Wednesday, January 4, 2017

El Nido, Palawan, Philippines: Why this island paradise should be your next destination

Note: Edited article originally published on The Binge. Below is the longer, more personal account of my trip. Have fun reading and GO.TO. PALAWAN. NOW.






The Philippines boasts of some of the most stunning beaches in the world. Why not, with its more than 7,000 islands, mostly untouched by modernity, it is easy to see why this archipelago has been creating noise as the next Asian beach hotspot.

Having been raised in the Philippines where fine white sands and turquoise waters are considered basic, my standard for beach getaways is pretty high. It is easy to name Philippine beach destinations – Boracay, Moalboal, Panglao, Siargao and I’m sure there are more, but one place always lands the top of the list: El Nido, Palawan.

I recently visited the once sleepy town during my balik kampung (“return to village/home”), and boy it blew my mind! There I saw astonishing limestone cliffs, beautiful lagoons, colourful sea creatures and probably the most amazing sunset. I also discovered that while El Nido was once known for luxurious 5-star island resorts which made it seem unreachable, it has now evolved to catering to mid and even low budget travelers. Thanks to low-cost airlines, growing interest in backpacking and DIY traveling and the wonders of crowdsourcing, there is really no reason not to visit this paradise.



Here is the lowdown on El Nido:

The best time to visit
Summer in the Philippines is typically from February to May. However, it is also known for unpredictable rains so it is best to keep track. We traveled in November and enjoyed four days of sun and two days of rain. The good thing is that we were able to take advantage of non-peak rates as the high season (and price) starts only in December.

Getting to El Nido
El Nido is a small municipality in the northern tip of the province of Palawan. There is no international flight to El Nido so you have to fly to Manila and then jump on a domestic flight to Puerto Princesa, Palawan. I bought my KL-Manila-KL ticket via Air Asia for RM650 and Manila-Puerto Princesa-Manila ticket via Cebu Pacific for Php3,600 (RM323).

From Puerto Princesa airport, you can ride a tricycle (Fiipino version of tuk-tuk) for Php50 (RM 4.50) to the terminal and take a bus for Php380 (RM34). The bus ride will take about seven hours. Alternatively, you can take the van from the airport for Php500 (RM45) saving you one hour of travel time. The road is paved but ride could be bumpy. I suggest to take a pill if you are prone to motion sickness. We learned it the hard way.

Where to stay
If you are a backpack traveler, check out OMP Hostel (Php 350/night or RM31). They offer group tours, and my friends all vouched for its no-frills, homey feel. 

We stayed at SPIN Designer Hostel located at the heart of the town and got the private double room with AC and ensuite bathroom for Php2,600 or RM235/night. I loved the place because it’s a balance of comfort and affordability. It is tastefully designed, clean and the staff are helpful. Plus, I like the fact that since it’s a hostel, you still get to mingle and talk with fellow travelers while still having some privacy. They also serve really good breakfast complete with pancake and egg station, breads, jams and cheese, fruits and unlimited coffee and juice.

If you feel like splurging or on honeymoon, there are world-renowned luxury island resorts like El Nido Resorts Lagen Island or Matinloc Resort with price ranging from Php20,000 to Php100,000 or RM2,200 to RM9,000/night.

Now that you know the travel basics, let me walk you through the million-dollar question – What to do in El Nido?

Secret Beach

Explore the islands
If there is one reason to visit El Nido, it’s definitely to go island-hopping! There are several island hopping tour package to choose from and a gazillion tour providers lined up the street. Look for Emma’s Travel & Tours around the corner of Serena Street for the lowest prices. The tour packages are usually as follows:
  • Tour A: Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Simizu Island, Secret Lagoon and 7 Commando Beach
  • Tour B: Entalula Island, Pinagbuyutan Island, Snake Island, Cudugnon Cave and Cathedral Cave
  • Tour C: Hidden Beach, Helicopter Island, Secret Beach, Matinloc Shrine and Star Beach
  • Tour D: Bukal Beach, Ipil Beach, Paradise Beach, Cadlao Lagoon and Pasandigan Island
You can also do a combination tour with A+C being the most popular. Price ranges from Php 1,200 (RM108) for one tour or Php1,500 (RM135) for combination (plus Php200/person for environmental fee) which already includes buffet lunch, snorkel gears and English-speaking and friendly tour guide. 

