Day 1: Mt. Batulao and the Philippine Sea
My dad and I arrived in Manilla on February 4th and because of the Chinese New Year, the next day was a vacation day for my dad’s company. We got up early the next morning and after a delicious and filling breakfast headed out to meet our driver for the day, Juan. Juan is a wonderful human being and as you will see, he became much more than just our driver. He became our tour guide and companion for the rest of the trip.
Our plan for the morning was to head to a mountain about an hour away and hike, and do one more hike on our way back to the hotel for the evening. However, when we arrived at the first “jumpsite” as Juan liked to say, we discovered that the path was closed for restoration. Unsure what to do, we got back in the car and brainstormed a new plan. Juan decided to take us to his sister’s house on the beach because her husband owned a boat and then take us out to an island just off the shore. However, he warned us that this was the local spot and we might not be allowed to go to the beach because we were foreigners. When we arrived, we were greeted by curious Filipinos who were confused why we were on the local beach but after Juan explained to them in Tagaytay that we wanted to go to the island, they happily let us in.
Half an hour later, we found ourselves flying across the ocean on a very cool boat constructed out of an old car engine and some pretty legit engineering. The weather was hot but absolutely beautiful and the sea spray felt amazing. When we arrived, we were greeted by a large group of Filipinos who brought our boat to shore. We jumped out and hopped into the water for a quick swim. It was one of the first times I’ve been able to swim since being out of the US and the water was a beautiful crystal clear color. After a refreshing swim, we wandered the island exploring the nooks and crannies and searching for shells. I was surprised by the vast quantity of trash thrown all over the island. Although I was only in the Philippines for a few days, I noticed that trash disposal seems to be a common problem which is rather unfortunate.
After heading back to shore, Juan took us to his home! He showed us his garden and we met his son. We tried to convince his son to come hiking with us but he had other plans for the afternoon. Juan is growing cashews and several other fruits and nuts. After a quick tour, he took us to Mt. Batulao, a beautiful mountain close to our hotel. Although it was late, a guide was still willing to take us up to the top (one of the requirements for this hike was to have a guide). Juan hiked with us too in his sandals. On the way he told us that his older brother, who had sadly passed away a year ago, had always encouraged him to hike but he never had the chance to before because we was so busy working. He was so happy to join us and he was a positive and wonderful companion to have on the trail. The hike was quite steep but thankfully the evening was approaching and the weather had cooled down a bit. We climbed up for about an hour and a half over several peaks marked by signs. It was an exhausting but rewarding hike, and the views stretched for miles. We made it back to the bottom just as the sun was setting and enjoyed a peaceful dinner out on the patio overlooking Taal Volcano.
Day 2: Taal Volcano
The next morning my dad had to head out early for work but Juan still came and picked me up for another adventure. Today he was going to take me down to Lake Taal to hike the island mountain. We had been admiring this volcano for several days because our hotel was situated on the edge of the lake and during breakfast and dinner we could see the volcano clearly. The drive down was steep but we slowly made our way to a place Juan knew were we could charter a boat to take us out to the island. The boats again were just like the one we had been in the day before and the lake breeze and waves splashing against the poles of the boat felt wonderful.
When we arrived on the island, we were met by our guide for the day. We decided not to ride horses up and instead opted to hike the volcano. The hike was steep, dusty, and hot but we made it in good time and stopped at the top to admire that views of the lake. Unlike the island we had visited the day before, this site was quite crowded with foreign tourists speaking English, Chinese, and all sorts of other languages. I met a group of Jehovah witnesses from the US who had been living in Taiwan for 11 years, and they shared some sweet pomelo with me as we rested in the shade. I also learned that our guide had lived in Taiwan for several years working in Taoyuan at some kind of a cloth factory. She spoke some Chinese too! While we hiked, she pointed out several locations were steam was coming out of the rocks or water and the lake was boiling because the volcano was still active. She told us that in 1977 the volcano had erupted, causing several people to die because it happened during the night.
After heading back to the boat and back to shore, Juan took me up to a very high scenic area where I could see all across Manilla. He pointed out Mt. Batulao, the island we had been to, and his home. We ran into several school groups and a few people asked to take photos with me at the top.
Afterwords, we headed back to the hotel so I could change for dinner. My dad’s coworkers were taking him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and they had invited me along. Juan dropped me off and I waited for the rest of the group to arrive. The restaurant was unlike any other place I had eaten at before. There was a beautiful cocktail garden with glowing orbs where we started before heading to the main table. The food was delicious and my dad’s coworkers were very sweet. I even tried raw meat! Juan drove us home after for the evening, and we packed our stuff because it was our last night in the Philippines.
The next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to make it to the airport in time. We were lucky to catch the sunrise and the beautiful Taal Lake was glowing in the early morning sun. It was sad to say goodbye to Juan, our newfound friend and guide. He promised that if we came back we could meet him again. He also told us that we had inspired him to hike more, and the next weekend he would take his son to Mt. Batulao!
Day 1: Botanical Gardens and Hawker Stalls
My only knowledge of Singapore before traveling to the country was from reading the book crazy rich Asians. Though I really enjoyed reading this book, it did not give the most well rounded perspective of what Singapore is like so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When we arrived, my dad had to go to the office first thing so our taxi dropped me off at the hotel and I checked us in. It is SO HOT in Singapore. It felt strange after being in Japan but I quickly tried to readjust my internal thermometer.
