Palawan – An Island Paradise

Palawan – An Island Paradise

PalawanPalawan is an island province of the Philippines. It is an archipelago consisting of 1780 islands.  Its provincial capital is Puerto Princesa.  In terms of land area it is the largest province of the Philippines.  Palawan lies between the South China Sea and Sulu Sea.  It is home to some of the best beaches in the Philippines.  Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located there.

We were very impressed with our visit to Palawan!  I have to say that it is arguably the best tourist attraction in the Philippines.  When asked what I thought of Palawan the first word that comes to mind is “CLEAN”.  It may not be the most impressive word, but if you’re familiar with other tourist sites in the Philippines you will have an appreciation for what I mean.  Compared to the toxic filth that surrounds Manila, and for the most part most of Central Luzon, the nation’s main island, Palawan is extremely clean.

Another thing that impressed me is the locals’ respect for the land and environment.  It’s  said that this chain of islands is the Philippines’ last ecological frontier.  The local population takes pride in their role as guardians of their home’s natural wonders.  From tour guides and drivers to the folks on the street they take their guardianship very seriously.  This point was driven home on the litter free streets of Puerto Princesa.  My uncle had carelessly tossed his cigarette butt on the sidewalk, a couple walking by very respectfully asked him to pick up the butt and throw it in the nearest trash bin.  We were told should a policeman see us littering we would be fined.  I was so impressed by their dedication to keeping their city clean that I wanted to hug them!

My husband tested our guide during our island hopping tour when he saw huge clam shells along the coast.  He was told he could look, touch, and photograph, but he could not take one home.  He asked her how much she’d take to allow him to take one (he wasn’t serious) and she told him that no amount of money was worth the depletion of their island’s natural beauty.  Very impressive in a place where just about anything is for sale for the right price!

There are many beautiful places to visit in Palawan.  Most tourist opt to stay at the El Nido Resorts located on the northern end of Palawan.  It’s a haven for avid divers and anyone wanting to get away from it all, but it’s not that easy to get to.  Getting to El Nido can be challenging and expensive.

You can take a direct flight from either Manila or Cebu on PAL, Cebu Pacific Air, and a few other commercial airlines, or you can take a charter plane,  but it’s the most expensive way to go.  A less expensive way may be to fly into Coron, one of Palawan’s municipalities, and take a boat to El Nido, but this trip takes about 8 hours.  The most economical way to get there would be flying into Puerto Princesa, PAL offers a reasonably priced ticket from Manila, then taking a bus or car the rest of the way, the ride is about 4 hours.

We we opted to take a flight to Puerto Princesa and stay there instead of continuing on to El Nido.  It was the most practical way since my mother refused to ride the smaller planes bound for El Nido, and my elderly father would not have been able to stand a 4 hour drive.

PalawanWe arrived at the Puerto Princesa International Airport, such a grand name for a tiny airport, in the late afternoon.  The flight from Manila was about an hour long.

The hotel’s van was there to meet us and drive us to our hotel 15 minutes away.[spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanThere are many hotels in Puerto Princesa.  They range from one star to 4-5 star accommodations.

We chose Niko’s Cabanas, a small hotel with just 9 rooms.  We booked 3 Junior Suites, each about $65 per night for double occupancy, and included a cooked to order breakfast.

The suites are air conditioned and have private baths with hot and cold showers.  The rooms are clean and comfortable.  There’s cable TV in all the rooms and free wi-fi in the restaurant.

The hotel is situated in what looks like a residential part of town, but it’s easily accessible by tricycle or car.  In fact the hotel shuttle will happily take you to town and back again for free, just ask!

The hotel boasts a pool, a restaurant, and gazebo.  The property is nicely landscaped with tropical trees and plants.  I know it’s not ocean front, far from it,  but it worked out well for us  given that my mother  insisted she needed to be close to town.  Not to mention there were so many of us and booking multiple rooms at an ocean front hotel was not exactly budget friendly when we had to pay air fair, hotel, and more for most of the folks in our party.

PalawanWe enjoyed our stay at Niko’s Cabanas.  My mom and dad loved the restaurant!  I think mostly because the staff were very friendly and pretty much cooked what my mother wanted even though it wasn’t on the menu![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

palawanThe gazebo located in the center of the property was the perfect place to hang out after a long day.  The staff made sure we were supplied with ice cold San Miguel beers, sodas, and snacks.

While we were there we were the only hotel guests.  Lucky for us because we got exceptional service!

But we didn’t go to Palawan to hang out at the hotel.  We wanted to explore and experience the sights and activities the island offers.  And that we did starting the very next morning![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanOur first destination was the famed Underground River.  I had hired a van with driver and a tour guide for the duration of our stay.  They picked us up at Niko’s early in the morning for the 2 hour drive to Sabang.  Sabang is a small town that serves as the gateway to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River.

On the road to Sabang we passed a viewpoint where according to our guide we were able to view the South China Sea on one side and the Sulu Sea on another.  [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanThen we continued on to the Sabang boat harbor to catch the banca (motorized canoe) that would take us to the Underground River.

Since we had hired a tour guide she obtained the boat tickets as well as the entrance tickets to the Underground River, they were included in the price, as well as a barbecue lunch at a Sabang resort upon our return. The cost was about $250 for 7 people.  [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

Because there were 7 people in our party we had the banca to ourselves. Once loaded on we were off to the entrance beach to the Underground River!

PalawanThe boat ride along the island’s coast wasn’t very long.  We sailed by some interesting rock formations along the coastline. [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanWhen the banca reaches the entrance beach he tries to get as close to dry land as possible.  You hop off on the beach so no matter what your feet will get wet![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanFrom the beach it’s a short walk to the park entrance.  You can’t miss it!  It’s right past the big sign![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanThe path takes you thru the rain forest where you’ll see long tailed Macaques and large monitor lizards.

The Macaques, the only primates in the area, are easy to spot.  They’re everywhere!  Watch out though they do bite and will snatch bags if there’s food in it.

The lizards are harder to spot.  They’re very well camouflaged.

At the end of the path you’ll find the que for the boat ride into the cave.[spacer height=”-100px” id=”8″]

PalawanBefore hopping on to another banca you must don a life vest and hard hat.  Again because we were a large group we had our own banca.[spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanOnce we were all seated the boatman paddled us thru brackish water to the cave entrance.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well is one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.  It’s basically the 8.2 Km section of  the Cabayugan River that passes thru the St. Pauls Underground River Cave which is more than 24 km. long. [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanThe cave is very dark inside.  The boatmen shine spotlights on certain rock formations during the 45 minute ride.

Inside the cave you navigate past stalactites and stalagmites.  And as expected you’ll see lots of bat guano as well as the bats themselves.  There are nine species of bats that call the cave home. [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

After the short boat ride in the cave we returned to our awaiting banca on the beach and headed back to Sabang for lunch.

PalawanThe boat harbor is a short walk from the resorts that line the coast.  My dad had a hard time walking so we hired a carabao pulled wagon to transport him, my mom, and sister to the resort.  The rest of us walked on the beautiful white sand beach to get there. [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanLunch was served on the beach under a thatched umbrella.  There was certainly plenty of food and drink.   After a pleasant lunch it was time  for the 2 hour drive back to our hotel.  [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

We were back at the hotel by mid afternoon.  Plenty of time for a shower and drinks in our little gazebo before we headed into town for dinner.

PalawanMom, dad, and sister opted to dine at the hotel’s restaurant.  The rest of us piled into a couple of tricycles and headed out to one of Puerto Princesa’s restaurants.  [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

The next day we went island hopping around Honda Bay.  Our trusty guide picked us up in the morning and took us to the local docks where we boarded our private banca.  My husband wanted to go fishing (it’s allowed as long as you’re some distance from the islands) so he purchased a pole and bait from the vendors on the docks.

PalawanOur first stop was Pandan Island, so named for the abundance of Pandan trees that grow there.  It’s a private island so there is an entrance fee which is collected on the docks before you set off.  In our case all fees and lunch were included in the tour.

It’s a beautiful little island surrounded by white sand beaches and crystal clear water filled with colorful fish.   For extra fees you can rent umbrellas, cabins, volleyballs, paddle boards, and other beach toys.[spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanMy favorite part of this island was the fresh seafood for sale.  As I hopped off the banca I was met by a couple of local girls holding a lobster trap.  They claimed to have caught the rock lobsters and crabs just that morning.  I bought all they had for roughly about $15.  That netted me about a dozen crabs and half a dozen lobsters.  They cooked it for me and threw in 6 bottles of beer.  What a deal!

