Enthralled by El Nido

I found my paradise in the Philippines.

Spellbounding Siquijor

A brave girl's first ever solo trip was to this mystical island.

The Quiet Charm of Cagbalete Island

Outdoor serenity at its best.

The Rugged Beauty of Islas de Gigantes

The off-the-beaten rockin beauty of Northern Iloilo.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What I Learned After a Year of Blogging


This day last year, I’ve posted my first ever travel blog entry. I actually created the blog and wrote the foreword, 22nd of June 2012 but it was the 24th when it really started as a travel blog.

My first post was about my travel in Siquijor. That trip was very meaningful to me because it was my first ever solo trip. Yes, I’ve done Puerto Prinsesa and flew to Thailand alone, but my Beau would later catch up and join me for the rest of the trip. Well, in Siquijor, it was only me - all the way. People I met thought it was so epic of me to brave Siquijor alone that I should write about it. Must be the aswangs and mangkukulams notion. But yes, I’ve been gullible and was brainwashed. ;)



the trip that started it all :)


I ain’t new in traveling. I’ve been hitting the road for 4 years prior to blogging. I never even thought in the past that I’ll be doing this eventually. All I wanted to do was plan a trip, jump on a plane (or bus) and enjoy every minute of it. I just bring a notebook with me that serves as my travel journal and that was it.


Now after one year, did I learn anything? Let’s see…

Being Shameless. Is that a good thing? Haha! During my first few months of blogging, I am only sharing it to close friends and family. I don’t know but I was really very shy. Later on, I felt more comfortable sharing it to more and more people.

Enhanced Grammar and Vocabulary Skills. Of course, frequent writing polishes these skills. I thought I’ve been rusty since I left that editing job 9 years ago. But then I also read a lot, so maybe not too much.

Being More Sociable. As I progressed into the blogging world, I met a lot of people with same the interests. I started to belong to awesome groups and get to share experiences with them. Yes, travel bloggers are very sociable beings. ;)

Buying My Own Domain. Oh my G, for a non-techie person like me – it was an achievement! I was very happy when I learned how to get my own site. Shallow me.

Other Meaning of Things. If you know what I mean. Before, the only “traffic” I know was road traffic. I also learned that organic can be used as an adjective to traffic. I won’t know about these things if I did not expose myself to the blogging world. Well honestly, I’m still confused about a lot of things until now.


I can’t think of anything more right now, but I know for sure that I’ve learned a lot. I’m still so na├»ve about SEOs, inbound links, page ranks, changing my site’s layout and other blogging stuff. Sometimes I want to kill myself for not knowing about these things (just exaggerating). I know it’ll be easier for me had I known about them. But blogging isn’t really one of my top priorities (for now). Talk about year old backlogs.


So, if we can also make a wish on our blog’s birthday, mine will be - I wish to become a better blogger someday. ;)

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Quick Escape to Pico de Loro Hamilo Coast


We had our summer family get away this year here in Pico de Loro Cove. It is a 3-hour drive from Manila. But you wouldn't mind the long drive because the scenery along the way is so refreshing. Especially as you get closer to the exclusive beach clubs. It gets greener and greener and the surroundings look more wonderful. The winding road and those fire trees in Punta Fuego look so lovely. When we saw the beautiful coves from up there, we all got so excited.



so near, yet so far :)


After Punta Fuego, we finally saw a sign indicating we were near our destination. A few more minutes and we arrived at the property entrance. We all said "yes!" only to be told by the Guard that we were not yet there, there. It's 7 kilometers more haha. That's what you call private.



Pico de Loro Country Club

When we finally made it, we went straight to the Country Club for guests registration. Non-owners or non-members have to go through this process first.



country club reception area


There are a lot of guests checking-in so we had to wait for our turn. We didn't mind waiting because everything is very pleasant, plus there's free fast wifi.



country club terrace


The neutral earth color theme is soothing. The view from the terrace is splendid. From there you can see the pool and the man-made lake.



your piece of private paradise


After taking in all its awesomeness, we were finally called. There is a PHP 1,000 Guest Fee per person by the way. It is only PHP 500 during off-season . This will allow you access to the Beach and Country Club's amenities.

