The flight from Caticlan to Manila was brief and turbulent. The gentleman behind me never quite succeeded in clearing his throat and the leg-room was very slightly less than the dimensions of my actual legs, but it was blessedly short and, being the Philippines, geographically spectacular from the plane window.
The flight to Vietnam didn’t leave until midnight the following day, so there was ample time to find lodgings, get a lay of the land and send Meg to a climbing gym to stop her climbing the walls, so to speak. We found a suitable-looking place close to the gym but seemingly not too far from the airport for a quick getaway.
What I should have learned from our experience in Cebu is that map scale is an important factor to consider when traversing the Philippines’ dense cities. Side roads that wind between buildings may, in fact, be six-lane highways blasting past whole districts without due care and attention paid to the zoom on map apps. Sixty-two minutes into the ‘short’ taxi ride to the hotel, I realised that I hadn’t given enough credit to the size of Manila.
Having been on the receiving end of a car vs. small motorised vehicle incident (and still carrying around a metal bolt in my arm as a result) I approved of the fact that every two-wheeled motorist and passenger was wearing a helmet, versus the more laid-back approach of drivers in the countryside.
What quickly became apparent was that, on Manila roads, the choices are either helmet or fast, crunchy death. I don’t recall seeing an abundance of traffic lights, but drivers seem to know precisely where they’re going and be damned if they’re going to change direction for something as inconsequential as a pedestrian or another vehicle. Enormous coaches will streak with inches to spare past street corners, leaning enthusiastically on horns that could direct shipping traffic and perforating the eardrums of anyone daring to walk nearby.
Combined with the daily operatic thunderstorms that seem to cling to the city, our time in Manila was rife with sensory drama and perpetually soggy sandals. I optimistically sought out a convenience store umbrella to pathetically combat the weather but, after the first and second store didn’t have any in stock, by the time I got to the third I’d rather lost purpose in my mission. I instead tried to preserve the dryness of my new umbrella in my otherwise waterlogged backpack and set back out into the simultaneously vertical and horizontal deluge.
Like every good drama, our time in the capital had to come to a close. After barely an hour of waiting for a taxi – any taxi, please – we were whisked off into absolutely stand-still traffic for the two-hour stop-and-start journey to the airport for our final departure from the country.
So ends the first bit of the journey. The Philippines and its gorgeous, haphazard geography had treated us relatively well, barring the occasional dubious tummy and misread map. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll find competition for its beaches in any other country on this trip (though I’m happy to be proved wrong), and we’ve been well looked after by everyone we’ve met here. Meg probably doesn’t have rabies, so that’s a win as well.
The fiddly bit’s done – now to mainland South-East Asia.
It’s nighttime by the time our plane leaves the Cebu runway behind, with a convoluted journey yet to come: after getting out of Kalibo Airport on Panay, we still need to haggle for the two-hour journey to Caticlan Port, navigate the short ferry ride to Boracay and finally haggle once more for the tricycle ride to our hotel on the other side of the island.
We left Cebu at 11:25pm – by the time we started to draw close to Oasis Resort and Spa, the horizon is already threatening daylight. The porter on duty has been waiting for us since 1am, and his genial greeting isn’t enough to convince us that we aren’t terrible people for making him wait. We drop our bags in the room, ready to slip into a coma – but it takes no small amount of self-discipline to intentionally be awake for a sunrise in the Philippines, and we weren’t about to waste the opportunity.
Sitting on Illig-Illigan beach, a short walk down the hill from the hotel, we let the sandflies dance madly around us as we watched the sun sneak over the horizon and start its rounds over Boracay. This was especially poignant for me as this was now officially the start of my 30th year on Earth; our irresponsibly fancy, non-backpacker-y hotel and this trip to the luxury capital of the Philippines was all part of Meg’s birthday plotting, and this solar spectacle was an event neither of us had planned for.
Three glorious hours of sleep later, we scraped ourselves off the bed and sloughed our way to the restaurant for exactly the right kind of birthday breakfast, with every intent to go right back to sleep afterwards. That would likely have resulted in the rest of the afternoon vanishing, however, so we grudgingly decided to have a glorious day instead.
