27.05.2014 - 04.06.2014 32 °C
A lot of folks on the SE Asia backpacker trail miss out the Philippines probably just because it is a bit out of the way; but having heard of its stunning northern mountain scenery and abundance of world-class diving sites, we felt it was not to be missed. We were also curious about how different it would feel to its neighbours, being an archipelago means the cultures here have evolved differently, it is also the only catholic country in Asia thanks to the Spanish influence and the effect of being under US control, following the Spanish, gives it an even more unique mix.
Arriving at Manila (which is actually comprised of 16 different ‘cities’ merging into one sprawling metropolis) airport we got into a taxi by the rank outside and then immediately out of the other side as he showed us a laminated (to make it look official) card of prices, it was 10x what we expected to pay for our destination, drivers here supposed to use meters and you can report them if they refuse, we should’ve taken this guy’s details… Anyway we soon enough got ourselves to the area of Ermita in the heart of Metro Manila, this is a centrally-positioned area with budget accommodation options, though still expensive for what it is, especially by Asian standards, we paid £12 for a box with a shared bathroom! What we found in Manila was a crazy, vibrant place, with modern buildings, coffee shops and shopping malls, neon-clad girlie-bars, an overbearing selection of fast-food outlets, all intermingled with shabby, dilapidated places and many people sleeping rough on streets. It felt like Asia but not quite...
Described by some as a ‘Latin American country in Asia’, this seems a fairly accurate description; our first impression of The Philippines and Manila was quite mixed. The old walled area of Intramuras had a very Spanish colonial feel and was quite attractive; next door skyscrapers hover above shanty towns. Jeepneys (old American jeeps converted into cheap public people carriers) zoom about noisily everywhere churning out tons of air pollution, the streets in Ermita and Malate, which merge together, are hectic and noisy. The sea-front reminded us very much of Mumbai, i.e. it is relatively peaceful compared to the bustling streets and while it looks ok at a distance, close up it’s full of crap and fairly stinky. In summary, Manila was ok but there was definitely no need to linger. Edgy, describes it well, it is an interesting place with a unique vibe, but not a comfortable place, we were careful to keep our wits about us, (it certainly wasn’t a place we wanted to go out drinking, for example).
So we got out of there after just one full day in the city, up north to a town called Vigan in North Luzon, a 9 hour bus ride away. Since Rach is from Wigan, we couldn’t miss the chance to see this place, the girl from Wigan goes to Vigan. We mostly visited for its well-preserved historical streets (we didn’t travel all that way *just* for the name!) It is the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in the country and has two lovely old pedestrianised cobbled streets, a couple of large catholic churches in big squares with fountains and a handful of heritage houses and museums. But really it’s difficult to justify the travel time getting here as after just half a day we had seen everything, eaten the apparently famed empanadas and boiled in the over 40 degree heat. So we moved quickly on to the cooler climes of the mountains, Rach leaving disappointed not to have found a pier or any pies!
Onto Baguio, described as ‘the city of firs’, but yet not as attractive as it sounds. However we did like it. We only meant to spend one night here to break up the travel into the mountains but because we liked it we decided to stay another day. It is quite a 'homely' feeling city with a large student population and it had a nice vibe. There isn’t much here in the way of tourist attractions but it was good to spend a day just hanging around in a decent, small city. The one attraction we did see was Tam-Awan Village, a mock tribal village with huts in the styles of different tribal people, a jeepney ride out of town; this was nice but badly timed as the heavens opened while we were on the way there and though we only got a brief drenching then managed to shelter until it stopped, we didn’t get to see much of the amazing views supposedly enjoyed from there right out to sea, still we are at the beginning of the monsoon season now so this can’t be avoided. Other than that we just strolled around the park and lake and visited a shopping mall which had nice roof terraces with views over city, though we were again alarmed at the amount of fast food joints and stalls. The mall was filled with people, and yet we noticed how no-one was in any of the shops, buying anything (apart form a few families getting their kids things in the ‘Back to School’ sales – so like home in some ways!), they were just filling the eateries, mostly filling up on fast-food and sweet things. Filipinos eat a lot of crap! We managed to find some delicious healthy food at a veggie café however, it was a joy to eat a good salad as we were already tiring of the standard Filipino fair of rice, meat and fat.
