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July 24, 2012 / oneworld82

Island-hopping in the Philippines. Stunning landscape and few tourists makes for a perfect destination

Philippines. An archipelago whose sheer size can only be rivaled by Indonesia’s; country whose shear number of volcanoes can compare only to Japan’s; a nation whose passion for soda (and pop music) can only be found in the United States; and – above all – a land whose Catholicism has no equal in the World.

Travel itinerary

Having been to almost every other country in South East Asia (with two notable exceptions – Brunei and Timor Leste) I decided it was high time I went to the Philippines. I hesitated a little before booking my flight, because I knew that June/July coincides with the peak of the rainy (and typhoon) season. Yet – I said to myself – why not? Why not seeing a side of the country the the masses usually avoid? Why bot getting soaking wet in the  torrential rains that plague this country regularly every year, bringing destruction and death to its population (but also green scenery and fertile land)? So I decided to go. To book my flight from Hong Kong to Kalibo, to go to Boracay and its famous White Beach, to go to the Cordillera, to climb Mount Pinatubo… Well, ok, not so fast. I mean, that was really my plan before even planning my trip. Then reality kicked in. You know, Lonely Planet is a good reality check. When you look at the map and see things so close to each other you think: “well, I can probably visit Banaue from Manila is 2 days and have an enjoyable trip!”.

A “bangka”, the traditional Filipino fast-boat (used in the Caticlan-Boracay and many more routes)

Well, perhaps that would hold true if this were Europe, or even Thailand for that matter; but this are the Philippines. A country held back by 400 years of Spanish (and, most notably, church) domination, then torn apart by the Second World War, then bent to its knees by the ruthless, selfish, and Western-backed Ferdinando Marcos’ 20 year-long dictatorship. A country with barely any highways and very much prone to flooding. A country whose too many crooks are chocking, where being a honest journalist is considered a “crime” (so many are the reporters shot each year!) and where Marys and Jesuses appear at every corner (or inside any “tricycle”). So, if you want to go to Banaue from Manila, well… allow 3-4 days. Because bad weather, delays, and the Ire-of-God may very well make your plans change.

So, the planning began. I figured that in the rainy season the best thing to do – logically – is to be in the water. As the Philippines are a renowned scuba diving paradise (and as my girlfriend Selina – like the cutest of kitties – doesn’t like water that much), I then decided to craft my holiday around diving. Not a bad choice after all. So this is the story of how an Italian guy wandered his way through this beautiful and cruel country, from Boracay to Puerto Galera, from Busuanga to Palawan, always passing by chaotic Manila, in its quest for the best dive of his life, while stumbling on beautiful scenery, incredibly uncomfortable means of transportation, cheerful people, and “different” food. ENJOY!

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So, here we go. After 1 month on the road (already!), it was time to get to the Philippines.

El Nido

Let me start, retrospectively, from what I believe is the highlight of the the country: El Nido. I am doing this because I know that many people will get bored of reading such a long and tedious report, SO I will write first thing about the most amazing place I have visited.

Few people still venture out there, to the very top of Palawan Island, and understandably so: this place is very remote. Your options to get to El Nido include:

1. a boat from Busuanga Island, daily in high season and twice a week in low season (4 to 14 hours, depending on vessel and sea conditions);

2. a plane from Manila, at the staggering price of 350 USD r/t!

3. a minivan (5h, but usually 6+h) from Puerto Princesa.

Except for option 2, the two other options are uncomfortable and require a lot of time (without considering that the last 1h30m of the van ride from Puerto Princesa is on an unsealed, terrible road). It’s no wonder that many people overlook it to go to Boracay, much easier to reach and much more developed. Yet, don’t do the same mistake! El Nido is unique.

Behold! El Nido!

