Friday, March 30, 2012

Day 158 - 163: Malapascua and Cebu

The bus from Cebu to Maya had taken about 4 and a half hours, and during that time we were treated to a barrage of music played at full volume by the bus driver. It started off badly with some local stuff, then moved into Celine Dion’s greatest hits, followed by some excellent 80s soft rock. We couldn’t really concentrate on reading or listen to anything else, but REO Speedwagon and Heart are better than Thai karaoke, so we counted our blessings.

Getting to the port, we were set upon by ferrymen wanting to take us across to Malapascua. We’d heard the crossing was pretty cheap, but they immediately started the pricing at 500 pesos (£7.50) per person. There were only 4 travellers: us and a German couple, and they used that as the excuse for the price. We told them we would wait a bit and see if anyone else turned up, and they immediately dropped the price to 200 pesos each. It was hot and bright (fortunately Gilly had bought her 4th pair of sunglasses in Manila after weeks of searching for the "right pair"), there was little shelter, so we bit the bullet and went with them. The ride took 30 minutes on a spider-like boat:


There was a thrilling moment when we were going head to head with what looked to be a tanker, who was cutting across our path. We were on a direct collision course, until the captain thought better of it and let them pass:


Arriving on the beach, I felt that Malapascua was the kind of place I had imagined the Philippines to look like all over. White sand, lovely weather, fairly isolated. Postcard perfect, in fact:


After trawling around with our bags for a good 25 minutes, we finally found a place to stay within our price range. Tip – don’t bother looking at places on the beach front. They start at around 1500 pesos, and only get more expensive. Inland, you can find cheaper accommodation and it’s still only 2 minutes’ walk from the beach. We settled on White Sand Beach Bungalows, which had the advantage of having its own little beach cove:




The majority of the locals have jobs around the tourism that comes to the island, be it restaurant or hospitality work, bringing over food and drink (our boat over was stocked with beer), diving, or working on boats:


We were looking for dive shops, and there are plenty on the island. Malapascua is a great jumping-off point for diving with thresher sharks, which is apparently quite rare in scuba circles. My friend Mark had recommended Thresher Shark Divers, so we went there first. The guy we spoke to (Russ, who looked eerily like Donald Pleasance) gave us the rundown of the various sites, prices and times, and whilst we had a look around the other shops to see if they were any better, TSD were the most competitively priced. Our diving was to start the next day, so the afternoon was free. We had some food at Ging-Ging’s Flower Garden, which is probably the best value eatery on the island and the food was excellent even if the service was incredibly slow. Since there was no wi-fi at the bungalows, we took the laptop up to a seaside bar and enjoyed some happy hour beers (San Miguel is the Philippines’ main brewery, so you can pick up a bottle for about 60p) whilst sorting out our email and blogs.

We left White Sands Beach Bungalows next morning and moved to an even better value place 5 minutes walk away: Purple Snapper. For 650 pesos, we got a basic hut, but it had a pool table, a table tennis table, free wi-fi in the bar and half-price breakfasts for guests. Oh, and a pool which we were more than happy to enjoy:


After moving our stuff in and getting lunch at Ging-Ging’s, we went to TSD for the first dive of the afternoon to Monad Shoal. Here, we were supposed to be able to see manta rays. This didn't work out so well: we managed to see the brief outline of one in the distance, which was impressively big but not the close-up experience we were hoping for. After getting back, we had a couple of hours breather before heading out for the night dive at Lighthouse. We saw 5 or 6 pairs of seahorses, plenty of nudibranches and a sea cucumber. Most importantly though, we got to see mandarinfish spawning at dusk. The below video gives an example (we didn't have a camera unfortunately) but they basically spend 10 minutes chasing each other before joining together and doing a strange little rising dance before the female releases eggs into the water.

