Thursday, January 30, 2014

El Nidooooooooooooooooooooo

Our next stop was El Nido at the very north of Palawan where we would end up staying for longer than anticipated. The journey to El Nido wasn't the most comfortable; first we took a bus from Sabang which chucked us out when it reached the nearest major road junction, from where we were lucky to get the last two available seats in a mini-bus with our luggage crammed right behind us.  We checked into a guesthouse which was essentially the upstairs floor of a family home, complete with four dogs. The major selling point was a large balcony overlooking the beach, although by the time we had checked in it was too dark to see the view. The view that greeted us the following morning was pretty spectacular. El Nido is spread along a narrow crescent-shaped beach. Beyond the beach and the numerous boats in the natural harbour were dramatic limestone cliffs jutting out of the water, reminiscent for us of Halong Bay inVietnam.

Unfortunately, the weather still wasn't co-operating with our plans to enjoy the plethora of beautiful beaches nearby. Almost the whole time we were in El Nido (which was a looooong time) it was mostly overcast with spells of high winds and rain. The occasional periods of sunshine were unpredictable and rarely lasted long enough to take advantage of them. Still, things could have been worse – we had a comfortable balcony from where we could read our books, listen to music and enjoy the view (that is when we didn't have to pull the covers down for protection from the elements), and the beach-side bars had a variety of happy-hour offers that were so good they were difficult to turn down.

So far in the Philippines the food had been underwhelming. It wasn't that it was bad, it was just that there wasn't much in the way of traditional Filipino food, and most places offered a variety of generic fried rice/noodle dishes alongside Western dishes like pizza, pasta and burgers. The Filipino food that was offered mostly consisted of fried chicken, fried rice and a fried egg; not particularly inspired. A number of the recommended restaurants in El Nido were closed during the low season, but we did find a couple of places that served really good food, and we ended up frequenting those places regularly over the coming days. Alcohol, on the other hand, was not problematic in the slightest – in fact in the Philippines it is so cheap that it is genuinely difficult to decline it. A bottle of San Miguel is cheaper than a can of coke, and only slightly more expensive than a bottle of water. Throughout the trip I had only occasionally had a beer as a treat, and usually opted for water which was much more sensible in the hot weather; here I figured that beer had plenty of water in it anyway, so it was the best of both worlds!

Whilst the town itself was very pleasant (well, at least it would be in decent weather) we had come to El Nido to enjoy the beauty of the local area. The best way to explore the area is by way of a number of all-day boat trips. The really nice thing was that instead of countless places offering all sorts of different tours at different prices that are next to impossible to compare, in El Nido there are 6 set tours, A to F, at set prices. This greatly reduced the amount of time we had to spend shopping around and deciding what to do and through which tour company. Instead we were faced with a different difficulty, as the weather was preventing boat tours from leaving every day like usual. Instead, after we opted for a particular tour we had to wait until the following morning to see if the weather was calm enough for us to go.

Thankfully, after one day written off due to the weather it cleared up enough the following day for our tour to leave. The tour took us through the spectacular limestone landscape and made a number of stops at various points:

Firstly we stopped at the beautiful Commander beach on a tiny island.

Unfortunately as the morning progressed, the weather deteriorated and it got colder and colder on the boat, and it became impossible to get dry and warm after swimming due to the rain. It actually had potential to get quite miserable, however our guides were so relentlessly chipper that it was impossible not to have a good time. The rougher the sea, and the colder and wetter they got the happier they seemed to be.

The highlights of the day were two spectacular lagoons aptly named the Big Lagoon and the Small Lagoon. The Big Lagoon was accessible only by two of the guides getting into the water to guide the boat through a narrow passageway in between the rocks (which, of course, they did with huge smiles on their faces) before swimming in through an entrance too narrow for boats. The Small Lagoon was even more secluded, as the only way in was by swimming under the rock through an extremely narrow entrance. Once inside the Small Lagoon opens up into two sections (is isn't actually that small), and also has a really cool water-filled cave with a natural skylight at the top of the cliff above you. Both lagoons were absolutely stunning – floating in the beautiful crystal clear emerald coloured water whilst looking up at the huge limestone cliffs that completely surrounded us felt like we were some sort of different world.

Next stop was the beautiful and rugged Shimizu island where we did some great snorkelling and then ate a lunch of barbequed sea-food and fresh fruit prepared by our guides.

