Every year, Japan has what is referred to as Golden Week. This time crams 4 national holidays into a week and a half, creating what is essentially a spring break for the working world. All of Japan loves to travel during this time making domestic travel very expensive and quite a nuisance. So, as if I needed further motivation to travel, I made sure to be well clear of Japan. The foursome that went to South Korea last November had such a fantastic time together, we were eager to repeat the formula somewhere else, this time the tropical islands of the Philippines. However, unfortunate circumstances cut us down to 3 at the last second. Despite this, the trip was amazing, and provided me with a million great experiences. It’ll be a struggle to get them all fit in this blog…
Anyway, we took off on Friday, April 29th to arrived in Manila at around 1am. Being late at night, priority number 1 was just getting to our hostel. During the cab ride, our driver was working pretty hard to get us interested in some prostitutes, and was almost a bit disappointed when we explained we already had a place to stay. Well, once we arrived at the hostel, it was clear that we wouldn’t’ve needed the his help, as we were met by numerous solicitations in just the short walk from the cab to the door. Children running free on the streets at 3am attempting to pickpocket us, the hookers, and plenty of homeless sleeping anywhere had us calling into question what part of town we were in. It was good to get in our beds with a locked gate between us and the rest of the world. After we woke up, it was off to meet our first couchsurfing host for lunch. Getting there required another hour in a cab and cost about 8 dollars, same as the flag-fall price in Japan. Once there, our host Nabil briefed us on all the essentials. He ended up giving us not only a cell phone to contact him, but also the keys to his house while he slept over at his girlfriends. Then, it was off to lunch, where he went on to treat us. It was a royal feast and left us all very content. From there, we were left to enjoy the day. We ended up walking around the town he was in, which was really a unique experience. Despite being on the outskirts of the city, foreigners were not at all commonplace. This was totally unexpected, since it was still essentially the capital city. We weren’t in any sort of tourist place, so as a result we had every single person turning to look at us. In Japan, I get some looks when I’m running in the bowels of the countryside, but this was an urban setting on all accounts. I wasn’t uncomfortable or anything, but it was a bit stimulating being met with every possible pair of eyes. A great experience though. We also did some walking around a riverbank and through a mall. Eventually we went back to Nabil’s where we just took bit of a nap.
This is Nabil’s, from the outside
That night was designated as the kick off party to the trip, and Nabil was going to show us a good time. Fast forward to that… We met Nabil and his girlfriend Rory at Rue Bourbon, where he tends to go often. Soon, several of his friends showed up to join in the night. This to me is one of the most exciting parts of couchsurfing, the immediate penetration into genuine culture. Here we were, 1 day into the Philippines hanging out as friends with a group, chatting, and just having a great time. There were a few rounds of drinks, and food, and plenty of laughs. Compliments of Nabil came a shot for the three of us, called Gunpowder. Basically a flaming cinnamon bomb – it was pretty cool. After a bit more conversation, the party moved over to nice club called Icon. One of his friends had us on the VIP list, which earned us free entry into the place. All the way till 6 am, we were having a great time. I’m no great dancer or anything, but given my being a foreigner anyone was happy to at least give me a chance, though I’m sure they were only disappointed. At one point I was dancing with a girl, and someone comes up to me and whispers that this ‘girl’ was a man. Done. Moving on. Pleased with a great night, we caught the cab back home, to get some well deserved sleep. This was hindered slightly by the fiesta that inexplicably started at 5am, and included unending marching bands throughout the morning. Exhaustion prevailed and soon enough it was noon, and time to continue on with the rest of the trip.
