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Dà Lat, The City of Eternal Spring

Tired faces slumped against the sun-heated glass of our bus from Mūi Né to Dà Lat, we made our way up into the spectacular heights of the Vietnamese highlands. Even if the sudden increase in elevation hadn’t been a factor, the view was breathtaking.

Still a little haggard from our rude awakening, our plan was to nap as much as possible on the journey. We quickly decided that would be a waste after the first hairpin bend as we rose into the highland fog, a smooth green canopy carpeting the valley hundreds of metres below. We had the bus largely to ourselves, with the exception of an old couple and their tiny granddaughter, who made a point of beaming at me whenever I made eye contact.

We wanted to visit Da Lat for a few reasons. On a practical note, it lay directly between us and Hoi An, a certain stop on the journey. Secondly, the city is known for its pine forests, its unusually French aesthetic and – most importantly – its almost perpetual early-spring temperature. Small wonder it’s earned itself the nickname of ‘The City Of Eternal Spring; Da Lat made me actually consider wearing a jacket for the first time on this trip.

We checked into the hotel (lovely owner, fourth floor room, no lift, tiny stairwell, great cardio), dumped our bags and saw what we could see of the town. A large lake is the centrepiece of the area, around which you can take horse-drawn carriage rides, go for a run or – in my case – underestimate the length of the lake and bitch about wearing flip-flops for a two-hour walk.

The town has a charming personality to it, admittedly in a strangely non-Vietnamese sort of way. Designed as a French resort town in the early 1900s, you could absolutely believe it’s a purpose-planned city – but it still has a soul, and the roads are inescapably Vietnamese in their urgent and strangely cohesively chaotic sort of way.

Having left the dubious roads of Mui Ne behind, I wasn’t about to waste the opportunity for some cool-weather exploring. We had to change hotels (just as well, as the building opposite was undergoing incredibly noisy construction) and luckily found one just across the road (the floor directly underneath said noisy construction), before renting a scooter and heading out into the great green yonder.

I had a scooter in Korea for about a year before having my accident (not to protest too much but it *was* 100% their fault), in which time I would drive to/from work four times a day on relatively mad Korean roads. In the Philippines I drove more or less daily on mostly lawless but fairly empty Philippine roads.

Vietnam is an entirely different world of driving. Everybody seems to know exactly what they’re doing, so your first job is to look like you know exactly what you’re doing as well. Make sure you know where you’re going, stick to the right side of the road and for God’s sake don’t hesitate or you’ll find yourself at the back of a very, very long line of bikes that wasn’t there a moment before. Our newfound Swiss friend Daniel put it best: “In Vietnam, it seems crazy but there’s a system. You could walk across the road with your eyes shut if you dare – but you need to know the system.”

Having got ourselves some wheels, we fled the town and followed the long, lazily winding mountainside road. I had been looking forward to the drive for a few days, which of course meant that for both days of scooter ownership the weather made a point of raining heavily whenever I turned on the ignition – but that’s what pack-a-macs are for.

The road eventually took us to the Elephant Falls – an out-of-the-blue waterfall next to a temple boasting the tallest Buddha I’ve ever seen. If the waterfall was dramatic, however, the route to its base was something else, particularly when you’ve decided once again to wear flip-flops in the rain. What starts out as steps quickly turns into roughly-cut notches in the rock faces that aren’t always as obvious as they should be. The scramble down to the waterfall basin is worth it, as you stand on a rough chunk of stone with water exploding either side of you. The upper views are equally photo-worthy, as well as giving you the opportunity to donate either money or, apparently, sweet wrappers to the tiny Buddha shrine on the platform.

Due to nobody’s organisational foibles but our own, we failed to successfully book the bus we planned to Hoi An for our last day, but just managed to get the last two seats on the 14-hour night bus to Da Nang – which, as you can imagine, we’re both super keen on. In anticipation of half a day of possible misery, we allowed ourselves one last outing on the bike to the expansive Tuyên Lâm Lake, once again made all the more dramatic by the exciting addition of rain.

Now I get to see what the last two seats on a 14-hour sleeper bus in Vietnam look like. There’s a chance I may resemble a pretzel on the other side, but it’ll be worth it so long as I have something to write about.

PS.

To any parents of mine who might be reading this, I’m being a very safe driver so do try not to worry. X

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Getting Our Mūi Né’s Worth

Sure enough, my bum was sore enough after a good few hours of rattling through the Vietnamese countryside. Typical of the journey so far, we arrived long after nightfall and were the last to leave the bus when we stepped out onto the empty streets of Mūi Né. The sleepy silence of the town seems alien after the bustling hustle of Ho Chi Minh, and barely any motorbikes tried to drive through me while walking to the hotel at 1am.

Most of what we found in Mūi Né, we learned about after arriving; a cursory Google found that it was the obvious stopping point on the trip up Vietnam’s ludicrously long coast, but otherwise we planned to improvise. A small fishing town, its main claim to fame are its incongruously scenic dunes – two areas with either blinding white or rust-red sand, big enough to warrant the use of dune buggies to traverse them. English beaches not being known for their grandeur, this was my first experience of Lawrence of Arabia-esque scenery, I made sure to get as much sand in my beard and clothing as possible in order to enjoy it later.