El Nido is a laid-back, no-nonsense beach town blessed by crystal-clear waters and by limestone cliffs and islets towering over its gorgeous sea. El Nido is a place where relaxation is not an optional – is de rigueur. El Nido is a place to discover as much as above water than under water. Coral reefs, colorful fishes, wonderful beaches are all part of this spectacular set of islands- the Baculuit Archipelago. But don’t come to El Nido in a rush like I had to do: allot at least 1 week to properly enjoy the place and PLAN well in advance to make sure you can catch a boat to/from Coron – as that island is definitely worth visiting as well. But I will let the pictures speak by themselves

Cruising by Miniloc Island

Amazingly-clear sea water

Miniloc Island, take II

Parking up for lunch

Miniloc Island, take III

A traditional nipa hut

As you can see, Miniloc Island is one of the main attractions around here – and rightly so!

El Nido beach

Now, back to the beginning!!

Boracay

I figured that the Philippines were a different thing from Thailand or Malaysia from the very first instant. In fact, I booked a direct flight from Hong Kong to Kalibo in order to start my trip softly, enjoying Boracay for some days before getting rough. Well, in the arch of three months, Cebu Pacific managed to change my flight time twice before deciding to cancel it altogether and to re-route me via Manila. Here we go! Typically Filipino. How to make an easy 2 hour flight a 7 hour trek. Nevermind, I said to myself. Boracay is waiting for me! That slice of Paradise on Earth! Have you ever seen a picture of Boracay from the tourist board? OMG! It looks so perfect! So nice! I wanted to go there so badly! But… Well… I am now sure they didn’t take those pictures between June 27 and June 30 of ANY year of ANY era. What I found there wasn’t peace and relaxation; it was a typhoon (actually, a tropical storm –  I cannot even think of what a typhoon looks like then…), a small beach swept by waves and wind, prostitutes and bothersome sellers everywhere, an uncomfortable hostel (my bad for being cheap here) and hordes of Koreans and Taiwanese tourists EVERYWHERE! I am not kidding – they should have called it Koreatown. The only Caucasians there were myself and – mostly – old people looking for young women. Pretty sad I must say. What’s even funnier is that, despite the fact that the vast majority of the tourists are Asians, it’s all catered to Western tourists… No signs in Korean/Japanese/Chinese, almost no Asian food, nothing! I raised my eyebrows more than once at that… Who does the marketing for this island again…? Yet, I understand why European tourists have fled and shun Boracay. This place is the clearest example of how over-development can literally alter the appearance of a place. Don’t get me wrong: the beach itself still looks beautiful, its white sand still a playground for sunbathers and volley players. But the beachfront has been taken over by endless restaurants and resorts that have nothing to do with the magic of a tropical paradise – this is more Kuta than Jimbaran, more Pattaya than Koh Samui. A pity indeed. In this regard, I guess that the mushrooming of budget hotels and resorts that made the island super affordable (and the ever-increasing numbers of cheap flights landing in Kalibo) have done not much good to the place. While I have always complained of the difficulties involved in reaching El Nido, I now believe that could be what has spared the place from overdevelopment (an easy trap in developing countries).

White beach on a gloomy, rainy day

D.Mall, center of Boracay life (Station 2)

A tricycle plying Boracay’s main road

So, is Boracay all bad? Well, mostly yes. Definitely not a honeymoon place. A place for a fun vacation and some heavy eating and drinking? Sure. More than that? Not really. Diving is average, water sports can be found elsewhere, sightseeing: zero. My thought is that you are much better off in a place like Koh Samui (or Phu Quoc) than here if you want unspoiled beaches, relaxation, and quality/class. Yet, my Filipino friends swear to the place and kept on telling me I just got there during the wrong time of the year and that I should give it another try. Fine, I told them. We’ll see.