My seafood platter was delivered to our beach front cabana just in time for lunch.  It was delicious!

Aside from my yummy lunch we explored the island.  The shores of one side of the island was home to huge clams.  It was amazing![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

PalawanThe rest of our time there was spent splashing in the water while my husband and uncle went fishing.  They had a great time!

The boatmen baited the hooks and took off the fish they caught.  All they did was hold the pole in the water and drink beer.  Fishing will never be the same!

They were all happy; they caught about a dozen fish which they sent home with the boatmen.[spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

Our next stop was Cowrie Island.  It’s less developed than the larger Pandan Island, but is perfect for snorkeling.   There are a few vendors on the island selling cold drinks and souvenirs.  It’s much less crowded than the more popular Pandan Island.

PalawanOur last stop was Starfish Island, so called because it’s surrounded by starfish.  Amazing!

There are no cabanas or vendors on this island.  In fact when we went we were the only people there!  If you’re looking for some serious alone time this island is perfect!

After 3 islands it was time to head back.  We were back at the pier by mid afternoon and at our hotel a few minutes after.

That night was our last in Palawan so we packed in to several tricycles for the short ride to town where we dined at Balinsasayaw Restaurants.

According to my dad it was a famous local restaurant and he really wanted to go there. I found it unremarkable with very poor service.
After dinner we went back to the hotel and hung out at our little cabana.  It was a great way to spend our last evening on this island paradise.

 [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]


Taal Volcano Tour & Horseback Ride

Taal Volcano Tour & Horseback Ride

Taal Volcano on the Philippine island of Luzon like all Philippine volcanoes is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the area of the Pacific basin where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. It is said to be the world’s smallest active volcano standing a mere 1000 feet tall, but don’t be misled by its size; it is also one of the deadliest volcanoes in the world having claimed 5000-6000 lives during its recorded 33 eruptions since 1572. It is the second most active volcano in the country, Mt. Mayon being the first with 50 recorded eruptions.

Located wholly in the Batangas province of the Philippines Taal Volcano is also quite a unique volcano, it’s has an island (Vulcan point) within a lake (Main Crater Lake) in a volcano (Volcano Island)  that is in a lake (Taal Lake) on an island (Luzon) or to quote “It  has the unusual distinction of being the world’s only volcano within a lake within a volcano within a lake within a volcano”.  Kind of a tongue twister, I know, but truly amazing.

For me this was enough reason to put Taal on my bucket list, but coupled with stories I’d heard since childhood about its eruptions when hot ashes reportedly reached the family’s ancestral home in Kawit, Cavite some 50 kilometers away made it a must see.  I was never quite sure if the stories were from the 1911 eruption or from the those between 1965 to 1977, but I figured it couldn’t have been from the 1754 eruption mostly because I don’t think there was a house in Kawit at that time.

Of course it never occurred to me that it was dangerous, to be fair when we went there were no alerts or warnings, there have been since our visit when the alert level was raised for 11 weeks in 2011.  So really the sanest way to see the volcano would be from a safe distance, perhaps from Tagaytay’s ridge where most tourist view it, and the view is awesome.  But if you’re crazy, adventurous, or a bit of both read on!  I’ll tell you about our trip to this active volcano!

Actually we didn’t think it was that adventurous or crazy, we live in Hawaii where we have Kilauea the world’s most active volcano according to Volcano Discovery.  It’s been spewing hot lava for years and generating “vog” which at times blankets the state.  So what could be so dangerous about trekking on Taal which hasn’t erupted since 1977? After all we’d been to Kilauea (the areas where you’re allowed to view the lava making its way to the ocean) and trekked up the crater of Nea Kameni the dormant volcano in Santorini where steam rises up from fumaroles along the trail.  So off we went, uncle and cousin in tow.  Mom and sis opted to stay behind as trekking up active volcanoes weren’t on their bucket list.

Before you can get on “Volcano Island” which is actually the volcano’s crater you must first find a place where you can hire a boat.  By the way there are day tours from Manila that will take you to and fro, prices that depend on group size include transfers from your hotel, boat ride, and guide. But we’re not big on tours, we prefer to DIY!

Taal Volcano

Taal Lake and Volcano from Tagaytay

So off we went to Talisay, a town in the province of Batangas about 2 hours away from Manila.  We had a driver and van who actually took us to my father’s house in Silang, Cavite, from there we made our way over to Tagaytay about 15 minutes away, where you do get awesome views of Taal Lake and Volcano.  From there we made our way down the ridge to a “resort” in Talisay.

I was headed for the Taal Lake Yacht Club where you can book a boat to the volcano, but my husband had consulted someone at our hotel (Intercontinental Manila, it’s currently closed), who had given him a business card for a local resort.  So it was to that “resort” we went, I forget the name of this resort, believe me it was a dump and very forgettable.  But the reasoning was that we weren’t going to stay there, just hire a boat and go.

The resort did have a restaurant and a not so disgusting bathroom, so my mother and sister stayed and got the kitchen staff to cook for them.  Did I mention we were the only guests at the resort? Well we were and the staff was very welcoming and quite apologetic about the general condition of the place which they claimed was under renovation.  I was dubious of their explanation, but it didn’t really matter, we weren’t staying, just passing thru so to speak.  (If you want to stay overnight or longer there are nicer resorts in the area, but bear in mind the local idea of luxury may not be the standards one expects.  In short when in a local resort lower your expectations, a lot!)

Taal Volcano

Boat ride to Taal Volcano

From this resort we hired a boat, with a bit of haggling we were able to hire one for 1000 PHP for 4 people round-trip, that’s about $22.

The boat is actually a motorized canoe and it takes about 20 minutes to get to Volcano Island.  Our boatmen waited for us on the island to take us back to the resort.

There’s no port or dock once you get to the island, you simply hop of the boat when it gets close to shore.  The water is shallow, but try to hop on to a rock or a patch of dry land.  The shore is littered with trash from the island’s inhabitants who live a very primitive existence, no running water or electric.  (Technically they’re not supposed to live there, it is a danger zone, so they “squat” and the government pretty much ignores them.)  Also I quickly scrambled to shore fearing the very venomous sea snakes that have adapted to the lake’s fresh water; they’re probably not hanging around the shore, but better safe than sorry, it’s also a good reason not to stick your limbs in the water on the ride over and back.

On shore we were greeted by very friendly people hustling horseback rides up the mountain, or if you prefer a hiking guide to lead you up.  The starting price for a horse and mandatory guide was 500 PHP, $11 per person, but my husband bargained and ended up paying them 1500 PHP, $32, for all 4 of us.  I’ve heard there was an admission fee, but no one was there to collect it, so I’m not sure if it was included with the horse hire.

Taal Volcano

My horse and guide up Taal

The horses were a bit lean but seemed cared for and treated well.  I guess the owners would treat them well, the horses are after all their main source of income.  If you hire a horse and guide don’t expect a beautiful saddle and stirups, think more like riding bareback.

Once you get away from the shoreline and “town” area you’ll begin to see the beauty of this volcano.  As you ride up the mountain, actually the horse is led by the guide (each horse comes with a guide) you leave behind the trash and its accompanying smells.  You’re surrounded by pristine forests, so do practice no signs left behind, in short don’t litter!  You don’t need to add to the trash the villagers make!

Taal Volcano


The guide isn’t that helpful, you can ask questions which he’ll try to answer, but English is not his main language.  He’s not really that knowledgeable about volcanic things, in fact I probably know more than him from watching the Discovery Channel.  So don’t expect a geology lesson, but he will point out features such as smoke rising from fumaroles, he knows exactly where they are.

Along the way my guide told me in detail how hard  life is living on the volcano. No utilities, living in makeshift huts, no schools (yes they have children living there), how expensive it is to send  kids to school on the mainland, and how the government doesn’t care.  I knew he was going for sympathy and setting me up for the big hustle at the end.  But really you have to feel some sympathy for their plight, it’s a story heard all over this country.

