If you had met me ten or even five years ago, you’d probably see me as someone who was not the traveling type. And you would be right.
Now that I think about it, if my past self were to see me now, he would be totally shocked, repeatedly hurling judging questions at me such as “What the hell are you doing outside the house all the time?” And more importantly, “What the eff are you doing with your life?!”
The obsessive-compulsive in me had always kept me within the great indoors. I had always been the type who would rather stay at home than do silly things like traveling. I would rather enjoy cleaning the apartment thoroughly and regularly. Or do movie marathons all day long. Or bury my face in Himalayas of work. Or play solitaire on my iPad. Or maybe engage strangers in an exciting round of card game at Partypoker.fr. I might find it more rewarding than any activity that would involve taking any form of transportation.
Going out? Maybe. Traveling? HELL NO!
But that was then. Year 2009 was such a pivotal period for me: It was when I discovered the joys that lay along the road. It was the time that I had accepted that risks were okay to take for they, most of the time, came with explosions of fun. But it wasn’t all so sudden. I took baby steps one after another, starting from destinations within close proximity to the capital in 2009 and then exploring further and wider usually with friends in the next two years. Last year, 2012, the highlight of my travel season was that I started traveling solo across Southeast Asia. It was something the old always-proper diplomat-wannabe me was probably kicking his butt for, wondering where he went wrong that I turned out to be like this — a professional bum wandering far off course.
But guess what? Last year was a great year. And here are the top 10 moments on the road that ultimately made the previous year absolutely stellar.
10. Cruising Around Halong Bay, Vietnam
October 2012. The thick sheet of mist slowly drifting over Halong Bay made the experience far different from the karst-made archipelagos that I am used to. While I still prefer the blue skies of El Nido or Coron, the sheer white curtains that partially concealed distant islands added mystery to the “expedition to the unknown” atmosphere. Except of course that there really isn’t anything “unknown” about our boat’s route. If anything, it was a tired path, evident in the number of tourists that flocked the world famous site.
But it wasn’t the landscape per se that left a mark on my picky heart. It was the other travelers I was with on the boat, the moments I shared with them, and the moments of solitude that I enjoyed. Picture this: You. Relaxing. Holding a bottle of local beer. Watching the stars. On the top deck of a boat. In the middle of Ha Long Bay. Honestly, there were no stars that night for they were covered by the clouds. But still.
9. Crushing Expectations in Boracay, Philippines
April 2012. I used to be a member of the Boracay Haters Club. Well, I wasn’t really hating. And it wasn’t a real club, just an imaginary brotherhood of men in my head, who do not get the effect that Boracay has on most people. My poor judgment was based solely on the photos of the beach alongside a highly commercialized strip of establishments. I love nightlife, I do. But when it comes to beaches, I always prefer the secluded kind.
Every time my friends asked me why I had never set foot on Boracay yet, I would always answer with: “I’m visiting Boracay only if for free.”
Last summer, Tattoo invited me and a few other bloggers on an all-expense paid trip to Boracay. And guess what? I accepted. Ha, you don’t say?
Boracay was a pleasant surprise. I finally understood it all. What makes Boracay so popular is not the beach itself. (Maybe before all the restaurants and bars and hotels mushroomed, it was the beach alone.) The island has everything within a few yards from the beach and the convenience it offers nourishes relationships between families, friends, and lovers. The loud music and big crowds have become part of the island’s unique character. And of course, I enjoyed partying at the beach, too. Tremendously, if you know what I mean.
So yes, I’ve cancelled my membership to the imaginary I-don’t-get-Boracay club. It’s great to be proven wrong sometimes.
8. Taking All the Gore in at Siriraj Medical Museum, Bangkok, Thailand
September 2012. I met Thailand’s very first serial killer! Yes, no kidding. How was it? Pleasant. Thanks to the fact that he’s dead, mummified, and exhibited in a glass case at a creeps-happy museum. I wouldn’t want to meet him had he been alive especially knowing that he was a cannibal, too. I love Hannibal Lecter only because he’s a fictional character.
