OR: 'Planes, Boats & Tricycles'
27.08.2011 - 26.09.2011 31 °C
After a wonderful time in the back-to-basics land of Palawan, next on the itinerary was a flight to the Philippines' second largest city: Cebu. As I expected, it was largely similar to Manila. The streets were busy, colourful and noisy and to be honest, not unlike every other city in South-East Asia. One of the main attractions for coming to Cebu was the nearby island of Bohol, which houses the famous Chocolate Hills, an eco-adventure sanctuary and the tarsier, once thought to be the smallest primate in the world. Unfortunately for me, the outer remnants of Typhoon Nanmadol, which was currently battering the north of the country, was producing such strong winds that all ferries to Bohol were cancelled for my first three days in Cebu. After that, it wasn't worth making the journey as I had a flight scheduled from the city in two days.
So I ended up spending most of my time in Cebu wandering the streets and waiting in my hotel room for the next day's forecast. On one particular day, I found myself outside the Cebu office of employment, where a rather large crowd had gathered complete with megaphones, chants, picket signs and news cameras. It turns out the citizens were demanding a raise in the minimum wage to from the current 285 pesos a day to 305. In English terms, their demands were an increase of 30p to a daily minimum wage of £4.49. I found out a few days later that Cebu did implement ratify the new wage rate. At least the people of Cebu had a reason to protest, while the people of London senselessly ran riot at the same time!
Following the disappointingly restricted stop in Cebu, I flew to my next destination in a very unexpected way. I was excited to find that the plane I'd be riding in was one of these little Turboprops. I was even more excited to discover that I had the most unique seat in the house. I asked the check-in lady for extra legroom and she duly assigned me the only backwards facing seat on the plane!
My next destination was Boracay, a developed sandy island that is the number 1 tourist destination in the Philippines. And it showed! The tiny but stunningly ornate airport was not actually on the island, and it was a further tricycle and boat ride before I reached Boracay.
When you go to some of these over-developed holiday resorts, it sometimes crosses your mind: 'Why here?'. This was not the case with Boracay. This was the picture-perfect white-sanded tropical island that was the very definition of the word 'exotic'. The sea was crystal clear and you could see metres into the ocean with ease. The only thing missing from being the ultimate 'tropical island paradise' was the human activity. The streets were congested with Starbucks, local taverns and 5-star hotels, all jostling for position on the seafront. On the opposite side was the local version of development, with hundreds of hawkers selling nothing original: massages, jewellery and sunglasses the main wares. But despite this densely populated and sometimes overly aggressive locale, it was hard not to fall in love with the view you were given.
If Boracay was bustling by day, it was a virtual metropolis by night. Everyone who had been nursing hangovers or sun worshipping all day were now on the streets and the hawker population duly adjusted. The Philippines had been an incredibly cheap place for beer thus far, but Boracay's bars had just bumped up the average by a long way. It was difficult to find anything genuinely Filipino about the place; even the street food vendors were mostly selling cheeseburgers. But if you're looking for a vibrant nightlife to enjoy with friends and a postcard-like vista for the rest of the day, Boracay should be on your list!
After only a few days on the island, thanks to my visa's stingy maximum of 21 days in the country, I began the longest journey of my trip since arriving in India. First I flew back to Manila and, owing to my over-cautious itinerary, waited over 6 hours for my next flight. Somewhat bizarrely, my flight from Manila to Brunei was at 11.40pm, and didn't arrive until 2am. The airport of Bandar Seri Begawan was quiet at that time of the morning and I was much too wrecked to do any more travelling, so with my bag as my pillow I hunkered down for the night.
I woke just as the airport was also beginning to start its day. From the loud opening of KFC's shutters to the instrumental version of 'I Will Survive' that had just kicked in through the terminal's PA, I was figuratively thrown out of my bed. 6am was not a time I was used to seeing in my travels so far (in fact most of the single-digit morning hours were now alien to me), but nonetheless, I found a bus that would take me to the centre of Brunei's capital: Bandar Seri Begawan. From the densely populated cities of the Philippines, it shocked me just how few people there were here. But then I reminded myself that this was probably just what 'morning' was.
It also became apparent that Brunei was expensive, to almost Singapore-levels of expensive. But despite the high prices of everyday stuff, I noticed a Shell garage with petrol listed as the equivalent of 25p a litre, hugely cheaper than any country I've been to so far. Even India and Vietnam were pushing £1!
So as I wandered the streets in search of some budget accommodation, it quickly became apparent that there wasn't any. Or at least there was, but the word 'budget' must mean something else entirely in Brunei. The only place I could find that I didn't feel like I was soiling by stepping over the threshold was a dingy doorway leading to probably one of the grottiest hostels I've ever seen. When I found out that the most basic room was around £30, I realised I probably wasn't done travelling for the day.
Next, I reluctantly caught a series of buses to the ferry terminal far north of the city, where I had to kill a few hours to wait for a boat to Labuan, an island off the coast of Malaysia. It wasn't on my list per se, but it was on the only route I could take to get to my next airport. So, after only half a day's experience of the tiny country of Brunei, most of that while asleep, I got stamped straight out again and boarded the ferry.
Fatigue coupled with an island with an ambiguous identity means that I'm struggling to recall what my first impressions of Labuan were. So instead, I'll hand this over to Wikipedia.
'Labuan is best known as an offshore financial centre offering international financial and business services as well as being an offshore support hub for deepwater oil and gas activities in the region.'