My guide did tell me that a Korean company had wanted to develop the volcano and build a health spa but they, the locals, protested fearing it would take way their livelihood. Not so sure about this wisdom, I thought developing the place might just give them employment, but what ever the case may be the project never started and their permit was revoked.

Taal Volcano

Souvenir shops

After about a half hour or so riding up the mountain you reach the crater rim where you dismount and climb up some makeshift stairs for a peek into the crater.  When I say makeshift I mean dirt filled rice sacks fashioned into steps made by the locals to lead up to the view point where they have souvenir shops that sell t-shirts and bottled water.

They have also built bamboo guardrails to keep tourists from falling into Main Crater Lake and they discourage you from hopping over and hiking down to the lake itself for a quick dip.  I doubt you’d want to swim in the sulfur filled lake anyway, not to mention there’s no path down and it seems extremely dangerous.

Taal Volcano

Vulcan Point in Main Crater Lake

From the view point you get a magnificent view of Yellow or Main Crater Lake as this lake within the volcano has come to be called, and the small island in the lake, Vulcan Point.  The island vents steam and gas which can some times be visible from the viewpoint.

Enjoy the view, it’s one of a kind!  [spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

Taal Volcano

We purchased bottled water from the so called gift shop, it gets pretty hot on this volcano.  As we enjoyed this incredible view one of the locals, other than our guides, offered to take group photos for us.  I thought he was just being nice and helpful, but after taking the photos he demanded a tip!  I know they’re poor, but it was annoying none the less.  I’m not sure how much my husband tipped them, but it seemed easier to fork over a few pesos than to argue.

After a short spell at the view point it was time to remount the horses and head down.  The horseback ride ended at the local “village” (a group of shanty huts mired in mud) where it seemed that everyone came out to greet us and demand tips!  This was very annoying!  Sure we were going to tip the guides, but their kids and mothers came out to demand tips as well.  Talk about a hustle!  Again I don’t know how much my husband tipped, but since he did I refused to dismount in the village, it was too muddy.  I in turn demanded they let me ride to shore and dismounted only when I got as close as possible to the waiting boat.

Taal Volcano

Tilapia Farms

On the ride back the boatman took us on a short tour halfway around the island to see the tilapia farms at the base of the volcano.

I was told that the farms belonged to local and foreign investors and don’t really benefit the locals who squat on the volcano.

I was told there are some farms on the volcano itself where they grow coffee in the fertile volcanic soil, again they don’t benefit the squatters.

When we reached the resort my mother was more than ready to go.  The staff had kept her company and well fed, but she was anxious to return to the comforts of the Intercontinental Manila.  So after a quick bathroom break we headed back.

Was the trip worth it?  Definitely!  That place is amazing!  Would I return? Not likely, it’s one of those things you should see and after you’ve seen you take away great memories and photos, but you don’t have a deep desire to return to.  Mostly because I could really do without the hustle!

I did come a way with a feeling of sadness. Sad that the government, which has designated the place as a national park or reserve, doesn’t feel the need to at least develop it for eco-tourism.  I know it may be risky given the volcanoes deadly eruptions in the past, but they can somewhat predict activity and close it off when alert levels are raised.  But I can’t help but think that a ranger station and a few  basic necessities such as bathrooms would help boost tourism in the area.  After all tourism done responsibly is good for the economy.

Here are a few tips if you’re feeling adventurous and want to visit Taal Volcano:

Pay attention to risk levels, don’t go if it’s high.  That seems like a no brainer but it needs to be stressed.

Book a tour if that’s what your comfortable with.  Expect to pay premium prices.

If you choose to be an FIT (free independent tourist) like we did then make your way to Talisay, there are buses or jeepneys from Manila, or hire a car and driver.

In Talisay find a resort and hire a boat to the island.  Bargain before the ride begins.  I wouldn’t pay more than 1500 PHP,  $32 for a boat load, and even that seems a bit high specially in the low season.

Bring water, sun screen, and hats.  It gets very hot on the trail.  Also bring a towel if you can, just in case you get wet in the boat or while getting on or off of it.  If you’ve hired a boat who will wait for your return you could possibly leave towels in the boat, but don’t leave valuables.

Bring toilet paper, wipes, hand sanitizer, most local bathrooms aren’t supplied with them.

If you want to hire a horse and guide, bargain again.  The most you should pay is 500 Php per person and that includes the guide.

Plan on spending about 4-5 hours on this adventure so eat a hearty meal before you go, there are no restaurants or snack bars on the island.  If you think you’ll get hungry then bring a few light snacks.

Respect the land and leave no traces of your visit.  Take any empty water bottles and wrappers from items you brought with you back to the mainland.  The island has no trash disposal so all rubbish gets piled up somewhere or ends up floating on the lake shore.

Leave large amounts of money in your hotel safe.  Expect the hustle so if they see you flashing lots of cash they will never leave you alone.  Just bring enough to cover expenses and perhaps a bit extra for tipping.

Learn to turn a deaf ear, everyone has a sob story designed to catch your sympathy.  Once you start handing out money you will get swamped.  Tip for good service and be firm about tipping, don’t let them bully or guilt you into a larger tip or into tipping the whole family.

Enjoy your trip!  It’s amazing!

Take lots of photos!

Taal Volcano

The Mystical Banaue Rice Terraces

The Mystical Banaue Rice Terraces

Banaue Rice Terraces

It’s hard to find the words to describe the Banaue Rice Terraces of the Philippines.  Amazing, awesome, magnificent, and marvelous are just not powerful enough.  Pictures can’t truly illustrate the wonder of the place.

Not so long ago I was fortunate enough to visit Banaue with my husband and family members based in the Philippines.  I don’t remember how I first learned of the terraces, perhaps from tales told by my grandmother, but it has always been on my bucket list.

Before my visit I had assumed that it would be just a site to be ticked off my list.  I never imagined the region and its indigenous people would be so awe inspiring.

The Banaue Rice Terraces are located in the mountainous region province of Ifugao in northern Luzon, one of the main islands of the Philippines.  It is just one of a cluster of rice terraces in the region.  These man made wonders were carved from the mountainsides mostly by hand by Ifugao tribesmen over 2000 years ago.  They are situated an average of 4800 feet above sea level and cover an area of over 400 square miles.  They are rice paddies fed by an ancient irrigation system from the rain forests above.

The terraces have been referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World and is said to be one of the most impressive feats of engineering in the world.  Built mostly of stone and mud these terraces have faced many challenges including earthquakes and droughts.  They must constantly be tended and maintained by the Ifugao farmers by knowledge that has been handed down by their ancestors who built them over 2 millennia ago.

The Ifugao people have a proud and deep rooted culture.  Like their ancestors they still grow rice, some still live in thatched roofed huts in tiny villages near the terraces, wash their clothes in the rivers and streams that irrigate their crops, and revere their customs and traditions.  They are one of the truly indigenous people of the Philippines having successfully resisted foreign influences since Spanish rule.

They are friendly and honest people who are eager to share their heritage and culture with visitors.  A visit to Banaue is almost like stepping back in time.  Getting there can be a harrowing experience.

Banaue Rice TerracesOur “journey” to Banaue began very early in the morning.  Our party left Makati in Metro Manila about 6 am.  Banaue may be only 350 Kilometers away, but it’s at least an 8 hour drive, ours turned out to be 12 hours due to unforeseen town fiestas and hoards of slow moving tricycles along the route which caused major traffic on the 2 lane roads.  At least the weather was good, there were no dangerous flash floods or mud slides which are common in this area during heavy rain.  We managed to arrive at our destination before dark,  a must when traveling in remote areas of the Philippines.[spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

Banaue Rice TerracesWe had booked 3 “deluxe” rooms and a driver’s bunk at the Banaue Hotel & Hostel, the government run hotel that boasts the only “luxury” accommodations in the area.  It boasts a swimming pool, clean deluxe rooms with private baths, a restaurant, and gift shop.  We were greeted by a welcome sign bearing our name and were quickly checked in and escorted to our rooms.

Our rooms are best described as clean and adequate, by rural Filipino standards “deluxe”, but 5-star luxury it was not.  But what the room lacked in frills it made up for by the views.  All our rooms had a small terrace that overlooked the Rice Terraces.  What a site to awaken to!

Banaue Rice TerracesDinner was served in the restaurant on one side of the lobby.  The menu is limited, quite expensive, and not exactly delicious, but there aren’t many restaurants in town and they are all pretty much the same.

