Ever since I started traveling to the Philippines on business the islands and people have held a special place in my heart. On one business trip I took the weekend off to travel by bus, jeepney, ferry and then jeepney again to the island of Pandan.
10.04.2007 - 14.04.2007 35 °C
7,107. That’s the number of islands that form the Philippine archipelago - at high tide. With so many of them it is hardly surprising that this country has some of the most fascinating beaches, island retreats, coral reefs and dive spots in the world and if it’s not obvious, it becomes so quietly clearly as the plane descends towards Manila’s NINOY AQUINO International Airport. I often travel to the country on work, always ask for a window seat and eagerly await the last 30 minutes of the flight hoping for a sunny cloudless sky. What I’m looking for is the visual delight of gazing at some of these outlying islands with their green forest cover, fringed at places with thin slivers of powdery white beaches and the clear blue-green waters of the South China Sea. I have often looked at the small fishing villages that border these islands and envied their luck at having the good fortune of living near such an abundance of nature’s bounty.
The urban chaos that is Metro Manila quickly becomes obvious as soon as your taxi drives out of the terminal. Amongst the hundreds of cars jostling for space on the roads you cannot help but notice a colorful contraption. In India it would go by the term jugaad. However, in this country, it has been turned into a form of popular art that I find extremely fascinating. It takes no explanation, especially to Indians, to deduce what they are for. I’m talking about the Jeepney – the ubiquitous form of public transport in this island nation.
Jeepneys are a way of life, practically everywhere in the Philippines. Although they are mostly found in the larger cities and towns as a means of public transport they also ply from town to town in the ‘provinces’ as rural Philippines is popularly referred to. Although it might appear daunting at first, once you are used to it they become an indispensable and cheap method to move around the country. Destinations are displayed by boards on the windscreen and if you are in doubt you can simply ask. The driver does everything, they go from anywhere to everywhere, stop anywhere to drop and pick passengers and invariably come with a small plastic trash can with the swiveling lid fixed to the floor. Practically everybody speaks good English – a remnant of the American days – and is always willing to help you get around. For fares you simply pay the driver during or after the journey. If you’re right at the back, simply hand over the money to your fellow passenger who will pass it on until it reaches the driver. After a while loose change, if any, does the return journey. Multi-tasking is the key-word for the driver who keeps the currency notes between fingers in his left hand and a plastic box with change riveted to the dash-board. In between navigating the chaotic traffic and roads he will find time to register your destination, take your fare, calculate the change and hand it over back to you. Psychedelically decorated as per the owner’s fancy and named “John Carlos, JESUS, Jason, JOMER, JOSH” or whatever, no two Jeepneys are alike. The answer to the question “How many passengers does a Jeepney sit?” is “One more”! I find them a unique form of popular art akin to the graffiti that you find on walls in New York and London. I cannot think of a parallel in our country.
Although Metro Manila has a throbbing night-life and offers all sorts of entertainment and restaurants especially in the central business district of Makati City, you should take the opportunity to get out of the city preferably over a weekend and enjoy the delights that the provinces have to offer. Hiring a private car is not very expensive if you’re not up to the rigors of public transport and there are destinations galore of all kinds just a few hours drive from Manila. You can visit the hill-town of Tagaytay (ta–gai–tai) with its lake within a volcano crater within another lake and another smaller volcano crater. From there you can carry on towards the coastal province of Batangas at the southern most tip of Luzon – the largest island in the country. If you’re heading out on a Saturday morning it is advisable to start as early as possible. By late morning the south Luzon Expressway is crawling with cars and busses and the 100 km journey to Batangas city can take up to 4 hours.
If you don’t have much time the Batangas province is the best place to find some great dive spots – both for snorkeling and for serious SCUBA diving. Dive Solana and Eagle Point Resort are highly recommended though I have personally only stayed at Eagle Point twice and would rate it as an excellent place. If you have more time and, most importantly, the inclination then the neighboring island of Mindoro across the Verde Island Passage is also another option. The pier in Batangas city is where the ferries for Mindoro depart and although a bit chaotic it’s possible to get a ticket at short notice on any of the ferries leaving for the one of the ports in the Puerto Galera area.
The resorts in and around Puerto Galera are very popular and on weekends the beaches and the hotels just behind them can be packed with people from Manila out to have a good time. However, the water and the beaches are picturesque and amazingly clean even though at all the beaches the resorts have packed themselves with little or no elbow room and with very little space between the high water mark and buildings. The locals seem to take it seriously to keep the waters clean and pristine and the local geography of the coastline is extremely pretty with white beaches, numerous coves and lagoons, and high mountains with an abundance of greenery disappearing into clouds immediately behind the beaches. Lonely Planet recommends Coco Beach Resort as “Author’s Choice” as a place to stay in this area and when I passed by it on a boat ride, it appeared to be more up-market than the rest of the places at Muelle Pier or at White Beach. The resort consists of accommodation in large thatched huts built on the slopes of the hill as it merges with a thin sliver of white beach.
During my last trip in April since I had a long weekend to kill, I decided to take the Jeepney, bus, ferry and then again bus combination to go further south of Mindoro. I had read that a French couple run a private resort on Pandan Island and nearby are some of the best coral reefs in the region. Since I was finding my way around it was late at night by the time I reached the coastal town of Sablayan from where I was lucky to get resort’s last service to the island. It was a moon-less night and during the 20-minute ride by ‘flat-boat’ I could see phosphorus plankton jump out as the outriggers sliced through the water on both sides of the boat.
