Donsol Whale Shark Adventure

Mount Mayon, Legaspi

Mount Mayon taken from the airport arrival in Legaspi. Hello big guy!

We set off a couple of weeks ago to Legaspi, about an hour flight away from Manila and home to the very visible, omnipresent Mount Mayon, an active volcano.  I was taking a group of 40+ people to see the gentle, giant whale sharks that pass through the Philippines at this time of year.  But I’m starting this post with Mount Mayon as its the first and last thing you see in Legaspi.  And it watched us all day as we hunted for the whales.  Its renowned for its perfect cone shape, and has erupted quite often in recent years.  This was the best picture I took as other days the clouds obscured the summit.

About an hour ride away from Legaspi, is the town of Donsol, where we stayed at the Vitton Resort.  There’s no much there except for a small town, and a resort built around the tourism from the Whales.  After a really early start, we arrived at the resort around 11am and headed out immediately for the first watch of the day.  Everyone was put in groups of about six on to traditional filipino bancas.  I was quite surprised how large and comfortable they were compared to other bancas I’ve been on, and there was plenty of room for six Western-sized passengers.  Plus we had a crew of four or five:  a captain, a spotter, a Butanding Interaction Officer (official tourist guide, Butanding being the filipino word for Whale Shark) and one or two lifeguards depending on the composition of the group.    The BIO guy gave everyone the swimming protocol, which involved listening to him, reacting promptly and avoiding the uncovered rudder underwater.  The spotter’s job was to spot the whales, although it was my impression they spent a lot of time watching each other too.  There was some secret signaling system where one spotter would see the shadow of a shark and all the other boats would be alert and head over, full speed, to that location.

Spotting Whale Sharks

Boatman and spotter in action

On that first day it didn’t happen very often.  We were out at sea for three hours, just puttering up and down the coast, watching another 25 boats doing the same thing.  We had a potential sighting twice, but the boats scared the shark away.  After a while, my eyelids started to get very heavy, and along with the 4.45am start, and the gentle putt-putt-putt of the engine, my eyes closed and I drifted into a nap.  So not much happened, but it was relaxing, good to be away from Manila and out at sea.

The next day I was primed for a really early start, as with nature, an early start is always best, right?  Well, not so here.  The word from the last few days had been that the later departures were seeing better sightings, and the whales were affected by other forces such as tides and the weather.  So, our departure was scheduled for 10.30am, and true to the recent pattern, the day was much more active.  After only half an hour the sightings began and ran continuously for the remainder of the three hours we were at sea.  A call would go out and all the boats would race over to the sighting:

Whale Shark Spotting

Shark alert! Everyone race over!


It got pretty congested at times.  I saw more than one game of chicken, as boats vied for maneuvering space in such close quarters.

Spotting Whale Sharks

Sometimes the boats got a little too close for comfort

Once the call had gone out for a sighting, the boatman put the engine on its highest speed and, as we raced over, our group had to get ready to jump in the sea.  On went the snorkeling gear and flippers, and at the BIO’s call, we settled on the side of the boat ready to jump in:

Whale Sharks

On standby to jump in the water

Then the BIO guy gives the signal to jump!  The boat is still moving and you hit the water running so to speak.  The water was quite choppy and the visibility was limited, because of the high concentration of plankton in the water that attracts them to the area.  I was still trying to figure out which way to go when one the lifeguards grabbed me by the arm, pointing ahead and telling me to swim hard.  Just as I got my face in the water, I saw it.  I huge,spotted mass, swimming a few feet underneath him.  I was able to keep up with him for about 30 seconds before he out swam me and disappeared into the cloudy water.  Thanks to him, I was the first person to see a whale from our boat.

It was an amazing day, very active and a little dangerous.  I could see the safety efforts were in place, but it was all too easy to get hit by a beam or someone else’s boat.  It was the very definition of organized chaos.  Here’s a little video that captures the sheer excitement/coordination/and chaos of it all:

So what’s all the fuss about?  I didn’t have an underwater camera, nor the skills to capture what I saw while I was working so hard at staying up with the whale.  But from others pictures on the internet, this most closely represents what it looks like when you’re out there:


Seeing the huge, spotted mass in the cloudy water


I’m also including this heavily photoshopped image from a tourist site somewhere, as it gives a good impression of the animals size in relation to a man.


