Why I stopped Meditating

From August 2016 to February 2018, after my first Vipassana retreat, I was meditating 2 times a day, mostly 1,5 to 2 hours daily. And while at the time I thought it was helping me immensely with problems like stress and anxiety, I stopped meditating when I started travelling in March 2018. It is obvious, of course, that finding the time to meditate is difficult if you are on the road and do not have a steady schedule. But if I had been motivated enough I would have found a way. And I would have at least meditated during the one month I spent at home in June. But I did not. And I probably will not pick up meditation again anytime soon. I tried to write down the reasons why I stopped meditating, mostly to get some clarity for myself and to paint a realistic picture of what meditation can and cannot do for you if you are interested in the practice.

  1. I don´t see a reason why at the moment

Most spiritual teachers agree that if you meditate to get something out of it, you are doing it wrong. The philosopher Alan Watts writes that one should only meditate for meditation´s sake. Because it is fun (However, I doubt that he has ever sat through a 10-day course, because mostly it´s not fun at all). However, most people, including myself, pick up mindfulness as a form of medication, a remedy against the ailments of modern life: workplace stress, anxiety, mind fog, addiction, you name it… I was struggling with these problems when I was still working a 9 to 5. And meditation provided some relief for me, no doubt. However, when I started travelling, and even when I started freelancing to make some money while travelling – all these problems were gone. I suddenly found myself away from the daily grind at home, in a protected bubble where my only responsibility was to make enough money not to starve (which is pretty easy in the cheaper parts of our globe). So with the problems gone, my motivation to meditate was gone as well. But not only did I not need meditation´s benefits anymore, I also felt that the negative side effects were starting to outweigh the positive effects.

S. N. Goenka, the late Vipassana Teacher, says that most people that pick up meditation quit within the first year of their practice. This was not true for me. The first year I saw some wonderful results. It was only after it that meditation became really difficult for me, not easier. This is because meditation peels away at the layers that usually surround and protect your subconscious self: Just like psychotherapy deep meditation strips bare who you really are, without the mask you put on daily: your roles, your self-image, the person you want other people to see in you. Meditation shows you the real you – and you may not like what you see. I found that the more I meditated the more I revealed my true self. And while this is an interesting experience, it is also very difficult emotionally. I think it is a necessary part of developing as a person, but I am not ready for it yet.

Another reason that also has to do with my change in lifestyle is…

2.Meditation does not fit well in to the travelling lifestyle

A big part of Buddhist meditation is the Five Precepts. It is a code of conduct that every meditator – monk, nun or laiety – should adhere to. In sum, a serious meditator should not steal, lie, kill, misbehave sexually (whatever that is supposed to mean) or consume drugs. In a meditation centre the environment is very conducive to keeping the precepts. Because to put it frankly, everything fun is forbidden there. At home I found keeping the precepts more difficult, but still doable. Most of the time I was either at work or alone in my apartment, where nobody would bother me or interfere with my meditation routine. For more than one year I did not dring alcohol, smoke, eat meat, and for some months I was living in celibacy. But try that while travelling, surrounded by fun-loving backpackers, without a steady schedule and in a relaxed atmosphere far away from home or any meditation centre. The temptations were too strong, and just as much as I could not see a reason to meditate anymore, I could not see a reason to stay abstinent. Moreover, I was wondering: Maybe it is harmful not to act on your desires, because involuntary abstinence might turn you into a stiff, judgemental neurotic person without any self-love. Or as the poet William Blake warns in his „Proverbs of Hell“: „He who desires and acts not, breeds pestillence.“ And look at the life story of the Buddha. Was he not brought up in a palace with every form of pleasure, including 40 thousand dancing girls? Do you really think he would have been able to give up desire had he not before fulfilled every possible desire to the point he became tired of it?

S. N. Goenka himself reminded his students that voluntary abstinence is beneficial. And this voluntary abstinence is to come in due time when one keeps meditating. But this poses a problem: To meditate seriously it seems one has to be abstinent. But to be abstinent in a healthy way, one already needs to have a strong meditation practice. This is the first, but by far not the last „hen or egg“-dilemmas Buddhist meditation theory poses.

Of course one could argue that it is possible to meditate without adhering to any moral law, even without believing any religious doctrine. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a good example for meditation without all the superfluous religious crap. But I do not come from that school of thought. I made my first experiences with meditation in a Buddhist center, and I will forever be hardwired to that experience. I still believe that morality is an integral part of meditation, as much as dieting is an integral part of working out. You will not build any muscles without the right diet, and you will not achieve a quiet mind without a moral foundation. In one way or the other, your mind will be too unstable to really meditate, because if will be struggling with some sort of guilt that stems from breaking the code of conduct. So if I find myself unable or unwilling to follow even the most basic precepts – why even bother meditate?

The first two reasons are of practical nature, having to do with my change of lifestyle, from a steady job to a nomadic existence. But even if I had remained at home, I would still have found other reasons not to meditate that are more philosophical in nature.

3. You cannot achieve Enlightenment by meditating

Most modern Westerners will pick up meditation for the reasons I have named above: to alleviate stress and anxiety, to increase focus, and to battle addictions. But all those are merely side-effects of meditating. The original aim of practices like meditation, yoga or prayer was to achieve a state of existence free from the frustrations of everyday life – Enlightenment, Nirvana, Moksha, Heaven, Paradise – call it as you want. But here is the problem: According to every Buddhist school I know, you cannot, and I have to stress this, CANNOT achieve enlightenment through sheer will or your own doing. Why is that? The core philosophy of the Buddha is that, a) life is suffering, and b) suffering stems from desiring. The frustration in this worldly existence comes from desiring the things that we do not have and rejecting the things we have. Nirvana, on the other hand, is described as a state of mind free from desiring. S. N. Goenka himself stated in his Q&As: „Nirvana is a state free from desire. So how will you achieve it by desiring it?“ It is impossible. And yet, according to Buddhist lore, the last words of the dying Buddha to his disciples was: „Work out your own liberation.“ This can also be seen in Vipassana Centres where you are constantly reminded that it is you who has to meditate and free your mind – nobody else. And while I can see the benefits of this doctrine of self-agency in a meditation course setting, where you need the incentive to sit on a cushion and try to meditate, the contradiction remains. The same dilemma exists in Christian theology: Is it possible to go to heaven by merit of good deeds? And if not, what is one to do? Of course the idea of Grace comes into play here. God through his own infinite wisdom chooses the people who will go to heaven, long before they were born. Buddhist philosophy seems to be more benevolent, granting that all sentient beings will at one point achieve Enlightenment. This notion is espacially prominent in Zen Buddhism. You cannot achieve Enlightenment, because you are already enlightened. You are already a Buddha without knowing it. So you do not sit in the meditation posture to become a Buddha – this is just the way a Buddha sits. So there is nothing to achieve, nothing to gain.

And while I do not want to touch on the subject of free will versus Determinism too much, this dilemma can easily be fleshed out: You say you chose to meditate, you chose to take your first mindfulness course. But did you really? If you were able to trace back your steps, could you not identify the reasons, the incentives, all the small coincidences that prompted you to take up meditation? And what about your personality? Not every person is mentally or physically able to meditate. Did I choose to be a person that was able and willing to meditate? At what point did I really freely choose to meditate? And if I did not start to meditate out of free will, why would I believe that I stopped meditating out of free will? Maybe stopping meditating was as pre-ordained, necessary and wholesome in the bigger picture – call it Fate, Universal Law or just mere chance – than starting it in the first place. This train of thought rests on very shaky grounds philosophically, but for me it was one more incentive not to force myself to go on meditating when I had a vague feeling that I was not meant to meditate, at least not at this point in time.

4. Why would I want to be enlightened?

Maybe this was also true in times of the Buddha, but it is especially true in our times: Everything, not just material goods, is there to be possessed and enjoyed by us. Just like wealth, careers and relationships, enlightenment is sold as a commodity – something to strive for to make your life more complete. There is no shortage of spiritually inclined blogs telling you „the signs that you are enlightened“, such as „being more creative“, „feeling more connected with other people“ and „caring less about material gains“. And while this pseudo-esoteric bullshit might be flattering for any distressed worker-drone who is looking for a justification to drop out of the machine and to search for something more meaningful – namely enlightenment – the truth is: nobody really knows. Being a concept that transcends intellectual, dualistic thought, Nirvana or Enlightenment cannot be described. The Japanese Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki even scolded Westerners for desiring what they thought to be Nirvana, arguing: „If you have no idea what Nirvana is – how can you be sure you want it?“ Whatever this concept designates, Buddhist scriptures seem to agree that Nirvana is a state of mind without either desire or aversion. In other words, a total acceptance of things the way they are. Pictures of Buddha statues come to mind, smiling on the turmoil of the world from a vantage point that transcends all worldy affairs. To me, Enlightenment seems to be a condition in which all the conflicts, the frustrations and the problems of mundane existence are overcome – a paradise of peace, if you will. But you have to ask yourself the question: Do you want that?

