May 18, 2011 Full Moon Party, Koh Pha Ngan

*This post is best read with this song playing on the background, What’s My Name by Rihanna ft. Drake or On the Floor by J. Lo ft. Pitbull, one of the more popular tunes played at the Drop In Bar =)

So the most awaited night in Koh Pha Ngan has arrived. For the month of May, the night of the party was not on the first day of the full moon but on the second since it fell on Vesak Day, Buddha’s day of birth, enlightenment and entry to nirvana, a very important Buddhist holiday.

Full Moon Party!

Let’s see how everyone’s preparing… First thing on the list before the party starts, a ‘sleeping area’ for those who had difficulty holding their liquor. Check!

The ‘Sleeping’ Area

Bucket drinks bar has been set-up for party goers. Check!

Pick your bucket drink!

Neon hats, blinking head bands and neon body paint for party goers. Check!

Neon body paint

Let the party begin!

Paradise Bungalows, the site of the original Full Moon Party

 According to Koh Pha Ngan brochures available throughout the island, the First Full Moon Party started way back 1987 or 1988 when a group of friends celebrated a birthday party which coincided with the Full Moon. The same group agreed to meet the next month, also on a Full Moon. So every month afterwards, word spread out and the Full Moon party just got bigger and better! During the peak month of December, numbers can reach as high as 30,000 party goers.

Solo writes his name on customer's arm so she will remember to buy a bucket from him again

Haad Rin Nok was so crowded! Boats from Koh Samui, Ko Tao and Suratthani arriving non-stop. Everyone’s all geared up and ready to have a great time!

Full Moon Party!

Everyone's up and dancing!

Days before, some vendors have little or no business at all. But on Full Moon Party night, even the tarot reader had pretty good business!

What does my future hold? Yes, you'll have 2 rounds of bucket vodka before you pass out!

Let’s check the ‘Sleeping’ area. Anyone checked-in yet? Yup, this guy was knocked out as early as 11 in the evening!

The first guest who checked-in at the 'Sleeping' area

More fun and daring games! Limbo Rock anyone?

Bend like you've never bent before! Or else...

The ring of fire!

Flaming jump rope

I was having a devil of a good time! Literally =p

Whoops! What's that on your behind Borat?

Follow these precautions and you’re guaranteed a great time at the Full Moon Party in Koh Pha Ngan.

Hey Mister! Buy from me! Love you long time! Free hug!

The morning of the Full Moon Party… STILL partying??!!

Everyone's still up and dancing while the bartender takes a nap

WARNING! The photos you are about to see are the effects of those darn colorful buckets =p

Passing out near a trash bag

No more buckets? Then I guess I should just sleep here... zzzzz

Curled like a baby

Still hanging on to the bucket. I hope this dude woke up before the high tide!

More zzzzzz

Come on! It was just a few feet to your bed dude!

The obedient ones to sleep at the designated area

The morning after

We made it to our room, did we? Yeah I think so, let's snuggle then.

Empty bottles and buckets everywhere!

We went back to our room at around 6:30 in the morning. It was a fun night, a party that seem to never end. ..but I think one Full Moon Party is enough for me =)

Not to be missed… Haad Rin, Koh Pha Ngan, South Thailand

The first time I heard of Koh Pha Ngan was at Siargao Island, Philippines way back in 2008 from 2 British guys who just came from the island. From their stories, my impression of Koh Pha Ngan was drink-till-you-drop Full Moon beach parties which lasts all night. Not my kind of thing. So Koh Pha Ngan wasn’t really in my must-visit islands.

Days before the Full Moon Party, Haad Rin Nok is almost deserted. One can freely enjoy the peaceful blue sea and fine white sands

Haad Rin Nok, a day before the Full Moon Party

The South of Thailand was unfortunately not included in our 2009 Southeast Asia backpacking trip due to financial and visa constraints. So now, fast forward to 2011… with a free* 2-month visa sticker to Thailand (which we got at the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia, for those who are curious. See * at the bottom of the page for more information), we are making sure to explore as much of the South as we can.

Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan

While in quiet and sleepy Khanom, we learned that the Full Moon Party is coming up in a few days so we thought of starting our Gulf of Thailand island hopping at Koh Pha Ngan. Not a bad idea to see the world-famous beach party once in your life right? So 5 days before the full moon night, we took a songtheaw (80B/US $2.66) to Don Sak pier and caught the 10am Rajah Ferry boat to Thong Sala Pier which costs 220B (US $7.33).

Haad Rin Nok from a viewpoint just a short hike from Seaview Sunrise Resort

The month of May is low season for Western tourists. That particular weekend though was the last weekend before the new school year starts for Thai students so there were a couple of Thai families on the ferry with us heading to Koh Pha Ngan. We met these amazing and beautiful kids; Wen Wei, Pei Wa, Phet and Pheng; who taught me several Thai words.

