Going Further on the Magic Bus: Kerala Blog Express

Well before I’d read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and possibly even before Jack Kerouac changed my life with On the Road, there was just something about road trips that lured me in. I imagined myself hopping into a colorful bus or van, joined by a variety of open-minded, wanderlusting individuals, getting ready for the trip of a lifetime. I didn’t dwell much on the details, such as where we would go. All I knew is that this experience would expand my mind and test my limits. It didn’t dawn on me until after my trip this spring in Kerala, that during those 15 intense days, I had been going further on the Magic Bus.

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Jackson pushing me on the swing set… Nope, not kids at heart AT ALL… Photo via Aghil Menon

Who were we? Instead of the Ken Kesey’s ragamuffin mix of Merry Pranksters, we were 29 travel bloggers from 28 different countries. Ranging from the pensive to the exuberant, the cautious to the untamed and undeterred, we were a group of souls brought together by Kerala Tourism. As writers, photographers, vloggers, weekend warriors and professional hobos, our official mission was to explore and showcase the spectacular beauty of southern India. The real undertaking, however, was to connect with each other, learn about the complex land that welcomed us so eagerly, and all the while delve deeper into ourselves. As it was on the original Magic Bus, the true purpose was to go further into the world, not necessarily farther.

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Can you tell I’m excited for the trip?! Photo via Jinson Abraham.

Our whirlwind trip started in port city of Kochi, where we arrived a couple days early to ease ourselves into the culture and tend to our jet lag. Our March 20th, we all came together at the opening ceremony, introducing ourselves (literally, on a stage) and meeting the bus that would carry us throughout the journey. Boldly adorned with vignettes of Keralan life- from Kathakali masks to houseboats and towering coconut trees to geometric tigers to women tending tea plantations- we caught a glimpse into the colorful region we had yet to explore.

Armed with much-needed air conditioning, comfy blue seats, and the ever-important international plug sockets, we would traverse countless miles of territory in just over two weeks. Guided (and organized) by the ever-knowledgeable and saintly-patient Manoj, our Magic Bus took us through the phantasmagoric depths of Kerala. Inching through the unruly, congested city streets of Kochi to the backwaters of Alappuzha, winding through the misty mountaintops of Munnar, the verdant lands of Wayanad, and ascending to the northern heights of Kasaragod, our many hours on the bus were much, much more than a ride.

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Hanging out at a tea plantation with Jub, the only other vegan on the trip!

We shared countless moments together, chatting about travel, world affairs, and animal rights; taking pictures of each other sleeping; learning bits of the Malayalam language; singing together; sharing banana chips and cashews; afflicting each other with uncontrollable belly-laughs; holding our pressure points to stave away motion sickness; waiting for each other to stop taking photos and get back on the damn bus; working quietly on our laptops through the bumps and jolts. Over the seconds that turned into hours, and the days that blended into weeks, we would come to know and accept each other like family. And, for me, through the blithe comradery, the serious discussions, and times of silence, I came to embrace myself on a level I’d never before grasped.

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Nuthan, of “Me Met Me,” was a great inspiration throughout the trip. Photo via Jinson Abraham.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, climbing aboard Kerala Blog Express would be equivalent to going further on the Magic Bus. My journey in Kerala with 28 other travelers would not only push the limits of my mind, it would also expand my capacity for understanding, compassion, and self-acceptance. And, after 15 days, it would leave me with a connection to these other human beings that no amount of time or distance could erase.

First Impressions of Kerala, India

It’s 7:30am and I’m sitting on the restaurant patio of Xandari Resort, overlooking the harbor of Fort Kochi. As I eat a massive dosa masala with a side of fruit and plenty of black coffee, I watch the crows, clinging to boats’ metal poles with their talons, chewing on chicken feet. These aren’t feet like the dehydrated snacks so often chewed upon by men on Chinese trains; these are straight-up fresh foot bones and cartilage. Other than this intriguing/disturbing vision (is this a form of cannibalism?), I enjoy the view of this man-made river and marvel at the fact that I’m actually in fucking India. Essentially, my first impressions of Kerala are: When am I going to wake up from this trickery?

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View of Fort Kochi Harbour from the Xandari Resort pool

It’s been over 11 years since I originally planned to come to India. Instead of trying to fit India into a two-week trip back in 2006, I opted to take my time exploring Japan and China. India would surely come soon, I believed. But the years went by, and I got distracted by grad school, delving into the world of Latin American politics, and a string of relationships that left me smitten and sidetracked. Nonetheless, the desire to see this enigmatic land just grew and grew until I realized I couldn’t ignore its call.

I like to believe that things happen at certain times in our lives for a reason. Maybe in 2006 I wasn’t yet ready to delve into India. After all, that was my very first trip to Asia, and the culture shock I felt- even in Japan- was overwhelming. Maybe, if fate and destiny do exist, I was to wait all of those years so that I could fully appreciate every second of my time here, and to absorb all of the lessons this country has to offer me.  All I know is, right now, I’m exactly where I should be, and there’s no better feeling.

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Qatar’s DOHA airport has to be one of the coolest I’ve ever seen

Kerala Blog Express has brought me across the Atlantic Ocean, stopping in Doha, Qatar after a 16-hour plane ride, and half way across the Indian Ocean. I’m in Kochi, a place I’d never heard of before this year, about to explore the southern state of Kerala, which also had never been on my radar. Originally, when I thought of my Indian adventure, it was to include to Golden Triangle, a few wildlife safaris, a few caves, Mumbai, and perhaps Goa. I still have the paper where I loosely planned my visit. Clearly, at the age of 24, I had no concept of how completely vast this country is.

Come to think of it, I still have no clear perception. Although I’d like to blame it on jet lag, I’m not experiencing any, and this sense of the unknown stems from a) an itinerary I have yet to see and b) having only been in India for a mere three days. Within those days, I’ve spent the majority of my time either asleep or working, so that shows you just how much I’ve experienced. These are, after all, my very first impressions of Kerala, and of India as I know it (so far).

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  1. Goats

OMG, goats! If you know anything about me, you’re aware that I’m obsessed with animals. (Even if you just take a glimpse of my Instagram account, it becomes instantaneously clear.) Riding into town from the airport, my first observation was unsurprisingly that of Kochi’s fauna. There weren’t many to speak of while driving down the left side of the freeway, but once we got onto the city streets, my eyes widened as I saw goats prancing around, crossing the street, rummaging through garbage, and being cute as all hell.

Frankly, I’d been expecting cows (after all, this is the land of the holy cow), but the ubiquitous cuteness of goats was an unexpected joy.

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  1. The billboards are astronomical.

Have you been to Vegas or Tokyo, or anywhere else with massive signage everywhere? Well, hold onto your neon posters and flashing lights, because this place is about to one-up you. The massive proportions of their billboards, combined with the powerful use of vivid color, will make you whip your head around, jaw agape. It doesn’t matter if they’re advertising 3G cell phone service, the latest Mohanlal movie (from what I’ve learned, the dude is like an Indian Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris), or jewelry that would bling the hell out of Flavor Flave, you’re going to look. And damn it, you will be curious, and you will want to know more. The billboards aren’t just signs, they’re effective arsenals of entrancement.

And, by the way, who thought that so much English language would be used over here? Why are more than half of the signs I’m seeing in characters that I can decipher?

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  1. What is Che Guevera doing all over town?

