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How I ended up making Motanka dolls in Ukraine

February 11, 2014
Ukrainian Dolls

Yes, you read it right, dolls. I never thought that I’ll be making dolls and especially in a country like Ukraine.

After walking around Kiev, I, Claudia, a fellow traveller, and Natalya our Active Ukraine tour guide travelled 20 minutes to the outskirts of the city for lunch and our handicrafts session. The last time I did serious handicrafts was in high school, and I remember that I was pretty bad at it.

Yulia, our host, greeted us as we entered her home. Yulia, her boyfriend and their dog welcomed us to their humble apartment.  We were hungry and fortunately to my relief, she ushered us immediately to the dining table for lunch.

Yulia prepared varenyky (potato dumplings), borscht (beet soup) and salo (cured pork fat) . And yes, you guess it, the food was delicious. I particularly can’t get enough of salo especially when eaten with salt and raw garlic cloves.

Over lunch, we chatted about Kiev, the city and their culture. Yulia does arts and crafts as her profession. She paints and sculpts eggs and makes dolls for a living. She even crafted dolls for display on one of Kiev’s biggest Church. And she does this travel session together with her sister as part of their sidelinebusiness. So I’m happy to see that we have experts to teach an amateur like me.

After the hearty meal, we proceeded to the living room to start the doll making action.

We were brought to create a Motanka doll – a traditional handmade doll that was once use as a symbol for fertility and procreation. In Ukrainian tradition, the doll acts as a talisman that symbolises wisdom and protection for home.

We were handed the materials – cloth, thread, cotton balls, rice and flowers to stuff our doll. We had to first make the head and stuff it with rice. Once it pretty much look like a head, we went on tying knots for the hands and the body.

After, we had to tie in two strings around the head, alternating to make a square in the centre of the face. Ukrainian dolls are not your typical doll, it has no eyes nor a face, just a square that made it look like a cyclop. Yulia told us that there was no face as they don’t want dolls to reflect much of the human form, as they are afraid of it being use for black magic (=Voodoo dolls in some culture). Instead,of a face it has cross that is symbolises the sun.

It was an arduous task to do that required some patience and magic slight of hands. I finally made the face of my doll and we put in some clothes and a head band.

My verdict? I don’t think I’m seeing myself doing dolls for a living. But definitely, it was an activity that is out of the ordinary and I enjoyed doing on a Sunday afternoon.

But one thing is for sure, I’ll stick back to communications as a day job.

I had an amazing time with Active Ukraine who arranged this doll making activity as part of the Kiev’s Off The Beaten Path tour. Many thanks to Oksana and Natalya for the amazing experience. All views however are my own.

Asia, Expat Life, Experiences, Guest Posts, Travel Blog

Can travel heal a broken heart?

February 6, 2014

He flashed that smile; his green eyes twinkled under the fairy lights on Orchard Road that Christmas evening. I traced the dent on his cheek and muttered, “Dimples. That’s what it’s called in English.” “Grübchen,” he replied in German, and we walked hand-in-hand under glittering lanterns and trees covered in artificial snow.

Fast forward to a few weeks later and I found myself on that stretch of road again. The fairy lights are gone. So is the guy with the grübchen. What’s left is a dent in my heart, and a strong desire to kick myself for what just happened. Had I followed the first item in my rulebook—thou shall not fall in love with a long-term backpacker—I would’ve saved myself from this heartbreak.

But it happened, and ended as quickly as it came. It didn’t start in ways that you would imagine. No, not after hours of conversations during bus rides in Cambodia or some cinematic love-at-first-sight encounters in southern Thailand. He was not the first backpacker who had shown interest in me either. There were a couple of guys before him but I was too quick to dismiss them, sticking to my belief that developing feelings for someone doing a round-the-world trip is as good as effortlessly digging my heart’s grave. People always leave anyway.

We met in my city, which made it all the more heart-wrenching when it ended. He was travelling around Asia then, I happily surviving in my world with occasional encounters with backpackers. He flew to my city twice after our first meeting—which is considered two trips too many to a small island-state. We had initially thought we could make it work despite being in two different continents but the map is not something we can bend and adjust in our favour.

