Yep it’s true – as the title suggests, Chelsea Travels Far has moved to greener pastures in the form of a new, self-hosted site – ‘Venturing On’. I delayed announcing this on Chelsea Travels Far until I’d figured out how to move my archives over to the new site (I’m not great with technology!). Now that this has been done, I have also migrated my email followers over to Venturing On too so you should receive email updates from the new site – of course you can stop these at any time if you so wish.
Thanks for reading from 2012 – here’s to plenty more posts from Venturing On.
The whole way to Banaue I was practically bouncing up and down. The rice terraces of Sagada had been pretty cool but I’d heard Banaue was something else.
Yes, it was just rice but oh my it was spectacular!
The terraces were built over 2000 years ago by the Ifugao people and are still functional today, providing a major food source and industry for this small village in the Cordillera mountains. Their image is on the filipino peso and I was dying to see them in real life.
On arrival in the town we find a place to stay (it’s rare to book ahead), dumped our bags and went exploring. Banaue town is at the bottom of a hill with the buildings built into the mountainside. It was hard to get a photo but you can see the gist of it here.
It’s a fair hike to the top of the terraces but so worth it, check this out!
There are a number of ‘viewpoints’ along the way, each more impressive than the last, which help break the hike up into manageable chunks. As does meeting wonderful barefoot Ifugao ladies sat in the sun chewing momma with red-stained teeth. (Momma is a combination of betel leaves, areca nut, lime and tobacco).
The walk seemed magical as the road steamed around us (having visited in rainy season there had just been a downpour – the concrete was so warm that the rain turned to steam), children raced by chasing wheels and a family of chickens accompanied us for a while.
Reaching the top, the view was surreal. There we found an Ifugao tribal hut decorated with animal skulls and another beautiful old lady who told me “walk on wall, go! Touch rice!”.
She’d told me to walk on the edge of the rice terrace and run my hands through the shoots. What do you do when a wise old lady tells you to do something?
You do it and it completes the adventure.
Slipping and tripping down a steep hill, Martin asked “are you sure you want to go down here? It’s going to be hell to get back up”. Yes it would be, but I wanted to see the coffin caves. Ever since I’d read about the coffins in the outdated, battered version of the Lonely Planet that we were carrying with us, I knew I had to visit Sagada.
Reaching the cave at the bottom, we saw them; hundreds of wooden coffins stacked up. It’s a traditional practice reserved for only those who have been married and have grandchildren. We found out that often the occupiers of the coffins would have carved them themselves before their deaths. It was an eery, fascinating snapshot of traditional Filipino practices and made me feel a world away from the big city of Manila we’d been in just days ago.
Walking back into the town, we kept an eye out for the other coffins – the hanging coffins. We found them after scanning the cliff sides for a while. They were hanging in groups of two or three – the dead are hung near their relatives. A few reasons have been offered as to why Sagadians hang their coffins instead of burying them; to keep decomposing corpses away from wildlife is one, to lay their relatives to rest closer to heaven is another. Whatever the reason, seeing them hanging there gives you a rather mystical feeling.
In fact, Sagada as a whole was quite mystical from our arrival in the mist to underground caves (a guided tour is recommended but we just had a quick peek at the opening of one) and the rice terraces surrounded by lush green mountains.
The province continually surprised us; who expects to see pine trees in the Philippines?
As Sagada had been marketed as a ‘mountainous hippy town’, I was expecting it to be something like Pai in North Thailand but in actual fact it was a quiet, cultural, spiritual place that delighted us. Perhaps it was because we were there in off season and missed the other tourists and party-goers, I don’t know, but I was grateful for the lack of westerners. Like so many of the places we visited in the Philippines it was non-commercial and unspoiled.
On our final night we heard drums banging and people shouting. Hypnotized, I followed the sounds down the road and up some steps carved out of the rock. As I got to the top of the stairs there was an area bathed in light with teenagers in tribal dress dancing around a bonfire. It was a traditional performance for parents by children from a local school. A genuine celebration of Igorot culture, the boys wore just white cloths and the girls beautiful woven skirts. They moved to the beat of the drum and I sat there with a massive grin on my face. Unfortunately in my rush to follow the music I’d forgotten my camera, but sometimes it’s best that way.
