The Irrawaddys of Mekong River

Kratié, 9-11 January 2020

The travelling distance from Siem Reap in the northwest to Kratié in the east of Cambodia is 400km. We have purchased direct bus tickets the day before and begin our journey at 7AM. Around 1PM we reach Kampong Cham, a small town on the Mekong River about 100km from Kratie. It is here that the bus driver (who suddenly stops understanding English) decides to stop, eject us and our luggage, and turn back the way.

Not to worry though, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from travelling is that things always seem to work out just fine in the end (though often with the help of a good Samaritan).

Today’s good Samaritan is a sweet lady at a nearby drinks stand. After waiting an hour she manages to find us a vehicle heading to Kratié. This van service, operated by a husband and wife, makes stops at most villages along the way to either drop off or pick up packages/passengers. One of the tyres gets punctured along the way, but they’re not stopping. Around 4PM we’re their only remaining passengers, but luckily there are still deliveries to be made all the way to Kratié, where we finally arrive at 5PM.

When we pay the driver, his wife snatches the money out of his hand with a triumphant smile. Although we don’t speak the language, we did notice they’ve been playfully making fun of eachother the entire way, nice couple. The little bit of Khmer we learned in Siem Reap comes in handy to thank them for saving the day: Arkoun, Po! Arkoun, Ming!

Kratié is a medium sized town of 40.000 people on the banks of the Mekong river, the 7th longest river in Asia flowing from the Tibetan Plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and then Cambodia into Vietnam. The town sees a bit of tourism for one main reason: a local population of freshwater dolphins called Irrawaddy dolphins.

The Irrawaddy is an oceanic dolphin found near sea coasts and in rivers in parts of the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. Their appearance is similar to that of a Beluga whale. As they are known to herd fish into a specific area for hunting, in some places fishermen work with the Irrawaddys to drive fish into their nets.

Cambodians believe the Irrawaddys are reincarnations of their ancestors, which has led them to live peacefully alongside one another. All the same, fishing practices involving gill nets and even explosives have led to a steady decline in the dolphin population worldwide. Though Kratié has seen a slight increase in numbers in recent years, the Irrawaddys are sadly still critically endangered.

Tourism in the dolphin habitat about 15km north of Kratié appears to be pretty ethical. There’s only a few boats and kayaks out in the water and engines aren’t being used near the deep pools in the middle of the river where the dolphins congregate. The Irrawaddys are quite shy by nature, so at first it’s hard to spot them, but after a while we see them come up to the surface constantly. When the sun sets on the Mekong, we’re lucky to see a small group of them hunting and one of them make a jump out of the water.

Although unfortunately we don’t spot any dolphins up close, it’s pretty nice to see so many of them swim around. We hope the population will keep growing, because it would be a shame to see these creatures disappear.

Just in front of Kratié, accessible by ferry, lays Koh Trong. We rent bicycles to explore this 6km long island in the middle of the Mekong. It’s a nice place with traditional houses, rice fields and sleepy scenes of cattle grazing quietly underneath the trees. Surprisingly, Koh Trong has no less than 3 temples, and on the far side of the island we find a little floating village just off the sand bank.

Driving around Kratié can be a bit of a challenge; it seems the further away you get from the town the worse the road becomes, but it’s worth the effort. Local children get super excited to see us and we find a small village on the water just north of the dolphin spot where everyone comes to swim.

Our hotel in Kratié is not the best, what with the chorus of roosters outside our window and being locked inside our room for two hours on our last day, so after exhausting all our sightseeing options here we’re happy to move on to the capital Phnom Penh.

Penang: Malaysia’s melting pot

Penang, 31 December 2019 – 4 January 2020

On the final day of the year we take the ferry from Langkawi to Penang. The island of Penang is located just off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Malacca Strait. Both are connected by the longest oversea bridge in Southeast Asia.

While much of Malaysia draws its culture from its largely Muslim Malay inhabitants, Penang is a giant melting pot of different cultures: Indian, Chinese, Malay, and some remnants of British colonialism (1867-1957).

Just around the corner: Leith Street!

