Sunday, January 10, 2010

Palawan

Because Coron is a small island north of the main island of Palawan (Coron is still part of the state of Palawan though) it was necessary to arrange transport over there. It was has to be one of the most disappointingly obvious tourist traps in the country and by far the most expensive... The transport situation out of Coron is terrible. There is a once weekly ferry service to Puerto Princessa (the capital of Palawan) which didn't fit into our schedule, and the one airline that flies the short hops around the state has currently suspended its flights in the area. Thus we were left with a daily bangka boat service, run by one of the resorts if I'm not mistaken.
The problem with this boat is that it is ridiculously overpriced. Foreigners are charged more, but even the local price is still insane. It's more expensive than flying and double the price of the much longer weekly ferry service to farther away. The boat is slightly larger than one of the small dive boats, and with very little protection from the elements. We were lucky to have a beautiful day, but sitting around squished together for 8 hours is terrible and I would hate to do it on a day of rough water... It is a good thing that I'm used to long journeys (I am a little out of practice though lately) but being on the tourist mobile (Flager and one other lady were the only Filipino passengers) when you haven't seen a westerner in months was kind of weird and annoying, because I wasn't really one of them. There are definitely 2 kinds of foreigners in the Philippines. The small group of tourists that come over, and the rather large group of expats, most of whom are in mixed relationships with the locals. I sort of fall into the second group by default as I was travelling with a local, didn't have a shiny new backpack, nor was I looking at a Lonely Planet. In fact, I have no travel guide for this country at the moment and in this case Flager was more or less the guide and leader. We'd worked out what we wanted to do, but she did the major info gathering and conversation work. It was a total role reversal for me to be the tag along, but she did a great job and I have no complaints. It was weird to look at all the other backpackers and I have to admit to being jealous. I would much rather be a traveller than an expat. I just feel the need to move.
So after saying bye to Ida, and after a long 8 hours, we arrived at El Nido, on the northern tip of the long skinny main island of Palawan. Apparently any tourist visiting Palawan has to make the trip up to El Nido, because it is the most popular hangout spot because of its relaxed atmosphere and beaches. Um.... Where were the beaches? El Nido is a small fishing village lying around a naturally protected harbour and sports a small unimpressive beach. The beach area is now lined with small, simple guesthouses and low-key restaurants. It's a place to come and relax and eat your dinner while the tide comes in right under your table and gets your feet wet rather than party. What you are supposed to do from El Nido is either hire a boat to take you island hopping for the day (that's where the real beaches are I guess) or get on a bike and explore. There are caves and other interesting natural points in the area. Or so I'm told. We arrived in the late afternoon, checked into the cheapest place we could find quickly, ran around figuring out or transport options and taking a few pictures and went to bed. The next morning at 7am we were in a minibus speeding away to Puerto Princessa.
The ride was much shorter than expected, only taking us 4 hours instead of 6 or 7 as I'd heard it should take. Flager had a college friend, Jinna, from Puerto, and she'd made plans for us to stay with Jinna back when we'd first started planning the trip. Unfortunately, we'd had difficulty for a week or so in actually contacting her and this continued while we were in the bus station. As I've done so many times in so many bus stations around the world, we made a snap decision to alter our schedule slightly and jumped on the next jeepney to Sabang. I'd read that the ride to Sabang was hell, and when I saw the jeepney I started to get a little excited for a rough ride. This jeepney, in addition to being totally loaded inside and on the top, had the biggest snorkel I've seen and no windshield. A quick look inside the driver's seat also revealed a complete lack of instrument gauges on the dashboard. Nice... I was originally thinking I wanted to be on the top for the 3 hour, 70km ride (and I still think that it's the best option if you want a view and to take photos of some of the great scenery) but Flager did even better and talked us into the front seat :) The front seat was kind of like sitting on the top though, as there were no windows so you got the full effect of the wind coming at you. The view wasn't as good from below I guess, especially with a guy sitting on the hood in front of you for part of the journey!
