Tag Archives: The Philippines

My 2010 Travels

My. 2010 went by bloody quickly, didn’t it? I can’t believe it’s already a year ago that I was waking up on New Year’s Day on the lovely peaceful island of Gili Air in Indonesia after a rather large night of dancing on the beach with my mates Simon & Katie from back home.

2010 wasn’t a bad year at all as far as travelling concerned, as I got to see more countries than any year apart from 2009 (which made up the bulk of my round the world trip). So here’s what I got up to…

Indonesia
Me & Jackie the Orang Utan
After spending the new year in Gili Air, I made a quick stop back in Bali (where annoyingly I had both an iPod and my new shorts stolen) before flying off to the other end of the archipelago to the huge island of Sumatra to spend a couple of days chilling out on the shores of Lake Toba and then trekking through the jungle to see Orang Utans in Bukit Lawang – which was an absolutely incredible experience, getting to see such beautiful creatures close up.

Malaysia
Petronas Towers
I had a quick stop off in Kuala Lumpur, giving me enough time to see the Petronas Towers, watch Avatar in 3D (and wish I hadn’t bothered), do a bit of shopping and stuff myself full of amazing Malaysian food. I had planned to spend more time there in February, but my planned visit coincided with Chinese New Year and everything was booked up. So I shall have to return another time to see all the things I want to see.

The Philippines
Malapascua Philippines beach acrobatics
The Philippines were never on my original travel itinerary but thanks to an amazingly cheap sale over at Air Asia I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss, and I am so glad I did – it was my favourite country of all the ones I visited in 2010. So many incredible experiences, from trekking through the stunning rice terraces of Batad, seeing the hanging coffins and incredible cave system of Sagada, seeing the best beaches of my life in Palawan, seeing the adorable little Tarsiers in Bohol, diving with Thresher Sharks in Malapascua, and best of all, swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, the absolute highlight of my entire round the world trip. Words cannot describe quite how incredible the experience of swimming just inches away from those beautiful creatures.

Singapore
Little India Singapore
February saw me spending a week in Singapore, eating more great food, doing a fair bit of shopping, catching up with my best mate from school, and taking a well-earned break from hectic travelling by watching lots of the winter Olympics. If I’m honest, I’d have to say Singapore was my least favourite country of all the ones I visited in my round the world trip, but it was worth visiting to see an old friend and to chill out.

Thailand
Injured in Thailand
I had planned to spend a bit longer in Thailand enjoying the beaches and doing some diving…but walking through a plate-glass window on my second day put paid to that, and I still have the scars to remind me. But I did get two separate visits to Bangkok, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite cities in the world.

Burma / Myanmar
Bagan
The plus side of my accident was it meant I had to make new travel plans – and gave me time to fit in an extra country. The two weeks I spent in Burma were incredible – it was a real adventure from start to finish, I saw some amazing sights (the temples of Bagan are probably the most impressive ruins I have seen anywhere – I reckon even better than Angkor, Machu Picchu or Tikal), and spent time with the best group of fellow travellers I met all year.

Cambodia
Bayon, Angkor, Cambodia
March saw one final stop before heading home to England, but I had just enough time to see Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Angkor, before chilling out on an incredible private island off the coast of Sihanoukville.

Back Home
Glastonbury
I flew back to a bitterly cold and wet London on March 29th but was soon rewarded with three months off enjoying a beautiful spring of unemployment and plenty of time to explore bits of London I’d never seen before, and quickly remembered why I love this city so much. Elsewhere during the year I managed visits to Newcastle for a mate’s birthday, Edinburgh for the festival, Somerset for my sunniest and best ever Glastonbury festival, and Lyme Regis in Dorset for a wedding. But there was no way I was going to spend the rest of the year just in the UK…

Croatia
Dubrovnik panorama
I celebrated the end of my year of travels and unemployment with a week in Croatia in June, travelling down the gorgeous Dalmatian coastline, gorging myself on Italian food, narrowly avoiding being speared by sea urchins, and trying to escape the constant drone of vuvuzelas blasting out of all the football bars.

