What it was like to be at the Vatican for a day?

It might not be obvious, but since I was in grade school, I have been unknowingly serious about my spirituality by participating actively in Flores de Mayo each year after school break and Misa de Gallo during advent. In high school, I taught catechism classes at the chapel of my small village and on my junior and senior years I volunteered to teach religion classes in public elementary schools in my city. I even self-studied how to play the guitar so that I can play hymns during liturgical services in the chapel. Holy Week is one of the Catholic church’s liturgical events that I look forward to, as I love joining long processions, burning lots of candles, reciting the Stations of the Cross and binge-watching and listening bible movies on TV and radio. I strictly followed a week of no-meat diet and even formulated a fish-ball recipe from fresh yellow fin tuna to enjoy the holy meatless season.

Fast forward to adulthood, I joined healing masses, Catholic youth and singles ministries, relic visits, Visita Iglesias and Holy Week retreats not caring about the mob, long hours and unpredictable weather! Then when I went to Europe in 2010, I made a pact to myself that I will save money to visit holy places around the world, taking pilgrimage to Holy sites every few years. So my first destination was Rome, where the Vatican City is enclaved within this Italian capital. My first visit to the Holy See was in June 4, 2010 and revisited in December 1, 2018 and this time the experience was ‘transcendentally esoteric’ characterized by deep thought, meditation and soul-searching.

From any parts of Rome going to St. Peter’s Basilica, the bus stop to watch out for is Cavalleggeri/S. Pietro. It’s the closest one to the basilica. I followed where people were heading and minutes later found myself standing at the immense St. Peter’s Square. There was already a long snaking queue and on this visit I opted to skip the line and get a guided tour (in English) to make the most out of the experience. This tour package includes Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapels fast track entry that will last for 2-3 hours only, about one-third of the time when taking the free but long queue. The tourism office is just in front of the Square and there were uniformed tour personnel scattered around to look for customers. But I recommend going to the tourism office yourself or book tickets online. English guided tours are available only at certain times during the day so keep this in mind. You will get a sticker like this one below to identify you as a member of the group tour.

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We walked for 5 minutes taking another side of the Vatican to reach an entry point exclusive for group tours only. The first leg of the tour was the Vatican Museum. All visitors passed through x-ray machines. It is a highly-guarded place, home to vast collection of art masterpieces amassed by the popes throughout the centuries.

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Former entrance now an exit to the Vatican Museum

After going through tight security, we were given the museum pass and a pocket audio guide (see below). There were several other tour groups in different languages walking side by side with us. The beauty of the audio guide is you will hear your tour guide well even if she/he is 10 meters away among the sea of other visitors. It is easy to locate your group mates if you veer off course.

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Guided tours of different languages inside the Vatican Museum

We were then ushered to the Galleria dei Candelabri which houses Greek and Roman antiques. The sculptures were painstakingly and intricately made. Even the nooks and crannies of the pillars were crafted to the fine details. The ceilings were generously embellished with beautiful mosaic of paintings that span from the entrance to the exit of the massive halls. There were several times I got steered away from my group because I was extremely engrossed by the details of the paintings and sculptures (good thing the flag carried by the lead of my tour group helped in finding them and I was backed on track).

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We took a break before the Sistine Chapel tour at the Courtyard of Pigna, a welcome respite in between museum visits.

We proceeded to the Sistine Chapel at the Apostolic Palace (where the pope resides. It is also the site of the papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected). Sistine Chapel is famous for its frescos, “a technique of mural painting that is executed on a wet lime plaster. Water acts as a vehicle that will deliver the dry pigment to the freshly-laid plaster and upon drying, it becomes an integral part of the wall”. After touring the Vatican Museum, I thought the pieces I will see at the Sistine Chapel were similar to the murals of the Vatican Museum. But nothing could prepare your senses to the brilliantly crafted Renaissance masterpieces of Michelangelo. Taking photographs and talking are not allowed inside the huge Sistine Chapel. This made it one of the most solemn places I have visited where people of different faiths gather and all captivated by the magnificence of the high ceiling or vault painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512. He used rich, bright colors readily visible from the floor.