Dinner was followed by a cultural show in the lobby.  Entertainers dressed in handwoven traditional garb, wanoh (loin cloth or g-string) for men, and tapis (skirt or sarong) for women, complete with headdress.  They sang and danced to the tunes played on their ethnic instruments which included drums and a gong.  The show was short but somewhat interesting!  We enjoyed the part when they asked us to join them and taught us their dance.

After the show it was time for bed, we’d had a long day and I was so looking forward to our one and only day in Banaue.  Besides wandering around in the dark is not advisable.  Lighting is scant away from the hotel buildings and believe me when night falls in the mountains it’s DARK.  You don’t want to be stumbling around the dusty road in the dark, there are no sidewalks, the streets aren’t paved, and the paths are very steep.

Banaue Rice terracesI awoke very early, it was still dark.  I wanted to see the sunrise over the terraces.  I stood at my balcony rail transfixed at the mystical sight that unfolded before me.  As the first rays of sunlight peeked over the mountain I could see only clouds shrouding the valley below.  Slowly they parted like a curtain to reveal a view that took my breath way.

I can’t describe the feelings I had as the early morning mists cleared and the terraces were gradually revealed  It was a humbling, peaceful, awesome sight that poets write about.  At that moment I knew that this trip to Banaue would be unforgettable.

It was hard to tear myself away from the view, but I had to get my party to breakfast so we could explore the terraces before it was time to head back to Manila.  (I could only persuade my group to a one day trip to Banaue).

Banaue Rice terracesAfter breakfast most of us headed to the gate that led to the Tam-An village.  The gate is located by the hotel’s pool.  Beyond the gate is a narrow path that winds down the mountainside.  It’s an easy hike down, up is another story. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the village when you see a cluster of native huts built on stilts.

Each hut is built to accommodate a family, if you ask they will allow you up the short ladder and you can crawl around the space.

When we arrived there were only a few women and children in the village.  We were told the most of the men and the rest of the village were working, either in the fields or in the tourist industry as most younger villagers do these days.

Banaue Rice terracesWe were greeted by a woman who asked if we would like to see her ancestor’s bones.  Of course we would!  So for the price of 100 PHP ($2) we were ushered into her cottage, she didn’t conduct this business in a hut.  She unrolled a woven bundle to reveal her grandfather’s bones who had died soon after WWII.

She spoke English, as they all do, and explained their ancient burial traditions.  She told us that when someone dies the community holds elaborate festivals to honor the deceased and other spirits.  After several festival days the deceased is buried in a cave for a couple of years, enough time for the body to decompose.  When the family has accumulated enough funds for a ceremony the remains are exhumed and the bones cleaned and taken to the family home.  The family cleans and tends to the bones throughout the years.  It was a fascinating glimpse into the Ifugao culture and well worth the $2.  We later joked that “Lolo” or Grandpa was still earning the family money over 50 years after his death.

Banaue rice terracesWhen we stepped out of the “bone” cottage we were approached by another woman who asked if we’d like to hire her daughter Mina to guide us to the terraces and if we’d like to go down in traditional Ifugao clothing.

The guide cost another 100 PHP and each costume another 100 PHP.  By now we’d tripped on to the fact that these folks eked out a simple living by offering tourist “attractions”.  How could we resist?  Of course we hired the child, and of course we rented a costume.

We had to twist my cousin’s 15 year old son Chad to wear the wanoh and he only agreed as long as he got to keep his clothes on.   He wasn’t thrilled but was appeased when we told him he would look like an Ifugao warrior.


Banaue rice terracesAs our erstwhile warrior was helped into his costume we admired the views from the village.  The village sits at the entrance to the terraces.

Accompanied by our young guide who bears my name we set out to explore the rice terraces.  We passed narrow creeks and irrigation canals where village women were doing laundry.  They wash clothes by hand and beat them on the rocks, I suppose like how it was done in the stone age, it really was like being in a time warp.

We also acquired a string of children along the way.  They happily ran back and forth between us as we gingerly made our way down the slick paths and hopped across creeks and canals.  They were a delightful bunch chattering away in their native dialect and offering helping hands so we wouldn’t slip on the rocks.  They didn’t beg or ask for money, it was just their inborn hospitality at work.

Banaue Rice terracesWhen we reached the “best” part of the terraces, at least the best photo spot according to our guide, we carefully walked into a paddy to admire the views that surrounded us.

Of course we took photos.  We had to immortalize our newly minted Ifugao warrior Chadwick.

But it was very hot once the sun came up and it was time to head back to the hotel.

We made our way back to the village to return the costume and have a better look around.  Once there my uncle Victor, an aging flower child, did his best to persuade the little old lady to share some of her beetle nut chew.

Banaue rice terracesBeetle Nut is the fruit of the Areca Palm which is cultivated in tropical regions.  The chewing of beetle nut dates back from the 1st. Century AD and is similar to chewing tobacco.  It’s said to have medicinal value and stimulates saliva and appetite.

He might have succeeded had Maria, the costume lady, not stepped in.  She told him that if he’s never chewed beetle nut before he could get very sick, at the very least he’d get dizzy and faint.  Not wanting to have to drag his unconscious body up the steep mountain I made sure he didn’t get any.

Sweaty and winded we straggled back to the hotel pool where we found the rest of our party packed and ready to head over to the Sunset View Point.  The viewpoint had to wait a bit, we were hot, dusty, and just a bit muddy, showers were called for.  There was no way I was going anywhere without a shower!

Banaue rice terracesAfter a quick lunch we headed over to the view point we were told it was a must see.  There’s a little gift shop at the view point and we met some Ifugao elders.  The elders hang out at the view point and will chat with visitors.  They’ll tell you stories of how it used to be, their history, and answer questions.  They’ll also pose for snapshots for a small tip.  They don’t ask for a set fee but instead rely on your generosity.  They are a friendly group, it was a pleasure to spend some time with them.



Banaue rice terracesWe admired the views, every view is different, each one unique and spectacular.

We chatted with the elders, and picked up a few trinkets, and headed back to Manila.

Banaue is definitely off the beaten path.  Getting there can be difficult.  But it’s well worth the trip![spacer height=”20px” id=”2″]

If you’re considering a trip to Banaue here are some useful tips!

Getting there:

There are no airports nearby.  The only way to get there is overland.  From Manila it’s at least an 8 hour drive.  You can make a multi-day trip of it by combining stops at other towns and cities in the Mountain Provinces including Baguio, Sagada, and Batad.  All worth seeing.

There is public transportation from Metro Manila and Angeles City.  They involve transfers.  For more info click here.  (

The best way to get there, unless you’re on a tight budget, is to hire a private car and driver.  I wouldn’t suggest driving yourself, maneuvering in Philippine traffic is a nightmare.  Also local drivers will know the route, it’s easy to get lost.

Hire a car and driver from a reputable company. Negotiate the price before you start the trip.   Your hotel should be able to help you with this as well as negotiating a fair price.  We usually use Obazee Car Rental, a local company owned and operated by Malou and Thomas Obazee.  They are very reliable and are reasonably priced, you just have to negotiate with her and tell her Ma’am Carmina sent you.

When you hire a car service you will be responsible for gas, tolls, driver’s meals and lodgings for the entire trip.  Most hotels in the country offer driver lodgings and meals.

Leave early and get to there before dark.  The roads to Banaue can be dangerous.  You not only face natural hazards, there are bandits on the road waiting for unwary tourists after dark.

Don’t travel alone.

If you feel uncomfortable striking out on your own you can join a tour group, I believe there are local companies who offer Banaue tours.

The best way from Manila is to take the N. Luzon Expressway and Pan-Philippine Highway (AH26) to Nueva Vizcaya then on to the Mountain Province Road to Banaue.  This route has tolls but will cut your travel time by at least 40 minutes.  Take note the road forks in San Jose City, be sure you take the road on the right, the left side will take you to Baguio.

When traveling in the Philippines you must stay hydrated, specially during the hot summer months, but be aware that once you leave Metro Manila rest stops will be virtually non-existent.  Bathroom facilities in the entire country are pretty primitive unless you are at a major hotel or use the paid facilities at the big malls.  The further you travel away from the Metro Manila area the more primitive facilities are.  When traveling your best bet for somewhat clean restrooms are the local fast food chain restaurants like Jollybee and Chow King.  But even these places usually don’t stock restrooms with toilet paper, soap, and paper towels.  It’s best to bring your own supplies.


