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Weeks 21 - 23 - The Philippines

(Manila, Banaue, Donsol, Bohol, Cebu, Malapascua & El Nido)

We flew into the Philippines from Kota Kinabalu. We arrived in Manila after an interesting flight with Cebu Pacific air where after takeoff there is an in flight quiz and the air hostesses stand at the front of the plane, asking quiz questions in broken English about celebrity marriages and general trivia and if you got the answer right you could win a naff prize! Even if you knew the answer, there were far more enthusiastic philipinos waving their hands up to answer them! A very bizarre set up!
On arrival, we went in search of a hostel we were recommended by friends we had met earlier in the trip called Pink Manila Hostel. After a couple of hours circling the city in a taxi we managed to find it. The hostel was really cool, it was about 6 storeys high and had an outdoor pool and bar and the view from the rooftop was amazing, you could see for miles over the city into the distance.
We went out for dinner on Josh’s birthday to a nice pizza place then sampled some of the bars around the lively parts of the city, including a bar famous for its midget boxing and wrestling shows! We were also very happy to find a couple of sports bars to watch the six nations rugby.
Whilst in Manila we got around the city by Jeepneys, these were open backed trucks used as hop on, hop off taxis, they are all decorated in unique ways with bright colours and paintings and patterns across the sides. Manila was quite rough in parts and there were lots of homeless about, especially children living on the streets begging.
After a few days here, we felt we had seen all there was to see and wanted to get out of the busy city and head to Banaue.
We got an overnight bus which was pretty cramped and after a few hours sleep we arrived in Banaue bright an early the next morning. Banaue is a town in the North of the Philippines, famous for its rice terraces.
After we got off the bus we had some breakfast in a café that overlooked a valley of rice terraces and booked our guide and jeepney for the day. We then set off in the jeepney towards Batad, a tiny village located high in the mountains, only accessible by foot through the valleys of terraces. Our jeepney ride was great; we sat on the roof whilst we drove up small roads on the mountainside, looking out to some stunning views over mountains and valleys. We then reached the furthermost point you could by vehicle and got off the jeepney, beginning our walk down the valley towards Batad. The views all the way were great but when we reached the town itself, we realised what all the fuss was about. The village overlooked a huge valley where vast rice terraces dominated the countryside and provided one of the best and most impressive views of the trip. After a drinks break and some time to take in the views, we trekked down through the rice terraces, walking on the stone brick walls that act as boundaries around each terrace, made by the rice farmers years and years before. As we walked through the terraces you appreciate how big they are up close, each terrace standing about 10 feet high and at times you had to climb up them to get onto the next walkway. We walked passed and greeted a few farmers on our way, many of them old women who would work all day tending to their paddie. Each terrace was owned by individual families who are responsible for their own patch. One terrace about 30 metres long would provide enough rice for a family for only two weeks! And once the rice was picked, it would be months before it was ready to be picked again as they only harvest the rice twice a year.
We carried on this trek for an hour or so before we reached another impressive sight, Tappia Falls. This was probably our favourite waterfall we had seen on our travels, tucked away in a valley, high in the mountains. It was a welcomed sight as we knew we could swim in it, a perfect way to cool down after a long walk in the midday heat!
After a swim in the waterfall, we trekked back to Batad and had lunch in a small family restaurant overlooking the terraces. This was easily the best view from a restaurant we had ever seen and probably one of the best you could find anywhere! After a quick nap, we then got the night bus back to Manila.
Our next stop was Donsol, a small town roughly 10 hours bus journey south of Manila. Donsol is famous for its Whale sharks or ‘Butanding’ that swim and feed off the towns shores.
The town of Donsol was a lovely place, a very laid back way of living with beautiful beaches and surroundings. We stayed in a bungalow in a nice resort on the beach front. On our first day there we played basketball on the court at our resort with a French guy we met and spent the evening having some dinner and watching the sun go down with a few beers on the beach.
The next day we hired our fins and snorkels and went down to the visitor centre where you can book a boat to take you out in search of whale sharks. After a quick video about the whale sharks and the dos and don’ts when near them in the water, we set off on our boat in search of Butanding. We were surprised by the amount of boats that were out at the same time; about 20 boats all within the same area searching for whale sharks. We waited patiently for an hour or so with no sightings then another boat made and sighting and all of the boats rushed in towards it. Within seconds the whale sharks had disappeared. We spent the next couple of hours searching around with no luck seeing whale sharks, just a few dolphins jumping out the water, and eventually time was up on the boat and we had to return to shore. We were gutted not to have seen any whale sharks and we were pretty disappointed overall by the way the whale shark centre was run. They claimed to be wildlife friendly but, there were far too many boats, all with loud motors, that would scare off the whale sharks before you could get near to them. Most people we spoke to didn’t manage to see any either so we decided not to have an extra day and spend extra money trying to see them, especially as our visas were running out rapidly! Whilst in Donsol we did however manage to go and experience a couple of cock fights.
The cock fights were really good fun, although they are quite brutal, the whole community gets involved with food stalls nearby and people sitting in families drinking beer and chatting. Then when the fights begin, its organised chaos! There are loads of guys in the pen shouting for bets to be made waving arms and taking money from the crowd. We got involved and put a few bets on and we all managed to come out in profit! Enough to buy a beer in the evening anyway! It was well worth a look!
Following Donsol, we made a fleeting visit to Bohol, a small Island in the central Visayas region, south of Cebu. We planned to cram all the sights in one day here and just about managed it!