Shimizu island is also home to hundreds of tiny hermit crabs.

After lunch we headed out a little to a fantastic snorkelling spot where we saw all kinds of tropical fish and fantastic coral. Fortunately the bad weather had just held off for us to eat lunch, and of course it doesn't matter if it's raining while you're snorkelling, but the wind and rain started to really pick up and the water became quite choppy so we headed back onto the boat before it turned into a full-blown storm.

The next stop was supposed to be the Secret Lagoon; however, by the time we made it back onto the boat the weather had turned really nasty, and to go to the Secret Lagoon would have meant us heading straight into the storm (which looked like a solid block of greyness). Our guides gave us the option of continuing, but the decision was unanimous that we should give the Secret Lagoon a miss. Instead we went in the opposite direction to another tiny island which provides a nice look-out point over the interesting sand ridge which has formed due to two conflicting currents meeting, and which means that you can walk from one island to the next.

Despite the weather being awful for a large part of the day, and forcing us to miss the Secret Lagoon, we had a terrific day. We were cold and wet most of the time we were on the boat, but the water was fairly warm (apart from in the lagoons) and the sights we saw and the relentless cheeriness of our guides more than made up for the weather.

In fact we enjoyed the tour so much that we signed up for a different tour, which was able to leave a couple of days later. We started off on a fantastic beach where Survivor was apparently filmed a few years ago. The main focus of the tour was snorkelling, and we made two extended stops for that purpose. The first stop didn't look promising at all, as the water stayed extremely shallow for a long distance from the shore, and in fact the others on the tour didn't actually bother going into the water; however, once we got out far enough the sea-floor dropped dramatically, and the shelf had some great coral and a fantastic selection of fish. The second snorkelling stop was even better; in fact it had some of the best coral we had ever seen – including huge flat corals which must have measured 4m across – and an incredible range of tropical fish including plenty of varieties that we had not previously seen on the trip. Apart from the absence of turtles the quality of the marine life was at least as good as what we had seen in Indonesia.

In between snorkelling stops we ate lunch (again, barbequed seafood cooked by our guides) on a lovely island which also had a small cave which could be explored by scrambling through a small hole. It was another great day.

After a few days we were ready to move on from El Nido. As beautiful as the area is there is only so much time one can stay at the beach when the weather isn't co-operating, and we were running out of boat tours to do. Our next intended destination was Coron Island; however there is only one boat scheduled per day to make the 8 hour trip from El Nido to Coron and due to the bad weather there was no guarantee when it would be able to leave. I honestly don't know how many days we waited for that boat as many of the days in El Nido blend into one. Every day the owner of our guesthouse would tell us that the boat would hopefully leave the following day, only to subsequently inform us that it had been cancelled. It was really frustrating.

Our stay in El Nido was by far our longest stay anywhere (with the exception of Hydrabad). We tried to make the most of the additional time in El Nido - if it wasn't for this delay we probably wouldn't have gone on a second boat trip, and it did give us longer to catch up on some reading and blog writing (when we had electricity) and to take advantage of the aforementioned happy hours. When the weather was temporarily nice one day we took a tricycle to a different, quieter, beach which we enjoyed for a couple of hours until the clouds and rain returned. We also investigated a range of alternative options including heading back South to Puerto Princessa and flying to a different part of the Philippines from there; however we really wanted to go to Coron (for reasons that will be abundantly apparent in the next blog post) and in any event there didn't seem to be anywhere else in the Philippines where the weather was any better, so we decided to wait it out.

Eventually, about 8 or 9 days after arriving in El Nido, and about 4 days after we had planned to leave, we got the go ahead that a boat was leaving for Coron on 30th September – my birthday. Happy birthday to me!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

(Not so) Sunny Sabang

Our first proper stop in the Philippines was Sabang, a small village on the West coast of Palawan. We settled into one of the basic wooden bungalows just off the beach and were all set for some relaxing beach-time. The only problem was the weather. We knew that we were visiting the Philippines at the start of typhoon season, however we understood that even in the rainy season the weather was likely to be good somewhere in the country, so we hoped to remain flexible and head to where the weather was good. Good plan in theory, eh?