Nicaragua
Volcan Telica, Leon, Nicaragua
My final trip of the year took me to Nicaragua, which was the perfect two-week holiday spot – I spent a bit of time on both Pacific and Caribbean coasts, climbed up four volcanoes, explored the stunning cities of Leon & Granada, and drank far too much delicious Flor de Caña rum.

You can see my favourite photos from my 2010 travels here. And here’s a map showing all the places I went to:

Not a bad year at all. Nine countries, Nine world heritage sites, nineteen islands, five national parks, and nearly four months of travel in total.

So what does 2011 have in store for travels? Hopefully I’ll be skiing in Switzerland in February, and I’m currently considering my first ever trip to Africa with a possible trip to Madagascar in April. I’m also thinking of spending next Christmas doing a bit of hiking in Patagonia. Other than that I’m sure I’ll find time to fit in some mini breaks in Europe too. I might even finally get round to blogging about Nicaragua and the rest of Croatia.

Happy New Year to anyone still reading, and I hope you all have lots of exciting travels in 2011.

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.

The amazing acrobatic kids of Malapascua

After paying virtually no attention to wildlife in the previous 35 years, I’ve been amazed at how much my attitude has changed since I crossed the Pacific. I blame the Koalas. Ever since then I’ve been going more and more out of my way to find unusual things both on land and underwater.

Main street on Malapascua beach, Visayas, Philippines

Malapascua High Street

Seeing the Tarsiers had fulfilled my terrestrial cravings for the moment, but I was soon hungering after a fix of big underwater action – so I headed north, to Malapascua, one of the few places in the world where you can relatively reliably dive with Thresher Sharks. I say reliably, but in fact I’d met a couple of people who’d tried on several occasions and failed. Despite hearing this slightly dispiriting news, I was determined to give it a go – this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Malapascua Beach, Visayas, Philippines

Another lovely beach

When you’ve been traveling for a while, it really feels like everything worth seeing inevitable involves an early morning start. The sharks were no exception – best time to see them is early morning, so I was up at half five to get on the boat at six, for what would turn out to be the most boring dive I’d ever done. There’s one place the sharks hang out, so we descended, sat on the bottom, and waited. And waited. There’s pretty much nothing else to see, and the visibility’s not great. And so we waited for about 40 minutes, and then gave up and came back up. But I wasn’t disheartened. I’d been prewarned that my chances weren’t high, so I remained cautiously hopeful (if not entirely optimistic) for the next day.

Yet again we had a pretty early start, and the dive started very similarly to the previous one. But half way through our luck changed, and a big shark swam right past us – our guide reckoned it was up to 4.5m long (with half of that being the huge, characteristic tail), and we got a good look at it as it slowly went by. That was the only one we saw that day, but that wasn’t it for the show, for a few big devil rays soon turned up and flew around for a while. Not quite as unusual as a thresher, I know, but seeing the devil rays confirmed my view that rays are the most beautiful, graceful creatures in the sea.

Thresher Shark, Malapascua Island, Visayas, Philippines

It's all about the humungous tail

With mission accomplished, I felt like I’d earnt a beach day. And I honestly could not have wanted a better place for that than Malapascua. The island is pretty tiny, and sits off the north coast of Cebu, right in the heart of the Visayas. It’s probably my favourite island so far – in part because it’s the friendliest place in what is already the friendliest country I’ve ever been to. Everyone stops and says hello, everyone wants to help you out, and even the people selling stuff are low-pressure, friendly and chatty, preferring to win you over with charm and humour rather than trying to bludgeon you in to submission.

Climbing a coconut palm, Malapascua, Philippines

It had to be done

So my day on the beach turned out to be great fun, as we chatted to the local beach masseurs, made friends with the local beach dogs, watched the local men pruning the palm trees (can’t have falling coconuts ruining a tourist’s holiday, can you?) but best of all befriending the local kids. The beach kids on Malapascua were absolutely adorable, and they fussed around, wanting to listen to ipods, clamber over you in the sea while you try and cool off, and chase you round the beach (OK, so the day didn’t turn out quite as relaxing as I’d hoped, but was probably all the more fun because of it)

They were saving the best til last though – just before sunrise they put on an amazing acrobatic show for us, backflipping and somersaulting and cartwheeling down the beach, throwing each other up in the air, fearlessly reaching heights I’d be terrified by. It was pretty amazing stuff and reminded me you don’t need to spend forty minutes under water in scuba gear to see cool stuff. After all that hard work, they didn’t need to work hard at all to sell us stuff afterwards – we bought them all sodas, and then parted with more cash for the shells they were selling. Despite now having a bag full of shells I’m not sure what to do with now, it was a small price to pay for such a cool show.