It was fascinating to watch, but annoyingly there were a couple of underwater photographers in the group. I am coming to really dislike scuba divers with cameras. Firstly, they don't have any notion of personal space and are quite happy to swim under, over or into you as they fiddle around with their kit. Secondly, they are incredibly selfish, and once something has been spotted that they deem worthy of taking a photograph of, they will sit right on top of it, preventing us mere mortals from getting close until they've taken at least eighty-five shots of the same damn thing (by this time, it's probably swum off or hidden). Thirdly, they pay no attention to their surroundings; on this particular dive one of the idiots came within about 15cm of touching a lionfish as he scrambled to zoom in on the mandarinfish. Lionfish are not things you want to touch, unless you want a bout of fever accompanied by vomiting and occasional death. To be honest, pretty much every underwater photographer we've been diving with (Sipadan aside), has been a selfish prat. I'm not planning on getting underwater housing for my camera, but if I did I would hope to have a little more respect for other divers.

The next day we had to be at the TSD dive shop for 5am as the thresher shark dive needed to be early to have the best chance of seeing them. And see them we did - around five of them. Wonderful creatures which move surprisingly quickly, even by fish standards; their tails are almost as long as the rest of their body and they can turn on a sixpence. We were sat at a cleaning station watching them go back and forth, and one of them came up pretty close - about 10 metres away. I guess it was curious about us. They aren't dangerous to humans, but they are hunted anyway for meat and as sport which is why they are now listed as being vulnerable to extinction. I'm glad we had the opportunity to see them.

We had two more dives that day. The first was to Dona Marilyn, a wreck of a ferry which sank in 1988 killing over 500 people. It was our first wreck dive, and was pretty impressive - we got to see a marbled ray sitting under the hull, as well as a number of puffer fish. It was quite a cold dive though; the more dives I do, the more I realise that I'm unlikely to ever dive in the UK. I find it cold enough in temperatures of around 26-27 degrees, so hitting English waters would probably freeze me solid.

The final dive was to Gato, which was a little island with a cave entrance:


We didn't dive through the underwater cave (no-one had hired torches and it was just a swim-through, nothing particularly exciting), but we did see some new creatures including a sea cucumber, a sea snake, spider crabs, some tiny prawns, and a Spanish dancer: a huge sea slug that ripples its way through the water. We also saw a whitetip reef shark at a cleaning station, whilst remoras clung to its body cleaning it. At least, until the bloody photographer came barging past and the shark swam off.

As TSD choose their dives the night before, the downside is their choices may be places that you've already dived. This was the case for us, so we didn't bother diving on our final full day and instead went for a wander around the island. We met some of the local wildlife, and were also adopted by an adorable puppy who followed us all the way back to our hut:



Malapascua was a lovely retreat from the city madness we'd experienced, and as a taster of the Philippines it was ideal. I think if we returned we would definitely stick to the south and look at some of the other islands around (Palawan is definitely on the to-do list). We took a boat back to Maya the following morning (100 pesos each - the "correct" price), then caught an air-conditioned bus back to Cebu. We hadn't realised that air-con was available...and only for 30p more. Not a Celine Dion song to be heard.

We checked back into Palazzo Pensionne, as it had been ideal a week earlier, then took a stroll out for some food. An American guy called Brad we met on the way recommended a BBQ bar across the road called Popeye's Grill. We checked it out, played some pool, had some beers and enjoyed some BBQ food which was tasty but had minuscule portions. A walk up to the nearest mall followed for a look around, but nothing really caught our eye except for a rather tasty brownie and a McDonalds chocolate sundae. Well, you have to eat, and I wasn't really full after dinner.

The next day gave us the chance to explore Cebu a bit more. It's like Manila, except a lot more relaxed and much easier to wander around in. We walked from our lodgings down to the centre and took in a few sights, including the picturesque Fort San Pedro and the Basilica del Santa Nino.


The Basilica was interesting. One of the ceiling murals apparently has a bloke being blasted in the head by an angel's laser:


On top of this sci-fi mayhem, you also have "Magellan's Cross" in its own gazebo. This is the cross that Ferdinand Magellan (explorer, traveller, oppressor and religious nutcase) planted after converting the inhabitants of the island to Christianity. Well, it's supposedly the cross - all you can see is a "protective covering" which  is said to house the original cross. Magellan met his end in a suitably amusing way: after hearing of a tribal chief who refused to convert to Christianity, he went with 49 armoured men to Mactan island to overpower the natives led by Lapu-Lapu to convert them by force. Unfortunately, there were over 1,000 defenders, and Magellan had seriously underestimated the strength of numbers. Subsequently, he was cut to pieces. Lapu-Lapu is beheld today as a national hero: the first to resist foreign rule.


