Palawan’s Prized Beauty

If there is one place we’ve seen in all of Asia (so far) that we’d urge you to get your butts out to, and fast, it would be Coron. The beauty here is unparalleled (I mean, just stop reading here. Really. The pictures speak for themselves). And we got the feeling that it’s on the cusp of turning in the direction of more developed El Nido. Of all the places we visited in the Philippines, Coron was the most affected by Typhoon Yolanda, and perhaps it felt more deserted because of this. Or perhaps Coron is always less crowded, but either way it was much more pleasant from the tourist’s perspective. And we did not see any evidence of the damage impacting a visitor’s experience. Our boat tour guide accommodated us with an earlier start time so that we were the first to arrive at the beautiful Kayangan Lake, giving us private access to one of the most stunning places we’d ever seen. Even as the tour groups began catching up, it was never the sort of waiting in line we saw in El Nido.

We stayed at Balinsasayaw Resort, and it seemed to have unrivaled access to the highlights of Coron. The resort is on Uson Island directly across from Coron Island, with a beautiful view of the stunning black (but really gray) limestone rock formations and a short five to ten minute bangka ride to the highlights of the biggest tourist attraction of the area. In fact, where most tours were cooking lunch on the boats while the tourists checked out their first destination, we were able to visit three, stop back at our resort to pick up our freshly cooked lunch, and enjoy it in one of the small floating huts atop the house reef as an added bonus to our already fantastic day tour. Balinsasayaw’s house reef, by the way, is superb. The fish are plentiful and diverse, as are the coral and the magnificent giant clams.

Swimming in the brackish water lakes on Coron Island was sublime. The water is so clear, and so still, it’s like snorkeling in the calmest ocean you can imagine. And the rock formations along the side of the lake are just unreal. They are so deep, and the visibility so good, that it engaged my fear of heights just floating above these. To have a fear of heights and the feeling of no gravity was one of the strangest sensations I’ve ever experienced. It felt like rock climbing without the risk. These aren’t corals, but limestone rocks, so you can grab onto them and climb as you swim around them. Hell, I even jumped off of one of them. It looks like an underwater castle (the inspiration for the little mermaid’s underwater castle?) or even a bit like the South Dakota Badlands if they were submerged. The fish are not nearly as diverse as those you’d find in the open ocean, but there are still plenty, including diminutive needle nose fish that swim at the surface and are so unaffected by your presence that they’ll practically touch your mask, and a plethora of catfish in Barracuda Lake. The eponymous fish are also present there at greater depths and it is a popular dive site, though we didn’t see any barracudas from our surface position. A few other inhabitants intrigued us, but none so much as the shrimp in Kayangan Lake that had a strong affinity for Alan’s feet, hanging on and tickling him at nearly every stop.

We next visited the Twin Lagoons, which are also brackish, and the mixing of salt and fresh water was made visible by the thermocline, which caused the water along the surface to blur like it was oily. In here we saw a large and terrifying jellyfish that was brown and yellowish, which our guide stealthily spotted and disturbed from his slumber on the rocks to prod him out for our viewing pleasure.

The Coron area islands are famous for wreck diving as there are a number of sunken Japanese ships from World War II. One, Skeleton Wreck, is shallow enough for snorkelers to view, and it’s so old that it’s now almost entirely covered in coral. While this area was more crowded, it was still far less so than most destinations we visited in El Nido  (maybe there were 20 other people around).

We also stopped by the small Banol Beach, again with the most unreal beautiful turquoise waters and limestone rocks, and lastly we visited a natural saltwater hot spring (called Makinit) believed to be caused by a dormant volcano, and which lies at the edge of a mangrove and the ocean. The water was around 101 Fahrenheit, which is quite warm for a day in the hot sun, but it was surprisingly nice (for a few minutes).

One morning Alan did two dives.  The first was at CYC Beach/Reef where a few other boats were present, and the diving was good though not great.  The second was at Twin Peaks Reef and this was more of a proper wall dive and with nobody present except me, the company diver and our boat man who decided to join us. The coral was great and the fish were very good, with huge numbers of smaller guys.  I was a little sad not to visit any of the famous wrecks, but it was my fault for not being more pro-active and just letting the resort contact the one operator they usually work with.

While we didn’t see any of the other island resorts, we did walk around the town of Coron for a bit before heading to the airport. The town is bigger than we realized, but it doesn’t feel overrun with tourists. In fact it’s quite the opposite, though it’s not terribly exciting, so we’d definitely recommend staying at a more peaceful and picturesque island resort. The reasons one might stay in Coron town are its cheaper prices and better access to day tour and diving options (in terms of variety and price), but it’s no place to relax on a beach. It’s a fine area to walk around and explore and there are plenty of restaurants plus an outdoor market with fish, meats and veggies.

Getting to Coron is easy or difficult depending on where you’re coming from. You can fly into (or out of) the airport in Busuanga, which is about a 45-minute drive (through a landscape that was strangely much drier and a bit reminiscent of California and included a pass through a cattle ranch) from the town of Coron. Though you’ll likely fly through Manila first, this is quite convenient, plus you get welcomed by a live drum performance on arrival at the airport! How awesome is that? (We only flew out of Coron so didn’t get the welcome song, but did witness two flights land and enjoyed the musical distraction in the pre-boarding area). I do have to say though, especially traveling when the Malaysian flight is still missing, it was disconcerting to fly from an airport that had no metal detectors or baggage scanning machines! (Only human checks). Also, be prepared to have your luggage and your bodies weighed if you fly Cebu Pacific. Eat a small lunch beforehand… ;)

If you’re coming to Coron from the larger main island of Palawan as we did, from El Nido, it’s a bit less convenient. The only way up is via boat. On the day we left there were no bangkas going direct from El Nido town so we had to take a van up to San Fernando (through beautiful sparsely populated villages full of water buffalo, white birds and pigs) and then hop on a bangka from there. All in, it took close to twelve hours to get from point A to point B. Not that we’re complaining, it’s a beautiful ride, passing by countless tropical islands on the way, and we were extremely lucky to travel on a day with good weather and calm seas. We’re told that sometimes when the weather is poor, the ride can take almost twice as long and you might not arrive into town until after midnight!

Practical Info

Coron is part of Palawan, and generally refers to a cluster of islands. But the names are a little confusing. The main island where the airport is located is Busuanga, and on the southern part of Busuanga Island one finds Coron town.  Then there is Coron Island, which holds the most famous attractions and is inhabited only by the indigenous Tagbanwa people (I think).  There is also Culion Island, which formerly was the world’s largest leper colony, and Calauit Island, which is a game preserve and wildlife sanctuary. The latter is home to endemic animals plus several African species including giraffes, zebras and gazelles. There are many other islands, some of which have luxury resorts.

There are at least a couple ATMs in town. The BPI branch had a 20,000PHP withdrawal limit (double where I went in Puerto Princesa).

Transportation: We covered much of this above. Our boat ride from El Nido cost 1800PHP each, including the van from El Nido town to San Fernando. It was on a bigger bangka with several covered, forward-facing seats. They included some chicken and rice for lunch, which was no gourmet meal but I found it fine. The boat stopped on the way at Linapacan Island, and the water color was spectacular. The boat arrived at the commercial pier in Coron town, and from there we took a short tricycle ride followed by a 15-minute smaller bangka ride to Balinsasayaw. At the airport in Busuanga (which is tiny with a dirt road loop, though it has a good little coffee shop inside), each passenger has to pay a 50PHP terminal fee.

Accommodation: We stayed at Balinsasayaw Resort. There are a handful of bungalows closer to the beach and some up on the hill. Ours was the latter, so we got to stretch our legs a tiny bit and had some commanding views of the ocean and Coron Island across the strait. The beach is fairly brown and rocky, but the house reef offers excellent snorkeling and the location is great (as described above). Our bungalow was basic but reasonably nice, with hot water and good AC while the power was on from 5:30 pm to 7:30 am. There is passable WiFi in the open air lobby.

Breakfast was included in our rate, and other meals are 300PHP each and a set menu. Portions were enormous. You can buy beer, wine or a couple bottles of liquor, but there are no cocktails. This must be remedied.

There are many lodging options in town. As noted above, these would have better access to tours and activities, but we preferred the ambiance of a beach and being away from a not all that charming town. There also are multiple high end island resorts like Two Seasons, Club Paradise and Huma Island. Some of these look pretty awesome, but they are much more expensive. And I think they are farther from the Coron Island attractions though they could be equidistant or closer to other items with appeal.

Food: We ate all our meals at the resort (described above) except for the last day when we had lunch in town at Coron Bistro. The pizza was quite good.

