Philippines: the verdict

Manila, 12 December

We leave Coron by tiny propeller plane to land in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Here we’ll be spending one night before heading to Indonesia.

Now there’s almost always something wrong with airport hotels, but rarely as much as with Rappricondotel in Manila: it has burned to the ground.

First we think the taxi driver who’s driving us there is at it (he definitely is), when he starts off the ride by telling us the hotel is in a bad area, and he knows a better one he can bring us to (out of the kindness of his heart). However when we’re near, the entire street is cordoned off. A guard appears at the window and asks us where we’re going, then casually remarks: “It’s burned down back in April.”

Contrary to what his mischievous smile may suggest, it turns out he’s telling the truth. A quick look at the latest reviews on the booking website shows Rappricondotel has indeed been razed to the ground (even though it’s still trading online).

We soon find another hotel nearby, who’s owner listens to our story with great interest. In the morning she jumps in the taxi with us and gives us the gossip on the way to the airport. Word is Rappricondotel caught on fire because of Chinese guests smoking in the room. So that’s that, let’s go to Bali!

Travel statistics for the Philippines

Duration: 29 days. Distance (land): 1,200 km. Distance (water): 300 km. Distance (air): 860 km.

Travel statistics for the entire trip

Duration: 135 days. Distance (land): 10,400 km. Distance (water): 415 km. Distance (air): 23,019 km. Distance (total): 33,834 km.

Since we’re about to leave the Philippines, it’s time to put some scores on the board!

The people score 8/10. Our experience with Filipinos is that they’re a very friendly bunch and pretty honest to boot. English is commonly spoken so it’s easy to get talking to locals. Compared to India and Sri Lanka, it was nice to see women participate in social society too.

The food scores 7/10. The average Filipino food is nothing special, but there are loads of Italian and Spanish restaurants with high standards on the islands. Some (but not all) of the bbq at island hopping tours was also spectacular.

The transport scores 6/10. Three wheelers are readily available everywhere, but are usually slightly too small to sit inside with two people comfortably. Cebu island has a good bus system, whereas the van transport on Palawan is pricey and badly organized.

All in all the Philippines has easily passed the mark and therefore more than earned Lauren’s official certificate of excellence. Merry X-mas Philippines!

Taking a dive in Coron: O, the hu-manatee!

Coron, Palawan. 7-11 December

In Coron we go on two dives, though one considerably more fun than the other. Our first dive is off a scooter when I lose control riding down a steep, gravelly decline. Thankfully it’s the slowest crash in history at 20kmph and we get off easy with just a few bumps and scratches (Lauren breaks her fall mostly with my phone). A good Samaritan on the road helps fix up the bike and we’re right back on it. Still a good reminder to keep driving carefully and not get too cocky about my newfound scooter-riding skills!

Without any further accidents we make it to Ocam-Ocam beach on the far side of the island, where the salt water cleans off the dirt and little sucker fish start eating away at the loose bits of skin on my sore leg, much to Lauren’s delight.

The island hopping tour in Coron is pretty nice, with a few good snorkeling spots, including a 25m long Japanese shipwreck hit by the US during WW2, which has become a favourite hangout spot for loads and loads of little nosy fish.

After another fun day out on and in the water we end the night at a rooftop bar with a few people from the boat for a couple drinks and views over the bay.

We have kept the best for last when we dive down a second time, this time from a boat into the water! It has been a long time dream of ours to see a certain marine mammal in the wild, and when we find out this might be possible in Coton we jump at the opportunity.

As it’s not included in any regular snorkeling and diving tours on offer, we do a bit of research and in the end find a company willing to organize a tour for us. On our last day in Coron we’re picked up from our hotel before dawn and drive to the northwestern tip of the island. Finally the road turns into a dirt path and 30 minutes later we arrive at a rickety old pier in the middle of nowhere where a boat is waiting for us to take us onto the water.

When we arrive at the site just one other boat is out on the water and two divers are looking for the animal in question. After some time we begin to despair, is it actually here? Then someone blows a whistle, which is our signal to jump into the water and swim towards the divers as fast as we can, and suddenly we see something in the distance: 2,5 meters long, brown and magnificent, our ‘white whale’, a Dugong!! (aka Manatee)

These gentle giants are pretty shy and usually only come up for air every 6 minutes, before descending back into the deep to feed on seagrass. We’re only snorkeling so have to wait until the Dugong appears from the darkness below, but today we are extremely lucky. The second time the Dugong comes up to take a deep breath he swims alongside us for a few minutes, and we couldn’t be happier!