Okay, I was aware that India is a place where all different types of religions, languages, and belief systems coexisted, but I missed the memo on communism. After immersing myself in Political Science during my grad program, learning about the powerful effect guerrilla communism had throughout the world (and not just Latin America), I’m left quite puzzled. Yes, this political ideology was deep-seated in China, Vietnam, and other Asian countries, but I’m blown away.

Never did I think I would see red flags, imprinted with white sickles and hammers, waving defiantly in India. Never did I think that the ever-important (if not idealistic) Argentine guerrillero would maintain such a strong presence in India.

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  1. The Indian head-nod is real.

Having grown up in San Jose, California- aka The Silicon Valley- I’m fortunate to say that I’ve grown up with a widely diverse range of cultures. (I’d even argue that other cultures are what give the United States its own identity, but that’s a discussion for another time.) As such, I like to believe that I’m somewhat familiar with Indian body language as well. I’m not sure if it’s due to pressures of assimilation, or that Indians in the States have naturally changed their ways over time, but I’m telling you, the Indian head-nod is very, very real. And I love it.

I’m so glad that I watched this video explaining the intricacies of the head-nod before I came to India, because it’s in full effect here. I like it. Just like the hand gestures I picked up in Argentina, I feel like this might be something that stays with me. It makes sense.

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  1. Is this really India?

Sure, I’m sweaty as all hell in this humidity, people are dressed colorfully in their saris and lungis, but for some reason, this doesn’t feel like the India I expected. I see some reminders that this is a developing land, what with the amount of litter, the absurdly low prices, and the stray animals roaming around, but I expected something different. People told me stories of seeing dead babies on the street. Of immense poverty and desperation. Of intolerable situations that stifled their minds and their breath.

But here? I see coconut trees everywhere. People out on the streets, living their lives. Clothing stores and fruit stalls. It’s like a mix of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and Siem Reap, Cambodia, without Angkor Wat or Mexican food. The traffic really ain’t that bad. It’s congested, but it reminds me of calmer version of Hanoi, Vietnam. I’ve heard that Kerala is nothing like northern Indian states, and perhaps because that’s what I’ve known, this almost seems like a different country.

And so, my first impressions of Kerala are bound to change, as I’ve only been here a few days, and have only explored a limited amount of Kochi. There is much yet to see, and I’m off to my first real day here on the press trip, off to meet the other bloggers I have not yet met, and explore this land with 29 other people that have traveled from all points of the globe to be here.

I’m beyond elated, and I can’t wait to explore what India has yet to teach me.

Dreams of Southeast Asia: Bandung, Indonesia

It’s now been three years since I first discovered Southeast Asia. After visiting Malaysia, Borneo, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, I was hooked on the region. 2013 was quite the year.

Recently, my good friends at the Martian Arts Tattoo Studio took a well-deserved journey to some of the same places I had visited. Upon seeing their photos of familiar, yet foreign lands, nostalgia quickly crept up on me.

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One of the photos my Indonesian brothers sent me. Photo by Zulfikar SH.

Not a week later, my “brothers” from Indonesia sent me a Facebook message with a photo album, reminding me of their country’s beauty. In 2013, I serendipitously met these guys on a late-night bus ride from Penang, Malaysia, northbound to Phuket, Thailand. That’s the way it is on the road; you’re always making friends when you least expect it. They were taking a vacation from their business careers and I was drifting around, paying heed to whatever destination called me.

I didn’t plan on it, but we ended up hanging out in Phuket for quite a few days, meeting up for dinners and partying in Pattaya. The looked after me, calling me their sister, and even inspired me to write about what is takes to be a “real” backpacker. Ever since, we’ve been in contact, and the idea of visiting Indonesia has not left me.

When most people think of Indonesia, they think of the paradise of Bali. And while I would undoubtedly love to see Bali, they are many other places I’d love to see. For example, I’d love to go back to Borneo (this time, the Indonesian side!) or  visit Sumatra to see orangutans in the wild. (If you haven’t noticed, I’m a total animal lover!) I’d also love to see the capital city, Jakarta, as well as a city that’s recently come to my attention for its incredible natural landscapes- Bandung.

So, here’s my vision:

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“Bandung” by Phalinn Oi. Photo via CC Commons.

After arriving in Jakarta and exploring the capital for a few days, catching up with my brothers, I’d head south to Bandung. I’d check into the Hilton Bandung, enjoy the hotel’s facilities, and then head out to explore Braga Street in the city center, which was historically a promenade in the 1920s. Before hitting up the Grand Mosque, I’d grab a coffee at a vegan-friendly café, like LN Fortunate coffee. After exploring important sites like Gedung Sate, The Konferensi Asia Afrika Museum, and the Bandung Geological Museum, I’d then head to a late lunch or early dinner (vegan, obviously!) at Kehiidipan Tidak Pernah Berakhir or Tahu Yun-Yi.

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“Villa Isola, Bandung” by celebrityabc via CC Commons

The next day, I’d head over to Villa Isola, or Bumi Siliwangi, in the northern region of Bandung. Designed by the Dutch architect, Wolff Schoemaker, in 1933, it’s an interesting combination of Dutch and Indonesian philosophies. As it now serves as the head office for the University of Education Indonesia, it would hopefully give me some insight into the longstanding Dutch occupation of Indonesia. After roaming the grounds, I would wait around with my camera for golden hour, as there are supposed to be spectacular views of the city here.

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“Tangkuban Perahu, Bandung” by Ann Espino. Photo via CC Commons.

In the following days, I’d explore some of Bandung’s natural wonders, such as the volcano site of Tangkuban Perahu, Patenggang Lake, or Kawah Puti. Whenever I travel, I try to balance out my time spent in cities with equal immersion in nature, which is one of the reasons I’d love to visit Bandung. Tangkuban Perahu, meaning “up-turned boat,” is Bandung’s most renowned volcano with three large craters. After hiking around, I’d be sure to see Kawah Domas, the crater strewn with hot geysers. With luck on my side, it would be a clear day, and I’d be able to spot the Java Sea off in the distance before heading to the nearby Ciater tea plantations.

After a week or two of properly navigating Bandung, I would hopefully meet up with my Indonesian brothers again, heading to a lesser-known locations like Luengbata, to swim, snorkel, dive, and enjoy the underwater world of the southern hemisphere.

This, my friends, is one of my Southeast Asian dreams.

If you long to see Southeast Asia as well, traveloka.com can help you plan your adventure.

Have you traveled to Bandung or Indonesia? If so, what was your experience? What would you recommend? Please respond in the comments below!

*This is a sponsored post. However, like everything else, it is reflective of my opinions only.

How You Can Cycle around Taiwan with a Lonely Planet Writer

Ever dreamed of traveling around Taiwan- by bicycle?

I’ve had the honor of becoming friends with Joshua Samuel Brown, fellow Portlander and wanderluster, over the last couple of years. He’s an amazing individual and travel writer who shares my affinity with Taiwanese culture. So much so that he lived there for seven years, learning Mandarin fluently and writing several books along the way. If that’s not impressive enough, he’s now beginning a new venture, using his expertise to show you the extraordinary landscapes and cultural nuances of his beloved island.

And now, I present you to Joshua, who will fill you in on the details:

Joshua Samuel Brown

Joshua Samuel Brown

Greetings, Chronicles of a Travel Addict readers!

As my friend and fellow global roamer Cristina Luisa has been kind enough to allow me to hijack her blog for a few hundred words to tell her readers about my new venture, I suppose an introduction is in order.

