Exhausted. That’s exactly how I felt upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport coming from my last trip for the year. And what a year it had been! You see, the pandemic felt like a hard reset. For better or for worse, it changed the travel scene dramatically. I’m a travel blogger creating destination guides, and the past years rendered our articles somewhat outdated. In an effort to gather fresh information and create new guides, I had to revisit checked items on my bucket list and tick off new ones while I was at it.
Twenty three. I explored 23 countries this year, nine of them I had never been to before. And in Japan alone, I had set foot in 21 prefectures, 15 of them for the first time. That’s an average of nearly two countries and two prefectures per month, making 2023 my most prolific travel year. Naturally, by the end of it, I was almost completely spent with knees sore, soles calloused, and bank accounts as drained as a drag queen’s after joining RuPaul’s Drag Race. My wallet may be deflated for now, but the restless heart of this restless soul is bursting at the seams with priceless memories. Some are treasures earned; others are lessons learned. Here are 23 of them.
23. Double celebration in Boracay
I was celebrating my birthday in the Philippines’ most popular island destination when our YouTube channel hit 100,000 subscribers!
22. Conquering the sky in Chiang Mai
It was my first time to ride a paramotor!
21. Digging into Batangas lomi in Barcelona
After six weeks in Europe, my soul was practically aching for Filipino food! It wasn’t until we reached Barcelona that I finally got a taste of home. And not just Pinoy food — Batangueño food. Even before I took a seat, I ordered lomi and it did not disappoint. It was sticky, veggie-free, and served with soy sauce on the side.
Some of the staff were also from Batangas and neighboring Mindoro. Shoutout to JB and Kuya Nomer.
20. Out-of-this-world evening at teamLab Osaka
Osaka’s teamLab Botanical Garden was so magical, it was my absolute favorite among all teamLab sites around the world. It was a toss between this and Macau’s Supernature, but Botanica Garden’s sheer size and outdoor setup pushed it a notch higher.
19. Wizarding in Tokyo
I’m a big Potterhead, so Tokyo’s Harry Potter Studio Tour (Warner Bros. Studio Tour tokyo – The Making of Harry Potter) was just my kind of museum. My favorite part was conjuring my own patronus!
18. Ghosts, grubs, and gorges in Shikoku
Japan’s Shikoku region gave us a lot of experiences to remember, especially the food. I can still taste Marugame’s sanuki udon and Kochi’s seared bonito. But it is our short boat cruise in Oboke in Tokushima Prefecture that really sticks in our memory!
17. Stopped and searched by Hong Kong Police
We were on the way back to our hotel from Hong Kong Disneyland when a group of four police officers stopped us and searched our bags. It was nerve-wracking, to be honest. Thank heavens we had our passports with us that night.
16. Connecting with kababayans in Romania
Romania’s Transylvania region has several wondrous attractions. But it is the growing Filipino community in Brasov that really made our stay super special! Hello hello to Ate Janeth, Ate Joy, and Ate Charie!
15. Falling for a taxi scam in Skopje, North Macedonia
Taxi scams are rampant in many countries around the world, and North Macedonia is no exception. But it’s always unnerving to fall for one.
14. Dine and drag in Bangkok
Got invited to a lovely dinner by our new friends Anna and Paul of Chow Traveller. Then I dragged Vins to a drag show in Silom right after. 😆
13. 15-hour Bus journey from Albania to Montenegro to Croatia
The sights from the bus were spectacular. But the scents, not so much. On the first bus, the driver was a chain smoker, puffing away inside. On the second bus, we were seated in front of a couple of tourists who raised their stinky feet on our armrests. Olfactory assault!
12. Hate barrage on the ride to Mostar
Our tour guide-driver to Mostar loved spewing homophobic rhetoric without realizing some of his guests were members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies. Thank goodness we shared the vehicle with some of the most splendid souls we met on the road, and we all made a bond over it. That said, Mostar is a fab destination with friendly locals, too!
11. First time in Bali
Would you believe I had never been to Bali until this year? We have lots of Bali content on our travel blog, but they were written by my teammates. Last July, I finally saw what I was missing. Bali is beautiful!
I had a terrible case of Bali belly on my last night, but I can’t wait to return regardless!
10. Stepping into the past in Kastoria, Greece
If there’s one destination I never ever expected to visit this year, it’s Kastoria in Greece! And it’s one the highlights of our almost two months in Europe. We made so many fantastic memories! But if I have to choose just one, I think the most unforgettable was when our host Sonia brought us to her favorite spot in the city: just outside an old chapel. Although she had been there countless times, she had never been inside the church. She would only admire it from the outside, watch the candle that had been kept lit by the families taking care of the church.
As luck would have it, the caretaker of the church who lived nearby was watching us from his house. He offered to take us inside and opened the church to us. According to him, it was built in 1899, yes, over 120 years ago! It has undergone a lot of changes over the past century, but the original columns remain standing. He led us across the nave, past the iconostasis, and into the sanctuary where the columns can be found. He also let us admire and film the interiors including the artworks! Such a lovely, historic church.
9. Fiery foliage and friendly faces in Okayama
Vins was taking pics of me along a foot path at Korakuen Garden when a local grandpa showed up. We immediately stopped to let him through, but he wanted us to finish the shots first. An hour later, our paths crossed again at the bus stop.
“Hello!” he greeted, while handing us chocolates. “Where are you from?”
