Sights from Saigon

One day in Saigon, three things on our laundry list: eat at Anthony Bourdain’s Lunch Lady, eat banh mi, and drink beer. We know, we’re very easy to please.

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The banh mi and beer were easy enough; the first one seemed less so, as we had no idea where we were and where she was, but seeing as Ho Chi Minh looked like a proper Asian city with good roads, neon signs, and Louis Vuitton shops, finding her location would be a walk in the park.

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But as the heavens would have it, we did spend a good chunk of our day getting lost around Saigon’s never-ending roads, with very little money and too many wrong maps at our disposal. It didn’t help that we didn’t have Internet connection on the go, and that most of our attempts at asking for directions were reduced to flimsy sign language and lame drawings.

In the end, our feet sore and tempers high, we did manage to finally sit on one of the Lunch Lady’s small plastic chairs and order a bowl each of her day’s specialty. We didn’t exactly worship it however, mainly because it had bamboo shoots (which both of us don’t really like). Portions were huge, and the broth was actually pretty good. We also ended up paying more than we thought we should, seeing as the stuff shoved into our tables (a plate each of fresh spring rolls and fried spring rolls, which we ate thinking they were included in our order of pho), turned out to be from the neighboring stalls, and, well, were not free. Almost cash-strapped, we walked (again) on the way back to our Airbnb rental — which turned out to be a good three kilometers away! — thinking out loud about our English teachers and how we are very thankful they came to our lives.

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Did we think Saigon was a bad job? Of course not.

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It is its own kind of crazy, but it’s actually one of those cities we think we could live in — streets are walkable, Internet (when present) is fast, food is glorious and cheap, and the ca phe sua da is f*cking amazing.

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Bone-chilling cold, 14% beers, and the 9-hour trek to Pulag

So here we are, after 10 years of living in Baguio — our first time in this part of the Cordillera.

So like everyone else in our group — two from Manila, one who’s just come home from two years in Saudi Arabia — Owen and I didn’t know a thing about what was waiting for us. Part of us was counting on a decade’s worth of living in the Baguio cold to withstand whatever awaited in the mountains of Pulag, but as the day wore on, as thick fog descended on our candy-colored tents and as darkness crept in, so did a kind of chill that was strange even to us.

Pulag, Benguet

We love the occasional serious adventure, and this — our year’s first trip — was as serious as any can get. We had everything every self-respecting tourist would have in serious times like this: emergency blankets (the flashy, noisy ones that will probably save you from the cold but not from the guilt of sleeping very noisily), sleeping bags, headlamps, a hundred layers of clothing, and the thickest damn jacket the ukay-ukay at Harrison can give.

Of course, apart from our stash of Andok’s chicken and Jollibee burgers, we also had beer to ward the cold off. Owen brought these canned Royal Dutch beers with 14% alcohol content in them — which turned out to be quite the perfect choice: very potent at a far less baggage. It was enough to give us a few hours of shut-eye (could have been more had one group of pesky tourists not decided to go shouting at midnight).

Pulag, Benguet

Pulag, Benguet

We were to start our trek at 1 AM directly from the Ranger Station where we were camped (the usual camping grounds halfway up the summit having been closed earlier due to heavy rains). Yep, we were going all the way to Pulag in one go. And back.

The reality of what we were doing dawned with every step we took in the darkness, with every layer of clothing that we slowly peeled away as we began to feel the brunt of the steady climb. For four hours, we walked seeing nothing but patches of mud in front of our feet — the only view that our headlamp could afford us. There was no sightseeing, no picture-taking.

Up we climbed, along endless grassy paths and slopes that steadily went from manageable to miserable. The last few minutes passed by in a fit of feverish climbing, all muscle pain forgotten as we pushed farther and faster, because the first of the morning was breaking in a gigantic sliver of orange. We didn’t go through all that trek only to reach the peak late.

And yet, we did not see the sea of clouds of Pulag.

We did see the sun rise, yes. But this sunrise was borne out of a clear day, its rays bathing us all gold — the grass, the slopes, the countless groups of people who had climbed with us that Tuesday morning. Its warmth was welcoming, glorious even. We sat there, looking over the vast mountains of the Cordillera as they slowly took shape.

And then it was all over in a few minutes. We sat there, pink-faced from the cold and sore from the climb. We devoured stone-cold fried chicken shortly after, trying not to think too much of the very long way back.