Though it happened in a span of months, it still felt long enough to have me crushed by the end of it; heartbreaking enough to leave me contemplating packing my bags and fleeing this city tainted with memories of—and with—him. I can’t sit long enough in Starbucks without being reminded of our conversations on geography and the NBA; I can’t play a quiz app on my phone because I know I wouldn’t score perfectly without him by my side. Every corner of my city feels like it’s stamped with that grübchen-filled smile. I cannot simply look away; I wanted to run away.

I have to admit, I’m the type who turn to airports for sanctuary. My knee-jerk reaction to any looming source of stress is to book a flight some place new and unheard-of, hoping that the ‘foreignness’ of it would leave me in awe, and push the stress away. Travel keeps my sanity when everything feels overbearing, the very reason my overseas writing assignments and personal trips are scattered all over the calendar to give me enough breathing spaces. It’s relatively easy to do so: Stressed? Book a flight. Come back. Work. Stressed again? Repeat. My magazine job is a 9-to-5 with specific deadlines, and as long as I don’t check my emails during trips, I will be fine. I wanted to apply the same approach to mend my heart, to go some place where there will be no reminders of him. My job and career, however, is not something I can just pack in my bag and bring with me, and of course, a broken heart has no offline button, no airplane mode, no deadlines to beat. Emotions have no sense of place and time; the soul-crushing pain is within me, and I’m afraid movement of any kind may not necessarily equate to moving on. The grown-up thing to do is to face the memories, no matter how sad, and not to crumble with the pain. And that’s exactly what I plan to do.

Can travel heal a broken heart? I hope it does. And I’m going beyond hoping; I’m off to find out.

On Valentine’s Day—yeah, that commercial excuse of a special holiday that makes single people feel miserable for being alone!— I’m going to the place where the guy with the grübchen and I had planned (didn’t go beyond planning though) to meet up months ago when he was still on the road. I’m visiting some temples in Java, the place that signifies the time when both our hearts are still whole and full of eagerness, the place (other than my city) where my being alone would probably be at it’s hardest. I hope that the gods would somehow present their divine intervention to heal my heart. I’ll still be back in my city to work but I made sure that a trip (for a few days, at least) is a monthly endeavour: an overseas writing assignment in March, a company trip in April, a writing trip in May, a holiday in June. I’m not sure if it would be travel or time that would eventually help, but I could only hope that somewhere between getting lost and finding my stories, I also get my heart back to its painless state. And find my way back to love, in time.

Destinations, Europe, Travel Blog

A walking tour of Kiev in photos

February 4, 2014
Saint Andrew's Church

After my post last week on the Euromaidan issue, you may be wondering why I am passionate on talking about Kiev in the first place. Kiev is an underrated destination when it comes to travel but the places, people and experiences you get from the city is amazing. In an unusual feeling, I felt somewhat at home there – where I embraced the chaos, lack of structure, food and the abundance of alcohol (like a full aisle in the supermarket dedicated to vodka).  In my weekend trip there last November, I realized that the city has a lot to offer and and here are some of my favorite ones.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)

Kiev’s Independence Square is the place to be for locals and visitors alike. The main boulevard traversing Maidan Nezalezhnosti is closed on the weekends converting the busy highway into an urban concrete park. And funnily enough, the streets got crowded with the most random set of characters. From mascots of giant pandas and minions, girls in traditional Ukrainian costume and segways – they had it all there. Today, this is where the current tensions at Euromaidan is taking place and though I hope that the giant pandas will be back once these tensions are over.

Kiev Funicular

The Kiev funicular connects the historic uppertown to Podil, the city’s commercial area. It’s been transporting people up the Volodymyrska hill for over 100 years. The best part of this funicular is the view of Kiev and the Dnieper river that you get to see as you go up.

Volodymyrska Hill

At the end of the funicular, you’ll get treated to a panoramic view of the Kiev and the winding Dnieper river. It was autumn when I travelled so the colours were grey, brown and red. Still beautiful though!

Saint Sophia Cathedral

A few blocks from the viewpoint at Volodymyrska Hill, you get to walk towards the St. Sophia Cathedral. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was first constructed in 1037 and is believed to be named after the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It’s green and golden domes acts as its crown and one of the towers transforms into a viewdeck. 

St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery

Opposite to St.Sophia’s Cathedral is the blue St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. Next to the St. Michael’s Golden Monastery is a small monument honoring those who suffered from the famine in 1941 brought by Stalin during the Soviet times.