Acrobatic kids, Malapascua, Philippines

Getting ready for liftoff


Acrobatic kids, Malapascua, Philippines

Airborne


Acrobat at sunset, Malapascua, Philippines

Soaring over the sun


Malapascua kids, Philippines

The stars of the show

You can see all of my photos of Malapascua here.

Next up: The final stop on my wildlife-spotting tour of the Philippines – chasing after Whale Sharks in Donsol.

The adorable little Tarsier

You may have noticed that this blog has become increasingly monkey-obsessed of late, what with posts on the cheeky macaques of Bali, the amazing orang-utans of Sumatra, and the naughty Small Monkey in Palawan. If you’re not a fan, you’re going to have bear with me a little while longer, as travelling from Palawan to Bohol gave me the chance to see a rather unusual relative – the world’s smallest primate, the Philippine Tarsier.

View of Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

Room with a view

Getting to Bohol is pretty easy – a short flight to Cebu City, two hours on a fast ferry and half an hour on a motorised tricycle and I was swiftly at home in a beautiful little room right on the beach, above the Genesis dive shop. Wreck diving in Coron had been fun, but I was looking forward to getting back to a more traditional coral and fish environment, and the reefs of nearby Balicasag island didn’t disappoint.

My second dive in particular was stunning – we came across a huge school of jackfish, swimming in very tight formation. As I swam in towards the school it parted around me and started swimming in a tight funnel with me in the middle. It was absolutely beautiful, and for a moment it felt like I was in a scene from the Blue Planet. The different experiences I have almost every time I go diving are incredible – deciding to learn as part of my trip is one of the best decisions I made.

School of Jackfish seen diving near Balicasag, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

Getting close to a school of Jackfish

With the diving out of the way (sadly, on a budget, I have to restrict my diving only to places that are supposed to be fantastic, and no more than two dives per location), I was free to explore the island a bit more. So with a few friends from the dive shop, we hired a driver and set off round the island.

Tarsier at the Tarsier Research Centre, Bohol, Philippines

If it was legal I would have stuffed my backpack full of the little darlings and taken them home

It all started pretty well, as our first stop was the Tarsier Research Centre, the easiest place to see (protected) Tarsiers in the semi-wild. Round the back of the centre is a fenced-off part of the forest. They are pretty damn tiny, but luckily the centre provides a guide who knows where the little critters like to hang out, and within a couple of minutes we came across the first one – and they really are tiny – about the size of a fist – and absolutely adorable. They sit there, gripping tightly onto tree twigs with their cute little fingers (proper big branches would be way too big for them) and staring at you with their enormous eyes – proportionate to their body size they are apparently about 150 times bigger than human ones, and take up most of the Tarsier’s head. They don’t do much, admittedly (being largely nocturnal) but hey, when you are quite that lovable then you can get away with it.

Things started to go a little bit downhill after that. We stopped off at a little restaurant / backpackers place nearby called Nuts Huts, planning to a little walk through the jungle down to some falls, but unfortunately the heavens opened and we were stuck inside for a while. The rain eased off for a short while, allowing us to run back to the car and on to the next spot, the famous chocolate hills. Someone at the national tourist board must have decided that the hills are the country’s most beautiful asset, as I’d seen them countless times on posters and postcards since being in the country. And they sure do look good in the pictures. Unfortunately I am unable to confirm how good they look in real life – as the whole area was covered in thick cloud, so instead of seeing a landscape of dozens of odd little green hills, tightly packed together, all we could see was the two directly in front of us. While we got soaked.

