Conservative Excursion in Riyadh

There are two rules which I always keep in mind when holding a camera while strolling in the world’s most conservative culture country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. These are both applicable to my handy compact camera, DSLR, and even mobile phone. First, I should not take photos on the government buildings in an obvious method. And lastly, Saudi women should be censored from any types of photography.

I visited Riyadh, the country’s capital city, to meet our relatives and to renew my passport at the embassy. It was less than an hour travel from the eastern region by air flight. My embassy matter was just a few minutes transaction so the remaining hours was taken discovering the capital.

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Riyadh International Airport
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A beautiful building along the road.
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Comfortable bed of Mena Hotel

Location: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Where I Stayed: Mena Hotel

Buddies: Family

We checked in at Mena Hotel which was located at the famous Olaya Road near King Fahad Library and the Al-Faisaliah Tower. The receptionist’s English accent was excellent just like I spoke to an American in the body of a Saudi local. After a short orientation for our overnight stay we headed to our big and cozy room.

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King Fahad Library and Al-Faisaliah Tower from the hotel’s restaurant.

As promised, we met our relatives who was working for several years in Riyadh. The city was full of expatriates who are visible from streets, houses, shops, and restaurants.

We visited Batha Market, the famous local market for everything. Anything we needed was available in the market but the most attraction there was the gold shops. Our eyes glittered seeing a street of jewelry shops without armed security guards and those hanging wide belts, long chains and plates made of gold. For sure, women will surely love the shining shops to be satisfied from all kinds of jewelries and wide selection of gold accessories. The way of selling was amazing. My relative chose one type of a golden chain and the shop vendor chopped it according to her budget and bargaining influence. They also have ready-made sets and packages as best buy souvenirs. The jewelries here are much cheaper and had more options comparing to the other cities of the kingdom.

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Souvenir from Batha Market
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Kingdom Tower

From Batha, we stopped a taxi but the driver only speak and understand Arabic. There was guilt on my side because I’m working here for many years but I still do not speak the local language. The second taxi understood and brought us to the Kingdom Center, the base of the city’s landmark and a tourist destination.

We headed to the ticket counter to buy entry passes to the Kingdom Tower Sky Bridge. The sky bridge was accessed by paying 60 riyals per head. Children under two years are free. Two high speed elevators brought us to the bridge and let us witnessed the movement of the city at 360 degrees view, 300 meters from the ground. Unfortunately, camera was not allowed and our only option for memory keeping was to avail their photo booth service. The best time to stay is few minutes before sunset but it was already 7pm when we reached the tower.

After few minutes of staying at the highest part of the city, we took a delicious and heavy dinner at Tokyo Restaurant. The Japanese cuisine and its ambiance refreshed our taste buds from Arabic foods and our owned made menus. We continued the unending story telling which was paused after dining at the hotel to end our joyous day.

 

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Dining at Tokyo Restaurant

Riyadh is not just a deserted land. Aside of being a modernized and developed city, it has a unique culture. Additional to this is the strict rule requiring women to have their hair covered aside from wearing traditional abayas. Compared to other cities like Khobar and Jeddah, head covering is not seriously required for non-Muslim women expats.

The next day, after our buffet Arabic breakfast in the hotel, we prepared our things back to the Eastern Region by road. We did farewell to our relatives thanking them for sharing  and spending their hours with us.

The surrounding red sand dunes was the best sight while traveling from Riyadh. It took us more than five hours to reach the Eastern Region.

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Kapatagan – A Sneak on Mt. Apo’s Peak

Few minutes before sunrise, we were traveling along the road of Davao del Sur from Agusan. A jolly conversation ended when someone asked if we already have been in Kapatagan. I only knew the town of Kapatagan which is in the province of Lanao del Norte. I was so curious for I didn’t hear such place.

We rerouted to a new unfamiliar road. We turned right from the main highway before reaching Digos City proper even we were all first timers. The road to Kapatagan was already cemented and developed. It was believed that sunrise was best seen here on the lake that mirrors the peak of Mt. Apo. We traveled more than 30 minutes with winding, downward and most upward hilly roads. This remote barangay is a village situated on the highland. Our ears felt the changes on atmospheric pressure.

