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#57 Siargao – Martial Law in Paradise

The plan for Siargao was to celebrate a reunion with our friends Marco and Olesya, who we have spent the first three months of our travels with. But a few days before the long awaited meeting, we heard about the insurgency of Islamist militants that plunged the southern state of Mindanao into chaos. As a consequence, the president imposed Martial Law on the whole region.
Unfortunately, Siargao, a small island in the northeast of Mindanao, falls within the affected perimeter. After several days of closely following the news and talking to locals to find out if violence was spreading, we had to make a decision. Considering that such conflicts are often geographically contained and our sources on Siargao itself telling us that everything was as calm as always, we decided to go ahead with our initial plan.

We bumped into Marco and Olesya at the airport in Cebu. It was great to see them again after seven months apart. We had booked different places to stay, but only about a minute’s walk away from each other. After the first day, our concerns regarding terrorist attacks and Martial Law were all but forgotten; Siargao was still the calm and beautiful island we hoped it would be.

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Well, although we didn’t suffer any attacks as such, we did get terrorized by a merciless and nervewrecking bunch of animals we got all too familiar with in the Philippines: roosters!
After two nights of barely getting any sleep at all, Barbara and I had to leave our beautiful bungalow and change to another place in order to escape their relentless efforts to turn us into ghost-like nutjobs. Prerequisites of the new place: aircon, proper walls and no roosters in close vicinity. Fortunately, I didn’t have to ask around for very long.

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Home made dinner
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Grill chef Marco
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Dinner review

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The lovely but noisy bungalow
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Common area
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Our oasis of silence

But besides this initial nuisance, the four of us had an amazing time. Beach, good food and great company. There is really not that much more you could wish for.
Marco and I organized surfboards and talked to people about the best breaks to go to and when. In the morning, we flagged down a moto-taxi and headed to the shore from where a little boat would take us out to the break for a few pesos. The first days brought decent swell and we got to enjoy some fun sessions. Of course we also drove up to surf Cloud 9, one of the most famous waves in all of Southeast Asia. It wasn’t the right time of the year for it to work properly, but we still got a few rides and the nice area with the long pier makes it worth your while in any case.

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Cloud 9 on a small to fun-sized day
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The pier at Cloud 9

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After a few days on the island, another friend of Marco, also called Marco, joined our group together with his friend Myrta. Together we enjoyed life on the island for a bit more than a week.

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Beach Volleyball tournament
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Happy Hour at Kermit’s
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Exploring the island

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Fear and Loathing in the Philippines

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After twelve days of surfing, eating, playing cards, sweating in the hot sun and drinking the odd beer, our month on the Philippines was coming to an end. It’s a country with so much to offer that even after a full month visiting six islands, we felt like we just scratched the surface of it. Undoubtedly, there is a lot more to explore…

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#56 Siquijor – Rooster Island

Siquijor is a small island in the centre of the Philippines. It’s so small you can circle it on a motorbike in about two and a half hours if you don’t stop anywhere. That would be a mistake though, because it’s a beautiful island with beaches, hills and kind people along the way.

But before we started exploring our surroundings, we got a transport from the ferry terminal to our new home for the next few days.

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We booked a very basic room in an otherwise newish looking resort right at the sea. It soon became clear why the rooms were that cheap; it was obviously off-season. In fact, we were the only guests for the first night.
It’s not every day you get to enjoy a hotel’s pool and bar all by yourself. Our dinner was so private, the chef  closed down and left the kitchen simultaneously with our food.

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Nobody here
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Nobody here either

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We didn’t go to bed late, but you are wrong if you think that we got a lot of sleep. As it turned out, the hotel’s neighbours had a bunch of roosters. And not the half decent ones that start bagawking at 6AM, no, those were some vicious sons of chicken. These bastards proclaimed their reign of terror at 2AM and wouldn’t stop until 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning. And just to complete our luck, the aircon went out at about 11PM and wouldn’t turn on again for the rest of the night. Needless to say, we had a suboptimal first night. Nevertheless, we headed out for the Tour de Island on our scooter around noon the next day. It didn’t take long for us to forget our lack of sleep once we drove the quiet street along the coast and soon slowly winding upwards between palm trees and then through the forest. Our first halt was at a tree, supposedly about four hundred years old. Personally, I was a bit more excited to find out that there was a pond with small and mid-sized fish that nibble on your feet. The locals that had already been sitting there with their feet dangling in the water had a blast. Now and then a few of them would scream, leaving the rest of them crying with laughter.