My beautiful 'teachers' =) Wen Wei, Pei Wa, Phet and Pheng.

Upon reaching Thong Sala pier, we were surprised that the songtheaw fare to Haad Rin was a fixed rate of 100B (US $3.33) per person. Don’t bother negotiating. It will NOT work. It doesn’t matter whether you’re alone or 8 of you are sharing the ride. Some French girls were unhappy with the fare rate as well so we thought of renting a minivan to take 8 of us to Haad Rin. Same story, 100B each. Renting a motorbike for 150B (US $5) crossed our minds. However, when we saw the winding and steep road on the way to Haad Rin by minivan, we were glad that we didn’t push through with the idea.

View from Sea Breeze Resort, Leela Beach or Haad Seekantang in Koh Pha Ngan. The sea is so calm and clear.

It’s a good thing that the minivan stopped at several hotels and guesthouses so we can check out cheap accommodation. 5 days before the Full Moon party, most inexpensive rooms are booked or reserved in advance! We decided to stay near the beach so we walked around the resorts just a few meters from the sea.

My first impression of Haad Rin, Koh Pha Ngan... 5 days before the Full Moon Party... it was a little piece of paradise!

My impression of Koh Pha Ngan, specifically Haad Rin Nok or Sunrise Beach where the Full Moon Party is at? I was stunned! The water is so blue, clear and calm… the sand so fine and white. Haad Rin is an amazing sight! The beach was not crowded at all. That would change though 2 days before the Full Moon party.

Mellow Mountain Resort... not so mellow when party music blaring until 6 in the MORNING!

We ended up staying in a double room with fan and attached bathroom at Mellow Mountain for 300B (US $10). The resort was up on the rocks, overlooking Haad Rin Nok. It would have been a nice place to stay longer but the cottages are not well maintained, some trash scattered near our cottage, music blaring at the Mellow Mountain bar and nearby Kangaroo bar until 6am.

Mellow Mountain Resort up on the rocks. Perfect location, but not the perfect bungalows.

After one night, we have to say goodbye to our priceless overlooking view of Haad Rin Nok and transfer to nearby Seaview Sunrise Resort (400B/ US $13.33). We got a good deal since we’ll be staying for a couple of days. Just a 100B difference and still a few meters from the beach, we got a well-maintained and clean cottage.

Seaview Sunrise Resort.. right on the beach... the best and affordable place in Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan

Facilities which guests may enjoy freely includes unlimited coffee, use of the pool table, wifi, use of flat screen TV with wide choice of movies, hammocks, inflatable mattress for lounging at the calm sea, woven mats for sunbathing at the beach, sunblock and insect repellant. The resort restaurant also offers delicious Thai and Western food which suits a backpackers’ budget. The manager, Tim, a gorgeous Thai lady originally from Bangkok, is very accommodating and pleasant. The staff who are mostly from Burma, are a friendly bunch too. We learned that Tim recently took over the resort, barely 6 months. Her family owns the land where the resort stands and after leasing the land for more than 20 years, her family decided to take over. There were some bad reviews online about the earlier owners of the resort, which used to be named Seaview Haad Rin. But I’m sure under Tim’s new management, it’s not far-fetched that Seaview Sunrise Resort would welcome back previous guests and say hello to more new guests.

Nightly fun and party at the Drop In Bar. It gets more crowded as the Full Moon night gets nearer.

Bucket drinks for everyone!

Foam parties at Drop In Bar... where some 'crazy' things happen

As each night drew closer to the Full Moon, more and more people are arriving from different parts of the globe. The nightly fun and games at Drop In Bar and Cactus Bar gets merrier, crazier and more crowded.

Flaming jump rope... would you dare to try? =p

Games include the flaming jump rope which I dare not try, Tug o’ War and shooting a soccer ball from several distances where one can score a cup of whiskey coke, vodka red bull, beer and the grand prize of vodka bucket, which we won 3 times! Woot!

Fun and games! Vodka bucket shot, flaming jump rope and a sack race!

Nightly fun at Koh Pha Ngan

During the day, when mostly everyone is just lounging around Haad Rin Nok with a good book or catching up on sleep while sunbathing at the beach, one can also hike to nearby beaches like Haad Rin Nai or Sunset Beach, where you could catch an amazing sunset (what else?).

Sunset at Haad Rin Nai

Another option is walking to Haad Seekantang or Leela Beach for a swim and again to catch the sunset while having a drink at Lighthouse Bungalows.