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Our first sight of the peak was so amazing. We stopped on the road side and took a beautiful view with the peak of Mt. Apo as the background. We didn’t reach the lake nor catch the sunrise. However, the romantic and beautiful place was already worth discovery.

We were not familiar with the place but as long that the car’s wheels were still touching the cemented road, we were still on the track. We decided to see the proper village for breakfast. We traveled far and it was not good to return back while our stomachs need refueling. The last restaurant we sighted was still on the main highway.

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Along the road, we noticed few numbers of car parked on the signage of Dhen Yho’s Place. We thought of a restaurant so we decided to stop and walked uphill. The site was so marvelous as we never expected it. There was an entrance fee but we didn’t know who is collecting and where to pay. We headed to the restaurant but it only serving coffee and packed crackers.  There was a swimming pool and we also saw tents as there were groups who stayed overnight. The towering pine trees covered the place’s hidden attractions. The place is a must to visit to see an artistry landscaped hills with a big letters sculpted “Land of Peace”. Due to lack of research, I just found that it was the Kublai Art Garden, a master piece of a well known Mindanaon artist. We saw the Bagobo’s tribal ways of living through displayed sculptures.

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We really enjoyed few minutes of our free tour and left the area as we oversaw the village proper from the site. The peak of Mt. Apo was already covered by clouds. We took our affordable but heavy breakfast at the village where we found that it was a drop point for sacks of newly harvested vegetables such as potatoes and cabbages.

As we were heading home, we asked if there was a strawberry farm and a local told us to visit Hillside Resto Civet Farm. We confirmed the existence of a strawberry farm. We noticed that the place was actually Mt. Apo Highland Resort and we were on the altitude of 1,160 meters above sea level. The resort has also bee farms and started materializing their honey-coffee production. We left the resort after a sip of their cheapest brand of the world’s most expensive civet coffee.

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Kapatagan is another starting trail of mountaineers who wish to visit the inactive Mt. Apo aside from Kidapawan City in North Cotabato.  It became famous because of its majestic beauty, nature friendly environment, and cool climate. The fogs covered the road as we were traveling down back to our normal route.

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Bye Maldives Paradise

We woke up with the same daily routine. Added to our morning rituals was fixing and packing of our things. All in to our trolleys were the items as remembrance of our stay in Maldives. We enjoyed the hospitality of the resort’s staffs and the privacy they gave to each of the guest.

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Surely, I have one thing I missed to do! The time never give me a chance to snorkel the diving site. I asked the reception to join the daily scheduled snorkeling tour. It was twice cancelled because it requires of at least four guests. How unfortunate I am! However, I enjoyed the water, fishes, and sharks in the resort’s snorkeling site. For that, I still have a reason to come back!

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We left the resort at noon for our 4:40pm flight by Oman Air. The next boat transfer from the resort was at 4pm. It was better to stay longer in the airport than to miss our flight. The flight screen at the airport entrance was saying that we can only check in starting at 1:30pm. The airport was small so they limit the number of passengers staying inside. We took our lunch at the airport’s restaurant and entered the terminal at almost 2pm for check-in. We headed directly to the pre-departure area and we were surprised that the Oman Air started boarding passengers too early at 3:20pm. Only 22 passengers were counted and we noticed that the newly landed airplane was still full of passengers. As announced by the stewardess after final flight inspection at 3:40pm, the flight we were in was departing to Colombo. All the new passengers were surprised. The plane had a short stop over in Colombo before heading to Muscat.

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We arrived in Muscat at 8pm, one hour late from our booking details. We looked for a good place to stay for those five hours transit. I approached the Plaza Premium Lounge as walk in costumer and paid 10 Omani riyals per head for a lounge pass. We went out from the lounge when our flight to Dammam called for boarding.

Sighted Islands in Maldives

Where is that? It’s the normal question from someone who is not familiar with the country of Maldives. It is a small country consisting of several islands located in Indian Ocean. Its neighboring countries are India and Sri Lanka.

