Gold Coast Getaway, Coolangatta.

So I had arrived in Melbourne, ready to explore a bit of Australia for a few months. So one of the first things we did was book a flight up to the gold coast.

The gold coast is Queensland’s second largest City/Metropolitan, it’s south of Brisbane and the beaches stretch over 43 miles of pure paradise.

The flight is so quick, and we were soon in an Uber to our cute little home for the next two nights. The Pink Hotel in Coolangatta is Instagram friendly, comfortable and cool. With a secret piano bar, a rooftop terrace and a rock bar.

Check in was nice and easy, the rooms were large with interesting features. We loved the pink fluffy flamingo robes!

After a quick freshen up we went out to explore Coolie. It was warm but with a cold wind and we decided to walk up around snapper rocks and to point danger. The beach was white sand, clear blue water and plenty of surfers, it was paradise.

We were pretty hungry, so we stopped for lunch at this great little place on the main strip called Raw Energy. The food was so good and very vegetarian friendly.

After that recharge we walked around the little peninsula at snapper rock, spotted brush turkeys, lizards and rainbow lorikeets, watched the surfers and enjoyed the beautiful views.

Up on point danger we looked out for whales, and checked out the monument to Captain Cook and some nice little war memorials. There were even turkeys up here! The views down the coast we stunning.

It was pretty windy up there, so we wandered back down and decided to stop for a beer. We chose the rainbow surf club, with it’s cute balcony overlooking the beach and ocean.

Lucky for us it was happy hour! So we sat and watched the surfers, the sun slowly going down and enjoyed ice cold beers. Then to our surprise we noticed fins in the water, and before we knew it a pod of dolphins started leaping, splashing and playing right in front of us to the backdrop of a hazy orange sun.

Sadly there were a lot of bushfires inland and you could see the smoke up high causing the sun to go an eerie red as it set.

This was such a great experience so we were buzzing as we walked back to the hotel. We got changed and decided to try Eddie’s Grub house, the bar attached to our hotel.

It was pretty cool, they had a really fun live band playing country/rock music. The beer was good and the food was delicious, especially the jalapeno hush puppies!

Filled up with great food, we walked over to an interesting statue, marking the divide between two states, Queensland and New South Wales. So we took a couple of fun pics of us in either state and took a little walk along the beach. We finished the night off with ice cream.

The next day we hit the beach, at first the weather was a little cold and wet, but by midday it had brightened up and we had fun paddling in the water, relaxing on the beach and enjoying our little picnic we had put together from the Woolworths on the main strip.

It was great to relax, and we spent most of the day here, going over to the rainbow club for more happy hour drinks and then enjoying the view from the top of the hotel.

Tonight we had a drink at the Coolangatta Hotel, watching the lorikeets come in to nest for the night. Then we walked over to have what is probably the worst pizza of my life. I always thought pizza was something you couldn’t get wrong, but Earth and Sea pizza restaurant managed it.

The pizzas came out with about a cm of water under the base so they were really soggy and super small for the price. Definitely avoid it!

It didn’t dampen our spirits though, so we got mcflurrys from McDonald’s and wandered back to the hotel. I peeked into the piano bar which looked really cool but we were getting up for sunrise in the morning so called it quits.

That morning we got up while it was still dark, got dressed and walked up to point danger. We stood looking out over the ocean, watching the sun slowly come up. Then the most amazing thing happened, we spotted something big come up out of the water and disappear.

There was a little pod of Humpback Whales swimming right past us! It was truly a breathtaking experience and my first time seeing Whales! Sadly they didn’t breach but they did a lot of tail slapping which was fun to see.

We were both super happy to enjoy this experience together, it’s definitely worth getting up early to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals.

Breakfast was at the Bread Social, a really good bakery where we shared a blueberry custard donut and savoury eggplant pie. It was delicious and we’d definitely recommend going there for breakfast/lunch.

The rest of the day was spent on the beach, swimming in the cool clear waters, walking along the surf and then it was nearly time to go! We ate some tasty pokebowls on the hotel rooftop and then took a taxi back to the airport. It’s less than ten minutes away so it’s a great place to stay.

Then we were back on a plane to Melbourne, through the smoky haze of the forest fires which gave the landscape a weird look.

It was a great little getaway and we’d definitely go back to Coolie! I can’t wait to explore more of Australia.

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Bohol, a morning cave swim and a night time firefly paddle board.

I left Siquijor by ferry, this time doing a full loop up to Bohol and Panglao island. The only ferry leaves at 12:30 from Larena and takes around 1 hour 30. The price is only 500 peso!

I didn’t hang around at my hotel after the spider and bugs from the night before. So I went off by jeepney to the main town, got some cakes for breakfast and took a taxibike over to Larena. I was over an hour early so wandered around the town, there wasn’t much going on, so I waited at the port. After a lovely ferry journey I arrived on Bohol island! I took a taxibike to my hotel and arrived at around 14:30.

I had decided to stay one night at Natura Vista, an adorable looking ecolodge right by the beach. It was such a cute place, after the little hut on Siquijor it seemed like paradise. So I relaxed for half an hour or so then went down to the beach. I was enjoying these relaxing days having some beach time after so many Cities.

I watched the fishermen heading out for the night catches and the sunset was another stunner. I think the Philippines has some of the best in the world!

I ate at the hotel, some lovely veggies and rice and obviously a San Miguel. Then had a great spider-free nights sleep.

The next day I woke early, got up and ready and walked the 30 mins or so around to Hinagdanan cave. It was a fun little walk with some very random statues. I arrived at the caves and paid the 175 peso entrance.