Activities: The most popular activities are diving and day tours of Coron Island and other islands and beaches. We booked our Coron Island tour at Balinsasayaw and it included Kayangan Lake, Barracuda Lake, Twin Lagoons, Skeleton Wreck, Banol Beach and Makinit Hot Springs. It was a private tour and included mask, snorkel, lunch and a great guide. At 2250PHP each, it was not cheap. I’m sure there are operators based in Coron town that are much cheaper, but as noted we got to Kayangan Lake before anybody else and this was one of our favorite days of the whole trip…so we’re not complaining! There are many other island/beach tours in the area.

Note that some of what we did was rather physically demanding. Not in terms of stamina, but e.g. the ladder we had to ascend and descend to enter the Twin Lagoons was steep with very narrow and slippery slats.  It might not be appropriate for older folks.

I went diving with Coron Divers and have somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think the guy they sent was only SSI advanced certified. I think every other time I’ve dived, I’ve been led by a PADI certified dive master or instructor. Had I not just done three dives in Port Barton, and were these not fairly protected dive sites with minimal current, I might have been less comfortable with this. But on the other more positive hand, they picked me up early, switched our second site at my request, and my buddy was capable and attentive. I paid 2800PHP for the two dives with all equipment. Coron is famous for wreck diving, and if I return I would certainly plan on doing that.

We mentioned the former leper colony and the animal island above, I think you can visit both of these. There is also a hill near town called Mount Tapyas, and I think you can walk up a whole lot of stairs to the top.

March 21-25, 2014 (Friday-Tuesday)

::lunch spot::

El Nido

Among the tourist destinations of Palawan, El Nido is perhaps the most well known. Many even say it is overdeveloped. We have to agree. But, to be fair, there is a distinction between the type of development in El Nido and that of say, Cancun. Sure, there are several shops in town selling Cadbury chocolate bars, sodas, and overpriced t-shirts and souvenirs, but they aren’t 7-11s. Sure, there are several bars and restaurants lining the beachfront, but they aren’t Señor Frog’s chains untz-ing untz-ing into the wee hours of the night, and I don’t think we saw a single building over five stories tall here.

But what left us in the slightly underwhelmed category with El Nido is the fact that for all its development, it’s still a remarkably inconvenient travel destination. Getting there is no easy journey. Granted, we chose to stop first at Sabang and then at the decidedly less developed and even more inconvenient location of Port Barton, which made our travels significantly more diverted, but even for a traveler looking to spend a week in El Nido alone, it’s most likely you’ll have to fly to Manila, then to Puerto Princesa, then take a six hour drive, then a tricycle to your destination and perhaps, if you’re foolish as we were in staying at Golden Monkey Cottages, you’ll then have to walk 15 minutes with your luggage down the beach and through an unpaved path in the village.  In fairness, though, if your budget permits you could take private vehicles and there are charter flights from Manila to El Nido (more on this below in Practical Info).

From Port Barton we took an hour and a half jeepney ride. This is Asia, so of course it was packed to the brim, which means that the back is loaded, the roof is loaded with bags and people, and the driver even had a passenger to his left (in addition to the two on his right). And when it was time to pay, the conductor climbed down from the roof and reached in through the side to tap me on the back and ask for cash. The excitement did not end there, as we got dropped off at Roxas junction where we witnessed an animated arrest by some cops carrying humongous guns. Then we hopped on our bus to El Nido, which was surprisingly modern for a public bus (reclining seats and air con!). Though it still stopped many times to pick up people on the side of the street and wait for them to load bags of rice and other goods on board. Once we made it to El Nido we still had a tricycle ride to town and a 15 minute walk down a dirt path to get to our hotel.

As with Sabang and Port Barton, there is no ATM to be found throughout the entire town. In fact, if you want to get cash out you have a two-hour window and a roughly $200 equivalent maximum, charged against your credit card plus a 6% fee. And you still receive that Filipino level of service (meaning the worst of any country we’ve visited). These inconveniences are not fatal flaws, but for all the effort it takes to travel here you’d expect to find an untainted and remote-feeling island paradise, and El Nido is much less of that than Coron and especially Port Barton. To be sure, it is beautiful. But it is also fairly polluted, which really distracts from the enjoyment, at least for us. Stepping over pieces of trash and cigarette butts on the beach is far from ideal. It’s such a shame to see these beautiful places being destroyed by litter.  Maybe we’re being a bit harsh here, and El Nido does have some amazing scenery. Perhaps if we lower your expectations then you’ll be even more impressed :).

The island hopping tour allowed us to see the highlights of El Nido, and it is most definitely worth it. Our tour took us to a white sand beach (fairly disappointing given that it was being built up and had construction and barbed wire fencing all along it), two lagoons (absolutely incredible), a smaller beach for lunch, and a snorkel stop at the coral reefs outside the “Big Lagoon” (really solid, not tons of fish but impressive variety and stunning iridescent almost kaleidoscopic looking giant clams).

While the sights are stunning, again it does not feel very remote. It reminded us a bit of Koh Phi Phi, with the masses of tourists. In fact, we sat idled for about 15 minutes waiting for boats to exit the “Big Lagoon” before our bangka could even fit in. But it was worth the wait, what a beautiful place. We’re told that El Nido Resorts holds wedding ceremonies inside this lagoon, on a big floating platform that they set up. Now that would be cool. Unmarried friends, please consider this option ;). I believe guests of the El Nido Resort (at least the Miniloc Island property) can also kayak here at times when it would be less crowded, which would be lovely. The “Small Lagoon” is only accessible by kayak or swimming in through a small opening so we unfortunately didn’t bring the camera, but what an incredible spot. The steep rock walls are beautiful to begin with, but then to realize you’re swimming through a gigantic saltwater pool, secluded from the outside world, ahh, just divine.

We also spotted some flying fish on the ride back. We’d never seen these fish in action before, it’s absolutely mind-blowing to watch them literally fly 50-100 yards across the water!

Alan bravely tried the Filipino delicacy, balut, a hard boiled fertilized duck egg. In other words, he ate duck fetus…with a bit of salt and vinegar sauce. Others had told us it tastes like a cross between a chicken egg and liver. Alan agreed. Jenni couldn’t be bothered to find out what baby duck feathers taste like.

There is a “hike” in town that allegedly affords great views of the El Nido Bay. I say hike in quotation marks, because it is more of a climb than a hike. While most attempt this with a guide, he offers no advice other than to wear sneakers, and he comes without any equipment. The very first ten feet up were almost enough to make Jenni bow out. The rocks are sharp and you must use both hands and feet to scale up these formations. After a mild panic, Jenni was able to brave it and we ventured on for a while, climbing up pointy limestone boulders. At one difficult spot that had a large and deep crevice Jenni started to panic again. “Is this the worst?” we asked our guide. “No, this part is easy. The top is like that,” he says as he points to a vertical wall of rock. “For about ten or fifteen meters.” That was my cue to go. I’m not sure I could make that climb without a fear of heights, let alone without a helmet, ropes or spotter. Alan and guide briefly considered going on without me before we realized that it would mean I’d have to sit there and wait for around an hour where the mosquitos were literally swarming. One malaria scare was enough for me, thank you. We admitted defeat and headed for flatter land.

The rational mans take, revisited: I agree with Jenni. She bears no blame for calling it off. We did a bunch of class 3 scrambling, and based on what we saw and our guide said, the trail was turning into class 4 climbing, too.  I have minimal experience, and Jenni has none.  Class 4 climbing for the inexperienced with no ropes or helmets and no decent access to medical care seems kind of foolish.  The ability to distinguish between rational and irrational fear is essential to living an adventure-filled life without being reckless. While I am highly confident we could have made it to the top without injury, that does not mean we should have tried.

On our last day in town we hired a tricycle for the ride over to Corong Corong to visit the beach at Las Cabañas. We kicked ourselves for not choosing a hotel over on this side of town. While there is little going on here (we only saw one bar/restaurant plus a couple small resorts), the beach is great for swimming (unlike the beach in the town of El Nido or near where we stayed further northeast from El Nido town), the views are great, and the sunsets are superior (no west-facing open ocean views in El Nido Bay). We joined up with some friends we’d met on our boat tour and grabbed piña coladas to watch the sun sink, and then we all shared a “you-point-we-cook” seafood dinner and lots of San Mig Lights back in town. It was a solid close to our time in El Nido, and we even enjoyed a romantic walk back (with great stars!) when the power in the entire town went out.

Practical Info

“El Nido” refers to an area far larger than the main town and immediate surroundings.  We considered staying one place in El Nido that is about an hour drive from the town, so be careful when you book. The main town has lots of smallish hotels, bars and restaurants on the beach and a block or two off the beach. In general, it seemed more crowded and developed towards the southwest part of the beach (nearer the dock) and less crowded towards the northeast (say, past Marina Garden Beach Resort). The town beach is not great for swimming (though it is swimmable).

