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.

How Travel Changed My Life

In the last quarter of 2014, I unwittingly found myself in the most decisive crossroad in my life yet: I was 21, in my third year in university, and eager to go on a term abroad in Spain while my dad was 52, still young and healthy, when he suddenly passed away due to a heart attack.

Anyone who has experienced this particular kind of loss knows there are no words to adequately express the intensity of what follows. I was enveloped in guilt, anger, sadness, and just about any negative feeling in the full spectrum of human emotion. Somehow I was expected to stay strong through it all; to fake it until I made it.

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Accepting and appreciating life’s own pace in Kyoto, Japan

But how could I even begin to feel excited about what I had dubbed “the trip of of a lifetime” when one of the few people I was eager to tell all about it was no longer? Not only had I lost one of the most important figures in my life, a person who loved me unconditionally and vice versa, but I had also lost myself in the process.

On the surface, moving to Europe for six months was the perfect excuse to heal and to find myself. How could grieving in winter and blossoming in spring be unattractive to anyone? Life, being the epitome of irony that it is, had granted me the opportunity to wallow in distractions and to run away from reality, so to speak. Nothing could have prepared me better for all that was to come than hopping on that plane to Barcelona.

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Lifting all up in Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain

What took place as I stepped foot on European soil was a kind of rebirth. I drowned in the darkness of my own sorrows and in the depths rediscovered the vitality of life. I was surrounded by scenery that was unlike anything I was used to back home. I was immersed in experiences I would have never in my life imagined finding myself in. I was even adding a fourth language to my arsenal. Every weekend I found myself in a different place. In half a year I had traveled to tens of countries around Europe and it didn’t matter one bit that I did most of it by myself.

For the first time, I was bitten by the travel bug. And I haven’t stopped traveling since.

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Going broke in pricey Copenhagen, Denmark

When I got back to the Philippines,  I was a completely different person. From going on familiar beach trips with friends from high school to backpacking through unfamiliar Indochina with friends from university: I seized every opportunity to pack my bags and just go. That burning desire to travel has also led me back here to Spain shortly after graduating: no longer as a student of Spanish, but this time as a teacher of English.

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Falling in love with breath-taking Prague, Czech Republic

Despite all the difficult challenges and tragic events that I have had to weather thus far, I have never looked to travel as a mere outlet to escape life but rather as an earnest way for life not to escape me. I travel to all these places, both old and new, to live in the triviality of my worries and in the profundity of my adventures.

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Tank top and short shorts in Singapore, Singapore

Instead of warranting me answers in life, travel has generated even more questions. At the time of writing, I find myself in yet another crossroad, perhaps a lot less rocky than the one I have just finished passing through but difficult to traverse just the same. Whether or not I stay in Spain for another year is up in the air. The past winter has shown me that home calls every three months or every time the temperature dropping below zero makes this island girl appreciate the humidity coupled with torrential rains back in the tropics, whichever comes sooner.

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Hiking up for majestic views in Dubrovnik, Croatia

While travel is essentially about being in the present, it is also about being in a constant state of departure. This type of travel has made me appreciate home, realizing that it is also possible to have one in a corner of the world that is the complete opposite of where you come from. I have learned the hard way that missing what you are used to does not equal being miserable where you currently are. It just means you are striking the right balance between staying true to yourself and welcoming any change that may arise for the sake of your growth as a person.

Home is where the heart is in El Nido, Philippines

Similarly, in spending the past couple of years living in and traveling between Europe and Asia I have accumulated memories to last a lifetime. From experiencing the joy of having the freshest fish in Tsukiji in both summer and winter to the bliss in enjoying chocolate con churros in Sol in fall and spring: these memories may be years and seasons apart but they are never the same experience. I may travel to the same places but I am a different person each time.

But more than giving me all these precious memories to look back on in the future and allowing me to meet all sorts of people along the way, travel has made me realize that my life in itself is a journey that continues to unfold with each delayed flight and each scenic train ride. Whether the story is set against the backdrop of the Basque mountain ranges or the busy streets of Manila, life continues to be an adventure.

And through it all, I never felt alone for I know my dad continues to keep a watchful eye on and is with me every step of the way.

This is an entry to the How Travel Changed My Life contest by Traveloka: www.traveloka.com/en-ph/how-travel-changed-my-life-blogger-contest