Day 1, Manila
Our flight from Honolulu left at 12:30 on a bright sunny afternoon and as we circled west over the island we passed over Pearl Harbour where we could see the memorial to the crewmen of the Arizona below us in the bay.
Aloha Hawaii, we really enjoyed our short nine days in paradise.
Next stop, the Philippines.
Surprisingly our flight to Manila was almost 11 hours long. Who knew Hawaii was so friggin’ far away – from everything. It’s way out in the middle of nowhere: 4650 miles (9 hours flying time) from Toronto to Hawaii and another 5,330 miles (10 hours 40 min flying time) from Hawaii to Manila. Manila to Bangkok, the next stop on our itinerary, is an additional1,374 miles (3 hours). So Hawaii to Bangkok is a whopping 6,704 miles.
Thank goodness we opted to stop over in the Philippines, a country we have never visited, to break up the trip.
As we gradually descended through the clouds into Manila we caught our first glimpses of small green islands surrounded by yellow beaches and the azure Pacific Ocean. Gradually large jagged mountains appeared covered with a shag carpet of lush green forest. Then, like a scene from a fairy tale, three dark green volcanic cones spiked through the wisps of cottony white clouds. The clouds reflected the golden rays of the sun and the dark silhouettes of the volcanoes jumped out against the bright blue background of the sky.
The effect was mesmerizing.
The islands showed almost no signs of habitation or development. Only the thin trails of smoke rising from a few fields of sugar cane gave any indication of life until we reached the outskirts of Manila where rice paddies and the rectangles of fish farms in the bay patterned our view.
Then we were engulfed by a shroud of smog as we dropped down towards Manila proper. But even here, colours still jumped out at us as brightly painted houses in shades of yellow, orange, blue and red dotted the ground like a Georges Serat pointillist painting.
Although for us it was now 10:30 p.m. Hawaii time, the sun was still shining because the local time in Manila was only 4:30 p.m. – but on the next day.
We had crossed the date line and lost a whole day!
So, in effect, it was the exact same time as back in Toronto, but 12 hours earlier. Confused? Join the club, so are we. It took us two days to adjust our internal clock to Hawaii time and now we have to start all over again. In fact, I’m writing this at 3 a.m., which is 9 a.m. Hawaii time, 3 p.m. Toronto time. Can’t sleep!
In the Manila airport terminal, we were immediately hit by several surprises. Everyone speaks English here and even the signs are all in English. They also speak Tagalog, influenced by Spanish from their colonial days, and they used to study Spanish in school. Now, however, they are taught English in the schools. The two major dailies in Manila are in English, but, interestingly, half of the comics are in Tagalog. They’re not quite as funny as the English ones – humour doesn’t translate well. :;
The second surprise was the presence of several separate customs lines for “Returning Overseas Workers.” Because of low pay and high unemployment in the Philippines, over a million Filipinos work overseas or on cruise ships to send money back home.
We noticed in Hawaii that almost all of the workers in the service industry (restaurants, hotels, bus drivers, shop clerks) were Filipino. Literally billions of pesos are sent back to the Philippines every month from OFW's (Overseas Filipino workers). Without their influx of dollars the economy would sink.
Our initial impression is that Manila, while English speaking, is still exotic, with just a whiff of danger. Every store and restaurant has an armed security guard acting as a doorman, a Walmart greeter with a gun!
The streets are clogged with cars, trucks and small brightly coloured, gaudy buses called Jeepneys. You risk your life just crossing the street where four lanes of cars crowd into three lanes and cars dart through the red lights with impunity.
The sidewalks are uneven and broken forcing you out onto the street and into the path of motorbikes, pedicabs and handcarts all racing along and weaving in and out of lanes and even onto the sidewalk to get around the stalled traffic. You need to keep one eye on the sidewalk and one eye on the motorbikes.
Young Filipinos push the handcarts along the street in flip flops. Each cart carries bamboo trays loaded with homemade rice cakes, food wrapped in banana leaves and Spam cooked in a variety of ways. Spam is a popular dish here and you see it in many restaurants. As on many islands, Spam is a legacy of the US troops during WWII.
In sharp contrast to the handcarts, are the Starbucks on many street corners. The world is shrinking, and not necessarily in a good way.
Pollution is a big problem here. A lot of Filipinos wear cloths over their mouths and noses.
The smog is so thick in Manila that you can chew on it.
But unlike in China where they spit it out onto the sidewalk, here they just swallow it in chunks.
Breakfast was an adventure, but not too risky. Living in Toronto, we were quite familiar with Filipino dinner foods, like lechon (roast suckling pig), Adobo chicken, and sticky rice. The Philippino breakfast menu, however, was totally foreign to us. We ended up with two dishes that we shared, a hot rice noodle with a gloopy orange/brown sauce, shrimp and a slice of boiled egg on top, and a salty hot rice dish, like Chinese congee, called, appropriately enough, “Arroz caldo.” It came with another slice of boiled egg and some crispy fried garlic. Both actually tasted better than it sounds.
Initially we were concerned about coming to the Philippines because of the kidnappings in the past and a report that violence might break out over proposed changes to the current electoral rules. In fact, today a firefight broke out between a Muslim terrorist group and the military and 19 people were killed. But that is only in the far south island of Mindanao and we will be staying further north where the majority of the population is Catholic.
Then there are the monsoons and the typhoons.