Further to the northeast is the Caalan Beach area, though we didn’t really see any beach here.  There are several accommodations here, and we stayed at Golden Monkey Cottages (more below). We would advise against staying in this area because it is less convenient but without the benefit of peace and quiet (given the roosters, dogs, lizards and neighbors).  It took us about 25 minutes to walk to the far end of town.

To the southwest of town is the Corong Corong area.  As noted above, the beach and views are nice here. Note, though, that you can walk between town and Caalan Beach but you need to take a tricycle to get between town and Corong Corong.  We would either stay in town if you want some nightlife and proximity to F&B options plus tour operators, or stay in Corong Corong if you want a prettier setting and a nicer beach. Or stay at one of the El Nido Resorts offshore islands, if that is in your budget.  To visit Corong Corong for the day, ask a tricycle to take you to Las Cabañas. They will drop you off a few km from town and then it’s a five-minute walk to the beach.

There are no ATMs in El Nido but you can swipe a credit card (with a 6% fee) from 2-4 pm at the Petron petrol station near the dock.  Art Cafe no longer offers this service, but they will change foreign cash and were offering a decent rate.  Art Cafe also accepts credit cards for no extra fee, as does their downstairs shop, which carries all sorts of odds and ends you might need.

Transportation: We came from Port Barton on a jeepney/bus combo.  We described this a bit above, but here are some additional details. The jeepney left at 8 am (sort of). We sat near the front of the jeepney and the windshield was open, making sunglasses very helpful. And you might want a handkerchief for the dust.  It arrived to Roxas terminal a little before 10 am, and there we transferred to a RORO public bus, which left several minutes later.  This but stopped in Taytay at 11:30 am for ~20 minutes where food and toilets were available.  The bus arrived in El Nido at 1:30 pm.  The El Nido terminal is 1-2km from town (I think), and several tricycles are there waiting with a pretty standard fare of 50PHP to town.  The jeepney cost 150PHP each and the bus cost 200PHP each. Overall, the journey was fairly painless if windy and a little bumpy.

When inquiring in Port Barton we were told of a few other options. Subject to weather, you can take a bangka.  I think it costs ~6000PHP for the boat or 1500PHP each if you can find some others. We did not try to bargain, but the private van quotes we got were 6000PHP.  If you can find other passengers and bargain you could probably pay <1000PHP each. We also heard that sometimes after the jeepney drops you at Roxas terminal, you can catch a van that is more comfortable and goes straight to El Nido for 350PHP each.

From Puerto Princesa or Sabang you could take the Lexus van straight to El Nido.  Part of the difficulty of getting around Palawan is the main road runs up the east coast but there is nothing along the west coast, so getting to Sabang or Port Barton and sort of El Nido requires you to turn off the main road for a while. And then for onward travel, you usually need to get back on that track for a transfer.

There is a small airport in El Nido that accommodates charter flights on ITI. If you were to come here to stay at one of the El Nido Resorts properties, there is a good chance you’d arrive by plane. Art Cafe was advertising one-way flights between Manila and El Nido for ~5000PHP.  I would guess that in the coming years there will be regular commercial flights into El Nido.

For onward travel to Coron, we took a bangka that actually left from San Fernando, about an hour and a quarter drive from El Nido town (the trip cost 1800PHP each).  Different boats make the trip on different days and often these leave from El Nido town. The trip is weather dependent. We will provide some more detail on this trip in our upcoming Coron post.

Accommodation: We stayed at Golden Monkey Cottages but do not recommend it.  The place itself was decent but not great value, and the location (Caalan Beach) is undesirable.  It has nice views of Cadlao Island, but otherwise offers little vs. El Nido town or Corong Corong. Cadlao Resort is a nicer property with a pool in the same area, but we probably wouldn’t stay there for $150+ with no beach. If you decide anyway to stay in the Caalan section, bring a headlamp for walking home at night. As we wrote above, we would stay in town or Corong Corong, or on an offshore island.

We had looked to stay at Marina Garden in town but it was booked. Our friends liked Rico’s Cottages. On the beach in Corong Corong, Orange Pearl seems well located and Las Cabañas even more so.  The latter is on a point, so maybe a touch farther from the best part of the beach but quieter and with better views.  If you stay in Corong Corong, you might inquire e.g. whether your hotel can arrange island-hopping tours that begin and end there so you don’t have to make the return trip into town.

El Nido Resorts owns (or operates?) a few offshore island properties. I haven’t done full research, but I think we saw Miniloc Island (on our island hopping tour), which looked nice, but maybe a little dated. But as mentioned above it may offer the best access to spectacular sites at times when few other tourists are around. I think Pangalusian Island may be their nicest property.

Food and Drinks: Options are abundant, and many places offer some kind of happy hour in the afternoon.  We had drinks at Sea Slugs (no happy hour, but stiff drinks) and dinner at Atmosphere one night. It was decent. Happy hour drinks at Mezzanine were pretty good.  Dinner at Doy’s was enjoyable for fresh seafood.  Plus the table next to us shared their lanzones, a small fruit that tastes (and looks) kind of like a cross between a lychee and an orange.  We dined at Blue Azul a couple blocks off the beach. They advertise chicken shawarma, which is just grilled chicken and there is no tahini, and atmosphere is lacking. But the falafel sandwich was large and tasty.  Our lunch at Art Cafe was pretty good and our breakfast there was excellent, and they take credit cards. It is off the beach but some tables have pretty good views.  There was a nice little beach bar scene at Corong Corong (near the end of the path from the road to the beach when you ask to be taken to Las Cabañas).

And of course, there is balut.  Vendors were walking around the town and beach selling these scrumptious fertilized duck eggs for 20PHP.  Man up.

Activities: Island hopping seems to be the primary activity.  Countless operators in town offer the same four choices, labeled A-D and priced from 1200PHP to ~1600PHP including lunch.  I’m not sure whether all include mask and snorkel, so check on that.  We booked Tour A through the tour desk located at Aplaya (on the beach, nearer the dock).  The scenery was amazing, though it was fairly crowded out there. While at the lagoons we saw some folks kayaking and then saw that Art Cafe was advertising tour options that included kayaks for a bit more money.  Some people do multiple island hopping tours over multiple days.

Another activity is to “hike” Taraw Mountain. We discussed this above. The views of the bay and islands from the top are likely wonderful, so you might try it if you have any climbing experience or just a different risk tolerance.  You need a guide to find the trail.  Art Cafe was offering a guide for 350PHP each (for two), we found someone for 500PHP total.

You can rent a kayak and paddle out to Cadlao Island or beyond, but be careful out on the ocean if you’re not very experienced. There are also day trips to farther away beaches (Nacpan seems most popular) and hikes to waterfalls. There are many dive shops here, and my dive master in Port Barton said the diving is good once you get outside the bay.  I’m not sure how narrowly she is defining “the bay.”

March 18-21, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

::view from our porch::

Port Barton

White Beach Annex (part of Deep Gold) in Port Barton is a special, special place. Located about a 15-minute bangka ride from town, this small resort is in a remote place of beauty. There are a handful of two-room cottages each with spacious balconies, a palapa with tables, chairs and a hammock, and several hammocks strung between the palm trees dotting the white sand beach. The beach is great for swimming, although slightly colder water than we’d expected, and there are quite a few jellies when the water is very calm (the bay is so protected that on some days it looked more like a lake). The sunsets here are delightful, especially next to the coconut husk-fueled bonfires.

We got right to work our first day in heaven and promptly polished off a fifth of Tanduay rum (about $2 at the local town shops!) and 1.5 liters of Coke. Then we danced on our porch, watched the young boy from our resort (also known as the jellyfish whisperer) breathe life back into approximately 13 jellies washed up on the shore and place them back out to sea, and took 187 photos because it’s just that freaking beautiful. And later when two water buffalo descended on our beach, the jelly whisperer appeared again to prove that jellyfish ain’t the only animal on his roster, chasing them down the beach and into the sunset like an experienced shepherd.

This place is pure magic, and we savored it, because there aren’t that many opportunities in life to stay somewhere so remote, so untainted, and so beautiful it almost hurts. White Beach has a fantastic view and is one of the most idyllic places we’ve ever seen in our lives on this planet. Collectively (well, really Alan, because he’s been to every country I’ve been to) we’ve traveled to 61 countries. And so trust us (at least 61 countries’ worth) when we say that this is a special place. While the surrounding islands are not quite as stunning as those in El Nido with its limestone cliffs, the laid-back and decidedly non-touristy vibe here made our experience far superior to that in more popular El Nido (don’t worry, we’ll cover El Nido more in our next post). We are currently looking into purchasing this resort, and/or renewing our vows here, and/or scheduling a family reunion where we rent out the entire place for two weeks. Which isn’t even necessary, since we felt like we were on our own private island for much of the time there.