Boracay was a familiar name to me even before coming to the Philippines. For better or worse, it’s the tourist capital of the country, particularly with Korean visitors (as my students have informed me en masse). This being an improvised, tight-purse sort of backpacking adventure, such a destination would probably not have been on our radars, but it was my birthday and be damned if we weren’t going to do something special.
I was a bit wary of the crowds at first. I’ve been trained from a young age to Not Be Tedious and I’m already desperately English to look upon as it is: no matter how long I spend in the sun, I’m either ‘bleached’ or ‘violently bacon-like’ without much time in-between, so the least I can do is try to avoid behaving too much like I’m looking for an English breakfast everywhere I go. As with many touristy things, however, there’s a reason for Boracay’s popularity.
White Beach is exactly what you imagine when you picture somewhere like the Philippines. A two-mile bar of bone-white sand stretches along the side of Boracay with palm trees behind and crystalline water beyond; despite its popularity, it’s fastidiously maintained, with regularly-signposted rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the beach (mostly sensible things like smoking, fire-dancing and whatever ‘commercial sandcastles’ are). As a result, you never have to worry about discovering someone‘s cigarettes/broken bottles/remains while picking out the perfect towel spot.
You’ll need to develop a thick skin for salesmen – every few feet someone will pitch a boat tour, massage parlour, restaurant or trinket to you, some more enthusiastically than others. After I semi-jokingly assured one hat seller that my head was too big for most human hats (this is in fact true) and walked on, he came running after me a good kilometer further down the beach with as many large-size hats as he could find. While he caught his breath, I dutifully tried them on to guiltily demonstrate that they, too, were to small for my massive noggin.
Being a commercial hotspot for the Philippines, dining on Boracay is noticeably more aggressive on the wallet compared to the rest of the country. We spent many-a frustrating moment trudging with increasing hunger-induced wrath past wonderful but overpriced eateries (lomi for 200 pesos, pull the other one it’s got bells on my good man), occasionally settling for appetisers or, in our darker moments, 7/11 toasties. It was a turning point, then, when we discovered the wonders of the town’s side streets.
I promised a shout-out in particular to the wonderful folks at Eva’s Homemade Resto and Bar: they don’t advertise themselves with particular gusto and are a little off the main stretch, but their food is a) backpacker-priced and b) spectacular. We spent both breakfast and dinner there, talking with the staff and accidentally advertising the small restaurant to other passing travellers. Eva, Vanessa and Nonoy – and their food – were lovely and I would love to point any hungry adventurers their way.
Boracay’s sunrises are serenely beautiful, but its sunsets are a true spectacle. Dark-sailed boats drift lazily across the bay as the sky becomes a vivid palette of orange and blue hues, putting any social media filter to shame. I gave up on editing the photos as there was nothing I could do to make it look any better than reality.
As our penultimate expedition in the Philippines, we head with quiet trepidation to its capital – the sprawling, decidedly palm-tree-free metropolis of Manila. We’ve got flights to be on and Meg’s got a climbing fix to feed, so we’ll be thrust into the beating and blaring heart of the biggest city for hundreds of nautical miles around.
I reload my camera, shoulder my slightly salty backpack and hope my passport’s around here somewhere.
Our time on the western coast of Cebu Island had been one of sun, sea and slightly soggily sandy sandals, but it was time for a change – a decision we apparently shared with the ever-indecisive Pacific weather.
When we finally boarded the bus from Badian to Cebu City, the ground was scorched by midday sun. Twenty minutes into the journey, someone apparently annoyed the local gods and the entire sky dropped on our heads. Sheets of horizontal rain pounded the passengers’ faces while the conductor fought with rusted window latches; meanwhile, I endeavoured to take photos with rain filling my eyes, camera and undergarments.
After a few howling hours of misted mountains and tropical downpour, we emerged on the other side of the island into Talisay, a city area latched onto the outskirts of Cebu City itself. Our intention was to spend a few spare days with a base in the city to allow Meg the opportunity to get her rock-climbing fix before heading to our next destination, the climbing haven of Cantabaco – though the weather was already starting to raise concerns about the feasibility of doing so.
