Singapore

“Amazing” – on this trip we have noticed that both of us use this word far too often and realise that it has become for us a lazy way of describing something. However for Singapore we really do feel it applies. What a wonderful surprising city it is, with so much to see and do and in our three days staying in the city centre we managed to get round most, but by no means all of the star sights.24 Singapore (270)Singapore city centre beautifully blends the old with the brand spanking new with an East meets West style. We loved the sights of old Chinese shop houses and colonial buildings sitting alongside shiny skyscrapers. With hotels and parks in the south of the city set around water it gives this area a relaxed and holiday atmosphere lacking in other cities we have visited despite the many tourists.

We started this trip exploring the crazy overpopulated city of Manila and we were glad to move on, it is now the end of our trip and we are so happy we saved the best till last. In both cities our hotels were in Chinatown but our experience couldn’t have been more different. Chinatown in Singapore was a joy to explore and was a blaze of colour and life and busy with preparations for Chinese New Year. The temples were all being decorated and many of the Hawker Stalls were closing for the holiday.

Our first day was spent exploring the southern part of the city, starting with a walk along the river to the Clarke and Robinson Quay areas and then making a quick detour into The Fullerton Hotel. This historic building has a superb vantage point with one side facing the riverfront and the other overlooking Marina Bay. We weren’t expecting so many green spaces and parks and the very wide pavements made it easy it to navigate our way around on foot. Incidentally the transport system (MRT and bus) is superb but we chose to explore by walking so we could see and feel the city at a slower pace.

A walk around Marina Bay gives spectacular views from every side with its backdrop being the famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel with three towers and rooftop infinity pool. For S$23 each (just over £13) we took the lift to the bar on 67th floor and were able to redeem our tickets against the price of a cocktail where we sat and enjoyed the wonderful views.

A highlight was a trip to the huge (101 hectare) Gardens By the Bay, a futuristic botanical garden with two dome conservatories that reminded us of the Eden Project. We spent a happy time here wandering past 2 lakes through the 10 different themed ‘gardens’ and the 18 very distinctive super trees, all for free. The conservatories had an entrance free and as it was so hot anyway we decided to pass on paying to go inside into yet more damp humidity.

Each evening at 7.45pm in Gardens by the Bay there is a free 15 minute sound and light show at the ‘super tree’ garden which was a unique and very moving experience and so much better than a firework display. Then if you hot foot it across two roads you can get to the second nightly sound, water and light performance at 8pm on Marina Bay which involved fountains and laser beams.

On our second day we visited Fort Canning Park, another lovely green space but we didn’t find out until we got there that there is no longer a fort. However the hill and surrounding area have an interesting history as it is where in 1942 from their underground bunkers, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese.

We also ventured to the Orchard Road shopping area which is a consumerist mecca with so many high end Malls we lost count. Besides this we saw several temples, parks and a wonderful interactive museum, Singapore City Gallery.

Each evening we sought out different local food stalls and had fun tasting new dishes and trying in vain to find reasonably priced beer. It seems this does not exist in Singapore!

Throughout our sightseeing we sent Lizzie photo clues from all around the city trying to bamboozle her as she had asked us to tell her where we were going. As a local she only managed to get 50%, but in fairness some pictures we sent were rather obscure! (a couple of examples below)

On Friday 24th January we caught the MRT to Hillview, in the NE of the city and started two fabulous days staying with our friends Lizzie and Miles and their children Osian and Emmy. Here we were so spoilt by their generous hospitality and enjoyed time sitting by the pool in their condominium complex, eating fabulous food, drinking their beer (free – yea!) and wine, catching up and laughing a lot!

On Saturday they took us 4 stops back down the MRT for a 5 km walk around The Singapore Botanical Gardens, another gorgeous green space and where we had a rare sighting of a family of eight Otters fishing and cavorting, spotting other animals, then bouncing on netting trampolines and admiring sculptures.

On the Sunday Annie, Lizzie and Osian went for a walk /run through the Nature Reserve near their home and this was followed by a visit to the very smart ‘British Club’ for a swim and lunch and to see the Lion Dance laid on to celebrate Chinese New Year.

We were also spoilt by Osian showing us his skills on the saxophone and Emmy similarly on her cornet. They are both very gifted, but with Miles being a music teacher and accomplished Jazz musician it’s perhaps no surprise.

We had a wonderful time with Miles and Lizzie and it was with heavy hearts that we caught our 14 hour night flight back to the UK on Monday 27th January to bring to an end our latest and truly memorable trip through the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Kuala Lumpur and Melaka

Kuala Lumpur turned out to be quite a surprise to us. Originally we had no intention of visiting the city but having a couple of days to spare we thought it was worth a look and two days of waking around in sweltering humidity convinced us it was well worth seeing.

22 Kuala Lumpur (11)Getting off the bus from the Cameron Highlands we fought off the attentions of keen taxi drivers and found the incredibly efficient MRT rail system that took us to within 500 metres of our hotel, a lovely room but rather disorganised staff. We chose it obviously for good reviews and reasonable price but also because it boasted a roof top pool and a gym for Annie! As it turned out we were close to a fabulous road buzzing with a huge variety of street food and despite huge ‘dry’ areas in the city because of the high Muslim population we found we were also in the top area for pubs and bars.

