Category Archives: Philippines

Island-hopping: life in the slow and fast boat

Most travelers consider sea travel as a last resort due to time and convenience factors,  but if you opt for it (and have too much free time like me), you’ll see a unique side of island hopping that planes miss. And depending where, you could go it by slow boat or speed boat. Two recent boat trips illustrated how Asia’s archipelago neighbors — the Philippines and Indonesia — are different, for better and for worse.

Before I few from Manila to Bali via a transfer in Singapore, I spent 15 hours on a slow 2GO car ferry, packed with mostly Filipino passengers. Two days later, I was on my next boat — a 30-min speedy, yet bumpy affair that landed me on Nusa Lembongan, one of 14,000-plus islands in Indonesia. The contrasting trips were enlightening.

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Due to the Philippines’ limited infrastructure (and my lack of planning), my time there can be summed up by slow, tedious travel interspersed with moments of excitement and adventure. To my surprise, the 2GO ferry had a karaoke stage complete with a bar so entertainment to pass the time wasn’t a problem. I drank and shared travel stories with some fellow backpackers, ended up being the first passenger to sing (I can’t resist Bon Jovi), and was invited to join a Filipino group before I fell asleep on a bunk bed (not my assigned bed, but it was the first available one I saw). A jeepney and a taxi ride later put me at the airport to wait for Indonesia.

On the other hand, Bali — what most tropical tourist islands strive to copy because of its immense popularity — doesn’t lack tourist services (or touts). As soon as I got off the plane at Bali’s recently expanded Denpasar Airport, I was hounded by taxi drivers trying to charge me double. You can avoid this by turning right when you exit the terminal, and going to the taxi ticket office that has set prices. Soon I was whisked away by taxi (100,000 Indonesian Rupiah) to Sanur, the oldest tourist resort area in Bali. I chose Sanur because it’s a short boat ride away from Nusa Lembongan, which boasts good waves for surfers as well as crystal clear water for divers. (It was recommended to me by a Canadian couple in Puerto Galera.)

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The driver dropped me off at Café Locca, which offers comfortable dorm beds for 90K, a short walk from the beach. Sanur is highly developed, and mostly caters to the older, middle-aged crowd, with pricey resorts, yet you can find warungs (local restaurants) that offer cheap, delicious meals everywhere. Try the Gado Gado (mixed vegetables and tofu with peanut sauce) and Mie Goreng (spicy noodles with vegetables). Although be careful with the Indonesian hot pepper sauce — it packs a punch! Despite the high number of souvenir shops, tour agencies, and money changers ($1=13,500IR), there weren’t many tourists to spoil the beachfront so I had a quiet, relaxing experience. I wrapped up the evening at Linga-Longa Bar, where I listened to an amusing local cover band, playing rock music requests from the Bintang (Indonesia’s beer of choice) drinkers.

The next morning I watched as a local woman placed an offering of food and incense on the street in front of the warung I was drinking Bali coffee at. Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, but Bali is mostly Hindu so the daily religious offerings are a common sight. The traditional practice lends to the exotic allure that gives Bali its nickname: Island of the Gods. I didn’t find the same magic in the Philippines. Perhaps its due to my Western bias, but Filipino churches, found throughout the Roman Catholic country, didn’t have the same power over me.

The Philippines has its fair share of incredible sights, but it’s tough to beat the majestic view of Mount Agung, an active volcano, as I was speeding from Sanur to Lembongan. Which archipelago is better? Too soon to say. Which mode of transport is better? Both slow and fast travel have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Regardless, you could get the same incredible view from the public slow boat for a fraction of the price.

Revisiting the Pacific War at Coron

My torch’s narrow beam found the edges of the rusted doorway. In I gingerly went, joining my group in a small, jail-like compartment. Ding! My air tank bumped against the low ceiling. We exited through a window and glided over the Olympia Maru, a 128m-long WWII Japanese supply ship that was sunk by American bombing in a 1944 raid. It now rests 30 meters underwater, along with nine other vessels that followed the same fate, off the coast of Busuanga Island on the northern tip of Palawan.

Due to being submerged for 70-plus years, a motley crew of colorful, hard and soft coral, and marine life call the wrecks home. I spotted a majestic lion fish coasting on the deck, a scorpion fish hiding by the buoy line, and schools of smaller fish darting by, just to name a few. Not a bad way to spend a birthday. All told, I explored five underwater wrecks over two days with Sanho, a Korean-owned dive shop in the town of Coron on Busuanga Island.

East Tangat Gunboat with a barracuda I missed

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The one-hour boat ride back to Coron, where most divers stay, gave me a chance to bask in the exhilarating dives, and relate what I saw with husband & wife instructors, Jay and Tabby. The Korean couple shared their knowledge about the dive sites in decent English (communicating in English is generally not a problem in the Philippines), and offered a tasty Korean lunch during a full day on their dive boat (three dives for P2,800, two dives for P2,500). I timed my dives perfectly as the rainy season is beginning.

