I’m in two minds about my trip to the Philippines. On the one hand I had some amazing experiences there – finally getting my PADI being the most significant and happy time – and learnt a lot, while on the other hand it didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
I think that, in part, was down to the route I chose. In two weeks I flew into Manila, for no reason really other than it being the capital and a major airport, then flew down to Cebu, a large island to the south famed for whale shark dives. I travelled to the southern point of Cebu by bus, took the ferry to Dumaguete in Negros, near Dauin where the dive centre was, and after that to the mystical island of Siquijor. Finally I had to go back to Cebu airport by ferry and bus, then fly back into Manila. I never had time to go to the western islands popular with many holidaymakers. In retrospect I probably should have booked either my flight in or out from somewhere other than Manila, and planned my internal flights in advance, but hey ho!
It is worth flying into Manila if you want to travel north from there. It is a mountainous rather than a beachy region, which less visitors seem to be interested in, but I heard it is great for hiking. Being a bit of a city person I enjoyed myself in Manila. Pink Manila Hostel where I stayed was great and the perfect place to meet people, which is what you want when you’ve just arrived in a country, particularly as a solo traveller. The hostel isn’t in the nicest area, it’s at the top of a dodgy looking block of flats, but once you get up there it’s a real oasis with the loveliest staff and views of the city. It was a great base for a bit of sightseeing, as well as a calm environment to chill with a book or eat and drink with new friends during the evening.
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to the Philippines was to see the whale sharks, but my mind changed once I got to Cebu. I don’t generally approve of feeding wild animals, particularly huge and majestic sea creatures. To see them you had to pay a fair bit and go out into the water in groups at designated times. Everyone bobbed on the surface in life jackets and looked down at the whales being fed just beneath the surface, and it was pretty crowded. I still want to see whale sharks but I’d rather wait and hope to see them behaving naturally in the wild, not surrounded by tourists in life jackets.
There’s a lot to do in Cebu, but it seemed like most foreigners were there for the sharks and stayed near Oslob. Moalboal, however, on the western side of the island was absolutely gorgeous, and the home of the year-round sardine run. Simply hire a snorkel and stride out from the beach to find yourself surrounded by sea turtles and schools of silvery fish. Free diving in this environment just metres from the shore was nothing short of magical, I only wish I’d had a camera to capture it! The town was really gorgeous too; it had the atmosphere of a holiday spot with lots of stalls, open-air restaurants and bars, but it’s a bit more expensive than elsewhere in the Philippines because of its popularity.
There are some nice waterfalls you can swim in around Cebu. Generally, the waterfalls, beaches and the Philippines’ naturally beauty are its best attributes, and well worth exploring on foot or by scooter. The Catholic churches dotted all over the place are also quite picturesque and unexpected in Asia (Catholicism is still the county’s major religion). The leftovers from American colonization, however, such as a countrywide penchant for fast food, are less appealing. However, the fact that most people can speak English does make it an easy place to visit for English-speaking tourists.
Bongo Bongo, the dive centre I did my PADI at, was in Dauin, Negros, a village near the port town of Dumaguete – and I’m so glad I found it. Learning to dive was by far the highlight of my trip. The centre was so homely, I had my own private bunk and spent all day studying or swimming in the ocean. It was just the perfect food for my soul. I spent four days there all in all before leaving with a new friend on a trip to nearby Siquijor.
Siquijor is known for its links to witchcraft, but we didn’t encounter much of that despite looking for it! We stayed in a great hostel, JJ’s in San Juan, which was fairly quiet as it was off-season. In the day, a group of four of us hired mopeds and drove all around the island and into the hills. We wanted to meet a witch doctor but the nearest we found was a quite unmystical lady surrounded by half naked kids who charged a fair bit for small inanimate objects or an awkward massage. We rode to a lookout which was absolutely stunning, and in fact Siquijor may have been the most beautiful island I saw. The sea was crystal clear, and there were plenty of beaches and palms. Our small group took the bikes to another waterfall, there are a few on the island, where we went swimming in the deep pools (there were also rope swings!). When travelling to and from the port, we took the preferred local transport, public trikes or jeepneys.
There were a few BBQ places down the road from JJ’s where you could choose what you liked from the food trays on display. It was really affordable and you could sit outside at a table by the sea to eat. There were a few slightly more expensive restaurants in the same area specialising in seafood, and many looked out over the water. It was a gorgeous spot for a holiday and there were plenty of hostels, hotels and dive centres about. I got a cute turtle tattoo done at a dive centre to proclaim my love for sealife, snorkelling and diving – and to remind me of my trip.
If I wasn’t limited by time I would have liked to have gone to Bohol, another island in the region where you could see adorable tarsiers, and then to Puerto Princessa for a party in Boracay, or to El Nido or Coron which I heard were excellent. However, I felt I got a good feel for the country and was able to get under its skin a bit, particularly in Dauin.
Despite wishing I’d been to more places, I don’t feel a pressing need to go back to the Philippines – which is uncommon for me. Usually the more I explore a country the more I want to see. However, I think it was the combination of American culture and poverty which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. There was a lot of political unrest while I was there too, with martial law being declared in Mindanao. An earthquake while I was in Manila further added to the general feeling of discomfort and unrest, and judging by my conversations with fellow travellers and residents I don’t think I was alone in this.
I could have experienced the country differently, but I made some great memories and I can absolutely see how the Philippines could be the ideal holiday destination. If you want islands, beaches and natural beauty, as well as abundant sealife, then it’s got it!