I’m Joshua Samuel Brown, author of 13 Lonely Planet guides, and like Cristina, a long-time wanderer, writer and global adventurer.  The place I’ve lived the longest is Taiwan (It’s a great place for an extended adolescence!), becoming an expert on the land, its people and culture. After a few years away from my beloved island, I’m heading back next month for a new adventure.

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City view of Hualien

Earlier this year I was contacted by a company called Bicycle Adventures that does luxury bicycle trips around North America and a few international locations as well.  Bicycle Adventures was launching a Taiwan tour and having read an article I did a few years back for Bicycle Times Magazine about riding in Taiwan, they thought there might be some synergy between us.

I visited their office, checked out their impressive track record (they’ve been around for 30+ years) and, most importantly, their plans for creating a Taiwan trip, and accepted a gig acting as planner, guide and liaison for their Taiwan tour.  It’s a unique trip, mixing luxury, culture, culinary excellence and bicycling through the most beautiful spots on an island so noted for beauty that the first Portuguese sailors to set eyes on its coast said “Isla Formosa!” – Beautiful Island, a name which sticks to this day.

Isla Formosa

Isla Formosa

And that’s where you come in. Because I’d like you, dear readers, to come along on said aforementioned adventure.  And not in the “follow me on Twitter” way (though feel free – I’m @josambro), but literally.

The tours are going to be epic, even– dare I say? –life-changing in the way that only exotic and challenging experiences can be. Over eleven days we’ll be riding on some of East Asia’s most awe inspiring roads, including the road leading from Taipei to the sea over volcanic Yaming Mountain, the winding east coast highway (considered one of the loveliest roads for cycling in the world), and through dramatic Taroko Gorge and beyond into the Central Mountain range.

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Coastal cycling

The route has been picked specifically to appeal to cyclists of all levels, and of course, as with all Bicycle Adventures tours, our air-conditioned van is always close by for riders preferring to take the easy way up any particular hill.

Time out of the saddle will be equally well spent soaking in natural hot springs, visiting tribal villages and working our way through Taiwan’s nearly infinite variety of culinary wonders. As for accommodations, we’ve chosen some excellent hotels including the Silks Place in Taroko, the Château Beach Resort in Kenting and the Grand Victoria in Taipei. (As if you’d expect less on a tour around Taiwan being orchestrated and led by a guy who writes guidebooks about the place!)

Eight Arches

Eight Arches

And that, of course, is another of our trip’s many added value factors: You’ll be exploring this vibrant, exotic landscape with a cyclist who writes guidebooks about Taiwan, benefiting simultaneously from my passion and experience in Taiwan and Bicycle Adventures’ 30+ years of experience in orchestrating luxury bicycle tours.

If you’ve read this far and want to go further, check out the Bicycle Adventures Taiwan Bike Tour page, which has full details about the tour-including pricing, dates, routes, activities and links to every hotel we’ll be staying. If you mention this blog, you can get one of two discounts – $150 off the trip starting on October 24 and $75 off the one starting on November 7. Use the code “COATA15” when booking.  Feel free to hit me up with any questions you might have about the tour (or Taiwan in general) at josh.brown@bicycleadventures.com.

Cycling past temples

Cycling past temples

Need a reason to cycle in Taiwan? Here’s five!

We now return you to your already scheduled blog, already in progress!

Sincerely,

Joshua Samuel Brown

Author

Vignettes of Taiwan (Things Asian Press). 

Co-Author (Lonely Planet / BBC): Taiwan (7th & 8th edition); Belize (3rd, 4th & 5th edition); Singapore City Guide (8th edition); Greater Mekong (2nd edition); Singapore Encounter (2nd edition); Central America on a Shoestring (7th & 8th edition).  Contributor: China (Fodor’s ~ 2006 edition). The World’s Best Street Foods, (Lonely Planet), The World’s Best Spicy Foods, (Lonely Planet), The World’s Best Brunches, (Lonely Planet).

One Day in Bangkok: How to Make the Most of Your Time

Bangkok is a complex, sensory city filled with grit, bright lights, crowded streets, a mix of modern and old culture, and no shortage of temptation. As the capital of Thailand and a major economic hub, this metropolis is home to over 6 million people, with an estimated 14 million people living in the suburbs. While visiting Thailand, especially if you’re flying into the region, you shouldn’t miss all the experiences this wondrous, multi-faceted city has to offer.

If you’re like me, however, you may run into a problem in which you only have one day to explore. Originally having planned on staying at least a week or two, I suddenly got a job teaching in Trat- near the border of Cambodia- and left prematurely. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to come back to Bangkok for my flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, and had a bit more time to let the city’s uniqueness seep into my pores.

No matter what your situation is, if you find yourself with a limited amount of time in Bangkok, the following are suggestions on what to see, where to eat, and what to do in order to make the most of your time. This is by no means a 24-hour step-by-step itinerary, since this is not how I travel. It is more of a list of what I enjoyed, and what I thought gave me an authentic, comprehensive taste of the city on very limited schedule.

Take a Tuk Tuk Ride

My introduction to Bangkok from the inside of a tuk tuk

My introduction to Bangkok from the inside of a tuk tuk

Tuk tuks are commonplace in Thailand, but in Bangkok it seems they need to make a statement. Decorated in loud, flashy, sometimes glittery colors, the drivers oftentimes bump their music and hang all kinds of ornaments, including Christmas lights, on their rides. Tuk tuks are cheaper (and alot more fun) than taxis, and because they are essentially a carriage hitched to a motorcycle, the driver can weave in and out of traffic much faster than a car or bus. Tuk tuks are a fantastic way to discover the city!

Avoid Rush Hour

Light traffic in Bangkok, and stairs to the MRT behind

Light traffic in Bangkok, and stairs to the MRT behind

While just one day in Bangkok is sure to be jam-packed with activity, try your best to avoid rush hour, or rather, hours. If you’ve been to places like Los Angeles in the US, or Mexico City in Mexico, and think you’ve seen the extent of traffic hell, you are mistaken. Bangkok is a large city, and if you have the misfortune of wanting to get from one side to the other while the streets are congested, you better have brought War and Peace along with you. I hopped on the bus, thrilled at paying a miniscule fare, only to realize that I’d be stuck on that bus for about three and a half hours. My original calculations determined that I should have arrived within 30 minutes.

If you can’t avoid rush hour, take the MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit). This is Bangkok’s main railway service and will get you to most major areas. If not, it will get you a whole lot closer to your destination and substantially cut down your travel time. This is very important when you only have one day; you don’t want to spend it stuck in traffic!

Explore the Markets

Thai lady selling flowers at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Photo credit: Jason Blanchard

Thai lady selling flowers at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Photo credit: Jason Blanchard

Bangkok is all about business, and in a city like this, you better believe that its markets are something spectacular. From food to clothing to jewelry massages to flowers to furniture to… pretty much anything you can buy with money- you’ll find it in abundance. For most Westerners, the baht, or Thai currency, is very low, and that means that Bangkok will be a shopping paradise for most. Please keep in mind, however, that the Thai working class put in countless hours of hard work for minimal pay, so be fair when haggling.

The biggest, most varied market is the Chatuchak, with places like Talat Rot Fai being a great place for antiques, and Thanan Kaoh San Market offering a good variety of souvenirs. If you haven’t had Southeast Asian fruit yet, be sure to try some dragon fruit, rhambutan, lychee, mangosteen, or if you’re feeling especially adventurous, the notorious durian. Durian is especially stinky, and has been banned from certain hotels for its pungent odor, but the taste is quite unique!

