El Nido. The name alone invokes images of the bluest blue water, white sandy beaches and rock formations that will leave you breathless. Images of El Nido’s beauty are plastered across social media. If you have never heard of El Nido, then don’t worry, you will have seen a picture of this slice of heaven on social media. But when a place attracts the attention of social media it becomes an ever more popular destination, but how busy is El Nido and does it live up to expectations?
To say this place is picturesque is a vast understatement, however, as is always the case social media and reality are two entirely different things. In reality, El Nido is not the quiet, tranquil island escape you see on Instagram. This is a sight that tourists in their thousands flock to every year. This begs the question, is El Nido an example of paradise ruined?
Just how busy is El Nido?
Beauty attracts tourists, that is a fact of life. If a place is as stunning as El Nido, then word is going to get out and people will come. There is no way El Nido could stay a secret forever. The foreboding karst rocks which are reminiscent of both Halong Bay and Phi Phi, create a holiday destination of dreams. And hidden within those rock formations there are a treasure trove of tiny beaches, lagoons and caves. Therefore, when it came to planning our time in the Philippines number one on my list of destinations was El Nido. I expected crowds, I never imagined I would be alone in this tranquil destination. But, I wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of people here, the sheer number of boats picking up day trippers and the touristy commercial center of the town.
The beauty of El Nido remains untouched and the number of visitors will never detract from the sheer beauty of El Nido. However, if you are looking for that insta perfect image where you are the sole occupant of an entire lagoon, think again. El Nido is not an off the beaten track destination. On our day trip, there were swarms of people at every point of the tour, despite there only being 10 people on our boat. Every photo we took has a mass of orange life vests in it. And while the places we visited was absolutely stunning it was hard to fully enjoy the beauty while trying to avoid being kicked by another swimmer.
Is El Nido a paradise ruined?
However, this isn’t simply a rant about how other tourists ruined my day. No matter how touristic El Nido becomes: El Nido will never be ruined. Yes, there a lot of people, yes, it’s becoming crowded but I loved it anyway. This place is the stuff of dreams. I cannot express how striking El Nido’s horizon is. As our boat glided between looming rock islands I felt like there were no worries in the world. If somewhere this stunning exists then there is nothing to complain about.
Furthermore, El Nido has not fallen prey to rampant commercialism. It does still have the feel of a small Filipino town. There isn’t (much) wifi, there are no western fast food chains and there’s only one ATM. El Nido doesn’t feel like it has sold out to big businesses. Despite the booming tourist economy there is still an authentic local feel. It has retained a uniqueness.
Nevertheless, expectations of El Nido need to be limited. I knew before we arrived that El Nido is a popular destination and that it would be busy. Therefore, I wasn’t expecting a private island retreat. However, many people arrive in El Nido and are shocked by the morning dash of boats heading out to sea. Social media has a lot to answer for in this respect. Should the fact one blogger has posted an idyllic looking picture sans any people mean your trip is ruined by a small crowd. No. Be prepared: social media is not reality. Expect El Nido to be a busy paradise but it certainly isn’t paradise ruined!
The Philippines is famous for one thing. Beaches. This is for good reason, the beaches here are incredible. However, after two weeks on and around beaches, James and I needed a break from sand and sea. A day trip around Bohol was the perfect solution to this. We grabbed a motorbike from Tagbilaran, the main town on the island, and headed out to explore Bohol island.
Bohol has some amazing driving conditions for new and experienced bikers. The roads are quiet by Asian standards, also, they are sealed roads making them ideal for a day trip around the island. The winding tracks to the main attractions are stunning adding to the beauty of a day trip around Bohol. But what should we go and see? Where should we go on our day trip around Bohol?
Day Trip Around Bohol.
Stop one- the Tarsier sanctuary.
Any postcard of Bohol will feature a picture of a tarsier. These cute mammals are endangered so the tarsier sanctuary is probably your only chance to see these nocturnal primates. About the size of a squirrel with eyes the same size as their brain, these adorable fur balls will steal your heart. At the sanctuary, a guide will show you around and point out the creatures hiding in the trees. Good luck trying to find the animals by yourself because they are so well hidden among the branches.
While driving to the next destination you will pass through the man-made forest which is cooler than it sounds. This attraction is exactly what the name suggests, a man-made forest. However, the trees lining the street create a tunnel of trees surrounding the road. I know it does not sound that cool but it really is.
On our way through the forest we nearly killed about a hundred tourists who were standing in the middle of the road snapping selfies. We slowed down to avoid a lawsuit, however, truck drivers are not so kind. Therefore, we don’t have any epic shots of this awesome place but I am still alive to type this.
The main attraction.
Aside from the tarsiers there is another reason people visit Bohol: the Chocolate Hills. These weird natural formations are hills that spread across the landscape as far as the eye can see. For the bargain price of 50 peso you can drive up one of the hills for a panoramic view of their scale. Shaped like Hershey kisses they create one of the most unique vistas I have seen. Not your usual mountainous scenery.
Aside from these attractions there is another reason I loved this day trip. The roads are gorgeous. The drive is simply stunning and I would say that the drive itself is worth going to Bohol for. As you twist and turn through the countryside it is easy to see why so many people fall in love with the Philippines for reasons other than the beaches. The landscape is one of teh best in South- East Asia.
If you have extra time then you could stop off in Loboc for a go at paddle boarding, or a lunchtime river cruise. Another place to stop is the butterfly farm but we have visited one similar in Malaysia so skipped this destination.
Also, if you don’t want a break from the beach then you can go out to Panglao island and Alona beach to soak up the sun, dive, snorkel, or, even go dolphin watching.
How to get to Bohol?
