This is how a 14-day backpacking trip with kids to 8 Southeast Asian cities looks like
Let’s go fly away
Planning a 14-day backpacking trip with the family can be tricky. It’s not just about deciding where to go and how much time to spend in each place. The toughest part? Timing your transportation plans and booking them ahead of time. Here’s a quick look at our two-week itinerary that covered four countries (Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore) and eight cities (Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, Malacca, Johor Bahru and Singapore):
Day 1 Journey Begins
Cebu to Kuala Lumpur 3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)
KLIA2 to KL Sentral 7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Private car)
KL city tour Check out Petronas Towers at night
Overnight Kuala Lumpur Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda) 110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan
Kuala Lumpur is our favorite gateway to neighboring Southeast Asian countries, especially those in Indochinese Peninsula. This time, we were bound for land-locked Laos.
This meant we had to stay one night in KL, something the family always looked forward to, for a number of reasons. Food and familiarity, are just two of them.
Upon our arrival in Malaysia’s capital, my fraternity brother Marlowe Aragon fetched us at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, and brought us at our hotel in Little India.
After a heavy dinner at a tandoori place nearby, he gave us a quick tour in the city with a mesmerizing close up view of the Petronas Towers at night.
Marlowe, a consultant who shuttles by car between Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, then dropped us at the hotel . He told us to just give him a buzz when we arrive in Bangkok a week from now as he might be there (he was).
We always look forward to having breakfast in Kuala Lumpur, and so the following day we had one at a roti and tea place just outside the hotel in Little India. We took our time on the sidewalk to relish our food.
We then went around Kuala Lumpur, hopping on a Go KL City Bus that offered free rides to check out the Islamic Arts Museum, which is considered the biggest of its kind in Southeast Asia.
We also passed by the Muzium Negara and National Space Agency compound along the way.
The Islamic Arts Museum, though, was on a league of its own as it housed an impressive and extensive collection of artifacts from the region, such as sacred thrones and books, as well as traditional armor and weaponry including those from the Southern Philippines, and detailed scale models of mosques from around the world.
There was a fun activity center for children at the Islamic Arts Museum, but our kids actually enjoyed the main museum that we stayed there longer than expected. We even went back after having lunch at a hawker area just right across the museum.
We returned to the hotel on foot through the labyrinthine streets of the KL Sentral area. We had dinner at another hawker place that served Chinese-style dishes like chicken rice and roast pork rice just on the edge of Little India.
Getting to bed early was in order as we would be leaving for Vientiane tomorrow morning. The bus at the KL Sentral Station was slated to leave at 5 a.m. It did. On the dot.
Our Kuala Lumpur Itinerary
Day 1 Gateway: Malaysia
Cebu to Kuala Lumpur 3:05 p.m. to 6:55 p.m. (AirAsia)
KLIA2 to KL Sentral 7:10 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Private car)
KL city tour Check out Petronas Towers at night
Overnight Kuala Lumpur Easy Hotel KL Sentral (Agoda) 110, Jalan Tun Sambanthan
Day 2 Kuala Lumpur Stop
Explore Kuala Lumpur Hop on Go KL City Bus Walk along KL’s tourism belt Visit Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Overnight Kuala Lumpur Easy Hotel KL Sentral
Day 3 Bye, KL, for now
Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane 7:25 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)
And how we ended up in the Land of a Million Elephants
Laos and Found
Five backpacks, three kids, two adults, four countries, two weeks.
After a year of planning, deciding where to go, waiting for seat sales, hunting for room discounts, and scrimping on just about anything until the day of departure, our first trip to Indochina as a family of five was finally happening.
We also did it by traveling light, each one carrying a backpack weighing less than seven kilos, the airline limit for hand-carried bags.
So where exactly where we heading? Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and land-locked Laos.
Wait, what — Laos? Well, Laos does sound like a pretty unlikely destination for a family that will be out of the country for only the second time around. Our first family trip abroad was in Hong Kong to see Disneyland, of course, in 2014. And yet we spent six days in this most laid-back of countries in the Indochinese region.
So why the off-kilter trip to a country like Laos? Five words: Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and elephants. Of course, we would soon find out Laos has plenty to offer, from delicious street food and great traditional coffee to natural attractions that locals and visitors can enjoy to their heart’s content.
But I do have a healthy obsession with heritage sites, and I decided a few years back that I will show my children as many heritage sites as possible in our home country the Philippines and in Southeast Asia (mainly because it’s visa-free for us Filipinos when traveling to Asean countries and fares are far more affordable).
The ancient town of Luang Prabang, a Unesco World Heritage Site, fascinates me in particular, and while it was growing in popularity (e.g. morning alms giving by monks), I reckoned that the place would still retain its laid-back vibe, and it was perfect for a visit in 2016. Apart from that, there was an elephant sanctuary we could visit to see these magnificent beasts for the first time.
Having seen Vang Vieng’s dramatic karst mountain landscapes in pictures, I also thought that this town in central Laos would make for a good stop from the capital of Vientiane.
Another reason to visit Laos was that it’s one of the few Asean countries my wife and I haven’t been to yet. The year before, we went to Bagan in July to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, while the kids stayed behind.
Now planning this family trip was one thing. Deciding exactly which places to see was another. Consider our entourage: me, my wife and three kids ages 16, 12 and 7. My main concern was that everyone must enjoy the trip, or that each one has something to look forward to in the entire trip.
Making a seven-year-old share your passion for Southeast Asian art and architecture would be pushing it too far. But talk about seeing elephants up close and watch his eyes light up with excitement.
In truth, Laos wasn’t our first destination of choice. The wife actually left it up to me to plan the itinerary, and what I sorely needed from Bretha was a mother’s imprimatur.
And guess what? I came up not just one, or two, or three possible itineraries, but 12. Yes 12 iterations of a two-week trip.
I chose between two hubs for our entry and exit: Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as these two offered the cheapest fare. I also decided that we would see Legoland in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, which meant we might as well see nearby Malacca, itself a Unesco World Heritage Site, both of which are accessible from KL and SG by bus.
