Seollal is the first day of the Korean lunar calendar. Korean New Year is a national holiday which is celebrated over a three day period. Whilst the thought of celebrating Seollal in Korea had a certain appeal it was quickly overshadowed by the thought of cashing in on those days off to get a much needed Vitamin D. With Seoul averaging a chilly -10 of an evening, I was planning the itinerary before the flights were even booked. So here is a rundown of my week in Palawan, The Philippines.
At around 3.30pm I arrived at Puerto Princesa airport aka the smallest airport in the world. Unfortunately the conveyor belt was out of order. Fortunately, a strapping young man took it upon himself to heave everyone’s luggage out of the hold and push it around with the less enthused aid of other passengers. After collecting my luggage, I somehow managed to commandeer a young Danish guy who was also staying at the same hostel as me. After politely declining about 4 offers for transportation from the locals we tentatively climbed into a dilapidated tricycle headed for Sheebang Backpackers. The cost was 150PHP and if my research was reliable then this is the cheapest way to get from the airport! We quickly realised that almost every Filipino we encountered spoke English to some extent; our tricycle driver was no exception.
I was in awe of this island which contrasted so heavily from modern and industrious Seoul where I had spent the last 4 months. Our driver attempted to sell us tickets to the Underground River Tour; he told us for every sale he’d receive 3kg of rice for his family. Whether this is true or a ploy to get tourists to buy tickets I suppose I’ll never know, but I was so tired from travelling that I had to decline his persistent sales pitch and politely ignore him for the rest of the journey. This is something to be aware of when travelling in the Philippines – every foreigner is a customer. Sheebang hostel – what it lacked in bang it made up for in 2 for 1 cocktails between 4 and 6pm. The accommodation offered a relatively comfortable thin mattress on a bunk bed and a cold shower that dribbled. But it was only for 2 nights, so I happily made do. All of the staff were friendly and accommodating and, of course, spoke English. That evening I propped myself up against the Tiki style bar and ordered a pizza (when in Rome). I managed to get chatted up by a 60+ divorcee with a 14 year old son and an ex girlfriend (Filipino) who didn’t like his 14 year old son and subsequently they had broken up and so here he was…lucky me! Somewhere between the OAP and the couple of 241 Pina Coladas I booked the Underground River Tour for the following day. This was 1,500 PHP including transportation and lunch.
Tired but eager I waited for the mini-van at 7.30am as advised however our noble steed did not arrive until 8.40am. This delay set the tone for day which would involve a lot of waiting around, a lack of communication but an experience which is most definitely worth all of the inconvenience. Waiting for a few hours in paradise did seem to bother a lot of people in the group, however I soldered on without complaint throughout the day.
The first hurdle was to 2 hour journey to Sabang which was incredibly bumpy and incredibly cosy. The driver certainly wanted to make as much money as possible and so materialised these magical half seats which the driver clicked into the side of the existing seats and somehow managed to wedge 4 humans into 3 ½ seats (much to everyone’s dismay). We arrived at 10.30am, ate lunch at around 12.30pm and boarded a boat to the underground river at 1.30pm. After a short but noisy boat journey we were all incredibly excited to experience this new wonder of the world. After donning our lifejackets and hardhats and sealing everything of value in various waterproof bags we waited with zeal for another boat which would take us inside of the cave. The cave and river were absolutely stunning. The audio guide, on the other hand, was slightly bizarre, filled with cringe worthy gags about Sharon Stone and the Titanic. But all in all an unforgettable experience which I would 100% recommend as long as you go with the right attitude. Of course attractions like this are going to attract tourists and of course this is going to increase waiting time. If you have a waterproof camera then please bring it.
