The Traveler in Me, Then and Now

Just a few months back, I had the chance to return to the very first countries I traveled to in my early days of backpacking. It was interesting at best.

I still remember my first foray into the strange unknown. Back then it will take me at least 6 months of preparation just to travel within Southeast Asia (I am based in the Philippines so it shouldn’t be that stressful as coming from any further away). Travel guides were the best source of information – Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc (yes, books – we had them in paperbacks kiddos!). Then you access the travel forums for the latest info. What time is the last boat to the island? How much can you rent a motorbike? Is XX Restaurant still open? That sort of thing.

Nowadays, it’s all about the apps. Internet made things easier now. You can book flights, accommodation, island transfers, heck even a real time access to camera streams, just by the touch of a button. The good thing about this is a smart phone takes less space in that 60L backpack. Now you only can arm yourself with 10 other electronic things to carry with you.

When I first did my mainland Southeast Asia route, I chose Thailand as my entry point. There were no budget airlines at the time so traveling around means flying to the main hubs – Singapore or Thailand then organize the border crossings from there. I had printouts of pages and pages of information that I copied and pasted from research along with my LP book to navigate my way around. Back then staying in places like Khao San Road made sense. When you are trying to get your bearings in a foreign land, the comfort of seeing other travelers doing the same thing as you makes the difference for a nervous, solo traveler. Plus, I don’t deny that any time you want to take a break from eating like a local, there are available familiar food around. Today, people reviews  and the numerous travel blogs can get you a sense of what to expect even before landing.

I recently entered Thailand through one of the land border crossings from Cambodia. Again, this is a vast improvement from many moons ago. There was only one border between Cambodia and Thailand at that time and it took me and a friend hours to haggle the best price for a taxi to get us from Aranyaprathet to Poi Pet and more hours traveling across. Border immigration then refused to acknowledge that my passport was visa exempt.

Now there are public buses and vans that go through several borders for less amount of time. Immigration is also not a hassle. Touts trying to carry your bag for an overpriced fee unfortunately still exist.

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Beautiful view at the border crossing between Koh Kong and Hat Lek

Of course the obvious change nowadays is the evident increase  of full on mass tourism. After a week of partying non-stop in Southern Thailand, I decided to take a break and take one of those brochure printed fast boat trips to  Koh PhiPhi and surrounds.  I imagined that being on a boat and doing island hoping is much better than returning for another day of beer pong or some other excuse to drink. The moment I showed up at the meeting point, I instantly regretted it. There was a massive crowd that were being herded by the organizers of the tour companies. People were cramped to some 50 or more fast boats and moving en mass from island to island. Now I know the how it feels to be led like a cattle in a herd. Jesus!

I was super grateful that I spent two weeks on the relatively quiet beaches of Sihanoukville and Koh Rong before that. Best decision ever!

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A deserted Otres Beach in Sihanoukville

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Okay so maybe I have company. But he is more interested in playing with his shadow than me.

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I am literally 2 minutes away from the beach

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One of the many pristine beaches of Koh Rong

 

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Hiking over to the other side of the island

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Hopefully we have a few more years to get to see this before full development arrives in this part of Cambodia.

Now back to present day Southern Thailand. I blame the movie, The Beach for ruining the beautiful Maya bay. Imagine some 300-500 tourists visiting Maya Beach on a daily basis. It is sad.

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Plan on sun bathing here? Forget it.

Even the diving seem to be operated like a tour group. They sign up divers in small groups which is good. They then put those small groups in one big boat. Result? There will be some 50 or so divers going underwater all at once.  If there was one good thing about this experience and despite the rough waters and poor visibility, we still manage to see some marine life and not just diver fins.

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So here I am, sounding like a jaded traveler. Will I continue traveling? You can bet on that. Will I attempt to come back to places that I have gone before? I will be choosy about it.  If there is one thing that never stops it is the travel experience –  the nature, the locals and fellow travelers that you meet along the way, the people you fall in love with, the friends that you gain, the scents and colours, the food, the similarities and differences from one culture to another.. all these makes it still worthwhile to keep on traveling.

