Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here: Month 1, Month 2, Months 3 and 4, Month 5, Month 6, Month 7, Months 8 and 9, Month 10, Month 11, Month 12, Month 13, Months 14 and 15, Month 16, Months 17 and 18, Month 19, and Month 20.
This month was all about exploring an entirely new side of Southeast Asia, a region that has become so familiar to me. I kissed goodbye to Thailand with a week in Railay, a destination I’ve long been itching to reach, and then flew off to the Philippines for a fresh new adventure. I put my 21-day visa to work exploring the country at a quick clip — a notable departure from my usual more lackadaisical wanderings.
Oh, and what about that pesky month 21? Apparently I’ve played a little fast and loose with the dates of these “monthly” roundups — sometimes I go beyond the technical scope of the calendar month to keep trips grouped together. And somehow, I realized when I sat down to write this roundup — that resulted in the full swallowing of a month. So, um, let’s pretend this never happened.
Where I’ve Been
• Seven days in Railay
• Three days in Bangkok
• Four days in Manilla
• Three days in Banaue/Batad
• Two days in Sagada
• Three days in Donsol
• Five days in Malapascua
• Three days in Bohol
• Gazing out at beautiful limestone karsts, kayaking to abandoned turquoise bays, watching firedancers twirl in the golden sand. Railay is one of the most physically beautiful places I have ever been, and I felt immense happiness doing not much more than just looking around and absorbing that. I could not have picked a better place to end my travels in Thailand.
• Sitting in a cave 100 feet in the air that I reached using my own strength. That was the definition of an adrenaline rush! Railay was my first time rock climbing and Deep Water Soloing, and I was shocked by how much I enjoyed them both. It has brought me so much joy that after years of thinking of myself as an unathletic, uncoordinated hot mess, I’ve been able to find so many physical activities that I love — and am not terrible at!
• Noting an eco-effort in the Philippines. I was pleasantly surprised to see signs in the 711’s in Manila stating plastic bags would only be given for one item upon request, and a decent showing of recycling bins on the streets. These modest efforts are a far cry from plastic-crazy mainland Southeast Asia and really made me smile.
• What I call my “hospitality hostage situation” in a Manila nail salon. I stopped for a quick pedicure which turned into more than two hours in which I was fawned over, taught Tagalog, invited to dinner, and friended on Facebook by the entire staff of the spa. They even insisted I let them spent their day off showing me around the city (I couldn’t take them up on it as I was on my way to….)
• Batad, Batad, Batad. It was one of the highlights not just of this roundup but of this entire five month journey, and perhaps all of my Southeast Asia travels over the years. It’s almost impossible to pick out a single moment, because I felt like I was in a constant dream like state of wonder.
• Getting picked up as a hitchhiker when our ride didn’t show up after two days of brutal hiking. Not only was I about to physically collapse, I was almost out of cash due to an ATM misunderstanding. It was a great source of pride for this sometimes penny-pincher that I was able to live off $86 for four nights and three days of traipsing through the Cordilleras.
• The ease of English. It was quite nice to be able to approach strangers in the Philippines without having to mentally prepare myself for a game of charades. There was some language barrier, of course, but it was minor compared to other Southeast Asian countries. And my favorite part, which can only be properly appreciated with a reenactment, was the sing-songy “Yes Ma’am!” or “Wel-come Ma’am!” that sealed every transaction.
• Emerging from the Cave Connection after hours spent battling one of my deep seated phobias. Sagada was a tad underwhelming, hanging coffins aside, but the Cave Connection made it worth it. Well, the Cave Connection and Yogurt House. I might consider another 24 hours of round-trip travel for Yogurt House.
• Seeing Mount Mayon through the window as our plane landed in Legazpi. This was a nice break from the misery that a twenty seven hour journey from Sagada to Donsol. While we didn’t have good luck in Donsol with the whale sharks, we were very lucky in our volcano peeping — locals told us it’s incredibly rare that the clouds clear and you can see the entirety of the perfect conical shape.
• Being underwater in Donsol. I can’t really find the words to articulate how amazing these dives were. I think in a way I’ve been spoiled for life now.
• Simply existing on Malapascua Island. Along with Railay and Batad, it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. From diving to circumnavigating the island to just rolling around in the sand, I was in a state of bliss the entire time we were here.
• Ziplining across a river gorge for just $9 followed by snacking on the most delicious meal I had in the Philippines at Bohol Bee Farm. Alona Beach severely underwhelmed us, so thankfully we were able to whisk away on a motorbike and find spots on Bohol that did bring us great joy — the aforementioned as well as the world’s tiniest primates and some (unfortunately inedible) Chocolate Hills!
• Laughing our heads off as we crammed four fully grown adults onto a motorcycle one night in Alona. After walking the beach for the second time and finding nothing appealing, Heather and I were chatted up by two Dutch guys heading to dinner elsewhere on Panglao Island. After about five minutes we agreed to join them because, well, appearantly we hadn’t watched a Law and Order episode recently. The long, dark drive down an abandoned dirt road was one of the most hysterical moments of my trip.
• Having Heather by my side. I admit that while I was super excited when she booked her ticket, I was also a little sad to let go of my big solo trip. But after one week by myself in the Philippines, I was so grateful to see Heather. I’ll get into this more below, but the network of independent travelers that I am used to finding in Southeast Asia was nowhere to be seen. I think the two weeks I spent with Heather would have been a bit lonely solo.