On our first night we munched our way through some great ‘semi-street food’ whilst sheltering from heavy downpours and were accosted by locals raising a petition against the forced removal and re-sale of people’s organs in China, backed up by a couple of chaps in the Lotus Position who never moved!

OK, there’s not a huge amount to do in Kuala Lumpur if you look at the highlights, but it has a nice feel to it and it’s incredibly easy and cheap to get around. There are three city centre bus routes completely free of charge, an efficient MRT system complemented by a mono rail and a great network of regular buses.

We spent a lot of time on our feet starting with a visit to the huge Mosque that is open to the public, but not on Friday and this was Friday! We followed this by a walk through a slightly shabby and small Chinatown, through Central Market and out again passing really busy lunchtime food stalls.

22 Kuala Lumpur (87)

We enjoyed seeing a few old colonial style buildings, spotting the renowned Kuala Lumpur Communications Tower (which is said to be the 7th tallest freestanding tower in the world) before heading to the Petronas Towers for the evening light show which was fabulous.

22 Kuala Lumpur (156)Besides this we wandered several of the amazing shopping malls, saw a new shop opening that involved quite a convoluted ‘good luck’ ceremony that included a dragon dance with drums and witnessed extensive preparations for Chinese New Year.

Journeying to the 3 storey airport style bus terminal in KL we caught a bus for the 2 hour run to Melaka or is it Malacca? Here we enjoyed the best hotel room of our trip so far (so excuse a couple of photos).

Melaka itself was a bit of a disappointment despite its UNESCO World Heritage status. We had been warned that it was inundated with ‘Hello Kitty’ motifs, but was really home to a huge variety of cartoon characters with queues of Asian customers for every glitzy tricycle available, that also play music extremely loudly!

We wandered the streets of the heritage town, saw the few key sites and old buildings, took snaps of some of the street art, saw from afar the ship graveyard where cheap labour breaks up unwanted vessels and were generally glad we only had 2 nights here which was a shame as we’d been looking forward to our visit.

The Old Dutch Colonial buildings were painted red for some reason and this didn’t help their appearance and the ancient church of St Paul was a total ruin!

With some difficulty we managed to buy two bus tickets to Singapore and then endured a journey close to 6½ hours that we had expected to be no more than 4½. So we have arrived at our last destination for this trip and are looking forward to 5 nights here, two of which will be with our friends Miles and Lizzie and their two children Osian and Emmy with whom we celebrate Chinese New Year on Saturday 25th January.

Malaysia – Penang and Cameron Highlands

Entering Malaysia we were immediately struck by how much more organised and clean the country feels, the infrastructure, roads in particular so much better with motorways similar to Europe without roadside stalls, cars parked everywhere or people driving the wrong way! The impression is of a more affluent country with more government investment and people who obey the rules!

We think it is 25 years since we first visited Malaysia and Penang itself was our first ever holiday destination in South East Asia. One major change since we were last here is that the capital George Town was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008.

Our hotel was very close to the historic city and we spent two happy days exploring the 109 Hectare area on foot. It is a fascinating place with over 1,700 historic buildings representing the many different cultures who settled and still live here. It is a wonderful mix of Chinese, Indian, Arab, Malay and European architecture, culture and places of worship, all represented and seeming to exist harmoniously creating a rich tapestry for the many visitors who come here.

The other thing George Town is famous for and celebrates is its street art and steel rod ‘cartoon type’ sculptures (one even commemorating the place where Jimmy Choo did his Apprenticeship).

It was a great focus to follow the map with all the street art marked and in finding each one we also found ourselves exploring beautiful Chinese temples and Clan Houses, colourful heritage buildings and defined areas such as Little India and Chinatown.

With all these different cultures and the Malay love of street food we were spoilt for choice every evening with the abundance of food carts (called Hawker stalls) around the city and on 2 evenings we also discovered the joy of eating in semi-outdoor food halls. These are incredibly well organised areas with a huge variety of different hawker stalls where you order your food and it is delivered to your table by the individual vendor when he/she has cooked it from fresh.

Again, so many different countries seem to be represented including Arab, Indian, Korean, Thai, Japanese and of course Malay. Beer and soft drinks are delivered by a different team and clearing and cleaning another team. All this and live entertainment thrown in every evening. Sadly we were too footsore and weary to able to stay up until 11pm to watch the Ladyboy show.

Whilst here we ventured out of George Town on two separate occasions, firstly to visit the hilltop Kek Lok Si Temple which was looking particularly splendid with apparently over 200,000 lanterns in place ready to be lit up for Chinese New Year.

On our last day we caught a bus across the island to Batu Ferringhi Beach where we stayed all those years ago. Sadly the area seems rather run down now and although the beach is very clean the sea looked murky and many of the buildings are dilapidated and abandoned. We did however have a look over the wall at our old hotel and enjoy a walk along the beach in hot sunshine.

One thing evident to us straightaway was that whilst the (non-restaurant) food is very cheap the beer and any other alcohol is significantly more expensive than any other Asian country we have visited. We are told this is because Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and the government try to discourage drinking by keeping the price high rather than banning it altogether.

