A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

Bye bye Philippines

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Today I leave Philippines after more than two weeks. Because the hotel breakfast was stodgy and unappealing, I went to the supermarket and bought some mini-muffins, mangoes and milk. It was a much better choice.

After lunch, I flew to Manila with a self-connect to Hong Kong where I met with Kim staying at his hotel while on a work trip.

Here are my thoughts on the Philippines …

Observations and Quirks

1. Private security carry big guns and there are weapons shop around Manila. Some travellers have been in for a look and play but I haven’t.

2. Often when I order food for myself, eg. a fried rice, I would be asked “How many, sir?”. I look around me and conclude that I’m by myself, then I look at my tummy and see that I’m not fat. So I still haven’t worked this one out.

3. In my first few days in the Philippines, I’d be met by a spray of water from above. Looking up, it appears the power lines are squirting water. But actually, plastic water pipes are overhead rather than underground.

4. Tagalog has many words in common with Malay, eg. putih, bulan, tahun, balik, kambing, biawak, asu, manok, buaya, tanggal, kanan, mahal, murah, sayang, payung, tolak. But it has diverged too much over the course of history to be comprehensible.

5. A lot of Filipinos sound the same, especially women in customer service roles. They have that pseudo-American Filipino accent.

6. I was surprised to see so many Protestant churches since I always thought it was a largely Catholic country. The Iglesia Ni Cristo churches are very prominent. They don't believe in the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Trinity. Sounds like the Muslim belief of Jesus and the Trinity; as some would say "Three in One is for coffee, not for God".

7. I grew up conditioned to speak to people in their language, ascertaining this through their skin colour and facial features. This doesn't work in the Philippines, especially in the south when they look very very Malay.

Things I liked

1. It is a relatively clean and litter-free country apart from a few parts of Manila.

2. Outside of the couple of large cities, the remaining cities are small and the surrounding areas very green and unspoilt.

3. It doesn’t have the oppressive heat and humidity that the rest of the region has (during February anyway).

4. Tourism is on a relatively low scale compared to say Thailand and its neighbours. And outside of Manila, sex tourism isn’t evident.

5. Long distance transport proved to be easier than expected from my guidebook readings. I chose daytime travel up to the north which included a combination of bus and jeepney changes. These proved seamless due to the frequency of both the bus and jeepneys.

6. I like the fact that Filipinos of all colours (fair-skinned down to very dark people) all identify themselves as Filipinos. It is a well-stirred melting pot and they don't think of themselves as full-blooded natives, half-casts, part-Spanish or part-Chinese.

Things that disappointed

1. Bad luck with the weather in Banaue and also Donsol (part of the time), but one cannot come up winning all the time, right?

2. Bad luck with no sighting of mantas at Manta Bowl. There is a bit too much hype, compared to say Komodo where things like that aren’t highly publicised or promoted. Then you get pleasantly surprised.

3. Diving in general was a disappointment because I had recently been at Sipadan. In fact, it was downright a waste of time and money at El Nido. I may sound spoilt, but most people have limited time and money for doing these things each year. So why not spend it at a place that’s more like an aquarium, eg. Sipadan or Bunaken.

4. The underground river near Puerto Princesa was yet another disappointment, possibly because I’ve been to many other caves before. Again, too much hype (American influence, perhaps).

5. Eating is quite expensive due to the lack of a suitable street food culture (unlike in the rest of Asia). One often ends up eating in the hotel or guesthouse, or nicer establishments. Typically a main course would be PHP100 to 150 (NZD3 to 4.50).

Something missing

I feel that the Philippines’ appeal is largely centred around island and beaches (plus a little bit of the highlands in Luzon). It doesn’t have the ancient kingdoms or ruins that others in the regions offer.

Together with the English-speaking locals, a clean and litter-free environment, it just doesn’t seem as intrepid. Local cuisine isn’t the most appealing to many and there isn’t much of a street-food culture.

Despite speaking English, locals aren't quite as chatty and inquisitive as say Indonesia. They are friendly and reserved. Where as in Indonesia, there seems to be a more two-way exchange (even for those who don't speak Indonesian).

For me something feels missing. For others, it could be the perfect introduction of the real Asia (after Singapore, which isn’t really “real” enough for some).

Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Butanding, Take Three

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large_5550_13621481781320.jpgPhoto of a photo that looks like what we saw.
Finally, the big and up-close encounter with the whale-shark

I had been of two minds as to whether to do the whale-sharks for a third time in Donsol [Donsol-travel-guide-1311436] today. On one hand, chances of a sighting are pretty slim. But on the other hand, I do have the time and it isn’t very much money for something that I could possibly never do again.

