The Philippines…

From Borneo we flew into Manila Airport, the capital of the Philippines. We arrived in the evening and booked ourselves into a cheap hotel close to the airport for the night. The next morning we would be flying to Tagbilaran, where we were due to  meet our friends from home Tony and Colette.  The flight to Tagbilaran was short but gave us spectacular views over the multiple islands below. Just seeing the postcard perfect colours of the islands sand and blues and greens of the sea made us excited to explore these incredible islands.

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The following afternoon we met Tony and Colette and caught up over dinner. We were staying in the same hotel as them which gave us a great chance of catching up and hearing about what they had been up to recently. Unsure of where we would go next, we decided to tag along with them for a few days to see the sights of the Philippines; Colette had spent some major time planning and they made it easy for us to tag along with their plans for a while. 

 

An early ferry to Cebu had us awake before dawn the next day. The three hour journey would take us from Tagbilaran to the island of Cebu, where we would then take a five hour bus ride the the northern most tip of Cebu to Maya harbour. We boarded a public boat that would be taking us to Malapascua island, a small island with only 4000 people who make their living from the tourism trade. 

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After a long day of travelling, we had finally set our feet on the white, soft sand of Logan Beach on Malapascua island. It was a paradise island unspoilt by tourism with lush green palm trees and clear blue waters. With no cars on the island, everything was within easy walking distance.  We grabbed lunch on Logan Beach before walking along the sand taking in the amazing view. 

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After checking in a freshening up, we met for dinner on the other side of the island, literally a stones throw away, where we watched the sun set in our little paradise.

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The next day we rented a private boat for the four of us to show us around the island and point out the highlights. Malapascua is a great island for scuba diving but as Colette and Tony didn’t have their scuba license we snorkels at our first stop which was a Japanese wreck from World War 2 of a landing craft. It was cool to see our first wreck and we spent a while bobbing on the surface of the sea before realising that there were jellyfish which we had to avoid. 

 

Our next stop was a jump off a cliff. For some reason I had the out-of-personality urge to jump. Dave tried to convince me otherwise but I walked up with him to see how big the drop was. Tony and Colette were sensible and watched us from the boat, (in hindsight I wish I had watched also, but my bravery was too much!) After a little bout of hesitation I jumped, and thrill turned to panic as I hit the water hard. With no previous dive experience I realised that my bravery was stupid…I knew instantly that I would be badly bruised but despite the bruised legs I was proud I did it! 

 

The boat continued onto the lighthouse, a garden of coral and to some rocks further out where we snorkelled more to spot various fish. We thanked our guide for the tour of the island and headed  back to our hotels for showers before an evening meal and exploring the island by night.

 

The following day, as everything was in walking distance, we decided to walk to the lighthouse to explore further. Getting slightly lost along the way, we finally found the path up towards the lighthouse thanks to a locals directions. The lighthouse stood tall with beautiful sea views as its backdrop.  We stood there for a while taking it all in before heading down the hill and along the coast towards a long stretch of beach with white sand, blue sea, and the sun shining – a travellers paradise and it was refreshing to see that tourism hadn’t spoilt the lovely beach. We spent time swimming, snorkelling, drinking, eating, reading and sunbathing. It was the perfect afternoon, miles away from any stress where we could just relax and enjoy.

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After a few wonderful days in Malapascua it was time to say goodbye to the beautiful island. We caught a boat back to the mainland before getting the five hour bus back to Cebu, and then back to Manila. We hadn’t planned the next few days of our trip but on a whim decided to continue our journey with Colette and Tony who were heading for Coron. Parting ways at Manila for a day, we booked our flight and were due to meet back up with Colette and Tony the following day. 

 

As we had a whole day in Manila, we booked ourselves into the same hotel as we stayed previously before exploring Manila. The city was full of a buzz with people everywhere. We decided to treat ourselves with a trip to the cinema to see my favourite film Beauty and the Beast. The film wasn’t a disappointment, and watching it in the biggest cinema screen we had ever seen, the fully booked showing was almost interactive with the Phillipino audience whooping and cheering, especially at the end where the Beast turns into a man. They loved it! Their enthusiasm was infectious and made the film even more magical!

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After the showing, we walked along the shopping mall’s riverbank where a crowd of people had gathered. Wondering what was happening, it was explained that it was the Philippine International Pyromusical Competition. We decided to buy a discounted ticket to enter the marked off area and found a spot to watch the displays times with music. It was amazingly magical and romantic and a perfect way to experience Manila and to end the night.

