The Philippines - Part 3

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Asia » Philippines
August 9th 2007
Published: June 6th 2011
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.....and the beachfest continues.

From Dumaguete we did a big 'U' around the southern tip of the island of Negros, mainly on rough roads, until we reached the remote town of Sipalay. At least the guidebook calls it remote, but at the end of the day one 6 hour bus trip is much like another.

A handful of resorts are on a stretch of beach a few kilometres from here, and a transfer boat was ready and waiting to pick us up.

The resorts have been built amongst a palm tree plantation, and were difficult to spot as we approached the shore.

We had arranged to stay in Driftwood Village, an eclectic array of nipa huts individually designed by the Swiss owner, Peter.

We spent a pleasant week wandering along the untainted beach or sitting on our veranda during the first rains we had seen since our arrival in the country.

The stay was enlivened by the presence of two Swiss gays, whose silly sense of humour chimed in with our own, and a very competitive scene around the pool table, where I was humbled to a previously unfathomed degree.

Another long bus journey brought us to Bacolod, the regional capital of northern Negros.

It was quite vibey as towns go. We had some trouble finding decent places to eat until we came across the giant new mall on the other side of the town square.

Near the town centre there is a small zoo called the Biodiversity Conservation Centre.

It is surprising how many native Philippine species are close to extinction, due to mans encroachment of course, and this place keeps some on display so that you can see them before they disappear. I wasn't sure where the conservation bit came into it, but it was staffed by worthy students so it must be OK.

We took a ramshackle old bus up into the mountains to visit the village of Mambucal.

Actually, this is more of a nature park than a village. There were sulphurous springs and hot mud glooping up through the ground.

We took a guide for a walk around the cliff face to a series of waterfalls. High in the trees some enormous bats were roosting from branches in the full glare of the sun. Every so often one would lose its grip and flap around until it was resettled. There was wall climbing, rappelling and zip line descending on offer to the more adventurous Philippine tourists.

Only 150 years ago, the island of Negros was (virtually?) uninhabited. Then a French bloke planted some sugar cane and within a few years the island became one of the greatest sugar producers in the world.

This created great wealth for some, who became known as the Sugar Barons and gave the impetus to rapid population ingress from around the Philippines.

As rich people will, these sugar barons built fine houses for themselves which were left as a testament to good taste when the sugar industry collapsed in the 1940's.

Now some of these homes are open to the public, in various degrees of restoration.

The best one was a large square hacienda built entirely of teak. Somehow it was designed so that there was always a breeze - a cool innovation in the days before electric fans.

It took all day to get to our next destination, mainly because the hydrofoil broke down.

We were heading for Guimeras, another island off the coast of another island, famous for its mango's, so after the hydrofoil we hunkered down on a cargo boat, then chartered a minivan for a trip to the pick up point for the, by now, familiar boat trip to the isolated resort.

This time we got a cottage on the edge of a small cliff overlooking the bay. All very picturesque, especially as the sunsets were outstanding and the food was fantastic.

We met a young couple, Gary and Jade, from London with whom we eventually recognised the awful truth - WE WERE BORED.

Even though we typically do nothing, we don't like it when there is nothing to do.

Once that was out in the open there was no reason to stay. As a group we went to a popular resort where lots of Philippinos were taking their holidays, that we had noticed on the incoming trip.

Gary had found out that there is a firing range on Guimeras, so we all crammed on a tricycle to go and shoot some guns.

Before being allowed on the range we had to fill in some personal details on a form.

"You're the same age as my dad" said Gary.

Oh great, I thought, now I'm old enough to have fathered other backpackers. What next?

Anyway, I enjoyed handling the hardware much more than I expected.

First we fired a Luger 35 handgun at a cardboard target. "Watch out for the recoil" said the gun bloke, but it was the spent cartridges being ejected over my shoulder which took me by surprise. You don't see that in the movies.

The bullets from the Luger produced quite a big hole in the cardboard, wide enough for a fat slug to get through, hence the term (I suspect).

Next we fired a Colt M16 assault rifle. This used a much larger cartridge, but the actual bullet was a lot smaller, judging by the holes in the target. The rest of the cartridge space must be taken up with explosive to pack a high velocity punch. There was a very real sense of the power of this weapon.

We finished up doing a tin-can alley at 50m, which was a lot more difficult to hit. Toys for the boys, I guess, but this experience gave me a much clearer real sense of the damage these

Sugar Baron Mansion
machines can inflict on soft flesh. I wouldn't want to have to point one at anybody.

It was only a short trip across the sea to Iloilo (Ilo-ilo), the biggest town on the island of Panay.

We did not realise how far we were from the town proper, and agreed a price of 50p for a man on a pedal bike with sidecar to take us to our chosen hotel.

It was soon clear that the man had no idea himself where the hotel was located and we ended up wheeling through city traffic while I tried to locate our position and guide us from the map, with head height exhaust belching over us and Linda shouting in fright or displeasure at frequent intervals.