The contrast in peacefulness of this place versus our accommodation in Sabang is comical. Here you sleep to the peaceful sounds of the waves gently crashing on the shore. Well, except for the mystery animal that hung out outside our window making strange noises at night. I’ll have to admit, I was frightened a bit by this thing. I’ve never heard a noise like that. How could one describe the sound it makes? It’s a noise that might lie at the confluence of a quack and a bark. I imagine it might be the sound that an anteater or weasel would make. Well, we discovered later that these are the legendary tuko lizards, a large and totally harmless variety!

I’ve had a history of doing some strange things in my sleep. Once kicked Alan backwards, while sleeping on my stomach, when he went to kiss me goodbye. Once pulled my sock drawer out and put it on my lap and sat on the edge of my bed and cried. I would have no recollection of this when my mother informed me the next day. I once walked into the laundry room of my freshman dorm completely asleep. Though jello shots and natty light might have played a role there. And I’ve definitely woken myself up or had Alan shake me awake while I screamed, yelled or sobbed in my nightmares (Kenny can confirm from when we all shared a room in Guayaquil). I had an epic one of these our second night. I mean, I had vibrato in that yell. And I guess I may or may not have judo chopped Alan while opera screaming. And before I could really process what was happening I collapsed into a fit of confused screaming, laughing and crying. And then I couldn’t stop laughing for maybe 30 minutes. It’s become something of a running joke with the two of us now that Alan is overly concerned with the wellbeing of the French girls staying at our resort (“why aren’t the French girls home yet? Nobody knows where they are.”) and I felt bad that my screams probably left them thinking that someone was getting ax-murdered in the jungle depths. I half expected Alan to run over to their cottage and see if they were all right.

While there was really no need to leave our wonderful cove at White Beach (what with our chef, Ping, cooking and serving up all our meals either on the beachfront table or our private porch (P.S. her French toast is obscenely delicious)), we did manage to pry ourselves away to check out the rest of the area a bit.

We did an island hopping tour on a small bangka. Our driver took us out to a couple reefs for some snorkeling around great coral gardens with loads of fish, and out to some small islands with white beaches and rattan hammocks, including one where he grilled us up a great chicken barbecue meal.  The whole day we saw perhaps five other boats.  Quite a contrast from Phi Phi (Thailand) or El Nido.

One day Alan went diving while Jenni relaxed a while before settling into panic-mode wondering why he was out so long. I did three dives, consisting of one wreck and two reef dives.  The visibility was shockingly poor but there was some good coral and really neat macro critters.  I had never seen a sea slug, now I’ve seen many.  While it wasn’t the best diving of my life, it was one of the most enjoyable days of diving. Paying guests were myself and one girl, accompanied by a dive master plus two boatmen.  It was my first time diving from a bangka, we ate lunch on a tiny island with white sand beaches and hammocks, the scenery was lovely with scattered islands and remote fishing villages, and the whole area is like a protected bay so the water was fairly calm.

On our last day we decided to take the 45-minute walk from our resort to the main town. This accidentally turned into a few hours of hiking when we missed the turnoff and hiked into the middle of nowhere. I swear, we probably could have walked back to Sabang had we kept going. Even hot, sweaty and out of water, there were absolutely no regrets. This is a fabulously beautiful trail (even if you don’t get lost). The palm tree lined beaches and terrific vistas of tropical sea and reefs flanked by fields of goats and water buffalo? Stunning. There’s even a little bamboo raft where you have to pull yourself by rope-rig to cross the small river near the town beach. So quaint and adorable.

Practical Info

In case you couldn’t tell we loved the relaxed and peaceful nature of Port Barton, I will repeat it here.  It was telling that every local we had spoken to before arriving here was positive on Port Barton and negative on El Nido due to excessive development.

There are no ATMs in Port Barton and many places do not accept credit cards. Electricity is limited to certain hours though some establishments supplement this with a generator. WiFi is available only at certain places and at certain times.  Many of the small hotels and restaurants along the main beach offer WiFi.

The town is compact and it is easy to walk around the few streets or up and down the beach.  For help arranging day tours and transportation, you might try the tourist assistance center which is a desk upstairs in a little structure where one of the streets hits the beach. The phone number we were given (I think the mobile of the woman who was working there) is 09106721641.

Transportation: Port Barton is a little harder to reach because it is off the direct Lexus van route that connects Puerto Princesa, Sabang and El Nido.  We took a private van from Sabang.  We were initially quoted prices in the range of 4500HP to 6000PHP so instead we had booked the much cheaper jeepney for a 7 am departure to Salvacion followed by either a bus or the Lexus van. When we showed up before 7 am for the jeepney, our lady at Bing Booking Services said she could now offer a private van for 3500.  We said we’d do it for 3000 and she agreed.  The drive from Sabang took roughly three hours.

Another popular option is to take a bangka from Sabang.  The prices we heard for that were generally 1000 each if there are six passengers, 1200 each if four passengers or 3500 to charter the boat.

For onward travel to El Nido, we took the 8 am jeepney, which arrived in Roxas at 9:50 am followed by a RORO bus to El Nido.  The bus was waiting at the station and the transition was seamless. The bus was fairly nice with A/C and good seats, though it got a bit crowded when they folded down the aisle seats to make it five across.  We stopped at 11:30 am in Taytay for snacks and toilets and we arrived to El Nido at 1:30 pm. The jeepney cost 150PHP each and the bus was 200PHP each.

There are also bangkas or private vans to El Nido.

Accommodation: We stayed at White Beach Annex, which is owned by Deep Gold Resort, and it was awesome!! Though it is on the mainland, you basically need to take a boat to get there (and I think they charge 150PHP each person, each way).  There is a jungle trail that takes about 45 minutes to town.  For practical purposes, you will end up spending most of your time and eating most of your meals at White Beach.  To be clear, this is not a luxury resort.  The rooms are fairly basic and power (and thus hot water and air conditioning) is generally available only from late afternoon until around midnight.

We wholeheartedly recommend staying here, but if you prefer to be a little closer to what little action there is in Port Barton, then you might want to stay in town.  Unlike El Nido, the town beach here is very nice, charming and fine for swimming. There are several accommodation options along the beach, including Elsa’s, Ausan, Greenviews, Cassandra’s Cottages, Summer Homes, Deep Gold’s main property, and more.  We also noticed Evergreen Bayview Bungalows (may be called Villa Evergreen?) on the hill on the northeast side of the bay.

Away from town there are some island resorts including Secret Island, Blue Cove and Coconut Garden.  We also considered Thelma and Toby’s Island Camping Adventure which sounds pretty cool.

Food: We ate all but one meal either at White Beach or during diving or the island hopping tour. That one other meal was at Jambalaya on the town beach.  Jenni’s sandwich was good and my meal included blackened fish plus jambalaya. It was quite pricy at 450PHP but could probably have been split two-ways.

Activities: First and foremost, this is a great place to relax.  As with much of Palawan, the most popular activity is probably an island hopping tour.  We did ours through White Beach and paid 1800PHP for a private tour (lunch included) plus 100 for an extra mask and snorkel.  We did see some other guys on an island tour who had brought San Miguel Lights and their chef was whipping up lobster and calamari.  So if you put in the effort (and $), you can probably have a more gourmet experience than ours was.

I dove with Barton Diving Services (fka Sea Dog Diving). It cost 3500PHP for three dives with all equipment and lunch included.  You can pay with a credit card during certain hours at Summer Homes, or via PayPal. The dive shop has kayaks available for rent or for free if you dive with them.  There was also a kayak at White Beach that we paddled maybe 100 yards offshore before Jenni insisted the danger was becoming too great. I think there may be a waterfall walk around here, but I’m not sure.

March 14-18, 2014 (Friday-Tuesday)


Going Underground

Perhaps what we’ll remember most about Sabang is how loud it is at night. Don’t expect a peaceful, sleeping by the sea in a quiet little town night of sleep, expect the worst night of sleep you’ve ever had. Snippets of sounds heard at night at Dab Dab Resort: near continuous child screams as the Ferris wheel is turned on for a few hours one night, what we sadly learned after the fact was the sound of a rat chewing through our snack supply and Alan’s iPhone headphones, and a sound that can only be described as a monkey performing exorcism on a cat. But I think by now the two of us, along with anyone who has ever done a Lao hill tribe trek, an overnight at an Iban longhouse or stayed at Dab Dab Resort in Sabang, can officially agree that roosters are the single most annoying animal on the planet. If we can genetically modify our chickens to make them fat and delicious and subsist on corn, can we not genetically modify them so they at least only crow at appropriate hours of the day and night??

