*This blog is seriously overdue, by that I mean 3 months. My travelling schedule (for work) during last Dec-Jan period was so hectic, I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I needed a long recovery. A bad excuse, but now that I’m planning for another trip, I suddenly feel all exhilarated again about writing and blogging. So here’s a somewhat distortedly long version of our Philippines travel notes.
We definitely had a lot of fun in the Philippines despite having a Bermuda Triangle of holiday disasters –poor preparation, bad weather, and bad accommodation for a good part of our trip. A malfunctioned camera did not help much either. But somehow we managed to smile our way from Manila down to Puerto Princesa and El Nido, until the very last minute at the airport. That proves how important it is to get a right travel companion.
We looked like two starving, sleep-deprived zombies when we arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Did I say zombies? Yes, of course, you never know what a midnight flight landing at 4am can do to your body and your mind until you actually experience it. So we, two supposedly seasoned travelers, stepped into a coupon taxi with a tiring grin when the operator gave us a 50P discount and a cheerful ‘Merry Christmas’, unknowingly fell into the trap of Manila’s famous ‘coupon taxi’ and paid 3 times the normal price (750P instead of 250P). Even the expensive yellow airport taxi could not have costed that much. But of course we were blissfully ignorant of that fact, and happily paid another 1050P to the White Knight Hotel Intramuros so that we could check in early at 7am and crashed out for the rest of the morning.
Discovery of the day: Manila is undoubtedly A FASTFOOD CAPITAL. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Wendy’s, Jollibee, Pizza Hut, Subway, Dairy Queen, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, Chow King, etc. You name it, they have it! Even the hotel staff recommended McDonald’s when we asked where to go for lunch! Fascinating! In the end, we chose a Japanese fast-food restaurant, where ‘sharing of iced tea bottomless’ is prohibited. First testament to the fact that Filipinos are the most fun-loving people 🙂
It was Christmas Day, so most places were closed. Like so many other clueless tourists, we spent a whole afternoon wandering pretty little streets of Intramuros and took an afternoon nap on the beautiful lawn of the Santiago Fort. Then with the help of a clueless taxi driver, we managed to spend more than an hour driving around the city in search of a restaurant called Casa Roces just to find it well hidden under a thick veil of darkness. Closed for Christmas Day! Never mind, we had a free view of the presidential palace, a good city tour by night, followed by a sumptuous dinner at Harbor View Restaurant where our noses were filled with a strong perfume in the air. This harmonious fragrance included a top note of sickening dead fish stench, a middle note of nauseous rotten sewage smell, and a base notes of head-dizzy odor coming from the murky water. For your reference, some people even compare the Manila bay to a ‘massive toilet bowl’. At night, it was hard to see where all these awful smells came from, but once we stepped out of the restaurant and took a stroll in the nearby Rizal Park, it all made sense. Even the park looked like a giant landfill. Trash piled up on the side walk, swirled in the air, and suffocated the whole city. Manila is truly in a garbage crisis.
We smoothed out our mixed feelings about Manila by gulping down some cocktail at the Bayleaf Hotel Skydeck which offers a 360 degree view of the city. The skyline looks deceivingly sparkling and glamorous at night, a world away from the reality by the water.
The beautiful courtyard of Casa Manila
This courtyard is actually connected to our hotel – the White Knight Intramuros
European flavor in Manila
The upper floor of Casa Manila
A souvenir shop on the ground level of Casa Manila
Puerto Princesa greeted us with broad smiles from the staff of the Purple Fountain Inn. God bless them! Two of them waited for us at the airport for nearly 3 hours, while we were having fun at the Manila Airport killing delay time by watching a girl going to the gent (we should have known better, Manila is famous for its saucy gay, lesbian & transgender scene), and sneaking into Illy café without ordering any drink. Manila airport is amazing!!! In 2013, the biggest airport in the Philippines was named by the Guide to Sleeping at Airports website as the world’s worst for the second year running. In Manila Airport’s defense, airports are not for sleeping, and the local authority has done everything in its power to keep the place as alive as they possibly can. Small space, limited chairs, metallic seating, bad signage, a lack of restaurants , café, and shops are just a few brilliant tactics to help passengers actively moving around instead of sitting idly as couch potatoes while waiting eagerly to escape. With the number of passengers in the departure hall vastly outnumbered available chairs and possibly the airport capacity, the whole place has an exciting vibe of a busy beehive, or if you take into account the sight of numerous small groups squatting on the dirty floor, it probably feels more like a very cheerful and optimistic refugee camp.
