At one point, I swear our vehicle was almost vertical because of how steep the hills were. A real life roller coaster! This required real skill on Nok's part. It was quite amazing watching this tiny Thai lady operating her big truck up the steep hills.

Once we arrived at our destination, the other new guests and I were shown our huts. I was Hut #2. No lock on the door. Perfect. No sarcasm intended here, it truly was perfect. It felt safe, and brought back memories of my time spent at camp. After putting my belongings in my new home for the next 2 days, I made my way to the dining area. This was an open air area with wooden benches and tables, overlooking the the rolling hills in the distance. They explained how the meals and food work. Every "hut" has 1 pad of paper kept in the dining area, where you write down what you want to eat (at least 2 hours in advance) for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There were also snacks (chips, nuts, etc) and drinks (water, beer, pop, tea) accessible at any time. This worked on the honour system. If you took a bottle of water, or a snack, you simply wrote it down on the same pad of paper, and at the end of your stay you would pay for everything. Simple things like this- situations that still put faith in humans and strangers, bring me so much joy.    

My hut for 2 days

The other new guests and I (2 Aussies and a Dutch man I can now call friends), took a look at the menu's and proceeded to write down our orders. Unfortunately I was still not fully recuperated, so I opted for a rice and veggie dish. This was progress, though! My new friends and I chatted while waiting for our food, greeting the other guests who had already been staying at the Bamboo Nest a couple days. Asking the usual questions: where are you from, how long have you been in travelling, where have you been so far in Thailand, and so on. After dinner, we headed to the fire pit, where we spent the next evening as well. We continued to chat and it wasn't long before the other owner, Noi, came by with snacks. They were sweet potatoes, which he threw in the fire, and would take out in 20 minutes. Once they were ready, he took them out using some sticks. Not having been wrapped in any foil like were used to back home, the skins of the potatoes were grey with charcoal. We slowly peeled the skin off the hot potatoes, trying not to burn ourselves in the process. Fire roasted sweet potatoes- a delicious midnight snack! The sweet potatoes are actually much different here in Korea and in Thailand, maybe all of Asia perhaps. Instead of being orange-y/brown on the outside, and bright orange on the inside, they have purple skin and yellow insides. Tastes very similar, if not better than the ones back home!

Dining Area with morning fog

Fire pit

The next day was spent exploring our surroundings, first- on a longtail boat. We walked down the steep hill for about 2 kilometres until reaching the water, where we met our boat driver. From there, we enjoyed the leisurely boat ride, taking in all the surroundings, until our first destination. We first stopped at one of the Akha hilltribe villages, where we caught a glimpse into their daily life. Bamboo huts with thatched roofs, wild pigs basking in the sun, that surely wont be "pets" for very much longer. Our second stop was a rickety bamboo bridge, with a clear warning sign that it was under repairs. The reluctance we were feeling quickly passed, as we watched one of the local people zoom by us on a scooter onto the bridge, with their child on the back. If it can hold a scooter, it can hold us! Our last stop was the natural hot springs- mmmm sulphur! If the smell couldn't get egg-y enough already, you could actually buy raw eggs and boil them in the hot spring. Neat!

Our mode of transportation for the day- a longtail boat

After making our way back to the Bamboo Nest, the rest of the day was spent relaxing in the hammock, enjoying fresh pineapple and reading a book. Such a peaceful place, with amazing owners who truly put their heart and soul into the place.  I'm glad I ended my time in Thailand here- (almost) recovered and ready to take on the Philippines!

Korea Update: HAPPY WEEKEND!!! Yes, I know it's only Tuesday. This week marks a special holiday in Korea, Lunar New Year! Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all national holidays. How will I be spending my 5 day weekend? In Seoul of course! I've been in Korea for almost 4 months now (what the heck.....), and now I finally have the perfect opportunity to go check out the big city. Pictures and a blog post to follow, of course!


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai: my home for 4 days and where my exploration of Northern Thailand began. For those wondering why I didn't venture down to the beautiful beaches and white sand of southern Thailand, here's why. I had heard so many positive reviews of Northern Thailand from friends, plus I was heading to the Philippines right after Thailand where sand & beaches are hard to ignore. So, I decided to head somewhere that was completely different in terrain.

  • Chiang Mai Night Market 
  • Elephant Nature Park
Other notable highlights include Doi Suthep, a temple located on top of a mountain that gives a great bird's eye view of the city. Finding "UP Cafe", a super friendly and family owned coffee shop that looked straight out of a Pinterest board. I spent two mornings there, enjoying fresh homemade bread, eggs and a mango smoothies (yay for real food!). I was also fortunate enough to meet many people along the way from all over the world, that helped make my time in Chiang Mai memorable. 

