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One-month trip to Thailand and the Philippines

  • Written by Jirikoo
  • January 10th, 2013
  • 24 min read




I have just come back from an about one-month trip to Thailand and the Philippines (which also included one-night stay in Amsterdam). I am keen to share my fresh experiences as well as information and thoughts about the journey, country and its people.

Since the purpose of my trip was specific, over the given period I had, with some exceptions, kind of rushed through the places, not staying long in one place before moving to another. Of course, it was also due to limited time and an 'ad-hoc' planning. Traveling by sea, air and land, I guess I used almost all imaginable modes of transport, incl. car, taxi, bus, train, van, motorbike, tricycle, bicycle rickshaw, jeepney, tuk tuk and songthaew. I paddled the sea and a river on kayak; I used numerous types of boats such as a ferry, speed boat, long-tail boat and also out-rigger canoe. I made exactly ten flights in just 35 days, which is quite plenty. Well, the last one I made just a week days ago from Kiev, made into the cold winter :( Welcome home!

Here are some of places I had a chance to visit:

Thailand:
Bangkok
Pattaya
Phuket
Ko Panyi (Phang-Nga Bay)
Ko Phi Phi
Pan Pak Bara
Ko Tarutao
Ko Adang
Ko Rawi
Ko Lipe
Ko Bulon
Sattahip (Sai Kaew Beach and Bangsaray Beach)

Philippines:
Manila
Donsol
Bacacay Beach
Legazpi
Tabaco City
Malilipot and Busay Waterfalls
Mayon Volcano Science Park
Tagbilaran (Bohol)
Loboc (Bohol)
Carmen and Chocolate Hills (Bohol)
Panglao island (Bohol)
Puntod island aka Virgin island (Bohol)

Bangkok is inevitably the gateway to Thailand as well as, at least for me recently, the gateway to whole South East Asia. I love the city, but since I come from a landlocked country, I tend to head down to Pattaya (Jomtien beach) right after disembarking from the plane. After a quick dip in the sea, I set to do my shopping duty in town and the next day day also in Bangkok.

Pattaya has obviously acquired many nicknames, amongst others of which are the "sin city", "sleazy town", "sex tourist destination", etc.; however, for me, it is an afterthought. Regular visitors all know that. I love the feeling of the place, vibe of the city, the beach, though not the most secluded beach I know, al fresco dining and activities and accommodation – where else in the world can you get a decent sea-view room for 16 USD a night? I enjoyed the place most at the end of my whole trip when I managed to squeeze a few days. I will explain later.

A couple of days later, I was already on an overnight train from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station bound for Surat Thani en route to Phuket. I opted for the train rather than a bus or a plane as I preferred more authentic and exotic experience. I find the trains also more comfortable; more over, I took the liberty to choose a fanned train carriage. If I could name one thing I hate about Thailand, it would be buses in which you cannot alter or turn off the air-con outlets so that you are in serious danger of freezing to death. Thais seem to be so fanatic about air-con that you can see them enjoying the cold air blow while outside, there is about 30 degrees of Celsius. I felt like I could not endure a ride on an air-con bus for about 12 hours. My plan on that day was to get somehow to Phang Nga Bay and from there to Ko Panyi. From Phuket as I figured. Sure, there is no direct train connection between Bangkok and Phuket, therefore I had to take a bus, anyways. It was one of those large, public state-operated buses, which stopped at every corner and took even an extended route, which resulted in a dreadful six-hour journey.

As I later learnt, I had made a mistake in focusing on Phuket as a starting point to Phang Nga Bay while the Phang Nga Town is the place that provides the best access to that area. I ultimately took advantage of that, and decide to stay in Phuket over one night and rented a motorbike, even though only for a half a day. My last visit of the city in 2009 had amounted only for a brief encounter of Patong Beach and my favorites Rawai Beach; hence this time I tried to explore more of the island. Not quite, as the dusk fell quickly, it did not leave any time for me to enjoy it much.

My stay in that region was marred by nuisance that followed me from that point on, and even to some degree in the Philippines, where English language is clearly the second language and Lingua Franca for both locals and tourists. Well, it definitely was not my first visit (nor last) to these countries and I am not sure what my impression and experience in this regard was in the past. This time in Thailand, I might have been in a bad luck I came across wrong people, though. Sadly, this thing later on became my little 'pet peeve'; you see, I was still puzzled at how many Thai locals can still do without speaking at least some English. The strangest thing was it very often prevailed even amongst folks who worked in tourism and the hospitality industry – who directly dealt with foreign tourists, being, for example, at the front desks at travel offices, etc. Do not get me wrong, I am one of the travelers who always learn and know a few words and phrases in the native language, trying to 'assimilate' and break the barrier a bit. I do not exaggerate if I say I ended up being so happy to come across a particular person who could speak relatively well. The most desperate I was in Ko Panyi – in that fishermen's village built on stilts, which is attached to one of the imposing limestones.