When I went to my first meditation retreat, I was in a very dark place emotionally. I was struggling with my choice of career, work life pressure, and a deep sense of alienation from the people that surrounded me. „A stranger and afraid in a world I never made“, and with my belief in a benevolent God long gone, I was looking for a last straw to better my situation. Mindfulness helped me a lot with its focus on Equanimity. Equanimity for me is the acceptance of everything that happens to you, be it good or bad. There is a famous story of a king who asked his councellors for a gift that would never let him be depressed. He was given a ring with the engraving: „This, too, shall pass.“ Meaning, every experience, terrible or beautiful is impermanent, and therefore ultimately unimportant. The circle of birth and rebirth flings its inhabitants from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and happy is the man who can view the circumstances he happens to be in with the utmost indifference. The concept is pretty similar to the philosophical Stoicism of Marc Aurel and Seneca.

According to Buddhist Equanimity and the philosophy of Stoicism, suffering is not overcome by trying to alleviate it, but by accepting it whole-heartedly and without being touched by it. But I was wondering: What if suffering, and especially being affected by suffering, was actually an integral part of every fulfilled life? And what if the king´s adviser in the story was wrong and being mindful of the permanence of beautiful experiences rendered them meaningless? Isn´t an important part of happiness the irrational, but sweet thought that the happy experience will last forever? Ultimately it seems to come down to this choice: Do you want a balanced life where you are constantly occupying some middle ground between suffering and happiness – a sort of limbo between Heaven and Hell, a blank space derived of sorrow and pleasure? Or do you want the highest highs as well as the lowest lows? Of course nobody consciously wants to suffer, but I deeply believe that suffering, conflict and drama is a big part of what makes life interesting. A life without struggle seems totally boring to me, and not worth living. And I think looking back at the time when I started meditating, I can now see more clearly what was bothering me: It was not so much suffering, but the feeling of being helpless. Psychological research has long explained the concept of „Learned Helplessness“, stating that it is not pain or stress that makes us depressed. Rather it is the feeling of having no control over the situation. Once I had the feeling that I was in control of my own destiny – and meditation played a huge part in this, thankfully – I started to believe that I was actually suffering because I wanted to suffer. I was feeling bad or lonely or anxious because a part of me derived some wierd gratification from that feeling. The Russian writer Dostojewski pointed this out clearly in his „Notes from the Underground“ – Many people actually enjoy feeling wretched, in pain or alienated, and whatever they do to ameliorate their condition, this deeply engrained, masochistic pattern will repeat itself over and over.

If this feeling, this need for suffering, has any importance at all – and I think it does, for good or for bad – I do not believe I should meditate it away and accept suffering equanimously. I might see the benefits of an equanimous mind, but if my sub-counscious being, out of whatever reason, does not want to be equanimous, then there is no point in meditating, at least now. Maybe another way to enlightenment is being un-equanimous, despairing at life so many times until despairing itself becomes boring. Or to quote William Blake a second time: „The fool who persists in his folly may become wise.“

5. Hopes for a better rebirth are futile

Buddhist meditation cannot be seperated from its philosophical background, and this includes the idea of rebirth. According to your deeds, bad or wholesome, you will be reborn in one of 31 planes of existence. Buddhism is often depicted as a form of therapy rather than a religion. Without the antiquated metaphysical baggage that the monotheistic religions still carry around. But this is bullshit. Just look at this depiction of the circle of rebirth and you will see a lot of mythological elements: from the highest beings, the Devas, on top, to the lowest forms, the tortured spirits at the bottom. And make no mistake – there is such a thing as Buddhist hell. Not just one hell, to be exact, but up to 16 – where you are thrown according to your misdeeds in this life. Descriptions of these places of torture make Christian hell look like a walk in the park. So naturally, if you believe in Buddhist philosophy, you will want to be reborn in a higher plane of existence, where it is easier for you to achieve enlightenment and drop out of the circle of birth and rebirth. At the same time, one who believes in Buddhist hell, would do absolutely everything to avoid such a terrible place.

But here comes the other side of the coin: As much as Buddhism stresses the notion of punishment and reward for personal deeds, at the same time it cannot answer the question: Who is this „I“ that will be punished or rewarded? What sets Buddhism apart from, let´s say Hinduism or Christianity for that matter, is that it does not believe in an individual soul that survives your death and will transmigrate into another plane of existence. Rather, everything, including your ego, is comprised of unstable, ever-changing “Dharmas”. And while there is no consensus in Buddhist philosophy weather these Dharmas have every intrinsic existence of their own, what follows from this is that the thing you call “I” or “me” will cease to exist when you die. And if you really think it through – there never was a single unified entity to call “I”. Rather it is a conglomerate of memories, stories that others tell us, thoughts that can be dissolved and changing patterns of behaviour. In fact, the idea of a permanent “ego” is the very thing that Buddhist meditation is trying to overcome, since this Ego-Illusion is the one thing that is responsible for every suffering. However, if I do wrong in this life – break all the precepts, steal, lie, kill, commit crimes, and my personality perishes when I die – who is going to be punished for my deeds?

There has to be reward and punishment because the law of Karma, but really also the law of causation demands it. The German theologian Eugen Drewermann has equated the Buddhist view of Karma with the “conservation of energy”. Every good deed will yield good consequences and every bad deed will yield bad consequences. But for whom? My body will be rotting in the grave and my mind will be dissolved into the Dharmas that made it up in the first place. Who- or whatever will be born and reborn will have nothing to do with who I was in this life. Nothing and everything, of course, because Buddhism includes the notion that there is only one organism, one universe, one Buddha-Nature, and everybody is a part of it. My true self is not this impermanent and fleeing conglomerate of Dharmas, but the Buddha-Mind, the Void, the Body of Christ, however you want to call it. And it is not going anywhere. So to have an incentive to refrain from bad deeds and do good deed, e.g. meditate, I would need to bear in mind that all sentient beings, also the ones that will be born in a worse world because of my actions, share with my a belonging to this all-encompassing consciousness, just like different bodyparts are members of the same body. But do I really care? Intellectually I might. I can even find comfort in the fact that I am part of a higher self that includes all beings.

But evolution, culture or upbringing has planted in me the belief that I am a separate being. For millions of years my ancestors´ survival depended on that belief, and this cannot simply be eradicated by reading a few inspirational scriptures and meditating two hours a day. Evolution has installed in me an unfailing drive for my own happiness. If nothing I do in this life matters for myself when I am dead, why should I care? It seems to me that to be able to care for the consequences of one´s actions for all sentient beings, one would already have to be enlightened. And this brings us back to the problem, which Zen Buddhism so clearly and beautifully points out: In order to achieve Enlightenment, you already have to be enlightened. You become what you are, but only, and this might be a bitter pill to swallow, when you are ready for it.

Summary

Do I think meditation is bad? No. Am I writing this to discourage anyone from meditating? Not at all. If your present state of mind says to you that you should meditate, by all means, do that. The psychological and physical health benefits speak for themselves. However, if you are meditating because you think you can transcend your human condition, reach a higher level of consciousness and be free from pain and suffering – in other words, be enlightened –  just know that enlightenment is an empty concept that is only filled by your own expectations as you „progress“ on the path of meditation. Even if at some point you have the feeling of transcending your usual state of mind – you can never be sure if this feeling has any more importance or intrinsic reality than, let´s say a form of schizophrenia or a drug-induced psychosis. If you have the feeling that meditation helps you, then meditate. If you have the feeling that meditation does not help you, but you wish it would, then maybe find something better to do. All in all, we will never arrive at a truth that defeats all inner and outer doubts. Buddhist meditation might only have a very slim baggage of metaphysical beliefs, but it has some. Buddhism, and this includes Buddhist meditation, is a religion. And religion is only effective if you can believe in it, or suppress the doubts that everything could also be totally different.

To sum up, I think meditation is a wonderful tool. So I would suggest using this tool to improve your life. Try it out at least. If you are the type of person that benefits from meditation, you should see some wonderful results. If not, maybe you are not meant to be meditating at the moment, because whatever powers reside in your sub-consciousness want you to make other experiences. To experience this mundane existence with its joys and sorrows more fully maybe in order to get ready for higher planes of existence. So if you should find that meditation no longer benefits you, maybe you should stop and pick it up later when you are more mature and more open to the deep changes it may bring about. And remember: Even if the concept of enlightenment seems fascinating – if enlightenment exists at all, it is bigger than everything you can imagine. You will not reach this state by desiring it, nor by meditating a lot. Rather if you are meant to be enlightened it will happen in due time, and meditating more might be a side effect of it. I believe the only benchmark by which you can measure the effectiveness of meditation for you is the change you see, or do not see, in everyday life.

