Something beautiful popped up in my Facebook news feed in April last year. It was a link to a Bored Panda post featuring 22 places that are hard to believe really exist. Instantly, it became a bucket list. When I reached the bottom of that page, I promised myself that I would visit all of these sites — one per year.
But it didn’t happen.
Last year, I set foot on two. Just two months after the article rattled my travel plans, I was able to visit one of them. And four more months later, I crossed out another. The latter gave me the most memorable travel moment I had last year. Find out which destination it is below.
If you missed the first half of this post, you can find it here –> Best Travel Moments (Part 1).
12. Japanese Pop Culture Immersion in Kyoto, Japan
One of the two destinations on the Bored Panda list that I was able to experience is the Bamboo Forest of Arashiyama in Kyoto. While my full hour in the company of bamboos were truly refreshing, it was totally overshadowed by my visit to the Toei Movie Studio Park (Tōei Uzumasa Eigamura).
It is actually a film set where period movies (over 200 of them) are shot, and you can observe actual filming should you visit at the right time. But more than a movie set, it is also an amazing theme park! If Japan had amusement parks back in the day, this is how it would have looked! There were a ninja maze, an anime museum, and a samurai show, among others. Visitors may also choose to rent a full Edo period costume and dress up as a samurai or a geisha so they could explore the park in style!
The one attraction that I will never ever forget, however, is the Haunted House. Given how the Japanese have mastered the art of horror, I almost chickened out and skipped it. But the pull of curiosity was much more intense that I gave in. It was a mad decision! MAAAAD. It was crazy good!
11. First Glimpse of Mt Fuji from Kamakura, Japan
I was in Kamakura not to see Japan’s famed volcano but the giant bronze statue of Buddha (Daibutsu), which is easily accessible. But of course, I did not make it easy for myself. I followed a mountain trail from Jochiji Temple through a forest to reach it. I have no idea why I did that, to be honest. Along the way was a small hilltop shrine where I chose to rest for a minute, and while I was there I spotted something I wasn’t expecting to see from there — Mt. Fuji!
Its snow-covered peak glistened under the winter sun, and I just stood there throwing it one extremely long gaze. It was my first time to see Fujiyama or any snow-covered mountain. Two days later, I would travel to Kawaguchiko to skiing on its northern slope! (The skiing itself was fantastic, but it happened on January 1, so I should leave it for next year’s list.)
10. Walking on Glass atop Tianmen Mountain, China
Snaking around the summit of Tianmen Mountain, this GLASS walkway attracts and scares visitors at 4,700ft above sea level. The upside, breathtaking view! The downside, well, you know, it’s glass.
You could say that it being made in China should have given me more reason to be afraid, but this trip taught me not to judge carelessly. The locals I met in Zhangjiajie were nothing but gracious and helpful. And I was actually impressed with how organized and reliable things were in this city.
The glass boardwalk was just one of the highlights of my day here. The Gateway to Heaven is another top attraction in this side of Zhangjiajie. It is a giant hole in the wall. No, really; it’s a hole in the wall. And it can be reached after a scenic cable car ride, a drive on the dizzying cliffside road, and a steep climb on one of the tallest staircases I had ever seen.
9. A Taste of Africa at Calauit Safari Park in Busuanga, Palawan
Four years after my first Coron trip, I found myself in the middle of the Calamianes again. This time, however, Coron takes the backseat. My friend-slash-spice girl Mica and I were here for Busuanga and Culion, its less famous but equally stunning neighbors. A three-hour boat ride took us to Africa! Well, not really.
The 3800-hectare Calauit Safari Park was established in 1976. One hundred and four animals (including giraffes, zebras, and six types of antelopes: impala, gazelle, bushbuck, eland, waterbuck, and tobi) were brought here from Kenya, and the forested island was transformed to a savannah — its residents relocated and its bamboo forests cleared to provide a suitable environment for the animals.
8. Braving the Rain to Nacpan-Calitang Beach, El Nido
And why wouldn’t you brave the rain for a place that looks like this? And it’s not just the twin beaches of Nacpan and Calitang; El Nido soaked us in the rain the whole time.
It was my second time in El Nido. While I did not pray for the rain (who would?), it did not become a problem at all. Experiencing the place in a less than sunny weather has its own charm, it turned out.
7. Wild Wild Wet at Lake Holon, South Cotabato
By the time we reached Lake Holon, we were already drenched. It had been a rainy afternoon, and the Mt. Melibingoy trail had been dangerously slippery. Four hours, a wound and 34 scratches later (yes, I counted), I finally reached the edge of the lake.
As if all the fatigue vanished magically and with renewed energy, I ran to the banks and danced with wind. The music: that distinctly amplified songs of the cicadas. The audience: the ghostly clouds kissing the peaks of Melibingoy and the tall grass that swayed lightly, which were reflected perfectly on the mirror-like surface of the lake. It was so clear and peaceful that a fly dipping a toe would send ripples across it and I would see it from where I stood.
