Category Archives: Philippines

Cebu Island

When we started round 2 of the adventure we came to the Philippines and stopped in on Cebu island but only made it to Cebu City and Mactan (the airport area). We saw the main tourist sights (the old fort, a ton of churches and the cross that Magellan planted in the 16th century). We shopped (as much as we do) the main district and sampled the infamous local lechon.

This time my good mate Brad had moved to town with his partner Nora and they were now living in downtown Manila (Makati really). So this gave us a few days of midweek catch-up while he worked and a weekend blowout to Cebu Island.

The thing that we really missed on our first visit to Cebu, and that has been bugging me ever since, was to swim with the whale sharks. So on this fact alone, we were destined to return. The island itself is about 200 kilometres long and 20km wide with coral reefs virtually surrounding its entire perimeter. 

We hopped an early morning flight from Manila, bounced to Cebu (70 mins), hired a car and headed to town as they had not seen the churches and Magellan’s Cross etc. The biggest challenge to this was trying to find a parking spot.

From then we started the 4-5 hour drive down to the town of Oslob. The distance is not that far (120kms) but the road and traffic conditions means that it is time to settle in for a long and stressful drive. Getting access to our hire car was in itself a nightmare. The Filipino systems are brutally inefficient. To achieve even the simplest of tasks can sometimes seem monumental. Yet other times things will run a smooth as silk.

Having negotiated the 5 hr drive, with Brad driving and the rest of us clinging on for dear life, we arrived at our hotel, which on first glance seemed idyllic. A beautiful spot overlooking the ocean, with 25 attentive staff grinning and welcoming us.

On the surface this hotel was amazing, but we would soon find out that it was far from ideal. Initially you are greeted by a grassed area on top of a cliff with a whale shark statue and the fading light of late afternoon sun. Next to the grass was a couple of beautiful blue pools surrounded by cabanas and tables. And then there was the check in. There were quite literally 25 of the friendliest people that you could ever meet smiling and greeting you at every opportunity.

But it seemed that it was not any of those 25 people’s jobs to get our room ready. Similarly it was none of their jobs to ensure that Brad and Nora’s room did not stink of sewage. Our room was a bunk bed with a TV and bean bags underneath it. This may be fine for the local crowd, but at six foot one the underneath area came to below my armpit, and to climb onto the bed I smashed my head. It was physically impossible for me to sit on my bed as I would have sconned myself on the roof. Anyway, the pool looked nice, so why don’t we head to there.

Brad and I settled in, ordered a beer and soaked away the stresses of the long drive and the inefficient staff. As the first beer seemed to evaporate, I then spent about 10 minutes trying to get the attention of one of the 25 staff that were milling about, in an attempt to replace and refill our beers. This became the pattern for every subsequent beer.

After about 15 minutes we tried to order round 3 to find that we had drank them out of the local San Miguel Pilsner. Five people at the bar stared at each other, unsure what to do. We suggested that we remained thirsty and that they should remedy this however between the five of them they remained stumped.

Totally perplexed as to what to do, I suggested that perhaps one of the 25 people standing around with their thumb in their ass could maybe go down the shop and buy a case or two to restock the bar. After some head scratching an several long conversations they agreed with my solution and 20 minutes later someone arrived with the proverbial mouse, proudly displaying it to us as they headed to the bar.

The sunsets were stunning and the moonlight over the water was amazing.

Whale Sharks

The next morning we were up early and out the door by 5 am, foregoing our free breakfast to be there in time to register for our whale shark experience. This is something that you must be there in person to do. So despite our 5am start, the volume of people saw us registering to board boat number 87. So we poked around the trinket shops, had some breakfast and even found a pretty decent cup of coffee.

There was about 10 outrigger style boats that held between 4 and 10 people on each that would paddle out to a mooring rope and give you access to the whale sharks. Here they would moor to the rope as smaller canoes would feed the sharks shrimp, ensuring that the sharks did laps in front of you. Each boat got a 30 minute viewing window, so at number 87, we were in for a bit of a wait. After sitting around for a while, by about 8am (bearing in mind the boatmen had breakfast in the middle of this) our turn came.

And we were not disappointed. The first sightings were from the boat as these huge mouths came up to the surface to feed. The huge heads, gaping mouths and spotted bodies are unmistakable.

Once moored to the lines it is into the water that you go. And now the real show begins. Armed solely with a mask and snorkel and a go pro your adventure goes to full speed within seconds of getting wet.

And then either your boat dude or your mates aim their go pro at you and you have evidence of one of life’s greatest experiences.

The reality is we probably shouldn’t encourage this as the act of the local fishermen feeding the Whale sharks makes them want to stay in Oslob and potentially domesticates them. This then messes up their migration cycle potentially impacting their breeding habits which may have a negative impact on reproduction.

But it is really cool.

Sardine Run

From here we headed down to the bottom of the island and partially back up the other side to the town of Moal Boal. This is a touristy town that was full of western tourists (as opposed to Oslob which was 70%+ local tourists). The town is famous for its diving and most of all for the Sardine Run and abundance of turtles.

We all got to see the millions of sardines swarming and schooling around us but sadly, my camera work was not good enough to capture it well so had to steal a couple of tourist shots. The turtles thankfully moved much slower and gave me some great shots.

