Never have I met an individual who valued his or her personal space and protected his or her personal energy more than I do. I go to great lengths to make sure that I am comfortable at all times and devoid of unnecessary suffering caused by the mere existence of others. I hate people! I am the epitome of a misanthropic introvert. As a result, I have mastered the subtle art of avoiding any and all forms of social interaction whenever possible. I have spent many weekends sans FOMO and with no regrets. If there was a button to transform me into a hermit right now I would push it again and again.
It seems therefore counterintuitive that when I travel alone, I opt to stay in hostels, sharing dormitories and bathrooms with actual strangers. The truth is that solo female travel makes me feel utterly vulnerable, at least in the beginning when I find myself in yet unfamiliar territory. Depending on the availability, Airbnb and hostels are my go-to accommodation when there’s no one else with me on the road. It is logical: Airbnb hosts are there to automatically guide you through a uniquely local experience while hostels offer safety, security, and centrality. While Airbnb now rivals hostels in price, especially for solo budget travelers like me (by budget I mean, I’d rather spend my money on food and experience than on a hotel room I would hardly be spending time in… don’t get me wrong, staycations are my thing, too), the charm of spending 6 euros on a centrally-located dorm-bed to merely crash on after a full day of exploration has not been lost.
Despite the ridiculously cheap amount we spend on hostel accommodations, we shouldn’t disregard the fact that there are unwritten rules when it comes to sharing spaces with strangers and that acting like a decent human being is neither optional nor recommended, but obligatory. I’d like to think that I excel particularly in this area (whether I am staying in a hotel, an Airbnb, or a hostel, I am simply the guest of your dreams) and so I’d like to share some tips on how to be the ideal hostel guest anywhere in the world.
1. Party hostel or not, observe silence.
This has to be one of the most obvious ones in the book of unwritten hostel etiquette, and yet ironically, it is also one of the most notoriously neglected. Whether or not you are in a so-called “party” hostel (where apparently a certain amount of noise is acceptable, cringe), at least some degree of silence must be in place. It does not mean you can’t speak AT ALL but learn to modulate the pitch of your voice (read: kids, use your inside voice) and definitely respect the (wee) hours during which whispering is highly encouraged and carrier plastic bags are strongly discouraged. In addition, you should take additional measures if you are a chronic snorer and you know it: this could be as simple as letting your roommates know (and giving them permission to wake you up or handing out earplugs to ensure a good night’s sleep for all parties involved) or as considerate as getting your own private room instead.
2. If you don’t know, ask.
This applies to practically everything you encounter as soon as you check in to a hostel. For instance, if you don’t know how to use the key to the front door, ask, or else be stuck outside for a whole night in the cold, or worse, be a constant inconvenience to the receptionist and/or other guests. No two hostels are alike; I have enough experience under my belt to prove that no matter how often you stay in a hostel-type accommodation, the next one could be a totally different world in comparison. And so it is best to keep asking, even if sometimes your question might seem stupid to you or to the person on the receiving end, it’s still better to be safe than to be sorry.
3. Don’t be that person packing or unpacking during weird hours.
This must be a Golden Rule by now but unfortunately, common sense is not so common these days. No one wants to wake up to the sound of rustling plastic bags (see rule 1) and stubborn zippers. It takes a few minutes to unpack your toiletries if you want to freshen up before bed. If you have to leave early in the morning, it is most logical to pack your things the night before, not while everyone else is soundly asleep. Here’s a tip: if you have to ask whether or not it might be an inconvenience to others if you pack at a certain hour, then chances are, it will be so either go ahead and take your stuff outside where no one can hear you or just pack when literally no one is around.
4. Mind your own business.
This is something that I consider an expertise which most people seem to struggle with. Staying in a hostel does not equate to being an extrovert or the most sociable person ever. Sometimes it is just the cheapest and most convenient option; so never assume that the person on the top bunk will be up for small talk or a deep conversation at any time just because you are staying in a shared space. Of course, it is common courtesy to say hello and even introduce one’s self to other roommates, have a short exchange on travel plans and where you come from, that sort of thing. But also be mindful of personal space and boundaries. This also applies to possessions. Especially toiletries. If it’s not yours, just don’t touch it.
5. Clean up after yourself.
This is something that everyone should be mindful of, whether or not you’re staying in a hostel. But especially since you have actively chosen to stay in a budget accommodation where cleaning services are minimal (literally I have seen some hostels where simply making the bed and not even changing the sheets counted as cleaning) so you should also actively make sure that your space is clean and that you are not making a hell of a mess. Don’t be that person that leaves trash everywhere, or that person that uses up the whole kitchen when cooking, or that person that doesn’t flush the toilet; always keep in mind that there are other people wanting to use the communal facilities and that it is your duty to leave it as clean as when you first arrived (given it was clean in the first place).
Ever since moving to Bilbao in October, I have found little luck and few opportunities when it comes to updating my travel blog. Every so often I urge myself to write; I firmly yet lovingly force myself to produce anything, even if it turns out to be of sub-par quality. For a while it truly seemed as though work and school had devoured me whole; at least until I realized I was yet again enveloped in a state not so alien to me after all.
The signs are consistent each time. First, I get excited about an upcoming trip and then I quickly remember all the others I have been on that have not, to this day, been given the attention they are due. Soon enough I catch myself visualizing the almost immeasurable amount of gigabytes in picture format that have yet to be sorted. On top of that, my own memory is noticeably slowing down and failing me more than ever. Likewise, it doesn’t help that these days all I ever think about when I actually have time to pause and reflect are potential topics for my presentation in Global Problems class.
Almost immediately after all of that comes the ever-predictable “I don’t want to travel for a while” period, usually coupled with an emotionally-charged rant about the “too harsh for my tropical Asian complexion” winter season. As soon as I recognize how familiar this scenario is, I find myself hopping on a plane again to yet another destination, coming back on a definite high, and ultimately starting the dreaded cycle again. Much to my dismay, it has, time and again, proven to be an assembly line of events that runs like clockwork.
When I am stuck in the in-between, the only remedy I have found effective so far is gratitude. Travel burn out and wanderlust are, more than anything, states of being that I should be most thankful for and feel privileged to undergo. Not everyone gets to experience either, let alone both, at least not in a manner that ultimately leaves them fulfilled. And yet I constantly find myself in this cycle which has, without a doubt, contributed the most to the amount of growth that I have gone through in the past three years of essentially and accidentally embodying the ways of a true digital nomad.
Perhaps I truly have come into my own as a travel blogger to even go through the motions of temporarily running out of steam as both a writer and a traveler. Although I am convinced that this blog probably deserves more attention than it is currently getting (from me), I also know that the tide will change and the cycle will sync and once again I will be able to express myself in ways that most likely (based on experience) only a three-month long vacation from life can warrant. But until that day comes, I hope this space, as well as the people that so willingly appreciate it, grows more and more patient with me as I seek to go out and see more of the world every chance I get.
After all, I am a traveler first and a blogger second.
Film buff, book worm, travel bug: these are just some of the two-word parallel descriptions that plagued my social media profiles in the past. These days I just stick to letting virtual strangers know where in the world I currently am, followed by a convenient link to this blog. I still breathe movies, books, and travels, however; probably more so than I did in the past. As a result, all three passions past-times of mine have somehow all meshed together and formed what is now known as “my life”.
