‘You must go to the Philippines, you’ll love it! Oh, but of course, skip Manila…’ This is the standard recommendation when you mention to anybody that you’re considering spending some time in the Philippines. The capital, Manila, is so poorly regarded that people talk about it with a sense of distaste bordering on disgust. It’s a ‘fly in and fly out as soon as possible’ kind of place. It is a bit of a mystery then, why we ended up there for four nights!
Having come from Borneo, Manila was undeniably a bit of a shock; a huge sprawling metropolis of a place with seemingly no endearing features. The climate was super hot and humid, the streets were noisy and chaotic, the upmarket American-style chain restaurants and air-con malls lacked any character and there is a huge issue with poverty on the streets that is inescapable. There is no distinctive architecture, the Rizal Park – the centrepiece of the city – is little more than a square with fountains that you may find in any city or town right across the developed world. Despite our optimistic outlook towards most places and things, even we were struggling a little bit, and certainly couldn’t see from where Manila had gained the title, ‘Pearl of the Orient’. We were, ashamedly, beginning to wish we had indeed ‘skipped Manila’.
Walking around we were initially struck mainly by the Jeepneys – huge, long Jeep style trucks that crowd the streets, cramming passengers into the back and trundling off in a cloud of smoke and dust. They are everywhere in Manila and they are all decorated differently – I’m guessing the drivers/owners try to out do each other with ever more gaudy splashes of colour, decoration and attachments onto the body work. Oh, and chrome!! If you can chrome plate it, the Filipino Jeepneys will have it – we saw a couple of entirely silver
chrome models. They looked like a really beat up version of that spaceship from Flight of the Navigator.
We were desperate to get a ride in a Jeepneys – but there was one, fundamental drawback … There was absolutely no way to tell where each one was going! We literally still have no idea how the system works at all. People are forever getting in and out of these things, often while they’re still moving, favouring one over another with guidance from, one can only conclude, The Force, or maybe the ‘mystical cosmic Jeepneys destination sensor’ that all Filipinos are gifted with at birth. Yep, that must be it!
On our third day in the city, we took a tour, and this changed things for us. Carlos Celdran, a rather overly dramatic but infectiously passionate character, delivers historical tours of Intramuros – the walled city at the heart of Manila. Intramuros itself, along with its tiny Fort Santiago, is almost embarrassingly small and insignificant, but through the course of the tour, Carlos described a history that explains a lot about the city today. One major factor is geographical; with only volcanic rock to use as building material, and frequent earthquakes over centuries past, any monument of any significance is shaken back to dust, hence the lack of any ‘Angkor Wat’ style construction. The other factor, however, and probably more significant, is historical.
In brief: The Philippines was conquered by Spanish Catholics who placed the church at the centre of everything, both philosophically and physically (all the roads in the Philippines used to be measured back to the spire on the central cathedral in Manila). 300 years of Spanish rule shaped the city and the culture until 1898 when they surrendered back to the revolutionary Filipinos. The Americans took over shortly afterwards bringing with them Coca-Cola, Macdonalds, fried chicken and the NBA. Turbulent relationships with the USA settled and all was looking promising until Japan invaded during World War Two – and it was during a devastating three-year occupation that the fortunes of Manila were changed for good. In a desperate attempt to rid the city of the Japanese, the Americans resorted to a monumental bombing campaign that flattened the city and cost 100,000 Filipino civilians their lives. Manila has simply never recovered.
And so we started to look a little differently at Manila, as a place that is searching for its identity amongst a myriad of influences and we were pleased that we’d inadvertently booked a longer than anticipated stay. We even found ourselves defending Manila to other travellers in the following weeks as the refrain rang out, ‘We just flew into Manila and straight out again. What a terrible place’.
Exotic and exciting as it may be, travelling around the Philippines is a logistical challenge, especially in a short time frame. You pretty much have to fly everywhere as boats between the islands are incredibly slow, unpredictable and unreliable – and that’s on a good day. So any budget you may have had is quickly gobbled up by flights as although individually they are relatively cheap, they stack up quickly. To give you an idea, to get into, around, and back out of the Philippines, we took five flights in our 18 days.
