OR: 'JEEPNEY SIR, JEEPNEY?'
12.08.2011 - 26.08.2011 32 °C
Arriving at the Singapore border after another sleepless overnight bus ride, the confusing and startlingly modern immigration system was just too much for my zombie-like state to handle. After getting all the necessary passport stamps, I was dropped off at the office of the coach company, with not a clue where I was. Thankfully, Singapore is English-speaking, has readable road signs and probably the best subway system in the world. I made my way to Little India, a very accurate name for an area that struck me as a cleaner, more expensive, less populated and less traditional version of one of India's smaller towns.
After settling in, I made the most of the sprawling subway system and explored the city. I found myself in the central business district of the city which, being a Sunday, was completely deserted. A handful of pedestrians and cars meandered up and down the spotless streets; not even the glassy financial districts of London could compare with how clean Singapore was.
I wandered a bit further and discovered a shopping center. Despite being freely able to walk around, the escalators were motionless and every single shop was closed with not a soul in sight. On the other side of this haunting scene, I came to one of the prime tourist locations, the Merlion. Designed and built by the Singapore Tourism Board who needed to create something 'wacky' and 'original' to be their mascot, this strange mermaid-lion hybrid that shoots water from its mouth was the best they could do.
After travelling in some of the cheapest countries in South-East Asia, the prices in Singapore were a massive shock, even though I knew they were coming! I hadn't stayed in a dorm room since Vietnam but here, realistically, they were the only option. $28, roughly 15 GBP would bag you a bed in a room of 8, and not much more. Food was also a huge jump. In fact, some items such as water, bread and chocolate actually cost more than in the UK. But with an average salary about 60% higher, and a significantly lower tax rate, who can blame them?
During the week, I headed to Sentosa Island, a luxurious theme park without any rides. What it did have, however, was an abundance of 5-star resorts, hotels, casinos with $1000 entry fees and a few things to please the thrill-seekers.
As soon as I saw the MegaZip, I knew I'd be eating instant noodles for the next few days just to make up the entry fee. Stretching a total of 450 metres from the hill of Sentosa Island to an offshore spot of sand, the MegaZip was just enough to give me my fix of adrenaline. Besides, I was going to be 22 tomorrow, best to do these things before I get old, right?!
Following a thrilling ride with a spectacular view over the rainforest canopy below, I walked to a nearby island that is billed as the southernmost point on continental Asia. After a couple of minutes of waiting politely for a Japanese couple to take about 7,000 photos of each other, I became the southernmost person on the biggest mass of land in the world, which was a big deal to a geography nerd like me!
When my birthday came around, I went for a swim at the local lido and later headed to a restaurant at the heart of Little India. The owners were very sympathetic to my solo celebration and surprised me with a birthday brownie, candle and song included! Singapore so far had reminded me of London at every corner, with a business-like efficiency and none of the smiles of Malaysia. However, the warmness that this Indian family showed me on my last night in the city has changed my outlook completely and has set a great precedent for a return visit in September!
The next morning, I caught the subway to Changi Airport and boarded a flight to Clark. Despite being billed as serving Manila, the airport is actually over 2 hours drive from the capital of the Philippines. Boasting such exotically named places such as Caloocan, Laguna and Luzon, I half expected Gandalf and the rest of the Fellowship to greet me off the plane. Instead, I found a grumpy immigration guard who was not a fan of smalltalk. Exiting the airport, I caught sight of the most bizarre vehicle I have ever seen: a Jeepney. Left over from the Americans at the end of WWII, hundreds of army Jeeps were stretched to the length of a small limousine and were installed with benches in the rear of the vehicle. Each one is given a lavish paint job, sometimes with themes such as a favourite basketball team or a particular film (my favourites so far are the Street Fighter jeepney, the Popeye jeepney and the Ferrari jeepney) or instead, just with as many fluorescent paints as can be found. Unfortunately despite their abundance, I didn't manage to catch a picture of any but I implore you to Google 'jeepney' just to see these bizarre and magnificent vehicles.
Having heard only bad things about Manila, and only 3 nights before my next flight, I spent the first two near where I landed, in Angeles. I had ridden a jeepney into the town, but now needed to find my way to the hotel. I found help in the form of a motorbike sidecar, my second unexpected mode of transport for the day.
While the hotel in Angeles was smart and cheap, the food even cheaper and San Miguel, the national beverage of choice, even cheaper than that, the atmosphere was seedy at best. The only other Western people I saw were middle-aged expat males, mostly Australian, with not a single wife in tow. After travelling for 2 and a half months in countries where women dressed conservatively, it was truly shocking to be in a place where nearly every local woman, young and old, wears miniskirts, high heels and full makeup at every hour of the day. The bare minimum was left to the imagination.
The day before my flight out of Manila, I took a bus to the airport and checked into a tiny hotel in what felt like the most dangerous area I'd been to so far. After just a few hours sleep I caught a taxi to the domestic terminal and flew to Puerto Princesa. What I found was a world away from the place I'd just left, with beautiful greenery surrounding the largest city on the huge island of Palawan.
After landing, I hopped onto my third most bizarre vehicle of the Philippines, a tricycle. While similar to the motorbike and sidecar, this time they both shared the same windscreen, so it felt more like a single vehicle.
