The Road to El Nido

Having spent the last few days in Puerto Princesa, currently in a van on our way up to El Nido. We’re on the island of Palawan in the Philippines for two weeks. First impressions, I have to say I really like the Philippines. The country is made up of numerous islands which offer lush, green and dramatic landscapes. The water is clear and gorgeous and the climate is hot and humid as you would expect from a tropical country. The amount tourists in Puerto Princesa also is a lot less than Thailand which was a welcome observation. I would imagine this will change dramatically in the next 5-10 years.

Puerto Princesa is the largest city on Palawan although I think it’s better described as a vast urban sprawl. Most buildings are a couple of floors high with lots of lots of unpaved roads. It’s quite laid back and because most of the touristy things are concentrated in the centre, it’s really easy to walk everywhere. I wouldn’t say there’s much to see in the city itself but there’s certainly good bars, restaurants and cafes. We spent the first full day just sorting out admin and milling around and yesterday we booked a day trip to see the Underground River which was worth a see. It’s a large river network housed in a cave in a national park. We also had the option to pay 550 pisos (it’s £1 to 73.50 pisos at time of writing) for a short cave hike and zip line which was really good fun. The tour also offered us our first look into the Philippines countryside which is just gorgeous.

The people are also friendly with lots of smiles and “hi”s said to us. One thing we’ve noticed is that Filipinos can dance!! On the night we arrived there was a dance show in Chinatown where local groups of kids and teens performed hip hop routines. We also had a fun night out at the Tiki Resto Bar and again saw the vivacious dancing of the locals. They certainly aren’t shy about throwing a move or two!

We flew into Puerto Princesa as we wanted to visit Palawan but flights to El Nido from Manila are much more expensive. The van has aircon and takes six hours roughly. I’d say so far it’s been a good journey. The countryside is so beautiful that armed with some good tunes and a couple of naps, it’s been pretty relaxing. We went with a company called Camarih Transport who offered the transport for 600 pisos. We also saw a couple of others that offered anywhere between 735-1,400 so do shop around. Camarih had an easy to use online booking system and includes hotel pick up.

Excited to see El Nido! We’ve been told a lot of good things about it. The plan is to spend a few days there and Nacpan Island hopping and doing water sports before heading to Coron further north which is famous for its WW2 wrecks dives.

There are already things I’ve heard and seen about that I want to come back to the Philippines to do already.


HK – some words and thoughts

Sitting at the airport waiting to board my flight to the Philippines leaving HK yet again. I’ve lost times of how many times I’ve been through this airport. Being born here and growing up abroad has always been a bit of a somewhat conflicting experience. There are two very strong cultures at play but I’m proud to have both within who I am.

I’ve always viewed Hong Kong, as with many places with a tempestuous past, as having many different facets. You have the colonial part of HK island, there is the modern super rich side and the what I experience the most, a slightly more modest life led by the indigenous residents. There are many things I’ve missed out on having never really lived there. But I did see something that really troubled me yesterday. There is a smaller quite popular island called Lamma island. You can get there by a 20 minute ferry from Central and it offers a bit more of a slower paced rural escape from the city. In the past when I visited as a girl and teenager, it was some residential flats and buildings in the middle of wilderness. On this visit, it has changed so much and not necessarily for the better in my opinion. There were a lot more tourists, western as well as Asian. So much so that the narrow walkways were a nightmare to walk on. There were also quite a few new additions to the high streets and catering establishments that shocked me. Western bar/restaurants that serve brunches and have a mostly western clientele, an Irish pub, a pizza restaurant, an incredibly posh hotel that wouldn’t look out of place on the French marina. There was even a building that hosted a cafe and a co-working space. Some of the local shops now sold sea salt flavoured cookies and baked goods, there was even a bloody churros stand!! The traditional stands selling douhua (a sweet dessert thing made with tofu) and some of the more traditional restaurants still remain, but it leaves me wondering if they’ll last. I’m all for diversification but like a lot of places in Thailand that sold avocado on toast and Belgian beers, it leaves you wondering whether the loss of cultures through tourism and migration is a good thing.

