solotravel

On Happiness

Happiness- could this be any more vague?! What even is happiness? Is it posting cool Instagrams, eating and drinking at trendy places in trendy cities, getting your tan on at the beach, hustling to pursue your dream career, having the perfect relationships? I’ve been thinking about what being “happy” means a lot lately. To me, happiness isn’t black and white. There are many facets to being happy and it can look totally different depending on the person. But how do we know if we are happy and how can we improve our happiness?! Hopefully this post can shed a bit of light. So…here goes a little different type of blog post than usual. Watch out..it may get personal!

 

 

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Throughout my travels, I often ask myself: if I had a flight home/___ country tomorrow, how would I feel? If I would be sad about it, then I don’t book a flight. It may be oversimplifying things, but many decisions in life can be made this way. Forget the pros and cons lists, just ask yourself: which of these two options will give me more joy?

 

This reminds me of a concept found in a book my grandma told me about called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, which provides a unique tactic to help declutter your life. As someone who lives out of a backpack, this concept is particularly important to me. The point being, through the simple act of deciding whether an object brings you joy or not can easily help you declutter your living space or make moving easier. This same concept applies to most decisions in life. Yes, we must weigh the possibilities and there are certain limitations such as time, money, family, health, etc. but I challenge anyone to try this simple practice out in their daily life. It can be as simple as what you are going to eat for dinner or whether you go out to meet a friend. Which option brings you the most joy?

 

When I think of the times I have been most happy, I am usually surrounded by passionate, interesting people, on a beach, in the sun, or underwater. I think about each of those memories with a critical eye- why was it that I was so happy in that moment?

 

This reminds me of an activity I did for one of my previous jobs: The Wheel of Life happiness assessment. In essence, the “Wheel of Life” is broken up into categories, which you rank from 1-10 based on how satisfied you are with that area. The activity encourages you not only to rank each category, but to reflect on why you feel the way you do and how you can change small aspects of your life to see vast improvements with your happiness. I won’t go on about it, but you can read more about it on this website if you’d like!

 

According to the “Wheel of Life”, the eight categories of happiness are: family/friends, romance, health, fun/recreation, finances, career/business, personal growth, and physical environment.

 

I absolutely love this activity because it puts a vague feeling like “happiness” into tangible, objective terms that you can set clear and realistic goals to improve particular aspects of your life. The best part is that it helps you realize that no one on earth will have a 10/10 score for every category, and that is totally okay! Identifying the areas of your life that you are highly satisfied with is actually just as helpful as knowing the ones you aren’t. The key is to focus on balance, not perfection, and to remember that your happiness is up to you and shouldn’t be compared with anyone else’s. I would love to hear what you think about the “Wheel of Life” activity or the art of decluttering your life, or even if you just want someone to talk to! Feel free to send me a private message or email :).

 

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Alright, here’s where it gets personal…

For those of you who know me (most who are reading this probably do), you may be wondering how I’m doing personally. Or not. If not, feel free to close this tab :). Most of you know I have been traveling for more than three years continuously (both for fun and for work), that I often post awesome pictures of the exciting things I have been doing and seem to be “living the dream.” I’m sure some of you know there is a certain level of facade social media plays and that day-to-day life is not always reflected. I personally choose to share positive, exciting or funny things in my life, and not always the challenging or difficult things, which is a personal choice. (What purpose does it serve anyone else to share my negativity to the world?) You don’t see me posting about going through hell with customs trying to get a package with my medication that’s being held (on two separate occasions in two countries, mind you), or when I feel exhausted and irritated after a long travel day, or when I’m frustrated at technological issues with my tablet (yes, I wrote this post from my phone). No, not everything in my life is perfect and that’s okay, but I also choose to look at most situations with a positive attitude. Sure, when my phone got stolen in Vietnam it sucked, but I am now able to look at it as a lesson and have grown from it (yay for unintentional phone detoxes!). I’m currently waiting out an annoying tropical storm in Thailand and wish I could be at the beach, but I’m writing this and watching House of Cards instead (Frank Underwood, you dog).

 

I know many bloggers, Instagrammers and travelers in general who may post picturesque views and share the excitement of their lives, all while being unhappy underneath or they may be traveling for the wrong reasons. Some may be homesick, broke, tired, or the lifestyle may not be for them. Luckily, my friends and family know I am not one of those people (phew!), but I also know my limitations and will follow what makes me happiest. Happiness cannot be forced, whether it is with a job, a new city, traveling, or relationships.

 

So, how am I feeling? I’m turning 26 in three days and I have been doing a lot of reflecting lately. To be totally honest, if I were to rank certain parts of my life on a scale of 1-10, I think all of the categories would score very close to either a 1 or a 10, which sounds a bit odd. Many of the categories that people my age are typically not satisfied with (travel, excitement, personal growth, independence/freedom, physical location, no stressors) are all 10s for me, which is awesome. However, when it comes down to it, the categories I have been neglecting are really being neglected (as in, for years). My relationships with friends and family, my dating life (#foreveralone), being intellectually challenged, pursuing my career goals, my health and my finances are all scoring pretty dang low. So, what am I gonna do about it?! Who knows… Maybe some big changes are a comin’! Stay tuned :).