For 500 PHP I took another horrific mini-van journey from PP to El Nido. A large amount of this journey involved the driver, once again, endeavouring to find people to squeeze into every crevice of said mini-van. It took a fair amount of time before we even departed PP as well as various stops on and out of the way. We ‘left’ PP at 8am and arrived at El Nido bus terminal at 1.30pm. Whilst 5 ½ hours seemed like a lifetime, I met other travelers who took the same journey via the same means and their total time was 8 ½ hours. So, the moral of the story here is: do not get in a mini-van. Please take the coach if you are able. The coach is comfortable, air-conditioned and marginally cheaper (380 PHP no air-con or 480 PHP air-con). The issue with taking the coach (Cherry or RORO) is that it is meant to take considerably longer than by van. However, it is pot luck as to whether or not a van will be any quicker! In my humble opinion there is no advantage to travelling by van so please save yourself the struggle and jump on Cherry (no pun intended) or Roro. This is how I got from El Nido back to PP and the journey was bliss! From the bus terminal I took a tricycle to Alexsus backpackers aka hell on earth. The cost was 50PHP, the standard fare for any short journey on the island. Up until I opened the door of the room I’d like to think that I’d maintained a fairly positive disposition throughout all the hours of cramped travel on various vans and despite the lengthy wait for the Underground River Tour. It was at this point, however, that my positively waned. If there was a star which was cracked, covered in blood and smelt of copper then this would be the ideal star rating I would award Alexsus Backpackers. Our hostel had no communal facilities and didn’t even have a front door. It was a collection of hole in the wall ‘rooms’ which were monitored by a young Filipino lady who wasn’t in any way welcoming and a security system which considered of a webcam straight out of the 90’s. The hostel was fairly horrific, nothing was clean including the sheets and towels. Everything in the bathroom was broken, the water wouldn’t drain and the taps (piping) smelt of copper every time you used them. The wifi worked intermittently which wasn’t actually an issue as I was aware of El Nido’s lack of internet prior to arriving. However the multitudes of creepy man that loitered outside of the hostel were a slight cause for concern. Despite the aforementioned, Alexsus had one saving grace and that was the air-con. Yes, it did occasionally replicate the sound of a crying baby but to give credit where credit’s due the haunted air-conditioning unit worked very efficiently! After I got over the initial shock I decided not to let my spirits be dampened and so ventured out to explore the dusty roads and colourful, narrow streets of El Nido.
I wondered down the picturesque beach in awe of the scenery and tropical surroundings. This, unlike Alexsus Backpackers, really was paradise. I found a restaurant/pub at the end of the beach where I sipped on a G&T and breathed in the salty sea air. It felt fresh and was a much appreciated change from the yellow dust mouthfuls of South Korean air I’d become accustomed to.
Day 4: Tour A with Tarawis
Fortunately located very close to Hell on Earth, I arrived at Tarawis for Tour A bright and early at around 8.30am. We were all ushered to the beach where we waited around half an hour before we were able to board the boat. There were a collection of foreigners, some looking adventurous and others looking glamorous. I personally looked neither opting instead for a drowned rat look from start to finish. Boarding the boat was an adventure in itself, wading out to it with my belongings above my head. I felt cool even if I looked like another stupid tourist with one of those awfully coloured waterproof bags. The first destination was the Secret Lagoon which involved very little effort and lots of wonderful photos. Secondly we arrived at the Small Lagoon where I made my first big mistake. I was informed that I could either swim or kayak into the lagoon, but if I chose the latter option then I had to swim through jellyfish. As a very unconfident swimmer I chose to kayak. This privilege was not cheap and not mentioned prior to boarding. Cost for relative safety = 300PHP. Of course I found myself befriended by a slightly older gentleman. I say gentleman, he was more of a pirate. He wasn’t a massive fan of the jellyfish and so commandeered my kayak standing at the front with my ore and magically transforming into a Gondolier. It was certainly an experience but I was glad to be back aboard the boat after an exhilarating 30 minutes. Third stop was the Big Lagoon and here I became somewhat stuck. Not having enough money to pay for another kayak to avoid the jellyfish I decided to take the plunge, literally, and snorkel to the Big Lagoon. How hard could it be? Seemingly, quite! In 2014 I swam in the Great Barrier Reef, but I swam with a noodle (floatation device) because I was so terrible at swimming I wasn’t allowed to swim without one. Why my brain forgot this vital information at this moment I will never know. So, off I snorkelled with the aid of yet another helpful older man. At around the half way mark after lots of breathing in water and general spluttering I admitted defeat. I released my snorkel instructor from his duties informing him I was more than capable of swimming back to the boat, against a strong current, whilst completely exhausted, all by myself! Well, I nearly died. I can honestly say I have never felt so close to death in all my life. Somehow I managed to channel my inner Bear Grylls and I survived the arduous journey and had to be pulled aboard where I collapsed, as my Mother would say, in a heap! Surely it was home time? Nope, one more stop = Seven Commades Beach. Thankfully, I only had to paddle to shore where I ordered a coconut which may or may not have had rum in it. I then sat on the beach appreciating my life more earnestly than I had ever done before and getting this cool shot which I will caption “I survived, I’m alive!” Would I recommend Tour A? Yes. Would I recommend ‘Tarawis’? Not overly. Would I recommend knowing your limitations? Certainly!