Not many people outside Bangkok know about Siriraj Medical Museum aka the Museum of Death. Maybe because it’s quite distant from the other popular tourist spots. Or maybe because those who actually braved entering the House of Gore were too terrified to tell the tale and spread the word. (That’s an exaggeration, of course.) Well, I dared finding the place and I was rewarded by the sights of dismembered body parts, mummified bodies of executed convicts, disfigured babies, and larger than life models of parasites. I left the place troubled and almost traumatized.
7. Enduring and Enjoying the 27-Hour Bus Ride from Luang Prabang to Hanoi
October 2012. I like bus rides and I say that without an ounce of sarcasm. But when I say bus rides, I mean short rides. Less than an hour is cool. 2 hours, okay. 6 hours, no problem. 27 hours, uhmmm, wait a minute. Twenty seven frakking hours?!
One of the proudest moments of my Southeast Asian backpacking trip was that moment I hopped out of that bus and stepped on Hanoi soil for the first time. It wasn’t because I was blown away by my first real sight of Hanoi but because I could already announce that I survived what many people call the “hell bus” that ply the Luang Prabang-Hanoi route! We left Luang Prabang, Laos at 6pm and arrived in the Vietnamese capital at 9pm the next day. How’s that for a wasted day? But you know what they say, it’s the journey, not the destination. True enough, the journey albeit long and ass-melting was an experience to remember on its own. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. For 27 hours, all I had was a good book, a good seat, and good company.
6. Biking to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
September 2012. Whether it was the biking or the crashing that came after, my experience touring Siem Reap on two wheels is definitely unforgettable. The last time I rode a bicycle was probably within the period that I was still addicted to anime, crazy over Spice Girls (I still am, to be honest), and scared of puberty (or maybe just circumcision). So I made it a mission to relearn my biking skills in Siem Reap! It was easy. NOT!
The streets of Siem Reap are not really a great place to pick up a new skill, unless you want to learn the hard way. And I kind of did. While the best highlight of my stay in Cambodia remains the Angkor Wat and the other ancient structures (Bayon and Ta Prohm are beyond amazing, even more awe-inspiring than Angkor Wat if you ask me) but the biking was too big a deal for me. The crash, that is. It left me with three nasty wounds that made walking such a miserable chore in the next two weeks. I was backpacking so walking was a big part of my trip. Still, I enjoyed the whole experience as immensely as some of you enjoy your fetish porn. Was it fun? Absolutely! Will I be biking in a foreign land again? Of course. NOT.
5. Reaching New Heights and Trying New Tastes in Taipei, Taiwan
December 2012. What is Christmas without surprises? I was kind of content with ending my 2012 travel season with a Hong Kong-Macau family trip in November but Philippines’ AirAsia took us and a couple other bloggers to what probably is the most surprising destination I visited last year — Taipei.
It was a guided tour (you know, the always-worried-about-time hurry-the-bus-is-waiting type) but I still had a spectacular time in spite of. Other than F4, I did not know much about Taipei (or Taiwan in general) before this trip and I was totally blown away! I particularly enjoyed the night markets. I’m a very picky eater and just the volume of the food I devoured in one visit to Shilin should be enough to show just how much I want to pitch a camp beside the night market and just forget about the rest of the tour. We also reached the observatory of Taipei 101, the world’s second tallest building. And oh, the 12-degree weather was perfect.
I fell in love with Taiwan so hard I’m going back in March for my birthday!
4. Getting Tea-High in Cameron Highlands, Malaysia
July 2012. I’m not a tea person. When it comes to drinks, I always stick with my regular (i.e.
softdrink water). Tea is not just my cup of, well, tea. But there was something about being in the middle of hedgerows of black tea shrubs running across rolling hills! And you know what that something is? I don’t know either. But that something is enough to make that trip memorable.
I wasn’t even planning on going to Cameron Highlands. I was supposed to fly to Siem Reap from Kuala Lumpur (there were no direct flights to Siem Reap then) but the news of enterovirus spreading in some parts of Cambodia scared the hell out of me so I had to take a detour! Thankfully, Plan B was breathtaking. Cameron Highlands hypnotized me with its mossy forests, organic farms, delicious food, and, yes, vast tea plantations.
