Philippines

Written by on May 17, 2013 in Asia, General with 2 Comments

The Philippines are made up of over 7,000 islands, most of which are quite spread apart, so I knew going in that trying to squeeze in a dozen of them in 3 weeks (they give you a free 21 day visa on arrival and I had to get to Indonesia anyway, so couldn’t stay longer) was going to be tough.  I definitely underestimated the travel times and felt like I was rushing around a lot.  Until I actually started researching where to go, I had no idea where these places were, so figured I’d include a map of the places I visited to help you visualize my route.

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I left Singapore at 9am and after about a dozen modes of transportation, I was deposited on Bulabog Beach on Boracay Island.  I have a backpack that rolls, and it’s funny because it’s only been at the beach locations where I have to actually pick it up and use it as a proper backpack.  Here was no different, as I had to walk about 1/4 mile down the beach where I finally arrived, 14 hours after saying farewell to Puja.  The beach was dark, with no surf so it was quiet, and you could tell it was gorgeous as the sky was filled with more stars than I can remember seeing for my entire trip.  The stars and moonlight lit the beach just enough for me to see my way to my guesthouse, where I was warmly welcomed by the friendly locals, other guests at the bar and the Romanian owner.  I dropped my bags in my room and without even switching on the light, went back down to join them for my free welcome shot (of Jager!) and a beer (or three).

By night the beach was gorgeous, and by day it’s even more beautiful.  I was very happy I’d found Levantin and that this would be my home for the next several days.

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Boracay, and specifically Bulabog Beach, is supposed to be the best kitesurfing spot in all of Southeast Asia.  I’ve been wanting to learn this sport for over a decade and decided a long time ago that this is where I wanted to learn.  I am determined to learn, so much so that I’m planning to spend the entire month of July in Tarifa in the South of Spain practicing what I thought would be my new sport, as well as brushing up on my Spanish.

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To my dismay, the day I arrived, the wind suddenly died.  Apparently I timed the season wrong by 1 day.  Well, I guess it would be 4 days as that’s how long my course would have been.  Unbelievable!  There was the slightest breeze, but not enough to get a kite flying.  Such a BUMMER!  Especially as I’d booked in for 6 nights and a flight out, which were all non-refundable.

That said, Boracay is definitely not the worst place to be stuck for several days!  It is well known for White Beach, a 2.5 mile stretch of powdery white sand against calm azure waters that is lined with palm trees separating the beach from a sandy walkway with dozens and dozens of hotels, bars, restaurants and shops.

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I honestly don’t know what to compare it to back home as I’ve never seen anything like it.   It’s no wonder it was crawling with tourists, mostly from North Asia.  It was funny and interesting to see all the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese, among others striking funny poses on the beach or frolicking in the sea.  Especially as most I’ve met or seen before are so conscientious of the sun and tend to stay out of it completely.  On the other hand, it took forever to walk anywhere as the sandy path was always jam-packed with people strolling (except in the picture above which was taken at 830am) and there were just too many people and too many cheesy bars for my taste.  That said, there was plenty of nightlife to be had, and it would have been fun to be there with a group of friends.

I just would’ve spread around my 21 days (the time they give you with the free visa on arrival) better.  I had made a plan with an instructor to meet the next day as I was sure that the wind was going to pick up again.  No luck.  So, I found the nearest dive shop and signed up to go diving on a wreck the next day, which was a lot of fun.

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Boracay is not well known for diving, so I had zero expectations and ended up pleasantly surprised.  As a solo traveler, diving and other activities you can join on the first days you arrive someplace new are great places to meet people.  Island hopping trips or pub crawls are also good.  Unfortunately, I was the only diver signed up that day, and my dive master was coming down with a cold, so I struck out on finding people to hang with that night.

Despite my adventurous side, I actually hate going out to bars and clubs by myself.  But, my resort had a nice bar kind of like the one on “Cheers”, which was a semi-rectangle where everyone could see and talk to each other.  I don’t mind those types of bars as it’s easy to mix with others or even just talk with the bartender. I met a friendly couple from Manila and a kitesurfer from Poland who also got caught staying too long now that the wind had died.  Marcin was also travelling for awhile and was anxiously planning his next move.  He has a business back home which allows him to take long periods of time off every year, which is something I really need to figure out how to do!   Any ideas? I went diving again the next day, and again, I was the only one.  So,  I went for a stroll and plopped down at one of the bars on the beach for happy hour drinks and a beautiful sunset.

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The next day I signed up for a booze cruise to Ariel Point, a bar/restaurant on a nearby island which has set up “cliff-jumping” planks at various heights, starting around 5 meters (19 feet) and going up to 15 meters (50 feet).

