A Travellerspoint blog

January 2009

El Nido to Manila

overcast 27 °C

We booked a air conditioned mini van back to Puerto for 7am on the 10th. We got up to grab an early breakfast and got accosted by a chap at the front desk offering us a ride for the same price in his van...why not, we hadn't paid anything for the one we booked yet and it would save us a hike to the bus station.

We jumped onboard and he drove off to go looking for another few passengers to spread the cost. He gave us a pitch about how we could just rent the whole bus and have it all to ourselves and go where we want....we said no at first but after 5 minutes of looking for more people I got bored and told him to just go and we'd pay for the whole thing....it really wasn't that much...but I had no doubt at the time that the bus would be full of people by the time we got to Puerto 7 hours later (needless to say I wasn't disappointed!).

We headed off on a very bumpy ride....there is very little tarmac between Puerto and El Nido....mostly dirt tracks. It soon became evident that the seats in his van were bloody uncomfortable and that there definitely wasn't any A/C as the windows were down and the dust was blowing in. Oh well.

He went at a pace and before we new it we were past Taytay after about an hour and half and heading into Roxos about 3 and half hours after leaving. Surprisingly we were still the only two in the van, but when we pulled in for petrol/gas and he asked me for the fare "to pay for the gas"...I knew that was about to change. Sure enough it wasn't long before we picked up "his cousins daughter" and not long after that his "cousins cousins cousin and his daughter" all who I saw later paid him full fare...obviously he didn't offer us a refund.

When we hit the tarmac road out of Roxas, I saw the driver, in the rear view mirror, start to look sleepy and whilst I didn't actually see him nod off, it was obvious he was struggling. That was probably what prompted him to stick his head out the window, put his foot to the floor, and drive at about 100 miles an hour (ok the van was in no state to go that fast, but it felt like it on the windy roads) while singing Filipino karaoke songs at full pelt.

I started to feel a little green after a while, but then not as green as the cousins cousins cousins daughter who promptly vomited all over the floor in the row behind us...unfortunately that was where I'd see fit to store Kim's bag...oops.

Anyway, annoying as the driver was, he got us to Puerto in record time, covered in dust. We booked back into the Hibiscus Garden Inn.

We didn't do much at all in Puerto other than get over the last few weeks. We did however find the best food in the Philippines. This would be at "Haim Chicken Inato". I have no idea what the name means (and am hoping that Haim doesn't mean "tastes like" and Inato doesn't mean "cat or dog or lizard or something"), but basically they serve BBQ chicken and rice....and it's really good. When you sit down the waitress will hand you a menu and then look at you as if you're stupid if you actually read the thing. There really is only one option...BBQ chicken and rice....the menu also has a fish dish or two on it, but I suspect if you ever ordered it, there would be a real problem in the kitchen. I lie, there is a choice, spicy or not spicy. Obviously you should choose the spicy!

It really is good....and all for the pricely sum of $1.50. We went every day for the 5 days we were there!

Yesterday we flew from Puerto back to Manila...the flight on Air Philippines (not to be confused with Philippine Air...a different airline!) was fine except I was a little disappointed not to receive any snack as I was starving....not even peanuts.

Arriving in Manila (kite bags back in tow) we piled into a cab and set off for Malate, an area of Manila on the edge of the bay that supposedly has some nice restaurants and bars. We had reserved a room at the Malata Pensionne having read some decent reviews on line. On pulling up outside I was encouraged to see that it was fronted by a Starbucks...and on getting inside, the reception looked pretty nice, if a little low (I would have had to remove my head if I wanted to stand up straight).

We checked in and I dragged our kite bags up 2 flights of stairs to our room. Well...I started to smell the cigarette smoke a good few feet from the door and when I opened the door to the room I noticed that I couldn't actually see the bed through the haze. It was really disgusting...not the room, just the smoke and the smell. Someone had obviously just made their way through a pack of cigarettes in there. Kim turned on the fan but there really wasn't anywhere to blow the smoke anyway. I got a headache just standing there and realized there was no way I could sleep in the room....Kim agreed. We went downstairs to ask for another one, but the girl behind the desk told us they were full.

So not for the first time on our travels we trotted off to find an alternative. 50 yards down the street we came across the Pearl Garden Hotel. Clearly more upscale, but surprisingly not a whole lot more expensive and still within our budget. We were both starving so decided to go into their restaurant and order some (pretty bad) lunch. Whilst my lunch was being cooked (I mean, warmed up in the microwave), I went out to reception to see if they had a room...they did, so I reserved it and said we'd be back with our bags later.