It took about 20 minutes of hard pedalling and the guy was exhausted when we arrived, but at least he earned a decent tip and an improved knowledge of the geography of his home town.

Apart from that, Iloilo was unremarkable except for a fantastic seafood restaurant and a healthy supply of big shopping malls.

We passed a couple of days around the capital town of Roxas, formerly

Sugar Baron Mansion
Capiz, but renamed as it was the hometown of the first president, Manuel Roxas.

This town is mainly notable for the untold hoards of motorised tricycles which stream around the one-way system, and a large blue cathedral.

We stayed in The Presidents Inn, a characterful building formerly owned by a state senator and filled with memorabilia and original art, a pleasant change from the usual formulaic hotel interior design, but with inadequate soundproofing to eliminate the exhausting cacophony of all those tinny motorbike engines.

On one day we hired one of those tricycles to go to the nearby town of Pan-ay to see the largest bell in Asia.

This was cast from 70 sacks of coins donated by local people after the previous church had been destroyed in an earthquake in 1875.

This rebuilt church was of cathedralesque proportions, dominating the small and sleepy town.

It took a while to raise some church staff and explain why we were there. Apparently the presence of the country's biggest bell is not sufficient enticement to generate much visitation.

Call me naive, but I was surprised to find myself climbing a narrow stairway up to the

Sugar Baron Mansion
belfry at the top of the church. Once there we found five bells, blue with age, all in working order and regularly used.

The worlds third biggest bell stands at only 5 feet tall and is 7 feet in diameter, weighing 10,400kg. Doesn't sound too exacting for the biggest of anything man made, although I doubt the worlds biggest is much bigger. I seem to remember reading somewhere that there is a physical constraint to the maximum size bell that can be cast. Too big and the thing will just break from the vibration when it is rung.

We arrived on the island of Boracay on my birthday in early May.

After Manila, Boracay is probably the most famous Philippine destination, with a reputation as one of the best beaches in the world. Indeed, it is the one place which all Philippinos consider the ultimate destination within their country.

First impressions were not good.

Before you get on the boat to the island you have to line up at three separate windows. One for the fare, one for the tax and one for an environmental maintenance charge.

The boat plying the crossing was well

Sugar Baron Mansion
past the end of its realistic life, luggage was tossed on the roof and we were glad of the calm sea.

On arrival at the port a transportation cartel charges outrageous fixed prices (by Philippine standards) to get to the beach area (I was in the mood to resent that quid).

It was not until we were actually settled in and exploring that we began to realise that this is indeed an exceptional destination.

We booked in for a week, then we extended for another. A month passed, then another, then another.

What were we doing all this time? The answer is - not a lot.

The fact is that, to us, this is an ultimate destination.

The main beach on the island can best be described as exquisite. It is 4km long, separated from the beachfront developments by a palm lined path which runs for about 2.5km.

At one end it is quiet and less intensively developed. This is where the budget accommodation is located - though not really budget when compared to the rest of the country. We're paying about £13 per night for a nice room, though people in nipa huts are paying less than half that.

As you walk along the beach the accommodation moves gradually upmarket.

We were shown around the Mandarin hotel, where a spankin' room with a private pool would set you back £400 a night.

Further along comes a decent shopping area for both touristy and ordinary supplies. Then the night life and finally some pricey looking resorts sitting directly on the beach.

All of this is interspersed with bars and restaurants, many providing all-you-can-eat buffets for a couple of pounds.

For the first couple of months the weather was uniformly superb. We spent every day under a beach umbrella or in the sea. It is one of those rare places that just being here is a pleasure.

The urge to move on that usually arrives after a few days never materialised. Mostly we have had the beach almost to ourselves during the day.

There are about 35,000 visitors arriving on the island each month - mainly Koreans and Japanese - who are off 'doing stuff' all day and materialise on the beach for sunset (Oh, of course there has to be fantastic sunsets, this is the Philippines after all). Most of these visitors only stay for 3 or 4 days so I guess there are just a few thousand tourists around at any one time. Most of the expat population seems to be westerners.

Recently, we have been on the outer regions of a couple of typhoons and the weather has been all over the place.

At its worst one storm washed away about a metres depth of beach and some of the path in one area, leaving a ton of undersea debris along the high tide line in its wake. I noticed that this was the signal for washed up coconuts to start to germinate.

Boracay is by far the most developed beach area in the Philippines, but it is hardly crowded by international standards.

Some of the longstanding expats claim that the island has been ruined by development.
They arrived when it was an island of perfect beaches and palm trees, and stayed because that was what they liked.

As recently as the 1970s and 80s the island was populated by fishermen and their families.

I spoke to one of their wives. Back then there was no running water or electricity. They went to bed as soon as the sun went down at 6pm. Life was dull and boring.

Tourism has brought them into the modern world and many of the original families are now quite wealthy due to their land holdings.

Which outlook would you choose.

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