It’s more fun in the Philippines! How to spend a blissful, budget-friendly week on Bohol island

The Philippines is one of those places that look too good to be true, with its seemingly endless array of white-sand beaches and lush tropical jungle. There are so many equally beautiful places to visit in this country, spread out over more than 7,000 (!) islands, including hotspots such as Boracay for the beach bums and Palawan for a tropical, ‘off the grid’ paradise. With such a vast choice of islands, and with transport options that are both limited and somewhat archaic, visiting every gorgeous spot in this sprawling archipelago is near impossible unless you have several months to spare.

With this in mind, we chose to spend a week on the beautiful island of Bohol, a few miles from Cebu. Here are 6 things not to miss here!

 

1. Visit a Tarsier Sanctuary

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Bohol is probably most famous for being home to the adorable little creature that is the tarsier. There are two Tarsier ‘sanctuaries’ on the island, though the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Corella is touted as the best one to visit as its aim is to preserve these tiny, endangered animals. This place is far less busy than the Loboc Conservation Area which is located on the route to the Chocolate Hills near to the man-made forest and is mobbed by tour buses, mostly full of noisy Korean tour groups. At the Corella sanctuary, a lady leads a small group of us into a small enclosed area of dense trees and shrubs and asks us to stay quiet. After a while, we spot several fuzzy little tarsiers dozing and clinging onto branches. We are able to get very close to them to take pictures, which allows us to see just how cute they really are , but I can’t help but think about how the tarsiers probably aren’t enjoying the up close and personal experience quite as much. This place may advertise itself as a sanctuary but, like any attraction involving live animals, the welfare of the creatures is always questionable.

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Adorable!

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2. Take a day trip to Oslob to swim with whale sharks

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From Bohol, it is possible to take a speedboat over to neighbouring Oslob, where you can swim with these gentle giants. Although ‘swim’ isn’t really the best word for this experience; essentially you will hold onto a wooden boat with your face in the water, sucking up mouthfuls of fishy, salty water through your crappy snorkel, while these incredible giant fish circle the water directly below you. Be warned: they are HUGE and actually quite terrifying close up. Their mouths are wide enough to swallow a human if they wanted to, but don’t worry, these guys only feed on fish. (At least, that’s what we were told…) The feeding aspect of this experience is what makes it so controversial, the whale sharks have evidently become reliant on the food tossed into the water by the boatmen and as a result they have acquired unnatural feeding habits and no longer fear the flailing mob of semi-drowning tourists that have come to poke go-pros into their faces and attempt to touch them despite being told not to by the ‘conservationists’.

Although it was incredible to see these creatures so close up, as with the tarsier sanctuary,  I have to admit I have mixed feelings about this experience. The fact that the whales are fed means that their migration patterns have been altered and they are now completely reliant on the food thrown by the fishermen. Despite this, the whales are not caged and so are still essentially ‘wild; and free to swim wherever they please.

 

3. Take a scooter through the manmade forest to the Chocolate Hills

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Like most places in South-East Asia, the only way to truly experience Bohol is by scooter. There is nothing quite like zipping along well-worn roads, past lush rice paddies and through bustling villages wearing a battered old helmet that doesn’t quite fasten properly.  ‘Safety first’ is not really the motto here and we unfortunately managed to acquire some pretty nasty grazes and bruises when our scooter slipped over a patch of wet, uneven ground. Don’t let that put you off though, as we have always hired scooters to travel around and this was the first time we ever had an issue! We’ll still always choose this mode of transport as it allows you so much more freedom to explore! Head through the man-man forest in the direction of Carmen, where you’ll start to see the unmistakable Hershey’s kisses shaped ‘Chocolate Hills’ spreading out for miles. The top of the mini-mountain of a viewpoint offers incredible panoramic views over these iconic hills.

4. Stay at a cute budget hotel on Alona Beach, while still enjoying the perks of luxury accommodation!

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There are plenty of budget options around, and many of these are based on Panglao, a little island in the south-western corner of Bohol. Alona Swiss Resort is an affordable hostel with a boutique hotel feel, just up the road from the gorgeous Alona Beach. Captain’s Lodge is another great option, with its lush, green courtyard serving as an oasis away from the bustling street.