I highly recommend the experience, but its not a passive activity.  You are beat by the end of the day!  The Butanding Tourist Office is a laudable attempt to put controls in place for both the whales welfare and the tourist’s safety.  I never felt mobbed or mistreated and we weren’t treated like cattle.  However, some of their own rules were being broken regarding the number of boats per whale because sightings have gone down in recent years, and I worry that so many boats make the experience less safe for us, less attractive for the whales, and potentially unsustainable if sightings continue to drop because of other environmental challenges.  But at least some effort is being made to balance the needs of man and nature.  An amazing weekend.

Sign Language: Think!

Filipino Public Information Sign

This informational sign was posted at the passenger ferry port in Dumaguete.  We were stuck there for over 2 hours and there was pretty little else to look at after a while.  Its not the first time I’ve seen a sign like this, especially in public places.  I think its a sneak peak into the prep talks that you see going on everywhere around the country at shift changes, and an important glimpse into the Filipino mind set on community responsibility.  It also reminded me of this sign I’ve seen around everywhere in Manila:

rotary filipino four way test

This sign gives its origin away.  Most of the ones I’ve seen don’t include the Rotary logo.  I kept seeing it over and over and wondering where it came from, until I finally figured it out thanks to the Google Oracle.  He’s a picture of Mr Rotary himself, holding the original 1943 sign.  I never noticed it around in the States at all, but its alive and well in Manila.

original rotary 4 way test

Bangkok Day 3: Exploring Chatnuchak Market and Continuing the Fabric Hunt

Chatnuchak Market

Shopping at Chatnuchak Market

Chatnuchak market is only open on weekends.  It opens early on Saturday and closes long after dark on Sunday.  I’d heard that it was THE place to shop for all thing Thai and touristy, as well as oceans of other things from kitchenware, to pets, to plants.  I had one day left in Bangkok and Robert was willing to come with me, so the market was the first stop on our agenda on Saturday morning.  I also heard it gets extremely crowded, and if you read my earlier post on crowds in Bangkok, you’ll understand my feelings on the matter. In this instance going early to the market was clearly going to help.  The question was how early?  The opening time was sort of loose, depending on who you listened to or the article you read.  I think we decided to leave for the market at 8am and see what it was like at that time of day.  We ended up taking a taxi, although the BRT is very simple and takes you right to the door.  When we arrived at 8.30am, the market was definitely open, not all stalls were up and running, but most of them were.  It wasn’t crowded though, and it was still fun to look around.  It totally recommend getting there early.

Chatnuchak is HUGE!  I think I read that it’s 30 acres somewhere, with claims of being the largest market in Asia.  I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it very believable.  Its partially inside, under long covered aisles, and partially outside.  Thousands of small stalls line the rows, and its very overwhelming.  The experience is helped a little with the aid of a market map which is supplied from the information booths, and a numbering system which helps you navigate the different areas.  Stalls are grouped together by what they sell:  household goods, clothing, shoes, pets etc.  But it so easy to fall prey to “shiny object syndrome” and go off on a tangent and forget your original purpose.  But who cares, right?!  We wandered and shopped and wandered around some more.  There was just so much to see.

I had a bee in my bonnet about buying some cushion covers and I wanted something with the ubiquitous elephant motif on it.  Touristy I know.  But the Thai’s do it very well.  Lots of elephant-inspired everything to choose from and I got a very pretty sequined elephant design cushion cover for about $8.00 and a few other bits and pieces.  Robert was still looking for fabric.  We never found any there, but we hardly looked very hard.  There was too much stuff and too little resolve to keep going forever.  We took a break for a cold drink and Robert’s feet were killing him.  Opposite was a foot massage place.  Perfect.    He had a foot massage, and that bought me another half an hour of strolling and exploring.  I could have kept going but didn’t want to push my luck, and the place was starting to get more full, so we jumped in cab and headed back to the hotel area for lunch.

Birdseye view of Chatnuchak

Birdseye view of Chatnuchak

As we drove in a taxi on one of the major roads in the middle of the city, we noticed a stripe of orange in our peripheral vision.  Turn out to be a few monks….no, a long line of monks….no, a really, really long line of monks.  It took a while for the eyes and brain to register the enormity of it.  There were over a thousand of them (I later learnt).  Carrying only their sleeping mats, they walked barefooted on a path of flower petals, with devotees praying on the ground where they passed.  It was the most extraordinary sight.  When we got home I jumped on google and learnt that it was a devotional walk across Thailand from North to South.  We just happened to be in Bangkok at the same time they passed through.  Amazing!