Let me start by saying how unique the city of Chiang Mai really is. The central and old part of the city is completely enclosed by high brick walls and several different "gate" entrances. I swear it's quite beautiful and not actually the amusement park that I just made it sound like. If that didn't sell you on the city, around those walls is a giant moat that surrounds the city. Yes, a moat! Unfortunately, I neglected to take any photos of the brick wall (I'll blame it on the food poisoning). I did however, get 2 photos of the moat. Phew!

Chiang Mai at Night

Chiang Mai Moat

One of the only things I could do at night because of my food poisoning highlights of Chiang Mai was the Night Market. I spent 3 nights here. Probably more time than you would ever need at any Market, but hey. It was filled with unique jewelry, silk, lanterns, Thai spices & seasoning mixes, and of course the super obnoxious touristy t-shirts.

Thai Silk

Massage, anyone?

My second highlight of Chiang Mai was the Elephant Nature Park. It's a non-profit rehabilitation and conservation centre for elephants that have been rescued from all kinds of unfortunate circumstances. This include abuse in the trekking, logging and circus industry, along with many others. Some baby elephants are forced to work on the busy streets of Bangkok, as a tool to beg for money. After doing plenty of research on elephants in Thailand, I knew riding them was the last thing I wanted to do. Which unfortunately is still a huge attraction, especially Chiang Mai. After learning about the opportunity of volunteering at Elephant Nature Park, I knew I'd find a way to make it there. And I'm so glad I did!

There were only 6 of us in our group, creating a very intimate setting. After picking us up from our accommodations, we started our day by eating breakfast WITH the elephants. It was so cool to just be casually eating breakfast and look over and see these ginormous and beautiful creatures. We then got slowly introduced to the elephants by feeding them watermelons and bananas. Boy, can they eat! After what seemed like an impossible task (getting the biggest quantity of fruit I've ever seen from the baskets and into the bellies of the elephants), we headed into the jungle for our trek. We walked at the elephants pace, AKA super slow. It was nice to see them just enjoying themselves. We made our way over steep hills and lush fields, admiring the greenery surrounding us, quite literally going off the beaten path. Never before I had I seen leaves so large, and vines so abundant- that you could actually swing from them like Tarzan. After trekking for a few hours, we stopped for lunch at a spot that was clearly designed just for this purpose. Bamboo benches and tables with a thatched roof structure overhead. We unraveled our lunch, nicely packed into a large bamboo leaf, to find a nice cashew and veggie stir fried rice. Our guides also cut up plenty of fresh pineapple- the rinds of which we gave to the elephants! I guess they will eat almost anything.After lunch, we continued our trek to a nearby waterfall, which was followed by bathing the elephants. On the way back, we were each given a piece of cloth from monk robes. We were to tie it to any tree of our choosing- a method used to prevent trees from being cut down. 

Chiang Mai, you were truly wonderful. Thank you for nursing me back to health (almost). I will miss your cute cafes and cheap pedicures. Until next time!


Next up: Chiang Rai

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Barfing & Bartering in Bangkok

A quick little 5 hour flight from Incheon (anything seems little compared to a 16 hour flight), and I had arrived in Bangkok. Since it was fairly late, I headed straight for my hotel that I had (responsibly) booked ahead of time. Upon waking from my surprisingly terrible slumber despite how tired I was, I had a series of thoughts that went something like this:

1. Holy shit I’m in Thailand

2. What now?

These thoughts quickly passed as I realized how hungry I was (#typical). I headed down to the lobby to grab some breakfast. Some friends had recently been in Bangkok and recommended this hotel to me. It was glamourous compared to hostel standards, and more "expensive" than what you would typically pay, but still very cheap in comparison to hotel prices were used to in Canada.

The view from breakfast cued the "Holy shit I'm in Thailand" feeling again. A great feeling! After showering, and repacking my backpack that I had somehow managed to unpack (a trend for the rest of the trip), I was off to explore the city of Bangkok.

First stop: The Grand Palace! Or so I thought.....

I had heard and read about the tourist scams before coming to Thailand. However I had no idea HOW abundant they were. While trying to find the entrance to the Grand Palace (the perimeter is massive), a nice gentleman dressed in uniform informed me that the Palace was closed for lunch. Closed for lunch? That makes sense, right? For some reason, it made complete sense to me at the time. Even though I had read to not trust anyone who tries to tell you something is closed for "Buddha's Birthday", or any other excuse they may come up with. He directed me to a tuktuk (see picture below) driver who would take me to another temple (that was not closed for lunch....), and then by the time I got back, the Grand Palace would be open again. Great! And for only 30 Baht ($1)! Little did I know, that along the way I would have to go in 3 jewelry and designer tailored clothing stores, so this tuktuk driver could get his free gas coupons. Once getting into the tuktuk, the driver was quite open and friendly about how I was helping him out with his coupons and how happy he was. Honestly, at the time, I was more than happy to do it. I was riding around Thailand in a tuktuk seeing the city in a way I would have never seen on foot, while helping this Thai man out. It was a little agonizing having to pretend (for 5 minutes) to be interested in buying an tailored Armani suit that I would never buy or fit into my backpack, but hey. I eventually made it back (safely) to the Grand Palace.