Anyway, the quality of sleep is not what lures tourists to Sabang. What draws them in, almost exclusively, is the “natural wonder of the world,” the Underground River. It sounds a little cheesy, sure, almost like a ride designed for 11 year olds at Disneyland, but it’s pretty sweet. It’s a river that runs from the beach through a cave and on which you can boat around for a bit, wearing hardhats to protect you from bat poo and shining lights around to see the array of Jesus, Joseph and Mary shaped stalagmites and stalactites throughout the cave. Like any good Catholic underground river, the natural rock formations in this one took on religious look-alike shapes. It’s kind of crazy, actually, it’s like a museum of stuff that people found Jesus’ face in, all made by rocks and placed in a cave that you visit via boat. I think we even saw that Jesus shaped Cheez-it.

The 20-minute bangka ride from town to the Underground River park entrance is pretty beautiful, as well. The shoreline is flanked by some gorgeous karsts and the mountains in the background are quite spectacular. That is one thing we hadn’t anticipated contributing to the beauty of this area, but the mountainous backdrop to the sea view is not too shabby.   Arriving at the beach to visit the river reminded us of arriving at Bako National Park in Borneo.

There was also a bit of wildlife sighting to be done here. There were tons of crab eating macaques on the path to the Underground River, including the tiniest bonkey you ever did see. I swear, that thing must have been birthed a mere seconds before our arrival. How cute?!

Near the entrance to the park we also saw a handful of big monitor lizards. Now if these aren’t proof that dinosaurs once existed, I don’t know what is. Except maybe dinosaur fossils. These guys have long claws and the craziest tongues on them. I’m not sure if they are blind as bats and use their tongues like cats use their whiskers, but these long snake-like tongues spend more time out of their mouths than they do in. Speaking of bats, we saw them by the thousands hanging from the ceiling above the river. We also spotted a water snake deep in the cave. Those poisonous, floating snakes are twice as scary as their land counterparts, slithering across the water, their heads raised like they’re ready to fight.

Having seen the Underground River, we’d essentially seen Sabang. So our first bit of advice for visiting would be to not spend three nights in this town. Unless you are not staying at Dab Dab and then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But, we were unsure whether we’d be able to get a permit (more on this below) in time to see the river if we only had one full day post-arrival, and so we opted for three nights. This left us an entire day to explore the rest of Sabang’s offerings.

We walked along the beach heading west from town (the sea is to the north here even though you might think it’s to the west) to check out the waterfalls. It’s a short, maybe one kilometer walk, albeit along a rocky beach, and the waterfalls are certainly not Iguacu impressive, but it’s a very lovely spot to hang out, read a book, maybe drink some Tanduay and cokes and have a little dip in the pool at the base of the waterfall. We also stopped on our way back for lunch in the treehouse of Alpuerto, the last resort pre-hike (and the first resort post-hike, as their signs remind you). We ordered everything on the menu, which isn’t all that impressive when the menu is “fish or squids.” The portions did not disappoint. Alan was served half of a ten pound fish (grilled only enough to eat about a third of it unless you’re attempting to experiment with unintended Filipino sushi) and Jenni an entire foot-long squid that had been grilled and then cut in pieces right on her plate. This isn’t like the US where your calamari serving disguises well its former appearance.

The main part of Sabang is quite small. It’s a rustic waterfront village with a handful of shops, hotels and restaurants, and nary an ATM. It feels quite rugged and undeveloped here, which is nice, and reminded Alan a bit of Koh Phangan many years back. Though this coastal town is beautiful, it’s not a great area for swimming as the waters are quite rough and much of the beach is rocky.

We also enjoyed walking through the more “residential” area of town, a small dirt road village where Alan made friends by taking pictures of the boys and letting them see. And while her level of restraint is improving, Jenni is still not entirely able to walk by dogs and not pet them. And the Philippines is a country for dog lovers. They are everywhere. But they aren’t all so nice.

Heading east from town along the beach there are a handful of resorts, restaurants, spas (though the word “spa” should be taken with a grain of salt as these are basically just beds on the beach), and boat rental stands. We popped in for breakfast at a spot that had been recommended to us, Green Verde, and ordered a pancake, which, I think, was literally a sheet cake. Not complaining. But what surprised us was a sign on one side that said “Note: this establishment has been closed effective XXX.” Given that there were at least five other tables occupied by tourists and a waitress who directed us to a table, we ignored the sign and sat down to eat at what was very clearly an open for business restaurant. Then as we walked back towards our own hotel we noticed a sign in the town center that explained that Green Verde was not permitted to operate and that anyone patronizing its resort or restaurant would not be afforded the protections of local law and would suffer the consequences of (I shit you not) “bad karma.” Is that not the strangest thing? I later came THIS close to getting knocked in the head by a very large falling coconut…karma? Half karma because we only ordered one pancake?

We also got some seriously good massages at Joy’s Spa on the beach for about $10 an hour. Highly recommend. The beds were set up right on the beach so you could listen to the sound of the waves as you relaxed, and as if they’d planned it, there were about four dogs hanging out under our tables, keeping us company, right as our massages ended.

::Joy's Spa::
::Joy’s Spa::

Other than that, we did a lot of reading, a bit of napping. To be fair, there are some other activities you can partake in: ziplining, a boat tour of the mangroves, heck you can even rent Segways, but our tip: come for the Underground River, stay anywhere other than Dab Dab and head on out for greener pastures –er, waters –up north!

Practical Info

Withdraw cash in Puerto Princesa (unless you are coming from the north, then you’re just screwed) as there are no ATMs in Sabang. The ATM we visited in Puerto Princesa had a withdrawal max of 10,000PHP, so if you have two different accounts it might be helpful as that amount goes quickly.  There are several little stores and food stands in the tiny town of Sabang.  A cocktail at a hotel bar costs 100-200PHP, or you could buy a fifth of Tanduay rum at a store for 90PHP. San Miguel beer is pretty tasty and found everywhere in Palawan and presumably the whole country.

You cannot visit the Underground River without a permit, and unfortunately the process for getting a permit is not entirely clear.  Many come to Sabang on an organized day trip out of Puerto Princesa, so presumably there are tour agencies who take care of everything.  If you visit independently, I think there may be an office in Puerto Princesa where you can secure a permit, but I’m not sure.  The permit office in Sabang is in town, on the pier fronting the basketball court. I think the hours are 8 am – 4 pm. We arrived the first day after 4 pm so we went to the office before 8 am the next day.  After a bit of back and forth, it seemed that we would be able to visit the river that day but the office in Puerto Princesa that assigns numbers doesn’t open until 9 am. After breakfast we returned and ended up being told we could proceed at around 10 am.  The ticket for the river costs 250PHP each and there is an environmental fee of 40PHP each.

So the next move is you take your ticket and walk to the tented area on the pier to try to secure a boat for the return journey.  The boat costs 700PHP return and accommodates six people, so you may want to ask to share.  We did and thus paid only 240PHP total (apparently there is some 20PHP “terminal fee” or the like for each boat, who knows).  So all-in our visit to the river cost 820PHP, which is much better than the 800PHP each that folks were pushing on us as a package deal.

You get on the boat and the ride to the river takes about 20 minutes.  Our facilitator checked us in and we scoped the monitor lizards before walking a few minutes past macaques to the cave entrance. There we waited several more minutes before boarding the little boat that a guy rows in and out of the cave. The actual time on the river is perhaps 45 minutes and you go about 1.5km into the cave.  I am told that you can make arrangements a few days in advance and secure a special permit to go farther into the cave, though I’m not sure how much the scenery changes.

Transportation: In general it is not so easy to get around Palawan.  Private transport is shockingly expensive relative to other prices here, and most public transport involves transfers.  Keep this in mind if you plan to visit the Underground River and then depart the same day, i.e. organized vans and buses only leave at certain times and if you miss those then your private transfer will be costly.

We arrived to the Puerto Princesa airport on a MAS Wings flight directly from Kota Kinabalu. This is the only airport on the large main island of Palawan with regularly scheduled commercial flights. Air Asia flies here. There are flights from Manila and a few other domestic cities.

We went to the little “El Mundo”table inside the minuscule airport where we were quoted 3500PHP for a van to Sabang but we ended up sharing a van with another couple and paying a total of 2500PHP.  You could also take a tricycle to the San Jose terminal and from there take a Lexus van, jeepney or public bus.  Our van ride took a little more than 2 hours on generally windy roads.  We were surprised by the security presence with multiple armed guards at each bank and even some stores.

For onward travel from Sabang to Port Barton, you can take a bangka, private van or some combo of jeepney, van and/or bus.  We ended up taking a private van for 3000PHP (it took a little over three hours), which we arranged via the Bing Booking Services desk in Sabang town. You could try calling them at 09164925989 or 09079098901.  At least if you travel by road, be sure to discard any mangoes you were hoarding as you will pass an inspection station whose mission is to stop the spread of the mango pulp weevil. Die, weevil, die.

