tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:/posts Beyond The Maple Tree 2023-03-19T14:33:36Z tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1948068 2023-02-27T01:09:00Z 2023-03-19T14:33:36Z Quick Hanoi Visit

We only had a couple of days to spend in Hanoi, so we quickly saw a couple of sites and ate some of our favourite dishes that we had discovered before. 


When we came here back in 2013, it was the first time that we were ever scammed by a taxi driver who had rigged the taximeter to run significantly faster than it was supposed to.  Hanoi was also cold, cloudy, rainy, and uninviting during our last trip, so we didn't leave with the best impression. 

This time, we were able to use Grab for transportation (similar to Uber).  Having transportation at a fixed cost without worrying about scams made getting around a lot easier and stress-free.  We also discovered that Hanoi now has a metro!  Our days here were sunny and warm, so the streets were inviting and bustling with people.  Hanoi was starting to grow on us.  

We mainly wandered around the lake and old quarter areas.  On weekends, they block off the roads surrounding the lake, so it made our strolls very pleasant.  

West of the lake, we stumbled upon this quaint spot along a train track called Ms Huong Ly Vietnamese Restaurant.  Apparently, trains pass through here several times a day and you can enjoy a meal and/or coffee at one of the many cafes along the track.  If you are lucky, you will see the train pass, just a couple of meters from your table. We were not lucky enough to see a train, but still enjoyed a meal along the tracks.

When you travel in Asia, you are bound to see some motorbikes transporting interesting things.  Usually they are either unbelievably over-filled or carrying large items in precarious ways.  We thought that we had seen it all, but this time around we saw something new and quite unique: a motorbike parked on the side of the road selling live fish for aquariums/ponds 🐟🐠🐡!  We saw a few other interesting things, but that was our favourite 😂. 


Jen had great memories of a small restaurant here called Bun Bo Nam Bo.  They serve a dish, called Bun Bo, which she and Guy (Dom's cousin) absolutely loved, and we couldn't find that dish anywhere else in Vietnam.  When we went to the restaurant, we barely recognised it because it has grown to 3 floors and become a proper-looking restaurant (instead of a small local kiosk with seats)!  As with everywhere, the price of the dish has risen quite a lot (70k VND, ~$4cad), but fortunately, the food did not disappoint and tasted as good as she remembered.  For Dom, it was also the same as last time.. "I don't understand the hype.. the dish is just ok" 😝. 

We wanted Dom’s mom to try Pizza 4Ps, a restaurant that Jen's coworker introduced her to when she was working in Saigon. Pizza 4Ps (pizza-for-peace) is a restaurant chain that was launched in Vietnam, by a Japanese couple in 2011.  It's normally difficult to find good pizza in Asia, but Pizza 4Ps has excellent pizzas that leave us craving for more!  

Our favourite is the Burrata Parma Ham pizza - a sauce-free pizza topped with arugla, parma ham, cherry tomatoes, and home-made burrata cheese which they slice open at your table.  Compared to eating local food, this 10-inch pizza is relatively pricey at 298k vnd (~$17.50cad) plus VAT), but we couldn't resist and ate it 4 times this trip (twice in Saigon and twice in Hanoi😆).

For dessert, Jen wanted to try a fruit dessert from Hoa Quả Dầm Hoa Béo that is also famous here.  We were super full from dinner, but since it was our last night, we walked the extra mile to try it out and she really liked it. 

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1948065 2023-02-25T13:04:00Z 2023-03-14T08:53:17Z Hoi An Foodie Tour with Vinh

From all of our travels, one of the most memorable tours that we did was the Original Taste of Hoi An Food Tour.  Having enjoyed and done that tour several times already, we decided to try a different one this time.  Since Hoi An is known for having great food, there are a lot of new foodie tours that have sprung up here over the years.  We found a free walking food tour (tip-based) with good ratings and decided to give it a try.

We met Vinh near the post office and had a great feeling from the start.  He was friendly, energetic, passionate, and his English was really good.  He did a particularly great job of giving an upfront explanation about what a "free tour" entails and what to expect on our journey. 

Che (10,000vnd, ~$0.55cad)
Our first stop was at a small stall by the main market, where we tasted a common desert in Vietnam, called Che.  It’s a mix of beans and jellies made from agar (seaweed gelatin), topped with coconut milk and condensed milk.

Banh Mi (30,000vnd, ~$1.70cad)
Next, we stopped at the Banh Mi stall that was made famous by Anthony Bourdain because it appeared on his TV series, No Reservations.  Hoi An has so many Banh Mi stalls, and each offers different variations of great tastes. At this stall, we tasted the traditional Banh Mi sandwich, filled with pate, savoury meats, vegetables, herbs and sauces.

Banh Dap (5,000vnd, ~$0.30cad)
Banh Dap is a layer of a wide fresh rice noodle sandwiched between layers of a crispy baked rice pancake. The fun thing about this dish is that you have to karate-chop it before you eat it. This action creates bite sized pieces that you dip into some fish sauce and enjoy. At this particular stall, the owner makes a very potent homemade fish sauce that is well known amongst the locals.  The fish sauce was really tasty, but too strong/fishy for most of the people in the group, so most of them switched to soy sauce instead.

Banh Kep (15,000vnd, ~$0.85cad) and Chen Trung (10,000vnd, ~$0.55cad)
For the next location, we walked a ways before turning down a small random alley.  Vinh stopped at a local lady's house where she cooks and serves Banh Kep (Vietnamese Pizza) and Chen Trung (cooked quail eggs) in the front veranda of her home.  This particular "stall" closes early, so we were their last customers of the day!

Che Xi Ma  (15,000vnd, ~$0.85cad)
Nothing like a bit of desert to cut your meal!  Our next dish was Xi Ma, a sweet black sesame soup.  We stopped at the oldest shop in Hoi An where the family has been serving a generation-old recipe for decades.  Their recipe includes medicinal Chinese herbs to maintain health, so in addition to enjoying the delicious taste and warm texture of the dish, locals come to eat the soup for good health.  Vinh told us that the owner doesn't allow customers to have more than 2 servings a day!

Bale Well
Before going to the next spot, we stopped at a well that was hidden behind a building.  We were told that this is the special well that everyone in the city uses to make the yellow "Cau Lau" noodles.  We're not sure what exactly is so special about the water here, but apparently every morning, people gather around this 1000 year old well to gather the precious water to make the noodles. 

Cau Lau (30,000vnd, ~$1.70cad) and Ban Xeo (20,000vnd, ~$1.10cad)
We proceeded to a restaurant near the Bale Well to try the typical and famous dish from Hoi An called Cau Lau.  This restaurant is owned by one of the original Cau-Lau-making families.  They used to only make and serve Cau Lau, but because they have become popular and customers request other food options, they now they serve other dishes as well.  Since this was our last main food-stop of the evening, we also decided to try their Ban Xeo (Vietnamese pancakes) and it was great as well!  

Sinh Tố Thập Cẩm (25,000vnd, ~$1.45cad)
To finish the evening, Vinh took us to a small stall at the side of a main road to try Sin To Thap Cam, a fruit salad served in a cop with ice and sweet milk.  If you want, they will blend it to make a smoothie for you, but Vinh recommended that we try the traditional version where the fruits are left in slices and you get to use your spoon to smash all of the ingredients together until you have the consistency that you want.  It was delicious and a great way to finish our meal! 

