Philippines Part 2!
Look out! This one is a doozy! It gives you some idea of how much we tried to pack into out last two weeks in the Philippines. I suggest reading in segments! Here it is...!
What we have discovered…This country is so big, getting between places is the biggest challenge. When we sat down to determine what our must sees and dos were we decided to come up with a plan to try and make them all possible. Easier said than done!
We are both scuba divers and Philippines is known for its world class diving. We went to Sablayan, Mindoro to access the Apo Reef and we aimed to dive on the 24th of December. Off the coast of Sablayan is an Island, called Pandan, which is owned by a Frenchman. From the island, he runs trips to Apo Reef while also maintaining a lucrative beach resort and dive shop on his island. This is who where we had to arrange our trip, so we took a banka (boat) over to the island. There weren’t enough people to go on the 24th to make the trip affordable; the divers have to pay to hire the boat, more people reduce the price. So, we did our refresher dive on the 24th As I have not done a dive in 3 years and Tamarra hasn’t for more than a year) and signed up for the Apo Reef trip on the 26th.
For all you divers out there: our refresher dive off Pandan Island was amazing! They have a coral reef surrounding the island and several dive spots just a hop skip and jump away! We saw amazing coral, 4 big sea turtles, a sting ray, a school of baby barracuda, beautiful, colourful tropical fish, purple star fish, jelly fish, anemone fish (clown fish -Nemo), sea anemones, sea cucumbers, urchins, lion fish, a sea snake… and on and on and on! The dive was so fantastic that even our dive master was impressed with our dive! We were super excited about our Apo trip!
Christmas day we expected to be quiet and we were looking forward to a day of rest so we could catch up on our travel journal and me on my travel emails. We ate a quiet breakfast and took our books and journal down to the beach to sit in one of the beach huts and enjoy our day. Then the people started coming….. within an hour the beach was filled with 400 Filipinos celebrating Christmas on the beach with their families!!!! So, we had a wonderful Filipino Christmas with 400 of our closest Filipino friends! Several families adopted us and made part of their Christmas celebrations! One family had a roasted pig, another had fresh grilled fish and many traditional Filipino dishes. We ate, talked, played games and swam with the children in the ocean the whole wonderful day! This was an irreplaceable experience!
A bonus in the Philippines is that almost all Filipinos understand English (It is taught in school and, in particular, there is huge emphasis for learning English for the younger generation). They can read it and about half speak it comfortably and very well. Others can speak it but are shy to try but will when encouraged. This means that we can talk to people more easily and learn so much more about the people here and their customs and culture than we would be able to do with our rudimentary Filipino language skills acquired over three weeks of travel (let’s just say that I won’t be winning the language Olympics any time soon). We were able to talk with the families and we made some really great connections with a couple of families, one of which invited us to their home the next evening.
In the late afternoon, we received a phone call, via the manager of the Adventure Camp (Anabelle - she and Auntie Josie – were wonderful to us) that the Apo Reef trips for the next two days were cancelled due to a coming typhoon. Although the typhoon was to hit islands in the east, the seas were expected to be exceptionally rough, along with rain and high winds. We were really disappointed, especially because we had already dropped another dive opportunity to allow us to do the Apo Reef trip on the 26th. We had also booked our flight out of Mindoro early on the 28th from San Jose, three hours south and therefore, could not delay any more.
We fly out of Mindoro the next morning (via Manila) and arrived in Cebu City at about 2 pm. Our goal was to drive south, along the coast, to a little town called Oslob. We hired a taxi and made it there in three hours, although most of the ride I wasn’t sure that we would make it at all. 'Arrive alive' takes on a whole new meaning.
We stayed at a little GH on the ocean with very little to recommend it except…. SNORKELLING WITH WHALE SHARKS!!!!!!! We woke up like kids on Christmas day and we ready to go by 6 am. We got our snorkelling gear and walked down to the beach where you have to pay and you get a little lecture on how to behave while swimming with the Whale sharks: Don’t touch, stay 5m away, don’t panic when they come near as they are gentle giants, stay clear of the white boats and one must get out of the water 30 minutes from the time of spotting the first whale shark. Then we were loaded into a banka and paddled 100m out from shore, directly in front of our guest house and we hopped in the water... with five whale sharks!!!!! We saw five! They were almost the length of a school bus and so beautiful! They are spotted and sometimes have stripes and like a Dalmatian, each is unique. It was impossible to stay 5 m away and one of them brushed against me with half the length of its body at one point! These are stunning gentle giants and I feel elated that we were able to share their ocean! The huge downside to this experience is that the reason the whale sharks are here is because the locals feed them. This disrupts their migration patterns and isn’t very good for the animals. The Philippines is passing legislation this year to stop the feeding but who knows what, if anything will change.