Accommodation: We stayed at Dab Dab. I would say that more than any other place on our Asia trip I was disappointed with the value. We booked through agoda and paid roughly 2350PHP/night for a “Family” room, which had two beds and a private bath. The property is at the beach west of town but our room was set way back, on a stagnant body of water that is probably a magnet for bugs.  And further from the soothing sound of the ocean yet closer to roosters and fighting dogs. The mosquito net didn’t really fit and we were infiltrated by a rat.

And don’t be surprised to find a strange man sleeping on your hammock and fishing in your pond when you return to your cabin. His name is Lido. Do not be alarmed when he does not offer to leave the space you paid to occupy, for he is the uncle of the owner of the hotel, and this is where he fishes.

The restaurant on site was pretty good but they were out of half the menu half the time and the service was awful.  We quickly learned this is the case most places in the Philippines.  Hands down the worst service generally speaking of any country we have visited.  We also learned that if you’re willing to show up without a reservation, you can probably get a much better deal.

Dab Dab was lame, but what made it so much worse is that we inquired at several other places and found we could rent a bare-bones hut closer to the beach for literally one-quarter the price.  I would check out Robert’s on the beach east of town, and Blue Bamboo (Sunbird Cottages?) or Alpuerto near the water west of town.  Each seemed to have rooms with private bath for 500-600PHP.  None of these places is friendly to rolling luggage.

The more luxurious options are Sheridan (where we ate lunch one day and the pool looked nice) and Daluyon.

Food: Beware the heavy application of mayonnaise on many items.  Our meals at Dab Dab were pretty good.  We also had lunch one day at Sheridan, which was quite good if a bit pricier (entrees more like 350-400PHP).  Plus yummy piña coladas.  And lunch at the “Tree House” at Alpuerto, which was fine food in a lovely setting (180PHP each for fish and squid).

Activities: The Underground River is the main activity and we covered this above. I believe one could actually hike from town to the river entrance and shed the boat fee while gaining a bit of adventure.  Perhaps the next most popular activity is a mangrove boat tour.  We skipped that but did walk to the waterfall on the rocky beach west of town, also covered above.  Note that at the last sign of civilization heading out of the village you may be asked to register for the walk, and a small donation is suggested but not required. There is a zipline east of town and we saw Segway rentals.  And our massages on the beach at Joy’s Spa were great.

March 11-14, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

::mount kinabalu::

Kinabalu: The One That Got Away

Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), like much of Borneo, surprised us with its modernity. It’s a remarkably developed city for one I’d not heard of before, exemplified by the hospital (and that is something for which we were immensely grateful). We actually even saw commercials on television for the hospital we stayed at, and another promoting Malaysia as a destination for medical tourism.  Lest you get the wrong impression, it still feels and smells like a seafront developing nation city in many parts, too.

The city of KK was supposed to be a short stopover for us in transit to and from Mount Kinabalu (at Kinabalu National Park). We spent our first night in town doing little, as we were to get on the road for our big hike. We did little more than hit up the 7-11 for water and other supplies.

The drive out to Kinabalu National Park takes about two hours, and I was pleased to discover that there are kitschy roadside attractions in Malaysia, just like back home. We stopped for the obligatory photo ops at the Upside Down House, well worth the 5 MYR entrance fee (for the outside and bathroom parts only, it’s 18 MYR for the whole shebang) if you ask me. Highly recommended for those with kids and those kids at heart. As you get closer to the mountain the roads of course get windier, but we were still blown away by how modern and developed everything was.  And by the glorious views of the mountain for much of the drive.

As most of you know by now, we were unable to climb the mountain, due to a pesky interruption thanks to meningitis (you can read about the ordeal here if this is news to you). We have high hopes to come back another time though. We were mentally prepared (as prepared as you can be) to conquer this massive peak, the highest in Borneo and one of the highest in Southeast Asia.

It is a serious hike that usually entails ascending from ~6,150’ to a mountain lodge at ~10,800’, spending the night there and waking around 2 am in hopes of watching the sunrise from the peak at ~13,500’.  The upper portion of the trail is very steep and requires climbers hold on to a rope.  Less than a month ago, a German girl tragically died after falling from the summit.

The first documented ascent of the mountain was in 1851 by Hugh Low, a British colonial administrator.  The locals found the mountain a frightening place and believed the summit was home to the spirits of their ancestors.  That is why every climbing party used to sacrifice a chicken at the peak.  This is no longer necessary as an annual ceremony now fulfills this requirement for all of us.  A couple other interesting facts: there is an annual race to the top and back, last year the top three men were Kenyan (obviously) and the winner finished in less than 2.5 hours (!!!!); and the mountain has the world’s highest via ferrata, called Mountain Torq.

While we can’t vouch for the accommodation mid-way up the mountain or the view at the top (yet), it looks like a stunning hike and one we very much look forward to conquering in the future, meningitis free.

Liwagu Suites, one of the hotels near the start of the hike, was great. We received service so wonderful we felt like celebrities. The pre-hike day lunch was so absurd in portion sizes and quality that we ache longingly to know what it must taste like post-hike. The staff were exceedingly accommodating, and especially when I was in need of medical care.

::teh tarik::
::teh tarik::

Upstairs at Liwagu there is an educational display with preserved bugs and animals from the area. Borneo sure does have some creepy crawlers, and I’m pretty glad we missed out on seeing those. Silver lining! ;)  We did see some very cool moths (and butterflies?) after dark.

We returned to KK after our stay at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria to continue recuperating before heading off to the Philippines, and this time Jenni was able to join Alan at the impressive market on the waterfront, as well as check out a handful of restaurants around town. While the food was good, beware the rats. We saw what was quite possibly the world’s largest rat at that market, and mid-dinner at a popular Indian restaurant we saw a honker of a rat come scurrying out from under a neighboring table.

Practical Info

KK is the capital and largest city in the state of Sabah.  It is quite developed with large buildings, shopping malls and of course world-class medical facilities!  And traffic.  Lots of it at rush hour, which seems to take place in the morning, at lunch and in the afternoon.  I am amazed at how much development is taking place here.  There are new high rise residential towers going up and major construction much of the way out towards Rasa Ria…think industrial parks and malls and towers.  Some sort of rapid transit system is probably on its way.

It doesn’t seem like there are so many tourist attractions in the city, but if you visit Sabah (which has the greatest share of Malaysian Borneo’s top attractions) you will most likely come through here.  There are several offshore islands (per Wiki: “Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park comprises a group of 5 islands located between 3 to 8 km off Kota Kinabalu”) you can visit for a day or overnight.  On a street one block off the water and just north of Le Meridien, there is a nightly market with costume jewelry, sunglasses, apparel, etc.

In terms of Mount Kinabalu, everything was arranged by our tour company but here is how I think it works.  You can do it as a day hike, but there are only four (?) permits available per day for this.  I think all hikers need to hire a local guide.  You could also drive up to the park in the morning, hike up to the mountain lodge (Laban Rata) for the night and summit and return the next day.  But I think they try to discourage this so the concessionaire can make more money??  So it seems the most widely available option is to drive up to the park, spend the night at one of the properties near park headquarters, have breakfast around there and then hike up to Laban Rata, have a buffet dinner there, wake around 2 am when you can get some toast and coffee etc. before the summit attempt, watch the sunrise on the summit, hike back down to Laban Rata for a full breakfast, and finally descend back to park headquarters.

Many people visit the park with no intention of climbing the mountain.  The air is much cooler and there is abundant flora and fauna.  I think it’s very rare to see most of the fauna that lives in the park, but birding is popular.  There are many easy walking trails around the park headquarters and a botanical garden with limited hours.

Our arrangements were to include all our meals from arrival at the park through lunch after descending the mountain.  I’m not sure if this is standard.  There are some little stores at the park selling drinks and snacks and clothing you might need (rain coat, gloves, hat, head lamps, walking poles, etc.).

Note that you probably want good gloves because much of the top requires holding on to a rope, and it might be wet and will be cold.  So the under gloves we packed might not have been sufficient, but fortunately the hotel gave us a bag with thicker gloves and other items.  I would recommend bringing some form of water purification.  There are conflicting reports on the safety of drinking the water available on the mountain trail, but I don’t drink untreated mountain water in the US and I wouldn’t do it here.  Also, you need to show your passport for the hike.

We did not get a chance to do any of this, but near the park there are places you might be able to see the rafflesia (the world’s biggest flower, it can be a meter in diameter and weigh 12kg), and the self-explanatory Poring Hot Springs.