After lunch we went back to the Malate Pensionne to check out and get our money back (we'd already had to pay cash upfront for one nights stay). I left Kim at the front desk to do that whilst I once again hauled our bags down the 2 flights of stairs. When I got back, she told me that they wouldn't give us our money back.

I think Kim will vouch for me here...in 8 months of traveling I think I've only lost my temper once up to this point....(for those interested go back and read the entry on getting a cab from the airport in Bali!)....well that changed yesterday.

I worked out my strategy, and went up to the desk with the key. There were two girls behind the desk and some woman standing on the same side as me. I asked why we weren't getting a refund. One of the girls behind the desk said that they couldn't give us a refund but that they could move us into another room.

...HANG ON!...this was the same girl that an hour ago had said they were full and didn't have any other rooms!

...she decided now that there were more rooms, but was adamant that we weren't getting our money back. The woman next to me, who was obviously listening to our exchange finally turned to me and asked what the problem was. She was clearly "management" in the place so I calmly (if maybe a little loudly) told her that we'd been checked into a disgusting room, that when we'd asked to be moved were told there were no rooms available, and therefore we'd gone to another place and wanted our money back.

She also said that we could change rooms but not get our money back. She too couldn't explain why it wasn't possible to change rooms an hour ago. I told them we were moving to another hotel anyway and moved onto stage 2 of my plan...

...I asked them what time check out was the next day...they replied 12 o'clock...so I replied "thanks, I'll be back with the key tomorrow at 12", picked up the bags and headed for the door.

That caused a commotion...."wait, wait!"...."ok we'll give you half your money back if you let us have the key now"! I replied "so you're going to give me half my money back and then give the room to someone else for the full amount?"....the manager woman replied straight away "Yes!"

Well I had to admire the honesty at that point! Weighing up my options I decided to take the offer as we were both exhausted and just wanted to lie down. So in true Asian style I had to sign 2 bits of paper to get my 50% refund (there is a paper trail for everything here!...and I'll admit I didn't sign my name, I just scribbled a wiggly line in my last act of defiance...petty I know, but it made me feel good)...and then the woman asked for the receipt we'd initially been given when we paid for the room. I didn't even know we had one, so looked at Kim, who shrugged her shoulders in an "I don't know where it is" kind of way (I would later find out that this was her final act of defiance as it was in her purse!)...so I just told them we'd left it on the side in the room...at which point we both stormed out the door (ok, more stumbled and tripped whilst trying to drag 2 kite bags, 2 backpacks, a guitar and yoga map....but I'm sure it sort of looked purposeful!).

We are now settled in the extremely nice Pearl Garden Hotel...I would recommend it if you ever have the misfortune to be in Manilla!

Posted by msmitheman 18:02 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

How many people can you fit in a Jeepney?

overcast 28 °C

answer...an infinite number.

Wow. What a 2 days of travel. I always thought I was pretty good when it came to traveling and just going with the flow...you know...delays are delays....you won't have enough space, but you squeeze in anyway...that sort of thing. Well I'm exhausted.

We got up at 6am yesterday morning for our boat trip to Port Barton. The wind was still blowing strong and the seas were still pretty big, but we decided to go for it, along with another German couple. The boat was finally ready to go at 9am, but somehow another group of 3 Germans gazumped us and suddenly the four of us found ourselves stranded. I was pretty peed off...the four of us had been planning our getaway long before the other 3 had even arrived on the island, but before I had a chance to say anything they had staked there claim to the boat, claiming they "had to get to Port Barton right away" (I have to say in stereotypical german style...do the Brits remember that commercial, I think it was for Calsberg, with the Dambusters music and the Germans throwing their towels, bouncing bomb style, from their hotel balcony to claim the pool loungers before the Brits could get there.....reminded me of that!)....I assumed they had a bus to catch or something....grrrr.

We were left waiting for it's return...in maybe an hour...yea right! 2 games of Uno, 3 pancakes, a few cups of coffee, and in fact 3 hours later, we saw the boat heading back to the beach.

We loaded all our backpacks into big plastic bags and put them at the back of the boat, and then timed our run, trying to avoid the crashing waves as we jumped on board. Well what a waste of time that was as in less than 10 seconds it was as though I'd been swimming. Soaked, head to toe, from waves crashing over the bow. We trawled along at an incredibly slow speed to avoid swamping the boat. It was absolutely freezing as the winds howled and every other wave drenched us. The 2 boat guys did a sterling job of keeping it upright and bailing out. I lost track of how long the crossing was, but it was between 1 and 2 hours.