Pai, a Tourist Town story

From Chiang Mai we booked a short stay in Pai for two nights. Everyone we’d come across would rave about Pai and how amazing it is. By the time we were heading there for ourselves here’s what I had learnt

  • There is lots of avocado on toasts
  • It is a small town settlement in the mountains
  • The road there is incredibly windy and has many hairpin curves
  • It’s renowned for a relaxed “vibe”

Well, I would say all of those were correct. Although I’d heard the word “chilled” and “vibe” so many times when we were there I was ready to punch the next person who said it just to ruin their chilled vibes.

The journey wasn’t actually too bad although for the people who are prone to motion sickness, it would be advisable to take something for it. Both Giada and I fell asleep on the way there and back which made it go very quickly.

Pai was small but compared to Tonsai, which was little more than a high street, it was giant town. The setting is indeed lovely with its mountainous and varied range. The town was incredibly geared towards tourists though which obviously has its advantages but also downsides. When every cafe seems to offer avocado and eggs on toast in the morning and the falafel stand is the most popular at the night market, you do start to wonder what culture there is to explore.

I do recommend hiring a scooter to take out and exploring the surroundings. We hired from a place called Vespai which is just off one of the main streets. It is run by a lovely man called Tam who will ask if you know how to ride and offer a lesson for 50 bahts if you don’t or need a refresher (we hired scooters for 130thb so still costed less with a lesson than the high Street price of 200thb).

With the scooter you get the freedom of going out and exploring the area for yourself. For our expedition we went to the Pam Bok waterfall (meh), Pai Canyon (pretty cool but probably best at sunset and not at the peak heat of the day), Memorial Bridge (🤷‍♀️) and then a final stop at Fluid swimming pool. After a long day riding around in 35 C degree heat, the swimming pool was a very welcome respite that is worth the 80 baht entry. There is a bar and they also serve food should you be in need of sustenance.

The street food here, as with most of the other places in Thailand we’ve been to, was fantastic. The bbq skewers being a great stand out here. The skewer that features fatty pork wrapped around golden pin mushrooms seem to feature here quite a bit and are very tasty. Instead of having avocado on toast in the morning and spending ~150 thb, maybe try the congee (rice porridge but it’s savoury) from the street market stalls in the morning for 40 thb instead. We had one with mushrooms and preserved egg which was delicious. We also had a fantastic mango and sticky rice from one of the multiple stores.

Jazz House was a nice little relaxed venue with hammocks and low tables to sit at that had live music every night. The nightlife was a bit quiet with most places closed by about 11.30ish. There were some places closer towards the Pai River (one of which was called Pool Party) I suspect stayed open later although we didn’t try to find out.

It was a very nice chilled place that I could’ve stayed an extra few days to explore more on the scooter but alas my 30 days in Thailand were drawing to a close so we were limited on time. Next time maybe!

I am currently now on the plane to HK for my next part of my trip! Time to see family, celebrate Chinese New Year (it’s the year of the dog, if you’re asking) and most importantly, eat a ton of food!

Chiang Mai Adventures: Elephant Nature Park

On the second full day we were in Chiang Mai we had booked a day with Elephant Nature Park to go look after elephants for the day.

Thailand has a poor reputation with tourism and animals such as elephants and tigers in particular and generally any excursions that offer elephant riding, painting, tricks or anything similar should be avoided as well as anything that involves a tiger. Elephants do not paint or do tricks as a normal behaviour and the amount of cruelty and essentially torture that is involved to bend them to human submission should most definitely be outlawed. Riding an elephant is also cruel as the seat is an incredibly heavy metal structure and the animals get worked long hours in the gruelling heat. As for tigers, if they were behaving naturally, there is no way you can get anywhere near them for a picture without coming away with severe injuries. Tigers must be drugged off their faces in order for you to be able to do what they offer. Human entertainment seems a pretty poor reason for these beautiful creatures to be so heavily sedated on a daily basis, unable to live a proper life. It’s like the Chinese tourists I observed yesterday at a waterfall in Pai who were repeatedly throwing rocks into a pond trying scare the frog that was making regular croaks to make an appearance. These animals do not exist for your mere entertainment. They are sentient creatures of their own right. If you’re against human trafficking and human abuse, then consider the methods that are involved in order to make these ventures possible.

