So, we wanted “water” time.. we wanted crystal clear waters to swim and snorkel. December would be our month for this and the Philippines love their Christmas even more than we do. A 2 for 1 deal. Using the fantastic internet connection of Malaysia we did some “quick” research and booked our ticket to Manila.
Oh my .. we keep getting closer and closer to the poorest situations on the planet. Just a couple months ago, it was the dusty streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. Tonight, we hopped in a cab at midnight from the airport into the city of Manila, through dark busy roads in search of our hotel room. It was hard to make out what was going on outside, but almost everything looked the same. Shanty town style on both sides of the pavement, right outside the international airport. This is .. different. Tuk Tuk style vehicles clogging the streets, abandoned vehicles and dwellings, boxes, piles of junk, garbage, stray dogs, sad looking people wandering the streets .. A battle zone.
As we got closer to our hotel, things didn’t improve much. Our hotel was on some back street that resembled a scene from Mad Max. We had read that this area was good with backpackers and that the hotels were clean and well priced. Yikes .. We didn’t want to exit the cab. The street was teaming with activity at now 12:30 am. There were rough looking individuals roaming around, groups of very poor looking kids running around doing who knows what and dead cockroaches littering the ground. There was a wet greasy gutter lining the sidewalk and an entire family sleeping on the walkway just outside the dirtiest 7 Eleven ever. 3 kids laying on threadbare blankets, a few scrappy personal belongings scattered about and the mother, ragged looking and very tired. My heart sank seeing this. I was ashamed of myself searching for a “better” hotel room. The one we had booked wasn’t good enough.. wasn’t clean enough.. wasn’t big enough. We abandoned our search minutes later.
We were hungry, so we ducked into the 7 eleven to have a quick safe snack. This 7 Eleven had a guard with a shotgun on duty inside. Was this a good or a bad thing? There were street children running in and out of the store and at one point, one of them ran in and hid a large plastic bag full of stuff under one of the shelving units of the store. We have no idea..
With a 14 hour ferry ride the next day, we knew not to tempt our stomachs with questionable food. We eyed the hot dogs.. Nasty after eating the best food on the planet in Malaysia for a month straight.. but our Canadian bred bodies are used to hot dogs, so this was a good option. We were wrong. They had the consistency of porridge, held together by a delicate skin, soft and disgusting. Sylvie would tell me after we left, that she spotted a brown inch long cockroach climbing the wall behind the hot dog machine. She’s good like that, not wanting to panic me in public.
We paid for our rations and headed back to our hotel to settle into our very expensive 8×6 foot cell. We unpacked nothing. We put our phones on charge and laid down in our small double bed for a tight night of amber alert roach anxiety. Even with the bathroom light on, we barely slept this night. We woke up very early, picked up our cell phones and bags and literally walked out of the room.
In the day light, things were a little better. It was your typical Asian city, but in the very rough part of town. The same characters were out and about, the dirt and garbage was no longer hidden by the dark and the sun was trying desperately to pierce its way through the thick smog of the Manila core. This was a good time for a little exploratory walk..
Heading towards to the docks from our neighbourhood of Ermita, things only got denser and crazier. The honking was back in force, the colours brown and gray dominated the cityscape and there were shanty town dwellings and shops everywhere. Everything we had read about the Philippines indicated to us that it was your typical Asian country. This was not typical.. the city was hurting.
We walked a bit further and decided we had had enough of the locals staring at us. Our backpacks were a treasure chest to these people. Our pockets alone probably held half a year’s salary or more. Our cell phones, a decade ahead of their flip phones. Our clothes, designer digs that could be sold at the market. We were a walking gold mine. It was time to get to the pier.. fast. We hired a young man with a peddle bike tricycle designed to carry passengers. At first we figured we were helping out the less fortunate service provider verses his more successful motorised competition. But after 30 seconds of watching him struggle to carry the 3 of us through the crazy streets of Manila, I felt horrible .. this poor kid. When we reached a large bridge I actually had to get out and push the bike to the top .. Regardless, we would pay him more than what he had asked… getting him closer to that motorised dream.
