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.

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A trip back to Sagada.. sweeter the third time around

Tree-lined path going to Sumaguing Cave in Sagada

Before starting on an event job a few months ago, I headed up North of the Philippines to prepare and recharge myself from incoming days of physical and mental stress. It was such a joy to be back in Banaue. It was my 3rd visit but the most memorable one because I hiked around the world-famous Banaue Rice Terraces for the 1st time!

Fresh cabbages along the way to Sagada

After 2 fun-filled days sprinkled with unpredictable weather, we left Banaue for a trip back to one of my favorite places to re-visit, Sagada! We took the local jeep for Bontoc at 8:45 a.m. Fare cost is PhP 150 (US $3) per person.

The best seats on the way to Sagada

I was expecting an uncomfortable 2-hour ride due to bad roads like last 2005 but I was surprised that around 98% of the roads are now cemented. The road to Bontoc has one of the most beautiful landscapes. It was a sunny day and the urge to sit on the roof like how some locals take the jeep was very strong. However, my skin was still healing from the burn I got when we hiked the rice terraces so I settled inside the jeep. I just stuck my head out of the narrow window and tried to capture the amazing landscape as much as I can.

Amazing scenery on the way to Sagada

For some reason, we unintentionally set our trip to Sagada during the rainy season. Last August 2008, we even arrived on a stormy day. It wasn’t the muddy roads which delayed our trip to Bontoc but the occasional landslides.
There was a landslide near the town of Talubin but luckily, we only stopped for 20 minutes. I remember when we took the bus from Baguio to Sagada 2 years ago, we waited almost 3 hours for the huge rocks to be cleared.
Along the way, we passed by the Bay-yo Rice Terraces. It may not be often visited since the public transport don’t usually stop there. It has its own beauty. Not comparable to the more well-known rice terraces though.

Rice terraces on the way to Sagada

We arrived Bontoc around 11:30 a.m. We didn’t go around the capital of Mountain Province like before and immediately took the 11:45 a.m. jeep going to Sagada. Fare is PhP 50 (US $1). For those who have the time and wish to explore Bontoc, the Bontoc Museum is a must-see. It has in its possession rare photos taken by Eduardo Masferre, the father of Philippine photography.
As recommended by our friend Ricky aka dutchpickle, we stayed at the very cozy Sagada Homestay. I highly recommend this place. The rooms were spotless, the kitchen and dining area are both well-equipped, free wi-fi, hot and cold showers.. for only PhP 250 per person. St Joseph Guest house is an option in case Sagada Homestay is full. We stayed there last 2008. The dorm rooms which are also double rooms cost PhP 200 (US $4) per person. The guest house got a huge garden overlooking the Sagada town. Cafe St Jo was renovated and is now open for business.

Early morning mist outside our dorm in St Joseph Guest house. Taken last Aug 2008

There are lots of things to do while in Sagada! Exploring the Sumaguing and Lumiang caves, hiking to see the hanging coffins at the Echo Valley, trekking Mt Ampacao, sunrise at the Kiltepan viewpoint, a swim at the Bokong and Bomod-ok waterfalls. Activities suitable for all ages.
However, for this particular trip, I skipped all of it and opted to laze around. I’ve done most of the outdoor activities on previous trips to Sagada as well.
For those who are adventurous enough to try caving, exploring the Sumaguing cave costs PhP 500 (US $10) for 4 pax. The Lumiang cave to Sumaguing cave connection cost PhP 800 (US $16) for 1 – 2 pax, PhP 1,200 (US $24) for 3 pax and PhP 1,600 (US $32) for 4 pax.

A typical Filipino breakfast in Sagada. served with organic red rice

Eating in Sagada is an attraction in itself. The Saturday Night buffet at the Log Cabin is a must-try! Make sure to make your reservation at least before the Saturday Morning Market since French chef and owner Philippe, also known as Aklay, buys the freshest ingredients good enough for the number of reserved seats.

Saturday morning market in Sagada

There are so many restaurants worth trying in Sagada. First time visitors shouldn’t miss Yoghurt House and Masferre Cafe. Both restaurants serve good food in large portions. Bana’s used to be a favorite but since the chef moved to Cafe St Jo, the food quality suffered a lot.

Glad to be back in Sagada!