Sea Dive Resort, owned by an American, was recommended to me by a divemaster in Puerto Galera. I decided not to dive with the most experienced outfit because I was told I couldn’t dive the deeper wrecks (I’m an experienced OW diver, but I lack the advanced certification). So I went with Sanho — it was recommended by a French couple I befriended on the 7-hour boat from San Jose to Coron — and stayed at one of Sea Dive’s P450 fan rooms. It’s very basic with traditional bamboo latticework, but has no sea view.

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A nice sunset view of Coron Bay and the surrounding karst islands can be had for free on the rooftop. The small town is geared towards tourists so a handful of bars (No Name Bar is popular with divers, as is Sea Dive’s Helldivers) and western-style restaurants are located on the main drag. For superb, reasonably-priced Filipino and Western fare, head to La Sirenetta, at the end of the pier beside Sea Dive, and owned by a Hawaiian/Englishman named Mico. I had my best chicken adobo to date there. He also owns Puerto Del Sol Resort, 36km west of town, which is a quiet and serene alternative (and much closer to the wrecks) as Coron can be a little noisy and busy at times.

After diving, I explored Busuanga for two days with a rented motorbike from Angel Motorcycle (P300 for five hours). I enjoyed a late lunch and sunset at Puerto Del Sol, followed by Bali Beach and a small village called Bayo Bayo that overlooks Siete Pescados, the next day. Pass on Bali (it’s the closest beach, but it’s small and littered with trash and debris), and join an island-hopping tour (P750-P1,500 per person) that takes you to Coron Island, Layangan Lake, and Siete Pescados. Better yet, try to rent a boat yourself and go snorkeling at Siete Pescados, a cluster of islets surrounded by shallow coral. I tried, but was told it was recently forbidden to swim in the surrounding waters because an unfortunate tourist last year tried to stand on the coral, coming in contact with a lethal stone fish, and later died. (ADVICE: never touch coral.)

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Most travelers come to this isolated part of the Philippines to wreck dive. You could fly to Busuanga Airport or do it the hard way, like me, and take a long boat from San Jose (P800, seven hours). You could also take a six-hour boat from El Nido. I happened to arrive during a full moon so, naturally, I went to a Full Moon party at Bali Beach. I accompanied an entertaining group of Filipinos and Americans I met beforehand at Sea Dive. The DJ played mostly Western music, which is what usually blares from Videoke joints (the Filipino version of Karaoke) and passing tricycles. Of course, I haven’t visited all 7,000-plus islands, but of the five I have, American Pop and Hip-Hop reign supreme. (American-style junk food is also ubiquitous at convenience shacks that you can find anywhere there’s a road.)

Next up: a 15-hour, overnight 2GO ferry (P2,200) from Coron to Manila to catch my flight to Bali. More scuba diving awaits.

Slowly getting away from Boracay

Distancing myself from Boracay took longer than I thought. The Philippines’ version of Thailand’s Phuket or Spain’s Ibiza (albeit on a much smaller scale), the party island has a way of sucking you in like a black hole. I planned for a two-day visit, yet six nights vanished there in no time.

Knowing the tiny island’s outsized drinking reputation resides on White Beach, along with the majority of foreign tourists, I tried to keep my distance. I stayed at the Lazy Dog (P540 dorm), a stone’s throw from Bolabog Beach, and a 10-minute stroll from the bar/disco scene that is packed around Station 2 of White Beach. What did I accomplish? Sadly, not much. By day, I would watch the wind & kite surfers at Bolabog, and be a beach bum by snorkeling and/or swimming at other beaches. Puka, an undeveloped shell beach on the western tip, is great for a quiet sunset.

If you want to people watch and don’t mind crowds, by all means head to White Beach, which draws hordes of sunbathers to its long stretch of white, powder sand. Starbucks and an unbroken row of resorts, restaurants, and souvenir shops are all close at hand. I generally stay away from resorts due to their exclusive nature, but Spider House was exceptional! The eclectic resort, originally the owners’ house, was built on a rock face, and partially on rocks in the sea. You can jump from their restaurant deck into calm, crystal-clear water, 3m below! Follow that act with a beer and pizza, and enjoy a sunset, far enough from the tourist masses.

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Once the sun went down, I was inevitably pulled to the nightlife on White Beach. Exit, a chill bamboo beach bar that has a rotating cast of Reggae, House, and Hip-Hop Djs, is a good spot to start the night. Part of the draw was no shortage of good drinking buddies — I met two Germans and a Russian at my dorm, a fun-loving group from England at Puka Beach, and I reconnected with my two Swiss friends on my last evening.

We parted on Mindoro Island after a long journey from Sabang Beach to Roxas (P20 jeepney to Puerto Galera bus terminal, P80 jeepney to Calapan, P180 van to Roxas). I waited eight hours at Roxas Pier for the 10pm Montenegro car ferry (P480) that took five hours. Finally, I caught the first Boracay boat (P25 boat ticket, P75 environment fee, P100 terminal fee) at 5am. All in all, it took over 20 hours to get from Sabang to Boracay!

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That’s another reason why I stayed for six nights — the thought of another long island hop wasn’t appealing. The scenery and people you see during slow, tedious land and sea travel can be rewarding, but it’s taxing as well. If you don’t have the time and a deep reserve of patience, you should definitely fly.

