It was Christmas Eve babe, in Alona, a German said to me, let’s rent a motorbike.
Well now doesn’t that sound fun!!
We spent the morning sorting out some life admin. Having travelled with hand luggage only it was time to do some laundry, which I set out to organise as Sven settled in with a coffee to do some research for the day ahead. I returned a few moments later to a very surprised face. It turns out when I was suggesting we do laundry on our travels Sven was envisioning half a day spent in a launderette! This is far from the case, as laundry shops are extremely common everywhere I’ve been so far in Asia. You simply drop off your bag, pay a price per kilo depending on how soon you want it back and return to freshly washed, ironed and folded clothes. Voila!
Our hotel offered the option of renting a motorbike for the day, however if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have struggled to find an alternative option as there seemed to be no end to rental shops everywhere we went, as well as the regular tricycles and jeepneys. Having had a bad experience in Croatia I’m not confident on a bike, however sitting on the back is no trouble at all, and after a quick test run to check his skills (straight up a slope dodging locals, tourists, traffic etc, in flip flops…impressive!!) we hit the open road. It was a dream journey really, minimal traffic and a sedate pace on wide open roads without many potholes. Horn use is frequent in the Philippines, however it’s a friendly tap to let you know a vehicle is behind you and usually about to overtake. This happened a lot as we sauntered along at 40mph enjoying the scenery and freedom of our new wheels.
Panglao island is one of 160+ islets off of Bohol, the tenth largest island in the Philippines. It’s situated on the south west corner, and Alona beach is around 45 minutes from the capital city. Panglao itself is home to a number of notable beaches well worth visiting should you have the time, but our goal for the day was the infamous chocolate hills of Bohol. The road took us past local beaches, fishing villages, schools and several nativity scenes handcrafted from coconuts, plastic bags and bottles and other ingenious methods. We could have doubled the length of the journey if we’d stopped to photograph them all! As it was I settled for a drive by…not my best work.
After an hour of open road the bike was beginning to make both driver and passenger a little hot and bothered, when suddenly we found ourselves in the shade of tall trees and surrounded by the smell of greenery. This, it turns out, was a manmade forest consisting mainly of mahogany trees and other desired woods. There was no uniformity like the pine and rubber plantations I’d seen in Australia and Thailand, instead it felt like a natural woodland, with trees and ferns stretching all around as the road snaked up and up a mountainous hillside.
Mopeds are really not that comfortable for an extended period of time, so we were more than relived to see the multitudes of minibuses, mopeds and restaurants which signalled our first stop of the morning; the tarsier sanctuary. Tarsiers are tiny primates, no bigger than the palm of your hand, with such huge eyes and long toes they look like something from the mind of J K Rowling. They’re a protected species on Bohol, and there are two sanctuaries aimed at promoting awareness and raising money for the charity with the 10peso entrance fee (about 20 pence). Having read about these quiet, shy and nocturnal animals and the work being done to protect them I was keen to see the place for myself. However, it was a complete tourist trap and ultimately very disheartening. I’d read that if disturbed or frightened by noise or camera flashes tarsiers have a tendency to commit suicide by banging their heads against a tree, however the many workers/volunteers along the path did nothing to encourage the silence asked for by the numerous signs around the park, or police people to respect the rules on no selfie sticks or reach poles. Large groups were calling back and forth to one another on the long, narrow pathways, children were talking in 10 decibel voices as small people tend to do, and in a bid to secure the perfect photo people were doing everything they could to gain a tarsiers attention and get as close as possible to them. Whilst Sven and I tried desperately to remain quiet and removed from the hoards the place felt like it was doing more harm than good to these palm sized primates. I was glad to leave.
We left the forest and entered a world of shining rice paddies, rich greens stretching out to the horizon punctuated by the occasional stilted structure or palm tree.