Meg takes it upon herself to gather as much rubbish as possible, but sadly ‘a drop in the ocean’ would be an apt comparison.

On the Internet’s advice we also explored the famed local fishing village – for ten minutes or so, before we had to admit defeat due to the astonishingly pervasive scent of death. Unfortunately, quite a lot of flotsam, jetsam and nasty stuff has accumulated along the coast so, whilst genuinely interesting from a cultural authenticity standpoint, it’s rather aggressive on the senses.

Instead, we ventured to the curiously-named Fairy Stream, whereupon we were told to remove our footwear and wander up the riverbed barefoot. This didn’t seem overwhelmingly appealing until we started the walk upstream; the red-and-white sand mixes with the water to create a terracotta path you wade through, soft and warm underfoot. At points along the route there are great, slick banks of fresh, sun-heated mud which I could stand in all day with a vague smile on my face. The warm, squishy mud washes off as you walk past steep, multicoloured rock faces and outdoor stalagmites (which I didn’t previously know were a thing).

One of the other thing we discovered Mui Ne is famous for, however, isn’t a particularly fun thing for travellers – particularly for those inclined to ride bikes and scooters around the country, which is possibly the best means of doing so. Strictly speaking, to drive any vehicle in Vietnam you require an IDP (International Driving Permit), or a Vietnamese driving license (difficult to get unless you’re a long-term resident). This being South-East Asia, almost nobody ever checks such things, and indeed I’ve yet to be asked for my license by anybody I’ve rented a scooter from. The general rule of thumb is to not be a twit on the road and we’ll all get along.

Mui Ne, however, has gained a bit of a reputation for specifically targeting foreigners on bikes, issuing ridiculous (and almost certainly illegal) fines even if the driver can prove they have the appropriate license. It’s since been confirmed for us that it’s *only* Mui Ne that seems to have this problem with corruption, and that the rest of the country is fine to (responsibly) ride in. My advice to avid riders would be to either not rent in Mui Ne for a few days, or (if you’re riding your own bike) consider a detour around the coastal road east of the town (see expertly-drawn map for recommended detour route).

We’d planned our final day to be a relaxing, self-care sort of morning in preparation for the next five-hour journey to Da Lat. It was a bit jarring, then, when our lovely host knocked happily on our door at 6:00am to inform us that he’d booked us a seat on the bus that would arrive in ten minutes, and that he hoped we’d have a nice trip.

Bleary, tired and underpants-clad, I somehow succeeded in packing everything, brushed my hair, combed my teeth and put on almost all my clothing the right way round before the bus came and whisked us away, up into the cloud-hidden green peaks of the Vietnamese highlands.

Saigon With The Wind, or A Hô Chí Minhute

Either those are excellent titles or I need to sleep better while traveling.

One of the more romantic goals of this trip is to travel from start to finish with as little international flying as possible, as much for environmentalism as for adventure and money’s sake – that said, neither of us were keen on swimming across the South China Sea, so some concessions had to be made.

We left Manila’s lights buzzing angrily behind us and shot westwards towards the eastern side of South-East Asia, practically every coastal kilometre of which belongs to our next target: Vietnam.

My knowledge of the country is thus far limited to its cuisine (or other countries’ interpretations of it, at least) and dubious claims to historical fame by enthusiastic American troops, so I’m going in totally blind. My only hopes upon landing are that it’s a) at least a bit cooler than the Philippines at 2am, and b) that the hotel is as close to the airport as it appears on Google Maps.

My first hope was predictably dashed as soon as I stepped out into the shirt-stickingly warm Hô Chí Minh night, but that was a long shot to begin with. We staggered through the various steps of airport tedium, with a brief hiccup at passport control regarding visas – more on that later – and headed into the night in search of bed. Barely five minutes into the walk, we had our first real Vietnamese experience when we dared to walk near a road.

Roads in Vietnam, especially in populated areas, are the stuff of legend. The first thing you’ll note is that there’s a ten-to-one bike-to-car ratio. The second is that there is never a moment that someone isn’t honking a horn very close to you, or indeed at you. The third – and this is a crucial point that will shape your everyday behaviour here – is that crossing a Vietnamese road takes a combination of confidence, spatial awareness and kamikaze-like determination. It’s not that you have to worry about bad drivers per se, it’s just that people have places to be and if you’re in the way then that’s your problem.

Hô Chí Minh, or Saigon, is a truly mad city – in a way that I couldn’t help but love. It seems impossible to be bored if you have any reason to be outside, particularly if you happen to be near the busier areas. You can’t walk in a straight line for restaurants spilling out onto the mostly-for-show pavements, and the city’s labyrinthine layout means you’ll probably get turned around a few times on a ‘straight line’ journey anyway. In the space of a few hundred metres you can walk past rustic old homes, gleaming skyscrapers and French colonial architecture; one of the city’s listed sights is its post office, which sounds fairly banal until you’re looking up at it.

