The Philippines: More than the usual* (Introduction to a series)

Batad Rice Terraces in Banaue, Mountain Province. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Philippines is a country blessed with amazing natural wonders. However, tourist arrivals don’t even come close to that of Thailand. I have read several round-the-world blogs yet a visit to the Philippines is almost always not included.

Clear blue-green water and limestone karsts in El Nido, Palawan

Why is that so? I have spoken with backpackers from all over the world whom I’ve met when I traveled around Mainland Southeast Asia last year and asked this question several times. One obvious answer is that the Philippines is not part of the mainland. Honestly, I half-heartedly believe that. Indonesia is also an archipelago, farther than the Philippines from the mainland yet tourism statistics is better?

The most amazing sunset I've seen in the Philippines. Saud Beach, Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte.

The main reason is definitely the security concerns in the Philippines. With all the news about kidnapping and terrorist attacks, who would want to fly in? But then, the same things happen all over the world, even much worse!

Fish pens in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

I am also almost a victim of my ignorance and almost didn’t see the beauty of Mindanao. When we were planning a 6-month backpacking trip around the Philippines in 2008, I was adamant in not including Mindanao. I’ve never been to this infamous island yet I believed all the things people have been saying that the whole of Mindanao is unsafe and that the Muslims are not kind-hearted people. Though it’s true that foreign and local tourists need to avoid very few places with continuous political instability in Mindanao, but just like everywhere else, being alert and common sense is necessary.

Bongao Peak, Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Mindanao

Looking back, I was glad to make that trip to Mindanao. We even ended up staying for 2 months! It was in Mindanao where I met honest tricycle drivers and strangers who welcomed us to their homes expecting nothing in return.

The old city of Vigan, Ilocos Sur. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yes, one have to be truly adventurous enough to book a flight and hop on a plane to visit the Philippines. Those who do are pleasantly rewarded.

The magnificent Paoay Church in Ilocos Norte. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I’ll be sharing my photos and (mis)adventures during my 2008 backpacking trip in the coming posts. From way up north in Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte, all the way down south in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi. Exploring most of Southeast Asia intimately for more than a year gave me a deep appreciation of my country and being Asian. It was a pleasure to see the Philippines first and I would love to share its beauty as I see it.

*More than the usual.. This line was part of Wow Philippines Tourism campaign which was successfully launched in 2002. Several well-made 30-seconder plugs were aired in CNN and other international channels. The line perfectly described what Philippines got to offer. More than the typical Asia that everyone knows.

Summer in the Philippines! Part 1

Yesterday, 04 March 2010, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) announced that the dry season, or summer, has officially started. The agency said the northeast monsoon (Amihan) has terminated or stopped blowing into the country. It only means one thing.. It’s time to island hop and head to the beach!

The Philippines is an archipelago with 7,107 islands. Choosing which island to visit to beat the heat and work on a fabulous tan is an exasperating task. Here’s a list of the top 5 islands I have visited last 2008 to help you where to go.

1. El Nido, Palawan

© Photographer: Mtkang | Agency: Dreamstime.com

I would say, El Nido is the most beautiful beach I have ever been. It’s not as touristy and crowded as #2 Boracay. One reason is, it’s a bit difficult to get to this island. It is possible to get to El Nido hassle-free but it could be costly. There is a range of accommodation along the island, suitable for backpackers, families and honeymooners. I stayed in Bayview Inn Guest house for PhP350 (US $7) for a double room with fan and a shared bathroom. Unlimited coffee and tea is provided free for guests. The place got a nice balcony overlooking the beach too. The kitchen can also be used for preparing your own meals, which is suitable because once in a while, vendors selling fresh lobster, crabs, prawns and fish pass by the area.

© Photographer: Mtkang | Agency: Dreamstime.com

I recommend the island hopping tours at El Nido Boutique & Art Cafe. For a group of 10 people, they arranged island hopping to the Big Lagoon, Small Lagoon, Simizu Island and Pili Island for PhP400 (US $6) per person including a hearty lunch of grilled fish, grilled chicken, rice, green mango salad and drinks. An additional fee of PhP200 (US $4) for snorkel, mask and fins. The tour was from 8 in the morning until 6:30pm to catch the sunset. It was the best island hopping tour I ever had. El Nido is breathtakingly beautiful. I was amazed with the bluish gray limestone karsts jutting out from the middle of the sea, the clear blue-green water, the white sand and colorful preserved corals.

© Photographer: Mtkang | Agency: Dreamstime.com

We booked another tour to visit other islands. This time it’s for 8 people going to Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Talisay Beach and Helicopter Beach for Php750 (US $15) per person, again including lunch. This time the people at El Nido Boutique and Art Cafe included the mask and snorkel but an extra PhP100 (US $2) for the fins.

Palawan got the freshest and cheapest seafood. Aside from having your guest house staff prepare fresh-from-the-vendor seafood meals for a fee, you can always dine at numerous restaurants around the El Nido town. One restaurant I would recommend is Marber’s. Good serving portions and of course reasonable price. Service is a bit slow because the meals are prepared as ordered. Expect your food to be served fresh from the pan and not just heated by microwave.

2. Boracay, Aklan

Tropical Paradise
© Photographer: Alexshalamov | Agency: Dreamstime.com

Boracay is probably the most popular beach destination in Philippines. The beach is crowded, guest houses and hotels are full specially during the summer months of March, April, May and the Christmas season.

I was fortunate to visit Boracay during the low season and got a cottage at St Vincent Guest House with 1 double bed and a single bed, cable tv and fridge for just PhP500 (US $10). Just like #1 Palawan, there’s a lot of accommodation available for every type of traveler.

Tropical Resort
© Photographer: Alexshalamov | Agency: Dreamstime.com

The 5km stretch of powder-like fine sand of White Beach is divided into 3 stations. Station 1 is where most of the upscale hotels are located. This area is generally peaceful and away from the action-packed night scene. Station 2 is at the center of the beach and where bars, shopping and eating are mostly concentrated. Mid-range priced accommodation are also located here. Station 3 is where cheaper lodgings are located. Recently though, upscale hotels can now be found in this area.

Seafood market
© Photographer: Alexshalamov | Agency: Dreamstime.com

Cheap seafood is in abundance in Boracay too. The best way to try the local seafood is to buy it yourself at the market and have it cooked any way you like at the restaurants around it. For PhP2,000 (US $40), you have fresh fish, crab, prawns and lobster cooked as you wish, good for 2 people! If you are craving for Western food, you won’t have a hard time either. Greek, Italian, Indian, Mediterranean.. it’s all there!

Buffet lunch and dinner signs are all over Boracay as well. It’s not as bad as I expected. Some even include steamed crabs and roasted pig on the menu. Price range is Php250 – 650 (US $5 – 13). May or may not include bottomless drink.

We booked an island hopping tour with Allan B Fun tours for PhP500 (US $10) per person. The buffet lunch and a swim at the Puka Beach was great. However, snorkeling around the area where they took us was a bit disappointing. Most of the corals were dead. The boat man didn’t even care that the anchor was held by a coral. An Italian guy on the same tour was telling the boat man that it was illegal and that he would be reporting the incident to the tourism department. But the boat man just ignored it. I won’t take that tour again nor recommend to others.

To be continued…