How to Survive the Van to El Nido

2016 July 02

El Nido

The sharp, harsh, imposing limestone cliffs and the sparkling, placid, impossibly blue waters are just some of the reasons people are determined to visit El Nido at least once in their lifetime.



El Nido, Palawan is paradise on earth, but as with most paradises, it’s a little tricky to get to. Visitors with a generous budget can fly direct to El Nido via AirSwift; everyone else must fly first to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan, and from there take a 6-hour ride by bus or van to El Nido. The long travel time in occasionally cramped quarters can test the patience of even the most motivated travelers, but survival — and even an actually enjoyable experience — is quite possible with a bit of preparation.

  • Book ahead and specify — insist! — that you want to reserve the seats in front, beside the driver. This way you’re likely to have more legroom and less likely to develop motion sickness. We were able to book our van transfer through El Nido Paradise for only P550 — we recommend them. Instead of you having to go to the bus terminal, El Nido Paradise can arrange to have the van pick you up at the airport (no extra fee) or at your hotel (for a P50 surcharge). They can also arrange your tours in El Nido and accept payments via PayPal, which rids you of the necessity to bring too much cash during your trip.
  • Sleep if you can. Most people do. Bring sleep accessories if you like, such as a neck pillow, an eye mask and ear plugs.
  • Alternatively, bring entertainment. A 6-hour stint in a van is the perfect excuse to finally read those books or watch those movies you’ve previously been too busy for. Make sure to charge your phone and/or laptop before boarding, and if you have a power bank, bring that along too.
  • If you’re prone to motion sickness, take your Bonamine an hour before ETD.
  • Bring water and food you can snack on if necessary.
  • Six hours can be hell on the bladder; take advantage of the pit stops. The van will stop 2 or 3 times during the journey so people can buy food and do their stuff. Fair warning: the bathrooms along the way aren’t exactly 5-star-resort quality but you’ll be fine.
  • All vans from Puerto Princesa stop at the Corong-Corong terminal in El Nido. A tricycle (tuk-tuk) can take you the rest of the way to your hotel for only P50.
  • On our way back to Puerto Princesa, the van we booked was scheduled to leave at 9:30 AM. We got to the terminal in Corong-Corong at around 9:10 AM, and an earlier van that was about to leave invited us to fill its last two seats. We agreed. Unfortunately, they were at the very back of the van — not even the last normal row but in the space where the luggage should have been — and we spent the next 6 hours in a very tight space. We could feel every bump in the road too. Don’t make the same mistake.
  • If you want, you can have an entire van all to yourself. You can arrange this with El Nido Paradise as well.

The van ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido won’t be the absolute best 6 hours of your life but it’s survivable and El Nido will be worth it.




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SGMT Japan Nara 01Dinner

On my second day in Kyoto, I was feeling rather uninspired. There were still many places I hadn’t visited — including the infinitely Instagrammable Fushimi Inari shrine — but I was already having second thoughts about everything. I’d been to two lovely temples and they’d had all the “right” elements, all the things I’d wanted to see — temples, maples, a rock garden, a moss garden. But it all felt a little hollow.

It was my fault, really. I hadn’t done my homework — hadn’t read up on Japanese history and culture before I left the Philippines — and as a result I was having a mostly two-dimensional experience in Kyoto. At that point in my visit, I just wasn’t sure what I would gain from a trip to another shrine. More pictures? If that was all — if I was only going just for the sake of seeing it and adding it to the list of places I’d been to — it didn’t seem worth it. I wanted to be moved, to be engaged. I wanted to be surprised.

Which is how I ended up, accidentally, in Nara.

When I left my ryokan that morning, I figured I might as well go to Kyoto Station as it was a good jump-off point for wherever I eventually decided to go. And then, after dawdling over a reasonably priced buffet breakfast at Portal Cafe, I figured I might as well go ahead and see Fushimi Inari, if only because there wasn’t really anything else that particularly appealed to me. The train station right beside Fushimi Inari was only one stop away from Kyoto Station on the JR Nara Line — and I had a JR Pass, and time — so I figured I didn’t really have much to lose.

I made my way to Platform 8 and noticed — in the vague way one notices things one thinks are important but not too important — a sign that said: “For Inari, take a local train.” I got off the escalator leading down to Platform 8, saw a Rapid train waiting with its doors open, and got in.

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The seasons at Kiyomizudera Temple

There are iconic images of Kiyomizudera Temple — images of the World Heritage Site’s wooden platforms and graceful dark roofs wreathed in cherry blossoms or maple leaves — but you will not find them here. Other things caught my eye, other markers of the passage of time, and although they can’t quite be called iconic, these are some of my favorite images from my entire visit to Japan last November.

