A Travellerspoint blog

Up the North Island (of the Philippines)


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large_5550_13614530893496.jpgFilipino buses are equipped with some of the best safety features. I guess this one is the dash-mounted collision avoidance system.
After breakfast of muesli topped with mangoes, I took a tricycle to the airport for my flight to Manila [Manila-travel-guide-885524]. The Cebu Pacific flight left early and got us into Manila early too. It was a relief as I couldn’t afford any delay as I had a prebooked bus soon after.

I worked out that I had enough time for lunch at the airport. The taxi queue was a worry when I saw it coming out from the terminal. Despite the queue and bad traffic I made it to Victory Liner’s Pasay terminal with about 20 minutes to spare.

We left at 1300 and the 9 hour journey to my nightstop Solano was painless. The first hour was just battling through Manila, then we were on the expressway for about 2 hour after that. Then it turned rural and narrow. With two rest stops and plenty of Tagalog comedy (which I didn’t understand), the journey was pretty painless.

A horrible thought dawned on me during first 6 hours of the journey. As all places en route apart from San Jose were very small, I thought that Solano might not have a hotel. It wasn’t a town listed in my guide book. I thought that I might have to spend the night in an eatery (the ones that sell cup noodles with hot water from a flask).

As it turned out, Solano even had a McDonald’s and a hotel called “AM/PM” where the bus driver kindly dropped me. I took a decent room for PHP600 then went out for supper at Jollibee (a local burger chain) before retiring.

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Underground River


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large_5550_13614526055188.jpgAt a coffee stop on the way.
I booked the trip to the Underground River several days ago with the hostel; they managed to secure me a permit despite the high demand. And it only cost a little more than doing it independently.

I was picked up at 0715 and after a couple more pickups we left the city for the 90 minute journey to Sabang [Sabang-travel-guide-1325543]. Not the Sabang off Banda Aceh on Pulau Weh where I do my diving, but another one. We made a stop at a pharmacy to buy some motion-sickness tablets as the journey was windy in parts.

We had a great guide called Dean with amazing energy and sense of humour. He’s the Pinoy host that we all love and have seen in the hospitality industry all around the world.

Also in the van were several groups of Pinoy.large_5550_13614526069298.jpgAt another short stop, Elephant Cave.It was my first chance to interact with locals and they were absolutely lovely to talk to and I learnt a lot from them about their country, language, culture and laws. Yes, one of them was a lawyer and I confirmed that there is no such thing as a divorce in this country except for those married under Syariah Law.

The van was split into two groups upon arrival in Sabang with one group doing the Underground River in the morning and my group in the afternoon, with lunch in between.

That left my morning free. There were upsale options to help kill the time at reasonable prices and I ended up doing both the 800m zipline (flying fox) from a hill down to an island across the sea, then the mangrove paddle-boat tour. I learnt that there are male and female mangroves!

And then we were shown tamilok, a worm found in rotting wood.large_94c392e0-5752-11e8-8221-17fc16080c6c.jpgAt another short stop, Elephant Cave.Those in our group who sampled it said it was delicious, tasting like oyster. I don’t like oyster.

After lunch, we lined up for the 20 minute bangka ride to the entrance to the Underground River. That involved a bit of wait. Then when we got there, there was a further wait for the actual ride into the site.

The 45 minute tour of the Underground River was like a tour of any cave but by boat on water. I think I’ve seen too many good caves in my lifetime. It was impressed by the depth and the height in parts though. There were many huge stalactites and formation that resembled all sorts: the Holy Family, the Virgin Mary, snakes, corn etc.

I think all the waiting around at various points did make me lose my interest by the time I got to what was meant to be the highlight of the day. It was a lot of waiting and travel for just 40 minutes of the crux. The highlight was actually watching people eat the wood works.

But I shouldn’t complain as about ten years ago the journey from Puerto Princesa [Puerto-Princesa-travel-guide-1315700] took about 3 hours.

I got dropped off back at the hostel at 6pm. Over dinner I met this Polish woman who was a great traveller and diver. It was inspiring to hear of great divespots (and places in general) from someone who has dived Sipadan four times; she has a benchmark which I can trust and relate to.

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

Back to the Princess


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large_5550_13611926398496.jpgOnboard petting zoo on the van back to Puerto Princesa.
Karsten and I had breakfast on the common-area deck again today with a selection of items from the bakery. Some items were priced at PHP20 while others were only PHP2, which we found strange as there didn’t appear to be much different in ingredients or cost.

I took a tricycle to the Lexus van station for my 0930 ride back to Puerto Princesa. There were more people from China, this time a Hungarian couple teaching English there. I recall that to be an English teacher in Japan, one needed to be a native-speaker and a degree holder. Obviously the requirements in China are a bit more relaxed.

