It feels very odd writing this blog knowing this is the last country I’ll be writing about. At the start of a year traveling I had no idea how quickly it would all seem to go, and how I’d feel at this stage. It’s safe to say the prospect of returning to the UK in less than a month is an incredibly daunting one! Adding to the uncertainty was our final stop, the Philippines.
You’ve probably seen in the news that this country is being rocked by some rather challenging times. The new president is taking an incredibly tough line on drugs, basically legalising murder of dealers and even casual users, whilst terrorism appears to be shaking the Southern islands, to the point where the foreign office has put a red flag on travel to this part of the country entirely (voiding all travel insurance in the process, thanks for that). Just to add to the fun, we’d be visiting during typhoon season! As ever though, the media have massively inflated the seriousness of the situation, and actually across the northern areas of the county there’s very little to worry about right now. At the 11th hour, we booked flights from KL to Manila to get the most of our final country on this trip. Both Kelly and I were determined to go out with a bang, and the Philippines has been a top country on this list for a few years now!
Arriving in Manila late at night resulted in writing the majority of the next day off apart from a quick trip out to explore the surround area. Whilst Manila felt similar to other major cities across Asia, traffic here is another level of bad. Reports that it could take us up to three hours to get to the airport from the hostel areas (about 6mi from the Area we were staying weren’t even remotely exaggerated. I’ve never seen anything like it! Anyway, sadly there wasn’t much to see in the local area until the evening, when the city totally transforms: Not necessarily in a good way though. The area we were staying in appeared to be rather popular for, let’s just say, rather large white men looking for young Filipino ladies. Roads were littered with prostitutes, strip joints, massage parlours (I’m guessing with a happy ending), jelly wrestling bars, and even a midget wrestling club. Basically everything you can possibly imagine to objectify women; great….
Because of this, and the perceived lack of entertainment or activity in the city, we quickly booked flights outta there to Puerto Princessa, the capital of Palawan.
Our time on Palawan was always going to require a lot of moving around. This massive island has so many spots that many deem as ‘must see’ we’d have to spend a few days at each spot before moving on, and that’s just what we did! After a couple of days exploring the surrounding areas and beaches around PP, we moved straight onto an area rather new to the travel scene, Port Barton.
Port Barton is a tiny fishing village on a peninsula on the north east coastline. It’s well known for being a true Filipino village, still hanging onto its traditional roots. The beach is clean and well maintained, apart from being covered with fishing boats obviously. The journey here is definitely one to be called ‘challenging’. The road to port Barton is basically non existent at points, and because we’re in the wet season , huge stretches are mud baths. Inevitably, our minivan packed with bags of flour and backpacks got stuck in the mud for about an hour, resulting in me getting down and dirty trying to push it out of the quagmire, followed quickly by helping the next two vans that also got stuck. This was all part of the fun though, and paired with the absolutely stunning views on the drive, it was quite the experience overall.
Upon arrival in the village, we quickly found accommodation right on the beach for about £7 a night. Regardless how much you spend here, you’re going to get something far from opulence; the village only gets power for six hours a day, and because the roads in and out are poor, the delivery of goods for hotels or homestays are scarce. This really didn’t matter though, our last intention was to be stuck inside for the few days we were here. Exploring this tiny village takes no time really, but we still spent a good half a day checking out the area. The real attraction of port Barton is the simplicity of life here. Vast areas of the village are agricultural, hosting cattle and other livestock, chickens and patchy areas of growing fruit. There’s very little machinery used on the land, and most rely on water buffalo to turn fields used for rice production.
The way of life here is very simple and that’s the attraction of coming. Most inhabitants still live in bamboo huts, with the whole family living in one room, sleeping on the floor, with very few material possessions. Walking through one area of the village could be confused with a slum in India (apart from more bamboo), but just like in India, everyone was very happy! The locals were somewhat bemused by a couple of white faces walking through this area though, clearly it doesn’t happen very often!