Sadly the thing that they didn’t mention about the Sardine Run and Turtle experience was that the area was also swarming with jellyfish. The others managed to dodge it (mostly) but I got caught swimming through a swarm of them. This saw me applying vinegar at the restaurant afterwards and then taking anti-histamines that night as the buildup of toxins were having negative effects.

Kicked out

The next morning we were up for breakfast and I had recovered from all of my jellyfish stings. Jill had woken at 4am and could not get back to sleep so did some computer work while taking in the sunsets on offer.

As we all rose to join her (eventually) she alerted us to all of the reserved signs around our pool and the associated cabanas. I asked them what they were for and was told that they had a group of 35 people who were coming in as they had bought day passes at our resort. I asked him politely where were we to sit then if all of the areas had been reserved. He grinned at us stupidly and clearly had no way to answer. So I asked again, yet another grin.

In essence they had sold out the entire hotel to day trippers, leaving no room for the staying (and paying) guests.

Sumilon Island

Sumilon Island is found about 125 kilometers from Cebu City and the ferry to get there is about 5-10 kms south of the whale shark viewing area. The island is the first marine protected area in the Philippines and was made a fish sanctuary in 1974. Now it hosts a resort with an area of 24 hectares and is surrounded by crystal clear waters.

Having been all but kicked out of our place we hopped in the car and headed down here, took the ferry across and settled into the infinity pool at the top of the hill. After a while we migrated to the other side of the hill for the included buffet lunch.

The reason that we had to migrate was the fact that day trippers were removed from the main resort facilities at noon so that the paying guests got uninhibited access to their own facilities. Brad and Nora opted for all the activities (snorkelling, paddle boats etc) while Jill and I lazed by, near or in the pool.

Mama Mary

Typically referred to as the Simala Shrine this area is about 10 minutes off the main ring road and is the site of the image of Our Lady of Lindogon or more commonly Mama Mary. Devotees believe that this image is miraculous with claims that it has shed tears and it was credited with healing those with dengue fever back in 1998.

We came past on a Sunday , which meant it was manic. But it was a pretty impressive church, set high on a very scenic hill, surrounded by people selling religious icons. We saw the church but did not buy any of the trinkets.

House of Lechon

With Cebu being the home of Lechon, we could not leave before stopping into the most famous of the venues and settling in for some crispy porky goodness. Whole pig, roasted and served with spicy chilli sauce, how could anyone say no to that. Certainly not the four of us, so we settled in before our flight back to Manila.

Our time in Cebu (apart from our hotel) was incredible. The hotel looked stunning and was an Instagrammers paradise, offering great photos and awesome views. But as a hotel it barely functioned. Brad kept making Fawlty Towers references throughout our stay.

On the second night, we were lazing by the pool in the evening and Jill all of a sudden raised her foot and pulled out large sheets of plastic. It turned out that this was the pool insulation that was peeling off in long strips and just floating about the pool.

To be fair, the kitchen was good and the meals were lovely. The staff were friendly and polite but not attentive and totally incapable of problem solving. It was about $70 a night for our basic room and only $100 for Brad’s deluxe room.

Filipino Food

On first glance the notion of food in the Philippines is a train wreck. Getting off the plane and travelling through Manila you will see huge volumes of American junk food chain stores on every block. Golden arches, burger king, KFC, pizza, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks and many more, they are all here, and here en masse.

Add to this a large number of local versions mimicking the American chains and there is no apparent hope in sight. Jollibee is a local fried chicken and burger joint that has sides that include rice and spaghetti. The spaghetti looks like a typical spag bol, but the sauce is much sweeter and is more akin to pouring jam on top of the pasta. I have been reliably informed that the chicken is actually pretty good.

Even a simple wander down a street will yield huge quantities of burgers, hotdogs and fried chicken. While I do accept that there is a place for these, surely this cannot be the main diet. Then you go to a store and find that all of the bread is HEAVILY sugared. This stuff is seriously sweet and even if you ask, there is no non-sweetened version available.

With the exception of the naming of certain items, very little of the Spanish influence seems to have lasted. Perhaps it is the availability of ingredients but the food here is much more localised in nature and is very different from what you may expect (or hope for) id a place with such a strong Spanish history.

Our first foray was to order food at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, what a disaster. We tried to order a nachos, but ended up with cucumber, mayonnaise and canned american spray on cheese (cheese whiz) over the top of corn chips. There was no meat, no spice, no chilli, no sour cream and no guacamole. It was not heated, it was terrible. This was added to by a side of Hungarian sausage and some heavily garlic mushrooms.

Lechon was the first dish to turn the corner for us. It refers to spit-roasted pig or pork belly and is one of the most beloved and culturally significant Filipino foods. This was the first meal that we had that was not sickly sweet or sold from a large chain store. There is a chicken version that is known as lechon manok. Needless to say the chicken is nowhere near as good as the crispy pork.

Crispy pata was the second dish to get us over the Filipino food rut. This is in essence deep-fried pork trotters or knuckles served with a dipping sauce made with vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, onions, sugar, and ground black pepper (mine had a heap of fresh chilli added).  This is a version of lechon, but given that it is the trotters, there is way more crispy skin to go around.