We’d booked a few nights (admittedly unknowingly) directly next to Bùi Viên, the Walking Street: pleasant-sounding enough, but notorious for its thumping nightlife, dubious businesses and not-so-subtle streetside narcotics salesmen. All terribly fun if you’re into it, but sadly a bit beyond our thin budgets. We could enjoy the bowel-shaking bass for free every night, however.

As part of our Southern Vietnam experience we booked a trip to the Mekong Delta, the ‘rice basket of Asia’. My top takeaways from the trip include a pair of monks openly judging the sartorial choices of passing tourists, and an eerily silent boat ride though dense marshland – an atmosphere totally broken when the gondolier dropped us off, started up a hidden outboard motor and roared off into the shattered mystique of the Mekong wilderness.

We’d intended to stop in Hô Chí Minh only for a day or two, but were delayed by previously-mentioned Visa Stuff. The following information pertains in this instance to British travellers, but equally applies to those of other European nationalities.

A cursory check in advance of the trip informed us that UK passport holders can enter Vietnam with a ‘visa exemption’ – what this means is that you can enter the country for up to 15 days without needing to apply for a visa in advance. This is handy, but slightly less so when you plan to stay in the country for upwards of three weeks as we do.

It isn’t the end of the world if you end up in the same situation as us (or the nice German/Romanian couple we ran into who had the same predicament) – all you need do is head to the Immigration Visa Extension Office, and walk right past it to a totally different building. The Immigration Office is an unnerving waiting room of bureaucracy and sternly armed guards that will only tell you to go to this other building anyway. What you want is floor 3A of the Itaxa House building, a few blocks along from the Immigration Office. You simply entrust them with your passport (not my favourite part), pay $55 (far less than the tour companies will ask for) and go back the following day for your new, extended visa.

Now legally equipped to explore the country, we strike out northwards with the equally bustling Hà Nôi in our long-range sights. We’ve got more than a few stops along the way before then, however – the first of which being the dunes of Mūi Né along the coast.

I obediently remove and bag my offending shoes (as per custom), throw my bag unceremoniously onto the bus and squeeze my oversized frame into the undersized seat. Its only a five-hour drive, after all.

The Many Maniacal Motorways of Manila

The flight from Caticlan to Manila was brief and turbulent. The gentleman behind me never quite succeeded in clearing his throat and the leg-room was very slightly less than the dimensions of my actual legs, but it was blessedly short and, being the Philippines, geographically spectacular from the plane window.

The flight to Vietnam didn’t leave until midnight the following day, so there was ample time to find lodgings, get a lay of the land and send Meg to a climbing gym to stop her climbing the walls, so to speak. We found a suitable-looking place close to the gym but seemingly not too far from the airport for a quick getaway.

What I should have learned from our experience in Cebu is that map scale is an important factor to consider when traversing the Philippines’ dense cities. Side roads that wind between buildings may, in fact, be six-lane highways blasting past whole districts without due care and attention paid to the zoom on map apps. Sixty-two minutes into the ‘short’ taxi ride to the hotel, I realised that I hadn’t given enough credit to the size of Manila.

Having been on the receiving end of a car vs. small motorised vehicle incident (and still carrying around a metal bolt in my arm as a result) I approved of the fact that every two-wheeled motorist and passenger was wearing a helmet, versus the more laid-back approach of drivers in the countryside.

What quickly became apparent was that, on Manila roads, the choices are either helmet or fast, crunchy death. I don’t recall seeing an abundance of traffic lights, but drivers seem to know precisely where they’re going and be damned if they’re going to change direction for something as inconsequential as a pedestrian or another vehicle. Enormous coaches will streak with inches to spare past street corners, leaning enthusiastically on horns that could direct shipping traffic and perforating the eardrums of anyone daring to walk nearby.

Combined with the daily operatic thunderstorms that seem to cling to the city, our time in Manila was rife with sensory drama and perpetually soggy sandals. I optimistically sought out a convenience store umbrella to pathetically combat the weather but, after the first and second store didn’t have any in stock, by the time I got to the third I’d rather lost purpose in my mission. I instead tried to preserve the dryness of my new umbrella in my otherwise waterlogged backpack and set back out into the simultaneously vertical and horizontal deluge.

Like every good drama, our time in the capital had to come to a close. After barely an hour of waiting for a taxi – any taxi, please – we were whisked off into absolutely stand-still traffic for the two-hour stop-and-start journey to the airport for our final departure from the country.

So ends the first bit of the journey. The Philippines and its gorgeous, haphazard geography had treated us relatively well, barring the occasional dubious tummy and misread map. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll find competition for its beaches in any other country on this trip (though I’m happy to be proved wrong), and we’ve been well looked after by everyone we’ve met here. Meg probably doesn’t have rabies, so that’s a win as well.

The fiddly bit’s done – now to mainland South-East Asia.

The Rising and Setting Suns of Boracay, By An Aging Writer

It’s nighttime by the time our plane leaves the Cebu runway behind, with a convoluted journey yet to come: after getting out of Kalibo Airport on Panay, we still need to haggle for the two-hour journey to Caticlan Port, navigate the short ferry ride to Boracay and finally haggle once more for the tricycle ride to our hotel on the other side of the island.