Along with the registration process, you will be given a Guest Cash Card. This you have to pay PHP 1,050. PHP 50 for the card itself and 1,000 consumable within the club's premises. You can use it to pay for indoor and outdoor activities and at the restaurants. This card is reloadable and mind you, you have to maintain a balance of at least PHP 100 while you're still staying at the resort. Yes, even if you no longer have plans of purchasing anything. Card expires after a year.



cash transactions? nah i don't think so :)


Good thing our rented property is just a quick walk to the Country Club. We always took pleasure in our walks because the view is always nice.



green is my favorite color :)


At the back of the condo is a pathway to the Club which is at the lakeside. It is literally a walk in the park. I can just stay there and stare at the lake and I'll be appeased. Silence and nature, all I ever wanted.


the Country Club pool


We never wasted our time and immediately went for a swim, even if it was raining. Just floating there in the middle, with mountains and lake in the background is already rejuvenating.



the day i said hello to tankinis


chilling siblings


Swimming pools are open till 10:00 PM. If you're one of those people who don't want to be under the sun for so long, then be a nocturnal swimmer.



if you like some night swimming


We prefer to swim on daylight, so we went around the Country Club that night to check on other recreational activities. Dad backed out on bowling and my brother's weren't able to go gaming because the game station  was already closed when we arrived. None of us is sporty too, so basketball, tennis and badminton are all out of the question.



this is the answer! ;)


We ended up in the Music Lounge. My brothers like to sing so, yeah we sang a few songs there and shared some Napolitana Pizza.






singer wanna-bes


The pools look cooler at night. We couldn't help but take some snaps with that on the background haha.



poolside beauties


Drinking session with my siblings followed at our unit's balcony that night. :)



Pico de Loro Beach Club

The next day, we went to the Beach Club early. We just explored the Country Club on our first day. We decided not to take the shuttle service and just walked. We wanted to see more of the property's lush vicinity.



mountains everywhere


Mom and Dad went running earlier that morning. You can also go biking here. You can either bring your own or rent one. They do have a bike trail too.


fooling around at the bike trail


The Beach Club is also walkable from our place (Jacana Building) but a little too far. It was still early in the morning, so it didn't quite matter.






We thought that when we arrive there'll be less people, but we were wrong. Seemed like everyone likes to go to the beach while the sun is not out yet.



the very laid-back beach


Do not expect a white sand beach. Come on, it's Batangas. It has a fine sand though it looks very dark (especially when it's wet). The water is very clean too and there are lots of fishes! You can go snorkel and swim with them.



so serene


The Beach Club also has a fabulous pool. If you don't feel like swimming at the beach, you can just enjoy the pool.





see? my sibs and mom were very happy :)


Water activities are also available at the Beach Club. That includes kayaking, scuba diving, jetskiing and wind surfing.





Dad and bro opted to go kayaking. It must be nice to navigate around the cove.




This is how the beach looks like on nightfall.


dramatic lowtide




Nobody wants to swim in the dark anymore.


***


Before we leave the next day, we visited the chapel uphill.


on our way to the chapel


The chapel's name is St. Therese of the Child Jesus. It is very modern and gorgeous. The walls are made up of glass. The backdrop is the breathtakingly beautiful cove of Pico de Loro.






It is actually a very nice place to get married. The place is secluded (not as crowded as the other resorts) and it is God's creation (nature) everywhere you look. I don't know, maybe just my idea of my own wedding. Char haha!



isn't it stunning?


Mountains and trees everywhere! I so love this place.



another view from the chapel


There are so much more activities that you can do here. We just preferred to lean more on the relaxing side. It is definitely expensive but you'll get your money's worth. It is the perfect place to go if you want to break away from the noisy city and want to go back exhilarated. I would actually love to go back for a longer stay.


If you want to find out more about Pico de Loro Club, just click the link. I hope you'll enjoy it too! :)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Where to Stay in Pico de Loro - Hamilo Coast


Hamilo Coast is a very private leisure destination. I say "very" because, this is located at the end of the string of private beach clubs in Nasugbu, Batangas. Also, you'll only be able to stay here if (a) you own a unit, (b) you knew someone who has one and you're authorized to use it or (c) if you'll book a room in Pico Sands Hotel. We do not own a property here and staying at the hotel is not best option for us as a family (of six). Option B was definitely the way to go.

