Budjetsetter: My new travel blog

Hello dear readers and fellow bloggers :D

Some of you may be wondering why I have not posted any travel articles on my blog lately. Its because I have been posting most of my travel and lifestyle articles on my new blog, The Budjetsetter. As most of you know, I am a frequent traveler and I am simply nuts for a good travel deal. Most of them work out but some result in epic fails that I chronicle online through my blog. The Budjetsetter seeks to provide tips, suggest itineraries, and give out warnings to get the most out of your buck when travelling on a budget.

So,if you’re interested in the stuff I want to share about backpacking and low cost journeys, feel free to follow my blog or like my facebook page 

Have a great day! :D

2013 in review

Every year since I started blogging, I have always looked forward to receiving an annual report from wordpress to see how my blog has been doing. Granted, I was a bit busy this year to focus on writing for my site but I’m happy to note that readers still drop in once in a while to check out my posts when I make them so I haven’t done too shabbily at the end of 2013. So again, thank you to you readers, subscribers, followers, friends and I hope that I can do better and come back with a vengeance in 2014. :D And thank you wordpress helper monkeys for preparing this report. You guys are awesome!

Here’s an excerpt:

Madison Square Garden can seat 20,000 people for a concert. This blog was viewed about 62,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Madison Square Garden, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Scaling the Great Wall: Operation Beijing

great wallThe Great Wall of China is one of the world’s most majestic architectural masterpieces in the world — a site that is part of every traveler’s bucket list — mine included. A structure that was built in 221 BC both to unite all the territories under China and protect the country from invaders, the Great Wall was built by farmers, soldiers and regular folk with their blood, sweat and tears and became the only structure in the world that could be visible from the moon. A marvelous feat that was recognized by the UNESCO, which dubbed the structure as a World Heritage Site in 1987. Recently, it was formally recognized by the New7Wonders Foundation in Zurich as one of the new wonders of the world.

READY SET GO. A steep climb awaits me.

READY SET GO. A steep climb awaits me.

While the history behind the wall is indeed fascinating, what really excited me about the Great Wall was the challenge it presented. While I knew that I was not in the right shape to scale the wall up to the top (the wall spans 21,196 km or 13,171 miles according to Wikipedia), I wanted to see how far I can climb and witness for myself the view that I have only admired on postcards and refrigerator magnets from China’s capital.


TRY AND TRY. My mom gingerly gauges her capability to scale the steps of the Great Wall. She opted to sit it out after the first station because of her vertigo.

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FIRST TOWER. Several towers are situated as markers of climbers’ progress on the wall. The first one is close to the base and fairly easy to climb but it gets tougher.

Because we were staying in the Changping district for our three day stay in Beijing, we were taken by our guide to the Juyongguan side of the wall, which was nearest to the area. In some sides of the wall (Mutianyu and Badaling), cable service is available to bring tourists to and from the top of the wall for a fee (45-65 yuan). In the Mutianyu side, slideways are also an option on the way down. Juyongguan does not have similar amenities so even from afar, we could see a lot of people huffing and puffing their way up and down the uneven steps of the wall. Scaling the wall takes quite an effort, even for the seasoned hiker. Because the wall was not built by men trained in construction, the stone steps were not only uneven but very steep. The climb is not recommended for those with weak cardio or those suffering from vertigo because even if the climb up is manageable for some, the descent would be challenging. I have heard some foreigners exclaim that the way down is even harder than going up.


OVERLOOKING. As travelers climb higher, the better the view of the Juyongguan Pass (background) becomes. This, in itself is reward enough.

I was not mistaken. It was really challenging to go up because some of stone steps have eroded while some were visibly well worn by the amount of people trodding up and down on a daily basis. Because we travelled during the winter season before the snow fell, the steps were not slippery. The cold weather actually helped me not to feel too tired. There were occasions though, that I had to catch my breath and take a short rest. It would be wise to bring a bottle of water during the climb as it is important to hydrate for any physical exercise of this magnitude. Pacing oneself is also important because it is a long climb and it is important to listen to what one’s body is saying. Climbers have to understand their own limitations as it is hard to call for help from the top because the stairs are not very wide, especially given the volume of people on the wall. My advice? So, take periodic rests and enjoy the scenery. The higher you get, the better the view of the Juyongguan Pass you will get, as well as the view of the other parts of the wall snaking along in a seemingly endless fashion.


A BIT MORE PUSH. My pal Albert pushes himself to complete the climb to the third tower.

My friend Albert and I only made it as far as the third station and it took us about 30-45 minutes to get up and down but we took a short cut for our descent. Around this area, we found a small shop called The Great Wall Store (duh) that sells a variety of stuff, from coffee, hot chocolate, juice, souvenirs, as well as medals and metal plates that can be engraved with tourists’ names as proof of climbing the Wall. They sell for 30 yuan in the store and I should have gotten one, but I thought it was a bit pricey. Turns out, they sell the same stuff at the bottom for a higher price. So I suggest that given the opportunity, buy one as a keepsake of your great accomplishment.

Outside the store, there was a pathway and a sign that says mountain pass. We asked the salesperson if this path led to the base of the wall and she said yes. Seeing how difficult it was to climb down, we decided to follow the trail instead and had a much easier time getting down. It took us mere minutes to meet up with my mom and the tour guide who were waiting at the base.

For those who opt to stay behind at the base, a variety of activities can occupy one’s time.  Coffee shops, restaurants and souvenir shops abound but don’t get too carried away and always try to haggle for a lower price. The salespeople are not very fluent but can understand and speak English — plus they’re used to tourists so it is easier to transact with them than in some areas. Just remember to bargain and you’ll surely get the best price for your purchases along with some choice freebies. There are also booths that offer souvenir photos in traditional Chinese costumes, talismans and good luck charms that will make for excellent mementos of your travel to the Great Wall.

A SELFIE WELL DESERVED. I hardly take selfies but after this tough climb, I thought I should document the occasion.

