Islands hopping

In my early 20s visiting a small town like Malmo in Sweden or Yilan in Taiwan would never happen.  Places that I have been to back then were popular and famous.  Those places can typically be found in travel magazine.  All of that slowly changed in my 30s.  I picked smaller and less well-known places.  I chose personal connection over tourist attractions with more photo ops.

During my years at Varian Inc. I got to know Pete Nakatani.  At the time he was in his early 40s.  The more we talked the more I discovered that Pete hardly ever traveled.  Especially over sea.  The furthest place he ever been to was Las Vegas.  He just didn’t much of a need to travel.  Reading is traveling for him.  Pete can probably identify more places on the map than an average well travelled person.  In recent years I’ve opted out from many big trips like Machu Pichu or walking the Great Wall of China.  I picked small cities not to be cool or to say “I’d rather travel the unbeaten road”.  But rather to connect and re-connect with people.  First time I ever tried to reach out to reconnect was in 2008 when I went back to Viet Nam for the very first time.  I promised to visit my cousin in Sweden many times and I finally made it happened in 2012.  On the same trip I stopped by Switzerland to visit Thao and Martin.  This year I travelled to Taiwan and the Philippines to see the Hung and the Uyecio, respectively.

YilanNightYilan, a small town two hours bus ride south east of Taipei.  There are a fair amount of farming there along the coast.  My Taiwanese colleague at Intevac considered it a vacation spot  to get away from the busy city like Taipei.  It’s definitely a quite place.  I didn’t see any backpacker or foreigner in my hotel and hardly on the street.  There were no short of outdoor activities here.  A short drive from Yilan will take you to Wufenchi park for a short hike with scenic view of the mountain and water fall.  There are hot spring resort nearby to go for a dip after a long day.  We actually did that much in half a day.

Early the next day we took a train up north to Gongliao for a bike ride.  Bike rental here is about $3-4 ‘til 2pm and bike shops are just outside of the train station.  They will provide you with route maps.  We did the 20km (12 miles) Old Coaling Tunnel route.  The tunnel is about couple of km into the route and it’s about 2km long.  After the tunnel the ride is mostly scenic along the coast with a lot of vista point stops for photos and breaks.  Bike lanes here are spacious and safe.  They are separated with concrete curb.  There are road sides to tell where you to go.  This reminded me of how similar Taiwan, Sweden and Switzerland in term of promoting biking.  Unlike the U.S., ride at your own risk.  There aren’t that many restaurants along the route so make sure you pack food or what we did was buy a lunch box for $1.50 (or $2.0) at a restaurant next to the bike shop.  It’s really a good deal.  And you can get water from 7-11 across the street before the ride.  At the end of the ride after you return the bike, a short walk will take you to Fulong beach with fine sand to chill in the sun.  The water was quite cold for me and this was in early March.

I never had duck the way it was served here in Yilan.  It was like House of Prime Rib in San Francisco but with Duck.  The name of the restaurant is Red Lantern.  It is on the top floor of a shop mall.  After a short speech about the duck (its origin), they filleted the roasted duck in front of us.  Some part of the skin were wrapped with rice paper and veggie unlike the Peking duck, which you eat with plain bun.  The rest of the skin were made into “duck sushi” format.  The leftover meat went into the soup.  My favorite portion was the ‘duck sushi’.  The skin were just melted inside my mouth.  They were perfectly roasted with the right crunchiness.

TarokoGorgeAn hour train ride south of Yilan will take you to Hualien county, a connecting city to Taroko national park. Depends on what time of the day/week, you can find a couple selling homemade cany bars: nuts and seeds, green tea almond…etc.  They were delicious. The bus ride from Hualien station to park entrance is about 30-45 minutes for 250NT.  The fee included park entrance fee and you can hop on hop off throughout the park.  We made a few stops (1) Shakadang trial for a 5km roundtrip hike (2) Cimu bridge and Xiangde temple trail (3) Changchun (Eternal Spring) shrine (4) And one more but I forgot J.  It definitely takes a whole day [or two] if you want to hit some of the highlight spots.  My most favorite spot, confirmed by many tour buses went there, is the Eternal Spring shrine.  I was really amazed by the actual labor that people put in to build such architecture and staircase in such geographic.

Leaving Yilan behind we spent a day in Taipei to visit Andy Hsia.  We started out with brunch at a local restaurant 5 minutes walk from his apartment.  We had minced pork and soup, one of the many traditional Taiwanese breakfast dishes.  All and all, I really like all the foods I had in Taiwan thus far.  They are reasonably priced, good quality and fresh.  After brunch Andy went back to work while the rest of us heading to the Palace museum.  A lot of history and some 600,000 or more of artifacts and art works from Chinese history can be found here.  Anne took a lot of Chinese bronze classes in college so she was in for a treat.  Two exhibits that require you to get in line for are the Chinese characters and the jade collection.  Actually only part of the jade collection and that’s the imperfect cracked jade that was made into the shape of a cabbage and fatty pork.    Yummm!