The ferry itself was pretty good. We had wooden boxed bunk beds as our personal space and there was a common room for hanging out. All the lower decks were air conditioned and there was an open air bar up top with plenty of snacks for sale. Leaving the pier, the ferry followed the coast line of a long peninsula that was completely lined with cardboard box dwellings almost piled on top of one another.. kilometres of this, with the huge shipping yard cranes in the background. Once out at sea, we were able to put the guilt .. errr … Manila behind us. All in all, it was a great cruise to our destination, Coron town on Busuanga, part of the Palawan Islands.
What followed, was a pretty uneventful two weeks in this region. We spent almost the entire time searching for a beach with snorkelling right off the shore. We had watched countless YouTube videos of the beautiful waters of Coron and Elnido.. crystal clear .. people swimming, diving, snorkelling, kayaking.. having the greatest time.. paradise. What those countless videos forgot to stress was that these beautiful spots are only accessible through the various organised tour boats. Another option was to hire your own personal boat but this was very expensive. We rented a motorbike and searched the coast for some secret spot to snorkel but came up completely empty handed. We did find some hot springs, which we dipped into .. a strange activity in the tropics .. heat on heat .. dizzy spells in paradise. In the end, we gave in and tried an “island hopping” tour.
It was the same old same old. Grouped up with 10 others .. time limits on the various swimming spots .. being carted around like baggage, following the multitude of boats doing the same as you. This was what was called “island hopping” .. a term that will forever make me laugh. In our experience, island hopping is visiting an island, perhaps staying on that island a few days and then moving on to the next island once you are ready. This was just a big joke .. a big tease. Here is paradise (sort of), you have 20 minutes..
I say “sort of” paradise, because really, Coron wasn’t what we expected. First of all, it was very dirty. There was garbage everywhere in the town and hundreds of stray dogs and cats. The waters surrounding the island were brownish green and you know what that means. The human waste goes straight into the ocean .. or most of it anyhow. There was no finding my snorkelling sweet spot off this island. A boat was needed for sure to get away from the mangroves, garbage and sewage. During our “Island hopping” tour, we passed a 30 inch tube television floating a kilometre offshore in the ocean.. We couldn’t believe it.
I’d like to blame the garbage on the tourists, but that wouldn’t be fair. I think the tourists are more conscious of littering then the locals are. I firmly believe that 90% of the garbage is their own doing. They just don’t seem to care. When passing some extremely poor dwellings, the first thing you would notice is the junk and garbage. Nevermind the shack made of wood scraps and tin, a normal site around the world. Nevermind the over grown vegetation that would drive the average Canadian neighbour to call town council. But smelly garbage in your yard! It is just there for the pickings. I would pick it up as a starting point to bettering my situation. They have fish in the ocean, they have weather and fertile land for growing things .. food isn’t the issue here. Sanitation is.
***January 2017 edit – We are currently in India and could easily delete the above paragraphs.. Philippines was relatively sanitary compared to here. ***
Another example of this would be the stray dogs of the Philippines. There is an epidemic of tics or fleas going on over here with these poor dogs. From the beginning of our trip in the Philippines, we were seeing these dogs with messed up bums. Their butts all mangled and awful looking. The questions you ask yourself seeing this .. Then we noticed completely bald butted dogs with scabs and sores .. then dogs with half their bodies missing hair, again covered in bloody scabs .. and then the climax is running into that poor dying animal that makes your eyes water. Their entire bodies bald and covered in irritated itchy sores and pussy crusts of blood .. sun burnt .. dry .. neglected and ignored. The worst part of it all, is that the dog knows it. It knows that nobody EVER pets him anymore. It knows it is a spectacle and a reject now. I approached one such dog that was lying down to take a picture of it. It heard me crunch on a pile of gravel, looked up at me, and then got up and moved away to another spot.. I literally felt the dog express “Just leave me alone, don’t take my photo” as it stumbled away from me.