Bohol is a well-connected island. We took the ferry from Cebu city to Bohol, however, there are also ferries to and from Dumaguette and Siquijor. This makes Bohol an easy and convenient stop on a tour of the central visyas.
Want to know more about our time in the Philippines then check out our first impressions of this astounding country.
Let’s rewind to January 2016, over dinner with James I had a minor melt down about my future. In my final year of university, I was surrounded by talk of Grad Schemes, Post-Graduate and the real world. So, I was doing what was expected of me. Making myself miserable applying for grad schemes I didn’t really want to do. Corporate world? Not for me. I knew that much but I was still applying for schemes I did not want. Naturally, my applications sucked and I got a string of rejections. My heart just wasn’t in it. After the aforementioned melt down, I made a rash decision. “let’s go traveling” I said. A week later a one-way ticket to Sri Lanka and then onward to Hong Kong had been booked.
At this point we realised we needed to save and save hard. So, how did we do it? How did we save to go traveling indefinitely? This is one of the questions we got asked both before we left home and even more since we have hit the road. Here it is the cold, hard truth of how to save for travel. And trust me, it wasn’t easy, but then again what worth fighting for is?
A five-day work week. What’s that?
Neither of us worked a five day week between when we booked the flights and when the plane took off. I studied and worked part-time, while James took on extra shifts at the weekend. Once my exams were over I upped my hours and worked 6 day weeks, most weeks. Rest? Who needs rest when you are saving?
Starbucks? Trendy coffees?
When you start saving you begin to rationalize every purchase you make. Does a three pound latte sound so appealing when that money will buy you one or two dinners once you are on the road? Every little cut back helps and makes a big difference.
Cash is King.
I found it really helpful to withdraw my weekly money on a Monday and then if there was some left by the weekend you could splurge on a trip out. If not, then the weekend needed to stay cheap. Also, having the actual money in your hand makes it harder to spend. It becomes more real. Putting things on card sometimes feels like you aren’t really spending that money.
All that annoying loose change, put it in a jar at the end of each day. You will not miss it from your weekly money but it soon adds up. I’ve been doing this since I started earning money and in a year I typically save around £150. However, James had nearly four hundred quid in his jars when he opened them.
Another tactic, one my mum uses, is to save a certain coin or note. She saves two pounds coins and in a year will save £500! When loyal and dedicated this technique can soon save you a lot of money!
Booze is pricey.
That night out your planning? Maybe think again. No, you don’t need to become a social recluse in order to save. However, spending a hundred quid on a boozy weekend probably isn’t a wise choice. A beer in a pub in London will set you back at least five pounds. Why not save that money, because in Vietnam that will get you eight beers. I know where I would rather spend the money.
We cut back massively on nights out once we committed to saving and this really helped our finances!
Book your flight now.
I found that having a flight booked became a real motivating factor when saving for our trip. If that flight is booked there is no turning back so you need knuckle down and commit to saving as much as you can.
It is incredibly easy to keep delaying your trip because you don’t have enough money. This tactic eliminates this attitude and will spur you into action!
How did we do?
We both had savings before we even started planning our trip but we aimed to save another chunk of cash. I would say we did damn good! What we saved has enabled us to spend 7 months on the road so far and, hopefully, it will be able to fund our travels into the future. We will be using these same techniques when we touch down in Australia and begin our next adventure. Traveling Oz on a work and holiday visa!
Sri Lanka is a small tear dropped shaped island just off the coast of India. Due to its small size, it is easy to get around and has lots of great attractions in a compact area. With culture in the center and stunning beaches surrounding the island, it has a little bit of everything. However, as an up and coming destination there is not a whole lot of information online about it. Before, we left for Sri Lanka I was pulling my hair out trying to find information.
Tourism only returned to Sri Lanka with the end of the civil war in 2009. Furthermore, what information there is, is based on using private transport which was not an option for us: it is surprisingly pricey. Instead, we used public buses which never cost us more than a quid, even for a five hour journey. Due to this lack of information, we have put together this Sri Lanka itinerary. This is the itinerary we followed because all the destinations were connected by local buses. Therefore, making Sri Lanka a perfect budget destination for backpackers who want to get off the beaten track.
So, here it is, our budget backpacker Sri Lanka itinerary.
Sri Lanka Itinerary
Colombo or Negombo
Sri Lanka’s international airport is in Colombo, the capital. However, from the airport it is over an hour to the city center where the accommodation is located. Furthermore, based on the reviews we received from other travelers you do not want to be spending time in this overcrowded and noisy city. Therefore, we would recommend heading first to Negombo for a night to orient yourself and prepare for the first leg of your journey.
I cannot really give Negombo the most glowing recommendation. Its sole attraction is the beach which is unattractive compared to Sri Lanka’s other beaches. Nevertheless, its convenient location makes it the perfect spot to recover from your flight.
From Negombo you are a four hour bus journey to Kandy the second largest city in Sri Lanka. This journey is very pretty and will take you through the winding hill roads. Although prepare yourself for their crazy Asian driving techniques! Once in Kandy you can visit the botanical gardens, a beautiful legacy of the British Colonial period. Also, visit the most sacred site in Sri Lanka, the Tooth Temple, so- called because it holds one of the Buddha’s teeth. Or, take a stroll around the lake at dusk to see some enormous flying fox bats. While in town you can pre-book your train ticket to Ella, this is pivotal because the tickets sell out fast and if you arrive on the day to buy a non-reserved ticket you risk not getting a ticket. Trust me you do not want to miss this experience.
The cultural center.