Again, Day 5 brought with it another useful life lesson. Sadly it was same life lesson as the day previous: know your limits. They day began in a very relaxed manner; I went to the Art Cafe and had a nice chilled breakfast whist utilising the free wifi and uploading photos to Facebook. After an hour of idling I decided I was going to rent a moped and drive around the island and find some cool beaches. So I handed over my passport as insurance and paid the 150PHP rental fee for the bike for the day. The only bike they had left seemed a little on the meaty side and wasn’t exactly the 50cc moped I had envisaged. I looked from what was undeniable a motorbike to the 14 year old tattooed boy who was showing me how to drive it and I thought to myself if he can do it, so can I. For the whole time that I had been on this island I had seen dozens upon dozens of tourists driving around scantily clad, fag in mouth and Corona in hand. It didn’t look that difficult.
Can anybody guess how this story ends yet?
So my 14 year old best mate let me loose, but quickly had to come to my rescue when I realised I didn’t know what side of the road I was meant to drive on. I asked him to take me to the gas station, surely once I had gas and was on the right side of the road this would be a piece of cake. And so, I asked him to drive me out of the busiest part of town to which he obliged and I endeavoured once more to fulfil my cool biker chick aspirations. I would like to point out that by now I was fairly shaky and whatever confidence I had started out with had vanished completely. And I was off; somehow I managed to keep my cool and my balance for around 5 minutes. Then I approached a T junction where I waited and then pulled out with too much acceleration and perhaps a little wide of the mark and CRASH! Down went Cherry, the bike and all the cool biker chick aspirations in the world. I had come off the curb and sort of crashed, a little. But nothing was more hurt than my ego. Thankfully some really nice Filipino men came to my rescue, one driving the bike back and the other driving me back. The lady who I rented the bike from returned my passport to me along with my rental fee and everybody had a great laugh at my expense. If I wasn’t in a state of shock, perhaps I would have laughed too! Instead, I took my pathetic self to the beach where I sat for a while and collected my thoughts. Inhale…Exhale… Ever the optimist I decided that whilst half the day was gone, I was going to make the most of the rest of it. So, I found myself a safe looking tricycle driver (his name was John) and paid for safe passage to Nacpan Beach. The ride was scenic, I didn’t feel like I was going to die and I got some great photos once again. I particularly enjoyed talking to John and asking him questions about the animals, his family and the tourist culture in El Nido. I felt sad and certain that this beautiful island would soon be overrun with tan seeking tourists destroying the environment and I became quite aware I that I was also one of these awful privileged Westerners. The beach itself was stunning and I spent a few hours there relaxing and drinking luke warm lite beers. It may have cost a little more for the tricycle ride, but can you really but a price on your life? Should you visit Nacpan Beach? 100%. Should you take a tricycle there? Yes, if you can’t ride a motorbike. Should I rent a motorbike? Yes, if you can ride a motorbike.
So, the last day of exploring involved meet John at 9am and heading to Kuyawyaw Falls. It was around an hour drive but the weather was as perfect as the scenery. There were three waterfalls in total, all of which had to be reached by hiking up a mountain which was both humid and exhausting. Unsurprisingly I managed to leave my water bottle at the first waterfall when I had sat it down so that I may take pictures. This inevitably made the hike to the second waterfall all the more…exasperating. It was certainly worth it, however, and I plunged my sweaty body into the deep, cool water beneath the fall. It was here that I realised my white bikini became transparent when wet and there was quite the audience watching my accidental naked swim. The final waterfall was at least 500 steep steps but I wanted to prove to my naked self that I would do it. After a couple of breathless stops along the way we had arrived, and what a magical hidden gem this was. I felt as though I should simply admire the view but I was too hot and bothered so I stripped back down to my transparent swimwear and jumped in. Our final destination of the day was Las Cabanas Beach, I replenished myself with Pino Colada and some Calamari. I was a perfect stop to watch the sunset, and what a perfect sunset it was.