Thrifty Trailblazers

Frugal travel in an increasingly expensive world.

A Kalesa Ride In Old Manila

Tito and Tita are spoiling us, and we are just loving them.  It was nice to feel like “the kids” again.  After a nice breakfast and an even better lunch, we were told that we had a driver for the day.  Tito said that they had errands that day and since they couldn’t accompany us, they wanted to make it easy for us to do whatever we wanted.  We were both floored by how incredibly nice and generous they were.

Intramuros (5) (Medium)

Cam ensuring that nobody reads his book

Having some fun inside Fort Santiago

Having some fun inside Fort Santiago

So, off we went to visit the old walled city in Manila, called Intramuros.  Our first stop was Fort Santiago.  We paid an entrance fee of 75 pesos ($1.88) each and spent an hour there.  I remembered wandering those grounds with my family and my cousins, Honey, Sugar and Nene.  Inside Fort Santiago was Rizal Museum, dedicated to the Philippines’ national hero, Jose Rizal.  Cam and I examined historical artefacts from Rizal’s time though I think it was more interesting to me than to Cam.  As we followed Rizal’s footsteps that led to the place where he was executed, I felt fiercely nationalistic and proud to be a Filipino.

Carmel showing off her Flip side

Carmel showing off her Flip side

Carmel pondering Rizal's words

Carmel pondering Rizal’s words

The Thrifty Trailblazers with their cuchero in the kalesa drawn by a peeing horse!

The Thrifty Trailblazers with their cuchero in the kalesa drawn by a peeing horse!

Outside of Fort Santiago, Cam and I looked for a kalesa (a horse-drawn carriage).  We had a lot of choices but we settled on a kalesa that was driven by a disabled cuchero.  His left arm had been broken near the elbow and looked like it had not healed properly.  He flashed us a charmingly toothy grin and invited us for a ride for only 300 pesos ($7.50).  He also spoke perfect English so I didn’t have to translate at all for Cam.  The horse looked old and was slobbering all over the place.  My mom informed me later on that the horses being used in Intramuros were actually old race horses that cannot race anymore.  So, at least, the horses were still getting some use out of them.  Cam and I didn’t realize it at the time, but whilst taking a picture with the kalesa, our horse was pissing a mini flood down the street!

Our cuchero took us to all the famous places inside Intramuros.  We passed by the Manila Cathedral, the Three Martyrs Monument, the KKK monument, and San Agustin Church, to name a few.

Cam joining the KKK!

Cam joining the KKK!

Our cuchero was amazing at providing detailed information about each of the monuments.  We ended our half an hour tour at Luneta, which is outside of Intramuros adjacent to Manila Bay.  There is a monument of Rizal there to commemorate his sacrifice for his country.  We felt that our cuchero did such a good job that we actually gave him a tip.  Before we left, we also went to check out the life-sized Tamarao and Carabao statues, which are near each other.  These are both water buffaloes in the Philippines with the Tamarao being the smaller of the two.

We then met up with our driver who suggested that we go to one of the shopping malls.  We went to the Mall of Asia, which was the biggest mall in the Philippines.  We went around the mall, enjoying the frigid air-conditioning and window-shopping.  We got back to Tito and Tita’s house just before dinner.  Then, we had a wonderful dinner with their family at Tiyo’s restaurant.  It was a perfect way to end our short stopover in Manila.

Carmel at Luneta

Carmel at Luneta

Appreciating the Disappointments in Donsol and Legazpi

People always say, “Things happen for a reason.”  I also say that things don’t happen for a reason.  Just a mere six weeks later, I realized that Cam and I had narrowly avoided being in a life-threatening situation (and we didn’t even know it!).  If I had written this blog post even yesterday, I would have failed to appreciate our incredible luck.  Sometimes, you need to look back far enough so you can gain some perspective.

So, I left off the story of our adventures on a bus to Legazpi.  12 hours later, we were viewing the unbelievably symmetrical cone shape of Mt. Mayon, one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines.  From a distance, we could fully appreciate the breath-taking improbability of seeing such perfection made by Mother Nature.  We didn’t take any pictures from inside the bus, figuring we had ample opportunity to photograph the large volcano.  We planned to hike up Mount Mayon the next day.