We left Cebu at 11:25pm – by the time we started to draw close to Oasis Resort and Spa, the horizon is already threatening daylight. The porter on duty has been waiting for us since 1am, and his genial greeting isn’t enough to convince us that we aren’t terrible people for making him wait. We drop our bags in the room, ready to slip into a coma – but it takes no small amount of self-discipline to intentionally be awake for a sunrise in the Philippines, and we weren’t about to waste the opportunity.

Sitting on Illig-Illigan beach, a short walk down the hill from the hotel, we let the sandflies dance madly around us as we watched the sun sneak over the horizon and start its rounds over Boracay. This was especially poignant for me as this was now officially the start of my 30th year on Earth; our irresponsibly fancy, non-backpacker-y hotel and this trip to the luxury capital of the Philippines was all part of Meg’s birthday plotting, and this solar spectacle was an event neither of us had planned for.

Three glorious hours of sleep later, we scraped ourselves off the bed and sloughed our way to the restaurant for exactly the right kind of birthday breakfast, with every intent to go right back to sleep afterwards. That would likely have resulted in the rest of the afternoon vanishing, however, so we grudgingly decided to have a glorious day instead.

Boracay was a familiar name to me even before coming to the Philippines. For better or worse, it’s the tourist capital of the country, particularly with Korean visitors (as my students have informed me en masse). This being an improvised, tight-purse sort of backpacking adventure, such a destination would probably not have been on our radars, but it was my birthday and be damned if we weren’t going to do something special.

I was a bit wary of the crowds at first. I’ve been trained from a young age to Not Be Tedious and I’m already desperately English to look upon as it is: no matter how long I spend in the sun, I’m either ‘bleached’ or ‘violently bacon-like’ without much time in-between, so the least I can do is try to avoid behaving too much like I’m looking for an English breakfast everywhere I go. As with many touristy things, however, there’s a reason for Boracay’s popularity.

White Beach is exactly what you imagine when you picture somewhere like the Philippines. A two-mile bar of bone-white sand stretches along the side of Boracay with palm trees behind and crystalline water beyond; despite its popularity, it’s fastidiously maintained, with regularly-signposted rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the beach (mostly sensible things like smoking, fire-dancing and whatever ‘commercial sandcastles’ are). As a result, you never have to worry about discovering someone‘s cigarettes/broken bottles/remains while picking out the perfect towel spot.

You’ll need to develop a thick skin for salesmen – every few feet someone will pitch a boat tour, massage parlour, restaurant or trinket to you, some more enthusiastically than others. After I semi-jokingly assured one hat seller that my head was too big for most human hats (this is in fact true) and walked on, he came running after me a good kilometer further down the beach with as many large-size hats as he could find. While he caught his breath, I dutifully tried them on to guiltily demonstrate that they, too, were to small for my massive noggin.

Being a commercial hotspot for the Philippines, dining on Boracay is noticeably more aggressive on the wallet compared to the rest of the country. We spent many-a frustrating moment trudging with increasing hunger-induced wrath past wonderful but overpriced eateries (lomi for 200 pesos, pull the other one it’s got bells on my good man), occasionally settling for appetisers or, in our darker moments, 7/11 toasties. It was a turning point, then, when we discovered the wonders of the town’s side streets.

I promised a shout-out in particular to the wonderful folks at Eva’s Homemade Resto and Bar: they don’t advertise themselves with particular gusto and are a little off the main stretch, but their food is a) backpacker-priced and b) spectacular. We spent both breakfast and dinner there, talking with the staff and accidentally advertising the small restaurant to other passing travellers. Eva, Vanessa and Nonoy – and their food – were lovely and I would love to point any hungry adventurers their way.

Boracay’s sunrises are serenely beautiful, but its sunsets are a true spectacle. Dark-sailed boats drift lazily across the bay as the sky becomes a vivid palette of orange and blue hues, putting any social media filter to shame. I gave up on editing the photos as there was nothing I could do to make it look any better than reality.

As our penultimate expedition in the Philippines, we head with quiet trepidation to its capital – the sprawling, decidedly palm-tree-free metropolis of Manila. We’ve got flights to be on and Meg’s got a climbing fix to feed, so we’ll be thrust into the beating and blaring heart of the biggest city for hundreds of nautical miles around.

I reload my camera, shoulder my slightly salty backpack and hope my passport’s around here somewhere.

The Aquatic Heights and Depths of Cebu Island

At the beginning of this chapter of the Philippines, the protagonists are slumped on a rickety plastic bench nailed to the aft deck of a battered old shipping vessel. Siquijor has become a scattering of faint lights on the horizon behind us, and ahead of the ship the mountains on either side of Dumaguete and Lilo-an are ablaze with dying sunlight. On the flickering TV nearby is a hypnotically terrible Bollywood film which is successfully distracting everyone from the natural spectacle and the drunken swaying of the ship.

After forming an alliance with yet another group of like-minded Europeans, we disembarked and haggled relentlessly with the waiting minibuses before getting a lift to Moalboal from Lilo-an – a good two-hour trip up the western coast of Cebu Island, for a total of 2,500P. A bit pricey for the bohemian backpacker, but manageable between a group of five. Had we more time we would have held out for the far cheaper coastal bus, but it was well into the late evening by this point and options were becoming slim.

