Today, I didn’t have to wake up that early. My Cebu Pacific flight to Palawan was at 11am, so I took it fairly easy after yesterday’s tiring tour of Bohol. Once I got ready, I checked out of Sugbutel and the staff hailed a taxi for me to go to Cebu airport (cost ₱183).
Though there was a bit of traffic (being office hours), I got to the airport by 9am and checked in. My flight was on time and I got a window seat again.
Even though I didn’t have a reservation anywhere, I did make a list of a few good hostels or budget accommodation, referred to as ‘pension inns’ here in the Philippines. I hired a tricycle taxi and asked him to take me to Duchess Pension first – one of the most recommended budget hotels in Puerto Princesa.
When I got to Duchess Pension, it was full. So yeah, it’s popularity is true. I then asked the driver to take me to my second choice, Banwa Arthouse, which wasn’t too far from Duchess. When I got to Banwa, fortunately, a bunk bed was available.
I paid the trike driver ₱50 (because that’s how much he charged) and I checked in.
Tonight at the Baybay, there was going to be an event with stage performances, food stalls and such. I guess I knew where to come for dinner.
I glanced at the menu and despite the restaurant’s appearance, there was nothing out of the ordinary available. Even the seafood options were limited. It was nearing 3pm, I didn’t feel like walking anymore. So I ordered just a seafood pasta and a beer.
Bad! In fact, it was the worst I’ve ever eaten! Not to a point where it was sickening, but just plain bad for the ₱130 they charged for this. The sauce was straight out of a can, the bread didn’t have a hint of garlic or wasn’t even toasted – it was just plain sliced bread! The prawns were surely packaged, frozen ones and I could barely identify the other seafood used in the dish. Ugh, I still ate it as I was hungry and I didn’t want to pay double for this rubbish!
If this is the quality of food served at this restaurant, then it’s no wonder patrons leave leftovers on their plate! Avoid, avoid, avoid!
It looked like Puerto Princesa had very little to offer within its city limits. I asked the driver if there was anything remotely interesting and he said “church”. Sigh.
That was it. I was officially bored.
I walked back to Banwa Arthouse, and went to the cafe to do some research. It was so hot even though there was a fan on. Well, on and off. Electricity kept going and coming, along with the internet.
My original plan was never to stay in Puerto Princesa. My hope was to land in Puerto Princesa and head straight to El Nido, which is at the northern end of Palawan. Unfortunately I had just missed the last private van going to El Nido as its a 5-6 hour journey by road. Another place on the agenda was the region of Sambang, famous for its Underground River.
As I sat at my table, a Polish guy came over and we began talking. Turned out, he too was planning to head to El Nido but had to be back in Puerto Princesa the day after to catch his flight in the evening. We decided we’d go to El Nido together and share expenses for accommodation.
“Great!” I thought, but two Swedish girls across from us joined in on our conversations and told us they had just gotten back from spending a few days in El Nido. They showed us their photos, we shared our plans and my intention of going to Sambang, and after hearing our experiences, the Polish guy and I decided it was best we go our separate ways. I decided to go to Sambang first thing in the morning and after doing the underground river tour, spend the night on the beach. Wake up the next day and then head to El Nido from Sambang, since Sambang is before El Nido.
But when I went to inform the staff that I would be checking out tomorrow morning because of my intention to head to Sambang, he told me my plan may not go as smoothly as I hope. He told me it’s because there’s a crucial junction along the way from where one has to take a left to go to Sambang. From that junction, Sambang beach is still a fair distance. Problem is, if I need to get to El Nido, I have to head back to very that junction to catch a bus going to El Nido. He also warned me saying that the buses are not that frequent given the distance. (Palawan is big island, but it’s sparsely populated)
All of this was confusing and at the same time, I didn’t want to risk – or waste time – in case I didn’t get the bus from that junction. The staff advised it’s easier to just do the Underground River tour from Puerto Princesa itself. He may have pushed for it so that I stay another night and book a tour through him, but alas, I couldn’t afford to take any chances.
So book a Sambang tour for tomorrow I did.
By the time I decided what to do, the Swedes, the Polish guy and a Palawan native who was staying at the Banwa Arthouse asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. The local said he knew of a good restaurant and assured me their seafood was good. So in two tricycle taxis, off we went to a place called Kalui.
Dinner was pleasant, and we each spoke about where all we had traveled and our stories. It’s moments like this why I especially love backpacking — meeting other travellers and sharing our experiences!