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The next morning we flew to Coron early.  Coron is the largest town on the island of Busuanga, northern Palawan, and includes 50 smaller islets surrounding it. Famous for its remarkable marine life, diving and Japanese shipwrecks from WWII, we couldn’t wait to get started! Catching a shuttle from the airport to our hotel, we checked in, and then left straight away to meet Tony and Colette who had booked us on a private boat tour around the islands of Coron.

 

We met them both in the market, getting drinks and snacks before walking to the jetty where our boat was waiting.  Climbing aboard our boat would be taking us to five different places: Coral reef garden; Twin lagoon; Barracuda Lake; Skeleton Wreck; and Atwayan Beach. Words cannot describe how beautiful it was, the water for snorkelling was lovely and clear enough to see the different colours of coral, from blue and purple, to pink, yellow and green – I had never thought it possible to see so many different colours, shapes, and types of coral in one place! 

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The lakes and lagoons were amazing in colour with their blues and greens drawing us in. Barracuda Lake was famous for its bizarre underwater rock formations with rapid changes of water temperature throughout; we were told it was so extremely deep and that we needed advance diving skills to explore anything below. We were lucky enough to see the amazing rock forms under the surface of the water. Twin Lagoon showed us two lagoons which had converged through a small tunnel opening which Dave swam through! Others jumped off from the cliff face into the deep lagoon!

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Seeing another wreck was unbelievable as we snorkelled around it from above, curious to see more than the rusted anchor that was only visible to us. Atwayan Beach was truly our first reveal of the spectacular beaches that the Philippines had been hiding. Perfect for a swim in the clear water, and a great spot to have lunch prepared by our captain and guide who did a great job at preparing a feast for us to dine whilst sheltered from the hot sun in a bamboo stilted picnic area. It was such a relaxing day and the boat ride back to Coron mainland gave us more amazing views of the surrounding islands and cobalt blue sea.

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With a tight squeeze we caught a tuk tuk back to our hotels to clean up for dinner. Just before sunset we walked up to Coron Hill (Tapyas) which had a picturesque view over Coron Bay. We climbed the 700+ steps, and although sweaty from the climb and the heat the view was definitely worth it, with a giant cross and ‘CORON’ Hollywood sign at the top which brilliantly lit up once he sun had set. The colours of the sunset were beautiful and peaceful as we spent ages just sitting and watching the changing colours of the sky.

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Growing darker, we made our way down the hill to a barbecue place which served delicious pork, coconuts, and beer to end our first night in Coron.

 

The boat tour was so good we decided to do it again the next day but visiting different areas the second time round. We visited Twin Peaks Reef which was set below some amazing mountain peaks overlooking the blue-green sea; another coral reef garden, Banol Beach, and lastly we ended our day on C.Y.C Beach which was frequented by many people coming and going on day tours but as we had our own private boat we were allowed to stay on the small beach until there was no one left but us. 

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That night we watched the sunset from the roof of our hotel which overlooked the sea and islands on one side and where we could view the Coron Hill.

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It was beautiful and we couldn’t have asked for better company with Tony and Colette being there! They were easy to travel with and laid back about all decisions which made it the most relaxing time we could have asked for. We couldn’t believe we would be parting ways the following day as Tony and Colette were heading to another island for their last couple of days in the Philippines. We met in the morning to see them off and  were sad to see them go. The end of our Coron adventure but more of the Philippines islands were waiting for us to explore them.

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We rented a bike from Coron and drove to Maricaban Bay in the Busuanga part of the island. The challenging journey took us from tarmac roads through to bumpy and rocky dirt tracks to get to our home stay on the north of the island. We had done our research and this area was apparently our best chance at Dugong spotting.

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Dugongs are best described as cousins of manatees as they share the similar plump appearance but have a tail similar to that of a dolphin. Unlike manatees which are found in freshwater areas, the dugong is strictly a marine mammal also known as sea cows; they graze peacefully on sea grasses in shallow coastal waters.

 

Our guesthouse owner Brenda showed us our first bamboo accommodation as we settled into our Busuanga home. Her mum was a terrific chef as we ate barbecued pork, rice and grilled aubergine – it was delicious especially as we had been craving home cooked food and a long and tricky bike ride there had definitely whetted our appetites.