Leaving Penang on Sunday 12th January we took a 5½ hour bus journey to The Cameron Highlands driving through some spectacular scenery en-route. However on arriving in the highlands and the town of Tanah Rata our initial impression was one of disappointment. The towns in the highlands are getting very developed with high rise apartment blocks and lots of guesthouses and where we were expecting tea plantations the surrounding countryside is full of rather ugly poly tunnels growing all kinds of vegetables with the main crop being strawberries and there are really only a handful of active tea plantations.

We made the most of our 3 days here staying in a really well run hostel / guesthouse which was in a quiet location but close to the town and the many hiking routes. Our first day we set off on our own to follow Jungle trail 5 and 6 which we had been told was a fairly easy hike but turned out to be entirely in the forest and consisted of long steep climbs uphill whilst stepping over rocks and tree roots and sadly no views at the top, then an equally steep and sometimes awkward descent. Sadly for Richard not an enjoyable way to spend 4 hours, just a sweaty workout with no views and ‘all rather pointless.’

21 Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands (55)The following day Richard had a day off and Annie enjoyed a guided hike with 5 others from the guesthouse. This 6 hour hike took them up to the summit viewpoint of Mount Jasar at 1696 metres above sea level and back down steep tracks through the forest to the Cameron Valley Tea Plantation.

On our last day we joined a group of 6 other backpackers and a guide who took us in a Land Rover up narrow winding roads into the hills to the largest tea plantation in South East Asia, BOH Plantation. It really did have a spectacular setting and surprisingly it is still owned by the Scottish family who started it in 1926.

It was good to hear that they invest heavily in ensuring the workers have good salaries and all the amenities (medical centre, schools, homes and places of worship) they need for healthy and comfortable lives on a tea plantation. We were then taken up more winding narrow semi-unmade roads to Mount Batu Brinchang, the highest point in the Cameron Highlands (2032m above sea level) accessible by vehicle where we caught glimpses through the forest of the views.

On our second day in the guesthouse we noticed a ‘fully loaded’ Land Rover parked outside with GB number plates and were obviously intrigued. Very soon two Brits appeared and we had the chance to briefly meet and chat with Chris and Charlie who are 10 months into an amazing 2 year travelling adventure.

They are proper hard core travellers and had driven overland from the UK as the first part to fulfil one of Chris’ childhood dreams to drive from London to Singapore – only 500km to go! Needless to say we are now following their blog and have loved reading of their travel experiences so far. If you would like to see what they are up to visit: https://starrynightsandinsectbites.blog/

As a footnote we have been very sad to see of the recent eruption of the Taal Volcano in Tagatay south of Manila. As readers of this blog will know we were only there a few weeks ago and can only imagine the disruption and worry for the local people, many whom have had to be evacuated. We consider it a lucky escape on our part.

Ao Nang, Krabi

Ironically our 6.30 am pick up in Chaweng to leave Ko Samui gave us our first glimpse of the ‘party’ side of the town that had evaded us until then. We were first aboard and passing along litter and detritus strewn streets the second pick-up’s decided after we had waited 15 minutes that they couldn’t get up! Our third pick-up after a further 15 minutes were roused from their slumbers and clambered aboard still very much worse for wear and our fourth pick-up were lying in the street having not even been to bed. Sadly they were all British and proceeded in loud still drunken tones to discuss their excessive drinking and sexual exploits of the night just passed with expletives thrown in at every opportunity. We couldn’t disguise the disapproving looks on our faces not that they would have noticed anyway!!

 

A 90 minute ferry and a 3 hour bus ride took us westwards to Ao Nang on the coast of the Andaman Sea even dropping us at our guesthouse door and all this for just £18 each. This small town we first visited some 15 years ago has experienced rapid and significant expansion in the intervening years.

We found a basic guesthouse where we were given one of the best rooms with a balcony and a view which was a real bonus. Interestingly there is a significant Indian population here so we took pleasure introducing a bit of variety into some of our meals with Dahl, Nan Breads, Samosa, Onion Bhaji’s and so forth.

Ao Nang has a really nice feel to it so we enjoyed wandering the streets, sitting and walking on the various beaches, some busy and others almost empty, and watching the famous Long Tail boats ferry people in between islands and tourist attractions.

We took a long tail boat to the beautiful Railay Beach and peered into the exclusive Rayavadee Resort that we have stayed in twice during our ‘earning days’. Interestingly this did not evoke any strange longings or envy as we’re so happy traveling the way we do now – we wouldn’t have wanted to pay their beer prices anyway.

It was fun watching the climbers scaling the limestone peaks that bookend the beach and to see some of the preening of the body-beautiful set. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of money having been spent on ‘lip pumping enhancements,’ hair extensions, eyelashes and silicone nails not to mention the myriad of tattoo’s on display.

18 Ao Nang, Krabi (76)During a walk on one of the beaches we came across a group of people of all ages collecting litter and after talking to some of them discovered that they were volunteers as part of a South East Asia organisation called Trash Heroes who regularly meet to clean up the beaches. https://trashhero.org/network/trash-hero-ao-nang/

We always love our travels in Thailand and despite visiting many times there are still numerous places we haven’t yet explored, so know we will be back. It was with a sense of anticipation we set off to journey south and cross the border into Malaysia.

