To get to Isla Gigantes,

I flew into Kalibo (Aklan), took a van to Roxas City (Capiz), rode another van to Estancia port (Iloilo), and hopped into a boat to an island in Carles, Iloilo that is so far out at sea that people couldn’t even contact me.

Kalibo

My father hails from a town in the outskirts of this city. I spent many childhood summers in Aklan, in my grandfather’s house by the sea. My memory of that time consists of only images: the narrow, bougainvillea-lined streets; the smell of fresh pan de sal and fish mingling in the bakery by the port; the pile of rocks by the wooden gate, where an aswang, I was told, lived; the woven nipa roof and the ever-dusty redstone floor; the rough, gray sand of the beach behind the backyard and the chicken coop by a stone wall; the door to the balcony, which was always locked. For memories of people, I would need to consult my relatives. I don’t remember playing hopscotch with the neighborhood children in the yard, or riding in a banca paddled by my grandfather, or marveling at how my fattest uncle managed to fit into his yellow Volkswagen Beetle. But then I barely know that side of the family anymore, so I suppose it hardly matters.

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Capiz

I spent my three hours in Capiz walking around the capital with my brown-bagged breakfast of bread, strolling into a cemetery, taking pictures of skulls in a dome full of bones exhumed by a recent flood, and chatting with the undertaker, who happened to work for some time as a jeepney driver in my hometown. I also visited the Sta. Monica Museum and Church in Pan-Ay, the oldest church in the region. Unlike the baroque churches in Iloilo, the church in Pan-Ay is poorly maintained, almost devoid of relics and religious art. The five-storey belfry that used to hold the largest Catholic church bell in Asia is in ruins, so the bell was brought down to the courtyard, where tourists could easily have their pictures taken beside it.

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Asluman Town

Two hours by boat from Estancia Port, Brgy. Asluman, dubbed the Scallops Capital of Iloilo, is a small fishing community in the southern part of Isla Gigantes in Carles, Iloilo. With its shell-cobbled dirt paths, nipa huts built with narra and adorned with balite vines, a beach covered with decades’ worth of discarded talaba shells and surrounded by mangrove trees, the town has a rustic charm. Add to that the lack of telecommunications and the fluctuating electricity, and it seems like the perfect rural getaway for the urban-weary. Yet the town is not to be so romanticized. The remoteness of the island, its limited access to technological conveniences and commercial avenues, and the dependency of the entire community’s livelihood on daily catch have long hindered the town’s economic progress. That is, until it opened itself up to tourism around two years ago. The town serves as the “base camp” for island hopping in those parts of northern Iloilo, which feature the most beautiful, secluded beaches I’ve ever seen, unmarred by noise, rowdy party people, and commercial establishments. There are also hiking and spelunking opportunities in the island. The accommodations in Asluman town are rudimentary: a couple of rooms, some nipa huts, a tree house built upon a young banyan tree, and tents inside a small resort compound (Gigantes Hideaway Inn) or by the elementary school fronting the beach. There are toilets with limited water and many sari-sari stores. The town has plans of building more facilities to accommodate the influx of tourists, but I fervently hope it keeps its simplicity, its artless beauty.

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Antonia

The most beautiful, secluded beaches I’ve ever seen

Antonia (for snorkeling and spelunking), Tangke (for cliff-diving), Cabugao (rock scrambling). Dreams of sky, sand, and sea.

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Cabugao

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Things Learned in KK (Part 1)

This is the first of a series of blog posts I plan to write about all the hiking, trekking, and tramping I’ve been doing these past few months, in between work and graduate school.

My trip to Kota Kinabalu last February was a manifold lesson in independence. It not only meant a lot of firsts for me—first time to travel without friends or family, first time to go abroad, first time to plan a week-long trip, first time to climb a high-altitude (more than 3500 MASL) mountain —I also went into it alone. These are the things I learned.