Talisay was something of an in-country culture shock for us. After a few weeks of roaming the brilliant beaches and dense jungles of the Philippine countryside, we were left reeling when the bus dropped us at the side of a screaming highway in a densely-packed urban landscape. Unfortunately, we were also left a few kilometres from our hotel with heavy bags and tired bodies – and a misread maps app led me to believe it was too close to bother getting a (presumably overpriced) taxi. Thirty minutes later we both agreed that 200 pesos was perfectly adequate for such a journey, but we’d already walked two-thirds of it and were too stubborn to give in.
Having survived enthusiastic motorcyclists, bloody-minded jeepneys and a number of spontaneously non-existent pavements, we finally dropped our luggage at the hotel and gave in to the allure of a Korean restaurant in a nearby mall. We were dusty, bedraggled, missing the cerulean beauty of Badian and ready to fall over on the bed in preparation of Meg’s climbing expedition the following day. This was the plan.
As we left the mall, we came up against a wall of people looking out at some pretty nasty-looking rain. We were convinced in our stubborn Englishness that a little drizzle wasn’t going to keep us from getting back to our hotel just across the street, and strode into the road – into two solid feet of flowing water that hadn’t been there an hour before.
The road was a black river, knee-deep at points and full of standstill, vaguely bored traffic. Meanwhile, the two palest people on the street were overjoyed to find purpose in the pack-a-macs they’d brought with them and waded happily onto the scene, taking photos and giving ironic thumbs-up to slightly-amused jeepney passengers. We had a great time until something unidentifiable brushed past my leg, after which point we stuck to high ground.
One of the additional effects of this torrent, however, is that it almost certainly meant that the climbing trip wasn’t going to happen. Despite my occasionally simian behaviour, I’m not yet much of a climber – but the gecko-like Meg was mortified. As such, we allowed ourself a lie-in with the promise that we’d find an indoor climbing gym elsewhere in the city; when we woke up to glorious sunshine and a bone-dry city, it became apparent that we should never make assumptions about weather in the Philippines.
Before: Cebu under water, 10pm.
After: Cebu, the driest city I’ve ever seen, 10am.
The next few days were devoted to attacking the climbing wall (for Meg) or wandering vaguely around Cebu City trying to write this blog. The daily downchucks of torrential rain made any ambitious adventures unlikely, and we were whiling away the time before flying to our last destination in the country: the lauded beach paradise of Boracay.
At the beginning of this chapter of the Philippines, the protagonists are slumped on a rickety plastic bench nailed to the aft deck of a battered old shipping vessel. Siquijor has become a scattering of faint lights on the horizon behind us, and ahead of the ship the mountains on either side of Dumaguete and Lilo-an are ablaze with dying sunlight. On the flickering TV nearby is a hypnotically terrible Bollywood film which is successfully distracting everyone from the natural spectacle and the drunken swaying of the ship.
After forming an alliance with yet another group of like-minded Europeans, we disembarked and haggled relentlessly with the waiting minibuses before getting a lift to Moalboal from Lilo-an – a good two-hour trip up the western coast of Cebu Island, for a total of 2,500P. A bit pricey for the bohemian backpacker, but manageable between a group of five. Had we more time we would have held out for the far cheaper coastal bus, but it was well into the late evening by this point and options were becoming slim.
I should say a ‘projected’ journey time of two hours, but our driver clearly had things to do that evening; I’m sure he must have lifted off the accelerator at some point but don’t remember being consciously aware of slowing down. The outside world became a Millennium Falcon-esque lightspeed blur of sporadic pedestrians and animals briefly illuminated in the van’s headlights before being aggressively honked out of the way and vanishing back into the night. After barely an hour’s rollercoaster along a pitch-black coastline, we screeched to a halt outside Soul Travellers Guesthouse, unclenched our backsides and slid out of the vehicle.
Soul Travellers is a short drive outside Moalboal, just north of Badian- either a tricycle ride or a scoot from anywhere – and is a quiet oasis for the weary traveller to fall over and be looked after. The owners, Jocelyn and Bear, immediately made us feel at home; the guesthouse is relatively new, but word of mouth is spreading in the backpacker community. A number of guests – ourselves included – plan to stay for just a night or two as a stop on their journey, but end up crashing for multiple extra nights just to soak up the sunsets.
