Philippines!

What better way to start 2011 with a holiday! I have been grafting away in Korea for a shade over six months and with Kates return to Russia we both felt we needed a holiday together. Long distance relationships are hard but if we can see each other regularly then it should work out in the long run. This gives us both the opportunity to do a little travelling and meet each other in some fantastic places around Asia.

Kate had already planned this holiday with her parents. After a short break skiing they planned to head to the Philippines for six days and then another brief skiing trip before returning to Vladivostok. Unable to join the skiing trip I duly booked a flight to the Philippines and reserved rooms in the same hotels.

We stayed in two places. Initially we had two nights booked on Mactan Island, which is adjacent to Cebu and then four nights near Moalboal on the mainland.

Mactan Island:

I flew from Busan and arrived shortly after midnight on Monday morning. A swiftly arranged taxi whisked me off to check-in at the Costabella beach resort. The thirty minute drive was uneventful apart from encountering the odd road wandering cow. The room was nice and I bedded down. Kate and her parents arrived about two hours later.

We woke up Monday morning; had some over-indulgent holiday breakfast and explored the hotel grounds. The Costabella is a reasonably expensive resort but there was little to do. Being off-season there were few guests and no organised events. With this in mind we chatted to some local boat owners who were hawking trips from the other side of the jetty (The resort was very secure) before setting off to explore on foot. Exiting the resort prison was complicated. You had to pass through two checkpoints and sign your name to say you were leaving the resort. We wandered off into the mangroves and through the shanty town village that undoubtedly feeds off the resort. The people were friendly and it was interesting to see how many Philippino people live first hand. It is estimated that 90% of the population live in poverty. We wandered into a few neighbouring resorts, (lying our way through more resort checkpoints) met numerous guides and souvenir traders and encountered plenty of children who appeared quite bewildered and excited by our appearance. Later in the afternoon we escaped to Mandaue City the island capital. Kate wanted to do some shopping so we headed to SM City; the cities largest shopping mall. The Philippines has a reputation for providing cheap brands. I spent several hours being dragged through womenswear shops with Kate. I did manage to get hold of some new shorts for myself though; and at a hugely discounted price! Kate got a few bargains as well and I got told off for leaving her in the currency exchange queue and hiding (trying on shorts) in the changing rooms. We went to the malls food court that offered many traditional Philippine dishes and I had something that tasted suspiciously like beef stew. We planned to see Magellans Cross and the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino but it was getting late so we headed back.

The next day we were due to check out. We had breakfast and checked out accordingly and requested to put our bags in the secure room. We then negotiated a price (poorly) with a local boat owner and went out to fish and snorkel in the straight between Mactan and Olango island. We discovered on the boat that everything we thought would be included wasn’t. If you wanted to go to this wild island you had to pay a guy a fee, if you wanted to snorkel in a good spot there was a fee etc etc etc….. Instead we just anchored up on the edge of the paid area and snorkelled. You could probably see exactly the same fish and corals here! We fished until the bait ran out and swam and sunbathed in the cloud interrupted sunshine. (Brief as it was). The boat was co-owned by six guys and there was annoying woman on board who kept trying to sell me over priced trinkets. At midday we went back, collected our bags and got a taxi to Panagsama Beach, Moalboal. The taxi ride was two hours. We witnessed Cebu; from overpopulated city, roadside shanty town to mountainous jungle and beautiful ocean views. Kate worriedly busied herself with enquiries about the local snake population and the taxi driver duly fuelled her fears.

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal:

Costabella Beach Resort and Mactan Island were not bad places they just felt like they had an empty soul. The accomodation, staff and pool were nice enough. You just felt trapped and it felt like it’s location: a resort on the edge of a large industrial city and airport. Panagsama beach was something else. The term beach is slightly misleading. It was mostly swept away by a strong typhoon a few years ago. However, the tranquil relaxed atmosphere remained. Kate and I stayed at the Marcosas and her parents; Alexander and Evgenie, stayed next door at the Quo Vadis. Our accomodation was pleasant, less commercial and the staff more relaxed. It was also five times cheaper and a hundred times more appealling! On our first evening we explored the local area a little and had a meal at Quo Vadis. As usual I made the best choice of BBQ pork and chicken; everyone was jealous.

The following day we set off an adventure to Montaneza Falls. We organised a trip through Planet Action Adventure. We set off at 9am in the guides specially built (homemade) truck/tank! Our mission was to complete a canyoning expedition. For the uninformed canyoning is an exhilirating river descent that includes abseiling down waterfalls (some as high as 30 metres on this trip) and jumping off into plunge pools. Our guides Eric, Mario and his two sons (the youngest being 15) were excellent. We hiked up through the jungle for 45 minutes and then entered the river. I had some abseiling experience back in my teens but never down a waterfall. The whole trip was an incredible experience; the scenery was incredible and the action was fulfilling. At the end of the descent there was a volcano warmed hot spring to relax in and a delicious BBQ dinner cooked by the trip chef. In the evening we discovered a few restaurants and bars and a few pool tables to while away the tranquil evenings.