Puerto Princesa is classed as a city, so I was surprised to find what I would call at best, a small town. Venturing any further than the main road and you find dusty backroads with trees and grasslands on all sides. Sparsely populated by an easy-going locale, tiny taverns for shops, churches, basketball hoops and chickens, it was a place that reminded me more of the small villages of Africa than anywhere I'd been to in South-East Asia. It was hugely refreshing to find a place where tourism was not the number one industry. Far from it in fact. But despite its charm, Puerto Princesa was a little short on sights and activities. I had planned to spend two nights here and venture up to a place called El Nido for the next three, but I was hit with a stomach bug on my second day there. I delayed my bus ride for a day, but having staved off illness for nearly 3 months so far and with my immune system down, I was hit with a cold, migraines, stomach troubles and.. lets just leave it at 'digestive problems'. With time running out before my next flight I knew it was now or never to visit El Nido on the far north coast of Palawan. So despite my condition, I took the 5 hour bus over some of the worst roads known to man. It was with about an hour and a half left in the journey that I was hit with a wave of illness. I suddenly needed the toilet, very badly. With nothing in front or behind us but open grasslands, I had no choice but to hold it in. Enduring the rest of the bumpy journey was, with absolute honesty, the hardest thing I have ever had to do. But I managed it, and I class that as one of the greatest victories of my life so far.
El Nido was absolutely perfect. Located at the centre of a sprawling bay of limestone islands, the scenery was on a par with Ko Phi Phi in Thailand. But with a bare minimum or tourists, everything else about the town was unspoiled. Barring a few high-end resorts that were being constructed, the streets were still quaint and locally owned. Walking around the area, I was overwhelmed with how beautiful this slice of paradise was. Or maybe I was just still on a high from regaining control of my body. Either way, the feeling was fantastic!
While it is certainly still mostly unknown to Western travellers, it is a prime location for Filipinos to holiday, and as such, prices were more expensive than the cities. But with wallet-stinging Singapore still fresh in my mind, and a perfect atmosphere, I didn't mind one bit.
The morning after I arrived, I joined a Dutch couple and an Estonian couple on a snorkelling trip organised by a local named Larry. Having taken a pounding from the fiercest thunderstorm I've ever witnessed the night before, the waves were still rocking by morning. But as we neared our first snorkelling spot, the sea had calmed slightly. Now I don't have many fears, but apart from the obvious things like snakes and spiders, the only irrational fear I have is open, deep water. So one of my aims for today was to slightly quell that fear. I had snorkelled in Thailand, but that was in very shallow water with barely anything to see. This time, the ocean floor was at least 10 metres down and there were a lot more fish! I'm not a very strong swimmer and especially so when I'm slightly panicking, so I had quickly worn myself out by the time we headed back to the boat, but not before seeing Larry freedive to the ocean floor to chase a lobster that was doing its best to avoid becoming Larry's dinner!
We docked at a tiny beach, admiring the sights and snorkelling some more while Larry and the rest of the crew cooked us lunch. I spotted an mean eel-shaped fish that was heading my way so I weakly called it quits there. Soon the other four in the group came back and we tucked into a sumptuous feast of fish, beef and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Just after we set off again, we spotted a rather ominous looking cloud on the horizon. We thought we'd be fine for the rest of the trip, but Larry reckoned that it'd reach us in no more than five minutes. Guess who was right?! As it got closer, the rain seemed to speed up, and somewhat bizarrely, raced right past us. While we were sailing close to one edge of the vast valley of rock, we could visibly see the fierce rain pounding the sea on the opposite side, no more than a couple of hundred metres away.
Soon enough however, the cloud enveloped us as we arrived at our third destination, an abandoned church. It was more of a luxurious mini-resort than a church and with no access road, only a small pier, it must have been a hell of a challenge to build more than sixty years ago. Some years later, for reasons unknown the owner abandoned it, and it today stands derelict. We explored the rooms of the residence and found a scene of absolute destruction. Certainly weathered by fierce storms over the years, vandalism was also to blame for some of the scenes we found. One locked room had 'Matthew, Mark, Luke & John' written on the door. 'Oh look, this must have been the kids room,' said the Dutch girl. I'm still not sure if she was joking.
Next we anchored seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I plucked up the courage to put the mask on again as we swam round a corner and found a tiny beach cove, surrounded on all sides by the limestone cliffs. The scene underwater was just as breathtaking, with fish of every colour imaginable jostling for position around a busy coral reef. Strange alien plants of massive proportions dominated the ocean floor. I began to see how many of the fish I could recognise from 'Finding Nemo', and managed to find nearly all except the clownfish! Later, Larry swam down and grabbed hold of a baby pufferfish before bringing it up to our eye level. The poor little creature was fully inflated, with its tiny little flippers flapping helplessly and its eyes darting in all directions. As soon as Larry let go, it immediately dived downwards, gradually deflating as it neared the bottom before disappearing out of sight inside an anemone. This time around, I was a lot more at ease under the water and while still not 100% comfortable about the idea, I had definitely slightly eased my irrational fear of the sea!
I wish I had had more time in El Nido, but due to the Philippines being a cluster of islands, travelling on a whim was just not possible and sticking to fixed travel schedules is just one of the conditions of seeing this country. Ruing my illness that had lost me an extra day here, I took a very uncomfortable minibus back to Puerto Princesa. Between the narrow aisle that seperates the single seat from the double seat in the minibus, the operators had placed a tiny foot wide 'chair' that was optimistically going to take someone the entire journey. Full credit to them, I survived, becoming much too intimate with the people either side of me in this makeshift row of four.
I was sad to leave Palawan behind, and would definitely place it alongside Penang in my list of places to return. The Philippines has certainly been a country of extremes so far, and with surprises around every corner, I've given up having any expectations for the rest of my stay here. With the city of Cebu up next, could it be any better or worse than Palawan or Manila?