Our guide, Victor, was a powerhouse – telling us all the information about the islands while throwing gossips of who owns which island and making jokes on the side. The combination tour last the whole day from 8am to 5pm. We joined the A+C tour which brought us to a total of seven islands with 20 to 30-minute stay in each plus a good spread of rice, grilled fish, meat and fruits for lunch. It was worth every penny!

If you’re not in a hurry, you can take each tour on its own, but for time and budget’s sake, a combination tour would be the better choice. If you’re traveling in a group of 5 or more, you can rent a private boat for Php3,500-4,000 (RM315-360) depending on your haggling skills, and customise your itinerary instead.

Kayaking at Small Lagoon

Each of the islands and lagoons has its own charms and are equally stunning. It is hard to choose one over the other but my favorite has to be the Small Lagoon. You can rent a kayak for Php300 (RM27) to explore the inner caves and magnificent limestone formations.

Do not forget to bring enough water, snacks and sunscreen with at least SPF 30. A good pair of sunnies and a hat will also come handy. Do look out for the floating coconut vendor, too. Filipinos are truly hardworking hence the fishermen normally moonlight as coconut/ice cream or beer vendors at sea!


Hired a private boatman ;)

Lay on Las Cabanas beach all day
A 15-20-minute tricycle ride from the town, Las Cabanas beach is famous among tourists and is a perfect place to sun bathe and enjoy a lazy day. The beach is very clean and the water is clear. There are bars and restaurants that provide deck chairs for its customers. Stay until 6pm for a spectacular sunset. The fare for the tricycle is Php150/way (RM13.50) and you can arrange for your driver to pick you up at the end of the day. 

Sunset at Las Cabanas

Take the Zip line
Also located at Las Cabanas, the zip line is 750 meters long and connects to a nearby island. It is short but fun and gives you a good view of the sea and surrounding islands. You have to hike for 5-10 minutes, take the zip line and then walk along the coastline back to the beach. Two-way zip line is also available but I didn’t mind walking the rocky shores as the view is pretty nice too. Price is Php500 (RM45) for a one-way trip.



Go on a road trip to Nacpan beach
We rented a motorbike for Php400 (RM36) and rode to Nacpan beach for about an hour. The road is 80% paved and the rest is bumpy and muddy, but it’s all part of the fun! You’ll pass by long stretches of dense mountains and green fields littered with carabaos, cows, goats and flocks of white birds. The ride itself is a treat!

If you cannot ride a motorbike, you can rent a habal-habal (motorbike with a driver) or a tricycle to bring you to Nacpan beach for Php 1,500/day (RM135). Upon reaching Nacpan, you have to pay an environmental fee of Php30 (RM2.70). The beach is pristine and there are a few huts that sell Filipino meals, fruit shakes and fresh coconuts. There are no big resorts but I saw a few rooms for rent if you wish to stay the night. We stayed for the rest of the afternoon and decided to head back to town before dark because there are no street lights.

Roadside on the way to Nacpan Beach

Climb Taraw Cliff
About 230 meters above sea level, Taraw cliff offers a panoramic view of Bacuit Bay. The hike takes around an hour depending on your strength and ability, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. The terrain is rocky, very steep and filled with sharp limestone rocks and is often hiked with no safety ropes which makes it quite risky. However, once you reach the peak, the view will take your breath away. 

If you decide to go YOLO, you have to book a guide for Php500/person (RM45) with minimum of two persons. Make sure to wear proper hiking shoes (no slippers!) and bring water. It’s also advisable to wear long pants and put on sunblock.
  