3. Falling in Love with Chiang Mai, Thailand
September 2012. If you ask me where I would want to stay longer (or probably stay for good) among all the foreign cities I have visited, I will definitely say Chiang Mai. Why? Let’s see. Low cost of living. Friendly people. Hot men. Vibrant night life. Diverse night markets. Countless places to visit. Charming temples. Thai massage. Meditation. Lively backpacking scene. Hot men (oh wait, I said that already). Street food! Tastiest tom yum! Cooking schools. Nature parks. Jungle trails. Waterfalls. Farms. Hot men. Want me to go on?
Chiang Mai was the third city that I visited as part of my backpacking trip but I was with my friend Bebs in the first two. It was in Chiang Mai that, for the first time, I was alone. But the great part was, I didn’t feel alone. I met a lot of new friends at the hostel where I stayed. I will never forget these guys and I was thankful that our paths crossed.
2. Going Back to Basics in Laoang Island, Northern Samar, Philippines
August 2012. There was only one jeepney in the whole island. And three cars, all of which were owned by a funeral service company. And they don’t need them. Laoang Island is so small and many of the residents just walk or take the motorbike to get from Point A to Point B. It reminded me of my hometown 20 years ago. We spent 3 days and 2 nights in the island and within that period, we were treated to a rustic lifestyle that we found oh-so-delightful. The only thing missing was running water and we would have been absolutely satisfied.
My visit to Laoang was not personal. We went there to promote the Footprints Project, a campaign for responsible travel. You see, Laoang was about to beef up their tourism programs and they wanted to consult with us how they planned on doing it. We were given a chance to brief many of the residents on how they can help promote their island while and by protecting their natural environment. We were taken on a tour and man was it fantastic! Laoang is beautiful! Their isolated beaches are almost untouched — no permanent establishment at all. I hope they keep it that way.
One thing that really made that trip extra special was how warm and friendly the people were. They welcomed us into their homes, treated us to dinner, and showed us around free of charge. They were just happy and proud to let us see the sheer beauty of their island.
1. Rocking the Landscapes of Biri Island, Northern Samar, Philippines
August 2012. The moment is still clear as glass as if it happened today. I was at the summit of Bel-at rock formation while my friend Ces was walking across the rough plain below and I screamed at her: “This is the most beautiful place I had ever been to! Ever!”
And that was no exaggeration.
Of all the places I had seen in person, Biri Island is my absolute favorite. Maybe because I had not been to that many places and I still have so much to see. But as of now, Biri sits comfortably on top of that list.
Biri Island’s claim to fame is their set of massive rock formations. There were six of them and they were all totally breathtaking. These crags were shaped slowly by the powerful waves that slapped the edges of the island. Each of them was a giant art piece as if sculpted by the gods themselves. Each of these crags sloped gently, allowing guests to reach the summit. I climbed up to the top of some of them and from there I had a magnificent panoramic view of the surrounding landscape and I teared up a little — the vast mangrove forest that we walked across to get here, the mighty sea sending splashes to the shore one after another, boulders that decorated the area as if deliberately, and the natural pools that were irresistible! Every time I think about all that, there’s a strong urge to just pack my bags and take a flight back to this fantasy island tucked in the northwest corner of Samar.
And I’m telling you, Biri Island will be a staple in this annual list. I am sure every visit will be unforgettable.
So there you have it. I have more items on my places-to-visit list this year. I already bought tickets to Indonesia for a three-week adventure in Java, Bali, and Lombok; to Kota Kinabalu and Brunei for a two-week tour of Borneo; to Guilin, China for a journey to Yangshuo; to Japan for a getaway in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara; to Taipei for a part 2 of my Taiwan island tour; and to Korea for my very first snow (hopefully it snows when I’m there). I’m also planning to visit Nepal, New Zealand, and Australia this year (but no tickets yet).
Locally, I’m going back to Boracay with my family. I also have tickets to Zamboanga, Dumaguete/Siquijor, and more! Hopefully my plan of traveling from Coron to the southern tip of Palawan pushes through, too!
It’s going to be a crazy year for me and I can’t wait to start!