Philippines - beach paradise and how we almost sank in a kayak in the middle of the sea
Philippines appeared on our itinerary somewhat mysteriously, in the sense that I wouldn't be able to tell when we first thought about going there and when we finally decided to, but at some stage we just bought the cheapest Air Asia combination there and back (KL – Kota Kinabalu – Clark) and went there without any particular expectations. What we found in this country was quite in line with what we had heard (that people are nice, the beach is beautiful and it's not expensive) but even better. People were great, the beach was in the style "postcards come to life" and money-wise it was fine. One thing that can illustrate what Philippines is about is this poster we saw in one of its domestic airports: there was this image of a gorgeous white-sand beach surrounded by beautiful karst formations, and that image consisted of two parts very similar to each other and separated by thick black line in the middle (like the photos of plastic-surgery-modified people), with one part of it saying something like "Thailand, 900 baht (about 30 dollar) per day", and the second part – "Philippines, 80000 peso (about 10 dollar) a day". And the thing is, this country is not just cheaper, it's also more beautiful. So why are there crowds of vacation-makers flocking to Thailand's coastline year-round, and only few reaching the gorgeous beaches of Philippines? We have no idea, but maybe it's about some kind of country-level PR (which is much better in case of Thailand), and the fact that Thailand has a very comfortable tourist infrastructure polished through years of Thai-farang interaction.
The "jeepneys" in the cities of Philippines are a really convenient mode of public transport but also make the streets so much more colourful:
Manila - indulgence therapy
Anyway, we loved Philippines. It was easy to travel, gorgeous and fun. On May 14th we arrived in Manila and spent a couple of days there recovering from the small injuries and the physical exhaustion after a week of intensive surfing back in Bali (like always, the fatigue and pain only surfaced once the physical challenge was over). In Manila we stayed in the backpacker district of Malate (around Adriático St.) which is filled mostly with Japanese establishments (restaurants, karaoke bars etc.) and even has a little bit of Japanese night-life vibe. It was fun to watch this busy night-life from the peaceful height of our hostel's rooftop bar: the view over the neon chaos below, gentle breeze and the complimentary wine (it was cheese-and-wine Friday at Friendly's, which means that the wine, cheese and snacks were generously provided by the hostel's cool owners) shaped it into one of the most memorable experiences in Manila.
The two days we spent in Manila were mostly about taking it easy and even indulging ourselves a little bit with things that have become rare during the last year (like cinema, fancy foods and supermarket shopping), in the hope that this indulgence would speed up the recovery (sounds very much like an excuse, right? I guess it was ☺). Well, believe it or not, after a day of such therapeutic consumption, we felt much better and were ready to hit the road.
While in Manila, we joined the crowds of locals in their retail therapy addiction. To our personal feeling, Philippines has the biggest amount of shopping malls out of all SEA countries, and they are all huge, stylish and always crowded. The photo below is from the Robinson shopping mall, which being located in the backpacker district is always full of foreigners (and of course, locals):
Have you seen a video of "How to wrap a cat for Christmas" on youtube? Well, this Philippino family did a really great job wrapping their goat for transportation :-)
People in Philippines seem to really like all sorts of bakery products. There are just as many bakery shops here as there are 7Eleven's in Thailand. When leaving Manila, we decided to finally try the dunkin' donuts. I am not much of donuts expert, but Jordi claims that some little rolls they sell back in Spain are much better :-)
Banaue - farming vs tourism
Our first destination was Banaue – spectacular rice terraces in the north of the country. We spent half the day we had before our night bus checking the Chinatown of Manila (as with every single one we've seen in SEA, nothing comes close to the one in KL), then just before taking the bus we had our last indulgence spree as we bought a box of 10 Dunkin Donuts, which Jordi consumed entirely during the first 15 minutes on the bus with the determination of a guy in an eating competition, and then after a few freezing hours we arrived in Banaue.
Banaue is a UNESCO heritage site, and deservedly so – the rice terraces are very old and truly spectacular. On our first day we took a tricycle to see the Batad terraces (it was about 1.5 hour of scary driving through a really bad muddy mountain road and another couple of hours hiking, each way). The memorable experiences of this trip include talking to a very sweet local woman named Solidad as we were eating rice with some canned tuna that she fixed us for lunch at her lonely food stall at the junction where we started the hike; well, then of course the view of the amphitheatre-like terraces; and pushing our tricycle a couple of times when it got stuck in the mud.
