My 16-year-old Filipino jungle master

I worked with a wonderful colleague in Vancouver, Canada and she is one of my sweet, generous and hardworking Filipina friends at the organization. Before I left a year ago, she told me, “If you want to visit our family’s farm in the Philippines and do outreach to children in the mountains, you can visit my brother.” At the beginning of this year, I took her up on her invite. I always warn people to be careful if they invite me somewhere because I most definitely will go.

Marinduque is said to be at the “heart of the Philippines” because it is an island right in the middle of the country. Of all the places I’ve been in Asia, this island has the biggest concentration of coconut trees I have ever seen. I will write another detailed post about our time in Marinduque, but I wanted to focus this post on an incredibly smart, kind and hardworking young boy I met named Ian. He is 16 years old and working on the farm of the people were visiting.
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When my friend and I first met him, he was very quiet. He doesn’t speak much English except for a few sentences and we don’t speak much Tagalog, one of the languages spoken in Marinduque. But over time, we all felt very comfortable to just be with each other, learn how to do our jungle tasks with him, dance with him and laugh with him. After being in Asia for awhile, you find ways of spending time with people and being comfortable around them even if you don’t share a language. People can share drawings, laughter, dance and use gestures to communicate.

During the first two days, Ian was quieter with us because he was just getting to know us. The first time we spent a longer amount of time together was during a short walk around the village. It was sweet the first time he called my friend and I, “Ate (pronounced “atay”) Meesa” and “Ate Zu,” meaning “big sister Meesa” and “big sister Zu.”

Every day Ian surprised me with a skill that I didn’t know he had. Not only can he use a machete a million ways in the jungle, climb coconut trees and make charcoal from coconuts, he can also do origami and feed babies. He’s constantly doing something productive, whether it’s working in the field or making a kite for himself with the materials he has around him. I’m amazed at how infrequently he takes water after a full day of work. If you drop a group of PhDs in the jungle, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t be able to do a fraction of all the jungle tasks he does. School smarts vs. farm smarts.

He always tells my friend and I, “I will help you,” even when we don’t ask for help. Every time we need some thing or he can sense that we need something, he’s right here without hesitation. Every time I go in the field, my pants are covered with some pines that stick on that have to be removed manually. Ian kept trying to take it off for me after the day was done and I said, “No no, please don’t I can do it myself. Take a rest, you’ve been working all day.”

Possibly the best son ever. How many boys do you know who would paint their auntie’s toes?

Then when I went to sleep and was planning to clean my pants the next day, I woke up at 7:00 a.m. and went to say good morning to Ian and the first thing he did was hold up my pants and said, “Athe Meesa, finished.”

As we spent more time with him, we grew more attached to him and he was so much a part of our daily life. We enjoyed his company as we worked in the field in the day, even in silence. He would on occasion say short sentences like, “So very tired” or “So very hungry” when he would refer to himself, other the people or the water buffalo.

The first few days he was with us I could see he liked dancing but every time he caught me looking at him dancing, he would just stop. But after he warmed up to us, we would have a great time dancing together.

He’s going to be an amazing father one day if he’s already this great with kids at 16.

One day when I was visiting his cousin and the baby, the family was busy and just assumed I knew how to hold the bottle to feed the crying baby. So they handed me the baby, the bottle and left me alone. I didn’t know how to hold the bottle and thankfully Ian showed me how. On top of all of his jungle skills, he is so comfortable taking care of the baby at anytime.

On one of our last days with Ian, I told him I will miss him and he said, “I’ll miss you too. Rebecca (the water buffalo) will miss you.” He encouraged me to ride on Rebecca while he guided me and said, “Sit, it is your last time.” I told him he is a good boy and to keep being the way he is. I joked to his relatives that I want to adopt him.

Ian is called a lot by different relatives to help with different tasks. He helped me to start burning the coal so we could cook and I told him if relatives called him, he can go and help them first. He said directly, “I help you, this is your last night.” I was so impressed at his level of consideration.

On our last night we watched the movie Limitless and I wrote him a note that told him how good a person he was and to keep studying hard in school. When I asked him to pass a note to his cousin and asked if there was an envelope, he said, “No need” and used his origami skills to fold the note.

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Hanging out with Rebecca, the two-year-old water buffalo.

On the last night he drew me his dream house with his future family, which was really sweet. I told him he will be a great father. We had to leave around 4:00 a.m. to catch the ferry the next day. Ian told us, “Please wake me up at 3:00 a.m.” And I said of course I would.

When I went outside at 3:00 a.m. to wake him up, he was still exhausted of course. I told him to just sleep and I will just stay with him until we had to leave. I lied down beside him and we just sat in silence with our eyes open. My friend and I gave him a few hugs before we left.

When I talked to his cousin Ida a week after we left, she told us that Ian told her, “I miss them. I keep imagining Meesa and Zu are with me.”