When we finally woke up, we set out towards a place called Intramuros, which bears the origins of Manila and displays the early Spanish influence on the region. On our way from the house, we were called over to a group of people enjoying the fiesta. Shots were shoved in our face, a mic for karaoke, and then they insisted we try all their food. We had never seen these people before, but such is the outgoing nature of the Filipinos and the extent of our celebrity. It was a pretty cool little gathering, but soon we had to take off to complete our sightseeing itinerary for Manila. Arriving at Intramuros, we walked around the remains of an old Spanish fort. It had passed hands through the Japanese and Americans through history, but the architecture was distinctly Spanish. My travel mates were pretty weak in terms of hauling their luggage, having over packed. This was a bit annoying but we got through it. After this, we went to the Manila Cathedral. This was a particularly large and storied Catholic church. It was really interesting going into this building that seemed to come right out of Europe, but knowing we were still in Asia. After enjoying the atmosphere at the pews for a bit, we took a trike ride from this kid stalking us over to China town. I’ve been to a number of China towns, and the formula is pretty much the same at all of them. Sell cheap crap to foreigners for whatever you can get out of them. This was not the case here though. Despite being absolutely mammoth in size, and selling all sorts of goods, we were the only foreigners. I’ve never been in a Chinese only China town before, it was really quite strange. I was being hit on by just about every female shop worker, though I seem to have had the most success with the middle aged women. Throughout the entire trip, anyone who heard my name as Justin would immediately tack on Bieber. Har Har. Well, here in China town, all I had to do was be a blonde white man to receive the title. We bought a few trinkets, and made our way to the bus station for a long ride north.
A few Manila Clips
Taking the overnight option, we saved on both time and the cost of a hotel. Waking up, we were in Banaue, a very mountainous region famous for their terraced rice paddies used for over 2,000 years. A UNESCO world heritage spot, it fell in line with my travel need to at least see a few cultural things. After getting of the bus, we were scooped up by a freelance tour guide, named Dandy. He took us over to a hostel where we got settled. After a quick breakfast with a Japanese guy named Yoshi we met on the bus, it was off to do some hiking to the best of the rice fields. Going there, we rode atop the Jeep, which was fantastic, albeit a tad dangerous. There were no seat belts and no seats, just a luggage rack and a spare tire to cling to. It did offer a nice breeze and fantastic view of the valleys. The lack of guard rails on the one lane road did nothing to dissuade us from this opportunity. When we got as far as the Jeepney could go, it was time to hike.
The whole trip was to take in the ball park of 5 hours walking with additional time for stopping, relaxing and eating. When we got to the village of Batad, we could overlook the most fantastic view of rice fields imaginable. The entire side of a large mountain was terraced, with beautiful green steps. It was really interesting to be in a village like this, where something so amazing was used as the primary source of sustenance for the majority of the people. Our hike took us right through all the fields, walking on the ledgess. A slip and fall down would have been dire, but fortunately I only fell the other way into the muddy fields. The grade of the terrain was really quite drastic as well, and left our legs aching. Some of the most intense stretches nearly killed us. We climbed all the way to the top, only pausing briefly to enjoy the spectacular scene before us. We could see down the steps, the village, and the tropical jungle covering mountains all around.
On we pushed, until we finally reached the halfway mark – a waterfall. Something about a well-earned crystal clear waterfall swim, in the middle of the jungle on a 90 degree day (35 C) just felt great. Eventually it was time to go back, the uphill march is where we struggled. Our guide however seemed to be trolling us, as he was chain smoking nearly the entire time and showed no sort of fatigue. After what seemed like forever, we made it back to our Jeepney, where it was the same ride back to our hostel. Back at home base, we had the evening to enjoy ourselves a bit. We made an effort to get to know Dandy a bit, and it yielded us an invite to a local bar to enjoy the music of a cover band. This sounded like a great time, and certainly would be quality exposure to the local life. Sitting there, enjoying our 80 cent beers, we were really getting into the music. These guys could play most anything we requested, and upon my request for “Hotel California” I was summoned to the stage to provide the vocals. They could not have summoned a worse singer, and I certainly didn’t disappoint my expectations. However, getting up there, and embracing the opportunity was a lot of fun, and certainly a memory. At the end of a relatively early night, we decided to sleep a bit earlier so we weren’t dead for our early morning the next day.