Frustratingly, although the beach looked really nice, the weather when we arrived in Sabang was overcast with occassional short sharp rain showers. Not the ideal beach weather. Still, there are worse things than staying on the beach in bad weather, and for a couple of days we enjoyed the downtime of not having much to do except sit on the porch and read our books (something we hadn't done as much as we had hoped on this trip). Our entertainment options were limited by the intermittent electricity supply which meant that we only had power for a few hours each evening.

The main purpose for visiting Sabang was to visit the nearby Puerto Princessa Subterranean National Park – an 8km long underground river which runs through a 24km long cave system and which has been selected as one of the New7Wonders of Nature. Unfortunately, due to the recent spell of wet weather the underground river was closed for safety reasons as a result of the high water level. Although this was disappointing, it was reassuring to see that the safety of tourists was taken seriously. It was also apparent that preserving the river was also taken seriously, as in order to visit you have to register a day before, and they limit the number of visitors per day. The tour guide we had been talking to at our guesthouse was optimistic that the river would re-open the following day, so all we could do was wait and see.

When the next day came the weather didn't improve and the river remained closed until further notice. Unfortunately, without being able to enjoy the beach Sabang doesn't have much going on. There are only so many times one can wander up to the far end of the village and back. Even the promising looking bars and restaurants along the beach proved to be dead. Two Isreali girls whom we had befriended on the bus journey from Puerto Princessa had opted to stay at the same guesthouse as us, and had a good suggestion – as part of our cultural experience of the Philippines we should sample the local rum. Even if I had had any reservations about this idea, those reservations would have been dismissed when they informed us that a 70cl bottle of Boracay Rum cost about US$2. The bottle of coke mixer cost more than the rum! The rum is essentially a stronger and slightly harsher version of Malibu and was really pleasant, but wasn't strong enough to persuade us to join the Isrealis for karaoke at the fancy hotel farther down the beach.

Given that there was pretty much nothing to do we thought that we would embrace the relaxation by having massages. The lesson we learned from this experience is to look at the massage room itself before committing ourselves. Our massages took place on two beds next to each other in a tiny room which only allowed access to each bed from one side. Whilst Monique's massage by the owner was ok, my massage from the owner's husband was pretty awful due in part to me not fitting on the bed in any comfortable way, and in part to my masseur (who I'm pretty sure was just roughly copying what his wife was doing) disappearing for 5 minutes in the middle of the massage.

Whilst the weather was conspiring to prevent us from doing the thing that had brought us to Sabang, it was also responsible for by far the most exciting thing that happened while we were in Sabang. While we were eating lunch and planning to go for a walk to see some nearby waterfalls (which sounded underwhelming but more interesting than sitting around waiting for news on the underground river) the wind started to pick up, and was shortly followed by a torrential downpour. Whereas most of the rain while we had been in Sabang had been heavy but short-lived, this downpour showed no sign of going away soon and the winds continued to get stronger and stronger.  The guesthouses cat even took cover in my bag:

It was initially quite good fun to witness such extreme weather from the relatively safe, and only slightly wobbly, restaurant this changed when we started to realise that a fishing boat had capsized. Over the next hour or so numerous other boats were dragged out to sea from where they were docked and overturned. Some of the locals went out to try to retrieve the boats, but it was clear that the likely outcome of this would be more capsized boats, and perhaps worse, so those efforts were aborted. It would have been pretty upsetting to watch helplessly as a number of the boats disappeared under the water, and knowing that each of those boats was probably crucial to the livelihood of a local family, however the Filipinos around us seemed to be in surprisingly good spirits and appeared to be quite entertained. 


When the winds dropped, the clear-up operation began, and it turned out to be an almost as remarkable sight as the storm and damage itself. One by one a number of the surviving boats headed out to try to tow what remained of the boats that were still afloat to shore. Meanwhile, others congregated on the beach to assist the operation. Once the boats were towed in as far as possible ropes were attached, and the people on the beach attempted to pull the boats to shore, and subsequently up the beach. As soon as we realised what was going on we headed down to assist (although I couldn't resist but to take some breaks to photographically record the event). Despite there being about 30 people pulling on the rope it was still really tough to bring the boat in against the tide.


When the boat was in shallow enough water a number of the locals stood under the “arms” that attach (or used to attach) the bamboo floats to lift the boat and insert rollers to help us pull it up the shore. It was a really remarkable show of community spirit the likes of which I haven't witnessed before.