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Not the Matrix, just a gas station

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A tickling experience

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Next up was Salagdoong Beach, a popular hangout and weekend spot for the locals. It was a Saturday and therefore, we were far from alone. People were playing at the beach, picnicking and jumping from the cliff into the crystal-clear water. This is the kind of scenery where it is possible to spot even the rarest of all creatures: the unicorn. What a sight! But sadly, these moments never last. It’s a disgrace that humans prefer trophies instead of simply appreciating the living animal.

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Can that water get any clearer?

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Unicorn in its natural habitat
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Slain unicorn – a deeply saddening image

We kept driving around the island and when it was time for dinner, we headed up to one of the highest points and got a wonderful meal at this nice Japanese restaurant with a view over the whole northwest of the island.

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Quick stop on the way back to our place

Early morning next day, I hopped on the scooter and drove to one of the local dive centers. I got lucky, caught the owner right when he came in and also met the Dive Master. We agreed on two dive sites: Paliton Wall and Paliton Sanctuary. About 75 minutes after that I was looking at wondrous fish and colourful corals with up to 38 metres of water above me. Because not that much sunlight makes it down there, these depths are not great for photography if you don’t bring artificial lights and suitable filters. A lot of the red colours gets lost and images appear overly green and blue.

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A happy couple of the monogamous Fire Dartfish
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Curious Banded Sea Krait – a venomous sea snake
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Can you spot him? Beautifully camouflaged Scorpionfish, also venomous

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Hello there!

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And what is better than enjoying a beautiful sunset on the Philippines after a day of diving?

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That was also one of the last tranquil moments of the night. Very soon, the friggin roosters would commence their psycho-show and make our lives miserable for a couple of hours.

After four amazing days and horrible nights, we left Siquijor and got ready for our last destination in the Philippines: Siargao.

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#55 Bohol & Panglao – Chocolate Hills

Bohol is a relatively big island in the central Visayas, just off the coast of Cebu, the region’s main city. Panglao is the small southern sibling of Bohol, connected to it by two bridges.

For our rather short stay on Bohol, we chose Tagbilaran as our base. It’s where our ferry from Cebu arrived and it’s conveniently located between the Chocolate Hills, Bohol’s main attraction, and Panglao island. The ferry ride from Cebu to Tagbilaran was once again a smooth thing, the only moment with potential for surprises was the check-in of our luggage. Prices per bag vary from port to port, depend on the mood of the person at the counter and your haggling skills.

To reach the Chocolate Hills, a curious geological formation of 1268 hills in the form of my favourite Teuscher truffle pralinés spread over 50 square kilometres, I had to take a tricycle taxi to the terminal and from there a public bus. The whole trip took me around three hours each way and cost me approximately USD 2.50 per leg. The bus dropped me off at a corner from where I had to walk up to the viewing platform on top of one of the hills. It was raining. First just a bit, then a lot. After travelling for three hours basically just to get a nice view and take a few pictures, I had no other choice than to have faith in the tropical weather and sit this one out. An hour later, things started to look up for me. Funny looking hills in a brownish green as far as you can see. Not a sight you get every day, but also not one I would travel a total of six hours for again.

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Viewing platform

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The next day, it was time for us to make our experience with the Philippines’ most common way of transportation: the Jeepney. Originally Willys-Jeeps left behind by the Americans, these vehicles have been remodelled to transport up to 14 people. In reality, the number of passengers is more likely to be 20 to 25. When the benches are full, people sit on the roof or hold on to the back. They are usually in a terrible state, not comfortable, not safe, not environmentally friendly but, and this is important, they are often very colourful. They stop wherever people want to get on or off. Even relatively short rides seem endless but on the positive side, they are incredibly cheap.

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Don’t worry, be happy – this was before the trip started, still plenty of space
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Not gonna pass the next vehicle inspection
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 A nice example of a Jeepney

Our destination: Alona Beach on Panglao island. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening walking along the beach, enjoying a few drinks and some nice burgers. Yes, burgers, no rice, no chicken.

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Alona Beach

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After this rather short stopover, we once again took a ferry the next day. This time to beautiful Siquijor island.

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#54 El Nido & Port Barton – The Palawan Experience

When it comes to beaches and sunsets, the Philippines is second to none and El Nido in the north of Palawan island would probably occupy one of the top spots on this illustrious list.