We've done quite a few food tours during our travels and always end up overly full by the end.  The thing that we really liked about this tour is that the food was not "included" so we just paid for each of the dishes as we went along.  This gave us more control over the quantities of food that we got, so that we didn't have to over-eat or "waste" food.   This, and the fact that Vinh was such a passionate and awesome tour guide, made this experience super fun and memorable.  We all really enjoyed the tour, so it was a perfect way to end our last evening in Hoi An!

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1948064 2023-02-23T01:03:00Z 2023-03-13T02:42:58Z Cooking in Hoi An

10 years ago, we did a cooking class with Van at Green Bamboo Hoi An and really enjoyed our experience.  Although there are many cooking-class other options available in Hoi An, we wanted Dom’s mom to have the same experience that we had before, so we booked with Green Bamboo again. To our delight, we had even more fun this time because we lucked out and had a very small group of only 5 people.  

Van picked us up at our hotel and gave us a tour of the market while purchasing all of the fresh ingredients for the dishes that we would be cooking.  She introduced us to various foods that you can buy at the vendors, explained how to identify which meats are fresh, and described the different ingredients that she was purchasing for our dishes.  We stopped for a quick snack and coffee break before driving to her house to start cooking.

The dishes we chose to learn this time were: 

  • Vegetarian Curry with Coconut Milk - Charlotte
  • Vietnamese Pancakes (Bàn Xéo) - Dom 
  • Grilled Pork with Noodles (Bún chả) - Jen 

The 2 other students chose to make: 

  • Fish in Clay Pot (cá kho tộ), and 
  • Egg plant in clay pot with Stir fry tofu, pineapple and tomato.  

We started by prepping the ingredients for all of our dishes, together.

One thing that differed from our first experience was that we cooked and ate one dish at a time, instead of everyone cooking their dishes and eating everything at the end.  We really liked this because it allowed us to enjoy each dish while it was hot and also gave us time to digest a bit before stuffing ourselves even more!

Since we only had 5 students, Van added some extra dishes to the list including: Vietnamese Sweet Potato Leaf Soup, Green Papaya Salad with Tofu Skin, and Egg Coffee for dessert.

We were super full and a little tired by the end, but we all really enjoyed the wonderful day spending time with Van and eating so much delicious food.  

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1948063 2023-02-22T01:03:00Z 2023-03-12T02:15:04Z Hoi An with Dom’s Mom

For the last part of our trip, we went to Hoi An to meet up with Dom’s mom so that we could share some of our favourite foods, places, and experiences with her, in Vietnam and Thailand.

Charlotte's flight from Montreal was originally supposed to take 26 hours with layovers in Toronto and Taipei.  Unfortunately, when she arrived to check-in at the Montreal airport, she found out that her first flight (to Toronto) had been cancelled due to bad weather.  They rerouted her through Vancouver->Seoul leaving 12 hours later, so she had to overnight in a Montreal hotel and return to the airport early the next morning. She managed to board the Vancouver flight, but the plane got stuck on the tarmac and arrived in Vancouver 5 hours late, so they had to reroute her again.  She was stuck waiting 12 hours in the Vancouver Airport, then took a 16 hour flight to Bangkok, and had a 13 hour layover in Bangkok until her final flight to Da Nang (near Hoi An).   

She finally arrived ~36 hours later than her original itinerary, buuut... her checked luggage didn't make it 🙃.  Fortunately, they located her luggage in Seoul 2 days later, so she finally received her luggage 3 days after she had arrived.  Despite her crazy long 60 hour voyage to get here, Charlotte arrived with a positive attitude and a smile on her face.  She was tired, but surprisingly not as exhausted as we thought she would be! 

Given her long journey, we tried to take it a bit easy in Hoi An.  We spent lots of time: wandering the cute streets of the ancient town,

people-watching while drinking different types of Vietnamese coffees (iced, salted, coconut, egg),

tasting a variety of Vietnamese dishes (a first, for Charlotte), 

and doing a bit of shopping.  We were amazed at how busy Hoi An was and how much it has grown and changed since when we were last here in 2019!

Dom's favourite Vietnamese food is called "banh mi".  It's a Vietnamese sandwich with meat, pate, pickles, egg, herbs, and sauce.  We were super excited to return to our favourite banh mi restaurant in Hoi An, called Madam Khanh, and figured we would eat there almost every day.  Sadly, we only ended up going there once because the sandwiches were so disappointingly cold and tasteless - it seems they have now become overly popular so the quality of their food has gone down significantly 😢.  
We decided to try a different place called Phi Banh Mi.  Fortunately, the sandwiches there were better and we really enjoyed meeting their colourful pet Iguana, Danny.  When it was sunny outside, he liked to crawl through the restaurant to lay in the sun next to the kiosk where they make the sandwiches 😂.

One morning, we did a half-day course to learn how to make traditional Vietnamese lanterns. 

Jen was happy that her favourite tailor shop, Kim Only, was still here - we each had a couple of pieces of custom clothing made. 

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1937441 2023-02-06T05:18:00Z 2023-03-07T00:55:39Z Penang

Since Jen's parents spoke highly of their trip to Penang, we decided to add it to our itinerary and spent 7 days in the state's capital city, Georgetown.   Unfortunately, we mostly only saw the inside of our hotel room.  After our cooking class, we both caught really bad colds/flus, and later during the week we both got food poisoning!  It hindered our spirit and motivation a little, so we unfortunately didn't manage to get out and see/do all of the things that we hoped to. 

During our last couple of days here, as we were getting a bit better, we did start going out for some short walks and saw a small portion of the city near our hotel.  Here are some of the pictures of the highlights we did manage to see along the way. 

Clan Jetties
These are small neighbourhoods along the shoreline of Penang, that were built on stilts, over water, by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century.  Generally, immigrants belonging to the clan (ie. people with the same family name) were allowed to live at the jetty designated for that clan.  Several clan jetties have been taken over by modern development projects over the years, but the remaining 7 are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Georgetown Streets
We mostly only wandered around Chinatown, but we did manage to see a few of the famous Street Art pieces that Georgetown is home to. 

Kek Lok Si Temple
Sitting atop a hill overlooking the city, this is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.  We stopped here for a quick visit after our cooking class. 

Our main reason for coming to Penang was to experience the street food.  Although we were too sick to get out and try all of the dishes and hawker stalls that we wanted to, we still managed to get a good teaser of what Penang's cuisine offers and every meal we had was delicious!  We're not sure where we got food poisoning from, but here are some of the places and dishes that we tried and really enjoyed:

Bee Hwa Cafe
Probably our favourite place.  We tried Char Kway Teow (Malaysian Pad Thai) for 7 MYR (~$2.15cad) and Penang White Curry Soup for 6.5 MYR (~$2cad).  Both dishes were new to us and we really loved them!

Cintra Street Fish & Chicken Porridge 
Initially went there for the 7.50 MYR (~$2.30cad) Chicken Congee (rice porridge) because we were sick, but we returned because we  liked the food!

We love curry laksa but wanted to try some other types of laksa that Penang is known for.  We tried Asam Laksa and Laksa Lemak (11MYR/~$3.30cad) and were not disappointed! 

This constantly-busy restaurant serves Murtabak (Malaysian bread stuffed with a variety of fillings including meat, eggs, and vegetables) for 6-7 MYR (~$2.00cad).  We also really enjoyed the plate of Biryani rice for only 5 MYR (~$1.50cad).

Mother and Son Wan Tan Mee 
We tried Wantan Mee for only 6 MYR (~$1.80cad) for a big bowl.  We were expecting a "soup" but this is actually a "dry" version of nice chewy hand-made wonton noodles with a light sauce and delicious lean bbq pork and wontons.  Jen really enjoyed it, but Dom prefers the more typical soup version 😃.