After checking in, I decided to walk to the botanical gardens that were right near the hotel. Although it was only about 15 minutes of walking, by the time I arrived I was dripping sweat. I only had about an hour so I headed directly to the orchid exhibit. I didn’t know this before but apparently Singapore is very famous for their orchid cultivating techniques! They make many different types of hybrids and name them after celebrities that come to visit Taiwan. There is even one named after the Obamas!
After walking through the gardens for a while, I headed back to the hotel and met up with my dad. We went to the Newton Hawker Center to get some food from the stalls. It was so crowded and there were giant lobsters, Indian food stalls, Chinese food stalls, craft brewed beer, and everything in between. We settled on some Indian food and some beer and I ate until I was completely stuffed. After dinner, we headed down to the waterfront promenade in hopes of catching some fireworks but just missed them. Thankfully there were fireworks all week because of the Chinese New Year so we had plenty more opportunities to see them. We wandered along the shore and gawked at the incredible architecture along the way.
Day 2: Gardens by the Bay
The next day we headed to the gardens by the bay first thing in the morning. Although it was crowded, we were able to sneak by many of the crowds. We started off the morning on the Skytree walk. Again, what an architectural marvel like most things in Singapore! Next we walked through the gardens and stopped at sculptures to take many pictures. We finished the morning by walking through the two large glass showcase areas called the cloud forest and the and the flower dome. So many incredible flower arrangements!
After we finished up at the gardens, we walked through the waterfront to see the famous merlion statue that is the official mascot of Singapore. On the way we passed through a spiraling Helix metal bridge, past the art and science museum shaped like a lotus flower, and of course the Marina Bay Sands Hotel with the giant boat deck that seems to be precariously resting on top of the building. We stopped and bought some coconut ice cream, and headed to see the battlebox after for a tour. This was probably my dad’s favorite part of the whole trip, I could see how excited he was about the history. The battlebox or the Fort Canning Bunker is a bomb proof structure built right near the waterfront district in Singapore. During WWII, this was the British underground command centre. It was in this structure that the British army made the heartbreaking decision to surrender to the Japanese army and allow them to take over Singapore and Malaysia. It marks “the darkest” period in Singaporean history according to our tour guide. It wasn’t until recently that the battlebox was rediscovered and tours were brought through the area. In the beginning of the tour our guide promised us that whoever answered a trivia question correctly would win a prize, so of course my dad won!
After the tour we headed back to the hotel and drove to find some chicken rice for dinner. My friend from Singapore had recommended a place so we went there even though it was quite far away! The chicken rice was quite good and a famous Singaporean dish. We caught a taxi and headed to the Marina Bay Sands hotel because we were determined to catch the fireworks. We decided to get tickets to the top observation deck and view the fireworks from overhead as they lit up the waterfront area below. Although we had to wait for a while, we got drinks and enjoyed the views and the water show and laser show. Finally it was time for the fireworks. They were spectacular! It was worth the wait and thanks to some strategic planning, we even beat the crowds home.
Day 3: Little India and Chinatown
My dad’s coworker met us in the morning to take us to the famous Budda Tooth Relic Temple in Singapore. Although the actual temple was build fairly recently, it is still quite famous because the entire casing for the relic is made out of gold. When we arrived, I was wearing a dress and had to put on a cloth to cover my legs. My dad’s colleague is Buddhist so the tour he gave us was very in depth and personal. While we were walking through the museum, there was a chanting ritual happening on the first floor that went on for the whole day!
After we finished touring the temple, we traveled through Chinatown stopping to look in shops and buy some sugarcane juice. Singapore is a very unique country because it has a large population of people that speak Chinese, English, and Hindi. There is a intersection of many different cultures in this tiny and unique country, which meant that within a 15 minute drive we could travel from Chinatown to Little India and see a completely different culture. Little India was filled with color and bustling crowds. I’ve never been to India before so I was excited to see this part of Singapore. We tried to visit a Hindu Temple but it was closed so we walked around the outside admiring the architecture.
That evening we headed to the Botanical Gardens again because my dad hadn’t had the chance yet to see it. We saw some black swans and admired the beautiful flowers. For dinner, we decided to eat on the garden grounds in a restaurant outside, overlooking the gardens. The food was prepared so beautifully!
Our last stop of the night was the Singapore zoo for the night safari. This was one of the top tourist destinations in Singapore because there are very few zoos in the world that provide visitors to see nocturnal animals active at night. There were soooo many people once again speaking a variety of languages. Although we showed up about an hour late for our ticket time, we still got into the line just fine and made it. It was rather difficult to see some of the animals in the dark lighting but it was overall a very cool experience!
After our safari we headed home to bed. After enjoying some herbal tea in the VIP room at the top of the hotel, we packed our bags and headed to bed a bit early because it was our last night and were leaving the hotel at 4:30 the next morning.
Day 4: Back to Taiwan
We rose too early and made our way to the airport. As we got closer I felt a wave of sadness, realizing the next time I’d see my dad would probably be back in the US in the middle of July after my Fulbright grant was complete. I still had about half a year ahead of me away from my family and away from home and although I was excited to get back to my students and teaching, I was a bit homesick.
After a sad farewell, I made my way to my gate. I sat for a while feeling lonely but distracted myself by beginning to plan some of my class projects for the second semester. I missed my students and I was ready to get back to school. Chinese New Year vacation was an incredible adventure filled with new foods, good friends, beautiful sights, crazy adventures, and the best visit from my dad 🙂 There are enough memories from this adventure to carry me through the second half of my Fulbright teaching adventure, and I am refreshed and ready to start the next half of my position as a teaching assistant!