A SELFIE WELL DESERVED. I hardly take selfies but after this tough climb, I thought I should document the occasion.

All in all, my Great Wall adventure was immensely satisfying and unforgettable but I couldn’t help but wonder if I had more time how much father I could go. Perhaps, I might go back to Beijing one day and give the Wall another go. For this structure, each effort really has just reward because aside from a great sense of accomplishment, the view from the top is simply magnificent. Besides, there is just something about the wall that speaks to the part of me that is Chinese and makes me proud of my ancestors who built these walls.

Conquering Mt. Tapyas: Coron, Palawan

SUNRISE AT MT. TAPYAS. Good morning Coron! What a way to welcome the day, (Sheryl Ascano)

SUNRISE AT MT. TAPYAS. Good morning Coron! What a way to welcome the day, (Sheryl Ascano)

I can be accused of a lot of things but being fit is not one of them. So when I checked out our itinerary for our third day in Coron and saw that we were going to climb 700 steps up Mt. Tapyas, I almost hyperventilated. Gladly though, with the support of my friends, I was able to survive the challenge, and live to tell the tale.

Our day started at the crack of dawn. We were up by 4 am and out the door 30 minutes later. Our pension house was only a couple of blocks away from Tapyas Road so it served as a brief warm up for me. The good thing about Mt. Tapyas was that it was very hiker friendly and there were stairs all the way to the top. There were also resting spots every couple levels so inexperienced climbers could take a breather every now and then.

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MISSION POSSIBLE. From the bottom, the amount of stairs seem daunting. (Sheryl Ascano)

It was still a bit dark so we were not able to document much of our ascent. But there are green paints indicating each hundred steps so climbers can keep track of their progress. Be sure to bring a water bottle and a towel to hydrate.

There was also a facility midway through that may have served as a canteen before. Unfortunately, it was already poorly maintained and badly vandalized by the time we got there. Still, we trudged on the second half of the climb, where by the end, I was struggling to catch my breath. For an amateur, I was able to clock in at roughly 30 minutes so it wasn’t too shabby. We reached the top just in time for the sunrise and boy was it a sight to behold.

SUNRISE AT MT. TAPYAS. After completing 700 steps to the top, the view was pure magnificence. (Mae Obispo)

SUNRISE AT MT. TAPYAS. After completing 700 steps to the top, the view was pure magnificence. (Mae Obispo)

At the top of Mt. Tapyas is a giant cross. From afar, it looks like a small dot on top of a mountain but in actuality, it was kind of big. There was also a wide viewing deck on top where climbers can take in the overlooking view of the entire island.

SYMBOL OF SUCCESS. When climbers see this cross up close, its an indication that they successfully managed to climb 700 steps to the top. (Mae Obispo)

SYMBOL OF SUCCESS. When climbers see this cross up close, its an indication that they successfully managed to climb 700 steps to the top. (Mae Obispo)

Compared to other provinces, Coron was very different because of the amount of green covering the area. It was noticeable that roughly 70 percent of the island was covered in foliage with only a small portion dedicated to homes. As a result, birds of different species  are able to fly and land freely wherever they please to the delight of onlookers, ourselves included. Behind the cross also lies a short trail and a gazebo overlooking the other side of the island. While the view was beautiful, the inside of the gazebo was also badly vandalized by visitors.

THE VIEW FROM BEHIND. A mini trail at the back of the cross gives visitors a different perspective of the mountain. (Mae Obispo)

THE VIEW FROM BEHIND. A mini trail at the back of the cross gives visitors a different perspective of the mountain. (Mae Obispo)

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THE VIEW FROM BEHIND. A mini trail at the back of the cross gives visitors a different perspective of the mountain. (Sheryl Ascano)

SCENE OUT OF A POSTCARD. The view from the trail presents something straight out of a postcard. (Sheryl Ascano)

SCENE OUT OF A POSTCARD. The view from the trail presents something straight out of a postcard. (Sheryl Ascano)

The descent was fairly easy because gravity has always been my friend. But if given the opportunity, I could totally see myself climbing to the top again to watch the sun set. A little more practice and a repeat visit to the island and I’m sure to accomplish that goal. See you again, Palawan. Over and out.

Island Adventures in Coron: 7 sites you don’t want to miss

Instead of availing of the usual tour package in Coron, my friends and I decided to go on a DIY (do it yourself) trip so we could choose which sites to visit in our two day island escapade. With some research and budget meetings, we were able to ensure that we got the best out of our buck for an unforgettable experience that will not soon be forgotten.

We started our day at 7 am to go to the market to shop for supplies. Unfortunately, unlike most wet markets, Coron vendors do not open until 8 or 9 am so our choices for fresh goods were limited. A shame since Palawan is known for its fresh seafood. Still, we were able to maximize our combined P1,050 budget for our two day trip. This includes two lunches, one breakfast and one dinner. We also managed to include our two bangkeros Kuya Hajie and Kuya Rey in the amount of food we purchased.

Siete Pecados Island, named after the legend of seven sisters who drowned after following their parents. A tragic tale but nothing is tragic about the majesty of this place.

Siete Pecados Island, named after the legend of seven sisters who drowned after following their parents. A tragic tale but nothing is tragic about the majesty of this place. (Mae Obispo)

Our first stop was Siete Pecados Island, a protected sanctuary that is home to various species of exotic fish and colorful corals. As a welcome to Coron, we were amazed by the pure beauty of the underwater scene which we took in with the help of our snorkeling gear and Kuya Hajie, our boat captain/tour guide. After paying a modest fee of P100 to the station guard, Kuya Hajie towed us to the best snorkeling sites and pointed out the home of one familiar fishy -=- a clownfish by the name of Nemo. Actually, we were able to spot two, which could very well be Nemo and his daddy Marlin. It was also a coincidence that there was also a Blue Tang swimming around the duo which could very well be Dory. Unfortunately though, we left our underwater camera on the boat so we were not able to capture the memory on film. Still, it was a cool experience, and the abundance of colors and marine life that we were able to witness more than made up for it.