• Sleeping in comfortable beds! I don’t know what it is about Thailand, but outside of plush Western hotels, most nights consist of the equivalent of sleeping on a plywood pallet and using a rock as a pillow. In the Philippines, I found soft mattresses and fluffy pillows — basically, heaven in bed form for this Southeast Asian travel veteran.
• Watching the final edit of my Philippines video. You guys know I love challenging myself creatively, and while as always I struggle to remind myself to shoot footage, I am loving cutting these little destination intros for the blog. The songs tend to be ones that were kind of theme songs to the trip. I hope you like watching them as much as I like making them!
• The loss of my grandmother — it goes without saying that everything on this list is petty in comparison to this. When my flight touched down in Manila there was a message waiting from my Dad asking me to call him. I knew immediately. While losing a loved one is devastating no matter where you are in the world, I felt the added pain of isolation from my family during this sad time.
• Being ripped off within hours of entering the country. For the reason I described above, I was very flustered getting into a cab and extremely anxious to get to my hostel so I could call home and confirm my worst suspicions. It was the middle of the night, I was distressed about my grandmother and disoriented by a new city and currency. So when I confused the decimal place and handed my cab driver ten times what I owed him (plus a tip! What a sucker I am!) he calmly counted it, and then got me out of the cab and zoomed away. By the time it hit me that I had spent more than a day’s budget on a ten minute ride, he was long gone.
• Saying goodbye to MM. Leaving Thailand also meant the end of our time together as we both headed off to different countries. This isn’t so much a lowlight as it is a inevitability of dating on the road. We had a lot of fun together, but it was time. And, well, I’m seeing someone else now, so maybe all things do happen for a reason.
• Our freezing, rainy and unsuccessful whale watching trip. I get it, I get it — they’re wild animals, it’s all up to chance, I’m lucky for a blurry five second glance and I should shut my trap already. But come on. After all the hype and all the effort and excitement to get there, our whale shark experience was wildly underwhelming.
• The heartbreaking handling of dogs. There were varying degrees of mistreatment but Donsol and Sagada seemed to be the worst offenders. In Donsol, dogs were prisoners left tied on foot long chains all day long, every day, for what I can only assume is their entire lives. As I wrote previously, they were clearly being driven mad by their small range of motion and complete lack of interaction, and we went to sleep and woke up to the alternating sounds of their viscous, frustrated barks or their dejected, heartbreaking cries. The younger dogs were so excited when you came over and showed them attention that it brought tears to my eyes, while the older and wearier dogs flinched at the sight of humans, as if expecting an angry kick. I have traveled extensively in Southeast Asia and this was the worst treatment of domestic animals that I have personally witnessed.
• The food. I know I have a lot of Filipino readers and I hope I don’t offend them with this, but I just did not find a passion for this cuisine. I found the meats to be fatty and the vegetables to be lacking. I did, however, find a vital hunger-reducer in the local version of Saltines — my beloved Skyflakes!
• Missing the fireflies. After our confusion/possible scamming/wasted evening trying to see the fireflies in Donsol, we comforted ourselves that there was a tour in Bohol offering a similar experience. However when we arrived we found that the phone number for the company had been disconnected and no one seemed to have any idea what we were taking about. Just a bummer as it was something I was really looking forward to.
• Transit disasters. I won’t subject you to a blow-by-blow bitch fest about the uncomfortable, inconvenient and occasionally scam-riddled experiences we had attempting to get from Point A to Point B, but suffice it to say — it’s a good thing the destinations were worth the trouble!
• Missing fellow vagabonds. I was surprised to find that despite the frenetic search for authentic, “off the path” experiences, I missed the backpacker trail in the Philippines! I admit, it was nice to have a respite from the “same same”, full moon party crowd, for a bit. But I was lucky that Heather joined me for 60% of my time in the Philippines. Had I been alone, I think I would have eventually been lonely for the camaraderie of other independent travelers. This also upset me because I think it spoke to what I consider to be a weakness in myself, and that’s an ability to connect with local people, rather than fellow travelers, when I’m on the road. Maybe that’s something I need to reflect on more thoroughly.
• Traveling during Holy Week. I’ve already said enough on this subject in my Bohol post, but suffice it to say — I’ll be avoiding Christian countries during this period from now on. Absolute madness!
• Alona Beach. I normally don’t label a whole destination as a flop, but I just didn’t find a redeeming quality in this destination. Luckily we were able to get out and find all that Bohol had to offer!
I’m going to do a full blown post about my exact spending in the Philippines down to my last peso, but suffice it to say my budget was blown this month. It started out a bit rocky in Railay, which I found to be much more expensive than most areas of Thailand. Then, I breathed easy for my first week in the Philippines — Manila, Banaue, Batad, and Sagada were some of the cheapest places I’ve ever traveled to!
Then I got to the islands and coastal destinations, and my wallet just started weeping and didn’t stop. We took flights to get around, we went on several dives, and we moved very fast — all recipes for a burst budget!
This month was a fitness fail, at least in the traditional workout routine sense. I did not step inside a gym even once. However, at least for the first half of the month I stayed active. In Railay I was amazed at how strong my body felt after a few days of rock climbing interspersed with a bit of trekking and kayaking — proving there is no gym like the great outdoors! I stayed active in Batad with some of the most challenging hiking I’ve done ever, but after that we moved to areas were I didn’t feel comfortable slapping on my running shorts and going for a run in the morning. So after that I unfortunately lost my routine, and I really felt the change.
After a twenty-four hour layover in Singapore, I was off to Indonesia for six weeks of diving. As always, stay tuned!
I hope you loved reading about the Philippines as much as I loved writing about it. I can’t thank you enough for coming along for the ride!