Chocolate Hills, Bohol, Philippines

Rather soggy chocolate hills

After sheltering some more in the cafe, we were soon on our way to the last attraction of the day – the oldest church in the Philippines. Unfortunately some faffing about on our part in the morning, along with the intervention of the weather, meant that we’d overrun our schedule quite a bit, and got there only to find it was closed. And getting dark. So we gave up and headed back to the beach.

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Baclayon, the oldest church in the Philippines, on Bohol island

The Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon - oldest in the country

It could have been quite a disappointing day – but luckily my newfound monkey-love meant that seeing a few Tarsiers made it all worthwhile. All I have to worry about now is how to feed my addiction when I get back home.

Just before sunrise, Alona Beach, Panglao Island, Bohol, Philippines

For a change, rather than a nice sunset photo, here's lovely Alona Beach just before sunrise

You can see all of my photos from Bohol here.

Next stop: Malapascua, and attempting to dive with Thresher Sharks.

Cock Fights & Naughty Monkeys

Relaxing as it is to spend time diving, snorkelling and island hopping, even that gets a little strenous after a while (it’s a hard life), so it was time to leave El Nido for somewhere even more relaxing.

Picture of Port Barton beach in Palawan Philippines

Port Barton beach

Port Barton lies on the coast of Palawan, about half way between the tourist centres of El Nido & Puerto Princessa, and as soon as I arrived I fell in love with the place. While the beach was lovely, the sea inviting and the hotel pretty comfortable, none was the best I’ve seen so far – and yet there was something indefineable about the place that had me feeling at home as soon as I arrived. It’s a bit harder to get to than other spots in Palawan, which serves to keep it considerably quieter – and that suited me fine. I practically had the beach to myself that first afternoon, and I the sleepy atmosphere of the place soon had me feeling as relaxed as I have anywhere on my trip so far.

If that had been that this could have ended up as quite a dull post – but the repeated sound of cocks crowing quickly roused me from my slumber. A short walk into town revealed what I’d suspected – a cock fight (which is pretty much the national sport). It wasn’t just any old cock fight either – I’d stumbled into the town on the final day of their annual fiesta, and they were celebrating in part with a massive all day event.

Cock fight in Port Barton Palawan Philippines

3 cock derby

I really don’t approve of animals fighting for sport – but despite that I was drawn in, and in turned out to be every bit as barbaric as I’d feared. The arena was a small, square patch of dirt, surrounded by benches packed with most of the village’s male population, frantically shouting and signalling across at each other as odds were altered and money quickly and confusingly changed hands around the ring. Soon, after a period of taunting and winding up by other birds brought on especially for this purpose, the bookies and the trainers left the ring, with just the referee there to set the cocks at each other.

Pretty soon it was all a blur, as the cocks flew round each other, biting away, and slashing away with the sharp blades strapped to one of their hind legs. That first bout was all over pretty quickly as one of the cocks was slit right open across its chest. It doesn’t even end in a quick, painless death as I’d thought – fighting cocks are pretty valuable, so unless they’re killed outright, a vet is on hand round the back to stuff the organs back in, sew them up, and send them on their way to recover, ready to fight again some months down the line. I didn’t stick around after that. Not my cup of tea.

Elsewhere in town I got to have a more entertaining animal interaction. The best (and friendliest) place to eat in town is Judy’s, so I headed down there for dinner with my friends, which turned out to be a fair bit harder than anticipated, thanks to the resident baby monkey (named ‘Small Monkey’). Apparently she’d been recently rescued after hunters killed her mother, and now hangs out in the restaurant, harassing customers (but getting away with it by being so small and cute). It’s pretty tough trying to eat when at any moment you risk having something stolen off your plate (which Small Monkey will then proceed to eat whilst sitting on your shoulder. Half of it normally ends up in your mouth, and the rest scattered through your hair and down your back). It was all pretty entertaining, but I do hope that they end up taking Small Monkey to a rehabilitation centre soon – she may be cute now, but she’ll turn into a real handful as she gets older (and anyway, entertaining as she is, it’s really not best for her to grow up around humans).