The simplest explanation I can give for this is that I grew up exposed to film (I gave up a not-so promising career in violin playing in high school to pursue film, best decision of my life) and literature (it’s no surprise I eventually became such an avid writer and story teller after dissecting so much imagery and symbolism). Traveling was something I didn’t get to do as much as I wanted to growing up (try having a different summer vacation as the rest of your family) and so the effect those pseudo-adventures in films and books had on me was lasting: I no longer wanted to just live vicariously through these jet-setting characters, I wanted to live travel through myself.
With that I give you a [growing] list of movies and books that are near and dear to me, definitely having induced in me an unprecedented state of wanderlust over the years. Some of them I have lived out on my own, others I have yet to check off.
SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.
Movies That Inspire Wanderlust
1. Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013) dir. by Richard Linklater
As a complete introvert, I am not one to romanticize the idea of strangers talking to you on the train but Before Sunrise definitely gave me a reason to hold out for the cute and cultured guy of my dreams, particularly so while traveling through Central Europe. The conversations these two have across the years, from wide-eyed aspirations as young adults in Vienna, to disillusioned rants as dissatisfied adults in Paris, and finally, through marital woes as vacationing parents in southern Peloponnese, prove their respective character developments to be some of the most enlightening to watch on-screen. If there’s a trilogy responsible for my strong affinity with European culture and ideals, it’s definitely this one.
2. Lost in Translation (2003) dir. by Sofia Coppola
I owe my love affair with Japan to three different persons: writer Haruki Murakami, animator Hayao Miyazaki, and director Sofia Coppola. Lost in Translation was not only my first encounter with existentialism (at the tender age of 11), it was also the first to introduce me to the delightful eccentricities of real-life Japan. After having been to Japan a couple of times, I now appreciate how perfectly the movie encapsulates the balance between that distinct feeling of being submerged in your own anonymity and the irony in [yet] automatically sticking out as a foreigner in the land of the rising sun. Needless to say, I watch this film on two occasions: 1) when I am planning a trip to Japan, or 2) when I already miss it.
3. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001) dir. by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
I have seen so many movies set in Paris (Midnight in Paris, Paris Je T’Aime, La Vie en Rose, basically any Audrey Hepurn movieto name a few) but nothing comes close to the almost as bizarre version of the city as the movie’s protagonist that we come to know from Amélie herself. It was the Paris that I naively expected to see on my first trip to this dreamy city, after five years of learning French and immersing myself in Francophone culture; granted, I was a little disappointed given the heavy use of CGI and color manipulation in the cinematography. But the feeling I got upon actually seeing Café des 2 Moulins in Montmartre, where Amélie works in the film, is one I will remember for the rest of my life.
4. The Darjeeling Limited (2007) dir. by Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson is known for his iconic movies and quirky characters but the locations in which they are filmed are usually overlooked. I would argue, however, that these places are characters in their own right (other examples include the cove in Moonrise Kingdom, the house in The Royal Tenenbaums, the hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the vessel in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou). In The Darjeeling Limited, the eponymous train is almost entirely to blame for the progression of the three brothers’ stories. It takes them through various stops across India up until they reach their destination, in the same way that it gives them the space to confront and resolve their issues once and for all. I could only wish to have the opportunity to go on a similar trip one day (across the Himalayas, please!).
5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) dir. by Woody Allen
Barcelona is easily one of my favourite cities in Europe. It’s hip, it’s happening, and it’s as Catalan as can be. Even though the city as we know it does not actually feature prominently in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, save for some subtle and almost necessary nods to the works of Antoni Gaudí, the movie does an amazing job of introducing its viewers to the beauty of northern Spain (specifically of Oviedo in Asturias). Despite having lived in the North multiple times, I have never been to Asturias and it is something that, due in part to this movie and the almost-mythical reputation of the region across Spain, I wish to do as soon as humanly possible.
6. The Beach (2000)dir. by Danny Boyle
Despite the reputation that The Beach upholds (what with the bulldozing and altering of the location in which it was filmed), the movie is still the one to be credited for my earliest recorded experience of wanderlust. In other words, The Beach is where it all began. Back in 1997, like many other young girls, I was feverishly in love with a young Leonardo DiCaprio of Titanic fame. It would follow naturally to watch this movie as well [when it showed on the TV] even though I was practically a baby then. A repeat viewing years later allowed me to finally make sense of the mature content but as a child I was simply enamored with the paradise-like islands featured in the movie and decided I wanted to become a backpacker one day.
7. The Sound of Music (1965) dir. by Robert Wise
Prancing about the Mirabell Gardens while pretending to be a problem like Maria is what I went all the way to Salzburg for. I grew up watching The Sound of Music on a regular basis at home, with both parents being in love with it (yes, they own VHS copies and tapes and CD’s of the soundtrack, you name it). My dad and I even wanted to name one of our dogs after Edelweiss, to the dismay of the rest of the family (we ended up naming her Beyoncé, by the way). It’s not a surprise then that on my first trip to Europe I made sure to check this place off my list. Salzburg in itself is a such a beautiful city that’s definitely worth a visit even for the non-musical types.
8. Seven Years in Tibet (1997) dir. by Jean-Jacques Annaud
Over the years, I have read a ton of the Dalai Lama’s writing and watched a lot of his talks and they have all transformed my life. I was more than happy to find out that there was a biographical novel which featured a young Tenzin Gyatso, and that it was adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt. While Seven Years in Tibet recounts the adventures of an Austrian mountain climber in the isolated country, the friendship he formed with His Holiness is what cements the importance of his stay there. The two characters learn so much from each other as the audience learns more about them. They also make it hard not to appreciate the beauty of Tibet’s geography and its people. Lhasa in particular tops my list of places to visit one day. But I hope that before that day comes the Dalai Lama will find a safe refuge in it once again.
9. Copenhagen (2014) dir. by Mark Raso
While the fact that the actor who plays Renly Baratheon stars in this movie is what made me watch it, Copenhagen turned out to be such a raw and honest reflection of the capital city of Denmark. Just watching the two main characters (also love interests, might I add) go about their business, to find out the truth about a bitter past and to recreate vintage photos in iconic landmarks, made me book a one-way flight to Copenhagen in an instant. I’m not even kidding. The film is as emotionally stimulating as it is beautifully shot. And as per my experience, Copenhagen successfully highlights the liveliness of a city otherwise notorious (to budget travelers like me) for how expensive it is.
Books That Inspire Wanderlust
1. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Even though I read The Alchemist at random and finished it in just a few hours, the effect it had on me is profound and lasting. It gave me hope to set out on my own journey and never look back; it gave me hope in a benevolent universe that perpetually rooted for my success. The Alchemist easily became the anthem of my pursuit of adventure, which has always been my Personal Legend. It might be an easy and succinct read but the novel’s potential to change lives is unparalleled. Bonus points because the titular character hails from Andalusia, one of my favourite regions in Spain.
2. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha is one of those rare fictional novels that speak my preferred language: the language of the soul. The novel takes its readers on a journey of self-discovery, arguably one of the most important journeys of all. Siddhartha, referring to the titular character and not Gautama Buddha himself (although they were alive at the same time), leaves home in pursuit of enlightenment in true Bildungsroman fashion. This is the one book outside of the Dalai Lama’s written work that first inspired me to take a good, hard look at myself and the world around me, and to do so with love and compassion.
3. Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Another personal favourite of mine is Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a book about a stubborn seagull and his relentless pursuit to learn everything he can about flying. As a result, he becomes an outcast and leaves. His efforts bear fruit under the tutelage of a wise gull named Chiang and he eventually is able to impart what he learns to other seagulls. I identify so much with this one-in-a-million bird just knowing that he sees the flaws in a society that forces him to conform and quickly decides to abandon it. Fables exist to teach us a lot of things but what I love about this one is how it focuses on the theme of flight, and consequently, of travel.
4. Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Eat Pray Love had been pending on my reading list for a long time until I was stuck in the airport in Manila for six hours after a flight from Hong Kong. To kill the time, I decided to finish the book once and for all. It ended up being one of my favourites, although a bit cheesy for my usual taste. From Italy to India to Indonesia, Liz Gilbert recounts an important journey to self-acceptance after a particularly difficult divorce. What resonated with me most, however, is how the protagonist was essentially just a solo female traveler in search of goodness in the world, just like me.
5. Memoirs of A Geisha by Arthur Golden
I am a complete sucker for period pieces. Anything set during a time other than now or the recent past I would gladly devour. I am especially obsessed with pre-war Japan, back when traditions and cultures were deeply embedded in daily life. Needless to say, I have a strange fascination with geisha (and samurai). Thus, when I read Memoirs of A Geisha as a pre-teen, I became instantly engrossed in an exotic culture so different from my own. Years later, I finally found myself watching geisha apprentice in a traditional performance in Gion, the geisha district in Kyoto, and it honestly felt like a dream coming true.
6. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
My love for world history is especially magnified by novels like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, set against the backdrop of the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia. I find that novels like ULOB (as we fondly referred to it in my IB Higher Level English class back in high school) give its readers a glimpse of how present-day countries and territories were formed and why their people are the way they are today. A trip to Prague a couple of years ago made the Prague of this novel almost indiscernible. Still, The Unbearable Lightness of Being brings together characters from different backgrounds and of differing sensibilities to form a philosophical conversation that transcends time and itself.
7. Letters To A Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to A Young Poet is one of those coming-of-age compilation of letters that just bring you home every time. It is a series of written correspondence between Rilke and an aspiring poet, both living in different parts of the globe and never meeting in person. Fine, I admit the world isn’t exactly abundant with these types of publications but the charm of Letters is not at all dependent on its format (although going back to my favourite passages has proven to be easier). Instead, it is replete with timeless wisdom not only about writing or travel, but more importantly about life.
8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Whenever I have to play Two Truths, One Lie, one of my favourite truths to say is that I have a tattoo on my back that says “Inside All Of Us Is A Wild Thing”, which is an homage to the movie version of this well-loved children’s book. Where The Wild Things Are taught me early on the importance of going on personal adventures, whether literal or figurative. We might meet wild things along the way but we cannot deny that there is one living inside all of us as well. As I get older, I appreciate the virtue of picture books even more in subconsciously teaching us what is truly of value in life: loving and accepting one’s self.
9. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
My ultimate favourite book is one that I have read in English, French, and Spanish. By now, I already know the whole story, its ins and outs with its twists and turns, from beginning to end. In my humble opinion, the friendship formed between the little prince of asteroid 325 and an unnamed narrator from Earth is one of the most underrated fictional relationships, ever. This meeting occurs as the child/little prince resolves to leave his home to see what else the universe has to offer while the adult/narrator accidentally crashes his plane in the Sahara. The Little Prince is a classic for good reason; it is brimming with childlike curiosity and innocent observations, two things that we seem to simultaneously forget and pine for as we become adults.
Time and again I have professed my undying love for the seemingly immaculate islands of Palawan in the Philippines. I have been to the region numerous times, sometimes to splurge money but more often to travel on a budget. One of my favourites remains to be Coron Island, which happens to be a perfect budget-friendly and hassle-free option for a weekend getaway. Here is how I spent a mere PHP 7000 (around 140 USD as of writing) on a three-day trip to an otherwise world-renowned coral reef paradise.
It would serve you well (mostly just to avoid confusion) to know that Coron is a municipality in Palawan which comprises part of Busuanga Island and all of Coron Island. The airport in Coron is located in Busuanga.
Travel Like Belle: 3 Days/2 Nights Itinerary
Here is a very rough breakdown of our Palawan itinerary (I went with my brother on a weekend in August). As with any trip, give ample allowance for flight changes, traffic jams, and basically anything that can throw a wrench in your plans. Three days in Coron, or anywhere else in Palawan for that matter, is an incredibly short period of time and so it is best to plan ahead and be smart about maximizing your stay. There are loads of activities available for tourists but due to time constraints, it would be best to choose just a couple so you can enjoy and take your time.
0625 Departure from NAIA Terminal 4 (Manila) via CebGo Flight DG 6041 to Busuanga (Coron)
0730 Arrival at Francisco B. Reyes Airport in Busuanga
0800 Shuttle pick up at the airport to hotel in the town of Coron
0900 Arrival and check-in at hotel in Coron town proper
0930 Nap time because we got up so early for the flight
1200 Lunch in Coron town proper
1500 Start of hike up Mt. Tapyas in Coron for the sunset
1745 En route to Maquinit Hot Springs after a long hike
1930 Back to Coron town for dinner
2100 Lights off and well deserved rest
0730 Up early for breakfast at the hotel
0800 Picked up by shuttle for the island tour
0900 – 1700 Coron Island Tour (including lunch on the beach)
1730 Got back to hotel
1900 Out again for dinner and avocado shakes
2100 Lights off and well deserved rest
0800 Up for breakfast and going around Coron town before leaving
1030 Picked up by shuttle at the hotel to go to the airport in Busuanga
1200 Arrived at the airport and checked in for flight
1340 Departure from Francisco B. Reyes Airport via CebGo Flight DG 6052
1450 Arrival at NAIA Terminal 4
Budget and Expenses
The expenses here are per person; some smaller ones such as for food & shopping are only approximations and rounded up for good measure. Obviously your expenses will depend on your activities and preferences.
A tip: There are about four ATMs in total in Coron so it would be very wise to bring cash (in Philippine Peso).
Airfare PHP 3026/60.52 USD
All-in roundtrip from Manila via CebGo (When there is a promo or seat sale this can even go lower; also other carriers that fly to Busuanga are Skyjet and PAL Express)
Accommodation PHP 2650/52 USD
For an air-conditioned room in Haven 1916 Bed and Breakfast for 3Days/2Nights with WiFi (the price already includes breakfast, the Coron Island Tour, and van transfers to and from the airport)
Transportation PHP 150/3 USD
It’s actually PHP 300/6 USD for a tricycle ride to and from Mt. Tapyas to Maquinit Hot Spring so my brother and I halved it (our hotel was really close to the foot of the entrance to the mountain). Coron town proper is walkable.