Visit the Grand Palace

Grand Palace. Photo credit: Jason Blanchard

Grand Palace. Photo credit: Jason Blanchard

Bangkok is a modern, bustling city focused on the future, but there are also beautiful remnants of the past tucked away in its streets. If I had to choose just one place to visit to get a sense of classic Thai architecture, it would be the Grand Palace. Built in 1782, it is a massive, gorgeously ornate, white, red, and gold complex of structures. Within its walls lies the Emerald Buddha Temple, or Wat Phra Kaew, which is considered the most sacred temple in the country. The Grand Palace is also a powerfully symbolic building in Thai culture, since this is where the king resides. Walking away from Bangkok without seeing this structure- conveniently situated in the city center- would be like leaving Thailand without tasting the food. It’s a serious feast for the eyes.

Eat at CHOMP

View of CHOMP from the outside. Permission to use photo by Gili Back.

View of CHOMP from the outside. Permission to use photo by Gili Back.

CHOMP is one of those places you walk into on a whim and instantly know that you’ve found what you’ve been looking for. Since I’d arrived in Bangkok on an overnight bus from Phuket at 5:30am, I was starving when I finally got around to searching for food. This place is amazing! Owned by a lovely South African woman and her Thai husband, they put their hearts into all of the plates they make. It’s open for every meal of the day (8am to 11pm), have delicious burgers (I’ve heard), and cater to those (like me) who eat plant-based diets. Everything is fresh, like their to-die-for smoothies, and the restaurant is kid-friendly, too. To top it off, they host fundraisers, parties, and art exhibitions- so be sure to check out their calendar before heading over.

CHOMP from the inside- preparing delicious food even on their day off! Permission to use photo by Gili Back.

CHOMP from the inside- preparing delicious food even on their day off! Permission to use photo by Gili Back.

The people at CHOMP are so sweet that they called a taxi for me, wrote directions in Thai for me to give to the driver, and later that night invited me to party with them. This place rocks!

Party on Kaoh San Road

Eating scorpion on Kaoh San Road

Eating scorpion on Kaoh San Road

Located in the Banglamphu region, just over a half a mile from the Grand Palace, Kaoh San Road is a crazy street that especially comes alive in the nighttime. Filled with bars, restaurants, clubs, bazaars, street food, and plenty of international wanderers, there is always plenty to do. Sure, it may be more on the touristy side and a bit more expensive than remote parts of Bangkok, but it’s worth the experience.

My time spent on Kaoh San Road was with locals, where they took me to their favorite open-air bar that played rock and roll music (there’s really something for everyone!). After a couple of shots, and quite a few vendors passing by, a Thai man selling fried scorpion on a stick approached me. At the time I was vegetarian, but curiosity got the best of me, and about 60 baht (less than $2 USD) later, I was biting down on a poor old scorpion head. It was extremely salty, and what I imagine charcoal would taste like. Not to worry, if scorpions aren’t your thing, there are cockroaches, ants, spiders, and other critters available to eat.

Now, when it comes to nightlife, there’s nothing boring about Bangkok. Whether you’re on a shoestring budget or have money flying out of your pockets, and whether you like to sip fine wine, party like a rock star, dance the night away, or have a few brews at a dive bar, there is something for you. Luckily, Kaoh San Road has a great selection of things to do when the sun goes down. After having the misfortune of tasting scorpion, my friends and I went to several bars and clubs, listening to house music, watching light shows, and drinking magical potions out of huge buckets. If you’re a beer connoisseur, be forewarned, the Thais will immediately try to put ice in your beer.

All in all, Bangkok is a city where you will never get bored. There is plenty more to see than what I’ve listed here, and some of these options just might not be your cup of tea. However, this is entirely my opinion- and if you’re the same kind of traveler as I am, I think you’ll find your day brimming with new adventures and unexpected moments. One thing is doubtless- Bangkok will be a memorable city in which all five of your senses are constantly engaged, intrigued, and challenged.

 

How about you? What would you recommend seeing if you only had one day in Bangkok, Thailand? Did I miss anything? I’d love to hear your comments!

Five Places Where I’ve Left My Heart- and Must Return

The more I travel, the more I perceive the world as vast, complex, intriguing, yet somehow closely woven . Over the past 11 years- since I began traveling- I’ve been to 22 countries and easily more than 250 cities. Some of these places were memorable, some gave me horror stories to tell for a lifetime, and others were simply pleasant to have visited. It is rare, however, that a city or town has given me that certain feeling of connection. It’s a spark similar to meeting someone you swear you’ve met before, or with whom you immediately click. These places, for one reason or another, stick with you long after you set foot on their soil. They surface in dreams, manifest in sporadic urges to return, and leave you reminiscing over your photos at midnight, with a sense of homesickness in your heart.

There are many locations that I’ve seen and never will again, and I’m okay with that. However, there are a few special cities that tug at me constantly, begging me to return. They are as follows:

1. Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo's Asahi Flame, aka

Tokyo’s Asahi Flame, aka “The Golden Turd,” across the Sumida River

In 2006, I made a decision to start exploring the world outside of Latin America. I was absolutely obsessed. Every single country I’d been to at that time was Spanish-speaking, and in the Americas. I needed to force myself out of my comfort zone, and so a friend and I planned a trip to Japan, China, and India.

Eventually, India was dropped from the list and an altogether different friend decided to come along for the ride. I was living in San Francisco, CA at the time, and spent a few nights a week after work studying Japanese. After about four months of drawing my best Hiragana characters and my roommates tiring of hearing phrases like “So, desu ne,” I had a working, yet extremely elementary vocabulary.

Arriving in Tokyo was like doing a head stand and having my brain whirl around in my skull. This was a land of extremes. Extreme fashion, extreme politeness, extreme efficiency, and extremely large, brightly-lit buildings. Flash, flash, flash! Look HERE! No, look HERE! No, no, look THERE!!! This put Las Vegas to shame. It was the City of Sin on steroids to the infinite power. AND they had beer for sale in vending machines. I hardly blinked the whole time I was there. My mind was warped and my self-suspected Adult ADD was in full effect. This was so different from anything I’d ever experienced. Could this be real?

I need to return to Tokyo, first of all, because I was only there for about five days total. That is way too short of a time for such a fascinating, enigmatic city. Secondly, I was on a budget when I went. I want to go with at least two months and $10 grand to spend, because I know that Tokyo has much more to offer than what my measly wallet allowed me to experience. Thirdly, this was the first country I’d ever been to that gave me culture shock. To this day, I think my mind has never been blown as much as the day I first set foot in Japan- and that’s a lasting feeling. I want to go back, knowing what to expect, yet hoping for more. I want to take all of those amazing, intense experiences, and see how far Tokyo can push them.

2. Taipei, Taiwan

Listening to live salsa music at Brown Sugar in Taipei, Taiwan

Listening to live salsa music at Brown Sugar in Taipei, Taiwan

Last year, in 2013, I had the unexpected opportunity to volunteer teaching English in Taiwan. At first, I admittedly wasn’t that excited about Taiwan, since I thought it would be a mini-version of China. (Don’t get me wrong; I loved the month I’d spent in China, but I wasn’t necessarily  dying to go back.) I stood absolutely corrected. Taiwan was, well, a completely distinct country. The language was less cacophonous, the people friendlier, the food much healthier (this is one of the best places to travel as a vegetarian/vegan!), and a more peaceful feel overall.