Carmel and the watcher at the prow of the bangka

Carmel and the watcher at the prow of the bangka

So, we hopped on a Donsol-bound minivan.  We paid 100 pesos ($2.50) each for the one-hour trip.  I was really excited to get to Donsol, where butanding (whale sharks) regularly frolic during the right time.  In the van, we met five other tourists, who we quickly made friends with.  So, we hired a bangka (a large and long canoe with bamboo supporting floats on either side).  In Lonely Planet, the bangka was supposed to have cost 3500 pesos ($87.50), with a maximum capacity of seven passengers.  When we got to the Donsol Visitor’s Centre, the officials there told us the cost was still 3500 pesos ($87.50) but divided between only six people.  Apparently, they had changed the rules.  We were told that we had to split up our group of seven.  With a bit of sweet-talking, I was able to convince them to let us only take one boat.  It really does help that I speak Tagalog!  Since I am Filipino, I only had to pay an extra 100 pesos ($2.50) environmental fee while all the other foreigners including Cam paid 300 pesos ($7.50) each.  We then watched a short introductory video on what to do if we were to encounter one of these magnificent creatures.  Cam and I rented fins for 150 pesos ($3.75) each but we brought our own snorkelling gear that we had purchased in Thailand.  All in all, Cam and I paid 1700 pesos ($42.50) for our whale-shark excursion.  Fully equipped, we got into the bangka with three other people: a boatman, the butanding officer, and a watcher.  The butanding officer told us to be ready to get into the water as soon as he says because whale sharks swim very fast and you can miss them if you hesitate.  The watcher climbed the high pole at the bow of the boat and started looking out for some butanding.  For three hours, we combed the sea for a chance to one but luck simply wasn’t on our side.  It was a hot day so we all decided to at least jump in the waters and snorkel.  The water was refreshing though there was really nothing to see except lots of black, spiky urchin.  We got back ashore disappointed.  Since it was a natural environment, the tour agency could not, of course, guarantee that we would have seen a butanding.  We came at the best possible time to view them but chance just didn’t allow us that privilege.  We said goodbye to three of our group and four of us shared a taxi back to Legazpi for 150 pesos ($3.75) each.

Cam and I checked in at Sampaguita Inn for a rate of 375 pesos ($9.38) per night.  It was a pretty basic hotel but was clean.  For dinner, Cam and I tried out the famous dish from the region: Bicol Express.  It is a coconut milk stew with pork and a lot of chilli peppers.  The region we were in was famous for their spicy cuisine.  We looked forward to trying out the stew as we were now big fans of spicy food.  While it was really good, we could barely taste the spiciness.  Granted, it was spicier than any Filipino dish we had tried.  I guess that after having lots of spicy Indian and Thai food, our tongues were more desensitized.

That night, we also contacted an independent tour guide recommended by our guesthouse.  His name was Jho and he offered very competitive rates to take Cam and I up to the knife-edge of Mount Mayon.  It’s definitely a great idea to try to find local guides rather than hiring from a tour agency.  We just had to make sure that he was competent and experienced.  He’s been climbing Mount Mayon for years and his English was good enough so I don’t have to translate for Cam—a big plus!  So, we signed waivers with him and promised to meet him early in the morning.  Before we went to bed, we made sure to buy food to take with us up the mountain.  We also bought our bus ticket back to Manila for the following day, which costs us 800 pesos ($20) each.

We got up at 4 am.  Jho was at the lobby of our hotel.  He told us that it was rainy and cloudy.  We figured that we could still push on.  However, he showed us that Mayon was completely covered in clouds and the rain would make the climb slippery and dangerous.  So, we had to cancel our attempt to climb Mount Mayon.  Cam and I were so disappointed.  We travelled to that area so we could do two things: see butanding and climb Mount Mayon and neither of those plans came into fruition because we were thwarted by Mother Nature.  So, we changed our bus ticket to that same day.  We spent 12 hours on a bus to Manila and arrived late at 11:30 pm.  Tito and Tita picked us up and consoled us by bringing us to Shakey’s, a popular pizza joint in Manila.  After filling up on pizza and pasta, we did feel slightly better.

Let us fast-forward to now, May 8th.  I just heard from the news that Mount Mayon had erupted.  It was a relatively small eruption, blasting ash and rock into the air.  Five people ended up being killed: four German hikers and a Filipino guide.  Seven other people were injured from the rocks that rained down on the group.  There were no warning signs that the volcano was due to erupt.  Normally, there would have been slight tremors or earthquakes that would have given warning of an upcoming blast.  All I could think about was that it could have easily been Cam and me.  We were there not that long ago.  I was at least relieved to find out that the tour guide who got killed wasn’t Jho.  My heart goes out to those dead and injured.  I’ve reflected again and again how lucky we were.  You just never know when it’s your time.  It reminds me to appreciate everything I experience in life, whether it’s a success or a failure.  Don’t wait for tomorrow what you can do today!  Carpe diem!