I can’t recommend the place enough; it’s quiet, comfortable, festooned with enthusiastic dogs (and one less-enthusiastic but vocal cat, appropriately named Protest) and barely a minute’s walk from the coast. They have brand-new scooters for hire as well as diving and snorkeling paraphernalia, and will either arrange for specific tours or just point you in the right direction of the numerous local sights if you’re exploring for yourself.
Though we’d intended to embark on the famed canyoneering adventure at Kawasan Falls, we were still in somewhat of a delicate state and didn’t yet feel up to hurling ourselves off cliffs into bodies of water, but we got ourselves on a scooter to check it out from the bottom. Kawasan is Cebu’s most famous waterfall, with good reason – but, like Cambugahay in Siquijor, with proportionate marketing efforts and tourist popularity.
The walk up from the scooter park takes you on a winding jungle path to the first set of falls, where you’ll be ushered to rent a locker (200P) and table (300P) and buy food (300+P) and rent life jackets if you want to swim directly under the falls(50P); rather than being corralled into the tourist pen here, I’d instead recommend walking a little further up to the second, much quieter set of falls.
Being the tourist-trap-phobe I am, I insisted on a secondary excursion to the elusive Montpeller Falls, as suggested by our hosts. It lies at the end of a long mountainside trail, which itself is hidden near the top of a long mountainside drive; we actually only succeeded in discovering it on Day 2, after missing the sign twice. The friendly WELCOME banner painted on a rock was partially obscured by a car, so we’d missed the …TO MONTPELLER FALLS bit and assumed it was just a nice greeting. Our trials were finally rewarded with a totally isolated mountain pool with a spectacular view of the Palawan strait.
The second highlight of Cebu came as a bit of a surprise. While feasting on a freshly-prepared meal and local rum at Soul Travellers, we were offered the opportunity to visit a floating platform in the middle of the bay. As it was long past sundown at this point I asked why we’d do that at night rather than enjoy the reefs during the day.
The platform is a haven for backpackers during daytime – you can hire a local paddle boat to take you out and go snorkeling, diving and drinking with your mates. It looks fun, if a little crowded in the afternoon.
“No,” I was reassured, “you can’t go in the day, too busy. Go at night – you will be on your own, and you can see the bioluminescence.”
My Attenborough-nerd senses tingled. Unbeknownst to most of the local area – and even the hostel owners until recently – tiny, luminescent plankton gather around and under the platform when the sun goes down. We immediately got in touch with the captain (who’d personally discovered the phenomenon) and headed out on his vessel, an eight-foot wooden hull with bamboo outriggers which is slightly less narrow than a large English man but fit Meg perfectly.
Due to it being nighttime (and to my current lack of underwater camera), photos of the bioluminescence was, alas, impossible. At first we thought we’d missed it, but then our guide told us to swim in the shadow under the floating platform. Immediately, we were enveloped in clouds of flashing blue lights as we disturbed the tiny creatures floating in the water. It’s hard to describe how weird and magical it feels to be surrounded by an electrical swarm of sparks underwater, but suffice it to say I’m going to come prepared with camera equipment in future.
Even photos on the platform itself were a struggle, as long-exposure photography does not lend itself to bobbing bamboo structures in the middle of a tropical bay. I wasn’t about to let this stop me bloody-mindedly taking photos anyway, shaky though they may be.
The whole point of improvised backpacking is to have new, memorable and weird experiences, and this was the perfect outtro to our time in Cebu. True to the pattern of Soul Travellers, we extended our stay by two nights to get the most out of the area – but in the end we had places to be, and long bus journeys to get us there.
Bidding the guesthouse farewell, we hauled our gear onto a long-suffering tricycle to Badian in anticipation of the bus to Cebu City, far on the other side of the island across mountains, jungles and a particularly nasty tropical storm. Good thing I brought flip-flops.