There is no direct flight from Saudi Arabia going to Maldives as far as I know. So we opted to book an airline which shows cheaper flight fare in anyhow to Male neglecting the long transit hours on returned flight. My first choice was the Sri Lankan air which has daily flight from Dammam, Saudi Arabia to Male, Maldives with two hours stop over in Sri Lanka. However, I was surprised that Oman Air is also flying to the country at a very good offer. A very good opportunity especially booking a flight four months before the expected vacation date.

Finding a resort in Maldives was the hardest things I’ve done. Luxurious and with star ratings. But I sorted my category into child friendly resort and its distance from the main island. The closer the resort from the main island will give me a cheaper option and health security especially when traveling with a toddler.

We departed Saudi at night and have a couple of hours transit at Muscat in Oman. Oman Airline is flying to Male but I noticed that only few passengers was on the flight.The morning clouds covered some of the beautiful islets of Maldives as we’re cruising  above the country after more than three hours on board. We tried to get pictures until we finally landed in the smallest main international airport I’ve been. The airport, itself is an island, surrounded by water.

Male International Airport has no passenger tubes so the passengers have to walk to the plane parking area and entered the terminal building for immigration processing. There are few questions from the officer like how many days and which hotel we are going to stay. A 30 days visa stamped on our passport which normally given to most of the nationalities arrived in Maldives.

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We went out and removed our jackets for the weather was humid and hot. We looked for a hotel representative whom I called an hour before we departed from Saudi Arabia. He confirmed that a hotel staff will fetch us at the airport. We didn’t find anyone from the hotel, so I managed to exchange money to local currency (one dollar=15 rufiyaa) as I heard that there is limited ATM and only American dollars and local currency rufiyaa are accepted. I bought a mobile sim for 120 rufiyaa which will function for a week. I immediately called the hotel and the guy from the line asked me to wait for 10 minutes. We waited for 10 minutes at the airport exit (after the travel agent booths) until I saw the cab with the hotel name arrived. He immediately recognized us and we headed to our first hotel in the country for two nights.

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Location: Hulhumale, Kaafu Atoll, Maldives

Where I stayed: Rivethi Beach Hotel

Buddies: Family

Rivethi Beach Hotel is a 10-minute drive from the airport. A new hotel offering a beach front accommodation in the man-made island Hulhumale. All staffs here are all men but very accommodating. We checked in early. Normally, the check-in time is 12nn but we arrived at 8am. We’re lucky that the hotel was not fully book and the room was available for it was not peak season. We checked-in without additional charges and gave us welcome drinks.

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All staffs from the driver, reception, housekeeping, and restaurant are all courteous and nice. As we were experiencing jet lag, we decided to sleep until noon time. In the afternoon, we walked on the white sand shore observing how the local people here lived and finding a store for some snacks as well. We ended our snacks/dinner back in the hotel with a pasta (the waiter told it was not spicy but it still hot) and a sandwich.

DAY TWO

We asked the receptionists about the excursions they were offering and if there was available trip to Male. They even urged us that we must visit the capital. We also asked if a guide was necessary and they politely said that it was not needed. The capital is small and safe to roam.

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In the afternoon, the receptionist helped us to get a taxi to bring us to the ferry terminal. The flat rate for taxi in Maldives is 25 rufiyaa. From the jetty, we rode a public passenger boat for 5.50 rufiyaa each. These passenger boats depart the jetty in every 25 minutes which is also the travel time going to the capital. Once the boat docked and unload passengers, the incoming passengers will get in.

We arrived in Male after passing both commercial and tourist boats, cruising the busy bay of Hulhule. From the port, we hired a taxi to bring us to the famous Sultan Park.  We strolled inside the park and spotted the museum, the mansion, the mosque, until we reached the park where the Maldivian’s military were preparing for the independence celebration. The public event was the reason why all those buildings were closed. We also stopped in one souvenir shop at the side of the park. As we’re confused about the name of attractions and government buildings, we stopped a vacant taxi and asked the driver if he could guide us to the tourist attractions we have not yet known. We both agreed with 200 rufiyaa for an hour guide. We are very thankful that we stopped the right person who told us a lot about Maldives tourist spots, economy, history, and its people. We were informed of those building names (National Museum, Islamic Center, Independence Square) and he also shown us important buildings in Male such as the president mansion, public hospital, schools and university, water supply plant, the main streets, famous stores, tombs, old mosques, and Maldivian’s apartment. I observed that most infrastructures in Male were built in small scale.