The caves were amazing, the limestone has caused dramatic stalactites, but the best part was the cold lagoon that you could swim in. I was a little nervous at first as the only light coming in is from some holes in the roof.

Once I got in though I loved it, what a way to start the morning! I helped some girls take photos in return for my own. Then went back up to the hotel feeling refreshed.

I was heading to the jungle interior of Bohol this afternoon but I wanted to do it on the cheap. So I took a jeepney into Tagbilaran City. Walked up to the integrated bus terminal and had a quick wander around the mall. I bought some donuts and snacks.

Next was another jeepney to Loboc. Known for its scenic river and a gateway to some great adventures. I was staying at the Fox and Firefly, it was a little above my budget but totally worth it.

The main reason I wanted to stay there was the stand up paddle boarding, I had never done it before and was super excited to try. So obviously I booked a night time one to see fireflies for my first time.

I had dinner in the lovely open restaurant after checking in, and rested until it was time to go. There were only 4 of us, we put on our lifejackets and went straight out onto our boards after a quick lesson. We started by sitting on our knees and paddling.

Even at night it was amazing, we had to keep to the side of the river due to boats, but there were only a handful and otherwise the sky was beautiful, it was peaceful, and best of all we saw hundreds of fireflies.

Our guide took us to two trees that were absolutely covered in them. It was another awe-inspiring moment on my trip. I even managed to stand up for a bit on my board!

We headed back halfway and then took a truck back the rest. I chatted to the driver and he gave me a good price for a full Bohol tour the next day. I went to bed really happy and excited for what was next.

Time to chill on Siquijor, Island of Witchcraft

Siquijor is a small island in the Philippines known for it’s mystical mountain healers, witchcraft and superstition. It’s also got some amazing little beaches and forest interior.

I was travelling there from Dumaguete on the ferry, which took around 2 hours and cost less than £2. We also saw dolphins on the relaxing boat journey! A real bonus.

Like most places in SE Asia a huge group of tuktuks, taxis and taxibikes awaited us, so I showed one guy my hotel, popped a helmet on and off we went. There’s basically one road around the island, with a few smaller ones leading Inland, so it’s hard to get lost!

Arriving at the hotel it was around lunchtime, so I checked in and realised I was actually staying in a small shack in someone’s back garden. It was very basic but super cheap and I thought at least it’ll be an adventure. If it sounds up your street the hotel is Lagkaw sa Sawang.

I dropped my stuff off and decided to try out a jeepney, the bus like transports found all over the Philippines. It worked a treat as I jumped up into the back and, once at my destination paid and jumped off!

My destination was Paliton beach, a small expanse of white sand, turquoise waters and not much else. It was another little paradise and I lay here for the whole afternoon, swimming and reading.

I got chatting to some guys who were opening resorts on the island who were a little bit cringe, but it led me to chat with two German girls and we sat enjoying the spectacular sunset and agreed to meet for dinner later.

The sun had set and it was pretty dark along the small track to the main road but wasn’t sure if I jeepney would be coming, so I started to walk to the next barangay which is like a village. From here I took a taxibike back to the hotel, got changed and went for dinner at a lovely restaurant called Baha bar. They did great vegetarian food and the beers were ice cold.

The next day I rented a motorcycle from the owners of my little hut for 300 peso a day, I was nervous but I had been on the back of bikes a few times now and got used to it.

So off I sped! My first stop on a island wide tour was the enchanted Balete tree. Around 400 years old it is said to have magical properties. It’s literally on the main road and after paying a 10 peso entrance fee you can sit under it, dangle your feet in a small stream and let fish nibble away.

It was starting to get super hot now, so I decided to head up to Cambugahay falls. There are a few waterfalls dotted around the interior but this one is supposedly the best. You park up then walk down quite a few steps to be rewarded with this beautiful blue pool of water and cascading waterfalls.

I was in heaven and enjoyed cooling down in the second pool, watching people swinging into the first pool from little treehouse. I lay back under the waterfalls and watched the sunlight through the trees.

I had to have a go on the swings, it cost just 10 peso for a go, so I had a few and it was so fun! Swinging out and dropping into the beautiful water. I spent a couple of hours here just relaxing and enjoying the natural theme park.

So I carried on around the interior of the island, enjoying the views over the hills, when I noticed signs for a cave. So obviously I took the small dirt track to a dead end, where a guy took me down into the forest.

We ended up at a small cave entrance, and with a head torch we went in to explore. There was a bit of clambering and some cool formations in there along with bats, but it was probably only a 10 minute journey to the end and back. It was only £1.50 though.

I was pretty sweaty and grimy by the time I got back to the bike. I met the girls again for dinner and drinks and then gave one a lift back to their hotel.

Today I was my last day here, so I was going to hit up another beach, and explore the interior more. So off I went on my little bumblebee bike to the opposite side of the island. Riding around is definitely the best way to get about, and the views from the bike were lovely.

Salagdoong beach wasn’t that great though. Compared to Paliton it’s busier with a restaurant pumping out music, what looked like a very rundown water park and two beaches that were really busy. I lay down and went for a swim, got an ice cream and did enjoy it, but I kept thinking of how great little Paliton was.

There are also meant to be some concrete boards you can jump into the sea from but I couldn’t find them. As we got into the afternoon I decided to get up into the mountains. Driving up I found a cute little hill to walk up and view the whole island from, it was epic.

I got back down and as I drove off noticed a snake in the grass! I tried to swerve but didn’t have time so I either ran over it or just missed it, but I wasn’t going back to check! I drove on and went down past some gorgeous colonial buildings. I didn’t know what else to see and couldn’t make my mind up.