 

 

Taal Volcano & Tagaytay

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„It´s more fun in the Phillipines“ – This is true. Most of the time, however. I had a blast on my trips to this beatiful country. However, travelling for a long time, you cannot avoid a disappointment every once in a while. Like what I encountered when visiting the Taal Volcano.

Taal is situated about 2 hours south of Manila and holds a record. The volcano lies on an island. On this island there is a lake, and on this island another island. Sounds confusing? It is. According to Wikipedia, Taal is „the largest lake on an island in a lake on an island in the world“. Reason enough to go visit this record-holder and natural wonder.

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Taal Volcano from above (source: Wiki Commons)

Transport and Accommodation

The easiest way to Taal is from Manila, where you can take the bus to Tagaytay. Many busses take this route, which only takes about 2 hours.

Coming from Mindoro in the south, you best start you journey in Batangas and take the bus to Turbina. There you board a van to Tagaytay.

Travellers coming from Bicol should try to exit in Turbina or Calamba (SB Camalba) and switch to a van to Tagaytay.

Tagaytay does not have a wide variety of affordable rooms. The cheapest option is the Country Living Hostel, rather hidden in a private area behind the Metrobank-Complex. Here you can find a bed in a 2-bed dorm for 500 Pesos  (9 USD).

On the ride to Tagaytay you can already catch a glimpse of the lake and the volcano. Unfortunately, there is no public transport to the pier 6,2 miles from Tagaytay, so you have to hire a tricycle. Expect to pay 150 Pesos (3 USD) with a little haggling. At the pier you have to hire a boat that takes you to the volcano island.

It was now that I was in for a bad surprise. The official price for a return boat ride is 2000 Pesos per boat. (On the sign below you can see the „official“ prices. However, all these signs look different which makes it hard to say what the official price is). One boat can take 7 passengers, so if you divide the costs, you should only pay 285 Pesos (5,3 USD) per person. This is pretty standard procedure at the Island Hopping Tours in Puerto Princesa and El Nido.

In Tagaytay, however, boat-owners will try to discourage you from finding a travel group that you could join. Even if you head to a resort, where groups are waiting to go on board, groups that would be more than happy to take another person and reduce the costs – you are still not allowed to join them. The reason the manager gave me was that this could lead to disagreements on the island if the makeshift group can not decide on a meeting-time when to go back. I call bs on this explanation: There are enough boats going back to the main land at any time.

I did not want to support this greedy business practice, nor did I want to pay 2000 Pesos for a boat where 6 other people could be seated. So with heavy heart I turned and went back to Tagaytay. I would have loved to go to the island because It is said to be really beautiful. But I did not want to do it on the terms I found there.

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These are the „official“ prices (as of May 2018)

Makiling Forest Reserve

Luckily, Taal Volcano is not the only attraction in the area. Nature lovers should visit the active Makiling Volcano.

To get there you have to take a van from Tagaytay Central Bus Terminal to SB Calamba. From there you take the jeepney to Los Banos, and another jeepney to „forestry“. The entrace fee is just 10 Pesos (0,19 USD). If you are early, you can tackle the difficult hike to the top of Mt Makiling. However, this is only possible for visitors before 9 am, because the park closes at 4 pm. If you arrive later, you can still hike to two points of interest: The Flat Rocks and The Mud Springs.

The Flat Rocks are just 1 km away from the entrance. here you can climb the rocks in the riverbed. Swimming, however, is not possible.

 

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Flat Rocks

The Mud Springs are a bit more interesting. These are hot sulphuric springs with a water temperature of 80° Celsius. The result is a sulphuric smell and dense steam. At these springs you are reminded that you are hiking an active, yet relatively calm volcano.

The hiking trail is mostly paved, the incline as well as the humidity makes hiking here exhausting nonetheless, so you should bring plenty of water. On your way to the Mud Springs, you can stop at a scenic picnic spot.

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The Mud Springs

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Ninh Binh

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If you are looking for a place with green rice fields, majestic lime stone rocks, enchanted valleys and a sheer endless number of beautiful temples, Ninh Binh in the North of Vietnam is the perfect place for you. The area around the 130.000 strong city of Ninh Binh is often called the „Halong Bay inland“, and rightfully so as its beauty takes no backseat to the iconic bay near the capital.

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Đà Nẵng

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Đà Nẵng, a big city in Central Vietnam, has been overshadowed by its smaller neighbour, Hoi An, as far as tourism is concerned. However, the city has a lot to offer: clean, relaxing beaches, modern architecture, beautiful temples and remarkably untouched natural sights. All these diverse places and sights, as well as the proximity to Hoi An and the My Son Temple Ruins should make Đà Nẵng a top priority in every visit to the country.

Đà Nẵng offers very affordable accommodation. Budget travellers should look into the Hachi Hostel. The staff is very competent, the rooms clean and the location quite central. Beds are available for around 6 USD.

The city itself might remind you of Saigon, just smaller, but just as modern. Đà Nẵng „only“ has some 1 Million people and definitely comes across less chaotic than Ho-Chi-Minh or Saigon. The streets are compareably clean, the buildings look modern, and you can just sense that the important port city serves as a storefront for the New Vietnam. This can also be seen in a central landmark: the Dragon Bridge, which was finished in 2013. At night the dragon-shaped structure is colourfully illuminated and even breathes fire on special occasions.

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Like Saigon, Đà Nẵng also has a big market that is popular with tourists: At the Han Market you can find food, clothes and all kinds of souvenirs. The variety seems endless and thankfully the vendors come across less agressive than at the Ben Tan Market in Ho-Chi-Minh.

Strolling throuh the city centre, you can also visit the Cathedral of Đà Nẵng and Pho Da Pagoda. Entrance is free and you can marvel at the beautiful interior without having to share the view with masses of tourists as this spot is relatively hidden.

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Han Market
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Cathedral of Da Nang
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Pho Da Pagoda

Come nightfall, you should absolutely visit Trần-Thị-Lý Bridge, another architectural masterpiece close to the Dragon Bridge. At night the structure is illuminated by a mezmerizing night show with changing colour patterns. The quiet beachfront with the glittering skyline in the background is the perfect location for a romantic night-time walk.

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Marble Mountains

An absolute must on every trip to Đà Nẵng is the Marble Mountains. This is a series of small mountains in the South of the city. The five mountains represent the elements Metal, Fire, Earth and Wood, and are made mainly of limestone and marble. The latter gives the mountains their name. For hundreds of years masons have sculptured beautiful statues out of marble here – even though the material is mainly imported from China and Pakistan nowadays. The mountains also feature Buddhist shrines and temples that were carved into the rock.

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a sculpture garden at the foot of the Marble Mountains
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most of the sculptures represent Buddhist figures and deities.

Of the five mountains, only Thuy Son can be visited by tourists. The entrance fee is 40.000 VND (1,8 USD) and visitors can take the stairs of the elevator to the entrance of the temple.

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Up there you should first visit the main cave, which is also the most beautiful one. If you arrive here in the early morning, you can truly experience the piece and quiet at this place of worship. The large Buddha statue, beautifully decorated shrines, the serene ambience and the smell of incents makes a visit to this cave a most profound and humbling experience.

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However, do not expect the atmosphere to stay that serene. Like clockwork, at 9 AM busloads of tourists start to arrive at the mountain, filling it with chatter and buzzling activity. The other caves are still worth a visit, though not as scenic as the main one. There are also some view points where you can enjoy a nice panorama of the city and the back-country of Da Nang.

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My Khe Beach

If you are under the impression that Vietnam´s beaches are not as nice as in the neighbouring country, you might be in for a surprise at My Khe Beach, or, to be more precise, its southern strip, Sơn Thủy Beach. Here you will find a clean, almost deserted beach with cold, but clear water and a nice view of the city´s skyline. As of March 2018, a lot of construction was under way though, so this strip might not stay that deserted and quiet in the near future.

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Who would have thought? A beautiful empty beach

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Looking into the distance, you can already see another landmark of Đà Nẵng: the „Lady Buddha Statue“ at Linh Ung Pagode, 5 miles away from the beach. This is a 220 ft high representation of Guanyin, the Boddhisatva of Compassion. Being a motherly deity, often compared to the Virgin Mary in Christianity, Guanyin is a popular object of worsip in Vietnam. The statue was finished in 2010 and is now watching the bay, protecting the sailors and fishermen beneath her.

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On the way from the beach to the statue lies another sight of Đà Nẵng: the Green Lake. Although the water is not as green as its name suggests, the lake is nonetheless a beautiful natural sight, mostly frequented by locals who go fishing there.

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If you want to see a truly scenic lake, however, you should consider walking to the Lady Buddha statue from Green Lake, which takes about one hour. After 20 minutes, you will see a small hiking trail that you can take. Here you will have a beautiful view of the bay and marvel at the untouched lake amidst lush greenery.