Giant limestone karst overlooking El Nido town | Photo courtesy of Jefferson Co
Go crazy with food
El Nido has lots of food places ranging from local to Asian and Western cuisines. We made it a point to try different restaurants but we didn’t really find one single place to rave about. Little Italy’s pizza was good. Mezzanine’s homemade pasta was great, but the pizza was so-so. Altrove’s pizza, which has raving reviews, disappointed us with its gummy crust. I wanted to give it a second chance but we were only able to try it on our last night as the queue was always long.

There are good seafood places along the bay where you can buy fresh fish, squid, prawns, and other types of shellfish – cooked the way you want. Garlic butter is a must try!

Make sure to try the Philippines’ own beer, San Miguel, which is known as one of the best in Asia. For a stronger kick, go for Red Horse beer. If you are on the adventurous side, try Palawan’s crocodile sisig (minced crocodile meat cooked on a sizzling plate with onions and chilies) and tamilok (woodworm). There is something for everyone!



Go bar hopping
As El Nido became more touristy, bars and party places abound around the town and along the bay. Our hostel arranges pub crawl nights where you get to bar hop with the other travelers, which I think is a cool way to meet new people especially for solo travelers. We opted to go drinking at our own pace, and ended up watching live bands and fire dancers at Pukka Bar for two nights in a row. Even if you’re not into drinking, you can still walk along the beach under the moonlight and just enjoy the atmosphere.

Get a massage and try the traditional Filipino ‘Hilot’
We ended our 6-day trip with a cheap but really good massage. You can get one by Las Cabanas beach for Php600/hour (RM54) for Swedish or combination massage, or choose among the many small massage parlours in the town proper where it’s even cheaper at Php400/hour (RM36). Just take note that these are just basic beds with curtain dividers so it’s not for the picky. If you want the spa ambiance and experience, go to The Organic Spa but make sure to book in advance as the waiting time can be long. While you’re at it, give the traditional Filipino massage called ‘Hilot’ a try. It’s a deep tissue massage with coconut oil and banana leaves and is believed to have healing effects.

Mother nature has outdone herself with El Nido because every nook and cranny is postcard perfect. I have snorkeled in quite a few places in and outside the Philippines but only El Nido made me scream underwater. 

By the time we reached the third site where the famed Matinloc Shrine is, I’m already convinced that it’s time to stop making excuses and take the diving course that I’ve always wanted but never really pursued. You see, traveling does wonders to one’s personal growth. It helps you clear your mind and break away from the routine inspiring you to take action. In my case, it drove me to finally chase a lifelong dream. If you haven’t been to El Nido, do yourself a favor and book the next flight out. You’ll be surprised what this charming place can do to you.  




Are you visiting anytime soon? Let me know how it goes! 

Cheers,
B

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

BigGirlMoves: Two Years of Independence

 
30 NOV 2016. Exactly two years since I moved to Kuala Lumpur and started a new phase in my career and life overall. I often make fun of it calling little things #BigGirlMoves. From paying all the bills, washing my own clothes (call me a princess but I've never washed my clothes for 29 years), cooking all my meals or starve to death, to changing light bulbs.
 
My key takeaways?
 
1. There's no victory too small to celebrate. So feel free dance when you assemble that IKEA furniture perfectly, or cooked your first decent meal. How about learning how to fold fitted bed sheets properly after simply hurling it in the closet for years?
 
2. You'll find a reason to be grateful every damn day if you only know where to look. Oprah's 'What I Know for Sure' suggests that you list three things you are grateful for every day and I've been doing that for a while now - sometimes literally, often just in my mind. I take time in the mornings upon waking up to look out my window and just say thank you for three (most of days more) things. It can be for a bright day because I don't like the rain, a comfy bed sheet, a loved one's good morning message, a migraine-free day, an exciting pitch presentation, or completing an 8-hour sleep. Nothing is too big or too small to a grateful heart.
 
