Tag Archives: Luzon

Impressions of the Philippines

I love it when a place surprises you. I turned up on a bit of whim thanks to seeing a few nice photos and a bargain flight in the Air Asia January sale, with not much of an idea what to expect. It turned out to be right up there with Mexico & Peru as one of my favourite countries so far.

So what was so awesome about it?

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The Mountains

Banaue Rice Terraces, Cordillera Mountains, North Luzon, Philippines

The Rice Terraces of the Cordillera

Anyone who goes to the Philippines and misses the Cordillera is seriously missing out. I saw an awful lot of beautiful mountains in Latin America, and almost thought I was mountained out. I was wrong – the Cordillera mountains of North Luzon are stunning, mainly because they are absolutely covered in rice terraces. I’ve seen rice terraces before in other countries, and thought they looked OK, but it was nothing compared to see whole mountains carved away by human hand into a series of neat, curving steps. The fact that many are well over a thousand years old makes them all the more impressive

 
The Beaches

Malapascua beach, Cebu, Visayas, Philippines

Over 7,000 islands to choose from - that's a lot of beach

Again, I thought I’d seen some damn fine beaches on my travels so far – in Mexico, Honduras, Colombia & Indonesia – but they really weren’t a patch on what the Philippines has to offer. Beautiful curves of sparkling white sand are ten a penny in the country, and with so many islands to choose from, there are only a few that are really developed – and even those have been very tastefully done, and are clean too. Especially spectacular are the islands of the Bacuit Archipelago, off the north coast of Palawan. I’m writing this now from Thailand – and having now seen the famous beaches of the Andaman Coast of this country (Rai Leh, Ko Phi Phi, Phuket), I can safely say The Philippines wins hands down, not least for the fact that it’s more sensitively developed and much less touristed.

 
The Wildlife
Philippine Tarsier, Bohol, Philippines

Want.

I’ve written enough about this already, so just to summarise:
Tarsiers: possibly the cutest animal in the world
Thresher Sharks: Very impressive looking. And even better for the points it’ll get me in future games of ‘diver one-upmanship’
Whale Sharks: indescribably awesome. Even better than the Orang-Utans. Possibly the best moment of my entire trip.

 
The People
Malapascua kids

The friendly kids of Malapascua beach

Yes, I know I say this about every country, but this time I have to say The Philippines was the best country yet for the locals. I think the people are just as friendly in some other countries (like Mexico or Indonesia) – but the big difference here is that virtually everyone speaks pretty good English, which makes it really easy to get chatting to people everywhere. They’re really passionate about their country (well, apart from about their politicians normally), always willing to help out and offer suggestions on where else to go, and a good laugh too.

 
My fellow travelers
Swimming in Donsol, Philippines

My fellow travellers made swimming with whale sharks even more incredible

It wasn’t just the locals who helped me have such a good time – the other travelers I met were equally cool, the best I’ve met in any country apart from Colombia (which makes me think that perhaps the kind of people who go to less obvious countries tend to be more interesting people). I met people from a more diverse group of countries than ever before – not just the usual mix of Western Europeans, North Americans & Australians, but plenty of Asians, Africans and Eastern Europeans too, and I always had both a real laugh and interesting conversations wherever I went.

 
The food (and the beer)

Filipino food has an awful reputation – often described as the worst in Asia. I think that’s really unfair. One of the things I liked most about it was that it was different – a nice change from the (delicious) stir-fries and curries that are that staple fair elsewhere in the region. The Spanish influence is obvious, and I loved dishes like Adobo (a vinegary stew normally made with pork or chicken) and Afritada (meat in a rich garlicky, tomato sauce with lots of peppers). I even liked Sisig (a common fast food or bar snack made with crispy bits of unusual parts of the pig). Best of all was Bicol Express, a (unusually for the Philippines) firey dish of chilis, pork, shrimps, onion, garlic and coconut milk. Meanwhile from the perspective of a traveller who is perpetually over budget, San Miguel (the national beer) is possibly the cheapest in the world, at about $0.60 a bottle. Marvellous.

