Feeling Filipino Fit (ter)

 Donsol              Sabang             El Nido

Getting ourselves to the Philippines turned out to be a bit of a struggle. But boy was it worth it.

After the catastrophic realisation that we’d missed our original Hanoi to Manila flight, we flapped about rebooking flights, cancelling hotels, internal flights etc. Dealing with the knock on effect of our little scheduling error meant one more night in Hanoi, I told you that city wouldn’t let us leave, and about £600 in rebooked flights and cancellation fees. 

Once at Hanoi airport we had another issue, this time with immigration. Remember that dodgy land border crossing we did in Ha Tien, on the Cambodia / Vietnam border? Where they didn’t check our visas? We had an inclination that might come back to haunt us, and it did. Our passports were stamped with the standard 15 day allowance, we’d been in Vietnam 19 days and hadn’t noticed how long we’d been granted. 

The visas we’d purchased back in the UK were now invalid as our passports had already been stamped, and we were late for our plane to Manila. What followed was like one of those scenes in a movie where the men with power, in this case the virtually non English speaking dudes from immigration, sit smugly chewing tobacco while the good guy says stuff like “what do we need to do to fix this?” “We have US dollars”! The flight was calling for last check in, and we were still haggling with immigration. 

There were phone calls to head office, lots of deliberate chin scratching and shared in joking with each other, and rumours that we might be sent back to Hanoi to head office.

“We can’t go back to Hanoi. We’ll pay the fine, just tell us how much and let us catch this flight!”

I was beginning to see another £600 going down the toilet…

At last they agreed we could pay a $200 fine, we threw the cash at them, they stamped our passports and we pegged it to the check in that was seconds from closing as our trolley screeched to halt in front of the desk.

Finally we left Hanoi.

Donsol

Dancalan Beach Resort
Dancalan Beach Resort. Simple but effective.

The plan for the Philippines was always one that involved the sea, beaches, islands and boats. To get anywhere in the Philippines you always have to start at Manilla, so we bounced from Hanoi, to Manila to Legazpi, which is about 400km south of the capital, and then a one hour taxi ride to Donsol, home of the migrating Whale Shark.

Already we sensed a really different place and culture as we drove high over the hillsides on our way to Donsol. The accents and words carry a more Hispanic sound away from the Chinese tones we heard in Vietnam. The land is so thick with palm tree forests, mangroves and trimmed with beaches, there is barely any open land, just carved out fields in the lower lying land for rice paddies and wallowing carabou. Jeepney buses, heaving with locals, brightly decorated with graffiti style tagging and “Jesus Loves You” prayers fill the roads, alongside buzzing motorbike passenger tricycles which prove to be the best way to get around. This is a very catholic country and every mode of transport proudly declares its faith though artwork, mirror ornaments and window shades.

Donsol is a tiny town, and we were staying a 10minute tricycle ride out of town, in Dancalan, a resort right opposite the operator that we were planning to dive with the next day. For most of our trip we have been just outside the peak season which really starts to kick off in December, therefore we’ve had the luxury of empty beaches and the pick of places to stay. This time in Donsol we were literally the only tourists in the resort.

The only reason to go to Donsol is to dive with Whale Sharks , huge beautiful gentle giants, that migrate here in large numbers from November to June each year because of the high levels of plankton in the water. We knew we were taking a risk by coming so early in the season, and we were swiftly told in no uncertain terms that we would not see any while we were there at this time. It’s ok, we still have Thailand in December, where they also gather so we have a plan B for the Whale Shark.

With two days to play with, we spent our first day diving with Bicol Dive Centre . One of only two or three operators in the area, this place is really tiny, but with a good reputation. Owned by a Filipino couple who train the local fishermen to be dive masters. It makes sense to have a dive master that fully understands the ocean, the currents, and where and when to find fish worth seeing. The only problem is that they tend to be absolutely nuts.

We survived our first three dives, Px’s first diving for 17yrs so he was literally thrown in the deep end and coped with the trauma of running out of air 25m under water. Twice! The reefs were lovely and we saw some beautiful fish, we apparently saw the arse end of a Manta Ray, but I couldn’t swear on it. We spent the day on the Bicol dive boat, three dives, including two in the infamous Manta Bowl. When you dive with fishermen, you get fish for lunch, grilled on a tiny clay bbq on the side of the boat. Some of the best food we’ve had in the Philippines has been on dive boat bbqs.

The next day we spent with the same team island hopping on similar boat. All the boats here are like customised catamarans. With bamboo arms arching out each side to steady the skinny boat on the water. Lined up side by side with the sun setting behind them, these boats resemble mosquitos squatting on the surface of the water.

The island hopping was great, beautiful turquoise water, with lots of places to stop and snorkel, including a waterfall that falls straight into the ocean. The crew on this boat were funny, and we had them to ourselves so they could relax too, away from the usual tourist crowds. We took a detour to a little fishing spot so the boys could buy cigarettes, and Px came back with two huge bottles of beer, and an even bigger grin. 