From what we understand, the dogs get the tics and start to nibble at them where they can reach themselves ..their butts. They scratch and bite day and night till their butts and hind legs are raw and hairless. Then they rub themselves on pavements and trees to scratch themselves till they are completely hairless and looking like a hell hound. And we aren’t talking a couple dogs here and there. I would say most of the dogs we saw had this problem, going completely mad spending their days endlessly scratching. The few healthy dogs we saw had owners who provided them with medication or preventative collars.
Coron was very expensive .. grrr .. something the guide books failed to mention. We were blowing our daily budget everyday.. eating fried chicken and rice every night because it was the cheapest meal we could find. After a week of mild disappointment, we decided to cut our losses and book a ferry to the main Island of Palawan. We were going to the town of Elnido to continue the search for accessible clear waters. Our time in Coron had some positives like the friends we made on the tour and the subsequent party with them, the exploratory motorbike rides and the hot springs that were a first for us. Not a complete bust, but given the chance to rewind time, we would not return to Coron.
Elnido was different from Coron .. a bit cleaner .. a bit more organised. There was actually shoreline you could walk along and go swimming if you wanted, but the murky water was just as bad here. A step in the right direction but a fail none the less. We spent a couple days here plotting out some kind of plan to find what we were looking for. We came up with leaving Elnido and going a short distance down the coast to a village called Corong Corong. From there, we would rent a kayak and row ourselves along the beautiful karsts to find our own proper beach.
Using maps and some obscure forums, we managed to find our private beach far from humanity.. well 2 kilometres away, far enough that the water was clear and the garbage out of site. A small stretch of clean beautiful sand called Papaya beach. 2 kilometres of paddling on the open ocean was a challenge for Sylvie and I, but it was so much fun and very rewarding… the snorkelling was excellent. We had found it! The only thing we were missing was food. We repeated the activity the next day bringing with us a picnic .. of fried chicken and rice of course. Lady luck was not on our side and on this day we were caught in a very heavy storm and had to ask a random tour boat to bring us back to shore. The irony!! The next day, we succeeded in having our private beach, the picnic and beautiful weather for a whole day of relaxation and snorkelling.. complete paradise. We made the decision to do this everyday for the next week before moving on. This activity completely made up for the failures of Coron and Elnido. But our losing streak was not over. Rain and storms confined us to our hotel for the next 3 days before we made the difficult decision of pulling the plug and leaving behind our golden activity. It was heart breaking ..
We packed up and made our way to the main city of Puerto Princesa and flew out to the island of Cebu, central Philippines. From the city of Cebu, we took a bus to the small town of Moalboal on the west coast .. looking for snorkelling and beach of course. And yes, we found it. The beach was not the greatest, but it was a proper beach at least and the snorkelling was right off the shore and it was excellent. Not our private paradise in Corong Corong, but an easy and convenient way to get our fix. Done deal. The snorkelling highlight was the swarm of sardines that fed at a cliff 50 meters from the shore. I want to say hundreds of thousands ? The locals say millions .. I’m not sure.. We’ve never seen so many fish swimming in unison .. The cliff led down about 50 meters deep .. dark blue was all you saw looking down. I spent lots of time diving down into the swarm and watching them make space for me to swim through them. If you ever watched BBC’s Planet Earth, there is a scene of the great feast with the sardine swarm being eaten by dolphins, sharks, birds and a whale. This was exactly the same minus the predators. Unbelievable experience.. just beautiful.
We weren’t risking anymore loss of time. We stayed in Moalboal right through Christmas and beyond, leaving only to fly back to Manila to leave the Philippines. Cebu island was much cheaper .. much cleaner .. much more organised .. better.. for us. The lesson to be learned from all of this is that Palawan is mostly for the Filipino tourists. They just adore the island hoping tours and the extra expense is what they expect in a holiday. It was all geared for them or serious divers. We had no business there.