I was assigned to teach in Chu-Pei, Taiwan, which is about an hour southwest of Taipei. I loved the place where I taught, even though it was more of a city-like, suburban location. I wasn’t able to visit the capital of the country until my teaching session was over, and due to filming a documentary in Borneo the following week, I only had two nights in Taipei.

The short time I had, however, stuck with me. The food was impeccable, the nightlife amazing, and the set-up of the city was organized and teeming with activity. Taipei was also uber-international- the two days I was there, I met people from England, Nicaragua, Colombia, Cambodia, and the U.S. It was a perfect conglomeration of everything a world traveler looks for in a city. I would love to return to Taipei, further explore the city, learn more of the Taiwanese dialect, and possibly even live there for a while.

3. Sao Paulo, Brazil

Graffiti Art in Sao Paulo

Graffiti Art by Ciro in Sao Paulo

Oh, Brazil, how I love and miss you! It’s not often that you arrive in a country and immediately mesh with the culture, the people, and the vibes. Brazil was this place for me. For my Master’s degree in Latin American Studies, I had to learn a second Latin American language, and I opted for Portuguese. After taking two semesters’ worth of classes, I was doing rather well. Still, I knew from experience that nothing compared to being immersed in a culture in order to obtain fluency.

The summer of 2008, I headed off to Belo Horizonte-where my Portuguese professor was from- to begin an intensive six-week Brazilian Language and Culture course in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo. Coincidentally, the lady who was subletting my room in San Diego happened to be friends with a Paulista, and I met up with him the first day I arrived in Sao Paulo. He was the first Latin American vegetarian I’d ever met, and was also an artist who’d lived in Taiwan.

I was fortunate to get to know Sao Paulo from a local’s perspective- and one who shared many interests of mine. Perhaps this was the reason I fell in love with the city, but I suspect that there is much more. I’m a huge fan of large metropolises with thriving art scenes. It seemed that everyone I met there was a progressive individual, striving for more beyond themselves, focusing on positivity, and generating a ton of creative energy through poetry, art, acting, meditation, and so on. This is exactly the kind of environment that cultivates and stimulates me.

I feel a deep connection to Sao Paulo because I believe I was able to see into its artistic heart. Walking down the streets and avenues, in-your-face street art met my eyes on walls, doors, gates, and any other flat surfaces. This is the land of Os Gemeos, Binho, Ciro, and of Tikka! Art is everywhere; it seems to be in the air you breathe and the food you eat. Plus, their caipirinhas are damn tasty. A big piece of my heart was definitely left in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

4. Managua, Nicaragua

The Catedral de Santiago, in La Plaza de Revolucion, still stands in Mangua's Old City Center, ridden with bullets

The Catedral de Santiago, in La Plaza de Revolucion, still stands in Mangua’s Old City Center, ridden with bullets

Managua is a stunning place of vast contradictions. Everywhere you turn, you see lush greenery, rolling mountains, and spectacular natural landscapes. The food is delicious, the music contagious, and the people incredibly warm and affectionate. Nonetheless, it is still the second poorest country in Latin America,and it shows. Countless homeless people have set up camp throughout the city, taking shelter under tarps and garbage bags. When I was there in 2007, the unemployment rate was 50%. It is a city still scarred visually and economically by years of civil war.

While volunteering in Nicaragua, I taught English, helped out at the library, and mostly did art projects with children at La Chureca- which was the city dump. My first impression was that it was a place of squander, drugs, disease, and sadness. Seeing children the age of four- malnourished, hands and faces dirty- chasing down trucks early in the am in order to find the best recyclables, instantly depressed me. They played in and drank from the same murky water where skeletal horses and pigs defecated. At the top of the hill, just beyond their make-shift homes of metal, wood, cardboard, and posters, you could see beyond to El Lago de Managua- a stunningly blue body of water bordered with forest green hills. It was taunting, this vision. To live in such squalor and be able to see a fairy tale of life, just across the way- it was at times too much for me to handle.

You can’t take experiences like this back. I will never unsee this kind of poverty, but still, something else was more even more overwhelming: It was the children’s sense of pure optimism. The faces that I saw on a daily basis in La Chureca were so happy and excited, so trusting and loving, that I looked forward to seeing them every morning. Nonetheless, every afternoon when I went home, my clothes were dirty and my shoes caked with mud. I was emotionally exhausted. I kept imagining these children as my own. I would give anything to provide just one child the opportunity to have resources like I’d had growing up.

Managua, Nicaragua was a city that shook me in many ways, and the country become one of my absolute favorites. It changed me. I had previously seen vast poverty throughout South America, but this was different. I got to know the names, faces, and stories behind these individuals’ lives. I do not exaggerate when I say that I owe part of who I am to my experiences in Managua. Partially because of that, I need to return. I want to see who these children have grown to be, to reunite with the friends I made there, and hopefully to glimpse a positive change in economy and distribution of resources.

5. Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Casa Rosada, or the president's house, during a protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina

La Casa Rosada, the president’s house, during a protest in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Oh, Buenos Aires, the “Paris” of Latin America- how did I ever become entangled in your snare? My whole plan when finishing high school was to move to Spain and to become fluent in Spanish. Alas, that plan was abolished and instead, at my parents’ urging, I went straight to college. During the next four years, between Argentinean classmates in Spanish class, the Argentinean empanada stand at Venice Beach, and other little signs here and there, my mind shifted gears. In 2004, I purchased a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Politically ill from Little Bush’s decisions and the wars that had just commenced, I wanted nothing to do with the U.S. I had no intention of coming back.

I may have looked like an argentina, but my obviously non-Argentinean accent soon gave me away. People tried to relate to me by referencing McDonald’s and Mickey Mouse. I suppose this was just as annoying as Argentinean people coming to the U.S. and people asking them if they worshipped Eva Peron, drank mate, or danced the tango.

Nonetheless, it was here that I relearned Spanish… errr… castellano, and started to become the person I am today. I met people from all over the Spanish-speaking world, overwhelming myself to the point where Spanish words floated around my head at night like incessant, pesky butterflies. I’m sure that I would have become fluent in Spanish no matter if I’d moved to Spain or Argentina, but I wouldn’t have been the same. It was here that I became interested in politics, had my first solo travel experience, and began to invest a huge portion of my life in Latin America.

I desperately want to return to Argentina not only to visit the friends I made that still live there, but also to retrace the steps that the early twenty-something version of myself made. I want to see how the city has changed, and how much I have changed as well. After having traveled to various other countries, and gaining ten years’ worth of life experience, I am sure to view the city from a whole different perspective. And, after all, Buenos Aires is where my obsession began; Argentina is embedded in my travel roots.

Are there any cities you’ve been to and long to return? Have you left your heart somewhere on the other side of the globe? I’d love to hear about them!

Tattoos and Travel

The relationship between tattoos and travel has been on my mind for quite sometime. Do people tend to get body art while on vacation because they’re actually embracing the moment, feel out of character and able to do anything they want, or because they’ve had a few too many margaritas? (Come on, I know a good percentage of people who got tribal tattoos, or dolphin/butterfly tramp stamps during their one week stay in Hawaii, Mexico, or [insert another tropical location].)