A 6am pick up from our guesthouse in Ao Nang took us south to Trang where we were dropped off with our rucksacks at a tour office in the town and 10 minutes later another minivan swung by with just enough room left to pick us up for the next leg. This one took us to Hat Yai and dropped us at another tour office in town where we caught our third and final minivan which took us over the border and on to Georgetown in Penang.

The border crossing was very straightforward despite our driver not speaking any English or even bothering to communicate with us. We guessed our journey was over when late afternoon we arrived at a huge shopping mall in Georgetown and the driver of the van just opened the door of the minivan and walked away into the mall without word or gesture to those of us inside! Malaysia is an hour ahead of Thailand (8 hours ahead of the UK) and our 11 hour, 3 van, £19pp journey was relatively smooth despite briefly going through the south east states of Thailand that British subjects are strongly advised against by The Foreign Office due to the high incidence of terrorist activity. Basically they say, if you travel there. You’re on your own!

Our first priorities were an ATM for Malaysian Ringgit and a phone shop to get a local SIM card, we could then call and pay for a taxi to drop us off at our hotel.

Ko Samui

Our uncomfortable ‘night bus’ journey from Bangkok was made more challenging by 4 drunken Ukrainians who were using children’s beach buckets for their rum punch, one of them in front of us eventually crashing out and snoring loudly for 7 hours. Then there was more disturbance when many of the air conditioning outlets started pouring water onto people throughout the night. This was despite us buying three of the 5 back seats in an effort to spread out and relax!

However the morning dawned bright and sunny as we caught the 08.00 ferry across flat calm seas to the island of Ko Samui where we had pre-booked our accommodation to have a bit of a ‘holiday’ over Christmas and New Year.

Our first six night stop was at Centara Villas, a lovely hotel we had stayed in once before in 2012. The hotel is on a fabulous beach and is a rather luxurious oasis somewhat off the beaten track. We did very little during our time here, each day started with a superb buffet breakfast and the rest of our day was spent swimming, hot walks (and running for A) exploring the rural backroads, reading, visiting the Cool Bar down the beach and enjoying the stunning view from our room.

Every evening we walked about 10 minutes down the road to an area where there was a choice of three Thai Restaurants serving delicious food at affordable prices. Christmas came and went without much fanfare thankfully and we guess the staff at the hotel were very relieved when they didn’t have to wear their Santa hats any longer.

After this little bit of luxury we had then booked an apartment in a town called Lamai on the East Coast. We were blown away when we arrived to find a brand spanking new one bedroom villa set around a small pool that we shared with only 4 other villas. Everything was spotlessly clean and so for another five nights we enjoyed more luxury and wondered how we were going to feel going back to our more basic accommodation!

This time we were a 15- 20 minute walk to a long but fairly busy beach with lots of restaurants and beach bars and we covered a similar distance each evening when we ventured out into the lively town of Lamai.

We really haven’t got much to report on our time here either as we continued the holiday activities of swimming, reading, walking etc. New Year was an equally subdued affair and we admit we didn’t feel the urge to stay up and see 2020 arrive with fireworks and partying on the beach.

Whilst on the ‘holiday’ we spent some time researching our journey through Southern Thailand and the safest border crossing into Malaysia as much of south-east Thailand is considered a danger zone by the UK government travel advisory web site. We also worked out an approximate route and places we wanted to see within Malaysia (as we don’t have a travel guidebook) and roughly how much time we thought each destination needed, which made us realise we probably had a number of days to spare so made the decision not to hurry out of Thailand especially as we feel so comfortable here.

Instead of rushing off Ko Samui we decided to stay a further two nights (this time back to our normal budget on accommodation) further north up the coast at the party town of Chaweng. This provided a stark contrast to our other two destinations but was fun to see; Chaweng’s most attractive feature being a spectacular long white sand beach. It’s safe to say we’re glad we only booked two nights, whilst here Richard got himself a haircut and Annie a Thai massage.

Next it’s off to Ao Nang near Krabi before the long journey to Penang.

 

Bangkok and Phetchaburi

13 Bangkok (15)Another delayed flight and we arrived in Bangkok mid-afternoon on 14th December. Having passed through the two main airports serving the city several times in the last few years we realised it was 15 years since we had actually spent any time in Bangkok itself. Ignoring the taxis and tourist buses, a regular bus from outside Don Muang airport bought us into the city and dropped us a short walk from what turned out to be a lovely family run guesthouse.

The first thing we noticed in our immediate area was the abundance of street food; every few metres there are carts selling a wide variety of food, the ones we have tried were extremely tasty and very cheap. We were also close to the busy ‘backpacker’ area of the Khao San Road with a myriad of bars, restaurants and (genuine) massage shops. It was so busy we only visited once!

We had come at a time when the city was looking extremely spick and span with flags and bunting up everywhere and beautiful flower planting in all the small parks. We discovered that 2019 has been a year of events celebrating the new King’s coronation (his picture is up all over the city) and only 2 days before there had been a spectacular river pageant using all the Royal Barges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Prom3RNkaQ

We had two days exploring the city, mainly on foot which was easy with the wide pavements and road signs in both Thai and English. We did however need to utilise some of the various forms of transport, these included a Tuk Tuk, the Sky Train and two types of Ferry. We managed to see several beautiful Temples, one with a huge 32 metre high standing Buddha at Wat Intharawihan and another called The Golden Mount as it had around 400 steps up a hill to the temple where you were rewarded for your effort with 360° views of city.