To celebrate the new year we spend our first night bang in the middle of George Town, the capital of Penang. George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The street of our hotel, Campbell street, used to be the red light district filled with Cantonese brothels, but now it is the centre of the Chinese jewellery trade. Just around the corner from us is the area dubbed Little India, which springs to life at dinnertime when the food stalls open for business.

We find a grimey, little bottle shop surrounded by low-budget hostels, which has a pop-up terrace compounding of plastic folding tables and chairs. It turns out to be quite a happening place, popular with locals, expats and tourists; the cheapest boozer in town. We plan to go here for just one drink but end up staying for most of the night chatting away to a group of Indian migrants.

We make it back to our hotel room’s balcony just in time to see the fireworks set off from nearby The Top tower. We’re pretty drunk at this point. Our travels in 2019 have been superb, so kick on 2020!

The next day, with sore heads, we relocate to another hotel a bit further away from George Town near Penang Hill. Once we have a scooter we revisit George Town for the daytime experience.

Famed for its art, architecture and diversity, George Town is a city that feels new and western, while preserving the eastern cultures that originally turned Penang into a world trading centre. It’s pretty hipster, a bit quirky, and quite photogenic. The street art walking tour is to be recommended.

The architecture is a mishmash of old style Chinese mansions, British colonial houses and lots of new development.

Some of the old building are beautifully restored, while others have been reduced to just an empty shell, and skyscrapers and condos pop up everywhere, yet George Town seems to retain plenty charm. By the docks you can visit the old Chinese clan jetties, stilt houses that have been passed on between generations.

Perhaps even more so than its art and architecture, Penang is world-famous for its food culture. Everything we eat here is pure gold. The Chinese and Indian tastes authentic, while Muslim food stalls offering Nasi Kandar are available everywhere. We return to our favourite place two nights in a row, a big tented drinking hall/foodie heaven consisting of over 10 food stalls, where we try more laksa, Singaporean classic koay teow soup, and all the food we miss from China. At night there’s lady boys performaning on a big stage for all the diners’ entertainment.

With much to see (and eat) in George Town, one would almost forget there is a completely different side to Penang. The northern shoreline has about ten public beaches, and the entire westside of the island is almost undeveloped, and designated forest reserved, complete with a national park, turtle breeding centre, butterfly sanctuary, tropical fruit and spice gardens and botanical gardens.

Even though we spent a good few days in Penang it feels like we haven’t yet seen all of it, which has to be a good sign! With that, our time in Malaysia has already come to an end again, now it’s off to Cambodia we go!

Langkawi: Paradise of cheap booze and cheese

Langkawi, Malaysia. 26-30 December 2019

Our journey brings us back to Kuala Lumpur where we fly on to the island of Langkawi, known as the Jewel of Kedah. An archipelago of 99 islands on Malaysia’s west coast bordering Thailand, Langkawi was once a hideout for pirates rampaging in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Though these days the pristine beaches of Langkawi draw in a different type of traveller, the rum still flows cheap and plentiful since the island was declared a duty-free zone in 1987.

We’re staying near Pantai Cenang, the island’s most popular beach and tourist area. Fun fact about Langkawi is that their weekend falls on Thursday-Fridays, which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when we first arrive, since some of the places we want to go see are shut. Instead we meet up with a friend of a friend, who owns a backpackers hostel nearby and party the weekend away.

For Lauren’s birthday the mission is simple: Eat cheese, and lots of it. Our quest brings us to a deli selling vintage Gouda with a french bakery nextdoor, and to a buffalo farm in the middle of the island to collect fresh mozzarella.

Langkawi also has it’s very own cheddar manufacturer, so most restaurants are well-supplied. Mac’n’cheese? Check!

One of the cooler places to visit is the Black Sand Beach. No one seems to know what has turned the sand black, since it’s not volcanic. Some say it’s minerals washed down from nearby Mount Raya, others believe it’s iron oxide or even petroleum.

Besides the novelty sand, the ice-cold waters of Black Sand Beach are more than welcome after a hot day of driving around the island.