Station 2

White Beach at Station 3

My three days in Boracay passed fast, in the end. I worked a couple of days figuring out what to do next – my original plan called for Banaue but a typhoon over the country made me change my mind. Endless possibilities, reduced to a few by: a) bad weather; b) time constraints. I thought about Apo Reef for a while, one of the top diving destinations in the World: too far away and too expensive. Camiguin, maybe? Again, too time consuming to get there. So, I settled for Puerto Galera, an easy-to-reach town with World Class diving and where I decided I would get my PADI advanced open water carcertification. Ok but… how do I get there? Well, I thought I would take a RORO (car/passenger ferry) to Roxas in Mindoro, and then a couple of buses to destination, but my plan a) was sunk by a travel agent who said boats are unreliable on bad weather (as it happened, the day I left Boracay the weather was beautiful…); I also thought I could take a night ferry from Caticlan to Batangas, arriving early morning and then taking a boat to PG. Again, bad weather, arriving in Batangas at 5am, et al. made my plan b) go to ashes. So I sticked to the original plan, nice and easy: mini-van to Kalibo, flight to Manila, night in Makati (I will speak about Manila later on, but it’s an interestingly weird place) at a nice and cozy hostel (Our Melting Pot, highly recommended), and then take the Sikit bus+ferry to Sabang. Plan c) worked.

RORO

(Just a short parenthesis here on Filipino seafaring means of transportation. There are various ways to get to different places – and sometimes various ways to get to the same place – when traveling by sea. On short trips (anything between 15 minutes to 7-8 hours is considered a short trip in this country… Call it patience…) usually bangkas are used. These seemingly unstable but pretty steady and fast boats ply some very well-beaten routes, like Caticlan-Boracay and Coron-El Nido. They aren’t comfortable, and they are the only boats I have tried.

On slightly longer routes (10-24hr) ROROs are used. These are old, rusty ferries that carry cars, buses, and trucks in their belly. They usually offer some sort of accommodation (ranging from a berth in a dorm to private cabins) and amenities such restaurants, shops, etc.

On long and popular routes (like Cebu-Manila or Manila-Zamboanga), liners are utilized. These are bigger ships (between a RORO and a cruise liner) that can carry various hundreds (to a couple of thousand) people and offer all the amenities of a RORO plus some more. If RORO and liners are as uncomfortable as bangkas, though, I cannot say).

Also, here I have to commend Philippines Airlines. This airline rocks! Great service and the best pre-departure video I have ever seen (funny and engaging). It’s a shame it is not part of any alliance, but I am rather sure this will change in the near future. One hour hop and… voila’, here we are in Manila.

Good job, PAL!

Puerto Galera

My transfer to Puerto Galera went down as smoothly as a gin & tonic. I wasn’t expecting much out of Sabang, perhaps just a bunch of ugly huts and some resort filled with prostitute bars… Well, how wrong was I! True, I was right about the girlie bars… but how can one be wrong about that? It’s a huge business here, despite the country being  deeply Catholic – and it’s out there, in the open light – literally in your face. But despite this, Sabang is actually a nice place! The area is divided in three parts – Sabang Beach, Small Laguna and Big Laguna. The lush hills aren’t too disturbed by the resorts – mainly low buildings that actually fit pretty well in the general environment. Sabang is purely a place of divers (and for divers), with practically no beach (for that, head to White Beach or to nearby, secluded Coco Beach). But it’s a safe haven for divers, with plenty of operators and plenty of top-notch diving sites. I got my PADI Advanced Open Water certification there – thanks, Blue Ribbon Divers for a great time! – and I had the chance to see some life forms whose existence I wasn’t even aware of: sponge crabs, huge nudibranches, scorpion fishes, a clown fish protecting its eggs, lion fishes, a big jellyfish… A little bit of everything, in an incredible fashion thanks to Jonathan, Blue Ribbon’s instructor and co-owner. Equipment was top-notch and safety seemed to really be paramount (no hidden costs either, a common malpractice of many dive shops in the area).

Sabang Beach – Puerto Galera

For all the good things I said about Puerto Galera, one thing was unsettling. I could not find decent seafood at a reasonable price. How come that after 5 days in the country I only could have some sardines spaghetti (delicious, by the way) in Boracay? Where is all the grilled and barbecued fish that a pelagic country should be famous for? Well, nothing of nothing even in Sabang! I had a great pizza; I found steaks everywhere. But good fish? Nothing, nada, niente! Oh well… I will find it eventually – I said to myself – and I actually did, in Coron Town, Busuanga Island.

