The Visayas and a Philippine Farewell

We’re feeling a bit reflective as we prepare to leave the Philippines and head off to Kota Kinabolu in Borneo. We’ve spent a fair bit of time here, with our destinations guided mostly by some outstanding diving and stunning seas and sand. And of course it’s just over six months since we said goodbye to London last November so I guess you can call us proper travellers now!

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Great that you still get passport stamps in SE Asia

It’s hard to know how to measure a journey. We’ve only been to eight countries, but we’ve visited around forty places and stayed in 45 different hostels/hotels/guesthouses from the grotty to the quite grand. We’ve travelled by taxi bike, tuk tuk, tricycle, tram, taxi, bus, train, plane, cable car, ferry and boats of all descriptions, metro, motorbike and of course flip flops.

The hard copy

We’ve completed well over a hundred dives from the Maldives to the Visayas. We’ve shared each other’s company for most of these 180 days, we’ve had a lot of fun, and we’re still in love. Anne has painstakingly kept her journal, now 150 pages long and we have tried to keep in touch with loved ones in all the usual ways (we even sent one postcard!). And of course this blog, with over twenty posts has also measured our adventure through South East Asia, with nearly 600 visitors from over 30 countries and just under 3,000 views.

In truth an adventure like this should be measured by moments of astonishment and wonder, by smiles and laughter and the way the journey changes you. On that measurement of course, it’s still too early to tell.

The Visayas

Since Oona headed back at the end of April, we’ve only posted once, about our brief trip to Taipei, so time to catch up. We left Palawan the day after Oona for our final destination in the Philippines, the Visaya Archipelago, famous of course for its abundance and variety of islands and dive sites.

We had a fractious exit from Puerto Princessa, where Philippine Airlines attempted to charge us for our luggage at check-in, despite us paying extra on-line. After a 30 minute row a ‘compromise’ was reached where Anne took her bag as hand luggage and I emptied out half the dive bag, also as hand luggage. Then, at the departure gate (all of 15m away), this was taken back off us and put in the hold for free, as the plane was way too small to load that amount of hand luggage!

‘Travel day’ misery was further exacerbated by our journey through Cebu city at dusk, a mini version of Manila, with a population of only one million, but with the same urban poverty and haunted faces of the homeless. A journey the next day by taxi took us to the harbour (where the local police station had a poster proudly proclaiming how many drug dealers and users they had killed in ‘Operation Double Barrel’, Duterte’s war on drugs). Then, thankfully on to the ferry and away to Tagbilaran, Bohol, followed by a 50 minute motor tricycle ride to Alona beach, with white sand, no traffic and clear water.

Diving the Visayas has lived up to our expectations. Bohol, Dauin, Moalboal and Malapascua all have wonderful healthy coral, both soft and hard, and a variety and abundance of sea life from the big to the small. Tiny frogfish, nudibranchs, shrimps and seahorses, large grouper, green turtles, shoals of sardines in their hundreds of thousands, white tip and black tip sharks, and of course Thresher sharks. We’ve dived these waters 25 times in the last month, it’s been a spectacular underwater adventure that we’ve loved.

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Green turtles in abundance

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Frogfish of all sizes, colours and shapes (always odd). I’ve often thought that if you gave a five year some Playdough and said make a fish, it would end up like this!
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Jacks
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Lionfish

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Clouds of schooling sardines block out the sun. Thanks to Go Scuba for the pictures.

The dive centres we’ve used (all recommended by dive buddies) were experienced, dedicated and enthusiastic. It was also great to see young people from around the world learning to dive, gaining experience and passing courses. But the best was seeing happy, excited faces climbing back in to the dive boat and sharing the wonder they had witnessed. It should be said that Anne is often the most excited, describing parts of the dive, questioning local dive guides on what we’ve seen, all the time with a big happy smile. Great dive buddy.

Just before heading down to Dauin, Anne caught up with Corri and Jonathan on social media, friends who helped run Oonas Dive center in the Red Sea. It turns out that not only were they now running the dive centre ‘next door’ to BongoBongo in Dauin, they’d also managed there for a few months while Magnus was away. It was great to catch up with them over food and a few beers and to see how they were getting on with their new life in the Philippines.

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An Irish dive bar in Dauin, with a great name ‘FinBar’
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Finding sharks with BongoBongo

Jonathan is running a blog on the macro diving in the area, which is well worth a look – great pictures and informative… Critterwatch. Corri also encouraged Anne to try renting a motorbike, which we both did when we were in Moalboal. It was grand and I have a feeling we will be exploring more on motorbikes in future.

BongoBongo was a laid back place and very friendly. Along with two young women, Luna and Talitha, who were doing courses there, and full of enthusiasm, we also dived with Kevin and Rose, two divers from the US, who were also teachers, so lots to talk about there!

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Magnus, proud of the new dive boat.