Having said that, the island, or village if I may, Ko Panyi has become one my most favorite places on Earth, anyway. It is just the setting and seclusion (outside morning hours when day-trippers arrive) that made if for me. Local residents are friendly, too, regardless of their poor English. I had arrived there with one the daily tours that are organized from Phuket, which also include an island visiting, the famous, crowded James Bond Island and sea kayaking in the bay. I let the tour agency know beforehand I would split them and stay there one night instead of going back with them, which I did and had a great time there!

After some vain attempts, owing to that language barrier, I eventually succeeded in arranging transfer to the main land, specifically to Phang Nga town, which turned out to be free of charge, thanks to local generosity and warmth.

In Phuket again, this time very briefly, as I had my ferry over to Koh Phi Phi due in the following morning. You see, my ultimate goal of the next stage of my journey was the Tarutao National Park and some of its islands there. I figured the park does not officially open its gate until mid-November, so before time was up, I thought I would give Ko Phi Phi another go. I had visited the place during the low season back in 2009, and I was wondering whether it could get even more touristy. Of course, it could, I know already. Now, during the high season, I can confirm many more tourists can fit in. Along with that comes the negative aspect of it – the drastic price hike resulting from a really high demand for perhaps any kind of lodgings. Not that I did not like the island, it will always be one of my most favorite islands, but I had decided to stay on that island only one night. Despite this, it was very intensive and filling time. I hiked a lot through the jungle, made a lot of photographs, interactions with locals and tourists, and even narrowly escaped a monkey attack on the way to the view point. All in about 20 hours.

Next morning, I was headed on to Krabi, where I took a public bus to Hat Yai. On the way, I changed my mind and got off already in Trang, where I took another, small, bus, thinking I would be in Pak Bara Pier (gateway to Tarutao National Park islands) much faster. I was right; I spared some time for sightseeing of the place before going to sleep.

Pak Bara Pier itself is nothing to write home about. There consists only of an ordinary road dotted with local stores, eateries and ticketing offices leading to and ending at the pier. A long black-sand beach, which runs in parallel to the road, is somewhat messy and not really attractive to the eye. If needed, there are an ATM right next to the 7-eleven store and a couple of accommodation. I am sad to say it is yet another place where you can hardly get by with your English. Even folks behind their counters and stalls in ticketing offices with English written signs are often not able to utter relevant words. You do not mind unless you travel only to Ko Lipe and back, and know all the details upfront, which I seriously doubt about. I found out that a lot of significant information on the internet is out of date – especially the time schedule and partly also fares.

Tarutao island (Ko Tarutao) is probably the most beautiful island I have seen in Thailand so far. However, the negative side of it is, unfortunately, a lot of garbage lying on the further end of the huge beach and in the water likewise. It is somehow out of sight of daily visitors or else visitors that stop over there en route to Ko Lipe. The place at the time of my visit was not touristy, as if tourists regarded the island marginal, which I appreciated, yet there is so much to see and do. The waters along with the beach are very colorful and photogenic on a sunny day. I had the chance to paddle its river on kayak and on the way back to the base, I believed I spotted and photographed the rare hairy-nosed otter. I will see about that. Monkeys (macaques) can be pretty annoying and daring as they are able to get to the porch of your bungalow and curiously check through your stuff left there. On the speed boat to the this island, I befriended a Italian threesome, with whom I continued until just before Ko Bulon, where we would part our ways.

In order to get to Ko Adang, you have to get to Ko Lipe first, then you charter a long-tail boat taking you to island, which is somewhat only a stone's throw away from it. Surprisingly, in spite of its beauty, this spectacular island is much less touristy than Ko Lipe; apparently it receives only day-trippers, snorkelers and kayakers from that island. Nevertheless, It may be up and down. On my last day, I learnt about a big group of Thai government employees booking all the place out for their three-day get-together. They did not spoil it for me. I could have still stayed under a tent.

Like Ko Tarutao, the island provides solid hiking possibilities up to one of the hills for fabulous views over the beaches. It is a pretty steep slope through the lush jungle vegetation and partly rock formations. Moreover, the island hosts a waterfalls, which I did miss.