For dinner Andy took us to his favorite beer place somewhere in Taipei.  I am not going to detail of every dish here but for 3,000NT we got 6 large beers and 12 delicious dishes.  The rice is free and unlimited…that just tell you how much I need rice J.  Apparently 12 dishes were not enough, we headed off to the night market (I believe it was the Shilin night market) for even more food and midnight snacks.  Whatever that you are craving can definitely be found here.  From pork blood skewers to fresh healthy fresh fruit smoothies at a very attractive price.  The most interesting and must try item is the shave ice.  It was so smooth and silky that if you were blind folded you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Manila, a completely different climate and setting compared to the last few days we had in Taiwan.  The traffic in Manila is terrible.  Just to give you some perspectives, it takes about 50-60 minutes to travel 10km at almost any given time of the day and it would cost about 400P ($10) for taxi fare.  Since we stay inside Intramuros, it made it even worst to get around.  To get to Tim’s in Quezon which is about 9km away, it took his driver one hour to drop me off.  I felt terrible.  For the most part the Philippines is pretty westernize.  On our first night Tim took us to The Fort in Taguig City for dinner.  Except for being surrounded by Tagalog speaking people didn’t feel like I was in Asia.  High rise buildings, P.F. Chang, Texas Road House,  everything in the Bay Area can be found here.

We checked out a couple of sites at the Intramuros: St. Augustine churchFort Santiago.  The Manila Cathedral was closed at the time for retrofitting.  The botanical garden is no longer there.  In Viet Nam most of the historical sites left unattended or with very little maintenance, same here in the Philippines, Intramuros has a lot of history but it’s more or less a slump now.  At night Tim took us to a very interesting area for dinner.  Half of the area is a seafood market and the other half is restaurants.  Basically one can buy all the fresh seafood and bring over to the restaurant for them to cook with a small fee per kg.  For 1,600P we got 1 lobster, 1/2kg of shrimps, 1 crab and some clamps at the market.  For dinner we got some extra spare ribs and fried rice with drinks for another 1,000P.  What a deal!  That was my highlight of Manila.

The real adventure began when we left Manila for Donsol, Legaspi for whale shark sighting.  The place is known for whale sharks sighting especially from October to May with March to be the high season.  The boat and park entrance fee is $100/boat.  So if you are the only person going out at that time, you would have to pay the whole $100.  We were lucky to have 4 other people to split the cost with.  Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to see any.  We were literally on the boat for 3 hours circling the area but nothing.  After that we went for a dip in the water to cool off.  The water there is not all that clear.  My guess for visibility is about 10ft if that.  From my research there’s not a whole of diving here.  Most diving happen over Ticao island which takes about 2-3 hours boat ride to get to.  Before getting on the plane for our next spot, we stopped at the Cagsawa ruin in Legaspi for a little sightseeing.  From there you get a very good view of the volcano.    Look just like Mt. Fuji.  That’s pretty much all I can write about Donsol and Legaspi.

After the failed whale sharks sighting attempt, I kept my expectation low for diving in Busanga, Palawan.  The main reason we went there was to dive in Apo reef.  It supposed to be the 2nd largest reef after the Great Barrier reef in Australia.  Apo reef is about 2 hours boat ride north of Busanga island and there are only 1 or 2 dive shop would make a day trip out there.  We dove with Dugong dive center located in the northeastern part of the island.  In order to dive with them we must stay in the same area because the nearest big town is Coron and it is  1.5-2 hours drive.  There are at least 4 accommodations in the area: Vicky’s Guesthouse, Cashew Grove, Club Paradise and El Rio Y Mar (listed in according to price).  First three nights ($400 total with 3 meals/day) we stayed at Cashew Grove and Vickie’s (800P room only) for our last night.  The quality between Cashew and Vicky’s was day and night.  I would totally recommend Cashew.  At Cashew the bathroom was clean.  There was internet and pool table for entertainment.  At Vicky’s she gave me a roll of fishing line and told me to entertain myself with fishing.  I did fish and caught a couple of small fishes that I ended up tossed them back into the water.  By the way there are a lot of cashew trees at Cashew Grove resort if you like to try out the fruit.  Cashew Grove is about 20km from Busanga airport which took us approximately 1h15m to get to on rough dirt road.

ApoReefFirst day of diving – Apo reef.  Dive boats here in Busanga are much smaller than those in Viet Nam and Thailand.  There are only enough stand for 8 tank closely packed to each other.  With 5 divers and 4 snorklers I felt very cramp.  The water at Apo reef is clear.  Some areas I was able to see the coral at the bottom from the boat, which is about 25-30 feet deep.  The water temperature was in the 27C.  Beautiful day for diving.  We did three dives here at Apo.  Very dramatic drop-offs down to about 400m . The deepest we went down was about 25m but mostly stayed at around 15m (50-60ft).  Sea life is lively here.  Corals in all shape and size and stretch out as far as the eyes can see.  The steep walls are well covered with corals, sponges, tunicates, nudibranchs and slugs. The coral formation at the plateau is magnificent.  Fishes come in with all sort of colors, big and small.  Green and hawksbill turtles, and a multitude of fish including damselfish, butterflyfish, batfish, surgeonfish, snappers, fusiliers and trevallies are common.  Of all the places I’ve been to, Apo has the largest and most lively reef.  However, most of the fishes were typical.  I was hoping to see more bigger fishes and mammals like: barracudas, dolphins…etc.  I think that will be my focus for future dives.