Every Fresh Bar
At 15-20 MYR (~$4-6cad) per smoothie/oatmeal bowl, this place was relatively more expensive than other places/dishes, but it was our attempt at filling our bodies with vitamins/nutrients to try to speed up getting over our colds... and it tasted good 😂.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1936803 2023-02-01T11:09:00Z 2023-03-07T00:56:02Z Cooking Malaysian Food

Since Penang is known for being a top street food destination in Asia, we decided to learn more about Malaysian cuisine by booking a local cooking class called Cooking with Chef Samuel.

At 760MYR (~$250cad) for the 2 of us, it was a lot more expensive than any cooking class that we'd done in the past, but Jen saw that we could learn how to make Roti Canai (a Malaysian bread that she's always wanted to learn) and it was a private class (due to covid restrictions), so we decided to go for it.

Before the course, we had to choose which dishes we wanted to learn, but other than Roti Canai, we hadn't tried very many Malaysian dishes before.  After chatting back and forth with Chef Samuel on WhatsApp, we decided to make: Roti Canai (Malaysian bread), Laksa Lemak (Soup), Chicken Rendang, and Chili Pan Mee (Noodle dish).

On the day of our class, Samuel picked us up from our hotel at noon and drove us to a local market to buy ingredients and sample some local snacks. 

He introduced us to some delicious dishes that were new to us, including:

  • Pasembur - a Malaysian salad with a sweet, spicy, nutty sauce
  • Otak Otak - spicy Asian fish cake steamed in banana leaves
  • Chai Kuih - steamed vegetable rice dumplings
  • Freshly squeezed sugar cane juice with lime

When we arrived at Samuel’s place, we were treated to a really nice view of Georgetown, Penang.

..then it was time to start cooking 😀. 

We went to our stations and started by prepping the dough for the noodles and roti because the dough needed to rest for a while before being used. 

Samuel then listed the key spices that we would be using in the recipes and explained what flavours each spice brought to the dish and how those flavours balanced each other out.  With Samuel's help, we worked together on the Chili Pan Mee curry paste and meat sauce, then we rolled/cut the noodles and assembled and ate the Pan Mee dish. 

Next, we worked on the curry paste for the Laksa Lemak and made the Chicken Rendang.  While rinsing the dry chillies, Dom learned that your hands can also burn from the heat of chillies.. not just your mouth 🌶️✋.

After we finished the main dishes, it was finally time to learn the special technique for stretching the Roti Canai.  We first practised the hand position and motion with a small towel, then Samuel demonstrated the technique with the real dough... then it was our turn!

Even though we weren't super familiar with the dishes that we would be making, we were really happy with the choices because all of the dishes ended up being super delicious!  We will definitely try making the recipes again at home... but maybe a tad less spicy 🥵.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1933244 2023-01-28T13:16:00Z 2023-03-07T00:56:14Z Boracay

Our last stop in the Philippines was Boracay Island, which is known for its amazing white sandy beaches, blue water, and kite surfing.  

Overall, getting around the Philippines was a little trickier and a lot more time-consuming than we anticipated.  Even though it seems like it should just be a short flight from one island to another, there are actually very few direct flights.  Usually, you have to fly all the way up to Manila to layover, and, since the flights here have a reputation for frequently being late or cancelled, you need to plan plenty of layover buffer time, just incase.   

After an early 7am departure from Bohol and a 3.5h layover in Manila, we flew to Caticlan.  It's the closest airport to Boracay, but it is actually on a neighbouring island.  Upon landing, we thought that we would be walking distance (600m) from the Ferry port and intended to figure out how to get to our hotel on our own, but it turned out that the airport arrivals are in a separate building on the opposite end of the airport (2.6km away).  Feeling tired and not wanting to haggle with the TukTuk drivers, we decided to just pay the local kiosk to take us door-to-door ($1050php/$25cad per person included: airport to Caticlan Jetty, Ferry to Boracay, Boracay Environmental Fees/Tax, and minivan from the Boracay Jetty to our hotel). 
We finally arrived at our hotel at 5:30pm.  Considering Bohol and Boracay are only about 500km apart, it sure felt like a LONG day of travel!

Bulabog Beach
While Flo was spending a couple of days visiting family in Manila, we decided to stay near Bulabog Beach on the windy East side of the island so that Dom could get a few kite sessions in.  The kite beach isn't as clean or pretty as Boracay's famous White Beach, but it does have great wind and a friendly chill vibe. 

White Beach
Flo met up with us and we stayed at a really nice hotel on White Beach, on the West side of the island.  Our beachfront hotel had a nice restaurant and sitting area on the beach that provided shade and great views from breakfast til sunset.  It was also close to our favourite cute little local smoothie shop called Eva's Fruit Shake.  We had the best Mango-Pineapple smoothies every day 😋.

Most of our days were spent beaching and exploring the ~4km stretch of White Beach and beyond.  White Beach is probably one of the cleanest and most beautiful beaches that we have ever been to.  Even though we were here during Lunar New Year and the area was absolutely full of tourists, it didn't actually feel as busy as other beaches that we have been to because the beach here is so wide and long that there is plenty of space for everyone.

Along the South section of White Beach, there is an algae that grows near the shore and accumulates at the Southernmost end of the beach.  As you walk down, the water starts to have a green tinge that eventually becomes a green sludge the further South you go. For some reason, Jen found the spinach-smoothie waves completely mesmerising and fascinating, so we stayed here contemplating the sludge for quite some time 😂.

Diniwid Beach
On the North end of White beach, there is a small walkway that you can take to get to Diniwid Beach.  Since Diniwid is tucked away from the main White Beach stretch, it is much more quiet and secluded.  Even though Diniwid is small, it was worth the visit as it has some karst formations that make it really pretty. 
At the end of Diniwid beach, the walkway looked like it had been damaged by a typhoon, but we continued carefully through and ended up at the remnants of a hotel. 
Talking with a local hiker, it sounded like someone had built the hotel without following the government's environmental rules, so they were told to tear it down. They did a poor job of tearing it down... but on the bright side, the remaining structures provide some nice viewpoints and a footpath to Balinghai Beach.  

After we crossed over the walkway, we were actually surprised that it was still there and not blocked off - it doesn't feel particularly safe after you see the what's left of the walkway's foundation 😯.  We're guessing it probably won't be accessible for very much longer.

Filipino Food Favourites
Despite it being very popular in several countries that we've travelled, we have never been drawn toward trying any of the "Shaved Ice" desserts like "Bingsu" (S.Korea), "Baobing" (Taiwan), or "Kakigori" (Japan).  We thought of "shaved ice" desserts as being something like the Snoopy-Snow-Cones from when we were kids, which neither of us liked.  In fact, neither of us are even really into ice-cream (weird, we know).  But once upon a time, Jen had seen an episode where Anthony Bourdain ate (and seemed to really enjoy) a Filipino shaved-ice dessert, called "Halo-Halo", from the super popular Filipino chain, Jollibee.  The memory of seeing that episode gave us enough motivation to finally give Jollibee and "shaved-ice desserts" a try.

We were amazed at how busy Jollibee was and luckily managed to snag the last empty table by the door.  We ordered the "Super meal" and "Aloha burger" to sample a bit of everything (burger, spaghetti, chicken, salisbury steak, rice, juice).  We really wanted to be able to say that we loved everything and totally understood the hype... but in reality, we were rather underwhelmed - the food was just "OK".  

