Palawan on Thu Wheels

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May 21st 2008
Published: September 30th 2008
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The scene : I am writing this on a dreary night shift in Edinburgh. Oh joy! It's only the end of September but my memory is a bit fuzzy. Outside it is cold and dark and dawn is far away. With the invaluable assistance of Huma I was able to retrieve over a thousand photos taken in the Philippines, Vietnam and Ireland. They were on a camera which took a swim off El Nido. Nice memories...

A trip to the Philippines was to be the last leg of our Asia travels. I had two weeks Easter break (even though it wasn't really Easter) and thought that the Philippines (of which I knew little) was the destination. I had lofty notions of island-hoping all over but this never transpired for various reasons.

Initially I had booked a one-way flight Manila to Palawan: aka the Wild West of Philippines with no fixed plan. I found a huge slice of off-the-beaten track with loads to see, great food, great people many of whom spoke English and nature abounding.

Friday night after school I got the red eye the 1.5 hours to Manila and bused it to the domestic Manila Terminal to get the flight to Puerta Princessa, the sleepy capital of Palawan. Luckily for me the bus was free as there were no money changers open in the airport when I arrived. The flight to PP was fun as the pilot kept us low enough to see many of the tiny islands and villages of the archipelago practically scraping the fuselage.

I arrived at Puerta expecting a sleepy place with nothing to do, rooms abounding and touts chasing my Yankee dollar down the street. What I found was a sleepy place with nothing to do and hardly any rooms and no touts at all. A huge school sports tournament taking place in the city with children from all over the country meant most guesthouses were full and nearly every method of getting away from the island was booked out too. Doh!

Looking for a travel agent and money-changers proved fruitless too. Imagine my surprise when I was told I would have to wait three days as banks and money changers wouldn't be open until Monday. I couldn't Adam and Eve it. Fortunately, I was able to charge my food and drink to the backpackers hostel which I found near the cathedral but it still meant I had lost a couple of travel days. The backpacker hostel where I shared dorm room with a retired Finnish engineer was a very friendly and chilled place and I slowly eased into island life. When Monday arrived I did three things. I changed money. I booked a flight back to Manila from Puerta Princessa for 10 days later. And? I hired a motorbike.

Necessity: the mother of invention
I collected the souped up Honda Future complete with off-road tyres, bought bungee cords, a cheap and particularly useless map, some provisions and headed from north on the road to Sabang - the entry point to the world famous Subterranean River. This is world renowned as (probably) the longest navigable cave system in the world. The road to Sabang once it left the national highway was itself hardly navigable and I nearly fell victim to the deep mud early on in my journey.

I quite liked Sabang with it's nice white sand beach, fishing-boats and non-existent nightlife. Unfortunately, the cave system proved a letdown. When I heard that it was voted one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World I struggled to lower my expectations, hiring a local guide to help me wend my way through the jungle rather than take the convenient tourist boat to the cave entrance. Arriving at the cave entrance I was unceremoniously bundled onto a tourist boat complete with stand-up comedian whose job it was detract from this awe-inspiring feat of nature. I was told that only 1.5 of the full 8km would be on our itinerary. The guide, casting his light hither and thither, rattled off the one-liners and imaginative rock formation nicknames with mounting excitement. The time went thankfully fast and we resurfaced after 45 minutes.

The highlight of the cave trip at Sabang for me was seeing two huge and impressive iguanas in the forest near the rangers station. They were easily 5 or 6 feet long and used to tourists. After snapping the beasts from a distance of inches I trekked back towards my guesthouse making a short side-trip to the local mangroves in the company of the same jungle guide. It was a pleasant way to wile an hour.

The only tourist in the village
Next day I headed in the direction of Port Barton, another sleepy fishing
Puerta Princessa HostelPuerta Princessa HostelPuerta Princessa Hostel

A nice space to wait for money changers to open.
village up the West coast of Palawan though warned that the road there would be even worse than that to Sabang. Nevertheless I jutted my chin sun-wards and set off intrepidly. As it went the journey to Port Barton was okay, very muddy, but passable. When I arrived at the Port I felt like I was the only tourist in the place - guesthouses were closed, businesses shut. I enjoyed a beautiful sunset and stroll between the boats while there. I even booked a boat to take me snorkeling the next morning but the weather was so bad in the morning I just asked the boatman to take me and my bike further up the coast so as to circumnavigate the sludge that passed for roads in these parts. This gained lots of time and brought me closer to my eventual goal of El Nido, the jewel in Palawan's crown. From the boat landing I drove through jungle slowly being decimated by logging. This was far from prying eyes and I wondered if Palawan's idyllic reputation would be losing its gloss.