That’s right. It’s been over a year now (nearly 15 months to be precise) since I strapped on a backpack and left the UK. What a year it’s been! I left expecting to be away for 9 months and to end up in America. As life always goes, things changed and I’m now living in one of the most beautiful countries in the world (New Zealand) with not much of a plan anymore and it feels pretty good. To commemorate a year of living the dream I’m going to do a ‘Top 20’ (in no particular order) of my trip so far. It started off as a ‘Top 10’… it was hard to shortlist!
1. Yi Peng Lantern Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Four magical days in which the energy and excitement of the city completely enthralled Katie and I.
Thousands of lanterns were released into the sky representing hopes, wishes and prayers. The river was ablaze with floating candles and fireworks went off all around us. The excitement in our stomachs was akin to being a kid at Christmas.
2. An invitation for food, Banaue, Philippines.
After a long day trekking to the rice terraces of Batad from Banaue in Northern Luzon in the Philippines up potentially the steepest track I have yet encountered, being invited to our guide’s house for dinner was completely humbling. Kenneth, our guide cooked us fish from the river in Banaue and rice from the terraces down the road. Sitting with his brother and nephews to eat was a really enjoyable and memorable evening
3. Sleeping in the jungle, Chi Phat, Cambodia.
Having trekked 16 km with heavy packs deep into the Cambodian jungle (read; cutting a path through mosquito-ridden bush), it was bliss to sleep far from civilization listening to the sounds of the jungle around and the river over the cliff under the starriest night sky I have ever seen.
That sky made my jaw drop in amazement.
4. New Year’s Eve, Sydney, Australia.
New Year’s Eve is a pretty big deal in Sydney due to the amazing fireworks that are let off at midnight to welcome in the New Year. They actually let them off prior to midnight as well so you get a pretty good show over a few hours.
We sat on a hill drinking (in a permitted drinking zone; normally drinking in public is illegal in Australia), talking and waiting for the fireworks. They were not a disappointment.
5. Beach life, Otres Beach, Cambodia.
Spending 2 weeks chilling out on the beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia was just a really relaxed time for me, reading, eating and swimming. It sounds silly but sometimes when you’re constantly on the go actually travelling you need a break from constant activity and uprooting your life every few days. Hanging out at Otres and seeing the totally awesome houses being built in a village nearby was just what I needed.
6. The hospital cave, Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.
Having rented mopeds to tour Cat Ba Island in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, our group decided to visit the hospital cave we saw on the map. It took us a while to find it and 2 moped breakdowns but once there I was fascinated. The ingenuity of it’s whole design astounded me – especially the pool built specially as an escape route. This was an excellent travel ‘stumble upon’.
7. Cycling to spooky caves, Vang Vieng, Laos.
Renting a bone-jangling bike to visit some local caves was a simple and cheap ($1) experience but also once of my favourites. It just goes to show travel doesn’t have to be expensive to be enjoyable. Riding past cows, local children and not much else along the way was great, if bum-numbing.
8. Dolphin watching, Bay of Islands, New Zealand.
Seeing wild dolphins swim by our boat in the Bay of Islands was beautiful. Watching them willingly come up and play next to the boat was so great. I would have swam with them but it was a little cold! In a location like Paihia it just couldn’t get much prettier visually.
9. Experiencing new food, the World.
Ha, I didn’t know what to put as a location for this so it’s just going to be ‘the world’ as a general. From sticky rice in Laos to chicken adobo in the Philippines, I’ve tasted food I could never have dreamed would be so good! Learning to cook Khmer food in Cambodia was a real highlight of my time in Battambang and my fish amok wasn’t too bad (it didn’t kill me). I’ve found a new favourite food whilst away – I would happily eat Thai Massaman curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my life.