Lesson #1: HOW TO PLAN A TRIP

It all started with a phone call from an aunt late one night in October 2011: “May flight sale to Kota Kinabalu! Di ba gusto mo pumunta dun? Book kita? Sa February! DALI SAGOT BAKA MAUBOS YUNG SEATS!” (“There’s a sale for flights to Kota Kinabalu! Don’t you want to go there? Want me to book for you? Travel in February! Answer quick, the seats might run out!”) Bored and depressed, about to quit my job with no solid plans for the near future, and literally flailing in the darkness, I said yes, yes, yes.

At that point I only knew two things. One, Kota Kinabalu was somewhere in Southeast Asia. Two, the majestic Mt. Kinabalu stood there, and it offered a spectacular height from which one could fling oneself. So my next step was to supplement my pitiable knowledge and turn to Lord Google. Where, exactly, was Kota Kinabalu, and what do I do once I get there?

Location of Kota Kinabalu district and the cit...

Location of Kota Kinabalu district and the city within the West Coast Division of Sabah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Wikipedia quickly filled me in on the things I needed to know about my destination:

  • Kota Kinabalu, fondly called KK, is the capital city of the state of Sabah, which belongs to Malaysia, but which is also being claimed by the Philippines based on historical facts concerning the Sultanate of Sulu. Not here to give a history lesson, so turn to Lord Google for more information.
  • Its climate is very similar to the Philippines’ so I don’t have to add anything new to my wardrobe, except cold weather apparel for hiking Mt. Kinabalu.
  • The crime rate is pretty low, most of the people speak basic English, and there’s a considerable Filipino population in the capital. So I wouldn’t worry too much about getting mugged or getting hopelessly lost despite my abysmal sense of direction.
  • One could foot it from the airport to the city center, but as I would arrive there at night carrying luggage for a week, I felt it was not an option, haha. The standard rate for a cab from the airport to the city center was 30 RM.
  • The local currency is Malaysian Ringgit (RM or MYR) which is equivalent to about 14 Philippine Pesos.
  • From KK, one could go to other tourist destinations in Sabah, like the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park (a collection of five islands—Gaya, Manukan, Sapi, Sulug and Mamutik—just 15-30 minutes by boat from KK), and further, Labuan (the “Pearl of Borneo”), Sandakan (for wildlife sanctuaries where one could see orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and marine turtles), Sarawak (where the Gunung Mulu National Park, a World Heritage site, is. The park features Mt. Mulu and the world’s largest cave system. There are also wildlife sanctuaries and beaches here.) So basically, you go to Sabah for nature adventures!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to go to all them islands and beaches and wildlife parks, and I figured, we have enough of them in the Philippines, haha. I wanted to go to KK for this: to reach the supposedly highest*, arguably the most famous, and definitely the most prominent peak in Southeast Asia: Mt. Kinabalu.

*Mt. Kinabalu is actually the third highest peak in Southeast Asia; the top two spots go to Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, and Puncak Jaya in Indonesia

Mt. Kinabalu viewed from Mesilau Park

Mt. Kinabalu viewed from Mesilau Park

So I planned my trip around the goal of climbing Mt. Kinabalu.

The first thing to take care of is securing accommodations at Laban Rata, the rest house a couple of kilometres below the summit where climbers must stay overnight during the two-day climb** (camping is not allowed). Laban Rata (as well as other accommodations in Kinabalu Park and in KK) is managed by a private company, Sutera. It practically has the monopoly of Kinabalu activities, which it sub-licenses to other tour companies. The accommodations are limited and the waiting list, long, so it would be best to book like two months before the trip.

It’s a bitch to book directly with Sutera, so climbers usually book with tour companies. I did some googling and decided to book with Downbelow Marine & Wildlife Adventures, which is accredited by the Sabah Tourism Board, and has a lot of good reviews. I had wanted to book with another company I found online, which offered cheaper packages, but decided not to push through with it, because they seemed shady (no business address, no full names given, just a blogging site) and weren’t on the accredited list. Plus, I wanted to climb Mt. Kinabalu via the Mesilau Trail, and Downbelow is one of the few companies that offer that option.

