Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Philippines

           Since we had all seen the main Southeast Asian countries on the backpacker circuit, we decided on the Philippines for the rest of our trip.  Being slightly off the beaten path, and also being a bunch of islands, travel around there is not easy.  There is not as much tourism information because there are not so many tourists.  Where do you stay when HostelWorld and Lonely Planet don’t give you much??

            We made our first stop the island of Bohol, a jungle-y island about as far south as tourism is advised and home of the Chocolate Hills as well as the tiny tarsier creatures.  We stayed at the only place we heard of, Nuts Huts, which was a 20 minute walk down a muddy path that cars cannot take.  The very modest huts are situated on a river with a steep tropical hillside opposite that.  Dinner cruises with karaoke floated down the river filling the canyon with music.  We took a public bus on a 1 hour trip towards the center of the island, where there is viewing for the Chocolate Hills.  The Chocolate Hills are a wonder of the world, a bunch of steep tall mounds, which stick out of the jungle vegetation showing their brown (chocolate) color. 
There are many local tourists in the Philippines.  Also, it stood out so much that the Filipinos around us, tourists, taxi drivers, merchants, even in this more remote location, mostly spoke English.  You would never hear their Thai or Vietnamese counterparts speaking English like that.  You cannot assume that you can speak unreservedly in front of bus drivers and solicitors, as we all are guilty of doing, because even they might know English. 
With time and flight restraints, our next goal was to get to Boracay, the tiny island known for its white sand and tropical blue water, as well as a rapidly developing tourism industry.  But first we took a ferry to Cebu, whose airport has much cheaper flights.  So we spent just one day in Cebu City as necessary.  We tried to keep ourselves busy here but this was a strange place to be a tourist.  We saw the fort of where Magellan(??) first landed, then tried to walk around the local market.  The downtown area was crowded and stinky and filled with poverty- 3 white girls walking around was a bit unusual I think.  The place we stayed had strange old expat man and had a strange history of being a whorehouse where there was a massive shooting, stories we picked up while eating there.  Nonetheless, we were lucky to see the real side of a big and less traveled city.
Although it has been referred to as the Phuket of the Philippines, we found Boracay to be a baby version of Phuket.  The beaches were all they were made out to be (oh yes they were gorgeous!), but as experts on Phuket, well, Boracay couldn’t compare to the crowds and nightlife!  Due to its small size, lack of huge crowds of young backpackers and old expats, we were shocked at how quiet it seemed at night, with only one club where people gathered.  This is actually a good quality about Boracay as it is relatively unspoiled.  Everything is right on the beach and you don’t need to go far.  However, the food was all painfully expensive!  My 2 closest friends from Phuket and I spent out last days together relaxing and having fun in Boracay.
We said our sad goodbyes and parted ways in Manila.  My flight was 2 days after theirs but I was lucky enough that my mom’s coworker was in Manila visiting her family and they extended their home and excellent hospitality to me.  This was a definite highlight for me to be with a family.  Joanne and I visited a couple places in Manila and she took me to try some Halo Halo, a traditional Filipino dessert.  Literally meaning something like “a little bit of everything”, Halo Halo is a bowl with crushed ice, a scoop of sweet yam ice cream, beans, corn, jello, flan, bananas, rice crispies, and more.  Mix it all together and it’s yummy fun.  I even got Joanne to join me at a Bikram class in Manila.  I met Joanne’s brothers and sisters and their kids who were all so kind and lovely.  We ate meals together and even rented a private karaoke room, something I had heard was so popular with Filipinos and I got to be a part of it!  Of course they made me sing even though I have an awful voice but they sang with me and it’s a casual environment, sitting on a couch to sing, eating snacks, having drinks, and another room with games like pool, ping pong, darts, and foosball.  The highlight must have been when Joanne’s 5-year-old nephew got the high score on karaoke singing Happy Birthday to me! What a beautiful family she has there and how lucky I was to have them invite me there to finish my trip.

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