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Of course, I had to jump off the highest one, which was definitely easier to do after 5 or 6 beers.  Weeeeeeeee!!!  Just make sure to land completely straight up and down in the water with your toes pointed or it will HURT!  I learned my lesson when I had my feet flexed on the 8 meter board and they stung for an hour.

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I should have done this on the first day as I met tons of new friends and people to party with that night, where we bar-hopped and ended up on a dance floor somewhere cheesy and fun.

Marcin runs a kitesurfing travel agency of sorts, where he sets up trips for Polish kitesurfers in various spots around the world.  He invited me to join him the next day on a mission to another nearby island called Caribou Island to check out a resort for a potential future kitesurfing trip.  It was an adventure getting there on public transportation, but well worth the effort as it was gorgeous and un-touristed…a nice change as Boracay was too crowded!   We took a tricycle (the Philippines version of a tuk tuk) to the port, a ferry to Caticlan, another ferry to Caribou and then each hopped on the back of a motorbike to take us up and over to the other side of the island.

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We went for a walk through the jungle and then down the beach, where Marcin found another use for 1 of many in a pile of empty coconuts 🙂

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We found out there was no return ferry that day, and I had a flight out early the next morning.  Oops!   Luckily, we found a few others that needed to return to Boracay and negotiated together with a local guy with a small boat to take us back.

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Our boat was cute, with a make-shift plank for us to sit on.  It was a big bonus when he dropped us a Puka Beach, which I think is the most beautiful beach on Boracay….and also pretty much empty.

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Of course, I couldn’t leave Boracay without checking out one last sunset.

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That night Marcin and I went to the fish market, where we picked out about 10 gigantic tiger prawns and a red snapper and then took them to one of the little restaurants to cook up for us.  Not fancy at all, but sooo yummy!  We bar-hopped our way back to Bulabog Beach and said farewell as I had an early trike-ferry-bus-plane to catch to Cebu.

I had another long and exhausting travel day as after flying from Kalibo to Cebu, hopped in a taxi to the bus station, and then caught a 3.5 hour bus ride south to a little town called Oslob. 10 hours door to door.  I had booked into the one guesthouse I could find online in the whole town, and was guided there by a boy who saw me get off the bus.  I don’t think they get many tourists down here, at least to stay overnight.  I think I met the other two when I went foraging for food at a street vendor selling mystery meat on a stick.

The main attraction in Oslob is snorkelling or diving with whale sharks, where they GUARANTEE that you’ll see them.  The couple I’d met had done it that day, and said it was awesome.  I had mixed feelings about coming here as it definitely felt a little bit like cheating, as the fishermen feed the sharks in Oslob, which purists believe is changing their migration pattern. Blah blah blah.  If I hadn’t already seen one “in the wild” in Borneo, I may not have come here.  But, I justified my actions with 2 arguments: (1) they are paying the fishermen to feed them here, rather than fish, kill and sell them to someone who will eat them; and (2) I’d rather be in the water and see them feeding here than from behind the glass of an aquarium.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, although I’d heard the crowds could be brutal on the weekends, so I decided to dive vs snorkel, which a lot of places don’t let you do with whale sharks.  And, I decided to be the first one in the water at 6am, when the feeding begins.  Both ended up being great choices as I could see one of the huge creatures out there already and there were no tourists to be seen in any direction.  The sharks literally come in to feed a few hundred meters from shore, so we were able to kit up and walk straight from the dive shop into the water and swam out to where a few small boats were feeding what started as one, but ended up being four beautiful creatures over the hour I was out there.

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They were SO AMAZING!  And HUGE!  Check out this one vs the size of the boat that’s on the surface vs me.  I think it was about 10 meters / 33 feet!

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These other divers also do a good job at showing some scale.

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They are completely harmless, unless you get whacked with their massive tail, which I had to watch out for from the sandy bottom.  Simply amazing experience to swim with these creatures…I don’t care that they feed them and would recommend this  to anyone.

Most people would call it a day after that dive, but I had to race back to the guesthouse where I took a quick shower, hopped on a 3 hour bus to Cebu, then a taxi to another bus station, caught another 4 hour bus (this time without A/C-ugh!) and then took a ferry to get to Malapascua, an island off the far northern tip of Cebu.  Again…10 hours door to door.