10. Waterfalls, the World.
As a water fiend (I spent a good 5 hours jumping in the lagoon in Luang Probang), seeing unbelievable waterfalls has been great for me. The best (so far) have been;
11. Living in the coolest city, Melbourne, Australia.
Living in Melbourne was so freaking cool. There’s always something to do, free festivals, interesting people to look at (plenty of hipster ‘taches on Brunswick St), an excellent public transport system, a diverse community, awesome shops, fantastic food and all a stone’s throw from the beach. I worked as a Milkman there and lived in a sweet flat then a brilliantly quirky, eccentric hostel. I ❤ Melbourne.
12. Cycling Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Hiring bikes to cycle the massive area that the temples of Siem Reap covers was a great idea. It meant we had the freedom to roam the temples all day and not have a tuk tuk driver have to wait on us. Watching Angkor Wat rise out of the morning mist was awe-inspiring and running around Ta Prohm pretending to be Lara Croft was just pure fun!
13. Learning to surf, Phillip Island/Avoca Beach, Australia.
When I say ‘learning to surf’, I don’t mean I’m not very good at it but I can get up on a board and stay up for about 5 seconds. It’s a massive improvement, trust me. This is in my top 20 because I really enjoyed surfing with friends and getting battered by the waves. Water baby for life!
14. Pai, Thailand.
Sometimes places that you’ve never been to before can just instantly feel like home. Pai is that place for me even though it’s massively different to life at home. It got under my skin like an addiction and keeps drawing me back. I visited there 3 times over the past year and don’t regret it one bit. It’s a magical place for me, full of good memories.
15. Hanging out with elephants, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Katie and I had a day during Yi Peng light festival hanging out with elephants bathing them, riding them and learning how to care for them. We were already buzzing from the festival so imagine our delight at getting to play with these gorgeous creatures for a whole day. Unforgettable.
16. Waiheke Island, New Zealand.
A short ferry ride from Auckland CBD is Waiheke Island. It’s covered in beaches, vineyards and farmland and makes you feel like you’re further from the city than you are. With a helpful information booth, we found walks of all ranges across the island and had a great day ‘tramping’ as they call it in NZ along the coastal path. My favourite part of Auckland.
17. Motorbike road trip, Hue to Hoi An, Vietnam.
Renting bikes and having our luggage sent on was a far more preferable alternative to catching the bus down the coast of Vietnam. It meant we could stop whenever we wanted to look at views and had the wind in our faces instead of dodgy Vietnamese pop music blasted at us. Despite running out of fuel, nearly crashing in Da Nang and being utterly exhausted by the end of the day, we all made it to Hoi An to be reunited with our backpacks!
18. Kayaking the Yarra River, Melbourne, Australia.
As a birthday surprise for Martin, I booked moonlight kayaking on the Yarra River in Melbourne. The river runs under some pretty cool bridges (I love a good bridge), through Melbourne CBD and our tour ended at the Crown Casino with fireballs illuminating the river. Seeing our favourite city at night from the water was something a little different.
19. Snorkeling, Bacuit Archipelago, Philippines.
Snorkeling in the Philippines puts a lot of Southeast Asian snorkeling to shame. The waters are unbelievably clear so your underwater vision is extremely far. Playing with the fish for a good two hours at a time was a dreamy day. The beaches were what most people would think of when they hear the word ‘paradise’.
20. Getting the travel bug.
Yep. I’ve been well and truly bitten. I want to go everywhere.
We were off to Manila! From Coron we could either take an overnight ferry or fly. With previous seasickness experiences, we decided to flashpack and fly to Manila.
The capital city of the Philippines had never been on the agenda as a stopping destination but having assumed we’d have a month long visa and later finding out it was just 3 weeks, we had to visit the visa extension office in Manila. Our stay was 24 days and having heard stories of tourists being made to miss flights to extend visas, we didn’t want to risk it!
Having stayed in low budget places for the past couple of weeks, it was decided that we’d get a nice hotel. I was rather glad of this as we had a close call with pick-pocketers on our first day. Seeing armed guards at the gates of our hotel was quite something. It’s normal to see them at banks in the Philippines, as are signs stating “Please remove all firearms before entering the bank”.
