I Heart Palawan
Central Palawan - Puerto Princesa and Sabang
6/9-6/12 (48PHP = 1USD)
After two days in crowded and conjested Manila, I was thrilled to board a plane headed for the southern mystical island of Palawan, which has been rated the top island in the world for the last three years. The one hour flight into Palawan was extraordinary. As was ascended out of the island of Luzon and away from Metro Manila, the sea was segmented into a regimented grid pattern signifying massive fish farm operations. As we headed further south through the Philippines archipelago, cities and civilization were enveloped in endless islands with unimaginable contours, and completely covered in a thick green coat that completely encompassed the islands and villages contained within. It felt like I had reached Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. It was as through they were 7,000 pieces in a complicated jigsaw puzzle with nothing but green pieces to fit together. Ringing most of these islands were spectacular white sand bars and then a full spectrum of blue from translucent turquoise to the dark blue that signifies deep waters and trenches. The finest artists could not have painted a more spectacular and lush landscape than that created by the Ring of Fire. Turquoise waters and sand bars.
Landing in Palawan signaled the real beginning of my trip and re-ignited my adventurous spirit, which when in Manila I was afraid may have expired in this 35-year old. Puerto Princesa was my port of entry, the capital and largest city of Palawan province, but ultimately is really a small town with a large footprint. Just my style. I was literally able to grab my bag and walk out of the single-room terminal, past the basketball court on airport property and down the one main road to my hotel, the Pagdayan Traveler's Hotel (950PHP per night for a single A/C room with TV and small balcony). Immediately reminding me of endless small towns in SE Asia and India, my sweaty walk down this street was made more complicated by the choking exhaustion and darting motos, tricycles and jeepneys.
One of Life's Great Pleasures: Motorcycling in SE Asia
Puerto Princesa formerly had a large Vietnamese community, now with only two relics, the ghost town of the "Viet Village" 13km north of Puerto and the greatest part of any culture to persist, its food. My first night in Puerto I enjoyed a grilled pork, adobo-style, bahn mi, and every morning in Puerto I would start my day with a delightful and spicy Filipino version of Pho called chaoling which had to be cooled off with an iced Vietnamese coffee. My breakfast never cost me more than 65PHP ($1.50 USD) and there are at least 4-5 chaoling open-air restaurants lining the main street between the airport and the National Highway that serves as the north-south trunk road in Palawan.
With literally no itinerary for my travel plans except to slowly overland and over-sea my way north through the islands (stopping to dive and motorbike wherever possible), I rented a 125cc semi-automatic Honda motorbike for 900PHP for two days (asking price was 700PHP per day) and was off for an island explore. Having not been on a saddle in about five years, it didn't take me long to get my sealegs back. Very quickly, I found myself with an ear-to-ear grin under my helmet as I was zipping (while checking my mirrors and looking over my shoulder constantly, thanks to all my urban cycling experience) around cars and tricycles and once I hit the open road of the very curvy National Highway, through the apex of every corner with nearly perfect counter-weight balancing. What a thrill. Being free of an enclosed vehicle, I could enjoy the scents in the air, feel the breeze along my arms and across my face, really take in all of the insane mountainous and jungle-scenery that is the Palawan countryside and stop whenever I wanted for some pictures or breaks. Built from volcanoes, the soil is fertile and the topography of the land is jagged at best, pockmarked with lagoons, bays and with the horizon line on the sea interrupted by innumerable small islands, such as those in Honda Bay.
The Ghosts of WWII
When I returned back to town, I came across Plaza Cuartel, across the street from the main church and did not expect to learn that that was a WWII memorial for one of the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. 143 American POW were placed inside of a trench where they were then covered in gasoline and came under fire of live grenades that then burned them alive at this location, with only 11 escaping alive. I was standing on this now-covered trench and reading the names of the servicemen lost. This was very powerful. I also learned of the pivotal role that Palawan played in the decisive Battle of Leyte won by General Macarthur. The Japanese had occupied Puerto Princesa and the whole island and while the two nations navy's engaged in conflicted on the high seas, the jungle-specialized US Army infantry, out of Oregon, joined forces with the Filipino guerrillas who had retreated to the surrounding jungle-clad mountains of Palawan to combat and ultimately overtake Puerto and Palawan from the Japanese. Who would have thought a few wandering turns down unknown roads would lead to this memorial.
