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.

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Summer in the Philippines! Part 3

Have you read the first and second part?

5. Pandan Island Resort, Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro

Last but by no means the least, Top 5 on my list is Pandan Island Resort in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro. Forget Puerto Galera! It’s time to head Southwest of Mindoro to have this one of a kind island paradise experience. I have never heard of this place until I read about it on the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide Philippines guidebook. The place is more known for diving due to its proximity to Apo Reef. However, those who want a laid back and tranquil summer getaway, this is the place for you.

There are direct budget flights from Manila to San Jose, Mindoro via Cebu Pacific Air. From San Jose, a local bus to Sablayan would cost you PhP122 (US $2.44). If you have pre-booked your accommodation at Pandan Island Resort, airport transfers may be included. You should have enough cash to last your stay though because there are no ATM or banks in Sablayan. From Sablayan, you need to take a 30 minute boat ride for Php100 (US $2) to reach the island. The boat is docked just in front of the tourist information kiosk. If you’re lucky to catch the Pandan Island service boat buying stuff at the market, you can hitch a ride for free.

For open water divers, Pandan Island Resort is the best jump off point to Apo Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely one of the best dive sites in the world. The resort’s dive shop have the boat and proper diving equipment to arrange an hour and a half trip and bring you to the largest atoll like reef in the Philippines. For hardcore divers, you may also choose to join a liveaboard safari which includes diving the Japanese wrecks at Coron, Palawan.

Once at the resort, a welcome drink of your choice would be served by the friendly French owner Dennis. He’s always accompanied by his naughty pet mynah Chili.

I was surprised to see Chili, the mynah, flying around freely but would always fly back to Dennis once he start calling. My family have taken care of at least 3 mynahs but they were never that friendly.

Sometimes his cat Mikesh and dog Mikko would be hanging around too.

For our first day at the resort, we stayed at the standard cottage for PhP1,280 (US $25.60). It was more than the usual amount we pay while backpacking around the Philippines but at that time, the budget accommodation was under renovation. We were short of cash because we weren’t aware of the lack of ATM in Sablayan, nonetheless,  Dennis was very understanding of our plight that he rushed the renovation of one of the budget rooms so we can transfer the next day.

The standard cottage have 1 double bed and a single bed, all with mosquito nets. You may notice the tap water is a bit salty. Natural water resource is not available yet on the island. The resort buys fresh water at nearby Sablayan and they would give a bucket of fresh water for bath and a pitcher of fresh water for brushing teeth.

The budget rooms with 2 single beds for PhP700 (US $14) got shared bathrooms but during the lean season when we were there, no one else use it except us. All lodgings are clean and well-ventilated with rustic decor and furniture.

We didn’t waste time and went to snorkel right away around the island. The corals were very well-preserved though it’s just a few feet from the beach! We were told that as soon as opening the resort more than 20 years ago, they requested, from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a restraining order on any form of fishing within a certain radius around the island. It was a very smart move. It was indeed one of the highlights of our stay since we skipped diving Apo Reef due to a very tight budget. On another part of the island, we were snorkeling with sea turtles! There were no corals on that area, just sea grass, but it was fun to watch at least 5 turtles feeding and swimming with us.

The restaurant at the resort offers great tasting food. The nightly buffet for PhP400 (US $8) is worth a try. Fresh fish and seafood were served with local dishes.

After a week’s worth of party and karaoke noise from Puerto Galera, where we were in before heading to Pandan Island, I appreciate so much the peace and quiet the place offers. Fireflies abound. You could hear the crickets and the waves rushing to shore before a serene sleep.

Summer in the Philippines! Part 1

Yesterday, 04 March 2010, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) announced that the dry season, or summer, has officially started. The agency said the northeast monsoon (Amihan) has terminated or stopped blowing into the country. It only means one thing.. It’s time to island hop and head to the beach!

The Philippines is an archipelago with 7,107 islands. Choosing which island to visit to beat the heat and work on a fabulous tan is an exasperating task. Here’s a list of the top 5 islands I have visited last 2008 to help you where to go.