Puerto Princessa Subterranean River UNESCO World Heritage Site Palawan Philippines

Entering the Subterranean River

Final stop in my trip through Palawan was Puerto Princessa and the nearby Subterranean River. Before I went to Palawan, this is the one thing I’d heard about the island, and it appears to be pretty agressively marketed as an attraction by the local and national government. It certainly deserves its fame – as the world’s longest currently navigable underground river it’s a very unusual attraction – but I must admit the boat road down the river was a little disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it has some pretty spectacular formations inside, but ultimately it was just like being in a big cave, except with water underfoot rather than rock. I actually found the caving experience in Sagada much more fun (because it was more active, rather than passively sitting on a boat being rowed). I wouldn’t miss it if I was in the area and had time – but for me, the best bits of Palawan were quite definitely further north.

Puerto Princessa Underground River UNESCO World Heritage Site Sabang Palawan Philippines

...and coming back out again

You can see my Port Barton photos here and my Puerto Princessa ones here.

Next stop: Tracking down the world’s smallest primate in Bohol.

Who needs Thailand?

Everyone’s seen pictures of the towering limestone islands of Thailand’s Andaman coast. It seems like most of the world has been there too. The similar landscape of Ha Long bay in Vietnam is getting almost as famous these days (in the UK at least especially thanks to the famous episode of Top Gear which ends up there). Before I arrived in the Philippines, I had no idea that a very similar landscape exists off the north coast of the island of Palawan – the many islands of the Bacuit Archipelago.

Getting there was a little bit of a mission – from Coron Town in Busuanga, there are supposed to be boats heading over virtually every day, but two of the boats were out of service. This meant rather getting a few days to relax and enjoy Coron, all I had time to do was a day of diving before having to leave the very next day, for fear of getting stranded. It turned out to be quite a journey – 45 of us crammed onto a pretty small outrigger boat, with no room to move around, for 8 hours. And a pretty choppy eight hours it was too, with every large wave showering all of us at the front on a regular basis. Yet again I was glad of my iron stomach, as others around me succumbed to seasickness.

The perfect way to see the islands

The journey was completely worth it though, for the Bacuit Archipelago more than lived up to expectations. The locals make it pretty easy to navigate around the many islands, by handily packaging them into three different tours, named A, B & C (and these are the same for all local operators).

Snake Island from above

First up was tour B, which started us off with a little spot of light snorkelling in crystal clear turquoise water just off one of the islands, which was pretty awesome. That was just a warm-up for the main event though – a stop for lunch at Snake Island, which is so named because of the thin serpentine slither of beach that winds its way out from the island towards its neighbour. It’s the kind of beach that looks like it could have been commissioned by the Philippine Tourist Board looking for perfect shots for postcards and brochures – and yet it’s 100% natural, and we had the place to ourselves to chill out for a couple of hours, while our boat crew made a delicious lunch of grilled fresh fish, chicken and pork – which was all a bit of a bargain considering the whole day-long tour including lunch came to around $10.

Snake Island

Lovely as it was there, we couldn’t hang around all day – after all there are hundreds of islands to explore – so soon we moved on to explore some fantastic caves on two nearby islands, each reached through a narrow entrance just off the beach, and then opening up to reveal huge, towering ceilings. Finals stop of the day was possibly the best yet – an island that consisted of a small beach clinging to the side of some imposing, towering limestone cliffs. The sand was the whitest and finest by far that I’ve ever seen, so much so that it was more comfortable lying directly on the sand than it was on a towel. With just the six of us there (oh, and the friendly island dog of course – even uninhabited islands have dogs here in the Philippines), it felt like we had a little piece of paradise all to ourselves.

Beautiful cliffs, clear water

After such a stunning day I was worried that repeating the experience the following day might disappoint – I needn’t have worried. For while Tour B gave me some of the finest beaches I’ve ever seen, Tour A took us to the best snorkelling I’ve encountered yet. Again and again we stopped at various spots with the clearest, brightest water imaginable, all framed beautifully by the sheer cliffs of the sheltering islands, swimming through narrow openings into warm, shallow lagoons crammed with coral and beautiful fish. All that snorkelling, swimming and generally gawping at the sheer beauty of the place can get a little tiring after a while, so the boat kindly took us to yet another perfect beach for a final bit of chilling – and even better, this one came with a nice surprise in the shape of a bar hidden away from sight behind the palm trees at the back of the beach. So the rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on the beach, sipping away at fresh coconut juice…and then moving onto the San Miguels.

