A Filipino Flop

Our trip to the Philippines was supposed to begin on a Wednesday but when we arrived at the airport we weren’t allowed to board since we didn’t have an outbound flight. We tried but failed to get a ticket prior to check in closing, so instead we had to pay to reschedule our inbound flight and buy outbound flights giving us only ten days in the Philippines. Hoping to make up for lost time, we skipped Manila and flew directly to Cebu to island hop from there.

We started out with one night in Cebu City before taking a two hour ferry to the island of Bohol. We spent two days scootering around checking out the beaches, Spanish colonial churches, the Chocolate Hills, and a tarsier sanctuary. Tarsiers are nocturnal so we watched them sleep under leaves, occasionally opening their eyes which we learned are as big as their brains!

This starfish was bigger than your hand!
We biked through a man-made forest to visit the Chocolate Hills, which turn brown in the dry season.
Tarsiers are the world's smallest primates.

After Bohol, we took a ferry to Siquijor and enjoyed an amazing sunset our first night in the small town of San Juan. The next day we did the scooter thing again, this time visiting a beach that was fantastic for swimming, which was awesome since most of the beaches we had visited so far were beautiful but too shallow and rocky for swimming. We also visited some waterfalls and a centuries-old balete tree that is said to be enchanted. At the base of the tree is a small spring filled with fish that will give you a pedicure. We had been joking that we should have done the fish pedicures in Thailand, so we opted in this time since it cost a whopping forty cents for the both of us.

San Juan had some beautiful sunsets and friendly locals.
Happy to find a beach we could actually swim at!
We visited a lot of waterfalls in the Philippines.
Enjoying our 40 cent fish pedicure.

The days following Siquijor were a bit of a flop. We took a ferry from Siquijor to Dumaguete where we planned to go diving at the nearby Apo Island. However, it turns out EVERYTHING is closed on Good Friday of Easter weekend in the Philippines. Everything. Many places were also closed Saturday and Sunday so we basically ended up with two entire days of nothing.

Our next activity was snorkeling with the whale sharks back on the island of Cebu. It was an awesome experience swimming next to animals that size - although we did learn later on that it’s not the most environmentally friendly situation. Originally the whales would migrate through the area, but now they stick around because they’re fed by the fishermen who want to make money off the tourism. Hopefully next time we can see them in the wild!

Since we weren’t able to go diving on Apo Island, we visited Moalboal on Cebu. Neither of us had been scuba diving in years so it was nice to do some diving in the Philippines before we got to Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. We did two dives that day, one in the morning along a shelf coral reef and a second one in the afternoon to swim with the schools of sardines just off shore. The water was a little cloudy due to a storm the night before, but it was still pretty awesome and SO cheap relative to other places!

Scuba diving with a school of sardines.
Laura was happy to find another beach where we could actually swim!

Our final stop in the Philippines was back in Cebu City to catch our flight the following morning to Jakarta. We learned from another diver in Moalboal about a microbrewery run by a guy from California, so that night we visited Turning Wheels Craft Brewery. We had an amazing time chatting with a few expats and enjoying the first good beers we’d had since Saigon. Apparently we had so much fun at the brewery that we nearly missed our flight the next morning by sleeping through our alarm. The travel gods were finally on our side, and after a super late arrival and a full blown sprint through the airport (practically skipping security) we made it just in time.

Overall, we thought the Philippines was more of a hassle than it was worth. This was partly our fault, having to reschedule flights and greatly underestimating the Easter holiday, but there were other problems too. The Philippines was insanely hot and humid; we wouldn’t even want to go outside during the day. It had some of the worst internet we found anywhere, which made planning on the fly (our normal method) impossible. Touts were extremely pushy, and once we even had a taxi driver sit outside a restaurant for over an hour even after we repeatedly said no. While the beaches were beautiful, we only found two that we could actually enjoy for swimming. And worst of all: we found we couldn’t even enjoy the standard beer because it gave us such bad headaches after only one or two! That being said, we found that the Filipino people were some of the friendliest and most welcoming people of the entire trip, and they make some pretty delicious food too!

