Tips for your trips: La Union

La Union — We’ve been here, literally, since birth. We’ve stalled previous attempts at writing a guide (I am rolling my eyes as I write this) for so long because we really didn’t think there was enough around here to let anybody stay.. until of course recently, when, all of a sudden, we have a festival (what?!), a night market, and so many new restaurants mushrooming all over town. I mean, if people are eating here, there must be something going on.
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Alcoves: Comfortable apartments at the heart of Makati

As my bus wound its way down Marcos Highway, I began to worry about how many errands I still had to do when I would arrive in Makati, including an embassy appointment that same afternoon. I was especially not looking forward to commuting since the weather didn’t look too cooperative, and because I just really hate having to commute around that place.
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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

The Center Suites: No-fuss, good-value hotel in Cebu City

Whenever we find ourselves in Cebu, we either hie away to its far ends for the beaches, sardines, or sharks, or else stay in the city to pig out. The last time we were here, we couldn’t find time, however hard we tried, to go back to Moalboal, so the inevitable happened: we were stuck in the city’s humidity and heavy traffic, but, BUT we were also within easy reach of our favorite food haunts.

And we have The Center Suites to thank for this: its location—along Escario Street—meant we were a couple of minutes’ walk from the nearest branch of Cebu’s Original Spicy Lechon Belly (yes, that’s the name!), our favorite lechon house. It’s also one ride from almost everything else, including IT Park, Ayala, and Fuente, all of which have branches of another favorite, Casa Verde.

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

And although staying in this hotel did indirectly fatten us up, that’s not the only thing it does well. For one, we found the staff very accommodating and courteous, even when we arrived at the ungodly hour of 4 AM from a lechon-booze-siomai night out with friends. We were also asked to fill out a form for our breakfast choice that (same) morning, which we thought was quite a nice touch (especially for those who wouldn’t suffer a fried egg for a scrambled one). I also think it’s a prudent way to manage resources (we are not fans of hotels who waste food just because their guests can pay/have already paid for it).

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

Our twin room was also very comfortable, with its own toilet + hot and cold shower, air conditioning, and television. Towels were also provided.

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

Those who are looking for luxe accommodations won’t find it here though. There was just enough space for two people, and thankfully the room had a separate area for stowing luggage, which helped maximize the remaining floor space.

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

There’s also free (and fast!) WiFi, an advantage that most smaller hotels have since there are less people fighting over it at any given time. The table was also a nice touch—something that not all budget hotels are keen to add, which is a shame because it is still very useful for those who want to work and/or have a decent space to put their stuff that isn’t the mattress.

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

The Center Suites Bistro is also in-house, and serves a la carte Filipino breakfast for guests (each booking comes with free breakfast, which is always welcome, thank you very much) as well as an assortment of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino dishes, available even for non-hotel guests.

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

At an average price of P700 per person, it’s definitely a good deal considering its central location, AC rooms, and free breakfast. It’s also not directly along the main road (you have to walk just a few meters inland), so the city’s fumes and noise do not get as far as your room window. So when you’re traveling to Cebu and would like to be in the thick of things, The Center Suites will make a great base. Trust us, that lechon belly is worth staying nearby for.

TWO2TRAVEL: The Center Suites, Cebu City

For more info:
http://thecentersuites.com/
(63 32) 416 8881
(63 32) 266 8885
+63 932 440 6950
+63 905 251 8212
info@thecentersuites.com
N. Gonzales Compound, Brgy Camputhaw,
Escario Street, Cebu City
If you’re booking via Agoda, you may use this link
Overnight room rates start at P855.

Our overnight stay at The Center Suites was complimentary. Our opinions of the hotel’s services & facilities are based on firsthand experience and are completely our own.

Where to stay in Boracay: MNL Beach Hostel

When Owen and I learned that MNL Boutique Hostel in Makati is branching out to—wait for it—Boracay Island, we couldn’t wait to visit. First of all, their growth was very impressive—Maica, Celina, and Gonz are opening hostel no. 2 less than a year after the first one. We know next to nothing about the hospitality business, but that is undoubtedly a big feat. We love their hostel concept too, and pulling it off in Boracay was something we wanted to see. We think it’s working really well, especially for young backpackers and, well, young backpacking couples.

TWO2TRAVEL: Boracay - MNL Beach Hostel
Living area — and an awesome artwork by Gonz. And that’s Yolanda in the news.

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Boracay on the cheap

During Happy Hour, beer in Boracay averages P70 for two, which makes it P35—or less than a dollar—a bottle. We don’t know about you, but that’s cheap, especially if you factor in the ambiance—beautiful sunset, fine sand on your toes, cushy chairs under coconut trees. Meanwhile, a tricycle ride is P10, a filling meal P50, a liter of water P5, a bed for the night P400—that is, if you’re not picky. And, not to forget, four kilometers of white sand—one of the best in the world—costs absolutely nothing.

Diniwid Beach, Boracay, Philippines - by www.Two2Travel.com
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Guide to biking around southern Batan Island, Batanes

Just because it took us 12 hours to bike around southern Batan Island does not mean the whole thing is such a pain in the arse (well, it really was, literally) and that you shouldn’t do it. You can, and for the record, you don’t need ninja biking skills to pull this one off. The roads of Batan Island are generally good, there will always be locals around to help you in case you run into trouble, and the route is easy to navigate even without a guide.

Biking around Batan Island, Batanes - Two2Travel.com
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Kalanggaman Island, Leyte: Beauty in the middle of nowhere

We could taste the saltwater on our lips.

In fact, saltwater was all over our face.

Our eyeglasses—yes, both of them—were pockmarked with beads of water. We could barely see ahead of us, and besides, there seemed nothing else to see except the rough open seas ahead.

Our boat carried around 20 tourists—brown-skinned, pale-skinned, black-haired, golden-haired, big-eyed, chinky-eyed. And it was big, just as any good dive boat should.

But the waves were bigger.

Kalanggaman Island, Palompon, Leyte - Two2Travel.com

It was a sunny day, yes, but for some reason the waves weren’t friendly.

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Tips for your trips: Oslob, Cebu

The town of Oslob straddles the open sea and the mountains of Cebu. The way to this seaside town is photogenic, especially in the early morning.

Whalesharks of Oslob, Cebu | Photos by Two2Travel.com
Apart from the whalesharks of Tan-awan, the Tumalog Falls and the Heritage Park are also usual stops. These three can be done in a single day, putting the whaleshark watching first, which takes just 30 minutes unless you give it another go and pay again, before the inland tour, which may take up another two or three hours of your time.

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Dakong Amihan: Finding what’s not yet lost in Boracay

“The sand, just wow. I’ve never seen anything like it,” she exclaimed.

We were by the garden having dinner—chicken tinola which Owen had cooked—and Ms. Grace, the owner of the house, was telling us about the first time she had seen White Beach—then unnamed and uninhabited—on this island the whole world now knows as Boracay.

“We were just passing by, and then we saw this long strip of sand that looked as white as paper. The coconut trees were all green, and the water was so clear!”

Diniwid Beach, Boracay, Philippines - by www.Two2Travel.com
We were on our last night after a week-long stay in August, and we’ve had many of these conversations, for sure. She would tell us all about their dive trips around the island—how she saw, on her first deep dive, three thresher sharks (yes, in Boracay waters!); how they would all swim drunk from one end of the beach to the other and sleep on the sand; how they would all sit on the beach, form a long line, and pass along a joint; and how they would drink beer through their regulator(!)

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