1. El Nido, Palawan

© Photographer: Mtkang | Agency: Dreamstime.com

I would say, El Nido is the most beautiful beach I have ever been. It’s not as touristy and crowded as #2 Boracay. One reason is, it’s a bit difficult to get to this island. It is possible to get to El Nido hassle-free but it could be costly. There is a range of accommodation along the island, suitable for backpackers, families and honeymooners. I stayed in Bayview Inn Guest house for PhP350 (US $7) for a double room with fan and a shared bathroom. Unlimited coffee and tea is provided free for guests. The place got a nice balcony overlooking the beach too. The kitchen can also be used for preparing your own meals, which is suitable because once in a while, vendors selling fresh lobster, crabs, prawns and fish pass by the area.

© Photographer: Mtkang | Agency: Dreamstime.com

I recommend the island hopping tours at El Nido Boutique & Art Cafe. For a group of 10 people, they arranged island hopping to the Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Simizu Island and Pili Island for PhP400 (US $6) per person including a hearty lunch of grilled fish, grilled chicken, rice, green mango salad and drinks. An additional fee of PhP200 (US $4) for snorkel, mask and fins. The tour was from 8 in the morning until 6:30pm to catch the sunset. It was the best island hopping tour I ever had. El Nido is breathtakingly beautiful. I was amazed with the bluish gray limestone karsts jutting out from the middle of the sea, the clear blue-green water, the white sand and colorful preserved corals.

© Photographer: Mtkang | Agency: Dreamstime.com

We booked another tour to visit other islands. This time it’s for 8 people going to Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Talisay Beach and Helicopter Beach for Php750 (US $15) per person, again including lunch. This time the people at El Nido Boutique and Art Cafe included the mask and snorkel but an extra PhP100 (US $2) for the fins.

Palawan got the freshest and cheapest seafood. Aside from having your guest house staff prepare fresh-from-the-vendor seafood meals for a fee, you can always dine at numerous restaurants around the El Nido town. One restaurant I would recommend is Marber’s. Good serving portions and of course reasonable price. Service is a bit slow because the meals are prepared as ordered. Expect your food to be served fresh from the pan and not just heated by microwave.

2. Boracay, Aklan

Tropical Paradise
© Photographer: Alexshalamov | Agency: Dreamstime.com

Boracay is probably the most popular beach destination in Philippines. The beach is crowded, guest houses and hotels are full specially during the summer months of March, April, May and the Christmas season.

I was fortunate to visit Boracay during the low season and got a cottage at St Vincent Guest House with 1 double bed and a single bed, cable tv and fridge for just PhP500 (US $10). Just like #1 Palawan, there’s a lot of accommodation available for every type of traveler.

Tropical Resort
© Photographer: Alexshalamov | Agency: Dreamstime.com

The 5km stretch of powder-like fine sand of White Beach is divided into 3 stations. Station 1 is where most of the upscale hotels are located. This area is generally peaceful and away from the action-packed night scene. Station 2 is at the center of the beach and where bars, shopping and eating are mostly concentrated. Mid-range priced accommodation are also located here. Station 3 is where cheaper lodgings are located. Recently though, upscale hotels can now be found in this area.

Seafood market
© Photographer: Alexshalamov | Agency: Dreamstime.com

Cheap seafood is in abundance in Boracay too. The best way to try the local seafood is to buy it yourself at the market and have it cooked any way you like at the restaurants around it. For PhP2,000 (US $40), you have fresh fish, crab, prawns and lobster cooked as you wish, good for 2 people! If you are craving for Western food, you won’t have a hard time either. Greek, Italian, Indian, Mediterranean.. it’s all there!

Buffet lunch and dinner signs are all over Boracay as well. It’s not as bad as I expected. Some even include steamed crabs and roasted pig on the menu. Price range is Php250 – 650 (US $5 – 13). May or may not include bottomless drink.

We booked an island hopping tour with Allan B Fun tours for PhP500 (US $10) per person. The buffet lunch and a swim at the Puka Beach was great. However, snorkeling around the area where they took us was a bit disappointing. Most of the corals were dead. The boat man didn’t even care that the anchor was held by a coral. An Italian guy on the same tour was telling the boat man that it was illegal and that he would be reporting the incident to the tourism department. But the boat man just ignored it. I won’t take that tour again nor recommend to others.

To be continued…