We saw bananas, mango and maaaaany coconut trees growing by the side of the road as we approached the centre of the island and the Chocolate Hills. Named for their colour in the dry season, there are thought to be more than 1500 of these gentle humps in the centre of Bohol. We were very much in green season, but this didn’t make them any less impressive! You purchase an entrance ticket of 50 pesos at the base of one of the hills, where convenience stores and ATV rentals cry out for attention, but the view is so stunning I barely noticed anything else. From the bike park at the top it’s a steep 200 step climb to the summit, where you’re rewarded with 360• views of hills as far as the eye can see in every direction.
We’d timed our arrival perfectly as the top was almost deserted for the first 20 minutes or so, but over the next hour we saw bus loads of every nationality come and go, most only stopping long enough to take a selfie. It really made me reflect on how society and travelling as changed beyond recognition even in the short time I have been exploring. People are always in a rush it seems, and the only reason to travel to a sight is to take the photo which proved you were there. I know I have been guilty of this in the past, however I’ve learned to take moments to appreciate the world around me for a little longer than it takes to snap a candid. Sven and I were the only people who stayed longer than 30 minutes, perhaps even longer than 15. Though there were two German guys there quite a while posing for the perfect ‘gazing out on to the horizon’ shot. I preferred to take mine sneakily when Sven was actually naturally gazing out over the hills.
Had we had a picnic we’d have probably stayed on that hilltop all afternoon, but rumbling stomachs dictated the day and so after an hour and a half or so we descended. A group of school kids dressed in red with fur Santa hats were singing Christmas carols by the moped, which is an increasing theme so far on this trip. Whilst it’s amazing that Christmas has spread so far and wide I do wonder if maybe Father Christmas doesn’t have a summer wardrobe which may be more suitable than felt and fur in 30•+ heat!!
There were no more stops along the route (after lunch of course!), but Sven’s handy google app took us along the back roads, through tiny villages filled with people waving and wishing a merry Christmas. The scenery was so stunning that we crawled along for the most part so that Sven could enjoy it as much as me, frequently pulling over on the side of the road just to take a moment to drink it in. I’m always struck when travelling that for some people this is every day, every day spent surrounded by majestic hills, towering palm trees, waterfalls and white sandy beaches. Puts Ealing into perspective!
The sun was drawing near the horizon as we headed back to Panglao through Tangbilaran city at rush hour, with Sven snaking through the traffic like a pro. It turns out this was very much the best day we could have done this as the following day a new traffic system was implemented in the city causing absolute havoc as they introduced a one-way system. Several large puddles suggested Panglao had seen some serious rain, and the sky was filled with impressive clouds turning indigo and violet at the sun set. A little too filled with clouds it turns out as the heavens opened soon after and within seconds we were caught in the mother of all downpours! Hastily parking the bike under a tree we ran for cover, discovering ourselves in a bar run by a small family, selling the most delectably smelling roast chicken out the front. 20 minutes and 200pesos later Sven and I were tucking into perfectly cooked fresh rice, vegetables and without a doubt the best chicken I have ever tasted in my life. What an unexpected treat! It’s moments like this which affirm my love of travel and being in charge of your own routes and schedule rather than taking organised tours.
Alona Beach welcomed Christmas Day with songs, silly hats and fireworks on the beach, whilst Sven and I found ourselves up early to welcome the sun. He took himself on a 10km run, I drank coffee and took a time lapse. Each to their own!!
Having expected the world to be on holiday the 25th December was a planned beach day, and for the first time the weather was on our side. Shade rented and towels placed under a near horizontal palm tree we whiled away the hours with books, the occasional swim, strolls along the beach and snacks of fresh mango and locally produced organic ice cream from the buzz cafe. There was even a visit from Father Christmas, who strolled up the beach waving to children and adults alike in his standard red costume. Seriously Mrs Claus, buy the man some shorts!!
Fingers crossed tomorrow we’ll be starting our PADI open water certification, as long as the annoying virus which arrived yesterday continues on its merry way clearing my sinuses enough for diving. Sven has never even so much as snorkelled, so it’s a bold plan for us both ❤