Pork Sisig – Is the one dish in the Philippines that best represents Filipino cuisine.As it turns out, the first bar that we had a drink with Brad and Nora, were giving away a free Sisig with every bucket of beer sold.

It is made with chopped pork face, ears, and chicken liver served on a cast iron sizzling plate. It was invented around the mid-1970s when a former US air base was seen to be discarding large amounts of pig’s heads. turns out, the first bar that we had a drink with Brad and Nora, were giving away a free Sisig with every bucket of beer sold.

Chicharon is basically just bags of crackling. It is the bits of a beast that can be made crispy once chopped up and deep fried. The main version Chicheron bituka is pork intestines that have been chopped up into bite-sized pieces and deep-fried.

Other meats are also used such as Chicharon manok which is deep-fried chicken skin, while chicharon bulaklak is deep fried ruffle fat pictured above), usually served with vinegar to help cut the fat.

Liempo is pork belly. It’s a popular dish that can be enjoyed with rice as an entree or as bar chow with beer. It’s usually served with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce and vinegar or vinegar with garlic and chili.

Lumpia is the local version of spring rolls.typically filled with sauteed ground pork, onions, carrots, raisins, and other vegetables

Longganisa is Filipino sausage, as with everywhere in the world, these are many and varied, and change from region to region.

By now you must be seeing a pattern. If it is not chain store junk food then it is pork, fatty pork, deep fried dishes and mystery meat parcels.

Adobo is everywhere, it is almost impossible to avoid. It is some type of meat, seafood, or vegetables (mostly chicken) that is marinated in a braising mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, black peppercorn, bay leaves, and garlic. If you do any type of tour or anything involving a set menu Adobo will be there.

Batchoy was the dish that we happened to order with our Lechon. This is a noodle (pancit) soup with pork or chicken meat in a clear broth. It was ok without being startling, however it was neither sweet nor oily and greasy, which was a blessing. It also introduced us to our first taste of the ubiquitous Calamansi.

Chicken inasal is one of the favorite Filipino comfort foods. It is charcoal grilled chicken marinated in calamansi, vinegar, pepper, and achuete. It is continuously basted with the marinade.

Pancit refers to a category of mainly Chinese-inspired noodle dishes usually made with rice noodles, vegetables, meat, and seafood. Chilli, soy and calamansi regularly also make an appearance.

Sinigang is another popular and important dish in Filipino cuisine. It is a type of soup or stew characterised by its sour and savory flavors Sinigang is usually made with different vegetables and some type of meat or seafood like pork, beef, shrimp, or fish. It’s usually paired with white rice and served with patis (fish sauce) as a condiment.

Bulalo is a light-colored soup made with leafy vegetables, corn on the cob, and beef shanks filled with bone marrow.

Kaldereta (or caldereta) is a goat meat stewed in tomato sauce. The one we had in Coron was not stewed long enough (so Nora tells us) as the meat was still tough and did not fall off the fork as it should have. THe Flavour though was fantastic.

Bangus refers to milkfish which is the national fish of the Philippines. As with the Adobo, this one is pretty hard to dodge, it will be served up at almost every opportunity. The taste is fine, without being startling. But be warned the milkfish is a very bony fish and you should be careful when eating them.

Silog has become our local breakfast option (whether you like it or not). it is basically a category of Filipino breakfasts that always include (VERY) garlic fried rice, and a fried egg. From here everything is on the table as to the type of meat that you add to it.

We have had so many variations that it would be crazy to list, needless to say pork and chicken is high on the list with a wide variety of how they are cooked. Spam, bacon, ham, sausage, hotdog, chorizo, corned meat, fish all feature and they all have their own name like Bacsilog for bacon or spamsilog for spam…and the list goes on.

And of course, my favourite, was the boodle fight. Such a simple concept, executed to perfection and a joy to take part in. I have been noticing, of recent times, the social media trying to replicate the concept with a dump meal. The modern equivalent seems more to mean dumping out the contents of the take away bag an hoeing in. The Filipino version is much more sophisticated, elegant and yummy.

And some stuff is just wrong and should not be eaten…

Balut is a fertilized duck egg embryo that’s been incubated for 14-21 days, boiled, and then eaten directly from its shell.

Now I have eaten some weird stuff over the years. Deep fried tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, any number of bugs and creepy crawlies. But Balut, no way on this earth will one of these pass my lips.

Summary

If you can get past the initial impressions, Filipino food is quite good. If you avoid the chain stores (at all cost) and limit the porky, crackly goodness that abounds, there are decent meals to be had. Garlic is a VERY big thing in almost all of the dishes, so if there is any fear of vampires then the Philippines may be for you.

Don’t get me wrong, even I, one of the world’s biggest carnivores, was looking for a salad by about half way through.

As a parting gift, our last meal before leaving was in fact Jollibee.

Boracay

Boracay is another of the islands in the central Philippines. Boracay has been listed many times as one of the best islands and beaches in the world by all the travel experts. The island itself is tiny, being only seven kilometres long, and less than one kilometre wide at the narrowest spot. The total area is 10.32 square kilometres and it is packed with resorts, particularly along the west coast where White Beach is lined by palm trees, and directly behind them come the bars and restaurants.