Buddhist Monks

10001 buddhist monks on a devotional journey through Thailand

Our taxi was taking us down to the Chinatown and Indian areas of the city as my research for fabric suggested there was a lot to be found there.  We got out a a department store that was known for its fabric shops and looked around a little.  It was mostly everyday synthetics and cottons, nothing special, or uniquely Thai.  This memory we had from twenty years ago, just seemed to be be out of date.  We did stumble into the Old Siam Center, a shopping mall, for a look around.  We entered at the ground floor amid the food court, which looked pretty clean and fresh, and sold some interesting looking stuff.  The architecture and individual food stalls did have an old world feel to them.  I don’t think the center was as old as it wanted to appear, but it also seemed to be built much earlier than many other shopping malls I’d see, and was, perhaps, a bit outdated.

Old Siam Centre

Food hall at the Old Siam Centre

We wandered around for a bit. Looking down from the higher floors, the stall reminded me a little of Greenhills market, although more upmarket.  This place also had a fabric area.  Lots of beautiful silks and cottons.  If I had been having a fancy dress made, it might have been the perfect place to buy the fabric, but I was really just shopping for fun, and nothing really jumped out at me.  Also, at least 70% of the silks were sold by the yard in specific lengths with specific designs,  lending themselves to making a traditional Thai skirt or dress.  As pretty as all this was, this was still not we were looking for.  The fabric hunt ended there.  It wasn’t until I was at the airport and I saw some of the Jim Thompson designs did I realise that these were the fabrics that I wanted.  But the $300 price tag for a scarf was not.  Its nice to have something to look for as a way of exploring where you are, but the lesson is that things don’t always stay the same.  If there is a next time for me and Bangkok, I might just make a point of going to the Jim Thompson Outlet, which this time around I’d decided was too far out of town.

Old Siam Center

Looking down on the food area

There was probably a great place to have some Indian food around there, but with no local to show us around or even a guide book, we decided to head back to the business area near our hotel and get some lunch. It was a great decision because the business area was quiet on a Saturday and the lunch period was coming to a close.  We had a quiet Chinese lunch and headed back to the hotel.

McDonalds Thailand

I can’t imagine eating in McDonald while you are here on a short visit, but I guess people do. I liked the traditional hand greeting though. Even taxi drivers bowed this way as the opened the car door. I had thought it was just for tourists!

I enjoyed Bangkok and wish I’d had more time to explore the river or take a trip out of town.  But it was fun to stay for a few days and experience a nice hotel.  There may be other opportunities to come back as Thailand may prove to be a good R&R spot once we’ve moved to Nepal.  Especially as its a landlocked country, we may be missing the sea a little!  It was hard not to see Bangkok constantly through the filter of my experience of Manila, although I was aware that this approach wasn’t necessarily fair to either place.  Thailand is definitely ahead on making itself welcoming to tourists, and I wonder if in ten years time, Manila would have developed to this point.  I guess time will tell.

Bangkok Day Two: Royal Palace and Lumpini Park

Having shopped as much as I could the day before, my plan was to get a little cultural sightseeing into the mix during my second day alone in the city.  The number one to-do on everyone’s list seemed to be going to the Grand Palace.  However, after a little research I learnt that it gets incredibly packed and was full of horror stories involving dumb tourists being scammed left and right.  I wasn’t afraid of the scammers, but the crowds were a whole different matter.  I have to admit that morning I almost rolled over and gave up on going, as the thought of being jammed packed anywhere with a zillion tourists was turning me away.  But I pulled out some resolve, decided that if it was too crowded I could just leave, and an hour later I was in a taxi heading over to the site.

I arrived just as it was opening.  And boy, the net did not lie.  It was packed…crammed…with tourists as far as the eye could see.  The picture below doesn’t even begin to do the crowds justice.

