Bangkok

Time to say goodbye to the Philippines, this was only a brief vacation and it’s time to get back to work. One last look at Manila from the plane, on my way to Bangkok. Bangkok is a convenient stopover on the long flight home, and I have friends here I can say hello to.

Bangkok has open air markets that are larger than entire towns elsewhere. And Thai food is probably the best in the region, a welcome change from the culinary desert in the Philippines.

Hey Joe Viagra?

Went back to Manila. It’s a monster of a city with an unbelievable traffic problem, but the oldest part of it, walled Intramuros, is a (mostly) quiet oasis with restored historic buildings, narrow streets, and a much slower way of life than outside. Part of it is given over to tourists, but just a few blocks away the locals have their shops and markets, with children playing on the street and the locals laughing and bantering.

Tourists for some reason don’t like to stray from the paths laid out in their guide books, and the few who do, like me, become part of the banter. For some reason, we always seem to be called “Joe”. I have been offered three wives along with various chemical enhancements. Despite the great colonial facades these people are quite poor but love to laugh a lot.

Also checked out a few other neighborhoods, but none with the charm and friendliness of Intramuros. Chinatown is a claustrophobic maze of traffic, shops, and noise, and the business districts are just faceless traffic disasters with the usual gigantic malls that the Filipinos are so enchanted with. Rizal Park, next to Intramuros, is a nice place for ending the day with people watching.

Logon to Maya

Malapascua is still unspoiled, beside the few dive centers at the beach most of it is still villages, fields, narrow sandy paths, and friendly people. I have walked for many hours on the island and chatted with people. They went through difficult times after the taiphoon, but there is a smile on everyone’s face.

But I need to move on, so I went back to Logon beach and took a boat back to the town of Maya (were you expecting a CGI reference?). In fact I missed the last boat and bought a bunch of seats to make another one go. I am one of those annoying people with more money than time.

After a five-hour bus ride, which went fine because I got a front seat (Asian vehicles are not designed for long European legs), I found myself in Cebu City. There is nothing to do or see there so I simply checked into a random hotel,  got a windowless room that looked like a prison cell, and was asleep 15 minutes later. Next stop Manila.

Malapascua

Malapascua is a small island off the northern tip of large Cebu Island. Like on Boracay, diving is king here, but it’s no party island. No McDonald’s, no souvenir shops, no fancy resorts, no crowds of tourists. Apart from a few motorcycles, there are no motor vehicles on the island. You can walk all around it in an afternoon. All the dive centers are on the narrow south beach, the rest is where the locals live.

Taiphoon Yolanda hit Malapascua hard. It took roofs off, damaged ships, and destroyed 70% of all palm trees. There are countless stumps on the beach, dead bleached coral litters the beach, and all over the island people are repairing boats and buildings. The tourist village is already completely restored.

Stayed at the Little Mermaid dive center. For the first time, it all came together: a pleasant little resort, large bright rooms, a competent staff, and – for the first time – excellent food. The owner, Manfred, is German and he is a perfectionist. The big reason to come to Malapascua is the sharks and mantas; elsewhere marine life tends to be small.

Negros Occidental

Left Boracay. Beautiful place that reminds me in some ways of Bali away from Kuta and the Australians. But it’s also clear then the Filipinos lack the Balinese’s sense of beauty.

Time to get away from the beach crowds. From Caticlan it’s a long van ride along the coast of Panay to the town of Iloilo. It’s remarkable how much poorer the interior if the islands is – wooden buildings, straw roofs, and bamboo mat walls dominate outside of the few larger towns. The scenery is great, gently rolling green hills. Iloilo itself has little charm, and neither does Bacolod on the other side of a two-hour ferry ride on the island of Negros, which is divided in the Occidental and Oriental sides.

The van ride over the mountains of Negros Occidental is even more stunning than Panay, and also evidently poorer. My day ended at San Carlos on the southern end of Negros. The ferries won’t leave until the morning so I stayed overnight. A nice green town with wide streets, used almost exclusively by three-wheelers, and the inevitable huge shopping mall in the middle with what must be the world’s largest drugstore filled with brightly colored plastic knick-knacks.

Airplane dive

There is a large airplane not far off White Beach in Boracay, at a depth of close to 30m. They floated it there from the airport and let it sink. Unfortunately it flipped and is now upside-down. One can look into the cockpit and the cabin, see the toilet hanging from the ceiling, and admire the intricate design of the three jet engines. Odd that I had to dive to 30m to touch a jet fan blade; on airports this is discouraged. There are no seats, the plane was stripped. Eery.

