The more you travel, the more likely it is to experience convergence – or shall I call it analogy between your trips. Not similarity: It’s more than two destinations resembling each other. For instance, I found Siquijor and East Bohol quite similar. And yet, my experience in both was completely different.
I’m talking about two travel experiences following similar patterns. Which is what I found after visiting Krabi town (Thailand) in late March and Dumaguete (Negros, Philippines) in August 2018.
Both towns share objective similarities, of course. They are mid-sized provincial capitals, much more quiet and livable than, say, Cebu or Bangkok. They’re also gateway to tropical paradises such as Railay, Phi Phi, Apo or Siquijor islands. So you do see travelers, but they’re typically only spending a short time, en route to somewhere else.
Perhaps the best thing about both towns, though, is that, for a change in Asia, they are pleasantly walkable. This owes mainly to their waterside walks: the boardwalk on Rizal Avenue in Dumaguete, and the Krabi riverside walk with gorgeous views of the river and karst cliffs in the background.
The food is good, too. It’s outstanding in Krabi, with its markets and open-air restaurants. Search on the Internet and you will find many videos of foodies showing you the goodies on offer in Krabi’s main markets, as well as the famous night market. Dumaguete also boasts a number of interesting, lively restaurants. Filipino travelers and locals recommended Hayahay and Sans Rival Bistrot – both of which I tried and found pleasant enough.
Enough for bland travel-guide descriptions. What most colored my rambles in Krabi town and Dumaguete was the fact of being sick. In Krabi, it was a relentless cold that made me feverish and gave me an incessant cough. In Dumaguete it was weakness and dehydration after a ghastly night suffering the effects of food poisoning caused by a dinner of street food.
Being sick during these two trips afforded me a different, less glamorous experience of solo travel. In Dumaguete I felt, for the first time in Asia, lonely and light years away from home. I tried texting friends but everyone seemed to be too busy to provide any solace. So, in that tacky rundown hotel room, I gathered my wits, clenched my fists and decided I’d focus all my energies and consciousness in getting well. And somehow managed to convince myself that even then and there, solo travel was a privilege.
So I booked an extra night at my hotel, and spent the afternoon slowly walking around downtown Dumaguete, taking sips from an isotonic drink. A long time in the cathedral, where I tried to pray and enjoyed the people watching: for instance, a Pinoy rasta sporting a Bob Marley shirt saluting the priest with a kiss on his ring. Then I walked on Rizal Boulevard, like everybody else in the evening. Only slower, stopping for breaks at the river facing benches, now and again. I ordered a dish of plain white rice in a hotel restaurant, but could only eat a third of it. Still, it gave me enough energy to resolve to travel to Siquijor the following morning. In hindsight, what luck it was to fall sick in pleasant, clean Dumaguete and not in Cebu!
In Krabi the pain was less acute, but it nonetheless helped to distort my experiences and cloud my judgment.
I had been looking forward to savoring the street food as soon as I arrived, but my first lunch took place in a restaurant geared to tourists and expats.
“Can you recommend a nice restaurant to have Thai food?” I asked the smiling hotel clerk. “Normally I’d go to the markets, but I’m tired and it’s too hot…”
“Yes, Sir”, he answered promptly. “Meeee Maaak, opposite 7-Eleven”.
Meee Mak? I thought. Well, it sounds Thai enough.
Unable to locate the restaurant, I checked Google Maps. It was May and Mark. Meee Maaak indeed.
Oh well. I had a bowl of tom kha gai. It was OK. Instead of spices, I got some air-con and atmospheric chill-out music. I reflected, I guess that in Thailand what explains paying 150 baht for a dish instead of the usual 50-80 in the food markets and cooked food stalls is basically the decoration, not the quality of the food.
The rest of my time in Krabi was a hit or miss experience. I enjoyed my walk up the hilltop shrine in Wat Tham Suea (the Tiger Cave Temple), and felt silly commuting daily to the Ao Nang beaches and having to rush back from a beautiful sunset in Railay beach for fear of missing the last songthaew ride home.
Back in Krabi, there was nothing left to do but eat, drink and walk. I walked so much and so far away one night that ended up buying a beer at a dubious karaoke joint, where a tall ladyboy offered me boom boom. Conversation will do, I replied with a smile. I still left a generous tip after downing a large bottle of Leo.
So this is my account of two related experiences in two similar places. A sobering reminder that solo travel can be tough, and that discovery in safety and good health should be celebrated, rather than taken for granted.