It’s a totally unexpected and perfect end to our time in the Philippines, which has been superb. For now we prepare for the next step in our journey, but hope to return here one day!

Storm a-brewin in El Nido

El Nido, Palawan. 2-6 December

On December 2nd, we travel by minivan from Port Barton to El Nido in the far north of the island of Palawan. El Nido is the gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, a group of islands with steep karst cliffs and white-sand beaches.

In 1954, el Nido (Spanish for the nest) was given its name after the edible nests of swiftlets found in the crevices of the limestone cliffs. These nests are the main ingredient for the gourmet nido soup, and are being sold at extortionate prices. A lot of hotels and restaurants in El Nido (esspecially the ones with a view) have names referencing to birds nests, and as such, on our first evening in El Nido we head to the Nesting Table at the Bird House to meet up with friends met in Port Barton. Considering the views from the restaurant it’s no wonder El Nido is a popular tourist destination.

While still in Port Barton we were warned about the upcoming typhoon “Tysoy”, the strongest storm to hit Philippines this year, which might also affect El Nido in the days ahead. As a precaution, all ferry services and island hopping tours have therefore been suspended until further notice. It rains heavily the next day, but, luckily for us, the typhoon is soon downgraded to a tropical storm after it hits the capital city of Manila and travels westwards to Vietnam. Typhoons are pretty common in this part of the world, and sadly in the end this one claims the lives of 13 people. We’re just glad it didn’t come our way!

Without island hopping there is fairly little to do in El Nido, so while we’re sat waiting for the weather to improve the day goes by pretty uneventful…until Lauren is attacked by a monkey (yet again)! Our hotel is right on the beach, a little bit away from the main town, and has a big garden with calamansi trees, coconut trees and a big pond, which attracts plenty of insects, birds, frogs, chickens plus of course the usual stray dogs and cats….and evidently one very mean and aggressive macaque. It bares its teeth, hisses and lunges itself at Lauren outside of our hut and when she screams for help, one of the stray dogs immediately jumps to the rescue and chases away the monkey. Good doggo!

In the following days I quickly become known at the local store as ‘that corned beef weirdo’, since we’re now buying the dog regular treats. Every morning we find her sleeping on our doorstep and in the end she even shows off her two adorable little pups, hidden away in a den behind the hut.

As soon as the weather clears up we rent a kayak and explore some of the islands, which is great fun! A bit of muscle pain the next day is but a small price to pay for a genuine castaway experience!

With the island hopping restarted, it’s time to dust off the old snorkeling gear once again and explore some of the more famous sites El Nido has to offer, such as secret beach, hidden lagoon and Matinloc island, as always accompanied by fish bbq for lunch, good enough to put even a Jamie Oliver to shame!

When we’re all set to leave El Nido the ferry service is back on track. Even still, Tysoy rears its ugly head one final time when, for the first hour of the journey, we’re being slung from one wave to another and I am convinced the hull is going to break in two. The sound and smell of people throwing up all around us does little to help settle my nerves, yet Lauren, being the pirate that she is, casually munches away at her breakfast and even finds time for a little snooze! That’s the last we see of Tysoy and soon we arrive safely in Coron.

At last, a turtle!

Port Barton, Palawan. 29 November-1 December

Our flight from Cebu sees us safely in Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan in under an hour. Transport from the airport is limited to very badly organized tourist vans. After a fair bit of miscommunication and driving in circles through town, in the end they manage to squeeze fifteen of us in one vehicle, and we’re away.

Palawan’s roads are notorious for dangerous driving, meanwhile our driver does little to debunk this notion. Thankfully the both of us are among the lucky few in the car who managed to get a seatbelt. After a few hours we turn from the highway onto a country road winding through rainforest and rice fields. We’re on the north-west coast of Palawan, but nothing here seems to suggest we’re headed for the beach, until finally the trees open up and we can see a white sandy beach and the sea below us in the distance. We made it to Port Barton.