Boracay

Boracay is a small island but one of the most beautiful destinations in the Philippines. The sand is white, the weather is balmy, people walk barefoot on the two-kilometer beach promenade shaded by palm trees. There is a dive shop every fifty meters, and the dive boats have trouble finding a spot to park on the beach.

My first dive this morning was a big wreck at 30m, with several paths below deck that are safe for divers. It’s an interesting experience to float down through the hatches and float through the passages below deck, where people have once worked and schools of fish now seek protection.

Boracay has its darker side too: the road running through the middle of the island is just as congested, noisy, and filled with smog as Manila, only it’s the two-stroke tricycle engines that produce the filthy air. Getting here wasn’t easy either, after a sequence of jeepney and van rides down the coast of Mindoro I found myself on a rust bucket of a ferry for four hours to Caticlan, arriving to late at night to catch a boat to Boracay. So I spent the night in a tiny room with a bricked-up window and a comfort room that allowed no feelings of comfort. “Comfort room” is the local euphemism for bathroom or toilet.

Diving in Sabang

Sabang is a typical beach town. Laid-back, slow, sunny, and not very crowded (a fact that has the shopkeepers very worried). The big business here is diving, and keeping the divers supplied with alcohol in the evenings.

I went out with a very relaxed long-haired dive master ate South Sea Diving who has been here for 30 years. They have a beautiful reef with colorful soft corals and fairly good visibility, just a few minutes by boat off the beach. Many fish, but no large ones. The first dive was a drift dive, meaning it’s hard to stop and look at things close up, like the wreck we were passing. It’s essentially a side scroller.

The dive master complained that the water was very cold, only 26 degrees C, but someone told me that it’s even colder at home in Berlin. Hard to believe, sitting here at the beach sipping pineapple shakes.

First beach

The Philippines consist of many islands and countless beaches. I am going to visit a few, beginning with Puerto Galera, the galley bay. Getting here from Vigan took 15 hours by bus, van, and ferry. This is going to be a short post because I need to catch up on sleep, but I still wanted to show the shivering folks at home some subtropical beach photos. Enjoy!

Vigan Food

I don’t like Vigan food.  It’s mostly deep-fried greasy animal pieces, like pork belly and sausages that resist description. I don’t see people visiting the Philippines for the food.

Vigan,  the city,  is very pleasant. Its entire downtown has completely preserved Spanish colonial architecture.  A Spanish traveler I have met has felt right at home, right down to the details. Except that many of the buildings could use a touch of paint and maybe a roof. The weather is balmy and sunny. It does appear that the city’s entire Internet traffic,  including mobile, runs through a single slightly psychotic router though.

The Cordillera mountains

Another short seven-hour gut-wrenching bus ride up the mountains brought me to Sagada, a tranquil village in fantastic scenery that just so happened to be in the middle of a festival with competitions, music, and other events. They have UNESCO-protected rice terraces nearby, waterfalls, and caves. I spent much of the day hiking, although frankly, Longshen in China and Sapa in Vietnam – both described elsewhere in this blog – are more impressive.

There is more in neighboring villages like Banaue, where the rice terraces date back two millennia. Unfortunately, the mountain region is already quite chilly and the weather forecast is soaked with heavy rain for the rest of the week.

So, I got up early today and used a series of jeepneys, vans, and buses to pass through Bontoc, Cervantes, and Tagung to Vigan on the coast. The connections were untypically perfect, and I am now back in a subtropical sunny climate. The roads were unbelievably scenic, through craggy mountains, deep valleys, and lush forests; unfortunately there is a law of nature that photos taken from a moving bus are never any good.

North of Manila

Manila is a huge, congested, and noisy city filled with smog, so I caught a bus North to escape to the hills. Baguio turned out to be a small, congested and noisy city filled with smog. I think it’s the jeepneys: essentially an ornately decorated stretch jeep with a long passenger cabin, emitting great clouds of diesel fumes.

But Baguio has its upsides too: it’s much cooler, and it has a leafy Park in its center with open spaces, fountains, a lake packed with boats, and even a bumper car ride. It seems that everyone is out in the evening to enjoy it. Baguio also has the inevitable outdoor markets. As a city it’s otherwise pretty desolate though, and almost all the restaurants I found are US fast food chains or local copies. Well, I only went here because it’s the gateway to the Philippine Cordilleras…