No matter how many times I visit Sagada, whether to do the same activities, eat the same food or just laze around and enjoy the perfect weather, I’d still look forward to visiting again.. and again.. and again.

Back in Banaue for the third time…and surely, it won’t be the last!

The magnificent Banaue Rice Terraces. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I have a 2 month contract for an event job coming up on the 1st week of August and what better way to spend my last few days of unemployment bliss than heading up North of the Philippines to enjoy the cool and relaxing weather of Banaue! It is my third time to see the Banaue Rice Terraces up close, one of the Philippines’ marvelous tourist sites. It will be the first time I’d be spending a night or two in Banaue though.

Banaue Town. Several guest houses and restaurants are on this street.

There has been several wonderful changes since the last time we were here. First, there are more buses plying the Manila – Banaue route. Florida Bus Company now has 2 daily trips. One is at 9:10 p.m. for PhP 400 (US $8) and the deluxe bus with own toilet leaving at 10:45 p.m for PhP 450 (US $9). We wanted to take the Florida bus since one can clearly see how well maintained their bus fleet are. However, other travelers may have the same thing in mind that by 9:30 p.m., all the seats for the 10:45 p.m. trip has been taken.
Florida Bus Company Flower Bus. Photo courtesy of Drift Kid/ DK at Flickr.

Autobus. They have upgraded their buses too! Photo courtesy of shining_daggers04 at Flickr.

We have no choice but to take the Autobus leaving at 10:00 p.m. for PhP 400 (US $8). I was surprised to see that Autobus has upgraded their buses too! A healthy competition paves the way for better service, much to the advantage of traveling consumers.
We left the Manila terminal of Autobus at exactly 10:00 p.m. and as soon as the bus rolled off, I wanted to sleep so I have the energy to trek the terraces the next day. Over-all, it was a comfortable ride. The air conditioning not as strong as I remembered so my fingers didn’t freeze like popsicle and I was able to doze off easily after catching a few scenes of ‘Hancock’, a Will Smith movie playing on the bus dvd player. The bus arrived Banaue around 7:20 a.m. We were too energized from the 9 hour sleep that we were the only passengers that walked from the bus terminal to the town proper, which is not more than a kilometer away.

More photos of the Banaue Rice Terraces

The second wonderful change that greeted us as soon as we arrive the town proper was a WiFi sign at Uyami Greenview Lodge. We didn’t think twice on where to stay for our first night in Banaue. A double room with clean shared bathroom cost us PhP 400 (US $8).
As usual, several Banaue locals gather around newly arrived guests to offer their tour services. We and three more travelers on the same bus and guest house, managed to negotiate PhP 1,500 (US $30) for a 4 hour drive and trek through the Banaue Rice Terraces viewpoints all the way through the winding terraces and through the town, with a jeep driver and tour guide. A good deal split among 5 persons! As soon as we finished our breakfast and a quick freshening up, Ming and I met with the other travelers; a Danish couple and a German guy.

The view from the 3rd viewpoint. Same rice terrace printed at the back of the Philippine P1,000 bill

We stopped at three viewpoints. The view gets more magnificent the higher the viewpoint. The 3.5 hour trek around the rice terraces started at the 4th and main viewpoint. The hike was fairly easy at the beginning. Cemented yet steep steps going down and up the rice terrace and stone wall edges welcome us for the first hour of our trek.

Cemented steps leading up the rice terrace.

If you look closely, you can see the cemented steps leading up the rice terraces.

Hiking the Banaue Rice Terraces

Midway, the trail gets difficult as we need to cross unstable and muddy terrace edges which is only around 10 inches wide at a height that could break a few bones if you fall. The trek is definitely not for the those with fear of heights.

One must know how to balance and walk through a narrow pathway. A fall from this height would surely break some bones.

The rice fields were so green and lush! It was a nice time to visit the Banaue Rice Terraces, though in the afternoon, it’s always raining.
Once the rice fields turn gold, it means the rice is ready for harvest.
Some of the rice on several terraces were ready for harvest. We saw local women harvesting and took the chance to see how a newly harvested rice looks like.

Newly harvested rice!