Second day of diving – Busanga.  This is more local.  The boat ride is only 30 minutes or so.  We dove off of 2 islands: xyz and xyz.  Visibility is not as good as Apo.  Reef formation is still amazing.  We saw sting rays and  more turtles.  On the way back we did some dugong sighting.  We spotted like 3-4 of them but the area was full of red jelly fish.  We followed them around and finally  reached an area with no jelly fish.  Most of us jumped in with our snorkeling gears to pursue the chase.  In additional to low visibility dugongs are fast which made it very hard to chase after them.  Swimming there was tough as well due to choppy water and strong current.  Nonetheless we had a blast chasing after them.    Dirk, Dugong dive center owner, was pretty cool and playful during the whole time.

Third day of diving – wreck dive.  In 2010 I did some wreck dive in Mexico but did not like it very much.  Very little sea life, deep, dark and short bottom time.  Normally you only want to stay at 110ft (30m) for 30 minutes unless you dive with Nitrox (more oxygen in the tank than normal) to increase bottom time.  We decided to do a wreck dive anyway.  Wreck info: Kyokuzan Maru, 42m maximum depth, approximately 10ft of visibility, 136m long Japanese freighter sunk in WWII, sunk upright.  First dive we went down to the front part of the ship with maximum depth around 30-33m.  We ‘crawl’ in and out of big chimney and rooms.  Beautiful reef developed around and on the ship.  After 1h30m of surface time for lunch we went back down for a second dive.  This time we check out the back end of the ship.  Saw more interesting stuff like bubble coral, big school of batfish – just pure awesome.

Homeward.  Remember I mentioned traffic in Manila is really bad, take that into account when you plan a trip with connecting flight in multiple terminals.  Manila airporthas like 4 terminals and they are spread really far apart.   For domestic flight we flew in and out of terminal 3.  I think they have international flight at terminal 3 too but not for Eva.  So on the way back from Busanga, we flew in terminal 3 while our flight from MNL-TPE-SFO was in terminal 1.  And we only had 2 hours in between.  Everything went so smoothly from Busanga to Manila.  Flight was on time.  Our luggage arrived.  Now what?  We need a ride to terminal 1 and figured 2 ways.  One, take a taxi with a hefty price.  For a 5km drive or so, they would charge us 800P ($20) or wait in a long line to take a meter taxi for maybe 400P ($10).   Or a local shuttle and who knows how many stops in between.  We had 1h20m left.  We decided to jump on the shuttle for 20P ($0.50) each person.  Forty five minutes later with stops along the road and terminal 2 before 1, we arrived.  I grabbed my bag.  Rushed out of the shuttle and busted through the front door to the airport and raced to Eva’s front desk to check-in.  Thanked God there was no line at the check-in and the security line was short.  We had 10 minutes to spare before boarding time.

The adventure didn’t stop there.  In Taipei we had about 8 hours (from 3pm to 11pm) between flights so we decided to venture out to Taipei 101 for dinner instead of airport food.  It was around 3pm on Friday night therefore the subway was crowded but we managed to figure out where to go and what train to take.  The metro system in Taipei is really easy to use and easy to pick up.  Definitely easier than in Soul in my opinion.  A short walk from the train station and there stood Taipei 101.  A tall well lit building was partly covered in fog.  We only walked a few lower floors (out of 101 floors).  Mostly shops.  Basement 1 is where the food court is.  There is a ONE star Michelin restaurant that serves xiao long bao called Din Tai Fung.  A must try restaurant.  The area where they make the dumpling is in the middle of the restaurant with glass window for customers to see how they make it.  It is pretty interesting how they have a whole set of people roll, fill, weight and pinch the dumpling.  Flavorful and soft dumpling at a very reasonable price.  800NT ($27) got us 1 beer, 10 pork dumplings, 5 shrimp dumplings, 2 vegetable buns and stir fry anchoy.  The foods in Taiwan are great.  Did not disappoint me at all.

Well the rest of the trip you can imaging.  11 hours of sleep sitting, movies, read a little and more movies.  Even though I was homesick;  I missed my daily routines and a long bike ride on the weekend; I missed sleeping in my own bed;  I actually did not look forward to going back to work. I hated my current company.  I hated the people I am working with.  Some people think taking a break will help to appreciate things more but not me and definitely not where I am at.  I started making new changes.

An old Vietnamese say “Đi một ngày đàng, học một sàng khôn” (loosely translate into travelling broadens one’s horizons).  I don’t know if I got any smarter every time I travel but I learn to appreciate life more.  Definitely the people around me.

Of all the places I’ve been to, Taiwan, Switzerland, maybe part of Viet Nam (in another 10 years???) and Korea, I can see myself coming back there.  Even to live there!

Trip photos:  best of Taiwan  |  best of the Philippines  |  scuba diving photos  |  scuba diving videos.



One thought on “Islands hopping

  1. Christine says:

    just had a chance to read your blog… nice travel diary and nice pictures. it was great to have you here in taiwan.

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