So we finally escaped the ‘giant toilet bowl’ Manila to seek refuge in Puerto Princesa, the cleanest and greenest city in the Philippines, ‘the city in a forest’. Puerto Princesa is famous for its Subterranean River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. The longest navigable underground river in the world winds its way underneath a mountain range, through the St. Paul Underground River Cave, before going out into the South China Sea. The Philippines government is doing such a good job at preserving this Palawan’s pride by restricting the number of visitors per day. We had to reserve our tickets more than 45 days in advance. We came well-prepared, we were so excited, and then our tour was canceled due to bad weather. How devastated!!! Really, we were heart-broken!!! This was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. What could we do? We found another highlight, simple 🙂 It turns out that Puerto Princesa is also home to the longest zipline in Asia. Since neither of us had done it before, we just went for it. And it was awesomeeeeeee! Flying through 1.8km of jungles in a superhero position was liberating and thrilling, and definitely our experience of the year.
Zipline in Puerto Princesa
El Nido was the place where an ex-colleague of ours got married 2 years ago. Going through his wedding photos and video, El Nido appeared like a heaven on earth – blue sky, crystal clear water, white sand, white pump boat, everything you can possibly dream of when you think of a beach holiday. So we decided to ditch our Boracay Island plan, and came here instead. Booking accommodations in El Nido during the Christmas high season was tricky, even though we had tried more than 2 months in advance. Every single place in the Trip Advisor’s Top 10 list was fully booked. We counted ourselves lucky when we got a room at the Lugadia Beach Cottages, until our minivan from Puerto Princesa dropped us off in the middle of nowhere. We couldn’t see any building, any reception desk, nobody. Where the hell was this place? It was actually a good few meters below the road level, down a steep flight of stairs. After the colorful, clean and comfortable room with a double bed, a single bed, and a day sleeping couch all for the two of us in Puerto Princesa, our ‘cottage’ in El Nido looked like a slum, with a toilet that could not really flush, no hot shower, no complimentary breakfast, no desk or dresser or wardrobe to put our luggage, and no electricity during the day, but with a free view of some European guy’s naked white ass. We were so shocked that our problem solving skills automatically kicked in just 2 minutes after we stepped into the room. We immediately sit down, brainstormed a few strategies, and drew an action plan to get us out of this difficult situation: we would take a quick cold shower first, go for dinner in a restaurant with wifi to search for an alternative, and then get a local SIM card to call any place with a better room.
Our plan failed miserably: the infamous Art Café served us cold, unfriendly customer service at their travel desk, bland and scanty dishes at their dining table, and super duper slow and irregular wireless signal. The local SIM card ran out of credit even before we managed to get anyone to pick up the phone. God must have felt the depth of our abyss of despair, because that night he cracked open the sky, and shed a shit load of his tears down to earth. It rained dogs and cats for the whole night, and for the next night, and the night after 😦
But a new day brought in a new dawn, a new beginning and a whole new perspective. Ok, if we could not have everything we wanted in our place, we would take advantages of our next door neighbor, the beautiful and friendly The Stunning Vista. We already bothered them a few times with the same question ‘Do you have a room?’ (and got the same answer ‘No, we’re full until Jan xxx’), so they kind of knew us already. From now on, we would have breakfast on their beautiful by-the-beach deck, and, when needed, dinner too. We would ask their reception desk for information, and go on their island-hopping tours. We would use their in-house tuk-tuk driver, and even use their toilets for nature’s calls. If we could not do outdoor activities because of bad weather, we would do indoors. And that was exactly what we did. We managed to get a glimpse of the luxurious resorts that our ex-colleague hired for his wedding, and found our own paradise island. I had my first snorkeling experience, and my travel mate got her supermodel pose while climbing a coconut tree. We spent hours in some nice restaurants and a good afternoon in a massage parlor.
I am glad to say that our vacation ended on a high note. Actually, the experience of El Nido airport single-handedly catapulted our El Nido trip out of the stratosphere of joy and excitement. This must be the cutest, most adorable, and most friendly airport in the world. Security check by a stick, luggage + passenger weighing, wooden boarding pass, an open-air lounge serving free snack and drink, a live band singing farewell to all passengers before boarding. Not what we expected from such a tiny, one-runway, in-the-middle-of-nowhere airport at all. It was worth every single penny that we spent on that expensive chartered flight, and it was definitely worth every single minute of frustration we might have had earlier during our short but memorable stay in El Nido.
Goodbye El Nido! Goodbye the Philippines!
View from our hut in El Nido
Open-air dining area of Stunning Vista Resort
El Nido in the morning
The green mass in the distance is called “Snake Island” because of the fine natural sandspit (s-shaped sandbar) that “snakes” off it shores. The sandspit is clearly visible when the tide is low.
The sandpit of Snake Island at low tide
The sandpit seen from high up
Lunch on Talisay island. All local tour guides are very conscious of protecting this fragile ecosystem. They always take all the trash back to the boat, and then back to town for dumping/processing.
Our own paradise island
El Nido Airport
Our boarding pass
Local girls singing farewell to all passengers 🙂