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PICTURESQUE VIEW. After a steep climb, the view from the top of Kayangan Lake is well worth the effort. (Mae Obispo)

PERFECT FOR A SWIM. After  our descent to the other side, this lake provides visitors the chance for a relaxing dip.

PERFECT FOR A SWIM. After our descent to the other side, this lake provides visitors the chance for a relaxing dip.

Next up, our guides took us to Kayangan Lake, which is part of the ancestral domain of the Tagbanua Tribe, which made it all the more important to protect the site from abuse. There was a steep climb on uneven man-made stairs that were a bit slippery and edgy that took guests to the top where, adjacent to a cave, one can only stare in awe at the view from the top. Overlooking the entrance to the lake, the surrounding islands were a testament to the beauty of nature. After taking a short photo opportunity, we headed down towards the actual lake, which was very similar to the lagoons in El Nido. The water was perfect for swimming — just the right temperature but a bit deep for inexperienced swimmers such as myself. The solution — wear your lifevest and don’t forget to being your snorkeling gear to enjoy your time in Kayangan. Kayangan Lake’s entrance fee was a bit more costly at P200 but if it goes to maintaining this ancestral land, there really was no question of price.

LIKE THE INSIDE OF AN AQUARIUM. The Coral Garden boasts of a wide variety of corals and marine habitats. (Sheryl Ascano)

LIKE THE INSIDE OF AN AQUARIUM. The Coral Garden boasts of a wide variety of corals and marine habitats. (Sheryl Ascano)

If we thought that Siete Pecados was awesome, Coral Garden was even more of a treat for snorkelers. Here, corals of all shapes and sizes were scattered all around the area that there was hardly any place left to walk. The water was somewhat shallow so our guide advised us to be careful and instead float over the corals to protect them from damage. Underwater, it was a fantastic experience to see glow in the dark corals, brain shaped corals, and some even glow in the dark corals. There were also  soft ones and spiky ones which could be injure unwary snorkelers. A little ways off to where the good stuff were, the water suddenly deepened, so my advice, again, is to always wear safety gear and follow the advice of the guide. We had a blast in this site because what we were unable to capture on film in our first island, we more than compensated for in this escapade.

SOMETHING FISHY. Describing the fish at the Skeleton Shipwreck as friendly would be an understatement. (Sheryl Ascano)

SOMETHING FISHY. Describing the fish at the Skeleton Shipwreck as friendly would be an understatement. (Sheryl Ascano)

SHIPWRECK REMAINS. Only the bow of a sunken Japanese vessel remains visible in the depths of the Skeleton Shipwreck. (Sheryl Ascano)

SHIPWRECK REMAINS. Only the bow of a sunken Japanese vessel remains visible in the depths of the Skeleton Shipwreck. One of our guides, Kuya Rey, dives like he himself is a fish. (Sheryl Ascano)

Our guide felt bad that we were not able to document our fish feeding at Siete Pecados so he brought some place even better. At the Skeleton Shipwreck, the site where a Japanese ship sank almost a century ago, the fish were more than happy to greet snorkelers and swimmers who drop in, especially when they bring food. So it would be advisable to bring plenty of bread for these marine interactions. We initially brought the bread for human consumption but once we saw how the fish were gobbling them up from our hands, we were unable to help ourselves. We indulged them to their hearts’ content. It was fabulous. The little guys were far from shy and showed off to get their meal. They came in schools too so they can hardly be missed. One of my favorite parts of the island tour was this stop. It was like being inside an aquarium — a bit creepy if you look down where the ship’s bow is still visible albeit crawling with barnacles — but the friendly fish community takes your mind off the horror below and leaves you nothing but great memories. P100 entrance for day swimmers/snorkelers — an encounter kids and adults alike would surely enjoy.

SUNSET AT MALCAPUYA. A pristine white beach all to ourselves at the end of the day. What could spell paradise more clearly? (Sheryl Ascano)

WAKING UP IN PARADISE. A pristine white beach all to ourselves at the start of the day. What could spell paradise more clearly? (Sheryl Ascano)

Our last stop for the day was Malcapuya Island, an island paradise that takes two hours to reach from the starting point. This island is usually available on day tours packaged with the neighboring Banana Island and Bulog Island, but we chose to stay overnight because of the great reviews we read about the place. Upon entering docking area for bigger boats, we knew that we made the right choice. There were only a handful of tourists on the beach when we arrived and pretty soon, their tour group left and we had the island to ourselves. The beach itself looked high end straight off the bat because of the fine white sand that put Boracay to shame. The water was so clear and blue and there were hardly any seaweeds in the shallow parts of the water. We originally wanted to pitch a tent to save a bit of expense because we were told that overnight guests who do not use cottages only need to pay P500 per head but as it turned out, cottage guests and tent guests are required to pay the same fee of P700 for an overnight stay. Considering that we had the island to ourselves, it was not a bad deal. We spent the night making a bonfire and toasting marshmallows and finally caving and sleeping in our sleeping bags and gazing at the stars. The sky was so clear that they were twinkling brightly unhindered by pollution. It was so relaxing, in fact, that it took me only a few minutes to doze off peacefully. One thing of note, the island’s power runs on generator so power is only available from 6 pm to 12 am. In cases where there are no other guests on the island, the power is extended to 3 am. There is however, a clean bathroom facility for showers, baths and for answering nature’s call so guests are able to rinse off with no hassle.

Come morning, Kuya Chris, also known as the second Datu Puti of the Philippines (he won a nationwide contest for the search for the next vinegar endorser) and caretaker of the island, offered to show us around the island. He did not give an exact price for the tour so his tip was left up to us. But he was one informative and chatty tour guide and by the end of the tour, guests will surely find it easy to loosen the purse strings to give him and his partner a couple of hundred bucks for the trouble.

