...at least that seems to be the message that local people are sending to the outside world....and I have to say, Palawan is a pretty remote and primitive place.
We ended up spending 4 nights in Puerto Princesa. On Christmas eve we took a tricycle to Honda Bay and rented a boat to go "island hopping" and snorkeling.
We ended up visiting 3 islands...snake island, starfish island and something like Luilui island. Snake island was the biggest, essentially a sand bar that was maybe half a mile long. It was the only public island and therefore free to visit, which also meant it was the most crowded...mainly by Filipinos (of whom I'll comment more later!). The snorkeling was ok, but nothing outstanding. To be fair it was a very windy day and visibility was quite poor. I do however think it would make an excellent kite surfing location...maybe if we have time when we're back in Puerto before flying home I'll try it.
Starfish island was much smaller and quieter and the snorkeling was a little better...I didn't see a starfish though. Luilui island was even smaller still and we were the only ones there.
We returned to the hotel after a nice afternoon and despite getting ripped off by the tricycle driver (I'm past caring now). We spent the evening in the hotel eating take out pizza and nursing sunburns.
Christmas day was really a non event. We went out for lunch at Shakey's and had pizza, spaghetti and beer...food was ok, nothing special, but it was busy and a fun atmosphere. We watched movies & played games in the afternoon (so just like any other Christmas really!!!!) and then went for overpriced drinks and dinner in the evening at the Blue Marlin (we were the only ones there). It was a nice relaxing day.
Boxing day (that's the 26th for you Americans), we went to the butterfly farm and the crocodile sanctuary. I was hesitant about both to be honest, but it was actually a really interesting afternoon...the butterfly farm was essentially a small, impeccably kept garden with a big mosquito net over it that was absolutely teaming with butterflies. They also had some tanks with other critters, some millipedes, turtles and (I suspect) a recently deceased scorpion (errrr, talking of which, I will get to the shower that Kim just shared with a live one in a minute!).
The crocodile farm was interesting and sad at the same time. There were throngs of Filipino tourists there when we arrived. We were ushered onto the 3 o'clock tour with about 40 of them. The guide gave a brief overview of the center which was almost impossible to hear as said 40 Filipinos wouldn't keep quiet. From what I could gather, it's a rescue/breeding center for both indigenous salt water and fresh water crocodiles (which can grow to about 17 feet!). We then went into the breeding barn which housed hundreds of baby crocodiles in large, open top tanks. This was the one time on the tour that the 40 Filipinos shut up, as instead of jabbering away they thought it would be fun to try provoking the crocodiles...this was done by whacking or kicking the tanks as hard as they could and dangling limbs over the side. I was surprised the tour guide didn't say anything as there were signs everywhere saying not to do exactly that. Both Kim and I were getting a little irritated by this point. Then we walked outside to a raised walkway that went over a number of pens containing lots of crocodiles, 2 particularly huge ones. The noise and chatter had obviously recommenced at this point, so there was no way we could hear what the guide was saying about them...but of course it did give the Filipinos another opportunity to amuse themselves...they did this by throwing things (plastic bottles etc) or pouring their soda drinks onto the animals below.
Kim and I decided to hang back at that point and wait for all of them to leave, at which point we were able to spend some time quietly observing and taking photos.
We then went on the nature walk which took us through some jungle to see other animals...birds, porcupines, "weasels that they feed coffee beans to so they can collect the beans as they come out the other end and brew them" and a bearded pig!
On our way out Kim had her picture taken holding a baby croc.
I have to say the place seemed very run down, but then that has been my observation of the Philippines in general (at least the little bit I've seen). From Manila to Panay to Boracay to Palawan the standard of acceptability for everything seems to be a lot lower than other countries in this part of the world. Everywhere is run down, unkept and dirty, in a way that other parts of SE Asia arn't, and no one seems to mind. The country has beautiful areas, none more so than where I'm typing this from, but I fear that bit by bit it's being ruined by the Filipinos themselves.
On the 27th we stored our huge kite bags at the hotel and climbed aboard a little mini van to Sabang on the West Coast of Palawan, about a 2 hour drive away. The drive was spectacular over the mountains from East to West....although somewhat ruined by the kamikaze driver we had. The roads were a combination of concrete that was crumbling and falling apart, concrete that was in the process of being put down (but that already looked like it was crumbling and falling apart) or just dirt track.
We arrived in Sabang late morning...and both being a little tired and weary immediately got duped by the minivan driver. He offered to drive us "along the road to where the hotels are"...stupidly we said thanks. Next thing we know, "Elmo" is jumping into the passenger seat and we're being told "Elmo" knows where all the good accommodation is...damn! Well we were driven precisely (and I don't exaggerate) 20 yards to the end of the car park., when "Elmo" grabs Kim's bag and starts heading off down the beach. With no choice but to follow he asks at a couple of places by the car park about a room, but gets sent packing (I don't know whether they were full or just irritated by the guy who was obviously after a commission!). We then walked past a really nice looking place, but were told, "oh that's very very expensive"..."Why?" I said..."Because they have 24 hour electricity" Elmo said! Something told me then, it was going to be a rough night!