When we got back to the guest house it was 7 am and we were over the moon! We met a Filipino mother and son and they invited us to go with them to go to see a local waterfall, so we all hopped in a miniature pick-up truck and headed to the falls. As we approached the falls we were a bit disappointed that we had made the effort to see the falls as it seemed that there was only a trickle of water coming down. Then, as we rounded the curve, what we saw was magical! The falls were not gushing water but the cliff face was covered in mosses and the oasis that the water fell into was several pools trickling down from one to the next and there were rainbows everywhere! We all got more than a little wet in the waterfall mists and taking pictures that don’t even begin to show the beauty of this place.
We parted ways with our new found Filipino friends as they were doing a day trip to a nearby island and we were headed to Dumagete on the Negroes islands as that is where we needed to catch a ferry to get to our next main stop: Bohol Island. This transfer was quick and easy, even though it involved a series of connections: bus-ferry-jeepney. When we arrived in Dumagete well ‘fell in like’ and decided to stay the night and visit the nearby Twin Lakes National Park.
The next day we woke up early and took a jeepney to the junction to get the Twin Lakes National Park. From there, we negotiated for a Hubble Hubble (motorcycle taxi) down a perilous road, through local villages and beautiful scenery. Our challenge with the weather in the Philippines continued as the day started overcast and progressed through misty to a short but thorough downfall, on us. This made for sketchy viewing of the Twin Lakes… in fact, for the first 40 minutes we weren’t even sure they were there. Then the rain cleared a little and we walked down to the shore of the larger of the two volcanic lakes. The lakes were formed thousands of years ago and are both small but extremely deep (1.5 and 1.8 km). It was on the return trip to the highway that the sun came out, of course.
In the afternoon, we caught the ferry to Tagbilaran, Bohol with the plan to head directly to Panglao Island for some scuba diving. As has been the case for the Philippines, our best laid plans, do not deliver good results! Panglao Island was BOOKED. All of it. Everywhere (this is what happens when you don’t reserve for New Year Eve)! So, we headed back to Tagbilaran, stayed the night there and headed to Anda (southeast Bohol) the next morning. This is where we ended up staying to ring in the New Year.
We stayed at a place called Dap Dap Beach Resort which was a great budget option and a fantastic place! We had a very basic bungalow with a shower in which you had to run around to get wet… or use the bucket (this worked better); however, we walked out our door to the ocean of the most gorgeous turquoise/aqua. It was very quiet at Anda Beach, except on New Year’s Eve when the owners hosted a party for family, friends, the tourists staying at the resort and all the locals. They had a DJ, fireworks, BINGO (with prizes that included money and a 10kg bag of rice), hilarious dancing, playful children and an enormous midnight buffet that included all the best of Filipino fare and fruit! Another plan that went awry and yet… we ended up exactly where we wanted to be!
After a couple of days at Anda, we were off again and headed back to Panglao to finally do some diving. On our way back to the other side of the island, we decided to be local bus jumping champions and so that we could see the Chocolate Hills and the tarsiers (the world’s smallest primate). This did not go smoothly but hey, it would be nearly as fun if it was easy! We left the resort at 9:30 am and made it to the Chocolate Hills by 3:30 pm (they are only 2 hours away). When we arrived, we had just enough time to admire a very misty view before the sky opened and we got drenched!
The Chocolate Hills are a unique geological phenomenon that occurred when Bohol Island rose out of the sea. These limestone hills are full of marine fossils and coral and were formed through the process of erosion. There are between 1200 and 1800 virtually identical conical hills. The chocolate name refers to the colour they turn in the dry season (this made them slightly less exciting in my mind as that seems like a little bit of false advertising to a chocoholic like me).
At the base of the viewing point, I found a jeepney in the pouring rain and we hopped in. It was headed back to Tagbilaran and I asked for us to be dropped off at the Tarsier conservation area on the way by. Inside the jeepney we found five 22 year old Filipino boys! The driver was the father on one of them and they had given him money for the day to take them on the tourist sights of Bohol as the other four boys were from different Philippines Islands. So…. We kind of crashed their party….. and they couldn’t have been happier! We had a ball with Glen, Harvey, Sirus, Jan-Ray and Glen (yes two Glens)! Dad missed the turn for the tarsiers we ended up stopping at a small zoo (?,) which had a random assortment of animals, but no tarsiers. We also stopped at the oldest Church Bohol, est. 1580, but the best part was talking to the boys on the drive back to Tagbilaran and then Dad drove us the extra stretch out to Panglao Island! We said our goodbyes several times because the boys didn’t want to let us go! Very funny! Another plan that went awry…. And ended up great!