MANGROVE GATEWAY. The  entrance to Campel Island is lined with mangrove trees by the hundreds, maybe even thousands. (Mae Obispo)

MANGROVE GATEWAY. The entrance to Campel Island is lined with mangrove trees by the hundreds, maybe even thousands. (Mae Obispo)

Kuya Chris and Kuya Albert first took us to Campel Island, where hundreds, or even thousands of mangrove trees lined the entrance to the island, which was home to many natives. According to Kuya Albert, the mangroves just sprung by themselves near the island and propagated on their own. He said they must have been planted elsewhere and were washed over by the tide to Campel. Mangroves are essential to nature, as they serve as shelter for birds and small fishes and also provide food for young fish. They are also low maintenance because once their propagules fall off and take root, they grow as trees in the long run.

MALCAPUYA SANDBAR. With a breathtaking snorkel site just a couple of meters away, the location of the sandbar changes with the tide, (Mae Obispo)

MALCAPUYA SANDBAR. With a breathtaking snorkel site just a couple of meters away, the location of the sandbar changes with the tide, (Mae Obispo)

Kuya Chris also took us to a small island with two huts, which according to him was bought by the owner for only P10,000. He said that the owner also planned to plant seven coconut trees on his property. He later took us to the famous sandbar which disappeared upon high tide and reappeared in a different location once the waters subside. Near the sandbar, there was also a great snorkeling site where we found plenty of Nemo’s cousins.

MALCAPUYA VIEWING DECK. From the top, Malcapuya presents an impeccable view of a perfect island paradise.

MALCAPUYA VIEWING DECK. From the top, Malcapuya presents an impeccable view of a perfect island paradise. (Mae Obispo)

After our short tour, we climbed up to the Malcapuya Viewing Deck, which was not really a deck, but rather an area where one can view the entire beachfront and take in the beauty of the island from a birds eye view. It was rather awesome.

When it came time to go, we decided to take a short stop at Banana Island, which was pretty much like Malcapuya. However, Banana Island had a more commercial feel to it and the sand quality was more consistent with Boracay. A major plus of this island was its fish. They loved to eat and they were very friendly to guests. The swimming area was also deeper than its neighboring island. The owner of Banana Island also owned Bulog Island. Entrance fee for day tour is P200.

Our last island on our DIY tour was Bulog Island, which was really underdeveloped considering that it was the sister of Banana Island. An advantage was that it offered seclusion and privacy as not a lot of tourists opt to come to the island to pay the P100 entrance fee but the fish here swim in groups and they provide a great interaction with swimmers. We finished off our bread on this island. One downside though was that we noticed that a lot of corals have been damaged by indiscriminate landing of anchors compared to the other islands we had been to. Perhaps, it would be advisable to station a caretaker or implement a system to check these boats to protect the corals where the fish reside.

BACK TO BASE. After two straight days of snorkeling, swimming and fish feeding, we park our boat at the port. Visible is the view of Mt. Tapyas, which we scaled the next day, (Mae Obispo)

BACK TO BASE. After two straight days of snorkeling, swimming and fish feeding, we park our boat at the port. Visible is the view of Mt. Tapyas, which we scaled the next day, (Mae Obispo)

All in all, there were more islands that we missed than we were able to visit but perhaps, this was a sign that we needed to go back to Coron soon to spend more time swimming, snorkeling and communing with nature because two days was just not enough. Swimming in Coron was one of the best adventures I’ve been in and I hope that the island would remain as beautiful and breakthaking as it was for my next visit, where hopefully, I would be able to try my hand at diving.

Camping 101 at Anawangin Cove

IMG_1851My college buddies and I recently started a tradition to go on one adventure every year and we usually time it for the arrival of our friend Genie, who is based in Italy. Last year, we went to Puerto Galera to chill out but this year, we elected to try something different, something a bit more adventurous and we decided to go camping at Anawangin Cove in Zambales, where we spent a day surviving on resourcefulness, teamwork and a few essentials. Girl power!

Our adventure started at around 3 am on a Saturday. Most of us are based in Cavite and we met up to travel to the Victory Liner station in Pasay to catch the 4 am bus to either Iba, or Olongapo. The Olongapo buses start departure at 1:30 am, and a bus leaves every 30 minutes after. However, due to uncontrollable circumstances, we got caught in traffic because of a road mishap and we only arrived at the terminal at around 5 am. We took the 5:30 bus to Olongapo. The fare costs P250 per head and travel time is roughly 3 hours via SCTEX.  I would recommend that travellers who want to maximize their time travel earlier to get to their destination sooner.

ANNUAL ADVENTURE. College buddies at the bus terminal raring to start our journey.

ANNUAL ADVENTURE. College buddies at the bus terminal raring to start our journey. (Melanie Adrales)

Traveling on Olongapo bound buses require travelers to get down on the Olongapo station and transfer to the terminal just across the stop to a non-airconditioned bus to Iba. The trip to San Antonio costs P44 while travel time is around an hour. For travellers who will take buses straight to Iba from Manila,  just tell the conductor to let you down in San Antonio in front of the municipal hall. The wet and dry market is conveniently situated right beside the hall for those who want to shop for foodstuff and other essentials. Get everything you need at this junction because the few stores on the island charge an arm and a leg for everything. I am dead serious. A stick of candle costs P50 each, and paper plates are 3 for P10.

Shopping for supplies is fairly easy because shopkeepers are very accommodating and helpful. Even vegetables are packed conveniently, ready to be bought. Once shopping is done, tricycles are parked a little ways off the municipal hall, ready to take travellers to Pundaquit, where the boats depart for Anawangin Cove. Tricycles cost P30 per head. Before going on the boat, travellers should send out text messages or make the phone calls that they need because there is no signal on the island.