Once back in the hostel, it was another early good night from me and another early wake up tomorrow!
Planning a trip to the Philippines began with the most unlikeliest of inspirations — an e-mail forward from my father. Not even a good official one, but one of those e-mails that had numerous ‘fwd: FW: Fwd:’ before the actual subject line of ‘can you believe Philippines has such beauty?!’ followed by numerous exclamation marks.
I usually disregard the images I find in such e-mails as they’re usually not from the country they claim to be but upon checking up some of the names of the places they showcased, I was quite surprised about how little I knew of their existence!
It dawned to me I knew very little about Philippines, this despite having grown up in the Middle East where (just like Indians) millions of them come to work. As a kid, all I knew about Filipinos is that a lot of them work in fast food joints or play in a band — and they don’t have the letter ‘F’ in their vocabulary. So I would often hear “500 pils” instead of “500 fils” when asked for change.
I learnt of Banaue and its famous rice terraces, the beautiful beaches of Boracay and Palawan, but the place that made me wish I was there was the remote island of Batanes. It was then, early 2010, I decided to consider making a trip to Philippines.
It was quite challenge really, because trying to study the geography of Philippines wasn’t easy.
Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands. Sure, many of those thousands are really tiny to even identify on a map but still, getting around the country isn’t easy. It requires some learning beforehand. Since it’s not a landlocked country like most of Thailand, you have to commute via road, ferry, and airlines just to get to certain places within the country.
I initially thought of clubbing Philippines & Thailand last year but it was proving to be quite expensive. So I decided to give Philippines it’s own time.
That time was early this year, when things weren’t looking too good at my workplace. We all knew what was coming our way with the fate of the office and so, instead of prepping up my resume and looking for another job, I researched more on Philippines instead 🙂 When things became official in March and we all knew we were going to be laid off, I booked my tickets!
I tried Air Asia first but at around INR19k, it wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be. Plus the timings were inconvenient. I land late at night and my connecting flight would have been at 7am the next morning. No way I was going to spend that long at KL LCCT! So I checked all the usual Indian travel websites and got the best deal from Travelocity for a Malaysia Airlines flight at Rs. 26,153 ($584/€411) return. Yes, it was more than Air Asia, but it was going to be convenient, so I didn’t mind paying a bit extra for that. Also, I would get proper meals, land at KLIA and not the present warehousebudget terminal. More importantly, the time I had to wait for my connecting flight was lesser.
Philippines Airlines had just launched their direct flight service to New Delhi (only), but it was quite expensive, so flying the Philippines national carrier was not a possibility.
Next came the visa. When I researched on the tourist visa, I was happy to find out Philippines offer a 21-day visa-on-arrival for a 147 nations! Great, I thought… until I scanned down the list and couldn’t find India one among those 147 countries -_-
So I ended up at the website of the Philippines embassy in New Delhi and found out I have to pay Rs. 2320 for a tourist visa (and for just 21 days). Since I couldn’t fly to Delhi just to get a visa, I had to get it done through an agent. Some agents wouldn’t even do it, and one moron even asked for Rs. 10,000 as service charges! But I walked into the nearby Thomas cook office in Koramangala (inside Raheja Arcade) and got my visa processed by paying their Rs. 1000 service charge. At Rs. 3320, this was the most I had spent on a South East Asian visa so far, and that too for a single entry visa. My multiple entry Singapore visa for 2 years cost just Rs. 1800 and my 1 year Malaysia visa cost just Rs. 1500. Thailand was free visa-on-arrival the two times I went.
My travel period was from 16th April to 4th May and I chose the dates keeping in mind the main focus of my trip was to photograph the Easter crucifixions in San Fernando. The rest of my itinerary would see me visit the largest American war cemetery outside of the United States, traverse throughout the Ifugao province for my fix of rice terrace farms, see coffins hung on hill sides, Cebu, see odd-shaped hills in Bohol and finally enjoy the natural beauty of Palawan island. I was looking for ‘interesting’ with this trip, so I ruled out Boracay — the nation’s most popular island destination, and the most touristy. Unfortunately, Batanes was out of this trip plan as well, simply because it was too expensive to even get there. No budget carrier (and Philippines has enough of them) flies to Batanes and even those that do only fly if they get enough passengers. Batanes is that remote an island.