Into the Cordilleras, North Luzon’s mountain range, our first stop was Sagada, known for the strange practice of ‘hanging coffins’, apparently some people here prefer the idea of being hung from a cliff-face rather than being buried under ground. We did a short trek here with a small group of young Filipino tourists and a ten (!) year-old guide who we arranged the trek with in the bar his family runs - (don’t worry it’s school holidays here!). He took us to see the hanging coffins, a cave and underwater river, it was short but the scenery was good and we were back with plenty time to enjoy sitting on our veranda sipping local strawberry wine in the afternoon sun, super. The village of Sagada is small, just two roads with a few Bohemian artsy cafes and a small bar with lots of Bob Marley posters and the like, there’s an unofficial curfew of 9pm but this one place stays open as long as people are there, just as long as you make no noise on the way home. We had a nice night out over drinks with the guys we had ‘trekked’ with and the next day had a later than planned get up but still managed to get a jeepney out of there in time to reach our next stop of Banaue in one day - we had read that the last bus left nearby Bontoc for Banaue at 1pm, but this turned out not to be the case.
A 40-min jeepney followed by a 2.5 hour minivan drive took us to the small town of Banaue, which is not too interesting in itself but the surrounding area of astounding rice terraces is the attraction. We arranged a ‘trike’ ride (essentially a motorbike with enclosed side-car) with a lovely guy called Arnold along the bumpy road to ‘Saddle-point’ from where trekked down a clear path into Batad. This is a lovely village nestled in rice terraces, it reminded us of some of the villages we stayed in during our Himalayan trek in Nepal. Once set up in a simple but friendly guesthouse sitting at the top of the village, we trekked further to a waterfall which was a sweaty-business but really worth it, one of the best falls we have seen and so powerful it created waves so it made for exhilarating swimming. It’s a shame there was no cooling waterfall at other end when we got back though as the trek back is much more hard work than getting there as it’s mostly up hill. That evening there was a beautiful sunset (often the clouds roll in during the afternoons here that bring rain, we had noticed the same in Sagada and Banaue, you could almost set your watch by it, but not this evening so we were lucky), it was followed by amazing dusk sky with great pink-grey clouds and distant lightning along with an excellent show of fireflies. It was a magical evening enjoying some local rice wine and watching this spectacular show of nature.
Next day our lovely host from Rita’s guesthouse where we had stayed in Batad, acted as our guide to take us a scenic longer way around (2.5 hours rather than 40 mins) back out to the road to the village of Bangaan, where Arnold had arranged to meet us to take us back into Banaue. This walk was one of the nicest we have done on all of our travels, passing awesome rice terraces the whole way. This whole trip to Batad is a must-do for anyone visiting the northern Philippines and certainly a highlight of our travels.
After one more night in Banaue, where we enjoyed a free (donation appreciated though) cultural show, which was much more enjoyable than we expected, we took an overnight bus to Manila to catch a flight south to the Visayas. This was not too bad a journey but as usual, whenever we take transport scheduled to arrive at a silly time in morning, it gets in early, this time 0430 am rather than 0530 as expected. So we sat in a coffee shop at the bus station awaiting daylight and for stuff to open! From there we headed to the airport for a short flight to Cebu City, The Philippines' 2nd city. This is a fairly modern city with not much to see other than fancy shopping malls, but as capital of Cebu island and a ferry port for nearby islands, it is a place you pretty much have to go through to see these parts.
Not a bad place to spend an evening and stock up and some bits and pieces in a supermarket - noted that sunscreen is expensive here, having only just finished the stuff we inherited from Rach's parent's in Thailand, since her mum seemed to have brought half of Boots with her! On our one morning there T even went for a much needed run (she has signed up to a marathon happening just 3 weeks after we get home and we have not had much opportunity to do much running this past few months…) after which we had a yummy fruit breakfast from our supermarket purchases of papaya, melon, passion fruit, mango… apples and pears will seem boring when we get home. Then it was time to head off to catch the bus to the very northern tip of Cebu Island, Maya, for the short boat trip over to the very little island of Malapascua, to put our diving skills to practice and hopefully meet some sharks…..