For the first few itineraries, I plotted a trip to Krabi in Thailand with a side trip to Penang. All these involved checking bus, train and air fare from various schedules. Laos came to the picture later.
As one itinerary took shape, I’d proceed to another, until I had 12 different itineraries, all of which I showed to the wife for approval. She promptly sent everything back, saying, “You decide.”
So I did and chose the itinerary with Laos in it. And the trip that began on the fourth week of May 2016 looked like this: Cebu-Kuala Lumpur-Vientiane-Bangkok-Singapore-Cebu. Four countries, two weeks.
We spent two nights in Little India in Kuala Lumpur, our favorite gateway city to neighboring Southeast Asian countries since it’s become a familiar city to us with great food.
After arriving at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 the previous afternoon, we toured the green city of KL the following day, as we had the whole morning and afternoon free.
That night, when everyone was fast asleep ahead of our flight to Laos next morning, a thought popped inside my head: are the roads to Luang Prabang safe?
Now as someone who’s from the Philippines, I usually take travel advisories from Western countries with a grain of salt, but I still did check them many months ago just in case. Laos was generally safe, they said.
That nagging thought, though, prompted me to check the latest travel advisories, and to my horror, they warned against travel along the route we’d be taking from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, following a series of attacks on vehicles carrying foreign passengers from a construction site late last year.
On the verge of panic, I considered changing the itinerary and checked direct flights from Kuala Lumpur or Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
The rates were prohibitive, which meant I had two choices: cancel the trip or push through with it. I read the advisories again and, with a clearer head, arrived at the conclusion that the incidents in question were isolated and had more to do with issues concerning the construction project, not random attacks on travelers.
I lost a bit of sleep over those exaggerated travel advisories, but that was the worst thing that happened during the entire trip.
We woke up really early the next day to catch the first bus bound for the airport. It left promptly at 5 a.m. An hour later, we were at the KLIA2 for our 8 a.m. flight. From KL, we landed safely at the Vientiane airport at past 10 a.m.
We took a cab that brought us to a corner where the van bound for Vang Vieng stops to pick up passengers, and bought tickets from a group of men huddled in the shade. The entire gang was famished.
Since we had two hours to spare before the van would pick us up, we asked the ticket seller where we can have an early lunch.
“You want Lao food?” said the ticket seller.
“Yes. And cheap?”
“See that building? Turn left, then right. It’s where Lao people eat.”
So off we went in a huff.
We found the quaint noodle joint and placed our orders based on what they suggested. Every serving of Lao noodles or khao piak sen came with a plateful of vegetables (lettuce, string beans and mint leaves) plus mongo sprouts, pickled carrots, eggplant and cucumber.
Bretha and the kids relished their hefty bowl of noodles with hot, flavorful broth. I had Sticky Noodles, which turned out to be fried pork noodles with blood cubes.
I used to gorge on barbecued blood cubes in Cebu but not as noodle toppings. So how did this Lao dish taste like? Odd but in a good way.
Either way, you’d mistake khao piak sen for pho if you had no idea, and I’d say it’s up there with the Vietnamese staple. I shouldn’t be surprised since both countries have a shared culture and history, including colonial times.
We returned to the corner to find the men now taking their lunch of sticky rice that they ate after rolling it into small rice balls by hand and paired with various dishes.
The taste of delicious Lao noodles and the sight of locals enjoying their staples bode well for the entire trip, which would begin in a few minutes with a 160-kilometer van ride to mystical Vang Vieng.
The van ticket sellers and tuktuk drivers have lunch of sticky rice balls
Our Laos Itinerary
After coming up with 12 different itineraries, we finally settled on one that took us from Cebu to Kuala Lumpur, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Bangkok, back to Kuala Lumpur, then Malacca, Johor Bahru, Singapore, and finally back to Cebu. Here’s the Traveling Vs’ six-day itinerary for the Vientiane-Vang Vieng-Luang Prabang Leg of the 14-day trip:
Kuala Lumpur to Vientiane 7:25am to 9:10 a.m. (AirAsia)
Vientiane to Vang Vieng 12:40 p.m. to 4:20 (Private van)
Still lightheaded from the astonishing beauty of Old Bagan, Bretha, our new-found Egyptian friend Aya, and I headed to the nearby town of Nyaung U for afternoon snacks.
Bretha asked the van driver where he and his fellow drivers usually eat, not some place where they would take tourists. He obliged and dropped us at a roadside eatery.
Over mohinga noodles, the three of us wondered why Buddhist temples of all shapes and sizes were scattered across 104 square kilometers of green plains in Bagan, mirroring the stars overhead.
It is said that at the height of the Pagan Kingdom in the 13th century, more than 10,000 sacred structures were built, but only 2,000 remained to this day, surviving harsh weather and natural calamities like the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck in August of 2016 (a year after this trip).
Still, seeing a handful of the surviving temples was a humbling experience, knowing that these monuments for the gods, marvels of architecture and engineering, had been here for so long and for certain will outlast us along with the fleeting technology of our kind.
Having emptied our noodle bowls, we considered going to the public market, where local goods such as the magical kwun-ya, the yellowish cosmetic paste called thanaka, rolled tobacco, and mystery meat were traded.
Aya, in her delicate hijab, listened intently as Bretha described our trip to the market in Nyaung-U earlier that morning before we checked in at the hotel. There was much to see and do at Mani Sithu Market.
We decided to go there the next day as it was getting late in the afternoon. As we stepped out of the eatery, Aya told Bretha within earshot: “It’s my first time to eat street food. Thank you.”
Heartbreak and atonement
The next morning, we did more temple hunting under Bagan’s gray, cloudy skies. The plan was to ride bicycles to visit temples we missed in the previous day’s van tour. But the sandy trails and intermittent drizzle posed several challenges, so we opted to go on foot.
Somewhere past the grandeur of Thatbyinnyu Temple, I absentmindedly asked our friend: “So Aya, why is it you’re traveling alone? To nurse a heartbreak?”
