Island hopping Filipino Style
26.04.2015 - 09.05.2015 36 °C
Onto the Philippines and the apparent must see destination in South East Asia....my decision to travel here was based purely on the volume of ear bashing I'd had from countless people I had met! A country of islands, beaches and boxing...a quick note on the boxing:
The place idolises a boxer called Manny Pacquiao and to be fair its warranted as he's pretty decent. To give you an idea of how much they love him a local joked with me, 'When Manny fights even the criminals stop working' (I think there are the statistics to back that up as well). He is also a politician over here, but unlike that other well known politician/boxer combo John Prescott, this chap is loved and unlike Mr Prescott, when this bloke lands a punch you know about it. That egg chucking protester might just have scrambled his eggs instead, rather than wasting them on Prezzas ill fitting suit. To top it off I'd timed my visit with one of his fights!
Back to the country and on arrival I was treated to my best bus experience to date. The music was all classic UK hits from the 80s and 90s and the hawkers on the bus were selling peanuts, pies and boiled eggs. All that was missing was a quiz and a pint of John Smiths - a pub on wheels, you heard it here first. I then met up with a friend called Miko, a local, who drove me around town and we went on to a roof top venue with live music Filipino style, courtesy of a local singer. Unfortunately when I requested scatman, she advised this was beyond her vocal range...at least we got a wonderwall sing along going...shame on us.
The pub theme continued the next day, as in my search for local food (surprisingly difficult owing to the large western influence and the admission from certain locals that the local food in Manila isn't the best) I ended up in a place called Gilligan's...a very traditional name in the Philippines I hear. My dish of choice, a pork sizzler called Sisig. What I got.....deep fried pork scratchings in sauce with rice. I didn't think pork scratchings could get any more unhealthy....how wrong was I!
I really enjoyed my short time in Manila, the hustle and bustle of a true Asian metropolis, where every inch of land has its use (mainly American fast food joints, malls and the occasional midgit boxing venue). Riding in the jeepneys (converted Jeeps crushed full of locals and decorated in unique styles) was a real highlight, including joining in the conductor routine, where you help pass money back and fourth between punter and driver much to the amusement of some of the locals. Enough of the big city though, it was time to head to the islands for some serious beach time and to recharge those travelling batteries.
After a short flight, including some mid air entertianment to win a goody bag....'who can name 3 types of beachwear', unfortunately they hadn't heard of a mankini (obviously the British stag do hasn't made it this far yet), I arrived with a newly met French/Mexican compadre to the city of Cebu. We then headed on a ferry to our destination of Bohol, an island some 800km south of Manila. A short ride later in the locals transport of choice a tricycle, basically a motorbike and sidecar covered in a colourful garden shed, we arrived to what would be home for the next few days, Bohol Coco Farm. I was then shown to my room by the Philippines answer to Graham Norton, camp as a field of tents, one of the nicest people I've met to date and with plenty of that all important local knowledge.
This place really was picture post card, here's me doing my best Robinson Crusoe / pale English bloke on the beach impression on the first day there.
It was also a local holiday when we arrived so we were treated/subjected to some beach side karaoke mixed in with the odd Eminem song...as relaxing as it gets! To top it off it off this wasn't any old holiday but their local 'fiesta' meaning we were invited to a feast of spit roast pig and other local delacacies back at the farm, including some coconut wine which tasted like Scrumpy Jack cider on a bad day! This also meant it was three out of three for the last countries I have visited having their national holidays/celebrations whilst I was in town, all this celebrating is taking its toll...hopefully I won't turn into Bez from the Happy Mondays!
The following day something more active was in order....a day trip by scooter to a place with a name straight out of Willy Wonka, the Chocolate Hills. A group of 5 of us set out, including Mr Norton, with me at the helm of one of the scooters doing my best Bob the builder impression, the only helmet left was a builders hat, to which Miguel Norton said I looked like a miner....at least he didn't opt for member of YMCA. (I should also point out I wasn't first choice to drive, but anyone who is familiar with the inbetweeners and the scene with Jay on the motorbike will understand why I politely refused the offer of being driven by one of my friends, for anyone that isn't familiar basically he turns his bike on and drives straight into the thing in front of him). The Chocolate Hills were a bizarre landscape and not an umpa lumpa in sight, instead what we saw was one of the worlds smallest primates the tarsier, which has an uncanny resemblance to a gremlin. Apparently they are renowned for being suicidal as well....I think I would be too if I had a load of Chinese tourists thrusting iPhones on the end of selfie sticks into my face!