“I was once in Tagaytay!” But it had been a long time. “I’m 98 years old!”
Our bus was delayed, so we just kept talking the whole time about Okayama, his hometown, and Tagaytay. He also took photos of us and with us.
His name is Mr. Takazawa. Cute ni Lolo. Sana ganun din ako kalakas and ka-happy kapag 98 na ako!
8. Almost left behind by the cruise ship in Penang
When our Royal Caribbean cruise ship made a port of call in Penang, we decided to pull a DIY shore excursion to Penang Hill. But it was the day before a major holiday and we couldn’t find a Grab or AirAsia Ride around the area! We also underestimated Georgetown traffic so much that we got back to the pier just 15 minutes before closing in pawis na pawis fashion.
7. Digging out the roots of tsukemen in Tokyo
Of all the different ramen types, my absolute favorite is tsukemen! Also known as dipping ramen, it is composed of noodles separated from a more concentrated broth, and you’re supposed to dip the noodles in it. Even when I’m in the mood for traditional ramen, when I spot tsukemen in the menu, I’d change my mind and order the latter instead. That’s why I consider it an honor to dine at Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishoken, the place where tsukemen was invented. And it did not disappoint. The serving was ginormous, but I was able to finish everything!
6. A tale of two drivers in Limassol, Cyprus
Shared this story right here.
5. Post-apocalyptic feels in Hong Kong
Crossed the Hong Kong border four times this year, but it was the last that was the most memorable. At the time, the city was bracing for a typhoon. A typhoon signal no. 8 was raised. The streets were empty. The shops closed early. We couldn’t go anywhere, and we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. If my memory serves me right, it was my first time to experience a big storm abroad.
4. Sofia Surprise in Bulgaria
Of all the destinations we visited this year, nothing surprised us more than Bulgaria. The travelers we met weren’t exactly singing praises about Sofia, its capital city. There wasn’t much to see, they said. The locals were rude, they said. Yet, our experience was the exact opposite. Its every corner has so much history, millennia of stories to tell curious travelers. The locals were friendly, too!
Also, in the early years of this blog, I remember writing about my dream destinations, and Sofia was in the top five. I had a whole lot of personal reasons at the time, but one of them is the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. And I was finally able to see it up close! Spent a lot of time admiring the back of because it looks like a delicious stack of cupcakes.
3. Killing it at TBEX Europe in Greece
So happy and honored to be back at TBEX as the Closing Keynote Speaker, this time in Greece. There’s always a lot of pressure in being a closing speaker. If you eff it up, it’ll be the last image in their heads and the first they’ll remember. But before my talk, a friend urged me to stop looking at it that way and just keep saying to myself, “I’M GONNA KILL IT!” And I think I did! 😆
Super thankful to make new friends and reconnect with fellow travel content creators from around the world!
2. Walking down memory lane at Kyoto Station
Our most recent trip was our 19th time in Japan, but I still vividly remember the first. Back then, we spent a long, long time deciding where to eat because we were so intimidated by everything.
There was this restaurant near Kyoto Station that we wanted to try. Our budget was limited and we weren’t sure we had enough to afford it. Or if we did have enough, would it would be worth it? I’d probably kick myself in the butt for “wasting” funds that could’ve been spent on other attractions. Every single day we were at the station, we would stop and stand in front of it, contemplating whether or not we should enter and eat there. Every single day, we decided against it and ended up at a convenience store.
Of course, after several Japan trips, we now know better. We’re aware now that there are a lot of cheap but worthy food spots in every city, and we are now more confident to find and try them. But at the time, we were such nervous noobs.
On this last trip, when we passed by that lane of restaurants, there was a sense of happiness knowing that I could enter any of them without fear. Yasss naman. “I made it.” Cheka. 😆 But seriously. The extremely shy person that I was 10 years ago is not the same person that I am today. I’ve undergone tremendous growth not just financially but my attitude towards uncertainty. I’m no longer afraid to ask, and I now have the confidence to walk away and not get embarrassed if something doesn’t suit me in any way. And yes, having a bigger budget helps a lot, too.
I guess that’s why I like visiting cities over and over again. When the streets and lights bombard you with old memories, you’re reminded that after each journey, people, like places, are never the same.
1. An emotional dinner in Athens
At one point in our 2019 Euro Trip, we had dinner at a small family restaurant in Athens, where we were served by a lovely old couple who were so good to us. We enjoyed that experience so much that this time, four years later, we returned and hoped to meet them again, only to find the place renovated and the couple no longer there.
We asked the front of the house if they were still around. Her name was Z, and it turned out, she was their daughter.
Z shared with us that her parents built this restaurant together, ran it together, did everything together. And they loooved meeting customers from around the world.
But a couple of years ago, the dad passed away. It was sudden. It was shocking. It was debilitating because, in her grief, the mom wanted to close up shop. She couldn’t bear to be at the restaurant alone.
Z and her brother, who both had their own high-paying jobs, ultimately tried to save the restaurant by giving up their careers and working here instead. She said, “Our previous companies could survive the pandemic without us, no problem, but we couldn’t let our parents’ legacy just be erased.”
She shared with us their family’s journey over the past years with so much detail and emotion, there were no dry eyes by the time our dinner was over.
It’s not every day that we get to connect with locals, especially on an emotional level. But when it happens, it’s always unforgettable.