We reached El Nido by ferry from Coron. The ride took three and a half hours and was hassle-free. A quick tricycle ride later we arrived at our accommodation. And after pointing out that our mattress was drenched with water dripping from the ceiling, we got a room at another place for the first night.

Knowing that we will have a night in a dry bed, we went out to get some food and have a look around town. I know this sentence is getting old, but again, the place itself wasn’t charming or beautiful; it’s simple, blunt and touristy. But once you sit in a bar at the beach, sip on a cold beer in good company and witness the most amazing sunset you might have seen so far, who gives a sheep what the streets behind you look like?

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The different phases of the same sunset…

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What a sight!
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A beautiful finish

The next morning, I organized a scooter and we drove up north for a beach day. We did a little research and decided against the famous and crowded Nacpan Beach and headed to Duli Beach instead. After driving past the easily missed access road the first time, we turned around and I stopped a group of two motorbikes that were apparently headed in the wrong direction as well. That’s how we met Xavier, Jake and Kristen, our companions for the next two days. After we managed to reach the beach we were looking for, it became quickly clear that skipping Nacpan was the right choice: besides a Canadian dude that spent the night on the porch of one of the two bars, a guy and his water buffalo and some local kids which we played football with, there was nobody around. With our newfound friends, we spent a fun and relaxing day at Duli before making our way back to El Nido where we met again for dinner together with a few more people the guys were doing their PADI course with. Later, while having a drink at the beach, we made plans for a private island hopping tour the next day.

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“A” Coconut for sale
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Empty Duli Beach

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Jake, Kristen, Xavier, Barbara, me FRTL
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Somebody has to work…
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Not exactly the Hells Angels

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El Nido Dinner Party

Our island-hopping day was off to a rough start when we got asked to leave the office of the first guide. He was asking for too much money and we tried to bring the price down. But after some breakfast, Xavier and I managed to negotiate a more reasonable offer. They would make the boat ready and take us to a few spots of our choosing for about four hours. After getting a few cold beers from the market, we were ready.
The first stop was a beautiful lagoon where we could snorkel for a bit. We moved on to Seven Commando Beach and decided to stay there. It’s a nice place to hang out and play some beach volley with some Filipinos, who seem to have their own system of counting that miraculously favours the local team.

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From El Nido, Barbara and I made our way southwards. Our ultimate destination was Puerto Princesa, from where we would take a flight to Cebu. In order to break up the six-hour ride, we decided to spend two nights in Port Barton. That turned out to be a very mixed bag. To start with, the ride there also took about four hours or so and the mini-van was very tight and completely full. It didn’t help at all that we stopped at a cross-road about an hour before reaching Port Barton and had to squeeze in a few more people of another van. And while it was very hot, we couldn’t find rooms with aircon anywhere. Not that it would have helped much; electricity went out frequently enough to render it almost useless anyway. So, we melted away for the night.
I spent most of the next day at the beach, while Barbara preferred the pool and her room.

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Port Barton Beach

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In the afternoon I met Fernando, who we met on the way from El Nido, at the beach and we had a beer. I stayed for a few more and played a beach drinking game with some Dutch and English dudes. By sunset I wasn’t completely sober anymore. The night carried on with different bars and at some point, I made the fateful decision to order a Chicken Adobo in some random place. More on that later.
Then, out of nowhere, I had one of the most unexpected and wonderful experiences of all my travels. The beers did their thing, nature called and I went for a swim. Everything apart from a few lights in the beach bar was pitch black. I went in and suddenly, whenever I moved, the water around me would light up in bright blue sparkles. Bioluminescent Phytoplankton! These miniature creatures emit light when they are stressed and I assume that a giant human being stirring up the water increases their stress level significantly. A truly magical moment, that I have to admit, was possibly intensified by the alcohol.

It was late, or early, when I got back to the room and lied down next to Barbara. But I didn’t get to sleep, remember that Chicken Adobo I mentioned earlier? Well, the next days I didn’t feel quite that adventurous anymore.

That was our Palawan experience, meaning wonderful beaches, beautiful sunsets and frequent power outages.

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#53 Coron – A warm welcome

I am not quite sure anymore how we came to choose the Philippines as a destination on our trip. But one thing I can say already, it was definitely a good decision. Although, consisting of over 7’600 islands, the country poses some challenge when it comes to figuring out which spots you actually want to visit. For a start, we skipped Manila completely. Firstly, because we have just come from a big city and secondly, Southeast Asian megacities aren’t what I would describe as pleasant.