Like the Philippines, Langkawi has its own island hopping tour, visiting three spots off the southern coast: An island taken over by macaques, a place to spot fishing eagles, and a giant saltwater lake. At a mere £6 a head it’s no wonder the tour is extremely popular, but it’s worth going. Some of the scenery looks identical to the Philippines.

In terms of wildlife there is one animal that stands out: the dusky leaf-monkey. When we visit a waterfall in the north-west of the island we run into a whole group of these strange, googly-eyed little creatures.

Near the airport we find a string of food stalls serving local delicacies and try laksa, a rice-noodle soup with mixed vegetables, chillies and fish, and cendol, a strange but not entirely unpleasant dessert made of coconut milk, rice flour jelly noodles, sweetcorn, kidney beans and syrup. With a runway on one side and a beach on the other, it’s become our favourite place to hang out at sunset and enjoy a good meal.

We’ve enjoyed Langkawi a whole lot, and it’s ticked a lot of boxes: Good food, nice beaches, imported cheese, cheap drinks, great weather and better yet, monkeys that haven’t tried to attack Lauren, which is a first! We’re off to a great start in Malaysia, next up we’re headed south to Penang to celebrate newyears.

Indonesia: the verdict

Medan, North-Sumatra. 25 December

It is Christmas day and we are checked in at an airport hotel before flying on to Malaysia. RedDoorz has pulled out all the stops: one smallish Christmas tree, one banner reading Merry X-mas, and one very disinterested member of staff who makes us wait until check-in time even though the room is already available.

The room actually looks not bad and even has a freestanding bath tub. As we have come to expect of airport hotels however, there’s a slight catch. In this case the tap doesn’t work. At least the hotel hasn’t burned down like the last one.

Utilizing our last rupiahs we put together a Japanese-style Christmas feast: a bucket of KFC. Meri Kurisumasu!

Now that we’ve come to the end of our time in Indonesia, as is our custom, let’s put some digits on the board, starting with the price of a pint.

Indonesia’s beer is Bintang. In Bali we’ve also drank Bali Hai, but Bintang is the clear winner in our opinion, and it is readily available all over the country. The odd thing about beer in Indonesia is that it’s actually cheaper to buy it at restaurants or hotels than to buy it in a shop. We’ve paid as much as 50,000 rupiah for a large bottle (700ml) in shops, and as little as 20,000 rupiah (£1) for the same at our hotel in Tanjung Benoa.

Travel stats (Indonesia) By land: 530 km. By air: 2,309 km. Duration: 14 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 10,930 km. By water: 415 km. By air: 27,952. Duration: 149 days.

Now finally, what you have all been waiting for, the final scores as given by our honorable house judge Lauren!

The people score 8/10. Friendly, helpful and sweet at times, Indonesians more than pass the mark. With the exception of RedDoorz, the hospitality at hotels and restaurants has been exemplary.

The food scores 8/10. Though Western food may be expensive and underwhelming in Indonesia, even the most touristic spot has Warungs offering tasty and cheap Indonesian dishes. The Nasi Camphur is my all-time favourite, as are the freshly made iced teas and banana fritters desserts. High marks for this one!

The transport scores 5/10. Passable, as booking.com would say, Indonesia is the first place where we were close to being attacked by local Bemo mafia. The public bus service is practically non-existent and taxi’s aren’t always cheap. On a positive note, Bali has Kura-Kura. Cheaper than taxis, and equipped with airco and wifi, these little Japanese turtle buses save the day!

And with that said, I’m happy to announce that Indonesia has earned Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence. Well played!

Bukit Lawang: Hostage Situation!

Bukit Lawang, North-Sumatra. 21-24 December.

After landing in Medan we travel on to Bukit Lawang, home of the Sumatran orangutan (lit. jungle people).

We stay in a small tourist village on the Bahorok River, which is the main access point to Gunung Leuser National Park. The park has a population of around 5,000 orangutans.

The local rehabilitation centre for orangutans was founded in 1973, its purpose to preserve the decreasing population due to hunting, trading and deforestation. The centre closed its doors in 2002 as it had become too crowded with tourism.