3. Change is the only constant thing. It can be good or bad, depends on perspective, but what's for sure is that it will lead you to the next stage of your journey. People are often scared by change, and I used to be until I stopped looking at it like a death sentence. Sure, change can mean an end of a beautiful relationship, closing an exciting era at work, or even loved ones going away. But change can also mean opening loads of opportunities that otherwise you won't get by maintaining status quo. New people, relationships, experiences, places, challenges - these and more can happen after going through major changes in life. Have faith that the Higher Being has a master plan for each of us and that it is nothing but great. So just keep on moving!
 
I often get asked how moving overseas has treated me. Well, it wasn't all easy nor fun. I've made mistakes. I've missed a lot of important moments and people back home. I've repeatedly doubted my decision to live solo. I've been sick, lonely and stressed to the brink. But at the end of the day, when all the emotions (maybe hormones too) subside, I'm convinced that I am where I am for a reason, and that it's all worth it. I lost some, I gained some. I feel like I've grown 10 years in 24 months and I'm not exaggerating a bit. I'm a different person. Wiser, kinder, more grounded. Appreciative of various people and cultures. Stronger and more stern of my personal beliefs. More sure of what I want in life.
 
So to answer directly, it was one hell of a scary ride, but it's an exciting and liberating one! So cheers to a city that's been good to me, to clingy homies who became more like sisters, to an amazing team at work, to new friends and to old friends and family who always support me and welcome me back like I never left.

It may sound cliché but I'm one blessed girl, and I wouldn't deny that.

YOLO photo from my recent trip | El Nido, Palawan, Philippines

 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

#BirthdayGirl 2016: Of Temples & Freedom


I have a confession. I'm a Grinch for birthdays. My own that is. For some silly reason, I feel less sunny rather than festive so it takes a little more effort to make this day count. I'm not huge on gifts either. I'm a sucker for quality time and conversations and experiences. So I've long abandoned throwing birthday parties and would rather spend my moolah on traveling. New places to see, experiences to remember, people to meet, lessons to learn. Sounds like a good way to celebrate another year of life and blessings.

Birthday travel tradition:

2011 - Hong Kong
2012 - Kota Kinabalu, Sabah
2013 - Boracay
2014 - Hong Kong & Macau
2015 - Break for my dear lola's passing. Traveled home to Philippines instead.

For 2016, I've set my eyes on one destination alone - CAMBODIA. And boy, it didn't disappoint. Aside from the unforgiving drought that turned the fields brown, Cambodia is everything I expected and more.


1. Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap is a great pre-temple destination to learn about Khmer history and the context behind the intricate art, monuments and carvings that you will see in the temples. It's a bit costly at USD12 (plus USD3 for audio device), but well worth the money. The artifacts are well-preserved and in good condition. There's also audio-visual presentations that you can play in several languages which is cool. The whole building is also air-conditioned and has a mini cafĂ©. With Siem Reap's temperature reaching 40 degrees Celsius, a few hours in the museum is a welcome respite.

Photography is not allowed inside the exhibit halls, hence.

2. Angkor Wat Temple is as grand as I imagined it to be. In scale (the largest religious monument in the world), detail and history, it will leave anyone in awe. Aside from the famous Angkor Wat temple, the Angkor Complex also includes symbolic sites like the Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm which was made famous by Angelina Jolie's Tomb Raider movie. A sunrise tour which consists of sunrise watching (of course!), visit to five temples, English speaking guide and round van transfer is only USD13, which to me is a really good deal. You only need to pay additional USD20 for a day pass to the temples.





3. Khmer cuisine is much like a fusion of everything Asian. Mix of Thai, Malay and Indian dishes. Not the most distinct to be honest, but there's two Khmer dishes that you should try. The Beef Lok Lak which is the Cambodian version of beef stewed in tomatoes and onions, usually served with rice and egg, and the Khmer Amok which basically is meat (often fish or chicken) cooked in curry and rich coconut milk. Both are flavourful, though having been living in KL for quite some time, I'm lacking on the spiciness so, extra chili please!