“Actually, yes,” Aya, stopping in her tracks, said gingerly, adding she had just split up with her fiance, and smiled.
Bretha glared at me, and turned to Aya apologetically, “Don’t mind him, I think yesterday’s betel nut hasn’t worn off yet.”
Bretha took it from there and the two women talked about what women talk about while admiring the beauty and incorporeal qualities of temples.
We went inside must-see structures, such as the elegant Sulamani Temple. As we scaled the upper decks, the sight of an even more massive pyramid-shaped temple emerged in the distance.
No stranger to pyramids, even our Egyptian friend was impressed at the sight. We decided to make it our last stop.
As we explored the brick interiors of the “pyramid,” something felt oddly familiar, as though we’d seen it before. In our past lives, perhaps? Alas, ancient souls we must be, all three of us!
But our musings were cut short when we realized that indeed we’d been here yesterday, during the van tour, and by some sort of sorcery, we found our way back.
I’d later learn that this structure, Dhammayangyi, the largest Buddhist temple in Bagan, was built as an act of atonement by the king who came to power by killing his father and elder brother.
The king himself was assassinated, so construction was halted and the temple remains unfinished to this day, a tragic monument to avarice and remorse.
Where are we from?
We headed back to the hotel via a different path, passing through smaller sacred structures, some inhabited by goats and surrounded by cattle and strays, where smiling children with probing eyes, faces smeared with thanaka, would approach us, asking, “Where you from?”
I would exclaim, “We’re from the Philippines!” To our suprise, the child would show us a Philippine bill or coin, then segued whether we wanted some trinkets as souvenirs.
We soon realized that every child we’ve encountered since day one here in Bagan would say, “Where you from?” Such was their classic opening line, their marketing hook. Each time we declined, and each time sullen eyes would follow us as we walked away.
“Since you travel a lot,” Bretha asked Aya, “Have you ever felt discriminated against?”
Aya revealed she does get some odd stares now and then because of her hijab, which, while it protects her head from the elements, does keep some types of people at a distance. “This hijab,” Aya said, “it’s both a blessing and a curse.”
Since Aya was flying back to Yangon that afternoon, the three of us decided to drop by the market before going back to the hotel for check out.
As in most of Myanmar, the locals with kwan-yu stained mouths and teeth still wore their longyis. The market air filled with scents and odors — spices, produce, firewood smoke, freshly rolled tobacco, rain-drenched earth.
A familiar sight caught my eye and tingled my nerves: palm-sized heart-shaped leaves, white powdery slake, and chopped nuts. I turned to Bretha and Aya: “Where you from, ladies? Would you like some kwun-ya?”
The two beautiful women exchanged meaningful, mischievous glances and beamed their pearly whites.
As soon as the doors of the sleeper bus opened, touts in sarong-like garments called longyis milled around the passengers who had traveled 10 hours overnight from Yangon, offering taxi rides to Old Bagan or neighboring Nyaung-Yu.
Just as what an online travel guide had warned. Bretha and I squeezed cautiously through the mob at the New Bagan Bus Station, making sure not to make eye contact with anyone, or else that tout would lock in on us and follow us to the ends of the earth until we relented.
Luckily, no one took an interest in travelers who looked like locals with tiny backpacks, so we slipped unnoticed and picked a quiet spot near the stalls that had just opened shop. It was probably around 5 or 6 a.m., so we had some hot milk tea for warmth.
As we waited for the mob to dissipate, I noticed a Burmese teen rolling powdered leaves with crushed brown fillings. “Momma!” I exclaimed at Bretha, bringing memories from two years ago when I first chewed betel nut in Sagada. Here, they called it kwun-ya or kun-ja, and I asked the young man for a set of chewables.
Laying betel leaves on a counter, he spread a layer of slake lime from an oddly shaped mortar and pestle, then sprinkled chopped areca nuts on each leaf. He took one leaf, rolled it with his dexterous lime-caked fingers, and, flashing a smile stained dark red, handed me a lovely roll of organic Burmese chewables.
As was the custom, I, brimming with confidence, popped one kwun-ya in my mouth and chewed vigorously. The next thing I knew, my head was buzzing. “You okay?” Bretha said. I chewed one last time before I spat everything out rapid fire at a ditch. “Wan’t some?” I asked Bretha. She declined. In hindsight, it was the right thing to do.
After a 10-hour bus ride from Yangon, “pre-breakfast” of kwun-ya or kun-ja at the Bagan Bus Station that a young Burmese man prepared. Made of betel leaf filled with chopped areca nuts and slake lime, these chewables are a favorite among Burmese locals.
It was at this point that a driver approached us and offered to take us to Old Bagan, and I, lightheaded from the extra-strong betel nut now swirling in my head, nodded with hardly any resistance.
Before Bretha could protest, the driver, who like every other local was chewing kwun-ya, led us to the back of the terminal where a horse cart was waiting.
Yes, a horse cart. After a few long minutes of deliberation, I finally persuaded Bretha that this was a good ride. And so our slow motion trip to the ancient city of Bagan begun.
A very long trip
After what seemed like an eternity on the cart — not sure if the kwun-ya had properties that altered one’s perception of time but I later realized the entire journey took nearly six kilometers — we were dropped at the edge of Old Bagan, in Nyaung-U.
…not sure if the kwun-ya had properties that altered one’s perception of time but I later realized the entire journey took nearly six kilometers…
I looked at the horse, and yes, did I feel a bit sorry for the poor thing, but on the other hand, his human must do this for a living. Bretha and I then headed on foot to the public market.
It was just several minutes after the break of dawn, and local vendors and buyers in their traditional garbs went about the morning’s trade at a frenetic pace. Some traders were still unloading their precious cargo.
One would quickly notice that the trappings of modern life have not yet taken over, and the Old World was still much evident, at least here in the Mani Sithu Market in Nyaung-U.
Stalls were overflowing with produce and other items, some arranged meticulously in circular patterns inside baskets, while others such as root crops and meat were laid down on the ground.