We were back at Banaue town by 2:00 p.m. and with some luck, we got back before the heavy rain. I didn’t realize how sun burnt I was until I was scrubbing my back when I took a quick cold shower a few minutes before dinner time. Literally, it was a pain in the neck (and shoulders!).

Nope I wasn't on the beach. I was high up in the mountains and burnt my shoulders. A real pain for the last 2 days.

Another pleasant surprise later during the day was a chance meeting of travel writer, Ricky a.k.a. dutchpickle. We’ve checked his website for new information on Banaue and Samar before our trip and we never expected to meet him personally. We were chatting with him during breakfast and my impression of him was he looks like your usual seasoned traveler yet friendly and humble. He even shared landslide photos near Hapao since he heard we were planning to hike the area that same day. A great guy indeed! Only during dinner time when we shared a table with him and had the chance to chat longer that he showed his website. How amazed we were that he is dutchpickle.

A shot from the main viewpoint

On our second day in Banaue, we went back to the viewpoints by taking the jeep going to Bontoc for PhP 50 (US $1) per person. We were hoping to take better photos by getting there early, however, when we reached the 4th viewpoint, it started to get cloudy. A few minutes after that, it rained heavily which went on for almost the whole day. We were fortunate to catch an empty tricycle going down to the Banaue town proper so we reached our guest house clean and dry. What’s more fortunate was the driver charged us the local rate of PhP 20 (US $.40) for 2 people!

Happy to be back in Banaue!

I’m glad I had the opportunity to revisit Banaue, stay a few nights, meet new friends, view and hike around the world-renowned rice terraces. I am pretty sure this trip will not be the last.

Summer in the Philippines! Part 3

Have you read the first and second part?

5. Pandan Island Resort, Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro

Last but by no means the least, Top 5 on my list is Pandan Island Resort in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro. Forget Puerto Galera! It’s time to head Southwest of Mindoro to have this one of a kind island paradise experience. I have never heard of this place until I read about it on the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide Philippines guidebook. The place is more known for diving due to its proximity to Apo Reef. However, those who want a laid back and tranquil summer getaway, this is the place for you.

There are direct budget flights from Manila to San Jose, Mindoro via Cebu Pacific Air. From San Jose, a local bus to Sablayan would cost you PhP122 (US $2.44). If you have pre-booked your accommodation at Pandan Island Resort, airport transfers may be included. You should have enough cash to last your stay though because there are no ATM or banks in Sablayan. From Sablayan, you need to take a 30 minute boat ride for Php100 (US $2) to reach the island. The boat is docked just in front of the tourist information kiosk. If you’re lucky to catch the Pandan Island service boat buying stuff at the market, you can hitch a ride for free.

For open water divers, Pandan Island Resort is the best jump off point to Apo Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely one of the best dive sites in the world. The resort’s dive shop have the boat and proper diving equipment to arrange an hour and a half trip and bring you to the largest atoll like reef in the Philippines. For hardcore divers, you may also choose to join a liveaboard safari which includes diving the Japanese wrecks at Coron, Palawan.

Once at the resort, a welcome drink of your choice would be served by the friendly French owner Dennis. He’s always accompanied by his naughty pet mynah Chili.

I was surprised to see Chili, the mynah, flying around freely but would always fly back to Dennis once he start calling. My family have taken care of at least 3 mynahs but they were never that friendly.

Sometimes his cat Mikesh and dog Mikko would be hanging around too.

For our first day at the resort, we stayed at the standard cottage for PhP1,280 (US $25.60). It was more than the usual amount we pay while backpacking around the Philippines but at that time, the budget accommodation was under renovation. We were short of cash because we weren’t aware of the lack of ATM in Sablayan, nonetheless,  Dennis was very understanding of our plight that he rushed the renovation of one of the budget rooms so we can transfer the next day.

The standard cottage have 1 double bed and a single bed, all with mosquito nets. You may notice the tap water is a bit salty. Natural water resource is not available yet on the island. The resort buys fresh water at nearby Sablayan and they would give a bucket of fresh water for bath and a pitcher of fresh water for brushing teeth.

The budget rooms with 2 single beds for PhP700 (US $14) got shared bathrooms but during the lean season when we were there, no one else use it except us. All lodgings are clean and well-ventilated with rustic decor and furniture.