Food & Shopping PHP 600/12 USD
For lunch on the first and third day and dinner on the first and second day only (Breakfast was included in the hotel as well as lunch on the Coron Island Tour). Food options in Coron town are cheap but good. Also, grab some avocado shakes whenever possible.
Other Fees PHP 400/8 USD
PHP 100 Terminal Fee in Francisco B. Reyes (Busuanga) airport
PHP 150 Entrance Fee to Maquinit Hot Spring
PHP 150 Rental of snorkeling equipment for one whole day
Total Expenses PHP 6826/ 136.52 USD
*1 USD = 50 PHP
Hiking up Mt. Tapyas
Mt. Tapyas is located in Coron town proper and is either a short tricycle ride or a longer walk from your accommodation (if you choose to stay anywhere in town). Hiking to the top is a rather taxing activity so be prepared (especially if you’re doing this in the afternoon; don’t forget to stock up on water and some snacks). There are roughly 700 steps until you reach the top and it took us around 40 minutes to complete the hike. We were properly entertained by Pokémon Go and the sheer number of Pikachus we each caught. Anyway, don’t worry: there are benches and places to sit on the way up if you ever get tired (which I did, one too many times). I would say the view from the top is absolutely worth the trouble.
Dipping in the Maquinit Hot Spring
The perfect way to refresh after a long hike up the mountain is to submerge yourself in Maquinit, a privately owned salt water hot spring just one tricycle ride away from the town proper. It is a very therapeutic dip made even more wonderful by the sunset. Don’t forget to go to the lookout point for some of the most amazing views of Coron.
Coron Island Tour
There are lots of island tours to choose from once you get to town but our hotel booking had already included the Coron Island Tour (also known as Tour A) which makes stops at Kayangan Lake, Twin Peaks Reef, Hidden Lagoons, Bulungan Beach, CYC Island, and Coral Eden . I would say that this is the best introduction to Coron Island as it includes the highlights (such as Kayangan Lake) and does not try to cram in too many stops. A hearty seafood lunch shared with new friends from this joiners tour is set up by the guides on Sunset Beach.
The whole-day tour allowed us to sample Coron’s clear waters, pristine sands, and rich corals. Kayangan Lake might have been the last stop but it definitely tops my list. Snorkeling in some of its secret caves is easily one of my favourite travel memories ever.
If you intend to extend your trip in and around Coron Island, you will definitely not run out of things to do. Here are just some of the other [equally popular] options:
Safari Park in Calauit
This is something I want to do on a repeat visit. I’ve always wanted to feed the giraffe! Most of the animals here (offspring of those imported from Kenya back in the day) are able to run free, while there is a handful in captivity. Nevertheless, touring the place should make for an interesting history lesson. Calauit Safari Park is located in Busuanga and can be reached via shuttle either by a tour group or privately.
Other Island Tours
As I mentioned, we only had enough time for one tour (Tour A). But the alternate name itself suggests that there are other options. Here you can find a comprehensive list of offerings and packages to suit your own preferences.
How to Get to Coron
In my experience, it takes only 40 minutes flying to get from the capital city to Busuanga airport; short enough for a long nap, long enough for a short episode of your favourite TV show. Return flights are very cheap (see Airfare expense above) and plenty of seat sales take place all year. From the airport, you can take a van to Coron town. This was already factored in by our hotel for us but a one-way ticket would set you back only PHP 150/3 USD.
As a sane human being, I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I have declared fealty to House Stark since the first season of mega-hit TV Series Game of Thrones. Time and again I have been called Arya by friends and acquaintances due to apparently bearing a physical resemblance to Maisie Williams, the actress portraying the character. I have, of course, used this to my advantage multiple times, quipping “A girl has no name” or “I am not a boy” whenever appropriate.
In reality, GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire has taken over my life. Thus, I have made it a travel goal or more aptly a true life’s goal to visit as many Thrones filming locations as I possibly could. Call it life imitating art. But really, it’s just that the locations look so stunning even with heavy CGI, one can only wonder how naturally beautiful they must be.
In light of my aforementioned goal to travel to as many real-life filming locations for what is arguably the best TV show around, I have decided to make this a work in progress and list down every location as soon as I visit them. Seriously, less few things have made me more excited.
SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.
1. Island of Dragonstone in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bermeo, Spain
Imagine my frustration when I found out that my ultimate crush, Kit Harrington/Jon Snow, and I were breathing the same Basque air when he was in Spain to film the now famous “Ben D. Knee” scenes with Emilia Clarke/Daenerys Targaryen some 50 kilometers from where I was living. Frustration because it was the epitome of the saying “so close yet so far”. Anyway, I got to finally visit the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe a few months later not really knowing for sure how they were going to incorporate it in the show and just a couple of months shy of its first prominent feature as “the new and improved” eponymous Dragonstone castle a.k.a the Targaryen stronghold yet again in Season 7 of Game of Thrones.
How to get there: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe sits in the middle of two towns and can be easily reached by Bizkaibus to either Bakio or Bermeo from Bilbao in the Basque Country of Spain. Be ready for a hike filled with beautiful scenery!
2. Dorne and the Water Gardens in Real Alcázar de Sevilla, Sevilla, Spain
I had the exact same experience with the Southern region of Dorne. I was there yet again a few months after filming concluded and a few months before Season 5 premiered. Thank goodness I was spared the feeling of missing out on Oberyn, RIP. While many fans just absolutely hate the way the Dorne plot line played out on the series, I would have to say that the location scouts knocked this one out of the park. The Real Alcázar de Seville, a royal palace in Andalusia featuring mudéjar architecture, serves as the seat of the ruling House Martell of Dorne. The location itself, in all its vitality and vibrancy, is the best, if not the only good part about Dorne in the whole show (not including Pedro Pascal).
How to get there: There are several ways to get to Seville, the easiest ones are from Madrid. Flights and trains are frequent as well as bus schedules if coming from neighboring Andalusian cities. Seville itself is such a beautiful place worth visiting even sans the Game of Thrones aspect.
3. King’s Landing in Walls of Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Anywhere you go in the city of Dubrovnik you are bound to be offered to join a Game of Thrones-inspired tour around its city walls. Such has been the lasting effect of the show on an otherwise quaint city along the Adriatic coast. Even without all the CGI, traces of King’s Landing are so easily recognizable when you wander around the city. Sturdy orange roofs, clear blue waters, ancient grey walls – these are the sights that make Dubrovnik a beautiful place on its own. True to my anti-establishment nature, I went around Dubrovnik without a tour but with a friend I made at the hostel. We visited the usual sights such as the stairs leading up to the Great Sept of Baelor but we also went to [Tommen’s] cat-infested corners that people would otherwise miss. We even hiked all the way up to Srd (instead of taking a cable car, how anti-establishment can you get) for amazing views of King’s Landing.
How to get there: There are now several direct flights from major cities in Europe to Dubrovnik and so it’s a pretty easy place to reach. There are also a lot of busses going to and from neighbouring cities in the Balkans, particularly along the coast.