Our round trip boat ride cost us P500 per head for a minimum of five persons (there were six of us) including a side trip to Capones Island on the way back. The fee also included a loan of cooking utensils, as well as tents for overnight use. The boatmen were even so kind as to help us with our stuff and with the setting up of the tents, seeing as none of us have tried camping before. Our contact was Kuya Joven (Smart 09193215252/Globe 09159599595).

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CAMPING 101. The tall pine trees surrounding the camp site gives area a unique Twilight-esque vibe. (Irish D. Bautista)

According to some of my friends who went to Anawangin before, the place used to be secluded  but now as more campers have trooped to the island for some R & R time, trekking and swimming, there are  shower stalls and public toilets established in the area with a single battery powered light turned on at night. Other than that, the entire area is blanketed in darkness come nighttime.

Some camping tips I learned along the way:

1. Waterproof your stuff when crossing to the island. The water sometimes gets into the boat.

2. Cook while its still early. It is hard to prepare food when it is dark. Plan simple dishes. It is hard to Mcgyver your way to a complicated dinner. The natives will get hungry pretty fast especially with the long journey.

3. Bring firestarters (EZ fire) to start bonfires for cooking/ staying warm. These can be bought in supermarkets and are broken into chunks, lit and placed in the bottom of charcoal or wood to trigger the blaze. It is also good to bring portable propane stoves for cooking.

4. Bring a first aid kit for minor booboos and accidents.

5. Flashlights/ lamps/ candles are essential.


STARTING A FIRE. Genie (right) and I begin the process by cheating — using a firestarter to create an ember. (Irish D. Bautista)

I must admit that I was a bit worried that we might find ourselves bored without anything to do with the forced  technology detox on the island but with the swimming (Anawangin has gigantic waves), roughing it and the bonding, we actually found that we were able to talk a lot and catch up on stuff that’s been happening in the past months better. It was just like a sleepover, only in tents, plus we had to work harder for our food.

The second morning, we decided to walk around the island. Some of the adventurers, we saw were trekking on a nearby trail atop mountain situated right next to the island. Since we had no time for it before the boatmen picked us up at around 8:30 am, we opted to prepare for our journey. When they arrived, they brought bad news. We wont be able to see the lighthouse in Capones because the waves were too big on that side of the island for them to dock the boats. I was disheartened but they assured us that we could still swim on the other side, so I thought to myself, just go for it. Its still better than nothing.


COMMUNING WITH NATURE. The group and I decided to walk around the island and this was what we found on one of the trails. (Irish D. Bautista)

When we arrived in Capones Island, which is 30 minutes away from Anawangin, all my disappointment disappeared. The island was breathtaking. It had fine white sand and a beach to die for. Pristine waters so clear that the bottom looked more like a swimming pool than the ocean. The changing colors of the water indicated its depth — light blue for waters near the coast while the deeper ends are a darker shade of aquamarine. This is nature at its finest. Mother Nature at work.

SHEER BEAUTY. Capones Island, 30 minutes away from Anwangin, shows off Mother Nature at her best. (Irish D. Bautista)

SHEER BEAUTY. Capones Island, 30 minutes away from Anwangin, shows off Mother Nature at her best. (Irish D. Bautista)

The boatmen told us that the island was also open for campers but there were no convenient shower stalls to wash off like in Anawangin, so most campers opt for the latter. As an option, boatmen take their fares to Capones for sightseeing and swimming and they seem to enjoy it just as much. However, the sheer beauty of the island, for me, was enough of a come on for adventurers to stay on the island and take in the entire camping adventure. Another island that is open for camping is Nagsasa but it was farther off according to the boatman. He said it was similar to Capones but it took an hour to reach by boat.

Since we were only passing by Capones on our way back, we had to wash off in Pundaquit. Luckily, there was a water pump near the waiting area, as well as makeshift dressing rooms made of hay on the sides where travellers can change clothes before they go on their merry way home.

All in all,  camping was a unique experience that I will not soon forget. I am proud to have survived the night along with my girlfriends, despite the long travel and the hard work in setting up camp. I’m glad that we did it and we did it together. I’m pretty sure my boy Bear Grylls (Man vs Wild) would have been proud of us. Til the next adventure!

Hong Kong Noah’s Ark

P1010683My family and I recently went to Hong Kong for some R and R and while doing some research, I found out about this newly established theme park whose main attraction is a replica of Noah’s Ark from the Bible. We’ve been to Hong Kong several times before but this was the first time we ventured into park, situated at the newly developed Ma Wan District. There were several other attractions around the park too. The HKD$153 admission entitles guests access to the Ark Life Education House, Special Exhibition, Treasure House, Nature Garden, Ark Expo, Ark Garden and the Solar Tower.

However, while I did appreciate what the park was trying to do, after a couple of hours taking in the view, I felt that the park was better suited as an educational field trip rather than a tourist attraction.

Total number of hours spent: 4 (including lunch)

On the plus side, the Ark Expo actually features cool exhibits, ranging from some species of birds (not rare), tools, earthenware, wood and carpentry tools possibly used for the ark, an exhibit of the ark, mostly decorations depicting Noah and the animals, some interactive games for kids, a bit of history about how a team of Hong Kong evangelists were part of a team that uncovered leads that may confirm that remains of the Ark are in Mt. Ararat.

There are also two #D features at the expo, one in a 360 degree theater depicting the history of the Ark as told by the Bible, complete with special effects (not recommended for people suffering from high blood pressure and heart attacks) and another featuring a character called Earth Boy, who represents Mother Earth. The second feature is a combination of animation and documentary about how the Earth is wasting away due to pollution and man’s abuse. Highly recommended for children of pre-school up to elementary age. For adults, not so much.