So I took a leisurely pace back to the hotel, when I went into my hut, there was a huge huntsman’s spider crawling along my stuff! I absolutely shit it. I couldn’t get past the spider to get a shower or fresh clothes. So I did what any sane person would do. Closed the door and left.

I went to the main town by the port and treated myself to pizza, chips and a banana shake, and tried to decide what to do. After a couple of beers I went back with determination. When I got there I couldn’t see the Huntsman anymore, but that wasn’t really a help. So I spent the night with all the lights on, attracting all kinds of insects. It’s fair to say I didn’t sleep much!

I had to laugh at myself, because I know that the huntsman aren’t dangerous, but I did not want to wake up with one on my face! I decided as I carefully packed my stuff up the next day that it’s all part and parcel of staying on such a mystical island.

Facing my fears at Kawasan Falls

Today was going to be interesting! Over the last few years I’ve started to notice a real fear of heights and I couldn’t put my finger on where it came from. So I was heading to Kawasan Falls on Cebu Island, travelling from Oslob I took the bus again. I was heading south again to Liloan, the last stop. Then from here you have to take a bus going North, but along the West coast.

Kawasan Falls is famous for cliff jumping and canyoneering, but also for the beautiful turquoise waters. So hopefully I’d be able to do the jumps and get over my vertigo.

I made it to the entrance way and started walking up. There were taxi bikes offering to take you up and various tour companies offering canyoneering. It was a nice pleasant walk and I had decided to check out the waterfalls before doing any jumping/canyoneering.

I paid the small entrance fee, and found that the falls are quite the attraction. There are restaurants and shops all right by the big pool at the base of the falls. You could leave your belongings in a manned locker store which was good. I sat and watched people swimming in the water and going under the waterfall.

I decided I had to do the jumping. So I went over and booked a guide to take me up. We wound our way past a couple of waterfalls, up along the river and finally to a beautiful spot where we watched a couple of people jumping. It looked so high and I started to get very nervous.

We clambered up to the top of the rocks and he showed me where to jump. It was such an effort to get my legs to move, but I did it with a large (manly) scream. I couldn’t believe I had jumped! Then I realised my GoPro was no longer on my stick and it had floated to the bottom, as you can see from the video!

My guide was a hero, and dived down to get it for me, I made sure I tipped him later for the effort. I was now pumped and so I did the jump again, then went down a natural rock slide before swinging on a rope and falling into a beautiful turquoise pool.

It was so much fun! My fears had all gone and I couldn’t wait to do the next jump, this time it was a big one, off an amazing waterfall, I climbed onto the spot and jumped! My guide took over recording duties at this point, it was amazing and I got to go again. This time I could enjoy the quieter pool to swim in, then we went back to the main waterfall and parted ways.

I’d love to go back and do more canyoneering and it really made me feel like I had achieved something. I spent the next couple of hours having a beer and swimming some more. Then it was on to the next adventure!

Back at the main road I took the bus south to Liloan again, and stopped at the docks. This time I was taking a ferry to Dumaguete on the island of Negros. My stop off point to reach the small Island of Siquijor. The ferry journey was quick and easy, my hotel was cheap with breakfast and I enjoyed walking along the promenade.

Dumaguete is quite a big City and I stopped at Chowking to enjoy the national dessert dish of shaved ice, condensed milk an various weird sweets/beans/coconut and topped with ice cream, Halo Halo!

I also finally got my haircut after 5 weeks, had some tasty food at the chowking and a beer on the promenade. Then it was back to the hotel, bed and ready to leave for the ferry the next day.

Cebu Island and the Whale Sharks.

So I arrived in Cebu, and knew I wouldn’t get to Oslob, my next destination until the following morning. So I took the bus from the airport into the centre which was really easy. Then took a grab bike to my hotel, it was a cute place I ate in their restaurant and went to bed early.

I was up at 6am ready to walk over to the South Bus terminal. It was easy to find the correct bus and staff were helpful in buying a ticket etc. The bus takes around 3 and a half hours, it actually got pretty busy too as we wound our way South. It also only cost about £2! You can do a day tour but these can cost up to £80 each.

I was heading to a place where you’re guaranteed to see whale sharks, and as I had got closer to the day I started to read that it was a bit controversial. There are arguments on both sides of this, with some saying that by feeding the whale sharks the fishermen are interrupting their natural migration.

There were also issues with boats injuring the sharks, however there is also research that shows the coral and fish in the area are flourishing because the fishermen are no longer using poor techniques to catch, as they’re making money from us tourists. Plus the local government are continuing to introduce stricter rules when it comes to entering the water and numbers visiting.

I decided to check it out, I’d like to say it was out of interest but I definitely wanted to see these magnificent animals. They’re the biggest fish in the world, and are beautiful gentle beasts.

I arrived in Tan-Awan where I was staying, dropped my stuff off at the hotel and went straight to the Sharks. I got offered a few prices as I walked up, just ignore them and go straight to the people there. It cost me 1000 peso, which was around £15.

We sat through a very thorough guidelines video and talk of the dos and don’ts once we got in the boats, we had to shower before leaving to wash off any sunscreen as it’s damaging. The people working there genuinely seemed to care about the whales but it was pretty hectic.

Once in the boat you get taken out to a spot, jump in with snorkels and watch as the sharks glide past. Surfacing now and again, you couldn’t touch or go within 3 feet of them. Although the fishermen try to control the tourists there are some that are ignorant and try to get close. Also a lot of the tourists couldn’t swim but still jumped in and started thrashing about. So watch out for arms and legs that could hit you.