In the morning, another encounter with an animal: A grown-up python came to our restaurant in after a rain storm at night.
On that day we also arranged a snorkeling tour that took us, amongst other places, to Ko Rawi. This island is a popular picnic spot for both tourists and locals arriving mainly from Ko Lipe. It can be very photogenic if the sun is out.

One night spent on Ko Lipe before setting off for Ko Bulon. Ko Lipe has its Walking Street and a wide range of accommodation to choose from. It is usually flooded with tourists on packages and mass-organized tours. Again, I did not dislike it – maybe because it was not that busy at that time.

I found Koh Bulon to be a small, by Thai standards quite an underdeveloped, island, still keeping its charm and authenticity comparing to other Thailand islands. It is a part of Phetra National Park and offers one long, pretty beach that stretches along the southern and eastern shore of the island. There are several lodgings catering to tourists and an elementary school that provides education to local children. The ferry (or speed boats) do not drop you off right on the beach; you have to pay extra for a long-tail boat waiting for you to get you ashore, and vice versa when you depart for your next destination. I came across a German guy with his girlfriend, who were staying there long-time. They gave me some insight into living beings (mostly venomous ones) there plus a free lesson of how to open and eat freshly cooked crabs. Lots of Monitor lizards could be seen hanging out especially after finishing our meal.

Heading back to the mainland, to Hat Yai, as I needed to catch a plane back to Bangkok. I was determined to get quickly to Bangkok to get geared up for my Philippines adventures.

I had been to Philippines twice before so I knew what to expect. Manila still ranked as one of my most favorite cities ever. All my life, whenever traveling, I believe I had stayed clear of various types of scams or ripoffs. I do not remember being cheated or deceived. Live and learn, I guess. On that day, I arrived in Manila at about 4 am. As a result, I could not check in my hotel yet; so instead I took a nap on one of the outdoor benches at the airport. Nothing wrong with that. Later on in the morning, then, I had to take a taxi in order to get to the central part of the city, specifically to the district called Malate. That is to say, Manila airport's handicaps is a lack of public transportation options that are available in many other Asian / world airports. The only feasible transport from Manila airport is taxi. Some of drivers are not really eager to use taximeter and I was alert to that. My taxi driver seemed not to be the case. While still being a bit punchy from the poor sleep and generally the tiredness from the past days, I was seated and bluntly helping the chatty driver navigate through the maze of streets to find my hotel. Anyway, what happened next I could not control, even if I had been fresh like a rose out of garden. He stopped in front of my hotel where the taximeter displayed about 160 Pesos, which I knew was quite a fair price. However, he, in a brief of moment, before I could react, punched a button somewhere at the side of the taximeter, which caused it to display a fare of about 550 Pesos. Now, it was not fair and we both knew it. While he started demanding this sum, I tried to demand explanation. His English worsened… Well, stupid me, …to cut the story short, I eventually gave up and paid the higher sum. I was so exhausted I did not want to see anybody or anything but a bed. With the bitter taste in my mouth, I later walked Manila's streets, but eventually forgot the bad experience.

I had arranged a meeting with my Czech friend in Donsol, who was going to fly down from Hong Kong, so I had to book a bus ticket in Cubao (a district of Manila). I again opted for the bus as I wanted more 'hard-core' participation. It was not that bad – It took a bit more than 12 hours with about three stops for body stretching, but I was ready to fight the bus air-conditioning by several layers of clothing unlike some locals who, I witnessed, indeed suffered underneath it. Once again, neither the air blow cold be regulated nor switched off.

What a crazy day today! Donsol is famous for swimming with Whale sharks, locally known as Butanding. The town itself is very laid-back and authentic. I stole all the attention as the place was not touristy at all – I was literally only tourist around the town or in nearby resorts at that time. As far as butanding goes, I need to emphasize there is no guarantee you will have the chance to see and swim with sharks. Knowing this, I moved swiftly to book a Whale Shark tours as soon as possible to eliminate the risk of not seeing anyone during my allocated time there. One hour later I was already on an motorized outrigger canoe that took our company (myself plus three Chinese and three members of crew – interaction officer, spotter and boatman). We were lucky to see about four whale sharks, even though I had been pretty skeptical about it, being just the start of their season. It was definitely worth it, despite the water being murky, and the sharks were not seen so distinctly.