Past customs, honored.

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 11

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 01 Ema

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 02 Omikuji

The delicate present, savored.

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 09

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 12

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 06

And the future

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 08

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 03

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 05

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 04

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 07

SGMT Japan Kyoto Kiyomizudera Temple 10

…savoring the present too. Because no one should have to pay bills before their time. And because a heart full of joy and laughter and love is the thing one will need most in the years to come.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

How to get to Kiyomizudera Temple

  • From Kyoto Station, take bus number 100 or 206 (15 minutes, 230 yen) to the Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop — 10-minute walk to the temple


The Seasons at Kiyomizudera Temple
© Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.




How to Create Your Own Travel Blog: Making It Your Own


In How to Create Your Own Travel Blog in 3 Easy Steps, we counted down the steps to creating your own travel blog. Now let’s count up the ways you can make it the next big thing in travel (or at least a really nice blog).


Pick a theme.

A theme is basically what your blog looks like. You can read all about Themes here.

Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains uses the Reddle theme. I chose it because it allows me to customize the header all the way across the page; I can also customize the drop-down menu. And I love that there’s a lot of white space.

Before I settled on Reddle, there were a lot of other themes that I considered. Twenty Twelve has a clean format and a special front page template. Writr is minimalist, with an on-trend flat design and a disciplined use of color. Chunk, like Reddle, contains a lot of white space — ideal for focusing on content — and the bold type of the header is eye-catching. You can browse through all available WordPress themes here, which you can sort by popularity, free/premium, etc.

If you’re creating a travel blog, keep in mind what sort of content you’re planning to publish — travelogues? photos? magazine-type articles? — and try to choose a theme that will allow your stuff to shine. For example, some themes’ front page consists of tiles of photos — perfect if you’re a decent photographer and you want to put the focus on your photos, but probably not playing up to your strengths if your forte is writing.


Customize your header.

If your theme allows it, customizing your header will go a long way towards putting your personal stamp on your blog. You can learn how to upload an image and make it your header here.

There is of course no standard color palette for travel blogs, but if you’re creating your own header image (like I did), colors are something you might want to keep in mind. Think of the travel sites you like looking at — do you gravitate towards certain colors? If your travels are nature-oriented, perhaps you’ll want to have a palette that calls the earth, sea, and sky to mind. If you’re a scuba diver, say, perhaps blues and greens — or perhaps a monochromatic palette, which will allow your photos to pop that much more. No need to overthink it, though — if you want, you can just go over to Design Seeds and pick a color palette you like. I chose “happy” colors for my header image because, well, traveling makes me happy and I wanted my blog to be a happy, lighthearted blog. (Although I have been posting a lot of “heartbroken” articles recently, so I’m not sure how that worked out, haha.)


Acquaint yourself with WordPress features.

Before you publish your first post, it’s a good idea to make at least minimal acquaintance with the features of your chosen blogging platform — for the purposes of this article, WordPress. Here are the ones I’ve personally bookmarked:

You don’t have to become a WordPress expert — I’ve published over 200 posts and there are still so many things I don’t know — but it’s nice to know the differences between a post and a page (pages don’t have tags, for example) before you actually do publish a post or a page.

And speaking of which…



Don’t get stage fright. Just do it.

If you aren’t sure where to start, here are a few ideas for a first post:

  • Who are you? What do you do? Why have you decided to start your own blog?
  • Why do you travel? When and where did the travel bug bite you? What does travel mean to you and how has it transformed your life?
  • If an upcoming trip is the inspiration for your new blog, write about it. Why did you choose that destination? How are you preparing for the trip?
  • List 20 random things about you. Make sure to include travel-related tidbits.

Last 4 tips:

  • Turn to the experts. The folks at The Daily Post have put together several ebooks about blogging (all free!) that I’ve personally found very valuable.
  • Participate in prompts. Whether it’s the Daily Prompt or the weekly Writing Challenge/Photo Challenge, prompts are a great source of blogging inspiration and may even get your blog noticed. Bonus tip: Whenever I get an idea for a travel article, I would write it down and keep it in mind, even though I don’t have the time to flesh it out yet. When a prompt comes up that’s a perfect match for one of those ideas, that’s when I force myself to find the time to write. This is how my one Freshly Pressed post The SMALL-TOWN GIRLS, MIDNIGHT TRAINS Travel Manifesto came to life.
  • Interact with the blogging community. Read and leave thoughtful comments on other bloggers’ posts. Follow those blogs you consistently enjoy reading, even those that are not travel-related. Learn from the best. I don’t know of a good writer who isn’t, first of all, a reader.
  • Lastly: enjoy! You’ll soon learn that blogging takes time and energy, especially if you try to do it well, and if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it will only be too easy to give up. Figure out a writing style and schedule that works for you. Post about the things you are most passionate about. Don’t try to imitate or impress others. The best blogs are those that are extensions of the bloggers themselves, and the only person you really have to satisfy — first, foremost, and fully — is yourself.