Mani Sithu is an ideal place to witness traditional crafts and practices performed in their purest form. We saw a group of men rolling dried local cigars, and a few meters away a baker was intently kneading local bread on a broad table blanketed with flour.
Mani Sithu is an ideal place to witness traditional crafts and practices performed in their purest form.
As we ventured into the market’s interior we, chanced upon a rice noodle and fish soup dish an elderly woman served piping hot, the same dish a group of monks were enjoying at the next table. And so we ordered a bowl each, which came with local sausages, and flavored to taste with slices of lemon, chopped scallions and chili paste.
We learned later what it was called: mohinga noodles and fish-based soup infused with lemongrass, an irresistible Burmese staple. How we’d love to let the kids have a taste of this noodle dish, but they have to stay behind back home as the school year had begun.
For now, Bretha and I will enjoy the reason for the trip: the 15th year since we tied the knot. And where else to celebrate this milestone as a couple but in a mystical place such as Old Bagan? We did promise ourselves to take the kids here one of these days.
Breakfast before Bagan: a Burmese woman pours hot broth into a bowl of mohinga noodles at a stall in Nyaung-U public market
And where else to celebrate this milestone as a couple but in a mystical place such as Old Bagan? We did promise ourselves to take the kids here one of these days.
Hello there, stranger
A taxicab then took us to a resort hotel that I had booked for a really low off-season price. To our suprise, the resort was one of understated elegance, situated along the Irrawaddy River at a dedicated site with other early post-colonial structures that now offered accommodations. A few yard shrines, ancient but well-preserved, dotted the four-hectare Aye Yar River View Resort.
After taking our backpacks to our room, I returned to the lobby and found Bretha chatting with a guest wearing a hijab at the lobby. We shall call her Aya. Since she was also doing the day tour in and around the temples, she offered to share her van with us and just split the fee.
As a couple, we don’t usually mingle with other travelers, much more get cozy with strangers, but we hit it off with Aya rather quickly.
Off to the temples
“Traveling alone?” I asked mindlessly while waiting for the van at the lobby. Aya nodded, adding she was on a business trip in Yangon and decided to fly to Bagan for the weekend while her peers stayed behind.
Aya is from Egypt but was working in Dubai, and while her work in the Middle East took her to different continents, her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time can relate to.
…her leisure travels were quick and compact, something that Filipino parents like us who love to travel but don’t have the luxury of time can relate to.
The van eased into the driveway, and we hopped on for the whole day tour in and around hundreds of centuries-old temples and shrines that would take us back to a once glorious time of kings and empires.
THE delicacy that the Badjau girl prepared for guests at the cultural village in Kota Kinabalu looked familiar.
“Tagaktak!”someone from our group exclaimed.
We watched in wonder as the tuft of thin noodle-like strands made from sticky rice, sugar and coconut milk turned golden brown in the pan. Another Badjau girl readied another batch: she pours the batter through a perforated bowl contraption over the pan. There was no doubt what the deep-fried triangular fritters were.
I looked at the snack with a sense of bemusement. The tagaktak is as Mandauehanon as delicacies can get. But here it was, a thousand kilometers away from my hometown, being deep fried with a local’s expert hands then carefully placed on banana leaves for us tourists to enjoy.
So the obvious had to be asked: Is this a Badjau delicacy? The two Badjau girls nodded. And in these parts, they call it “ kuih jala.”
We took a few bites – yes, just like our good old tagaktak back home – before proceeding to the other demo areas and tribal huts at the Mari-Mari Cultural Village. We got samplings of rice wine, honey and a complete meal cooked in bamboo (sounds familiar?), as well as participate in local customs such as shooting blow darts, getting (henna) tattoos, and partaking in a communal sport on a makeshift trampoline inside a hut.
The half day inside Mari Mari – “mari” means “come” in Bahasa – was quite an experience, far from the hackneyed tours one might associate with “cultural villages.”
For one, the Mari Mari village serves as an interactive outdoor museum that seeks to preserve Sabah’s culture and tradition by gathering five ethnic tribes – the Murut, Rungus, Lundayeh, Kadazan-Dusun and the Badjau – in one area, a forested terrain where a river runs through.
The Kadazan-Dusuns, we learned during the visit, is the biggest ethnic tribe in this melting pot called Sabah, followed by the Badjaus. And the latter happen to be connected with the Badjaos in the Philippines.
Sabah, with a population of 3,117,000, has 450,000 Badjaus, many of whom migrated from Sulu in Mindanao due to armed conflict. And therein lies the irony: the Badjau in Sabah seem accepted in the community, if not more prosperous, than their marginalized counterparts in the Philippines.
A recreation of their dwellings in Mari Mari shows an interior of colorful and intricate designs, what a home of a cultured people looks like. Among the other tribes in the cultural village, the Badjau home seemed the most vibrant. It probably is.
On our way from Kudat back to Kota Kinabalu the previous day (the quake still in the back of our heads), we passed by a cluster of houses on stilts along the coast in Kota Marudu. We stopped – and this wasn’t part of the itinerary – to take a look, to get a glimpse of a Badjau community.
What was striking was that the houses, though made of light materials, looked sturdy, and were clustered in clear surrounding waters where their machine-powered wooden boats with wooden anchors were docked.
Some boats were for fishing, while others were for transport (one had cargo of LPG tanks). In the backdrop was a mangrove forest, where the Badjaus harvested wood for their needs.
And this is what we saw, in Kota Marudu and Kota Kinabalu: the conditions of the Badjau in Sabah were in stark contrast to those of the Badjaos in the Philippines, from where their ancestors came, the same line of ancestors who probably introduced to us tagaktak, that intricately prepared crispy delicacy that brings joy and pride to all and sundry.
AS the plane quivered one last time through the remaining turbulent air streams, a window to my left framed the ashen tip of a mountain peering through the thick, late afternoon clouds.
“Mount Kinabalu?” I thought.