As we came into Port Barton bay it was shielded from the wind, so the sea became very calm. We pulled up into the shallows and jumped off with our bags into the water, heading up the beach to look for a room. First place was full, second place had one room, and the German couple we were with insisted on us taking it (well ok, we said "you take it", they said "no, you take it" and we said "ok!"...I don't need to be told twice!). As we walked round to our little bungalow, who should I see across the way, but the other 3 @#$% Germans who'd stolen our ride, sitting there drinking beer. Seems they were in no more of a hurry than us to get there and just felt like jumping the queue as the seas were calmer first thing in the morning.

The room was basic, but concrete rather than bamboo nipa hut, which is a strange luxury in this part of the world...just feels more bug proof to me. Port Barton is a very quiet and lazy village. We found a great little restaurant with internet access which served really good Thai food, so hung out there for the rest of the day. We also enquired about how to get to El Nido, the next destination on our list. The options seemed to be, a boat, that would take 6 or so hours....we really weren't up for that after the days activities...or a series of bus/Jeepney rides. We opted for overland.

Basically we had to get a Jeepney from Port Barton to Roxas on the opposite coast...a couple of hours...and then from there we were being given estimates of anything from 5 or more hours to El Nido in the north. Taytay is the former capital that appeared to lay halfway between Roxas and El Nido, so we thought that would be an option for a night too to break up the journey.

Another 6am morning and we check out of our room and hiked down the beach to the Bamboo Restaurant, where the Jeepney to Roxas was leaving from at 7:30am. It was already there and waiting when we got there at about 6:45am. I'll let the picture explain what this thing is like, but essentially (and I counted), 5 rows of 2 bench seats with an aisle down the middle, that at a push were probably made for 3 and 2 filipinos (i.e. small people). An area about 3 feet long and the width of the bus at the back for luggage, and a luggage rack on the top. By my reckoning, even knowing they fill these things to the brink, I figured 6 on each row and a few on top, maybe 40 odd people would get crammed on?

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"the jeepney before everyone got on"

We soon found out that it was the day before school starts back up so all the kids were heading over to Roxas. We layed claim to a back row, right hand side bench (on the direction of some philipino chap) by putting our 2 back packs down and then headed to the restaurant for a coffee. Just as the coffee arrived I heard the bus start up...and then drive off (it was about 7am at this point!). A slight moment of panic, before realizing it wasn't a complete disaster, we had our little day pack with passports/money etc in...but a little peived that our 2 laptops had just headed off round the corner. The girl at the restaurant assured us it would be back, and had just gone on a circuit of the village to pick people up. I only half believed her, having read stories of jeepney drivers taking off when the bus was full, regardless of time or location.

Sure enough though it pulled back round a few minutes later and we went to jump on board. Well our bags were still on the back row, along with a family of 5. The first four rows were absolutely crammed with people, mainly young school girls...and I mean crammed, 7 or 8 to a row with luggage. The luggage area at the back, was crammed with people sitting on buckets...and I also spotted 2 chickens and a pig (no joke!). The question now was do we sit on the luggage rack up top or do we try and get to our seats. We opted for our seats....we somehow worked our way through the throngs in the back and wedged ourselves into an area that had room for about one of our butt cheeks (not one each)...and about 4 inches of leg room. Well I had 4 inches of leg room (being one in from the window), Kim didn't have any by the window as the wheel arch was under her feet. We managed to wedge Kim's backback down by her feet and she was able to adopt a sideways slant seating position, while I jammed my backpack (which had 2 laptops in and was @#$% heavy) onto my lap, at which time breathing became difficult, and all the time trying not to stand on the box down by my feet that had another live chicken in it, belonging to the unfortunate young girl who'd ended up in the seat (and I use the term loosly), next to me!

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I counted 50 people inside the bus at one point, but I know it kept filling up behind. The roof was full of people and luggage as well, and sometime around the scheduled departure time we set off.

I can't even begin to describe the road conditions....it was essentially a mountain pass crossing west to east across Palawan. Obviously dirt road not tarmac, and actually more thick mud like. I have no idea how we didn't get stuck, I guess testamount to the vehicle and its driver, but we slipped and slid our way at a snails pace up and over to the other coast. Other than my Vietnam taxi ride, this has been the only other time where I've been somewhat nervous on public transport. More than once I ran the scenario through my mind of us tipping over and figured I'd didn't have a preference over getting squashed if we fell one way or tumbling 500 feet down a mountainside if we fell the other. It was, no question, the worst bus journey of my life. My knees were almost bleeding as they were scraped left and right on the back of the metal seat in front of me, I was dripping with sweat, feeling very sick, and the worst part....my backside...oh my god, it is raw from sitting on the bench which had next to no padding (like my backside too for those that hadn't noticed!). Sometime into the journey (it seemed an age), I was really struggling and Kim graciously took the backpack on her lap for a few minutes to give me some relief. She had the same problem of not being able to breath, so I decided I was going to find another spot for it, even if it meant evicting a chicken or possibly the pig. I spotted a few inches of floor space off to my right, so went for it, hurling the backpack over, and hoping the laptops would survive. This gave some much needed space and relief.