Taal Volcano at Tagaytay

We were still full when we woke up the next morning.  Nevertheless, we had a nice breakfast of pandesal (sweet bun) and fresh fruit.  Tito and Tita insisted on accompanying us to Tagaytay, a small city two hours south of Manila.  My family and I used to go to Tagaytay often when I was a kid.  It was a good escape away from bustling and humid Manila.  Since Tagaytay is at a higher elevation, it is cooler.  Plus, it affords a great vantage point for the iconic Taal Volcano, which is situated in the middle of Taal Lake.  The lake fills the crater of Taal Volcano.  It is also the smallest active volcano in the world at around 400 metres.  I was excited to show Cam of what kind of scenery I was exposed to as a youngster in the Philippines.  He was suitably impressed when he saw inside the crater of Taal.  I mean, how often do you get to see the inside of a volcano?

The Thrifty Trailblazers with the mini volcano in the background.

The Thrifty Trailblazers with the mini volcano in the background.

After taking many photos, we went looking for the other best thing that Tagaytay had to offer: a bowl of bulalo.  It is a famous Filipino stew made with beef and beef marrow.  The broth is just heavenly.  To me, it tasted like home.  The four of us shared a huge bowl that we could not finish.  We also ordered another plate of pancit (fried noodle).  Again, we were stuffed.

We drove back to Marikina after our massive lunch.  We were able to rest up a bit before Tito and Tita took us out for dinner.  We went to Viking, a buffet restaurant.  It was undoubtedly the best buffet we’ve ever had, offering different sushis, fresh seafood, pasta made-to-order, and anything else you can think about.  Cam was drinking a couple of pints of San Miguel beer.  I tried out many exotic fruit juices.  The dessert selection was varied and also ridiculously good.  If there was such a thing as food heaven, that restaurant would have been it.  After a couple of hours of gorging ourselves, we finally had to call it quits.  We left the restaurant a few pounds heavier than when we came in.  Tita giggled as Cam ran back inside to get marshmallows on a stick dipped in chocolate fondue.  It was such a great night.  Our new Filipino parents then drove us to the bus station so we can catch our night bus to Legazpi.

Mabuhay, Manila!

Mabuhay literally translates to “live” but is also used as a way to say “welcome.”  After 15 years of living in the other side of the world, I was finally flying back to my motherland, the Philippines.  I had mixed emotions.  I’ve called Canada home far longer than I had called the Philippines my home.  In fact, I usually describe myself as a “banana” or as being the “white sheep of my family.”  I wondered if I would feel that nationalistic pride of being a Filipino, or if I would feel like a stranger in the country where I spent my childhood.  Of course, I was excited too!  The Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands.  Now that we have our diving certificates, we could also explore the underwater realm that boasts colourful reefs and unique sea life.  Also, it was my first chance to really I wanted to experience the Philippines as an adult, with my husband, and with money and time to spend.

I was nervous when I talked to the immigration officer at the border, speaking in halting Tagalog.  He was surprised when I spoke Tagalog because I had presented my Canadian passport.  He was probably the friendliest border officer we’ve spoken to in our travels so far.  I felt like the prodigal son, welcomed back home with open arms, despite my being a Canadian.  In our internet research, I was supposed to present my old Filipino passport or a birth certificate.  Since I didn’t have access to either document, I didn’t think that I could be considered a balikbayan (a Filipino coming back to the Philippines).  The advantage as a balikbayan is that I would have been granted a three month visa.  Because Cam is my immediate family, he would have been granted the longer visa along with me.  So, prior to even coming into the country,  Cam and I had already booked a flight out of the Philippines in exactly three weeks, figuring that we would only be allowed that amount of time.  The immigration officer was surprised we were only staying three weeks, telling me that there was no need for the documentation.   The fact that I could speak Tagalog would have been enough for me to be granted the longer visa.  Next time, we’ll know.

We quickly picked up a SIM card for our cell phone.  A word of caution to other travellers to the Philippines: be careful which cell phone company you buy minutes from.  There are three main companies: Sun, Globe and Smart.  We bought into a Sun plan, which is great if you’re calling other Sun numbers, because they offer unlimited calling within the same network.  Unfortunately, everyone we needed to call was either Globe or Smart.  We quickly ran out of minutes within the first two days because calling to other networks was way more expensive.

Outside of the airport, we took a taxi to the bus station and then, a local bus to Manila.  I was able to negotiate in Tagalog, making it easier for Cam and I to get good rates.  In the bus, a couple of vendors were selling fresh bananacue.  It’s basically two plantains on a stick, deep fried with brown sugar.  Cam and I enjoyed this unhealthy but super tasty treat immensely.  I was swept by a wave of happy childhood memories as I ate my bananacue.

