Published: June 10th 2011April 15th 2011
(M) After a one night stopover in Bangkok we boarded a plane for Manila, the sprawling capital city with a population of 20 million. Given the Philippines is made up of some 7,000 different tropical islands, you wonder why just under a quarter of its people decide to live in the same place, the physical appeal of which is difficult to find. But like any great city, it’s less about the place and more about the people, and I can now see the attraction... Because unbeknown to us at the time, our remarkable introduction to the Filipino people was to set the tone for the rest of our incredible three week stay.
Day 1 in Manila consisted of running around frantically trying to book ferries and internal flights – with airline websites crashing with alarming regularity and prices going up by the minute. Once that was out of the way, we set off to check out the city for the rest of the only full day we had there. We headed for Rizal Park and Intramuros, the walled old Spanish capital of Manila. Just as we headed into Rizal Park, we were met by the cries of a group of
half a dozen locals sitting under some trees, who had clearly spent the better part of the day working their way through quantities of cheap rum. Next thing they were running up to us and it was handshakes and hugs all round, to the jubilant cries of “Welcome to the Philippines” and one of them even declaring his undying love to Nina... clearly they move pretty quickly in those parts! It was all completely harmless and we were quite overwhelmed by their genuine warmth, naturally discounting their level of rum-fuelled enthusiasm. But it was when they asked us where we were from that provided the greatest entertainment... on hearing I was from South Africa, the ring leader erupted in raucous delight and cried “my friend, my friend also from South Africa” and called enthusiastically to one of his comrades under the tree to join us. With skin a few shades darker than ebony his comrade, looking rather embarassed, sauntered over to say hello. “Hi, which part of South Africa are you from?” I asked him. “Ghana” came the reply. Ah. But who were we to spoil their fun?! So a few more hugs and declarations of love later, we were
on our way, full of smiles and very excited about being in the Philippines.
Intramuros itself was historically quite interesting but it was our tricycle driver who took us on a little tour around the old city that made it. Afterwards he invited us to have a drink with him and his family at his home in the “USA” – the United Squatter Area! So off we headed to what can only be described as the slum of Intramuros for some cold beers. The people were incredibly welcoming and happy to have us there, and when we agreed to go for a look around into the bowels of the slum we quickly became the centre of attention. Playing a game of kerum with them (a primitive form of pool with sliding disks rather than balls) we were surrounded by constantly giggling teenagers for whom this was clearly the highlight of their Friday evening, and the experience completely fuelled our fast developing love for the Filipino people. As if this wasn’t enough, our driver then took us to a student nightclub in Intramuros where we spent the rest of the night getting drunk on cheap beers with a bunch of
students less than half my age. The night can only be described as hilarious – highlights including winning a beer downing competition and being organised a lift home by a proud acquaintance of the former president!
Still slightly reeling from the previous day’s crash course introduction to everything Filipino, we headed for Donsol, a small town in far South East Luzon famed for the presence of whale sharks in its bay. Being whale shark season, we couldn’t wait to get into the water with them and for Nina this would be her first encounter with these majestic creatures. Unfortunately, once in the water, the boat operators pay little attention to the regulations they painfully spend time going through before we set off. So instead of limiting the number of snorkelers per shark to six, each time there is a sighting all the boats descend on one spot and 60+ people jump in the water at the same time to literally fight for the best spot above the poor creature. It really was a case of every man and woman for themselves and Nina quickly retreated to the safety of the boat after being repeatedly elbowed and having had her
mask kicked right off her face! With visibility of only 3-4 meters, this also meant you could only see the c. eight-meter beast when you were practically on top of it. Clearly irritated by the chaos on the surface they then dive down out of sight within a matter of minutes. So despite four different sightings and actually my managing to swim with one of the more placid sharks for more than 20 minutes at one stage, it was a disappointing experience all round. The number of tourists is also only going to grow, and one wonders for how long these magnificant creatures will continue to visit the area - yet another depressing example of how man is content to ruin the best that nature has to offer for the sake of a quick buck.