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Our journey to Moalboal coincided with Anne picking up an ear infection, so diving there was delayed until we returned from Taipei. Sitting on the veranda, playing crib, watching sunsets from Chili Bar, and exploring the island on motorbikes wasn’t a bad way to recover.

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Dramatic evening skies have become a regular feature, the rain has come early this year in the Visayas
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On yer bike, exploring around Moalboal

We enjoyed diving with Cebu Dive Centre, who were helpful and considerate. Pescador Island was beautiful, and of course the Sardine shoal was hypnotic. We saw such a variety of marine life on every dive. A young English couple, Sean and Jess were pretty lucky to be completing their Open Water course there, it has so much to see, a lot of which we haven’t come across in fifteen years of diving.

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Pescador, sitting on the horizon in the changing light

Crossing the island from there to Malapascua necessitated an overnight stop in Cebu city, then a bus and ferry to the Island the next day. After waiting an hour in Cebu Bus Terminal North it became evident that the air con bus would not be running, so everyone piled on to the local bus, with parents passing kids through the windows so they could grab seats. Luckily Anne got the last two seats while I loaded on the dive bag, but it was a hot five hours crossing the island.

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Returning on the bus, victorious from the cockfight

While there is great diving in Malapascua, divers come from all over the world to see the Thresher sharks. I think if I describe our last dive in the Philippines, you will see why. We traipsed along the beach in the dark at 4.00am to Evolution DiversWe were on the water at 4.45, heading to Monad Shoal as a tropical storm broke directly over us lighting up the still dark sky with forked lightning and loud cracks of thunder. We climbed into our wetsuits in the driving rain and then dropped below at daybreak to another world. We were the first divers there and immediately saw three Thresher Sharks circling in the cleaning station 25 meters down. These are big pelagic predators who live mostly in the deep as they cross the oceans, and their distinctive scythe shaped tail is used to stun their prey. Here they circled slowly as the cleaner fish did their job. On one occasion the smaller shark of the three got too close to the largest and a speedy flick of the tail (over a third of its body length), saw the smaller shark back off. We were about 4 metres from them and could look right into their eyes as they turned. We saw two more circling (and a white tip, keeping a very low profile) before we surfaced in to a bright sunny day and blue skies. We couldn’t have asked for more on our last dive in the Philippines.

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Final thoughts

We’ve had a fantastic time in the Philippines, with so many adventures and good times to look back on. The country is vast and beautiful above and beneath the surface and the local people we’ve met and talked to have been invariably friendly, helpful and honest. While it is certainly easier to get around than when we were last here fifteen years ago work on basic infrastructure would make a big difference to the ordinary Filipino, and there seems to be genuine anger at the self serving politicians who do little to help. While the ‘War on Drugs’ and shoot outs with rebels from the south currently affect locals, the violence, militarisation and cult of the individual are a worry for the future for locals and tourists alike.

I’ve written about the poverty, pollution, squalor and desperation in Manila elsewhere, and in Cebu city here. But in the countryside, while there is certainly poverty, people seem to have a healthier, happier and freer life and we’ve seen so many children laughing and playing with their families (it’s school holidays here), rather than sorting through garbage and living alone on the streets.

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Children playing around on the docked Bangkas, fishing and swimming. It’s a better life than the streets of Manila
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Village life in Dauin at dusk, pretty relaxed

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The Philippines has a culinary reputation for being the Glasgow of South East Asia, and it’s not hard to see why. Rather than moan, like a typical westerner, this Filipino vlogger Mikey Bustos tells it how it is (including the mystery of the fork and spoon and cold food), much better than I could.

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So now, back to Manila and a flight to Kota Kinabalu on Sunday. Borneo, here we come.

Just room for one more Banka and sunset shot …

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2 thoughts on “The Visayas and a Philippine Farewell

  1. Dear Anne and Niall
    Today of all days it has been really uplifting to read your sunshine stories and happy traveller tales. Theyve been a welcome antidote to the horror of last night’s random and ruthless attacks in London. I came back by train to Euston at around the time things were kicking off at London Bridge and after some wonderful days with family at home it was not the return I had hoped for. It has been sunny here today but there’s a cloud over us all. It’s at times like these I turn to good friends here and away to inspire and give hope. You two always do that. Stay well, continue to share. You’ve brightened a dark day for me here. Love you lots. Annexxx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Anne, yes it has been really hard watching and catching up with the details of the attack in London. News started coming through here, but of course local news was dominated by the Manila casino attack, which left 37 dead. Turns out that was not a terrorist incident, though ISIS claimed it, but a local gambling addict. Our flight was taking off just across the road from the site of the attack.
    Horrific though it was in London (and Manchester), I can see May desperate to use this for her own gain. Things look tough in the UK right now from afar. The only bright light I see is that left wing policies are now the only viable alternative to neo liberals.
    So, we are missing friends and family, but are enjoying our adventure still. Six months have both flown by and simultaneously it seems like we’re in a different world.
    Keep in touch, you’re great at that.😃, and love to all. XXXX

    Like

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