Where to stay:

Recently in response to the influx of tourists several local “hotels” have cropped up in Banaue.  I haven’t stayed in them, but from what of I know local establishments their standards are dramatically different than what most of us would expect.  They are however as a rule clean and comfortable enough specially if you’re only staying a night or two.

We stayed at the government owned Banaue Hotel and Youth Hostel which was built in 1969.  It was renovated in 1990, so it’s surely showing its age.  Having said that it is the nicest place in town.  As I’ve mentioned earlier the rooms can be kindly described as adequate.  However they are not air conditioned and can get rather stuffy during the day.  We booked rooms with private baths that actually worked, but if you’re expecting a hot shower you’ll be disappointed, I’m not sure if there was hot water on tap or it simply wasn’t working while we were there.  Our rooms also had balconies overlooking the magnificent terraces, and in my opinion the view made up for what the room lacked in comfort.

A deluxe room which includes breakfast for 2 cost about $50 per night.  They have less expensive rooms on the hostel side in the older section costs 250 PHP ($5+) a night per person for a bunk in a shared room.  It’s designed for backpackers and drivers.

What to do:

The best activity in Banaue is hiking.  You can hike to your hearts content.  You may want to hire a guide to help you navigate.

There are several short hikes in and around the area.  From the Banaue Hotel you can hike to the Tam-An village which is a gateway to the terraces.

You can hike to the viewpoint and walk the suspension bridge just below the town market.

You can visit the Cordillera Sculpture Museum and the Banaue Museum.  Both are in town.

For the more adventurous you can hike to Tappiyah Falls and have a dip at the pool.  It’s a brutal hike downhill and will take you at least an hour.  Remember what goes down must eventually come back up, if it was brutal going down, it will be much harder going up.

You can hike or take a tricycle to the Hapao Rice Terraces and Hot Springs.

Recently I heard there is a tour company that rents mountain bikes and quads, this might be fun.

Do a tour by car or bus to the other cluster of Rice Terraces in the area including Batad and Mayoyao.  This will probably take a day as travel between towns is at least an hour or so.

Drive to Sagada and Bontoc to see the famous hanging coffins.  These towns are 3 hours from Banaue and can be reached by private cars or public bus tours which leaves from downtown Banaue early in the morning.

You can combine your trip to Banaue with a tour of the other towns in the Mountain Province including Baguio, Batad, and Sagada.  Several local companies offer 3 – 7 day tours.  If you want to DIY you can hire a car and driver and tour the region on your own booking hotels in the different towns.  Travel time to and from Baguio is about 8 hours.  But Baguio is a fairly large city and has plenty of hotels and restaurants.

Whatever you decide to see and do don’t forget to bring your camera, you’ll want to take a ton of photos!

Health & Safety:

Philippine travel can be risky specially if you’re not familiar with the area.  It’s best to travel with friends and relatives who live there, they will take good care of you.

As in many tourist areas always be aware of your surroundings.  Pickpockets and petty thieves abound.  Never leave your wallet in your back pocket and carry your purse close to you with the flaps closed and secured.

Never place your purse on a table, the floor, or on the back of a chair at restaurants, always have it your hands on it.

Avoid displaying large wads of cash.

Resist the panhandlers, stop and give money to one and you’ll find yourself surrounded by hoards of begging kids.  You will almost certainly get pick pocketed.  Besides I’ve been told that street beggars are part of a syndicate, the money they get is given to the boss.

Leave valuables home.  Don’t wear ostentatious jewelry and watches, they will rip it off you, I mean this literally!

When possible keep passports and other important documents locked in the hotel safe.  Carry only a copy of your passport.

Never leave valuables in the car and always lock the car doors.

Never travel alone, especially at night.

Avoid traveling remote roads after nightfall.

If budget permits hire private transportation from a reputable company.

Don’t drink the water!  Drink only bottled water.  Most big hotels and restaurants in the Metro Manila area claim to use filtered water, use your judgement on this.  I’m good bathing and brushing my teeth at the Makati hotels I stay in (Shangri-La and Intercontinental) but I still only drink bottled water.  Remember ice is frozen WATER so you may want to avoid iced and frozen drinks to be on the safe side.

Eat street food at your own risk.  You never know how and where it was prepared.

If you need emergency medical attention the best place to go would Makati Medical Center or the new Asian Hospital.  They are said to have the most medical equipment and good staff.  My father had his heart by-pass at Asian and it turned out fine.

You can buy over the counter medication at local pharmacies.  Some will even allow you to purchase prescription meds without a prescription, but I wouldn’t suggest doing so.  This is never a problem I run into, my relatives are doctors and will prescribe medication when needed.

Carry tissue and/or toilet paper, hand soap or sanitzer with you.  As I’ve mentioned above most local restrooms don’t have them.

My warnings are daunting I know, but bear in mind that the Philippines is basically a poor country.  Yes you will see large malls, modern buildings, and other trappings of what appears to be wealth, but only a small part of the population are members of the rich elite and the emerging middle class.  A larger part of the population is poor.  The chasm between rich and poor is profound.  Many eke out a living in low paying jobs, sadly others choose or are forced into unsavory activities.  Criminal activities range from scams to thievery to kidnapping and extortion.  So stay alert and stay safe when visiting the Philippines, it’s a beautiful country and well worth the trip.

Things To Do In and Around Bangkok

Things To Do In and Around Bangkok

in and around bangkokBangkok, Thailand’s capital, is a modern metropolis popular for its ornate temples and vibrant street life.  It is one of my favorite destinations in Southeast Asia.  Thailand is known for its beautiful beaches making it a popular destination for sun worshipers and water sport enthusiasts.  Bangkok’s lively street scene, markets, and temples make it a haven for shopaholics, history buffs, and just about everyone who loves to be part of or observe metropolitan life.  In short there is something for everyone!  There are so many things to see and do in and around Bangkok.

I’ve been to Bangkok several times.  We’ve flown in to Suvarnabhum  (BKK), Bangkok’s ultra modern airport, and stayed for a couple of weeks, and have taken a one day shore excursion from Laem Chabang where our Southeast Asia cruise docked.

When visiting on a shore excursion you won’t have a lot of time to explore.  Laem Chabang is a 2 hour drive from Bangkok making it a very long day with perhaps at best 5 hours in the city.  This gives you barely enough time to see a couple of temples and perhaps buy a few souvenirs.  You might consider heading for the beach town of Pattaya instead, it’s only an hour away from the port, and saving Bangkok for when you have more time to spend.

in and around bangkokWhen I do fly in and stay for a week or more we usually stay at the Four Seasons Bangkok (it’s now Anantara’s flagship hotel Anantara Siam Bangkok and Four Seasons is working on a new property on the Chao Phraya River that is slated to open in 2018) or at the Shangri-La Bangkok which is right on the Chao Phraya River.

At the Shangri-La we always book a Horizon Club suite at their Krungthep Wing.  The rooms here have private balconies with panoramic river views.  Rooms come with breakfast, afternoon tea, a cocktail hour, and non-alcoholic drinks throughout the day, along with many other luxuries.  The last time we were there our room came with a butler who was very helpful as was the concierge in the lobby.

Whether you stay at the Four Seasons, Shangri-La, or any of the other luxury hotels in the city you will be well cared for.  One of the best things about Bangkok is the exceptional customer service you find everywhere you go!

In and around BangkokOne of my favorite activities in Bangkok is a dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya River aboard the Shangri-La’s Horizon.  This cruise leaves every evening from the Shangri-La pier at 7:30 pm and returns 2 hours later.  They serve an international buffet as you cruise down the river passing illuminated landmarks including Wat Arun and Wat Phra Kaew (Wat of the Emerald Buddha).

You’ll also pass some very well lit and lively party boats that ply the same route not to mention other water crafts that use the river to get around.

The buffet is pretty good, they have lots of things to choose from.  The service is wonderful as you would expect from the staff of a 5 star luxury hotel.  The cost of dinner does not include alcoholic beverages, but you can purchase beer and wine on board from your server.