Even some of the kids joined in..

...but not all of them.

As the boat was brought close to shore it became apparent that it was actually owned by the nearby fancy hotel, and we speculated as to whether the large number of volunteers was due to the owner of the boat. This sceptical speculation proved to be false, because as soon as that boat was dragged sufficiently high up the beach so as to be safe from the tide, the majority of people moved slightly further down the beach to repeat the task with another (thankfully smaller) boat. It was hard work but it felt good to be helpful, and to be part of such a community effort.

Fortunately for us we left the Philippines before Typhoon Yolanda (a.k.a. Typhoon Haiyan) devastated the country in November. Obviously any sort of disaster that causes such destruction and takes human lives and is quite upsetting, but this is even more upsetting when the place affected is somewhere that you have been to and loved, and you have met some of the people effected. The only consolation is that from what we have seen of the Filipino people I am in no doubt that they will rally together to repair and rebuild their communities and, as unlikely as it sounds, I suspect that they may even do so with smiles on their faces.

Even after the storm the tour guides remained optimistic that the underground river might re-open the following day. By this point our commitment had escalated – after waiting for so long in the hope that the river would re-open it would be admitting defeat, and to wasting a few days, to leave without seeing it. However, the current situation could easily continue for many more days and we weren't willing to continue to wait indefinitely when we already knew that we didn't have long enough in the Philippines, so we made the tough decision to leave without seeing what we had come to Sabang for.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Goodbye Malaysia, hello Philippines!

The Philippines was one of the stops on our trip that we were most excited about. From what we had read it sounded like a fantastic country with huge variety. Unfortunately, the Philippines is a pretty big country spread out over more than 7,700 islands, and due to visa restrictions we only had just over three weeks to explore it. As a result it was necessary to focus on a select few areas of the country to visit. Some fellow travellers we had met in Indonesia had highly recommended Palawan, one of the larger islands in the West of the country, to us so we decided to head straight there. We took a small risk in booking a flight from Manila to Puerto Princessa, the biggest city on Palawan, for only 3 hours after we were due to land in Manila; fortunately everything ran on time and so the journey ran smoothly and we arrived in Puerto Princessa around 8am after travelling through the night.

Unfortunately the guesthouse we had booked had given away our room to someone else, however it didn't take us long to locate another guesthouse complete with a cute puppy and some hammocks in the garden. The only downside was that the teenage boy in charge at the time we arrived was apparently unable to locate any trousers/shorts, and proceeded to show us the room etc wearing only some tiny pink boxer shorts decorated with hearts.

It was pretty clear straight away that the Philippines is one of the poorer countries that we had visited on this trip, and possibly the poorest. Most buildings we saw in Puerto Princessa looked like little more than temporary structures. However, two remarkable things were also immediately apparent: Firstly, the city was spotlessly clean – we didn't see any rubbish in the streets whatsoever; secondly the locals were incredibly happy – it was like we had arrived in town during some sort of smiling competition. You will be aware that this blog post has been written some time after we completed our travels, and I can confirm that these two things are true of everywhere we visited in the Philippines with the exception of Manila. It is difficult for me to not compare the Philippines to India as we had seen plenty of poverty in India (although on the whole India is clearly a much more wealthy and developed country than the Philippines). Virtually everywhere we went in India was strewn with trash because it is home to millions of people who throw their rubbish out in the street and out of the windows of cars/buses/trains seemingly without any care for their local environment. No amount of street-cleaners can keep up with the task of collecting that trash when faced with those attitudes. In contrast, Filipino people display an incredible pride in their country, and everyone seems to do their bit to maintain its beauty. I don't recall seeing any street-cleaners in the Philippines outside of Manila, and it appears that none are necessary due to this refreshing attitude. A Filipino tourist we met later in our trip explained to us that the Filipino people are highly aware that they have very little except for a beautiful country, and therefore they are motivated to maintain that beauty for themselves, for their future generations, and to continue to attract tourists.