Saint Andrew’s Church

Kiev knows how to rock it when it comes to churches. Saint Andrew’s Church sits atop of a hill and accordingly to stories, the apostle Andrew came to this hill and declared that the present day Kiev would become a great city. I think Saint Andrew was right on that.

Andriyivskyy Descent

Probably the most colorful part of the city and known as the Montmartre of Kiev (though I think it’s best to recognize is by its real name). The street starts from a top of the Saint Andrew’s Church and goes down to Podil.  I went there with the Active Ukraine team for the first part of our day tour. I’ve enjoyed going through the shops finding strange knick-knacks from teddy bears, toys, souvenirs, and army clothes. You can even see a monument to a couple that when you touch the lady’s nose, it’s supposed to bring you good luck. I’ve touched her nose as well as her ass for extra luck. 😉

City Life

Out of the usual touristic activities, I particularly enjoy going around and just seeing the city. Here are my favorite off the beaten sights at Kiev.

Flowers Galore

As much as there’s a McDonalds in every corner in most capital cities, in Kiev, they are all about the flowers. There’s a flower shop in almost every corner and most of them are open 24 hours. I don’t really get why they are open all day, but when you have fights with your girlfriend at 2 in the morning, you know where to buy a last-minute apology.

Kiev Metro

At 2 UAH (0,17€) a ride, Kiev is home to the cheapest metro system in the world. It’s even cheaper than a ride in the Philippine Metro (0,24€). It’s clean, efficient and spacious.

The city also has one of the world’s deepest metro station. Arsenalna is 105 meters below ground and it takes about 10 minutes just to get out of the station. It’s a perfect for speed dating too. (according to this couple below).


Combining with cheap metro stations, Kiev also has  cheap vodka. There are aisles in the supermarket dedicated to vodka alone. And yes, this is secretly my favourite highlight of the trip. 🙂


While I am not a regular coffee drinker, having “Startrucks” or café in trucks that sells coffee on every corner of the street. It’s convenient especially after a chilly walking tour. And yes, the coffee was better than I expected. Beat that, Starbucks!

I travelled there with my local friends and I was also supported by the wonderful team at Active Ukraine who had given me a complimentary Off the Beaten Tour at Kiev. All thoughts in this post are my own.

Have you been to Kiev, Ukraine? What are your favourite places in the city. Share it on the comments below!

Education, Europe, Experiences, Travel Blog

Kiev: A tale of two cities

January 29, 2014
Ukraine, Kiev - Independence Square

When I visited in Kiev last year, it was a different city than what is in the news today.

I went there in November, a couple of weeks before the current political turmoil started. I’ve been invited by my two former couchsurfer guests, Artem and Oleksandr, who had convinced me to visit them in Kiev.

Life in the city went on as normal. There were no barricades, no protesters, no riot police officers. Roads were full, not of protesters, but of cars and yellow marshrutkas hailing in passengers along the highway. People were preoccupied of their own daily lives and not of political discussions.



My first day in Kiev, I walked around Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) with my friend Artem. The main avenue across Indepedence Square, Khreshchatyk, were closed on weekends for Kiev locals to enjoy a stroll on that autumn afternoon. There were segways, young Ukrainian girls selling sweets and people participating in local games of hanging on a tube for more than 90 seconds.

There were no riot police officers and protesters clashing on each other. Instead, I saw mascots of Puss in Boots, Despicable Me minions and giant pandas crowding  the square. The only tension I felt then was when a giant stuffed Tigger was bugging us to pay to have a photo with them.

The roads did not smell of teargas but of coffee coming from weird snail-shape pink coffee carts.

The city skyline had hardly any smoke on it but instead it’s the golden domes of the St.Andrew and St. Sophia churches that greeted my eyes as I looked upwards.

From the viewpoint overlooking the Dnipro river, the city was brown and red, not from smog and flames but from autumn leaves scattered on the roads.

I came to Kiev without much expectations yet left with a vow to visit again.

However my dream of coming back may not come anytime soon.

As I watch the news today and follow my friends’ Facebook posts, it’s obvious that it’s not the Kiev that I saw in November. I feel anxious and disheartened with the news I received. I feel helpless not having the power to act to curb the situation. It’s hard to see the once vibrant Maidan square is now tainted with blood from the ongoing violent protests fuelled by contrasting political ideologies. What I see is not the reflection of the vibrant and happy Kiev locals that I once met  but rather of people tired of oppression, corruption and political unrest.

