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.
Interlude *short period when a situation or activity is different from what comes before and after.
There was never a plan to visit Taiwan. But when calculating the cost and hassle of extending our Philippines visa for a third month, a search on Skyscanner presented the option of a quick visa run and a few days break from beaches and diving.
As it turned out the timing was perfect as Anne couldn’t dive while on a course of anti-biotics to fix an ear infection. So, a couple of days in one of Asia’s major cities and an automatic 30 day extension on our return to Cebu made sense.
We had travelled to Moalboal, intending to dive (the next blog will update that and other stories), but a short overnight stop at the Tsai hotel in Cebu, and an early taxi to the airport meant we landed in Taipei at 9.15 on a Tuesday morning, where it was cold (well 23 degrees felt chilly) with a heavy Asian downpour that looked set to last. Relishing the freedom of traveling without our dive gear we’d casually thrown a few t shirts and shorts in to a bag … totally unprepared for this kind of climate.
So we negotiated the MTA from the airport (fast, clean and efficient) to the centre of town, grabbed a couple of hilarious waterproofs from the local store and tracked down our hostel.
Back in the city. But so different from Manila and Cebu. The infrastructure works, the pavements are walkable, at night there are lights. There is poverty, pollution and homelessness with an urban population of eight and a half million, but nowhere did we see the aggression, hopelessness and despair we’d seen in Manila.
We planned our time in the town over dumplings in a small street cafe. We felt like we were on a ‘city-break’ and chose to mix some of the classic tourist spots with some of the less well known.
Museum of Contemporary Art
Avoiding the rain in Taipei, we saw this exhibition by Japanese artist Kawaguchi Yoichiro who uses mathematical algorithms and CGI to create structures and graphics imitating cell development. It was fascinating, but these pictures don’t do it justice, it’s an immersive experience that follows decades of experimentation.
With the clouds clearing, we headed to Lin An Tai in the suburbs, a traditional Chinese house, reminiscent, but not as grand as the clan houses in Georgetown, Penang. Somewhat surreally, it was also a favourite venue for wedding photography ‘pre-wedding shoots’. Other than this weirdness, we had the place to ourselves.
This is a temple in the heart of old Taipei, built in 1738, bustling and busy with people of all ages and social class, making offerings, lighting incense and candles … removed to a place of private reflection in a cacophony of others.
I must confess, I didn’t think I’d get Anne up on this, but fair go, she even agreed to the glass bottomed carriage. The route traverses a number of hills to the summit, with small tea plantations and rivers beneath you and views of the city beside you.
Anne, you are legend.☺
Going up a tall building is always going to be fun, but there were two highlights for me here. First the speedy ascent to the 89th floor in 37 seconds, yeah that felt fast. But mostly the tuned mass damper, that limits the building swaying in the wind. It’s like an internal pendulum weighing 660 tons. It can stop the building swaying by up to 1.5 metres, which when you’re standing there seems like a very very good idea.
Moving on …
So, our next post will be all about our last month in the Philippines, and moving on from here. Feeling pretty reflective about a lot of things right now; six months in, potential state of emergency in the Visayas, all that’s been happening back home and in the world.
Inevitably, traveling means leaving things behind. Many of those things, particularly the material and routine ones, slowly fade with time and distance, like the images in a rear-view mirror as you focus on the journey ahead. Yet other things stay with you, not packed in your bag, but lodged in your feelings, memories and emotions, a part of you that is on the journey but is linked to where you’ve come from and who you are. Of course in a wired-up world, there’s a lot you don’t need to leave back home, and it’s been a joy to connect with family and friends, in a way never available to us on previous travels.
But there is no substitute for a hug.
Strangely you have to wait outside the terminal building to meet passengers at Puerta Princessa airport. Grouped across the road, under some shade, eyes straining in the bright light on the terminal door. Standing. Waiting. Reading signs, including the one that tells you ‘even a few bullets in your luggage could delay your flight’ …. then suddenly Yay!, there’s Oona. The three of us locked in a family hug for the first time since Heathrow last November. The rapid chatter in the bus back to the hotel, smiles, bright eyes, excited voices. Catch up time.
