Leaving the UK in October and getting to the Philippines in January seemed a lot further than four months away. There was so much travelling to do before then and the prospect of Laura coming out from home to visit us just didn’t seem like it would actually happen. Of course the time flew by and back in the UK over the course of these four months Laura’s constant badgering of Tobit broke him down. The friends coming out to meet us had doubled in size.
During all this time James Parker had also been parading around South-East Asia and following a few phone calls our Filipino* party was set. The Philippines would have the privilege to be visited by Laura, Tobit, James, Julie and I.
All at once.
*As a quick side note, something that has been bothering me for a while now is how we arrive at Filipino from The Philippines. Are there any other instances where the spelling of the noun to describe the inhabitant of a particular country is not derived from the spelling of the the country? And don’t get me started on the language: Tagalog. I mean what’s that about? Obviously I had to look it up and if you’re interested the reasons are at the bottom of this article. Cheeky little reward for reading.
Anyway, The Philippines is pretty massive. Over 98 million people spread over 7,107 islands (I know, mental isn’t it?). It isn’t easy to get about and difficult to plan a place to meet that suited everyone. Laura was coming out for four weeks, Tobit for two and James Parker was set to meet us when we arrived. Bless him though, as clearly the excitement got too much for him and he just couldn’t wait for us all to get there, turning up 4 weeks early and exploring the country before we had even began planning our trip.
Despite the tricky logistics we did manage to meet up, the five of us spending 10 fantastic days together over the four weeks.
Boracay, a bit like Blackpool but much better.
Upon arriving we picked up Laura in Manila and cracked on out of there to meet Parker in Boracay. As he’d already been in the country for a fair few weeks he had clearly laid down roots. He was in his element, a face about town. Everyone knew him and he knew where to go. He was Filipino Parker.
Boracay is often cited amongst the top ten beaches in the world (not sure where Brighton ranks) and according to Conde Nast was in fact the world’s best island in 2012. It is pretty nice to be fair. The sand is white and as fine as flour. The ocean so turquoise it doesn’t seem real.
Until you turn around and look what’s behind you to find a huge TGI Fridays sat next to a Starbucks, a Pizza Hut interspersed with techno driven fast food outlets. Yes, as with all great beaches it seems Boracay has gone the same way as Blackpool, Magaluf and Ayia Napa and sold out paradise to the highest bidder.
It was fun though with plenty of bars to satisfy our needs and hair braiding available with a drop of your hat. And, to be honest after the food in Cambodia (not that Filipino food is up to much. A sweet sausage is probably the highlight. Laura had her fill that’s for sure) a cheeky McDonalds now and then was exactly what we craved.
Thankfully Filipino Parker had eaten and drank pretty much everywhere on the island by now and had the local knowledge to take us beyond the bright lights of TGI Fridays to find something, well, a little less shit. He took us to the far tip of White Beach to an idyllic beach and sunset spot where the techno beats and smell of pizza were swapped for Balearic beats and sushi. Proper travelling.
It didn’t stop here though. We explored further still, a good ten minute drive away at east, to the the far more rugged and reggae tinged Puka (mate) beach where we relaxed and whiled the day away with local rum and £3 coconuts.
We spent a week doing this before we had to leave, pick up Tobit and fly out to Palawan. Palawan too was voted best island in the world. This time in 2014. Parker left us at this point as of course he had already been there having got to the Philippines far too early and headed of to Bohol where we would meet up with him later.
Go on, stick Grandma up front then.
We flew into Puerto Princessa, an appropriate first stop in The Philippines for Tobit, everyone’s favourite Princess.
Palawan lies in the west of the Philippines and is pretty huge. We flew into the south, but really wanted to get north as quickly as possible where we could visit the small town of El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago that sits just of its shore.
We didn’t hang about, spending just one night in Puerto Princesa before catching a minibus carrying 12 people (built for 8) for our 7 hour drive to El Nido. Cramped into the back row, like naughty school kids Tobit, Laura, Julie and I settled down for our journey.
When we arrived we caught a tricycle to our hotel. Now the ‘tricycle’ is, as far as I can tell, unique to the Philippines. And for good reason. I mean honestly, the designer of these things has gone wild. The ‘tricycles’ they use (rather than than a normal tuk-tuk) are mental. And shit. They are the most uncomfortable things we have ever been in. It is like an old fashioned motorbike with a sidecar. They can carry 5 people (7 locals) with 2 in the front, 2 on the back and one side-saddling behind the driver on his motorbike. It’s too low so you can’t sit upright. All the weight is on one side, whilst the power on the other. Cornering was fun.