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That evening after an afternoon relaxing, Brenda had told us that she was unable to take us Dugong watching as she had promised to pick up some French people who were also wanting to watch these amazing creatures. Feeling messed around we decided to go in search of the Dugong ourselves the next day.

 

We woke up early and drove to a town one hour away. The one hour hour journey however took two hours due to the once again to tricky tracks through the mountains which needed steady and careful driving. Thanks to Dave we made it in one piece and we and after some communications with the locals we managed to hire a boat to take us out to try and seek them for a couple of hours. A small canoe boat, we managed to squeeze on with our Captain and boat owner as well as his assistant who would help to spot the giants.  Unfortunately we didn’t have any luck as they tried to explain later on….our best chance of seeing them was first thing in the morning around sunrise when it was their feeding time and when the water surface was still enough to spot them coming to the surface for air. Due to it being late morning/ afternoon out chances had decreased and spotting them would be hard especially in the now waving sea.

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We thanked the friendly locals and drove back to the guesthouse the scenic way, giving us more time and opportunity to look at the unspoilt surroundings that only locals wandered.

 

Having not spotted any Dugongs with the locals, we decided to set off the next morning with our host Brenda the group of French tourists she had previously collected. Our boat took us out to sea where we floated around three main areas that Dugongs were spotted recently. It seemed like a waiting game and even a wild goose chase: no one knew where the Dugong would surface, and if they did surface where or for how long, or even which direction they would head to after surfacing in the vast sea before us. Although we had low expectations of seeing them it was slightly disappointing that we didn’t see any having been assured by Brenda that she had seen them plenty of times. Despite that we were in a beautiful place with ideal surroundings and amazing weather and green-blue water.  

Whilst talking to Brenda the previous day, she had mentioned that we could also camp on a nearby island for the night. This idea appealed to us massively, so after our day of Dugong spotting, the boat sailed us to the island where we would be staying in for the night. Pulling up to the island was wonderful. It truly looked like paradise and we were happy and relieved to have made the choice to experience the deserted island.  

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After a group lunch on the island, we brought our bags together with our food and water supply for the night and morning. Once lunch was finished we swam in the sea and waved the others off. We wouldn’t see anyone apart from the island caretakers until the following day. 

 

We spent some time snorkelling along the reef that surrounds the island and enjoying our time together without anyone else. Back on the island the caretakers were preparing their dinner so we decided to do the same. We gathered dry wood and husks of the coconut to start our camp fire on the beach. We had chicken, octopus, rice and grilled aubergine for our desert island feast and it was perfect! We couldn’t have asked for a better view as we sat in front of our very own handmade campfire, eating our ‘home-cooked’ food, and enjoying the sunset before us. It was truly an amazing and unforgettable experience, and a dream come true. As the night drew in, we washed up before lying on the beach to watch the stars. With no other lights or distractions we could see an abundance of stars with the Milky Way being a clear strip in the star covered sky above us. It was simply magical!

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Our beds for nights were some mattresses raised on a sheltered platform above the sand to keep the creepy-crawlies away. With only the sound of the sea and it’s breaking waves, we drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, we woke to another dazzling sunny day. We cooked omelette for breakfast and had another snorkel and swim before the boat collected us. 

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Back at Brenda’s guesthouse we spent the rest of the day relaxing in hammocks and reading….wishing we could have stayed longer on the desert island. 

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From Busuanga we biked back to Coron where we were then catching a ferry to El Nido where we were recommended to stay by friends that we had made in Thailand.  El Nido, a coastal resort on the northern part of Palawan, was a place visited by many tourists. Our hotel was on the beach front with a beautiful view of the sea and other islands dotted nearby. 

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We booked ourselves on a tour for the following day where we would see Cudugnon beach, Pinagbuyatan Beach, Entalula Island, Cathedral Cave, and Snake Island. The morning of the tour, as made our way to the beach on the port side of El Nido, the beach was teeming with people and boats waiting to leave the mainland to explore the islands of El Nido. Our boat had 14 tourists, and 5 crew members including our tour guide who would be explaining the various sites to us. We saw beautiful sandy beaches and stunning rock formations, amazing caves and desert island surroundings. At lunchtime we stopped at Snake Island, named after the naturally formed s-shaped sand bar that snakes the water. Unfortunately the tide was high when we visited but we still managed to wade through the water along the waving sand bar. I had never seen anything like it before, knowing they only existed thanks to school geography lessons. The fine white sand was beautiful and as we climbed up to the not-so-high viewpoint we could see the vague snake-like appearance of the sand bar.