Eventually he finds us a room at "Mary's Cottages"...it's 10 dollars a night so we just say yes.
Just to set the scene....Sabang is a small community/village that has grown to support a tourist attraction here....a subterranean river, supposedly one of the longest in the world. So what you actually have, is a very dirty shanty town type area, that has no running water or electricity that is there solely to support the attraction. Whilst the beach and coastline are absolutely stunning, the village itself is a dump...literally. The "resorts" consist of tiny bungalow contraptions that are falling down, that have a bed, a mosquito net and a bathroom of sorts. Most have electricity provided by a generator between the hours of 6pm and 10pm, which translates into a light bulb above the bed that comes on for those 4 hours, whether you want it to or not!
The bathrooms consist of the a tap on the wall with a bucket underneath and a small plastic saucepan like thing, and the bowl part/potty bit/business end if you know what I mean, of a toilet but no water reservoir. Put all those things together and use your imagination and you'll work out how to flush it and have a wash!
Well...I had an inkling but was not totally aware until this point that Kim has a phobia...and I mean a proper phobia...one that brings out sweat and vomiting, of...wait for it...bathrooms. Or I think more precisely not normal, or dirty bathrooms....or something like that...I don't fully understand what it is that triggers it. Well when we walked into our room at "Mary's cottages", I thought she was going to pass out....and I have to admit, I can do cheap and simple when it comes to rooms, but this place was not somewhere you wanted to spend time. I realized that the night was going to be even longer than I first imagined.
Kim couldn't get out of the room quick enough so we dumped our stuff, I evicted a cockroach from above the bed and we went for a walk to look for somewhere else. She decided on another place at the other end of the beach, Bamboo Cottages...it's a similar setup, but I agree, in a much nicer location...although the place was still pretty terrible. Again I compare it to Bali & Vietnam where we had exceptional rooms for $10 a night, and whilst this one cost us $6, they are worlds apart We decided to stay the night at Mary's as we'd committed to it, and then one night at the Bamboo Cottages before moving on up the coast.
That afternoon we went on a scout up the beach and came across the "Mangrove Paddle Boat Tours" being advertised at a little shack on the edge of a river mouth. A tiny little, toothless, Filipino chap came running out and proceeded to talk...but even though I could tell he was speaking English of sorts...I just could not understand a word he was saying. By this time a group of his colleagues had turned up and we communicated we'd like to go but that we had to pop back to our hotel and get the camera.
On returning I was a little disappointed to learn that gummy chap was going to be our guide! Oh well...we donned life jackets and jumped into a tiny wooden canoe, with one younger guy paddling at the back and gummy chap facing us up front, and proceeded to be paddled up river into the mangroves. Well next thing, gummy chap started to talk and it was all I could do not to crack up laughing. I caught "Hello my name is Chris and I'm going to be your tour guide today...." and then I lost him completely....but that didn't stop him....he had his speech and he was going to deliver it.
Well when he took a breath and got in his rhythm I started to pick up a few interesting things. We were basically paddling up the pooey pooey river (or something like that, I'll look up the exact name at some point!)..which was winding its way through a mangrove forest. It was really spectacular and interesting. We didn't see any wildlife so to speak, but the forest itself and the sounds were amazing.
I say we saw no wildlife, however immediately after leaving the riverside the guy at the back paddled us over to a tree that had a yellow and black striped snake coiled up in the branches above our heads. Chris pointed it out and said "not aggressive not aggressive". I thought is was a joke and had been planted there as they found it so quickly, but as I looked around I clocked another 3 in the vicinity. They were indeed real. The guide kept saying "not aggressive not aggressive" which I took as meaning "deadly" (otherwise he would've said "not poisonous" right?) and sure enough when Kim asked "are they poisonous", his reply was "oh yes madam, yes, poisonous".
We paddled about half a mile up the river and back, and on the way back, Chris turns to us and says, "so do you want to hear me sing the Mangrove song?". Expecting him to start mimicking the bird calls or something, he suddenly breaks out into a rendition of a song he's made up. I didn't catch much of it, as I was once again trying not to laugh at having a Venetian gondola type experience in the middle of the rain forest, but I believe it went something like "Welcome to my mangrove, my mangrove is my friend, you're very welcome.......in my mangrove....my mangrove friend...welcome"!
It was a great 45 minute tour and I would highly recommend it if you find yourself in the area, if for nothing else other than the song!