We enjoyed a wander around the canal side neighbourhood of Baan Khrua which with its tiny narrow alleyways used to be known for silk production in the 1950s and 60s. Another fun find was the Ban Baat neighbourhood where again down tiny backstreets the locals were keen to show us the craftsmen and women who manufacture the metal and lacquered bowls monks carry when collecting arms. We weren’t allowed to leave without chatting to the ladies selling the bowls.

We also spent a day visiting some of the sights outside the city which included a couple of markets and a tree temple.

The famous Bangkok floating market was our first stop and sadly we found it to be very disappointing. Our experience was that it a clever scam, if you arrive independently and not part of a tour you pay an extortionate amount of money for a private boat. We tried to pair up with another couple who were also very shocked at the price but they refused to let us despite families and tour groups arriving and getting into the boats together. So we bit the bullet, paid up and got into a boat that could have held 5 or 6 others, it then took 20 minutes of travelling down narrow waterways to get to the market which apart from a few boats selling ice cream and fruit salad most of the stalls were on the banks of the canal.

You will see from our photos that almost the only thing floating on the water is the trapped and ripped off tourists and it didn’t remotely resemble the promo photos of tiny boats full of fresh produce. However things started looking up when we arrived at the second market which was much more authentic despite all the tourists. This one was a proper market situated alongside a railway track and when a train comes by the stalls are all pulled in on runners and all the awnings folded back. We were there for the 2.30pm train which inched its way slowly past us and all the other tourists taking photographs. Quite a sight and a unique experience.

A highlight of our time in Bangkok was spending an evening with friends of Richard’s from the Twelve Bells in Cirencester. Pauline and Barry were at the start their holiday to Vietnam stopping off in Bangkok for a few days. They arrived hot off a flight from the UK and despite the many hours travelling were up for a night out. We had a fun few hours chatting, eating street food and drinking beer together. It was lovely for Annie to meet them and it was a rare treat for us to chat to people other than each other!

Many of you know we have pre booked 11 nights on Koh Samui for Christmas and New Year and whilst in Bangkok we realised the easiest and most straightforward way to get there was to take a combined overnight bus and ferry ticket from Bangkok. 13 Bangkok (394)This meant that we needed to find somewhere not too far away to go for a couple of days before returning for this journey. Several options were available and we chose to catch a 2½ hour minivan journey south to Phetchaburi (no farting allowed according to the warning sign). A small provincial town set on a river 10k from the coast, the reason for coming here was that it is packed full of history having been an important trading centre for hundreds of years, with two Royal Palaces, Cave Shrines, old teak shop houses and more temples per square km than anywhere in Thailand.

Our lovely 6 room guesthouse was a little out of town but they had bicycles for the guests to borrow, which we used to explore the sights and pop into town each evening for supper. The main event was a Royal Palace and its surrounding temples which were spread across three hilltops overlooking the town.

It was built in the 1850s as a retreat from Bangkok and had cobbled walkways (albeit several steep ups and downs) between each building and all set in lovely tropical gardens. The second Royal Palace which is now part of an Army Base a couple of km’s outside the town couldn’t have been more different. This one also a summer retreat was built in 1920 by a German architect and had a distinctly European style, the inside was stunning with art nouveau details in many of the spacious rooms (no cameras allowed).

A quick hop back to Bangkok returning for an overnight stay back in our lovely guesthouse and we spent the day before our night bus seeing the few sights left on our list and writing this blog.

And finally:

IMG_20191223_193230When we started writing our blogs over 4 years ago we expected it to be read by family and close friends; much to our amazement and bewilderment we have discovered that so many more people seem to be interested in our somewhat random ramblings. So to all of you, our families, friends both close and distant and to those of you who take some pleasure in reading about our lives who we have never met, may we wish you a HAPPY, PEACEFUL AND BLESSED CHRISTMAS AND A WONDERFUL 2020 IN WHICH YOUR LIVES ARE ENRICHED.

Dickndan AKA Annie & Richard

“Island Hopping”

From Port Barton we took another minivan journey 4 hours further north on the island of Palawan to El Nido, a key jumping off point for tourists wanting to see the beautiful islands in Bacuit Bay. The town itself feels a bit shabby, only coming alive in the evenings and guesthouse prices are much higher than elsewhere even with ‘wet room’ bathrooms (i.e. a shower that sprays everything)!

Needless to say we joined the masses and plumped for “Tour A” one of the cheapest of the several options, stopping at 5 locations for 1200 pesos each (about £20). Whist the views, snorkelling and islands we saw were delightful, the tour itself was somewhat shambolic.

The rough seas meant we had to swim to the boat at the start of the day trying to keep cameras and towels dry by holding them above our heads in the big swells, the 9am departure left at 10.20 we think after recruiting a replacement captain, we were the last boat to arrive at every key site meaning we often wallowed around for 20 minutes waiting for a ‘parking space’ and we arrived back ‘home’ after dark in a different town to the one we left as it wasn’t safe to return to El Nido itself with the rough sea!