All heads were looking upwards to the ceiling (Michelangelo’s frescoes), then to the Southern Wall (Stories of Moses paintings by various artists), Northern Wall (Stories of Jesus paintings by various artists) and the Eastern Wall. The whole altar wall is covered by Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement. What an awesome sight to behold!

At this time our tour guide switched off the audio guide and we were allowed our own moments at the chapel for 20 minutes. Sitting side by side, strangers smile and without any words, all in agreement to the beauty and the artistry behind the works.

The official tour ended up at the main door leading to the St. Peter’s Basilica where I spent the rest of the afternoon in prayer of gratefulness for a beautiful life, for having a constant supply of unfaltering energy despite my seemingly simple diet, for the people who supported me to pursue my passions and advocacies and many other surprised blessings from God.

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Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

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The Pieta by Michelangelo inside the St. Peter’s Basilica

People also spend some time to pray at the tomb of St. John Paul II. Popes who become saints had the privilege of being buried inside the main chapel of the Basilica.

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The tomb of St. John Paul II

Time goes fast when you are immersed into something that you really like. It later occurred to me that I missed lunch and it’s already 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon. I devoured on some tasty gelato on the tourist center very close to the Basilica. This ice cream tasted differently from the usual one I had back home.

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After shopping for religious souvenirs and 2 cups of warm espresso, I decided to call it a day and start walking outside of St. Peter’s Square towards the bus stop. But when I heard the church bell tolled around 4PM, I reversed direction and returned to the Square. It seems like something was calling and pulling me strongly and I cannot help it, really! So, I gave in to that strange desire and just spent the late afternoon to early evening at the Square’s fountain and the cloisters of the Basilica still reflecting on God’s bountiful blessings, for always keeping me safe and for giving me a brave heart that allowed me to overcome challenges in the very rough distant past.

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I know this will not be my last visit to the Vatican. I will keep coming back and keep saving, for more religious pilgrimage and adventure travels around the world. Truly there’s a wanderlust in me. “Our jobs fill our pocket, but adventures fill our soul.” – Jamie Lyn Beatty

 

Vietnam-Cambodia: The Perfect Adventure Trail

After posting some photos of my recent Vietnam-Cambodia trip, I received quite a number of inquiries on how to go about this route. Since today is a “free weekend” I decided to make time to write my Vietnam-Cambodia adventure (some friends have recently took this trip using my recommendations and others will take the trip in early 2019). To have a meaningful trip experience, begin by having a stress-free planning and a “ready-mindset” for possible contingencies during the actual trip. Also, take into account value for money. There are lots of options that won’t sacrifice comfort over costs. Here goes my simple yet practical tips if you decide to take this tour.

Why Vietnam and Cambodia?

Decide on the route and what do you want out of the trip. For me, I chose Vietnam because I just love Vietnamese food – the stew, the sprouts, the fresh herbs, the rolls. I also like to haggle at the Ben Thanh market for delicacies and souvenirs and/or shop cheap at the Saigon Square. Ho Chi Minh also has several landmarks, museums and architectural works which depicted the colonial history of the city. On the other hand, my Lara Croft side wants a Tomb Raider type of adventure which means that running temples after temples in Siem Rep would elevate my adrenaline levels awakening the quiet heroine in me. Wherever you are coming from, search for the shortest but cheap airline route and this should be done months ahead of the trip.

Transportation from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Siem Rep, Cambodia

This is where most people are clueless. I used Bookaway to reserve bus tickets ($26 one-way) for the Mekong Express tourist bus. Once paid, the printed voucher will be sent to your e-mail. Seat numbers are automatically assigned by the system during booking. Bring the voucher to the Mekong Express office (Address: [Vietnam] 1, 275F Phạm Ngũ Lão, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh; [Cambodia] Sivutha Blvd, Krong Siem Reap) at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure to exchange it for the actual ticket. The bus is loading passengers in front of the office. It is quite a long trip, a little over 13 hours with stopovers for lunch and dinner. The bus has a small, clean toilet which is convenient for a long trip. About 6 hours after departure, there will be a bus transfer in Phnom Penh. WI-FI is available on the Phnom Penh-Siem Rep bus route and vice versa.