In between places of interest, I saw this sign on a lamppost and had to take a picture. I particularly like the use of the word "reward". I'd love to know how many people took John up on the offer.


We were heading to the Sky Experience Adventure at the Crown Regency Hotel. My friend Jon had recommended it and it looked pretty interesting. It was a fair walk from the Basilica but we got to see quite a bit of Cebu centre so it made for an enjoyable stroll. The experience comes in a number of flavours. You can do rock climbing, a roller-coaster thing where you are tipped up over the edge and facing down 39 storeys, or you can take a zip line between two buildings á la Spiderman, but without the sticky web stuff. We opted for the last one as it seemed the most fun. This involved getting kitted up in orange jumpsuits which made me feel like a cross between a state penitentiary inmate, and MC Hammer.


The view was immense - you can see the roller-coaster track here:


We couldn't take cameras up, but you can see the zip-line we had to take across to the building opposite. It's one of the steep ones that end up at the covered area.


The ride was short - 8 seconds - but in that time you are floating over the city hundreds of feet up and being held up by a bit of cable. That was pretty fun. You then get re-attached, and have a longer ride back up to where you came from. After the Gibbon Experience in Laos, it didn't feel particularly extreme though. Maybe I've become a hardcore adrenaline junkie. I'm looking forward to checking out some bungee jumping in New Zealand, and maybe even a sky dive...

That was pretty much it for our time in Cebu. We had a flight booked in the evening that was to arrive in Singapore at about midnight. I wasn't sure what to expect from the next country. I'd heard it was clean and organised, and Hayley - who we met in Chiang Mai - loved it. After a 4 hour flight, a decent night's sleep was the only request I had ahead of our first full day there.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 154 - 157: Manila, Philippines

I wasn’t expecting to like Manila. Everything I’d heard from people, be they friends we’d met on the road or friends from back home, had been negative. I wasn’t disappointed; the city is a hole. I immediately regretted booking 3 nights in the city instead of just one or two, but we were there so decided to make the most of it.

Arriving in the afternoon at Clark Airport, we then had to get a bus to Manila itself. Clark is situated a good 1.5hrs away and is supposed to be an even worse area than Manila, so we had no intention of hanging around. Paul and Fi stayed there one night and in the hotel room they’d ended up, had been blessed with a selection of porn mags and a red light in the room, gratis. We missed a trick there, forgive the expression.

Rocking up in the evening to the end of the bus route, we then had to change to a taxi to find our abode for the next three nights: Leesons Residences. The driver found it with relatively little difficulty, but after taking our bags out he said “You give me extra now.” I gave him a questioning look. “Tip! TIP!”. First time I’d ever had a tip demanded from someone. I’m not sure he fully grasped how it worked. What was funnier was the fact that I had deliberately overpaid for the taxi, and he hadn’t grasped the fact that he was holding his tip, until I pointed out the meter and the corresponding extra cash in his hand.

We’d been expecting the Philippines to be cheaper in terms of accommodation, but that was far from the case. Then again, I’m sure we think that for every new country we visit in SE Asia. This place was a “serviced apartment”. That means that the place had self-contained units as rooms – including a kitchenette (with a sink and cupboards but no cooking appliances), en suite and a decent sized living area. Bizarrely though, it had no waste bin, there was only one towel (even though it was a double room) and the guard downstairs appeared to be the person running the place. We didn’t fancy wandering the streets in the dark trying to find a decent place to eat so we ended up  in McDonalds. I’m not ashamed to say it tasted good. The next morning we got a second towel but the apartment didn’t seem to stock anything additional so getting another pillow/foam brick was out. It was serviceable but not particularly comfortable and the traffic outside was loud even in the fairly quiet street we were staying so sleeping in late wasn’t an option either. Not the best introduction to the city.

We managed to find the LRT station (Manila’s equivalent to the Tube)  and went off in search of Manila’s sights. Wandering around the city without a map or guidebook was tough. As dire as Lonely Planet is, I’d take it over feeling helpless and lost any day. We managed to find our way to a mall, and picked up a city map along with some goodies from the spectacularly named “Brownies Unlimited”.