We took our chances with the Ark Life Education House on the first floor and as with most of the exhibits, this one was for kids as well. However, I appreciated the positive messages that the exhibit featured in fun and creative ways. It carried messages about kindness, self worth, respect for others, and even had exercises about facing adversity. The staff was having a bit of fun at our expense as she explained to us the different sections of the “House” but she was very nice about it. I think she was feeling a bit embarrassed for us because she saw that we were enjoying the place too much for our age. She also gave us a heads up that the next floor, which housed the Treasure House, was even kiddier than her section. We did take her advice, and only spared a glance at the 2nd floor, because it was better suited for kindergartners indeed!

Grub was passable at the Harvest Restaurant, and affordable at HKD$58 for a complete meal. But just as we guessed, the place was soon swarmed by kiddies (and their parents) on a field trip, soon after we arrived.

This 350 mm vacuum solar telescope has been opened to the public and also allows researchers to further their study of the sun and other solar activities. This telescope gives guests a real time view of the sun at the center of the exhibition hall.

This 350 mm vacuum solar telescope has been opened to the public and also allows researchers to further their study of the sun and other solar activities. This telescope gives guests a real time view of the sun at the center of the exhibition hall.

The Solar Tower though a bit of an exercise to go to just adjacent to the Noah’s Ark facility, is pretty quiet although it does feature some very nice exhibits of the planets and other goings on in space. It also houses one of the very first 350 mm vacuum solar telescopes which has been opened to the public and also allows researchers to further their study of the sun and other solar activities. This telescope gives guests a real time view of the sun at the center of the exhibition hall. We literally had the tower to ourselves and had our private screening of NASA’s 3D SUN which mainly chronicles advancements made by scientists since deploying twin stereos on opposite sides of the big ball of fire, and how having 3D images of the sun helps us counter threats in space climate. The documentary was well made but a bit too long and filled with a lot of scientific jargon for my appreciation but let me just say that I do appreciate the work that these scientists are doing to reach out to the regular folk, and the strides they are making in the fields of science is just unbelievable.

All in all, I must say that there were high points and low points to our Noah’s Ark adventure. Since it is a new facility, there is plenty that still needs to be done. Better signages for one, because it could be so easy to get lost in a place as huge as this one. More staff visibility, and perhaps a bit of music to liven up the place like Disneyland wouldn’t hurt. The place has a lot of potential, but it needs to market itself as a fun place to learn, and not just bank on the majesty of the replica to draw in guests. It needs to be a place that not just students will enjoy but even tourists, and even locals. When we went, there were hardly any guests and I worry that the upkeep would cost too much and that if guests do not sustain the maintenance cost, the park might simply close down and go to waste.

While the place does cater to events, the location, for one, is a problem. It is not easily accessible as it situated in the heart of residential district. We thought that we had the wrong bus (ride the Ma Wan bus line) going into the place because all we passed were houses. The park’s attempt to draw the adult crowd with its Adventureland also fell flat because it looked so out of place in the facility. The stadium looked more like a basketball gymnasium as well. But I am not sorry that I went because it was different, and there was a lot of thought that went into creating this park. It also had a great message — environmental protection because if we are not careful, our disregard for the planet may spur the second great flood.

If you are a tourist visiting Hong Kong and if you have kids, do check out Noah’s Ark Park and Resort, for more information, click here.

This is a repost from my other blog: http://www.budjetsetter.wordpress.com

Tips for the Hong Kong traveler


VIEW FROM THE TOP. Millionaire’s Row, along with tall skyscrapers from the Victoria’s peak vantage point. These buildings look better at night, but the chilly weather at the Peak is a challenge that nighttime visitors must contend with.

Hong kong is a wonderful city. Its no wonder is a great start up destination for travelers seeking to see the world. I for one, first visited HK with my mom in 2006 and it was just so great that I just had to come back again, and again, and again, especially to my favorite place on earth — Disneyland. For first timers though, here are some awesome tips on how to maximize your adventure. By the way, I’m reposting this entry from my http://www.budjetsetter.wordpress.com account as I’m having trouble maintaining two blog accounts.

Tip #1. Set an itinerary. HongKong is a travelers’ dream. There is something for everybody. If you are a child at heart, it is a wonderland of theme parks such as Disneyland (I’ve been there 5 times and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back for a sixth visit), there’s also the Ocean Park and the newly minted Noah’s Ark. If you’re a shopper, there’s the Ladies Market in Mongkok, Temple Street in Jordan, Stanley Street and a myriad of shopping locations in Central. If you want views, there are plenty like Victoria’s Peak, where Madamme Trussaud’s Wax Museum is at. There is also HK’s version of the Walk of Fame better known as the Avenue of the Stars, the Clock Tower, The Giant Buddha in Lantau Island, hiking trips, and a lot more, which leads me to #2.

Tip #2. Prioritize. Figure out what you want to do and set aside enough money to enjoy your trip, well, as much as your budget can allow. For example, it is cheaper to shop at Temple Street than the Ladies’ Market although the latter is more popular. But you’ll get pretty much the same assortment of items. If you want to visit theme parks, and you’re on a tight budget, figure out if you want to go to Ocean Park (which is relatively cheaper but has cable cars, an aquarium, the Abyss and a mean roller coaster) or Disney (with world class shows, parades, fireworks, but rather kiddie level rides in terms of thrills. I’m not knocking Space Mountain though because it rocks). Your call.

Tip #3. Learn to commute. You would save a lot of money if you know how to use public transport, so the first thing you need to do is get a hold of a subway map at the airport. HongKong’s MTR is a very convenient way to access major locations. It also does not hurt to carry around a map to navigate the streets of this busy tourist destination. Buses are also fairly cheaper than the airport axpress (MTR) or taxis from the airport. Ask their tourism desk how to get to your hotel through a bus and the staff are generally open to such questions. In our experience, we saved roughly HKD $45 per head by travelling by bus, plus our hotel was just a minute walk off the bus stop.