Our hotel was luxurious – air conditioning, warm water and a TV! Much needed after the day of stress that lay ahead obtaining our visas.
I stupidly thought it would be painless – pay money, get a stamp and have a day to check out Manila. How wrong I was.
We walked across the city on a sunny day. The weather being hot, both Martin and I were wearing shorts to keep cool. On arrival at the visa office, we went to stroll in and were stopped by a guard (armed, of course). “You cannot go in”, he said and turned away. That was a little strange.
Asking for an explanation, he simply replied “no shorts or sandals”. Great. So we’d trekked all the way across the city to be denied entry.
Frustrated, I wasn’t giving up that easily. I went to a second hand shop nearby, purchased trousers that were too short and tight for me for the equivalent of $5 (I wish I had a picture because looking back this is a lot funnier than it was at the time) and hoped they didn’t notice the flip flops on my feet. I was going in! Martin went and waited in the Starbucks across the road – he was excited to see it, being back in a big city – philistine.
I got in. I thought it’d be easy from this point. There were endless queues but I thought it’d be OK. I thought I’d only be in one of them.
This was how it actually went:
• Queue up to get a numbered ticket to become part of a second queue.
• Queue up to receive the form to fill out.
• Queue to be seen with your form, to be told you need photocopies of your passport (stated nowhere on signs in the building or on their official website).
• Queue to pay (of course) to photocopy your passport.
• Return to previous queue to be seen with form, receive receipt and move to next queue.
• Pay and wait 2 hours to pick up passports (at which point you can leave the building).
• Queue to re-enter building.
• Queue to receive stamped passports.
The result? 5 hours wasted, 4 coffees drank by Martin, 2 stamped passports, 1 frazzled Chelsea and a very important travel lesson – always double check visa limits!
Who decided to spend 8 hours on a ‘ferry’? We did!
That’s right, we left El Nido for Coron Town on Busuanga Island on what was really just a large boat. I was perfectly fine, if a little uncomfortable, sitting on the side of the boat floating past island after island reading my Kindle app.
Martin, however, was not. Turns out he gets pretty seasick.
Whilst he tried not to throw up, I made some filipino friends.
On arriving in Coron, we had a real struggle to find accommodation. I like to just go with the flow when planning where to stay in Asia but Martin likes to book ahead. Coron being so remote, there was no online booking for accommodation at the time, it was simply turn up and hunt for a bed. Eventually we found an OK enough place and settled down.
Coron has a few attractions to it but we ended up staying there longer than planned due to illness. This is what we did:
Every time we left our accommodation we were asked by tuk tuk drivers to visit the “HOT SPRIIIIIINGS?!” and eventually caved. The hot springs are half an hour outside of town on a bum-bruising track but worth it for an afternoon of relaxation and a view. Especially good for recovering from weird travel sickness.
I don’t think I’ve heard anyone moan about walking as much as Martin walking up the steps to Coron viewpoint. It was a fair pull up there by the views were unreal.
Coron Island boat trip
Being in a country of islands, of course we took another boat trip. We took a barangay tour to Coron Island.
We snorkeled off mini islands, once again dodging jellyfish although a few little ones stung our toes!
Once on the actual island, we climbed what felt like a million steps to reach the top and looked out across the inlet. A fantastic view. A Russian in speedos – not such a great view.
Coron Island is known for it’s ‘birds nest soup’. Locals climb high up the cliffsides with no safety equipment to collect birds nests. The saliva used to hold the nests together is the priceless ingredient they search for. Such a luxury is rather expensive due to the effort put in to collect the nests – a fantastic source of income for local people. A large part of the Island is inaccessible to tourists as it’s protected for local tribes, which I think is brilliant.
Next up on the tour was Kanyangan Lake, a freshwater lake. I so wish I’d had an underwater camera. The Lake had giant limestone pillars in it! Underwater was like venturing to another world – it looked like a moonscape but with eery pale fish floating by.
Having walked back to the boat for food, we sat down to eat and were joined by a naughty monkey who just wanted our bananas!