In short, this place is tourist central. But unlike most places we have been to lately, this place is mainly for the locals to come. Not so many western tourists here, the lion’s share of people are local Filipinos enjoying the beach, diving, snorkelling, dining, and parties.

Our first raid on arrival was to wander down to White Beach for the famous sunset. Us along with about 2-3000 other people. This truly is a very popular beach. The sun sets here around 6:00 pm all year round and it is the busiest time on the beach, with lots of people taking pictures and enjoying the view.

After sunset, the beach path gets very busy with a lot of people hitting the various restaurants and bars until around midnight when the bars become quiet as people move from the bars to the clubs. We are old so we typically bail by about 10 after dinner and a few drinks.

Day two saw us jumping on the Island hopping tour so that we could get a good taste of vitamin SEA. The itinerary included stops to Puka Beach, Crystal Cove, Crocodile Island, Magic Island and Coral Garden. Puka Beach was just a nice beach to loll about with some rather impressive sand art and Crocodile Island, surprisingly, looked a bit like a crocodile. Coral Garden was nice but a bit busy, rough and a bit too much current for good snorkelling. This was made a little harder by a few Japanese tourists, who clearly did not swim too well and were thrashing about hitting anyone within range – not to mention scaring away all of the fish.

The thing that amused Jill the most was the Instagrammers. Almost without exception, they all hired the crystal canoes (plastic see through numbers) and spent the better part of 20 -30 minutes contorting themselves while the poor local paddling them about had to take photos of them. They were sitting, kneeling, lying, hanging over the side, just about anything to get their perfect shot. And they were doing it by the dozen as the shallow clear waters were full of these crystal canoes that had turned into photo studios.

Crystal Cove was the main port of call (and a 300 peso per person extra). This is a small island surrounded by very nice turquoise waters, with a couple of caves. On top of the coves, various huts and platforms have been built that overlook the water and waves hitting the rocks of the cove. Underneath is a hole with stairs leading down the cave and a natural pool where you can take a dip.

On the east coast, is Bulabog Beach its strong winds make this side a hub for water sports. This also means that this is all the western tourists, that were missing from White Beach, have gone to hide. The place is chock full of expensive resorts, overpriced restaurants (and I thought the prices at White Beach were high) and expensive past times. The sky is full of kite surfers and the water full of windsurfers – invariably all western, and the street is full of touts.

We thought that we would bum around on this beach as it was less busy, however the wind meant that a lot of debris had blown up on shore and it was not that nice. With the exception of the 100 meter strips in front of the major resorts, where they employed people to rake and sweep the beach constantly.

Nearby is Mount Luho, the highest peak on the island. While only a bit over 100 metres above sea level there is an observation deck that offers panoramic views over the island.

After hitting the tourist spots we decided to have a nice beach day. We headed out to White Beach, waiting an appropriate time for all the tours to go. Even then we got there too early as there was a steady stream of tour boats setting off until almost noon. A bit over the free breakfasts (Silog) we found a cafe that did real coffee (a bit over the 3-in-1) and after ordering found out that they also had real bread (not full of sugar). So Jill had the bacon and egg burger and I had an omelette with mushroom and gruyere cheese.

In short, Boracay is truly one of the nicest beaches in the world and its place on the lists warranted. It is long, with some of the finest sand that I have encountered and generally pleasant. The island however, is much more suited to scuba divers than it is for snorkelers. The nearby reefs have been hit hard by tourists and the currents are a bit too strong for most swimmers. A few meters down, these issues tend to go away. As you can see from the map below there are many dive sites surrounding the island.

Missed piece: this bit happened in Coron but I forgot to add it and it was one of Jill’s favourite things. After the departure of Brad and Nora, Jill and I went out to dinner. We sat down and I ordered a bucket of beer (6 bottles) the waitress turned to Jill and said ‘and for the lady’. This had Jill laughing for quite a while.

Sadly, in our transit to Borocay, an event overshadowed this. So much so that Jill will almost wets herself every time she thinks of it. We were sitting in the waiting area of the airport waiting for the assured gate change. When it came, we were approached by a very meek Filipina girl to advise us of the change (a fact that we knew and were about to move). At this point she looked at me and asked ‘are you wheelchair’, in disgust I got up and headed off while Jill virtually needed the wheelchair as she was laughing so much. For the next few hours, all that I heard from my wife was ‘are you wheelchair‘ followed by her cackling.

Coron

Coron, is the main town on the island of Busuanga and is one of the top tourist places in the Philippines, best known for World War II-era wreck diving. But in addition to this, there are heaps of limestone karst landscapes (almost identical to the Chinese Stone forest), some nice beaches, crystal-clear freshwater lakes, and shallow-water coral reefs.

Error number one: We met up with good friends Brad and Nora. Now, while Nora is lovely, Brad has been variously described as a marsupial beer sponge, a Japanese game show contestant and many more and worse things. Unfortunately, Brad and I feature strongly in each other’s (acts of stupidity) stories, going back many years. Whenever something stupid occurs, invariably, Brad and I are somehow involved and there was no responsible adult there to supervise us. I am certain that Brad is to blame for all of this, however, he may have a different opinion.