Despite this, we had the best lunch on a tour we have ever had, enjoyed ‘7 commando beach’ where 7 Japanese soldiers were discovered long after the 2nd WW had ended, saw some pretty coral and a myriad of small brightly coloured fish. The scenery of limestone karsts was spectacular and our photos don’t really do it justice. We did miss out on a kayak trip because we weren’t brave enough to take on the big waves in near darkness!

Other highlights here included a trip to another beach for sunset and ‘sundowners’ and each of our three nights sampling different flavoured ice creams on a stick from a stall Annie found – raspberry cheesecake flavour being Richard’s favourite and Annie’s mint choc chip!

Still moving north we caught the ‘fast ferry’ for a 4½ hour trip to Coron on Busuanga Island. Sadly Richard suffered quite badly with the rough seas, Annie only keeping everything down by virtue of her anti seasick patches!

10 El Nido, Palawan (110)

Here again, thanks to our friends Debbie and Mari for a generous birthday gift of some Philippine Peso, we enjoyed another island hopping boat tour. This one was on calm seas, well organised and a really fun day even if the lunch wasn’t so good. Once again we snorkelled, swam, explored lagoons, quiet bays and hidden lakes.

11 Coron (111)We only stayed in Coron town for two nights, on one climbing the 700+ steps up Mount Tapyas for sunset views overlooking the bustling and authentic (e.g. not so ‘touristy’) town. Yet again however we’re finding that food and accommodation prices are higher on these islands.

For our final two days we had a complete contrast by moving only 35kms north and were the only guests staying in a restaurant with basic rooms in a tiny rural village called Concepcion. We enjoyed a couple of days reading our books, walking, running and watching village life go by.

12 Conception, Coron (20)On Friday the 13th December we had a transfer to Coron Airport courtesy of a totally reckless van driver so we arrived somewhat shaken up. We then sat and waited for our flight to Manila that was delayed by 3½ hours whilst watching the UK election results rolling in on the BBC news feed. Saturday 14th will hopefully see us arrive in Bangkok, Thailand where we plan to stay for a few days before travelling down the coast and crossing to Koh Samui for Christmas.

The Philippines has been a fun experience although the country has not captured our 12 Conception, Coron (23)hearts. The weather has been mixed and travel between destinations has not always been straightforward, however the friendliness of the Filipinos has been amazing. So many people greet us and ask where we are from and the children all want to chat and ask your name. Particular oddities for us include the passion for cock fighting and the colourful Jeepneys we have mentioned in other blogs but on top of this we have never seen so many McDonald’s restaurants per square kilometre as in this country. In addition there are Basketball courts in every small community and nets along many roadsides but these appear to hardly ever be used. Most weirdly the country has two telephone network providers, Smart & Globe but they cannot communicate with each other! As a result most businesses, even tiny stores all have to have two separate phone numbers, one on each network and when we asked one guest house to call an airline for us they weren’t able to as they didn’t have a compatible network – rather strange!

Siquijor and Palawan

A 90 minute ferry full of tourists of all nationalities whisked us across calm seas to the island of Siquijor (pronounced See-Kee-Hor), which at only 343² kms and a population of 100,000 is the 3rd smallest inhabited island in the Philippines.7 z Siquijor (91)We were immediately struck with how quiet the roads were on the island, the main road is a coastline circumference road with some smaller inland roads crossing the forested and hilly interior. The sun was shining and the temperatures less humid for our 3 day stay here and we found a lovely guesthouse just across the road from the seafront in the village of San Juan on the south coast, arriving in a small van that bizarrely had two steering wheels!

Our first afternoon on a walk to explore the local neighbourhood we stumbled across hundreds of people with flags and banners marching towards the basketball stadium all wearing matching t-shirts saying ‘Jesus Reigns’ on the front and ‘One Day of Celebration’ on the back. We were intrigued and so followed the crowd and before we knew it were being invited to join in a service of worship and praise. We declined to purchase the requisite t-shirt but despite that were warmly welcomed.

The activities were planned to last for over 4 hours but after 40 minutes of ear splitting emissions from several speakers way too big for the space we made our exit for some peace and quiet! We have since found out that it was an inter- denominational event held simultaneously across the 82 provinces of the Philippines. www.jesusreigns.ph

The best way to see the island is by motorcycle and so off we set on our bright orange machine and spent a fun day seeing all the sights the island has to offer including going off the beaten track through the hills and villages inland on dirt tracks. It is impossible to get properly lost on such a small island, but that said we tried hard whilst clocking up over 100kms in the day. We clearly didn’t take the most direct routes!

Our day started with a quick stop to take a photo of the 400 year old Balate (Banyan) Tree before finding the beautifully simple 1884 San Isidro Church made of coral stone and timber and its nearby stone and timber villa once a catholic convent.

We visited two of the main waterfalls on the tourist route; The Cambugahay Falls which after clambering down some steep steps we found was incredibly busy, clearly a popular spot for locals and tourists alike who swim in the various pools and jump from rope swings into the water

before finding the less impressive but much quieter Lugnason Falls deep in the rainforest that seemed to be suffering a water shortage! We had our lunch of a beer and packet of crisps at Salagdoong Beach which was very underwhelming despite its popularity and entrance fee before trying to find our last call of the day which was Mount Bandila-an. At only 557 metres it is the islands highest point in the centre of the island and surprisingly we were the only ones there standing on a not quite fully built viewing platform with views of the whole of island.