And essentially the last two weeks have just been that. We’ve stayed in some nice hotels, eaten some good food, travelled a bit around Palawan, hung around, relaxing and sharing time together. Sunsets, snorkelling, island hopping, San Miguel, poolside and pool table. It’s been fun.
Then, yesterday afternoon we said goodbye to Oona who has started the long haul back to London with a flight to Manila. We check out today and head to Cebu. Right now it just feels strange that she’s not around, but I’m thinking how hard it will be for us to readjust in the days ahead. Truth is, we are lucky indeed to have shared this time together in a beautiful place. Of course it also brings home how much we miss everyone else.
But our family and friends are with us on this journey, in our thoughts and hearts and through the wonders of modern communication (hint, get in touch!).
But there is no substitute for a hug.
I’ve never seen a horseshoe crab before, it has multiple sets of eyes and this one is around sixty years old. We saw it at a grouper farm.
Sabang and the Underground River
We headed up to Sabang for a trip into the Underground River. We were there on our last trip to Palawan when Oona was just 10. Now it’s a World Heritage site and on many Filipinos ‘bucket list’. Despite the hype, we really enjoyed the trip; it helped that we stopped overnight and avoided the crowds with an early visit.
Dramatic stalagtites and stalagmites with bats and birds circling around us.
Sabang is a pretty place in its own right.
Our final week was spent relaxing in a small hotel. Reading, dipping in the pool and chilling out. We spent one day out on an island in Honda Bay again, snorkeling and enjoying the sea breeze, but essentially we relaxed and shared our precious moments with each other. Fun times.
Time gives perspective. I started writing this blog entry as we left Manila, still smarting from the assault on my senses and sensibilities created by the most densely populated and traffic congested city on earth. It’s an ugly place. I’ve moved those thoughts to a separate document, for anyone who cares to read, click manila blog.
On this post I’ll write about the Philippines that isn’t a megacity, but is instead full of green rice fields, crystal seas, Jeepneys, blue skies, graceful bangkas, charm, beauty and spectacular diving.
Bangkas use bamboo pole ‘rigging’ to give stability to a very narrow hull. It’s an efficient system, but if the poles break a capsize comes next.
Our first destination was Puerto Galera, a bus ride and ferry south to Northern Mindoro. The town itself has very little of interest beyond an ATM and the Jeepneys and Trycycles that take you to and from Sabang beach. Our ferry dropped us off at Sabang jetty and I struggled and sweated with our dive bag through the narrow alleyways, sand and surf to get to our hut in Blue Ribbon Dive resort.
The diving was fabulous, most of it just a few minutes from the diveshop shoreline via the iconic bangkas, with a quick backward roll into clear water and glorious coral and abundant sea life beneath. It was soon obvious that diving was going to be a big part of our time in the Philippines, and we quickly extended our visa to two months; writing now in El Nido it looks like it will need to be longer.
Unlike some of our most recent destinations we came across a few Brits (and Australians) many of whom, come back time and again or else have made a life in the place, intending to stay a few months but finding it hard to leave. We got talking to one of the diveshop instructors, Chris, who had cycled there from England a few years back (check out his blog ‘clipped in and pedal driven’, https://chriseaston.wordpress.com it’s quite an adventure).
With the help of Chris’s experience and care, we planned a trip to Apo Reef. A quick look at the map will show how close it is to PG, but with a road through the mountains that hasn’t been completed in fifteen years, the logistics were anything but simple. Chris planned and sorted everything and accompanied us to Sablayan (a Bangka, ferry and van to get there) along with two other divers we’d dived with in Sabang, John from Orange County and Nadia from St Petersburg.
The four of us set off with a boat crew and local divemaster at dawn for some wonderful diving. We were a long way from a diveshop and luckily Chris had brought a set of allen keys to convert the tanks or we would have been in trouble.