(1) Jordi helping our tricycle driver to get the vehicle out of mud; (2) Having our simple lunch of rice and canned tuna in the lonely stall of a hospitable local woman named Solidad:
18-05-2011 - we spent this day hiking to see the Banaue terraces, which were really striking from all the four viewpoints we found along the road. Personally for me these terraces were even more of a theatre than the Batad ones: although they didn't have that very perfect round shape, it felt really special to just stand there watching small figures of people ploughing or planting on one of the multiple green levels. Our tricycle driver told us that it's a common joke with tourists to suggest that the terraces are nothing more than that theatre facade and the farmers – mere actors, all of it just for tourists' entertainment, but the guy assured us that although the terraces generate only one crop a year (not enough to provide a yearly supply for the families so they still have to buy rice), they are "for real"... But every joke has a grain of truth in it, and it's quite possible that one day the terraces will finally and irreversibly settle into the role of a theatre. During our hike we noticed that a few villagers have already switched from growing rice to posing for tourists' photos in traditional costumes (quite in line with the trend that as far as any ancient things are concerned, it's only a matter of time before they get "mummified" into a history relic...)
We were sitting there having dinner at a street stall when a guy came with his jeepney roof fully loaded with coconuts. For the next 20 minutes we were watching a lot of people come and pick up exactly 4 coconuts each:
Boracay - the ultimate white-sand beach
19-05-2011 – a night on a bus and around dawn we were back to Manila's España district. We still didn't have a clear idea of where to head next but one thing was sure: Philippines being an island country, anywhere we would want to go we would need either a ferry or a plane, which in its turn meant we needed Internet. After an hour of waiting at the station we finally found an internet cafe that just opened and stepped inside together with quite a few students of the nearby university, all of them very anxious to check their Facebook (at 7 am in the morning!!!) After checking the Cebu Pacific Air website, our plan gradually shaped itself and we tried to purchase as many as 3 flights that would cover us for the rest of our stay in Philippines. For whatever reason, the payment didn't go through so on an impulse we decided to head for the airport and try to buy all the flights at the Cebu Pacific office there. After about three hours of changing jeepneys and a lot of walking and asking (we thought we needed the domestic terminal but it turned out in this country all Cebu flights leave from the international one), we finally reached the right terminal and started queuing to buy our flights. In less than half an hour we had all three of them, including the flight that would leave in just two hours and take us all the way to the island of Boracay and its amazing White Beach.
As our little plane (the runway is very short in Caticlan so only small planes can land there) was making a circle around the island preparing for landing, we had our first view of the island which with its lush vegetation and breathtakingly turquoise coastline looked like a perfect beach paradise. And during the next 4 days that we spent at the White Beach, that's exactly how it felt: the ultimate beach paradise. Gorgeously white coral sand, the water that is so transparent it looks like a swimming pool, the neat row of beautiful palm trees all along the beach, sailing boats at the horizon, 1-dollar caipirinhas at the happy sunset hour... I wonder how long it would have taken us to tire of this beach. Well, we had to leave before we could discover if it's possible to get bored in paradise ☺
There is one word for this... PARADISE!!!
Visayas - the never-ending transit
23-05-2011 – the week that followed our stay in Boracay was a bit of a planning mistake but could not have been avoided since we were lacking the information (we only had a very old LP guide) to revise our plans. We had about a week to travel around the Visayas islands and were hoping to see a few more beaches that were highlighted by the guide. However, due to the way the bus and ferry companies work in Philippines we ended up spending 4 entire days on buses and only 2 days at the Sugar Beach at Sipalay. The problem was that there are no night buses in the Visayas so if you need to cross from the top of one island to the bottom of another one it will take you two days, even though crossing each island takes only 4-5 hours. So the first day that we left from Boracay we managed to do exactly that: do a short ferry crossing from Boracay to the Caticlan city in Panay island and take a 5-hour bus from Caticlan in the north to Iloilo City in the south, then sleep in Iloilo and next morning repeat exactly the same procedure: a 1.5 hour ferry from Iloilo in Panay to Bacolod in Negros and a 5-hour bus from Bacolod to Sipalay. The bus dropped us at the junction for the Sugar Beach and after half-an-hour tricycle ride through some villages and rice paddies and a 1-minute boat ride across a picturesque tidal river we landed at a tiny village before the Sugar Beach which was so remote and quiet that it felt like some kind of mysterious gateway to a secret world.