Satays, Beaches and More Beaches

Lombok Island is one of my favorite destinations in Indonesia. The first time I landed in Lombok was a little over a decade ago.  I was amazed. I decided then that I will come back. Well this time was the perfect time to do that and see how things have evolved.

Instead of flying to Bali I flew directly to Lombok airport and then find a transport to the Gilis.  After finding a couple of willing passengers to fill out a private taxi, the negotations began. You see, my Bahasa consists of 5 words. Thankfully one of them applies to ’empak orang’ and IDR 250.000 (IDR250.000 for 4 pax in a taxi. Get it?) After some haggling, off we go.One of the passengers I found out was spending only the weekend on the islands so I offered to share my cottage. Boat transfers followed and then before we knew it me and my new found friend were gulping down cold Bintangs on our side of the beach in Gili Trawangan.

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For over a week and a half a pattern has emerged – eat breakfast (pancakes), swim/dive/engage in some water activity/walk/bike, catch sunset and then the night begins.

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my home in the Gilis

Diving and snorkeling is the most popular activity on this island (apart from drinking obviousballs!). I’m a fan of tropical fish and corals so I made it a point to do a couple of diving. It did not disappoint. The green turtles are my favorites.

When you are feeling lazy there is always the chilling at the beach thing.

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Bikes abound to explore the rest of the island. I found the norther side to find the nicer beaches.

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Since most are based in Gili Trawangan, then you can always hire a boat to chill or snorkel at the other Gilis which I absolutely enjoyed doing.

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sunset point

As soon as the sun sets, time to ditch the bikes and find your way to the night market for some delicious meal.

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the famous night market

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fresh catch every day for dinner

Once the belly is full, then time to party!  Every night, a different venue will host the main party (that doesn’t stop you from picking your own bar/spot). Then before closing time which is usually 1AM, ask the locals where the after party is.

Okay I have to say that being a connoisseur of underground dance music, I find the sets a tad too Top 40’s in most venues. The exception is the Sama-Sama reggae bar and Ombak Bar that really does beach party music with good fire dancing even.  Anyway, make sure you are fully inebriated before going to the after party which will usually the Top 40 music. The party comes to a full stop on the island before the morning prayer.

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one of the mosques on the island

The Gilis of today has certainly changed from what I saw a decade ago. It has become a hectic island from numerous bikes, the depressing state of of the horse drawn carts and tons of people. The irony of mosques blaring calls to prayer while the island is surrounded with people in various state of undress and under the influence. Will I return again? Hell yes. To party.

After a week and a half of partying non stop it’s time to get out from lalaland and do some actual surfing. I based myself in Kuta in Lombok in a nice Balinese villa. Kuta is tame compared to the Gilis. It is something I needed after the craziness a few days before.

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the rare Balinese themed villa in a predominantly Muslim area

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pool a few steps from my room

I got lucky to meet some crazy local surfer dudes who took me to the nicest spots around the mainland. Of course mad driving was part of the adventure. Luckily no animal or human was harmed and lots of laughter and fun was had.

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one of the popular surf spots for beginners and intermediate level

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In between surf breaks, the beach which was a few minutes away from my cottage was a perfect spot to read a book and just chill.

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Overall I had the best time in Lombok. I wish I had more time to explore more of the island. That would be another reason to come back no?

Life on a Cold Road

I had the fortune of going on a road trip in the dead of winter. This time we were heading towards further West. Packing up our old but trusty car with all sorts of survival mode things, we headed our way to I-70. Now you see Colorado is a beautiful state. And no, not because of their famous botanical product but because of the beautiful nature they were blessed with. Some of these you can see while being on the I-70. As soon as we crossed to Utah things changed dramatically. There were less trees and boulders started becoming more prominent. Landscapes are vast and mostly empty (I can’t blame people, it’s winter). This is where you crank up the volume and sing/yell whatever was on the radio. Err… actually I take that back. If you are not a country music fan, make sure to bring you favorite tunes with you. Lots of ’em.

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The only stop we did was to drop our postcards at this cute post office in the middle of somewhere. That was rad haha!Oh yeah and of course we have to miss one turn that set us back about an hour. Thirteen or so hours later we arrived in warmer Las Vegas.