The dinner cruise cost a bit over 2,000 baht per person.  You can book it with many local tour companies and can include transfers to and from the hotel, or you can book directly with the hotel.  To book your dinner cruise aboard the Shangri-La Horizon click here!

in and around bangkok

Wat Arun

Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, is on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River.  It is one of Thailand’s most famous landmarks.  The best time to see it is at first light when the early morning light reflects off the temple giving it a peaceful iridescent glow.  You can reach the temple by one of the ferries that sail across the river towards the Maharaja pier.  Tourists are charged 50 baht at the entrance.




Wat Phra Kaew also know as the Wat of the Emerald Buddha is considered to be Thailand’s most sacred temple.

The main building in this temple complex houses the deep green statue carved from a single piece of Jade.

According to legend this Buddha originated in India and the sage Nagasena prophesied that it would bring prosperity and greatness to each country it resides.  The Emerald Buddha is deeply revered and venerated as the protector of Thailand.

When visiting any temple in Thailand you must follow a dress code which is strictly enforced.  Men must wear long pants, sleeved shirts, and shoes; women must wear long skirts.  You may rent appropriate clothing at the entrance if your attire does not meet the dress code.

You must remove shoes before entering the temple and if you are seated in the temple you must not point your feet towards the Buddha.  Never, never touch the Emerald Buddha, only the King and the Crown Prince are allowed to touch the statue.

Admission to Wat Phra Kaew is 500 baht which includes admission to the Grand Palace which is somewhat part of the complex.  It also includes admission to the Coin Pavillion, Vimanmek Mansion and Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall.

in and around bangkok

Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho is one of Bangkok’s oldest temples.  This temple complex is home to the huge impressive Reclining Buddha.  The complex also houses the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand.  It is located  on Rattanakosin Island, directly south of the Grand Palace.  It is not quite as busy as Wat Phra Kaew.  To get there take a ferry to Tien Pier.  Admission is 100 baht.



These are the 3 must see temples in Bangkok, if you still need to see more you’ll find many more temples in and around Bangkok.  But for me this was pretty much enough.  It was time to head out of town!  There are many things you can see and do if you want to take day trips out of the city.  You can buy tours online or from your hotel’s tour desk, or you can strike a deal with a friendly taxi driver.

If you plan on doing the latter do have your hotel call the taxi for you and make sure your hotel knows who you are riding with and where you are going.  Hotel staff or the concierge if your hotel has one will always take down the taxi’s information before you head out.  Hotel staff can also give you a general idea on how much you should pay for a taxi tour.  It is also a good idea to know how much a tour would cost and start your bargaining from there.  One of the perks of a vacation in Thailand is affordability.  Thailand is quite inexpensive which allows you to “splurge” on luxuries such as private tours, luxury hotels, massages, and more.

in and around bangkokOne of the most popular day tours from Bangkok is a trip to Ayutthaya the former capital of Thailand.  There are many ways to get there and much to see once you get there including riding an elephant at the Elephant Camp.  I found, for us that is, the best way to get there was with a tour that included a visit to Bang Pa-in and a lunch cruise back to Bangkok.

We had gone on the Shangri-La Horizon, but right now they aren’t offering this excursion.  Another company that offers this itinerary is Sun River Cruise and the cost is about $62 a person.

The tour begins at the meeting place, in our case at the Shangri-La Hotel, where a coach will drive you to the province of Ayutthaya in central Thailand.  Travel time to the Bang Pa-in district is just under an hour and you will be taken to the Royal Palace and complex.  This palace comples also known as the Summer Palace was originally constructed in the 17th. Century and was restored and added to in the late 1800’s.  It is used even today as the Thai Royal Family’s summer retreat, although the present Royal Family mainly use it for banquets and special occasions.

The complex is a delight with extensive gardens, towers, and more.  You will have about an hour or so to explore before heading off to the other sites.

In and around bangkok

Stone Buddha head at Wat Mahat That

Once back on the bus you will be driven to the Ayutthaya Historical Park which is really a collection of 17 sites including the Elephant Camp.  The tour takes you to  Wat Maha That and Wat Lokayasutharam.

Part of this park, meaning some of the Wats was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.  Wat Maha That where you will see the stone Buddha head entwined in tree roots is one of the sites listed on the UNESCO roster.

The Wats have an impressive number of Buddha statues including the huge reclining Buddha in the ruins of Wat Lokayasutharam.


In and Around Bangkok

River Cruise

Once you’re done exploring the park you will be taken to the pier where you will board the boat that will take you back to Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River.  On board you will have a nice buffet lunch while you watch the scenery go by.  The cruise is about 2 hours or so, you should be back in Bangkok by 3:30 pm.  Plenty enough time to get ready for a trip to the night markets!

I thought this tour was a bargain!


A trip to Bangkok isn’t complete without riding an elephant.  There are many places outside the city where you can ride one including the Elephant Camp in Ayutthaya.  But if you don’t want to wander that far out you can go to the Damnoen Saduak Elephant Village before or after you visit the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.

If you want to wander further afield there are rides in elephant camps around the country.  But do your research on the camps and venues that offer elephant tourist activities to be sure you are supporting a place that treats these majestic animals humanely.  (Yes I know we’ve all seen videos and heard stories about how these animals are kept under horrendous conditions, but not all places treat animals poorly.  And if you’re in the “free the elephant” camp, that’s fine, but bear in mind that these elephants may not survive in the wild, and there really aren’t many places where they can safely be released, sadly their natural habitat is mostly gone. Also elephants must be chained, it’s as much for their safety as yours.   It looks bad, but they are very strong animals and can cause serious damage to each other, humans, and property.  And the hooks you will see when used correctly is also to keep everyone safe.  But if you’re very sensitive to the treatment of animals it’s best to skip this activity.)

in and around bangkok

Floating Market

A morning spent at the Damnoen Saduak Floating market is a fun experience you shouldn’t miss.  There are several floating markets in and around Bangkok, but Damnoen Saduak is the largest.

You can book a tour that will drive you to the market which is about 90 km. away from Bangkok.  The tour will include a guide and the boat that will take you around the market.  Tours can be booked from the travel desk at your hotel.  Or you can take a bus for about $2 and get there on your own.  But leave early as the market is pretty much done by noon.

We hired a taxi from our hotel for the morning, I think it cost us about 1000 baht ($28).  He took us to the Elephant Village, the market, and back to the hotel.

At the market you can walk along the paths and shop, admission I believe is about 10 baht.  You can hop on a boat, I believe if you haggle you can get on for about 150 baht per person.  We hired a boat and had him take us thru the market and around the side canals.  After much haggling he agreed to do this for under 1000 baht.  This was a bit over priced, but my husband felt the boat man must make some money and that it was a fair price.  Really it was less than $30 for a private boat!

This 100 year old market is huge.  You’ll find all sorts of touristy things for sale, and seriously it’s more expensive than the shops you’ll find in Bangkok!  But you don’t have to buy anything, it’s just fun and the experience is definitely worth it!  If you do decide to buy anything bargain hard, it’s expected!

in and around bangkokAnother attraction not far from Bangkok is the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo.  It’s located in the province of Samut Prakan about a half an hour ride away from Bangkok.  The Farm and Zoo features an elephant show and a crocodile show where the trainer basically wrestles with the creatures.

You can wander the grounds and pet the elephants and even take a photo with the chained tigers.  Admission to the park is 300 baht per person.  There is a snack bar and restrooms on site.

It’s billed as an internationally renowned crocodile zoo and boasts that it houses the world’s largest crocodile in captivity named Yai.  He’s one of the 100,000 crocs at this farm.  Honestly don’t expect too much, the place was build in the 1950’s and doesn’t look like it underwent much renovations since then.   But admission is cheap, 300 baht ($8.50) for adults and 200 baht for kids, and it’s an interesting way to spend a few hours.

Bridge 2Further afield you can take a trip out to the Kanchanaburi province of Thailand.  This province which is very close to the Myanmar (Burma) before is infamously known for the horrors that happened on the Death Railway (Burma Railway) during WWII.  A stop at the WWII memorial sites including the Bridge over the River Kwai , made famous by the movie of the same name and War Cemetery is mandatory when taking a trip to this part of Thailand.  The bridge they take tourists to is not the actual bridge, that was bombed towards the end of the war is the ruins can be seen further along the river.

