By: Elena Grace Flores
It must have been the narrow escape from death surviving a car accident that finally led me to follow my conscience of going back to my roots through basic traveling and see for myself what has become to the lands that my forefathers entrusted me. Life is too short. It’s now or never. Never mind the 15 years of living and working in Thailand. The time has come for me to embrace the challenge.
I have always lived with the motto, “A man who risks nothing- gains nothing” and, I always deepen the stakes. So be it. Remembering Cebu and Mindanao how they were during my childhood days and the capabilities I had in terms of public relations, I was determined to show to my International media friends how these destinations really are, bearing in mind that I could raise funds for a good cause through sponsors to support this adventure travel project and I could put this on T.V. and get media attention to project the actual situation of at least a part of mainland Mindanao on a different angle away from terrorism and Cebu as the gateway to Visayas and Mindanao.
I’ve always thought what life each soul is assigned to, is a game of chance. My running buddy Finn Sorensen, an ex-Danish commando, who gained his expertise dealing with terrorism from the military just agreed in escorting me to this ultimate trip without too much convincing. He took it as a holiday offer to also visit his friends in Manila. So, Finn took the direct flight to Manila to have some time with his friends and off I went starting my backpacking spree from Bangkok’s “Hua Lumpong” Train Station going to Hatyai with the intention of visiting my younger sister quickly in Brunei after sorting some routes out in Malaysia.
Going out of Thailand…From Hatyai to Butterworth, Malaysia Getting to Hatyai by overnight sleeper train is easy, should you need or want to go there on a budget; it leaves Bangkok at 2.00 pm and arrives in Hatyai at about 7.00 am the next day. You could also order meals from the train’s menu at a very affordable cost. It is located in the south of Thailand, about 25 km inland from the east-facing coast of the central isthmus. The stopover in Hatyai was pretty fast considering the immigration procedures that passengers going to Malaysia had to undertake.
The train proceeded to its destination and arrived in Butterworth, Malaysia at around twelve in the afternoon. The normal “chopping” of passports continued and there were transports available as soon as we were heading out either going to Penang by ferry or to Kuala Lumpur by bus. I chose to continue my trip to Kuala Lumpur since I really wanted to try out these “low-cost airlines” that made KLIA (Kula Lumpur International Airport) as their hub. In a matter of 5 hours or so, I found myself in the KL Bus terminal looking for a taxi that would take me to KLIA for 30 Ringgit.
Once in the airport, I shopped around for the most convenient and affordable flight to Brunei to the point of befriending the very helpful airline counter personnel of Malaysian Airlines who was kind enough to refer me to “Air Asia”, the most successful low-cost airline in the region with the motto, “Now, everyone can fly! It could have been more convenient, immigration wise as I was told if there was a flight to Labuan which is 45 minutes by ferry away from Bandar Seri Begawan, the modernized capital of Brunei but the only choice I got at that time was to fly to Miri which is 3 hours away by land from the capital.
Without any reservations, I just lined up to get my ticket, checked in, and for 80 Ringgit (35 Ringgit if I had a reservation well in advance), I was promptly on board Flight no. AK 312 departed at 7 pm and arrived in Miri at 9:15 pm. I was lucky enough to be talking to a Malaysian woman with her two children during the flight who offered me to share their reserved car to Bandar Seri Begawan for 50 Ringgit. The picturesque sights from Miri made me realized that Miri is more than just a booming oil and timber town; it is the gateway to the northeast region, rapidly becoming Sarawak’s most popular tourist area.
Visa to Brunei is not required for visiting Filipinos if staying for not more than 15 days provided that you have a “show money” of 600 Brunei Dollars and a return ticket. At the immigration checkpoint, I got away from the show money requirement after the driver of the car lent me some Brunei dollars to show to the officer but I was not ready for my return ticket because I have not thought where to return at that time; to Thailand, my country of residence or to the Philippines, my home country. Although after a thorough investigation and too many documents I have to dig from my luggage to show that I am a desirable tourist, I was able to finally enter Brunei. Definitely not my first Brunei visit but obviously, first time coming from the “back door”, as they say.
My sister, who was fascinated with my adventurous ordeal, pampered me for two days and even bought me a direct flight ticket to Manila to catch up with my colleague, Finn Sorensen. It was during this flight that I met Jerry Manego, a Brunei based Filipino- Korean Foreign Diplomatic Missions Officer who got me acquainted with traveling from Brunei’s Serasa Ferry Terminal close to the city of Muara, to Kota Kinabalu – Sandakan – Mindanao via Zamboanga, at least for my next adventure trip.
I found Finn in Manila anxious to do the adventure in the wilderness and not even his tremendous stomach upset could stop him from traveling with me to Cebu the next day via Cebu Pacific. Upon arrival, my cousin Lani Dakay, drove us to the Northern part of Cebu, the origin of my mother’s family, passing Danao, then to Luyang, Carmen Cebu. Luyang is a fishing village rather than a tourist destination and I was amazed that our provincial way of life was enough to have this appealing effect from a foreigner like Finn, an experienced traveler. He was fascinated by the simple but happy life in the village where laughter and pure hospitality from men and women alike really excel, the exciting cockfighting gatherings also amazed him, the nipa huts also attracted his innermost sight and even just the short nap at the beach seemed like boasting his spirit is experiencing another local custom late at night – the “baile” or outdoor disco featuring the town’s after fiesta fundraising event; the Coronation of the barrio Queen and her consorts. Showing once again, one of the secrets to the seemingly boundless energy of many Filipinos is the love of music and dance.