One snorkelling site was specifically to see black tipped reef sharks. Our dive master/ fisherman guide led us to where they usually hang out. This guy free dives with no snorkel, he is a fish, and wriggles about under water like an otter searching for the sharks. Every now and then we’d hear him yell and point and we’d swim to where he was to see the black tipped sharks nipping about in ones or twos, some as large as a meter, others just baby ones. Still great to see the coolest beasts in the water world, even if they are just little’uns.

I’ve become obsessed with litter. I am a litter Nazi. Especially when it comes to the ocean. While snorkelling with the sharks, which was supposed to be a protected area, I was constantly collecting bits of plastic from the surface and shoving them in my costume. I was more Finding Nasty than Finding Nemo. Back on the boat I emptied myself of a haul of litter. Horrible. People are messy, disrespectful bastards.

Filipinos love to sing. They sing all the time no matter how badly, and if you mention karaoke to them they go crazy. Our two dive masters took us out that night into the heart of throbbing Donsol. The night life here is limited to say the least, but we found a bar with a karaoke consul and proceeded to hammer away at some power ballads, not realising we had actually cleared the bar of any other customers. Sod it we were having fun.

The only way to travel Filipino style…

Two days and three nights in this little town was great fun, and we plan to go back once the Whale Sharks are in town! Next stop was Palawan island, but there were a couple of flights to catch in order to get there and we hadn’t had much luck with flights recently.

Cebu Pacific  is the Philippines’ domestic airline. EasyJet, with even less frills and a habit of changing their schedules randomly with no warning. Our flight into Legazpi was pretty hairy as we were virtually landing when the pilot had to pull the plane up sharply as he hit bad weather on the way in, loop round again and reattempt the landing. White knuckle flying, and Px’s low tolerance for flying took another hit.

Flying out of Legazpi, was even worse as there was no plane at all. Our flight had been cancelled because of high winds, so we were forced to spend another unplanned night in a town we didn’t really want to be in. Cebu rebooked our flights for early the following day and with two short hops, Legazpi to Manila to Puerto Princesa, finally we were on Palawan Island. 

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Sabang

Palawan had always been in our heads as the paradise island part of the trip, and it lived up to its reputation. The kind of place that is so beautiful it makes you well up. I’m a bit teary writing about it now! Recently listed by Conde Nast as one of the most beautiful places in the world, not that we need Vogue to tell us that, I had a slight concern that it might already be overcrowded with those jet set, “yachty”, types with deck shoes and face lifts. Indeed there were areas of development that were starting to accommodate that crowd, but the places we went to still catered for the scruffy traveller type that wants to see the true Philippines.

From the capital Puerto Princesa, we took a bus to Sabang. The only reason to go to Sabang, apart from the fact it’s a charming little beach resort, is to see the underground river. One of the new natural Wonders of the World, (of which there are now so many it’s hard to keep track of) this incredible river system, accessed by canoe, goes on for about 24km into the rocks. Within the caves are huge domed areas, bat caves and incredible rock formations and stalactites. 

We take one of the tourist canoes, and a audio guide and are gently paddled into the first section of the river which naturally runs out into the West Philippine Sea. The ride is about 45 minutes and only lit by the guide’s head torch, sitting so close to the water there is a sense that some kind of sea serpent could easily emerge from the inky water and pull us under. If sea serpents existed of course.

When looking for somewhere to stay in Sabang, the usual websites only offered a few options, so we had pre-booked a really basic place called Cafe Sabang, which had mixed reviews but sounded like a laugh. On arrival it turned out that we had been double booked and all of their usual, very basic rooms without even a fan, were sold out. The eccentric owner suggested we take a look at her “clay house”, she could maybe offer us that if we liked it.

As she walked us through the undergrowth at the back of the property, up into the woods and towards the “clay house”, we became unsure if this would be the place to stay. Bare in mind that after 6pm there is no electricity in Sabang, and everything is run from a generator, we pictured ourselves that evening after a few beers, fumbling through the pitch black bushes trying to find home. Not an unfamiliar experience to be fair.

The clay house couldn’t have been closer to a set from The Blair Witch Project if it had tried. Set within the woodland, a creaky wooden door opened onto a small dingy room with mesh at the windows, a “bed” that was covered with a blue plastic tarpaulin, presumably to prevent any excessive staining while you are being murdered, and a kind of bathroom that looked like it hadn’t seen any water since 1973.

It was a “no” from us. So we headed back into town and found lots of fresh guest house options that hadn’t been listed on the internet. Thankfully no need for “Nightmare in The Clay House”.

The next morning we took the 6hr bus ride to El Nido, where we were to spend a delicious 4 days of diving, snorkelling and crisping up our tans like fried pork.


El Nido

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El Nido is the northern part of Palawan island and is surround by another 40 smaller islands, perfect for hopping and diving around. And God damn this place is beautiful. List all the classic ingredients that make up the recipe for Paradise and it’s here in El Nido.