Sipalay Sugar Beach and the magical world of Taka-Tuka
Funnily enough, we did discover a magical world out there: the incredible Taka-Tuka (yes, the one from Astrid Lindren's "Peppi Longstocking"). Well, maybe it's a little bit of a stretch to call it "a magical world", since essentially it is just a resort with unique exterior and interior design but the Swiss brothers who built this colourful fantasy world definitely managed to create a place that triggers imagination. They offered us a great discount for their Bongo-Bongo beach-front room and we spent the next two days sleeping in a kind of a safari room (together with a wild elephant and a caged tiger), playing beach tennis and swimming in the sea which at that time grew a little bit rough due to a typhoon that was passing nearby.
Very remote and very quiet Sugar Beach:
The colourful Taka-Tuka Lodge:
Superferry - the long but fun way to go to Palawan
26-05-2011 – in two days we needed to catch a flight from Cebu City one island away so in order to make it there we left the Sugar Beach Taka-Tuka and headed via Kabankalan for Dumaguette City at the south-eastern-tip of the Negros island, slept there and in the morning took a bus-ferry-bus route to Cebu city in Cebu island, slept in Cebu and next morning we were off to our last destination in Philippines: the amazing islands of Palawan. After a short flight we landed at Puerto Princesa and had (finally) our last transit evening (by that time except for a short break at Sipalay we were changing cities almost every day so this "transit" evenings were starting to feel like a routine). From here we would take a 12-hour ferry to Coron city in the north of Palawan. We boarded our huge SuperFerry in the morning together with crowds and crowds of locals (we were the only foreigners on board) and for the rest of a very long day enjoyed all the fun activities of a confined environment (watching movies, consuming meals, reading and chatting). The ferry was really huge and very comfortable and we enjoyed every minute of the long drive.
The market in Puerto Princesa:
(1) It's amazing the number of types of rice they sell in this country; (2) Check out the name of this bread store :-) It struck us how much of traditional marketing you see in the streets of Philippines: in one place you see a funny slogan of a bakery shop "Once tried, always wanted"; in another - a really bold mission statement written on a huge board just in front of a shop, or on the first page of a restaurant menu; then you see all these curious business names a-la the one beneath... Well, what can I say, the whole country is full of visual study material for Kotler's legendary marketing book :-)
Locals selling snacks to the SuperFerry passengers:
Coron city - the gateway to breathtaking Coron island
By about midnight we safely made it to Coron without drowning ☺ (the ferry companies in Philippines have a comparatively high accident rate with a lot of vessels sinking yearly). After 40-minutes walk from the pier we arrived at the city centre and started to look for accommodation. The first few places we checked quoted rates far beyond our budget and many of the places had their receptions already closed but then as if it was a lighthouse in a sea of darkness we saw these cosy lights coming from a house where a really kind old lady was still chatting with her granddaughter. Luckily, it was a kind of home stay and they had a neat little room – exactly what we were looking for. Half an hour later we were sound asleep with the determination to wake up early next morning in order to benefit as much as possible from our short (2-day) stay at Palawan.
Coron Island - our unforgettable kayak adventure
Well, we did wake up reasonably early, but as it turned out not early enough to catch any of the organized tours to the main attraction point of the area – the gorgeous island of Coron. But as always, everything (even being a little bit lazy) happens for a reason and very soon we discovered the reason why we were meant to miss the tour: although chartering a boat to the island was too expensive to do it on our own, there turned out to be a much better way to explore the surrounding tropical paradise – by kayak! As soon as we heard the guys from a travel agency mention this option (they were the grandkids of the old lady who was hosting us and I guess felt genuinely sorry as they looked at our disappointed faces when we mentioned that we only had a couple of days in Palawan but couldn't really charter a boat), we jumped at an opportunity to explore the island in this much more adventurous way. With the help of those two young guys we made a two-day itinerary that included spending half a day and a night at a tiny uninhabited CYC island south-east of Palawan (and two hours of rowing away from the Coron city) and then another whole day of exploring (and rowing) at Coron island. In two hours that followed our talk with the agency guys we did all the preparations (that included packing, shopping for supplies, renting a kayak and deliberately not renting a tent), and set out on our big Robinson-Crusoe adventure. The two days that followed were truly one of the best experiences of our lives, although it was very close to ending in a little bit of a disaster ☺.