Basic accommodations along the beach for as low as PHP 800 per night were good enough but we cannot refuse the humble offer of our host to spend the night at the comfort of their own house with full board meals for free. On the way back to Cebu City, we managed to take some artistic shots of the Magellan’s cross before embarking on the overnight Cebu Ferries Trip to Cagayan de Oro since the Superferry was not going to Ozamis that day. It was also a real experience on board the ship. The Tourist Class was not bad at all. In fact, Finn commented that it was actually too good for a back to the basic adventure. While having some beers in the entertainment outlet of the ship,
I have learned some jungle tips from Finn. To summarize, the most important thing to take on a mountain adventure is your brain – good decision-making skills, the ability to adapt to changing, even life-threatening, situations, and to make the most of the equipment and resources that you have with you.” Sometimes it takes a few mistakes to reach that ideal.
The early docking of the ship at the arrival pier was greeted by native people on bangkas (small boats) asking for some “pasalubong” (gifts) perhaps. Some passengers threw coins to the sea and to our great astonishment, the natives hurriedly dived down to the deep to search for it and they seemed to have collected them all; coins, snacks, candies, and personal items. Bornean Access to the Philippines Backpacking Tips The beauty of the trip to Ozamis was actually not the destination but certainly “the way” to the destination. It was not at all a problem asking our way around and we were never in trouble due perhaps to our casual but decent looks and politeness. The “Rural” bus brought us down passing Iligan halfway of the trip and as far as Tubod where we have to cross the barge to Ozamis. It helps traveling light with a knapsack by land wearing a comfortable shirt and pants with a hat. It fits rain or shine and enhances easy mobility under strenuous circumstances.
Few more hours on the bus going to our destination in Mindanao, Calamba, Misamis Occidental really gave me much pride in how beautiful Mindanao is. Abundant rivers with clear waters, green, natural forest, endless rice plantation, orchards, and ambiance very close to nature that you can smell the freshness of the earth. The house that I remembered as my grandparents’ big house on my father’s side is now a ruined old house. Nevertheless, familiar faces still linger, only, they are a lot older plus many more young additions. To make the most of our trip there, it was crucial to start moving to the forest so that we could accomplish something before sundown. The family’s over 17 hectares-Bitibut hills in Sapang Dalaga was my favorite. This is where I dreamed of having my native resort someday. It was composed of seven hills with a source of spring water dripping the whole year round since time immemorial. On the second hill, we met one of the families looking after the land.
The picture of the old man riding his young horse with his family on the background was a breath-taking angle. The reward of reaching the peak of the 3rd hill was the spectacular view of the island of Siquijor. As we hurtle down the hill to get to the next one, we came across men harvesting some of the coconuts for copra trading. The only surviving means of income of the land. Enough to pay land taxes and the shares of the people looking after them. The combination of lush forest, hilly slopes, creeks, and plateaus could make this place an ideal site for an adventure run. A refreshing fresh young coconut break was our reward that afternoon, which we gleefully shared with the locals.
The night set in and our intention of sleeping under our tents did not materialize since it was safer from the snakes to take a nap in the nipa hut but only after having our survival dinner – bread and canned goods. The journey continued early that morning surveying other adjacent family properties such as the 28 hectares shrimp farm area, orchard sites, and paying respect to the private grave of my grandparents. At last, we were treated to a sumptuous seafood home-cooked meal that did justice to our energy-draining schedule. The smooth sailing
WG& A’s Superferry trip from Ozamis back to Cebu allowed us to regain our inertia. Here, we re-counted our backpacking experience summing up the most convenient route for the planned trip of our adventurers from Bangkok over a few bottles of San Miguel beer in the music and disco lounge of the ship. Finn went back to Thailand pretty much the same as when he came into the Philippines but I still had to sort out going back to Brunei by sea via Zamboanga, then, hopefully back to Thailand. This was not as smooth as by land coming into Brunei.
At first, I was a little hesitant about doing most trips alone, but I took a chance and found it to be the most rewarding experience of my life. It has changed me in a way that I never thought possible. It opened up my eyes to a lot of new things in life. It’s amazing how much we can learn from other cultures and re-discover our own, seeing through the gradual transitions of the travel from borders to border. I encourage everyone that reads my travel experience to go and find your roots by means of basic travel modes and backpacking to gather the most detailed information. THE BEST THING I HAVE EVER DONE!!! Unbeatable freedom in exploring our very own and great way of knowing what we could offer in terms of tourism and discover our uniqueness from our neighboring countries. If we do not explore our country first,who would?
- Never leave without a map
- Make a research about your destination before going
- Know most if not all of the transport means of the area and its alternatives
- Budget your trip. Do not bring excessive cash and do not rely on credit cards
- Be fit. Exercise daily. Stretching and meditation helps
- Travel Light
- Include Diarrhea tablets in your medical kit
- Take daily dosage of Vitamin C
- Bring food and water supply
- Wear comfortable but decent gear
- Be flexible
- Wear a hat
- Bring a rain coat
- Bring extra footwear
- Do not wear jewelries or bring expensive accessories
- Never leave your belongings unattended
- Do not trust a new friend you happen to meet along the way
- Travel with an open mind
- Do not hesitate to ask the locals for any information
- Be friendly and polite
- Bring small tokens for the nice and helpful people you meet along the way
Please note that this article was written in between 2005 to 2006 – so, the details may differ slightly compared to the present time – but the whole essence should be the same.
Image Source: MTholyoke