Bitten by The Trabelle Bug: A Beginner’s Guide to the Banana Pancake Trail

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Not minding the heat in Bayon temple, Angkor Complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Living in the culturally diverse region of Southeast Asia has always been a point of pride for me. However, it wasn’t until recently that I have actually gotten the chance to travel more extensively outside the Philippines and on to neighbouring countries. This island girl was used to summer vacations spent in either Boracay or Palawan. Nevertheless, I had always heard of colorful floating markets and ancient temple complexes only a couple of hours flying from my hometown. Thanks to the prevalence of budget airlines these days, visiting these unique sights has been easier than ever.

While [infamously] considered to be a rite of passage for most Westerners, the Banana Pancake Trail, so named for the sweet banana pancakes commonly served for breakfast in backpacker hostels in the region, is important in a myriad of [more substantial] ways. For me, it has been a truly interesting introduction to the rest of the region I have ironically always identified with.

Why The Banana Pancake Trail Is Worth It

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The iconic ship-on-top-of-building at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, Singapore

Southeast Asia has been the prime choice for backpackers since time immemorial and for good reason. The Banana Pancake Trail is, in my honest opinion, the epitome of the type of shoestring budget travel that will give even budget travel as we know it, a run for its money. On top of that, the region’s cultural diversity has, at least in my experience, made checking off countries through whirlwind trips almost irrelevant. One can easily spend months in the Philippines trotting around its 80 or so provinces. In the same manner, volunteering as an English teacher in Vietnam has been turned into a common experience by the sheer number of opportunities available. For a budget traveler like me, the best part is that doing these types of fulfilling activities, and more, will not burn a hole through the pocket.

Things to Consider When Planning Your Trip

1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary

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Admiring the Petronas Towers from afar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

For Philippine passport holders like me, obtaining a visa is luckily a non-issue when traveling to neighboring countries due to our own’s membership to the ASEAN. Visa costs can add up when crossing countries for other nationalities. Do however be aware of the duration in which you are allowed a visa-free stay in each country and make sure you do not exceed it to avoid immigration problems.

The beautiful thing about the Banana Pancake Trail is that there is no one set route, which means you are free to construct your own itinerary based on your own budget and preferences. For instance, long-term travel in Indochina can be a lot cheaper than staying in major cities such as Singapore. I once spent around 500 USD on a two-week trip that started in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and ended in Bangkok in Thailand. I ate so well, did all the activities I wanted to do, and stayed in really nice Airbnbs. It didn’t feel like budget travel at times. I would, however, easily burn through that amount of money just touring a bigger, busier city for a few days.

Nevertheless, the length of your intended stay, above all else, should determine the stops you take on your route. Traveling around Asia (especially in the southeast) is incredibly cheap and so you should really take your time. While it is definitely possible to have a fulfilling couple of weeks of budget travel in the region, you would most probably be limited to bigger cities, which would most definitely increase the costs.

2. Language, Culture, Etiquette

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Tourist-friendly signs in both Thai and English in Taling Chan Floating Market in Bangkok, Thailand

Due in part to the number of foreign visitors to the countries on the Banana Pancake Trail, it would be difficult to find a major tourist destination therein where English is not spoken. In this regard, one should not, for the most part, have difficulty in communicating while traveling. I will point out though, based on experience, that such may not be the case for Thailand. I remember having difficulty hailing cabs and actually being able to ride because we couldn’t properly communicate our destinations to the drivers. In this case, it is very handy to have the locations written in Thai as well. This would apply to everything else for good measure.

As mentioned, Southeast Asia is a mixed bag of cultures, most of which are largely influenced by the dominant religion in the country. For instance, the Philippines is pre-dominantly Catholic (and the largest Catholic country in Asia) and was colonized by a number of different countries in the past. As a result, we speak English with adeptness and our native tongue is sprinkled with Spanish words all over. The church is at the center of towns and to an extent, of the lives of the people. In decolonized Indochina, various forms of Buddhism are prevalent in each country, while officially Vietnam is atheist. Some cultures are so deeply intertwined so much so that there are disputes over claims of the origin of certain things. Such is the case in Indonesia, Malaysia, and sometimes Singapore where the origins of shared foods and cultural icons are often debated.

As a result of this vast assortment of culture one can truly expect a dynamic trip while on the Banana Pancake Trail. There are different customs in different countries but as a general rule, Asia is more traditional and conservative than its Western counterparts. Therefore it is a good idea to act politely and dress modestly wherever you go, as a sign of respect to the locals and their customs. This is particularly important when visiting churches, mosques, and temples. Avoid wearing revealing clothes if you would like to enter these, although doing so may be hard at times due to the considerably warmer climate in this region.

3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, What to Do

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And it was all yellow in Saigon Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Southeast Asia is located in the tropics and so in terms of weather expectations, it would be a good place to visit year-round to enjoy its consistently warm climate. Perhaps February would be the coolest and it is best to avoid the summer months (usually around April and May) as the heat can get really intense. In turn, some countries, most especially in the Philippines and Vietnam, experience monsoon seasons around July and August and so traveling to the beaches and islands may not be ideal in these months. Flights tend to get cancelled a lot due to torrential rains which may put a damper on your holidays, no pun intended.