Today in Bukit Lawang, the situation has changed much for the better. Although big palm oil and rubber plantations are still a threat to the jungle and wildlife, local rangers have successfully rehabilitated captive apes into the wild. Feeding platforms are no longer needed and thanks to a newly adopted ethical approach to tourism, the population is once again on the rise.

From the airport in Medan we take the local bus halfway to Binjai. From there we plan to take a local van to get us to our destination. In all fairness, the official Bukit Lawang tourism website does explicitly warn tourists not to use the local vans, as the guys running the service are “all drug-addicts who can’t be trusted”. Reviews on TripAdvisor confirm much the same, but for some reason we feel obliged to see for ourselves. Famous last words.

So..

When we eventually find a van that can take us to Bukit Lawang, our bags securely tied on top, and we ourselves crammed inside together with 19 locals, shit hits the fan. Six guys start banging on our window demanding money. We insist we will only pay the driver once we’ve reached our destination. The driver meanwhile shrugs his shoulders, pretending not to notice what’s going on outside the vehicle. Lauren quickly makes friends with the girl sitting next to her, who confirms none of the other passengers have paid upfront and the argument continues for what feels like an eternity.

Some of the guys are getting pretty aggressive now, but we’re not impressed. Realizing he’s not getting anything from us, a fat man comes walking up, points at us and shouts: “You! And you! Get out!” Our reply is synchronous: “Not a chance!” I’m now shouting on the driver to go, before anyone gets the idea of taking our bags down, and some of the locals join our cause. Faced with a whole group of annoyed passengers, the driver finally starts the car and drives away. The biggest smackhead of the bunch chases us down the road for a bit, but only manages to punch the van and we can relax. Lauren’s made a new friend, who is clearly impressed with her courage. The Binjai mafia has learned a valuable lesson today: The most dangerous animal of them all is a lioness from Scotland.

In town we’re collected by Erwin, who walks us to our hotel. He’s very likeable, and when we ask what he does for a living and it turns out he’s one of the rangers, we quickly decide to go trekking with him.

First we rest up a bit at the hotel after a long journey. There is a bat cave not far from the village, a complex of four different caves, each housing unique wildlife: spiders, scorpions, snakes, frogs, stingless blue bees, swallows and both small and large bats. We tunnel through small crevices from cave to cave for a peek into the habitat of some incredible nocturnal creatures.

In the midst of the wet season in Sumatra, the rain never stops coming down at night, but the following morning is bright and sunny when we prepare to go trekking in the jungle. The day couldn’t start off more auspicious with our first orange sighting, high up in the trees on the opposite side of the river that runs by the hotel.

To enhance our chances of a close encounter we’ve booked in for the 2-day trek and spend the night inside the park. It’s almost the season for Durian, aka king of fruits, so perhaps unsurprisingly it doesn’t take long at all to find our first great apes close to the park’s entrance; a mother and her teenage son, who tries to show off his skills to us by swinging dangerously from a branch. The branch breaks off mid-swing and with a thump the ape lands on his back and takes off in a huff, while mum isn’t moved at all. She casually sits munching a piece of fruit through the whole ordeal.

The same day we also spot a big male, and a female with a tiny baby, high up in the trees. Then there’s two types of macaque, a white-handed gibbon and a very chill Thomas leaf monkey.

Haven’t we all been there, Monday morning, on the bus, going to work?

The trek itself at times is pretty challenging, consisting almost exclusively of steep climbs and descents. Finally we reach the campsite by the side of a stream. After a long and taxing day we enjoy an ice-cold, refreshing bath, until we see the giant monitor lizards that had same idea.

At dinner Erwin tells us about Mina, one of the orangutans in the park, who has recently become a grandmother. He has known Mina since she was still in captivity as a pet to one of the villagers. Back then she was already known as aggressive, and ever since she was released into the wild, has become infamous for biting people, our ranger included. As if the lizards roaming free around camp weren’t enough to worry about.

The next morning we wake up with the light and after breakfast set off on the second trek. After a little while we strike lucky again. A full-grown male comes up close to get a good look at us all.

