Boracay, The Philippines

Since me and the beaches have been on a break now since Sihanoukville in early Dec, Boracay is quite the contender to come back to. It’s up there with the bluest sea I have ever seen, as is a well kept 3k stretch known as Boat Stations 1, 2 and 3, alternating restaurants and a number of dive shops. It loses points however for being pricy (by SEA standards), due in part to its popularity with Korean tourists. And slightly characterless or maybe just too clean cut. Call me picky.

Alas, it’s a good place to hit the bars for a couple of good night’s out, and at last I have some dorm friends as it’s the closest thing to a backpacker scene in the PP’s. As sometimes happens once in a while in a dorm, we all hit it off immediately; I meet Rob (Netherlands) & Nikita (London) and Kaylynne (America), plus one or two other randoms that make up the numbers. Oh and my favourite; Bowjangles, a 60 something Filipino man who I meet in Mario’s restaurant who I have a lovely talk about life with. He’s up there with my other fave OAP’s Louis from Brazil & the fox from the Singapore Little India market.

As well at its White Beach, B is famous for Bolabog Beach and the sport of head cases; Kite surfing. My only dalliance with kite surfing was back in Surfers Oz with Lucian (Matt Damon lookalike,) who learnt originally here in Boracay. Well Mark was there too but his only input was to laugh at me terrified and trapped, harnessed to all the equipment, and all but encourages huge gusts of wind to fly me off into the air. You wish :)

Put it this way; it’s dangerous stuff. When done properly the guys can pick up huge jumps and god knows how many miles per hours on their surf boards. It’s exhausting to watch, which is what I did all day with a Red Horse beer in hand from the safety of a beanbag in a bar. Or so I thought. At 4pm ish the winds really picked up. Next thing you know some rooky taking lessons slams smack into the side of my beach bar, his fall only broken by bouncing off the beach first. Credit to the surf school guys, they were there in a flash to grab him and pull his release bar (Even I, from my one lesson, knew he had about 3 seconds to do this or else.) Thankfully they did, and he hobbled away with only a bad ankle and bruised ego. The $300 kite however flapped wildly, meters up in the air caught in the palm trees. Which could have easily have been him. Lucky escape.

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Puerta Galara to Boracay

So I’ll cut through the first bit. A jeepney from Sabang to Puerta Galara town, transfer to a Calapan bound Jeepney, transfer to minivan to Roxas port. Take a 4 hour ferry to Caticlan, then swap to a small bangka (dinky boat) to Boracay, and finally a trike to Boat Station 3. All in all 12 hours.  One hour spent happily playing with the cute 3 year old kid of the Czech Republic family I befriended. The only other moment that brought on a smile to my face was boarding the small cramped bangka boat to watch the Filipinos all lunge for lifejackets before we even left the port. The ratio of jackets to passengers was all looking the way of the Titanic, but worried that many of the locals may not be able to swim, it only fair to do the right thing and give mine up. It did make me curious as to how often they sink though?! Everyone was slightly too keen.

The best bit of my day however, was in finding somewhere to sleep for the night. I first plumped for Tree House; the cheapest $300 peso ($6USD) a night hostel. It’s 10pm, it’s a long shot. It’s great….. No, not really, that wouldn’t make for a good story would it. It is of course full. Gutted. I traipse my ass along the beach elsewhere. And when I say elsewhere I mean to AT LEAST 20 other guesthouses. They are all full. Finally I find a nice lady, who tells me she has a room, but then smugly tells me its $1500 peso/$25. To be fair, at least three guesthouse owners/security guards/passersbys came out to help me. I had the whole island on it and played the ‘just me, alone sad face’ card, yet no one could find me anywhere. Just when the bottom lip was quivering and I was mid way though weighing up the pro/cons of a night sleeping on the beach, I passed a doorway and just murmured ‘woe is me/room?’ To my surprise the guy shouted me back, saying something to his friend that implied he was at least taking an interest. Now normally I’d be concerned that this didn’t appear to be an actual guesthouse, more like someone’s home, but beggars cannot be choosers and all that. He shouts up to his wife, then next thing you know he has a door in his hand and is nailing me together a bamboo hut! It needs cleaning and is ‘homestay’ he tells me, but I ignore the euphemisms. I am ecstatic to finally find somewhere, anywhere, and might just be the only person to haggle a $500 room 2 mins from the beach. I follow him up some bamboo steps expecting the worsted and he leads me into a cute, clean, little hut with Beatrix Potter like bed spread, grabs me a fan, and hammers the door and lock on and boom. I have a home! He only goes and hits me with the grand finale too….free wifi! Love it when a plan comes together!