Siquijor is known for its Folk Healers who live in the forested interior of the island and can be visited if one has a condition that needs healing, they are not widely advertised and we weren’t aware beforehand of this aspect at all. We did however notice that there were a number of small fields and fenced off areas with well-spaced out tethered cockerels.

We soon discovered that cock fighting is a major sport (and gambling opportunity) in the country. When we stopped to take some photos of a small operation in the hills the owner of these lovely cocks and his neighbour proudly showed us his prize bird and invited us to a cock fight that evening. Not a sport we would like to watch.

7 z Siquijor (77)It was a slightly anxious last day on the island as Typhoon Tisoy (Kammuri) gathered strength and badly affected the whole country, one consequence being that all ferries to and from Siquijor were cancelled the day before we were due to leave. The winds were still high when we took the 35 minute journey to the Ferry Port to see what our options were and were amazed and relieved to hear that despite a number of other cancellations both our ferries were going that day.  A fairly rough 6 hours and 2 ferries later we were docking in Cebu on the island of the same name and finding our way to our accommodation close to the airport.

 

On Wednesday 3rd December a 90 minute flight from Cebu took us to Palawan Island which is about as far east as you can go in the Philippines and judging from the other passengers we were clearly entering a well-travelled tourist route. We then took a 2½ hour mini bus journey north from Puerto Princesa to Port Barton where we had booked 2 nights in a very basic ‘tourist inn’.

After two long days of travel we enjoyed a chilled out day exploring the tiny but charming town of Port Barton. It feels like we have come here at the right time, the roads are not yet paved and the accommodation is all very basic and geared towards travellers rather than the holiday tourist.

However wherever you walk in this essentially 2 road community there is evidence of building work with more accommodation options under construction, a precursor to a rapid expansion of the town and possibly the loss of its charming character.

The town has some excellent eating options and limited places to visit but we enjoyed our brief stay despite our hostel having no hot water and no plans to provide any!

South Luzon and Bohol Islands

A 10 hour bus journey back to Manila which seems to be an essential hub for so many routes around the Philippines, a short sleep and a few hours later we were boarding the Light Railway alongside many thousands of other commuters to cross the city.

After hunting for the correct bus company we caught our £1.30 ride for the 2½ hour journey (50kms) south to Tagaytay and Lake Taal. By mid-afternoon Friday 22nd November we were checking into our room in a very quirky Eco Hotel made out of old shipping containers. Our visit coincided with the weekend which is always busy because Tagaytay is a favourite destination for those wanting to escape the madness and smog of Manila and of course the many tourists visiting the Philippines.

The attraction here is a fairly unique natural phenomenon. Tagaytay is situated on a ridge that forms part of an ancient volcanic caldera, it has spectacular views of Taal Lake and the active Taal Volcano, reportedly the second most active volcano in the Philippines with 33 historical eruptions. What makes this so unusual is that within this caldera is the second volcano with its own lake and island within, so essentially a volcano within a volcano!

We obviously had to take the boat across the lake to Volcano Island and then had a hot sweaty walk up a steep path to the rim of the inner volcano. Here we were rewarded with views of the lake within the volcano’s crater and panoramic views of the bigger lake that the volcano is situated in. We were so happy to do this in dry weather and even some sunshine and get the wonderful if a little hazy views from the top. The Crater Lake on Volcano Island is the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island in the world (follow that if you can!). We were happy we set off early in the morning as when we descended there were so many tourists coming up the path, some of them being led on horseback to avoid having to do the uphill walk. We felt sorry for the horses carrying all shapes and sizes up an uneven rocky path.

The following day we visited the other busy tourist attraction in Tagaytay ‘People’s Park in the Sky’. This is an area on a high point outside the town housing a small chapel, a huge statue of Jesus and an incomplete mansion. The mansion is known as the palace in the sky and was built during the Marcos era to host the visit of US President Ronald Reagan. Work on the mansion stopped when Reagan canceled his visit so it remains incomplete and yet draws the crowds mainly to enjoy the 360° views.

Annie was missing her regular exercise as she had been unable to run since we arrived in the Philippines. So she took advantage of the traffic free 0.5 km uphill access road to ’People’s Park’ and ran up and down several times much to the amusement of the other visitors whilst Richard enjoyed the panoramic views.

From here it was a bus back to Manila, a night in an airport hotel before a 90 minute budget fight to Bohol Island in the southern part of the country where we had decided to base ourselves for 4 nights in the beach resort of Alona

The weather perked up and we were happy to finally see a beautiful beach and some sunshine, although during our time on Bohol we experienced every kind of tropical weather including heavy rain, overcast humid days and hot sunshine.

The reason for coming to Bohol was to see the tiny endangered Tarsiers, officially the smallest primate in the world and to visit the Chocolate Hills. Our first day was spent on an Island Tour which took in these two sights and other places of interest. You will see from the photos how green and beautiful the island is. 6 Bohol (102)We arrived at the Chocolate Hills viewpoint in pouring rain and had to wait patiently for the mist and haze to move to get any decent photos. That said they are an extraordinary geological sight, as far as the eye can see and with 360° views there are these cone shaped grass covered hills of varying sizes (apparently over 1000 spread over and area of 50² kilometres).