I get it; I have a tendency toward impulsiveness. But I’ve also always worried about regret. I think I even had a nightmare once where I’d tattooed “Thug Life” across my stomach in a drunken stupor. (Tupac either would’ve been proud or laughed his ass off at how far from a thug I am.) My first tattoo was a semi-coiled snake on my left hip that I had spent over three years researching and drawing. I got it about a week after turning eighteen- when my abs were still solidly defined and hadn’t known the perils of being a whiskey girl. This was the only tattoo I ever got while I wasn’t traveling, and to this day it represents so much of who I used to be- so innocent, so inexperienced in life, like a baby snake alone in fields of grass yet to be discovered.

Frolicking in the waves in Cahuita, Costa Rica. You can barely see my little snake tattoo- but alas, there it is!

Frolicking in the waves in Cahuita, Costa Rica. You can barely see my little snake tattoo- but alas, there it is!

My second tattoo best embodies that whimsical desire to permanently mark oneself while on foreign soil. I was 23 years old, and had been living in Buenos Aires and backpacking throughout South America the previous eight months. It was my last week in Argentina and I’d been wanting to get a tattoo that represented my time in the southern hemisphere. One of the guys who lived in our residencia was only eighteen and already had sleeves on both of his arms. My Ecuadorian roommate had stated that she would never get a tattoo, but if she did, it would just be a dot to represent the vastness and nothingness of this world. I told her, “If you get a tattoo, I’ll get one, too.” This was the second to the last night of my stay in Buenos Aires. She agreed, and the whole night I racked my brain on how to put all of my experiences into one little tattoo. Much of the Incan and indigenous cultures in South America believed in the power of four- a perfectly balanced number representative of the cardinal points, elements, sacred animals, and so on. In a haste, I decided to draw a square within a square- a symbol of strength and solidity- and fill in the middle square with purple. This would represent the third eye chakra, allowing me to see clearly and envision life as it should unfold as I returned to the United States. Sounds cool, right? I love what the tattoo stands for, but aesthetically…

In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

Getting my second tattoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In retrospect, what the fuck was I thinking?

I didn’t get another tattoo for another nine or so years. Oh, I definitely thought about it and researched designs and tattoo studios. Maybe I was traumatized by my $8 USD tattoo that quite a few people teased me about being a permanent club stamp. Instead, I played around with different hair colors- blue, red, pink, orange, maroon, and so on- and a slew of different piercings.

Enjoying a caipirinha with friends in Belo Horizonte. I miss my lip piercing!

Enjoying a caipirinha with friends in Belo Horizonte. I miss my lip piercing!

While I had been traveling throughout that nine-year period, I simply decided to abstain from any more ink. And then, I found myself in a situation that I’d never expected myself to be in, something that would make me see permanency and the concept of “forever” in a new light. A serious relationship ended, and I awoke, realizing that nothing was for certain, and that I would not have to die stuck in my hometown after all (a great fear of mine). Soon after, I was on the road with one of my best friends headed north from San Jose, California (my hometown). I had always wanted to explore the northern west coast, but up until then, I had always driven up and down the lengths of California.

The main purpose for the trip was to explore Portland to see if it was right for me as a new home base, but we also went to Seattle and Vancouver, BC, Canada. One day, my friend and I were walking around SE Hawthorne, exploring the cute, quirky, Haight-Ashbury-ish feel of the neighborhood. We had been talking tattoos on the whole drive up. We had just eaten brunch at Bread and Ink Cafe and after a couple of blocks I looked up to the left and noticed a Victorian-style building. One the main door, there was a sign that read “Martian Arts Tattoos.” The name intrigued me, and my friend agreed to go in. From the sound of the bells on the door, to the creak of the stairs, to the purple walls adorned with Buddhist kitsch and funky, colorful paintings, I knew that this was the place. The owners, Joanne and Jerry Martian, greeted us with warm vibes and smiles as the sound of buzzing needles permeated my being. I started to get excited. I knew exactly what I wanted; I had been pondering over flowers and a simple, yet powerful, word for years. As I looked through Joanne’s portfolio, I fell in love with her mastery of precision, her impeccable line work and range of creativity. “Do you have any openings today?” I asked, debit card burning in my wallet.

The uber-talented Martians and me at their Martian Arts Studio in Portland, OR, USA

The uber-talented Martians and me at their Martian Arts Studio in Portland, OR, USA

A couple of hours later, drawings were done, locations decided upon, and I was in the much-estranged tattoo chair once again. I had taken a Vicodin to numb the pain, and my words sluggishly rolled off my tongue as I talked to Joanne about relationships, writing, art, travel, and so much more. The time slipped away like a warped Salvador clock ticking erratically. Soon, I would look in the mirror and see the most beautiful tattoo that represented my life as it was- in full bloom.

I couldn't have been- and still couldn't be- happier with the way that my flower mandala came out. I've gotten compliments all over the world for this piece, thanks to Joanne.

I couldn’t have been- and still couldn’t be- happier with the way that my flower mandala came out. I’ve gotten compliments all over the world for this piece, thanks to Joanne.

And this, no one could ever take away. I was enduring a major transformation in life, and this ink served to remind me of the interconnectedness of life. Everything comes full circle; with the bad always comes the good. It is a symbol of constantly striving to reach my potential, to love myself, and to never compromise who I am or what I believe for another human being.

Since I was so happy with Joanne’s artwork, I asked her if I could get another tattoo that same night. This one had been churning in my thoughts for about eight years. The only thing that had stopped me (aside from not knowing a competent artist), was that I already had my crappy box tattoo on the inside of my right wrist. Here was the idea: I am a writer. I love, yearn, bleed, and weep words. The purpose for my presence on this earth is to write, to spread awareness and knowledge, and help others in any way possible. Therefore, my right hand was meant to write. By tattooing “escribir” on my inner wrist, I made a promise to myself that I would never stray from writing. If there ever is a day where feel like quitting (and honestly, there are), I look down at my wrist and resolve myself to cease the foolishness. It is also a nod to my infatuation with the Spanish language and Latin American culture.

“Escribir” means “to write” in Spanish. It’s easy to tell good art from bad, no?

Not three months later, I found myself in Malaysian Borneo- Kuching, Sarawak, to be exact. I had just finished volunteering teaching English in Chupei, Taiwan, and decided to head out to Malaysia when I saw how cheap the flights were. I had been dreaming about volunteering with orangutans in Borneo since I was a teenager-or possibly a preteen. It was amazing to me how serendipitous life could be. It was almost like my farthest-flung dreams were coming true without much effort. Maybe it was just the culmination of all my hard work that year coming to fruition. All I knew is that I didn’t think I’d ever actually step foot in Borneo, and there I was.

The day I arrived in Kuching, I set my bags down in the hostel room, starved, and headed downstairs to grab a bite to eat. I ran into the hostel’s front desk attendant, and I noticed his tattoos right away. He had a sweet tribal throat piece, which signified having triumphed an extremely challenging moment in life, as well as tribal flowers on both shoulders. These represented the transition from boyhood into manhood. Humbly, he thanked me. I asked him who had done his art, and he said that there was a shop just across the street called Borneo Headhunter Tattoo and Piercing Studio. My host’s friend Ernesto had done his tattoos there. I wouldn’t realize until I walked into the shop that Ernesto Kalum was a world-renowned tattoo artist who had traveled the world providing people- “average” tattoo enthusiasts and celebrities alike- with gorgeous Iban tribal ink. I was floored.