This small, remote beachside village is steadily becoming a backpackers favourite, but isn’t (yet) as popular and developed as for instance Boracay or nearby El Nido. Since there are tons of small islands and sand bars just off the coast, it is a great location for island-hopping and snorkeling.

Our hostel is basic let’s say, with our hut consisting of little more than four walls, a roof, a door and a bed, but the staff are nice and it’s a great place to meet other travellers. Besides, most of our days are spent on the various activities Port Barton has to offer and ar night pretty much every bar along the beach has a happy hour.

Giant Python at one of the beach bars

The next morning is not quite as happy for me as the night before, but nothing a good old hike in the midday heat to a nearby sandy beach can’t solve. En route we’re passed by a white haired jogger, who introduces himself as Dave, from Devon. Dave insists we come have a look at the flytrap plants nearby, and afterwards, before running off into the distance, invites us to come to his restaurant tonight, which serves ‘the best curry in town.’

The path out of Port Barton leads past a handful of clearings with the occasional bamboo hut and pigs, chickens and buffalos hanging out between the coconut trees. When we arrive at the beach we can’t believe our luck: it looks like paradise and even better, we have it all to ourselves! The water looks inviting. When we jump in it’s like landing in a warm bath.

Together with another guest from the hostel we head to Dave’s for dinner, where he makes good on his promise: the food is delicious. Before and after dinner, Dave entertains us with more than a few of his life’s stories and tells us loads about the local wildlife.

The next morning we dive into the action with our first ever island-hopping tour. So far, the coral we’ve seen in the Philippines appears a bit bleached of colour, but we see a huge amount of underwater life and one very aggressive parrot fish.

Lunch is freshly prepared by the boat’s crew on a remote island: an incredible feast of grilled tuna, chicken and lechon, coconut rice with a dressing of vinegar, soy sauce, onion, calamansi and ginger; potato, eggplant and lady finger salad, sliced tomato, cucumber and red onion and pineapple and banana.

After some serious digesting the boat takes us to turtle island. We almost dare not hope after all the times we didn’t see turtles, but today is finally the day we swim with a turtle! We’re as happy as a kid in the candy store.

With our white whale found, and the rain coming on, it’s time to say goodbye to Port Barton and prepare for another long drive further north to El Nido.

Philippines: the halfway point

Mactan, Cebu, 28 November

The bus from Moalboal will bring us back to Cebu city for a third (and hopefully final) time, marking the end of a great visit to the islands of Bohol and Cebu.

Having been on the road for a few months now, lately I’ve found myself daydreaming about extending our travels beyond February 2020, but, impracticalities aside, today dishes up a gentle reminder that travelling isn’t always as magical as it appears.

This morning we’re subjected to an interrogation by the owner of the hotel in Moalboal on how to get her alcoholic husband to be deported back to England. The last few nights this guy’s been keeping us awake with his repeated playlist of the same three Eminem songs, along with his ranting and shouting at other guests, so, surely, we don’t mind weighing in here a bit with some honest relationship advice. (No one messes with our sleep!)

After three hours by bus we arrive at the Southern Bus Terminal in Cebu. Tomorrow’s flight was originally scheduled to leave at 12.45, but it got changed to 6AM, so we’ve booked ourselves in somewhere near the airport. The right bus is easily found, but doesn’t leave for another hour.

Our initial excitement to finally be on the move quickly ebbs away when we’re stuck in painfully slow traffic for most of the journey. When we’re at our stop it’s 4PM; it took us three hours just to travel 15 km.. Yah.. There’s still a little way to go to the hotel, but surely a taxi won’t be hard to find in this busy city, right?

So.. The first car that stops isn’t actually a taxi.. The second one is, but when we get in, immediately, the driver takes a deliberate wrong turn onto the bridge leading right back to the traffic congested town we just came from, for a long and costly detour. I’m tired, I’m hungry and in no mood for his shenanigans, so the poor guy gets it in the neck from me while we’re swiftly getting out of his vehicle. The next taxi pulling over makes it third time lucky; not much later we arrive at the hotel.

Now when I mentioned it’s close to the airport, I didn’t imagine we were quite literally right beside the runway, but here we are, it sounds like we’re being invaded by the Luftwaffe. In all fairness though, as I’m writing this, the noise of the planes *does* drown out some of the church choir practicing upstairs. Not completely bad after all.