Other than war memorials this province is known for its jaw-dropping scenery.  There are many national parks that have waterfalls, caves, and other natural wonders. Thailand’s best nature hikes are located in this province and its national parks.  The most popular is Erawan National Park.  Here you will see wild monkeys frolicking in the trees and posing for tourists.  I wouldn’t try to pet them though, monkeys bite and carry fleas and other nasty things.

The park is about 2 hours from Bangkok and you can get there with a tour group, by public transportation, or by taxi.  We hired a taxi for the day, it cost us 4000 baht ($113) and he drove us to the park, the bridge, and back to the hotel.  Park entrance is 300 baht for adults and 200 baht for kids.

in and around bangkokThe park is known for its 7 tiered water fall.  You can hike the trail up to as many tiers as you want, the first 3 tiers are an easy walk, the remaining 4 are pretty strenuous.  The whole trail is 2km long.  You can bring a swimsuit and swim in the clear blue waters of the pools.  Level 4 has a natural rock slide.  Watch out for monkeys when you bathe, they love to steal your stuff.

The park also has caves and forests you can explore.  Not all caves are open to the public.  Contact the visitor center before heading out to the cave (it’s a 12km drive) so that a guide can meet you there with paraffin lamps.

Other than monkeys tigers, elephants, sambar deer, gibbons, red giant flying squirrels, king cobras and hornbills also call the park home, but they don’t normally frequent the waterfall area.

You can also stay in the park.  You can bring your own tent and pay a fee of 30 baht to camp.  Or you can rent a tent or a bungalow that sleeps anywhere from 2-8 people.

in and around bangkokPattaya is a beach town about an hour’s drive from Bangkok.  It is mainly known for it’s lively night life that was very popular with American GIs during the Vietnam War, they went there for R&R.  Today it’s popular with Russian and other European tourists.  The town is trying to clean up its reputation and opening malls and other venues to attract family travel.

The best thing to do in Pattaya is island hop.  You can catch a public boat at Bali Hai Pier to Koh Larn (Coral Island) for a 20 baht and sail over to one of the islands and lounge on the beaches.  You can also hire a speed boat and island hop.  Costs will vary and you should haggle and agree on the price before you get in the boat.

Once on the beach you can hire a lounge chair and beach umbrella.  If you’re not staying at an island resort don’t expect great facilities.  They have bathrooms and changing rooms, but they are best described as primative.  There are kiosks on the beaches that sell beer, soda, and other snacks.

If you want to participate in watersports such as snorkeling, diving, and jet skiing you’ll be wise to arrange this with a reputable tour company in Pattaya before hand.

in and around bangkokIf you happen to have a weekend in Bangkok you must head over to the Chatuchak Weekend Market.  It’s not far you can get there on the skytrain (BTS) or metro (MRT).

You’ll find everything at this 35 acre market.  They sell clothing, craft supplies, pets, food and more.  The fun is really wandering and getting lost in the market.  It’s very safe and haggling is expected.  Do be mindful of petty thieves and pickpockets as you would in places with large crowds.

in and around bangkokThe easiest night market to find is the one along Patpong Road close to many of the city’s hotels.  It’s located in Bangkok’s notorious red light district.  Vendors are set up in the middle of stings of strip clubs, “special” massage parlors,  and go-go bars.

The market sprawls along the main road and into the little alley called Patpong located between Silom and Surawongse Roads.  Vendors start setting up about 6 pm and start closing between 10pm to midnight.  You’ll find all sorts of souvenirs and knock-off goods here.  And of course bargaining is a must do.

This is one of the places where you MUST be aware of what’s going on around you.  It’s filled with pickpockets and other undesirable characters.  Touts will approach you trying to entice you into one of the bars or sex shows.  Be very wary!  To be honest I’m very wary when I go to any market or other crowded area in the city, as in any other large city pickpockets and purse snatchers are around looking for an opportunity.

If you must satisfy your curiosity and decide to have a look at the seamy side of Bangkok then be prepared to get ripped off.  From what I’ve heard and read following one of those touts will take you to a second floor “showroom” where you won’t know how much a drink will cost until you’re ready to leave, by then the bill can be very large and arguing may not work.  Alternatively you could book a nightlife tour with a tour company and maybe not get ripped off.  I’ve had relatives go on this tour as it was part of their 3 day tour and they’ve told me they walked out it was that disgusting and degrading to women.

That being said shopping in Thailand is fun and very cheap!  Even if you’re not a shopper you’ll find the prices hard to resist.  But what should you buy?  Well, if you’re into the knock off stuff you’ll find tons of it in the markets, everything from fake Gucci bags to Polo t-shirts, but in my opinion they are all very poor quality.

Here’s what I buy when I’m in Bangkok!

Silk – material, pillow cases, place mats, purses, bags, shirts, and other clothing.  You’ll find many silk shops and tailors in the city.  You can buy yards of the colorful material or have them make you a suit or dress.

Custom suits and dress shirts – my husband has a tailor not far from the Shangri-La hotel who will take his measurements and whip up a suit in a day.  We usually order a couple of dozen silk and cotton shirts made up as well.  We pay about $200 a dozen, very cheap for custom shirts!  We ordered my husband a tuxedo from the tailor for about $120, my husband has had it for years and it’s still very nice!  The tailor shops will deliver to your hotel free of charge, I would recommend not paying in full until delivery.

Fun and trendy clothing – the best place to find fun and trendy clothing is Platinum Mall.  It’s a huge mall that’s supposed to be a wholesale mall but anyone can shop there.  They have everything from household goods to clothing and more.  Each stall is owned by different people and you must bargain to get the best price.  I guess it’s considered wholesale because the more you buy from one vendor the cheaper it is.  But you don’t have to buy the same item in bulk, you just need to buy more than one item to get the better price.

Jewelry – there are lots of jewelry stores in Bangkok selling everything from gem stones to 24K bangles and more.  If you are buying jewelry go to a reputable shop, do not buy anything off the street!  There are many jewelry scams around town.  And even in the shops be sure you are getting natural stones and not “created” stones.  I’ve bought some nice strands of tiny tumbled sapphires, garnets, and rubies from a jeweler by the Shangri-La, they were 1/3 the price for the same pieces I see in Istanbul and Greece.  I’ve also bought loose gem stones at fairly good prices, but the problem is it cost me a fortune to set in the US.  If you don’t know much about gem stones and jewelry in general I’d resist the temptation of buying any in Bangkok unless you go to a reputable jeweler or know someone you can trust to recommend a jeweler.

A word on Buddha images and statues.  Thailand has strict laws about taking Buddha statues and images out of the country.  It seems that those sold at souvenir stands should be okay, but antique Buddhas and other artistic and religious renditions of the Buddha will require an export license.  But before taking home a Buddha you should check with authorities on what exactly you can take out of the country.

in and around bangkokAnother luxury you should indulge in while in Bangkok are massages!  There are several types of places for your massage, I’m talking about regular foot, hand, back, and full body massages here, if you’re looking for a “special” massage you’re on your own as I have no idea where to find those and exactly what they entail.

You can have your massage at one of the hotel spas.  They are quite luxurious and come with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from most high end spas.  They come with a hefty price tag too!  Expect to pay what you’d normally pay at any hotel spa, starting at about $100+ for an hour long full body spa.

You can have a traditional Thai massage at Wat Pho which is considered to be the home of the traditional Thai massage.  The guiding principles are inscribed in stone within the temple grounds and they’ve honed their massage skills here for centuries.  A one hour massage here cost 420 baht ($12) and you should make reservations as they do get busy.

The Foundation for the Employment of the Blind in Bangkok has  a massage shop  on Chan Kao Raod.  The blind masseurs are friendly and because of their lack of sight are said to be more in tune with your body.  It’s also a great source of income for blind people who find employment opportunities in Bangkok to be scarce.  The massage is a bargain at 200 baht an hour, that’s less than $6.

Health Land is often the top pick of the locals for massages.  They have several locations around the city and all of them can get very busy. The facilities are high quality and nicely appointed.   Booking ahead will ensure you get your massage.  The cost for a 2 hour massage is 500 baht ($14).

With 3 locations in Bangkok the  Asia Herb Association is a good choice if you’re looking for a place that caters to both locals and tourists.  The receptionists speak English and you can request a private room for your massage.  Thai massages cost 400 baht ($11) for 60 minutes.  You’ll want to make reservations before you go as they do get pretty busy.