After the tour I figured there was only one way I was going to get Kim back into the room that night, and that was by getting drunk, so we wandered back to the "expensive hotel with 24 hour electricity" to check out their bar and restaurant. Well first off....it is expensive...80 US dollars a night for the basic room....but if you compare it to Mary's its a bit like comparing a run down travel lodge that hasn't been cleaned in a year to the Ritz (or for the Americans, a Motel 6 to the Waldorf!), so I guess that isn't bad. I have to admit when I saw the Visa sign on the front desk, I seriously considered it. Having electricity meant they had cold drinks which was so nice, so I decided money would be better spent on those. We proceeded to drink 2 bottles of ice cold Chardonnay and ate chicken and pasta followed by chocolate cake. The food wasn't bad, nothing outstanding though. We spent a good four hours there, before returning to our place at 9pm. I managed to coax Kim through the door whilst simultaneously ushering a cockroach out with my foot (I think she'd drunk enough that she was unaware of it), and whilst she got under the mosquito net, I set about unscrewing the lightbulb from the ceiling as it wasn't going off for another hour!
I won't go into to detail....but the night was, how shall I put it...restless. At one point it was stifling in there and we had to go out for some air, but proceeded to get bitten so badly by the bugs that we had to return inside. At about 4am it started raining, which cooled off the room really nicely and we were able to get a couple more hours sleep.
At 8am we got up, checked out, went for a horrible breakfast at the expensive hotel (mainly just to use the toilet), and checked into our new place. "Elmo" followed us all the way throughout this process, but I did my best to ignore him. He wanted to know where we were moving to, and tried to sell us a boat ticket to our next destination, and was generally quite annoying. After checking into the new room, we went on a stealth mission to avoid "Elmo" and buy a boat ticket to Port Barton for the next morning. We failed to avoid "Elmo", but Kim told him politely that we were buying the ticket from somewhere else and I think he got the message.
We purchased our boat tickets and then went to visit the underground river. This involved getting a boat to the entrance, a 20 min ride away. As usual here, that involves buying a stupid number of tickets. First I went and paid for our national park permit. I was told the next available boat wasn't until 1pm (it was about 11am at this point) but that I could go to another desk and buy my boat ticket now. So I went to see the guy at the other desk who said that first I had to go and see the boat dispatcher before I could buy the boat ticket, so I went over to see the boat dispatcher, who seemed thoroughly uninterested in talking to me. I think she started to tell me that we were 61st in line for the boat and that they were only at number 31 (boat's hold 4 or 5 people), but she got bored halfway through the explanation and went off to talk to someone else.
I'm not sure what happened next, but somehow we wangled our way into a tour group that had 2 boats chartered and had 2 extra seats available...so without buying a boat ticket we jumped on board. While we were on the boat, the tour guide told me that she'd heard me talking with the dispatcher and grabbed us as she had 2 spare seats. She was really nice and only charged us half price (which I'm sure went straight into her pocket, but I was fine with that!). It was refreshing that someone actually helped us without trying to rip us off.
We were dropped off at a beach and then walked for a couple of minutes to the point where you get a canoe into the caves. There were a load of people milling about waiting for boats, and basically your name goes on the list and you wait....and wait....and wait some more until they call your name. Once again the the tour guide who's boat we'd shared managed to get us nearer the front of the line (don't know how) and probably saved us an extra hours wait.
The little canoes carried 8 people plus one guide paddling at the back. I believe the river runs for 8km or so underground, of which 4km are easily navigable. The tour takes you about 1.5km in and lasts about 45 minutes. If you want to go further you need a special permit and the 4km takes about 3 hours (seems, easily obtained as we were offered a ride from the guy who was paddling us, but didn't partake...my backside wouldn't have lasted the trip). The river was first explored in the late 1800's but the national park was only established in the latter half of the 1900's.
I've been on a few cave tours over the years, but I have to say this one was probably one of the most spectacular. The place was swarming with bats, so you had to keep your mouth shut if you were looking up, and I was glad I had a hard hat on as they had a tendency to swoop in low.
When the tour was done, we wandered back to the beach and had to wait for the rest of the tour group before getting the boat back. While sitting on the beach we got approached by a family of monkeys and a big monitor lizard.
The river and caves are well worth a visit, but I would recommend a day trip from Puerto Princesa as Sabang is not somewhere you particularly want to stay. We had planned on a week there, but soon changed our minds on that. I also recommend doing it soon, as it strikes me all the local tourists are going to make a complete mess of it in the near future. Evidence of trash being dumped at the entrance to the caves and general destruction of the surrounding area is already starting to show.
After the tour we returned back to our room at the Bamboo Cottages. Kim decided to take a shower with aforementioned bucket and saucepan. It wasn't long before I heard a shriek and something about a bug...I'll admit I was assuming another cockroach and I didn't move particularly fast...ok, or at all...until she was a little more descriptive about it, at which point I suddenly found myself using the saucepan to persuade a scorpion that it'd have more fun outside our little hovel. Well ok, I'll be honest, it left the room a lot flatter than when it came in. Another long night was on the cards!