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Borneo

After Singapore we flew back to Malaysia, but this time on the island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world (after Greenland and New Guinea). Borneo is split up between three countries with Malaysia having about a third, Indonesia having two-thirds, and the tiny sovereign state of Brunei with about 1%.

Kuching

We started our trip to Borneo in the city of Kuching so we could explore the state of Sarawak. We spent our first few days in Kuching relaxing at our hostel, strolling along the city’s river walk, and trying some local pizza and brews.

Kuching, known as the Cat City, has numerous statues, gift shops, and even a museum dedicated to cats!
Enjoying street art by day and the river walk at night.

Bako National Park is located outside the city and makes a perfect day trip. This park is a bit remote; it’s only accessible by water and doesn’t even have a dock upon arrival. After a fifteen minute boat ride, you need to wade into shore depending on where the tide is - oh, and watch out for crocodiles! While hiking throughout the park we met some animals: a few Bornean bearded pigs and several species of monkeys including the somewhat rare silvered leaf monkey and the funny looking proboscis monkey, which is endemic to Borneo.

We hiked through the park to several beach overlooks, but no swimming allowed due to crocodiles.
The proboscis monkey is known for its unique nose.
The hairy pigs were hard to miss while the snakes were much harder to spot.
How many silvered leaf monkeys can you find?

Our final day in Kuching we woke up early to visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Center in time for the morning orangutan feeding before our flight north. Orangutans are only found in the wild in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

It's a bit hard to see, but the orangutan in the bottom right has unique facial flaps only present on males. They can take up to 20 years to develop and are supposedly quite popular with the ladies.
The park also had several pitcher plants, which are actually carnivorous, as well as a couple crocodiles.

Mulu

After Kuching we flew north to Mulu National Park. This park is in the middle of nowhere, practically requiring a flight in and out. There are a few houses near the park entrance which offer some cheaper but extremely basic accommodation (e.g., cold showers and electricity only during certain hours). The park itself is a bit expensive with most activities being pay-to-play, but it is very well done. We had wanted to do some of the longer hikes but Vesper’s knee was holding us back, so we checked out the caves instead. We did some squeezing, climbing, and rappelling into Racer Cave where we met a bunch of blind crickets, massive plate-sized spiders, bats, and racer snakes, which give the cave its name. These snakes wait in crevasses until a bat flies by and snatch it from the air.

A race snaker and a giant spider.

Deer Cave, one of the parks “show caves,” is beyond massive. It has one of the largest cave openings in the world at over 400 feet tall! (For some comparison, the Houston Astrodome - a large sports stadium - is only 208 feet tall; imagine being inside a stadium made of rock!)

We also learned about the cave’s resident bat population, including how much guano they deposit on the floor each night. In addition to experiencing their smell, you also get to see the bats in action. Each night at dusk, millions of bats leave the cave to go hunting for the night. This is known as the bat exodus, and they stream across the sky in a black horde for about an hour.

Kota Kinabalu

Our final stop on Borneo was to the city of Kota Kinabalu far to the north. We had wanted to head into another national park and hike up Mount Kinabalu, but decided against it to let Vesper’s knee rest a few more days. Instead we opted to use up the rest of Laura’s Hilton points, so we sat by their rooftop pool, enjoyed using good internet, and planned our next stop in the Philippines.

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48 Hours in Singapore

Before jumping from Peninsular Malaysia to Borneo, we had a brief 48 hour interlude in the city state of Singapore. Similar to our transition from South America to Copenhagen, moving from the third world of Southeast Asia into the ultra modern, high tech, and forward-thinking Singapore was a nice change of pace.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Singapore is its architecture. Despite being a large city with plenty of skyscrapers, the city feels remarkably open, sunny, and livable. We visited the Singapore City Gallery to learn more. The exhibit details how the city has evolved over the years and what their extensive urban planning has in store for the future. One of the interesting things we learned is that a large portion of Singapore is on reclaimed land; in fact, the city-state has increased its landmass by 22% since 1965 and plans to expand another 7-8% by 2030!