Having been inspired to visit the Philippines by a friend’s photos of El Nido, the little town on the north of Palawan was our next stop. El Nido is a good base to visit the Bacuit Archipelago, a collection of mostly uninhabited islands surrounded by beautifully clear blue water.
Having taken two (very bumpy) buses to get there, we arrived amid the doom and gloom of a thunderstorm.
Standard South-East Asian bus ride; tumultuous.
Treating ourselves to Western food (we were tired and hungry – not good for either of our moods), we checked in and went to explore. Walking through our hostel directly on to the beach was mind-blowing – the Island out to sea surrounded by clouds looked straight out of Jurassic Park.
We did all we could; got cocktails and prayed for the rain to stop.
Over the next few days it rained and rained and rained some more. That is the downfall of visiting the Philippines during the rainy season but if you want to see barely any tourists then I’d recommend visiting at that time.
Once the rain subsided we booked a boat tour. Rather than going with a tour operator in town, we walked to the right of the beach, followed the cliffs round to the next bay and found cheaper rates for tours. I should mention El Nido has no cash points so it really is worth getting more money out than you expect to spend in advance. We just about had enough considering we also had to pay for the ferry to Coron (coming in my next post) but we could have done more in El Nido if we had just a few more dollars. You can however get a cash advance on your card at the pawn brokers if you’re really stuck.
We certainly picked the right day for our tour. The archipelago was stunning in the sun!
Crystal clear water and emerald green karsts.
Martin and I hired a kayak to take with us and explored a lagoon in it, watching massive jellyfish float by whilst the rest of our group swam. I was so glad of it after the jellyfish incident in Port Barton.
We stopped for lunch on a deserted island and whilst our guides cooked fresh fish, vegetables and rice over an open fire, we swam, kayaked, climbed and snorkeled. I’ve never seen so many colourful fish in such pristine water.
Those islands were a tropical paradise.
Getting to Port Barton was a bit of a mission… We took a tricycle to the bus terminal and then a bus to Port Barton on the wettest, bumpiest road I have ever been on! I carried on reading my book, Martin was a bit scared ;).
When we arrived in Port Barton we were dropped right at our accommodation – Monkey Family. We lived with monkeys! One morning we woke up and there was a monkey on the rafters above our mosquito net!
Port Barton was beautiful. Remote, a beach 100 metres away, with a jungle bordering it and no one there in low season!
The beach was pretty much deserted.
Martin and I hiked an hour to 2 waterfalls, one big and the other small. Once again, they were deserted. You could imagine they would be pretty busy in high season but we had them all to ourselves.
Port Barton felt like a ghost town except for roosters but we loved it.
That evening we enjoyed a beautiful sunset on the beach.
The next day we wanted to just go to the beach but decided to go to the next bay along. It was an adventure getting there!
We pulled ourselves across the water…
We hiked through the jungle…
We scrambled across rocks with a dog following us…
We reached the idyllic beach…
AND I GOT STUNG BY A JELLYFISH! It was the biggest jellyfish I’ve ever seen, with blue tentacles and it hurt! Luckily there were some local people who helped me – they put vinegar and coffee on the sting, which really helped! We made our way back to Port Barton just in time to miss the rain! Here’s my jellyfish sting:
Port Barton was wonderful and we ate some of the best food ever there!
After a few horrendous flights (Melbourne-Sydney-Darwin-Manila-Puerto Princesa), we finally arrived in the Philippines on Palawan! We were shattered but went for a walk around the town and ended up dancing with some kids to a massive boombox in the street! It felt good to be back in Asia with tricycles and chaos all about. The Philippines are rather different to the rest of South East Asia though as a Christian country with English as a main language.
The following day, we went island hopping around Honda Bay. It was nice to snorkel and sunbathe after wintery Melbourne!
In the boat on the way back to Puerto Princesa, it started pouring down! Luckily we were already wet from swimming.
Puerto itself wasn’t amazing but it was a good base to get over all the flights, start our journey North up towards El Nido and adjust to the heat and humidity.