Accommodations in Ho Chi Minh City

Since we arrived after midnight in Ho Chi Minh, we booked at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Saigon, a 3-minute walk to the Mekong Express bus office. A convenient way to book your accommodations is through booking.com. You can choose to pay at the hotel upon check-in. We also arranged for an airport pick-up for hassle free airport-hotel transfer because we expected that we were already drowsy after an almost 3-hour flight and arriving at midnight. Bloom Hotel is another good option (with steam, sauna, shower and gym services for free) if you do not like the vibe of a backpackers accommodation, but is 6-9 minutes by car away from the Mekong Express bus office.

Vietnam-Cambodia Border Security Check

Do not be alarmed if your passport will be taken by the bus crew. Usually, they collect the passports before reaching the border to submit it all at once at both Vietnam and Cambodia tourist security checks. The process of getting your passport stamped at the border usually takes about 30-45 minutes depending on the queue. You and your carry-on items will pass through x-ray scanning machines. Border check is mandatory and everybody must undergo this procedure. Take note: never ever take photos at the security checks because this is strongly prohibited.

Our Route Ho Chi Minh - Siem Rep

Our Route Ho Chi Minh – Siem Rep

When in Siem Rep

Upon arrival, we took Grab taxi (which is so cheap in Siem Rep) to bring us to the Angkor Paradise Hotel. There are cheaper accommodation options but we chose this hotel because it is recommended by a friend with spacious room and mouth-watering international buffet breakfast. In case you go out of the hotel before 6:00 AM, breakfast will be packed by the staff as a takeaway. Remember to download the Grab app and make sure it is working prior to your departure from your country of origin. I saw several tourists struggling in the registration of the app because the codes will be verified via phone and some sim cards do not work at all.

We only have one whole day for our temple run adventure. So, instead of using the most popular tuktuk tour package, we arranged with our Grab driver to bring us to several temples. A car is of course faster than the tuktuk and this allows for a convenient temple hopping. We paid $35 for the whole day vehicle rental. There are motorbikes that can be rented on a much cheaper price if you are travelling solo or in 2’s.

A tourist must have an admission pass (an ‘Angkor Pass’) to visit the temples and sites. Passes are sold in one-day ($37), three-day ($62) and seven-day ($72) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. Your admission pass bears a photo of you which will be taken on the spot at the time of purchase. We bought the passes at the Angkor Enterprise which opens at 5:00 AM. Your cab or tuktuk driver will assist you in getting the passes.

Angkor Day Pass

We visited only 4 major temples: Angkor Wat, Angkor Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom out of the 7 that we can possibly visit on that day which means there are still more temples to go to on future visits. We stayed for 2-3 hours on each temple to grasp its history and marvel at its fascinating architecture which dates back thousands of years ago. There’s a mystical vibe that draws my soul into the temples which I need to fathom (“Did I live here in my past life”?) which really took time to settle. The temples and the parks which the archaeological structures were built is huge so be ready for a lot of walking and hiking. You can take a guide (cheapest is $15) to narrate the history of each angkor (Sanskrit meaning “city”) and also help in getting the best-angled photos. It is respectful to the culture if you come to the temples wearing appropriate clothing: no sleeveless shirts and above the knee shorts or skirts for ladies.

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Angkor Bayon

Night Life in Siem Rep

Siem Rep at night is equally fascinating. The city center has a modern vibe with many restaurants offering not just Cambodian but also international cuisines as well. There are also restaurants with Asian-European fusion menus. A visit to the night market (which is separate from the Art Night Market) is a-must destination to buy souvenirs, traditional clothes and accessories. Be sure to haggle for the best price and do not take the first mentioned price which is obviously high.

Night market souvenir shopping

If you are fond of gems or precious stones, you can buy it cheap at the Art Night Market. Be sure you know your birthstone (mine is Ruby). You will be awed and speechless at the huge collection, beauty and unique designs of precious stones and jewelries on display. You can use credit card but there are also ATMs nearby to withdraw cash.