I found out about unit owners renting their place and I luckily stumbled into a blog with a previous renter's contact info. Unfortunately, her units were all booked but her friend still had a unit left. It was peak season and we were able to book with only a week left before our chosen dates. We were still lucky.

residential condos around the lake

For non-members, you still have to go through the country club for registration before you can check-in. You will be given the key to your unit at the condo reception.


at the condo lobby

We rented a 1-Bedroom with Balcony Unit good for 6 pax. The rate is  PHP 6,500 per night. There's a King Bed, a sofa with pull-out bed, futons and lots of pillows. Yeah, there's a plenty of room for everyone. We slept soundly. My only complaint was, they should have provided us with extra blankets.


king bed

The unit is very minimalist. Well, if you are on vacation you wouldn't spend most of your time staying inside, right?


the living room

There are the basic amenities. A/C, fan and flat-screen TV with cable.


cable tv

One of our main prerequisite when we go out of town as a family, is a fully furnished kitchen. Mom was happy to see there's everything we need. We always want to cook our own food. It's not just that resort food are overly expensive, sometimes you do not get the value of what you paid for (read: so-so).

fully-equipped kitchen

I'm also glad that the T&B is very clean. It's a major turn off for me if it's dirty or moldy.


don't mind me in the photo haha! ;)

It's also very spacious which I liked. You know, the one can go take a shower while other person can still brush their teeth sort of thing.

bath

Then, there's the balcony where you can see the verdant surroundings which is very relaxing. You can also convert this into a dining area like we did for our breakfast. At night, it became the location of our drinking session. :)


get some fresh air from the balcony

Our unit is located at the second floor of Jacana Building. It is very near and just a short walk to the country club.

the condo building

We enjoyed our stay here. If you are a group (barkada) or a family, you better just rent a condo unit. Aside from the fact that it's more practical, it's also more fun staying altogether in one room. We had no problems during our entire stay. It is a great place for family bonding and recreation.

Have fun in Pico de Loro! :)

Here are the details of our contact person:

Mary Jean Ner
Condo Unit Owner
Pico de Loro Beach & Country Club
Phone Nos.: 0935-7979636; 0922-8855552
Email: maryjean_ner@yahoo.com
Rates: PHP 4,500-4,800 for Studio Units; PHP 5,500-6,500 for 1 Bedroom with Balcony


She is very prompt to answer all your queries and will give you all the information you'll need to know. Transaction with her is worry-free too. She'll confirm your reservation and will provide you with the necessary papers for check-in as soon as she can.

Accommodation Rating: ♥♥♥♥


Disclaimer: Please read the other readers' comments below. I've been getting comments lately about other people having difficulties dealing with Ms. Ner recently. I will not rewrite anything in my post as it was based on how we transacted with her before (May 2013) which turned out to be positive. Be informed of the recent negative feedbacks about her before contacting her for booking. To everyone who shared their bad experiences, thank you! It will serve as a warning to other potential guests. Thanks also to those who came back to this site to share their alternate booking suggestions. You are all welcome to share anything you think that may help. ~Liz 06/02/14; 02/26/15


My post about Pico de Loro Beach and Country Club up next.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Things You Should Know Before Visiting Myanmar


Surreal at 21st Century

Myanmar. It is a country where everything is so different. If you've read my Myanmar series, you probably already got an idea. Myanmar has the longest running military dictatorship in the world. We all know that it was (or still is) a tormented country. It has gone through too many political unrest and some even ended in violence and inhumane practices. These happenings led to economic sanctions and big countries (like US and EU) pulling out their aid and support. The Lady (Aung San Suu Kyi) also called for tourism boycott which put Myanmar off the tourist radar for over a decade. It is a huge factor on why it is still the same as it was before.

After the 2010 elections, the government considered some serious reforms towards democracy (hidden motives still unfounded). In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released after 21 years of house arrest (I respect and admire her a lot!). The world took it as a good sign and it slowly re-earned their trust. Sanctions have been lifted and tourists got encouraged to visit Burma again. Things are looking good for Myanmar, as they've been approved to bid for a position in the ASEAN chair next year. The most exciting time to visit the country is NOW.