 

*ominous House of Cards theme song plays…*

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10 Reasons to Travel Solo in Southeast Asia

“I wish I could do what you’re doing. I’m living vicariously through you!”
“I could never do that with my job.”
“Aren’t you scared of traveling alone?”
“Isn’t it dangerous in those countries?”

“Have you run out of money yet?”

I have heard all of these countless times since I’ve been traveling through Southeast Asia for the past six months. For some reason, solo travel is not the norm (in the U.S. at least) and people think I am crazy for doing it!  Yes, I am adventurous (maybe a little crazy), and yes, I love what I’m doing. And you can do it too!

Traveling is not impossible. Traveling solo is not terrifying. And I’m here to tell you why you should make the leap and just do it. I introduce you 10 reasons to travel solo in Southeast Asia:

1. Once you get there, you will realize that everyone is in the same boat. All it takes is one small conversation and before you know it, you’ll make plenty of new friends.

 

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2. It’s cheap! I’ve paid only $3 USD for hostels an $1 for meals in parts of Southeast Asia. Sounds a lot cheaper than life at home to me.

 

3. So many people do it. It may not be the norm in the U.S., but a couple days in SE Asia will show you how common it is for people as young as 18 to travel alone.

 

4. You (probably) won’t get murdered or kidnapped. The media portrays many places to be much scarier than they actually are, and let’s be honest, if you’re on the main backpacker track, you will be constantly surrounded by other travelers. Just don’t be dumb (okay, you are allowed to make a few dumb decisions because everyone does, myself included) and be aware of your surroundings, and you will feel perfectly safe. In all of my travels, I have rarely felt unsafe and if you’re from the U.S., be honest with yourself and know that it’s actually more dangerous at home than in many places around the world. Don’t let fear hold you back!

 

5. Hostels make everything easier. If you stay in budget hostels, you are guaranteed to meet other solo travelers who want some company. Most hostels have shared space and even arrange activities for travelers to do together. It may sound intimidating especially for introverts out there, but imagine how easy is it to just say hello to the person in the bunk next to you in your dorm room and ask where they’re from. Done and done!

 

6. It’s easy to get around. Traveling in SE Asia is a breeze (for the most part), making it even easier to travel on the fly without a set itinerary! From night buses to slow boats to shared vans, there are plenty of ways to travel over land without booking flights. Even the flights are cheap though! You can read more about booking cheap flights in SE Asia on my blog post here.

 

7. You will meet people from all over the world and learn more about yourself and those around you than you could ever imagine. I have stayed in touch with so many people I’ve met traveling and have even met up with plenty of people later on during my travels. In fact, I’m in Indonesia as we speak with a friend I met in Thailand six months ago and I’m planning on living in Melbourne with a girl I met in Bali. I’ve met up with travelers I met on this trip months later in different places and already have plenty of friends in Australia where I’ll be settling for a while. You’ll even have plenty of friends to visit all over the world on future trips!

 

 

8. Think of all the crazy stories you’ll have. Riding motorbikes up a mountain in Cambodia in the pouring rain with no poncho and close to zero visibility was not fun at the time, but it was an adventure with another solo traveler that I’ll never forget. Or even going white water rafting in Indonesia and climbing a volcano at sunrise with people who were strangers just days before. Did I mention that my boat in the Philippines got struck by lightning? The list goes on!

 

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9. Prove to your friends/family/boyfriend/girlfriend that it can be done. Prove to them that you won’t get “murdered” or “kidnapped” and just go. I’ve heard so many people who say they have disapproving people in their lives, but ultimately, it’s your life and you have the freedom to go on an adventure of a lifetime. (Unless they are paying for it :))

 

10. If you wait around for other people to join you, you’ll never end up doing the things that make you truly happy! So now is the time. No one is stopping you except yourself, so whether it’s tomorrow, next month, or next year, find a way to make it work and book the flight!

 

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Need more inspiration for how to feel the fear and do it anyway? Check out my post on what happens when you let go of your fears here. If you do decide to make the leap and travel solo, I am happy to talk to you about it or give you tips for Southeast Asia, so feel free to send me a message or email!

 

As always, thanks for reading :).

A Backpacker’s Guide to Myanmar

Myanmar: the land of friendly locals, awe-inspiring pagodas, and untouched culture. Before I dive into what to see, where to go, and how to get there, I wanted to give a bit of a background on Myanmar to give you some important context. Although Myanmar is becoming a more and more popular place to visit since it has opened for mass tourism in 2012 after being ruled by an oppressive military socialist system until 2011, I urge you to do some research on its history to be aware of what is happening today, as it is still one of the most corrupt and censored countries in the world. Before visiting Myanmar, I highly recommend reading the book “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin. I wish I could have read this informative and fascinating book before I went, but I am glad I have this additional context now and hope to pass it along to others who hope to visit!