4. If you're a history geek, you'll know that Cambodia has been through a horrific war in the recent times. In fact, the war only ended in 1999! Spare some time and read about the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and decide for yourself if you want to include the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields in the capital city of Phnom Penh. I was content to visit the War Museum in Siem Reap instead. Here we met Moun Sinath, a war veteran who now works as a guide in the museum. He's known to many as 'the cat', as he survived multiple shots and a landmine injury before finally retiring from the army. Visiting the war museum is a natural eye opener and made me realize how fortunate I am to be born in a time and place of peace. I'm sure the rest of the tour visitors felt the same.


"The Cat" showing us shrapnels still inside his body

5. The rural life in Siem Reap reminded me of my mom's province in the Philippines, Pampanga. Spent the afternoon riding water buffalo cart, biking around and waving to kids, bullying the baby cows to take photos with me and just watching the sunset, magnificent as always. It was also the perfect spot to say a prayer of thanks for another year of life and the freedom that I've been enjoying immensely.


Channeling my inner yogi

Other important stuff to remember:
  • Beer is hellah cheap at USD0.35/mug. Cocktails are not bad either at USD1.50.
  • Contrary to my expectation, Cambodia is not a cheap city. Aside from alcohol and accommodation, everything else is a little pricey. Each meal will cost around USD4-6.
  • They accept USD everywhere, but conversion rate is up to the store. =P I came to a point when I already gave up computing my change.
  • Tuk Tuk is expensive at USD 2-4 for walkable distance around Pub Street and Night Markets. So start walking. It's healthier too!
  • It's hot. It's sticky. Be prepared with sunscreen, water, towel and hat if you may.
  • Wear sleeved top and pants/skirt below the knee. Otherwise, you cannot go up the Angkor Wat temple. Scarves/sarong won't make the cut.
  • Begging and garbage on the streets are quite common. Also, milk scam is still happening, unfortunately. Be aware and alert, especially if you're a solo female traveler.

And that folks, sums up my week in Cambodia. I'm one happy #BirthdayGirl indeed.

Love and light to every one,
B

Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Ode to Bali


 
 

I haven't been traveling as much as I should the past months. Life happened in 2015. A whole lot. A quick, 3-day getaway to Bali may not sound much, but it's all I needed to align my stars, lift my spirit and indulge in the wonderfully odd feeling of going somewhere unfamiliar, doing something new, smelling the air and everything in between.

Bali, I raise my glass to you, with  warm, sweaty skin and sandy hands!

For the opportunity to see more of this amazing world, indulge in its culture and nuances
For meeting new people, hearing differing thoughts, getting inspired by innocent displays of bravery and free spirits
For helping me understand myself more, convinced that I can be alone and not lonely - but that I'd rather be with someone: a friend, a lover, a random stranger, an island dog 
For making new friends, lending a helping hand, receiving one in return, learning a thing or two however, whichever way possible
For letting me rebel in my independence, my freedom and complete control
For willingly letting go of that control
For celebrating friendships, of both days and decades
For learning how to follow lead and for the unfamiliar feeling of warmth and protection
For failing,understanding and waking up still bright-eyed and wanting
For realising that I needed something more, someone more, than my seemingly efficient, sometimes oblivious self 
For painlessly pulling my guards down, and for finally accepting that there's nothing wrong in receiving

Friday, December 4, 2015

365 Days of #BigGirlMoves


Waking up to this beauty | Brunei Nov 2015

November 30 marks my first year of living solo and working overseas. It's odd that I'm spending this day in Brunei rather than my second home in KL. But it's never just about the place. It's about decisions, dreams, people. It's about learning and bravery and love. It's about knowing one's self, and what human soul is capable to achieve if we truly and honestly believe in something.

I have very little time to blog these days because I'm too busy discovering my new city. But I'm extremely enjoying living offline, I guess it's not a bad thing after all. Looking forward to more of this adventure, and hopefully, be able to share more in this humble space.

Cheers,
B