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Tag Archives: Philippines

Christmas in Bohol – chocolate hills and tarsiers

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 ❤

Island time – Legazpi, Cebu and Bohol

Our flight to Cebu was a perfect example of island time. Scheduled originally for 18.30, we received an email at 7am to say it would now leave at 15.30, but on arrival at the tiny airport an hour early as instructed and passing through the 5 minute security check during which we didn’t need to show anyone our liquids or provide any more information than ‘web check in’ we eventually boarded the plane some time after 16.30 and spent some time on the tarmac waiting for the game of overhead locker tetris to finish. It must have been gone 17.00 by the time we were in the air…Island time 😉

As we took off the cabin crew asked a series of Christmas quiz questions…Where was mum kissing Santa Claus? And on what day? What did my true love give me on the 5th day of Christmas? So far the attitude to Christmas here has been excellent! A trend continued when we reached Cebu, who had decked out arrivals in festive ukuleles, baubles and lights complete with carol singers!

Outside Cebu airport we had our first confusion…the white taxi line or the yellow. White taxi’s were cheapest, but there were so many people waiting it seemed we’d be spending Christmas at the airport, so we joined the far shorter yellow line and stood for almost an hour slowly watching those who had been just behind us in the white line edging ever closer and eventually securing a cab. Some 20 minutes after we’d have been in a white car the third yellow car arrived (that’s right, third!) and we were off. Tortoise: 1, Hare: 0.

London at rush hour has nothing on traffic out of Cebu airport on the Friday before Christmas. The airport is on an island, with two bridges on and off, both of which were at total grid lock. I was so envious of the mopeds zipping in and out of the lines of cars, jeepneys and tuk tuks. But at the same time it was nice to enjoy the aircon whilst watching the street vendors and general hustle and bustle as we crawled along. The first treat was definitely the number of Christmas lights, trees and general decorations on every corner. From Santa and running reindeer in white lights as you exit the airport to stars, snowmen and everything in between, the effort was set to rival regent street!

Our home for the night was The Tropical Hostel…that extra s is always a risk and alas on this occasion our horse did not come through as we were directed to a windowless room with rickety bunk beds…an apparent upgrade from the room we’d booked! At least it was only for 10 hours!! Before we set out from the UK Sven had discovered google travel, a seriously handy system which allows you to download a map of your location and save various points of interest to it for use on airplane mode later. This meant we could save the location of the hotel, and the various eateries etc our host had pointed out to us when we checked in. I’d previously stuck with TripAdvisor which offers all the same features but on a far more limited number of cities. Google had allowed us use even in tiny Legazpi and the surrounding towns, and was super useful in Cebu where we walked the 20 minutes in search of something to eat that wasn’t from a 7/11. Great Christmas decorations on the way…

The place we’d been sent was a mall, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in Asia before. Lights hung from every tree changing colour in sequence with songs played periodically around the complex. Outside the square were primarily eateries offering everything from sushi to Thai food and burgers to ice cream, but inside was every shop you can possibly imagine…including marks and spencer! What was going on?!

The following morning we were greeted by a very welcome sight as the sun flooded onto the balcony at the end of our corridor. Sven had woken up on the energetic side of the bed, and thought walking to the port was an excellent idea. Usually I’m all for walking to see a city, but not with an 8kilo backpack at 28degrees pre-breakfast. By the time we arrived at the ticket booth we were DRENCHED, and beyond glad to see a very air-conned coffee shop adjacent to the booth. The first boat was in an hour and a half, so we had a plan…get the tickets, get a coffee, get to the boat, done. Not so easy when a typhoon prevented all the boats yesterday from sailing. Our first option was the penultimate boat of the day, in 9 hours. But not to worry, there’s a luggage store at the boat! Fab! Plan b…have coffee, drop off luggage, explore Cebu city. Having not learned our lesson the first time we walked a further sweltering 20 minutes to terminal 3 and found chaos. Buses, jeepneys, tuk tuks and taxis were coming and going and hundreds of people either stood, sat or meandered around seemingly without purpose. What was the drill?! Perhaps there was ordinarily a luggage store (skeptical), but today the port was on a strict departure schedule, if your boat wasn’t leaving within the hour…sianara! Looks like our bags were joining the Cebu tour. Yay!