First stop was the National Museum, which was free – bonus – but only had about 4 rooms open to the public, so we weren’t there for long. There was a big sculpture made from glue and hardened sawdust portraying a strange fantasy story which must have taken considerable time:


Just behind the National Museum was the Museum of the Filipino People which had a decent collection of displays and information on the country’s cultural development, as well as a couple of galleries which displayed some of the masks worn for different celebrations, and the finalists of a painting competition:





Most of the paintings has either religious overtones or were railing against the gun culture that still appears to be prevalent within the country. Security is definitely at the most heightened I’ve seen in any place we’ve visited. There are security guards in almost every shop (one was waiting at the McDonalds counter the night before) and all of them have guns. They search your bags before you enter malls, frisk you before you get onto trains, and are a constant, conspicuous presence throughout the city.

We grabbed some lunch from one of the many, many mall eateries before heading over to Intramuros on the train. This is the oldest district in Manila and is known as the Walled City due to its lengthy walls which almost circle the entire district for a good few miles. It's also, as we found out, a haven from the hellish noise of the city proper. On entering we met a guy on a trishaw (a bicycle attached to a sidecar) who offered to take us around the city. He quoted 300 pesos for 30 minutes and almost immediately dropped to 250, then 200; we were a little dubious and very hungry so we declined, but he persisted and took us to a fairly decent budget restaurant where we had a Filipino mini BBQ set for about 75p each. After getting fed, we took him up on his offer and he cycled us around a few of the sites. His English wasn't bad but was thickly accented so we had to rely mostly on the signs at each of the points we stopped at, most of which were churches or schools. 





As time ticked on, it became apparent that we weren't going to get anywhere close to finishing the tour on the trishaw with our guide (who was more than happy taking a casual approach to letting us wander around) and we realised that we'd be paying for every 30 minutes we were with him. We decided to cut our losses and head off on foot. He didn't look too upset; it must happen fairly frequently (we later found out that the same things had happened with Paul and Fi). We trekked on to Fort Santiago, the main historical point of interest in Intramuros.





It felt like the essence of a small Spanish town had been stuck in this heaving, polluted city, and as such was completely out of place. Not that this was a bad thing; we enjoyed wandering around the ruins but more importantly we learned a lot about the Philippines national hero: José Rizal. A polymath and activist whose desire for an independent Philippines led to his execution and martyrdom aged 34, and subsequently the Philippines Revolution, he is presented with almost beatific reverence throughout the country. Reading some of the essay and letter excerpts within the memorial in Intramuros, it's clear that he was a very intelligent and articulate man, and I would certainly be interested in reading some of the works he left behind at a later date.


Elsewhere in Intramuros, the Manila Cathedral and St. Agustin Cathedral are two of the architectural highlights.




I also had a chat with a couple of gents in the park:


It was getting fairly late in the afternoon, so we didn’t get the chance to explore these buildings properly. I think if you’re in the area, you could easily cover Intramuros in a day. We’d crammed in two museums beforehand though, so time wasn’t on our side.

As well as the trishaws, you can also get around the walled city by horse and carriage, should you desire (and should you have money to burn):


A more cost-effective and cramped way of getting around Manila and the Philippines in general is by Jeepney. These are elongated 4x4s with psychedelic paint jobs, and they can hold a good 20 people, with another 4 or 5 hanging off the back. Rides cost only a few pesos but they can’t be treated like taxis; they’re more like buses which stop roughly near the road you need (unless you’re lucky enough to be on one of the roads their route goes down.


Dinner came courtesy of a pizza place in one of the malls, marvellous.

The next day we took a leisurely trip to the Ayala Museum. This is one of the best museums I’d been to in SE Asia. As well as a couple of art galleries, the highlight was the diorama exhibit with audioguide, which covers the history of the Philippines over the space of 60 different dioramas depicting key scenes from the country’s past. These included everything from early settlers, through to the introduction of Christianity, the Philippines revolution and Rizal’s execution, WW2, the Marcos rule and the present day. More than just standard papier maché sets, it was clear that attention had gone into each scene, and the accompanying audioguide filled in the narrative clearly and – more importantly – was interesting. If you have any interest in Filipino history, then this is the one place you need to visit.