So far, so good: sights have been seen, beaches have been beheld and life-threatening diseases have narrowly been avoided. After a few solid days of being Very Pale Tourists up and down the twisting roads of Bohol and Panglao, it was once again time to set out for open sea in search of our next destination – Siquijor (pronounced see-kee-hor), a remote-ish island known for its coasts, its waterfalls and its ancient witchcraft.
Another OceanJet ferry took us from Tagbilaran port to Larena (around P600), due south of Cebu and Bohol. Siquijor Island isn’t huge – a determined scooter ride will circle the coastline in around 2-3 hours – but the towns are relatively far between, usually reached via tricycle. Our destination was Buco Beach, an isolated stretch of sand and palm trees situated not particularly close to anything else: the perfect antidote to a few days of crowds and neon lights.
Some determined haggling at the Larena port tricycle stand eventually got us on the road, and an hour later we started to realise that his initial rates (450-500P) were actually quite reasonable. Teeth rattled and bums numbed by the rocky journey (tricycles are basically houses welded onto ancient motorcycles), we spilled out onto the soft gravel of Buco Beach Resort and were instantly mobbed by an enthusiastic herd of resident dogs.
Buco Beach is the postcard Philippines spot. The restaurant area is an open structure of wooden beams and woven reeds set in the shade of a palm tree grove, which leads immediately to the edge of the water with an ocean view impeded only by a small mangrove thicket. The local dogs swim, play and hump with abandon throughout the day, and there seem to be two weather settings: ‘glorious’ and ‘apocalyptically dramatic’. On any given evening in the Philippines, look out to sea and you’ll see a wrathful sky-god bullying an island somewhere in the distance.
The point of Siquijor in our journey was to take a bit of a breather and explore a small area at our leisure. After a bit of trial-and-error picking out the local scooters (old Vespas are stylish but alarmingly erratic with two riders, one of whom is rather large) we got our ride and went off for A New Adventure.
The plan was to check out a few of the local swimming holes and see what a circuit of the island would yield. Our first stop was at Cambugahay Falls, a spot known for its shaded, deep blue pools – but also the most popular with tourists, resulting in lines up and down the steep, 130-step forest path to the pools below. We’re travelling in the off-season, but it was still pretty bustling; if you’re looking for quieter scenery (albeit with fewer jungle-swings) then Lugnason Falls can be found a short drive past the local town of Lazi at the end of a rough track – a favourite with the locals, and less broadcasted to the minibus masses.
Our circuit took us through each of the island’s small cities; we stopped for lunch at San Juan right next to its glassy coastline, whereby the barely-vaccinated Meg immediately made friends with (and fed corned beef to) a battered old dear of a dog, much to the amused bafflement of onlookers.
The coastal road through San Juan, Siquijor proper and Larena is a winding spectacle of overhanging jungle and blue horizons, broken only by the occasional suicidal dog or emphysemic honk of ancient tricycles. Dotted randomly but frequently along every road in the Philippines are wooden huts selling hot food at around 20 pesos a dish (about 30p), as well as convenient Coke bottles of bike fuel for when you’ve been a bit cavalier with your motorised adventures.
Alas, our Englishness was to rear its ugly head after six whole days in the tropics, and we ended up being totally floored by (we can only surmise) a nasty reaction to actual sunlight for about three days – during which we rode out tropical storms, hideously large insects and one verbose but otherwise friendly gecko from our little beachside hut. The managers at Buco Beach Resort did what they could to look after us, but after the third plaintive request of ‘plain toast with a bit of jam’ as our entire day’s caloric intake I suspect they assumed we were dead.
After putting off our departure for two extra days, we made our slow, careful way back to Larena harbour for the ferry to our next destination – the southern point of Cebu Island. Precious water bottles clutched in weak hands, we shuffled onto the only-slightly-rusty container ship that would take us off into another spectacular Pacific sunset. We were full of expectation, medication – and only a muffled dread that the bloody boat wouldn’t have toilets on it.
The journey has begun. After a heart-wrenching departure from life in Korea, we finally uprooted ourselves and set sail for the Philippines. Setting foot outside the aircraft was best described by the animated customs official: “In the Philippines, we have two seasons: hot, and hotter!”.