Pandan brands itself not a luxury resort but as “a place for people who like to spend time in tropical surroundings without cars and television. A place where you are woken up by the singing of colorful birds, where there is only a palm tree between you and the sea and where you may even meet a sea turtle before breakfast.” Most of the island is still covered with primeval forest with two secluded beaches. The resort consists of sixteen clean and simple bungalows, a restaurant, a beach bar and a dive center. The bungalows are all built from native material and care has been taken to create a simple yet comfortable atmosphere. True to style there is no electricity, no fans or air conditioning nor any running fresh water. Except for the dive center all lights are powered by solar panel and fresh water is ferried from Mindoro. Each bathroom has a big barrel of fresh water with a ladle that you can use to clean yourself after a salt-water shower. All the bungalows are elevated and the cleverly designed bamboo floor has gaps that ensure that the floor remains clean even if you walk in with sandy feet. There is a large verandah with a hammock and as soon as you step down from it, you can literally dive into the cool waters of the South China Sea. Around the bungalow and on the beach you can find shells and corals of all shapes and sizes. It’s better to enjoy them as they are and not pick them up to bring home. The bar is well stocked and Sonny, the bar tender has his own recipe of local cocktails in addition to plenty of chilled beer and other drinks. The restaurant serves a blend of Filipino and European cuisine. Tess, the chief cook, combines local dishes and exotic ingredients with European recipes to offer a varied dining experience. Fish often comes directly from the local fisherman on the way home from their fishing trips.
Having snorkeled a couple of times earlier in the Batangas, I decided to upgrade to SCUBA diving at Pandan. The resort’s dive school offers an hour’s “INTRO” dive for about $50 and for another $40 also offers to film it for you. Initially I had some reservations about how much different could it be from snorkeling and whether it was worth it, but once I got the hang of it and learnt to stay down comfortably, I knew how wrong I had been.
The first few minutes were spent getting to know the basics – how to breathe only thru the mouth, what to do if retrieve the mouthpiece if it slips out, negating the pressure on your eardrums and keeping water out of mask. Then began the magical journey or a prolonged stay under water in a totally different environment – the feeling of zero gravity, the ability to twist and turn “mid-air” and be surrounded by the wonders of the deep rather than just look down at them as happens during snorkeling. The high-point of my maiden dive was, of course, swimming in the company of a group of fairly large sea turtles as some of them fed calmly on the sea grass and let scavenger fish clean their shells and underbellies. But that was not to deny the sheer joy of trying to catch little colorful clown fish as they stayed out of reach and hid amongst sea-sponges only to emerge as soon as you withdrew your hand, swimming warily around a large lion-fish as it guarded its den and admiring the seemingly inanimate coral in its myriad colors, shapes and sizes. Sunlight filtering through the surface to the shallow sea-bed made ever changing patterns and added to the surrealism of the experience.
I did not have time to take the day trip to Apo Reef, about an hour’s boat ride from Pandan. Reputed to be amongst the best coral reefs in the region, the resort offers day long dive trips to it leaving early in the morning and returning by late afternoon. For a die-hard and seasoned diver, there are “Live-Aboards”. As the name suggests you live aboard a ship that takes you from place to place and you spend your time diving at different places. Check out the website given the Facts box.
With thousands of islands there are literally thousands of holiday opportunities. Frequent flights and ferries offer great connectivity to most of the attractions. And surprisingly the facilities at the airports and ferry terminals far exceed your expectation of a country that is supposedly lower on the economic scale than our own. During a trip to Cebu I had the opportunity of taking the ‘Jet-Cat’ to the island of Bohol and the chance to see the Philippine TARSIER and the unique geographical phenomenon locally called “Chocolate Hills” Having experienced the wonders that some of these islands have to offer, it is my unrealistic ambition to spend my final days attempting to visit each of the 7,107.
Facts for the Traveler
There no direct flights to the Philippines from India. Thai, Singapore, Malaysian and Cathay Pacific airlines fly to Manila via their respective hubs.
A valid visa is required for entry and can be obtained at the Philippine Embassy in New Delhi (http://www.newdelhipe.com/) or any of their Consulates in Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata.
Eaglepoint, Mabini, Batangas Province - http://www.eaglepoint.com.ph/
Phones - +63.2.813-3553 or 813-3560 Mobile +63 (0) 917-8544944
Dive Solana, Mabini, Batangas Province - http://www.divesolana.com/
Phones +63.2.8485788 or Mobile +63.917.300.1086
Coco Beach, Puerto Galera - http://www.cocobeach.com/main.shtml
Local Car Hire Companies in Manila – JB Rent a Car +63.2.526.6288, KEI Transport - +63.2.524.6834
Pandan Island, Mindoro - http://www.pandan.com/index.php
Phones – Resort - +63 (0) 9193057821, Manila - +63.2.523.7007 / 525
To get to Pandan Island by air – www.asianspirit.com – from Manila to San Jose and then the resort will pick you up by van. By private seaplane contact http://www.seaplane-philippines.com/
To get to Pandan Island by bus and ferry – get to Batangas pier by bus from Manila and then take the ferry to Abra de Ilog. Check timings with the shipping company +63 (0) 43 7238243. Note that there is no road to Abra de Ilog from the various piers near Puerto Galera. From Abra de Ilog, take one of the air conditioned vans that go direct to Sablayan. You have to be fast to get off the ferry as the vans fill up quite quickly.
Diving in the Philippines - http://www.divephil.com/
Tourism in the Philippines - www.philtourism.com, www.tourism.gov.ph, http://www.happymanila.com/
Jeepney Enthusiasts – For those of you who have either known about the Jeepney and/or have been enthused by the description, here are some websites
http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/748d2/ (A Jeepney enthusiast’s webpage describing everything you ever wanted to know about a Jeepney – and then some. Recommended Reading)