We managed to find a room in a guest house just up from Alona Beach on Panglao and then we went in search of nourishment and a dive shop. We wanted to dive the next day (January 3rd) because we were flying on the 5th and should not fly within 24 hours of diving. We booked a dive that took us out to the reef surrounding Balicasag Island and included two dives the next day. We went to bed happy!
When we woke up the next morning it was….. can’t you guess? Raining. What the….? We went for breakfast and hoped that the weather would clear. Apparently, there was another typhoon in the works. About an hour later the sun was trying to break through but the ocean was roiling. The dive shop decided to run the trip and off we went. We all hopped in a small boat to take us out to the large dive boat. The sea was so rough that while pulling alongside the larger boat the bow of the small boat crashed right into the hull of the larger and made a melon sized hole. Whoops! Fortunately it was high up and the Filipinos determined that we were still going!
It was a rough go out to the reef but our troubles brought us a pod of dolphins frolicking in the water. Two came over and jumped in front of the boat a few times! Both dive sites were wall dives as that was the calmer side of the Island for the waves. The dives were incredible for the coral and the small organisms that we found living on the wall. Philippines hosts 600 of the 700 identified coral species around the world and I feel that we saw a pretty amazing sampling here! The colours and the varieties were mind blowing! I am very easy to please when diving because I just love diving and I really feel at home underwater. This makes everything that I see an incredible bonus! We had two excellent dives we headed back to Panglao Island battling rougher seas on the way back, but it was worth it!
We considered going diving again the next day but the weather was not getting any better. When we woke to rain again we made a new plan: Try and to travel to see those pesky tarsiers again! We packed ourselves up and headed into Tagbilaran to catch a jeepney to the Tarsier Sanctuary This sanctuary is a very small unassuming place that is an education and conservation centre for the tarsiers which are indigenous to Bohol. A guide accompanies you to a gated area of the forest (from which the tarsiers can leave but humans cannot get in when it is closed) and shows you where the tarsiers are. Each morning the guides arrive an hour early to do some reconnaissance to find out where the tarsiers are to be able to show people when they arrive. These little creatures fit into the palm of one’s hand. They are wee! We saw four in all and two were a mating pair cuddling! We were pretty happy that we finally got to see them.
We flew to Manila the next morning and I think that we were both not looking forward to a day in that huge city. Interestingly enough, we quite enjoyed it! It was a Saturday and I think that helped as the traffic (think Mexico City) wasn’t nearly as bad as on a week day. We headed down to the old fort and the old city and toured the sights on foot. There are excellent commemorative plaques in front of the buildings telling about the historical sites and the significance of each. For many of the buildings the history is something along these lines: ‘The –insert building name here- was built in 1571, burned in 1583, rebuilt in 1591. Destroyed in the 1599 and 1600 earthquakes. Third cathedral built in 1614, destroyed by 1621 and 1645 earthquakes. Fourth cathedral built in 1654 to 1681, damaged by typhoons and earthquakes and demolished in 1751. Fifth one inaugurated in 1760, renovated in 1850 but destroyed in 1852 earthquake. Sixth cathedral… seventh cathedral…eighth cathedral’ IS STILL STANDING! Makes one understand better why the people on the islands build nipa huts (grass and bamboo huts) instead of permanent structures for houses.
After our tour of the old town, we took the LRT and then a jeepney to the Mall of Asia (MOA). This is the largest mall in Asia and it is beyond MASSIVE. There is a skating rink, Olympic sized pool, children’s play area with huge air filled bouncy structures with all different themes, a carnival out the back and hundreds of stores and restaurants. We wandered around, ate dinner, and then went on the Ferris wheel to see a view of Manila at night. It was great! Got back to the guest house exhausted and had to get back up at 3:00 am to catch our flight back to Bangkok, Thailand.
We had a hard time saying goodbye to the Philippines. The people were so optimistic, positive and friendly. The Philippines is comprised of 7000 islands and we only had three weeks! It was an incredible introduction to the Philippines but we didn`t even make a dent! Things that we will miss the most: the people, the food, the diving, the jeepneys and tricycles and video-karaoke (videoke) which we fell asleep to every single night. So much left to see and do……..
I am now in India but a Thai blog is still to come. Hugs, T