Philippines Jan 26-Feb 11
Because I booked late, I could not get a direct flight to Manila, and instead flew Hanoi – Ho Chi Minh – Singapore – Manila over 22 hours. Singapore is the best designed airport in the world – no need for a visa, places to sleep, great free wi-fi everywhere, lots of places to eat – and thus I didn’t mind having to spend 8 hours there. Happily, I had no issues with either Vietnam or Philippine immigration and was able to fill in small gaps in pages already full of stamps. I am feeling confident that there should be no problems with seeing another 5 countries and having only one full-page in my passport that is empty.
I had decided to give Manila a miss as it is huge and has nothing memorable about it. Heading up to departures, I got quotes varying form $3-15 for a taxi to the Partas bus station. It always pays to shop around. By 7AM, I had had breakfast and was on board a bus to Vigan on the northwest coast of Luzon Province, north of Manila. Instead of the advertised 8 hours, it was a bum-numbing 11 hours through flat country lined with rice paddies and towns. Philippines looks little different from the previous five SE Asia countries – but here the signs are all in English and in a familiar script, there are few motorcycles, and jeepneys are everywhere. A peculiarity to the Philippines, these long, converted jeeps are all aluminum and festooned with signs, and religion. They are the main urban transport and complement buses between regional centres. Another transportation peculiarity are tricycles – motorcycles with a roofed side car big enough for one comfortably bus with sometimes 4 Filipinos crammed inside. They are often all chrome and have a roof that extends over the driver.
Vigan (pop. 50,000), miraculously escaped bombing in WWII and is considered the finest surviving example of a Spanish colonial town – Spanish-era mansions, cobblestone streets, and kalesa (2-wheeled horse carriages). I rarely miss Unesco World Heritage Sites so justified the bus ride. accommodation was much pricier than I was used to and bit the bullet for a $32/night room in an old Spanish heritage building. Many of the buildings have not been restored and have crumbling facades. They try their best to make you hire a kalesa or tricycle to tour the sites – maps are difficult to find and they tell you distances are huge and too far to walk. But I was able to scrounge a descent map and avoid the $20 costs of a “tour”. In reality there is little to see: St Pauls Cathedral (ordinary as Catholic churches go), Bantey Bell Tower (built in 1591 as a belfry to the accompanying church and as a watchtower), plazas, Syquia Mansion (closed on Tuesdays, the day I had to see it), Crisologo Museum (dedicated to Floro Crisologo, a congressman from 1945-1970 when he was assassinated in the Cathedral; the house was worthwhile seeing and contained many family artifacts), and the requisite weaving shops and other handicraft stores. The complimentary breakfast was one of the worst I have ever had, so got a refund for my second night, and caught a bus at noon onto my next destination, the Unesco World Heritage listed Ifugao rice terraces.
I’m getting bussed out already. After 11 hours yesterday, I have another 6 today. After 4 returning the way I had just come, we turned east and headed into the Cordillera, the huge area of mountains in the center of North Luzon. Many Jehovah Witness Kingdom Halls were passed – it is unfortunate that this cult with some of the weirdest religious ideas is making inroads here. Mormons are also strong in this Catholic stronghold. Baguio (pop 300,000) is the nerve center of the Cordillera. Founded as a hill station for the US military in the early 1900’s, it spreads forever across the ridges and valleys. This was a stopover to break up the trip north to the rice terraces. I stayed in my worst accommodation of the 3 months so far, but it only cost $7. One of the best things in my pack is my silk/cotton sleep sheet and light sleeping bag – I virtually always get a great night’s sleep no matter the surroundings.