Back in Puerto Princesa, we learned that Jollibee didn't serve Halo-halo anymore, so we had been trying to hunt down other places to find Halo Halo.  It was actually surprisingly difficult - we were unable to find anywhere serving Halo Halo in El Nido or Bohol (some had it on a menu but said it wasn't available when we asked about it).  We found one good Halo Halo in Puerto Princesa at Noki-Nocs, but all of the other places that we tried in Puerto Princesa and Boracay fell short (Mang Inasal, Halo Mango, Chowking)..

Then we tried Ice Flakes Boracay and never looked back! 
It may not be a "traditional" Halo Halo, but the method that they use to shave the ice made it our favourite dessert by far. What makes their version so special is that the ice-shaving machine is somehow able to make the ice in a way that it is super fluffy and extra smooth.  It actually feels like you are eating fluffy, freshly-fallen snow that is full of sweet delicious flavours that melt in your mouth.  This was unique because the "shaved-ice" elsewhere was more like chunks of crushed ice with sauce on top, that you have to chew through, instead of it melting quickly in your mouth like snow. 
Ice Flakes Boracay also served other shaved-ice flavours, so one night we also tried the mango coconut flavour.. it was good, but we quickly reverted back to Halo Halo because we liked the variety of toppings (particularly the delicious Leche Flan)!.

We had several nice meals in the Philippines, but other than Halo-Halo, we unfortunately didn't fall in love with any of the traditional Filipino dishes.  We didn't find them very appealing because they were all really heavy and meat-based dishes served with rice and zero vegetables.  

Jen's quest to find a good Filipino "Ube Cake" also failed - we tried it at 4 different places and although they were very inexpensive, they were sadly all disappointing flavour and texture wise.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1931107 2023-01-19T15:12:00Z 2023-03-07T00:56:42Z Bohol Countryside

Instead of joining a big "Bohol Countryside" bus tour, we opted to rent a car & driver to see the sites on our own (2800php, ~$70cad).  This allowed us to leave an hour earlier to beat the Lunar New Year crowds, and gave us the flexibility to decide which of the standard-itinerary stops we wanted to visit (and how long to spend at each stop).

Chocolate Hills  (Entrance Fee: 100php, ~$2.50cad)
We started our tour at 8am and drove ~2 hours to the furthest site.  Our first stop was at a view point of the UNESCO Heritage site, Chocolate Hills.

The Chocolate Hills are marine limestone hills that are conical-shaped and stand between 30m and 120m high. They take their name because the limestone mounds are covered in a layer of soil and grass which, during the dry season, turns chocolatey-brown in colour. In Bohol, there are an estimated 1,200-1,800 individual mounds.  Since they are all so similarly and uniquely-shaped, they have a very man-made feel to them, but we learned that scientists theorise that they were formed naturally, from geological shifting and erosion over thousands of years.

Along the way, we also asked the driver to stop at some rice fields so that we could take pictures. Here, our driver informed us that the tree-covered hills in the background are also part of the Chocolate Hills.

Tarsiers at Bohol Enchanted (Entrance Fee: 100php, ~$2.50cad)
Our next stop was supposed to be at the Tarsier Conservation Area, but our driver recommended a different place that he said was better because you can get a closer view of the Tarsiers.  We went along with his recommendation and stopped at Bohol Enchanted, which turned out to be a very small park with a pretty local feel.  There were only 3 Tarsiers here, but they were not behind any cages so we were able to get so close that you could touch them! (Note: you can't touch them because they get extremely stressed out).  

Tarsiers are the second-smallest primates in the world, standing around 6 inches tall and weighing around 100g.  They are nocturnal and endemic to the Philippines but most are found on Bohol.  They are currently one of the world's most endangered primates.  

They are SUPER cute!!  When Jen saw them, her eyes grew almost as big as theirs 🤣.  Tarsiers are rumoured to be the inspiration for the Star Wars character Yoda, and when we saw them moving around in real life, it totally reminded us of Grogu (baby-yoda) from the Mandalorian. 

Check out this video by Ze Frank, to learn some fun(ny) facts about Tarsiers: True Facts About The Tarsier

Bilar Man-made Forest
On our way to lunch, we made a quick stop at the Bilar man-made forest. This red and white mahogany forest exists because it was part of a reforestation project over 50 years ago.  We just snapped some quick photos and were back on our way.

Loboc River Cruise (Fee: 850php, ~$20cad)
We stopped for lunch at the Loboc River Cruise. It was a really touristy-but-nice cruise where you enjoy a lunch buffet of traditional Filipino dishes, while appreciating the scenery along the Loboc river.  The activity lasted about 90 mins and at the halfway point, we stopped at a platform where some locals perform traditional Filipino dances. One of the dances was quite entertaining to watch because the dancers have to dance between 2 long, thick bamboo sticks, which are being hit together on the beat by people on either ends of the bamboo.  It's something like double-dutch jump-rope, but with (what we imagine are) more painful consequences of getting your feet crushed between the bamboo if your timing is off.  The dance starts gets increasingly more exciting because the music continually speeds up and the dancers have to dance more and more frantically to keep up with the rhythm and avoid getting hit 😃!

Xzootic Animal Park (Entrance Fee: 100php, ~$2.50cad)
The next standard itinerary stop was at a place called Xzootic.  We didn't really know what was here, but we agreed to stop, paid our 100 pesos, and went in. 
They assigned us a guide and went to the first room where we saw 13 HUGE pythons lying on different areas of the floor. Our guide introduced us to the various snakes and invited us to pet the snakes while posing for pictures.  We loved how silky and smooth the snakes felt and couldn't believe how huge they were.  Most of them were lazing around and not moving much but we lucked out and saw one of the biggest snakes start moving toward the corner - it was really fascinating to watch this huge thing actually moving around!

Dom and Flo also decided to pay an extra 20 pesos (50 cents) to hold one of the smaller snakes around their necks. 

Both Xzootic and Bohol Enchanted had small butterfly enclosures that we spent a bit of time in. If you look closely, you can see that one of the butterflies had semi-transparent wings - pretty cool!

The animal farm also had a few other random birds, monkeys, and a Kopi Luwak weasel that we finally saw up close... but the huge pythons were definitely the highlight here.

Baclayon Church
We were wondering why this particular church was on the standard itinerary, as opposed to one of the many other churches along the way that looked interesting or bigger.  It turns out that it's because this 18th-century church is one of the oldest (structurally original) churches in the Philippines, and it is made from coral stones.

Blood Compact Shrine
This was just another quick (standard) stop where you take a picture of a statue and then head home. 
At the site, there was no explanation about what the statue's significance was or why it had such a weird name, but after checking the internet, we learned that a "blood compact" (aka "sandugo") is a Filipino ritual where both parties cut their arms and pour the blood into a glass of wine, then they both equally drink the blood mixture until it is empty.  The ritual signifies an agreement to peace and friendship between the 2 parties.  This particular shrine depicts the 1965 blood compact made between Spanish Explorer, Miguel López de Legazpi, and the Bohol Chieftan, Datu Sikatuna, which was considered the “First Treaty of Friendship between two different races, religions, cultures and civilizations”.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1931065 2023-01-17T12:31:00Z 2023-02-15T03:20:47Z Island Hopping Panglao

Compared to Palawan, there aren’t as many islands to visit in the Bohol region, but Panglao Island Hopping still has something to offer!  We started our day quite early, meeting up at the tour operator at 6am.  From there, we took a van to the Western tip of the island and our driver stopped at (what seemed like) a random place on the side of the main road.  A crew member, met us there and we followed him through the local village, to a small inlet where the boat was anchored.