Manila (7) (Medium)

Carmel with her man, Jollibee

We arrived in hectic Manila and called our friend Niko’s dad, Tito (Uncle) Ramir.  Niko was one of our best friends when we lived in the Cayman Islands.  He generously offered for us to stay with his parents when we got to the Philippines, although they’ve never met us before.  We met Tito Ramir first.  He is just one of those people that, as soon as you’ve met him, you know is an undeniably good person.  He asked us if we were hungry first and having eaten only a bananacue, Cam and I were pretty starving.  He took us to Jollibee, the most famous Filipino fast-food chain restaurant.  It’s even more popular than McDonald’s in the Philippines.  I was so excited to have Chicken Joy again.  Cam didn’t believe me when I told him it was better than KFC, but he quickly changed his mind as soon as he took his first chomp down on a drumstick.  We also had spaghetti which was as yummy as I remember.  Tito Ramir also bought me a box of bibingka, a rice and coconut cake grilled in a banana leaf.  I merely mentioned that I haven’t had bibingka for such a long time, and Tito rushed out of Jollibee to get it for me.  This seemed to be a pattern that formed during the entire length of our stay with Niko’s family.

After we ate, Tito drove us to their house in Marikina, the shoe capital of the Philippines.  We learned that Niko’s family had a very successful slipper business.  As we pulled into their driveway, I thought we were going to a church at first.  The outside of their house was built with recycled old wood, with wrought iron and the windows all utilized stained glass from old, abandoned churches.  The house was the most uniquely beautiful place I’ve ever seen.  Niko’s family seemed to have different collections of antiques whether it was lamps, old telephones, or large bowls being used as fish ponds.  All the furniture was heavy dark wood and their house has been rented before to film for movies.  I could see why.  It had to have the most interesting character from a house I’ve ever seen.

We also met the rest of Niko’s family: his grandmother and a young maid named Inday.  We met Niko’s mom, Tita (Aunt) Wina later on that night.  Tita is a beautiful and kind-hearted lady who carries herself with such elegance, especially for such a little lady.  She just came back from a trip herself.  Tito and Tita then took us to a buffet dinner.  In fact, they kept us so well-fed the entire length of our stay.  They put so much effort in making us feel at home.  We were treated as if we were their very own kids!  Nearing the end of our long adventure, we really appreciated how they opened up their home to us.

Randomness with King Banana

Introducing the King Banana!  (It’s called “pisang raja” in Indonesia and Malaysia.)

King Banana as….

Yoga-banana!

It’s difficult to eat a king banana but Cam makes it look easy!

Thrifty in Singapore

COST OF SINGAPORE

Total

Per Day/Couple

Per Day/Person

Food & Drink

101.97

20.39

10.20

Accommodations

0

0

0

Transportation

29.42

5.88

2.94

Tours & Experiences

8.50

1.70

0.85

Shopping

41.28

8.26

4.13

Fees

0

0

0

Health

0

0

0

Groceries & Toiletries

0.85

0.17

0.08

Total Cost

182.02

36.40

18.20

We spent a total of 5 days in Singapore.  We were given a one-month visa in Singapore for free, though it was such a small place that one really didn’t need more than a week.  We will describe each category down below and provide tips on how to save money.

  • Food & Drink:  Eating in Singapore is more expensive than other countries.  If you only eat at hawker centres, then the food is not badly priced.  There is also a lot of selection in hawker centres.   A typical meal for Cam and me varies from $3 to $12.
  • Accommodations:  The total is zero because our generous couchsurfing hosts let us stay at their place for four nights.  Otherwise, accommodations are very expensive compared to the rest of Asia, costing about $25 for a dorm bed.
  • Transportation:  The MRT is very easy to use and navigate.  You just have to purchase a SMRT card, but you do get your money back when you return the card.
  • Tours & Experiences:  We only paid one entrance fee for the National Orchid Garden, about $4.25 each, and totally worth the expense.
  • Shopping:   We mostly did a lot of window shopping.  Singapore is amazing for shopping especially if you have lots of money.  It has all the high-end fashion houses and renowned jewellery brands.  I exercised restraint and only bought a purse and some souvenirs.
  • Fees:  We exchanged our leftover ringgit to Singapore Dollars.  Thankfully, it was enough for our five day stay.  We also used our credit card if the store we’re buying from accepts it.
  • Health:  Our stay was short enough that we didn’t need to get anything done.
  • Groceries & Toiletries:  We didn’t really have the opportunity to cook but we did buy some bananas for snacking.