 (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko)


It’s hard to imagine how fast the city transformed to what I currently see now. And the outlook looks like there will be no easy end out.

Unfortunately, the spotlight it continues to gain is not only the spotlight it deserves.  I hope that after this turmoil, whenever it will be, the Kiev of my memories will still be there.

And I hope that a lot of travelers will not be discourage to visit Kiev after this event. For sure I won’t be.

It’s a great city that flourishes with traditions, historical sights and of people that despite the language barrier are willing to help you. Not forgetting also that it’s a place that has one of the cheapest public transportation and bottles of vodka.

I hope that this underrated travel destination will rise back from the ashes and show the world it’s true side – the side that people deserve to see.

 (Photo by Sasha Maksymenko)


It’s a city that stood the test of time for thousand of years and I have high hopes that it will stand this test as well.

But now, from a mere spectator, all I can do is hope that the situation will be better.


Rocking at Rock Werchter

July 20, 2013
Rock Werchter

There’s something about festivals that make me want to come back for more. But as years went by my attitude towards it changed.

As a teenager, festivals like Glastonbury and Benicassim were stories that I read only in music magazines and saw on television. When I moved to Europe, it was one of the points to do in my bucket list.

I went to my first European festival in Werchter back in 2009. Rock Werchter is Belgium’s biggest festival and is known for being one of the best in Europe.

It was as if I went to music heaven to see all my favorite artists all in one place. I and my friends were treated to a great selection of music in an atmosphere that smell a mix of booze, weed and nature. Jason Mraz, Bloc Party, the Killers and Coldplay headlined on the day I went and I wasn’t disappointed.

Rock Werchter 2013

In the Philippines, it’s only in dreams where you’ll get a chance to see them all together. And even if it happens, it will be five times more expensive.

There were more than 50,000 people then but I didn”t mind the crowd. They even heightened the experience. I remember one moment where we joined the crowd singing Viva La Vida as we walked towards the bus station.

Last year, I accidentally went to Belgium’s Tomorrowland. It wasn”t particularly the music that I normally listen to but I had fun. It was a massive party and definitely something someone should experience once in their life.

Same same but different

This year, I decided to go to Rock Werchter again.


I had the same expectations as in 2009, and I know that my preference had changed, so the experience was different. It was great and hardly had any regrets, but I accepted the fact that it wasn’t the same anymore.

I still like the music and I didn’t mind the crowd of 80,000 people in general but having to sift to the crowd just to be able to hear from the stage sucked the fun out of the experience.

Rock Werchter 2013

I had a few beers but I knew that I wasn’t there to get drunk. At some moment, I was pissed with the other people who kept on stepping on us while we were seating.

I didn’t feel the same euphoria as the last time. I danced and sang with the music, but the feeling wasn’t the same.

I felt that it was dirty, smelly and I was relieved when I finally left the festival.

Rock Werchter 2013 - Friday

I slept on the train station. It did the same three years ago, but this time I regret that I didn’t pay for a hotel instead.

Will I be going to a festival again? Definitely. I’m already planning which ones I’d love to go next year.

I had complains but in the end I realized that I should have come with lower expectations.

It’s an attitude that I think didn’t only cover festivals, but my feeling towards travel in general.

After being on the road for five years, my expectations have changed. I now make conscious choices that values comfort more. I pick hotels over hostels, prefer quiet drinks in a pub over partying until dawn, and wake up early than nursing a hangover until afternoon.

My preference may have changed and priorities may have evolved, but the spirit remains. I have to accept the fact that it’s time to grow up and that I grew up.

Have you been to a festival in Europe? How was your experience? Share your thoughts below


New Year’s Eve in Skopje

February 15, 2013
New Year Skopje

Oh New Year’s Eve !

I was telling my friends that since I moved to Europe in 2008, one of the biggest cultural shifts for me was on how to celebrate the New Year’s.

In the Philippines, it’s all about the family. As it’s a week difference from Christmas, I had mostly spent it with my family in our place. We light our fireworks and join in a potluck dinner together with our neighbors. It’s all about the karaoke, the lechon (suckling pig) and the amounts of noodles to consume (eating noodles was supposed to bring you long life).