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Linh Ung Pagoda

The temple comples of Linh Ung is relatively new. It was finished in 2010, although a Buddhist shrine has been there for much longer. Here you can see the Lady Buddha statue, and also a beautifully decorated temple and an impressively tall Pagoda.

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The Verdict

When planning my trip to Vietnam, I was advised to stay in Hoi An for 2-3 days and only plan one day in Vietnam. However, after my visit I would suggest everybody to stay in Đà Nẵng for at least 2 days. The city may not be known as a hotspot for tourists, but it features amazing sights that will keep you occupied for some time.

I found the city large, but not crowded, very modern and clean. One thing that is missing, though, is the night life. Do not expect a large backpacking scene or a buzzling walking street like in Saigon. The city is mainly an economic hub, and although there is a wide variety of bars and clubs, I found the streets at night rather deserted, at least on the weekdays. However, if you are looking for a place with all modern amenitys, interesting sights and beautiful nature just outside the city, Đà Nẵng might be just the place you are looking for.

The Costs

Like most of Vietnam, Đà Nẵng is fairly cheap to stay at, and you do not need a large budget to enjoy yourself here. An average day, including a bed at a hostel, three meals, entrance fees to the Marble Mountains and the occasional Uber-ride should cost you about 570.000 VND (25 USD).

  • Accomodation: 130.000 VND
  • Food: 120.000 VND
  • Transportation: 280.000 VND
  • Entrance Fee: 40.000 VND

20 Days in Vietnam – Itinerary

Travelling Vietnam is fairly easy. One reason for this is the good infrastructure in most of the country and the wide availability of public transportation like trains and busses. Another reason lies in the geography of the country. Since Vietnam is a very narrow stretch of land, travellors who do not cross the border from Cambodia or Laos only have one big choice to make: North to South or South to North? Both ways are possible, depending on where you start your jorney – Hanoi or Ho-Chi-Minh-City. I started in the latter, so my itinerary follows this route, but it is all the same possible vice versa. In this article I will present my travel itinerary and try to give advise on where to go, what to do there and how long to stay in one place.

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  1. Ho-Chi-Minh-City

Although there are many flights to Vietnam´s capital Hanoi, most of the cheaper airlines seem to favour Ho-Chi-Minh-City, also known as Saigon. Although many people I have met prefer Hanoi for various reasons, I can recommend starting your journey in Saigon. The city has an exotic flair while at the same time being more Westerner-friendly than Vietnams capital: I found the traffic less crazy, the streets wider and less crowded, the food better, the people friendlier and the language-barrier less imposing. Saigon is a buzzling, modern megacity where you can easily spend 2-3 days. Besides visiting tourist spots like the Ben Than Market, the War Remnants Museum and the Walking Street, you should also do a day tour to the Cu Chi-Tunnels, where you can see the tunnels that the Vietcong used as a hiding place during the Vietnam War.

 

 

2. Mekong Delta

Since you are already in the South of Vietnam, you should not miss the opportunity to visit the Mekong Delta, home to 17 Million people who live at and off the river. There are many organizers who offer 2-day-tours for as little as 35 USD, and while you will be taken to a lot of shops and workshops, where you are encouraged to buy souvenirs, you will also see interesting places like the temple complex of Vĩnh Tràng, small canals where a boatsman will row you to the main river, and a floating market, where you can buy fruits and coffee from floating vendors. You can also try local specialties like fried frog, snake and dried fish.

 

 

3. Đà Nẵng

After Saigon I faced a difficult decision: Visit places like Da Lat and Nha Thrang or skip the South of Vietnam completely to have more time for the North? Since this was a 20-day-trip, I decided for the latter and did not regret my decision. I booked a 17-hour train ride to Đà Nẵng, a city in Central Vietnam. Although most people go directly to neighbouring Hoi An, I would advise everybody to spend at least 2 days in Đà Nẵng: The city is clean and modern, and besides impressive architectural sights like the Dragon Bridge and the Linh Ung Pagoda, you can also visit beautiful natural sights like the Marble Mountains and the Green Lake, and even relax on clean and relatively quiet beaches. In 2-3 days you can discover the most important sights.

 

 

Only one hour South of Đà Nẵng lies the city of Hội An, whose old town is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. It is a well-preserved historical trading town and features many traditional halls, palaces and temples, as well as the beautiful Japanese Bridge. If you are in Hội An, you can also rent a motorbike and drive to Mỹ Sơn ruins which give witness to the same ancient civilization responsible for Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And while the temple ruins might not be as extensive as their neighbouring counterparts, Mỹ Sơn is still a fascinating archeological site. All in all, one day for Hội An and one day for Mỹ Sơn should be enough.

 

 

4. Huế 

Most visitors will be familiar with Huế, the old imperial city and home to the mighty Nguyễn dynasty. The citadel of Huế was almost completely destroyed during the Vietnam War and reconstruction is still in progress. While most of the palaces have been rebuilt, my visit left my a bit „underwhelmed“. The citadel and its forbidden city are quite extensive, but I did not find them exactly beautiful. A visit should not take you more than half a day. If you want to see the Tombs of the Emperors a bit outside the city center, you should account for 2 days in Huế.

 

 

5. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng

This place is an absolute highlight in the north of Vietnam, although still a relatively little-known one. Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is a National Park that features some of the most impressive caves in Vietnam, situated in the most beautiful landscape I have seen in the whole country. It is a very rewarding feeling to ride the mountan roads through green valleys that seem to stretch for an eternity. A definite must for every trip to Vietnam! If you want to go hiking and caving, or just enjoy the beautiful scenery, you can easily spend 3-4 days here.

 

 

6. Ninh Binh

Almost as beautiful as Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng is Ninh Binh in the north. The place is often called „the Halong Bay inland“ because of its majestic lime stone rocks that scatter the lush greenery. Nature lovers will not be disappointed as Ninh Binh features some of the most serene landscapes and most beautiful panoramas in all Vietnam. A river cruise in the shadow of the large rocks is an absolute must, and the sheer variety of beautiful temples means that you can spend 3-4 days here without ever feeling bored.

 

 

7. Hanoi

No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to its capital, Hanoi. The city feautures some highly symbolic sights like the Hh-Chi-Minh Mausoleum and the Literature Temple. However, I have to admit that I did not like Hanoi very much. Expect heavy, relentless traffic, very crowded streets, poor English skills and considerably colder temperatures than in the South. I was glad to go back to Saigon after 3 days, but do not let my opinion discourage you and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

Of course you do not have to stop in Hanoi if you still have time. A lot of travellers visit the Rice Fields of Sapa to the North (which I skipped because I was already about to visit Banaue in the Philippines), Halong Bay with its majestic lime stone formations, or rent a motorbike to discover Ha Giang, Vietnam´s most Northern province.

Travelling the Philippines – the perfect itinerary

The Philippines is comprised of over 7000 islands. This raises the question where one should go. Travelling the Philippines, though fun, is not as straight-forward as in Vietnam or Thailand, where the main choice is North to South or vice versa. One has to decide where to start? Which places should one visit first in order tonot waste time going back and forth? What do you want to get out of your stay in the Philippines? What is your travelling style? Do you value good infrastructure and a lot of like-minded travellers? Or ar eyou more keen on exploring islands off the beaten path, where you wont find all the necessary information online? In this article I am presenting two itineraries I followed myself:

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Route 1: 20 days

If someone were to ask me how many days they should spend in the Philippines, my answer would be: 20 days at the very least, if you want to travel to different places and get to know different aspects of the country. 20 days because you will spend a lot of time on airplanes, or if you are a budget traveller, on buses or ferries. Three weeks, however, should be enough to get a first impression of the country and to visit the most popular tourist destinations without having to rush.

  1. Manila

90 % of all travellers to the Philippines will start in Manila – simply because it has the biggest international airport and thus the cheapest flights. Like I wrote here, most visitors avoid Manila at all costs. And rightfully so. The city definitely has its nice spots, like the free museums and parks, but I would not recommend spending mor than 2 days here.

  1. Visayas (Cebu, Siquijor und Bohol)

First time visitors to the Philippines are often advised to start in the Visayas because of the easy accessabiliy. This might sound patronizing, but I think it is sound advice for the following reasons: 1) Cebu can be reached quite easily and cheaply from Manila. 2) Being the most popular tourist spots, these islands provide a good infrastructure. What is more, most of the information on hostels and sights is available online which makes research easy. 3) The Visayas are home to a lot of attractions that are typical of the Philippines: white sandy beaches, Snorkeling spots, lush forested mountains, caves… These attractions are also compareably closeby, making travelling around quite convenient.

(If you have more time and always wanted to see an active volcano, you can make a detour via Legaspi, and get a cheap flight from there to Cebu, instead of departing in Manila.)

