Interview with a Backpacker: Journeying James Betia


THE backpacking culture in the Philippines has grown significantly in the last few years. Coinciding with this development is the emergence of many travel bloggers who have peppered the social media with inspiring travel narratives and images of picturesque destinations.

James in East Timor

In this sub-culture of modern-day travelers one man has blazed his own trail and has championed the backpacking style of traveling. I first met James Betia, also known as ‘Journeying James,’ during a traveler’s talk event in Manila and has traveled with him a few times, including a couple of outreach programs such as the library project in Gubat, Sorsogon, and an anti-malnutrition drive in the island of Jomalig in Quezon. While he’s currently on his 100-day European backpacking journey, Betia shares his story:

Before you started traveling full time, what was your day job?

James in Bangkok

I was a Prefect of Discipline and Physical Education teacher in a private school in Laguna before I started full-time traveling. Like a Guidance Counselor, I was in-charge of erring students. I tried to reform the office where I didn’t wait for students to err before I invite them for a talk. I also went my way and invited all the graduating class in my office just to chat with them about life, their passion, and dreams.

How did you prepare for your #100DaysPhilippines?

I did the #100DaysPH in 2012. It was just the next thing to do since I already traveled Visayas in 2010 and Mindanao in 2011. I wanted to revisit my friends and, more importantly, set foot in the provinces I haven’t been to. I think my travels from 2009 to 2011 set the stage for me to launch the #100DaysPH challenge. I have learned about staying with locals through CouchSurfing, volunteering to some places to save on expenses, and even hitchhiking.

Aboard a ferry somewhere in Indonesia

What were the fascinating discoveries you had while traveling around the country?

That those who doesn’t have that much financially are the ones who help more. Locals opened to travelers like me not only their homes, but their hearts as well. One night I stayed in this farmer’s house in an island in Marinduque where they have to fetch water 30 minutes below the hill, and they don’t even have coffee for breakfast. Since they don’t want to me sleep in my hammock outside, but, they invited me to sleep with them on their “papag.” When I woke up, the housewife was already boiling water for me because they didn’t have anything else to offer. Good thing I had some coffee and biscuits in my bag that I shared with them before I left.

In Tawi-Tawi, the birthplace of Islam in the Philippines

Aside from finding out how diverse the Philippines is, I personally discovered that Tawi-Tawi is one of the safest place to travel, Muslims and Christians have more meeting points than disagreements, and that, even though I don’t understand Bisaya at that time, I can communicate with a smile while doing karaoke or sitting with the locals who kept offering me home-made lambanog.

Was there ever a time during your travel when you asked yourself “What am I doing here?”

It was when there was no space to sleep on during the overnight ferry ride from Jolo, Sulu to Bongao, Tawi-Tawi. I didn’t know anyone, I hardly look like them, much less understand their dialect, and it was quite obvious it was my first time to board that kind of ferry. But then, looking back, it was one of those moments that definitely make traveling worth it and, if given a chance, I will do it again. Because it was on that trip that I got to witness some Badjaos kids dancing in the plaza while wearing colorful dresses in Siasi, Sulu.

During the 100 days of travel, what are the places you consider your favorites?

There’s a lot but I will limit it to three.

I would say Kalinga, the most lush and well-preserved mountains in the whole of Cordillera, with its huge narra trees along the road and pristine rice terraces. Apo Whang-od, the famed mambabatok, offered me to stay at her upper house. Then she sang the Ullalim which is actually performed when someone is about to die. It is like a cry, mantra, or chant that talks about life, victories, struggles, celebrations and pain. I still have it on my hard drive and is just waiting for the perfect time to post online. My guide said it was his first time to listen to Whand-od’s Ullalim.

Relaxing on a hammock in Laos

Dahican Beach in Mati City, Davao Oriental. There I was welcomed like one of the Amihan Boys, a team of skaters, skimmers and surfers who take care of the Dahican beach sanctuary for endangered turtles, dugong, whale-sharks and dolphins. One night, while I was in my hammock, this 90-kilo green sea-turtle decided to lay her eggs right below me. It was a crazy experience watching a huge turtle triple my age dig her nest and lay eggs in the middle of the night. Then, after experiencing my first legitimate wave ride, I became a member of Amihan Boys, a first from Manila.