Also, we have dinner. A fine meal produced by our local Jollibee, a Filipino fast food restaurant chain, which is like McDonalds, but edible!

So really we’re doing just fine, about to continue our travels through Philippines tomorrow on the beautiful islands of Palawan, which is something to look forward to! We’ll keep you posted.

On the run with Sardines

Moalboal, Cebu, 26-27 November

Judging by the number of tourists on scooters and a healthy choice of bars and restaurants, the peninsula of Moalboal on the south-western tip of Cebu is perhaps the most touristic destination on the island. It’s easily accessible by bus both from Cebu city in the north-east and from Samboan in the south. The main reason visitors come to Moalboal is for diving and the sardine run.

We’re staying in a hut near Panagsama Beach (not actually a beach) where most hotels and restaurants have been established ever since Moalboal became a touristic destination in the 70’s. Because we don’t have our diving certification yet, we’re skipping nearby Pescador Island, but instead go in search of sardines just off the shore.

A million sardines form a so-called bait ball or run, when they school together for protection against larger prey. This spectacle can be seen in Moalboal all year round. Visibility levels are not ideal today, but it’s still pretty cool to see some flashes of silver scales when the sunlight comes breaking through.

Apart from diving and snorkeling, there’s not much else to do in Moalboal, so the next day we happily rent a scooter and explore the surrounding area. Kawasan Falls with its turquoise water is one of the most famous waterfalls in Cebu, though a bit of a tourist trap. Besides the parking and entrance fee, there’s also a fee for using a locker, mandatory life-jacket (completely unnecessary) and a fee for sitting down on one of the benches.. I guess we can say we’ve been, but we won’t be rushing back I think.

White Beach in Moalboal is much the same we heard, so instead I take us to the lesser-known (and almost empty) Lambug Beach for an afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. We suddenly realize it’s almost December, and we’re on the beach. Happy days!

So this brings us to the halfway point of our trip to the Philippines, time flies. That’s two islands down, two to go, but with Palawan and Coron, we’re saving the best for last (I hope). Tomorrow morning we’re back in Cebu city one final time before flying to Puerto Princesa the next day.

The life aquatic (without Steve Zissou)

Samboan, Cebu, 25 November

The town of Samboan is only 45 minutes away from Oslob by bus. Our hotel is a few kilometres out of town, but the good thing about rural buses in the Philippines is that they always drop you off exactly where you need to be. Eden, the owner of Carolina del Mar, comes out to greet us and has even practiced our names. We feel at home already! Her place on the coast of the Visayan Sea is a little piece of paradise.

As we’re only spending the one night here on our way to Moalboal, the plan is to relax and go for a swim in the clear blue waters. What we didn’t know is that Samboan is great for snorkeling too: there’s loads of (live) coral and even recent sightings of a giant turtle. No need to tell us twice! Since missing out on it in Sri Lanka, the giant turtle has been our unicorn, the one that got away, so before our bags hit the ground we’re already in the water!

As it turns out, today again is not the day we’re swimming with a turtle, but we still have the best afternoon exploring the wonderful coral reef.

Not being a regular Steve Zissou (or even a Ned for that matter), I haven’t a clue about the type of fish I’m seeing, but they’re pretty colourful, plus I find one more type of star fish to add to my now growing collection (of photos I mean, before you get any ideas).

At the end of a relaxing day, while sipping a cold beer on the patio, we both wish we could stay here a bit longer, but our flight to Palawan Island is coming up soon. First we’re heading north to Moalboal to swim with the sardines.

Whale Shark watching in Oslob, a fair warning.

Oslob, Cebu, 22-24 November

Our next stop is Oslob on Cebu Island, but, as of last month, the ferry service between Tagbilaran and Argao has been suspended. This means we’re first taking the ferry back to Cebu city, which quickly turns a three hour journey into a gruelling 8,5 hours. After a long day we reach Oslob just before dark, ready to dive straight into the pool!

First established in 1690, Oslob became an independent parish in 1848 when the present-day church of Immaculate Conception was completed. The church is made out of coral stone and was burned down during WW2, but has since been restored to its former glory.