At home, I never spent New Year’s Eve with friends – it’s not that I don’t want to celebrate with them but rather they were also together celebrating with their own families.

When I moved to Europe, I noticed the difference. While Christmas is often spent with families, New Year celebrations are reserved to be with friends. It’s about the drinking, the dancing and the partying. Instead of insane amount of noodles, you get insane amounts of alcohol (not that I’m complaining 😉 )

And in the four years I’ve been here, with the exception of last NY eve spent with my mom, the rest was spent partying in Prague, Brussels and this year in Macedonia.

Prague 2008

And my recent New Year’s Eve in Skopje was one for the books.

My trip to Macedonia didn’t start well. I was supposed to be in Macedonia for a 10-day trip for both Christmas and New Year, but I got sick at the beginning of my holidays and I had to stay in Brussels for an extra week.

And to add, I almost missed my flight after a long night out.

But luckily, I managed to still squeeze in a 3-day trip to Skopje.

I arrived in Skopje on the 30th of December and was welcomed by my Macedonian friend, Danco, and his family to their home with a dinner fitting the cliché “for a king”. After the big dinner, it was a bit of drinking and then off to rest.

Skopje New Years Eve 2012

As I’m only there for a couple of days, we had an early start in the morning of New Year’s Eve, and have spent the entire day going around Skopje.

But as the day turned into night, the preparations have set in. We got home, went for a short nap and started preparing for the long night ahead.

The night started with some food and drinks at Danco’s place. Together with his friends, we celebrated with food, wine and good share of Rakia – a staple liquor in the Balkans.

After the pre-drinks, we continued the night to a Kafana, a sort of bistro restaurant staple to the Balkan region. It started with a gracious serving of food – a food plenty of cheese, cold cuts for the starters and mouth-watering roasted pork for the main course. If there’s one thing that Macedonia does well, is with its meat roasting. 🙂

Kafana - Skopje

The place erupted at around 10.30pm when they started playing traditional Macedonian dances. We danced the Oro, resembling a circle dance. As one of the only foreigner-looking guy in the crowd, definitely there was some attention drawn to my dancing (unfortunately, I wasn’t too good).

It was criss-cross of dancing and eating – with a few involving dancing on top of the drums, and a lot of circling. And as one of the three Asians in the room, the DJ even played Gangnam style and of course, we became the star of the show.

Kafana - Skopje

The night continued until the wee hours of the morning and after plenty of eating, drinking and dancing – at around 4am we called it a night.

I like the fact that travel allowed me to discover new and fun ways to celebrate New Year’s. Looking forward to how I’ll celebrate it next year!


What are your favourite New Year celebration moments? Do share them in the comment box below!


Celebrating the first year of 2013 over the skies of Skopje

February 10, 2013

How do you start a year?

I’ve always seen the importance of making the beginning of the year a special one.

My parents told me that the actions you do at the start of the year will be a sign on how your life will be for the year ahead.

In the beginning of 2012, I was travelling in the streets of Paris with my mom. And 2012 continued to be a year filled with amazing travel memories.

This year I was travelling again in Macedonia, visiting a friend in the capital city Skopje. It was this moment at Mount Vodno that made it for me.

Skopje - Mount Vodno

Mount Vodno

On the first day of January, even after a long night celebrating New Year’s Eve, we all agreed to have an early start and visit Mount Vodno, one of Skopje’s highest and most famous peaks.

It’s a 40-minute drive up from the downtown Skopje to the base point of Vodno.

From the base, there are several ways to go up to the peak. You can hike for two hours or drive up for another 30 minutes, but we took the most scenic way which is through a cable car.

Going up to Mount Vodno

The cable car ride costs 100 Macedonian Dinar (roughly 2€) for a 5-minute ride up. The cable car system opened a couple of years ago and was one of Skopje’s cultural and tourism development projects.

As we ascend towards the peak, the clouds slowly started to blanket the view. The once brown mountainside turned to white, the trees gone.  The feeling was surreal.

Skopje - Millennium Cross

The first thing you see once you reach the peak is the towering Millennium Cross and is said to be biggest cross in Europe. It was  built in 2002 to celebrate the 2000th year since Jesus Christ’s birth.

There was also a large Macedonian flag towers the sky and the ground.