We’re past Monsoon season, but just learned that three typhoons ripped through here in the last couple of weeks and they are expecting possibly one more soon. Hmmm!
All and all, the Philippines have already been a pleasant surprise. The people are exceedingly friendly, which one would expect given the fact that they export “service.” Everyone from airport security, people on the street and even the armed greeters at the stores has been polite, smiling and helpful. And one can easily accept the contrast between the verdant green hills we saw from the air and the reality on the streets of Manila, after all there is pollution in all big cities.
Day 2, Boracay Island
But we didn’t come here for Manila and, in fact, we’re only staying here for one night. Now we’re off to Boracay Island where we hope the initial impressions of the lush, green Philippines we saw from the air will be confirmed.
Boracay is famed for its beaches and has the second best beach in the world according to TripAdvisor. It ranks fourth of 25 on Travel + Leisure’s Top Ten island’s list.
Getting here is not easy however. As I said earlier, Manila is pretty far away from North America. Then you have to take a 72-seat puddle jumping turboprop from Manila to Caticlan with Cebu Pacific Airways.
At first glance, the flights look inexpensive, but once you arrive at the airport you’re suddenly hit with extra baggage fees of 150 pesos per kilo (approximately $3.75/kilo). They even weighed us and our handbags. Of course, traveling for seven months doesn’t afford us the luxury of traveling light, so it was expensive. Then there’s a terminal usage fee, which is surprising given that the new terminal has recently been voted the worst in the world.
Once you arrive at Caticlan on Panay Island you have to pay more access fees, then a fee to board a small outrigger boat that takes you across to Boracay itself. The rickety outriggers are called “Pumpboats.” I’m not sure what that means because they’re motor driven, but on the way over I saw a guy at the back constantly pumping a lever. Fortunately, the ocean was calm.
Then normally you hire a motor-tricycle to take you to your hotel. These things are amazing for how much weight they can carry without tipping over or hitting bottom. We saw one that was piled so high with boxes that it looked like a moving pyramid. Others had so many people crowded into then with their luggage that the passengers’ feet were almost dragging on the road.
The trip on the narrow lane up the island to our hotel was hair raising as the hotel vans and motor-tricycles barely squeezed by each other and somehow avoided hitting pedestrians with their mirrors. We haven’t yet dared venture out onto the lane on foot.
But Boracay is gorgeous and well worth the effort and expense.
It is tiny, only seven kilometers by one kilometer wide, and is almost entirely surrounded by lovely white sand beach. We’re staying at Willy’s Boracay Hotel right on White Beach, the best beach with four kilometers of packed white sand and a shallow, calm ocean in front. There is no surf as in Hawaii so it’s very safe. Local children make tips carving an intricate design into the beach along with your name. These little urchins are actually quite artistic.
Although the beach is full of strollers, the island itself doesn’t feel overdeveloped or crowded. We haven’t seen any high-rise hotels although there are some modern ones tucked away somewhere. And so far it seems that most of the people here are Filipinos with a few Koreans and Chinese thrown in, but very few Westerners, so prices a very reasonable.
The waters are warm and gentle and clear, perfect for swimming, snorkeling and kayaking. Dotting the azure and turquoise waters of our bay are brightly coloured outriggers, dugout canoes and sailboats that Carolann has started calling butterflies because they all have bright blue sails and dart about like a Morpho butterfly. The best part about them, apart from the colours, is that they’re not noisy at all, unlike the roaring long-tail boats of the Thai islands that kept us awake at night and woke us up at sunrise.
Last night we witnessed a phenomenal sunset with rays of light flashing into the sky and lighting up the palm trees, the bright outriggers and the blue sails of the butterfly boats. What a sight! We’re hoping to take a sunset cruise one night on one of the sailboats.
Meals at Willy’s are served on an outdoor patio with tables set into the white sand.
Dinner was BBQ’d Marlin for me and a large tureen of Thai hot and sour Tom Yam soup done Filipino style with lots of fish, shrimp, prawns, squid and octopus. Each of these dishes could easily have served two or three people. Both were excellent and very reasonably priced and we now know to order just one dish for the two of us.
As we sat watching the sunset, the boats flitting by and the strollers on the beach, the sky behind the mountains was suddenly lit up by a tremendous lightning display. But it never rained, the storm stayed on the mountain as it apparently does every night. Very curious. The evening was still, the night air was warm and we sat listening to the gentle waves lapping at the sand. It was all very, very pleasant.
Boracay doesn’t have that private, undiscovered, romantic feeling of Koh Lipe that we loved in Thailand. But then we’ve learned that even that special place has now been ruined by overdevelopment and paved roads. When we visited in 2004, there weren’t any cars and you could pick your fish for dinner right from a tub of ice on the beach.
Some people might think I’m complaining about the island, but the truth is that when you have visited as many places as we have, you can’t help but compare. It’s like being a movie critic.
For seven years we’ve been wondering if we could ever go back to that idyllic paradise of Koh Lipe in Thailand. Would it be the same? Our quest to discover the perfect island retreat continues, but in the meantime Boracay is doing quite nicely, thank you.
Seriously, how could you not like a country that has different types of mango in season every month of the year. It’s Paradise 2.
Tomorrow we’re planning to take a snorkeling tour on one of the outriggers. On the itinerary is Crocodile Island. Hmmm, I wonder what that means?
Travel diary shared by Dan Cooper