I was amazed by it all, I’m usually nervous being out of my depths and sharks terrify me, but I think I was so in awe of them that I didn’t even think about it.

The only thing I found uncomfortable was just the number of people in the water at the same time, and I’ve read that they are limiting numbers more and more which is good.

After the buzz of seeing these amazing sharks I decided to keep the adventure up and go to some nearby waterfalls. It cost 200 peso for return trip in a mototaxi, 20 peso entry and 60 peso return for motorbike down to the falls from the carpark. It’s only about 15 mins from the village.

Tumalog falls were incredible, totally different type of waterfall to what I’m used to. It’s about 100 metres tall, and instead of a steady flow of water it sprays down the side of this cliff sparkling in the sunlight. There’s a huge pool at the bottom that you can swim and relax in. Plus the rainforest environment is beautiful to relax in.

I spent a good two hours here, the water was cold and refreshing in the heat and I couldn’t stop looking at the waterfall from different angles.

After a full day I finally checked in to my hotel, Casa Bonita and chilled out for a bit then went for a wander around the little village. There wasn’t much going on, but there are a couple of little stores selling food and a few restaurants. I ate at the hotel again. Some lovely fried veggies and rice. Then I was ready for another busy day tomorrow.

Puerta Princesca and the Wonder of the World.

I arrived into Puerta Princesca with the aim of seeing one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. The massive underground river system of Puerta Princesca subterranean national park.

As a capital of the island I was expecting quite a busy City, but it actually was more like a small town. My hotel was on the edge of the town and about a 30 minute walk from the airport where the bus had dropped me off.

It was a bit out of the way and another remnant of my hangover choices back in Nacpan. It was nice enough though, and I booked my underground trip, but also a dolphin trip.

I spent the evening trying to find somewhere to eat, and ended up with an overpriced pizza. Then had a beer back at the hotel. I got up early and met the bus driver who took me to a larger bus which then went around the City to pick up the other adventurers for the trip. It cost 1700 pesos including everything such as transfers, lunch and permits.

Located about 50 miles north of the City the cave system is around 15 miles long with a 5 mile stretch of underground river that flows directly into the sea. The river system features giant caves and stalactites/stalagmites. It was voted as one of the 7 natural wonders of the world in 2012.

We arrived and had a couple of options before going to the caves. A zipline or a boat trip through a mangrove forest. I chose the latter because there was the offer of snake sightings!

So off we trotted to this little boat, where a lovely lady began rowing us gently up this little river, with mangroves surrounding us. As we went we started to spot these mangrove snakes perilously close to the boat, and I started to regret my choice.

It actually turned out to be really interesting, and although we didn’t spot any more interesting creatures it was a great way to start the trip.

We had a quick lunch of rice and veggies, meat for the others, then set off on another boat trip to reach the caves. It’s an amazing little journey past amazing scenery that you would never get to see from land.

Finally we were at the cave entrance, boats were waiting to take us through, so in we jumped and what followed was an amazing underground trip through vast caverns, small tunnels and past incredible rock formations.

We had a hilarious guide too which made the trip even more fun, the cave system you can reach is 8km long and we covered 4km. You can do more with a special permit. The caves are also filled with bats which were fun to spot.

As we finally entered back I felt exhilarated to have witnessed a true natural wonder. The bus back was uneventful, and i managed to meet up with some fellow travelers from my stay at the Mad Monkey in Nacpan. We had a traditional Filipino meal a couple of beers and then I walked back to my hotel ready for a busy day.

I awoke early in the morning, packed my stuff and waited for another van. This time I was off to see Dolphins! Arriving at the port we waited for a few more people and then jumped on the boat and headed out.

It was a great experience, we followed these dolphins up and down for ages. (Or they followed us!) They were playing and swimming next to us, it was so much fun.

Then we were taken to a snorkeling spot, but a large group with us demanded to be taken further out. Unfortunately non of them could swim, and they were splashing about so much that the fish did a runner.

So no one got to see any fish, and we headed back to the dock. I got to sit right at the front of the boat which was so much fun. We arrived back and after chilling for a couple of hours I went to the airport, ready to hit up Cebu, the island of adventure.

El Nido and paradise at Nacpan beach.

I arrived on Palawan Island in the Philippines, excited to get to the beach after a month of City and Country. I landed in Puerta Princesca, the capital of the island. I knew it was pretty easy to get to El Nido in the North via a minivan. It cost around £10 and took 6 hours.

El Nido is basically the name given to the area you stay in to explore the Bacuit Archipelago, a group of karst islands that is unparalleled paradise.

The journey there was beautiful too, through lush jungle and past dramatic coastline. It was a bit uncomfortable but there was one stop to stretch the legs and eat/buy snacks/toilet.

I finally arrived in El Nido and for some reason hadn’t really planned my itinerary there very well. But I’ll go through it anyway! I stayed at a little hostel called Pawikan which was cheap, clean and only sharing with one other person.

The first thing that struck me about El Nido was how small the little town seemed, stuck between huge karst cliffs, it felt like I had reached a different world. I immediately set off to wander the streets, full of nice looking restaurants, shops and beachfront bars.

El Nido is famous for it’s boat tours, of which you can do A,B,C or D or a combination of them. So there were plenty of places to book, all offering them at similar prices. For reasons unknown even to me, I didn’t book the boat trip immediately, instead I decided to drink a few beers on the beach, got some amazing deep fried chillis and booked a mid morning bus to Nacpan beach for the following day.