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Historically, Myanmar has struggled politically, socially, and economically for hundreds of years and has experienced countless strikes and uprisings throughout the years. This is due to multiple changes in political power (particularly during the 20th century), corruption, and oppression, particularly of ethnic minority groups. Many authors and leaders in politics have been sentenced to prison or house arrest, interrogated, and accused of false crimes, which has led to a hush-hush atmosphere and a sense of paranoia throughout the country. In 1990, the opposition, National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won the elections by a landslide, but the military ignored these results. Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the many political prisoners and a pro-democracy leader, is a significant political figure who was put under house arrest for 15 years over the course of 21 years ultimately being released in 2010, and you can even visit her house in Yangon today. Before 2011, you would never see anyone, even tour guides, openly talking or writing about politics or the government in Myanmar, but luckily, thanks to Freedom of the Press, you can read about it here and other sources online J. A gradual shift to liberalization has been underway since 2010, but significant progress is anticipated now that the government changed hands in April 2016. According to BBC, in 2012, the government lifted pre-publication censorship of the press and allowed privately-owned daily newspapers to publish. In recent years, Myanmar has also unblocked international news websites, as well as sites like YouTube.

A Few Important Facts:

  • In 1886, Britain made Burma a province of India, but ruled the country from 1885 to 1948, which is why you will see a heavy British colonial influence in many parts of Myanmar today.
  • In 1997 President Clinton issued an Executive Order for U.S. Sanctions on Burma because “the Government of Burma (then ruled by a military junta) had committed large-scale repression of the democratic opposition in Burma…” These sanctions prohibited new investment in Burma by any U.S. persons.
  • In 2005, the capital city was suddenly moved from Yangon to the central city of Naypyidaw, which I’ve heard is eerily empty even though highways were built in anticipation of more people.
  • In 2016 President Obama issued an Executive Order lifting the 1997 sanctions due to the tremendous progress towards democracy.

Myanmar vs. Burma?

The official name changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of the student-led uprisings in August of 1988. The name remains an issue in the country as some do not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government, nor their right to rename the country. This is also when the city of Rangoon was officially renamed Yangon. I hope that clears up any confusion :).

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Myanmar has plenty more to offer besides its political issues and depressing history, so not to worry! There is a huge tea shop culture in Myanmar, which I found particularly interesting. You can find tea shops on every corner, and this is where locals often come to congregate, having conversations on topics ranging from politics to books to family life to current events. You can always find groups of men hunched around small stools in a tea shop, looking extra secretive. Myanmar is a surprisingly literate country, and you will find streets full of used book stalls in Yangon particularly. In fact, this is where I bought “Finding George Orwell in Burma”, which after reading it, holds much more significance to me.

Now, onto the fun stuff!

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Recommended route for two weeks:

Yangon -> Bagan -> Kalaw -> Inle Lake -> Mandalay (-> Yangon if necessary)

This is what I did and the timing was perfect for seeing the highlights of Myanmar. However, if you are wanting to see a bit more, I would recommend three weeks and adding on Pyin-oo-lwin, Hsipaw, and Hpa An to your itinerary. If you read the book I recommended, you will understand the historical significance of Pyin-oo-lwin (previously known as Maymyo).

How to get there:

Although you can now enter Myanmar via land from Thailand, I would recommend flying into Yangon or Mandalay and going from there. If you do want to enter over land, there are only certain places this is allowed, so make sure to do your research beforehand.

Visas:

There are two options for 28-day tourist visas for Myanmar, but know that no matter what, you MUST have a visa arranged in advance.

  • Option 1: E-Visa. Now that tourists are permitted to apply for visas online, it has become quite easy to get one in advance. However, the cost is $50 USD, so keep that in mind.
  • Option 2: Embassy. I personally chose this option because I was already near an embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the time, and it saved me $30. For $20, you can easily apply and obtain your visa within a few days. Just look online to see where your nearest Myanmar embassy is.

 

Money:

There is a lot of outdated information online about money in Myanmar, so I thought I would set the record straight. Yes, there are ATMs. Yes, you need to bring crisp U.S. dollars in large denominations if you would like to exchange money. Yes, you should check with your bank to make sure Myanmar is not a blocked country for your debit card, because some people’s cards do not work there. The exchange rate is approximately 1000 kyat to $1 USD. That’s all :).

Getting Around:

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your preference, the main way to get around Myanmar is by night bus. The pros: save on accommodation, relatively inexpensive, more time to explore and less travel time. The cons: uncomfortable, little to no sleep, lots of waiting around, arrive at odd hours in the night. Buses are very easy to book the day before you travel, which allows you to be flexible when traveling through Myanmar. If you are traveling to a place only a few hours away, there are also day buses available, but generally, journeys six hours or more are via night bus. Most hostels and hotels can book them for you, or you can visit any tourist office to book. Helpful hint: some bus stations like Yangon and Inle Lake are far outside of the city, so be prepared for an extra taxi or van ride to your final destination or to the bus station from your hostel or hotel.

 

Food:

Must try food: tea leaf salad, mohinga (fish noodle soup served at breakfast, don’t ask just try), Shan noodles, curry, samosas, and whatever other local dishes you feel inclined to try!