The Halsema Highway was a real engineering feat when it was built in the 1920s as it snakes along a narrow ridge at altitudes up to 2255m with precipitous valleys. After 4 hours the road descends down to Bontoc at the valley bottom. Terraces growing vegetables were replaced by terraces growing rice. The rice terraces of Maligcong are here but I caught a minivan two hours to Banaue where the grand daddy of all rice terraces are. This is rocky country and the rock walls are wonderful holding up virtually everything. On the way we stopped at a viewpoint for the Bayyo terraces and on the way down at the Banaue terraces. The Unesco World Heritage-listed Ifugao rice terraces were hewed out of the hillsides using primitive tools and an ingenious irrigation system over 2000 years ago, and have been tended lovingly ever since. The Ifugao were arguably the best sculpturers – their terraces cover 400 sq km and if stretched from end to end would go half way around the world. Banaue (pop 2500) itself is a motley collection of tin-roofed edifices along a ridge and I have a room for $6.
The Batad rice terraces are the most common day tour from Banaue. An hour drive brings you to a saddle high above Batad and then it is a 45 minute walk down to the tiny collection of guest houses and restaurants sitting on a ridge. The terraces with Batad town in the middle spread out in an amphitheater. I counted 100 terraces extending up the mountain. We walked down and across the terraces to a waterfall, then back the same way. Seeing the stone walls and irrigation up close was fascinating.
Some observations about the Philippines. This is the most internet challenged country in south Asia. Booking flights or rooms is maddenly frustrating. The internet sites shut down so frequently, it can take hours to arrange anything. As my next destination after Brunei is Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, and arrangements are ideally made weeks in advance, I am slowly going crazy. I write this blog in documents in my computer and copy and paste to get anything down on paper. It must be a huge impediment for Filipinos and is surely a block to this economically challenged country progressing.
There are no sleeper buses in the Philippines so overnite trips are spent in slightly reclining seats and sleep is difficult. The one saving grace is that old American rock and roll is usually playing over the speakers. The other common method of transport are more expensive minivans with no leg room. I would rather take the slightly slower buses.
Bathrooms are interestingly called CRs – comfort rooms, an interesting euphemism. In Vietnam they are called WCs – water closets.
Filipinos think that they are a very hospitable bunch, but I have found them far from it. With their much better English than in any other SE Asia country, I was expecting more meaningful interactions, but they are just as rare.
In 2010, 10 million Filipinos lived abroad. One million of these are overseas workers – Filipinos temporarily working out of the country. Many are women working as nurses or domestic helpers and personal service workers. The other 9 million or so have emigrated and become permanent residents of other countries. These are more often skilled workers, many doing unskilled work in these countries. This has resulted in a significant brain drain. For example, doctors often retrain as nurses in their adopted country. About $21 billion is officially remitted back to the Philippines annually, but this probably represents only a fraction of total remittances. The Philippines is the fourth largest recipient of official remittances of all countries after China, India and Mexico. But the 13.5% of GDP remitted is the largest in proportion of the four countries. In 2008, Filipinos overtook China as Canada’s leading source of immigrants.
The only meaningful interactions I have had with Filipinos while traveling have been with those living abroad and returning to the Philippines on holiday. They are common on every tour or van trip. Everybody other Filipino I have talked to has had a relative in Canada.
The level of deception is interesting – taxis and tricycle drivers do nothing but lie. Yesterday I wanted to take a bus on Palawan instead of the van. I was told it would take 8 hours, it took 6. I was told the cost was 480 pesos, it was 380. The ride from the bus depot to downtown Puerto Princessa is 4 kms, I was told 9. The overcharging gets depressing. Taxis are quite cheap – if you can ever get them to use a meter. Instead they will try to overcharge 3x the actual cost. I was in El Nido and it started to rain. I was told it was a typhoon and that everything would shut down for 3 days. It was actually a small rainstorm that stopped by that afternoon, but I had already made a decision to take the bus six hours back to Puerto Princessa.
Hotel rooms are charged as singles or doubles. If only a double is available, a single must pay the double rate, usually 2x the single rate. There is usually little difference in the room. Many cheap rooms have not had electricity plug-ins. The water heaters are pathetic and showers are on the cold side. The only improvement has been the bathrooms have shower curtains and you don’t soak the entire bathroom. The plumbing is the best in SE Asia. Urinals have traps so that there is not the heavy urine smell in public toilets. Hotels cost at least 3x comparable rooms in any other country.
The most interesting road signs are “Church Zone – SLOW”. This is a very religious country.
