Three weeks in the Philippines
With almost 40% of the country living on less than US$2 a day, the Philippines is no stranger to hardship, with crime, political tensions between the MILF rebels and the military in the south of the country, poor infrastructure, corruption, an exploding population rate, pollution, begging and prostitution being high on the list of issues it’s easy to see why many tourists are put off from visiting these shores. But look a little closer and you’ll find some of the friendliest and most helpful people you could hope to meet in a country rich in culture, history, effortless beauty and an environment and landscape so diverse that it has more unique species of plant and animal life than the Galapogos Islands.
With our Thai visas about to expire, it was time for us to leave Thailand in order to make a new visa application so that we could return to Chiang Mai to enjoy the warm and sunny winter months (with such a great pool at our apartment we couldn’t resist) and we didn’t just want to cross the border into Laos either, that’d be too easy. We wanted to do something a little different and visit a place that is often overlooked by many travellers, plus the Philippines has always been high on our list of places to visit. So with our cheap flights secured through Cebu Pacific Air from Bangkok to Manila, we made the short hop across the South China Sea into a country that feels a world away from its South East Asian neighbours.
The visa on arrival is 21 days for most nationalities, so with such little time in such a vast and diverse country, it was difficult to decide what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go. After much research we finally decided that we’d spend the first week in and around Manila (while we waited for our Thai visas to be processed) before flying south to The Visayas so we could explore the islands of Siquijor, Bohol, Cebu and Negros.
With 350 years of Spanish rule and a great deal of American influence, it’s easy to define what makes the Philippines so different from its other South East Asian neighbours. Most immediate is the dominance of the Catholic Church which spreads its influence across most of the 7000 islands forming a nation of dedicated followers and all that goes hand in hand with that faith, like the beautiful coral stone churches which are dotted up and down the land. Also immediate is the widespread use of English and English signage (great for the traveller), as well as the Spanish influence in the traditions and local language of Taglog. Add to this the impact made by the Americans and you’ll find a nation of basketball lovers, fast food shops, mega malls and an almost unhealthy addiction to karaoke which seems to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere at any time of night or day. Sometimes it was easy to forget, geographically, where we were.
Another huge difference between the Philippines and the rest of South East Asia is the food, and unfortunately for us the culinary offerings was a huge disappointment, and may the Catholic Church help you if you’re vegetarian! Much of the food we found was based around a staple diet of chicken and rice, or ‘Adobo’ (meat stewed in a vinegar based sauce) and tended to be very oily and heavy, and we just couldn’t pluck up the courage (pardon the pun) to try balut – the national delicacy of a boiled duck egg containing a partial embryo, sometimes including little feathers.
Our main gripe with the food was that there was little on offer for the mid-range budget. Although there seemed to be plenty on offer in Manila, many of the restaurants that we found were quite expensive (at the very top end of our budget) and even the food we did eat here was disappointing. At the lower end of the scale, were the street food stalls that, to be honest, looked like more trouble than they were worth, and in the middle, the only option seemed to be fast food restaurants (which are everywhere in the cities) McDonalds, KFC, Jolibee etc. We did end up on a few occasions (regrettably) eating in some of these establishments such was our hunger.
Outside of Manila, especially in The Visayas the choice was even more limited and with no convenience stores (apart from the un-enterable road side shops which only seem to sell crisps and biscuits) we ended up a lot of the time eating in the guesthouses where we were staying, and even then (with the exception of JJ’s in Siquijor and Liberty’s Lodge on Apo Island) the food on the menu would often be unavailable or not fresh – certainly a down side of travelling here out of season.
During our first week in and around Manila, we experienced the polar opposites of this mega city, from its high class shopping malls, palm lined avenues and glittering tower blocks of Makati, the colourful jeepneys, historic churches and forts found across the city, to the filth of the down town areas where polluted rivers bubble and stink and the streets buzz with colour, street vendors, rickety tricycles and bare footed children begging for money, and in many respects, we were reminded of Indian cities such was the level of poverty, colour, noise, pollution and mayhem. During that first week, we also took a trip a few hours north of the capital to stay with a local family and climb Mt. Pinatubo – a volcano which last erupted in 1991, as well as heading south of Manila to take a trip along the Pagsanjan River, where Francis Ford Coppola shot some of the final scenes for his epic film Apocolypse Now.
After that first week we took a short flight south to the island of Negros, from where we took a short, rough ferry ride to the mysterious island of Siquijor, where witchcraft and faith healers are rumoured to dwell. We didn’t come across (nor seek) any of the mystical side of the island but we did spend a few wonderful days riding around on our motorbike enjoying clear blue waterfalls, beautiful beaches where the locals fished for sea urchins, armies of glowing fireflies, more coconut palm trees than we thought ever possible, stunning sunsets, and an island atmosphere that was as relaxed and laid back as any place we’ve ever been to.
Following those very relaxing days in Siquijor, we took another short ferry ride north east to the island of Bohol, famous for its unusual landscape of the ‘Chocolate Hills’ and cute furry alien like creatures, the tarsier. We also enjoyed the not so well known, but stunning coastline of the Anda peninsula travelling to the peninsula with local buses that seemed intent on either deafening us with relentless, very bad, and very loud dance music or just making the journey as uncomfortable as possible by accelerating to top speed only to slam the brakes on to pick up another passenger – which seemed to happen over and over again about every 500 meters!
From Bohol we made our way to Cebu, for one reason only. To swim with whale sharks. We’d heard about this from a fellow blogger and decided that it was something that we’d love to experience for ourselves, but as amazing as it was to actually be in the water with these gentle giants, we couldn’t help feeling sad and disappointed at the exploitation of these wonderful creatures.
Following our underwater thrills with the whale sharks, we then travelled to the tiny Apo island, just a short 30 minute journey by Bangka away from Negros, this little island turned out to be a real highlight of the trip and our initial two day stopover quickly became four days as we relaxed into the rythym of snorkelling, eating, snorkelling, eating some more and perhaps a drink or two, more eating and asleep by 10pm when the power went off. With huge Green Turtles feeding just a few metres off the shore, we spent hours following these most graceful of animals around the shallows, even following them further out into an underwater paradise of amazing coral gardens.
With only a few days left after Apo Island, we were able to spend a final day in Negros, hiring a scooter to explore more waterfalls and we even came across one of the strangest of Filipino sports, Cockfighting!
With one final day in Manila, we just had to visit the largest mall in Asia, aptly named ‘Mall of Asia’ to buy a few new clothes before heading back to Thailand with enough new visas to keep us in Chiang Mai until the new year. Be sure to check out our blog regularly as individual blogs and more photos about each of the islands, the whale shark debate, and our trips to Mt. Pinatubo and Pagsanjan Falls will follow shortly.