How to Create Your Own Travel Blog: Making It Your Own” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.


You might want to read my other musings on writing (travel or otherwise):

How to Create Your Own Travel Blog in 3 Easy Steps

Or any blog for that matter.

flipflops_When I first toyed with the idea of blogging, I was frankly skeptical. Who would want to read my blog? Who cares what I have to say? Isn’t it just vanity and presumption on my part to think that people out there would want to waste their time on my writings?

Others have their own doubts and roadblocks. “I don’t write well.” “I’m not Internet savvy.” “I’m not sure I’ll have the time to keep it up.”

But there’s just one question you have to ask yourself: do you want to have your own travel blog?

Perhaps you want to have a place to store your travel memories. Perhaps you want to share all the things you’ve learned to others — tips, tricks, things you wish you’d known before you arrived at a certain destination. Or perhaps you just want a venue for collecting your thoughts: sifting through moments, distilling life lessons learned on the road. Whatever your reasons are, if you want to do it, then do it.

And as for not being good enough —

One of my favorite inspirational quotes right now (and ever) was actually just a throwaway line uttered on a noontime show by a little girl who is most known for being funny and dancing the cha-cha. She probably doesn’t even remember saying it. She said:


“I’m not really good at what I do. I just have guts.” (Ryzza Mae Dizon)

And that’s all one really needs: just enough courage to go ahead and do it (no matter what anybody thinks).

Let’s count down how:

1_choose a blogging platform
Choose a blogging platform.

That is, choose which site you want to host your blog. You can go for WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, or any of the other blogging platforms out there.

Years ago I started with Blogger — it is very easy to use. Tumblr I haven’t had experience with, but they say it’s great for blogs that focus on photos and videos. And Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains is obviously on WordPress (or maybe not obviously — I treated myself to a custom domain name that eliminates the .wordpress from the URL).

I like WordPress myself. It has more features than Blogger, which I love because I like tinkering. That also means that it takes slightly more time to learn how to use — I found myself intimidated by the Dashboard at first — but you don’t have to worry. WordPress has a lot of clearly-written Support articles that will hold your hand through the learning process. The Learn page, for example, is a great step-by-step guide for absolute beginners and is the page I probably referred to the most when I was creating my blog.

I’ll be talking about WordPress features for the rest of this article (because it is obviously the platform I’m most familiar with) but feel free to choose whatever you decide will suit you best. And don’t overthink it. It’s easy enough to switch to another platform if you feel your first choice isn’t working — or challenging enough — for you.

2_sign up and set up your blog address
Sign up and set up your blog address.

Signing up is very easy. This is what the WordPress signup page looks like:


Just 4 boxes to fill up! All you need is a working email address.

On this step you will be choosing a web address for your blog. Now, because the possibilities are endless, you’ll probably also find yourself hesitating and procrastinating endlessly. But, again, don’t overthink it. You’ll have just-as-endless opportunities to change your blog address later.

You will also have the choice of sticking with your free address (eg, or buying a custom domain name (eg, Having your own domain name is obviously very nice and it adds a bit more legitimacy to your blog (as well as providing you with extra incentive to post — surely you’re not going to pay $18 for an empty blog!) but you don’t have to worry about it if you’re not sure you want to commit just yet. It’s something you can decide on later.

For more info, see: Learn WordPress >> Get Started >>
Picking a web address

3_name your blog and create your tagline
Name your blog and create your tagline.

If you’re creating a travel blog, an ideal name would be something that at least hints at the fact that it’s a travel blog — while differentiating itself from the million other travel blogs out there.

Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains probably isn’t the best choice for a blog name. For one, if you type that phrase in the Google search bar, all you’ll get will probably be lyrics and videos of the Journey song Don’t Stop Believin’. Also, some of the people who stumble onto my blog are actually searching for, um, girls. (Move along, peeps; it’s not that kind of site.) Overall, though, I’m pretty satisfied with my blog name because: (1) it’s a little catchy (at least for those who know the song); (2) there’s no other blog with a name like it (as far as I know); and (3) it’s pretty representative of what I envision my blog to be: a source of travel inspiration for people who may not have a lot of money (“small-town girls”) but have dreams of traveling the world (“midnight trains”).