As in all these other third world countries, nobody reads. When on a bus, all the foreigners will be reading books, but the locals never do, not even newspapers. Occasionally if somebody is reading, they are simple cartoon books.
I had my Mastercard hacked when in Vietnam. $1049 was charged on one day to a Toronto Western Union account. BMO has the most backward method of dealing with fraudulent claims. One must fill out a paper affidavit to make the claim but this is mailed to your home address with only 60 days to make the claim. BMO could not understand that there was no way for me to have the form forwarded to some address during my 6 month trip. I usually never know where I will be a few days in advance. Collect calls to the credit card emergency number may be possible in first world countries, but are impossible in third world countries. Telephone operators don’s seen to exist and most wouldn’t speak enough English to navigate all the voice prompts necessary to access a real human voice. As a result, all calls are made on your dime. On the calls to deal with this problem, it was 5 minutes before I got to speak to anyone, another 5 minutes to get a supervisor to deal with extending the time limit, and another 5 minutes for her to talk to her supervisor to OK the extension. I will be using a different credit card than BMO in the future. The $1049 would be paid by me and refunded if the claim was accepted. I had my RBC debit card hacked in Brazil two years ago. Everything was dealt with over the internet and I had all my money refunded in four days. It can be done a different, and much more efficient way.
Credit card fraud is becoming a nightmare throughout the world (think of the recent hacking of Target cards in the US, costing the company huge face and billions of dollars in fraud). The US is especially vulnerable with its reliance on ancient mag strip technology. Cards with chips are virtually impossible to copy but cost $3 more to produce, and most stores in the US do not have the machines to read chip cards, unlike Canada and most European countries. However this does not help when the credit card fraud occurs over the internet. When one is traveling for long periods, it is becoming mandatory to carry at least three credit cards and two debit cards. Without a credit card, it is impossible to book a flight or hotel. Once a card is blocked, the only recourse is a new card – mailed to your home address. Interestingly, a major force in Israel’s technology driven economy is cyber security. It is a constant struggle to keep one-step ahead of the fraud happening throughout the world.
From the rice terrace country in the Cordillera of northern Luzon province, I caught a 9 hour night bus back to Manila. With huge effort and double the cost, I was able to book a next-day flight from Manila to Puerto Princessa in Palawan Province. We arrived in Manila at 3:30AM and hit a MacDonalds which has the best internet access in the country. Taxis charged triple the meter rate because it was the middle of the night. At the airport by 6, I spent all morning at a restaurant fighting the plodding internet before my noon flight, and was unable to accomplish hardly anything.
One of the main tourist attractions in Palawan is Puerto Princessa Underground River, voted onto the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World list in 2009. At the airport, I was advised that all the tours of the river were booked out for 2 days but that they could get me a spot in three days if I joined their tour – ie 3 nights in their hotel including some meals in their restaurant and an island tour that I was not sure I was interested in. I felt like I had little choice so paid the exorbitant cost.
But I now had 2 days to kill and there is nothing to do in Puerto Princessa. I had planned on going to El Nido on the north tip of Palwan – it is the other main tourist destination on the island – so caught an afternoon van. It was a long 6 hour ride in the cramped van over roads under construction. During the journey, it became apparent that accommodation was scarce in El Nido. Many had difficulty booking a room one week previously. This week is Chinese New Year and every expatriate working in China, along with many Chinese were on holiday. Eight of the twelve people in our van fit into that category. When we arrived, every hotel was booked out and I was looking at sleeping on the beach. Miraculously one place had a single room.
El Nido’s star attraction is the stunning Bacuit Archipelago. Tiny swifts build edible nests out of saliva in the immense limestone cliffs that surround the ramshackle town and are on the many islands. Four different island hopping tours are offered and I bought a ticket for one of them for the next day. Visits to lagoons, beaches and snorkeling are part of every trip. The next day started out windy and soon the rain was coming down in buckets. All tours were canceled for the next two days. My room had been reserved for that night and I didn’t feel like traipsing around in the rain looking for another one, so decided to simply return to Puerto Princessa where accommodation is plentiful and relatively cheap. This made for 23 hours on a bus in the last forty-five. The views out the window have been depressingly similar.
