tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:/posts Beyond The Maple Tree 2023-11-05T16:36:52Z tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1957182 2023-03-22T19:11:00Z 2023-11-05T15:43:52Z Bangkok Tourist Markets

Bangkok is a huge city full of multiple markets and shopping malls. During our stay, we we decided to check out 3 tourist-oriented markets.. and 1 mall 😂. 

To visit the Railway and Floating markets, we booked a Tripadvisor tour ($30usd/pp), as they are located outside Bangkok. 

Maeklong Railway Market

Located approximately 1 hour's drive from Bangkok, at the end of a 65km train track, Maeklong Railway Market's history dates back to the early 1900s when the railway was originally built.  What makes this market very unique, is its location directly on the train track. 

Whenever a train approaches the market, merchants swiftly dismantle their kiosks to allow the train to pass, and then they set everything back up again as soon as the train has passed.  The vendors have become absolute experts at positioning their merchandise incredibly close to the tracks, just out of the way of the passing train, thus eliminating the need for frequent relocation of their wares. 

Although the market has become overrun by tourists, it still continues to serve prepared foods and produce to locals. 

During our tour, we boarded the train a few stations before the final stop.  This gave us the perspective of the market from inside the train. We then disembarked to visit the market and observe the vendor's take-down and setup routine as another train passed through the market on its way back to Bangkok. 

Prior to taking the train, we also had a quick visit at a local salt farm.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

After visiting the train market, we continued on our journey to the floating market.  It was originally created after King Rama IV built a 32km canal to join 2 nearby rivers.  Although it has lost its primary vocation serving locals, the tourist industry has certainly kept it alive.  Tourists flock here to experience shopping for various touristy goods, from their designated long boat.  

Our tour stopped here to first enjoy green curry and mango sticky rice for lunch, then we hopped on a boat to be navigated through the canal. 

One of the land merchants at the boat dock, had a Loris.  Although the experience was questionable, seeing a live Loris in real life has been on Jen's bucket list forever.  After a little hesitation, we did pay to hold it and take some pictures.  They also had a baby one that they let us hold.  Jen was really 😍😍😍.

MBK Mall

Every time we've been to Bangkok, we've gone here to find cheap t-shirts for Dom and cheap electronics for Jen. This time was no exception, as it just happened to be the drop-off location of our Markets tour 😂.

Chatuchak Weekend Market

On one of the days, we visited the Bangkok Weekend Market (Chatuchak) to buy some souvenirs.  Dating from the mid-20th century, this market first started as a small local market and now boasts around 15,000 stalls and up to 200k visitors every weekend. You can find a lot of things here, but we personally found that the Chiang Mai weekend markets had a better selection of more-original, artistic souvenirs.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1956385 2023-03-20T19:11:00Z 2023-10-25T13:27:28Z Bangkok Temples

We spent the last part of our trip with Dom's mom, in Bangkok. 

Despite the humid 35°C temperatures, we managed to visit 3 main temples in Bangkok: 

  • Wat Phra Kaew, known as the Grand Palace and host to the Emerald Buddha, 
  • Wat Pho, home to the huge reclining buddha, and 
  • Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of Dawn. 

Wat Phra Kaew

Wat Pho

Wat Arun

To get to Wat Arun, we hopped on a 5THB ferry to cross the river.  Wat Arun has more of a Khmer style, so it was more similar to the temples that we had seen in Cambodia.

Our hotel was also very near to some other temples, so we decided to stop by for a quick visit. Jen enjoyed watching and listening to the monks chanting.

Wat Suthat (and the giant swing)

Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan and the Golden Temple.  

Although we didn't get a chance to visit the inside of these temples, we were able to take a short walk to see some nice views of them illuminated at night.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1952131 2023-03-17T12:23:00Z 2023-10-21T08:19:09Z Relaxing in Ko Lanta

Before heading back to reality, we wanted to get some beach and sun time in Southern Thailand. We chose a place where both of us had never went and that seemed a bit less touristy than other parts of Thailand - we chose Ko Lanta.

After a rather confusing wait for the airport pickup in Krabi, we drove about an hour to our cozy little beach resort, just outside of the small fishing village on the North West side of Ko Lanta island.

Since Ko Lanta is a small fishing village, we spent most of our time relaxing at the resort and strolling along the endless pristine beaches.  

You could tell there aren't many tourists in this area because you can still find so many perfect seashells.  The girls went crazy and spent hours harvesting all kinds of cute seashells.

We also had a lot of fun playing in the beautiful sunsets.

There weren't many restaurants open while we were there, but we did find one delicious place to eat Khao Soi, called Bun Noodle.

We also took Charlotte on her first TukTuk ride, to visit the nearby village and night market. 