Our stay in Puerto Princessa was a short one, because there isn't much to see there and the beach is fairly inaccessible and didn't look great. However, just walking around the town was fairly enjoyable because everyone seemed so pleasant and happy. Even when we wandered through an extremely poor area where it would not be surprising to encounter a negative attitude towards rich tourists such as ourselves, the local people initially looked a little bemused before smiling at us and greeting us. The children were clearly interested in us, and a small group followed us for a while before one of them plucked up the courage to run up to us, shout “HELLO!”, and run back to the safety of the group. When we replied we were met with giggles, until someone else tried out “HOW ARE YOU?!”. When we responded and asked them how they were they all erupted in laughter and ran off. Not the most engaging of interactions, but certainly a charming one.

When it came to leaving Puerto Princessa we learned another great trait of the Filipino people – they are incredibly willing to be as helpful as they possibly can be. When we asked the owner of our guesthouse the best way to get to the bus station she insisted on telling us in great detail when the buses were due to leave, where we should get a tricycle (essentially a motorbike with a small side-car) from, where we should ask to go, how much it should cost, how long it should take etc. If we had allowed her she would have walked us out to exactly the spot we needed to go to. Our tricycle driver agreed a good price with the minimal of fuss, and took us not only to the bus station but all the way in to the exact place where we could get the bus we needed, and ensured that the bus driver knew where we wanted to go. Even the salesman who was trying to sell all kinds of stuff from snacks to watches while we waited for the bus to leave wanted to help me by offering me some tablets which he assured me were “the real deal” from Malaysia and which would assist me in the bedroom and assure Monique and I a large family (which he explained to me using some comical miming, sound effects and facial expressions). Even our bus driver wanted to be helpful by asking God to bless our trip:

Perhaps if he really wanted to be helpful he would've directed me to a barber who did a decent shave!

As far as sights and activities go, Puerto Princessa was one of the least remarkable places we had visited on this trip; however, our first encounters with the Filipino people more than made up for this, and we were already certain that the Philippines would be one of our favourite places.

Kota Kinabalu

Our final stay in Malaysia was Kota Kinabalu (known as K.K. In the traveller community), the largest city in Malaysia Borneo. Our shared taxi dropped us off at the guesthouse we had reserved in advance, and which turned out to be decent. There isn't a whole lot to be said about KK as, in a similar way to Kuching it's a fairly indistinct, modestly sized city.

We arrived late afternoon and made a bee-line for a highly recommended restaurant which served great vegetarian food and pretty decent home-made cakes. Unfortunately for Monique, apart from that restaurant KK offered almost no veggie-friendly food, so it goes without saying that we visited that restaurant again before leaving.

The highlight of KK for me was the local market which spanned a considerable length of the city's coastline. The market was roughly split into two halves: one half sold a huge variety of great looking fresh fruit and vegetables which made it all the more frustrating for Monique that the local restaurants seemed unwilling to cook vegetables; the other half featured hundreds of stalls selling freshly barbequed meat and fish. I had some fantastic spicy and sticky prawns and some chicken wings that were so good I had to go back to spend our last few Malaysian ringgits to get some more before we left. I also gave in to curiosity and tried some chicken buttocks after declining the opportunity to try them in Kuala Lumpur; the verdict – better than they sound, but I'll stick to the wings in future.

While we were at the market we bumped into an interesting guy whom we had first met on the way to Gili Air in Indonesia and then subsequently saw a couple of times while we were there. Small world! Even more remarkably we encountered a local guy wearing an Aston Villa shirt! Obviously I had to stop him and ask for a photo. To be honest I don't think he really understood my excitement or my interest in his shirt, or what his shirt even meant, but we need all the support we can get these days.

Apart from that the only things of note were a walk around a rather depressing mall (not greatly dissimilar to Birmingham's Pallasades), a trip to the decent Sagan State museum (despite the never-ending musak version of Celine Dion's “My heart will go on” that nearly drove us mad and prompted an angry comment card from Monique) and a beautiful sunset from an area of bars and restaurants along the coast.

 Monique also befriended yet another turtle.

For many people KK is a stopping-off point for the sights and activities further East on Sabah (which we had already done) or for the islands just off that part of the Borneo coast. The islands which we could see from KK (and which we had seen when we flew into KK first time around) are apparently very quiet and offer decent snorkelling and diving; however we didn't have time to visit them before we were due to leave for the Philippines, and in any even we had done plenty of top-quality snorkelling in Indonesia, and planned to do plenty more in the Philippines, so didn't see the need to squeeze them into our time in Sabah.