The sight of that desolate, jagged piece of rock rising above a blanket of bulbous white several thousand meters above ground was both reassuring and unnerving – reassuring because we were now approaching land, and unnerving because barely 10 hours ago, the entire mountain and its surroundings shook violently when a magnitude 6.0 earthquake struck northern Sabah, rattling buildings as far as the capital Kota Kinabalu, Flight Z2 131’s destination.
The AirAsia plane, though, landed smoothly, 30 minutes ahead of schedule. It taxied past a modern airport then stopped in front of an old terminal that looked part supply depot, part hangar. As our group of four eased past immigration, I looked for cracks on the walls and posts, signs perhaps of damage from the tremor.
There was none, I thought, business as usual. Some 90 kilometers away, near the epicentre in Ranau, it was anything but.
Our group was slated to head to Ranau, a town of 94,000 people and home to Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, the 750-square-kilometer ecological haven of Kinabalu Park. Sabah’s tourism officials, though, had to shut down the park following an avalanche in and around Mount Kinabalu.
Bearer of news
The bearer of news was our soft-spoken guide John, who fetched us at the airport. He assured us, though, that Kota Kinabalu was fine – rattled but unscathed.
“Tomorrow morning, we head to the town of Kudat for the open-air music festival on the tip of Borneo. We’ll pass by the honey bee farm, gong making village, and the long houses,” he said, as the right-hand-drive van our small group of journalists would use for the next three days dropped us off at the hotel at the heart of the city where we would spend the night.
Outside The Hyatt Regency, the locals went about calmly, as endless streams of cars cruised past wide, tree-lined sidewalks near the Kota Kinabalu Waterfront, a lively strip of reclaimed land in the former British colony of Sabah – now a Malaysian federal state – where a number of cultures, old and new, converged.
Perhaps the discussion centered on that morning’s earthquake, in hushed Kadazan, Dusun, Bajau, Murut, Suluk or Malay tones, languages that sounded familiar but foreign to our visitors’ ears, nevertheless. But there was a Filipino market there somewhere, we’d later learn.
The next morning, we headed some 180 kilometers up north, a five-hour drive that meant plenty of time for us to learn about Sabah from our guide, who has spent 25 years exploring the enormous island of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, and marvel at its vastness and diversity.
Sabah’s great expanse
More than an hour after we left the hotel, John told us to look to our right and pointed slightly upwards at what looked like a tear in the sky. Between the tear and the ground was a hazy spread of pallid gray. “Do you see it?” John said. “Where?” someone asked. “There!” I chimed in. “What?”
It took me several seconds to figure out what it was – the tip of Mount Kinabalu, this time peeking from the clouds 4,095 meters from the ground, an hour’s drive away if the initial plan pushed through. It was the closest we would get to see this sacred mountain. As the van sped past the scene, I fixed my gaze at the peak until the blur of foliage and dreary slopes blocked my view.
Again the bearer of news, John told us about climbers and fellow guides were still trapped somewhere up in Mount Kinabalu. Rescue efforts were underway, he assured, but his face betrayed a hint of anxiety.
The previous day’s big quake – 30 seconds of ground shaking – was now all over the morning papers. It was Malaysia’s strongest in the last 39 years. The tremor, though, would cause aftershocks beyond the geological kind.
Sabah’s tourism was still reeling from the kidnapping of two tourists by Sulu – Filipino? – gunmen in the remote town of Sandakan in Sabah’s east coast last May. Like the flapping of wings causing typhoons in distant lands, the incident triggered a wave of cancellations from foreign tourists. And then this, the June 5 earthquake. Tourism, one of Sabah’s top three industries, was dealt another staggering blow.
One can’t blame the tourists for the knee-jerk cancellations, John said, but he hopes the global community sees the incidents in the proper context.
“Sabah is a very big place,” he said. “And Sandakan is very far.” (He was right: imagine how normal daily life unfolds in Cebu despite trouble in the far corners of southern Mindanao.) As for the quake, the ground will calm down in time and Sabah’s top draws will reopen.
Though we skirted past Kinabalu Park, we did get to visit the families of gong makers in Sumangkap Village, a community of bee keepers running the Gombizau Honey Bee Farm in Matunggong, and the communal Rungus longhouses on stilts, precursors of modern condominium housing.
One with the earth
One of the stories in the inside pages caught my eye: the earthquake, the news article narrated, happened after a group of Western tourists desecrated Mount Kinabalu by stripping naked and urinating on top of the mountain, acts of irreverence that the foreigners documented themselves and posted on social media.
The story said many Sabahans, especially the Kadazan Dusun tribe that considers Mount Kinabalu sacred, blamed the tourists, whose acts of desecration angered the spirits that dwell in the mountain, causing the earthquake. Authorities were left with no choice but to go after the six tourists, and if caught, John said, might have to offer a bull each as sacrifice to appease the spirits.
While the West sees all this as superstition, John – who himself has a scientific mind with a keen interest in botany (so far, he can identify 600 out of Sabah’s 5,000 species of flora with their scientific names) – said many Sabahans have roots from the state’s five main tribes whose lives are entwined with the natural environment.
And tourists, especially those climbing Kinabalu, are constantly reminded to observe local customs. In the eyes of many locals, such acts of desecration caused the tremor that – I’d later learn days after leaving Sabah – claimed the lives of 18 people, including four guides.
Music on the edge of the world
Later that afternoon, we headed to the Tip of Borneo, a tree-lined promontory with a strip of rock jutting out toward the imaginary line that divides the West Philippine Sea and the Sulu Sea, and at each day’s end offers a humbling view of the setting sun.
We passed Pantai Kalampunian or Kalampunian Beach, a pristine three-kilometer stretch of white coral sand leading to the promontory, Tanjung Sampang Mangazou, where the early Rungus went to battle to defend their land from foreign invaders; if not welcome unfamiliar drifters such as a weary battle-scarred crew from the other side of the world who sought refuge and repairs for what remained of Magellan’s fleet following a disastrous stop in an exotic land of heathens thousands of nautical kilometers away somewhere up north.