But to make a point, Brads first act when we met up was to introduce us to a local cocktail known as the Weng Weng. This is, in essence, a shot of all of the bottom shelf spirits mixed with pineapple and orange juice and the name roughly translates to shitfaced. The official ingredients list is vodka, tequila, brandy, bourbon, scotch, rum, cubed ice, orange juice, pineapple juice and a dash of grenadine. And they come in 1.5 and 3 litre towers (pictured above).

The second thing he did was bring into play both towers and buckets of beer. We had been happily sipping away on the local Pale Pilsen (at 5% abv) but once Brad arrived this quickly got swapped out for the 8% Red Horse and Weng Weng (of course). On the up side it did come with some pretty amazing sunsets.

Coron Bay is a famous dive location as it has the remains of ten Japanese WWII shipwrecks that were sunk on 24 September 1944. These ships (according to wiki) were the Akitsushima, Okikawa Maru, Irako, Kogyo MaruOlympia MaruTaiei MaruKyokuzan Maru, East Tangat Gunboat and Lusong Island Gunboat.

While everything is really close, you still need to hop on a boat and head to the islands for quality snorkeling, scuba or wreck diving. The boats are a type of motorised outrigger and the cost to get to these (as part of a tour) ranges from around 1000-1500 pesos ($28-42) with the cost of hiring snorkel gear (150 pesos pp) on top. They also offer the hire of plastic canoes/kayaks for 1500 pesos).

So we hopped on our first Coron Island Tour (B), as the A tour was overly busy that day, and took off to the twin lagoons (these two lagoons are separated by a narrow cliff and you can get between them by either swimming under the cliff (on low tide) or climbing some narrow wooden stairs (on high tide).

Major disclaimer here: Before leaving Australia I was given access to a GoPro with very little knowledge, handover, idea about what I was doing, or ability to edit videos. The abundance of underwater action and a fear of damaging expensive phones, saw the GoPro make its debut. The images and videos are likely to be terrible but if you bear with me I may get better over time.

The next stop was at skeleton wreck which was a 25m long Japanese supply ship that was sunk during WWII. The highest point rests at 5m with the remainder as deep as 22m. This means that s surface snorkel will get you a good view, and those able to free dive can get down and close to the wreck.

Being a wreck it has turned into a mini-reef with tons of fish life around to see and photograph. Reef garden was next and as you may have guessed, it is a reef where you can snorkel.

The next stop was at a beach (which particular beach varies every time, depending upon how many boats are around and how busy each beach is) for lunch.

Closely followed by a trip to Barracuda lake. The lake contains both salt and freshwater and these create large temperature differences (particularly for divers). This is known as thermocline and halocline, however the guides claimed the temperature difference on the surface was more likely due to urine.

The climb to get in is hellish, on possibly the dodgiest set of stairs ever made. The stairs were steep, narrow, wet, mouldy and with cut up car tyre strips for grip. The water for snorkelers is cloudy and the depth makes it hard to see much, but it was a nice place to float along in the water. And then, all of a sudden, BAM, out of nowhere, a one meter barracuda swims underneath you. I thought that barracuda lake was just a name, until it swam past, Jill reckons she saw two of them.

After such a big day on the water, we were relatively well shattered. A quiet night was followed by a day off the next day, with the exception of a late afternoon trip to the Macquinit hot springs. These are about 30 mins out of town and is one of the few saltwater hot springs in the world.

The trip is a very tough, dusty and uncomfortable ride on a tricycle (tuk tuk) so we opted for the hire of a bongo van instead. Once there, the thermal pool temperature is between 37° and 40° Celsius and is supposed to be more soothing and more therapeutic the longer you stay in there. That said, they also tell you not to stay in for more than 10 mins at a time.

The next day we were back in tourist mode hitting the Coron Island Tour (A). The first stop was at Quin Reef which was pretty much the same as the Reef Garden, but the snorkelling was nice and we saw nice coral, fish and starfish. Then on to CYC beach (Coron Youth Club) for a look and a paddle about.

The next stop was Las Isla de Coral, another good snorkelling spot followed by a beach for lunch. Lunch was identical both days, and from what we could see was identical for every boat. It was fairly simple but consisted of grilled fish, prawns and chicken coupled with seaweed, rice and veggies and capped off with fruit. After lunch, it was on to Green Lagoon, which we had driven through the day before as it was the area surrounding the twin lagoons. Needless to say, this is an area with clear green waters where you can swim and snorkel.

The last stop was Kayangan Lake which is a crystal-clear freshwater lake that has underwater rock formations, caves and islets. It’s a popular spot for photographers, for fairly obvious reasons, and is said to be the cleanest lake in all of the Philippines.

Another day off and the departure of Brad and Nora left us to take the final tour, being the reef and wrecks tour. There are in fact other tours but one is a town tour, given that the main town is a 3×2 block we figured we could explore this ourselves without having to pay 600 pesos per person. The last tour took in the East Tangat Gunboat and Lusong Island Gunboat, along with the Lusong Coral Garden and lunch and snorkelling on Pass Island.

The snorkelling was good, the wrecks were the closest to the surface so far and therefore were the easiest to access, and the beach was the best we had visited since arriving.