Getting there

From Manila, you can fly to Bangkok (DMK) or Kuala Lumpur (KUL) first. Air Asia has two daily flights to Yangon (RGN) from these two hubs. There's also a direct flight to Mandalay from DMK (once daily), should you wish to visit the last royal capital of Burma first.


RGN Airport


Money Matters

Here's another thing you need to prepare for before heading to Burma. Their currency of choice is US Dollars (USD). Hotels and tourist attractions require USD for payment. Make sure you bring more than enough money. Although there'd already been ATMs since the start of this year, I would still recommend to just bring cash. USD 100 bill gets the best exchange rate compared to the lower denominations.

Please note that your dollar condition should be:

  • New, fresh and crisp
  • Has no folds and creases
  • Has no stamps, pen ink or just any mark on them
  • No tears, holes or any slight damage

They inspect each and every dollar meticulously. Not meeting these requirements could result into exchange refusal. Some say they're now more lax about it after the sanctions were lifted, but better be safe than sorry. :)


MMK aka Myanmar Kyats


Unlike in other countries where you'll prefer to change your money at the black market because of the poor exchange rate at the airport, here in Myanmar I felt safer changing my dollars at the banks there. The rate does not differ much from that of the black market. I followed the advise of fellow Couchsurfers who recently went there and did it at the airport too. It is also guaranteed that you'll get new and crisps Kyats (pronounced as "chats") in exchange. You can also be sure that it is hundred percent scam-free. It'll be easier for you too to change your Kyats back into USD before you leave the country. Just show them your previous receipt and they'll gladly accept your Kyats. You can't exchange them anywhere else, so make sure to exchange them again before departing Myanmar.


Traveler's Basics

Food

If you love vegetables (like I do), you will love it here. Burmese are devout Buddhists so their food is primarily vegetarian. You'll see a few chicken dishes in the menu but beef and pork? Very rare. Maybe not the case in expensive hotels. Anyway, they serve fresh veggies and I'm happy with it. My average meal costs was 2000-3000 Kyats or 2-3 USD. Servings are generous. I was always so full after every meal. That amount already includes a liter of bottled water. It was for both Yangon and Bagan. I just ate in restaurants. I didn't feel like eating street food in Yangon (for sanitary reasons). A bottle of water normally costs 300 Kyats.



my yummy stir-fried shrimp and veggies


Tip: Near Sule Paya, look for this doughnut shop called Tokyo Donut. You can have a doughnut and iced coffee for 1200 Kyats. What's cool about it is, they have free wifi! And it's pretty fast for Myanmar standards hehe. That's the only place in Myanmar where I got connected to the internet. :)


Transportation

The only viable means of transportation in Yangon are buses and taxis. For travelers, it is better to stick with the cabs. I barely saw buses in the streets of Yangon. They are very infrequent and they only pass by a few specific route. As for the taxis, they are everywhere. Don't be surprised though. They are old-model cars with no air condition. You have to bear with the heat and its worse when you're caught in a traffic. The minimum fare I paid for a taxi ride in Yangon was 2000 Kyats.

Bagan is another story. The ancient city is... well, still ancient in so many ways. You have the option to hire a horse cart or a bike if you want to go around. I chose the former. Minimum rate for example, Bus Station to Guest House is 1500-2000 Kyats. On the other hand, renting a bike for the whole day is just 1500 Kyats.

Don't worry about the intercity buses. The journey may be long but it is comfortable. You may read about my story here.



the lovely Yangon airport mural


Shelter

Yes, you heard (or maybe read) it right. Hostel rates in this country is very steep. Set aside a bigger portion of your travel budget for this. Average hostel cost per night both in Yangon and Bagan is a whopping USD 25. The quality is not even worth its rate. It's a pain in the ass for solo travelers like me because there's no one to split the cost with. That's why finding that USD 5 per night place in Yangon was like finding a treasure for me.


not bad for $5, yeah?


Communication 

Your foreign sim cards are of no use when in Myanmar. There is no international roaming services available. Unlike other countries where you can just buy local sim card and use it while you're there, that's almost impossible too. Aside from the hassles you have to go through, it is very expensive at USD 20! The only one mobile telephone network is being managed by the government. Maybe that explains it.