In the fishing village, one of the street stalls that we ate at was called Best Phad Thai in Koh Lanta.  While eating, we were visited by 2 giant lizards walking toward us in the nearby ditch.  The tourists were the only ones who seemed interested/concerned with this, so we're guessing this must be a rather normal occurrence for the locals 😂.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1949973 2023-03-08T04:02:30Z 2023-09-25T16:18:03Z Chiang Rai’s Temples

Even though Chiang Rai is about 2.5 hours from Chiang Mai, we decided to take a day tour to see a few of the Chiang Rai highlights. 

Mae Khachan Hot Spring

Our first stop was at a natural hot springs.  Jen was super car-sick when we arrived here, so we didn't do much exploring.  In the parking lot, there are several ladies selling touristy items and eggs that you can cook in the hot-springs for breakfast.  We didn't buy any eggs, but one of those ladies saw Jen laying sick on the ground - she took pity and kindly offered Jen some medicine from her personal stash.  Jen didn't take it, but thought it was a really sweet gesture :)

White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)

The next stop was our main reason for taking this tour.  Wat Rong Khan, also known as the White Temple, is one of Chiang Rai’s most visited attractions.  Previously an older temple that had fallen into disrepair, it has now been transformed into a modern temple that was designed and constructed by a national Buddhist artist.  Although new work on this temple continues to be ongoing, it was opened to the public in 1997.

The temple is really unique and stunning to look at, yet had an unexplained, odd, touristy/Disney vibe that left us with mixed feelings.  The huge walls are covered with images of Buddha and.. a lot of Hollywood icons such as Neo, Bumblebee, Spider-Man, Harry Potter, and Superman.  

We didn't take any photos from inside the main temple since it was not allowed, but we did check google and found a couple of example images from Duke Language School.  Their site also explains that "These unusual murals are placed opposite the Buddhas. They are meant to show that people should free their minds from bad intentions, and that violence, greed, and hedonism is the wrong way of life."    

After visiting the main temple, we also started noticing Hollywood references in other areas of the temple grounds as well (where we were allowed to take photos). 

Blue Temple (Wat Rong Seur Ten)

Our next stop was the Blue Temple.  Apparently the temple was named Wat Rong Seur Ten, meaning "temple of the dancing tiger", because it was built on a site where tigers were said to have jumped over the river.

Black House Museum (Baan Dam Museum)

The Black House is a private art museum with a mixture of unconventional and contemporary art and architecture.  According to the tour websites, it has been called a “dark, mysterious, and almost sadistic representation of hell, complete with preserved animals and a collection of bones".   It sounded ominous, so we were curious to check it out.  It was.. different!  

The tour ended with a long 3-hour ride home with our driver who thought he was driving an F1 😬.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1950324 2023-03-07T04:02:00Z 2023-09-24T13:44:33Z Cooking Thai in Chiang Mai

We really enjoyed our cooking class in Hoi An so we decided to do one in Thailand. 

Our class with Basil Cookery started with a local market tour.

For the cooking portion of the class, we each prepped and cooked 7 dishes that we had chosen from a list.

The Lunch Menu 😂


  • Pad Thai
  • Fried chicken with cashew nut
  • Hot and sour prawn soup
  • Papaya salad
  • Green curry
  • Deep fried banana


  • Fried thick noodle with soy sauce
  • Stir fried prawn in tamarind sauce
  • Chicken in coconut milk soup
  • Savoury minced chicken salad
  • Penang curry
  • Black sticky rice pudding


  • Pad Thai
  • Stir fried minced pork with holy basil
  • Chicken in coconut milk soup
  • Fried spring roll
  • Penang curry
  • Mango sticky rice

Then it was time to eat!  As always, we had WAY too much food.. fortunately we had a fridge and microwave at our hotel so they wrapped up some of the leftovers for us to enjoy for dinner later that evening.
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1950322 2023-03-04T04:01:00Z 2023-09-23T13:03:24Z Chiang Mai Temples, Markets, and Food


Chiang Mai boasts over 300 temples and you can easily believe it when walking the streets of the old town. Some are more impressive than others, but they are all well-maintained and very peaceful to wander through.


Since we were in Chiang Mai on Saturday and Sunday, we were able to visit the 2 big weekend night markets. As night falls, over a kilometre of streets and side streets are blocked from traffic and are filled with hundreds of vendors selling, food, art, electronics, souvenirs, etc.  The Sunday night market crosses the old town all the way from the east to the west gate.  It was huge and had a nice selection of wares to admire, so we liked it the best. 

