A Travellerspoint blog


JEEPNEY Drives and SCUBA Dives

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.

sunny 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)

Posted by nilesh 15:05 Archived in Philippines Tagged philippines manila scuba_diving jeepney philippines_way_of_life jeepneys tagalog philippine_food scuba_diving_in_the_philippines pandan pandan_island mindoro mindoro_occidental puerto_gallera scuba_diving_in_pandan_island Comments (0)

Philippine Diary

Random Thoughts while traveling thru this beautiful Archipelago

rain 35 °C

Jeepney in Makati City - Metro Manila

Jeepney in Makati City - Metro Manila

7,107 give or take a few hundreds, is the number of islands that compose the Philippines archipelago. At high tide. I’m of the firm opinion that airlines should have a protocol amongst themselves whenever the destination is an island nation. They should agree to fly in low with the early afternoon sun shining in a cloudless sky. Passengers are then able to appreciate what lies beneath even before they land. Fortunately in the case of the flight from Bangkok to Manila this rings true and if you have a window seat you can see some of the powdery beaches and the coral reefs in the South China Sea before the urban sprawl of Metro Manila slides into view.

In India it would go by the term jugaad. However, in the Philippines, it has been turned into a form of popular that I find extremely fascinating and eye-catching. I’m talking about the Jeepney – the ubiquitous form of transport in this island nation. A first timer simply cannot help noticing them within minutes of arriving and it takes no explanation, especially to Indians, to deduce what they are for. These improvised contraptions that are basically ‘stretch jeeps’ are the most popular form of public transport and they have their origins in the tens of thousands of JEEPS that the Americans left behind after World War II. Back in 1953 or so Leonardo Sarao, a horse drawn carriage driver, started to convert them. He put a roof on the top and lengthened the back to take more passengers on each side. They proved so popular he opened a factory south of Manila, and Sarao became the first name amongst jeepneys. Although the original vehicles have long since been dumped, they continue to be put together in numerous workshops across the country in the same tradition. Nowadays the chassis, engine and running gear all come from Japanese light trucks. It's all "surplus", i.e. second hand. The bodywork and interior are from sheet steel, and just about any bits of metal that happen to be about. Once the basic structure is complete I guess the owner lets his imagination run riot while decorating it, resulting in a unique, psychedelic form of transport that defines public transport in this archipelago. Consequently no two jeepneys are alike.

Lack of direct flights from India is probably the reason why the Philippines is not a very popular holiday destination. Otherwise the fact that everybody speaks English, the American culture so blatantly visible in all the larger cities and the plethora of amazing beaches make it an ideal place to spend a week or two. Although the southern provinces of Mindanao and Sulu are Muslim majority and have an endemic insurgency that has been going on for many decades, there are plenty of other beach resorts to choose from for a holiday that can include scuba diving, snorkeling, sun-bathing or doing nothing and simply enjoying the warm hospitality of the Filipinos. The island of Cebu, an hour’s flight from Manila is so popular with Japanese and Korean tourists that restaurants catering to their food abound and there are direct flights from Hong Kong and Seoul. An hour’s fast-ferry ride from Cebu is the island of Bohol that is home to the tarsier believed to be about 45 million years old, and perhaps one of the oldest land species to continuously live in the Philippines. The Batangas province is only a couple of hours drive from Manila and home to some amazing diving and snorkeling spots as well. On the way is the hill-resort of Tagaytay from where you can take a boat and horse ride to an active volcanic crater in the middle of a huge lake. For the traveler with different preferences, the main island of Luzon also has trips to the mountainous regions to the north with the rice terraces of the Cordilleras, a world heritage site.

Being an archipelago the main mode of transport are the numerous ferries that ply between the main islands. The larger ferries have ‘roll-on roll-off’ facilities that permit vehicles. Fast ‘super ferries’ cater to the normal passengers, run smoothly, efficiently and can be accessed via clean jetties with very good passenger facilities. Due to the latent fear of terrorism security is as tight as at any airport without being bothersome. This is not to say that air connectivity is poor. A brand new domestic airport caters to the air traveler and connects Manila with all the major cities. Low cost airlines like Cebu-Pacific and internet access with e-ticketing also mean that the shoe-string budget traveler is not discouraged.

Tagalog, the most popular of Filipino dialect is full of iterative words. Halo-halo is a popular dessert that is a mixture of shaved ice and milk to which are added various boiled sweet beans and fruits, and served cold in a tall glass or bowl. Lapu-Lapu is a popular grouper fish delicacy, is generally fried and served with rice. Ilo-Ilo and Tawi-Tawi are names of places, the former being a popular domestic tourist destination while the latter is a no-go area for tourists being the happy hunting grounds of the Islamist Abu Sayaf Group.

Filipino street food is not for the faint hearted. One of the most popular delicacies is balut - a fertilized duck egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell. Popularly believed to be an aphrodisiac and considered a high-protein, hearty snack, balut are mostly sold by street vendors at night and often served with beer. For the not so adventurous foodie, head to Sea Food Wharf overlooking the Manila Bay. There is an enormous variety of live sea-food that you can pick and choose and have it cooked your way. I was pleasantly surprised to see ‘bibinka’ on the dessert menu and realized that it must have come here via the same route that it came to Goa – the Spanish/Portuguese connection. Although it’s much lighter in colour and not as rich as our Goan variety, it’s a great way to finish a delicious meal.

Intramuros, located along the southern bank of the Pasig River, was built by the Spaniards in the 16th century and is the oldest district of the city of Manila. Its name, taken from the Latin, intra muros, literally "Within the walls", meaning within the wall enclosure of the city/fortress, also describes its structure as it is surrounded by thick, high walls and moats. Golfers must play a round at the Intramuros Golf Club. It’s a tight course with plenty of water built around the ramparts of the fort. A bad round can always be blamed on the fact that one is not used to petite female caddies!

Posted by nilesh 22:48 Archived in Philippines Tagged ferries philippines manila ferry intramuros business_travel random_thoughts_on_philippines fun_in_philippines philippines_way_of_life life_in_the_philippines jeepneys tagalog halo_halo philippine_food Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]