One of the models (showing both existing and future plans) of the entire city at the City Gallery.
Some buildings Vesper liked.
Old meets new (modern skyscrapers behind traditional buildings) and spirituality exists side by side (Hindu temple next to Chinatown) throughout Singapore.

After learning about the city in theory, we wanted to get a feel for it on foot so we set out to explore the various neighborhoods. Some of the highlights were the skyline from the riverfront, walking along the Helix Bridge, eating the least expensive Michelin-starred meal in the world, viewing the nighttime light-art installations around Marina Bay, and finding local beer among the Chinatown hawker stalls. Probably the coolest of them all, however, were the bio-dome and botanical Gardens by the Bay. These two massive glass-domed conservatories (the Flower Dome is the largest in the world) are spectacular to walk around, filled with a huge plethora of plants and the world’s largest indoor waterfall. If that were not enough, we timed our visit with sunset so we could catch the nightly light-and-music show under the Supertree grove nearby.

An inflatable course for kids on The Float @ Marina Bay.
Part of the Marina Bay boardwalk light show.
Chinatown: where you can get anything from dried geckos to craft beer!
The least expensive Michelin-starred meal in the world!
Inside the biodomes.
Supertree Grove

While we found Singapore to be nice and clean during our 48 hours, we met some locals who felt it was too sterile and impersonal. Either way, we would have loved to stay longer, but it has a steep pricetag. Next time!

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Peninsular Malaysia: Skyscrapers, Food, & the Jungle

We had no expectations going into Malaysia. We knew nothing about the people, language, culture, religion - not even the climate. We were lazy on the research and at this point we were getting a little tired of Southeast Asia. As they say in Thailand, it was a lot of “same same but different.” Things were starting to blur together, and we figured Malaysia would be similar.

Thankfully, we were wrong! What makes Malaysia interesting and different is its mixture of cultures and old colonial remnants: Chinese, Indian, European, and Malay influences exist separately and together in customs, language, architecture, food, and more.

Kuala Lumpur

Our first stop in Malaysia was the capital city of Kuala Lumpur (KL for short). It is also a regional travel hub, so we ended up here a few times in between other destinations. KL is a big modern city dominated by skyscrapers including the Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest building from 1998 to 2004. We stayed near Chinatown with its lively food scene and night market with all your knockoff needs. Our excursions around town brought us to the Batu Caves, one of the most popular Hindu shrines outside of India; to Brickfields, KL’s Little India, where we feasted on delicious curries and murtabak; and to a traditional Malay restaurant in the midst of a massive thunderstorm. Since we were the only customers at the restaurant, the owner happily indulged us with a history lesson about how the Chinese first came to Malaysia, intermarried with the locals since Hinduism and Taoism were similar enough to make the two cultures compatible, and began producing a tasty food fusion. While these cultures fused together, the owner noted that when the Arabs came to Malaysia, Muslims didn’t have the same compatibility due to their strict religious laws (or as she said, “Chinese like their pork and alcohol too much!”). Regardless of how accurate our history lesson was, we’re still big fans of the food all these cultures have blended together!

The Petronas Twin Towers, the world’s tallest building from 1998 to 2004.
Go big or go home: KL is home to the tallest twin towers in the world and the tallest Lord Murugan statue in the world (outside Batu Caves).

Penang

Our second stop was Georgetown on the island of Penang. This was by far our favorite place in Malaysia. We were recommended Georgetown by several other travelers, and everyone said the same thing: you go there to eat! We were a bit skeptical of this - how much better could the food possibly be there? - but as we learned, the locals take it as a serious source of pride. And the best part is that it is CHEAP. We’re talking delicious meals for under $2. And there are so many dishes to chose from that even after a week in town we still hadn’t tried all of the options from the many hawker stalls and food gardens.