As days passed by, I felt a bit nervous and kept having second thoughts about spending a lot of money during uncertain times. Sure, the Philippines currency value was the same as the Indian rupee, so that really helped! But still, here I was, going on vacation when all my colleagues were busy job hunting. Plus, I was going to be visiting a new country, one that like Thailand (to the eyes of the ignorant) has a sketchy reputation. I knew what I was going to see, and I was looking forward to see if they live up to the hype, but still…
One ray of hope that eased me up a bit came my way two weeks before my departure date when one of my readers left me a comment telling me how much she appreciated my website and that I “should visit the Philippines sometime!”
That blessing of a reader couldn’t have come at a better time and after we got in touch, she would be of great help to me, even helping me out with some bookings. I felt much better knowing I had a local contact, which always helps!
Post loitering, I found my gate and sat in front of it. I tried to catch some sleep but ended up going online to kill time for the next 4 hours.
I boarded my second Malaysia Airlines flight for this trip in the afternoon and I was now en route to Philippines.
I took a break from staring outside my window to eat some peanuts.
It got cloudy after this, so I lowered the shades and caught up on some sleep.
So after nearly a total of 8 hours of flying, I was finally in Philippines. Phew, long journey!
I got my passport stamped, got my bags rather quickly, converted some dollars and I was out in around 15 minutes. The first thing I wanted to do was get a local SIM and fortunately Globe was handing out free SIMs (though they were mostly for OFWs*).
I hired a pre-paid yellow taxi (which would later turn out to be a mistake) and asked him to take me to Kabayan Hotel in Pasay, which was close to the airport. I chose Kabayan as it was a popular recommendation online. Plus, I didn’t want to spend too much time in traffic just to get to touristy Makati.
But despite how close the hotel looked on the map from the airport, getting there still took nearly 45 minutes in evening traffic. It cost 250 pesos ($5/€4) which is far more than what I thought it would cost. Anyway, I went to the hotel reception, booked a single room for myself and checked in.
Kabayan is pretty cool. They have rooms ranging from dorms all the way up to deluxe rooms and from prices starting as low PHP610, they are very popular. And get this, you get complimentary breakfast and lunch! They also have free wi-fi among other great amenities.
Oh by the way, they don’t use the word toilets much in Philippines, instead it’s ‘Comfort Rooms’ or ‘CR’ 🙂
I stepped out again because I needed to buy some credit for the Globe SIM so that I could inform my family of my safe arrival. Since I was out, I decided to grab dinner early. It soon struck me just how much fast food Filipinos eat. Mc Donalds and homegrown Jollibee was everywhere — and they both had multiple branches within meters of each other — and all of them were doing brisk buisness! As the fast food chains are too chicken to sell beef burgers here in India (due to religious politics), a good ol’ cheeseburger was what I was craving. I picked up a burger from Jollibee, a doughnut from 7-11 and some water.
The area I was in was quite a busy part of town as it was a major hub for transportation, so you get everything you need as far as convenience stores, supermarkets and eateries go. It’s also a very noisy area, mostly because of the jeepneys.
But Kabayan does a good job of cutting out the noise once you’re inside the hotel. I took a nice warm bath and then had my dinner. I called my aforementioned reader (whose name is Aimee) and we spoke for a while. She told me the pre-paid yellow taxi at the airport are priced way more than the usual taxis I could have gotten had I just walked a bit further out. Also, there were frequent airport buses that drop people to Pasay and back. Oh well, rookie mistake.
Given that I hadn’t slept properly in nearly 24 hours, I called it an early night.
I couldn’t wait for tomorrow to begin!
Please note: In this series of posts, I won’t be mentioning conversion rates for Indian rupees as both Philippines Peso (PHP/₱) and the Indian Rupee are more or less on a 1:1 value ratio. So Rs. 100 is like PHP98. Therefore only US dollar and Euro conversion rates will be mentioned.
*OFW = Overseas Filipino Workers; similar to NRI (Non-Resident Indian)
We woke up at a reasonable time and since I was done with all my packing yesterday itself, after breakfast I headed to Times Square just to roam about and see if there was anything I could pick up for the last time.
I did go around looking for camera tripods but as mentioned earlier, most shops were closed.
Once all three of us were packed and ready, we checked out of Irsia and hailed a taxi. We initially asked him to take us to KL Sentral, from where we thought of taking the monorail to the airport. Then the taxi driver offered to drive us to the airport for RM60 (Rs. 875/$20/€14). The three of us looked at each other and wondered about all the luggage we had, sighed… and then said “fine” to the taxi driver.