I should say a ‘projected’ journey time of two hours, but our driver clearly had things to do that evening; I’m sure he must have lifted off the accelerator at some point but don’t remember being consciously aware of slowing down. The outside world became a Millennium Falcon-esque lightspeed blur of sporadic pedestrians and animals briefly illuminated in the van’s headlights before being aggressively honked out of the way and vanishing back into the night. After barely an hour’s rollercoaster along a pitch-black coastline, we screeched to a halt outside Soul Travellers Guesthouse, unclenched our backsides and slid out of the vehicle.

Soul Travellers is a short drive outside Moalboal, just north of Badian- either a tricycle ride or a scoot from anywhere – and is a quiet oasis for the weary traveller to fall over and be looked after. The owners, Jocelyn and Bear, immediately made us feel at home; the guesthouse is relatively new, but word of mouth is spreading in the backpacker community. A number of guests – ourselves included – plan to stay for just a night or two as a stop on their journey, but end up crashing for multiple extra nights just to soak up the sunsets.

I can’t recommend the place enough; it’s quiet, comfortable, festooned with enthusiastic dogs (and one less-enthusiastic but vocal cat, appropriately named Protest) and barely a minute’s walk from the coast. They have brand-new scooters for hire as well as diving and snorkeling paraphernalia, and will either arrange for specific tours or just point you in the right direction of the numerous local sights if you’re exploring for yourself.

Though we’d intended to embark on the famed canyoneering adventure at Kawasan Falls, we were still in somewhat of a delicate state and didn’t yet feel up to hurling ourselves off cliffs into bodies of water, but we got ourselves on a scooter to check it out from the bottom. Kawasan is Cebu’s most famous waterfall, with good reason – but, like Cambugahay in Siquijor, with proportionate marketing efforts and tourist popularity.

The walk up from the scooter park takes you on a winding jungle path to the first set of falls, where you’ll be ushered to rent a locker (200P) and table (300P) and buy food (300+P) and rent life jackets if you want to swim directly under the falls(50P); rather than being corralled into the tourist pen here, I’d instead recommend walking a little further up to the second, much quieter set of falls.

Being the tourist-trap-phobe I am, I insisted on a secondary excursion to the elusive Montpeller Falls, as suggested by our hosts. It lies at the end of a long mountainside trail, which itself is hidden near the top of a long mountainside drive; we actually only succeeded in discovering it on Day 2, after missing the sign twice. The friendly WELCOME banner painted on a rock was partially obscured by a car, so we’d missed the …TO MONTPELLER FALLS bit and assumed it was just a nice greeting. Our trials were finally rewarded with a totally isolated mountain pool with a spectacular view of the Palawan strait.

Other girls demand sunset #instagram photos. Mine demands I take a photo of her looking like a corpse.

The second highlight of Cebu came as a bit of a surprise. While feasting on a freshly-prepared meal and local rum at Soul Travellers, we were offered the opportunity to visit a floating platform in the middle of the bay. As it was long past sundown at this point I asked why we’d do that at night rather than enjoy the reefs during the day.

The platform is a haven for backpackers during daytime – you can hire a local paddle boat to take you out and go snorkeling, diving and drinking with your mates. It looks fun, if a little crowded in the afternoon.

“No,” I was reassured, “you can’t go in the day, too busy. Go at night – you will be on your own, and you can see the bioluminescence.”

My Attenborough-nerd senses tingled. Unbeknownst to most of the local area – and even the hostel owners until recently – tiny, luminescent plankton gather around and under the platform when the sun goes down. We immediately got in touch with the captain (who’d personally discovered the phenomenon) and headed out on his vessel, an eight-foot wooden hull with bamboo outriggers which is slightly less narrow than a large English man but fit Meg perfectly.

O captain, my captain.

Due to it being nighttime (and to my current lack of underwater camera), photos of the bioluminescence was, alas, impossible. At first we thought we’d missed it, but then our guide told us to swim in the shadow under the floating platform. Immediately, we were enveloped in clouds of flashing blue lights as we disturbed the tiny creatures floating in the water. It’s hard to describe how weird and magical it feels to be surrounded by an electrical swarm of sparks underwater, but suffice it to say I’m going to come prepared with camera equipment in future.

Even photos on the platform itself were a struggle, as long-exposure photography does not lend itself to bobbing bamboo structures in the middle of a tropical bay. I wasn’t about to let this stop me bloody-mindedly taking photos anyway, shaky though they may be.

The whole point of improvised backpacking is to have new, memorable and weird experiences, and this was the perfect outtro to our time in Cebu. True to the pattern of Soul Travellers, we extended our stay by two nights to get the most out of the area – but in the end we had places to be, and long bus journeys to get us there.

Bidding the guesthouse farewell, we hauled our gear onto a long-suffering tricycle to Badian in anticipation of the bus to Cebu City, far on the other side of the island across mountains, jungles and a particularly nasty tropical storm. Good thing I brought flip-flops.