Clear blue-green water at Leela Beach

Haad Rin town or the commercial area a few meters away from the beach have several cheap accommodation options for those who prefer to stay away from the beach scene. There are also a range of restaurants offering good value meals which includes a can of soda. Jaya Restaurant which also have rooms for rent, got one of the best tasting Tom Yum Goong for 90B (US $3) which comes with either a bottle of water or a can of soda. For my seafood pasta fix, I usually go to Little Home Thai Restaurant. 100B (US $3.33) for a generous serving of seafood in tomato sauce! Yummy! For those looking for near authentic Italian food, there are several restaurants to choose from, however, their pasta dishes can’t be lower than 250B (US $8.33). Still cheap for others, but not for me!

Moon rising over Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan

It would have been a big mistake to skip Koh Pha Ngan or believe what everyone say about Haad Rin and head to the other isolated beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. My week stay at Haad Rin Nok, Koh Pha Ngan was one of the best so far. I would definitely be back in the future.

* 2 month visa free Thailand stickers are issued to citizens of the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Tunisia and South Korea. Just give your passport at the Thai Consulate in Penang, Malaysia in the morning. Before the consulate close at 4pm, your passport is ready for pick-up. For citizens of other parts of the globe, 2 month visa sticker to Thailand costs Malaysia Ringgit RM 110 (US $36.66). Information was good as of April 25, 2011.

The Philippines: More than the usual* (Introduction to a series)

Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Mountain Province. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Philippines is a country blessed with amazing natural wonders. However, tourist arrivals don’t even come close to that of Thailand. I have read several round-the-world blogs yet a visit to the Philippines is almost always not included.

Clear blue-green water and limestone karsts in El Nido, Palawan

Why is that so? I have spoken with backpackers from all over the world whom I’ve met when I traveled around Mainland Southeast Asia last year and asked this question several times. One obvious answer is that the Philippines is not part of the mainland. Honestly, I half-heartedly believe that. Indonesia is also an archipelago, farther than the Philippines from the mainland yet tourism statistics is better?

The most amazing sunset I've seen in the Philippines. Saud Beach, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The main reason is definitely the security concerns in the Philippines. With all the news about kidnapping and terrorist attacks, who would want to fly in? But then, the same things happen all over the world, even much worse!

Fish pens in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

I am also almost a victim of my ignorance and almost didn’t see the beauty of Mindanao. When we were planning a 6-month backpacking trip around the Philippines in 2008, I was adamant in not including Mindanao. I’ve never been to this infamous island yet I believed all the things people have been saying that the whole of Mindanao is unsafe and that the Muslims are not kind-hearted people. Though it’s true that foreign and local tourists need to avoid very few places with continuous political instability in Mindanao, but just like everywhere else, being alert and common sense is necessary.

Bongao Peak, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Mindanao

Looking back, I was glad to make that trip to Mindanao. We even ended up staying for 2 months! It was in Mindanao where I met honest tricycle drivers and strangers who welcomed us to their homes expecting nothing in return.

The old city of Vigan, Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yes, one have to be truly adventurous enough to book a flight and hop on a plane to visit the Philippines. Those who do are pleasantly rewarded.

The magnificent Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I’ll be sharing my photos and (mis)adventures during my 2008 backpacking trip in the coming posts. From way up north in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte, all the way down south in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi. Exploring most of Southeast Asia intimately for more than a year gave me a deep appreciation of my country and being Asian. It was a pleasure to see the Philippines first and I would love to share its beauty as I see it.

*More than the usual.. This line was part of Wow Philippines Tourism campaign which was successfully launched in 2002. Several well-made 30-seconder plugs were aired in CNN and other international channels. The line perfectly described what Philippines got to offer. More than the typical Asia that everyone knows.

Back (kut teh!) in Malaysia!

I have been to Malaysia countless of times yet the thought of indulging on my favorite local dishes keeps me excited each time. My flight last Wednesday, 15 December was no different. On the plane, though delayed for half an hour, I can’t help to dream of various Malaysian food I have missed for the past 6 months. Bak kut teh, xiao long bao, satay, kuey teow, laksa.. name it! I’ve drooled for it.

Walking at Level 5 View Deck of Kuala Lumpur International Airport

Since I arrived way too early for dinner, I took the time to explore the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). If you’re arriving from the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), a shuttle bus would take you to KLIA for only RM 2.50 (US $.80). The airport is huge but not as impressive as neighbor Singapore’s Changi International Airport.

Exploring KLIA

Shuttle bus from LCCT to KL Sentral charge RM 8 (US $2.58) while from KLIA, it’s RM 10 (US $3.22).

Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Sultan, KL!

Now the highlight of my first night back in Malaysia.. Bak Kut Teh at Jalan Sultan! The first time I tried BKT was way back in 2002, at the same stall. Never mind the sweaty forehead, nose and upper lip! I just love this piping hot local dish eaten along the busy streets of KL’s Chinatown! Though I have tried excellent BKT at a more comfortable place such as Pao Xiang Restaurant in Pavillion KL Shopping Mall last June 2010, nothing beats the authentic street-side way of how locals enjoy BKT.