Sadly though, we were greeted with a day of pretty heavy rainfall. Attempting to save a bit of cash, we hired a kayak to do our own version of island hopping, and as soon as we handed over cash, the heavens opened out of nowhere, meaning we were grounded. Once his calmed down we got onto the water quickly, and headed out of the bay, only to be chased by super strong winds, massive dark angry clouds. That’s one thing about the Philippines in this season in particular, it’s unpredictable! Trying to kayak back to land in those winds was definitely a challenge! The poor weather mixed with an area with one dirt road and no power basically resulted in us sitting on the balcony of our hut for half a day, watching the storms roll in. Once this cleared though, we did manage to get out to enjoy the last bits of the sun on a truly glorious beach, followed by an evening with friends at a reggae bar on the beach. I even got up and played the cajon and bongo with the local musicians.
Sadly our time in port Barton was short lived. Conscious of our limited amount of time in this country, and 7108 islands (ish) to explore, we kept heading north to el nido.
Another ‘must see’ in Palawan, El Nido is famous for its huge limestone cliffs and islands, long stretches of beaches, and wonderful sunsets. Again, the weather wasn’t really on our side; half of el nido was flooded resulting in the below average drainage systems overflowing down many streets. Fortubately our hostel stayed dry. The centre of el nido is a bit shit at the best of times but this just took the biscuit really! Upon arrival and a quick walk around the town we realised the best stuff to see here was on the outskirts of the town. Our first day consisted of heading to Las Cabanas, a small beach just outside the town. We timed it just right, catching our first glimpse of sun since getting to the Philippines, as well as getting there for low tide enabling us to walk to another island just off the coast! The islands here are all limestone formations so offer some stunning sights, covered with vibrant flora and fauna.
After checking out a local hostel a bunch of our fellow Palawan buddies we’re staying it, we got to experience the change in El Nido at night. Let’s just say it’s rather lively.
The following day we were once again blessed with good weather, so took a chance, hired a bike, and rode out of the town to Nacpan. We’d been told this beach was worth the drive, although at the current time the road was rather challenging to ride. People weren’t lying; the yet again non-existent road was more akin to a muddy bog that anything that resembled a road. Fortunately this isn’t the first time we’ve dealt with such conditions on a bike, so eventually made it through the 4-5km of thick mud riding (not always with Kelly on the back of the bike though). It was so worth it though! Nacpan is only just really getting popular with tourists. Adding low season to the mix resulted in us effectively having the beach to ourselves. Quite uniquely, nacpan has a dual beach on either side of a bay, tipped with a small collection of islands crying out for a paradise island development (someone’s already bought the land, I checked). After a couple of hours chilling (and surprisingly, burning) we got back on the bike, took on the mud again, and rode around the surrounding areas.
Now I know I’ve said this before, but the Philippines may actually have jumped to the top of the list for beautiful landscapes. Honestly, Kelly and I had no idea it would be like this! Because so much of the land is effectively undeveloped, and the volcanic soil is so rich with nutrients, everything is so green and so beautiful! Driving for probably an hour involved multiple stops for photos, because just like New Zealand, every corner resulted in another stunning view. This experience has continued across Palawan and I suspect the rest of this country. To finish off the day, we parked up at Lio beach, a resort currently in development. Whilst the shops and suites didn’t have much going on, this beach was something else. We were the only people there, it was immaculately clean, and felt like we’d somehow discovered an untouched spot of paradise. When this resort is finished it’ll clearly be stunning, and probably outrageously expensive, but definitely one to keep an eye on. Our day of beach hopping made us both realise coming to the Philippines was definitely the right decision, even with the bad weather most of the time.
Next on our list in Palawan was Coron, one of the top dive sites in the world. There are about a dozen WWII Japanese boats sunk around the island, resulting in some very unique and spooky dives. Kel spent a day underwater exploring three of the wrecks. From what I gather, it was some of the most chalennging yet rewarding dives she’s ever done. Sadly no photos (she was paying more attention on not touching that wreck) but here’s a glimpse of someone else’s experience.
We spent a few days in coron and had to finish it off with island hopping! Whilst El Nido is more famous for the tours, Coron are just as good, with more shipwrecks you can freedive to, and it’s Cheaper! Setting off at 830am, we immediately entered the world of intense rain. On the open seas this was somewhat daunting, especially as we had a whole day on the sea! Our first stop was a lagoon surrounded by sharp limestone cliff edges. We had to swim through an underwater entrance to get into it, while the now torrential rain continued to batter us, but that just added to the experience. Just to add a bit more fun, this lagoon had a unique thermocline experience (layers of water at different temperatures) and once the sun eventually came out, the water was crystal clear! What a great start to the day!