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After an hour of strolling, stopping, questioning and answering portion, we understand and we knew a lot about Maldivians. Thanks to the driver, he gave us a lot of information. Instead of dropping us to the ferry terminal, we requested the driver who became our instant tour guide to drop us to his recommended restaurant. He dropped us to Shell Bean Restaurant, a few minutes walk to the terminal. A well known to tourist because it was always full. The place was too small for so many costumers coming in and out.

After a full meal in Shell Bean, we returned back to our hotel in Hulhumale. I completed the first thing to be done on this trip which is to visit Male, the capital city of Maldives.

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Wandering in Camiguin

There are so many tourist destinations in Camiguin. Gladly, I could say that this island is with full boost of natural wonders. One traveler said that roaming in Camiguin can be done for a day but for me it’s not enough.

The White Island is the most photographed site and became famous as background for any traveler who have been in the island. It is a white sand bar that can be accessed by renting a  motor boat situated in Marina port near Paras Resort, the most known resort in the island.

By paying 650 pesos as rental, the motorboat brought us to the white island. It is a long sand bar with actually nothing. No trees, no plants. There were so many tourists, both foreigners and locals, but couldn’t fill the entire place. Nobody stayed longer in the white island because there was nowhere for shade. We’re still lucky, the gloomy sky kept the sun hiding from the clouds.

After an hour, we asked the staff to call our motor boat to fetch us. The staff is the man having handheld radio and stationed in the center. It took few minutes before the motor boat came and brought us back to the mainland. Before we left the dock, everyone availed the shower rooms for a fee of 5 pesos per head.

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The Walkway. A few minutes drive from the port is what they called Walkway to the Old Volcano and Stations of the Cross. The group stopped just to buy souvenirs and not part of the itinerary. As we were curious of what was on the place, we stepped on the stairs and paid an entrance fee. As we are moving upwards passing station 3, we met a staff and asked her if what services they are offering on the hilltop and how many minutes to reach the last station. It looks like the gap between stations are quite few meters. She told us that there is a volcano crater on the top and might reach there within 30 minutes. We didn’t have so much time, so we agreed to go down and continued to our next destination.

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Standing on the exact location of the real cross of the Sunken Cemetery

The Sunken Cemetery. Whoever thinks that it was an old ruined cemetery. Beneath the water lied hundreds of dead people. I thought that we will just pass by after taking photos with a big cross on the water as a background. But there was a twist on the visit.

I was invited to do snorkeling on the sunken cemetery. It was a weird thing. Swimming on top of the cemetery! Hesitated,  but I agreed and we did the stuff. There we have to pay the environment fee and the guide. The area was a protected area since long time. But who dares, it still a cemetery!

The next thing happened was the nicest experience I did. Swimming on top of the colorful and different types of corals, big shells and fishes. I personally saw the real cross under the water and some of the evidence that there were buildings on this part of the sea. The area is no longer a cemetery. For me, it was the most remembered place of Camiguin. However, I didn’t have underwater camera to prove what I saw under the sunken cemetery.

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Old Church Ruins. A few minutes from the sunken cemetery is the old ruins church which was damaged when the volcano erupted in 1871. A candle lighting on the unseen altar was done with a solemn prayer. At the back of the old church was a tree which was believed to be more than hundred years old.

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Majestic Katibawasan Falls

Katibawasan Falls. We moved back passing the town proper ascending up to the mountain to see the famous Katibawasan Falls. After paying the entrance fees, we directly headed to the magnificent water falls.

The water drops made the entire place covered in humidity. It looks like it is always raining. The water from the falls was so cold that nobody can stay longer. I noticed a rope as caution. I asked the guard if what was the rope for. He told us that getting near the fall was restricted for the falling water was sometimes with rocks.

After the whole tiring day in Camiguin, we spent our last hours in Ardent Hot Spring. We enjoyed the day exploring one side of the island. Camiguin has still more wonders so it has more reasons for me to come back and continued rediscovering this wonderful island.