As it was we had a few tank fails and I (stupidly) jumped in the water with only half a tank of air, after the boat crew had set up our gear. Lesson learnt, I set up my own gear from then on. I nearly abandoned the dive when descending, 100 bar in the tank wouldn’t get me through the dive. Instead Anne agreed to share her air with me and we managed an hour of spectacular diving with great visibility, grey reef sharks, white tips, turtles and a school of 43 bump head parrot fish chomping through the reef. We were lucky to have John and Nadia as dive buddies, good considerate divers, who like us were up for the adventure.
We spent the night camped on the white sand beach, after exploring the island – mangroves, inland lagoon, lighthouse and not much else, and were up with the dawn to dive again.
A great trip (thanks Chris), we said goodbye to John and Nadia at the ferry and headed back to Sabang to wash the salt off our bodies before our next destination, Coron.
Again the map will tell you that Coron is close to Apo Reef, but the absence of a ferry meant a flight back to Manila (overnight in a hotel by the airport thanks) and then a flight to the island after a row about luggage with Philippine Airlines. I could write a whole blog about the trials and tribulations of booking flights and accommodation on a mobile with unreliable internet. Sometimes it takes a day to sort, half of it has failed and it’s two days till you are back on line in time for an hour long phone call with customer service insisting on a booking reference number, when the reason you are ringing is that they didn’t send you one. No it’s not all white sand, sunsets and cold beer ….
Coron is famous for wreck diving, mostly a Japanese fleet sunk during an aerial attack on September 14th 1944 with ten major wrecks.
The town itself seems partly abandoned, with a bare central square and random collapsed buildings, presumably uncleared since Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Street vendors have set up stall in front of the wrecked buildings and at sundown the smoke and smell of BBQS and other foodstalls fill the rush hour air.
People come to Coron to dive. The wrecks are impressive with lots of penetration points, twists and turns through engine rooms and holds. We went to a recommended diveshop and we’re lucky to be guided by two great divemasters, Mimi originally from Paris and Christian, a local from Coron. Both of them had a real passion for diving and expertly guided us through wrecks as long as 130 meters, exciting stuff.
We also dived Barracuda lake with Christian, a 30 meter dive with cool lakewater, a thermal hot spring layer of 36 degrees centigrade at twelve meters (no wetsuits) and then a heliocline of salt water below. Strange.
I’ve held back, but Coron had some stunning sunsets…
Finally on a route that didn’t involve flights or the dreaded Manila we hopped on the four hour ferry to El Nido. One dive day in Coron had been cancelled because of rough seas caused by the North East monsoon weather front and we had heard stories of the ferry taking many hours crashing through waves or being stuck in harbour in the previous few days.
Our journey was smooth and relaxed however and we pulled into El Nido as the sun settled down behind the limestone cliffs that surround the harbour. We had booked an Airbnb on the edge of town, but nothing is more than a ten minute walk in this busy but relaxed place.
El Nido is the gateway to the Bacuit Archipelago in the South China Sea with over 45 limestone outcrops and islands with clear water and white sand beaches. The scenery is genuinely breathtaking, with trees clinging to the jagged karst rock topography, contrasted against blue sky and a bright clear sea. Of course El Nido is a tourist destination, struggling to keep up with demand, access to fresh water being a big problem, alongside the shortage of space with the sheer limestone cliffs limiting expansion.
We opted for a Bangkas tour boat to Miniloc island and then explored the bay and coastline in a two person Kayak – our first bit of kayaking since New Zealand in 2001. Kayaks are great for exploring this landscape with the karst rock hiding ‘secret lagoons’ and narrow inlets with bays and white sand beaches beyond. Although we used muscles that had been lying dormant for a while, we enjoyed the experience and the rest of the day was spent cruising through the sea for some snorkeling (Anne), a BBQ and even some basketball and a cold beer on a beach.
So now we are making our way through Palawan to meet up with Oona in a week. Since our emotional departure in Heathrow Airport at the end of November, we have managed to keep in touch pretty well, though sometimes the experience of WhatsApp and Skype and time zones has been frustrating.