Your route in the Visayas could look like this:

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2.1 Manila – Cebu City

It takes just an hour to go from the capital to Cebu City. However, I would only spend one full day in the biggest city of the island, because it has not much to offer for tourists, and you will have more time for the true gems of the Visayas.

2.2 Cebu City – Oslob

The closest tourist spot from Cebu City is Oslob, roughly 4 bus hours away. The place is most well-known for its Whale Sharks, which can be seen all year round. However, even if you do not want to go Snorkeling with these giants, you should still visit Oslob for the scenic Tumalog-Falls.

2.3 Oslob – Moalboal

If you want to discover the fascinating underwater world of the Philippines, Moalboal is the place for you. The town is 2 hours away from Oslob and sports some of the most beautiful Snorkeling spots and corral reefs in the country. Here you can see a lot of colourful fish, swarms of sardines and even sea turtles. Alternatively, you can explore the famous Kawasan Falls on foot or on a Canyoneering Tour.

2.4 Moalboal – Siquijor

If you are looking for a quiet, yet easily accessible island paradise, you have to take the ferry from Cebu to Siquijor. This island, known for its witchcraft, has a relaxed, laid-back feeling and sports a wide variety of sights: beaches, waterfalls, caves and a beautiful back-country. Just renting a scooter and cruising through the scenic landscape is an absolute highlight.

2.5 Siquijor – Bohol

Hardly any island in the Philippines sports as many famous locations as Bohol. Here you can find the Chocolate Hills, the Tarsier Sanctuary, the Man Made Forest and Panglao peninsula. And these are only the most well-known sights. The island is quite big, so that you can easily spend 2-3 days here.

  1. Palawan

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3.1 Bohol – Puerto Princesa

If you want to see the most beautiful landscapes and islands in the Philippines, you cannot miss Palawan. From Bohol you can take the ferry to Cebu City, and from there hop on an airplane to Puerto Princesa. Here you should definitely visit the Subterrean River, an UNESCO heritage site, and book an Island Hopping tour in Honda Bay.

3.2 Puerto Princesa – Port Barton

Palawan is a big island and the roads are not always excellent. Therefore it can take up to 8 hours to get to El Nido in the North. The small town of Port Barton is perfect for a stop. Here, far from the masses of tourists in El Nido, you can spend a few relaxing days, enjoy the unspoilt nature and take a bout trips to the most beautiful corral reefs in the country.

3.3 Port Barton – El Nido

El Nido is arguably the most popular spot in Palawan, due to its breathtaking landscape, the majestic lime stone rocks, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the Philippines. While the town itself is not very pretty, crowded with tourists and slightly overprized, an Island Hopping Tour to some of the most spectacular rock formations and islands in Asia will make up for this.

It is hard to say how long one should spend in the different locations. As a rule of thumb, I would suggest spending 10 days in the Visayas and 10 days in Palawan. In El Nido you can take a flight back to Manila or to other destinations in the Philippines.

Route 2: 14-20 days

On my first trip to the Philippines I took the plane from El Nido to Manila. However, if you have more time, you can take the airplane or ferry to Coron. The island is said to be one of the most beautiful of the Philippines.

  1. Coron – Mindoro

4.1 San Jose à Sablayan

From Coron you can take the ferry to San Jose on the island of Mindoro, and from there take the bus to Sablayan. The tourism industry in Mindoro is just developing, but you can already find some affordable hostels and a wide variety of sights, for example North Pandan Island where you can even spot sea turtles on a Snorkeling trip.

4.2 Sablayan – Puerto Galera

With the bus and the ferry you can venture into the North of Mindoro. Puerto Galera provides the perfect mix of white sandy beaches, beautiful scenery and secluded waterfalls. The town is not yet crowded with Western tourists, but my prediction is that this will change pretty soon.

There you can hop on a bus that takes you to Manila. Alternatively, you can stop at the Taal Volcano, which is situated on a large lake.

  1. Banaue & Sagada

Wenn man Zeit hat, sollte man unbedingt ein paar Tage für den Norden der Philippinen einplanen. Die gebirgige Landschaft bildet das perfekte Kontrastprogramm zu den tropischen Palmen und Regenwäldern im Flachland. In Banaue, etwa 9 Stunden mit dem Bus von Manila entfernt, ist vor allem für seine malerischen Reisterrassen bekannt. Ist man bereits dort, sollte man auch nach Sagada reisen und sich die hängenden Särge ansehen, sowie in der herrlichen Berglandschaft wandern gehen.

If you have time, you should definitely spend some time in the North of the Philippines. The rugged mountaneous terrain is very different to the rest of the Philippines, but just as beautiful as the lush djungles and palm trees below. Banaue, rougly 9 hours from Manila, is mainly known for its impressive rice terraces. Not far from there lies the town of Sagada. Here you can go hiking in the marvelous mountain forest and have a look at the famous Hanging Coffins. All in all, these two places were the most pleasent surprise on my trip to the Philippines, so you should save some time to head north.

Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng

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Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is a hidden gem next to the Laotian border. It features majestic mountains with lush greenery, idyllic backroads and arguably the most impressive caves in all Vietnam. A place where you can easily lose yourself in the serence beauty of the landscape.

The national park in this forested mountain range was already founded in the 90s. However, most travellers only learned about Phong Nha after geologists discovered 20 new caves in the year 2009. Among them is Sơn-Đoòng, which now holds the record as the biggest cave in the world. For most people, however, a visit to this giant will hardly be possible. A tour costs 3000 USD and only a handful of visitors get permitted each year. Thankfully, there are other, more easily accessible caves, which, together with the beautiful scenery, have transformed Phong Nha into a popular tourist spot. Go back only 20 years and the town had no electricity, nor a connection to the main highway. Now the same people who used to make a living hunting and poaching in the dense forest, can earn their money guiding tourists. This does not mean, however, that Phong Nha is overrun with tourists. The place is still not very well known, and an insider tip for travellers who want to experience the true beauty of Northern Vietnam.

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The best way to discover the National Park is by motorbike, and luckily most hostel have enough of time that you can rent. Just fill up on gas and off you go, along a serene river, over quiet but well-maintained country roads. Luckily you do not have to worry about honking cars and trucks here. However, you should be aware of cows and chickens crossing the roads.

To be honest, it is quite difficult to focus on the road when you are driving through a landscape like this. The scenery with its lush forests and mountains is absolutely stunning, and after an hour I had to force myself to not stop every five minutes and take pictures if I was to arrive at my destination before dark.

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Botanic Garden

For hikers there is good news and bad news: The good news is that Phong Nha provides endless opportunities for trekking in the beautiful landscape. The bad news is that you cannot do it alone. There are no public trails and the terrain, however beautiful it may look, is unforgiving. The tours that are offered start at 1.300.000 VND (57 USD) – a hefty price for backpackers and budget travellers.

Luckily, there is a place called the Botanic Garden – a wide area where you can go hiking without worrying about getting lost. The place also features a waterfall, a monkey enclosure, a tree farm and multiple viewpoints where you can enjoy an amazing panorama. The entrance fee of 40.000 VND (1,8 USD) is very moderatre, and there is a cheap restaurant as well. The park provides 3 different trails, of which the longest takes about 3 hours. The lush vegetation, colourful butterflies, and the spectacular view at the waterfall make the Botanical Gardens an absolute must when in Phong Nha.

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The main attraction at the „Peacock View Point“

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Caving in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng

The main attraction of Phon Nha are its caves. I personally only visited one of them, but you have a choice between the following:

  • Phong Nha Cave is situated close to the town and can only be accessed via boat. The boat costs 360.000 VND (16 USD), but you can split the costs between a maximum of 8 passengers.
  • Right next to it is Tien Son Cave. If you are visiting Phong Nha Cave you can also add a visit to this cave known for its beautiful lime stone formations.
  • A visit to Dark Cave costs 450.000 VND (20 USD), making it the most expensive cave in Phong Nha. However, a ticket not only buys you entrance, but also includes a zipline ride to the  entrance of the cave. There you have to swim for 200 metres to the main pool, where you take a mud bath. Next, you explore the cave, which is not as extensive as
  • Paradise Cave, the cave I chose. With an entrance fee of 250.000 VND (11 USD) it is the cheapest cave in the area, and easily accessible via motorbike. After a short walk from the parking lot and a quite exhausting climb, one enters the cave, which has an impressive size. Paradise Cave deserves its name: the big complex sports atmospheric lighting and some very interesting rock formations. It may not be the biggest cave I have visited, but it definitely feautures the widest variety of stalactites.

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Verdict (and the costs)

Hiking and Caving in the National Park is fun. However, my favourite activity was simply cruising through the National Park on my motorbike. Just being the only one on the road, the freedom of going anywhere you choose (as long as you have enough petrol), and stopping at beautiful landmarks to enjoy the peace and quiet of the majestic landscape is a truly profound experience. The pictures can only give a glimpse of how beautiful and untouched the National Park really is – an absolute highlight on my trip to Vietnam.