Puerto Galera, Mindoro, The Philippines

Billed as a tourist must-do, second only to Boracay, I think the guidebooks forgot the prefix: ‘Sex’ tourist. Puerto G, or more specifically the little inlet of Sabang is a messed-up little den of ill repute for the seediest of old men, and their Filipino girlfriends, wives, mistresses, or soon to be any of these. I’m trying not to judge, I understand that if stuck between the unthinkable life of tending a paddy field 12h a day for 60 years vs. exotic holidays and the trappings of designer clothes that you can really blame some of the girls for Belle De Jour-ing it up. Or in some cases the sad, deluded men that do it. I saw the Louie Theroux special, I get both sides I really do. But I guess it just is really hard to swallow when you see it so in your face. It makes me long for the innocence of Phucket, and that is really saying something.

You won’t blame me then for opting to get as far away from vice city as poss. First to Sinandigan Beach, to Tuna Alex’s; a 150 peso (£1.40) hostel near a beach in a small fishing village. This would have been fine except I was the only person there. Oh actually, that’s a lie, I was just sweeping the 20 bed dorm for serial killers, when some Russian character called Serge (50 years old) showed up, intent on talking me to death and force feeding me mandarins. I tried to make myself scarce by walking to nosy next door at the luxury hotel; Coral Bay, except I found it completely abandoned. It was a sinister version of Agatha Christi’s Murder Under the Sun. Creepy. As the only tourist, the entire village seemed to be around to great me at 5 min intervals and also knew me by name. People often rave about Filipino hospitality, although after a while I got kind of uncomfortable with life it in the spotlight. I’d go on a reality TV show thanks had I wanted this much attention!

Plan B then was to travel 7k along the coast to White Beach, a pretty stretch but punching well above its weight price wise in comparison to its looks. To get there you take a 20 peso Jeepney (the pimped up tractor like trucks that set off only when full, be this 2 mins or an hour later.) Plus a trike; a motorbike and tiny side car. Now how many people do you think you can fit in a trike? 2 in the sidecar perhaps at a squeeze? One more on the back of the motorbike behind the driver? Think bigger. Try 7. Two crammed in the side car, two of us on the motorbike and 3 school kids perched precariously on the metal roof of the sidecar!

So I get back, and…..

Sorry but I can’t actually write anymore. The truly HOWLING sound of karaoke is blaring at me from all angles as I lie in bed writing this. I finally find a nice guesthouse and come back this evening to see a banner for ‘Candy’s 18th birthday.’ This appears to involve 5 generations of her whole village wrestling for a microphone. Videoki is huge out here. I would get involved but I, (tragically and unbelievable but true), I think might be able to out sing them all. That’s how bad they were.

Manila, Luzon, The Philippines

A frequent contender that drops on and off the world’s most dangerous cities list, and a sure fire resident of the most densely populated cities list, you get as far as the M.A.N.I.L …. in Google when it practically starts screaming auto predicted words like …  Prostitution/Red light district/shooting/child trafficking.

After the nice cosy mainstays of South East Asia, The Philippines is a bit of a tangent of mine. Especially as I arrived into Clark Airport at a pitch black 9pm. Clark is located, in a Ryanair stylee, two hours from actual Manila, but conveniently near to crime ridden Angeles. I know this is the same girl that winged it around Bogota/Rio/Lima etc, but I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t just a little bit scared!

Lucky then, that I resorted to my all time fave airport game; picking up new randoms to be my new best friends. Miro (named after Spanish artist) and Shelly are my saving grace, and I theirs, as we decided there is safety in our little team of three. We land into Clarke, where there may or may not be a Jeepney (a pimped up communal bus-like-pickup truck) to a check point, then to downtown Ermita Manila, where you can then get a taxi to Malate, which is where we want to be. Some Filipino mother-like figure offers to give us a lift before we even make it past baggage control, dispelling all our myths about Manila’s bad rep. It seems overt friendliness is a common theme here.