Rant over. Saying all that, eco-tourism is booming in Chiang Mai with lots of elephant “sanctuaries” who provide customers with a day feeding, “walking” and bathing elephants. Some of them offer riding without seats (although I’m undecided how I feel about this). Even if the owners of these establishments might be jumping on the bandwagon as opposed to doing it for the animal’s rights, it’s still a step in a better direction.

We ended up booking a day with Elephant Nature Park who, after extensive research, is highly recommended by lots of travel media publishers as well as won lots of awards on its work on rescuing elephants from commercial exploits (like riding, logging and performing). The single day excursions at their parks were all full up when we booked three days before we went. But they have plenty of side projects within the Karen villages where they involve the locals to look after rescued elephants which is good for the village giving them good stable income as well as providing lots of space and care for the elephants. We went to one of these side projects and it was easy to see that the three elephants there were well looked after. They were free to roam and were happy with their flappy ears as we fed and bathed them. The day we had didn’t involve any bare back riding which I preferred anyway as I have no desire to ride on such a magnificent creature.

So if you are around in Thailand and are looking for an elephant excursion, do do your research and work out which ones operate without abusing the animals.

Chiang Mai Adventures: Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep

We ended up spending two and a half days in Chiang Mai before heading to Pai for two nights (currently on the minibus heading back to Chiang Mai). Even at first sight Chiang Mai is so much more relaxed and friendlier than Bangkok. The airport is only 15 minute drive away from the downtown square. There is a shuttle bus available for 40 bahts per person. The counter for this is at the very end of the airport near door 12 (by the international side) however this has limited capacity and when we went we were told there would be a 40 minute wait. There are lots of counters that offer taxis for a fixed price of 150 thb to get into town which isn’t too bad particularly as we were sharing between two.

We chose a hostel at the east edge of the main downtown Square to stay called Thunder Bird Hostel. In fact we’re staying there tonight on our one night stopover. The hostel wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch with its scandi inspired decor with lots of minimalist metal work. It’s clean, good toilets, hot showers, has a small rooftop and a comfortable chill out lobby where they serve the included breakfast as well as have a piano and guitar for those musically gifted to have a strum (or even those who just fancy a tinkle). Prices are not extortionate, a bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm is 315 baht per night. The hostel is a little hard to find but just use the GPS on Google maps to navigate your way there. There is also a lovely food market right outside the hostel with plenty of fresh fruit that you can devour.

The first full day we were there we set off on a self-trek to Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep. If you’re up for a day of adventure in some stunning sceneries and seeing some awesome temples, it’s definitely worth a go. We followed the directions in this article as well as used the GPS on Google maps. Whilst the first bit is useful, the directions for the actual trek was a bit foggy and we got lost multiple times so ended up taking all day to trek up to Doi Suthep. I don’t know how much has changed since that article but the path is certainly not as easy as following the trees with the monks’ markers as there were multiple routes that had it. My main advice would be:

  1. Follow the trail, it doesn’t suddenly turn off at a 90 degree angle
  2. One thing the article really didn’t make clear is that the trek to Doi Suthep continues FROM Wat Pha Lak. Don’t walk back out to try and find the area with the plaque that suggests you sit down before continuing the journey. It’s just misleading.
  3. Once you’re through the grueling hike after Wat Pha Lak and have hit the second road and near Doi Suthep, walk on the main road. We ended up going up a smaller road which we thought was a pedestrian road and I think ended up trespassing on alot of people’s village/properties!

Make sure you arm yourself with some sustenance and water – it can get hot and if it takes longer than you planned you don’t want to get caught out. There are stalls up at Doi Suthep so it’s easily to fuel up when you get there so only take enough to ease any hunger or thirst on the journey. And despite monks doing the trek in flip flops, I would definitely recommend trainers as a bare minimum as there were a lot of mild scrambles and steep dirt tracks.

