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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 Divers. We 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.
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.
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.
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 …