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Two2Travel Mt. Pulag Benguet

Mt Pulag National Park, Philippines / Nikka Corsino - Two2Travel

Mt Pulag, Philippines / Owen Ballesteros - Two2Travel

Mt Pulag, Philippines / Owen Ballesteros - Two2Travel

Mt Pulag, Philippines / Owen Ballesteros - Two2Travel

Mt Pulag, Philippines / Owen Ballesteros - Two2Travel

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Photos by Owen and Nikka / Last photo by Ed Catapia
Check out our recommended Airbnb in Baguio HERE.

Postcard: Back from Saigon

Lady on the street of Saigon, Vietnam by Owen Ballesteros

We had a day in Vietnam after almost two weeks in Cambodia, and what can we say, Ho Chi Minh really is on a league of its own. But for all its chaos, this city does have its quiet moments.

For now, we’re finally back home after 16 hours on the road. We’ll be back with more stories and photos soon!

<3 Owen & Nikka Photo © Owen Ballesteros

Postcards from Vigan

Horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping on cobblestone streets past Spanish-era houses called bahay na bato — there are only a few places in the Philippines as nostalgic as Vigan. The city, a World Heritage Site, is “an exceptionally intact and well preserved example of a European trading town in East and Southeast Asia,” according to UNESCO.
Continue reading “Postcards from Vigan”

How to have crazy fun in Thailand

Most travelers worth their complementary in-flight headphones have read The Beach, a seminal work of fiction about a late 20th century pilgrimage to Thailand. Showing the need to escape as both a blessing and a curse, the book describes a somewhat paradoxical paradise, a place to which so many people have traveled seeking solitude that is has become destroyed by a collective wanderlust.

It’s true that there are some schoolboy errors to be made on a first trip to Thailand, but this extraordinary country remains a popular first choice with travelers for good reason: as a destination it is exceptional. Travel agents, like First Choice, create great packages to give you the best possible chance to have crazy fun in Thailand.

Here are some tips for getting the most out of your stay.

Chatuchak Market. Photo courtesy of tourismthailand.org
Chatuchak Market

Photo courtesy of tourismthailand.org
Bangkok at night. Photo courtesy of tourismthailand.org
Bangkok at night.

Wat Klang Wiang. Photo courtesy of tourismthailand.org

Avoid the Bangkok tourist traps

By all means, enjoy the heady neon commercialism of Khao San Road, but with the understanding that the novelty will soon wear off. Then, carve out a more serene path through Bangkok. Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn and Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha will astonish Westerners with the grandeur of their execution, while the Floating Market will justify often being referred to as ‘the Venice of the East.’

Beginner’s tip: On a temple visit, show respect by dressing with modesty, in clean, ironed clothes and shoes that are easily removed.

Have a howling good time at a full moon party on Ko Pha Ngan

Every month, on the night of the full moon, hedonists flock like neon moths to the beach at Haad Rin for dance music, body paint and alcohol by the bucket. One of the world’s biggest parties, they attract tens of thousands of revelers.

Beginner’s tip: The penalties for drug use in Thailand are rigorous; never risk eating, drinking or carrying anything from someone you don’t know.

Explore the north from Chiang Mai

More chilled and cultural than its rowdy southern brother Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the perfect base from which to head for the hills and experience the bright culture of the Thai hill tribes. First, enjoy the Northern Thai cuisine with a dish of khao soi, indulge in a spa day, and visit the hilltop temple of Doi Suthep.

Beginner’s tip: Attend a Monk’s Chat, where young monks meet with visitors to improve their English for some unique cultural insight.

Thailand is nothing short of enchanting for a first time traveler, but its extraordinary range of experiences will test even the worldliest visitor to its shores. For its winning combination of natural beauty, exotic culture, and the warmth of its people, Thailand is, as a destination, unrivaled.

– All photos courtesy of tourismthailand.org –

Life Extraordinary: The Butbut of Kalinga

The village of Buscalan is 17 hours from Manila. Although our journey was considerably shorter — 10 hours in all from Baguio via Bontoc, Mountain Province — this did not make the last leg of the ascent, which we trod by foot, any less difficult. On our first trip, this climb took two hours. Subsequent trips cut the travel time by at least half, but we still found ourselves out of breath by the end of it. That is what visiting the village means.

But imagine sacks of rice — two 25-kilogram pieces, to be exact — being hoisted up the same unforgiving slope on a person’s back. Or an LPG tank. Or hollow blocks and sacks of cement.

That is what living in the village means for the members of the Butbut tribe.