Bak Kut Teh is definitely a must-try Malaysia local dish

We ordered the BKT in clay pot which cost RM 9. The serving of meat, mushroom, tofu and various pig organ is a lot. The mix of assorted spices on the soup base is just heavenly. According to the street stall vendor, their specialty is the pig trotter with peanut for RM 7. I’d probably try it the next time I’m back in Kuala Lumpur.  A mental note to also eat at the Kim Lian Kee Hokkien mee which I tried back in 2002 as well.

What else would make Malaysians happily crazy aside from food?

On the way to the Bukit Jalil Bus Terminal to catch a bus back to Batu Pahat, we noticed the National Stadium was well-lit, with hundreds of motorbikes and cars parked outside. Also, loud cheering can be heard that no matter how tired and sleepy I felt that time, I can’t help to suddenly feel energized too!  Well, what else would make Malaysians happily crazy aside from food?

2 - 0 in favor of Malaysia! Woot!

You guessed it right! It’s soccer! The Malaysia – Vietnam AFF Suzuki Match was ongoing so after quickly leaving my heavy backpack at the pay locker, we head to the stadium to catch the last minutes of the game.

The game was won by Malaysia (2-0) so the stadium was full of happy Malaysians! I can’t help to cheer with them too. Good thing it wasn’t a match against the Philippines or else I would really stick out like a sore thumb!

It’s not difficult to love the Malaysian culture, with the great food and awesome people. I’m really glad to be back!

A trip back to Sagada.. sweeter the third time around

Tree-lined path going to Sumaguing Cave in Sagada

Before starting on an event job a few months ago, I headed up North of the Philippines to prepare and recharge myself from incoming days of physical and mental stress. It was such a joy to be back in Banaue. It was my 3rd visit but the most memorable one because I hiked around the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces for the 1st time!

Fresh cabbages along the way to Sagada

After 2 fun-filled days sprinkled with unpredictable weather, we left Banaue for a trip back to one of my favorite places to re-visit, Sagada! We took the local jeep for Bontoc at 8:45 a.m. Fare cost is PhP 150 (US $3) per person.

The best seats on the way to Sagada

I was expecting an uncomfortable 2-hour ride due to bad roads like last 2005 but I was surprised that around 98% of the roads are now cemented. The road to Bontoc has one of the most beautiful landscapes. It was a sunny day and the urge to sit on the roof like how some locals take the jeep was very strong. However, my skin was still healing from the burn I got when we hiked the rice terraces so I settled inside the jeep. I just stuck my head out of the narrow window and tried to capture the amazing landscape as much as I can.

Amazing scenery on the way to Sagada

For some reason, we unintentionally set our trip to Sagada during the rainy season. Last August 2008, we even arrived on a stormy day. It wasn’t the muddy roads which delayed our trip to Bontoc but the occasional landslides.
There was a landslide near the town of Talubin but luckily, we only stopped for 20 minutes. I remember when we took the bus from Baguio to Sagada 2 years ago, we waited almost 3 hours for the huge rocks to be cleared.
Along the way, we passed by the Bay-yo Rice Terraces. It may not be often visited since the public transport don’t usually stop there. It has its own beauty. Not comparable to the more well-known rice terraces though.

Rice terraces on the way to Sagada

We arrived Bontoc around 11:30 a.m. We didn’t go around the capital of Mountain Province like before and immediately took the 11:45 a.m. jeep going to Sagada. Fare is PhP 50 (US $1). For those who have the time and wish to explore Bontoc, the Bontoc Museum is a must-see. It has in its possession rare photos taken by Eduardo Masferre, the father of Philippine photography.
As recommended by our friend Ricky aka dutchpickle, we stayed at the very cozy Sagada Homestay. I highly recommend this place. The rooms were spotless, the kitchen and dining area are both well-equipped, free wi-fi, hot and cold showers.. for only PhP 250 per person. St Joseph Guest house is an option in case Sagada Homestay is full. We stayed there last 2008. The dorm rooms which are also double rooms cost PhP 200 (US $4) per person. The guest house got a huge garden overlooking the Sagada town. Cafe St Jo was renovated and is now open for business.

Early morning mist outside our dorm in St Joseph Guest house. Taken last Aug 2008

There are lots of things to do while in Sagada! Exploring the Sumaguing and Lumiang caves, hiking to see the hanging coffins at the Echo Valley, trekking Mt Ampacao, sunrise at the Kiltepan viewpoint, a swim at the Bokong and Bomod-ok waterfalls. Activities suitable for all ages.
However, for this particular trip, I skipped all of it and opted to laze around. I’ve done most of the outdoor activities on previous trips to Sagada as well.
For those who are adventurous enough to try caving, exploring the Sumaguing cave costs PhP 500 (US $10) for 4 pax. The Lumiang cave to Sumaguing cave connection cost PhP 800 (US $16) for 1 – 2 pax, PhP 1,200 (US $24) for 3 pax and PhP 1,600 (US $32) for 4 pax.