Enrance to the big lagoon

The most amazing thing about the place is that for somewhere quite so stunning, it has remarkably few tourists (most of whom seem to be Swedish or Danish for some reason). I don’t mean it’s empty, but that there enough islands that it never feels busy in the way Thailand does. Get there soon before everyone else discovers it.

7 Commando Beach

You can see all of my photos of El Nido & the stunning Bacuit Archipelago here.

Next stop: Chilling out with a small monkey in Port Barton & exploring the Underground River of Sabang.

£14 to fly to Paradise

I was going to fly straight to El Nido in Palawan, but 6,000 pesos was a little steep – and then someone pointed out that it was only 995 pesos (about 15 quid) to fly to the island of Busuanga, just to the north of Palawan, and that made the decision for me.

I hadn’t planned to stop in Busuanga, but with flights so cheap it made sense, especially as it gave me the chance to try out some of the finest wreck diving in the world. For on one night in 1944, the US Air Force sank a huge fleet of Japanese ships that were sheltering in and around Coron Bay. Sixty years later, many of them are in relatively shallow, diveable water, and they’re the main attraction for those visiting the island.

Coron Town

Coron Town

Some other people I’d met told me that Coron Town was a bit of a dump – but I loved it. It’s certainly not going to win any architectural awards, but I loved its sleepy, ramshackle nature, and in particular the line of wooden shacks on stilts that jut out from the land into the bay. Quite a few of these operate as cheap hotels, and so I found myself sleeping in a hut right over the beautiful bay – for a mere 4 quid a night. Which is a bit of a bargain when you think how much that sort of thing would cost in somewhere like Tahiti (although admittedly with probably a tad more luxury).

The path to my hut

The path to my hut

The morning after arriving I was up early to head out on a boat to dive two of the wrecks, the East Tangat wreck and the Olympia Maru, both of which were Japanese support ships, in around thirty metres of water. I’d already tried out wreck diving at the USS Liberty in Tulamben, Bali, but the reason I was so excited about these dives was the chance to actually penetrate the interior of the ships themselves.

On going in I was suddenly worried I wouldn’t get to see anything after all – I had a slight cold, and for the first time ever I had difficulty equalising the pressure in my ears – which would rule out going any deeper. For a few minutes I had to hover at around three metres while I tried and tried again, and then finally, luckily, I managed it. Panic over and I soon joined the others on the bottom as we headed towards the wrecks.

The outside of the wrecks were OK – there were a fair few fishes around, and lots of sponges and fans – but it was going inside that was the real fun. It was certainly the trickiest diving I’d ever done, as some of the entrances were pretty narrow, and it’s crucial to maintain good buoyancy control to ensure you don’t end up catching yourself on the edges. This is doubly hard because it’s quite difficult to perceive how much higher the tanks on your back extend – as well as to keep your legs level to stop them from catching at the back. I did OK, although a couple of times I got a little stuck, and I ended up scratching my legs a little on one of the narrower entrances. Luckily there were no deadly sharks in the area as I was slightly worried at the effect even a small amount of blood could have on any in the neighbourhood!

Difficulty aside, it was great fun, a bit like being in an underwater assault course, and it was cool getting to see things like the propeller shafts and the huge old engines. I can’t see myself ever becoming an obsessive wreck diver – I prefer the colours of the reefs and the large numbers of fish, as well as the freedom of movement – but I’m glad I did it and would recommend it to any divers traveling in the Philippines (especially as I understand the only place with a bigger collection of diveable wrecks is Truk in Micronesia, which is much harder to get to.
I would have loved to have spent a little more time in Busuanga, particularly to give the island hopping a go (which is supposed to be pretty spectacular), but sadly the boat schedule to El Nido meant we needed to leave the next day, or risk being stranded for quite a while longer.

Are you bored of my sunset pictures yet?

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.