Our hotel was only accessible by crossing a beach. Naturally the perfect machine to tackle this type of the terrain is the trusted tricycle. We all thought our trip was to end before it had really begun and the noises coming out of Laura who had gallantly volunteered to ride side saddle resonated with all of us. Fuck this. But despite our fear and discomfort, it was fine. Travelling, yeah.
The Bacuit Archipelago is a world heritage site of outstanding natural beauty. Mercifully, development across the islands that sit within it has been heavily restricted leaving them pretty much unspoilt. The only way to stay overnight is to join an official camping tour. Otherwise you stay in El Nido and join one of four boat trips the take you to the islands. The trips (A, B, C and D) all take different routes showing you different elements of the park.
When we arrived, we booked onto tour A with our hotel for the next day. Usually the hotel runs its own tour but for some reason they needed to outsource our trip to another local provider. They assured us all would be well and we woke up eager to get going and see the area that Parker describes as “much better than Halong Bay”.
Now I’ve got to say, our suspicions that the trip might not be up to all it was made out to be set in pretty early when we had to wade in through elbow high, choppy sea to make it out to the boat. Bags above heads, vests tied into boob-tubes and grim determination meant we made it ok. As we got on the boat, the wind picked up and blew my vest out into the ocean. I was to be out at sea, bareback. With my complexion.
Our fellow passengers had to endure the same entrance as us and it was with guilty pleasure that we watched as they struggled their way to join us on our boat. Amongst them was a Filipino family including Grandma who was thankfully kayaked out and placed at the helm of the boat. Right out front. You know, where the waves crash and its wet. Bold.
The trip went from calamity to calamity. As we made our way out of the harbour we could feel the wind picking up. Progress was slow with the boat bobbing up and down as much as we went forward. The look on Julie’s face bore the truth of all our inner fears and she asked the “Captain” if this was normal. He simply said “No”.
With confidence low we continued out to sea.
Our first stop was the ‘Small Lagoon’. We got there late as Grandma was pretty shit at kayaking making our exit was slower than normal. The lagoon was rammed. It was so busy the boat couldn’t actually get in. The swell had picked up significantly and the boat crew could only manage to drop anchor at the entrance to the lagoon. A good 200m from where the first boat was docked, with about 50 boats in between. The anchor was barely operational and our boat spent most of the time crashing into those around us.
As the Captain encouraged us to jump in the water and swim or kayak to the shore (Grandma included) we collectively thought he was mad and decided to go nowhere. Grandma was relieved as I think her front crawl isn’t up to much these days.
A better idea, the passengers said, would be to get the hell out of here to the next stop before the Armada that sits in front of us about turns and does that same. Rather we miss this stop and enjoy the rest than always being stuck at the rear, we thought.
The crew bowed to our wisdom and we turned around, narrowly missing the boat next to us and the massive deadly cliffs either side.
To the next stop. Or not as it turned out. The crew (now realising the weather might be a bit of a problem) felt it would be unsafe to visit ‘Big Lagoon’ and that we should avoid this area. Out of the 5 scheduled stops it meant we had failed to see the first 2 but with most of us questioning our chances of survival we had other things to worry about. At this stage, a sadness crept across Grandma’s face as I think the Big Lagoon was definitely what she was looking forward to most. It was that, or it could have been wind. I couldn’t be sure.
To lighten the mood the Captain told us we could go snorkelling next. Apparently.
The boat struggled on, the crew working hard to keep it upright. As we made our way to our next stop we were able to start to enjoy our surroundings, huge limestone islands decked with dramatic rock faces, lush green foliage and the occasional idyllic beach. One such island lay directly in the middle of the channel that ran between two much larger islands. The topography meant two or three different tidal flows met causing an intense powerful tide either side of the island. Behind it though was relatively calm and it was these conditions that made it such a great snorkelling spot.
So of course we sailed straight past it, behind the island and out into the churning currents of the straight. They dropped anchor and, over the sound of the howling wind we could just about make out the crew’s encouragement to “jump in and have a snorkel”. Funnily enough there weren’t a lot of takers. Grandma was having none of it.
But, driven by bravado and a misplaced confidence that we thought the crew knew what they were doing (I’m not sure why). Tobit and I were well up for it. Mask on. Fins attached and off the boat we jumped in what should really be called the ‘Fucking North Sea’. Waves crashed over our heads. It was cold. The visibility, unsurprisingly, was zero and there wasn’t a fish in sight. It took a while for us to hear the panicked shouts coming from Julie, Laura and the worried captain telling us to head back to the boat.