Oslob is most famous for its whale shark watching, but first we’re taking it easy after a long day of travelling. The start to our morning is not ideal however. We’re a bit bummed out because we realize some of the souvenirs we’ve been collecting on our travels have been nicked from my bag, during our stay in Hong Kong Kowloon I’m convinced. None of it was particularly expensive, but impossible to replace. If you read this manager at Wai Fan Guest House, I’m pretty sure stealing figurines of gods is bad karma..

We decide not to let it ruin a good time (it’s a good excuse to do more travelling in the future after all) and all is soon forgotten when we enjoy the crystal clear waters the hotel looks out over.

The next morning we wake up bright and early to go whale shark watching and we’re excited. This endangered animal is a filter-feeding carpet shark, which feeds on plankton and small fishes, and it’s the largest fish still in existence, growing up to a possible 18 meters in length!

After witnessing in Zanzibar how crazy (Western) tourists get when it comes to seeing rare wildlife, we’re not sure how today will pan out to be. A few organisations in fact have warned against the whale watching practices in Oslob in the past, but we’re told some big improvements have since been made. In 1998, the Philippines banned all fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks, and by law, all snorkelers must now maintain a distance of four feet from the sharks or risk a fine or even a prison sentence. A marine biologist is on site at all times and only ten people at a time are allowed in the water. All of this however turns out to be far removed from the reality we witness here today.

After buying a (non-refundable) ticket, we attend a mandatory briefing reiterating Philippine law and are brought to the boats. There are at least 15 boats out on the water at the same time, for a grand total of about 150 snorkelers rather than 10! The boats are formed in an orderly line and another boat (with the marine biologist on board, apparently) throws shrimp near the boats to attract the whale sharks. We’re quickly ushered into a boat with 8 other (Chinese) tourists, who, after we have joined the others, immediately swim away and start touching and even kicking the whale sharks! Lauren completely loses it at this point, and rightly so, but the boatman does absolutely nothing to intervene. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see these wonderful giants up close, and punching the worst offending Chinese tourist in the arm did relieve some stress, but we both wish we never went here in the first place. Sadly the management is clearly not at all interested in this gentle animal’s wellbeing!

Visiting the muddy Tumalog Falls nearby doesn’t do much to improve our mood today. Cebu Island is a beautiful place, but after having a near perfect time on Bohol Island, we can’t help but feel Oslob has been a bit of a let down, it happens.

After travelling tomorrow from the east coast to Samboan on the west coast, in search of a more positive experience!

Merry X-Mas from Loboc river

Loboc, Bohol, 19-21 November

For our second stop in Philippines we’re headed to Loboc by the Loboc River, in the southern part of Bohol Island. On the bus ride over we’re watching Jesus vs Santa: Two men handing out envelopes for donations. The first, dressed as a Jehovah’s witness, with raised voice reads from a big bible and in response gets largely ignored by the other passengers when he comes round to collect his dues. The second, a young guy, has simply written Merry Christmas on his envelopes and walks away with a fist-full of cash. And the winner is… Santa.

It’s only the 19th of November, but already it would be fair to say that Filipinos adore Christmas. In retrospect, the first signs were there when we left the hotel in Hong Kong Kowloon and our Filipino hostess passed on her Season’s Greetings to us. When we arrive at our hotel in Loboc, the first thing we see is a giant, decorated Christmas tree and a stack of perfectly gift-wrapped boxes inside the lobby. Furthermore, the balcony overlooking Loboc river is covered in tinsel and the floating restaurants passing by play all the hits from Mariah Carey to Silent Night. Let’s just say the river is best enjoyed from a distance.

Watersports aside we have a whole island to explore. Bohol is very laidback with a lot of small villages connected by wide, largely quiet roads. It’s ideal for getting around by (bright pink) scooter, and there is loads to see.

One of the most famous Bohol attractions is The Chocolate Hills, a geological formation of over 1200 hills made of grass-covered limestone spread out over more 50 square kilometres. The name comes from the brown colour they have during the dry season, and equally, perhaps, from their bonbon-like shapes.

From the viewpoint we take the bike to a dirtpath past the little village of Buenos Aires for a closer look. When the path becomes too small we continue on foot through grassland. The heat from the sun is scorching, but the surroundings make more than up for it and the few people we meet along the way are very friendly (and also slightly amused to see two very sweaty tourists wandering around in their backyard).