Bringing Coron to a close, I stopped in for a well overdue shave and a haircut. Total price 120 pesos, this is under $4 for a haircut and a straight razor shave. Those that have been reading along since the beginning may recall that I fell in love with these in India and have consistently attempted to find and have these shaves. Jill tells me that I am ‘manpering’, I am OK with this.

Leaving Coron, we did a quick hop over to Manila for an overnight before heading on to our next port of call.

Cebu and Bohol

Having flown out of Bangkok, we popped in briefly to Manila, Philippines for a few hours before moving on.

The Philippines is made up of 7,641 islands that are broadly categorised into three main geographical regions, being Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

The best, and my favourite part of the Philippines is the Jeepney. These are a minibus style vehicle that serves as public transport in the Philippines. They are loud, full of bling, generally plastered in religious iconography, cheap and are just a lot of fun. Anyway, after a brief stop in Manila, we headed off to the island of Cebu.

The island of Cebu is around 200 kilometres long and 20km wide with coral reefs virtually surrounding its entire perimeter. Cebu City is the oldest city in the Philippines and the second largest, behind Manila.  It is also known as the oldest settlement established by the Spaniards in the country.

In April 1521, Ferdinand Magellan arrived (to an already thriving port city), planted a cross and started converting the locals to Christianity. Having converted, the local king then told the Spaniards to go to the (nearby) island of Mactan to kill his enemy. This is where Magellan and his crew were killed.

The cross that Magellan planted in the 16th century was moved in the 1800s to Plaza Sugbo, beside the Basilica del Santo Nino. It is now a bit further from the water in an octagonal building made of coral shells.

The pavilion and the cross itself sustained cracks due to the 2013 Bohol earthquake (which happened while we were here starting our first round of touring). The 2013 earthquake ended up killing 222 people and injuring almost 1000.

Despite the death of Magellan, the Spanish influence remained strong in Cebu and the Philippines more broadly. The country was named in honour of King Phillip II of Spain and it was under Spanish rule for 333 years and later under U.S. tutelage for a further 48 years.

Fort San Pedro is the oldest military defence structure built jointly by the Spanish and local Cebuanois. It was built under the command of Miguel López de Legazpi, the first governor of the Captaincy General of the Philippines.

Miguel López de Legazpi was the founder of the first Spanish settlement. He repelled two attacks by the Portuguese and easily overcame the poorly organized Filipinos’ resistance to lay the foundations for the conversion of the people to Christianity.

The Philippines is the second most-populous Asian country with English as an official language (behind India) and one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia (the other being East Timor). Churches and cathedrals abound in Cebu.

Colon Street is often called the oldest national road in the Philippines as it was built in 1565 during the Spanish colonial period. It got its name from Cristobal Colon, who is more widely known as Christopher Columbus. The street was developed and became the centre of commerce in Cebu with the first few businesses established there. The name Colon Street remains equally as valid today. It seems as though the local sewage and plumbing in the area may not have seen any upgrades (possibly) since the 16th century. As such, the raw sewage smells at various points around town are absolutely putrid and overwhelming.

In fact, certain areas of the city look like slums with shanty housing and homelessness does seem common. The money spent on road and drainage upkeep seems minimal, there is no such thing as a footpath and getting about on foot can be challenging.

Lechon, derived from a Spanish word for roasted suckling pig, is one of the most famous and popular dishes in the Philippines. It is usually stuffed with lemongrass, tamarind, garlic, onions, and chives, and then roasted on a large spit over an open fire. Modern derivatives just do the pork belly, rolled. Cebu is renowned as having the best lechon in the Philippines. It was very good.

Why we need to come back

We did not even scratch the surface of Cebu. There is so much to see and do here that we will need to return and invest some more time exploring. Some of the super cool stuff you can do but we missed include: swimming with whale sharks, turtles and schools of sardines, waterfalls, and so much more. The photos below are of the stuff that we will have to do next time and is from the tour operators.

Bohol

Bohol is an island province consisting of the island itself and 75 minor surrounding islands. It is a popular tourist destination with some ok beaches and many resorts. Getting here from Cebu was a breeze. We took the ferry, which has proven to be our easiest and most comfortable commute so far. We were a bit worried as the official blurb was a bit confusing and contradictory but upon arrival, it was simple, easy and stress free. And the ride was really comfortable with heaps of leg room and the ability to get up and walk around.

In actual fact, from Bohol we crossed a bridge which actually had us sleeping on Panglao Island, but apart from the beaches everything we saw and did was on Bohol.

Butterfly Garden

On our tourist day we hopped in with the 6 others staying at our hotel and headed out for one of those tour days to hit the local sights. We met a great Dutch couple around our age and there were 3 early 20’s polish girls and one of their boyfriends who was Spanish. The first stop on the tour was the butterfly garden that had a few birds and a crocodile and probably had as many pythons as they did butterflies.

The chocolate hills are one of the main attractions. They are exactly what they sound like: rounded hills in the centre of the island, that go brown during the dry season so they end up looking like giant chocolate truffles. They are in fact, mounds of brown limestone formations, believed to have been underwater coral reefs before being pushed up.

As it turned out we were not here in the dry season and the chocolate hills were considerably greener, thereby prompting the conversation as to whether they were mint or pistachio hills. But chocolate they were not. Of course there was an impossibly large and steep staircase to be climbed.