Our first post-Manila destination was the long sliver of land called Palawan. We’d heard that the underground river at Sabang was supposed to be awesome – it has also recently been named as one of the new seven wonders of the world – and so we were keen to get there as soon as possible. A short flight into Puerto Princesa landed us in the centre of Palawan, some distance from the river. We could have stayed overnight and opted for a day trip but we thought it better to try and get to Sabang straight away, so we hopped into a helpful motorcycle trike to get us to the bus station.
The bus station in Puerto was yet another chaotic ‘system’ that we had little or no chance of deciphering quickly. ‘Where do you want to go?’ asked the trike driver. ‘We were hoping for a bus to Sabang…’ we replied, optimistically. ‘Hmmm, a bus to Sabang. Bus to Sabang…’ He was sort of muttering this phrase over and over to himself as he drove us around the various stands and yards that comprised the ‘station’. I don’t remember seeing many buses actually – a few minivans, and a selection of heavily laden Jeepneys – but as we made our third circuit, and having stopped repeatedly for the driver to have hurried conversations with various people, our hopes were dwindling. Sure enough, the reply came: ‘There are no more buses to Sabang.’
We were stuck – or so we thought. Moments away from calling it quits and heading back to Puerto to find accommodation, Helena tentatively asked, ‘Is there any way to get to Sabang?’ at which the driver made a final half a lap and stopped next to a huge, green Jeepney.
This thing was an antique and it was battered! Not only that, it was fully laden – the inside was jammed with people and the roof stacked with cargo. One more short conversation was had before we the driver turned to us and said, ‘You can ride on top if you like….’
We jumped at the chance! Not only were we going to get to ride a Jeepney after all, we got to go on the roof – great stuff!
We handed our bags over and they were slung on top with the rest of the cargo. A helpful guy told us that we’d have to ride inside until we got past the ‘checkpoint’. I was thinking, ‘Inside…err…where?’ But not to worry, we were offered a wooden slat that they perched across the opening at the back of the Jeep. ‘Ok?’ said the guy. ‘Yep, no worries!’
So we crammed in. Laughing at the turn of events I surveyed the scene before me, and began counting. I had to have a few attempts at guessing (there was no way to know for sure) how many people were in this thing, but I can say for sure that it was over 40 – and that’s without the driver or any of the guys who appeared on the roof.
Moments later we were off. We left the bay in the station, drove half a lap to get out, and immediately stopped at a petrol station. When I say immediately, it was literally next door to the bus station. We could still see where the Jeepney had been parked when we got on! One of the guys who seemed to be organising the Jeepney then looked at us and just said, ‘Ok, up.’
A helpful Filipino showed us the best way to navigate the bags of cement that had been strapped to the ladders each side of the rear door and moments later, we were on the roof, finding a seat on sacks of rice amongst crates of mangoes, people’s bags and belongings, parcels wrapped in cardboard, a collection of empty water butts, and a myriad of other unidentifiable luggage.
We loved that journey! It was three hours spent with the wind in our hair, watching the unfolding scenery and clinging to each other for safety as we rounded ever tightening bends. One of the guys on the roof helped us to avoid the low hanging trees as we chugged our way north along the island, the road gradually becoming smaller and more hazardous as we got further away from Puerto Princesa. A fabulous experience.
The underground river at Sabang is worth a visit, with its fabulous geography and comical guides, but due to its recent notoriety, it felt very busy and touristy with huge groups of day-trippers coming from all over Palawan. We fended off the crowds a bit by opting for an enjoyable jungle hike to get to the river and we were mildly amused when the guide (you have to have a guide for some reason) asked if we’d like to get a boat back. We said we were happy to trek back; the sense of disappointment on her face was tangible! Had we had longer to stay, I’m sure we would have got a better sense of the place, but being tight for time, we grabbed a mini-van straight to El Nido on the northern tip of Palawan.