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Yangon:

In 10 words or less: tea leaf salad, cinemas, tea shops, Shwedagon, Chinatown, circular train

Where to stay: Backpacker Bed & Breakfast (best location) or Four Rivers, Agga Youth Hostel is also popular

Don’t miss: 999 Shan Noodle House, Rangoon Tea House (splurge meal), Independence Monument Park, Chinatown (19th St.) for Chinese BBQ street food, Shwedagon Pagoda, take the circular train all the way around (3 hours), drug eliminating museum (hilarious government propaganda)

Top tip: ask a monk at Shwedagon Pagoda to show you where the tiles are to stand on at sunrise or sunset when the light hits the diamond at the peak of the pagoda perfectly. If you time it right, you can see blue, red, green, yellow, and orange colors individually depending on which tile you stand on. It was amazing!

Side note: Thanaka, a watery, yellow paste made from tree bark, is used as both decorative makeup and sunscreen and you will see mainly women and children wearing it throughout Myanmar, typically in swirls on their cheeks. I’ve tried it and it also has a refreshing, cooling feeling on your face to help you beat the heat!

 

Bagan:

In 10 words or less: pagodas on pagodas, history, untouched, e-bikes, sunrise

Where to stay: Ostello Bello is probably the most popular hostel in Bagan, but it is also expensive (for a reason! It’s really great). Another alternative is Bagan Central Hostel ($9 USD/night), which is right around the corner and perfect for me. Besides the plumbing issues, it has a great breakfast, beautiful property, and is very conveniently located.

Don’t miss: this should be obvious, but don’t miss the sunrise in Bagan. You can explore the temples (almost 3,000 of them, some as old as 9th century) on your own, so don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path. Also, you can visit several local villages and get to know the locals, so grab a group from your hostel and go!

Top tip: when you rent an e-bike to explore the temples, shop around because you can get it down to 3000 kyat (less than $3 USD) per day. Also note that you will need to pay 25,000 kyat for entrance into Bagan. Most hostels or hotels will ask you for your ticket and some temples require you to show your ticket to enter, so this is pretty unavoidable. Your taxi from the bus station will most likely stop at the ticket area to have you pay.

 

 

Kalaw:

In 10 words or less: gateway to Inle, mountain town (Tbh, I wasn’t here long enough to tell you more about it!)

Where to stay: The Golden Kalaw Inn was a fantastic place to stay for the night before beginning the trek to Inle Lake. The owner is SO nice and helpful and I can’t say one bad thing about this place.

Don’t miss: Ever Smiles trekking company is the best! You can sign up for a two or three day trek to Inle Lake with them, and the two day trek is ~$32 USD. Highly recommend!

Top tip: make sure to wear long pants (brush and mosquitoes) and pack light for the trek. Although it is not a rigorous hike by any means, you will definitely be glad you brought only the necessities. Don’t worry, the trekking companies have a porter to bring your bags to meet you at Inle Lake.

 

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Inle Lake:

In 10 words or less: canoes, fishing, handicrafts, touristy, sunsets

Where to stay: I stayed at Shwe Pauk Pin, which I had no issues with, other than that there was no WiFi as advertised. Free breakfast, communal area, air con, cheap bike rentals, we didn’t need much else. A popular new hostel at Inle is called Song of Travel, so I would recommend staying there if you are looking for a more social vibe, as I have heard great things about it!

Top tip: be prepared for little to no WiFi at Inle Lake!

Don’t miss: hire a boat to take you on a tour around Inle (15,000 kyat), bike to Red Mountain Winery (great views for sunset but don’t expect much for the wine), walk around the town

 

Mandalay:

In 10 words or less: dusty, hot, markets, palace, Mandalay Hill, big city

Where to stay: I stayed at A1 hostel because it was cheap, which was fine because I was with friends, but there is no social atmosphere there whatsoever. I didn’t do much research on accommodation for Mandalay, so there may be some better hostels out there!

Don’t miss: Mandalay Hill (long hike up, but incredible views and pagoda at the top), check out all of the markets, visit the famous palace

Top tip: Although I only spent two days in Mandalay, this would’ve been the place to skip if I was more limited on time.

 

I hope this guide has been helpful, whether you are planning an upcoming trip or just want to learn more about this special country. Please let me know if I missed anything or if you have any feedback :). Thanks for reading!

4 Things That Happen When You Let Go of Your Fears

Fear can be crippling, makes you feel helpless, and seems to encompass your world at the most inconvenient of times. To put it simply, life is just a series of decisions. Ones that you make. So ultimately, you can become your biggest advocate or you can be your biggest inhibitor. The feeling of fear is a huge part of that. I cannot even begin to put into words how much I’ve learned backpacking by myself for the past 6 months in Southeast Asia. Traveling alone can be the most liberating and exciting experience, when you learn to entertain yourself, are forced to stick to your decisions, and hopefully gain a newfound sense of confidence. It can be difficult for some people to accept that things will go wrong and you will make mistakes while traveling, or just in life in general. My mom always says “You can’t control what happens to you, only your reactions to them“. So I have taken on the attitude that every experience is either a cherished memory or a really great story. This doesn’t just apply to traveling, and it can change the way we live our lives.
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Writing this post was inspired by a conversation I had with a fellow traveler, Anna, who I never would’ve met if I didn’t come to Myanmar, a country I wasn’t planning on visiting and knew close to nothing about. Anna moved to Vietnam to teach English for a year after graduating from college, and she is a total badass. I have loved traveling with her and her friend Cynthia and I know I will stay in touch with both of them in the future.
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When you let go of your fears, you can almost feel the internal shift in your mindset. When you do, some peculiar things happen:
  • Life becomes a lot easier. Suddenly, you stop worrying and begin to enjoy each moment for what it is, whether you are on an around-the-world trip, or just planning a fun weekend getaway. Having faith that everything will work out can truly shift the way you approach any situation in life. You don’t feel the need to stress out about things that will turn out just fine in the end. How many times have you felt extreme stress about something and realized afterwards that you never needed to worry about it in the first place? Think about how much easier your life would become if you just didn’t.
  • You open your world to opportunities, people, and experiences that you couldn’t have ever imagined. I truly believe that the best experiences come from the things you say yes to even when your immediate reaction is to say no. Take a boxing class in Yangon with someone you just met from a Facebook group? Sure. Do a homestay on a remote island in the Philippines with a family you’ve never met? Why not. Don’t think of what could possibly go wrong and things will (usually) go right. And even if they don’t, you’re going to have a really entertaining story.