Our next destination was Malapascua island, famed for its excellent diving and pristine white sandy beaches. Getting there was a whole different matter, and with flights for this leg being pretty expensive, we decided to go overland which proved to be an excellent decision. The three-day journey consisted of a ride on the roof of a Jeepney, a discarded World War II army jeep
ingeniously converted into a passenger vehicle; a four hour ferry journey to Masbate island and town; a bus journey to the other side of the island the following day; a six hour ferry journey to Bogo on Cebu island; a bus to Maya where we stayed in a cozy little guest house for the night; and finally a bangka (wooden outrigger boat) to Malapascua. While the Philippines is still relatively unspoilt by tourists, those that do come tend to fly as it’s such a big place, flights are relatively cheap and often the long distances between islands requires it. Which means the alternative modes of transport are frequented almost exclusively by locals, and for the entire time I don’t think we came across another single backpacker – a precious rarety in South East Asia I can assure you. We also had the excellent company of Aaron, a guy from Colorado who decided to tag along for the ride because he was headed the same way and “we seemed to know what we were doing”... I suppose there is a first time for everything, right?!
On our first overnight stop in Masbate, the three of us set off to find
a half decent sea-front bar to get us through the evening. What we found wasn’t entirely surprising, given the whole of the Philippines is utterly and completely karaoke mad! At what seemed like a relatively normal establishment, after foolishly asking them to play a particular song on the stereo, the family that ran the place enthusiastically reached for the karoke machine and next thing we knew there was a list of a trillion song titles and a microphone in our hands and... erm... no-one else to step up to the microphone. Needless to say Nina was in her element and she had to fight the family’s eight year old son for the spotlight each time a song drew to its painful close. Even more remarkable than their love for karaoke, is their complete addiciton to everything Celine Dion! Plus, the music videos that accompany the songs also bear absolutely no resemblance to their subject matter... so we had Elton John sung to a background of Swiss chalets in front of the Matterhorn and Queen sung to Magic Johnson shooting baskets for the LA Lakers. But my personal favourite was watching the eight year old boy time and time again select
“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion to a background of 1980’s supermodels rolling around in skimpy bikinis in the sand while his mother enthusiastically patted him on the head for his excellent vocals! No doubt he will go far in life...
Malapascua island was where we spent the next five days, in the company of some excellent people and in a fantastic resort appropriately called ‘Exotic’. We wanted to do some diving and managed to get a relatively inexpensive diving package which included the cheapest accommodation at the back of the resort, still of a significantly higher standard than the rest of the rooms we’ve stayed in in South East Asia. We only just succeeded in our quest to see thresher sharks (Malapascua is one of the very few places in the world where they reside) spotting one just three or four meters away on our second dive. But our other two dives were a lot more rewarding, with incredible soft corals, an abundance of varied fish life, tunnels and caves and a number of white tip reef sharks. Awesome.
Besides the great diving, we were treated to a few highly entertaining nights out, thanks to
some great locals girls we met, the rum and cokes which got cheaper the stronger you ordered them (yes, the coke was more expensive than the rum!) and the Saturday night town disco, which consisted of a basketball court, strings of disco lights and glitter balls and, erm... the whole town, shaking their booty Filipino style! Picture four ten-year old boys immitating Nina doing a bit of Michael Jackson, circles of giggling teenage girls gawking at the Western boys, teenage boys doing their best to look cool and attract the attention of the local girls, young and old couples slow dancing to just about anything, and whole families getting down to the latest international pop chart hits. Absolutely amazing... We also managed to take in a cock fight, clearly a warm up for the big event which happens every Sunday and an opportunity for the stars of the show to really ruffle each other’s feathers! Probably not the most humane of sporting events but quite something to watch.
After bidding a sad farewell to Malapascua and our new friends, we headed to Cebu City for a night before catching a plane to Palawan, our last detination on our far-too-short
visit to the Philippines. Cebu is a pretty unremarkable place, but to an extent typifies the country given the number of shopping malls, which alongside karaoke Filipinos seem to have an obsession with. This part of their culture is very much a rub off from the American occupation, complementing the European architecture, Catholicism and system of ethics brought by the Spanish before them with basketball, beauty pageants and pizza! The mall we visited was unremarkable but was host to the regional finals of a nation-wide “1 Million Peso Chicken Dance Competition”, sponsored by a local chicken fast food outlet called “Chooks to go”. This was no insignificant event, with a bumper crowd and even an X-factor style judging panel. So we were lucky enough to witness teams of people dressed in the extraordinary costumes running around the stage doing everything from acrobatics to extensive synchronised chicken dances, all to a cheesy but rather catchy “Chooks to go” theme tune! Only in the Philippines...