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For lunch a feast was prepared by our crew and we sat down to tuck into the amazing looking lunch they had prepared.

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We got back to the mainland later that evening and enjoyed a nightly stroll along the beach to watch the sun set.

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El Nido was known for its fantastic dive sites and we decided to take advantage of the diving they had to offer. We spotted a local diving company nearby and after talking to them for a while we decided to do a half day session of diving with them which would help us not only further our diving experience but also gave us the opportunity to see the marine life of Bacuit Bay. We visited …. and saw….

 

We loved diving so much that we decided to have a days rest and then visit some different sites with the same company. It gave us a sense of freedom and having dived two days previously we were much more confident in the water and were able to enjoy the experience much more. As our confidence grew we also began to worry less about the equipment and focus more on what we could see, from various corals…..to even a sea turtle.

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We caught a bus from El Nido to Puerto Princessa, the capital of the island Palawan known for its amazing limestone caves, and home to many marine life such as long nose dolphins and turtles. Spending a day of planning at our hostel, and general relaxation in hammocks, we booked ourselves on a tour that would show us the best of Puerto Princessa, including the famous Underground River. Our tour leader Dorie picked us up early in the morning where we met the others we would be spending our day with. We drove through the hills where we stopped to see big limestone cliffs around us contrasted with flat valleys and fields. 

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Our bus continued on to the harbour where we were catching a local boat towards the famous Underground River. This subterranean national park was designated as a woodland of international importance, and was visited daily by thousands of tourists. There was a long waiting time but finally it was our turn to board the boat. Suited in life jackets we went made our way across the sea to the beach which led to the cave entrance. This gave us amazing views of the mountains around us and the mist kissing the top of the mountain peaks. The boat moored us in the bay where we would be for the next few hours and the view was breathtaking with tall cliffs jutting out of the sea above us and the clear aqua sea before us. 

 

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We then crossed the boardwalk to the opening of the cave and where the mouth of the Underground River began. Armed with our fetching orange helmets and life vests we waited our turn for a guide and boat to take us through. Sat at the back of the boat with the guide behind us we could hear all his descriptions of the cave along with the audio guide that was describing the area we were floating through. We saw baby bats hanging from the cave ceiling, and various rock formations all around us.

To see the longest underground river in the world was amazing and definitely an experience we recommend. Despite the masses of people who visit, the colour of the water and the depth of the cave were incredible to see.

 

Our next day in Puerto Princessa had us renting a scooter to see some of the sites recommended by our hostel. Our first stop was Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservative Centre, a concrete complex with many outside pens housing various sized crocodiles from newly hatched babies to giant mammoth crocs that looked like they could eat your entire body in one go! 

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At the entrance to the main building, a skeleton of a huge sea water crocodile is encased in a glass chest.  And on the wall beside it hangs the skin of the said crocodile.  We were told that this giant crocodile was caught somewhere on the island and killed after it devoured a child.  

 

After visiting the crocodile dens, we were allowed to look further into the conservation park where animals such as wild boars, monkeys, various species of bird, and the cutest porcupines ever!

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The next stop on our scooter was a prison farm: Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, a colony of prisoners located in the beautiful countryside with a dramatic skyline background! Prisoners wear different coloured t-shirts depending on whether they are minimum, medium, or maximum security. All prisoners except maximum security were allowed to wander around freely and work within the farm. We wandered into the main tourist building where a group of minimum security prisoners performed a dance routine to entertain us, whilst others sold paintings and other handicrafts.

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We spoke to a couple of individuals who approached us and wanted to know which country we were from. They talked about their life in the prison and what they were in prison for. The sentencing of crimes surprised us…possession of drugs was a lifetime sentence, murder was 6 years, and petty car theft was given a longer sentence than murder which was even more shocking! They also told us how many people and even celebrities had visited to see the rehabilitation that they were going through in this unusual prison setting.

 

Our last stop on our self made scooter tour was Vietville, a small village where just over a thousand Vietnamese people took refuge during the communist occupation of their country. In return for setting up VietVille, the refugees worked in the restaurant, cake shop, and noodle factory. Walking through the small village, it was evident that many refugees had left to go abroad, many buildings were abandoned, empty and overgrown. It was like a ghost town but the restaurant was still busy with visitors so we decided to stop and eat before making our way back to our hostel.  

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It was then time to fly back to Manila the capital where we would then be heading to Japan to experience yet another entirely different country and culture.

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