I timed my personal exodus so I could catch the Saturday boat to Coron, two days later. The route required me to backtrack to Roxas by ferry, where I would take a van to San Jose followed by a Coron-bound banca (Tues, Weds, Thurs, Sat, Sun at 9am — P800, seven hours). It’s not a convenient destination, but it’s worth it if you want some of the best wreck diving to be found. To my knowledge, you can’t drink and party underwater.

Adrift with sweetlips in Puerto Galera

Now this is traffic you can appreciate. I’m not referring to the notorious Filipino gridlock, but rather the spectacular marine version. To watch a morning rush hour flow seamlessly together, I clung to hard coral 30m deep in the Canyons — one of the world’s premier drift dive sites. Watching schools of sweetlips and batfish swim against the strong current and a backdrop of colorful coral reef was simply mesmerizing. After a few blissful minutes, the divemaster gave the signal to slowly ascend, and my most exhilarating dive came to a close.

On the short boat ride back, I related to the much more experienced divers how my dive almost failed. I was separated from my group on the initial descent due to the strong current, but was fortunately found. I also cut my hand on sharp coral (blood looks green at 30m under!). It was only minor so it didn’t stop me from doing a wreck dive later; blood-sensing sharks aren’t a concern here. Just another day at Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera — a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — on the island of Mindoro, about 130km south of Manila.

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I came to the Philippines to scuba dive, and Puerto Galera has some of the most diverse coral reef diving in Asia. You can’t go wrong by snorkeling, either. The sheer number of fish and plant life will make your head spin. To get here from Batangas, take a Starlite car ferry (P180) to Baletero or Puerto Galera, and then a tricycle taxi or Jeepney to Sabang. Most foreigners come to this developed beach for the diving (I counted close to 20 dive shops) and/or girlie bars, not the beach, which is sub-par by Filipino standards.  For better scenery and sand, head to White Beach or numerous pocket beaches a short hop away by tricycle (or you could rent a scooter for P300 for the day).

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When I arrived at Sabang with Fabian and Luca, the two Swiss guys I befriended at Taal Volcano, we ignored the tourist touts and walked away from the pricey main drag to find budget accommodation. Sergio, a local who runs Beatrice Lodge, spotted our bags and showed us the way to his family-owned hotel, restaurant, and dive shop at the eastern end of the boardwalk. I don’t think you can beat his family’s prices in Sabang — P400 for a very basic fan room, and P1,000 for a fun dive (I paid for six dives and got the seventh for free). Or beat the knowledgable and fun company of Oman, Jay, Sam and Darel at Tina’s Reef Divers. I spent five nights here and could easily stay longer.

Escaping pressure in the Philippines

A strong sea breeze greets me on a Puerto Galera-bound ferry as I watch Batangas Port fade away. The cool wind is calming and an escape from the Filipino heat. My mind needed an escape as well. Since I left new friends in Kunming two weeks ago, I’ve visited my new school in Shanghai, and bid farewell to Shenzhen, which I called home for the last two years. Bittersweet emotions have been straining me recently — internal forces battle to hold on to the past while embracing the future.

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Yesterday, the sight of Taal Volcano — the world’s smallest active volcano — encapsulated my desire to escape. Sulfuric steam vents dot the edges of the water-filled crater, releasing intense pressure from deep within. Aside from being small, Taal Volcano is unique for being situated in the middle of Taal Lake, which was formed by a massive eruption long ago (the last eruption was in 1977).

To cross the lake, hire a banca (I shared the boat with two Swiss guys for 1,500 pesos, including the return trip), and then you can do the easy, 45-minute hike up to the inner lake after you pay the P100 entrance fee. It’s not recommended, but you can actually swim in the greenish water (avoid the 70-80°C hot spots, of course), although I couldn’t find a clear trail down. However, I did take a refreshing dip in Taal Lake to wash off the dust and sweat. For a magnificent view of the volcano and surrounding scenery, stay in Tagaytay, 60km south of Manila. I spent the night at Mountain Breeze Hostel (P450 dorm bed) after flying into Manila two nights before. For comprehensive directions, click here.

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My two nights in Manila were split between Pasig City and Makati City. In Pasig after landing, I stayed at the upscale Privato Hotel (P3700 for a double room with a great view of Makati’s skyscrapers and colorful, corrugated-metal roof surroundings) and had a delicious dinner of Kare Kare (pork belly in a spicy sauce) with a Filipino, who took pity on me by personally exchanging money for me. The next day I took my first jeepney (think of an extended-cab, retro-cool jeep that can pack in 23 people for seven pesos) to Burgos Street in Makati to witness the nightlife and girlie bars. I stayed at the Lokal Hostel, which has a helpful, English-speaking staff and the cheapest rooms on Burgos (P500 dorm bed, P1,500 private with A/C). In general, most people in tourist areas can speak English. Also in general, San Miguel beer is cheap and the local food is terrific.

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(SIDENOTE: be prepared for annoying tourist touts and horrendous traffic everywhere. Traffic is even worse at the moment as locals travel to their home provinces to vote in Monday’s elections. Manny Pacquiao, the world-renowned fighter, is running for the Senate.)