So I decided on the latter. We had the same group as yesterday, except we lost the French hanger-on and gained my English neighbour from the Shoreline.

We set off at 0730 again. Within 15 minutes, we had a sighting. I was better prepared this time and jumped into the water more quickly to be rewarded with a good view of a 7 metre whale-shark swimming past.large_5550_13621483831029.jpgMt Mayon from the Embarcadero waterfront.It was brief but satisfying.

Cruising around, it was easy to know who had seen a whale-shark today and who hadn’t. You couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces, and there were none on the other boats. I didn’t really expect to see any more for the day.

But around 0945, we cruised towards a flotilla with some people in the water. Knowing how quickly the big fish go back down, I thought it would be fruitless. But I was proved wrong.

I jumped into the water and swam forward. I couldn’t see any whale-shark. Then suddenly I was in front of its gaping mouth; I realised that snorkelling, one gets a view downwards and slightly forwards so I didn’t realise that we were on a collision course.

I tried to veer to my left and brushed against its side. I then swam to its tail and looked forward, then followed it as it kept moving. Then the crowds from the other boats turned up. All I could see were fins. As I’ve had such a close encounter, I felt no need to jostle with the crowd (and besides, I had some salt water down my throat).

There were so many boats and people all around I had trouble finding my boat “Ivan”. Eventually I saw it and swam towards it, dodging the outriggers from various other boats.

Back on board, there were high-fives and hugs. The guide estimated that it was 12 metres long. It was truly an amazing experience for all of us and we will all leave Donsol happy. Some of the others who were better snorkelers, dived underwater to get a better view unobstructed by all the others that crowded around the whale-shark.

I thought that the experience can’t have been that great for the shark. There were far too many people and the rules laid down by the authorities had been ignored. Their numbers may decline if they continue to be disturbed in this manner. But then eco-tourism (if you can call it that), is actually saving them. Without this industry, the locals would be hunting them.

It has taken three attempts for me to get a sighting this good; four days for all the others except the lucky Brit (it's his first day). It just goes to show that it is very much a luck game and one should keep trying if time and funds allow.

Moving on to Legazpi

After a wash, I took a tricycle, van and another tricycle to the Ellis Ecotel in Legaspi [Legaspi-travel-guide-1314407] for my last night in the Philippines. It was intended to be a change in scenery, located next to a mall. The mall turned out to be less bustling that I would have liked but it is part of the Embarcadero waterfront complex for the city of Legazpi. So, it was quite a nice setting.

At night, I felt a pain in my upper right jaw and right eye socket. I pressed the right side on my face it was sore to pressure. It felt like a sinus issue. I wonder if some water had got in during my snorkel. I've had quite a few problems with bronchial and sinus this trip, only to have it all disappear in the last two weeks. Not impressed that it's come back.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Butanding, Take Two

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large_5550_13621452425696.jpgMt Mayon from the sea in the early morning before the clouds gather.
Today I had my second attempt at Donsol [Donsol-travel-guide-1311436] for the whale-sharks. Our group comprised of John and Yvon from Netherlands, plus David and Jane from Singapore. We found a French man to make up the maximum party of six.

We departed at 0730 and cruised around for about an hour when one the spotters called out “Butanding”. The guide kept shouting “Faster, faster, faster” to both the Captain (or was it to us to get donned up). The boat sped in the direction the spotter indicated and were donned our masks and fins, and hopped in pretty promptly.

I was the last in the water by seconds. As we had all jumped off the moving boat, I was a few metres further away. I caught a glimpse of the big fish whereas others had a closer encounter. Regardless, the encounter was extremely brief.

We cruised around for another two hours without success. Judging from how quick the surface time was for the whale-shark, it seems unlikely that if someone else had a sighting, we could make it over in time to see it.

Of all the boats out today, only three had a sighting. We considered ourselves lucky for the brief encounter. Locals tell us that sightings have been declining over the years. Perhaps the industry is driving the whale-sharks away.


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Diving the Manta Bowl

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large_5550_1362144724595.jpgPhoto of a photo of what we should have seen. Mantas spanning about 5 metres.
I had a day off from travel activities yesterday. I heard this theory that with rainfall, plankton sinks down and whale-sharks don’t surface. With the recent heavy rain I didn’t expect the plankton to have risen yet. So, just as well I didn’t go out looking for them as those people who did go came back disappointed. Instead I attended to business at home over 2G mobile internet which was rather slow.