A typical Filipino breakfast in Sagada. served with organic red rice

Eating in Sagada is an attraction in itself. The Saturday Night buffet at the Log Cabin is a must-try! Make sure to make your reservation at least before the Saturday Morning Market since French chef and owner Philippe, also known as Aklay, buys the freshest ingredients good enough for the number of reserved seats.

Saturday morning market in Sagada

There are so many restaurants worth trying in Sagada. First time visitors shouldn’t miss Yoghurt House and Masferre Cafe. Both restaurants serve good food in large portions. Bana’s used to be a favorite but since the chef moved to Cafe St Jo, the food quality suffered a lot.

Glad to be back in Sagada!

No matter how many times I visit Sagada, whether to do the same activities, eat the same food or just laze around and enjoy the perfect weather, I’d still look forward to visiting again.. and again.. and again.

The starfish is alive!

I learned to swim and snorkel at age 8 in preparation for a week-long family vacation to Puerto Galera in Oriental Mindoro. This was way back in the 80’s but I would never forget the first time I snorkel and saw amazingly colorful corals, schools of fish and of course the starfish. I was astonished to see a star-shaped creature under the sea! But it wasn’t moving.. so I thought it was just another shell or small coral.

Fast forward to 2008. My friend and I went backpacking around Oriental Mindoro, and randomly picked the municipality of Bulalacao to visit. After talking with some locals on their recommended places to see, we were convinced to take a boat for Ph P600 (US $12) to see the serene and beautiful island of Tambaron. More on our stay at Tambaron Green Island Resort on a future blog post.

There were no other tourists! The huge, charming island all to ourselves!

We shared the island with all these gorgeous starfish.

I had the chance to see a starfish up close and finally I discovered, it is indeed alive and moving!

I was a bit apprehensive to touch it at first. Who knows what poisonous matter comes out of it as defensive act when touched by human!

The first sign of life! Small tentacles coming out of its body when turned upside down.

One of its legs starts to move! Was it just my imagination?

Was it the water ripple creating an illusion that the starfish is moving?

The starfish is indeed moving! It was trying to turn itself right side up!

I can’t help to think of Patrick Starfish of Spongebob Squarepants when I took this photo.

I hope I didn’t put the starfish under too much stress! It was amazing to observe it up close!

I guess not a lot of people know that a starfish can bend like the Cirque Du Soleil!

Almost there!

And… done!

Roughly 10 minutes for the starfish to turn right side up!

Nature is fascinating! I can’t help to feel glad to see the starfish move like watching it straight from the National Geographic Channel. And the fascination over the beauty of nature never ends. A beautiful sunset to cap our relaxing day in our private island.

A day trip to My Son

On our 4th day in Hoi An, we were pleasantly surprised to see German couple, Werner and Ruth, whom we’ve met in Dalat. They are the coolest couple we’ve known. Both are retirees and regularly flies to Asia to escape the winter months in Germany. We chat, had coffee in one of the riverside cafe then planned to rent our own motorbikes and drive to the ruins of My Son, one of the tourist attractions just a few kilometers away from the ancient town of Hoi An, the next morning.

The ruins of My Son

We rent 3 motorbikes for the whole day; 1 automatic gear bike for 80,000 dong (US $4.57) for Ruth and 2 manual gear bike for 50,000 dong (US $2.85) each for Werner and Ming. Of course I shared the bike with Ming since I’m not as confident as Ruth to drive my own motorbike.

It took us an hour and a half to reach My Son. It was a pleasant bike ride because the weather was cool and not too sunny.

One of the less damaged structures in My Son

The entrance fee to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is only 60,000 dong (US $3.42). Worth a visit if you have the time to spare.

How splendid the temples may have been. It’s just unfortunate that the war between the United States and Vietnam ruined most of the structures.

My Son Ruins

Our wonderful excursion with Werner and Ruth was capped by plates of cake, coffee and tea at Cargo Cafe. Mango cheesecake and chocolate cheesecake for only 25,000 dong (US $1.43) each! Really a must try.

We had excess petrol loaded on our motorbike so we decided to extend the rental for another day.

A trip to DaNang’s Marble Mountain on my next blog!

Happy to be stuck in Hoi An Part 1

The riverside of the ancient town of Hoi An

It was more of a necessity that we have to stay in Hoi An for 13 days. Our passports were sent back to Saigon for the visa extension and we had to wait until it was ready. A quarter of our two month stay in Vietnam was spent in Hoi An and there’s no other place I would be happier to be stuck in.