The Filipino people are barely Asian. That sounds odd I know, but we have done almost all the Asian countries now, and these people are riding a fine line. For example, the language we heard the most was a mix of English, Spanish and some original Asian language. If you understand Spanish and English, you will be able to pick up on what people are saying around you. Not just the odd word, but many words. Numbers for example, are counted in English. The majority of Filipino speak very good English with that classic Mexican accent we have come to love from Cheech and Chong.. It’s pretty awesome.. Spanish Asians! For the record, the Philippines were colonised by the Spanish for about 400 years, and then endured over 50 years of U.S. colonisation as well. That explains that.
They have been very unhappy with their government for many many decades, citing corruption and drug violence as the main reasons. Their new president, Duterte, is a hero around here. I asked every Filipino we spoke to about their opinions of Duterte, and we received a resounding vote of approval and admiration for him. They are so happy that he is dealing with corruption and problems .. sometimes first hand. They say that there is a noticeable difference in the streets .. that just months ago, they could not walk down the street without fearing desperate drug users or feuding drug gangs.. and that now, it has all but disappeared. Night and day to them. They say he gives you chances to clean yourself up and change your ways, and if you don’t listen and work towards change, then you are as good as dead. I know back home, we don’t approve of such measures, but they are having some very positive effects on the quality of life for the law abiding citizens of this country.
They are very happy people. As one man put it, no money but still happy. They love to sing and do their Karaoke. They love their parties and many of them enjoy a few beers now and again. They love their fire crackers, but most of all, they absolutely love their Christmas. They start celebrating and preparing for Christmas in September. They are more into it then we are back home. Since we arrived, it’s been constant Christmas songs everywhere we go. The decorations, the trees, the “Merry Christmas” constant .. On Christmas eve night, we went to bed early, figuring we would celebrate the next day. We were woken up at midnight with a knock on the door and a massive plate of pasta with mushrooms, chicken and white sauce.. Merry Christmas !!! wow.. So we ate the pasta while listening to a battle of fireworks outside in the streets.. hilarious.
Violence seems to be a normal thing around here. Many of the children’s toys are geared to violence .. toy guns that actually shoot things out pretty good .. swords, bats and sticks .. There is lots of talk of death and killing in general. There is lots of talk of many or most people owning guns, although we never saw any. Lots of talk of shootings .. Many warnings to Sylvie and I to be careful and be safe, to not walk here or there by ourselves, to be mindful of our safety, to beware of cab drivers who would rob you .. always analyzing the safety of whatever we were asking about. A bit scary .. We saw nothing of the sort though .. some good luck or just lots of talk.
Living among the Filipino people is a very large population of old, white men who take on young Filipino wives to live out their end days in the islands. We’ve seen this everywhere, especially in Thailand, but in the Philippines, there are way more. The Filipino are not uptight at all.. very easy going, very “Western”. And it’s not only old white men, but many young white men with Filipino wives and kids. Guys in their 20s. This we had never seen before .. A conscious quest for these men? Or friendly Filipino women cleverly trapping these men who didn’t use common sense. Either way, everyone looks happy with the result, especially the happy children living a life rather than sleeping on the streets.
The Filipino are very nice to tourists. Almost too nice. For example, when we arrived, I was tired and impatient, and I was an ass with a bank teller at the airport. I have never seen a bank at an airport, so I assumed it was a money exchanger. When I asked her about changing some U.S. dollars to Pesos, she told me she couldn’t do that.. and I retorted with some smart ass comment. She kindly told me that she was a bank and directed me across the way to the actual money exchanger. She could have easily chewed me a new one, but instead chose to be super nice about the situation and let me off the hook. I was a perfect tourist from that moment on, and it’s been nothing but “Yes Sir, no Sir, sorry Sir” and “Yes ma’am, no ma’am, sorry ma’am”. It’s like someone told them to treat the tourists like royalty or else Duterte will get you! We were told there is an actual hotline to the president’s office for serious complaints .. I think it’s 8888 on a Filipino cellphone..