It is then time to head further north to the cultural centre of Sri Lanka, where the ancient cities are located. We chose to stay in Dambulla and then make a day trip by bus to Sigirya. This worked out well but bear in mind that Dambulla town lacks charm. Dambulla is not a tourist town, we struggled to find a restaurant to eat in! If you are on a tight schedule then it might be possible to squeeze the caves and Sigirya Rock into one day but we took two days to complete these two attractions. If you are in Dambulla overnight then head up Dambulla caves to see a stunning sunset.
A short bus ride from Dambulla is Polonawara. We found Polonawara a pleasant surprise, our accommodation was out of the way but we rented bicycles and had a gorgeous ride down the river every time we went out. From here you can spend a day exploring the ruins by bicyle or tuk-tuk. Imagine a smaller version of Angkor Wat or a nicer version of Ayuthaya in Thailand. While in town you can also go on a safari but we did not have time to do this.
A note of caution: a common scam in this area is tuk-tuk drivers offering you cheap tickets to Polonawara. They are reselling old ticket stubs, which is not only illegal but you will not have access to all three sections of Polonawara. My advice would be: buy your own ticket at the museum and cycle around the historic area. It will be more enjoyable than a rushed tuk-tuk tour.
Just as an aside, prepare yourself for some serious tourist prices at Sigiriya and Polonowara. You will be paying around $30 for entry to these places while locals will pay 30 cents. This tourist pricing is the most extreme we have experienced in any country.
From Polonawara we headed back to Kandy where we had to spend a night before catching the train to Ella early the next morning.
The train from Kandy to Ella has been dubbed the most scenic train journey in the world. Well, let me tell you they aren’t exaggerating! The seven hour train ride through hill country and tea plantations is the stuff of wanderlust dreams. It is unbelievable. I never thought I would say that a train journey could become the highlight of three weeks in a country but it was. If you do one thing in Sri Lanka, make it this train journey. Also, third class is fine. Don’t let anyone tell you differently! In addition, riding third class will give you a chance to interact with the locals, but, the drum playing became annoying by the fifth hour.
So, after a train ride through heaven you arrive in Ella. Oh, Ella, how I loved you. Ella is a backpacker’s paradise. It is spectacularly beautiful, super chilled and because of its raised altitude it is cooler than the rest of the country. While in town complete at least one of the two famed treks: Ella Rock or Little Adams Peak. If you only have time for one then pick Ella Rock but this is the far more strenuous option.
From Ella, it is an easy bus ride to Mirissa, a coastal town that is over flowing with charm. The beach is beautiful, lined with palm trees and small shacks selling food. In addition to the beach, there is the opportunity to go whale watching. Make sure you only go whale watching if it is the right season. We were one month out of season and in seven hours we saw the back of one whale for about six seconds!
We wished we had spent longer in Mirissa. Unfortunately, we left Mirissa thinking there would be better beaches further north but nothing we found compared to charming Mirissa.
Galle Fort annd lighthouse is one of the images that grace every postcard of Sri Lanka. It is a stunning area despite being very touristic. However, we found that an afternoon/evening at the fort was enough and ended up going to Unawatuna beach on our second day in Galle. The snorkelling in Unawatuna was insane and I even saw a turtle (even if James doesn’t believe me).
We headed to Hikkaduwa after Galle and I hated it there. It was dirty, it was over crowded and the locals were unpleasant. In fact, they gave other Sri Lankans a bad reputation, acting drunk and disorderly on the streets during the day. There was an unpleasant edgy feeling there.
However, it is worth visiting Hikkaduwa, even just for the day from Galle to visit the Tsunami museum. Located near the railway tracks where a train with 1,300 people on board was washed away leaving only ten survivors. This harrowing museum will help you understand the trauma Sri Lanka experienced during and after the 2004 tsunami. It is a must visit to fully understand Sri Lanka’s people went through. You cannot speak to a local in this area without them having been effected by the Tsunami. It is a heartbreaking place to visit.
Because we hated Hikkaduwa we headed north sooner than anticipated and ended up spending three nights at the 5 star Cinnamon Bay resort in Berwula. This is not a resort that is in a budget backpackers price range. However, we found a bargain deal online that we simply could not turn down. Hey, you must treat yourself every once in a while! So, we spent our final nights in total luxury before heading up to Colombo to spend a night before flying out early the next morning.
If you don’t manage to find a bargain deal like us, then we would recommend spending longer in Mirissa or maybe stay a couple of nights in Unawatuna. But the entire coast is so well connected by bus you can get off or flag down a bus anywhere on the Galle-Colombo Road. So, why not check out a different coastal town.
Liked this itinerary, then why not check out some of our others. We have itineraries for: Singapore and Myanmar.
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Today marks the halfway point of our time in the Philippines and I am already depressed at the thought of leaving this incredible country. The Philippines has something special about it. It’s a contender for the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to and has already stolen the crown for the best beach we have ever visited. This overview of the last two weeks in the Philippines will give you a taste of what we have been up. These adventures have made these hectic two weeks fly by in a whirlwind of excellent activities.
Destination One: Manila.
Our experience of Manila can be epitomised by our journey from the airport to our guesthouse. The 10 kilometer took two and a half hours by taxi! This wasn’t even two and a half hours by public transport! Manila is overpopulated by both cars and people. There are hastily constructed, ramshackle houses as far as the eye can see in Manila. This chaos was what formed our main opinion of Manila. It is big, smelly and crowded.
However, after that entire spiel about its ugliness, I really didn’t hate Manila. I found it to have so much character and life. We met two homeless boys who were stealing mangoes at Fort Santiago. They had constructed a home-made raft to paddle across the river to get their dinner. These boys had the biggest grins on their faces, as though, this exercise was all a fun game rather than a fight for survival. Meeting them had a profound effect on me and opened my eyes to the struggles so many people face.