But it was mostly the view that got us. Standing at over 1000 meters, we were greeted with a blanket of clouds that covered the city view of Skopje and the surrounding towns. It’s a nice feeling, to be on top of the world and get that experience of as if you are in a storybook.

We spent most of the time taking photos, playing tourists with gangnam style jumping shots.

Skopje - Mount Vodno

I had time as well to reflect and just enjoy the scenery in front of me.

We came back down to the base just as the sun was about to set.

I’m lucky to have celebrated and traveled on New Year’s in several places across the world. I’m hoping that this year will be an even better year than the last and that travel will continue to play a strong part of the year. And I’m looking for more moments, literally and figuratively, of being high above the clouds.

*Special thanks to Yuma for the photos. 🙂


Getting in the Roomorama bandwagon in Paris

July 4, 2012

In my travels, I’ve done my share of sleeping in different types of places – hotels, hostels, couchsurfing beds, airports, tents – you name it, I’ve tried it.

And lately, I’ve seen travelers looking at short-term rentals as an option for their accommodation. It recently hit mainstream and thanks to Roomorama, who approached me recently to review one of their places, I had the opportunity to try it.

What makes Roomarama different?

Roomorama is an online platform for finding short-term room and apartment rentals when you travel. It offers accommodation option that gives you the opportunity to live like a local – something that often hotels and hostel dorms lack. Roomorama allows you to choose between getting your own apartment or a room rental in a shared apartment. I decided to go for the latter.

How does Roomorama work?

The roomorama process is simple, and it works like any other booking site. You type in your location, the dates you are going and the number of guest expected, and you will get a list of available options. You select and inquire on a couple you like and wait for your host to confirm availability. You take your pick on the ones that have confirmed and you book.

My personal experience was very easy, but because as I was paying with a credit card, I had to pass through an extra
step to confirm my credit card use and sign a docusign sheet to confirm my booking. I guess it’s an added security for meand for the host but I haven’t encountered it when booking for hostels and hotels online. It was a step that caused a bit of delay since I have wait to have access on a PC in order to confirm and I can’t do it on my mobile. It’s a small thing though.

Picking the right destination

Having a couple of travel plans these months, it was challenging to pick the right destination to work with Roomorama. I’ve had Sweden, Portugal, France and Thailand as my options. I chose Paris, where I was expected to stay for a night, to try it out.

Eiffel Tower

We know that Paris is notoriously known for very expensive, sometimes less-than-the-value, accommodation. I’ve been to Paris several times and stayed in a ritzy hotel in Champs-Elysees, a basement pretending to be a hotel room, and even a grey bench at Paris’ Orly airport – with the last two being disappointing experiences.

My Parisian Roomorama Experience

It’s always a pain to find accommodation in the city but thanks to Roomorama, I think I found the sweet spot.
I rented this room on a shared apartment in 11th arrondisement of Opera Bastille. The location is great with lots of stores, restaurants and access to public transport a short five-minute walk away.

Take the metro and you are 10 minutes away from the famous Parisian sites like the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre, Champs Elysses and Montmartre.

Roomorama - Paris

The room may cost 150€ to 200€ if you have the same room in a hotel, but through Roomorama, I got the room for half the price. Definitely on a Parisian summer, that is a budget score.

The room I got has a foldable yet comfortable sofa bed, a set of good books to read (that made me wish I could stay more), and wi-fi access. It also has huge windows that let natural light in.

Prior to coming, my Parisian host, Wilfried, took time to send me directions to his place, including some tips on interesting spots near his place. You rarely get treatment like that when you are booking a hotel or hostel. Staying with a local gives you the advantage of knowing the destination from a local point-of-view, which for a traveller is more enriching than the staple tourist activities.

My experience with Roomorama introduced me to the option of short-term rentals – and thanks to my short yet very interesting stay in Paris – I’ll definitely considering staying in one again!

Photos from Roomorama –  credits 

Big thanks to for my accommodation in Paris. All opinions and views expressed in this post are my own.


Filipino Friday: Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol

February 10, 2012

One of my first real travel experience involved jumping into open sea and chasing sharks.

If you don’t believe then check the photo of the big shark scar that I have on my knee. 😉 Still don’t believe me?!