In Penang, Malaysia

El Nido, Palawan. To save on expenses, I rented a kayak and solo-paddled my way to the islands with some food and hammock. I wanted to stay for two to three nights, survivor-style. On my second night, I had a bad case of diarrhea because of the contaminated water I drank. I thought I was going to die of dehydration that night. I have to muster all my strength to paddle back to town before sunrise so that the heat won’t slow me down. I felt I was about to faint, but after two hours of paddling, I finally reached the town with lips turned purple. I downed several liters of water and lots of fruit juices before I went back to Puerto Princesa to fully recover. It was Day 96 of my 100 Days journey.

A few years after you went on another 100-day journey, but this time it was around South East Asia. How did you manage your ‘cheapest way possible’ challenge?

I actually find it cheaper to go around Southeast Asia than in the Philippines. In Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam, the hostels would charge around P200 to 300 per night. Food in Thailand and Indonesia is cheap. Of all the places I visited, it is only in Bali, Indonesia that I have spent a lot, paying P800 per night in a hostel with free breakfast.

Snapped by Hannah Reyes

I also stayed in Meditation Centers in Thailand that accept donations. One time, I had to sleep in a temple by the beach in Bali because I ran out of budget. Then I slept in a hammock for a week in Lombok island, where a Muslim family running a small warung (carinderia) took care of me. Fortunately, it was just in front of a beach so I get to surf a lot.

Is it really the ‘same and yet different?’

The skin color and clothing may be similar (in the region), but you would really notice the difference when it comes to food, culture and religion. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar are just full of temples. In Malaysia, mosques are everywhere. Indonesia would probably be the closest thing to the Philippines since they also have gorgeous beaches with rich marine life. East Timor was the most bizarre of all since they look like small Africans that speak Portuguese, spend American dollars, but act like Asians. For a Westerner, it is easier to travel in the Philippines because most Filipinos understand and speak English. In other Southeast Asian countries, once you leave the tourist areas, you would find it hard to communicate and eventually resort to sign language.

What are the favorite places you have visited in South East Asia?

I like surfing a lo, so I have to say Bali and Lombok in Indonesia. There I found the most perfect wave I ever surfed in my life. Also, the food is cheap, especially in warungs.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. Everything is cheap from accommodation, food, and partying.

Surfing in Bali

Penang island in Malaysia because street art is everywhere. You will find many Filipinos working there so you would feel right at home. Other than the beer, everything is cheap, plus there are a number of Indian restaurants to choose from. I just love Indian food.

Where are you right now?

As of this writing, I’m now doing my #100DaysEurope challenge in the most expensive city in the world: Zurich, Switzerland. Traveling in Europe is special to me since this is my childhood dream. Plus, I get to travel with my beautiful girlfriend, too.

Lastly, how did travel change you as a person?

I would like to quote from the reflections I had during my #100DaysSEA journey in Laos.

Exploring the caves in Northern Thailand

Don’t you dare travel on your own. I’m telling you, you will get broke, backaches from carrying heavy backpacks, lost and worse meet an accident, robed and cry by yourself in an unfamiliar place, and wrestle with a language you don’t understand and can’t even pronounce. You will meet nice people only to say goodbye the next day. You will miss your cozy home and your family. When you get sick, there’s no one to take care of you. You would hate hostels because the rowdy youngsters are smoking weed and drink so much Beerlao. You will be forced to walk 2 to 3 kilometers to save a dollar and then wonder, why the heck? You will miss your flight or that single sleeper train and have to settle for the local bus and so on.

Meditating on the road

But if you insist, go ahead. I wish you good luck. You might find love but learn how to let go as nothing is constant. You will learn to carry only what is essential and see the beauty in the mundane. Take it slow. You would appreciate the little things in life that you take for granted back home. Slowly you will begin to greet people not with the usual hello, but with Bonjour! Como estas! Annyeonghaseyo! Hallo! Sabai dee mai! Guten tag! Shalom! Namaste! Konnichiwa! Ola! You will enjoy the vistas and learn that it is really about the journey not the destination. You will develop friendships in a short period of time over coffee or beer. You will get to know yourself better; your shortcomings as well as your good side. Once you get home, you have become a changed person and can readily redefine ‘home.’