The tarsier

The tarsier is one of the world’s smallest primates in the world, measuring between 85 to 160 mm. The average adult is about the size of an adult human fist making them difficult to spot. Their eyes are huge with the tarsier having the largest eye-to-body weight ratio of all mammals. Their eyes are fixed in their skull and cannot move in their sockets. Instead, they can rotate their heads 180°.

Not usually a fan of monkeys (usually referred to as tree rats) these ones were very sweet and you could not help but like them.

Man made forest

The Bohol Mahogany Forest, more commonly known as the Bilar Man-Made Forest, is a dense forest stretching two kilometres along the border of Loboc and Bilar towns in Bohol. The forest is mainly made up of white and red mahogany trees. It is part of a reforestation project started over 50 years ago that has seen the planting of over 1 million trees.

The forest was very nice and was a great initiative. What did not work was the Instagrammers. Cars were literally stopping dead, parking on blind corners, while a bunch of ‘influencers’ were laying in the middle of the road to get their photos taken. On our way back we had to slam on the brakes and very nearly squished some 20 somethings that were lying in the middle of the road.

Boodle fight

This is a term that we have heard of and had described, but until today had never experienced. A boodle fight is a Philippine military tradition where the table is laid with banana leaves and all of the food is piled up in the middle. The official version is that the soldiers gather around the table and eat while standing up without the use of cutlery.

A conversation with the owner of our hotel suggested it as an option and we jumped on the idea immediately along with the Dutch couple (Michael and Sonia). The younger ones were on a tighter budget and did not want to spend the 1000 pesos per head, we had no such qualms.

This is best done in large groups (unfortunately ours was only for 4 so the volume of food was not as visually impressive as the stock photos above). We dispensed with the standing up rule but we did eat with our fingers throughout. We opted for the seafood version that included, prawns, mussels, clams, sand crabs and a huge fish. This was accompanied by rice, fresh fruit (watermelon and mango) and washed down by one litre bottles of San Miguel Pale Pilsen.

The beaches

Bohol is an island and as you would expect there are a bunch of beaches at most of the inlets and coves. And some of them are really quite nice. As an Australian it is tough to rave over foreign beaches as, for the most part, the Aussie ones are bigger and better. But that does not detract from some very lovely little beaches. The main one is Alona Beach. This is in the heart of the tourist strip and is the launching point for island hopping tours, diving and snorkeling trips and the like. It is also the site of almost constant karaoke overpriced food and tons of touts. The beach is a couple of kilometers long but only 5-10 meters wide at most points and sometimes even less.

Doljo Beach is about 15 kilometres around from Alona Beach but is much less developed with fewer resorts. This means a quieter experience, more marine life and a 3 kilometre beach of white sand.  Bolod Beach is popular among local tourists because it is a public beach with no fees. Bikini Beach is popular for the same reason as well as being the closest one to the ferry and main town (Tagbilaran City). White Beach was the closest to us but was quite similar to Alona beach in terms of the tourist hordes and the karaoke. The beach was free so had many more locals but the constant karaoke (of varying standards) was a little more than I could bear.

Ridiculous Overpricing

Having done the tourist tour we were met with some of the attempts at price gouging that we are usually immune to. The first was at the chocolate hills where they tried to send you on a 1 hr ATV or buggy ride. The price was 1000 pesos (almost $30) per person to ride a buggy or ATV around a field – they told us it was the only way to see the hills and that you could ride up the chocolate hills. These were all lies, you could not go up the chocolate hills at all, you could only ride around the paddock.

We (as a group) rejected this, and when pushed, the driver then took us one kilometer up the road to the public viewing point (that cost 100 pesos each), even here the driver tried to convince us that it was 200 each, but the honest ticket collector kept saying no 100, so he missed out on that little scam too.

A little bit later he tried to take us to lunch on floating restaurant. These are basically floating barges that offer a fixed price buffet for 850 pesos (about $25).

While this does not seem expensive this is way over virtually everything else around (by around 250%). A later check of the reviews showed that the food was terrible and massively overpriced for what you got. The 8 of us on the tour would have paid almost 7000 pesos for lunch. We (as a group) rejected this and went hunting for our driver. He was around the corner in a local cafe, that we also then went to. All 8 of us settled in, ordered food, that was really tasty, had soft drinks each and had dessert. Total bill 1090 pesos (less than $4 a head).

Tourism operators offer services and are more than entitled to earn profits and we encourage and support these at every opportunity. The actual attractions (tarsiers, butterfly garden and chocolate hills) were very reasonably priced and were excellent. They offered extra services (like selfies with the tarsiers or photos holding pythons etc) that are just good business. They are reasonably priced and they add revenue beyond the entrance fees and gift shops.

However, some of the overpriced bolt-on extras are just brazen attempts to bilk the tourists and can be obscene. Our driver and the ATV operators were both caught out lying just to extract more money.

Mactan Island

Having left Palawan and Bohol Islands we caught the ferry back to Cebu (once again seamless and comfortable). Rather than staying in Cebu we headed across the bridge to stay closer to the airport for our early morning flight the next day.

This saw us in Lapulapu City on Mactan Island (the previously mentioned site of Ferdinand Magellan’s death). It was a quick stop but an unpleasant one. The begging was off the charts. Not by the needy but by children who just saw foreigners as a soft mark. As soon as they saw a white face hordes of children had their hands out asking for money.