CYC - a tiny uninhabited island, with just us and a wild cat
The first day we had only a couple of hours of rowing and after a really beautiful ride through the amazingly transparent waters (it was so shallow and so clear you could see the beautiful sea stars at the bottom and our only worry was that our kayak now and then was scraping the gorgeous corals) we landed at the tiny CYC beach. At that time it was just the two of us and it felt really special, like we owned that island. So we pronounced ourselves king and queen of CYC and started to explore our territories. Well, very quickly we discovered that the island was a little bit neglected in terms of cleaning, as there was quite a lot of plastic all over it, probably left behind by the tour groups which make regular stops there on their seamless Coron island itineraries. Since the king and queen of CYC didn't seem to have any subjects, we decided to give our tiny island a little cleaning ourselves and in about one hour collected almost all the rubbish along the beach. By that time one of the tour boats arrived bringing a couple of Philippino families, which on seeing a couple of foreigners clean a Philippino island decided to help us instead of doing the usual thing and contributing new rubbish. We ended up getting quite friendly with them and in a couple of hours that they spent at CYC the whole family learnt kayaking using our "vessel", we also gave swimming lessons to the little Philippino girl who is planning to become Miss Universe when she grows up (well, personally I think she has the potential but swimming skills will be definitely a plus) and chatted with the whole family about many different things.
Off we go on our 2-day kayak adventure:
And we arrived at CYC:
The 10-year old Philippino girl in our kayak dreams to be Miss Universe when she grows up, part-time. The other part of her time she would dedicate to teaching Philippino language :-)
It was really great to have that cozy fire. It was alive for quite a while after we fell asleep and we believe kept us safe from the wild animals of the CYC island :-)... Well, actually we only saw one wild cat, but maybe that's because it was the only wild animal not afraid of our fire... or the only really hungry one :-)
Waking up in CYC - alone, on a truly gorgeous tiny island - made that morning one of the most special we've ever had:
One thing we were really curious to talk about was the role of English in the modern Philippino society: what we had noticed in the streets ever since we arrived is that most people are pretty fluent in English and at times it even felt that they use English to communicate between each other, not just with foreigners (which reminded us very much what we saw in some places in Mumbai, Singapore and Hong Kong). We heard some people from those families talking English to each other and asked them whether that was normal. We got only a very evasive answer so our best guess would be that they don't do it all the time, probably only around foreigners (maybe, it has some kind of prestige). It was quite striking though to hear a 10-year-old girl saying the following about her little cousin: "This is my cousin. He is five. He is also English-speaking". (We did verify that he was, as we started talking with him and this little boy was perfectly able to tell us an innocent lie about how old he was (he claimed to be eight) in a perfectly fluent English ☺).
Then the family left and it was again just the two of us at CYC. The sun was setting so we had our dinner with the takeaway rice and canned fish, and then Jordi made a beautiful fire to gaze at before going to sleep. By that time a huge black cloud was slowly crawling our way and in another half an hour we started to hear thunder and some drops of rain started falling on us and our fire. But by some unexplainable luck (it was rain season in Philippines after all and it had rained almost every single day before) those few drops was all we saw that night: our fire died a natural death a couple of hours later and all through the night we could see a myriad of stars in the clear black sky above us. After an hour or so of listening to all the fascinating sounds all around us (the most fascinating one was the one that was coming from some place directly underneath us from some animal that leaves in the sand and kept digging something the whole night) we finally fell asleep, and woke up only once during the night when we heard strange noises: that's when we discovered that the king and queen of CYC did have one subject after all – it was an absolutely white wild cat which came to get the remnants of tuna we had for dinner that evening.
Off to Coron Island - gorgeous beaches, blue lagoons and a perfect picnic
Next morning we woke up to the perfect sunshine. The water was almost licking our feet as the high tide ate up almost half of the island. We had a great time for a couple more hours till the first tour boats brought huge groups of noisy tourists. That's when we drained our kayak from water, packed and left for the second part of our kayaking adventure – sailing along the Coron island. After about 40 minutes of rowing we crossed to its nearest point – a gorgeous turquoise beach framed by very sharp and very picturesque karst formations (like the ones we saw in Kota Kinabalu and in the pictures of Gunung Mulu) and stopped there for a swim. Again it was really quiet – just us and a local guy who looks after the beach, with his three little boys.