Nacpan beach is found North of the town, down a small dirt track that was barely passable. There was one or two hotel/bar/restaurants on arrival, but I was staying at the only hostel. Located right on the beach, The Mad Monkey is a well known chain for backpackers across South East Asia.

After about ten minutes of walking along the beach, a good bonding session with a Swedish guy who had also been on the bus we arrived in paradise. Beautiful beach, clear blue sea and a bar. After checking in we stripped down and got straight on the beach.

I ordered a couple of beers and spent the next 2 days soaking up the sun, drinking heavily, making new friends and enjoying our little slice of paradise.

The mad monkey offered all you can drink for one mad, happy, crazy hour every evening. This is how probably the best experience of my trip started. I had made friends with a Dutch guy called J, and a Ukrainian girl called Svetlana. So we met on the first evening and started drinking, and these were strong rum and cokes and red horse, a 7% San Miguel.

Feeling a little tipsy, I agreed to Svetlana’s request to go for a night swim, now I’m not recommending drunk swimming as it can be dangerous, but off we went with J and a Canadian girl called Sam and dived in. As we were swimming we noticed something odd, we realised that glowing plankton was all around us. Every time we splashed in the water it lit up, if we dived down lights glittered around us.

It was truly an incredible experience, we were so excited and spent so long swimmimg and couldn’t believe our luck. The people working there said it’s super rare to see.

On my last day I felt super ill, hungover and unable to bear the heat. So I cut my trip short by a night, booked a room in El Nido with air con, bought enough snacks to last me at least 2 days and spent the afternoon hibernating. Feeling a little refreshed I finally booked one of the boat trips for the following day.

I was up early and ready to go, our boat left from the main beach and we were soon on our way to small lagoon We arrived and everyone jumped into kayaks, but being on my own I just jumped in the water and started swimming, it was amazing, the water was warm and so clear. It was a lot of fun going through the little cave and emerging into this pool surrounded by vegetation and cliff faces. I couldn’t believe how cool it was.

The next stop was big lagoon! This was just as interesting, it was so shallow as we walked between two cliffs to then dive into the deepest blue lagoon ever. I could see fish swimming in the depths beneath me and it was a nice way to cool off.

Even sailing between all these islands was amazing, like a less crowded version of Ha Long Bay in it’s beauty. We stopped on this tiny beach for lunch and got to explore and swim a bit. The lunch was great, even for a veggie like me.

It was too rough and busy to go to the secret lagoon which was a little disappointing, but we headed off to 7 Commandos beach. Here I went snorkelling for ages, saw clown fish, a big white sea snake and loads of other colourful fish. Then I attempted to play beach volleyball, I was pretty bad but it was still fun. Although I think the Filipinos were a bit more competitive than me. I was also told you could sometimes see turtles!

After lazing on the beach with a coconut it was time to head back. I had really enjoyed the trip and to top it off we had a karaoke competition on the way back and I won! With a beautiful rendition of Oasis – Wonderwall.

After a busy day swimming and still feeling a little rough from Nacpan beach I had a tasty dinner and booked my bus back to Puerta Princesca in the morning. Looking back I wish I had spent more time in El Nido and planned my itinerary a little better. I rushed off and regretted not going to Coron and even maybe doing a different boat trip, but there’s always next time!

48 Hours in Manila

So, before I left on my journey around SE Asia, all the info I found on Manila was basically telling me not to go. The capital of the Philippines does not have a good reputation, a lot of it is centred around the awful traffic, while other bits I read just said it was too vast, too run down to bother with. In my opinion, you’re missing out by not exploring this wonderful capital.

My plan was to spend just a couple of nights there, spend one day exploring and take a flight over to Palawan the next day. After checking hotels I decided to book one well in advance for my first night and stay somewhere really nice, at least that way I could enjoy the hotel even if I didn’t enjoy Manila that much. The thing that hit me immediately about Manila was that I had suddenly arrived in a place in Asia, that uses pesos as currency, has San Miguel adverts everywhere and my taxi driver was called Pedro. I was in love.

I arrived from Taiwan early and the first thing I did was get a sim card, I think it cost about £10 for 5GB of data, and I soon had the Grab app up and running, this time I booked a pool journey over to Makati as it was so cheap. It took about 45 minutes, and traffic was pretty congested as we got further into the City but I think being prepared for the worst helped me. The City Garden hotel was incredible when I arrived, great service, big comfy room and an amazing rooftop pool.

I decided to freshen up and head straight out, and Grab was a godsend during my stay in Manila getting me about everywhere for cheap cheap prices, I booked one to take me up to the old Intramuros area again this took around 40 minutes or so but cost about £4. The driver dropped me off at Rizal park and I had a great little wander around there, the Philippines has such an incredible history of Spanish colonialism followed by American influence and the destruction that WW2 wrought, and this park had tributes to some of the leaders of an independance movement.

Rizal was a key member of the Filipino independence movement who was executed by the colonial Spanish government after the Philippine revolution, which was partly inspired by his writings.

Realising I hadn’t eaten anything since morning, I noticed a fast food joint across the road from the park called Jollibee. I would later find out that this is a Filipino institution and is found pretty much everywhere across the country. I walked in and soon realised that there wasn’t much for a vegetarian so ordered a milkshake and large fries and tucked in. Refreshed and rejuvenated with the echoes of Jollibee songs stuck in my head, I walked up to the gates of Intramuros and Fort Santiago.

Fort Santiago is a citadel that was built around 1590 and is one of the only remaining historical sites in Manila. Built and occupied by the Spanish, it has also experienced British, American and Japanese rule. Intramuros is the surrounding area contained within the old walls, and I started my exploration of the area.

