Sunday, 6 April 2014

It's More Fun In The Philippines

With volcanic eruptions becoming quite fashionable in Indonesia at the start of this year, I decided to make my next port of call the Philippines.

Whilst they don't have any visa to apply for, their entry requirements insist that you have an flight booked back out of the country before you enter. This is checked when you check-in for your inbound flight, so no getting out of it. As the initial entry pass only allows 30 days, and as the Philippines is a large & very spread out country, there was no way I wanted to be tied into a particular flight before I even got there. Thankfully Air Asia had a remarkably cheap flight from Cebu to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, quite possibly the emptiest flight in the world as everyone seems to book it but never turn up.

After a couple of months trekking around Malaysia & Myanmar I decided I needed a holiday, so headed straight to the paradise island of Boracay. A trip involving a delayed midnight flight, a rip off taxi journey around Manila to change terminals before just making check-in for a second flight to Kalibo (which at least lessened the pain of the taxi charge - buying a new flight would have been much more expensive), a bus journey, a boat across to Boracay island, and finally a tuk-tuk to the hostel, where I was welcomed with a beer at 11am. I highly recommend Frendz Hostel...

There is little I can say bout my time on Boracay. There was much alcohol involved. And lazing around. There is quite a lot to do here, such as parasailing, kite-surfing, mountain biking, and diving. I just didn't. White Beach is quite beautiful. It is just that – pure white sand with crystal clear sea lapping against the shore, sunsets of unbelievable colours reflected off the calm surface of the ocean. As soon as you turn around you notice the problem – resorts line the beach, bars and restaurants filling the gaps. They even have room for a shopping arcade! If it wasn't for the people I met at Frendz I would not have stayed as long as I did, or partyed quite as hard. Especially on the last night before flying out to Puerto Princessa on Palawan.

I was only in Puerto Princessa for one night,but I did get to see one of the most beautiful sights on a firefly tour. The boat cruise took us into mangrove swamps where they had phosphorescent plankton in the water, which glowed as the boat passed through them, along with the fireflys in the trees and a clear sky with all the stars visible, it was as if everything was sparkling.

Then I was headed north to El Nido. Whilst trekking in Myanmar I had been told about a boat expedition from El Nido to Coron with Tao Expeditions. It sounded like an unmissable experience and I was lucky enough to get myself booked onto one, so arrived in El Nido a couple of days early to make sure I had everything I needed. This was a good idea, as El Nido is a lovely little fishing village. It may not have the beach of Boracay, but it has much more character.

On the morning of the expedition I met the rest of the passengers and the crew. Most were couples, and a couple of friends travelling together, just me as the sole single traveller. Sometimes this can get weird as the couples tend to revolve round themselves (especially when they're on honeymoon!), but this was not the case this time. By the end of the first day we were all getting along, which was a relief to the crew who admitted they often get nightmare cruises where people just don't get involved.

The days took on a simple pattern: we would be taken to an island to snorkel around the corals, kayak into lagoons, have amazing food cooked for us by Alejandro, the boats cook, in the tiniest of kitchens which was constantly rocking, more snorkelling, before finally being brought to a basecamp for the night set on a remote island where we stayed in bamboo huts on the beach, usually without any electricity, showered from a bucket, gorged ourselves on yet more astounding food before whiling the evening hours away with beer and rum (stupidly cheap at $2/litre), telling stories round the campfire and gazing at the stars in a pristine, unpolluted sky.

As the days went by, and we ventured to more remote islands, so the coral and fish we saw got better and better. One of the basecamps had a shipwreck just off the shore, providing a welcome morning swim and a glimpse of how corals use wreck to create new reefs.

One of the highlights was actually on land. One of the basecamps, which we did not stay at but I think everyone gets to visit, was the home of Tao Farm, a self-sustaining organic farm set up to be able to provide all the boats with fresh fruit and vegetables, and with an aim to supply fresh meat, especially pork (one of the days games was to see what Alejandro was going to turn his fish into, although he was amazingly inventive). They want to provide for their communities – piglets are sold to villages on the islands for minimal amount with the intention that the boat crews can buy the pork back at full cost when they visit. They have also set up a womens group with the aim of teaching women a new skill, such as weaving or food production, with which they can make a living for themselves and move away from the traditional role subservient wife.

We also got to visit the island villages where Tao help by supporting schools, building basketball courts for the children (bizarrely this is the number one sport in the Philippines, where the people are quite small). They have also provided assistance to communities affected by Typhoon Yolanda, which devastated the area. Getting to meet the children here, see them in school, play volleyball on the beach with them (they were much better than us) made us wonder who the lucky ones were. They have a hard life, very few will have a future outside the islands, they had few possessions, yet they were amazingly happy and seemed to want for nothing. With the assistance of Tao they are being given opportunities (all the crews are from the islands).

By the time we arrived in Coron, after fives days together, I don't think there was anybody who was not affected by what they had seen and experienced. It was a most magical time, capped off with a final snorkel around a sunken Japanese gunboat and final round of rum and pineapple as the sun set one last time.

After a couple of nights in Coron (unless you dive there is nothing to do here) I decided on a change of scenery and headed to the main island of Luzon and the mountain village of Sagada (20 hours, one delayed flight, a taxi across Manila via the iStore to replace a power cable left on a remote beach, an overnight bus to Banaue and finally a minibus. This was a very different place. Much cooler than the islands, at least at night, and hillsides dominated by firs that would not be out of place in Germany if you ignored the palm trees and rice terraces. I had come here primarily for one thing – the Hanging Coffins. I had seen these on TV many years ago, and realising I was coming to the region had to see them.