On our way back we stop off for lunch at a nearby oyster mushroom farm in the middle of rice fields and cool off from the midday heat by diving into the cool water at Pangas Falls. Bohol is a pretty amazing place.

At night at the hotel we finally find out the purpose of the staff member who looks like a Filipino John Lennon, who is usually found during the day watching tv in the lobby: At night he brings out his guitar and plays Beatles songs for all the guests to enjoy (or rue, whichever works), so it all makes sense now. He knows the lyrics to every song yet doesn’t speak any English!

Bohol is one of the few places in the world where you can see tarsiers in the wild, so no visit would be complete without trying to spot some of these little furbies. Tarsiers are tiny primates (but not monkeys), which are sadly critically endangered. They don’t cope well in captivity (to the point of committing suicide due to stress), but the sanctuary we visit near the town of Corella is having some success in restoring tarsier populations. Founded by Carlito Pizarras a.k.a. Tarsier Man, this sanctuary allows visitors to ethically observe these nocturnal creatures in the wild. And they are damn cute.

Simply driving through beautiful Bohol is a pleasure in its own right, there’s always something to discover, from picturesque little villages and bamboo bridges across the river to waterfalls and forests. We could easily spend another week or two here driving around the island, but the next part of our journey beckons.

We’re returning to Cebu Island and making our way down south to Oslob, so in the inspirational words of John Lennon, goodnight goodnight, everybody everywhere, goodnight!

First impressions of Philippines: Starfish at Bohol Sea

Panglao Island, Bohol, 14-18 November

In under three hours we fly from Hong Kong to Cebu International Airport. After the fast pace we set ourselves in Sri Lanka, India and China, we’re ready to slow down and enjoy the amazing beaches of Philippines!

At midday we take a bus from the airport into town and then another bus to Cebu pier, where the fast ferry takes us across to Tagbilaran on Bohol Island. We try to use public transport as much as we can, which can take time getting used to, but things here run pretty smoothly from the get go. Though the traffic in Cebu city is painstakingly slow, we have no trouble finding our way to and getting on the ferry. We land in Tagbilaran by sunset and get a three-wheeler taxi (basically a motorbike with sidecar) to drive us to the hotel where we arrive in the dark.

We’re spending five nights on Panglao Island, which is a small island to the South of Bohol. Our hotel is located in a secluded area on the island and after arriving in total darkness we’re pleasantly surprised by the view from our hut when we wake up the next morning!

After the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan, Philippines became a colony of Spain (1521-1898) until it was sold to the United States, which led to the Philippine-American war and finally the country’s declaration of independence in 1946.

Evidence of Spanish influence is mostly found in the architecture of old Christian churches (and a lot of inspirational biblical quotes found on buildings and cars) and also in the food. Not far from our hotel we find a great Spanish restaurant, endorsed as authentic even by the Spanish and Argentinian guests at our hotel. As for the American influence, besides Filipino pretty much everyone in Philippines speaks good English, which makes getting around easy, and you’re never far away from a fast food joint.

We rent a scooter from the hotel to set out exploring the island. It’s my first time riding one, but my initial nerves soon calm when the years of experience riding bicycles kicks in. It definitely helps that Filipinos appear to be considerate drivers.

Alona beach is Panglao’s main attraction but we last about 30 minutes here, as it’s pretty much overrun by tourists and touts selling boat tours and massages. On the bright side it has a good selection of restaurants and plenty of cheap boozers, plus a surf boarding dog!

Spending time at the hotel instead is hardly punishment though. The crystal clear, warm water is great for swimming and we can finally put the snorkel sets I have been carrying around for 3,5 months to good use!

Evenings at the hotel get pretty lively with staff, friends of staff and guests (including a Russian with his younger Filipino girlfriend staying here longterm) all gathered drinking around the Wifi area. Things get a little awkward when Lauren is on the phone to her dad and two of the local girls start shouting “Daddy! Daddy! I love you daddy!” while trying to take over the conversation. Think I’ll be giving the fermented coconut wine they are gulping down a wide berth..

We’re having a blast so far in Philippines and feel sad to say Bohol Sea goodbye, while at the same time we’re excited to visit Loboc next for a few days on the river!