We left El Nido a little late and then broke down an hour out of town due to a broken fan belt. A replacement part arrived on the 1100 van promptly around 1145 and we were off again shortly after. Lunch along the way was cup noodles for me as I didn’t fancy the cold fatty pork with congealed fat in the gravy.

I was famished by the time I reached Puerto Princesa and ordered dinner straight away around 1630. I managed to fit in a walk and a light beer around the waterfront before sunset.

Back at the Banwa Guesthouse I had a few drinks with a Canadian and British guy. Really nice conversations about travel and life in general. This is what I love about staying in a hostel rather than a comfortable place like the Tune Hotel (which I love to bits too). People like that make me feel normal as I often feel like a misfit with "normal everyday people" or home-bods.

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A day I'd happily relive ... in a different way


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large_5550_13611918735900.jpgOur dive boat.
Two of the girls came down with food poisoning at 0400 and weren’t able to make the dive trip. They had shared two meals. Fortunately the rest of us ate something different.

For breakfast, Karsten and I grabbed some bread and cakes from the local bakery to accompany the free coffee from the hotel. He also got some chocolate spread which I expected to be like Nutella but it was actually chocolate-flavoured margarine which was pretty revolting.

The remaining healthy bods meet at the dive shop and were tendered out into a large diving Bangka equipped with its own compressor, kitchen and cook.

The divers comprised of fun divers, refreshers, Advanced course student, an instructor on holiday. With so many types, organisation appeared a bit haphazard. It was made worse as we could only the water one-by-one using the great stride forward rather than the simultaneous backroll.large_5550_13611918718533.jpgThe diveboat setup.

1. My first dive at Helicopter Island was pretty crap. Visibility was poor at around 10m due to plankton. Plankton is fine if it brings in the only resident whale-shark but that wasn’t mean to be. There wasn’t very much fish; all were pretty standard small stuff. There was some nice hard coral but it was hard to enjoy in the poor light (due to shadow of the cliff-like islands) and the plankton.

2. The second dive at Taglugaban was similar except that there was a very good maze-like rock formation and a bit more fish.

Overall it was a very disappointing day for me, but not so for some of the others. Having dived Sipadan, there’s really not much else in the diving world that I can enjoy. Also, the water was surprisingly cold; I always thought Philippines was tropical!

We spoke to some people on the beach and got an idea of how nasty the 5-6 year old unsupervised local kids can be. These boys and girls throw sand in the faces of visitors whenever something annoys them, eg. when told not to kick the stray dog or when told “No, you can’t take my handbag”!!!.

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Island hopping


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large_5550_13611898233646.jpgTricycles are common in Palawan.
Karsten and I grabbed an excellent breakfast at a place he had found. For PHP200, we had a full buffet breakfast for the same price as a simple omelette and toast at most other places. Despite the pricey rooms, it seemed to be the preferred accommodation of the few mainland Chinese in town.

All the Danes had elected to do a cycle trip (which turned out to be very arduous). On the other hand, I had an idyllic day planned with snorkelling and island hopping. These island hopping around El Nido are packaged into combinations called Tours A, B, C and D.

I had booked myself on Tour A as it was the cheapest and slightly shorter (0900 – 1700, which should be long enough I thought).

The boat was a typical Filipino outrigger and four out of the 10 passengers were expats from China (including Hong Kong).

1. Our first stop was called Small Lagoon.large_5550_13611898243594.jpgEl Nido beach looking a bit busier than yesterday evening as all the tour boats get ready to go.As all boats on the very popular Tour A started about the same time, we all more or less arrived in convoy here. There must have been about 20 boats which detracted from the experience. We swam through a small gap into a large swimming pool-like enclosure which led into a second one. There was not much fish to see but the water was lovely.

2. Second stop was a nice beach where we had a BBQ lunch comprising of fish and pork chops. This was accompanied by a salad and plenty of fruit including mangoes. Definitely the best meal in the Philippines so far!

3. Third was Hidden Lagoon where walked in the deep water before crawling through a small opening into a hidden lagoon (of course). The nearby beach was too windy and we were sandblasted, so we left pretty promptly.large_5550_13611898243066.jpgEl Nido beach looking a bit busier than yesterday evening as all the tour boats get ready to go.


4. After cruising around very pretty areas resembling Halong Bay (but with clean water) we anchored for a final snorkel. Again there wasn’t much life to sea in the water.

Overall, it was an excellent and a very enjoyable day of cruising and swimming. I had been warned to treat it as an outing rather than a snorkelling trip; with that in mind I wasn’t disappointed.

I had dinner with the Danish group again. After putting our orders in at the resto, we dropped by a dive shop to organise ourselves for diving. Even though they had done their plans (boat and divemaster allocation) for tomorrow, they cheerfully accommodated us. We realised we had left it a bit late but it couldn’t be helped as we all had a full day of activities. They kindly reorganised everything and we were very grateful for taking us in.

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