On the next day, we woke up early for our long road trip back to Central Mindanao.

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Beautiful island of Camiguin, Northern Mindanao, Philippines

Camiguin is a Paradise

Camiguin island is situated on the Northern part of Mindanao. Its geographical location might be considered as hindrance for us, from Central Mindanao. The island is not easy to reach.

The gate point going to the island is through Balingoan pier in Misamis Oriental. It was less than two hours travel when coming from Cagayan de Oro City (depending on the transportation). But in our case, from Central Mindanao, it was a continuous nine-hour land travel. However, we managed to be in the pier before 1pm. A ship was already boarding but unfortunately no more space for our vehicle. So, we waited for an hour for the next trip. We finally left the pier at 2:10pm.

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The Ro-Ro (Roll of, Roll On ships) schedule is in every two hours. There are three shipping lines operating Balingoan-Benoni route. The port entry is so congested because of passengers and vehicles whose waiting for their turns to enter. We’re in a big group with two toddlers, three kids and two senior citizens, so we have an advantage. Priority lane is sometimes practice in some ports.

We arrived in Benoni Pier, Mahinog in the island of Camiguin after two hours. As we’re not familiar with the place, our gadget with GPS did the work. But we’re sure, we will not be lost. Camiguin island is a small island and there’s only one main road surrounding the entire island.

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A dorm type room at Villa Paraiso Resort & Apartelle

Location: Mambajao, Camiguin, Philippines

Where I Stayed: Villa Paraiso Resort & Apartelle

Buddies: Group (15+)

We directly headed to our hotel in Mambajao, the capital town of the island. A 30-minute travel from the sea pier. We booked the dormitory room of Villa Paraiso Resort & Apartelle for P3,000. We spotted a good hotel which can accommodate a big family like us. The toilet is separated from the shower, so it was another advantage for a big group. They also have common toilet/shower rooms, so time management was not a problem at all.

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For it almost night, everyone insisted to relax in the water of Ardent Hot Spring. At first, it seems very far from the town but it is actually near once we started moving in Mambajao. All places are just connected and very accessible.

In Ardent Hot Spring, we soaked our tired body to gain more energy. The water temperature, which is naturally heated by vent from volcano, was so relaxing. It was the best place to gain friends and hear great stories

Struggling Flight and the Mactan Bridge

We prepared our baggage late. The typhoon Hagupit is still lashing the eastern islands of the Philippines and based on news, it will pass through the Central Visayas. Our doubt, maybe our flight will be cancelled.

I booked the Shore Time Hotel in Boracay for 3 nights and they asked to have 10% non-refundable down payment. Our flight itinerary will be Davao to Cebu and Cebu to Caticlan on the next early morning. There is no more direct flight from Davao to Kalibo. I didn’t know the reasons why airlines had ceased this comfortable route.

TRAVEL. At 7:45am, we left Kidapawan City and arrived in Davao Airport three hours early of our flight schedule. I checked the Cebu Pacific website for any changes on their travel advisories. Most of the flights going to Visayas were cancelled.

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At 12:30pm, the plane from Cebu landed in Davao confirming that the airport in Cebu was still safe. At 01:20pm, we departed from Davao and safely landed in Cebu after an hour. The clouds covering Visayas islands was so alarming, indicating the presence of a typhoon.

Yet Cebu City has a typhoon warning signal, only rain and moderate winds was experienced. “This typhoon is not as strong as Haiyan. There is no tree uprooted”, according to a local.

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Comfortable bed of Bellavista Hotel

Location: Mactan, Philippines

Where I Stayed: Bellavista Hotel

Buddies: Family

We checked-in at Bellavista Hotel for overnight because of its overlooking view of Mactan Bridge at 2,600 pesos. The free shuttle pick up from and to the airport was a plus. It has a small pool on the top of the building but we didn’t try swimming because the weather condition was not normal.

We ordered foods from the restaurant and it delivered to the room nicely. The taste was excellent and I loved their homemade pizza.

The complimentary buffet breakfast was simple Filipino meal but filled our stomach satisfactorily.

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