Unfortunately for James, the day we spent in Manila was his birthday. There was no opportunity to celebrate as the only nightlife to be found around our guesthouse were some super seedy Filipino strip clubs.
The Ferry to Coron.
Our next adventure was the overnight ferry to Coron. I’m calling this an adventure because it was a one of a kind experience! Nevertheless, the fifteen hour ferry was nowhere near as traumatic as we were expecting. Despite being in a room containing 300 bunkbeds and a cage with a dog in, I slept like a dream until we arrived in Coron, at 3 A.M.! Bear in mind check in at our hostel wasn’t until 2 P.M.! As I fell asleep on a bench in the lobby of the guesthouse, I realised I was a true backpacker now. I can sleep anywhere. Boats, benches, the floor, it doesn’t faze me (much!).
The reason we went to Coron was for wreck diving in the World War Two ships off the coast. This activity did not disappoint. Swimming through the Olympia Maru was one of the most incredible experience of our entire trip. We also dove in Barracuda Lake, which contrary to its name, has no barracudas in. However, it’s a geothermal lake, so the deeper you dive the hotter it gets. At 20 meters the water is 38 degrees Celsius.
We also rented motorbikes and went out to explore Busuanga, the rural part of Coron. Motorbiking through the Filipino countryside is one of the charms of the country. Well paved roads, little traffic and stunning scenery makes this a perfect day out. Two minutes outside town and incredible vistas appear before your eyes. Simply driving around was an amazing day.
Next stop: El Nido.
Our love for El Nido can be explained by one fact. We booked three nights here. We ended up staying six. El Nido is quite simply out of this world. It’s unsurprising it is so wildly popular.
We spent two days on tours, completing both tour A and tour C. This allowed us to explore the islands, snorkel in some pristine coral and kayak through the lagoons. However, the beauty of El Nido lies in simply being at sea. While on your bangka your eyes will constantly flick between one stunning island and another. The landscape here could be the set for Pirates of the Caribbean.
We also visited two beaches while in El Nido. First off, we spent the day at Las Cabanas beach. While Las Cabanas is not the most amazing beach it was still very nice. The day spent swimming and sun bathing was a perfect way to relax after hectic days on tours. However, the second beach we visited stole the crown for the best beach we have ever been to.
Nampac beach is trip advisors number one beach in the entire Philippines. So, I assumed it would be nice, but crowded. However, what found a 2 km stretch of beach that had been dropped from heaven. Maybe a hundred other people occupied the entire length of the beach. The water was crystal clear and gently lapped at the sand. There was no litter, no rocks to stab your toes on, no dead coral to avoid. There was not one thing wrong with this beach. It was simply perfect.
That’s four of our five days in El Nido accounted for, but what happened to the fifth? Unfortunately, El Nido has a reputation for something over than its beauty: its ability to make even those with the sturdiest stomachs sick. James and I both managed to get ill while in El Nido. We do not know what caused it: polluted sea water, bad food or tap water. But we ended up spending an entire day in bed! Not ideal, but that’s how traveling works sometimes.
From El Nido we took a bus to Puerto Princesa to catch a flight to Cebu. We will spend the next two weeks exploring the central Visyas. Hopefully, our final two weeks in the Philippines will be as good, or even better, than the two I have just outlined. Tune in to “Fabulous Philippines: Part Two” to find out what we get up to next.
When you arrive in any country for the first time you notice quirks about that destination from the offset. Do you notice it is unbelievably humid? Are the people wearing distinctive clothing? Are the buildings beautiful? These are things that immediately strike you as being unique. We have written this post to explain what these idiosyncrasies are here in the Philippines. These are our first impressions of the Philippines:
After five days in the Philippines our first impressions of this remarkable country are all positive. I think I am little bit in love. From the gorgeous blue seas, islands lining every inch of sea, gorgeous sunsets and fabulous people this is a country that is going to steal my heart. I can already feel the love.
Before we even touched down in the Philippines we were already in love with the stunning scenery. Flying over some of the 7,000 islands on the descent to Manila left me awestruck. What a view and we hadn’t even landed yet.
Once we left Manila the sights only got better. I am writing this from Coron where karst rock islands emerge from the sea creating a scene worthy of a Hollywood movie set. I simply cannot believe that somewhere this stunning exists. It is too beautiful to even begin to describe. Don’t believe me have a look at these pictures. After all, a picture speaks a thousand words.
Even better, we haven’t even got to the really pretty places yet! El Nido is calling our name, so we have even more beauty to come.
Philippine sunsets are legendary. Our first sunset lived up to expectations. On the 15 hour ferry from Manilla to Coron there was one redeeming feature: a striking sunset. With an island off in the distance and a great expanse of sea in the foreground, the sun set turning the sky an outstanding shade of orange. Since then we have been treated to two more insanely good sunsets. This has left us high hopes for every sunset for the next month!
Our first impression of the Filipino people is how polite they are. They are so polite it makes me a little uncomfortable. Everywhere you go people refer to you as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am,’ and I’m not just talking about hotel receptionists. The security guard at McDonald’s, the waitress at the little restaurant around the corner, the lady selling me a bottle of water. Everyone calls me ma’am and it makes me uneasy. To me ma’am is a sign of respect to your superior. I am not superior to these people and, therefore, I don’t like being called ma’am.
However, the Filipino people are vibrant and welcoming. Why do I say vibrant? They have so much character and are a really animated group. They definitely aren’t a shy bunch. Blaring karaoke at noon, while stone cold sober? That’s normal here. People greet you with a cheerful wave and hello. So far, the Filipino people are living up to their reputation as a friendly bunch.