Half way through the jungle I had a flat tyre and realised that I had no spare tube. Luckily, I found local people who would bend over backwards to pump my tyre until I reached a repair shop. The locals in the villages I passed through were so happy to help I was nearly glad I'd had the flat. Later in the afternoon I arrived at Tay Tay on the north east of the island with time to visit the famous old fort and church built by the Spanish in the late 1500s. There was a wedding at the guesthouse where I stayed but I was made very welcome. I ate and drank into the wee hours rather than spend the evening with the teeming squadrons of mosquitoes sharing my bungalow.

El Dorado
Next morning I set off to El Nido on the 100km or so of unsealed road. It was such a thrilling feeling to drive on this road as the bike was constantly swinging erratically and there were dry ruts made by rain run-off that caused the bike to bump along. It was nearly easier in the mud than in the dry.

As I neared the small town of El Nido the scenery become coastal and rugged and reminded me of Vietnam's own Halong Bay with islands dotted all around and still aquamarine waters tempting me off the road at every corner. I quickly found a beach bungalow with great view, nice cafe across (a real espresso machine) and met a couple of nice Americans and Germans who explained the lay of the land, who the sheriff was and that kind of thing. Around sunset I went to the beach where the sun set between two small islands in reds, oranges and pinks and greens. Further along the beach was a tree-covered path with hordes of huge bats flying just over ahead. In the shallow waters children collected shellfish and played with their friends.

I booked two boat trips to some of the famous islands and snorkeling places for the next morning. The trip was fantastic. As I mentioned above, my memories of the place and people names are hazy but I remember pristine white sands, lagoons, palm trees, impregnable coves, blow holes, crystal waters and loads of fish, turtles, corals and jellyfish - lots of jellyfish. There were names like Commando Beach and Helicopter Island. Each one was generally better than the last and just when I thought a spot couldn't be
Kepak Tekraw Puerta PrincessaKepak Tekraw Puerta PrincessaKepak Tekraw Puerta Princessa

Amazing sport to watch!
beat something else knocked the breath out of me. The only downer was that my lovely new camera and lenses decided to take a swim here and may they rest in peace. I learned a valuable lesson about the term water-proof on this day.

I spent a nice couple of days in El Nido and made ready for the return trip to Puerta Princessa which I estimated would take two days. I set off at 5am and actually managed the trip in 8 hours - I was mightily proud of my excellent biking skills - and was back in Puerta Princessa in time for tea. Another night at my favourite hostel, some nice vegetarian food at a nearby joint and the following morning it was time to head back to Manila.

While in Manila I stayed with a friend of a friend from Derry in her lovely pad in the plush Makati District of glass towers and corporate HQs. I didn't do any of the touristy things in the city and just went to the cinema a few times, hung out in malls, drank great coffee and ate fast food. Manila reminded me so much of American cities I've seen in movies. It was a giant shopping mall. Full of hubbub. Still, the people were very friendly there too whether in Starbucks, Pizza Hut or 7-11. I actually liked it but couldn't figure out why.

A few days of Western Capitalism later I made my way to the airport and back to Vietnam. I'm sure from the short time I spent in the Philippines that I would like to come back again and explore other corners. It is a country where getting around is a hassle but that is half the fun of the place. I hope that the poverty of the country (particularly evident around the edges of Manila) doesn't cause places like Palawan to be over-developed as is happening in Thailand. But there are thousands of islands and there will always be a wild corner for the intrepid traveler.

Additional photos below
Photos: 31, Displayed: 29


Strange convergence undergroundStrange convergence underground
Strange convergence underground

This cave man aka Jesus Christ
Subterranean RiverSubterranean River
Subterranean River

I was so glad to get out.

30th September 2008

Great pictures and blog! Be sure to be back, there are 7000 more islands to discover...
30th September 2008

Very well written and photos fantastic
Missed your professions Warren and Sofie you should have been journalists. Really enjoyed your stories

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