May 3rd: Biting Fish and Propellors (Philippines part 1)

Coron TownThe explanation for why Bronwen now has three fish bite marks on her legs is a good one: “The tourists here feed bread to the fish,” explains our tour guide, “and because your wife is so white, the fish mistook her for white bread”. Little consolation for Bron, peacefully snorkeling her way through the many coral reefs off Busuanga island in the Philippines.

Our trip began in the capital, Manila: in the district of Makita featuring a distinctly Southern American feel, with Cuban bars, Mexican restaurants and plenty of street tacos available.  But when it’s so hot outside (we managed to time our visit with the hottest day of the year so far: 38 degrees) the inclination to go wandering  is not so great.  We declined the horse-drawn carriages and offer to explore the old town by “chariot” (Segway), instead opting for darting from shaded cover to shaded cover as we explored the Fort Santiago and cobbled streets of Intramuros on foot.

No jet engines for us

No jet engines for us

I had a sneaking suspicion that the plane to take us from Manila to the island of Busuanga wasn’t going to be huge, but I still expected it to have jet engines. Unfortunately, propellers were the only mode of propulsion on offer.

We landed in the smallest airport I’ve ever encountered*, with luggage being handed out directly rather than put on any kind of conveyor belt.  No security gates or checkpoints on the way out of airport, unless we’re including cattle grids.

Our shuttle bus took us directly to our hotel in Coron, the main town on Busuanga island (although confusingly Coron Town faces rather than resides on Coron island).

Bron on our island-hopping boat

Bron on our island-hopping boat

The last time I went snorkeling was somewhere off the south coast of the UK, where the sea hides its treasure in the murk, and the icy cold water limits time spent in the sea to a minimum.  If there is an opposite, the Philippines provides it.  Pristine, almost translucent waters, mile after mile of coral and a sea temperature of around 25 degrees. Our ‘island hopping’ day trip from Coron took us to saltwater lakes, white sand beaches and coral abundant with fish (with some fish more dangerous than others).

After a few days in Coron town, we joined ‘Tao Philippines’ for a five day tour, fully deserving of its own blog entry.

SunsetFollowing the exertion of 4 nights sleeping in the semi-rough (outside, but at least we had mattresses of sorts), we headed for the luxury of an island resort for the next few days.  El Nido resort on Lagen island, here are a few tips for you:

  • Firstly, do not ask tired, impatient, slightly grumpy guests ‘Do you have anything metallic in your bags?’ immediately upon arrival.  Yes.  Plenty, thanks.  The security guard, a little perturbed by my hands-off, ‘Please help yourself to my bags since I’m not going to start unpacking them for you’ stance eventually let us pass.
  • Secondly, dusk heralds the arrival of mosquitos and other flying creatures, especially those drawn towards the light(s).  Covering up your food may help to prevent your dishes from featuring insect surprise as a bonus.  I suspect the arrival of the swarm of bees on our last night wasn’t your fault, but maintaining a ‘Nothing to see here’ approach doesn’t work when they bounce off hands and faces and greet diners head-on in the meat dishes as they attempt to avail of your buffet.
  • Lastly, promising to arrange our transport off the island but failing to do so, and not even telling me you’d failed to do so, wasn’t a great experience. But thanks ultimately for the free shuttle bus service to Puerto Princessa.  I won’t hold you responsible for our driver’s obsession with Modern Talking’s 80’s classic- “Brother Louie”‘.  After the 6th remix, I could keep quiet no longer. He swapped the CD for his other one  -‘Air Supply’ (seek them out, kids).

Our last night in the Phillipines was back in Manila, this time in a hotel with bedrooms cleverly disguised as bathrooms. Saloon-style swing doors into the toilet area with a uniform tiled floor throughout: an open, very cosy layout.  Not somewhere you could share a room with a co-worker.

Public transport in Manila

Public transport in Manila

We’ve had an amazing, unique, couple of weeks away. Even for a non-beach person such as me, the Philippines offers an incredible array of sights and activities to keep its guests fully occupied. And to think we visited less than 1% of the 7000 or so available islands.  My body hasn’t been exposed to this much sun since Butlins, Minehead, circa 1982.  I am no longer pasty white (although I’ll give it two more weeks until normal service is resumed).

We were only 3.5 hours flying time from from Shanghai and yet the natural beauty of the landscape, the cleanliness of the sea and the lack of any air pollution made us feel like we were on a different planet.

*This before our temporary passage through El Nido airport, so small as to necessitate a holding pattern for ground transport, lest they cross the road out of the airport at the same time a plane attempts to land on it.

April 28th: The Tao Tour (Philippines part 2)

The crew and guests on the Tao Phillipines tour

The crew and guests on the Tao Phillipines tour

On the Tao Philippines website, the booking procedure includes an extra step which  asks: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not for everyone’. Looking back, the last four nights of our holiday at the all-inclusive luxury resort on Lagen island, with its air-conditioned rooms, cocktail bars and large pool, couldn’t have been much more different to the previous four with Romy and crew aboard the Tao Philippines boat.