Oh now I remember! Labuan was pretty average, expensive by Malaysian standards and didn't have anything to offer for tourist. But despite the blandness, it was pleasant enough. My only concern was the bizarre opening hours of the nightclub next door to my hotel. I arrived at midday and the music was already pumping through the walls. This continued on well into the next day until about 4pm, when it suddenly stopped. Blissful silence rang out in my head as I slept soundly on Saturday night, but come Sunday lunchtime, the place was rocking and rolling again.
I left the ravers behind and caught a ferry to Kota Kinabalu, the biggest city on Malaysian Borneo. My plan here had been to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South-East Asia. It was dealt a bit of a blow when I left my shoes on a bus on mainland Malaysia, but I was all set to buy another pair and get to the top any way possible! On making some enquiries, it became clear that the mountain had basically transformed into a corporate monopoly. The only option available for climbing the mountain is to stop fairly near the top and stay in a lodge. There is only one lodge, and only one room in the lodge, with around 40 beds. A single night on one of these beds will set you back close to £100 and is mandatory, along with the £100 or so that goes with hiring a guide and entering the national park. With an expensive trip to Singapore already planned and booked, I couldn't really justify the second luxury trip (Besides, I would have chosen the F1 anyway!).
So I spent the remainder of my time hanging out with some locals in a nearby cafe and exploring the city of KK. Oh, veering slightly off topic here, but Malaysians absolutely LOVE acronyms. I have no idea why, but anything longer than one word gets initialised. KK's airport is locally known as KKIA, just as KL's is referred to as KLIA. Flying from the Low-Cost Carrier Terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport? Then you want the KLIA LCCT. One day, I was watching a football match in a nearby bar and was delighted to find that the Premiership is called the BPL and that Chelsea's manager is known only as AVB.
The evening before my flight, I was just settling into a hotel room when the electricity turned off. It happens almost every day in this part of the world so I thought nothing of it. After it came back on a few seconds later, the fire alarm started ringing and then promptly turned off a few seconds later. This does not happen almost every day, but electrical things generally don't work very well in South-East Asia, so I thought nothing of it. Five minutes after that, the electricity turned off again, and this time didn't come back on.
My room was on the third floor, and as soon as I opened the door, I could see thick black smoke filling the stairwell. I ran down to the second floor where the hallway was virtually invisible. There wasn't a single sound to be heard, so I assumed the fire had been put out. I could see the shape of a person in the hallway of the second floor, so I made my way over to him. I don't know why, but I always assumed that stuffing a t-shirt into my face would act as a gas mask against the smoke, but it didn't work as well as I thought. The man in the hallway was currently spraying a fire extinguisher in the general direction of the roof. 'Is there anything I can do to help?' I asked. He removed the cloth from his face for long enough to ask 'You know anything about electrics?'. 'Not when they're on fire.' I replied.
We descended down to the ground floor which was mostly smoke free, but only a few seconds later, the huge cloud of thick, black smoke appeared from out of the stairwell and started to fill the lobby. I never found out what caused the fire. All the guests on the second floor had to change hotels, but lucky for me, because the smoke was so heavy, it never made it up to my floor. An hour later and I was asleep again.
In the morning, I flew with AirAsia to Singapore, for the second time in my trip. I made my way to the same hostel I had stayed in the previous time, and got chatting to a Canadian pilot called Chris. Struggling to find any work besides chartering cargo into the Arctic, he now lives in Jakarta, working for a domestic airline. We headed to the same restaurant I had eaten at on my birthday and was delighted to find that Sri, the sweet Indian lady that ran it, remembered my name. She had also taken my picture that evening, and proudly showed me the photo that was now stuck on the wall!
The next day, I slipped out of the hostel before Javier, the hyperactive Mexican in the bunk below me, woke up. I made my way to Orchard Road and met my Dad, who had, like me, flown to Singapore with two intentions: To see each other and to watch the Grand Prix. I still haven't decided what order those are in! We had a fantastic weekend together and the Singapore Grand Prix was such a special experience. On Friday afternoon, we entered the track and began to wander. We walked past and wished good luck to a number of drivers and team members, whose names I won't bore you with. As part of the weekend ticket, we were eligible for free rides on the Singapore Flyer, the largest observation wheel in the world, which was actually inside the circuit. The views didn't disappoint.
In the evenings, the queues for the food stalls were always long, but with shopping centres straddling the racetrack, we were able to eat a full steak dinner and be back at the track in an hour. On Sunday morning, Dad and I headed to Sentosa Island, the shiny theme park you might remember from my last post. This time, we headed to the Segway attraction and tried our hands on the famous 'personal transporters'. The guides told us that there was strictly no racing, but my father and I both knew that it would be impossible to stop us. We were given free reign to zoom around the dirt track with its sharp corners and undulating terrain. Using one was quite intuitive, and a hell of a lot more fun than walking!
When it was time for the F1 race, the perfect weekend was slightly sulleyed as we saw probably the dullest race of the season, but as soon as the leader crossed the finish line, a huge display of fireworks filled the sky. As the activity on the track drew to a close, the gates were opened and the spectators flooded onto the racetrack. Crowds began to form around the wire fence that separated the pit lane from the track as fans searched for their favourite drivers (or indeed, TV presenters!).
Exhausted from an unbelievable weekend, we headed back to the hotel ready to go our separate ways in the morning, me to Jakarta and my Dad back to England. Indonesia is up next, my final country before stopping in Australia, and after the luxury treatment of Singapore, I'm sure Jakarta will do its best to bring me back down to Earth with a bump!