Grand Palace Bangkok

Mass crowds at the Palace entrance

Take this crowd and add in about 20 giant bus loads of school kids, and you have every inch of every space taken with milling people, just standing around waiting for instruction.  They weren’t even queuing up for anything.  I jumped up on the little wall on the edge of wide entrance area, and wove my way through the trees to the ticket office.  I’m suspicious that it was school bus season, with kids visiting just before the end of the Thai school year, pushing the crowds way beyond tolerable.  However, paying for a ticket was easy, because it looks like I was one of about 5 people who hadn’t come in a massive group.  In fact, showing up by yourself in these types of situations is actually easier than trying to do it with someone else.  It was so crowded, it was hard to deftly weave in and out of the crowd, but it would have been much harder with more than one person.

Oh, and did I mention that there was a dress code?  Its all over the net, but a little vague at the same time.  Women aren’t allowed to show legs, toes, or armpits.  It seemed stricter than the Greek Orthodox monasteries and I didn’t want to hassle with the rented outfits.  So I wore light shorts with long light pants on top, and a sleeveless tank with a light sweater on top.  The idea was that I could strip off the top layer at the first opportunity.  It was already 95 degrees.  These people are insane!  Walking around I noticed a lot of women wearing knee-length skirts and plenty of naked toes in sandals.  I took my sweater off in protest.  Like anyone was going to notice in this mob scene!

The palace itself is pretty spectacular.  Its not one building as the name suggests but lots – about 20 I would say.  Each more weird and wonderful that the next.  A truly eclectic selection of structures as though each royal architect was on a mission to out do the other.  It was hard to get a photo that wasn’t 70% crowd, but this one gives a little idea:

Grand Palace Buildings

Entering every structure looked like a 30 minute commitment, so I avoided it.  Instead I concentrated on getting up close and personal with some of the amazing detail work on the outside on the buildings.  Every inch of every building was covered in something ornate and wildly decorative.  Figures, patterns, gold, jewels, glass, tiles…it was all there and pretty amazing.

Grand Palace Decoration

I did stop for a while at a small temple.  There was a space to sit down, some shade and people watching opportunities as they came to offer lotus flowers and light a candle at the altar.  It was as peaceful as the site got all morning.  I lasted about an hour before I reached overload, but it took a further 30 minutes to maneuver my way off the compound.  Once out, I hailed a taxi and, on a whim, asked him to take me to Chinatown. I really enjoyed the drive and the driver seemed a pretty nice guy.  I relaxed into what felt like a tour of the city down side streets selling all kinds of stuff.  It was my first time outside of the downtown hotel strip or a tourist site, so I got a little feel of the every day side of the city.  Once we arrived in China town it looked a lot like this:

China Town Bangkok

and I didn’t really feel a need to get out.  I think its probably much more interesting at night when the street vendors appear.  But Chinese New Year was just around the corner, and all the streets were decorated with red and gold.  That was fun to see:

Chinatown Bangkok

Getting ready for Chinese New Year

So I asked the driver to keep going.  Lumpini Park was on my list of places to go and I was hoping it would be peaceful and quiet.  And 20 minutes later, we arrived at the far side of the park and, wonderfully, it was almost empty.  I went from heaving crowds to this little quiet space right in the middle of the city.  Manila really has no parks of any kind, and the few “conceptual” parks that we have in The Fort are really just pedestrian walkways with a few plants.  This was space, greenery, and a lake.  A much welcome antidote to the Grand Palace.

I walked around a little.  There was an outside gym area with guys working out, a few cyclists, dog walkers and small children.  It was reasonably maintained, but a little shabby around the edges, but basically a very nice place.

Lumpini Park

Lake at Lumpini Park

A quiet oasis in the middle of the city.

After a while I found a wrought iron bench and sat down for a while and watched the world go by.  After about 15 minutes, with no warning, a big monitor lizard appeared at the edge of the water and slipped out of the lake on to the bank.  He then waddled around through the park, taking his time and ignoring me and everyone else.  He just hung out, scratching around in the dirt for something.  I watched him for ages.  It was my second time meeting monitor lizards, the last time being at the underground river in Palawan.

Monitor Lizard at Lumpini Park

I’m glad I recognized what this was. I’d have been more frightened if I didn’t know!

After the park, I slowly headed back to the hotel on foot, exploring a little more of the downtown area and grabbing something to eat.  I was glad I got to see the Palace, despite the crowds and my lack of Thai historical background, which would have helped to put in some sort of context.  I had one more day left in Bangkok, and tomorrow I wouldn’t have to explore alone.  Chatnuchuk market here I come!