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Fine gem stones and jewelries at the Art Night Market

We arrived in Siem Rep on Halloween so the famous Pub Street was busier than usual. With live band music and concerts, Halloween street buntings and tourists wearing their favorite Halloween costumes, the night’s atmosphere was festive, young, vibrant and mischievous which creates contrast to the mystical vibes of the temples during the day tour. Bars and cafes lined Pub Street, a good way to relax and recharge after a long day of temple hopping.

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The Pub Street

When in Ho Chi Minh

We explored the city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) for 2 days. To make the most of our visit, we arranged a tour to see historical sites, famous landmarks and markets. We used this tour package to organize our visit.

War Museum

The Post Office

Imperial Palace

We explored the markets and my favorite Vietnamese food in the evenings. It helps that we had a lot of hikes and walking during the day which made me crave for Vietnamese pho soup and fried spring rolls and noodles.

The Ideal Currency to Bring

The US dollar ($) is the best currency to bring around in both Vietnam and Cambodia. I recommend to bring loose change or small bills for easy transactions. Some market stalls will find it difficult to give you loose change for a 100-dollar bill. Vietnamese dong and US $ can be withdrawn from ATMs in Vietnam. Philippine peso is also accepted. While in Cambodia, most are dollar ATMs.

Final Thought

If you are like me who wants to experience both traditional and modern aspects in every adventure trip, the Vietnam-Cambodia route is the best. Ho Chi Minh city is one of the best destinations for food, shopping, history and bike rush. While Cambodia should be really proud of its mind-blowing temples that until now I can’t get over yet. Siem Rep is a small city filled with temples and nature parks worth visiting a hundred times because of the unique contrasts of tradition and modern culture.

The Need for a Travel Insurance

Since 2013, I have been taking long trips and part of the preparation to every trip is the purchase of a travel insurance with clear and comprehensive travel policy. For 5 years now, I have been a happy customer of World Nomads, a trusted partner of Lonely Planet. I was prompted to get a travel insurance due to an unfortunate experience by a friend that had she not have the travel insurance handy, it would have been a nightmare for her and her family.

Meaningful travels can be achieved when you plan it well but be spontaneous to whatever comes your way and live in the moment. Collect fun and wonderful memories as much as possible. Immersed in the culture and connect to the locals. 🙂

 

Boracay is Now for Everyone: Our Budget Trip to the Island

In July 2017, my friends and I embarked on our very first trip to the award-winning island of Boracay. This popular destination was hailed as the Best Island in the World  by the international travel magazine Travel + Leisure (2012), topped the Best Islands in the World list by another international magazine Condé Nast Traveler (2014) and was included in the latter’s 2016 Top 10 Destinations to Watch. These accolades left us wondering, is it the powdery white sand that’s getting all the hype, the party-loaded nightlife or the smorgasbord of water sports and land-based leisure activities? We want to see for ourselves.

Below is the step-by-step guide for anyone wishing to experience the island at the most affordable cost whether going on a holiday, honeymoon or simply just wandering.

1. Get cheap airline tickets way ahead of the travel date.  I took care of the booking after subscribing to several airline newsletters to prompt me every time a cheap deal is available. I successfully got the 5 of us the cheapest fares 7 months before our trip (low season) through Cebu Pacific Air. We felt the overwhelming rush of excitement when each of us got a round-trip airfare of 1,663.00 pesos (~33 US$) from Manila to Kalibo. How cool was that? Kalibo airport is about 2 hours away from Caticlan (the port entrance to Boracay). Another option is to take the Manila-Caticlan flight but usually more expensive. The advantage of taking the Manila-Kalibo route was the chance to see the beautiful, verdant Kalibo countryside lined with rice fields and coconut trees growing luxuriously on both sides of the road.