Lanterns of Hoi An

Beautiful lanterns lit up the ancient town of Hoi An when night falls

Some of the hotels and guest houses within a kilometer walk from the ancient town have swimming pools, free use of internet and are under the US $15 rate. We wanted to stay within our US $10 budget yet lodged near the Old Quarter so we took time in looking for the ideal accommodation. Besides, we knew we have to stay for days so we wanted our lodging to be as cheap as possible. Right in the center of the ancient town, in Le Loi Street, we found Thuy Duong; a double room with fan, cable television and own bathroom for US $10.

One of Hoi An's specialty, the White Rose dumpling

Within an hour after settling in our hotel, we have roamed around the ancient town and have tried Hoi An’s specialty, the White Rose dumpling. Bits of pork, shrimp, herbs and spices are mixed together, wrapped in smooth rice paper shaped like a rose then topped with fried shallots. More than a year now, I can still remember how good it tastes, specifically at Mr Hong’s and at Friendship Cafe.

Cao Lau, another Hoi An specialty. Photo courtesy of

Another specialty is the Cao Lau, a noodle dish topped with either pork or chicken, vegetables and herbs. What made the dish unique is that the water used in making the noodles are from the lone Ba Le well of Hoi An. The dish is not one of my favorites though I recommend first time visitors to try it.

Hoi An Chicken Rice. Photo courtesy of littl3monk at Flickr
Chicken rice is a common dish in most Asian countries including Vietnam. In Hoi An, we have discovered that the best tasting chicken rice is being sold in a small dark alley along Le Loi Street. When night falls, we often see the alley crowded with locals dining on small table and chairs so we got curious and tried it. It’s not just good on the palate, it is good on your budget too. 10,000 dong (US $.57) a plate!
A chicken rice alternative for those not brave enough to try street food on a dark alley is Ly’s stall at the open restaurant. For 20,000 dong (US $1.14) a plate, it’s almost as good.

Lanterns in Hoi An

One can never ran out of things to do around Hoi An. Museum and Cultural sites tickets can be bought for 75,000 dong (US $4.28). Each ticket allows one to choose 1 museum out of 4 and 1 cultural site out of 4 listed to visit. If you want to visit all 8, it would cost 300,000 dong (US $17.14). For the budget-conscious traveler, there are several museums which are free of charge. Most of it though are also shop houses but one is not required to purchase anything.
For those who love to drink and party, Hoi An got a lot of bars offering free or discounted priced drinks even beyond happy hour. One place we gave a shot offering free rum coke is the King Kong Bar. The young teens on motorbike giving out the flyers all around Hoi An were successful in promoting the freebie because the place was packed with tourists! Well, it just shows how backpackers love an occassional freebie. We didn’t stay long though as some of the tourists at the place makes us feel uncomfortable. The German couple we were with, Thorsten and Susanna felt the same way so we headed back to the Old Quarters and stayed at the Before and Now bar until 2 in the morning.

Late afternoon in Hoi An

On our 4th day in Hoi An, we were pleasantly surprised to see another German couple, Werner and Ruth, we’ve met in Dalat. We chat, had coffee in one of the riverside cafe then planned to rent our own bikes and drive to the ruins of My Son, one of the tourist attractions just a few kilometers away from the ancient town of Hoi An, the next morning.
More of My Son and Hoi An on my next post!

Back in Banaue for the third time…and surely, it won’t be the last!

The magnificent Banaue Rice Terraces. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I have a 2 month contract for an event job coming up on the 1st week of August and what better way to spend my last few days of unemployment bliss than heading up North of the Philippines to enjoy the cool and relaxing weather of Banaue! It is my third time to see the Banaue Rice Terraces up close, one of the Philippines’ marvelous tourist sites. It will be the first time I’d be spending a night or two in Banaue though.

Banaue Town. Several guest houses and restaurants are on this street.

There has been several wonderful changes since the last time we were here. First, there are more buses plying the Manila – Banaue route. Florida Bus Company now has 2 daily trips. One is at 9:10 p.m. for PhP 400 (US $8) and the deluxe bus with own toilet leaving at 10:45 p.m for PhP 450 (US $9). We wanted to take the Florida bus since one can clearly see how well maintained their bus fleet are. However, other travelers may have the same thing in mind that by 9:30 p.m., all the seats for the 10:45 p.m. trip has been taken.
Florida Bus Company Flower Bus. Photo courtesy of Drift Kid/ DK at Flickr.

Autobus. They have upgraded their buses too! Photo courtesy of shining_daggers04 at Flickr.