So being a tropical person that I am I give a little clap every time the thermometer climbs up one level. Oh and to peel off two layers of clothing felt great. Sooo… whatever could you do in Vegas? First, a long hot shower. Then food!

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warm deliciousness brought to you by one of Wolfgang Puck’s resto in MGM

Since this is Vegas we  tried our luck at the tables. Ha! Let’s just say that the house wins most of the time. I did have some fun time though in between drinking and watching my piles of chips go up and then slowly disappear. I also learned how to play Crapps or Crappps however you spell it.

We did play tourist for a bit with the gorgeous weather and all.

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We had a full moon for the backdrop in Sin City.

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Speaking of sin, we went to the old town. The Strip takes most of the limelight these days but the old town was where it was happening before the Strip came to life. Some might say this is the seedier side of the city nowadays. Lo and behold…!

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Look, I decided many years ago that there are certain jobs I wouldn’t take even at my most destitute (you see I was traveling full time when I had this moment of clarity). These would be:

  • Masseuse – I’m a massage addict. When you get a good masseuse, it’s heaven! I however don’t want to be that person giving service
  • Body Waxer – Sorry no. I don’t wanna be removing hair in every nook and cranny of people’s bits.
  • Emptying sewage – self explanatory

Now I think I may have to add one to my list. That is being a half naked human piece of entertainment, standing outside on a cold winter midnight. Damn Dude! Or does that head dress give some warmth? Anybody know…?

After a few days of our pockets getting lighter and lighter, we decided to cut our losses and head to Arizona for some family time and fun. But first we stopped by the Hoover Dam. Truly it is an engineering marvel.

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We were lucky to catch a glimpse of a beautiful sunset over what I assume is part of the Red Rock Canyons.

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In the next two weeks, we would camp ourselves in Elloy for some serious sky diving. Now that is one hell of a party!

The Colours of Autumn

It has been a while since I was in a place where Autumn/Fall happens. I have to say it is my favorite weather whenever I am out of the tropics. Why? It is not too hot. It is not too cold. Pretty colours everywhere.

Right now my wandering feet brought me to the US and I am embarking on a road trip with the central West as the starting point (yes I may have made that up). The first leg of the trip is towards the MidWest and boy oh boy,  it has been pretty so far.

home base for now

how's that for a start of a road trip

how’s that for a start of a road trip?

Perfect weather, perfect company and well, we have a lot to go… stay tuned.

Chasing After the Rice Terraces

It’s good to be back. Well, being back means slowly settling down to daily routine after weeks of being on the road.Yeah I know, it’s a tough one.

I and a friend spent most parts traveling in the mountains of Cordillera. It was nice to revisit a lot of really neat places. This time though we hit only a small part of the tourist trail and spent most of the time hanging out with the locals. And by hanging out, yes, there was a lot of drinking involved.

So there was a bit of good deed involved on this trip which I would choose not to write about but instead I will share the usual tourist trail stuff 🙂

First stop, Banaue. We took the tricycle, jeepney or trekked to the villages surrounding the main town initially.

Eventually we found ourselves in Batad, the main attraction in this province. We loaded ourselves on top of the jeepney braving the treacherous route

slow improvement to the often narrow and winding roads

It was all worth it. We arrived to a foggy Batad.

We did have moments of weather clarity.

We even managed to dip into the icy water of Tappiyah Falls.

After spending too much time drinking rice wine with the locals, we managed to pry ourselves and be on our way. Next stop – Bontoc. We used that as a base to update on technology, wish our love ones happy holidays and rest our weary legs (and liver) for a bit. It didn’t take long for us to being wandering around again.

 

Then we’re in Sagada. The weather was complete opposite from Banaue. Banaue was cold (really cold!), rainy and did I mention cold? When we hit Sagada, the sun was out, generally blue skies and just the right amount of cold. So, we did a lot of trekking. We did the usual touristy stuff – caves, rice terraces, hanging coffins and well, sampling the variety of fruit wines. And yes we did a lot of trekking. We also sampled wall climbing.

Photos inside the caves (well at least those that I can share :)) will follow soon.