I realised I could walk along the old walls and immediately bounded up the steps, here I found beautiful views of the City and surrounding area. The old moat area has been turned into verdent golf course, lush with grass and plants and a sharp contrast to the ram shackle city towers.

I wandered along the walls, marvelling that this was free and apart from a few kids shielding themselves from the sweltering sunshine it was just me. After some time I decided to head back down into Intramuros, grabbed a beautiful pineapple shake for about 50p and found some very cool old colonial buildings and churchs as I wound my way towards the Fort.

I soon found the Fort and entered for around 75 pesos. There’s not a great deal to it, but it’s very beautiful, a long wide avenue takes you down to the main gate and walls, whuch you cross a small moat to enter. Then you find yourself in a big green courtyard with some amazing old walls, a few buildings open to explore and some more great views over the river and City. It’s also got a great museum centred around Rizal and his life and death, as he was jailed here in 1896 and executed.

As with most executions of political revolutionaries this only caused more strong will in the Filipino people for independence. The thing I appreciated the most about Rizal’s story, was his insistance that education and national identity were the main things in achieving freedom.

After around and hour and a half I had explored every inch of the Fort I decided it was time to head back towards the hotel but taking the long way around as an adventure. Little did I know just how long it would be. As I walked towards the exit to Intramuros I found some amazing street art which I had to get pictures of, and found some old artillery which was pretty cool.

Once out of Intramuros I took another grab to the seafront which I thought would make a lovely walk, how wrong I was, looking out across the bay it seemed the waves were made of garbage, and the small shacks dotted along the promenade were people’s houses. It was the first and last time in the Philippines that I felt unsafe and upset about the amount of rubbish.

With this in mind it seemed like a good idea to head into the City and the general direction of the hotel, hopefully via a huge mural on the side of a building. I stopped at a 7/11 for snacks and pocari sweat to re-hydrate and carried on my walk. It took me through some very interesting areas to say the least before I finally found it, but I never felt unsafe. By now it was getting late and I realised I was walking along a triple carriageway on what barely counted as a curb.

So it was back to grab and what was a 30 minute walk on google maps turned into an hour and 15 minute journey by car, in all fairness it was rush hour, and I had a great chat to my taxi driver Carlos. Now extremely sweaty, covered in a fine layer of dust a shower seemed appropriate before heading up to enjoy the sunset and city lights of Manila from the rooftop.

An ice cold beer and a cooling dip in the pool was just what I needed, and I got chatting to two Canadian girls who had missed their flight to Palawan that day and had to book a last minute hotel. They seemed to be taking advantage of it as they ordered some more shots for us all. As we hung over the rooftop edge enjoying the heights and the sunset, we agreed to get ready before meeting up later for some drinks.

Now anyone who knows me, knows I take around 15-20 minutes to get ready, including a shower. This left me ready with time to spare before we met, so I went off in search of food, as my stomach suddenly reminded me I had barely eaten all day. The hotel is located near some really cool bars on and around Don Pedro street and I was excited to try them out.

I found a cute little kebab place that did falafel and rice, it was cheap, huge and delicious, in fact it was so big I probably didn’t need the fries I got, but they seemed to disappear quite quickly too. Fuelled up I walked back along the street to a great looking bar with a little terrace I had noticed earlier.

I found a little spot overlooking the street and ordered and amazing take on the old fashioned, the girls messaged me to let me know they were on their way, so I leaned back and relaxed. Once they arrived we ordered some of the bars locally brewed beers and swapped travelling tales. Beofre we knew it the bar called for last orders, so we discussed further drinking plans with a final beer.

The girls had noticed another street nearby full of bars, so off we trotted in search of more drinks. P. Burgos street was a complete contrast to where we had been, big bold brash and full of expats, I think the best way to explain it is by the first thing I was offered by a young man on the street….viagra. Not letting it deter us we stopped at one of the many bars along here sat down, ordered some beers and people watched.

Before long the night was up, so we walked back along to the hotel, making those sort of drunk plans to meet up further along the line that we all knew would never happen. Back in my big comfy hotel room I soon slipped off to a peaceful sleep.

The next day I moved hotels to a cheaper hostel called The Fort Budget hotel, I was in a sharing room which was fine for the price and they had an amazing rooftop area that you could enjoy. So I dropped my stuff off here and took a short walk to the Bonifacio area. It used to be part of the Philippine army camp, but after a lot of redevelopment it’s now one of the most financially successful areas of Manila, and a complete change of scenery to the metropolitan area I had walked around yesterday.

It’s all big shiny skyscrapers, wide avenues and lots of greenery. I actually thought it was a beautiful City inside a City but it’s crazy that all this wealth is in Manila but you still have slums everywhere too.

My main reason to explore this area was to check out some of the street art on offer here, I had found a really great map to follow which showed some of the more prominent works. I stopped for a quick pancake session at an IHOP, somewhere I loved back in the states, it also showed the relationship between the Philippines and the United States, a lot of American culture has been adopted by the Filipinos.

So filled with red velvet pancakes I was ready to go! I checked the map and decided to visit the American-Manila WW2 cemetary. It’s a beautiful and peaceful memorial to the lives lost in WW2 in the Pacific battles against Japan and subsequent liberation of the Philippines by the United States.

The grounds with white crosses spreading out in every direction was very sombre and impactful, while the main memorial in the centre was exremely informative about the battles that had happened. It’s something I didn’t have much knowledge of previously so it was good to learn a little more about the history of the Philippines during the war. It’s also free to enter and a great oasis from the metallic City surrounding it.