 

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  • You feel centered, confident, and capable of so much more than you believed. I have never felt more at peace than I do right now, traveling in Southeast Asia completely on my own. I’ve felt these changes within myself because of the experiences I’ve had only because I made the leap and booked a one-way flight. Did I have that glimmer of doubt when I was planning this crazy trip? Absolutely. But I didn’t worry about it and guess what, it all worked out just fine :).

 

  • You become a “do-er”. You no longer sit wishing you were somewhere else or waiting for the next exciting thing to happen. You make it happen. I recently realized that the people I admire most are all “do-ers”. Like my friend Jackie, who moved to Taiwan when a job opportunity fell through, knowing it would work out regardless. She found the perfect teaching job and a place to live in a matter of days.  My new Australian grandma I met on a dive boat, Sylvia, who backpacks around the world staying in hostels at the ripe age of *somewhere in her 70s*, doesn’t let fear get in her way. Like my friend Lizzie, who had a few weeks between jobs and didn’t have anyone to travel with to Cambodia. She went alone and had a fantastic time. Or my friend, Greg, who sold his house in London and booked a flight to Thailand to start a new life, knowing he’d figure it out. All of these people don’t wish or talk about doing something, they just let go of their fears and do it.

 

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So say yes. When your heart flutters with nerves or you feel yourself overthinking something, just do it. When you think to yourself “I wish I could do that” or “what if ___ happens”, stop making excuses and make it happen. Book the one-way flight. Apply for the job. Move across the world. Write the book. Go back to school. People say that good things happen to those who wait, but I say good things happen to those who make them happen. Follow your dreams because you are truly the only one who has the power to make them a reality. Fear will always exist: it’s human nature. So as my favorite trash can quote says, feel the fear and do it anyway.
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Do you have any stories of when you let go of your fears and something incredible happened? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section! As always, thanks for reading :).

Ultimate Guide to 1 Month in the Philippines

 They say Thailand is the land of smiles, but the Philippines is home to the happiest and friendliest people EVER. I say that as a fact, because it surely is. I mean, their famous fast food chain is called Jollibee…and let me tell you, they are more than jolly! But seriously, I have never experienced a place with more trustworthy, helpful, friendly, and welcoming people. Spending the past month in the Philippines has been absolutely incredible, and I’ve met more local people than I could’ve ever dreamed of. From the beautiful beaches to unbelievable waterfalls and marine life, the Philippines has so much to offer, and I am so excited to share more about it with you!

 

Before I dive in, I will just say that no matter how long your visit to the Philippines is, I would HIGHLY recommend starting in Cebu. There is a ton to see in a relative close proximity and the area is very accessible to other places in the Philippines. I was planning on staying in Cebu City for a night, but I got there and realized it was a busy city with not many tourist attractions, so I ended up taking a 3 hour bus to Moalboal for my first destination (SO lucky because this worked out perfectly).

 

My itinerary:

Manila (redeye flight) -> Cebu City -> Moalboal (4 nights) -> Oslob (1 night) -> Dumaguete (3 nights) -> Siquijor (3 nights) -> Bohol (4 nights) -> Puerto Princesa (1 night) -> El Nido (3 nights) -> Coron (3 nights) -> Puerto Princesa (1 night) -> Guimaras (2 nights) -> Gigantes Islands (2 nights) -> Iloilo City (1 night) -> Manila (redeye flight)

*** Disclaimer: This is not necessarily the perfect itinerary, and I definitely could’ve been more efficient if I had planned in advance, but I had the BEST time ever! I would make variations to this itinerary based on what your interests are, especially if you plan to go Scuba diving. Though I am no expert on the Philippines (yet!), I would be happy to talk to you about planning out a potential itinerary if you plan to visit. I also have a friend, Andrew, from the Philippines who has traveled a ton (has been to all 81 provinces!) who you can talk to as well :).

 

Moalboal– a diver’s paradise

  • Accommodation: Moalboal Backpackers or Marina Lodge (next to each other)
  • Dive at Cebu Dive Center on the north side of Panagsama
  • Dive or snorkel to see the famous sardine run! Literally, millions of sardines swimming around you- absolutely incredible.
  • Go to White Beach
  • Eat the BBQ in the small plaza of Panagsama- the pork belly is to die for!
  • Kawasan Waterfalls are ~20 minutes away (see my post about Kawasan Falls here!)