For this day, we hired our own driver, a friend of Dandy named Nugg Naag. With the arrangement, for an entire day he would take us anywhere we needed to go. The cost was about 100 dollars, but split among about 9 people, this was not so bad. We drove about 3 hours to the small city of Sadanga. The mountain road we took had plenty more absolutely gorgeous views to enjoy on the way. One we got to our destination, we just got another freelance guide to take us to a cave that we had heard was well worth doing. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, and by far the most unique spelunking outing I’ve ever had. It started with a typical decent, along some rock stairs into an enormous cave mouth. But soon, the stairs disappeared and in no time at all we were climbing over bat poop covered rocks, under the blanked of screeches from above. Eventually we get deep enough where this wasn’t a problem. All light was provided by our guide’s lantern, which made it a bit tough to navigate some of the ledges when the light was blocked. We managed though. Finally he asked if we wanted to take a bit more intense route, this of course received an affirmative answer from the group. We had to strip down to our underwear and tie everything to our head, as we were going to be eeking through small wet crevices and wading through chest-deep pools. Eventually we came to an underground pool that we could jump from lofty rocks into. It was really cool to think of how much earth was above us, and what we were doing down there. Eventually we left, made our way up through the bat crap, and out of the cave.
After this little excursion, we went to the worst restaurant ever. They could’t provide even half of what was on their menu, forcing me to settle for a 4th choice. Then after slow, unkind service they messed up the order and made it sound like our fault. After the laughable disappointment, we walked over to a place called Echo Valley. This is really just a gorge with very sheer edge. I didn’t think that the echo was good enough to earn it such a name, but it was pretty cool. Highlight for me was going all the way the edge, climbing around and just enjoying the thrill of seeing straight down for several hundred feet. One last thing that we saw here in Sadanga was the “hanging coffins”. Beyond how great the name of these were, we had heard countless times that they were a must do. Well, that is presumably a running joke for those that have seen them, because it was just these coffins stacked against a rock wall. That’s it. We were in and out in moments. That was the extent of things to do in the city, so we just took our Jeepney the 3 hours back to Banaue where we had to meet the same overnight bus to take us back to Manila. Before leaving, we grabbed dinner and a drink, and even saw Dandy one last time. As one amusing side note on the area, here we were in this rural village were not even all of the houses had electricity. And yet, at the internet cafe there were kids on their Facebook, playing games and chatting with friends. It’s amazing how connected this world really is. The bus ride home was really long and a bit on the crazy side…
The Mountainous North
Our arrival in Manila was really nothing more than a transfer, as we had an early morning flight to Boracay where we would be spending the rest of the trip in a nice, relaxing fashion. After a short flight in a small prop plane, we made it to Caticlan airport. From there, it was a short jaunt to a ferry port where we boated over to our resort island. After the ferry we had another trike ride that brought us to our hotel, The Villa Romero. This wasn’t a super special place or anything, but being only 10 dollars a night and a 1 minute walk from the famous White Beach made it perfect for us. After we got there, we didn’t really do anything that first day, just explored a bit of the area. We walked all the way down the beach, which was a bit of a trek. This place was much more touristy, there were actually foreigners, though it was clearly a popular domestic destination as well. We just caught some dinner and a drink at a decent beach restaurant. It was a great place to close out an already fantastic trip.
The next day was by far the best we had there. We reserved a spot to go to Ariel’s Point, which was like a tropical tree house built into the cliff. There, we would enjoy snorkeling and cliff diving. That alone made it sound great, but we only realized how fun it was going to be when we hopped on the boat and set out for our destination. Once offshore, the beers were cracked and we set to getting to know each other. We would be spending the afternoon there, and most of the people present were all around our age. It was pretty cool the way these cultures were mixing, being represented by Filipino, Korea, American, and Canadian, probably more. We had the vacation spirit that drew us together. As a side note, one of the people I met was from Grandville, Michigan. Small world. Once we got to Ariel’s Point, it was only reinforced it was going to be a good day trip. There we would be eating a fantastic buffet and reaping the benefits of an open bar. There were many platforms from which to jump into the crystal clear water, the tallest being 16 meters. That’s about 52.5 feet, or 60% higher than the Olympic high dive… This was naturally a challenge for many people (though I happily jumped right in) and everyone was interested in each other’s pursuit of glory. “Go Korea! Come on Korea, you can do it!!!!” was the sort of thing, and all people would chant names to coax them to take on the jump. One of the other options was snorkeling down in the ocean. There wasn’t much for beautiful coral or anything, but the most exciting thing for me was challenging myself to see how deep I could go. There was a rock shelf that just sort of fell off and went deep. I made it down the the bottom without too much strain, which was at least 10 meters down. It was pretty exhilarating to be that far down, to look up and see people swimming WAY above you. Even the ascent took quite some time.