Shopping in Bangkok: Like Manila But with Fabric

First impressions of Bangkok was not what I expected:  more smog and more humidity than Manila.  A lethal combination that the weather service was blaming on the continuing cool front over the city. Cool being a relative word, of course.  It certainly didn’t feel cool to me, and I live in a hot, humid city.

bangkok smog

First smoggy impression of Bangkok

The taxi driver experience was more coordinated than Manila, though I missed the lack of at least some English.  The ride there in traffic was pretty good and the modern highway delivered me without any fuss to the Plaza Athenee Hotel in the centre of Bangkok for a 4 day visit.  I was piggy backing off Robert’s stay there on a required training course and I would have 3.5 days to explore the city, but 2.5 days of that would be alone.

bangkok sign

Signage? Not.a.clue.

Suddenly I was in a different Asia, minus the English or even the Latin alphabet.  All around were pretty squiggly alphabet letters that gave me no clue – no clue – to what I was reading.  I hadn’t experienced that since China.   A little foretaste of life in Nepal, I think.

So, what’s a girl to do alone in the city for three days in a new city?  Shop of course.  Or at least start with the shopping and take it from there.  That was the plan.  However, I had arrived mid-afternoon without a minute to pre-research where to go and what to do.  So I settled into the room, made friends with the coffee machine and bath tub, got on the computer and waited for Robert to arrive on his later flight.  Its amazing what information you can gather on a city via the internet, but when you’re really starting from scratch and trying to cross reference maps, temples and metro stops, having a few books laid out in front of you makes life a lot easier.  Switching from browser tab to browser tab gets old. (Note to self:  next time bring a guide book too.)

Our hotel location was wonderfully close to a lot of the big shopping areas:  MBK Center, Siam Center, and Central Chitlom Department store.  The Metro ran from just around the corner to stops all over the city, but I decided that at least for now, I wanted to walk, and it was all walkable.  So I set out the next morning to find out what they had to offer and was struck by impression number two:  street food.

bangkok street food 2

Which fresh veggies would you like to top off your dish?

Most people have heard about street food in Bangkok.  Even the Embassy doctor told me it was safe to eat, but in Manila you sort of disregard street food as not yummy and walk on by.  Not so here.  Everything looked good:  fresh fish, fresh vegetables (yes, that’s fresh and vegetables in the same sentence), fresh fruit, fruit drinks, unidentified deep fried things on sticks… all of it looked good.  On the little plastic chairs and tables on the side of the road were bunches of fresh basil, grated vegetables, leaves of lettuce…because adding something fresh and crunchy to your food is a good thing here….! See…I knew I wasn’t making it up!

bangkok street food

I was kept visually entertained the whole walk to the MBK center just by eyeing the various food offerings.

The walk is made easier to by a pedestrian skyway which runs about a mile along the length, and pedestrian bridges are located at most major intersections in the central part of town.  You need to be able to go up and down stairs, of course but, if that’s not an issue, they beat fighting across the road at the lights.  It turns out that Thai’s don’t respect the STOP! hand signal that I’ve used to cross streets here in Manila where a mixture of confident commitment and that hand signal stops traffic that has otherwise rebelliously ignored street signs such as cross walks and stop signs.  In Bangkok, not so much.  You WILL get mowed down!

So on to the actual shopping bit.  My target was the MBK center as it had lots of small stalls and sold knicknacks, souveniers and perhaps what I was really looking for….fabric.  Asia’s known for it silks, batiks and cottons depending on where you are, but no so much in the Philippines.  There’s fabric here, of course, but not much distinctively ethnic or interesting to buy.  So I was on the hunt for some nice silk, preferably by the yard, not the most beautiful, expensive kind (sorry jim thompson) and not the really cheap Chinese stuff.  Just something good quality and a reasonable price that I could use to copy some of my favourite shirts.  It turned out to be pretty illusive in downtown Bangkok.  I’m sure it’s there somewhere but my first attempt failed in MBK and Chitholm Department Store which didn’t sell fabric.