Over the rest of the day, we stopped at a small island and reef; a sunken ship, a tiny beach surrounded by cliffs for a spot of lunch, another even more impressive lagoon and a marine park for some seriously impressive corals! This day turned out to be so much better than I could have hoped for. We were fortunate to have some great people on the boat with us too so had a good day all round.
Our final stop in (sort of) Palawan was boracay. Known for its long and beautifully white beaches boracay has become very famous over the past few years, also now meaning it’s super touristy. It’s become rather well known as a party island like Ibiza too, just without the super clubs. Regardless we agreed to take a punt on it to see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps the most exciting thing about Boracay though was how we’d get there!
Somehow, this was cheaper than an airasia flight, which would have involved a huge amount of transport back to a main airport. Instead we flew this 12 seater plane for less than an hour, cruising at a low altitude so we could see all the islands. I never want to travel anywhere else in a different way now.
When we arrived at Boracay we realised rather quickly the damage that tourism has done to this Island. The general infrastructure across the whole island just can’t cope, pure and simple. We were greeted by rains (of course we were), resulting in floods down many roads, and unfortunately resulting in overflowing drains around our hostel too. Lovely! For the next 4 days the rains barely ceased, and we only had a glimpse of blue skies for a few hours on our last full day. Fortunately though, we’d booked ourselves into stay at Mad Monkey in Boracay, meaning we were Guaranteed to have a good time with a great bunch of people. We’ve stayed at all the mad monkeys in Cambodia and without a doubt they are the best hostels I’ve stayed hands down, so more out of loyalty we stayed here than anything. This hostel follows the same suit as the others; good food, great Staff, a great party atmosphere with loads of social activities, a pool, and top quality dorms. Really we couldn’t ask for much more from this place (apart from great weather). The only caveat to all this, is mad monkey is definitely a PARTY hostel! The day we arrived most guests were on the twice weekly booze cruise. When they returned, the pool turned into what can only be described as an episode of love island (I assume this is what it’s like), with the cliche drunk British lads behaving like total tools. This was easily avoidable however, as we ventured away from the hostel to explore. This was our game plan the next few days; get out and explore ourselves after all, we couldn’t come all this way just to stay in the hostel!
Our first full day in Boracay we set out to discover the famous white beach, stretching almost the whole length of the island. Straight away again, the tourism trap commeth! Lookie-lookie men (and children sadly) almost immediately surrounded us selling us everything from boat rides to outrageously priced kite surfing lessons, fake pearls to ray bans. The beach is covered in rubbish and wash up from the sea, as well as thousands of tourists all seeming to be attempting to snorkel in water that’s churned up from the swell. We later found out Boracay is a hugely popular destination for tourists from Taiwan and South Korea all year around, and more recently tourists have come in low season after a bargain, however the local economy has reacted to this and effectively kept prices at high season levels all year round. Finally, the resorts all erect horrific windbreakers in front of their beachfront entrances.
I can say now if that was low season, I dread to think what high is like. Sadly, it was chokingly busy: You couldn’t really escape the carnage of white beach without local knowledge! On our final day, we took a trike to a beach further north and far away from the tourism strips, resulting in a great day out not surrounded by hundreds of clueless tourists. Again, this was short lived though, as the mother of all storms set in just hours after we found solitude, resulting in us taking refuge again, back in the confines of our hostel.
Unfortunately, Boracay was a real let down for me. If it wasn’t for Mad Monkey I think it’s safe to say we’d have been rather miserable. Regardless of the weather, for me what was really sad was the evident destruction over investment in tourism can do to a place. A few years back, Boracay was voted one of the top islands in the world to visit. Now, there’s no escape from the carnage that comes from hyper-investment, literally shit running down the streets, a beach in a total state and very apparent damage to the ecology of the area thanks to humans (yet again; plastic and people are ruining everything).
So after two weeks of rain, we’ve cut our losses and venture further south towards Cebu. The weather is consistently better down here. Let’s just hope it plays ball!