If budget isn’t an issue, the Hennan Resort is the biggest and most luxurious hotel on Panglao Island. Sitting directly on the white sand of Alona Beach, this gorgeous, sprawling resort boasts 3 enormous pools and a bar and restaurant mere metres from the sea. If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to this level of luxury, for a modest fee you can still enjoy the pool with its cocktail bar (hello happy hour!) without forking out top dollar for a room.

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The view from the Hennan Resort pool, just metres from the beach!

5. Zip wire across the Loboc river

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About an hour’s scooter ride from Alona Beach is the Loboc Ecotourism Adventure Park, where you can zipline over the river for a small charge. You’ll lie on your stomach on a piece of fabric attached to the line overhead and before you can wonder whether you’re actually going to be strapped in or how safe this really is, you’ll be pushed out and suddenly you’re soaring almost 200 meters above a gorge of lush jungle and over the serene Loboc river. It’s an exhilarating little ride, with incredible views, and the fee allows you to take the zipline back the other way to return to the entrance! The staff here were so friendly and when they saw we had some cuts and bruises from our little scooter accident, they grabbed a first-aid kit and insisted on cleaning our grazes and bandaging us up!

 

6. Live your best vegan life with a smoothie bowl at Shaka Bohol

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Drool…

I hate to say it, but Filipino fare such as Tapsilog (beef, rice and egg) doesn’t quite live up to that of other South-East Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam (especially when it’s served at breakfast…) But this cute café, just up the road from Captain’s Lodge, serves up bright and tasty vegan and veggie options, such as these gorgeous acai bowls.

 

Getting there

International flights all arrive into Manila, and to get to Bohol most people first travel to Cebu and then take the ferry to Tagbilaran.  You can also fly directly into Tagbilaran which will reward you with some incredible views!

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On the ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ trail in Ubud with the elusive Ketut, the medicine man

I’d seen the movie, of course. Hasn’t everyone watched the ever-endearing  Julia Roberts amble across the globe on her soul seeking journey that all started in Bali with Ketut, the toothless medicine man who read her palm and set her future in motion? It’s a heartwarming tale, based on the author’s own life, worth a watch for the beautiful scenes of Ubud with it’s jungles and rice paddies alone. What I hadn’t realised was that Ketut’s character in the film is actually the same, real-life Ketut that the author had met and been so influenced by. And that he was still living right here, in Ubud.

When I spotted the sign pointing down a nondescript side road, I yanked my boyfriend so hard in excitement that our scooter nearly went careering off edge of the road and into the jungly undergrowth. The sign read simply, ‘Ketut Liyer’s House’ and we followed the road to a small, pretty guesthouse. Since the movie’s release, Ketut has become a local celebrity and his house a magnet for tourists who come to visit him and get their palms read by the cheerful medicine man. When we visited however it was late 2015 and Eat, Pray, Love had been released over 5 years ago. Remembering his crinkly face and toothless smile from the movie, I had to wonder how old Ketut could possibly be now…

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The spot where Ketut and Liz had their first meeting

The entrance to Ketut’s house and garden leads into a pretty courtyard, filled with flowers, caged birds and the heady smell of incense. The raised platform where Ketut does his readings is adorned with ornate images. I spot a faded photograph of a smiling Julia Roberts with Ketut and his family, but no sign of the man himself. The friendly man who welcomes us introduces himself as Ketut’s son and tells us that unfortunately his father is too tired to greet visitors today. ‘He is very old’, he laughs, ‘100 years old!’ Incredible. No wonder the guy wanted some peace and quiet. We wander around the guesthouse grounds which are serene and beautiful. It’s not hard to see why Elizabeth Gilbert was so enchanted by this place.

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Spot Julia
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Ketut’s son, who will take over his father’s role of medicine man

Sadly, I recently saw in an article that Ketut passed away in the summer of 2016, at the age of 100, only a few months after we visited. I’m sure though that his memory will live on. In those who will watch the film and be seduced by the mysticism and serenity of Ubud and will flock to visit his guesthouse to sit cross-legged on that well-worn platform in the hope of catching some words of wisdom from a wise, old medicine man.