2. Research possible accommodations. The next thing to do is to rigorously search online for an affordable yet decent accommodation.  We wanted to be close to the epicenter of island activities, so we chose to stay near the White Beach (a 4-km stretch of world famous gorgeous, powdery fine, white sand). Fortunately, we found Frendz Hostel, a fun and very affordable place, 2-5 minute walking distance from the shore. We chose a 5-bed dorm-type room at 2,000.00 pesos (40 US$) per night per room. That means spending only 1,200.00 pesos each for 3 nights. There were also villa-type accommodations at a higher price that surround the restaurant and bar area of the hostel but this option tends to be noisy during happy hours.

Our dorm-type accommodation for 3 nights.

3. Look for the cheapest island transportation deals.  Several Kalibo to Caticlan packaged transfers are available but we chose to do it on our own at reduced costs by taking a shared vehicle with other travelers. From Kalibo airport, we took a van for 2 hours to Caticlan Jetty Port for 200 pesos (4 US$) each.  There were many van choices right outside the airport arrival area so be sure to haggle for the cheapest deal. From the port, we took a ferry for 200 pesos (4 US$) which covered the boat, terminal and environment fees. Then we took an e-tricycle (powered by rechargeable batteries instead of gasoline) to Boracay Frendz Hostel at 30 pesos (0.6 US$) each.

Different companies offering packaged airport to Boracay transfers.

3. Food choices should be planned too. When you are at the White Beach (Stations 1, 2 and 3), you cannot expect to find cheap food as rows of fine-dining restaurants dominate the shoreline. What we did was to budget 200 pesos per meal at the most and stick to it. With this budget, we searched for restaurants that offer food that is within our budget and it’s usually near Station 2, D’Mall area. There were 7-Eleven and MINI STOP convenience stores where we bought our breakfast staples such as coffee, juice and breads. On our last day of stay, we indulged on steaks and gelato ice cream since we have saved on previous meals.

This lunch consists of tropical fruit shakes and grilled seafood.

4. Select suitable leisure activities.  Not all the fun is for everyone. My friends researched on the types and prices of leisure activities that we can all enjoy. The island hopping is a not-to-be missed experience. We paid 900 pesos (18 US$) for a 5-hour tour arranged by our hostel which includes unlimited supply of drinks and island music beats using the bass drum accompaniment. My friends and I love swimming very much so on another day we opted to go to a peaceful, public beach 30 minutes away by tricycle ride (70 pesos or 1.5 US$). We basked at the glorious beauty of Puka Shell Beach. Its crystal-clear, blue-green waters, white sand and subtly fierce waves were simply irresistible. Tourists can also enjoy snorkeling, kite-surfing, helmet diving, banana boat riding, parasailing, cliff diving, hiking and dancing to live band music.

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Snorkeling is one stopover activity during the island hopping.

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Live band music and free pasta night on Wednesdays and Sundays at Frendz Hostel.

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Souvenir shopping at Puka Beach.

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Fire dancing scene on the White Beach where people sit on the sandy floor with their drinks.

5. Make the most out of your island stay. Traveling is more memorable when you connect with your companions in a fun way. It helps that they can just let you be yourself without criticisms on your opinions and lifestyle choices during any of your conversations. The quirky five of us threw punches of jokes at each other and there was never a dull moment or negativity. We were also joined by our american friend who was game at anything. One’s roots don’t matter when you respect individuals for who they are and allow them to show their genuine selves.

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Pre-island hopping boat photo with the drums.

Based on our experience, a budget trip to Boracay is possible for everyone. To summarize our expenses for the entire trip here is the breakdown in pesos: 1,663.00 (roundtrip airfare from Manila); 1,200.00 (3 nights accommodation); 1,000.00 (2-way island transportation from Kalibo); 2,500.00 (meals for 4D3N);  900.00 (island hopping); 500 (transport from residence to Manila airport and vice versa); party drinks (500). The total amount is 8,263.00 pesos (166 US$). They said to take nothing but pictures but I encouraged everyone to buy souvenirs to bring to your loved ones (pasalubong) which will help the local handicraft industry. But for me, the best souvenirs to take along with you are fond memories that will truly last a lifetime.

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Relaxing on our beach beds at Puka Beach.