The inclusion of the Puerto Princesa Underground River on the New 7 Natural Wonders list is a joke. This New 7 Natural list was created by phone and internet voting from around the world. Voting was heavily promoted in the “winning” countries and has resulted in a rather meaningless list. Komodo Island in Indonesia, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Puerto Princessa Undergound River and Je Je Island in South Korea replaced true Natural Wonders like the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Aurora Borealis, and Mount Everest. Only Victoria Falls is on both lists. Iguazu Falls on the Brazil/Argentina border was in my opinion the only real addition to the New 7 Natural Wonders list (it is easily the most incredible water fall in the world). A Filipino tour guide said that many a SIM card was bought to get the Underground River added.
After a day off, I went on a tour to the Underground River. After a 2 hour van ride to Sabang on the west coast of Palawan, we boarded a boat with a deafening engine to travel the 15 minutes to the mouth of the cave. There we were loaded onto 10 passenger human paddled boats to tour the 1 1/2kms of cave that comprised the tour. The PP Underground River is supposedly, at 8.5kms, the longest navigable cave in the world. The mouth is small and it is generally low-roofed with a few good typical cave formations like stalactites/mites. But it is full of bats clinging everywhere to the roof.
The next day I went on the Honda Bay tour, the only other reasonable tour out of Puerto Princesa. Here we took boats to three islands to swim and snorkel (fish were mediocre).
The food in Palawan is in one word “vile”. They can make anything taste bad. Virtually all food is served as a buffet with white rice the staple. Bread is tasteless, dry and monotonously white. The kids at the hotel I stayed at PP ate white rice for every meal accompanied by hot dogs at breakfast! and a fried vegetable at other meals. Fresh fruit is uncommon except bananas and Durian (a huge fruit with a foul odor that is always kept outside). Balut is one food I cannot get myself to try – it is developed duck embryo boiled and eaten like a boiled egg. Luckily I have found “Brunos Swiss Food” in Puerto Princessa and eat there every night. If people chewing their food loudly with their mouth wide open bothers you, don’t sit near Filipino men during a meal.
Basketball is the national sport, despite the fact that most Filipino men are 5′ 5″. Courts are everywhere. I am presently reading “Pacific Rims – Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Unlikely Philippine’s Love Affair with Basketball” – interesting with many insights into Filipino culture peppered throughout, but long and gets a little boring.
A habit that is common everywhere in SE Asia (and especially in the Philippines) is the prolonged idling of vehicles. Buses and vans run constantly at bus depots, when filling up with gas and for the 30 minutes spent at meal breaks). There seems to be no regard for economy or the environment. The excuse is that it is bad for turbo engines to turn the engine off and the necessity of keeping the air con on.
The number of old white men with young Filipino women is just as great here as in Thailand. Last night at dinner at Bruno’s, the man looked at least 80 and woman under 30. The women are usually quite attractive.
When walking down the main street of Puerto Princesa, I met two young caucasian men wearing black top hats, white shirts with a thin blue tie, and thick black corduroy vests and bell bottom pants. They are German carpenters who travel for 3 years as part of their apprenticeship program. These guys were headed for Tacloban, the epicenter of the typhoon in November. I have seen them before but can’t remember where.
On Feb 5th, I flew from Puerto Princesa to Cebu City (pop 800,000), the second largest city in the Philippines and the main city in the centrally located Visayas, a group of several islands known for their beaches and diving. I was hoping to island hop and dive some. Downtown Cebu City is pretty sleazy – within 5 minutes of leaving my hotel, I was approached by three pimps (“nice university girls”) and propositioned twice by prostitutes. Children were sleeping on the streets either alone or with an unconscious adult next to them. Many people are street vendors hawking jewellery, hats, or whatever, and the buses are mobbed with five people trying to sell identical food (pork rinds, rice bars, dried bananas and candy are big) at every stop. Driving tricycle taxis seems to be a good job. From the bus, the signs of poverty glare at you – shacks with dirt floors, men sitting around doing nothing – but despite all this the people seem to be outwardly happy. The Philippines is a poor third world country – 92 on the UN Happiness Index, 24 on the Happy Planet Index (environment) and 94 on the Corruption Index.