Between the islands of Panglao and Balicasag, there is an area where dolphins normally go to feed, so our first activity was dolphin watching.  There’s no guarantee of seeing dolphins, but lucky for us, within 5 minutes of arriving in the dolphin area, they starting showing up right beside our boat.  We even saw 2 of them playfully jumping straight up out of the water!  Unfortunately, they were too fast, so we didn’t manage to get any pictures of their cute playful jumps. 🙁

From here, we continued to Balicasag Island where we hopped onto a smaller boat to do some snorkelling. We started in the deeper area where you can often see turtles, and then drifted with the current to see the coral and other marine life. 

Since Jen and Flo didn’t see the first turtle, the boat guides brought us to the shallow waters where a turtle had been spotted by another group.  All of the tourists were packed around here, but the turtle seemed to be ignoring the crowds and doing its own thing.  We managed to snap some really close pictures because at one point, the turtle decided to escape the tourist hoard and swim straight toward Dom! 

Our last stop was at Virgin Island, a sand bar nestled between Balicasag and Panglao.  We stayed here for about 1 hour, wading through the ankle deep crystal clear water, appreciating the beautiful stretch of natural sand, and trying to spot (and avoid stepping on) the sea urchins, shellfish, and starfish.  We were amazed that although it felt like we were standing somewhere in the middle of the sea, the water was so clear and completely flat and calm in every direction, as far as our eyes could see!

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1931209 2023-01-16T12:14:00Z 2023-02-13T14:24:21Z Beaching in Panglao

For the next part of our trip, we planned to meet up with our friend, Flo, who was coming to the Philippines for a couple of weeks to meet&visit her extended family, and vacation with us. 

Our flight from El Nido to Bohol was scheduled to depart at 8:30am but when we arrived at the airport just after 6am, the hall and walkways were packed with unhappy people waiting around with their luggage, amidst chaos.  We found our way to an AirSwift agent who explained that all flights since yesterday morning had been cancelled because one of the planes broke a wheel and was stuck on the runway.  Result:  small airport, 1 runway = NO flights going in or out.

All of the Manila flights were being redirected, so those passengers were all waiting around to be sent (5 hours) by minivan to Puerto Princesa. Our flight had been tentatively rescheduled to later in the afternoon, so we all sat anxiously waiting and watching to see if the mechanics would be able to repair and move the broken plane from the runway, in time for our rescheduled departure.  Lucky for us, they managed to move the plane at around 11am, so we were able to fly out later that afternoon  😥

Flo arrived in Bohol a couple of days after us and we stayed on the touristy island called Panglao.

Most of our time was spent around Alona beach, but we did venture out and explore Dumaluan Beach on one of the days.

Dom snorkelled at Alona Beach and manage to find some unique marine life: a colourful sea urchin, a big jellyfish, a sea snake, and a really shy blue fish with white stripes (maybe a Blue Koran Angelfish?).  He also saw clown fish, angel fish, star fish, sea urchin, etc.

Compared to other countries, there weren’t many touristy restaurants serving local food here, but we did find some good international restaurants and loved how awesome they were at presenting their food.  We discovered "smoothie bowls" which was new for all of us, and we absolutely loved them!

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1927681 2023-01-08T01:00:00Z 2023-01-30T02:40:44Z Island Hopping in El Nido

What makes El Nido special is the combination of ~45 karst islets and islands nearby, all surrounded by crystal clear waters.  El Nido's premier attraction of Island Hopping, involves taking a boat to visit those different islands, beaches, and lagoons, while doing some snorkelling and kayaking activities along the way. 

The local tourism authorities define the 4 standard island hopping tours that can be offered by operators (creatively named Tours A through D).  It doesn't matter which tour operator you go with - if you do "Tour A", the price and island locations will be the same for all of the operators.  That being said, some of the standard locations may be modified due to poor conditions such as strong winds and waves.  On a daily basis, the local coastguard decides which tours are cancelled, modified, or allowed, based on the upcoming day's conditions.

Tours A and C are the most popular.  While we were there, Tour C had been cancelled every day for several weeks (since Christmas).  The other tours had also been intermittently cancelled, so there was a backlog of people waiting to go island hopping.  We tentatively signed up for “Tour A or C” and our tour operator used WhatsApp to let us know (at 6am) which tours were allowed/cancelled for the day. 
Tour C
We lucked out and managed to go on a modified version of tour C - we kayaked in Cadlao Lagoon, snorkelled at the Helicopter Island beach, ate lunch on a beach on Mantinloc Island, and snorkelled at Palilo Beach and Hidden Beach.  We were really looking forward to visiting the "Secret Beach", which requires you to swim through a small hole in the karst to get to it (kayaks are too big), unfortunately, this stop was removed due to strong wind and waves.  The next day, Tour C was fully cancelled again.

Here's what the main beach looked like when we were gathering to start our first tour. Not sure if this is the usual scene, or if it was particularly packed with people that day because the weather was finally better (all tours had been cancelled the previous days). 

Tour A

We were really pleased with our Tour C experience, so 2 days later, we did Tour A.  Here we explored Secret Lagoon on Miniloc Island and snorkelled elsewhere on the same island.  It was really windy that day (56km gusts), so instead of eating (a lot of sand) on the beach, we ate on the boat shielded by the karsts of Inatula island.  
We were then supposed to kayak in the Big Lagoon, but someone messed up the Blue Lagoon permit paperwork, so they would not allow us to enter.  We ended up doing Cadlao Lagoon for a second time, instead, and then finished by visiting 7 Commandos Beach.  We still had a great time, but we were a bit sad about missing Blue Lagoon as it was the highlight of this tour. 

Here is a short video of our experiences on tour A and C

Hidden Beach
Hidden beach is hidden by a big karst wall.  At the opening near the wall the water gets shallow, so boats are not supposed to go in.  Since there was a strong current and big waves, we had a pretty tricky swim to go from our boat to the calm lagoon area.  Jen got to practice her lifeguard skills, towing one of the other tourists back to our boat because he couldn't swim.  Once we arrived at the Hidden Beach, we spotted some cute little black-fin sharks swimming through the crystal clear water. 

Cadlao Lagoon
This was a really nice lagoon with clear water at the beginning and then silty blue water at the end. On our first tour we kayaked here for about 1 hour. On our second tour, we decided to snorkel and saw a group of clown fish. 

Helicopter Beach
It was just a beach, but it was nice.  There was supposed to be good snorkelling here, but the seas were choppy when we went so the visibility was too poor to see anything. 

Secret Lagoon
Off to the side of one of the beaches, there is a hole in one of the karst walls.  Once you go through, you end up in a small lagoon that is entirely surrounded by natural walls.  We luckily arrived early so there weren't that many people, but as we were leaving, there was a big line starting to form.  Later that evening, we overheard other tourists saying they waited an hour in line to get into the Secret Lagoon. 

We stopped at a few different snorkelling spots during our 2 tours.  Since conditions weren't great, we didn't see very many fish, but we did see a purple clam, a few clown fish, some blue star fishes, a couple of parrot fish, and some other random small fish/sea creatures that we don't know the names of 😂. 

The lunch on our first tour was quite spectacular.  While we visited the various tour stops, the boat chefs prepped the meal.  At around 13:00, we arrived at a small beach and the crew floated a table and the dishes over to the beach, in a kayak.  We had a wonderful feast!
On our second tour, because of the high wind, we ended up eating on the boat sheltered by an island. It was still nice, but less spectacular. 