The Trials and Tribulations Of (The Otherwise Beautiful) Siquijor

So far, so good: sights have been seen, beaches have been beheld and life-threatening diseases have narrowly been avoided. After a few solid days of being Very Pale Tourists up and down the twisting roads of Bohol and Panglao, it was once again time to set out for open sea in search of our next destination – Siquijor (pronounced see-kee-hor), a remote-ish island known for its coasts, its waterfalls and its ancient witchcraft.

Another OceanJet ferry took us from Tagbilaran port to Larena (around P600), due south of Cebu and Bohol. Siquijor Island isn’t huge – a determined scooter ride will circle the coastline in around 2-3 hours – but the towns are relatively far between, usually reached via tricycle. Our destination was Buco Beach, an isolated stretch of sand and palm trees situated not particularly close to anything else: the perfect antidote to a few days of crowds and neon lights.

Some determined haggling at the Larena port tricycle stand eventually got us on the road, and an hour later we started to realise that his initial rates (450-500P) were actually quite reasonable. Teeth rattled and bums numbed by the rocky journey (tricycles are basically houses welded onto ancient motorcycles), we spilled out onto the soft gravel of Buco Beach Resort and were instantly mobbed by an enthusiastic herd of resident dogs.

Buco Beach is the postcard Philippines spot. The restaurant area is an open structure of wooden beams and woven reeds set in the shade of a palm tree grove, which leads immediately to the edge of the water with an ocean view impeded only by a small mangrove thicket. The local dogs swim, play and hump with abandon throughout the day, and there seem to be two weather settings: ‘glorious’ and ‘apocalyptically dramatic’. On any given evening in the Philippines, look out to sea and you’ll see a wrathful sky-god bullying an island somewhere in the distance.

The point of Siquijor in our journey was to take a bit of a breather and explore a small area at our leisure. After a bit of trial-and-error picking out the local scooters (old Vespas are stylish but alarmingly erratic with two riders, one of whom is rather large) we got our ride and went off for A New Adventure.

The plan was to check out a few of the local swimming holes and see what a circuit of the island would yield. Our first stop was at Cambugahay Falls, a spot known for its shaded, deep blue pools – but also the most popular with tourists, resulting in lines up and down the steep, 130-step forest path to the pools below. We’re travelling in the off-season, but it was still pretty bustling; if you’re looking for quieter scenery (albeit with fewer jungle-swings) then Lugnason Falls can be found a short drive past the local town of Lazi at the end of a rough track – a favourite with the locals, and less broadcasted to the minibus masses.

Our circuit took us through each of the island’s small cities; we stopped for lunch at San Juan right next to its glassy coastline, whereby the barely-vaccinated Meg immediately made friends with (and fed corned beef to) a battered old dear of a dog, much to the amused bafflement of onlookers.

The coastal road through San Juan, Siquijor proper and Larena is a winding spectacle of overhanging jungle and blue horizons, broken only by the occasional suicidal dog or emphysemic honk of ancient tricycles. Dotted randomly but frequently along every road in the Philippines are wooden huts selling hot food at around 20 pesos a dish (about 30p), as well as convenient Coke bottles of bike fuel for when you’ve been a bit cavalier with your motorised adventures.

Alas, our Englishness was to rear its ugly head after six whole days in the tropics, and we ended up being totally floored by (we can only surmise) a nasty reaction to actual sunlight for about three days – during which we rode out tropical storms, hideously large insects and one verbose but otherwise friendly gecko from our little beachside hut. The managers at Buco Beach Resort did what they could to look after us, but after the third plaintive request of ‘plain toast with a bit of jam’ as our entire day’s caloric intake I suspect they assumed we were dead.

After putting off our departure for two extra days, we made our slow, careful way back to Larena harbour for the ferry to our next destination – the southern point of Cebu Island. Precious water bottles clutched in weak hands, we shuffled onto the only-slightly-rusty container ship that would take us off into another spectacular Pacific sunset. We were full of expectation, medication – and only a muffled dread that the bloody boat wouldn’t have toilets on it.

So long, Siquijor – bring it on, Cebu.

How Not To Get Rabies, and Other Adventures in Bohol and Panglao

The journey has begun. After a heart-wrenching departure from life in Korea, we finally uprooted ourselves and set sail for the Philippines. Setting foot outside the aircraft was best described by the animated customs official: “In the Philippines, we have two seasons: hot, and hotter!”.

It was 10pm and the temperature made me feel, somewhat appropriately, like a piece of rotisserie lechon. We were swallowed by the humid labyrinthine backstreets of nighttime Cebu for our first night’s stay, scored by the local orchestra of blaring jeepneys, confused cockerels and chittering bats.

Our first stop was to be a revisit of an old haunt from the first trip a few years back, to the beachside town of Alona on Panglao Island. I guarantee that any Philippines travel photo you’ve seen and salivated over was taken on such an island; while cities like Manila, Cebu and Puerto Princesa have their chaotic magic, the ‘real’ Philippines (to quote any number of travel gurus) is to be found by boat. A short-ish Oceanjet ferry from Cebu City Port takes us to Tagbilaran, the provincial capital of Bohol and Panglao. Here can be found the area’s main/only supermarket, hospital and animal bite centre – but more on that later.