With this in mind, we laid out a plan that made it possible to visit most of the places that we wanted to see without excessive back and forth air travel.

From Hong Kong we caught a flight to Busuanga Island, also commonly referred to as Coron, which is both the name of Busuanga’s main town as well as the Island just off Busuanga. Got it? – Good. Landing at the airport, which is really just a hut, we were greeted by a group of local drummers and locals hanging traditional handmade necklaces around our necks as a welcome gift. And although we neither organized transportation with our accommodation nor informed our flight or time of arrival, somebody was waiting with our names written on a cardboard and escorted us to the mini-van that took us across the island and to Coron town. Not a pretty town, but we were not here because of that anyway.

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Klonk Klonk instead of Bling Bling
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Coron town
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The less beautiful part of Coron

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Right after checking into the Princess of Coron Resort, which sounds a lot better than it was, and I mean A LOT, we organized an island-hopping tour for the next day. We got up to a cloudy sky and it even started to rain while we had breakfast. Not the best start to a day on a small boat, but as is common in the tropics, the sun soon gained the upper hand and by the time we climbed from one boat to the next until we ended up in the right one, it was already time for us to apply some sunscreen. Surprisingly, there were no other western tourists on our tour, just a bunch of Filipinos exploring their own country; something we want to do more once we are back home.

The rest of the day we just kicked back and apart from a few strokes in the water and the odd step on land to have a look at a freshwater lake in the midst of one of the islands we let the boat people do their thing. We stopped in lagoons for swimming and snorkelling and at a few beaches, at one of which we had lunch that was cooked up in the back of our boat.

Barbara is not exactly a mermaid, so it took a little convincing for her to jump of the boat and enjoy a swim. It was going to be a short intermezzo; after just a few minutes poor Barbara got stung on her arm by some mean creature and her skin burned for the rest of the day. Nature is such a cynical little girl sometimes.

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Gliding through crystal clear water

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Kayangan Lake – not exactly pristine anymore

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Glowing corals just below the surface

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I heard about the diving of the coast of Coron before we got there, in fact, it was one of the main reasons we stopped there at all. The place is most famous for its wreck diving; seven Japanese navy ships have been sunk here during and after air attacks by the Americans in 1944. I wasn’t going to pass on the chance to get some wreck diving experience, and I’m glad I didn’t. I booked a full day with three dives at a local dive center called Neptune Dive Center. It was a small group of nice people that day and the dive master did his part to make it a great experience. He explained to us that the first dive site was Barracuda Lake, a lake on Coron Island. Its brackish water, a mix of fresh and salt water, create a unique thermos-cline that can be experienced visually and physically during diving. Visually, it is possible to see the border between the different layers as if it were a second, shimmering surface. Physically, the temperature difference of almost 10°C is very much noticeable and diving into water almost 40°C hot when you were already under water is a wondrous feeling. Oh sure, I almost forgot about the Barracudas.
Now, wreck dives, how cool was that?! Down at almost thirty metres you enter a sunken ship, gliding weightlessly through the dark corridors and closed spaces only lit by the little sunlight that made it down there and through a hole or crack and the torch in your hand. From time to time you encounter a few fish and once you get out of the dark there are so many different species and whole schools of them around you. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to get good footage at this depth without at least a red filter or serious camera lights. But even though I am a keen photographer, some things just have to be experienced and no picture is ever going to get close to the real thing.

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Getting ready for the lake dive – no wetsuit needed
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Bottled breaths

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Inside a wreck
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Underwater-selfie
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School of small fish
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Delicious lunch prepared on the boat
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At the end of a fulfilling day, the Jeepney is waiting

During our stay in Coron, Barbara and I celebrate eight years of relationship. We looked up a recommended restaurant and headed there for a romantic dinner. Or at least that was the plan. Haven’t we been in Southeast Asia long enough to know better? Apparently not. After waiting for almost an hour for our food we inquired again with our waitress and she confirmed what we had suspected: our orders never made it to the kitchen. Slightly irritated we left and entered the next best place, which turned out to be quite a lovely place.

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Dinner, finally

After we ate and paid we sat for a few minutes longer. We left when a gigantic cockroach climbed up the curtain just behind us.

Once again, I wrote way too much. Let’s see if I manage to keep it shorter in the following posts about Palawan.