I only had a few days in Malapascua, so had to plan them wisely as there were certain dive spots I wanted to hit.  Unfortunately, the few dive shops I wanted to go with were either going to the wrong spots or their trips were already full.  So, I ended up at Exotic Divers, which is a really large operation based on Bounty Beach.  They ran a tight ship and it ran like clockwork, but I prefer smaller operations with max 8 divers on a boat vs the 24 divers plus dive staff on Exotic’s boats.  They had to do roll calls to make sure everyone was on board, which is kind of scary to me, especially after seeing “Open Water” and hearing the horror stories about people being left behind.  I made sure to get to know several people on the boat before diving, so that at least someone knows if I go missing!

The first day I was diving with a large group of 15 SE Asians who had been there for a week already.  All of them had MASSIVE camera rigs, matching dive equipment, and all the latest gear.  I couldn’t believe how much money was invested on the scuba equipment on this boat.  OMFG!

This was their last day together, and all seemed more interested in taking pictures of and with each other than actually diving.  So, instead of exploring the shipwreck of a passenger ferry which I wanted to do, I had to wait around and watch them all take pictures of each other.  Very annoying, not to mention their total disregard for the coral on the wreck 🙁

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3 of them came back on board bleeding from cuts they’d gotten from climbing on the wreck.  Serves them right!

Despite the annoying group, I did see some interesting and colorful creatures I’d never seen before, including this flamboyant cuttle fish.

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Then I went out on a night dive to check out the cute mandarin fishes mating just after sundown.

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I felt super-lucky to also see not one, but NINE seahorses on the same night dive.  Awesome!  I LOVE them and have only seen one before diving, and then others in the Monterrey Aquarium.  This was much better!  I think this one must have been pregnant…?

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The alarm went off WAY too early the next morning, but I had to meet at the dive shop at 445am to head out to Monad Shoal, an underwater plateau known to be a cleaning station for thresher sharks.  It definitely helped to wake up to a beautiful sunrise on the boat.

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Then I really woke up after seeing my first thresher shark circling about 5 minutes into the dive.

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The thresher sharks normally live in deep water, but come up to this area for cleaner wrasse to remove parasites from their skin, gills and mouth.  Malapascua is the only place in the world where thresher sharks are regularly seen…and why I came all the way here.

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I think I was lucky as I saw four different sharks on my dive.  They are definitely the coolest looking shark I’ve even seen!  It’s tail fin and the way it moves is fantastic!

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I didn’t have much time to shower, change and eat breakfast before meeting back at the boat to head out to Calamanggan Island for two more dives.  Calamanggan is   another one of those “screensaver” islands and was absolutely gorgeous.

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This was where we did our surface interval.

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I wish I could have taken a few of the extra days from Boracay and spent them in Malapascua, as the diving was awesome, the beaches were gorgeous and there were a lot less people.  Definitely a divers paradise.  I’ve actually never seen so many monster-size dive cameras in one place…it was crazy!  But we were seeing some crazy stuff.  I’m glad my handy little Sony held up ok, especially when I came across the first ornate ghost pipe fish I’d ever seen.  Cool, huh?  Yes…that is a fish for the non-divers reading this.

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There are no real roads in Malapascua and my guest house was 1-2 kms from the boat terminal to get back to the mainland, so rather than lug my backpack across the hot sand, like I did on arrival, I hired a motorbike to take me.  I really didn’t think we’d fit with both my bags, but we made it work no problem!

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The motorbike ride, ferry to Maya and 4 hour bus ride to Cebu City wiped me out.  Only 5.5 hours door to door today, so at least travel time was less!  I was also getting sick of Philippino food, which is horrible, and was excited to find a pizza delivery menu at reception of my guesthouse!  I checked in, ordered pizza, watched the end of the first half of Breaking Bad (OMG – what a cliffhanger!) and slept as I had an early flight and another long travel day tomorrow.  I don’t think I missed much by not exploring Cebu City from what I could tell from my bus and taxi rides, and needed to rest up for another long travel day.

I had a 6am flight from Cebu to Puerto Princesa, on the province of Palawan.  If I had more time, I would have stayed a night or two and checked out the underground river in Sabang, however, I was on a mission to get to a town in the far north called El Nido.  Inside baggage claim, I found a tour company offering minivans with AC direct to El Nido and signed right up.  About 7 hours later, I found myself on a gorgeous beach overlooking several limestone karst islands, similar to those in Krabi and Koh Phi Phi ,Thailand and Halong Bay, Vietnam.  12 hours door to door.  OMG!

I hadn’t made a reservation anywhere, but quickly found a dive shop with attached accommodation offering cross-discounts and checked in.  Island hopping tours are the main thing to do in El Nido, but I found a dive shop that was going to do their surface intervals at the same spots as the snorkelling masses go, which made my activity decision easy.  The area was beautiful, and it was easy to see why it’s such a popular spot amongst travellers!