I walked from here to the art centre, with a few really cool murals hidden around it such as a giant astronaut and a cool bookcase showcasing aspects of culture from around SE Asia.

A lot of the next bits of art work were located in and around Bonificao high street, ranging from small pieces hidden down side streets to huge murals! I was really loving it and the high street was actually really impressive too. If you enjoy shopping it’d be a great place to visit, I had a great time visiting a huge book store, some interesting clothing stores and there was so much choice for food!

Back to the street art, I found an amazing Stranger Things mural and a really cool Filipino farmer mural. This self -guided tour had taken up most of the day, but even as I walked back to my hostel I found some more really cool pieces.

I got back to the hotel via a 7/11 with evening snacks and drinks, and I sat watching this vast City go by from the rooftop. I really enjoyed Manila, but it was time to head out for a bit of beach life and adventure.

Caution! Radiation! Dark Tourism at Chernobyl

Today I was doing something that I was wholly unsure of. I was going to visit Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear power station that essentially went into meltdown and caused a huge nuclear explosion. The after effects of which are still felt now, and were felt for thousands of miles as winds blew radiation across Northern Europe.

This all happened in 1986 under Soviet rule in Ukraine but I was assured by various publications and tour sites online that it was now safe for humans to wander through, so I bit the proverbial bullet and went for it. I booked my tour online through Chernobyl-Tour, at first I was totally unsure if it was legit but you paid on the day and apart from handing over your passport it seemed pretty safe.

We met at 07:30am in Kiev, a motley crew of myself, an American family, a Spanish couple, a French guy and an Australian man. Lunch was to be included and we would make a quick stop to grab something for breakfast at a very well put together services on the way. All ready to go and passports checked we were informed there were two more travellers, and we would wait an extra ten minutes for them. At this point I just knew this couple would be trouble, they soon arrived around 11 minutes later, much to my consternation we hadn’t left them behind.

They then went into a big story about how one of them had left their passport at the hostel, to which they were told they wouldn’t be going on the tour without it. This began a whole rigmarole of leaving them behind, but waiting for them at the services while they took a taxi back to their hostel and then out to the services.

Anyway, we were soon on our merry way, making our hellos through gritted teeth at the new arrivals. The journey to the military checkpoint that required our passports and on to our first stop took around 3 hours, the route was scenic and we got a little background on what had happened and the itinerary for the day, we were also all given our own personal geiger counters and maps which was pretty cool and/or terrifying depending on your train of thought.

Once through the soviet era guard post – something that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Pierce Brosnan era James Bond film, we were officially in the Chernobyl area. The three headed deer and giant glowing wolves that I had imagined in my head failed to materialise, instead we stopped and took a quick look around a small village called Zalissya that had been completely abandoned. It was eerie walking through the woods with glimpses of derelict houses, we explored a few of them, only finding bits that no scavengers would take.

Next on the agenda was another quick stop at the first exclusion workers site, here people live and work around the whole Chernobyl area, testing the radiation levels and performing maintenance. We looked at some of the equipment that had been used through the years to aid in sealing the nuclear towers off and learnt that they mostly hadn’t worked. There was a really endearing statue of origami swans in dedication to people who lost their lives due to the reactor.

The next part of the tour was really cool, and complete KGB/Soviet stuff, we stopped at a gated off area which led to a huge radar antenna which was completely hidden from the West and it was only discovered once people started returning to work in the exclusion zone.

It would have been used to assist in launching ballistic missiles. I thought it was amazing and I could’ve wandered through the bunkers, under the radar and around the abandoned vehicles for ages. This was truly an experience unlike any other. Geiger counters gripped in our hands we closely monitored the radiation levels and found control rooms straight out of films and TV.

Unfortunately time was limited and our next stop was the creepiest yet, the village of Kopachi. In the aftermath of the fallout the government didn’t really know what to do, so in some areas of high radiation the houses were bulldozed and buried.

This only led to the radiation seeping into the ground and water table around the village, making it one of the highest radiation spots we visited. The only building left was the kindergarten, with empty beds left behind and various creepy toys lying around.

It was now time for lunch, and we joined the exclusion zone workers in their cafeteria to enjoy the same food that they eat. I forgot to take pictures of this and I’ve completely forgotten what we ate so it couldn’t have been too memorable. We ate and chatted about the day so far before we were bundled back into our little minibus to view the actual reactor or at least the sarcophagus that now covers it.

They actually discovered that the original containment barrier was leaking radioactive rain into the soil and thus into the environment. So a new containment device was built over this, which allows nuclear waste to be safely removed and the old sarcophagus to be dismantled.

The next part of the trip was really exciting as we visited the nuclear City of Pripyat, this place was built for the huge population of workers that the nuclear station required, reaching a population of nearly 50,000 at the time it was evacuated. It truly represents nature taking back control of something built by humans.

Covered in greenery and buildings slowly crumbling to the ground from rain and plants, it includes the sports stadium, the amusement park with the iconic ferris wheel, which was only ridden on once and the whole park was never opened to the public.

It was actually due to open 5 ays after the disaster. It also includes the azure swimming pool – one of the cleanest and safest places in the exclusion zone, we found out to our horror that it was still in use up to 1996 by the men and women brought in to deal with the crisis!

It was starting to get dark now as dusk fell, and our second to last stop was the police station which was definitely like something out of a horror film with it’s abandoned cells. Our last stop was on our way out and had to be illuminated by the bus….it was the memorial to ‘Those who saved the world’ the firefighters that died putting out the fire at the nuclear power plant and the people who cleaned up the area after the accident. It was a fitting way to end the trip, but the drama had just begun.