During the week, we also visited one of the art markets that happens every night outside of the old town - there were a handful of amazing artists that we could watch in action but the majority of the stalls were sadly closed down, likely due to the impacts of covid 😢.


You cannot experience Chiang Mai and its night markets fully unless you try the food! 

Some of our favourites were the Chiang Mai sausages (super flavourful with curry with lemon grass), Roti with bananas and sweet milk, and the delicious fresh fruit smoothies.

During this trip, we also discovered an excellent Thai dish that was new to us, called Khao Soi.  It’s sort of similar to a curry Laksa, but less spicy, super flavourful, and has crunchy noodles on top.  Our favourite place was at a place called Mr. Kai Restaurant.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1948067 2023-03-02T13:08:00Z 2023-09-22T02:02:14Z Knife Making in Hanoi

While looking for things to do in Hanoi, Dom discovered a super cool activity: Knife Making!  (Incase you didn't know - Dom LOVES knives 😂)

This was a 3 hour workshop where you get to design and make your own knife with the help of a Vietnamese blacksmith. 

The steps (as we understood them) were as follows:

  • Roughly carve the handle
  • Cut the blade to a rough shape/size 
  • Strengthen the blade by heating and hammering
  • Bash the blade with the bashing machine 
  • Straighten the blade
  • Shape the blade with the grinder
  • Temper the blade
    • To make sure the blade keeps its edge, the blacksmith put salt on the blade, heated it up, and then she dipped it in oil and sand. 
  • Sharpen the blade using 3 different grinding wheels and manual honing
  • Put the handle on and sand it 

We didn't get to do all the steps solo (since some steps require proper training and can be quite dangerous if you don't know what your are doing!), but we were impressed at how many of the actual knife-making steps we got to participate in.  We had so much fun!!

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1948066 2023-03-01T13:06:00Z 2023-11-05T16:36:52Z Halong Bay on the Dragon Legend

We previously visited Halong Bay 10 years ago and thought it would be a wonderful experience to repeat again with Dom’s mom. 

During our first trip here, we booked with Indochina Junk and sailed on a 10-cabin boat called the Dragon Pearl Junk.  Even though we really enjoyed the small and personal feel of the Dragon Pearl boat, we decided to try out the 3-day/2-night trip on their newest 24-cabin boat, called the Dragon Legend.   It has bigger cabins and a bigger sun deck, as well as a spa, a tiny pool, and a tiny gym 🤷‍♂️.

We were picked up from our Hanoi hotel and drove 2.5 hours to the pier, where we checked in and waited in the lounge area for about 1 hour before heading out to the boat. 

We again visited Bai Tu Long Bay instead of Halong Bay because it is significantly less busy. Our guide told us that on a busy day, Halong Bay will have up to 400 tourist boats whereas Bai Tu Long Day would only have up to 100.  Of the 100 boats that visit this area, only around 35 of them will anchor overnight and sail further out into the bay. 

In our case, because post-covid tourism had not fully recovered yet, we spotted a max of 10 boats anchored overnight and saw even fewer boats while sailing during the day, so it really felt like we had the whole bay to ourselves!  

Our Dragon Legend boat would typically have about 50 passengers when full, but again, due to low season and post-covid, we only had 19 passengers the first night.  

It turned out that 12 of the passengers had only booked a 1 night trip, which we didn't even know was possible.  After breakfast on the 2nd day, they all took a ferry back, leaving only 7 of us on the giant boat for the second and third day.. we actually had more crew than passengers on our boat!

Besides the amazing views, we really enjoyed all of the activities offered by the cruise.

Floating Village Boat Ride

Cave Exploring


We really enjoyed the 2 kayaking trips that allowed us to peacefully paddle through the local landscape and explore the karsts from close-up.

Lunch on the beach 

On our second day, the ship's crew brought us to a secluded beach where they set up tables and chairs and served us a lovely BBQ seafood lunch. 

Squid Fishing

At around 9PM, you could go to the back of the boat and try to fish for squid. Dom decided to give it a try on the second night. He heard that the group only caught one squid on the first night, so he didn't have high hopes. 

While demonstrating the fishing technique, the guide actually caught a squid right away.  Then Dom put his fishing line into the water, mimicked the same up and down motion, and caught another one within a couple of minutes.  He was satisfied with catching something, so he called it a night.  He learned that the squid are attracted to the boat's light, so all you need to do is get a special hook, shine some light in the water and move your fishing rod up and down… that’s it!  😂


Between activities and food, we spent time lounging on the sun deck to enjoy the sunny weather and amazing views.  Since there were so few passengers on the boat, we had the entire sun deck to ourselves!


Water puppet show

Lastly, on our drive back to Hanoi, we stopped at a small village to see a traditional water puppet show.

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.