And then we got drunk. Awfully drunk. Embarrassingly drunk.
6. Getting Marble-ous in Taroko Gorge, Taiwan
Taroko Gorge is a 19-km-long canyon that crumples the northeastern coast of Taiwan. The rough diamond of Hualien County, it is located southeast of Taipei and is accessible by a two-hour train ride. This was where I celebrated my *cough* 27th *cough* birthday.
5. Just Got Served at Endo Sushi, Osaka, Japan
I was not a fan of sushi. Until one morning I had a quick breakfast at Endo Sushi.
Endo Sushi has been serving what many consider “Osaka’s best” for over 100 years now. It was not close to any attraction in Osaka, but you could say that the restaurant has become an attraction in itself. I came here with no expectations, but I was surprised to have the most delicious meal I had had anywhere ever. I guess I just got served. Japanese-style.
4. Winter Sonata in Nami Island, South Korea
It’s hard to put a finger on it, but there is something wildly fascinating about Namiseom Island. It shot to fame when Korean drama series Winter Sonata filmed many of their key scenes here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that. I’m not a fan.
Perhaps it’s the island’s half-moon shape and location (in the middle of Han River). Perhaps it’s how it is being marketed — as an imaginary republic (Naminara Republic) with its own flag, currency, and “passport.” Or its the lane of towering metasequoia trees. Or maybe it was the season; autumn was just giving way to winter when I visited. I just could not tell. All I know is, I had a great time
camwhoring exploring here.
3. River Cruise from Guilin to Yangshuo, China
We all have our dream destinations, and I have been very vocal about mine: Jerusalem, Paris, and Guilin. I still remember the moment I learned about Guilin. I was googling images of China for a college report, and stumbled upon a breathtaking photo of the Li River meandering in between imposing karst columns. And for the first time since, I was able to finally cross out an item from my list of three dream destinations. Guilin has already been conquered.
Almost everything about my trip to Guilin did not go as I wanted. I planned on buying a new lens for my camera before this trip because my cash stash disappointed me. I failed to wake up early to catch the morning colors. I failed to stay overnight in Yangshuo because I just got too tired and lazy after almost two weeks of backpacking in China. And I failed to book in advance a ticket to the Zhang Yimou-directed outdoor night show. But Guilin remains unforgettable.
2. To the Island of No Return: Culion, Palawan
My friend Mica and I seldom travel together. Now that I think about it, we have only been on the same trip four times since we met, and the first was actually where I met her. Our second trip happened last year; it was in Taipei, and we did not even have enough time for each other because I was busy with something else. So we planned a third trip. During our conversations, I could not help but notice how adamant she was in pushing Culion as our next destination.
Apparently, the remote island of Culion has a special place in her big, big heart. (Yes, she has a heart. I was surprised, too.)
The town of Culion used to be the biggest leper colony in the world. On May 27, 1906, when Coast Guard cutters Polillo and Mindanao carried 370 Hansenites (lepers) from Cebu. Most of them were brought here against their will. Some of them would later embrace a life of normalcy in this town, specifically designed for their betterment and the search for better treatments. On this island, patients were shut from the rest of the world, supervised and taken care of by medical professionals. One of them: Dr. Jose Rodriguez, Mica’s great grandfather. I was just happy that I was there to witness the moment she learned a whole lot more about his lolo’s legacy.
But even without any personal entanglements, a trip to Culion is absolutely rewarding. The town is a giant outdoor museum. Remnants of its oddly intriguing history still stand.
1. Finding Pandora in Zhangjiajie, China
The Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Area in Zhangjiajie was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and recognized as World Geological Park by the United Nations in 2004. It has four zones, and I was able to leave footprints in two of them: the Zhangjiajie Forest Park and the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve.
Three thousand peaks rise around these parks like colossal statues of giants guarding the heavens. Its every nook is scenic, every cranny imaginative. It is as if carved beautifully by the gods themselves. Together, they form a landscape that looks like a place that is not on this planet.
Oh wait, it is not on this planet. Well, sort of.
Wulingyuan is widely regarded as an inspiration to the Hallelujah Mountains, the floating islands in the fictional moon PANDORA, the setting of the Hollywood film AVATAR. In fact, a 1080m quartz-sandstone pillar has been renamed “Hallelujah Mountain” in honor of the film.
I tried to take in all the beauty that was surrounding me. The columns stood in a sea of autumn colors, and each of them had a story to tell: some born out of myth, others rooted in history. Tales of heroism are etched on the cliffsides and mountaintops of these rocky, rocky world. And I was there to listen.
And as I stood there, I could not believe that I was in the middle of the rugged landscape whose photo I saw on a Bored Panda list just six months ago. And even then, even when I was already there and I could touch it, I still could not believe that such a beautiful place exists.