Remember the two English lads who had caused a commotion at the beginning of the journey? Well they had started to get bored about halfway through and ceased showing any interest in the surroundings or what the guide was saying. Through the whole trip the one thing that we had been warned not to do was pick up any kind of ‘souvenirs’ from the exclusion zone. So obviously as we went back through the checkpoint and were checked for radiation and decontaminated something as amiss.

Turned out a wrench was left on one of the seats on the bus. Now not to point fingers but it was definitely these two lads. They acted like butter wouldn’t melt at the time and luckily for us the army guys let us go without taking us through questioning to figure out who it was, this was what could have potentially happened. Once the wrench had been returned and we were on our way they soon started joking that it might have been them. It was just so needless and embarassing for everyone after such an incredible trip. As we disembarked the bus back in Kiev they offered me the chance of a beer with them, I politely declined by informing them I’d rather drink the cooling water of the nuclear reactor than have a beer with two arseholes.

I did however head to the pub I knew and had a beer, contemplating the day and what a crazy experience it was. The tour cost around 89 US dollars and it was worth every penny. I’d remenber this for the rest of my life. Bucket list moment? TICK.

Houtong and Jiufen, a Taipei day trip.

I felt like I had really explored Taipei City yesterday, even if I hadn’t seen everything there is to see. So I decided to take a day trip out of the City, I was going East to the more mountainous region of Taiwan. I picked up a healthy breakfast of donuts on the way.

As a big anime lover and especially anything Studio Ghibli I was really excited for two places. Houtong, an old mining village that now plays host to a lot of cats and lets you know about it. Plus Jiufen, an old gold mining community that apparently inspired Spirited Away, the classic Hayao Miyazaki anime.

So I took the underground to Shongshan station and from there it was about an hour to Houtong. The scenery was amazing from the train, rolling slowly into the mountains. I arrived at Houtong, and it was everything I dreamed of and more.

As soon as you walk along the bridge over the railway tracks there are cats and cat themed signs and info everywhere. The village itself is small and built up into a hillside, and you basically wander around looking at cats for as long as you like. Perusing the souvenir shops of all things cat related. There’s even a cafe called ‘Meow Meow’.

Interestingly there is another side to Houtong as an ex-mining town. I discovered you could explore a whole mine on a little train. I was on my own, with one girl who worked there leading the way. It was great fun, giant spiders hung ominously in the backdrop as she encouraged me to try my hand at pneumatic drilling and riding my own cart on some tracks.

After this wonderful bonus, I explored a little more of this adorable place, including abandoned buildings, a huge river winding through it and a little hill hike.

I was on a slight time frame, so it was on to the next stop to see Taiwan’s largest waterfall! Shifen falls can be found just a short walk away from the town of the same name. Again, I hadn’t realised that these little towns held so much more. At Shifen I realised that everyone was on the train tracks taking selfies and releasing Chinese lanterns, all with a backdrop of a beautiful old town.

Obviously I took a couple of selfies and pictures of this cute place as I walked past in wonder, and picked up some Tofu and spicy corn on the cob to snack on. It was easy to follow the street along to the waterfall visitors centre. Then from here it was a beautiful country walk over bridges and past huge cliffs to the waterfall.

The location was amazing and they’ve really gone all out so you can enjoy it, you can look at it from various levels depending on how wet you want to get! Plus you could get food and drinks and there was a cute little park to walk through.

Now dripping wet but happy to be out in nature, I stopped and had a beer before heading back to Shifen station. I got some sweet snacks and patiently waited for the next train to take me back to Ruifang then from here I had to jump on the bus to Jiufen, the cherry on the cake. The bus stop in Ruifang to Jiufen is located about 250 metres away in front of the police station numbers 788 and 827 will get you there in 20 minutes.

I couldn’t wait to walk through the little streets, and they didn’t disappoint. Food of every type filled the lanes, with lanterns hanging all around us. This was truly sensory overload in the best possible way, an I picked up a few various bits to eat as I got Spirited Away.

I emerged into a square with some beautiful traditional tea houses that instantly reminded me of Spirited Away and Ghibli. I was so happy! I would have to pass the time til the sun set to really enjoy it though.

So I decided to explore the countryside a little bit, there’s a hike you can do up to the to of one of the mountains, but it would be dark soon and I didn’t want to get caught up there with no light. So I stayed around the outskirts of the town, and I was rewarded with these amazing views out over the mountains and to the sea.

The sun started to go down, casting a golden glow over the countryside. I was awestruck by the beauty of the place. It’s definitely one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen.

With the sun gone it was time to see how Jiufen lit up at night, and again it didn’t disappoint. I had read that one particular tearoom really stood out from the crowd, but to really enjoy it’s exterior you have to sit in the one opposite.

Eventually I worked out the correct tearoom and got in line. It was a very busy place at night and I probably queued for about 45 mins before I got a little table.

I ordered a beer, and sat looking at this gorgeous wooden tea room, with it’s various coloured lights giving it a surreal glow. I was truly loving every minute of this experience.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and now I had to make my way back to Taipei. I was really worried that I’d struggle as it was getting into the night, but I took a bus back to the train station, got some more snacks for the journey and after just a little wait I was on my way to the City.

I was sad to be leaving Taiwan behind, it had been a totally left field choice to come here, and if I’d known how much there was to see and do, I would’ve extended my stay there for sure. As it was I knew one day I’d be back, and I spent one more night in my little bunker, excited to be going to my next destination, the Philippines!!