Three hours later and we make it intact to Friendly’s Guesthouse. This by the way, wins the much competitive award for ALL TIME MOST MINGING GUESTHOUSE 2011/12. Cockroaches galore, paper thin mattresses, nauseating smelly rooms, and £5 for the privilege. It’s late however so we bare it none the less. It truly is amazing what a roof terrace and free/speedy wifi can do to placate Gen Y. We prove the unarguable theory that no matter HOW bad a place, one you ‘just check in for one night and decide to swap in the morning…’ it NEVER happens.

As is serendipity, one of the first people Miro bumps into is James. They used to play 5-a-side football together in Bristol and haven’t seen each other in 10 years. Now interestingly James used to be a ‘live fast die young’ party type, who, having spent 6 months here for dental work, (the Philippines is famous for medical tourism) has converted to Islam. Read: lost his way a little. He does however turn out to be a decent tour guide and takes us to some local street food eatery at 2am. Here we are treated like local celebrities as a waitress called Sassy makes it her mission to memorize all of our names. It’s like being back in China again with the amount of attention & curious stares we get, except that rather politely we get the odd ‘hello/welcome/how are you?’ thrown in. We are still on guard though. The neighbourhood is rough. To quote Lonely P “Ermita has a nightlife that would make a Bangkok ping pong girl blush.’ There are security guards outside every 7Eleven & guesthouse which is never a good sign is it, and street kids stalking us by grabbing their hands into Miro’s pockets for Peso coins.

We are confused. Manila is on the one hand seems completely westernised. English is written everywhere and is almost a 2nd language. It has modern sprawling supermalls and western billboards, but at the same time has masses of back-alley poverty with that feeling of decaying South East Asia grit.

In the clear light of day, the four of us venture to Rizal Park. It has a good crack at trying to make you forget you are in one of the world’s grubbiest cities, but bless it, it’s kind of mission impossible. Whilst there, James wants to sit and read his Qur’an by a tree. I kid you not. So the three of us make like tourists and head to Intramuros; the Spanish quarter. Its odd seeing churches again after months of golden Buddha. Around 80-90% of the population are Christian or Roman Catholic. The buildings have all had rather a rough time of it, as one plaque on the main Cathedral reads; (I paraphrase) Built, destroyed, earthquake, bombing, fire, typhoon over the last couple of hundred years. The whole city in fact used to be up there as bit of a classic beauty, giving Paris, Venice & Rome a run for their money, but then lost her looks and was left devastated by Japanese bombings in WW2.

I gave this place the 24h grace you should any city, and suspect I’ll need to backtrack here again since my outbound flight is here. I guess having seen it for myself I can down grade my feelings towards it from ‘scares the hell out of me’ to ‘maybe just a little wary of it.’ It’s hard to say without having seen the rest of The PP, but I suspect it’s going to be an odd 3 weeks to come.

Northern Thailand

Now I like a beach, I really do, so the North was never going to prevail against the south Islands. That said, Thailand part deux has it charms, and us girls celebrated the end of a good run here after pretty much 2 months together.

Like:

1)      Chains. Mock you like, after a 2 months in SE Asia without the Golden Arches, a Mcflurry at 11pm for 9 baht is most welcomed! Seven Eleven’s too – 20 baht toasties, cashews, sour cream & onion Lays, cornettos. Snack heaven.

2)      Bamboo Tattoos. Although I know Thailand is not original a place to get inked anymore, I’m glad mine was in the lovely Pai, and with traditional bamboo, which we even got to keep.

3)      Dare I say it; I actually liked Bangkok 8th time around! We got there in the end.

Dislike:

1)      Waking up with all three of my jumpers on to see my breath freeze in Pai & Chiang Mai I thought we’d left the cold weather front behind in China!

2)      The inability to travel direct from Chiang Rai to Pai, even though maps and logic tell you it should be possible.

3)      The price of the Gibbon Experience/Flight of the Gibbon. I want to swing from a zipline, but not for £60 thanks. I can go to GoApe for that I imagine, all be it in the slightly less glamorous surroundings of Sherwood Forest.

Where I stayed

Easy house Chiang Rai, Diva Backpackers Chiang Mai, Saishon Guesthouse Pai, Lanna Guesthouse, Chiang Mai, Ton Nam Guesthouse Lampang, Charoendee Guesthouse Bangkok.

Previous Older Entries

An.an.tas.in : The Anantasin is the name of a shipwreck just of the coast of the Sensi Parasise, Mae Haad Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand. It’s one of my many favorite places.

Lit.tle: Just because it’s cute.

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