Restaurants close to our accommodation were in short supply. So short in fact, that we were left with two options – Jollibee (like a budget version of KFC) and McDonalds. We hit the latter for some late night munchies before retiring. I have no idea how the Filipino population isn’t all obese, as the number of fast food restaurants around the city is staggering. I’ve never seen so much cheap, unhealthy food in one place. I would have expected it in the US, but there is literally a KFC/McDonalds/Pizza Hut or equivalent on every corner. Malls are even worse (or better?) as they also have doughnut stands and shops, cookie stands, brownie shops, and heaps of bakeries on every level. There’s the odd fruit stall and smoothies stand here and there to make you feel a little healthier, but if you go shopping your choices are basically limited to carbs and sugar with a side portion of fat.

Our last full day in Singapore was spent in the morning looking around for likely dinner venues, and also trying to find a bar. The reason: Paul and Fi were meeting up with us for the third time on our travels later that day. We hit the jackpot not far from Remedios Square, about 2km from our lodgings, when we stumbled into a Robinsons Mall. More food than you could shake a fried chicken wing at, and – bonus – a cinema. We had a few hours to kill before the guys arrived so we took a risk, and went to watch John Carter. This was about a US rifleman who gets transported from the civil war to Mars via a magic crystal, where gravity affects him differently (until they forget about that later in the film) and he gets caught up in some sort of battle between Red and Blue (they have different names, but they’re colour-coded so you just about know who is who), gets a haircut, meets a scientist, and gets an acting lesson from Dominic West (McNulty from The Wire) who spends the film hamming it up as the bad guy whilst wearing some serious guyliner. I’m not sure if Red or Blue won in the end, but there was the requisite number of explosions, overwrought dialogue, and passable CGI to make it watchable if far from good. I wasn’t surprised to learn afterwards that the film has bombed, with a $200 million outlay plus $100 million marketing only bringing in a return of $180 million, making it one of the biggest box office flops in history and a disaster for Warner Bros. I’m glad we were to help prop up their empire.

Beers were heartily downed once we met up with our fellow Miltonians: San Miguel at 45p a bottle, no less. After Malaysia’s excessive alcohol pricing, this was a welcome return to form. We found an Italian in the mall and had an average meal in enjoyable company which made it better, before we all headed back to Leesons Residences (Paul and Fi had booked in on our suggestion), and we took a taxi to the airport to catch a flight to Cebu.

We didn’t see much of the next city. Cebu is supposedly like Manila but a lot more relaxed, but we were only there for the night at Palazzo Pensionne, an excellent B+B/hotel hybrid with big, comfortable rooms and breakfast included. We left early the next morning to catch a bus to Maya, and from there took a ferry to our next destination – Malapascua island. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 149 - 153: Sandakan and Sepilok

Sandakan is the stop-off town for people wanting to get to Sepilok to visit the various wildlife sanctuaries in the area. We had considered staying in Sepilok but there appeared to be nothing else to do there, so we opted for the main town instead. Checking in to the WinHo Lodge after a fairly comfortable bus ride from Semporna, we decided to look into the various attractions that made up the Sandakan Heritage Trail; a town-wide walk encompassing the best that Sandakan had to offer. The first on the list was The Agnes Keith House. This was the home of a relatively famous American non-fiction writer who settled in Borneo with her husband, who was a conservator in the area. The house had been restored and was available to wander around, using the same ticket that we’d used for the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu. Our luck was out though, along with the electricity in the town. Something had knocked out the grid across the area, and so the place was closed. This also explained why we didn’t see any traffic lights when we arrived in town. We decided to make the most of it though, and since the weather was lovely we visited the English Tea House and Restaurant next door. A more English setting, you couldn’t have envisaged. Verandas looked out over the city, hedges were perfectly trimmed, there was a sizeable croquet lawn next to the restaurant, and what’s that? Tea and scones on the menu? Well, why not.



The scones were miles better than the ones in the Cameron Highlands, impressive since they arrived warm despite a lack of electricity. After high tea, we thought it would be rude not to partake of a game of croquet.