Arriving in Sabang

Small Laguna Beach in the morning

Big Laguna Beach during high tide (morning)

Diving bangka

Coron

Busuanga was my next destination after Puerto Galera – with a night intermission in Manila where I had the chance to explore Makati (Greenbelt and Glorietta malls, which must be the most confusing shopping complexes in the World; very Filipino indeed: they do not build one, big shopping mall; they build 5 malls next to each other and name them Glorietta 1, 2, 3…) and to try some authentic, upscale Filipino food (beef mechado). Then back to the hotel and ready for another destination (I like these intervals in Manila – tiny bits of modernity among a vastly rural and underdeveloped country). I headed to Coron for the same reason I headed to Puerto Galera: diving. Yet, I found in the island much more than that. I landed in Busuanga after a short Cebu Pacific flight on an ATR72. At this stage a little intermission on Cebu Pacific is due. This low-cost airline (not much cheaper than Philippines Airlines, if at all) has changed my flights multiple times, never refunded me an unused ticket which they said they would refund, and has an on-time performance of… 66.6% (it actually seem pretty proud of it an openly advertise it on the main page of its website. Go figure…). Planes are generally pretty new and FAs/ground staff is young, cheery, and affable. It charges you for everything in the purest Ryanair fashion, but it has a feature that I have not encountered on any other airline: it hosts show-and-tell games on board during the flight! Be it a food bag or a neck pillow, three items are offered each flight to people that are first in showing something decided by the flight attendant. An interesting way to keep customers happy I guess.

Good ol’ Cebu Pacific…

Busuanga is a remote and rural island – let the close distance to Manila not fool you! Its towering mountainous landscape made it hard to be heavily colonized in the past. Today, a poorly paved road running from the airport to Coron Town is the only thing resembling modernity in this place. Even the town is nothing much than a bunch of huts, crumbling houses, and ramshackles – a pretty desolate and depressing place that, by some joke of destiny – was blessed with an entire fleet of sunken war- and support- Japanese ships from WWII. And so, here’s served another diver’s paradise! Depressing as it may be, the town is thriving with small “resorts” and dive centers that cater to the ones in-the-know who don’t mind to go a bit off-the-beaten track to do some serious shipwreck diving. I did three dives in Coron. Three wrecks, two of which absolutely impressive. These are real ships – 300+ ft. long iron and steel giants that have been sleeping down there for almost 70 years. Diving here is like no other place in the World. You literally go inside the ships, explore narrow, long passageways, and admire the flourishing life that decided to make of these ships their new home. We saw a little bit of the usual – including giant clams and a catfish. What an experience, especially counting that during the first, deep dive (110+ ft.) my regulator started leaking and I had to hook myself up to my guide’s emergency one.

Akitsushima – A true diver’s delight

Keeping the cool is vital in these circumstances, even though the dive centers of the area seem to be the least concerned about safety measures of all the dive centers I have seen worldwide: no diving computers provided (even though dives are very deep), difficult paths taken regardless of the experience of the divers in the group, and some practices among divemasters, not too safe or exemplary… and as I observed all of this with my diving center – SeaDive – which is the only PADI 5-star of the area, I have a feeling these practices are pretty widespread.

Coron Town as seen from a boat

“Downtown” Coron a.k.a. ramshackle place

Panorama around Busuanga Island – an endless stream of dramatic islands and islets

Coron Island

Coron Island viewpoint, on the way to Barracuda lake

It’s not only the diving though which is great in this little-known island. Busuanga is surrounded by myriad islands that pop out the water in an incredible scenery that stretches for miles and miles, very much reminiscent of Halong Bay (just less touristy, for now). It’s really beautiful, so much so that what I thought would be a long two hour boat ride to the dive sites actually became an interesting sightseeing opportunity. Not that I am not used by now to long rides. I actually came to cherish them as an opportunity to read and learn about a country I am visiting. Yes, I am one of those advocates of actually learning about a place I am in, to better understand the culture, the food, the customs. It doesn’t take too much time and it requires little planning.

