Legaspi, Luzon, Philippines
I've just returned home from my odyssey through Cambodia, Thighland, Malaysia and the Philippines. I set sail from Saigon on April 13th in a bus. In fact I bused it all the way to Bangkok. Then I flew to Kuala Lumpur and on to Manila. After travelling around the Isles of Philip for 3 weeks by bus, boat and plane, I flew back to KL, took a sleeper train to Penang, a bus to Hat Yai (in Thighland), and then another sleeper to Bkk. I flew to Phnom Penh, had a beach break in my beloved Sihanoukville, then caught a bus to Saigon, where I arrived today - May 22nd.
The Philippines – apart from Manila - were uncharted territory for me. Highlights included:
- Climbing Mt Mayon volcano. I had a guide and one porter. Up and down took 18 hours, 14 of which we walked continuously – from 5am to 7pm on the second day. My feet took a hammering – several toenails are purple, and I’m about to shed one big toenail. But this was the supreme highlight of my trip – the volcano, that is, not the damage to
- Drinking water from a stream on the lower slopes of Mayon – after running out of water on the way down. I was waterless for over 2 hours, having wrongly calculated that 3 litres would be enough for the climb. Never has water tasted so good.
- Snorkelling with whale-sharks. These 9-metre-long creatures congregate in large numbers off Donsol from January to May – attracted by the plankton. I went out in a boat with spotters and got some excellent close views.
- Walking on the beautiful rice terraces at Banaue and Batad – both of them UNESCO World Heritage sites. I’ve seen rice terraces before, but these are stunning works of art – either intentionally or accidentally.
- Visiting the picturesque old Spanish city of Vigan. The cathedral was demolished by earthquakes twice in the 17th century, so it was rebuilt to withstand anything – close to the ground with massive walls - in a style known as 'earthquake baroque’.
- Walking in the countryside around Sagada. Unique here are the ‘hanging coffins’ – coffins of village elders suspended by ropes from cliff faces.
- Rescuing a turtle that some sadist
had tethered to the sea floor by a piece of gut tied to a hole drilled through its shell. I bit through the gut, freeing the traumatized turtle, which took a few minutes to realise it was no longer imprisoned.
- Seeing the millions upon millions of election posters (local elections were held on May 14th), some of which were hilarious – candidates with absurd nicknames like ‘Saddam’ or ‘Rambo’ or ‘Tarzan’ or ‘Joker’; hearing stories of election violence (over 100 election-related killings since January) and then almost being caught up in it. Three or four shots rang out from the bar across the street as I was eating my dinner in Masbate town. A guy was shot in the chest - apparently an election-inspired assassination attempt. His attacker fled, and the guy was rushed to hospital.
- The American influence – MacDonalds, basketball, no sign of football. All posters were in American English (even though the Filipinos speak their own Spanish-tinged language). Also, people in shops and restaurants were excessively polite to me, calling me ‘Sir’ repeatedly – as I suppose is the way in the US.
- The beauty of the women - surely a
race of goddesses descended from heaven. And their friendliness too.
- Jeepneys. These colourful minibuses – with religious names like ‘Nazareth’ or ‘Our Lady of Lourdes’ – are dead cheap to ride.
- Tricycles. I had to travel several times in one of these hellish contraptions. A tricycle is a sidecar attached to a motorbike. Being nearly 2 metres tall in a country full of short people meant that my head took a severe battering on the tricycle roof every time we hit a bump.
- Guns. Surely part of the American influence. Gun stores are common. Heavily armed guards patrol all banks and offices.
- A Chinese meal in Legazpi. After so much disappointing Filipino food, this was ambrosia: the tastiest hot sour soup and sweet and sour pork I’ve ever had.
- The ‘Remnant International School’ in Baguio City. A school for misfits?
- One day a man approached me and coolly stated: ‘I am a professional beggar. Give me 5 pesos.’ His outstretched hand was very unbeggarly – flaunting a wristwatch and two fat rings.
Away from the Philippines, holiday highlights included:
- Being on my favourite beach at Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
- Seeing the Petronas Towers in KL at night.
- Reading ‘Memoir’ by John McGahern and a horrible book about the murderers, Fred and Rose West, called ‘Fred and Rose’.
- Going to the cinema in Bkk – to see ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ – and discovering that I no longer needed to don spectacles. My long sight has improved with age.
- Eating the delicious food in Georgetown, Penang.
- Pub quizzes in Bangkok We won 2 out of 3.
- Experiencing the night sleeper trains from KL to Butterworth and from Hat Yai to Bangkok. Both trains were very cheap and comfortable.
Now I have to finalize arrangements for sending my stuff to Ghana. Exporting CD’s and DVD’s – especially pirate ones – from Viet Nam is a real pain in the arse. I still don’t know what is going to happen.
I leave Viet Nam on July 10th – flying Malaysia Air to London. Then on July 31st I fly from London to Ghana.
I have one more holiday to look forward to – travelling round Viet Nam in June with my girlfriend. She hasn’t been anywhere in Viet Nam. Coming from a poor family, she has spent her whole life in the Mekong Delta. We’ll go up the coast from Saigon, travelling by train and bus and plane, stopping in all the interesting places. We’ll go as far as Hanoi, stare at Ho Chi Minh’s mummified corpse, then fly back to Saigon.
That’s all. Now I must go and clean my boots, which are still impregnated with the volcanic dust of Mt Mayon.
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