Rest in peace Ketut, or as you would say, ‘See you later, alligator.’

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Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm: Exploring the incredible ancient temples of Angkor

Before I visited Cambodia, I didn’t know a single thing about the country except that it was pretty close to Thailand and had a famous temple with a funny name. Ashamed as I am to admit it, that was the extent of my knowledge of the country that would soon become my favourite in South East Asia. Cambodia really does have it all. It is a country with a fascinating yet tragic history, beaches to rival those of neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand and the hotspot cities of Siem Reap and Pnohm Penh are a must for culture junkies who aren’t afraid of a wild party or two. Not to mention Cambodia has one of the largest temple complexes in the world, the 400km expanse of Angkor, an ancient Khmer city filled to the brim with crumbling, Tombraider-esque temples slowly being taken over by the jungle. (Read on to the end for some top tips before you visit!)

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Another day, another temple
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The 54 ‘devas’ guarding the southern entrance to Angkor
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The opposing figures at the South Gate depict the battle between the ‘devas’ (gods) and the ‘asuras’ (demons)

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the superstar here, claiming the number one spot in Lonely Planet’s Ultimate travel List. (Grab a copy for your coffee table here.)  The best time to visit the iconic temple is sunrise, so take it easy on the beer pong the night before, especially if you’re staying at the Downtown Hostel in Siem Reap which is notorious for it’s Pub Street bar crawls. Your hostel can arrange for a local guide to pick you up on a tuk-tuk in the dark at around 4.00am to arrive at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. Despite the early hoards of selfie-stick wielding tourists, there is an undeniably mystical, serene atmosphere here. The morning mist hangs heavy in the humid air and countless dragonflies dance around the crumbling stones. Try and wrestle your way to a spot right in front of the water so you can watch the sun slowly appear behind the magnificent temple and see its shimmering reflection. Or just do what this lady did and ignore the temple right in front of you to snap a picture of a postcard…strange.

 

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The real thing is directly opposite you love…
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5am faces…
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The sun rising slowly behind Angkor Wat

 

There is far, far more to the temples of Angkor than Angkor Wat alone. There is a vast array of temples dotted around the ancient complex. You won’t be able to see everything in a day, your best bet is to buy a 3 day ticket and let your guide ferry you around the temples on a tuk-tuk. Just remember to tip your driver after the 3 days! Your other options include cycling, but the midday heat is seriously sweltering and the temples are spread widely apart. You could take an elephant too, but it’d take you a hell of a long time to see everything and, with all tourist attractions such as this, the welfare of the elephants is always questionable.

 

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Taking a break from the heat
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Monkeys often bring traffic to a halt as they amble across the road

 

Bayon

Bayon is a mind-boggling temple where 216 serene stone faces smile down at you from every angle. The entire temple is covered in bas-reliefs, figures etched into the stone, depicting mythological scenes and everyday life in 12th century Cambodia. Inside feels like a giant hall of mirrors with its endless, long hallways of crumbling stone and small shrines sit in silent corners adorned with flowers and incense.

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The huge, smiling faces of Bayon

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For a small fee you can have your photo taken with locals in traditional dress at Bayon
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Just one of thousands of bas-reliefs carved into the temple walls

Ta Prohm

Nowhere is the power of nature more apparent than at Ta Prohm temple, or ‘The Tombraider Temple’, where the jungle has literally taken over. Long tree roots have entwined themselves around the stones and grown around doorways, enveloping the temple which buckles under the force of nature. You can’t help but unleash your inner Lara Croft here, or picture yourself in an Indiana Jones movie. The temple itself is a maze of narrow hallways and you’ll find yourself at a twisting series of dead ends, the passage blocked by fallen stone blocks. The light filtering down through the trees and the sounds of the surrounding jungle add to the mysticism and other-worldliness of this place.