We arrived at the LCCT (Low Cost Carrier Terminal) an hour later, and were among the first to check-in for our 3:30pm flight.
We had pre-booked for 20kg luggage (per person) and fortunately all our luggage came just under 60kgs!
Relieved everything worked out alright, we went through customs and made our way towards the departures lounge. There is a Duty Free at the LCCT but liquor prices weren’t that great (read: cost more than Bangalore Duty Free) but you get good enough selection of international brands and chocolates. I instead went to a store selling traditional Malay sweets and snacks, and picked up tea biscuits, chips, etc. Something different for a change I thought.
Once it was time, we made our way in. We pre-selected our seats as myself and Ramesh were keen on window seats.
I took a break from taking photographs to reminisce about the last few days. I guess its always sad when a holiday comes to an end, especially when you think how fast time flies by.
We began planning for this trip as early as March. Booked our flight tickets in April. Made arrangements for stay in Singapore first, since we were going during F1 weekend. We made most of our booking via Hostels.com and Hostelworld.com, with only our Langkawi booking done via Agoda.com.
We flew Tiger Airways (one way) to Singapore (which cost Rs. 4500 per person) and our Air Asia one way journey from KL to Bangalore (with 20kgs luggage and pre-booked meals) cost us Rs. 3600 per person. All in all, this 9 day trip (10, if you include today) cost us around Rs. 36,000 ($810/€560) — that’s flight, stay, food, commuting fares, and sightseeing expenses! 🙂
I didn’t do a whole lot of shopping, so I spent the least among the three of us.
If we had gone via a packaged tour, it would have easily cost us more than Rs. 50,000 per person and I doubt we would seen all that we saw the past 9 days. Sure, we didn’t check out Sentosa Island (and Universal Studios) but that’s due to lack of time in Singapore. It was either Sentosa or the Zoo — we chose the Zoo. In Malaysia, we skipped Genting Highlands as well because it was another theme park and casino — places subsidized package tours include so that they bring in droves of tourists in hopes the tourists will spend some money.
The long wait at the airport made me quite hungry and I was looking forward to the meal I had pre-booked. Not that I had high expectations, I was just hungry.
So would I go back?
To Singapore, that’s a definite ‘yes‘! Mostly because the experience of being in Singapore during F1 weekend is just too good. The whole city really comes alive during the Grand Prix. The main lesson learnt from this Singapore visit is that 3 days isn’t enough, even for such a small city state. You can spend an entire day at the Zoo itself — go see the animals in the morning and then the Night Safari once it gets dark. You can spend an entire day at Sentosa, for which they have activities from daylight to sunset. Next time, I’m definitely going to Universal Studios Singapore.
Also, next time, I’m going to carry a lot more money. SGD$250 is enough to get by for 3 whole days in Singapore (which is what we spent on getting around, eating, some shopping, and the attractions we visited). But next time, I’ll probably triple my budget and stay for minimum 5 days. I want to have fun in Singapore!
Would I go back to Malaysia? Well, depends really. I felt I saw all that I needed to see and do in Langkawi. I also saw quite a bit of what I sought in Kuala Lumpur. The one place I do feel ‘incomplete’ about is Penang. Just one day in Penang was a bit of a stretch, plus I didn’t get to see what was on the other side of the bridge, which apparently has its fair share of attractions.
Funny thing though, until last year, I didn’t even know there are two ‘sides’ that make the nation of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Langkawi are all on one ‘side’ — but there is more to Malaysia, on the Borneo side.
Sabah and Sarawak are famous for its wildlife, lush forests and serene coast line — offering an experience quite different from that of the ‘main land,’ so to speak.
But because they are far apart, and not as developed, most tourists to Malaysia are often oblivious to Sabah and Sarawak’s existence.
Air Asia has flights to Sabah and Sarawak, so if I do go back to Malaysia, I would probably hop over to ‘the other side’.
As we descended, the nice and sunny outside suddenly turned dark and rainy.
After picking up some stuff at the BIAL Duty Free, we were out in half-an-hours time. We hired a cab who agreed to take us to Srajapur Road (near Total Mall) for Rs. 650. We opted not to take the airport bus due to the luggage we had.
If felt nice to return to the post-rain, fresh air and experience Bangalore’s greatest asset — its weather. But 30 minutes into our journey, and into peak hour traffic, it didn’t take long for all three of us to get frustrated and say the same thing:
“Man, I wanna go back!”
P.S: I also didn’t get to have bread ice cream in Singapore!