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!

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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!