I really cannot believe how many people come to South East Asia and skip The Philippines. It really is incredible, and it’s yet another country I long to go back to, so I can see more – Samar, Layte, Siquijor, Mondanao, Negros, Boracay, Camiguin and more of Luzon are all on my list.

That’s it now for The Philippines – I’m skipping on the usual budget & numbers post, as they were getting a bit samey and boring to write. For any geeky numbers fans out there, don’t worry, there will be a mammoth stats post at the end of my trip. In short though, yet again I blew my budget (this time it was on internal flights and diving, as the food & drink turned out to be the cheapest yet – even less than Bolivia). In terms of the other numbers, biggest surprise was the vast number of Danes I met. They are everywhere, and I would like to congratulate them on their very good taste in holiday destinations.

You can see all my photos of the country here, and read any posts you missed here.

Next stop: Chinese New Year in Singapore, followed by an unexpected trip to Hospital in Thailand.

The Gentle Giants of the Sea

The Tarsiers were cute. The Thresher Shark was cool. But they were just a warm-up for the big one: swimming with whale sharks (or Butanding as they’re known locally).

I missed them by a few weeks while I was in Utila – so there was no way I was going to make the same mistake in the Philippines. For Donsol is possibly the best place in the world to see the world’s largest fish, and it’s become a magnet for travellers who want to try their luck. It all turned out to be one of the craziest experiences I’ve had so far – but easily one of the best too.

After another typical Philippine journey (boat – bus – taxi – plane – tricycle – jeepney – tricycle) it was straight to bed an up early to get a place on a boat. Luckily enough I ran straight into Simon (who I’d had met in Manila) and four of his friends who were looking for one more person to make a boatfull and we were soon on our way.

Now despite the fact that Whale Sharks are pretty huge by fish standards (they can grow to over 10m long) they are still pretty small compared to the size of the sea – which is where the spotter comes in. The six of us loaded onto a pretty small bangca (outrigger boat), with a local spotter standing perched right up on top clinging on to the mast, and his task is to scan the sea for the telltale dark shadow just below the surface.

waiting to swim with whale sharks in donsol, philippines

Getting ready to go...

It’s a pretty difficult task, and we spent the first couple of hours cruising around in circles with no luck, and our initial excitement soon gave way to a worry that we’d be one of the 5-10% of boats that fail to see any during peak season. So we’d just settled down to a snack (peanut butter sandwiches) when the boat suddenly slowed down and our “Butanding Interaction Officer” suddenly cries go go go! and the madness begins.

The boat is pretty damn narrow, and of course our snorkels, masks and fins were scattered all over the place so we had chaos as we all frantically climbed over each other, kitted out and jumped into the water after our guide.

Now the boats aren’t allowed to get too close to the sharks, so you have to swim pretty quickly if you want to get there in time before the shark dives. That sounds easy enough – but it turns out two other boats had arrived at the same time, so the water was a churning mash of bodies and fins all ploughing through the water at high speed, the confusion being compounded by the fact that everyone is looking down (to try and see the shark) rather than ahead (to see where you’re going and who’s in front of you). On that first attempt the chaos was overwhelming, I felt like I swam fast enough to qualify for the olympics (amazing what adrenaline can do) and all I ended up with was being battered in the head by fins. For the shark dived before we got there.

After all that excitement the disappointment was crushing…so we swam back to the boat, climbed in, and got back to the waiting game. This time the waiting wasn’t quite so long, and despite being a bit more prepared for what was happening, it was all still just as chaotic – with one crucial difference. As I manically paddled away I suddenly saw movement just below – and it was enormous. After all that waiting nothing could prepare me for the moment I realised I was swimming just two metres above a Whale Shark, gently gliding its way through the sea. It was a bit of a blur of spots, a huge dorsal fin…and then it was gone, suddenly diving back down below our range of visibility.

excitement at having just swam with a whale shark

The celebrations begin

It may have just been a brief glimpse, but it was incredible, and as I all surfaced and looked around, I was surrounded by people grinning like idiots and cheering and laughing. It’s impossible to describe if you haven’t done it, but the combination of hours of hanging around waiting, one minute of frantic, adrenaline-raising swimming, and then just thirty seconds of seeing what you set out to see turns out to be the perfect recipe for inducing euphoria.