Luckily one of the main tourist attraction was a meer hop, skip and three minutes walk away. Fort San Pedro was built by the Spanish under the leadership of Miguel Legazpi (fitting!!), having served as a base camp, rebel stronghold, prison and city zoo the ruin is now open to the public offering history and much needed shade! There was also an photographic exhibition of historic Cebu, with both the original captions from any published photos and an actual definition of what the photo depicted. This was to show the power of cropping, editing and voice even back in the 1800’s! One example showed people waiting outside a large building, captioned that they were homeless and waiting for food. However in truth it was Sunday and they were waiting to enter church!

We spent the next few hours wondering around Cebu city, a crowded, noisy and eclectic city far removed from the mall we had visited yesterday. Street vendors lined every pavements selling clothing, watches, phone cases, shoes, fruits and vegetables and everything in between whilst the roads were filled with a diverse range of traffic…men sat atop trucks filled with rubble, rice sacks, coffee, rubbish and other cargos I couldn’t determine…mopeds weaved in and out of tricycles (they’re not the same as tuk tuks, I was calling them the wrong word!), taxis and jeepneys and in the midst of it all there were several horse and cart combos ferrying smaller goods and people. Knowing which way to look before crossing the road was a challenge!!

Cebu is the sort of city where everything seems to happen at once. Behind us in the picture above there was a bicycle shop, with workers lined up on the pavement outside fixing wheels, chains, frames and handlebars. Next to this was a general store selling packets of noodles, instant coffee and other treats, next again an Internet cafe of sorts and behind that a chicken shop. Chickens seemed to roam free or be tied by the foot on every corner, whilst dogs lounged in the sun or trotted along the paths quite at home.

Our next stop was Carbon market en route back to the port. Much the same as Camden really! Or Portobello Road, you can find everything and anything a chap can unload! From woks as big as an arm chair to all the daily stuff you could need. Here we acquired a shadow by the name Amelie who skipped along beside us for a few minutes chatting away in near perfect English and finding my attempts at Filipino hilarious. I always worry with little shadows that they follow us too long, far beyond the boundaries British children would be allowed to roam in a place this crowded. But perhaps that says more about our society than theirs, where communities still work together with far more harmony and neighbourlyness than I have ever seen at home. Or on the other hand perhaps they don’t have anyone to worry where the wander, but Amelie was well dressed with adorably bobbed hair and good shoes, something tells me she wasn’t a street kid.

Before long it was time to return to the port and join the craziness mascarading as organised chaos. Firstly you have to wait for check in to open for your particular boat, at that point the first security guards on the door will allow you entry into the building. From there you battle through the crowds to the desk relevant to your booking company…in our case Ocean Jet. Ticket stamped you then go through security, joining lines segregated by gender (though the first sign for this is after the point the line has split…that was fun!) where men are asked to pass bags through x ray machines and walk through scanners whilst women stroll through a gate with a smiling security guard. Foolproof. From there you high five Father Christmas and join the next queue to pay your 20peso port fee. From here the throng becomes single file. Imagine the chaos of the motorway going down to one lane, then times that by a few hundred people, many of whom are from cultures who do not value queuing. I have always travelled alone, and in these situations am happy to be carried along by the crowd at whatever pace is occurring around me, but here I learned that super-weapons can come in the form of tall Germans! It was like Moses parting the Red Sea, blooming marvellous!! Also impossible to lose him in the crowd, huzzah.

The sun was putting on a stunning final display of red and gold by the time we boarded, ahead of those still waiting for the 3.30 departure, poor sods. We’d opted to pay the extra £2 for airconned seats, and so found ourselves herded into the hull of the ship where there were no windows and a huge group of Chinese tourists. Thank goodness the trip was only due to last an hour. I did think it a bit odd that shortly into the trip a full length feature film started to play on the large television at the front, but didn’t think too much of it until the credits started rolling two hours later. We’ll call that an island hour then shall we?

Having been told several times to catch a tricycle from the airport at no more than 250pesos we exited the terminal and found ourselves in a 600peso mini bus. Ah well! The seats were comfy and drivers fun as we zoomed along roads lined with Christmas lights to our home for the next six nights; Alona Beach. After the craziness of Cebu this was pure paradise, and moments after checking in Sven and I were sat star gazing with our toes in the surf, astounded by the lack of people around us. The next week is going to be great!!