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This was the entrance to the “Secret Lagoon”, which definitely isn’t so secret, but we luckily caught it in between snorkel boat groups 🙂

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I just wanted to get out on a boat and explore, and was surprised and happy to find the diving pretty good, too.  Check out this blue ribbon eel.  First time I saw one of these.  Pretty, huh?  Well…if you’re not weirded out by snakes or eels and actually think they’re capable of being pretty 🙂

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Unfortunately, what I thought might be a minor cold that had started in Cebu turned into what I think was a horrible sinus infection.  The sneezing started that morning, and then stuffiness that made my last dive painful, and by the time we got back to shore I had a raging fever.  I was staying in a room with a fan, but that wasn’t cutting it as I was so fricking hot I couldn’t stand it, and knew that the electricity would only be on from 5pm to 9am.  I had planned to stay in El Nido another couple days, but decided to high tail it to my next destination on the ferry the next day rather than feeling really ill in the sweat box that was my room.  At least there would be a breeze on the boat.

Eight long hours later we arrived in Coron, I found the cheapest, reasonably clean room with AC I could find to pass out in.  Between the hot and cold sweats, I didn’t manage much for the next couple days.  I finally caved and started taking antibiotics, which helped…luckily.  Coron is a town on Busuanga Island famous for its World War II wreck diving. In September 1944, a fleet of Japanese ships hiding in the harbor were sunk in a raid by the US navy, leaving ten well preserved underwater shipwrecks surrounded with coral reef.  As soon as I was feeling up for it, I signed up for diving as I was not going to come all this way and not get to dive.  Thankfully, my sinus issues didn’t interfere with equalizing my ears while diving, so it was all good and I saw what I came for.  Ended up diving on 7 different WW2 wrecks, all fascinating in their own way.

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The diving was full-on.  We penetrated every wreck, a lot of times in pitch black conditions with very tight “swim throughs”.  It was awesome!  I can’t believe they let some of the more beginner divers down to some of these…it was def a tight squeeze on most of the wrecks.

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Here’s a link to a good website for those WWII buffs interested in more info on the wrecks.  http://www.coronwrecks.com/sites.htm

My last dive was in Barracuda Lake, which starts with 10-15 minutes of challenging mountain climbing in full diving equipment over sharp limestone cliffs.  The scenery around the lake is spectacular and the under water terrain has been likened to flying over the surface of the moon. Too bad I’d forgotten to charge my camera. Doh!  The most interesting part about this dive is that the top 4 meters of water in the lake is warm fresh water that’s about 82 degrees (28C), which then becomes salt water below 4 meters where the water temperature climbs to about 100 degrees (or 38C).  It’s like diving in a hot tub, which is fun for about 2 minutes, at which point I felt like I was boiling from the inside out and couldn’t wait for the dive to be over. It was definitely a unique dive, to say the least.

The town of Coron isn’t much to look at, and reminds me of Semporna, the waterfront dive town in Borneo.  But, the sunsets were fantastic!

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I managed to catch a couple from the deck of the restaurant at Sea Dive Resort, which were both pretty spectacular.

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The next day I caught a flight to Manila, where I spent the afternoon taking pictures of the crazy jeepneys driving up/down the streets.  Jeepneys are the most popular mode of transportation in the Philippines, and are always super-crowded, but with some crazy and sometimes flamboyant decorations.  Some of them looked really cool!

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Here’s another one.  I must say that they were much more fun to take photos of than ride in. I feel like there must be some contest that people can enter their jeepneys in, but whenever I asked anyone about it, they looked at me like I was crazy.  I looked them up on wikipedia and it didn’t say anything about any contests, but it did give a little history lesson about how when American troops began to leave the Philippines at the end of WWII, hundreds of surplus jeeps were sold or given to the Filipinos. The jeeps were stripped down and altered by the locals; metal roofs were added for shade; and they decorated the vehicles with vibrant colors with chrome-plated ornaments.

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Anyway, after my jeepney photo shoot, I wasn’t really up for sightseeing or dealing with more crazy Manila traffic.  Instead, I found out there was a mall with great AC and a movie theater within walking distance of my hostel, so I spent my afternoon catching up on a couple movies and munching on some popcorn.   Just the right way to prepare for the home stretch – 7 weeks in Indonesia!

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  1. mike says:

    what an awesome blog Deb, loved all the tips and photos. gonna soak up some of these same spots over the next three weeks. that cuttlefish was so freakin cute 🙂

  2. DebAdmin says:

    Thanks! Hope you guys enjoy PH as much as I did. Let’s def meet up in Indo !!

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