The place is also reasonably cheap. A hostel bed (e.g. at the Thien Phu HostelThien Phu Hostel) should cost you about 5 USD. The cost for an average day in Phong Nha, including 2 meals, motorbike rental and entrance to the Botanic Garden and Paradise Cave, would be something like 705.000 VND (31 USD):

  • Accommodation: 100.000 VND
  • Food: 115.000 VND
  • Motorbike Rental: 100.000 VND
  • Entrance Fees: 390.000

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Coming from Botanic Garden, you can take a left turn at the intersection and go to the War Memorial…
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…and the Temple for the Fallen Soldiers of the Vietnam War.

 

Sablayan (Mindoro)

In Southern Mindoro lies a place with a beautiful landscape, white sandy beaches and the biggest Atoll-Reef in the world: Sablayan. The small city situated 6 hours away from Puerto Galera also has tourism sector that is in the process of being developed. This makes Sablayan an affordable destination and at the same time a relaxed place with very few tourists. Ideal for everybody who does not like mass tourism.

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Visitors coming from Puerto Galera best take the ferry to Abra de Ilog, which takes about 1 hour and costs 230 Pesos (4 USD). A bus leaves from there every tour hours. Tickets are 220 Pesos. In Sablayan there is a sufficient number of hotels and hostels. If you want to stay directly at the waterfront, you should choose the Emily Hotel . However, there is no Wifi there. Therefore I would recommend the La Sofia Hotel, which has cheap single rooms (350 PHP = 6,5 USD/night) and surprisingly fast internet.

There is nothing much to see in Sablayan Proper. Therefore you should head straight to the Tourism Center and register as a visitor. There you can choose from a variety of tours, and the staff is more than happy to help you find a group if you are a solo traveller. However, you need a little luck as there are not always a lot of visitors.

North Pandan Island

Apo Reef is the most popular tourist spot in Sablayan. However, if you do not want to spend 6 hours on a boat and are looking for a cheap alternative, North Pandan Island  might be the place for you. The small island is located just 20-30 minutes from Sablayan and has two good Snorkeling spots, a clean beach as well as restaurants, bars and a resort where you can stay the night. Boats leave from the Emiliy Hotel and cost 400 Pesos (7,5 USD). On the island you have to pay the Environmental Fee of 230 Pesos (4,3 USD). For 150 Pesos (3 USD) you can rent Snorkeling gear to explore the underwater world of North Pandan.

You will not be disappointed as there are two distinct Snorkeling spots right off the coast. If you want to see large swarms of sardines and big sea turtles, you should stay near the boats on the right. To the left is an extensive corral reef which sports colourful corral gardens and an impressive variety of fish. The reef is nothing short of spectacular and does not have to shun comparisons to Moalboal or Fantastic Reef in Palawan.

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Apo Reef

To get to Apo Reef as a solo traveller, it is best to ask at the Eco Tourism Office for a travel group. One boat can take up to 13 people, and you can divide the costs of the boat, so that it should cost around 650 Pesos (12 USD). Once on the island you also have to pay the Environmental Fee of 750 Pesos (14 USD) – which is a total rip-off in my humble opinion. Of course the island is beautiful and the fee goes toward protecting it – but there is no reason for it to be 3 times the amount you have to pay at Pandan Island.

On Apo Island you can swim at the beach, take a walk through a mangrove forest to a secluded lagune, enjoy a scenic view on top of the light house and go Snorkeling at the reef. My tour provided a guided Snorkeling tour: We held fast to the boat and where pulled along, all the while marveling at the Marine wonders below us. The reef is beautiful, but not beautiful enough to justify the high costs. Therefore, if you only have limited time, I would advise you to head to North Pandan instead of Apo Reef.

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the modern, climbable lighthouse of Apo Island
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the small lagoon in the mangrove forest

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Libuao Lake

Besides small islands, Sablayan also sports a scenic back-country with interesting sights. One of the is Sablayan Prison and Penal Farm. This is a prison with integrated farms, plantations and hiking trails. The concept might sound odd or outright dangerous, but for prisoners who behave well guiding tourists through the area is a way of supplementing their income.

A popular destination is Libuao Lake. There you can pay 100 Pesos (2 USD) to hire a guide that accompanies you on a hike around the lake. The trail leads through a dense forest and can get very muddy after rain. Hiking boots are therefore strongly recommended.

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Hiking around the lake is fun. My absolute highlight, however, was the lunch you can buy there. The prisoners go fishing at the lake everyday and are more than happy to prepare a meal for visitors. For under 2 USD you can get freshly grilled fish with rice, soy sauße and some mangoes.

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Simple, but delicious: freshly grilled fish from the lake

If you still have energy, you can also hire prisoners to take you to an idyllic waterfall – a popular spot for inmates to swim in.

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Puerto Galera (Mindoro)

South of the Luzon, about 5 hours from Manila, lies the Mindoro, an island that is visited by only few western tourists. Nonetheless, it has everything to offer what you could wish for in the Philippines: white beaches, romantic islets, corral reefs and a beautiful landscape.

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Mindoro is divided into 2 provinces: Mindoro Oriental in the East and Mindoro Occidental in the West. The most popular tourist spot in the Western part is Puerto Galera. However, it is not yet a top destination for backpackers in the Philippines, so you might have to look for a while for cheap accommodation. A popular place is the Happy Buddha Inn, which was unfortunately completely booked when I arrived. A good alternative is Paddy´s Bar in Sabang. Here you can find a room for 2 persons for 350 Pesos (6,50 USD).

Puerto Galera offers a variety of sights, which are, however, quite far from each other. So the best thing is to rent a scooter for 400 Pesos (7,50 USD) a day to explore the area. The roads are well-maintained and riding along the beautiful coast is great fun.

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Coming from Sabang, you should head for the Mangrove Reserve, half an hour from the town. There you can walk on wooden planks through a mangrove forest and learn about this vital but endangered ecosystem. The fee of just 30 Pesos (0,50 USD) is well spent as it contributes to the preservation of mangrove forest. I spent about 1 hour there.

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The mangroves lie on the way to the Tamaraw-Wasserfällen. You can hardly miss them as they are located right next to the main road. For 30 Pesos (0,50 USD) you can swim in a basin underneath the waterfall. However, I do not think it is worth it. You can also eat at the local restaurant for a fair price.

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If you want to see a remote waterfall, you should head towards to the Tukuran-Falls. If you follow the road signs, you will reach a „parking lot“ where you can leave your scooter. You can pay the 25 Pesos (0,50 USD) parking fee, but there is no need to hire a guide that accompanies you to the Waterfalls for 300 Pesos (5,50 USD). The touts there will advise you to hire one in order not to get lost, but this fear is uncalled for. The waterfalls are virtually impossible to miss, all you have to do is follow the river for 30 minutes and cross it 5 times.

The hike to the falls is well worth it, and the landscape with its lush meadows and dense palm trees is nothing short of spectacular. At the waterfalls, in theory you have to pay a fee of 20 Pesos (0,40 USD). However, when I went, there was nobody there to collect it. The climb to the waterfall is slightly slippery, but well doable. As this is a remote waterfall, chances are you will have it all for yourself and can refresh yourself under the cool, clear water.

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Back at the parking lot, you still have time to drive to White Beach, the most popular beach in Puerto Galera, and one that is free and open for the public. Of course the beach is not as scenic as many others in Palawan, but it is clean and you have a lot of watersport options there. If you are looking for a less frequented beach, you can climb over the rocks on the left side to get to a more quiet strip.

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It should not take you more than one day to visit these 4 sights. If you have more time, you should also visit the Aninuan Falls and Talipanan Beach. All in all, Puerto Galera is well worth the visit. There are not many western tourists and it offers some very beautiful natural sights. If you do not mind that not all information is available online and like to spend your time away from westerners, Puerto Galera could be your perfect getaway.

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The costs

If you can get a room in a hostel or guest house, a full day in Puerto Galera, including three meal, the scooter rental and the fees mentioned above should cost you about 1250 Pesos (23 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 415 Pesos

Transport: 400 Pesos

Fees & Activities: 85 Pesos

Legazpi

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In January 2018 the Philippine Province of Bicol was in the news because of the eruption of the Mount Mayon. 40.000 people in the immediate vicinity of the volcano had to be evacuated. A few months later, in March, the moody giant seemed to be sleeping again. A perfect time to visit Legazpi, the city in the shadow of the volcano.

The cheapest way to reach Legaspi is by bus from Manila. The ticket is not expensive, about 650 Pesos (12 USD) and the ride takes about 12 hours, so it is best to take the night bus. Although many bus companies service Legaspi, it can pay to buy your ticket well in advance, because when I wanted to go there in March 2018, all the tickets were sold and I first had to take the bus to the nearby city of Naga.