I can hear my mum saying “WHAT?” as she reads this. I’m not talking about your regular Joe walking down the street with a gun. But in Manila every shop, restaurant and bank has a security guard. And every one of these security guards has a gun. I found this bizarre. It’s not the first time we have seen security guards with guns but normally just in jewellery stores and banks. However, I’m not sure if the guy guarding Starbucks is really going to need a gun! This really made an impression on us, why were these guns needed when Manila is no more dangerous than Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh. This was one of the most striking things we noticed in Manila.
It’s a pain to get around.
7,000 islands sounds idyllic and, trust me it is. However, as we have quickly found out, it is a logistical nightmare. Unlike the rest of South-East Asia it isn’t as simple as just turning up and getting on a bus. Oh, no, you need to get boats almost everywhere. As I alluded to before the ferry to Coron from Manilla took 15 hours and we arrived at the port in Coron at 3.30 A.M.. Planning any travel involves checking ferry and praying for good weather for a smooth crossing. However, we have soon realised that the beauty of this country is worth the effort of trying to get from A to B.
The unofficial national sport here in the Philippines is not football, or rugby, or even cricket. The sport the Filipinos are passionate about is basketball. Every television showing sport is playing repeats of American basketball games. I would like to clarify this only goes in the annoying category because James wanted to watch his team’s important football match but he could not find anywhere to watch it!
Every town and village has a basketball hoop somewhere and most have a full court for locals to practice at. Basketball is like a cult here, everyone is watching it or playing it! There was even a court set up on a building site.
Overall, our first impressions of the Philippines are extremely positive. After all the negative reviews of Manila, we expected to hate it there. But in reality we liked the Philippines’ big, dirty capital. There was something charming about its ugliness.
I can already tell this country is going to be fantastic! The scenery has stolen my breath. The people have stolen my heart. I believe that the next month is going to be one of the best of my life! After all its #morefuninthephilippines.
Brunei has a reputation among backpackers as being the most boring destination in South-East Asia, maybe even the world. However, I firmly believe every country should be given a chance to impress me. So, when we travelled from Sarawak to Sabah we decided to spend a day in Brunei, and if we liked it we would extend our stay. In the end one day in Brunei was more than enough for us and we left after two nights. However, despite leaving so soon, would we recommend Brunei to other travellers and is Brunei boring?
Is Brunei boring? What can you do in Brunei?
Short answer: not a lot. The capital city, Bandar Seri Begawan, has a few attractions. Otherwise, your other choice would be to go to the Ulu Temburong National Park which is only accessible on a (expensive) package tour. So, we stayed in the capital and explored the sites there.
Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque
The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is the highlight of the city. It is stunning with a reflection pool and beautiful architecture. However, I must admit the inside is a little anticlimactic compared to the grandeur of the building.
Royal Regalia Museum
After visiting the mosque, you can go to the Royal Regalia exhibition to see the lavish clothing belonging to the Sultan of Brunei. I’m going to be honest it’s not the most enthralling exhibit. Instead just a collection of gifts to the sultan. Although, it is free entrance and the cases containing the coronation garments are spectacular.
Brunei is ruled by Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah. He is one of the richest men in the world with a collection of 500 luxury cars and living in a palace with 1,500 rooms. However, good luck trying to see this lavish palace. The Nurul Palace is only open to the public for three days a year after a month of fasting during the Ramadan month. Therefore, your odds of being able to see inside the palace are minimal. Although, if you get the bus in or out of Brunei from Sabah then you will get a good view of the outside of the place as you leave/approach the city. It’s not too shabby!
By the early afternoon, we had seen the sights of Brunei’s capital. All in all, Brunei lived up to its reputation of being incredibly boring. However, if you ask me whether or not you should visit Brunei, I would say yes. If you have time then I would recommend going there for a day to experience this country.
Brunei is one of the richest countries in South-East Asia, only superseded by Singapore. However, it is so dissimilar to Singapore. In fact, Brunei is totally unique. It’s a strange place and I am glad I got to experience this country. I can’t quite explain why I felt Brunei was so bizarre but I will do my best.
Where are the people?
My main impression of Brunei was the excessive number of cars and the tiny amount of people. Walking around the city the streets are lined with cars, expensive cars. However, there were very few people. The streets were empty, the mall was empty, the mosque was empty. So, who owned all these luxury cars? Since visiting Brunei I discovered that Brunei has the highest vehicle ownership. There is one car for every 2.09 people.
However, this still fails to explain where all the people were. It really felt like you were walking around a ghost town. There was no city hustle and bustle. For a capital city, it was so quiet. And after months of visiting big, loud Asian cities I found this very off putting. I think the quietness of Bandar Seri Begawan will be my lasting memory of my time there.
A dry country.
No, I’m not talking about the weather. Brunei does not allow the sale of alcohol. So, a rowdy night out in Brunei will consist of a can of coke and a movie. This is due to the fact Brunei is ruled by Sharia Law. However, while in Brunei this did not affect us in the slightest and you did not feel any consequences of the ban on alcohol. Nevertheless, if you are in Miri, Sarawak at the weekend then every bar in the city will be full of Brunei citizens who have crossed the border into Malaysia for a tipple. In fact, while in Miri, James played pool with a man who represented Brunei at the sport, he explained this trend us. When I say he played pool, I mean lost at pool! James did not even get a shot!
In light of these laws and restrictions I expected that I would be one of very few women without my head covered in Brunei. However, I was shocked. Brunei was not as culturally conservative as I was expecting. Obviously, there was no one in hot pants or crop tops but not everyone was completely covered up. In long trousers and a t-shirt I blended in reasonably well.