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Teeny doorways

Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm are only the tip of the iceberg of temples to explore. Take your time and prepare to be enchanted by this truly incredible part of this beautiful country.

Things to be aware of before you visit:

Dress code: Although a tourist attraction, Angkor is still a religious site and therefore you should dress appropriately. This can be a struggle in the midday heat, as you can see from my photos I didn’t always follow my own advice. Your best bet is to keep your shoulders covered with a loose shirt or kimono to stay cool while dressing respectfully.

Child hawkers: You will be followed constantly by cute kids selling postcards and trinkets. Remember that the Angkor complex is enormous and there are populated villages scattered around so these children’s families live nearby. Although the constant hassling can be tedious, remember that these families often have no other option than to send their children out to make a living.

The heat: Oh god the heat. The temple complex is huge and you will spend full days walking around endless temples in the midday sun. Bring lots of water and suncream and try to stay in the shade as much as possible. Some temples have hundreds of steps, so take it easy!

Tourists: Try to visit the most popular temples mentioned above as early or late in the day as possible, to avoid the crowds. There are so many other temples to explore during the day that you’ll often find yourself the only person there!

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Waterfalls, kauri forests and secret glowworm caves in wonderful Whangarei

My attempt at a New Zealand road trip didn’t start very well.

In the space of the first week we had unwittingly checked into a hippy commune, bought a car, had all our belongings stolen from said car and then been stuck in the middle of nowhere waiting for the car to be repaired. To say the least, it had been an eventful start. I think I took the loss of my luggage pretty well, copious amounts of cheap wine certainly helped. Though admittedly I did mourn the loss of my hair straighteners for a good while. But eventually, with the car back in one piece we were ready to actually start our trip. So we bid farewell to the Fat Cat hippies(read about this amazing place here and here) and headed north through Waipu (got to love these Maori names) and on to Whangarei where we  discover the Little Earth Lodge, a tucked away haven of a hostel nestled deep in a kauri filled forest. On the deck we meet a lean, bushy eye-browed guy with hair nicer than mine. ‘I slept in a tree last night,’ he says solemnly, before introducing himself as Ian, a trainee yoga instructor from Florida. Apparently its not a good idea to sleep in trees in New Zealand. You’re likely to be attacked by territorial possums. Ian is either the most zen guy I’ve ever met or the most stoned. Possibly both.

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Little Earth Lodge’s best kept secret is the glow worm caves hiding in its back garden. Known as ‘the budget traveller’s answer to Waitomo’ the Abbey Caves can be explored for free, all you need is a head torch and a fondness for claustrophobic, dark spaces. The opening to the caves is literally a hole in the middle of the forest. After the recent rainfall the rocks down are slippery and we land in murky, waist-high water at the bottom. With no idea what might be lurking in the narrow tunnels ahead or swimming around us in the icy water, we head into the darkness. (Cue thoughts of Gollum and those weird things in ‘The Descent’.) After many twists and turns, sloshing around amid frequent cries of, ‘something touched my foot!’ we arrive at the end of the cave where we turn off our head torches to see the glowworms above us, carpeting the ceiling of the cave like a miniature milky way. It’s an amazing sight, and we didn’t have to pay $50 for it…

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Head torches, helmet and slip-proof shoes…
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Entrance to one of the caves (Source: pinterest)

The next day after a morning yoga lesson with Ian, (it didn’t go down well, I can’t even touch my toes,) we take a walk around the forest where ancient kauri trees have stood for centuries. (These trees can grow up to 50 metres high!) A trail takes us down to Whangarei Falls, described by Lonely Planet as ‘the Kim Kardashian of New Zealand’s waterfalls, not the most impressive but definitely the most photographed.’ The falls look pretty impressive to me, with torrents of clear water tumbling over the edge of a sheer cliff face into a deep pool. This wouldn’t look out of place in a tropical jungle. I can imagine monkeys scampering about the rocks and swinging from vines. The only monkey I see however is Ian, who decides to strip completely naked (to the horror of an elderly German couple) and swim out to the falls where he perches on a rock and does a spot of yoga. Of course.

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Whangarei Falls