Well soon it was time to leave, but I had planted a couple seeds with one of the groups, and we annexed a few others. We decided on a meeting place and geared up for a good night together back on the beach. When we met, we did dinner at another beach buffet. From there, we went to a nice little bungalow type bar on the beach where we just sat around and enjoyed the time. We had a hookah going around, and were playing some well received games. All these relative strangers were having a great time together. Finally, it was time to go to the club. Despite being a Thursday, the place was packed. It was a really cool location since you could walk right off of the beach into it, and an entire wall of it was open air. I turned into a sweat monster nonetheless, but it was enough fun to be there till about 5am before finally turning in. It was a really fun night dancing with the people we met on outing. Sleep at last.
Friday was another day planned for an outing. This time it was some Crystal Cove island hopping tour. We didn’t really know much, but hearing only that description it seemed like a cool thing to do. Boarding a boat, we did more snorkeling which wasn’t as fun as the previous round. Then it was off to some island that was absolute garbage. They forced us to pay an entrance fee to what seemed like it could be a little beach paradise. We did it, but then once in it was clear that we had never been more ripped off. The place was some run down crap hole covered with imported drift wood and cement. Everything about this place was ugly, and there was nothing at all to do. After enduring an hour of the place, it was off to a mediocre lunch and then being dropped at Puka Beach for a bit. The weather wasn’t anything special, and we were all pretty beat from the night before, so we just found a cozy spot and slept. Finally we were back at our hotel. Though we didn’t want to ignore the fact it was Friday, none of us had much of a drive to do anything. It turned into a night of reading, rest, and relaxation.
Don’t even try to tell me this isn’t the most uninviting craphole you’ve ever seen…
Saturday was our last day there, and again the weather wasn’t anything too special. We didn’t have any day outing planned, so we woke up a bit later. Having motivation and heath issues, we just did lunch and walked around the beach one more time. We split up and each enjoyed the last day in our own way. I just read a book on the beach. We had to leave in the afternoon to get to our airport, a different one than we come in to so we had a general idea of when we would need to meet. Well, one of my travel partners was having just a little too much fun and came back about 45 minutes late. Sure it seemed like we would still make it in time to the airport, but it took longer than predicted to get there. Cruising down an extremely rural, jungle road, it was becoming quite evident that it was going to be very close… Well, we arrive at the airport, a small one, at 5:45 for a 6:00 flight. Goooooood. We get to the desk, which was closed and they tell us that our seats had been given away. Goooooood. We asked when the next flight was, to which we heard “tomorrow morning”. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD. We had a flight the next morning to Japan, so this was not going to work. So from some combination of pleading, our desperation and my punching the service desk at the news worked her over and in a twist had us sitting in first class. Never could I imagine showing up 15 minutes before my flight, missing my check in, facing the all too real possibility of being stranded in the Philippines, and yet wind up in first class at no additional charge. Again, I can only look to my mantra, ” travel always works out”. When we arrived back in Manila, we went to the Mall of Asia, the 4th largest in the world. This was more seen as a way to use some time before we went back to our hostel. There were a few interesting things, but the highlight was going to a giant supermarket, offering many things that I couldn’t get in Japan, at great prices. I got a 2.5 pound container of oatmeal and a box of S’mores Pop Tarts. I was so happy, what a find. After walking around a bit, we took the taxi to our first night’s sketchy hostel and passed right out. Waking at 5am, we took off to the airport, did our flying, and I finally reached my bed around midnight, a long day. 10 days of travel was a fantastic vacation away from Japan, and being able to enjoy another culture where language wasn’t an issue was fantastic as well.
Sun, Sand, and Surf
Just a couple cultural observations…
– It was totally normal to sing whenever. Never belting, but a cashier singing a song on the radio while helping you was commonplace.
– People were all very nice, but they differed from Japan in that they were also very outgoing. There was nothing to hold them back from talking to you, or calling you over to their roadside fiesta.
– I’ll reiterate that it was very strange to be in such a Christian country, easily outdoing the public display of religion in America. During the Holy Week celebrations that we had just missed, they go as far as to actually drive nails through the hands of people enacting the crucifiction scene.
– While the food was all delicious, there wasn’t any particular aspect of it that stuck out to me. If tasked with describing Filipino food to someone, I really wouldn’t know what to say about it.