We have no choice but to take the Autobus leaving at 10:00 p.m. for PhP 400 (US $8). I was surprised to see that Autobus has upgraded their buses too! A healthy competition paves the way for better service, much to the advantage of traveling consumers.
We left the Manila terminal of Autobus at exactly 10:00 p.m. and as soon as the bus rolled off, I wanted to sleep so I have the energy to trek the terraces the next day. Over-all, it was a comfortable ride. The air conditioning not as strong as I remembered so my fingers didn’t freeze like popsicle and I was able to doze off easily after catching a few scenes of ‘Hancock’, a Will Smith movie playing on the bus dvd player. The bus arrived Banaue around 7:20 a.m. We were too energized from the 9 hour sleep that we were the only passengers that walked from the bus terminal to the town proper, which is not more than a kilometer away.

More photos of the Banaue Rice Terraces

The second wonderful change that greeted us as soon as we arrive the town proper was a WiFi sign at Uyami Greenview Lodge. We didn’t think twice on where to stay for our first night in Banaue. A double room with clean shared bathroom cost us PhP 400 (US $8).
As usual, several Banaue locals gather around newly arrived guests to offer their tour services. We and three more travelers on the same bus and guest house, managed to negotiate PhP 1,500 (US $30) for a 4 hour drive and trek through the Banaue Rice Terraces viewpoints all the way through the winding terraces and through the town, with a jeep driver and tour guide. A good deal split among 5 persons! As soon as we finished our breakfast and a quick freshening up, Ming and I met with the other travelers; a Danish couple and a German guy.

The view from the 3rd viewpoint. Same rice terrace printed at the back of the Philippine P1,000 bill

We stopped at three viewpoints. The view gets more magnificent the higher the viewpoint. The 3.5 hour trek around the rice terraces started at the 4th and main viewpoint. The hike was fairly easy at the beginning. Cemented yet steep steps going down and up the rice terrace and stone wall edges welcome us for the first hour of our trek.

Cemented steps leading up the rice terrace.

If you look closely, you can see the cemented steps leading up the rice terraces.

Hiking the Banaue Rice Terraces

Midway, the trail gets difficult as we need to cross unstable and muddy terrace edges which is only around 10 inches wide at a height that could break a few bones if you fall. The trek is definitely not for the those with fear of heights.

One must know how to balance and walk through a narrow pathway. A fall from this height would surely break some bones.

The rice fields were so green and lush! It was a nice time to visit the Banaue Rice Terraces, though in the afternoon, it’s always raining.
Once the rice fields turn gold, it means the rice is ready for harvest.
Some of the rice on several terraces were ready for harvest. We saw local women harvesting and took the chance to see how a newly harvested rice looks like.

Newly harvested rice!

We were back at Banaue town by 2:00 p.m. and with some luck, we got back before the heavy rain. I didn’t realize how sun burnt I was until I was scrubbing my back when I took a quick cold shower a few minutes before dinner time. Literally, it was a pain in the neck (and shoulders!).

Nope I wasn't on the beach. I was high up in the mountains and burnt my shoulders. A real pain for the last 2 days.

Another pleasant surprise later during the day was a chance meeting of travel writer, Ricky a.k.a. dutchpickle. We’ve checked his website for new information on Banaue and Samar before our trip and we never expected to meet him personally. We were chatting with him during breakfast and my impression of him was he looks like your usual seasoned traveler yet friendly and humble. He even shared landslide photos near Hapao since he heard we were planning to hike the area that same day. A great guy indeed! Only during dinner time when we shared a table with him and had the chance to chat longer that he showed his website. How amazed we were that he is dutchpickle.

A shot from the main viewpoint

On our second day in Banaue, we went back to the viewpoints by taking the jeep going to Bontoc for PhP 50 (US $1) per person. We were hoping to take better photos by getting there early, however, when we reached the 4th viewpoint, it started to get cloudy. A few minutes after that, it rained heavily which went on for almost the whole day. We were fortunate to catch an empty tricycle going down to the Banaue town proper so we reached our guest house clean and dry. What’s more fortunate was the driver charged us the local rate of PhP 20 (US $.40) for 2 people!

Happy to be back in Banaue!

I’m glad I had the opportunity to revisit Banaue, stay a few nights, meet new friends, view and hike around the world-renowned rice terraces. I am pretty sure this trip will not be the last.

A Stop at Lak Lake

Sunset at Lak Lake

Before heading to Buon Ma Thuot where we plan to extend our Vietnamese visa, we agreed to stop at Lak Lake for a few days. The Easy Riders in Dalat have shown us photos of the unique longhouses where some minority people of Vietnam live. We were curious so we booked a 2:30pm Mai Linh bus to the Lak Lake Resort for 80,000 dong each (US $4.57). Some Easy Riders would tell you that getting to Lak Lake is difficult so you would arrange a trip with them. However, it is possible by public transport.

You would also notice, when you start traveling the highlands of Vietnam, the presence of plastic bags hanging near the windows. It just means one thing: Be ready for an uncomfortable and dizzy ride. The road is winding and the bus a bit fast for me. I felt sick almost the entire 4 hour trip. Well, a local passenger felt the same way that we have to stop at least twice so she could have a breath of fresh air after vomiting at the side of the road.  The plastic bags would be really handy if the bus cannot make a stop right away.