True to the nature of backpacking, we somehow found ourselves in an improvised crew of Europeans as soon as we arrived; when it comes to defending oneself against the armies of charmingly savvy tricycle and taxi drivers, it helps to haggle in numbers. Bartering a minibus driver from 700 pesos to 600 (about £10) for the four of us, we headed into the palm tree-lined violet sunset of Panglao. Instagram filters exist purely to emulate such sunsets; I instinctively tried to post-process my photos but realised that nothing I could do would actually be an improvement on the reality.

This first leg of the journey was actually a bit of a cheat: we *may* have gone over somewhat trodden paths for ourselves by revisiting Bohol’s bizarrely conical Chocolate Hills and Alona’s offerings of beachside swordfish and lomi soup, but we did manage to have one exiting new experience as a result of my travelling partner’s singular love of animals great and small. We were immediately informed upon arriving that malaria pills aren’t quite as essential as we were lead to believe – but, after one particularly ungrateful cat took a tiny chunk out of Meg’s finger whilst being fed table scraps at a restaurant, we quickly realised that a rabies inoculation may have been a wise investment.

After an evening’s thorough Googling of rabies (slightly more incurable and definitely-more-fatal than we had naively believed) we decided that Meg was definitely, 100% maybe going to possibly die because of the bastard cat if we didn’t get it sorted. The chances were low – it was probably the restaurant’s cat, it was young and seemingly healthy in a tourist-y area – but the whole ‘definitely fatal’ thing was enough of an incentive for us to try a whole new tourist experience: the local animal bite hospitals of South-East Asia. Hereafter lies a quick how-to guide if you, too, love animals more than pragmatism:

1. If you know you’re going to say hello to the pups and kits you meet on your travels, do yourself a favour and get a rabies shot beforehand. Unless you want to rely on your insurance or get lucky at a local clinic, standard hospital fees start around the 7,000 peso (£105) per vaccine mark – and you need between 3-5 separate shots over a two-week period. Note that even with the vaccine you’ll still need to get checked out – it just gives you a bit more time before the ‘certain death’ stage.

2. If you do encounter an ungrateful animal who gives you a bite or scratch – especially if it’s near the face/head – play it safe and check out your local Animal Bite Clinic. There’s loads across the Philippines and probably a lot of South-East Asia.

3. We tried the doctor at a major local hospital first, whose honest advice after a checkup/prescription was to try the clinic rather than going through the hospital – the clinics were designed for lower-income families who absolutely couldn’t afford the standard treatment and are therefore far cheaper.

4. The clinic doctor will sometimes give you a prescription to take to an outside pharmacy to purchase the rabies vaccine vial yourself, after which you bring it back and they administer it. I’m not sure why they don’t keep them in stock at the clinic, but it seems to be the way it’s done.

5. After your initial shot/s, you’ll be advised to revisit a clinic on set dates for vaccine updates; ideally it should be a clinic within the country for consistency, but we’re banking on finding one in Vietnam for the last shot. See following posts for if that’s successful or not…

In summation: there are so many Good Boys and Girls (also cats) deserving of love out here, but if you know you’re going to say hello to them then get vaccinated first. The chances of rabies are low, but the disease itself is positively terrifying.

With that I end the doom-and-gloom informercial and resume my impression of human bacon on the glassy shores of Panglao. It’s hard to fault the view.

Old Dogs, New Trips: The Korean Canine Exodus

It’s been a while.

As five-or-six years in Korea comes to a close, I figure it’s about time I become A Real Adult and do things that don’t wholly depend on escapism, ie. hiding in another country while people give me money to be awkward and English for half a decade. Of course, the best way to kick-start said anti-escapism is to already start planning the next adventure away from adulthood and go travelling.

I will get round to Life eventually. Really, I will.

I type this on the second floor of a Megabus in Leeds City Bus Station, awaiting the five-hour journey back home to the West Country. I leave here in Leeds one of my dogs (the other yet to be reclaimed from Korea after a particularly timely paperwork cockup), the perpetually ancient Hali (so named after 할머니; ‘halmeoni’, or ‘grandma’ in Korean; Meg wished to name her Nipples after her prominent teats but I refuse to name a dog anything I’m unwilling to shout across a park) who, after years of eating rubbish and being a decrepit nuisance in the Hwasun countryside is now greedily feasting off the dinner table and doing a remarkable impression of a happily moulting carpet.

The process of getting a dog from Korea is as follows: first, be a bonkers dog-person who’s willing to invest money, months and meticulous bureaucracy into your pup’s future wellbeing. Now that’s established, make sure to start the process at least four months in advance of travelling, more if (as in Hali’s case) your beloved beast is riddled with every bug and worm known to canine.

You will need:

* A rabies blood titre test: this is the most time-consuming part of the process as it requires blood to be drawn by a vet, sent off to a lab and tested.

* A microchip number for your dog – in Hali’s case she somehow shed her first chip after a week so make sure it’s still in there whenever you go to the vet.

* A pet passport with a clean bill of health covering rabies, parvovirus and heart worm. You’ll probably want this anyway so your best friend doesn’t spontaneously expire at an inopportune moment. You can get a passport from pretty much any vet – it’s just a booklet with spaces for the vaccination stickers and dates of inoculation. Especially for Rabies, make sure to keep up the annual vaccinations – even a day missed will invalidate the titre test and will start the whole process again.