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I believe the journey was a couple of hours, but I'm not really sure. We started to finally see people jumping off as we neared Roxas, and were able to spread out and spend the last 10 or 15 minutes in comparitive luxury.

I had begun to think the top of the bus might have been the better alternative, until I saw the German couple, that we'd taken the boat with the previous day and who'd turned up at the last minute and ended up up there, take the first opportunity to come inside. They were quite a boisterous pair usually, but were decidely pale and quiet, and not smiling or joking when they made it in.

Not a minute too soon we arrived at the bus depot in Roxas. By that point I'd firmly decided I couldn't stand another 6 plus hours of the same thing, and that Taytay would probably be my limit for that day. Thankfully Kim agreed and we went in search for a ride there. No one seemed terribly interested, but Kim found one guy who seemed to think he could take us....in maybe 30 minutes! We perched ourselves in a very dusty corner of the bus station and waited...and waited...for about an hour or so, maybe an hour and half. Eventually we were ushered onto a little air conditioned minibus, just the 2 of us, sheer luxury...nice comfy seats and lots of legroom. Getting suspicious I asked the price...and was given a very reasonable answer....so then thought, to good to be true...and sure enough we were driven out of the bus depot to the nearest Jeepney stop. But no, we didn't have to get on a jeepney, they were just looking for other passengers.

After some investigating we managed to find out that the guy driving the minibus had to go to El Nido anyway, so was giving us a ride and anyone else he could find. When we found this out, we decided to give Taytay a miss, and go all the way whilst we had a comfortable spot. We picked up a few people along the way, but it wasn't crowded at all. It was a rough ride though....dirt track all the way and big pot holes. We were both exhausted when we pulled into the small town of El Nido....but pleased that the journey only took about 4 or 5 hours. Oh and that included a slight hiccup, when we were heading down a steep gradient and the driver decided his right front brake was no longer working. After stopping. jacking up the van, and a moment of investigation the general consensus seemed to be that a replacement of the brake pads was needed. So thats what they did...and pretty quickly I have to say...they had all the tools and supplies onboard! We were underway again in about 20 minutes.

Posted by msmitheman 17:38 Archived in Philippines Comments (4)

Stranded on Cacnipa

storm 28 °C

it's been 4 days...it feels like 4 months...

The day after we arrived here, we had glorious weather and spent the day sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling. The only complaint was the sand flies...which are bad...really bad...they make an otherwise idyllic place a bit of a nightmare when there's no wind. If there's a breeze they don't seem to be a problem, if there isn't....well lets just say you spend the whole day and night scratching.

New years eve was very quiet...we had a nice dinner, a bottle of ok wine, and I'll be honest, as we saw other guests heading to their rooms at about 8pm (did I mention its a very quiet place?), we decided to go hang out in ours and were asleep by 10pm. Rest assured though, we were woken abruptly at midnight with the sound of a million firecrackers going off outside our window. I'm sure the owner of the resort and his staff were the only ones out there, but I'm also sure anyone staying here was awake to see the new year in! We didn't bother getting up though.

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"kim losing at UNO on new years eve"

We had planned to get a boat to El Nido, about a 5 or 6 hour trip from here, on new years day, but were told that there weren't any running, so settled on the 2nd. New years day was fairly calm from a weather perspective although the winds had started to get up a little (yay...no sandflies!!!). We did however realize that we had exhausted everything there is to do here the first day we arrived! Thankfully "Uno", "Phase 10" (card games!) and the hotel backgammon set (it's on its last legs, but still has all the pieces) came to our rescue.