The following day we touched down in Puerto Princesa, the main city of Palawan and the country’s western-most island. We had read that this was still a relatively undiscovered gem and boy were we not disappointed.
If we had our three weeks over again, we could have spent all of it on Palawan. The island is covered in lush jungle and in parts the limestone rock formations and deserted white sandy beaches are jaw-droppingly beautiful. After spoiling ourselves in an amazing Japanese themed guest house for our two year anniversary, complete with an all you can eat sushi dinner we headed for Sabang, a sleepy town on the west coast and the stopping point for trips to one of the longest underground rivers in the world, stretching 8.5 kilometres into the mountainside. The excursion itself into the underground river was relatively touristy so we paid our guide to take us further downriver and for close to two hours we were completely alone, drifting through tunnels and cave chambers with an incredible array of colourful stalagmite and stalactite formations. We even convinced him to let us swim in one of the chambers in the crystal clear water, a relatively eerie experience when the torches were turned off and all we coulds hear was the sound of bats circling above. Money well spent. The hike to the underground river was also a complete highlight... the vast majority of
tourists are on a day trip from Puerta Princesa so go straight there by boat from Sabang. But those that stay in Sabang can get there on foot along a postcard-worthy deserted beach and jungle trek with exquisite rock formations in dense tropical rainforest, monkeys and all. Nice.
But the absolute highlight of Palawan was El Nido, a town at the top of the island where we spent our last five days, wishing we could have had more. The town is set at the foot of jungle-covered limestone cliffs on a bubble-gum turquoise bay. The guest house we stayed in was right on the beach and we spent most evenings drinking cheep beer while watching the sunset from the ‘birds nest’, a cushioned seating area suspended over the water. During the days we managed to get a private boat for us and an awesome English couple we met on the bus to El Nido, Alex and Emma, which took us to some amazing lagoons and isolated beaches. We went in the opposite direction to the usual route taken by other boats, so virtually always had the places to ourselves. The snorkelling was first class and the boat boys russled
up fresh fish and chicken on a makeshift barbeque on the beach for lunch. Superb. The scenery of endless pristine beaches and spires of dark charcoal rock interspersed with lush green vegetation was simply out of this world and never got boring.
On our last day in El Nido we hooked up with Toun, an awesome guy from Belgium who was an introduction from a friend of ours, Mimmi from Malapascua. He took us on a diving trip to one of the most incredible dives ever. At about 12 meters down, part of the reef is covered in a bed of meter-wide cabbage corals which look like giant red roses, side by side for as far as you can see in each direction. Above the coral bed hovers a school of yellow snappers, thousands strong, which make a tunnel when you swim through them. Past the coral bed, shoals of millions of tiny blue anchovies break and re-shape into giant balls as schools of silver mackerel and jack fish shoot at lightning speed through them to get their fill. Torn every second where to look for fear of missing something, it was complete sensory overload and when we eventually
surfaced after 76 minutes it felt like we were down there for five! Absolutely incredible stuff... El Nido is not know for its diving, but a more exquisite example of underwater nature at it’s finest I challenge you to find anywhere in the world.
Had we more time, we would have headed for the Busuanga archipelago to the north of El Nido which some describe as more beautiful (hard to believe) but alas, with a flight to catch back to Manila we had to drag ourselves back to Puerta Princesa for the last night on the island. For many reasons the Philippines was one of our all time favourite countries. Were it not for the limit of the three week visa restriction we would have stayed a lot longer. It’s the ultimate cocktail of breathtaking scenery, extraordinarily addictive and flamboyant people, laid back and care free lifestyle and underwater paradise. Enough said.
There are more photos below