4. Long Bridge of Volantis in Roman Bridge of Córdoba, Córdoba, Spain
It’s no secret that Thrones has a special affinity for the South of Spain. This extends to tapping even just bridges as film locations, as is the case of the Roman Bridge of Córdoba standing in as the busy Long Bridge of Volantis. We haven’t really seen much of Volantis on the show, save for a few scenes involving a Red Priestess preaching about Daenerys as their saviour and minutes later a prostitute dressed as the Dragon Queen herself. Regardless, the Roman Bridge of Córdoba is such a sight to behold that I can believe, while walking through its busy passage and over to the other side, that it could truly be the Long Bridge of Volantis.
How to get there: There are many ways to get there such as via direct trains to the city from Madrid. Andalusia enjoys a vast system of busses that makes going around the cities very convenient. Córdoba in itself is one of Southern cities in Spain not to be missed.
Growing up, I definitely had the best memories of summer vacations. Two months of doing absolutely nothing but eat and play. Days blur and merge until I’ve forgotten how far gone I was and with some time away from school I would lose all ability to write anything on paper. But there was one specific summer I actually remember in more detail because it changed the course of my life forever.
I still remember channel hopping with my brother on the television in our parents’ room when I was 9 and he was 7. We came across an animé unlike any other. Our eyes were glued to the screen for what seemed like an eternity. Everything was in Japanese and frankly we couldn’t understand anything but we didn’t so much as blink. We were in a trance. We cried. We laughed. We didn’t know what was going on. When it ended, we were in complete and utter shock. That animé was none other than Spirited Away.
Given how young (and unsupervised, might I add) we were at that time, we didn’t even learn what that movie’s title was until years later. We would, however, talk about the strange albeit exhilarating experience from time to time. Finally, at 22, more than a decade later, I got to visit the Studio Ghibli Museum on a side trip to Mitaka, Tokyo. Needless to say, I was instantly brought back to my childhood and had the time of my life.
I tried making a definitive personal ranking of all the Ghibli films but in all honesty I totally loved most of them that it was hard enough to choose just five for this post. Hopefully I’ll get around to doing that in the future, but for now, here is a list of my absolute favourite movies from arguably the best animation production company in the world.
SPOILER ALERT: Some descriptions may include spoilers so read at your own risk.
5. Princess Mononoke (1997)
The titular character in Princess Mononoke just gets me. I empathize with both her utter disdain for mankind and her uncompromising love for nature. Not to mention, she’s a wolf-princess who has basically had it with all of society’s crap. She’s really me! All these aside, Princess Mononoke is definitely one of Ghibli’s smarter films. If there is one thing the studio has perfected throughout the years it’s definitely showing us that moral grey areas are real. To quote George R.R. Martin quoting someone else, “a villain is a hero of the other side”. There is no black and white. We all make mistakes, perhaps some graver than others. What matters is that we don’t let hatred get in the way of us living our own lives and living out our own truths.
4. Only Yesterday (1991)
Only Yesterday came into my life at such an auspicious time. I was months from graduating from college and was transitioning from a pescatarian diet to a vegetarian one. It was, in simpler words, a very confusing period in my life. I was, however, in the best position at the best possible time for Only Yesterday to teach me lessons and to give me direction. Taeko’s struggles which include, but are not limited to her career choices, her love life, and her childhood dreams, mirrored my own. Watching her story unfold, I was presented an opportunity to truly question my sense of self and what I really want out of life. Her desire to live a more peaceful life in the country definitely fortified my aspiration to one day have an organic farm of my own away from the city.
3. The Cat Returns (2002)
No other piece of art has cemented the way I feel about myself in relation with cats than Ghibli’s The Cat Returns. It is known that I am both a cat person and a human cat. All my life I have just observed people, cultures, events; oftentimes with a glum indifference and a false sense of superiority. All my life I have had an affinity for the feline species (and perhaps a suppressed ability to talk to them, who knows). Ten minutes or so into The Cat Returns I start bawling when a young Haru feeds a stray kitten (or young Yuki) a box of fish crackers. Ghibli has unquestionably mastered surprising its audience with these subtle yet tender moments. On top of that, it was great to see The Baron again, this time equipped with unforgettable lines that bring you home: “What I need you to do is to learn one thing: always believe in yourself. Do this and no matter where you are, you will have nothing to fear.”
2. Whisper of the Heart (1995)
I honestly thought romance was dead up until I saw Whisper of the Heart this year. It’s not the first romantic animé I have seen but for me, it is the best. The relationship between Shizuku and Seiji, albeit new and blossoming, is already tested by time and distance and is a perfect encapsulation of the kind I wouldn’t mind nurturing in the future (maybe minus the let’s-get-married part given they were still high schoolers). I am still as lost and confused as 14-year-old Shizuku, but her grasp on writing as a passion is just as firm as mine. Her being positively inspired by Seiji’s relentless pursuit of his dream to become a master violin-maker is something that I have personally experienced. After all, this blog wouldn’t be around if it were not for a slightly bruised up heart and ego as a consequence of admiring someone so deeply. Yes, you read that right: just like how Shizuku started writing a book while Seiji was away, I fell in love abroad and started a blog, end of story.
1. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
If there was a BuzzFeed quiz entitled “Which Studio Ghibli character are you?”, nine out of ten times I would get Kiki from Kiki’s Delivery Service as a result (the other time would probably be Princess Mononoke if I’m on a particularly misanthropic mood). Let me count the ways Kiki and I are the same person: Kiki is a badass young witch (1); her best friend is her cat Jiji (2); she is as courageously adventurous as she is fiercely independent (3); she leaves the nest at a young age (4); she is extremely dedicated to her work (5); she starts feeling like an outsider in her new home (6); she becomes anti-social (7); she basically loses her ability to fly due to burn out (8); but finally, she gains back her magical powers and proceeds to do what she loves most: flying (9). Her dedication to seeing her issues through, even if she has to face them alone, has inspired me on so many occasions to do the same. Kiki’s Delivery Service is the ultimate marriage between a coming-of-age plot and a tale of wanderlust, and in all honesty it is the most accurate representation of the story of my life.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
I can still remember the first time I stepped on European soil like it was yesterday. After a relatively long but definitely comfortable flight via Singapore Airlines, I finally made my way to Barcelona, a city that to this day, possibly hundreds of cities later, remains a personal favourite. That day, despite my most vivid memory of it being how inadequately dressed I was for the cold (read: Spain is all sun and flamenco, they said), would mark the first of so many things for me. Not only was it the first day of my first six months living in Europe, it was also the first day of my dreams finally coming true.
Countless budget flights, bus rides, and train journeys later, it still feels surreal to realize that Europe has indeed become my second home. I have been to all four corners and yet have only seen mere glimpses of most of the continent. And naturally, I keep coming back for more.
Why Europe Travel Is Worth It
Europe really does look and feel like a dream; but one that anyone can very easily live out at that. The continent as a whole boasts a wide array of cultures and traditions that in my honest (and possibly biased) opinion only Asia can rival. And contrary to popular belief, Europe can actually rival Asia in terms of prices. I’ve never [actually] worked a day in my life and yet even I can afford to make it happen. To misquote the one and only Dragon, Dale Doback, “It’s all about who what you know”.
Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip
1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary
For Philippine passport holders, the biggest thing you’d have to worry about when planning a budget trip to Europe is obtaining a visa. Given that most of the countries to visit are members of the Schengen Area, a Schengen Visa is in order. This visa allows you to enter and exit the continent through any of the member states of the Schengen area, and thereby travel in its bounds, within the validity indicated and number of entries allowed. In addition, there are non-Schengen areas that can be visited with a valid Schengen visa and/or resident permit in a Schengen member state. For good measure, double-check with the specific country you want to visit (as was my experience inquiring with Croatia, they are very responsive). For instance, the United Kingdom, as with other non-Schengen territories, requires its own visa.
I don’t have any personal experience in obtaining tourist visas because each time I go to Europe I am required to apply for a student visa and then a resident permit which allows me to stay there throughout the duration of my program. In 2014, I applied for a short stay visa in the Spanish Embassy that was valid for around six months, which was the duration of my Junior Term Abroad program. When I returned to Spain in 2016, I applied for a long term visa under the Auxiliares de Conversación program, which expired in 90 days. This then required me to obtain a residence permit valid up until the last day of my program. I would say the easiest way to obtain a Schengen visa is to apply to the Embassy of the member state in which you will be traveling or staying the longest. It makes sense, especially in consideration of your itinerary. The process and requirements are the same across Schengen member states. Just make sure you follow them thoroughly and there should be no problem.
Budget on the other hand would largely depend on your itinerary and personal preferences. A lot of people are still surprised when they find out that Europe, if you choose the places correctly, could be a relatively cheap continent to visit. Prices of food, accommodation, and transportation are what the budget is usually comprised of. Staying in the Nordic states (e.g. Norway, Sweden, Denmark) would definitely be a lot more expensive than visiting the Southern countries (e.g. Spain, Italy, Greece). Eating and getting around in the East (e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Turkey) is vastly cheaper compared to the West (e.g. France, Belgium, The Netherlands). Central Europe (e.g. Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary) is basically at the midpoint in every aspect. Conveniently-located accommodation is getting cheaper by the day thanks to Airbnb, which has also become an experience in itself. And if you’ve ever seen the Hostel trilogy, well, don’t worry so much. I’ve had my fair share of youth hostel experiences in Europe and they have all been awesome.
2. Language, Culture, Etiquette
As a native English speaker, I have never had a problem communicating anywhere in Europe. Well, it also helps that living in Spain has allowed me to be fully conversational in Spanish, studying French for five years has given me a conversant background for reading signs and understanding guides, and enrolling in an introductory German course back in college has equipped me with enough knowledge to order eine bratwurst. Europe is the continent in which my professed love for languages has bore the most fruit, so to speak.
What I love most about Europe, however, is how despite the geographical proximity of neighbouring countries, one can feel precisely at which point a border has been crossed due to an evident change not only in scenery but also in atmosphere. Europe is so rich in culture and history that wherever you go there is something new to be learned and to be tried.
The biggest lesson I have taken with me however is to never generalize a country based on its stereotypes. For instance, being based in Northern Spain, I’ve learned that the country isn’t always so warm and sunny and not everyone knows flamenco. Likewise, don’t expect everyone in Amsterdam to just be out smoking in the streets; there’s actually a very organized and strict system of coffeeshops for that, which impressed me very much. My experience there reminded me of when I visited Christiania in Copenhagen which gave me a new and inspired view of Denmark. And spending days by the Adriatic coast in my lonesome, I learned not only that the Balkans are no longer war-torn (hello, it’s 2017) but that the people there are some of the nicest I have ever come across.
3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, What to Do
Having experienced all four seasons in Europe, I would highly recommend traveling in the fall and avoiding summer at all costs. Fall weather is nice and pretty much everyone is back to school and/or work and so crowds tend to be smaller. Winter in Europe can also be a lovely experience (as long as you don’t have to brave the cold to go to school or work in the dark mornings, it’s all lovely). My experience in spring has been mixed and as unpredictable as the still transitioning weather. And summer brings on too many people, which is bad news for my social anxiety.
For first-time travelers to Europe I do not suggest going on whirlwind Eurotrips if you really want to get a solid feel of the places and not end up getting the first train back to your friends in Paris after a crazy last night out in Amsterdam (trust me, you don’t want to be like me). It’s easier to travel by region as well, this way you can take your time and take advantage of lower transportation costs. For the purposes of this post, I will be dividing the continent into five although each of them can still be broken down into even smaller regions.
North: I haven’t really been around the Northern part of Europe primarily because as a perpetual island girl, the cold is not really what I’m used to. I did however enjoy Copenhagen which proved to be a hip albeit expensive city. My wish is to visit the northernmost parts of the Nordic states, such as Norway and Iceland, specifically to see the Northern Lights before they dim out. Likewise, this region is probably not the first you’d want to visit if you’re on a budget.
West: I have the best memories in this part of Europe because I have always felt like this is where my personality and interests fit best. Although the weather is a bit colder and wetter and perhaps the food not as spectacular as in the south, Western Europe has a lot to offer. I particularly love France; although I can never get enough of Paris no matter how many times I have been, which does not seem to run out of sights even for multiple visits, I also intend to see its many cities and provinces. Belgium and the Netherlands are also personal favourites and really great places for young people to enjoy. Don’t miss out on the beer museums in Belgium and the seafood in the Netherlands. Prices here are almost as high as their neighbors in the North but definitely worth it.
South: If you’re into the more laid-back side of Europe, the South is definitely the place to be. Everything is cheaper down south. Everything seems slower, too. Spain and Portugal in the Iberian Peninsula as well as Italy are my top picks for travel because you really get your money’s worth wherever you go. One can easily spend months in Spain alone and not get bored. Breath-taking sceneries, perfect weather, and amazing food – especially if you’re coming from the North and West, you’d be shocked at how [relatively] cheap the prices are. Definitely the region to visit for budget travelers. Check out the tapas culture in the South of Spain and the pintxos, its northern counterpart. Gelato should not be missed anywhere in Italy as it is unlike any other in the rest of the world. And if you’ve found yourself all the way in Portugal, might as well overdose on their delicious custard tarts.
Center: This region for me stands out as the most beautiful in all of Europe, based on the number of audible gasps per square meter, even for a budget traveler. Filled with magical small towns and equally awe-inspiring capital cities, central Europe is the region for sight-seeing and Instagram-worthy snapshots. My favourites are definitely Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Switzerland. Dine in beer gardens wherever possible in Germany. Swiss Potato Rösti should find itself on your list of must-eats. Make a sidetrip to Salzburg and relive The Sound of Music wherever you go. The general rule is that the closer to the East you get, the cheaper the prices are so keep that in mind as you move along your map. It also helps that countries in this region have cultural and historical backgrounds in common.