Tip #4. Choose your hotel wisely. There are a lot of apartment buildings converted into inns along the Tsim Tsa Tsui district and it is fairly cheaper than staying at a hotel. The downside for group travelers is that they are often small and cramped. If that’t okay with you, then there would be no problem, but if you are unsure, it is advisable to book for one night only (as these inns often have a no refund policy) and look for a more preferable location in the morning. When booking, (I often book through http://www.agoda.com) it is also advisable to check out visitor reviews. Look at the convenience of locations (choose ones nearest to the MTR) as it would help you a lot in navigating the city.

Tip #5. Invest in a good pair of shoes. Expect to walk a lot when taking in HongKong, so having on a comfortable pair of sneakers or sandals is always a good idea.

Tip #6. Learn when to visit. Hong Kong has a major draw for every type of weather but if you want to visit Disneyland for example, it is not advisable to go there during the rainy season. Instead, during the months of June and July (rainy), they have major sales which is a boon for shoppers. During the summer, the heat might put a damper to your enjoyment. We often visit during the first quarter of the year when the weather is fairly cool. A light jacket often gets us through.

Tip #7. You’re on vacation, rest. It is true that HK has a lot to offer but you don’t have to fill every waking moment with an activity. Chill out, sleep well, eat well and enjoy your trip.

Tip #8. Haggle. When shopping in the street markets, learn to haggle. You would notice that once there, the attitude of some merchants could use some work, some even on the verge of harassing the customers and making exclamations in Cantonese that is often rude once a customer backs out of a purchase but it all comes with the territory. Stand your ground, learn to haggle only on the items that you are sure of purchasing. Don’t buy straight away. Learn to compare prices and stand your ground. Don’t feel pressured to buy anything you don’t want.

Tip #9. Learn to spot a scam. During our first visit to HK, we were warned by our tour guide to keep a careful watch of scams for big ticket items such as electronics as some unscrupulous traders pull the switch on your purchases. Be sure to check out the shop, get a receipt so you could inform authorities of a scam.

Tip #10. You can’t finish HK in 4 days. This is the sad truth for travelers who want to breeze through HK in a span of four days. Hong Kong is a city that is meant to be enjoyed, and that is the reason why it is a leading tourist destination. You are meant to come back.

Tip #11. Mothers know best. And finally, no matter how seasoned a traveler you have become, you can still learn a thing or two from your mother. When I travel with my mom, preparations are a breeze for me because she thinks of everything. During our last trip in HK, I was as sick as a dog the second day of the trip. Good thing she brought medicine that somehow got me through our four day trip. If it were left to me, I would not have thought of that because I never got sick while traveling. So mom saved the day for me, right there.

I hope this selection helps you as you journey through the tourist wonderland that is HongKong. Feel free to shoot questions in the comment section below.

Seoul Food

FEELING KOREANOVELA. Selecting ingredients at a tent restaurant along with a bottle of soju is one way to feel like a lead star in a Korean drama. (photo by Tyrone Chui)

I must admit that at first, I was a bit hesitant to try out food in Korea as my only experience with Korean food in the Philippines consisted of me almost scalding my tongue from the spiciness of the dish. However, despite not being a fan of spicy food, it seemed like a waste to go to the South Korean capital and not experience their gastronomic delights.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF KIMCHI. Kimchi dumplings made fresh at a local establishment. (Tyrone Chui)

We were famished after commuting from the airport so the first stop on our itinerary was food. We had our first Korean breakfast at a small dumpling place where we were surprised by many extra side dishes served to us by the unni and her co-worker. The dumpling was similar to Chinese style dumplings but had a sweet dough. We also tried kimchi dumplings, our first time to taste it. It was good but a bit spicy for my tastes. We also shared a sweet bun with sweet bean filling.

During our first night in Seoul, the family and I decided to try out local tents that serve a variety of dishes. We often see these tent establishments in Korean dramas as a venue for the leads to vent their frustrations in life with a bottle of soju. Because the ajumma at the tent did not know how to speak English, we just pointed at the ingredients available and she took charge of cooking it for us. We also ordered a bottle of soju to complete the experience.

BUYER'S CAVEAT. Make sure that you know the level of spiciness before you order. This is me while testing out the spicy chicken feet. Water please! (Aileen Garcia)

Despite now knowing what we were getting ourselves in for, we found the roasted pork and the squid (simply rinsed in boiled water) the best of all — very tasty (Mashi seum nida!). The rest of the dishes were not bad either but I met my match when I tried the chicken legs, which were very flavorful but super hot. We had to take them back to the hotel to be eaten later because we needed a lot of milk to counteract the spiciness.

TASTY, TASTY. Porridge served with a variety of side dishes in Myeong deong. (Tyrone Chui)

We also tried out food at a Korean congee place where we ordered different flavored porridge. My mom ordered curry, I had beef and oyster, while my soon to be sis in law had chicken and mushroom. I forgot what my brother had but it looked good. Aside from the porridge, there was also a variety of side dishes which one could eat separately or combine with the congee. As it happened, this place at the Underground Mall of Myeong deong  was actually used as a venue for the Korean drama Hooray for Love which recently ended in January.

Perhaps, another thing not to miss out on is bibimbap, an assortment of vegetables mixed together with rice. A bowl costs KRW 5,000-6,000 and is best coupled with marinated pork. Yum.

BIBIMBAP. A must try in the Korean adventure is this dish of mixed vegetables and rice. (Aileen Garcia)

We also tried out an establishment where pork is fried in burner in the middle of the table. We ordered samgeopsal, which pork wrapped in lettuce with one’s choice of vegetables or bean paste along with bibimbap. I liked the roast pork from the tent better but the samgeopsal wasn’t bad.

SAMGEOPSAL. Strips of pork roasted over a burner and wrapped in lettuce is one of Korea's signature dishes. (Tyrone Chui)

We also tried an assortment or streetfoods but if one converts the cost, its a bit pricey admittedly. While I’m a big fan of pork poppers with a barbecue dip, and skewered pork with chili, I wasn’t very impressed with the sushi wrapped in egg because I felt that there was no kick to the flavor. We also tried our favorite takoyaki from a local street vendor and was duly unimpressed. And how can I forget one of the permanent side dishes served with every meal? The kimchi. Contrary to earlier belief, not all kimchi is super spicy and I was able to appreciate the flavor of Korea’s favorite dish.

