How Not To Get Rabies, and Other Adventures in Bohol and Panglao

by benrobins1

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.