East: As mentioned, it gets cheaper and cheaper the farther in the East you get, which is awesome because this part of Europe is another one that is rich in culture and history. I haven’t been around this region that much but I already like it based on what little I have seen. The Balkans are a great place to start not just due to the beautiful coastal area but also because it is relatively easy to navigate, and not to mention perfect for budget travel. As a huge Game of Thrones fan, I particularly enjoyed visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia, which also allowed me to visit nearby cities in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
4. Tips & Tricks
Divide and conquer. Like I said, Europe is easier and more convenient to travel if you divide them up into regions or small trips. Doing it this way, you give yourself more breathing time for smaller cities you would have otherwise missed visiting only capital cities on a whirlwind. The real Europe, I would argue, is hidden in towns and villages. For instance, you can go on a two-week trip around the Balkans, a two-week trip around Southern Spain, a two-week trip around the former Austro-Hungarian Empire all on a budget. You name it.
Book tickets in advance or really late. I am a fan of both air and land travel so I don’t think I am the best person to advice against one or the other. They both have their pros and cons and in all honesty I have found that doing a combination of flights, trains, and busses is the most holistic way to get around anywhere in Europe. I will, however, urge you to book your tickets way in advance or really late to score cheap prices. For example, I booked a really cheap plane ticket to Copenhagen to see the Christmas markets way back in July. Similarly, I booked bus tickets to Andalucía about a week prior to my trip on a flash sale.
Don’t book roundtrip tickets. If you’re coming all the way from Manila like me, it’s a good idea to divide your inbound and outbound trips and book them separately. This way, you don’t have to go back to the same starting point just to go home. Another advantage of this is that ironically enough, with the flexibility, you can cover more ground and it forces you to keep going until you get to the end of your trip. It’s an experience! Also, what I like about this is that I get to try so many different airlines, so much so that I have a secret ranking of them in my head.
Free walking tours. I absolutely enjoy these ones especially when I travel alone. A quick Google search of “place + free walking tour” should direct you to tours with reviews; all you have to do is pick one and then show up. These tours are a great way to get an introduction to the city for only a couple of hours. My favourite walking tour is one conducted by an Australian guy in Prague. He was so entertaining that I felt as though I was in the city for weeks when really, I was only there a couple of nights.
It pays to be a student. Seriously, I don’t know how many perks and free stuff I have gotten due to my student status. I don’t even have an international student card. Often my student visa and school ID are enough when asked to present documentation for discounts. Also just being young in general (and young-looking, at that) is a good thing because you can save a lot of money (e.g. youth hostels, discounts on transport cards, people automatically assuming you’re a broke millennial). You’re only young once, relish in the moment!
For the longest time Japan was as geographically close as it was completely unexplored a territory to me. It remained so up until a spontaneous winter trip with friends wherein my love affair with the land of the rising sun truly blossomed, being deepened only by repeated visits and occasional trips down memory lane. Since then, Japan has become my go-to country for amazing travel experiences. Not entirely due to my obsession with salmon sashimi and Terrace House; nevertheless, both are big factors.
I have been asked by many friends and acquaintances time and again two entirely different questions about Japan: 1) how exactly I plan my trips and 2) why exactly should they bother. Seriously, at this point I might be one of their biggest (unpaid and unsolicited) travel ambassadors.
Why Japan Travel Is Worth It
Japan, for the most part, developed inside its own amazing bubble. And then one day the whole world was floored at how fast and independently the country grew in many different aspects. Culturally, Japan is one of the world’s richest, marrying influences from the past with innovations from the future. I don’t think many countries on this planet can boast such a feat: in Japan it is normal to ride a high speed bullet train while looking out the window at stunning views of ricepaddies.
Things To Consider When Planning Your Trip
1. The Basics: Visa Application, Budget, and Itinerary
For holders of Philippine passports like me, there is a fairly easy process to obtain a tourist visa to Japan. The first time I applied in 2015 I was granted a single-entry visa. But after my first trip, I was automatically given a multiple-entry visa with a five-year validity when I applied again. Determine first the type of visa you’d like to acquire and refer to the Japanese Embassy’s webpage for instructions. Both times I applied via Reli Tours and Travel Company.
Japan is by no means a cheap country for travel but that isn’t to say that budget travel is impossible. Here is a general sample breakdown of two of my most recent trips to Japan (some prices are rough and rounded-up approximations for good measure):
Japan 2016 (Winter) Expenses
Japan 2016 (Fall) Expenses
For less than 1000 USD each time, I got to venture out of the capital city of Tokyo and into even less touristic areas like Gifu and Takayama. I stayed in centrally-located Airbnbs with friends and families and availed of a JR Pass (a 7-day rail pass with access to JR trains) and a PASMO card (a smart card used in Tokyo) to save a few hundred dollars on public transportation. Most of my day-to-day expenses were allotted for food and drink, entrance fees to temples and theme parks, and shopping (mostly for onamori or amulets from temples visited, clothes from Uniqlo, random finds in Daiso, and make-up from Matsumoto Kiyoshi, a famed drugstore chain in Japan).
2. Language, Culture, Etiquette
In Japan, Nihongo is the language spoken while kanji and the two syllbabic scripts, hiragana and katagana, are used in their writing system. Fear not, a lot of signs in Japan also contain English translations. I personally have never had a problem communicating while traveling around the country.
As if Japan was not unique enough, one should also be wary of important dining customs such as slurping your soup and noodles loudly (to show that you are enjoying your meal) and not tipping (because doing so is considered rude). Likewise, if you haven’t already mastered the art of using chopsticks, better pick some up and learn on the way because you won’t see any other utensils elsewhere.
Keep in mind that Japan is more than just animé and cat cafés. It goes beyond sword-wielding samurai and tea-serving geisha. The Japanese are some of the most polite and most disciplined people I have ever encountered. I particularly love how they fall diligently in line when boarding trains and subways. As a result, I always feel so safe and so anonymous when I’m in Japan. And for someone as introverted as me, that is the equivalent of utopia.
3. When to Go, Where to Go, What to Eat, and What to Do
For first-time visitors, the cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka should not be missed. Daytrips are also possible depending on the length of stay. I have been to Japan in winter (small crowds but can get really cold) and fall (crowds getting smaller but humidity only starting to disappear) but they say spring is the most beautiful time to go (cherry blossom season).
Tokyo: The Shibuya crossing, Hachiko’s statue, the Meiji shrine, Harajuku district, and Shinjuku garden are some of the highlights of this crazy city. I absolutely love eating chirashi bowls for breakfast in the Tsukiji Fish Market and ramen bowls for lunch in Tokyo Station. I also have very fond memories of visiting arcades scattered around the city; entering one feels as if you’re in a completely different world. For animé geeks and movie buffs like me, a trip to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo is a must.
Kyoto: Go temple hopping. My favourites in this city are definitely the Fushimi-Inari temple with unending rows of orange torii (as seen in Memoirs of a Geisha) and the Kiyomizu-dera love temple (where there are two love stones you have to cross with eyes closed in order to fulfill your heart’s greatest desire). The Arashiyama bamboo forest is also a beauty. For better photos, be sure to go to the hidden corners that lazy tourists don’t even reach. Don’t forget to watch a traditional Japanese performance in Gion Corner. This was truly an unforgettable experience, given how stealthy authentic geishas are in Japan – this is probably the closest to a geisha sighting a tourist on a budget can get!