At least I had time for a cheeky wee. I think Tobit forgot.
Lunch was next and of course it went wrong. To be fair they did take us to an amazing deserted beach and cooked up a BBQ for us to enjoy. The problem was getting onto the beach across the rocks and coral in the sea. Poor old grandma had to be left on the boat and didn’t eat a thing. The rest of us made our way onto shore, each drawing blood. One old fella from the Filipino family ended up in a pretty bad way.
By this stage (and I know I’m going on but I’ve had this on my chest for sometime and need to let it go) all we wanted was to go home. But there was one more stop to make. Back out across open water, the high winds and massive waves to a final beach stop. Now by this stage I’ve got to say that I’ve got the massive arse. Julie’s got the hump. Tobit and Laura to be fair are displaying the fresh traveller optimism I can barely remember. And Grandma? Well I could only imagine what Grandma was feeling. No food and she hadn’t even left the boat yet. Bless her.
We set off again and Grandma started to take it straight away. The swell had increased massively. The wind was growling and everyone was getting soaked. But Grandma, poor old Grandma. What she was taking was another level. Wave after wave would hit her in the face, salt sprayed across her face and she had to hold on to make sure she didn’t bounce off out of the boat. A fair few times we thought she was a goner before she finally emerged, soaked, shocked and thankful the worst was over. And then the next wave hit.
Grandma’s ordeal kept us focused and thankful. Morale was down but we clung on in there and made light of the situation as best we could. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity. It was over. We were on the beach and almost home.
Once we did finally get to the harbour Grandma was still with us and in surprisingly good spirits despite never leaving the boat, not getting fed and being smashed about wave after wave. She was a lesson to us all. We headed off to the bar to swap sea tales and celebrate our return.
Over the next 5 days we were in El Nido rode a 700 metre zipline between two islands and went on two more trips. We did our horrific tour one more time. Without the weather and without Grandma. And this time it was amazing. A beautiful day spent with beautiful people. We loved it so much we booked onto another, where we visited beaches I do not believe can be bettered anywhere in the world.
But our time with Grandma, out at sea, will live with each of us forever.
A one way ticket to Bohol
It was time to leave El Nido and go and meet Parker, where again in Bohol he had laid roots in a boozy beach resort.
We flew out of El Nido from what was basically a glorified field with a shed as a terminal and a cow sat in the shade under a tree. The tricycle drove us across the runway and straight up to the ‘terminal’. It was amazing though, Heathrow could learn a lot. There were free snacks, a band to sing for us as we departed and the boarding passes were carved wooden bricks.
Over the next few weeks we would spend a lot of time eating, drinking, diving (with millions of sardines), swimming with whale sharks, visiting chocolate hills, touching snakes and looking for accommodation (which was mostly pretty rubbish).
We left Bohol (and Tobit behind as he made his way back to the UK) and headed over to Cebu. And it was here we went Canyoning. If you don’t know what Canyoning is, it’s basically climbing, jumping, sliding, swimming and trekking along a river flow. Ending with a massive waterfall and pool for swimming in. It sounded pretty good, even if some of the jumps looked a bit daunting.
The water was a blue you’d never believe and the scenery out of this world. I think in all it last around 4 hours before we reached the end and a boozy BBQ on the beach. I took the GoPro so you can see for yourself what’s it’s all about including me sounding way more terrified than I actually was as I slid off what actually turned out to be a pretty small waterfall.
The whole trip flew by and before we knew it we were saying goodbye. Tobit had already left in Bohol before Parker and Laura departed in Cebu to catch their flights back to the UK. We had an amazing time with all of them and were so thankful that Laura and Tobit came out all that way. And of course Parker for laying down roots in the Philippines until we arrived.
It was just a shame that it had to end.
Note – The reason for the spelling inconsistency stems from the mixing of three languages over years of colonisation: Tagalog (Filipino), Spanish and English. The Spanish arrived in the 1500s to colonise the islands and had many different names for them, one of which was Las Isla Filipinas, named after Prince Philip (or Felipe) who would later become King and lead the Spanish Armada against the British. This seems like the first origin of the name we know today. Spelling wasn’t really formalised back then and there were interchangeable uses of ‘F’ and ‘Ph’ for Philip, Las Isla Filipinas, and Filipinos (Philipinos). As the English didn’t really have a spelling either, the use of Filipino was adopted in English as well.