All in all, food tripping in Seoul was not only memorable but educational as well. I learned that I should not be hindered by perception and try out different kinds of food in my future travels in order to fully appreciate the experience.

STREETFOOD SELECTION. Take your pick with a variety of new flavors to try along Seoul's streets at night. (Aileen Garcia)

Palace adventures in Seoul: Super tiring but totally worth it

The CHANGYEONGGUNG. The East Palace is one of the smaller palaces in Seoul but still holds rich history which dates back to the 1400s.

When I visited Seoul with my family last week, I was completely blown away by the Koreans’ obvious love for their culture and heritage. This could not have been more clearly illustrated than in their preservation of five great palaces that were the sites of a major part of their history.

Of the five palaces, we managed to visit two — the Changyeonggung, which is referred to as the East palace because of its location and Changdeokgung, or the Palace of Prospering Virtue.

A TRIP THROUGH HISTORY. Palaces pepper the compound of the Changgyeonggung which are closed off to the public. (Tyrone Chui)

When visiting palaces, it is advisable to go in the morning to get enough time to appreciate the experience. After all, it is not everyday that one gets to visit the actual area where kings, princes, noblemen and princesses once walked. Our visit to the Changyeonggung was considerably shorter because of the lateness of the hour we arrived (visitors are only allowed entry until 4pm) but it was nevertheless a fascinating trip because we were able to walk along the palace grounds at our own pace guided only by a map with details about the significant locations of the palace — the Honghwamun main gate which was destroyed by the Japanese invasion in 1484 and rebuilt in the 1600s, the symbolic entryway to the Palace called the Okcheongyo Bridge and the Myeongjeongjeon Main Hall, which was basically the only area open for viewing (but not entering). Most of the structures in the palace compound were closed to the public and unfurnished but visitors can take as much pictures of the exterior as much as they want. In itself, the freedom to roam the area where kings and ministers met and made decisions about the then young country was an experience to remember. A modest fee of W1,000  is required for entrance.

The Changdeokgung, on the other hand, although just a few stops away from the first palace, is a much larger compound and boasts of being the most well preserved palace in South Korea, earning the seal as a World Heritage Site from the UNESCO in 1997. Aside from the palace, the compound also houses the Secret Garden or the Rear Garden, where the kings of the Joseon Dynasty spent their leisure hours, for meditating, fishing, boat watching, reading and for entertaining visitors close to the king. Entry to the Palace costs W3,000 while a stroll through the Garden compound will set guests back by W5,000. Guests are not allowed to wander around the compound on their own but are required to  participate in a guided tour, available in different languages at specific hours  (We signed up for the English tour at 2:30 pm). However, during the holidays, visitors are given the liberty to check out area unaided due to the volume of the guests.

THE KING"S LIBRARY. The first stop in the Secret Garden Tour is the King's Library where thousands of books were preserved and stored. Most of its contents have been moved to the national library. (Tyrone Chui)

The tour took us roughly 1 1/2 hour to complete. The tour guide was very informative and gave us a very insightful view of what life was like at the palace during the time of royals. To say that the hike around the garden was a challenge would be considered an understatement especially for unfit people such as myself whose only exercise consist of lifting a plate of rice, or pushing the remote. Not a pretty picture so let’s move on.

Anyways, despite the long trek and the obvious effort it took us to go uphill, downhill, then up again (half the time, we were getting left behind by the group), it was fascinating to learn about how old some of the structures were. In order to preserve them, the original structures were torn down piece by piece, and reassembled using the very same elements that were used to construct the structures in the first place.

According to the guide, the wood used were still very strong because the original builders already treated wood with insect treatment substances but some of the shingles had to be reassembled using a different kind of mucilage. Some touch ups to the original colors were also done to replicate its original glory in the latter part of the 1300s.

Because the royals were considered precious, they were hardly permitted to the exert themselves in any activity, and were limited to stuff that don’t require much effort such as boat watching, fishing, meditating, reading and mostly napping. There was an assortment of resting areas for the king and his family around the Secret garden compound.

YES, BOAT WATCHING. When the king wanted to relax, his subjects ordered people to take their boats along this narrow strip for the king's viewing through this fan shaped and intricately designed structure. (Tyrone Chui)

WORKS OF ART. Traditional Korean artwork are hand painted on the ceilings of the structures. (Tyrone Chui)

THE THRONE ROOM. This is where coronations and major ceremonies were held back in the day. (Tyrone Chui)

750 AND COUNTING. The oldest surviving tree in the entire Palace, this old timer is supported by iron bars to keep upright. He doesn't look like much (reminds me of Megatron somewhat) but one has to give props to the old guy for his resilience and fighting spirit. (Tyrone Chui)

THE MAIN PALACE. This Palace is roughly four times bigger than its Changyeonggung Palace. No wonder they charge three times as much for entrance. It was worth it though. (Tyrone Chui)

One of the things I may have failed to mention at the beginning is that Changdeokgung Palace was also used to shoot some of the scenes for the Korean period drama Dae Jang Geum, about the first female physician in the Palace. There is also some big ceremony scheduled at the palaces normally with guards and actors in costume during the summer and spring but since we came in the winter, it was tough on them to put on a show because of the cold. Visiting the Changdeokgung Palace was one of the most tiring tours I have been on, but the insights I got from the informative tour was very well worth the effort. Now if only we could have caught up with the rest of our group, it would’ve been more awesome.

FALLING BEHIND THE PACK. At the foreground is my brother's girlfriend Aileen, while the two small figures up front are me and my mom. As you can see, the last of the group is way ahead of us. Talk about slow.(Tyrone Chui)