Ian with his cousin’s baby named Rachel.

Learning yet another skill.

“Do I really need to be the jungle master for this idiot?”

Ian made a wonderful kite with string, plastic and a machete.

Flying his homemade kite.

Making charcoal from coconuts.

Grabbing a batch of bananas.

Would you like a coconut?

Ian can lift two heavy bags like this at once.

Eating duck embryo in the Philippines

I went to the highly recommended island Palawan in the Philippines in February this year. Thanks again to Couchsurfing, my friend and I had another incredible time with local people and other couch surfers. I still have a lot more to write about the wonderful people we met who ended up hanging out with us every day during our week in Palawan.

One of our wonderful Couchsurfing hosts, Lia, had been so generous to spend entire days taking us around the city and helping us, we couldn’t say no to her when she really wanted us to try “balut”, a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell. This is a very popular delicacy both in Philippines and Cambodia. I can’t believe I managed to push myself to eat this.
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Lia had some sympathy and waited until it was night time for us to eat this so we wouldn’t have as good a view of the embryo. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and it helps to not be staring at it when you’re downing it.

I was pescotarian for 9 years before I came to Asia, meaning I ate ethically sourced seafood and no pork or chicken, and this was during my flexotarian phase. I wanted to be open to at least try to eat what the local people ate during my time in Asia.

I’m sorry I ate you little bird.

Indonesia Cost Summary

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Over the next few weeks I will start posting detailed costs of my time in Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Taiwan, Cambodia and Thailand. What I spent for 6 weeks in Europe lasted me 10 months in Asia. I wasn’t on a specific budget necessarily and I didn’t hold back on anything I wanted to do including doing my diving license, mutli-day tours, and doing a motorcycling trip.

These places could be done for even cheaper than what I spent because I also treated my friends out regularly and bought extra ingredients to cook for them. My three weeks in Indonesia would have been $371 US if I didn’t do the diving license.

All of the prices will be in US dollars. At the time I was in Indonesia, the exchange rate was on average $1 US=11,500 rupiah.

Accommodation

  • 9 days in Bali: free, at my friend’s villa in Jimbaran
  • Ubud for two nights: $15.00 per person
  • Lombok: $12.00 per person for three nights at Diyah Homestay guesthouse. We happened to arrive when there was a wedding going on and the owners were kind enough to share a few meals with us and invite us to the local ceremony
  • One night accommodation in Yogyakarta at EduHostel: $6.00
  • One night accommodation at a crappy hostel: $5.00

Diving license at Tulamben

  • $400.00 for the license, two nights at the diving resort including all you can eat breakfast and dinners

Adventure and sights

  • $25.00 to go river rafting 12 km through the jungle in Bali that includes an all-you-can-eat buffet
  • $7.00 to watch a variety of traditional dance shows for 2 hours in Ubud’s Kelod centre
  • Most of the temples and sights are about $2.00 for entrance fees and some of the best sights and unique jungle landscape has been in Bali. Often I find in Indonesia the surrounding jungle area is more beautiful than the temple or main sight itself.

Transportation and gas

  • Got around with scooters and ferries. We used my friend’s scooter and I rented a scooter for four days for about $3.50 a day
  • Four-hour overnight ferry ride from Bali to Lombok on scooter was about $11.00
  • Every gas fill for the scooter was about $2.00

Food

  • You can get food for $0.25 when you go to the right places and many meals are $1.50 to $2.00 for a full plate of fried rice, noodles and other types of local food.
  • In Skybar in Kuta, they have all you can eat for $5.00

Total spend for 3 weeks in Indonesia: $771.00

Living in a driftwood house in Ko Chang


My friend and I spent a week in Ko Chang, Thailand. We casually rode around the island our scooter, often the best way to explore islands. We rode to the south of the island and soon after we passed Bang Bao area and about 10 minutes pass the Hippy Hut, we arrived at a chill, hippy-like area with two small restaurants and a sign inviting people for a weekly jam session every Friday, which I was keen to do.

We were originally going to rent a tent for four days at 100 baht each per night (about $3.25 US). But just 30 meters past the tent area, we checked out a unique-looking driftwood house that was next to a small bar where weekly jam sessions happened that was organized by the owner Cheap. Anyone could join and play drums and other instruments that were around.

This part of the house costs 150 baht a night shared between my friend and I. For 75 baht each (just under $2), we had more space compared to the tent, a mosquito net, a roof over our head, all you can play instruments around us and be close to a wonderful owner. This has by far been the best value for accommodation the past year.

He didn’t have money to buy land so he built his house and bungalows all by himself, including the electricity and water pumps. He learned how to do everything on his own.

His place could even pick up Wi-Fi from the restaurant nearby. I was laughing because I met someone on a jungle trekking tour who paid 2000 baht a night and didn’t even have Wi-Fi that worked.