We met up in Coron: Romy and his six crew members along with 10 guests (2 Brits, 3 Aussies, 2 Dutch, a Swede, a Slovakian and an American; there’s always an American), to board our floating temporary home for the next 5 days.  The plan was a simple one – to travel from Coron on Busuanga Island to El Nido on Palawan, stopping at different locations along the way and sleeping in a different place on each of our 4 nights.  Most of the crew slept onboard whilst the guests stayed in huts on beaches; in mangroves; in small villages, all safely covered by mosquito nets.

On the Tao website it states alcohol can be purchased prior to the trip, and helpfully offers the advice ‘Guests should not drink too much in the sun’.  What it failed to mention was that Romy would, without fail, start each evening with a round or two of his signature cocktail: ‘Sundowner’.  A simple but effective cocktail consisting of rum and pineapple juice, mixed at the simple but effective ratio of 50/50. This is rum (‘rhum’) purchased locally for 90 pesos – around £1.50 for a bottle of rum that would be at least 10 times as much in the UK.

Late night with Bron, Michael, Michelle and Guy

Late night with Bron, Michael, Michelle and Guy

Michelle (American) and the Aussie blokes (Guy and Michael) were never shy of joining Bron and I for a few drinks.  A couple of glorious hours sat in the sea, beer or cocktail in hand, taking in the scenery and contemplating our options for retiring early and moving to where it never gets cold and hunger can be solved with a fishing rod. Or an ability to climb coconut trees.

We snorkeled for hours, both with and against the sea’s current (the latter a little disconcerting for those – me and Bron – without fins, when swimming furiously does little other than to hold position in the sea).  I would try to describe what we saw but my knowledge of coral and its inhabitants is so poor it would be like a dolphin attempting to describe a jungle.  What I will say is that I had no idea life underwater was so colourful – blue starfish, Nemo-type fish and purple coral were amongst the many highlights. Also colourful were the backs of my legs – a little suncream insufficient to cope with the sun when magnified by water onto the most exposed part of my body for an extended period of time. The ladies suffered a different problem: ‘sunburned bottom’ I think being the most polite way of phrasing it.

Tao PhiippinesCoral can be dangerous, especially if stepped on whilst attempting to help push our stranded boat back into this sea.  ‘Make sure you clean out that cut,’ offers Guy helpfully, ‘Coral is a living organism and can grow inside you’.  My coral cut added to the injuries already encountered through many mosquito and other insect bites, cuts from crashing into the boat’s ladder and eventually, copying Bronwen by being attacked by a somewhat territorial fish.  Fortunately, we both managed to avoid the jellyfish.

Bron and I had visions of going hungry whilst out at sea; we needn’t have worried – the boat’s cooks did a fantastic job of keeping us fully fed with huge, fresh meals three times a day interspersed with all manner of snacks.  From freshly caught fish, breakfasts of mango, banana and porridge eaten from a fresh coconut to local fruit and vegetables we’d never previously encountered.   And of courses the banana ketchup, a sauce to accompany any Filipino dish.  On our last night, Romy had arranged a spit roast pig, cooked to perfection by some of the local villagers in our final sleepover location.  Eating crackling straight from the pig wasn’t something I’d tried before…

Romy’s filleting skills were also called into action on a few occasions. Fish is caught whilst the boat is out at sea; fish is killed and prepared by Romy; fish arrives as sashimi 5 minutes later.

Ice FactoryFood and drinks onboard are kept cool by huge chunks of ice, purchased from dedicated ice factories -the sign outside our chosen ice source stated simply: ‘Mall of Ice’.  They had a job vacancy for an ‘Ice man’, but without a decent job description I didn’t bother applying.  Especially after seeing the huge blocks of ice, carried single-handed by Romy.

Sleep was hard to come by – the temperature at night retained most of the heat from the day, and the mosquito nets absorbed most of what little breeze was on offer. The full moon seemed to keep most of the wildlife awake, from cicadas chorusing in union at irregular intervals to geckos chanting their name throughout the night (they do – ‘GEH-ko’ repeated over and over, stopping only when you’ve nearly, but not quite, discovered their hiding spot, thus avoiding strangulation). And the bloody cockerels. Everywhere. And not just at dawn.

For a foreign tourist, life out in the open leads to a ritual of lotions: sun lotion first thing and repeated throughout the day;  insect repellent at dusk in an attempt to keep biting creatures at bay; after-bite cream when it doesn’t work; shower gel at night to wash the whole lot off again.

Our luxurious bed

Our luxurious bed

The evenings were mainly spent eating (with a little drinking) although our penultimate evening ended in the world’s smallest karaoke bar (a little further down the beach from our huts) with the world’s largest selection of songs.  Accompanied by Romy and John (the owner/security guard – a man with 14 children and over 70 grandchildren), Bron, Michael, Michelle and I tried a few classics whilst Guy impressed us all with his Filipino rap song.

Our last meal was preceded by another first for me – a massage on the beach.  Organised by Romy, a few of us partook in the sensational experience of a massage near the sea under cover of palm trees.  Maybe a little too relaxing since it nearly sent us all to sleep.

A fantastic 5 day experience; many thanks to Romy and the crew, and to our fellow guests: Kris, Joanne, Julia, Michelle, Guy, Michael, Jonas and Katarina (who introduced me to starfish-phobia) for keeping us entertained.