I hope I have started to explain why I found Brunei to be so bizarre. However, I have struggled to formulate the words to describe Brunei. When speaking to other travellers who have been to Brunei they know exactly what I am talking about. So, maybe you should add Brunei to your Borneo trip and experience this country for yourself.
Have you ever visited Brunei? Comment below and let us know what you thought of Brunei.
Kota Kinabalu was an unexpected surprise. There are an infinite number of things to do in Kota Kinabalu but it was the city’s charm that really won us over. For some unknown reason there was just something about Kota Kinabalu that knocked the socks off us. This charisma caused us to go back and spent six nights there. If you ask me why I loved it so much I honestly could not tell you. Maybe it was the hustle and bustle of boats at the waterfront or the vibrant locals or maybe the plentiful and delicious food! Whatever it was about Kota Kinabalu, I loved it!
The city itself is not that pretty nor that spectacular, however, there is plenty to see and do. So, what are the main things to do in Kota Kinabalu?
Things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
Kinabalu National Park.
If you come to Borneo you cannot leave without visiting Mount Kinabalu, the cities namesake. This foreboding mountain that was once the tallest in South- East Asia is awe inspiring, especially for those who get the chance to climb to the summit. At 4,095 meters above sea level, it is an imposing figure above the skyline. Once the tallest in South-East Asia? I know what you’re thinking, I didn’t hear about a new mountain just emerging from the earth’s crust. However, when Myanmar joined ASEAN they brought Hkakabo Razi with them. Which at 5,881 meters is a taller peak than Kinabalu.
A day trip to Kinabalu National Park will also include a tour of the botanical gardens to see the many endemic species of orchids that Borneo is famous for. As well as, a nerve wracking walk over Poring’s canopy walkway. Overall, an awesome way to spend a day outside Kota Kinabalu.
Mari Mari Cultural Village.
Another day trip that is popular is to Mari Mari cultural village. This will give you an insight into the cultures of the native people in Borneo. Did you know that Borneo previously had many Head Hunter tribes! While we did not go on this tour we heard good things and know it includes a demonstration of how native women light fires with bamboo. It sounds very impressive and I’m sure it is worth a visit.
Just off the coast lay a series of islands that are totally at odds with busy, dirty Kota Kinabalu. Sapi, Manukan and Mamutik are all easily reached by boat in a day. In fact, it is possible to arrange a tour of all three at the jetty immediately before departing.
If you want to read more about the islands then read our post all about Manukan Island.
There are some fantastic dive sights just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. Making these dive far more accessible than the Semporna Archipelago. A set of three fun dives will cost between 250-300 ringgit.
Sunday Morning Market.
As the name suggests you need to be in town at the right time of the week for this attraction. If you are there on a Sunday then head to the walking market, for a strange combination of tourist stalls, D.I.Y stalls and stalls selling animals. If you are an animal lover then maybe avoid this market as the animals for sale are not kept in the most humane conditions.
Sunsets (who doesn’t love a sunset?)
Why come to Asia if you don’t like sunsets? Asia has some of the most beautiful sunsets anywhere and Kota Kinabalu is no exception. Head down to the harbor to see the sunset over the sea or go up to the observatory for a view of the sun setting over the city.
Eat. Eat. And eat some more.
The food in Kota Kinabalu is some of the best I tasted in Malaysia. I had great Chinese, Indian and Malay food while in town. My favourite was the Roti Cobra Ayam, which is an Indian bread served with chicken curry and an egg. It was delicious, and so cheap. You can easily eat for 5-8 Ringit if you shop around.
Just go for a walk.
Kota Kinabalu is a great place to just stand back and absorb the feeling of the city. Go for a walk around town to see some of the sights, such as, the clock tower. See the excessive amount of malls in the compact city. Stroll along the seafront and head into the Central market or in the afternoon walk around the Filipino Market.
There are so many things to do in Kota Kinabalu and this list only just scratches the surface. As I said before, we loved this city. We filled days just soaking up the vibe of the city and experiencing the culture of the city. Kota Kinabalu may not be the prettiest and it does not have the same nature as the rest of Borneo but I guarantee you will enjoy this city a lot more than you are expecting to.
Myanmar, the ‘Golden Land’ filled with striking stupas, welcoming people and devastating scenery. This is a country that will leave its mark upon your soul. However, online there is a wealth of inaccurate information about traveling in Myanmar. Most of this information was written in 2012 when Myanmar first opened its borders. It’s 2017 now, and a lot has changed. For example, only being able to take and spend pristine $100 bills is a fallacy, there are ATMs in every town frequented by tourists. So, in order to make your trip to Myanmar easier, we have composed this ‘Budget Backpackers Guide to Myanmar.’
The Budget Backpackers Guide to Myanmar.
Dates of Visit:
17th February to the 17th March 2017.
We maxed out our visa when visiting Myanmar, spending the full 28 days we were allowed. This was a great decision as there was simply so much to see and do in this glorious country. We could have stayed for another 28 days so we could go and explore the southern beaches.
Yangon → Bago → Hpa An → Kalaw → Inle Lake → Hsipaw → Pyin Oo Lwin → Mandalay → Bagan → Yangon.
As with all our destinations in South-East Asia, we budget £45 a day. Heading in to Myanmar we were really apprehensive that our budget was about to be completely blown. So many people had expressed to us that Myanmar is really expensive compared to Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam. The cost of accommodation is notoriously high because of government taxes and the need for bribes.
However, the reality was completely different. Myanmar was our cheapest destination to date! We spent only £28 a day. If you look below you will see some examples of average costs and, yes, while it is true that accommodation will cost slightly more than in other South-East Asian countries, every other cost is substantially lower.