I must be honest: before coming here I knew something about the Philippines’ rugged history and socio-economic situation but not much. So I decided to pick two books that would help me understand. One was “Eye of the Fish” by Luis H. Francia, which I read pre-departure and which taught me a great deal about the country’s political woes and struggles of communists and “Moros”, and which helped me dive a bit more into that bleak period that was the Marcos regime’s.

Noli Me Tangere – A book not to be missed

The other book that I read while traveling, instead, was Jose’ Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere”, a real classic of Filipino literature (its masterpiece) which tells a fictional story based in pre-Independence and pre-Revolution years, a time when the friars used to rule and abuse of the country and its people under the Catholic church’s flag. This book is an authentic, clever jewel that I enjoyed thoroughly and that really made me understand more about the many pains and struggles that the locals had to endure under Spanish rule (this book is studied by high school kids – just like Italians study Dante’s Divina Commedia or British kids Shakespeare’s sonets); this doesn’t come as a surprise considering that Dr. Rizal is by far and wide recognized (and honored) and the independence hero of the country, the one who started fomenting his countrymen into taking up weapons against the Spanish and whose killing prompted the start of the revolution.

Anyways, like I was saying, Coron has more than diving to offer (see pictures above). Coron Island proper (a small, rugged island off Busuanga Island’s coast) is another beautiful spot to explore. The mountainous features of this island dominate the view from Coron town, which is dominated by Lajala Island to the south and Coron Island to the East. Coron is an incredible place, with steep cliffs plummeting into the sea in a burst of black and green. The rugged features of this barely inhabited island are a sight to behold while cruising next to it on the usual bangka. Coron is a incredibly mountainous place, lush yet inhospitable. There is no single place apt to host a settlement bigger than a few nipa huts (the traditional Filipino hut, slightly tilted and made of wood and bamboo), but the island encloses Lake Kayagan, whose waters considerably rises as one reaches its bottom. Around the island and the dozens islets surrounding it, then, the reef is colorful and rich in life, perfect to be explored by snorkeling around observing the multitude of fishes inhabiting this wonderful marine habitat. Unfortunately, though, certain practices that slowly destroy the corals are still practiced by the very same tour guides and boats that make a living out of them; while visiting one reef,  the boat we were on anchored itself to the reef itself, pulling and stripping it as the boat rocked with the waves and then left. A real shame that shows that more education among locals is clearly needed…

Traveling from island to island makes clear how the Philippines are reliant and close to the sea for its support and living. Fish is an important part of the local diet, even though not as big as one would think.

Spaghetti with sardines – real good

Owning a boat allows to become a fisherman, or to rent it out to tourists. Every major city/town has a seaport where canoes, bangkas, ROROs and bigger liners come and go in an interminable stream of water. This, of course, varies from season to season, and July is certainly the worst season to travel by sea, as typhoons, strong winds and – concurrently – strong waves make it very hazardous to ply the ocean (I heard various horror stories, one of which recounted the tale of a Bangka traveling from El Nido to Coron just a couple of days before I arrived there. While the ride is usually supposed to last 8 hours – an eternity on those uncomfortable boats! – because of a storm and high waves (that can easily reach 8-10 meters) the trip lasted 14 hours…! This prompted me to fly to Palawan via Manila instead of waiting 4 days in Coron, as in low season only two boats a week (instead of two a day) travel the popular Coron – El Nido route; clearly more expensive, but certainly more comfortable… Yet, taking the long way around proved an effort that took me two days. Two comfortable days that gave me the chance to give a glimpse to Puerto Princesa and its new Robinson’s Place Mall, but still another waste of time given the limited time I had. This is another note to self for the next visit to this country (which, I am sure, will happen soon as there are so many more interesting things to explore here!): plan to visit things not too far away from each other and try to minimize flights/boat/bus rides to enjoy the country as much as you can!