Anyone who knows me knows that a) It's hard for me to say no and b) I can be a bit naive when it comes to trusting people. Although I wasn't bothered by my $1 ride around town at the time, the more I thought about it and told people the story, the more it bugged me. The more scam stories I heard from other travellers, whose were much worse than mine, the more it bugged me. It still blows my mind how connected everything is (the man in uniform, the tuktuk driver, the shops), and how frequently this happens.

What bothered me the MOST, was how on earth I ever managed to believe that a temple was closed for lunch. I could clearly see other people walking around. It's so funny now, to look back on.

By the time I was back in Bangkok on my last day (to fly to the Philippines) my guard was definitely up. When taxis were try to tell me a flat rate or that their meter was broken, I always insisted on the meter (which always ended up being cheaper). You can't escape the scams in Bangkok, but you can definitely learn to be smarter!


Grand Palace

Grand Palace

Stopped for some refreshing road side fruit after the heat of Grand Palace!

Fish Spa!
This was an immediate "yes". No hesitation. Still not sure if I liked it though......

Found a nice park to just sit back and people watch to end the day

As I was only planning on staying 1 full day in Bangkok (I think I had my share), I had to head to the bus station to catch a "sleeper bus" to Chiang Mai. Unfortunately (but expectedly), the sleeper train was full that day and I did not book ahead.

You might be wondering where the "Barfing" in the title of this blog post comes in.....I think that's right about now. At some point during the sleeper bus experience, I started to feel really sick. And I don't get motion sickness. At one of our pitstops, I made a point to grab a bag, and thank god I did. I had eaten the most delicious pad thai for dinner, and it was starting to make its way back up. It was most definitely not a "sleeper" bus that night, for me. Thank goodness there were empty seats that I managed to move to, so I didn't have to throw up beside the nice old Thai man I was originally sitting beside. 

I had actually taken a picture of "the best pad thai I ever had" but had to delete it, since every time I would look through my pictures, the sight of it would make me nauseous. 

In the wee hours of the morning we eventually made it to the beautiful city if Chiang Mai- surrounded by rolling green hills and a lush jungle landscape. I was lucky enough to have met some girls from England and Scotland on the bus, who I spent a lot of time with during the rest of my time in Chiang Mai. We found a coffee shop with wifi, and set up accommodations for that day/night. 

Unfortunately, I had some degree of food poisoning for the majority of my time in Thailand. 3 full days of not keeping any food down, and having it come out the other end. The latter continued for the rest of my trip, even into the Philippines! The human body is a marvellous thing. Despite this, I tried to remain positive and still DO things. I was in freaking THAILAND! I needed to remind myself of this sometimes. It also really helped to having met some friends on the bus, they were a great source of social support!

There you have it. An unnecessarily long and detailed post about my 24+ hours in Bangkok! Yikes, if I can say this much about 24 hours........

Stayed tuned for more on Thailand & The Philippines!


Monday, 2 February 2015

(Home) Sweet Home

3 weeks ago I departed for my first solo trip.

Here I am, 3 weeks later sitting at a new coffee shop that just opened up by my apartment while I was away. Trying to find the right words to explain these past 3 weeks. Feeling at home in Korea, although I will greatly miss my time I spent in Thailand and the Philippines.

Strange things start to happen when you travel outside of the country that is already “foreign” to you, yet home at the same time. The experiences I had in Thailand and the Philippines were automatically compared to life in Korea. Not for better or for worse; simply natural observations we make as humans. Once I consciously realized this, it was quite a revelation. Food, people, transportation, everything was in relation to Korea. The driving in Thailand and the Philippines is quite chaotic, more so than Korea, but something I was already quite accustomed to. I even started to miss Korean food! I don’t know why I was so surprised by this, as I do love Korean food. The fact that I also encountered horrendous food poisoning in Thailand probably didn’t help either, as the smells of Thai food would make me nauseous everywhere I went. 

There were many moments during this trip where I just felt an overwhelming sense of joy and gratefulness. The new landscapes and natural beauty surrounding me was a huge catalyst to this. Moving to Korea has opened so many doors and has allowed me to do things and go places I would have never imagined. I am truly thankful for this experience, more than words can describe. It’s only 3 months in, but I know the adventures will not subside.

I want to break my trip down in the most concise/non-overwhelming way that I can, so I will dedicate the next couple posts to that. The elephants in Thailand, staying in a bamboo hut in Northern Thailand, and island hoping in the Philippines were amongst my favourite memories.

Pictures and unnecessarily excessive details to come.

I did it! I’m home :)

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.