Whale Shark Fin

A fin (what did you expect? They're far too big to fit in one shot when you're swimming right on top!

The atmosphere on the boat afterwards was electric, and it still hadn’t worn off before it was time to go again – and yet again we were succesful. The second encounter was very similar to the first one, and had exactly the same results, and by the time we tried again for a third time, failed, and then were told by the captain it was time to go back in, none of us cared – because even those brief glimpses had been incredible.

Whale Shark Fin in Donsol Philippines

This time, a fin


Whale Shark head in Donsol Philippines

and finally the head

But all credit to the spotters – we were already an hour over our allotted time and still they kept on looking. And boy am I glad they did – for soon the cry went out again and we had the best encounter yet. This one was huge – about 10 metres long – and really close to the surface. So close in fact that at one point I practically jumped out of the water to get out of the way as its tail nearly hit me as it turned. We got to swim with this one for longer too, and as if that wasn’t exciting enough, we had literally just started climbing back in the boat when we were back in the water again for one final encounter, this one just as good as the previous one – and for me especially, as it swam right towards me, meaning its entire length from head to tail passed right beneath me.

Post whale shark high

Post-whale shark high

Words cannot describe quite how awesome the experience was. The wonderful feeling kept going all day, and even now as I type a twinge of that incredible natural high is hitting me again.

What a way to end my time in the Philippines. The usual round-up posts will follow next – and then on to Singapore.

Never throw your flip flop in a cave

The sun finally emerged from behind the clouds just as we getting ready to leave Banaue for the spectacular three hour journey through the mountains to Sagada, giving us the opportunity I’d been waiting for: the chance to admire the scenery unobstructed by riding on the roof of a jeepney.

The rice terraces of Banaue

The ride was every bit as good as we’d been told, as the road wound its way up out of Banaue (and finally getting us the chance to see the town’s rice terraces in all their glory from the viewing point) and through the Cordilleras, passing dozens of beautiful terraces along the way (as well as field of vegetables that looked wonderful thanks to the heart that had been ploughed into its centre). Riding on the roof was pretty fun – but bloody uncomfortable. I won’t be doing that again – not unless I can find a cushion to sit on.

Aw, sweet

Sagada turned out to be a fantastic little village – richly forested, and with pretty houses ranged across the town’s various hills, valleys and atop cliffs. At a slightly lower altitude than Banaue, the climate was perfect too, with glorious blue skies and daytime temperatures that were perfect and without much humidity.

There was one main reason I wanted to visit the village – to see the famous hanging coffins. The people of Sagada have traditionally chosen to place their dead not in the ground, but either inside the many caves that surround the town, or more impressively, by hanging the coffins from the side of some of the huge cliffs in the area.

The Hanging Coffins of Echo Valley

It turned out they were just a short hike behind the church in the centre of the town, down into the valley, to a viewpoint looking right up at the coffins. It’s a truly bizarre sight, and quite impressive – but I must admit at the same time I had a slight tinge of disappointment, as for some reason (I have no idea why) I was expecting to see hundreds of coffins, and not the relative few that we got to see.

A rather unexpected highlight came the next day – I’d heard there were burial caves in town, but as we signed up for a tour, we had no idea what to expect. A half hour walk from the centre of the village took us down to the entrance of a huge cave, which was stacked up with dozens more burial coffins. That was impressive enough, but the best was yet to come.

The guides lead us deeper and deeper into the cave, leading us very carefully through narrow passages, and making us squeeze through some very tight holes as we headed down into the lower caverns. Some of these drops involved some fixed ropes, others required some quite nifty footwork to make our way down – but the whole way the guides were wonderful at making sure we never put a foot wrong.