But today with the good weather (finally), the day seemed full of promise. I had arranged to go diving, hopefully to see some manta rays.

We met at the dive shop at 0630 and left around 0700 on board the boat Noah. I asked if I was the giraffe; and the divemaster said “Two-by-two, please”.

The day comprised of three dives, one at San Miguel and two at Manta Bowl. San Miguel was great with a wall-full of light pink soft coral plus some hard green ones on the seabed. But disappointingly, the mantas did not show up at the Manta Bowl.

The current was strong at the Manta Bowl and we were issued with a hook each so that we could park ourselves on to a rock in the current. A visiting Pekinese dive master from Puerto Galera [Puerto-Galera-travel-guide-889387] was amazing; he was rock-steady at maintaining his depth despite the conditions. It is as if he doesn’t breathe or use his hands and feet; he floats in a somewhat kneeling position and maintains it when the rest of us were parked up and hooked in.

The Manta Bowl dives were not completely a waste of time as it gave me a new skill and improved my confidence in strong currents. And we did see a couple of white-tip reef sharks.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Butanding and so many beautiful cocks

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large_5550_13617984137894.jpgWhale-shark spotter at work; try going to the end of the rainbow, perhaps. Both ends ...
Swim with whale-sharks, not!

I set the alarm for 0600 and forced some pancakes down before walking to the whale-shark (known locally as butanding) centre as it opened at 0700. It had rained heavily last night. The weather didn’t look promising.

The Dutch couple I had met on the plane got together with me and an American couple to form a party of five for our boat. After a video briefing, we left around 0730.

We went quite far up the coast northwards. The sea was calm but it rained for most of the time. There were small patches of brightness that wasn’t even blue. We eventually turned back closer to home where the skies were blue.

We had absolutely no luck with the butanding today. I've heard before that wint rainfall, the plankton sinks and the whale-sharks don't surface.large_5550_1361798413560.jpgBetting game; red or white. Two balls come out from the funnel and settle on the check-board.We were wet and cold for most of the time. Fortunately it wasn’t too expensive a day; we had paid PHP1000 per person for the permit and boat plus PHP250 for snorkel gear.

The guide (known as the butanding interaction officer) gave up at 1100 and we were back on land shortly after.


After a wash and rest, I was heading out for lunch when my next door neighbour asked if I’d like to join him to go to a cockfight. His tricycle driver had offered to take him. The site was a little further out of town, which surprised me as I had seen a concrete cockpit (stadium) yesterday dedicated to the sport.

I had never seen so many big beautiful cocks all in one place. Their proud owners, men of various ages and some boys, stroked them with pride and held them-side-by-side to compare their sizes.large_5550_13617984139276.jpgIt is important to hold one’s cock pointing towards one-self. Otherwise, the cock goes beserk when it sees another one. Long razor-sharp blades were then tied to their spurs before they were set on each other two-by-two. The betting is absolutely raucous.

Surprisingly each fight only lasted seconds. In my ignorance, I expected the fights to be long and gory. With such sharp attachments, it is easy for one cock to disable the other pretty quickly with a gash or two. In fact, it seemed faster than home-kill chickens.

I noticed wood-fired pots in the background which I presume are for cooking the losing fowl. I bet cock-meat is touch meat.

A few things I learnt today:

1. It is important to hold one’s cock pointing towards one-self. Otherwise, the cock goes beserk when it sees another one.
2. Not all cocks have combs. I mistook some cocks as hens.large_5550_13617984147224.jpgThe pre-fight waiting area with a bit of cock-teasing.I thought the male audience might have got additional thrill from watching two hens fighting, in the same way as female mud wrestling, perhaps.
3. There are cock doctors on standby to stitch up any gashed-up cocks.

I know in these modern times, cockfighting is no longer politically correct. But it ain’t modern times right here and right now in rural Philippines. It is a traditional past-time or sport in the region, eg. Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. It appears cock-fighting (a form of gambling) along with dog-eating was stamped out in many areas of the region with the arrival of Islam. It still continues in Christian areas as there are no strong prohibitions along these lines.

Animal ethics aside, I actually enjoyed being part of Filipino life today. It gave me a glimpse that foreigners don’t always get to see. It is something that is very underground in Malaysia as gambling is illegal; only bad eggs go to cockfights!


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)