The best deal in town are the local massage shops lining just about every street in Bangkok.  You can’t miss them! Some will have chairs outside where you’ll find masseurs actually giving neck and shoulder massages to drop in customers, others have large windows where you’ll see rows of chairs with patrons having foot massages, and all will have big signs listing their services and prices.  The average price for an hour massage is 200 baht, foot massages run about 100 baht or less for a half hour.  But don’t expect great ambiance here.  They look more like the Asian nail shops we’re all used to in the US.  Full body massages are done usually on the second floor where there will be mattresses or cots lined up in a darkened room.  The cots are separated by curtains for privacy and you may be given a pair of loose fitting cotton pajamas to wear during your massage.  They speak basic English at these places so don’t expect a lot of conversation, but the masseuses have magical hands!

There are so many of these shops it would be impossible to say which are the best.  I’ve been to quite a few and from my experience they are clean and have clean restrooms.  My best advice would be to go with your gut when choosing a shop.  For the price it’s well worth the lack of frills because the massages are heavenly!  When I’m in town I have 2 massages a day!  A full body in the morning, a great way to start the day!  And a food massage in the evening, a welcome treat after a day of walking!

Whatever you decide to do in Bangkok I’m sure you’ll have a great time!

Bohol Holy Week – An Amazing Journey!

Bohol Holy Week – An Amazing Journey!

Holy Week

Loboc is located in Bohol, an island province in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines.  It’s 25 Km away from the provincial capital Tagbilaran City.  The municipality of Loboc is famous for the amazing Loboc River where you can take a lunch cruise along the scenic river.  

Loboc is also known for the centuries old San Pedro Apostol Parish Church, more commonly called Loboc Church.  It is listed as a National Historical Landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and a National Cultural Treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines.

Built by the Jesuits in the Baroque style and constructed of  coral stone Loboc Church was completed 1734.   Today it is also known  for the unusual symbols in the main altar that baffle history and conspiracy buffs.

The church was severely damaged during the earthquake on October 15, 2013 at 8:12 a.m.  Before the quake the church was a candidate with the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Philippines under 2 distinct categories; Baroque Churches of the Philippines and Jesuit Churches of the Philippines.   Due to the damage caused by the quake it was removed from UNESCO’s roster of nominated sites.  The National Museum is currently planning the restoration of the famous church.

March 21 to March 26, 2016 was Holy Week; the week before Easter Sunday.  It is a very important time in the Philippines.  Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week.  On this day we commemorate our Lord’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem where he was welcomed by worshiping crowds who laid down palm leaves in his path.

As a catholic we respect traditions of  Holy Week.  We abstain from meat until Easter Sunday;  old folks don’t comb their hair, take baths, and some don’t even eat  or drink anything but water.  This is done in respect for the sacrifices made by our savoir Jesus Christ who died in the cross to save our sins.

Filipino Catholics believe that  sacrifices in the name of Jesus is atonement for their sins and will absolve them from those sins .  In my province the best venue for sacrifices is  Cruz Daku or the Loboc Big Cross.  It’s hard to miss this cross that’s perched on top of a mountain in Loboc.  To reach the cross which is about 4 Km from the Loboc Church you must climb the mountain passing the other 13 Stations of the Cross along the way (the Cross is the 14th. and last station.   Awesome right?

Holy Week

Cruz Daku or the Loboc Big Cross is a pilgrimage site.  As its name suggests it’s a big white cross that sits on top of the mountain.  The word Daku means big, and that cross is huge, approximately 80 feet tall.  There are 13 stations of the cross marked by smaller crosses  along the pilgrimage route; in the Catholic religion the Stations of the Cross are  14 paintings or carvings, each one depicting the successive incidents during Christ’s progression from condemnation by Pilate, to crucifixion and burial; prayers and devotions are done for each station.  During Holy Week many Boholanos do a pilgrimage walk to the site to make a wish.  They believe that if you climb the mountain and reach the cross, you say a prayer and make a wish and it will come true.

During  Holy Week when thousands of people visit the site the Loboc Government deploys policemen to secure the safety of pilgrims.  The secured area is only from Loboc Church to Loboc Big Cross.  The roads leading from the Tagbilaran Cathedral Church to Loboc Church have no security.   That’s why a majority of the pilgrims start the sacrificial walk from Loboc Church, it’s safer.


  This is where the journey begins!!!

Holy Week

On March 24, Maundy Thursday  (the day of Last Supper)  we went to the Tagbilaran Cathedral Church.  We attended Mass and asked God to guide and protect us in our journey.  We asked for the strength and courage to face trials while we are on the road.



Holy Week Holy Week

We started our journey around 4 p.m. (by the way you can start at any time or day during Holy Week or anytime of year.  You can drive a car or ride a bike from Tagbilaran Cathedral Church to Loboc Big Cross if you prefer. But for us we will walk as a sacrifice.) We go during Holy Week because of our religious beliefs and we choose to start on Maundy Thursday so we can arrive at the cross on Good Friday, the day it was said Jesus died to save our sins. We stayed at the station in vigil for the death of Jesus. You can stay or rest at any of the stations along the way or at the Cross.

So we started our long 29 km. walk from Tagbilaran Cathedral to Loboc Cruz Daku.  It’s super dusty, there’s lots of traffic, and it’s very hot.  You should wear  a cap or bring an umbrella.  You should  bring food for dinner and snacks and most importantly lots of water.  You’re gonna need it badly along the way!  If you didn’t pack food and water no worries; you can buy food and drinks along the way but it’s quite expensive.   To save money we brought our own.   Bring at least 14 candles too,  you will use them in every station of the cross.

Holy Week

Anyway we walked 7 Km and around 7:00pm we stopped for dinner.  Then we continued our walk and reached Loay Bridge around 10:00pm. You can see  anchored floating restaurants down river. We stopped to rest for 30 minutes, mu shoulders, legs, and feet were in pain. The kids were tired and wanted  a nap  but we needed to  continue our journey.

So  started walking again, this time we walked slowly because our energy is waning.  I felt like sleeping but I walked carrying bags, tent and water.  We kept moving.

I suggest if you choose to walk, bring taser, or a knife, or something to protect yourself from bad people who stalk the route waiting for the opportunity to rob (or worse) pilgrims.  Never go alone, bring your friends and family so you have lots of company, there’s safety in numbers.

Holy Week

A little after midnight, its Good Friday already, we arrived at Loboc Church.  We put up our tents at the plaza in front of the church and rested for about an hour.  You can set up a tent and rest in the plaza, there are many people there doing just that.

Restrooms, one for men and another for women, are located across the street behind the bus station.  Bring tissues or toilet paper, handwipes or soap, most public restrooms in the Philippines are not equipped with anything.

At 1:30am we started the walk from Loboc Church to our final destination the Loboc Big CrossBut  before you take your first steps on the route cops who will inspect your bags.   They are  searching for weapons, illegal substances, and liquor.  These items are forbidden on the pilgrimage route.  After the inspection you can begin the climb to the Cross.

Holy Week

We had to get moving, we had to walk approximately 4 km to  reach the Cross. There are lots of people walking the same route, some are praying as they walk.  Some are silent and very serious but the rest are very noisy.   It’s a 1 1/2 km to  the first station, remember, there are 13 stations left and you have to save energy for the rest.  Anyway after the first station the next station is just 20-30 meters away.  But the mountain is very steep, it’s almost vertical and  you have to climb carefully to reach the  other stations.

There is an altar at every station.  You can say prayer and  light a candle at each station. You leave the candle at each station, but its up to you how many candles you want to light at each station, but if you didn’t bring extra save it because you have 14 stations. (This picture was taken early in the morning because when we arrived at the cross it was still, we took it so you can see the view.)


Holy WeekAfter  climbing 150 -200 steps and stopping at 13 stations we arrived at the Big Cross.

Holy Week

We arrived at the Big Cross about 4:00 am!!!!

We were all exhausted but we felt good.   We prayed and made a wish. We rested for awhile then headed back down.  At the top there are what they called HABAL HABAL DRIVERS ,  drivers with motorcycles that will give you  a ride down if you pay P40.oo per person.

I felt like I was in heaven when I reached the top!   It’s pretty amazing. The view is amazing and the journey well worth it!