This van ride wasn’t half as exciting as the ride on top of the Jeepney, although things do get interesting when the road just stops and turns into rough dirt track. The van drivers never seem too phased at this development however, keeping their right foot pretty firmly planted to the floor as much as possible throughout!
El Nido is a quaint little town with a very chilled atmosphere. The main reason people come here it to see the Bacuit Archipelago and so the place is full of tour companies offering various tours, imaginatively named tour A, B, C or D. We searched around for a little bit but pretty much everywhere offers identical tours at identical prices, so we opted for a small stand that seemed decent with a friendly lady behind the counter. Tour A seemed like a good option offering us the chance to visit a big lagoon, a small lagoon, Shimizu Island, 7th Commando beach (no idea why it’s called that) and the exciting ‘secret lagoon’.
The archipelago is a wonderful spectacle, kind of reminiscent of Ha Long bay in Vietnam or the limestone karst in the south of Thailand (how strange that we can now write things like that!) but, and I’m not bemoaning the experience here at all, it was super busy out there on the water. The secret lagoon was a particular comical highlight. It is ‘secret’ in that there is only a single, person sized hole in the rock that you have to crawl your way through to get inside, but that is where the secrecy ends. Due to the number of tours that run to all of the same places, it was pretty much a queuing system that allowed people in and out of this lagoon. It was sort of reminiscent of a dodgy night club on a Saturday night that had resorted to ‘one in one out’ to manage its capacity. We even bumped into a couple of girls we had met briefly in our hostel in Manila. Not such a secret lagoon after all it seems! It was beautiful though, and the whole trip was a lot of fun – especially the lunch!
Each boat provides freshly barbecued fish and meat, along with a load of fruit and rice to eat at lunch time. To reduce the time needed however, the cooking is mostly done on board on makeshift barbecues made out of anything from an old tin can, to a generic metal box with a grill on top. Before we realised what was going on, it was mildly disconcerting to glance to the back of the boat on the way out to see smoke pouring up into the atmosphere. It was only when we saw the same scenario on the other boats that we figured out that it was thankfully the barbecue, and not the engine (again!). Although a barbecue set alight on a boat made entirely from wood and bamboo may not be everyone’s cup of tea of course…
The other thing about El Nido for us, however, was that we bumped into a few of the guys from the mountain trek – namely Eoin and Siobhan. They introduced us to John and Jen and we all went on to have a fab night out with a chap called Pierre, some Japanese guys who were staying in the room next to Pierre, and a bunch of the local Filpinos. It is strange to think that you meet people in one setting and then ‘bump in’ to them a couple of thousand miles away, but that seems to be happening more and more as we go on.
Our penultimate destination in the Philippines was the island of Cebu. We had, after chatting with Andre at the Chill Out House, booked ourselves onto a three day beginner ‘freediving’ course in Moalboal. Freediving is a sport, similar to scuba diving, but without the aid of any underwater breathing apparatus. These few days were so good – and have changed the direction of our travels so much – that I’m going to write a separate blog post dedicated to it. Watch this space!
And so, to our final destination, Boracay – the beautiful little island that is effectively one long beach. We happily checked in to a bamboo hut after a short search of accommodation options, and spent a couple of days relaxing, reading and drinking San Miguel while watching the sun set.
Our time in the Philippines raced to its conclusion and we found ourselves at a little bit of a loss. We hadn’t quite got to grips with the culture or the place, or at least we didn’t feel like it, and we wanted to explore more of the diversity of the 7107 islands of which we had only visited four! We wanted to have more Halo Halo – the Filipino dessert cited in the title of this blog that serves as a delightful metaphor for the nation, especially when given its literal translation of ‘mix mix’.
A halo halo, is essentially shaved ice and condensed milk, but that’s where the rules end. After that, you can add what you like. Much like the approach taken to decorating the Manila Jeepneys, a halo halo will often come with an assortment of boiled sweets, fruits, jelly cubes, sweet potato, sweet rice, coconut shavings, cocoa nuts, boiled kidney beans and even cheese. Shake it all up and there you have it – Halo Halo.
And as if that’s not enough, a true Filipino will always add just a little bit more sugar!