Yet, then you realize that “comfortable” and “traveling in the Philippines” don’t really go well together. Take for instance a van ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido: it’s supposed to last 5 hours but – given the poor state of the road from Taytay to El Nido itself – it take 6+ hours. The van – supposedly the fastest and most comfortable means of transportation on this route – is small, overcrowded, and you cannot help but feel cramped inside it, especially if you are unlucky enough like me to end up in the middle row. It is really funny to see a van stopping in small villages to pick people up and to drop them off in other small places… Something we Westerners aren’t accustomed to, but something that – at the same time – guarantees that places like El Nido remain relatively low-key for the time being. A real blessing.

Manila

I have already written (at lenght!) about El Nido. It’s now time to talk about the capital city of the Philippines, the Alpha and Omega of it all: its bustling, trafficky, one-of-a-kind Manila. For the first time visitor to the region, Manila could be a rather shocking place: messy, dirty, smelly, poor; yet the city is not much different from other big Asian metropolis: I would say that it’s better than Jakarta, WAY better than Mumbai, not as well-kept as Bangkok. Yet, this is relative as well, because Metro Manila is actually composed by pieces very different from one another. Manila proper (Malate, Ermita, Pasay City, EDSA…) is the oldest core of the city, the one set up by the Spanish and that has been mostly destroyed during the Second World War – a real shame because the few areas that remain intact (Intramuros) are simply splendid (and, by the way, visiting Intramuros after having read “Noli Me Tangere” is a completely mind-blowing experience).

Augustinian Convent

Barbara’s at Casa Manila

Particular of a colonial building’s inner courtyard

Intramuros walls

This is the sightseeing part of town, which can get pretty dead and somewhat scary at night. The second major part of the metro area is Makati City, the business core of the country.

Ayala Avenue in Makati

The Ayala Museum – one of the best cultural displays in SE Asia

Here everything is spotless: nice, tree-lined boulevards, towering skyscrapers, and ritzy shopping malls; if you are a business person visiting the Philippines for work, this is likely the place where you will spend most of your time. The third – and often forgotten – part of Metro Manila is also the most populous city in the country: Quezon City.

Quezon City

This part of the metropolis is a huge, sprawling residential area, filled with restaurants, houses, and condos. Manila’s middle-class lives here, and a distinct neighborhoody feeling can definitely be felt while walking by or driving through the area (very good and reasonably priced restaurants adorn QC major roads – a definite plus; on the other side, the casual visitor could find Quezon City EXTREMELY far away from the main sights and shopping areas of the city. Let me be clear: the distance is not as much geographical as temporal; which means that traffic makes getting from QC to Makati or Intramusros – almost any time of the day – a living HELL. Just to bring myself as an example, it took me 1 hour 35 minutes to get from my hotel there to Rizal Park at 10am on a Saturday – not a business day. Maddening to say the least).

That’s the big problem of Manila, in fact: traffic, a feat that the city shares with any other metropolis in any other developing country, is just bad. Picture this: you happily get off work in Makati at 5pm, and are excited about meeting some friends back in Quezon City for a beer or two and – perhaps – some male-bonding ritual centered on balut (I’m going to talk about balut soon, don’t worry). You jump in your car, confident that you can be home in 30 minutes – it’s only 10 km. after all and a nice, 4 lanes highway takes you directly where you need to go. You start your car, get out the garage and… you’re stuck. In traffic. Which doesn’t move a bit. 2 hours later – if lucky – you arrive home to discover that not only your friends partied without you but that the dinner that your wife prepared is cold. And she’s mad at you. A perfect day ruined. Yet, this is everyday life for the majority of Manilenos who have to commute every weekday to work. When I see this and I think about my commute in the US – of which  I complain regularly, of course – I feel lucky; traveling, many times, really helps you seeing things with the right perspective.