Buscalan’s isolation — it is two mountains from the nearest concrete road — means supplies have to be either produced right there or procured manually from the lower-lying areas of the town of Tinglayan, to which Buscalan belongs, and manually carried, piece by piece, up to the village. And just like so many people in communities we have visited in the Philippines, the Butbuts’ adaptability was such that even women could carry an LPG tank on their heads, up the mountain, and into their respective homes.

For them, this walk seems negligible.

Without any cellular reception, Buscalan has little in the way of instant communication with the outside. Post is claimed once a week from the Post Office downhill by a villager, who takes the mail up and distributes them to recipients. Cable TV seems available, but in the numerous times we have stayed in the village, we have yet to see a single TV turned on. Even with the kids, TV didn’t seem too appealing, although we noticed that they do like their candies.

Life is unhurried but not idle; in fact, we would always marvel at how long a single day here can last, how much everybody else seemed to accomplish while having more than enough time for siesta.

Buscalan also has some of the oldest – and most agile — people we have ever met. Some of them are so old nobody—even their family members—seemed to know the exact age anymore. And this is not surprising. The Butbut people grow their own food; there is no pollution to grapple with everyday; their daily activities allow them ample exercise. What else, really, do you need to enjoy a good long life?

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
A Butbut woman walks to her home in Buscalan, Kalinga. Buscalan is surrounded by the Cordillera mountains and rice terraces.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Whang-od, the tribe’s 95-year-old tattoo artist, wields a scythe as she weeds out a portion of her farm land to plant beans. It is common for old people like Whang-od to still attend to their farms, located a good distance from their huts.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman tends to her rice crops just before the harvest season.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Bundles of rice are dried outside following the harvest in July.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman sifts through rice before cooking.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Whang-od cooks rice over wood fire on a crude stove in her kitchen. Although the kitchen is equipped with a gas stove, Whang-od prefers cooking this way.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman manually weeds out bad beans for the day’s lunch.

Hands of Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Whang-od bundles corn from this season’s harvest. An agricultural community, Buscalan is surrounded by farm lands terraced from mountain slopes, where villagers plant rice, root crops, and vegetables.

Buscalan, Kalinga
Whang-od peels yam for boiling. Unable to chew because all her teeth have fallen off, she resorts to soft, boiled food instead.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
Butbut kids in elementary level slice vegetables for a school competition to end the Nutrition Month. Diet in the village usually comprises vegetables and rice, and kids are taught from a young age how to cook.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
A family shares a meal on the floor of their kitchen.

Kids of Buscalan munch on sugar cane, their equivalent of candy.
Local kids nibble on strips of sugar cane, their equivalent of candy.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Whang-od feeds her pigs outside her home in Buscalan. Pigs play a central role in village life. Families grow and then sell them to other villagers, who may need it for special ceremonies or gatherings.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
A Butbut woman starts the ascent to her village while balancing her load on top of her head. Local people can get to the village in as little as 15 minutes.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Apo Baydon, foreground, is believed to be over a century old and is Buscalan’s oldest living person. He still makes brooms and small scythes, and does not look over 80.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Nikka Corsino
A Butbut tribeswoman carries newly laundered clothes from downstream — where she did her laundry — all the way up to the village, which takes about 20 minutes along very steep slopes.

~
Photos by Owen and Nikka

Coffee and Community: Photos from Buscalan, Kalinga

Coffee is free in Buscalan.

It is served about three times a day, sometimes more. When there’s nothing else to do, when there’s just too much going on, when there are visitors to welcome, early in the morning, before going to bed — there are never too many excuses to have a steaming vat of Kalinga brew, served black and piping hot.

And if its coffee is any indication, Buscalan is a place for strangers to feel right at home.

Kalinga Coffee
Kalinga is a coffee producer. Ground to a talcum consistency, coffee is cooked with brown sugar and is served black.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Kids gather around a man playing a local song on the guitar. There is only one guitar in the entire village, and its sound usually draws children to wherever it is played.

Buscalan, Kalinga /
Locals simply call this game chess, although it is played with dice.

Village children wash dishes at communal washing areas placed in between houses. Households do not have individual water systems.
Kids wash dirty dishes at communal water sources scattered throughout the village. Households in Buscalan do not have individual water pipe lines, but supply is plentiful as it comes from a nearby waterfall.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino / Two2Travel

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Villagers haul food and cooking implements along rice terraces for a picnic.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Men butcher a small pig by the river. In so-called picnics such as this, everyone who participates makes a contribution, either in kind or through labor.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Men cleave the pig’s body for cooking. Some parts are grilled, others boiled. The head was especially reserved for Whang-od, the tribe’s tattoo artist many tourists come to Buscalan for.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Portions of the cooked pig are evenly distributed to everyone who is present.

