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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.