In the dry season the grass turns brown hence their name. (We’ve included a cloudless internet picture to illustrate)6 Bohol (1)The Tarsier Sanctuary was a special experience, it is set in rainforest and visitors walk along a carefully managed forest trail where guides are positioned to point out the tiny primates. We saw about eight of the one hundred or so who live here and found them very endearing with their tiny bodies that could fit in the palm of your hand, huge eyes, hairless rotating ears, long tail and long finger-like claws. They reminded us of Yoda from Star Wars! (Again an internet picture of a Tarsier in someone’s hand to show their size)

It was a fun day seeing the island, its varied landscape of rice fields, forests, hills and rivers as well as a butterfly garden and the following two days were spent pottering around the beach area of Alona, swimming in the pool at our accommodation, agreeing and booking our onward destinations and catching up with chores, like our laundry and admin whilst dodging rain showers.

On 30th December we have booked a ferry to take us 2 hours across the sea to the tiny island province of Siquijor where we have booked 3 nights in a guesthouse in the town of San Juan. We’re hoping this goes without incident as yet another typhoon is heading our way.

The Philippines, Manila and North

We are on our travels again, this time heading for 4 weeks in the Philippines and then on 14th December we fly to Bangkok where we plan to take about 6 weeks travelling overland to Singapore.  5.15am on Friday 15th November saw us onto the National Express Coach which limped its way to Heathrow with an engine fault.

2 Mania, Phiippines (5)A very comfortable 13hr flight on a Singapore Airlines A380 Airbus took us across the world to Singapore where we had a very swift transit (almost running from gate to gate) to catch our Manila flight which had just started boarding as we arrived at the gate. Feeling rather tired and lacklustre after 25 hours travel we arrived to find that the Filipinos are fully embracing all that is Christmas even in mid-November. Decorations are up all over the city, Christmas music is playing and in the arrivals lounge at the airport there was even a choir singing Christmas songs. The first person we spoke to on arrival wished us a Merry Christmas!

There are so many transport options in Manila ranging from the regular taxi and bus to the more ornate Jeepney which are customised USA army trucks left behind after WW11. There is also what they call a tricycle or Philippine rickshaw, a sidecar bolted to a motorbike or sometimes even a regular bicycle.

With all of these plus the many cars, lorries and trucks the roads in Manila are chaotic and at certain times of the day gridlocked. It is a noisy busy city, with stiflingly high humidity and yet amongst the hustle and bustle you find very friendly welcoming locals.

The urban sprawl is vast and we hadn’t realised that it is actually several different cities all joined up and these are then sub- divided up into neighbourhoods with different names. Our budget hotel was in Manila in the Binondo neighbourhood, signs in the area claim it as the oldest Chinatown in the world.

We picked this location carefully when booking from home as we had read that getting around the city using transport was very slow. For our two days here we took the guidebooks advice which was to pick one area at a time to explore. Our first day was spent exploring our corner of Manila. We were able to walk around Chinatown and across the river to an area called Intramuros, the old walled city with a Cathedral and Fort and many historic buildings which managed to escape much of the bombing in WW11.

The following day we jumped on the LRT (Light Railway) and for the princely sum of PHP 60 return (just under £1) for both of us we headed several stops north to the Santa Cruz neighbourhood to visit the huge Chinese Cemetery here which covers an area of 5.4 Hectares. This was like no other cemetery we have ever seen as it felt like an eerily quiet residential suburb with streets where the wealthy and not so wealthy Chinese are buried in mausoleums. Some of these tombs are very ostentatious with two or more storeys and take the form of a house, villa or pagoda and others are more recognisable as usual burial areas.

It all seemed very surreal especially in view of the rather poor rundown neighbourhood that directly adjoins this palatial burial ground.

We aren’t sad to be leaving the city though, it is hot and humid, noisy and dirty and apart from the lovely welcoming Filipinos has little to commend it.  At 8pm on Monday 18th November we caught a night bus north to Banaue arriving at 4.30am after a sleepless night despite the coach being relatively comfortable compared with many other long distance buses we have taken on our travels. Sadly our arrival coincided with that of tropical storm ‘Sarah’ just to the north of us meaning that for almost all of our 2 night stay the area was deluged by torrential rains.

Our plan had been to spend time hiking around the famous rice terraces and then continue up the north coast of this, the island of Luzon, one of the largest in the country (there are over 7,000 islands that make up the Philippines with only 154 being larger than 5 square miles) and visit Vigan to see the old Spanish Colonial buildings.

However after two very wet outings with little to see through the low cloud and forecasters saying that as the typhoon is only moving at 35km/h it will take several days to clear we are about facing and returning south in the hope of better weather for seeing more of the sights this country has to offer.

The photos here show how poor the visibility was at the very best of times, mostly all we saw was a curtain of thick cloud completely enveloping us. It is disappointing as the terraces at Batad are UNESCO world heritage listed as being of historical importance and all the tourist web sites extol the virtues of a visit here. A picture pinched off a web site shows how thing could have looked!