Clean, Green and Smart Singapore

From Melaka, Cam and I got on a bus to Singapore.  As this is our nth border crossing, we went through the motions.  The Singapore-Malaysia border was probably the most organized and efficient one we’ve ever been through.  So, we both got our free one-month Singapore visas, headed to the bus terminal where our bus was supposed to be waiting.  In the distance, I see it driving away but then I thought that maybe it was just another bus from the same company.  After about half an hour, we concluded that the stupid bus left us at the border along with six other foreigners.  We found out which local bus to take though we ran into another problem—we had no Singapore dollars on us for bus fare.  So, I cajoled the driver in letting us pay in ringgit.  He asked for 12 ringgit each, to which I replied, “I only have 8.”  Rolling his eyes, he motioned for us to just get on the bus to downtown Singapore.

Carmel spinning the Mani Wheel

Carmel spinning the Mani Wheel

We had previously arranged to meet our couchsurfing hosts at a different location.  Upon explaining the situation, they graciously picked us up from the bus station.  Kian Wee and his wife Lin welcomed us warmly and we got into their car.   We learned that both of them were grade school teachers and worked long hours.  So, we were even more grateful that they hosted us during their weekend.  First, they took us for a delicious dinner.  After we were full, we checked out Thekchen Choling, a small but colourful Chinese temple with a massive Mani (prayer) wheel.  Cam and I took turns spinning the Mani wheel, visualizing our good fortune.  We walked over to an unassuming cafe which roasted their own coffee beans.  After months of instant coffee, we had the best latte (complete with latte art) that we’ve had in what seemed like ages.  Afterwards, Kian Wee and Lin drove us to one of their favourite places—Marina Bay.  It overlooked a dam that separated the freshwater reservoir and the salt water sea.  Also, we could see the Singapore skyline in front of us.  The distinctive Marina Bay Sands dominated the skyline with its three towers supporting the Skypark, which looks like a giant cruise ship.  The Cloud Forest is visible on its right, a ribbed domed building that is part of the Gardens by the Bay.  Further to the right is the blue-outlined Singapore Flyer, the tallest Ferris wheel in the world.  Above our heads floated a few LED kites, fascinating in their neon flashes of colour.  The night breeze was refreshingly cool.  Not for the first time, I observed how totally clean Singapore was.  There were heavy fines for spitting and chewing gum.  Barely anyone smoked, a fact I totally appreciated after Indonesia.  On the drive to their house, we passed by the Supertrees of Gardens by the Bay, an unearthly collection of vertical gardens.  They looked like something out of the movie Avatar.

The Thrifty Trailblazers at Marina Bay skyline

The Thrifty Trailblazers at Marina Bay skyline

Kian Wee and Lin’s condo is part of a low-rise building.  At the ground floor, there is a hawker centre full of any kind of cheap food that you can imagine.  It was the cleanest CS place we’ve ever stayed in.  It looked like something out of a magazine with its glazed white stone floor tiles, modern appliances, and motion sensor lights.  The best part was their large rain showerhead.  They really utilized their space efficiently.

Cam is reluctantly eating a chicken foot!

Cam is reluctantly eating a chicken foot!

The next morning, we all went downstairs to the hawker centre for breakfast.  We ate chicken noodle soup and coffees.  Lin even bought Cam chicken feet for him to try (he didn’t like it).  After breakfast, Lin took us to the local mall to exchange our ringgit fore Singapore Dollars.  She also showed us how to use the MRT to get around.  It was a very easy system.  You buy a SMRT card which you load up with money.  When you take the bus, you scan the card to indicate you’re inside and scan the card again when you get off so you only pay for the distance that you have travelled.  You also scan the card to get in and out of MRT trains.  Their trains are so organized too.  There are signs everywhere telling you where to go, including which side to get off when you are inside the MRT trains.  Even the parking all around the city are electronically monitored so all drivers know how many parking spaces are left in any building.

Carmel with a Merlion statue

Carmel with a Merlion statue

That day, Cam and I decided to go running at the Southern Ridges Walk, a 9-kilometre trail stretching across southern Singapore.  We started at Marang Trail and started running west towards Mount Faber.  Our first stop was the Merlion statue at Faber Point.  It was a queer white statue with a lion’s head and a fishtail.

