Over the course of years, the Philippines hav escaped my grasp. They stood just outside the ‘casual’ trip from Hong Kong while I was there, on my salary anyways, and weren’t part of any greater trip planned during those formative years. They are vast, somewhat intimidating, and much of the world only hears about the crime in Manila, the ongoing Islamic rebellion in the south, and Duterte’s state-sponsored goon squads.
My younger self would have run off with little more than a guidebook and some drunken enthusiasm, but I wasn’t too keen on endangering anyone else on this trip, namely the Girl. So with some research done and some plans made, we had decided to head to Palawan, and spend a couple of weeks exploring this relatively quiet western corner of the archipelago.
Only a trick of the light, or misrepresentation on global maps, belies the sheer size of the Philippines. They are absolutely colossal, playing host to an incredible array of differing landscapes and populations, and defining them all as a singular landform or population seems disingenuous. It’s more like a collection of city-states, sharing only a flag. Multiple denominations rule the churches and mosques, and some striking tropical jungles and coastlines lie almost completely untouched. It’s an explorer’s paradise, and a spot that deserves far more of a my time. After a night in Bali, we flew through Manila, and on to Puerta Princesa.
Thailand has it’s tuk-tuks, Hong Kong and China the insane cabbies, Burma it’s monster busses, and Indo loves it’s scooters. But this was new. The cabs here were, in their most basic form, 1200cc motorbikes, but featured this fibreglass seating arrangement sidecar, with a bench seat. In the hundreds, they blasted along the streets of this sweaty, and somewhat dusty town. I liked them immediately.
The town itself was somewhat unremarkable, but it was mostly just a base camp for travels out to the south and north. Of course, we still got stuck in to the local cuisine, and sampled the well-sized beers and fish-heavy dishes. It was nice to be speaking english, and the locals had this kindness, a quality of default caring, which was notable after Indo. We felt it as soon as we landed.
We made out way south that week, to explore a remarkable saltwater cave system, before leaving for El Nido and the famous Bacuit Bay. With the scenery laid out in front of us, the Girl was determined to sort out her dive license, although it was somewhat depressing to see how rapid growth had impacted this area, which turned to the sea for so much of it’s tourist identity. The small rivers running through town to the beach were laden with oil and sewage, which was then caught in the surf and thrown up on the beach. Not a great look.
But as a dive spot, Bacuit Bay was fantastic. Not nearly as rich and varied as Komodo, and there were fewer large pelagic species roaming about, but the Caribbean-esque water clarity, and warm temperatures, made it a very chill spot to spend some time underwater. The coral was in fine shape. We even saw a pair of Guitar sharks (actually more closely related to manta rays) swimming about in the shallows.
The dive company we spent our cash with were fantastic, a german-run affair, started by an older lad who had spent most of the past 50 years in the Philippines. His operation ran with the subtle details of the perfectionist: both of his dive boats were immaculate, built in the way of the classic outrigger-supported fishing boat, built with the detailed eye of the craftsman, without straying from the local method. He had actually pioneered some of the nitrogen-oxygen mixes preferred by a lot of prolific and industrial divers, and was known to head off in to the archipelago, and dive on his own, on reefs that had never before seen a diver.
In due course, the Girl was certified, we toasted to the occasion, and headed to the ferry dock at 4am, to catch the ferry to Coron.