Of the countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is one that receives the least touristic arrivals, despite it having more than 7,000 islands. There is so much on offer from the islands and we would not have gone if it weren’t that our friends were relocated there for work.
It was actually more than 1½ years after our friend’s relocation that we made the decision to join them for a snorkeling trip in Palawan. And within another 4 months, we would visit them yet again in Manila.
Only ~3½ hours by flight from Singapore, Manila is a large metropolis that combines a number of cities. Its main attraction is that of the old fortress city center – the Intramuros. This is the original walled city that the Spanish colonial masters built to segregate themselves from the locals. Today home to cafes, small boutiques etc. While you will not really risk it walking yourself, it’s best to be with a guide.
Avoid Chinatown at all cost we were told, as it appears to be an area rife with pickpockets and local thugs. Correct us if that is wrong.
Because the country is not ranked highly (aargh) on the tourist map, it remains relatively affordable. And we took full advantage of that to shop and dine. If ever going to Manila, take time to visit Green Hills to shop for pearls and semi precious stones. Or stop by at Bonafacio for a fantastic Wagyu steak dinner. Best of all, head to the seafood market where you can select fresh shrimps, crabs to be cooked and served to you at the restaurants (the locals call it the Dampa experience) along Macapagal boulevard.
Further afield from the city would be the Tagatay ridge on the way towards the Taal volcano. Set in lush vegetation from all that volcanic soil, the area is a venerable source of fresh produce that has been harnessed by some of the finest chefs in the Philippines (indeed all Asia) to craft delectable morsels in specialized restaurants. There are even Michelin starred restaurants here!
Just remember not to be there during major Catholic festivals as the roads will be jammed all the way with pilgrims all over the country making their way there. Especially in Holy week! It was fortunate for us to have experienced the crowds that snake their way to the churches dedicated to popular saints.
Back to Palawan, this is a long narrow island that is at a ~45° angle to Luzon. Almost 2000km of coastline, there are more than 1700 islands plus some of the best powdery white sand beaches in the world.
We flew into Busanga in the northern end of the island and made our way to a resort on Dimakya. You know, the place is do under developed that the “terminal” is nothing more than an old hangar next to the airstrip. Probably too short to land jets here! Perhaps that is a good thing, since it restricts the number of visitors.
Spending a good few days here to rest and snorkel in between is very stress relieving. Because the sea is such a turquoise blue, waking up each morning to this view soothes your mind. Add to the lack or poor internet connectivity and no satellite television, you are forced to retreat back to a time when technology did not intrude into each and every aspect of your life. Pack that tablet into your bag, open up a book and read. Better yet, use the opportunity to have good ole conversations over beer or cocktail.
For those who dive, then Palawan could be considered paradise. Even if you don’t, the waters here are so pristinely clear that this is where some of our best underwater photos were taken. In the open waters where sea grass proliferate, there is very high probability that you might even see dugongs! Which is exactly what happened. But they swim by so quickly that it was fleeting.
The only thing about coming to the Philippines is to be wary of Typhoon season. This typically picks up in likelihood from July onwards and can occur even into November. During these months, be prepared to hunker down for the days when these massive tropical storms barrel their way through the islands. Not that each typhoon will hit the country though. We were plain lucky that none of that came around when we visited.
In the years to come, we are sure to visit the rice terraces in the north of Luzon or swim with the whale sharks as they migrate down the coast of the islands. Stay tuned!