Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ's and joined Amy for dinner.
Shortly after takeoff I changed into my PJ's and joined Amy for dinner.
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, we had an excellent mileage redemption lined up to take us from Japan to Namibia. The only problem was that we had to get from the Philippines to Japan on the cheap.

ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline

The first step was a short hop from Palawan back to Manila on ZestAir. They call themselves “Asia’s most refreshing airline.” Kind of a bold claim for an airline that doesn’t even provide complimentary beverages but they did get us to Manila mostly on schedule for the low price of US$51.

Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau

From Manila we took a bus to Clark Airfield about an hour’s drive to the north. Clark used to be a major US air force base but these days it is a commercial airport popular with the discount carriers. Cebu Pacific took us from Clark to Macau for the astoundingly low price of US$62. Certainly one of the cheaper international tickets I’ve flown.

Macau was more or less as expected. After grabbing a taxi from the airport to the Macau Westin Resort (another points redemption!) we took the hotel shuttle down to the strip. Huge casinos were all over the place with many more under construction. All the familiar brands were there (Venetian, MGM, etc) and they all seemed to be spot-on replicas of their American counterparts. Did you know that Macau’s casinos now bring in more money annually than Las Vegas? It is the gambling capital of the world.

The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau

After a night in Macau we boarded one of the high-speed ferries to Hong Kong. Despite all my travels I had yet to visit Hong Kong so I was very anxious to check out one of the world’s most iconic cities.

My friend Charles insisted that we stay at the infamous Chungking Mansions to get the full Hong Kong budget travel experience. The mansions didn’t disappoint. The massive complex of buildings are crammed full of everything from tiny guest houses to money changers to restaurants to laundry mats. It’s truly a city within a city.

The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions

Amy stayed with our bags in the comfort of the Holiday Inn lobby next door while I explored the labyrinth of guest houses for a place to crash. I was able to view 8 or 10 different places within a half hour and I have to say, it pays to shop around. They vary widely in cleanliness, room size and price. Haggling is of course a requirement. In the end, we got a small but perfectly acceptable room in the heart of Hong Kong for just over $20 per night.  Here is a video showing the walk from the street to our guesthouse which was nestled back in “D block” on the third floor:

Sadly, I didn’t get to explore nearly as much as I had hoped during our two day stop. Our award ticket from Japan to Africa needed some tweaking so I spent many hours on the phone with United while Amy was out exploring. Charles arrived on our second day and led us around on a brief tour of the waterfront one evening and across to Hong Kong Island on the Star Ferry.

Osaka at night
Osaka at night

By our third morning it was time to head to the airport for our flight to Osaka. Amy and I have both spent considerable amounts of time in Japan so we didn’t have any must-dos on our list for our two night stop. This was just as well since Japan is extremely expensive with the strong yen. To keep costs down we burned some hotel points for a couple of excellent nights at the Sheraton Miyako and ate cheap convenience store food.

Osaka by day
Osaka by day

During our only full day in Osaka we headed up to the Umeda Sky Building so that Amy could check that out and then we wandered through some of the massive department stores and camera shops. All in all, we didn’t do all that much but that was fine by me since we had a busy week of flying ahead of us.

Macau, Hong Kong and Japan
ZestAir - Asia's most refreshing airline
ZestAir – Asia’s most refreshing airline
Mmmm...zesty!
Mmmm…zesty!
I'm glad that I don't have to eat a meal on this thing!
I’m glad that I don’t have to eat a meal on this thing!
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
There was some excitement at MNL just prior to our arrival
Manila's not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Manila’s not-so-impressive domestic terminal
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Our Cebu Pacific aircraft to Macau
Westin Macau - a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Westin Macau – a little classier than our hut in Sabang
Vegas?  Nope, the Venetian in Macau
Vegas? Nope, the Venetian in Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
The view from our room at the Westin Macau
Historic center of Macau
Historic center of Macau
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
Lots and lots of apartments/condos
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
The best shot we could manage of our tiny room in the Chungking Mansions
Hong Kong's skyline
Hong Kong’s skyline
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Some breakfast at the Cathay First Class lounge in Hong Kong
Our ride to Osaka
Our ride to Osaka
Osaka at night
Osaka at night
Osaka by day
Osaka by day
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty
Time for some takoyaki, a Kansai specialty

About six hours in a cramped van brought us from Sabang to El Nido at the north end of Palawan Island. El Nido is a bit off the beaten track but it is well worth the effort to visit. It is a tropical paradise!

El Nido
El Nido

We rolled into town without reservations so while Amy watched our bags, Charles and I scouted out the accommodation options. The beach front was lined with a dozen or more guesthouses right up against one another. We had read in the guidebook that there were some more secluded alternatives just outside of town around the point. Makulay Lodge was the first place we found and we absolutely loved it.