Our flight out of KK was a late one, and our guesthouse weren't willing to allow us a late check-out, so we were left with lots of time to kill in a city without much in the way of activities. The solution was a highly enjoyable film double-bill at the cinema atop the depressing mall. On our previous travels through Southeast Asia we had enjoyed a few trips to the cinema as the combination of air-conditioning and an element of familiarity is often welcome when travelling for an extended period of time. However we had not gone to the cinema on this trip so far (with the exception of seeing Iron Man 3 in Hyderabad which I have chosen not to count because Monique's dengue fever was breaking and the experience was therefore not a good one) so we were actually looking forward to this excuse to watch films without feeling guilty for missing more cultural activities/sights. Our chosen films – Elysium and We're the Millers - were perfect for killing time in that they were both light-hearted and pretty good. They left us with just enough time to grab some food before taking a taxi to the airport.

We had definitely enjoyed Borneo Malaysia more than Peninsular Malaysia, despite it being a bit of a mixed bag. The nature we had seen was nothing short of amazing, however we had been frustrated by the prohibitively high prices and bad weather that prevented us from seeing everything which we had wanted to see, and the cities were unremarkable. We had arranged our plans to give us as much time on the Sabah side of Borneo as time allowed, however in hindsight we had both enjoyed the Sarawak side more and wished that we had spent some more time there. That said, seeing orangutans in the wild was a big tick off my “bucket list” and was as great as I had hoped so our time in Borneo was more than justified.

Mount Kinabalu National Park

When we first looked into the activities available to us in Sabah we were both interested in climbing Mount Kinabalu. After our previous experiences of mountain climbing we hadn't given much attention to the practicalities of this idea in advance, on the assumption that the price of this activity wouldn't be at all prohibitive. However, as we got closer and actually started to look into it in detail we discovered that for all bit the very fittest of people climbing Mount Kinabalu is a two day hike. This in of itself was no problem, the problem is that there is only one option for accommodation on the mountain, which must be booked well in advance and charges an absolutely exorbitant amount of money for dormitory beds. As much as we would have liked to climb the mountain, we were just not willing to be so completely ripped off in the process.

However, we did want to at least see Mount Kinabalu and enjoy the surrounding area, so we stayed the night just outside the National Park in a grim but slightly less exorbitant guesthouse opposite a lively karaoke bar to enable us to go trekking through the park the following day. To put the accommodation prices in this area into perspective we paid twice as much to stay in that guesthouse as we had paid to stay anywhere else so far on our trip; to have stayed inside the park would have cost double that amount; and to stay part way up Mount Kinabalu would have been more than double that again.

The weather on the day we arrived was nothing short of awful – cold with continuous rain and extremely low visibility. We could see enough to enjoy the nice views from the restaurant at our guesthouse, but had no chance of seeing Mount Kinabalu. The following day was better in that the rain mostly held off, but unfortunately visibility was still too poor to see the peak. Even so we made an early start to make the most of the trekking opportunities, and enjoyed a nice walk through the misty jungle.

We didn't see much in the way of wildlife apart from this li'l fella:

Even in cool weather the trek was thirsty work.

After our trek we stopped at the National Park's modest gardens.

Apart from Mount Kinabalu itself, the park is famous for the giant Corpse Flower, so called because when it blooms it emits an odour that is apparently reminiscent of a decomposing mammal. Monique informs me that there was once a false alarm at the Houston Museum of Natural Science when a foul stench convinced everyone that the corpse flower was about to bloom, but when the media arrived the stench was was determined to have been created by a child's bottom.  I suspect that this was not the real thing, because it was free of such smelliness.

We then collected our bags from where we had left them and made our way to the nearby bus stop in the hope of snagging some empty seats on a bus going to Kota Kinabalu. No buses passed for a while, and nobody nearby could guarantee that a bus going in that direction would stop, so we negotiated a taxi ride to Kota Kinabalu with a Japanese couple. Mount Kinabalu National Park had been pleasant enough, but without being able to see the mountain itself it was much like a lot of jungle we had trekked through so far this trip, and didn't really justify the high cost of accommodation. If we were to have our time over again we would probably go back to Mount Kinabalu National Park, but would do it as a day-trip from Kota Kinabalu rather than staying in/near the park; that way we could pick a day with more suitable weather for enjoying its more unique offerings.