For the purposes of this post, I have decided to divide the Southeast Asian region based on the Banana Pancake Trails that I have personally taken in order to highlight some of my actual experiences. Keep in mind that there is an almost infinite number of ways to go about the region; these are perhaps best for new travelers on a budget who would like to get a basic introduction to the countries specified.

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Experiencing Eastern and Western influences in Malacca, Malaysia

Banana Pancake Trail through Malaysia and Singapore: I don’t know how many times I have been to Singapore but the most memorable of them all is when I crossed the border from Malaysia for a week-long vacation with my brother. We did a route that started from Kuala Lumpur, where we visited the Batu Caves and had a hearty dinner at the Petronas Towers, and then took a bus to Malacca, where we visited ancient sites and overdosed on its famous chicken rice balls, and finally took another bus to Singapore, where we got a Tourist Pass which we used to see all corners of the city-country including spending a day at the Palawan Beach in Sentosa. Singapore is significantly more expensive than Malaysia and so you should expect a spike in budget as soon as you cross over to the other side.

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Meeting Anthony Bourdain’s favourite Lunch Lady’s sister in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Banana Pancake Trail through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand: Perhaps one of my favourite trips of all time is one that I took right after college around neighbouring Indochina. I couldn’t believe how little money I spent in two weeks despite covering a lot of ground and eating so much food. It was really the kind of budget travel to remember. We started off in Ho Chi Minh where we had Vietnamese iced coffee whenever possible and ate phở and bánh mì on the streets. We traveled by bus to Cambodia thereafter, starting in Phnom Penh where we channeled our inner happy hippie elephants and drank sugarcane juice in between temples and then moved on to Siem Reap to explore the historical complex of Angkor. We then took a bus to Bangkok in Thailand where we got sak yants from Master Luang Pi Nunn in Wat Phra and pretty much overdosed on Thai iced tea and pad thai to go in Khao San Road, after a long day of temple hopping in the old capital city of Ayutthaya. All those memories and more while staying in centrally located Airbnbs and not being frugal at all about anything.

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Storm clouds fast approaching in El Nido in Palawan, Philippines

Banana Pancake Trail through the Philippines: Being born and raised in the Philippines has definitely had its travel perks. I can just book a flight for cheap to world renowned islands at any time, and I have. For example, I don’t know exactly how many times I have been to Boracay but I can assure you that I have never had a bad experience there. While known for its wild parties and crazy activities for tourists, Boracay can still be enjoyed by beach lovers to this day. Be sure to eat at the many local restaurants from stations 1 through 3, not just those in D’Mall, and the Dampa to eat fresh seafood and for a more local experience. However, my absolute favourite place in the Philippines (if not in the whole world) is Palawan. Just picture-perfect everywhere! Depending on which type of travel activities you enjoy, the islands of Coron and El Nido are the main tourist attractions to choose from. Coron is more for snorkeling, with its rich coral reef system, while El Nido is more for island hopping, with its beautiful beaches and lagoons. Luckily, travel around the Philippines is seriously cheap and there are plenty of other options for travelers who aren’t so into the water. Most budget travelers also take the Northern route up to Banaue and Sagada and to see famed tattoo artist Apo Whang-od in Kalinga for unforgettable experiences.

Like I said, there are so many other routes to take and I have only scratched the surface here. Indonesia is a good option for surfing; Laos and Myanmar are indispensable extensions to mainland travel. One thing is for sure: budget Travel on the Banana Pancake Trail is truly not for the faint of heart. Thus, the golden rule for fulfilling travel applies here: be open to experience and have no expectations whatsoever.

4. Tips & Tricks

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Pristine waters and green lagoons in Coron in Palawan, Philippines

Learn how to bargain. It is a well-known fact that Asians are really good at haggling. Especially at bazaars one should really learn the subtle art of bargaining. Most places, unfortunately, will try to rip you off with high prices, especially if you’re a Westerner. The best thing to do is to walk away and pretend like you know what you’re doing! Some of them will eventually give in and give you more reasonable prices. Hopefully.

Eat street food, stay healthy. The last thing you want to hinder you from enjoying yourself is an upset stomach, which is, thankfully, also usually the worst that could happen. But that doesn’t stop me from recommending street food in Asia. It is a god send – cheap, delicious, and as authentic as it can get. Just make sure to have medication ready especially if you are not used to that kind of thing, as per travel to any other destination, do all your pre-trip vaccinations, and have your health and travel insurance all covered.

Be one with the locals. I cannot express how differently your trip would go if you spend it with people whose native tongue you do not speak. This clearly does not only apply to Asia but in such a culturally diverse region it is most notable. Asian people are very hospitable and just great hosts in general. They will gladly show you around and accompany you to places that weren’t even on your itinerary to begin with. The key is to be flexible and open to these kinds of invitations, with adequate amount of precaution, of course.