Boat's Personal Space
In El Nido, it seems that the boats don’t have any personal space. Even if the area is crowded, they go in as close as possible to their destination and then when it’s time to leave, the crew have to figure out how to untangle the pontoons.  The pictures show the crew struggling to free one side of the boat, while the other side is completely deadlocked 🤷‍♂️

We were amazed at how affordable the island hopping tours were (~1400php, $35cad / person) for the full day.  It's worth noting that there were a couple of additional expenses that we didn't find out about after we were on the boat: 
  • Kayak rental at each lagoon - 300-400 PHP (~$7-8 cad/kayak/hour) 
  • Water shoes - 100 PHP / person  - The water shoes were optional but we highly recommend taking them.  There were several areas where people were hit by strong waves or slipped on the uneven surfaces and badly scraped their feet/legs on the jagged coral and rocks.
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1927680 2023-01-06T05:38:00Z 2023-01-27T01:00:07Z El Nido

El Nido is a small town in Northern Palawan, which is surrounded by limestone karst cliffs and unspoiled islands that have stunning blue lagoons and white sand beaches. It used to be a fishing village, but because of its natural beauty, it became a tourist hub. 

From Puerto Princesa, it was an uncomfortable 5 hour ride, zig-zagging through the mountains in a 12-passenger minivan packed full with 14 people… but we finally made it.  Maybe we were tired from the journey, but our first impression of El Nido was not the greatest - it was noisy, crowded, and lacking charm.  We quickly learned that Palawan was suffering from energy and gas shortages, so El Nido only had power 12 hours per day while we were here (from 8am to 2pm and 8pm to 2am).  The result was that each establishment ran huge noisy generators during the other 12 hours of brown-out time, filling the small town with inescapable noise and exhaust fumes.

We came here to do some island hopping and were surprised that many of the island hopping tours were cancelled by the coast-guard due to rough conditions.

Fortunately we had several buffer days here, so we spent the time walking around town and nearby beaches to take in the scenery.

After a good meal and some sleep, we re-framed our minds and started to appreciate the small, scenic El Nido for what it was.

On Corong Corong Beach (a 15 minute walk, South of El Nido), we frequented a really nice bar called Sip Sunset Lounge, where we enjoyed happy hour drinks while watching the sunset.

We also did a 45 minute canopy walk above the city.  Although short, it does give you a great view of the town and bay. 

One of the unusual/cool things we encountered during the canopy walk, was the rock that sounded like a bell.  According to our guide, they tap and listen for this sound in the rocks to determine whether the section of rock is solidly attached to the surrounding cliffs, or loose/broken-off (hollow bell sound).
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1925848 2023-01-02T14:00:00Z 2023-01-26T03:08:25Z Puerto Princesa

Our first stop in the Philippines was Puerto Princesa.  We didn't have any special reason to go here other than it being the best flight  that we could find from Taipei to Palawan (ie. shortest duration with a reasonable price, but.. it departed at 1:30am on New Years Day).  

We took a post-redeye rest day to wander the town.  Everything was closed on New Years day so it was a very quiet and slightly eerie introduction to the Philippines.  A few restaurants were open so we discovered a popular Filipino dessert called Halo-Halo.  Since the dessert is based around shaved ice, we imagined something similar to (flavourless) snow-cones and were quite skeptical at first.. but it turned out to be really delicious!  We ended up trying it at 2 different places, Mang Inasal and Noki Noc's.  We preferred the one at Noki Nocs because the ice was smoother / less chunky.

There isn't much to do in Puerto Princesa other than visit the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River UNESCO site, which is now one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.  At 8.2km long, it’s one of the longest underground rivers in the world. 

To get there, we took a 90+ minute car ride to Sabang, followed by a 30 minute motorboat ride to a beach near the cave.  We then walked through the forest to an area where we were given helmets, audio guides, and assigned to a small rowboat.  

The cave tour only goes in about 1.2km (of the 4.3 km that are navigable by boat).  We spent about 35 mins inside the cave contemplating its wonder while listening to the audio guide.  The audio guide was well done and helps ensure that tourists remain silent during the cave visit, to reduce disruption of the delicate structures and wildlife (ie. bats) that the cave is home to. 

After the cave tour, we took a boat back to Sabang where we had a buffet lunch, and then drove back along the narrow winding road to Puerto Princesa.  

Apparently, we lucked out with the tour because previous days had been cancelled due to bad weather and choppy waves.  Overall, we enjoyed our day, but we did wonder if it was really worth it given that it took ~6 hours of transport+waiting time (there and back), just to see the cave for only about 30 mins.. 🤔

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1921357 2022-12-31T13:30:00Z 2023-01-23T01:00:07Z Taipei

Merry Christmas!
On Christmas day, we took a 2-hour train to Taipei where we planned to spend a few days finishing our visit to Taiwan.  The train was SO busy that we weren't able to book seats for the trip, so, we ended up standing in the train's door-area for most of the trip.  

We originally had plans to do a bunch of day trips outside of the city, but the surrounding weather wasn't exactly cooperating.  So far, we'd had a really good visit of several Taiwan sites and we could see that the trains and attractions were getting busy for the holidays, so instead of fighting the conditions, we decided to just stay in the city to visit closer sites. 

Elephant Mountain Trail (and friends)
We went to a popular nearby mountain called Xiangshan (means "Elephant Mountain" in Chinese), to hike the Elephant, Tiger, Lion and Leopard peaks.  The ~1.5km hike to Elephant peak is only about 183m high, but you can see the nice view points of Taipei 101 and the surrounding area.  To make the hike longer, we continued along the trails to visit all of the other animal peaks, but the best view was from the Elephant peak.

You can't visit Taiwan without a stop at Taipei 101 - Taipei’s iconic skyscraper with a big shopping area around.  We had hoped to visit the Starbucks at the top of Taipei 101, but sadly discovered that it is currently closed.  Instead, we checked out the mall area and had dinner at the popular restaurant called Din Tai Fung, known for their XiaoLongBao (Soup Dumplings).

Chiang Kai Shek Memorial Hall - we lucked out and got there just as the changing of the guard was happening.

National Palace Museum: We came here to escape the rain and saw some of the famous Taiwanese/Chinese artifacts, like the Ivory balls and the meat rock (yep, that is a thing). Unfortunately, the famous Jade cabbage was not there.

The Ivory balls were particularly interesting, consisting of 18 to 24 free-moving spherical layers, intricately hand-carved from a single piece of ivory!  Wow!  Here's a video to learn more about it:  Ivory Balls 

While wandering the city, we saw random sites and stopped at 2 of the bigger temples, Lungshan Temple and Songshan Temple.

On the food side, Taipei was as delicious as the rest of our food experiences in Taiwan.  Some of our favourites:

Ninxia Night Market - "Banh Mi" in a deep-fried bun 😂 and Taro Balls from a stall that had a massive lineup so we joined the queue 

Cha'Ge Bubble Tea (large bubble tea for 50 TWD - ~$2.25cad)

Various street food stalls near the Taipei Main Train Station including Fouzhou Pepper Buns (~$2.25cad), China Pizza (~$2.25cad), Vegetarian Dumplings ($0.65cad for a large dumpling, $0.25cad for the small), and Soup dumplings.

Taiwanese Spring rolls with a delicious soy milk tea (93 TWD - ~$4cad, for the combo) at He Yicheng Delicate Cake

Really beautiful, delicious, yet affordable (170 TWD - ~$8cad) poke bowls at Haloa Poke

Happy New Year!
For some reason, a lot of flights out of Taiwan are scheduled as red-eye flights.  We discovered that all of the hotels triple their prices on New Year's Eve, so, on Dec 31st we checked out of our hotel, went to an afternoon movie (Wakanda Forever), had dinner, and hopped on the airport MRT to arrive 5 hours early for our 1:30AM flight. 
On New Years Day, we arrived at our next destination at 8am and sleepily tried to wander around to kill time.  Luckily our hostel allowed us to check in early at 12:30pm, so, exhausted, we both crashed for the rest of the afternoon and evening.  