(A side note)
I would quantify our budget and say that if you are a solo traveler then you may want to expect to spend more as dorm beds cost more than what half a double room would. Although, there are plenty of other fellow travelers for you to meet up with and share the cost of a twin or triple room!
Remember that budgets are completely subjective to who you are and the time of year you travel. For example, we travel as budget backpackers but I would not consider us super frugal. We do like the occasional treat. Also, we are not massive drinkers so this budget includes an occasional beer but not boozy nights out! Although you may struggle to find these in Myanmar. A rowdy night out in Myanmar will mean a few beers with mates and that’s about it.
Inle Lake, Madalay and Bagan all have ‘area fees’ meaning you pay one set fee for every attraction and the ticket allows you to visit these places for a set amount of time, usually five days. For Inle Lake the fee is $10, Bagan it is $20 and Mandalay 10,000 kyat.
However, many smaller attractions do not have entrance fees or the fee is very small. For example, there is no fee to climb Mount Zwegabin in Hpa-An. Therefore, the more expensive entrance fees for the ‘big four’ soon balance out.
Trekking is an extremely cheap activity in Myanmar. We paid just 38,000 kyat (£24) for a three day, two night trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. This included all meals and accommodation for the entire length of the trek. It also included a boat ride across Inle Lake. It was incredible value for money.
This was what we thought would be the killer for our budget but it was no where near as bad as we anticipated. On average accommodation was $12-14 per night. Which is higher than in neighboring countries but it is not horrendous.
We could have spent far more than this had we stayed in swanky or trendy hostels. I’m thinking of you Ostello Bello, $25 a night for a dorm bed!! Nevertheless, the accommodation also was in better condition than I had been led to expect by Lonely Planet.
Cheapest room- surprisingly, our cheapest room was in touristy Bagan. We stayed at Jasmine Villa Guesthouse for $10 a night, including breakfast. This was for a simple room with an outside toilet but it was clean.
Most expensive room- Pyin Oo Lwin had a massive shortage of budget accommodation and most of the places that looked cheap were for locals only. In the end we paid $17 a night for a room with a shared bathroom miles away from the room. To be fair, I had expected to have to pay $30 for a room at least once in Myanmar but this never happened.
Best value- Hotel Iceland, a three star hotel in Mandalay with buffet breakfast for $16 a night. Bliss.
Lunch or dinner-
Food in Myanmar is cheap, even if it is not very nice! Think oil, oil and more oil. A serving of oily fried rice or noodles will set you back about £1, maybe less.
A bottle of water-
Bottled water is cheap and readily available throughout Myanmar. It will cost around 300 Kyat (20 pence) for a 1.5 liter bottle. Trust me you don’t want to be drinking the tap water here. I got ill enough from the food alone!
A bottle of beer-
A bottle of Myanmar, Mandalay or Dagon beer will set you back about 2,000 kyat. And this is for a big glass bottle not a teeny little can. Bargain.
Visiting an ATM in Myanmar makes you an instant millionaire.Myanmar’s currency is the Myanmar kyat, pronounced ‘chat.’ At the time of our trip £1 was worth 1,600 kyats.
The advice that you will need dollars for Myanmar is only a myth now. Many places would only accept kyats and I had difficulty offloading my dollars, especially as many places were giving a terrible exchange rate if you paid in dollars. My advice would be take a few dollars with you for emergencies but it is easy to rely on ATMs. ATMs are easily accessible and more readily available than good currency exchanges.
Like most of South-East Asia, Myanmar is subject to two seasons- wet and dry. The monsoon occurs between May and September, this is largely the season to avoid. Although you may see bargain prices at this time of year, many places will simply close for this period. The dry season is from October to April, with peak season from December to February. If you decide to travel outside this peak season, then bear in mind it gets hot in April, and we mean really hot! In places like Bagan the temperature will exceed 40 degrees Celsius.
We traveled through to mid-March and when we arrived back in Yangon we were avoiding going out between 12 o’clock and 3 o’clock because we could not face the heat anymore.
In Myanmar, the main spoken language is Burmese but English is widely spoken and you will have no trouble communicating. In fact, we had a few people approach us to ask if they could simply talk to us in order to practice their English. However, there are another 140 languages spoken in Myanmar, this is particularly noticeable in the Shan state where everybody speaks Shan and many also speak the language of their ethnic group.
I think it would be hard to find a nicer group of people than those we met in Myanmar. Everybody is friendly and welcoming. People want to speak to you because they are curious about you and your home country. Nine times out of ten there is no sales pitch at the end of a conversation. This is a refreshing change from most of South-East Asia.
In order to explain the mentality of the people in Myanmar an anecdote is necessary. In Hpa-An we rented motorbikes and went out for the day with friends. At one point we stopped to wait for our friends outside a local house. Within two minutes of being there the homeowner had come dashing out to see if we required help/ if we had broken down. This simple gesture struck me as so kind hearted. The people of Myanmar are the nicest we have met anywhere in the world. They would never abandon a stranger in need.
Having raved about every aspect of our trip to Myanmar so far, its time I tell you about the negatives. The food is abysmal. It is so oily. In fact it was so oily it made James and I ill several times! A simple curry would be served with a layer of thick oil on top. Your fried noodles will have oil dripping from the end of your fork.
However, must try delicacies include: tea leaf salad, aubergine salad and Burmese curries. Don’t hold your breathe, though.
Must see attractions:
Myanmar is full of must see attractions and there is not enough time in the world to visit them all.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is Myanmar’s most visited tourist attraction and for good reason. This pagoda is spell binding. Arrive in the early evening to see the pagoda both in day light and lit up at night.