We arrived the Lak Lake Resort at around 6pm. Not worth the US $10 rate. The room is dark, dirty and stuffy. The toilet stinks with a lot of mosquitoes. It was too late to head to the longhouses so we had no choice but to stay there for the night.

While having a make-your-own spring roll on one of the street stalls, we met Tran, who works at the resort as a chambermaid. So the hotel got a chambermaid?! Doesn’t looks like it. We chat with her for a while then she showed us how to combine the ingredients and make the perfect spring roll.

Not much cars but elephants roam around Lak lake

The next morning, we checked out of the horrible place and hiked to Jun Village. I recommend the iced milk coffee beside the Dak Lak Tourist Office. One of the best ones we’ve had, although it was a bit overpriced, almost twice the usual price.

Elephants carrying tourists around Jun Village

I was so happy to see 2 huge elephants walking along the road. Regardless of their humongous size, you can barely hear the elephants walking past because of their padded feet. We followed the elephants for a while before going to the Bao Dai Villa.

The Bao Dai Villa is located on a hill, overlooking the Lien Son town. I am not sure whether the place is available for tourists to stay overnight. It looked deserted and the restaurant doesn’t seem to be serving anything as well.

I wasn’t so happy with how some of the locals run their business around Lak Lake. They charge tourists more than the usual price and the worst thing is, they are not even discreet about it. We went to a restaurant with no name on the main street. It was a bit filthy. Used table napkins and some toothpicks scattered on the floor. We thought they were closing down for the day and clearing the tables thus the trash on the floor but 3 guys went in with us so we figured why not try the food there. We ordered what everyone else was having; a plate of rice with marinated pork, vegetables and hard-boiled egg. I noticed our portions were not as much as those guys. We even got the lousy vegetable parts. Oh well, I thought, they must have ordered more than the usual serving. Surprisingly, we were charged 30,000 dong (US $1.71) for each plate while the guys paid only 15,000 dong (US $.85) each! We tried to ask the woman operating the business but she don’t speak English. I know it’s just a small amount of money but it’s not a good feeling to be cheated that way. Lesson learned. Next time, I would just pay the amount everyone else paid whether the vendor argue with me or not. We did just that on the bus to Danang. More of that on future blog post.

Long house at Jun Village

Finally, the reason we were in Dak Lak, an experience to live on a native long house. Mr Duc of Duc Mai Cafe have several native long houses he rents out to tourists for US $5 per person. He had someone fetch us at Lak Lake Resort free of charge.

Another photo of a long house

I would say the long house is the most spacious guest house we have stayed in. At least 10 people can stay comfortably. That day, no one else stayed at the long house so we had the huge space all to ourselves. The place is clean and well-ventilated. The opposite of where we stayed the previous night. The amenities are basic; there are no beds just mattresses, mosquito nets are provided  and a small bathroom at the back of the long house.

Inside the spacious long house. For 2 backpackers, it is indeed spacious.. but in reality, several families live in one

Dinner at Duc Mai Cafe was special. They were serving traditional M’nong set dinner. We had barbecued pork, stir fried vegetables, soup, pork with tofu, and spring roll. A must-try for 40,000 dong (US $2.28) each person. It was the first time I ate a banana with a seed! At first I thought one of my orthodontic brackets fell off, but when I spit it out, it was a black seed from the banana.

Hiking around the rice fields in Jun Village

The next day, after a well rested sleep at the long house, we hiked around the village. Vast, green rice fields surround the area. We met some M’nong people. They weren’t the usual Vietnamese one would meet. They have dark skin, curly hair, thick lips and big eyes. They were very curious of tourists and were not shy to communicate with you so they can practice their English as well. I like the freshness of their being. They were friendly not because they want to sell something but instead they communicate with you so they may absorb something from you that they think would enrich them. They lead simple lives and I really admire that. I understood how tourists are always asked to be responsible with how they act or talk to people in remote villages. They have a certain innocence in them that is difficult to see in people today. Oftentimes, outside people doesn’t help in preserving that.

Rice fields around Jun Village

Elephant munching on banana trunk

Back in the village, we saw an elephant munching a banana trunk across our long house. Hold on a second.. did I say banana trunk? Yes, the elephant was eating a banana trunk for lunch. It was amazing to watch it crush the banana trunk like how a human munch on a garlic bread stick.

Yummy banana trunk! Imagine how we munch on garlic bread sticks!

It was a good decision to make a stop at Dak Lak despite the uncomfortable bus ride and the cheating food vendor. It was an experience to meet  some minority people of Vietnam;  felt their sincerity and friendship and understanding briefly how they have lived for years.