When planning our 4 month itinerary, I knew we’d have enough time to check out all the typical places most visitors see in South East Asia, probably with time to spare. So I started to consider visiting countries not so commonly found on backpacker itineraries. With flights around SE Asia being so reasonable, it seemed a no brainer to add in a new crazy destination. So we decided to visit the Philippines.
7000 different islands in the South China Sea make up the Philippines. Its a relatively poor and underdeveloped country with a very unreliable infrastructure, but with a famously welcoming population. What this essentially means for travellers like us is that it’s very challenging to travel round (but potentially very rewarding). How challenging, I did not realise until we were there. Then the fact became very apparent very quickly.
We researched places to stay in our entry city of Cebu, but we quickly realised it was a grim, traffic snarled place with very few merits. After looking for something suitable on the nearby islands, we finally found somewhere on the smaller island of Panglao. So firstly we got a taxi from the airport to Cebu’s seaport, caught a 2 hour ferry to Tagbilaran city on the island of Bohol, and then another hour sat on a tricycle to get to our accommodation on the far point of Panglao. The journey had taken us through the polluted and dilapidated streets of two cities, clogged with traffic and dust, and then also through the very poor areas of rural Panglao. It was an absolute world away from Singapore, and I would say the poorest country I’ve ever visited.
Panglao however is a beautiful island with white sand beaches and beautiful green jungle. The towns on the island are really small and the buildings ramshackle. Many houses along the main road are crumbling, with goats and cows tied up outside and roosters roaming about. The main modes of transport are motorbikes, and tricycles, which are just motorbikes with seats bolted onto the side. There were tiny stalls to be found along the road selling refreshments and miniature bars where you could buy dodgy and super cheap cocktails. There wasn’t much more than that. We were staying in a very quiet part of the island, about a 15 minute tricycle ride from the tourist centre, Alona Beach. This was where the majority of the tourist bars and restaurants located, but we couldn’t get any lodging here.
On our first day we adventurously decided to rent a motorcycle and drive to the Chocolate Hills in the centre of Bohol Island. The Chocolate Hills are a geological anomaly that have for some reason become the most recognisable tourist site in the Philippines. We learnt that the 75km drive (each way) along winding roads riddled with pot holes, construction sites and aggressively driven tour buses wasn’t quite worth it. We definitely should have paid for an organised tour, because a few near misses took any enjoyment we may have had out of the ride.
On our other days on Panglao Island we visited the nearby Doljo Beach, a beautiful and serene stretch of sand just minutes from our resort, and also took a tricycle to Alona Beach, where we watched the sunset and ate dinner on the sand. We weren’t sure we loved Alona Beach that much, and were kind of grateful for our more secluded and peaceful accommodation, especially because of the wonderful staff there.
After being anxious about whether we’d be able to get there or not, we successfully booked a hotel in and a ferry ticket to the city of Dumaguete on Negros Oriental. Compared to Cebu and Tagbilaran, Dumaguete is much more sedate and scenic (for the Philippines anyway). We got ourselves in a nice hotel here for two nights ($40, or £20) and enjoyed doing a bit of nothing. We kind of required it after the stressful few days we’d had on Panglao. We saw the sights (of which there were few) but mostly enjoyed the air con and satellite TV. Sometimes when you’re on the road for a long time, you just need to tune out for a day.
We did however get off our butts on the 3rd day to get the ferry over to the small island of Siquijor. Known locally as the healing island (because of the witches and healers who live here), Siquijor is the tranquil island paradise we’d been searching for throughout our stay in the Philippines. Crystal clear water, white sand, palm trees, sunsets over the sea, hammocks and P45 beer (£0.65) was a winning combination. Whilst there we braved the roads again, and rented a scooter to get round the island.
We first stopped at the Century Old Balete Tree, where there’s a fish spa you can dip your feet into. It’s a pretty surreal experience having your feet nibbled (or kissed) by the fish, and although you can experience the same thing in malls all around the world, doing it outside on a tropical island in the Philippines and paying P5 to do it was definitely more memorable. After that we drove to the town of Lazi to check out the cathedral, and after that Cambugahay Falls. There are plenty of waterfalls all around the Visayas, and I was really keen to visit one whilst here in the Philippines. Cambugahay did not disappoint. Aquamarine water, fiercely green foliage and brilliant white spray from the falls meant a technicolour experience. The water was cool, and there was a rope swing to go on, and people were also jumping from the top of the waterfall (it was only a few metres high).
After we were finished jumping, swinging and swimming we jumped back on the bike and drove to Salagdoong beach on the eastern part of the island. The area is known for its snorkeling so that’s what we did, spotting brightly coloured fish, seahorses, an eel and even an Octopus in the water. It’s been years and years since I last snorkeled so it was absolutely awesome. I do regret never visiting the Great Barrier Reef in Australia so now I’m super keen to make the most of the wonders you can see in the oceans around South East Asia.
Our time on Siquijor was easily the best we had in the Philippines. We found that as a travel destination the country is very hit and miss. It takes a lot of patience to make the most of what it has to offer. At first we also felt quite uncomfortable about how the locals treat you. People openly stared at us like all the time, and many children asked us for money, which made us feel awfully guilty. We kind of got used to it as the days passed, and we realised that a lot of stares, shouts and screams were coming from teenage girls, shouting “guapo!” and “handsome!”. So it turned out the attention we were getting wasn’t negative.
The locals that we chatted to and got to know a little were absolutely lovely. We learnt a lot about what it’s like to live in the Philippines from conversations with staff in our hostel on Siquijor. It sounds pretty ignorant of me, but I was surprised to learn that even though people are poor here, they still care about the same things, and have many of the same opinions people in the west do. The locals are all smiles and although life is simple here, people are hardly miserable. Our stay in the Visayas has been enlightening, but were not done with the Philippines yet. We’ve got one last stop; Manila. It’s famously awful as a travel destination, so let’s see how we go!