At this point I must say that I was sorely disappointed but pleasantly surprised. It seems that the info on Palawan is horribly outdated in a lot of the travel forums I've been using or the tourists that go to Palawan are retarded because I heard so many complaints about the transport in the state and yet, the roads are almost all smooth and new. The road to Sabang has obviously just been redone, except for a few small sections, but it's not like super new that the info should be so wrong, and the road to El Nido, far from being bad, is for sure unpaved for ~30% of the way at the El Nido end, but is a smooth unpaved road. Maybe Westerners really are wimpy like they say in the rest of the world...
Sabang is even smaller than El Nido and since it was early evening on New Year's Eve, we decided to have a long nap before waking for midnight. Not that we could really sleep much with everyone (and probably the pet dogs too) lighting firecrackers all day long. Sabang is much too small to have any sort of organized display, but the residents sure put on their own show anyway. Not that you could tell when midnight hit, they just kept it up at a furious pace all day and night.
Why were we in Sabang anyway? Well, because it is the gateway to the Underground River, one of the most popular attractions in the country and currently a finalist in the global competition for the new 7 natural wonders. Sabang itself is just a small fishing village with a lot of much nicer beaches than we saw in El Nido converted into a tourist spot. Most tourist visit as a day trip from Puerto so it's not overly developed, but unfortunately (and Flager will agree with me on this as she first pointed it out) the most of the local residents seem to be indifferent at best or downright rude. Very unFilipino, but ultimately not terribly surprising. Maybe they were all hungover and grumpy....
Ok, so the UG river is the longest navigable underground river in the world, as it is possible to take a small boat up the river for just over half of its underground length of 8.2km. It basically runs underneath a limestone mountain and pops out before flowing into the sea. The river is the centerpiece of the national park which also includes jungle walks and various protected wildlife. You must either take a bangka boat, or walk along a jungle trail for 5km to get to the entrance to the cave and go up the river. We ended up taking the boat there and walked back, a very pleasant walk with some very nice empty beaches along the way that the trail pops out on.
I'd heard recently from a handful of other visitors that they were disappointed by the experience on the river but I actually enjoyed it more than I expected. The normal tour takes about half an hour I guess and takes you 1.5km into the cave. You sit in a little row boat that can carry 8 people I think. The guide sits at the back and slowly paddles you along while the guy in the front is given a small spotlight hooked up to a car battery for power. That is the only source of light in the cave. All the advertisement photos for the river tour show the cave as it would be if fully lit up so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is completely dark inside. Flager and I were lucky because we were the only people in the boat, and we were the only boat in the cave for most of our ride. Thus I had the only source of light and it was very quiet with only the soft swish of the paddle interrupting the continuous clicking sound coming from all the swallows flying inside. They are the birds that you get bird's nest soup from and seem to use a type of echolocation like the 8 species of bats also present in the cave but one that we can hear. There are the usual cave formations and some very large chambers with the ceiling overhead as much as 65m above you at some points. Very atmospheric and I enjoyed the ride. The following morning we did a short hike in the opposite direction from the village along the shore to see a small waterfall before returning to Puerto Princessa by jeepney.
Ammon

2 Comments:

At 10:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

 
At 3:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ammon,
You're alive!!!!! Happy New Year!!!
As always I've enjoyed your blog. I just finished Michael Palin's Around the World in 80 Days DVD, and now going through Pole to Pole. I think that North Americans are brash and often rude, and definitely we whine alot.
I think we are just so used to living the soft life that any and all discomforts are poorly tolerated. Not to mention I am a complete chicken, I hate taking risks....well okay so mabe not, but hey the risks I get were not the same as travelling. One of the Nurses here always goes to some place isolated so she can avoid the tourist, she says they can ruin a trip with all the complaints, and comparisons to "home".
New years eve sounded noisy? You being a Watkins must have got your hands on some explosive type things to blow off, didn't you?
I imagine you are back to work, of course the question is for how long?
Take care Ammon, and keep the writing up.

Bear Hugs
The Bear

 

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