Great White Shark Cage Diving

Well, I maybe joking on the scar on my knee, but the swimming with sharks part was actually the real deal. 🙂 Though, the catch is that it’s not sharks a la Jaws – but are calmer and less prone to eating humans.

Ladies and gents, I present you the whale sharks or butanding as we call them in the Philippines!

Whale shark

Unline the sharks that we commonly know about – they only eat plankton and krills.

They are the largest fish species in the world measuring up to 12 meters in length (almost the size of a big bus). Their mouth alone, at 1.5 meters in width, is big enough to swallow a human being whole.

; )

They are commonly found on the world’s warm and tropical waters and luckily the Philippines have lots of them.:)

The coastal town of Donsol  is the hotspot in the Philippines if you want to experience swimming with them. The whale shark season is between January and May of each year.

Donsol’s is a prime example of sustainable tourism – mixing tourism development, bringing livelihood to its people and at the same time increasing awareness about these awesome creatures.

I did the whale shark interaction back in 2008 and it remains as one of my most unforgettable experience to date. We came late in the season but luckily still had a chance to see a couple of whale sharks.


All the sightings can only be arranged from the main tourist office. You have towatch a video first about whale sharks and the rules you have to follow. Then you are brought to a boat together with a shark spotter. The shark spotters (or BIOS) used to be fishermen who used to capture these sharks for food – but now they’ve changed jobs to become the shark’s prime protectors!

Once they’ve spotted a whale shark, you’ll to jump in the open sea and swim so hard to follow these huge creatures.

You are not allowed to touch, ride, feed or swim right next to them (especially near their tails) for your safety and for the preservation of their habitat as well.

But definitely, it’s an experience that everyone should do!

To go to Donsol, fly to Legaspi (1 hour from Manila or Cebu) and it’s another 1 hour jeepney ride away to get to the Donsol town proper. Alternatively, there is a daily overnight bus that goes to Legaspi and Donsol. You can arrange the day you want to do the swim in their tourist office and will cost you less than 1500 PHP (30 USD) for the entire thing.

Have you tried swimming with whale sharks? Share you experience below!

About Filipino Friday: Every Friday, I’m going to showcase something unique about my home country , the Philippines. It can be a place, food, experience, custom or tradition that highlights what we our 7,107 islands can offer. I hope that through these posts – I can help bring awareness about the Philippines,  it’s beauty, hidden sites, quirkiness and diversity.

Are you a travel blogger? I’m inviting you to take part of Filipino Friday with me. All you need to do is post something about the Philippines every Friday. Contact me if you’re interested.


So I Went Alone: The Beauty of Solo Travelling

December 1, 2011
chiang Mai

“You’re someone who loves being with people, travelling with friends” was how one colleague describes me. And my latest trip – a three-day solo trip in Chiang Mai  – defies this belief and pretty much every fear I have of travelling alone.

Writers and bloggers the world over have romanticised the idea of solo travelling since time immemorial. It connects you to your deep self, it’s a good check of your map-reading skills, they would say. You know the motherhood statements that those narratives give birth to. I used to read those testaments with complete detachment – loathing the overly dramatic tones even – until I found myself in the middle of Wualai Road in Chiang Mai, walking along a sea of people scouring the Saturday market for tribal goods and found myself all alone. Ah, the freedom is overwhelming.

Chiang Mai, 31/01/10

I had not imagined myself writing this, really, waxing poetic about the joys of travelling alone, until I’m trapped in the middle of daily deadlines and found myself wishing that I were still relaxing and sipping hearty banana shakes in Thailand. For someone whose day job involves double-checking that all things are in place (grammatical and otherwise), it was a bit difficult for me to be as spontaneous as I hope I would be. Some of you out there may echo my sentiments: with only several days of granted leave a year, a depleting savings account and responsibilities that range from the emotional to the financial, we get tangled in our daily checklists. Every single day is a quagmire of must-dos and most likely, travel plans are the first to become collateral damage when ‘needs’ battle ‘wants’ (or as I used to say, when our wallet is at war with our wanderlust).

My weekend trip last month was my first attempt at going solo, and in a way, a small inch closer to spontaneity. I’ve stepped into the plane with only two things confirmed: I have booked a guest house (so my mum and dad would not worry where I would spend my nights) and I’m going white water rafting on my second day. Where would I eat, where would I go after dinner, who would I be with most importantly, deserve some big question marks in my head, which I had totally ignored.