Transportation: There is an international airport (Air Asia flies here) with connections to several destinations.  There are three direct flights each week to Palawan in the Philippines.  The drive to Kinabalu National Park takes about two hours.

Accommodation: Our first night in KK we stayed at the Promenade Hotel.  We were upgraded to a suite that was quite nice.  The hotel does not get great reviews and the breakfast buffet did feel a touch dingy, but the location is good and we didn’t really see enough to judge.  We had planned to stay at the Jesselton but it was full.

Our night before being admitted to the hospital and then the nights after Rasa Ria we stayed at Le Meridien.  The first time we had a big room with full ocean view which was very nice as we could see the offshore islands and watch the sunset.  The second time we had a smaller room and partial ocean view, still quite nice.  There is a nice pool and gym.  The WiFi leaves a lot to be desired, though we complained so they actually put a router in our room and that helped a lot.  Hey, we need good bandwidth to file our reports from the road!

Both hotels we stayed at are on the waterfront, and this seems like a good place to be.  I’d probably choose Le Meridien’s location from what I’ve seen as it’s straight across from a great market (more on this below) and I think closer to the waterfront development with bars and restaurants popular among expats.  There is a Hyatt on the waterfront a few blocks north that might be a slightly more peaceful location.

For Mount Kinabalu, we stayed at Liwagu Suites, which is part of Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.  I think they hold the concession from the park so they operate multiple properties near park headquarters plus the main mountain lodge.  Our suite at Liwagu was very spacious and quite nice, with a living area downstairs plus sleeping loft with additional half bath.  Less expensive accommodation is available, including more hostel-like quarters.

The lodge on the mountain is called Laban Rata.  I believe there are a few private rooms that are hard to book so chances are you’ll stay in the dorm.  They have everything you need for sleeping so no need to bring a sleeping bag.

I don’t know much about it, but there is also a place called Mesilau Nature Resort.  I think this is in a slightly different area than the other base lodges and you begin the hike on a different trail before joining up with the main trail well below Laban Rata.

Food and Drinks: There is a lot of seafood and Indian food in KK.  And probably near anything you might want given how large and modern the city is.  The market across from Le Meridien has a section with Malaysian rice and noodle dishes plus endless purveyors of grilled chicken and “you point, we cook” seafood.  I tried chicken ass.  It wasn’t that much better than it sounds.  But this market is vibrant and fun and smoky.  And when I was there alone the night we returned from the mountain, this little kid walked by and rubbed my red arm hair.  Then he whispered to his friend, pointed at me, and came back and did it again.

Just down the waterfront is a collection of bars and restaurants.  We had delicious pizzas at Gusto (30-35 MYR each) and tasty north Indian cuisine at Kohinoor (entrees 20-30 MYR, I requested my butter chicken spicy and it sure was).  There is an Aussie place, a hot dog place, Starbucks, plenty of Guinness around, etc.  Our driver said Bed nightclub is popular among expats.  Lunch at Malaysian chain Secret Recipe was fairly inexpensive and fine.

Coffee and kaya toast at Borneo 1945 Museum Kopitiam (at Borneo Backpackers hostel) was pretty good.  It seems to be a bit of a traveler/backpacker hangout spot and has free WiFi.

February 25 – March 3 and March 7-11, 2014


Recovering in Rasa Ria

Leaving the hospital in Kota Kinablau was intimidating. There’s nothing like a bout of meningitis in Borneo to knock you off your game for a while. So we figured the best thing to do would be to stay local, travel minimally for a while and go somewhere supremely relaxing where we could unwind, recuperate and recover. And Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria ended up being the perfect spot to do just that.

Located only about an hour outside of the surprisingly large city of Kota Kinabalu, Rasa Ria is a little slice of paradise set on a cove of the South China Sea. The Shangri-La brand is well known, and it didn’t disappoint. I don’t know if this was the doing of Audley’s local agent or the fact that I showed up sporting my hospital bracelet and bandages on the IV holes in my hands, but the hotel upgraded us to the Ocean Wing.  This is the fancy side, and it comes with such perks as a fabulous and large room with a spacious lanai containing a day bed and giant soaking tub; chocolates, fruits and snacks provided daily in the room; a separate pool just for Ocean Wing guests; and a separate breakfast spread that includes a build-your-own-mimosa bar.

We practiced baby-mooning, Alan enjoying the specialty cocktails, and me sticking to the mocktails (for the most part anyway, I had to try that mimosa bar by the end!). While I took it easy, Alan partook in some activities at the resort: tennis (where he experienced for the first time a macaque walking along the top of the back fence while he played!), the gym, and winning the putting competition. We even played a little game of croquet together. But mostly our recovery involved a lot of reading, a lot of napping, a lot of floating in the pool.

We felt incredibly fortunate to be able to recuperate here, and it was a much needed period of relaxation and restoration for both of us.

Practical Info

The resort is only about an hour from Kota Kinabalu (a taxi costs 90 MYR) but feels worlds away.  The property is enormous, with multiple buildings, an 18-hole golf course and 400 acres of tropical forest.  The beach is deep and gorgeous, but for some reason people didn’t seem to swim in the ocean or even hang out on the beach as much as near the pools.

The Garden Wing is closer to some of the activities but the Ocean Wing is so near that it doesn’t really matter.  The hotel is expanding the Ocean Wing so you do hear and see construction in what is otherwise paradise.  Their website says it is expected to be complete in the fourth quarter of 2014.  WiFi worked great.

Nearby is the Nexus Resort, which I think is a similar concept that is less nice and less expensive.

Food and Beverage: There are five dining areas plus a couple bars.  Coast restaurant is the most upscale (with a dress code at night) and where the Ocean Wing guests have breakfast (which was excellent).  Our dinner there was good but not amazing, though I did satisfy my craving for a steak.  The Coffee Terrace has an a la carte menu plus a buffet with various theme nights.  We ate there for the Western (mainly Mexican) and Mediterranean nights.  The buffet costs 106++ MYR.  Then there is an Indian a la carte restaurant, a Japanese teppanyaki spot with a few menu sets, and a Malaysian-oriented buffet that is sort of a fancy resort version of a hawker center.  And there is 24-hour room service.

::coast restaurant::
::coast restaurant::

There is a nice bar in the main lobby with live jazz music nightly.  The highlight on the F&B front and maybe just overall is the 4:30-7:30 pm happy hour at the beachfront Sampan Bar.  They have a neat, cultural lighting ceremony at sunset and a guitar/upright bass trio doing acoustic versions of Western classics.  Of course the main attraction is watching the sunset.  We had four straight glorious evenings watching that ball of fire plunge into the South China Sea.

We enjoyed lunch at the Ocean Wing pool most days, and the staff walk around with ice water, cold towels and these delicious black glutinous rice ice cream bars.

::glutinous rice pops::
::glutinous rice pops::

Activities and Wildlife: We were here to relax and did not partake in most of the activities, but there are several on offer (mostly at additional cost).  There is an orangutan center and I’m not sure how it works, but I’m sure we would have participated had we not already visited Semenggoh.  There are day and night boat trips to see floating villages and fireflies in the mangroves.  You can rent a jet ski or borrow a kayak for free.

I think you could visit Kinabalu National Park and they may be able to coordinate hiking there.  The golf course looked pretty nice.  On Thursday (every week?) there was a good deal for the guest/manager competition where it cost 185 MYR for nine holes including all the rental equipment you might need.

There is one hard tennis court in very good condition.  You can borrow a racquet and used balls for free, though I should have just stumped up the cash for a new can!  You can pay a bunch to hit with the coach, but instead I asked and they connected me with Alvin on the staff free of charge and he was very good.

In a tree in the middle of the property we saw a few big red and green macaws plus their resident hornbill.  On the drive in, we saw a huge monitor lizard in the water at the golf course.  We walked back a couple days later but didn’t spot any others.

March 3-7, 2014 (Monday-Friday)

::Jame'Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque::

Two Royal Sightings in Brunei

Brunei is a tiny nation of about 400,000, located on the north coast of Borneo and surrounded by Malaysia. It has been a sultanate since the 14th century, and at its peak controlled much of Borneo and part of the Philippines. Brunei gained full independence from the UK in 1984. Coincidentally, we arrived the day after its 30th anniversary celebrations and on the Monday official holiday.

Brunei has been ruled since 1967 by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. He has pretty much absolute authority. And boatloads of money owing to Brunei’s extensive oil and natural gas resources. In addition to his title of Sultan, he is the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Minister of Finance, and probably anything else that might matter. Our driver said the Sultan is generally beloved by the population, but I think some are less than thrilled he is implementing a Shari’ah penal code in phases beginning in April 2014. Instituting a penal code that includes hand-chopping as a legitimate punishment is rarely seen as progress. I spent a lot of time googling how this happens (e.g., do they do it surgically? Just chop it? Do they stitch it up after?), and making absolute certain to use my VPN whilst doing said research, given the warnings popping up on the hotel’s WiFi network that the government may monitor usage. The nation is predominantly Muslim, but there is a church and a few Chinese temples.