How about the internet? You can find places that offers internet access. The thing is, it is sooo slow. And I hate slow connection so I didn't try until my fifth day. I just tried it once in Yangon (suggested by a CSer friend), as mentioned above in the "Food" section. :) Probably the high end hotels offer wifi at a decent speed.



my last Myanmar sunset


Fascinating Peculiarities

  • Men also wear "skirts". Actually it is not called a skirt but a longyi. It is the traditional wrap-around dress worn by both Burmese men and women. Note that it is being wrapped differently depending on your gender.They still dress very traditionally. It is so swell to buy your own to blend in with the locals. :)
  • They put too much make up. No they don't. What you see on their faces is called thanaka. It is a yellowish-white foundation-like cosmetic made up of ground bark. They say it protects you from sunburn and it also makes your skin smooth. It is indeed the beauty secret of the Myanmar ladies. It smells like sandalwood and feels cool to the skin. I actually loved it! :)


a shy lovely Burmese girl :)

  • Red Teeth. It is the only place I've been where people are sporting red teeth and where red spits are everywhere! They are so fond of chewing betel nuts. Candy is not a thing here. This results to their reddish-brown stained teeth, so don't be grossed out.
  • Temple Overload. You have to be ready for this. There are more than 2000 pagodas scattered in the plains of Bagan alone. I dig old temples and ancient structures, so I enjoyed this a lot. I heard of other people who don't appreciate this kind of place and see nothing but stones and ruins in them. I hope you're not one of those bunch.
  • Go Bare and Get Dirty. Get used to roaming around barefoot. 90% of the significant places you'll visit in Burma are temples (pagodas) and you shouldn't walk in them in any kind of footwear. It doesn't matter if it's abandoned, very old or if the floor is too hot. Just take your shoes/slippers off and show some respect. They are all considered sacred.


barefoot is the way to go

  • It's Better to Give Than to Receive. You will normally see monks asking for alms in the temples. Go ahead and share your blessings. In Buddhism, it shows humbleness and respect. It is also your chance to make a merit. Your accumulation of good deeds will be carried over throughout your life and succeeding incarnations. I'm a Christian but I believe in it. I believe in everything kindness. :)


The Amazing People

Don't be put off by the military junta governing the country or by the violence against Muslims in Northern Myanmar (that part is off-limits for the tourists anyway). The rest of Myanmar is filled with gentle and friendly people, ever so eager to know about "our" world and also willing to show us a peek on their simple yet now getting more optimistic life.
  • Kind and Passionate. They love interacting with the foreigners. I loved talking to them. I can feel how happy they were that people from other countries are visiting them again. They will ask you about a few words they want to learn in your language, about how things are back in your country and literally just about everything. They suffered so long from repression and I feel for them. So I answer everything they asked of me tirelessly. I was actually happy that I was also able to learn a lot of things from them. I cherish every conversation I had with the hostel staff, the vendors, the taxi drivers, the horsecart driver, all of them.
  • No Language Barrier. You don't have to worry about communicating with them. They speak good English compared to their other neighboring countries. I found out from one of the drivers I talked to, that English subject is also included in their school curriculum beginning primary school.


meet Phyu-Phyu, PTB's welcoming party in Bagan ;)


  • Earnest Buddhists. Among the Buddhist countries I've been to, I can say that Myanmar is the most devout. That is based on my observation. They start instilling it at a very young age. They are very religious people. Because of this, you will not feel threatened as a tourist. You can bring wads of Kyats not fearing that somebody might rob you. They strongly believe in karma
  • Inquisitive in a Good Way. They are the type of people of who are very fervently curious. They give you suggestions but not in a pushy manner. When they want to know something, they'll approach you right off. I experienced this twice or thrice in the restaurants. The moment they saw me had my first bite of their dish, they immediately appeared at my side asking me how was it or how did it taste. I mean I literally just had my first bite. It doesn't matter if you're still chewing it or if your mouth is still full. They won't leave not until you answer them haha. I actually found it a little weird because they could have asked when I'm done eating. But then, it's Myanmar hehe.


Those were just some of the things I won't forget about my trip. You now have a glimpse of how Myanmar is different from the rest of the world. Things are slowly changing day by day as the country progresses towards democracy. Somehow, I am hoping they will remain extraordinary.