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /
Students line up for a prayer at the start of a school program. The village has school buildings for elementary kids, but these are in dire need of instructional materials.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
Small kids race to the top of a small wall in the village. Playtime often looks like this in Buscalan.

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com

Buscalan, Kalinga / © Owen Ballesteros / Two2Travel.com
Kids play the flute in front of a guest house while other kids look on. Impromptu performances like this draw the attention of villagers.

Buscalan, Kalinga - Nikka Corsino Photography / Two2Travel
Villagers gather around after dinner, like they usually do with or without electricity.

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Buscalan, Kalinga /

Photos by Owen and Nikka

Hong Kong, Day Zero to One

I received word that I will be sent to Hong Kong just two days before flying out. This freaked me out so bad for a couple of reasons: first, I had to be there the night before the flight—meaning, the following day—for an editorial briefing and a client-hosted dinner afterward. This meant only one thing: clothes. Proper clothes.

That, and the fact that I had seven hours’ worth of winding roads and expressways between me and my destination. I racked my closet (aka dump of unused clothing, mercifully on a pile that’s different from those waiting in vain to get to the laundry) and packed like a maniac, stuffing the nicest, most decent pieces my slipper-wearing self can afford.

“Please bring formalwear for dinner,” said a text message. I was ready to cry and whimper like a little kid right there. But no, I was an adult, and nobody needed to know the ruckus my brain — and my apartment — was going through that day.

I made it through all the pretentiousness of cleaning up — I wore shoes and pants! — and even got a compliment from our well-heeled publisher when he spotted me sitting by the office’s waiting area with my luggage: “Hey, you look like a jetsetter!”

He didn’t see me roll my eyes.

I had nursed another expected headache that night, and for a time I cursed the additional baggage I’ve had to fit into my already-crammed luggage — folders and discs and a ridiculously thick hoodie given to me (“You’re going to need that”).

The next day came, and with me alone and having to attempt to mingle with other people who spoke better English than I did, I was overwhelmed. I only had time to savour the fact that I flew business class for the first time and had silver cutlery onboard instead of disposables.

The day whizzed past in a blur of airport gates, forlorn-looking spaces, grey skies, and buildings in sundry shapes and sizes. Before I knew it, we were boarding the cruise ship we were about to stay on for the rest of the trip. I started working the moment I stepped in, and continued well into the night. By 11 PM, I was reeling from exhaustion and seasickness despite having taken medication earlier. I literally stumbled to my cabin after long agonizing minutes of trying to locate it and then collapsed to sleep (are ship carpets really supposed to have big wavy prints on them in ridiculous neon color combinations that will make you barf faster than you can hold?). If the ship sank in the middle of the South China Sea that night, I would not have cared.

In those final moments of quiet, just before my brain shut down, I realized that hey, I’m in a new country!

And then everything just went blank.

Hong Kong

~
Words and photos by Nikka

Brunei’s numbers, colors, and gold

Brunei. What’s in there?

Gold. Lots of it.

Well, this is both true and false. It is true because Brunei Darussalam, a sultanate southwest of the Philippines on Borneo Island, has lots of gold — from the domes of its lavish mosques to the bidets of its restrooms to the buttons of its well-loved sultan’s clothes.

But Brunei does not produce gold — well except for liquid black gold, or crude oil, which has shaped the fortune of this tiny country, allowing it to amass — nay, import — all the (yellow) gold everyone now sees in and around it.

Brunei is very close to the Philippines, but the differences are quite stark. Bruneians — the citizens of Brunei — enjoy lots of freebies, which frankly we Filipinos can do with as well: free housing, free healthcare, free education, interest-free loans. And because the country produces oil, petrol for cars is said to be very cheap.

We checked how much: according to globalpetrolprices.com, a liter of gasoline in Brunei is 0.43 USD — P18.49 — as of June 23 this year.

Most of its citizens also have two cars, and although the dwellings at Kampong Ayer — or Water Village — look rather rundown, inside are modern appliances, air-conditioning, and probably gold-plated toilets.

And oh, before we even forget, Bruneians pay no taxes. I repeat. They have no f*cking taxes.

Now, before we all pull all our hairs out of envy of their tax-free existence, allow us to take you around this tiny country’s mosques, markets, rainforests, and one of its biggest hotels.