Area around Manila Port

If you take out or, better, forget for a second of Manila’s problems you are left with a very pleasant and interesting city. Intramuros, representing the Spanish colonial legacy to the city (the legacy of the Spaniards was actually much bigger, but the Second World War had, unfortunately, no mercy for the city: in the Battle of Manila between the Japanese and the Americans tens of thousands of Filipinos lost their lives, guilty only to be living in this once-beautiful city which was shelled by American bombings), is a jewel. Churches, colonial buildings, and Fort Santiago represent an important historical legacy. Fort Santiago, in particular, together with Rizal Park, is an important memorial of Jose’ Rizal’s life, work, and passion. Looking from Fort Santiago towards Chinatown or Malate is almost impossible to imagine that there, where today shabby ramshackles and ugly buildings stand, once glorious colonial edifices dotted what was considered the Paris of Asia. But history is cruel, and so today we have to do with what’s left of it.

Jose’ Rizal statue

Monument to all Filipino presidents

More of Intramuros

Just a stroll away from Intramuros sits the Manila Hotel, THE historical hotel of the city, the place where everyone – from General MacArthur to Michael Jackson – sojourned while in Manila. The hotel – overlooking Roxas Boulevard and the sea – isn’t living today its best days, but it’s still considered an icon of times that were and are no more. In general, when it comes to hotel Manila doesn’t disappoint; while the choice is neither as extensive or as good as in Bangkok, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, Shangri-La and the likes enliven the days and nights of visitors and wealthy locals alike – with World-class spas and lavish buffets.

The Peninsula

Also in hotels – but of another caliber – is consumed another part of the business that draws so many Westerners to the Philippines: sex. Filipinas are legendary among men for being lovable, caring, submissive women who would go miles to make a (relatively) wealthy foreigner happy in exchange of being taken care of. Also, prostitution is, like anywhere else in South Eastern Asia, very common, catering to both foreigners and locals. In Manila, the most famous red light district is the area around Padre Burgos St. Here girlie bars and massage parlors can be found in great number. What’s striking of this country is how all this business is accepted by the local people and conducted in open sight, to no-one bothering. I have seen dozens of men past their primes cuddling with young girls in their twenties. People seems to accept it as they accept Newtonian physics. To me, this is a bit disconcerting. Yet, I am not here to judge.

An all but too common scene (someone isn’t happy with just one)…

But anyways, let’s talk about something else that the Philippines aren’t exactly, well, famous for: food. Irremediably, when people think about Filipino food they think about two things only: deep fried stuff and balut. Well, the reality is quite different.

Let’s start by saying that Filipinos like to eat. A lot. They have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and two meryendas (snacks) in between. Yet, portions are small, like in Singapore, which means that they avoid the plague of obesity (so far) unlike their fellow humans in the West or in other developing countries like India. The food – hardly the best in Asia, I concede that – is a mixture of local flavors, Spanish ingredients, and American fare.

Banana walnut caramel pancakes from Pancake House. Truly remarkable (no sarcasm intended)

Yup, more American than this…

In no other country I have seen such a passion and love for sodas (of which Filipinos are the highest consumers per capita) and burgers (and, well, spaghetti with a sweet tomato sauce). I used to joke with people I met along the way that Filipinos are the most Americanized non-Americans out there. They seem to like it. The 50-odd years of American presence left, in fact, a deep influence on the local culture, found primarily in food, love for basketball, and passion for hip-hop-style clothing.

Bronx? Think again. Intramuros, Manila

That aside, it’s way easier for the casual, uninitiated traveler to find western food than local food. Yet, with a little bit of searching, good stuff can certainly be found. Dishes like Bicol express (a stew made with hot chilis), beef michano, beef sinigang,

Beef Sinigang

caldereta,

Pork caldereta

and crispy tapa (mainly a breakfast dish),

Eggs, rice and tapa: the perfect Filipino breakfast

can definitely stand up against the best dishes in the whole South Eastern Asia; and there are many more of similar quality. The problem is, once again, that it’s much easier – at a restaurant level – to find Western- or fast-food. A pity indeed.