Osaka: Dubbed as the gastronomic capital of the world, Osaka does not disappoint when it comes to the wide selection of delicious food across the city. For a more crowded, touristic experience, be sure to check out the street food in Dotonbori. Okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes) and takoyaki (octopus balls) are typical of Osaka and they are everywhere you look. For a more relaxed, local experience, go to the Kuromon Ichiba market where you can buy fresh produce and sometimes discounted sushi and tempura. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, visit the Universal Studios. I actually am deathly afraid of roller coasters so I only went to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and to have some hot and cold Butterbeer. A daytrip to Nara to feed the deer is also highly recommended!
4. Tips & Tricks
Get a JR Pass if you’re planning to cover long distances. The JR pass is a steal if you intend to go from one city to another, in style (read: via the Shinkansen bullet trains) while saving a ton of money. It is an experience in itself. Plus, you can use the JR pass on local JR trains in most cities, cutting down expenses on public transportation and making travel more convenient (you just show the pass at the entrance and you’re good to go). Note that the JR Pass can only be bought outside of Japan and is only sold to holders of foreign passports.
Always bring cash with you. Japan is, in all its modernity, still a cash-based society so especially when making small purchases like those yummy tuna rolls in Family Mart, local currency will come in handy. Also, I am a big fan of how the Japanese give you back your change. It is so artful, I often wonder if they have training for that.
The toilet is your friend. I hate to end this post on this note, but really, Japanese toilets are amazing. I will never get tired of figuring them all out and channeling my inner Dee Dee from Dexter’s Laboratory (read: what does this button do???). Seriously, the Japanese toilet is yet another reflection of the country’s tradition of appreciating cleanliness and beauty mixed with unprecedented technological innovation.
Even at a very young age I was already exposed to different types of cuisine, thanks to my late father who probably had one of the best palates and definitely had the most adventurous attitude when it came to food. Some of my fondest, most vivid memories of my dad include him eating tuna sashimi while enjoying his San Miguel Pale Pilsen in the afternoons, him taking us to Tagaytay to eat real corned beef with cabbage, him stocking up on pickled and fermented vegetables from kimchi, to sauerkraut, and atsara, him preparing marshmallows and cutting up fruits for our Toblerone Swiss fondue at home, and him serving up my favorite Spanish tortilla when we have nothing else to eat for dinner.
While most kids around me lived off the classic hotdog and white rice combination (literally the most Filipino thing, ever… not going to lie, I was a big fan), I was having salmon sashimi as my preferred merienda at home and making pastrami sandwiches when hunger would strike at midnight.
This kind of upbringing that I am very grateful for definitely influenced the kind of traveler that I would then become. Whenever I travel, food and drink always take precedence over just about anything. A trip would not be complete without having tried something new and something typical of the place I was visiting. And more often than not, if I end up liking a dish or a drink, no matter how strange it is or how hard it is to find, I would have it as many times as humanly possible before I have to unfortunately leave.
While Filipino cooking still holds a very special place in my heart (Tofu Kare Kare is life), I have decided to come up with a definitive list of places worth traveling to, if only for the culinary experience. Here I outline my favorite food and cuisine, out of those I have had the privilege of trying thus far while on the road, all of which I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.
All photos were compiled and taken from my two Instagram accounts (defunct and current), for anyone who might be wondering.
I don’t think it’s possible for me to stop gushing about how even the food you find in convenience stores and street stalls in Japan is so damn good. Get a couple of negitoroonigiri from Family Mart and you’re set. Try takoyaki and okonomiyaki from any of the stalls in Osaka, even the ones outside of Dotonbori, and see if you don’t fall in love. Eat at a random ramen stand or the vendo ones in Tokyo Station and you’re bound to have a good time either way. Don’t even get me started with the freshest chirashi bowls in Tsukiji Fish Market (with all the different types of tuna and salmon, my mouth is watering right now) and just Japanese beer in general. Kanpai!
Why do you think I chose to live in the Basque Country? If my dad were still alive, I’m sure he would pat me on the back for choosing to live in the region that holds the record for most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world. Imagine being surrounded by world-class pintxos wherever you go and relatively cheap but very good quality wine (shoutout to the Basque txakoli and all the good times we’ve had). We haven’t even reached the topic of paella yet which I believe deserves its own post. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but really, we all have to admit it: 100 Montaditos is basically a god-send.
3. Hong Kong
I cannot count how many times in my life I have paused, in times of distress and in times of lonesome (for fear of looking ridiculous), and tried to remember the distinct smell of roast duck that basically screams Hong Kong. From the street food down in Mong Kok to the noodles up in the Peak, Hong Kong offers an incredible culinary experience that is unlike any other. I will never forget the mismatched adventures of going all the way to Lan Kwai Fong in Central for classic milk tea and back to Yau Ma Tei in Kowloon for world-renowned dim sum and dumplings. Thank goodness Hong Kong is a mere 2-hour flight from Manila.
Whether it’s pizza in Rome, risotto in Venice, or steak in Florence, Italy does not seem to run out of timeless choices to offer. But my best memory would have to be that time I literally chased after my passion and rode my way across Italy by train to taste all the best gelato, also known as man’s greatest invention, that the country has to offer. I don’t even know how many times I ate ice cream in the span of one week, definitely several on some days, just so I could maximize my time there and the seemingly countless flavors that exist. I actually cannot wait to do it again.
I can still remember channeling my inner Anthony Bourdain and finding my way to The Lunch Lady by the Saigon river to try her world-famous phở like it was yesterday. Setting aside my pescatarian sensibilities for a moment, I wolfed down everything in that bowl of life because it was just so flavorful and so authentically Vietnamese. The rest of the time, if I wasn’t overdosing on Vietnamese coffee and bánh mì, I was desperately on the look out for gỏi cuốn and sugarcane juice. The best part was that my 23-year old self didn’t seem to be running out of money. What I would give to fly back there soon.
My memories of Belgium are definitely hazy and I have pints of delicious Belgian Hoegaardeen beer to thank for that. But the culinary experience was so vivid that to this day I haven’t forgotten the richness of Belgian chocolate, the sinfulness of Belgian waffles, and the deceptiveness of Belgian fries. I went to Belgium knowing practically nothing about the country, on a short weekend trip to meet up with friends, and went home a Belgian cuisine convert and a completely changed person, with boxes and boxes of truffles, of course.
I used to just marvel at photos of colorful floating markets on magazines and websites but when I finally visited one in Bangkok, I was not disappointed at all. In sampling endless plates of Thai pancakes, drinking glasses of Thai iced tea one after the other, gobbling down hot bowls of tom yum and cold servings of mango sticky rice, one realizes that Thai cuisine is the most faithful reflection of how rich and vibrant the country’s culture is. Not to mention the coconut ice cream, fresh fruit shakes, and pad thai to-go scattered all over Khao San Road. I wouldn’t mind getting lost in dark alleys again if it meant having these food in my life.
Imagine wandering aimlessly in Munich hoping to find a place where you could eat after a rather tiring train ride and then at the perfect moment of hunger stumbling upon the actual beer garden of your dreams. Such was my experience in Germany. To this day, I still question whether or not that experience was real because it turned out to be the best 20-euro meal I have ever had in Europe, if not just simply the best. Period. A wide selection of wurst and bier, sauerkraut, pretzels, and good vibes from amazing German people: this is the stuff dreams are made of.