Wherever it is possible, I tend to rent a motorbike. I believe there is no better way to explore a particular place than on a seat of motorbike or scooter. It was a bit hard task in Donsol (and later also in Abay Province) as English was not widely spoken apart from some resorts, shops and the tourist offices and so. Anyway, I asked one of the friendly tricycle taxi drivers to take me town, where I was going to try my luck and, besides, to have lunch. Rest assured, the drivers are happy to take you anywhere and do whatever possible, even to wait for you while you are having lunch, and take you back to your resort. For a reasonable fare, of course. Well, I kindly refused this time as I planned to walk back to snap some photos and interact with locals along the way. As I was walking on a sidewalk with the sun high out, I had to from time to time cover my eyes and turn head. Well, on one such an occasion, my head hit something hard. It was like a lightning, and my head and face quickly became bloodied. Soon I realized, it was one of the low-positioned, heavy metal sign posts with warning: "Slow down! School zone" that was planted ineptly right over the sidewalk and not seen against the strong sun with a dark, reverse side facing my sight. I was taken to the hospital on a motorbike by a nice chap who was not afraid to get smeared by my blood all over. Well, I was a bit shattered but not loosing my spirits. It was a little set back since my friend and I had planned to get on the whale shark boat (second time for me) and enjoy a few beers together after a long time. I eventually could not do either of those activities – the wound required three stitches and antibiotics to be healed properly.

Regardless of the injury, since I had planned to see cockfighting (locally known as Sabong) and because I had missed it in Manila and on my past trips to Philippines, I wanted to go on. I arranged a tricycle to take me to a neighboring village where one of those traditional festival took place. It was a great experience, yet I admit it is not to all people's tastes.

My friend, having just arrived in Donsol, found my situation of not being able to drink and swim dire but it did not prevent him from drinking a lot of St.Miguel beers himself :)

The next day, I managed to rent a motorbike for a reasonable price and explore surroundings more with my friend being on the whale shark boat, later joining me. After dusk, we thought of doing the firefly tour, which is usually organized by a couple of agencies by boat from Donsol. After much consideration, we agreed to see them on our own. We did see some at the river, but they were in smaller quantities than if we would have taken a boat tour. It was just fine, anyways. We thought the excursion would have been too romantic for a couple of chaps. :)

The weather was not turning well. It became overcast or cloudy with sun peeking out only occasionally. Our plan had been to see Mayon volcano and all the usual sights connected to it (Legazpi's Embarcadero, Cagsawa ruins, Lignon Hill, etc.) and a stay for the night at Bacacay beach at the village of Bacacay, which by the way offers nice views of the volcano, too. According to the Internet, Bacacay was supposed to to have been also a place where black-sand and white sand-beaches were located. I love beaches for relaxing and photography, but I am not a beach bum. We should not have expected much – there was literally no white beaches around, and, as we were told later, not even on the neighboring islands except at Misibis Bay Resort, which allegedly had an artificial white-sand beach. The weather was ugly anyway, so we resorted to our immediate area of the village and the black beach of volcanic origins.

Next day, it was time for my friend and me to part our ways. While he rushed to the Legazpi airport, I was considering my further destinations. I thought It was difficult to rent a motorbike from Bacacay, therefore I made a brisk decision to move my base to Legazpi and explore the Mayon volcano and surrounding towns by bike from there. Well, it was not that easy as it seemed. One of the few agencies who provided rental scooters in Legazpi was quite expensive (as for 24-hour rental rate) and wanted me to render and deposit my passport with them, which I categorically refused. I met a really friendly tricycle taxi driver who, not knowing me at all, took the risk and rented out one of his motorbikes to me. It was a great, easy time, when I was free to drive wherever I wanted and visit almost all corners of the area. I liked the buzz of Legazpi and Tabaco city, and Malilipot with its waterfall cascades. This way I also took a ride up to Mayon Science Park (with Planetarium and Mayon Skyline), hoping to arrange accommodation there. Once again, websites on the Internet stated it was possible, but at the time of my visit the hotel was in a state of serious disrepair caused by a storm a few years back. Thus, it seemed it was not possible to stay there until I had a word with lovely employees at the restaurant. They offered me their staff house to stay with them. I thought it would be great idea and promised them to show up in couple of days. Unfortunately, I never did as I changed my plans. The weather was not getting any better and I abruptly chose to fly back to Manila to use some of my last days in Philippines for island experience.