 

 

Oslob– swimming with whale sharks

You can swim with giant whale sharks for ~$20 USD any morning from 6-11 a.m., when they are fed by locals. Whale sharks are truly incredible creatures and are the gentle giants of the sea, so no need to worry about being in close proximity to them :). I will warn you that swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob is pretty controversial because feeding them every day interrupts their migration and breeding patterns. I would highly recommend going to Donsol to swim with them in the wild if you are there during whale shark season (December-May) instead of Oslob, but if you do choose to go in Oslob, prepare for lots of people but a truly incredible experience. I was very torn about going and wasn’t initially planning on doing it, but I decided to just say “screw it” and go because I was already there and probably wouldn’t get another opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and had an unforgettable experience, but I didn’t leave feeling great about the impact this business is making on the whale sharks. If you have any questions about the whale sharks, you can do more research online, or I’d be happy to talk to you more about it!

 

 

  • Accommodation: Sharky’s is a basic hostel right next to the whale shark beach entrance and the owners are SO nice!
  • Tumalog Waterfalls are nearby, so I’d check it out if you have time!

Don’t miss Sumilon Island, which is only a 30 minute boat ride from Oslob and home to the most pristine sand bar I have ever seen! You can hire a boat to split with a group for 1500 pesos (~$32 USD) and head there right after you swim with the whale sharks. Check out these amazing photos!

 

 

Dumaguete– bigger city for a more local experience, one hour boat ride from Oslob (Liloan port)

  • Accommodation: Harold’s Mansion is an awesome hostel with an even better rooftop and attached dive shop, walking distance from Dumaguete port
  • Apo Island: great for snorkeling or diving with sea turtles!
  • Casaroro Falls and Forest Camp: take a motorbike to visit this 100 foot waterfall and hidden oasis in the hills!
  • Check out Rizal Boulevard and eat at Jo’s Chicken

 

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Siquijor– MUST visit! One of my favorite places 🙂

Siquijor is locally known for witchcraft and lots of superstition, but it is also a hidden gem off the coast of Negros Oriental. It is not quite popular yet, but more and more people are finding out about it, so I think it will blow up with backpackers in the next few years! You can easily take a ferry from Dumaguete to get there, which makes it even better. It is definitely necessary to rent a motorbike on Siquijor to get around, but don’t worry, it’s cheap and the island is actually a great place to learn how to ride one (you still need to be VERY careful). If you don’t rent one, be prepared to pay a pretty penny for tricycles everywhere!

  • Accommodation: Tori’s Paradise (two locations, I stayed at the one with the sandy beach closer to the port); other budget hostel options: JJ’s, Kiwi Dive Resort, Tori’s Backpacker Paradise (better location, but beach isn’t as nice)
  • Highlights: Cambugahay Waterfall, Salagdoong Beach for cliff jumping, Balete tree with fish spa, riding a motorbike around the entire island (my favorite Barangays were Lazi and San Juan!), Friday night parties at Czar’s Place
  • Another highlight for me was San Juan’s fiesta party, a once a year celebration which included tons of food (the locals I met had two full pigs on the table that we feasted on!) and a giant paint party/rave. I happened to be there the same weekend as fiesta and happened to meet amazing local people, but it was more of a lucky coincidence than something to plan a trip around. See photos below!
  • Eat at Joel’s Chicken in Siquijor town- they will serve you a whole or half chicken on a plate and it is SO good!

 

 

Bohol– a WHOLE lot to do!

Bohol is most famous for the Chocolate Hills, Tarsiers (smallest primates in the world), and beautiful beaches. The main island of Bohol is quite large, but most visitors stay in Panglao, a small island connected to Bohol by two bridges. Alona Beach is the most famous spot and has lots of beach resorts, but I actually found it to be quite charming!

  • Accommodation: Nuts Huts (I didn’t stay here but everyone says it’s awesome) is in Loboc on the main island of Bohol. It is pretty difficult to get there (motorbike is recommended, or an expensive tricycle ride) but I’ve heard it’s definitely worth it, even though there’s no Wi-Fi up there! I stayed at Coco Farm for one night, which is an awesome bungalow style hostel in Panglao, but it’s quite far from the beach, which I didn’t like as much. They offer a lot of tours and the hostel has a social atmosphere, but I was on a mission to stay as close to the beach as possible. I ended up staying at Dormitel.ph (private room for 400 pesos a.k.a. $8.50) for 3 nights, which was nothing special but it was only a 5 minute walk to Alona Beach and had a perfect location. Other travelers I met stayed at Moon Fools nearby (580 pesos for a dorm room), which has more of a backpackers vibe, and loved it as well!
  • Highlights: Riding a motorbike all around Panglao and Bohol to visit the Chocolate Hills, Tarsier Sanctuary, Bee Farm, waterfalls, and smaller towns scattered throughout the island was awesome. I didn’t do it, but you can also go zip lining over the river in Bohol!
  • Balicasag Island: Attention all Scuba divers! Do NOT miss this island! There are plenty of dive shops on Alona Beach that will take you to Balicasag and they all have the same prices (1500/dive). I went with Alona Piratas because I liked the dive master and they provided free lunch, but there are lots of other shops to choose from.