I’m glad I went with Downbelow, because they really were marvelous. They answered my queries promptly and comprehensively, addressed my concerns and requests, held my reservation though I paid late because of technical and scheduling problems, and even refunded my single-traveler surcharge when I ended up sharing their private transportation service with a few other travelers to and from Kinabalu Park. After I gave them my specifications, they emailed me the invoice for the tour package, along with the payment details, and I paid through my bank via telegraphic transfer.

**One could day hike Mt. Kinabalu, actually. According to this site, a day hike would cost about 225 RM, which is like a quarter of what it cost me for a 3D/2N climb package, haha!

street art in the KK city center

street art in the KK city center

After I secured my climbing slot, I looked for accommodations in the city center. I was to stay there for six days, and my climbing tour package covered only three days. I tried CouchSurfing, but unfortunately, none of the hosts I contacted could offer me a place to stay (although, granted, I didn’t send requests to a lot of people because I’m picky like that, haha! I contacted only hosts I felt I could get along splendidly with), so I just decided to look for a backpackers lodge. Again, I did some googling and settled on Lavender Lodge. Aside from being budget-friendly (30 RM per night in the dorm room, with breakfast), Lavender Lodge is also accessible, with shopping centers and ukay-ukays, markets, banks, money changers, cinemas, laundry places, restaurants and eateries, and so on a mere five minutes’ walk away.

I loved my stay there. The place was clean and comfortable and had several bathrooms per floor, as well as a laundry area, a TV lounge, and a computer room where I could surf the net for free (that was a big help, because I forgot to go on roaming and anyway, my cellphone battery got fried). Plus the staff were all Filipinos! It was a comfort to be able to speak in my native language when alone in a foreign country, and I enjoyed chatting with the staff over cups of coffee or tea. Thank you so much to the admin officers, Ate Lena and Tita Nora, for taking care of me and keeping me company in Lavender Lodge. When I go back to KK, I’ll definitely stay there again. :)

After getting my accommodations in order, I sat back, relaxed, and read more about Kota Kinabalu and climbing its famed mountain.

first view of KK from the plane

My general plan was this:

Day 1 – Check in at the lodge, get my money changed at the nearby Centre Point Mall, go to the night market for dinner, read tourist guidebooks

Day 2 – Walking tour of the city center; visit nearby tourist attractions, do last-minute shopping for climbing gear

Day 3 – Transfer to Kinabalu Park, get in some pre-climb hiking, then transfer to Mesilau Park, explore!

Days 4-5 – Climb Mt. Kinabalu

Day 6 – Explore more of Kota Kinabalu in the morning, buy pasalubong, then prepare for the evening flight back home.

I figured I’d prepare a more detailed itinerary when I got there.

Notes on budget

  • Roundtrip airfaire via Cebu Pacific: 3, 796 Php

  • Climb package with Downbelow: 1, 385 RM – 115 RM (single traveler surcharge refund) = 1270 RM or about 17 685 Php

  • KK City accommodation in Lavender Lodge: 30 RM/night x 3 nights = 90 RM or about 1, 253 Php
  • Food: About 10 RM/day x 3 days (because food is included in the 3D/2N tour package)= 30 RM or about 418 Php
  • Fare to go around KK: 60 RM (cab fare from and to the airport) + 6 RM (for roaming around KK) = 66 RM or about 919 Php

Total budget (excluding pasalubong and hiking gear expenses): about 24K Php. Add to that travel tax, and it would amount to more than 25K, homaygulay!

Acknowledgments:

Thank you, Auntie, for paying for my airfare (late graduation gift).

Thank you, parents, for paying for half of the climb package (Christmas 2011 + birthday 2012 gift)
KALOKA, haha!

Up next:

Lesson #2:  STRANGERS COULD BE FRIENDS WHOSE NAMES YOU JUST DON’T HAPPEN TO KNOW YET

Lesson #3: THE JOYS OF SOLO TRAVEL

Lesson #4: THE TRAVEL FLING

Lesson #5: I LOVE THE PHILIPPINES!