Then it was time for more rowing, as we went all along Coron island, passing small fishing villages and breathtaking blue lagoons and stopping in some of them for a swim, till we arrived at the Barracuda Lake – another gorgeous lagoon and the main diving spot around Coron island. We tied our kayak to a mangrove and had a lunch which so far has been the most unforgettable picnic we've ever had: in a gorgeous setting, inside a kayak.
Crossing from CYC to Coron Island:
Picnic at the Barracuda Lake:
The incredible Kayangan Lake - underwater mountains, transparent water and the funny shrimp
Our next stop was the main attraction of the day – lake Kayangan. Framed all along its perimitre by a ridge of beautiful karsts, it's a truly magical place. The crystal clear water is filled with uniquely shaped karst formations which look like underwater mountains. We spent the rest of the day swimming there, first with a big group of local tourists (all wearing bright orange life vests as they don´t know how to swim), and then as they left it was all ours, so peaceful and mysterious. Sitting there on one of the karsts, I made friends with a cute shrimp that started playing with me – it reminded me of the curious funny shrimp from the Disney's Little Mermaid ☺.
I made friends with this cute little shrimp. It was so curious, it just kept crawling along my feet and hands. Before visiting Kayangan, I thought this was only possible in the Disney cartoons :-)
...And how we almost sank in a kayak in the middle of the sea :-)
Then it was time for the last – and longest – stretch of rowing effort, as we set out to cross from Coron island to Coron city. We were peacefully rowing for about one hour when we felt that our kayak was bouncing much more from side to side and overall felt much heavier. All of a sudden we realised that it must be full of water, so full in fact that we didn't have much time before it would sink. In a split of a second we made a decision to change our original course (to the pier where we rented the kayak) and head for the closest stretch of land we saw. It was maybe half a kilometre away and we were rowing very hard but it was getting worse and worse with every second. Then the rear part of the kayak started disappearing in the water: that's when we decided that Jordi would get out and push the kayak from the water and I would try to keep rowing as far to the shore as possible. With Jordi out, the kayak did become a little lighter and I was able to make another couple of dozen metres towards the shore. By then we were really really close but the kayak became so full of water and became so uncontrollable (it was impossible to turn it any more) that it became crystal clear – it was SINKING!..
I don't know how it happened that we did manage to last exactly the amount of seconds (not even minutes) before it would go under, but I guess we were truly lucky, in the purest sense of this word. Just as the nose of the kayak started to slowly disappear under water, Jordi reached a point where he could stand and walked very fast towards the kayak. As he reached it, he started pulling us to the shore and in another really short while that felt like an eternity (seconds have a totally different feel in situations like this, trust me) I was also able to jump out and we dragged the kayak to the little rocky beach. By that time the village kids had all gathered to watch us which was also quite lucky since we had to ask the oldest ones to help us drain the kayak (by that time it was too heavy for just the two of us). After our lucky escape we still had about an hour of rowing to bring back the kayak, and although we did feel a little bit apprehensive about a possibility of sinking again, the rest of our trip was pretty unadventurous: now we were all the time just a few metres away from the shore, well within reach of civilization, and help. As we finally stepped out of the kayak, the feeling we had was a weird mixture of relief, happiness and triumph. It had been an incredible adventure: we slept on an uninhabited island, saw a lot of incredible places and almost sank (but didn't) in our kayak!
Safe and sound, back in Coron city:
Last days in Philippines
01-06-2011 – we caught a flight back to Manila where we spent our last afternoon checking the architectural legacy of the Spanish in Manila – the area of Intramuros.
02-06-2011 – we left for Malaysia.
Our overall impression about Philippines
Well, we are really happy we decided to visit it. People are genuinely friendly and speak really fluent English, which makes it very easy to communicate. The country has truly amazing beach, with Boracay and Coron islands so far definitely among the few most beautiful places we've ever visited. Surprisingly enough, there are considerably fewer tourists in Philippines compared to the rest of SEA countries and in some places (like Palawan) it had almost a virgin look and feel, so it's a real treat for anyone who is looking for something 'authentic'. The only drawbacks of travelling this country are the natural consequence of the above advantages: being less touristy, the country does have an inferior tourist infrastructure compared to other SEA countries: there are fewer budget hotels, with prices higher and standards lower; and there are fewer buses and overnight routes. We also didn't particularly like the local cuisine which is all about meat, and that meat is all about "Kentucky-style" chicken. Looking for vegetables was quite a challenge, but doable with perseverance. But the overall conclusion is: great, absolutely great. Go if you have a chance and haven't been yet, and go again if you have! ☺