Armed with semi-free tickets from a lucky draw (which got finalised less than 24 hours before my trip!), I told my parents and friends I’m going to Thailand alone. My parents and sisters are the most supportive surprisingly, with one of my sisters even telling me to also go to Koh Samui or Pattaya after Chiang Mai, and my mum is not as worried as I’d predicted. But my friends’ reactions range from surprised and worried (Why are you going alone? Is it safe?) to condescending (What is there to see in Chiang Mai?! Why there?) to that of awe (Can you do that? Are you gonna be okay alone?) At times, my petty concerns surfaced: What if something happens to me? What if I get sick during this brief period? What if I get lost? And the most superficial of worries: Who’s going to take my pictures?! (That’s why camera timers and tripods are invented, go use ‘em!) The trick is to get past the overthinking: pack your bags, hop on the plane and just wait for things to happen. Trust me, it’s all going to be okay.

Chiang MaiSo I went, I survived – albeit with a few bruises and whole body aching after falling from the raft  – and I’m here to tell the tales. There’s only one harsh truth about going solo: the first day is the most difficult, it’s like the backpacking rite of passage. The transition from your socially fine life at home and the lone backpacker mode before you is always hard. The moment I landed, I realised I’m really alone. The first meal is the most lonesome, since I am not used to eating lunch all by myself. But being free from the familiar is one the best things that happened to me this year. There is always something liberating about standing in the middle of a crowded street, looking for your next meal while grappling for the right words to say, as the people around you are speaking something alien to your ears. There’s no hassle of eating quickly, since I had no travel mate to worry about. The absence of an itinerary is also overwhelming; I can scoop the glass noodles of my pad thai with no ticking clock and printed schedule to always look at.

Back in the guest house, Wi-Fi has been my salvation, and not in terms of connecting with friends and telling them I’m okay, but because I realised I had not packed any maps or guidebook with me. I found a note on my phone saying that I should go to places called Love at First Bite and Mike’s Burgers (I forgot to list down the addresses!), both of which I haven’t had the chance to visit because I ended up ordering roti egg outside the Saturday market (It is love at first bite, too!) and having beef noodles and banana shakes with a fellow backpacker (concidentally named Mike) in a small corner of the walled city.

For some of you who have done an RTW backpacking trip alone for months or year, my concerns may sound petty, amateurish perhaps. But it’s a big step for someone like me who’s so used to being organised. And I loved every single minute of it. I was able to stop and stare at the nice views, and look at the souvenirs without someone nudging me to walk on. No one’s asking me to check my watch because we’ll be late for the next thing on our itinerary. I’m on my own time, reaching for my own targets (or lack thereof).

The truth is when you go out there, you are not alone, especially if you go anywhere near or along the Banana Pancake trail. Backpackers are everywhere and you just have to overcome the initial shyness and go talk to them! After all, the beauty of travelling is not on how we followed our itinerary by heart, but it’s the people we met, the stories that get swapped, the tips we take from those brief encounters with backpackers, who, after long days on the road, are reluctantly heading home. It’s those surreal moments when we are not defined by our jobs, by the gadgets we flaunt, by the clothes we wear, by the way we carry ourselves. It’s just you and the world, and the backpackers doing the same as you: exploring, leaving  the routine and the monotony of safe lives for a taste of the unknown across the border, or in my case, within a three-hour flight radius. Solo backpacking teaches you how to rely on yourself more, but more importantly, it connects you to strangers, to the places you only see in magazines and travel blogs, and you know, nothing can replace experience.

So before you roll your eyes (like I did, and I apologise) at those who continue to wax poetic about how they trudge along life’s offbeat paths alone, I suggest you go grab your backpack and step into the wide wide highways leading to your next great adventure. And if you can – actually you must, at least once – do it all alone.

Some of you have done an RTW for months or even years, but there’s always the ‘first time’. Where’s the first country you’ve been to alone? How was it? I’m so excited to hear your stories of “When I was in_____ alone, I_________… Hit the comment boxes and share your ‘travel firsts’! 



from my sunshine spot north of the equator, wondering where and when my next solo trip would be

This is a contribution from Nelly Hernandez. Photos used from jrbubaker and Woody Shakti under creative commons license.

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