As you can tell by the way we held the mallets, neither of us had ever played before. A simple set of rules was nearby to give us a bit of help, and after some abysmal punts around the lawn, I emerged victorious and immediately affected a traditionally smug toff pose, just to keep in character with the place. Gilly was somewhat dejected.



Following our tea and games we visited the Chinese memorial and Japanese cemetery nearby.



Given the atrocities committed by the Japanese, it was surprising that such a large area was allowed to be dedicated to them. It was in need of some care, but it stretched out some way.

The next day we took the bus to Sepilok. This runs on the hour, and handily stops outside the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre: our destination.


We arrived just in time for the first feeding of the orangutans. The centre is set on the edge of the jungle, so the orangutans are free to come and go as they please; some of them return for feeding each day whilst others who have been fully rehabilitated will live independently in the jungle, and may not return at all. The feeding platform is about 25 metres out from the viewing platform, allowing the apes to be observed without disturbing them. A number of them have babies, which they bring to "show off" to the public.








We also got the chance to see a Wagler's pit viper hiding in a tree, which took us a while to spot as she was pretty well camoflauged:


On the way back, both Gilly and I were lucky enough to get fairly close to one of the orangutans who was following the departing group along the walkway out of the park:




Since the centre is effectively their home, the orangutans have almost the run of the place. This was shown to full effect when one of them decided to take an interest in the backpack of some American students, and proceeded to open up a pack of crackers and a jar of peanut butter before helping herself. The students were not happy, but I thought it was hilarious; Schadenfraude at its best. I'm not sure what they were expecting by leaving their belongings unattended in a place where apes roamed can't have your peanut butter crackers and eat them.


I'm not sure what I was expecting from SORC. Possibly not something as openly tourist-oriented as what we experienced, although the chance to observe the orangutans in their almost natural environment was obviously fantastic. However, I had this "Gorillas in the Mist" vision in my head, where it would be a tiny group observing them in nature (rather than being fed by humans). I can't say I was disappointed, but it was a much different experience to the one I had in my head and more in line with a (very) ethical safari park than a full-on encounter. I think when we return to Borneo I'd love to do more nature tours and see wild orangutans - something that our friends Carl and Caitlyn did before joining us on the diving rig.

After the feeding, we went to the Rainforest Discovery Centre, 1.5km down the road. We had lunch there, then scaled the various walkways in an attempt to see some of the colourful indigenous Bornean birds that live in the area. We failed miserably, not least because the weather was awful. It seems that the "rain" part of "rainforest" is apt. In fact, it had rained at some point every day we'd been in Borneo. Being English though, we were used to this, and it helped break up the heat of the day. The RDC was otherwise a large conservation area mainly dedicated to protecting various trees and plants.












We returned in the rain to SORC for the afternoon feeding (less orangutans this time, it seems they were fair weather feeders...) and caught the bus back to Sandakan, where we had a great dinner at Ba Lin restaurant. Very western, but oh-so-nice.

We ate at Ba Lin again for lunch the next day (the amazing fries never get old) before setting out on the Sandakan Heritage Trail once more. We finally got to see the Agnes Keith House which wasn't bad for a free entry but wouldn't have been worth paying for, before hitting the other sights on the tour which included - and I am not making this up - "Remains Of Old Staircase". It was thrilling to discover it. I was almost overwhelmed with excitement.


There's no detail about the staircase, it's just a half-complete set of stone steps on the side of the road.  After some digging, I since found out that they were the remains of what were believed to be the Consulate building of the pre-war Chinese government. So, there you go. The rest of the points on the trail were fairly mundane: a clock tower, a church, a Chinese temple, and so on. But they killed the afternoon and there is really nothing else to do in Sandakan. Dinner was at the Harbour Bistro Cafe on the waterfront. My lemon fish was served in a polished bamboo pot and was excellent. Gilly had sizzling chicken hotpot, but it was fairly average.

The following day we took a bus from Sandakan back to Kota Kinabalu and stayed at the Lavender Lodge again. We knew it was good, so there was no point looking elsewhere for lodgings. Since the trip took most of the day, we got in mid-afternoon and went to the post office to send some postcards off, before having dinner at the Old Village seafood restaurant across the road from the hostel. I finally had my first decent crab since Kep, and was very happy. A great way to end Borneo on, before a flight to the Philippines early the next morning.