From my soft , fluffy, five star bed I somehow transitioned back to reality and made my way to the Western lying island of Palawan. Palawan is relatively new to the tourism game in the Philippines (well, since the 1970s/80s) but it is being touted as a must-go destination. The touting does not exaggerate, Palawan has met every expectation I’ve had of the Philippines, and has been placed on my list of destinations I would go twice.
I can be an unfairly quick judge of places (which is why I have avoided spending any time in Cebu City other than getting from air to seaport, but apparently there’s a mini Amsterdam there?!?). I decided I liked Palawan the moment I breezed down the steps of the aeroplane into the main city of Puerto Princesa. It was 6 am, so the temperature was gorgeous, from the top step of the aeroplane I could see dense green hills beyond the airport building. I felt like an intrepid, sojourner in paradise again, as opposed to a grotty backpacker in need of some purpose in life.
I’d read about an art hostel situated close by the seaport, which from the airport was a mere three kilometres. At this time in the morning, with a wheelie bag… Why what could be better than a nice stroll?
It actually was a nice stroll, Puerto Princesa, indeed the whole of Palawan, has some fierce anti-littering laws. The first time you get caught (even a cigarette butt on the ground), you have to pay a fine of 200 pesos which is around $4-5. The second time, the fine doubles. The third time the fine rises to 1000 pesos, and a mandatory one month prison stay. The streets of Puerto Princesa are clean.
I got to the residential neighbourhood where the hostel was situated, found the very small road it was on, and walked up and down that road three times each time hoping that this would be the time when it would magically appear before my eyes. Eventually a passing cyclist took pity on me, and informed me that it was closed because it had burnt down recently.
Ohhh. Well that explains why no one responded to my emails.
Fortunately I’d passed a place advertising cheap dorm rooms one block back, so I trundled my wheelie case back that way. The thing was though, that place looked, well.. not nice. Whereas the place next door, endearingly named Dad’s Bayview Resort, looked a) really nice, and b) like a ship with portholes and everything!
It also looked way too expensive for me. It was. But when I reluctantly admitted to the owner that it was out of my budget, she conjured up a room for me without a sea view that was third of the price. So there I am in a huge room, with a spotless bathroom, in a cool kooky hotel, all on my own, for the same price as the not nice dorms next door.
Did I mention I liked this place straight away?
Oh, and just because fortune was shining a big massive light house sized torch on me, it was the owner’s 60th birthday that night so I got invited to a feast on the roof. Ha-SAR!
The city itself has a few attractions where you can pass a day or two. I found a church; the Bay Walk on the waterfront; a museum; a cool, urban open concert space that doubled as a skate park; a couple of malls; and the world’s friendliest postal worker who gave me lots of advice on how to send home an awkwardly shaped oil painting I’d been lugging around, and let me use his scissors, pen, table and fan (no aircon in the post office), and cranked up the radio for me as I repackaged the painting.
Mostly though people use Puerto Princesa as a base from which to take tours, such as firefly dining in the mangroves on a boat. Not dining on fireflies, dining whilst watching fireflies.
The tour that every single tourist does without fail, is the day trip to the Underground River near Sabang on the West coast of the island. The Underground River is unsurprisingly a river, winding its way through a network of limestone caves for 24 kilometres, or so. In the earlier part of this century it was voted one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Oooooooh, aaaaaah, special.
The trip starts with a two hour mini-van ride to a beach where your tour guide (and you do have to go with a guide as part of a group, absolutely no way not to) tells you to hang out and wait as a plethora of similar tour groups wait their turn to be called to the boat dock. This is no big hardship, the beach is beautiful, there is plenty of shade, and there are a dozen or so stalls that will make you pancakes, or fruit shakes whilst you wait, and for a mere extra 30 pesos, will turn that fruit shake into a daiquiri for you.
After an hour or so of happy relaxing, your guide will round up the group and get you onto the boats. These boats do not take you into the river. These boats take you to the remote beach which has a path that leads through the jungle to the landing stage at the mouth of the caves.
There you get given life jacket and helmets, and find another shady spot to wait for about another hour until your guide says, “Okay, get in this boat.” Then you’re hooked up with an audio set, and another guide paddles you into darkness.
I don’t mind the dark. Certainly in this trip I’ve spent so much time roaming around deserted paths through foreign towns at night that it would be insane to be scared of the dark. But for some reason, the first fifteen minutes of that boat trip were spent fervently wishing it all to be over. Perhaps it was because I was at the front of the boat so couldn’t see anyone else and felt like I was venturing forth into inky blackness with only one stranger beside me for protection/company. Maybe it was because we’d been warned repeatedly to keep our mouths shut so that bat guano didn’t fall into them. Nice right? Apparently if something cold lands on you, you’re okay, it’s water, but if it’s warm… Hello e-coli.
Eventually though I got a handle on my paranoia. The guides are armed with torches which they use to point out rock formations mentioned on the audio recording, but unlike other commercially open caves, there is no interior lighting as this would damage the delicate eco system, messing up the habitat of the thousands, upon thousands, of bats living there, and also wreak havoc with the water creatures who’ve evolved to live in complete darkness.
The tour lasts for about 45 minutes, covering roughly 1.5 kilometres, and taking in some enormous caverns and some intriguing formations such as The Vegetable Market where the rocks looks like fresh produce , and Sharon Stone which looks like a naked woman. Or at least that’s what the guide says, I saw one mushroom shaped rock, the rest of it…lumpy bit and sharp bits. Very impressive lumpy bits and sharp bits to be sure, but not a broccoli head in my opinion.
Every tour culminates with a buffet lunch at one of three restaurants. Filipino food can be pretty hit or miss. The 60th birthday party food was incredible, and I have had some tasty dishes, but much of the time you’re left feeling underwhelmed, even though the ingredients were probably still breathing through their gills that morning. Fat and chewy bits also seem to play a big part in the cuisine… that can be tasty, in minute amounts.
My luck was holding strong when I returned to town that night as I arrived just in time for a massive parade through town celebrating the Bayalong festival( very dodgy spelling, sorry).
Schools, businesses, and community groups donned costumes and colour coordinated outfits, walking several miles before culminating in a celebration down at the waterfront area, Baywalk, for the Palawan equivalent of July 4th (managed to leave before the bloody fireworks though, damn elusive explosions of prettiness, I keep missing them). I’d sprinted down to the street to watch with everyone else, but most of the tourists in Princesa that night stayed away –probably they just didn’t know it was happening, or were exhausted from lounging around on their river trips – so I was a lone pale ghost in the crowd. For spectating purposes that was AWESOME. Everyone turned to stare at me. At one point a massive group of guys in some sort of official uniform (Police? Military? Milkmen?) marched past, and as each row passed by, turn their heads to look at me quizzically, and then with beaming smiles. I felt like the Queen at the trooping of the colours. Frikking phenomenal.
Not every day though, can be spent feeling like the royal guest of honour at a parade. Well it probably could but all that polite clapping wears your hands out, and in the words of the deranged yet brilliant Dr Frank Furter “…smiling makes my face ache.”
So I am following the tourist trail up to El Nido for island hopping, and snorkelling, and fish barbecues on the beach. Not a huge fan of fish to be honest, but I keep hearing it tastes different if it’s fresh… Less fishy.