The local Irogot tribes did not bury their dead. Instead they hang them from cliff faces on wooden beams or occasionally placed in small caves. The idea is to bring the dead closer to heaven. The body is placed in a foetal position to mimic a return to where they came from, and occasionally a chair will be suspended next to the coffin in case the spirit feels the need to stretch their legs. This custom has died out over the years with the introduction of Catholicism by the Spanish, and the last coffin to be raised was in 2007. There were actually far less coffins than I recall seeing on TV due to an earthquake in the 1990's that brought many of them down which are now stacked in a cave entrance. Even so it was good to see something that had always fascinated me.

I had one of the most fun days out of my travels in Sagada. While trying to find the route to the hanging coffins on my first attempt (nothing is signposted so that you need to employ a guide to help) I bumped into a couple of German girls, Sandra & Saskia, who had been on the bus to Sagada with me, who were heading off to a nearby cave with Federico & Moon who they had met a a tour the day before. Deciding to give up on my planned trip and have a bit of fun instead I joined them. One of the best decisions made so far. What I hadn't taken into count was that this wasn't a basic cave trip. We were going caving. We spent the next almost 3 hours squeezing through tiny gaps between fallen rocks, descending knotted ropes into near darkness (I won't call it abseiling – no harness or belay was provided), wading through rivers, and climbing back up with standard Filipino health & safety (none), with only the guides gas lamp to lead us, and poor Moon stuck at the back with his phones torchlight. If anything had have happened to us we were generally screwed, but as with the moped ride in Vietnam, these situations tend to make close bonds between people. The rest of the day was spent exploring various cafes and the rice terraces for sunset. It was a great day, but alas only one.

I left Sagada to go back to Banaue and then to Batad to see the 2000 year old Ifagau rice terraces built in a natural amphitheatre. I spent a couple of days trekking around, first to a nearby waterfall, then all around the terraces and also to a viewpoint on the other side of the valley to see the amphitheatre lad out in all its glory. No matter where you viewed them from, the terraces were a mesmerizing sight. At night all that could be seen were the lights of the villages in the bottom and the occasional fire as the farmers burnt the stubble to prepare for the next crop. It was so peaceful.

I had time left to have one ore adventure here, so returning to Banaue I got a bus back to Manila (10 hours overnight), a taxi to the bus station to go south, got the cheapest bus I could which I sat on for 3 hours before it set off to Legazpi (13 hours) for an overnight stay before a final minibus to Donsol, where I stayed in the swankiest backpacker beach resort I ever did see, spending a couple of days doing nothing by the pool, because there is almost nothing to do there. What I was doing there was waiting for Marie (remember her? From way back in Kota Kinabalu?). It was an unexpected but very welcome catch up, and interesting because she was the first person I had spent a significant amount of time with that I was now meeting again after many months on the road. Had I changed? Apparently so. Good.

What we were both doing there was to see whale sharks. The largest fish on earth, up to 15 metres long, it is not definite that you will get to see one. Sightings over the last few days had been good, although some people had reported going out for 2 days and not seeing anything. There were lot of boats out, each with a spotter looking for the tell tale sign of the shadow in the water. Officially only one boat is supposed to be with a whale shark at any one time. In reality as soon as a spotter spots one all the boats descend on it, wanting to make sure that no one goes home disappointed. This has the affect that the whale shark may sound before some people get there and that the interaction is very short. It also means that every time we went into the water we got to see one. The feeling of putting your face underwater to find yourself staring into the gaping mouth of the shark as it swims directly underneath you is one that will never leave me. The next day a tropical storm set in and the boats were cancelled. We had been very lucky.

We left Donsol, and going in our separate directions said our farewells again. I got an overnight bus back to Manila to catch a flight the next morning. But these islands had a sting in the tail. The tropical storm slowed the bus & caused another to crash ahead of us. These combined meant we approached Manila in rush hour, four hours late and no chance of making my flight. I managed to book another flight out that night (overstaying would have resulted in a hefty fine and a interrogation by immigration long enough to miss any flight I booked to leave later) and then found myself needing to change dollars over to pay an airport tax to leave the country.

This was one of the more annoying things - hidden charges.  Not content with high rates for local guides, without which it is easy to get lost or injured without any aid, most regions in the country have 'Environmental Taxes'.  In Banaue, Sagada & Batad they are small fees, usually less than 50p, without usually charged on entrance to the town & without which you cannot employ a guide.  Sometimes, as in Banaue, the 'tax' can be avoided as it is not checked.  In Boracay the fee was a couple of pounds and unavoidable.  Donsol levied 7 pounds before you could get a boat to go whale spotting (free extra rant!: at Donsol they have a maximum of 6 passengers per boat.  While it would be easier for the office administrators to assign people to boats, you are expected to find the people to make up the rest of your entourage.  Marie & I spent ages trying to find 4 people to share with.  We found 3 Koreans and ended up having to pay extra to allow for the empty spot...).  And don't get me started on that airport tax! (Although some don't charge it & smaller airports charge less than a pound.  And could do with the money - Busuanga at Coron had no x-ray screeners for luggage and no baggage carousel - it was just put on a table shaped liked one...).  Along with taxi drivers refusing to put their metres on this slow leeching of money slowly became infuriating.

I found the Philippines to be a massively diverse and beautiful country, but being so large and spread out it is possibly the most difficult I have travelled. While buses and minibuses are usually waiting at all locations, it is near impossible to pre-book anything other than planes as phone lines are never answered and added fees abound. There seem to be no tour operators providing linked transport like most other countries. In a way this adds to the charm of a country much less developed than others, but also makes it exhausting and somewhat frustrating to research. You just have to dive into it and hope. Do and the rewards are massive. And I barely touched the surface of the Philippines...

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