MBK was fun, though.  Lots of the expected touristy stuff.  A lot of it reminded me of the basketware, raffia and wooden items for sale in the Philippines.  But it was fun looking around and I managed to find one or two things that I liked.  I skipped the other malls.  As a long weekend tourist, I really didn’t need any of the international retail chain stuff, although I understand department stores in Bangkok do sell western sized clothing.  For now, I was saving my tourist dollars for the promised treasures at Chatuchak Market.

bangkok mbk

Lost in the warren of MBK market stalls

This Kathmandu Thing is Starting to Look Real…..

moving to nepal

I hear that the truck that moves our stuff overland from Calcutta port to Kathmandu may have some similarities with this vehicle. Mmm….

We’re approaching the 120 day mark until we move and the months are starting to fill with due dates and moving realities.  Back in July, it was a year away and more conceptual than anything.  The lead up to Christmas was almost normal, although the realization was there that the one year mark had passed and seasonal activities and once-a-year events were not to be repeated during our stay in Manila.  The fun, to-do items on the Filipino check list got revised and prioritized, but not much else affected every day life.  Since Christmas with the countdown to departure looming, I have to admit I’ve been in a bit of a funk.  There’s no good, specific reason why I am feeling less enthusiastic or energetic than usual.  It seems to be a general rebellion against our life being put on hold until our travel orders are approved.  The organiser part of me is on a practical path to take care of details that aren’t move specific:  Taxes: in.  Closets: clean.   But the cheerleader in me is just sitting inert, looking at daily responsibilities and not feeling the love.  I just don’t like feeling like I’m in stasis, and that’s how it seems right now.  I know this will pass, and when it does it will be with a torrent of activity…(at least this time I don’t have to sell a house)… and I should be enjoying the quiet before the storm, but I’m not.  Let’s get on with this thing already….!!

Siquijor: A Review of Coco Grove Beach Resort


Finally, a short word about where we stayed in Siquijor.  We had booked our accommodation back in February when I first learnt my family was coming for Christmas, and we managed reservations from the last few rooms available. It had been recommended to me by friends as one of their favorite places in the Philippines and, as a result, I had high expectations. But I was still pleasantly surprised when we arrived. It was very, very pretty. And large.


The resort is spread out along almost 2kms of beach, with two restaurants, two swimming pools and and cottages widely spaced in different settings. I loved the restaurant tables, where you could get a table in a little private hut, far away from others. Everything was well cared for and the service was good. The clientele was from all over the world, but there was a high percentage of families from Europe. This was reflected in the menu, which offered a lot of European dishes with potatoes, not rice unless you asked for it, and European service standards. Additionally, there were many customs and typical Filipino protocols that weren’t followed either. If you haven’t lived in Manila, you wouldn’t notice their absence, but we did. Staff were trained quite differently. The Filipino standard Mamsir form of address was replaced with first names only, which they took the time to learn. Starters were brought out as a first course, not along with or even after the entrée, a common practice here. Entrees came out at the same time, so everyone ate together, rather than just delivering the dishes as they were prepared in the kitchen. Even the plate clearing was handled differently. Giving good service in a Filipino restaurant means clearing empty plates away as quickly as possible. This can be awkward to Westerners who don’t like their plates cleared so quickly, leaving the other diner eating alone. Here plates were cleared when everyone had finished.  A small detail that makes a big difference to Western manners.


We quickly learnt that the way to get efficient service in the restaurant was to preorder your meal. If you go down to the restaurant earlier in the day and let them know where you would like to sit (the best beach tables were booked a couple of days in advance) and what you would like to eat, the food arrived hot and prompt. If you didn’t, you went straight to the back of the line as everyone else pre-orders, every meal, every day.

In the main, the resort did everything very well, and it was a pleasure to be there. At Christmas, it was full with families – the noisiest of guests – but we rarely really felt their presence. You could walk on the beach or through the grounds, see others but feel enough personal space that they never took away from the relaxing experience.  The pool was probably the only place I sometimes felt other people’s presence intruding on mine, but the pool was an optional space. So if you felt crowded, you could just walk away.  There were plenty of quieter spots that were comfortable with pretty views.  We did have to fight the German’s tendency to reserve every pool chair with their towel, holding the chair for hours for their exclusive use. Fortunately none of us really wanted to hang out around the pool too long anyway.

Coco Grove was that rare find in the Philippines so far… an affordable resort, with excellent service that took advantage of its beautiful location. I don’t think we’ll have a chance to return, but it would be a wonderful opportunity to go again.