Banana leaf set meal and crispy duck.
Char Kuay Teow, our favorite meal!
Curry mee (spicy coconut-based soup) and mee sotong (dry and wet versions of a squid noodle dish).
Ice Kacang, the weirdest thing we ate: shaved ice, red beans, evaporated milk, sweet corn, rose syrup and topped with coconut ice cream. While it wasn't that bad, we weren't the biggest fans.
Popiah (fresh spring rolls) and seafood laksa (spicy noodle soup).
Red Garden Food Paradise, one of the many night markets we enjoyed.
Seafood nasi goreng (fried rice) and wonton me (noodles, greens, and wontons).

When we weren’t stuffing our faces, we wandered the city searching out street art (including Ernest Zacharevic’s murals depicting everyday life), explored Little India, and visited the Chinese clan houses and the clan jetties, a “floating village” built on stilts over the water dating back to the 1800s. To make up for all the eating we were doing, we also did some hiking around Penang National Park, the world’s smallest national park. And then, of course, we ate a bit more.

Two of the old clan houses, one with the biggest incense we have ever seen!
Around Penang National Park.

Taman Negara

After steeping ourselves in the culture and food of Georgetown, we decided to get a glimpse of Malaysia’s nature. Taman Negara (“national park” in Malay) is home to one of the world’s oldest rainforests - over 130 million years. This ended up being our least favorite place mostly due to the suffocating and unbearable heat and humidity. We had considered staying longer and signing up for a multi-day guided excursion into the jungle, but Vesper was recovering from a viral infection, the weather was miserably hot, and we had already seen enough rainforest. Supposedly some cool animals live there (like sun bears), but even the rangers say you’re practically guaranteed to not see anything more than a lizard or maybe a troop of monkeys if you’re lucky.

A canopy walk, 40 meters above the ground.

Malacca

Malacca was our final destination on Peninsular Malaysia before an interlude in Singapore. Malacca has a similar but quieter vibe to Georgetown as an old colonial port city. We enjoyed our brief time with a bike tour of the city, delicious Indian food, old Portuguese ruins, some homemade pineapple and ginger beers, and a sunset over the Strait of Malacca.

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A Taste of Thailand’s Islands

After a quick pitstop in Bangkok to apply for Vesper’s new passport, we flew down to southern Thailand for two weeks of island hopping and beach bumming around Phuket and Koh Tao.

Phuket

Phuket is one of Thailands most popular “islands” along the western coast. We say “island” because it is large enough that it doesn’t really feel like an island. We started on the southern tip near a beautiful and relatively secluded beach. It was beyond hot, but the water was perfect - just watch out for the jellyfish! After a few relaxing days in the south, we headed back to the northern part of the island and used Phuket Town as a homebase to explore the island’s other more popular beaches, including Patong and Kata.

Our favorite beach, Ao Yon, and one of the jellies that came to visit. He made it back into the water.

Koh Tao

There are tons of islands to explore in Thailand and we didn’t know how to pick which one to visit. When the embassy called to let us know Vesper’s passport was ready, however, it was an easy choice to head to Koh Tao since it’s more or less en route back to Bangkok. Koh Tao is popular among backpackers as a place to get scuba certified on the cheap. We’re both dive certified and would have loved to go diving but Laura had a nasty cold so we stuck to snorkeling. The only thing more brightly colored than the fish and coral was the shade of red we both turned later that day. Pro tip: don’t buy the cheapest sunscreen available!

Koh Nang Yuan, one of the stops on our snorkel tour.
He was munching away at the coral.

Before leaving Thailand, we made one last stop at Golden Coins Taproom. We had one of their beers at Let the Boy Die the first time we visited Bangkok, but this time we were able to meet Pieak Pipattanaphon, Golden Coins’ founder and brewer. We chatted with Pieak while sipping our beers, getting the dirt on the Thai craft beer scene. Microbreweries are still illegal, but Pieak is getting around this by traveling to Saigon to brew the beer and then importing it back into Thailand. The beers were great and learning about how Pieak is changing the craft beer scene was an awesome way to spend our last day in Thailand. For the sake of future generations, let’s hope he succeeds!

Bangkok skyline from our AirBnb.
Golden Coins' brewer explaining the beer scene in Bangkok.

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