Sunrise in Bagan. This is a legendary destination. As the sun rises, so do the hot air balloons created one of the most iconic scenes in the world. Prepare for an early get up, but trust me when I say it will be worth it.
While U-Bien bridge itself is nothing special and walking along it is boring. The sunset here is another attraction that will take your breath away. The longest teak bridge in the world frames the golden sun as it descends from the sky.
The trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake is three days where you can discover more about rural life in Myanmar. As you hike through ginger plantations, chili fields and ethnic villages your knowledge of this splendid country will increase. We also loved the food on this trek as it was a great taste of some authentic Burmese food. The avacado salad become legendary among our trekking group. It was worlds apart from some of the awful food we had eaten elsewhere.
Want to know more about the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, then check out our blog post all about the experience.
Another great hike is the one to the top of Mount Zwegabin. Although hike may be the wrong word, it is more of an arduous two hour stair climb. The climb is sweaty, hot and steep but the view from the top is out of this world. The main attraction at the top is the pagoda and monastery but this is easily overshadowed by the astounding panoramic view. If you decide to do this climb then set off early, preferably around seven o’clock because it is going to get hot and its 2,400 stairs to the top.
Why Myanmar is a must visit?
From the rich array of things to see and do, to the amazing people: Myannmar is simply incredible. There is a sense that Myanmar is the final frontier in South-East Asia and that is part of the beauty of the country. Whether, you want outstanding trekking, scenic beauty or diverse culture than Myanmar has something for you. The pagodas in Myanmar cannot be compared to anything else in the region as they are on another spectrum of beauty. They will leave you longing for more time in this incredible destination.
If our budget backpackers guide to Myanmar and our pictures haven’t convinced you that you NEED to go to Myanmar, then here is our final statement.
We cannot stop gushing about Myanmar. From the moment we landed to the moment we left we loved this country. It remains our favourite destination to date. Despite the country opening up its doors to foreigners five years ago, it still remains largely untouched by tourists. Now is the time to go. So book your flight now!
Kota Kinabalu is a big bustling city but just off shore lie a series of islands that are idyllic bliss. Sapi, Manukan and Mamutik provide the opportunity to escape the city for a day and get closer to what Borneo is famous for: nature. Just a short boat hop across the South China Sea and you are in paradise. When our love for Borneo could not get any greater this perfect setting just upped the bar once more. Clear seas, white sand and coral within reach of the beach. Whether you visit one of these islands or all three, this is the perfect independent day trip from Kota Kinabalu.
How does this independent day trip from Kota Kinabalu work?
Getting to the Islands.
A short walk from the city center and you will arrive at the Jessleton Pier where you can book your ticket to one, two or three of the islands. The price is set so all the companies are offering the same value. The costs are 23 Ringgit for one island, 33 for two and 43 for three. Then add the seven Ringgit ‘jetty fee.’ I don’t know what this is for and don’t know why they don’t just round the prices and tell you they are 30, 40 and 50. It would make life simpler. When choosing your tour, bear in mind there is a ten Ringgit fee for each island. For this reason, and because we wanted to relax, not spend the day watching the time and waiting for boats, we chose just one island: Manukan.
Less than half an hour after buying our ticket we had arrived on the island. Luckily, we had arrived just in time for the boat which depart every hour, on the hour. When stepping on the island for the first time I was speechless. The waterfront in Kota Kinabalu is dirty and littered but at the island the water is clear, clean and warm. Perfect swimming conditions. Even better, as soon as we stepped on the pier you could see the schools of fish in the water. Not just perfect swimming conditions, perfect snorkeling conditions.
Originally, we had planned to go to the island for some trekking. However, as soon as we saw the swarms of fish our plan soon changed. Within minutes we had rented ourselves two snorkels and we were hitting the water! This decision was aided by the lady at the ticket counter who told us the walk is only good for the sunset. The last boat back to mainland is at four and sunset is not until six-thirty. Do you see the problem here?
We rented our snorkels from the lifeguard who gave us some great advice on where the optimum location to snorkel is. Being on a budget we did not splurge for fins as well and as I am writing this my achy legs are not thankful for that decision. The snorkeling was so good we spent over three hours in the water observing the glorious underwater life.
On the beach there are two places to snorkel. Firstly, you can snorkel by the pier where there is less coral but more fish. This area was teeming with fish of all varieties. However, I preferred the area at the far end of the island. This is where the coral is and, therefore, it was much prettier and more diverse. In this area we saw a spotted ray, a puffer fish and angel fish. Not bad bearing in mind we were within 75 meters of the shore.
However, if snorkeling is not your idea of fun then there is plenty of clean white sand for you to sunbathe on. We did not partake in any relaxation in the sun because I had forgot to reapply my sun cream and was rapidly turning into a lobster.
Want to know more about other underwater activities we have got up to? Then check out our post on the Perhentian Islands.
Easter in Muslim Malaysia?
Everyone knows that in Christian countries Easter will be a public holiday. However, I never expected this celebration to be observed in Islamic Malaysia. Sabah observes this holiday because of its large Christian population. If you have ever been to both the Malaysian Peninsular and Malaysian Borneo you will know how different they are culturally. Furthermore, Sabah has its own administrative laws and this is just one example of that. So, when we arrived on Manukan I was shocked to discover how busy it was. And questioned, why all these locals were not at work? After speaking to some locals we discovered they have a public holiday on Good Friday. Crazy, huh?
If you are looking for a slice of peaceful relaxation then avoid these islands at the weekend and public holidays. Despite how busy the beach was we still had a great day and would recommend this trip for anyone visiting Kota Kinabalu. Overall, these islands are an easy independent day trip from Kota Kinabalu which give you a chance to explore even more of Borneo’s astounding nature.