We didn’t waste time and went to snorkel right away around the island. The corals were very well-preserved though it’s just a few feet from the beach! We were told that as soon as opening the resort more than 20 years ago, they requested, from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, a restraining order on any form of fishing within a certain radius around the island. It was a very smart move. It was indeed one of the highlights of our stay since we skipped diving Apo Reef due to a very tight budget. On another part of the island, we were snorkeling with sea turtles! There were no corals on that area, just sea grass, but it was fun to watch at least 5 turtles feeding and swimming with us.

The restaurant at the resort offers great tasting food. The nightly buffet for PhP400 (US $8) is worth a try. Fresh fish and seafood were served with local dishes.

After a week’s worth of party and karaoke noise from Puerto Galera, where we were in before heading to Pandan Island, I appreciate so much the peace and quiet the place offers. Fireflies abound. You could hear the crickets and the waves rushing to shore before a serene sleep.

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…

My Favorite Spot in the Philippines

Amphitheater-like rice terraces in Batad. The view outside my PhP 100 room a night.

This is one place I would love to visit again and again,definitely my favorite in the Philippines.. Batad. Cool weather, inexpensive yet delicious food, US$3 basic room, fireflies at night, zero pollution, magnificent view…what else can I ask for? Aside from relaxing and just enjoying the cool mountain air, one can hike along the rice terraces or to nearby Tappiya waterfalls without a guide.

The Tappiya Waterfalls. The cool, clear and clean water will refresh you after a long hike.

Both times I went to Batad, I stayed at the Hillside Inn. Myrza Addug, the owner, is no doubt the best. She was the town captain and I could tell she was a worthy leader. Even though she has given up her post, it’s still very much obvious how the residents trust and respect her.

The rooms are very basic, just a double bed and nothing more. An electric fan is not necessary since the weather is cool any time of the day. Temperature may drop during the night so if you plan to visit Batad, bring at least a long-sleeved shirt, pullovers or thick socks to keep you warm. The guest house provides blankets but during the colder months which is from November to January, it’s not enough. Bathroom is shared. Unfortunately, there’s no hot shower. However, you may ask for a pail of hot water for less than P50 or US$1.

Hillside Inn Batad owner, Myrza Addug and me.

At night, although the amphitheater-like rice terraces cannot be seen, you’ll be treated with another attraction.. fireflies! Some trees would be full of twinkling fireflies that it looks like a Christmas tree. It is the only place where I see fireflies just come and go in the room, like a small light bulb moving around.

Getting to Batad is a bit tricky though. There is no direct transportation. It may be a 2 hour hike from Batad junction or a 1 hour hike from Batad Saddle, depends on which jeep you have caught in Banaue, but it’s all worth it.

Hillside Inn, Batad. Breakfast with this view? Priceless =)

To get to Batad from the city of Manila, take the 10pm overnight bus going to Banaue, Ifugao from Autobus station (+6327358096). It is about 10 hours to get there including toilet stops. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.. when I was there last 2008, there’s no atm in either Banaue or Batad. Not sure of money changers though. Some travelers prefer to head straight to Batad upon reaching Banaue and some prefer to stay in Banaue and go to Batad for a day trip. I would always choose the former. When you arrive Banaue around 7am, don’t believe local men waiting around the Autobus depot that there’s no jeep going to either Batad Junction or Batad saddle then offer chartered jeep for a high fee. In the Banaue town market, near the tourist information center, there are jeeps leaving for Batad Saddle around 9am for P100/ US$2 and jeeps leaving for Batad Junction between 10am – 3pm for P50/ US$1. If you choose to get a tricycle (Philippine version of a tuktuk) all the way to Batad Junction, it may cost you P150/US$3 for 2 people. Tricycles may initially ask for double that amount but can be negotiated. You may also choose to leave some of your unnecessary luggage in any Banaue guest house for P25/ US$.50 per day but if you stayed there overnight, these guest houses won’t charge you a cent.

There’s only 1 trail going to Batad so you won’t get lost. It’s not a steep inclined pathway and a leisurely pace would get you there in 2 hours. Keep an eye for natural spring water marked by a fresh leaf where the water drops. It means it’s safe to drink.

Hillside Inn got the best view in Batad

And this spectacular view and cute cozy guest house awaits the adventurous one..

*An update on getting to Banaue! Read on! =)