When I was diving in Myanmar, several places in the Philippines were highly recommended dive sites – in the Visayas group of islands: Malapascua Island (thresher sharks) and Moalboal on Cebu Island, Demaguete and Apo Island off Negros Island, Panglao Island off Bohol Island and Pintuyan Bay in southern Leyte Island (whale sharks). Further North were Donsol in SE Luzon (whale sharks), and Apo Reef off Mindora Island south of Manila.
I caught a bus 4 hours to Moalboal on the west coast of Cebu Island. With no reservation, the only place I could find to stay was $30/night but the single room and unbelievable included breakfast (all you can eat buffet with 2 kinds of eggs, bacon, ham, real whole wheat toast!!, cereal, yoghurt with fresh fruit, and all the freshly brewed coffee you could drink) and nice air-con room more than made up for the high cost. Diving has been mediocre since the storm last week which has severely reduced visibility so I went snorkeling to Pescador Island instead. The water was rough preventing circling the small island but I saw a lot of fish especially large schools of small fish and several formidable Titan trigger fish (aggressively attack divers when defending its eggs). Almost all the coral was bleached especially the desert next to the vertical cliffs of the island. These few days have been my first real ‘vacation’ of my first 3+ months. I read a book a day and really relaxed. All the restaurants in Moalboal serve primarily Western food, another reason I particularly liked this place.
Even though Moalboal was very pleasant, the relatively poor diving encouraged me to head to Apo Island off the south tip of Negros Island. Getting there was a succession of tricycles, buses and ferries – a 10 minute tricycle into the center of Moalboal, 1 1/2 hour bus south to Bato, 5 minute tricycle to the ferry, 20 minute ferry to Sibulan on Negros, 10 minute tricycle to the center of Demuguete, 5 minute tricycle to the bus depot in Demuguete, 30 minute bus to Malatapy, and a 45 minute boat to Apo Island. Every tricycle ride cost more than a bus ride 6-10x as long – these guys are malicious and you must haggle like mad to get a price 2-3x that charged for a native Filipino. You must be prepared to walk whenever the price is unreasonable which is virtually every time. The whole process with the necessary waits at each stage took 6 hours. I finally arrived at Liberty Lodge on Apo – quite the deal, about $20/night including all meals (excellent food). The hotel is a sprawling complex of buildings, cement walls and walkways right on the beach. Electricity is intermittent and only available for 6 hours/day. Water is scarce and showers are with salt water.
Apo Island is tiny. About 1000 people (500 are children) live here in one village on the west side. The kids are true free range children – no screens, just normal play. This is a great place to come if traveling with children as they will never be left unoccupied. A 10 minute walk through the village crosses to the other side and a lagoon. Just around dark, a drum group of teenagers plays on the beach. Seven different drums played by a talented bunch of young people make for a great show. A young Down’s teen plays a plastic pail.
The diving is world-class. There are many sites but the Sanctuary on the east side, established in the 1980’s, was totally destroyed in the typhoons of 2010 and 2011. My first dive was to Cogan, a long drift dive on the east coast, where we cruised through a huge school of jacks, and saw a wide variety of fish. The ocean was rough with 6 foot breaking seas and thus a challenge to get back to the dive boat and get back in. The second dive was at Lagahan with spectacular corals and lots of interesting fish including flying gunnards, snake eels, lionfish, squid, anemone clownfish and a longnose hawkfish. The third at Chapel was along a big wall without many good fish but special coral. 90% of the world’s coral is gone, a victim of ocean warming, acidification and severe storms and tsunamis. Apo Island must be one of the best.
With a plane to catch on the 11th from Cebu, I took the boat back to Demuguete on the 10th and then a 4 hour ferry all the way back to Cebu, wanting to avoid the morass of tricycles, ferries and buses necessary to do it by land.