PetMate animal crates – capable of withstanding damage and owners’ bottoms.

Now onto the actual flights. Unless you’ve got cash to throw around, flying directly into the UK is likely your worst option as our strict quarantine laws will add an extra few hundred pounds on top of your expenses. Flying via Paris or Amsterdam is the most advisable route, followed by either getting the ferry or, ideally, driving via rental car/loving family members on the Eurotunnel le Shuttle. Our journey last week took us from Seoul – Charles de Gaulle – (overnight stay at the shuttle Ibis hotel) – direct train to Calais Fréthun whereupon we were picked up by long-suffering family and driven back to the UK.

Rocking that ‘toxic Seoul air’ chic.

I can’t possibly recommend enough Perth Animal Hospital (https://www.facebook.com/perthamc/) in Haebongchon, Seoul. There’s a bunch of support groups on Facebook (check out Flying Pets Korea and Airborne Animals UK) that offer advice on the process and trustworthy vets, but if you’re in Seoul then Perth is your go-to.

I will also forewarn that this was the process pre-Brexit, when/if ever that actually happens. Predictably, nobody has any idea if or how it may affect animal imports to Korea via Paris/Amsterdam, so hopefully this article won’t be rendered totally invalid in a month’s time.

The journey is about to begin. Hali is vaguely aware that this isn’t where we usually go walkies.

Lufthansa’s VIP treatment trolley; only the best for mein Hund.

I knew I’d regret this photo if her old heart gave out…

We still have a living chien in Paris!

A little worse for wear and very moody but alive!

For a far more comprehensive and informed guide on what needs to be done, I’ve attached below a PDF written by one of the pros on the Facebook groups which outlines exactly what needs to be done. It’s a lifesaver and will be your bible throughout the process: taking-a-pet-from-korea-to-the-uk-finished.pdf

The writer shows a very uninterested Korean dog the French countryside.

“오마, 나 배고파” “Hali, we’re in England now.” “I am hungry, mother.”

A huge number of thanks to Lufthansa for looking after our puppy, Perth Animal Clinic for being so on-the-ball with Hali’s paperwork and to Leo Mendoza and all the animal nerds of Facebook for all their advice.

The perfect start to the last chapter in an old Korean dog’s story.

How To…Be Beside Yourself

processThe Island. Star Wars. Jurassic Park. Never Let Me Go. Dolly the Sheep.

All of the above are renowned for being seriously profound/wooly, and for dealing with the controversial-but-still-pretty-cool subject of cloning. My laboratory facilities are sadly lacking, and I only got a C in Biology, but where there’s a will there’s a creative loophole.

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4482221537_a5ab45b90d_oClone photography is a hugely popular form of photomanipulation, the results of which A) can look fantastic, but more importantly B) are ridiculously fun to arrange, if somewhat undignified. While perfectly capable of being done on the fly, it’s a good idea to plan ahead a bit before getting into the action, particularly if you’re planning on having your clones interacting with each other, eg. shaking hands/crossing over/fighting to the death.

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The example I’ll be using here was the result of a free lesson in a large, empty classroom. With an hour to kill and several vacant seats available, I thought I’d stand/sit in for my students.4598967953_95375dfc6f_o (1)

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When posing for each shot – especially if, like me, you’re too mortified to ask anyone to press the shutter on your behalf as you flail around a scene on your own – it’s a good idea to remember as acutely as possible what your previous ‘clone’ was doing. For example, if you’re shaking hands with yourself, focus specifically on where your hands are positioned in the air and aim to take both pictures in rapid successions before you forget where you were.

Make sure the camera is as still as possible, and – for extra ‘realism’ – pick a single focal point and switch off your AF (autofocus). This will mean that many of your shots are technically out of focus, but will ultimately create a shot which, despite all evidence to the contrary, looks realistic.

Secondly, embrace the fact that, the more advanced or populated your scene becomes, the more likely you’ll have to drop a few of your shots when the foreground clones’ shoulders get in the way. Remember the DOF (depth of field) of your lens and try not to have one twit (ie. me/you) standing exactly in the way of the whole scene in the background.

Once you have your shots, stick ’em on Photoshop and queue them as layers (on CS6, File>Scripts>Load Files Into Stack). My personal recommendation is that you arrange the clones at the back of the image first and work to the foreground, as it makes your life easier in the long run.

Each photo in the composition, with various bits erased to accommodate one another

Your first few clones will probably snap nicely into the shot, provided you’ve kept the camera stock-still for every photo. As you add more shots, you’ll have to erase the empty space around the clone; provided the focus and lighting levels have been constant for each shot, the figure should still fit into the scene without too much difficulty.

If you struggle to keep the shadows from layering over shots too much, you can use the ‘Burn’ (‘O’ hotkey) tool to darken the environment and cheat slightly.

cloneroomAfter what could be an extensive period of fiddling with lighting and forgetting which layer was which and swearing a lot at the computer, you should hopefully end up with a clone composition photo. I personally like using them to convince strangers I’m from a family of identical octuplets, but if you want to use them for less sociopathic purposes then that’s good too.