Nowadays, foreigners like us who come all the way to the Tip of Borneo, with the exception of a depraved few, are a harmless, wholesome bunch; and ours, that otherwise pleasant day in June, was a musical journey for the ninth Sunset Music Fest, wherein local talents performed traditional, classical and contemporary music the Sabahan way: convivial, heartfelt, close to home.
To start the festival, though, a moment of silence for the victims and survivors of the earthquake the day before was observed. And as the sun, poignant and subdued, quietly set in the horizon – a rendition of Charice Pempengco’s Note to God rising in the cold air (“Give us the strength to make it through”), John’s burly silhouette swaying with the crowd in the amphitheater— the moment of healing for all Sabahans had begun, right there on the historic Tip of Borneo.
Planning a road trip with the family? Here are 12 tips you need to follow
The Great Philippine Country Roads
In a road trip article I wrote, one of the tips I gave drew a sharp rebuke from the wife. “Bring lots of chips and candies” was my advice to keep the kids preoccupied and their spirits — and sugar levels — high. “You should have suggested something healthy like fruit and veggie snacks,” she said. In hindsight, she was right. Now, I’m the last person anyone would seek advice about healthy food, so I’d rather skip that part — there’s always Google — and stick to road trip tips I’d be confident enough to impart. Here are a few of those tips, with kids in mind:
1. Get plenty of rest before the trip
For longer road trips, especially at night, expect your kids to doze off. The driver, however, can’t afford such a luxury. One way to keep awake and stay alert — and many adults take this for granted — is to get sufficient rest prior to the trip. And just before the long drive, treat yourselves to a hearty meal to keep your energy levels up. And don’t forget the healthy snacks.
2. When in doubt, visit your doctor
Again, I’m not qualified to dish out advice on specific health issues, which is why it makes sense for you to visit your doctor for that purpose, just to make sure. You’re expected to have your car checked up for the road trip, so why not you, the driver and your co-driver? Remember, road trips can get draining and mentally taxing — especially when the kids are on beast mode — so the driver’s fitness must never be compromised. Besides, you should take long drives only when you’re fit because your family’s safety and yours are at stake.
3. Prepare re-usable water bottles for everyone
“Keep rehydrated” is one advice many take for granted. But whether it’s summer or not, the heat can get unbearable, putting you and the kids at risk of dehydration (ask your doctor). So, stock up on water and drink those fluids especially off the road to keep your road trip crew rehydrated. The last thing you’d want is to get dehydrated during your vacation. To avoid peeing a lot, avoid sodas and caffeinated drinks. Even then, there’ll always be that random gas station or restaurant in the middle of nowhere to do number one and even number two.
4. Get creative on the road
I read from a blogger mom about coming up with games for kids while roadtripping. Riddles, puns and similar brain games will keep them entertained while you deal with hundreds of kilometers of road, some of which will cut through desolate forests or mindnumbing monotonous flatlands. During our return trip from Sagada in 2013, Arwen decided to preoccupy herself by counting Iglesia Ni Cristo churches — the distinct architecture must have caught her fancy — starting in Nueva Ecija. With an overnight stop in Manila, she counted roughly 40 churches by the time we reached Matnog in Sorsogon, Luzon’s southern tip.
5. Don’t forget your checklists and playlists
Each child should have his or her own checklist, including for toiletries, personal effects, meds and vitamins. Make sure to double check the contents of your emergency and first aid kits. And here’s one list that would keep your spirits high on the road: playlists. Our eldest Amber definitely had one. If each kid gets to contribute a road trip playlist, make sure all of them get their fair share of “airplay.”
6. Keep those gadgets and power banks handy
Some parents opt to leave gadgets behind so that their kids may truly experience rural living and commune with nature to the max. Fine, except that when you’re riding a car, you have barely anything to do other than sleep. So, even if you’re driving fast, time at times could still crawl achingly slow, and chances are, the kids would tire of the brain games and get restless. In that case, your trusty gadgets loaded with game apps, with power banks at hand, can keep them preoccupied. This worked for our toddler Cyan. Of course, you can always limit the use of gadgets as you see fit.
7. Make money matter
Don’t keep your money in one place. Make sure to stash some backup cash. And even though the most remote of areas have ATM machines, don’t count on it, as these could run out of cash or become unavailable. Give older kids some emergency cash and brief them about when to use it (definitely not on candy).
8. Have a Plan B for your Plan B
So you’ve made a checklist and itinerary and run through them a number of times. That means this should be the most perfect road trip ever, right? Wrong. Don’t expect everything to go smoothly, so it pays to have a backup plan to your backup plan. Here are things to consider: the unpredictable weather, vehicle breakdowns, heavy traffic, even ailments, among many others. Also, assess your kids needs, abilities and limits and draft your plans around these.
9. Don’t sweat the small stuff
While you can plan all the way to Plan E, don’t make the mistake of going obsessive compulsive with the details. Instead, keep each plan simple and sensible, like keeping a short list of accommodations should you get left behind by the ro-ro vessel. Don’t discuss worst-case scenarios with your kids. The last thing you’d want as passengers are children who have freaked out and all of you aren’t even there yet.
10. Don’t let yourselves go hungry
I won’t talk about what constitutes healthy food, but I definitely will touch on eating while road tripping. Long road trips are a good time to introduce your kids to different cuisines in the country, and for us, the best food is street food, which includes the neighborhood carenderia. But not everyone can handle street food, so if you need full meals, there are always restaurants in most town centers in the country, and most probably a fastfood place named after that ubiquitous bee.
11. If you feel drowsy, stop
If you feel drowsy while driving and no one else can take over the wheel, pull over the side of the road and get a power nap. A 15-minute nap can significantly restore your energy levels. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 or a hundred kilometers to go, just stop driving. If you feel drowsy again after 50 or a hundred kilometers of road, take another nap. Repeat until you get to your destination safely. If this happens at night, try looking for a police or file station, if not, a well-lit area where you can park and doze off. After 15 minutes, you’d be good to go.
12. Have a nice trip!
And that’s no lip service. To make the road trip really enjoyable, make the kids look forward to the destination. When their spirits seem low, tell them about the beautiful beach that awaits them or what adventures the foggy mountains have in store. Become a child yourself and share their excitement. Now go.