A few other random observations of Brunei: they are really into their flag. Tons and tons of flags everywhere. You also see basically no motorbikes here, perhaps because gas is so cheap, a gas-guzzling vehicle is not as difficult to afford. Lastly, there are no cigarettes sold in the country (legally at least) and you can’t smoke in public.

Brunei doesn’t have a whole lot of stuff on offer, aside from an opportunity to get your voyeur on ogling the details of the lives of the royal family. And the obsession is full on Britney-during-the-head-shaving-saga, Bieber-fever, Hasselhoff-in-Germany type obsession. I suppose it makes sense, that in a nation of only 400,000 people the most interesting man in the, well, nation strikes a fascination of the people that would fill Brunei’s version of People magazine from cover to cover. I can’t lie, I got bit by the paparazzi bug and found myself wanting more and more of the juicy details on these guys.

We visited only the capital and largest city, Bandar Seri Begawan, and explored the city’s main highlights in a half-day guided tour.  There was a mix-up and the guide was really a driver not a guide, so we didn’t get edumacated quite as much as we’d hoped. We visited the two famous mosques: the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque. The former was closed when we first attempted a visit and so we had to circle back later, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a function (I believe our driver claimed it was a Koran reading contest, I had no idea that was a thing) at the Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque and so we weren’t allowed in at this one, either.

It is a very beautiful building though, and we got a little paparazzi glamour and excitement when we heard a member of the royal family was on his way. We camped out by the entrance in anticipation since we’d heard the Sultan himself loves to shake hands with visiting tourists. Unfortunately, it was only one of the princes: the non-crown Prince Abdul Malik. But it was still really cool to see his secret service style brigade of cop cars line up and salute his arrival. We were fascinated to learn that despite being one of the richest people in the world, the Sultan opts to drive himself everywhere, and even flies his own jets when he travels by air. I don’t know, I think I’d want to take advantage of that private 747 lounge if it were me.

We also visited the Sultan’s palace, which is apparently the biggest palace in the world, containing 1,788 rooms including 257 bathrooms. You can’t see much from outside the gates, and we were sad to learn that we were not in town on the three days it’s opened to the public (for Hari Raya at the end of Ramadan). Our more immediate timing was just off as we passed the Crown Prince flying by in one of his baller cars (I think it was a McLaren but can’t be sure) on his way to the palace a few minutes after we left. Too bad, but that technically counts as two royal sightings on our one day in Brunei. The Crown Prince, by the way, has somewhat of a reputation as a bad boy and rumor has it that this is the reason his father has yet to hand over the throne to this grown ass kid. For a country instituting Shari’ah law it’s curious that one or more of the royal princes are known for partying and gambling with their rich and fancy friends over in Londontown. Something tells us they aren’t going to be punished for these alcohol-related sins.

The royal display of wealth is something relatively new. The former sultan’s palace is maybe 1/100th the size of the current Sultan’s Guiness record holding abode.

You can get a little more of a voyeuristic look into the Sultan’s and royal family’s lives by visiting the Royal Regalia Museum. We really enjoyed wandering around here, checking out the accoutrements and chariots used in royal ceremonies like the Sultan’s silver jubilee. What’s maybe the most fascinating is the insane collection of gifts given by visiting dignitaries. I can only imagine what the gifts he keeps in his palace are like.  We also learned that the Sultan is into sports.  Don’t say anything, but his golf game needs work based on the picture showing the total breakdown of his left elbow on the backswing.

Lastly, we visited the world’s largest water village (Kampong Ayer). It’s an entire city built on the water, with overwater homes, schools, police and fire stations, even a mosque. Though we still don’t quite understand why, given that people do not eat the fish from this water and there appears to be plenty of land. Our guide was not so adept at explaining this. Some of the homes were quite modern; the one we visited had two flat screens and a karaoke setup that was just absurd. That said, a number of the homes are quite rustic, and their waste management consists of dropping it into the water below. But photos of the Sultan hang on the walls, and picture books of the royal family sit on the coffee tables. It struck us as a bit mysterious how the Sultan could be so popular when his wealth is so over-the-top and flaunted, yet the resources don’t appear to be generously distributed to the people or the weathered feeling city. Although Brunei is very wealthy on a GDP per capita basis, it doesn’t feel as wealthy or modern as we expected.  It is nothing remotely like Dubai, where Ferraris and five-star hotels run rampant.  We are speaking with very imperfect knowledge, but maybe this is because the Sultan has all the money here whereas Dubai is really a trading and financial hub with a large tourism industry. That said, citizens do reap the benefit of very cheap petrol – roughly US$1.50 per gallon.

Aside from our half-day tour we did relatively little, largely because Jenni was exhausted from what turned out to be meningitis. But let’s be honest, it’s not like we missed a whole lot. Alan did make it out for a bit to peruse Tamu Kianggeh, a small, riverside market with fruits, vegetables and lots of dried fish.  The eating stalls did not call his name. He did grab the nasi katok, $1 chicken and rice meals that are available throughout the city. We skipped the Gadong night market due to Jenni’s physical condition and the fact that we were a bit night market-ed out at this point, but we’d heard good things. We opted in lieu for the Radisson’s buffet dinner. Jenni couldn’t have been feeling all that sick because as she stood in front of about ten dessert options Alan overheard her murmuring quietly to herself, “alright, we might as well get started here,” completely deadpan, like there’s a lot to do here so procrastinating won’t help. We had a great laugh when he called her out on it.

We had read that given its petroleum wealth, Brunei has had an easier time preserving its above ground treasures and thus still has much intact rainforest.  Our brief stay did not allow exploration, but we saw a monkey sitting beside the highway on the drive in, and I believe one may find the awesomely hilarious proboscis monkeys elsewhere in Brunei.

Practical Info

The Brunei Dollar is interchangeable with the Singapore Dollar, and the current exchange rate is about 1 USD = 1.27 BND.  We use “$” to indicate Brunei Dollars.

Transportation: We flew from Kuching to Miri (the second largest city in Sarawak, big on petroleum, palm oil and timber) where we had a driver for the ~2.5 hour trip to Bandar Seri Begawan.  We departed on a Royal Brunei Airlines flight to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.  They are doing construction on the Brunei airport; presumably it will soon be much better than the current version which is weak.  We were told the departure tax is $12, but it is only $5 if you are flying to Kota Kinabalu and I think maybe anywhere in Malaysia or Singapore.

Note that we arrived to Brunei on Monday February 24, a national holiday.  The line of cars waiting to cross from Brunei into Malaysia that morning was insanely long.  Our driver estimated perhaps three hours.  Had our flight into Miri arrived in the afternoon instead of the morning, we might have been waiting behind all those cars when they returned to Brunei after shopping.

In the very unlikely event you are headed from Miri into Brunei and need supplies, there is a huge complex near Miri called eMart that roughly approximates Costco.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Radisson Hotel downtown.  It is quite nice and the WiFi works well, just beware the government may be monitoring you.  Oh wait, they are in the US anyway.  There is a pool and fitness center.  The Empire Hotel is a bit outside the city, and our driver says it is the nicest resort in the country.  It has a golf course and is located on the beach.

Food: Nasi katok is Brunei’s signature “fast food,” basically a packet of rice, sambal and chicken or beef sold for $1.  “Katok” means knock in Malay, and the origin of this dish is said to be the olden days when there were no 24 hour restaurants so a hungry soul had to knock on the door of a food seller and get him out of bed.  I tried this dish at the chain Nasi Kotak Mama.  The sauce is sweet, there is no spicy option.  You pick your piece of fried chicken out of a container.  I didn’t realize I chose neck.  But after eating chicken feet the last two days, I guess balance was in order.

The Gadong night market is said to have ample food options, and there are food stalls nearer our hotel that I think offer “pick your seafood and how you want it cooked” dining.  We opted for the $25 buffet at the Radisson, and it was not bad at all.

After visiting Kampong Ayer we had lunch at Kaizen Sushi at the jetty.  This is a proper Japanese restaurant, the kind of spot where business meals happen.  The menu is incredibly extensive and it was great, and reasonably priced all things considered.

Activities: The Istana Nurul Iman, the official residence of the Sultan and the largest palace in the world. Visit during Hari Raya for a chance to go inside. Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and Jame’Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.  Kampong Ayer is the floating village. The Royal Regalia Museum was worthwhile. The Brunei Museum was largely closed during our visit but might be nice when open. The Gadong night market. Ulu Temburong National Park.

February 24-25, 2014 (Monday-Tuesday)


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