If you are in Legaspi, you will soon notice that there is less infrastructure for foreign tourists here than in the Visayas or Palawan. This can be a good thing as prices tend to be pretty low. However, your choices as a backpacker will be somewhat limited. I can recommend the Mayon Backpacker Hostel, where you can get a room for 350 Pesos (6,50 USD).

For there you can set off to the Volcano. The best spot to get as close to the Volcano as possible is the Church Ruins of Cagsawa. The church was built in 1587, destroyed by pirates, and levelled again by the eruption of Mt Mayon in 1814. From Legazpi there are regular jeepney that you can take and it is free, but expect a lot of tourists at this popular sight.

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Access to the still active volcano is restricted. Therefore, if you want to see the Mayon up close and have a bit of fun in the process, I can recommend a Quad-tour. There are many operators at Cagsawa and driving the thing is quite simple. The light vehicles with the big tyres can cross almost any terrain and all you have to do is accelerate and break. An experienced driver/guide will lead the way and take pictures of you whenever you like. However, you should not wear your best attire as you will drive through mud and water.

There are different tours to choose from. As a rule of thumb: the closer you want to get to the Volcano, the more expensive the tour. For example, of you want to see the cold lava up close, you will have to pay 1500 Pesos (28 USD). However, you should check for special discounts. I was offered a promo tour: 1 hour of driving for 300 Pesos (5,5 USD). I did not get that close to the Volcano, but got a better view than in Cagsawa and had a lot of fun driving my Quad.

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If you want to see a beach in Legazpi proper, you can go to Puro Beach. However, do not expect to swim here as the water is very dirty. It is more known as a fishing spots. However, you have a nice view of the bay and the forested hills of the back-country.

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If you come to Legazpi in May and are lucky, you can visit the Magayon Festival honoring the tradition of the Mountain Goddess. The fest attracts many visitors and sports a parade. Well in advance the locals prepare colorful wagons to represent their neighbourhood or town, and dancers prepare for their role in the big parade at the opening of Magayon.

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If you are as unlucky as me and are unable to purchase a bus ticket to Legazpi, you can still take the detour via Naga. The town itself does not have a lot to offer for tourists. However, if you are already there, you can take a jeepney to Mount Isarog, an inactive volcano 45 minutes away. There you can either hike up the mountain if you are early, or take a short walk to a waterfall. Last entrance is 4 pm, too late for me sadly.

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The verdict

All in all, I liked my trip to Bicol, although it was not a highlight of my travels in the Philippines. The Mount Mayon is an impressive sight, although its top was mostly covered by clouds.

Another reason to visit Bicol is the food, which is praised by many as the best food in the country. The region is home to the famous Bicol Express, pork with coconut milk, ginger and red peppers. This dish shows Bicol´s love for spicy food, spicier than in the rest of the Philippines.

The costs

A day in Legazpi, including a bed in a hostel, three meals and a Quad tour cost me 905 Pesos (17 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 225 Pesos

Transport (Jeepney): 30 Pesos

Quad Tour: 300 Pesos

 

Die ideale Reiseroute auf den Philippinen

Die Philippinen sind ein Land mit über 7000 großen und kleinen Inseln. Das wirft die Frage auf, wo man denn eigentlich hinreisen sollte. Anders als in Vietnam oder Thailand, wo die Route von Norden nach Süden (oder anders herum) mehr oder weniger vorgezeichnet ist, hat man auf den Philippinen die Qual der Wahl: wo anfangen? Welche Orte sollte man nacheinander besuchen, um ökonomisch zu reisen? Was ist einem wichtig: Gute Infrastruktur und viele gleich gesinnte Reisende? Oder weniger besuchte Orte, die jedoch eventuell etwas schwieriger zu erreichen sind. Und schließlich bleibt da die Zeitfrage: Wie viele Orte sollte man in wie vielen Tagen besuchen, ohne sich zu langweilen oder sich abhetzen zu müssen? In diesem Beitrag versuche ich diese Fragen zu beantworten und stelle zwei Reiserouten vor, die ich selbst ausprobiert habe:

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Route 1: 20 Tage

Wenn Leute fragen, wie lange man mindestens auf die Philippinen reisen sollte, um das Land richtig kennen zu lernen, ist meine Pauschalantwort: etwa drei Wochen. Zumindest wenn man etwas umherreisen und verschiedene Aspekte des Landes kennen lernen will. Das liegt einfach daran, dass man viel Zeit im Flugzeug, dem Bus oder der Fähre verbringen wird. Drei Wochen sind dann jedoch ausreichend, um die wichtigsten bzw. bekanntesten Orte der Philippinen zu besuchen und einen guten Eindruck vom Land zu bekommen.

  1. Manila

90 % aller Reisen auf die Philippnen werden in Manila beginnen, einfach weil sich hier der größte internationale Flughafen befindet. Wie ich bereits hier geschrieben habe, meiden die meisten Reisenden Manila weitgehend. Es gibt durchaus hübsche Fleckchen in dieser Riesenmetropole, mehr als 2 Tage zur Akklimatisierung würde ich hier jedoch keinesfalls verbringen.

  1. Visayas (Cebu, Siquijor und Bohol)

Reisende, die zum ersten Mal auf den Philippinen unterwegs sind, wird häufig empfohlen, auf den Visayas anzufangen. Diesem Ratschlag würde ich mich anschließen aus folgenden Gründen: 1) Cebu lässt sich sehr bequem, schnell und relativ günstig von Manila aus erreichen. 2) Als beliebte Touristenorte verfügen diese Inseln über eine gut ausgebaute Infrastruktur. Die meisten Informationen sind online verfügbar. 3) Hier befinden sich viele Attraktionen, die typisch für die Philippinen sind: Strände, Wasserfälle, Schnorchelspots, Berge. Diese Attraktionen sind nicht weit voneinander entfernt und sehr leicht zu erreichen.

(Wer etwas mehr Zeit hat und sich einen aktiven Vulkan ansehen will, kann einen Umweg über Legaspi machen und von dort aus einen günstigen Flug nach Cebu nehmen, statt direkt von Manila aus zu fliegen.)

Eine Reiseroute in den Visayas könnte so aussehen:

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2.1 Manila – Cebu City

Der Flug von der Hauptstadt nach Cebu City dauert knapp eine Stunde. In der größten Stadt der Insel Cebu würde ich dann höchstens einen ganzen Tag verbringen, um mehr Zeit für die wirklich sehenswerten Orte auf Cebu zu haben.

2.2 Cebu City – Oslob

Der nächst gelegene Touristenmagnet von Cebu City ist Oslob, etwa 4 Stunden entfernt. Am besten fährt man mit dem Reisebus hin. Oslob ist vor allem für seine Walhaie bekannt, mit denen man schnorcheln kann. Aber auch jene, die diese Form des Tourismus nicht unterstützen möchten, sollten hier einen Abstecher machen, um die malerischen Tumalog-Wasserfälle zu besuchen.

2.3 Oslob – Moalboal

Um die atemberaubende Unterwasserwelt der Philippinen kennen zu lernen, gibt es nur wenige bessere Orte als Moalboal, etwa 2 Stunden von Oslob mit dem Bus entfernt. Hier kann man in den Korallenriffen bunte Fische und Meeresschildkröten sehen oder zu einer Canyoneering-Tour bei den Kawasan-Wasserfällen aufbrechen.

2.4 Moalboal – Siquijor

Wer ein entspannt ruhiges, aber leicht zugängliches Inselparadies sucht, sollte unbedingt die Fähre vom Süden Cebus nach Siquijor nehmen. Die Insel, die auch für ihre Heilkunst und Hexenmagie bekannt ist, hat ihren ganz eigenen Charme und bietet eine Fülle von Sehenswürdigkeiten wie Strände, Wasserfälle und Höhlen. Alternativ kann man auch einen Motorroller mieten und ungestört von Autos und LKWs durch die herrliche Landschaft düsen.

2.5 Siquijor – Bohol

Kaum eine Insel auf den Philippinen bietet so viele markante Touristenattraktionen wie Bohol. Hier befinden sich die berühmten Chocolate Hills, das Tarsier Sanctuary und der von Menschen gemachte Wald, daneben die Halbinsel Panglao mit ihrem weißen Sandstrand. Die Insel ist recht groß, so dass man hier gut 2-3 Tage verbringen kann.

  1. Palawan

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3.1 Bohol – Puerto Princesa

Wer die schönsten Landschaften und Inseln der Philippinen sehen will, wird um einen Abstecher nach Palawan nicht herumkommen. Von Bohol aus nimmt man die Fähre nach Cebu City und von dort einen günstigen Flug nach Puerto Princesa. Dort sollte man unbedingt den Unterirdischen Fluss besuchen und eine Island Hopping-Tour in der Honda Bay buchen.