The view from our room
The view from our room

The guesthouse was small operation. There were only three rooms in the original building where Amy and I stayed and we were lucky enough to get the top-floor room with a stunning view of El Nido’s bay. We negotiated a 1000PHP ($23) nightly rate for the room. Certainly one of the best room values of our RTW trip.

The main thing to do around El Nido is to tour the surrounding waterways and islands. Day-long boat tours are how this is done and the staff at Makulay helped us hire a boat on three separate days. On each of these tours, lunch consisted of the boat crew grilling up some fresh fish on the beach. Charles joined us on the first two tours and we were lucky to have a private boat just for the three of us. The boat tours averaged 600PHP ($14) per day per person.

I also enjoyed some of the area’s superb SCUBA diving during our stay in El Nido. I dove with Palawan Divers, one of the older outfitters in El Nido, for an affordable $65/day for three dives. Amy was also able to join the tours for a nominal fee to go snorkeling. We didn’t have an underwater camera with us this time around but we saw some spectacular sea life. The highlight for me was seeing a massive sea turtle at close range.

Given how cheap it is to reach Palawan I was shocked that there weren’t more tourists in El Nido. Everyone kept telling us that high season was right around the corner (Nov 1, to be exact) but we saw little sign of tourist hordes. I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring SE Asia’s beach and island offerings over the past few years and I have to say that El Nido is one of the most idyllic tropical destinations I’ve seen. We liked it so much that we stayed a week in total soaking up the tropics.

El Nido
El Nido
El Nido
Makulay Lodge
Makulay Lodge
The view from our room
The view from our room
A nice lightshow one evening.
A nice lightshow one evening.
We had a massive foot-long gecko on the porch
We had a massive foot-long gecko on the porch
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
The fruit-eating bats would always leave presents on our porch overnight.
You definitely don't want to fall on these.
You definitely don’t want to fall on these.
Another day, another beach
Another day, another beach
Sand dollars
Sand dollars

Jan 022012

When we returned to civilization after our 13-day Mongolia tour, I was happy to hear that my friend Charles would be making a short-notice trip over to SE Asia and that his plans overlapped with ours in the Philippines. Charles is a fellow frequent flyer mile junkie and has completed two impressive round-the-world trips on his own. Neither of us had been to the Philippines before but we had all heard good things about Palawan.

For the most part, getting around the Philippines is cheap and easy thanks to a very competitive mix of low-cost carriers. We used one of the biggies, Cebu Pacific, to travel from Manila to the island of Palawan. Palawan is in the far southwestern corner of the Philippines and is one of the country’s least developed areas. The tickets rang up at an affordable $56 per person.

After a brief overnight in the town of Puerto Princesa, we boarded a bus for Sabang, a tiny village on the west coast of Palawan. The ride took us across mountains, rice patties and small farms – every once in a while we’d catch a glimpse of the beautiful coastline.

The main attraction in Sabang is the “Underground River.” The Underground River is a long water-filled cave which is navigable in small canoes and kayaks. The tourism board recently completely a successful campaign to have it listed as one of the “New 7 Wonders of Nature” against competition such as Iguazu Falls and the Galapagos Islands. I can’t say that I would rank it as such but it was an interesting and impressive sight.  As a tip to other travels, make sure that you are up early to catch one of the first boats into the caves as it can get very crowded and noisy with all the other tour groups.

To me, the real beauty of Sabang is how sleepy it is. The wide crescent-shaped beach isn’t bad either! Most tourists visit the Underground River by way of a day tour from Puerto Princesa and while the beach is bustling by day, it is almost deserted in the late afternoons and evenings.

Sabang offered up the whole range of accommodation options. At the low end were small bamboo huts and at the high end were two out-of-place and nearly empty high-end resorts. While Amy stayed with the backpacks, Charles and I scrutinized the options. At the far end of the beach we found a humble little place called Mary’s Beach Resort. Mary’s only had about 5 bamboo huts and two of them had prime location facing the beach.

We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!

We haggled a bit on the price but I think we were both of the mindset that we would take the huts at just about any reasonable price. In the end, Amy and I paid under US$14 (600PHP) per night for ours and Charles got a slight single-occupancy discount on his. The huts each had showers, a front porch, mosquito nets and electricity (6PM to 10PM only!) but really the best part was the view:

The view from our hut
The view from our hut
Sabang
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Cebu Pacific flight 639: Manila to Puerto Princesa, Palawan
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Our bus from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Great scenery along the way from Puerto Princesa to Sabang
Sabang's lovely beach
Sabang’s lovely beach
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights.  600PHP ($13.82) per night!
We stayed in the hut on the right for three nights. 600PHP ($13.82) per night!
Another satisfied customer at Mary's
Another satisfied customer at Mary’s
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
Important traveling tools: laptop, mobile phone, mosquito coils
The view from our hut
The view from our hut
The view of the beach from Mary's Resort
The view of the beach from Mary’s Resort
"Downtown" Sabang
"Downtown" Sabang

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