A checklist of travel essentials for that epic drive
The Great Philippine Country Roads
Road trips aren’t joy rides, but they can become rewarding, if not life-changing experiences. So, if you’re going to take that trip, here are essentials to consider:
Research and plot your trip and stops thoroughly, but not to the last obsessive-compulsive detail.
Be flexible with your plans. The weather can turn ugly any time, although five-day forecasts from the Internet tend to be reliable. Expect the worst and hope for the best.
Find good company. Travel only with those you trust, have confidence in, and are comfortable with. Thresholds for long travel vary from person to person, from family to family. Patience can run dry faster than your SUV’s fuel.
If it’s your first time to go on a long trip, it’s better to travel in a group or convoy. Decide on a lead driver, as he will determine how fast you should go and which turns and stops to make.
Keep emergency numbers handy.
Have your vehicle thoroughly checked. Go over the usual maintenance steps, such as oil change, filter replacements, and wheel alignment and rotation.
Ask the mechanic for a straight answer: is your vehicle in good enough condition to travel insanely long distances? How about the battery or tires?
Inflate those tires, including the spare. Check the car tools.
Also ask yourself this: are you willing to subject your beloved vehicle to a long, grueling ride?
Don’t overpack or overload. Bring only the essentials and enough food and water. If you’re traveling along the Maharlika Highway or Pan-Philippine Highway, there should be plenty of stops where you can get supplies and eat along the way.
If you’re using a pickup truck, a tarp cover will protect cargo against heat and rain. Also, keep stuff inside waterproof containers.
Don’t forget chargers for all those gadgets. Also, that Swiss knife should come in handy.
Peg fuel consumption at a conservative 10 kilometers per liter of fuel, and do rough computations based on estimated travel distance back and forth. For example, if you drive 1,000 kilometers from Cebu to Manila, your car will consume roughly 100 liters of fuel one way.
Keep a full tank but you don’t have to “fill ‘er up” in every town.
On cost of fuel: the farther a place is from the Capital or major fuel depots, the more expensive fuel costs per liter.
The Pan-Philippine Highway or the Maharlika Highway is connected by a series of roll-on roll-off (Roro) ferry routes, so always take into consideration travel time when plotting your trip.
The driver needs to present only the photocopy of the official receipt (OR) and certificate of registration (CR) of the vehicle for boarding on the Roro ferry. Prepare an ID.
Fare: the driver’s fare comes with the vehicle charge. The rest of the passengers each have to pay the fare. Rates vary depending on travel distance and type of vehicle.
Take note of the schedules. Be at the port an hour or two before departure schedule.
While trips are regular, there’s no assurance the vessel will depart on time. Set aside another two hours allowance for delays.
Traveling with kids
If traveling with children, prepare a bagful of barf bags. Long, winding drives take their toll on kids, making them nauseous or road sick.
Bring lots of candy. More kids mean more candy. Somehow, candy alleviates road sickness.
Kids can manage long trips as long as an adult can attend to their needs. When they get tired, they’ll easily fall asleep during long drives.
Keep children pre-occupied. Those tablet games and DVD movies will definitely do the trick.
Bringing a yaya along is optional.
On the road
1. Keep calm and drive.
2. Psyche yourself before each trip. One way is to think of an eight-hour drive as no different from spending an entire day working at an office desk, plus overtime.
3. Keep pace with the lead driver, who in turn must make sure that no one’s left behind.
4. Take shortcuts only when you’re 100 percent sure of the route.
5. Take as many overnight stops as possible to rejuvinate, especially after eight-hour plus drives.
6. Even if you feel tired, be prepared to push yourself to the limit, such as when you’re driving on the highway in the middle of nowhere.
7. But if you’re drowsy, let someone else take the wheel. If there’s no sub, alert the lead driver right away that you need a power nap, so long as you think safety isn’t compromised.
8. For convoys, always keep communication lines open and agree on basic signals (useful for “pee breaks.”)
9. Backseat drivers are a no-no as they create tension and make the actual driver lose focus. Instead, let someone be your trusted co-navigator, the person who checks and double checks maps to ensure you’re following the correct route.
10. Lastly, enjoy the drive. Stop for landmarks and tourist spots. Once the entire trip is done, every kilometer will be worth it.
Update: In late 2019, transport authorities began strictly implementing the law against riding in the back of pick-up truck or pick-up type vehicles, so please refrain from letting passengers, especially your kids, ride in the cargo provisions of your vehicle especially during road trips.
That’s what I get every time I tell someone how long it takes to travel from Puerto Princesa to El Nido. Of course, I fail to mention that’s by bus, which takes a hundred of stops picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.
But there’s a faster way, I assure them — by van. Only five hours.
At this point of the conversation, I am tempted to drop the thing entirely, but decide against it, and instead nudge the aspiring El Nido tourist into action.
“Yes, five hours,” I’d say, citing the recent trip we made. “But that’s ‘Heaven on Earth’ we’re talking about. And we did it with children.”
I’d then talk about how smooth the trip along the concrete highway to paradise was, except for the last 45 minutes or so of unpaved road, and omitting that part when one of the kids puked twice during the stretch where the highway snaked through the rainforest.
There would be no need to tell the aspiring El Nido tourist how priceless a reward of reaching this popular destination would be, because everyone already knows that, but I felt that travelers have an obligation to persuade others to take a vacation from their comfort zones.
“Make that trip happen,” I’d challenge the reluctant tourist more. “We’re not getting any younger.”
Nothing like the last statement prompts a soul filled with wanderlust into action. On the other hand, nothing could be as false as the exclusivist idea that the best kind of travel is restricted to a particular demographic, the way paradise, in its archaic sense, is reserved for a few.
El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age. Like our group, for example — my wife and I, our three kids, and my mother-in-law.
El Nido, for all its remoteness, can be enjoyed and admired by anyone who bothers to go there, regardless of age.
Powered by chaolong
The key to good travel is preparation that falls within the “Goldilocks Zone” (not too much, not too little).