Jame’ Asr Hassanil Bolkiah
This is the biggest mosque in Brunei, locally known as Kiarong Mosque. Its domes are gold-plated, but of course you already knew that.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Malay Technology Museum
This museum, right beside Brunei Museum, displays artifacts from the earliest ways of life in Brunei — primarily in the water villages (the country’s population is predominantly Malay). These include ‘stilt architecture, boat making, fishing techniques, handicrafts’, according to Lonely Planet.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Tamu Kianggeh Open-Air Market
The Tamu Kianggeh (tamu is the local term for market) is a bustling space where local handicrafts and produce — including, if you noticed, big-ass chili — are sold. It is located on the banks of the Kianggeh River.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Pasar Gadong
Like all night markets, Pasar Gadong offers fried and skewered food at cheap prices, usually under B$3.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Kampong Ayer (Water Village)
The Water Village is a local dwelling area. Brightly painted houses stand on stilts, and locals navigate through boats. This village is self-contained, with its own public facilities such as hospitals and schools.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Inside a typical (!) local home — which has a so-called open house for tourists.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Water taxi used in ferrying people to and from Kampong Ayer

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Ulu Temburong National Park
Seventy percent of Brunei’s 5,700+ sq km land area is composed of rainforest. A part of this — 50,000 hectares — is the Ulu Temburong National Park. It is home to mangroves, various species of birds, proboscis monkeys, and crocodiles. Excursions start via water taxi from Bandar Seri Begawan, into 1,300+ steps (yes, a staircase) up and deep into the forest, ending in the Canopy Walk, a 140-foot three-tiered installation one needs to climb for a 360-degree view of the rainforest canopy (thus the name) and Mt. Kinabalu in the distance.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Canopy Walk

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
The highest tier of the Canopy Walk

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Left: Longboat to/from the Sumbiling Eco Village. Right: Waterfall inside the Ulu Temburong National Park.

Sumbiling Eco Village
Sumbiling Eco Village is a usual stop for excursions to Ulu Temburong National Park.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Typical Iban longhouse. With AC and car port. :) The Iban are an indigenous tribe in Brunei. They are former headhunters, but British rule has stopped the practice. Traditionally, several families occupy one longhouse.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Banana fritters

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Bamboo chicken. According to borneoguide.com, bamboo chicken is ‘a culinary specialty we are known for, featuring succulent pieces of chicken marinated with spices and herbs, then stuffed into a green bamboo tube and carefully cooked over (sic) wood fire. The moisture contained in this particular type of bamboo ensures the tube does not break open while cooking, and also contributes to a flavourful broth without pouring in any water at anytime during the cooking process.’

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
A man cooks the stuffed bamboo in wood fire. Ugh. Now I’m hungry.

Empire Hotel and Country Club
The Empire is the most lavish hotel in the whole sultanate. It has, among others, 21K gold-plated bathroom fixtures and an 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. It has 500 rooms spread over 180 hectares, and the flush knobs on its toilet seats are probably worth more than we are, combined.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
The Emperor Suite – the priciest in the hotel at B$16,000 (P500,000+, in case you needed to know).

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
Tywin Lannister would be pleased.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros
63-sqm pool and jacuzzi inside the Emperor Suite.

Two2Travel: Brunei - Empire Hotel / © Owen Ballesteros

So, what’s the catch?

Alcohol is prohibited. Throughout the country!

~
 This trip was taken by Owen in 2013 as a photographer for AsianTraveler and was sponsored by Brunei Tourism and Royal Brunei Airlines. All photographs by Owen Ballesteros. Words by Nikka
 Book Brunei Darussalam hotels via Agoda

Back on the isla

12 noon. Habagat is here, blowing its winds while the June sun bore down really hard.

We are back on the island, back on one of our favorite haunts, waiting for one of our favorite comfort food — a bowl of agedashi tofu, which unfortunately is prone to inflation, as is everything else in this place.

Exactly a year ago we were probably doing exactly the same thing, seated on the same table, famished but happy. We’ve come twice more between then and now, and Owen and I would always find ourselves in this spot.

Everything looks as I remember it from a year ago: the umbrella tree in front and the plastic lounge chairs surrounding it; foreign families just off the beach coming in — spattering water all over the floor in the process — to order fresh fruit shake to be delivered later to their spot under the tree; somebody kitesurfing on the beach; the beach’s sundry hues of blue.

But this year, there was something else.

There were giggles and laughter as the surf crashed into shore and the wind blew harder.

On the beach were kids — tiny specks of brown against the blanket of blue — swimming naked without a care in the world.

It was a perfect day in Boracay.

White Beach, Boracay

~
Words by Nikka, Photos by Owen
Other Boracay posts