On Thursday Kate and I hired mountain bikes from Planet Action Adventure. For the bargain price of 300 pesos (£5) you could have a whole day of exploration. Alexander and Evgenie hired a motorbike and we all set off to find the locally renowned White  Beach. Despite it being quite large we managed to miss it on our treks. The area is poorly signposted and the locals will send you in different directions to unintentionally confuse you. Initially we found a remote beach. The only signs of life being a few items of fishermens equipment. The scenery on the bike ride was yet again spectacular and the beach when we found it was also nice; although you could see the very beginnings of it becoming a tourist trap and less a remote haven. The local populace always seemed welcome to see you and unlike on Mactan Island and Mandaue City less keen to sell you something. School kids would run to the school gates to wave and say hello. In the afternoon we explored Moalboal the local market town. We bought fresh tropical fruit, took in the local ambience (a kind of relaxed bustle) and explored the area. There was an abandoned church, a local band practicing on the harbour front and the disorganised roads with motorbike-tricycle, bmx-tricycle taxis and occasional random and recklessly driven coaches to watch in concerned wonderment. Moalboal had the feel of a genuine Philippine habitat that Mactan Island had sorely missed. Later, in early evening we visited an orchid gallery. Disappointingly it was not orchid season so we stared at numerous green plants and a few overexcited/crazed monkeys before retiring for dinner, drinks and pool.

On Friday we hoped to go river climbing (up a river and its waterfalls) but due to Planet Action Adventure already having a trip booked to Negros Island and not having enough guides or transportation for a second trip we went snorkelling off the coast of Panagsama Beach. We joined up with a dive boat after hiring some fins and snorkels and set off. The reef was close to shore and full of life. The Philippines has numerous reef areas and dive spots and it is considered by many to have the most diverse marine life in the world. The divers dived and we snorkelled our way along the reef edge as it dramatically plunged off into a navy blue abyss. As soon as we got into the water there was a huge turtle casually swimming by. Unfortunately I was looking the wrong way following some random fish and missed it! The diversty of fish was good. I saw a few clown fish and some stunningly beautiful moorish idols. It was just like being in the film Finding Nemo! On a less cheery note I also encountered two sea snakes; thankfully they looked like babies and were more interested in swimming amongt the coral biting tiny fish than biting me! Some fish took a liking to Kates arm and I felt a little better about the thirty or so mosquito bites that I had collected over the last few days. I have never been that taken by the idea of diving or snorkelling but I am now converted. It is so rare that you get to observe another habitat up close and in such beauty.

On Friday afternoon we went to Kawasan Falls. This popular and well documented region is a must visit on Cebu. We took a fifty minute motorbike tricycle ride from our cottages for 700 pesos (£10) both ways. (The driver will actually wait for you…even if it is all day!) I sat on the back of the bike as thankfully I was too tall for the shaky sidecar. On arrival we were mobbed and paid the mandatory 10 peso access fee. (You encounter this pretty much everywhere….at White Beach we paid 10 peso per head for the access road and 10 peso a head to access the beach- it’s like a community support tax) On arrival we were swamped by guides. I’d say fifteen young men began following us; all trying to convince us we needed a guide so we didn’t get lost (from the path!) or if we needed help hiring a raft etc…. I eventually told them we would be able to cope so they scampered back for some less unsuspecting tourists to arrive. The walk upto the first waterfall was easy then there were various different routes on either side of the river to the slightly more remote and quiet falls which were less flip flop friendly. The first waterfall is the highest; the plunge pool was deep and a striking emerald colour from all the rock minerals. There was a cafe and some rafts set up that kind of ruined it. It was fun to swim in but I enjoyed the more remote falls higher up. You could still swim but there was no one around to sell you stuff or poorly constructed cafes to spoil the scenery. It was a truly serene place and I have never seen anything like it before. Compared to the canyoning waterfalls that carved elegantly through the rock leaving smooth twisting spirals in an incredibly stepply lanscaped setting, Kawasan felt more open and the water flow more powerful. Both were beautiful in their own way but canyoning at Montaneza just felt more special because of the lack of annoying guides and beginnings of commercial enterprise to taint the atmosphere.

On Saturday we returned to the airport I had one more night to stay in Lapu-Lapu city but Kate’s flight was Saturday afternoon. The drive back was enjoyable; we had a spacious MPV rather than a taxi on it’s last legs. The elusive sun made a brief appearance to mock Kates sunbathing aspirations before we set off. We saw some more fantastic scenery on the journey and said some sad temporary goodbyes at the airport before I went off to find a hotel. I found the worlds smallest internet cafe at the airport and found a hotel just in time to escape two Philippino transvestites who were beginning to show me too much attention. I skipped of to the Dulcinea Hotel and checked into some cheap luxury. I was tired. I planned to head out into Cebu City for a night out but could only muster a pizzeria and some quality time with Jack Kerouac. I watched The F.A. Cup from the comfort of my king size bed and slumbered the night away. I had briefly wandered out to get some souvenirs from a mall opposite the hotel and been accosted by numerous groups of overexcited Phillipino women. Without the protection of my girlfriend it was evident I was rapidly attracting interest and this had put me off further from braving the Cebuan nightlife.

On Sunday I casually packed my bags and checked out before heading to my flight back to Korea. I was able to reflect on a great holiday with some great people from the comfort of the three seats I was able to command on the flight home……………. 🙂

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