Yet I felt that the kids should be prepared to endure the length of time they’ll be spending on the road. So, a couple of months before the trip to El Nido, we took a road trip along with another family and drove all the way from Cebu to Sagada in the Mountain Province, and back. A total of 72 hours spent on the road would be more than enough to prepare the children for that five-hour trip to El Nido. My wife and Momyla, my mother-in-law who’d be joining us, thought so as well.
So on the day of the trip to Palawan last June, we were confident the kids would do just fine, behave and sit still. But five hours is five hours, so we didn’t take any chances and hoarded lots of chewable candy (for dizziness) and a dozen barf bags we stashed from the flight from Cebu. We also needed to take a full meal for the long trip ahead.
After booking a van ride for El Nido at a “terminal” just outside the Puerto Princesa airport, we headed straight to our favorite noodle place in the country, Bona’s Chaolong, a hole-in-the-wall on Manalo St. just a couple of minutes away.
A legacy of Vietnamese who took refuge in Palawan decaddes ago, chaolong is pho with a Filipino twist. This satisfying noodle dish with a savory broth has started to become ubiquitous in the city, but Bona’s arguably are the locals’ favorite.
Ever since I found out about Bona’s Chaolong last year, I realized my trip to Palawan would never be complete without a lovely serving of beef stew or pork bone noodles garnished with fresh mung bean sprouts and even fresher mint leaves, paired with honest-to-goodness garlic French bread.
And I thought, what better way to start a trip to El Nido than with chaolong.
Five hours, 200 kilometers
We had arranged for the van driver to pick us up at the chaolong house at 1 p.m., and in no time we were cruising along the national highway. The van made two 15-minute stops — one in Roxas town after two hours, then in Taytay an hour later. Wonderful scenery greeted us along the way.
After close to five hours and more than 200 kilometers on the road, we knew El Nido was near, as the jagged limestone karsts began to peek from the horizon. We arrived a bit ahead on time, shortly before 6 p.m. The sun was still up.
Upon stepping out of the van at the terminal, massive limestone karst cliffs called “taraw” loomed before us. At its feet was the new market, where we would buy cheap lapulapu, squid and prawns for dinner days later. Hidden behind the cliffs was the reason El Nido has been called “Heaven on Earth” – clusters of astonishing geological formations scattered across Bacuit Bay. We couldn’t wait to see what “paradise” looked like.
We took a short tricycle ride through town to the edge of Rizal St., at the beach front where our lodgings were. Our room on the second floor of the inn was spartan, but it accommodated all six of us and offered a fantastic view of the bay and nearby Cadlao Island, which rose 600 meters above the sea, twice taller than the country’s tallest building. Dozens of outrigger boats anchored near the shore floated still.
Down below the inn, the streets were still abuzz with life, even as nighttime fell.
After having dinner at a carenderia run by a Filipino chef, we went straight home and slept. The tiny airconditioner groaned, but we hardly noticed. It will eventually give up before our three-day stay in El Nido is over.
Tours A and C, if there’s time
Every day, electricity in paradise goes out at exactly 6 a.m. and returns at 2 p.m. I began to suspect that this was scheduled that way to force travelers to leave their rooms and take any of the four tour packages on offer, if not head to the town’s other attractions.
But the power shortage sounds legit — since El Nido is quite remote, electricity here must be pretty expensive, just like most basic commodities, with the exception of seafood.
Now taking the tours is a must. First timers in El Nido are advised to take Tour A or C, or if they have the time, both. There’s an option for a combined Tour A and C, since the each cluster of islands are just nearby. The tour starts at 9 a.m. and ends shortly past mid-afternoon.
We took Tour A first, then Tour C the following day. Both tours included lunch.
Tour A centered on the lagoons: after a dip off Seven Commando Island, we headed to Small Lagoon and Big Lagoon, had lunch at a beach beside Secret Lagoon, and then ended the day after snorkeling off Shimizu Island.
Tour C was mostly a trip in and around Matinloc Island, a long stretch of rock that holds pockets of beaches and many other secrets. We visited Secret Beach, had lunch at Talisay Beach, explored Matinloc Shrine, and spent the rest of the afternoon at Hidden Beach during low tide. We were glad we did both tours separately.
The sights probably meant little to the boatmen, but we, their passengers, were in awe. Each destination was just incredibly beautiful and each spot was uniquely breathtaking. One of the lagoons even inspired some writer to write a book, only it wasn’t about the place. (What’s the name of that book, again?) But still.
And it wasn’t just the scenery — it was the experience of discovering for oneself what other wondrous sights were hidden behind a clump of towering islands or walls of rough-hewn cliffs, for instance, swimming through a crevice to find the clear blue waters of a lagoon surrounded by even taller limestone karst cliffs lush with bizarre greenery.
Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands hunched on both sides — many taller than highrise buildings — appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.
Each time we passed through shallower waters that revealed rich coral cover, the islands… appeared to be in constant motion, ceaselessly shifting sideways, as though these were the terrifying gates of some colossal kingdom in the middle of the sea.
Elsewhere, boulders jutted from the water, their serrated edges cutting the surface of the sea at odd angles, like rigid waves. One could imagine meteors falling from the sky millions of years ago. Farther still, clumps of rock lined the horizon, blurred, suggesting only depth and distance. Somehow, we managed to get there, and closer.
By the end of the first tour, I realized that no words can describe this place. In the middle of Tour C, I was resigned to the idea that no photograph or video can capture the essence of Bacuit Bay and its geological wonders.
For example, to stand on the shores of Talisay Beach on Matinloc Island can be disorienting, because everywhere one turns, he is surrounded by exceptional natural beauty he can immerse himself in. This holds true to just about every spot in Bacuit Bay.
We expected to see something beautiful and amazing in El Nido, but not this many in only a few clusters of islands, not 360 degrees of breathtaking awesomeness at any random spot.
Here in El Nido, before each wondrous sight, one runs out of breath and superlatives. Heaven on Earth — that’s the best we can come up with?