The town itself is small and bustling with passenger tricycles, bars and restaurants, dive shops and traveller hostels. It’s geared entirely around tourism but in a nice shambolic way where the rough edges haven’t been smoothed away yet and is prone to power cuts and zero WiFi. Apparently 5 yrs ago the was only one dive shop and a couple of restaurants, now the whole town is packed with places to stay and tours to take.

We were staying about a 10 minute walk from the centre of town, down a bumpy earth track that lined the coast and took us past nice sea side bars and resorts. Our place, we call it our place now as we pretty much moved in and made ourselves at home, was Angel Nido owned by Matteo, an Italian and his Filipino wife. With only four rooms to choose from it was fabulously quiet with a lovely personal service.

We filled our days with diving and hanging out in Marimegmeg Bar   on Las Cabanas beach which was a great place for sundowner drinks. We made one error however, which was to take one of the island hopping tours, we didn’t need to do this as our dive boats took us to better place places without the crowds.

The tour was one of a set that you choose, all operators offer exactly the same tours for the same price so we just went for one the hotel recommended. Being accustomed to having boats and tour guides all to ourselves, we were not used to sharing experiences with 30 other people, we don’t like people. The boat took us to 4 locations, amongst the islands around El Nido, three of which I did not enjoy and I got a bit grumpy with the operators for generally being a bit careless. The first stop was Helicopter Island where we could snorkel, and there were some great fish shoals, but the waves were strong and the water too shallow and I ended up getting thrown against the coral. Coral really stings. Back on the boat with a bloody knee, I asked it they had anything to deal with it, it wasn’t a bad cut but could have done with more than a grubby old towel to wrap around it! 

The next stop was lovely, no waves and a brilliant wall of reef that we could explore happily, injury free. It was the next stop that really wound me up, and my British/ EU health and safety standards kicked in. 

This Secret Beach is apparently what inspired Alex Garland to write The Beach, so we were excited to see it. We knew we’d need to be a bit adventurous as we’d have to swim though a ‘tunnel’ in the rock to get to the beach, but the problem was that the spot was already crowded with other tour boats, so ours had to  pull up a good distance away from where the entrance is. Which meant quite a swim to get to where we needed to be. Once at the entrance we were then left treading water for quite some time while people were literally thrown, man handled by the guides, though the tunnel, like a water shoot to get in and out of the small opening in the rocks. All the while the sea is doing its thing and pulling us in and out and we’re treading water waiting for our turn to be chucked through to the other side. It was chaos. And it was tiring. At one point the waves took me and I was completely thrown against the rocks and pulled under. 

That was enough, once I’d resurfaced I was out of there. I told Pxl that nothing was worth this much hard work and near drowning, so we swam back to the boat, which was still parked the furthest away, crawled back on board and proceeded to have a bloody good British moan about it! I can imagine what a beach looks like. That was not fun.

The final stop was the Hidden Beach. Tucked behind a facade of rocks is a quiet little beach with shallow clear water.  Very lovely, if it wasn’t for the once again, shallow waves, rocks and current that you have to climb, swim, scramble over in order to get to. With a fresh graze on my other knee, I was now in full level grump mode. And to be honest we were both exhausted! It wasn’t the gentle relaxing day of snorkelling we had hoped for. You live and learn. If you ever go to El Nido, don’t bother with the tours. Go on the dive boats instead.

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The next two days were spent with Palawan Divers   a really professional PADI outfit. We did three dives each day, saw turtles, massive bat fish, Nemo anemone fish and lots of different types of coral. The ocean here is protected with no litter and 29c, we had two full days of messing about on boats in the sunshine. Bloody lovely.

Our diving improved with each dive, and our confidence levels are rising. When you dive at our level, which is pretty inexperienced considering we don’t get to go very often, your dive master tends to take on a hero status, and while in their care you learn to love and respect them unconditionally. While underwater anyway. 

On day one our DM was JJ, a young cheerful Filipino who is also a Free Dive master, and he was really, really good. An absolute nutter on dry land, but great underwater! On the second day we had a different dive master, but JJ was still with us. This time he was captain of the boat. With only 5 of us diving that day they took us out on the speed dive boat which virtually flew from one dive site to another, James Bond style. JJ putting the pedal to the metal, while singing love songs really loudly and really badly. The diving was good, the first site was called the Tunnel, and was an open ended cave, filled with swirling shoals of silver fish, electric clams, and other wide eyed beasties that enjoy low light environments, illuminated only by our torches. I love diving in more unusual sites like this.

Feeling fully satisfied and considerably fitter and browner after our three days of activity in the sun, we’ve reluctantly said goodbye to Palawan with the promise to return when we can. It is the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen, why wouldn’t we want to come back?

With one brief night in Manila, we are now on our flight to Singapore, for two nights with our chef mate Shen who has a serious birthday feast planned for us!

*Must eats in El Nido:

Beef Stew Hauz And Grill

Taverna Agape

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