Wat Pha Lak is definitely worth seeing with its beautiful waterfall setting. We ended up staying for quite a while just enjoying the serene sound and quiet. It is significantly less busy than Doi Suthep as it can’t be reached directly by transport so tour groups don’t stop there. There are also good toilet facilities there.

Doi Suthep is also worth the 30 baht entry fee, with its ostentatious gold circle and also insane view of Chiang Mai. This is the point where you feel an amazing feeling of accomplishment when you see the radio antennae where you first started the hike and realised how far it actually is!

There are plenty of songthaews (red taxis that hold up to ~10 people) up here which offer rides back as far as Tha Phae Gate (the east gate of downtown) for 80 baht per person so that’s a good option if you’re not wanting to do the hike back down.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai

After a short stay in Bangkok we’re just on our way to the airport to fly to Chiang Mai. Bit of a cheat I know but when you can get return flights for £65, you have to ask yourself if it worth spending 8 hours on a train…

My travelling partner and I aren’t particularly city people so planned only a short stay as we predicted we wouldn’t particularly love Bangkok and we were right. I do have to say though that the street food is incredible, so I didn’t hate everything about it.

I was born in Hong Kong, spent my early years there and have since been back roughly around once every two years to visit family. Bangkok had lots of things that reminded me of Hong Kong but also was more rundown and dirty. We stayed at a hostel called Bunny Burrow (which was great, it’s not a party hostel but we weren’t looking for that) that is about ten minute walk south of Chinatown. I don’t know what the sewage systems are like but alot of the places we walked you would get the faint waft of sewage every so often. Coupled with the heat and exhaust fumes from traffic during the day, it makes Bangkok quite an unpleasant city to walk. Tuktuks are all involved in some sort of syndicate so it’s nearly impossible to get a cheap tuktuk unless they’re driving you to the pier to try and coerce you to buy one of the extortionate tourist ferry “tours”. Metered taxis can actually be cheaper than a tuktuk.

Khao San Road, the notorious tourist/backpacker Road could be lifted straight out of some Spanish holiday destination. We popped there briefly for a spot of quick shopping but didn’t stay for the bars and restaurants.

We also went to the Wat Pho temples which was interesting to see. It’s amazing how intricate Thai designs are. We tried to get to the Grand Palace (having initially mistaken Wat Pho for the Grand Palace), but visiting hours had finished by the time we got there.

Overall, apart from the street food, I wasn’t overly in love with Bangkok. However we did only spend a brief time there and trying to travel on a modest budget I don’t think suits going to a city like Bangkok. Anyhow, sitting waiting to board the plane to Chiang Mai and looking forward to breathing some clean mountain air.

Onwards to Bangkok!

Writing this post whilst sitting on another ferry, this time leaving Koh Tao for Chumphon and onwards to Bangkok for two nights.

I have mixed feelings about Koh Tao. I’ve absolutely loved doing the open water diver course which now means I’m a certified autonomous diver (although, I’m not sure I’d want to be completely autonomous after just four dives). The dives were awesome with some amazing marine life here – we even saw a stingray yesterday! But the island is essentially a tourist island. Everything I’ve seen here is geared towards catering for tourists. On the one hand it’s good but on the other, it gives it almost like a theme park feel. And on our walk to the pier we saw deforestation to make way for more resorts and holiday homes. It is definitely a place that will change a lot in the next three to five years.

We stayed near Sairee beach and dived with Mojos. That area of town, particularly with the amount of beach bars etc. on a busy night feels a lot like somewhere like Magaluf. I do however recommend the duck places that do amazing roasted duck on noodles and rice.

The diving itself… most signs I’ve seen advertising open water courses sit at around 8,000 thb for the three and a bit day course. A lot of the dive shops will offer four nights accommodation included for 9,000 thb which is pretty good. Not that I have anything to compare it to but I really rated Mojo Divers. The staff were friendly, knowledgeable and they really look after you to make sure you get your certification even if that means switching around dive schedules or going out an extra day. We even got bought a beer when the dive boat arrived back late so we ended up setting off much later than originally planned.

Diving is an amazing experience, the amount of marine wildlife we saw was incredible. I’m looking forward to doing it in the Philippines!