 

 

Puerto Princesa- a quick stopover

When flying to Palawan, most travelers stop through Puerto Princesa on their way to El Nido, which is on the north tip of the island. I stayed for one night at the beginning of my time in Palawan, then another night again before flying out. It really just depends on what time your flights are!

  • Accommodation: I stayed at Sheebang Hostel for a night, which was cheap, close to the airport, and had a great backpacker vibe. It’s a little out of the way if you actually want to explore the city, so I’d stay somewhere else if you want to check out PP before heading north.
  • Underground River: I decided to skip out on this because I’ve heard it’s expensive for what it is (1000 pesos/~$22 USD) and is quite touristy. I’ve also seen incredible caves similar to this in Vietnam, so I opted out, but it’s definitely the top thing to do in PP!
  • If you do stay in Puerto Princesa and feel like Vietnamese food, don’t miss Bona’s Chao Long House!

 

El Nido– famous island hopping

Tour A or Tour C- enough said! I won’t spoil it for you, but you can check out a few photos below. El Nido is a must-see in the Philippines!

  • Accommodation: Our Melting Pot (OMP) Hostel has a great location and social atmosphere, but it’s a little pricey for what it was (600 pesos/~$12.50 USD). After staying for one night, we found another hostel called Pawikan down the road for cheaper and it was so much better! They welcomed us like family and it felt more like a homestay than a hostel. Highly recommend!
  • Food: Art Café is AMAZING and you should definitely splurge to eat there at least once (highly recommend the pizza, tuna melt, and pasta). There are plenty of restaurants on the beach with fresh seafood to try, and if you’re brave enough… you can try the Filipino delicacy, balut. You can look up more details about it, but I did in fact eat a fertilized/half-developed baby duck egg, wings, bones, beak and all. I gagged the whole time, but got it down and felt like I was on Fear Factor! The photo below is not for queasy stomachs…
  • The Reggae Bar on the beach is definitely the place to go at night- also has great live music!

 

 

Coron– shipwreck diving, island hopping and sunsets!

Coron is a 7-8 hour boat ride north of El Nido, and to be honest, a bit out of the way, but it’s totally worth it, especially for divers. The wreck diving there is SO cool and the snorkeling is some of the best in the Philippines. The island hopping tour (Tour A) is just as good as El Nido, if not better. Don’t miss Kayangan Lake either!

  • Accommodation: Coron Backpackers was recommended to me, but it was pretty far out of the way and we saw a mouse run across the counter as soon as we walked in, so I was almost relieved to find out they were fully booked. We stayed at Seahorse Guest House (a bit of a splurge for 600 pesos/$12.50 USD per night), which had a perfect location, HOT SHOWERS (so rare), and an amazing rooftop breakfast included in the price. The sunset on the rooftop is unbelievable- see photo below.
  • Other things to do: Rent a motorbike or take a tricycle to the natural hot springs, hike up to the Coron sign/viewpoint for sunrise or sunset, and don’t forget about diving!

 

 

Iloilo– gateway to Guimaras

I spontaneously booked a flight to Iloilo about halfway through my time in the Philippines, and I’m so glad I did! When I did some more research and talked to a few locals, I found out about Guimaras, the island next to Iloilo City (15 minutes by boat) known for having the sweetest mangoes in the world! Yes, I tried mango pizza and an amazing mango shake :).

  • Accommodation: If you stay a night in Iloilo City and are looking for a cheap place to stay, I highly recommend Ong Bun Pension House. It’s right near the mall, about half the price of all the other hotels in the city (350 pesos for a small fan room with shared bathroom), and I felt plenty safe there. In Guimaras, I stayed in my very own bungalow on the beach in Nueva Valencia for 700 pesos at Raymen Beach Resort, which I highly recommend. You can also stay in Jordan at JM Backpackers, but it’s not near the beach.
  • Don’t miss: The Pitstop restaurant in Jordan, Guimaras for their famous mango pizza!

 

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Gigantes Islands– untouched paradise!

I found out about the Gigantes Islands on a random blog post, which inspired me to book a flight to Iloilo. The Gigantes Islands are a remote set of islands to the northeast of Iloilo, and I’ll be honest, it’s a pain to get to, but totally worth it! To get there, you can fly into Iloilo or Roxas City, take a bus (4.5 hours from Iloilo) or van (3 hours from Iloilo) to Carles or Estancia ports, and take a boat to Gigantes Norte or Gigantes Sur. Make sure to check boat times before going, because they don’t run often!

  • Highlights: UNLIMITED fresh scallops, island hopping, super friendly locals and Filipino tourists! I was the only foreigner there and was treated like an actual celebrity :).
  • Island Hopping: I highly recommend booking an island hopping tour with Gigantes Island Tours (Facebook page is here!). Paul and his huge family will take care of you and make sure you have the best time EVER! I got to stay with their family and it was one of the best things I did in the Philippines. No Wi-Fi/cell service, no running water, electricity for a few hours each night (brownouts are common though), but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. They live off of fresh scallops, crab, squid, and different kinds of fish, but mostly scallops. My favorite were the fried scallops, which I like to call scallop “nuggets”! Feel free to ask me if you want more info about the Gigantes Islands!

