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.

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