...and then the storm started. High winds and seas meant no boats to anywhere, especially El Nido. Despite that, a boat to the mainland left this afternoon. 4 brave soles decided they were going to attempt to leave for Port Barton...which, in this weather, is still about a 2 hour trip away. I sat in the bar and watched the proceedings unfold. Just to put "boat" in perspective. These things are about 20 feet long and about 4 feet wide...very thin, wooden canoe like structures with 2, outrigger stabilizers. They are powered by refurbished diesel car engines that drive a single prop on the back, and steered by a a wooden rudder. Well the 2 boatmen spent about 20 minutes wrestling the boat off the mooring. They got it near the shore and attached the propeller and loaded on a couple of cans of fuel. They then pulled it back to the mooring and spent 5 minutes bailing out water with buckets, before letting it back towards the shore to load up the passengers and bags. They loaded on the bags by walking out to the boat with them on their heads, and then the 4 passengers waded out and jumped aboard...the boat was in chest deep water so they basically had to swim out and clamber aboard. They then bailed out water again for 10 minutes or so before setting off at a crawl towards the mainland. The people and there bags must have been totally drenched by the time they arrived.

We decided we'd wait another day at that point. However as the weather is too bad to sit on the beach, swim or snorkel, we found ourselves pretty bored today so are going to go for it in the morning whatever the conditions. We're going for the closest spot, Port Barton. If we get soaked in the process we know we can find somewhere to stay there to dry out before heading overland to El Nido (about a 6 hour drive). We'll see how things unfold in the morning.

Posted by msmitheman 17:37 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Cacnipa Island

overcast 28 °C

We got up at 6am yesterday after another restless night. Our boat for Port Barton was leaving at 7am for the 2 1/2 hour journey up the coast. We turned up at the wharf at about 6:30am to the usual chaos.

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"Jeepney being loaded with motorcycle at the wharf....they just threw it up there"

It became pretty clear we weren't leaving at 7am, but by 8am we had boarded a boat with 4 rotund Swedish guys, a German guy and a German couple on their honeymoon. If there were ever stereotypes of those two countries they were on our boat this morning. As the German's tried to crack jokes in broken English and chortle to themselves, the Swede's loaded there crate of beer on and proceeded to bask in the sun and drink it. I half expected them to break out their collapsable sauna. They were a nice enough bunch though.

Once we'd all boarded and wedged ourselves in...the guy next to me asked the driver if we were going...all I heard was we're waiting for 6 more (there wasn't room for one more let alone 6)! As the 6 turned up on the wharf a general standoff occurred with the 7 of us on the boat determined not to let anyone else on and the 6 on the wharf determined that they be given another boat. At this point it got really complicated, as between the 13 of us we were going to 3 different destinations, so they wanted some of us to get off and get on another boat (which as of yet, wasn't there) and some of them to get on this boat etc etc. After a few moments of stalemate between us, the 6, and the boatmen trying to sort it out...they wanted Kim and I and a few others to get off and onto the non existent boat but we weren't moving as it was bound to mean another few hours wait.... I suddenly realized that the situation didn't need to be complicated at all, and I think the guy next to me had the same revelation. As I shouted "well I'll just have my money back", he simultaneously said "I think we need to talk about money then" and suddenly the engines started and we were on our way!

I thought about feeling bad for the 6 left behind, but then they shouldn't have been over an hour late.

The crossing was...well...wet. The boats are just small outriggers and the seas are pretty choppy offshore, so ever few seconds a wave comes over the side. After 2 hours we pulled into a bay on an island, Cacnipa, just off the mainland, with one small resort, Coconut Gardens, nestled just back from the beach. It's very desert islandy. The 3 Germans were staying here. As we jumped off onto the beach for a pit stop, Kim and I were approached by another Swedish couple who had been staying there. They gave us the low down that Port Barton was very like Sabang, and that they'd immediately left there and come to this island. They said it was a lovely resort with great food, so Kim and I didn't take long to decide that we were going to stop for a few nights.

We have a nice, airy little room on the beach front, with a flushing toilet and cold running water! ahh the luxury of it! And it's only something like $11 a night. There's even a little electricity on and off throughout the day. It's still pretty hot trying to sleep in there....no fan/air conditioning etc....but it's a huge step up from Sabang. The resort seems pretty full, all Westerners, no locals. This also backs up my theory so far that it's the locals who are mainly ruining this country...there are none here as I said, and this is the first place we've been since arriving in the country that is pristine...no trash, everything in good order and well kept.

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The food is not bad at all. You can get some nice eggs for breakfast and they bake their own bread. For dinner you have a choice of maybe 10 items that you order during the day and then it's all cooked and ready for you sometime between 6 and 7pm.

I'm not sure how long we'll stay here, but neither of us feels like moving on at the moment. I suspect we'll stay here until the 1st Jan and then head on to El Nido in the north.

Posted by msmitheman 17:33 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

The Final Frontier

overcast 28 °C

...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.
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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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.

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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!

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On our way out Kim had her picture taken holding a baby croc.

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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.

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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".

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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.

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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.

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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!

Posted by msmitheman 16:54 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

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