Can you say

Can you say “badass?!” Notice the skulls in the case? Yeah, Ibans weren’t called “head hunters” for no reason.

There was no way I was leaving Borneo without a tattoo, and, doubtlessly, I had found the place. Everything about Borneo Headhunters impressed me- the studio’s artwork and energy, Ernesto’s portfolio, and especially his humility. I decided that I wanted an owl tattoo on my upper back, and he immediately got to sketching. While his first version wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, I went back to the hostel and scoured the internet for designs that were more my style.

Not two hours later, I was laying on the floor in the back of the studio. On a bamboo mat, Ernesto and Robin- another tattoo artist working there- I was being prepped for the tattoo. What was different about this tattoo was that it would be my first time going under a bamboo stick rather than a mechanized needle. My nerves were getting the best of me. How much more would this hurt than a regular tattoo? Well, a hell of a lot more. Robin stretched the skin on my back while Ernesto went to work for over three hours. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap. Ok, Cristina, remember to breathe, I told myself. I inhaled as much oxygen as my lungs could hold, and the pain continued. I had to take a break about 3/4 of the way through. This was not for amateurs. I asked Ernesto how much longer it would take to finish. He said all was done except for the head. An owl without a head wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I contemplated. No, it had to be finished.

Robin getting ready for my tattoo and the mat where I'd earn my owl.

Robin getting ready for my tattoo and the mat where I’d earn my owl.

About half an hour to 45 minutes of pain, questioning what the hell I was doing, deciding never to bear children, swearing to myself never to any old-school method tattoos ever again, and just plain swearing, I was done. Skin freshly swollen, the results were breathtaking. Given the traditional technique, which offered a large margin for error, the lines were crisp and precise. I’d endured the process and would forever have something to remind me of the tenacity and bravery I possessed- not just for getting this tattoo, but also for so much more.

The final results of my traditional Iban owl tattoo, by Ernesto Kalum.

The fresh, final results of my traditional Iban owl tattoo, by Ernesto Kalum.

Afterwards, Ernesto and Robin invited me to hang out while they played guitar, smoked cigarettes, and joked around with each other. Still in pain, I reveled in how getting a tattoo brings you closer to the artist. There’s just something about the transformation, and their ability to bring you to that next level, that is quite remarkable. I listened in awe as they sang free-style and strummed the chords of their guitars effortlessly. I laughed with them, feeling so fortunate to be having such an incredible experience with these talented individuals. We were from opposite sides of the globe, but in that moment, I felt that they were like family who I’d just so happened to never have met beforehand.

All in all, I feel pretty damn lucky with all of the experiences I have had with the tattoos that I’ve gotten, and most have been while on the road. There is an inexplicable, yet undeniable relationship between the transformation that occurs while traveling and being tattooed. One emerges a different person after each experience, hopefully achieving a higher sense of oneself. Although the changes that occur while wandering the globe are mostly internal, perhaps tattoos are an external revelation of that change. They are unfaltering souvenirs, constant reminders of where we have been and who we have become with time and experience. In this sense, tattoos and travel are absolutely complementary; they are a sensible fusion for those who roam this earth, searching for self-discovery and interminable development.

What do you think? Have you gotten tattoos while on the road, and what have your experiences been? 

Five Underrated Beaches You Should Visit in the Philippines

The heat is on! Summer has always been my favorite time of the year, but since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I get the urge to turn on the AC when it hits 80 degrees Farenheit. The last couple of weeks, the weather has been beautiful, but I constantly catch myself daydreaming about my trip last year through Southeast Asia. I picture myself in the ocean again, snorkeling in Koh Chang, Thailand, or white water rafting in the Padas River, Malaysia.  I yearn to be back in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, taking pictures of the sunset while knee-deep in the ocean, feet on gravelly sand. Basically, I want to be back at the beach in Southeast Asia. I salivate at the thought, while scavenging prices to nearby islands.
 
Since I wasn’t able to see all of Southeast Asia last year, and since I’ve been fantasizing about beaches, I contacted Jep Barroga and asked him where he would go. Jep is from the Philippines, and he knows all about the hidden treasures the Philippines has to offer. And these beaches are definitely drool-worthy.
 

Five Underrated Beaches You Should Visit in the Philippines

Guest Post by Jep Barroga

 

Summer months are here again, and the sweltering heat in the Philippines is enough to make everyone hit the nearest beach for some fun under the sun. Of course, the most obvious choice for many beach hunters is Boracay. However, the once unexplored beaches of Boracay are now overrun with too many commercial establishments and undisciplined tourists. With such crowded shores, especially for travelers looking for a quiet spot to relax, this popular beach has become overrated.

If you’re ready for some beach adventure—you’ve got your gear, your itinerary and your travel insurance—but are stumped on where to go, read on. I have compiled five of the top underrated beaches in the Philippines you should bop over to on your next holiday:

 

1.     Pearl Farm Beach Resort, Davao
Pearl Farm Photo courtesy of Pearl Farm Resort

Pearl Farm Beach Resort
Photo courtesy of pearlfarmresort.com

This resort on Samal Island is a special place where pearls used to be cultivated. Nowadays, it offers white sandy beaches, lush trees, and villas with scenic views of the Davao Gulf waters. Designed with Maranao and Samal ethnic influences, The Pearl Farm Beach Resort radiates traditional charm. It includes facilities such as tennis, basketball and badminton courts—along with outdoor swimming pools and a health spa. Plus, the cocktail bar has a magnificent view of the sea and islands close by. For the adventurous, the resort offers activities such as water polo, banana boat rides, scuba diving, wind surfing, sea kayaking, jet skiing, Hobie cat surfing and underwater photography.

 

2.     Cebu

Cebu, a tropical island resort, is home to several stunning beaches. A few include such Santa Fe beach in Bantayan Island, Santiago White Beach in Camotes Island, and Sayaw Beach in Barili.

 

3.     Panglao, Bohol
Panglao Beach Photo courtesy of Bohol.ph

Panglao Beach
Photo courtesy of Bohol.ph

Panglao, situated in Bohol, is an ideal island for scuba diving. It features beautiful coral and an abundance of underwater sea creatures. Panglao offers fluoro diving, which is a type of diving that provides a spectacular view of underwater flora- similar to being in a disco bar. In 2012, Panglao was named one of the best secret beaches on earth by Travel + Leisure Magazine. To get to Panglao, take a one hour flight from Manila to Bohol Island. It’s just a 25 minute taxi ride from there.

4.     Matukad Island, Caramoan, Camarines Sur

Another lovely beach worth visiting is Matukad Island in Caramoan, Camarines Sur. With its sandy beaches and limestone cliffs, it’s a sight to behold. It was also chosen as a location where “Survivor” was filmed. Matukad Island is also near Laos Island, which offers two beach coves facing different sides of the isle.

5.     Pagudpud
Pagudpud

Pagudpud

Also topping the list of must-see beaches is Pagudpud in the Ilocos Norte province. With its crystal blue water and white-sand beaches, it’s easy to see why travelers enjoy going on nature trips here. Pagudpud is known for its thick forest that surrounds Kaibigan Falls and a spectacular concave basin. Pagudpud is considered the “Hawaii of Philippine Beaches” and offers romantic twilight views.

 

There are many other fantastic beaches in the Philippines in addition to those listed above. If ever you want to visit them, do plenty of research beforehand, and talk to locals, since the best secluded beaches are usually located in rural places.