Cam at Henderson's Wave

Cam at Henderson’s Wave

We ran to Henderson’s Wave.  It was a bridge that looks like a wavy millipede, providing views of the gondola to Sentosa Island.  We ran through the Hilltop Walk, and climbed some stairs to get to the top.  Then, we got to our favourite part of the trail—the Forest Walk.  The metal trail was elevated above the jungle at the same height as the trees.  Cam and I sped through this section, enjoying the views of the natural world all around us.  After crossing the Alexandra Arch Bridge, we got to HortPark, a gardening centre with different plots.  There were stunning views all around, making you forget that you were in the middle of a city.  There was even a children’s themed garden with colourful mushrooms and branches.  It was the perfect time to end our run as it started raining hard.  Cam and I got to the MRT just as a huge downpour started.  We got back just in time for dinner with Kian Wee and Lin.  We had a fantastic dinner of fish head laksa, crispy chicken, and sizzling tofu, probably the best meal we’ve had in a while.

Carmel is going to the Mushroom Kingdom!

Carmel is going to the Mushroom Kingdom!

We got up early the next day.  Kian Wee and Lin had to be in school early and so, we left with them.  Cam and I had a regular Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast, two soft-boiled eggs and coffee.

Cam revelling in Golden Shower arches ;)

Cam reveling in Golden Shower arches 😉

We then went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens.  Again, we marvelled that Singapore, despite its high-tech modernity, made sure to keep abundant green spaces all around the city.  The paved walkways curved around lakes and old trees.  We made our way to the National Orchid Garden, which has the largest display of tropical orchids in the world.  We paid S$5 each but it was well worth the entrance fee.  There was a VIP orchid garden with orchids named after famous people who have visited Singapore, including Princess Diana and even, Jean Chretien, a Canadian prime minister.  There was an Orchidarium where the orchids were more free-flowering and less showy.  We went through a Celebrity Orchid Gardens and the Tan Hoon Siang Mist House, which had the rarest and biggest orchids I’ve ever seen.  We ended our tour at the Cool House, which was indeed very cool inside, showcasing a few orchids that grew at a higher elevation.  We were thoroughly impressed with the orchids and would highly recommend it to anyone who loves nature.

After the Botanic Garden, we walked all the way to Orchard Road, the main shopping district of Singapore.  Everywhere you looked, there was a mall or shopping complex.  We walked in and out of air-conditioned shopping meccas.  We even came across Jewellery Street, an indoor complex lined with jewellery stores left and right.  We admired some 19K purple gold designs, which is only available in Singapore.  I was seriously tempted to buy myself a magnificent purple gold ring but was deterred by the high cost.  The $3000 could last us almost three months of travel in Asia.

Flying swan statue at Swan Lake

Flying swan statue at Swan Lake

After lots of window shopping, we made our way to Chinatown to buy some souvenirs.  Nearby, there is a Hindu temple called Sri Mariamman Temple.  We also passed by the Jamae Mosque.  We found it interesting that they were both situated in Chinatown.  Then, we went to the National Museum of Singapore, which was free after 6 pm.  We were pretty tired at that point and didn’t stay long.  However, we did go through a display of Singaporean history of cinema, from puppetry to modern movies.  We also checked out a gallery that showed how Singaporean fashion has evolved over the years.  We did a lot that day and our feet were dead by the time we got back.

We decided to go back to the Singapore Botanic Gardens again the next day so we can explore it further.  We put on our running shoes to go all around the gardens.  The beautiful paved paths made it ideal for running.  We explored the Healing Garden, which carried many medicinal herbs and plants.  Then, we went through the Evolution Garden, which showed the evolution of plants throughout Earth’s history.  We also passed by the ginger garden (do you know that bananas are part of the ginger family?).  Lastly, we ran around Swan Lake, which had some snow-white live swans and a black statue of swans in flight.

Various hand puppets

Various hand puppets

After lunch, we went to Little India.  We went on a free tour guided by a Chinese local named Nancy.  The most interesting point was probably the residence of Tan Teng Niah, a pretty, colourful building.  It epitomized Indian style.  Nancy also explained different aspects of Indian culture to the group.  Having been in India, we didn’t learn much of anything new.  The tour ended at Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, another colourful Hindu temple.  We parted from the group soon and walked to nearby Arab Street.  Suddenly, within two blocks of Little India, everything was suddenly Muslim.  We visited the Sultan Mosque, which had a large impressive dome.  We then hopped on the MRT to go to Chinatown.  Nancy was giving a free Chinatown tour too.  Since we already roamed around Chinatown the day before, we had visited most places.  Nancy took us to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum as the last stop of the tour.  The fourth floor had the tooth, allegedly from Buddha himself.  It was encased in gold and behind glass windows.  In the first floor, Cam and I chose our personal guardian deities based on our Zodiac sign.  I doubt our prayers will be answered though as we didn’t contribute the S$88 to sponsor our deities.