It was 10pm and the temperature made me feel, somewhat appropriately, like a piece of rotisserie lechon. We were swallowed by the humid labyrinthine backstreets of nighttime Cebu for our first night’s stay, scored by the local orchestra of blaring jeepneys, confused cockerels and chittering bats.
Our first stop was to be a revisit of an old haunt from the first trip a few years back, to the beachside town of Alona on Panglao Island. I guarantee that any Philippines travel photo you’ve seen and salivated over was taken on such an island; while cities like Manila, Cebu and Puerto Princesa have their chaotic magic, the ‘real’ Philippines (to quote any number of travel gurus) is to be found by boat. A short-ish Oceanjet ferry from Cebu City Port takes us to Tagbilaran, the provincial capital of Bohol and Panglao. Here can be found the area’s main/only supermarket, hospital and animal bite centre – but more on that later.
True to the nature of backpacking, we somehow found ourselves in an improvised crew of Europeans as soon as we arrived; when it comes to defending oneself against the armies of charmingly savvy tricycle and taxi drivers, it helps to haggle in numbers. Bartering a minibus driver from 700 pesos to 600 (about £10) for the four of us, we headed into the palm tree-lined violet sunset of Panglao. Instagram filters exist purely to emulate such sunsets; I instinctively tried to post-process my photos but realised that nothing I could do would actually be an improvement on the reality.
This first leg of the journey was actually a bit of a cheat: we *may* have gone over somewhat trodden paths for ourselves by revisiting Bohol’s bizarrely conical Chocolate Hills and Alona’s offerings of beachside swordfish and lomi soup, but we did manage to have one exiting new experience as a result of my travelling partner’s singular love of animals great and small. We were immediately informed upon arriving that malaria pills aren’t quite as essential as we were lead to believe – but, after one particularly ungrateful cat took a tiny chunk out of Meg’s finger whilst being fed table scraps at a restaurant, we quickly realised that a rabies inoculation may have been a wise investment.
After an evening’s thorough Googling of rabies (slightly more incurable and definitely-more-fatal than we had naively believed) we decided that Meg was definitely, 100% maybe going to possibly die because of the bastard cat if we didn’t get it sorted. The chances were low – it was probably the restaurant’s cat, it was young and seemingly healthy in a tourist-y area – but the whole ‘definitely fatal’ thing was enough of an incentive for us to try a whole new tourist experience: the local animal bite hospitals of South-East Asia. Hereafter lies a quick how-to guide if you, too, love animals more than pragmatism:
1. If you know you’re going to say hello to the pups and kits you meet on your travels, do yourself a favour and get a rabies shot beforehand. Unless you want to rely on your insurance or get lucky at a local clinic, standard hospital fees start around the 7,000 peso (£105) per vaccine mark – and you need between 3-5 separate shots over a two-week period. Note that even with the vaccine you’ll still need to get checked out – it just gives you a bit more time before the ‘certain death’ stage.
2. If you do encounter an ungrateful animal who gives you a bite or scratch – especially if it’s near the face/head – play it safe and check out your local Animal Bite Clinic. There’s loads across the Philippines and probably a lot of South-East Asia.
3. We tried the doctor at a major local hospital first, whose honest advice after a checkup/prescription was to try the clinic rather than going through the hospital – the clinics were designed for lower-income families who absolutely couldn’t afford the standard treatment and are therefore far cheaper.
4. The clinic doctor will sometimes give you a prescription to take to an outside pharmacy to purchase the rabies vaccine vial yourself, after which you bring it back and they administer it. I’m not sure why they don’t keep them in stock at the clinic, but it seems to be the way it’s done.
5. After your initial shot/s, you’ll be advised to revisit a clinic on set dates for vaccine updates; ideally it should be a clinic within the country for consistency, but we’re banking on finding one in Vietnam for the last shot. See following posts for if that’s successful or not…
In summation: there are so many Good Boys and Girls (also cats) deserving of love out here, but if you know you’re going to say hello to them then get vaccinated first. The chances of rabies are low, but the disease itself is positively terrifying.
With that I end the doom-and-gloom informercial and resume my impression of human bacon on the glassy shores of Panglao. It’s hard to fault the view.