Have fun at the beach!

 

About the Author

Author Jep Barroga

Author Jep Barroga

 

Jep Barroga is a Filipino freelance writer and blogger. He mainly writes about his travel experiences and personal finance. You can read some of his stuff here. You can also contact him on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating India: Four Major Hindu Festivals

Oh, the many, many places I have yet to see! It spins my mind to think of all the adventures that await me. Still, there are those few countries that stand apart from the rest, beckoning with their unique allure. Will they be as I have imagined?

One of the top three countries I have yet to visit is India. I was supposed to go back in 2006, but plans fell through and I was only able to see Japan and China that year. Maybe it was better that way. With more experience in the chaos and color of Asia, I hope traveling to this land of fairy tales will be a little less overwhelming. I’ve heard many people say you either love it or hate it, that it’s an intense roller coaster of emotion and juxtapositions, but it remains a fascinating mystery in my mind.

Interested in learning more about the culture, I turned to Rohit Argarwal, owner of Trans India Travels, for some knowledge. I’d previously read about Holi, so I asked him if he could further explain India’s festivals. This is what he had to say about the four main Hindu celebrations in his country: 

 

Celebrating India: Four Major Hindu Festivals

by Rohit Argarwal

edited by Cristina Luisa

 

India is the home and birthplace of one of the most illustrious religions in the world: Hinduism. Hinduism is one of the primary religions in India, and nearly 80% of the Indian population is Hindi. Although not connected to one single person, the origin of Hinduism dates back to the pre-historic era, making it the oldest religion in the world. This is evidenced by the old texts of the Rig-Veda, written between 1700- 1100 BC.

Due to its distinct customs and traditions, Hinduism is known all over the world. It is most famous for the Hindu festivals celebrated in India. While there are Hindu festivals throughout the majority of the year, we will briefly discuss the most extravagant and vibrant Hindu festivals in India that every visitor should experience.

1. Diwali, or Deepawali

Diwali. Image Credits @ The N!kon Guy

Diwali. Image Credits @ The N!kon Guy

Diwali, the prime Hindu festival, is alternatively known as Deepawali, which means “The Festival of Lights”. The very name of the festival describes the philosophy behind its celebration: The victory of darkness over light. Diwali is known as the day when the Hindu deity Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya after his exile and slew the demon king Ravana. Occurring between mid-October and mid-November, the festival is celebrated by decorating the houses with lamps and candles. The various decorated cities, religious parades, and Indian sweets attract a huge number of tourists from across the world, making it one of the major shopping seasons in India.

2. Holi

Holi. Image Credits @ Suresh Eswaran

Holi. Image Credits @ Suresh Eswaran

Known as the Festival of Colors, Holi is the second most important celebration in India. This spring festival lasts for two days, occurring between late February and mid-March. Its revelry is considered one of the most amazing cultural experiences in the country. As the festival of colors, people smear paint and colored powder over their bodies, often dancing and merry-making. Bhang, or cannabis, is openly consumed and distributed. Participants can indulge in bhang mixed with milk, snacks and sweets.

The word “Holi” originates from Holika, who was the sister of the Demon King Hiranyakashipu. His son Prahalada was a devotee of Lord Vishnu. According to legend, the Demon King did not approve of his son’s devotion. He told his sister Holika, who was impervious to fire, to sit in a bonfire with Prahalada to kill him. However, Lord Vishnu intervened, burning Holika to death and saving Prahalada.  The Demon King’s son was then reincarnated as Narsimha, a half-lion/half-man who went on to kill his father.

3. Dussehra, or Vijaya Dashami

Dusshera. Image Credits @ The World and my Camera

Dusshera. Image Credits @ The World and my Camera

Celebrated between September and October, Dussehra marks the end of summer (in most regions) and the beginning of India’s festive season. This festival commemorates the day when the God King Rama slew the Demon King Ravana in the Hindu Epic Ramayana. For the 10 days of Navratra, various stage shows are performed in the city, depicting the story of Ramayana. A massive, elaborately decorated idol of Ravana is often filled with fireworks and ignited, marking the victory of light over darkness. Dussehra kick-starts the preparation for Diwali, and is also accompanied by various fairs and festivities throughout Indian cities.

4. Makar Sankranti, or Sakrat

Makar Shakranti. Image Credits @ Saumil U. Shah

Makar Shakranti. Image Credits @ Saumil U. Shah

Makar Sankranti is a harvest festival, observed in mid-January every year. While it is celebrated all across India, the best festivities can be experienced in Ahmadabad, Bareli and Jaipur (The Pink City) . In these three cities, Makar Sankrati is regarded as a massive kite flying festival. Since it falls in the winter month of January, it is a very popular tourist attraction. Several specialty sweets are prepared for Makar Sankranti, and entire cities climb onto the terrace of their houses to celebrate and fly their kites.

The Hindu religion is widespread throughout India, and has influenced the country’s various cultures, religions and traditions. The range of Hindu festivities and cultural programs make India one of the most colorful places in the world. The best time to visit this country is during the time of the abovementioned festivals.

 

Have you been to any of these festivals while visiting India? What was your experience?

Rohit Agarwal is an architect by profession and also owns and maintains Trans India Travels. His deep interests in discovering new cultures in India and abroad have made him a keen traveler and a blogger.

Travel Talk Tuesdays 4/15: Asia

TTT Topic: Asia

1) What country do you want to visit the most in Asia?

Hands down, I’d choose India. I’ve been jonesing to visit this country for over eight years, and while I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Asia, it still hasn’t happened. Everyone I’ve spoken with has said that India is as intense of a travel experience you can get. The colors, the smells, the food, the religion, the gorgeous architecture, the crowded bazaars, the peaceful mountainscapes- it seems like a shocking, stimulating place to explore and take all of your senses to a different level.

2) Is there a country you’d rather not visit in Asia?

Admittedly, there are few countries that I wouldn’t like to visit. However, if I had to choose one country to avoid in Asia, it would be North Korea. Kim Jong-Un may very well be crazier than his father, and I just don’t dig the whole conformity/censorship/absolute control thing. Plus, he seems to be best friends with Dennis Rodman. It just seems like an ominous, strange, anti-community communist country.

3) Have you ever been to Asia? if so, which countries?

Yes, I have! I have been to China, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia/Malaysian Borneo, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I would return to all of these countries in a heartbeat, with the exception of Brunei.

4) Is there any Asian influence where you are currently living?

I have only been living in Portland for about three months, so my answer could be totally off. From what I’ve seen, there is definitely a culinary influence. Thai food is everywhere (and it is GOOD). Japanese and Chinese food do not fall much behind. There are many boutique shops that sell paintings, carvings, fabric, jewelry, and other souvenir-type items from Thailand, India, and China. In terms of population, there isn’t a big Asian presence.

5) If you could be fluent in Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Hindi, which one would you choose?

I studied Japanese years back, and it’s still my favorite Asian language. I would love to be fluent, but in all honesty, if I’m going to endure the torture of learning a non-romance language, it better be useful. My choice would therefore be Chinese, and someday I’ll go back to Taiwan, maybe stay for a year, and make that happen.

What does Asia mean to you? Have you been, or would you like to go?

If you’d like to participate in Travel Talk Tuesdays, head over to Without a License’s blog for the html.  Paste it to your blog, answer the questions, and drop a link in Without a License’s comments section.

Xie xie!