3.2 Puerto Princesa – Port Barton

Palawan ist eine große Insel – dementsprechend lange dauert es, von Puerto Princesa nach El Nido zu reisen. Der kleine Ort Port Barton bietet sich für einen Zwischenstopp an. Hier kann man ein paar entspannte Tage verbringen, die fast unberührte Natur genießen und mit dem Boot zu den wohl schönsten Korallenriffen des Landes fahren.

3.3 Port Barton – El Nido

El Nido ist wohl der beliebteste Ort Palawans, vor allem aufgrund seiner beeindruckenden Landschaft und den wohl schönsten Stränden der Philippinen. Ein Muss ist eine Island Hopping-Tour in der Bucht von El Nido mit ihren malerischen Kreidefelsen und abgelegenen Inselchen.

Es ist schwierig, pauschal zu sagen, wie viel Zeit man an den einzelnen Orten auf dieser Route verbringen sollte. Als Orientierung würde ich 10 Tage für Manila und die Visayas veranschlagen, und noch einmal 10 Tage für Palawan, da allein schon der Transport dort etwas Zeit in Anspruch nimmt und es wirklich viel zu sehen gibt. Von El Nido kann man das Flugzeug zurück nach Manila nehmen, um zurück in die Heimat zu fliegen oder zu weiteren Reisen aufzubrechen.

 

Route 2: 14-20 Tage

Auf meiner ersten Philippinenreise flog ich von El Nido nach Manila zurück. Wer jedoch mehr Zeit hat, kann mit Flugzeug oder Fähre nach Coron reisen. Die Insel gilt als eine der schönsten, für viele gar als die schönste der Philippinen.

  1. Coron – Mindoro

4.1 San Jose à Sablayan

Von Coron aus kann man in wenigen Stunden mit der Fähre nach San Jose auf Mindoro fahren, und von dort aus mit dem Bus nach Sablayan. Der Tourismus des Ortes ist noch nicht so entwickelt wie in den Visayas oder auf Palawan, dennoch findet man dort bezahlbare Unterkünfte und eine große Auswahl an Sehenswürdigkeiten und Touren. Besonders empfehlenswert ist North Pandan Island, wo man Schnorcheln und Meeresschildkröten sehen kann.

4.2 Sablayan – Puerto Galera

Mit Bus und Fähre geht es weiter in den Norden von Mindoro. Puerto Galera bietet den perfekten Mix aus weißen Sandstränden, malerischer Natur und abgeschiedenen Wasserfällen, die zum Wandern einladen.

Von dort aus kann man einen Reisebus besteigen, der einen direkt nach Manila bringt. Alternativ kann man einen Zwischenstopp beim auf einem See gelegenen Taal-Vulkan einlegen.

  1. Banaue und Sagada

Wenn man Zeit hat, sollte man unbedingt ein paar Tage für den Norden der Philippinen einplanen. Die gebirgige Landschaft bildet das perfekte Kontrastprogramm zu den tropischen Palmen und Regenwäldern im Flachland. In Banaue, etwa 9 Stunden mit dem Bus von Manila entfernt, ist vor allem für seine malerischen Reisterrassen bekannt. Ist man bereits dort, sollte man auch nach Sagada reisen und sich die hängenden Särge ansehen, sowie in der herrlichen Berglandschaft wandern gehen.

 

 

Sagada

In northern Luzon, just 2 hours from Banaue, lies another tourist magnet. Sagada is a small town in the Mountain Province and can be reached by van or bus. The ride is not exactly pleasent, but well worth it. Like the name suggests, the province is mountaneous, so you will find a changed vegetation. Instead of palm trees, pines and evergreens dominate the landscape. One could think this was the mediterranean if it was not for the extensive rice fields.

Sagada proper is a cosy, small town with 11.000 inhabitants, none the less the infrastructure is excellent. Finding an affordable accommodation is not difficult. A room should cost between 350 and 400 Pesos (6,5-7,5 USD). The restaurants are cheap, too, although I could not see any small eateries like in other places in the Philippines.

Your first stop in Sagada will be the Tourist Center. Here you have to pay a fee of 40 Pesos (0,75 USD). Then you have the choice between a wide variety of tours. In theory you can hike the countryside on your own. However, many places like the hanging gardens and the caves can only be accessed with a guide. The prices of all tours can be found here.

Sumaging Cave / Short Course Caving

My group decided to go caving on the first day. If you are inexperienced in caving but physically able, and if you want an adventure without having to fit through narrow cave tunnels, you should take this tour. You will explore Sumaging-Höhle, which can be reached on food in one hours from Sagada. Alternatively you can hire a van for 350 Pesos per group (6,50 USD). Exploring the cave takes about 1,5 hours and costs 1000 Pesos (19 USD) for 9 people.

You enter the cave through a wide entrance and then follow an underground stream. At times you will be walking, at other times wadding through water or climbing down while holding on to a rope. It is an exciting experience, although you have to be careful as the rocks get very slippery. Even if you are not that fit, the tour is still doable as there are always enough tour guides ready to help you.

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If you are looking for a more challenging adventure, you should try the Cave Connection. You start in a different cave and make your way through a narrow passage, only armed with a candle, until you reach Sumaging Cave. This tour can not be taken in a large group. Two persons pay 800 Pesos (15 USD), the price increases for every additional person.

Kiltepan Sunrise Tour

If you like romantic sunrises (who does not?) and do not mind getting up early, you should consider this tour. It starts at 04.30 am at the Tourist Center and costs 550 (10 USD) Pesos for the van plus a fee of 55 Pesos per person. You will set off while it is still dark and drive to the Kiltepan Viewpoint, where you will be greated by cheerful vendors selling coffee and breakfast.

The place is also known as the „Sea of Clouds“ because of its high altitude. The cloud-hidden valley below and the serene pine forest give the place a mystical aura and watching the sun climb up there gave me a truly elevated feeling. After a hot breakfast, preferrable rice porridge with chocolate, you will have enough energy for the other tours.

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Echo Valley Adventure Trail

Chances are you want to visit Sagada for its famous Hanging Coffins. In this case I can recommend a trip to the Echo Valley, where they can be seen up close. Taking the Adventure Trail, you can not only see the coffins, but also a subterrean river and a waterfall. The tours costs 1000 Pesos (19 USD) per group, so it is still reasonably cheap.

The tour starts at the church of Sagada, where you will get to know some of Sagada´s history. The path leads across the modern graveyard of the town, to the Echo Valley where you can already see the Hanging Coffins from a distance. Down in the valley you can see this attraction up close. Hanging the coffins has a long tradition in Sagada and was done in order to prevent wild animals from eating the deceased. It is still practiced today, although not as commonly as in old times. If one wants to be buried in a Hanging Coffin, they have to be from Sagada and already have grandchildren. Ultimately the family have to decide whether they want this kind of burial.

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Around Sagada there are thousands of coffins. These ones are relatively young – from 1960 to 2010.

Next you will follow a riverbed until you reach a cave, through which the river flows. It is pitch dark here, so your tour guide will light the way. You should bring your flip flops as you will have to wade through water.

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Next stop is a waterfall, which is not very big or impressive. However, it is refreshing to swim in the basin, and you can even jump from a rocky flatform if you wish. After having a look at the work of local weavers you will return to Sagada.

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Bomod-Ok Waterfall

This tour takes you to the Bomod-Ok Waterfall and takes about 3 hours. It costs 500 Pesos (9 USD) per group plus 500 Pesos for the van that takes you to the starting point.

The path leads through a dense pine forest, alongside rice terraces and through small villages where you will be greeted by the friendly locals. Once at the waterfall, you can take a swim or just lie on the warm stones and relax from the hike.

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Trying Moma

If you travel to Banaue or Sagada, chances are you will see some men with red-stained teeth. This is due to their excessive consumption of Moma, the local drug of choice and energy booster. It is a mix of dried tobacco leaves, vine leaves, betel nut and a white powder made from snail chells. The substance is chewed and then spot out. It produces a high that is not too strong, but still tops the effect of coffee and cigarettes. If you are looking for an energy boost, you will not be disappointed. However, I was feeling rather dizzy and light-headed after my first try.

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The ingrediants of Moma have to be bought individually.

The Verdict

If you are in the north of Luzon, you absolutely have to visit Sagada. In my three days here I was only able to do a small portion of the activities provided by the Tourist Center. There is a lot to see and do in this mountaneous region and I was never bored. However, it was not just the beautiful landscape and the fun activities that made me fall in love with Sagada. It was also its laid back, friendly people and the relaxed atmosphere. The small town with its narrow streets and the beautifully furnished wooden houses is a place where you can truly forget time.

The costs

Sagada is very affordable as it provides cheap accommodation and food, and the tours are not expensive either. An average day here including your stay in a single room and three meals should not cost you more than 1215 Pesos (23 USD).

Accommodation: 350 Pesos

Food: 475 Pesos

Tours: 390 Pesos