The Philippines: Sunshine and storm clouds

Moving our flight to The Philippines forwards to escape soggy Borneo has so far proved a very good decision. Until today, we’ve had a week of truly beautiful weather. This morning, however, we awoke to very heavy rain as a tropical storm was passing overhead. Taking a propeller plane flight this afternoon continued our streak of good fortune as it seems that yesterday the storm was where we’re headed (Cebu) and tomorrow it’ll be where we’ve been (El Nido). We took off in the rain and landed in the sunshine! OK, I know I’m British but that really is enough talk about the weather now!

The Philippines, which comprises over 7000 islands, is country number eight on our trip and is our last South-East Asian destination. Time is flying! We’re spending three weeks here, visiting some of the archipelago’s larger islands: Luzon, Palawan, Cebu, Bohol, Negros and Leyte. It’s the first predominantly (and overtly) Catholic country we’ve visited with 82% Catholics, 9% Protestant, 5% Muslim, 3% Buddhist and 1% other. It’s fairly easy to travel around since English is widely spoken as an official language in addition to Filipino. Then there are 8 other major languages and over 170 other languages spoken! There are also lots of influences left over from the time of Spanish rule, especially evident in their names.

Our flight was into the capital Manila where we were given a copy of The Straits Times. Here are a few items that caught my eye: property for sale in Notting Hill; an Indian man is suing his son for about £100,000 for defamation of the family name because he married a woman from a lower caste; a Hong Kong tycoon is considering doubling the reward he is offering to any man who can make his gay daughter marry him to around £80 million!

As is often the case with big cities, we didn’t really enjoy Manila. It was sprawling and dirty with thousands of people begging and sleeping on the streets. Guns were everywhere: not just on police but also hotel doormen, shop security guards. Getting on the train or into a mall entailed a bag search. I was amazed that guns were so easy to acquire – from as little as 3000 pesos (£400) at a regular shop in the mall. Not the safest feeling place!

We spent a day seeing a few of the ‘sights’ but a lot of it was closed or just dilapidated so unsurprisingly there aren’t many photos to show for it. One thing I liked, which seems to be uniquely Filipino, is its public transport which consists of two main types of vehicle: tricycles (a covered part attached to a motorbike) and jeepneys (what looks like an elongated jeep). They are almost always decorated with brightly coloured pictures, their destinations and their (usually very human) name. I’ll try to take some more pictures elsewhere as it didn’t feel too safe to whip out my camera in Manila.

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As you might expect, we didn’t stay long. The island Manila is on has lots more to offer but we plan to explore that towards the end of the trip. So next we flew to the island of Palawan. This was something else altogether. The countryside was unexpectedly, breathtakingly beautiful and we had ample time to admire it on our many bus journeys. It’s almost as if the word ‘lush’ was invented for Palawan.

Typically, from the often very dusty and bumpy road, you first see a carpet of the most amazing green, the kind of glowing, fresh, multi-hued green that I think only rice paddies are. Rotund grey water buffalo, often with a bright white bird on their heads, rest in the sun, or cool off in a muddy pool. Then, set back a field’s width from the road, there’s a picturesque little bamboo house with space around it for kids to play in and for chickens, goats and the odd pig to potter around. The home is surrounded by trees for shade and a fence, usually covered in colourful drying clothes. The plot of several paddies is bordered on the other three sides by tall trees bearing coconuts and bananas. Continuing as far as the eye can see, yet more green haphazardly covers every inch of land, culminating in peaks on the horizon. The hills sit against the blue sky wallpaper that’s decorated by a few wispy, harmless, candyfloss clouds.

In the villages, the houses are built closer to the road, and to each other, and there are little wall-less churches plus the odd school or hospital. They still maintain their sleepy, isolated feel though. Until the bus tears past!

Our first Palawan stop was Puerto Princesa (not as fairy tale as it sounds!) where we visited a subterranean river for about 45 minutes as part of a very long day tour. I think if you have never seen an underground river before, it would have been better, but for us it wasn’t really as impressive as the one in Vietnam. You go on an outrigger then transfer to a smaller boat for the cave itself. The helmets were mainly for protection against bat wee! Here are some pictures:

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The top picture shows just a few of the bats:

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Next we travelled to a little coastal village called Port Barton on the most cramped bus we’ve been on since we were in India. It was a small bus in the first place with 50 very narrow seats which were full, plus a few people sitting on sacks on the floor, a few standing and a few on the roof! We were squeezed onto a tiny back seat with 4 French people. It was an incredibly uncomfortable journey and dusty too but thankfully only about 4 hours long. After the midway break, several more people got on the roof with all the luggage which made the bus feel scarily top-heavy as it raced around corners.

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We arrived in Port Barton around 2pm and it was a proper tropical island idyll with greenery everywhere. The beach was beautiful too.

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The beach pig!

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A four day local festival was underway to mark the 53rd anniversary of the village’s founding so it was quite busy. During the day, there were sports competitions and in the evening there were food stalls, very primitive versions of casino-style games (with concerningly young, hooked participants), candyfloss and, this evening, a Ms Tourism contest! It was all very well and good except there was loud kareoke until 5am and our window was un-close-able!

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Needless to say, we didn’t appreciate our 7am alarm! Our next destination was a town called El Nido on Palawan’s northern tip. We stayed about a kilometre away in Corong Corong which was a good move as it was really nice and quiet. On the first day we just chilled on the nearby beach – another postcard view and I got a really good hour-long massage for about £5! These next 4 are by Dean:

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We found this!

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The next day we went island-hopping which was a lovely day on an outrigger, stopping at various secluded beaches and hidden lagoons (thanks to Matt, Nermina and Myla Webster!).

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They were all stunning and well-preserved: pale sand, clear waters, mountains and rock formations in the distance. I loved the spikey grey rocks!

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We swam in the lagoons, sometimes lazily wearing life jackets to save getting tired treading water. Just before this photo, Dean had received a fish bite that looked like a kiss on his leg!

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I got very excited at the fact we found a panorama setting on our new camera but then soon discovered that it doesn’t really work on moving things like waves!

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We did a little snorkeling too of course but only in the jellyfish free spots!

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So now we’re on the Cebu island (which reminds me of a Veggietales song!), watching cartoons (mainly Adventure Time and The Adventures of Gumball) and we’re heading to the tiny island of Malapascua for some diving tomorrow. It was heavily damaged during typhoon Haiyan which I blogged about from Vietnam, so it will be interesting to see how it is recovering.

Until next time…

4 thoughts on “The Philippines: Sunshine and storm clouds

  1. Hi Both,

    You two should really consider travel photo journalism. Stunning photos and script. One of my old music students is in Cebu at the Brothers of St John. His name is Br Philip Thomas. He was posted there before the typhoon hit, and I know that he and his fellow brothers are actively involved in rebuilding infrastructure and peoples lives. Just in case you bump into him(you never know!) send him my very best wishes.

    I send you my very best wishes too,

    Chris xx

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