Taal Volcano and then Manila Airport

The trip to the volcano was entertaining to say the least. The drive from Makati out to Taal was fun but uneventful as was the boat ride over to the island. Upon landing we were met with the choice of walking (hiking) up the mountain or paying 500 pesos (about $12) to ride the rattiest looking horses on the planet to the top of the mountain. There was a group of 6 of us who had left the backpackers together. As poor sad backpackers money was an issue, as fat buggers the health of the poor horse was of greater concern. So we chose to hike the hill.

Under normal circumstances the hike is about an hour each way and it is a fair work out….however we picked a day when a monsoon hit the island. Around 10 minutes into the hike the heavens opened and remained open for the next 40 minutes. This had the net effect of turning our dirt path into a river of mud about 4 inches deep while we went up what at times was up to a 40 degree incline and the erosion grooves could not be seen underfoot.

Despite this we continued on, being passed by old Korean women on horses, because we were the only idiots who chose to hike the peak. Jill in her poncho me with nothing. About 25 minutes into the rain patch I had the revelation that my phone, wallet, passport and international drivers licence was in a pocket that had reached saturation point within the first 2 minutes of the monsoon start. We pointlessly paused under a tree to transfer the sodden items to under the poncho and boxed on to the top of the hill.

Upon arrival at the caldera of the volcano the rain miraculously stopped. We were met by the ubiquitous Filipino ladyboy holding a golf club asking if I would like to use the lake inside the volcano crater as my personal driving range. After an appropriate period of time admiring the active volcano (and catching our breath after some quite steep bits on the way up) we decided to head down. I was enthused to see that 2 other idiots chose to walk up as we were heading down. Other than that the rest sat atop ratty nags.

And we returned to Manila. It was our last night in Makati and we had a 3am departure from the hostel to get our 7am flight to Beijing. We jumped a cab that had been negotiated by the hostel staff as using the meter and as soon as we drove off he asked “how much you pay last time”. NO… TURN ON THE METER was the reply. This went on for about 200 meters until I opened the door and got out while Jill stayed in the Cab until I had the bags safely removed. We got into the next cab who promptly turned on the meter and the rest was simple.

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Manila

Well we have landed in Manila and have set up camp in our first ever backpackers hostel. Must admit I am pleasantly surprised. We are avoiding the dorm style accommodation and have an ensuited room to ourselves. Spent the first day sweating and drinking beer and the second was spent wandering the greenbelt shopping district in the comfort of air conditioning for the most part. Day 3 was spent planning our activities in the morning only to find that as we were leaving that the hostel had a free walking tour of old Manila which covered everything we had planned and more. So we jumped on their tour.

We rode in a Jeepey, a train and various other transport modes to get us to the old city, the fort and Intramuros. I had a Jeepney ride high on my list of things to do anyway. A winter in Canberra with low temperatures and low humidity saw me seriously struggling in a 30+ high humidity day in Philippines. I am happy to admit that I was sweating like a big girl at the Boxing Day sales.

I have a few additions for my beer blog that will eventually form another tab on the top of this but I thought that I may have a more rounded beer experience before putting things on line. I am trying to only drink local which so far is working well but as you may imagine there are some mixed quality by drinking only local beer. San Miguel is the local brew and is perfectly reasonable with the export quality (7/10) a touch better than the domestic quality (6.5/10). I had a few others that were less than great however while I would rate them at under 5/10 they were still drinkable but not ones to aim for. I guess the theory is that a beer will need to be 2 or 3 out of 10 before it is rendered not fit for human consumption. A fact that will no doubt fit with KAT’s experiences.

There are already a few little noteworthy quips. For those who know me well they are all food related.

1.  After taking advice from my nephew (fleebs) he claimed that the restaurant Jollibee  was his favourite when he and his mother lived in the Philippines. So we tried it. For those who do not know it Jollibee is a McDonalds style chain with a few odd twists. By way of example one of their value meals was a hotdog, a spaghetti bolognese, rice and a drink. Lesson learned – dont take the 15 year old advice of a person who was 5 on last visit.

2.  Whilst wandering the greenbelt shopping area we were in need of a cold drink.  We came across a place called Happy Lemon and asked what was nice. Jill took the safe option and had a mango smoothie style drink while I was a tad more adventurous and took the girl behind the counter’s recommendation of a rock salt and cheese drink which she swore would be very nice. Now many of you will already be laughing at the concept of a rock salt and cheese drink and in hindsight you would be right. If you can imagine a thin chocolate milkshake covered by about 2 inches of molten liquid cheesecake then that was my drink. I will not be having another.

3. Jill found that there was a Bubba Gump’s restaurant in Makati and she decided that I had to attend as I had never been there and that she had really enjoyed it when she visited in Hawaii. So we went. I hope the nostalgia of her return to Bubba gump and having a Lava Flow cocktail outweighed the greasy deep fried hell that was left in our stomachs at the end.

We are planning to head up to visit the live volcano (Taal) tomorrow a brave move considering that there was an earthquake today which killed 40% of the population in the south near Cebu an Bohol area. Surely that can’t end badly.

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