After just about the steepest, most dangerous decline, when we’re just beginning to think our luck’s dried up for today we suddenly hear Erwin shout: “Orangutan!” He’s worried it might be Mina, and leaves all of us scrambling to safety while a dark figure appears overhead. “No worries, it’s Jackie!”, we hear him breathe a sigh of relief. Jackie is meant to be a playful orangutan, so equally relieved, the two of us slow to a halt and look up to see a big orange figure slide down a big tree and jump onto the path beside us.

Relief quickly turns to mild anxiety when Jackie runs straight at us with her giant powerful arms and mild anxiety quickly turns to panic, when the first thing Jackie does is grabbing a firm hold of Lauren’s wrist and dragging her back up the steep incline we descended a moment ago. Once at the top, Erwin tells Lauren to sit down next to her new friend and right there and then a little baby pops its head out from under its mothers hairy arm. How about this for a Christmas card?

Mere seconds after this blissful scene, suddenly we’re in a reallife hostage situation. Jackie refuses to release Lauren and even threatens to bite off one of her fingers. Erwin freaks the fuck out and does not manage to diffuse the situation. He’s threatening a slap but Jackie is unfazed and lands a punch in his gut. Only after enough fruit is piled up for her does she choose to let the hostage go. So now we know how much Lauren is worth: No less than 6 pieces of fruit, thank you very much! 3 rambutons, 1 mandarin, 2 bananas. Jackie quickly gathers up the ransom and bounds up a tree with her baby.

The trek resumes. Just when we’re all fully relaxed again, once again Erwin sounds the alarm. He’s spotted Mina, of course, or rather, Mina has spotted him! No need to tell us twice, we’re already running. Behind us we hear the sounds of branches breaking and Erwin shouting. When we arrive at a clearing we turn around. There’s Erwin coming up on the path, followed by Mina. The thing is with Mina, she can smell fear, and she doesn’t like it if people are impolite. Just the other month, one of the rangers, who, in his panic, threw all his fruit down on the ground for her, got bitten. Erwin knows. Staring death in the eyes, this time he remains in complete control of the situation. Showing no fear, he politely hands her bits of a mandarin, while we safely escape behind him. Erwin kens how to treat a lady.

When we get to the river we’re exhausted but fully satisfied. Trekking over we’re heading back to the village in style: we’re tubing back down river for the perfect end to a memorable two days in the jungle.

It’s Christmas eve, we’ve just finished our first Christmas dinner of mash potatoes and chicken, wonderwall is being performed on guitar by a member of staff and we’re getting to ready to say goodbye to wonderful Bukit Lawang. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s Christmas special straight from the Reddoorz airport hotel in Medan!

South-Bali: The Endless Summer

Tanjung Benoa, Bali. 17-19 December.

It’s mid-December and we’ve been in summer for the past six months. I expected Bali to be rainy this time of year, but on the south coast the weather is simply magnificent, too hot if anything.

We spend three days in Tanjung Benoa reading in the shade of the hotel’s garden, lounging by the pool, and bumming on the beach. In fact, between driving around on the open roads and considerable amounts of sunbathing, my tan got a tan. Life here is good.

With warm water year-round, world-class waves and accommodating infrastructure, Bali is perfect for surfing. In the 1930’s, American Bob Koke was the first surfer in Indonesia at Kuta Beach. Decades later, the first professional surf competition, the Om Bali Pro, was held in 1980, but what really accellerated the popularity of Bali as a surfing destination was the 1972 film Morning of the Earth. It has turned Uluwatu into one of the most famous surfing spots in the world.

Green Bowl, Nyang Nyang, Padang Padang, Bingin, Dreamland and Balangan Beach are some of the world-renowned surfing spots in the Uluwatu area. We visit Balangan for its smaller crowds, white sandy beach and dramatic rocky hills. The warm water is as clear as can be and we sit back and relax while the locals showcase their awesome skills on a board. At the far side of the beach is a perfect secluded cove.

This sums up our time in South-Bali; extremely relaxing and pretty uneventful, except perhaps for one strange occurrence: a monkey taking a shit in our semi-open bathroom at the hotel. One more monkey profanity to add to our ever-growing list of incidents. Let’s hope it’s no bad sign of things to come when we visit the Orang-Utans in North-Sumatra next!

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!

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.

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!