I never felt bad ditching my ticket to Laos for this country. I don't know. It might sound strange but after this trip, I felt more connected to the universe. Its been more of a spiritual journey for me. I came back with a different set of "eyes".


***Note: This post was written based on Myanmar's situation when I went there March of 2013. Any information re updates or improvements that future travelers should know about are welcome in the Comments section. :)


“Not I – not anyone else, can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.” – Walt Whitman




This ends my Myanmar travel series.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Sublime Shwezigon Pagoda


Myanmar Day 4

It was my last day in Bagan. I am no longer interested in another temple run. I guess I've seen enough from the previous day. I was totally templed-out. I just wanted to chill and relax that day. I did not wake up too early, I was just taking my sweet time.

*****

At around 8:00 AM, I went to my hostel's front desk to ask about the free breakfast. Instead of answering my question, the Receptionist told me right off that I got a message. I was bewildered thinking who the hell in Myanmar would do that, as I don't know anyone there. He took the note from his pocket and handed it over to me. He probably noticed I was still perplexed, so he exclaimed "It's the guy from Greece!". It was him, the guy I met at the Sunrise Temple and then again at the Shwezigon (chance encounters, mind you). I suddenly remembered that I stood him up for dinner. Yaiiks. I checked out the signature and yes, it was indeed from him. It says, he'll wait for me at the same restaurant for breakfast. Again. I did not go and see him there. Again. I just headed off to the Shwezigon. Again.

 *****

Now, let's talk about this beautiful pagoda. I went back here purposely because I wanted to capture it in a different light. It was dysphoric at sunset. I wanted to see it teeming with locals and full of life.



first shrine from the entrance


As usual, I made my way here again on foot. It was a leisurely walk as it was still early and the sun was just beginning to rise.



Standing Buddha



Shwezigon Paya is one of Bagan's (and Myanmar's) most significant religious structures. This was built on the 11th century.



oh that glittering beauty...


They say Shwezigon served as the original model of the Myanmar zedi. It is made up of gold leaf-gilded stupa. This pagoda enshrines a tooth relic from Sri Lanka and bones of Gautama Buddha.



young Burmese women


It is also surrounded with smaller temples and shrines. I loved taking photos of random people. :)



a monk with a tablet, how's that?  ;)


This paya is symmetrical and oriented to the east. It is 160 ft high and mainly made up of stone bricks. The smaller stupas at the corner of the terrace mirrors the main stupa.



more upclose


This time, I went around the entire complex and check out each and every shrines.






I saw this mother and child in one of the mini-temples. I politely asked if I could take photos of them but the mom refused to look at the camera. Not sure though if she undertood me hehe. That tiny monk was so adorable. :)



a cute novice monk and his mom :)


Kids at a very early age are being taught to be a good Buddhist.



Reclining Buddha


This kid with thanaka-smeared face volunteered to be photographed by me. I ask him if he likes banana, he nodded. I gave him that banana I wasn't able to eat during breakfast. His Mom gave me her sweetest smile. :)


a friendly Burmese kid :)


You will see a monk in deep prayer in any pagoda you go to. They usually just choose a quiet corner where they can offer their prayers.






Shwezigon was gloomy no more! It felt nice to mingle with the monks, the locals and fellow travelers.



Shwezigon on a busy day


the shy fruit vendor


You will normally see female children sporting a very short hair or in the case of this baby, a shaved head. That's one thing we rarely see here in the Philippines.



darling Burmese baby :)


Buddha is not hard to miss in this complex. Even in the garden, instead of putting benches under the tree, you'll see four Buddhas facing towards all cardinal directions.



the garden


It was a fun morning for me. I got to see the lively Shwezigon Paya. It was my last day in Bagan which made it all the more special. Bagan is one of those places where I felt that I am connected to the universe.



so long Bagan!


Being there was one of my most distressing travel undertaking. The everyday brownout, the limited transportation option, almost staying in a shitty hostel room and missing the divine sunset everyone was raving about. But no, I am not complaining. It's been all worth it. Through it all, I had the most amazing time of my life.


“If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands but a continent that joins to them.” – Francis Bacon
 




This is Part 8 of my Myanmar travel series.