 

 

Book in advance or plan as you go?

You have two options when traveling in the Philippines, and both have pros and cons. You can either do lots of research to plan your flights/transportation in advance, or you can plan as you go to give yourself more flexibility. Though I chose the latter option, which worked great for me, it definitely had its drawbacks. Because I essentially came to the Philippines without a plan (had a general idea of where I wanted to go, but I heavily depended on word of mouth when I got there to plan my time), I ended up paying more for internal flights than I needed to. I paid $40-$50 USD per flight because I waited until the last minute to book, and if I had planned in advance, I could’ve paid about half, or even less! However, it was well worth it to me to have flexibility and be able to go to places like the Gigantes Islands, which I never would’ve known about if I had planned in advance. Your ability to plan as you go is also specific to season- I visited during low season (June-September), so I didn’t need to book in advance if I didn’t want to. If you go during high season (November-April, summer being March and April), I would highly recommend booking flights and accommodation in advance, because tourist destinations will get very crowded. I hope that helps!

 

Helpful tips for the Philippines:

  • ~45 Philippines pesos to $1 USD
  • There are 7,107 islands in the Philippines!
  • Each region in the Philippines has their own unique dialect, though Tagalog and English are the country’s official languages. You could have a group of 20 Filipinos together and they wouldn’t be able to understand each other if they were from different places, which I think makes the Philippines even more unique!
  • Islands are divided into provinces, then municipalities, then barangays (community/village)
  • Each barangay has a basketball court/community center, which is where most events are held. Basketball is HUGE here!
  • Stay at LEAST a month if you can! Traveling between islands can be time-consuming and you will wish you stayed longer if you only have a week or two. If you are limited on time, I would recommend picking one area to explore, rather than trying to fly and island hop all over the place. If you have a month, I’d pick three areas, otherwise you will be flying around too much.
  • Transportation: buses, tricycles (tuk-tuks in other Southeast Asian countries), ferries/boats, jeepneys (you ride in a covered truck bed with about 15-20 of your closest Filipino friends squished next to you, but worth it for only 7 pesos), planes, but most commonly, motorbike!
  • Visas: You can get a free VOA (Visa on Arrival) for 30 days, but be prepared to pay a terminal fee of 700 pesos ($15 USD) at the airport when leaving the country and 200 pesos ($4.50 USD) when flying domestically.

 

Food:

Filipino people eat a LOT of bread, meat, and rice. It would be very difficult to be a vegetarian here (but not impossible). There are bakeries on every corner and BBQ is pretty much an everyday thing.

  • Pork/chicken/squid adobo- a classic Filipino dish: delicious marinade of vinegar, salt, garlic, pepper, soy sauce, and other spices that originated as a practical way to preserve meat without refrigeration
  • Pancit- popular noodle dish
  • Lechon- spit-roasted pig served with liver sauce
  • Bulalo- beef soup rich with flavor
  • Pork barbeque- my favorite, cheap meal!
  • Milkfish/bangus- a classic Filipino fish that you must try!
  • Rice, rice, rice- did I mention, rice?
  • Bread- bakeries on every corner, cheap and looks like there is a great selection, but it is quite misleading because every product they sell is essentially the same thing- sweet bread in all sorts of shapes and even colors, but tastes basically the same! If you go to the Philippines, you WILL eat pan de sal, small, sweet buns, for breakfast (yum, carbs!).
  • Halo-Halo- shaved ice with ice cream and all kinds of fruit toppings!
  • Ube ice cream- this purple yam flavored ice cream is hugely popular!
  • Balut- a trip to the Philippines would not be complete without trying balut, which is a 17-day old duck embryo, served with vinegar. Did I try it? Yes. Did I like it? Absolutely not. But some Filipinos swear by it!
  • There are tons of other Filipino dishes to try- these are just a few!

 

Other places to visit:

  • Banaue rice terraces
  • Mayon Volcano in Luzon- the world’s most perfect volcano with a symmetrical cone shape
  • Malapascua- a small island to the north of Cebu, perfect for diving and known for Thresher sharks sightings!
  • Boracay- I chose to skip it because it has gotten overrun with tons of people, it’s quite expensive, and there are places just as beautiful that aren’t as much in the party scene as Boracay. Most backpackers I’ve talked to said they loved Boracay, but every local person I’ve met says there are better places to visit elsewhere. Up to you!
  • La Union- recommended by lots of locals and several travelers I met, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about it (yet!).
  • Siargao- surfing capital of the Philippines
  • Camiguin- another untouched island in the Bohol Sea, the second smallest island in the Philippines!
  • Tinuy-An Falls- the Niagara Falls of the Philippines
  • I haven’t heard many positive things about Manila from travelers and it can be dangerous at night so I chose not to go this trip (solo female traveler problems). Now that I have lots of friends from Manila, I will definitely come back to the Philippines and visit!

Where else have you been or would you go? I’d love to hear about your favorite places in the Philippines in the comments!

 

Again, I’d love to help if you are planning a trip to the Philippines! It has become my favorite country I’ve visited and I will DEFINITELY be back. Salamat (thank you in Tagalog) for reading and happy travels!