One night when we came back from the day, my friend and I were planning on eating somewhere in town for dinner. But when we got back to the house, Cheap invited everyone around for a BBQ. I wasn’t sure if we would have to pay but it was wonderful food and a chance to cook with him.

We helped him make pad thai and he was grilling fish, meat, mango salad and it was all delicious. He invited everyone who was passing by his area to join us for the meal. He was very welcoming. In he end, he didn’t charge anyone for the feast of food.

By contrast, I found many of the foreign people who were staying at his place quiet and exclusive. People weren’t so friendly or just kept to themselves, which is the opposite of most of the local people I spend time with in Asia.

We sadly left his wonderful house and left to catch our ferry. The only difference between this place and a more pricey resort is that a resort has nicer walls and more unfriendly people. Other than that, the beautiful views, food quality and Wi-Fi access are the same.

On our last night, I wanted to take time to jam with Cheap. I felt bad for not spending more time with him during the days we were there. He looked sad that we were leaving and when we were talking about the people who come, he said, “But they all leave.” I hope to see him again one day and stay longer for another jam session with our dear friend.

Got a travel story or tip to share?

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I’ve met so many incredible people the past year who have shared inspiring moments, lessons and stories with me during their own travels. If you’d like to share your story to be published here, please email marcokokotravels@gmail.com.

I’m sorry I still have a growing number of posts to publish from my time in the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and my return to Cambodia. The experiences I still have to share include couch surfing in Palawan, living in a driftwood house in Ko Chang island and spending a week learning from a 16-year-old jungle master in Marinduque, Philippines.

Stay tuned!

My first Cambodian engagement party

My friend Lida (right standing up) and her fiancé.

I wanted to take a break from moving around in Laos in October and was feeling a bit homesick. So I came back to Siem Reap for almost three weeks to just be in one place and spend time with friends.

I’m glad I came back the time that I did because within two days of my return, my friend invited me to her engagement party in Phnom Penh. I was excited because it was also the first engagement party I have ever been to.

Traditions are very important among Cambodian families and the man usually asks permission to the bride’s family. I’ve learned recently that there is a dowry that a man pays to the bride’s family that goes to the wedding and the amount is generally $5,000 USD. Not every family does an engagement party and it’s up to them if they want it to be large or small.

My friend and I took the bus together and it was fun talking and play with this boy who had a mullet! It’s always fun traveling with locals.

We arrived the day before the ceremony and her family and friends were busy preparing for the ceremony at the house. Most of the time for weddings, families rent a package of big speakers and decorations. For my friends’ engagement party, it is the closer family and friends who were invited.

It was really nice being able to stay at my friend’s house and meet her family for the first time. I got a first hand look at all the preparation that goes on. I tried to help out where I could but when it came to things like preparing the fruit baskets and offerings, I really would have slowed down the process.

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The ceremony

Half way through the preparation process

My friend Lida got up at 5 a.m. to start putting on her makeup and do her hair in traditional Cambodian style. Brides-to-be usually put on a lot of makeup, including whitening lotion, and their hair is very stylized. I asked my friends why the brides put on so much makeup because they already look so beautiful naturally. She told me it’s because the bride has to stand out and look different than everyone else. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. too to watch the whole process.

Around 10:00 a.m., many of the elder people began arriving. It didn’t seem like there was an official start time. The ceremony began when everyone was ready. Everyone took a fruit basket and we walked outside the house about 200 m away in two lines. There were two kids at the front, a young boy and a young girl, who led the line. I took a basket and each of us took a turn to make the offering for the bride and groom.

Once the offering was complete, the elders spoke to each other with a microphone for awhile and gave advice to the couple. My friend told me there is no rehearsal for the ceremony, they’re simply guided by the elders. There were times she and her fiance looked confused about what to do next.

After the first part of the ceremony was over mid-day, I was exhausted even after I wasn’t involved much with the prep. I couldn’t imagine how my friend felt or how she will stay up until late night.

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Lining up to walk to the bride’s house to make the fruit offerings.

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The fun kids

After I took a rest, I wandered outside and there weren’t many people I could speak with because my Khmer is not very good. Then I heard a young girl scream, “Meecha!”, which is my Cambodian nickname that means fried noodle.  I love the kids around Cambodia because even when there is a language barrier, they will always make an effort to talk, laugh or play games with people they meet.

These kids really made my weekend extra memorable, we played games for hours and ended up dancing with them most of the night. Earlier in the day, I brought some paper and pens so I could see how they wrote their names or what they could draw. I was really impressed with what they did.

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Dinner and dancing

At Cambodian engagement parties and weddings, in addition to food, people also have as much beer as they want. So most of the adults are drinking throughout the night. After dinner, there is music for people to dance to throughout the night. I mostly danced with the kids because they had the most energy.

At the end of the night, I met one girl who was 12 and it was really cute she was sad that I was leaving the next morning. I hope I see these kids again at my friend’s wedding on March 9, 2014.