Quite a tight squeeze

Inside the cave was spectacular – we got to see some massive caverns full of bats, loads of impressive rock formations like stalactites and calcified waterfalls – and the whole process of walking through was pretty fun too, as we switched between tighter passages to wading through pools of water, which caused a few problems for one of our group – instructed to walk barefoot, to get a better grip on slippery rocks, we were told to throw our flip flops to the other end of the cave. Matt threw just a little too hard, and they ended up soaring past the intended landing place, and straight down a vertical drop, never to be seen again.

Weird rock formation inside the cave

Eventually we reached the lowest point, a weird landscape of strangely shaped rocks and beautiful pools, and it was time to head back up – and emerge from an entirely separate cave from the one we’d entered through. We were underground for nearly four hours in total, and it was fantastic fun – I shall definitely be looking out for more caving tours in future.

Emerging into daylight

You can see all of my photos of Sagada here.

The stunning rice terraces of Batad

It’s never a nice surprise to arrive in a new town, bleary-eyed after a restless night on a bus, to find it pouring with rain.

“Isn’t it supposed to be the dry season in January?”

“Dry season? Ha ha. No. That doesn’t start here til March”

Serves me right for trusting the Lonely Planet when it comes to planning for the weather. For it turns out that yes, while the dry season starts in January in most of the Philippines, high up in the Cordillera Mountains of North Luzon it’s a different matter. Which was a bit of a problem. We’d made the epic journey up north for one main reason: to see the spectacular 2,000 year old rice terraces of the Ifugao people – and looking out of the hotel balcony, we couldn’t see a thing, as the entire valley was shrouded in cloud.

On arriving in Banaue I’d met up with an English / Ecuadorean couple (Matt & Carolina) and a German (Dominic) and we quickly abandoned our plans to go up to the viewing point over the town. The view would be even worse there. So instead we donned our raincoats and headed out for a wander around the valley in the hope we might actually get to see something. After a while the cloud lifted a little bit, but unfortunately the rain just got heavier and heavier (which is no fun at all when you’re walking along a very muddy unpaved road) so we had to admit defeat and turn back before we’d seen anything but a few smaller terraces.

Rice Terraces close-up

We’d only planned to stay two nights in the area before heading on to Sagada, so despite the weather we optimistically booked ourselves on to a trek for the following day.

The following morning only offered a slight improvement – the clouds were a smidgen higher, but the light drizzle continued. It was our only chance to see the terraces, so we jumped into the Jeepney for the bumpy one hour ride down the road praying for miracles. The weather continued in the same vein throughout the first section of the walk, down very steep, slippery steps and along yet another muddy path as we headed to our ultimate destination – the village of Batad.

We weren’t all that hopeful about our prospects of a good view, but as soon as we came round the corner and saw the village’s rice terraces in all their glory, suddenly the weather didn’t matter any more. For even with grey skies and persistent rain, the sight was spectacular. The guidebook describes them as looking like an amphitheater surrounding the village, and that’s pretty accurate – they rise high up the hillsides in a semicircle all the way round the village, and continue down the valley below as well. As we were there just before the new planting season, every terrace was full fo water – and as they completely surround the village, from our viewpoint above it made Batad look like an island.

The Batad amphitheatre

Trying not to fall in

An island in the mountains

The hike then took us out onto the terraces themselves, walking right along the narrow dividing walls The sight alone is impressive and beautiful enough – but it’s also quite incredible to think that they were carved straight out of the steep mountainsides, at over 2,000 metres, such a long time ago – and not just in Batad, but over a huge area (apparently laid out end to end they’re stretch the whole way round the world several times).

Rainbow over the rice terraces

It’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen on my trip so far – and pretty unexpected too. If I knew anything about the Philippines, it’s as a destination for beaches and diving. I really wasn’t expecting such stunning mountain scenery. Just four days into my stay in the country and I was already falling in love with the place.

You can see all of my photos of the rice terraces here