Ah the fun of travelling 😂.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1920228 2022-12-24T13:42:00Z 2023-01-21T01:00:08Z Taichung

Bubble Tea is milk tea with a bunch of tapioca balls at the bottom.  Taichung is one of the cities that claims to be the birthplace of the famous drink, so one of the first things we did here was to visit the local tea house claiming to be the original inventor: Chun Shui Tang Siwei.  You can read about the bubble tea origin debate here: Who invented bubble tea?

Although the Chun Shui Tang bubble tea prices were very high for Taiwan (170 TWD compared to 50-60 TWD at most other places), we decided to have dinner here.  Both the bubble tea and food turned out to be really good (especially the Beef Noodle Soup which had an amazingly rich broth).  Since it had been a cold rainy day,  the sit-down dinner with warm soup and sweet chewy bubble tea made for a perfect way to end the evening.

Not far from our hotel, there was a small street dedicated to anime, called Animation Lane.  Since we had such a nice time visiting the art areas of Kaohsiung, we decided to check it out.  The animation lane area was fairly small, but the art is really nicely done.  When we were there, you could also see the sketches of their next project in the works for Dragon Ball.

The rest of our time in Taichung was spent walking the streets of the city where we saw temples, historic Japanese buildings, craft markets, parks, and a really fun dessert place called Miyahara that looks like it was teleported here from Harry Potter.

As usual, we finished our day at Yizhong Night Market.  Our favourite dishes at this night market were a warm Korean-style seaweed purple-rice roll with kimchi & pork floss (really good and not greasy!) and an egg-cheese-thai-basil scallion-pancake sandwich (greasy but crispy, chewy, and so tasty).

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1919834 2022-12-23T01:09:00Z 2023-01-19T01:00:06Z Sun Moon Lake

A lot of locals and travel blogs recommended visiting Sun Moon Lake, one of the "8 Views of Taiwan" (according to the Taiwan government).  Since the forecast predicted 1 day without rain while we were in Taichung, we decided to give it a try.  

From Taichung, the only way to get to Sun Moon Lake is by bus (or private car/scooter).  We tried to catch the first bus of the day, but it passed our stop because it was completely full (despite it being a weekday).  We opted to walk to the bus stop at the start of the route (near the Kaohsiung main train station) to improve our chances of getting on, and managed to catch the next bus.  After a 2 hour bus ride, we finally arrived at the lake and found our way to Giant Bikes to rent some bikes for the day.

The bike ride around the lake is about 33 km with a mix of dedicated pathways and windy roads shared with cars.  The Giant staff recommended we go clock-wise around the lake so that we would be biking on the side of the road/path that is nearest to the lake.  

Our first stop was the Wenwu temple, which is the biggest temple on the lake.  Compared to the other temples around the lake, this one was the most worth visiting (in our opinion).  

Our next stop was at the village and wharf on the South side of the lake where we wandered the Ita Thao shopping district and sampled some local-made vinegar and snacks from one of the vendors. 

We made some quick stops at a couple more temples and the futuristing-looking Xingshang Visitor Center, before returning the bikes and taking the bus home.  

Sun Moon Lake is the largest lake in Taiwan and is known for its clear calm waters surrounded by mountains and forests.  Compared to the lakes and mountain scenery that we are accustomed to in Canada, this lake wasn't anything particularly new or unique for us (first world problems 😂), but we did still enjoy our relaxing cycling activity around the lake.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1918767 2022-12-21T01:00:00Z 2023-01-17T10:27:43Z Kaohsiung

From Guanshan, we took a local train to Taitung to catch a TRA train to Kaohsiung, the second largest city in Taiwan. 

Our first stop was "Pier 2", a unique pier dedicated to public art.  Here you could see several murals, statues, and other art installations.

Within Pier 2, we decided to stop at a local restaurant called Sunny Hills to taste Taiwan's famous Pineapple Cakes. To our surprise, the restaurant provided a free pineapple cake and a cup of tea.. very tasty! 

From Pier 2, we walked North along the Love River which flows through the city and has some crazy jumping fish that you can catch a glimpse of on occasion.  We detoured off of the river to visit Lotus pond (lake), which is home to a few unique temples. 

The Dragon and Tiger Pagodas were closed, but we had a nice view of them from the outside. 

Luckily, the Spring and Autumn Pavilions were still open, so we entered the mouth of the Chinese dragon, went up and down the undulating body to see murals depicting various (interesting) characters/stories, and finally exited from the dragon's butt. 

The last water temple was the Zuoying Yuandi Temple.  At this temple, there was a section where you could toss a coin toward a bell in a hole and if you got it in, different characters would play a drum for good luck and future wishes.  Dom gave it a try and hit the bell, but instead of dropping into the hole, it bounced back past his shoulder and into the garbage bin.. not sure what that signifies about his future luck!

We continued around the lake to visit the Confucius temple and reach the East side of the lake just in time for the sunset. 

On Day 2, we went to Weiwuying Street Art Village, a neighbourhood near the Weiwuying Station that has hosted a number of street art festivals over the past years. It was quite impressive to see the number of large apartment buildings covered with so many fun and interesting street art pieces.
From the Weiwuying, we decided to stop by a Costco to see what kinds of "Taiwanese" products they had and to buy a Costco-sized box of Taiwanese pineapple cakes. 

We finished the day at Sanfeng Temple, known for their many strings of lanterns that are lit up at night. 

Food was also a big part of our 2 days here. 

At the Ruifeng Night Market, we tried egg&cheese cake, a crunchy pancake with Mexican flavours, and Scallion Pancakes.

Near our hotel, we also discovered delicious cheap Taiwanese breakfasts at Xing Long Ju.  We tried big soup dumplings (a fluffier style than what we'd had before), an interesting soybean-based soup, and an egg sandwich made with pastry instead of bread.  Dom especially loved the half-sweet soy-milk that they made there.

For dinner, our favourite food was the Taiwanese spring rolls from Roll Overlord.  It was a bit far from our hotel, but we went out of our way to go there every day that we were in Kaohsiung.  It was a really delicious healthy veggie dish, to help balance out all of the greasy night market food we had been eating 😂!

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1918771 2022-12-19T01:27:00Z 2023-01-15T01:00:07Z East Rift Valley Cycling Tour

One of our main reasons to go to Taiwan was to do a cycling tour that Jen’s dad highly recommended: a 3-day bike ride along the East coast of the island.  Unfortunately the tour that David did was already fully booked, but we were able to book a similar 3-day tour that was slightly shorter (126 km instead of 160 km), called the Giant Adventures - East Rift Valley Cycling Tour.

Day 1
Our first day started with a bus ride from Hualien to Guangfu where we had lunch.  We then walked to a nearby parking lot where we met the tour support team and all of the pre-sized bikes and water bottles were pre-labelled and laid out.  

After an explanation of the equipment and bike safety (in Mandarin), we adjusted our seats and tested out our bikes to ensure everything was in good working order.  We then started our easy 26 km ride from Guangfu to Ruisui.  

The weather was not on our side - it was raining fairly hard at times, but the Giant team was experienced and well prepared, providing us with rain covers and shower caps to go over our helmets.  It was a little chilly, but we still enjoyed the ride.  

We made a number of stops along the way, including a sugar factory where we sampled a Popsicle made from Roselle juice.  It was very unique but delicious!