Cam and his personal guardian deity Akasagarbha Bodhisattva

Cam and his personal guardian deity Akasagarbha Bodhisattva

We left Kian Wee and Jin’s place by 6 am the next morning.  We were surprised at how easy it was to get to the airport by MRT.  In fact, the Singapore airport was the most organized and modern airport we’ve ever been to.  We flew to the Philippines that morning.  On our return to Singapore (after our 3-week visit of the Philippines), we just stayed in the airport for 12 hours, waiting for our next flight.  There were a lot of places to sit down and relax.  There was even a lounging area with actual beds.  You can also get a free mechanical foot and leg massage though the queue was too long for us to wait for our turn.  There was free WiFi, which made both of us very happy.  Also, there were cheaper restaurants inside the airport too.  As a final treat, Cam bought me a Charles & Keith purse, figuring our trip to Singapore wouldn’t have been complete without a tiny bit of shopping.

Thrifty in Malaysia

COST OF MALAYSIA

Total

Per Day/Couple

Per Day/Person

Food & Drink

192.67

10.14

5.07

Accommodations

128.74

6.78

3.39

Transportation

161.23

8.48

4.24

Tours & Experiences

56.36

2.97

1.48

Shopping

144.16

7.59

3.79

Fees

10.00

0.53

0.26

Health

7.79

0.41

0.20

Groceries & Toiletries

79.69

4.19

2.10

Total Cost

780.64

41.09

20.54

We spent a total of 19 days in Malaysia.  We were given a one-month visa in Malaysia for free.  We will describe each category down below and provide tips on how to save money.

  • Food & Drink:  Eating in Malaysia is pretty cheap because of the abundant availability of street food.  A typical meal for Cam and me is about $3 to $7.  We also had the opportunity to cook so we bought groceries too, decreasing this total.
  • Accommodations:  Rooms are slightly more expensive than other countries so far, costing about $11-15 per night.  Thankfully, because of our couchsurfing hosts in Ipoh and KL, we were able to save on accommodations.
  • Transportation:  The buses linking cities are very easy to navigate.  Usually, there is a central bus station so you can just go to each window to shop around different bus companies.  The prices are also very reasonable.  We wish we could have bought a one-week pass instead of having to buy tokens every single time while we were in KL.  We could have saved a bit, but then, we only decided to spend a longer time in KL because of our wonderful host.  For cab rides, we also hooked up with other travellers to divvy up the cost.
  • Tours & Experiences:  Our Rafflesia Tour make up the bulk of this cost at $20 per person.  We also saw the new movie Oz for only $4 per person.
  • Shopping:   KL was great for shopping.  We bought a lot of souvenirs.  We also replaced items we’ve lost such as sunglasses.  We shopped for a cellphone (only $30), which we figure we’d need soon.  We also splurged just a bit on ourselves, buying items we wanted, but not necessarily needed.
  • Fees:  We exchanged our leftover Thai baht to ringgit but when we ran out, we ended up only withdrawing money twice the entire time we were in Malaysia.  The maximum amount you can withdraw is 2,000 ringgit.  We used Maybank ATMs, which do not charge a transaction fee but we still had to pay $5 to our bank as a service fee.  We had a lot of ringgit leftover but we changed the last of that currency to Singapore dollars.
  • Health:  At only 2 ringgit per kilo, we got a Laundromat to do our laundry while in KL.  Cam also got a $3.34 haircut.
  • Groceries & Toiletries:  Nizar, our couchsurfing host in KL, really made us feel at home.  After travelling for about six months at that point, we just missed being able to cook for ourselves.  Nizar let us cook to our hearts’ desire and so we bought more groceries than any other country we’ve visited so far.  We also stocked up on some toiletries.

Mmmmm, Melaka!

The red buildings of Melaka

The red buildings of Melaka

Melaka was our last stop in the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.  From KL, we took a long-distance bus to the very organized Melaka Sentral.  Then, we took a local bus to the town centre, arriving just before sunset.  We were struck by the heavy Chinese influence everywhere but then again, we did get dropped off at Chinatown!  They haven’t taken down any of the red Chinese New Year lanterns either.  The red buildings mostly looked like renovated temples.  It seemed to me that someone really painted the town red.

We checked into Bala Guesthouse after finding most of the cheaper Lonely Planet guesthouses fully booked.  We negotiated the price from 45 ringgit ($15) to 35 ringgit ($11.67) per night.  The guesthouse was scrupulously clean and had a nice balcony upstairs.  Though it had shared bathrooms, we didn’t mind as the bathrooms were also kept really clean.  Actually, most guesthouses have shared bathrooms as owners are limited by regulations to keep buildings from being overly modified and thus, keeping their historical significance.  For dinner, we went to a restaurant that served delicious rice balls with some roasted pork.  We also picked up some Nonya pineapple tarts, a local specialty, which proved addictively good.