Of course, it’s also true that balut is readily available. You can hardly go by anywhere in the country without hearing the voice of boys and women selling it at dusk on city streets or on beaches. Balut – a fertilized duck egg served with salt and vinegar – is truly remarkable. It tastes very eggy (as you could expect), but in a good way. Of course, you have to go past the fact that you are eating a half-formed duckling (which you can clearly distinguish). Still, it’s worth a try and I am not surprised to read that gourmet restaurants are introducing it in fine dining, in omelette or frittatas or who knows which other way.

Balut

Still, reducing one country’s cuisine to what we Westerners find a culinary oddity is – frankly – unfair.

Before I draw the conclusions about my wonderful and tiring 17 days in the country, I will open one last parenthesis on Filipino local means of transportation. There aren’t many taxis in the country – except Manila and perhaps Cebu City. There are buses, of course, but those are commonplace everywhere. I want instead to focus on unique means of transportation, found basically only in the Philippines. So, we have:

Tricycles: these are motorbikes (almost always Honda) with attached a sort of enclosed sidecar van to carry passengers. I have never seen them anywhere else but in the Philippines, where in many cities/town are the only means of local transportation.

A tricycle in Coron Town

– Jeepneys: These are the most Filipino of all the public means of transportation. A jeepney is a reconverted US military jeep left behind my the Americans during the many years of presence in the country. Similarly to what happened with old Cadillacs in Cuba, these vehicles have been refurbished, modified, and God-only-knows-how made run throughout the years. They ply set routes very much like buses – they just aren’t anything as comfortable!

Jeepney

The rest, is very much standard road transportation, but tricycles and jeepney are definitely a great addition to the list of uniquely Filipino vehicles!

So, conclusions. How did I find the Philippines in the end? Well, amazing. I was frustrated by the weather at first, but things just got better and better after that. Stunning natural features, kind locals, amazing diving spots, and a rhythm of life not known anymore to us make of this country a real traveler destination (and bear in mind, not a vacationer one yet). There is still a lot I haven’t seen and I already want to go back to see more. It is certainly not an easy place to travel to if you don’t stick to the most beaten routes (Manila and Boracay), yet the rewards are immense. A locale like El Nido would swarm with tourists in another country, much like Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. But here, while not all for yourself, you can still share such an amazing place (and many more!) with just a few backpackers, families, and locals. A real plus.

What an experience it has been. Philippines, I have hated you and then loved you… and now I already miss you! Like I promised at the airport while leaving for OZ, I will meet you again. Very soon.

TIPS

– Don’t be scared and try local shacks for food – you will get the best deal AND the best food.

– Get an A/C room! Period.

– In El Nido you will not find any ATM – be mindful of that before getting up there (there is a money changer though).

– I spent one night in Puerto Princesa: most unremarkable city, but worth staying there (time permitting) to visit the Underground River in Sabang and Honda Bay.

– Manila grows into you. Give it time to sink in!

– Restrooms in the Philippines are referred to as “comfort rooms”. Go figure…

7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Jon / Jul 26 2012 12:04 am

    Thank you for a great trip report. Really enjoyed reading the insightful observations on Philippines
    On my travels, I also thought that El Nido is just incredible and wondered how long it will take for the West to truly discover and be a destination like Koh Phi Phi. I just hope it never turns out that way. Happy travels.

  2. buildingmybento / Aug 2 2012 5:16 pm

    Did you make it to Tagaytay in Luzon? The bus from nearby Roxas Blvd in Manila took about three-three.5 hours to reach this pleasant lakeside, and of all the cuisines to greet my mate and I, we had Greek food overlooking Taal Lake. Traffic is certainly an issue, as much of the route is 1-2 busy lanes. Also, do you recall seeing much street food in Manila? I looked, but I only came across garlic peanuts, ice-filled bright colors and longaniza. Nice shots, anyhow!

  3. Alveo Land BPI / May 15 2014 4:34 am

    Does your website have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d
    like to shoot you an email. I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be
    interested in hearing. Either way, great site and I look forward to seeing it expand over
    time.

  4. Moritz / Jun 30 2014 8:30 pm

    Interesting Read

Trackbacks

  1. Across the Philippines in 17 days: diving, eating, and enjoying life! - FlyerTalk Forums
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