Our first hotel, Hoya Spa Hotel, was at the Riusui hotsprings, so we were given vouchers to use the hotsprings before meeting up for dinner.  It was perfect for warming up after the chilly riding day.

Day 2
The day 2 weather was a bit better - no sun yet, but at least the rain had stopped. This was our biggest day - 60 km from Ruisui to Chishang through various rice fields and villages.  

Even though there were about 40 people in our group, the tour was amazingly well organized.  In addition to a lead rider, there were also 2 other support team riders in the middle and back of the pack.  There were 2 support vans that followed us the entire route - one for bike support and one for photos and snacks.  Anytime we approached a section of road where there was a specific turn that we needed to follow, someone from the support van or team magically appeared at the intersection to point us in the right direction.  

The bikes that they provided were excellent quality and in great condition (super fun to ride!) and if anything went wrong with a bike, the support van was there to resolve it immediately.  There was also a photographer taking pictures of us along the way, which they uploaded to the cloud and shared with everyone via QR code at the end of the day.

The route was broken up into several small segments with lots of snack stops along the way, including a factory known for their delicious (warm) milk and buns!  We also stopped in a village where you could buy rice snacks from a rice farmer cooperative.  Jen was addicted to some rice crackers that they bought for us to try.  The snack van provided hot and cold water, ginger tea, Pocari Sweat electrolyte packets, an assortment of cookies, candy, and fresh fruits, as well as sunscreen and bug spray. 

We finished our day at the Taiwan Sugar Pond Makino Resort

Day 3
On our last day was a 40 km ride from Chishang to Guanshan, and lucky for us, the sun came out!  

Since we couldn't understand Mandarin, some of the daily events were a surprise for us.  We started our 3rd day pushing our bikes around the property of our hotel and we had no idea why.. we arrived near a fence when suddenly a hippo popped its head out of the water!  It turned out our hotel was in an animal park of some sort, so we spent the first part of our day walking around to see the animals.

The rest of the day's ride was spent cycling through the local rice fields where international artists had art instalments in various areas along the route. 

We also visited a tree in the middle of the rice fields that was apparently made famous because of a handsome actor that biked to drink tea under that tree, in an old EVA Air advertisement. We just went to another tree nearby to take individual pictures as the original tree was quite busy  

In addition to all of the snack stops along the route, we were fed huge breakfast/lunch/dinners with a good variety of local dishes.  Many of the areas that we visited are known for having very good rice - we thought "umm it's just rice..." but it actually did taste great and had a nice slightly chewy and sticky texture that we enjoyed.  Along the route, the tour support team also picked up some delicious dragon fruits that were red on the inside and the sweetest dragon fruit we ever had!

We ended our tour at the Guanshan train station.  After returning our equipment and having our last snacks from the back of the support van, we were given bento box dinners to take with us on the train-ride home.

If you happen to be planning a trip to Taiwan, we definitely recommend the bike tours with Giant Adventures.  Here is the link to their tours: Giant Cycling World Travel

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1916474 2022-12-16T15:38:00Z 2023-01-17T13:37:58Z Hualien Street Food

We came to Hualien because it was the starting point of our Giant East Coast cycle tour, but we also wanted to arrive here a couple of days early to taste the local foods and see Avatar 2 before starting the bike trip.  

Hualien is a nice medium-sized city - no super touristy sites (other than Taroko National park), but plenty of interesting streets and areas to stroll through. Our main goal was to eat typical Taiwanese food from this region, and we were not disappointed. 

The first thing we wanted to try was a fried egg and scallion pancake (Cong You Bing - 40 TWD, ~$1.75 cad)) that Jen's mom told us about. There seemed to be 2 competing stalls near our B&B - the Yellow Car and Blue Car.. of course, we had to try them both.  Both reportedly have hour-long lineups but we decided to try going at an off-hour (ie. 3pm) and managed to avoid the crowds.  Both were really delicious, but overall, we liked the blue car better as they make and serve each individual order one at a time so the pancake is hot and super crispy when you eat it.  The yellow car, in comparison, seemed to be making and serving the pancakes out in batches - probably faster for them to process the line this way during busy times, but it did result in our pancake being lukewarm and less crispy by the time we got it.  Besides the fact that everything is deep fried, what really makes these pancakes so good is that the egg yolk is still hot and runny.. it's then surrounded by a bit of delicious brown sauce and crispy onion-flavoured dough.. mmmmmm! 🤤

Most of the rest of our delicious food experiences were at the Dongdamen Night Market, where we found a great variety of food stalls to try. 

Stinky Tofu Fries 

Puffy Taro and Sweet Potato Balls

Roasted Corn (~$8cad - the most expensive piece of corn we’ve ever eaten!)

Coffin Bread

Passion Fruit Bubble Tea (40 TWD, ~$1.75 cad)

Mashed Potato Omelette 

BeiGang Spring Rolls (50 TWD, $2.25 cad - our favourite discovery!)

Our very lovely accommodation, Alien B&B, usually served a fairly typical "western-style" breakfast, but they offered to bring us a "typical" Taiwanese breakfast to try.  It included Turnip Cake, Omelette Crepe, Fried-Dough Sandwich (Shaobing Youtian) and warm Soy Milk.  It was so much food (especially since we aren't really breakfast eaters), but it was really delicious!

On our second day in Hualien, we had another new experience..  we felt our first sizeable earthquake. 
As with any other regular day, we were just strolling down a street when all of the sudden the store windows started bending and the ground started to move - not just a small vibration - the ground actually moved horizontally in a left/right swaying motion. It happened so fast and only lasted a few seconds, but it really made our hearts race!  We went into panic mode and felt jumpy for some time after, but the locals around us did not seem affected at all.  After some research and talking to our B&B host, we learned that earthquakes are very common on the East coast of Taiwan, so I guess they are all just used to it! 
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1915761 2022-12-13T01:00:00Z 2023-01-15T01:00:03Z Taroko Gorge

Ever since Jen's dad and his friend told us about the cycle tour that they did in Taiwan, we've wanted to go.  Since Taiwan only recently started re-opening post-covid, we were a bit unsure about how the self-testing and quarantine worked so we decided to arrive a week early before starting the bike tour.  It turned out that as long as you self-tested negative every other day (for 7 days), you could still go out to eat/travel/visit, so after staying a couple of days in Taipei, we decided to take a train to XinCheng to visit Taroko National Park.

On our first day in Taroko we checked out the major highlights.  We took a local bus over to the furthest attraction and then slowly made our way back. 

Baiyang Trail
This trail was created early on and was used to build the infrastructure of the dam in the region. It’s about 2km long and passes through 9 tunnels along the way. Unfortunately for us, part of the trail was closed for restoration (due to a landslide), so we could only access the pathway up until the second tunnel. 
To access the trail, we had to walk on the main road with cars until we reached the tunnel entrance.  It was a bit weird, but we did have a really nice view along the way. 

Tunnel of Nine Turns
We hopped on the next bus and made our way to the tunnel of nine turns.  Here you walk along an old section of the highway (700m x 2) where you can admire the proximity of the cliff-side and the man-made tunnels. 

Swallow Grotto Yanzikou Trail
The "swallow grotto" name comes from the holes on the cliff side where swallows come to nest.  This trail used to be a part of the main road, but because the area was so popular for visitors to stop at, it was causing traffic issues.  They've since created an alternate route for vehicles so visitors can now explore the area without causing traffic issues, but you still have to be careful of the occasional tourist vans/buses passing along this road.

Changchun Shrine
This was our last stop for the day. We first stopped to eat a late instant-noodles lunch, walked along the trail to visit the shrine, then caught a bus back to our B&B in XinCheng.