It was pretty a spontaneous decision. The island of Bohol was never on my mind. I do not even remember when it popped up in head. Well, after initial complication and nuisance with ticketing offices upon my arrival at the airport, I almost gave up on idea. The flights were expensive or did not fit my travel schedule. But, I realized I would give it another shot and went on my favorite booking website and there it was: A good price for flights that were in span of only four days. There was one hitch, though. If booked, I would make several tight-connecting flights that would take me back to Europe. If one missed, I would have missed the following. The pics of the island won me over eventually.

I liked Bohol very much. The people were generally extremely helpful than their counterparts in Albay province, and their English was on a better level, I thought. As a means for getting around, I used a lot my rental scooter. I tried to crisscross the whole island, but It was not doable in such time limit. I could not miss Chocolate Hills, Tarsier sanctuary, Panglao Island and Virgin Island, though. Chocolate Hills are incredible. I arrived in there at about 7:40 am and I was there almost alone. It is a good time for taking a few pics, too, as the sun is rising from behind the area where most of the hills stand causing to shift shades along on them and yield interesting dark contrasts. Most of backpackers and western tourists stay at Alona Beach, located on Panglao Island, which I was told was the only worthy white-sand beach in Bohol. The beach is a quintessential commercial place similar to ones found across this region. It reminded me a bit of Ko Lipe, Thailand, where, too, one can find a moderately long beach fringed all over with restaurants and bars, playing live or reproduced music and shows after dusk. However, there is another beach option nearby, where you can chill out with locals. Its name is Dumaluan Beach, which was at that time absolutely free of westerners. If you come only for the beach relaxation or picnic, you are expected to pay a small entrance fee plus a fees for parking. Beach shelters are provided for a small charge. I thought the beach there was even nicer than the one in Alona.

The weather was great – at least first three days. The first warning came when I showed up at s white Alona Beach to depart for arranged trip to Virgin Island. The guide informed me the trip could be cancelled since there was a typhoon warning from local authorities. "why? There are no clouds at all", I replied. "It was on TV last night.", he said. As I later realized, I should have taken it as that and got the hell out of there on the first plane right on that day. Yet, the trip to Virgin Island eventually took place, and I had a blast. The reason being, I was the only one almost the whole time there. Well, except some of the guys who sell their stuff on the famous sand bar. Many boatmen, apart from fishermen, took the issued warning to their hearts and did not dare to set off, even though the skies were clear.

It looked all idyllic until the next rainy morning when I knew something was wrong. Heading towards the airport, the wind was getting stronger and rain heavier. I already sensed I was going pay a higher price for my Bohol journey.

Due to the typhoon Bopha in the southern Philippines, I missed my connecting flights from Bangkok to Prague as I had to stay in Bohol longer. The storm did not affect Bohol itself (luckily, it narrowly escaped) but disrupted air traffic in the whole region. It was not all that bad apart from the fact that I had to later book and pay an extra one-way flight from Thailand to my home country. I had a few more days to spare in Bohol, Manila and also in Thailand. My flight from Bohol to Manila had been cancelled and had to be re-booked just as my connecting Manila-Bangkok flight.

Thanks to the postponement of my departure from South East Asia, I could afford to make my last days in this part of the world relaxing experience. I could finally check reputedly one of the largest shopping malls in the world – Mall of Asia (also known as Moa). Many Filipinos I talked to boasted about the mall, but I found that complex rather ordinary. I was able to settle some important things in Bangkok that I would have otherwise missed – I was about to reconcile myself to giving up on that matter and postponing it until next year. I did some quick shopping in Bangkok, too. Actually, I set up my base at Jomtien Beach again, where I stayed until the last day of my trip. This lead me to discover less known but no less spectacular beaches of that region, specifically Sai Kaew Beach (now being cleaned up and full of Russians) and Bangsaray Beach in the Sattahip district, located about 15 km south from Pattaya. One tip for insect lovers: When returning from Sai Kaew Beach, you can take a 20-minute walk back to the parking lot instead of taking a songtaew. You may be amazed at how many kinds of butterflies you see. Besides, the walk offers quite spectacular views over towards Jomtien Beach and Pattaya.

Highlights:
Ko Panyi
Tarutao National Park
numerous animal encounters
street food and beverages in Thailand and the Philippines
Whale shark swimming
cockfighting
Mayon volcano
Legazpi City and Tabaco City
Chocolate Hills
Tarsier
butterflies at Sai Kaew Beach

Downsides:
language barrier with some Thais and Filipinos
taxi scam in Manila
my head injury
typhoon
Manila airport terminal fee


Stickman's thoughts:

Some very nice photos. Sorry they are all bunched at the end but I do not know what is where hence they are not placed throughout the report.