The following day I continued with my inability to just relax by the sea and booked onto an island hopping trip, where among other activities we chased a pod of dolphins, went to a sand bar in the middle of the sea (unfortunately this wasn't the kind of bar selling cocktails with small umbrellas in them) and also visited an island where you could snorkel with sea turtles. The turtle visit did mean we had to pay an extra 100pesos environmental fee, something I was glad to see being put to good use....the boats all mooring on the coral reef and an army of tourists (largely Chinese in this neck of the woods....watch out world, the red invasion is coming) being allowed to walk all over the reef. See this place while you still can!
The day of the big boxing match then arrived and we piled into a local resort along with droves of the locals to cheer on the main man Manny. Unfortunatly though in this pantomime the villan won, much to the horror of the partisan crowd. The atmosphere was good though, and on a selfish note had Manny won I doubt there would have been a sober driver in the country capable of getting me to the port for my ferry onto Cebu within the hour. Beer on ice I left Coco Farm to head for Palawan, another island and a few more days playing castaway.
I arrived to Palawan where the scenery was straight out of Jurassic park and the weather straight out of an opening day to the English cricket season.... slightly moist to say the least! The town I had headed to El Nido, turned out to be another travellers mecca. The place felt like it was bursting at the seems and like at the end of an all you can eat buffet, needed an extra notch on its belt to accommodate its contents. The club Vang Vieng tubing crew were also in town (see earlier blog on Laos), however unlike in Vang Vieng there was a lot more on offer to get away from the crowds and unlike in Vang Vieng the power went off regularly here, meaning the likelihood of the bars showing family guy and friends is reduced...who could handle the power going off at that vital moment of friends, that you have already seen 20 times....
My first port of call in town was the Doctors (without going into too much detail, I had a bit of a wound on one of my feet). For the 'bargain' price of 500pesos (roughly £8) he swabbed the cut with disinfectant and put a plaster on it. I also asked him if I should keep it dry to stop infection, to which he answered 'if you don't get it wet, you won't enjoy your vacation' sound advice from the Philippines answer to Dr Nick from the Simpsons. I didn't even get a lolly for being brave when he put some nasty iodine on my cut! Health system tested and potential amputation avoided I opted to put my prior scooter training to good use, and headed out to drive across the north of the island. What an adventure this proved to be, a 7 hour epic across road, gravel, mud and sand. Move over Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boardshorts, this trip had it all....finding an empty beach (probably empty as the field I cut through to get there looked like some cattle rustlers had just cut the fence to get to it) incredible views across to some neighbouring islands, confusing the local population as the only tourist mad enough to drive out that far on a small scooter and finally a BLT sarnie and cup of Yorkshire tea....not a heat induced mirage but a chance lunch stop in the middle of nowhere at a resort run by an English couple. Afternoon tea polished off I powered on to see yet another dramatic sunset. It also hit me that I had spent rather a long time in the sun....fortunately no lobster impersonation followed, but a dose of heatstroke did...cue a day off to recover.
Having rested up from the heatstroke I booked on to a boat tour around some local islands. The scenery of limestone cliffs coming straight out of crystal clear blue waters was unreal. Man was though at it again, doing his best to limit the appeal of the place...the vast majority of the reef destroyed by years of dynamite 'fishing', and by pumping in far too many tourists including the 'red army' from China who were back out in force, this time being dragged around the various reefs as they snorkelled as none of them could swim. The Chinese can train some of the best athletes in the world, but if you're not one of the lucky ones its a life vest and a very patient Filipino tour guide/human life raft for you.
Island adventure complete, it was time to stop playing Robinson Crusoe and head back to Manila for a final blow out Filipino style. The land of beaches, basketball and boxing has been good, but I'm ready for a change, I don't play the role of beach bum very well...maybe bum though thanks to my friends at Bangkok airport confiscating my beard trimming scissors. Roll on the capital of non stop action...India!
One final note on the Philippines...
It was really nice to come to a country where their national sport wasn't the English Premier League for a change, and I didn't get the associated, 'Your English....Manchester United'. Instead they are obsessed with basketball, although when I asked someone about his Chicago Bulls shirt he gave me a blank look and I'm sure contemplated saying, 'your English....Accrington Stanley'......'who are they....'