Puerto Life in a Microcosm: The Baywalk
That evening, I pulled my bike up to the open-air Baywalk, which is a promenade adjacent to the port and along the Puerto Princesa Bay with Filipino bangkas, or outrigger fishing boats, coming in and out of the harbor while the sun set behind the Palawan volcanic peaks, for a sunset stroll and to enjoy food from the many open-air restaurants that lined the strip. On a hot and humid day, the life of the town descended upon this 3-4 block-long promenade that turned into a carnival-like atmosphere as young couples were taking selfies by the sunset, kids were riding bicycles around, groups of family and friends were throwing back some cold beers with crocodile sisig or the day's fresh catch, an old movie was being projected on a giant screen for anyone to watch and a highly-organized pickup league basketball game was being combated under the lights on an outdoor court, full with referees and play-by-play announcers. The young kids who were keeping score on a rudimentary chalkboard could be heard imitating their best Marv Albert, "#9 passes to #14, dribbles and puts the shot up, no good. No box out, rebound to blue". It is clear what the #1 game is to the Filipinos and if my friend Adha were with me, he would have no doubt thrown on a jersey and jumped into the game.
I was reminded of the many open-air night markets that can be found along the MeKong River in places like Vientiane and Laong Prabong, Lao PDR, the never-ending promenade of El Malecon in Havana, as well as the volcano-rimmed Lago Atitlan in Guatemala. I went into a maniacal photo-shoot mode with my new camera; shout-out once again to my student, Wes, for the recommendation.
No one, except for this tourist, could be found alone, which was pointed out to me by an elderly and impoverished lady I encountered by the old church earlier in the day who asked why I wasn't traveling with my family or a companion. The thought of us western solo backpackers is absolutely nonsensical to many of the locals I meet around the world.
Riding to the End of the Road and an Underground River
The next morning of June 11, I set off for a two-hour gorgeous motorbike ride to the end of the road in Sabang, to visit the famed UNESCO-approved Puerto Princesa Subterranean Park and the Underground River.
The ride was a spectacular one along a narrow winding road with incredible corners enshrouded in jungle canopy. Within a short distance from Puerto, I left most civilization and petrol stations behind as every now and again a farm would pop up or a small road-side store.
I developed huge range anxiety as I didn't exactly know how far I had to go to Sabang and I had less than a quarter of a tank left in my motorbike. Rest assured, every now and again I would see a small thatch-roofed wooden structure lined with glass bottles (filled with odd green and blue-colored liquids) and nothing else; the SE-Asian "gas station". For slightly more than would be charged at the pump, you are always assured of a few liters of gasoline (octane level "who gives a f**k, it's not my bike") for your motorbike no matter how deep in the jungle. The freedom of a motorbike afforded me the chance to stop at all of the community-based-tourism outposts, viewing posts and trails off the side of the road (with donation bins). It appeared that this island ringed with spectacular beaches had nothing, but lush, verdant jungles in its interior. There were so many three-house "towns" with road-side stands selling snacks and supplies, which reminded me of some of the sleepy pass through towns along US highways in the middle of nowhere (such as Kyburz, CA - "Now entering Kyburz. Now leaving Kyburz"). How always wonder how such shopkeepers make enough to survive, although the owners of the shops in Palawan are likely also subsistence farmers.
Puerta Princesa Underground Subterranean Park encompasses the jungle-enshrouded limestome massif of St Paul, which has been hollowed out through the power of water and calcium carbonate to form a huge cave system. The piece de resistance is an 8.5km river that flows through a gargantuan cave, which tourists can access from the small beach-side town of Sabang that sits at the foot of a valley between massive limestone cliffs. For 575 pesos (includes Bangka ride from Sabang to the mouth of the underground river, audio tour guide, row boat ride through the underground river, but if traveling individually you must acquire a free permit at least one-day in advance in Puerto Princesa; it is recommended to visit during the week as the Manila weekenders descend on a Saturday), I was able to ride along the turquoise waters below limestone cliffs and then enjoy a boat-ride through a limestone cave with spectacular chambers and stalagtite formations.
The morning of my visit coincided with Game 4 of the NBA Finals, but thankfully Filipinos are NBA-crazy, and most of the boat captains and tour guides were Warriors fans. I exited the cave to learn the Warriors had taken a commanding 3-1 lead and all of us GSW fans felt quite overconfident the series would soon end.
The Bilingual Nature of Filipinos
I also met two women from Manila who were avid divers, so we chatted about diving and traveling. They also spoke exquisite English, like many Filipinos I encountered. I learned from them that all Filipinos who attend formal schooling are required to learn their entire curriculum in English. Tagalog, the lingua franca through the Philippines, is merely taught for one-period a day just as an American student taking a foreign language. Most Filipinos grow up listening to and speaking Tagalog, as a result, many Filipinos are aurally fluent in the language, but cannot read or write at an exceptional level. Only those who received formal education are able to read and write Tagalog well and are essentially fluent in English. For Filipinos who are fluent only in Tagalog or a regional dialect, it is likely they did not receive many years of formal schooling.
I enjoyed some spectacular views on my motorbike ride home from the Buena Vista Community-Based Tourism viewing platform and called it an early night as I would head off the grid to Port Barton the following morning.
This review is the subjective opinion of a TravelPod member and not of TravelPod.com.