We arrived by ferry at Bohol early morning and shortly after got on a bus to the chocolate hills, a large set of hills, close to each other that at certain points in the year, turn brown in colour, appearing like chocolate drops in the landscape, hence the name. The hills weren’t too brown when we saw them which took away a bit of the novelty but they were still worth a visit and we had a laugh imitating the shocking poses we had seen the Chinese and Japanese tourists doing earlier!
After the chocolate hills, we paid a Philipino couple who offered to take us to the tarsier sanctuary centre on their motorbikes. It took about 40 minutes on the bikes and we went through some stunning scenery and winding roads. At one point, we passed a buffalo that was running down the other side of the road with a rope attached round its neck, dragging on the floor behind it, which we thought was odd, then about a minute late we passed an old farmer bounding down the road at about 2 miles an hour, chasing after it, too far away to ever catch up with it! We were in stitches! It was like something off a comedy sketch!
The tarsier centre was pretty cool, we sat and watched a very dated video about the tarsiers and the work the sanctuary performs and then we had a guided tour around the sanctuary, looking at the tarsiers. They are really unusual looking creatures, on one hand they are quite cute being tiny with big eyes but they also have a long, rat-like tail and alien -like feet! You were able to get really close to them but you could only see them sleeping as they are nocturnal, however, some of them sleep with their eyes open so you can still get some good pictures. They were definitely worth visiting, especially as they are rare and the Philippines tarsier is one of the smallest primates on earth and Bohol is one of the best places to see them in their natural environment.
After a manic but fun day in Bohol, we got a night boat back to Cebu, followed by and early bus down to a port where we would catch a boat over to Malapascua Island, a small Island just off the coast of Cebu.
We caught a rickety old boat over to Malapascua, crammed full of local people and boxes of fruit and veg. The waters on the way over were really choppy, we got pretty drenched and we weren’t far from going completely under at times!
As we arrived on the Island we were bombarded by locals advertising their accommodation as per usual but even so you could tell straight away the Island had a laid back atmosphere and the locals were all sitting outside their homes chatting.
Malapascua’s main attraction was the opportunity to dive with thresher sharks, in what of the best spots to see them in the world, so straight away we booked on to a compulsory refresher dive the following day at 7am and then the thresher shark dive the day after. For the rest of the day we walked around the Island seeing what was about, then sat around the pool and played table tennis. We had planned to have an early night, until we heard the locals were having a community party in the middle of the Island around the basketball court, so after some nice local food we walked down to have a look.
It was a lot livelier than we expected so we sat down and had a few beers. After a few more beers we then lost a few pasos on the local gambling game similar to roulette and hit the dance floor/basketball court to have a dance with the locals. Before we knew it, it was 4am and we were at the bottom of a large bottle of local rum, sitting with the village elders, putting the world to rights! Josh was asleep cradling one of their kids who had also fallen asleep in his arms and the boy’s dad was too drunk to move so Josh woke up carried him to his house and tucked him in!
After the heavy night, we slept through our alarms and the diving instructor had to come and wake us up! We were not in the best state to be out on choppy waters on a rocky boat about to go diving! On reflection, we don’t really remember much about that dive or the morning in general!
The next day we went on our thresher shark dive. We had a good night’s sleep and were well rested, setting off early to the dive site called Monad Shoal, about 40 minutes off the coast.
The dive was amazing; we slowly descended down to around 30m depth towards the cleaning station were the sharks come to clean themselves by the small fish that feed on their dead skin. For the rest of the dive we stayed at the bottom on our knees watching the sharks swim past and over our heads! They were huge, some nearly 4 metres long and they are not afraid to come close to you! We saw about a dozen of them and at first it’s quite scary as they come so close but after watching them for a while you realise how calm and peaceful they are, they are really elegant in the way they move with their distinctive long tail gliding behind them. It was such a good experience and the Island of Malapascua was one of our favourite places we have stayed with its laid back atmosphere and friendly people.
After leaving Malapascua we got a boat to Cebu and flew to Palawan, the long, thin Island in the North West of the Phillipines. We caught a bus from the airport at Puerta Princessa and headed straight for El Nido, a coastal town in the north of the Island. We met an English girl from London called Hannah on our bus and the four of us arrived in the pouring rain late at night searching for somewhere to stay, after a couple of hours getting soaked walking from guesthouse to guesthouse with no luck, we managed to find an awesome beach house on the sand for pretty cheap.
Unfortunately, for most of the time we were in El Nido the weather wasn’t great and it rained a fair bit but on the rainy days we explored the town , had a massage and ate some nice food and in the evening there were some really nice bars on the beach just down from our beach house, with live music till late every night so we spent our nights drinking beer on our balcony as the sun went down then moved a few yards down the beach to the bars till the early hours most nights!
We did however, have one day of nice weather so we made the most of it by going on a boat trip to nearby Island and hidden lagoons off the coast, where we snorkelled off the boat and stopped on a nice beach for lunch where we had an amazing seafood barbeque. The Islands around El Nido were almost a smaller version of Halong Bay, with big Island Casts dotted around the sea. El Nido was a beautiful place and the town looked impressive with the mountains in the backdrop.
We loved our time in the Philippines and if it wasn’t for the 3 and a half week visa, we would have stayed longer. It’s definitely somewhere we want to visit again in the future.
Also the Philippines is where we discovered our favourite beer, “Red Horse” a 7.5% lager that cost 30p for a large bottle and tasted amazing! It’s worth going again just for that!
After El Nido, we flew back to Manila where we would head to our next stop, Jakarta, Indonesia.

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Posted by Ben-Rob-Josh 19:00 Archived in Philippines

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