Carmel defending the Porta de Santiago

Carmel defending the Porta de Santiago

We only had one day to spend in Melaka so we wanted to pack in as much sight-seeing as possible.  We walked all around town and checked out Christ Church, another old red building.  Across from it is Stadthuys, the town hall, also painted red in colour.  A quick walk over is Porta de Santiago, a destroyed fortress right beside the river.  We also visited one of the many museums in the area, which explained the different styles of architecture all over Malaysia.  Cam and I found it dry and boring though the building models were very well done.  Afterwards, we climbed up a small hill with stone steps that led to the ruined St. Paul’s Church.  From there, we had a nice view of the city.  Back near our guesthouse, we walked around Jonker Street, the main street in Chinatown.  We came across numerous fun souvenir shops and even more Buddhist temples.  Cam’s favourite was the Top Spinning Academy where he leaned how to spin a top from an expert top-spinning old man, who also ended up selling us egg-shaped ice cream.

The top-spinning master in front of his egg-shaped ice cream stall

The top-spinning master in front of his egg-shaped ice cream stall

Our favourite part of Melaka is not its bright red architecture but its food.  We ate a large dimsum brunch at Low Yong Mow.  Their siomai and hargaw were very good but we tried out a bunch of other bite-sized delights that we’ve never seen or tasted before.  Also, they steep their coffee like a teabag, which really confused us at first.  We thought they gave us black tea.  We were so stuffed from brunch that we only snacked on pineapple tarts for lunch.  At dinnertime, Jonker Street became a night market.  Our dinner included otak-otak (fish grilled in a banana leaf), candied fruits on a stick, and popiah (a vegetable spring roll that was sweet and spicy at the same time).  Our dessert was cendol, which we’ve had before.  In Melaka though, they also add their yummy cane syrup in the cendol, elevating it to one of the top desserts we’ve tried in Asia.

After all that eating, Cam and I made our way to the local mall called Dataran Pahlawan.   It was raining but we didn’t get too drenched!  We ended up buying a cell phone, which we figure we’d need soon for only $30.  Also, we decided spontaneously to go catch a movie.  It ended up being only $4.08 per person to watch the new movie Oz.  We found the movie cute and entertaining, perfect for families.  I wondered if my almost 3 year old niece Alex had watched it yet.  We got back to our guesthouse fairly late and had to bang on the metal gates to wake up the owner so he could let us in (we were past curfew!).  We just love Malaysia and we’re sad to go though we were excited for ultra-modern Singapore the next day.

 

Thrifty in Indonesia

COST OF INDONESIA

Total

Per Day/Couple

Per Day/Person

Food & Drink

44.69

6.38

3.19

Accommodations

42.06

6.01

3.00

Transportation

35.79

5.11

2.56

Tours & Experiences

50.04

7.15

3.57

Shopping

3.27

0.47

0.23

Fees

5.00

0.71

0.36

Health

0

0

0

Groceries & Toiletries

9.39

1.34

0.67

Total Cost

190.24

27.17

13.59

We spent a total of 7 days in Indonesia.  This table shows all of our expenditures while we were in Indonesia but does not include our visas, which cost $51.26.  Our round-trip flight to Medan and back to Kuala Lumpur was $213.95.  We will describe each category down below and provide tips on how to save money.

  • Food & Drink:  A typical dinner out at a restaurant ranges only $2-4 for both of us.  Of course, we saved more money by buying groceries too.
  • Accommodations:  Rooms are very cheap, costing about $8 per night.
  • Transportation:  In Sumatra, there was a lot of backtracking as bus routes from one remote place to another often do not exist.  The roads are pretty terrible for the most part.   The minivans and buses are filled up to the brim, with passengers hanging on at the roof of the car.  The worst part is that many people smoke inside the vehicle so try to situate yourself beside a window.  We hired a taxi instead of going on packed minivan a couple of times to save our lungs.
  • Tours & Experiences:  Our orang-utan tour make up the bulk of this cost at $41.54.
  • Shopping:   We barely did any shopping but just bought a couple of token souvenirs.
  • Fees:  We only needed to withdraw money once.  We withdrew 1.5 million rupiah at CIMB bank, which does not charge a transaction fee but we still had to pay $5 to our bank as a service fee.
  • Health:  We did our own laundry and we didn’t get sick so our total is zero.
  • Groceries & Toiletries:  We still bought food and some other essentials like mosquito repellent.

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