There was a large gap between the haves and have-nots .. a trend we are seeing more and more.. even back home. We would walk from border line slum like conditions on one street, to an all out shopping mall on the next. We went from people with no work or hope, to a shopping mall teeming with jobs .. exploding at the seems with jobs. Most stores had more employees than customers. Not too bad in a small cell phone shop, but quite bizarre in a department store. We went looking for a few articles of clothing in one such store and we couldn’t believe the number of employees roaming around .. standing around .. congregating in groups and chatting waiting for something to do. Picture Shoppers Drug Mart back home with twice the employees to customers. A note to investors that perhaps this is not the best place to invest your money. But this is pretty good for the citizens .. businesses less focused on profits and more focused on customer service and providing jobs. Is this for real?
Fried Chicken anyone?
Oh my .. it’s been fried chicken heaven. We expected food stalls and street food .. some authentic, new and crazy Asian food to delight in for a month. Instead, we were brought right back home, with an extra dose of grease, sugar and MSG. The food here looks Asian, but tastes Canadian (American). A chicken dish with brown sauce and noodles, taste like a Puritan can of chicken stew from back home. A beef dish with carrots and rice tastes like grandma’s Saturday night giblot. Everything was familiar .. but exaggerated .. more sugar .. more salt.. and full of fat. Want to eat some BBQ pork? Around here, it’s pork belly .. 10% meat, 90% delicious fat and leathery pig skin. We actually were treated to a spit roasted pig while attending the Christmas staff party of our hotel.. The whole pig, brown and glistening .. a chef carving chunks of meat off for everyone .. and of course, cutting out the best part.. the skin .. crispy, thick and delicious .. setting out portions on it’s own plate that everyone helped keep empty. I could eat this every day. There are chickens roasting on every street corner .. We ate grilled or fried half chickens more than any other food during this month.. almost every day, mixed with another dish of course.. fried chicken and spaghetti … fried chicken and garlic rice .. fried chicken and canton noodles .. the combinations are endless.
When travelling in Asian countries, we try not to eat western foods because we want to experience the local food as much as we can. Not only that, but most times, their version of a western dish is not even close to what we expect, and often not good at all. Not in the Philippines. They have their pasta and pizzas down pat. They have great sausage ( maybe imported by German expats ) and hotdogs (when not from 7eleven).. the french fries are always perfect.. we even had chicken shwarma which was excellent. We have gained a bit of weight and have been feeling rather sluggish these past few weeks .. not what we expected, not what we wanted, yet completely satisfying and delicious in a self-destructive kind of way. The cutlery is fork and spoon.. no knives.. try eating your fried chicken with a spoon.. it’s weird at first, but it actually works well.
As I was writing the above paragraph in our Chambre Hotel room, we received a knock on the door. The manager had gotten us a couple halo halos for Sylvie and I .. delivered. This is the second time food has been given to us at the surprise knock on the door. We have been seeing this halo halo all month but never had the courage to try it. It’s a desert with jelly candies, ice cream, whipped cream, some purple slurry stuff, some blue bits of goodness, a bright red cherry, some jack fruit, some banana chunks, some pineapple and BEANS.. yes BEANS. Don’t ask me how, but they go great in this ice cream environment. They add a certain texture to the dish.. completely unexpected and delicious.. just a knock on the door. Thank you Chambre Hotel.
The food was good, but not in any original way. I just read an article on Bloomberg.com about how Filipino food is trending in 2017.. really?
A return trip?
We would definitely return here for a second go at this very interesting country. We would do much more research, rather than simply falling in love with YouTube videos clearly filmed by the Filipino tourists. With so many nooks and crannies, so many seas and islands, we would find what we want before even setting out, knowing now the pitfalls and false positives that exist. I admit, we could have made much better use of our time here. Our private Papaya beach days, our week in Moalboal, the generous and friendly Filipino people, the friends we made, our motorbike adventures, and the sardine swarm more than made up for our squandered time in Palawan. We recommend the Philippines with 2 thumbs up, but leave your heavy heart at home and be sure to do some extra homework on this one.