Your title will be the face of your blog, but your tagline will give you an extra opportunity to communicate your blog’s personality — that is, what it’s about, who it’s for, what it aims to accomplish. Taglines are a bit of an art form; there are many taglines out there that I wish I’d thought of first. If you feel like you need more time to create a witty tagline, all you need to do is erase the generic tagline assigned to you by WordPress and come back to it at a later date.

For more info, see: Learn WordPress >> Get Started >> Configure basic site settings

And that’s it! You’re done!

You have a travel blog. That was easy, wasn’t it? Okay, you have a zygote of a blog. It’s not even a skeleton, a framework of a blog, just yet. But you’ve accomplished the critical first steps; and as you explore your chosen platform’s features and start channeling your creative energy into it, you’ll be amazed at how quickly and easily your blog can grow.

Countdown“How to Create Your Own Travel Blog in 3 Easy Steps was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. 

Travel Writing: To List or Not To List


That is the question.

That is the question.

Having just published “16 Places in Batanes That Will Make You Never Want to Leave (or Make You Start Planning Your Return ASAP!)” it may seem like I am firmly on the “to list” camp. Just look at that title: cardinal number – check. Exaggeration – check. I even added an exclamation point for an extra chunk of cheesiness. If I had sworn an oath I could not have made it any clearer where my allegiance lies.

It wasn’t too long ago, though, when I was firmly on the other side of the listicle fence.

A listicle, says Wikipedia, is "a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article."

A listicle, says Wikipedia, is “a short-form of writing that uses a list as its thematic structure, but is fleshed out with sufficient copy to be published as an article.”

It wasn’t the quality of writing that I had an issue with. I don’t believe (like this guy here) that listicles are “lazy and shallow” and that people who write them “desperately needed the money.” It is true that listicles are a writing style that can be more easily “hacked” by the talentless; putting a thousand words together does take a wee bit more effort. That said, if you’re a bad writer, a longer format won’t make you better — it will just make you more insufferable. There is as much opportunity to write crap in long-form articles as there is in list-form articles. Length does not guarantee quality; brevity, even in list form, surely does not exclude it. (Read Carlos Lozada’s enjoyable review of Roy Peter Clark’s book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times here.)

For some reason it’s often *these people who are very vocal about listicles destroying culture and making people dumb or whatever. Existential crisis much?

So why was I initially a listicle snob? I guess they were just too…mainstream for my taste. Everyone was writing them, everyone was reading them, everyone was sharing them on Facebook. I guess I just wanted to be different. (It’s like how I used to adore Benedict Cumberbatch until everyone started crushing on him.)

But then — once I got over my plebeian desire to be snobbish — I started thinking. Whether I like it or not, people like reading listicles, and they like reading listicles for a reason. (Steven Poole lists 9-ish of those reasons here.) As a communication tool, listicles work, and if my goal in writing is to communicate, it’s a format I shouldn’t outright dismiss just because it’s common. Besides some things really are better in list form. Humor pieces, for example, are particularly suited to the listicle format because: (1) no one likes a joke that takes 1000 words to tell; but (2) no one likes to click on a link just to read two or three sentences; so (3) a series of funny things provides the perfect payoff per unit of effort by the reader.

Travel writers are also prone to use (and abuse) lists. For one, much of travel planning lends itself to itemizing: things to do, places to see, stuff to pack and how to pack them.

I mean, a small tube of Colgate doesn't exactly cost the earth! But, hey, to each his own.

I mean, a small tube of Colgate doesn’t exactly cost the earth! (Or am I just too lazy? Okay.)

And then there is the travel write-up itself. Travelogues, I think, should be a bit more in-depth; ideally, there has to be something in them — a reflection, a mishap, a lightbulb moment — that differentiates the writer’s experience of, say, Paris from everyone else and their aunts’ experience of Paris. But for overviews, highlights, tips, and how-tos, lists are a perfectly acceptable format. (In fact, if you’re not going to make an effort to be engaging, I actually recommend you write lists instead.)

This is not to say that I have become crazy about lists or that I’m going to be writing nothing but listicles from now on. I still hope to eventually acquire the skill of writing paragraphs so compelling, dozens of them will go by without the reader sinking into torpor. What I’m merely trying to say is that listicles are a legitimate art form, and if you or I want to create one, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t. Certainly we shouldn’t hold back just because of what the literary upper-class might think.

“I have no cause to complain,” shrugged Tolkien once, “since I have similar opinions of their works.” In other words: haters gonna hate. In the end, the goal of every writer should not be to write long, but to write well.


Travel Writing: To List or Not To List” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved. | For Pie

Travel is a waste


…if you measure wealth in things, not experiences.



…if you measure your life in minutes, not moments.

Travel is a waste” was created by LSS for travel site Small-Town Girls, Midnight Trains. All rights reserved.